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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Clubbin’ with the Bookworms

In 1634, troublemaking Puritan Anne Hutchinson and her husband William boarded a ship bound for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Along the way, Anne began a group gathering she continued once she landed that September in the New World. The group consisted of women (and eventually some men, too) engaging in intellectual discussions about the weekly sermons delivered to them. As you can probably imagine, such activity made a little trouble for our heroine.

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Anne Hutchinson on Trial for having the audacity to think. Book clubs are dangerous. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Though not exactly a book club, scholars often point to Hutchinson’s gathering as an early example of such. It was at least a precursor to similar groups that grew up at times under the likes of 18th century essayist and women’s rights advocate Hannah Crocker, 19th century African American freedom fighter Sarah Mapps Douglass, and 20th century media queen Oprah Winfrey.

Some of these clubs focused primarily on the discussion of writings presented by the group members themselves, while others turned their attention to upscale fiction with questions in the back and memoir of a somewhat dubious nature. But they all had the same goal: to stimulate intellectual growth. And they haven’t always been just for women, either.

Plenty of prominent men, including Benjamin Franklin, Ernest Hemingway, and at least one of my uncles have been known to participate in formal book discussion gatherings. It’s true (or at least it says so on the Internet) that somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of American book clubs have an entirely female membership, and about 93% of all book club participants are women.

Still, according to the New York Times, more than 5 million Americans belong to a book club. Even if the menfolk only make up 7%, that’s still a fair number of men gathering to discuss books. At least in the US. And that estimate doesn’t include the clubs that exist online, which is an ever-growing number of both guys and gals.

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Clearly cartoon men participate at a higher rate than their live action counterparts. Image courtesy of Pixabay

So why do all of these readers get together to talk about what they’ve read? Some of the earliest women’s groups did it because it was a way to become better informed, better educated people when for them to do so wasn’t exactly encouraged by society. And I suspect that’s not so different than the reason any book club has decided to meet.

Sure, for the clubs of today, part of the motivation might be more social—to share a cup of coffee or a glass of wine with friends. Or we might dive into Oprah’s latest pick because we know everyone else will have read it and we don’t want to be left out of cocktail party conversations. We might even join in simply because there are more than a million books published every year in the United States alone and it’s nice if someone will please tell us which ones we should read.

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If you’re having trouble, might I make a suggestion? It even comes with questions for discussion, suitable for book club gatherings.

But I also think people who read a lot tend to understand that there is value in forming and articulating deeper thoughts about the words we pour into our brains. I’ve had the great honor of attending a few clubs that chose to read my books and invite me into their conversations, and I am also an active member of a monthly book club. I don’t always like the books we read. In fact, most of them are in a genre I never sought out before joining and probably wouldn’t were I to quit attending.

I don’t go because I love every book, though I happily admit I have fallen in love with quite a few of the selections. I participate because to do so forces me to read outside my comfort zone, which expands my knowledge base, challenges my assumptions, and stimulates my curiosity.

It’s also good for me as a writer (the lone representative in my club of that peculiar breed of human) because I can tend to fall into the trap of reading in a particular way. I pick apart books to see what makes them tick. I incessantly analyze (and sometimes harshly judge) the use of adverbs, the pacing of scenes, the development of themes and subplots. Sometimes I get so concerned with craft that I forget to just let myself get swept up in the story.

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It’s fun to read with friends. photo credit: State Library of Queensland, Australia Group of children sitting on the grass reading books, 1900-1910 via photopin (license)

Then I go to book club and I am reminded that readers don’t read just for deep intellectual stimulation or for controversial learning or for engaging in theological debates that could one day get them excommunicated from their Puritan communities. They also read because they like to gather with friends and enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and talk about what they liked or didn’t like about a book—how it made them feel, or think, or grow in surprising ways. And I think that’s a pretty good reason.

Are you part of a book club?

