Happy Turkey Day!

I know. Now that Barack trampled all over the Republicans like they were this year's grape harvest, you thought I would give up my Palin-bashing ways and let the poor woman alone. But it is Thanksgiving, and Mrs. Palin, despite sliding off the front-page news, has once again managed to make youtube history. This is much too delicious a platter for us to consider putting down our carving knife and moving on to other dishes. What's more, for once, we're staggered to find that we agree with her, sort of. And we love coincidences, so seeing this Palin turkey-pardon video on our friend Winky's facebook page the same day that we received Thanksgiving greetings from the great indoorsman was too much.

Our good friend Alejandro, putting his machete where his mouth is, went out to slaughter his own turkey. I didn't know how this was done until I checked out his post, but essentially one turns the turkey upside down, sticks its head through a funnel (is "guillotine" actually the technical term?), and then slices the head off. The walls of the funnel keep the postmortem involuntary spasms from getting out of hand, and gravity drains off the blood into a crimson trough. This, by the way, is artisanal turkey slaughter, not industrial. As Alejandro put it in an email: "as far as these go, this is about as nice as it's going to get." Check out the slideshow, it's really very beautiful, in a down-on-the-farm, Martha-Stewart-keeps-it-real kind of a way.

Back home in Wasilla, Mrs. Palin participated in a grand old Thanksgiving political tradition, the pardoning of a turkey. This is a tradition that speaks volumes about how things are done in government. The idea is to choose, as the focus of your media exercise, the one palatable exception to what is actually going on. Hence John McCain walking through the heavily militarized Baghdad Green Zone as a demonstration that things are safe and secure in Iraq. Another example: to have oneself filmed planting a tree in the context of announcing a new clear-cutting venture in a state forest.

In the turkey model, one proud bird is chosen to be free, to live to gobble another day, while somewhere, in some unseen abattoir, her family and thousands more of her cohorts are being murdered, plucked and packaged, ready to be whisked to your table. The only problem with Palin's photo-op is that the abattoir isn't unseen. In what can only have been a brilliant moment of cameraman-producer collusion, this Wasilla team lines up their post-pardon interview in such a way that the true business of the day is plain for all to see in the near background. So much for Palin's vaunted political savvy.

My favorite part is the way the guy sticking the turkeys into the chute can't stop goggling at the camera. Whenever this happens in the background of an interview I'm filming the producer typically calls a halt to the proceedings, because it is distracting to have some mook in the background staring down the barrel of the lens. Here, of course, it just draws more attention to what he's doing. I can't tell if the guy is just chuffed to be on camera, or wondering if he should be running over and warning the governor that death is unfolding behind her.

However, what's important here is not that we see carnage in the background, it's that our society has so shielded us from that carnage that a shot like this becomes grist for the political mill (or fat for the schmaltz). The bottom line is, if you don't like what you see here, eat something else, but don't argue that it should be hidden from view.


Walking to Santiago (de Compostela, not Cuba)

It is largely to my mother's side of the family that I believe I owe my interest in walking. My proper British grandfather, Arthur, who gave me my middle name, believed in everything in moderation, except hiking. As a wee one, I often visited the grandparental home in England, on the hilltops of Rye, in Sussex. It overlooked expansive sheep's meadows that stretched out to the edge of the horizon. On clear days a pale strip of sand at the edge of the view marked the English channel. My grandfather would lead my sister and me charging out of the back gate, down the terraces of grandmother's immaculate rose garden, into the lane and then across the pastures on long, long walks, until my adolescent legs were sore. Once, I think, we walked all the way to Hastings, or back from there, but it could be that I'm only remembering a story granddad told, of having made that long trek himself.

Only, gulp, 1100+ kilometers to go!

So I may have walked to Guantánamo, but I got it from my mother. In the context of Mom, I'm not sure what the word "retired" is supposed to mean, but it doesn't involve relaxing beside a swimming pool while growing old. No sooner had she claimed retirement than she announced a multi-year plan to hike with her friend Susan Saltrick the more than a thousand miles across much of southern France and northern Spain, on the centuries-old pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela.

