Let’s Just Call Those the X-Days

What I really need is a do-over. At the start of the summer, all those sunny weeks and lazy days ago, I had visions of happy kids and chore charts and nutritious picnics, followed by well-sunscreened adventures to swimmin’ holes, bike trails, or the ballpark. During the long, relaxed evenings, we were going to harvest the latest offerings from our garden and work together to prepare a nice meal followed up by a pie we made with the abundant fruit we picked at the local orchards.  Of course, even in my fantasy my children wouldn’t eat said pie because fruit is NOT dessert. Sigh.

But you get the idea. This was supposed to be a highly organized, smooth running summer to remember. And it was all to start with that Day 1, when the biggest thing on our agenda, before all the fun could officially begin, was the organizing of all the random junk they brought home from school at the end of the year.

office floor
An actual picture of my actual office floor. Well, or what you can almost see of it.

Scheduled to take place in what is, throughout the school year when I have more time, my writing office, Day 1 never quite happened the way I hoped it would. The boys did follow my instructions and dump their well-worn backpacks, scribbled-on notebooks, and eraserless pencil nubs in the middle of the floor so we could sort the reusable supplies from the detritus. Somehow that’s as far as we got.

Each had his own idea of how he wanted to spend his first day of summer, and this was definitely not it. And so the pile of school year castoffs remained.

From there it was all downhill. We had a packed June with a fabulous family vacation and then camps and VBS and a mission trip for my oldest, and somehow that summer chore chart never got posted or enforced. I still can’t see the floor of my office. We haven’t been to the orchard or baked a pie my children won’t eat. And the math workbooks I bought so my children’s brains wouldn’t turn to mush over the summer break? Filled with nothing but unsolved problems and the best of intentions.

I feel like I just let the whole thing run away from me to become a disorganized mess, like the pile of crap in my office, or even like the US Patents office prior to 1836. That’s when Maine Senator John Ruggles formed a bill designed to revolutionize the US patent system, which until then had been kind of a hot mess and was in definite need of a do-over.

Prior to the 1836 act, patents required signatures from the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the POTUS, in the age long before a simple fax between these extremely busy people might have done the trick. Patents weren’t issued for months after they were filed, weren’t tracked effectively enough to protect an inventor from having his idea stolen, patented by someone else, and marketed falsely, and were limited to US citizens.  These patents weren’t widely available to the public, held in duplicate, or even issued an identification number.

Patent_Office_1877_fire
The 1877 fire in the new and improved fireproof US Patent Building. By Timothy H. O’Sullivan original photographer – Library Of Congress Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The new act set up a Patent Office, run by a designated Commissioner of Patents. It required newly filed patents to be a matter of public record throughout libraries in the nation, allowed anyone to apply for a patent in the US, and demanded that applications be submitted in duplicate. The new patents were to be assigned identification numbers, with Patent Number 1 awarded to Senator Ruggles for his unique take on train wheel design. The previous patents were then retroactively numbered with “X” placed at the beginning, earning them the name “X-Patents,” and a new fireproof building was commissioned to house the records, which turned out to be timely since a few months after the act passed, the temporary patent office burned to the ground.  

There was a lot of great history lost in that 1836 fire that swallowed nearly 10,000 records, including the original patent for the fire hydrant. The majority of the X-Patent records weren’t recovered. The new building, not entirely completed until 1867, didn’t catch fire until 1877. Models and records (including that of an improved fire hydrant system) went up in that blaze as well. But by then the Patent Office had gotten its act together and no records were entirely lost to history.

school supplies
As many of my friends are lamenting the presence of school supplies in stores, I’m considering just torching all the X-supplies and starting fresh.

Now when I say I want a do-over, I certainly don’t mean to suggest that our summer has been a complete bust so far. We had a great family vacation and we’ve done a lot of fun things. We have ridden our bikes and done lots of swimming and made some delicious meals with the harvest from our garden. We’ve caught lightning bugs and completed summer library reading logs and been to the ballpark and gotten together with friends. I don’t want to burn the memory of those things.

But with about a month until school starts up again, I am feeling the need to start fresh. So today, on the 181st anniversary of the issuance of US Patent Number 1, I’m going to declare this Summer Day Number 1, the beginning of a refocused, more organized summer break. Everything that came before, I’m just going to call those the X-Days.

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And That’s Why You Shouldn’t Mess with a Babylonian Pig

This year my oldest son began middle school. It’s going well, for the most part. He’s thriving in the world of increased social opportunities, having found a group of buddies that all seem to get one another pretty well. And despite the increase in workload, he’s enjoying the academic challenges middle school is bringing. He’s even almost a little more organized and responsible than he used to be. Well, he’s working on it anyway.

