Mouthbow

After reading a biography of Buffy Saint-Marie, I got curious about one of the instruments she played: a mouthbow. After listening to listening to several Youtube clips of mouthbows, I decided to make my own. I went out and found a fairly straight twig about as thick as my little finger; and took the bark off and shaved the butt end down with pocketknife and block plane so it would bend evenly across its length. I used a 010 loop-end steel banjo string I happened to have, attached the loop end to a copper tack in one end of the stick, and tied the straight end of the string through a 1/64″ hole I drilled in the other end of the stick. It looks like this:

When you play the mouthbow, the fundamental note of the string sounds as a drone throughout, while changing the mouth cavity brings out overtones to produce the melody — that combination of melody and drone sounds to me a little like a mountain dulcimer. While I make no claims to mouthbow virtuosity, here’s an audio recording of the instrument I made today:

Since your mouth cavity acts as the resonator, you can hear the mouthbow louder yourself than anyone around you can hear it. So I’m thinking this might be a good instrument to make with children: fairly easy to make, fun to play, quiet enough that it won’t drive everyone else crazy. However, if I do make it with kids, I won’t use a steel string: it’s too easy to hurt yourself if a steel string breaks; and something like nylon monofilament or linen thread would make for a quieter instrument.

Mouthbows were used by Indigenous peoples in North America, including California Indians: “Southern Yokuts men sometimes played the musical bow after settling themselves in bed; the Chukchansi in mourning the dead. These may be but two expreissions of one employment. Modern forms of the instrument have a peg key for adjusting the tension…. In old days a true shooting bow, or a separate instrument made on the model of a bow, was used. Mawu or mawuwi, was its name. One end was held in the mouth, while the lone string was tapped, not plucked, with the nail of the index finger; the melody, audible to himself only, was produced by changes in the size of the resonance chamber formed by the player’s oral cavity.” Alfred Kroeber, Handbook of the Indians of California, p. 542. Elsewhere, Kroeber says, “The musical bow is a device definitely reported from the Maidu and Yokuts, but probably shared by these groups with a number of others…. [It] was tapped or plucked….” p. 419. Kroeber also reports the musical bow being used by the Pomo and other tribes.

Buffy Sainte-Marie is probably the best-known contemporary player of the mouthbow, mostly because she played mouthbow on several television shows, including “To Tell the Truth,” “Sesame Street,” and the folk-music showcase “Rainbow Quest.” Sainte-Marie makes her own mouthbows; while they may look primitive at first glance, they are tuneable, and she writes: “I like to tune my bow precisely and work with other instruments, so I favor a geared peg, like the Grover peg in the picture.” Sainte-Marie’s blog post on making and playing mouthbows is excellent. Here’s Sainte-Marie playing the instrument on Sesame Street:

Notice that she holds the mouthbow at the end farthest from her mouth; that way, she can control the tension of the string, and thus adjust the pitch as she’s playing. By contrast, traditional Appalachian mouthbow player Carlox Stutsberry does not flex the tension of the bow to alter the tone:

Both Stutsberry and Sainte-Marie pluck the mouthbow with a pick; however, the mouthbow can also be tapped (like the strings of a hammered dulcimer), or bowed. South African jazz musician Pops Mohamed plays mouthbow using a bow:

If you search Youtube for “mouth bow,” you can find quite a few modern practitioners of the instrument. But only a few of them are worth listening to, including Pops Mohamed, Carlox Stutsberry, and Buffy Sainte-Marie; clicking on the photos above will take you to videos by those three.

Coloring pages

Coloring pages are an essential part of how we make space for children in our Palo Alto congregation. When they enter of Main Hall, children and their parents can pick up packets of coloring pages and crayons, to give the children something to keep them engaged while they’re in the worship service.

Now, for years I’ve made special activity books for two of our intergenerational worship services, Easter and Flower Communion; the Easter activity books in particular are designed to have some educational value. But I haven’t put much thought into our regular weekly coloring pages; the Religious Education Assistant just found free coloring pages on the Web, and that’s what we used. The coloring pages may have nothing to do with our faith community, but at least the kids are happy.

But it occurred to me that we were missing an educational opportunity: why not come up with coloring pages that are both fun, and have some educational value? I did a Web search to see if other Unitarian Universalist congregations had produced coloring pages, and found the Alice the Chalice coloring pages by talented religious educator Rev. Amy Friedman — great stuff! But Amy has only provided a half a dozen different coloring pages. We give out packets with 8 or so coloring pages, and ideally I wanted to have a different packet for every month. It looked like I was going to have to make my own.

