Bordering on the Ridiculous

It was in 1984 when Danish Minister for Greenland Tom Høyem grabbed a bottle of schnapps, chartered a helicopter, and headed for a barren, rocky island to start a war. Smack dab in the middle of the Nares Strait, which connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Arctic and separates Greenland and Canada, the troublesome Hans Island measures a mere 1.3 square km (or about half a square mile). It has no trees, little soil, no known natural resources of any value, and is approximately 123 miles from any inhabited location.

Um, guys? You know it’s basically just a rock, right? Per Starklint, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org
/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It also contains quite a few bottles of liquor, numerous discarded Danish and Canadian flags, and disregarded signs welcoming visitors to the sovereign land of each country, placed there as a kind of snarky signal to the other that the friendliest border war in history had not yet been settled.

This tiny island was first mapped in the 1920s by Danish explorers, which led the Permanent Court of International Justice (a part of the League of Nations) to declare in 1933 that the island belonged to Denmark. Of course, since the League of Nations was dissolved, its Court of International Justice also proved less permanent than its title implied. It was replaced by the much more creatively named International Court of Justice of the United Nations, which apparently had more important things to not do.

The trouble is that Hans Island falls within the 12 miles of territorial extension from land for both Greenland (Denmark) and Canada, making it tricky to determine which country can claim it.

Weapon of war. Image by 8249023 from Pixabay

In the early 1970s, the nations decided to resolve the conflict themselves and came away from negotiations with a maritime border agreement to the north and south of the island, but didn’t manage to sort out the ownership of Hans Island itself. And so, in 1984 what the press dubbed the “Whiskey War” began.

The whole thing reminds me of when my children were small. I have two sons, two-and-a-half years apart in age. They’re teenagers now who are mostly into their own things and more or less get along most of the time. When they don’t, I’m happy to report they now have the sense to give one another some space. That was not always the case.

I remember one day, at least a decade ago, they had such a hard time leaving one another alone that my husband came home from work to find that I had put painters’ tape on the floor and literally divided the house in two. Each had access to a bathroom and his own bedroom and was not allowed, under any circumstances, to cross even a toe into the other’s territory.

An exhausted, fed-up mom could have solved this problem much faster.

By the time their dad walked through the door, the boys were kind of desperate to resume playing together in a more cooperative manner, and I was ready for a bottle of schnapps.

It took Denmark and Canada until 2005 to decide that some kind of painters’ tape solution might work, and another seventeen years after that to hammer out the details. I’m happy to be able to report that just a few weeks ago, they finally did it. On June 13 of this year, foreign ministers of each country exchanged bottles of whiskey and signed an agreement that will divide Hans Island in two.

The solution comes now, according to Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly, as an example to Russian President Vladimir Putin that border disputes don’t have to be violent. Maybe. Or maybe it says that given a decade or four, most arguments can be resolved with a roll of painters’ tape and plenty of schnapps. But I am glad Canada and Denmark finally got it figured out.

New Zealand Rips a Big One

Those of you who have followed this blog for a long time may have noticed that rarely does it venture into topics that could be considered very serious. You may have even wondered at times why a thoughtful writer such as myself would mostly avoid using my platform, which includes tens of people, to discuss the things that really matter.

Well, thanks to the nation of New Zealand and its necessary and impactful attention to a dangerous problem facing the entire world, I have reconsidered. That’s right, the time has come for us to have a critical conversation in this space about farts.

This cow clearly smelled it. And we all know what that means. Image by Brigitte Werner from Pixabay

While absent through much of this blog’s own history, passing gas has been on the minds of humanity for millennia. This truth was revealed by the 2008 discovery of an ancient fart joke carved upon a Sumerian tablet that dates to around 1900 BC, making it the oldest joke so far discovered.

Other notable moments in the history of flatulence include a god in the mythology of the Innu people of Eastern Quebec and Newfoundland who communicates exclusively through the breaking of wind, the alleged Pythagorean belief that a careless person could accidentally fart out his soul, and a series of Japanese art pieces from the early 19th century depicting, probably satirically, battling samurais cutting a lot of cheese.

But Samurais were far from the only people to have killed with a good toot. Both first century Roman Jewish historian Josephus and the Ancient Greek writer Herodotus, known as the Father of History and Some Stuff He Mostly Made Up, attributed large, deadly battles to the offensiveness of well-timed flatus.

