Twenty Years of Fillin’ Up Dates

It was 1896 when young office worker Artie Blanchard met the love of his life. He spotted Mamie at a casual dance on North Clark Street and recruited the guy next to him to be his on-the-spot wingman. Impressed with Artie’s wit, Mamie gave him the chance he was looking for and they had their first date, right there on the dance floor.

Of course they didn’t call it a date at the time, because no one did. In fact, the thing itself was still a pretty novel concept. With a swelling of immigration into American cities, what had long been a somewhat public event carried out in the parlor or on the front porch swing under the careful supervision of parents, was in the process of morphing into something new. Courtship was becoming dating.

And no one had quite decided yet what to call it. That is, until Artie came along. Though he and Mamie eventually decided to marry, the beginning of their relationship was a little rough and at one point, she stopped seeing him entirely, preferring the company of another young man. Artie confronted her, saying, “Well, I s’pose the other boys fillin’ all my dates?”

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How you doin? George Ade, the inventor of the “date.” And possibly the online dating profile pic.      [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The scene occurs in Artie: A Story of the Streets and Towns, a series of columns written by American humorist George Ade that appeared in the Chicago Record. The series, like most of Ade’s writings, takes a humorous look at the changing manners of the common working city dwellers, including a laugh-out-loud discussion of the intricacies of flirtatious communications involving stamp placement, handkerchief manipulation, and how one chooses to hold an umbrella.

And if we can take the word of author Moira Weigel in her book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating (and we probably should because odds are she did way more research than I did), Ade also coined the word “date,” as it pertains to young men and women going out for dinner and a movie, or anonymously chatting one another up on a dating website, or swiping right, or whatever the cool kids are doing these days.

Because the typical first date has gone through a few changes since the early days of Artie and Mamie. And sometimes a couple may even have a hard time retrospectively pinpointing exactly when that first date occurred.

In some ways that’s true of me and my husband, though this day is the anniversary we celebrate. Today we have been together as a couple for twenty years. That’s right, TWENTY YEARS! For those of you keeping track at home, I am not yet forty, which means we have been together for more than half of my life.

But what happened twenty years ago today wasn’t probably a classic first date. We didn’t go dancing or to the theater. We didn’t grab a cup of coffee. He didn’t swipe right, though I’m sure he would have if such a thing as Tinder had existed.

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M. F. E. O. photo credit: Sunset via photopin (license)

We were college students with mutual friends and all of us tended to hang out in a group. On September 22, we were doing just that, when something that had already become obvious to our friends, started to become obvious to us. You see, even though we liked being with all of our friends, what mattered most to each of us was that the other one was there. Something changed that day.

The next afternoon we took a walk across campus, the first time we’d gone anywhere together alone. And maybe that was our real first date. I don’t know.

What I do know is that twenty years, a happy marriage, and two kids later, we’re still fillin’ up one another’s dates. And I suppose we have the eloquent George Ade and his somewhat less eloquent pal Artie to thank for it.

Take a Walk, Ya Scurvy Dogs

A couple weeks ago, I had a run-in with a pirate. It was a sunny, post-tropical storm day in Charleston, South Carolina, a place that takes great pride in its pirates. We’d been in the area to celebrate the wedding of a niece and decided to take in a little bit of the colorful local history.

That’s when the pirate showed up. He was everything you’d expect with tall boots, a real sword, and a trusty parrot sidekick named Captain Bob. He knew everything there was to know (or at least everything I’d ever think to ask) about the swashbuckling personalities that graced the waters from North Carolina to Barbados during piracy’s Golden Age.

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Eric the pirate and Capt. Bob of Charleston Pirate Tours.

We walked with our pirate companion quite a few city blocks and along the oceanfront park where convicted buccaneers were once hanged for their crimes. This same site today still hosts scores of Charlestonians engaging in unsavory acts. Like yoga.

But the true treasure of the experience was the vast knowledge shared about real people from history including Stede Bonnet, the gentleman pirate who gave up a life of privilege in Barbados to play pirate with his hired friends. And Anne Bonny, a society girl gone wild, with a preference for scallywags. And that most famous of all pirates known sometimes as Edward Teach, or less commonly as Edward Beard, or more commonly as Black Beard. Boy, that guy didn’t turn out to be quite what we (or Wikipedia) thought.

