A Clever Person Does NOT Stick His Head Inside a Lion’s Mouth

In 1820, nineteen-year-old Isaac Van Amburgh accepted a position with the Zoological Institute of New York, as the cage boy whose job it was to clean out the cages of the exotic animals kept by the traveling menagerie. To say it was his dream job would probably be a bit of a stretch, but like most of us, Isaac had to do some grunt work before he got his big break.

That break came just a year later when one of the owners of the menagerie saw that young Isaac had a way with the lions. It turned out he had a knack for training them. He would eventually go on become the person most often credited with beginning the art of lion taming for show, an act that would become as linked with the circus as clowns, elephants, and P.T. Barnum.

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Aw. He looks so cuddly. But he’s not. He will eat you. photo credit: kennethkonica IMG_1874 via photopin (license)

For this reason, when my oldest son realized a camp he attends would have a circus theme this year and for one of their special events, he would need a circus-themed costume, he chose to be a lion tamer. And because he’s an extremely clever kid with a quirky sense of humor, he decided to be a lion tamer who is allergic to cats.

I love the way he thinks, but he may be overconfident in my skill as a costumer. I like to believe I’m fairly clever, too, and I can be crafty when called upon. Like my own mother always did, I keep a few pieces of poster board stuffed behind my dresser just in case one of my kids suddenly remembers the science fair is tomorrow. And I barely batted an eye when he came home from school earlier this year needing an Egyptian pharaoh costume for a social studies speech the next day. Thank goodness bathrobes are so versatile.

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He may make you sneeze, but that lion doesn’t look so dangerous.

But then after weeks of asking him if he had a handle on his lion tamer costume, he finally told me a few days before camp, all he needed was a lion and a red tuxedo jacket, preferably with sequins.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to find a red tuxedo jacket for a twelve-year-old on a poster board budget and with two days notice, but it’s not exactly an easy task. What we came up with was a red raincoat that with a great deal of red duct tape and some shiny gold craft tape looked kind of okay from a distance.

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He did what? Evidently Van Amburgh was not allergic to cats. Or very large teeth. photo credit: valentinastorti Lion – yawning via photopin (license)

And really, keeping a lion tamer at a distance probably isn’t such a bad idea anyway. Because lions are wild animals, and unless you are Isaac Van Amburgh, they may bite off your head. Actually it’s surprising they didn’t do just that to Van Amburgh, who earned himself a great deal of fame and wealth by becoming the first man to stick his head inside the open jaws of a lion.

We’re talking the kind of fame that won him the attention of Queen Victoria, who even became a groupie of his for a time, taking the time to catch his act about half a dozen times in a matter of weeks. And this was even in the days before YouTube.

The queen was so taken with the performance that she commissioned a painting of her favorite daring (and incredibly stupid) animal trainer. In it, Van Amburgh is pictured wearing a Roman gladiator ensemble, his preferred costume since shiny red tuxedo jackets can be challenging to find.

A man who stuck his head inside the mouth of a lion and lived to tell the tale.
Isaac Van Amburgh and His Animals, By Edwin Henry Landseer – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6185738

Van Amburgh’s show did receive a fair share of criticism, too. He was, according to his publicity agent, terribly abusive to the large cats, basically beating and strategically starving them into submission. Had he gotten his head chomped by one of them, he’d probably have gotten what he deserved.

Instead, Van Amburgh had a heart attack and died in his bed in 1865. He was only 54 at the time, but for a guy who made his living putting his head into the open mouths of angry, hungry lions, I’d say he lived a pretty long life.

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A Flocking Good Time

On September 4, 1979, the students of the University of Wisconsin in Madison emerged from their dorms to attend their first classes of the semester and discovered their campus had been overrun. As they’d slept, someone had filled the quad with 1008 bright pink, plastic flamingoes. The culprits were members of the Pail & Shovel Party that controlled the student government after campaigning on nonsensical promises and irresponsible fun.

The prank went down in history as one of the most delightful on campus, sparking an annual “Fill the Hill” university fundraiser and eventually inspiring Madison to adopt the pink flamingo as its official city bird in 2009.

