That Thing I Just Had

The other day, I stumbled across an article posted by Smithsonian Magazine about an Ancient Egyptian sock. This toddler-size, striped sock has been a part of the collection of the British Museum for more than a century, but recently it has resurfaced as an object of interest for researchers.

The sock was originally discovered in 1913 or 14 by Englishman John de Monins Johnson during an excavation in the ancient city of Antinopolis on the east bank of the Nile. Described in the article as a papyrologist, Johnson was most likely hoping to find examples of ancient writing that he could spend years poring over. He wasn’t looking for a sock.

single sock
I also can’t stop wondering what happened to the other sock.

But if Johnson was a parent, I can imagine he wasn’t terribly surprised by the discovery. There’s no way I could count the number of times I’ve been looking for that thing I just had* and found instead a kid’s carelessly discarded sock(s).

I have great kids. I really do. My boys are now eleven and thirteen and they both work hard at school, and are kind and generous and respectful. At this point in their young lives they can claim quite a few life skills, too. They are capable of doing laundry, preparing a few recipes, or mowing the lawn.

socks
These are not my keys.

But they are both guilty of constantly kicking off their socks and leaving them for their exasperated mother to find. Their stinky socks are crammed in between the couch cushions, left under the kitchen table, wedged under mattresses, and crumpled on the floorboard of the car. Occasionally I even find them in the back yard. It’s enough to drive any mama completely mad.

Please don’t tell me if I’m wrong, but I suspect this source of aggravation is universal. The Egyptian mama whose little kiddo lost her stripy toe sock (that was probably worn with sandals, which presumably also got lost), was surely exasperated that for the three hundred and eighty-third time that day, little Ahhotep had kicked off her booty.

toes
When your toes are this cute, socks are optional. photo credit: light2shine Feets via photopin (license)

Of course, no parent wants to leave a trail of socks wherever they go, but when kids are little, it’s also kind of cute to see them wiggle and struggle until those adorable chubby toes are exposed for all the world to enjoy. When they’re tween/teenagers, it’s less cute.

So when I read what should really be a fascinating article about researchers using a noninvasive scanning technique to learn about the types of dyes used in the manufacturing of Ancient Egyptian clothing, all I could think about was that stupid lone sock, stuffed into the couch cushions at the British Museum for the last hundred years.

It’s possible I lost the point. I’m pretty sure I just had it and then set it down somewhere. I’ll have another look at the article and see if I can pick it up again. But I’ll probably just find that same cast-aside sock.
*This could be (but is certainly not limited to): keys, book, purse, pen, phone, remote control, scissors, shoe, grocery list, my marbles

Yes! Wonderful Things! Fashionable Man-Cardigans and the Mannequin Challenge

In 1907, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon hired Egyptologist Howard Carter to aid him in his excavations in the Valley of the Kings. Carter worked for years, with a brief break caused by World War I, but it wasn’t until November 4, 1922, with Lord Carnarvon growing impatient and about to pull the plug on the whole operation, Carter got his big break.

That’s when he found stairs that led to a tomb he thought likely to be undisturbed. On November 26th, with the excited Lord Carnarvon by his side, Carter chiseled a small hole leading to the antechamber of the young, and fairly insignificant King Tutankhamun. When asked if he saw anything, the Egyptologist answered, “Yes! Wonderful things!”

It took months to catalogue everything in the antechamber and it wasn’t until 1932 that Carter was finished removing the thousands of wonderful things buried with the pharaoh. Among those were musical instruments, chariots, weapons, and a mannequin.

449px-mannequin_of_tutankhamun
Life-size bust of Tutankhamun, found in his tomb. And possibly, the world’s oldest fashion mannequin. By Jon Bodsworth [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons
At least that’s the purpose Carter suggested for the life-size, armless bust of King Tut, that it was used to model his jewelry, and robes, and fashionable man-cardigans. And dating from around 1350 BC, it may have been among the first of its kind.

