The Title of this Post has Been Censored

In March of 1919, noted socialist activist Kate Richard O’Hare, fresh from the Missouri State Penitentiary where she had been briefly imprisoned for interfering with military recruitment through her anti-war speech, arrived in Des Moines, Iowa where she was scheduled to speak at the public library auditorium.

There she was denied the right to present by city librarian Forrest Spaulding who claimed the auditorium had been booked under false pretenses, stating “I believe that I have the support of the large majority of citizens of Des Moines whose interests I am endeavoring to serve.”

I don’t doubt that he was correct about a majority supporting him, but I question his assertion that he was serving their best interests by denying space for a perspective many might have found unpalatable. And it turns out, he probably questioned it, too.

Because by 1940, his tune had changed dramatically. That’s when a local minister approached him about banning Hitler’s Mein Kampf from the library shelves, to which Spaulding responded, “If more people had read Mein Kampf, some of Hitler’s despotism might have been prevented.” It wasn’t the material that frightened him nearly as much as the “small minds” who wished to prevent others from engaging intellectually with controversial ideas.

Go ahead and read it, you rebel you. photo credit: covs97 Banned books display via photopin (license)

He was also pretty outspoken against the frequent banning of Grapes of Wrath, for which I am grateful because it was one of the better books I was required to read in high school. And it was the fight over access to that book that led the American Library Association in 1939 to adopt the Library Bill of Rights, a slightly more generalized version of the one created specifically for the Des Moines Library by Forrest Spaulding in November of 1938.

The wording of that document has been tweaked a little through the years, but it’s still going strong and you should click here and read it, because it’s important. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Image by Prettysleepy from Pixabay

Now, this is more or less an apolitical blog. As a writer who is not apolitical in my personal life, I do try very hard to keep it that way. I think there should be some places where we all can just have fun. But about this one issue I will shout loudly from every corner of every platform I ever have the opportunity to occupy.

Censorship is the death of freedom. And willfully ignoring or silencing the voices on the other side of an argument only leads to increased violence and instability. That’s not a Democrat or Republican thing. That’s a human thing.

Politically speaking, we’re still going through a rough patch here in the US. It’s been building for a long while and for a lot of reasons and it’s erupted in violence and destructive behavior more in the past few years than it had for quite a while. I think it’s safe to say that no matter our individual political bents, that’s kind of scary.

I remain optimistic that we’ll eventually weather it okay, not without fallout of course, but hopefully with the opportunity to move forward and be better. However, I am absolutely convinced that it will only get rougher if we silence one another.

Librarians are seriously some of my favorite people. photo credit: nataliesap Banned Books Week display via photopin (license)

And so, I ask you, please listen and consider, especially when those you tend to agree with are saying you shouldn’t. Turn on the channels you have a hard time watching, reach out to your friends who post things that make you want to block them, read the books and articles by authors you aren’t sure you trust, and look up the actual wording of the speeches of those politicians you wouldn’t mind seeing thrown out of office.  

Don’t do this because you’ll likely find something to agree with them on. You might. You might not. Don’t do it because it will feel good. Because it probably won’t.

Do it because the humanity of the person on the other side of the argument matters as much as your own. Do it because they don’t really understand how you reached your conclusions, either, and maybe in the act of listening and considering, you both might see that your differing perspectives don’t actually make you all that different from one another.

It’s not too late to be part of the solution, even if we’ve failed in the past.

Forrest Spaulding, original photo. By State Library of Iowa – http://publications.iowa.gov/9347/1/Spaulding.pdf, CC BY 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33823093

Forrest Spaulding once disallowed a speech by someone many of his library patrons would have found disagreeable. And by the standards he himself later laid out, that was the wrong thing to do. He then went on to speak out against censorship and was included on the American Library Association’s list of the hundred most important library leaders of the 20th century.

I know you may not think that such a list is a big deal, but I bet that like me, you know a few great librarians. So, consider that Mrs. G., the wonderful children’s librarian in my hometown when I was a kid, is not on that list. This is the woman who listened to me drone on and on about the books she’d probably read a hundred times because she knew that a reader becomes a thinker and a thinker becomes a person who can stand up and speak for the rights of all. That made a difference in my life and, I’m guessing, in a lot of lives. And she’s not even in the top 100.

And this is where I tell you that this morning, I very nearly decided to pull this post and replace it with a sillier, lighter re-run from the Practical Historian archives. Ah, the irony.

But next week will be sillier.