I began to collect images that I thought would be fun to color in. More importantly, I began to think about what I wanted to teach. Our religious education program does a lot with nature and ecojustice. So it made sense to produce coloring pages of living things; this would show young children and our families that we value non-human organisms, and if the images were of organisms native to California this would show our awareness of the immediate web of life surrounding us. (OK, maybe this is a little above the head of a four year old, but parents and older siblings will be looking at these, too.)

A search for public domain line drawings turned up a good selection of Pacific Coast wildflowers, as well as Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), and I was quickly able to assemble 8 coloring pages with California native plants, and 8 coloring pages with butterflies and moths. California mammals would be another obvious category, but I couldn’t find line drawings that would make good coloring pages; I was going to have to draw my own. I’ve started working on mammal coloring pages, and if you click on the image below you’ll get a PDF with two of those pages.

Above: Townsend’s Chipmunk, a sample page from the California Mammals coloring pages.

What about coloring pages with more explicitly religious content? We Unitarian Universalists are known for being feminists, so why not Goddesses Coloring Pages? I was able to find some public domain line drawings of goddesses, including goddesses from South Asia and the Mediterranean, and East Asia. I’m still looking for public domain images of goddesses from Indigenous America, Africa, and Oceania — and the images of the East Asian goddesses needed to be completely redrawn. Eventually, I’m planning on two packets of Goddesses Coloring Pages, and if you click on the image below you’ll get a PDF with two of those pages.

Above: Guanyin, a sample page from the Goddesses coloring pages.

You’ll notice that I’ve put copyright notices on the coloring pages; I did so because it’s a big, bad Internet out there, and I don’t want other people to steal my work. But I hereby grant permission for Unitarian Universalist congregations, and other educational nonprofits, to print hard copies of these coloring pages for free distribution in their educational programs.

Eventually, I may put all my coloring pages on my curriculum web site, and if I do so I’ll mention it here on my blog. In the mean time, now you have 4 more coloring pages to add to the Alice the Chalice coloring pages.

Generational viewpoints

Zoe Samudzi, doctoral candidate in sociology at UCSF, on class and race:

“I think it’s really telling about the kind of limitedness with which we understand wealth redistribution because of the ways we refuse to understand white supremacy as a necessary part of capitalism and race as the kind of anchoring structure through which resources are inequitably redistributed.” (interview in Geez magazine, winter, 2018, p. 42)

Adolph Reed, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, a Marxist who specializes in race an American politics:

“Anti-racism — along with anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, etc., as well as diversity as the affirmative statement of them all — is a species of a genus of social and economic justice that is utterly compatible with neoliberalism: parity in the distribution of costs and benefits among groups defined by essentialized ascriptive identities.” (interview in Platypus Review #75, April, 2015)

I feel that Samudzi represents a younger generation of thinkers and activists who have abandoned traditional Marxist critiques of capitalism in favor of critiques based on identity politics; Reed represents an older generation of thinkers who continue to extend Marxist critiques of capitalism and who criticize identity politics as neoliberalism, which is to say, another form of capitalism. As someone who had training in the Frankfurt School as an undergrad (under a black Marxist professor, interestingly enough), I’m aligned with Reed’s generational cohort. But the zeitgeist is now blowing in the direction of Samudzi’s generation.

Snow

We had periods of heavy rain and hail on Monday, then when the storm passed it got quite chilly. It still felt downright cold, by Bay Area standards, late Tuesday morning when we went out to the car.

We drove down the hill from the cemetery to where there’s a panoramic view of San Francisco Bay. We both exclaimed, “Snow!” The peaks of the mountains on the east side of the Bay were white with snow, from the mountains around Mission Peak (elev. 2,520 ft.) southwards to the mountains around Mt. Hamilton (elev. 4,265 ft.). Since a good portion of Mission Peak range was white, I figured the snow must have come down well below 2,000 feet.

I dropped Carol at work, and drove south to Palo Alto, periodically marveling at the sight of snow when the mountains across the Bay came into view. When I got off the highway and headed west into Palo Alto, I tried to see if Black Mountain (elev. 2,812 ft.) and the ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains had snow; but I had to keep my eyes on the road and couldn’t get a clear view. But a page one story in Tuesday’s edition of the San Mateo Daily Journal said that there was indeed snow on the Santa Cruz Mountains:

“The highest elevations in San Mateo county saw snow Monday night…. Snow fell just about everywhere above 1,000 feet Monday, including in parts of the Santa Cruz Mountains, with temperatures as low as 32 degrees around that area.”

