What to Do in the Meantime

In 1912, rare books dealer Wilfrid Voynich added to his collection of his London shop the strangest book he never read. It’s not entirely clear how the manuscript came into Voynich’s possession, but it most likely came from the Jesuit Order, which around that time, sold some of its holdings from the library of the Roman College (by then Pontifical Gregorian University) to the Vatican and apparently to a few others as well.

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Ohhhh… so that’s what it says. Excerpt from the Voynich Manuscript. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The Jesuits didn’t read it either, not even the scholar Athanasius Kircher, who was likely responsible for the inclusion of the manuscript in the collection.

Before him, the two hundred-plus-page manuscript probably belonged to a physician by the name of Johannes Marcus Marci, who likely received it from alchemist and antique collector George Baresch, who may have gotten it from Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz, who served as the personal physician to Emperor Rudolph II of Germany. Emperor Rudolf assumed the manuscript was the work of 13th century philosopher Roger Bacon and purchased it for a fairly large sum.

But none of these men ever read the book.

Because they couldn’t. What came to be known in the 20th century as the Voynich Manuscript is an enduring puzzle. Its vellum pages have been carbon-dated to the early fifteenth century, which means Bacon didn’t write it. They are filled with an unknown language or code, written by a single, careful hand, and accompanied by lots of strange pictures of unidentifiable plants, weird symbols, and plenty of naked ladies.

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I chose not to highlight one of the pages with naked ladies, as this is a family-friendly blog. Illustration from the Voynich Manuscript. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Housed today in Yale’s Beinecke Library, and available to view online if you want to take a stab at it, the Voynich Manuscript has been defying translators for pretty much as long as it has existed. Recent attempts at translation by television writer Nicholas Gibbs and University of Bristol research assistant Gerard Cheshire have been pretty quickly shot down by Voynich scholars and enthusiasts. And in 2016, even AI failed to convince those in the know that it could crack the code.

It’s been suggested that the book is a medical guide of some sort, that it’s written in Hebrew anagrams, that it’s nothing more than an elaborate hoax, or that it’s of otherworldly origin. All we know for certain is that it’s weird, oddly fascinating, and unreadable. Perhaps it contains the answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe.

But as frustrating as it is that there’s this one book that has remained unread by everyone except, presumably, its author, I can’t help but think there are probably a lot of books no one has ever been able to read. Most languish on hard drives or exist only as scribbles in tattered notebooks. Others have been locked up in contracts with defunct presses, trapped away from the public by copyright law.

Hopefully that last possibility doesn’t apply to too many books. Very soon it will apply to one fewer, as the copyright of my first historical novel, Smoke Rose to Heaven, will be returning to me in the coming weeks. What this means is that very soon (February 4th to be exact), I will be releasing it finally into the world for anyone to read.

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Coming soon!

I can’t promise that it contains the answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe, but it’ll be fairly easy to read because it’s written in English without anagrams, strange symbols, or unidentifiable plants. For better or worse, it doesn’t have any pictures of naked ladies, either.

I’ll have a lot more to share about this most elusive of my books in the coming weeks. You can’t read it just yet,* but maybe while you’re waiting, you can decipher the Voynich Manuscript.

 

 

*Okay, you can actually get a sneak peek if you would like to commit to giving Smoke Rose to Heaven an honest review. If that’s something that interests you, drop me a line at s_angleton@charter.net before the publication date and I’ll happily send you a complimentary e-book. You can check out the back cover blurb and read a sample here.

Bravely Throwing Out a Piece of the Soul

In 1936, celebrated American author F. Scott Fitzgerald made a list. He’d hit a big rough patch in a life full of rough patches, drinking too much and living in a hotel in Asheville, North Carolina to be close to his institutionalized, schizophrenic wife. After an alleged suicide attempt and a nasty shoulder injury, Fitzgerald hired a nurse named Dorothy Richardson to care for him.

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A romance I quite enjoyed in 2019.