Like a Bat Out of Hell

Clara Ford was at home one day in 1919, I assume doing whatever it is that Clara Ford typically did at home, when she was informed by police that her husband Henry had gotten into trouble with his car. Evidently, he’d been driving “like a bat out of hell,” as one does, I suppose, when one essentially invents the modern auto industry and is probably showing off for one’s grandson who is also in the car.

And worse, he’d been doing so without a driver’s license.

The charming story about Henry Ford and his run-in with the police is shared by the Henry Ford Museum, where you can also see Ford’s first driver’s license, which obviously the above image does not show. Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

That in itself is not as terribly shocking as it first sounds because Michigan only started issuing licenses that year. And after his run-in with the police Henry Ford, at the age of 56, went ahead and got one.

At the age of 56 I think it’s fair to expect that a person is wise enough and cautious enough to be trusted with such power. In fact, that probably happens well before the age of 56. I for one am pretty responsible behind the wheel at a mere 43 years of age. I can’t say I’ve never been pulled over, but it’s been a rare occurrence in my life as a driver. And though I’ve had my license since the tender age of 16, I don’t believe I’ve ever driven like a bat out of hell.

Still, in the last few weeks, 16 has been striking me as incredibly young for the responsibility of driving. Because my oldest son recently hit that milestone.   

A lot of young’uns aren’t pushing so hard these days to get their driver’s license the moment they can. In 2018 there were approximately 227 million licensed drivers on the road in the United States, but only about 25% of sixteen-year-olds were among them. That was down from nearly half in the mid-1980s. I have no idea why so many of the kids aren’t as anxious to get behind the wheel these days, but that was not the case for my son.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that 227 million people were actually on the road at the same time. Can you imagine the traffic jam?
photo credit: Shawn | Shiyang Huang Traffic jam @ Beijing via photopin (license)

He wanted to drive. Actually, I think he’s been wanting to drive since he was four years old, strapped into a car seat in the back, and asking me remarkably intelligent questions about the rules of the road. True story.  

It wasn’t exactly a shock that when he turned fifteen and was old enough to take the written driving test and receive a learner’s permit in our state, he was pretty excited to do it. And he’d been studying since the age of four, so it also wasn’t shocking that he pretty easily passed.

In that year of learning, first in an empty parking lot, then back roads, busier streets with traffic circles and stoplights, lonely highways, and eventually busy interstates where he merged like a pro and stayed nicely centered in his lane, he became a fairly competent driver.

Then he turned sixteen and he wanted to take his driving test so he could get his license. He passed with no trouble. And then on the very day I celebrated the sixteenth anniversary of the first time I ever held my squirming, squishy-faced baby boy, I watched that same kid back out of the driveway and disappear down the street in a car that he was driving all by himself to his martial arts class.

Still what I see.
photo credit: Frank Hemme Hacer camino. via photopin (license)

It was the most anxious moment of my life.

My husband, also anxious, quickly decided he needed to run an errand and followed him. I was grateful, because until that moment, I was pretty sure I might also have an errand to run, and I was relieved when I received a text a little bit later letting me know the car was safely parked at the school.

My son really is a good driver and I become more comfortable each time he returns home safely. I can’t guarantee that he doesn’t drive like a bat out of hell, but I know he never did in his year of permit driving and so far, the police haven’t indicated that that has changed.

I don’t know if these bats are flying out of Hell, but they do seem to be in a reckless kind of hurry. photo credit: USFWS Headquarters Mexican free-tailed bats exiting Bracken Bat Cave via photopin (license)

At least he had to pass a test. Henry Ford didn’t. Michigan only began driver testing in 1931. That is better than the Great State of Missouri, which was actually one of the first to issue licenses for drivers, in 1903. It was another 49 years before the state began testing.

But despite what I sometimes suggest when I am not-so-silently judging the other drivers on the road from the privacy of my own car, they seem to do a pretty good job of it now.

So maybe, depending on the kid, 16 isn’t such a bad age to issue a driver’s license? I don’t know. But I suppose I’d probably worry about him at any age. Maybe even if he were 56.

And Once Again, NYC Drops the Ball

In 1907, the city of New York banned the use of fireworks in Times Square. This was particularly disappointing to New York Times owner Adolph Ochs, who for three years had been responsible for one of the city’s biggest parties celebrating the end of one year and the beginning of the next.

Super pretty, but if launched from Times Square, admittedly maybe not the safest way to celebrate.
By Anthony Quintano, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24638618

When the Times moved into its new, impressively tall, office building in Longacre Square in 1904 and then successfully lobbied the city to rename the square in its honor, Ochs was in the mood to celebrate. He decided New Year’s Eve was a good time to do it and set about designing a terribly chilly street fair that culminated in a firework display and a swell of noisemakers and cheers at the stroke of midnight.

