Playing Well: Pretty Much the Coolest Job in the World

In 1934, Danish master carpenter and builder Ole Kirk Kristiansen held a contest to find a new name for his burgeoning toy company. Since1916 Kristiansen had been operating his carpentry business in the town of Billund, Denmark,constructing mainly houses and household furniture.

With the start of the Great Depression in the 1930’s, construction became a difficult way to make a living and so Kristiansen turned his attention to toys. With the shift came the need for a new name and while Kristiansen had a couple of good ideas, he also had a homemade bottle of wine, which he offered up to the employee who could come up with the best idea.

The best idea was a clever contraction of two Danish words, leg godt, which translate as “play well.” The company, of course, became LEGO, a worldwide building brick phenomenon that pumps out more than 5 million little plastic blocks per hour, which is coincidentally about the same number that are currently scattered on the floors of my house.

LEGO

Creation Nation. There was a large outline of the US on the floor with attendees invited to build a small sculpture to help fill it in. Some were just silly and fun. Others modeled famous landmarks. Still others were inspired by McDonald’s. Because what’s more American than that?

My kiddos are LEGO fanatics. And so are yours most likely because on average every person on earth owns 86 LEGO bricks. Granted, my dog probably ingested more than that number yesterday alone, but there’s still a good chance you have a few lying around. If you want to find them, just take off your shoes and walk around for a bit. Always works at my house.

So it’s probably no surprise that when the traveling LEGO Kids Fest visited St. Louis this past weekend, my family jumped at the chance to go. I’m glad we did, because it was a seriously cool event. For two days, the Edward Jones Dome at America’s Center, normally the football stadium for the St. Louis Rams, was put to a much better use. It became home to a maze of huge LEGO sculptures and interactive building activities.

Kids and their families participated in build challenges and group art projects, teaming up to design and race cars or construct strength-tested bridges. Attendees could enjoy numerous free-play areas set up with tubs full of individual colors so that if they had a hankering to make a replica of the Taj Mahal using only purple bricks, they totally could.

Or it was the perfect place to fulfill the lifelong dream of climbing on top of a big pile of bricks and making a LEGO angel (because who hasn’t dreamt of doing that?) before sitting down to construct a giant multicolored fish taco.

My favorite experience, though, was when we took a break and went to a presentation given by one of the LEGO Master Builders, of which there are only eight in the entire world, all based out of Enfield, Connecticut.

This elite group is responsible for all of the giant LEGO sculptures you might see at the LEGO Kids Fest, or the Mall of America, or Disney World, or anywhere else you might find a giant LEGO sculpture.

20150321_185433

Yep, even Emmett has been Kra gl ed.

We had the opportunity to meet Master Builder Chris Steininger during a presentation on interlocking build design in which he encouraged all the little Master Buidlers in Training to try different structures, and then strength test them with heavy metal wrecking balls. My sons learned their lessons well, intentionally designing weak structures to achieve more spectacular destruction.

Chris talked a little bit about the design and build process and he patiently answered about a hundred questions from the kids in the audience, most of which were some variation of “Do you have the best job in the world or what?”

LEGO R2D2

Coolest. Job. Ever.

Not surprisingly he answered, “Yes,” explaining that even though sometimes there are frustrating design issues to work out and building a new model, layer by layer, gluing each in place along the way (yes, for all you LEGO Movie fans out there, I’m sorry to tell you master builders do use “Kra gl e”) can be tedious, basically what he does for a living is play well. And what could be better than that?

Which is what Ole Kristiansen decided, too. It would be a few years before the emergence of the patented stud-and-tube interlocking brick system that is still inspiring little builders today, but in 1934, Ole knew what he wanted his company to be about. And deep down, he also knew what he wanted to call it. He decided to stick with his own idea and called the company LEGO. There’s no record of whether or not he shared the bottle of wine.

A Writer’s Tour on Wyatt Earp’s Birthday

Mr. Earp will just have to wait for his feature post. Maybe next birthday.

Mr. Earp will just have to wait for his feature post. Maybe next birthday. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wyatt_Earp.jpg#/media/File:Wyatt_Earp.jpg

On March 19th, 1848 in the little town of Monmouth, Illinois, the gunslinger who would one day become the central figure in the famous shootout at the OK Corral, Wyatt Earp came screaming into the world.

