23 Dec

Blue Christmas

Tember got a callback from the Madison Repertory Theater. She got the part as Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol! She’s been hobbling around the house, though, for the past day, reciting her line: “God bless us everyone.”

Tiny Tember

21 Dec


Well, it officially started today at 6:04 am, but it’s already one of the more intense winters I’ve ever experienced. Here’s what my street looked like this morning:

You can see how the snow banks lining people’s driveways are taller than the cars parked along the road. That and the fact that I got frostbite taking the picture leads me to believe we’re in for a whopper. It’s was -8 degrees and the wind chill had it dipping below -30. When I came inside, I had to amputate three fingers.

I used my remaining seven fingers to search for some climate history for Wisconsin. The coldest temperature ever recorded was -55 F on Feb. 2 & 4, 1996, near Couderay (Sawyer Co.). Never heard of that town.

I have heard of Milwaukee, though. That’s where a blizzard shut the city down for two days when it dumped 23.6 inches of snow on January 29th and 30th, 1947. Apparently, winds blew drifts to the height of 10 feet.

Some other snow records:

  • Greatest daily total – Neillsville, 26.0 inches of snow on Dec 27, 1904.
  • Greatest single storm total – Superior, 31.0 inches Oct 31-Nov. 2, 1991.
  • Greatest monthly total – Hurley, 103.5 inches Jan. 1997.
  • Greatest seasonal total – Hurley, 301.8 inches in 1996-97 winter season.
  • Deepest snow on ground (excluding drifts) – Hurley, 60.0 inches on Jan. 30, 1996.

Looking at averages instead of extremes shows that January and February are typically colder than December. February was clearly the coldest month on average in 2007, but January is the coldest month if we go by “normal temperatures.”

Monthly Average Temps

So it would seem logical that we’re in for even worse weather for the rest of the winter.

But I don’t know if that’s how it works. Nor do I really want to research it anymore given that it took me about an hour to find all of the above. Researching weather history is a black hole: the information is so plentiful and is organized by such a wide variety of search criteria (extremes, averages, climate, precipitation, deviation from normal — it just doesn’t end), you end up navigating through years’ worth of data and charts. Like this one, which shows average snowfalls by month:

Again, it seems plausible to predict that we’re in for even more snow this winter. But who knows? The only thing that’s clear is that enduring a certain amount of weather oppression is actually good for team morale, so to speak. It makes small talk easy, and it gives people a common enemy. In the past two weeks, I’ve had some of the easiest, most fluid conversations with strangers that I can ever remember having. And there’s a certain excitement in the air, the same kind you feel when your local sports team is doing really well in the playoffs or whatever.

So I’m choosing to look on the bright extreme bright side. Thank God I don’t live in California. Or worse yet, Jamaica. That would suck.

19 Dec

Why I’m Actually Disappointed in Today’s Snow Day

Last year’s winter was impressive. We had total snowfall amounts that exceeded 100 inches, which was a record for the Madison area. We also had three snow days, which may have been a record for Madison’s School District, notorious for not shutting down. But the result of all that fun was that we had to add nine minutes to every school day from March or April onward, since the rule is that snow days #1 and #2 are freebies, but any number above that needs to be made up.

This year’s winter is already on track to top last year’s, and with today’s snow day, the second of the season, we’re headed toward that third one, which will mean longer days. A fourth and fifth snow day would probably lengthen the school year.

Today would have been an easy day. Nothing much happens on the final day before winter break, and it’s not like we really needed relief since we’re on the eve of a two-week hiatus anyhow. Plus, given a choice between working today or working an extra day in June, it’s a no-brainer. Students today would have been light-hearted and happy. Students in June will be obnoxious. And in June, they won’t wear enough clothes or enough deodorant.

Not that I’m really complaining. But imagine if you were only allowed 10 pieces of candy throughout the course of a year. In mid-October, you might deny the offer, what with Halloween right around the corner.

Sure, you’d eat those sticks of licorice or gummi bears or chocolate raisins, but as you’d do so, a solitary tear would stream down your cheek.

15 Dec

Caga Tio

Eileen and I stumbled across a list of strange Christmas traditions recently, which introduced us to Caga Tio, or “Shit Log.” It’s a Catalonian thing, ya’ll wouldn’t understand. I know I certainly don’t.

But the ritual surrounding Caga Tio is so fascinating that I really want to understand it.

Let’s start with what I do know after some minor research: Caga Tio is a log with a face painted on it. He’s often propped up on one end with a couple of stick legs. A quick Google images search will give you all sorts of pictures. Here’s one of them:

A couple weeks before Christmas, Caga Tio shows up in the dining room of the house and the family feeds him things like oranges and crackers. I’m not quite sure how this is done, since it doesn’t appear that Caga has an actual mouth. But it’s a daily ritual.