The party was a success, attracting more than 200,000 crazy people who didn’t mind freezing their toes off, and became a highly anticipated annual event in the city. So, when New York said no to the fireworks, Ochs wasn’t ready to give up. Instead, he got creative and reached back into history for a new tradition.

What he found, with the help of his chief electrician Walter Palmer, was a time-ball that had been installed in 1833 on top of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. The time-ball dropped at precisely one o’clock every afternoon and served as a tool by which ship captains could set their chronometers.

Adolph Ochs decided that what his party needed was a fancy time-ball to mark the precise beginning of the new year so that everyone could count down the last seconds and share the first kiss of the new year with someone special, or with whomever happened to be handy.

He recruited electrician and metalworker Jacob Starr and his company Artkraft Strauss to design a ball made of wood and iron and lighted by one hundred incandescent light bulbs. At only five feet in diameter, this ball weighed a mere seven hundred pounds and was hoisted on a seventy-foot flag pole by a thick rope and six men.

The Times outgrew its office space by 1914 and had to make another move, but the newfangled old and kind of weird ball drop tradition in Times Square has continued every year (except two) since that first one in 1907. The ball’s diameter has expanded over the years. It’s gotten a whole lot more Waterford crystal-y and more than five tons heavier. But it has become the world’s most widely recognized symbol for the beginning of a new year.

The only times the ball didn’t drop were 1942 and 1943 when wartime dimouts prohibited the display. But that didn’t stop New Yorkers, and probably quite a few very cold visitors to New York, from gathering and celebrating with a moment of shivery silence followed by the ringing of chimes.

This view might be the only thing I’d find worse than being packed into the Times Square crowd on a cold New Year’s Eve. By Anthony Quintano, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24638618

Because when it’s important, the celebration goes on, even when it looks a little different. Sometimes people just discover that quieter celebrations will serve and other times strange and beautiful new traditions are born.

Much of the world, including New York City, is facing a lot of restrictions and challenges coming into the celebration today of the end of a year that has turned out to be pretty difficult to navigate and the beginning of a new year that we sure are hoping might turn out to be a little bit easier.

I imagine most of us will be engaging in somewhat subdued celebrations, maybe at home warm in our pajamas watching a broadcast of the ball in a much emptier Times Square than we’re used to seeing. There will be no public present. It’ll only be the press, a few performers, and some of New York’s first responder families specially invited and socially distanced from one another. There will be no kissing of just any old handy person, and also everyone will probably be even colder than they would be if they were pressed together with a large crowd.

Personally, I like being warm, and I’m not overly fond of crowds anyway so I’m happy this year, like every previous one of my life, not to attend the year’s biggest party in person. But I’m also happy that New York, which has been dropping the ball for a long time, is finding a way to make it work. I’ll probably be watching from my living room where I’ll join in the countdown to the end of 2020 and share my first kiss of 2021 with someone special.

You Can Keep the Oysters

Christmas traditions were a big deal in my childhood home, and we had a lot of them. From the homemade cards my mom designed (and still does) every year, to my dad’s special fudge recipe, to carols sung around the Advent wreath, to a candy cane hanging from the star atop the Christmas tree. And Christmas Eve always meant a big simmering pot of chili on the stove top.

Some traditions never change.

I’m pretty sure this last tradition arose for us because Christmas Eve can get a little rushed as a big family pulls together all the last-minute bits of the holiday, wraps gifts, and tries to get ready for church service in time to get a seat on this most special of crowded occasions. Chili is started early and it can just wait, bubbling away, its flavors melding to perfection, until someone has time to eat it.

And it was something that everyone actually liked. Some of us were purists who enjoyed it straight up, others were picky eaters who preferred the beans separated out (thanks, Dad!), and others piled our bowls high with oyster crackers. What I never knew was that the crackers were a Christmas Eve tradition, too, and a much bigger one than our pot of chili.

I realize that Christmas Eve chili isn’t a thing commonly shared by families in the US, or anywhere as far as I know, but oyster crackers, and the stew they were likely named for, apparently are. All across the United States, especially in the southeast, and even in several other parts of the world, there are lots of people who insist that oyster stew is the dish that announces Christmas Eve is upon us.

The closest I’m willing to get to eating oysters on Christmas Eve.

Oysters were a large part of the diets of early European immigrants in North America, as they were for many of the indigenous peoples, but it was sometime in the 19th century that they became linked with Christmas.

