I, Said the Cow

This has been a year of big transitions for my two sons. My oldest started his freshman year in high school and will soon be learning to drive; my youngest headed for the first time to middle school. Along with the academic challenges, each adventure has brought with it new social opportunities as well. For my youngest son, one of those has been school choir.

choral-3871734__340He was a little nervous to take this plunge but has had an absolute blast. He’s had the opportunity to perform the National Anthem at Busch Stadium before a Cardinals game, has gained a ton of confidence, and has been singing Christmas songs since the end of August.

I’m thrilled for him. I do love a good Christmas song, especially now that ‘tis the season. But I gotta say, as much as I am looking forward to the big winter concert coming up next week, I have listened to all the holiday tunes with less gusto this December than I usually might. My Christmas carol tolerance has been a little tested. Musically speaking, it’s been a long four months here in the Angleton household.

But humanity has been singing songs of this most jolly of holidays for a lot longer than that. The first Christmas hymns can be traced to the third century, probably around the same time St. Nicholas allegedly slapped a heretic silly.

Of course those first songs are no longer topping the charts. The earliest one that is still sung regularly today comes from 12th century France and is known now as “The Friendly Beasts.” It tells the charming tale of the animals in the stable on the night of Christ’s birth and consists of their first-hand witness accounts, including such brilliant lines as, “’I said the cow,’ all white and red, ‘I gave Him my manger for a bed.’”

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Maybe cows were white and red in 12th century France? Or couldn’t the cow all white and brown have given the baby a place to lay down? Just a thought. photo credit: Hindrik S hey man via photopin (license)

If that doesn’t impress you, you’re clearly not picturing it as performed by a children’s choir in animal costumes. Awww.

And if you are not as well-versed in Christmas melodies as I am, then you might take issue with my claim that it’s sung regularly, but just consider that it was easily one of the most ridiculous hymns sung every Christmas season in the midwestern church my family attended when I was young. Then when I lived on the West Coast a few years ago we attended a church of a different denomination and they also sang “The Friendly Beasts” every year, in full adorable children’s choir fashion.

That’s a pretty small sampling, I realize, but I’m sticking to my claim. Also, Garth Brooks sang a version of it in 1992, which now that I see that in print, doesn’t seem all that more impressive than the song appearing in the 12th century. Man, I’m getting old. Did I mention that I have a son who is about to start learning to drive?

As you might imagine, the original version of the song was not in English, though I hardly think that matters as few barnyard animals speak it anyway. The current English lyrics were set to the original Old French tune in the 1920s by a man named Robert Davis. The good old-fashioned Christmas hymn has been variously known as “The Gift of the Animals,” “The Animal Carol,” “The Donkey Carol,” and “The Song of the Ass.” That last one has been discarded for causing too many giggles among the children in the choir.

In my family we always called the song “’I, Said the Cow.’” And honestly, despite its age, and probably owing to the fact that it’s not on the list of selections for the upcoming middle school choir concert, it might be the only Christmas song I’m not completely sick of yet.

Bravely Throwing Out a Piece of the Soul

In 1936, celebrated American author F. Scott Fitzgerald made a list. He’d hit a big rough patch in a life full of rough patches, drinking too much and living in a hotel in Asheville, North Carolina to be close to his institutionalized, schizophrenic wife. After an alleged suicide attempt and a nasty shoulder injury, Fitzgerald hired a nurse named Dorothy Richardson to care for him.

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A romance I quite enjoyed in 2019.

As they got to know one another, Fitzgerald made her a list of books he thought she ought to read. The list includes some William Faulkner, Theodore Drieser, Leo Tolstoy, John Keats, and such—twenty-two works in all. Some I’ve read. Most, I admit, I haven’t.

But that’s okay, because F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t make the list for me, and suggesting a book for people can seem like kind of an intimate thing. You’re asking them to pour hours of their time into an experience, one they will engage with during their personal downtime, maybe while they’re drowsy and wearing their pajamas, or lounging on the beach in a swimsuit they feel just a little bit too chubby to wear, or nervously waiting for their loved one’s surgical procedure to end and hoping no waiting room strangers will strike up a conversation.