St. Augustine had a slightly more positive view of gaseous emanations, suggesting in his 5th century work The City of God that evidence of perfect bodily control as would have been enjoyed before the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden is that some people can produce song through their flatulence. We probably all have that one friend.

This is what it looks like to have the power to destroy the world. Image by Frauke Feind from Pixabay

For the most part, passing gas has always been a little bit funny and kind of rude and, apparently incredibly destructive. At least that is what New Zealand law makers have decided. It’s long been rumored that livestock farts are one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases and in New Zealand, where people are outnumbered by cows two to one and by sheep more than five to one, the best way to combat the problem is, obviously, to tax the livestock. And so that is the plan, according to Climate Change Minister and apparent savior of Planet Earth James Shaw.

Now, I can almost hear the objections of you naysayers out there whining about the financial burden on farmers and ranchers. You may even go so far as to suggest that the effects of this move will certainly trickle out through the economy, transforming the industry into something much less sustainable and, as other nations follow New Zealand’s bold lead, ultimately contributing to the problems of already threatened global food supply chains.

To that I say that ridding the world of farts was never going to be easy. It was always going to require determination and sacrifice. Like all things worth doing, and most things that aren’t worth doing at all, it will come only at great cost. I’m sure we can all agree that it’s time for the cows to pay up.

A Big Butt in the White House: A Story of the Bustle

When twenty-one-year-old Frances Folsom became the youngest first lady in US history on June 2, 1886 at the only presidential wedding ever held in the White House, she also became something of a fashion icon. Yes, Grover Cleveland was twenty-seven years older than her and had known her as a baby, but no one was thinking about how skeevy that might have been because boy could she rock a bustle.

Check out the bustle on that bride! Frances Folsom marries President Grover Cleveland, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Renowned French fashion designer Charles Worth dressed her in a heavy ivory satin, silk, and muslin gown, trimmed in orange blossoms and draped over a birdcage-like bustle. Okay, some people might have been thinking about the kind of creepy age difference between the president and his choice, but everyone agreed she was a beautiful bride. And the event served as a much needed boon for the ever-important bustle.

New Yorker Alexander Douglas patented the bustle in 1857, but it didn’t gain much traction until Worth, who never actually had to wear one, began incorporating it into his designs a few years later. Then by the end of the 1870s, the popularity of this peculiar fashion accessory had waned as even the most fashion-forward of women decided they might like to occasionally be able to sit down.

Charles Worth wasn’t ready to give up on it yet and pushed to bring back the exaggerated tushy in the early to mid-1880s. Thanks in part to the new Mrs. Cleveland, it worked. But then just two years into her stint as first lady, an article in the Atlanta Constitution mentioned that Mrs. Cleveland had decided she was done with bustles.

Frances Cleveland sitting comfortably without a bustle. Anders Zorn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Women throughout the US breathed a collective sigh of relief as, for the first time in a few years, they boarded trains and entered crowded public spaces without fear of knocking someone over with their accentuated keisters.

The bizarre thing was that, though women throughout the United States were happily removing these pointless additions to their wardrobes, Mrs. Cleveland hadn’t yet gotten the memo. She entered one of her favorite Washington Department stores and asked for a bustle, only to be shown the Atlanta Constitution article, in which a reporter had taken it upon himself to declare the first lady’s shift in fashion choices. I guess it was a slow news day.

Frances Cleveland took the article in stride saying, “I suppose I shall have to adopt the style to suit the newspapers.” She took her dresses in the next day to be altered for wear by a woman without a comically poofy backside. She was happy enough to let it go.

Before all the fashion historians get mad at me, I realize that not all bustles were probably incredibly uncomfortable. But some of them looked like this. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

No one seemed particularly upset to let bustles become a thing of the past, as they hadn’t really served much of a purpose to begin with, and life was certainly a lot easier when one didn’t have to worry about tucking a bird cage into one’s skirt in order to appear in public.

What Charles Worth thought of the development I don’t know. I assume he was a little annoyed. Perhaps he even attempted to preserve his power over the fashion industry by suggesting that one or two layers of bustle should still be worn. Unfortunately for him, the people seemed inclined to follow the guidance that made the most sense to them and more and more women began sitting comfortably wherever they pleased.