You might begin to wonder how I, a respected practical historian, could simply trust the word of a pirate, not necessarily assumed to be the most honest of men. But I think I did mention he had a parrot, right? Also, never once did he utter the sound Arrrr.

 

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My only previous encounter with live pirates, at the St. Louis Renaissance Fair. These were somewhat less concerned with historical accuracy.

Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. He did say it once, when he informed us that to the best of his knowledge (and that of everyone else that knows about these things) pirates didn’t actually say Arrrr.

That, along with that uniquely gruff Piratey accent and the stubborn reluctance to correctly use a possessive pronoun or conjugate the verb “to be,” is an entirely fictional construct, popularized mostly by British actor Robert Newton in his role as the one-legged Long John Silver in Disney’s 1950 version of Treasure Island.

It turns out that though they were probably a little more well-versed in nautical terms for boat riggings and sea monsters than was the average landlubber, pirates most likely talked like, well, guys of their era. Their language, like ours, was shaped by their various heritages and experiences, and would not have been particularly uniform.

And I’m sorry to be the one to tell you that no pirate ever said the words “Shiver me timbers!” without getting laughed off the plank.

 

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Actually plank walking has a somewhat dubious history, too. Illustration by Howard Pyle, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Now I know that like me, this revelation must concern you somewhat. After all, International Talk like a Pirate Day is rapidly approaching (on September 19, which you no doubt already knew) and you haven’t a thing to say.

The holiday, begun sort of unofficially in 1994 by two guys playing racket ball and talking like guys of their era, became slightly official when columnist Dave Barry gave it a rousing stamp of approval in 2002.

What started as friends having a little fun irritating the heck out of their coworkers, has blossomed now into a truly international event prompting (if you can believe the handy pirate map on the holiday’s official website) perhaps dozens of organized events designed to annoy the heck out of way more people’s coworkers.

But beneath all of the irritation, the day really is about having fun, together with your friends, talking like average guys of your era, the kind of guys who think that pirates said things like, “Arrr, treasure I ain’t got nor knows wheres, but ye be cutthroats and ye better serve up yer peace or I’ll feed ya piecemeal to the rats, ya scurvy dogs.”

So join in the fun and celebrate the day like Long John Silver would, says I. Plunder some booty, shiver some timbers, and irritate the heck out of your coworkers with your creative grammar and imaginative slang. But if you ever find yourself in South Carolina, look up Charleston Pirate Tours and take a walk with Pirate Eric and Captain Bob. I promise it’ll be worth ye the hour, me mateys.

 

A Troublesome Apple and an Ample Supply of Butt Glue

It all started with an apple. Or perhaps it started when Eris, the goddess of discord got her toga in a bunch because she wasn’t invited to a wedding. The problem with offending the goddess of discord is that she’s pretty good at causing trouble. The story goes that Eris crashed the wedding, but only long enough to present a golden apple to the fairest of them all.

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The world’s first beauty contest, maybe ever so slightly more risqué than the swimsuit competitions of today. The Judgement of Paris by Enrique Simonet, 1904, Pubic Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Three formidable goddesses (Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite) stepped forward to claim the prize. Zeus wasn’t about to wade into that hornet’s nest by declaring a victor, so he passed the responsibility off to Paris, who faced a very difficult choice. None of the goddesses was keen to hand over the title of fairest and so they bribed their unfortunate judge. Hera offered him the opportunity to rule, Athena offered him victory on the battlefield, and Aphrodite offered him the love of Helen, who was quite a beauty queen herself.

Paris chose the pretty girl because, like Aphrodite, she appeared well-poised and graceful in a swimsuit and high heels and could clearly benefit from a scholarship. She also wanted world peace and “like such as, uh, South Africa, and, uh, Iraq, everywhere like such as…”*

Alas, world peace was not to be, since Helen was married to Menelaus of Sparta, and he didn’t agree that Aphrodite should be given the title of Miss Olympus. War broke out and because the Trojans couldn’t resist a good looking giant wooden horse any more than Paris could resist a pretty girl, it didn’t end well for Troy.

Given the bloody history, then, it isn’t all that surprising that outside of a few small May Day festivals, there really wasn’t much in the way of beauty contests for thousands of years. Then along came P.T. Barnum who, in 1854, thought it would be a great idea to parade women in front of a crowd to judge their beauty.

