Puzzled Over the Novel Corona Virus

At the start of the 1930s, life looked pretty gloomy here in the United States. What had been a roaring economy had experienced a collapse of the magnitude that sent a lot of previously employed people scrambling to get by. Like so many others, that’s when Frank Ware and John Henriques suddenly found themselves with a lot of time on their hands.

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Just some of the social distance shenanigans that have occurred in my living room in the last few weeks.

I’m sure a lot of us can relate to that particular dilemma. There are, of course, lots of “essential workers” maintaining critical supply lines and taking care of the desperately ill. Many of the rest of us are fortunate enough to be working from home through mandated social distance. But there are a lot of people throughout the US and around the world who have been forced into, hopefully temporary, unemployment while our world works to shake off Covid-19.

And judging from the many pictures on my social media feeds, a lot of folks are turning to jigsaw puzzles to pass the time and keep their minds sharp. That’s exactly what Frank and John did. Frank was a gifted artist and John was a skilled woodworker. Both of them liked puzzles.

And so, the two teamed up to create wooden jigsaw puzzles, ushering in the concept of irregular edges, specially shaped pieces made to order, and a par completion time, so that puzzle-doers could be extra frustrated and also have the pleasure of feeling badly about themselves.

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My current living room situation. The dog is loving his puzzle table den.

The puzzles were a hit with a public that didn’t have much entertainment budget. Frank and John filled special orders, but they also began offering many of their puzzles for affordable rent. Each one came in a black box without the benefit of a guiding picture.

As most puzzle manufacturers were looking for ways to mass produce a cheaper product, Frank and John’s “Par puzzles,” were handcrafted, high-quality works of art that found an enthusiastic audience. The rental program ended in the 1960s, but the puzzles have become collectors’ items. And the Par Puzzles Company, begun in 1932 in New York, is still going strong today, continuing to offer unique, high quality, hand-crafted puzzles for upwards of a thousand dollars each.

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It is my sincere hope we don’t make it through all of these before this is said and done.

According to their website, they even still have a few in stock, which is nice, because rumor has it puzzles are becoming almost as difficult to obtain as toilet paper. I’ll probably stick to the much cheaper mass-produced cardboard version normally available from hobby and discount stores. I enjoy jigsaw puzzles when I’ve got plenty of time to do them. Fortunately, I already have a shelf full of them waiting for a time such as this.

Perhaps I’ll start a rental business.

Stay healthy, my friends!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Advice for Good Health from 1838

I hope you are faring well in your corner of the world. Here in my Midwestern US community, most of us have been in strict social distance mode for about ten or eleven days while the numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases have been climbing. As a writer who works from home anyway, the biggest change in my routine is that I have fewer excuses to rely on when I fail to get any writing done. At the same time, I’ve accomplished less than ever.

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Even my attempt to journal about the experience of living in this strange time (using only my neatest handwriting for the benefit of future historical fiction writers) has been sporadic at best.

This should be the perfect opportunity to finally finish a polished draft of my historical novel-in-progress. Alas, I spend most of my time stressing about how far out of our routine the whole family has become, trying not to worry to distraction about my spouse who works in the healthcare field, and scrolling through too much news about this virus we still don’t know nearly as much about as we all like to pretend we do.

Of course, that’s a very human response. When faced with a new threat, without the time required to conduct thorough research and design solid tests yielding statistically significant results, we observe what we can, make some guesses, and post about our conclusions on social media.

We live in a pretty enlightened age, medically speaking, so if we step outside of our panic for a minute, we can understand that there are still a lot of answers we don’t know and won’t be able to find out for a while. But in some ways, medicine also hasn’t changed that much.

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At least no one is suggesting this is a good idea anymore. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

So today, I thought I’d share some good health information from my research for the novel I’m currently not finishing. This comes from a doctor by the name of Sylvanus Goheen who in 1838, served as a missionary physician to Monrovia in what was then the Colony of Liberia. Much like the physicians of today, Dr. Goheen faced a disease he didn’t understand as well as he would have liked.

In his case, it was malaria, which claimed the lives of so many missionaries and emigrants that Liberia had come to be called the White Man’s Graveyard (which is also the current working title of the book I should be revising right now).

With the still unnamed disease certainly not yet understood to be a parasitic infection transmitted by mosquitos, Dr. Goheen had to do the best he could with the observations he could make. He came up with the following advice for staying healthy:

  1. Give strict attention to diet—eat as nearly as possible the same food used in America and chew well.
  2. Eat light and early suppers and when feeling off, abstain from food. Always keep bowels regular.
  3. Avoid the sun, and rain, never get wet and avoid currents of air when perspiring freely.
  4. Never become fatigued either by bodily exertion or mental exercise and particularly refrain from reading at night.
  5. Keep out of night air and remain at home and in the house after nightfall and in your bedroom in the morning with windows closed until 8:00, for the first four months.
  6. Go to meeting but once per day, never take long walks nor boat excursions.
  7. Keep the mind easy and composed and talk or think little about the fever.
  8. When attacked, eat less than nature demands and confine yourself strictly to a gruel or arrowroot diet throughout convalescence.
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Not to question a doctor who attended almost a full year of medical school, which is still almost a year more than I did, but I see no problem with this.

