What’s in a Name

On January 15, 1929 a baby boy who was destined to do great things came screaming into the world. His name was Michael, after his father, a Baptist minister who served as the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

A few years later in 1934, Michael’s father traveled to Germany to attend a Baptist World Alliance meeting. This was about a year after Adolph Hitler had come to power as chancellor, and Germany was becoming an uncomfortable place to be, losing itself to hatred and discrimination with the rise of the Nazi party.

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Martin Luther, by Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain]
The state of affairs in that nation and in the world weighed heavily on the reverend’s mind as he toured sites important in the story of Martin Luther, another man of God who found himself in an environment in which those in power were guilty of oppressing the less powerful for personal gain. According to legend, in 1517 Luther declared the need for change, and his willingness to defend his argument, in the form of a list of ninety-five theses nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church.

In response to the swell of hatred in 1934, the Baptist World Alliance issued a statement of its own. It wasn’t a list of ninety-five theological arguments and questions nailed to a church door that would touch off a reformation movement. It was a strongly worded condemnation of “racial animosity, and every form of unfair discrimination toward the Jews, toward colored people, or toward subject races in any part of the world.”

Both the conference and the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of a 16th century German priest who prompted significant change in a world that was desperate for it, the Reverend Michael King, Sr. returned to the United States profoundly affected by all he’d seen.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. National Archives at College Park [Public domain]
So affected, in fact, that as he pondered the experience he came to a fairly unusual decision. He chose to legally change his name to Martin Luther King. His young son and namesake became Martin Luther, too, and on July 23 of 1957, the young man, then twenty-eight years old, made the official change to his birth certificate.

Today this son is remembered for his great leadership in bringing about change to a world in desperate need of it, for casting a vision in which all people condemn unfair discrimination and oppression. It was a challenging mantle to carry, one that cost him his life, but painted an enduring and powerful legacy.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is arguably better remembered in many circles today than is the priest whose name his father once decided to take as his own. But in learning and revisiting the activist’s story as we take time this weekend to honor the anniversary of his birth, I’m struck by the power of a name and the greatness it may inspire.

What to Do in the Meantime

In 1912, rare books dealer Wilfrid Voynich added to his collection of his London shop the strangest book he never read. It’s not entirely clear how the manuscript came into Voynich’s possession, but it most likely came from the Jesuit Order, which around that time, sold some of its holdings from the library of the Roman College (by then Pontifical Gregorian University) to the Vatican and apparently to a few others as well.

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Ohhhh… so that’s what it says. Excerpt from the Voynich Manuscript. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The Jesuits didn’t read it either, not even the scholar Athanasius Kircher, who was likely responsible for the inclusion of the manuscript in the collection.

Before him, the two hundred-plus-page manuscript probably belonged to a physician by the name of Johannes Marcus Marci, who likely received it from alchemist and antique collector George Baresch, who may have gotten it from Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz, who served as the personal physician to Emperor Rudolph II of Germany. Emperor Rudolf assumed the manuscript was the work of 13th century philosopher Roger Bacon and purchased it for a fairly large sum.

But none of these men ever read the book.

Because they couldn’t. What came to be known in the 20th century as the Voynich Manuscript is an enduring puzzle. Its vellum pages have been carbon-dated to the early fifteenth century, which means Bacon didn’t write it. They are filled with an unknown language or code, written by a single, careful hand, and accompanied by lots of strange pictures of unidentifiable plants, weird symbols, and plenty of naked ladies.

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I chose not to highlight one of the pages with naked ladies, as this is a family-friendly blog. Illustration from the Voynich Manuscript. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Housed today in Yale’s Beinecke Library, and available to view online if you want to take a stab at it, the Voynich Manuscript has been defying translators for pretty much as long as it has existed. Recent attempts at translation by television writer Nicholas Gibbs and University of Bristol research assistant Gerard Cheshire have been pretty quickly shot down by Voynich scholars and enthusiasts. And in 2016, even AI failed to convince those in the know that it could crack the code.

It’s been suggested that the book is a medical guide of some sort, that it’s written in Hebrew anagrams, that it’s nothing more than an elaborate hoax, or that it’s of otherworldly origin. All we know for certain is that it’s weird, oddly fascinating, and unreadable. Perhaps it contains the answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe.

But as frustrating as it is that there’s this one book that has remained unread by everyone except, presumably, its author, I can’t help but think there are probably a lot of books no one has ever been able to read. Most languish on hard drives or exist only as scribbles in tattered notebooks. Others have been locked up in contracts with defunct presses, trapped away from the public by copyright law.

Hopefully that last possibility doesn’t apply to too many books. Very soon it will apply to one fewer, as the copyright of my first historical novel, Smoke Rose to Heaven, will be returning to me in the coming weeks. What this means is that very soon (February 4th to be exact), I will be releasing it finally into the world for anyone to read.

