In May of 1897, American author and humorist Samuel Clemens (or Mark Twain) arrived in London as part of a lengthy world tour. There he was greeted by the news that his cousin, a Mr. James Ross Clemens, also in London, had been gravely ill.
The cousin recovered, but news spread across the ocean that Clemens had grown ill and was, in fact, on the verge of death. The news sparked tremendous worry and speculation that the beloved author would soon die.
It was Frank Marshall White with the New York Journal that finally set the record straight when he sent a cable to Twain inquiring after his health. The author replied, explaining the confusion between his identity and that of his cousin’s, reassuring White that he was perfectly healthy, and remarking that, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
Twain would go on to live almost thirteen more years after the incident, which he found kind of funny. I mean it could happen to anyone, right?
And apparently it can. Because in the wee hours of the morning, on November 11, 2016, a Facebook glitch resulted in the reported deaths of a large number of its users, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The notice, appearing with a flower icon above the cover photo of an individual’s wall, read: “Remembering [your name]. We hope people who love [your name] will find comfort in the things others share to remember [your] life.”
The glitch was fixed quickly and the company issued a statement and apology about the sad notices. Mark Zuckerberg, to the best of my knowledge, is still alive and well, and, if you were unfortunate enough to come across your own death notice, then you can rest assured that the report of your death was an exaggeration.
I don’t know whether I was counted among the dead. I wasn’t awake at the time of the glitch, but no one offered any condolences to my family so I suspect I had a lucky escape this time. And that’s something to be thankful for heading into American Thanksgiving tomorrow.
Today marks the 140th anniversary of a momentous occasion in the history of human communication. March 10, 1876 was the day Alexander Graham Bell, the sort-of inventor of the telephone, uttered into his famous device, “Come here! I want to see you!” The man who heard those words from the next room was Thomas A. Watson.
Though the message wasn’t glamorous, it was kind of genius. If Watson responded by ducking into the room, Bell would immediately know his message had been received and understood and they would know that they’d finally invented the device that would be sure to change the world.
Watson did receive the message, or at least close enough to it. He would later report that Bell had said, “Come here! I want you!” And of course, that’s how the children’s game of Telephone was invented.
Still, the world was sufficiently impressed. The well-connected Bell obtained a patent, edging out the claims of electrical engineer Elisha Gray and other telephone-like inventors who are each worthy of mention by a more thorough or trustworthy blog than this one.
But no matter where the somewhat controversial credit for the telephone’s invention should fall, there’s little question that Bell was responsible for launching it into commercial viability, maybe in part because he handled the pressure of those first words so beautifully. Because to me, that would be the most terrifying part of getting in on the invention of a communication method with the potential to take off.
I know that I couldn’t handle such pressure, because a week ago, my sons had some allowance money burning holes in their pockets. They begged me to take them to a store so they could spend some of their hard-earned cash.
What they decided to buy was a set of walkie-talkies, with a video component so they can see one another as they’re talking. It’s pretty much just a lower tech version of FaceTime, exciting for them because our family has not yet reached the era of kiddo smart phones.
They’re really pretty cool little toys and the boys have had a lot of fun with them. But that first night we brought them home, my youngest, who lacks patience for such things, disappeared to play with something else while his older brother and I figured out the new walkie-talkies. We dug them out of their many ridiculous layers of plastic packaging, installed the appropriate batteries, and followed the instructions to synch them.
Then my son ran to another room and yelled, “Say something, Mom!”
I admit that for a second or two, I panicked a little. It felt like a momentous occasion, the breaking in of brand new walkie-talkies. If I said something boring or pointless, I would definitely lose cool mom points. If, on the other hand, I took a chance and ended up saying something stupid, my words might live on in embarrassing family lore.
I briefly thought through my options:
The practical approach, like Bell’s first telephone call to Watson: “Come Here! I want to see you!” (perhaps not so practical when I can already see an image of him in the device).
The highfalutin approach, like Samuel Morse communicating from DC to Baltimore, for the first time with the telegraph: “What hath God wrought?” (sure to garner epic mockery in the annals of family history)
The seasonal approach, like that of Neil Papworth to the phone of Richard Jarvis, demonstrating the world’s first text message: “Merry Christmas” (hardly appropriate at the beginning of March)
The careless approach, like Ray Tomlinson’s 1971 note to himself in the first successful e-mail: “most likely…‘QWERTYIOP’ or something similar.” (Perhaps it will take an FBI investigation to uncover what happened to the “U”)
The taunting approach, like Motorola’s Martin Cooper to his AT&T rival Joel Engel in the first successful cell phone call: “I’m ringing you just to see if my call sounds good at your end.” (That’s just not very sportsman like.)
