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.

Open Up! It’s Your Pizza!

In 1889, King Umberto and Queen Margherita of Italy, visited the waterfront city of Naples. Known for its large population of working poor, Naples also had in abundance a distinctive dish, one that was cheap to produce and could be eaten quickly. Though ancient Egyptians sometimes ate topped flatbread, it was the pizza of Naples that would become the most beloved food of slumber parties, late night study sessions, and diet cheat days.

I doubt Queen Margherita anticipated the dish’s eventual culinary domination, but she was intrigued by the colorfully topped flatbread the Neapolitans seemed to scarf down with such relish. Tired of posh dinners full of the kind of fancy French cuisine fit for royalty, she decided to see how the little folks live and give it a try.

 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Queen Margherita of Italy. I bet she’d look happier if someone brought her a pizza. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

She had her people do some asking around and soon summoned Raffaele Esposito, the proclaimed best pizza chef in Naples, to Capodimonte Palace so he could make her some pizza. Thirty minutes (or less) later, Esposito became the first pizza deliveryman as he set up shop in the palace kitchen and prepared three varieties of his best pizza for the queen to try.

Margherita didn’t care much for the one covered in garlic. Nor was she fond of the one sporting anchovies (because she evidently had taste buds), but she quite liked the one topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil. She liked it so much, Esposito renamed it margherita pizza and assured her majesty that anytime she was in Naples, she need only call and he would deliver one hot and ready to her door.

And of course she loved it, because sometimes after a long day of feigning delight in the company of wealthy Neapolitans, waving in the direction of the poor workers, and looking generally queenly, I bet it can seem pretty daunting to sit up straight, use the correct fork, and choke down an endless parade of haute cuisine dishes (roughly translated as small portions of fancy rich food you won’t find on pizza).

Sometimes, you just want to relax, grab a paper plate and a can of Coke, and answer the door to a nice hot cheesy pizza. We’ve all been there. And that’s presumably where one Oswego, Illinois resident was a little over a week ago on the evening of January 25. It had probably been a long day and it was pizza night.

Unfortunately, the delivery driver took a shortcut through a corner parking lot to avoid a red light and got pulled over by the police. When they discovered drug paraphernalia in the car, the police arrested the deliveryman and pizza night was headed for ruin.

Except that police officers are people, too, and they also have those nights when they just need dinner to come to their doors.

These men look like they've had a long day. I bet they could use a pizza.   photo credit: Ross & sutherland Constabulary patrol car 1968 via photopin (license)

These men look like they’ve had a long day. I bet they could use a pizza. photo credit: Ross & sutherland Constabulary patrol car 1968 via photopin (license)

When they realized the pizza had been paid for and that it had been bound for a home just a few blocks away, the officers went ahead and delivered the pie to a surprised, but grateful customer.

I love that story. And I love the story of Queen Margherita and the first ever pizza delivery. Of course the latter, like so many good tales from history, is unsubstantiated and according to Zachary Nowak, the assistant director of Food Studies at the Umbra Institute in Perugia, Italy, is quite probably false.

He has good reasons for his claims, though his evidence is by no means conclusive. I’m not going to worry about any of that. The start of the school day was delayed here because of icy roads and I’m terribly behind. It’s shaping up to be a long day. I’m thinking this evening I may grab a paper plate and a can of Coke, and open the door to a hot, cheesy pizza. I just wonder who’s going to deliver it.

A Sock Full of Mold Juice: How Poor Housekeeping Saves Lives

I have very clear, happy memories of many family vacations throughout my childhood, but there is one not so great memory that sticks out in my mind. It was the year my mother decided we needed to first deep-clean the house and then leave so it would stay that way.

I wasn’t a very neat kid. My room was always a disaster, with toys and books everywhere, and with who knows what growing on the slightly damp balled up socks in the corner of the closet. As the youngest during that pre-vacation cleaning spree, my job was to scrub window sills and to clean up my disaster of a bedroom. I’m not sure what year it was, or what trip we were headed out on, but I do know for certain that we came home to a clean space.

