An Extra Day and a Hot Mess

Sometime around the year 1235, Johannes de Sacrobosco, a monk and astronomer teaching at the University of Paris, published his Du Computo Ecclesiastico, an in-depth study of the hot mess that is the history of the calendar in all its various imaginings and recalculations through the years.

Though I haven’t read it, the history rumor mill suggests the book is pretty scholarly. Sacrobosco definitely had a lot of things to say about the way the passage of time should be measured, including a few suggestions for reckoning the Julian calendar to solar and lunar observations and calculations. By his day, the equinoxes and solstices had already experienced a pretty significant backwards slippage in time.

julius caesar death
Julius Caesar wishing February had been a little bit longer, because March wasn’t looking so good for him. Vincenzo Camuccini / Public domain

The book also includes a story about how the calendar ended up in such a terrible fix in the first place, like that time the month of February became comically short because Augustus Caesar decided to borrow a day for his own namesake month of August so that it would be every bit as long as the previous month named for his dad.

February is comically short, not only because it usually has twenty-eight days instead of the more traditional thirty or thirty-one, but because it follows January, which at least in my corner of the world is the longest darn month of the year. It’s bleak and cold and filled with the junk you put off during the holidays. Oh, and it follows the holiday season, which is as fun as January isn’t.

groundhog-4814471__340
Any month that starts off with a groundhog is pretty okay in my book. Picture by hatlerbratton, via Pixabay

Like it has most years I can remember, February has kind of flown by comparison. This shortest month comes with a furry mascot, a celebration of love, Girl Scout cookies, the start of baseball spring training, and slightly brighter days. Mine probably went especially fast, too, because it included a book launch and the corresponding flurry of activity. My calendar has actually been kind of a hot mess.

But as “not as awful as January” as February is, it does kind of get the shaft, even in leap years like this one. Had I been in Sacrobosco’s place writing a treatise on the convoluted history and problem of calendars (which I assure you no one would call a pretty scholarly work), I also would have included that story about Augustus Caesar lopping off February’s end, because it’s a pretty great one. Of course, it wouldn’t have been true if I’d written it, either.

It turns out there’s plenty of evidence that the calendar’s multitude of problematic and somewhat sporadically assigned month lengths predated both Augustus and Julius. The latter did do his level best to fix it, consulting with the astronomer Sosigenes from Egypt to come up with a 365-day year that corrected with a leap day every fourth year.

Gregory XII
Pope Gregory XII, a man whose calendar was not a hot mess. Justus van Gent / Public domain

Not bad. But it didn’t fix the problem indefinitely and it wasn’t until three hundred fifty years after Sacrobosco’s book that Pope Gregory XII made a really good change to the plan. That’s when it was decided that the calendar everyone would use (except for those who didn’t feel like it) would include 365 days, with a leap year every fourth year, except for a century year, unless it could be evenly divided by four hundred.

Simple, no?

But it has more or less worked since then with a large chunk of the world buying in to its use, or at least more or less understanding it so that business can be conducted with relative ease all 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds of the year.

It’s still not perfect and will need more corrective action over the course of millennia. Evidently the rotation of the earth isn’t even entirely consistent, making our measurement of time a little less precise than we’d probably like to think. But there are astronomers who regularly work on that problem and keep us all on track by occasionally adding an extra one-Mississippi to the clock. I imagine most of us aren’t much bothered.

In fact, other than the approximately 4.2 million “leaplings” world wide who will be celebrating their birthday this Saturday or the hopelessly romantic ladies who will be exploiting a silly tradition and proposing to their fellas, a lot of us probably barely even notice February 29th when it rolls around.

Unless you’re like me and your calendar is a little bit of a hot mess. Personally, I plan to make good use of this February’s extra day.

Considering Poll Dancing*

In 1936, Alf Landon did not become the president of the United States. Instead, Franklin Roosevelt handily won a second term. That surprised a few people. Mostly, it surprised the folks conducting polling for the Literary Digest, which had become accustomed, over the course of the previous five presidential elections, to getting it right.

One person that wasn’t surprised was journalist and ad executive George H. Gallup. He’d conducted a poll of his own, sampling a mere 50,000 likely voters while the Literary Digest received responses from 2.3 million of its subscribers.