Some oyster historians suggest that it was the influence of massive Irish immigration in the mid-19th century that made the oyster a holiday food of choice. The immigrants, most of them strict Catholics, followed the dietary guidelines of their faith and stuck to seafood on high holy days. Oysters were widely available and even tasted a little like the ling fish that formed the basis of the stew they would have enjoyed in Ireland.

Other oyster historians, because apparently there are at least a few, have posited that the ever-popular oyster was shipped overland to the inner parts of the US, but only after the weather was consistently cold enough to make the journey of edible bivalves possible. That would happen in early December, meaning the first time in quite some time that a Midwestern family could get its hands on fresh-ish oyster was around Christmas Eve.

It’s no chili, but I guess that doesn’t look too bad. Kent Wang, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m not sure the two theories are necessarily exclusionary. And having grown up in the Midwest, I think I can safely say that when it comes to eating fish on a high holy day, oysters that have traveled by wagon for two weeks probably aren’t any worse than a giant catfish that’s been sucking on mud from the bottom of the Mississippi River.

But then I’m not really a seafood girl. I do blame my Midwestern upbringing, and multiple encounters with questionable catfish, for that. When I briefly lived on the west coast in Oregon, I branched out and made peace with some seafood. I quite enjoy crab and most fresh ocean white fish is a tolerable alternative if the menu doesn’t contain chicken. I do, however, remain gleefully unacquainted with the oyster.

Oyster crackers are okay, though, and fortunately I have no religious qualms about eating chili, filled with beef or venison, on Christmas Eve.

Nope. That does not look delicious.

I don’t actually do that anymore because the picky eaters among the family that inhabits my grown-up home don’t all like chili. Instead, we make fettuccini carbonara because everyone likes it and it tosses together quickly on a night that usually ends up being pretty busy.

And I suppose it’s okay for traditions to change sometimes. Because this Midwestern gal is definitely not eating oysters.

If you celebrate it, what special holiday dishes do you enjoy on Christmas Eve?

B-boys go down! For Gold

I suspect that when Jamaican deejay Clive Campbell, better known as DJ Kool Herc, started looping together the siq-est beats he could find in New York in the 1960s, he probably wasn’t thinking about the Olympic anthem. And when he cried out “B-boys go down!” the dancers who took to the floor with all kinds of new and highly athletic moves, probably weren’t dreaming of Olympic gold.

But from wildly creative and humble beginnings, break dancing or, as the cool kids are calling it now, “breaking,” rose this week to new heights. Because the cool kids are the International Olympic Committee, and they just invited the b-boys to their party.

I don’t think you can really argue that this isn’t an impressive display of athleticism. photo credit: Hugo Chinaglia via photopin (license)

I mention this because, like me, you might not be paying much attention to the news since it’s all a little overwhelming and generally ignores (and/or misrepresents) the most important things anyway. Obviously, one of those most important things is that break dancing will now officially be a part of the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.

At this point, you might be asking why. If so, you’re definitely not alone. There are more than a few (like probably at least four) internationally ranked squash players who are pretty miffed about the decision as their sport has once again been passed over.

All I know about break dancing is that it looks terribly difficult and also pretty darn cool, and though it strikes me as exceptionally athletic, it does also seem to me like a pretty odd choice for the Olympic games. So, I looked into the decision a little bit.

Okay, maybe more than four. Huerndy, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To be admitted by the IOC, a sport must be widely practiced by men in a minimum of 75 countries on four continents and by women in a minimum of 40 countries on three continents. The sport must also add “value and appeal” to the Olympics, can’t rely on mechanical propulsion, can’t be purely intellectual in nature, and I guess can’t be squash.

It was news to me that there actually are international break dancing competitions since I’ve yet to see one on ESPN, but there are. And although I had no idea break dancing was so popular all over the world, I assume the sport meets all these most basic criteria. There’s also the claim that break dancing is heavily influenced by gymnastics and martial arts, both of which are already Olympic sports.

The question remains whether breaking will add value and appeal to the games. The IOC thinks it will and touts a commitment to including more “urbanized events” that appeal to a new generation of couch potatoes who become sports experts for two weeks out of every two years.

They might be right. But they are also adding to the long list of Olympic sports with outcomes that, much like American presidential elections, are somewhat subjective and difficult to measure and that often result in protested outcomes that kind of make the world not really want to play anymore.

Wouldn’t this be simpler?

Then again, part of the story of break dancing is the dance battle in which rival gangs sometimes managed to avoid violent confrontations by settling disputes through the exchange of slick dance moves. Allegedly.

