Prognosticator of Prognosticators

On February 2, 1887, exactly one year after Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper editor Clymer Freas suggested the idea of an official Groundhog Day, a group of well-dressed and maybe just a little bit silly local businessmen who referred to themselves as the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club began a tradition that has to go down as one of the most ridiculous annual ceremonies I actually pay attention to.

I refer of course to that preferably not so bright Candlemas morning when the world’s most famous rodent named Phil appears before an adoring public to make an official statement regarding the amount of winter weather that remains to be endured.

The groundhog, aka woodchuck is an animal that is at least as good at long-range weather forecasting as it is at chucking wood, which it would probably do a lot of if it could. Image by Mona El Falaky from Pixabay

Officially known as Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinaire, Phil is allegedly the oldest groundhog on record at the whopping age of 136. That’s approximately 130 years longer than the expected lifespan of a groundhog.

Phil’s “Inner Circle,” which includes the world’s only human speaker of Groundhogese, explains that his exceptionally long life can be attributed to a life elixir he takes every summer, the side effects of which can cause him to occasionally change his physical appearance somewhat dramatically.

Okay, it’s quirky. Maybe even just plain weird, but the Groundhog Day celebration draws as many as thirty to forty thousand visitors to the tiny town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania every February second. Hordes of groundhog enthusiasts flock to Gobbler’s Knob, the site of Phil’s proclamation near Downtown Punxsutawney, and probably spend a fair bit of cash while visiting the community.

The movie that put Punxsutawney and Phil on the map was actually filmed in Woodstock, Illinois, which also has stupid cold February mornings. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And so, it makes perfect sense to have continued the event since the 1993 film Groundhog Day forced Bill Murray to live the day over and over again, and let the world know about this silliest of festivals. What makes less sense is that the annual tradition occurred for one hundred and six years before that. I somehow doubt that the members of the original Punxsutawney Groundhog Club foresaw a day when Hollywood would come knocking on Phil’s burrow.

Then again, they do have a connection to the Seer of Seers, and his accuracy in predicting whether spring is right around the corner or we will experience six more weeks of winter, is about 36%. For those of you keeping track at home, that’s less accurate than a coin flip.

But he is just a really old rodent. And groundhogs have not always been a part of such predictions. The Candlemas long-range forecasts themselves are actually much older, with a general acceptance that “If Candlemas Day is clear and bright, Winter will have another bite.”

Looking at this halfway point between the winter solstice and vernal equinox as a predictor of weather patterns coming into spring even predates Candlemas as a part of the Celtic celebrations of Imbolc. Groundhogs didn’t get mixed up with it until German immigrants brought the tradition with them to Pennsylvania and made it their very own.

Phil, looking super thrilled to be here. Chris Flook, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But I guess it’s okay that they’re mixed up with it now. Punxsutawney Phil’s festival in Gobbler’s Knob has inspired at least thirteen similar festivals throughout the Eastern United States, because I guess it’s something to do while we wait out the last six or so weeks of winter. So, here we go again.

I have been known from time to time to be delighted by silly traditions and I confess that I have a fair few bizarre events on my bucket list. Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, dear reader, is not one of them, mostly because February mornings in Pennsylvania are really stupid cold. For you, however, I did watch the livestream of Phil’s pronouncement this morning from the comfort of my warm living room while still in my pajamas.

I may not have been there, but Miss Pennsylvania was, and so was the governor of the state, as well as a large number of reporters who were probably questioning their career choices. The top hat-clad president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club was there, too. He had a lengthy conversation with a rodent, who I’m sad to say, predicted six more weeks of winter, and there’s only a 64% chance he’s wrong.

Happy Groundhog Day!

Piece by Stupid Piece

You may not be aware of this, but this is a very big week in the life of United States puzzlers, because this coming Sunday, January 29th is National Puzzle Day, which has been going strong since 2002. I know that if you are not a puzzle enthusiast, this may not seem like such a big deal to you, but I mean, come on, it’s January, and I’m betting we all could use a little something to celebrate.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

That’s a pretty safe bet, because just a brief internet search has informed me that there are more than six hundred specially designated days of observation that help us work our way piece by piece through this the bleakest of (northern hemisphere) months. Included on this truly inspiring list is Yodel at Your Neighbors Day, Gorilla Suit Day, National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day, and Kiss a Shark Week. Really, National Puzzle Day seems like a relatively worthy one to acknowledge.