George_Gallup
George H. Gallup. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In today’s culture surrounded by incessant talk of bias and misrepresentation of data, it might be fairly obvious the Literary Journal failed to take some things into account. It was certainly obvious to Gallup, who insisted that a large number of respondents didn’t matter nearly as much as making sure the collected sample was representative of a wide range of demographics. His rival pollsters (though they weren’t yet called that), were listening only to the folks who gravitated to their publication.

Gallup called the election of 1936 correctly and went on to develop the Gallup International Association, a world-wide collection of polling organizations, and later his own analytics company based in Washington, D.C. called Gallup, Inc. His name now represents the gold standard of scientific polls, and more often than not, they serve as pretty good predictors.

Of course, polls can still be wrong. The wording of questions can subtly introduce unintended bias, the timing of polls and the news cycle can interfere with results, or basic human nature can influence respondents to be less than forthcoming. But even knowing this can sometimes happen, I think opinion polls can still perform an important service in politics, in advertising, and in publishing.

 

phone
There will always be people (like me) who won’t answer their phones.

I am not, nor have I ever been, a professional pollster, and though I did fairly well in a statistics class in college, I’m probably not the person you want to call on to analyze your data. But I do have a question for you.

Some of you have been reading this blog for a long time, but others have discovered this little corner of the Internet more recently. For the benefit of those who don’t know much about me, let me first give you a little bit of background:

I am a writer of historical fiction who, at the advice of a friend, started writing this silly little history blog almost seven years ago. Much to my surprise and delight, some people kind of liked it and so once my first novel was under contract with a small press, I self-published a collection of some favorite posts from the first five years of the blog, as both a way to celebrate the silliness I seem to get away with in this space and also promote my forthcoming novel.

Then, like so many rotten small presses evidently do, my publisher essentially vanished, temporarily holding hostage the rights to my first novel. It’s a sad story you can read about (here) if you really want to. That’s when I decided to self-publish a companion novel to the first. It’s called Gentleman of Misfortune and I think it’s a pretty good book that you would like.

In less than a year my rights to the first book will return to me and I will finally share with the world another story that I am proud of and that I think you will like.

GofM-FrontCoverOnly
I don’t have cover art for the new book yet, but as the two novels are closely related, it will be something that jives with this.

This novel also had a title I liked very much and that I had a very good reason for wanting. As publishers will sometimes do, mine disagreed with me. After much deliberation, we came to a compromise and found a title we could both live with. So, here’s my question, in the form of a terribly informal, nonscientific poll:

Not knowing anything about the book outside of the fact that it’s a historical thriller closely related to Gentleman of Misfortune (I realize you may or may not have read it), which title do you find more compelling?

1. Smoke Rose to Heaven

2. Burned Over

If you have read Gentleman of Misfortune and the accompanying author’s note, or my other book Launching Sheep & Other Stories, which includes a preview of this finally forthcoming novel, then you probably can figure out which title is my original and which one is the compromise with a rotten publisher.

If that’s the case, please don’t let that influence your choice. I really am fond of each title. I’m just realizing that as this book returns to me, I once again have the freedom to choose and I’d love your (now hopelessly biased) opinion. You can either hop over to my Facebook page (here) and participate in the poll, or drop your choice in the comments below. If you feel really strongly one way or the other, you can even do both.

I know this poll wouldn’t hold up to the standards of George H. Gallup, and I might end up with the wrong title for the book, the one that means I’ll sell a handful of copies instead of the millions that will land me on the New York Times bestseller list. But that’s okay. I’d love your opinion anyway. Thanks!

*If you clicked on this post expecting an insightful consideration of POLE dancing, try this link instead. 😉

 

So Cold: The Secret to My Success

Occasionally someone will ask—either at a reading event or in casual conversation—whether I find it difficult to work at home. They wonder if I get distracted by the dishes or the errands or the dirty socks my children have inevitably left stuffed behind the couch cushions.

Of course, I have to admit that sometimes I do. Sitting behind a computer screen with no one to talk to except the dog (a good listener) and the chorus of characters (not great listeners) competing for attention in my head can get a little tiresome. Then the household stuff calls to me. It’s a convenient distraction—one I can always justify because those things need to get taken care of, too.

I generally reply that I get by because I’m list-maker and dedicated time manager, and I am, but I also have a special, motivational weapon in my arsenal, especially this time of year.

