Shake It Off

On Friday, January 14, 2011 in Times Square in New York, Alastair Galpin and Don Purdon shared a really long handshake. Brothers Rohit and Santosh Timilsina were there shaking hands, too, attempting to set the new world record for longest handshake recorded by the Guinness Book of World Records. The two pairs decided after thirty-three hours and three minutes that they would all four share the record, and then hopefully washed their hands.

Image by Shutterbug75 from Pixabay

It’s a pretty impressive feat, if you’re one to be impressed by such things. Personally, I’m just curious how one words his status as handshake world record holder on a resume or brings it up on a date, which I’m guessing doesn’t last that long after such an impressive credential slips into the conversation.

One person that would definitely not have been impressed to see such a triumph would have been nurse Leila Given, who in 1929, lamented in the American Journal of Nursing that handshaking had become the preferred greeting style in the United States. She argued that shaking hands transfers disease agents from person to person and she recommended that we all keep our hands to ourselves.

There’s plenty of handshaking in Homer’s work and not a single mention of hand sanitizer. What a dangerous world it was. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While the handshake is certainly not the only human greeting behavior in the world, it has long been one of the most common. Its roots reach as far back as the 9th century BC when Assyrian King Shalmaneser III and an unidentified Babylonian ruler sealed a deal and someone grabbed a quick carving for posterity. Homer mentions handshaking in the Iliad and Odyssey. If Ancient Greek funerary art is to be trusted, the Greeks shook hands a lot.

Many historians suspect that the primary motivation behind the development of the handshake was to both indicate that one was not bearing a weapon and to check that the other guy wasn’t either. It’s possible, even, that the up and down motion of the handshake developed as a way to shake loose any weapons that might be hiding up sleeves and that might cause an otherwise friendly encounter to sour.

In America, the handshake took hold as the dominant form of friendly greeting probably as a result of the Quakers in the 17th century, who favored it over forms such as bowing or hat tipping, which often indicated an inequality in power.

Of course, in recent years, as we have become a bit more germ-aware, some have favored the fist bump. Though it has been shown to transfer fewer germs from hand to hand than does a traditional handshake, it does look vaguely ridiculous and occasionally causes inexplicable, and much more definitely ridiculous, explosions.

Friends Winning GIF by Pan Pivo

I assume it’s because of this that many people are now opting for the elbow tap, including politicians and the fully grown men who play professional baseball. I have to say, as silly as it looks in the latter group, it definitely beats the maybe too friendly tap on the backside.

But I suppose all greeting behaviors take a little getting used to. We’ve been shaking hands for a long time. In the post-Covid world of someday, maybe we will shake hands again. Or maybe we won’t. Maybe, ninety-years later, we’ll finally heed Leila Given’s warning.

The last time I shook someone’s hand, more than a month ago now, was at an outdoor book signing. Both of us used hand sanitizer immediately after contact. It also didn’t last thirty-three hours and three minutes, but I am secure in the knowledge that neither of us had any weapons up our sleeves.

An Unexpected Need for Change

It was sometime in the early 1900s when an educated and highly intelligent young man from Austria-Hungary known by the name Victor Lustig embarked on a renowned life of crime. Aboard numerous transatlantic vessels this sophisticated gentleman successfully schmoozed would-be investors into supporting his non-existent Broadway Musical project. Then later he successfully sold a number of people his fantastic “Rumanian Box,” a small mahogany trunk containing two slots and some levers that worked to duplicate currency bills.

The con was pretty simple. Lustig, who tended to introduce himself as a count, happily demonstrated by asking his mark to provide a large denomination of bill, usually $100, and explained that it took six hours to make a perfect duplicate that would be accepted as legal tender by any bank. Then six hours later, Lustig’s miraculous contraption yielded two $100 bills, both of which would be determined to be genuine.

Lustig is the fella in the center with the trustworthy face. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Because they were. Of course Lustig planted the bill, and several more until the mark was thoroughly convinced and willing to cough up an awful lot of money to own the box. Lustig timed the con carefully so that he could be far away by the time the mark figured out he’d been had.

It is so simple, in fact, that one might wonder why any reasonably intelligent person might fall for it. Obviously, Victor Lustig was a pretty charming kind of guy, who gave off a trustworthy vibe. He allegedly put together a list of ten commandments for conmen that actually make me kind of like him, despite his questionable sense of morality. He’s also the same man who managed to sell the Eiffel Tower, which was neither on sale nor owned by him or anyone he ever represented, and who once conned Al Capone out of as much as $5,000. 

