Knight of the Medieval Umbrella

It was at the tail end of August in 1839, after a year of planning and rehearsing, that thirteen valiant knights took to a muddy field near Eglinton Castle in Ayrshire, Scotland, and pretended to joust. Identified by silly names, such as “Knight of the Burning Tower,” “Knight of the Dolphin,” and “Knight of the Saturday Fever” (only one of which I made up), the men were all that remained of the original one hundred and fifty volunteers.

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Thus began a long tradition of the very serious portrayal of Medieval knights throughout British culture.

Decked out in their Medieval-est finery, the knights wore period-appropriate armor while battling a torrential downpour and knocking fruit from one another’s helmets with mops and broomsticks. One participant even carried a not-so-medieval umbrella.

The Eglinton Tournament was the project of Archibald Montgomerie, the 13th Earl of Eglinton, who wished to raise interest in the Romanticism of Britain’s past at a time when the Whigs sought to stamp out any idealization of the monarchy.

Thanks to the uncooperative weather, the event was not the success it could have been. Lord Eglinton himself admitted to “the manifold deficiencies in its exhibition,” but the tournament undoubtedly left a lasting impression on the imaginations of the British people. It attracted more than 100,000 period-clad spectators from all walks of life and sparked a surge of Romantic art, Gothic writings, and reenactments of a more chivalrous age, which presumably went a little more smoothly than the Eglinton Tournament. But probably yielded just as much giggling.

Cass River Colonial Reenactment poncho
We attended our reenactment in period-appropriate plastic ponchos.

In fact, this somewhat failed instance of a historical reenactment may have even been an important catalyst in the rise of a kind of quirky, vaguely ridiculous hobby for the most fascinating of amateur historians here in the United States as well.

I attended my first reenactment a few weeks ago as my family and I road tripped our way through Michigan. My youngest son is a connoisseur of all things military history and so when we realized we would be passing through the town of Frankenmuth during the weekend of the Cass River Colonial Encampment, we couldn’t pass it up.

Reenactment Celebration
Huzzah!

And I’m glad we didn’t. Though I can honestly say I have never had a particular desire to see one, I found the whole thing fascinating. It was as wonderfully absurd as I thought it might be, with otherwise regular people camping out using replica 18th century tents and tools, eating Subway sandwiches around the campfire, and loading the muzzles of their muskets with gunpowder poured from plastic packages.

But despite the anachronisms and general goofiness, I found a lot to love. My son wandered the grounds and met the camp physician who offered to balance his humors, talked with General George Washington who attempted to recruit him, and marched to the rhythm of the drum and fife as a friendly British officer invited him to fall in. The re-enactors were kind and knowledgeable and very much aware that they looked a little silly in their wool uniforms on a drizzly, 85-degree afternoon in 2018.

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Most of the fallen soldiers managed to stumble into the shelter of the covered bridge before breathing their last, but others were especially devoted to their craft. And wearing authentic orange, plastic ear protection.

We watched several demonstrations of military drills, musket firing, and a couple of full battles from two different conflicts in American history. We cheered as the American rebels surged and wrested control of the covered bridge from their British enemies, and we applauded the re-enactors dedicated enough to their craft to play dead in a puddle in the middle of the road. Sure there were manifold deficiencies in the exhibition, but we left better informed and more curious. And maybe giggling just a little.

It’s just 28 days until the publication of Gentleman of Misfortune, my debut historical novel! You can get a peek at a book trailer here: https://www.facebook.com/sangletonwrites/

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Fun with Elvis in the Toilet Paper Capital of the World

Between the hours of 1 and 7 am on August 8, 1977, about one week before his death, superstar Elvis Presley rode his favorite roller coaster back to back to back to back. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel a little sick.

