It’s the number of dots on a standard six-sided die and the total over which you can’t go in a hand of Blackjack. It’s the age at which a young American can legally drink and the number of the Amendment that restores the right to do so after the eighteenth Amendment took that right away.
In 1808, it became the official standardized number of cannon shots fired for a royal salute in Great Britain, a tradition that started as a symbol of exhausting one’s easily accessible ammo in order to signal peaceful intent. The United States wouldn’t adopt the number for saluting purposes officially until 1890, because ‘Mericans tend to be stubborn and they preferred their salute to correspond to the number of states in the union. Eventually, that began to seem like an awful lot of trouble, and twenty-one, like a pretty good compromise.
For me, the number twenty-one has gained a new significance this week as my husband and I celebrate twenty-one years of marriage. That’s twenty-one years in which we have lived in five different homes in three states, become the parents of two children, and shared so many private jokes that we probably don’t really need to talk at all anymore to make each other laugh. We’ve supported each other through schooling and job changes, through lots of frustrations and even more joys.
For almost ten years, he has been the first to read nearly every post that finds its way to this space, and a few that didn’t make cut, and has titled many of them. We share an appreciation for stupid puns, little known ska/punk bands, and overstuffed burritos.
So, this week, we mark an amazing twenty-one years. A quick internet search tells me that the traditional symbol for the twenty-first anniversary is brass. We’re not gamblers or big drinkers and I’m fresh out of cannons, but we are pretty big fans of brass. Happily “our song” comes with a healthy dose of it. Sounds like a celebration to me:
In 1924 a teacher named Jaime Garí i Poch discovered a curious drawing on a wall in the Cuevas de Araña, or Spider Caves, near Valencia, Spain. The drawing, which is as much as 15,000 years old, depicts a person on a rickety ladder, reaching up to gather honey from a beehive. It’s the oldest indication yet discovered that our ancestors were willing to risk life and limb and anger a swarm of stinging insects just to satisfy their sweet tooths.
As the second sweetest naturally occurring substance in the world (dates hold the top spot), humans have loved honey maybe as much as Pooh bears do, for millennia. Ancient Egyptians used it in medicines and rituals and, presumably, to feed those late night sugary cravings. The Promised Land in Exodus flows with milk and honey, and in the sexiest book in the Bible, Song of Solomon, the lover’s “lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb” and she has “milk and honey under [her] tongue.”
It’s not a great leap, then, to the use of the word “honey” as a term of endearment, which according to the OED happened around the middle of the 14th century. Honey has long held an important place in the human experience. It’s worth striving for. Kind of like love.
So, enter honey, honey pie, honey bunches, honey bunny, or any other nauseating honey-themed nickname you can dream up. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous hon or hun, depending on whether you are comparing your loved one to a gooey sweet treat or a war-mongering barbarian.
And actually, I don’t mind the use of the word as a term of endearment. I have on occasion been known to use it when speaking to my husband or my children (when it can be either hon or hun, depending on the situation). My parents sometimes use it when speaking to me. It’s lovely that they do because it makes me feel treasured by some of the people who matter most in my life.
But when the checker at the grocery store, who is easily half my age, and who I have never met, calls me hon, I don’t like it. This recently happened to me and I posted about it on Facebook, polling the audience as to whether or not the incident should have bothered me.
The post generated a lot of comments, primarily divided along geographical lines. My friends who grew up in the Southern US or who live there now either defended the practice or said it didn’t bother them, while my more Northern friends took the opportunity to join the chorus of complaints. Others suggested that it was acceptable under only some circumstances, like if the person using the term were older, and not a man. It was an interesting string of comments, but I’m not sure I really got an answer to my question.
Should it bother me? I don’t know. I’m generally okay with and appreciate cultural diversity, and as our world shrinks through electronic and economic connectedness, I suppose clashes over minor differences in mannerisms are becoming more common. In the grand scheme of things, this one isn’t so bad. I mean I’m not going to correct the young lady. But I also recognize that I’m allowed to feel what I feel and openly complain about it on social media. Because that’s what we do, right?
Of course it could be worse. Not every language has grabbed on to honey, honey pie, honey bunches, honey bunny, or hon as go to terms of endearment. My husband, who is conversationally fluent in French, refers to me once in a while as his petit chou, a term that apparently sets French hearts to fluttering and literally translates as “little cabbage.” I’m pretty sure if the young lady at the grocery store checkout called me that, I’d go a little war-mongering barbarian on her.
So what do you think, my wider Internet community? Should I have been bothered?
On November 30, 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte needed to deliver some bad news to his wife Josephine. Nearly fourteen years after he married this widowed mother of two who was six years his elder, and almost five years after he declared her Empress of France, the time had come for him to ask her for a divorce.
Presumably he wasn’t thrilled with the idea. It wasn’t a perfect marriage. The two had weathered family disapproval, a fair bit of infidelity, and the kind of long absences conquering often requires. But the love letters he wrote to her reveal that Napoleon was a man very much in love with his wife.