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A memoir I read this year and liked a lot.

You hope they’ll like it. You hope they won’t think you have no taste, or that you think they have no taste, or that they think you chose this book because it says something to you about them or that you think it says something about yourself and you’re hoping they’ll notice. It’s a little like offering up a piece of your soul.

But just once in a while it works out. You read a book and it makes you think of one of your friends, who then absolutely loves the book you recommended and is touched that you just seem to get her, at which point she asks you for another recommendation and the stakes become higher.

And that’s why I am especially grateful to have so many wonderful friends who are willing to put themselves out there. Earlier this week, I was thinking about what books I wanted to pick up to finish out my year in reading. Looking over my To-Be-Read list on Goodreads, I realized I had fallen behind a little on my pace if I was going to meet my year-end goal. Most of the list in front of me included books that were either going to be hard to get hold of quickly or were probably not going to be quick reads.

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The best steampunk I read in 2019.

I asked Facebook for suggestions of light, fast reads. And boy did my friends come through! As of right now, about four days later, my plea has received eighty responses. And that doesn’t count my librarian friend who texted me directly with several titles.

I do find it pretty gratifying that a lot of the suggestions are books I’ve read or that were already titles I’d come across and wanted to read, an indication that my friends and I probably know each other fairly well. But I’m even more impressed that so many people took the risk and put their opinions out there.

I read broadly, and with few exceptions, I’ll give anything a try. Maybe then, I’m not a terribly intimidating person to offer book suggestions. I also definitely recognize that the reading experience is largely an individual one and that I myself might view a book differently were I to read it today or a month from now, so I’m never going to judge a person based on the recommendations he makes.

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Best mathematical mystery I read this year. That’s a thing, right?

And I’m not assuming that the list of books offered to me are the essential books that should be read by everyone, which Fitzgerald may have implied to his nurse, mainly by virtue, I think, of who he happened to be and also because he was probably a little drunk. It should be noted that there are some fairly universally accepted greats missing from his list, including Shakespeare. Any high school English teacher would probably be pretty quick to point out that particular oversight.

So, dear blogosphere, it’s your turn. What should I read? I can’t guarantee I’ll follow every suggestion, and I’m sure I won’t get to them all by the end of the year, but I promise I won’t think less of you for throwing it out there.

By the way, if you are on Goodreads, let’s connect!

Handkerchiefs, Ribbon, and Necessity

November is well under way and here in Missouri that means we’ve experienced our first cold snap and snow accumulation event, which we never get this early, except that this is the third year in a row it’s happened. And last week I wrote about how the menfolk are participating in their annual celebration of manliness by growing out their stubble for “No Shave November.”

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Ouch! Image courtesy of Pixabay

This week, for balance, I want to take a moment to recognize the genius of women, particularly one woman—Mary Phelps Jacob. In 1910, at the age of nineteen, Mary was living the American debutante lifestyle, preparing to attend yet another high society ball. Like she’d surely done many times before, she put on her stiff whalebone corset and sucked in while her maid cinched it tight before struggling into her fancy dress.

Then she examined herself in the mirror and didn’t like the way her look all came together. Or maybe it was just that she realized she couldn’t really breathe. Somewhat rashly, she asked her maid to bring her two pocket handkerchiefs, some ribbon, and a sewing kit.

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So much better than a corset. By Mary Phelps Jacob – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That night Mary traded her corset for her homemade hanky contraption and was the easiest, breeziest belle at the ball. Many significantly less comfortable women took notice and, gasping for air, wanted to know her secret. It didn’t take Mary long to realize she was on to something big.

On November 3, 1914, Mary Phelps Jacobs, who would eventually become known as Caresse Crosby, received the first patent for the modern bra. Women everywhere abandoned their restrictive corsets and celebrated with a collective and blissfully deep sigh.

Jacobs wasn’t the first or only person to tackle the terrible problem of women’s undergarments, but I love her story the most because I can just picture it—the moment when comfort and practicality won over fashion.

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I bet she’s not wearing a corset, either. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

I imagine it was a lot like that moment you kick off the ridiculous high heels at the wedding reception so you can actually dance or later when you trade the confining cocktail dress for your trusty old yoga pants. If there are any bewhiskered menfolk still reading at this point, I suspect this feeling is also similar to loosening your necktie.

