Facebook to Ban Benjamin Franklin for Inciting Violence

On October 22 of 1730 The Pennsylvania Gazette ran a truly incendiary story. It was an account of a good old-fashioned witch trial, and it displayed a great deal of unforgivable misjudgment on the part of the newspaper to run it at all.

Two defendants, a male and female stood accused, but were clever enough to willingly subject themselves to the trial on the condition that two of their accusers stood with them. The four, then, were first weighed against the largest Bible anyone could find. As everyone surely knows, the Bible will outweigh any soulless witch. Of course, it didn’t. Not even the smallest of them.

That’s a witch if I ever saw one. Or at least one of these people probably is. unattributed, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The next part of the trial, before six hundred peers of the accused, took place at the mill pond since, logically, witches float. The two men and two women were bound and dunked. If they drowned, then they clearly couldn’t be witches. If they managed to surface, they’d best be burned at the stake.

But that didn’t go exactly as planned, either. The first to surface was the male accuser who explained that if he was a witch, he certainly had no knowledge of it. It’s hard to fault a guy for that. And then there were the ladies whose flimsy shifts must surely have made them more buoyant, as 18th century women’s clothing tended to do. The appropriate decision was made to postpone the trial for a warmer day when the ladies could be presented naked, just to reassure the crowd of highly proper Puritans that nothing improper was going on.

Yes, that Benjamin Franklin. He was much funnier than he looks. By David Martin – The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9390044

Because the article was clearly entirely factual, not satirical in the least bit, and inflamed such violence against, well someone, probably, Facebook decided to take it down and immediately suspend any ability for The Pennsylvania Gazette to share content on its massive and far-reaching platform.

Obviously, I jest. As far as I know Facebook never did any such thing to The Pennsylvania Gazette or to the author of the satirical “A Witch Trial at Mount Holly.” That author happened to be the young polymath Benjamin Franklin who would go on to help birth a nation, invent bifocals, and make questionable choices regarding electricity and poultry. He also was fond of writing satire and of making a little fun of the hypocrisy in Puritan culture.

And in 1730, Facebook could take a joke.

But apparently not in 2020.

This past week, Facebook removed a post by the Babylon Bee, a publication that, to the best of my knowledge, has never electrocuted a turkey and has only ever been known as a satire site. We’re talking really silly stuff here, like the recent articles: “Senators Vow to Hold Big Tech Accountable by Flying them to D. C. and Saying Mean Things to Them” and “Embarrassed Pope Realizes He’s Been Reading the Bible Upside Down this Whole Time.”

Amy Coney Barrett, who has probably never weighed anyone against a duck in court. Rachel Malehorn, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To be fair, neither of those is the really disturbing article that made Facebook demonetize the Babylon Bee’s page with cries that their article incites violence. The truly dangerous post was about the entirely factual senate confirmation hearing for supreme court nominee Amy Coney Barrett in which she was accused of being a witch by Senator Hirono of Hawaii, who is wise in the ways of science, and who insisted the nominee’s soul be weighed against a duck.

Oh wait, that can’t be right. That’s a schtick from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You know, I bet Senator Hirono didn’t even say anything about Amy Coney Barrett being a witch just because she has so much poise and apparently no need for notes in order to answer hard-hitting questions that she literally legally cannot answer.

Huh. I see what they did there. That’s clever. It’s probably even worth a chuckle. And violence. So much violence. Actually, I am feeling a little incited here. Thank goodness for Facebook’s censorship, or who knows what I might do.

Well, what I might do is get put into Facebook prison for this post, which frankly, would be a badge of honor. So feel free to share away, and let’s just see what happens.

Does Superman Have Wisdom Teeth?

Recently I was asked a very serious question: “Knowing, as we do, that Superman is an alien from the planet Krypton who exhibits superpowers when exposed to the yellow sun of Earth, and if the planet Krypton had not blown up, what superpowers would humans exhibit if they were to travel there?”

I say this is a serious question because it was posed to me by my fifteen-year-old son who, at the time, didn’t find it amusing in the least bit. In fact, the question came at the end of a long and very thoughtful analysis of the short story he’d just read for his English class.

I couldn’t actually figure out how the thoughts connected, but I’m sure they did. He’s very smart. He was also shaking off anesthesia, which might explain why a normally fairly rational kid was sounding a little loopy.