But I’m not going to write about Earp this week. In fact, I’m not going to write about any historical figure at all, because a while back, a fellow blogger was kind enough to extend an invitation for me to participate in a writer’s tour.

So, first, I want to thank Camille Gatza of Wine and History Visited for including me on the tour. I have been enjoying Camille’s blog almost since I started out blogging myself.  Her posts often detail her travels through the US including wonderful background on historic sites and national and state parks. Along the way she always seems to discover unique restaurants and wineries and over the years, she has taught me pretty much everything I pretend to know about wine.

So here are the questions put forward on the tour:

What are you currently working on?

I’m always researching for both my blog and my fiction projects. The blog jumps through time and space from week to week, through the stories that I find interesting at any given time, with really very little rhyme or reason. I find that kind of research, which is admittedly not always very thorough, to be kind of a refreshing break from the research I do for my fiction projects. That is thorough and time consuming and while interesting, doesn’t always yield the kind of lighter stories I like to share in this space.

Okay, okay. Next week. I promise.   photo credit: 79109 Colby City Showdown via photopin (license)

Okay, okay. Next week. I promise. photo credit: 79109 Colby City Showdown via photopin (license)

Currently as a blogger, I am looking into the story behind LEGOS because this weekend my family and I will be attending the traveling LEGO Festival as it visits St. Louis. In my other “writerly” role, I am working through a first full draft of a novel that will hopefully serve as a companion to my first that was recently accepted for publication (!). As part of that process I am reading everything I can get my hands on about the Pennsylvania canal system in 1833, which, while interesting, and will supply wonderful historical details for the novel, is not exactly good material for this particular blog.

How does your work differ from others in your genre?

A lot of history blogs I read (and I do read a lot of them) are very information dense. Often they cite references and speak with a good deal of authority within a fairly narrow scope. I love that. And those kinds of blogs are exactly what history blogs should be.

But this isn’t that kind of blog. In fact I hesitate sometimes to even call it a history blog, because in some ways that’s not what it is. I do share stories from history, and I do spend a good amount of time (or at least some) researching my chosen topic in an attempt to provide readers with tidbits worthy of sharing at cocktail parties. But there’s also a lot of me on the pages of this blog. There’s a lot about my life and the things I find funny, or interesting, or just worthwhile. I try not to claim a great deal of authority in this space, because, frankly, I have none to claim.

But I do hope the posts are fun to read. I have a great time writing them.

Why do you write what you do?

When I was younger, history always seemed either dull or tragic to me. I’ve never been very good at memorizing dates and it seemed all I ever learned about in history class was how one group of people exploited another group of people to become the dominant people. And, really, human history can be boiled down to that if you let it be. But as I grew older and studied more literature, I began to see history through a different lens. When fleshed out with the little details that make up the experiences of individuals, suddenly each moment in history becomes many moments with many perspectives and far-reaching implications. In other words, it becomes a story. And a story, our story, is worth telling.

That realization led me to writing historical fiction, a genre that I fell in love with very quickly as a reader as well as a writer. And this blog is an extension of that. As this wonderful article in The Onion so eloquently points out, there are more stories within the history of human experience than I can possibly tell, or that any of us can possibly tell or ever know. But with this blog, each week, I get to take a stab at illuminating a little bit more.

How does your writing process work?

photo credit: Tapping a Pencil via photopin (license)

Some weeks are just like that. photo credit: Tapping a Pencil via photopin (license)

For the most part, I write what’s on my mind. If I have experienced or will be experiencing a particular event, I may use that as a jump-off for some historical research, and often the structure of the post itself will reveal that. Some weeks, something I come across in the news sends me down a trail I think might be worth sharing. And, of course, like anyone else, I have weeks when I struggle to find something to say.

Typically I start out with a very general idea of what I want to write and just start typing because I never know exactly what I’m going to want to write until I’ve already written it. After that I polish it up, trim the word count, insert what I hope are a few clever lines, throw in a few pictures, and post. Then I just sit back and wait for millions of thoughtful comments to come rolling in.

Well, okay, so that last part doesn’t really happen, but I realize that this blog is a little hard to categorize and it is sure to appeal to a fairly specific kind of reader. I am delighted that so many of you quirky, creative, thoughtful people have found it. Thank you!

And now on with the tour!

