Dancing Like She’s Never Danced Before

It’s prom season here in the great state of Missouri. Every Saturday night from now until early May, dinner out at any local chain restaurant in the area (McDonald’s included) will come with a red carpet-worthy display of colorful chiffon and smart waistcoats.

I kind of love it. Even though I’d rather muck out horse stalls with a pair of chopsticks than watch the Oscars, I do enjoy seeing people dressed up in their finest frills. Since my own children aren’t old enough to participate in that grand old tradition yet, I soak up the images of the overly fancy diners and photos of my friends’ teenage kids posted on social media, with the advantage that I don’t have to be the one up all night worried that they’re not making good choices.

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To be clear, I don’t know any of these people, but don’t they look nice? photo by Ilhabela, via Pixabay

I do hope they all have a wonderful time, that they make it home safe with their hearts and their dignities intact, and that they dance their socks off. Because they have a fair amount of pressure and angst in their lives and most of them could use a night of cutting loose on the dance floor to work some of that out of their systems.

Just maybe, on a larger and more tragic scale, that’s what it was all about on a steamy July day in 1518, when Frau Troffea of Strasbourg in Alsace began to dance. She did so in the middle of the street, to a tune that played only in her head, without explanation or regard for anyone who might be watching. She simply danced.

And she didn’t stop.

After a few days, people began to join her. Within a week, thirty-four dancers had danced into the danger zone on the streets of Strasbourg. A month later the crowd had swelled to four hundred, still without any logical explanation.

Absent any better ideas, the authorities directed the building of a stage and enlisted the services of local musicians to provide an environment suitable for those getting’ jiggy with it to work the jiggy out of their systems.

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If people around you start dancing for no apparent reason, I think you just have to go with it.

Eventually, and after a large number of the afflicted dropped dead from sheer exhaustion, the massive, spontaneous flash mob stopped.

We know of Frau Troffeau from the writings of Swiss physician and alchemist Theophrastus von Hohenheim (whose historical stage name is Paracelsus). He arrived in Strasbourg a few years after the event with an eye to establishing a medical practice there. Paracelsus believed that the epidemic most likely stemmed from the vengefulness of unhappy wives, citing Herr Troffea, who allegedly hated nothing more than his wife’s dancing.

And while Paracelsus’s explanation probably seems as strange as the dance epidemic itself, historians and physicians today don’t have much to offer as a better explanation. One prevalent theory is that the symptoms were caused by Claviceps purpurea, a fungus that infects rye and other grains, served as the basis for the development of LSD, and has been known to cause people to go a little loopy.

But another maybe plausible suggestion is that this was a social psychological disorder stemming from the trauma of living in a time of frequent plague, natural disaster, and generally poor living conditions. I guess I sort of get that. Like Meghan Trainor, I feel better when I’m dancin.’

The citizens of Strasbourg weren’t the only victims of this most unusual epidemic, either. From the eleventh century to the middle of the seventeenth, numerous accounts of similar incidents pop up throughout Europe. Most of these are well documented. This actually happened. A lot of people really did dance themselves to death. And then it just stopped.

But all things considered, maybe in the Middle Ages that wasn’t such a bad way to go. Dancing can definitely be therapeutic, as can getting dressed up in your fanciest duds and going out to dinner with your friends. So have fun, kids.

Just remember to stop before you drop.

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Game of Allergens

On June 13, 1483, just two months after the death of his brother King Henry IV and a few weeks before his own accession to the English throne, Richard III, then Duke of Gloucester and Lord Protector of the Realm, survived an evil curse.

The curse came from Lord William Hastings, a man who had served as Lord Chamberlain to Henry IV (basically the Ned Stark to his Robert Baratheon). I’m not going to try to puzzle out the mess that was the struggle for the English throne toward the end of the Middle Ages because either 1. You, dear reader, know far more about it than I can pretend to in the space of a blog post and will just find errors that you’ll feel compelled to tell me about or 2. Like me, you just assume that whoever had dragons and a proper attitude toward an invading zombie hoard eventually came out on top.