As they got to know one another, Fitzgerald made her a list of books he thought she ought to read. The list includes some William Faulkner, Theodore Drieser, Leo Tolstoy, John Keats, and such—twenty-two works in all. Some I’ve read. Most, I admit, I haven’t.

But that’s okay, because F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t make the list for me, and suggesting a book for people can seem like kind of an intimate thing. You’re asking them to pour hours of their time into an experience, one they will engage with during their personal downtime, maybe while they’re drowsy and wearing their pajamas, or lounging on the beach in a swimsuit they feel just a little bit too chubby to wear, or nervously waiting for their loved one’s surgical procedure to end and hoping no waiting room strangers will strike up a conversation.

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A memoir I read this year and liked a lot.

You hope they’ll like it. You hope they won’t think you have no taste, or that you think they have no taste, or that they think you chose this book because it says something to you about them or that you think it says something about yourself and you’re hoping they’ll notice. It’s a little like offering up a piece of your soul.

But just once in a while it works out. You read a book and it makes you think of one of your friends, who then absolutely loves the book you recommended and is touched that you just seem to get her, at which point she asks you for another recommendation and the stakes become higher.

And that’s why I am especially grateful to have so many wonderful friends who are willing to put themselves out there. Earlier this week, I was thinking about what books I wanted to pick up to finish out my year in reading. Looking over my To-Be-Read list on Goodreads, I realized I had fallen behind a little on my pace if I was going to meet my year-end goal. Most of the list in front of me included books that were either going to be hard to get hold of quickly or were probably not going to be quick reads.

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The best steampunk I read in 2019.

I asked Facebook for suggestions of light, fast reads. And boy did my friends come through! As of right now, about four days later, my plea has received eighty responses. And that doesn’t count my librarian friend who texted me directly with several titles.

I do find it pretty gratifying that a lot of the suggestions are books I’ve read or that were already titles I’d come across and wanted to read, an indication that my friends and I probably know each other fairly well. But I’m even more impressed that so many people took the risk and put their opinions out there.

I read broadly, and with few exceptions, I’ll give anything a try. Maybe then, I’m not a terribly intimidating person to offer book suggestions. I also definitely recognize that the reading experience is largely an individual one and that I myself might view a book differently were I to read it today or a month from now, so I’m never going to judge a person based on the recommendations he makes.

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Best mathematical mystery I read this year. That’s a thing, right?

And I’m not assuming that the list of books offered to me are the essential books that should be read by everyone, which Fitzgerald may have implied to his nurse, mainly by virtue, I think, of who he happened to be and also because he was probably a little drunk. It should be noted that there are some fairly universally accepted greats missing from his list, including Shakespeare. Any high school English teacher would probably be pretty quick to point out that particular oversight.

So, dear blogosphere, it’s your turn. What should I read? I can’t guarantee I’ll follow every suggestion, and I’m sure I won’t get to them all by the end of the year, but I promise I won’t think less of you for throwing it out there.

By the way, if you are on Goodreads, let’s connect!

November is a Month for Silly Affectations

It’s finally November, which just means many of us are rethinking our grooming options. That’s right, we’ve reached that one month out of the year when for some inexplicable reason, otherwise clean-cut men (and sometime women, too) decide not to shave.

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Lincoln in 1858, in need of a beard. By T.P. Pearson, Public Domain

And really, do we need a reason not to shave? Sure, smooth skin might be nice, but shaving takes a lot of time—time manly men all over the world could spend washing and combing and stroking thoughtfully the facial hair that is their genetic legacy. They don’t need an excuse.

But at least one famous man did. On October 15, 1860, a little girl from Westfield, New York gave him one when she wrote to then presidential hopeful Abraham Lincoln that he would “look a great deal better” if he let his whiskers grow. Lincoln responded to eleven-year-old Grace Bedell within a few days inquiring whether she thought “people would call it a silly affectation” if he were to begin a beard at this point.