Lustig allegedly pulled off this creative scheme at least twice.

But I think the Rumanian Box scheme had something else going for it. On the dresser in my bedroom I have a basket where I sometimes throw the coins from the bottom of my purse, and where my husband might drop the loose change from his pants pockets before sending them through the ever-revolving laundering process.

If you have a similar spot on your dresser or nightstand or kitchen counter, you will probably not be surprised to read that this little collection of coins seems to multiply. Logically, I know this is because we add to it every time we find a few pennies in the couch cushions or clean dimes out the cup holders in the car or remove clattering nickels from the washing machine that slipped through the initial pocket-emptying process.

I could swear it multiplies.

When I occasionally think about it, I might grab a few coins from this basket and make an effort to spend them at the store, but I rarely do think about it. I’m often not using cash at the store these days anyway so I don’t really worry much about exact change.

And it turns out that’s true of a lot of Americans, particularly right now in this strange era of Covid-19. We don’t go to as many physical stores or use as many vending machines or stuff as many parking meters or travel as many toll roads or walk into as many bank lobbies as we used to.

Our tossed aside pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters are sitting, multiplying, in the baskets on our dressers. The businesses that are usually part of the chain that reintroduces those coins into circulation, aren’t handling as many. In fact, there’s a shortage.

First toilet paper. Now this.

As a result, the Federal Reserve has been rationing coins, and signs are starting to pop up in retail spaces asking people to use either exact change if possible, or an alternate form of payment. It’s almost as weird as not being able to find toilet paper and canned soup.

It sounds like the problem just kind of snuck up on us. I suppose it is difficult to anticipate all of the ramifications of shutting down an economy on a scale we’ve never attempted before. Fortunately, according to Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, the shortage is most likely pretty temporary and should sort itself out as more parts of the economy open up.

But if it doesn’t, I have a solution. I think the US should consider investing in some of these fancy dresser-top baskets so many of us have sitting around. I’d part with mine for the right price. Oh, I’m also working on a Broadway musical in need of investors. And I happen to have a tower for sale.

Plastic Faces and Great Hats

On November 5, 1854 French tailor Alexis Lavigne filed the world’s first patent for the mannequin, though by then he’d been perfecting its use for a number of years and had displayed a prototype as early as 1849 in the Industrial Expedition in Paris. As the industrial revolution had begun to make itself felt and the metric system took over most of Europe, Lavigne understood the shifting of the clothing industry away from individually tailored items toward those which could be mass-produced.

Armed with a flexible tape measure, which he invented, Lavigne set out to study human body types and measurements and produce mannequins that could approximate them, reducing the need for large numbers of fittings and increasing productivity in the fashion industry. And that was a pretty great use for mannequins.

This mannequin doesn’t creep me out, but it would still probably look better in a dress than I would. Image by AnnaliseArt, via Pixabay

Known in the fashion industry as Professor Lavigne, the founder of the famous French fashion school ESMOD, the inventor was not the first person to ever make a vaguely creepy fake person, even for the purpose of modeling clothing. Dating back to 1350 BC, King Tut had a mannequin of himself tucked away in his tomb, that some scholars have suggested may have been used for assembling fashionable pharaoh garb.  

Of course, plenty of artists, too, including Marie Tussaud modeled life-size, and much more lifelike, sculptures of people. When mannequins began to make their way into the department stores of the twentieth century, they became more lifelike, too.

Materials changed from wax to papier-mâché to plastic and female mannequins went from busty to boyish and back again to reflect trends in ideal body shapes. Headless busts gave way to pronounced facial features complete with realistic hair and pouty lips, which then became bald and faceless forms or even unfortunate mannequins who had once again lost their heads.

I would not look as good as this fake person does in this real hat. But I would occasionally blink. Image by KRiemer, via Pizabay

But regardless of the trend, there’s probably always been something just a little unsettling about mannequins. As lifelike as they can sometimes be, mannequins don’t move. Instead they openly stare at anyone passing by in a way that is so unnatural that in the right lighting, or on the set of a horror film, it can appear frightening. They are the silent observers, who in some ways, are just a little bit superior to their human counterparts.

