Monday, December 20, 2010

Holiday Spirit

After the Ceili while the travelers slept late Christmas night on the Queenstown wharf in County Cork, Ireland, awaiting the arrival of the ship that would take them to Boston, a strange procession made their way in the moonlight. Some held deer antlers aloft but there were also additional characters: the Folk Fool, the Man-Woman or Maid Marian, the Hobby Horse and the Boy Archer. The magical notes of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance led the group in spiraling dreamlike steps. Antlers clacked together as the men approached each other in two rhythmic lines, in greeting, in competition, in gratitude. And after they wove and dipped and clacked and skipped, as the music slowed and the recorder faded, they slipped off the stage and melted into the crowd.

This was part of my magical Christmas treat at the Christmas Revels which this year celebrated music and stories of Ireland and the British Isles around 1900. Directed by David Parr, this was the 25th anniversary of the Revels at the Oakland, California, Scottish Rite Center. My husband and I had attended once before years ago and I had found it charming. This year, in the spirit of “Consumables!” I wanted something wonderfully Christmas-y, something with unmistakable holiday spirit.

In the past, we have threatened to attend the Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus sing-along but never quite made it. We tried the Oakland Ballet’s Nutcracker Suite, somewhat less overwhelming than the San Francisco production but no less fun. And we’ve traveled on a family pilgrimage to San Juan Bautista to watch El Teatro Campesino for Christmas musical wonder. We’ve taken the ferry into San Francisco to watch the skaters at Union Square and visited the Macy’s Christmas window displays. My favorite of those was the Mouse Christmas where all the mice were celebrating tiny mousey holiday treats, decorating tiny trees and giving mouse presents under the floorboards of human houses. All the creatures were stirring and it was holiday perfection.

This year I had hoped to take our friend Gerry, the one who crawls through her window when she’s locked herself out of the house, to the Revels because Gerry is about as Irish as they come. And, betting that the Christmas Revels would not be singing, “The Last Rose of Summer,” a beautiful Irish song that sends Gerry into Mood Indigo, I figured this would be the perfect holiday mood-setter. What better than the Ireland that her grandparents and parents knew, at a happy but wistful time, Christmas, with family, yet embarking for America and likely never to see the family in Ireland again.

Best laid plans and all that: Gerry got flu-like symptoms from the whooping cough shot and, miserably over-apologizing (really, dear, it’s OK), she had to bow out. With three tickets and two people, John called his cousin David, found that his wife Wendy was glad to have him out of the house for a few hours, and we had our happy substitute. We barely made it to the show on time, got to our seats and the magic of Christmas began. We were transported to Queenstown in County Cork in 1900, where the Irish, English and Welsh, dressed in their warm traveling clothes and dragging their steamer trunks assembled on the dock, waiting for the ship that will take them to their new lives.

The show started with a medley overture, next, a 12th century song from Ireland, the Wexford Carol and went on to provide us with stories and songs, solos and sing-alongs that embodied the spirit of Christmas. There was no Santa Claus. There was no manger scene. There were adults and children dancing and singing, showing the season’s best and giving us a glimpse into the traditions we in America find curious and wonderful.

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance comes to us from the village of Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire, England. It has been a family tradition in that village with the Bentley and Fowell families for centuries and is still performed today. The antlers used by the “deer men” in Abbots Bromley are actually reindeer antlers and have been carbon dated back to the 11th century. The basic concept of the dance is a thank you for allowing the villagers to hunt, but it is also a remnant of “sympathetic magic” acting out a successful hunt and bounty for all. The traditional village production of the Horn Dance occurs in September, but it also has ties to Christmas time. It shows the universal need to thank a higher power for gifts and hope for good things in the time to come, plenty for all. I love the Revels recorder music and the after-midnight dance because it echoes the magical traditions of Christmas: If you squint, you can see a semi-Santa in the Maid Marian who is a bearded man in a dress, with the deer like reindeer, the Boy Archer like an elf. It’s just a little different in the moonlight.

Much of the show was for the child in all of us, with the youngest performers dancing a “stitching” game, holding hands in a line and leading the line under the next two dancers’ arms. An Irish story edited by William Butler Yeats called “The Soul Cages” told us of the friendship between a young man and a magical creature half-man, half-fish called the Coomarra. We learned how to count sheep so that the faerie folk will not take them: Ain, tain, otherow, pothero, pitts. Umfit, cumfit, ethero, petherow, potts. No lost sheep! We sang The Holly and the Ivy and Lord of the Dance and a round in Latin, Dona Nobis Pacem. The Morris Men danced and the Cutty Wren was celebrated.