It is extremely difficult to understand the rapid string of words spewing out of the mouth of a post-op teenager with swollen chipmunk cheeks and a face mask.

Last week my son hit a developmental milestone, recommended by his dentist who looked at the latest x-ray of his mouth and condemned his wisest and most thoroughly impacted third set of molars to extraction. In the interest of preserving the results of a great deal of orthodontic work and avoiding a whole lot of future pain, we agreed.

We’ve been enormously fortunate that this is the first surgical procedure either of our children has had to undergo, and also that recovery, though not painless, has been pretty smooth and steady. I’m glad we got it done early, because the list of all the problems potentially caused by keeping your wisdom teeth is long and significantly scarier than the also pretty substantial list of potential problems of removing them. It turns out only about 2% of Americans over the age of 65 still have them.

Having too many teeth crammed into your mouth can be a serious problem, as we now know it was for fellow mammal and overlarge superstar Jumbo the elephant. Captured at only four years old after his mother was killed by hunters, Jumbo lived in London for twenty-two years where he delighted children by giving rides to scores of them on his enormous back. In 1882, much to the chagrin of the elephant-loving English public, Jumbo was sold to P.T. Barnum, allegedly because the elephant was getting a little hard to handle.

He wasn’t as large as Barnum claimed, but researchers say Jumbo wasn’t done growing by the time he died, and he might well have made it there. By Oliver Ditson & Co. – Library of Congress: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Touted as the largest elephant ever to live by the greatest exaggerator who ever lived, Jumbo was a hit in America as well, but there was a problem. By day he was a gentle giant, but by night, he became kind of a ferocious beast.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that researchers began to understand why. They looked at the bones and teeth of the deceased pachyderm and discovered that 19th century elephant husbandry wasn’t the best. Jumbo’s diet consisted of grasses, hay, and oats. Sometimes also coins and toys and sticky buns from his adoring fans, not to mention the whiskey that was meant to calm him down when he became too agitated.

What was lacking in his diet were the necessary twigs and barks that would have worn down his teeth had he lived as a wild elephant. This kind of roughage would have worn down his teeth and made room for new backup teeth to emerge and replace them. Without that process, the poor thing ended up with a tremendous toothache from the pressure of the new teeth pushing against the old.

What I picture when I think about performing oral surgery on the biggest elephant who ever lived. photo credit: wuestenigel Miniature people cleaning teeth on white backgroudn via photopin (license)

Jumbo died tragically only a few years after coming to America, but even if Barnum’s people had understood the source of the aggression problem they’d have had a hard time solving it. There were shockingly few oral and maxillofacial surgeons operating on elephants in late 19th century America. It might even be safe to assume that’s pretty much a super-duper sub-specialty kind of thing even today.

Fortunately, in 21st century America, it’s not too difficult to find one willing to work with human patients. My son was treated by a wonderful surgeon. The procedure was over pretty quickly without complications or whiskey, though I imagine that might have led to similar superman-themed questions.

He’s doing well, but at this point, I do want to note that this post was written not only with permission from my wisdom-toothless son, but at his insistence. Because even though he realizes he was pretty drugged up when he asked, he’d really like to know the answer to his question and he’d love to hear your thoughts.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

In 1871 Harriet Beecher Stowe used funds from her own substantial fortune to have a Victorian cottage built in Hartford, Connecticut, the state of her birth. The house had twelve rooms, plumbing, heating, a study for her husband, and no dedicated writing space for a woman who penned at least ten novels, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is one of the most influential books of all time and which today is often disingenuously criticized for not being written by a woman with the progressive ideological lens of 2020.

Cute house. If you don’t mind that it’s in Connecticut. Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. By Midnightdreary – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5846038

And then in 1874, Stowe got a new neighbor. Missouri-born Samuel Clemens built a much larger, more ostentatious home with twenty-five rooms, sweeping international décor, and a man cave of sorts that contained both a dedicated writing desk and a billiards table. As you may recall, he also wrote a few books, including several you probably read in school and that were written at his home in Hartford between billiards games.

Personally, I’m not sure why anyone would want to make the move from beautiful Missouri to Connecticut, a state that as far as I could tell on my one brief visit boasts little more than Lyme disease and the kind of astronomical day-use state park fees that inspire picnics in gas station parking lots. But I wouldn’t mind a billiards table in my dedicated writing space. Also, I’d like to add my apologies if you are from Connecticut. I’m sure it has its charms.