Mannequins are more fashionable than most of us, are much better at holding that perfect awkward pose to best show off their hemlines, and they are completely comfortable in their clothing choices. They’re slimmer than most of us, slightly more ideal in proportion than most of us, and they always look good in hats. They are these disturbing, often quite pretty, pieces of art that stand in the place that should be occupied by people.

And now they are going to restaurants and baseball games, occupying even more spaces that should belong to living and breathing human beings.

Apparently in Taiwan, where baseball is in about as full swing as any of us is likely to see this year, the stands are filled with mannequins. And at least one popular restaurant in Virginia is seating stylishly-dressed mannequins at tables that would otherwise remain empty for social distancing purposes. And yes, even though mannequins are notoriously bad tippers, if you go, they will probably still be served before you.

This family is all ready to go to the hockey game. But I can’t tell if they’re excited.

I suppose it’s a creative solution to the problem of discomfort created by empty spaces once occupied by people. Humans are social creatures by nature, and even the most introverted among us often crave communal experiences. But I’m not convinced that this is a great use for mannequins because regardless of how good they look in hats, I don’t think they can give us that.

Instead, I fear we will find ourselves surrounded by frozen, emotionless faces made of plastic and will be reminded even more starkly that the community we crave is at home in its pajamas.

And I think we might all feel just a little bit lonelier for it.

So, I’m curious. What do you think? Would you want to dine with mannequins? Or watch them sitting in the stands cheering for your favorite teams in your stead?

No One Can Say I Didn’t Dance

In 1943, famed music lover and singer Florence Foster Jenkins was involved in a car accident while in the back of a taxi. Frightened, Jenkins let out a scream so shrill, she retrospectively identified it as the first time she’d ever managed to hit an F above high C. It was, however, unlikely the seventy-some-year-old correctly identified the note when she later checked her memory against a piano, since according to Stephen Pile, author of The Book of Heroic Failures, she was the “world’s worst opera singer.”

From a young age, Jenkins loved music, was a talented pianist, and longed for the stage. But when it came time to pursue a formal musical education, her father denied her the opportunity, possibly because he knew she wasn’t very good. Rumor has it she wasn’t great with rhythm. Or pitch.

It wasn’t until her father’s death that Jenkins, then in her early forties, began to seriously pursue a music career. By then she’d survived a short-lived marriage that resulted in a lifelong battle with syphilis, but she also had both plenty of money to become a celebrated patron of the arts in New York, and a champion in her new love, St. Clair Bayfield.

micsing
This does look like it might not sound so good. But it also looks fun. Image via Pixabay

Known by her friends as Lady Florence, she began giving concerts to highly selective audiences, some of them celebrities like Cole Porter and opera singers Enrico Caruso, Geraldine Farrar, and Lily Pons, and all of them gracious. Music critics were never invited. That would have spoiled the fun.

Because making music should produce joy, no matter the caliber of one’s talent. It should be an emotional experience, one that should often produce dancing. Again, no matter the caliber of one’s talent. And I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling like right now, the world could use as much singing and as much dancing as it can get.

One of the wonderful side effects of this otherwise difficult time of social distancing is that our family has spent more unhurried time together. Yes, more togetherness often produces some irritation, but for the most part our little family of four has handled it all fairly well. We’ve played games and watched movies together. We’ve cranked up the tunes and sung, badly, at the top of our lungs together. And we’ve danced.

dance
In my head we look like this. And there’s a chandelier in my living room. Image via Pixabay

Or at least my husband and I have. Now, I should preface this next bit with the acknowledgement that my husband is really a very good dancer. He’s smooth and graceful, expressive and confident. His dance partner, on the other hand, just tries to keep up.

I am not a great dancer. I do have rhythm and oh how I love to dance, but for the most part I’m stiff and awkward, clumsy and embarrassing. Or at least my children seem to think I’m embarrassing.

There was a day when that didn’t bother them. Mom danced and they did, too, jumping and spinning until we were all sweaty and dizzy and giggling. Now when the dancing begins, they are much more likely to shake their heads and seek out some alone time in another part of the house.

dance 2
Actually there’s no chandelier in my living room and we probably look more like this. Also, one of those two statements is true. photo credit: Pat McDonald Together via photopin (license)

Still, I think that even if they don’t want to join in, it’s important that my children see their parents dance. Because someday, when Covid-19 is as much a part of the past as are their carefree days of childhood, there will still be dark days and it will do them good to remember that they can crank up the music, sing badly at the top of their lungs, and dance and jump and spin until they are sweaty and dizzy and giggling.