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Coming soon!

I can’t promise that it contains the answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe, but it’ll be fairly easy to read because it’s written in English without anagrams, strange symbols, or unidentifiable plants. For better or worse, it doesn’t have any pictures of naked ladies, either.

I’ll have a lot more to share about this most elusive of my books in the coming weeks. You can’t read it just yet,* but maybe while you’re waiting, you can decipher the Voynich Manuscript.

 

 

*Okay, you can actually get a sneak peek if you would like to commit to giving Smoke Rose to Heaven an honest review. If that’s something that interests you, drop me a line at s_angleton@charter.net before the publication date and I’ll happily send you a complimentary e-book. You can check out the back cover blurb and read a sample here.

My Babylonian Resolution

Four thousand years ago, give or take, the Babylonian people celebrated a twelve-day festival called Akitu. I don’t know if it involved giving their true loves a bunch of gold rings, some milking maids, and an alarming number of birds, but it was a pretty big deal. Akitu was celebrated in mid-March and it marked the beginning of a new planting season, the beginning of a new year.

new-years-day-4707619__340It was the time when Babylonians decided to make some changes. They either reaffirmed their loyalty to their current ruler or got themselves a new one. And on a more personal level, they made vows to their gods to settle their debts, return what had been borrowed, and basically be better people. Though this particular practice doesn’t seem to be included in the histories we have, I think it’s also safe to assume most wanted to shed a few pounds and do a bit less drinking in the new year.

The Babylonians left us the earliest recorded evidence of New Year resolutions, but of course the practice, or some version of it, rose up all over the world. People seem to be hardwired to like a fresh start, a chance to do a little bit better the next time.

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And I’m done. photo credit: Carol (vanhookc) Dreaming of Dec. 25th via photopin (license)

I’m not a big resolution-maker. Or at least not specifically at the start of the year. January, for me, has instead become a month of recovery. The Christmas season sort of wipes me out, and this one was worse than most.

I think it all started when Thanksgiving was such a late arrival. Everything felt condensed this season, with all the parties and traditions and fun crammed into a drawer that didn’t have quite enough space. Real life took a backburner while gifts were given and merriment was made. In the midst of that, a tragedy in my extended family zapped whatever I might have had left.

And so, a lot didn’t get done. I didn’t read the wonderful words of all my pals in the blogosphere. I didn’t write many either, not in this space nor elsewhere, and yes, that includes a Christmas letter that now will have to become a greeting for the new year instead.

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The sad part is that I didn’t have to stage this picture. I really probably should get more organized in 2020.

If you sent me an email in the last few weeks, I most likely didn’t open it, but it’s still waiting in my inbox and I’ll get there soon. If I agreed to read your book or play or short story, I’ll get to that, too. Fortunately, January is long and bleak in my corner of the world and there’s a little more space in the drawer.

It would be great if in 2020 I could lose a little weight and be a little more organized. I’d also still love to learn to teleport. But I think it might be more of a Babylonian New Year for me this year. I’m going to work on settling my debts by catching up on all the things I’ve let slide. By mid-March, I think I just might make it.

What about you? Got any goals for 2020?

I, Said the Cow

This has been a year of big transitions for my two sons. My oldest started his freshman year in high school and will soon be learning to drive; my youngest headed for the first time to middle school. Along with the academic challenges, each adventure has brought with it new social opportunities as well. For my youngest son, one of those has been school choir.

choral-3871734__340He was a little nervous to take this plunge but has had an absolute blast. He’s had the opportunity to perform the National Anthem at Busch Stadium before a Cardinals game, has gained a ton of confidence, and has been singing Christmas songs since the end of August.

I’m thrilled for him. I do love a good Christmas song, especially now that ‘tis the season. But I gotta say, as much as I am looking forward to the big winter concert coming up next week, I have listened to all the holiday tunes with less gusto this December than I usually might. My Christmas carol tolerance has been a little tested. Musically speaking, it’s been a long four months here in the Angleton household.

But humanity has been singing songs of this most jolly of holidays for a lot longer than that. The first Christmas hymns can be traced to the third century, probably around the same time St. Nicholas allegedly slapped a heretic silly.

Of course those first songs are no longer topping the charts. The earliest one that is still sung regularly today comes from 12th century France and is known now as “The Friendly Beasts.” It tells the charming tale of the animals in the stable on the night of Christ’s birth and consists of their first-hand witness accounts, including such brilliant lines as, “’I said the cow,’ all white and red, ‘I gave Him my manger for a bed.’”

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Maybe cows were white and red in 12th century France? Or couldn’t the cow all white and brown have given the baby a place to lay down? Just a thought. photo credit: Hindrik S hey man via photopin (license)

If that doesn’t impress you, you’re clearly not picturing it as performed by a children’s choir in animal costumes. Awww.