The problem was that an emperor needs an heir, and Josephine had yet to give him one, so Napoleon had to make a change. Josephine screamed when he broke the news to her, but after she had a little time to think about it she agreed to the divorce. And he insisted that she retain the title Empress, even after his remarriage.
Now either Josephine was an extremely understanding woman, or Napoleon was an incredibly convincing guy. Or maybe a little bit of both. But I’m guessing it also didn’t hurt that over the years he’d given her a lot of roses.
Because as everyone who ever turns on the radio, or watches television, or opens an Internet browser around this time of year can tell you, roses are the only certain way to a woman’s heart. And a lot of people are getting the message, because florists sell somewhere around 220 million of these most magically romantic flowers for Valentine’s Day each year. Half of those are sold in the US, where 75% of the sales are to men who are, obviously, the best husbands, boyfriends, or sons a gal could ask for.
And the best of the best of those men upgrade to two dozen of the all red variety along with chocolate dipped strawberries and a free glass vase for only $59.99 as long as they order before midnight on February 12 and use promo code: Napoleon.
Because who wouldn’t want that?
Maybe most women really would. Personally, I don’t get too excited about roses or free glass vases. Don’t get me wrong, I think roses are gorgeous, and they smell good, and it’s nice to get flowers every once in a while because it’s a reminder that my man was thinking about me and wanted to make a romantic gesture.
But the primary reason the rose (which in addition to representing love has often been adopted as a political symbol) has become our Valentine flower of choice, may have more to do with the fact that we celebrate love in the middle of winter. To do so, we have to import a huge number of flowers, and as flowers go, roses are pretty hardy.
And for Napoleon, it’s a good thing they are, because his Josephine loved roses. In 1799, without consulting her husband, she purchased the run-down Château de Malmaison on 650 acres a few miles outside of Paris, and began work to establish a large rose garden.
Soon, gathering roses for Josephine’s garden became something of a national priority. Napoleon ordered the French Navy to confiscate any seeds (and, I assume, glass vases) found aboard seized vessels. And even during the height of conflict during the Napoleonic Wars, many English gardeners were given safe passage through blockades so they might deliver rose varieties to Josephine.
When in 1809, Napoleon informed his beloved that he would divorce her to marry a woman who might conceive an heir, the jilted woman sought solace at her chateau among her hardy roses. By the time of her death in 1814, Château de Malmaison boasted almost 200 varieties of roses, and her enthusiasm had begun a trend, leading to the establishment of more than 2500 varieties by 1830 in nurseries across France.
By establishing a large garden devoted to only one type of flower, Josephine elevated the rose, long valued as a sweet smelling, medicinal flower, to the status of a flower grown primarily for its beauty, especially when gathered by the dozens and presented on February 14 along with chocolate covered strawberries and a free glass vase.
And now I don’t want to sell Napoleon short (see what I did there?). I’m sure it took more than roses to convince Josephine that a divorce was the right thing to do for the good of France. Because I gotta tell you, if my man were to present me with my favorite flowers (a bouquet of seasonally available, local-ish varieties at a time when flowers are more seasonally available), and then tell me that even though I’d always be his favorite empress, we had to break up for the good of our country, I wouldn’t scream. I’d just clock him in the head with the free glass vase.
I don’t care much for Valentine’s Day. And it’s not just because I spent two days crafting sparkly paper sharks with working clothespin jaws to hold packages of Goldfish crackers for my children to give to their classmates, only to receive a note home the day before the party reminding parents that treats must be peanut and gluten free and all treat labels must be submitted to the school two weeks in advance.
I don’t actually have a problem with expressing love with a sweet note or a gift. I think remembering to do that from time to time can be really important in a relationship.
And I know Americans will do our fair share of celebrating. In fact, according to a recent National Retail Federation poll, we plan to spend an average of $133.91 on candy (peanut and gluten free, approved two weeks in advance), cards, and gifts, which translates to about $13.7 billion as a nation. A poll by the American Express Spending and Saving Tracker predicts the total will be closer to $37 billion and that half of American engagements for the entire year will occur on Valentine’s Day.
The whole thing stems from the legend of St. Valentine, a 3rd Century priest who was beheaded by command of Roman Emperor Claudius II. Known as Claudius the Cruel, the emperor had strong military aspirations, but was alarmed to find that his soldiers didn’t always share his enthusiasm. He decided the reason must be that their hearts, and their attentions, were at home with their families. The solution was simple. He banned marriage.
As you can imagine, this didn’t sit well with the young lovers of Rome, many of whom appealed to St. Valentine to marry them in secret. A sucker for romance, Valentine did marry them. Lots of them. Until Claudius found out and had the priest beheaded on February 14, 270-ish.
