Just the Worst: A Celebration of Banned Book Week

In 1637, English lawyer and colonist Thomas Morton, founder of the Merrymount colony that eventually became Quincy, Massachusetts, published a book that was not very complimentary of his Puritan neighbors.

According to Morton, who had been pretty successful in establishing trade and good relations with the Native Americans in the vicinity of his colony, the Puritans were generally unfair, dishonest, abusive, and hateful. He also had some unflattering nicknames for them.

Amsterdam: Jacob Frederick Stam, publisher, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Prior to writing his book, Morton had attempted to expel the Puritans from Massachusetts with a lawsuit that rested on their alleged misrepresentation of their purpose for establishing a colony in the first place. They’d done so in a different location than originally planned as well, and in a location to which someone else technically held the rights. He won the suit.

The lawsuit had come on the tail of a particularly nasty encounter between Morton and his neighbors.  Despite his own traditional Anglican beliefs, Morton engaged in his fair share of passive aggressive paganistic behavior of the variety that would drive a Puritan mad. When he erected an eighty-foot-tall maypole and invited his Algonquin friends over for a raging kegger, the highly offended Puritans arrested him, cut down his maypole, burned down his colony, and left him to die stranded on a rocky, coastal island.

Fortunately, Morton had managed to make himself some friends by throwing the best parties and, you know, not slaughtering them, and so he survived the ordeal. If the legal decision that revoked the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter had been enforced, that might have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. And so, Morton wrote his offensive book.

New English Canaan, which today is considered a historically significant literary work of the American colonial period, consists of three parts. The first is a primarily positive view of Native American customs. The second is an account of the natural history of Massachusetts. And the third is a satirical look at why Puritans are just the worst.

Image by Pretty Sleepy Art from Pixabay

The book was originally published in the Netherlands, where anti-English books of the day tended to be published. Not all that surprisingly, most of the copies were initially seized and destroyed by the English government. The few copies that managed to circulate were quickly condemned and banned by the Puritans, making New English Canaan the first banned book in America.  

Today there are just sixteen original copies of Morton’s book in existence, though it has been republished with plenty of scholarly criticism and is freely available on the internet. I haven’t read it, but honestly, the mere fact that it was banned makes me kind of want to pick it up.

I might just do so, in honor of Banned Book Week. The annual event is celebrated this week by the American Library Association and by intelligent, thoughtful people everywhere who are not the busy-body mom crusaders across the nation that have for some reason decided they are responsible for monitoring the reading material of everyone else’s children.  

Carol M. Highsmith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I feel compelled, too, as long as I am standing up here on my soapbox, to state that such people shout on each side of the political aisle, as is evidenced by the practice of revenge banning being attempted at a truly alarming rate.

At this point I am so frustrated by the book banners I, probably unfairly, assume that if given the chance they would cut down a maypole, burn down a school, and banish all the librarians to die alone on a rocky, coastal island. All in the noble name of keeping children safe from just the kind of intellectual stimulation and freedom of thought that could help them to develop into critical thinkers. Just the worst.

Thank heavens for the majority of parents who recognize that censorship belongs in their private homes and families, along with their noses. Thank heavens, too, for the librarians who, too often without support from their district administrators, are standing up for the freedom to read. And shame on the politicians who are not.

Happy Banned Book Week to all!

How Do You Like Them Apples?

It was in 1902 that journalist Kate Masterson, writing for the New York Times, solidified an American symbol and expressed perhaps an over-zealous appreciation for America’s favorite dessert. In response to a British writer’s assertion that one shouldn’t indulge in apple pie more than twice a week, which is probably pretty good dietary advice, Masterson called that pace of pie-eating “utterly insufficient.”

She went on to write that “Pie is the American synonym of prosperity. . .Pie is the food of the heroic. No pie-eating people can be permanently vanquished.”

Mmm. Heroism is delicious. Image by Pam Carter from Pixabay

That’s a lot of confidence to put into pie, but to be fair, there really is nothing more American than apple pie. Except, that is, for pretty much anything that is actually uniquely American, or even originally American, which pie is not. For that matter, neither are apples.