Florence Foster Jenkins had it right as far as I’m concerned. She loved to sing and so she did. She finally held a public concert not terribly long after her car accident, and as it turned out, not long before her death. Lady Florence sold out Carnegie Hall faster than anyone before her had done and at least two thousand people were turned away. The critics, now impossible to keep out, were not kind. But as she once said, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”

My friends, no one, least of all my children, can ever say I didn’t dance.

Shave and a Haircut and a Tooth Extraction

In 1537, in the midst of a several year conflict between France and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Ambroise Paré made an important discovery while treating the many wounded soldiers. By intuitively employing the scientific method, which would not be described by Francis Bacon for another eighty-two years, Paré examined patients treated in the traditionally accepted way by cauterizing their wounds with boiling oil, and compared them to those he’d treated with a balm made from eggs, rose oil, and turpentine when his oil supplies ran out.

Strange as it might sound to our modern ears, those patients who hadn’t been subjected to painful blistering by the application of boiling oil actually did a little better. Paré’s method didn’t catch on widely, but it did inspire him to make closer use of observation and data in deciding how to treat patients. And that eventually won him the title “father of surgery” in some history books.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that this man earned such a distinguished moniker. He was, after all, a barber.

barber pole
In some sates there are tight regulations about what kinds of businesses are allowed to hang a barber pole. Good thing, too. No one wants to accidentally wander into a beauty shop for an amputation. photo credit: Singing With Light Haircut time via photopin (license)

Barbers had been filling an important role in the medical community since at least 1163, when Pope Alexander III forbade clergy from practicing bloodletting. The barbers, whose experience with sharp implements had made them good assistants in the gruesome procedure, stepped up. What else could they do? Ailing people needed that bad blood drained and heroic barbers were ready to answer the call.

For centuries, barbers offered an alternative to physicians when none were available or affordable or willing to perform procedures they felt were beneath them, such as bloodletting, teeth pulling, bone setting, or limb amputating. The origin of the striped barber pole can be traced back to this time, as an advertisement for the bloody services offered inside the barbershop. And really, what could feel better after having a tooth yanked out than a bang trim and a nice clean shave?

haircut
Standard issue surgical equipment. photo credit: Cross Duck Social distancing drives you up the WAHL via photopin (license)

I don’t know, but I do know that when my husband recently asked me to cut his hair for him, I felt about as comfortable as I would have been if he’d asked me to remove his arm. Like much of the world right now, our area has a lot of, hopefully temporarily, closed down businesses as we all do our best to hunker down and flatten the Covid-19 infection curve. That includes barbershops and hair salons, which makes sense, because the act of haircutting isn’t all that compatible with practicing social distance.

Of course, what that means is that as the weeks drag on, woefully unqualified family members are being called upon to fill the gap. My husband works in the healthcare field and is still leaving the house regularly, where he is seen in public. And he likes to wear his hair short—not all-over buzzed with clippers, because that would be too simple, but short, nonetheless.

It was getting a little shaggy. It was driving him kind of crazy. And, what can I say? I love him. It was time for this heroic, amateur, and entirely unskilled barber to answer the call.

I grabbed the clippers and the scissors and went to work. While I can’t honestly say it turned out perfectly, I don’t think it turned out too bad. My husband assures me it feels like a fresh haircut to him and he’s pleased with the results. I don’t ever want to do it again, and even though our dentist office is also closed for the foreseeable future, I don’t think my modicum of success in this area qualifies me to start pulling teeth, either.

haircut
I was glad I had a brave guinea pig. Look at those hands—steady as a surgeon.

It wouldn’t be true to say that Ambroise Paré so completely lacked training in actual medicine, such as it was in the sixteenth century. He had attended L’Hôtel-Dieu (a way famous and super old French hospital) to become what was known as a barber surgeon. I think that might parallel most closely to today’s nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant, whose training and scope of practice while significant, is much less extensive than that of a medical doctor.

But then I didn’t exactly go into this haircutting experience blind, either. My husband has, on occasion, cut the hair of both of our sons, and the youngest was due. With much coaching, I practiced first on my surprisingly cooperative twelve-year-old.

I can’t honestly say that attempt went as well. He likes his hair just a little bit longer on top and he has a troublesome cowlick that forms a spiky bit in the front if it isn’t cut just right. It’s now definitely not. But he doesn’t have to leave the house anytime soon and he looks adorable in a hat. Also, thankfully, there was no bloodletting in the process.