I’m cold.

Like seriously cold. All. The. Time.

thermostat
One study suggests that a third of all couples argue over the temperature setting in their homes, and 40% of women admit to secretly turning up the heat when their significant other isn’t looking. photo credit: EE Image Database Woman giving the thumbs-up sign and pointing to a thermostat on the wall in her home via photopin (license)

People have been finding clever ways to keep our environments warm pretty much since the invention of people, when cave men and cave women argued about how much to build up the campfire.

In ancient Rome, some buildings evidently used systems of pipes to force hot air from pockets of empty space beneath a fire into walls as a clever method of using radiant heat to warm up a room.

After a few dark and chilly centuries when heating returned to a more primitive style, other solutions began to emerge. In 13th century Europe, the Cistercian Order of monks began using diverted and heated river water to warm their monasteries. Better stoves and chimneys were developed through the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. Then Benjamin Franklin invented his (appropriately named) Franklin Stove in 1741, which proved to be a somewhat effective way to force warmth and smoke into a room in greater amounts than your average fireplace.

ozziesun
My dog’s favorite solar powered heating system.

Over the next hundred years or so, Scotsman James Watt came up with a steam-driven heating system, Russian Franz San Galli invented the radiator, and American professor Warren Johnson patented the first thermostat, because he was tired of classrooms that were either too hot or too cold. I think we’ve all been there.

Just a few short years later in 1919, Alice H. Parker patented the first central heating system that used natural gas. An African American woman enduring harsh New Jersey winters, Parker said she developed the idea that formed an important basis for the convenient and safer heating systems of today because she was cold and her fireplace just wasn’t cutting it. I hear that.

office attire
Dressed for a day at the office.

According to a 2015 Dutch study, most women probably do. On average, the researchers found, ladies tend to be comfortable with a warmer ambient temperature than their gentleman counterparts do. The findings (which surprised absolutely no one who has ever attempted to share a home with a member of the opposite sex), sparked a discussion of whether office thermostats are sexist. Or something like that.

The idea was that back in the day when offices contained mostly men in three-piece suits, temperature levels were set for the comfort of those men. Today, as offices tend to contain more equal numbers of men and women, the temperatures remain set for ideal manly comfort standards. There’s a fancy formula engineers use to determine the optimal level of temperature comfort as determined by humidity, air temperature, and mean metabolic rates, etc. The problem, according to the study, is that the formula overestimates the amount of heat produced by a resting woman.

The differences have been attributed to estrogen production and muscle mass to fat ratios, which tend to be different between men and women. I don’t know that I would go so far to call the thermostat a source of inherent workplace sexism, but the struggle is real, and lots of women throughout the workforce carry an extra sweater to the office.

space heater
The secret to my success: a closed door and a space heater.

As someone who works primarily at home, I use the problem to my advantage, because I am the lone female living with three males. Through the winter, my house is always at least 2 (or 3 or 4) degrees colder than I’d like it to be. Yes, when my sons head off to school and my husband to work, I could turn up the thermostat and no one would complain.

Instead, I walk down the stairs and through a long hallway to my hidey hole office in the basement where I close the door and turn on my own personal space heater, before sitting down to work. Pretty soon, the dishes and the errands and the dirty socks begin to call to me, when the words don’t want to flow and the character voices have gone silent. When that happens, all I have to do is step outside of my office into my cold, cold house. I don’t stay there for long.

The World’s Favorite Sociopath: A Goal for 2019

In 1877 a young would-be physician walked into the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and met an attending physician who seemed already to know everything there was to know about him just by making a few astute observations. Dr. Joseph Bell had a habit of showing off his highly refined detective skills in order to impress upon his students the importance of taking a careful survey of a patient before launching into treatment.

sociopathThis so impressed medical student and writer Arthur Conan Doyle that when he published A Study in Scarlet, his first detective novel, nearly a decade later, Dr. Joseph Bell’s mad skills of observation showed up in the habits of a brilliant consultant named Sherlock Holmes.

When asked about his inspiration for his beloved consulting detective, Conan Doyle always answered that the character was drawn from Joseph Bell, himself a famous surgeon and forensic scientist known for drawing large conclusions from minute evidence. The two had worked closely together for a few years, as Conan Doyle clerked for Bell, a kind of Dr. Watson to his Sherlock. It probably makes sense that Bell might show up in his student’s work.

