The Practical Historian Has No Taste

If you had happened to live in 430 BC and you had developed a taste for cinnamon, you’d have to have been awfully wealthy and also pretty lucky, because in 430 BC, the process of obtaining cinnamon was pretty complicated.

According to that great ancient historian Herodotus, the only source of this most flavorful spice was an unknown land where the cinnamalogus bird harvested sticks from the cinnamon tree to build its nest high atop the sheer cliffs of Arabia.

Herodotus, the world’s first practical historian. Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s where the Arabian cinnamon traders got their hands on it by luring the birds away from their cinnamon nests with tasty meaty morsels and knocking down the sticks with weighted arrows.

Now, I know you might think this sounds a little far-fetched, or perhaps you are skeptical because you’ve read my book Launching Sheep & Other Stories, which introduces Herodotus as history’s biggest liar, liar, pants on fire. But consider that the cinnamalogus bird and this curious harvesting method are also documented in the writings of Aristotle, Isidore of Seville, and Pliny the Elder, which, I think, clearly demonstrates that the human tendency to copy and share ridiculous rumors indiscriminately on the internet shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

In defense of Pliny the Elder, he did at least express a little skepticism, suggesting that tall tales may sometimes evolve as a way to corner the market on some commodities. Cinnamon would probably have been worth the effort because it is among those sought-after spices that helped shape the modern world. Spice encouraged trade, which led to cultural exchange (and sometimes conflict), and eventually resulted in greater diversity in every corner of the earth. Because no matter what our differences may be, pretty much all humans like to experience flavor in their food.

For some reason I was picturing this bird as a lot more red and spicy and maybe with flames coming out of its wings or something. At least that’s how I would have drawn it if I’d made it up. Unknown artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And that is something I have been made very aware of this past week when in the midst of surging numbers of Covid cases in my corner of the world, “the ‘Rona,” as it’s not so affectionately known around here, caught up with me. Fortunately, it wasn’t a bad case. I had a brief fight with fever followed by muscle aches, fatigue, and a runny nose. By day three, it had morphed into mostly congestion and as that cleared, I suddenly realized I still couldn’t taste and smell so well.

In the grand scheme of things, this is not a terrible symptom, but it is a little frustrating when some of your favorite foods just stop tasting the way you want them to. In fact, if my senses of taste and smell weren’t already improving a little bit, it probably wouldn’t be long before I found myself willing to coax a mythical bird from its nest, to then destroy that nest with weighted arrows. Or at least if I found someone who said that’s what they had to do in order to bring some spice back into my life, I might just believe it was worth it.

Big Ben Takes a Tumble

It has been nearly ninety-six years since that fateful Saturday night when a previously peaceful unemployment demonstration in London’s Trafalgar Square turned into a violent mob ransacking the National Gallery and the Houses of Parliament, and knocking down the clock tower containing the famous Big Ben.

A shock, for sure, the wireless report from the BBC may not have been entirely unexpected by a nation made nervous by the recent 1917 Russian revolution. England had elected its first Labour Government in 1922 and the country was in the grip social change.

Trafalgar Square with approximately the same amount of mob violence as was seen on January 16, 1926. Charlie Forman, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dumbfounded wireless listeners followed the breaking news story until the final moments when the BBC’s London station was overrun and the broadcast faded into assorted music. The audience was left to anxiously wait for their newspapers to arrive the next morning with more details of what had befallen their capitol city.

Then, heavy snows the following day in London delayed those newspapers to many of the more isolated rural areas, leaving some in great suspense, imagining the charred ruins of the Savoy Hotel and the terrible lynching of Minister of Traffic Mr. Wotherspoon.

Of course, astute listeners may have understood that there was, in fact, no such position as the Minister of Traffic in the English government of 1926 and that “Mr. Wotherspoon” is kind of a silly name, as is that of Mr. Popplebury, the Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues and ringleader of the violence.

Standing tall. Alvesgaspar, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In addition, those listeners who had tuned in from the very start would have heard the preface explaining that the fictitious news account they were about to hear came from the imagination of brilliant satirist, Catholic priest, and maybe slightly ironic lover of cozy mysteries Father Ronald Knox, whose tongue was so firmly implanted in his cheek that it was surprising he could talk at all.