This was the winter solstice performance of the Christmas Revels. It’s only fitting today to note that not only do we experience the longest night this winter solstice but a rare full lunar eclipse, visible to most in North America tonight. The last time we had a full lunar eclipse on the solstice was 1368, so those clouds outside this afternoon better get on their way. I plan to stay up to see the red, red moon tonight. Moonlight can be deceptive in its own right, as reflected in the Tarot.  Are your eyes deceiving you?  Is there more to this story than you know?  Think you'll ever know? The full moon’s light made red by the shadow of the earth between it and the sun must be magical indeed. Is that a man in a red suit with eight tiny reindeer or Maid Marian with how many Deer Men? Ain, tain, otherow, pothero, pitts….

Gerry, don't worry.  We will do something else when you feel better!
Best wishes!


Want to know more about the fun and affordable California Revels, a bargain in the Bay Area with convenient and safe parking? Visit and get on their mailing list.

How about more adventure at Christmastime with El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista, California, an unforgettable performance in the historic mission right on the San Andreas Fault? Visit:

Monday, December 13, 2010

Mercury Retrograde

I just won a contest for having the best Mercury Retrograde story! It’s a lot like winning the Darwin Award but on a much smaller scale. For one thing, unlike the Darwin Award, there isn’t a death penalty.

First, for those of you who don’t get what Mercury Retrograde is, it’s a term from astrology. Those of you who never got beyond, “Hey, what’s your sign?” may not grok this right away, but basically we have all the signs and all the planets in our chart. It’s not like they go away on our birthdays or any other day for that matter.

About three times a year Mercury appears to stand still or go backwards in relative motion to the earth. The planets don’t actually stand still; it’s the “in relative motion to the earth” that’s the key phrase here. It isn’t only Mercury that does this but Mercury gets talked about the most. You know how people talk about more crime and crazy stuff happening with the full moon? Well, some swear by it and some seek to prove that no more crime or crazy stuff happens then than any other time. But people still seem to note those times.

Mercury Retrograde periods are something like that but it’s not crime, at least major crime, and it’s not crazy stuff. It is little stuff that could send you over the edge, though. It usually has to do with Mercury-related topics like communication, electronics, new purchases, access to things, shipments, that kind of stuff. And during the retrograde times, people tend to be more aware of things going awry, snafus, if you will. And in fact, it also has to do with the “if you will” part. Mercury is identified with the Magician in tarot, presto, change-o, illusions, ability and the statement, “I will.” It’s the can-do card. In fact, it’s the ‘can do it in front of people’ card because the Magician is a bit of a showman. His number is 1. His cartoon character could be Thumper in Bambi. Thumper’s best quote in the movie is the ice skating scene where he zips across the freshly frozen pond ice shrieking for joy, “Look what I can do!” I love Thumper.

The Magician grows up to be a wizard after he gets over his Sorcerer’s Apprentice phase in youth. You see him more clearly next in the tarot as The Hermit. After he’s mastered the arts and tools ‘as above, so below,’ he retreats for a bit of introspection. Just being able to do something is not enough. How many times have we shaken our heads at youthful enthusiasm and hoped they will learn to use their force for good instead of evil? For instance, just because you can drive, should you? But the Magician is focusing on the “can” part of things in the first numbered card of the major arcana. He not only believes he can, he really can do it, whatever it is.

So just because the Magician can do it, should he? And that combination of showmanship and a dash of moral ambiguity gives him his Trickster reputation. So he is also Coyote in First People’s stories, an able magical creature with wonderful talents that you sometimes trust and sometimes don’t.

People have a natural mistrust of abilities beyond their own. It’s not so egotistical as it is just plain experience. If you’ve never seen something before, do you trust it immediately? Our natural case of the heebie-jeebies is part of that ol’ lizard brain telling us Yellow Alert just in case the new shiny or fuzzy thing has teeth and likes to eat people. Approach with caution. Curiosity is what we’re all about, but the point is to live through the experience.

Magician, reversed, from Victorian Trade Card Tarot
(c) Copyright 2010 Marcia McCord

When the Magician is upside down, or in tarot talk reversed, something is stopping him from doing what he can do. Or, the Trickster side is coming out. Things don’t go as planned. Unexpected results from your usual can-do may occur, but they are usually on a small scale. We’re not talking The Tower here. This is just the stuff that will drive you nuts. If it really is the little things in life, Mercury Retrograde is a time when those little things mean frustration, exasperation, errors in communication, etc.