I recently became re-introduced to Sherlock Holmes when my oldest son discovered him. My son cut his teeth on the BBC show Sherlock in which the modern-day Holmes is brilliantly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, but then he made this mama proud by plowing his way through Arthur Conan Doyle’s original works as well.

Esherlock
The game is afoot!

So, when he recently turned fourteen, we celebrated with a Sherlock Holmes party, complete with a mystery to solve, a deerstalker to wear, and a little brother dressed up as John Watson. He made a good Sherlock, though I’m happy to report he’s a little more socially aware than the character.

Despite Conan Doyle’s repeated claim, there were likely other influences that contributed to the development of Sherlock Holmes as well. Edgar Allan Poe essentially created the detective fiction genre and Conan Doyle had been known to praise his efforts. The contemporary works of Émile Gaboriau also seem to echo at times through the character of Sherlock Holmes. And then there was Joseph Bell’s own claim in a letter to his former student in which he wrote, “You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it.”

I don’t blame him one bit for rejecting the honor. Holmes is something of a single-minded sociopath with little use for other people and a significant cocaine addiction. He’s a fascinating character and if I’m ever falsely accused of murder, I’ll want someone just like him on the case. But I wouldn’t want to hang out with him.

Because many of the people I do hang out with regularly are writers, I’m not surprised to read that Conan Doyle’s most famous character was inspired by someone he knew. That kind of goes with the territory when you are friends with a writer.

teeshirt
Never mess with a writer.

I even once had a professor who boldly confessed that the “friend” character in every novel he’d ever written was almost exactly based on a boy he’d known growing up. I’ve never done anything so blatant. None of my characters has ever been intentionally patterned off someone in my life, but I’m sure if I really thought about it, I could recognize bits of those I know and love within my work.

I suspect that’s true of most fiction writers. Like Conan Doyle’s famous detective, we draw inspiration from a variety of places—ourselves, great books, and yes, occasionally from people we know. I guess that might bother some folks. Maybe it bothers you. It just kind of makes me want to be the type of person who could inspire a great character.

And that sounds like a good goal for 2019.

Happy New Year!

Superglue, Bailing Wire, and Candy Cane Goo

Christmas is almost here and I admit, the season is starting to get the best of me. So . . . please enjoy this throwback post, originally written in December of 2014. And Merry Christmas!

Author Sarah Angleton

If you were to walk into my parents’ house at Christmastime, you would see an artificial Christmas tree strung with lights and topped with the same lighted, multicolored star my parents have had for as long as I can remember. At this point I’m pretty sure the star contains more bailing wire and superglue than original material and still it’s held together mainly by the sheer will of Christmas spirit. Well, that, and maybe a little sticky candy cane goo.

The most precious ornaments are always made with Popsicle sticks put together by little fingers. The most precious ornaments are always made with Popsicle sticks put together by little fingers.

I don’t remember when it happened because I had to have been very small at the time, but the story goes that as the family worked together to decorate the Christmas tree, my eldest brother, who is easily the tallest in the family, was teasing my sister, just two years younger and quite a bit…

View original post 593 more words

Puritans Inhaling Swamp Gas

Sometime in late February of 1639, a man by the name of James Everell, along with two of his Puritan buddies, rowed his boat up the Muddy River of Massachusetts and spotted a weird light in the sky. The light appeared as a large flame, about three yards square, and then began to dart around the sky, taking on a different shape, like that of a swine, presumably still on fire.

pig roast
Maybe that fancy, dancy light was just the aliens’ way of inviting the men to a pig roast. photo credit: eric dickman Pig Roast ’05 via photopin (license)

After a few mesmerizing hours of watching the flaming pig streak back and forth across the sky, the three men realized that during that time, they had somehow ended up a mile upstream from where they’d been with no recollection of how they’d gotten there.

But here’s the really strange part. These three pals actually told people they’d watched a flaming pig fly through the night sky. By people, I mean they told John Winthrop, then governor of the Massachusetts Colony and among the puritanest of Puritans. On March 1, 1639 he wrote down the account in his now well-studied diary. It’s clear he found the tale a little odd, but also that he believed the tale-tellers to be credible men who generally made pretty bang-up witnesses.