Knox’s performance piece Broadcasting the Barricades was a smash hit eliciting a huge number of responses which were about nine to one positive, and included only one report of a stress-induced fainting. The piece, written by the same man who would later come up with the “10 Commandments of Detective Stories,” one of which says that “No Chinaman must figure in the story,” encouraged the BBC to begin its long and glorious tradition of April Fools pranks a few months later, and most likely influenced the War of the Worlds radio play presented by Orson Welles in 1938.

And today it serves as a good example of why, when you hear something terribly upsetting on the news, you probably ought to take a deep breath and look for another source, from a different perspective before you pass out from the stress. Because surprising, terrible, scary things do sometimes happen, but there are probably also a lot of snarky priests out there, good detective stories involving Chinese characters, and, it seems, fake news reports.

Just the Cutest Little Poofy

In the spring of 1904 on a Rällinge farm in Södermanland, Sweden, a twelve-year-old boy named Gustav Karlsson made a big discovery in a potato field. What he found was a seven-centimeter-tall bronze statuette that dates back to the Viking Age.

It’s too bad no one knitted this guy’s name across the front of his hat. It would have saved a lot of time and energy.
The Swedish History Museum, Stockholm from Sweden, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There’s debate about the identity of the figure depicted, with some believing it is a playful Thor, others suggesting it is a game piece of some kind, and most others insisting it must be the god Freyr. But no matter who the statuette is supposed to be, the one thing no one argues about is that it is wearing a pom-pom hat.

If you happen to be French, or if you went to my American high school where our dance team *inexplicably shook their festive pompons whenever our team scored, then you may spell that a little differently, but I think most of us know what they are.

And I can pretty safely say that because while the Rällinge statuette is the oldest example we’ve found of the cutest little poofy, scraggly embellishment ever to adorn the top of a stocking cap, Sweden is far from the only place people have ever sported them. The fifteenth and sixteenth century cavalrymen of Central Europe known as the Hussars wore them as part of their otherwise intimidating hats. Napoleon’s army wore them as well, primarily as a way to distinguish regiments.

South Americans, too, long used pom-pom flourishes to indicate marital status. Clergymen in Rome have used pom-poms to denote their relative importance. And so have soldiers of the Scottish Highlands, from the time of the very earliest battles of the immortals among them trying to chop off one another’s heads, all the way up through much of the nineteenth century. And I’m betting all of those folks looked pretty darn cute.

Historical rumor has it that pom-poms have even occasionally been useful, and that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries sailors out in rough waters wore adorable pom-poms on their hats to serve as a warning in tight, wobbly-legged spaces when one was about to bump one’s head so that maybe they could do something about it. Or perhaps be slightly cushioned if they couldn’t.

He does look awfully cozy.

That might be true, or it could be one of those unsubstantiated “facts” posted willy-nilly on the internet by Abraham Lincoln. Either way, I don’t think anyone would argue that if Abraham Lincoln had worn a pom-pom hat, he would have looked pretty darn cute, too.

I am a little bit excited that the weather in my corner of the world has finally turned a bit more wintery after a really mild December. The warmth was nice because I definitely don’t love the bitter cold of right now, but I do enjoy wearing my pom-pom hat.

I have one that was hand-knitted for me by my husband’s grandmother years before he was my husband and long before she’d ever met me, which because of distance and travel difficulties didn’t happen until after the wedding. She made it for me to coordinate with the one she had previously made for him, which in addition to an adorable pom-pom on the top, includes his first name in big letters right across the front.

There’s no question whose adorable hat this is.

Not long after we met in college, I admired it. He mentioned how much I liked the stocking cap to his grandma, and the next thing I knew, he received one in the mail just for me. She was obviously a really lovely person who I wish I’d gotten a chance to know better, and only partly because I admire anyone who can make a hat.

I think of her now every year when the air turns cold and I don my favorite hat with a pom-pom that she made just for me, to demonstrate that I was someone special to her grandson, and by extension, to her. I have to assume she also didn’t want me to bump my head should I find myself sailing rough seas. And of course, it’s just a pretty darn cute hat. 