For the next stops on the tour, I’ve chosen two writers whose blogs I appreciate very much. They also both happen to be writers of historical fiction, but they each approach blogging differently than I do. I doubt they’ll be writing about Wyatt Earp this week either (although you never know). Still, I hope you’ll visit their sites, and maybe read their books as well, because it will be well worth the effort.

sam

Samuel Hall grew up in the American Heartland.
He lives with his wife near Salem, Oregon. Their three adult children continue to teach him about family relationships and authenticity, core subjects of his novel.

Visit his website at www.samhallwriter.com.

Sign up for the newsletter at www.ashberrylane.com to hear the latest about Sam’s book, Daughter of the Cimarron.

blogtourphotoAdrienne Morris lives in the country, milks goats, chases chickens and sometimes keeps the dogs off the table while writing books about the Weldon and Crenshaw families of Gilded Age Englewood, New Jersey. Her first novel, The House on Tenafly Road was selected as an Editors’ Choice Book and Notable Indie of the Year by The Historical Novel Society.

 

Ancient Gatorade Tastes Like Ash

Around the year 78 AD, Roman naturalist Gaius Plinius Secundas, or Pliny the Elder, published his only surviving work, Naturalis Historia (Natural History). It was kind of like an encyclopedia, meant by its author to address pretty much everything a first-century Roman might need to know about “the natural world, or life.”

If you ask me, that’s a pretty bold claim, but the work is divided into ten volumes, consisting in total of thirty-seven books, and it does cover an impressive array of topics, including, among others: astronomy, mathematics, zoology, horticulture, sculpture, and Gatorade.

Pliny the Elder   [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pliny the Elder
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

That last one, as my youngest son would tell you, is the most important. He’s seven and a pretty coordinated kid who I know would enjoy athletics if he weren’t so reluctant to try new things. When I occasionally push him, as I did with basketball this winter, I use an incentive. If he works hard in practice, or a game, he gets a celebratory red Gatorade, because the original yellow tastes like watered-down sweat.

It’s worked really well this basketball season. He’s made friends, had fun, and on the court he’s gone from completely clueless to a little less awkward, even scoring two baskets in his most recent game. All it took was some determination and the right recovery drink.

And if we can take Pliny the Elder at his word, that’s what it took for Rome’s gladiators as well. In Book 36 of Natural History he writes: “Your hearth should be your medicine chest. Drink lye made from its ashes, and you will be cured. One can see how gladiators are helped by drinking this.”

He was quoting the recommendations of another contemporary writer, implying that this magical curative given to the gladiators was fairly common knowledge, but still it’s kind of a quick reference inside a work that covers the entire scope of “the natural world” and so serves as nothing more than anecdotal evidence.

Original Gatorade: Looks like urine; tastes like sweat. For some reason, that add campaign never took off. By Jeff Taylor (Flickr: GatoradeOriginalGlassBottle) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Original Gatorade: Looks like urine; tastes like sweat. For some reason, that ad campaign never took off.
By Jeff Taylor (Flickr: GatoradeOriginalGlassBottle) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately, we don’t just have to take the author’s word for it. In 1993, a team of archaeologists working near the ancient city of Ephesus in modern day Turkey, found the remains of sixty-eight people who died between the second and third centuries, all young men, between the ages of twenty and thirty, and all showing evidence of having been pretty beaten up. With the remains were several grave markers depicting scenes of battle.

The discovery turned out to be the only known gladiator graveyard ever found, and the bones told researchers an interesting story. First, they confirmed that gladiators ate a mostly grain diet, similar to that of the general public at the time. Second, the gladiator bones contained significantly more strontium than did non-gladiator bone samples.

That doesn’t mean much to me, but what it means to people who know a thing or two about bones, is that gladiators must have ingested some sort of supplement designed to aid in recovery and healing. And thanks to Pliny the Elder, we know it was probably a drink made from water, vinegar, and plant ash.

Scientists claim that if made with a “good vinegar,” the gladiator recovery drink might not have tasted all that bad. I’m not so convinced. If I want my son to keep up on the basketball court, I’ll probably stick with the more modern version. With a whole lot of sugar (which is why this is only an occasional incentive at our house) and plenty of red dye 40, at least Gatorade doesn’t taste like ash.

The 2nd Grade Butterfly Effect

First published in Collier’s magazine in June of 1952, Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” went on to become one of the most frequently re-published short science fiction stories of all time, but the concept at its heart was far from new.