I don’t think I could ever be considered a puzzle enthusiast, but I do enjoy the occasional jigsaw, and I find that’s particularly true this time of year when the outside is not as friendly as I’d like. And whether you celebrate them or not, jigsaw puzzles have been around since about 1767.

That’s when an English mapmaker and engraver named John Spilsbury is credited with creating the first one. He called his puzzle a dissected map, because that’s just what it was. His intention was to use a pieced apart map with a wooden backing to help teach geography. The idea was well-received and Spilsbury soon found himself in the puzzle business.

This was the situation approximately a week after I started my last puzzle.

Of course, today’s jigsaw puzzles come with all kinds of images, some of them maddeningly complex because there are evidently puzzlers who pretty much just hate themselves, I think. I recently saw an ad for one that consists of a thousand clear plastic pieces all roughly the same size and general shape. No thank you.

But I do appreciate a little bit of a challenge. My family has a tradition begun by my dad when he and my mom were first married. My mom likes a good puzzle and every year for Christmas, my dad gives her one without the box, which he only gives her after she’s completed the puzzle. He eventually started also doing that for those of his children whose eyes didn’t start to twitch at the thought. This year, with a little help picking it out, he gave me one that did turn out to be a map. Sort of.

I’m not sure that John Spilsbury would have approved of this particular puzzle. The image is in the shape of the United States, with faint lines that accurately divide the space into the appropriate fifty states. But within those basic shapes, it’s a pretty artistic interpretation of the states that doesn’t always make a lot of sense.

I did it! Finally.

For example, Virginia includes a grizzly bear, Wisconsin features mountains, and Kentucky seems to be made entirely of desert. In case you are unfamiliar with the geography of the United States, none of that is correct. The puzzle is also a thousand small pieces of roughly the same shape and consists of large patches filled with nothing but subtly shaded pastels. It turned out to be a much more difficult puzzle than the person who chose it thought it would be.

I did finish it, though, because I don’t mind a little bit of a challenge, at least not too much, and I really wanted that box. Also, by the time I’d pulled a muscle in my back hunching over the maddening little pieces, there was no way I was giving up, even though it took me nearly two weeks and a lot of complaining.

Logically, the best way to celebrate National Puzzle Day is to put together a puzzle. Since it will still be January, there’s a good chance this Sunday will be cold and dreary and so it will probably be a good day for it. If you do, please put in a piece or two for me. I think I’ll skip it this year. My back still hurts from putting together the Great Kentucky Desert.

Me, I Want a Hula Hoop

I hope that three weeks into the new year, it’s treating you well. At this point perhaps you are still clinging to a resolution or two and you remain optimistic about the year to come. I made no specific resolutions this year (with the exception of my constant desire to make the current year the one in which I learn to teleport), but I am looking forward to some great things coming up in 2023.

Pretty sure I couldn’t do this very well, either. Toronto Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

My oldest son who recently turned eighteen will be graduating from high school and will head off next fall to college to learn to do whatever amazing things he’s destined to do. My youngest will become old enough to earn his drivers’ license and the expansion of freedom that comes along with that. And then there are robotics competitions and track meets and fencing tournaments to look forward to, along with various trips that will be taken over the course of the year.

It’s off to a great start because already this year I have developed a new skill I didn’t even know I wanted. It all started because of a Christmas gift that appeared under my tree addressed to “Whomever wants it.”

The gift was from my sister. She’d picked up a deal on a weighted Hula Hoop and correctly assumed that someone in my family would enjoy it. After all, people have been playing with hoops for millennia. They’ve been rolled along the ground, thrown into the air, and jumped through. It was only a matter of time before someone stepped inside and started to wiggle their hips.

I might need to watch a few more videos before I get that good. Ryan Hodnett,
CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Allegedly Australian school children did just that with wooden hoops in the mid twentieth century, inspiring Wham-O toy company co-founder Arthur “Spud” Milen in March of 1963 to patent the “Hula Hoop,” because when an idea has more or less been around for millennia you worry someone else might come up with it first.