In the end I went with the mom approach: “Time to clean your room!” It turned out, the darn audio didn’t work. But the video worked just fine, because I clearly saw my son stick his tongue out at me before he rushed into the room and grabbed the walkie-talkie from my hand to take it to his brother.
It occurred to me that perhaps what Bell meant to say to his assistant was, “Come here! I want you…to clean up this dreadful experiment!” But Watson, being no dummy, hurried into the room with a big smile on his face. And history was made. Good thing, too, because if not, 140 years later, we might all still be communicating by terribly pretentious telegram.
On October 21, 1805, the British Royal Navy, under the leadership of Admiral Horatio Nelson, achieved what has been often identified as its most decisive naval victory of the Napoleonic Wars, at the Battle of Trafalgar. But the victory came at a price, because Admiral Nelson had been shot by a French marksman, and soon died with the words, “Thank God I have done my duty,” on his lips.
Like most important men of the era who had the misfortune to die at sea, the admiral was placed in a barrel of brandy for safekeeping on the trip home aboard his ship, Victory. Then the HMS Pickle, a schooner that had been present during the battle, was sent ahead to deliver the news that the navy had been victorious and that the admiral had been, well, pickled.
King George III was delighted with the news of the victory, but was purportedly sad to have lost Admiral Nelson, a hero whose memory lives on in the country for which he so nobly fought and died and that is still dotted with tributes to his heroism.
Perhaps the most bizarre tribute to the memory of the admiral is not a monument, however, but instead comes in the form of a tale that evolved from his final voyage, the one he took soaking in a barrel of brandy.
By the late 19th century, a strange saying had emerged from the Royal Navy. If one were caught sneaking an illicit drink, he would be said to have been “tapping the admiral.” I can almost hear you saying, “Oh, that’s where that comes from.” And now I can almost see the disgusted face you’re making as you realize what the rest of that story must entail.
Apparently, sailors flush with victory, and probably mourning the loss of friends as well, like to get their drink on. Never having served in the navy myself, I will just have to take the tale-tellers’ words for it. As the story goes, these sailors really needed to get their drink on and they weren’t about to let good brandy go to waste over one dead admiral.
As the ship sailed, the crew took turns siphoning off bits of the brandy, so much so that when the admiral finally arrived home and the barrel was opened, he was still perfectly preserved, but there wasn’t a drop of brandy left.
First of all, gross. Second of all, I think it’s pretty safe to assume it never really happened. Again, I’ve never served in the navy, but I’m acquainted with several people who have, and what I do know is that most of them like to tell tales.
Though various versions of this story are splashed across the Internet, I first encountered it a while ago in a book I was reading as part of my research for the novel I’m currently writing. And then very recently, as I was reading through another (quite different) source for the same project, I stumbled on it again.
I find that one danger of writing historical fiction is that often the story I want to write gets hijacked by my research, by the stories I find along the way (sometimes again and again) that really want to be shared, but that have no place in the book I’m working on. I’m sorry to disappoint any of you out there who might one day read my book, but Admiral Nelson and his barrel of brandy are not in it.
The story behind “tapping the admiral” is fascinating not because it’s true (again, gross), but because someone was devilish enough to make it up in the first place. And I would hate to think, dear reader, that you might someday find yourself at a party, sipping a drink (perhaps even brandy) without this story handy to pull out and share.
So here it is, one of the little legends drifting around in the great barrel that contains the tale I’d rather tell. Someday, after I’ve reached the end of the long, winding road toward a final published work, I hope you’ll enjoy the pickled remains. In the meantime, I will occasionally have to siphon off a little of the excess, because unlike the sailors who tell them, good stories should never be wasted.
If you spend much time on social media, then I’m sure I’m not the first person to wish you a happy palindrome week. In fact, I’m kind of late since it started last Thursday (4-10-14) and will be over after this Saturday (4-19-14). Of course it only works if you write the date like we do here in the US, with month/day/last two digits of the year, but I think you’re probably welcome to celebrate even if you prefer your dates in a different order.
In case you are unfamiliar with the word “palindrome,” it refers to a word or phrase that is written the same forward and backwards. A few examples are “mom,” “racecar,” and “kayak.” You get the idea. Word nerds are fascinated by them, they’ve been around for millennia, and there are examples of them in almost every language on earth.