There’s no record of whether she wrote to him again of this matter, but like so many men of the last few years, Lincoln stopped shaving that November. By the time he took his inaugural journey from Illinois to Washington D.C. the new president’s face was sporting some stylish hair. And with it, he’d picked up a pretty adorable story.

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An artist’s best guess. Original portrait by T.P. Pearson, Public Domain. Beard added by my 14-year-old son, used with permission.

Not particularly pleased about the development were the portrait artists working to make a buck off the famous visage of the newly elected leader. Before the days of presidential Twitter feeds and helpful Instagram filters, the rumor of recently sprouted whiskers were all many artists had to go on, and so they had to guess.

But Abraham Lincoln certainly has gone down in history as a bewhiskered gentleman, his signature close-trimmed beard possibly the most recognizable in US history. Still, historians don’t all agree on his motivation for taking Bedell’s advice.

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Bewhiskered Lincoln in 1863. It takes a wise president to embrace criticism about his hair. By Alexander Gardner, Public Domain

He did make a stop along his inaugural journey to show little Miss Bedell his whiskers, which surely won him some favorable press. It’s always possible he could have just reflected on the advice of a concerned citizen and realized that she might have had a point.

It’s also true that in Lincoln’s day, close-trimmed facial hair was common among the highly sophisticated gentlemen of US cities and Honest Abe probably wanted to shed his rep as kind of a country bumpkin from the middle of nowhere in Illinois.

Or it could be that Abraham Lincoln was a man ahead of his time and he just decided November is not for shaving.

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

It started out like any morning, with me rushing to get the kids out the door in time for school. That’s been a little harder lately as the days have gotten shorter and the mornings darker. But we were on track. Lunches were sorted, backpacks were loaded, and we were just stepping out into the garage when my 14-year-old son said, “OMG, BRB.”

I don’t know what he’d forgotten (besides the English language), but he ran quickly into his bedroom and back again. We were on our way, still with enough spare time that I could stop and ask, “What?”

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It’s shocking, really, how much time we waste in classroom teaching kids basic spelling and speaking skills. Like they’ll ever use them IRL. photo credit: PlusLexia.com Spelling via photopin (license)

He rolled his eyes. Probably—it was still kind of dark. “It means ‘be right back.’”

I rolled my eyes. Definitely—because he deserved it. “I KNOW what it means. I just think it makes more sense to speak actual words.”

Yes, I will freely admit that in that moment I sounded like an old person. I might as well have told him his favorite music was nothing but a bunch of loud noise or that he needed a haircut because he looks like a felon. BTW, one of those statements is true.

He shoved his stuff into the car next to his little brother and said, “Everyone uses text speak. It’s a thing you’re probably just going to have to get used to.”

Here I should clarify that my son is not generally disrespectful and this was said with a charming LOL.

And the thing is that the more I thought about it, the more I realized he might actually be right. Language does evolve, usually in ways we don’t really anticipate and, no matter how hard we try, not always for the simpler.

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I wonder if whatever he’s typing with his thumbs has the recipient responding with a ROTFLUTS. Though personally I’ve never seen anyone rolling on the floor laughing unable to speak because of a text message, I’m sure it happens.

In March of 1906, American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie certainly tried. That’s when he recruited twenty-six influential men of letters to form the Simplified Spelling Board. Included among the membership were Melvil Dewey, who organized all the library books, and Mark Twain, who wrote quite a few of them.

The board combed through some of the most oddly spelled words in the English language to determine when and why they came to be spelled as they did. Then, so as not to confuse a change-resistant American populace, they recommended a list of just three hundred words that could be immediately simplified by influential organizations.

At least one additional powerful man agreed whole-heartedly. In August of 1906, then President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the implementation of the changes throughout all documents coming from the Executive Branch of the US government.