Click to Buy: One Size Fits No One

In 1886 a large order of watches arrived by freight train in North Redwood, Minnesota, where it was rejected by the local jeweler to whom it was bound. That’s when freight agent Richard Warren Sears saw an opportunity. He bought the watches and turned around to sell them again at a tidy profit. From this first small taste of success, he decided to begin a mail order business. He found a partner in watch repairman Alvah C. Roebuck and soon created a thriving mail order jewelry and watch business that the two decided to base out of Chicago.

sears home
I don’t even like ordering socks! By Sears, Roebuck & Co. – Sears Roebuck Catalog (1922), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9877226

The R. W. Sears Watch Company was a success and made the two men a small fortune when they sold it in 1889. Sears turned his attention then to other career opportunities, but the catalog business had captured his imagination and just three years later, he and his partner once again started a mail order company that this time would catapult them to fame and glory.

Sears, Roebuck, & Company offered the products most residents of rural America would have to haggle for at their general stores, which offered both higher prices and narrower selections. In a year’s time, the company’s three hundred-page catalog had grown to a five hundred-page catalog offering everything from underwear to musical instruments to cars and even modular homes.

For a brief time, while Sears himself was still in charge of some of the ad copy, you could even buy a sewing machine for the bargain price of $1, that turned out to be nothing more than a needle and thread.

mall sears
Seriously, it’s got to be one of the biggest business miscalculations of all time that instead of becoming the premier online catalog behemoth, Sears went the way of the empty mall anchor store. photo credit: jjbers Closing Sears (Crystal Mall, Waterford, Connecticut) via photopin (license)

And that’s pretty much why I hate ordering through the mail. I know it’s just a way of life, especially now when most brick and mortar stores, at least in my corner of the world, are closed for the foreseeable future.

Like most authors, I have kind of a love/hate relationship with Amazon. I grudgingly admit that despite the impersonal customer service that I have to angrily beg for to receive any response, the continual and seemingly random removal of reader reviews on my books, and the impenetrable mystery that is the magic of keywords, if it weren’t for the ‘Zon, I’d sell a much smaller handful of books.

Fortunately, and also maybe a little bit unfortunately, other retailers have gotten into the online ordering game now, too. It’s helping to keep smaller businesses afloat during a tough time. For that, I’m grateful.

But, man, I miss physically going to a store to browse the shelves and actually see what I’m purchasing. It’s a frustrating process to shop for that pair of jeans that fits perfectly or a set of curtains in just the right shade of green or a pair of sunglasses that won’t make me look like an overrated celebrity hoping I’ll be noticed trying not to be noticed.

sunglasses
This is just the kind of picture that would make me think ordering a pair of giant blue framed sunglasses would be a great idea. It wouldn’t be. Right? image via Pixabay

With online shopping, not only do I have to wait to learn that I can’t force my new jeans over my wide hips, but now I have to repack them and ship them back. Or take the loss, pass them along to some slender-hipped friend in need, and continue wearing yoga pants.

And it doesn’t really matter what I’m ordering. It will never fit. Or it won’t be the right color or the right dimensions or the right fabric that won’t make me break out in hives. I am a terrible online shopper. I have no doubt that I’d have been the customer dumb enough to purchase a needle and thread from Sears instead of an actual sewing machine.

Alas, this is the world we live in, where even our toilet paper has to be purchased on the internet. I’m sure I could find a way to botch that, too.

Advice for Good Health from 1838

I hope you are faring well in your corner of the world. Here in my Midwestern US community, most of us have been in strict social distance mode for about ten or eleven days while the numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases have been climbing. As a writer who works from home anyway, the biggest change in my routine is that I have fewer excuses to rely on when I fail to get any writing done. At the same time, I’ve accomplished less than ever.

journal-2850091__340
Even my attempt to journal about the experience of living in this strange time (using only my neatest handwriting for the benefit of future historical fiction writers) has been sporadic at best.

This should be the perfect opportunity to finally finish a polished draft of my historical novel-in-progress. Alas, I spend most of my time stressing about how far out of our routine the whole family has become, trying not to worry to distraction about my spouse who works in the healthcare field, and scrolling through too much news about this virus we still don’t know nearly as much about as we all like to pretend we do.

Of course, that’s a very human response. When faced with a new threat, without the time required to conduct thorough research and design solid tests yielding statistically significant results, we observe what we can, make some guesses, and post about our conclusions on social media.