I am definitely in favor of more dance battles on the international stage.

Actually, I’d like more dance battles on the domestic stage as well. So, I guess, why not?

My apologies to the squash players.

Cookie Problem

I have a cookie problem.

Normally, this first weekend of December that’s due to descend upon us would be the time when my family would open up our home for a Christmas party with our wonderful neighbors. Every year, in preparation for that party, I bake approximately four dozen each of at least five types of cookies. If you care to do the math, that’s approximately two hundred and fifty cookies.

This is a dark chocolate cookie I never actually realized was a Christmas tradition, but one son recently informed me it’s his absolute favorite and I apparently have only ever made it at this time of year.

In addition to the cookies, I make homemade peanut butter cups, chocolate covered cherries, Oreo truffles, turtles, chocolate covered pretzels, and a large batch of fudge. I might have a candy problem, too.

It’s a tradition that probably sounds pretty familiar to a lot of you. People have been making special Christmas cookies and desserts since before there was an official Christmas to celebrate. As early as the tenth century, solstice festivals in many parts of the world involved feasting before the long winter ahead. Animals were slaughtered because meat keeps better in the cold than live animals do. Final harvests were brought in. Springtime beer and wine were aged enough to be properly enjoyed. And newfangled spices from newfangled trade routes made interesting sweet treats attainable.

Then along came Christmas with all its many traditions including baked gifts lovingly given to friends, and neighbors, and jolly fat men sliding down chimneys. Actually, leaving cookies for Santa may have been influenced by a pre-Christmas tradition as well, involving the ancient Norse god Odin and an eight-legged horse who would happily exchange small gifts for some treats.

These are Oreo truffles, which we usually just call “Oreo balls,” but that feels rude. They are the favorite of my next door neighbor who, weirded out or not, is going to have to take some off my hands.

But none of that helps me in my current predicament. Because in years that aren’t 2020, I make enough sweet treats to feed my neighbors until they are sick, take plates of goodies to share with friends at church, send snacks to the break room at my husband’s workplace, satisfy my constantly hungry children, gain five pounds myself, and even have enough left over to leave out for Santa on his big night.

Making these treats is a Christmas tradition, among so many traditions we just can’t make happen this year in the midst of Covid. My kids want to make and enjoy them all—all five varieties of cookies and each type of candy—despite the fact that there will be no large gathering of neighbors, no in-person church activities, and a changing work situation that has drastically limited break room treat-leaving opportunities.

And this looms in my near future. Because tradition. Image by silviarita from Pixabay

We can’t even count on Santa to be much help. He’s always forgetting to grab his cookies on Christmas Eve and I end up eating them myself. I can’t blame him. It’s a busy night and most chimneys are probably a tight squeeze.

Yes, I can make smaller batches, but it’s still a lot. And yes, I can deliver some to neighbors, but a lot of people are understandably a little weird about accepting homemade goodies in our current environment.

So, I have a cookie problem, which admittedly might not be the worst problem to have. But it is starting to look like I’m going gain more than five pounds this year.

Let’s Talk Turkey

In 1535, Spanish colonialist and historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés published his General and Natural History of the Indies in which he described for the old world some of the elements of the new, including hammocks, pineapples, and turkeys.

Though the turkey had already been imported to Europe by this time and had been greeted with enthusiasm by farmers who found that they were kind of delicious and got to work domesticating them, Oviedo’s work offers the earliest really good description of the bird that graces most US Thanksgiving tables.

By Jean Leon Gerome Ferris – Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=227219

But Europeans were far from the first to domesticate the wild turkey. More than two thousand years ago, the early people of Mexico could lay claim to that. Turkeys have long been an important part of most Native American cultures. Heavily featured in folklore, turkeys provided feathers for ceremonial headdresses, acted as insect control, and became a reliable food source when larger game proved more elusive. And in case you wanted to give one a try this Thanksgiving, the internet includes plenty of turkey recipes out of Mexico that claim to span millennia.

Anthropological research from the last few years suggests Native Americans in what would become the southeastern US were also domesticating this most thankful of birds as early as 1200 AD. So, when Europeans started to do it, it wasn’t exactly a big deal.

It was, however, a pretty good idea because turkeys can be a challenge to hunt. They are incredibly skittish and can be difficult to lure in with calls, despite the fact that manufactured calls are better than they’ve ever been. And according to a lot of turkey hunters, it’s getting harder every year.