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St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame pitcher Bruce Sutter garden gnome standing guard over the beets.

Why not? The students, after all, were simply participating in a longstanding tradition of lawn ornamentation, one that reaches back at least as far as the temple gardens of Ancient Egypt, and winds on up through the sacred groves of Ancient Greece and Rome. It includes the first manufactured garden gnomes of 19th century Germany, the inexplicable rise of Grandma’s polka dotted backside in the 1980s, and the wide variety of tchotchke in, and occasionally stolen from, my next door neighbor’s front yard, of which I am secretly super jealous. Mostly, I just want an excuse to use the word tchotchke as often as I can because it’s pretty much my favorite word of all time. Go ahead and say it (ˈchäch-kē). I bet it makes you smile.

But when someone mentions lawn ornaments, the image that springs to mind first for most of us is the classic pink flamingo, invented in 1957 by then fairly new Union Products sculptor Dan Featherstone in Leominster, Massachusetts. Featherstone’s flamingoes landed in yards throughout the United States during a time when subdivisions featuring cookie-cutter house designs were popping up at a great rate and homeowners were looking for a way to make their homes stand out.

The plastic pink flamingo joined only six species of the living bird, which gets its pinkish hue from the beta-cerotene in its food. Their population has waxed and waned in the decades since their initial introduction in 1957, but the plastic variety are the only ones you are likely to find these days in the wilds of the United States (or even in the suburbs).

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Ozzie wasn’t quite sure what to think of our visitors. Oh, and just in case you ever decide to participate in a flocking, I recommend gloves. Dogs are territorial.

And just like their more natural counterparts, the lawn ornaments tend to flock in large numbers. In fact, there is currently a flock or two living quite happily in my area, roosting each night in the yard of some “lucky” homeowner. The culprits this time are affiliated with my oldest son’s youth group, who will happily take donations in exchange for the nighttime flocking of an unsuspecting friend’s yard. They will also happily sell insurance to anyone not brave enough to host the visiting birds.

My son and I may have had something to do with a few of these migrations. And yes, we have also discovered a flock in our own yard. They’re not so bad really. The birds are quiet. They don’t eat much. And they only stick around to make your next door neighbor (who has otherwise cornered the tchotchke market in your more or less tasteful neighborhood) super jealous for 24 hours before flying off to roost elsewhere.flocked

The Pail & Shovel party would be proud I think. Of course, no matter how many yards get flocked, the official bird of the Greater St. Louis area will always be the Cardinal.

Being Discovered for Discovering a Viking Discovering Boston in a Metal Bra

In 1837, Carl Christian Rafn published his book Antiquitates Americanae. In it the Danish historian most known for his work translating Old Norse literature, suggested a location for Vinland. What many scholars assumed to be only a land of legend, Rafn placed in North America. And at least one North American was listening.

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Eben Norton Horsford. Brilliant chemist. Not as brilliant archaeologist. Responsible for Boston’s “Dude in Metal Bra” statue. By Unknown – [1], Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In fact, Harvard professor and wealthy inventor of double-acting baking soda, Eben Norton Horsford, became obsessed with the notion. This brilliant chemist turned less brilliant amateur archaeologist confidently declared his discovery of the onetime foundation of a home belonging to Leif Erikson. Conveniently, the foundation stones were discovered along the banks of the Charles River, not far from Horsford’s Cambridge, Massachusetts home.

Other, more established archaeologists, determined that the alleged Viking foundation stone was more likely a pile of relatively insignificant rocks. But that didn’t stop Horsford from producing a great many books  about the huge amounts of evidence he found made up of a Viking settlement in the Boston area that predated Christopher Columbus by about five hundred years.

At least a few North Americans listened to him, too.  That’s why, since 1887, there has been a statue of a young, thrusting Leif Erikson on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue Mall, even though there is no evidence whatsoever that Vikings ever visited Beantown.

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This might be a pile of construction rubble at my neighbor’s house. OR it could what’s left of the foundation of an Old Norse Starbucks. You be the judge.

Legitimate archaeological evidence did finally surface in Newfoundland in 1960, which places Vikings in North America a good 500 years before Christopher Columbus made the trip. And since 1964, the sitting US President has issued an annual proclamation, calling for the October 10th observation of Leif Erikson Day.

