Weight for It

A recent study published on the JAMA Network platform of the American Medical Association on March 22 found that on average American adults gained 0.6 pounds every ten days of pandemic-related lockdowns. I’m delighted to be able to say that I am below average, but like most of us, this bizarre year has not been particularly kind to my waistline.

I’ve kept it in check as well as I have only because I started a running challenge. If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time or if you’ve read my book, Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense, then you may recall that I think running is stupid.

Prove me wrong. A good friend of mine likes to say he’ll believe running isn’t stupid when he sees someone both running and smiling. Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

But it is easy to do. All you need is a good pair of tennis shoes and a healthy dose of self-loathing. Also, it’s convenient because you don’t have to go anywhere. That’s literally true in my case since I run pretty much exclusively on a treadmill, both because my knees don’t care for downhills or uneven surfaces and because I don’t like looking like a wheezing idiot in public.

It’s going more or less okay. Of course, I wonder when I can stop with every single step, but my pants still fit and at least some of my below average weight gain could reasonably be attributed to an increase in muscle mass. The rest of it, not so much. So, I wouldn’t mind shedding a few pandemic pounds.

But I have a plan.

This very morning, Thursday April 1, 2021, at 9:47 AM, the earth will experience what scientists refer to as the Jovian-Plutonian Gravitational Effect. That’s when the sadly demoted dwarf planet of Pluto will align directly behind Jupiter and produce a combined gravitational effect that will be noticeable on Earth.

1…2…3…Jump! Image by lena dolch from Pixabay

Some astronomers have suggested that the best way to experience this unusual phenomenon will be to jump into the air at that precise time, allowing yourself to hover just a bit longer than you normally would and experience a slight floating sensation. It’s expected that the hang time of an average human jump will increase from 0.2 seconds to as much as 3 whole seconds which, scientifically speaking, you’d have to be a pretty big fool not to notice.

That sounds fun and all, but I have a better idea. At precisely 9:47 this morning, I will be stepping on my bathroom scale, where I expect to note a loss of at least 0.6 pounds for each one of you who is gullible enough to jump in the air and expect to float.

It’s hard not to trust a man wearing a monocle. Sir Patrick Moore. South Downs Planetarium, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

That’s right. I’m sad to have to let you know that the Jovian-Plutonian Gravitational Effect isn’t really real. It was first presented to the world in 1976 by well-known and highly-respected astronomer Patrick Moore who was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, a war hero, and the longtime host of the BBC’s The Sky at Night program which aired for fifty-five years.

He also had a sense of humor and was credentialed enough to pull off a good April Fool’s prank for the BBC, which is well known for its April Fool’s pranks. I mean, this was no record-setting spaghetti harvest or flying penguin video, but it was pretty good.

And it got people jumping up and down and having a good time. The extra exercise may have even helped them lose a little weight, like an average of 0.6 pounds every ten days they tried again and again to experience the Jovian-Plutonian Gravitational Effect. But as far as I know, no one has done a study on that.

My Immediate Travel Plans

I don’t know about you, but all this social distancing and isolation has given me a bit of wanderlust. It’s unclear at this point when we might be able to incorporate travel into our lives again, but there’s no question in my mind where I would go if I could.

As soon as it becomes safe and possible, you’ll find me on a plane headed for the Indian Ocean, to a pair of small islands northeast of Sri Lanka. In fact, as travel to the nation of San Seriffe isn’t currently restricted, I might find a way to leave even sooner.

Someday this will be me again. Image courtesy of KatyVeldhorst, via Pixabay.

It’s a great little place, consisting of the curvy southern island of Lower Caisse, and to the north the circular Upper Caisse which features the beautiful white sand Cocobanana Beach along its west coast. Home to about 1.8 million people of European and native Flong decent, San Seriffe possesses a rich cultural history dating all the way back to 1977 when it was dreamt into existence by Philip Davies, director of Special Reports for the Guardian newspaper.

Davies was thinking of the frequent special reports in the Financial Times, that highlighted the attributes of small countries he’d almost never heard of, when the idea for an over-the-top April Fool’s prank came to him. He pitched his imaginary island nation to regular staff members Geoffrey Taylor, Stuart St. Clair Legge, Mark Arnold-Forster, and Tim Radford.

The single-page joke feature rapidly expanded into a seven-page supplement that included articles about economic opportunities, political history, and the rapidly growing tourism industry in San Seriffe. The J Walter Thompson Ad Agency even sold ad space, which included a contest sponsored by Kodak requesting snapshots from trips to the islands and with a submission cutoff one day before the piece ran.

An artist’s rendering of the approximate geographical shape of San Serriffe, featuring the islands of Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse.

What was no more than an elaborate joke filled with puns that prior to the presence of desktop publishing software in most homes, weren’t very familiar outside the publishing industry, became a news-worthy story as readers flooded the newspaper’s office with calls for more information.

The report took on a life of its own then when more astute readers began sending in recollections of trips taken to the fictitious islands. The Guardian published an angry letter to the editor in which a member of the San Serriffe Liberation Front expressed concern about the paper’s clear pro-government bias. Real complaints came from travel agents and airlines, which had a hard time convincing people there was no such place.