Regardless of how relevant the influential designer might have felt, or how much he had once enjoyed the confidence of the White House and important people, the air had gone out of his overinflated posteriors. The citizens had had enough. They’d taken off their bustles and weren’t keen to put them back on, even on public transportation. In 1888, the occupants of the White House were pretty much okay with that. 

A Conflict Among the Stars

Three hundred fourteen years ago today on March 31, 1708, well-known astrologist, physician, and former shoemaker John Partridge died right on schedule. The prediction of his “infallible death” had been published earlier that year in a letter written by a man called Isaac Bickerstaff, who then at the prescribed date, also published a clever rhyming eulogy.

Turns out the pen really is mightier than the slap.

No one was more surprised by the timely demise of Partridge than the man himself who returned home from a trip shortly after the report to discover that even those he knew well had heard and were so convinced by the news that he had a hard time persuading them that he was, in fact, still alive. When he wrote an article explaining that he had not died, Bickerstaff quickly answered with an admonition for the rogue that would write so insensitively of the dead.

As mean-spirited as Bickerstaff’s pronouncement might have been, from one perspective, Partridge may have earned it. He was a self-proclaimed reformer of astrology who published an annual almanac in which he regularly and erroneously predicted the deaths of renowned individuals. He was also somewhat outspoken against the Church and in his 1708 almanac had referred satirically to it as the “infallible Church.”

Partridge, who lived another six or seven years after Swift’s pen killed him off, and whose precise date of death is unknown, which might also be Swift’s fault. He’d probably have preferred a public slap. See page for author, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The barb settled uncomfortably on Isaac Bickerstaff, which was a pseudonym of the highly offended writer, satirist, astrology skeptic, and Anglican cleric Jonathan Swift. In the moment, Swift decided against charging the stage and slapping the spit out of Partridge and instead chose to give the man a taste of his own medicine by predicting his death.

Swift’s revenge was definitely effective. After the news spread that the prediction had been spot on, Partridge coincidentally also found himself in a dispute with his publisher that led to the discontinuation of his almanac for a few years. When he finally did attempt to re-emerge, he found his reputation damaged beyond repair. Some astrology enthusiasts even suggest that it was this prank of Swift’s that led to a general discrediting of the entire field that lasted through the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries.

So, maybe the satirist who once modestly proposed that the most sensible solution to Irish poverty was to eat babies, pushed it a little too far this time. Comedy can, after all, be a hit or miss, depending on context and perspective and perhaps whether or not one’s spouse has a penchant for the dramatic and a mean right slap.

The Overheard Musings of a Milkmaid

It was in the middle of the 18th century when, as a boy, English physician Edward Jenner overheard a conversation that would one day save countless lives. What he overheard was a milkmaid explaining to someone that she would never have to worry about the disfigurement of the dreaded smallpox because she’d had a case of the much milder disease cowpox.

Surely it struck the young man as strange that this probably fairly uneducated woman believed her life, and her beauty, may have been saved by a cow, but the notion stuck with him as he grew. On May 14, 1796, Jenner inoculated an eight-year-old with cowpox laced pus. The boy ended up with a short-lived mild fever and some temporary general malaise, but was otherwise fine. Then two months later, Jenner exposed the boy to smallpox, and he developed no symptoms at all.

This woman will not be getting smallpox. Paulus Potter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Jenner called his discovery “vaccinia,” derived from the Latin word for cow. He wrote up his findings, published them as An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, presented them to the Royal Society, and faced ridicule from renowned naturalist Sir Joseph Banks and other very important men.

But some listened and experimented and discovered the same result. Edward Jenner, on the overheard musings of a milkmaid, had discovered a way to prevent smallpox infection that proved significantly safer than inoculation with the smallpox virus itself, which was a practice frequently undertaken by those who wanted to reduce their chance of dying from smallpox to one in forty from twelve in forty.

Edward Jenner, no longer a child, and still eavesdropping on milkmaids. John Raphael Smith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One physician thought the newfangled vaccine promising enough, that he sent Jenner’s work to an American colleague by the name of Benjamin Waterhouse, who served as Professor of Theory and Practice of Physic at Harvard Medical School. The American physician was so impressed by the research that on July 8, 1802, he vaccinated both a household servant and Waterhouse’s own five-year-old son, fortunately with great success. He would later go on to vaccinate his entire household and quite a few relatives in order to, according to him, “convince the faithless and silence the mischievous.”

