Godspeed, Ben!

On April 30, 1904, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition opened to the world on the grounds of Forest Park in St. Louis. To walk through Forest Park today, nearly one hundred and nineteen years later, you almost wouldn’t know the fair had been there at all. The only structures that remain are the Art Museum building and a large, elliptical, walk-through birdcage that forms part of the St. Louis Zoo.

Pub. by Chas. M. Monroe Co. “Tichnor Quality Views,” Reg. U. S. Pat. Off. Made Only by Tichnor Bros., Inc., Boston, Mass., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The aviary wasn’t originally intended to be a permanent structure. It had been erected by the Smithsonian Institute to house the birds it would display as part of the fair. When the fair was over, the city of St. Louis, which had long wanted a zoo, purchased the structure and by 1913 had erected a seventy-seven-acre zoological garden around it.

In 1916 the school children of the city donated enough pennies to acquire the zoo’s first elephant, Miss Jim, and the same year, St. Louis voters approved a special tax to support their new zoo, which today remains one of very few community-supported zoos in the world, offering free admission to visitors.

In 1921 came bear pits; in 1924, a primate house; and in 1927, a reptile house. The 1960s brought an aquatic house, a children’s area and railroad, and a significant renovation to the original aviary. Over the years the zoo in Forest Park has been improved a great deal, has expanded to cover ninety acres, and welcomed around three million visitors per year. It currently houses about eight hundred different species, including 9,200 animals.

Too cute to be contained. (not Ben). Alberto Apollaro Teleuko, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But there’s about to be one less critter among them because on February 7, 2023, a four-year-old Andean bear named Ben escaped his enclosure. Fortunately, this happened in the morning before the zoo had opened to the public and Ben was tranquilized and secured without incident. Zoo staff added stainless steel cargo clips with 450 pounds of tensile strength to the steel mesh through which Ben had found his way to freedom. All was well.

Then about three weeks later Ben forced his way through the new cargo clips and escaped again. This time, the zoo was open. Visitors were ushered indoors while Ben was once again tranquilized and secured. With the exception of the cargo clips, no real harm was done.

Evidently, like so many St. Louis residents these days, with skyrocketing crime rates, a district attorney under fire who can’t even seem to keep the zoo animals behind bars, and yet more negative national media attention, Ben the Andean bear doesn’t want to be in the city. He’s moving to Texas.

And who can blame him, really? This delightful Houdini has been described by zoo staff as a fun and playful character. Soon he’ll get to trade his steel mesh in this currently struggling city for a moat at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, right next to the Mexican border where thankfully there is little crime, a well-functioning system in place for keeping everyone well-organized and contained, and almost no media attention whatsoever.

Godspeed, Ben!

A Little History and a Lot of Sun

In December of 1821 the schooner Lively, which was supposed to bring about twenty or so men to meet up with Stephen F. Austin at the mouth of the Colorado River, missed its target and landed instead at the mouth of the Brazos River in what today is known as Surfside Beach, Texas.

The Lively was part of Austin’s effort to settle his “Old 300” (actually 297) grantees on three hundred-seven land parcels approved by the newly-independent Mexican government for American settlers between the Colorado and Brazos Rivers in then sparsely populated Texas.

Also at the mouth of the Brazos as it flows into the Gulf of Mexico, was Fort Velasco, constructed in May of 1832 in order to help enforce customs and immigration laws as Mexico began to fear the annexation of Texas by the United States. It was about a month before the fort fell to Texas settlers in the Battle of Velasco, which marks the beginning of the Texas Revolution that led to Texas independence and yes, eventually US annexation of Texas.

Traces of the first Fort Velasco (because there have been at least a couple of others) have largely disappeared through the years and hurricanes, but there is an ongoing effort to build a replica on the location of the original in the village of Surfside Beach. It isn’t much yet, but I got to see it and the plans for it on a quick girls’ beach getaway last week and I can see why the settlers aboard the Lively might not have been too disappointed to land there even if it did mean they missed their meetup.