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Described by his detractors as a hunch-backed and deformed troll-ish sort of a man, Richard III was probably just a normal-ish looking guy. Unless you gave him strawberries. By Unknown, British School – Royal Collection of the United Kingdom, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But it seems that Hastings was just the sort of man to try to put the pieces together and he may have suspected that when Richard sought to declare his deceased brother’s marriage illegal and therefore his own nephew illegitimate, that Richard might have just wanted the throne for himself.

So, logically, when Hastings next arrived for a council meeting, he cursed the pretender to the throne. Shortly after the Lord Chamberlain’s arrival, Richard’s health began to suffer. His lips swelled. His face and limbs grew red and puffy. He became short of breath.

What today we might recognize as an allergic reaction to the fresh strawberries Sir Thomas More tells us Richard ate for breakfast, Richard identified as a curse. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that casting a potentially deadly curse on the Lord Protector of the Realm might result in a beheading.

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I suspect I’m allergic to dragons. Fortunately the current dragon count is pretty low. photo credit: SnoShuu Dragon via photopin (license)

That’s exactly what became of Lord Hastings, a man who might have otherwise caused a crimp in Richard’s plans to rule. The would-be king wasn’t taking any chances. Many contemporary writers (at least the ones that didn’t seem to like Richard much) suggested he murdered his young nephews as well.

There’s some speculation that perhaps Richard knew of his own allergy to strawberries and ate them anyway so he could pretend to have been cursed by Lord Hastings and justify ordering his death. Other historians argue that given the general belief in curses and ignorance of allergens at the time, Richard, perhaps already feeling a little paranoid in the course of his plotting, probably thought he really had been cursed.

I tend to believe the second scenario is more likely because of several good reasons explained by more informed historians (of the variety that would be sure to let me know about my mistakes when discussing the fall of the House of York).

First, fruit didn’t travel much in 1483 and so it was extremely seasonal, giving strawberries a pretty narrow window of availability in the English court. Richard wouldn’t have had a lot of opportunity to observe his own symptoms. Second, food allergies can be kind of like that, showing up unannounced after years of laying low. Third, a person would have to be pretty crazy to willingly inflict an uncomfortable allergic reaction on themselves. And finally, his successor, the usurper Henry VII probably had dragons anyway.*

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No throne is worth intentionally exposing yourself to a known allergen. But maybe it’s worth a curse or two? If you have dragons.

It’s the third point I want to discuss further because over the last week or so, some of my nearest and dearest have been cursed. Here in Missouri we are experiencing some of the highest mold and ragweed pollen counts we’ve seen in some time. That means that here in my household we have been experiencing some of the itchiest eyes, scratchiest throats, sneeziest noses, and achiest sinuses that we’ve seen in some time.

Catch them at the right moment, and my nearest and dearest might even suggest that having their heads lopped off might be more comfortable than the curse these allergens have brought upon them. This is definitely not a condition they would wish upon themselves, regardless of their aspirations to any thrones. Right about now, they’re kind of hoping that winter is coming. As long as someone steps up with a couple of dragons to take on the zombie hoard.

*No historians I came across actually suggested that Henry VII had dragons. Also, if you ever do stumble across a legitimate historian that references dragons, you should probably ask a few follow-up questions.

 

Ancient Toilets and A Little Inconvenience

In 1827, Englishman Charles Masson was a soldier for the East India Company, though not a particularly dedicated one. In that year, he deserted and began what became a several year journey of exploration through parts of India, and what is today Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he collected coins and artifacts, and became the first European to stumble onto the ruins of the city of Harappa.

Officially excavated for the first time in 1920, Harappa is one city within a very large prehistoric civilization known as the Indus Valley Civilization that stretched across the northern portion of South Asia and may have at one time supported a population of 5 million people.

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Ancient well at Harappa. By Hassan Nasir (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
This civilization had well-planned cities, a system of measurement, established trade, a thriving art scene, and a possible form of writing. It also had a system of wells, public and private baths, and the earliest known household flush toilets. All somewhere in the neighborhood of 3000 to 4000 BC.

Here is perhaps where it should be noted that the men who excavated the site at Harappa came from a civilization that had at this point been enjoying the widespread (though still not mandatory) use of in-home flush toilets for about seventy years.