It is a pretty cool looking house, but it’s still not in Missouri. Mark Twain House and Museum, Hartford, CT. By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21778275

It did for neighbors Harriet and Samuel and a whole host of movers, shakers, and big thinkers who made Hartford’s Nook Farm neighborhood their home. If the history books can be believed (and I am by no means suggesting they can) these were not neighbors who necessarily agreed all the time. But it was allegedly a pretty congenial place to be with open doors, stimulating conversations, and high-minded and friendly debates among respectful friends.

In the time my family and I have lived in my current neighborhood, for about seven-and-a-half years now, our street has tried to foster a similar sense of congeniality. We hold an annual Christmas open house, occasionally set up outdoor movie screenings in the cul-de-sac, wave from front porches, freely loan and borrow tools, and visit one another’s garage sales. I’m even trying to get comfortable with a neighbor popping in for a visit without feeling too flustered by last night’s dishes stacked up in the sink. I have a lousy maid. Also, she’s me.

Despite the fact that we don’t all vote the same or worship the same or root for the same baseball team (There’s just one inexplicable Yankees holdout. We’re working on it.), our neighborhood is a good place to be. And this week is particularly exciting because we have new next-door neighbors that just officially moved in.

It was a comfort knowing there were so many gnomes keeping watch over the neighborhood. And a little bit disturbing. Public Domain, via Pixabay.

Well, this isn’t entirely exciting, because the neighbor who moved out was a kind ninety-something-year-old obsessed with yard tchotchkes. I think I might kind of miss the flamingos, and gnomes, and frogs, and angels, and butterflies.

I’ll miss my quirky neighbor, too, who always attended the Christmas party in a brightly colored suit, snake-skin boots, and bling that would make most rappers jealous. He’s moved on to a retirement facility closer to his family, where he’ll get along much better than he did alone in a big house.

The place will be different without him, but our new neighbors seem nice. They are ultra-marathoners and vegans, and they have two very small dogs that compensate for their diminutive size with over-large attitudes. The newcomers have also have expressed in no uncertain terms that they are not fans of garden gnomes. I’m going to have to rethink the contents of the welcome basket.

But even though I think running is stupid, I love a good steak, and I have a relatively mild-mannered, medium-sized dog who right now is losing his mind over the canine interlopers next door, I think these new folks are going to fit right in. In fact, I already pretty much love them.

Oh, hey! If you’re not busy tomorrow night (10/9), check out Friday Night Reads presented by Title Wave Books, Revised and author Ryan P. Freeman, who will do a Facebook live reading from my book Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense.

Socially Distant Zombies

In August of 1905 author Albert Neely Hall published his very helpful handbook, The Boy Craftsman: Practical and Profitable Ideas for a Boy’s Leisure Time. I can’t find a lot of information about Hall except that he was born in 1883, he wrote a number of books about handicrafts for both boys and girls, and he was probably not a guy I would have hired to babysit.

His book for boys with too much time on their hands in some ways reads a bit like a Boy Scout manual with instruction about tool safety, clubhouse building, photography, and animal trapping. It includes suggestions for ways boys can use their time to earn a little cash by shoveling snow, making simple home repairs, and editing and printing a neighborhood newspaper.

Ok, Mr. Hall. I can be down with this. Image by Victoria_Borodinova from Pixabay.

It also provides helpful tips for how your average, rambunctious early 20th century boy can celebrate the 4th of July by making his own pyrotechnics. To be fair, Hall does recommend against designing one’s own Roman candle because that could be dangerous. Instead, he suggests a handy method of lighting firecrackers suspended from a kite and a grand finale involving a kerosene-soaked board stuffed with firecrackers. Because safety is important.

But it’s the section on Halloween that has me most concerned today. After a brief introduction about the history of Halloween which, as a sort of history blogger who does consistently shoddy research, I can safely say is pretty shoddy, it begins: “This is the only evening on which a boy can feel free to play pranks outdoors without danger of being ‘pinched.’”

But if some little monster were to carry off my front gate, I wouldn’t be as down with that. Image by roneidaselva from Pixabay

Hall goes on to list such pranks as scaring passers-by, ding-dong ditching, carrying off neighbors’ gates, and piling garbage in front of doors. It’s worth it, he says, because even if he catches some heat, “the punishment is nothing compared with the sport the pranks have furnished him.” He then presents plans for building and pulling off pranks that will both frighten and enrage your neighbor.

