Monday, October 29, 2012

Yaddo Ghost Tour

Yesterday, my mother and I took a ghost tour of Yaddo, an artist's colony in Saratoga Springs, NY. Saratoga has a long and storied history, dating back before the Revolutionary War.  I've only visited Yaddo's rose garden during the summer, and was curious to see what my favorite season did to such a beautiful place.  Autumn didn't disappoint.  The grounds were festooned with crinkly leaves in a variety of fall colors. 

As we gathered around the docent to hear her opening words, I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye and turned.  All I saw was a falling leaf, so I wrote it off, even though I could have sworn that what I saw in my peripheral vision was bigger than a leaf.  Nearby, a hanger hung from a tree.  The strangeness of it provided a spooky counterpoint to the growing twilight.  The statues were covered to protect them from the impending arrival of another upstate NY hurricane.  With the marble statues covered in protective housing, and the leaves gone from the trees, the energy of the place had changed from what I've experienced during the summer.  It was still peaceful, but just a little creepy, like a mummified pharaoh.

Yaddo was created by Spencer Trask, a New York financier and philanthropist, and his wife Katrina.  Previously, the land had been owned by Jacobus Barhyte, who operated a tavern on the property.  The most notable visitor at Barhyte's tavern was Edgar Allen Poe.  The place must have made an impression on him, because he is one of the more commonly seen apparitions at Yaddo. 

By the time they purchased the land, the Trask's had already known tragedy.  Their 5 year old son had died of meningitis.  Later, Katrina would develop diphtheria.  Their two surviving children were exposed to the contagion, and died within days of each other.  After the death of their first three children, Katrina gave birth to a baby who died in infancy.  Spencer himself died tragically, in a train accident on his way down to NYC from Saratoga.

The area was also a Native American meeting place, and it was while describing the legends of a Mohawk and Mohegan skirmish that the docent started describing some of the sightings that have happened over the years.  Many people report seeing an apparition out of the corner of their eyes, but when they turn, nothing is there. 

That sounds familiar, I thought with a smile.

Later in the tour, while we gathered in the garden behind the pergola, a few people spotted some deer grazing in a meadow beyond the trees.  For several moments, we tried to catch glimpses of the young animals as they nibbled the grass in the deepening dusk.  They moved farther into the meadow, and became hard to see, so I turned my attention back to the docent.  After a few minutes, I saw a movement off to the side.  The dark shadow was large enough that I thought one of the deer had moved into the wooded garden area to my left (pictured below).  I turned, convinced I would get a closer view of one of the deer.  But there was nothing there.  Nada. 

Yaddo has truly become a place of creativity.  It has hosted many notable writers, like Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath, James Baldwin, and John Cheever.  Some of those writers, it appears, never left.

All photos from my visit to Yaddo can be found here.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Garlic: Superstition and Fact

Can superstition have a basis in fact? When the ancients ascribed a magical meaning to an item, had they observed some real world results?  Modern skeptics would have us believe that superstition is merely the product of primitive fears; is it possible that superstition is a window into higher knowledge?

Take garlic, for instance.  We now know that it can protect us against heart disease.  It can act as an antiseptic, guarding against sore throats, colds, earaches, and intestinal worms (garlic enema, anyone?).  Modern science has shown us that garlic has some very real health benefits.  The ancients weren't oblivious to this.  During the building of the Giza pyramids, the slaves received daily rations of garlic to protect against disease.  Roman soldiers consumed garlic for courage and strength.  We've all heard that garlic will protect against vampires, however many cultures believe it will ward off all evil spirits as well.  Sailors would carry garlic to prevent drowning.  Palestinian grooms would wear a clove of garlic to ensure success on the first night of marriage.  The ancient Greeks would leave garlic at the crossroads, to appease Hecete, and cause evil spirits to lose their way.

Not all cultures saw this plant as benevolent and protective.  An Islamic myth states that wherever Satan walked, garlic would grow from the print of his left foot, and onions from his right.  The Buddhists believe that garlic is a detriment to meditation, as it encourages sexual and aggressive impulses.  As someone who has participated in group meditation, I can say that any strong smell can be detrimental to meditation.  (Dude with the crotch sweat, this means you.)

