An Island Chapel


Early last year, I had read about a place in the Highlands of northern New Jersey that I wanted to visit when the warmer weather arrived. The weather did warm, but then COVID-19 arrived, so I never made it there.

The place is a chapel on a small island. Francis S. Kinney built St. Hubert’s Chapel from 1886-1889. It was so that his wife wouldn’t have to travel into Butler to the nearest church.

St. Hubert is the patron saint of the hunt.

The church was in use until the early 1950s when a larger church was built nearby. The Chapel was vandalized and is still being restored but is fully functional.

cross window

The Chapel has historical significance for several reasons including that it is believed to be one of the first fully-integrated ecclesiastical decorative schemes undertaken by the Tiffany Glass Company.

It was built in the style of an 8th-century stone chapel (which was the time of St. Hubert) and Louis Tiffany was commissioned to add the Celtic cross stained glass window and a Tiffany-signed mosaic floor among other features.

stained glass windows

The chapel and Chapel Island is on Lake Kinnelon and is located within the town of Kinnelon which is named for the Kinney, who had the chapel built after he had purchased 5,000 acres of land there. But the chapel and island are not easy to access.

There is a community within Kinnelon called Smoke Rise which is administered by the Smoke Rise Club. To enter the community, you have to pass through one of the two gates and within are about 900 homes. The Chapel is owned by the Smoke Rise Club and it is a controlled-access, gated community. There are two manned gates and you must be a resident, a resident’s guest or be accompanied by a realtor to enter. The club at one time conducted tours of the chapel. Tours are currently not being offered.

Perhaps this year, when the weather warms and if the pandemic subsides, I’ll get to tour the chapel on the island.

Chapel Island
Chapel Island on Lake Kinnelon – Image via Wikpedia

You can check for updates at  and see some of the history of St. Hubert’s Chapel and get a look inside virtually at some of its treasures in a documentary from the Kinnelon Heritage Conservation Society.

Photos via Google Maps by Cori Kline

Magical Phrases

If I asked you to say something “magical,” what would you say?  Hocus pocus? Abracadabra? Open sesame? I heard all of those phrases as a child and used them in my make-believe childhood world. Do they hold any power? I doubt that they do, but they have a long history of use in “real” magical ceremonies and also in theatrical magic shows.

Let’s look at the origins of those magical phrases.

Hocus-pocus is a generic term that may be derived from an ancient language and is currently used to refer to the actions of magicians, often as the stereotypical magic words spoken when bringing about some sort of change. It was once a common term for a magician, juggler, or other similar entertainers.

The earliest known English-language book on magic (known then as legerdemain “sleight of hand”), was published in 1635 as Hocus Pocus Junior: The Anatomie of Legerdemain.

“Hocus Pocus” also was the stage name of a well-known magician of that time, William Vincent, who may have been the author. He is recorded as having been granted a license to perform magic in England in 1619.

But it is unlikely that Vincent invented the phrase and the origins of the term remain obscure. I found a bunch of conjectures. Some say it a garbled Latin religious phrase or some form of “dog” “pig” Latin.

In searching other languages, we find in some Slavic languages, “pokus” means an “attempt” or an “experiment.” There is a tenuous connection with alchemy going back to the court of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor (1552 – 1612). I  saw that hocus may mean “to cheat” in Latin or a distorted form of the word hoc meaning “this.” Together they would give the sense of attempting to cheat.

Another theory (in the Oxford English Dictionary) has the origin from hax pax max Deus adimax, a pseudo-Latin phrase used as a magical formula by conjurors. A similar distortion theory is that it may be taken from the Catholic liturgy of the Eucharist, which contains the phrase “Hoc est enim corpus meum”  (meaning “This is my body”) particularly the hoc est corpus portion. This is a mocking suggestion that a magician is changing something in the same way that the Catholic Eucharist ceremony changes water and wine through Transubstantiation.