Since then mannequins have gone through a number of changes. They’ve been life-size dolls shipped between European Aristocracy to exchange fashion trends, whicker dress-forms, and awkward 300-hundred pound sculptures with false teeth, glass eyes, and real hair.

At times they’ve been made from easily melted wax, have become the celebrated date on the arms of the occasional disturbed artist, and have come to life as the love interest in a bad eighties movie. Mannequins have been both curvy and slender, to reflect the fashion ideal of the era. They’ve been mangled by Salvador Dali, and they’ve often appeared in shop windows with no arms, no legs, and no heads. But longer than we’ve had big shop windows to put them in, and maybe even longer than we’ve had fashionable man-cardigans to display, mannequins have been around to creep us out.

mannequin
A headless mannequin could never pull off this look. photo credit: vtpoly best mannequin eyes, Seattle via photopin (license)

Recently, a new kind of mannequin has taken over the Internet. Scores of people are now rising to the mannequin challenge. And by scores, of course, I mean high school students, athletes, and probably very soon, people old enough they probably ought to have better things to do.

The way it goes is that a group of people stand, completely still in mid-activity, as if they are mannequins, while another person with a camera moves among them filming close-ups of their stunningly (or not so) executed poses. And usually there’s music, because let’s face it, people standing still is not, on its own, necessarily an exciting thing to watch.

I say, why not rise to it? Because Internet challenges have been with us for years (not like actual mannequins, or man-cardigans, or King Tut, but still, a while) and this one might have come at just the right time. I think after the week the US (and to some extent the world) has had, and is having, we might all be feeling a little frozen anyway.

So go ahead, give it a try. I would, but I’m old enough I probably ought to have better things to do.

That Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Chances are if you’ve been to a circus at some point, you’ve seen people risk their lives. It’s part of the thrill of the show. There are fire-breathers, lion-tamers, high-wire walkers, and sword swallowers to name just a few.

And while the circus used to be primarily about tortured exotic animals, unfortunate human oddities, and psychotic-looking clowns that haunt our nightmares, at some point the attention shifted to more and more dangerous performances of highly skilled human oddities as they defied the kind of grisly deaths that haunt our nightmares.

One of the turning points for the circus came in the middle of the 19th century when a young Frenchman named Jules Léotard went swimming in his father’s pool in Toulouse. A skilled gymnast, Léotard swam a few laps and then thought he might have more fun at the pool if he swung above it. He rigged up a series of apparatuses resembling dangling pull-up bars and began swinging, launching himself from one to the other. Soon he was performing elaborate acrobatic maneuvers above the pool.

Jules_Léotard
Jules Léotard and his bulging muscles. Fetch the smelling salts!

And a terrifyingly dangerous circus act was born.  Léotard performed on the trapeze above straw mattresses in his home town and soon he found himself flying above large crowds in Paris and London. The practical, tight-fitting costume he designed both for flexibility and for making the ladies swoon at the sight of his bulging muscles, came to be known as the leotard. And that song about flying through the air with the greatest of ease? That was about Jules Léotard, too.

Today the flying trapeze is an iconic act in the world of the circus performances. And it’s one of the reasons I won’t attend a circus. Now I don’t care much for the animal training or the clowns, either, but I really really don’t like to watch people risk their lives for the sake of my entertainment. It’s just not my thing.

But I am fascinated by the performers who do it. So a few months ago, I wrote a little flash fiction piece about a circus acrobat performing on the trapeze. I entered the story into a contest sponsored by the group Wow! Women on Writing. And the story won third place, which was very exciting. If you’d like, you can follow the link and read “The Greatest of Ease” and some other lovely flash pieces on the Wow! website.

Then, if you’re a really super amazing person, you can also check out an interview with me that was posted on the Wow! blog earlier this week. In it I talk about the story, about my forthcoming novel, and a few other writerly kinds of things.

I hope you will find it entertaining, because though it would be pretty cool if someone wrote a song about me one of these days, this is pretty much as close as I ever plan to get to risking my life for the sake of entertaining an audience. And I think it’s also unlikely I’ll ever wear a leotard in public. Because that’s the kind of thing that haunts my nightmares.

