The Dark Side of Festivals

How hard is it to clean up after yourself?

In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit that I really enjoy festivals. Since moving to the Pacific Northwest, I’ve attended several a year. The Tulip Festival. The Folklife Festival. The International Film Festival. Dragonfest. The Solstice Parade. Pride. Seafair. Salmon Days. Viking Days. The Wooden Boat Festival, Fourth of July Fireworks. Julefest. The Great Figgy Pudding Caroling Competition. The Parade of Lights.

I love soaking up culture, eating unusual food, hearing unique music, and checking out the amazing crafts. I never fail to have fun at these events. It’s also a great way to hook up with friends who live in other parts of town.

But something has been eating at me ever since I saw this article after the last Fourth of July Fireworks here in Seattle. The day after the fireworks, which are launched from a barge in Lake Union, a cadre of volunteers used kayaks to clean up the toxic debris floating in the water. They apparently clean up 200-400 pounds of trash every year from that one event alone. Much of that is chemically treated fireworks casings. This last time around they also found an unexploded ordinance that the bomb squad had to deal with.

Salmon run through Lake Union. Peregrine Falcons nest there. There are a wide variety of birds that transit this lake. Canada Geese. Osprey. Eagles. Polluting their habitat so that we humans can have a few hours of fun seems kind of extreme to me.

Ever since reading that article, I’m looking at festivals not just in terms of enjoyment, but also in terms of impact. We need to learn to celebrate more responsibly. We need to stop acting like this planet is disposable.

The reason I’m thinking about this today is that I came across another article that made me cringe. It’s entitled What Happens to All Those Beads After Mardi Gras?  It’s lead sentence is, “The city of New Orleans pulled 93,000 pounds of beads from just five blocks of storm drains in 2018”

That is horrifying. It goes on to say that 45 million pounds of plastics come to New Orleans every year for that festival alone, and that the beads in particular contain trace elements of lead. Oh, joy! That’s just what we need. Lead leeching into the Gulf of Mexico.

There are some limited attempts at recycling, and this one guy invented biodegradable beads. These efforts are a step in the right direction, but they’ve barely made a dent in the problem. And let’s face it. Mardi Gras is a money maker for this city. It’s not like this celebration of debauchery, gluttony and environmental selfishness is going anywhere. We need to start thinking out of the box for more earth-friendly revelry.

For example, in lieu of fireworks, how about a laser light show? Several cities have considered this, but have gotten a lot of blowback from citizens who want the traditions to remain unchanged. Well, lest we forget, bloodletting used to be a tradition. Slave auctions were a tradition. Human sacrifice was a tradition. Killing millions of birds each year to adorn ladies hats was a tradition. But we’ve matured and evolved since then. It’s time to take more steps forward.

Will I stop attending festivals? No. Probably not. But I’ll forever look at them differently. And I certainly won’t be dropping beads in the street. But then, I never did that before, either.

For heaven’s sake, how hard is it to clean up after yourself?

Laser Light Show

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A Cranberry Colored Misunderstanding

What says Thanksgiving to you?

For the first Thanksgiving in my new home, we hosted the celebration ourselves. That’s something I haven’t done in about a decade. It was great fun.

I am a lover of traditions, though, so I asked our guests if there was a particular dish that said Thanksgiving to them, because I wanted to be sure we included it, if so. Thanksgiving is a homey holiday, and I wanted everyone to feel at home.

One person said cranberry sauce. I cringed, inwardly, but added that to our shopping list. I hate cranberry sauce. I had no problem providing it for others, though, just as long as I wasn’t expected to eat it myself. It turns out that my husband felt the exact same way, which is further evidence that we are made for each other.

So on the day in question, I opened the can of red gelatinous muck and shook it out of the can. (Have you ever noticed that cranberry sauce makes a distinctive schlurp sound? Shudder.) And then I sort of mushed it up to disguise the can lines. As one does.