Our current retrograde period lasts through Christmas. Think of all those fun electronic gizmos people give and get for Christmas. And the calls to the help desks for assistance when the durned thing doesn’t do what the instructions say. Instructions not exactly in English? Tab A, Slot B but there is no Tab A on your whatsit? You mean THAT is the On button? Oh, fresh batteries. I should have known. Yup, that’s Mercury territory. On hold for five and half hours with the help desk only to have the help desk person accidentally hang up? Mercury Retrograde. Your Magician is standing on his head. And he’s probably laughing. Funny guy. Ha ha.

I’m hoping Mr Mercury calms down for me but I wouldn’t put money on it. In my horoscope chart, Mercury is my rising planet, the first one to get over the horizon when I was born, and in my first house of self. Mercury is something of a big deal in my chart, so funny little things like the typical Magician reversed/Mercury Retrograde stuff could affect me personally a little more than other people. At least, that’s how they read it. I’m more likely to notice those little things. Good news, I’m more likely to think of them as funny, too.

My winning entry for the “retrograde-est” Mercury went like this. Theresa Reed, also known as The Tarot Lady, posted an offer for a free tarot reading to the author of the best entry on her Facebook page for a Mercury Retrograde story. Here’s my post:

It's the little things that send you over the edge. My 85-years-young friend has locked herself out of her house twice since the Merc Rx and crawled in through the window to get back in (pretty good). My husband could not get his electronic key to open his car, called AAA and they determined there was nothing wrong. Nothing. The alarm company called for routine maintenance via the phone, which hung up on us twice, then, finally, to diagnose an issue, I had to climb onto the washing machine. I told the tech at the alarm company that if she heard a scream, it was only me falling behind the washer and in that case she should call emergency to rescue me. Except for the constant laughter, we completed our mission unscathed, but the imagined picture of a 56-yr-old woman climbing onto her washer was just too much for the tech to keep a straight face. The housekeeper almost walked in on me when I was just out of the shower and not ready for guests. I got to the door on time to keep it closed, barely. Pun intended. He wouldn't have been phased though. And, finally, I figured out the reason I'm so out of synch with one of the shops where I read is that...I'm not on their mailing list!!

Oh and when I tried to post this, I had to close my browsers and relaunch Facebook!

I feel like Queen for a Day because my sad story won the clap-o-meter but in this case it was the laugh-o-meter. Sometimes I think, because of the strong influence of Mercury in my chart, I gravitate toward this kind of thing. And, like the Magician and his audience, even when these little things don’t work exactly as planned, at least I’m entertained.

My prize for winning The Tarot Lady’s contest is a free reading over the phone. Hmm, you know, phones are covered by Mercury too. I think I’ll wait until the Trickster goes direct before I collect.

Best wishes!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Nutcracker Sweet

Is there someone on your holiday shopping list who is nearly impossible to buy for? For me, that’s my husband. It’s not that he doesn’t deserve presents. He does, perhaps more than anyone else I know.

He’s my Prince Charming, my secret shopper, my partner in adventure and mystery. He’s spontaneous and enthusiastic, a constant source of amusement. He’s generous to a fault, something like the San Andreas Fault, and is in constant danger of being distracted in friendly conversation or gallant action or helpful suggestion. The girls on the ferry, where we met, told me in a good-natured grumble, “Marcia got the only good one!” That’s probably inaccurate in a world view, but I did get the good one for me.

And since we both seem to have the packrat gene well expressed in our makeup, we both agree we really don’t need much more stuff.

“Consumables,” he says, “consumables!”

If you look at either of us, you’d probably agree that we don’t need to pack anything else around the middle, or at either end to be truthful.

Our only concerns when we got married were practical ones. Would it be safe for both of us to live together without adult supervision? So we have a dog to help us stick to the rules, very much like the Star Wars C3PO, a Protocol Model. The dog makes sure we lock the doors, feed the cats, go to bed sometime near bedtime and bathe occasionally. He barks when we hug just to make sure we aren’t fighting. In all our years of courtship and marriage, we have never really had a fight. Oh, I’ve fussed about making sure the door isn’t standing open to let a cat escape and he’s pointed out characteristics of my driving every once in a while, when he’s gotten his breath back. But those haven’t been fights. OK, so he is seldom on time. He can forget what he went to the store for and come back with everything else, usually something good. As our only prenuptial agreement I made him promise me he would not attempt to be handy, but instead call an expert in case some household emergency occurs. So he’s not a tools kind of guy.