One Cool Artsy Hat

Sultan Mahmut II sporting his modern look. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Sultan Mahmut II sporting his modern fez. [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
On November 25, 1925, the parliament of Turkey passed a law prohibiting citizens of that country from wearing a fez in a public space. The widely worn rimless hat had been an important part of the culture for nearly one hundred years, initially stemming from an 1829 decree by Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II that all civil officials and military personnel were required to update their headwear to the fez.

The move was part of a larger effort to modernize the Ottoman Empire, similar to Peter the Great’s grand plan to westernize Russia by taxing the beard. Though there was some resistance at first, the people more or less responded well and by the end of the century, the fez had become not only standard headwear, but also a beloved national symbol.

And that’s what led to the Hat Law. Prior to its passage Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk spoke passionately of his vision for the burgeoning nation of Turkey, which, he demonstrated, included the wearing of Panama hats, which he thought were much cooler.

First president of Turkey, with his modern Panama hat. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
First president of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, with his even more modern Panama hat. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Alas, the public already thought it looked pretty good wearing a fez and was not prepared to embrace yet another change to its attire. Instead of immediately casting aside the fez in favor of the rakish fedora, pockets of the population rose up in revolution.

The uprising didn’t last long, and it didn’t go particularly well for the revolutionaries who adopted the fez, formerly a symbol of reform, then a rallying cry for proponents of Turkish cultural conservatism. More than thirty people, both men and women, were executed in the course of Turkey’s brief Hat Revolution.

And though it is rarely enforced with much gusto today, the law remains on the books in Turkey, where it’s been for ninety years, even during the rise and fall of the casual European man lounging in a smoking jacket and matching fez.

I have to say, as far as symbols of cultural tug-of-war go, the fez is a pretty cool one (unless it’s paired with a smoking jacket, which most people can’t pull off). And I suspect that may be one of the reasons the online arts and literary journal Red Fez adopted it.

Because in 2002, magazine founder Leopold McGinnis decided to rise up against the well-guarded path to traditional publishing and provide writers with a new opportunity to get their imaginative work out there for public consumption.

Within a few years (with the help of additional artistic revolutionaries) Red Fez expanded to include not only fiction and poetry, but also comics, photography, music, and videos. And it became a really cool Internet hangout for artists of all types (like maybe even cool enough to pull off a smoking jacket).

That's one artsy hat.
That’s one cool artsy hat.
“Fes”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://bit.ly/1Kauoek

The magazine is published monthly and to date has served up “1,481 poems, 568 stories, 114 graphic works, 70 videos, 35 audio works, 424 articles and reviews from 1302 authors and artists around the world.” And this month, among the creepy artistic offerings of Issue 83: October 2015, The Halloween Issue, there is a story by a little known practical historian.

The story is called “Elixir of Life.” It’s not of a historical nature, but I hope you’ll follow the link and enjoy it anyway. While you’re there, don your fez and coordinating smoking jacket (you’re cool enough to pull it off) and hang out for a while because there’s a lot of good stuff to soak in.

Bald Might Be Better

On October 8, 1905 in London, German-born hairdresser Karl Nessler carried out the first successful public demonstration of a permanent hair wave process. Nessler applied sodium hydroxide to the long hair of Katherine Laible, wrapping sections of it around a dozen or so 2-pound brass rollers electrically heated to 212˚F. He then suspended the rollers above Laible’s head from an elaborate chandelier contraption so she wouldn’t be burned as she waited the six hours necessary for her new do to be done.

Turn of the century ad for Nessler's Permanent Wave Process. rough translation :
Turn of the century ad for Nessler’s Permanent Wave Process. Rough translation : “Better than bald!” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The demonstration was promising and it led to a 1909 patent held by Kessler who continued to improve his permanent wave machine up until he was subjected to internment during World War I. After the interruption to his career, Nessler immigrated to the US, changed his name to Charles Nestle, and grew a successful hairdressing business that included branches in major cities across the country.