A male wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) strutting at Deer Island Open Space Preserve near Novato, Marin County, California

Part of the explanation for this is that in the early twentieth century, wild turkeys in North America were nearly extinct. They were facing increased habitat pressure and had been severely over-hunted. The fact that the population is flourishing today is a triumph of intense wildlife management, but also of the process of natural selection which obviously favored the birds that were too careful to get themselves successfully hunted.

As a person who has no particular desire to go turkey hunting, this doesn’t much bother me. But I do have friends and loved ones who enjoy the sport, or at least they are pretty sure they would if they could find success. Personally, I’m perfectly content to buy a domestic bird from the freezer section of my grocery store. Even if I have trouble finding the exact size I want, I have never failed to bag a turkey at the grocery store.

That is until this week.

If you read my post last week, you know that my family and I have been quarantined since my youngest son tested positive for Covid. He’s fully recovered and at this point none of the rest of us have developed symptoms, but the timing of our quarantine caused a problem.

Thanksgiving is saved!

With Thanksgiving coming up next week, we are really close to the time when we’d have to remove our frozen turkey to the refrigerator to begin thawing. Trouble is, though we did have plenty of toilet paper on hand, we didn’t yet have our frozen bird when we went into lockdown.

We do live in an area where it’s easy to get grocery delivery, but when my husband and I started thinking about a stranger picking out our Thanksgiving turkey for us, we hesitated. We realize this doesn’t make a lot of sense, but if you’re looking for a precise size, this close to Thanksgiving, sometimes the perfect turkey can prove a little elusive. And we didn’t want our delivery person to substitute seven Cornish game hens and some AA batteries when they couldn’t find the bird we wanted.

A smell this delicious transfers over Zoom I bet. Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

It seems even domesticated turkey hunting can be a little tricky.

Fortunately, a hero emerged to rescue us from our predicament. My wonderful sister-in-law who lives a little more than an hour away from us, drove to our house to drop the perfect frozen bird on our doorstep. It should thaw in plenty of time for our favorite turkey recipe that doesn’t span millennia, but is still awfully good.

Barring any additional illness in the household, we should emerge from quarantine in time to hunt for all our own side dish ingredients, too. We have much to be thankful for this year!

I will be eating turkey next Thursday with my family, some live and most virtually, so I won’t be posting in this space. If you celebrate American Thanksgiving, I wish you and your loved ones a very happy holiday! If you don’t, then I wish you a very thankful Thursday!

The Week’s Not Over Yet

Between the years 1350 and 1353, Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a collection of one hundred tales published as The Decameron. I’d never read them, and in the interest of full disclosure, I admit that other than a few translated excerpts while writing this post, I still haven’t. But I am intrigued by the premise.

Written in the common man’s Italian (at the time), the collection is set against the backdrop of a 1348 outbreak of the Black Death. The stories are presented as though they are shared among ten friends holed up in a villa outside of Florence, responsibly minding their social distance and avoiding the plague like . . . well, the plague.

Thanks to this guy and Project Gutenberg, you can spend your time stuck at home with nothing to do reading about a bunch of people stuck at home with nothing to do. Raffaello Sanzio Morghen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Seven women and three men during a fourteen-day period are tasked with entertaining the others with a story each night. Two days are reserved for chores and two for worship, leaving ten evenings of ten stories, one hundred stories in all.

If you’re familiar with the Canterbury Tales you may realize that Boccaccio’s work probably had a pretty big influence on Chaucer who pretty much did the same thing several decades later except in the common man’s English (at the time) and with more religious pilgrimaging and less plagueyness.

I have read the Canterbury Tales, both in modern translation and in Middle English, and discussed them pretentiously, and written academic papers about them. But I’ve never been on a religious pilgrimage.

I have, however, been in quarantine, holed up for two weeks at a time in my house during a plague. If the last time I read the Canterbury Tales, you’d asked me which of those I was more likely to experience, I’d have guessed wrong.

I can see why isolation and storytelling might have been a pretty good idea. Spread of the Black Death in Europe Flappiefh, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been thinking about Boccaccio and The Decameron because I’ve had a lot of time on my hands. This has been quite a week here in the household of practical history. I know that by now most of us have had those weeks at one point or another since early this year when the world went sideways, but this has definitely been one of ours.

It actually began a little bit before this week when my husband who works in healthcare was informed that his hospital system plans to close the department in which he works. His job as he knows it will apparently be gone at an occasionally determined time in the near future. Except we recently learned that might not really be true, except that it definitely is sort of true. Probably. We’re confused, too.

And then there’s our fifteen-year-old who was told two weeks ago that he’d been potentially exposed to Covid-19 in school. That meant he had to remain home in quarantine for 14 days, or for 10 days after developing any symptoms if he tested positive and took a couple days off for chores and two for worship. Or something like that. It’s also kind of confusing.