But despite all that, I have to admit, I never knew there was an alleged Viking connection to Boston. That little tidbit of fabricated historical fun I picked up from middle grade author Rick Riordan, of Percy Jackson fame. As the mother of two voracious middle grade readers who both gravitate toward the fantasy genre, I have become a big fan of Mr. Riordan’s work, which playfully borrows from the world’s great mythological stories and introduces a new generation of thoroughly modern young heroes.

One of his newest series, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, is set in Boston, where the hero, who dies at the beginning of the book only to find himself in Valhalla, discovers that Boston is a stronghold of Norse Mythology, which he probably should have always known because of that statue of the man with the leather bra.

This summer, as part of a crazy road trip adventure, my family and I spent about half a day in downtown Boston. The first thing my oldest son wanted to do was to set out to see if we could find the “dude in the metal bra.” And since the request was inspired by literature, what could we do? Of course, we found him!

Then in a moment of pure inspiration, I got famous. I decided to tweet a picture of the statue to Rick Riordan. My buddy Rick (who I happen to know reads my blog whenever he’s not busy writing a gazillion books, which, just to be clear, is never), liked and retweeted my tweet. And soon some of his followers (he has just a few more than me), also liked and retweeted my tweet. Even now, several months later, I get a new notification every week or so that someone else has found and liked my tweet of discovering Leif Erikson discovering Boston in a metal bra. It’s gotten more action than anything else I’ve ever sent out into the Twittersphere, and the activity stats tell me that it’s been seen by around 45,000 tweeps.

So the naysayers may tell you that the Vikings never settled in Boston, but I know better, because I’ve seen the proof. Thanks to the wonders of instant Internet fame, so have nearly 45,000 of my closest friends.

And that’s the almost sort of true story of how Leif Erikson and I became famous discoverers in Boston.

On the Origin of Clutter by Means of Accidental Collection, or the Preservation of Favoured Artwork in the Struggle for Back to School Organization

Finally a new school year has begun for my children. For the most part it’s going well. My youngest loves his teacher. She seems warm and genuine and well organized, which is a great place to start. My older son is now navigating the halls of middle school, where he has so far managed to remember his locker combination and land in classes taught by teachers as wonderfully quirky as he is. I suppose it takes a special kind of crazy to teach middle schoolers.

What this all means for me is that I am a more or less full-time writer again, and that’s going okay, too. In the five days they’ve been back at school. I’ve managed to draft several short stories and prep a good chunk of the first draft of a novel for the impending painful process of substantial revision.

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You know, maybe I’ll just shove the door closed and not open it again until the school supplies come home at the end of the year.

But I’ve also had to take a little time to get my space organized for long days alone in front of the computer. As I’ve mentioned before, I work in a little hidey hole of a room tucked down a dark hallway in my basement, a place where sometimes the dog even forgets to look for me.

I like having this space, but it can feel a little dismal at times, especially since it often becomes the staging area not just for my writing, but for my organizing as well. Like, for instance, when it came time to buy school supplies a few weeks ago, I started by sorting through the supplies from last year that had been unceremoniously dumped from backpacks on the floor of the closet of my hidey hole. The backpacks were there, too.

Also there were the remains of art projects and reports and poems and notes and all the precious little papers from a year of school that a mom can’t quite bring herself to throw out. And maybe a few from previous years as well.

I know, I know, it was my New Year’s resolution to pare down on the clutter, but in my defense, I also have yet to lose that pesky ten pounds. Actually, I’ve done fairly well sorting through and throwing away or donating my own stuff. With the kiddos it’s always a little harder. I know I’m not alone in this because even Charles Darwin struggled when it came to throwing out the artsy creations of his children.

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I’m not always disorganized. And the hallway is maybe a little less dark these days.

 

We know because in 2003, Cambridge University and the American Museum of Natural History launched a collaborative effort to digitize all of Darwin’s writings and make them available online. The project is ongoing, but currently includes more than 23,000 digital images. This is pretty cool if you’re interested in getting to know the man behind one of the most influential (and contentious) scientific theories of all time.

