That Thing I Just Had

The other day, I stumbled across an article posted by Smithsonian Magazine about an Ancient Egyptian sock. This toddler-size, striped sock has been a part of the collection of the British Museum for more than a century, but recently it has resurfaced as an object of interest for researchers.

The sock was originally discovered in 1913 or 14 by Englishman John de Monins Johnson during an excavation in the ancient city of Antinopolis on the east bank of the Nile. Described in the article as a papyrologist, Johnson was most likely hoping to find examples of ancient writing that he could spend years poring over. He wasn’t looking for a sock.

single sock
I also can’t stop wondering what happened to the other sock.

But if Johnson was a parent, I can imagine he wasn’t terribly surprised by the discovery. There’s no way I could count the number of times I’ve been looking for that thing I just had* and found instead a kid’s carelessly discarded sock(s).

I have great kids. I really do. My boys are now eleven and thirteen and they both work hard at school, and are kind and generous and respectful. At this point in their young lives they can claim quite a few life skills, too. They are capable of doing laundry, preparing a few recipes, or mowing the lawn.

socks
These are not my keys.

But they are both guilty of constantly kicking off their socks and leaving them for their exasperated mother to find. Their stinky socks are crammed in between the couch cushions, left under the kitchen table, wedged under mattresses, and crumpled on the floorboard of the car. Occasionally I even find them in the back yard. It’s enough to drive any mama completely mad.

Please don’t tell me if I’m wrong, but I suspect this source of aggravation is universal. The Egyptian mama whose little kiddo lost her stripy toe sock (that was probably worn with sandals, which presumably also got lost), was surely exasperated that for the three hundred and eighty-third time that day, little Ahhotep had kicked off her booty.

toes
When your toes are this cute, socks are optional. photo credit: light2shine Feets via photopin (license)

Of course, no parent wants to leave a trail of socks wherever they go, but when kids are little, it’s also kind of cute to see them wiggle and struggle until those adorable chubby toes are exposed for all the world to enjoy. When they’re tween/teenagers, it’s less cute.

So when I read what should really be a fascinating article about researchers using a noninvasive scanning technique to learn about the types of dyes used in the manufacturing of Ancient Egyptian clothing, all I could think about was that stupid lone sock, stuffed into the couch cushions at the British Museum for the last hundred years.

It’s possible I lost the point. I’m pretty sure I just had it and then set it down somewhere. I’ll have another look at the article and see if I can pick it up again. But I’ll probably just find that same cast-aside sock.
*This could be (but is certainly not limited to): keys, book, purse, pen, phone, remote control, scissors, shoe, grocery list, my marbles

The Second Best (Creeptastic) Hidden Ice Skating Rink

Included in the January 15, 1895 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is an article mentioning the increase in numbers ice skaters frequenting the frozen ponds of St. Louis’s Bellefontaine Cemetery. At night.

This time of year, thanks to television commercials and overly enthusiastic neighbors who insist on placing plastic headstones in their lawns to add a little holiday ambiance, we all become a little haunted by the shadow of death. Or at least I do.

neighborhood grave
The cemetery isn’t nearly as scary as my neighbor’s yard decked out for Halloween. I wouldn’t ice skate there, either.

I don’t much fear death, and I might even associate it with ice skating, but I’m still not sure I’d be willing to engage in such a lighthearted activity in a cemetery. And definitely not at night.

Of course, the skaters of 1895 showed up after dark because at the time ice skating was specifically not allowed in the cemetery. By 1909, Bellefontaine had placed additional restrictions on dogs, fishing, and bicycles. Because apparently a lot of people wanted to hang out there.

I suppose it makes a little bit of sense. The cemetery opened in May of 1850, only about twenty years after the first “rural cemetery” in the nation was established outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Prior to the development of cemeteries outside of major cities, Americans buried their loved ones primarily in church graveyards that had become dangerously overcrowded and unsanitary as city populations boomed.