I realize that sanitation and water supply isn’t a matter to be taken lightly. There’s no greater advancement in all of human history that has more profoundly influenced health and safety, and there are still many parts of the world in which safe drinking water and the safe disposal of waste is still sadly lacking.

It’s a huge privilege to live someplace where I can pretty much take the clean water flowing from my faucet for granted. And this week, my town has been experiencing a reminder of just how amazing that privilege is.

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Anytime I start to think it might have been fun to live in the 19th century, I picture this. photo credit: Midnight Believer Outhouse via photopin (license)

Early this week we received a call from our water district explaining that the city had issued a mandatory water conservation order. It seems a large 36-inch water main supplying our town took some damage. While repairs were underway, our little town was expected to receive about a third to a half of our normal water supply. In order to avoid depleting reserves and losing pressure in the system,  the city asked its citizens to aim for a reduction of water usage by 50%.

What that meant was no grass watering, car washing, or clothes laundering. I couldn’t hose down my thirsty garden and my neighbors couldn’t top off their swimming pool. The kids couldn’t run through the sprinkler on a hot day or whoosh down the slip ’n’ slide. With later updates the city attempted to lighten the harsh tone of the conservation order by expressing that if citizens really, really needed to do a load of laundry, they should forego taking a shower and washing their dishes.

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So you’re saying I CAN’T do the dishes? Darn. photo credit: Curtis Gregory Perry Hot and Cold via photopin (license)

I don’t know if you’re very familiar with my neck of the woods, but here along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, where occasional and sometimes catastrophic flooding is a legitimate worry, we don’t often have to deal with having too little water. So this was a bit of a shock to the system.

But I’m happy to report that late last night we got the okay to resume our normal water usage. We might have been a little smellier and our lawns are maybe a little less green and lush than they were a few days ago, but for the most part, we came through the ordeal unscathed. And despite a few snarky comments on the city’s Facebook page that were all in good fun, the people of our city didn’t really complain.

We know we’re the lucky ones. It’s thought that one of the major contributing factors to the eventual failure of the once thriving Indus Valley Civilization was drought and shifts in river flow.  

We continue to thrive here in our well-planned city where we have tape measures, a Walmart, a thriving art scene, and bloggers who practice a possible form of writing. And we have clean running water and flush toilets in our homes. Yes, life is pretty good here, even when it’s a little inconvenient.

A Plague of Gesundheits

Sometime over the past few weeks, influenza descended in full force on our fair city, stretching across the region, flooding our doctors’ offices, our schools, and our homes. One area school even recently reported nearly 200 student absences in a single day. I probably don’t need to tell you there’s been a lot of sneezing, and a fair number of “God bless yous.”

For quite a while now my social media feed has been filled with friends lamenting that their households have fallen victim, warning those whose children have had social contact with theirs might just be next, and offering a sort of wish for good health in spite of the odds.

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Does it make me a bad person that I think this is actually kind of a relief from the political squabbling? photo credit: BC Gov Photos Take a shot at protecting yourself and others from the flu via photopin (license)

And, really, that’s what that wonderful phrase “God bless you,” is really probably all about. Though no one can say for certain exactly where it came from (even Snopes.com, which I have to assume at least tried), the most often related story attributes the custom to Pope Gregory I who took over for Pelagius II, when the latter fell victim to the plague in 590.

This was the tail end of what history remembers as the Plague of Justinian, possibly the first recorded instance of bubonic plague (like you might even today encounter in a National Park), or at least something related to it. The exact bug behind the pandemic probably doesn’t matter all that much. What we do know is that it killed quickly, and it started with a sneeze.

Gregory didn’t exactly want to be named Pope, but he received the title by acclimation, and soon set to work ministering to the stricken people of Rome. He prayed for deliverance from sickness and encouraged repentance, even organizing a large procession to the Vatican, in which the faithful gathered in a large coughing, sneezing crowd in order to share in worship and germs.

Allegedly Gregory also began the practice of offering a blessing for good health upon a person who sneezed, thereby praying away the plague. The Justinian Plague didn’t really extend beyond Gregory’s stint as Pope, so maybe there was something to his approach. Or maybe the bug had simply run its course through the population.

