It’s Thursday, which means this is the day each week when I would normally write a bunch of nonsense to send out into the blogosphere. I’m not doing that today for two reasons:
1. It’s the third Thursday of November, and I am not yet finished writing my 50,000 truly terrible words for National Novel Writing Month.
2. My kids are home for a snow day today, on this crisp fall day in Missouri in November. If you’re not from my corner of the world that may not seem like a big deal to you, but it’s kind of a big deal. We get snow. We even get snow in November sometimes, but not the kind that blankets the entire yard and makes me have to find everyone insulated pants that fit so they can sled and build snowmen. And beg for hot chocolate.
So you see, I’d blog, but instead I need to dig through the snow clothes in the basement, throw snowballs at my kids, make cocoa, and write at least 3,000 words of an awful draft. You understand, right?
In the meantime, please enjoy this piece I wrote recently for the online literary magazine, Women Writers, Women’s Books. It’s about writing, rather than history, but it does contain an amusing story about my grandmother’s terrible cooking.
In 1930, radio station WGN in Chicago approached new employee and former speech teacher Irma Philips to create a show targeted at women and the sponsors who wished to reach them. Debuting on October 20 of that year, Painted Dreams aired every weekday in a fifteen-minute time slot to tell (in highly dramatic fashion) the story of the Irish-American Moynihan family, consisting of a widow and her unmarried daughters.
The new genre took off and the sponsorships rolled in from companies producing products of particular interest to the primary demographic—housewives. The American press dubbed the shows “Soap Operas.” By the start of World War II, there were sixty-four such programs available on American radio.
In the early fifties, after a few failed attempts to adapt the form to television, the Soap Opera became king there as well, and by 1960 the radio soap opera was a thing of the past. In more recent decades the once wildly popular genre has taken a hit as more and more American women work outside the home, but there are still a few of these silly shows going strong.
And they do seem a little silly. With open plots that go on and on, some of them seemingly indefinitely, and the long, drawn-out dialogue that can make a single scene last often more than a week, the remaining viewership is made up of a loyal bunch of extremely patient people. And let’s not forget about the crazy plots that occasionally feature amnesia, evil doppelgangers, babies switched at birth, mind control, faked deaths, faked pregnancies, faked births, and real alien abductions. To name a few.
The acting leaves something to be desired as well, because in the process of filming a daily television show, probably quite talented actors are given very little time to memorize lines, let alone rehearse a scene in which a previously demon-possessed woman transforms into a leopard, but turns out to be fine because the leopard woman is actually just a twin sister no one knew about who’d been brainwashed to think she was someone else. It’s no wonder the genre has also produced so many comedy spoofs.
So why, despite falling ratings, do many viewers still tune in to watch? I started watching my soap of choice, Days of Our Lives, when I was in junior high, mostly because it came on pretty much as soon as I walked in the door from school. I kept watching in part because I couldn’t believe my mother let me, and also because she started watching it, too. Turns out she had been in recovery for several years since becoming a working mom without much spare time on her hands, but she’d been addicted to the same “soap” in its early days.
It wasn’t long before we’d pulled my sister in, too. For years we all watched and laughed together at the ridiculous plot twists, reminiscing about how far the characters, or their evil twin counterparts, had come, and appreciating that no matter how twisted up our lives might seem, it was nothing compared to the dysfunction playing out in what my mother referred to as “the story.”
I finally stopped watching sometime in my early twenties when life got busier. By then my sister had also given up on it. As far as I know, my mom still catches an episode now and then.
My memories of the show are fond ones and when I saw that today marks the anniversary of its first airing, 53 years ago, my heart swelled a little. There aren’t as many soap operas available to watch anymore, but I’m glad to know this one is still plugging away.
When I occasionally glimpse an episode in the background at a store display (or my mom’s house), there are now a lot of faces I don’t recognize, which I assume means the characters I know have all had face transplants. Or it could mean that even a slowly moving plot eventually moves forward. After all, “like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.”
In 1508 Pope Julius II decided the Sistine Chapel with its blue, star-spangled ceiling was in need of a little interior punching up, and he knew just the artist for the job. Already the thirty-three-year-old sculptor Michelangelo was hard at work on the Pope’s marble tomb and it was only grudgingly that he accepted the new commission.
Not known for painting, the artist had made a name for himself producing marble masterpieces like Pietà and David, carefully detailing human anatomy and capturing subtle expressions of emotion like no one else. He hadn’t really had a great deal of experience with painting, and none with frescoes.