That wasn’t the case for Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming when he returned to his lab in September of 1928 after a two-week family vacation. He found the lab exactly as he’d left it, a jumbled mess of half-finished experiments and dirty glassware. It seems Fleming never consulted with my mother on the joys of returning home to a clean space.

Even in his postage stamp he is surrounded by precariously stacked petri dishes.

Even in his postage stamp he is surrounded by precariously stacked petri dishes.

After his vacation, Fleming found himself sorting through petri dishes filled with growing staphylococcus that had been left in a pile in the corner of the room while he was gone. When he got to one that was overwhelmed by growth of an unidentified mold, he might have simply said “Ew” and thrown it into the sink, or at least the corner of the closet.

But fortunately, he didn’t. Instead, Fleming said, “That’s funny.” As he looked at the dish more closely he noticed that where the mold thrived, the bacteria didn’t. He set to work identifying the funky growth as belonging to the penicillium family, and hypothesized that the “mould juice” it produced had an antibacterial effect.

In 1929, he changed the name of his antibacterial substance from “mould juice” to the sciencier sounding “penicillin” and published his findings in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology. The article went largely unnoticed for several years as Fleming attempted to further his research, only to discover that without some help from a chemist or two, he couldn’t be sure that mould juice was worth the effort.

Fleming's lab has been preserved at St. Mary's Hospital in London, presumably exactly as he left it. You don't even want to know what's growing in there after sixty years. Or maybe you do.

Fleming’s lab has been preserved at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, presumably exactly as he left it. You don’t even want to know what’s growing in there after sixty years. Or maybe you do. photo credit: nick.harrisonfli via photopin cc

Help arrived shortly after Fleming had officially given up. Pathologist Howard Florey and Biochemist Ernst Chain read Fleming’s long-overlooked article and began experimenting with Penicillin in mice, finding that it cured them of their mousy bacterial infections. All they needed was a way to mass produce Fleming’s mould juice. They headed to America, dropped that pesky “u” and found that Illinois produce was particularly good for growing mold (a point of pride, I’ve no doubt, for my state of origin).

All three men were awarded a Nobel Prize for the discovery of what remains one of the greatest leaps forward in modern medicine, leading to the discovery and production of many more antibiotics, stopping infections and saving countless lives, all because Alexander Fleming didn’t bother to clean his room.

I admit that I have not shared this story with my children. You see, much to my mother’s surprise, I grew up to be a somewhat tidy housekeeper. And my sons definitely complain when I assign them the task of cleaning their disastrous bedrooms (and sometimes the window sills, because I have an aversion to the task).

My son once told me, "Cleaning your room is like winning the sock lottery!"

My son once told me, “Cleaning your room is like winning the sock lottery!”

But when my oldest son, who has had a cold for over a week, woke up the other night, screaming with terrible ear pain, I was grateful for the slovenly habits of Dr. Fleming. The next day I took him to the doctor, who looked in his angry ears and prescribed him an antibiotic. He stayed home from school, taking it easy the rest of the day. As he started to feel better, I confess I considered making him clean his room. I didn’t, because you never know what might be growing on the slightly damp balled up socks in the corner of the closet.

The Truth about Philosophers: How to Get Your Mom to Give You a Cookie

John_Calvin_2

John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism, and maybe sometimes kind of a controlling jerk.

In the summer of 1536, a young philosopher and theologian named John Calvin, having recently gotten himself into trouble in his native Catholic France by writing about his unique brand of Protestantism, arrived at an inn in Geneva, Switzerland. While there he was approached by a local church leader who begged him to remain in Geneva to help him organize the new Protestant church there.

Suspecting that it may have been predetermined by God that he do so, Calvin agreed and spent much of the remainder of his life (after being thrown out of Geneva for a few years because he kind of acted like a controlling jerk) preaching and teaching, setting in place a theocratic system of pastors, doctors, elders, and deacons, each dedicated to over-seeing different aspects of running Calvin’s idea of a perfect society.

He was remarkably influential, his ideas in some respects giving rise to capitalism, individualism, and democracy. Still, today, we’d probably call him a controlling jerk, and so did many of his contemporaries. Loudly. Sometimes over the sound of his preaching, and for many years after.