The story, set in 2055, centers on a wealthy man who pays to travel back in time in order to hunt a Tyrannosaurus rex. The hunt has been well planned. The dinosaur is already destined to die naturally mere moments after the fatal shot, and the safari company has provided platforms designed to elevate the hunt participants off the natural landscape so their actions in the past may affect as little future change as possible. But despite stern warnings of the dangers of altering the past, the wealthy man loses his cool when faced with T. rex and in his panic, he leaves the path.

The group returns to the future to discover things aren’t quite the same. Words are spelled differently, election outcomes have changed, and humanity’s collective outlook is strangely altered. The man then notices in the mud on his boot, a crushed butterfly that apparently died before its time.

20150304_094146

One flap of those wings, and who knows what might happen.

Though the concept of tiny alterations in initial conditions affecting significant differences in outcomes (known as chaos theory) was first described by Henri Poincaré in 1890, it was mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz who first applied the term “butterfly effect.” He noted that even a very slight change in his data entry (like rounding off a few decimal places) led to drastically different weather model outcomes. It was as if a butterfly flapping its wings caused a miniscule shift in the atmosphere that may eventually lead to the formation of a tornado.

I admit, it sounds a little crazy, and I’m certainly no expert on chaos theory, but I did have the opportunity earlier this week to help chaperone my son’s second grade class fieldtrip to the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Butterfly House.

Upon arrival I was handed a clipboard with a checklist of butterfly behaviors we might observe and the names of five second-graders for whom I would be responsible. And that should have been fine. The kids seemed like a good bunch: my son, two other little boys who appeared relatively cooperative, and two sweet little girls who were all smiles. I was feeling pretty confident about the whole thing.

20150304_110037

Not a bad day to spend inside a steamy tropical butterfly habitat. Even with second-graders.

But then, just as the outer atrium door shut behind us and twenty-five second-graders along with their teacher, several chaperones, and one butterfly expert loudly sharing important rules (like don’t squish the butterflies because it might alter the space-time continuum) were wedged into a tiny butterfly escape-proof airlock, I felt a small hand squeeze my arm.

It was one of the little boys in my group. I’ll call him Sam, because that’s not his name. Sam’s eyes were as wide as saucers, his skin pale. “I don’t like butterflies,” he whispered.

My chaperone training (which consisted of being handed a clipboard) had not prepared me for such a situation. All I could think to do was whisper back, “We’ll get through this. I promise.”

Right away I could see that Sam didn’t believe me, but the butterfly expert had already opened the inner door and the class filed into the steamy atrium. Sam, shaking slightly, fell in line.

He settled into a slow pace, his eyes darting wildly as delicate wings rushed around him. I found myself worrying that as he paced he would inadvertently squish a butterfly and disrupt the space-time continuum.

While I was busy worrying, an argument broke out between the two girls over who would hold the clipboard. Of course I told them I would hold onto it, but it was too late. It turns out second-grade girls do not forgive easily.

Scary. Apparently.

Scary. Apparently.

As I attempted to play referee between them, the second little boy (who evidently had trouble hearing his name above the rush of hundreds of fluttering wings) began to wander aimlessly through the atrium. Determined that the space-time continuum would not be altered on my watch, I did the only thing I could. I carefully ushered the remaining four kids in the direction of the wayward boy.

And that’s when my son fell apart. Because the only thing he wanted to do was stand completely still in one place in hopes that a butterfly would choose to land on him, which, sadly, it never did.

And so I juggled, and chaperoned to the best of my ability for what felt like three hours (though it was really probably about 25 minutes) before we finally escaped the atrium and headed to a classroom where the butterfly experts mercifully took over.

I’m delighted to report that I walked out of the atrium with all five of my assigned students, and that even though one of them may be scarred for life by the experience, to the best of my knowledge no butterflies were squished on my watch.

I learned a couple of important things from the experience. First is that second-grade teachers are terribly under-appreciated. And second is that Poincaré, Lorenz, and Bradbury may have been onto something because when a butterfly flaps its wings, whether the space-time continuum is drastically altered or not, one thing is for certain: second grade classes descend into chaos.

In these wings lies the fate of the world.

In these wings lies the fate of the world. And the field trip.

It’s National Tell a Fairy Tale Day

Once upon a time a young girl named Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville prepared for her wedding. If the narrator of a fairy tale would ever care to tell you such a thing (which she most certainly would not), the year was around 1666.

