Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Remembering Janus

First Night Buttons, Boston
Happy New Year to all!

I'd experienced my first "First Night" in Boston, on the cusp of 1983-1984 (yellow button). The whole city became a massive party, with performance venues ranging from the larger halls down to residential brownstones. Everywhere there was dance, music, poetry, art -- ranging from Indonesian gamelans to Mozart, Morris dancing to ballet. Shop windows became stages. Ice sculptures gleamed. Up and down the street, brightly-colored plastic horns longer than an arm lowed like a herd of festive moose. City Hall Plaza, largely underutilized the rest of the year, got to live up to its public space potential. Between 10 PM and 2 AM, cabs and the T's subways and buses transported revelers free of charge. My train home, after the fireworks in Boston Harbor, was a joyous sardine can.

Children's activities for the New Year began around 1 PM on December 31, and at 5 PM the Procession began. I'd marched in the Procession twice. The first time was 20 years ago today, on December 31, 1988, when I became the first woman to carry one of the Janus heads... (continued)

Journal excerpt, First Night 1988-89

I headed to the Hynes Auditorium, where I first came across a magnificent Janus head, set in a sunburst pattern and made of plaster of Paris. Smaller heads were mounted on ten-foot poles. One leaned alone, against a column; the others leaned against a perpendicular wall. Farther down were giant puppets. A woman in a double (Janus) mask and black cape gestured to a cop standing by a fleet of police motorcycles.

Animal masks. Banners and flags.

I stepped into a pizzeria for a late lunch. A couple of slices would power me through the march.

Around 4:30 I returned to the Janus heads and to banners proclaiming "History is Now" and "When the Fire and the Rose are One."

A woman approached me. "Are you here to carry something?"


I went to the Janus head leaning against the column and hefted it. By my estimate it weighed about 40 pounds. I've lifted piano actions weighing between 25-30 pounds, and based my estimate on that.

She asked, "How does that feel?"


"I've been looking for women to carry a Janus head," she beamed. Later on I would realize why it had been traditionally carried by men.

I suited up in a white Tyvec suit over my jacket and tied on a light blue sash. Technically the pole should be placed in the sash, but mine never worked out that way, and I wound up carrying the full weight for half the Procession. Another woman had taken a Janus head to carry, but swapped it for a banner before the Procession began.

We lined up on the street. I was moved to the front row of our division, in the center. We started out down Boylston: animal masks, laser light, drummers, unicyclists, dancers, banners -- like something out of Carnivale. I felt wonderful, knowing we re-enacted a celebration that's gone back for thousands of years. Yes, we had high-tech implements, but other items could have been carried eons ago, and the sculpture I carried was one of them. One head faced toward the past, one toward the future.

We began to march shortly after sunset. The wind picked up, blowing banners and challenging my strength. I rested the pole against my thigh and in my crotch area when we stopped enroute, thinking It's a good thing I'm not a man or I'd be writhing in the street by now. (Stanley, whose sash worked and who carried a Janus head to my left, commented to me that he'd carried his son's sweater in a strategic place for his own protection.) My thighs sport complementary purple splotches -- but the black and blue marks were worth it. I felt proud carrying that Janus head, part of a grand tradition.

The wind, however, won. One stiff breeze and I murmured, "I'm in trouble." The head swayed to the right. A man came up from behind and straightened me out, trying to get the sash to work, but to no avail. "I can take that from you."

"Thanks," I said, "but let me see if I can take this a bit longer."

I did -- for two more march periods. At the second rest period I said, "I have no feeling in my fingers." This time I relinquished my trophy, dropping back to walk beside the woman who'd traded her Janus head in for a banner before the Procession began. My hands experienced some moments of agony as feeling returned to them. Then I took over a flag from a young girl whose arms were tired, and returned it when she was ready to take it on again. We waved to the throngs on the sidewalk, called out Happy New Year.

Back in the early afternoon I'd heard the "long horns," whose din increased during the march and which would reach an ear-splitting crescendo by midnight.

I picked up soda and Pop Tarts to hold me -- took in some of the exhibitions in Boston Common, then went to the Old South Church to catch the Old South Brass. They repeated their rendition of Louis Vierne's "Carillon de Westminster," which had thrilled me at the previous First Night. Afterwards I took off to hear the Evan Harlan Quintet, where I caught a dinner of Dim Sum and arrived early enough to get a stage-side table. I particularly liked "Bean's Bag," named after one of Harlan Evans's cats.

I made my way to City Hall Plaza to catch the Oracle: an impressive production that utilized, in a very clever way, the architecture of City Hall. Then it was on to Boston Harbor, where I warmed up in an office building lobby and where a very, very patient security guard kept telling people that no, there were no bathrooms available and no, they should stay outside the elevator bays. All the while she tried to understand a caller who was not speaking clearly on the phone.

Being at the front for the fireworks display gave me a terrific view of the boat that sent them up and made for a slow, shoulder-to-shoulder exit from the harbor.

Covenant, the first volume in the Deviations Series, is available from Aisling Press, and from AbeBooks, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Book Territory, Borders,,,, DEAstore,,,,, Powell's Books, and Target. The Deviations page has additional details.


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