Excited, Waterhouse next set up Board of Health trials in which vaccination by the cowpox-causing virus proved overwhelmingly preventative of smallpox infection. He faced as much resistance and ridicule as Jenner had, but he did have a powerful ally in then president Thomas Jefferson who sent him a fan letter in which he wrote: “Future nations will know by history only that the loathsome smallpox has existed and by you has been extirpated.”

Benjamin Waterhouse, a man who thankfully wasn’t too concerned about the ethical questions surrounding experimenting on one’s own 5-year-old son. Rembrandt Peale, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Jefferson may have been a little bit premature in his statement, but through the continued efforts of Waterhouse and Jenner a skeptical population both in the US and England, and eventually throughout the world, increasingly sought vaccination. Then in 1980, the World Health Organization declared smallpox officially eradicated.

Gone. A disease that some historians estimate killed as many as two billion people throughout history is gone because of a gossiping milkmaid, an eavesdropping boy, and the influence of a committed community of medical professionals and those who trusted them.

I’m not a vaccine expert, though I’m glad to say I have more education than the average 18th century milkmaid. What I do know is that the more opportunity viruses have to thrive, the more opportunity there is for variations to occur, and the more opportunity there is that one of those variations may not be thwarted by the vaccines we currently have. I also have many medical professionals in my life, all of whom are fans of vaccination in general, and right now, of the Covid-19 vaccines specifically.

United States Census, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I wouldn’t pretend that I could dispense medical advice, and I am well aware that every individual has a unique medical history and set of concerns that can produce a whole host of questions I might not even think to ask. And I know there’s a lot of confusing information out there. I also believe that how my fellow Americans want to live their lives is how they should live their lives. I get all of that.

So, I will not dispense advice or debate with you about whether or not you should get vaccinated against Covid-19. I won’t even consider you faithless or try to silence your mischief if you decide not to. All I will say, for whatever it may be worth, is that the members of my household, consisting of me, two teenage sons, and my husband who is a medical professional, have been vaccinated against Covid-19.

I’m grateful we had the opportunity and that we took advantage of it. I’m grateful that most of my extended family are vaccinated as well. I’m grateful for all those around me who have also done so. I’m grateful for cows and milkmaids, for Edward Jenner and Benjamin Waterhouse, and for the medical professionals who have made our most recent miraculous vaccines possible.

And if you have the opportunity to get vaccinated against Covid-19, I am so very grateful for that, too.

Looking to the Skies

On the night of February 20, 1954, while he was vacationing in Palm Springs, California, then US President Dwight Eisenhower disappeared. Fortunately, he reappeared the next morning and attended a church service in Los Angeles as scheduled, but there were several hours during which the president’s whereabouts couldn’t be accounted for.

Does this look like a man with a toothache? Dwight D. Eisenhower, official photo portrait, May 29, 1959.jpg, White House. Public Domain.

According to the president, his staff, his wife Mamie, and one bleary-eyed dentist, Eisenhower’s absence could be explained by the need for an emergency dental procedure following a tooth cap mishap at dinner. I think, however, it might be worth considering another possibility.

According to conspiracy theorists, a bunch of people who refer to themselves as UFOlogists, and the son of a US Navy Commander witness, what actually happened that night was that the president traveled to nearby Edwards Air Force base for a clandestine meeting with some blue-eyed aliens.

To be clear, I am not suggesting this other possibility has a great deal of merit or anything. I count myself pretty firmly in the camp that assumes if there is life on other planets, its only use for us is as the villainous visitors in stories about midnight abductions and anal probes. That’s assuming that said aliens possess anuses, which I certainly wouldn’t swear to.

But I do think it’s fun to talk about the possibility of aliens, because there’s an awful lot of scary stuff happening on this planet—stuff that divides all of us humans with our widely varied cultural outlooks, political ideologies, and beliefs about the universe and our place within it. In light of all that, alien life still seems like a relatively safe, apolitical, uniting topic.

Actually, I bet aliens don’t have anuses. That’s probably why they spend so much time probing ours. Image by Daniela Realpe from Pixabay

And maybe that’s the reason that all of the mainstream media outlets in the US suddenly decided last week to spend their time talking about UFOs and alien visitations. UFOs, known to people in the know who do not refer to themselves as UFOlogists as UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomena), have evidently been appearing to military pilots. Frequently. For years.