I actually love roller coasters, and have since I was a kid, but I have my limits. Given the chance, my younger self could have ridden (and probably did) just about any coaster an easy ten times in a row, though I imagine six hours of mostly continuous riding would have been a bit much even then. At forty (the same age Elvis was in 1977), I’m confident my threshold would now be much lower. I can even admit that within the past few years this coolest of aunts has ridden a few coasters with enthusiastic nieces only to discover that I spent most of the ride contemplating the very real possibility of my own immediate death.

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The kind of coaster that makes you want to gyrate your hips a lot. Apparently.

But there are definitely some coasters I like better than others. I have a strong preference for the hilly, wooden variety, the ones that feel a little rickety, zip down big hills, squeal around the corners, and don’t require a rider to wear a five-point harness. So if I were ever going to ride a coaster for several continuous hours, I would gravitate toward one like Elvis rode.

Summer is winding down around these parts with only a couple weeks now until school starts. This past weekend we got back from our annual summer family road trip and a couple days ago we bought school supplies. It’s time, then, to reflect on the adventures of the season. One of those adventures involved a trip that my youngest son and I took to Green Bay, Wisconsin.

I needed to do a little research and we have family in the area, so the two of us took off to Titletown (also, I recently discovered, known as the Toilet Paper Capitol of the World) to eat some squeaky cheese curds and ride Elvis’s Zippin’ Pippin roller coaster at the Bay Beach Amusement Park.

Elvis Presley
Something tells me this man never kept his hands on the lap bar. Image via Pixabay

In 1977, the Zippin’ Pippin was the coolest ride at Libertyland in Memphis and Presley was a frequent visitor, usually renting out the park to enjoy the ride unmolested by adoring fans. And that’s why he was there between 1 and 7 am, with just a handful of friends and family and plenty of time to give himself what I imagine was probably a terrible bellyache.

One of the oldest wooden coasters operating in the United States, the Pippin, which didn’t start zippin’ until the 70s, was built between 1912 and 1917. It’s 2,865 feet long and travels between 20 and 40 miles per hour, the ride lasting just 90 seconds. Its largest drop is seventy feet, and like most good ol’ wooden coasters, is best enjoyed with your hands in the air and a scream on your lips.

The coaster was dismantled after Libertyland closed in 2005. In 2010, the Toilet Paper Capital of the World purchased and refurbished the ride for $3.8 million. I rode it for a dollar. And it was money well spent. Though I don’t think it’s a six hours in a row kind of good, the Zippin’ Pippin is a pretty good ride. I’d go again. And maybe again. But after that I’d probably have a bellyache.

Also, only 35 days until publication day!

Laying off the Rice and Fish: A Summer of Spontaneous Combustion

On a bright spring morning in 1731 a maid knocked, to no avail, on the bedroom door of the Italian countess Cornelia Zangari, grandmother to the future Pope Pius VI. Receiving no answer, the maid pushed open the door to discover an alarming scene. In between the lady’s bed and the window were the bottom halves of two legs, a few pieces of skull, a small pile of ashes, and some yellowish goo.

spontaneous combustion
photo credit: Lynn Friedman Dept of Spontaneous Combustion via photopin (license)

The countess was no more, but what happened was anyone’s guess. There were several theories put forward, but the one that carried the day was that of the Reverend Giuseppe Bianchini, who theorized that the vapors from the alcohol bath she had taken before bed combined with the gases in the countess’s system and caught fire. Since she apparently liked to get her drink on, this explanation seemed pretty legit, and by the time Bianchini’s report of the event was translated into English and reached a wider audience, quite a few scientists looking at similarly odd cases, were willing to think he was more or less right.

If the good reverend were correct, then one could avoid spontaneous combustion by living a more temperate and careful life. That was good news for the 18th century masses, which would rather not die in a burst of flames. It’d be good news, too, for us here in the Midwestern US, because we’re in the middle of a good ol’ fashioned Midwestern summer in which the heat index is regularly well over a hundred degrees and if, God forbid, we have to get into our cars after they’ve been parked for an hour on a blacktop parking lot, we are pretty sure we’ll burst into flames.

