Dreaming of the Island Nation of Angletonia

On September 2, 1967 Englishman Roy Bates set the bar remarkably high when he gave a pretty extravagant birthday gift to his wife. That was the day he bestowed upon her the title of Princess Joan and made her the sovereign of a new nation called Sealand, which today celebrates the fifty-fourth anniversary of its establishment.

Don’t tell the Sealanders, but technically, it is what’s known as a micronation, basically meaning that as far as the international community is concerned, it’s not a real thing at all. But Sealand was created from a defensive platform fortress built during World War II in what was then international waters by Great Britain, and over the years it has achieved a modicum of legal recognition.

Looks like a nice place, I guess? See en:Talk:Sealand/emails, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bates occupied what was known as Fort Roughs Tower with the intention of running a pirate radio station from about seven or so miles off the coast of Suffolk and beyond the interference of the BBC. He never did establish the radio station, though. Instead, he consulted with a lawyer, and declared The Principality of Sealand.

The primary question, it seems to me, is why? Sealand doesn’t seem to me like an especially pleasant place to live, and at any given time, according to its current head of state Michael Bates, its in-country population is “normally like two people.”

It’s also taken the Bates family a significant effort to maintain through the years. When England began destroying several similar platforms off its coast in the late 1960s, Sealanders fired warning shots toward approaching vessels. Bates faced legal ramifications, but the British courts decided they had no jurisdiction in the case, which its prince took as legal justification for his “nation’s” existence.

Sealand has a flag, national anthem, currency, and stamps. You can even become a member of the nobility if you want. Zscout370, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Later, in 1978, Sealand faced an invasion by German and Dutch mercenaries, resulting in Prince Michael being held hostage. The prince eventually managed to use some of the resources at his disposal on Fort Roughs to overwhelm his captors, one of whom was in possession of a Sealand passport and so was tried and imprisoned for treason. Because a German diplomat entered into eventually successful negotiations on the man’s behalf, Sealand could then claim German recognition as a nation. Kind of.

The whole thing sounds exhausting to me, but then I think I also might kind of get it. At least a little bit. Because even though the Bates family are British citizens who primarily reside on land in Great Britain, they have a place to retreat to when their government leaders go and do really, really stupid things. As government leaders so often seem to do.

The rest of us are left uselessly yelling at our television screens, computer monitors, phones, messenger pigeons, or however we get our news, and trying to invent more creative swear words to post self-righteously on social media because the old ones no longer seem adequate. Meanwhile, the royal family of Sealand, and “normally like two” of its citizen caretakers, can escape to their weird North Sea micronation haven where they can make their own decisions and Grandma Joan’s head is on the coins.

For now, Angletonia exists only in the unclaimed territory in my brain, where it looks something like this. Image by Todd Kay from Pixabay

It sounds kind of nice, actually. At least once in a while. And apparently other people think so, too, because micronations have been popping up all over the world for at least a century. Some exist on little (or quite large) bits of unclaimed land within the borders of recognized nations, some on islands, some in cyberspace, and even one in outer space. It boasts more than 160,000 citizens.

Most don’t tend to last too long, and few receive even as much sort-of recognition as Sealand has managed. As the spunky North Sea micronation celebrates fifty-four years of well-imagined existence, it’s not entirely clear how long it will continue.

The Bates family seems determined to fight for their little chunk of the world, but since England’s borders expanded in 1987 to include twelve miles out into the sea, Sealand does now technically exist within the country whose citizenship its royal family still holds. If there’s ever reason for a legal battle again, I’m not convinced, in all my vast (totally made-up) understanding of law, that it will survive. I think I’m rooting for them, though, and dreaming of my own island nation of Angletonia.

Taking a Crack at It

One day in September of 1895 (or thereabouts), janitor Harvey Lillard was hard at work in the Ryan Building on Brady Street in Davenport, Iowa. He was also hard of hearing, and had been for about seventeen years. In this building was the office of a grocer-turned-magnetic healer by the name of Daniel David Palmer, who decided that he might be able to take a crack at curing Lillard’s partial deafness.

Lillard agreed to an examination. What Palmer found was a bulging disk in the man’s spine. Figuring that may be the root of the problem, Palmer performed what is rumored to be the first ever chiropractic manipulation and birthed a controversial profession that will soon celebrate its 126th anniversary. It also allegedly restored Lillard’s hearing and set right an old, troublesome injury.