And if you are not as well-versed in Christmas melodies as I am, then you might take issue with my claim that it’s sung regularly, but just consider that it was easily one of the most ridiculous hymns sung every Christmas season in the midwestern church my family attended when I was young. Then when I lived on the West Coast a few years ago we attended a church of a different denomination and they also sang “The Friendly Beasts” every year, in full adorable children’s choir fashion.

That’s a pretty small sampling, I realize, but I’m sticking to my claim. Also, Garth Brooks sang a version of it in 1992, which now that I see that in print, doesn’t seem all that more impressive than the song appearing in the 12th century. Man, I’m getting old. Did I mention that I have a son who is about to start learning to drive?

As you might imagine, the original version of the song was not in English, though I hardly think that matters as few barnyard animals speak it anyway. The current English lyrics were set to the original Old French tune in the 1920s by a man named Robert Davis. The good old-fashioned Christmas hymn has been variously known as “The Gift of the Animals,” “The Animal Carol,” “The Donkey Carol,” and “The Song of the Ass.” That last one has been discarded for causing too many giggles among the children in the choir.

In my family we always called the song “’I, Said the Cow.’” And honestly, despite its age, and probably owing to the fact that it’s not on the list of selections for the upcoming middle school choir concert, it might be the only Christmas song I’m not completely sick of yet.

Bravely Throwing Out a Piece of the Soul

In 1936, celebrated American author F. Scott Fitzgerald made a list. He’d hit a big rough patch in a life full of rough patches, drinking too much and living in a hotel in Asheville, North Carolina to be close to his institutionalized, schizophrenic wife. After an alleged suicide attempt and a nasty shoulder injury, Fitzgerald hired a nurse named Dorothy Richardson to care for him.

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A romance I quite enjoyed in 2019.

As they got to know one another, Fitzgerald made her a list of books he thought she ought to read. The list includes some William Faulkner, Theodore Drieser, Leo Tolstoy, John Keats, and such—twenty-two works in all. Some I’ve read. Most, I admit, I haven’t.

But that’s okay, because F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t make the list for me, and suggesting a book for people can seem like kind of an intimate thing. You’re asking them to pour hours of their time into an experience, one they will engage with during their personal downtime, maybe while they’re drowsy and wearing their pajamas, or lounging on the beach in a swimsuit they feel just a little bit too chubby to wear, or nervously waiting for their loved one’s surgical procedure to end and hoping no waiting room strangers will strike up a conversation.

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A memoir I read this year and liked a lot.

You hope they’ll like it. You hope they won’t think you have no taste, or that you think they have no taste, or that they think you chose this book because it says something to you about them or that you think it says something about yourself and you’re hoping they’ll notice. It’s a little like offering up a piece of your soul.

But just once in a while it works out. You read a book and it makes you think of one of your friends, who then absolutely loves the book you recommended and is touched that you just seem to get her, at which point she asks you for another recommendation and the stakes become higher.

And that’s why I am especially grateful to have so many wonderful friends who are willing to put themselves out there. Earlier this week, I was thinking about what books I wanted to pick up to finish out my year in reading. Looking over my To-Be-Read list on Goodreads, I realized I had fallen behind a little on my pace if I was going to meet my year-end goal. Most of the list in front of me included books that were either going to be hard to get hold of quickly or were probably not going to be quick reads.

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The best steampunk I read in 2019.

I asked Facebook for suggestions of light, fast reads. And boy did my friends come through! As of right now, about four days later, my plea has received eighty responses. And that doesn’t count my librarian friend who texted me directly with several titles.

I do find it pretty gratifying that a lot of the suggestions are books I’ve read or that were already titles I’d come across and wanted to read, an indication that my friends and I probably know each other fairly well. But I’m even more impressed that so many people took the risk and put their opinions out there.

I read broadly, and with few exceptions, I’ll give anything a try. Maybe then, I’m not a terribly intimidating person to offer book suggestions. I also definitely recognize that the reading experience is largely an individual one and that I myself might view a book differently were I to read it today or a month from now, so I’m never going to judge a person based on the recommendations he makes.

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Best mathematical mystery I read this year. That’s a thing, right?

And I’m not assuming that the list of books offered to me are the essential books that should be read by everyone, which Fitzgerald may have implied to his nurse, mainly by virtue, I think, of who he happened to be and also because he was probably a little drunk. It should be noted that there are some fairly universally accepted greats missing from his list, including Shakespeare. Any high school English teacher would probably be pretty quick to point out that particular oversight.

So, dear blogosphere, it’s your turn. What should I read? I can’t guarantee I’ll follow every suggestion, and I’m sure I won’t get to them all by the end of the year, but I promise I won’t think less of you for throwing it out there.

