Monthly Archives: June 2023

Midsummer Solstice

June 21 this year brings the June Solstice: Midsummer in the Northern Hemisphere, Midwinter in the Southern. As precision goes, the solstice moment this time around, more or less (for there are variations east and west within time zones), is 10:57 AM here in US Eastern Daylight Time. That is the moment when the sun’s rays strike the Tropic of Cancer, 23.5° north of the Equator. It is our longest day in the Northern Hemisphere. And for a lovely explanation of why (by way of a fresh lemon representing Earth), I invite you to watch a short video by one of the people on this planet that I really admire: Lia Leendertz, author of The Almanac, which you might think of as a Book of Days with a British focus, explains the celestial mechanics while offering some thoughts on Midsummer in a charming video she released just yesterday.

This 23.5° tilt of the Earth brings us our seasons, and today, we reach the extreme that brings the most sunlight to the Northern Hemisphere. It is the start of summer by the almanac, but our ancestors saw this as the height of summer, hence its older monicker: Midsummer. And just as the Midwinter solstice in December is soon followed by Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, so too is the Midsummer solstice soon followed by St. John’s Eve and St. John’s Day. St. John’s Eve will come on Friday, the evening of the 23rd, and St. John’s Day on the 24th. This St. John is John the Baptist: the cousin of Jesus, he who was sent to prepare his way. All those feast days of saints that we celebrate throughout the year… like when we eat zeppole on St. Joseph’s Day, or minne de virgine on St. Agatha’s Day, or soda bread on St. Patrick’s Day: all these feasts commemorate the day each of these people left this earthly life. There are only three birthdays the Church celebrates each year: Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist. It’s the two cousins that are the more fascinating here, because the Church placed their birthdates at the solstices. No one knows for sure when they were actually born, but they are placed in this particular order in the round of the year for metaphoric reasons: St. John is born at the brightest time of the year, the time of our longest days. But what happens immediately after the Midsummer solstice? Sunlight begins to decrease a little bit each day. It is the Constant Rearrange: no day exactly like the one that came before or the one that follows. John himself tells us something to the effect of, “I must decrease so he may increase.” John prepares the way for Jesus, the Light of the World. And Jesus is born then, at the opposite pole of the year, the time of our darkest days, our longest nights, just as sunlight is again increasing.

That is one version, anyway. It is the old old story and a fascinating one: the story of our planet and its place in the universe and it is our story, too, no matter which players you place in the roles. The planet continues its journey around the sun at its 23.5° tilt and with it comes summer and fall and winter and spring and therein, in this simplicity, lies the mystery. The mystery of our unfolding days and the spiraling circular nature of our existence.


Join me on Friday, June 23, in the afternoon hours before St. John’s Eve begins, for the Real Mail Fridays Midsummer Social on Zoom. This online social runs from 2 to 5 Eastern, and you may come and go as you please for time to get things done (letter writing or otherwise) in the company of friends from around the globe. We will feature music by Felix Mendelssohn and readings from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, mixed in with some other music fitting for the height of summer, and once an hour we’ll take a little break for some casual banter. We welcome you to join us from wherever you are by clicking here. Real Mail Fridays is always a very heartwarming time and this week it’s a midsummery time, too.

Saturday evening, St. John’s Night, Seth & I are thinking about going to the Midsummer Fest––the Juhannusjuhla––outdoors at Finnish-American Village, weather permitting. There’ll be a traditional midsummer bonfire! Entry is $5. Finnish American Village is at 1800 South Drive here in Lake Worth, Florida. The festivities begin at 6 PM, but if we go, we’ll be going later, as I am teaching a workshop that day at the Jaffe Center for Book Arts called Book Arts 101: Midsummer Night’s Dream and then we’ll be having a traditional Swedish Midsommar feast, of the carry-out sort, from our friends at Johan’s Jöe in West Palm Beach. They are accepting Midsommar catering orders through Thursday. Everything at Johan’s is always delicious! Here’s a link to order your own Midsommar feast from Johan’s. Highly recommended!