Some of this is probably pretty good advice, even perhaps applicable to our current Covid-19-driven world. It may not be a bad idea, for our psychological well-being as well as our long-term physical comfort, if we could roughly maintain our pre-pandemic diet that likely included fewer Oreos and potato chips. It also certainly couldn’t hurt to try to keep our minds easy and less focused on the fever. And we should definitely stay in at night, safely socially distanced.

But then the list also includes some things that probably aren’t quite right for today. I’m not overly concerned about occasionally finding myself perspiring in the breeze, which might happen on that long, isolated walk I’m perfectly happy to take. And under no circumstances can I see myself giving up reading at night.

Looking back, it’s pretty easy to see that Dr. Goheen’s advice wasn’t quite right for his situation, either. He was doing what physicians do and drawing the very best conclusions he could within the limited knowledge available.

Much like him, we are faced today with some unknowns, a lot of fear, and a medical field that is working very hard to gather the best information and offer the best advice it can in an impossibly short amount of time. We’re all doing what we are able to keep ourselves and our world as healthy as we can.

Stay safe, everyone. If you’re stuck at home, write a novel or something. And for goodness sake, chew thoroughly and keep your bowels regular.

Fake It ‘til You Make It

In 1496, Cardinal Raffaele Riario of San Giorgio purchased an ancient marble sculpture of a sleeping cupid from Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco of the House of Medici. The cardinal must have been delighted with the artistry of the piece, its exquisite detail found only among the works of the ancient greats, because even after he discovered the sculpture was really a modern creation, he remained impressed with the young forger who had pulled it off.

The artist was then twenty-year-old Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, who you probably know as the Michelangelo widely remembered for lending his name to one of the teenage mutant ninja turtles. He also painted a pretty famous ceiling.

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You might have heard of this little thing he did over in Vatican City. Sistine Chapel Ceiling painted by Michelangelo. By Aaron Logan, from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/italy/4_G & Talmoryair / Public domain

But before any of that, he was a young artist just trying to break into that mystical world in which it’s possible to make a living based upon one’s creative endeavors. There’s a chance that he was entirely innocent in the whole art forgery scheme and that it was either Lorenzo, or the shady art dealer he employed, who treated The Cupid with acidic earth. It’s also possible that a very young man was influenced by an unscrupulous banker who knew he could make a lot more money off a classical sculpture than he could a modern one.

Whoever was ultimately responsible, it was only Lorenzo who got the blame. While Cardinal Riario didn’t take kindly to being swindled and was quick to demand a refund of his investment, he also recognized talent. The cardinal invited Michelangelo to Rome and commissioned a piece he later decided he didn’t want. Still, the artist’s credibility began to grow.

It makes sense to learn as much as possible by studying, and at least initially, imitating the great artists who have come before. Of course, it’s also true that chemically treating your pieces to make them fraudulently appear older and passing them off as the works of a different artist is probably over the line. Way over.

But I’m not sharing this story because I think artists should begin their careers with forgery. I’m sharing it because there are times when we all find ourselves flailing a little bit, trying to learn a new task, to break into a role we want to fill, and we don’t know exactly what we’re doing, so we fake it a little until we do.

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Hang in there. We’ll all be back to our normal routines eventually. photo credit: woodleywonderworks first drop of water is the best drop of water via photopin (license)

I suspect a lot of us are there right now. Social distancing has forced many of us to work at home, struggling to master new technologies and skills that make that possible. And for many of us, our children are doing the same. That means we’ve also suddenly been thrown into becoming teachers, facilitating academic learning for our children with the materials teachers quickly pulled together, even though many of them previously didn’t really know how to do that and certainly never expected to have to.

From what I’ve seen, and in our experience, the teachers have been wonderful. And you know, the parent have been, too. Everyday my social media feed is filled with pictures of at home learning—kids working alongside and with their parents. I’m also seeing the sharing of online resources and suggestions between parents, offers of help from educators, and yes, a little bit of commiserating when homeschool students are not as cooperative as their makeshift teachers hoped they would be.

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I mean he really was a pretty good sculptor. David by Michelangelo. Jörg Bittner Unna / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

For the time being, we’re all faking it a little. Will there be some academic slips? Probably. Are there some students whose home environments are not as conducive to learning outside of a structured classroom? I’m sure there are. Are there lots of parent who simply cannot work from home and are struggling to figure out childcare, let alone homeschool? Of course.