*A few hours after I posted this, an alert reader (my mom) informed me that “pom-pom girl” can be used as another term for a prostitute, so as it turns out, the use of “pompon” in my high school was very intentional and not at all inexplicable. Thanks, Mom!

A Blog Post for the Rest of Us

I am a big fan of holiday tradition. My family has a lot of them, from watching Christmas Vacation on the day after Thanksgiving to eating cinnamon rolls for breakfast on Christmas day. Some of them are pretty normal, like spending an evening driving around to look at Christmas lights or eating a special dinner before attending church on Christmas Eve. Others are a little more unique like topping our Christmas tree with a star that is in turn topped with a candy cane or donning new pajamas after church on Christmas Eve before going to the movies.

Here’s a tradition I can get behind.

But I like to think that none of our traditions are quite as out there as the one observed in the O’Keefe household on December 23. It was sometime around 1966 when author Daniel O’Keefe introduced his family to a new kind of celebration, one that marked the anniversary of his first date with his wife and took a moment to step away from the commercialism of the Christmas season.

O’Keefe called the family celebration “Festivus,” and when his mother died ten years later, they continued to celebrate the day as a unique little holiday “for the rest of us,” meaning those who were still alive to enjoy it.

Some traditions are not worth keeping alive, like chestnuts roasting over an open fire. Turns out they’re kind of gross.

The observance of Festivus in the O’Keefe household involved a simple family meal, a clock placed in a bag that was then nailed to the wall, the airing of grievances, recognition of the mundane as the miraculous, and feats of strength.

Actually, it’s not entirely clear to me whether all of these elements existed in the original O’Keefe Festivus celebration or if some of them come only from the Seinfeld episode that launched this quirky family tradition into the mainstream in 1997. Daniel O’Keefe’s son Dan was a writer for the sitcom and allegedly he didn’t want the tale of Festivus explored in an episode, but was overruled by his fellow writers who heard about it and thought it was hilarious.

The holiday looked a little different on the small screen than it had in the O’Keefe household. The clock and bag nailed to the wall (for what reason, no one can say) was replaced by an unadorned aluminum Festivus pole, and the airing of grievances began with George’s father Frank Costanza announcing, “I got a lotta problems with you people and now you’re going to hear about it!” after a fairly generic meatloaf dinner. Feats of strength became a wrestling match with the head of the household, the pinning of whom signaled the end of the celebration. And the inconvenient coincidences and misunderstandings worthy of any good sitcom episode became Festivus miracles.

There it is, in all its high strength to weight ratio aluminum glory, right next to the leg lamp from A Christmas Story.

When asked by Mark Nelson, the writer behind FestivusWeb.com and Festivus! The Book!, the definitive work on the holiday, whether Dan O’Keefe still observes Festivus, he answered. “No.” But thanks to the Seinfeld episode, lots of people now do. Festivus poles have adorned the Wisconsin’s governor mansion, the Florida State Capitol building, and, I recently discovered, the holidays through the ages tree display at the “Christmas Traditions” festival in St. Charles, Missouri.

It’s worth noting, too, that as I type this, editing software has no problem with the word “festivus,” as long as I capitalize it. And if for some reason you hop on Twitter today, I’ve no doubt #Festivus and #AHolidayForTheRestOfUs will be trending.

But Festivus will probably not be a big part of my day. In preparation for writing this post, I revisited the Seinfeld episode (“The Strike,” season 9) with my 14-year-old who said, “Well, that’s stupid.” He’s not wrong. It is stupid, but come to think of it, I do have a few grievances to air:

  1. Yesterday, I ended up on a group text with literally no one whose name is saved in my phone and endured an hour or so of twenty unidentifiable people wishing all of us a merry Christmas while I was trying to use my phone to listen to an audio book.
  2. Missouri drivers continue to ignore the basic stop sign rule of stop first, go first, and instead, insist on waving on the other drivers at a 4-way stop. I’m especially annoyed when I get waved on and it is actually my turn. Because I know the rule and don’t need the prompt.
  3. My children continue to leave a trail of dirty socks and dishes everywhere they go. I do not know how to make this stop.
If I managed to serve a meatloaf that my children would eat, that would be a Festivus miracle. Image by valtercirillo, via Pixabay

Also, though it doesn’t seem likely that I will wind up wrestling anyone today, my youngest son has recently become obsessed enough with working out that he has created a fitness schedule for all of us through winter break and I’m pretty sure it’s leg day. I’m going to say that counts as my feat of strength.

