Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Bizarre Customs

I WOKE UP YESTERDAY MORNING to the sound of the Kinks singing that gender-bending classic, “Lola”. I flailed around in complete disorientation until I found the proper button to turn the whole thing off, and then had one of those whacko bursts of inspiration that we love so much. I sat up, suddenly wide awake, and knew – with absolute certainty –one thing and one thing only:

The groundhog was going to see his shadow.

I don’t know where the thought came from; it’s not like I spend a whole lot of time wondering over groundhogs and their shadows, but once I woke up a bit more it made absolute sense, a no-brainer in the first degree. In a winter where the ground has been largely devoid of the white stuff, the safe bet was for six more weeks of winter. “Book it,” I thought. “Phil is going to see his shadow.”

As a kid I operated under this assumption: That on Groundhog Day, the Grand Master of All Groundhogs, Punxutawney Phil, woke up, shambled along his burrow, and poked his head out, maybe even venturing a few steps beyond like an old man coming out on his porch to get the morning paper. Then I imagined him looking around for a few second or two, and either turning and going back down to get some more shuteye, or sticking around for a while, nibbling on the grass. Meanwhile, a small crowd was gathered a respectful distance behind a classy-looking wrought iron fence, recording the moment for posterity and ready to report to a waiting world.

It took a long time – maybe even all the way until when the movie Groundhog Day came out – before I learned the reality of the situation, and that Phil’s prognostication was based entirely on the whim of some weird old guys who claimed to speak Groundhog. I had already stopped paying serious attention to the reports from Punxatawney by then, anyway, so it wasn’t really a crushing blow. Welcome to Gobbler's Knob

Groundhog Day is one of those things that can be filed under the heading ‘You can’t make this shit up.’ A weather-forecasting marmot? Really? And a town that’s managed to build a big part of its economy off of said marmot? If you were a visitor to American and got dropped into Punxutawney, PA on the morning of February 2, what would you think? (Note to self: we have exchange students visiting from Brazil, Australia, France and Italy – ask the kids to ask the exchange students if they have anything like this in their countries) And that got me thinking: Every culture has its oddities, the strange holidays and habits that we largely take for granted if we live with them. And ‘culture’ doesn’t just mean a nation – ‘culture’ extends all the way down into small social groups, too. For years, my friends and I had a ‘holiday’ that we celebrated every year, called ‘Castlegiving’. IMG_0145
We gathered up at some bar or other on Thanksgiving Eve for a night of revelry. At 2 in the morning we made the trek to a particular White Castle that, for one reason or another, we had dubbed ‘the Mecca of White Castles’ for a feast, which included a ‘benediction’ and speeches. Seriously. Castlegiving ran for 7 or 8 years, and one of our friends even called in to the pay phone in the parking lot as a way to participate by proxy (this was when cell phones were expensive and very large, so nobody had them). Again, file it under ‘You can’t make this shit up.’

As writers, we have to ‘make this shit up’ all the time. Groundhog Day, Castlegiving, whatever – what kind of strange things have you made up?

Have a great weekend, all!

Gobblers’ Knob photo by Voteprime
White Castle photo by John Uleis

7 Responses

  1. 🙂 Haha, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a more bizarre custom than Groundhog Day. I love your Castlegiving day. I don't think I've ever made something like that up on my own (though I wish I had). Some family friends host "alternative holidays", though, ranging from Guy Fawkes Day to the solstices with a U.S. spin that might involve fireworks or singing to apple trees.

  2. Haha, now that you mention it, Groundhog Day is SERIOUSLY WEIRD! Like, who thought of that? Whenever something utterly bizarre is on TV, my husband always says, "If aliens came down and saw this right now, they'd think the human race has serious issues." Heh. I'm trying to think if strange things I've made up, and I know there are many, but now I can't think of them! Oh, well.

  3. That was a fantastic post! And so true. We have to make this shit up!

    I never understood the whole Groundhog Day thing except perhaps that it gave hope to all those depressed by a long. bleak winter. Except that PP almost always sees his frickin' shadow, so just when you think it might all be over, PP dashes your dream!

    I could totally go with Caatlegiving though. Only wish we had White Castle up here!

  4. This is a hilarious post! Sometimes the "you can't make this shit up" shit is so odd an unusual that you can't even put it in a book. It's too organic and makes no sense when you try to force it into a plot. But it's so true. In my neighborhood here we have this bike race every year "the bike race" and it's an actual nationally recognized bike race but here it is simply known as "the bike race" and it comes right through our neighborhood. It's just an occasion for everyone around here to drink their asses off pretty much for 24 hours. Not one drunk person along the route could tell you the name of any one of the cyclists but they sure as hell celebrate the "bike race" like it's the superbowl. I'm also told there is some kind of semi-illegal soap box derby that goes on at midnight the night before the race along the steepest and most treacherous part of the bike route (which is in our neighborhood). Long live the Manayunk Wall!

  5. Loved the post, Jeff! (And Castlegiving sounds strangely fun!)

    Funny you should mention that. "You can't make this shit up" was one of the first things I thought when my hometown was overrun with exotic animals a couple months ago. Weird, weird stuff.

  6. Thanks, everyone. Yes, Castlegiving was a lot of fun. I think we crammed over 20 people into the Castle at its height, and had some friends come down from upstate after hearing about it.

    Lisa, that bike race sounds like how Bostonians reputedly treat the Boston Marathon.

    Nancy, I'm guessing that's probably exactly the thing with it – you get to Groundhog day and the light is at the end of the tunnel. Six more weeks of winter sounds tolerable (especially when you consider winters up here can stretch all the way into April).

    Part of what I was driving at was that everyone gets these wacky customs. My social group also had an extensive lingo (we called it 'verbiage') that was peculiar to us. We all knew what we were talking about, but not everyone else did. It's the sort of thing I suppose we should be aware of when we write, as it can add flavor, though how much and how extensively we explore it in our books depends on the story. It's a bit like the point Lisa raised with 'CCTV' and 'slating' vs. 'booking'.

  7. I don't even try to understand those cultural things, but I just tell you, that I am glad you got an inspiration that morning. I ran against the clock all night last night.

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