I realize that an occasional prank has long been associated with our spookiest holiday, but for those of us who stock the good candy and hand it out without question to six-foot-tall ghosts, it’s not usually much of a problem. And usually, there’s lots of more innocent fun, of the variety Albert Neely Hall would certainly not approve, to go around and keep kids with too much time on their hands from engaging in pranks that, despite claims to the contrary, put them in danger of getting pinched.

Is anything really all that scary if it can’t get closer to you than six feet? Image by Tyler Buchanan from Pixabay

But now that it’s October and my neighborhood is sprouting Styrofoam gravestones, the pumpkins are wearing toothy grins, and Halloween is looming, I find myself wondering about what the holiday might look like this year.

A lot of municipalities are planning to cancel trick-or-treating amid concerns of spreading Covid-19, clubs and churches are avoiding the large gatherings encouraged by trunk-or-treating, and even haunted houses are inflicting social distance rules on their ghouls, goblins, and chain-saw-wielding mass murderers, effectively placing their guests inside a decidedly not scary safety bubble with a six-foot radius.

It could be a strange Halloween.

I’m not suggesting that these are bad ideas. I just wonder, as I encounter advertisements touting thoroughly sanitized blood and guts and socially distant zombies at the local Townhouse of Terror, if the restrictions and strangeness of the holiday will encourage a return to the pranks of the past that probably gave rise to many of the less harmful alternative activities in the first place.

What I do know is that when Albert Neely Hall wrote his book he was in his very early twenties and probably didn’t have children of his own, or at least not ones old enough to celebrate Halloween by terrorizing others. As the mother of a couple of boys, I can assure you (and my neighbors) that in my house the sport would most certainly not be worth the punishment.

A Not-So-Sticky Post

Forty-three years ago, in 1977, the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, known today as 3M, rolled out a new product in four American cities. This, several years after product developer Spencer Silver worked to create a stronger adhesive than the world had yet seen. He failed.

What he came up with instead was a mildly sticky adhesive that could be removed and re-stuck on smooth surfaces. That wasn’t going to work for the project he had in mind, but Silver wasn’t convinced his not-so-sticky glue wouldn’t eventually be good for something.

I have no idea how much time Post-Its have saved me over the years. But it’s a lot.

It took someone else to come up with the something. Art Fry was a forty-three-year-old 3M developer and committed church choir member who used scraps of paper to mark the weekly songs in his hymnal. The problem he ran into is that his makeshift bookmarks fell out of place all the time. He needed something sticky, but just not sticky enough to damage the pages of his hymnal.

Fry remembered hearing about his coworker’s sticky-but-not-too sticky glue and began to formulate an idea. He grabbed some yellow scrap paper from the lab next door, applied Silver’s glue and started scribbling away.

What hadn’t appealed to the test markets in the original four cities as Press ‘n Peels, took off when it was rebranded as Post-It Notes and given out as samples in Boise, Idaho where ninety-four percent of the people who gave them a go said they’d happily buy their own pad.

My household includes me and three guys, two of whom are teenagers. Other people are grateful I use Post-It Notes, too. Or at least they should be.

Suddenly office workers had a way to quickly make a note on a coworker’s report, label their sandwich in the break room fridge, and bookmark their choir music on the weekends. The more people used the Post-It, the more they realized they weren’t sure what they’d ever done without it.

I get it that. The Post-It Note is a staple in my world. I use them to write messages to my family and stick them in in their line of sight. They mark important places in my research tomes and endless collections of notes. When knee deep in revisions, Post-Its feature scribbled reminders that if I’m going to kill off so-and-so in Chapter 11, I need to drop a hint of his terrible illness into Chapter 3.

I admit I occasionally find Post-Its I clearly wrote, but cannot for the life of me figure out what they mean. I think this was a story idea. Obviously an awesome one. Being in one’s forties does have its drawbacks.

These little scraps of sticky paper seem like such an insignificant thing, and while I’m sure I could manage to get a long without them, I’m glad I’ve never had to. And I really haven’t, because we grew up together.

I’m about to turn forty-three myself, which seems like a fairly insignificant birthday. I’m at that age when I have to do the math to even remember how old I really am. But I do hope that like the Post-It Note I’m pretty handy to have around, that I stick to the important things, and that I’d be a hit in Boise if I ever had the inclination to go there.

