An Exhilarating Fight to the Death

This past week saw the official opening of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo, with some definite adjustments. There are no cheering crowds and the athletes arbitrarily wear masks when they don’t have the immediate need to breathe. Viewership in the US is way down, I’m sure partly because seeing empty stadiums is unsettling and partly because so many people have given up cable in favor of streaming services. It’s also difficult to hashtag a 2020 Olympic Games that is occurring in 2021. We’re probably all little discombobulated.

Cesar I. Martins from Jundiai, Brazil, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What I miss the most are the parents of the athletes, sitting in the stands wringing their hands, biting their nails, trying to watch and not watch at the same time while their son or daughter competes at the highest level in a sport to which they have dedicated so much time and energy for so many years. Instead, we’re shown occasional glimpses of them in the comfort of their living rooms half a world away, or gathered with family and friends for watch parties. It’s nice to see them, but it’s not quite the same.

There are two types of Olympic parent. The first is the one who is the former elite athlete themselves. This parent my even have been a coach to their young athlete at some point. They can semi-calmly answer knowledgeable questions about their son or daughter’s performance. The second kind of parent had no idea that their child might be the greatest handball player of all time, and when it all began, had no idea precisely how one played handball.

It’s this parent with whom I identify, because while the rest of the handful of Olympic watchers in the US was tuned into the primetime replay of the Opening Ceremony last Friday, I was instead watching men’s sabre fencing. This is the kind of event you have to watch live mostly in the middle of the night because it’s not gymnastics, swimming, sprinting, or beach volleyball. And it’s a sport that we had to watch, because for about three years now, my youngest son has been a fencer.

Italian sabre team at 1908 Olympics. Unknown author, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the fact that fencing is one of the world’s oldest sports, as it developed alongside the need to learn how to fight and defend oneself with a sword, and despite the fact that it is one of only five events that has been part of every single occurrence of the Modern Olympic Games since they began in Athens in 1896, fencing remains a watch-in-the-middle-of-the-night kind of sport around these parts.

And we did watch it in the middle of the night. The preliminaries began around 7 pm and the gold medal bout occurred around 7 am. In between was a lot of fencing, very little of which was understood by this mom.

It’s not that I don’t like the sport. It’s just that before my son started, the only thing I knew about fencing I had learned from The Princess Bride, which taught me that Bonetti’s defense might be fitting for rocky terrain, and that if one is to be satisfied with his bout, he should fence with his non-dominant hand unless forced to do otherwise because his opponent is better than he is. Neither of these pieces of information has so far proven useful in the slightest.

I have accumulated some knowledge over the last few years. For instance, there are three varieties of sport fencing. Each uses a distinct type of sword, set of rules, and method of scoring. Foil is the classic art of poking one’s opponent in the torso. Epee, according to my son, is the sword dancing of lawless hippies. And sabre is more or less an exhilarating fight to the death by stabbing or whacking.

Thadius856, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Obviously, my son primarily fences sabre, which is the fastest moving of the three and is therefore the most difficult for an enthusiastic mom to spectate without making a fool of herself.

In case you’re not familiar with the sport, I’ll explain. Very basically, each fencer is attempting to score a “touch” against the other by being the first to make contact with an opponent from the waist up. This touch can be scored with either the stabby part of the sword or the cutting edge. That’s not so tricky. But if both fencers manage to achieve a touch, which seems to pretty much always happen, then the point goes to the fencer who has claim to the right of way, or in other words, the last fencer to have done something either offensive (like move forward without stopping or flinching) or defensive, like parry an opponent’s attack.

Right of way is determined by a judge, who is never swayed by the simultaneous outpouring of enthusiastic celebration by each of the fencers, as convinced the point belongs to him as a soccer player is that he has been gravely injured by light contact with another player. Except that sometimes the judge is swayed. But more often, they just call a simultaneous, no one gets the point, and the false celebrating ceases for the next 0.4 milliseconds that it takes to do it all over again.

© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

I have been trying to figure it out. I really have, and I thought that maybe by watching sabre in the Olympics with commentary and slow-motion views, I might gain some super fencing-mom skill. Alas, until the finals, fencing events were only viewable on a four-way split screen with no commentary at all, except for the unintelligible utterances of my son and husband (who is much better at mimicking sports knowledge than I am) who said things like stop hit, mal-parry, or flunge.

So, I ended up doing what I always do. I cheered when my son did.