And then there’s the fact that in the midst of all the other silly, but somehow important, Christmas traditions around my house, I managed to post to my blog just two days before the big day. That is something of a Festivus Miracle.

So, dear reader, Happy Festivus. I guess. Enjoy your meatloaf. Feel free to air your grievances in the comments.

A Prescription for Winter

In the late 16th century, Jesuit missionary Jose de Acosta wrote, in what would become his Historia natural y moral de las Indias, or Natural and Moral History of the Indies, of a locally esteemed New World beverage that was “loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having scum or froth that is very unpleasant to taste.”

There is nothing unpleasant or loathsome about this.

Acosta’s work is among the first thorough European surveys of Mexico and Peru and he was eerily spot on about a couple of things. For example, he was the first to suggest that the natives of the Americas may have migrated from Asia via a northern land bridge. Acosta also described altitude sickness, after huffing and puffing his way over the Andes, and was the first to attribute the problem to thin and delicate air, “not proportioned to human breathing.” And though he was a man of his time, Acosta was actually somewhat critical of the Spanish mistreatment of the indigenous population of the New World.

But about this loathsome beverage, he was definitely wrong, because he was referring to hot chocolate. We haven’t quite hit our cold weather stride here in my corner of the world yet this year, but it is looming just up ahead in a January and February that, according to the Farmer’s Almanac, promise to be brutal. As much as I am not really looking forward to the nonstop shivers, I will be prepared when they arrive with plenty of hot chocolate on hand.

I might even be looking forward to those cold nights in front of the fire with a cup of cocoa and a good book.

Mine is certainly sweeter than the Mayans enjoyed theirs, which was more likely to contain peppers or corn than marshmallows, but even bitter and evidently spicy, I find it hard to imagine hot cocoa could ever be truly loathsome. The Spanish eventually came to the same conclusion, most likely because the drink was highly valued, and they weren’t about to leave anything valuable behind.

They’d come around by 1631 when Spanish physician Antonio Colmenero published the earliest printed recipe for hot chocolate in his A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate. The recipe required a hundred cocoa beans, two chiles, vanilla, anise, cinnamon, almonds, hazelnuts, some annatto, and finally a boatload of sugar.

Bring on the cold!

Just a quick glance at my spice cabinet tells me that these are not necessarily easy to come by ingredients, and at the time, they weren’t all that attainable for the common folk. Still, the beverage was beloved by nobility and was quite the versatile medicine as well. Colmenero suggests it’s good for treating the skin condition known as morphea, for cleaning teeth and freshening breath, for provoking urination, for expelling poison, and for general protection against communicable diseases.

I don’t know about any of that, but I do know that a nice cup of hot cocoa does fend off the shivers and gladden the heart, and that’s enough for me. I’m not going to add chile peppers or corn to my hot chocolate and I may not have anise quick at hand or, strictly speaking, know what annatto even is, but I do have a box full of Swiss Miss in my pantry just waiting for the weather to turn.

How do you like to drink your cocoa?

Who Really Wrote this Blog Post?

On December 23, 1823, The Sentinel newspaper in Troy, New York published an anonymous little Christmas poem called “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The poem contained charming imagery, a memorable rhyming pattern, and the names of all eight of Santa’s original red-nose-phobic reindeer.

The public loved it. It pervaded the holiday. It cemented the image of Santa Claus as a right jolly old elf. And it came to be known popularly by its first line: “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

You know your “long-ago trifle” has made it big when it’s honored on a postage stamp. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Designed by Stevan Dohanos., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But while the poem took on a life of its own for several years, no one knew who wrote it. Then in 1837, poet and editor Charles Fenno Hoffman included it in the collection The New York Book of Poetry and attributed it to his buddy Clement Clarke Moore. Moore, in turn, included the poem in his own 1844 collection, oh-so-cleverly titled Poems, stating that though it was only a “long-ago trifle” of a poem, he was pleased enough to take credit for it.

