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.

This Blog Post is Okay

Okay, so over the past few weeks, I haven’t been very active in this space. I’ve been posting sporadically and haven’t been regularly visiting the many other wonderful blogs I normally visit regularly. I apologize for that and I will be working to make the rounds again now in the coming days as summer begins.

The last many weeks have been busy ones for me as I took on the full-time coverage for the maternity leave of a high school English teacher. Though it’s been a blast, it has also taken a lot of time and energy and I’ve had to let some things slide. But now the final exams have nearly all been given and the grades are almost submitted, and much like eighth president of the United States Martin Van Buren, I’m OK.

Martin Van Buren, OK US president. Mathew Benjamin Brady, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Van Buren was only a candidate for the presidency when, in 1840, he first became known as “Old Kinderhook,” because he was from Kinderhook, New York. His supporters across the nation formed OK clubs and many historians assumed that this is how the ubiquitous little acronym OK, and the word “okay,” that it spawned, was born.

In truth, the Van Buren campaign may have influenced the persistence of the word, but that’s not where it started. Twenty-eighth president Woodrow Wilson was convinced the word had Native American roots, coming from the Choctaw word okeh, first borrowed by seventh president Andrew Jackson.

That explanation sure sounds okay, but it turns out it wasn’t right either. Neither were the assumptions made by various other o. k. linguists and who knows how many okay American presidents that the word descended from Latin, Greek, Swedish, or Mandingo.

It wasn’t until the more than ok work of word historian Allen Walker Read in 1963 that the world learned the story of its favorite word, a word that is understood in nearly every language in the world. Read explained in the magazine American Speech that o.k. was first used in 1839 as an abbreviation for “all correct” by an editor for the Boston Morning Post, and was meant as a friendly poke at a colleague at the Providence Journal in Providence, Rhode Island.

Image by Joakim Roubert from Pixabay

To modern readers that story probably sounds a little strange, but Read explained that at the time, there was a brief craze in English over both abbreviations and intentional misspellings. Well, ok.

And really, if you consider the modern teenager, with whom I’ve recently spent a great deal of time, it’s not so hard to imagine written communication carried out almost entirely in acronyms and misspelled words. Also, I think we can trust Allen Walker Read, as he is also the man who presented the world with a thorough understanding of the origin of the F_ _ _ word. But that’s another blog post.

The origin of ok or o.k. or OK or okay certainly doesn’t make for a glamorous story, but then maybe that’s appropriate. The really curious thing, I think, is how it managed to work its way into the speech of so many various cultures. I somehow doubt that it was all due to the influence of Martin Van Buren.

Perhaps the word has just evolved because as a species, we humans don’t always have something all that brilliant or important to say and so we end up saying things that are just ok. All I do know is that whatever corner of the world you’re from, you probably know what I mean when I say it. And that’s okay with me.

Did You Smell Something?

Every seventy-six years or so, Earth crosses paths with another resident of our solar system as the two of us get about the business of circling our mutual sun. It’s a pretty exciting event when it happens, at least as I seem to vaguely recall from my childhood in the 1980s when we last said hello to Halley’s comet.

This man knows his comets. Richard Phillips, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But to be honest, the encounter hasn’t always been perfectly friendly. Over the millennia this innocent-looking comet that may seem to mind its own business has been the cause of quite a bit of consternation. It has portended all kinds of dramatic and often violent changes in the world from the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans just a few short years after its appearance, to the Norman Conquest of England, to the Mongol invasion of Europe undertaken by Genghis Kahn.

It wasn’t until 1704 when Edmund Halley pieced together that several of the comets observed throughout history might in fact be the same comet seen again and again, that we even knew our bad news neighbor’s name. Halley correctly predicted that the comet would be observed in 1758, and though he wasn’t alive to see it happen, he was right.

Armed with a new, slightly more scientific understanding of the comet, we the people of Earth didn’t find it quite so scary. That is until May 20, 1910 when it tried to kill us all. That’s when respected French astronomist Camille Flammarion used spectroscopy to discover that the comet’s tail contained cyanogen gas, that would certainly poison Earth’s atmosphere and swiftly wipe out all life on the planet.

