&%#$@!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then take a deep breath and a step back.

Gratefulness and Lost Swim Goggles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plastic Faces and Great Hats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No One Can Say I Didn’t Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dance 2
Actually there’s no chandelier in my living room and we probably look more like this. Also, one of those two statements is true. photo credit: Pat McDonald Together via photopin (license)

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

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

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

Meanwhile, UFOs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shave and a Haircut and a Tooth Extraction

In 1537, in the midst of a several year conflict between France and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Ambroise Paré made an important discovery while treating the many wounded soldiers. By intuitively employing the scientific method, which would not be described by Francis Bacon for another eighty-two years, Paré examined patients treated in the traditionally accepted way by cauterizing their wounds with boiling oil, and compared them to those he’d treated with a balm made from eggs, rose oil, and turpentine when his oil supplies ran out.

Strange as it might sound to our modern ears, those patients who hadn’t been subjected to painful blistering by the application of boiling oil actually did a little better. Paré’s method didn’t catch on widely, but it did inspire him to make closer use of observation and data in deciding how to treat patients. And that eventually won him the title “father of surgery” in some history books.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that this man earned such a distinguished moniker. He was, after all, a barber.

barber pole
In some sates there are tight regulations about what kinds of businesses are allowed to hang a barber pole. Good thing, too. No one wants to accidentally wander into a beauty shop for an amputation. photo credit: Singing With Light Haircut time via photopin (license)

Barbers had been filling an important role in the medical community since at least 1163, when Pope Alexander III forbade clergy from practicing bloodletting. The barbers, whose experience with sharp implements had made them good assistants in the gruesome procedure, stepped up. What else could they do? Ailing people needed that bad blood drained and heroic barbers were ready to answer the call.

For centuries, barbers offered an alternative to physicians when none were available or affordable or willing to perform procedures they felt were beneath them, such as bloodletting, teeth pulling, bone setting, or limb amputating. The origin of the striped barber pole can be traced back to this time, as an advertisement for the bloody services offered inside the barbershop. And really, what could feel better after having a tooth yanked out than a bang trim and a nice clean shave?

haircut
Standard issue surgical equipment. photo credit: Cross Duck Social distancing drives you up the WAHL via photopin (license)

I don’t know, but I do know that when my husband recently asked me to cut his hair for him, I felt about as comfortable as I would have been if he’d asked me to remove his arm. Like much of the world right now, our area has a lot of, hopefully temporarily, closed down businesses as we all do our best to hunker down and flatten the Covid-19 infection curve. That includes barbershops and hair salons, which makes sense, because the act of haircutting isn’t all that compatible with practicing social distance.

Of course, what that means is that as the weeks drag on, woefully unqualified family members are being called upon to fill the gap. My husband works in the healthcare field and is still leaving the house regularly, where he is seen in public. And he likes to wear his hair short—not all-over buzzed with clippers, because that would be too simple, but short, nonetheless.

It was getting a little shaggy. It was driving him kind of crazy. And, what can I say? I love him. It was time for this heroic, amateur, and entirely unskilled barber to answer the call.

I grabbed the clippers and the scissors and went to work. While I can’t honestly say it turned out perfectly, I don’t think it turned out too bad. My husband assures me it feels like a fresh haircut to him and he’s pleased with the results. I don’t ever want to do it again, and even though our dentist office is also closed for the foreseeable future, I don’t think my modicum of success in this area qualifies me to start pulling teeth, either.

haircut
I was glad I had a brave guinea pig. Look at those hands—steady as a surgeon.

It wouldn’t be true to say that Ambroise Paré so completely lacked training in actual medicine, such as it was in the sixteenth century. He had attended L’Hôtel-Dieu (a way famous and super old French hospital) to become what was known as a barber surgeon. I think that might parallel most closely to today’s nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant, whose training and scope of practice while significant, is much less extensive than that of a medical doctor.

But then I didn’t exactly go into this haircutting experience blind, either. My husband has, on occasion, cut the hair of both of our sons, and the youngest was due. With much coaching, I practiced first on my surprisingly cooperative twelve-year-old.

I can’t honestly say that attempt went as well. He likes his hair just a little bit longer on top and he has a troublesome cowlick that forms a spiky bit in the front if it isn’t cut just right. It’s now definitely not. But he doesn’t have to leave the house anytime soon and he looks adorable in a hat. Also, thankfully, there was no bloodletting in the process.