But as far as I’m concerned, Charles Nestle is not the hero in this story. That title belongs to Katherine Laible, his incredibly supportive wife. Because before the successful demonstration of 1905, in addition to the chemical and heat experimentation on wigs, there had been at least two previous attempts to put permanent waves into a woman’s locks.  Katherine was the guinea pig then, too.

Six Hours. Hooked up to this. That better have been a really good perm. By Stillwaterising (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Six Hours. Hooked up to this. That better have been a really good perm. By Stillwaterising (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
And at least twice she wound up bald, with painful burns on her scalp. Obviously she was a much better wife than I am, because she kept letting him try. I often don’t even return to a hairdresser a second time if I don’t like the way my cut turned out.

Actually, I’ve been on a quest for the perfect haircut for about two-and-a-half years. The trouble is that when we lived in Oregon, for the first time in my life, I had great hair, like the kind of great that would make strangers stop me on the street and ask where I got it done.

Then we moved 2000 miles away and though I tried, I couldn’t persuade my hairstylist to move with us. Since that time, I have been to probably a half dozen salons, scoured family snapshots and determined that no one ever takes a picture of the back of my head, and made a fool of myself asking countless perfect-haired strangers where they got their dos. So far no one has successfully duplicated my cut.

photo credit: You're a good cop, Velez via photopin (license)
On second thought, bald might be better. photo credit: You’re a good cop, Velez via photopin (license)

But no one has yet burned away all of my hair, leaving me blistered and bald, either. Nor have I had to sit for six hours strung up by a machine that looks like it is more likely to suck out my brain than give me fabulous hair. So maybe I should take a lesson from Katherine Laible and give someone another chance. Or maybe I should honor this 110th anniversary of Charles Nestle’s success and just get a perm.

The Certainty of Death and Taxes

As of yesterday, another income tax season has come to a close here in the US. CPA’s who haven’t been home in months can finally return to the family dinner table. And at long last city sidewalks are free from the invasion of creepy sign-spinning Statues of Liberty beckoning to us from the side of the road.

The Statue of LIbertry wearing a fur-lined hood is creepy enough. In my town where it's been warm the last few days, one Mr. Liberty has been wearing shorts under his robe. I hope.  photo credit: Income tax of liberty via photopin (license)
Actually it might not be a bad idea to tax Statue of Liberty hats. photopin (license)photo credit: Income tax of liberty via photopin (license)

No matter how we feel about the way our taxes are collected and spent and whether some of us should be paying more or some of us less, I’m guessing none of us particularly enjoys the income tax process. The laws are complicated, and growing more so all the time. The effort expended in calculating it all expands from year to year at an unbelievably stupid rate.

But as Benjamin Franklin famously said, “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except for death and taxes.” It’s something we have to deal with. Failure to file will net us fines and legal battles. So any readers out there who are law-abiding US taxpayers, I want to offer a hearty congratulations for successfully slugging through another year and getting it done. You may be tired. A few of you may have even been up past your bedtime so you could sneak in just before the deadline. If so, rub your blurry eyes, grab a cup of coffee, draw a deep breath, and realize it could be worse.

Because in 1798, for Englishman John Collins, it was much worse. Collins was busy at work with a printing plate, producing linen hat labels for anxious customers when he learned just how serious the business of taxation could be. The plate was readied, the linen damp and awaiting its impression, and Collins’s hand was covered in ink. That’s when he was arrested for forgery.

What he had been trying to pull off was a sneak around England’s tax on men’s hats. Introduced by Parliament in 1784, it was designed to be a kind of income tax because in theory, the wealthy would own several expensive hats, while the poor may own one cheap hat, if any at all.

Ladies' hats were tax exempt. Even those made of fruit. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ladies’ hats were tax exempt. Even those made of fruit. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
To sell hats required a license that cost two pounds in London (or five shillings in the countryside) and gave the seller the right to post a sign reading: “Dealer in Hats by Retail.” A hat costing up to four shillings carried a tax bill of three pence and as the cost of the hat increased, so did the tax, with hats greater than twelve shillings demanding a hefty 2-shilling tax. Penalties for hats without a tax labels affixed to the linings fell both to the seller and the wearer.