JohnWinthrop
John Winthrop. If this man told me he’d been abducted by aliens, I’d probably believe him. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are a few possible explanations, then, for what these reliable men saw. First, and obviously most likely, this could be the earliest written account of a North American UFO sighting and alien abduction. Alternatively, these gentlemen could have been boating to a safe distance away from the stocks before overindulging in their puritanical beer. Or of course the whole thing could just be an example of spontaneously igniting swamp gas reflecting off Venus.

Governor Winthrop proposed another explanation nearly five years later when two similar events occurred. During the second of these later events, a voice accompanied the mysterious lights. Winthrop’s most reliable witnesses said they heard the words, “Boy! Boy! Come away! Come away!”

The governor notes fourteen days later, the same voice could be heard again. The reason, he suggests, is that the colony had recently experienced a nearby shipwreck resulting in an explosion. All the victims’ bodies were accounted for except one. Logically, Winthrop theorized the Devil had possessed the body and was now using it, along with a freaky light show, to terrorize the colonists. Hmm. Maybe.

foil hat
This guy knows what I’m talking about. photo credit: c r i s They’re Coming To Take Me Away / 135.365 via photopin (license)

Then again, perhaps a bunch of enthusiastic otherworldly visitors were calling to their human would-be abductees as they have so many times in generations since. Personally, I’m a little skeptical, but perhaps you’re not. Perhaps you, or someone whose story you find credible, have experienced something that to the rest of us might seem a little far out there.

If so, then National Alien Abduction Day, observed in the US on March 20 every year for at least the last decade, may be just the day for you. As for me, I think I’ll avoid the swamp gas and the puritanical beer that day. Perhaps I’ll fashion a nice aluminum foil hat, too, just in case.

Earthquakes and Alien Probe Technology

At around 9:00 on the morning of January 19, 1916, Baxter, Missouri resident Mrs. Frank Jackson heard a terrible noise and received a frightful shock. The sound would later be described as something like discharged dynamite followed by a series of heavy strikes against a large drum and fading off to the north, disappearing completely after a few minutes. Initial reports in the local paper didn’t identify the source of the noise, but rather requested the opinions of readers as to what may have caused the disturbance.

One of the most useful observations came from some of the Jacksons’ neighbors who were working in a field nearby and claimed to have been peppered by gravel falling from the sky. And of course there was the 611 gram stone that crashed through the Jacksons’ roof, hit a log beam, and lodged itself in their attic.

meteorite
If I’m honest, I’m sure I have a lot of junk in my attic, too. Probably not from space, but still. photo credit: kakov Chelyabinsk meteorite via photopin (license)

What had fallen from the sky was a meteorite, made of, well, spacey meteorite stuff, as verified twenty years later by American Meteorite Laboratory founder H. H. Nininger. It measured somewhere around 13 cm across. While the impact of such a stone isn’t going to dramatically alter the earth’s climate or cause mass extinction, it’s certainly large enough to weigh down the corner of a tarp on a breezy day or scare the stuffing out of someone when it crashes through the roof of their house.

There’s not much word on what poor Mrs. Jackson thought as the meteorite came crashing into her house, but perhaps we can make some assumptions based on the reactions of those who witnessed a fiery meteoroid falling through the sky above southeast Michigan on Tuesday of this week.

If Twitter is any indication, the good folks in Michigan, though not quite as terrified as Oregonians facing the trauma of pumping their own gas, were pretty freaked out by the incident. Captured on dashcam video, the meteoroid, which scientists estimate was about two yards across when it entered Earth’s atmosphere, exploded in the sky, causing a small Earthquake and an awfully loud boom.

meteoroid
I’m a big fan of shooting stars, but I admit if I actually saw a huge one that exploded with a loud boom and an earthquake, I might get a little jumpy. photo credit: tonynetone meteorite hits Thunder Bay, Ontario via photopin (license)

Witnesses expressed confusion and then a great deal of concern as they processed whether Armageddon had come at last. Within minutes, conspiracy theorists took to the Internet to caution against initiating any contact with the many small meteorites scientists believe are now spread across the state. The main concern, obviously, is that surviving meteorites are actually alien technology, likely parts of otherworldly probes, of the variety that have been sent frequently to Earth by malevolent alien forces since at least since the 15th century. Seems legit to me.