There are some theories about why the pope may have approached this unlikely choice to spruce up the chapel ceiling. Perhaps Pope Julius, not especially happy with his tomb-in-progress anyway, decided it might be tempting fate for his tomb to be built while he was still alive and so wished to redirect the artist’s efforts. It’s possible, too, that some of Michelangelo’s biggest rivals on the art scene encouraged the choice, suspecting the sculptor would fail spectacularly when forced to work in such a different medium.
Obviously that notion backfired. Though he claimed to have despised every moment of it, Michelangelo bent and stretched and painted his heart out above his head. Over the years he worked on the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo sealed his reputation as one of the greatest painters in history, and got quite a bit of paint on his face.
I share this story today, on November 1, because this is the day when a lot of artists throughout the world are stepping out to create something new. Today is the kickoff for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), that time of year when otherwise sane people from all walks of life, sit down at their computers (or typewriters, or notebooks) and attempt to scribble out a minimum of 50,000 words that will hopefully become the rough draft of a novel.
Some of these folks, like me, have written novels before, and though 50,000 words in a month can be a pretty tall order, they may not find the experience too overwhelming. However many other NaNo writers aren’t quite sure what they’ve gotten themselves into. They have regular day jobs and responsibilities that have nothing to do with writing, and the experience can seem pretty uncomfortable and messy.
But they have these great ideas that’ve been tickling the backs of their minds for years just looking for an opportunity to jump onto a page and into the world.
These are the writers I think are the most exciting part of NaNoWriMo, and the reason that year after year, more and more people join in the agony fun. Not everyone will finish. Even some of the more seasoned writers won’t make it to the end of 50,000 poorly written words. Those that do will find the hard work has only just begun.
But that’s okay. Even Michelangelo took a break in 1510 from painting the chapel ceiling. When he returned to the work, it was with a new eye and a somewhat altered style, and that is when he produced many of the most iconic scenes, including The Creation of Adam.
He was still in agony and struggled with the work, writing in a poem to a friend (because Michelangelo was also not a poet, who wrote quite a bit of poetry), “My painting is dead. . .I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.”
In this next thirty days, I suspect a lot of NaNo writers, experienced or not, will utter similar words. They may hit walls when they feel overwhelmed and exhausted by a creative effort that pushes them outside their usual spheres.
When they do, and when I do, I hope we remember that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was painted by a man who claimed he was not a painter and who suffered a lot of cricks in his neck and had a lot of paint on his face. But this amazing work is imbued with the exquisite textural depth perhaps only a sculptor could have produced and that millions of people have literally looked up to.
I hope we remember that no one would ever tell our stories the way we will tell them. Whether you’ve written twenty-seven novels or work as a full-time accountant but have one really great idea for a book, know that even when you think your writing is dead, you’re not in the right place, and you have paint dribbling onto your face, your words might offer a perspective and textural depth the world has never yet seen.
The sock was originally discovered in 1913 or 14 by Englishman John de Monins Johnson during an excavation in the ancient city of Antinopolis on the east bank of the Nile. Described in the article as a papyrologist, Johnson was most likely hoping to find examples of ancient writing that he could spend years poring over. He wasn’t looking for a sock.
But if Johnson was a parent, I can imagine he wasn’t terribly surprised by the discovery. There’s no way I could count the number of times I’ve been looking for that thing I just had* and found instead a kid’s carelessly discarded sock(s).
I have great kids. I really do. My boys are now eleven and thirteen and they both work hard at school, and are kind and generous and respectful. At this point in their young lives they can claim quite a few life skills, too. They are capable of doing laundry, preparing a few recipes, or mowing the lawn.
But they are both guilty of constantly kicking off their socks and leaving them for their exasperated mother to find. Their stinky socks are crammed in between the couch cushions, left under the kitchen table, wedged under mattresses, and crumpled on the floorboard of the car. Occasionally I even find them in the back yard. It’s enough to drive any mama completely mad.
Please don’t tell me if I’m wrong, but I suspect this source of aggravation is universal. The Egyptian mama whose little kiddo lost her stripy toe sock (that was probably worn with sandals, which presumably also got lost), was surely exasperated that for the three hundred and eighty-third time that day, little Ahhotep had kicked off her booty.
Of course, no parent wants to leave a trail of socks wherever they go, but when kids are little, it’s also kind of cute to see them wiggle and struggle until those adorable chubby toes are exposed for all the world to enjoy. When they’re tween/teenagers, it’s less cute.
