Even People With Bodies Buried In Their Basements Aren’t Perfect

In 1726, when he was just twenty years old, young Benjamin Franklin decided to be perfect. His Puritan upbringing had provided a pretty good understanding of right and wrong, so he figured it wouldn’t be a problem to just do right all the time. To that end he developed a system. Consulting with several writings on morality, he opened up a fresh new journal and made a list of what he considered the thirteen most important virtues of man.

On the list were temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. Next to each, he wrote brief descriptions. Then he discovered what most of us do at some point or other: Perfection isn’t as easy as it sounds.

A lot of us can probably relate. Nearly a week into our New Year’s resolutions, our enthusiasm for regular gym attendance, careful diet, or meticulous organization, might be starting to wane. By this time next month, the people who research such things suggest, fewer than 70% of resolution-makers will still be plugging away at whatever it is they resolved.  By six months out, the number drops below 50%.

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It all sounds so easy on December 31. photo credit: Beegee49 Happy New Year via photopin (license)

But if you are the type of person who makes resolutions at the New Year (along with 50 to 60% of Americans, and me), then I suggest we learn some lessons from Benjamin Franklin.

He didn’t tackle his full list at once. Instead, he started with one and didn’t move on until he felt he could reasonably add another. In his little journal, he kept track each day whether or not he had successfully carried out his goal. Sometimes he did, and sometimes he didn’t, but over time, he began to succeed a little more and fail a little less.

Now, I don’t know that I’m as motivated toward perfection as Franklin was, but last Christmas (not the one we just celebrated, but the one before that), one of my nephews gave me a very thoughtful gift. He picked out for me a very nice, high-quality, leather-bound journal. A great gift for a writer, no? The trouble is, it’s so nice, that now, more than a year later, I haven’t written a single word in it.

I scribble notes and thoughts almost constantly on pieces of scrap paper or notebooks bound by wonky bent spirals and repurposed from last year’s school supplies. But those aren’t high-quality, leather-bound journals selected just for me. And what if I fill it with something silly only to discover a perfect noble purpose for it later on? It’s been a lot of pressure.

So this year, in 2017, I decided to pull the empty journal from the drawer in my nightstand and turn that first page. I’m going to follow in the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin, to pursue my version of perfection, and list the virtues I’d like to work on this year, loosely based on his original thirteen:

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If a man is hanged, it’s not very pleasant. If a man is hung, well, polite people don’t mention such things. photo credit: WatchTheFlash_Photography via photopin (license)
  1. Temperance. More carrot sticks. Fewer French fries.
  2. Silence. Less insufferable correcting of other people’s grammar. Unless they use “hung” when what they really mean in “hanged.” Because there’s only so much a person can do.
  3. Order. Empty the dishwasher after it runs so that dirty dishes don’t pile up indefinitely in the sink.
  4. Resolution. Work through the toppling stack of to-read books on my nightstand. And on the bookshelf in my office. And in the box in my closet. This one may take a while.
  5. Frugality. Remember words are precious. Tweet more regularly. If 140 characters is enough for the soon-to-be leader of the free world to discuss important policy (which, admittedly, it might not be), then surely it’s enough for me to sound occasionally clever.
  6. Industry. Spend less time staying up late to watch Netflix, after I’m done binge-watching iZombie, of course. Perfection takes time.
  7. Sincerity. Do a better job of feigning interest in Minecraft when my children are talking to me. Alas, truly sincere interest is not attainable.
  8. Justice. Spend less time criticizing my children, and more time feigning interest in Minecraft.
  9. Moderation. Stop yelling at talk radio while sitting at stoplights, and recognize the idiots truly cannot hear me, but the guy in the next lane might be able to and he’ll probably have a better day if he can’t.
  10. Cleanliness. Clear out the more than 900 e-mails in my inbox that pertain to flash sales, old publication rejections, and sign-ups for events that happened nine months ago.
  11. Tranquility. Take the dog for more walks.
  12. Chastity. Actually I’m going to practice more silence on this one.
  13. Humility. Here Franklin wrote, “Imitate Jesus and Socrates.” I don’t think I can improve on that one.
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Doesn’t it look nice? Maybe I’ll just start with writing my name in it. I won’t regret that. Right?