Once that was done, I had to admit that it was pretty, sitting in its cut crystal bowl, adding color to the proceedings. (Just keep it on your side of the table, please. So I can pretend it’s not there.)

Once we tucked in to our meal, I proudly pointed out to the person in question that we had her cranberry sauce for her.

She replied, “Oh, it’s not for me. It’s for my husband. I don’t like cranberry sauce.”

Well, then. I looked across the table at him. He seemed perplexed.

“I don’t like cranberry sauce. I just eat it because it’s there.”

“We’ve been together for 32 years and this whole time I didn’t know you dislike cranberry sauce?”


The sauce went straight into the compost bin. Woo hoo! Free at last!

But it makes you wonder how many traditions are only traditions because one person thinks the other person loves them. Go figure.

Cranberry Sauce

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On Being a Contrarian

Nothing makes me thirstier than being told there’s no water available.

If a book has been banned, it goes to the top of my reading list.

When someone tells me that this is no place for a lady, I suddenly feel as though I weigh 1000 pounds. (We shall not be moved!)

If I’m asked, “Why on earth would you want to do that?” my instant response is, “That’s why.” My default reaction when told I can’t do something is shock, confusion, then determination.

I’ll stick my neck out every time when those around me are cowering in the foxholes. It’s a wonder I haven’t been shot.

Traditions make me chafe.

Zigging makes me want to zag.

Rules that aren’t founded in logic make me want to screech. “Because I said so,” or “Because this is how we’ve always done it” is why I grind my teeth in my sleep.

Many of my sentences begin with the word but.

My mother telling me that life’s not fair did not comfort me at all. It should be fair.

I like to invite people to join me outside of the box.

I tend to be quite polarizing. Love me or hate me, I hope that you’re challenged, at the very least.


Like the way my weird mind works? Then you’ll enjoy my book!

Off Limits

There’s nothing on earth that makes me want to do something more than being told I cannot do that thing. Not that I’m going to disobey The Law writ large. I won’t even shout “fire” in a crowded movie theater. Laws are generally put into place for the protection of society. But some arbitrary rules and decisions are just absurd. And some long-standing traditions with no basis in logic could stand to be modernized.

Even as a child, when I would hear that a book was banned by our school district, I’d make it a point to read that book. Fortunately my mother was very supportive of this. She believed we should have access to a variety of points of view, and then form our own opinions. So I read quite a bit.

I once met a man from another culture who was horrified that I was “allowed” to work the graveyard shift. “They let you go out alone at night?” First of all, who is “they”? I’m a 52 year old woman who lives alone.

I experienced that same look of horror when I rented a car in Turkey. They made me drive it around the block to prove I could before they’d let me have it. And sure enough, in the rural areas in particular, I soon noticed that I was the only female driver.

So imagine my thought process when reading about Mount Athos, in Greece. It’s a region that has 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries, and women aren’t allowed on the entire peninsula. And it has been thus for nearly 2,000 years. I’ve never wanted to go somewhere so badly in my entire life.

Their reasons for this ban are very strange. They claim that the Virgin Mary once was on a ship that blew off course, and when she landed on Mount Athos, she liked it so much that she asked her son to let it be her garden. And so it was decreed, somehow, from on high. (As they say, it’s who you know.) And because of that it became out of bounds for other women.


But these monks really take it to the extreme. They won’t even allow female animals there even though they do a lot of farming, so their eggs and milk must be imported. They do make an exception for female bugs and songbirds, because, let’s face it, that would be a bit difficult to control. But they also make an exception for female cats. I’m guessing that has to do with rodent control. (Come to think of it, what keeps out the female rats? It’s a slippery slope!) Who knows what their rationale is.

So I’m lower on the pecking order than a bug. Nice. I’m that big of a danger to their society. Insane.

A few women have made it to Mount Athos, I’m happy to say. A Serbian Emperor once brought his wife there to protect her from the plague, but she wasn’t allowed to touch the ground the whole time she was in residence. Cooties!