As far as learning how to cheer on the sport, the whole exercise was about as helpful as watching The Princess Bride. But that’s okay. He’s not in the Olympics yet. If he is someday, I’m sure I’ll have it all figured out by then. Or at least I’ll be the mom who is wringing my hands, biting my nails, and trying to both watch and not watch at the same time. Because everyone can understand that.

Charles Dickens is in Good Company

On the last day of May in 1837, avid readers of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club were disappointed. The story had been published in installments by Chapman & Hall at the end of every month since March of 1836 and by this time was approaching a print run of 40,000 for each part. It was perhaps the first truly and widely popular piece of literature to hit the London scene, spawning bootlegged copies, theatrical renditions, circulating jokes, and a wide range of merchandise.

Charles Dickens was living the dream. He’d hit the publishing market just right and given the reading public exactly what it wanted at exactly the moment it wanted it. Then in May of 1837, as it so often does, life happened and Dickens missed a deadline when his sister-in-law Mary, to whom he was close, died suddenly. He also missed a deadline for a new serial novel called Oliver Twist.

A story written by a some guy named Charles Dickens, who, much like author Sarah Angleton, was known to serialize his novels. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dickens did manage to publish a section of his Pickwick Papers the following month and an anxious readership was happy to get it. The work, which was later published as a single novel, originally reached its readers as a series of nineteen issues published over twenty months.

The idea of the serial novel wasn’t entirely new, but it hit its stride with Dickens who had begun his career publishing his Sketches by Boz in various newspapers before they were later bundled into a single work.

Readers liked the format because it was cheaper to buy a short piece than a full novel. Publishers liked it because it was cheaper and less risky to produce short pieces, which allowed them to respond to market demand rather than try to predict it. And lots of authors throughout the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century did it, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry James, Upton Sinclair, Ernest Hemingway, and many, many others. All the cool kids were doing it.

Some guy named Charles Darwin who published serialized novels, similarly to author Sarah Angleton. National Library of Wales, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Then serial fiction kind of fell out of fashion, with only the occasional experimental foray by a well-known author here or there. But now it’s making a comeback. It’s happening on blogs, of course, and podcasts, and now on more and more online publishing platforms. Even Amazon decided to get a piece of the action.

Last week saw the launch of Amazon’s newest self-publishing platform Kindle Vella. For now, it’s only available in the US and I don’t entirely understand how it works just yet, but basically, it’s an app to which authors publish their stories an “episode” at a time, and readers cash in-app coins they’ve purchased in order to continue with the next episode. I think it’s supposed to be interactive, too. That’s the part I don’t have quite figured out yet.

But I assume I will figure it out before too long, because I have begun publishing a story on Vella. This novel-in-pieces is a little different than my others that got published as plain ol’ books. Those are historical novels that most likely appeal to the kind of people who like to read historical novels, which I know because I’m so great at marketing.  Or at least they probably appeal to people who like history or novels or who have ever had a conversation with my mom or dad.

This story might not appeal to the same crowd. It’s a dystopian, sci fi story I started cooking up several years ago, in which, unsurprisingly, there is a teenage girl who is destined to become a hero and do heroic things, fall in love and possibly become embroiled in a love triangle, and learn something about herself on the way to saving the world.

A serialized novel by Sarah Angleton (aka S. M. Angleton)

Probably. But as I post episodes and get reader feedback, I suppose it could always change a little bit. What I can state with a fair amount of confidence is that I am on schedule to upload episodes far enough in advance that if life happens, as it did last week when I failed to post in this space, new episodes should still drop each Wednesday.

Here’s the description you will find on Vella:

Built on the ashes of St. Louis, Becca’s dystopian world centers on a dark faith dedicated to pushing the limits of the human lifespan. After an unnaturally prolonged childhood, she faces the ritual that will determine her vocation and launch her initiation into adulthood, a ritual that two years prior, her brother sacrificed his life to protest. When Becca’s own ceremony takes a wrong turn, she finds herself in a world preserved by lies and a tangled history that threatens everyone she loves.

If you’re into that kind of thing, please check it out at this link to read the first few episodes for free. It’s an experiment, but I’m kind of excited about it. Maybe by the time I get to the last episode, 40,000 people will be waiting anxiously for it. It might spawn jokes, theatrical renditions, bootlegged copies, and a wide range of merchandise. Someday, I might even publish it as a book. The only thing I know for certain is that I have now joined the ranks of Charles Dickens. And I think he’s in pretty good company.