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Pretty much what it feels like to live in the Midwest in July. Image by geralt, via Pixabay

Of course maybe we will, because even nearly three hundred years later, the scientific community isn’t in agreement about the causes, or even the reality, of spontaneous combustion. Over the years there have been numerous explanations for the phenomenon, from the ridiculous notion that such fires likely came from a nearby external source, to the claim that the fires result from a diet too high in rice and fish.

Regardless of whether we need to worry about suddenly disappearing in a flame of glory, events that fire investigators and nosy neighbors can’t figure out how to explain are few and far between. In fact we might not even know much about them at all if the case of the Italian countess hadn’t been made famous by Charles Dickens, who used the event as inspiration for the death of Mr. Krook in Bleak House.

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No way is this man going to let the truth get in the way of good fiction. Charles Dickens by Antoine Claudet, 1852. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Dickens’s readers bought the scene, trusting the author who gave it to them, but at least one critic did not. Amateur physiologist, as well as literary critic and friend of Dickens, George Henry Lewes was highly vocal in his insistence that the author’s use of spontaneous combustion as a means to an end was “beyond the limits of acceptable fiction.”

And this is where I take Dickens’s side, because fiction is fiction and fire is fire. When the two meet, anything can happen. A drunken rag and bottle merchant can dissolve into a puddle of ash and goo. Or a Midwestern writer can burst into flames in the middle of the grocery store parking lot. Fortunately, truth has higher standards than fiction. It turns out cases of “spontaneous” combustion take place more often in winter, when people tend to keep closer company with fire. So I suspect I’ll be okay. As long as I don’t go too crazy with the rice and fish.

Black Bears on the Move: Suburban Shock and Awww

On November 14, 1902 US president, outdoor enthusiast, and big game hunter Theodore Roosevelt experienced a profound moment of awww when he refused to shoot a young black bear. The president was the only member of a hunting party near Onward, Mississippi who had yet to bag a bear when one of his assistants decided, appropriately enough, to assist. The man cornered a young bear and somehow managed to tie it to a tree with a length of rope.

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I mean, who could shoot that? [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But the president refused to shoot the animal, claiming that to do so just wouldn’t be sporting. Awww. I find that a fairly endearing story, but Roosevelt had to endure a little bit of ribbing from the company of, evidently, less sporting men who asked him to hand over his man card.

Of course, the press also got hold of the story. Then it wasn’t long until political cartoonist Clifford Berryman chronicled President Roosevelt’s mushy side for the Washington Post. And that was fun. Everyone had a nice chuckle at the soft-hearted leader of the free world.

It also gave one man a great idea. Morris Michtom, candy seller and maker of stuffed animals for children, decided it would be a good idea to make a sweet stuffed bear dedicated to the president. People loved the bears, and when Michtom asked President Roosevelt for permission to name the toy in his honor, as he no longer possessed a man card anyway, he agreed. Teddy’s bear was born, and in the years since has become the prolific teddy bear, beloved by children throughout the world, teaching all of them that bears are soft and squishy and should be given lots of hugs.

 

bears
Super huggable.

 

But it turns out that might not be entirely accurate, because as cute as they are, and they are CUTE, hugging black bears isn’t a great idea. At all.

Fortunately, in my corner of the world, we don’t have to think about it too much. Or at least that’s what I thought before a recent story broke in which a representative from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources calmly discussed the wild black bears now rambling their ways through the suburbs of St. Louis.

Much like Mississippi, the great state of Missouri was once home to a large population of black bears, and in the last few years, the dwindled population has been making a comeback. They’re out there. On one hand that’s great. Predators are an important part of ecosystems and their presence or absence is a good gauge of ecological health. But Missouri bears rarely take up residence in the suburbs.

black bear in the suburbs
Look at that cutie being all cute. But from a distance, okay? photo credit: RickyNJ Black Bear via photopin (license)

These haven’t. Allegedly they are just passing through and the experts have asked everyone to please keep calm. They’ve also asked us all not to feed or shoot the bears. And though to the best of my knowledge no one has said this specifically, I don’t think we’re supposed to try to give them squishy hugs, either.

