Arktikos: Part I

It’s hot out. Egg frying hot. Flambé, brulé, French-speaking hot.

It’s just really frickin’ hot.

Comme l’enfer.

So hows about we contemplate the Arctic? Not the actual, mappable, iced-terror Arctic, but the Arctic of the ancient Greeks. You know what I’m driving at, don’t you?


It was totally our homies, the Greeks, who assigned that name. Arktikos means “country of the great bear,” in reference to the far northern constellation of Ursa Major. This was no land of hoary cold and gloom. No, Hyperborea lay there, a paradisial realm of abundant fruits, chain lakes, perpetual sunlight, and sweet, flower-ruffling breezes. (Boreas being a place slightly further south from whence came the north wind.) Its inhabitants were philosophical, ancient, mystical…contented as clams.

Sounds like a swell place to live. Except–listen up–do not attempt to get there. Like any other paradise, physical or existential, the borderlands are a bitch to traverse.

Conversely, 7th century religious writers suspected the Arctic to be the epicenter of evil, chaos, and the hidey-hole of the Anti-Christ. And no wonder since the Barbarian hordes had descended from the north, like so many hockey goons: Goths and Vandals and Vikings. Ice hellions from ice Hell. Christian civilization agrees that it was very naughty and pagan the way they sacked Rome.

Even now we must wonder if there isn’t some whiff of black magic in Swedish furniture and bowhead whales the size of six street cars.

All of this and more I have learned from Barry Lopez’s National-Book-Award winning tome Arctic Dreams. Turns out Arctic lore extends far beyond the dopey bounds of Santa Claus and his elven workshop.

As dualistic thinkers, I don’t think humans can really speak of the polar ends of the earth without speaking of good and evil. If there is an Arctic, there must be an Anti-arctic.

How do you, dear reader, feel about the Arctic? Is it a spinning sea of sin? A happy, elusive land of delectable fruits? The seventh circle of hell? The seventh circle of heaven? What do you make of boreal winds and 7th century theologians? How do we work Eskimoes into theology?

I am opening a forum…the first in a series of Arctic Circle pieces. This is just the tip of the you-know-what. Discuss below.


Guinea Henning

How do you feel about guinea hens? Are you neutral? Opposed? Super pumped? About guinea hens?

I’m guessing most of you are neutral. Most of you probably never even realized that you should form an opinion about guinea hens. Personally, I think everyone should hold an opinion about everything, particularly trifles, and share those opinions openly, repeatedly and without solicitation.

So, do you want to know how I feel about guinea hens? No? Well, I LOVE them!!!  I love stalking them, watching them, chasing them, eluding them, denuding them (with my eyes). (Not just denuding them of feathers with my eyes; also trussing them, brining them, roasting, and eating them with my eyes.) But I’m likewise content to live and let live. And what a life, living side by side with  guinea hens!

I admit this  is a newly formed opinion, since I was afforded my first real personal glimpse of the bird last week. Because it’s so fresh in my experience, I’m kind of a flaming firebrand for guinea hens. It’s not that I have convictions about guinea hens, rather that I have feelings and enthusiasms for them. I do sometimes wonder if it will last.

I came upon these guinea hens house-sitting for my friend Lynn who lives in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque– a throw-back village enveloped by Albuquerque proper. It’s a bucolic little niche of the city–unpainted roads, tousled pastures, honeysuckle, full growth trees, old adobes…that sort of thing.  I think they have really loosey-goosey livestock laws because here is a land where peacocks and pearl guinea hens roam free in the streets.

You know what I like about guinea hens? Their free-roaming nature. I like going for a walk and wondering, where are the guinea hens? Where? Are they out somewhere roaming free? Suddenly *bam!* there they are perched on a wall or moseying across a driveway with a devil-may-care attitude. I like that their mouthfeel and taste is somewhere between chicken and pheasant. I hope to partake of one’s flesh someday. I like that they eat pests such as rodents and ticks and other bugs, thereby saving themselves from humiliating categorization as mere hood-ornament pet. I like imagining them wandering through the peanut fields of Africa, centuries ago, while a Malian princess played a rudimentary banjo. I like that the British used to call them “gleanies.” I like their spunk.

In summary, I LOVE guinea hens!!!!

But I fuckin hate the painted bush quail.

A View Both Charming and Interesting

So I’ve decided to leave the Victorians and their bathing machines, and their abominable bicycles, and terror of electric lights, alone this week.

Instead I’m going to fawn over some random hotel named Congress Hall on the Jersey shore.

Why? Because my friends tell me I need to let go of my Victorian fixation…of the notion of Victorians as the root of all absurdity and evil. That it is diminishing my character and wrecking my otherwise productive life. They say that I am probably projecting things upon the Victorians that I don’t like about myself, that bashing the Victorians is on some level a form of self-protection against the inevitable wounds of modernity. They say the Victorians have something to teach me, if I would just listen.