And I hope that like the then forty-three-year old Art Fry, I’ve still got a few good ideas up my sleeves.   

A Pretty Good Citizen for an Emperor

Today marks the 161st anniversary of the ascension to power of the first and only emperor of the United States. On September 17, 1859, San Francisco newspapers carried the declaration of Joshua Abraham Norton that “At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States,” he was officially declaring himself emperor.

Today it’s probably fairly obvious, as it was then, that this “Emperor Norton” was most likely dealing with a mental health crisis, but the declaration captured the attention of the boom-or-bust, gold-crazed city for a couple of reasons. First, prior to an investment three years earlier that hadn’t panned out, Norton had been a somebody of importance in San Francisco.

I mean, he kind of looks like someone with authority. Unknown author / Public domain

London-born, he’d spent most of his early life in South Africa where his father operated a highly successful shipping business. Joshua Norton made and lost a good deal of money himself in that part of the world before moving to San Francisco in 1849 after suffering the deaths of both parents and two siblings.

Despite these setbacks, Norton didn’t seem to have any trouble building up his fortune once he reached California where he became an influential presence among influential people. So, when he went bust, then quiet, then reemerged as the Emperor of the United States, people were interested in the story.

Newspapers certainly were. They continued to print Norton’s imperial proclamations including a series which abolished the Congress, by force of the Army, because in its actions he saw that “fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled.”

This after Congress had failed to respond to his summons to convene in San Francisco in order to “make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring.”

The United States of Emperor Norton’s day was one of great political upheaval, with a rapidly expanding western frontier and a war between states that pitted cousin against cousin and brother against brother.

If Emperor Norton could have had a Facebook account, I’m betting this would have been his profile picture. Beinecke Library / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

And that brings me to the second reason I think the proclamations got play in the media. Because I think the reading public sort of got what he was saying.

If he’d had a Facebook feed, I have no doubt it would have been filled with people he loved and respected screaming at each other over their differing political ideologies. That’s enough to threaten the stability of anyone’s mental health. And I mean, really, who of us hasn’t, at one time or another, thought it might just be easier to declare ourselves emperor, abolish Congress, and start from scratch?

Not that I want the job. Just to be perfectly clear. But the sentiment? Well, there are days.

Emperor Norton’s reign extended beyond the immediate violence of the American Civil War and his proclamations, penned at the Mechanic’s Institute Library on Post Street in San Francisco, continued to find their way into print.

Oakland Bay Bridge. All thanks to Emperor Norton. Kind of.

Over the years he called for public school and public transportation access for African Americans, fair treatment of Chinese workers in American courts, and the extension of numerous rights to Native Americans. He even proclaimed the need for a bridge to be constructed between Oakland and San Francisco, of the variety that definitely exists today.

He regularly participated in political meetings, attended lectures, and spent time getting to know his community while attending the theater and frequenting local saloons. For an emperor, Joshua Norton was a pretty good citizen. When he died, penniless, in January of 1880, his funeral was allegedly attended by more than ten thousand people, and San Francisco’s business community made sure Norton was buried in style.

Because that’s what you do for an emperor.

Hat Smashing Shenanigans

School has begun, Labor Day has come and gone, the pumpkins have ripened too early, and there’s a hint of cool in the air. Despite the calendar’s insistence that there are still eleven more days of summer, it’s starting, in my corner of the world, to feel a little bit like fall. That means it’s time to put out the scarecrows, trim up the flower beds, and think about trading out your straw hat for one made of felt or silk.

These are the kind of big, beautiful pumpkins that will make great Jack-o-lanterns. Too bad someone forgot to tell them that Halloween is still almost two months away.

Or at least that’s what you would have done had you been a gentleman living in the US in the first couple decades of the twentieth century and you cared about such things. Most men didn’t. Not really anyway. But there was a fun tradition highlighted by an article from the Pittsburgh Press in September of 1910 in which stockbrokers jovially destroyed one another’s straw hats if their colleagues were careless enough to wear them after September 15.

That’s all in good fun, I guess, if you find that sort of thing amusing. But the same article mentions an incident in which the police had to intervene on behalf of the straw-hat-wearing average Joe on the street who occasionally found himself unexpectedly bareheaded.

By 1922 the straw hat smashing shenanigans had risen to a new level. On September 13 of that year, two days prior to the unofficially official straw hat smashing day, a group of boys decided to get the party started at Mulberry Bend in the Five Points Region of Manhattan.