Unlike those members of her immediate family who set off on such journeys only for their own selfish amusement, Mom promptly identified the proposed trip as a potential money-earner and sought out sponsors willing to pay her by the mile. I'm one of them, and I'm out some money. All funds go to benefit the Worldwide Orphans Foundation, an NGO that had the brilliant idea of connecting lonely Azerbaijani grandmothers with lonely orphans desperately in need of early parenting. A win-win situation, as they say.

Recently back from the second leg of the trek, Mom sends this report:

Dear friends, sponsors, and well-wishers,
Thank you all so much for supporting our pilgrimage, with your pledges, prayers, cash and concern. You truly were “with us” on the way as we walked, and your good thoughts refreshed and energized us daily. Many of you have helped us raise further funds for the “granny program” in Azerbaijan of the Worldwide Orphans Foundation, and for those of you who had pledged us per/mile, we are pleased to tell you that we walked a total of 255 miles in 17 days. We are grateful in many more ways than one!

Graffiti left by pilgrims who passed this way earlier...

As some of you know, we began the first stage of our journey to Compostela last year at Le Puy-en-Velay in central France, but we can now report the successful completion of our second stage—not, as anticipated, at the foot of the Pyrenees, but across them, in Spain! The decision to attempt this came late, but the thought of crossing a mountain pass on Day One of our third stage encouraged us to step up the pace significantly on our last few days in order to hike over the top while our legs were “broken in.” Thus, on our final day, after a straight run of sunshine, we climbed relentlessly up into the clouds, crossing Roland’s pass in a chill shroud of mist and rain, to descend, drenched but triumphant, into Roncevalles, where we stepped with relief into the ancient church where so many pilgrims before us must have fallen in gratitude to their knees.

Our journey had taken us through a constantly changing landscape, past acres of sunflowers and miles of corn, across lush green pastures, beside the still waters of a canal overhung with mighty plane trees. After ten days or so we began scanning the horizon for a first glimpse of the Pyrenees, but clouds can resemble mountains and we had to admit that our early sightings were a mirage. However, a day came when the dim outline took on undeniable, jagged substance, and it was then that the mountains took shape as a personal challenge.

Mom hits the road

We were amazed once again by the focused simplicity of life on pilgrimage, and fell happily into the repeater pattern of walking (vigorously), sleeping (soundly), eating (heartily)—and laundry (vital). We marveled at the varieties of architecture, of fauna and flora, of people whom we met or who hosted us, and the places we stayed: There was the couple who miraculously survived the tsunami while vacationing in Sri Lanka and had committed to walking from their home in Austria to Compostela as an act of gratitude, because “we needed to do something ‘impossible’;” and the calm symmetry of the 12th-century cloister at Moissac, where a remarkable tympanum depicts the beatific vision, while below, a line of patriarchs and kings gape upwards in stupefaction … We came upon, surely, the world’s longest earthworm, over two and a half feet long; and then there were the huge and mystifying wooden ladders propped up in the forest—whatever for?

Harvesting walnuts, maybe?

"Drenched but triumphant"

When at last the half-timbered farmhouses and tiled roofs with tip-tilted corners of the Béarn gave way to the Basque whitewashed houses with their ox-blood colored shutters, the Pyrenees were a constant presence, beckoning, challenging, and beautiful.

With our best wishes and grateful thanks - Susan and Joan

If you would like to sponsor my mother on the remaining two legs of her epic walk, which is to say the Spanish portion, send me an email, or, you may donate directly to the Worldwide Orphans Foundation HERE.


It's pronounced "Geh-Deh"

"Gede is always dressed in black, usually with a tail coat and top hat. (He) has special prerogatives. He does not fear criticism. He flouts propriety at will, he embarrasses, provokes, and insults with impunity." Harold Courlander

One hates to be pessimistic about the cultural literacy of today's American youth, but when it comes to Halloween, I would venture that, asked to explain the origins of this uber-commercialized holiday of candy corn, plastic superhero masks and carved pumpkins, only a tiddly percentage of trick-or-treating respondents (somewhere in the low single digits, let's wager) would succeed in linking their annual candy orgy to All Hallows Eve, and, by extension, to All Saints Day.

