Huggin’ It Out for Millennia

It’s been about twelve years since the discovery of a Neolithic tomb near Mantua, Italy set archaeologists’ hearts aflutter. In this land associated with Shakespeare’s famous pair of tragically short-sighted and love-besotted teenagers, a team of archaeologists led by Elena Maria Menotti uncovered a six-thousand-year-old tomb for two. Inside were two skeletons, a male and female, with their arms and legs entwined.

And that’s when the team proved they’d paid attention in high school English class and demonstrated their worthiness to be involved in such a find by incessantly quoting Romeo & Juliet. Located in the village of Valdaro, the couple has become known as the Valdaro Lovers, and they represent the only such entwined remains ever to have been found.

lovers
The Lovers of Valdaro. Dagmar Hollmann [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
Although the couple did die young (probably somewhere around age eighteen or twenty) it seems unlikely they died violent deaths, each making the assumption the other has kicked the bucket because one of them was dumb enough to play opossum without bothering to clue in the other.

Unlike their Shakespearian counterparts, the Neolithic lovers evidently managed to survive the throes of perpetual hormonal concussion associated with human teenagers. While it’s not impossible that they died in one another’s arms, according to researchers, the bodies were most likely arranged in a peaceful embrace after death.

Their deaths may have been somewhat less tragic, but their eternal embrace touching. While most Neolithic skeletons are studied bone by bone, the Valdaro Lovers have never been separated, and I suppose that’s the way it should be.

We are living in a world in which the most often referenced example of literary love is a couple of teenagers who were convinced to commit suicide rather than survive the flush of their first intense crush. Separation, divorce, and heartbreak seems more common than a relationship that lasts a lifetime. So, it’s nice, especially on Valentine’s Day, to think of a couple whose love has survived millennia.

hug
Pretty sure my stress level went down just looking at this picture.

Besides, who doesn’t like a good hug? Research suggests that those of us giving and receiving regular hugs—at least 8 per day—are probably reaping some significant health benefits. Hugs lower stress, strengthen our immune systems, reduce pain, and boost oxytocin levels.

Apparently, that wasn’t enough for the young lovers of Vadaro, but they’ll keep trying. Thanks in part to the efforts of an association called the Lovers of Mantua, led by Professor Silvia Bagnoli, the two will remain forever entwined and on exhibit at the National Archaeological Museum of Mantua. This decision presents a difficulty when it comes to studying the couple, meaning their story—what pieces we might be able to find of it—may remain undiscovered. But it doesn’t really take fancy science to see the makings of a good love story.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Empress for Life and a Free Glass Vase

On November 30, 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte needed to deliver some bad news to his wife Josephine. Nearly fourteen years after he married this widowed mother of two who was six years his elder, and almost five years after he declared her Empress of France, the time had come for him to ask her for a divorce.

Presumably he wasn’t thrilled with the idea. It wasn’t a perfect marriage. The two had weathered family disapproval, a fair bit of infidelity, and the kind of long absences conquering often requires.  But the love letters he wrote to her reveal that Napoleon was a man very much in love with his wife.

The problem was that an emperor needs an heir, and Josephine had yet to give him one, so Napoleon had to make a change. Josephine screamed when he broke the news to her, but after she had a little time to think about it she agreed to the divorce. And he insisted that she retain the title Empress, even after his remarriage.

NM2432
Josephine, Empress of France and Patroness of Roses. By Jean-Baptiste Regnault – Per-Åke Persson / Nationalmuseum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52123172

Now either Josephine was an extremely understanding woman, or Napoleon was an incredibly convincing guy. Or maybe a little bit of both. But I’m guessing it also didn’t hurt that over the years he’d given her a lot of roses.

Because as everyone who ever turns on the radio, or watches television, or opens an Internet browser around this time of year can tell you, roses are the only certain way to a woman’s heart. And a lot of people are getting the message, because florists sell somewhere around 220 million of these most magically romantic flowers for Valentine’s Day each year. Half of those are sold in the US, where 75% of the sales are to men who are, obviously, the best husbands, boyfriends, or sons a gal could ask for.

And the best of the best of those men upgrade to two dozen of the all red variety along with chocolate dipped strawberries and a free glass vase for only $59.99 as long as they order before midnight on February 12 and use promo code: Napoleon.

strawberries
You can keep the vase, but these do look delicious. photo credit: k is for kristina via photopin (license)

Because who wouldn’t want that?

Maybe most women really would. Personally, I don’t get too excited about roses or free glass vases. Don’t get me wrong, I think roses are gorgeous, and they smell good, and it’s nice to get flowers every once in a while because it’s a reminder that my man was thinking about me and wanted to make a romantic gesture.