The strong smell may have prompted the superstitions against garlic.  Allicin, a compound released when garlic is cut or crushed, has been known to cause anaphylaxis.  As with many medicinal products, the benefits outweigh the risks.  Perhaps our ancestors saw those health benefits and thought it would be a useful protector in other situations.  Superstition can be fueled by fact, garlic is just the yummiest example.

Monday, October 15, 2012

What is it about that place?

We took a lot of road trips in college.  It was not uncommon for us to leave the dorms around 8PM on a Saturday and find ourselves in Niagara Falls or the Syracuse area in an hour or so.  One cool October evening, my roommate, Liz, decided she wanted to pay an old friend of hers a visit.  I rode shotgun, and our mutual friend Rich* tagged along in the back seat.  We drove through rural western New York to a darkened house on a deserted road and parked near a barn.  The only illumination came from a weak mercury-vapor lamp on a pole.  Liz promised she would be right back, and disappeared into the barn.  It was unremarkable as barns go, red and boxy.  But something about it didn't feel right.  The woods beyond the barn looked blacker that Nietzsche's abyss.  Rich voiced the thought that consumed my own mind.

"This place is creepy," he said.  I agreed with him.  My memories of what was said are hazy, but it seems like we discussed the topic at length while Liz spent more time than necessary establishing that her friend wasn't home.  When she got back in the car, Rich commented on it.  Only then did Liz inform us that she'd brought us to a place that was violently haunted.  Her friend frequently heard voices in the barn, and once experienced banging on a door that lead up to a second story.  Whoever - or whatever - was pounding on the door, slammed it with such force that the wood bowed outward.  Nearly a century ago, the barn was used as a dance hall, and dozens of revelers had carved their names into the walls, leaving small reminders in the wood of those that had come before.

It was the names that creeped me out the most.  For years, I wouldn't understand why.  Now I think I have an idea.  In Voodoo and Hoodoo, a written name can stand in as a place holder for a person.  Anything from curses to love spells involve writing a name on a piece of paper, and what you do to that name depends on what you want to do to that person.  At the center of this belief is the idea that a little of our personal energy appears on the paper that bears our name.

I believe that objects and places do have energy, just as humans have a certain energy.  We've all know someone who exhausts us with their mere presence.  Perhaps we've visited a place that creeps us out, or tires us out, or inspires us.  I don't always get sick when I travel, and I understand how visiting a place full of germ laden tourists can expose someone to the common cold.  I've noticed a trend, however.  Every time I visit Salem, MA, I come home with a cold.  Recently, I was in New Orleans.  We switched hotels halfway through our trip, from one in the French Quarter to one in a much more modern part of the city.  Within a day of that move, I had a sore throat and the sniffles. 

This idea isn't original to me.  Many people believe in the energy of ley lines.  When the idea was first conceived in the 1920's, these lines were simply the connection between sites of historic significance.  In the 60's, author John Mitchell ascribed a spiritual energy to these lines, and the idea struck a chord with the New Age community.  Some believe that Salem, MA lies at the intersection of these lines.  I've heard a possibly apocryphal story that the Native Americans would not spend the night in the area where Salem now stands.  They would come to trade with the settlers, but believing the land was cursed, and anyone who spent the night there would lose their minds, they left before nightfall.

My account is so subjective and experiential that I'm sure I won't be convincing any skeptics.  However I find it hard to ignore my own senses.  Right now my senses are tingling.  It's almost 11PM, and my eyes are growing tired from staring at a lit screen.  Perhaps my bed lies at the intersection of two ley lines, because I'm noticing it's taken on a certain hypnotic energy.  I'm feeling sleepy, verrrrrry sleepy.

*The names have been changed to protect those creeped out by empty barns.

Monday, October 01, 2012

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Most people mourn the end of summer. Not me. When the sun starts setting earlier, and the days get cooler, my thoughts turn toward some of my favorite things. Autumn brings Mellowcreme pumpkins, Native American Corn (Brach's calls it Indian Corn, but we like to be sensitive), apple picking, cardigans, the smell of a wood fire on a cool morning, leaves changing to glowing shades of red and yellow, Halloween, and endless marathons of every ghost hunting show on cable. This is truly my favorite time of the year. I know I'm not alone in this.

It's only October 1st and already the Halloween decorations are going up. This morning, I spied a porch sporting a life-sized mummy complete with Egyptian headdress and a haunted butler greeting visitors. That kind of hard-core decor always makes me smile. But only the most dedicated Halloween lovers are decorating right now.