The story of Mary Phelps Jacob is great because it’s kind of universal. And because as we head through the month of November when we stop shaving, and here in the US, we don our stretchy turkey pants and prepare to tuck in for the long, cold winter ahead, it’s nice to pause and remember that sometimes it’s the necessity of comfort that is the mother of the greatest inventions.

November is a Month for Silly Affectations

It’s finally November, which just means many of us are rethinking our grooming options. That’s right, we’ve reached that one month out of the year when for some inexplicable reason, otherwise clean-cut men (and sometime women, too) decide not to shave.

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Lincoln in 1858, in need of a beard. By T.P. Pearson, Public Domain

And really, do we need a reason not to shave? Sure, smooth skin might be nice, but shaving takes a lot of time—time manly men all over the world could spend washing and combing and stroking thoughtfully the facial hair that is their genetic legacy. They don’t need an excuse.

But at least one famous man did. On October 15, 1860, a little girl from Westfield, New York gave him one when she wrote to then presidential hopeful Abraham Lincoln that he would “look a great deal better” if he let his whiskers grow. Lincoln responded to eleven-year-old Grace Bedell within a few days inquiring whether she thought “people would call it a silly affectation” if he were to begin a beard at this point.

There’s no record of whether she wrote to him again of this matter, but like so many men of the last few years, Lincoln stopped shaving that November. By the time he took his inaugural journey from Illinois to Washington D.C. the new president’s face was sporting some stylish hair. And with it, he’d picked up a pretty adorable story.

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An artist’s best guess. Original portrait by T.P. Pearson, Public Domain. Beard added by my 14-year-old son, used with permission.

Not particularly pleased about the development were the portrait artists working to make a buck off the famous visage of the newly elected leader. Before the days of presidential Twitter feeds and helpful Instagram filters, the rumor of recently sprouted whiskers were all many artists had to go on, and so they had to guess.

But Abraham Lincoln certainly has gone down in history as a bewhiskered gentleman, his signature close-trimmed beard possibly the most recognizable in US history. Still, historians don’t all agree on his motivation for taking Bedell’s advice.

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Bewhiskered Lincoln in 1863. It takes a wise president to embrace criticism about his hair. By Alexander Gardner, Public Domain

He did make a stop along his inaugural journey to show little Miss Bedell his whiskers, which surely won him some favorable press. It’s always possible he could have just reflected on the advice of a concerned citizen and realized that she might have had a point.

It’s also true that in Lincoln’s day, close-trimmed facial hair was common among the highly sophisticated gentlemen of US cities and Honest Abe probably wanted to shed his rep as kind of a country bumpkin from the middle of nowhere in Illinois.

Or it could be that Abraham Lincoln was a man ahead of his time and he just decided November is not for shaving.

Where Can I Find a Ghost Like That?

The end of October is finally upon us and for writers that means only one thing: bowls full of miniature candy bars will be widely available for snacking.

Or maybe two things. Because tomorrow is the first of November and the start of National Novel Writing Month. Once again it’s that time of year when people dedicated to the craft of novel writing, become even more dedicated and join upwards of 400,000 of their closest friends in setting the goal of writing 50,000 words in a single short month that, at least for US participants, includes a major holiday.typewriter-584696__340

I’ve participated a few times in NaNoWriMo and I’m proud to say that each time I have been among the usually less than 20% who completed the challenge. I’d love to do it this year, too. I even have a couple of ideas for books floating around in my brain and tonight I will be attending a NaNoWriMo kickoff party for local writers who will get started on their future masterpieces at the stroke of midnight.

Sadly, I’ve had to accept that this year I will be attending in a strictly cheerleading capacity. I’m still working through one project and preparing for the rapidly approaching launch of a new novel. And, well, it’s a short month with a major holiday in it. Unless I can find myself a ghostwriter, I think I’m out of luck.

