Shake It Off

On Friday, January 14, 2011 in Times Square in New York, Alastair Galpin and Don Purdon shared a really long handshake. Brothers Rohit and Santosh Timilsina were there shaking hands, too, attempting to set the new world record for longest handshake recorded by the Guinness Book of World Records. The two pairs decided after thirty-three hours and three minutes that they would all four share the record, and then hopefully washed their hands.

Image by Shutterbug75 from Pixabay

It’s a pretty impressive feat, if you’re one to be impressed by such things. Personally, I’m just curious how one words his status as handshake world record holder on a resume or brings it up on a date, which I’m guessing doesn’t last that long after such an impressive credential slips into the conversation.

One person that would definitely not have been impressed to see such a triumph would have been nurse Leila Given, who in 1929, lamented in the American Journal of Nursing that handshaking had become the preferred greeting style in the United States. She argued that shaking hands transfers disease agents from person to person and she recommended that we all keep our hands to ourselves.

There’s plenty of handshaking in Homer’s work and not a single mention of hand sanitizer. What a dangerous world it was. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While the handshake is certainly not the only human greeting behavior in the world, it has long been one of the most common. Its roots reach as far back as the 9th century BC when Assyrian King Shalmaneser III and an unidentified Babylonian ruler sealed a deal and someone grabbed a quick carving for posterity. Homer mentions handshaking in the Iliad and Odyssey. If Ancient Greek funerary art is to be trusted, the Greeks shook hands a lot.

Many historians suspect that the primary motivation behind the development of the handshake was to both indicate that one was not bearing a weapon and to check that the other guy wasn’t either. It’s possible, even, that the up and down motion of the handshake developed as a way to shake loose any weapons that might be hiding up sleeves and that might cause an otherwise friendly encounter to sour.

In America, the handshake took hold as the dominant form of friendly greeting probably as a result of the Quakers in the 17th century, who favored it over forms such as bowing or hat tipping, which often indicated an inequality in power.

Of course, in recent years, as we have become a bit more germ-aware, some have favored the fist bump. Though it has been shown to transfer fewer germs from hand to hand than does a traditional handshake, it does look vaguely ridiculous and occasionally causes inexplicable, and much more definitely ridiculous, explosions.

Friends Winning GIF by Pan Pivo

I assume it’s because of this that many people are now opting for the elbow tap, including politicians and the fully grown men who play professional baseball. I have to say, as silly as it looks in the latter group, it definitely beats the maybe too friendly tap on the backside.

But I suppose all greeting behaviors take a little getting used to. We’ve been shaking hands for a long time. In the post-Covid world of someday, maybe we will shake hands again. Or maybe we won’t. Maybe, ninety-years later, we’ll finally heed Leila Given’s warning.

The last time I shook someone’s hand, more than a month ago now, was at an outdoor book signing. Both of us used hand sanitizer immediately after contact. It also didn’t last thirty-three hours and three minutes, but I am secure in the knowledge that neither of us had any weapons up our sleeves.

Authors Recognition Award

If you follow along with this blog fairly regularly you may have noticed that I have been taking it a little easier this summer than I normally do. 2020 has brought plenty of strangeness and with that, I’ve found it useful to have the flexibility of trading my normally weekly post for an every two weeks schedule. At this point I anticipate returning to a weekly posting schedule when school starts at the end of August. But it’s 2020, so I may be carried off by murder hornets or blown away in a dust storm by then. I’m not making any firm promises.

Or maybe I’ll be be eaten by carnivorous plants grown from mystery seeds. What a strange year. Image by MarcosJH from Pixabay

In the meantime, with this “off” week, since I’m not researching any weird historical tidbits to share with you, I’m going to participate in an award/tag that I received recently.

The Author’s Recognition Award was originally created by Beverly at her Becoming the Oil and Wine Blog. She wants to support fellow bloggers who have written and published books, or who are somewhere in that process, to give them an opportunity to write about their work. Thanks, Beverly. That’s pretty super cool of you!

Thank you also to the Dippy Dotty Girl who nominated me for this award, and who is furiously querying agents in hopes of publishing a book about her “dippy-dotty travels through Cornwall.” As somewhat of a dippy-dotty traveler myself, I’m anxious for the someday when I can read it.

This is the image to which the rules refer, but feel free to use the Venus Flytrap picture if it works for you.