It was bound to happen at some point. Tistip, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So that’s some of the background. Then this past weekend, our 13-year-old, who had been doing his thing with mask and appropriate social distancing while more or less keeping away from his brother as much as possible, developed a fever and tested positive for Covid-19. Apparently, the wrong kid was quarantined.

Now he’s isolated and the rest of us are homebound, including the 15-year-old who proved negative for Covid-19 when tested after his brother’s positive result. Originally, he would have been released from quarantine yesterday, but since he has presumably been exposed to his brother, the 14 days begins again. From what point, we’re not entirely sure, as the answer to that questions seems to depend primarily on who you ask and what they had for breakfast that day.

Of course, that no longer matters anyway. On Tuesday of this week, after a painfully long publicly broadcasted meeting in which the elected members of our school board proved they don’t read emails or listen, it was decided that our district’s high schools and middle schools would move to virtual learning due to staffing difficulties caused by rolling quarantines.  

Virtual school isn’t ideal, but I think it’s much better than 45% percent attendance and constant staff shortages. Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

So, we’re at home. And that’s fine. There are a lot of people all over the world in similar predicaments, and we’re fairly well set. Symptoms have so far fallen into the short-lived and mild range, and we have the supplies we need, or the ability to have delivered whatever we don’t. We just have to figure out how to fill our abundance of extra time.

I’m thinking we may start requiring family story time each evening. There are only four of us and I haven’t done the math, but as we might all be in quarantine for fourteen days after each of us develops any symptoms, I think we could make it to a hundred.

We probably have the material. Boccaccio’s narrator Dioneo offers some guidance to his tale-tellers on eight of the ten days, demanding examples of power and fortune, examples of the power of human will, tragic love stories, happy love stories, clever stories that save the storyteller, tricks women play on men, tricks any person plays on anyone else, and examples of virtue. I bet we have it all covered.

And the week’s not over yet.

A Nude Horse is a Rude Horse

It’s been kind of a rough week here in the United States. Anxieties are running high as we wait for the final results of what looks to be an incredibly tight hot mess of a presidential election between one guy that half the nation finds terrifying and another guy that the other half of the nation finds terrifying. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say we’re all a little stressed out.

So, I want to take a moment to harken back to a time sixty years or so ago when a political movement of critical importance took the country by storm and caused the well-informed citizens of the United States to scratch our heads and in one more or less unified voice, say, “Wait, what?”

My dog Ozzie, just as brazenly pantsless as the day he was born.

I refer, of course, to the great cause of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA), which actually traces its roots back even further to a man named G. Clifford Prout, Sr. who was tired of seeing indecency in the fields and backyards full of frolicking, naked pets, livestock, and wild animals.

It was in May of 1959 when G. Clifford Prout, Jr. finally broke into the mainstream to continue the important work his father had begun, with an appearance on the Today Show on NBC. There he explained that SINA was pushing for the clothing of “any dog, cat, horse, or cow that stands higher than four inches or longer than six inches,” and touted the SINA slogans: “Decency today means morality tomorrow” and my personal favorite, “A nude horse is a rude horse.”  

Finally. Decency. photo credit: Hanafan It is no dog? via photopin (license)

The American media was intrigued, and so was the public. Prout worked for several years to spread the message that to allow naked animals to run amok, causing all manner of accidents as motorists become distracted by fields of naked cows and bulls, was not only irresponsible, but immoral.

Based in New York, SINA gained momentum, claiming branch offices in Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, and even London. Anyone could join as long as they desired to decently clothe their pets, and if they could get away with it, their neighbor’s pets, too. The organization would not accept money, however, because Prout was independently wealthy and the bylaws disallowed it.

Does one have to apply for the job of hoakster? Because I think I might enjoy that. Alan Abel by Cranky Media Guy at English Wikipedia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Of course, good journalism is hard work rarely done, and so it took a while for anyone to uncover the fact that G. Clifford Prout, Jr. was less nutter than fictional. He was a character portrayed by actor, writer, and director Buck Henry and created by hoaxter and mockumentary filmmaker Alan Abel who played the part of SINA’a vice president Bruce Spencer.

After CBS aired an interview with Prout, conducted by America’s most trusted newsman Walter Cronkite, in which Cronkite displayed amazing fortitude by not laughing out loud at his ridiculous guest, some members of the crew put two and two together. They recognized Henry, who at the time, actually worked at CBS. Cronkite was furious, but word was out.