And according to Palo Alto Patch, not only was Page Mill Road in Palo Alto closed Tuesday due to snow and ice, but:

” ‘One spotter in Morgan Hill said he saw snow at 700 feet,’ [National Weather Service meteorologist Matt Mahle] said. ‘It started accumulating … at about 1,000 feet.’ “

When I drove to work on Thursday (yesterday), the Hamilton range was still mostly white with snow; I don’t remember the last time snow lasted that long, but it was several years ago. And there is more snow coming Saturday night, according to the National Weather Service:

The latest models bring snow levels down to around 1,500 feet over the North Bay and around 2,000 feet over the Central Coast during the day Sunday.

This is nothing like the polar vortex in the eastern U.S., but it is unusual weather for us.

Keith Carlton Robertson

In early adolescence, some of my favorite book were the Henry Reed series by Keith Robertson. Originally written in the 1950s and 1960s, the books are set in an all-white suburban utopia where women are stay-at-home moms and the only thing kids have to worry about are grumpy neighbors. I recently reread the Henry Reed series, and while I enjoyed them I’d be reluctant to recommend them to today’s early adolescents; nevertheless, if you read these books as period pieces, they remain charming stories.

I’d classify Robertson as a minor but talented mid-twentieth century children’s book author. As is true for so many children’s book authors, he has now fallen into obscurity. He published more than 30 books from 1948 through 1986, including 5 books in the Henry Reed series (one of which was published posthumously) and 4 books in the Carson Street Detective (or Neil and Swede) series. Most of Robertson’s books were aimed at the children and young adult markets, but he also wrote 6 mysteries for adults under the pseudonym Carlton Keith. Eight of his books were good enough to receive starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews.

There are so many minor but talented authors who fade into obscurity; yet in Robertson’s case, I couldn’t even find a good bibliography of his published works. He may not be worthy of serious critical study, but here at least is the best bibliography I was able to compile of his published books:

Keith Carlton Robertson bibliography
This bibliography does not include any of his publications in periodicals; it may not include all his published books. Sources for this bibliography include Kirkus Reviews, WorldCat, and other sources.
* books with a asterisk received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews
Ticktock and Jim (1948) *
The Dog Next Door (1950)
The Missing Brother (1950) *
The Lonesome Sorrel (1952) *
Lost Dog Jerry (1952)
The Mystery of Burnt Hill (1952) [Neil & Swede series]
Mascot of the Melroy (1953)
Outlaws of the Sourland (1953)
Three Stuffed Owls (1954) [Neil & Swede series]
The Wreck of the Saginaw (1954)
Ice to India (1955)
The Phantom Rider (1955)
The Pilgrim Goose (1956)
The Pinto Deer (1956)
The Crow and the Castle (1957) * [Neil & Swede series]
Henry Reed, Inc. (1958) * [Henry Reed series]
The Diamond-Studded Typewriter, or A Gem of a Murder (1958) [writing as Carlton Keith]
If Wishes Were Horses (1958) *
The Navy (1958)
Missing, Presumed Dead, or The Missing Book-keeper (1961) [writing as Carlton Keith]
Henry Reed’s Journey (1963) * [Henry Reed series]
Rich Uncle (1963) [writing as Carlton Keith]
The Hiding Place (1965) [writing as Carlton Keith]
Henry Reed’s Baby-Sitting Service (1966) * [Henry Reed series]
The Crayfish Dinner, or The Elusive Epicure (1966) [writing as Carlton Keith]
New Jersey (1968)
The Year of the Jeep (1968)
A Taste of Sangria (1968) [writing as Carlton Keith]
The Money Machine (1969) [Neil & Swede series]
Henry Reed’s Big Show (1970) [Henry Reed series]
In Search of a Sandhill Crane (1972)
Tales of Myrtle the Turtle (1974)
Henry Reed’s Think Tank (1986) [Henry Reed series]


Deities of non-binary gender

As I develop some new middle-elementary curriculum materials, I’ve been looking at myths and religious narratives for deities who do not have a binary, male-or-female, gender.