The Overheard Musings of a Milkmaid

It was in the middle of the 18th century when, as a boy, English physician Edward Jenner overheard a conversation that would one day save countless lives. What he overheard was a milkmaid explaining to someone that she would never have to worry about the disfigurement of the dreaded smallpox because she’d had a case of the much milder disease cowpox.

Surely it struck the young man as strange that this probably fairly uneducated woman believed her life, and her beauty, may have been saved by a cow, but the notion stuck with him as he grew. On May 14, 1796, Jenner inoculated an eight-year-old with cowpox laced pus. The boy ended up with a short-lived mild fever and some temporary general malaise, but was otherwise fine. Then two months later, Jenner exposed the boy to smallpox, and he developed no symptoms at all.

This woman will not be getting smallpox. Paulus Potter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Jenner called his discovery “vaccinia,” derived from the Latin word for cow. He wrote up his findings, published them as An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, presented them to the Royal Society, and faced ridicule from renowned naturalist Sir Joseph Banks and other very important men.

But some listened and experimented and discovered the same result. Edward Jenner, on the overheard musings of a milkmaid, had discovered a way to prevent smallpox infection that proved significantly safer than inoculation with the smallpox virus itself, which was a practice frequently undertaken by those who wanted to reduce their chance of dying from smallpox to one in forty from twelve in forty.

Edward Jenner, no longer a child, and still eavesdropping on milkmaids. John Raphael Smith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One physician thought the newfangled vaccine promising enough, that he sent Jenner’s work to an American colleague by the name of Benjamin Waterhouse, who served as Professor of Theory and Practice of Physic at Harvard Medical School. The American physician was so impressed by the research that on July 8, 1802, he vaccinated both a household servant and Waterhouse’s own five-year-old son, fortunately with great success. He would later go on to vaccinate his entire household and quite a few relatives in order to, according to him, “convince the faithless and silence the mischievous.”

Excited, Waterhouse next set up Board of Health trials in which vaccination by the cowpox-causing virus proved overwhelmingly preventative of smallpox infection. He faced as much resistance and ridicule as Jenner had, but he did have a powerful ally in then president Thomas Jefferson who sent him a fan letter in which he wrote: “Future nations will know by history only that the loathsome smallpox has existed and by you has been extirpated.”

Benjamin Waterhouse, a man who thankfully wasn’t too concerned about the ethical questions surrounding experimenting on one’s own 5-year-old son. Rembrandt Peale, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Jefferson may have been a little bit premature in his statement, but through the continued efforts of Waterhouse and Jenner a skeptical population both in the US and England, and eventually throughout the world, increasingly sought vaccination. Then in 1980, the World Health Organization declared smallpox officially eradicated.

Gone. A disease that some historians estimate killed as many as two billion people throughout history is gone because of a gossiping milkmaid, an eavesdropping boy, and the influence of a committed community of medical professionals and those who trusted them.

I’m not a vaccine expert, though I’m glad to say I have more education than the average 18th century milkmaid. What I do know is that the more opportunity viruses have to thrive, the more opportunity there is for variations to occur, and the more opportunity there is that one of those variations may not be thwarted by the vaccines we currently have. I also have many medical professionals in my life, all of whom are fans of vaccination in general, and right now, of the Covid-19 vaccines specifically.

United States Census, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I wouldn’t pretend that I could dispense medical advice, and I am well aware that every individual has a unique medical history and set of concerns that can produce a whole host of questions I might not even think to ask. And I know there’s a lot of confusing information out there. I also believe that how my fellow Americans want to live their lives is how they should live their lives. I get all of that.

So, I will not dispense advice or debate with you about whether or not you should get vaccinated against Covid-19. I won’t even consider you faithless or try to silence your mischief if you decide not to. All I will say, for whatever it may be worth, is that the members of my household, consisting of me, two teenage sons, and my husband who is a medical professional, have been vaccinated against Covid-19.

I’m grateful we had the opportunity and that we took advantage of it. I’m grateful that most of my extended family are vaccinated as well. I’m grateful for all those around me who have also done so. I’m grateful for cows and milkmaids, for Edward Jenner and Benjamin Waterhouse, and for the medical professionals who have made our most recent miraculous vaccines possible.

And if you have the opportunity to get vaccinated against Covid-19, I am so very grateful for that, too.

