A Modern-Day Not-a-Fish Story

When in July of 1891, the ship Star of the East made it to port in Connecticut after a two-and-a-half-year journey, it brought with it a story of Biblical proportions. Among the ship’s crew was a relatively new sailor by the name of James Bartley, who had, in his short time at sea, become the center of one of the biggest fish stories ever told.

whale
Yes, dear reader, I am perfectly aware that this is a marine mammal and not actually a big fish. Thank you for your concern.

The previous February of that same year, the Star of the East, found itself whaling off the coast of South America, near the Falkland Islands. There, two longboats full of sailors tangled with a large whale. One of the two boats became upset by the harpooned creature, which was understandably also pretty upset. The crew believed two of the men, including James Bartley, lost to the deep.

That might have been the end of James Bartley’s story, but the crew managed at last to haul the great not-a-fish aboard their vessel and began the long process of dressing their catch, harvesting the valuable blubber. Before long, they noticed something strange—the dead whale’s stomach writhed as though it were about to birth an alien.alien birth

Because as anyone who has ever seen Alien can tell you, nothing good ever burst out of a creature where it didn’t belong in the first place, the sailors took their time getting the stomach opened up. When they did, out spilled James Bartley, alive, if not especially well.

Bleached by the whale’s intestinal juices, Bartley’s skin was white and shriveled and he spent the rest of his life mostly blind. As you might expect, he wasn’t in the best frame of mind either, and suffered the emotional effects of his marine mammal imprisonment for some time afterward. But apparently by July, he was ready to tell the world about his harrowing adventure and fulfill his role as the modern-day Jonah.

You might be a little skeptical of this story and you wouldn’t be alone. But the crew of the Star of the East backed up the sailor’s claims and Bible literalists jumped at the opportunity to share what they saw as scientific proof that anyone who wished to paint the Biblical Jonah story as allegorical was a dunderhead of the first rate.

Dubious details or not, the public loved the story of James Bartley and the whale. Even after the wife of Star of the East captain John Killam claimed in a letter fifteen years later that the story was entirely invented, the tale persisted, popping up every few years in small publications, Bible commentaries, and in Ripley’s Believe it or Not comic strip, complete with insistent claims that unnamed sailors and scientists say people get swallowed by whales all the time.

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Jonah is Spewed Forth by a Whale by Gustave Doré [Public domain]
Because it’s the kind of miraculous story people want to believe. So, it was pretty exciting when South African wildlife photographer Rainer Schimpf recently had a similar experience. While diving and photographing a sardine run near Port Elizabeth Harbor, Schimpf found himself head first inside the mouth of Bryde’s Whale.

Still, when I say it was a similar event, there were some important differences. First, there’s photographic evidence of the event. A colleague of Schimpf’s managed to snap a great shot of his flippered legs dangling from the side of the creature’s mouth. Also, this modern-day Jonah was not swallowed whole. In fact, in post-event interviews, the photographer confessed that he knew the whale could not swallow him. His only real concern was that the animal might drag him into the deep where he would surely drown.

Fortunately, the whale was clever enough to realize he didn’t care for the taste of wetsuit and was quick to spit out his accidental nibble as if it were a chicken bone, unharmed and with a great not-a-fish story to tell.

chicken bones
Not a bowl of sardines.

Because it is a great story. And so is the tale of James Bartley, even though it almost certainly didn’t contain even an ounce of truth. In 1991, a professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania named Edward B. Davis investigated the claim. He discovered that there really was a ship, though not a whaling vessel, called the Star of the East, and that it is plausible the ship might have been near the Falklands at the time of the alleged event. But what he also found is that among the thorough records available was not a single mention of a sailor by the name of James Bartley.

And that is where the not-a-fish story of James Bartley really does come to an end.

Wait—did you just make up a word?

Every week, or at least as closely as I can make it, I head out to a local restaurant where the waitress knows my order as soon as I walk in. I slide into the back room and take my place at a long table where, along with several other writers, I engage in the painful but necessary process of critique.

For nearly six years I’ve been subjecting my work, five or so pages at a time, to the scrutinizing eyes of more or less the same collection of critical readers.