Click to Buy: One Size Fits No One

In 1886 a large order of watches arrived by freight train in North Redwood, Minnesota, where it was rejected by the local jeweler to whom it was bound. That’s when freight agent Richard Warren Sears saw an opportunity. He bought the watches and turned around to sell them again at a tidy profit. From this first small taste of success, he decided to begin a mail order business. He found a partner in watch repairman Alvah C. Roebuck and soon created a thriving mail order jewelry and watch business that the two decided to base out of Chicago.

sears home
I don’t even like ordering socks! By Sears, Roebuck & Co. – Sears Roebuck Catalog (1922), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9877226

The R. W. Sears Watch Company was a success and made the two men a small fortune when they sold it in 1889. Sears turned his attention then to other career opportunities, but the catalog business had captured his imagination and just three years later, he and his partner once again started a mail order company that this time would catapult them to fame and glory.

Sears, Roebuck, & Company offered the products most residents of rural America would have to haggle for at their general stores, which offered both higher prices and narrower selections. In a year’s time, the company’s three hundred-page catalog had grown to a five hundred-page catalog offering everything from underwear to musical instruments to cars and even modular homes.

For a brief time, while Sears himself was still in charge of some of the ad copy, you could even buy a sewing machine for the bargain price of $1, that turned out to be nothing more than a needle and thread.

mall sears
Seriously, it’s got to be one of the biggest business miscalculations of all time that instead of becoming the premier online catalog behemoth, Sears went the way of the empty mall anchor store. photo credit: jjbers Closing Sears (Crystal Mall, Waterford, Connecticut) via photopin (license)

And that’s pretty much why I hate ordering through the mail. I know it’s just a way of life, especially now when most brick and mortar stores, at least in my corner of the world, are closed for the foreseeable future.

Like most authors, I have kind of a love/hate relationship with Amazon. I grudgingly admit that despite the impersonal customer service that I have to angrily beg for to receive any response, the continual and seemingly random removal of reader reviews on my books, and the impenetrable mystery that is the magic of keywords, if it weren’t for the ‘Zon, I’d sell a much smaller handful of books.

Fortunately, and also maybe a little bit unfortunately, other retailers have gotten into the online ordering game now, too. It’s helping to keep smaller businesses afloat during a tough time. For that, I’m grateful.

But, man, I miss physically going to a store to browse the shelves and actually see what I’m purchasing. It’s a frustrating process to shop for that pair of jeans that fits perfectly or a set of curtains in just the right shade of green or a pair of sunglasses that won’t make me look like an overrated celebrity hoping I’ll be noticed trying not to be noticed.

sunglasses
This is just the kind of picture that would make me think ordering a pair of giant blue framed sunglasses would be a great idea. It wouldn’t be. Right? image via Pixabay

With online shopping, not only do I have to wait to learn that I can’t force my new jeans over my wide hips, but now I have to repack them and ship them back. Or take the loss, pass them along to some slender-hipped friend in need, and continue wearing yoga pants.

And it doesn’t really matter what I’m ordering. It will never fit. Or it won’t be the right color or the right dimensions or the right fabric that won’t make me break out in hives. I am a terrible online shopper. I have no doubt that I’d have been the customer dumb enough to purchase a needle and thread from Sears instead of an actual sewing machine.

Alas, this is the world we live in, where even our toilet paper has to be purchased on the internet. I’m sure I could find a way to botch that, too.

Modern Day Plague Fashion

Sometime in the vicinity of 1630, a superstar physician by the name of Charles de l’Orme branched out into the realm of fashion design. By this time he’d enjoyed quite a few years of a brilliant medical career, serving as personal physician to several members of the famed House of Medici and a French king or two. If anyone in the medical field seemed to know what they were doing (and really, it’s only in hindsight that we know they definitely didn’t), this was the guy. He was kind of the Dr. Oz of his day.

Plague_doctor_drawing
Never fear, this overgrown omen of death is here to make sure you’re counted among the desperately ill. If you’re lucky, he might even bleed you or apply liquid mercury to your skin while he’s here.