I have seen a few videos of the critters as they make their way west, through suburban yards, and toward bear-appropriate wilderness. As far as I know, no people, pets, or bears have been hurt along the way, but there’ve been plenty of people surprised to see them, and once the shock has passed, a fair bit of awww.

Dirty Little Secrets of the Common Cold

The end of the school year is nearly upon us. The teachers and students are counting the days and hours remaining, looking forward to the final bell. I’m counting, too, but I’m a little more panicked than my children are. I am looking forward to lazy summer mornings and family adventures to far-flung places, but there’s no question my schedule and the way I approach getting things done is about to change dramatically. It takes some planning. And it takes not getting a stupid cold two weeks before the crazy summer begins.

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Ah…spring. photo credit: califmom ‘Snot Funny via photopin (license)

I’ve been incredibly lucky so far this year. I avoided the dreaded flu that took many of my friends and neighbors completely out of commission for a week or more. While others coughed and sniffled their ways through the winter, I breathed easy. Then a few days ago, I woke up with an excruciatingly sore throat at the start of what has been a goopy-headed, achy, tired week with a lengthy to-do list.

As you probably know, there are quite a few suggested remedies out there for colds, none of which work most of the time, and no actual cure. I get that. Nobody is going to win the Nobel Prize for curing the common cold. The world has bigger problems.

But I was curious to see what solutions people came up with in the past. Frankly, I didn’t come across much that I wanted anything to do with. I did, however, find some relief of sorts in a book by William Buchan, a Scottish physician who in 1769 became the Dr. Spock of his day. For those of you who are younger than me, Dr. Spock is the physician who wrote the household medicine book your mother would have kept on a shelf in the kitchen before she had access to Dr. Google.

spock
Not that Spock. photo credit: Tom Simpson Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock animation cel from Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973) via photopin (license)

Long before Spock’s Baby and Childcare, there was Buchan’s Domestic Medicine: or, a Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines. The book sold more than 80,000 copies in nineteen editions before his death in 1805, and was the most popular medical book sitting on the kitchen shelves of mothers across Europe.

Dr. Buchan had a lot to say about the dreaded common cold, most of it having to do with sweat. The man was obsessed with perspiration, insisting that you must never neglect the crucial process of sweating and must also at all times remain completely dry. That may sound like contradicting information, but think of it like reading a study that concludes drinking coffee will prolong your life, and then the next day reading another study that insists coffee will give you cancer. So yeah, it’s definitely contradictory.

towel
Forget hand sanitizer. If you want to stay healthy, grab a towel! Picture by Pexels, via Pixabay.

But Buchan’s main concern in focusing so much attention on sweat has mostly to do with temperature. Common diseases, including the ever-aggravating head cold, he claims, are caused most often by exposure to drastic changes in temperature. And that would totally explain why an otherwise perfectly healthy person might suddenly develop a cold in the middle of spring, when the temperature is at its most wishy-washy. That is, if you happen to be an eighteenth century doctor with no concept of viruses and disease transmission.

To keep from catching a cold, then, the good doctor says one should change his or her clothes immediately after sweating, to avoid rapid cooling. Also if one finds oneself overheated, he or she should, under no circumstances, drink something cold or, to be extra safe, anything at all. That’s also true when a carelessly wet person inevitably develops a cold. Never drink. Not spirits. Not water. Not anything. Also avoid particularly cool, juicy fruit. Vegetables are okay, as tolerated.