Not so in Haiti (or Mexico), where November 1 has lost none of its syncretic significance; even the youngest child knows the day is dedicated to visiting the buried ancestors in the cemetery, and the night to fêting their collective memory with a grand party to which those very ancestors are in fact invited.

The annual November 1st ceremony for Gede is among the most important festivities in the vodou calendar. Papa Gede, or Baron Samedi, as he is also known, is the guest of honor, a rude, often obscene and uncontrollable guest, whose presence is required for the fête to be called a success. Maya Deren, whose book Divine Horsemen remains, sixty years after her extensive research, among the very best explanations of all that transpires in the world of vodou, calls Gede "the master of that abyss into which the sun descends."

Tuning up the drums at Tap-Tap; once the retaining ring holding the goatskin against the top of the drum has been hammered down tight, the hemp cords are knotted and cinched to preserve the proper tone.

On November 1st I was in Miami, and so, dressed for Gede, I made my way to the Tap-Tap Restaurant. The eatery, named after the colorfully painted pickup trucks that serve as public transportation the length and breadth of Haiti, is the de-facto epicenter of Haitian culture in South Beach, and the famed houngan Aboujah was in the house, with drums, drummers, and dancers standing by to throw down in honor of the Baron. Soon the back room was thronged with dancers.

At about ten o'clock, with quite a number of apparently bemused tourist diners still dotted about the room enjoying their Caribbean desserts , the thunderous drumming began, along with invocations to Legba, the guardian of the crossroads and the gateway to the spirit world. He is the first spirit to be greeted in any ceremony. As Maya Deren puts it, Legba must be consulted to reach divine counsel, in the same way that Gede must be consulted to reach ancestral counsel.

One of the many appealing aspects of vodou is that the religious calendar and the social calendar are one and the same; the ceremonies are first and foremost parties, full of rum and music and dancing. They just happen to be parties to which visitors from the other world are invited. It is strange to us, perhaps, to throw a party to celebrate death itself, but Gede, a priapic, gluttonous lecher, is, in being death personified, therefore also a living negation of death. As Deren puts it, "the cosmic abyss is both tomb and womb." This may be why Gede is so obsessed with his own sexuality, and often arrives humping and thrusting. Deren claims that in her experience it was always those most prudish who received the most sexually aggressive treatment. The presence of blancs, or foreigners, at ceremonies invariably brought out Gede's suggestive side. "Whoever would consider sex as a sin confronts, in Gede, his own guilt," she noted. Little surprise, then, that generations of missionaries to Haiti have tried to steer people away from the culture of vodou.

Barbancourt Rum bottle in use as percussion instrument

It's getting sweaty in here!

Gede's colors are purple, black and white. Baron Samedi is the leader of the tribe of the Gedes, of which there are many, both recognizable and too obscure to be named. It is impossible to identify them all, and in fact, the way it has been explained to me in Haiti, the extended family of gedes appears to be a sort of sub-pantheon of spirits that includes all deceased ancestors.

The drumming was intense, physical work, but there always seemed to be a reservoir of fresh drummers in the crowd, ready to sit in and take a turn.

Let the merciless humping begin...

Wave your stick in the air with festive abandon!

I was staying in Miami with my friend Jody, who has never thrown away a single Halloween costume. She lent me this fertility cane, bowler hat, sunglasses and ostrich feather boa for the evening. The anthropologist Alfred Metraux writes of the Gede that "from some angles they look terrifying, from others merely ridiculous," but I'm fearful that I only achieved the latter. The bowler doesn't have quite the Freudian oomph of Baron Samedi's traditional stovepipe top hat, and I'm afraid I ended up looking more like a fey Charlie Chaplin than a corpse-like guardian of the cemetery.


A special message for our european readers who have televisions UPDATED

Those on the refined old continent tonight at 11PM should watch Anne Aghion's "Ice People" on ARTE, the franco-german co-production channel of arts and cultural programming. That is the film I recorded in Antarctica, and the original raison d'être for my launching this blog.

At least, it's on in Germany at 11PM; elsewhere, check your local listings for showtimes.