There’s only one species of apple that is native to North America. That’s the inedible crab apple, from which Johnny Appleseed liked to make hard cider, but otherwise mostly just makes a mess of suburban lawns. The sweeter varieties that are great for pies come originally from Asia from which they made their way to pie-loving Europe, and then into the early days of the American colonies.

Colonists loved planting apple trees and it wasn’t long before there were thousands of varieties growing, with apple trees on nearly every homestead. When America’s first cookbook, American Cookery, was published in 1796, American housewives could find two different recipes for apple pie among its pages.

There are definitely worse problems to have. Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

And they must have used them well because twenty-four years after Masterson extolled the heroic pie, the phrase “as American as apple pie,” began to show up as an expression of the ideals of American motherhood, wholesomeness, and comfort. When American soldiers headed off to World War II, one of their battle cries became fighting for mom and apple pie.

And why not? In a way I suppose it’s fitting. Much of the culture of the American people didn’t originate in North America, either, but is blended together from influences from all over the world into one big, unique pie, with admittedly quite a few different takes on the original one or two recipes.

I’m grateful for that and also for all the literal apple recipes for pies and cobblers and sauces and breads and apple butter and yes, more pie. Like the colonists that came before us, my family planted apple trees not long after we moved into our house. Two of the trees produce a couple dozen lovely sweet apples every year. The third tree produces somewhere in the neighborhood of ten thousand.

We might even have a jar or two of applesauce left from two years ago, but ours are not this pretty. Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

That might be a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea. We’ve given away apples, welcomed friends to come pick apples, canned applesauce to put on a shelf with last year’s canned applesauce we haven’t gotten to yet, and made our share of pies.

I like apples, and apple pie, but we kind of have it coming out of our ears. I guess maybe that’s a sign of prosperity and heroism and immunity to permanent vanquishment. I don’t know. But I do think that at least during apple season, Masterson was probably right to say that pie only two times a week is utterly insufficient.

Hey also, if you happen to know any great apple recipes, please feel free to put them in the comments. Thanks!

Mothman by Day, Mole Man by Night

Sometime around September 25, 1924 the streets of Washington D.C.’s Dupont Circle district opened up and swallowed a truck. I imagine that was quite a shock for the truck driver who suddenly found himself in the literal dark underbelly of his nation’s capital. It was also a surprise to nearly everyone in the city, especially when it was discovered that the reason for the sinkhole was an elaborate series of tunnels dug beneath the area.

Harrison Gray Dyar. Mothman by day, Mole Man by night. Unidentified photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Speculation quickly suggested nefarious plots involving spy rings and bootlegger operations, neither of which turned out to be true. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, the tunnels didn’t lead to a great Masonic treasure, either.

The explanation finally came from a former resident of the neighborhood, Harrison Dyar, a fifty-eight-year-old, independently wealthy and highly respected entomologist who spent most of his career at the Smithsonian Institution. There he was the custodian of the Lepidoptera. In case you aren’t up on your bugs, that’s the order of insects that includes butterflies and moths.

If moths do happen to be your thing, then Dyar’s name might be familiar to you. He’s the rock star entomologist behind Dyar’s Law, which is a ratio that can be used to identify larval stages based on insect head width, a fact I’m sure you already knew. He’s also the inspiration for the genus of moth once known as Dyaria. That name has since been changed to Coenodomus, which is harder to pronounce, but is also much easier to say with a straight face.

But that’s not all Dyar is known for because, when he was done looking at insects all day, he also had an unusual hobby. For years, the man spent an enormous amount of his free time digging tunnels that snaked from his home through the ground beneath Washington D.C. When asked why he did this, he replied that he did it for exercise.

Oops. Accidental discovery (by cave-in) of a tunnel built by Harrison G. Dyar. Dupont Circle, Washington D.C. Herbert A. French, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

His children and their friends played in the tunnels, some of which were reinforced with concrete, lined with ceramic tiles, and included ladders, archways, decorative animal sculptures, and strings of electric lights. The whole thing allegedly started one day when Dyar dug a garden for one of his wives (because there’s more than moths to this historical figure) and then he just kept digging until, a decade and a half later, a truck fell through the streets of Washington D.C. Oops.