We know each other well enough by now that the sting of harsh criticism isn’t too painful and any heaped-on praise is usually genuine. We each know the unique voices and styles of the others, share a great deal of respect for one another’s work, and have all become more skilled throughout our time together.

We’ve got a good thing going.

writer
A writer looking for just the right word.

My fellow critique partners focus on both the big stuff and the small details, asking me the tough questions about story structure and character development, as well as calling me out for awkward phrasing, run-on sentences that include fifty-eight overly sentimental words, use of ridiculous adverbs indiscriminately, exceptionally long lists, or for starting sentences with “but or “and.”

But they know that when it’s their turn to share, I will ask the tough questions too, like, “Wait—did you just make up a word?”

This very situation came up a couple of weeks ago. The writer (who shall remain nameless) smiled and explained that he did not just make it up, because it actually appears in previous works of his as well. I let it slide because the word (zorch) somehow fit the context remarkably well. And sometimes the word we need just doesn’t exist in the dictionary.

Other times, words that wind up in the dictionary are ones we don’t need. That’s what happened in second edition of Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary in 1934. The story goes that in July of 1931, chemistry editor Austin M. Patterson made a note that the word density should be included on the list of words that could be represented by the abbreviations D or d.

Somehow the note got misplaced and ended up directed incorrectly to the printer. Before long, a curious word nerd could find, tucked into the Ds between Dorcopsis and doré, the word Dord, complete with a pronunciation guide and a definition suggesting that it was a synonym for density.

dictionary
So many words. photo credit: Merriam-Webster Inc. MW_Bookshelf_Unabridged_Vintage via photopin (license)

No one caught the problem until a word nerd extraordinaire and editor for Merriam-Webster noticed, almost eight years later, that Dord didn’t have an etymology. The resulting investigation resulted in the removal of the ghost word by 1940, but for almost ten years Dord was a perfectly good word.

And why shouldn’t it have been? English is, after all, a dynamic language. In recent years, English language dictionaries have added, on average, more than one thousand new words each year. So far, Dord hasn’t been one of them. Neither has zorch.

I am, however, pleased that the online Urban Dictionary includes three definitions for Merriam-Webster’s most famous not-a-word. The first states that it is a mistaken synonym for density. The third defines it as “a word that is incorrectly used or does not technically exist . . .” My favorite part about this definition is the clever accompanying sentence: “Urban Dictionary is not a place to learn, it’s just a load of dords.”

I’m sure my critique partners would be quick to point out that the previous sentence is a comma splice, but what matters more is the second definition, which uses dord as an adjective for describing something as literally dense. I suggest this should be taken one step further and used figuratively. For example, I might say to a fellow writer: “You must be pretty dord to try to use the word zorch.”

I think I’ll roll this out and see if it sticks. Maybe it’ll become one of Merriam-Webster’s thousand or so new words in its next edition.

What words do you wish existed?

Revision, Blogging, and Imaginary Fame

I confess I wasn’t going to post anything today. I love writing in this space and interacting with those readers who are kind enough to leave a comment, thereby publicly admitting that they have read my foolishness. Thursdays are blog days. Still, posting weekly sometimes gets a little overwhelming. Currently I am knee-deep in a novel revision of the type that never goes as smoothly as I think it will.

Part of the problem is that I get bogged down with little research questions. What, for example, besides the Bible, might a family have been reading aloud by the fire in 1836 in rural Pennsylvania? I am genuinely asking by the way, as this is a problem I’ve not yet managed to solve adequately. If you point me in the right direction, I promise to name you in the acknowledgments.

booktoursteve
Steve the Traveling Sock Monkey is ready to go!

I’m also in the middle of preparing to go on book tour.

That little sentence gets its own paragraph because it makes me giddy. The “tour” as I call it really is just a couple of bookstore signings tacked onto a trip to participate in the Augusta Literary Festival in (you guessed it) Augusta, Georgia, at the beginning of March.