Like any blog award, there are few rules:

  1. Create a new post on your blog with the above logo or with one of your own creation.
  2. Include both the purpose of the award and the rules of the award.
  3. Thank the person who nominated you and link to their blog.
  4. Include links to the creator of the award and to the inspiration post Celebrating and Supporting our Fellow Writers.
  5. Write a brief description of the books you have written or the book you are currently writing.
  6. Include a link to your published books or the potential timeline of release.
  7. Nominate at least five bloggers who have published books or who are writing a book.
  8. Support at least one of the bloggers you nominated by either purchasing one of their books or sharing the links to their books. If they haven’t written a book, share one of their blog posts

My books:

Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense is a collection of humorous essays about quirky history, viewed through the lens of modern-day family life. Released in the spring of 2017, it is a celebration of the first five years of this very blog, which was originally called The Practical Historian: Your Guide to Practically True History. The blog title grew up a little as my writing career became more developed, but the posts have not matured at all. You can find more information about the book at this link.

Gentleman of Misfortune is a historical novel about a 19th century gentleman criminal who commandeers a shipment of Egyptian mummies, attempts to make his fortune by taking them on the road, and gets more than he bargained for. You can find out more and read an excerpt at this link.

Smoke Rose to Heaven is a historical novel that tells the 19th century coming of age story of a girl with a unique gift and a dangerous secret. It is a companion novel to Gentleman of Misfortune, but as the timelines intersect, the two books can be enjoyed in either order. You can find out more and read an excerpt at this link.

My Work in Progress is another historical novel that does have an actual working title, but one never knows how it will go with titles. It was inspired by a 19th century diary discovered by my aunt in the false-bottom drawer of a desk that once belonged to my grandmother. Close to completion now, this novel will soon attract an influential agent, a large advance from a major publisher, and inevitable fame. And since I’m dreaming big anyway, I might as well sell the film rights, too.

Now for the nominees:

  1. Jane Olandese (Book ‘Em Jan O)
  2. M.B. Henry
  3. Steven Baird (Ordinary Handsome)
  4. Tammie Painter
  5. Matthew Wright

I know a lot of writers, many of them wonderfully creative people I have met virtually in the blogosphere. I’ve listed five here, and I suggest you check them all out because they’re great. But please also know that if you are a writer and I didn’t list you, that was in no way an intentional slight. I know we’re all busy blogging away about anything other than our books so people don’t get sick to death of us writing endlessly about our books and begging them to buy our books and love our books and write thoughtful reviews about our books, but sometimes, it’s nice to get to just share. Also, I want to read about your books. So please consider yourself nominated and carry on.

Thanks for stopping by! I promise next week I’ll post something about a little piece of history you never knew you wanted to know, but that might come in handy at your next cocktail party, which will probably be swarmed by murder hornets so you should probably just stay home to be safe.

The Official Flaming Underpants of the 2020 Covid Olympics

This week our local schools revealed their plans for the fall. There are as many different approaches as there are school districts involved, but the one thing that is fairly consistent is that if students return to the classroom, they’ll be wearing face masks.

It’s going to take some adjustment and patience, but I suspect most kids will do okay with this. Image by Leo Fontes from Pixabay

I don’t think that comes as such a shock. Also this week, most stores in our area began requiring masks inside, a mandate that has not come from our governor in the state of Missouri, but has been left up to county health officials, local governments, and business owners. A good number of people were wearing them anyway, but now it’s official policy.

That’s led to a little bit of grumbling, as there are still some people who question the practice, but for the most part, the folks in my little corner of the world are handling any conflicts with calm discussion and a touch of humor.

Mostly, we talk about underwear.

It’s all over my social media feeds as clever memes that draw parallels between wearing a face mask and wearing a bra or panties or boxer briefs. A mask, they say, should be treated like underwear—it should be kept dry, worn clean, and not adjusted in public. Many ladies add to the discussion by proudly proclaiming that even though it’s uncomfortable and kind of a pain, they wear a bra in public for the benefit of others. Unfortunately, outside of social media, and in the sticky summer St. Louis heat, the resolve of some seems to fall away and that particular metaphor doesn’t always hold.

But the point is still valid. And what else do we have to talk about?

Because on this day in 2020, when the world should be sharing in the celebration of the parade of nations and the end of the Olympic torch relay at the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, instead we’re sharing a virus.

One of many great disappointments in 2020. photo credit: Tim Schofield IMG_0965 via photopin (license)

And when we should be watching with pride as the torch is run into an Olympic stadium filled with the best elite athletes the world has to offer, anticipating gymnastics floor routines, swimming medley relays, and (in my household particularly) epic fencing bouts, we’re stuck instead with endless conversations about the fallout of Covid-19. And underwear.