In one version of the story, the original injury occurred when Palmer slapped Lillard in the back with a book after a funny joke, and then cured him with an adjustment. That sounds pretty legit to me. Image by Gerhard G. from Pixabay

Like all great origin stories, there are a few different versions of this one and really, it might be kind of suspect, but then so is the profession it spawned. Or at least it has been throughout much of its history. Rising at the end of the century that brought the world a plethora of dangerous patent medicines, magnetic healing, and early medical colleges that were only beginning to coalesce into something resembling standardization, while still grandfathering medical licenses of those who favored feeding mercury to their patients, chiropractic probably seemed like a light in the darkness.

Then with the twentieth century came the rise of antibiotics and the growing habit of medical professionals using the scientific method to study and treat and cure. Trained, tested, and licensed medical doctors began to know what they were talking about, and attributing all medical maladies to misalignment of the spine began to sound just a little bit nutters.

My 14-year-old son has apologized, as he believes he perhaps stepped on a crack and broke his mother’s back. Because he’s funny. Image by Jean-Pierre Pellissier from Pixabay

Despite the controversy, and decades of almost straight-up warring with the American Medical Association, chiropractic practitioners have persevered. With their natural approach to health that, in addition to frequent spinal manipulation, focuses on nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices, they have probably done a lot of good for some patients. 

I am not one of those patients. But I did, for the first time ever, seek out chiropractic care this past week. I am, in general, a pretty active person, but ever since becoming a mommy quite a few years ago, I occasionally suffer with acute low back pain. I usually muddle through for a few days to about a week or so, and recover fairly well. This time, I haven’t been quite as fortunate.

Is it just me? This is a little weird, right? Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been a little shy of two weeks since the onset of my latest struggle with back pain. It’s one of those annoying ones that I can’t totally attribute to any specific moment of injury, which makes it all the more frustrating. So, desperate for some relief, I went to a chiropractor, because my husband who is a healthcare professional of the more scientific method variety, and who has had some experience with sports medicine in which athletes will often use a more combined approach to nursing injuries, said, “Eh, maybe give it a try.”

I did. And what I can say is this: It helped. Maybe. Or maybe it didn’t. Actually, I’m really not sure. I know that following adjustment, I could probably stand up a little straighter for a few minutes and maybe got a little bit of pain relief that allowed slightly more flexibility as I worked through some physical therapy, in which, frankly, I have a lot more faith.

It was also weird. If you are an enthusiastic patient of chiropractic care (and if you love it and it works for you, then that’s great) then having a stranger pull on your arms and basically sit on top of you while you snap crackle and pop might seem totally normal. But if you’re not accustomed to it, well, it’s weird.

My back still hurts, but I am on the mend. Physical therapy and I are getting along much better and I can see past the discomfort now to a near future in which I feel fine again and can do all the things I want. I do, however, think I will probably not be seeking chiropractic adjustment again.

It’s definitely more mainstream than it used to be. It’s regulated and requires training and licensing and all that. A lot of people swear by it. It’s just not for me. But, like its first patient Harvey Lillard and its first practitioner D. D. Palmer, I took a crack at it.

Leave the Poop. Take the Rocks.

This past July marked fifty-two years since Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind on the surface of the moon, leaving behind an American flag, some pretty funky footprints, and a plaque reading: “Here men from planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A. D. We came in peace for all mankind.” The message, I’m sure, is of great comfort to those visiting aliens who can read the English language.

But that’s not all the crew of the Apollo 11 left behind. They also abandoned, among other things, two golf balls, twelve cameras, twelve pairs of boots, a telescope, and bags of human waste, including urine, vomit, and yes, feces. In fact, between the six Apollo missions that landed on the moon, there have been ninety-six bags of human waste left behind. The items were left in order to compensate for the additional weight of the moonrocks the astronauts brought back. There just wasn’t enough room for the golf balls and poop.

The first three men ever to leave their poop on the moon. NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It does seem like a very human thing to do to leave behind a trail of stuff. My family certainly did on our most recent trip. With some areas of the country a little more on edge than others and Covid numbers creeping up, we decided to stay a little closer to home for our summer family vacation this year. And so, we rented a cabin on Table Rock Lake in the southern part of our home state of Missouri.

We packed our suitcases, attached the cartop carrier filled with cycling and fishing gear, strapped our four bicycles to the back, and piled into the family truckster along with a cooler of snacks and a laundry basketful of goods for setting up our temporary home away from home. Fully loaded down, we headed out for our four-hour drive to the lake.

Eleven hours later, we arrived in a borrowed Jeep, with slightly dampened spirits, and in possession of only some of our belongings. The truckster (a 2020 Subaru Outback with just over 20,000 miles on it) decided it would rather make only half the journey and died a spectacular death on the interstate.