By the way, if you are on Goodreads, let’s connect!

Handkerchiefs, Ribbon, and Necessity

November is well under way and here in Missouri that means we’ve experienced our first cold snap and snow accumulation event, which we never get this early, except that this is the third year in a row it’s happened. And last week I wrote about how the menfolk are participating in their annual celebration of manliness by growing out their stubble for “No Shave November.”

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Ouch! Image courtesy of Pixabay

This week, for balance, I want to take a moment to recognize the genius of women, particularly one woman—Mary Phelps Jacob. In 1910, at the age of nineteen, Mary was living the American debutante lifestyle, preparing to attend yet another high society ball. Like she’d surely done many times before, she put on her stiff whalebone corset and sucked in while her maid cinched it tight before struggling into her fancy dress.

Then she examined herself in the mirror and didn’t like the way her look all came together. Or maybe it was just that she realized she couldn’t really breathe. Somewhat rashly, she asked her maid to bring her two pocket handkerchiefs, some ribbon, and a sewing kit.

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So much better than a corset. By Mary Phelps Jacob – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That night Mary traded her corset for her homemade hanky contraption and was the easiest, breeziest belle at the ball. Many significantly less comfortable women took notice and, gasping for air, wanted to know her secret. It didn’t take Mary long to realize she was on to something big.

On November 3, 1914, Mary Phelps Jacobs, who would eventually become known as Caresse Crosby, received the first patent for the modern bra. Women everywhere abandoned their restrictive corsets and celebrated with a collective and blissfully deep sigh.

Jacobs wasn’t the first or only person to tackle the terrible problem of women’s undergarments, but I love her story the most because I can just picture it—the moment when comfort and practicality won over fashion.

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I bet she’s not wearing a corset, either. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

I imagine it was a lot like that moment you kick off the ridiculous high heels at the wedding reception so you can actually dance or later when you trade the confining cocktail dress for your trusty old yoga pants. If there are any bewhiskered menfolk still reading at this point, I suspect this feeling is also similar to loosening your necktie.

The story of Mary Phelps Jacob is great because it’s kind of universal. And because as we head through the month of November when we stop shaving, and here in the US, we don our stretchy turkey pants and prepare to tuck in for the long, cold winter ahead, it’s nice to pause and remember that sometimes it’s the necessity of comfort that is the mother of the greatest inventions.

November is a Month for Silly Affectations

It’s finally November, which just means many of us are rethinking our grooming options. That’s right, we’ve reached that one month out of the year when for some inexplicable reason, otherwise clean-cut men (and sometime women, too) decide not to shave.

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Lincoln in 1858, in need of a beard. By T.P. Pearson, Public Domain

And really, do we need a reason not to shave? Sure, smooth skin might be nice, but shaving takes a lot of time—time manly men all over the world could spend washing and combing and stroking thoughtfully the facial hair that is their genetic legacy. They don’t need an excuse.

But at least one famous man did. On October 15, 1860, a little girl from Westfield, New York gave him one when she wrote to then presidential hopeful Abraham Lincoln that he would “look a great deal better” if he let his whiskers grow. Lincoln responded to eleven-year-old Grace Bedell within a few days inquiring whether she thought “people would call it a silly affectation” if he were to begin a beard at this point.

There’s no record of whether she wrote to him again of this matter, but like so many men of the last few years, Lincoln stopped shaving that November. By the time he took his inaugural journey from Illinois to Washington D.C. the new president’s face was sporting some stylish hair. And with it, he’d picked up a pretty adorable story.

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An artist’s best guess. Original portrait by T.P. Pearson, Public Domain. Beard added by my 14-year-old son, used with permission.

Not particularly pleased about the development were the portrait artists working to make a buck off the famous visage of the newly elected leader. Before the days of presidential Twitter feeds and helpful Instagram filters, the rumor of recently sprouted whiskers were all many artists had to go on, and so they had to guess.

But Abraham Lincoln certainly has gone down in history as a bewhiskered gentleman, his signature close-trimmed beard possibly the most recognizable in US history. Still, historians don’t all agree on his motivation for taking Bedell’s advice.

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Bewhiskered Lincoln in 1863. It takes a wise president to embrace criticism about his hair. By Alexander Gardner, Public Domain

He did make a stop along his inaugural journey to show little Miss Bedell his whiskers, which surely won him some favorable press. It’s always possible he could have just reflected on the advice of a concerned citizen and realized that she might have had a point.

It’s also true that in Lincoln’s day, close-trimmed facial hair was common among the highly sophisticated gentlemen of US cities and Honest Abe probably wanted to shed his rep as kind of a country bumpkin from the middle of nowhere in Illinois.

Or it could be that Abraham Lincoln was a man ahead of his time and he just decided November is not for shaving.