In 1956, the topics actually overlapped, because that’s when the great underwear torch relay occurred. The Olympic torch, of course, is the symbol of connection and continuity from the Olympics of Ancient Greece and the modern-day event, which draws the world together in a spirit of friendly competition, cooperation, and good fun.

I can’t help but wonder how many people have touched this and whether or not their hands were clean.

The relay, however, which sees the lighted torch carried from Olympia, Greece to the host city, making appearances in cities around the world on the way, has much shallower roots, only dating back to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. It was a tradition begun by Nazis.

For this and probably lots of other geopolitical reasons, the torch relay and the torch itself, has at times been the target of protests. In 1956, one such protest carried out by eight students from St. John’s College at the University of Sydney, involved a fake torch made from a silver-painted wooden chair leg, a plum pudding can, and a flaming pair of underpants.

Approximating the dress of an official torch runner, and accompanied by a uniformed buddy on a motorcycle, one student carried the flaming drawers ahead of the official torch and even managed to hand it off to then Lord Mayor of Sydney Pat Hills, who, flustered at the earlier than expected arrival of the torch, proceeded to give a prepared speech to an expectant crowd. By the time he learned of the deception, the student had disappeared.

The real torch did make its way to the handoff at Sydney Town Hall amid a little bit of mayhem. It went on from there to Melbourne where it burned brightly over the Olympic Games that year. The student who’d handed off the flaming underwear, a young man named Barry Larkin, went on to establish a successful veterinary practice, and as is so often the case, no one really seems to know what he and his friends were actually protesting.

photo credit: pburka Mask required via photopin (license)

But I suppose people will always find a reason to get a little riled up. It might be that we disagree with the way our local school districts have decided to try to navigate an impossible situation. Or it might be that we have deep-rooted personal beliefs about whether or not people should be required to wear face masks into WalMart.

I wish we could all be watching the Olympics. But I guess instead we’ll talk about underwear.

An Unexpected Need for Change

It was sometime in the early 1900s when an educated and highly intelligent young man from Austria-Hungary known by the name Victor Lustig embarked on a renowned life of crime. Aboard numerous transatlantic vessels this sophisticated gentleman successfully schmoozed would-be investors into supporting his non-existent Broadway Musical project. Then later he successfully sold a number of people his fantastic “Rumanian Box,” a small mahogany trunk containing two slots and some levers that worked to duplicate currency bills.

The con was pretty simple. Lustig, who tended to introduce himself as a count, happily demonstrated by asking his mark to provide a large denomination of bill, usually $100, and explained that it took six hours to make a perfect duplicate that would be accepted as legal tender by any bank. Then six hours later, Lustig’s miraculous contraption yielded two $100 bills, both of which would be determined to be genuine.

Lustig is the fella in the center with the trustworthy face. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Because they were. Of course Lustig planted the bill, and several more until the mark was thoroughly convinced and willing to cough up an awful lot of money to own the box. Lustig timed the con carefully so that he could be far away by the time the mark figured out he’d been had.

It is so simple, in fact, that one might wonder why any reasonably intelligent person might fall for it. Obviously, Victor Lustig was a pretty charming kind of guy, who gave off a trustworthy vibe. He allegedly put together a list of ten commandments for conmen that actually make me kind of like him, despite his questionable sense of morality. He’s also the same man who managed to sell the Eiffel Tower, which was neither on sale nor owned by him or anyone he ever represented, and who once conned Al Capone out of as much as $5,000. 

Lustig allegedly pulled off this creative scheme at least twice.

But I think the Rumanian Box scheme had something else going for it. On the dresser in my bedroom I have a basket where I sometimes throw the coins from the bottom of my purse, and where my husband might drop the loose change from his pants pockets before sending them through the ever-revolving laundering process.

If you have a similar spot on your dresser or nightstand or kitchen counter, you will probably not be surprised to read that this little collection of coins seems to multiply. Logically, I know this is because we add to it every time we find a few pennies in the couch cushions or clean dimes out the cup holders in the car or remove clattering nickels from the washing machine that slipped through the initial pocket-emptying process.

I could swear it multiplies.

When I occasionally think about it, I might grab a few coins from this basket and make an effort to spend them at the store, but I rarely do think about it. I’m often not using cash at the store these days anyway so I don’t really worry much about exact change.