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Margaret Gorman, 16-year-old, 1921 winner of the Bather’s Review, and the first Miss America, without even a single glob of butt glue to keep her swim suit in place. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It turned out it was a pretty good money-making idea, just a little ahead of its time. But what ended in angry protest in 1854, started to catch on almost seventy years later in Atlantic City, as the Inter-City Beauty Contest in which women competed for applause and a chance to parade around in their swimming suits the next day in the “Bather’s Review.”

From these humble beginnings emerged the Miss America Pageant, which is ongoing and will wind up with the crowning of a new beauty in a glued-on bathing suit this Sunday, September 11.

Now, I’m not a big pageant fan myself, and I have never competed in one (frankly, it just wouldn’t be fair to the other ladies), so I have mixed feelings about criticizing them. I do think that, with a few unfortunate exceptions, the contestants of most of the larger pageants today, are smart, talented, and highly-motivated women who are working hard to find a platform from which to make a positive difference in the world.

I don’t begrudge them that opportunity, but here’s my question. If we have so many smart, talented, and highly-motivated women in the world (or even the universe, though I think that pageant is rigged as only Earth girls have ever been crowned), why is it that we need to see them in a bathing suit and high heels? Does their poise and athleticism while half-naked make them somehow more likely to be forces for positive change? Or does their successful application of butt glue somehow make them more worthy of college scholarships?

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Homer: a practical history blogger before his time. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tough questions, I know, and not easily answered by world peace and, like um, South Africa. Too tough for me, a lowly blogger of all things historical, and, evidently mythological. Because, yes, in addition to being among the four fifths of Americans who can identify the United States on a world map, I am also aware that the Trojan War may not have happened at all. And if some version of it did, it most likely didn’t start with an epic godly beauty pageant.

But then again, on the rare occasion that I have flipped on the television and watched part of the Miss America Pageant, I have usually found myself asking if it’s for real, too.

 

*Actual excerpt from an actual response given by a contestant in the 2007 Miss Teen USA Pageant while answering the question, “Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can’t locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?” In her defense, it was a pretty high pressure situation and a FIFTH OF AMERICANS CAN’T IDENTIFY THE U.S. ON A WORLD MAP! Likely this beauty contestant is not among them. I suspect she can also find, uh, South Africa, and, uh, Iraq.

Man-Bats and Bipedal Moon Beavers

January 10, 1834 was a remarkable day in the history of humankind. It was the day Sir John Herschel, a noted English astronomer and son of William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus, first gazed through his super-powered telescope and observed life on the moon.

The account of his wondrous findings first appeared in the Edinburgh Journal of Science, but since obviously no one reads scientific journals, the story didn’t really take off until a more layman-friendly version written by Herschel’s colleague Dr. Andrew Grant appeared as a series of feature articles in the New York Sun penny newspaper beginning August 25, 1835.

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If this man told me he saw a herd of moon unicorns, I might believe him. “Sir John Herschel with Cap” by Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The articles started with a thorough description of Herschel’s unique telescope and continued over the course of the next five issues to describe details of landscape, plant life, and numerous animal species, including unicorns, herds of moon bison, spherical amphibians, bipedal beavers, and winged human-like creatures dubbed Vespertilio-homo, or Man-bat.

The sixth and final installment detailed a superior example of Vespertilio-homo, which engaged in the most civilized of activities in close proximity to a structure that appeared to be a sapphire temple. Then it went on to explain that as the scientists took a break to discuss their findings, they accidentally left the lens of the high-powered telescope directed toward the sun and burned down a portion of the observatory. Sadly by the time repairs were made, the moon was no longer in a position conducive to further observation.

Now, as an intelligent reader of all true things on the Internet, you may have begun to realize by now that this story that really did run in the New York Sun, might not have been entirely factual. But the readers of the Sun were somewhat less sophisticated than the average discerning readers of today. And there was just enough truth to the story to make it sound kind of plausible to those who weren’t really paying attention, including a fair number of scientists who were thrilled by the discovery.

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It’s hard to argue with an honest man.

For example, it is true that Sir John Herschel traveled to South Africa in January of 1834 with a powerful telescope. It’s true, also, that the scientific community of the day was still somewhat divided on whether or not life on the moon could be possible. Herschel himself had not yet come down on one side or the other of the issue.