But the primary reason the rose (which in addition to representing love has often been adopted as a political symbol) has become our Valentine flower of choice, may have more to do with the fact that we celebrate love in the middle of winter. To do so, we have to import a huge number of flowers, and as flowers go, roses are pretty hardy.

And for Napoleon, it’s a good thing they are, because his Josephine loved roses. In 1799, without consulting her husband, she purchased the run-down Château de Malmaison on 650 acres a few miles outside of Paris, and began work to establish a large rose garden.

Soon, gathering roses for Josephine’s garden became something of a national priority. Napoleon ordered the French Navy to confiscate any seeds (and, I assume, glass vases) found aboard seized vessels. And even during the height of conflict during the Napoleonic Wars, many English gardeners were given safe passage through blockades so they might deliver rose varieties to Josephine.

napoleon_bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte, much to the dismay of high end comedians everywhere, was not as short as we’ve been led to believe. In today’s standard measurements he was around 5’6 or 5’7, respectably average for a man of his time. By Unknown – Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21290

When in 1809, Napoleon informed his beloved that he would divorce her to marry a woman who might conceive an heir, the jilted woman sought solace at her chateau among her hardy roses. By the time of her death in 1814, Château de Malmaison boasted almost 200 varieties of roses, and her enthusiasm had begun a trend, leading to the establishment of more than 2500 varieties by 1830 in nurseries across France.

By establishing a large garden devoted to only one type of flower, Josephine elevated the rose, long valued as a sweet smelling, medicinal flower, to the status of a flower grown primarily for its beauty, especially when gathered by the dozens and presented on February 14 along with chocolate covered strawberries and a free glass vase. 

And now I don’t want to sell Napoleon short (see what I did there?). I’m sure it took more than roses to convince Josephine that a divorce was the right thing to do for the good of France. Because I gotta tell you, if my man were to present me with my favorite flowers (a bouquet of seasonally available, local-ish varieties at a time when flowers are more seasonally available), and then tell me that even though I’d always be his favorite empress, we had to break up for the good of our country, I wouldn’t scream. I’d just clock him in the head with the free glass vase.

Sparkly, Gluten-free Love, and other Reasons we may not get Valentine’s Day Quite Right

I don’t care much for Valentine’s Day. And it’s not just because I spent two days crafting sparkly paper sharks with working clothespin jaws to hold packages of Goldfish crackers for my children to give to their classmates, only to receive a note home the day before the party reminding parents that treats must be peanut and gluten free and all treat labels must be submitted to the school two weeks in advance.

20150211_183811
Stupid shiny sharks.

I don’t actually have a problem with expressing love with a sweet note or a gift. I think remembering to do that from time to time can be really important in a relationship.

And I know Americans will do our fair share of celebrating. In fact, according to a recent National Retail Federation poll, we plan to spend an average of $133.91 on candy (peanut and gluten free, approved two weeks in advance), cards, and gifts, which translates to about $13.7 billion as a nation. A poll by the American Express Spending and Saving Tracker predicts the total will be closer to $37 billion and that half of American engagements for the entire year will occur on Valentine’s Day.

The whole thing stems from the legend of St. Valentine, a 3rd Century priest who was beheaded by command of Roman Emperor Claudius II. Known as Claudius the Cruel, the emperor had strong military aspirations, but was alarmed to find that his soldiers didn’t always share his enthusiasm. He decided the reason must be that their hearts, and their attentions, were at home with their families. The solution was simple. He banned marriage.

Claudius II, the first man to throw an "I hate Valentine's Day" party. By =*File:5305 - Brescia - S. Giulia - Ritratto di Claudio II il Gotico - Foto Giovanni Dall'Orto, 25 Giu 2011.jpg: Giovanni Dall'Orto.  derivative work: Cristiano64 [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons
Claudius II, the first man to throw an “I hate Valentine’s Day” party. By Brescia – S. Giulia – Ritratto di Claudio II il Gotico – Foto Giovanni Dall’Orto, 25 Giu 2011.jpg: Giovanni Dall’Orto. derivative work: Cristiano64 [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons
As you can imagine, this didn’t sit well with the young lovers of Rome, many of whom appealed to St. Valentine to marry them in secret. A sucker for romance, Valentine did marry them. Lots of them. Until Claudius found out and had the priest beheaded on February 14, 270-ish.