The most familiar example of a non-binary gender deity — but an example we mostly ignore — is in one of the two stories of the creation of humankind in the book of Genesis. The more familiar Genesis story of the creation of humankind comes from the second chapter of Genesis, where God creates a male human, then puts the male human to sleep, takes a rib, and makes a woman. However, as feminists began pointing out back in the 1970s, there’s another story about how humans were created in the first chapter of Genesis:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27, NRSV)

Commenting on this passage, Susan Niditch, professor of religion at Amherst College, says:

“For feminist readers of scriptures, no more interesting and telegraphic comment exists on the nature of God. The male aspect and the female aspect implicitly are part of the first human and a reflection of the creator.” (Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, Westminster/John Know Press, 1992, p. 13)

While agreeing with Niditch, I would add that this passage implies to me that the God of Genesis 1 cannot be reduced to a single binary gender.

The Navajo deity Turquoise Boy is of non-binary gender in a different way. In the Dine Bahane, the Navajo creation myth, when the humans get to the Third World, the men decide to live apart from the women, and cross a river in order to separate themselves. But the men take Turquoise Boy with them, because he is able to do the women’s work of grinding corn, etc., which the men ordinarily wouldn’t be able to do. (See: Aileen O’Bryan, The Dîné: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians, Bulletin 163, the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, 1956.) White Shell Girl is also a non-binary gender deity; the narrative refers to her as being intersex, or in the O”Bryan translation, a hermaphrodite.

Turning to Chinese myths and religious narratives, Lan Caihe (Lan Ts’ai-ho), one of the Eight Immortals of Taoism, is ambiguously gendered. According to folklorist E. T. C. Werner:

“Lan Ts’ai-ho is variously stated to have been a woman and an hermaphrodite…. According to the Hsiu hsiang Pa Hsien tung yu chi, … though he was a man, he could not understand how to be a man (which is perhaps the reason why he has been supposed to be a woman).”(Myths and Legends of China, E. T. C. Werner, London: George Harrap & Co., 1922, p. 293)

There are many other deities with ambiguous or non-binary gender, including perhaps most famously the ancient Greek deity Hermaphroditus. What I find particularly interesting is that non-binary gender plays out in many different ways in these various myths and religious narratives. I want to say that there is a spectrum of gender choices, but I think saying that imposes my early twenty-first century Western cultural framework on other cultures. Better to say that gender has been interpreted in many ways in different religious traditions.

Skunk skull

A few months ago, I found a dead skunk in a forgotten corner of St. John’s Cemetery; at that time, all that was left was the skin and the skeleton, and of course a faint smell of skunk. The skunk was lying in the midst of a deer trail. I couldn’t figure out how it had died: did a predator such as a raptor or a Bobcat kill it (Carol has seen a small Bobcat near the cemetery)? or did it die in some other manner? Based on what was left of the pelt, I’d say it was a Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis), not a Western Spotted Skunk, the only other species that lives in this area.

Since I first saw the body, the decomposers have been at work, and as the skin withered and decayed, the skeleton has slowly been emerging. Some of the smaller bones are now missing — it looked like Mule Deer have stepped on what’s left of the skunk — but the skull is now clearly visible. Using a stick, I positioned the skull and jawbone so I could see the teeth.

The dental formula for both the Striped Skunk and the Spotted Skunk is: Incisors 3 per side upper / 3 per side lower, Canines 1/1, Premolars 3/3, Molars 1/2, for a total of 34 teeth. This individual was missing one lower right incisor, the lower right canine, and one upper right premolar.

We have seen Striped Skunks wandering around the cemetery at night. In fact, skunks are the primary reason to not go into the cemetery at night: it would be far too easy to stumble across one as it came walking around from behind a gravestone, and the consequences of such a meeting could be unpleasant. Most of us would prefer to run into a ghost than a skunk.

Fungus

It has been a moist winter, and I’ve been seeing quite a few mushrooms walking around San Mateo. Most of the mushrooms I’ve been seeing are small and inconspicuous, but a few days ago I came across a showy large orange fungus in a hidden location. Today I went back and took some photographs:

I feel fairly confident assigning this to genus Gymnopilus, given the large diameter of the cap (6+ inches / 15+ cm), its orangeish color, and the fact that it is growing on decaying wood (a rotting stump that could be either a conifer or deciduous tree). Based on the description in A Field Guide to Mushrooms of North America (Kent and Vera B. McKnight, Houghton Mifflin, 1987), and without examining spores under a miscroscope or doing chemical tests, I’ll venture a guess that this is Showy Flamecap (Gymnopilus spectabilus, considered by some to be conspecific with G. junonius); however, this is an uninformed guess on my part, and it could easily be another Gymnopilus species. According to Michael Kuo, “identifying the species of Gymnopilus, in North America anyway, cannot yet be done with scientific accuracy.” (Laura Guzman-Davalos et al. [Mycologia, 95(6), 2003, pp. 1204–1214] found genetic evidence that the spectabilis-imperialis complex represents a clade, but they did not attempt to resolve the distinctions between species within this subgroup of Gymnopilus.) So it’s best to leave the identification as Gymnopilus species.