The final suggested origin is that it comes from the Norse magician and “demon of the north” Ochus Bochus.

Image by Franck Barske from Pixabay

Abracadabra is an incantation used as a magic word in stage magic tricks, and historically was believed to have healing powers when inscribed on an amulet.

Abracadabra’s origin is also unclear but its first occurrence is in the second-century works of Serenus Sammonicus. His book called Liber Medicinalis (sometimes known as De Medicina Praecepta Saluberrima) who was a physician to the Roman emperor Caracalla. In that book, he prescribes for malaria and other lethal diseases wearing an amulet containing the word written in the form of a triangle. It is found on Abraxas stones, which were worn as amulets. Subsequently, its use spread beyond the Gnostics.

Possible folk etymologies include from Hebrew meaning “I will create as I speak”, or in Aramaic “I create like the word.”  There are also some similar words in Latin and Greek such as abraxas. but according to the OED Online, “no documentation has been found to support any of the various conjectures.”

The Greek abraxas is a possibly related word of mystic meaning in the system of the Gnostic Basilides and appears in Gnostic texts such as the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit. It was engraved on certain antique gemstones, called on that account Abraxas stones, which were used as amulets or charms. (Their spelling on stones was “Abrasax” (Αβρασαξ) and the more modern “Abraxas” probably comes from a confusion made between the Greek letters sigma (Σ) and xi (Ξ) in the Latin transliteration. The seven letters may represent each of the seven classic planets.

In the English speaking world, abracadabra was frequently dismissed. The Puritan minister Increase Mather dismissed it as being powerless. Author Daniel Defoe wrote dismissively about Londoners who posted the word on their doorways to ward off sickness during the Great Plague of London.

Today the word is now commonly used simply as an incantation in the performance of theatrical magic.

“Open Sesame” is another common magical phrase that was found in the story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” in Galland’s version of One Thousand and One Nights. In the story, it opens the mouth of a cave in which forty thieves have hidden a treasure.

In Antoine Galland’s Les Mille et une nuits (1704–1717) it appears as “Sésame, ouvre-toi” which we translate as “Sesame, open yourself.”

So, is this just a storybook phrase?

Sesame is connected to Babylonian magic practices which used sesame oil. The phrase probably derives from the sesame plant. Sesame seeds grow in a seed pod that splits open when it reaches maturity, and it is thought that it alludes to unlocking treasures.

But “sesame” is a reduplication of the Hebrew šem ‘name‘, i.e. God or a kabbalistic word representing the Talmudic šem-šamáįm “name of heaven” so it also has religious and mystical connections.

Though I do have a replica Professor Dumbledore elder  wand that I bought at Olivander’s shop (Well, the one at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida), I haven’t found that any of the Hogwart’s spells or the magical phrases described above seem to do anything.

Maybe I need a different wand. Maybe I need to go to wizarding school. Or just stick to card tricks.

Cross-posted at What’s In a Name?

Walking in the Woods with Alan Arkin

log benches

On one of my woods walks this week, I listened to an episode of the ID10T Podcast hosted by Chris Hardwick interviewing Alan Arkin.  Most people know Arkin as an actor and particularly for comedic roles in work like The Kominsky Method, Argo, Little Miss Sunshine, Slums of Beverly Hills, Glengarry Glen Ross, The In-Laws, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming and Catch -22. He has 111 acting credits alone on IMDB.

Hardwick’s excellent long-form interviews frequently take you to places in guests’ lives that you knew nothing about, rather than the usual celebrity talk show fare.

In this podcast, Arkin talks a lot about his meditation practice of 50 years, why he abandoned therapy and Freud, and also his acting life starting out in Second City improvisation.

Arkin also has a new book, Out of My Mind, to add to his shelf of non-fiction and children’s books. Despite its title, it is not about insanity or focused on the actor’s life.