Right now it kind of feels like we left behind a big pile of poop. At least it’s still under warranty.

Fortunately, we did make it to the side of the road in a relatively wide-open spot where we could escape the shoulder over a grassy divide to a frontage road sporting a run-down motel that a very kind state trooper who soon stopped to help us called “not a nice place.”

After an hour or so of fighting the world’s most complicated phone tree to talk to someone with our insurance company at 5:00 on a Saturday, and calling on the kindness of some amazing family reinforcements who quickly volunteered to come to our rescue, we unstrapped our bikes and headed a couple miles down the frontage road to a safer part of the town whose last exit we’d just passed.

The truckster, minus a functional transmission and plus our luggage, got towed to the nearest Subaru dealership. That is at least located in the direction we were going, though is also an hour further from where we actually live.

Meanwhile, we played cards on the parking lot sidewalk of a gas station convenience store surrounded by our bikes and enjoying a dinner of the finest gas station convenience store food we could find, until my sister arrived with her Jeep complete with trailer hitch so we could transport our bicycles. Our nephew also came, so that he could transport her back to our house so she could take the car our oldest son normally drives back home for the week.

Next, we headed to the Subaru dealership, explained to a suspicious night security guard that we just wanted our suitcases, and rescued what we could. The Jeep held a lot, and with a second trip to the truckster the next day, we got most of our stuff transported to the cabin, where we strategized through the week how to get everything back home again.

Don’t worry. We didn’t have to leave our travel buddy Steve behind.

Of course, we didn’t. The laundry basket of household stuff broke in the process and so we disposed of it and we didn’t need to bring any food back with us, so a lot of little things could fit inside the empty ice chest. We threw away what we had to, left the household supplies that might be useful to future renters, and signed the guestbook: “We came in peace for all mankind.” The hubbs then pieced together the rest in the back of the Jeep, playing his finest game yet of what we like to call “Car Jenga.”  

Despite the ridiculous start and slightly cramped end, our vacation really was a lot of fun, and our left-behind hand soap, paper plates, and Clorox wipes were a pretty good trade-off for the memories made. We are definitely going to want the car back eventually, though. So far, we’re hopeful we might be able to retrieve it by the end of next week.

It’s now been fifty-two years and mankind has not yet retrieved most of its left-behind stuff from the moon. Frankly, no one misses the golf balls. They seem a pretty good trade-off for a pile of moonrocks and memories of an out-of-this-world trip. But with all the bacteria that has been exposed for decades to the environment of the moon, there are some scientists who are eager to get their hands on the poop. Personally, I think I’d just be happy with the rocks.

A Salute to Twenty-One

It’s the number of dots on a standard six-sided die and the total over which you can’t go in a hand of Blackjack. It’s the age at which a young American can legally drink and the number of the Amendment that restores the right to do so after the eighteenth Amendment took that right away.

In 1808, it became the official standardized number of cannon shots fired for a royal salute in Great Britain, a tradition that started as a symbol of exhausting one’s easily accessible ammo in order to signal peaceful intent. The United States wouldn’t adopt the number for saluting purposes officially until 1890, because ‘Mericans tend to be stubborn and they preferred their salute to correspond to the number of states in the union. Eventually, that began to seem like an awful lot of trouble, and twenty-one, like a pretty good compromise.

For me, the number twenty-one has gained a new significance this week as my husband and I celebrate twenty-one years of marriage. That’s twenty-one years in which we have lived in five different homes in three states, become the parents of two children, and shared so many private jokes that we probably don’t really need to talk at all anymore to make each other laugh. We’ve supported each other through schooling and job changes, through lots of frustrations and even more joys.

For almost ten years, he has been the first to read nearly every post that finds its way to this space, and a few that didn’t make cut, and has titled many of them. We share an appreciation for stupid puns, little known ska/punk bands, and overstuffed burritos.

So, this week, we mark an amazing twenty-one years. A quick internet search tells me that the traditional symbol for the twenty-first anniversary is brass. We’re not gamblers or big drinkers and I’m fresh out of cannons, but we are pretty big fans of brass. Happily “our song” comes with a healthy dose of it. Sounds like a celebration to me:

An Exhilarating Fight to the Death

This past week saw the official opening of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo, with some definite adjustments. There are no cheering crowds and the athletes arbitrarily wear masks when they don’t have the immediate need to breathe. Viewership in the US is way down, I’m sure partly because seeing empty stadiums is unsettling and partly because so many people have given up cable in favor of streaming services. It’s also difficult to hashtag a 2020 Olympic Games that is occurring in 2021. We’re probably all little discombobulated.