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President “Rucevelt,” who IMHO may have overreached a little in this instance. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The press wasn’t having it and launched into sarcastic attacks on “Mr. Rucevelt” and the “notis” he’d taken of this truly important movement. The public largely agreed, and by December of that year, the House of Representatives, controlled by the president’s own Republican Party, issued a resolution supporting their strong preference for established dictionary spellings. They also said Teddy’s hair was too long and his music was too loud.

The president eventually gave up the fight and by 1920, the Simplified Spelling Board had dissolved, leaving behind a Handbook of Simplified Spelling and a nation that wasn’t particularly sorry to see them go.

But, some of those original three hundred new recommended spellings actually did get adopted into American English, including gram instead of gramme, maneuver instead of manoeuvre, and hiccup instead of hiccough. Because language evolves, and I guess I better get used to it.

For now, TYSM for reading and not marking this post TL;DR. I’m going AFK. TTYL.

See? I can evolve.

JK. I don’t textspeak.

Research, Cannons, and Great Big Nerds

On March 10, 1842 president of the short-lived Republic of Texas Sam Houston overstepped the limits of his office when he ordered the national archives to be removed from the capital city of Austin and taken to Houston.

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Sam Houston, a man who is no match for a determined archivist with a cannon. By National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans. Philadelphia: D. Rice & A. N. Hart, 1854., Public Domain

A few days earlier Austin had been the site of a camp of nearly a thousand invading Mexican troops under the command of General Rafael Vásquez, but the army had been run out of the city by the time Houston issued his order. And when the wagons arrived to finally carry it out in December of that year, the danger had certainly passed. Since Houston’s goal was most likely to move the capital to his namesake city, that didn’t much matter to him.

It did, however, matter very much to the people of Austin who took their responsibility to house and protect the archive material seriously—so seriously that vigilante Angelina Eberly (not an archivist by trade but certainly one in her heart) led the charge by firing on the government thieves with a cannon.

Few shots were fired overall in what came to be known as the Archive War and no significant blood was shed, but the documents remained in Austin as did the distinction of being the capital city, even after the Republic of Texas became the State of Texas.

Archives are serious business, as those who care for them will not hesitate to tell you. Personally, I am grateful for their vigilance. Because I’m going to confess something to you, dear reader, that you probably won’t find too hard to believe.

I’m a great big nerd.

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Darth Vader. Also probably no match for a determined archivist with a cannon.

I don’t mean that I spend all my time playing video games on YouTube or that I collect replica medieval weaponry or that I know every detail there is to know about the Star Wars Galaxy. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with those pursuits. Except maybe the YouTube thing.

My brand of nerdiness mostly shines through in my obsessive research. I know, if you’ve read this blog much then you are probably giggling about now. It’s true that most of the posts in this space are only sort of researched, and frankly, kind of shoddily. But I make a distinction between what I do in this space and what I do when pursuing the details that inform my historical fiction projects.

I can’t promise I never make a mistake, because I’m sure I do. I probably even overlook the occasional silly anachronism. Some reader somewhere will call me out on it one day and say I should write in a different genre if I can’t even manage to take thirty seconds to Google the etymology of the phrase plays it close to the vest to discover that my character wouldn’t have said that in 1834. As a reader of the historical fiction genre myself I can go ahead and admit we’re a little nerdy and occasionally a little mean.

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I probably won’t face cannon fire to gain access to the archive material I need, but if I make a historical mistake in my novel all bets are off.

So, I do my best to pursue the research as far as I can. For my current work-in-progress, I especially wanted to put my eyeballs on a diary written by one of my historical persons of interest. He’s not a widely known figure and I only discovered the existence of the unpublished diary because of a reference in the bibliography of another book. When I contacted the university library where the source was said to be housed, they couldn’t find it.

I assumed I’d have to give up. Then, not long back, while searching around on the Internet for something else, I found a blog post (some blogs can be a valuable sources of information, just usually not this one) that briefly mentioned the existence of the diary. That’s when I kind of nerded out.