And it turns out that’s true of a lot of Americans, particularly right now in this strange era of Covid-19. We don’t go to as many physical stores or use as many vending machines or stuff as many parking meters or travel as many toll roads or walk into as many bank lobbies as we used to.

Our tossed aside pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters are sitting, multiplying, in the baskets on our dressers. The businesses that are usually part of the chain that reintroduces those coins into circulation, aren’t handling as many. In fact, there’s a shortage.

First toilet paper. Now this.

As a result, the Federal Reserve has been rationing coins, and signs are starting to pop up in retail spaces asking people to use either exact change if possible, or an alternate form of payment. It’s almost as weird as not being able to find toilet paper and canned soup.

It sounds like the problem just kind of snuck up on us. I suppose it is difficult to anticipate all of the ramifications of shutting down an economy on a scale we’ve never attempted before. Fortunately, according to Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, the shortage is most likely pretty temporary and should sort itself out as more parts of the economy open up.

But if it doesn’t, I have a solution. I think the US should consider investing in some of these fancy dresser-top baskets so many of us have sitting around. I’d part with mine for the right price. Oh, I’m also working on a Broadway musical in need of investors. And I happen to have a tower for sale.

Beer, Pumpkins, and Other Blue Things

In 1781, Connecticut-born Episcopalian Loyalist Samuel Peters found himself fleeing persecution from his American Liberty-loving neighbors to seek safety across the pond in Great Britain. There he received a warm welcome, an audience with King George III, and the time to write about the peculiarities of his one-time neighbors, basically hacking off the entire state of Connecticut forever.

photo credit: jjbers I-84 via photopin (license)

Because that’s when he penned his General History of Connecticut. A biting work of satire, outlining the somewhat outlandish “rigidly moral” Puritan laws of a fanatical and bigoted people, the book included a list of what came to be known as the Connecticut Blue Laws, probably the second biggest thing Connecticut is known for, the first being Lyme disease.

Blue, in this 18th century sense is a disparaging term for strict moral codes or for a person who would adhere to them, like the blue stocking-clad supporters of Oliver Cromwell from the previous century. And it turns out, Peters wasn’t entirely out of line in making reference to the laws.

The General Court of Connecticut did adopt the First Connecticut Code in May of 1650, and it did include some fairly rigid guidelines addressing the religious and moral order of the colony. But it didn’t go as far as the General History of Connecticut, which included a mandate that mothers not kiss their children on Sundays and the requirement that men receive weekly Saturday haircuts around a round cap. In case no round caps were available, there was an allowance made for using half a pumpkin instead.

photo credit: Miss Barabanov Jack Reads via photopin (license)

Even real blue laws (or Sunday laws) can at times seem a little ridiculous, particularly in a society as heterogeneous as the US, but over the years such laws have been upheld as constitutionally acceptable by the US Supreme Court and have been routinely supported by labor unions. The idea, of course, is that the laws serve to protect the religious liberties of workers and at the same time provide protections from overwork from a more secular perspective as well.

While most states have gotten rid of the more restrictive ones, thirty of the fifty states still have some form of blue laws on the books. Until this past weekend, I didn’t actually know that my own great state of Missouri is one of them.

In this era of social distancing, one of the adjustments that our family has had to make is “attending” church online on Sunday mornings. This has allowed for a more casual and unhurried start to the day, and recently led me to engage in a little early Sunday morning gardening. I’m pretty sure there is no current Missouri law against that.

No, I’m not planting beer bushes. My neighbors probably think I’m crazy.

While tending my otherwise thriving garden, I discovered slugs in my squash plants. Apparently, slugs have no moral code whatsoever and are unbothered by working on a Sunday morning. But it’s okay, because I have a simple solution for garden slugs, which has been working pretty well for many years, and has, strangely enough, even been previously featured on this blog that is sort of usually a little bit about history.

The solution is beer. Slugs love it, especially the morally deficient ones that would eat innocent squash plants on a Sunday morning. They will happily slime their way into a partially filled, mostly buried bottle of it and drown themselves. It’s not cruel because they’re drunk enough not to feel a thing. Also, they are slugs.

So, I donned my face mask and hustled off to the grocery store to pick up a six pack of beer for the garden only to discover that Missouri, where I have lived for seven-and-a-half years without ever noticing before, has at least one active blue law. The aisles containing alcohol were roped off. Surprised, I assumed I could just come back after noon to buy my weapon of choice. I picked up a few other needed items and made my way to the checkout by 9:06 AM, with plenty of time to spare before virtual church.