But because it can be quite a challenge to come up with a palindrome and because the longer they are, the more nonsensical they tend to be, there are a handful of highly celebrated ones from the minds of some very clever individuals with far too much time on their hands. One of the most noted in English comes from Leigh Mercer (also celebrated for his mathematical limericks, as I’m sure you were already aware) who published in the November 13, 1948 issue of Notes & Queries: “A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!”
And boy did that get the word nerds buzzing with excitement. Mercer’s palindrome spawned numerous spin-offs, including, but certainly not limited to:
“A man, a plan, a cat, a canal – Panama!”
“A man, a plan, a cat, a ham, a yak, a yam, a hat, a canal – Panama!”
And my personal favorite: “A man, a plan, a canoe, pasta, heros, rajahs, a coloratura, maps, snipe, percale, macaroni, a gag, a banana bag, a tan, a tag, a banana bag again (or a camel), a crepe, pins, Spam, a rut, a Rolo, cash, a jar, sore hats, a peon, a canal – Panama!”
All of this nerdy word fun is generally traced back to a poet of Ancient Greece named Sotades who is credited with making the palindrome a thing. He lived during the reign of Ptolemy II in the 3rd century BC and history remembers him best as Sotades the Obscene, since the majority of his poems began “There once was a man from Nantucket.”
Eventually, Sotades decided to turn his poetic attention to the love life of Ptolemy II, which was something of a hot mess. The king didn’t like the attention and had the poet arrested and, eventually, wrapped in lead and thrown into the sea.
Despite his untimely end and the questionable subject of his poems, Sotades is remembered as a genius with words, once allegedly rewriting the Iliad in palindromic verse, presumably changing the setting to Panama. Unfortunately, I can’t post any of the poet’s work here mostly because this is a family-friendly blog, but also because it was lost to history (possibly wrapped in lead and thrown into the sea).
But his legacy has been carried on by people like Mercer and by comedian and wordplay enthusiast Demitri Martin who recently penned a 500 word palindromic poem that mentions neither Panama nor Nantucket, but is, in the tradition of Sotades the Obscene, too dirty to post on this blog. Still, it’s a pretty impressive work, because, it turns out palindrom-ing is not as easy as it looks…Dang it!
About a month ago, I irreparably broke my favorite pair of sunglasses. So that you might understand the implications of this event in my life, I should explain, I’m not really what you might call a sunglasses person.
Of course I find them useful when driving west during sunset. And if I’m going to be hanging out poolside in the summer sun for a few hours with the kiddos, I would prefer to do so while wearing a pair, but I am not the type of gal who runs out to buy the season’s hottest shades in a variety of colors to match my closetful of sundresses. I’m not really a sundress person either.
Despite that, I have owned many pairs of sunglasses in my lifetime and because I inevitably lose them, I never spend much money on them. So while I may go through as many pairs as your average Hollywood starlet, they probably don’t match the lone sundress hanging in my closet.
But this broken pair was different. You see after many years of encouragement from eye care professionals, I finally had an optometrist who got through to me. Basically, he told me that if I wanted eye cancer, then by all means, I should keep wearing cheap shades, but that if I preferred to live eye cancer-free I should buy overpriced sunglasses from him.
I bought the sunglasses.
I learned a few things from the experience:
Unless you need prescription lenses, never ever buy sunglasses from an optometrist. Or maybe it’s just that mine was the Darth Vader of optometry, but yikes, that’s a markup!
It’s amazing how easy it is to keep track of a pair of sunglasses when it represents more than a casual $10 investment.
I look much better in a sundress when I’m not squinting.
A good pair of sunglasses is worth its weight in emeralds.
This last point was even well-understood by Emperor Nero of first-century Rome who, though not described by his contemporaries as a very nice guy, was, according to Pliny the Elder, the proud owner of a nice pair of emerald shades. Or something like them anyway.
Pliny, who wrote about emeralds (in my favorite translation) that “nothing greens greener,” subscribed to the then commonly held notion that the color green was gentle on the eye and that emeralds in particular might aid in the rehabilitation of eyestrain and poor sight. So it stands to reason, then, that Nero who is known to have been nearsighted, might use emeralds, or as some have suggested, one very large emerald as a sort of looking glass to help him see better at gladiatorial contests.
At this point you might be asking, how exactly did that work? Well, I’m not sure it did. First of all, though many sunglass historians (a very narrow field) have claimed Pliny’s reference to Nero’s strange behavior as a part of sunglass history, Pliny seems actually to have suggested that Nero used the emerald as a reflective surface in which to watch the gladiator battles (the first mirrored sunglasses?) rather than as a lens through which to view them.