One woman, Maryse Choisy, once disguised herself as a man, and lived there for a month. She then wrote a book about it. Good for her! A Greek beauty queen then followed her example in the 50’s, and it was such a scandal that it was written up in Time magazine.

Three women landed there that same year and caused a big controversy. And there have been various movements to allow women in since then, but none of them have taken hold.

It’s not like they are against modernization under certain circumstances, when it suits them. Some of the monks are now taxi drivers, mechanics, and computer IT techs. But women! Gasp! Can’t have that.

But then, they also insist upon maintaining Byzantine time, which commences at sunset each day. That means that their clocks need to be regularly readjusted because sunset isn’t at the same time every day. Talk about stubborn.

And they’re all about doing what’s right for them, and to hell with everyone else. To avoid WWII, they asked Hitler to place them under his protection, and oddly enough, he agreed. So they referred to him as “High Protector of the Holy Mountain”. And that was while he took over the rest of Greece. Wow.

The reason I’d most like to visit, though, is that these monasteries are the repositories of so much medieval art, codices, relics and icons that even though they are trying to catalogue and restore them, they say it will take decades. Such rich history would be a joy to behold.

Men can visit. But only if they have short hair and are over 18 and get all the proper visas, and are preferably, but not necessarily, members of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  That means even Vladimir Putin got to go, but I can’t. (One assumes he had to keep his feminine side strictly under control.)

If this is what faith has to offer, I’ll stick with logic.

mount athos putin

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Grieving through the Holidays

If you’ve lost someone you love, the holidays can be a particularly painful time. All those memories. All those traditions. All those people, still alive, who insist that you to carry on all those traditions.

How can you be expected to decorate a tree when every ornament reminds you of the person you’ve lost? And it takes so much energy to put on a brave face at family gatherings. I know more than a few people this year who were forced to retreat to the bathroom to weep.

There is a great deal of pressure at this time of the year to be joyful. That makes your utter lack of joy feel even worse. And no one wants you to figuratively (or literally) pee in their eggnog. “Can’t you see we’re trying to fa la la here? Don’t ruin it!”

And then there are the well-meaning gifts, designed to memorialize the one who is gone. They were given in a spirit of love and support, but they feel like little stabs to your already wounded heart. No one knows the right thing to say or do, because there is no right thing to say or do.

Even in a good year, the holidays can be exhausting. But they seem positively soul-sucking when you’re dragging around a tractor trailer of depression. It makes you feel detached at a time when everyone is coming together.

For me, it’s like having to take a huge breath and plunge into the ocean, in hopes of coming back to the surface again before you drown. That was Thanksgiving. That was Christmas. That was my birthday. What a relief to get through it all and come up for air!

One more to go… the dreaded New Year’s midnight, when no one will be kissing me. I’m supposed to overlook the fact that I’m completely and utterly alone. I’m supposed to feel happy for everyone who is being kissed. I’m supposed to look forward to the new year, and feel nostalgic about the past year.

That’s a heck of a lot to ask. I’ll probably try to go to bed at 11 pm and hope the neighborhood revelry doesn’t wake me up. While you sing Auld Lang Syne, I’ll be trying really hard to pretend it’s any other night.

If you know people who are grieving, ask them what they’d like to do or not do for the holidays. Ask them what they want to talk about or not talk about. Don’t apply pressure. If they are ready, offer to help them create a whole new tradition, perhaps one in which dancing and romance aren’t flaunted.

But most of all, be patient. And don’t force your fa la la on them until they can get through it without weeping in the bathroom.


Even in the face of grief, there are things to be grateful for. Check out my book on that very subject.

It’s Ornamental, My Dear Christmas!

In case you haven’t heard me lament this fact before: I’m single. At this time of year, that means I don’t bother putting up a Christmas tree. It just seems like too much effort when no one but me will appreciate it.