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If he were around today, I’ve no doubt Pope Gregory would encourage holy flu vaccination. By Unknown – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Either way, the tradition of saying, “God bless you,” or wishing someone good health (with a Gesundheit or similar expression) is so deeply ingrained in our behavior pattern now, it’s hard to remain silent when we hear a sneeze.

The question is, I suppose, does it help? Sadly, I don’t know that anyone has ever researched that. But what does help is vaccination. Now, fortunately for our family, we are well vaccinated folks, so when it was our turn last week our symptoms were relatively mild. We dealt with a few aches, some low-grade fevers, a good helping of fatigue, and plenty of coughing and sneezing and gunk. But all in all, it wasn’t too bad, with only my oldest developing a secondary ear infection, easily taken care of with an antibiotic.

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All I can say is there is not nearly enough of this going around at that middle school. photo credit: BC Gov Photos Take a shot at protecting yourself and others from the flu via photopin (license)

For us, then, this week has been a return to our regularly scheduled program. Everyone has gone to school or work, and my oldest is off and running, heading into the next big thing. For him, that means making a movie with several of his friends to enter into the school district’s upcoming film festival.

For weeks now they’ve been working on a script and costumes, rehearsing lines, and practicing stunts. I admit I’m not entirely sure what the film is about. The plot keeps changing, though I’m fairly certain it involves a wizard or two. Their biggest hurdle in getting it finished has been that members of the crew keep getting sick.

But I’m looking forward to seeing the completed project and I imagine it will work out just fine. After all, the first surviving film copyrighted in the US, now considered by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” consists of nothing more than 5 seconds of a man sneezing.

Gesundheit!

 

And speaking of ongoing creative projects, I currently have two books projects underway that will be published this year. If you’re interested, you can check them out on this recently re-installed book page.

 

Daily Step Goals: Historical-ish Claims from a Scientific-ish Perspective

If you happened to be a legionary during the early Roman Empire, you were accustomed to walking. In fact, according to Roman military writer Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus (known by his friends and most practical historians as simply Vegetius), these guys were expected every day to march a little over 18 miles in about five hours or so.

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And the sad part is, they aren’t even getting full credit for their hard work. They’ll have to go to the app later and add “lugging heavy equipment, 5 hours.” photo credit: Marcia via photopin (license)

Given that the Roman hour became longer and shorter depending on the season (don’t think about that too hard or you’ll get a headache), it’s difficult to know exactly how much time the soldiers were given to compete their strenuous hike. But to put the task into a little bit of modern day perspective, they didn’t reach their daily Fitbit goal until somewhere around 45,000 steps. Even if they had the full day to work on it, that’s a lot of walking.

As the number of personal fitness trackers I’m seeing worn has exploded over the last few years, I’m guessing by now that most of you are aware that if you’re not getting your prescribed minimum 10,000 steps each day, you’re probably going to die or something. Well, someday, anyway.

But it turns out, the recommendation to take at least 10,000 steps per day, in order to be an active, healthy person, isn’t an especially scientific one. It most likely comes from a brand of Japanese pedometer marketed in the 1960’s under the name manpo-kei , which, if you can believe everything you read on the Internet,  roughly translates to “10,000 steps meter.”

So, like with a lot of un-scientific ideas that sound pretty logical and scientific-ish, 10,000 was adopted as the number to walk toward.

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Evidently typing doesn’t count as exercise.

While that may not be a lot in the daily life of the average long-distance runner or floor nurse at a large hospital, most of us don’t take more than about 4 to 7 thousand in a day, unless we really work at it. And as a writer, I have to make an intentional effort to get there, because like most writers, I get my best work done on the days I spend a lot of time sitting.

Of course when I say most, I have to exclude historical novelist Ben Kane. Kane writes novels set in Ancient Rome, and while doing so, he spends a lot of time at his desk. He explains that after six novels, he started to realize that while writing is great for sharpening the mind, it’s not so great for trimming the waistline. So Kane grabbed some friends, some typical legionary garb, and about 42 pounds of equipment (still only about half what an actual legionary may have carried). Then he started marching.

Now that’s dedication to the craft. I currently write in the era of 19th century America, and it’s pretty rare (and by that I mean it never happens) for me to don my petticoat and corset to order to take a stroll. But I do have a Fitbit and I try to reach a somewhat arbitrary step goal every day.