I’m pretty excited about this because I do not live in Georgia. In fact, I have never lived in Georgia. I have never even lived in a state that borders Georgia. As thrilled as I am, I might as well be going on an international speaking tour.augustaliteraryfestival

Mark Twain did that. In the summer of 1895, the then fifty-nine-year-old great American humorist hit the road, delivering recitations of portions of his own impressive and hilarious works. He did this in front of large crowds all over the world from Australia to South Africa to Great Britain, where the report of his death was greatly exaggerated.Mark_Twain_circa_1890 It should probably be noted that he was not invited to participate in the Augusta Literary Festival, though admittedly, had it existed at the time, I’m sure he would have been welcome.

Twain embarked on his successful tour as a scheme to get himself out of debt. I’m hitting the road because I have a pretty great librarian sister-in-law who does live in Georgia and is the best cheerleader ever.

I’m pretty sure I won’t draw quite the crowds Mark Twain managed, but I do hope that if you, dear reader, happen to reside in the neighborhood of Augusta or Savannah, Georgia, maybe you’ll swing by to say hello. I’m probably not as funny and charming as Mark Twain, but I promise I’ll do my best.

I won’t be traveling as long as Mark Twain did, either. His great comedy tour lasted more than a year. Mine will be a long weekend. But because I imagine I’m famous (and sometimes coincidence works in my favor) I have a speaking engagement when I get back to the great state of Missouri, too. That one is sure to draw a crowd because I will be talking to an auditorium full of high school students who can choose to either attend my presentation or go to class. If I lose out to a physics lecture, I will be particularly disheartened.

Then finally, it will be back to work, answering tedious questions about life in the 1830s and writing, rewriting, revising, and yes most weeks, posting to this blog. Because Thursdays are blog days.

Huggin’ It Out for Millennia

It’s been about twelve years since the discovery of a Neolithic tomb near Mantua, Italy set archaeologists’ hearts aflutter. In this land associated with Shakespeare’s famous pair of tragically short-sighted and love-besotted teenagers, a team of archaeologists led by Elena Maria Menotti uncovered a six-thousand-year-old tomb for two. Inside were two skeletons, a male and female, with their arms and legs entwined.

And that’s when the team proved they’d paid attention in high school English class and demonstrated their worthiness to be involved in such a find by incessantly quoting Romeo & Juliet. Located in the village of Valdaro, the couple has become known as the Valdaro Lovers, and they represent the only such entwined remains ever to have been found.

lovers
The Lovers of Valdaro. Dagmar Hollmann [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
Although the couple did die young (probably somewhere around age eighteen or twenty) it seems unlikely they died violent deaths, each making the assumption the other has kicked the bucket because one of them was dumb enough to play opossum without bothering to clue in the other.

Unlike their Shakespearian counterparts, the Neolithic lovers evidently managed to survive the throes of perpetual hormonal concussion associated with human teenagers. While it’s not impossible that they died in one another’s arms, according to researchers, the bodies were most likely arranged in a peaceful embrace after death.

Their deaths may have been somewhat less tragic, but their eternal embrace touching. While most Neolithic skeletons are studied bone by bone, the Valdaro Lovers have never been separated, and I suppose that’s the way it should be.

We are living in a world in which the most often referenced example of literary love is a couple of teenagers who were convinced to commit suicide rather than survive the flush of their first intense crush. Separation, divorce, and heartbreak seems more common than a relationship that lasts a lifetime. So, it’s nice, especially on Valentine’s Day, to think of a couple whose love has survived millennia.

hug
Pretty sure my stress level went down just looking at this picture.

Besides, who doesn’t like a good hug? Research suggests that those of us giving and receiving regular hugs—at least 8 per day—are probably reaping some significant health benefits. Hugs lower stress, strengthen our immune systems, reduce pain, and boost oxytocin levels.

Apparently, that wasn’t enough for the young lovers of Vadaro, but they’ll keep trying. Thanks in part to the efforts of an association called the Lovers of Mantua, led by Professor Silvia Bagnoli, the two will remain forever entwined and on exhibit at the National Archaeological Museum of Mantua. This decision presents a difficulty when it comes to studying the couple, meaning their story—what pieces we might be able to find of it—may remain undiscovered. But it doesn’t really take fancy science to see the makings of a good love story.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

The Greatest Shoe-Buying Orgy in History

On June 17th, 1943, the New York Times printed an editorial speculating that the United States found itself on the verge of the “the greatest shoe buying orgy in the history of the nation.” This was about four months into the U.S. Office of Price Administration’s institution of shoe rations.