I’m just imagining the awesome haircuts in our future.

When the clerk asked me whether I found everything I needed, I said something about not realizing there were blue laws in Missouri. The kindly lady looked at her watch and said, “It’s after 9. You can buy it now.”

Now, I’m no theologian, but I’m really not sure why buying beer before 9:00 AM on a Sunday morning is any less moral than buying it at 9:06, but I hustled back to the newly opened beer department and grabbed some cold ones for the slug garden party. Then I did less than five minutes of research and discovered that in Missouri, slugs can’t buy beer between the hours of 1:30 AM and 6:00 AM on Monday through Saturday and can only purchase it between 9:00 AM and midnight on Sundays. Sunday sales also require an additional license fee.

Anyway, the beer is placed. The traps are set. And I’m sure glad the grocery store I chose has the Sunday liquor license extension. Because some of those squash plants are pumpkins, and if we should ever misplace all our round hats, those will definitely come in handy.

&%#$@!

In 1884, seven-year-old German-born Rudolph Dirks immigrated to the United States with his family and settled in Chicago. A gifted artist, Dirks began doodling comics at an early age and as a young man he moved to New York to seek out employment as an illustrator. Before long, he was hired onto the staff the New York Journal.

At the time, the New York Journal was in a heated circulation war with the rival New York World, which contained one of journalism’s first featured Sunday comic strips, The Yellow Kid. Dirks’s editor asked him to create a comic strip that would compete.

Wilhelm Busch’s Max & Moritz. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Reaching back to the tales of his childhood, Dirks created Katzenjammer Kids, based on an 1860 illustrated children’s story Max & Moritz by Wilhelm Busch, which tells of a pair of truly naughty boys who engaged in a series of brutal pranks and, in the grand tradition of German stories for children, wound up dying gruesome deaths.

The Katzenjammer Kids, whose names were Hans and Fritz, didn’t share the same terrible fate, but they were naughty. The comic strip consisted of their many shenanigans as they made life terribly difficult for a cast of adult characters that included, among others, their mother, a shipwrecked sailor, and a school official. These adults were sometimes, understandably, frustrated enough to say words that weren’t suitable for Sunday comics.

Hans & Fritz, the &#%’n #^%#s. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dirks came up with a pretty clever solution for that. When his characters were wound up and so frustrated they couldn’t think straight enough to reach for better words, they said things like “%&$#!” instead.

The term for this handy little tool in the comic artist’s kit became official in 1964, when Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker coined the term “grawlix” in an article he wrote for National Cartoonist Society. By then the cartoonist’s version of audio media’s bleep had been in common use since its initial appearance in Katzenjammer Kids in the early 1900s. And I for one, am grateful for that.

I’m not a big fan of profanity in general. I don’t use it much either as a writer or in my personal life. It’s not that I’m particularly shocked or offended by it and I don’t step too far out of the way to avoid it in the writing of others. I’m just aware that profanity seems to be the thing I reach for when it’s probably not the best time for me to speak.

It pops into my head, and if I’m not careful out of my mouth, when I’m angry, frustrated, exhausted, and irrational. When I write fiction, I do occasionally bring a character to that point and in those moments, a well-timed, and rare, use of profanity may be the best way to express his or her emotional state.

But for me, I find I’m usually best served by taking a deep breath and a step back to think about whether or not I need to communicate my feelings at all and if so, how best to do it. After all, according to some estimates, there are nearly a million words in the English language. Even if 800,000 or so of those are essentially obsolete, that still gives me a lot to work with.

Even with all of that at my disposal, I have found it difficult to put together the right words during these past few weeks of unrest in the United States. I’m angry of course; also worried about the future of the nation if we can’t redirect righteous anger into rational conversation and actionable solutions. Oh, and there’s still a pandemic, I think? I kind of just want to say, “&@#%$!”

But then sometimes . . . Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I chose not to post to my blog last week because I realized that probably wouldn’t be that helpful for anyone. I didn’t know what words to send into the blogosphere. I had no comfort to offer readers who are likely feeling some of the same things I am and who maybe aren’t even ready to find comfort. I have prayed a lot and have found a great deal of personal peace in that, but I’m aware not everyone who stumbles across this blog views prayer in the same way I do.

So, a week later I still don’t have the right words. Because even with a million to choose from, sometimes the right one just can’t be found.  Maybe we need some creative person to invent a new term for us. Or maybe we all really do just need to say a collective, “&%#$@!”

And then take a deep breath and a step back.