With my aunt, cousin, sister, and of course Sock Monkey Steve who got to be an honorary girl for the trip, I drove down to spend several days in a beach house within a quick walk of the mouth of the Brazos River and the Fort Velasco site. Surfside Beach is about forty miles southwest of Galveston and, much to my delight, not quite twenty miles southwest of the best named little Texas town I have ever come across.

Alas, Angleton, Texas was not named for me, an Angleton by marriage rather than by birth. According to the town’s historians, it was named in honor of the wife of the general manager of the Velasco Terminal Railroad, who rumor has it was an “Angle” and not an Angleton at all. Personally, I prefer the family legend that suggests the town was named for the fearsome band of Angleton horse thieves that hid out there. Which only goes to show that, unlike most things, tall tales are not necessarily bigger in Texas.

I admit, I spent more time on the trip soaking up the sun and taking pictures of Steve than I did learning the history of either the fort or the curiously named town, but I’m glad to have since read up on it. And it was really nice to get away for a little while, especially since while I was gone, a certain husband I know started on a project. Allegedly this had been planned for some time and had nothing to do with anything I may or may not have posted on the internet with his full knowledge and permission.  

But either way, Steve and I are glad to be home.

So There’s That

I have to assume that when Mary Chubb sent her husband Cecil off to an estate sale in September of 1915 in hopes of finding some nice dining room chairs, she probably expected him to come home with another treasure or two.

To the best of my knowledge, no one’s husband has never impulse bought Nebraska’s Carhenge, which is much less ancient. Image by Mike from Pixabay

I won’t name names, but I do personally know of at least one husband who has on occasion gone to the hardware store for a refrigerator water filter and come home with a new power tool just because it was on sale and it would be nice to have in case said husband ever gets around to building that fireplace mantel he promised his wife nearly ten years ago. Or, you know, in case one of the neighbors who also have garages full of tools should ever need to borrow it.

If you happen to know a husband like this, then I’m sure you know as well as Mary Chubb and I do, that special way to shrug and smile and gently remind him that he said he was going to build the fireplace mantel nearly ten years ago. You might also remind him that the wood for the project has been sitting in the garage for at least half that time and taking up so much space he’s probably going to have to keep that new power tool at a neighbor’s house.

Of course, in Mary’s case, her husband’s impulse purchase didn’t fit in their home even without the dining room chairs he neglected to buy. The sale he attended was for the large estate of Sir Edmund Antrobus, a distinguished citizen of Salisbury, England whose heir had been killed a year prior in the Great War, and who happened to be the owner of Stonehenge.

Sir Edmund followed his son in death four months later, both of their lives ended less than two years after disgruntled Druids allegedly placed a curse on the structure’s owner because he’d banned their annual solstice celebration.

1st Baronet Cecil Chubbs,
known locally as Viscount Stonehenge.https://commons.

When Sir Edmund’s brother placed the estate up for auction then it might not be all that surprising no one was in a terrible rush to buy the ancient monument, which had fallen into an alarming amount of disrepair. Auctioneer Howard Frank had a hard time even getting an opening bid of £5,000. He finally managed to land at £6,000. That translates to about a million US dollars today, which is pretty much a steal for anyone in the ancient monument market.

Chubb wasn’t in the market for an ancient monument, but he’d grown up in Salisbury, in close proximity to Stonehenge and just couldn’t pass up on the great deal. Two years after the possibly ill-advised purchase, Chubb donated the site to the British government, which began renovations and gave him a nice title to thank him for his generosity.

It’s unclear whether Mary Chubb ever got the dining room chairs she wanted. It’s also not entirely clear whether or not the wife of that one husband I know will ever get her fireplace mantel. She does, however, take comfort in the knowledge that not once in the last nearly ten years has her husband impulse bought a cursed ancient monument. So there’s that.

