Welcome to Adulthood

On July 5, 1971 then president Richard Nixon certified the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution lowering the nation-wide voting age to 18. The move had been a long time coming, with arguments in favor of it reaching back to World War II when the age of draft eligibility was expanded to include eighteen to thirty-seven-year-olds. The primary argument was that if one were old enough to be pressed into service for one’s country, then one ought to have the right to vote for the government doing the pressing.

He has managed to grow more hair in the past eighteen years.

While in principle most people didn’t disagree with that sentiment, the push to make the change didn’t initially gain much steam. People in their late teens were still cared for in many aspects of their lives and at the time, weren’t generally all that politically engaged. Polls in the 1940s suggested that the youth population was kind of meh about the whole notion of voting.

That started to shift with the next generation who were paying more attention to politics throughout the Korean War and Vietnam Conflict. In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act that awarded the right to vote to all citizens eighteen and up. It was a bipartisan, fairly popular issue, but it also wasn’t constitutional.

It’s always been my rule that I don’t put pictures of my kids’ faces on my blog. I suppose now that he’s turning 18, I could bend the rule, but old habits and all. Just imagine a great smile, missing some teeth.

And so on March 23, 1971 Congress sent a new amendment to the states for ratification. It took one hundred days from Congressional proposal to presidential certification, the fastest ratification process of any of the twenty-seven amendments now included the US Constitution.

At that point eighteen was already considered the age of majority in many states, but after the 26th Amendment, it became almost universally so. There are still some age-related restrictions in some circumstances in some states, including two that don’t grant the legal authority to enter into a contract until age nineteen. But for the most part, unless you want to drink a beer or buy cigarettes, you are an adult in the US at age eighteen.

What this means is that this week my oldest son will register for the draft, register to vote, and eat birthday cake. If he so chooses, he could also buy a lottery ticket, parachute out of an airplane, get a tattoo, adopt a puppy, get married, pick up a bottle of cough medicine, serve on a jury, legally change his name, apply for a loan, obtain his commercial drivers’ license, become a notary public, have his tongue pierced, or get a job operating a meat slicer.

He’s gotten quite a bit taller through the years. He still has a great smile And all of his teeth have grown in.

He could also move out of his parents’ house, which he would probably have to do if he decided to pursue some of those things. It’s strange, though, as I look over the list of his new rights and privileges, I’m feeling pretty calm about it.

Though they have included some very long days, these past eighteen years have also been a short time to teach him everything he needs to know to be a successful adult. I’m fairly certain that I haven’t managed to do it.

I am, however, just as certain that in those eighteen years he has become a confident, intelligent, resourceful, and resilient young man. I know that when he votes, he will do so thoughtfully, that he understands enough math not to bother with lottery tickets, and that if he decides to jump out of an airplane, he’s wise enough not to mention it to his mother. I still have a few meat-slicer-related concerns, but all-in-all, I think he’ll bump along just fine.

Welcome to adulthood, E!  

The Oldest Senior Pictures Ever

In 1936, family historian Alva Gorby published a book no one but her family was likely interested in reading. She called it The Gorby Family: Origin, History and Genealogy. It was, as she claimed in the introduction “a very enjoyable ‘labor of love’” that required many years of collecting family memories, photographs, and lore, chasing down records, and verifying claims.

Hannah Stilley Gorby. This maybe wouldn’t be the worst country album cover. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Like any family genealogy project is bound to do, this one allegedly contains a few errors here and there, but it also includes something of great interest to the wider public beyond just the descendants of Samuel and Mary (May) Gorby. In its pages can be found a print of what is generally accepted to be the oldest living person ever photographed.

I should explain that further because there is a lot of confusion on the internet about just what is meant by such a claim. The photograph in question depicts a woman named Hannah Stilley Gorby, the second wife of Joseph Gorby, son of Samuel and Mary and it was taken around 1840, which would make it not the oldest photo ever taken by maybe about fifteen years or so.

If Alva Gorby’s records are correct, Hannah was born in 1746, making her in the neighborhood of 94 when the picture was snapped. Now, the woman was thirty when the US became a nation and ninety-four is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but there’ve been plenty of photos of people with more birthdays under their belts. Hannah wasn’t even old enough to get her picture featured on a Smuckers jar on the Today Show.

What Hannah Stilley Gorby can claim, however, is that of all the people ever photographed, she was first to have been born. Probably. Or at least maybe.

The problem is that the original daguerreotype of Hannah Stilley Gorby is lost to history and the most reliable support we have for the claim comes from the work of her amateur genealogist descendent who, let’s be honest, probably totally geeked out about her photographically famous aunt. I mean, who wouldn’t?

Probably not a very good country album cover. Image by Jorge Guillen from Pixabay

Because family history can be pretty geek-out worthy, like when you discover an uncle from five generations back who was a missionary physician with a pet orangutan and write a novel because no way can you make this stuff up yourself.

And family pictures are precious. I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately because my oldest son is now a senior in high school and we recently had a series of senior photographs taken of him. Like a lot of photographs.

We haven’t had the opportunity yet to sit down with my photographer friend to look through the proofs, but the shoot was amazing. My son, who was a smushy-faced newborn like yesterday, cooperated with every crazy idea (some of which he volunteered) from donning a suit and tie for a professional headshot to leaning flannel-clad against a fence post with his acoustic guitar in case he someday needs a cover for a country album.