Dyar’s tunnels are all filled in or bricked off today, but of course rumors abound that there are plenty of underground tunnels and bunkers throughout the city. Some claims are substantiated. A few such spaces are even open to the public.

Others remain little more than whispers, though I doubt anyone would be surprised to find that Washington D.C. has its fair share of dark, cavernous secrets and an unstable underbelly created by the custodians of all manner of Dyaria.

In Your Guts, You Know They’re Nuts

It’s been another big week in the life of Missouri residents who finally had the opportunity a few days ago to vote in primary elections. Let me tell you, it has been a slog getting here. For many months, and particularly in the last few weeks, nearly every television commercial, radio ad, and piece of junk mail has proclaimed the virtues of candidates while bashing opponents.

Our inboxes have been inundated with uninvited appeals, our spam filters have been working overtime, and every street corner has been littered with brightly colored signs featuring slick, stupid slogans. I imagine that’s been the case for most of us in the US as we move through primary season in preparation for the next one which will begin on Wednesday, November 9.

And that’s how it’s been since at least 1840 when William Henry Harrison, famed hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe, made a bid for the presidency with his running mate John Tyler under the slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!” It was also a song, that is particularly painful to listen to.

They Might Be Giants released a more tolerable version in 2004.

But it isn’t the worst campaign slogan ever. That distinction probably belongs to 1928 Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith, whose slogan “Make your wet dreams come true,” both communicated his anti-prohibition platform and made would-be voters incredibly uncomfortable. And yes, etymologically speaking, Smith was intentional in doubling his entendre, at least according to Merriam-Webster.

My favorite slogan, however, comes from the race between Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Goldwater’s slogan of choice was “In your heart, you know he’s right.” That one is terrible, but Johnson’s response of, “In your guts, you know he’s nuts” is about as good as it gets. I mean if you’re going to drown us in campaign garbage, then at least have the decency to be clever about it.

I’m just glad that in Missouri it’s finally over. The votes have been cast, the ballot boxes filled, and life can return to normal for approximately fifteen seconds before the winners’ campaigns ramp up for the general election in November.

On second thought, I am as bad as the other guy. Worse, even. In case you get any ideas about voting for me.

That’s when the losing candidates who were slinging mud up until and all through this past Tuesday begin instead to issue statements of support, such as, “I may have been mistaken when I called my opponent a child molester who supports cancer in all its varied forms. Regardless, I ask you now to lend him your support because at least he’s not that other guy.”

The elections went okay, I guess, as far as elections go. Primary elections in non-presidential years don’t usually yield a whole lot of excitement, but there were a few hotly contested races and I did have to stand in line in order to vote. I generally think it’s a good thing when citizens care enough to show up. Like pretty much always, the candidates I favored won some and lost others. In a race or two, I was pleased to support someone and in most I voted for the least unsavory alternative.

I can’t complain too much, though, as I remain entirely unwilling to run for office myself. Even if I wanted to, I haven’t yet come up with an adequate slogan. I bet there’s a generator out there circulating on social media somewhere, something to do with rearranging a selection of words like integrity, experience, and leadership, based on your mother’s maiden name and the various digits of your social security number.

A Jury of Slimy Philosophical Counselors

It’s been a crazy couple of days here in the Greater St. Louis area as historic flash flooding has overwhelmed roadways, swamped cars, and caused a lot of damage to homes and businesses. By historic, I mean this was the biggest rain event this region has ever seen since records of such things exist starting in 1874.

According to the National Weather Service, in just six hours, the rainfall total surpassed the previous record set in a 24-hour period in 1915. To put it in a slightly different perspective, the St. Louis area received approximately 25% of its normal annual rainfall total in something like twelve hours, and closer to a third in some areas. It’s a hot mess.

This is one of the interstates we travel daily. A friend sent me this picture and I don’t know whose it is originally. I will gladly give credit or remove as requested.

Now, let me reassure you that though my suburban town did receive impressive rain totals and is in some places dealing with damage from the flood waters, my personal home is relatively elevated and has remained dry. I’m certainly very grateful for that. Other than having to alter schedules and commutes, my family hasn’t been particularly affected by the downpour.