Also online, I invite you to watch the episode of Stay Awake Bedtime Stories that I recorded last year for Midsummer: It’s my own retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an adaptation of the 1899 story version by Edith Nesbit. It’s a fun time. And in the video, I’m wearing an awesome floral crown that Seth made for me. Click here to watch.


At our online catalog, use discount code BLOSSOM to take $10 off your order of $85 or more, plus get free domestic shipping. Good on everything in the shop! Click here to shop! Happy Midsummer to you all. Glad Midsommar. Hyvää Juhannusta.


Image: “Summer Night (Sommernatt)” by Harald Sohlberg. Oil on canvas, 1899. National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.



Happy Jack Ass Day

My sister and I never knew Grandpa Cutrone, my dad’s father, but we knew how he felt about Father’s Day, because the greeting he devised for the day was carried on by all his children, by Dad and by all the aunts and uncles in our lives that were Dad’s brothers and sisters. You’d say, “Happy Father’s Day,” and they’d say, “Happy Jack Ass Day!” It was Grandpa Cutrone’s way of saying Mother’s Day was important; Father’s Day, not so much. His way, and Dad’s way, of deflecting attention: Honor your Mother, and don’t shine a spotlight on me.

And now it is Father’s Day again. I spent Saturday, yesterday, working with Paul Moxon and a small group of eager students taking apart a Vandercook 4 proof press at the Jaffe Center for Book Arts, cleaning it thoroughly, replacing worn parts, putting it all back together. Paul and I have done this before, to this very same press, and the last time we worked on it was six years ago, just a few weeks after I’d lost my dad. Metal, grease, WD-40, springs and moving parts, the weight of motor oil: these are the things I associate with Dad. He was an auto mechanic by trade, a Doctor of Motors, he’d sometimes say, and I was always in awe of his knowledge of the things of the mechanical world. I place Paul Moxon in the same camp. When I work with Paul, it reminds me of working side-by-side with my dad. He’s even got the same good shock of wavy salt & pepper hair on his head, just like Dad had.

Paul had us going from 8 in the morning until past 6 at night. He suggested we get a beer after, but I was beat. I took a raincheck, drove home and fell sound asleep. I thought I’d skip writing about Father’s Day this year, but when I woke up, I remembered about Jack Ass Day. I thought of Dad, I thought of the grandfather I never knew, I thought of Paul and that gleaming press, built in 1950, sitting in the printshop, raring to go. And then I found this story about Jack Ass Day that I wrote a couple of years after Dad died. It made me smile to read it, so I am sharing it with you again, just like Dad shared his stories with me again and again.

Dad loved to tell stories, and he’d tell them over and over, like you were hearing them for the very first time. That used to bug me a bit, when I had less patience, but eventually I came to love that about him, like he knew he wouldn’t be around to tell the stories forever, so I came to look at it as instruction: Remember this. You’ll have to tell this story for me one day. And so sometimes I repeat stories, too. And so this next part of today’s chapter of the Convivio Book of Days is a reprint of the Father’s Day post I wrote in 2018, the year after my dad died, because the fact is days like this are not easy for us all… sometimes we have to face loss and grief and a whole host of things, especially on a day like this, a day like Father’s Day. So… here’s my story, again, about my dad, who was a bit like a rock star to me, but perhaps most especially when he’d walk into a place and call himself by another name. It’s a good story. Ok, then. Here we go:


I couldn’t tell you why, but my dad had a pseudonym that he used for things like dinner reservations or those occasions when you’d get to a restaurant and have to wait for a table. “It’ll be about 20 minutes. Name please?” “Monte,” he’d say, sometimes adding on, “John Monte.” Where the name came from I have no idea, and why he needed it is anyone’s guess, too. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that “Cutrone” is sometimes not an easy name for folks to say or spell here in the States, so that might be the reason, or it may have had something to do with a calculated disassociation from a more infamous John Cutrone, a Mafioso in Brooklyn who met his untimely end in 1976. Whatever the reason, like an actor or sports star attempting to throw off the paparazzi so he could just have a quiet meal, it was accepted fact that when we went to a restaurant, my dad, the auto mechanic from Valley Stream, was John Monte.