And everyone was happy with that until a few years later when there arose such a clatter. The daughter of American Revolution veteran, surveyor, farmer, and amateur poet Henry Livingston said she believed her father had written the poem in 1808 and that the original handwritten copy of it had been lost to a housefire. By this time Livingston was deceased and had never claimed authorship of the poem. And though he was related to Clement Moore’s wife, as far as anyone knows, the two men never met one another.

Sounds a little suspect to me, but there are quite a few experts who, in comparing the style of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” with that of each man, believe there may be a case to be made. Also, Moore was allegedly something of an overly serious curmudgeon who didn’t care particularly for children or charming things like dancing sugarplums.

I don’t know that he looks all that curmudgeonly. Engraved by J. W. Evans, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, unconvinced experts who still believe Moore to be the author, suggest this is an unfair assessment of a man who could be playful and jolly when he had a mind to, and who, more importantly, wasn’t an especially creative poet. His literary style tended to be imitative rather than original and so, really, he could have written like anyone, even an obscure relative of his wife.

Then too, The New Brunswick Museum has in its collection a version of the poem handwritten in 1824 by a member of the Odell family, who were friends of the Moores. It’s assumed one of the Odells wrote down a version of the poem from memory after hearing it recited by the poet himself.

While this isn’t conclusive evidence, a handwritten note can tell you a lot, as I was recently informed by the attendance secretary at my oldest son’s high school. Through no fault of my son’s own, he had to be a little late getting to school a few days ago and showed up part way through his first hour class.

Thinking it might be an excusable tardy, I had written and signed a note of explanation before sending him on his way. Later that day, the secretary called me to confirm that I was, in fact, the one who had written the note, since “anyone can write a note.” When I confirmed that I was, she chuckled and told me that she had actually assumed so, because most of their students couldn’t write in cursive, which is both sad and hilarious.

Another note you can be reasonably sure my son didn’t write.

It was also not conclusive evidence that my son hadn’t forged his excuse. He didn’t, and I really don’t think he ever would. I’m also happy to report that he can write in cursive, though not nearly as legibly as I can, so I don’t think he’d ever get away with it if he wanted to try.

I suspect that Clement Moore wasn’t the sort to take credit for another man’s work, either, especially for a poem he thought of as a trifle. If only we had that 1808 copy of the poem handwritten by Henry Livingston. If we did, we might discover that it was written in cursive, which if nothing else, would serve as pretty good evidence that the poem was not written by a twenty-first century high school student.

Thank you to Herb from The Haps With Herb, who was kind enough to share this really funny clip in the comments of one of my posts a few weeks back when I mentioned that kids should learn cursive so they can read old timey documents.

The State of Christmas Puke

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad December is finally here. The last half of November is a little bit of a blur to me. It included two memorial services, lots of family visiting, many houseguests, a gigantic gathering for Thanksgiving at my house, and a book launch.

It’s not as bad as it might seem at first glance. I enjoyed catching up with family I don’t see very often. My houseguests were helpful people who I love a lot and, for a while, included an exceptionally snuggly six-month-old. Big family holiday gatherings, while chaotic, are also really fun and this one was no exception. The memorial services were emotionally challenging, but ultimately uplifting, too. And the book launch was stressful, with ongoing promotional efforts that fall way outside my comfort zone, so pretty much exactly what I expected there.

Still, I’m tired. My family is tired. My dog is probably going to do nothing but nap for the next month. And my house is kind of messy. I wasn’t sorry to see the month of November fade into the past. We all are in need of a little Christmas.

Who needs an elf on the shelf when you’ve got one of these?

I have mentioned in this space before that I’m married to a man who likes Christmas lights. Early on in our marriage, he liked Christmas lights a lot more than I did, though over the years he has slowly converted me. I think this is partly the fault of the Christmas light industry because lights are so much more efficient and long lasting than they used to be. There was a time when it made perfect sense to buy one new decorative something each year, because surely one of the older ones had run its course. Now they just accumulate. And I have learned to embrace it.