Like most of these large rural cemeteries, Bellefontaine was designed as a park, with great attention to beautiful architecture, winding paths, and gorgeous landscaping. It was designed to be a place where mourners could reflect on the lives and deaths of loved ones in peace and quiet. It was also a place one could have a nice picturesque afternoon picnic.

skate
The real reason I don’t ice skate in the cemetery at night is because when I skate it mostly looks a little something like this. But also it would be pretty creepy. photo credit: vwcampin Ice Skating via photopin (license)

Because at the time there weren’t public parks like we have now, nor were there botanical gardens or art museums available to just any person who wanted to enjoy them. Cemeteries like Bellefontaine filled that need. And sometimes the ponds froze over and people went ice skating.

As city populations continued to grow and park systems grew with them, the role of the large rural cemetery became less public skating rink and more city of the dead. For a time, then, these really beautiful and well tended pieces of land gained a tinge of darkness and dread. They were the places where grieving people gathered for graveside services and solemn remembrances, which is probably why I can’t imagine ice skating in one.

And they’re still that. But recently, while letterboxing with friends, I found myself visiting Bellefontaine for the first time, and you know, it’s really a beautiful place that I could see hanging out in for a while. It was even voted the city’s 2018 second-best hidden gem by the readers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Busch Mausoleum
The fancy mausoleum of St. Louis Beer Baron Adolphus Busch.

Today, no longer so much outside the city as well within it,  Bellefontaine is a sprawling 314 acres with fourteen miles of curved roads and more than 87,000 internments, many of them people who once helped shape not only St. Louis, but much of nineteenth century America. Tours are offered regularly, and even include an annual beer barons tour (because St. Louis has had a few of those) complete with plenty local beer samples.

If you’re not too frightened by the tales of ghost sightings and the general creepiness of 87,000 dead people in one place, the ornate mausoleums and memorial statuary are worth a gander, and the stories are fascinating. Today you can feel free to bring your bicycle and your dog, but if you want to fish or ice skate, St Louis might have better options.

Head Foot Awareness Days

Sometime toward the end of 1873, Newfoundlander Moses Harvey found the bargain of a lifetime. For just ten dollars the amateur naturalist and writer purchased the carcass of a giant squid. Harvey bought his prize from a fisherman who’d caught the creature by accident and I suspect was somewhat relieved to be rid of it. Harvey’s sea monster friend soon set up residence suspended above a tub in the living room where it became the first of its species to pose for a photograph.

newfie
Not that kind of Newfoundlander, but this makes a much cuter picture than a giant squid carcass.

People had been catching glimpses of the strange cephalopod since at least as early as the mid-twelfth century when the first partial descriptions appear in writing. For centuries, this creature served as a source of fear, as the great kraken of legend that pulled large ships to the bottom of the sea and possessed an insatiable hunger for human flesh.

It wasn’t until 1752 when Eric Pontoppidan, Bishop of Bergen wrote his First attempt at a Natural History of Norway (translated three years later into English) that anyone took a stab at a complete description. Even then, Pontoppidan didn’t get it quite right.

He claimed the one-and-a-half-mile wide kraken, with its spiky tentacles, was often mistaken for an island, and attracted its prey by regurgitating a great deal of partially digested fish to lure more into its giant, open mouth. Because of this behavior, Pontoppidan explains many fishermen thought the harvest above a kraken was rich enough to overcome a little fear of becoming a sea monster’s snack. He also reassured his readers the biggest risk ships faced when dealing with the kraken might not be getting pulled to the bottom of the ocean by its many serpentine tentacles, but rather getting sucked into the swirling vortex that followed in its wake.

sqid
The focal point of any good living room design. Public Domain, via. Wikimedia Commons

Though now we know a little more of the sciency details of the somewhat elusive giant squid I think we can probably all admit that it’s a pretty darn creepy-looking animal. Also we’re pretty sure the species probably maxes out in size around forty-three feet long. Don’t get me wrong. That’s super big. But it’s not quite 1 ½ miles.