Like many people, and certainly myself, after an existential crisis in his 30s, he began a spiritual journey to find something to believe in.  This led him to the study of Eastern philosophy. This short memoir (which he subtitles “Not Quite a Memoir) talks more in-depth about his spiritual experiences, reincarnation, how meditation helps him, and how that search for meaning often ends in self-discovery.

I think you should read the book and listen to the podcast, but here are a few takeaways that I literally wrote down in my notebook in the woods while I was listening.

  • Comedy, meditation, and life are much the same thing.
  • He’s been practicing meditation for 50 years and he’s not there yet because you can’t get “there.”
  • A Freudian therapist told him the high he felt when he was “in the zone” acting was called “regression in the service of the ego.”
  • Don’t worship what brings you into the zone – meditation, basketball, running, whatever. The goal is to be able to be in that zone all the time.
  • Samādhi is a state of meditative consciousness that is commonly called “the zone.”  In the yogic and Buddhist traditions, it is a meditative absorption or trance, attained by the practice of dhyāna.
  • Talking about acting “practices.” Arkin aligned with the Stanislavsky method which he seems to connect to Buddhism, while he rejected the Actor’s Studio method, which might be more like American Zen.
  • All the laughter and all the applause does not equal love.

I liked Arkin’s story about realizing that when you meet someone and ask who they are you might get an answer such as “I am an actor, or a teacher, or a lawyer or a carpenter.” They are defining themself by what they do. You are not what you do.

He further retells a section from his earlier book where he imagines an alien approaching him.
“Who are you?” asks the alien.
“I’m an actor.”
“What is an actor?” the alien asks.
“You pretend to be another human.”
“But you are a human. Don’t they like you just being yourself?”
“Not so much,” replies Arkin.

Alan Arkin wrote in that earlier memoir, An Improvised Life,  that knew he was going to be an actor from the age of five. “Every film I saw, every play, every piece of music fed an unquenchable need to turn myself into something other than what I was.” But we are all improvising every day. We need to be better at it and have a practice to follow that can help us.

Celebrate New Year’s Eve Again Tonight

Julian calendar
      Roman Julian Calendar poster print

According to the Julian calendar, tonight is the eve of the new year. Most of the world uses the Gregorian calendar, but it was used for over 16 centuries. (The Christian Eastern Orthodox Church still uses the Julian calendar.)

The Gregorian calendar was accepted in 1582 as being more accurate and it eventually replaced the Julian though it didn’t happen overnight or even worldwide in that year. Astronomers still use the Julian calendar dates for celestial events occurring before the Gregorian calendar was introduced.

The Julian calendar had discrepancies between the calendar dates and the actual time of events like  the spring equinox. It was Pope Gregory who decreed that October 4, 1582, on the Julian calendar was to be followed by October 15, 1582, in the new Gregorian calendar. England, with its own church, stuck with the Julian calendar for two more centuries.

The Julian calendar was proposed by Julius Caesar in AUC 708 (46 BC). It was a more accurate version of the existing Roman calendar and it took effect on 1 January AUC 709 (45 BC), by his edict. It was designed with the aid of Greek mathematicians and Greek astronomers for accuracy and was the predominant calendar in the Roman world and most of Europe for more than 1,600 years.

Like Taking Candy From a Baby

decoder I wrote earlier about the Jean Shepherd story that became part of the film, A Christmas Story, Ralphie feels ripped off when he sends away for a decoder ring. The ring is a promotional item for the old radio program Little Orphan Annie that was on the air from 1930-1942. By sending in labels from Ovaltine drink mix, he gets a decoder ring that allows you to decode a secret message at the end of each program.

He checks the mail impatiently every day and when it finally arrives, he tests it out. The “secret message” turns out to be a promotion saying “Drink more Ovaltine.” Scam! Deceit and disillusionment.