He put up lights the Saturday after Thanksgiving this year, the same time I decorated the tree, wrapped the banisters in garland, set up the nativity scene, and found a home for our Hawaiian shirt-clad Santa garden gnome.

When it was all done, we gathered together to take in the scene, including colorful lights along the roof line, glittering ice cycles above the front door, snowflakes dangling above the garage, a lighted wreath, two giant neon snowflakes above the front windows, chasing lights lining the driveway, a glowing snowman, and holiday projections. That’s not actually the full list, and if you’ve read my book, Launching Sheep & Other Stories, yes, we still have the Christmas geese, though they have undergone major surgery in the last few years.

Maybe we could be the Show Me Your Christmas Geese State.

It’s almost more than I can fully take in. As one of my oh-so-charming sons declared, it’s like “Christmas puked on our house.” Gross as it may sound, that is probably an apt description, and it even feels somehow appropriate since I recently learned that we live in “The Puke State.”

Missouri had quite a few nicknames over the years before settling on the current “Show Me State” boldly proclaimed on our license plates. Our most disgusting one allegedly arose from the 1827 discovery of lead ore near the town of Galena in the northern part of Illinois. Citizens of Missouri were quick to take notice and swarm to the area in hopes of growing rich on the mining boom.

And boy did they swarm, so much so that former Illinois Governor Thomas Ford wrote in 1854, it was as if Missouri had puked onto its neighboring state. And that’s how we became The Puke State, and how Missourians came to be known as Pukes. Of course, if one looks at current population trends, we could give the nickname back to Illinois.

My current welcome mat, and also a possibility for a state slogan without the word puke in it.

But I don’t think we should. The Missouri legislature has never actually adopted any state nickname, perhaps thinking they might have more important things to do. “Show Me State” became unofficially official in 1980 when it appeared on the license plate design. Still, I think there’s some flexibility here.

Now, I’m not suggesting that I’d like to be referred to as a “Puke.” It’s not a very nice word. But if we reframe it a little, we could probably make it work for us, maybe combine our unofficial slogans a little bit. I certainly wouldn’t mind, in concept, living in the state Christmas pukes on, with all its glittery lights and good holiday cheer. And I have to say, my neighbors are bringing it this year. Maybe November was rough on everybody and we all just need a little Christmas. So go ahead, Missouri, show me your Christmas puke.

A Somewhat Subdued Book Launch

This has been a difficult week in the household of practical history. My sweet mother-in-law passed away after a long health struggle. It’s been an emotional time of grieving and planning and hosting, and it has not been a week for posting or commenting. I am sorry about that, and I am working to catch up.

In general, I would suggest that one might wish to avoid big, emotionally difficult life events when launching a book.  Of course, since big, emotionally difficult life events are rarely planned, here we are. Because the other thing that happened this week is that my third historical novel launched into the world.

I had originally planned to post that announcement accompanied by some interesting history, a little whimsy, and much fanfare. Instead, I’m just going to post the prologue of the book. If you get to the end of the prologue and you would like to keep reading, you can get the book here: mybook.to/PurchaseOnAmazon or here: https://books2read.com/u/31KjGw I would also really appreciate that if you are on Goodreads and feel so compelled, you go ahead and mark it as “Want to Read”: https://bit.ly/3osuNGV. And, of course, reviews are an author’s best friend. Thanks!

Prologue

August 13, 1837

Even the buzz of the insects hushed as the final preacher of the Sabbath day stepped onto the stage to claim the pulpit. It was this man they’d come to see—the farmers and the merchants, the ladies in their finest silks, the young lawyer who, at the request of his friends, had left piles of work in his office six miles away in Springfield only to hear the renowned speaker.

Peter Akers didn’t disappoint. He was a giant of a man. More than six feet tall and broad with long limbs and large hands that animated his speech, he loomed above the crowd. They leaned into his words in the slick heat of the Illinois summer.

He began his sermon with a text from Zechariah 9:9: Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold thy King cometh unto thee. Akers favored the Old Testament prophets, often preaching from these strange and ancient texts sometimes for hours, diving without hesitation into high-minded allegory and apocalyptic language, inviting his congregation to ascend with him to new intellectual heights.