Which brings me to an interesting question: how early is too early to decorate for Halloween? Some years, I'm so excited for autumn to start and the heat of summer to leave me the hell alone, that I'm set to pull out the spiderweb table runner and eyeball lights the day after Labor Day. This year, it didn't start feeling like fall had arrived until -astrologically - fall had actually arrived. So is the Vernal Equinox the ideal date? I say yes. Early September is still too hot to evoke the spooky dark nights of the Halloween season. By the time the equinox rolls around, the sun is going down earlier and the nights are getting chilly. If Christmas can start the day after Thanksgiving, then why can't Halloween be more than just a single day? I say let it be a full season. Let's all do it like they do in Salem, MA.

Speaking of Salem, I've heard the time between the fall equinox and Halloween referred to as "the season of the witch". In Wicca and Paganism, the equinox is the second of three harvest holidays, and is called Mabon. October 31 is the final harvest holiday, and believed to be a time when the veil between the worlds is at it's thinnest. It's a time to connect with and honor our dearly departed. To me, the entire season between the equinox and Thanksgiving crackles with a different energy than any other time of year. Perhaps it is the cool air, not so cold that it's hard to cope with, but too cool to forget ourselves with the sun and all of the activities that come with the season of light. We tuck in, wrap ourselves in warmth and the spoils of the growing season. And on those breezy, dark nights, we sense the dying of the light and the coming dormancy of the natural world. This changes our perspective somehow, turns us inward, and prepares us for the winter. And just maybe, it quiets us enough to hear the voices of those that have come before us.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Once you see it...

I’ve had conspiracy theories on the brain lately.  As my next novel slowly gestates, I’ve been doing some unfocused research.  I say unfocused, because my novel has nothing to do with the Illuminati’s supposed involvement in the music industry, or the Illuminati in general.  But they are everywhere, and their influence is endless, if you believe the internet.  And the internet is right about everything.  

I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon.  I liken it to what happens when you buy a car, and suddenly see your same car on every road.  I’ve been noticing Illuminati symbolism everywhere.  If you’ve read any of Dan Brown’s books, you’re probably familiar with the all-seeing eye.  It gazes at us from the back of the dollar bill.  If you’ve checked out the digital booklet that came with your Lady Gaga download, you’ve probably seen the All-Seeing Eye gazing at you from the palm of Gaga’s hand.  The Illuminati also favors goats and pyramids, and depictions of forcible control.  

Which brings me to Rihanna’s video for S&M.  Forcible control is pretty much right in the title of the song, however the opening scene was somewhat unexpected.  An out of control Rihanna is forced up against a wall, and held there with plastic wrap.  As the press looks on, she placidly sings the opening strains of her song while suspended on the wall like a specimen in a glass jar. The scene is spooky when seen through the lens of conspiracy theory.  The video goes on to depict bondage as squeaky clean and plastic wrapped, decorated in candy colors.  The end of the video is edited at such a frantic pace, that it’s almost mesmerizing.  In the final scene, Rihanna shoots us the all-seeing eye.  Is the Illuminati trying to speak through Rihanna, telling us that their plans are nothing to fear?  If Rihanna is an Illuminati pawn, she is not making any effort to conceal the fact.  The phrase “Princess of the Illuminati” appears three separate times.*

The most tenacious conspiracies contain a seed of truth, fertilized with a sprinkling of batshit crazy.  Scenes like the ones described above litter hip-hop music.  Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, and 50Cent have all had to deny Illuminati links.  I believe them.  I have a hard time believing this organization still exists, let alone that they are attempting to brainwash the public via the music industry.  These images are so prevalent in popular culture that it’s easy to see how they might pop up.  Once you start looking at the world through paranoid-colored glasses, however, that’s all you see.  When we take a more critical look at the world around us, the truth emerges.  Just open your all-seeing eye.

*The phrase can be found at 0:38, 2:51, and 3:20.  Incidentally, my computer chose to start buffering at 3:33, freezing the screen on a shot of Rihanna deep throating a banana.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Crossing the Bridge

A little over a mile from my home is a low-slung bridge with a checkered history.  The bridge itself is no fun to cross.  There is a stoplight at the north end; during rush hour traffic gets backed up at that light and it’s not uncommon to get stuck sitting on the bridge mid-span.  When you are stuck like that – looking out over the rippling expanse of the river and watching people jet-ski while you are trying to get back home after a ten-hour workday – you can feel the bridge shake.  Cars sluice by as I sit behind the wheel praying for that damn light to change, making the bridge bounce like it’s made of rubber.  I hate that feeling.  Concrete shouldn’t shimmy.  I sit there convinced the bridge will break apart and send me – and my car – plummeting into the current rushing below me.  