Still, I think this experience of just making it work, of doing our best to imitate the professional teachers and provide our children with whatever we can, will likely produce some beauty. It will definitely result in some unique learning opportunities for our kids, who like Michelangelo, will move on having survived the experience.

Allegedly, while Michelangelo’s star rose, his Cupid changed hands a few times, often displayed among legitimate classic sculptures because it was good. Eventually the piece wound up in the possession of England’s Charles I and was most likely lost to fire in London’s Whitehall Palace in 1689.

I don’t know anything about art valuation, but if I had to guess, that sculpture, forgery or not, would be worth quite a lot of money today. I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard of this Michelangelo guy. He may have started out faking it, but he ended up making it.

And we will, too.

The Greatest Necessity of the Age!

Sixth century Chinese government official and great advocate of education Yan Zhitui, in 589 AD, included among his many writings the following line: “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.” I get that. I think wiping the nether regions with the writings of a greatly admired person might be on par with breaking up with someone via text message.

But more importantly than communicating a cross-cultural understanding of disrespectful behavior, this may well be the earliest written record of the use of toilet paper. The Chinese were way ahead of the game in this aspect of personal hygiene.

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I’m not worried about running out. My own great state of Missouri is home to the world’s largest roll of toilet paper, a two-ton testament to hygiene, created by Charmin and housed at the Ripley’s Museum in Branson. photo credit: derekGavey An Ecological Conundrum via photopin (license)

While the rest of the world still struggled through the problem of poop with wood shavings, hay, rocks, corncobs, frayed rope, hands, or in the case of the Ancient Romans, communal sponges dipped in vinegar, China was busy manufacturing millions of packages of paper designed for freshening up the often less than fresh parts of the human body.

Here in the United States, it wasn’t until 1857 that paper was produced specifically for that purpose. Joseph Gayetty introduced his “Medicated Paper,” soaked in aloe and advertised as “The greatest necessity of the age!” Gayetty even proudly stamped his name across every piece, apparently conceding that he was not a great sage.

His product was definitely overpriced, at the equivalent of $12 in today’s money for a package 500 sheets, which along with $50 shipping might currently be a bargain on Amazon. Most Americans opted instead for ripping a page of the latest catalog from Sears & Roebuck or The Farmer’s Almanac, which came with a hole drilled at the corner for easy hanging from a hook in the outhouse.

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Obviously this patent drawing has something to add to the over/under toilet paper roll debate, but as I tend to avoid controversy on this blog I’ll refrain from pointing out the correctness here. Seth Wheeler / Public domain

In 1871, Seth Wheeler finally patented the toilet paper roll of perforated sections similar to what is widely used today. A few years after that, the Scott brand began successfully marketing toilet paper rolls to hotels and drug stores, and with the rise of indoor plumbing came the growth of the toilet paper industry, resulting in better products that were occasionally even free of splinters.

Americans, along with much of the world, were finally pretty much settled on the idea of bathroom tissue. Really, we’d have a hard time doing without it. I’ve seen estimates claiming that on average each American uses anywhere from 23.6 to 100 rolls per year.

So let’s do a little math.

If the lower number is closer to the truth then that means that in the course of fourteen days, the average American would use about 9/10 of a roll of toilet paper. If the larger number is closer to true, then that jumps to about 3.8 rolls.

The average American household includes 2.5 people, which means that if we assume maximum usage, the average American household toilet paper need in the course of fourteen days is about 9 ½ rolls. The large club store closest to my house sells toilet paper in packages of 32 extra large rolls.

They can’t keep it in stock.

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As the not-so-sage author of a book classified by some as a “bathroom reader,” I want to reassure you that should you need to sacrifice a few pages, I anticipate no supply issues for replacement copies.

I have to assume this is because we recently got our first confirmed case of Covid-19 in the St. Louis area. The patient is a young woman who was infected while traveling in Italy. She is quarantined in her home and is thankfully doing well. As an extra precaution, her entire household is being kept in quarantine for the standard recommended fourteen days. There’s been no word on whether or not they have plenty of toilet paper.

I sincerely hope they do, because if they ask a neighbor to drop some on their porch, that neighbor might have a hard time finding any on the store shelves.

Fortunately, the US military has figured out a solution to the problem of toilet paper rationing as demonstrated in this (modest) linked video, that I don’t recommend watching if you’re squeamish about such things.

Still, I’d hate to think that anyone would have to resort to using wood shavings, hay, rocks, corncobs, frayed rope, hands, or for the love of all that is holy, a communal sponge dipped in vinegar. I suppose if the situation gets really desperate, quarantined people could raid their bookshelves. As long as they make sure to avoid commentaries on the Five Classics or the names of sages.