So when I read what should really be a fascinating article about researchers using a noninvasive scanning technique to learn about the types of dyes used in the manufacturing of Ancient Egyptian clothing, all I could think about was that stupid lone sock, stuffed into the couch cushions at the British Museum for the last hundred years.
It’s possible I lost the point. I’m pretty sure I just had it and then set it down somewhere. I’ll have another look at the article and see if I can pick it up again. But I’ll probably just find that same cast-aside sock.
*This could be (but is certainly not limited to): keys, book, purse, pen, phone, remote control, scissors, shoe, grocery list, my marbles
Included in the January 15, 1895 edition of theSt. Louis Post-Dispatch is an article mentioning the increase in numbers ice skaters frequenting the frozen ponds of St. Louis’s Bellefontaine Cemetery. At night.
This time of year, thanks to television commercials and overly enthusiastic neighbors who insist on placing plastic headstones in their lawns to add a little holiday ambiance, we all become a little haunted by the shadow of death. Or at least I do.
I don’t much fear death, and I might even associate it with ice skating, but I’m still not sure I’d be willing to engage in such a lighthearted activity in a cemetery. And definitely not at night.
Of course, the skaters of 1895 showed up after dark because at the time ice skating was specifically not allowed in the cemetery. By 1909, Bellefontaine had placed additional restrictions on dogs, fishing, and bicycles. Because apparently a lot of people wanted to hang out there.
I suppose it makes a little bit of sense. The cemetery opened in May of 1850, only about twenty years after the first “rural cemetery” in the nation was established outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Prior to the development of cemeteries outside of major cities, Americans buried their loved ones primarily in church graveyards that had become dangerously overcrowded and unsanitary as city populations boomed.
Like most of these large rural cemeteries, Bellefontaine was designed as a park, with great attention to beautiful architecture, winding paths, and gorgeous landscaping. It was designed to be a place where mourners could reflect on the lives and deaths of loved ones in peace and quiet. It was also a place one could have a nice picturesque afternoon picnic.
Because at the time there weren’t public parks like we have now, nor were there botanical gardens or art museums available to just any person who wanted to enjoy them. Cemeteries like Bellefontaine filled that need. And sometimes the ponds froze over and people went ice skating.
As city populations continued to grow and park systems grew with them, the role of the large rural cemetery became less public skating rink and more city of the dead. For a time, then, these really beautiful and well tended pieces of land gained a tinge of darkness and dread. They were the places where grieving people gathered for graveside services and solemn remembrances, which is probably why I can’t imagine ice skating in one.
And they’re still that. But recently, while letterboxing with friends, I found myself visiting Bellefontaine for the first time, and you know, it’s really a beautiful place that I could see hanging out in for a while. It was even voted the city’s 2018 second-best hidden gem by the readers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Today, no longer so much outside the city as well within it, Bellefontaine is a sprawling 314 acres with fourteen miles of curved roads and more than 87,000 internments, many of them people who once helped shape not only St. Louis, but much of nineteenth century America. Tours are offered regularly, and even include an annual beer barons tour (because St. Louis has had a few of those) complete with plenty local beer samples.
If you’re not too frightened by the tales of ghost sightings and the general creepiness of 87,000 dead people in one place, the ornate mausoleums and memorial statuary are worth a gander, and the stories are fascinating. Today you can feel free to bring your bicycle and your dog, but if you want to fish or ice skate, St Louis might have better options.
Sometime toward the end of 1873, Newfoundlander Moses Harvey found the bargain of a lifetime. For just ten dollars the amateur naturalist and writer purchased the carcass of a giant squid. Harvey bought his prize from a fisherman who’d caught the creature by accident and I suspect was somewhat relieved to be rid of it. Harvey’s sea monster friend soon set up residence suspended above a tub in the living room where it became the first of its species to pose for a photograph.
People had been catching glimpses of the strange cephalopod since at least as early as the mid-twelfth century when the first partial descriptions appear in writing. For centuries, this creature served as a source of fear, as the great kraken of legend that pulled large ships to the bottom of the sea and possessed an insatiable hunger for human flesh.
It wasn’t until 1752 when Eric Pontoppidan, Bishop of Bergen wrote his First attempt at a Natural History of Norway (translated three years later into English) that anyone took a stab at a complete description. Even then, Pontoppidan didn’t get it quite right.