So says Luis Elizondo, alleged former member of a super-secret government Pentagon project called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program and former president and armchair UFOlogist Barack Obama. At least one of those sources seems credible. And actually, both kind of do, because neither has said that we have definite proof of extra-Earth astronauts (which those of us schlubs outside the UFOlogist and secret government communities simply refer to as aliens).

What they’ve said is that sometimes we see stuff and upon further inspection, we’re still left scratching our heads. Personally, I am in favor of a Pentagon project to figure out what all these pilots are looking at and if Congress wants a little more information coming up next month, I’m okay with that, too.

I’m not sure why it all had to be super-secret, or why it suddenly has to claim top billing in the news cycle, but I don’t mind amid all the chaos down here on Earth, taking a little time to look at the skies. It’s significantly less worrisome up there. Because if we can believe the UFOlogists (and why wouldn’t we?), Eisenhower worked out a treaty with our alien visitors back in 1954.

Confessions of a Box Hoarder

In 1840, the French village of Valréas discovered its destiny. That’s when this little town, which self-identifies as the totally brag-worthy “cardboard capital of the world,” got into the business of moth transport. What they discovered is that cardboard boxes provided the best packaging option for shipping the silk-producing Bombyx mori moth and it became their number one business.

In fact, the people of Valréas are so serious about their boxes that the town is also home to the Musée du Cartonnage et l’Imprimerie (the Cardboard and Printing Museum), which I’m sure you’ll rush right out to see as soon as travel becomes a thing people do again. I probably won’t go, but I wouldn’t mind if you pick me up a brochure.

Though it may be the proudest of the humble cardboard box, Valréas is not its originator. Not surprisingly, the first cardboard comes from China which can also lay claim to the earliest examples of paper and it was about 1817 when the English began using kind of flimsy cardboard boxes commercially.

I mean, you could put anything in there. Even moths. photo credit: Creativity103 Emptied cardboard box via photopin (license)

The corrugated cardboard box that we all know and love today appeared on the scene at the beginning of the 20th century, not long after New York paper bag producer Robert Gair accidentally cut thousands of paper bags in a machine that should have been folding them. The accident occurred in 1879 and led Gair to realize that with some adjustments his machine it could be made to produce foldable boxes.

By 1900, wooden shipping boxes had been largely replaced by the sturdy, lightweight, recyclable alternative that today carries backordered toilet paper directly to the front doors of homes all over the world, protects breakable cargo from damage caused by the rough and tumble world of shipping a thing from here to there, and needlessly stacks up in my basement for years and years and years.

My family has more or less settled in the St. Louis area where we’ve been for about eight years now, but in the earlier years of my marriage we moved a lot. That required a lot of boxes and it caused us to develop a habit. Every time we’ve purchased something big, my husband has saved the box.

Not an actual picture of my basement, but this box shortage might be my fault. Well, that little girl might have helped, too. photo credit: fudj P1070917 via photopin (license)

It’s not entirely fair for me to throw him under the bus here, because I am a willing accomplice in the crazy. And it wasn’t crazy when we were moving every few years. But now that we’re settled, and have a basement large enough to accommodate the original boxes of every piece of electronic equipment we’ve ever owned (some of which have been replaced), I admit I had begun to question whether we should consider downsizing the box collection.

And then I learned something really interesting. Yes, something interesting about cardboard boxes. I’m getting to it, I promise.

The first thing I learned (on Facebook of all places because that’s where there are so many true things to learn) is that I have a friend in the cardboard box business. The second (and this really is the interesting part) is that we are currently experiencing a worldwide cardboard box shortage. True story. As if toilet paper and coins weren’t bad enough.

And though I (and probably you) haven’t spent much time thinking about the cardboard box (except when I’m unnecessarily tucking them onto a shelf in the basement), it’s kind of a big deal. That’s according to both the BBC and my friend who sells boxes. For some reason the American media has been somewhat silent on the whole matter. Perhaps they just haven’t seen the enormous entertainment value of cardboard boxes.