The Wham-O hoop is made of light-weight, hollow plastic tubing with a rattly bit inside and an often glittery outside. The company sold twenty-five million of their hoops in just a few months, earning $45 million in the first year of production.

The Hula Hoop became a sensational fad even inspiring a pitchy young chipmunk named Alvin to want one for Christmas. The Hula Hoop endures, though it’s now produced by a variety of manufacturers and even comes in weighted varieties for exercise. The fad did however cool somewhat heading into the 1980s when I was a child who never really learned how to properly use one.

I do remember having one, but I also remember giving up pretty quickly trying to swish it around my waist because no one particularly cared whether or not I could. And that’s how my 2023 got itself off to a great start, because I have something my ten-year-old self did not: YouTube.

I have no idea how the many faces of YouTube have time, or frankly desire, to record such useful instructional content, but over the last year or so, the platform has taught me to install a bicycle rack on my car, tie a bow tie for my son, disassemble the lock mechanism on my front door, and twist my hair into a charming messy bun, among many, many other useful skills. And now I can add another incredibly useful skill to the list.

I mean, I’m probably not good enough yet to win a beachside Hula Hoop contest or to make an instructional YouTube video of my own, but I’m at least as close to that as I am to learning how to teleport. And the year is still young.

Advice for Avoiding Goblins and Drummers

A few days ago, on January first, I took down my Christmas decorations. I did this for a few reasons. First, as much as I love the holiday season, after six weeks of it, I do get tired. And it really is six weeks at our house. We decorate the day after Thanksgiving, more or less without fail and remain decorated until at least the new year.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time, then you may recall that our version of decorating is no small task. It involves nine feet of Christmas tree, snowflake throw pillows, much garland wrapping, and lighted geese in the front yard. This is nowhere near an exhaustive list, but it gives you an idea. As it says on our seasonal welcome mat, we’re like really into Christmas.

Second, after a Christmas spent with the deep freezer working overtime, the Midwest offered up a miraculous sixty-degree, sunny day perfect for pulling up lantern stakes from the yard and removing light strings from the roof. If I could ignore the coming two-and-a-half months of cold that remain this winter, it felt a bit like a spring cleaning kind of day.

I’m talking about the kind of day in which one might take a minute organize the Christmas storage boxes in the basement instead of continuing to shove the reindeer salt and pepper shakers into the same box as that string of broken lights that may offer up some replacement bulbs for the ones we used to use that looked kind of similar, except they included purple bulbs in addition to red, green, blue, and yellow.* That’s right. Not only did I put away our cherished Christmas decorations. I threw away a bunch of old, broken ones we no longer use. I was basically on fire.

The 2022 calculated cost of the gifts in Twelve Days of Christmas is $45,523.27. In case you needed another inflation index, that’s up 10.5% from 2021. Image by wal_172619 from Pixabay

And obviously the third reason I took down the Christmas decorations promptly on January first is because I didn’t want to risk, depending on who you ask, a case of bad luck, a possible goblin invasion, or the shock of hosting twelve drummers drumming in my home.

Because evidently Christian tradition dating back to the sixth century suggests that holiday decorations are perfectly acceptable at least until Epiphany, the day the wise men arrive on scene and twelfth and final day of Christmas. To leave them up any longer is, for many, a holiday faux pas that might just bring you bad luck or goblins or at the very least a disgruntled homeowners association.

I’m not sure I fully understand. Outside of singing the song about giving someone an alarming number of birds, I have never observed the twelve days of Christmas. Most of the traditions I grew up with and have continued in my own home occur in the lead up to and on the day of Christmas itself, which is why by the twelfth day of Christmas, on January 5th or 6th (depending on particular brand of Christianity or perhaps counting habits), I’m plum tired out.

I didn’t even put them away in a wadded mess this year. Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

Right now, I’m looking around my bland, non-Christmas-decorated house on a day that is neither sixty degrees nor sunny, and I’m grateful to have gotten all the work out of the way several days ago. I’m also happy to report that there doesn’t seem to be a penalty for taking the decorations down early.