I can’t wait to see how the pictures all came out because no matter what, I know they are photos of my more-or-less grown son, and are technically the oldest senior pictures ever of any of my children. That may not mean much to the general public, but you know that guitar pic is going into a family genealogy book one of these days for the benefit of my descendants, who will probably attempt to verify that he was a famous country music star.

Thankful for a Kick in the Pants

On October 3, 1789, then president of the newly established nation of the United States George Washington issued a proclamation declaring November 26th “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” He claimed to have done so at the request of both houses of Congress, who asked him to acknowledge “with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.”

I’m trying to imagine members of Congress coming up with such words today. I’m also thinking that if each elected member of the federal government, and perhaps all levels of government, spent some time focusing on the things they are thankful for, the United States would be a better nation for it.

In fact, I think if every American citizen spent more time thinking about the things they are thankful for and less time thinking about how stupid their clearly unthinking, unreasonable, stubborn donkey of a neighbor, coworker, sister-in-law, or drunken uncle on the other side of the aisle is, then the United States would be a much better nation for it.

We can, and probably should, do that every single day. Thanksgiving Day didn’t become an official national holiday until 1870 when a post-Civil War United States desperately needed a reason to come together and focus on the good stuff.

Image by Babar Ali from Pixabay

The date wasn’t set on the calendar as the fourth Thursday of November until 1941, but since the very earliest days of the US, the Congress—arguably the collection of the most needlessly quarrelsome and infuriatingly frustrating of its citizens—has recognized that thankfulness is a good thing. And if rarely on much else, on this one thing, we agree.

It’s been a hot minute since I have posted in this space, as I was feeling a little burned out. I admit it’s taken me longer than I anticipated to be ready to jump back into the blogosphere, but as I reflect today on all the things I am thankful for, I am realizing the list definitely includes the opportunity this blog has given me to connect with so many wonderful, creative people all over the world. I’m so thankful for all of you. And I’m also thankful for a consistent weekly kick in the pants to write something, even when I’m too busy or stressed out or uninspired.

Happy official Thanksgiving to all my American blogging friends, and to my international friends as well, because even without a presidential proclamation or an act of Congress, thankfulness is a good thing.

Hot Dogs for a King

In 1937, author Ernest Hemingway ate the worst meal of his life. It consisted of “rainwater soup followed by rubber squab, a nice wilted salad, and a cake” provided by “an enthusiastic, but unskilled admirer.” The man did have a way with words. This delectable meal was served to him at the White House, historically known as a center for culinary excellence, but just then developing a reputation for the opposite.

Lots of visitors had voiced similar complaints and it was becoming commonplace to go ahead and order a pizza before heading to dinner with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. I don’t know how the Roosevelts felt about that, but when it happens at my house, I admit to some hurt feelings.

Ernest Hemingway enjoying what was probably not the worst meal of his life. unattributed, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I hope I do better than rubber squab and rainwater soup, but my picky children might say otherwise and it’s not uncommon for them to try to grab something else with their friends on casserole night, making me wonder why I bother.

I suppose it’s for more or less the same reason Eleanor Roosevelt did. Her partner in the crime of assaulting the tastebuds in the White House was her dear friend Henrietta Nesbitt who, much like the rest of Depression Era America had fallen on hard times. To help out, the first lady hired her friend as head housekeeper for the first family. As the formerly wealthy wife of a formerly wealthy husband, Nesbitt knew a thing or two about managing a household. She was, however, a terrible cook.

Henrietta Nesbitt, who once served hot dogs and beer to the king of England, making her kind of a hero. Harris & Ewing, photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nesbitt’s first order of business was to overhaul the White House kitchen, which she did admirably, bringing its equipment into the modern era and creating more space and better workflow. Then she set about designing the kind of meals that would be an example to the households of America on how to eat healthfully and frugally in the midst of the kind of economic turmoil that causes long breadlines and literal starvation.

According to Eleanor Roosevelt herself, Nesbitt’s careful management allowed for the average two-course meal at the White house to cost less than ten cents, no matter who was dining. King George VI was allegedly served hot dogs and beer when he visited, and though his poor wife didn’t quite know what to make of the curious meal, the king seemed to enjoy it.

The White House food, though terrible by comparison to previous administrations and all those since, really probably wasn’t that different than what was being scraped together and served in most American households. Many were even looking to the White House for ideas on how to stretch their dwindling food budgets, which is exactly what Eleanor Roosevelt had hoped would happen.

Fortunately, we’re not living through a Great Depression, at least in this moment. Still, food costs are rising quickly and I do feel a responsibility to teach my children, now teenagers not so far from the day when they will stretch their wings and try to make it out in the world on their own, that one can eat simply and healthfully and frugally when the pizza money runs out.

Maybe the message is getting through. Or maybe they’re complaining behind my back about wilted salad.

Image by Silvia from Pixabay

Just a note: Though my creativity is still shining in the kitchen, on the written page I am dealing with a little bit of burnout. Because of that, I’m going to take a short break from posting in this space. I’ll still be around, visiting blogs and responding to comments and hopefully will be up and writing again soon.

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.