NASA, on the other hand, has seemed relatively flippant about the whole event, more or less stating that though massive balls of fire flying into the Earth’s atmosphere are relatively rare, slightly less massive balls of fire do it all the time. So maybe everyone should just calm down.

alien
I just have to assume that if aliens have really been sending probes to Earth for at least hundreds of years, they aren’t really in that much of a hurry to invade.

Despite both the dire warnings and the nonchalance, the hunt is on for meteorite pieces. NASA has made a few suggestions for where people might have luck looking, but is clear that any chunks found will probably be pretty small and might not really be worth all that much.

But when H. H. Nininger verified the Baxter meteorite as the real thing, he was quick to make an offer. I haven’t been able to find how much he paid for this delightful addition to his extensive meteor collection, but hopefully it was at least enough to cover the repairs to the Jacksons’ roof.

Since Tuesday’s heavenly event, experts have explained to the media that the value of a meteorite will depend largely on its makeup. Whereas the more common iron will net you somewhere between 50 cents and $5 per gram, a stone meteorite might fetch up to $20 per gram. Now if it’s made of alien probe technology, well, I suppose there’s no telling how high the price might go.

In the Path of an Eclipse: Really Dark, Kind of Weird, and Definitely Goofy-Looking

In my corner of the world, we have a very exciting event coming up. If you’re in the US, and particularly if you are anywhere along the line from about Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina, you’ve probably heard about the total eclipse we’ll be witnessing on Monday, August 21.

It’s a pretty big deal, worthy of donning goofy-looking glasses and taking a few minutes out of your day to say, “Huh. It’s really dark out, which is definitely kind of weird.”

The reason we’re all so excited is that a total solar eclipse hasn’t been visible in the Continental US in 38 years. It’s also pretty cool that the path of totality will hit nine different states with more than 10 million people living within the moon’s full shadow. Another 28 million people live within 60 miles of that path, and everyone in the US should be able to see at least a partial eclipse.

eclipse glasses Steve
I was going to model the glasses myself, but they were pretty goofy-looking. Instead I enlisted the help of my buddy Sock Monkey Steve, who never seems to mind looking goofy for a good cause.

Though not all of St. Louis is directly in the path, a good chunk of it is, including about 1.3 million residents, and the hundreds of thousands of people that will be clogging the roads to get to the perfect viewing spot, causing all the rest of us to be late for work.

And why not? It’s not like this happens all the time. In fact, St. Louis has not seen a total solar eclipse since 1442, when St. Louis didn’t exist yet, so technically, I suppose it’s never happened in the city before. It’s an event that’s worth experiencing, and one that’s certainly worth remembering.

Because you never know when it might come in handy to call on a memory like that. Like, for example, if you happen to have the unfortunate experience of getting conked on the head only to wake up in the court of King Arthur in June of 528, it would be useful to know that on the day the king has decided to execute you, you will be in the path of totality of a historical eclipse.

This is what happened to Mark Twain’s 19th century Connecticut Yankee Hank Morgan. A man suddenly out of time and facing public execution, Hank drew on his knowledge of the disappearing sun to convince the court he was a great magician, even greater than Merlin, and that were he not given back his life, he’d never allow the sun to return. It’s an amusing scene in which Hank has to use some misdirection and not all that clever stall tactics to get the timing to turn out right, since he doesn’t know precisely how long the eclipse will last. But it eventually all works out, and Hank gets to live on to destroy history another day.

Bing_Crosby_-_Connecticut_Yankee
If you ever find yourself in this situation, don’t panic. Just remember your eclipse dates. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court trailer, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I know Hank’s story is not exactly historical, but it was written in the 1880s so maybe you can cut me a little slack on this one. The scene also may have been inspired by an actual historical event from February of 1504, when Christopher Columbus used some old-timey Google magic to convince the natives of Jamaica to continue supplying his shipwrecked crew long after the actions of said crew had pretty much convinced the natives they didn’t much want to.

Because Columbus knew something the natives didn’t know, that the full moon was planning to hide behind the earth for a little bit on the night of February 29. All he had to do was to claim this temporary disappearance as a sign from his angry God. Suddenly he had a native population that was more interested in helping the crew survive until help arrived.