I was not immune to such subterfuge as a kid. Annie’s ring was before my time but I did get a decoder ring at a store and so did my friend Kenny. (Yes, one of my closest friends was also a Kenny – it was a popular name at the time.)  Of course, we had no secret messages to decode but we used it in school to pass encoded notes in class. We were actually hoping to get caught, and of course, we did. But no teacher ever decoded our notes. We figured that we had baffled them, though probably they just weren’t interested enough to figure out what two  10-year-old boys were writing.

Our decoder, like Annie’s ring, used one of the simplest and most widely known encryption techniques called the Caesar Cipher. (The one shown here is from Amazon.) It is a type of substitution cipher in which each letter in the plaintext is replaced by a letter some fixed number of positions down the alphabet. For example, with a left shift of 3, D would be replaced by A, E would become B, and so on. So “blog” would become “eorj.”

The method is named after Julius Caesar, who, according to Suetonius, used it in his private and military correspondence. (I was a Caesarian birth so I felt some kinship with the Emperor and widely avoided any kids named Brutus or Cassius.)

dick tracy

There were lots of cheap, gimmicky toys that I bought as a kid. A good number came through ads in comic books or magazines. What kind of “detective kit” would you expect Dick Tracy to send you for fifteen cents?  Paper goods…

The best deal was “free” as in what you got inside a Cracker-Jacks box or in cereal. It was irrelevant to kids that free meant your parents had to buy the product. They were the fast-food giveaways of the 50s and 60s.

cereal box

I had several diving frogmen and submarines from cereal boxes. You loaded some baking soda in a compartment and dropped them in the batub and the resulting foaming bubbles sent the toy up and down in the water. Fascinating for a day.

Those original giveaways – and their more modern-day counterparts – are pretty collectible if you look online.

sea monkeys

I did send away for “sea monkeys.”  This novelty aquarium pet was no monkey but it was a type of brine shrimp. They were sold from 1957 into the 1970s, mostly via comic book ads. The brine shrimp did “hatch” and did  jump around in a monkeyish way, though you needed a magnifying glass to really see them.

They didn’t live very long but they were a kind of science project for me. I read up on them and learned a big word: cryptobiosis.  Cryptobiosis or anabiosis is a metabolic state of life entered by an organism in response to adverse environmental conditions. Maybe they get dried out (desiccation – like these shrimp) or frozen or lack oxygen. They go into a cryptobiotic state when all measurable metabolic processes stop. Suspended animation. Like space travelers in sci-fi stories or Walt Disney’s head. When environmental conditions return to being hospitable, the organism will return to life. I brought those shrimp back from the dead! Frankenstein or a modern Prometheus!  The power was rather heady.

xray specs

For me, the biggest disappointment was the X-Ray glasses. Those ads were always in comic books and I read a lot of comic books.  I was not terribly interested in seeing the bones in my hand. I wanted the Superman vision and the girls at school were the object of my new superpower.

They didn’t work. How could they possibly work, cost a dollar and not be a scientific revolution? If you’re thinking that this is all nostalgia and gullible kids from decades past, think again. You can still buy those X-Ray specs/spex.  I found them on Amazon.

I assumed that the FTC had taken them off the market or at least made them change the product description. The current product description is excerpted below [with my emphasis and comments].

The Original X-Ray Vision Spex . These crazy cool specs are the same ones that went wild back in the 50’s! The Original X-Ray Spex allow you to see bones through skin and to see through clothing! Amazing X-Ray vission guaranteed.  [Does their misspelling of vision let them off the hook legally?] Bright lights help to form the illusion just simply hold your hand towards the light spread fingers and see the bones. [How bright would that light have to be ?!] You can use them at night and mystically see the words X-Ray on every distant point of light. [Not that mystical – the words are printing on the lens] Take X-Ray spex to parties, get-togethers, schools, and hospitals. Your teachers, friends, and family will beg you to try these amazing glasses. They always work and they are loads of fun! X-Ray Spex make great gifts for doctors, radiologists, financial advisors, stockbrokers, and airport security personnel. [An interesting group, but yes, as a gag gift they might be fun.]  For over 40 years, these mesmerizing specs have amazed millions of people all over the world. 