We like a lot of the same things especially mysteries to read so we can usually buy books for both of us. He tends to like the funnier ones like the Janet Evanovich’s numbers series and the Donald E. Westlake Dortmunder books and he’s big on the Elizabeth George Lynley and Havers mysteries, too. He misses Calvin and Hobbes in the newspaper. He loves the New Yorker cartoons, especially the Booth cats and dogs. He’s still in search of the lost episodes of Rocky the Flying Squirrel where Rocky and Bullwinkle solve the mystery that made Washington, DC look just like Butte, Montana and vice versa. He’s pretty sure I’m the inspiration for Danae in Non Sequitur. These things have all shown up as Christmas and birthday presents over the years. But unless Elizabeth George comes out with a new Lynley, I’m scrambling for books this year.

He also likes non-fiction that tells a story. We both loved Simon Winchester’s The Crack in the Edge of the World because it made geology so human. He read an enormous book that followed DNA studies for the origins of the British people and was proud to announce that his Irish ancestors emigrated from the Basque regions in prehistoric times.

He is interested in mining and metallurgy. He likes old maps of places he has been before. He accidentally became the manager of our local rugby team when he’s never played rugby in his life. Paradoxically, he’s also an excellent embroiderer and he creates his own designs. He cooks, sometimes without setting the kitchen towels on fire. He makes cookies, brownies, beef stew, a Thai dish called “Tiger Cry,” tuna casserole, stuffed peppers, and enchiladas. He has perfected the art of the steak on the grill. He also makes a very healthy but, to my taste buds, revolting variation of minestrone soup which even his sister agrees should be called “snot soup.” He has the urge to improve nearly anything with cayenne or vinegar or both. He likes kimchee and beets. He has an idea of the perfect kitchen knife, the perfect frying pan, the perfect soup kettle and the perfect rubber spatula. These areas have also been the inspiration for Christmas gifts for him. Last year, he said he wanted a can opener, a specific style and I ran all over town to finally find his Christmas present.

His wardrobe is simple. He likes khaki pants, blue, yellow or dark grey polo shirts, pullover sweaters, black socks, blue button-down collar shirts, a decent sports coat. He has and wears a tuxedo for formal occasions. He’s particular about his shoes, just a couple of styles. Last year, I showered him in sweaters from “NordyRack” for Christmas.

The dog and cats adore him and he loves his little furry friends too. He’s attentive to their emotional needs, worries about their health, takes care of the litter boxes [thank you, God, ed.] and never has said no when I brought home just one more cat. He is the dog’s best friend. He is the warmest spot in the room and therefore coveted real estate for the cats in cooler weather.

He is a lifelong baseball fan and was over the moon with the Giants’ World Series win this year. He brought me a coveted tie-dyed Giants World Series t-shirt from Game 2. He has told his nephews apocryphal stories of his winning pitch for a championship game, taking over for Vida Blue, explaining with a straight face that the authorities have assured him that the record book will be corrected this year at the latest. He has a Giants baseball hat covered with pins from years of baseball games, including a favorite specialty patch given to him when a foul ball hit him between the eyes while he was seated in a luxury box. Where was he during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake? At the ballpark for the World Series, of course!

He likes live theatre, musicals and ballet. He loves it when I dance with him. His favorite trips are those without planning or reservations. Considering he was actually asked to leave Christmas Midnight Mass one year because his off-key singing was “throwing the choir off,” it is amazing that he is the choirmaster for the ARC-Solano Choir. He has always wanted to learn to play piano but something has always interrupted that goal. He has a long history of volunteering to help others in numerous organizations and private efforts, including his stint in the Peace Corps and a return trip to India under a Fulbright Scholarship. And yes, I am really proud of him.

He is that strange creature women in search of a man have come to believe may not really exist. He’s a wonderful guy. When we were first going out, people noted our age difference, which truly isn’t that great. John makes much of it to flatter me and swears it is not flattery. I quickly found that his male co-workers were mystified at his success in snagging a younger woman, without bothering to know who I was or, even after years of working with him, who he was. To a man, they asked me, “What’s a nice girl like you doing with a guy like this?” While it was posed as a joke, I knew the honest ignorance of their query. I began to answer frostily smiling, “He amuses me.” I realized if they didn’t know by then, they would never know. They would be among the endless line of confused and dissatisfied men who wanted to know what the heck women want when the answer seems so obvious.

Truly he wants very little, except a peaceful home, time with kind friends, family to love, an opportunity to help others and a few literary thrills. He writes me mushy poetry for my birthday and our anniversary. He brings me surprises for no reason. He is, in short, my King of Hearts. Now what do I get the guy who is everything…to me? I’ll think of something.

Best wishes.