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One of my better days. But I definitely wasn’t wearing full legionary garb. Or a petticoat.

And, really, arbitrary may describe the 45,000 daily steps credited to Roman soldiers by Vegetius, because some scholars have argued that as a writer who never actually donned eighty pounds of legionary garb and equipment, and who wrote in the fourth-century about the bygone era of early Roman Empire military might, Vegetius may not be a strictly reliable source. In other words, Vegetius may have been more practical historian than actual military historian, and he may have had the tendency to exaggerate.

But it really would have been important for a well-oiled military machine to be able to march long distances with great stamina, so if not exactly reliable history, the writer’s claims at least sound historical-ish.

And sometimes I think that’s good enough. Because what most medical experts are saying about fitness bands is that they are helping people become more aware of their sedentary tendencies and in many cases, are encouraging people to get up and move more than they were. We may not all get to 10,000 steps every day, but if we are making an effort to get there, then we are probably improving our health.

You can take my word for it. Because I’m a writer. And my claim sounds pretty scientific-ish.

A Nation So Blessed, Our Dogs Have Love Handles

If you read this blog very often, or if you’ve read the “About This Blog” page, then you know, I don’t do politics in this space. I only rarely even skirt the edge of controversy, because there should be some places on the Internet where you can just have fun and not be offensive or offended, and we all have different opinions, different experiences, and different perspectives.

That being said, in life, I do politics. This has been a weird political season in the US, and a stressful week. No matter what end of the political spectrum you find yourself on most of the time, I think we can all agree that the future looks a little frightening.

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Nothing but nincompoops and megalomaniacs from where I’m sitting. photo credit: hillary clinton ice-picking donald trump : ishootwindows, cliff’s variety, castro, san francisco (2015) via photopin (license)

Because we are very close to declaring that our two frontrunner candidates for President of the United States are:

1.       A woman who is at best an blithering nincompoop who can’t figure out how to use her cell phone and thinks one wipes a server with the swipe of a cloth, or who is at worst a traitor guilty of granting political influence by foreign heads of state in exchange for lucrative speaking engagements.

2.       A man who is at best an incompetent businessman whose ventures have only been highly  successful in the area of declaring bankruptcy and screwing over investors and who has now managed to insult (probably literally) every person on earth, or who is at worst a narcissistic fascist megalomaniac.

I have a lot to say on this topic, but I will spare you. I could use a break, and I’d rather write about my dog. First, I should explain how I feel about dogs in general. I think they smell funny. And they slobber a lot. They bark when they shouldn’t. And they are incredibly needy.

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Chubby dog basking in the sunlight, just hoping I’ll shut down the computer and take him for a much needed walk.

 

Despite the fact that I would not have considered myself a “dog person,” a couple years ago my family adopted a little black puppy we named Ozzie. That alone is a great story, for another time. What’s important to know now is that I love my dog.

I’m pretty sure that the Ancient Egyptian owner of Abuwtiyuw felt the same about his furry companion, who lived sometime during the Sixth Dynasty (2345-2181 BC) and was buried near the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Discovered in 1935 by Egyptologist George Reisner, a tablet that was part of the repurposed material used to build a different tomb, gives detailed instructions about the elaborate burial of a dog. There’s no picture of the dog, but he is described as a tesem, a breed similar to a greyhound or saluki, but with pointier ears. And what’s really cool about it, is that even though the tomb and mummy of the dog remain undiscovered, Abuwtiyuw is the earliest domesticated dog whose name we know.

Because his owner (a pharaoh whose name remains unknown) loved him enough to want to make sure he was taken care of. That’s what good pet owners do. Even if we don’t expect to love them, the little monsters worm their ways into our hearts and we take good care of them, because they take good care of us.

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Ozzie, striking his most presidential pose.

 

So earlier this week, I took good care of Ozzie by taking him for his annual checkup and vaccinations. The good news is he’s a very healthy two-year-old dog. The bad news is he’s gotten a little chunky over the winter.

The vet’s exact words were, “He’s got some love handles.” So as the weather warms up this spring, we will be extra diligent in making sure Ozzie gets plenty of exercise so he can remain a happy, healthy dog.