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Pearl Curran took the term “ghostwriter” to the next level. by Walter Franklin Prince [Public domain]
But I suppose you never know. It happened for another St. Louis woman in the summer of 1913. Mrs. Pearl Curran had been experimenting with her Ouija board for nearly a year when she was first contacted by Patience Worth. The English-born ghost claimed to have lived from 1649-1694, traveled to America as a Puritan, and eventually died at the hands of hostile Indians. She also had a way with words and a story to tell.

Actually, several stories, quite a few letters, and a whole lot of poems. With the help of her living companion, Patience Worth wrote at least six novels before Pearl Curran died in 1937, at which time, presumably, the two continued to hang out.

In 1918 alone, the strange duo produced eighty-eight poems that were published in various magazines. Some of this large body of work even garnered praise from literary critics, one of whom wrote that Worth had “a sense of humor that is rare in ghosts.”

As a novelist whose work has yet to attract a great deal of critical attention, I admit this bothers me a little bit. Mrs. Curran definitely encountered her fair share of skeptics and I am among them. Believers argued that Curran lacked the formal education to produce the works on her own, but there’s some evidence that she might have had more creative abilities than her background would suggest.ouija-board-4553829__340

Frankly, I don’t think it really matters much. Great work came from the collaboration, whether Patience Worth was a figment of a highly developed imagination or she was a literal ghostwriter.

Either way, I’ll probably miss out on penning a novel this November. I suspect I’m unlikely to come across a ghost willing to share its literary genius. I don’t even own a Ouija board. But I am looking forward to the candy.

Happy Halloween! Happy NaNoWriMo!

The Great Pumpkin and the Good Candy

This time of year I always think I should blog about Halloween—its history, which is a little muddled depending on what source you look at, and its bizarre traditions. But every year I think I end up writing about how I don’t care much for this particular holiday. I do enjoy seeing all my cutest little neighbors dressed up like princesses and super heroes (with extra padding because it’s super cold and almost always raining) and smiling at me because I just gave them the good candy. Yes, we are that house. We consider it a responsibility.

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There’s no candy corn or weird black and orange taffy at this house. Public Domain, via Pixabay.

But I don’t like haunted houses, or gruesome decorations, or scary movies. I mean, sure, a good psychological thriller might be in my wheelhouse, but very rarely have demon nuns, possessed dolls, or chainsaw-wielding maniacs amounted to a good cinematic experience in my book. And you might disagree with me, but you’re wrong if you do, that no one in the history of the universe has ever actually enjoyed a jump scare.

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I don’t typically decorate much for Halloween, but this I could get behind. It would go well with all the creepy goblins and grave stones in my neighbors’ yards. Public Domain, via Pixabay

I guess what I’m saying is that media entertainment is not my friend at this time of year. I’ll catch it on the other side, when the cheery holiday movies start up and the scariest thing I might see while flipping through channels is the ghost of Christmas-yet-to-come.

I do, however, make one exception to my television and movie hiatus, because once a year, ABC airs the classic It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Actually, ABC has only had the rights to the show since 2000. Before that the holiday classic had been a CBS exclusive since it debuted in on October 27, 1966.

I wasn’t watching then, but I’ve seen it most years as far back as I can remember. And I did watch it this week when it was on. With my youngest son. While eating a caramel apple. Because some Halloween traditions just make sense.

For example, the Great Pumpkin, the belief in which has young Linus van Pelt, with his signature blue blanket, waiting on Halloween night in the most sincere pumpkin patch he can find just to catch a glimpse. The Great Pumpkin, according to Linus, travels around on Halloween night bringing gifts to good boys and girls.

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Looks like a pretty great pumpkin to me. Public Domain, via Pixabay

In all the years I’ve been watching the special, the Great Pumpkin has never appeared. Instead, Linus falls asleep shivering in the pumpkin patch and it’s up to his big sister Lucy to bring him home and tuck him into bed with dreams of trying again next year.

It’s not so silly, is it? According to Charles Schulz, a number of scholars thought it wasn’t, and even approached him to ask about the origin of the Great Pumpkin mythology. Schulz joked that he told them they’d be better off asking Linus.