It’s true, too, that there had been, at one time, an Edinburgh Journal of Science, and that no one read it. Or at least no one had read it in the several years leading up to the Sun article because it had ceased to be in print. And when one considers that pretty much every sane person believed in roaming herds of moon unicorns, it’s not hard to see why everyone got so excited.

But there was no such person as Dr. Andrew Grant. He was likely an invention of reporter Richard Adams Locke.  He never actually claimed responsibility for writing the articles, possibly because as a former editor of the work of Edgar Allan Poe, there’s a pretty good chance Locke plagiarized the whole story from Poe’s The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall.

But wherever it came from, the story was a huge success. Some readers were skeptical, of course, but they tweeted about it and shared the stories to their Facebook walls all the same. And within little more than a month the story had been picked up and repeated so many times, news of it had travelled all the way to Europe, where, to the credit of the European media, it was known most often as a silly American hoax.

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Wait a minute. Where’s the American flag? I bet this picture was taken on a Hollywood soundstage. By New York Sun [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The New York Sun did admit to the hoax eventually, but there was no retraction and with the exception of the editor of its biggest competitor, who was probably just bitter he hadn’t thought of it himself, no one seemed to care all that much. Even Sir John Herschel mostly just found the whole thing amusing. After a while he did get a little tired of answering questions about it in the middle of his very serious and important scientific lectures that no one was really listening to anyway. Still, questions about the hoax were preferable to the standard, “So,” snort, giggle, giggle, “has your dad looked at Uranus lately?”

And so the world went on, bipedal moon beavers and man-bats once again became the stuff of legend, and journalism and perhaps humankind in general continued down a very slippery slope. These days reporters can’t remember whether or not their helicopters were shot down, politicians may become confused about their own well-documented heritages, and overwhelming evidence of perjury isn’t nearly enough to pursue charges. Really, in the grand scheme of lies, the Moon Hoax isn’t so bad. I mean it’s not like Richard Locke got drunk and vandalized a bathroom or anything.

On the Origin of Clutter by Means of Accidental Collection, or the Preservation of Favoured Artwork in the Struggle for Back to School Organization

Finally a new school year has begun for my children. For the most part it’s going well. My youngest loves his teacher. She seems warm and genuine and well organized, which is a great place to start. My older son is now navigating the halls of middle school, where he has so far managed to remember his locker combination and land in classes taught by teachers as wonderfully quirky as he is. I suppose it takes a special kind of crazy to teach middle schoolers.

What this all means for me is that I am a more or less full-time writer again, and that’s going okay, too. In the five days they’ve been back at school. I’ve managed to draft several short stories and prep a good chunk of the first draft of a novel for the impending painful process of substantial revision.

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You know, maybe I’ll just shove the door closed and not open it again until the school supplies come home at the end of the year.

But I’ve also had to take a little time to get my space organized for long days alone in front of the computer. As I’ve mentioned before, I work in a little hidey hole of a room tucked down a dark hallway in my basement, a place where sometimes the dog even forgets to look for me.

I like having this space, but it can feel a little dismal at times, especially since it often becomes the staging area not just for my writing, but for my organizing as well. Like, for instance, when it came time to buy school supplies a few weeks ago, I started by sorting through the supplies from last year that had been unceremoniously dumped from backpacks on the floor of the closet of my hidey hole. The backpacks were there, too.

Also there were the remains of art projects and reports and poems and notes and all the precious little papers from a year of school that a mom can’t quite bring herself to throw out. And maybe a few from previous years as well.

I know, I know, it was my New Year’s resolution to pare down on the clutter, but in my defense, I also have yet to lose that pesky ten pounds. Actually, I’ve done fairly well sorting through and throwing away or donating my own stuff. With the kiddos it’s always a little harder. I know I’m not alone in this because even Charles Darwin struggled when it came to throwing out the artsy creations of his children.

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I’m not always disorganized. And the hallway is maybe a little less dark these days.

 

We know because in 2003, Cambridge University and the American Museum of Natural History launched a collaborative effort to digitize all of Darwin’s writings and make them available online. The project is ongoing, but currently includes more than 23,000 digital images. This is pretty cool if you’re interested in getting to know the man behind one of the most influential (and contentious) scientific theories of all time.