But if yours are still up, then today might just be the day. I tell you this because I care and because I don’t want to see your home invaded by goblins. Or drummers.

*I wish I could honestly claim this isn’t a real example from my life, but it is.

Welcome to Adulthood

On July 5, 1971 then president Richard Nixon certified the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution lowering the nation-wide voting age to 18. The move had been a long time coming, with arguments in favor of it reaching back to World War II when the age of draft eligibility was expanded to include eighteen to thirty-seven-year-olds. The primary argument was that if one were old enough to be pressed into service for one’s country, then one ought to have the right to vote for the government doing the pressing.

He has managed to grow more hair in the past eighteen years.

While in principle most people didn’t disagree with that sentiment, the push to make the change didn’t initially gain much steam. People in their late teens were still cared for in many aspects of their lives and at the time, weren’t generally all that politically engaged. Polls in the 1940s suggested that the youth population was kind of meh about the whole notion of voting.

That started to shift with the next generation who were paying more attention to politics throughout the Korean War and Vietnam Conflict. In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act that awarded the right to vote to all citizens eighteen and up. It was a bipartisan, fairly popular issue, but it also wasn’t constitutional.

It’s always been my rule that I don’t put pictures of my kids’ faces on my blog. I suppose now that he’s turning 18, I could bend the rule, but old habits and all. Just imagine a great smile, missing some teeth.

And so on March 23, 1971 Congress sent a new amendment to the states for ratification. It took one hundred days from Congressional proposal to presidential certification, the fastest ratification process of any of the twenty-seven amendments now included the US Constitution.

At that point eighteen was already considered the age of majority in many states, but after the 26th Amendment, it became almost universally so. There are still some age-related restrictions in some circumstances in some states, including two that don’t grant the legal authority to enter into a contract until age nineteen. But for the most part, unless you want to drink a beer or buy cigarettes, you are an adult in the US at age eighteen.

What this means is that this week my oldest son will register for the draft, register to vote, and eat birthday cake. If he so chooses, he could also buy a lottery ticket, parachute out of an airplane, get a tattoo, adopt a puppy, get married, pick up a bottle of cough medicine, serve on a jury, legally change his name, apply for a loan, obtain his commercial drivers’ license, become a notary public, have his tongue pierced, or get a job operating a meat slicer.

He’s gotten quite a bit taller through the years. He still has a great smile And all of his teeth have grown in.

He could also move out of his parents’ house, which he would probably have to do if he decided to pursue some of those things. It’s strange, though, as I look over the list of his new rights and privileges, I’m feeling pretty calm about it.

Though they have included some very long days, these past eighteen years have also been a short time to teach him everything he needs to know to be a successful adult. I’m fairly certain that I haven’t managed to do it.

I am, however, just as certain that in those eighteen years he has become a confident, intelligent, resourceful, and resilient young man. I know that when he votes, he will do so thoughtfully, that he understands enough math not to bother with lottery tickets, and that if he decides to jump out of an airplane, he’s wise enough not to mention it to his mother. I still have a few meat-slicer-related concerns, but all-in-all, I think he’ll bump along just fine.

Welcome to adulthood, E!  

Rockefeller Around the Christmas Tree

On December 24,1931 a construction crew was hard at work on a twenty-two-acre building site between 48th and 51st Streets in Midtown Manhattan. Two hundred twenty-eight buildings had been razed, forcing the relocation of several thousand tenants for what was originally meant to be the new site of the Metropolitan Opera.

James G. Howes, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

The stock market crash of 1929 and the economic depression that followed made the planned move impossible. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who had leased the land from Columbia University for the Opera’s use quickly reformulated a plan to build up a mass media entertainment complex with Radio Corporation of America and its subsidiaries. Over the next several years it would develop into the Rockefeller Center with nineteen buildings and a sunken square annually featuring an iconic ice rink guarded by a humongous Christmas tree passed by half a million people per day.

But on Christmas Eve of 1931, the public wasn’t yet thrilled with the plans for the space and there was still a lot of zoning red tape in the way. The Italian-American crew, however, was hopeful. They had work, when so many did not, and the promise of much more on the horizon. And it was the night before Christmas. What they needed was a great big tree.