Pierre-François Basan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A heroine fit for a fairy tale. Pierre-François Basan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Marie-Catherine was a high-spirited girl of sixteen, from a good family who had arranged for her a splendid match. She would live in Paris and her husband was to be Francois de la Motte, Baron d’Aulnoy, a man thirty years older than she who was said to be a freethinker, a fine gambler, and a quick-tempered dirtbag.

I doubt the reader will be much surprised to learn that the new Baroness d’Aulnoy didn’t like her husband very much. But she was a spunky heroine and soon hatched a plot with her mother and two men, one of whom the baroness seemed to like quite a lot.

The foursome schemed and soon the baron found himself accused of treason and the baroness was nearly free of him. Still he proved a wily foe, and found a way to clear his name, resulting in the execution of the two men. The baroness and her mother escaped the country with their lives and spent the next twenty years traveling abroad where Marie-Catherine’s true life’s passion began to take shape.

When at last she returned to Paris she sat down to write of her adventures. She wrote novels, all well received. She wrote memoirs, in which she made up most of the best parts. And she wrote two collections of what she termed “contes de fees,” or fairy tales.

I have to assume there was a witch involved in the plot to get rid of the baron, and a terrible deal struck. There may also have been an apple. I haven't worked out all of the details yet.   photo credit: IMG_1422 via photopin (license)

I have to assume there was a witch involved in the plot to get rid of the baron, and a terrible deal struck. There may also have been an apple. I haven’t worked out all of the details yet. photo credit: IMG_1422 via photopin (license)

This genre, of course, had existed long before her time, perhaps as long as stories had existed at all. Long enough for whole fields of folklorists to rise up and earn PhD’s by writing volumes on the underlying gender role ideology of each tale and for woefully underqualified history bloggers to dabble poorly in it.

But Baroness d’Aulnoy was certainly the first to use the term “fairy tales.” As a successful author and popular hostess for the most interesting residents of Paris, it seems likely the baroness lived happily ever after. Only later did critics get hold of her memoirs and cry foul at her lies exaggerations. As a result, her work was cast aside for many years, leaving the underlying gender role ideologies of fairy tales to be explored by the brothers Grimm.

But now she’s back. Her work, and her history (the best parts of which are likely made up) are emerging in the volumes produced by folklorists in pursuit of their PhD’s and I think Baroness d’Aulnoy is once again headed for her happily ever after.

What story will you tell?   photo credit: Once upon a time ... via photopin (license)

What story will you tell? photo credit: Once upon a time … via photopin (license)

I wish you a very happy National Tell a Fairy Tale Day. It seems fitting that on this day I get to announce the reader who will receive a copy of Cary Elwes’s book As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, signed by the author, because The Princess Bride is my favorite modern fairy tale. I know I’m not alone in that because so many of you shared stories about how much the film has meant to you, too. Thank you for entering and for sharing the post. I wish I had a book for all of you.

The lucky winner is Sarah from Georgia, who knows that true love is the greatest thing in the world, except for a nice MLT- mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe, and maybe also a free book.

As You Wish: A Book Giveaway of True Love and High Adventure

This little history blog tends to skip around a lot through time. From week to week, I am as likely to share a story from the middle of the 20th century as I am to relate a tale of ancient man. And still, you the readers are kind enough to follow me down the rabbit hole. So this week, I am hoping you’ll allow me to push the already very wide historical boundaries I have informally set for myself. I’m going to hop into the way back and arrive many many years ago, at the height of 1980s America.

Specifically, I’m turning my attention to October 9, 1987. I had recently turned ten and the greatest movie I would ever see was released into theaters. But I didn’t see it. In fact, like most people, I didn’t see it for another year or two, when my older brother brought it home from the video store one day.

Even though The Princess Bride has since been included in the list of 100 Greatest Love Stories by the American Film Institute, the list of 100 Funniest Movies by Bravo, and the list of top 100 screenplays ever produced by The Writers Guild of America, it initially fell kind of flat.

Even after 27 years, we're all suckers for a good story well told.

Even after 27 years, we’re all suckers for a good story well told.

Because as a “classic tale of true love and high adventure” the film is difficult to categorize, it also proved difficult to market. And so, until people began to watch it in their homes on so-and-so’s recommendation, the film that would eventually appeal to almost everyone, was seen by almost no one. Leading man Cary Elwes recently commented that for years it was “mostly dead.”