He claimed the one-and-a-half-mile wide kraken, with its spiky tentacles, was often mistaken for an island, and attracted its prey by regurgitating a great deal of partially digested fish to lure more into its giant, open mouth. Because of this behavior, Pontoppidan explains many fishermen thought the harvest above a kraken was rich enough to overcome a little fear of becoming a sea monster’s snack. He also reassured his readers the biggest risk ships faced when dealing with the kraken might not be getting pulled to the bottom of the ocean by its many serpentine tentacles, but rather getting sucked into the swirling vortex that followed in its wake.
Though now we know a little more of the sciency details of the somewhat elusive giant squid I think we can probably all admit that it’s a pretty darn creepy-looking animal. Also we’re pretty sure the species probably maxes out in size around forty-three feet long. Don’t get me wrong. That’s super big. But it’s not quite 1 ½ miles.
It does have sharp, spiky feeding tentacles, bringing its total number of appendages up to ten. With these, the squid guides prey, usually deep-water fish, to its sharp beak. To the best of our modern-day scientific knowledge, the giant squid has never been known to suck a ship into its swirling vortex of death and it doesn’t seem terribly interested in eating people.
There is some speculation that a particularly feisty squid could mistake a small ship for a sperm whale, one of its only known predators. Some squid enthusiasts (of which there are apparently a few) suggest this could result in an awesome sea battle that a small ship would almost certainly lose. Still, as long as you don’t set sail on a submarine with Captain Nemo I think you’ll be okay.
Since most of us will never even encounter a giant squid washed up dead on a beach, or have the opportunity to purchase one for ten dollars, we’ll just have to appreciate them from afar. And today is the day to do it. Established in 2007 by The Octopus News Magazine Online forum (I told you there were squid enthusiasts), October 11th is Kraken Awareness Day, or technically, “Myths and Legends Day,” just one day in the string of days beginning on October 8 that are set aside to for Cephalopod Awareness. Because obviously one day isn’t enough.
I don’t know about you. I’m not about to display a giant squid in my living room or anything. But I suppose it can’t hurt to be aware.
In 1939, a very dedicated librarian at the New York Society Library, while rifling through a pile of forgotten trash in the basement, discovered a leather-bound ledger from the years 1789-1792. The ledger came from an era when the library was the only one in New York City and it shared a building with the office of the POTUS, who evidently had borrowing rights.
Up until May 20, 2010, if you’d walked into the New York Society Library looking for a copy of The Law of Nations by Emmerich de Vattel (which if you did, I’d have to assume you are a well-read and interesting person), you wouldn’t have found it. Of course that happens sometimes. Libraries are wonderful places with enormous resources that we all share for the betterment of society, but sometimes things go missing. And, more commonly, the book you need is already checked out to someone else, which can be kind of irritating.
That’s especially true if it’s checked out and overdue, because that means some selfish person is standing in the way of your reading pleasure, or your research project, or your self-betterment. That self-absorbed, inconsiderate jerk couldn’t even finish with the book you need, though he’s had it for nearly a month, or in the case of The Law of Nations, for more than two hundred years. But, you know, if he’s George Washington, it’s probably cool.
According to the ledger, Washington checked out two books on October 5, 1789. The other was Volume 12 of the Common Debates, a collection of transcripts from the House of Commons, from which presumably the president hoped to learn the proper usage of the phrases, “Right Honorable Git” and “cheeky fellow.” Also I assume he was a well-read and interesting person.
I love libraries. I spend a lot of time in them. When I can manage it, I enjoy getting lost in a big, kind of creepy academic library, the type that smells a little bit like musty, old paper and includes dark, dusty corners where grad students pore over primary sources.
I also love the smaller, local libraries where readers from all walks of life come to browse the shelves, check their email, learn a new skill, or catch an author presentation. Over the past few weeks I’ve even had the pleasure of presenting at a couple such libraries, which has been a lot of fun. Of course if I’m in the library, I’m going to look at books. If I have borrowing privileges, I’m going to take a few with me.
And there’s a pretty good chance I will check out more than I can possibly read during the two week lending period. I do, however, promise that if when I go to renew, I discover that you have placed a request on one of the books in my stack I’ll immediately bring it back so you can have your turn. Well, unless I’m at the good part. Then I’ll probably take a day or two extra to finish it and just pay the fine. But I won’t wait two hundred years.
George Washington’s fine has been estimated to be around $300,000. The staff at Mt. Vernon couldn’t find the books, but did replace The Law of Nations with a copy purchased for $12,000 and the library graciously waved the rest of the fine. So the book is there now in the New York Society Library collection, where come to think of it, I’m pretty sure you still can’t check it out. At least now that’s no longer George Washington’s fault.