Celebrating the Not Quite Right Just Yet

So, we’re about to celebrate a pretty big holiday here in the United States. We will follow in the footsteps of John Adams who wrote to his wife Abigail that Independence Day should be recognized with “pomp and parade, with [shows], games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”

I think we’ll pretty much have that covered. But we won’t be celebrating on the anniversary of the day the Continental Congress first declared independence, nor the day one of history’s most famous breakup letters was drafted. The holiday won’t fall on the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and it doesn’t mark the moment when King George III read it and decided to sing a love song about sending an armed battalion.  

A man who knew how to party. John Adams by Gilbert Stuart, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, the July 4th celebration does commemorate all of that, but what it actually marks on the calendar is the day of the final pen stroke of the final draft of the document that spurred a war that birthed a nation.

As a writer who recognizes that first drafts rarely amount to much and that most of the best writing occurs in the rewriting, I find this pretty satisfying. It seems John Adams would not have agreed with me. When he wrote of his future nation’s Independence Day, he was referring to July 2, 1776.

I get it. He was excited. He’d had a hand in the original draft, working with Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and of course Thomas Jefferson to get it just so. Like a student who waited too long to start his final term paper and stayed up all night before the due date, assuming that in his push to get it finished, he’d written the most brilliant words ever penned by any student in the history of students, Adams was probably anxious to get it turned in to the Continental Congress, send it on to the king, and sit back to watch the fireworks.

That looks like a lot of hard work. Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay

Not surprisingly, however, Adams and his fellow committee members weren’t the only ones who had something to say about the wording of the Declaration. The debating began. In some ways, this important American document was improved by a few tweaks here or there, a little tightening of language or nuance of phrasing. And in other ways, it was made worse, like in the removal of all references to the immorality of slavery.

It’s still possible to make the wrong decision in revision, too, which is one of the things that makes it so difficult. But the Continental Congress figured out where they had to compromise in order to make the declaration work well enough for all the representatives in the room to move forward. The final draft would be signed nearly a month later on August 2. The date at the top of the document, however, remained July 4, which became an officially declared federal holiday in 1870.

The date is pretty ingrained at this point and I think, all things considered, it’s the right one to celebrate, though with the 4th falling on a Sunday this year, and much to the frustration of my poor dog, I suspect many of my neighbors will celebrate with illuminations on the 2nd and 3rd as well.

But in my mind, the 4th is the day the United States truly embarked on the notion that freedom and liberty sometimes require compromise and consideration of those who don’t agree with us, and that revision is painful, difficult, and necessary work.

Ooh. Aah. Illuminations! Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

The United States, such as it was imagined by the Second Continental Congress, wasn’t a perfect nation, nor was the vision of it perfected yet. That would take many, many years. So many, in fact, we’re still counting, and I suspect always will be.

But the best work comes in the difficult, painful revision process in which debate and compromise occurs. No matter how politically divided we may think we are, or how we as individuals may feel our nation is doing in this moment, I hope that’s something every American can be proud to celebrate.

If you are celebrating American Independence this weekend, please be careful with all your pomp and illuminations, and have a wonderful holiday!

Going Nowhere for Fun and Torture

In 1818, civil engineer William Cubitt, well-respected for his work on windmill sails and for a fastidiousness that carried him quickly up the ranks of the engineering firms for which he worked, proposed a new approach to convict rehabilitation.

Sir William Cubitt, who also had a somewhat complicated relationship with the treadmill. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He suggested that in order to counteract the tendency of prisoners toward idleness, they ought to be put to good use on treadmills, producing the rotary power needed to grind corn or pump water or provide entertainment for the prison guards. Cubitt designed the contraption himself, drawing on his experience as the son of a miller. It consisted of a paddle wheel with twenty-four spokes that required a prisoner to step up continually for as many as six hours at a time.

I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of exhausted just reading that. Like probably most people who have ever used one, I have a complicated relationship with the treadmill. I have one. I keep it tucked into a cool, dark corner of my basement, which is where I reluctantly, but also kind of gratefully, use it.

If you’ve followed along with this blog for long, you may recall that I think running is stupid. I stand by that. But I also occasionally (actually lately even frequently) run. I blame Covid for this latest burst of insanity, because for a while it led to a more sedentary lifestyle and fewer available opportunities to curb that. So, I dusted off my running shoes and hit the treadmill, which is a lot less punishing on my creaky joints than pavement is.