I contacted the library again to find out that the archivist who had written the blog post is now at a different university. I reached out to him there, sent him the link to his post, and a few days later, I had the complete record in my inbox. All I had to do next was send it back to the original library and hope.

And wait, which is what I’m doing now. Because the archivist currently in charge of the diary in question is consulting with an expert to determine whether the physical integrity of the document will allow for safe scanning. If it doesn’t, I may have to travel to the library, which will require a possibly unreasonable amount of effort on my part.

But I get it. I do believe that archives are important enough to protect and maybe even defend with cannon fire if necessary. Because I’m a great big nerd.

 

The Queen of Strength and Beauty

Just two years after he organized what is largely considered the world’s first bodybuilding competition in 1901, acclaimed German muscle man Eugen Sandow met his match in a woman. The story goes that it was at a performance of feats of strength in New York when strongwoman Catherine Brumbach challenged anyone in the audience to outlift her.

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Also known as the “Lady Hercules,” Katie Sandwina was known for being feminine as well as uncommonly strong. University of Washington [Public domain]
Sandow allegedly jumped onto the stage and proceeded to lift a 300-pound barbell to chest height. Catherine then lifted the same weight over her head with one hand. Some historians question the truth of the tale that pits the two heavy lifters against one another. When one considers that Katie spent much of her life working for master promoter P.T. Barnum, it’s easy to suspect it may be little more than a load of hogwash.

But there’s no question Catherine Brumbach, whose stage name became Katie Sandwina after her rumored victory over one of the world’s strongest men, was a powerhouse. Katie grew up in a circus, performing with her very large family. When she was a teenager, her father offered a prize to any man who could outwrestle her. None ever did, but one man did fall in love and propose.

Happily married for more than fifty years, Katie incorporated her husband Max into the show, lifting his 165-pound body above her head with one arm and then tossing him about with ease.

I’m impressed by this woman, whose 5’9”, 200 lb. frame was considered by many to be the ideal image of perfect womanhood. She was even known as “Europe’s Queen of Strength and Beauty.”

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She’s lifting three grown men. And she’s wearing heels. I’d say the title of queen is well deserved. Bain News Service, publisher [Public domain]
I can’t exactly relate, but I have recently begun lifting with my husband. Of course I don’t mean that I’m lifting him over my head like Katie Sandwina would do with her Max. But we do try to get to the gym together about three times a week where he lifts the kind of large weights a large man might lift and then I show him how it’s done by lifting much lighter weights. Super impressively.

And I am getting stronger, though I’m pretty sure no one is referring to me as America’s Queen of Strength and Beauty. Or even Missouri’s. Yet. Katie still has quite a bit of size and strength on me, and I’m a lot more interested in being a little bit healthier and a little bit stronger than I am in becoming the strongest woman in the world. She was, by the way, her record unbroken until 1987 by American weightlifter Karyn Marshall.

Katie performed with Barnum & Bailey’s Circus until she was sixty years old. Then she and Max retired to run a restaurant in New York. There this queen of beauty and strength cooked up a storm and occasionally acted as formidable bouncer until her death in 1952.

Perhaps that should be my goal. By the time we retire, I plan to be strong enough to literally throw someone out of my kitchen should the need arise. Like a queen. And of course, I’ll look beautiful doing it.

Ford, Edison, and the Quest for the World’s Largest

I love that my children are back in school and that our sense of routine has returned. Still, a couple weeks in, I also have to admit that I miss the open road. This was a summer of lots of travel for us.

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Unfortunately, due to time constraints and general lack of family interest, I once again missed the Spam Museum in Austin, MN. photo credit: Dick Thomas Johnson Monty Python’s Spamalot at Akasaka ACT Theater via photopin (license)

We didn’t go the huge distances we have in some years, but we made it to New Orleans so my kids could cross Louisiana off the list of states they’ve visited. We spent family time in Minnesota fishing and exploring. We took off to Madison, Wisconsin to participate in an Insane Inflatable 5K, and later the boys and I spent a week in Chicago. Rarely did a week pass us by when we didn’t set out in the old family truckster for an adventure at least a couple hours away.