If this list, or your version of it, seems too daunting for you to tackle in 2017, or if are already thinking of giving up the resolutions you made a few days ago, don’t fret. You still opened that fancy new journal year and took a chance. The people who study such things tell us that if you make New Year’s resolutions, you are already ten times more likely to reach your goals than is someone who didn’t bother.

Even Franklin, who once electrocuted a turkey to amuse his friends and who died with fifteen bodies buried in his basement, admitted he never actually reached perfection. Still he kept track of his progress and was convinced he’d become a better man for the effort.

A Troublesome Apple and an Ample Supply of Butt Glue

It all started with an apple. Or perhaps it started when Eris, the goddess of discord got her toga in a bunch because she wasn’t invited to a wedding. The problem with offending the goddess of discord is that she’s pretty good at causing trouble. The story goes that Eris crashed the wedding, but only long enough to present a golden apple to the fairest of them all.

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The world’s first beauty contest, maybe ever so slightly more risqué than the swimsuit competitions of today. The Judgement of Paris by Enrique Simonet, 1904, Pubic Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Three formidable goddesses (Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite) stepped forward to claim the prize. Zeus wasn’t about to wade into that hornet’s nest by declaring a victor, so he passed the responsibility off to Paris, who faced a very difficult choice. None of the goddesses was keen to hand over the title of fairest and so they bribed their unfortunate judge. Hera offered him the opportunity to rule, Athena offered him victory on the battlefield, and Aphrodite offered him the love of Helen, who was quite a beauty queen herself.

Paris chose the pretty girl because, like Aphrodite, she appeared well-poised and graceful in a swimsuit and high heels and could clearly benefit from a scholarship. She also wanted world peace and “like such as, uh, South Africa, and, uh, Iraq, everywhere like such as…”*

Alas, world peace was not to be, since Helen was married to Menelaus of Sparta, and he didn’t agree that Aphrodite should be given the title of Miss Olympus. War broke out and because the Trojans couldn’t resist a good looking giant wooden horse any more than Paris could resist a pretty girl, it didn’t end well for Troy.

Given the bloody history, then, it isn’t all that surprising that outside of a few small May Day festivals, there really wasn’t much in the way of beauty contests for thousands of years. Then along came P.T. Barnum who, in 1854, thought it would be a great idea to parade women in front of a crowd to judge their beauty.

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Margaret Gorman, 16-year-old, 1921 winner of the Bather’s Review, and the first Miss America, without even a single glob of butt glue to keep her swim suit in place. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It turned out it was a pretty good money-making idea, just a little ahead of its time. But what ended in angry protest in 1854, started to catch on almost seventy years later in Atlantic City, as the Inter-City Beauty Contest in which women competed for applause and a chance to parade around in their swimming suits the next day in the “Bather’s Review.”

From these humble beginnings emerged the Miss America Pageant, which is ongoing and will wind up with the crowning of a new beauty in a glued-on bathing suit this Sunday, September 11.

Now, I’m not a big pageant fan myself, and I have never competed in one (frankly, it just wouldn’t be fair to the other ladies), so I have mixed feelings about criticizing them. I do think that, with a few unfortunate exceptions, the contestants of most of the larger pageants today, are smart, talented, and highly-motivated women who are working hard to find a platform from which to make a positive difference in the world.

I don’t begrudge them that opportunity, but here’s my question. If we have so many smart, talented, and highly-motivated women in the world (or even the universe, though I think that pageant is rigged as only Earth girls have ever been crowned), why is it that we need to see them in a bathing suit and high heels? Does their poise and athleticism while half-naked make them somehow more likely to be forces for positive change? Or does their successful application of butt glue somehow make them more worthy of college scholarships?