He’s making reference, of course, to that wonderful scene in which Miracle Max, determines that Westley is only mostly dead, which is important, because “with all dead, there’s usually only one thing you can do…go through his clothes and look for loose change.”

On the off chance that you’ve not seen the film (and if you haven’t, you really should), I’ll quickly set the scene. In the course of mounting a rescue, the hero Westley has been murdered by the prince who wishes to wed Westley’s true love. The body is recovered by two of his enemies-turned-friends who are seeking his help in exacting revenge against one of the prince’s evil agents for another past murder.

Elwes has referred to this project as a love letter to the fans of the movie. And it really does have a lot of heart.

Elwes has referred to this project as a love letter to the fans of the movie. And it really does have a lot of heart.

The two men take Westley’s body to Miracle Max, played brilliantly by Billy Crystal, made up to look approximately 900 years old, and in one of the funniest movie scenes ever, Max, with the assistance of his wife Valerie (played equally brilliantly by Carol Kane), decides to make a miracle pill, coated in chocolate, to revive Westley. The hero unsurprisingly turns out to be a quick healer and has little trouble then defeating the prince and saving the girl.

I’ve written about this film once before, in a more historical context. A couple years ago much of the cast reunited at the New York Film Festival to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the release. It’s my all-time favorite movie, filled with quirky characters, witty dialogue, thrilling adventure, and just plain fun. So the 25th anniversary brought back to mind the experience of falling in love with it. Of course I couldn’t attend the celebration screening and Q & A, but I felt I had to write about it to express my love in a practical history sort of way.

Elwes, a natural storyteller complete with spot-on impressions, gets comfortable with the large crowd of enthusiastic fans.

Elwes, a natural storyteller complete with spot-on impressions, gets comfortable with the large crowd of enthusiastic fans.

It turns out my reaction was similar to that of Cary Elwes (Westley). After the Film Festival and flood of memories, he decided to write a memoir about the making of the film that was both his first big Hollywood break and the one that will in some ways forever define his career. The result was As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride.

If you’re a fan of the movie (and there’s a pretty good chance you are), you’ll find the book delightful. It will have you watching the film again, searching for hints of the behind-the-scenes stories. You’ll learn that Westley’s hurried skipping along the ravine floor leading into the fire swamp is the least awkward way Elwes could run after breaking the snot out of his toe not long before the take.

You’ll discover what gave Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, and Andre the Giant such a terrible case of giggles on top of the castle wall. And you’ll find remembrances from many members of the talented cast and crew that brought to life the story and characters we have all come to love.

Why yes, that is ticket number 1. It's nice to know people who understand and accept your crazy. ast people who know people.

Why yes, that is ticket number 1. It’s nice to know people who understand and accept your crazy.

Now, two years ago it was inconceivable that I would go to New York to celebrate the film’s anniversary, but a month or so ago, my friend Michelle let me know that a friend of hers is an events coordinator for Anderson’s Bookshop, a large independent bookstore in Naperville, IL (southwest of Chicago), and that she had just booked Cary Elwes for a signing on Valentine’s Day. I told her I was in.

With traffic, Naperville is probably a little over a five-hour drive from where I live near St. Louis. I met Michelle on the way for a crazy-fun, if slightly ridiculous road trip and I met the man in black himself, who, I have to say, seems a decent fellow.

Of course the book has been out since October, long before the planned road trip and so I already owned a copy. But with such a large name coming in, the bookstore had to make this a ticketed event, and, as is customary, the ticket was the price of a reserved book. That means I now have an extra copy of As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, signed by the author.

You can't tell this from the picture, but 12-year-old me just fainted.

You can’t tell this from the picture, but 12-year-old me just fainted.

So here’s what I’d like to do. I’d like to give it away to one of you. If you are a fan of the movie and think you would enjoy the book, simply like my author page on Facebook or follow me on Twitter (which you can do from the sidebar of this page) and share this post. If you’ve already connected with me on one of those platforms and would like a chance to win, just share and drop me a comment to let me know you want in. Make sure you enter by noon (12:00 pm, US Central Time) on Wednesday, February 25.

I’ll announce the randomly selected winner on my regular Thursday blog post, which I promise will contain much (or slightly) more practical history, from way back in the years before 1987.