Gratefulness and Lost Swim Goggles

In 1922, Englishman John Marshall, while serving as the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India, took over what looked to be a very big project. To his credit, Marshall had developed a program allowing Indian scholars to join in and even lead the excavations of archaeological sites in their own country.

But when Indian archaeologist and ancient historian R. D. Banerji discovered Mohenjo-daro, the oldest and most well-preserved example of the Indus Valley Civilization dating to about 2500 BC, Marshall stepped in and transferred his esteemed Indian colleague.

R. D. Benerji.
public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll just leave that right there, however, because this is not a blog post about the ugly bits of imperialism or the misappropriation of historical and scientific credit. This is a blog post about swimming pools. Frankly, I’d rather write about that.

Because Mohenjo-daro features, among other super cool things, what is perhaps the world’s first public swimming pool. At seven by twelve meters and with a maximum depth of 2.4 meters (about 7 1/2 feet), the “Great Bath” isn’t exactly Olympic pool size, but it’s not small, either.

Great Bath at Mohenjo-Daro.
Saqib Qayyum / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

The precisely fitted bricks, once covered in plaster and a natural tar, would have made the structure water-tight. The site also features several small rooms, one of which contains a well that in addition to collected rain, probably supplied water to the pool. The other rooms served as storage for kickboards, foam noodles, and a lost-and-found box full of goggles.

In reality, most scholars seem to think the Great Bath was used for religious purposes more than for senior water aerobics and mommy-and-me swim classes, but the purpose of similar structures shifted over time and by the 8th century BC, ancient Greeks were splashing around in courtyard pools for fun and exercise on a sunny afternoon.

That’s not a bad way to pass a hot summer day.

I’m thankful for that, because this past week has been one of emotional ups and downs in my little corner of the world, and particularly in my household. School came to an official, if somewhat disappointing end, with the last of the electronic homework submitted, and then resubmitted because something went wrong the first time. My children and their classmates said emotional, virtual goodbyes to their teachers, who have missed them terribly over the last few months.

I mean, every pool’s got one of these, right?

And now as my kids should be looking forward to summer camps, mission trips, visits with extended family, baseball games, and hangouts with friends, our summer calendar is disturbingly blank. We even had to cancel the reservation for our big fun family vacation because my husband, who works in healthcare, was told his previously scheduled time off could no longer be honored. With the constantly shifting fight against the novel corona virus, his schedule is now determined week by week, making even a small family camping trip difficult to plan.  

But this blog post isn’t about the things we have lost, because there’s far too much to be grateful for. Frankly, I’d rather write about that. Our family is healthy, with a source of income, food on our table, and a comfortable home. And that is quite a lot.

I don’t know if ducks count in the maximum capacity calculation.

We also, miraculously, now have access to an open neighborhood swimming pool. It’s got a smaller maximum capacity this summer and some additional cleaning breaks and rules to keep everyone as safe as possible, but it also has plenty of fresh air and virus-killing sunshine. I’m not sure yet about the lost-and-found box full of goggles.

Still, I think it’s going to be a pretty great summer. And that’s what this blog post is about.

Plastic Faces and Great Hats

On November 5, 1854 French tailor Alexis Lavigne filed the world’s first patent for the mannequin, though by then he’d been perfecting its use for a number of years and had displayed a prototype as early as 1849 in the Industrial Expedition in Paris. As the industrial revolution had begun to make itself felt and the metric system took over most of Europe, Lavigne understood the shifting of the clothing industry away from individually tailored items toward those which could be mass-produced.

Armed with a flexible tape measure, which he invented, Lavigne set out to study human body types and measurements and produce mannequins that could approximate them, reducing the need for large numbers of fittings and increasing productivity in the fashion industry. And that was a pretty great use for mannequins.

This mannequin doesn’t creep me out, but it would still probably look better in a dress than I would. Image by AnnaliseArt, via Pixabay

Known in the fashion industry as Professor Lavigne, the founder of the famous French fashion school ESMOD, the inventor was not the first person to ever make a vaguely creepy fake person, even for the purpose of modeling clothing. Dating back to 1350 BC, King Tut had a mannequin of himself tucked away in his tomb, that some scholars have suggested may have been used for assembling fashionable pharaoh garb.  

Of course, plenty of artists, too, including Marie Tussaud modeled life-size, and much more lifelike, sculptures of people. When mannequins began to make their way into the department stores of the twentieth century, they became more lifelike, too.