Whatever the American media might think, the cardboard box is indisputably entertaining. So says the National Toy Hall of Fame which inducted it in 2005. photo credit: juhansonin Udo finds Viggo via photopin (license)

Here’s the problem. The pandemic has led to a rapid increase in online shopping and home delivery. That means products that used to arrive in large boxes at stores that broke them down and baled them into neat, clean stacks to be quickly recycled, now arrive on our porches in larger numbers of small boxes which uses more material. There they sit in all kinds of weather, to occasionally fall under attack by dogs and eventually be torn open without much care. Then they’re either piled up in the basement or tossed into the garage where they are contaminated with grease and who knows what else before maybe being recycled a month or so from now.

In an industry where recycled material typically makes up at least 75% of every new product, that’s turning out to be a serious material shortfall. And while big online retailers are managing okay by buying out the cardboard box market, smaller companies are really struggling to package their goods. And I don’t even want to know what it’s doing to the moth shipping business. To quote my friend, it’s “a brutal time to be a box salesman.”

It turns out, boxes are the hot ticket item right now, and while I totally missed out on the hoarding of hand sanitizer, masks, canned food, bread, and toilet paper, I am way ahead of the curve on this box hoarding thing.

So, fear not. If you’re waiting for that backordered thing (or boxful of moths) that can’t get to you because there aren’t any shipping boxes, I got you. I’ll clean out the basement and garage and head to the cardboard recycling drop-off today. I mean, I’ll keep a few of the really important ones. And I won’t get to it today. It’s really cold and awfully snowy outside. But I’ll do it soon. Probably.

The Title of this Post has Been Censored

In March of 1919, noted socialist activist Kate Richard O’Hare, fresh from the Missouri State Penitentiary where she had been briefly imprisoned for interfering with military recruitment through her anti-war speech, arrived in Des Moines, Iowa where she was scheduled to speak at the public library auditorium.

There she was denied the right to present by city librarian Forrest Spaulding who claimed the auditorium had been booked under false pretenses, stating “I believe that I have the support of the large majority of citizens of Des Moines whose interests I am endeavoring to serve.”

I don’t doubt that he was correct about a majority supporting him, but I question his assertion that he was serving their best interests by denying space for a perspective many might have found unpalatable. And it turns out, he probably questioned it, too.

Because by 1940, his tune had changed dramatically. That’s when a local minister approached him about banning Hitler’s Mein Kampf from the library shelves, to which Spaulding responded, “If more people had read Mein Kampf, some of Hitler’s despotism might have been prevented.” It wasn’t the material that frightened him nearly as much as the “small minds” who wished to prevent others from engaging intellectually with controversial ideas.

Go ahead and read it, you rebel you. photo credit: covs97 Banned books display via photopin (license)

He was also pretty outspoken against the frequent banning of Grapes of Wrath, for which I am grateful because it was one of the better books I was required to read in high school. And it was the fight over access to that book that led the American Library Association in 1939 to adopt the Library Bill of Rights, a slightly more generalized version of the one created specifically for the Des Moines Library by Forrest Spaulding in November of 1938.

The wording of that document has been tweaked a little through the years, but it’s still going strong and you should click here and read it, because it’s important. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Image by Prettysleepy from Pixabay

Now, this is more or less an apolitical blog. As a writer who is not apolitical in my personal life, I do try very hard to keep it that way. I think there should be some places where we all can just have fun. But about this one issue I will shout loudly from every corner of every platform I ever have the opportunity to occupy.

Censorship is the death of freedom. And willfully ignoring or silencing the voices on the other side of an argument only leads to increased violence and instability. That’s not a Democrat or Republican thing. That’s a human thing.

Politically speaking, we’re still going through a rough patch here in the US. It’s been building for a long while and for a lot of reasons and it’s erupted in violence and destructive behavior more in the past few years than it had for quite a while. I think it’s safe to say that no matter our individual political bents, that’s kind of scary.

I remain optimistic that we’ll eventually weather it okay, not without fallout of course, but hopefully with the opportunity to move forward and be better. However, I am absolutely convinced that it will only get rougher if we silence one another.

Librarians are seriously some of my favorite people. photo credit: nataliesap Banned Books Week display via photopin (license)

And so, I ask you, please listen and consider, especially when those you tend to agree with are saying you shouldn’t. Turn on the channels you have a hard time watching, reach out to your friends who post things that make you want to block them, read the books and articles by authors you aren’t sure you trust, and look up the actual wording of the speeches of those politicians you wouldn’t mind seeing thrown out of office.  