Cesar I. Martins from Jundiai, Brazil, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What I miss the most are the parents of the athletes, sitting in the stands wringing their hands, biting their nails, trying to watch and not watch at the same time while their son or daughter competes at the highest level in a sport to which they have dedicated so much time and energy for so many years. Instead, we’re shown occasional glimpses of them in the comfort of their living rooms half a world away, or gathered with family and friends for watch parties. It’s nice to see them, but it’s not quite the same.

There are two types of Olympic parent. The first is the one who is the former elite athlete themselves. This parent my even have been a coach to their young athlete at some point. They can semi-calmly answer knowledgeable questions about their son or daughter’s performance. The second kind of parent had no idea that their child might be the greatest handball player of all time, and when it all began, had no idea precisely how one played handball.

It’s this parent with whom I identify, because while the rest of the handful of Olympic watchers in the US was tuned into the primetime replay of the Opening Ceremony last Friday, I was instead watching men’s sabre fencing. This is the kind of event you have to watch live mostly in the middle of the night because it’s not gymnastics, swimming, sprinting, or beach volleyball. And it’s a sport that we had to watch, because for about three years now, my youngest son has been a fencer.

Italian sabre team at 1908 Olympics. Unknown author, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the fact that fencing is one of the world’s oldest sports, as it developed alongside the need to learn how to fight and defend oneself with a sword, and despite the fact that it is one of only five events that has been part of every single occurrence of the Modern Olympic Games since they began in Athens in 1896, fencing remains a watch-in-the-middle-of-the-night kind of sport around these parts.

And we did watch it in the middle of the night. The preliminaries began around 7 pm and the gold medal bout occurred around 7 am. In between was a lot of fencing, very little of which was understood by this mom.

It’s not that I don’t like the sport. It’s just that before my son started, the only thing I knew about fencing I had learned from The Princess Bride, which taught me that Bonetti’s defense might be fitting for rocky terrain, and that if one is to be satisfied with his bout, he should fence with his non-dominant hand unless forced to do otherwise because his opponent is better than he is. Neither of these pieces of information has so far proven useful in the slightest.

I have accumulated some knowledge over the last few years. For instance, there are three varieties of sport fencing. Each uses a distinct type of sword, set of rules, and method of scoring. Foil is the classic art of poking one’s opponent in the torso. Epee, according to my son, is the sword dancing of lawless hippies. And sabre is more or less an exhilarating fight to the death by stabbing or whacking.

Thadius856, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Obviously, my son primarily fences sabre, which is the fastest moving of the three and is therefore the most difficult for an enthusiastic mom to spectate without making a fool of herself.

In case you’re not familiar with the sport, I’ll explain. Very basically, each fencer is attempting to score a “touch” against the other by being the first to make contact with an opponent from the waist up. This touch can be scored with either the stabby part of the sword or the cutting edge. That’s not so tricky. But if both fencers manage to achieve a touch, which seems to pretty much always happen, then the point goes to the fencer who has claim to the right of way, or in other words, the last fencer to have done something either offensive (like move forward without stopping or flinching) or defensive, like parry an opponent’s attack.

Right of way is determined by a judge, who is never swayed by the simultaneous outpouring of enthusiastic celebration by each of the fencers, as convinced the point belongs to him as a soccer player is that he has been gravely injured by light contact with another player. Except that sometimes the judge is swayed. But more often, they just call a simultaneous, no one gets the point, and the false celebrating ceases for the next 0.4 milliseconds that it takes to do it all over again.

© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

I have been trying to figure it out. I really have, and I thought that maybe by watching sabre in the Olympics with commentary and slow-motion views, I might gain some super fencing-mom skill. Alas, until the finals, fencing events were only viewable on a four-way split screen with no commentary at all, except for the unintelligible utterances of my son and husband (who is much better at mimicking sports knowledge than I am) who said things like stop hit, mal-parry, or flunge.

So, I ended up doing what I always do. I cheered when my son did.

As far as learning how to cheer on the sport, the whole exercise was about as helpful as watching The Princess Bride. But that’s okay. He’s not in the Olympics yet. If he is someday, I’m sure I’ll have it all figured out by then. Or at least I’ll be the mom who is wringing my hands, biting my nails, and trying to both watch and not watch at the same time. Because everyone can understand that.