We live in a pretty enlightened age, medically speaking, so if we step outside of our panic for a minute, we can understand that there are still a lot of answers we don’t know and won’t be able to find out for a while. But in some ways, medicine also hasn’t changed that much.

bloodletting
At least no one is suggesting this is a good idea anymore. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

So today, I thought I’d share some good health information from my research for the novel I’m currently not finishing. This comes from a doctor by the name of Sylvanus Goheen who in 1838, served as a missionary physician to Monrovia in what was then the Colony of Liberia. Much like the physicians of today, Dr. Goheen faced a disease he didn’t understand as well as he would have liked.

In his case, it was malaria, which claimed the lives of so many missionaries and emigrants that Liberia had come to be called the White Man’s Graveyard (which is also the current working title of the book I should be revising right now).

With the still unnamed disease certainly not yet understood to be a parasitic infection transmitted by mosquitos, Dr. Goheen had to do the best he could with the observations he could make. He came up with the following advice for staying healthy:

  1. Give strict attention to diet—eat as nearly as possible the same food used in America and chew well.
  2. Eat light and early suppers and when feeling off, abstain from food. Always keep bowels regular.
  3. Avoid the sun, and rain, never get wet and avoid currents of air when perspiring freely.
  4. Never become fatigued either by bodily exertion or mental exercise and particularly refrain from reading at night.
  5. Keep out of night air and remain at home and in the house after nightfall and in your bedroom in the morning with windows closed until 8:00, for the first four months.
  6. Go to meeting but once per day, never take long walks nor boat excursions.
  7. Keep the mind easy and composed and talk or think little about the fever.
  8. When attacked, eat less than nature demands and confine yourself strictly to a gruel or arrowroot diet throughout convalescence.

readatnight
Not to question a doctor who attended almost a full year of medical school, which is still almost a year more than I did, but I see no problem with this.

Some of this is probably pretty good advice, even perhaps applicable to our current Covid-19-driven world. It may not be a bad idea, for our psychological well-being as well as our long-term physical comfort, if we could roughly maintain our pre-pandemic diet that likely included fewer Oreos and potato chips. It also certainly couldn’t hurt to try to keep our minds easy and less focused on the fever. And we should definitely stay in at night, safely socially distanced.

But then the list also includes some things that probably aren’t quite right for today. I’m not overly concerned about occasionally finding myself perspiring in the breeze, which might happen on that long, isolated walk I’m perfectly happy to take. And under no circumstances can I see myself giving up reading at night.

Looking back, it’s pretty easy to see that Dr. Goheen’s advice wasn’t quite right for his situation, either. He was doing what physicians do and drawing the very best conclusions he could within the limited knowledge available.

Much like him, we are faced today with some unknowns, a lot of fear, and a medical field that is working very hard to gather the best information and offer the best advice it can in an impossibly short amount of time. We’re all doing what we are able to keep ourselves and our world as healthy as we can.

Stay safe, everyone. If you’re stuck at home, write a novel or something. And for goodness sake, chew thoroughly and keep your bowels regular.

More Brains than Any Two Engineers

January 18, 1865 Washington Roebling, a colonel in the Union army and a trained engineer, married his sweetheart Emily Warren. Then when the war ended, the two went on a honeymoon tour of Europe with a slightly nerdy twist.

Emily Roebling
Emily did give birth to the couple’s only son in 1867 so I suppose engineering wasn’t the ONLY thing they did on their honeymoon. Carolus-Duran / Public domain

Washington’s father, John Augustus Roebling, had built a pretty big name for himself in the field of suspension bridge construction and his plan to span the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn had been given the green light by the State of New York. Washington and his new bride decided that while they were honeymooning, they might as well do some research into the newfangled caissons that were all the rage among European engineers.

In case, like me, you didn’t spend your honeymoon studying engineering, a caisson is a watertight container that allows work to be completed underwater by pumping in compressed air and keeping water out. It’s awfully useful for building the foundation of a bridge over a river.

While the newlyweds picked up some pointers, the elder Roebling worked on finishing up his measurements before construction could begin. Unfortunately, he sustained an injury in the process and required amputation of a foot. And that led to the tetanus infection that quickly killed him.