I suspect that the unlucky English prisoners of the 19th century who were subjected to this particular form of work didn’t care for it much. I know I still hate every single second I spend running to nowhere, though later I always appreciate having spent some quality treadmill time and tend to feel better afterwards, so I guess maybe you could say I enjoy the destination. I’m getting better at it, too.

Cubitt’s treadmill wasn’t completely monstrous. It included a handrail. British Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s one thing that I can say that this year plus of our little global pandemic has conditioned us all for. Many of us have gotten much better at accomplishing things while going nowhere at all. And this week, in between torture sessions on the treadmill, I have been able to do just that, because I have been “attending” the Historical Novel Society’s annual conference from the comfort of my at-home office while wearing a series of professional-ish looking blouses and comfy running shorts.

The conference was originally supposed to be held in San Antonio, but was moved to an entirely virtual format in the midst of pandemic concerns. It would have been fun to spend a little time away in a really interesting city that I’ve not yet managed to explore. I could have taken lots of sock monkey pictures, traded business cards with my fellow writers, and purchased more books than I had room for in my luggage.

I did take one picture of my travel buddy Steve. Sadly, it’s not in front of the Alamo, but he’s still smiling.

But this virtual thing has actually been working really well. The organizers have done a brilliant job, providing topical Zoom room mingling opportunities that have probably led to more engagement in meaningful conversations than I would have been able to accomplish in a physical room full of people. The presentation lineup is outstanding, and more complete than it could have been at a live conference. There’s been more participation from writers around the world than would likely have traveled to San Antonio.

I have learned and am continuing to learn a ton. I have also kept up with the laundry, spent some time with my family, and enjoyed having my dog lay at my feet as I sit at my computer chatting with new friends. I’ve done a lot, and I’m tired, but I haven’t gone anywhere at all. And while I probably would prefer to be at a live conference, I haven’t hated every single second of it. In fact, this particular treadmill hasn’t felt the least bit torturous.

I’m not sure I could say the same for the literal treadmill in my basement. Fortunately for England’s inmates, however, William Cubitt’s brand of prison torture was outlawed in 1889. To the best of my knowledge, my treadmill is still legal. But if I’m misinformed, please don’t hesitate to tell me because as much as I like the feeling of having finished a run, I am a hopelessly law-abiding citizen.   

I Cannot Post a Lie: A Lesson in Irony

In 1806, sixty-eight years after it didn’t happen, minister, bookseller, and promotor of all things virtuous Mason Locke Weems revealed to the world that a six-year-old George Washington had once chopped his father’s cherry tree with a hatchet. According to the story, the unfailingly virtuous young George confessed his wrongdoing to his father who was proud of him for doing so.  

As far as pervasive lies go, I suppose Washington chopping the cherry tree isn’t so bad. Stephen Goodwin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t until the fifth edition that Weems included the charming tale in his instant bestseller, The Life of George Washington. Like all good biographers, Weems dug deep and attempted to look beyond the familiar public service life of his subject into the less well-known influential moments that eventually led to greatness.  

Weems spun his biography around the idea that in order for George Washington to grow into the great man he had been, he must have developed a healthy collection of good virtues throughout his early years of formation. The trouble was, Weems didn’t have access to all the stories he needed to make the concept work.

So, Weems joined the ranks of those who engage in popular history—that genre which includes a little less strict scholarship and a little more making stuff up for the sake of telling a good story and selling lots of books (or creating a silly blog post).

It worked. Weems sold a lot of books, and he invented one of the most often repeated stories told in American elementary school classrooms, where young children are lied to about history so that they learn to be honest and accountable for their mistakes if they ever want to be president.

I was wrong about cherry pie when I was a child, which I can admit to you because I am a very virtuous person. But as always, please do not vote for me for president. Image by Mary Bettini Blank from Pixabay

So that might have been a slight miscalculation on the part of Mason Locke Weems and the American school system, but at least it is a good lesson in irony. I could think of approximately 42 million things I’d rather do than become the President of the United States, but I do remember learning the story.

And I thought about the tale every spring, because at my house we always had at least one cherry tree that produced a ton of cherries for my mom to turn into pie. I would refuse to eat it, of course, because when I was young, I didn’t see the point of calling something dessert if it included more fruit than chocolate.

Still, I have fond memories of picking cherries. And seeding cherries. Lots of cherries. For hours. Until my fingers were stained red and everything was sticky and I might have been tempted to take a hatchet to that tree. I cannot tell a lie.