By far Dr. Buchan’s most dire warning is about sleeping in a damp bed, which you definitely don’t want to do. By damp, of course he means one that has not been in proper use for some time, and so has absorbed moisture from the air. Always, he says, put guests in rooms with beds that have been thoroughly slept in and not carefully cleaned. In fact, he recommends completely avoiding spending much time at all in rooms that have been recently cleaned.

messy bed
Because nothing says “Welcome to my home” like a guest bed that looks like this. photo credit: Edna Winti Sunrise via photopin (license)

And this I think is the one piece of advice in this little book that may be beneficial to me, because on my long list of to-dos is to prepare my house for hosting folks who will be staying with us for a large family event coming up right after school lets out. Normally this would involve a lot of washing and scrubbing and sanitizing. Since I’m still fighting this cold, I don’t really have the energy for all of that.

Thanks to Dr. Buchan’s medical wisdom, I know I can just relax and rest up instead. I’ll be a thoughtful and responsible hostess, by welcoming my guests into a healthful and dry, filthy home, with a cup of coffee that may or may not give them cancer.

Get Off My Lawn!

On May 7, 1947 real estate lawyer Abraham Levitt, along with his two sons William and Alfred, announced a plan to build a community of middle class homes on Long Island. Responding to a growing urgency in the US for family housing after World War II and the corresponding baby boom, the Levitts built nearly identical slab homes just as fast as they could. By 1951, they had produced more than 17,000 houses in Levittown and surrounding areas.

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The houses and nice lawns weren’t the only things that looked the same in Levittown. The building project also carried a legacy of racial discrimination for many years. By Gottscho-Schleisner Collection [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Each Levitt house came complete with a television, a well-manicured lawn, and plenty of rules to maintain the right sort of neighborhood vibe. People snapped up the houses as soon as they could be built. The project was so successful that in many ways it became a model for suburban housing developments all across the US.

And with them spread the idea of the Homeowners Association with all its various limitations on backyard chicken farms and exactly how long the stupid grass is allowed to be in order to maintain the look of turf lawn perfectionism. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you at this point, but man, I hate to mow.

We had a long, cold early spring here in the Midwestern US. If you know anyone from this corner of the world, I’m sure you heard about it. The weather was all anyone could talk about for a while. For weeks, I couldn’t go to the grocery store without a stranger stopping me to discuss the cold. I even blogged about how March was throwing a toddler-worthy tantrum.

weather meme
Actually the worst part may have been the steady stream of weather memes. So. Many. Memes.

I hate to be one of those people who is never happy, no matter what the weather does, but frankly now that our nice warm spring is finally here, with stunning blossoms, and the constant drone of suburban lawn care, I kind of wonder what we were all complaining about.

The Levitts certainly weren’t the first people to ever have grass lawns. Researchers point to the need for our ancestors on the savannah and later tucked inside medieval European castles to be able to see oncoming threats. Like lions. And invading armies. And door-to-door missionaries.

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Medieval lawn care service. Or the black plague. It was hard to tell. Image via Pixabay

But for a long time, personal lawn space was a luxury unavailable to other than the wealthiest individuals, who could afford to hire an army of scythe-wielding caretakers, didn’t need to dedicate every available patch of land to growing food, and had time to play lawn darts.

But now we have lawn mowers, grocery stores with shelves full of Doritos, plenty of time for lawn darts, and persnickety homeowners associations that make those of us in suburbia promise not to hang our laundry out to dry in the sun, raise chickens in our back yards, or let our grass grow three feet high.

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How people used to mow their lawns. Also against the rules of my HOA. Sigh.photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar Grazing Highland cows via photopin (license)

Most of the time, I don’t mind. Even though I’d like to know I have freedom to do so, I don’t really want to raise live chickens. And if I’m being perfectly honest, my husband does most of the mowing because for some reason he finds it kind of enjoyable. When he’s too busy or when this crazy beautiful weather we’re finally having leaves us with jungle grass every other day, I grumble and step up to keep the HOA off my back. These are tradeoffs I’m willing to make at this point in my life for good schools and quick access to city amenities.