Okay, but look at their dopey bicycles, I say.

My friends say if I keep it up there will be an intervention.

That is why I will be writing about Congress Hall in gushing, glowing, grandiloquent prose: to prove I can write something nice about a Victorian era mainstay in a Victorian era town.

Let us commence with Cape May, New Jersey, historic landmark, semi-frozen-in-time. Regard the slate sidewalks, gas streetlamps, horse-drawn carriages for hire, Victorian houses of dizzying proportions brined in a century of salt, creaking floorboards, tarnished mirrors the color of the sea, hitching posts, gingerbread trim, Stick, and Shingle to the nines, thick-paned glass; muted, tasteful paints becoming of a temperate climate, 19th century blue bloods, and the dark glamor of the Atlantic. It’s a sweet little town.

Kudos, Victorians. I applaud you.

We are ignoring the guy at the ped mall dressed in a lobster costume handing out coupons for 20% off a plate of popcorn shrimp. We are averting our eyes from Uncle Bill’s Pancake House, the lamest mini-golf course in the world, and colossal, child-crushing, plastic ice cream cones, for they belong to our times, twenty-first century times, “A time,” as my friends would have it, “of great fracture and wounding.”

Let us alight on the stately and alluring, four-story Congress Hall, rising from the beach-front lawn in a pale, delectable lemon-curd yellow. It is a very feast for the eyes with it’s unfailingly erect columns, plentiful windows, and skirtings of hydrangeas in full bloom. My eyes have feasted upon it for six summers now.

I have other good things to say about it: No less than five U.S. presidents have holed up here. The legendary Ulysses S. Grant and the boring-as-hell Benjamin Harrison amongst them. Never mind the others…just know that they held the highest public office and they very much enjoyed the sea breezes and tastefully appointed rooms.

Benjamin Harrison christened Congress Hall his “Summer White House,” and you better believe he laid the presidential smack-down from this very spot. Albeit in a very boring way…by signing papers. Side note: Harrison would lay in bed at night with the lights on, so terrified of electricity that he refused to touch the light switch. He was the first president to inhabit an electrified White House and the first president to have his voice recorded. Undoubtedly he sounded something like “Mrrrmmmrmmmrrroorrrrrr:” The most boring sound in the world. I’m not blaming that on his being a Victorian. It was probably genetic.

John Philip Sousa was also a regular guest at Congress Hall, and so enamored of the place that he wrote a song called the “Congress Hall March.” He debuted it on the Congress Hall lawn from a seashell shaped podium.

Crazy times.

Yet, a time I scorn not: Victorian times.

When I’m in Cape May, I always spend a little time slumming it in Congress Hall. I walk into the lobby and survey the furnishings. I read the display of historic menus that include such dishes as Mock Turtle a l’Anglaise, Hearts of Lettuce with Russian Dressing, and Ice Cold Watermelon Balls. I pronounce loudly, to anyone in hearing range: “That is disgusting.” I  venture out back and regard the guests splish-splashing wealthily in the pool. I try to imagine Ulysses S. Grant stroking his mustache in a third-story window, worrying that his horse wasn’t given enough hay at dinner. I try to imagine Benjamin Harrison doing boring things like rifling through a stack of papers.

Don’t take my word for it–that Congress Hall is inspiring , and erect, and charming. Read these Congress Hall advertisements from the early 20th century:

LOCATION: Congress hall stands in an enclosed lawn of three acres; fifteen feet above the ocean beach drive, commanding an uninterrupted view of the ocean. It is reached by the Reading an Pennsylvania railroads by 90-minute trains.

It commands a view of the ocean! It is powerful and naval like.

ADVANTAGES: Only brick hotel at the Cape. All rooms are outside ones. Pure water from the famous Cold Spring. Passenger Elevator, Electric Bells, Bath Rooms on each floor. Perfect sanitary arrangements. Fire escapes from every room.

And it’s a good thing re: the fire escapes, since the original Congress Hall burned to the ground in 1878, by no fault of the Victorians I’m sure.

AMUSEMENTS: It is the social and musical center of attraction. Offers the finest and safest beach on the Atlantic Coast. Golf, Tennis, Shuffle Boards, Billiards, and fine roads for Riding, Driving and Cycling. Hops three nights each week. Orchestra concerts every morning and evening.

This seems to imply that driving was once fun.

BED ROOMS: The guest rooms are most attractively furnished, embodying every comfort so conducive to restful sleep. The windows of each room present a view both charming and interesting.

Views like this:

So see, the Victorians were capable of  doing something right.  Of course, we should mark the distinction between British Victorians and Victorian-era Americans. A distinction I hope to be allowed to expound upon some day.

Do you know what Victorians called their bicycles?

Dandy horses.

I’m just telling you this to impart information. It really makes no difference to me what they called them.