We’ve had a few hurdles to jump, but it’s more or less off to a good start. Or at least I thought it was until he came home the other day and as he ran down his list of homework and other tiny scraps of information he occasionally lets slip out, he casually mentioned that his classmates had sentenced him to death.

big-pig
Actually I’m pretty impressed with his skills if he managed to run off with one of these things. photo credit: jpellgen Largest Boar via photopin (license)

As you can imagine, a number of follow-up questions flashed though my mind. The answers to some of them were that he stole a pig, his accuser was a landowner, much wealthier and more important than he was, and that she tried to shoot him as he fled the scene, but the law didn’t seem to care about the attempted murder. Just the pig thief, even though he requested leniency and so did a number of character witnesses who swore he would never do such a thing unless he were starving. And, you know, he’s a middle school boy, so he might feel like he’s starving most of the time.

Finally, after enjoying my mystified expression for a moment, he went on to explain that his social studies class had been studying Hammurabi’s Code. Just in case it’s been as long since your middle school social studies days as it has since mine, I’ll explain.

stele_du_code_dhammurabi
What a constitution looked like in 1754 BC. CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=818801

In 1901, while working on a site in the ancient city of Susa (in modern day Iran), Egyptologist Gustave Jéquier discovered a stone stele, over seven feet tall, covered in cuneiform script. When translated, the 44 columns and 28 paragraphs were shown to contain a total of 282 laws, which, dating to somewhere around 1754 BC, form one of the oldest written codes of law known.

Established under the Babylonian king Hammurabi, the laws cover a wide range of issues, including contract terms, liability, fraud, divorce, and the theft of a pig by a starving sixth grader in social studies class.

The code is also the first good example history has thus far offered up of a system of presumed innocence, with court proceedings that allow for both prosecutor and defendant to present evidence. Of course it’s not all rosy, because the code also spells out a hierarchical application of the laws. For instance, a doctor successfully treating the injuries of a high-ranking man will make more money than if he successfully treats a slave, but he will also face a much stiffer penalty for unsuccessful treatment of a wealthy man, and if it’s say, your run of the mill freed man, well, it officially just doesn’t matter.

And if a landowner steals livestock from another landowner, he is required to pay ten times the value of the stolen property to rightful owner. If, on the other hand, a starving middle school boy steals a pig from the rich girl who owns the desk next door, the punishment is unquestionably death.

As his mother, I might complain about this sad injustice, perhaps start a tablet writing campaign to the Babylonian elders, or petition the king for a pardon. But, I suppose the law is the law, and I’m completely thrilled that my kid has such a great social studies teacher. At least for the few days he has left.

Give Me My Seventeenth Day!

Today is the sixteenth day of my children’s school year. Sixteen days of getting to know their teachers, running from the bees that invaded to school playground over the summer, re-establishing homework and study routines, and deciding that maybe summer isn’t as long and boring as they thought it was sixteen days ago.

Okay, maybe not THAT creative. photo credit: Lunchbots bento for 5th grade boy - puzzle cheese for autism via photopin (license)
Okay, maybe not THAT creative. photo credit: Lunchbots bento for 5th grade boy – puzzle cheese for autism via photopin (license)

I’ve been pretty busy, too. I’ve packed a variety of creative lunches (not just the slapped together peanut butter sandwiches my children can expect every day by late March), signed and returned every form that’s come home wadded up in the bottom of a backpack, and filed away roughly a billion flyers, making note of PTA fundraiser dates and soccer practice schedules.

And since I work from home, which means that when my children are home, I don’t really get to work (or at least I do a very different kind of work), I’ve had a remarkably productive sixteen days without the constant interruption of, “MOM!”

I have submitted two new short stories, added another 12,000 words to my current novel project, posted to my blog two Thursdays (and now three) in a row, attended my weekly critique group meeting three times (where I both gave and received both brilliant and terrible advice), and disappeared down several research rabbit holes. I’m even getting a start on my reading list.

You could say I’m on something of a sixteen day roll. Sixteen glorious days! That makes two entire weeks, and it would be three tomorrow.

If they had school tomorrow.

They don’t because it’s Labor Day weekend. Monday is a national holiday and all that and our school district, like many, decided to put a teacher planning and in-service training day on Friday, giving students a four day weekend. It’s probably a good idea. Families can travel or whatever. And I certainly don’t begrudge teachers their planning and in-service days. I realize those are important.

But I feel like we were just starting to hit our stride.  I want my day back!

I imagine this is kind of how the people of Great Britain felt when they woke up on the morning of September 3, 1752 and realized the day didn’t actually exist. That year, British citizens (including those in the American colonies) went to bed on September 2 and woke up on September 14, skipping over eleven days in the process.

The calendar change was proposed by Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield whose birthday is on September 22. Guess he got to open his presents a little bit earlier in 1752. Portrait by Allan Ramsey. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
The calendar change was proposed by Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield whose birthday is on September 22. Guess he got to open his presents a little bit earlier in 1752. Portrait by Allan Ramsey. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

It was probably a good idea. Great Britain had been following the Julian calendar, introduced in 46 BC. That would have been all well and good except that the calendar was based on a solar year that had been miscalculated by 11 minutes. What wasn’t such a big miscalculation in 46 BC, had after a while become a very big deal, sending the calendar completely out of sync with the seasons and wreaking havoc on the Catholic feast schedule.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decided he’d had enough and proposed the Gregorian calendar which is much more accurate as long as you add a day every few years and a second or so once in a while. While Catholic nations were quick to adopt the new system, Protestant nations were less enthusiastic.