I really couldn’t imagine passing the summer any other way, and I’m not alone. According to a 2019 AAA poll, 100 million Americans planned to vacation this year. Sixty-eight percent of those had plans to travel during the summer months and more than half of all travelers intended to pack up their cars and hit the road.

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Henry Ford and the original family truckster. New York, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It makes sense. A road trip is almost certainly cheaper for a family than air travel, there’s plenty to see across this great big country, and a good car trip means hours of forced family togetherness searching for state license plates. Plus there’re plenty of convenient amenities along the way like gas stations and restaurants and hotels. And how else are you going to see all those quirky tourist attractions like the world’s largest turkey?

A hundred years ago or so when the American road trip was just getting its start, life on the road wasn’t quite as convenient, nor were there as many roads to choose from. Prior to the invention of the automobile, the average American never traveled more than 12 miles from his or her home. I’d probably travel that far to buy a bag of my favorite potato chips.

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Minnesota is the home to many of the world’s largest road trip attractions, including the biggest ball of twine in Darwin, the world’s largest turkey in Frazee, and this enormous boot in Redwing.

It’s likely not surprising that the American road trip developed in large part because of Henry Ford. When in 1908, Ford began producing the Model T (I think the “T” stood for truckster), suddenly families with modest incomes could afford a motor vehicle and they started to get an itch to see the world’s largest ball of twine.

But it was more than just Ford’s cars that inspired a new freedom to the American public. Along with his famous buddies Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burrows, Henry Ford embarked on a series of more or less annual road trips across various parts of the country between the years 1914 to 1924.

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Guinn’s book peeks behind the scenes of these early road trips to explore the motives and strong personalities behind them. It’s a great read!

Because I never take a road trip without a few good books to read, I picked up The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip by Jeff Guinn this summer. The book is fascinating and it made me grateful for the amenities I enjoyed along the way. When the “Vagabonds” first started road tripping, it was pretty rough going, even with an entourage of personal servants to set up camp and cook gourmet meals.

In the pre-Kardashian era of the early twentieth century Ford and his gang were what passed for celebrities. As such their highly publicized trips gained a lot of attention. Soon the American public caught on to the idea and as the traffic increased, so did the infrastructure to support it, including the world’s largest light bulb in Edison, New Jersey. Maybe I’ll hit the road and go see that one next summer.

Fruit-Plants, Cheap Coconuts, and the Need for a Brilliant Editor

The kids are back in school this week and I am back in my little hidey hole in the basement where I churn out silly blog posts and the occasional book. It’s a big year for us. My oldest is starting high school. My youngest is headed to middle school. And I’m, well, probably going to pen the next great American novel or something.

Actually, I am pretty busy trying to get back into the swing of things, starting with some novel editing. If you’ve been following along with this blog for very long, you might recall I wrote what I refer to as a lost novel. It’s a long story (the “lost” part, not the novel, which is pretty average length), but basically, a publisher did me wrong and a book that was supposed to come out never did.

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It’s possible that I should also spend some time cleaning up the hidey hole in the basement.

Fortunately, the lost book saga is nearly at an end. The rights will return to me early next year and I hope to release the book myself in February. And that means that right now, I’m spending a lot of time editing.

This is not as difficult as it sounds. Mostly I just have to read through the book for the 4,782nd time and acknowledge that I am incredibly lucky to work with a brilliant editor who calls me out on all my silly mistakes.

She’s also very kind. While I’m sure she rolls her eyes as she corrects my nineteenth dialog formatting error in the space of four pages, not once has she called me idiot, or even made me feel like she might. I really don’t know how she does it. I’d go cross-eyed and just start throwing in commas between every other word.

But that’s why I need a brilliant editor. Because sometimes I do that. And as small and inconspicuous as commas seem, they really do matter.