Our friendly neighborhood deadly comet. Professor Edward Emerson Barnard at Yerkes Observatory, in Williams Bay, Wisconsin., 1910. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Not every highly regarded astronomist agreed, but much like today, expert disagreement wasn’t enough to stop the press from hyping a good story. And boy was it a good story. It sparked others to claim that the gravitational pull alone from the comet would cause the oceans to swell and cover great stretches of land, sweeping uprooted American forests across the Sahara Desert. The panicked public furiously sealed the cracks around doors and windows to keep the deadly gas from entering their homes and stocked up on essential supplies like gas masks and anti-comet pills. Toilet paper, too, I assume.

When May 20th arrived and the comet came into view right on time, humanity held its breath and awaited extinction.

Out of an abundance of caution. Image by Èric Seró from Pixabay

Now, as a purveyor of conversational historical cocktail party-worthy tidbits, let me be the first to reassure you that all life on planet Earth did not in fact come to an end in that moment. While there is poisonous cyanogen gas in the tail of Halley’s Comet, it’s not there in a significant enough concentration to make a lick of difference to life on the earth. The gravitational pull, too, of our punctual but not-so-scary neighborhood comet is of no significant consequence to our big blue ball of a home.

Which was just the kind of misinformation that got the vast majority of astronomists banned from all the social media sites. After life on the earth didn’t end catastrophically, Camille Flammarion did what any good disproven researcher would and assembled a bunch of witnesses who swore that though the danger of the poison gas might have been slightly miscalculated, they definitely smelled a whiff of something funny in the air.

I can’t argue with testimony like that. Pretty much every time the media runs with a story that forecasts the end of the world, I’m pretty sure I smell something funny. Anyway, if anyone needs them, I’ve got a stockpile of anti-comet pills. I’d be happy to sell you one for an exorbitant fee. Come the year 2061 and Earth’s next encounter with Halley’s Comet, you may be glad you have one.

A Recycled Anniversary

Coming up this week on, on May 9th to be exact, this blog will mark its tenth anniversary. Over the course of those ten years, it hasn’t changed much. I still know too little about SEO, don’t use nearly enough bullet points, overuse commas, and usually drone on longer than most readers care to pay attention. Yet here I am plugging away in my little corner of the blogosphere, writing about whatever little historical tidbit has lately taken my fancy, cracking stupid jokes, and sharing inane details about my life.

And you, dear readers, are kind enough to come along for the ride. Some of you have been checking in on what began as “The Practical Historian: Your Guide to Practically True History” since early days. Some of you have stumbled onto it by accident more recently and have chosen to stick around. If you happen to be my mother, then you’ve even read every single post. I appreciate every one of you immensely.

Some might argue that the 5th anniversary symbol is wood, but wood pulp makes paper, which makes books. So, I’m not wrong.

When the blog reached its five-year anniversary I published a little book, ridiculously titled Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense, which contained about eighty or so posts that I considered to be the greatest hits of the first five years. In case you didn’t know, the traditional fifth anniversary symbol is a book.

The tenth anniversary is most often symbolized by aluminum, or aluminium if you must. I thought the most fitting way to celebrate, then, would be to write an amazing post about aluminum in history. It turns out, the earliest mention of alum comes from Herodotus, that famous 5th century BC Greek Father of History who liked to make things up. And that is the most exciting thing I could find about aluminum, because I couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough to read any more.

But what I do happen to know about aluminum is that we’ve gotten pretty good at recycling it, and so, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of this silly little blog, that’s what I am going to do, though this time I limited myself to ten posts rather than eighty or so.

Here are ten posts you can peruse if you so wish, recycled from the second five years of the Practical Historian:

Game of Allergens

Skinny Pants and Cupcakes: Everything a Young Republic Needs

Tough Questions on the Way to School

A Study in Buttery Bovines

The Greatest Shoe-Buying Orgy in History

Gardening for Beer. Beer for Gardening.

WU (What’s Up) With this ARE (Acronym-Rich Environment)?

My Immediate Travel Plans

A Nude Horse is a Rude Horse

Say What?!