Also, this happened.
#1 New Release in one fairly obscure category on Amazon. But that’s something. I think.

His were not the emotionally exhilarating sermons of his col­leagues. He neither condemned nor flattered. His words did not in­spire the quaking and contorting otherwise common at camp meeting revivals, yet he held his audience rapt and eager.

Like Jacob of old, Akers wrestled with God, and all who listened came away changed. His sermon danced among the words of God’s prophets, from Zechariah to Isaiah, from Ezekiel’s proclamations of the unrighteous overturned, to the book of Revelation and Baby­lon’s inevitable fall.

And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise anymore: the merchandise of silver and gold and precious stone, of wine and oil and fine flour, of sheep and horses and chariots and slaves and the souls of men.

Akers paused here, his eyes raised to heaven and at the same time locked into the hearts of each silent person awaiting the forth­coming conclusion, breaths held in anticipation.

“If we interpret the prophecies of this Book correctly. . .” Though the preacher’s commanding voice lowered to nearly a whisper, not a word could be missed. “There will soon come a time when the head and front of this offending shall be broken; a time when slave-ships, like beasts of prey, will no longer steal along the coast of de­fenseless Africa. When we shall cease to trade in the flesh and souls of men but will instead expel forever from this land the manacle and the whip.

“I am not a prophet,” Akers explained to a congregation that did not believe him. “But a student of the Prophets. American slavery will come to an end in some near decade.”

At these words, shifting and murmuring rose in the crowd, some perhaps angry but most filled with hope and awe at the sheer audacity of the assertion. Undaunted by the excitement, Akers car­ried on, saying, “Who can tell but that the man who shall lead us through this strife might be standing in this presence.”

This was a pronouncement rather than a question. The preacher paused, giving space for the seed of prophetic vision to find fertile soil.

At the edge of the crowd, the young lawyer drew a long breath, rubbed his weary eyes, and reflected on the preacher’s powerful words.

One of his friends clapped him on the back. “What do you think, Mr. Lincoln? Are you glad you came with us?”

“As odd as it seems,” he answered with only slight hesitation, “When the preacher described those changes and revolutions, I was deeply impressed that I should somehow strangely mix up with them.”

He did not wait for a response from his dumbfounded friend, but stood tall and stretched the stiffness from his shoulders and limbs as he thought of the many tasks awaiting him on his desk, and of the much greater work he’d yet to begin.

The Great American Book Cover

In 1925, the world was introduced to a young graphic artist who, up until that time, had remained somewhat obscure. Initially primarily a portrait painter, Francis Cugat was discovered in Chicago by conductor Cleofonte Camanini who connected the artist to numerous opera stars for whom he designed personalized posters.

From there, exactly how he came to the attention of publisher Maxwell Perkins isn’t really known, but in Cugat’s long career which eventually gravitated to film work, he designed only one book cover, and it is among the most recognizable in history.

In all its original glory.

Perkins asked him to sketch some ideas for a forthcoming novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, tentatively titled Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires. Taking what little bit of information Perkins could give him about the incomplete book, Cugat came back with sketches that included bleak landscapes and various iterations of eyes in a wide expanse of sky.

The publisher then shared the sketches with Fitzgerald who apparently liked them a lot. In fact, after missing a deadline, the writer sent a letter to his publisher in which he wrote, “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me, I’ve written it into the book.”

The 1925 book, which ended up with the title The Great Gatsby, though not initially very commercially successful, has become one of the most critically acclaimed works of the twentieth century and, some would say, is in the running for the label of the Great American Novel. You probably read it in high school. I did. And my son who is a junior just did.

I can honestly say I don’t remember the book particularly well, but I do recall the voice of my junior year English teacher, Mr. K., as he discussed the imagery of the enormous eyes peering, bespectacled, from a faded billboard advertising the practice of T. J. Eckleburg, keeping God-like watch over the unfolding tragedy of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, and mimicking the way Daisy’s disembodied face haunted the men who loved her.