It does have sharp, spiky feeding tentacles, bringing its total number of appendages up to ten. With these, the squid guides prey, usually deep-water fish, to its sharp beak. To the best of our modern-day scientific knowledge, the giant squid has never been known to suck a ship into its swirling vortex of death and it doesn’t seem terribly interested in eating people.

There is some speculation that a particularly feisty squid could mistake a small ship for a sperm whale, one of its only known predators. Some squid enthusiasts (of which there are apparently a few) suggest this could result in an awesome sea battle that a small ship would almost certainly lose. Still, as long as you don’t set sail on a submarine with Captain Nemo I think you’ll be okay.

maneatingsquid
Cephalopod is Latin for “head foot.” Kraken is Norwegian for “that cephalopod is going to eat you.” Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Since most of us will never even encounter a giant squid washed up dead on a beach, or have the opportunity to purchase one for ten dollars, we’ll just have to appreciate them from afar. And today is the day to do it. Established in 2007 by The Octopus News Magazine Online forum (I told you there were squid enthusiasts), October 11th is Kraken Awareness Day, or technically, “Myths and Legends Day,” just one day in the string of days beginning on October 8 that are set aside to for Cephalopod Awareness. Because obviously one day isn’t enough.

I don’t know about you. I’m not about to display a giant squid in my living room or anything. But I suppose it  can’t hurt to be aware.

Long Overdue

In 1939, a very dedicated librarian at the New York Society Library, while rifling through a pile of forgotten trash in the basement, discovered a leather-bound ledger from the years 1789-1792. The ledger came from an era when the library was the only one in New York City and it shared a building with the office of the POTUS, who evidently had borrowing rights.

GeorgeWashington
You gotta watch out for this guy. He chops down cherry trees. He doesn’t return library books. What a jerk. By Gilbert Stuart – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Up until May 20, 2010, if you’d walked into the New York Society Library looking for a copy of The Law of Nations by Emmerich de Vattel (which if you did, I’d have to assume you are a well-read and interesting person), you wouldn’t have found it. Of course that happens sometimes. Libraries are wonderful places with enormous resources that we all share for the betterment of society, but sometimes things go missing. And, more commonly, the book you need is already checked out to someone else, which can be kind of irritating.

That’s especially true if it’s checked out and overdue, because that means some selfish person is standing in the way of your reading pleasure, or your research project, or your self-betterment. That self-absorbed, inconsiderate jerk couldn’t even finish with the book you need, though he’s had it for nearly a month, or in the case of The Law of Nations, for more than two hundred years. But, you know, if he’s George Washington, it’s probably cool.

According to the ledger, Washington checked out two books on October 5, 1789. The other was Volume 12 of the Common Debates, a collection of transcripts from the House of Commons, from which presumably the president hoped to learn the proper usage of the phrases, “Right Honorable Git” and “cheeky fellow.” Also I assume he was a well-read and interesting person.

stack
Two weeks you say? Maybe I’ll just grab one more…

I love libraries. I spend a lot of time in them. When I can manage it, I enjoy getting lost in a big, kind of creepy academic library, the type that smells a little bit like musty, old paper and includes dark, dusty corners where grad students pore over primary sources.

I also love the smaller, local libraries where readers from all walks of life come to browse the shelves, check their email, learn a new skill, or catch an author presentation. Over the past few weeks I’ve even had the pleasure of presenting at a couple such libraries, which has been a lot of fun. Of course if I’m in the library, I’m going to look at books. If I have borrowing privileges, I’m going to take a few with me.

librarybook
Now that is an exciting find. Did you know many libraries will consider purchasing requests from patrons? Requesting that your local library purchase a book is a great way to help an author out.

And there’s a pretty good chance I will check out more than I can possibly read during the two week lending period. I do, however, promise that if when I go to renew, I discover that you have placed a request on one of the books in my stack I’ll immediately bring it back so you can have your turn. Well, unless I’m at the good part. Then I’ll probably take a day or two extra to finish it and just pay the fine. But I won’t wait two hundred years.