I recently stumbled on the story of a very important comma that once lost the US government about 2 million dollars. I realize that if you are a politician and not just a normal person, $2 million may not sound like that much money, so let me explain that this was in 1872. Really, that $2 million was more like $40 million in today’s money.commas save lives

Okay, if you are a politician, you’re probably still not all that impressed, but to us regular folk, that’s a pretty pricy comma.

The problem started with a tariff act passed that year which specified that on August 1, 1872, the following imported goods would be duty-free: “fruit, plants tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation.”

If like me, you’re not so great with commas, you might gloss over the fact that this list seems to suggest that all imported tropical and semi-tropical fruits are no longer subject to tariff. Since the previous tariff act placed a 20% tax on lemons, oranges, pineapples, and grapes, and a 10% tax on limes, bananas, mangoes, pomelos, and coconuts, this had people in the business of pineapple importation pretty excited.

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William Adam Richardson, probably not the best Secretary of the Treasury the US has ever had, and definitely in need of a brilliant editor. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Then Secretary of the Treasury William Richardson was less excited as he explained the act contained a clerk’s typo and that the comma after fruit was meant to be a hyphen. It was fruit-plants, he insisted, that were duty free, and not bananas. The threat of litigation made him roll back his statement and it took two years before an angry congress managed to correct the mistake with a new tariff act. In the meantime, a whole lot of potential government revenue helped line the pockets of some grammar enthusiast pomelo importers.

I’m pretty sure none of my comma mistakes are going to cost me that kind of money. Then again maybe my potential book sales are more substantial than I think. Like A LOT more substantial. Just in case, I’m combing through my almost-found-again book at least one more time with the help of a brilliant editor who I’m pretty sure would also not let me get away with using the word “fruit-plants.”

Still Faster than Spit

Okay, okay. So I know it’s been longer than two weeks since I last wrote in this space. Yes, I did set the goal of posting every other week through the summer. Obviously, I didn’t make it. Instead, I have spent the last month or so enjoying summer with my boys, now twelve and fourteen. We’ve done a fair bit of traveling and playing and adventuring. Most recently we took a family trip up to Minnesota.

Having spent a little time earlier in the summer exploring New Orleans, where the mighty Mississippi River comes to its end in the Gulf of Mexico, we thought we might wander up to the start of the great river just so we could say we’d travelled its length.

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Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a man who is not too proud to ask for directions. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Obviously we’re not the first to have searched for the headwaters. In the late eighteenth century, the Mississippi River determined the western border of the young United States and several geologists attempted to determine exactly where the river began.

That wasn’t a simple task. The source has been placed variously at Lake Pepin, Leech Lake, Lake Julia, and Cass Lake, because the Mississippi starts in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” many of which connect to one another. And just to confuse matters, every explorer who “discovered” the source took it upon himself to rename it, which makes tracing the history of discovery of the source of the Mississippi nearly as convoluted as the source itself.

It was finally in 1832 with the help of an Obijewe guide that Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, evidently the only explorer man enough to stop and ask for directions from the locals who had identified the source long before that, found the once and forever, entirely indisputable source of the great river at Lake Omashkoozo-zaaga’igan. He swiftly renamed it Lake Itasca by taking a couple letters out of each of the Latin words for truth and head. It sounded pretty cool to him.

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Lake Itasca, and some very slippery rocks.

Schoolcraft wasn’t wrong about that. He may, however, have been wrong about the once and forever, entirely indisputable source of the Mississippi River. Because four years later, a man by the name of Joseph Nicollet found a creek running into Itasca, which was, of course, named Nicollet Creek. That cracked open the debate again. It wasn’t until 1888 that a detailed survey was taken and Itasca regained its title since it turned out that the creeks running into the lake occasionally run dry.

On April 20, 1891, the Minnesota state legislature established Itasca State Park and now there’s a large brown sign that makes it very easy to spot the once and forever indisputable source of the Mississippi River.