 

Sparkly, Gluten-free Love, and other Reasons we may not get Valentine’s Day Quite Right

I don’t care much for Valentine’s Day. And it’s not just because I spent two days crafting sparkly paper sharks with working clothespin jaws to hold packages of Goldfish crackers for my children to give to their classmates, only to receive a note home the day before the party reminding parents that treats must be peanut and gluten free and all treat labels must be submitted to the school two weeks in advance.

20150211_183811

Stupid shiny sharks.

I don’t actually have a problem with expressing love with a sweet note or a gift. I think remembering to do that from time to time can be really important in a relationship.

And I know Americans will do our fair share of celebrating. In fact, according to a recent National Retail Federation poll, we plan to spend an average of $133.91 on candy (peanut and gluten free, approved two weeks in advance), cards, and gifts, which translates to about $13.7 billion as a nation. A poll by the American Express Spending and Saving Tracker predicts the total will be closer to $37 billion and that half of American engagements for the entire year will occur on Valentine’s Day.

The whole thing stems from the legend of St. Valentine, a 3rd Century priest who was beheaded by command of Roman Emperor Claudius II. Known as Claudius the Cruel, the emperor had strong military aspirations, but was alarmed to find that his soldiers didn’t always share his enthusiasm. He decided the reason must be that their hearts, and their attentions, were at home with their families. The solution was simple. He banned marriage.

Claudius II, the first man to throw an "I hate Valentine's Day" party. By =*File:5305 - Brescia - S. Giulia - Ritratto di Claudio II il Gotico - Foto Giovanni Dall'Orto, 25 Giu 2011.jpg: Giovanni Dall'Orto.  derivative work: Cristiano64 [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

Claudius II, the first man to throw an “I hate Valentine’s Day” party. By Brescia – S. Giulia – Ritratto di Claudio II il Gotico – Foto Giovanni Dall’Orto, 25 Giu 2011.jpg: Giovanni Dall’Orto. derivative work: Cristiano64 [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

As you can imagine, this didn’t sit well with the young lovers of Rome, many of whom appealed to St. Valentine to marry them in secret. A sucker for romance, Valentine did marry them. Lots of them. Until Claudius found out and had the priest beheaded on February 14, 270-ish.

Okay, I admit, that’s kind of a cool story of standing up for love in the face of a blood-thirsty emperor. It’s the kind of heroic thing that ought to be commemorated. Of course, if the legend is true, and since there were at least three different saints named Valentine, and it’s not entirely clear which the story is attributed to, let’s just say it’s suspicious, then there’s still the reality that February 14th is the day in which the champion of love was beheaded.

I suppose that by celebrating love on a dark day, we honor the man who died for his belief in it. But when I think about what the legend really suggests, that love and the commitment of marriage and family is worthwhile, I’m not sure we’re celebrating it right.

 photo credit: Pink and orange roses via photopin (license)

I honestly don’t think I can listen to another commercial about how even if I say I don’t want roses for Valentine’s Day, I really do want roses for Valentine’s Day, without wanting to hit someone over the head with that free glass vase.
photo credit: Pink and orange roses via photopin (license)

If we are to believe commercials, sitcoms, and Lifetime movies (and why wouldn’t we?), then Valentine’s Day is an incredibly stressful holiday. If you have a special someone in your life, then we are led to believe that your actions, or inactions, on February 14th will make or break your relationship. If you happen not to have a special someone to send you overpriced roses, then you are required to spend the day horribly depressed. Even my seven-year-old is stressed about the day, concerned that if he gives his Valentine sharks to the little girls in his 2nd grade class, “it might give them false hope.”

I just don’t think all the crazy to-do is what the St. Valentine legend is all about. Instead, I think it’s about recognizing the kind of love that demands commitment and hard work, that requires two people to grow and change together, to consider one another always, and to demonstrate appreciation for one another without prodding from a greeting card commercial.

We are going to be eating these things for a very, very long time.

We are going to be eating these things for a very, very long time.

Now I’m not going to throw an “I Hate Valentine’s Day” party and I certainly don’t fault you if you’re among those who will be spending $133.91 (plus a little more to make up for my considerably smaller contribution). I did spend two days constructing sparkly shark Valentines and I will probably find some small way to acknowledge the day because I own a heart-shaped pan and Valentine’s Day really is the one time each year when I get to use it.

Perhaps I’ll bake a peanut- and gluten-free cake and then my family will know that I love them. Or maybe it will be a heart-shaped, gluten-filled extra gooey chewy brownie with peanut butter frosting.