The OPA, the same people who brought the US rations on sugar and gasoline and an outright (albeit short-lived) ban on sliced bread, called for shoe rations because rubber and leather were in short supply during World War II. In their great wisdom, they suggested members of the American public could get by with no more than three new pairs of shoes per year. Also, these shoes would only come in four colors—black, white, dark brown, and light brown, and under no circumstances were shoes to be multicolored. Because war.

shoe rations
By Charles Henry Alston, 1907-1977, Artist (NARA record: 3569253) – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There were some exceptions. Police officers and others who relied heavily on a sturdy pair of shoes to complete their essential tasks were excused from the rationing, and allowances were made for orthopedic shoes and in cases of lost or damaged footwear due to theft or fire. But families with fast-growing little feet had to make due by creatively distributing their ration cards from adult family members to the youngsters.

There were some other restrictions as well, including the prohibition of boots taller than ten inches, all golf spikes, and shoes with heels higher than two-and five-eighths inches, which had the added bonus of greatly increasing American foot comfort.

The shoe rationing was a logical move by the OPA, and one that the American public handled fairly well, even through a further restriction down to two pairs per year, and all the way until the rations were entirely lifted on October 30, 1945. The used shoe business surged, as did the seedy shoe black market. Some inventive entrepreneurs turned to non-rationed supplies, growing the plastic, recycled carpet, and whatever-material-one-could-find-lying-around-in-one’s-basement shoe industry. Whatever the solution, Americans spent a couple of years contemplating what might have been an unhealthy obsession with what they put on their feet.

shoe rations2
By Unknown – https://collections.carli.illinois.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/nby_teich/id/9676, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Because there’s no question Americans like shoes. Estimates of the average number of shoes owned by today’s American woman fall somewhere between twenty-one and twenty-eight pairs, with the men polling surprisingly close behind them.

I have to admit, I scoffed a little at that. As a highly practical person who mostly wears comfy tennis shoes, I definitely don’t own such a ridiculous amount of footwear. I mean sure, I sometimes don a pair of dress flats, which I own in several sensible colors. Also, sometimes I wear boots, either black or brown, or with a dress or skirt I might occasionally put on a pair of heels to match. And everyone has to have a pair of hiking shoes, and a pair of tough summer sandals, or fun flip-flops appropriate for beach-going, or strappy little sandals for wearing with a cute summer dress.

That’s right. In an attempt to prove that I’m far superior to the average American woman, I went into my closet and started counting. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I am, well, let’s just say above average. I walked out of my closet a little humbler, and I started to think about whether I would feel good about limiting my new shoe purchases to two or three pairs a year.

shoes
Not my closet. But it probably could be. Image from Pixabay

Of course, if I had to, I could do it. I do, after all, have a pretty good supply of shoes already. I’d probably benefit from a new pair of tennis shoes at some point during the year because they don’t last forever and I’m old enough to suffer aches and pains if I push a pair too far. I’d also probably have to give up at least one new pair for myself to get an extra for one of my growing boys.

I’d like to think that if, like the Greatest Generation before me, I had to limit myself in a patriotic effort to help out my country, I would do it without full-on panicking. Because despite a little grumbling from podiatrists and the fear expressed in the New York Times that rations would lead to hordes of crazed women engaging in shoe-buying orgies, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that the rationing was too much of an issue.

But to be fair, I haven’t found evidence of any greater shoe-buying orgies in American history, so I guess maybe that panicked, shoe-obsessed Times writer might not have been entirely wrong.

So Cold: The Secret to My Success

Occasionally someone will ask—either at a reading event or in casual conversation—whether I find it difficult to work at home. They wonder if I get distracted by the dishes or the errands or the dirty socks my children have inevitably left stuffed behind the couch cushions.