George Washington’s fine has been estimated to be around $300,000. The staff at Mt. Vernon couldn’t find the books, but did replace The Law of Nations with a copy purchased for $12,000 and the library graciously waved the rest of the fine. So the book is there now in the New York Society Library collection, where come to think of it, I’m pretty sure you still can’t check it out. At least now that’s no longer George Washington’s fault.

Celebrating Crack the Code Day with 17 Kitten Gifs

In 1799 a French soldier by the name of Pierre-Franҫois Bouchard, while serving in the Egyptian campaign of the Napoleonic Wars, discovered a repurposed slab built into Fort Julien, just outside the city of Rosetta. Though the slab had been relegated to the role of common brick, it seemed to Bouchard like the writing on it might have some greater significance.

He was right. What Bouchard had discovered would keep scholars busy for many years and essentially usher into existence the field of Egyptology. With his discovery, we finally had a translation of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

rosetta
The Rosetta Stone has been on display in British Museum nearly continuously since 1802. This is a copy that was on temporary exhibit at the St. Louis Science Center. Still just as readable as the original.

The stone featured the same royal proclamation in three languages: Hieroglyphics, Demotic, and Greek. Nobody could really read the first two, but if the third were placed within the proper historical context, it could be understood.

At the French defeat in Egypt, the Rosetta stone, along with most of the antiquities gathered by Napoleon’s men, passed into possession of the British where it has remained since, but it was a Frenchman that finally cracked the code.

Jean-Franҫois Champollion was a child prodigy with an insane gift for languages. Before the tender age of eleven he had conquered Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and Chaldean as well as a few others. Upon discovering Egyptian hieroglyphs, young Jean-Franҫois declared to the brother who raised him that he would one day be the man to translate them. Nearly twenty years later, he figured out how to do it.

As I’m sure you already know (because it’s got to be a bank holiday somewhere), today marks the 196th anniversary of the day Champollion announced his discovery to the world in a letter read before the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres in Paris. Basically he explained that Hieroglyphs, like the Egyptian demotic language, contained both phonetic and symbolic parts, and by understanding how to distinguish between those methods of operation in the language, he could crack the code.

Of course he didn’t probably give enough credit to Englishman Thomas Young, whose previous work on Demotic had demonstrated the combination approach and the similarity between Demotic and Coptic, a language at the time still spoken in some Orthodox pockets, and you guessed it, by brilliant linguist Jean-Franҫois Champollion. Young, and frankly the rest of his countrymen, didn’t appreciate that very much, which led to the carving of some choice pictures into the bathroom stall doors of their hallowed institutions.

Jean-François_Champollion,_by_Léon_Cogniet
Jean Francois Champollion. Not so good about sharing credit, but brilliant nonetheless. By Léon Cogniet – Musée du Louvre, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But Champollion was the one to finally put it all together, and within just a few years, he’d translated a great many hieroglyphic texts, opening up a whole new world of Egyptology. Finally everyone who was anyone who cared in the slightest (and there were probably at least a dozen or so of them) could know that when the ancient Egyptians carved “bird, foot, snake,” what they meant was, “kegger tonight at Zezemonekh’s house.” That’s loosely translated of course.

It was a big deal. Basically Champollion was to Egyptology what Urban Dictionary and good text translation sites are for today’s parents. Because I don’t know about you, but I don’t know what the heck these kids are talking about.

I have two sons, one of whom is a teenager with a cell phone and a lot of friends who communicate primarily in gifs and emojis. I do monitor his phone usage with a parental spy app (yes, he’s totally aware of this and understands that it’s just part of the deal of still being a kid and having protective parents), and I sometimes scroll through his texts. Though one can only take so much.

kitten
So. Sleepy. I like you too much to make you look at seventeen of these. But one is pretty cute.

I am aware that sometimes texts are not exactly what they appear to be, which is why I’m grateful for the genius linguists who can cut through the pictures to derive some sort of meaning. Because I can’t make heads or tails of your average Egyptian stele or that series of seventeen kitten gifs sent to my son by some girl in his science class.