Someday perhaps I’ll move further away from the city where I can dry my laundry on a clothesline in the sun and raise as many chickens as I want (still probably zero, but the freedom is the thing). Then I suppose I won’t have anything to complain about. Except for the tract-wielding missionaries that snuck up on me through the waving prairie grass. And of course the weather. I’ll always be able to complain about that.

Every Jiggly Step I Can Get

Early last year I wrote about a fitness challenge I had joined, pledging to walk 2,017 miles in the year 2017. In case you’re curious and don’t like to do math, that comes out to around five and a half miles per day. It’s doable for a fairly active person, which I generally am.

Still, I didn’t make my goal last year. I was close enough that if I assumed I’d walked about twenty miles on a couple of days I missed recording and averaged twelve miles each day for the last two weeks, I would have made it. It didn’t seem worth it. Honestly, I’d done really well until November when I became more focused on writing a novel and eating turkey.

treadmill
I don’t know…that looks like a lot of work. Picture by profivideos, via Pixabay

It definitely takes consistent effort and I think it’s safe to say we all have those days when we’re sick, or lazy, or sitting in a chair writing a novel, or driving across the country. It’s stringing too many of those days together that’s the problem.

But as I discovered on a recent road trip to visit my parents in Illinois that last obstacle isn’t so bad. It takes me about two hours to get to their house pretty much regardless of the route I take. Each option comes with drawbacks. The most direct route takes me across the Mighty Mississippi on a scary, crumbly bridge so narrow I’ve seen truck drivers back up rather than meet a vehicle coming across in the other direction.

This time I wisely chose to go another way with thicker traffic, but a much nicer bridge, and then a two lane highway in Illinois that could use a little love and attention and provides plenty of broken, bumpy adventure. But this road has a hidden benefit for those drivers wearing their fitness bands. In the hour I was dodging potholes on that lonely Illinois road, my fitness band credited me with six hundred steps.

And why shouldn’t it? I may not have done the walking myself, but my body surely benefited from the jiggling. At least it might have according to Swedish physician and inventor Gustav Zander, who in the latter half of the 19th century invented some of the earliest forms of gym equipment. Included among Dr. Zander’s creations was the first belt vibrator machine (if you Google that, use caution).

belt vibrator
Her workout clothes are way fancier than mine. By Unknown – https://digitaltmuseum.se/021016402498/balstrackning, Public Domain, vis Wikimedia Commons

This contraption had a belt you’d place around your waist or arm or leg, or I guess wherever your problem areas may be and then it magically vibrated the fat away. Dr. Zander’s wonderful machine provided healthful massage, relieved mental fatigue, rid the body of harmful toxins, and toned muscles. Or it didn’t.

The use of passive exercise machines like the belt vibrator peaked in the early part of the 20th century and surged again through the 1950s and 60s. There’s just something really appealing about getting into shape without wearing legwarmers or doing any actual work at all.

broken road
Who needs workout equipment? Picture by Antranias, via Pixabay

Even today there are numerous products on the market designed to move your muscles for you while you read a book or give yourself a pedicure. Today’s devices generally stimulate muscle contraction using targeted electrical pulses. And though such gadgets may offer some therapeutic benefits, providing you with that beach ready body isn’t one of them. For that, they’re about as effective as Dr. Zander’s original passive jiggle apparatus or my car on a bumpy road.

So maybe jostling car steps shouldn’t count, but since my fitness tracker is just as likely to ignore a quick jaunt across the room or a climb up sixteen flights of stairs, I’m going to assume it more or less evens out. This year’s goal is 2,018 miles and by the time November rolls around, I may decide to sit in a chair and write a novel while eating my body weight in turkey. I’ll need every extra jiggly step I can get.

 

And speaking of novels, there’s exciting news coming down the bumpy pike on that score. I can’t promise you any free steps, but if you want to be among the first in the know, you can sign up to receive email news from me here: http://eepurl.com/b3olY1