I’m sure every decade has its X-Ray specs and sea monkeys. What was one of your childhood consumer disappointments? Leave a comment.

Feeling Pensive and the Pensieve

The end of a year and the beginning of a year is a time when it would not be unusual to be in a pensive mood.  The word is defined as being engaged in or reflecting deep or serious thoughts.

Like many of you, I tend to review the year in late December more intensely than at other times of the year. This year I found myself looking into photo albums (the physical kind) at my life and the lives of my now-grown sons.  Objects – like photos and journals – are objects that can evoke strong memories, both good and bad.

A “Pensieve” is something from the fiction of Harry Potter’s literary world.  My wife and I went to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida, and on the walk through their Hogwarts, we saw a Pensieve.

A poor photo I took of the Pensieve in Dumbledore’s office while on the ride tour at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida.

That Pensieve and the ones seen in the film versions of the books look a lot like something I saw in my childhood Catholic church. The baptismal font that would be filled with water for baptisms of infants can appear in many shapes and styles from simple to ornate. Many are often symbolically eight-sided for eight days of creation and as a connection to the practice of circumcision, which traditionally occurs on the eighth day. Some are three-sided as a reminder of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These fonts are often placed at or near the entrance to a church’s nave to remind believers of their baptism as they enter the church since baptism was their initiation into the Church. In many churches of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, there was a special chapel or even a separate building for housing the baptismal fonts, called a baptistery.

“I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours  them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.”
— Albus Dumbledore’s explanation of the Pensieve

The Pensieve is a fictional magical object from the Harry Potter series of books and movies. It is a way to review memories.

Physically it is a wide and shallow dish made of metal or stone, that can be elaborately decorated or inlaid with precious stones. The Hogwarts Pensieve is made of ornately carved stone and is engraved with modified Saxon runes,Only the most advanced wizards use them and there are fears about their use.  It is filled with a silvery substance that appears to be a cloudy liquid and gas which are the collected memories of people who have siphoned their recollections into it.

By gazing deeply into it, memories can be viewed by the owner or from a third-person point of view by someone else. I could look into it and see your memories if you had siphoned them into the bowl. Gazing into a liquid and “reflecting” is obviously part of the symbolism here.

The “pensive” of Harry Potter’s world is a homonym of “pensive” with a wink at the “sieve” part which alludes to the object’s ability to sort meanings from the many thoughts or memories it receives, like an actual sieve.  “Pensive” comes from late Middle English and earlier from Old French pensif, from penser “to think” from Latin pensare “to ponder” and also pendere “weigh.”

According to J.K. Rowling,  the possible dangers of using the Pensieve relate to its power over memory and because someone else can relive your memories in every detail. That is dangerous if you have memories you want hidden. Pensieves are generally buried along with their owner’s wand for that reason.

Albus Dumbledore allows Harry to use the Hogwarts Pensieve. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, he adds thoughts to the Pensieve. The Pensieve reminds us that Snape and Harry are forever connected. Snape was in love with Harry’s mother, and now is bound to protect Harry.

The Hogwarts Pensieve does not belong to an individual but to the school and has been used by many headmasters and headmistresses. Their memories remain within it.  This forms an invaluable library of reference for the headmaster or headmistress of the day.

In the second film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Snape’s memories are taken in the form of his tears. Severus Snape is not known for crying or warm emotions, but he tells Harry to put the tears in the Pensieve so that he may see something of his past and connections to him.

The connection between the Hogwart’s Pensieve and its use and the baptismal font is a tenuous one. The connection between using that magical object and reviewing our memories with or without some object to aid us is clear.

Harry Dumbledore Pensieve
Dumbledore and Harry at the Pensieve as a Christmas tree ornament