That’s what I was thinking as my chubby pet and I waddled away from the vet’s office. And then I found myself reflecting on how amazing it is that I live in a nation where I am so absolutely blessed that not only can I provide my dog with regular medical care (a luxury many people throughout the world can’t even provide for their children), but he also eats so well that he’s overweight. Someday when he dies, I bet I could even provide a funeral for him in a swanky pet cemetery (though I probably won’t).

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He even kisses babies. Or at least he takes food from them. And now I think I’m beginning to see the problem.

 

So come this November, I may have to decide whether I can vote for a person I might not trust to walk my overweight dog. But for now, I’m going to focus on the fact that I live in a nation so blessed, our dogs have love handles.

I’m still not a dog person. In fact, one thing I can say with a fair amount of certainty is that your dog smells funny, slobbers a lot, barks when he shouldn’t, and is incredibly needy. Ozzie, on the other hand, is all of that, but also happens to be a fuzzy, warm, loving (and maybe just a little chubby) bundle of awesome.

Maybe I’ll vote for him for president.

The Longest Shortest Month Ever

In 46 BC, just a couple years before the arrogant and power-hungry Roman Emperor Julius Caesar had a really bad day in mid March, he decided to tackle the problem of the Roman calendar. Before then, years were measured by lunar cycle, a system that led to the need for the occasional addition of an extra month and, frankly, confused the heck out of everyone.

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Julius Caesar’s very large head. By Gautier Poupeau from Paris, France (César) via Wikimedia Commons

Consulting with Egyptian astronomer Sosigenes, Caesar learned that it would make a great deal more sense to measure a year as 365 days, add a leap day every fourth year, and rename one of the twelve months (July) in honor of himself, because when you’ve managed to get yourself declared “emperor perpetuity” of a republic (as every fan of Star Wars and/or history knows), you can do pretty much whatever you want to.

Even though the calendar was still a little off (about eleven minutes every year), and would eventually be revised by Pope Gregory XIII (which also confused the heck out of everyone), the concept is still used today. And that’s why this stupid February, which has been a stressful one at our house, will be one stupid day longer this year.

Okay, so it might not actually be February’s fault, but all I know is that in January, everyone in my family was in perfect health. Then with the new month came the crud. My oldest was the first victim. He missed nearly a week of school because of fever and respiratory symptoms (No, not the flu. And yes, we vaccinate.). This week it struck my younger son. And in between, it hit me.

Now, when kids are sick, we obviously do what we need to do. We keep them home from school, entrenched on the couch with a box of tissues, a bottle of Gatorade, and a stack of movies. We pile on the blankets, monitor temperatures, and fret over medication schedules. We rub backs, kiss foreheads, and soothe heartache over missed activities.

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So…what you’re saying is that I CAN’T wash the dishes? I guess a day off doesn’t sound so bad.

 

That’s all well and good. But when Mom gets sick, it’s different. Because even at home, there are still things that must be taken care of. This is likely the reason that I have been symptomatic at least five days longer than son # 1 was, and why my own battle with the crud, though it started almost a week earlier, has lasted well into that of son #2.

It really was beginning to look like I might cough and hack my way to the very end of this stupid month. Fortunately I married a wise man, who I finally decided to listen to (possibly because I couldn’t talk for all the coughing). He insisted that I take a day off.

Now, I work from home, which means taking a day off can be tricky because I’m pretty much always at work. But he was clear. No dishes and no laundry (no problem so far) and no writing. Wait. What?

One day of rest, both physical and mental.

My youngest son was still home so I did have to see to his needs. But it turned out, his disappointment at having to miss another day of school and activities was somewhat soothed by the idea that Mom was in it with him. We piled up the blankets, shared a big box of tissues, and settled in for a day of movie watching.

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Where I spent my extra day this February. It could have been worse.

 

By the next day, we both felt a lot better. He headed off to school. I headed back to my computer, healthier, and wiser, and grateful that the end of this longest shortest month ever is finally in sight. No, February is not my favorite month with its cold dreary days, but it’s still short even when it’s long, and I suppose this year, I should be thankful it has a built-in sick day.