It also brought an end to a fairytale engineering tour of Europe. Washington rushed home to take his father’s place as head engineer on the Brooklyn Bridge project. He was great at it, too, leading his men by working alongside them, even taking his turn in the caissons, where he soon realized that working in compressed air can prove dangerous.

caisson
Inside views of the East River Bridge caisson, Brooklyn, N.Y. 1870. Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, PPOC, Library of Congress / Public domain

He suffered with what divers, and presumably also those in the bridge construction business, now know as the bends, or decompression sickness, in which your body doesn’t react particularly well to the large amount of nitrogen dissolved in your blood after breathing compressed air for a while.

Decompression sickness can be prevented, now that we know what it is and what causes it, but Washington didn’t have the benefit of that information and wound up partially paralyzed, most likely the victim of multiple strokes, and unable to fulfil his role as lead engineer on the project.

That left only one Roebling, armed with a pretty good education for a woman of her day (which still wasn’t a great deal of education) and what relevant bridge-building knowledge she had managed to pick up on her honeymoon, to take up the charge.

Emily accepted the challenge.

She became the chief engineer, allegedly relaying daily instructions from her husband to the job site, updating and schmoozing with politicians, defending her husband’s position from competing engineers angling to take the project over, and soaking in all the knowledge she could about stress analysis and cable construction.

rooster
Maybe the rooster was a lucky bridge-crossing companion because he already had so much experience crossing the road? via Pixabay

When the Brooklyn Bridge finally opened on May 24, 1883 the first carriage to cross it carried Emily Warren Roebling with a lucky rooster held on her lap. Though she never publicly claimed to be anything more than a mouthpiece for her husband, in a private letter to her son she wrote: “I have more brains, common sense, and know-how generally than any two engineers, civil or uncivil, that I have ever met.”

And she was probably right. In the years following the Brooklyn Bridge project, Emily Roebling earned a law degree and became active in numerous organizations, always seeking ways to promote women’s education and women’s equality.

tacoma bridge
A suspension bridge built by engineers not supervised by Emily Warren Roebling. Tacoma Narrows Bridge failure (1940).

But I came across her while researching the opening location of my novel Smoke Rose to Heaven, which occurs briefly in the shadow of a burgeoning bridge that would become, for a time, the longest structure of its kind in the world. I first met Emily Roebling as the Chief Not-Technically-An-Engineer who successfully completed the project begun by her father-in-law and who now has a street block in Brooklyn named in her honor.

She was my kind of woman—the kind who does what she needs to do to get done what needs to get done and doesn’t bother asking anyone whether or not she can. She’s the kind of woman I want to be and the kind I want to celebrate this upcoming Sunday March 8 when we recognize International Women’s Day. Fortunately, I know a lot of women like her.

An Extra Day and a Hot Mess

Sometime around the year 1235, Johannes de Sacrobosco, a monk and astronomer teaching at the University of Paris, published his Du Computo Ecclesiastico, an in-depth study of the hot mess that is the history of the calendar in all its various imaginings and recalculations through the years.

Though I haven’t read it, the history rumor mill suggests the book is pretty scholarly. Sacrobosco definitely had a lot of things to say about the way the passage of time should be measured, including a few suggestions for reckoning the Julian calendar to solar and lunar observations and calculations. By his day, the equinoxes and solstices had already experienced a pretty significant backwards slippage in time.

julius caesar death
Julius Caesar wishing February had been a little bit longer, because March wasn’t looking so good for him. Vincenzo Camuccini / Public domain

The book also includes a story about how the calendar ended up in such a terrible fix in the first place, like that time the month of February became comically short because Augustus Caesar decided to borrow a day for his own namesake month of August so that it would be every bit as long as the previous month named for his dad.

February is comically short, not only because it usually has twenty-eight days instead of the more traditional thirty or thirty-one, but because it follows January, which at least in my corner of the world is the longest darn month of the year. It’s bleak and cold and filled with the junk you put off during the holidays. Oh, and it follows the holiday season, which is as fun as January isn’t.

groundhog-4814471__340
Any month that starts off with a groundhog is pretty okay in my book. Picture by hatlerbratton, via Pixabay

Like it has most years I can remember, February has kind of flown by comparison. This shortest month comes with a furry mascot, a celebration of love, Girl Scout cookies, the start of baseball spring training, and slightly brighter days. Mine probably went especially fast, too, because it included a book launch and the corresponding flurry of activity. My calendar has actually been kind of a hot mess.