The workers and their families chipped in to purchase a twenty-foot-tall balsam fir that they erected in the middle of the muddy construction site and decorated with cranberries, paper, and tin cans. I’m sure the tree wouldn’t have looked all that impressive alongside the fifty-footer that two years later officially became what the Rockefeller Center’s website refers to as “a holiday beacon for New Yorkers and visitors alike.”

Daniel Dimitrov, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Even fifty feet seems tiny when compared to the trees now used, which typically range between seventy-five and eighty-five feet tall, and once even as much as one hundred feet. The decorating of this beast of a tree takes dozens of workers more than a week to complete before the nationally broadcast lighting ceremony that takes place every year after Thanksgiving.  

Still, I think twenty feet is pretty impressive, if not even a little bit excessive. Many years ago, when my family and I lived in a different house in a different state, our living room had a high, vaulted ceiling. My husband, who pretty much loves all things Christmas, decided we needed a bigger Christmas tree to better fit our space than the measly seven-and-a-half-footer we’d been getting by with.

I couldn’t find a picture of our twelve-foot tree, but it pretty much looked like this, except three feet taller.

I took some convincing, but he found a good deal on an artificial (due to family allergies and general disdain of sap and spiders) tree that was twelve feet tall and since he was willing to move the ladder around to decorate the top five feet, I agreed to the purchase.

That first year the tree was a little sparsely decorated with our seven-and-a half-feet worth of ornaments and I can see why the construction workers at Rockefeller Center would have resorted to using tin cans to fill the space. The tree was gorgeous, and it made my husband very happy. I did, however, feel a little bit like I was living in a shopping mall. Or maybe at Rockefeller Center.

It didn’t completely break my heart when the next house came with lower ceilings and we had to trade down. Over the years we’ve managed to reach a compromise and now put up a nine-footer, which is still awfully pretty, but doesn’t require nearly as much ladder manipulation to decorate.

I do see him staring at it sometimes, though, probably thinking he could fit another several inches beneath the ceiling. Maybe someday we will. It is, after all, a holiday beacon for us and for visitors alike.

A Little More Magical

During the season of Advent in about 1880 or so, the mother of Gerhard Lang made her young son a cardboard calendar featuring twenty-four sweets, one per day, with which to mark off the time until Christmas. She surely wasn’t the only mother to do something like this for her child.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Advent was introduced as a four-week (give or take) period of preparation leading up to Christmas by Pope Gregory I in the early seventh century. It took a while to catch on, but by the nineteenth century, German families in particular were finding clever ways to keep track of the days. Some used tear-away pages or tally marks on doorframes. Others lit candles or placed markers on ladder rungs.

But it was Gerhard Lang who is generally given credit for popularizing the advent calendar style most people use today, as a direct result of the creativity of his mother and his resulting magical childhood. When Gerhard grew up and became a printer, he remembered the calendar his mother had made for him and began mass producing a twenty-five-day calendar with doors to be opened each day leading up to Christmas in the month of December. Behind each door was a picture or Bible verse.

I guess that’s one way to make your holiday season a little more magical, but I think I’d rather have the chocolate.

Then in 1958, Cadbury began producing Advent calendars with twenty-four chocolate treats to be enjoyed one at a time from December first to somewhere around December fourth, which is about as long as any chocolate Advent calendar has ever lasted for me.

But like Gerhard Lang, I had a pretty magical childhood. Not only did my dad usually purchase an inexpensive chocolate Advent calendar for me and for each of my siblings from the local high school German club’s annual fundraiser, but my mom also made a calendar for the family that we took turns opening.

Behind each door of the homemade version, my mom would write tasks we needed to do to get ready for Christmas. This included things like decorating the Christmas tree, making Christmas cards, or baking Christmas cookies. Sometimes our tasks were service projects for others or chores that needed to be done before Santa could come. Other times we found them more fun, like driving to look at Christmas lights or visiting with the big jolly elf himself. Seriously, my childhood was magical.