So wait, how do the scarecrows get away with such a blatant fashion faux pas? Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

As factory and dock workers left work for the evening, the boys began yanking straw hats off passersby and smashing them in the streets. Probably not surprisingly, some of the hatless victims got upset and a brawl broke out.

The police managed to bring the crowd under control without much more than a couple of arrests, but the conflict didn’t end there. Over the next few nights, riots broke out all over the city. There were more arrests, a lot of angry parents accompanying their teenage children home from jail, and some pretty brutal beatings in the streets. Many men were treated for injuries and least one was hospitalized. Over straw hats.

What began as kind of a quaint tradition used by businessmen to razz one another at work became a serious public safety issue in New York over the next several years when September rolled around. 1924 saw the first murder attributed to the unforgivable sin of wearing a straw hat out of season.

I’m sure that like me, and any other reasonable person, you find this picture completely infuriating. Maybe even worthy of a riot. Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Fortunately, the straw hat rioting eventually died out. In 1925, then President Calvin Coolidge commented that he didn’t much care about switching hats, which seemed to calm everyone down a bit. It also helped that straw hats fell out of fashion and so it wasn’t long until no one was wearing them anyway. Then the Great Depression hit and people had more important things to worry about.

But for a while in US history, the kind of violence and destruction that shutters businesses, damages property, and endangers innocent people, occurred at the literal drop of a hat.

Boy, I sure am glad we’re past that.

I Can Can. Can You?

It was the promise of 12,000 francs that first inspired French chef and confectioner Nicolas Appert to experiment with food preservation methods in 1795. Napoleon Bonaparte astutely realized that keeping an army fed was a good way to ensure its success and offered the pretty substantial (my very rough calculation suggests maybe around $150,000 in today terms) reward.

It took fifteen years of effort, but Appert eventually claimed the prize with his method of sealing food into glass jars with cork and wax and boiling them. He then went on to produce the world’s first recipe book focused on canning preservation. It’s called L’Art de Conserver les Substances Animales et Végétales, in case you speak pretty good French and don’t mind a good case of botulism.

When I read that Appert was a confectioner by trade, I pictured this, although it would take a lot more than a sealed lid to preserve candy in my house.

Even though his method heated food to flavorlessness and is no longer deemed entirely safe, Appert was onto something, and earned himself the title of “Father of Canning.” He believed the enemy of food preservation was air exposure, but along the way discovered that it was actually heat that prevented spoilage, a good fifty or so years before the “Father of Microbiology” Louis Pasteur explained why.

While Appert was busy jarring up fruits, vegetables, and in one case the meat of an entire sheep, Englishman Peter Durand translated the process to less breakable tin cans, which only two years later spawned the canned food industry in the United States as well.

Initially slow to produce, and hard to open since the can opener wasn’t invented for another forty years, canned foods eventually lined grocery store shelves. That is until March of 2020, when canned goods became almost as difficult to find as bread and toilet paper.

Ladies at a home demonstration meeting learning that they can can. By Cornell University Library. No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81522280

There are still a few quirky products that don’t seem to get restocked, but food supply lines in my corner of the world have pretty much stabilized by now. I don’t think they were ever seriously threatened, except by the fear of the average hoarding consumer. Still, the combination of barren canned soup aisles and more time spent at home with more people out of work and fewer places to go anyway, has led to a growing interest in food preservation skills.

My local stores now contain plenty of mushy canned peas and spring water packed tuna, but there’s not a Ball Mason jar or Kerr sealing lid to be found, nor can you order a set for a reasonable price from Amazon.

In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think this is a huge problem. I don’t live on a homestead out in the middle of nowhere and have to rely on my own homegrown preserved veggies and my root cellar to get me through the long winter. But we do have a few prolific apple trees and last fall, my husband canned a whole lot of applesauce, something neither of us had ever done before. It’s been nice to have it throughout the year.

It really is excellent sauce.

It’s been so nice, that I even decided this summer that I would give it a try with some excellent sauce made from our garden tomatoes and some pickled peppers as well. I admit, it’s kind of made me feel like a bit of a superwoman, or like maybe I could live out in the middle of nowhere and rely on my homegrown preserved veggies and root cellar to get me through the long winter.

Home canning surged in the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and then fell off when refrigeration became more prevalent. The skill enjoyed a brief resurgence in the DIY movement of the 1970s, and it seems to be experiencing a similar resurgence now.