Charles Dickens is in Good Company

On the last day of May in 1837, avid readers of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club were disappointed. The story had been published in installments by Chapman & Hall at the end of every month since March of 1836 and by this time was approaching a print run of 40,000 for each part. It was perhaps the first truly and widely popular piece of literature to hit the London scene, spawning bootlegged copies, theatrical renditions, circulating jokes, and a wide range of merchandise.

Charles Dickens was living the dream. He’d hit the publishing market just right and given the reading public exactly what it wanted at exactly the moment it wanted it. Then in May of 1837, as it so often does, life happened and Dickens missed a deadline when his sister-in-law Mary, to whom he was close, died suddenly. He also missed a deadline for a new serial novel called Oliver Twist.

A story written by a some guy named Charles Dickens, who, much like author Sarah Angleton, was known to serialize his novels. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dickens did manage to publish a section of his Pickwick Papers the following month and an anxious readership was happy to get it. The work, which was later published as a single novel, originally reached its readers as a series of nineteen issues published over twenty months.

The idea of the serial novel wasn’t entirely new, but it hit its stride with Dickens who had begun his career publishing his Sketches by Boz in various newspapers before they were later bundled into a single work.

Readers liked the format because it was cheaper to buy a short piece than a full novel. Publishers liked it because it was cheaper and less risky to produce short pieces, which allowed them to respond to market demand rather than try to predict it. And lots of authors throughout the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century did it, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry James, Upton Sinclair, Ernest Hemingway, and many, many others. All the cool kids were doing it.

Some guy named Charles Darwin who published serialized novels, similarly to author Sarah Angleton. National Library of Wales, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Then serial fiction kind of fell out of fashion, with only the occasional experimental foray by a well-known author here or there. But now it’s making a comeback. It’s happening on blogs, of course, and podcasts, and now on more and more online publishing platforms. Even Amazon decided to get a piece of the action.

Last week saw the launch of Amazon’s newest self-publishing platform Kindle Vella. For now, it’s only available in the US and I don’t entirely understand how it works just yet, but basically, it’s an app to which authors publish their stories an “episode” at a time, and readers cash in-app coins they’ve purchased in order to continue with the next episode. I think it’s supposed to be interactive, too. That’s the part I don’t have quite figured out yet.

But I assume I will figure it out before too long, because I have begun publishing a story on Vella. This novel-in-pieces is a little different than my others that got published as plain ol’ books. Those are historical novels that most likely appeal to the kind of people who like to read historical novels, which I know because I’m so great at marketing.  Or at least they probably appeal to people who like history or novels or who have ever had a conversation with my mom or dad.

This story might not appeal to the same crowd. It’s a dystopian, sci fi story I started cooking up several years ago, in which, unsurprisingly, there is a teenage girl who is destined to become a hero and do heroic things, fall in love and possibly become embroiled in a love triangle, and learn something about herself on the way to saving the world.

A serialized novel by Sarah Angleton (aka S. M. Angleton)

Probably. But as I post episodes and get reader feedback, I suppose it could always change a little bit. What I can state with a fair amount of confidence is that I am on schedule to upload episodes far enough in advance that if life happens, as it did last week when I failed to post in this space, new episodes should still drop each Wednesday.

Here’s the description you will find on Vella:

Built on the ashes of St. Louis, Becca’s dystopian world centers on a dark faith dedicated to pushing the limits of the human lifespan. After an unnaturally prolonged childhood, she faces the ritual that will determine her vocation and launch her initiation into adulthood, a ritual that two years prior, her brother sacrificed his life to protest. When Becca’s own ceremony takes a wrong turn, she finds herself in a world preserved by lies and a tangled history that threatens everyone she loves.

If you’re into that kind of thing, please check it out at this link to read the first few episodes for free. It’s an experiment, but I’m kind of excited about it. Maybe by the time I get to the last episode, 40,000 people will be waiting anxiously for it. It might spawn jokes, theatrical renditions, bootlegged copies, and a wide range of merchandise. Someday, I might even publish it as a book. The only thing I know for certain is that I have now joined the ranks of Charles Dickens. And I think he’s in pretty good company.

The Overheard Musings of a Milkmaid

It was in the middle of the 18th century when, as a boy, English physician Edward Jenner overheard a conversation that would one day save countless lives. What he overheard was a milkmaid explaining to someone that she would never have to worry about the disfigurement of the dreaded smallpox because she’d had a case of the much milder disease cowpox.