Okay, I admit, that’s kind of a cool story of standing up for love in the face of a blood-thirsty emperor. It’s the kind of heroic thing that ought to be commemorated. Of course, if the legend is true, and since there were at least three different saints named Valentine, and it’s not entirely clear which the story is attributed to, let’s just say it’s suspicious, then there’s still the reality that February 14th is the day in which the champion of love was beheaded.
I suppose that by celebrating love on a dark day, we honor the man who died for his belief in it. But when I think about what the legend really suggests, that love and the commitment of marriage and family is worthwhile, I’m not sure we’re celebrating it right.
If we are to believe commercials, sitcoms, and Lifetime movies (and why wouldn’t we?), then Valentine’s Day is an incredibly stressful holiday. If you have a special someone in your life, then we are led to believe that your actions, or inactions, on February 14th will make or break your relationship. If you happen not to have a special someone to send you overpriced roses, then you are required to spend the day horribly depressed. Even my seven-year-old is stressed about the day, concerned that if he gives his Valentine sharks to the little girls in his 2nd grade class, “it might give them false hope.”
I just don’t think all the crazy to-do is what the St. Valentine legend is all about. Instead, I think it’s about recognizing the kind of love that demands commitment and hard work, that requires two people to grow and change together, to consider one another always, and to demonstrate appreciation for one another without prodding from a greeting card commercial.
Now I’m not going to throw an “I Hate Valentine’s Day” party and I certainly don’t fault you if you’re among those who will be spending $133.91 (plus a little more to make up for my considerably smaller contribution). I did spend two days constructing sparkly shark Valentines and I will probably find some small way to acknowledge the day because I own a heart-shaped pan and Valentine’s Day really is the one time each year when I get to use it.
Perhaps I’ll bake a peanut- and gluten-free cake and then my family will know that I love them. Or maybe it will be a heart-shaped, gluten-filled extra gooey chewy brownie with peanut butter frosting.
In 1904, then twenty-five-year-old William Fox bought himself a nickelodeon in Brooklyn. Born in Hungary as Wilhelm Fried, Fox worked largely in the fur and garment industry before catching the movie bug. And it turned out he was pretty good at it his new chosen profession. As the popularity of silent films grew, so did young Fox’s influence. By 1913 he had opened a string of nickelodeons and was making a name for himself with his own production company.
He had a keen eye for the future of entertainment and a knack for discovering and developing the next big trend. As head of the Fox Film Company, William Fox pioneered organ accompaniment during film showings, promoted a number of bright stars, acquired patent rights to the Swiss-developed sound-on-film process, built great movie palaces, and generally rocked the cinematic world.
Alas, his success was not to last. Just as he was attempting to take over MGM, Fox became the center of an anti-trust investigation and when the stock market crashed in 1929, his domination of the movie industry began to crash along with it. When he died in 1952, not a single representative of the movie industry turned out to mourn him.
But, of course, Fox’s name lives on. His production company merged with 20th Century Pictures to become 20th Century-Fox and later mergers led to the formation of the Fox Network. Also the name of William Fox can still be found gracing the marquis of several movie palaces he had built at the height of his career in the late 1920’s, each decorated in what he called the“Eve-Leo” style.
Because his wife Eve Leo Fox had a flare for ostentatious décor, placing side-by-side objects reminiscent of artwork found in Hindu temples, Egyptian sculpture, and pretty much anything else that struck her as glitzy on her travels.
It might be fair to describe these theaters as gaudy. Or garish. Or kind of gorgeous if you’re into sensory overload and aren’t terribly concerned about the general consensus of good taste.
Which brings me to date night this past Saturday. My husband and I enjoy live theater. Now that we live close enough to grandparents to make an occasional late night possible, we’ve tried to make it to several shows, including some really wonderful productions of Broadway musicals and other such highfalutin entertainment. Some of these fancy date nights have been spent at St. Louis’s Fabulous Fox, built by William Fox in 1929 and restored in 1982.
The venue rarely functions as a movie palace these days, instead offering a range of upscale shows in the performing arts and, as we learned this past weekend, the occasional flatulent sock puppet.
We went to see Alton Brown, famous science-y, gadget-y, know-it-all food expert of Food Network fame. His tour Alton Brown Live! made a stop for a sold-out show at the Fox and I was lucky to have purchased tickets for my husband’s birthday way back last summer.
To describe this show to you would be next to impossible, except to say that the gaseous nature of yeast represented by unapologetic sock puppets played a smallish part. And that the show was charming, funny, occasionally juvenile, sort of educational, and gorgeous if you’re into sensory overload and aren’t terribly concerned about the general consensus of good taste.
I don’t know that the visionary that lent his name to the industry he loved long after it had left him behind and who ushered sound into the movies and the movies into grand palaces had this in mind when he lavishly decorated his “Eve-Leo” style theater. But I suspect that the echoes of belching sock-puppet “yeast” bouncing off elephant carvings and gargoyles might have made him smile. You know, because it’s obviously the next big trend in entertainment.