I think about that sometimes when I make dinner reservations or call in to order a pizza. I half expect the name “Monte” to come out of my mouth someday, as I become more and more like my dad as the years pass. A good example: telephones. I hate calling people on the phone and I greet incoming calls with suspicion. This was my dad, too. To this day, my mom calls people up, just to chat. Dad, on the other hand, would announce whenever the phone would ring, “I’m not home.” Back then phones had no caller ID; they just rang and you picked up the receiver and said hello and if it was you who picked up the phone and if the person at the other end of the phone line asked for Mr. Cutrone and if you caved, if you said, “Hold on a minute,” and motioned to him, Dad would glare at you and then after he got off the phone he’d give you hell. No one ever just called to chat with Dad; they called because they wanted him to help them do something, like fix a roof or move a wall, or because their car battery was dead. It’s no wonder he disliked the phone.

Dad worked up until he was almost 90. We worked at the same university, and sometimes I’d call his extension, usually because I needed something, and sometimes just to say hello. I’d dial 7-2295, and if he didn’t pick up in two rings, I knew he wasn’t at his desk. But when he did pick up, he’d answer with a somewhat singsongy hello, where the first syllable went up as the second syllable went lower. And then I’d say hello, and then he’d say what he always said when we were at work: “Hi guy.” He never said this at home, just at work. It’s what he said to all the guys who worked with him, and at work, I was just one of the guys, which I liked. The guys who worked with him thought he was in his 60s, maybe 70s. He certainly did not look like he was 89. It was probably a decade or two that Dad would tell his fellow workers, if they asked how old he was, that he was 65. Sometimes that’s just how Dad was. He’d tell you what he thought you wanted to hear. That he was 65. That he felt fine. That his name was John Monte.

It’s our second Father’s Day without him. Days like Father’s Day are never easy when your dad is no longer here to wish a happy Father’s Day to. But we’ll gather all the same, my mom and my sister and Seth and me, and we will eat together. At the table, I will sit in Dad’s seat, because this is what I do now. I’ve done it since the day he died, and it felt odd then, and sometimes still does, but I know I am meant to sit there, and that I am meant to remind everyone that whenever we wished Dad a happy Father’s Day he’d always reply, “You mean Jack Ass Day,” and we will laugh. His father, Grandpa Cutrone, taught him that, and all my uncles said it, too. This year will be not as bad as the year before. Each year, some measure of sadness is replaced by a greater measure of… not sadness.

In Italy, Father’s Day is celebrated on the 19th of March: St. Joseph’s Day, and there is something particularly beautiful about that, as we celebrate that day a saint who cared for his family, protected them, provided for them, taught his son good, practical things. It is a perfectly logical day to celebrate all fathers, those we were given and those we have chosen. It certainly was the model that my dad followed. Perhaps if we celebrated on that day, too, when we wished Dad a happy Father’s Day, he would have simply said, “Thank you.”

Top photo: Grandma & Grandpa Cutrone with their youngest, Francis, my Uncle Frank. Grandpa Cutrone was, as far as I know, the originator of the term Jack Ass Day (unless it came from one of his many brothers or uncles). Bottom photo: The Cutrone Kids, all of whom grew up saying, “Happy Jack Ass Day,” too. Clockwise from the tallest: Uncle Al, Aunt Mary, Dad with his hands on his hips, Uncle Frank in the arms of Uncle Dick. Both photos were taken at Bergen Beach in Brooklyn, circa 1932.