Surely it struck the young man as strange that this probably fairly uneducated woman believed her life, and her beauty, may have been saved by a cow, but the notion stuck with him as he grew. On May 14, 1796, Jenner inoculated an eight-year-old with cowpox laced pus. The boy ended up with a short-lived mild fever and some temporary general malaise, but was otherwise fine. Then two months later, Jenner exposed the boy to smallpox, and he developed no symptoms at all.

This woman will not be getting smallpox. Paulus Potter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Jenner called his discovery “vaccinia,” derived from the Latin word for cow. He wrote up his findings, published them as An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, presented them to the Royal Society, and faced ridicule from renowned naturalist Sir Joseph Banks and other very important men.

But some listened and experimented and discovered the same result. Edward Jenner, on the overheard musings of a milkmaid, had discovered a way to prevent smallpox infection that proved significantly safer than inoculation with the smallpox virus itself, which was a practice frequently undertaken by those who wanted to reduce their chance of dying from smallpox to one in forty from twelve in forty.

Edward Jenner, no longer a child, and still eavesdropping on milkmaids. John Raphael Smith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One physician thought the newfangled vaccine promising enough, that he sent Jenner’s work to an American colleague by the name of Benjamin Waterhouse, who served as Professor of Theory and Practice of Physic at Harvard Medical School. The American physician was so impressed by the research that on July 8, 1802, he vaccinated both a household servant and Waterhouse’s own five-year-old son, fortunately with great success. He would later go on to vaccinate his entire household and quite a few relatives in order to, according to him, “convince the faithless and silence the mischievous.”

Excited, Waterhouse next set up Board of Health trials in which vaccination by the cowpox-causing virus proved overwhelmingly preventative of smallpox infection. He faced as much resistance and ridicule as Jenner had, but he did have a powerful ally in then president Thomas Jefferson who sent him a fan letter in which he wrote: “Future nations will know by history only that the loathsome smallpox has existed and by you has been extirpated.”

Benjamin Waterhouse, a man who thankfully wasn’t too concerned about the ethical questions surrounding experimenting on one’s own 5-year-old son. Rembrandt Peale, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Jefferson may have been a little bit premature in his statement, but through the continued efforts of Waterhouse and Jenner a skeptical population both in the US and England, and eventually throughout the world, increasingly sought vaccination. Then in 1980, the World Health Organization declared smallpox officially eradicated.

Gone. A disease that some historians estimate killed as many as two billion people throughout history is gone because of a gossiping milkmaid, an eavesdropping boy, and the influence of a committed community of medical professionals and those who trusted them.

I’m not a vaccine expert, though I’m glad to say I have more education than the average 18th century milkmaid. What I do know is that the more opportunity viruses have to thrive, the more opportunity there is for variations to occur, and the more opportunity there is that one of those variations may not be thwarted by the vaccines we currently have. I also have many medical professionals in my life, all of whom are fans of vaccination in general, and right now, of the Covid-19 vaccines specifically.

United States Census, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I wouldn’t pretend that I could dispense medical advice, and I am well aware that every individual has a unique medical history and set of concerns that can produce a whole host of questions I might not even think to ask. And I know there’s a lot of confusing information out there. I also believe that how my fellow Americans want to live their lives is how they should live their lives. I get all of that.

So, I will not dispense advice or debate with you about whether or not you should get vaccinated against Covid-19. I won’t even consider you faithless or try to silence your mischief if you decide not to. All I will say, for whatever it may be worth, is that the members of my household, consisting of me, two teenage sons, and my husband who is a medical professional, have been vaccinated against Covid-19.

I’m grateful we had the opportunity and that we took advantage of it. I’m grateful that most of my extended family are vaccinated as well. I’m grateful for all those around me who have also done so. I’m grateful for cows and milkmaids, for Edward Jenner and Benjamin Waterhouse, and for the medical professionals who have made our most recent miraculous vaccines possible.

And if you have the opportunity to get vaccinated against Covid-19, I am so very grateful for that, too.

Celebrating the Not Quite Right Just Yet

So, we’re about to celebrate a pretty big holiday here in the United States. We will follow in the footsteps of John Adams who wrote to his wife Abigail that Independence Day should be recognized with “pomp and parade, with [shows], games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”

I think we’ll pretty much have that covered. But we won’t be celebrating on the anniversary of the day the Continental Congress first declared independence, nor the day one of history’s most famous breakup letters was drafted. The holiday won’t fall on the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and it doesn’t mark the moment when King George III read it and decided to sing a love song about sending an armed battalion.  

A man who knew how to party. John Adams by Gilbert Stuart, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, the July 4th celebration does commemorate all of that, but what it actually marks on the calendar is the day of the final pen stroke of the final draft of the document that spurred a war that birthed a nation.