Prior to the deluge, we St. Louisans had been experiencing a stretch of drought and we needed the rain, so we were more or less delighted when Monday brought us cloudy skies and occasional drizzles with the promise of a nice overnight thunderstorm. We just hadn’t anticipated so much rain so quickly.

It’s not that our weather forecasters hadn’t mentioned the possibility of a lot of precipitation and maybe even some flash flooding. We all accepted, I think, that it wasn’t going to be an ideal night to tent camp in a creek bed. But it’s not easy to anticipate an event that, to the best of our knowledge, has never happened before.

Dr. Merryweather chose to use 12 leeches so his prognosticators wouldn’t feel “the affliction of solitary confinement,” which I admit is far more consideration that I have ever given to a leech. Image by István Asztalos from Pixabay

Even with all their university degrees, computer models, and fancy greenscreen maps, meteorologists have a pretty tough audience to try to reach. It’s just that they deal in probabilities and sometimes, the most probable thing that might happen, isn’t the thing that happens. The last highly anticipated St. Louis snow-pocalypse, for example, yielded less than an inch of light dusting. A little flash flood warning wasn’t going to scare us much.

Now if the meteorologists had run their prognostication by a “jury of philosophical counselors” consisting of at least twelve leeches, then that might’ve caught our attention. And if 19th century English physician and leech enthusiast George Merryweather had gotten his way, that might’ve been what happened.

As a practicing physician in the era of physicians not always knowing what they were doing, Dr. Merryweather spent a lot more time than the average non-physician thinking about leeches. One thing he observed was that their behavior tended to change with the weather. He wasn’t the first to realize this. For a long time, people who had nothing better to do had noted that leeches rise out of the water when a storm is coming and roll themselves into a ball when the storm is at hand.

But amazingly, Dr. Merryweather was the first to design a leech-powered weather predicting device. He called it the “Atmospheric Electromagnetic Telegraph, Conducted by Animal Instinct,” which he then shortened to the “Tempest Prognosticator.”

You can see a replica of
Merryweather’s fancy contraption,
minus the leeches, in the Whitby Museum in the UK. I have no doubt it’s worth the trip. Badobadop, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creative
commons.org
/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It was an impressive apparatus, consisting of a circle of twelve glass jars arranged around a large metal ball. Each jar contained a little bit of rain water, a leech, and a whale bone striker at the top, which when bumped by a leech climbing into the bottleneck in anticipation of a coming storm, would strike the metal ball and give a warning of impending inclement weather. When enough of Merryweather’s slimy little philosophical counselors sounded the alarm, he knew a storm was on its way.

The really weird part is that it worked, kind of. Or at least it worked as well as other weather predicting equipment of its day. It had limitations, of course. The leeches, who aren’t known to be great communicators, weren’t forthcoming with the direction of a storm, and to be honest, probably wouldn’t have predicted record-breaking flash flooding any better than today’s computer models could.

In the end, Dr. Merryweather’s invention was not adopted as the gold standard of weather prediction he believed it would be. The tempest prognosticator was expensive and required some upkeep as water needed to be changed every week and the jury wanted feeding once in a while. Also, outside of the 19th century medical profession, most people agree leeches are slimy and gross.

But I’m picturing the article headline that might have been: “Leeches Predict Historic St. Louis Rain-Pocalypse.” Something like that would have lit up everyone’s social media feeds and gotten a fair number of clicks, I bet.

Customs of Busy Parents

I’ve just come up with a new idea for a book. It’s inspired by August Valentine Kautz, a general in the Union army in the American Civil War who had also served with the 1st Ohio infantry in the Mexican-American War, and with the 4th U. S. infantry in the Rogue River Wars and the Puget Sound War with the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest in 1855 and 1856.

This man knew his way around a form. August V. Kautz by Mathew Benjamin Brady, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As you can probably imagine, with all that military experience comes a big stack of paperwork. It turns out that August Kautz was particularly good at paperwork, but in the earliest days of his service in the Civil War in 1861 Kratz discovered, much to his dismay, that a lot of his fellow servicemen were not.