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I found it pretty easy to spot the source of the Mississippi.

Despite the sign, there are some hydrologists who even today insist the source is actually Hernando de Soto Lake because it is connected to Lake Itasca by underground aquifers. But nobody likes those people very much.

Every year about a half million visitors flock to Itasca to walk across the slippery rocks where it all begins. If you can’t count yourself among them, you can still enjoy a view of the headwaters via a super riveting live webcam. It’s also a great place to kayak, and some crazy, adventurous kayakers put in there to begin a 2,348 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. That is definitely not on my bucket list.

My family was happy enough to wade a bit, take a few pictures, and learn some fun Mississippi River facts that are posted throughout the park, including in all of the bathrooms. For instance, did you know that it takes a single drop of water starting in Lake Itasca, about ninety days to make the journey to the Gulf of Mexico? What that means then, is that if on the last day I posted to this blog space I had also spit into the Mississippi headwaters, that spit would still not have reached the Gulf of Mexico by the next time I posted. So, I’m still faster than spit.

 

School’s Out. Time for Dessert!

Finally, the last day of school is almost here. Originally students in our district would have been finished tomorrow afternoon, after a few fairly useless hours of turning in textbooks, cleaning out lockers, and signing yearbooks. They might also have watched a movie while teachers scrambled to input final grades.

fritz's
Worth the wait.

By shortly after noon, the streets of my town would have been overtaken by roving bands of celebrating adolescents, joining in the chorus of Alice Cooper’s School’s Out as it blares from the overtaxed speakers in the dented cars driven by their older and luckier classmates. And it would have taken upwards of an hour to get through the line at the local frozen custard stand.

Thanks to long forgotten snow days, all that joyful chaos will have to wait until next week, but my kids are ready. Their teachers are ready. And even this mama, facing a long summer of chronically bored children itching for a fight, is ready.

Because sometimes when you’ve been stuck for a long time having to meet high expectations, follow stuffy rules, and continually set aside the things you want to do for the things you have to do in order to demonstrate all that you can do, you find yourself exhausted and it’s nice to just cut loose for a little while.

amelia and eleanor
Kindred spirits Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt, a little underdressed here for a spontaneous night flight to Baltimore. By Harris & Ewing – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt found that to be true. Never exactly the conventional wife of a president, taking a far more active role in politics than did her predecessors, Mrs. Roosevelt spent much of her life fighting to break from the expectations placed on her by others and demonstrating through tireless effort all that she and, by extension, all women could be capable of. I’m sure it was an exhausting job. And I’m sure sometimes she just wanted to have a little fun.

During a formal White House dinner party she hosted on the evening of April 20, 1933, she seized an opportunity to do just that. In attendance was her relatively new friend Amelia Earhart, another woman accustomed to breaking through societal expectations. As the two talked that evening, they decided that rather than eating dessert, they’d very much like to take a night flight to Baltimore and back.

The two of them, attired in their fanciest duds, rallied the other dinner guests and the whole party made its way to Hoover Field where they borrowed a plane for their flight of fancy. Because really, who is going to tell evening gown-clad Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt they can’t borrow an airplane?

The flight, covered in detail by the Baltimore Sun, was a success. All the dinner guests made it safely back to the ground, and yes, after the surprise adventure they did return to the White House for dessert. I imagine the atmosphere was looser and the conversation lighter.

I hope our summer break can be as rejuvenating and spontaneous. Maybe we’ll blast a little Alice Cooper and hop a flight to Baltimore wearing our fanciest duds. One thing I know for sure is that we will not be skipping dessert, even if it means waiting an hour in line at the local frozen custard stand.

On a related side note, this mostly once a week blog will become a mostly every other week blog for the summertime. As the pace of motherhood picks up for the season and as I work toward a novel polishing goal, I’m not sure I can maintain a weekly blog schedule. Also, this mama could do with a little summertime fun.