And then there’s Dr. David Wood, a classics professor at University College Cork in Ireland who had the audacity a few years back to suggest (fairly convincingly) that Pliny just might have misunderstood the whole bit about Nero’s amazing green goggles. The wording used by other historians of the day could have been interpreted to suggest that Nero watched the games through a slit in a curtain (the precursor of 1980’s shutter glasses) in order to hide the fact that he was too busy tweeting to pay attention.
Apparently Pliny (who didn’t seem to like Nero much) didn’t bother checking the facts. In another time, he would have made a decent practical history blogger, or, perhaps, the world’s most celebrated sunglass historian. We may never know for sure whether Nero rocked a great pair of shades, or a stylish monocle, or a weird concave green mirror type thing, because, of course, history lost them.
What I do know for sure is that over the next few weeks, spring will really be in full bloom here and after that will come summer days filled with sunshine, lazy days at the pool, and maybe even a few sundresses. With that in mind I finally ordered a new pair of sunglasses. They are coming from the same company as the broken ones, a very similar style, at about ¼ of the price I paid in Dr. Darth Vader’s office. Regardless of how much I paid for it, though, I remain convinced that a good pair of sunglasses is worth its weight in emeralds.
At the end of a narrow hallway, tucked into the corner of my basement is a little hidey hole of a room that I have claimed as a writing office. One wall has been covered with chalkboard paint thoroughly graffitied with story ideas. On the other walls hang a bulletin board plastered with notices of submission deadlines, a white board scribbled with possible blog post topics, and above my desk a beautiful photograph of an Oregon Iris given to me by a dear writer/photographer friend.
In the little wall space that remains, just above a bookcase that holds more thesauruses than any one person needs, must have, requires, has an occasion for, or isn’t able to dispense with, hangs a collection of framed quotes about writing by writers whose work has been meaningful to me from Snoopy to Mark Twain.
One of the quotes is from James Michener who once said, “I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.” As a writer who loves to read and write historical fiction, I most appreciate Michener for the depth of his works which reach beyond character, through generations, and across large expansions of time, to tell the story of the setting itself. There aren’t a lot of authors who have done that, and none more successfully than Michener.
Of course, it takes a lot of words to do it. Michener’s books are long and swirly and tangly and not for everyone. But I appreciate them because he so boldly leaves nothing out. And it works.
But there’s another approach to writing, one that is more streamlined and maybe more widely appreciated. It’s represented perhaps best by the also highly quotable Ernest Hemingway who once said, “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”
Anyone who has read Hemingway’s work knows that he pretty successfully did just that. He didn’t invent brevity in storytelling (it predates him by an awful lot of human history and oral tradition), but he did play an important role in the emergence of the short short story through the 20th century and into the 21st..
Today’s writers who are hip to the lingo generally call such stories flash fiction, a term that refers (not so precisely) to stories up to 1000 or sometimes up to 2000 words and down to as few as six.
That’s right. Six WORDS.
And this is really why Hemingway gets so much of the credit because he wrote (or didn’t write) the first six word story, complete with a beginning, middle, and end. If you don’t believe that, you’re not alone. The rumor, which can be traced all the way back to 1991 (and you know that anything that comes from 1991 is too legit to quit), is that in 1961 Hemingway was in a restaurant with a group of writer friends when he bet them $10 each that he could write a complete story in just six words. They had to cough up the cash after he wrote on his napkin: “For Sale, Baby shoes. Never worn.”
The biggest problem I see with this tale is that I don’t think anyone would be stupid enough to engage in such a wager because if a writer brags that he can come up with a six word story you can be pretty sure he’s got one in mind. The slightly smaller problem is that the event is basically unsubstantiated. Oh, and there’s evidence that the story existed in various forms well before Hemingway. Still, it’s nice to think he wrote it because it does illustrate his approach to writing.
As a reader I can appreciate both wordy authors and succinct ones. As a writer, I fall somewhere in the middle on the Michener/Hemingway scale. I love the swing and swirl of words and I will at times be unapologetically verbose. But some stories just want to be simple and it can be a fun challenge to put together a piece of flash fiction.
One such work of mine, a story entitled “Blue” has just this week been published in the online magazine 100 Word Story. As the name suggests, the works featured are exactly 100 words long. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for swirls. I hope you’ll follow the link and read not just my story, but also take the time to peruse and appreciate a few of the brief works of some talented writers who slaved away in their hidey holes to trim away all those swinging, swirly tangles of words.
In 1963, a leader for the Ozark Area Council of American Youth Hostels, Dick Leary, decided it would be a fun idea to take a nighttime bike ride through the city of St. Louis. He organized the event for a night in October and set it up to begin at midnight at Union Station. Unfortunately (because most people probably thought he was joking) Leary was the only rider to turn up.