As a writer who recognizes that first drafts rarely amount to much and that most of the best writing occurs in the rewriting, I find this pretty satisfying. It seems John Adams would not have agreed with me. When he wrote of his future nation’s Independence Day, he was referring to July 2, 1776.

I get it. He was excited. He’d had a hand in the original draft, working with Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and of course Thomas Jefferson to get it just so. Like a student who waited too long to start his final term paper and stayed up all night before the due date, assuming that in his push to get it finished, he’d written the most brilliant words ever penned by any student in the history of students, Adams was probably anxious to get it turned in to the Continental Congress, send it on to the king, and sit back to watch the fireworks.

That looks like a lot of hard work. Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay

Not surprisingly, however, Adams and his fellow committee members weren’t the only ones who had something to say about the wording of the Declaration. The debating began. In some ways, this important American document was improved by a few tweaks here or there, a little tightening of language or nuance of phrasing. And in other ways, it was made worse, like in the removal of all references to the immorality of slavery.

It’s still possible to make the wrong decision in revision, too, which is one of the things that makes it so difficult. But the Continental Congress figured out where they had to compromise in order to make the declaration work well enough for all the representatives in the room to move forward. The final draft would be signed nearly a month later on August 2. The date at the top of the document, however, remained July 4, which became an officially declared federal holiday in 1870.

The date is pretty ingrained at this point and I think, all things considered, it’s the right one to celebrate, though with the 4th falling on a Sunday this year, and much to the frustration of my poor dog, I suspect many of my neighbors will celebrate with illuminations on the 2nd and 3rd as well.

But in my mind, the 4th is the day the United States truly embarked on the notion that freedom and liberty sometimes require compromise and consideration of those who don’t agree with us, and that revision is painful, difficult, and necessary work.

Ooh. Aah. Illuminations! Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

The United States, such as it was imagined by the Second Continental Congress, wasn’t a perfect nation, nor was the vision of it perfected yet. That would take many, many years. So many, in fact, we’re still counting, and I suspect always will be.

But the best work comes in the difficult, painful revision process in which debate and compromise occurs. No matter how politically divided we may think we are, or how we as individuals may feel our nation is doing in this moment, I hope that’s something every American can be proud to celebrate.

If you are celebrating American Independence this weekend, please be careful with all your pomp and illuminations, and have a wonderful holiday!

Going Nowhere for Fun and Torture

In 1818, civil engineer William Cubitt, well-respected for his work on windmill sails and for a fastidiousness that carried him quickly up the ranks of the engineering firms for which he worked, proposed a new approach to convict rehabilitation.

Sir William Cubitt, who also had a somewhat complicated relationship with the treadmill. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He suggested that in order to counteract the tendency of prisoners toward idleness, they ought to be put to good use on treadmills, producing the rotary power needed to grind corn or pump water or provide entertainment for the prison guards. Cubitt designed the contraption himself, drawing on his experience as the son of a miller. It consisted of a paddle wheel with twenty-four spokes that required a prisoner to step up continually for as many as six hours at a time.

I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of exhausted just reading that. Like probably most people who have ever used one, I have a complicated relationship with the treadmill. I have one. I keep it tucked into a cool, dark corner of my basement, which is where I reluctantly, but also kind of gratefully, use it.

If you’ve followed along with this blog for long, you may recall that I think running is stupid. I stand by that. But I also occasionally (actually lately even frequently) run. I blame Covid for this latest burst of insanity, because for a while it led to a more sedentary lifestyle and fewer available opportunities to curb that. So, I dusted off my running shoes and hit the treadmill, which is a lot less punishing on my creaky joints than pavement is.

I suspect that the unlucky English prisoners of the 19th century who were subjected to this particular form of work didn’t care for it much. I know I still hate every single second I spend running to nowhere, though later I always appreciate having spent some quality treadmill time and tend to feel better afterwards, so I guess maybe you could say I enjoy the destination. I’m getting better at it, too.

Cubitt’s treadmill wasn’t completely monstrous. It included a handrail. British Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s one thing that I can say that this year plus of our little global pandemic has conditioned us all for. Many of us have gotten much better at accomplishing things while going nowhere at all. And this week, in between torture sessions on the treadmill, I have been able to do just that, because I have been “attending” the Historical Novel Society’s annual conference from the comfort of my at-home office while wearing a series of professional-ish looking blouses and comfy running shorts.