It wasn’t until a year or so later that he received an assignment in the 2nd Ohio cavalry division and managed to do something about it. That’s when he began distributing a series of circulars designed to instruct company clerks how to properly fill out their paperwork. This sounds to me like a good way to make people kind of want to punch you in the face, but Kautz found that most of his peers appreciated the guidance.

By 1863 he had found himself a publisher that churned out eight thousand copies of his 142-page paperwork instruction manual he called The Company Clerk: Showing How And When To Make Out All The Returns, Reports, Rolls, And Other Papers, And What To Do With Them. Despite the cumbersome title, of which this is only a part, and which could have used a bit of workshopping, the book sold out in the first year of publication because obviously it was a thrilling read.

Kautz then went on to write Customs of Service for Non-Commissioned Officers and Soldiers in 1864 and Customs of Service for Officers for the Army in 1866, because he said “We have numerous handbooks for military service that tell us what to do, but few, if any, that tell us how to do it….” He explained that most military clerks probably only got the job because they happened to have legible handwriting and were otherwise not up to it. But he sure was.

The average modern teenager probably couldn’t read it, but the guy did have some pretty good handwriting. August Kautz, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

All three of his books, which don’t sound like must-read bestsellers to me, remained in print well into the 1880s, because apparently there was a need for them. Kautz found the sweet spot in the book market and wrote just what his audience wanted at the moment they wanted it.

And this is where my book idea comes in. Because paperwork can get long and confusing and tedious, especially, I have long known and recently rediscovered, at the beginning of the school year.

Actually, I would like to point out that we are not yet at the beginning of a new school year. My children don’t go back to school for another month, but the onslaught has already begun and I’m discovering that now that I have a senior, it’s even worse than usual.

Of course I’m not really going to write this. That would require way too much paperwork. But I would probably read it.

This morning I sat down to write and thought perhaps I would first take a few minutes to review any emails that I’d received from the kids’ schools in the past couple of days and knock out a few of the tasks they required.

Three hours later I had filled out numerous online forms, made (and changed) several appointments, signed and scanned registrations, placed an equipment order, renewed a membership, hunted down records, contacted an administrator, emailed a school counselor and a school nurse, RSVP’d to a parent meeting, and rearranged the family schedule to accommodate upcoming non-rearrangeable school events.

All this before I had time to discover August Valentine Kautz and his books, and think, you know, I bet the modern parent could use some help with all of this nonsense. I don’t have a full book proposal fleshed out just yet, but I’m thinking of calling it something like, Customs of Busy Parents: How to Get Through the Paperwork Without Punching Someone in the Face & Other Survival Tips.

I admit the title could still use some workshopping. But I think it would sell.

Bordering on the Ridiculous

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

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

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

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

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

Weapon of war. Image by 8249023 from Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pink Tights, Big Decisions, and Funambulism

One hundred and sixty-three years ago, on June 30th of 1859, the man Mark Twain once referred to as “that adventurous ass” rappelled 200 feet down to a rock at the base of Niagara Falls to retrieve the end of a cable that he then stretched across the Falls and used it as a footbridge. 

Blondin crosses the river. New York Public Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Clad in pink tights, soft-soled leather shoes, and plenty of spangles, the 19th century’s most famous funambulist, or tightrope walker to those of you less imaginative 21st-century types who don’t do crossword puzzles, Charles Blondin made the world’s first high wire trek across one of the world’s most famous waterfalls.

For trip number one, Blondin, whose real name was Jean François Gravelet, carried a twenty-six-foot-long balancing pole and started from the American side. Partway across he stopped, sat down on the cable, cast a line down to the momentarily anchored Maid of the Mist tour boat and brought back up a bottle of wine, which he then drank before continuing his journey to Canada.

Not many of the 25,000 people there that day were betting he could accomplish the task, but he’d been walking tightropes since he was four years old and had been known to compare himself to a poet, “born and not made.” I know a few poets who work really hard at their craft and might disagree with his comparison, but there is little doubt that the five-foot, 140-pound Frenchman was particularly well suited to walk his way across Niagara Falls that day, and many subsequent days.