But the coolest part to me is the handful of remaining pages of original handwritten text from On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Man, was he good with a title! There are only about thirty or so of these pages still in existence and at least some of them are probably still around because a young Darwin artist or two drew on the backs of them.

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Occasionally little surprises show up among my notes on the chalkboard wall in my office. I don’t erase them unless I absolutely have to.

 

The collection includes more than fifty examples of the Darwin children’s drawings and stories, all preserved on what the evidently thrifty Charles Darwin must have considered scrap paper, not realizing that his handwritten notes and papers might one day be of interest to posterity.

What it seems he did realize is that in addition to being the man behind the theory that lit the field of natural science on fire, he was also a father of some pretty great kids, and their contribution to his life’s work wasn’t something he could part with.

As I work my way through the clutter and get settled back into my hidey hole, I realize I’m not going to be able to throw out those little bits of creativity, either. I haven’t come up with any great scientific theories (yet), and I doubt very much that the mess from the floor of my office closet will ever be catalogued and digitized for the benefit of the world. But if I’m wrong, everyone will know that I’m the mother of some pretty great kids.

http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/slide-show-darwin-children-doodles

Growing Up is Overrated

In 1959, John Scurlock discovered his employees engaging in a surprising activity. A successful engineer, Scurlock had lent his inventive expertise to both the oil and gas industry and to projects at NASA, and then decided to turn his attention to tennis, a sport he loved. What he came up with was a rapidly inflating cover that could be spread out to protect a clay tennis court at the first inkling of rain.

His invention may have been great for that, had his employees not discovered that it was also quite bouncy. What Scurlock quickly realized was that his adult employees might actually have been incapable of resisting the urge to bounce and that what he’d invented was not a tennis court cover at all. Instead it was a play structure that he called the Space Walk.

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It was really only a matter of time before Bounce Houses and elite sporting events got together. By User:Azbounce4kids (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Over the next decade, Scurlock’s invention got a little safer (with the addition of walls) and he entered the rental business, providing hours of bounce house fun for birthday parties, school fairs, and company picnics. But even though it has obvious adult appeal, bounce castles have generally been considered the realm of children.

Until now.

For the past couple of years, a new themed run has swept across the US and Canada, called the Insane Inflatable 5K. The event is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s a 5K with about a dozen inflatable obstacles set up along the route. Participants climb, jump, slide, fall, and yes, bounce. Often on purpose. Sometimes on their backsides. Because it’s super fun.

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These were some (sort of) serious obstacles. It was kind of like a short Tough Mudder, except for people who don’t like to get muddy and really aren’t that tough.

While there’s no age restriction for the event, the participants are pretty overwhelmingly adults. At least that was true at the one in which I recently participated.

 

If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you may have stumbled across the fact that I believe in my heart of hearts that running is stupid. But (and I realize that this is a bit hypocritical of me) I also really enjoy participating in race events. I love the camaraderie that comes from accomplishing something challenging in the midst of so many other people who are also accomplishing something challenging. I love the cheering and encouragement that comes from fellow race participants and from those who are watching from the sidelines. And, I admit it, I can’t resist a silly theme.

So when I got the opportunity to participate in the Insane Inflatable (or as we more often referred to it, the Bouncy House 5K), I couldn’t pass it up. In fact, when the group I was originally planning to register with began to waver in their enthusiasm, I found another group willing to go on an earlier date.

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The event wasn’t timed, but I did get a medal. So I’m basically an Olympian now.

 

Running may be stupid, but bouncy houses are super fun and as it says on the back of my new silly themed race shirt, “Growing up is overrated.”

John Scurlock’s employees realized that in 1959 and an amazing industry was born.

On This Site in 1897

I’m not going to lie, it’s been a long summer. And a short summer in some ways. My kids, now 9 and 11 ½  are getting older so they are better at finding ways to keep themselves busy. They’ve got more friends and activities and thoughts of their own. Still, as we wind down these last few days of our more or less 24/7 time together before school starts next week, the season, as it does every year, has gotten the best of me.

I hope to be posting weekly again beginning next Thursday. Today I’m going to shop for new school supplies instead. Perhaps soon I will relate to you the fascinating history behind the number 2 pencil, but I’m afraid you’ll just have to wait for that little gem.

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