But as “not as awful as January” as February is, it does kind of get the shaft, even in leap years like this one. Had I been in Sacrobosco’s place writing a treatise on the convoluted history and problem of calendars (which I assure you no one would call a pretty scholarly work), I also would have included that story about Augustus Caesar lopping off February’s end, because it’s a pretty great one. Of course, it wouldn’t have been true if I’d written it, either.

It turns out there’s plenty of evidence that the calendar’s multitude of problematic and somewhat sporadically assigned month lengths predated both Augustus and Julius. The latter did do his level best to fix it, consulting with the astronomer Sosigenes from Egypt to come up with a 365-day year that corrected with a leap day every fourth year.

Gregory XII
Pope Gregory XII, a man whose calendar was not a hot mess. Justus van Gent / Public domain

Not bad. But it didn’t fix the problem indefinitely and it wasn’t until three hundred fifty years after Sacrobosco’s book that Pope Gregory XII made a really good change to the plan. That’s when it was decided that the calendar everyone would use (except for those who didn’t feel like it) would include 365 days, with a leap year every fourth year, except for a century year, unless it could be evenly divided by four hundred.

Simple, no?

But it has more or less worked since then with a large chunk of the world buying in to its use, or at least more or less understanding it so that business can be conducted with relative ease all 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds of the year.

It’s still not perfect and will need more corrective action over the course of millennia. Evidently the rotation of the earth isn’t even entirely consistent, making our measurement of time a little less precise than we’d probably like to think. But there are astronomers who regularly work on that problem and keep us all on track by occasionally adding an extra one-Mississippi to the clock. I imagine most of us aren’t much bothered.

In fact, other than the approximately 4.2 million “leaplings” world wide who will be celebrating their birthday this Saturday or the hopelessly romantic ladies who will be exploiting a silly tradition and proposing to their fellas, a lot of us probably barely even notice February 29th when it rolls around.

Unless you’re like me and your calendar is a little bit of a hot mess. Personally, I plan to make good use of this February’s extra day.

Four Score and Seven Words to Go

On November 2, 1863, a man named David Wills, writing on behalf of the governor of Pennsylvania, asked then president of the United States Abraham Lincoln if he might consider making “a few appropriate remarks” at the November 19th consecration ceremony of a new cemetery for the many soldiers who had died at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg address
Lincoln’s in there somewhere making a few appropriate remarks. Just upper left of center, I think. Photographer attributions vary from unidentified (William Frassanito) to Mathew Brady (NARA) and David Bachrach (1845-1921) (Center for Civil War Photography). [Public domain]
The main speaker was to be Edward Everett, who allegedly spoke eloquently for nearly two hours, as everyone pretty much expected. History books rarely recount what he said. Then it was Lincoln’s turn. The president spoke relatively few words. Not even three hundred, in fact. And, diagnosed not long after with smallpox, he probably wasn’t feeling very well at the time. Still, most American school children could recite at least some of them.

Rumors have long circulated that the president dashed off the speech while on the train to the event, but that probably isn’t quite true. I don’t doubt that he fine-tuned and finalized a little of his phrasing on that train, but he’d known for a couple of weeks that he’d have to say something. Various observations place him scribbling notes between photo shoots and presidential responsibilities in the days leading up to the event. Most likely he thought a great deal about the words he would say.

I can’t speak for all writers and orators, but I know that for me much composition occurs in my head, swirling in the background of whatever essential tasks I’m completing. Sometimes I dash off a note or two to help me remember later, and then when I finally get a few dedicated moments, I have someplace to start and a great deal to pull together.

I think this is probably how it worked for Lincoln when he delivered what has become his most remembered address.

I was hoping something similar would happen with my blog post this week. You see, it’s been busy around here. I’m getting ready to launch a new book in a little less than a week, which means I have been spending a lot of time preparing. I’ve been upping my game on social media, sending off press releases, scheduling events, cranking out posts for an upcoming blog tour, and designing graphics. I even made a book trailer.

And then there’s my family, still busy doing all the many things they do while also expecting to occasionally eat and/or spend time together.

So, I was definitely hoping for some inspiration for this week’s practical history blog post. Unfortunately, if ideas were swirling somewhere in the background while I was busy elsewhere, I didn’t get them scribbled down.

But Abraham Lincoln is pretty inspiring as historical figures go. And though I think I can be fairly certain that “the world will little note, nor long remember” what I’ve written here, I can at least say I got it done.

5 more days until publication! Follow this link to check out more information about the book, or follow this one to sign up to receive occasional email updates.