Don’t do this because you’ll likely find something to agree with them on. You might. You might not. Don’t do it because it will feel good. Because it probably won’t.

Do it because the humanity of the person on the other side of the argument matters as much as your own. Do it because they don’t really understand how you reached your conclusions, either, and maybe in the act of listening and considering, you both might see that your differing perspectives don’t actually make you all that different from one another.

It’s not too late to be part of the solution, even if we’ve failed in the past.

Forrest Spaulding once disallowed a speech by someone many of his library patrons would have found disagreeable. And by the standards he himself later laid out, that was the wrong thing to do. He then went on to speak out against censorship and was included on the American Library Association’s list of the hundred most important library leaders of the 20th century.

I know you may not think that such a list is a big deal, but I bet that like me, you know a few great librarians. So, consider that Mrs. G., the wonderful children’s librarian in my hometown when I was a kid, is not on that list. This is the woman who listened to me drone on and on about the books she’d probably read a hundred times because she knew that a reader becomes a thinker and a thinker becomes a person who can stand up and speak for the rights of all. That made a difference in my life and, I’m guessing, in a lot of lives. And she’s not even in the top 100.

And this is where I tell you that this morning, I very nearly decided to pull this post and replace it with a sillier, lighter re-run from the Practical Historian archives. Ah, the irony.

But next week will be sillier.

Facebook to Ban Benjamin Franklin for Inciting Violence

On October 22 of 1730 The Pennsylvania Gazette ran a truly incendiary story. It was an account of a good old-fashioned witch trial, and it displayed a great deal of unforgivable misjudgment on the part of the newspaper to run it at all.

Two defendants, a male and female stood accused, but were clever enough to willingly subject themselves to the trial on the condition that two of their accusers stood with them. The four, then, were first weighed against the largest Bible anyone could find. As everyone surely knows, the Bible will outweigh any soulless witch. Of course, it didn’t. Not even the smallest of them.

That’s a witch if I ever saw one. Or at least one of these people probably is. unattributed, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The next part of the trial, before six hundred peers of the accused, took place at the mill pond since, logically, witches float. The two men and two women were bound and dunked. If they drowned, then they clearly couldn’t be witches. If they managed to surface, they’d best be burned at the stake.

But that didn’t go exactly as planned, either. The first to surface was the male accuser who explained that if he was a witch, he certainly had no knowledge of it. It’s hard to fault a guy for that. And then there were the ladies whose flimsy shifts must surely have made them more buoyant, as 18th century women’s clothing tended to do. The appropriate decision was made to postpone the trial for a warmer day when the ladies could be presented naked, just to reassure the crowd of highly proper Puritans that nothing improper was going on.

Because the article was clearly entirely factual, not satirical in the least bit, and inflamed such violence against, well someone, probably, Facebook decided to take it down and immediately suspend any ability for The Pennsylvania Gazette to share content on its massive and far-reaching platform.

Yes, that Benjamin Franklin. He was much funnier than he looks. By David Martin – The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9390044

Obviously, I jest. As far as I know Facebook never did any such thing to The Pennsylvania Gazette or to the author of the satirical “A Witch Trial at Mount Holly.” That author happened to be the young polymath Benjamin Franklin who would go on to help birth a nation, invent bifocals, and make questionable choices regarding electricity and poultry. He also was fond of writing satire and of making a little fun of the hypocrisy in Puritan culture.

And in 1730, Facebook could take a joke.

But apparently not in 2020.

This past week, Facebook removed a post by the Babylon Bee, a publication that, to the best of my knowledge, has never electrocuted a turkey and has only ever been known as a satire site. We’re talking really silly stuff here, like the recent articles: “Senators Vow to Hold Big Tech Accountable by Flying them to D. C. and Saying Mean Things to Them” and “Embarrassed Pope Realizes He’s Been Reading the Bible Upside Down this Whole Time.”

To be fair, neither of those is the really disturbing article that made Facebook demonetize the Babylon Bee’s page with cries that their article incites violence. The truly dangerous post was about the entirely factual senate confirmation hearing for supreme court nominee Amy Coney Barrett in which she was accused of being a witch by Senator Hirono of Hawaii, who is wise in the ways of science, and who insisted the nominee’s soul be weighed against a duck.

Oh wait, that can’t be right. That’s a schtick from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You know, I bet Senator Hirono didn’t even say anything about Amy Coney Barrett being a witch just because she has so much poise and apparently no need for notes in order to answer hard-hitting questions that she literally legally cannot answer.