But I can’t seem to give up one tradition: I buy myself a Christmas ornament every single year. I do this, knowing full well they’ll rarely see the light of day. I do this despite the fact that I really am trying not to accumulate stuff. (If moving across the continent taught me nothing else, I am now painfully aware that every possession I add to my pile is that much more weight I’ll have to haul from pillar to post, and I’m not getting any younger or stronger.)

The reason I can’t kick my ornament habit is that I don’t buy just a boring, featureless, round orb. My ornaments have to be unique. They have to invoke something I experienced that particular year. My ornaments have to be a part of my story.

I have ornaments I made in childhood. I have ones my grandmother brought from Denmark. I have some my mother sewed on her singer sewing machine. (I also still have the sewing machine.)

Many of my ornaments relate to my travels. There’s the tiny Navajo pot I got while traveling through the west. And, oh, look! There’s the blown glass Santa on his sleigh that I got in Venice, Italy. And there’s the colorful articulated fish that I bought the time I took my favorite aunt to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. And the greyhound in the Santa hat kind of brings tears to my eyes, now that my greyhound has gone to rainbow bridge.

I have never understood people who insist that their Christmas decorations be all color coordinated and follow a theme. I prefer my mad jumble of random baubles that takes me down memory lane. If I ever do put up a tree again, the person that inspired me to do so will be treated to my life story as we decorate.

This year, I bought what I consider to be the quintessential Seattle ornament. First of all, I bought it at the annual Yulefest, which is put on by the Nordic Heritage Museum here in town. Since I’m half Danish, this fest is rapidly becoming another Christmas tradition for me. And this particular ornament is a gnome, which is very Danish, indeed (although they call them Nisse in Denmark. Read my post about that here).

But this isn’t just any gnome. This one is dressed in the bright green and blue of the Seattle Seahawks, and he’s called the “twelfth gnome” just as Seahawks fans are called the twelfth man. Even though I am not a sports fan, how could anyone resist the twelfth gnome?

Merry Christmas, dear readers!


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My Halloween Tradition

It’s that day again. Time for me to turn out all the lights at the front of the house, refuse to come to the door, and pray earnestly that no one vandalizes my car. This has been my time-honored tradition for my entire adult life. Happy Halloween.

For starters, I don’t like kids. I avoid them the rest of the year, so why should I bribe them with sweets on this particular night? And in terms of self-care, keeping candy in the house has never been the best idea for me. Also, it’s really not the kindest thing to do for this generation of children, who have traded in their bicycles for computers and are struggling with obesity.

I also hate those adult parties where women feel obliged to dress up like sexy witches, dominatrices and French maids. No one puts that kind of pressure on men. I find these displays depressing.

And then there’s the fact that I used to know someone who worked with parole officers with caseloads of people on the sex offenders’ database. This time of year they’d have to do twice as many home visits, to make sure these people aren’t decorating their houses to draw the kiddies in. “Want some candy, little girl?” Sorry to break this to you, but Halloween is the high holy day for perverts.

I think my generation was the last to really trick or treat safely. If I were a parent, I certainly wouldn’t be allowing my children to knock on the doors of strangers in this day and age. You just don’t know who they’ll be coming face to face with.

Fortunately, more and more communities, churches, and malls are having public Halloween events. I think this is a marvelous idea. Let the little monsters and ghosts roam around in a well-supervised environment. Brilliant.

And at the risk of being one of those grumpy neighbors who shouts, “Get off my lawn, kids!” I really would prefer to be left in peace. But in case of emergency, I’ll be in the back of the house, in the dark, listening to ghost stories on Youtube.



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Shaking the Milk

I had a great conversation with my niece the other day. We were talking about traditions. Every Christmas she and her brother always go to see the Nutcracker because my late sister, their mother, always took them. I think that’s wonderful.

Personal traditions are very important and give life extra meaning. She asked me about the traditions I have. Our family did various Danish traditions, especially around Christmas, because my mother’s side of the family was Danish. So here I am, never having even stepped foot in Denmark, keeping those traditions alive.

We also have a tradition in our family when we go to the movies. We say, “Previews are my favorite part.” I don’t even know how or why that one started, and yet I always do it.