Materials changed from wax to papier-mâché to plastic and female mannequins went from busty to boyish and back again to reflect trends in ideal body shapes. Headless busts gave way to pronounced facial features complete with realistic hair and pouty lips, which then became bald and faceless forms or even unfortunate mannequins who had once again lost their heads.

I would not look as good as this fake person does in this real hat. But I would occasionally blink. Image by KRiemer, via Pizabay

But regardless of the trend, there’s probably always been something just a little unsettling about mannequins. As lifelike as they can sometimes be, mannequins don’t move. Instead they openly stare at anyone passing by in a way that is so unnatural that in the right lighting, or on the set of a horror film, it can appear frightening. They are the silent observers, who in some ways, are just a little bit superior to their human counterparts.

Mannequins are more fashionable than most of us, are much better at holding that perfect awkward pose to best show off their hemlines, and they are completely comfortable in their clothing choices. They’re slimmer than most of us, slightly more ideal in proportion than most of us, and they always look good in hats. They are these disturbing, often quite pretty, pieces of art that stand in the place that should be occupied by people.

And now they are going to restaurants and baseball games, occupying even more spaces that should belong to living and breathing human beings.

Apparently in Taiwan, where baseball is in about as full swing as any of us is likely to see this year, the stands are filled with mannequins. And at least one popular restaurant in Virginia is seating stylishly-dressed mannequins at tables that would otherwise remain empty for social distancing purposes. And yes, even though mannequins are notoriously bad tippers, if you go, they will probably still be served before you.

This family is all ready to go to the hockey game. But I can’t tell if they’re excited.

I suppose it’s a creative solution to the problem of discomfort created by empty spaces once occupied by people. Humans are social creatures by nature, and even the most introverted among us often crave communal experiences. But I’m not convinced that this is a great use for mannequins because regardless of how good they look in hats, I don’t think they can give us that.

Instead, I fear we will find ourselves surrounded by frozen, emotionless faces made of plastic and will be reminded even more starkly that the community we crave is at home in its pajamas.

And I think we might all feel just a little bit lonelier for it.

So, I’m curious. What do you think? Would you want to dine with mannequins? Or watch them sitting in the stands cheering for your favorite teams in your stead?

No One Can Say I Didn’t Dance

In 1943, famed music lover and singer Florence Foster Jenkins was involved in a car accident while in the back of a taxi. Frightened, Jenkins let out a scream so shrill, she retrospectively identified it as the first time she’d ever managed to hit an F above high C. It was, however, unlikely the seventy-some-year-old correctly identified the note when she later checked her memory against a piano, since according to Stephen Pile, author of The Book of Heroic Failures, she was the “world’s worst opera singer.”

From a young age, Jenkins loved music, was a talented pianist, and longed for the stage. But when it came time to pursue a formal musical education, her father denied her the opportunity, possibly because he knew she wasn’t very good. Rumor has it she wasn’t great with rhythm. Or pitch.

It wasn’t until her father’s death that Jenkins, then in her early forties, began to seriously pursue a music career. By then she’d survived a short-lived marriage that resulted in a lifelong battle with syphilis, but she also had both plenty of money to become a celebrated patron of the arts in New York, and a champion in her new love, St. Clair Bayfield.

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This does look like it might not sound so good. But it also looks fun. Image via Pixabay

Known by her friends as Lady Florence, she began giving concerts to highly selective audiences, some of them celebrities like Cole Porter and opera singers Enrico Caruso, Geraldine Farrar, and Lily Pons, and all of them gracious. Music critics were never invited. That would have spoiled the fun.

Because making music should produce joy, no matter the caliber of one’s talent. It should be an emotional experience, one that should often produce dancing. Again, no matter the caliber of one’s talent. And I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling like right now, the world could use as much singing and as much dancing as it can get.

One of the wonderful side effects of this otherwise difficult time of social distancing is that our family has spent more unhurried time together. Yes, more togetherness often produces some irritation, but for the most part our little family of four has handled it all fairly well. We’ve played games and watched movies together. We’ve cranked up the tunes and sung, badly, at the top of our lungs together. And we’ve danced.

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In my head we look like this. And there’s a chandelier in my living room. Image via Pixabay

Or at least my husband and I have. Now, I should preface this next bit with the acknowledgement that my husband is really a very good dancer. He’s smooth and graceful, expressive and confident. His dance partner, on the other hand, just tries to keep up.