And one, among many, of the medical challenges he and his fellow physicians faced was the frequent recurrence and constant threat of Bubonic plague. In 1630, there hadn’t been a full-on pandemic level outbreak of the plague in quite a while, the previous major one occurring nearly three hundred years earlier. But it still existed in pockets, and Charles de l’Orme had some ideas for how physicians could be ready if the worst should happen.

He designed the first personal protective equipment for the large numbers of plague doctors who would be on the front line of any impending pandemic. The design included a waxed leather coat covered in animal fat, leggings, boots, gloves, a wide brimmed black hat, and a mask that can only be described as the stuff of nightmares. In case that wasn’t enough there was also a cane, allegedly used for keeping sick patients at a safe social distance, or perhaps beating the disease-causing demons from out of them.

The freakish mask included glass eye coverings, a beak-like appendage containing herbs and spices for freshening the dangerous miasma out of the air, and openings wide enough to allow for easy breathing of plenty of contagion.

dr smurf
The less frightening garb of the modern, much more competent, plague doctor. Still a little scary, but much better.

By the time 1665 rolled around and brought with it the Great Plague of London and the deaths of an estimated 100,000 people in that city alone, huge numbers of plague doctors, most of whom didn’t actually have much in the way of medical knowledge even by 1665 standards, were suited up and ready to become a significant portion of that number.

Fortunately, our personal protective equipment has improved a great deal since then, as has our epidemiological understanding, and those medical professionals well trained to make good use of both. We also, thankfully, have given up on the terror-inducing, overgrown crow heads.

I’m very thankful for that each time I don a much friendlier-looking cloth mask and venture to the grocery store. It’s still an odd sensation to be there, and at least for me, not a very uplifting one. It’s difficult to communicate, or even offer a friendly smile, from behind a mask. That little covering adds an extra sense of gravity and an eerie sense loneliness to the experience.

homemade mask
I might be smiling. But you’ll never know.

I know the end of this, while not necessarily in sight, is coming. In my corner of world our number of cases are still climbing, but our projections suggest the curve has been flattened and that when we reach the worst, our medical community will be ready and able to manage it.

I also know that unlike the plague doctors of the seventeenth century whose primary role was one of data collection more than medical treatment, our epidemiologists are as on top of this thing as they can be. To borrow a slightly adapted line from The Martian, they are sciencing the spit out of this. And they’re doing it much more fashionably.

Puzzled Over the Novel Corona Virus

At the start of the 1930s, life looked pretty gloomy here in the United States. What had been a roaring economy had experienced a collapse of the magnitude that sent a lot of previously employed people scrambling to get by. Like so many others, that’s when Frank Ware and John Henriques suddenly found themselves with a lot of time on their hands.

puzzlemania
Just some of the social distance shenanigans that have occurred in my living room in the last few weeks.

I’m sure a lot of us can relate to that particular dilemma. There are, of course, lots of “essential workers” maintaining critical supply lines and taking care of the desperately ill. Many of the rest of us are fortunate enough to be working from home through mandated social distance. But there are a lot of people throughout the US and around the world who have been forced into, hopefully temporary, unemployment while our world works to shake off Covid-19.

And judging from the many pictures on my social media feeds, a lot of folks are turning to jigsaw puzzles to pass the time and keep their minds sharp. That’s exactly what Frank and John did. Frank was a gifted artist and John was a skilled woodworker. Both of them liked puzzles.

And so, the two teamed up to create wooden jigsaw puzzles, ushering in the concept of irregular edges, specially shaped pieces made to order, and a par completion time, so that puzzle-doers could be extra frustrated and also have the pleasure of feeling badly about themselves.

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My current living room situation. The dog is loving his puzzle table den.

The puzzles were a hit with a public that didn’t have much entertainment budget. Frank and John filled special orders, but they also began offering many of their puzzles for affordable rent. Each one came in a black box without the benefit of a guiding picture.

As most puzzle manufacturers were looking for ways to mass produce a cheaper product, Frank and John’s “Par puzzles,” were handcrafted, high-quality works of art that found an enthusiastic audience. The rental program ended in the 1960s, but the puzzles have become collectors’ items. And the Par Puzzles Company, begun in 1932 in New York, is still going strong today, continuing to offer unique, high quality, hand-crafted puzzles for upwards of a thousand dollars each.

puzzle shelf
It is my sincere hope we don’t make it through all of these before this is said and done.