Lunar Eclipse
Columbus’s old-timey Google magic came from a widely used almanac by astronomer Johannes Müller von Königsberg (or Regiomantanus). By Camille Flammarion – Astronomie Populaire 1879, p231 fig. 86, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And if it worked for Columbus, it might work for you someday, because even though to the best of my knowledge no one in the real world has yet been conked on the head and been transported to sixth century England, plenty of elements of science fiction have come more or less true. Really, I think it’s safest to be prepared.

But just in case you ever do find yourself in that situation, you should know that Mark Twain, who did not have the advantage of Google (or evidently an almanac), got the date wrong. There was no total solar eclipse on June 21 of 528. Hank’s plan wouldn’t have worked and he would have gotten himself burned at the stake.

But there really is going to be an eclipse on Monday. If you’re in the path of this much anticipated solar event, get yourself some goofy-looking glasses (from a reliably safe source) and enjoy because it’s going to get really dark out, and it will definitely be kind of weird. Then maybe brush up on your eclipse history, because you never know when you might get conked on the head.

How Otto the Visionary Became a Well-Rounded Person

Several years ago when we were the mommies of much littler littles, a friend of mine asked me for some mommy advice. My friend grew up in Upstate New York, where winters are bitter cold and ponds form thick ice. Now that she found herself raising her own children in Central Illinois where winter can be bitterly cold for days at a time, and frozen ponds can sometimes be a touch unpredictable, she was looking for a place to teach her children the crucial life skill of ice skating. Exasperated at having to sign them up for lessons at a nearby ice arena, she shook her head and said, “Well I guess that’s just what you have to do so your kid can learn to skate. I mean, how did you learn?”

My friend was truly shocked when I answered, “I didn’t.”

january-scene-skating-early-1820s
I’m no human locomotion expert, but I think the guy in the yellow pants is just about to bite it on the ice. January Scene, 1820, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

My family had a box of ice skates in various sizes shoved away in the basement, in case we ever happened upon a good thick patch of ice. As far as I can remember we never did. And though my town didn’t have an indoor (or outdoor) ice rink, we lived about thirty miles from a town that did have one. I remember attending an ice skating party one time. Or it might have been twice.

That was it. That’s the only experience I’d ever had with ice skating. Sure there were hockey leagues in the next town and I had friends whose families made the effort to get plenty of ice time. But we weren’t that family. I didn’t mind a bit. When I did make it out onto the ice, I mostly just fell. A lot.

No. I mean, A LOT. I think I made it around the entire rink one full time, death grip on the wall the entire way, before I gave up with very cold tears streaming down my cheeks.

I can honestly say that I never felt myself disadvantaged by my lack of this particular skill. Clearly there is a cultural difference between my friend and me. Ice skating is a skill she views as essential to becoming a well-rounded individual. It’s important to her.

It was also important to the people of Southern Finland as much as 4000 years ago. Historians believe that’s when someone (let’s just call him Otto the Visionary) first decided sliding across the slippery ice on a thin set of blades was probably a good idea. And it might have been, because according to human locomotion expert, Federico Formenti, the savings in energy and time while traveling on foot among the many lakes in the southern portion of Finland, might have been well worth the effort it took Otto to strap a couple of animal bones to his shoes.

skate-guy
Just saving some time, taking a shortcut across the ice. photo credit: R.A. Killmer How is this possible? via photopin (license)

The ice skate has, of course, been improved since those early years. Skating spread through much of Europe and by the 17th century had become a beloved cold weather activity spawning skating clubs, competitions, and innovations that soon distinguished the sports of speed and figure skating. Then in the 19th century, Canadians started playing ice hockey. It’s anyone’s guess what they did before that. Curling, perhaps?

Despite the wide range of ways to enjoy the sport, and even though I do become an expert on figure skating every four years as I comment “knowledgably” about the slight wobble on the landing of the otherwise flawless triple axel that will surely cost the favored skater the gold, I don’t feel the need to participate.

momskates
Evidence. Sorry it’s so blurry. That’s bound to happen when you just landed a sick triple axel. Or when you hand your 12-year-old your phone and say, “Take a picture of me looking awesome!”

Except this past weekend when I did. My twelve-year-old son, who has been skating a few times (and is obviously a more well-rounded individual than his mother), had the opportunity to go skating with a youth group he’s a part of. And because I’m super lucky, I got assigned as a chaperone for the outing.