The World’s Tastiest Hero

In the fall of 1529 the city of Vienna, Austria in the Holy Roman Empire was under siege by the Ottoman Empire. To explain what exactly was happening there would require a lot of complicated details surrounding a geopolitical hot mess that, of course, involves the death of a king, a civil war, and nosy neighbors who weren’t big fans of the Hapsburgs and would have loved to see them take it on their rather unusual chins. If you’d like to puzzle all of that out, then you’ve probably come to the wrong blog, because I’d rather talk about pretzels.

Ferdinand I, Archduke of Austria. King of Bohemia, Hungary, and Croatia, and eventually Holy Roman Emperor with is mouth open, ready to receive a pretzel. Vassil, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The 1529 siege of Vienna was ultimately unsuccessful, a fact that didn’t sit well with the Ottoman Empire until the second siege of Vienna one hundred and fifty-four years later, which didn’t really turn out all that well for them, either. I don’t know whether pretzels had anything to do with the struggles of 1683. And I don’t really know whether pretzels had anything to do with the thwarting of the 1529 siege either, but according to the historical rumor mill, it may have been the soft, salty treats that saved the day for the citizens of Vienna.

Since at least the early seventh century, and possibly further back than that, the pretzel has been the preferred snack of Catholic monks. Allegedly they used the twisted treats that not only mimic the crossed arms of a child in prayer, but also conveniently contain three holes corresponding nicely with the three parts of the trinity, to reward students who excelled at learning their catechism. That might be true.

Pretzels are a simple snack, that in addition to lacking any significant nutritional value, also have the advantage of containing no eggs or dairy and therefore fit perfectly into a traditional, fast-heavy Catholic Lenten diet. They also make an inexpensive, relatively quickly made food to pass out to the poor of the Middle Ages while simultaneously offering a little spiritual counseling. That’s probably true.

So then, the rumor that a couple weeks into the siege, it was a bunch of pretzel-making Viennese monks in the pre-dawn hours who heard, from within their basement pretzel kitchen, the digging of a horde of Ottoman would-be sneak-attackers, seems like it could be true. The monks alerted the city, which was ready then to fight off the attackers, break the siege, and celebrate victory with a soft, salty, and heroic snack.

Looks pretty heroic to me. Image by Matthias Böckel from Pixabay

But if I’m honest, this sounds to me like the kind of story that probably isn’t true, though in my admittedly shallow internet research, I haven’t discovered the counterclaim. My teenage sons, who have studied more European history than I have, do assure me the story is somewhat dubious. Still, at least some historians seem to be willing to let this one slide.

I think that’s probably because people love pretzels. And boy do they. I haven’t been able to discover numbers of world popularity of the snack, but the average American eats two pounds of pretzels every year, and if you happen to live in Philadelphia, where most of the nation’s pretzels are made, your average is closer to twelve pounds.

I don’t happen to live in Philadelphia, but as an occasional booster club concession stand volunteer here in Missouri, I can attest that those big soft pretzels are the clear high school sports crowd favorite. And when my son’s robotics team recently sold pretzels from a long-time and beloved St. Louis pretzel business, it made for the easiest fundraising he’s ever tried to do. 

People love pretzels. There’s not much to them, but if you’re craving something either soft or crunchy that’s salty, is mostly devoid of nutritional value, pairs well with beer, can be dipped into just about anything, satisfies your Lenten munchies, reminds you to pray, and might just save your life from the invading Ottoman horde, then pretzels are for you. 

So, how do you like to enjoy them?

Five Thousand Balloons

Apparently, we have something of a balloon problem here in the United States, which is a sentence I never thought I’d write. Such a statement, however, would not have surprised founding father Benjamin Franklin who was suitably impressed on November 21, 1783 when he witnessed French brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier use a hot air balloon to send the first human being into the air.