The English philosopher Tomas Hobbes, writing in his controversial Leviathan nearly 100 years after Calvin’s death, was critical of the Presbyterian political design. Sometimes considered the father of modern political philosophy, Hobbes was pretty sure that not only had Calvin been a jerk, but that so were all the bishops ruling within the Church, and, well, basically everyone else, too.

Thomas Hobbes, father of modern political philosophy, and pretty sure you're kind of a jerk.     "Thomas Hobbes (portrait)" by John Michael Wright - National Portrait Gallery: NPG 225While Commons policy accepts the use of this media, one or more third parties have made copyright claims against Wikimedia Commons in relation to the work from which this is sourced or a purely mechanical reproduction thereof. This may be due to recognition of the "sweat of the brow" doctrine, allowing works to be eligible for protection through skill and labour, and not purely by originality as is the case in the United States (where this website is hosted). These claims may or may not be valid in all jurisdictions.As such, use of this image in the jurisdiction of the claimant or other countries may be regarded as copyright infringement. Please see Commons:When to use the PD-Art tag for more information.See User:Dcoetzee/NPG legal threat for more information.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.English | Español | Français | Magyar | Italiano | Македонски | Türkmençe | +/−. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_Hobbes_(portrait).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Thomas_Hobbes_(portrait).jpg

Thomas Hobbes, father of modern political philosophy, and pretty sure you’re kind of a jerk.

Hobbes promoted the idea that humans were little more than machines, designed to act only in the interest of the self and this informed his political views. His words were influential, often as a starting point for debates by more reasonable philosophers, who mostly thought Hobbes was kind of a pessimistic jerk.

But about three hundred years after his death, and more than four hundred years after the death of John Calvin, both men were honored in the personalities of two of the most beloved philosophers of modern times, when the world was introduced on November 18, 1985, to a six-year-old boy with spiky yellow hair and a stuffed tiger, who was the best friend a kid could have.

Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin & Hobbes, explained in his 1995 book celebrating the tenth anniversary of the comic strip, that he’d chosen the names from these two historical men. He doesn’t offer a great deal of explanation as to why, only that Hobbes the tiger seems to express a certain mistrust of human nature that shows up from time to time as his apparent pride in not being human himself. Calvin, Watterson claims, is based more or less on his adult self, as he grapples with big questions through the metaphor of tenacious, bratty childhood.

Though the strip ended in 1995 and Bill Watterson makes it a point to remain private and with very few exceptions, irritatingly aloof, the characters of Calvin and Hobbes have remained in the public consciousness, because between the laughs, the strips are really about friendship, imagination, and growing up. In the midst of funny childish games, Calvin and Hobbes speak to certain human truths.

My seven-year-old philosopher's last birthday cake, in which Calvin & Hobbes look a little bit like jerks.

My seven-year-old philosopher’s last birthday cake, on which Calvin & Hobbes look a little bit like jerks.

Right now, in my home, the largest truth they speak to is that a little boy with spiky yellow hair and a wild imagination really can provide profound wisdom disguised as disarming charm, sometimes without even knowing it.

My youngest son, a spiky-yellow-haired seven-year-old philosopher, is a huge fan of Calvin & Hobbes. He spends hours poring over the various collection books and I think he knows every strip by heart, turning over each one in his mind, sharpening his already impressive wit and gleaning some very useful advice. The day he marched into the kitchen and asked me for a chainsaw, and in lieu of that, a cookie, I knew I was in trouble.

He stood there with his clever grin, assured of his predetermined success. Tucked under his arm was his constant companion, a small stuffed rabbit named Bunny (because my son, though wickedly clever, can’t name many 17th-century philosophers). I suspected Bunny might be the real mastermind behind the great cookie plot; that she somehow played on my son’s greedy human nature and put him up to it. That would be just like her. As thoughtful and devoted as she is, sometimes she’s kind of a jerk.

I gave him the cookie.

My son's "Hobbes," a stuffed bunny he appropriately named "Bunny." Sure, she looks all innocent sitting on the couch waiting for him to come home from school, but make no mistake. The second he comes through that door, she'll pounce.

