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.

Total Robot Domination

Sometime in the first century, between 10 and 70 AD, Greek physicist, mathematician, and engineer Heron of Alexander (aka “Hero”) wrote several texts describing, in irritating vagueness, machines useful for heavy lifting, automated gadgets, war machines, and more than eighty other types of mechanical apparatuses including what may have been the world’s first steam engine.

Among his creations were automatic temple doors, an odometer for your chariot, the world’s first vending machine, and a seemingly bottomless wine glass with a reservoir designed to supply you with any necessary top-offs. If that still isn’t enough, he also invented a robot that could fill a wineglass placed in its hand.

“The product of the human brain has escaped the control of human hands. This is the comedy of science.” – Karel Čapek, who probably also had a proud mama. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, he didn’t call it a robot, or whatever the Greek equivalent of robot would be. That term wasn’t officially coined as a word for an automaton until 1920 when Czech playwright Karel Čapek used it in his play R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The play is about a factory that makes robots which inevitably take over the world and wipe out all human life. And that’s exactly what fictional robots have been doing ever since.

But the earliest forms of robots were simply helpful curiosities that delighted and amazed and made Hero’s mama awfully proud. Now, I realize I’m being a little presumptuous here. I know nothing about Hero’s mama. She may not have been impressed at all, or she may have even been the brains behind Hero’s success. It’s possible that she was the Ada Lovelace of Ancient Greece. History doesn’t always remember the mamas (or women in general) as much as it should.

What I do know, is that I am a proud mama of a robot-maker. For two years now, my sixteen-year-old has been part of a robotics team through our school district. It’s a pretty well-established team with lots of community support and great volunteer mentors, both teachers of physics and engineering, and professional engineers and mechanics from the area.

I’m grateful for that because in this particular bit of my son’s wide-ranging interests, I don’t have much to offer. He doesn’t get it from me, but he definitely has a natural inclination toward design. One time when he was three years old, he heard us talking about a winter storm that was supposed to be blowing in and so he went to his room and changed the design of a bug-like structure he’d made with some of his building toys to “make it more stable” in the upcoming harsh conditions. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me, then, that he would jump at a chance to design robots.

Like everything else, the robotics team faced a strange year last year in the midst of the pandemic. All competitions were cancelled before they got a chance to show off their hard work and the design challenge was rolled over into this year. Then this year’s official competitions were cancelled, too.

Probably our new overlord.

Fortunately, a smaller school district in a tiny town in Southern Missouri put together an unofficial tournament in a fairly wide-open space. Teams had to limit the number of student representatives they could take and numbers of spectators were pretty tightly controlled, but it was something.

And this past weekend, I got to watch a surprisingly exciting championship in which my son’s team came out on top. To the best of my knowledge their little robot can’t pour a glass of wine, but it can swerve, spin a turntable, pick up balls to then accurately shoot at a target, and do a pretty impressive pullup.

I’m not exactly sure how these tasks are going to help it take over the world, but I probably know as much about science fiction as I don’t know about robots and I am certain it will figure it out. When it does, I’m going to be an awfully proud mama.

A Surefire Cure for the Hiccups

This week I received a note of thanks from WordPress. Apparently, I have been blogging along in this little space for nine years. In that time, I have averaged around forty-seven posts per year, once a week, except for the weeks I miss. It’s been a little higher in recent years because as my children have gotten older, they’ve become easier to ignore.

The internet actually attributes several “successful” hiccup cures to Pliny the Elder, but in my cursory attempt to chase down the references (yes, sometimes I look stuff up), I couldn’t find them. I fear this means that people believe Pliny the Elder is some kind of reliable medical authority. Clearly they have never read his work. Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Each post averages about eight hundred words or so, in addition to the occasionally ridiculously long picture caption. I figure I have vomited approximately 350,000 words onto this blog over the last nine years. I’m grateful to WordPress for the acknowledgement, because that seems worth acknowledging, and I am especially grateful for the accompanying encouragement to: “Keep up the good blogging.”

Or at least I am thankful for the presumption that what I have been doing for the last nine years has been good blogging worth keeping up. But if I think about it, it’s also a lot of pressure to put on a person. Because blogging regularly can occasionally be a difficult thing to do. It requires coming up with ideas again and again that readers might actually want to read about.

I’ve been pretty lucky with topics these past nine years. History is the gift that keeps on giving. Stories of individuals in history doing smart or interesting or silly or stupid things are abundant. Still, some weeks, I sit down to do some good blogging and I’ve got nothing. I encounter a hiccup.

This week has been one of those. After 350, 000 words, I have developed a case of the hiccups. I blame WordPress.