The World’s Favorite Sociopath: A Goal for 2019

In 1877 a young would-be physician walked into the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and met an attending physician who seemed already to know everything there was to know about him just by making a few astute observations. Dr. Joseph Bell had a habit of showing off his highly refined detective skills in order to impress upon his students the importance of taking a careful survey of a patient before launching into treatment.

sociopathThis so impressed medical student and writer Arthur Conan Doyle that when he published A Study in Scarlet, his first detective novel, nearly a decade later, Dr. Joseph Bell’s mad skills of observation showed up in the habits of a brilliant consultant named Sherlock Holmes.

When asked about his inspiration for his beloved consulting detective, Conan Doyle always answered that the character was drawn from Joseph Bell, himself a famous surgeon and forensic scientist known for drawing large conclusions from minute evidence. The two had worked closely together for a few years, as Conan Doyle clerked for Bell, a kind of Dr. Watson to his Sherlock. It probably makes sense that Bell might show up in his student’s work.

I recently became re-introduced to Sherlock Holmes when my oldest son discovered him. My son cut his teeth on the BBC show Sherlock in which the modern-day Holmes is brilliantly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, but then he made this mama proud by plowing his way through Arthur Conan Doyle’s original works as well.

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The game is afoot!

So, when he recently turned fourteen, we celebrated with a Sherlock Holmes party, complete with a mystery to solve, a deerstalker to wear, and a little brother dressed up as John Watson. He made a good Sherlock, though I’m happy to report he’s a little more socially aware than the character.

Despite Conan Doyle’s repeated claim, there were likely other influences that contributed to the development of Sherlock Holmes as well. Edgar Allan Poe essentially created the detective fiction genre and Conan Doyle had been known to praise his efforts. The contemporary works of Émile Gaboriau also seem to echo at times through the character of Sherlock Holmes. And then there was Joseph Bell’s own claim in a letter to his former student in which he wrote, “You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it.”

I don’t blame him one bit for rejecting the honor. Holmes is something of a single-minded sociopath with little use for other people and a significant cocaine addiction. He’s a fascinating character and if I’m ever falsely accused of murder, I’ll want someone just like him on the case. But I wouldn’t want to hang out with him.

Because many of the people I do hang out with regularly are writers, I’m not surprised to read that Conan Doyle’s most famous character was inspired by someone he knew. That kind of goes with the territory when you are friends with a writer.

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Never mess with a writer.

I even once had a professor who boldly confessed that the “friend” character in every novel he’d ever written was almost exactly based on a boy he’d known growing up. I’ve never done anything so blatant. None of my characters has ever been intentionally patterned off someone in my life, but I’m sure if I really thought about it, I could recognize bits of those I know and love within my work.

I suspect that’s true of most fiction writers. Like Conan Doyle’s famous detective, we draw inspiration from a variety of places—ourselves, great books, and yes, occasionally from people we know. I guess that might bother some folks. Maybe it bothers you. It just kind of makes me want to be the type of person who could inspire a great character.

And that sounds like a good goal for 2019.

Happy New Year!

Superglue, Bailing Wire, and Candy Cane Goo

Christmas is almost here and I admit, the season is starting to get the best of me. So . . . please enjoy this throwback post, originally written in December of 2014. And Merry Christmas!

Author Sarah Angleton

If you were to walk into my parents’ house at Christmastime, you would see an artificial Christmas tree strung with lights and topped with the same lighted, multicolored star my parents have had for as long as I can remember. At this point I’m pretty sure the star contains more bailing wire and superglue than original material and still it’s held together mainly by the sheer will of Christmas spirit. Well, that, and maybe a little sticky candy cane goo.

The most precious ornaments are always made with Popsicle sticks put together by little fingers. The most precious ornaments are always made with Popsicle sticks put together by little fingers.

I don’t remember when it happened because I had to have been very small at the time, but the story goes that as the family worked together to decorate the Christmas tree, my eldest brother, who is easily the tallest in the family, was teasing my sister, just two years younger and quite a bit…

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