Over the years, he performed the stunt more than three hundred times, adding to the challenge in various ways. He crossed it without a balancing pole, backward, at night, blindfolded, pushing a wheel barrel, transporting his agent on his back, carrying and using a daguerreotype camera, and once hauling a portable cooktop that he set up in the middle to cook an omelet he then lowered for a passenger on the Maid of the Mist to enjoy.

Not to complain or anything but I have been on the Maid of the Mist and no one gave me an omelet.

His stage name became synonymous with tightrope walking itself, prompting Abraham Lincoln to once compare the work of government to that of Blondin, slowly and carefully balancing the wealth, welfare, and priorities of a nation while steadily and often dangerously crossing from one issue to the next.

I’m feeling that right now in a big way. You may have heard that the US Supreme Court recently made a big decision that resulted in overturning a previous big decision. The move had been highly anticipated for months by a lot of folks, some with fear and anger and others with hope and joy. Now that it has come down as expected, it has sent big ripples and maybe even some significant rifts through the nation.

I have strong opinions about the decision and I bet you do, too. Maybe we agree, and maybe we don’t. I know for certain that there are people I love and respect on opposite ends of the spectrum of opinions.

Abraham Lincoln depicted as Charles Blondin. Harper’s Weekly, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That makes the powerful waters and the turbulent winds of public opinion tough to navigate right now. In general I have very little faith that politicians will ever get anything particularly right, and it is in their hands, and by extension in the hands of those who elect them, what might happen next in each state.

No matter where our personal opinion falls, I do think we’re all trying to get from the court decision through the imbalanced feelings of highly emotional shock and frustration that don’t allow us to have reasonable conversations with one another, to whatever the fall-out from the decision will eventually be.

There’s a lot of anxiety out there, and it is incredibly difficult to walk that line of compassion that stretches precariously through passionate conflict. But if that uninsurable adventurous ass in pink tights could cross a high wire over Niagara Falls more than three hundred times and die peacefully at home at the age of seventy-three, then I’m betting we can probably do it.

A Tuesday for the Rabbits

In July of 1807, Alexandre Berthier, then Chief of Staff to Napoleon Bonaparte, made a slight miscalculation that led to what has to be in the running for most epic battle in human history. This occurred shortly after the signing of the Treaties of Tilsit, which ended war and sealed an alliance between France and Russia and pieced apart Prussia. The treaties represented significant wins for Napoleon. The battle that followed, and which is regularly reenacted in my backyard, did not.

What you can’t see in this painting is the bunny that has caused Napoleon’s horse to rear back in sheer panic. Jacques-Louis David, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Napoleon asked Berthier to help him celebrate his recent accomplishments by treating his men to a rabbit hunt. Berthier obliged, rounding up a couple hundred to a few thousand (depending on who you ask) of the fluffy-tailed, long-eared, twitchy-nosed spawns of Satan and caged them all at the edges of a field to await their fates at the ends of a large number of gun barrels.

What happened next comes as a surprise to no one who is me, but when the bunnies were released, they didn’t scatter away from the threat. Instead, they swarmed the hardened soldiers who, overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the rodents* coming after them in pursuit of carrots or whatever, dove for the cover of their carriages.

According to David G. Chandler, expert on Napoleon (and perhaps rabbits), the monstrous creatures flanked the hunters and converged on the imperial coach, some of them managing to leap inside and directly threaten the emperor, who was forced to prove his mettle by engaging in hand-to-hand combat, flinging the beasts from the windows in a highly imperial fashion.

Possibly the most epic battle in human history. An average Tuesday for most rabbits. Image by Ruben Porras from Pixabay

The history rumor mill would have us believe that the entire incident was Berthier’s fault, because instead of taking five minutes out of his busy schedule to round up a few thousand wild rabbits, he pulled together the hand-raised, relatively tame variety from nearby farmers. These rabbits didn’t know that Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the most feared military leaders in the world. They just knew he was some guy who didn’t seem to want to give them carrots.

Maybe. But I also think that Napoleon and his men underestimated their foe, because rabbits are just the worst.

Finally maybe sort of a kind of win.