I am not a great dancer. I do have rhythm and oh how I love to dance, but for the most part I’m stiff and awkward, clumsy and embarrassing. Or at least my children seem to think I’m embarrassing.

There was a day when that didn’t bother them. Mom danced and they did, too, jumping and spinning until we were all sweaty and dizzy and giggling. Now when the dancing begins, they are much more likely to shake their heads and seek out some alone time in another part of the house.

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Actually there’s no chandelier in my living room and we probably look more like this. Also, one of those two statements is true. photo credit: Pat McDonald Together via photopin (license)

Still, I think that even if they don’t want to join in, it’s important that my children see their parents dance. Because someday, when Covid-19 is as much a part of the past as are their carefree days of childhood, there will still be dark days and it will do them good to remember that they can crank up the music, sing badly at the top of their lungs, and dance and jump and spin until they are sweaty and dizzy and giggling.

Florence Foster Jenkins had it right as far as I’m concerned. She loved to sing and so she did. She finally held a public concert not terribly long after her car accident, and as it turned out, not long before her death. Lady Florence sold out Carnegie Hall faster than anyone before her had done and at least two thousand people were turned away. The critics, now impossible to keep out, were not kind. But as she once said, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”

My friends, no one, least of all my children, can ever say I didn’t dance.

Meanwhile, UFOs

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been kind of avoiding watching/reading/listening to much news lately. Under normal circumstances, I’m not exactly a news junkie, but I do like to check in more or less regularly on the goings on in the world.

It’s just that right now, the goings on seem to be mostly a lot of speculation, irresponsible  political arguing, and sensationalism of the latest invasive species to hit the Pacific Northwest, which, by the way didn’t actually happen for the first time just this past month. Also, we don’t call them murder lions, even though they rip out the throats of their unfortunate victims, so why are these called murder hornets?

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I mean, I’m not saying it wouldn’t make me a little nervous to meet this thing in a dark alley, but it’s possible we’re being a tad overdramatic here. Asian Giant (MURDER) Hornet. Thomas Brown / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

And that’s why I haven’t been keeping up too closely with the news lately. But I did catch the tiniest hint of a story the other day, and in case it slipped your attention, I wanted to make sure it didn’t. Because apparently, on April 27th, the US Navy released video evidence of UFOs.

Of course, this in itself is nothing particularly new. Alien spacecrafts have been visiting the Earth since at least somewhere around 1450 BC, during the reign of Egypt’s Thutmose III. That’s when it’s believed the papyrus was written that contains descriptions of flying circles of fire (sometimes translated as fiery disks, which frankly sounds way more alieny to me) that Vatican Museum Egyptology Director Albero Tulli found in a thrift shop in Cairo in 1933.

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As the US Navy is quick to point out, “UFO” doesn’t necessarily mean alien spacecraft. It just means it could be a swarm of murder hornets for all we know. George Stock [4] / Public domain
Unfortunately, Tulli didn’t have a lot of cash on hand or something and so instead of finding a way to purchase a totally legitimate three thousand (and change)-year-old document collecting dust in a thrift shop, he just took some quick notes instead.

And that’s where it all would have ended, except that after Tulli’s death, Italian nobleman Boris de Rachewiltz, who’d gained a little bit of a reputation for competence in the area of Egyptology, discovered this dashed-off copy of Egyptian Hieratic text among Tulli’s papers. Rachewiltz got pretty excited about the whole fiery disks thing, threw together a fancier Hieroglyphic translation and called up some Egyptology contacts and the press.

That was in 1953 and it did create some excitement among UFOlogists (which is an actual thing that people call themselves), but it didn’t hold up in the opinion of the Condon Report produced by the University of Colorado UFO Project in the sixties, where it was pointed out that Tulli’s copy didn’t constitute a primary source and that meh, there probably wasn’t anything to see here.

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A much more intimidating Hornet. photo credit: wbaiv Blue Angels Fleet Week SF 2015 DSC_0670 (1) via photopin (license)

Sadly, the Navy UFO videos may not reveal much to get too excited about, either. In fact, the public has seen them before. Filmed from US Navy F/A-18 Hornets in November of 2004 and January of 2015, unauthorized copies of the videos have been circulating for several years already. The Navy has just gotten around finally to declassifying them, which is basically like saying meh, there’s nothing to see here. Officially.

And so, while the videos made a couple of headlines, they didn’t really stick around the news cycle for very long. It turned out there just wasn’t much to the story. Now, if the UFO footage had been taken from a US Navy F/A-18 MURDER Hornet, well, that would be a different story.