The myth, of course, began with the cartoonist himself. Not entirely comfortable with promoting a childhood belief in Santa Claus, he introduced Linus’s widely mocked belief in the Great Pumpkin in 1959 in the Peanuts comic strip as a kind of humorous social commentary. And there may have been a light jab at organized religion in there as well, as Linus explains that Charlie Brown’s bizarre belief in Santa Claus is an expression of “denominational differences.” It might even include a plea for civil discourse as Linus says, “There are three things I’ve learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”

I’m assuming most of you don’t wait up all Halloween night in the sincerest pumpkin patch you can find just to catch a glimpse of the Great Pumpkin yourself, but I do hope you’ve seen the special. I might even recommend that you watch it every year, while eating a caramel apple. It’s a sweet little cartoon, beloved by generations of children, many of whom for years sent boxes and boxes of Halloween candy to Charles Schulz to give to Charlie Brown who had only received rocks in his trick-or-treating bag. He should have come to our house. We’d have given him the good candy.

WU (What’s Up) With this ARE (Acronym-Rich Environment)?

It started out like any morning, with me rushing to get the kids out the door in time for school. That’s been a little harder lately as the days have gotten shorter and the mornings darker. But we were on track. Lunches were sorted, backpacks were loaded, and we were just stepping out into the garage when my 14-year-old son said, “OMG, BRB.”

I don’t know what he’d forgotten (besides the English language), but he ran quickly into his bedroom and back again. We were on our way, still with enough spare time that I could stop and ask, “What?”

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It’s shocking, really, how much time we waste in classroom teaching kids basic spelling and speaking skills. Like they’ll ever use them IRL. photo credit: PlusLexia.com Spelling via photopin (license)

He rolled his eyes. Probably—it was still kind of dark. “It means ‘be right back.’”

I rolled my eyes. Definitely—because he deserved it. “I KNOW what it means. I just think it makes more sense to speak actual words.”

Yes, I will freely admit that in that moment I sounded like an old person. I might as well have told him his favorite music was nothing but a bunch of loud noise or that he needed a haircut because he looks like a felon. BTW, one of those statements is true.

He shoved his stuff into the car next to his little brother and said, “Everyone uses text speak. It’s a thing you’re probably just going to have to get used to.”

Here I should clarify that my son is not generally disrespectful and this was said with a charming LOL.

And the thing is that the more I thought about it, the more I realized he might actually be right. Language does evolve, usually in ways we don’t really anticipate and, no matter how hard we try, not always for the simpler.

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I wonder if whatever he’s typing with his thumbs has the recipient responding with a ROTFLUTS. Though personally I’ve never seen anyone rolling on the floor laughing unable to speak because of a text message, I’m sure it happens.

In March of 1906, American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie certainly tried. That’s when he recruited twenty-six influential men of letters to form the Simplified Spelling Board. Included among the membership were Melvil Dewey, who organized all the library books, and Mark Twain, who wrote quite a few of them.

The board combed through some of the most oddly spelled words in the English language to determine when and why they came to be spelled as they did. Then, so as not to confuse a change-resistant American populace, they recommended a list of just three hundred words that could be immediately simplified by influential organizations.

At least one additional powerful man agreed whole-heartedly. In August of 1906, then President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the implementation of the changes throughout all documents coming from the Executive Branch of the US government.

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President “Rucevelt,” who IMHO may have overreached a little in this instance. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The press wasn’t having it and launched into sarcastic attacks on “Mr. Rucevelt” and the “notis” he’d taken of this truly important movement. The public largely agreed, and by December of that year, the House of Representatives, controlled by the president’s own Republican Party, issued a resolution supporting their strong preference for established dictionary spellings. They also said Teddy’s hair was too long and his music was too loud.

The president eventually gave up the fight and by 1920, the Simplified Spelling Board had dissolved, leaving behind a Handbook of Simplified Spelling and a nation that wasn’t particularly sorry to see them go.

But, some of those original three hundred new recommended spellings actually did get adopted into American English, including gram instead of gramme, maneuver instead of manoeuvre, and hiccup instead of hiccough. Because language evolves, and I guess I better get used to it.

For now, TYSM for reading and not marking this post TL;DR. I’m going AFK. TTYL.

See? I can evolve.

JK. I don’t textspeak.