If you’re thankful, too and you want to celebrate what I’m choosing to dub “Crack the Code Day,” in honor of the contributions of Jean-Franҫois Champollion, you can pick up a copy of Gentleman of Misfortune, in which the genius Frenchman gets a nod. Or if you prefer, you could just enjoy some

pizza emoji
Note: This could be a slice of pizza or it could refer to any kind of food one might especially enjoy since everyone likes pizza. Unless you don’t.

On Fasting, Fried Cheese, Snickers Bars, and Charlatans

In 1908 Fasting for the Cure of Disease by Linda Hazzard hit the shelves. A self-described fasting expert, Hazzard had studied under Dr. Edward Dewey who wrote the book The No Breakfast Plan and the Fasting Cure. Spoiler Alert: It’s a book about not eating breakfast. It also recommends not eating when you’re sick, and if you must eat, to chew your food a lot.

hazzard
If this woman invites you to dinner, you might want to eat a little something before you go. Linda Hazzard. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Obviously a star student, Hazzard took this suggestion a very large step further and suggested not eating at all. At her Olallia, Washington health institution the diet consisted of tomatoes, asparagus, and orange juice. Not much of them, either. And yes, people paid for her advice and medical supervision. While her patients starved, Hazzard subjected them to numerous enemas and deep, painful massage. Because health.

Fortunately today, more than a hundred years later, this kind of extreme health fad looks terribly alarming and we can all breathe (and eat) easy because we’d never fall for something like that.

Except that of course we might. Every year health books flood the market, tell us what to eat or not eat, and gain devoted followers. Some are written by physicians or otherwise credentialed experts. Others come from celebrities and/or charlatans. All should probably be read with a healthy dose of skepticism and caution.

nut juice
There were some parts of Whole30 that were somewhat intolerable. Like Almond milk. A friend told me the reason it’s called milk is because “nut juice” doesn’t market well. But make no mistake. That is, in fact, what it is.

I’m not usually a big follower of fad diets and health crazes, but I admit I recently tried one of the more popular eating plans of today. After seeing the numerous praises of several friends who had successfully completed the Whole30 plan, I decided, kind of on a whim, that I’d give it a try.

If you’re not familiar with it, basically it requires that for thirty days you strip your diet of dairy, soy, grains, legumes, refined sugar, most food additives, artificial sweetener, alcohol, and fun. I admit when I first read what it actually involved, I was a little skeptical that I could—or would ever want to—do it. But it didn’t appear to exclude any major nutrient categories and I like a challenge. Also, my husband said he’d do it with me. We looked at it as a way to alter how we approach food choices and to hopefully kick off a lifetime of healthier decisions.

whole30
Whole30 is workable, but it definitely takes some planning and prep. I like the food. The increased dish-doing, not so much.

And it kind of worked. The best part about the program that I’ve found so far is now that it’s over, and I’m starting to reintroduce some of these foods, I am discovering my taste for them has changed. I made it through about four ounces of my favorite diet soda the other day before I dumped the rest because it was gross and it made my stomach hurt, and I’ve definitely discovered that I feel better when I consume fewer grains. There probably will be some lasting changes to my diet as a result of the program, which is kind of cool.

But here’s the thing. I recognize that I might sound like some sort of crazy food disciple, and I’m really not. Because no one in all of human history, no matter how many celebrities have endorsed his or her bestselling book, has perfected the human diet. And if your first inclination is to run out and try the fad diet you read about on a history-ish blog then let me be the first to say to you, STOP IT.

quackery
If you enjoy stories about quacks like Hazzard and so many others, I recommend this book. It’s a deeply disturbing, light read that will make you grateful you live in the 21st century, but also wonder which of our health pursuits, in a hundred years, will be considered unimaginable.

We aren’t all the same, and we don’t all function best on the same diet. I do, however, think it’s fairly safe to say that we should all eat, at least more than the occasional tomato, asparagus, and orange juice. I might not even recommend skipping breakfast, but what do I know?