As long as home canners are carefully sanitizing and following recipes and boiling times exactly, I think that’s great. It does maybe concern me just a tiny bit that historically, cases of botulism rise whenever the prevalence of home canning does, and that in 2005 a USDA survey found that 57% of home canners weren’t using safe methods.

And I’m a little saddened that now that I know that, it might take the modern-day equivalent of 12,000 1795 francs to motivate me to trust myself enough to eat my excellent tomato sauce. Maybe it’s not so bad that I can’t find all the lids and jars I want. It’s possible I’m not quite ready to move to a homestead in the middle of nowhere after all.

So, About King George . . .

1774 was a pretty big year for George Washington. He co-authored a call for the recognition of the fundamental rights of colonial British citizens in the midst of fallout from the Boston tea party. He did some important Continental Congressing. And he built a pretty fantastic porch onto his ever-expanding house.

That’s a great porch. Mount Vernon.
By Martin Falbisoner – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28359040

Washington designed the two-story piazza at Mount Vernon to look out over the Potomac and catch a breeze off the river on a hot Virginia summer day. It’s where he often welcomed guests and served lemonade to friends seated in Windsor chairs, while grumbling about King George III.

The piazza was not an entirely unique structure. The iconic columns were based on the designs of Englishman Batty Langley, and the idea of an expansive outdoor space connected to a home has roots in Ancient Greece. But prior to Washington’s porch addition, such an expansive space was uncommon in America. It inspired some copycats.

The popularity of the porch has waxed and waned a bit throughout the history of the United States, reaching its height between 1880 and through the 1920s, when people sat in the evening to catch a cool breeze, wave hello to a neighbor strolling by, or even invite a friend to sit for a spell and enjoy a glass of lemonade while the kids played together in the front yard.

Another great porch!
Image by Gretta Blankenship from Pixabay

Then as the family began to gather in the evenings around the radio and later the television, porches began to sit empty a little more often. Pretty soon, house designs became less likely to feature a front porch, or at least certainly not a wide one with columns and a porch swing, or even a collection of simple Windsor chairs. Still, although we may have gotten a little distracted, I don’t think the appeal of the front porch has ever really gone away.

I have an embarrassing confession to make. I love watching real estate shows on HGTV. I’m sure you know the ones. I heard them described once as those shows where people want to buy a house and then they do. There are a lot of versions—House Hunters, Tiny House Hunters, Hunters Off the Grid, My First Place, Lakefront Bargain Hunt, House Hunters on Vacation, etc.

I have to assume the show just fails to mention that at least one of the buyers is also the sole heir to the fortune of his elderly Uncle Moneybags. I hope. photo credit: Gino Barista via photopin (license)photo credit: Gino Barista via photopin (license)

I love them all, from the introduction in which we’re told that she’s a preschool teacher and he’s a part-time barista at Starbucks and that they have a budget of $4.7 million for their second home in Southern California, to the moment this couple with highly questionable financial judgement makes the wrong choice.

I love seeing the houses and thinking about the priorities of the buyers. I appreciate seeing how home considerations vary in different parts of the world. And though I’m happy with my home, I like dreaming about what I might be looking for in a house several years from now when my family enters a different phase of life.

I’ve noticed one thing that remains fairly consistent in the episodes. The majority of these home buyers, regardless of budget or location, are looking for great views, outdoor space, and a gathering spot. In all the episodes I’ve watched (a truly embarrassing number), not once have I seen a potential home buyer make a negative comment about a porch. In fact, they are overwhelmingly positive about such spaces and often spin dreams of hosting friends and neighbors on mild summer evenings with glasses of lemonade while the kids play together in the front yard.

I could go for some of that.
Image by graywendya from Pixabay

My current house doesn’t have much of a front porch, but many of the homes in my neighborhood do, and over the last many months of pandemic and social distancing, I’ve seen more neighbors sitting on them, waving hello to passersby.

The front porch seems to be experiencing a resurgence, I think probably because we humans miss each other. Social distance, that has at times felt more like isolation, has made us realize that even if we don’t always agree or sometimes get annoyed by one another, we really benefit from face-to-face interaction.