But the coolest part to me is the handful of remaining pages of original handwritten text from On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Man, was he good with a title! There are only about thirty or so of these pages still in existence and at least some of them are probably still around because a young Darwin artist or two drew on the backs of them.

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Occasionally little surprises show up among my notes on the chalkboard wall in my office. I don’t erase them unless I absolutely have to.

 

The collection includes more than fifty examples of the Darwin children’s drawings and stories, all preserved on what the evidently thrifty Charles Darwin must have considered scrap paper, not realizing that his handwritten notes and papers might one day be of interest to posterity.

What it seems he did realize is that in addition to being the man behind the theory that lit the field of natural science on fire, he was also a father of some pretty great kids, and their contribution to his life’s work wasn’t something he could part with.

As I work my way through the clutter and get settled back into my hidey hole, I realize I’m not going to be able to throw out those little bits of creativity, either. I haven’t come up with any great scientific theories (yet), and I doubt very much that the mess from the floor of my office closet will ever be catalogued and digitized for the benefit of the world. But if I’m wrong, everyone will know that I’m the mother of some pretty great kids.

http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/slide-show-darwin-children-doodles

BOOM! Aliens: A Detour Through Crazy Town

In 1553, Spanish conquistador Pedro Cieza de León included in the first part of his Crónicas del Perú, a description of what he assumed were trail markers, basically a series of shallow trenches stretching across the plateaus of the Nazca Desert. Then in 1940, historian Paul Kosok flew over the trenches and saw in their patterns the very clear shape of a bird.

Eventually the Nazca lines were discovered to include several hundred animal and human figures of varying sizes covering nearly 200 square miles. Experts determined the lines were pretty simple to make with only very limited ancient trenching tools similar to what non-experts might call “sticks.” Many of these very technical tools have been found near the trenches and have helped scientists to date the designs to between 500 BC and 500 AD.

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It’s completely irrational to assume the Nazca people could have had access to such advanced technology. To my mind, this is definitive proof of Extraterrestrial visitation to Ancient Earth.

But no one has been able to come up with a completely satisfactory explanation of why the designs were put there in the first place. It’s been suggested by archaeologists that the trenches may be related to irrigation. Some astronomers think the designs may point out important heavenly bodies or mirror the constellations. Many anthropologists think the designs might be a type of offering to the gods who had the power to either bless or curse crops in the arid land. And one art historian even suggested the lines might be giant ancient textile patterns.

But the most delightful explanation comes from the field of Ancient Astronaut Theory, or as it is more commonly known among professional circles, Crazy Town. What Crazy Town suggests is that the lines and shapes were constructed to commemorate a visit to Earth from aliens, and that they were perhaps even created by the alien visitors themselves.

Because research is tedious and slow and, you know, aliens.

Ancient Astronaut Theorists have enjoyed a certain degree of seeming legitimacy for the last few years because of the History Channel show, Ancient Aliens, which premiered in 2009. Now, I know what you’re thinking. A channel that purports to focus on history while mostly providing reality shows about pawn brokers and monster hunters, parallels pretty nicely a blog that claims to be about history, but winds up being more about my dog.

I like the History Channel, at least some of it. When it started out, its list of programs mostly included thoughtful and well-produced documentaries about World War II. Even today you can occasionally find thoughtful and well-produced documentaries featuring the commentary of actual experts in their respective, non-crazy fields of study. Which is why the History Channel, much like this blog, can still lull you into thinking that it’s a reliable source of solid information.

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As the Nazca people obviously could not have had access to a picture of my dog, this, to my mind, is definitive proof of Extraterrestrial visitation to Ancient Earth. via Wikimedia Commons

Because even Ancient Aliens tends to start out sounding pretty legit. The camera swoops in on an ancient landscape. A voice with an unmistakable authoritative ring begins to ask serious, thought-provoking questions. The author of Great Adventures in Crazy Town, sounding more or less like an academic, sums up the conventional archaeological explanation of what you’re seeing. Then, just when they have you thinking that you’re being spoon-fed all the important details that will make you sound brilliant at your next cocktail party: BOOM! Aliens.