Of course, I have to admit that sometimes I do. Sitting behind a computer screen with no one to talk to except the dog (a good listener) and the chorus of characters (not great listeners) competing for attention in my head can get a little tiresome. Then the household stuff calls to me. It’s a convenient distraction—one I can always justify because those things need to get taken care of, too.

I generally reply that I get by because I’m list-maker and dedicated time manager, and I am, but I also have a special, motivational weapon in my arsenal, especially this time of year.

I’m cold.

Like seriously cold. All. The. Time.

thermostat
One study suggests that a third of all couples argue over the temperature setting in their homes, and 40% of women admit to secretly turning up the heat when their significant other isn’t looking. photo credit: EE Image Database Woman giving the thumbs-up sign and pointing to a thermostat on the wall in her home via photopin (license)

People have been finding clever ways to keep our environments warm pretty much since the invention of people, when cave men and cave women argued about how much to build up the campfire.

In ancient Rome, some buildings evidently used systems of pipes to force hot air from pockets of empty space beneath a fire into walls as a clever method of using radiant heat to warm up a room.

After a few dark and chilly centuries when heating returned to a more primitive style, other solutions began to emerge. In 13th century Europe, the Cistercian Order of monks began using diverted and heated river water to warm their monasteries. Better stoves and chimneys were developed through the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. Then Benjamin Franklin invented his (appropriately named) Franklin Stove in 1741, which proved to be a somewhat effective way to force warmth and smoke into a room in greater amounts than your average fireplace.

ozziesun
My dog’s favorite solar powered heating system.

Over the next hundred years or so, Scotsman James Watt came up with a steam-driven heating system, Russian Franz San Galli invented the radiator, and American professor Warren Johnson patented the first thermostat, because he was tired of classrooms that were either too hot or too cold. I think we’ve all been there.

Just a few short years later in 1919, Alice H. Parker patented the first central heating system that used natural gas. An African American woman enduring harsh New Jersey winters, Parker said she developed the idea that formed an important basis for the convenient and safer heating systems of today because she was cold and her fireplace just wasn’t cutting it. I hear that.

office attire
Dressed for a day at the office.

According to a 2015 Dutch study, most women probably do. On average, the researchers found, ladies tend to be comfortable with a warmer ambient temperature than their gentleman counterparts do. The findings (which surprised absolutely no one who has ever attempted to share a home with a member of the opposite sex), sparked a discussion of whether office thermostats are sexist. Or something like that.

The idea was that back in the day when offices contained mostly men in three-piece suits, temperature levels were set for the comfort of those men. Today, as offices tend to contain more equal numbers of men and women, the temperatures remain set for ideal manly comfort standards. There’s a fancy formula engineers use to determine the optimal level of temperature comfort as determined by humidity, air temperature, and mean metabolic rates, etc. The problem, according to the study, is that the formula overestimates the amount of heat produced by a resting woman.

The differences have been attributed to estrogen production and muscle mass to fat ratios, which tend to be different between men and women. I don’t know that I would go so far to call the thermostat a source of inherent workplace sexism, but the struggle is real, and lots of women throughout the workforce carry an extra sweater to the office.

space heater
The secret to my success: a closed door and a space heater.

As someone who works primarily at home, I use the problem to my advantage, because I am the lone female living with three males. Through the winter, my house is always at least 2 (or 3 or 4) degrees colder than I’d like it to be. Yes, when my sons head off to school and my husband to work, I could turn up the thermostat and no one would complain.

Instead, I walk down the stairs and through a long hallway to my hidey hole office in the basement where I close the door and turn on my own personal space heater, before sitting down to work. Pretty soon, the dishes and the errands and the dirty socks begin to call to me, when the words don’t want to flow and the character voices have gone silent. When that happens, all I have to do is step outside of my office into my cold, cold house. I don’t stay there for long.

Dirty Man in the Snow

In 1925, Greek photographer and geologist N. A. Tombazi, while on a British Geological Expedition in Tibet, saw something kind of strange. At an altitude of about 15, 000 feet, Tombazi’s local guides pointed out an unexpected shadowy figure two to three hundred yards from camp that looked to the photographer like a lone man, casually picking at bushes and lumbering through the snow.

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Looks legit to me.