I also remember that Mr. K.’s voice was particularly deep and soothing and that even though I adored his class, it was sometimes difficult to stay awake in that period, which immediately followed lunch. So, I have to assume that one of the reasons the imagery stuck with me as the rest of the novel and almost everything else I read that year faded in my memory like a long neglected and weathered billboard, is because of the eyes on the front cover. Not to judge the book by them or anything, but it turns out covers really do matter.

A future classic? Or at least a pretty book.

That’s why I am so excited to introduce to you the cover art for my newest book, coming out in just a couple of weeks. It wasn’t designed before the book was finished, but I think it does capture it really well and I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.

Fitzgerald must have felt much the same way. The final cover didn’t have universal appeal. Ernest Hemingway, for one, thought it was garish. The Great Gatsby has been published with a few different covers over the years, including one featuring Leonardo Dicaprio, but the original always seems to make a comeback, and it is certainly the most recognized.

Whether the cover of my newest novel will ever become an iconic image remains to be seen. It probably depends on whether the book, in years to come, will be studied in English classes and will be in contention for becoming the Great American Novel. I don’t know that my aspirations are quite that high. But it does, I think, have a pretty nice cover.

Why Ghosts are so Bad at Telling Jokes

Halloween is nearly upon us, which means it’s that time of year when we all better be prepared for little costumed ghouls and goblins to knock on our doors, throw flour in our faces, and tell us they hate us before scurrying off to dance wildly about the leaping flames of a bonfire in the middle of the street.

Or maybe not. I recently watched the musical movie Meet Me in St. Louis for the first time, which in itself is a shock, given that I live just outside of St. Louis and have been known to join in a singalong of the title song with 40,000 or so of my closest friends at sporting events in the city. But that’s nothing compared to the shock of the film’s depiction of a typical St. Louis Halloween celebration circa 1903, as experienced by Agnes and Tootie, dressed as a “horrible ghost” and a “terrible, drunken ghost.”

Of course, the mother in me had a visceral reaction to the scene, which is rude and scary and feels terribly dangerous. And I was also confused, because that is not how Halloween is done in St. Louis today. In fact, one of the more charming things about the city is that we have a really sweet and innocent and fairly unique tradition on Halloween night.

Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

Now, it’s not uncommon to see neighbors gathering around fire pits, sipping hot chocolate and handing out candy, but in the nearly eight Halloweens I’ve been here, I’ve never once come across a gang of children tossing furniture into a bonfire in the middle of the street. And while I suppose we do get the occasional horrible ghost or terrible, drunken ghost that shows up to ask for a Halloween treat, I usually see a lot more Disney princesses and superheroes than anything else.

The best part is that almost all of our costumed visitors come prepared with a joke or two to share. I’m talking scary awful, groan-worthy jokes, like the kind you would read in a bubblegum wrapper or like the kind that might encourage you to give someone a piece of candy just so they’ll go away.

Image by Pixaline from Pixabay

Not every kid will tell one. There are always some who are too little or too shy or too nonverbal, and that’s okay. Our candy distribution is not dependent on anyone’s joke-telling prowess, but it is a fun little tradition and no one really knows for sure how it got started.

The best guess comes from local folklorist John Oldani who believed it descended from an influx of Irish immigrants holding onto remnants of the Gaelic harvest festival of Samhain. A lot of Halloween traditions were likely influenced by Samhain, including costumes, pumpkin carving, bonfires, and the offering of a song or poem or even a joke in exchange for a fun size Snickers.

No one seems to know why this took hold so firmly in the St. Louis area and not really elsewhere, except that perhaps the city started encouraging it as an alternative to pranks and vandalism and bonfires in the middle of Kensington Avenue. It seems to have arisen alongside trick-or-treating itself around 1940 or so. Maybe it was even a reaction to the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis that convinced the mothers of St. Louis that we needed a little more charm to our Halloween.

However it happened, the city has embraced it and come Halloween night, I’m pretty sure I’m going to hear some truly awful jokes. Maybe I’ll get lucky and hear some poems, too. And there’s probably a full-size candy bar in it for any terrible, drunken ghost that sings “Clang, clang, clang went the trolley.”

If you’ve got a good (or bad) Halloween joke, I’d love to hear it!