I’m a writer, not a healthy eating guru. And while I might be able to make a few bucks and gain a huge following with a book on the scientific principles and imaginary health benefits of the fried cheese and Snickers bar diet, I’d rather write about mummies.

It turns out Linda Hazzard probably shouldn’t have been anyone’s healthy eating guru either. In 1912 she was convicted of manslaughter. She only served two years in prison, though fourteen people died while following her fasting plan. Then in 1938, Hazzard herself became number fifteen, which I suppose is kind of poetic.

Blurb’s the Word

In July of 1855, American essayist, poet, and all-around deep thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson picked up a book that some young upstart found the courage to send him unsolicited. The book, a somewhat pretentious collection of poetry self-published by an unidentified author, was called Leaves of Grass. Miraculously, the presumably quite busy Emerson opened the book.

He loved it. He searched the publication information and discovered the name of the copyright holder. Then he sat down to write to Walt Whitman. The letter is encouraging and poetic and Whitman had to be pretty psyched to receive it because up until then the reviews of his book hadn’t been especially kind.

emerson
Emerson’s response to Leaves of Grass. I’m a little surprised Whitman could even read it. By Ralph Waldo Emerson, from the Library of Congress, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Next Whitman did what any author would probably do. He sent the letter to a contact at the New York Tribune. When he later printed a second edition of Leaves of Grass, he included the letter as an appendix. Just to make sure no one could miss it, Whitman also placed the tiny excerpt, “‘I greet you at the beginning of a great career’—R. W. Emerson” right on the spine.

This was probably the first example of the now ubiquitous book blurb. Just about every book you pick up off the shelf at your friendly neighborhood bookstore has at least one on the cover. There’s often even a page or two of them in the front of the books of established or well-connected authors.

They also grace the top of every description on Amazon, where you’ll find them listed along with the label: “#1 Amazon Bestseller in Lesbian Clown Self-help Literature.”

And that’s how you know the author is much better at playing the Amazon marketing game than I am. I’m hopeless. Also probably not writing in the correct category to achieve such a claim to fame.

martinblurb
Now that’s a book blurb. Damn it.

But I do have a blurb on my cover and atop my book description. A few years ago I attended a writers conference in Arkansas and was lucky enough to get to talk with keynote speak and New York Times bestselling history writer Jeff Guinn. If you haven’t read his books, you should check them out. They’re well-researched, accessible, and fascinating—everything a great history book should be.

It was with trepidation that this upstart approached Mr. Guinn to ask for his opinion on her book. Fortunately, like Emerson, he was incredibly gracious and despite a busy schedule (filming for an upcoming documentary on Jonestown for Sundance TV), he agreed to take a look. About a week after I sent him the manuscript, the Jeff Guinn sent me this:

“Quality fiction and real history make a great match, and Sarah Angleton’s Gentleman of Misfortune offers the best of both. This is an engaging story with surprises on every page.”

—Jeff Guinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Gunfight and Manson

And that’s when I fainted.

freakgifOkay, I didn’t really faint, but my response was definitely a little undignified. Next I did what any author probably would. I sent the blurb off to my cover artist. And if I’d had any connections to major news outlets, I’d have probably sent it to them, too.

I know not everyone loves blurbs. Some in the publishing industry complain they’ve become so common they’re basically meaningless. Some readers ignore them. I don’t think a blurb alone would ever make me decide to read a book, but personally I like them. Knowing that someone whose work I have enjoyed or respected thought enough of a book to allow their name to be associated with it is something I find compelling.

I’m so grateful to Mr. Guinn and to the handful of other authors who offered lovely words about Gentleman of Misfortune. Each of them also has produced great works that I hope readers of my book will look up if they’re unfamiliar with them. I’m grateful to be even a small part of a generous industry full of Emersons willing to help out their emerging fellows.

So, what about you? Do book blurbs make any difference to you?