Fortunately, there are lot of cures for hiccups. I could hold my breath or suck on a lemon, or gulp water, or stand on my head. Actually, I probably couldn’t do that last one. But I might use an Ancient Chinese cure by chewing slowly on ginger and swallowing the juice, or try the old Viking remedy of grasping my tongue with a handkerchief and tugging on it while I count to 100. I could give the advice of Pliny the Elder a chance by drinking small amounts of raw cabbage mixed into vinegar with a hint of dill or chervil.

D–n this hiccup, by Henry Alken, 1837. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Or maybe I should take a page out of John Mytton’s book. Born in 1796, John “Mad Jack” Mytton, wealthy British playboy who definitely earned his nickname, was most known for horseracing, gambling, naked hunting, and intentionally getting into carriage accidents. He also earned a bit of fame by attempting to cure a case of the hiccups by setting himself on fire. This according to an account written by his friend Charles James Apperley (aka Nimrod) who was present at the time.

The cure worked, though I’m not sure it was worth it. Mytton continued on, presumably hiccup-free, for another year or so of fast living before dying of alcohol poisoning in 1834, leaving behind an estranged second wife, four children, an enormous amount of debt, and a surefire hiccup cure.

Hiccups can be awfully frustrating, but they usually go away after a while. I know that after nine years, that still seems to be the case in my little corner of the blogosphere, where history continues to be the gift that keeps on giving, and there are plenty of Mad Jack Myttons out there with stories worth exploring. I don’t know if that really makes for good blogging, but it sure is a lot of fun.

In Praise and Laudation of the Most Excellent and Illustrious Roget

Today represents an important day in the annals of history. I could even say it is hugely significant, or momentous, or earthshaking.  It is a day I believe should be a major holiday of great consequence. Because today is the 169th anniversary of the publication of the life’s work of Peter Mark Roget.

The guy had spent a long career as a physician, tutor, and inventor. He’d written numerous papers on health and physiology, served twenty-one years as secretary of the Royal Society, and was the founder of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information. But his biggest, most consequential contribution that should not be overlooked, sneezed at, or considered chopped liver resulted from an early habit of making lists.

Beginning in 1805, at the age of sixteen, Roget started making lists of words and phrases, grouping them together into a classification system based on their rough meanings. By the time he retired from medicine in 1840, he had a really long list. I mean like it was extensive and far-reaching and at times probably seemed interminable.  

And so, he spent his retirement collecting, gathering, assembling, and scraping together a book for “those who are painfully groping their way and struggling with the difficulties of composition.” He called it Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition, because as good as he was with words, Roget was not so swell with snappy titles.

Today it’s just known as Roget’s International Thesaurus. It’s in its eighth edition and has been continuously in print, aiding and assisting, helping and supporting painfully groping writers since April 29, 1852.

Even Sylvia Plath, who was pretty good with words, once referred to her thesaurus as the book “which [she] would rather live with on a desert isle than a bible.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, or exaggerate that much, or hyperbolize in quite that way, but I do appreciate a good thesaurus. I own three and I use them extensively.

One is an early edition from 1866, great for looking up nineteenth century phraseology, circumlocution, or idiocism. The second is a pocket edition, useful for carrying in a purse, bag, clutch, or tote. And the third is the seventh edition of Roget’s International Thesaurus, which contains more than 325,000 words and phrases and consists of 1,282 pages of sizeable, colossal, and monumental awesomeness.

Okay, I admit I may be a little bit obsessive, affected, or overly-stricken by my plethora, or in other words superabundance of thesauri (or thesauruses because apparently either is acceptable) and with the contribution to the world of lexicography by Peter Mark Roget. But as a painfully groping writer, I plan to celebrate, make merry, and paint the town red. I might even splurge and buy myself an eighth edition Roget’s International Thesaurus just to mark the day.

Every Day is Book Day

In 1930 King Alfonso XIII declared April 23 to be National Book Day in Spain. This proclamation changed the date from the previously celebrated Book Day on October 7, the alleged birthday of Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes because it’s always nicer to walk around open-air book markets in the spring. Actually, it sounds pretty nice to me either way and given that my corner of the world saw a good snowfall earlier this week, I might quibble. But I’m not from Spain.

This only known portrait of Miguel de Cervantes may not even be him at all, as his name was added centuries later and there is no way to authenticate it. Attributed to Juan Martínez de Jáuregui y Aguilar, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

April 23 worked out pretty well because that’s when Cervantes allegedly died. It’s also the Feast of St. George, the patron saint of England, Ethiopia, and Georgia, as well as Catalonia and the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo and some other places too. George is the protector of lovers and the patron saint of soldiers and chivalry and dragon-fighting. Or something. I’m also not Catholic.

I have read that it has become tradition in Spain to give a rose to a lady on April 23, and probably because the celebration has been mashed together with Book Day, a book to a gentleman. I certainly can’t speak for all the ladies out there, but I know I’d rather have a book.