I don’t know. There’s just
something about this balloon
that feels ominous. Darth_vader_hot_air_balloon.jpg: Tomas Castelazoderivative work: Jebulon, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It was only nine days later Franklin again observed a balloon rising into the air, only this time with the use of hydrogen, which he referred to as “inflammable air.” That turned out to be somewhat of a misnomer, but at the time it seemed like a really good idea.

It also occurred to Franklin that such balloons could have some remarkably useful military applications. Only a month or so later, he wrote to Dutch scientist Jan Ingenhousz that five thousand balloons manned by two men each would be an awfully cost-effective way to wage war and would be difficult for any nation to defend against.

Balloons haven’t been used to quite the great effect that Franklin predicted, but over the years they have been used, primarily as a way to gather intelligence. Surveillance balloons played a small role in the French Revolution.  And they played a larger role in the American Civil War when civilian Thaddeus Lowe earned the title of “most shot-at-man in the war” while relaying information about Confederate troop movements to the Union from aloft.

Balloons were involved in aspects of both World War I and World War II, and even drifted with cameras over the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, without much success, in the mid-1950s. So, I guess maybe it shouldn’t be so much of a surprise that China might send one drifting over the United States in 2023. At least Benjamin Franklin probably wouldn’t have thought so. 

I mean for all we know, we could be headed for a mass extinction event, like the giant balloon that took out the dinosaurs. Image by Greg McMahan from Pixabay

In the past few weeks, the US has now shot down four balloons, possibly only of one of which was allowed to complete its entire mission first. That’s the only one that as of this posting the public has much information about, though I heard the president may be set to address the nation about it today. I’m sure that will clear things right up.

As much as our media and social media governmental complaints have been preoccupied by this slow, floaty invasion or whatever it is, I can kind of see Franklin’s point. Five thousand balloons would be an awful lot to deal with. If nothing else, the balloons have attacked and directed the attention of the American people.

I’ve even heard it postulated that the three balloons that followed the first might be extraterrestrial in origin. And frankly, it’s about time someone put that possibility out there, because if it’s any indication of what is to come, I have it on good authority that five thousand balloons, each manned by two aliens, would be a pretty cost-effective way to wage war and would be difficult to defend against.

Really Uncomfortable Shoes

A couple of weeks ago I got a text in the middle of the day from my oldest son, currently a senior in high school. This occurred during his lunch break and it isn’t particularly unusual for me to get a text from either of my children, typically regarding after school plans, or asking me to refill a lunch account, or wash a uniform, or whatever. On the days I stay home to write, I am happy to do these things. But this particular text was a little unusual because it said “Blog topic: Cinderella’s fur slippers.”

Admittedly this might look a little strange with a ballgown, but it would be more comfortable than glass. Image by Hans from Pixabay

It was a special moment for me for a couple of reasons. 1. My teenage son, who doesn’t particularly pay attention to my blog or anything about me really because he’s a teenager and I am his mom and I suppose that is developmentally appropriate, discovered something quirky and weird and thought of me. 2. He thought of me not only because I post about quirky and weird things (as a blogger buddy recently suggested), but also because he remembered how much I absolutely love the story of Cinderella.

Actually, it’s not so much that I love the story itself, which has been around in some form since Ancient Egypt. It’s also been expressed in almost more cultures than folklorists dare count. But I do love the cartoon Disney movie version.

I am by no means the kind of Disney-obsessed woman one would expect to have a favorite princess, but I do in fact have a favorite, and it’s Cinderella. The reason for this is simple. Originally released in 1950, quite a few years before I was born, the film was re-released to movie theaters in 1987, when I saw it on a special day out with my dad.

My parents were always good about that when I was young, setting aside times when each of their four children could occasionally be the center of attention. Times like that with my dad make for precious memories, and this one includes funny singing mice, a magical pumpkin carriage, and glass slippers.

When my family and I went to Disneyland many years ago, I stood in exactly one character line. My husband and then very young sons were remarkably patient.