Weeks pass, and sometime closer to Christmas day, the log is moved to the living room, where they put a blanket over him to keep him warm. On Christmas Eve, then, the parents sneak some presents under the blanket and the kids beat the log while chanting a strange incantation in Catalan, which translates as “Log, log, shit candy! If you don’t shit for Christmas, we will whack you once more!”

There are lots of YouTube videos of this sort of thing, but I can’t understand a word that’s being said since they’re either speaking Catalan or they’re talking too quickly for me. The videos usually involve just a few children surrounded by a lot of overly enthusiastic adults who are all doing their best to be amazed by the magically gift-wrapped shit that appears once the blanket covering the log’s ass has been whisked away.


Eileen and I spent a good half hour this morning watching various Spanish families beating the shit out of happy-faced logs. It’s immensely entertaining. It’s also extremely weird. But I suppose that many of our traditions are weird. Boiling unfertilized chicken eggs, painting them in pastels, and hiding them around the house (sometimes in bookshelves, where they can go for months before they’re finally discovered because they smell so bad) is just one such odd ritual that comes to mind.

Still, there is a difference between eggs and shit, isn’t there? I fully understand how funny poop is (in fact, contrary to my previous beliefs, I find poop only gets funnier with age), but to elevate it to the realms of magic, miracle, and holiness I find strange.

Such ruminations led me on a search for the origins of the phrase “Holy Shit,” which I actually couldn’t find (try Googling “Holy Shit” — not helpful). But I did come across an article about “Divine Excrement” in ancient Mexico, which begins with a very concise overview of how polar opposite to holiness poop is in Western culture.

“In Western culture today,” it explains, “‘Holy Shit’ functions as an exclamation of surprise or dismay precisely because it has no reference beyond itself; its power as a profanity derives from the paradox embedded in it. For us, excrement is never divine.” Exactly what I was trying to say.

So how is excrement possibly divine? And is such holy-making truly what’s going on in the case of Caga Tio?

The first question has an answer. According to Cecilia Klein, author of “Divine Excrement: The Significance of Holy Shit in Ancient Mexico,” various indigenous meso-american cultures had a complex relationship with poop. Filth was often associated with sinful activities like drunkenness and sexual promiscuity; such offenders were said to wallow in excrement. However, it was that same excrement that provided some purification. Consider that soil, specifically humus, is pretty literally the filth of worms and small organisms. Gods like Tlazolteotl functioned in the same way as such nutrient-rich soil and were thus the means of offsetting transgressions by “converting them into something healthy and fertile” when the transgressors confessed to her.

Another pretty cool story involves the god of syphilis, who got together with some other gods in the dark days before the sun existed and burned incense as they were trying to figure out how to light the world. Unfortunately, the god of syphilis didn’t have any incense, so he burned his own scat and then set himself on fire “in order to rise as the sun.” The Aztecs viewed gold as the excrement of the sun and as a result prescribed gold dust as a cure for syphilis.

Thus, excrement comes to be ambivalent in its associations. Sometimes it means the same as our concept of moral impurity; sometimes it’s more redemptive.

Now, whether the Caga Tio is some sort of spillover from a Catalonian pagan ritual similar to the Aztecs, I have no idea. But there’s a certain value, perhaps in including a hint of something less desireable in the Christmas tradition.

I mean, let’s face it, Christmas is a little whitewashed. It tells of Jesus’ beginnings but it doesn’t like to think about how that story ultimately reaches its ugly end. Christmas is the story of Christ made easily digestible. So why not remind ourselves that the candy that magically appears on Christmas Day arrives to us via a path that isn’t paved with pretty things exclusively?

14 Dec

From Apples to Snow Days


Well, the bad news is that Apple Enthusiast Magazine is probably going out of business. I got an email from Igor in mid November explaining that the rising costs of gas had had a domino effect on shipping fees and as a result, the books were getting pretty tight. Igor asked if I would consider contributing my final article of the season for free, but I said no way. After all, what’s the point of writing if you’re not getting paid?

I’ve decided, however, to post my rough draft and notes of the final article, if only to keep some record of the final apples of the season (hopefully, then, some other magazine will pay me to write an apple column next year and I can just plagiarize my own stuff).

In the meantime, I’m finalizing another short story (it’s been a while, eh?), which I hope to have posted soon. A few days ago, we had a snow day, so I really should have gotten it done then, but instead, I searched Google Snow Day (seen below) and discovered that I wanted to learn the Rubik’s Cube. Again.

Snow Day

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