When I chaperone, I generally like to participate. I get to know the youth better when I do, we share some laughs and make some memories. Fun is had. Trust is built. That’s all well and good. But remember the death grip on the wall and the cold tears streaming down my cheeks? I do. And I did.

I admit I was scared, but my son wanted me to give it a go so I decided I would. Sure I fell a few times, bruising both my hip and my dignity a little, and if I’m being perfectly honest, there was probably a slight wobble on the landing of my triple axel. But for a kid from Illinois, who has never felt the need to conserve energy or time by strapping blades to my shoes and sliding across the ice, I think I did okay. And, I’m probably now a more well-rounded person. Maybe even a visionary.

 

That Gift in the Top of Your Closet

In February of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln followed up on a letter that had been sent to his predecessor by Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongut, the king of Siam. The king had made a generous offer to the people of the United States, suggesting that he would be happy to send a gift of a sufficient number of elephants to breed in the wilds of the nation. And it certainly wasn’t the bizarre offer it might seem like today. Highly intelligent and useful in transporting goods and raising circus tents, Asian elephants enjoyed a long history as generous gifts.

President Lincoln crafted a highly diplomatic response, explaining that America did not offer environmental conditions conducive to wild elephant success and that when it came to transporting goods, we were scraping by okay with our newfangled steam engines. But he was also careful to thank the king for his very gracious offer.

consular_flag_of_thailand-svg
Consular Flag of Thailand, featuring an auspicious elephant. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Because some elephants, particularly the rare albino ones, have long been considered sacred in Siam and throughout Southeast Asia, given their relationship to Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha). The story goes that Gautama’s mother dreamt of a white elephant descending from heaven on the very night she conceived her son.

So white elephants (and some not-so-white ones that are found to possess other traits earning them the title of “auspicious elephants”) have long been considered the sacred property of the reigning king in Siam. On occasion, the king also may have chosen to honor deserving courtiers by giving them the gift of trusting a white elephant to their care.

elephant-house
Royal Elephant Stable where the King of Siam used to keep his White Elephants (today: The Royal Elephant National Museum, Bangkok) By Hdamm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
It was a generous gift, but there were drawbacks. The amazing and rare creatures were too sacred to be put to work raising circus tents, had to be specially housed, and had to eat. A lot. A white elephant gift from the king, then, was not exactly something to be desired. It could easily burden a man into poverty. And it was a gift that couldn’t be refused.

Allegedly this is where the term “white elephant gift” came from, to refer to something you might give or receive that no one really wants. I don’t know about you, but over the years, I have been to my share of white elephant gift exchanges (also referred to as a Yankee Swap, or a Naughty Santa, which is NOT what it sounds like). These events usually come complete with rules that allow participants to trade the terrible gift they receive for someone else’s terrible gift. The idea, of course, is that one man’s trash may actually be another man’s treasure.

tea-cozy
Another man’s treasure. photo credit: sukigirl74 teacosy top view via photopin (license)

And who knows? Perhaps you have been searching for years for a tea cozy that’s the perfect shade of cerulean, and maybe your friend Ted has been just dying to get his hands on the Duran Duran cassette gathering dust in the top of your closet since the early 90’s.

But if your exchange doesn’t result in you taking home a gift you actually kind of want, don’t fear. You had a good time with friends, enjoying some laughs as everyone attempted to steal the same ceramic Yoda m&m dispenser. Besides you can always shove your unfortunate gift in the top of your closet and dust it off for next time.

Because over the last few years, the notion of re-gifting has gained some traction as a way to both rein in Holiday spending and create less waste. There are helpful re-gifting etiquette guidelines online and in October of 2008, then governor of Colorado, Bill Ritter declared December 18 as “National Re-gifting Day.” Frankly, I’m not sure the governor of Colorado has that kind of national authority. 

At least some people agree with me because a quick Internet search reveals that National Re-gifting Day can also be observed on either December 15, or on the last Thursday before Christmas, which to be fair to Governor Ritter will sometimes fall on the 18th. But I suppose it doesn’t matter when you mark it on the calendar because as other important festive occasions approach, National Re-gifting Day is a holiday that you can always pull off the dusty top shelf of your closet, stick in recycled gift bag, and celebrate again and again.