But not fur slippers. My curiosity was piqued. I asked my son some follow-up questions. His time was limited and I didn’t get much back from him, so I did a little digging on my own. What I discovered was that in 1841, French writer Honoré de Balzac, whose funny name scandalized the ladies of River City in The Music Man 116 years later, suggested there’d been a silly mistake made when the French version of the story was originally published in 1697.

Charles Perrault had taken the story from oral tradition and his version went on to become the primary influence of the Disney movie that is so well known. When he wrote it, however, according to Balzac, Perrault mistook an old French word vair which refers to squirrel fur and wrote it as the word verre, which means glass. Cinderella, then, might not have ended up with quite as many blisters from her dance shoes.

Balzac’s suggestion became a favorite tidbit of folklore gossip because most of us would rather dance in fuzzy slippers than in glass heels. It makes a lot more sense, and it is just the kind of quirky and weird historical mix-up I like to blog about.

Less comfortable than a fuzzy slipper, but much prettier. Image by Sarah Penney from Pixabay

But it turns out Balzac not only had a funny name, but he was also probably wrong about Cinderella and her famous footwear. Over the many centuries the story has existed, Cinderella, who has had lots of different names, has also had lots of different kinds of shoes. Some are silk and jeweled, some are intricately embroidered, or made of gold or silver, but none seem to ever be made of fur.

And while not every version of the story contains a great deal of magic, Perrault’s does. I tend to think that an author who chooses to include a fairy godmother, pumpkin coach, and mice that turn into horses probably wouldn’t hesitate to place his heroine in uncomfortable shoes just to make the story a little more magical.

Magic really is the reason I love it so much in the first place. I love the singing bubbles and the sewing mice and the fairy godmother. I love the memory of a magical day spent with my dad. And if I can believe that a teenage boy would take time out of his busy day to text his mom about the cool little historical Cinderella rumor he just heard, then I can believe my favorite princess wore really uncomfortable shoes.

Prognosticator of Prognosticators

On February 2, 1887, exactly one year after Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper editor Clymer Freas suggested the idea of an official Groundhog Day, a group of well-dressed and maybe just a little bit silly local businessmen who referred to themselves as the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club began a tradition that has to go down as one of the most ridiculous annual ceremonies I actually pay attention to.

I refer of course to that preferably not so bright Candlemas morning when the world’s most famous rodent named Phil appears before an adoring public to make an official statement regarding the amount of winter weather that remains to be endured.

The groundhog, aka woodchuck is an animal that is at least as good at long-range weather forecasting as it is at chucking wood, which it would probably do a lot of if it could. Image by Mona El Falaky from Pixabay

Officially known as Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinaire, Phil is allegedly the oldest groundhog on record at the whopping age of 136. That’s approximately 130 years longer than the expected lifespan of a groundhog.

Phil’s “Inner Circle,” which includes the world’s only human speaker of Groundhogese, explains that his exceptionally long life can be attributed to a life elixir he takes every summer, the side effects of which can cause him to occasionally change his physical appearance somewhat dramatically.

Okay, it’s quirky. Maybe even just plain weird, but the Groundhog Day celebration draws as many as thirty to forty thousand visitors to the tiny town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania every February second. Hordes of groundhog enthusiasts flock to Gobbler’s Knob, the site of Phil’s proclamation near Downtown Punxsutawney, and probably spend a fair bit of cash while visiting the community.

The movie that put Punxsutawney and Phil on the map was actually filmed in Woodstock, Illinois, which also has stupid cold February mornings. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And so, it makes perfect sense to have continued the event since the 1993 film Groundhog Day forced Bill Murray to live the day over and over again, and let the world know about this silliest of festivals. What makes less sense is that the annual tradition occurred for one hundred and six years before that. I somehow doubt that the members of the original Punxsutawney Groundhog Club foresaw a day when Hollywood would come knocking on Phil’s burrow.