As far as anyone has found, this is the world’s tallest Advent calendar. (Thank you to my sister for the picture. I haven’t gotten there to see it for myself yet.)

And this year, in my hometown, the season has gotten even a little bit more magical. A few months ago, one of my favorite former teachers (who gets credit for my appreciation of The Great Gatsby) was in the town square and happened to notice something. He looked up at a tall brick Farmer’s Bank building that has stood guard over the old downtown for more than a century and counted the windows. On one side, there are exactly twenty-four of them.

An idea was born. The teacher solicited some help from around town (including the artist who designs my book covers) and approached the bank to ask if they might make what they believed would be the world’s tallest Advent calendar. The answer was an enthusiastic yes.

And that’s how Christmas in my corner of the world became a little more magical.

The Oldest Senior Pictures Ever

In 1936, family historian Alva Gorby published a book no one but her family was likely interested in reading. She called it The Gorby Family: Origin, History and Genealogy. It was, as she claimed in the introduction “a very enjoyable ‘labor of love’” that required many years of collecting family memories, photographs, and lore, chasing down records, and verifying claims.

Hannah Stilley Gorby. This maybe wouldn’t be the worst country album cover. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Like any family genealogy project is bound to do, this one allegedly contains a few errors here and there, but it also includes something of great interest to the wider public beyond just the descendants of Samuel and Mary (May) Gorby. In its pages can be found a print of what is generally accepted to be the oldest living person ever photographed.

I should explain that further because there is a lot of confusion on the internet about just what is meant by such a claim. The photograph in question depicts a woman named Hannah Stilley Gorby, the second wife of Joseph Gorby, son of Samuel and Mary and it was taken around 1840, which would make it not the oldest photo ever taken by maybe about fifteen years or so.

If Alva Gorby’s records are correct, Hannah was born in 1746, making her in the neighborhood of 94 when the picture was snapped. Now, the woman was thirty when the US became a nation and ninety-four is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but there’ve been plenty of photos of people with more birthdays under their belts. Hannah wasn’t even old enough to get her picture featured on a Smuckers jar on the Today Show.

What Hannah Stilley Gorby can claim, however, is that of all the people ever photographed, she was first to have been born. Probably. Or at least maybe.

The problem is that the original daguerreotype of Hannah Stilley Gorby is lost to history and the most reliable support we have for the claim comes from the work of her amateur genealogist descendent who, let’s be honest, probably totally geeked out about her photographically famous aunt. I mean, who wouldn’t?

Probably not a very good country album cover. Image by Jorge Guillen from Pixabay

Because family history can be pretty geek-out worthy, like when you discover an uncle from five generations back who was a missionary physician with a pet orangutan and write a novel because no way can you make this stuff up yourself.

And family pictures are precious. I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately because my oldest son is now a senior in high school and we recently had a series of senior photographs taken of him. Like a lot of photographs.

We haven’t had the opportunity yet to sit down with my photographer friend to look through the proofs, but the shoot was amazing. My son, who was a smushy-faced newborn like yesterday, cooperated with every crazy idea (some of which he volunteered) from donning a suit and tie for a professional headshot to leaning flannel-clad against a fence post with his acoustic guitar in case he someday needs a cover for a country album.

I can’t wait to see how the pictures all came out because no matter what, I know they are photos of my more-or-less grown son, and are technically the oldest senior pictures ever of any of my children. That may not mean much to the general public, but you know that guitar pic is going into a family genealogy book one of these days for the benefit of my descendants, who will probably attempt to verify that he was a famous country music star.

Thankful for a Kick in the Pants

On October 3, 1789, then president of the newly established nation of the United States George Washington issued a proclamation declaring November 26th “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” He claimed to have done so at the request of both houses of Congress, who asked him to acknowledge “with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.”

I’m trying to imagine members of Congress coming up with such words today. I’m also thinking that if each elected member of the federal government, and perhaps all levels of government, spent some time focusing on the things they are thankful for, the United States would be a better nation for it.

In fact, I think if every American citizen spent more time thinking about the things they are thankful for and less time thinking about how stupid their clearly unthinking, unreasonable, stubborn donkey of a neighbor, coworker, sister-in-law, or drunken uncle on the other side of the aisle is, then the United States would be a much better nation for it.