But in 1750, Parliament decided that doing business with the rest of Europe was somewhat difficult when no one could figure out what day it was, and the plan was set in motion. Two years later September got the shaft.

Rumors have swirled across the pages of history books that the people rioted in the streets because their government had the audacity to steal 11 days of their lives. The source of that rumor, as it turns out, is probably a satirical work by William Hogarth. During the next election season in which the Tories drummed up distaste for the Whigs by publicly blaming them for cancelling the first half of September and ruining everyone’s year, Hogarth produced a painting depicting the rioting horde with placards that read: “Give us our 11 days.”

An Election Entertainment by William Hogarth. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
An Election Entertainment by William Hogarth. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And history was invented.

I may be no William Hogarth, but...nope, I got nothing. I'll just stick to writing.
I may be no William Hogarth, but…nope, I got nothing. I’ll just stick to writing.

I imagine the change did make some people grumble for a while (especially those with birthdays in early September) but others didn’t seem to mind so much. In America (where people were evidently less prone to riot for no real purpose than they are today), Benjamin Franklin wrote of the calendar change, “It is pleasant for an old man to go to bed on September 2, and not have to get up until September 14.”

So as the school district steals what should have been my seventeenth productive day, I will try to channel my inner Ben Franklin and tell myself that it is pleasant for a mom to pack creative school lunches on September 3 and not have to do it again until September 8.

The Certainty of Death and Taxes

As of yesterday, another income tax season has come to a close here in the US. CPA’s who haven’t been home in months can finally return to the family dinner table. And at long last city sidewalks are free from the invasion of creepy sign-spinning Statues of Liberty beckoning to us from the side of the road.

The Statue of LIbertry wearing a fur-lined hood is creepy enough. In my town where it's been warm the last few days, one Mr. Liberty has been wearing shorts under his robe. I hope.  photo credit: Income tax of liberty via photopin (license)
Actually it might not be a bad idea to tax Statue of Liberty hats. photopin (license)photo credit: Income tax of liberty via photopin (license)

No matter how we feel about the way our taxes are collected and spent and whether some of us should be paying more or some of us less, I’m guessing none of us particularly enjoys the income tax process. The laws are complicated, and growing more so all the time. The effort expended in calculating it all expands from year to year at an unbelievably stupid rate.

But as Benjamin Franklin famously said, “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except for death and taxes.” It’s something we have to deal with. Failure to file will net us fines and legal battles. So any readers out there who are law-abiding US taxpayers, I want to offer a hearty congratulations for successfully slugging through another year and getting it done. You may be tired. A few of you may have even been up past your bedtime so you could sneak in just before the deadline. If so, rub your blurry eyes, grab a cup of coffee, draw a deep breath, and realize it could be worse.

Because in 1798, for Englishman John Collins, it was much worse. Collins was busy at work with a printing plate, producing linen hat labels for anxious customers when he learned just how serious the business of taxation could be. The plate was readied, the linen damp and awaiting its impression, and Collins’s hand was covered in ink. That’s when he was arrested for forgery.

What he had been trying to pull off was a sneak around England’s tax on men’s hats. Introduced by Parliament in 1784, it was designed to be a kind of income tax because in theory, the wealthy would own several expensive hats, while the poor may own one cheap hat, if any at all.

Ladies' hats were tax exempt. Even those made of fruit. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ladies’ hats were tax exempt. Even those made of fruit. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
To sell hats required a license that cost two pounds in London (or five shillings in the countryside) and gave the seller the right to post a sign reading: “Dealer in Hats by Retail.” A hat costing up to four shillings carried a tax bill of three pence and as the cost of the hat increased, so did the tax, with hats greater than twelve shillings demanding a hefty 2-shilling tax. Penalties for hats without a tax labels affixed to the linings fell both to the seller and the wearer.

No hat is worth that. photo credit: The End of the Line via photopin (license)

The hat tax was perhaps better than the window tax, the disastrous effects of which can still be seen in the large number of bricked-up windows gracing English buildings, but it turns out Englishmen were almost as fond of the hat tax as the citizens of the former British colonies in America had been of the English tea tax just a few years earlier. Removal and reuse of stamps was common and punishable. In the early days of the law, retailers attempted to change the language they used to refer to their wares, causing revisions that broadened the definition of a hat. Still the unpopular hat tax was widely ignored, hard to enforce, and was finally repealed in 1811.

Unfortunately that came after John Collins was caught forging tax labels. He got more than a fine or a legal battle. To forge a hat tax label in England in 1798 was a capital crime. Poor John Collins learned that there were certainties he couldn’t escape when he evaded taxes and met with death.