For the past three years, this bridge has been a part of my daily commute.  The day before I closed on the purchase of my current home, an abandoned building south of the bridge burned to the ground.  The fire shut down a busy road during the morning commute, and gave me a dark feeling about my impending status as a home-owner.  I moved in without incident, and started my daily trek to work over the bridge and past the charred remains of a local landmark.  No big surprise – it turned out to be arson.  The owner had burned the dilapidated building down for the insurance money.  He got a jail term instead.

A little over a week later a body washed up nearby.  On the north side of the river, men fish off of a concrete pier in the shadow of the bridge.  They spotted a limp corpse floating downstream.  Later, authorities discovered the man had committed suicide.  So soon after the purchase of my new home, I took this as a bad omen.  A few years later, that portion of the river has taken another life.  A local woman parked her car in a small riverside park down the road.  Her car was found; her body never was.  For several days, I saw the search team congregated on the pier as I crossed the bridge on the way home.  As far as I know, she was never found.  Perhaps the only witness to her disappearance was the expanse of flexible concrete that spanned the river which claimed her life.  

Another woman lost her life recently on that bridge.  It was a motorcycle accident which shut down the bridge for much of the day.  As I tried to make my way to work that morning, a phalanx of fire trucks circled the crash site, obstructing it from view and making the two southbound lanes of the bridge impassable.  When I returned home that night, orange spray paint marked out the scene reconstruction.  It was the only sign of the woman who had lost her life on the road that morning.

As I drive over this bridge every day, it’s hard not to think of all of this.  Burned boards still litter a weedy lot on one side of the road as I approach the bridge.  On the other side is a defunct marina where old boats sit up on blocks fading in the sun.  The day after Hurricane Irene passed through the area, that marina flooded, and the river came within inches of the roadside.  Near the stop light, those orange marks on the road are fading, but I haven’t forgotten how dangerous the intersection is.  I pass through the light when it turns green, and head home.

What I want to do in this blog is explore the darker corners of life that get us a little nervous.  I want to palpate those bumps I’m convinced are cancer.  I want to pick the scabs and see if they bleed.  I want to poke the pile of leaves to see if there are snakes hiding underneath.  I want to cross the bridge.    

Thursday, October 06, 2011

How Not To Write a Novel

I'm revisiting this list, originally published on my livejournal, because it feels apropos.

  • Watch Dancing with the Stars
  • Watch House
  • Wait to go to the gym until after Family Guy is over (even though you've already seen the episode three times), so that by the time you get back it will be too late to get any writing done
  • Worry about your cat's health without actually making any decisions about what to do (it also helps to feel guilty about thinking about your novel when your cat is having health problems)
  • Create a sountrack for your novel
  • Download music for your already overfull iPod
  • Spend time on the weekend (ideal writing time) screwing around on the internet
  • Jam your Google Reader so full of stuff you only have a marginal interest in reading so that it takes about 30 minutes a day to clear it all out
  • Two words: Perez Hilton
  • Grow your hair so long it takes 20 minutes a day to contend with it
  • Play Guitar Hero (it's important to replay songs you've already played 10 times at the same difficulty level that you've already played 10 times)
  • Get interested in politics (the ultimate time-waster)
  • Bake cookies, even though you are on a diet
  • Perfect your Sarah Palin impression even though you don't have any Halloween plans (you betcha)
  • Decide that you really need to re-read everything you've written before writing anymore, and follow the above reccomendation to ensure you don't have time to get that reading done
That list was first published in October of 2008. I'd like to update this with a few more bullet points.

  • Work in an industry that is requiring mandatory overtime when just about every other employer in the country is laying people off.
  • Own a home, if you are the only person in that home it's a guarantee that you will be so busy with the myriad responsibilities of home ownership to do anything else
  • Work more overtime
  • Watch Antiques Roadshow
  • Work more overtime
  • Resurrect your old blog

November is National Novel Writing Month. If you don't wish to participate, see the list above.