We can, and probably should, do that every single day. Thanksgiving Day didn’t become an official national holiday until 1870 when a post-Civil War United States desperately needed a reason to come together and focus on the good stuff.

Image by Babar Ali from Pixabay

The date wasn’t set on the calendar as the fourth Thursday of November until 1941, but since the very earliest days of the US, the Congress—arguably the collection of the most needlessly quarrelsome and infuriatingly frustrating of its citizens—has recognized that thankfulness is a good thing. And if rarely on much else, on this one thing, we agree.

It’s been a hot minute since I have posted in this space, as I was feeling a little burned out. I admit it’s taken me longer than I anticipated to be ready to jump back into the blogosphere, but as I reflect today on all the things I am thankful for, I am realizing the list definitely includes the opportunity this blog has given me to connect with so many wonderful, creative people all over the world. I’m so thankful for all of you. And I’m also thankful for a consistent weekly kick in the pants to write something, even when I’m too busy or stressed out or uninspired.

Happy official Thanksgiving to all my American blogging friends, and to my international friends as well, because even without a presidential proclamation or an act of Congress, thankfulness is a good thing.

Hot Dogs for a King

In 1937, author Ernest Hemingway ate the worst meal of his life. It consisted of “rainwater soup followed by rubber squab, a nice wilted salad, and a cake” provided by “an enthusiastic, but unskilled admirer.” The man did have a way with words. This delectable meal was served to him at the White House, historically known as a center for culinary excellence, but just then developing a reputation for the opposite.

Lots of visitors had voiced similar complaints and it was becoming commonplace to go ahead and order a pizza before heading to dinner with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. I don’t know how the Roosevelts felt about that, but when it happens at my house, I admit to some hurt feelings.

Ernest Hemingway enjoying what was probably not the worst meal of his life. unattributed, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I hope I do better than rubber squab and rainwater soup, but my picky children might say otherwise and it’s not uncommon for them to try to grab something else with their friends on casserole night, making me wonder why I bother.

I suppose it’s for more or less the same reason Eleanor Roosevelt did. Her partner in the crime of assaulting the tastebuds in the White House was her dear friend Henrietta Nesbitt who, much like the rest of Depression Era America had fallen on hard times. To help out, the first lady hired her friend as head housekeeper for the first family. As the formerly wealthy wife of a formerly wealthy husband, Nesbitt knew a thing or two about managing a household. She was, however, a terrible cook.

Henrietta Nesbitt, who once served hot dogs and beer to the king of England, making her kind of a hero. Harris & Ewing, photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nesbitt’s first order of business was to overhaul the White House kitchen, which she did admirably, bringing its equipment into the modern era and creating more space and better workflow. Then she set about designing the kind of meals that would be an example to the households of America on how to eat healthfully and frugally in the midst of the kind of economic turmoil that causes long breadlines and literal starvation.

According to Eleanor Roosevelt herself, Nesbitt’s careful management allowed for the average two-course meal at the White house to cost less than ten cents, no matter who was dining. King George VI was allegedly served hot dogs and beer when he visited, and though his poor wife didn’t quite know what to make of the curious meal, the king seemed to enjoy it.

The White House food, though terrible by comparison to previous administrations and all those since, really probably wasn’t that different than what was being scraped together and served in most American households. Many were even looking to the White House for ideas on how to stretch their dwindling food budgets, which is exactly what Eleanor Roosevelt had hoped would happen.

Fortunately, we’re not living through a Great Depression, at least in this moment. Still, food costs are rising quickly and I do feel a responsibility to teach my children, now teenagers not so far from the day when they will stretch their wings and try to make it out in the world on their own, that one can eat simply and healthfully and frugally when the pizza money runs out.

Maybe the message is getting through. Or maybe they’re complaining behind my back about wilted salad.

Image by Silvia from Pixabay

Just a note: Though my creativity is still shining in the kitchen, on the written page I am dealing with a little bit of burnout. Because of that, I’m going to take a short break from posting in this space. I’ll still be around, visiting blogs and responding to comments and hopefully will be up and writing again soon.