The figure was moving away and soon left the sightline of the expedition party, but Tombazi investigated the location to discover what looked to him more or less like human footprints, clearly left behind by a bipedal creature. He made the assumption that what he’d seen was in fact some sort of traveling hermit, but his guides were convinced they’d spotted the creature the press had dubbed, “The Abominable Snowman.”*

The impressively catchy name had come from an imperfect translation of a sherpa’s account in 1921 when another expedition led by Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Howard-Bury stumbled on some strange footprints in the Lhakpa La region of Mount Everest. The local guide used the creature’s Tibetan name, which more closely translates as “dirty man in the snow.” Howard-Bury attributed the prints to an orangutan (unlikely) or an overstepping wolf. Despite his local companions’ insistence, he did not believe what he’d seen was evidence of a yeti.

He might not have been too far off with his wolf assessment. The yeti has been the subject of folk tales throughout the Himalayas since well before Alexander the Great failed to see one in 326 BC. It is a fearsome creature existing only in the wildest of places, promising great misfortune for anyone unlucky enough to cross its path. It’s kind of the Big Bad Wolf of the Himalayas, scaring children and adults into making smart choices and remaining relatively safe.

mt everest
If I were a large, shy, possibly harry and ferocious bipedal creature that may or may not, in fact, be a bear, I’d want to live here. Actually, I wouldn’t. Looks cold. Mount_Everest_as_seen_from_Drukair2.jpg: shrimpo1967derivative work: Papa Lima Whiskey 2 [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
But if there’s one truth you can always count on, it’s that the press will run with a great sensational story. The press loved the Abominable Snowman and may have even created an imaginary credible witness named William Hugh Knight.

Because who doesn’t get a little excited about terror in the snow? As a survivor of a recent epic snowstorm, I can safely say no one.

Last weekend, the Midwest got hit with a lot of snow. By a lot, I mean the Greater St. Louis region received about eight to twelve inches throughout. That amount of snow doesn’t rival the great Northeastern storms that dump feet of snow on Buffalo, New York several times a year, but it’s fairly significant in an area accustomed to receiving no more than fifteen inches or so per year.

I don’t mean to make light of it, at least not entirely. Roads were certainly bad, stranding lots of people and cars for quite a while, and there were a few fatal accidents. I understand that part of the job of the media is to encourage people to prepare for the worst so that it can be avoided as much as possible. And most people did prepare, as was obvious by the lack of bread and milk on the shelves at local grocery stores.

For a time, St. Louis and its “Sno-pocalypse 2019” commanded constant coverage. The Weather Channel even sent their world-renowned severe weather expert Jim Cantore, the same guy who shows up on the scene of hurricanes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. This for a slightly above average snowfall that wasn’t accompanied by damaging winds or so much as a thin sheet of ice.

The “storm” was mostly just a picturesque weather event that happened over a weekend when the roads would typically be less traveled anyway and made everyone feel a little like they lived in a snow globe.

The coverage was pretty much hysterical, with breaking news that consisted of interviews conducted in front of scenes of ongoing snowball fights on the grounds of the St. Louis Arch with citizens saying things like, “Oh, yeah, it took me maybe an extra hour to get here. Traffic was pretty slow moving.” A good ol’ fashioned Abominable Snowman sighting definitely would’ve punched things up.

snowman
The Abominable Snowman of the Midwestern US.

But no one has seen the Yeti for a while and experts seem to agree that most of the “evidence” of its existence can be attributed to the region’s bear population. To be fair, stumbling across a bear while wandering around the mountains can also bring pretty bad luck.

Still, the people living in the Himalayan regions generally believe and the Yeti is big tourist business. In Bhutan, there’s even a refuge called the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary that was officially formed, in part, to preserve Yeti habitat.

If one is ever caught on camera or is spotted by a credible witness, you can bet the press will pounce. The Weather Channel might even send in Jim Cantore to stand in the way of danger and give us all the scoop. That is unless St. Louis is expecting up to a foot of gently falling snow.

 

*I want to thank my eleven-year-old son for recommending this week’s blog topic, demonstrating that everyone loves a good yeti story.