This morning the Suddeutsche-Zeitung, Munich's answer to the New York Times, published my account of working on the film, and they have a tasty slideshow of my images online as well. Unfortunately I don't read German myself, so I can't tell how badly my timeless prose has been savaged by translators and editors. I eagerly anticipate the reports of those learned readers with the appropriate language skills. (I grasp enough of the begriff, as they say, to note that the detail that we were unable to wash for seven weeks was the single hardship most disturbing to the Germanic sensibility, and was therefore elevated to headline status: 51 Tage Ungewaschen)

Our happy film crew only a few hours before our first shower in 51 days: Anne Aghion, moi, and Sylvestre Guidi

UPDATE: Making fun of online automated translation is a bit of a cheap shot, but please, share the chuckles. Here's what I wrote and emailed off to Germany:

The work of filming goes slowly. It takes hours to get started in the morning. The conical Scott tents, like yellow canvas teepees, have no floor; there is no such thing as mud at these temperatures. In the morning it is impossible to imagine crawling out of the thick negative-40-degree-rated sleeping bags without first fumbling to light the Coleman Gas stove next to the cot, getting a hint of heat into the air, and then dangling the Baffin Expedition boots over the flame to melt the ice in the toes. Ice that was yesterday’s perspiration.

That was then translated into German, by human professionals. I then dropped the German into Google Translate, with the following result:

The work on the film has been slow. Morning, it takes hours to be worked out. The cone-shaped Scott tents, tipis yellow pulp, have no land; something like slush there is not at these temperatures. Morning, it is inconceivable, in view of minus 40 degrees from sleeping bags to peel, without the momentary gas stove beside the bed alight field to have at least a touch of warmth in the air to feel. The expedition boots on the fire must be kept so that the ice melts in them, which derives from the sweat of the day is formed.


Antarctic Celebrations

Michael Deany, our trusty Antarctic correspondent and collaborator, writes from the coldest continent to tell us that there was much rejoicing in the windswept alleys of McMurdo when the news of Obama's victory hit town. He sends this photo of the flanks of Erebus, the massive volcano that dominates Ross island, as a reminder of what we're missing.


I wish James Brown was still alive to see this...

Country, do you know
Just what I mean?
We just changed, we got
A brand new funky President
--James Brown

The more the merrier!

If my polling place, at Van Brunt and Wolcott, is anything to go by, Barack is looking good. It's usually a moribund place on election day, with the handful of voters outnumbered by a cohort of oversized twinkie-eating poll workers slumped at their petite desks, flowing over the edges of chairs built for elementary school students.

So imagine my surprise when, this morning, minutes ago at about 8:15, I found myself at the end of a line reaching out the door. I was wishing I had put on more than a sweater. Once told which booth to go to, I entered a gymnasium full of people, the line snaking around the basketball court, and people on cell-phones calling in to work to explain they might be late. I didn't see anybody rushing out the door in disgust and out of patience, either.

A heavy turnout is good for only one of the candidates in this election: the one I voted for. This is the first year I've heard Republicans talking about how conflicted they are, that if they do bother to go vote it will be a difficult choice between the lesser of two evils. That's how I used to talk, as recently as the elections in 2000. I suspect we are going to see unprecedented turnout today by our outraged citizenry. By people who are tired of being hated by the rest of the world, tired of being coerced into a paranoid state of fear, tired of being told they can't afford health care as billions are funneled to mercenary contractors in Iraq and to vast corporations, ostensibly operating in an arena of "free market competition."

"I've never seen it crowded like this up in here before," said a guy standing behind me in line. "But this is the year, this is the year."

Off to the Polls...


Can I play the trifecta, with a Clinton write-in a distant 3rd?

Excellent Huffpost piece about how bookmakers are far better at predicting election outcomes than pollsters.

Interesting factoids: The UK bookmakers Betfair were 91% certain Bush would win in 2004, even when Kerry was leading in early exit polls.

This Tuesday? A $7 bet will get you only $8 if you're betting on Barack, whereas if you put $1 on McCain you stand to pull in $6.80 should the old codger somehow manage to pull it off.

That's what they call long odds.