It was a fairly perfect April Fool’s prank—one that captured readers’ imaginations and spawned an entire genre of jokes, including “I’ve Been to San Serriffe” bumper stickers, a joke article on WikiTravel, and several books, including The Most Inferior Execution Known Since the Dawn of the Art of Marbeling Collected by the Author During a Five Year Expedition to the Republic of San Serriffe written by Theodore Bachaus and probably available from a library near you.

This is the island beach from which I will be attending all Zoom meetings, as soon as I can figure out how to do it. It’s probably Cocobanana.

This year April Fool’s Day came and went with less frivolity. The world in 2020 is a little more scared, a little more serious, and a lot more sensitive about invented news. As much as I suspect we’d all love to call up a travel agent that’s now working from home, and book what would likely be a very inexpensive flight to San Serriffe, doing so is even less possible than it was in 1977.

But like the duped readers of the Guardian all those years ago, we can imagine. We can change our Zoom backdrops and pretend to attend meetings from somewhere on an island beach. Hopefully we can still laugh and appreciate a good joke, even while many of us are feeling scared and trapped. And we can dream of the trips we might take when this strange season of social distancing and travel restrictions is finally over, when we’re free once again to enjoy a beautiful day relaxing on Cocobanana Beach.


Live ReadingDon’t forget, it’s still a great time to pick up a book and transport yourself to new fictional worlds! If you want, you can join me on my Facebook page where through the month of April, I will be livestreaming my newest historical novel, Smoke Rose to Heaven, one chapter each evening at 7 pm Central US time read by me. Previously read chapters are available for catching up.

Who says spaghetti doesn’t grow on trees?

1957 was a banner year for Switzerland’s spaghetti farmers. A mild winter paired with a dramatic decrease in the population of the dreaded spaghetti weevil led to the record harvest that has to this day never been equaled.  Small family farms went into overdrive plucking spaghetti strands from the trees that had been carefully cultivated to produce spaghetti of precisely the same length. The harvest was followed, as always, by a feast featuring the traditional dish, which, of course, is spaghetti, harvested and sun-dried fresh that morning.

This was the report presented by BBC news program Panorama on April 1, 1957. Panorama had long been a source of reliable serious news. After the story aired, viewers flooded the network with calls, a few of which were disgruntled viewers, but most of which were people genuinely interested in the story. Some even asked how they might grow their own spaghetti trees.

To be fair to the public duped by such a ridiculous prank, spaghetti was not yet a widely known dish in England. It was available only in a canned form and, really, canned vegetables (which have been nearly as processed as spaghetti’s original grain anyway) can kind of resemble pasta in texture. And Panorama went all out. I have to admit, it is a pretty convincing segment.

I have to wonder, though, why a serious news program would sacrifice its integrity to pull a silly prank on its trusting audience? The answer to that question is irritatingly unclear. I mean, yes, the BBC was participating in the long held tradition of April Fools’ Day when we are all supposed to get a little silly and try to make fools of one another. But why do we do it?

There are a couple of theories. The most common one batted about has to do with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar which placed the start of the New Year on January 1 instead of the vernal equinox, which happens just a little before April 1. Only fools continued to celebrate the old holiday instead of the new and so they became the victims of ridicule. One trouble with this theory is that England didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752 and by then, April Fools’ Day had already long been a thing.

In 1983, Joseph Boskin, a Boston University history professor, presented perhaps a more plausible theory. According to the professor, a court jester by the name of Kugal claimed that he could run the Roman Empire better than Emperor Constantine. Amused by the claim (because if history has taught us anything it’s that Roman emperors liked having their authority challenged), Constantine gave up his throne for a day to Kugal whose first order of business was to declare a day of foolishness. The problem with this theory, of course, is that Boskin made the whole thing up as an elaborate April Fools’ prank.

And that, I think, is why we will never know the real history behind this very silly day that turns the most serious of people into

This image shows a Paradise fish (Macropodus o...
April Fish!

slightly mean-spirited jokesters. It is a day that has French children pinning paper fish to their teachers’ backs, pointing and erupting in giggles as they announce: “Poisson d’Avril!” (roughly translated as, “French children are not particularly known to be clever pranksters!”).

It is a day that encourages an otherwise loving sister to empty a Cadbury Cream Egg of its fondant center and reseal it with chopped onions packed inside so that she can coax her trusting brother into taking a bite (Alas, I can’t claim this one as my own as it was my sister who pulled off this feat. I did laugh, though.)

Maybe we just do it because the sun is finally shining a little more brightly, the flowers are starting to bloom, and the fading memory of the harsh trudge through winter makes us a little giddy. Whatever the reason for it, today is the day for harvesting spaghetti, assuming you remembered to plant your tree. According to the BBC all you have to do is “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce, and hope for the best.”

Nothing says Spring like a plate of home grown spaghetti.
Nothing says Spring like a plate of home grown spaghetti.