I guess I might buy that this guy would
put pants on his dog.
photo by Alan Light, CC BY 2.0
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

Time broke the story of the hoax shortly after that in 1963, the animals took off their pants, and everyone (except Walter Cronkite) had a good laugh about it.

SINA was one of the most successful hoaxes Abel ever pulled off, though far from the only one. He was the man behind Omar’s School for Beggars, Euthanasia Cruises, Ltd., and a mass coordinated fainting episode that briefly cleared the audience from a taping of The Phil Donahue Show. He even made a fake run for Congress on the platform of selling ambassadorships, infusing the water in the drinking fountains in the senate with truth serum, and eliminating Wednesday to create a four-day work week. Actually, I’m in favor of at least one of those.

If he hadn’t passed away in 2018, I might assume he was behind the cluster that is the 2020 presidential election, too. At least I kind of hope it’s a hoax. That sure would make the journalists mad, but I’d probably laugh. Because this is seriously as ridiculous as insisting that horses wear pants.

No Kooks, Please: A Halloween Séance Adventure

Halloween is just a couple days away and like most holidays in 2020, it might look a little different than usual. In a lot of places trick-or-treating is unsanctioned (though if my Facebook feed is to be believed, it’ll probably happen anyway) and big parties are (or probably should be) out. But there is still one event happening that has been a Halloween tradition since 1927, exactly one year after the death of famed illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini.

My actual plans this Halloween.

Every year on the anniversary of Houdini’s death, fans and enthusiasts hold séances in an attempt to contact him in the beyond. And if they’re fans who know much about him, then they probably assume nothing is going to happen.

Harry Houdini, born Erik Weisz, was a big skeptic when it came to anything with a whiff of spiritualism. As a man who knew a thing or two about creating illusions for the delight of an audience, he was pretty appalled that others would pass off their own illusions as genuine supernatural experiences to those in a vulnerable state of grief. From about 1920 or so, he made it his professional goal to expose fraudulent mediums.

He wasn’t entirely closed to the idea of communication with the dead. Along with the magazine Scientific American, the magician offered a cash prize of $10,000 to anyone who could conduct a genuine séance. Though no one ever managed to collect the money, and Houdini attended a lot of séances in disguise just so he could announce “I am Houdini! And you are a fraud!” the moment he figured out the trick, he did give it a last good go, just in case.

Houdini figured if anyone could escape death long enough to to say hey, it would probably be him. By McManus-Young Collection – Library of Congress, Public Domain,via Wikimedia Commons

Prior to his death, Houdini worked out with his wife Bess that if he were to die first, she should enlist a medium and attempt to contact him. They developed a code so she’d know if he was actually passing her a message from beyond and that such a thing was possible.

In honor of his memory, Bess did it, every year on the anniversary of his death, for a full decade, at which point she allegedly said, “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.”

But even though she didn’t care to pursue the séance, she did pass on the tradition to author and magician Walter B. Gibson. He eventually handed it down to Houdini expert and escape artist Dorothy Dietrich, and she’s kept it up ever since.

And yes, this Halloween you can be a part of the fun, even from the socially distanced comfort of your own home. The Houdini Museum will be holding an event with Dorothy Dietrich at its location in Scranton, Pennsylvania, which boasts that it’s the world’s only museum dedicated entirely to Harry Houdini.

If you can’t make it to Scranton, the museum is also reaching out to ask everyone, anywhere in the world, to hold a Houdini séance wherever they may be sometime during the 24-hour period of October 31, and report on the results.

I can already hear your concerns. First, séances (or at least the ones in the movies) involve holding hands and spending time within the six-foot bubbles of several fellow participants. I suppose that’s a valid point. You’ll just have to proceed at your own risk and keep your hand sanitizer at the ready. But this is for science, people.

Seriously, there is a lot of unclaimed bling out there for the person who can give actual proof of the paranormal, which I suppose is pretty good evidence against it. Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Secondly, you might not know how exactly to conduct a séance. Have no fear on that score. According to Houdini himself, no one else does, either.

Finally, there’s the difficulty that you might actually be successful, and if you are, you’ll definitely have some explaining to do. Because the most dedicated Houdini séance participants do not expect it to work. In fact, the event website even specifies: “No kooks please.” You will, however, be poised to claim a whole lot of standing prize money, long unclaimed, from individuals and organizations all over the world, that like Houdini before them, are looking for evidence of genuine paranormal activity.

And you’ll have had something to do on Halloween. Unless of course it doesn’t work, in which case, I guess you won’t really have done anything at all and you’ll be right back where you started. But at least you won’t be labeled a kook.