According to their website, they even still have a few in stock, which is nice, because rumor has it puzzles are becoming almost as difficult to obtain as toilet paper. I’ll probably stick to the much cheaper mass-produced cardboard version normally available from hobby and discount stores. I enjoy jigsaw puzzles when I’ve got plenty of time to do them. Fortunately, I already have a shelf full of them waiting for a time such as this.

Perhaps I’ll start a rental business.

Stay healthy, my friends!

My Immediate Travel Plans

I don’t know about you, but all this social distancing and isolation has given me a bit of wanderlust. It’s unclear at this point when we might be able to incorporate travel into our lives again, but there’s no question in my mind where I would go if I could.

As soon as it becomes safe and possible, you’ll find me on a plane headed for the Indian Ocean, to a pair of small islands northeast of Sri Lanka. In fact, as travel to the nation of San Seriffe isn’t currently restricted, I might find a way to leave even sooner.

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Someday this will be me again. Image courtesy of KatyVeldhorst, via Pixabay.

It’s a great little place, consisting of the curvy southern island of Lower Caisse, and to the north the circular Upper Caisse which features the beautiful white sand Cocobanana Beach along its west coast. Home to about 1.8 million people of European and native Flong decent, San Seriffe possesses a rich cultural history dating all the way back to 1977 when it was dreamt into existence by Philip Davies, director of Special Reports for the Guardian newspaper.

Davies was thinking of the frequent special reports in the Financial Times, that highlighted the attributes of small countries he’d almost never heard of, when the idea for an over-the-top April Fool’s prank came to him. He pitched his imaginary island nation to regular staff members Geoffrey Taylor, Stuart St. Clair Legge, Mark Arnold-Forster, and Tim Radford.

The single-page joke feature rapidly expanded into a seven-page supplement that included articles about economic opportunities, political history, and the rapidly growing tourism industry in San Seriffe. The J Walter Thompson Ad Agency even sold ad space, which included a contest sponsored by Kodak requesting snapshots from trips to the islands and with a submission cutoff one day before the piece ran.

Semicolon
An artist’s rendering of the approximate geographical shape of San Serriffe, featuring the islands of Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse.

What was no more than an elaborate joke filled with puns that prior to the presence of desktop publishing software in most homes, weren’t very familiar outside the publishing industry, became a news-worthy story as readers flooded the newspaper’s office with calls for more information.

The report took on a life of its own then when more astute readers began sending in recollections of trips taken to the fictitious islands. The Guardian published an angry letter to the editor in which a member of the San Serriffe Liberation Front expressed concern about the paper’s clear pro-government bias. Real complaints came from travel agents and airlines, which had a hard time convincing people there was no such place.

It was a fairly perfect April Fool’s prank—one that captured readers’ imaginations and spawned an entire genre of jokes, including “I’ve Been to San Serriffe” bumper stickers, a joke article on WikiTravel, and several books, including The Most Inferior Execution Known Since the Dawn of the Art of Marbeling Collected by the Author During a Five Year Expedition to the Republic of San Serriffe written by Theodore Bachaus and probably available from a library near you.

ZoomBeach
This is the island beach from which I will be attending all Zoom meetings, as soon as I can figure out how to do it. It’s probably Cocobanana.

This year April Fool’s Day came and went with less frivolity. The world in 2020 is a little more scared, a little more serious, and a lot more sensitive about invented news. As much as I suspect we’d all love to call up a travel agent that’s now working from home, and book what would likely be a very inexpensive flight to San Serriffe, doing so is even less possible than it was in 1977.

But like the duped readers of the Guardian all those years ago, we can imagine. We can change our Zoom backdrops and pretend to attend meetings from somewhere on an island beach. Hopefully we can still laugh and appreciate a good joke, even while many of us are feeling scared and trapped. And we can dream of the trips we might take when this strange season of social distancing and travel restrictions is finally over, when we’re free once again to enjoy a beautiful day relaxing on Cocobanana Beach.

 

Live ReadingDon’t forget, it’s still a great time to pick up a book and transport yourself to new fictional worlds! If you want, you can join me on my Facebook page where through the month of April, I will be livestreaming my newest historical novel, Smoke Rose to Heaven, one chapter each evening at 7 pm Central US time read by me. Previously read chapters are available for catching up.