June’s Bookish Days

And now we enter mid-June and with that entrance come three wonderful celebrations, all of which have at least some literary connexion. First comes Bloomsday on this 16th of June. Ulysses, the stream-of-consciousness novel by James Joyce, was no small feat to write and nor is it so to read. The Modern Library edition I have in my bookcase is 783 pages long. What is perhaps most astounding about Ulysses is the entire journey through those 783 pages takes place all on one day and all in one place: Dublin on the 16th of June, 1904. If you are in Dublin, you can expect to see many people about today in Edwardian garb, following the path that Leopold Bloom took through the city in the novel. The serious ones will eat fried pork kidney for breakfast and they will stop at the apothecary to buy lemon soap and have lunch at Davy Burne’s pub on Duke Street: a Gorgonzola sandwich and a good glass of burgundy.

I am an English major; I love the idea of a literary pilgrimage. Those of us not in Dublin, though, can still make a day of it: you might read some Joyce. If Ulysses is too much for you, may I suggest Dubliners: a collection of short stories also set in Dublin. James Joyce gave us with Ulysses what many consider the greatest novel in the English language, but with Dubliners, he gives us what may very well be the language’s greatest story: its the closing story of the book, a story called “The Dead.” It’s set at midwinter, not midsummer, but still works well for a day honoring Joyce. If you’re not up for reading the story, watch the film adaptation created by John Huston in 1987. It’s excellent. Huston taps into Joyce’s writing style by making the camera practically another character. Another fine thing to do to mark the day: listen to Kate Bush sing a song she recorded in 1989 called “The Sensual World.” It’s based on the closing words of Ulysses, a soliloquy by Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife:

… and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Ralph Ellison, he gave us his own stream-of-consciousness novel in an unfinished work called Juneteenth, a book I read a couple of Junes ago for that sacred day on the 19th of June. Our newest national holiday is not new at all: it may have been given official designation as a federal holiday just two years ago, but the celebration goes back to June 19, 1865, the day when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned that they were free. The roots of Juneteenth lie in the Emancipation Proclamation, two years into the Civil War. The Proclamation, on the First of January, 1863, freed “all enslaved people in the states currently engaged in rebellion against the Union.” Soldiers of the Union Army made their way across the cities and plantations of the South, reading the Proclamation and spreading the news. In places still under Confederate control, though, the news would take longer to spread. Emancipation Day here in Florida, for instance, came on May 20, 1865, when the news was read in Tallahassee, eleven days after the war had ended.

In Texas, the westernmost Confederate State, Emancipation came a month later. Union troops arrived on Galveston Island on the 18th of June and the next day, June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger read this proclamation from a Galveston balcony:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

By 1866, Juneteenth celebrations were sprouting up all over Texas and continued spreading, mostly among African American communities, throughout the country. These earliest Juneteenth celebrations brought folks out in their finest clothes for parades and barbecue and music. Juneteenth has since become a celebration of hard-earned freedoms, and a celebration of African-American culture. A day for family and friends to gather, a day to share stories, and to learn. And now, for these past two years, a national holiday. The road getting here has never been easy, and so it is as well a day to reassure each other against adversity and challenge. The fact that the road is still being forged is all too evident these days, as we continue to work through our troubled history and find paths forward, paths toward true equality, and toward the elimination of racism at levels to which society seems at times blind. Here in Florida these days, things are only regressing. For those of us who work in state-sponsored education, the limits imposed by state law in the last year on what we can discuss with our students is truly disheartening.

I like to think of Juneteenth as another shot at making things right and Lord knows we need that now. If it helps, think of Juneteenth as this country’s second independence day: independence from backwards thinking. We all have to play our part in making wrongs right.

And in a week’s time it will be Midsummer: St. John’s Eve on the 23rd of June, followed by St. John’s Day on the 24th. It is the setting of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That’s a night of some powerful magic, and that, my friends, deserves its own chapter in this Book of Days, even though it is a time not held in much reverence here in the US. But that it our loss. Midsummer is yet another June celebration that steps off the pages of books. How wonderful to have our breath still taken away by the things of this world.