Ah. Spring.

I did eventually learn the joys of eating cherry pie and now that I’m a grownup with a home of my own, we have a cherry tree that we manage to pick a few cherries from every spring. For some reason, this was a particularly good year for it. I don’t know if it was the just perfect weather pattern or if our fairly young tree finally reached its fruiting potential or what, but we had a lot of cherries to pick and pit.

And about a week or so later, so did my parents. I recruited my youngest son and we went to the grandparents’ house to help pick more cherries. Their much bigger tree had outdone itself. We picked and reached and climbed and picked some more, until we were hot and tired, our fingers were sticky, and Grandma said she had enough for more pies than they could probably manage to eat.

By that point, I think I’d not have been surprised if my son had taken a hatchet to the tree. He would have come clean about it because he’s a pretty virtuous kid, and though I wouldn’t wish this on him, I’m sure he would make a brilliant president someday.

Say What?!

In 1774, German naturalist Johann Matthaus Bechstein published a treatise on cage birds in which he mentioned an African Grey Parrot owned by Cardinal Ascanius. This bird could perfectly recite the Apostles’ Creed. I’m sure that took some dedication on the part of the cardinal, but it’s not terribly surprising that the parrot could accomplish such a feat.

African Greys, which live for a good sixty to seventy years, are known for their intelligence and loyalty as well as their ability to mimic the sounds and words that they hear, particularly those they hear frequently. Clearly, the cardinal was a pretty pious man, or at least it was important enough to him that his bird thought so.

Andrew Jackson, looking respectable and not at all like a man who swears at his parrot. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Evidently Andrew Jackson was not as careful about what was said around his pet bird, an African Grey Parrot named Poll. Jackson had purchased Poll when he won his presidential bid, thinking it would be a good companion for his wife Rachel. The Jacksons weren’t really part of the scene of political elites in the US and he feared Rachel would feel a little outclassed and isolated. Unfortunately, she died between his election and inauguration, leaving Poll in the president’s care.

But Poll must really have been a pretty good companion because the bird certainly had a lot to say when the then former president died in 1845. The parrot was present at Jackson’s funeral, along with thousands of mourners, and according to the account of the officiant Reverend William Menefree Norment, Poll had many words to share. The only problem was that those words were of the variety that might get one kicked out of a funeral.

Say what?! Found Animals Foundation, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The bird cussed up a storm and was carried away from the shocked crowd, who let’s face it, were probably just trying not to giggle. I mean, this was a man whose military prowess carried him to the White House where one of his first orders of business was to add a dozen spittoons to the place. He was a rough-around-the-edges kind of guy who was prone to fighting in duels, once gave the beat-down to potential presidential assassin, and who probably would have been banned from Twitter. Or at least his pet parrot would have been.

On standby under my desk, just in case I need to chat.

But he was also the kind of guy who carried on conversations with his pet. As a devoted pet conversationalist myself, I find that pretty charming. My dog Ozzie gets a lot of talking to. I bounce story ideas off of him, occasionally read him blog posts, and tell him the jokes no one else will appreciate. He’s a great listener, particularly when our talks include plenty of scratches behind the ears and the inclusion of the words “good dog.”

I don’t think he’s ever heard me recite the Apostles’ Creed, but I also don’t think he’s heard me do a great deal of cussing. Of course, if he has, I’m fairly confident that my secret is safe with him. With a life expectancy of only about fourteen or fifteen years, I sincerely hope Ozzie won’t be at my funeral. But even if he is, he’s a really good dog who loves me a lot. He won’t say a word.

Investing in Crypto-Engines

In Philadelphia in 1874, inventor John Worrell Keely demonstrated before a stunned audience his amazing new engine that promised to change the world’s approach to energy production forever. As the crowd watched, Keely blew into a nozzle for a full thirty seconds, poured five gallons of water from a tap into that same nozzle, and pointed to a pressure gauge reading 10,000 PSI to indicate that the water had been disintegrated and had released a newly discovered vapor with enough power to send a steam ship from New York to Liverpool and back five times over.

John Ernst Worrell Keely (ca. 1895), expert on sympathetic vibratory physics, posing with his impressively named motor that never worked. Not even a little. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

I imagine the audience may have had some questions, and Keely probably answered them. He certainly did so on a number of occasions. His invention, he said, was a “vibratory engine,” or if he were feeling particularly fancy, a “hydro-pneumatic pulsating vacuo-engine.”