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Homer: a practical history blogger before his time. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tough questions, I know, and not easily answered by world peace and, like um, South Africa. Too tough for me, a lowly blogger of all things historical, and, evidently mythological. Because, yes, in addition to being among the four fifths of Americans who can identify the United States on a world map, I am also aware that the Trojan War may not have happened at all. And if some version of it did, it most likely didn’t start with an epic godly beauty pageant.

But then again, on the rare occasion that I have flipped on the television and watched part of the Miss America Pageant, I have usually found myself asking if it’s for real, too.

 

*Actual excerpt from an actual response given by a contestant in the 2007 Miss Teen USA Pageant while answering the question, “Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can’t locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?” In her defense, it was a pretty high pressure situation and a FIFTH OF AMERICANS CAN’T IDENTIFY THE U.S. ON A WORLD MAP! Likely this beauty contestant is not among them. I suspect she can also find, uh, South Africa, and, uh, Iraq.

One Cool Artsy Hat

Sultan Mahmut II sporting his modern look. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Sultan Mahmut II sporting his modern fez. [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
On November 25, 1925, the parliament of Turkey passed a law prohibiting citizens of that country from wearing a fez in a public space. The widely worn rimless hat had been an important part of the culture for nearly one hundred years, initially stemming from an 1829 decree by Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II that all civil officials and military personnel were required to update their headwear to the fez.

The move was part of a larger effort to modernize the Ottoman Empire, similar to Peter the Great’s grand plan to westernize Russia by taxing the beard. Though there was some resistance at first, the people more or less responded well and by the end of the century, the fez had become not only standard headwear, but also a beloved national symbol.

And that’s what led to the Hat Law. Prior to its passage Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk spoke passionately of his vision for the burgeoning nation of Turkey, which, he demonstrated, included the wearing of Panama hats, which he thought were much cooler.

First president of Turkey, with his modern Panama hat. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
First president of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, with his even more modern Panama hat. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Alas, the public already thought it looked pretty good wearing a fez and was not prepared to embrace yet another change to its attire. Instead of immediately casting aside the fez in favor of the rakish fedora, pockets of the population rose up in revolution.

The uprising didn’t last long, and it didn’t go particularly well for the revolutionaries who adopted the fez, formerly a symbol of reform, then a rallying cry for proponents of Turkish cultural conservatism. More than thirty people, both men and women, were executed in the course of Turkey’s brief Hat Revolution.

And though it is rarely enforced with much gusto today, the law remains on the books in Turkey, where it’s been for ninety years, even during the rise and fall of the casual European man lounging in a smoking jacket and matching fez.

I have to say, as far as symbols of cultural tug-of-war go, the fez is a pretty cool one (unless it’s paired with a smoking jacket, which most people can’t pull off). And I suspect that may be one of the reasons the online arts and literary journal Red Fez adopted it.

Because in 2002, magazine founder Leopold McGinnis decided to rise up against the well-guarded path to traditional publishing and provide writers with a new opportunity to get their imaginative work out there for public consumption.

Within a few years (with the help of additional artistic revolutionaries) Red Fez expanded to include not only fiction and poetry, but also comics, photography, music, and videos. And it became a really cool Internet hangout for artists of all types (like maybe even cool enough to pull off a smoking jacket).

That's one artsy hat.
That’s one cool artsy hat.
“Fes”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://bit.ly/1Kauoek

The magazine is published monthly and to date has served up “1,481 poems, 568 stories, 114 graphic works, 70 videos, 35 audio works, 424 articles and reviews from 1302 authors and artists around the world.” And this month, among the creepy artistic offerings of Issue 83: October 2015, The Halloween Issue, there is a story by a little known practical historian.

The story is called “Elixir of Life.” It’s not of a historical nature, but I hope you’ll follow the link and enjoy it anyway. While you’re there, don your fez and coordinating smoking jacket (you’re cool enough to pull it off) and hang out for a while because there’s a lot of good stuff to soak in.