I have been at war with the fluffy little jerks for nearly a decade. They eat all my flowers, tear up my garden, and torment my dog. They’ve even caused him permanent injury with their stupid little nest holes that pockmark my yard. And without the benefit of a waiting carriage to imperially jump into, I have been somewhat at my wits’ end.

That is until this year. In a stroke of genius, I took globs of the fur I brush out of the dog every day in springtime and stuffed them around the bases of the rabbits’ favorite munchy lilies, some of which have managed to bloom for the first time in years.

For this moment, I am winning the battle, but I know it won’t last long. The rabbits, who in previous years have been known to stand in front of the dog just beyond his invisible electric fence simply to mock him, are perfectly aware that he’s no more match for them than Napoleon was.

*I do acknowledge that rabbits are no longer classified as rodents, but until 1912 they were, because rodents or not, they are vermin with constantly growing teeth and terrible bloodlust.  

Made for Walking

On March 4th, 1861, Abraham Lincoln shook hands at his inaugural ball with a man who had bet against him winning the office of the presidency. Edward Payson Weston had made the bet, agreeing that should he be the loser, he would walk from Boston to Washington DC for the presidential inauguration. He started out on February 22 and walked 478 miles in ten days and ten hours. He didn’t make it in time for the inauguration itself, but because of the press attention he got along the journey, he received an invitation to the ball.

Weston, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, I’m a walker. I have one of those fitness trackers and I try to get to at least 13,000 steps a day, though of course I’m not successful every day. Some are definitely easier than others. I’ve also participated in challenges to walk the year, for example 2018 miles walked in 2018. I’ve completed lengthy day hikes, including the twenty-six-mile trek around Lake Geneva in Southern Wisconsin. Because it’s fun, and good for me, and it’s better than running, which is stupid.

But I am truly amazed by the accomplishments of Edward Payson Watson, whose inauguration walk kicked off not only a presidency, but also a pedestrian career. By that, I don’t mean that his career was boring. I mean that he was a professional pedestrian, once walking 2,600 miles from Portland, Maine to Chicago, Illinois in twenty-six days, winning a prize of $10,000 for the effort.

Payson would go on to complete a number of long-distance walks throughout his life, including a 51-day, 1546- mile from New York to Minneapolis when he was seventy-four years old. It was a feat that broke his previous record for the same walk by more than a day—a record set when he was a mere sixty-eight years old.

I rarely look so stylish when I’m walking. And those boots don’t look to me like they’re made for it. Edward Payson Weston. Spooner & Wells, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Both walks were impressive, but his most famous was in 1909 when he set off to cross the North American continent from New York to San Francisco in one hundred days, excepting Sundays. He experienced a number of delays and complications on this journey and wound up completing the challenge in 104 days and five hours.

Personally, I find that pretty amazing, but Payson was disappointed enough to try a transcontinental journey again the next year, this time leaving from Los Angeles and hoofing it to New York. He accomplished the trip in just seventy-eight walking days, a record that fell shortly after as a man by the name of Paul Lange soon completed the same trek in a little under 77 days.

Because the world of competitive long-distance walking is brutal. Apparently.

I know I have recently found that to be true. At the beginning of this summer vacation, I gave each of my teenage sons fitness trackers of their own, the same kind I have, with the goal of making them more aware of their activity, or lack thereof through the summer months.

Image by Mike Ljung from Pixabay

The idea was that they would need to at least record a set number of steps before sitting down to play video games, which aren’t limited as much in the summer months as they are during the school year. I was pretty proud of this arrangement. What I hadn’t counted on, though, was the fact that my fourteen-year-old, who this spring took up distance running for his school track team, is incredibly competitive.

So now I can’t sit down to say, write a blog post, without my son asking me how many steps I have and bragging about his own total. Turns out, he may get his competitive streak from his mother, and now each night sees us pacing through the house, trying to outdo one another by at least a few steps.

I guess that’s a good thing. Edward Payson Weston claimed he engaged in competitive distance walking for his health and to encourage others to resist the evils of the automobile, which made them lazy and sedentary. I don’t know about that, but with the current price of gas, I certainly don’t mind walking a little more and driving a little less. And if I can encourage my children to walk more and play less Mario Kart, then it’s well worth the effort.