Determined that it was still a good idea (and because I’m guessing he battled insomnia), Leary completed it himself and the next year managed to recruit a few more riders. Word started to get out and by the early 1970s thousands of participants were showing up to complete the ride every year.
Eventually, the event became known as the Moonlight Ramble, the longest-running nighttime cycling event in the world. Organized now through the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the route has changed a few times over the years, but the full course is always around 18 to 20 miles through the heart of downtown St. Louis on the early Sunday morning in August that occurs closest to the full moon.
And despite the addition of a premier riding group (personally I’m not sure how anyone can take themselves all that seriously while sporting glow necklaces snaked through their bicycle spokes), the Ramble is NOT a race (shoe clips are not allowed, nor are they advisable). It’s a ride. All ages, all ability levels, and even all manner of wheeled, human-powered vehicles are welcome. I (typically sound asleep by no later than 10:30) rode in the Ramble for the first time this year, along with my sister and a handful of her cycling buddies, most of whom had participated in the event before.
It was a gorgeous night, under the nearly full moon. The first riders took off from Busch Stadium at 12:10 (after a slight delay for traffic from the preseason Rams game). As there were probably four thousand riders, it took a while to get us all going and even with the best efforts of the St. Louis police department and an army of volunteer ride marshals, it took a bit for the remaining downtown traffic to adjust to the onslaught of bicycles (most drivers smiled to see us; a few were cranky). Once we were really going, though, I have to say it was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had in the city.
Now, I realize that this is generally a (sort of) history blog and that this particular post has thus far come up a little short in that area (unless you’re really easily satisfied and a brief reference to 1963 is enough for you), but I think I can make a case for why it still fits. And to do so, I am going to direct your attention to the expertise of Professor Kenneth Jackson who teaches the History of the City of New York at Columbia University (and who is a much more reliable source of all things history than is yours truly).
Since he began teaching the class in the late 1970s, Professor Jackson has led his students on a nighttime, five-hour bicycle tour from Columbia University to the Brooklyn Promenade. Along the way, Jackson stops at various points of interest to deliver lectures through a bullhorn to the now hundreds of students that come along for the ride.
The professor admits, however, that it is not so much the knowledge shared in his lectures that sticks with the students, but simply the experience of seeing the city in this strangely intimate way, when the moon is bright and the streets are quieter (a little bit anyway, but of course this is New York we’re talking about). One student had this to say about standing in front of Federal Hall at 4:30 AM: “In this sleepy blur I catch myself imagining that I’m there, imagining that [Professor] Jackson is Washington and we’re getting ready to start this new republic.” Another student commented: “This is the first time I feel like I’m really living in the city.”
I get that. I grew up not so far from St. Louis and I have been delighted to be back again, nearer still to what I consider “my city.” Since moving here this past February I have taken my children up in the Arch, explored the Zoo, wandered through the Botanical Garden, enjoyed the theater at both the Fabulous Fox and the outdoor Muni, and been to Busch Stadium to watch the Cardinals play more often than I should admit (I lived two entire baseball seasons in Oregon and apparently distance really does make the heart grow fonder).
After riding the Ramble, all of these different places found a home in that mental map that I always wish I was better at carrying around with me (you may recall that in a previous post I mentioned that my sense of direction is, well, okay so I don’t actually have one). I may not have learned a great deal about the history of my city on this ride, but I did get to know St Louis itself better and be a part of it in a way I never had before.
Bill Emerson said it well in 1967 when he wrote in the Saturday Evening Post: “A bicycle does get you there and more…. And there is always the thin edge of danger to keep you alert and comfortably apprehensive. Dogs become dogs again and snap at your raincoat; potholes become personal. And getting there is all the fun.”
Nighttime cycling is not perfect. The Ramble attracts all kinds of folks, the serious cyclists and the families out to make lasting memories together, but also the rowdies whose frequent beer stops make it best to avoid them. I also certainly wouldn’t recommend a nighttime ride outside of an organized event. But late night ride events and tours are popping up all over the world (Paris, London, and Moscow are just a few of the cities that I discovered offer similar experiences).
But even if you don’t own a bike (often they can be rented), haven’t ridden since you were a kid (you never forget how), or for some reason would prefer sleeping to rambling in the moonlight, consider taking some advice from Mark Twain who once learned to ride one of the old-timey high-wheeled bicycles of his day and had this to say of the experience: “Get a bicycle. You will certainly not regret it, if you live.”