Old Father Midsummer

We honor our fathers today, both those we were given and those we have chosen. It is Father’s Day in the US. More on that later. First, let’s look to the sky, for with this particular pass around the sun, this day also brings the solstice. That solstice moment, when the sun reaches its most northerly point in the sky, comes late tonight, at 11:32 PM here in Lake Worth, which currently is in Eastern Daylight Time. It is now (and again six months later, in December) when the sun appears to stand still (hence solstice, which in Latin breaks down to something along the lines of “sun stand still”). For six months now, the sun has been climbing higher and higher in the sky in the Northern Hemisphere, and now, with the solstice of Midsummer, we reach our longest day. Now the climbing ceases, and in a couple of days, the opposite begins: the days will grow shorter and shorter as the sun sinks lower and lower in the sky each day, until we reach the solstice of Midwinter again in December.

The sun, of course, is not climbing and sinking. The sun is just shining, doing what it does. The climbing and the sinking (and the seasons that result) are thanks to our planet spinning on a tilted axis of about 23.5 degrees, which keeps the northern half of the globe tilted toward the sun for half the year and the southern half tilted toward the sun for the other half of the year. Each day the balance shifts slightly: this is our Constant Rearrange. After this brief couple of days of “sun stand still,” we’ll begin shaving off a bit of daylight each day, while the Southern Hemisphere daily adds more to its sum of light. These are the beautiful celestial mechanics of our planet and its spinning dance with the sun.

Now, on to Father’s Day. My dad, he loved to tell stories, and he’d tell them over and over again, 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. 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. Here we go:

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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 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, “Thanks.”

Image: Summer by Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Oil on canvas, 1573 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


Our New National Holiday

It’s the 19th of June: Juneteenth. 156 years of celebration, but the difference this year is vast: Juneteenth was officially designated a federal holiday in the United States in legislation signed into law by President Biden this past Thursday. When I heard the news, I was nothing short of amazed: I’d been busy with work and somewhat disconnected from the world and had no idea that this was in the works. I was elated. I thought immediately of Ms. Opal Lee in Fort Worth, Texas––a place that folks often confuse with my town of Lake Worth. For years and years, Opal Lee, now 94 years old, has been fighting to make Juneteenth a national holiday… and it just made me beam to think that she saw it happen. I’m still beaming.

The holiday was barely known outside of Texas for decades, but perhaps now, we will all learn the story. Its roots 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.

Newly emancipated slaves rejoiced right there in the streets of Galveston. By the year that followed that original proclamation in Galveston, 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, perhaps just like the Emancipation Day Celebration Band in the photograph above, from a Juneteenth celebration in Texas in 1900. 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, a national holiday. I still can’t believe it’s happened. 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. We all could do with a reassessment. We all have lots to learn, but here is Juneteenth, another shot at making things right. If it helps, think of Juneteenth as this country’s second independence day. This year, especially: Happy Juneteenth.

Image: “Emancipation Day Celebration Band, June 19, 1900, Texas USAby Mrs. Charles Stephenson (Grace Murray). Photograph, 1900 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. A hearty Thank You to my friend Kianga Jinaki; I never knew about Florida’s Emancipation Day until I learnt about it from her this past spring.


yes I said yes I will Yes

Join me today if you can: Wednesday June 16 at 3 PM Eastern on Zoom Webinar: It’s a Book Arts 101 broadcast we’re calling Bloomsday for it is Bloomsday today, and I am in the midst this summer of reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, and it has me bewildered and amazed, and since my show is about books and Ulysses is thought of as perhaps the greatest of them in the English language, I figured yes I said yes I will Yes. Folks follow the June 16, 1904 journey of Leopold Bloom for Bloomsday, and my approach is this: I’ll take you on a Bloomsday-inspired journey through artists’ books from the Jaffe Center for Book Arts, that strange place where I work.

I’ve put a solid week into growing a suitable Edwardian mustache for the occasion, though, to be honest, I’m not sure it’s going to make it to the broadcast. A week, it turns out, is not long enough to make substantial progress but it is just long enough that I stop short as I catch glimpses of myself in the mirror and think What the… ? As with most things in my life: we shall see what we shall see. To watch this Book Arts 101 broadcast live on Zoom, you’ll need to register. It’s free, it’s simple. Do so by clicking here. If you can’t make it at 3:00, you can catch the video once the broadcast is done at our Facebook page.

Bloomsday is part of what I love about June, a month of holidays captured in books and stories. It’s the month of midsummer and William Shakespeare gave us A Midsummer Night’s Dream for St. John’s Eve on the 23rd. Ralph Ellison, he gave us his unfinished novel, Juneteenth, for that sacred day on the 19th. And James Joyce, he gave us this day when we are transported to Dublin, 1904, and all week already the lovely Kate Bush has been singing her Sensual World song in my head. It is a rich time of year for bibliophiles and English majors and all of us who find our breath taken away by the things of this world.

So here: whilst I gather my books and check once more on my mustache, read, if you will, last year’s Convivio Book of Days chapter for Bloomsday. It will give you a bit of history and some suggestions on how to make the day perfectly grand. And if you’re watching at 3, well, you know I’m glad you’ve come to visit. There’s no question about it.

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June 16th and now it is Bloomsday, a holiday born of a book. Some consider it the greatest book written in the English language: Ulysses, by James Joyce. The book takes place all on the 16th of June, 1904, in Dublin, following the lives of Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, and Molly Bloom. Notoriously difficult to read, full of Joyce’s invented Stream of Consciousness writing technique, Ulysses is an affirmation, a yes, of the everyday. And here I am, a guy who encourages you to say yes to the ceremony of each day. An English major, to boot. Of course I love Bloomsday.

And so Joyce enthusiasts the world over today will dress in Edwardian garb and quote Joyce and if they are in Dublin, they will follow the June 16, 1904 route of Leopold Bloom. Our celebration here is a simple one, and I encourage this. My suggestions: Read some Joyce; it doesn’t have to be Ulysses. You might try instead something shorter, like The Dead, the story that closes Joyce’s short story collection titled Dubliners. Ulysses may get the accolades for best book written in the English language, but The Dead may just be its best short story. It takes place at midwinter, not midsummer, but still you get that beautiful James Joyce way of telling a tale. And if you’d rather not read, there is an excellent film adaptation of that same story. It’s directed by John Huston (1987). Music for the day: something Irish and Edwardian would be appropriate, but each year at this time of June the soundtrack inside my head inevitably turns to Kate Bush and 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.

Love this day. Like all others. Yes.

The Sensual World, 1989