The conference was originally supposed to be held in San Antonio, but was moved to an entirely virtual format in the midst of pandemic concerns. It would have been fun to spend a little time away in a really interesting city that I’ve not yet managed to explore. I could have taken lots of sock monkey pictures, traded business cards with my fellow writers, and purchased more books than I had room for in my luggage.

I did take one picture of my travel buddy Steve. Sadly, it’s not in front of the Alamo, but he’s still smiling.

But this virtual thing has actually been working really well. The organizers have done a brilliant job, providing topical Zoom room mingling opportunities that have probably led to more engagement in meaningful conversations than I would have been able to accomplish in a physical room full of people. The presentation lineup is outstanding, and more complete than it could have been at a live conference. There’s been more participation from writers around the world than would likely have traveled to San Antonio.

I have learned and am continuing to learn a ton. I have also kept up with the laundry, spent some time with my family, and enjoyed having my dog lay at my feet as I sit at my computer chatting with new friends. I’ve done a lot, and I’m tired, but I haven’t gone anywhere at all. And while I probably would prefer to be at a live conference, I haven’t hated every single second of it. In fact, this particular treadmill hasn’t felt the least bit torturous.

I’m not sure I could say the same for the literal treadmill in my basement. Fortunately for England’s inmates, however, William Cubitt’s brand of prison torture was outlawed in 1889. To the best of my knowledge, my treadmill is still legal. But if I’m misinformed, please don’t hesitate to tell me because as much as I like the feeling of having finished a run, I am a hopelessly law-abiding citizen.   

I Cannot Post a Lie: A Lesson in Irony

In 1806, sixty-eight years after it didn’t happen, minister, bookseller, and promotor of all things virtuous Mason Locke Weems revealed to the world that a six-year-old George Washington had once chopped his father’s cherry tree with a hatchet. According to the story, the unfailingly virtuous young George confessed his wrongdoing to his father who was proud of him for doing so.  

As far as pervasive lies go, I suppose Washington chopping the cherry tree isn’t so bad. Stephen Goodwin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t until the fifth edition that Weems included the charming tale in his instant bestseller, The Life of George Washington. Like all good biographers, Weems dug deep and attempted to look beyond the familiar public service life of his subject into the less well-known influential moments that eventually led to greatness.  

Weems spun his biography around the idea that in order for George Washington to grow into the great man he had been, he must have developed a healthy collection of good virtues throughout his early years of formation. The trouble was, Weems didn’t have access to all the stories he needed to make the concept work.

So, Weems joined the ranks of those who engage in popular history—that genre which includes a little less strict scholarship and a little more making stuff up for the sake of telling a good story and selling lots of books (or creating a silly blog post).

It worked. Weems sold a lot of books, and he invented one of the most often repeated stories told in American elementary school classrooms, where young children are lied to about history so that they learn to be honest and accountable for their mistakes if they ever want to be president.

I was wrong about cherry pie when I was a child, which I can admit to you because I am a very virtuous person. But as always, please do not vote for me for president. Image by Mary Bettini Blank from Pixabay

So that might have been a slight miscalculation on the part of Mason Locke Weems and the American school system, but at least it is a good lesson in irony. I could think of approximately 42 million things I’d rather do than become the President of the United States, but I do remember learning the story.

And I thought about the tale every spring, because at my house we always had at least one cherry tree that produced a ton of cherries for my mom to turn into pie. I would refuse to eat it, of course, because when I was young, I didn’t see the point of calling something dessert if it included more fruit than chocolate.

Still, I have fond memories of picking cherries. And seeding cherries. Lots of cherries. For hours. Until my fingers were stained red and everything was sticky and I might have been tempted to take a hatchet to that tree. I cannot tell a lie.

Ah. Spring.

I did eventually learn the joys of eating cherry pie and now that I’m a grownup with a home of my own, we have a cherry tree that we manage to pick a few cherries from every spring. For some reason, this was a particularly good year for it. I don’t know if it was the just perfect weather pattern or if our fairly young tree finally reached its fruiting potential or what, but we had a lot of cherries to pick and pit.

And about a week or so later, so did my parents. I recruited my youngest son and we went to the grandparents’ house to help pick more cherries. Their much bigger tree had outdone itself. We picked and reached and climbed and picked some more, until we were hot and tired, our fingers were sticky, and Grandma said she had enough for more pies than they could probably manage to eat.

By that point, I think I’d not have been surprised if my son had taken a hatchet to the tree. He would have come clean about it because he’s a pretty virtuous kid, and though I wouldn’t wish this on him, I’m sure he would make a brilliant president someday.