Then again, they do have a connection to the Seer of Seers, and his accuracy in predicting whether spring is right around the corner or we will experience six more weeks of winter, is about 36%. For those of you keeping track at home, that’s less accurate than a coin flip.

But he is just a really old rodent. And groundhogs have not always been a part of such predictions. The Candlemas long-range forecasts themselves are actually much older, with a general acceptance that “If Candlemas Day is clear and bright, Winter will have another bite.”

Looking at this halfway point between the winter solstice and vernal equinox as a predictor of weather patterns coming into spring even predates Candlemas as a part of the Celtic celebrations of Imbolc. Groundhogs didn’t get mixed up with it until German immigrants brought the tradition with them to Pennsylvania and made it their very own.

Phil, looking super thrilled to be here. Chris Flook, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But I guess it’s okay that they’re mixed up with it now. Punxsutawney Phil’s festival in Gobbler’s Knob has inspired at least thirteen similar festivals throughout the Eastern United States, because I guess it’s something to do while we wait out the last six or so weeks of winter. So, here we go again.

I have been known from time to time to be delighted by silly traditions and I confess that I have a fair few bizarre events on my bucket list. Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, dear reader, is not one of them, mostly because February mornings in Pennsylvania are really stupid cold. For you, however, I did watch the livestream of Phil’s pronouncement this morning from the comfort of my warm living room while still in my pajamas.

I may not have been there, but Miss Pennsylvania was, and so was the governor of the state, as well as a large number of reporters who were probably questioning their career choices. The top hat-clad president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club was there, too. He had a lengthy conversation with a rodent, who I’m sad to say, predicted six more weeks of winter, and there’s only a 64% chance he’s wrong.

Happy Groundhog Day!

Piece by Stupid Piece

You may not be aware of this, but this is a very big week in the life of United States puzzlers, because this coming Sunday, January 29th is National Puzzle Day, which has been going strong since 2002. I know that if you are not a puzzle enthusiast, this may not seem like such a big deal to you, but I mean, come on, it’s January, and I’m betting we all could use a little something to celebrate.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

That’s a pretty safe bet, because just a brief internet search has informed me that there are more than six hundred specially designated days of observation that help us work our way piece by piece through this the bleakest of (northern hemisphere) months. Included on this truly inspiring list is Yodel at Your Neighbors Day, Gorilla Suit Day, National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day, and Kiss a Shark Week. Really, National Puzzle Day seems like a relatively worthy one to acknowledge.

I don’t think I could ever be considered a puzzle enthusiast, but I do enjoy the occasional jigsaw, and I find that’s particularly true this time of year when the outside is not as friendly as I’d like. And whether you celebrate them or not, jigsaw puzzles have been around since about 1767.

That’s when an English mapmaker and engraver named John Spilsbury is credited with creating the first one. He called his puzzle a dissected map, because that’s just what it was. His intention was to use a pieced apart map with a wooden backing to help teach geography. The idea was well-received and Spilsbury soon found himself in the puzzle business.

This was the situation approximately a week after I started my last puzzle.

Of course, today’s jigsaw puzzles come with all kinds of images, some of them maddeningly complex because there are evidently puzzlers who pretty much just hate themselves, I think. I recently saw an ad for one that consists of a thousand clear plastic pieces all roughly the same size and general shape. No thank you.

But I do appreciate a little bit of a challenge. My family has a tradition begun by my dad when he and my mom were first married. My mom likes a good puzzle and every year for Christmas, my dad gives her one without the box, which he only gives her after she’s completed the puzzle. He eventually started also doing that for those of his children whose eyes didn’t start to twitch at the thought. This year, with a little help picking it out, he gave me one that did turn out to be a map. Sort of.

I’m not sure that John Spilsbury would have approved of this particular puzzle. The image is in the shape of the United States, with faint lines that accurately divide the space into the appropriate fifty states. But within those basic shapes, it’s a pretty artistic interpretation of the states that doesn’t always make a lot of sense.