Based on observations of a tuning fork in all its vibratory glory, Keely’s motor made use of etheric energy. And if you don’t know what that is, then I’m afraid I can’t help you. The best I can figure is that it’s kind of like an aura? Maybe? This is why I’m a writer and not an expert on sympathetic vibratory physics.

But Keely was an expert and he spent a lot of time explaining the alleged science behind his miraculous engine to potential investors, and some actual investors to the tune of $6 million of capital used for establishing his Keely Motor Company.

The biggest and most determined investor in Keely’s crypto-engine was a wealthy widow named Clara S. J. Bloomfield-Moore, who funded the company’s research for $100,000 plus a salary for Keely himself of $2,500 per month. I’m not a financial expert either, but I bet I don’t have to work hard to convince you that in the 1870s this was a whole lot of money.

Oh, ok. Forget the engineers and physicists. I see how it works now. Unknown author, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

And it probably would have been a worthwhile investment had there been anything to the hydro-pneumatic pulsating vacuo-engine. I certainly wish there had been. I keep reading reports of gas prices on the rise and the potential for shortages this summer as people begin to scratch the itch to get out of the house and into a post-pandemic world of summer fun. It would be nice to be able to travel the country fueled by nothing more than a bucket of water.

The anticipated shortages come primarily from a rise in demand that follows on the heels of a steep reduction in demand amid lockdowns and travel restrictions. During that same time period, training programs for new tanker truck drivers shut down or limited operations and many more experienced drivers, finding less work, decided to go ahead and retire. Apparently, tanker truck drivers are the new toilet paper.

So, when my 13-year-old son finishes this final week of what has been the “longest, most awful eighth grade year of [his] life” (his words, because he’s funny), and says he wants to “take all the vacations,” I find myself wishing Keely had been on the up-and-up.

He definitely wasn’t. For all the fancy explanations and big words Keely had to offer when asked, he was consistently reluctant to allow engineers and physicists to study his equipment. The opportunity for a thorough examination didn’t arrive until after his death in November of 1898. That’s when investigators uncovered a laboratory full of a great deal of piping, mechanical belts, pneumatic switches, and a large water-powered motor hidden in the basement.

He never did get his tuning fork engine to work. He did, however, manage to become a pretty successful humbug, skillfully attracting and putting off investors for more than twenty years with shady business practices akin to including the phrase “investing in crypto” in the title of a blog post about vibration and imaginary vapor. My hero.

He also coined the term “hydro-pneumatic pulsating vacuo-engine,” which has the potential to make you sound really smart at your next cocktail party, and maybe even raise some ill-gotten funds, as long as you are prepared to answer a few follow-up questions.

Looking to the Skies

On the night of February 20, 1954, while he was vacationing in Palm Springs, California, then US President Dwight Eisenhower disappeared. Fortunately, he reappeared the next morning and attended a church service in Los Angeles as scheduled, but there were several hours during which the president’s whereabouts couldn’t be accounted for.

Does this look like a man with a toothache? Dwight D. Eisenhower, official photo portrait, May 29, 1959.jpg, White House. Public Domain.

According to the president, his staff, his wife Mamie, and one bleary-eyed dentist, Eisenhower’s absence could be explained by the need for an emergency dental procedure following a tooth cap mishap at dinner. I think, however, it might be worth considering another possibility.

According to conspiracy theorists, a bunch of people who refer to themselves as UFOlogists, and the son of a US Navy Commander witness, what actually happened that night was that the president traveled to nearby Edwards Air Force base for a clandestine meeting with some blue-eyed aliens.

To be clear, I am not suggesting this other possibility has a great deal of merit or anything. I count myself pretty firmly in the camp that assumes if there is life on other planets, its only use for us is as the villainous visitors in stories about midnight abductions and anal probes. That’s assuming that said aliens possess anuses, which I certainly wouldn’t swear to.

But I do think it’s fun to talk about the possibility of aliens, because there’s an awful lot of scary stuff happening on this planet—stuff that divides all of us humans with our widely varied cultural outlooks, political ideologies, and beliefs about the universe and our place within it. In light of all that, alien life still seems like a relatively safe, apolitical, uniting topic.