(Revised on Feb. 4. Written on Jan. 19 and posted on Jan. 25; I held this post for several days, because subspecies of Gymnopilus junonius from the eastern U.S. and Korea may contain psilocybin. I didn’t want some idiot to find this mushroom and, based on my very tentative identification, ingest it hoping for hallucinations. The mushroom in the photographs is now pretty well decayed, so that danger is past.)

Clergy hit a new low in perceptions of ethics and honesty

Gallup has been polling people in the U.S. since 1977 about perceptions of the honesty and ethics of various professions. These Gallup polls rate the perceived honesty of professions as “very high/high,” “average,” or “very low/low” (with the obvious addition of a choice for “no opinion”).

In Gallup’s most recent poll about perceptions of the ethics and honesty of various professions, the nursing profession again tops the list, with 84% of people giving them a “very high/high” rating, 15% giving them an “average rating,” and 1% giving them a “very low/low” rating.

By contrast, only 37% of people give clergy as a profession a “very high/high” rating for honesty and ethics; 43% give an “average rating,” 15% give a “very low/low” rating, with the remainder offering “no opinion.” In their report, Gallup made a special note of the decline in the perception of clergy honesty and ethics:

“Gallup has measured Americans’ views of the clergy’s honesty and ethics 34 times beginning in 1977, and this year’s 37% very high/high rating is the lowest to date. Although the overall average positive rating is 54%, it has consistently fallen below that level since 2009. The historical high of 67% occurred in 1985. Positive views of the honesty and ethics of the clergy dropped in 2002 amid a sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, and although positive ratings rebounded somewhat in the next few years, they fell to 50% in 2009 and have been steadily declining since 2012.”

However, although the Catholic sexual abuse scandal is foremost in many people’s minds, evangelical Christian blogger Warren Throckmorton notes that there are other clergy scandals affecting some people’s perceptions of clergy. Throckmorton specifically mentions the recent accusations of clergy financial misconduct at Harvest Bible Church, an evangelical Christian megachurch near Chicago: when some whistle-blower bloggers made those accusations public, rather than addressing the accusations, Harvest Bible Church sued the bloggers for defamation. Throckmorton contrasts Harvest Bible Church with Willow Creek Church, another big evangelical Christian megachurch which recently ousted its founding pastor after credible allegations of misconduct; subsequently the entire leadership team resigned, realizing their leadership had been compromised by their poor handling of the allegations, and realizing that the church needed to get a fresh start. (Throckmorton’s most recent blog post about Harvest Bible Church, which links to the Gallup poll, is here.) We could add more examples from outside evangelical Christianity of how organized religious groups respond poorly to accusations of ethical lapses and dishonesty: the many accusations against the Church of Scientology and their opaque responses come immediately to mind.

One thing that I get from Throckmorton’s post is that poor governance goes hand in hand with decline in trust in clergy. And we should distinguish governance from polity. The hierarchical polity of the Roman Catholic Church should in theory be more effective at removing unethical clergy than our Unitarian Universalist congregational polity; more than one unethical Unitarian Universalist minister was able to continue their unethical ways because the Unitarian Universalist Association cannot prevent a local congregation from hiring whomever they want as minister. However, all too often the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy covered up clergy misconduct. The Unitarian Universalist Association, by contrast, has recommended that search committees carry out careful background checks of potential new clergy hires; in Unitarian Universalism, the failures in governance too often take place at the local level, representing the biggest weakness of congregational polity is dealing with ethics; but on the whole, despite the weakness of its polity, Unitarian Universalists have a somewhat better record of dealing with clergy misconduct than the Roman Catholic Church. Again, my point here is that no type of polity is immune from ethical lapses; the real issue is good governance practices within whatever polity a religion might have.

I suspect, therefore, that the decline in the perception of clergy honesty is linked to a wider decline in trust of organized religion — a decline that in many cases is deserved. Lay leaders and clergy, regardless of our polity, need to be scrupulously careful about maintaining good governance practices that are transparent and that strengthen accountability; and when ethical violations arise, we need to address them quickly and transparently.