I did it! Finally.

For example, Virginia includes a grizzly bear, Wisconsin features mountains, and Kentucky seems to be made entirely of desert. In case you are unfamiliar with the geography of the United States, none of that is correct. The puzzle is also a thousand small pieces of roughly the same shape and consists of large patches filled with nothing but subtly shaded pastels. It turned out to be a much more difficult puzzle than the person who chose it thought it would be.

I did finish it, though, because I don’t mind a little bit of a challenge, at least not too much, and I really wanted that box. Also, by the time I’d pulled a muscle in my back hunching over the maddening little pieces, there was no way I was giving up, even though it took me nearly two weeks and a lot of complaining.

Logically, the best way to celebrate National Puzzle Day is to put together a puzzle. Since it will still be January, there’s a good chance this Sunday will be cold and dreary and so it will probably be a good day for it. If you do, please put in a piece or two for me. I think I’ll skip it this year. My back still hurts from putting together the Great Kentucky Desert.

Me, I Want a Hula Hoop

I hope that three weeks into the new year, it’s treating you well. At this point perhaps you are still clinging to a resolution or two and you remain optimistic about the year to come. I made no specific resolutions this year (with the exception of my constant desire to make the current year the one in which I learn to teleport), but I am looking forward to some great things coming up in 2023.

Pretty sure I couldn’t do this very well, either. Toronto Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

My oldest son who recently turned eighteen will be graduating from high school and will head off next fall to college to learn to do whatever amazing things he’s destined to do. My youngest will become old enough to earn his drivers’ license and the expansion of freedom that comes along with that. And then there are robotics competitions and track meets and fencing tournaments to look forward to, along with various trips that will be taken over the course of the year.

It’s off to a great start because already this year I have developed a new skill I didn’t even know I wanted. It all started because of a Christmas gift that appeared under my tree addressed to “Whomever wants it.”

The gift was from my sister. She’d picked up a deal on a weighted Hula Hoop and correctly assumed that someone in my family would enjoy it. After all, people have been playing with hoops for millennia. They’ve been rolled along the ground, thrown into the air, and jumped through. It was only a matter of time before someone stepped inside and started to wiggle their hips.

I might need to watch a few more videos before I get that good. Ryan Hodnett,
CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Allegedly Australian school children did just that with wooden hoops in the mid twentieth century, inspiring Wham-O toy company co-founder Arthur “Spud” Milen in March of 1963 to patent the “Hula Hoop,” because when an idea has more or less been around for millennia you worry someone else might come up with it first.

The Wham-O hoop is made of light-weight, hollow plastic tubing with a rattly bit inside and an often glittery outside. The company sold twenty-five million of their hoops in just a few months, earning $45 million in the first year of production.

The Hula Hoop became a sensational fad even inspiring a pitchy young chipmunk named Alvin to want one for Christmas. The Hula Hoop endures, though it’s now produced by a variety of manufacturers and even comes in weighted varieties for exercise. The fad did however cool somewhat heading into the 1980s when I was a child who never really learned how to properly use one.

I do remember having one, but I also remember giving up pretty quickly trying to swish it around my waist because no one particularly cared whether or not I could. And that’s how my 2023 got itself off to a great start, because I have something my ten-year-old self did not: YouTube.

I have no idea how the many faces of YouTube have time, or frankly desire, to record such useful instructional content, but over the last year or so, the platform has taught me to install a bicycle rack on my car, tie a bow tie for my son, disassemble the lock mechanism on my front door, and twist my hair into a charming messy bun, among many, many other useful skills. And now I can add another incredibly useful skill to the list.

I mean, I’m probably not good enough yet to win a beachside Hula Hoop contest or to make an instructional YouTube video of my own, but I’m at least as close to that as I am to learning how to teleport. And the year is still young.