My son’s “Hobbes,” a stuffed bunny he appropriately named “Bunny.” Sure, she looks all innocent sitting on the couch waiting for him to come home from school, but don’t be fooled. The second he comes through that door, she’ll pounce. Because sometimes, she can be a real jerk.

This Ain’t My First Rodeo

On July 4, 1888, Juan Leivas showed off his mad cowboy skills to the people of Prescott, Arizona where the first organized rodeo took place. He performed well, despite the fact that, if the great historians of Prescott are to be believed, this was indeed his first rodeo. After the competition, Leivas rode off into the sunset with a silver shield for his efforts, to forever be known as the world’s first rodeo champion.

First or not, Prescott has embraced its identity as a rodeo town.   photo credit: tombothetominator via photopin cc

First or not, Prescott has embraced its identity as a rodeo town. photo credit: tombothetominator via photopin cc

But as documented and well-promoted as Prescott’s claim to have hosted the first rodeo may be, the good people of Pecos, Texas cry foul. They claim that only a few years after their town’s founding, as early as 1883, cowboys gathered during 4th of July celebrations to pit their mad cowboy skills against each other for cash prizes.

Pecos is so serious about its claim that when in 1985 the game Trivial Pursuit listed Prescott as the home of the world’s first rodeo, the city of Pecos threatened to sue, proving that what is most certainly true is that you should not mess with Texas.

The game stuck with Prescott (so if you ever get that question, you’ll know), but to add even more confusion, other rodeo historians (and there are quite a few as it turns out) insist that sixteen years before Prescott’s rodeo and a year before the founding of the town of Pecos, a group of cowboys from Texas arrive in Cheyenne, Wyoming on July 4, 1872 and put together a friendly competition to unwind and show off some of their mad cowboy skills. And that, of course, was the first rodeo.

Which would be all well and good, except that according to Field & Farm Journal of Denver, in 1869, Deer Trail, Colorado hosted an event in which cowboys gathered in an impressive display of mad cowboy skills, competing for a new set of clothes. An Englishman by the name of Emilnie Gardenshire (which is a terrible cowboy name) was said to have taken home the prize at what was surely his very first rodeo.

rodeo5

I’m guessing this guy has some mad cowboy skills.

 

Then there’s this letter, written in 1847 by Captain Mayne Reid from Santa Fe, New Mexico to a friend in Ireland, in which he describes the annual round-up of animals bound for market and calves bound for the branding iron, adding that the cowboys “contest with each other for the best roping and throwing, and there are horse races and whiskey and wine.” Sounds like a party to me, and, possibly, an account of the first rodeos.

I’ll leave the arguing to the brave men and women who work within the angry knot of controversy that is the field of rodeo history. I have the feeling those folks have been to the rodeo a time or two.

This is about the time I start worrying that someone is about to break his neck.

This is about the time I start worrying that someone is about to break his neck.

I have not. In fact, this past weekend, when a rodeo came to a town nearby and my husband bought tickets to take our boys (7 and 10) to their first rodeo, I went to a baby shower instead. I visited with friends I hadn’t seen in a while, ate delicious cake, and participated in the sentimental sharing of memories of pregnancies and babies. Not once did I have to smell cow poop, nor did I find myself worried that the shower guests might actually break their necks. I had a good time.

But so did the boys. They returned home that night full of tales of bucking broncos and heroic cowboys. My youngest (who rooted for the animals, even when the necessity of the skills were explained to him), told of feisty calves who made daring escapes from the cowboys attempting to bind their legs. Both boys described in detail the shenanigans of the rodeo clowns, whose silly bathroom humor seemed perfectly geared for the 7 to 10-year-old crowd.

You know this place has to smell like cow poop. I'd much rather go to a baby shower and eat cake.

You know this place has to smell like cow poop. I’d much rather go to a baby shower and eat cake.

They were so excited it was difficult to get them settled down for the night and I admit, I was a little sad that I didn’t get to experience it with them. No one may know for sure when the first rodeo took place, but this was theirs, and it was memorable. I suspect I will not get out of going the next time. I better brush up on my knowledge of mad cowboy skills.