Actually, I bet aliens don’t have anuses. That’s probably why they spend so much time probing ours. Image by Daniela Realpe from Pixabay

And maybe that’s the reason that all of the mainstream media outlets in the US suddenly decided last week to spend their time talking about UFOs and alien visitations. UFOs, known to people in the know who do not refer to themselves as UFOlogists as UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomena), have evidently been appearing to military pilots. Frequently. For years.

So says Luis Elizondo, alleged former member of a super-secret government Pentagon project called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program and former president and armchair UFOlogist Barack Obama. At least one of those sources seems credible. And actually, both kind of do, because neither has said that we have definite proof of extra-Earth astronauts (which those of us schlubs outside the UFOlogist and secret government communities simply refer to as aliens).

What they’ve said is that sometimes we see stuff and upon further inspection, we’re still left scratching our heads. Personally, I am in favor of a Pentagon project to figure out what all these pilots are looking at and if Congress wants a little more information coming up next month, I’m okay with that, too.

I’m not sure why it all had to be super-secret, or why it suddenly has to claim top billing in the news cycle, but I don’t mind amid all the chaos down here on Earth, taking a little time to look at the skies. It’s significantly less worrisome up there. Because if we can believe the UFOlogists (and why wouldn’t we?), Eisenhower worked out a treaty with our alien visitors back in 1954.

Follow the Bigwigs

Between the years of 1673 and 1765, the city of Paris saw more than a 400% increase in its number of wig makers. Largely that is because King Louis XIV, standing in heels at the pinnacle of fashion, had started to go a little bit bald and decided to take a page from his father’s book.

Previously, Louis XIII had dealt with hair problems of his own. Probably suffering from syphilis, which was all the rage in Europe at the time, Louis XIII lost his hair in patches and suffered with sores on his scalp. And so, he donned a wig.

Yes, there were also many prominent Americans who wore wigs, but George Washington was not among them. I cannot tell a lie, these powdered curls are his own luscious locks. Gilbert Stuart, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wearing a wig wasn’t exactly a brand-new fashion trend. Ancient Egyptians had worn them. Later, some powerful Romans, too. And bald Europeans or those unfortunate enough to be cursed with red hair occasionally wore wigs. Of course, when the king decides to do it, people tend to sit up and notice. Also, a lot of them had syphilis, too.

Wearing a wig became a pretty sensible thing to do. It protected your dome from the air while irritating your festering sores, added a couple pounds to your already cumbersome attire, and made your scalp sweat profusely. It also harbored grime and lice and layers and layers of scented powders that made you smell…well…actually that’s it. They just made you smell. I suppose maybe that kept people from wanting to get within six feet of you, and so it may actually have offered pretty effective protection from syphilis.

I mean, there’s wearing a wig. And then there’s this. Philip Dawe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But wigs really took off in France, and soon all across Europe, when the next generation of French royalty started to wear them. Louis XIV allegedly owned a thousand wigs that he could coordinate with each of his outfits for any occasion, whether an intimate family dinner at home, a sparsely attended press conference, a private walk alone in his gardens, or a jolly Zoom call with foreign dignitaries.

No one would have ever questioned the king’s dedication to wearing wigs, and by his example, probably preventing the spread of syphilis. In fact, because of such noble dedication to looking ridiculous, a hundred years after the end of the reign of Louis XIV, there were still incredibly health-conscious people dedicated to wearing wigs, some of them so elaborate and so big they could have been layers of two or even three wigs stacked on top of one another.  

Of course, in late 18th century France, it became somewhat less healthful to associate oneself with the aristocracy, and wig-wearing finally fell out of fashion there. This development was followed closely by a fairly hefty English tax on wig powder, which convinced the British population that it, too, didn’t care that much for wigs.

I guess maybe there’s an alarming rate of syphilis among English barristers? Someone ought to look into that. Sounds like a public health crisis. Image by Michael Dodd from Pixabay

Today we know a lot more about syphilis, both how it can be avoided and how it can be treated. It’s still a dangerous disease that needs to be taken seriously, and cases have actually been on the rise in recent years, particularly in Europe. It’s also true that wig-makers have gotten better at making natural-looking, more hygienic hair-pieces for those who need them because they have red hair or something.

But I think today everyone, with the exception of English barristers, has come to accept that wearing a poofy wig isn’t often really all that necessary. Still, it sure is funny to look back at the fashion trends of the past and the lengths people would go to imitate and demonstrate support for a particular leader or set of ideas. Thank goodness we know better now.