No hat is worth that. photo credit: The End of the Line via photopin (license)

The hat tax was perhaps better than the window tax, the disastrous effects of which can still be seen in the large number of bricked-up windows gracing English buildings, but it turns out Englishmen were almost as fond of the hat tax as the citizens of the former British colonies in America had been of the English tea tax just a few years earlier. Removal and reuse of stamps was common and punishable. In the early days of the law, retailers attempted to change the language they used to refer to their wares, causing revisions that broadened the definition of a hat. Still the unpopular hat tax was widely ignored, hard to enforce, and was finally repealed in 1811.

Unfortunately that came after John Collins was caught forging tax labels. He got more than a fine or a legal battle. To forge a hat tax label in England in 1798 was a capital crime. Poor John Collins learned that there were certainties he couldn’t escape when he evaded taxes and met with death.

“Throw Away Your Razor” November

In 1895, a young man named King Camp Gillette stood in front of his shaving mirror contemplating some recent advice he’d received from work at the Crown Cork and Seal Company, manufacturers of bottle caps. The advice was this: “Invent something people use and throw away.”

King Camp Gillette sporting an impressive mustache for the month of Movember.
King Camp Gillette sporting an impressive mustache for the month of Movember.

That seemed like a sound idea to Gillette who thought about it so long and so hard, he nicked himself with his razor. He grabbed a towel and cursed as he attempted to stem the bleeding and clean himself up. Then he grabbed the strop he used to sharpen the blade so he could get good clean nicks the next time he shaved too. That’s when it hit him. What he’d really like to do instead is just throw the darn thing away.

And maybe, he thought, just maybe, other men, men who were tired of tearing up their skin for the sake of a fashionably close shave, might feel the same way. He wasn’t wrong, because about a hundred years later, men stood up in great droves to throw their razors away for an entire month in an effort to tell the world that men’s health and well-being matters.

Evidently babies don't participate in No Shave November. photo attribution: http://www.flickr.com/people/21309047@N00
Evidently babies don’t participate in No Shave November. photo attribution: http://www.flickr.com/people/21309047@N00

It was in the late 1990’s that “No Shave” November (or “Movember” if you prefer a mustache to a beard) began to emerge. The idea is that for a whole month, men (and sometimes women) agree not to shave in order to raise awareness and, in some cases, research funds for health issues specific to men.

I should say, I certainly have nothing against the beardless, even in
November, but I do like the event. I think it’s a fun way to talk about some serious stuff, because, though I really don’t care whether the men in my life sport whiskers or don’t, I do care very much whether or not they look after their health needs. And I realize that too often, men don’t. So, please, Gentlemen, visit your doctor occasionally (or get a doctor, if that’s where you’re at) and take care of business.

razor patent
A great November 1904 leap forward for men’s health.

Now, to be fair, Gillette didn’t think the answer to his problem would be to throw away his razor forever and just stop shaving at all. Instead, he got down to business, found himself a knowledgeable partner (William Nickerson), and applied for a patent for his disposable safety razor in 1904 on the 15th of “Throw away your razor” November.

Though not the first encased blade razor on the market, it was the first with a replaceable head and within a few years, men were sold. Gillette had successfully invented something that people use and throw away and had become a well-shaved millionaire in the process. The company that bears his name, though now owned by Proctor & Gamble, continues to move forward behind the mantra, “There is a better way to shave and we will find it.”

This November, millions of men have come together to declare that at least for a couple more weeks, that better way is not to shave at all. But my hope is that long after November has run its course and a lot of menfolk have returned to their regular shaving routines, they will remember how their manly plight was made better by King Camp Gillette. And I’m hoping that every time they throw away their razor blade, the men in my life, and the men in yours, will remember that it’s important to the people they love that they look after themselves and take care of business.