Huh. I see what they did there. That’s clever. It’s probably even worth a chuckle. And violence. So much violence. Actually, I am feeling a little incited here. Thank goodness for Facebook’s censorship, or who knows what I might do.

Well, what I might do is get put into Facebook prison for this post, which frankly, would be a badge of honor. So feel free to share away, and let’s just see what happens.

The Official Flaming Underpants of the 2020 Covid Olympics

This week our local schools revealed their plans for the fall. There are as many different approaches as there are school districts involved, but the one thing that is fairly consistent is that if students return to the classroom, they’ll be wearing face masks.

It’s going to take some adjustment and patience, but I suspect most kids will do okay with this. Image by Leo Fontes from Pixabay

I don’t think that comes as such a shock. Also this week, most stores in our area began requiring masks inside, a mandate that has not come from our governor in the state of Missouri, but has been left up to county health officials, local governments, and business owners. A good number of people were wearing them anyway, but now it’s official policy.

That’s led to a little bit of grumbling, as there are still some people who question the practice, but for the most part, the folks in my little corner of the world are handling any conflicts with calm discussion and a touch of humor.

Mostly, we talk about underwear.

It’s all over my social media feeds as clever memes that draw parallels between wearing a face mask and wearing a bra or panties or boxer briefs. A mask, they say, should be treated like underwear—it should be kept dry, worn clean, and not adjusted in public. Many ladies add to the discussion by proudly proclaiming that even though it’s uncomfortable and kind of a pain, they wear a bra in public for the benefit of others. Unfortunately, outside of social media, and in the sticky summer St. Louis heat, the resolve of some seems to fall away and that particular metaphor doesn’t always hold.

But the point is still valid. And what else do we have to talk about?

One of many great disappointments in 2020. photo credit: Tim Schofield IMG_0965 via photopin (license)

Because on this day in 2020, when the world should be sharing in the celebration of the parade of nations and the end of the Olympic torch relay at the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, instead we’re sharing a virus.

And when we should be watching with pride as the torch is run into an Olympic stadium filled with the best elite athletes the world has to offer, anticipating gymnastics floor routines, swimming medley relays, and (in my household particularly) epic fencing bouts, we’re stuck instead with endless conversations about the fallout of Covid-19. And underwear.

In 1956, the topics actually overlapped, because that’s when the great underwear torch relay occurred. The Olympic torch, of course, is the symbol of connection and continuity from the Olympics of Ancient Greece and the modern-day event, which draws the world together in a spirit of friendly competition, cooperation, and good fun.

I can’t help but wonder how many people have touched this and whether or not their hands were clean. PublicDomainPictures, via Pixabay

The relay, however, which sees the lighted torch carried from Olympia, Greece to the host city, making appearances in cities around the world on the way, has much shallower roots, only dating back to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. It was a tradition begun by Nazis.

For this and probably lots of other geopolitical reasons, the torch relay and the torch itself, has at times been the target of protests. In 1956, one such protest carried out by eight students from St. John’s College at the University of Sydney, involved a fake torch made from a silver-painted wooden chair leg, a plum pudding can, and a flaming pair of underpants.

Approximating the dress of an official torch runner, and accompanied by a uniformed buddy on a motorcycle, one student carried the flaming drawers ahead of the official torch and even managed to hand it off to then Lord Mayor of Sydney Pat Hills, who, flustered at the earlier than expected arrival of the torch, proceeded to give a prepared speech to an expectant crowd. By the time he learned of the deception, the student had disappeared.

The real torch did make its way to the handoff at Sydney Town Hall amid a little bit of mayhem. It went on from there to Melbourne where it burned brightly over the Olympic Games that year. The student who’d handed off the flaming underwear, a young man named Barry Larkin, went on to establish a successful veterinary practice, and as is so often the case, no one really seems to know what he and his friends were actually protesting.

photo credit: pburka Mask required via photopin (license)

But I suppose people will always find a reason to get a little riled up. It might be that we disagree with the way our local school districts have decided to try to navigate an impossible situation. Or it might be that we have deep-rooted personal beliefs about whether or not people should be required to wear face masks into WalMart.

I wish we could all be watching the Olympics. But I guess instead we’ll talk about underwear.