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Maybe not my best work, but the fact that five minutes at a craft store and a little hot glue yields this is, to my mind, definitive proof of Extraterrestrial visitation to Ancient Earth. And at least I didn’t end up writing about my dog.

It’s a little disconcerting when a trusted authoritative source takes a detour through Crazy Town. And I imagine that’s how my oldest son felt when he came to me a couple weeks ago with a problem. We were about to leave on a long road trip through the northeast, and I was busy working my way through the packing process so, really, I was in Crazy Town already. He reminded me, a trusted reliable source of all things crafty and motherly, that he needed a space-themed costume for the camp he was scheduled to go to the day after we were due back from vacation.

And motherly craft magic is tedious and slow, and you know, aliens.

BOOM!

 

 

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A Bear with no Face and a Clean-Shaven Pharaoh

When we moved into our current house a little more than three years ago, we gained more than a new home and a lovely new set of neighbors. We also got a new family mascot. A wooden bear guarded our front walk, carved from half a log so that it appeared as if his bottom portion were tucked down inside a hollowed out stump.

Though it was perhaps not something we would have chosen ourselves, we admired the craftsmanship and our bear quickly became just one of those quirky things that made our new house our home. So I was a little sad when about a year after we moved in, my youngest son came inside one day to tell me that through no fault of his own, the bear’s snout had fallen clean off its face.

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Our ferocious guard bear. Don’t worry. He can’t actually see you. Because he has no face.

I wasn’t exactly shocked at the news. We knew the bear had been around a while. The previous neighbors had left it obviously, but we suspected they weren’t the first. Over the years our bear had grown a nice crop of lichen,  provided ample wood pulp for a slew of paper wasps,  and had added a fair bit of rotted off bark to our landscaping. It honestly wasn’t in the greatest of shape when we found him.

When my husband got home that evening, he shrugged and secured the poor bear’s snout back on his head with a nice big screw through the middle of its nose. It wasn’t a perfect fix, but we still had a bear, and from a distance it worked.

 For a while.

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Quite possibly the most famous beard in the world. By Jon Bodsworth [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons
I would hope that the staff of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, which houses more than 120,000 artifacts from Egyptian antiquity, would have a slightly less cavalier attitude when their most famous artifact, the 3,300 year-old death mask of Tutankhamun, lost its beard.

It happened during part of routine maintenance performed by museum staff in August of 2014. It turns out this wasn’t the first time King Tut had gone clean shaven. When Howard Carter opened the young pharaoh’s innermost coffin on October 28, 1925, the beard, previously attached to the mask with beeswax, had come loose. In 1944, it was secured in place with wooden dowels and eventually solder.

But when it came loose again in 2014, the panicked museum staff, evidently concerned about the effect of taking arguably the world’s most recognized Egyptian artifact off exhibit, decided to fix it. Fast. They applied a quick-drying epoxy, scraping off the extra with a spatula that left a mark. It wasn’t a perfect fix, but they still had a golden death mask and from a distance, it worked.

For a while.

But pretty soon pictures began to surface that showed a clearly visible yellow glue ringing King Tut’s beard, and three anonymous curators came clean to the press.

Fortunately there’s a happy ending to the story. After much angst, a team of restoration experts managed to remove the damaging epoxy residue and attached the pharaoh’s royal facial hair with beeswax, just as the original artists did. Though there still may be some legal entanglements for some of the parties originally involved in the hasty repair and cover-up, the mask is once again on public display, as good as old.

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Don’t be fooled by the flowers. This one’s a beast. With a face.

 

I wish I could say the same for the fate of our bear. After a few more months, the reattached snout became too decayed to hold into place with the screw. For a long time, lacking a replacement, and unwilling to go without, a bear with no face stood guard over our front walk. Then a couple weeks ago, I stumbled on another bear. It’s not handcrafted or as nice as our first bear probably originally was. But it has a face, so it’ll do.

Now I realize that on the scale of significant works of art, our old guard bear has nowhere near the importance to the world that the death mask of King Tut does. I was, nonetheless, sad to see him go. On a still, somber evening last weekend, we lit a bonfire and said a respectful goodbye.  

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Goodbye old Bear.