When we take long trips, when we reach our destination, we say, “Smell the salt?” even when we’re going nowhere near the ocean. This is because when my mother was a child living in Connecticut, piling into their Model A Ford and taking the long slow trip on country roads to go to Long Island Sound was a very big outing for that farming family, and you could, indeed, smell the salt when you got close. It’s now become our way of expressing excitement when we are near our journey’s end.

So I asked my niece if she shakes the milk before pouring it. She said that she did, but had no idea why. I told her that her great grandfather used to have a dairy farm, so the family’s milk was unpasteurized. That meant the cream would often float to the top, so they’d shake it before pouring. Since my mother shook it, my sisters and I shook our pasteurized milk, just out of habit. And now my niece shakes it without even knowing why. I’m sure that her children will shake the milk, too, long after I’m gone. It’s just who we are.

I don’t know why, but that makes me smile.

[Image credit:]

Family Norms

One spring break in college I went home with a friend. Half Catholic Italian, half Jewish, hers was a noisy, welcoming household. Neighbors would come and go without knocking on their door, and help themselves to whatever happened to be cooking on the stove. The house was full of light and crackled with energy.

And forget about sleeping in. If you tried to, her father would kick open the bedroom door, shout, “Time to get up!!!” while throwing himself headlong into our bed. Then he’d bounce for a second until he was sure we were awake, kiss us both on the forehead and say, “Breakfast is ready.” Alrighty then. I guess I’m getting up.

For the first time in my life, I realized that not everybody grew up the way I did. Mine was a very quiet, reserved Congregationalist Waspy New England household. No one came to our door without giving about a week’s notice. For the most part, no one came to our door at all. Silence ruled. Calm and routine was what you strived for. The loudest noise was probably the hum of the refrigerator.

And for the most part, that’s exactly how my home is now. I have no idea why I bother renting a place with a living room. It’s not like I ever have guests or eat at the table. For me the living room is simply what you have to walk through to get from the bedroom to the kitchen.

I’m not saying that one lifestyle is superior to the other. It all depends on what you’re used to. I think living in my friend’s home would have made me a nervous wreck, but it was fun to visit. When it was time to go, though, I was a little relieved. I looked forward to getting back to what, for me, was normal.

Our families can probably trace their styles back for generations. That fascinates me. In essence, the way I live my life is strongly influenced by ancestors from hundreds of years ago. The way I do things and what seems comfortable to me was laid out long before I was born. I walk down the heavily trodden path that total strangers, who just happen to be related by blood, have followed for centuries.

And I’m actually kind of okay with that.


Home is Where?

I’m starting to settle in to Seattle. I’m beginning to sort of know my way around. I’ve figured out where a lot of the different neighborhoods are located. I know which grocery stores I prefer. I know when to avoid the interstate (which is pretty much all of the time). I have gotten my library card and my driver license. I’ve voted.

It still feels a little like a foreign country to me, though. Given the fact that I love to travel more than anything in the world, that’s a high compliment. But I often dress inappropriately for this weather. I don’t know how things work. I often feel like people are speaking a foreign language and I don’t quite get how things are supposed to be done. There comes a time in every trip when you long for home. I have those days.

But the fact is I have been feeling rather transient for the past 4 or 5 years. That’s not Seattle’s fault. I think selling my house was the defining moment. That’s when I pulled up anchor and started drifting. I like having a home I can call my own that I can alter or remodel or neglect as I see fit, without the worry of being evicted by anyone other than the bank.

I also like having a sense of community. I like having a group of friends and a church that I feel a part of, and a strong understanding of the local gossip, politics, insider jokes and slang. I enjoy having certain traditions that I hold every year, such as attending annual festivals. I definitely do not have any of that here yet.

I think home for me is ownership, knowledge, routine, tradition, and community. It’s fitting in. It’s feeling comfortable and anchored. I’m sure I’ll get there eventually.


There’s no place like home.