And since 1995, that would be an appropriate gift in at least a hundred countries because that’s when the United Nations declared April 23 to be World Book and Copyright Day.

Picture of Miguel de Cervantes excited about World Book Day. Or at least it could be. Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

It’s a good day for it. It’s the anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, who is a pretty famous writer, as well as Cervantes, also famous. Some people even claim that Don Quixote, published in two parts in 1605 and 1615, was the world’s first novel.

Personally, I think that’s a pretty tough argument to make since it wasn’t even the first novel written by Miguel de Cervantes, and is predated by thousands of years of narrative writing from around the world, and is a little bit of a spoof of the other novel-like works of chivalric romance that were popular at the time. Perhaps it would be fair to say it was the world’s first critically acclaimed novel. I don’t know. I’m certainly no professional literary critic.

But I do celebrate books. I’m actually happy to celebrate books any day of the year, and I look forward to joining with many nations of the world to celebrate books tomorrow. I suggest getting your sweetheart a rose and a book, or perhaps a book about roses if that’s your thing. Then curl up on the couch together and read. That might be even better than browsing an open-air book market on a spring day, or at least it will be if you get a stupid surprise snow shower.

Don’t Steal My Thunder! (Please)

John Dennis was not a very successful playwright in the early days of the 18th century. I would say he wasn’t very good, but as I’ve not actually read any of his plays, I can’t fairly make that claim. What I do know is that if it remembers him at all, history tends to paint him as more of a critic, and also maybe a little bit of a hothead who was once dismissed from college for wounding a fellow student with a sword.

He looks so grumpy because someone stole his thunder. Jan (John) Vandergucht, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He was also apparently a pretty clever problem solver because when, in 1704, he needed a good rumble of thunder for the production of his play Appius and Virginia, at London’s Drury Lane Theatre, Dennis came up with a new way to make it happen.

I do enjoy a good rumble of thunder. My family and I have lived in the St. Louis area in the Midwestern US for about eight years now, but our previous home was in the Willamette Valley of the Pacific Northwest where we were for just a few years.

We loved a lot about that area. We really did. The friendly people, the warmer temperatures, the ability to grow almost anything without much effort were all great things, not to mention that we could be either playing in the snow on a mountain or fishing for crab on a beach in a little more than an hour on a Saturday morning.

But it almost never thundered. Oh, it rained. A lot. It rained those tiny, swirling droplets that coat everything and against which an umbrella is useless. It just didn’t really storm. Having grown up in the Midwest where the rain means business and often comes with high winds, hail, huge flashes of lighting, and loud cracks of thunder, I missed it.

By the way, you’re probably saying it wrong. As they like to explain in the valley, “It’s Will-AM-ette (D@*n it!).” Rvannatta at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

The only time I remember a storm when we lived on the west coast, I slept through it and only knew about it because a friend mentioned how terrible the thunder had been the previous night. Now, her terrible thunder was probably my low, distant rumble that makes me smile because I know it’s finally really springtime. But in that moment, I found myself getting desperately homesick. I held it together, but I was pretty upset at the thought. I kind of wanted to yell that she’d stolen my thunder.

I realize that’s not what the phrase “to steal one’s thunder” is really about. It refers to showing someone up, which my friend most certainly didn’t do just by waking up to a storm I slept through. But the phrase didn’t start out that way.

When Appius and Virginia, a play you’ve probably never heard of, despite its innovative thunder, got pulled early and replaced with a production of Macbeth, which you probably have heard of, John Dennis decided to pick himself up and go to the show.

I can almost hear the rumbling in this picture. Shobi Ram, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Since you’ve heard of it, you may recall that Macbeth begins with three witches and some thunder and lightning. This particular production of Macbeth, at the Drury Theatre, began with innovative thunder using the same technique recently developed by John Dennis.

The story goes that he jumped up from the audience and declared something to the effect of (not all sources agree on the precise wording): “You won’t run my play, but you’ll steal my thunder!”

I suspect he used some harsher words, too, but whatever he said it is generally accepted that John Dennis coined the idiom “to steal one’s thunder.”

I realize that fun stories like this one are rarely true, but I haven’t been able to find anyone shouting on the internet that it’s not. Frankly, I’m not willing to expend more effort than a quick and shoddy Google search on this particular project, partly because I don’t want to be party to anyone figuratively stealing Dennis’s thunder.

No matter what the phrase might mean today, for frustrated playwright John Dennis and for this midwestern gal, it will always feel just a little bit literal. I’m happy to report that this past week I celebrated having my thunder back. My part of the world experienced its first good thunderstorm of the season. It sounded just like spring is supposed to sound. It sounded like home.