And outdoor spaces remain some of the safest places to spend time with others. A great big, expansive porch with simple, individual Windsor chairs will fit the bill. So, grab a glass of lemonade and sit on the porch with me. We probably still can’t share a swing, but we’ll catch a breeze and chat. We might even complain about King George and that ridiculously catchy song from Hamilton that’s been stuck in our heads for months.

Everybody . . .

The Greatest Travel Monkey Ever

It’s finally here—that wonderful time of year when my family’s crazy, busy, fun summer days wind down and my kids head back to school. My sons are in high school and middle school now, so we’ve done this a few times, but this year, of course, has been different.

Really, it just snuck up on me, because it’s been a strange summer. For one thing, the boys have been at home since early March. Also, there haven’t been a lot of traditional summer activities. Camps were cancelled, family get-togethers went digital, and time with friends slowed to a trickle. There wasn’t any baseball for most of the summer, and now that there finally is, it’s weird and a little uncomfortable to watch.

Steve chased a lot of waterfalls in Smoky Mountain National Park.

Even our long-planned family vacation had to get indefinitely postponed. But thankfully we did get the opportunity a few weeks ago to take a smaller trip together. We rented a fairly isolated cabin in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, which isn’t a terrible drive for us, loaded up the family truckster, grabbed our travel mascot Steve the Sock Monkey, and away we went.

We had several good days of hiking and playing in chilly mountain streams. We did our own cooking, played games, and spent good family time together, because, you know, we’ve had so little time to spend stuck together as a family lately. So yes, it was pretty much like our routine at home, except with more mountains and a greater threat of bear encounters. It was a nice getaway.

After a few days of mountain exploration, we dropped down to Huntsville, Alabama to see the US Space & Rocket Center, which none of us had visited before. At the museum you can get up close and personal with the Saturn V rocket, walk through a replica of the International Space Station, and take small steps and giant leaps across a fake moon surface, pretending you are in league with Stanley Kubrick and the mass hallucination of 400,000 of the most rock solid conspirators in the history of the universe. The museum is well worth a visit, and at limited pre-ticketed capacity, felt very safe and spacious.

After exploring a replica of the International Space Station, Steve is ready to volunteer to become the first US sock monkey in space.

We all had our favorite parts, even Steve. If you’ve followed this blog for a long time, you may have encountered Steve before. He got his start as a family travel mascot when the boys were small, and my husband and I left them with grandparents to enjoy a trip to Hawaii without them. We posted pictures of Steve’s Hawaiian Adventure for Grandma to share with the boys each day we were gone.

The monkey was a hit, not just with the boys, but with our friends and family tuning in on Facebook. Since then he’s been all over the place, telling the stories of our adventures, both when we travel separately and when we all travel together. He’s been to every corner of the continental United States and has left the country a few times.

But he’s never made it to space, and unbeknownst to us, this had apparently been bothering him a little. So on this trip to Huntsville, Steve was really excited to learn about the greatest travel monkey ever, Miss Baker.  

I’m pretty sure Steve just wants the fame and glory.

Baker was a squirrel monkey who, along with Rhesus partner Able, became the first US animal to successfully launch into space and return unharmed to the earth. Chosen from among twenty-five squirrel monkey candidates for her ability to remain pretty chill while confined to a small space connected to a bunch of electrodes, and because she looked really good in a tiny space helmet, Miss Baker went to space on May 28, 1959.  

When she landed, the slightly bewildered squirrel monkey was given a cracker and a banana before she took a well deserved nap. Then it was on to Washington DC for a press conference and fame. Along with Able, who sadly passed away a few days later during a surgical procedure to remove electrodes, Baker posed for the cover of Life magazine. Always gracious, she later received a Certificate of Merit for distinguished service from the ASPCA.

Steve didn’t know he was supposed to bring a banana. Next time he’ll be prepared.

After her big trip into space, she lived for about ten years at the Naval Aerospace Medical Center in Pensacola, Florida where she met and married her long time companion Big George. The happy couple moved to the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama in 1971, where Baker delighted scores of fieldtripping school children until 1984 when she died a very old squirrel monkey.

Today she rests on the grounds of the museum that was her home. Steve got to pay his respects to his hero, where admirers often leave a banana or two as a thank you for her service.

Steve does realize that as well traveled as he is, he’s unlikely to make it into space. But as he spends a lot of his time stuffed into a backpack, he’s pretty chill about small spaces. He also loves smiling for the camera. And he would definitely rock a tiny space helmet. Who knows? It’s been a strange year.