Okay, I admit, that’s kind of a cool story of standing up for love in the face of a blood-thirsty emperor. It’s the kind of heroic thing that ought to be commemorated. Of course, if the legend is true, and since there were at least three different saints named Valentine, and it’s not entirely clear which the story is attributed to, let’s just say it’s suspicious, then there’s still the reality that February 14th is the day in which the champion of love was beheaded.

I suppose that by celebrating love on a dark day, we honor the man who died for his belief in it. But when I think about what the legend really suggests, that love and the commitment of marriage and family is worthwhile, I’m not sure we’re celebrating it right.

 photo credit: Pink and orange roses via photopin (license)
I honestly don’t think I can listen to another commercial about how even if I say I don’t want roses for Valentine’s Day, I really do want roses for Valentine’s Day, without wanting to hit someone over the head with that free glass vase.
photo credit: Pink and orange roses via photopin (license)

If we are to believe commercials, sitcoms, and Lifetime movies (and why wouldn’t we?), then Valentine’s Day is an incredibly stressful holiday. If you have a special someone in your life, then we are led to believe that your actions, or inactions, on February 14th will make or break your relationship. If you happen not to have a special someone to send you overpriced roses, then you are required to spend the day horribly depressed. Even my seven-year-old is stressed about the day, concerned that if he gives his Valentine sharks to the little girls in his 2nd grade class, “it might give them false hope.”

I just don’t think all the crazy to-do is what the St. Valentine legend is all about. Instead, I think it’s about recognizing the kind of love that demands commitment and hard work, that requires two people to grow and change together, to consider one another always, and to demonstrate appreciation for one another without prodding from a greeting card commercial.

We are going to be eating these things for a very, very long time.
We are going to be eating these things for a very, very long time.

Now I’m not going to throw an “I Hate Valentine’s Day” party and I certainly don’t fault you if you’re among those who will be spending $133.91 (plus a little more to make up for my considerably smaller contribution). I did spend two days constructing sparkly shark Valentines and I will probably find some small way to acknowledge the day because I own a heart-shaped pan and Valentine’s Day really is the one time each year when I get to use it.

Perhaps I’ll bake a peanut- and gluten-free cake and then my family will know that I love them. Or maybe it will be a heart-shaped, gluten-filled extra gooey chewy brownie with peanut butter frosting.

Study Shows VD is Good for Your Heart

Tomorrow we celebrate “love,” on that most romantic of days commemorating a couple of martyrs, a massacre, some very poorly behaving Romans, awkward relationship moments, and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate candies filled with who knows what. As you can probably gather, we’re not big celebrators of Valentine’s Day around here, although, I have to admit, I will likely make a heart-shaped casserole for dinner because I received a heart-shaped pan as a wedding gift and honestly when else am I going to use that?

Despite my own reluctance to celebrate VD, my children have been busy designing and filling out valentines to give to their classmates. They’re excited mostly, I think, to see the pile of candy they will bring home.

If you must celebrate, at least do so Pinterest style, right?
If you must celebrate, at least do so Pinterest style, right?

But I am delighted with their teachers and with their school because both classes are also trying to make this kind of silly holiday meaningful on a larger scale than simply fretting over cryptic Conversation Hearts bearing messages such as: “DARE YA,” “GOT CHA,” and “URS 4EVR.”

My oldest son’s third grade class will be spending at least some of their party time making therapy pillows to be donated to a local children’s cardiac unit. And my first grader’s class will be participating in Jump Rope for Heart.

I’m especially pleased about that because in fifth grade I participated in the program myself and not to brag, but I had some pretty mad skill. Over the years the Jump Rope for Heart Program has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the American Heart Association all while promoting heart-healthy activity and an attitude of service among elementary students.

It might just be me, but I'm pretty sure the conversation hearts of my youth were more innocent.
It might just be me, but I’m pretty sure the conversation hearts of my youth were more innocent.

Because though it’s a ton of fun, jump roping is hard work. Some historians even trace the roots of the sport back precisely to hard work in Ancient Egypt and China from where the earliest twisted or braided ropes are believed to have come. The theory is that rope-makers had to jump the strands as part of the process of twisting them together to make rope and that in imitation of them, their children developed a game of it.

Whether or not the theory has any merit, rope jumping games certainly did take hold early in China. There’s also evidence that similar jumping activities developed early among the Aboriginal population in Australia. But it is most likely the Dutch we have to thank (or blame) for the modern sport of jump rope.

When early Dutch settlers brought jump roping to New Amsterdam (later New York) in America, the English thought it was the most ridiculous thing they’d ever seen. When Dutch children doubled it up, the English (who were obviously jealous of the mad skills) knew they had been wrong and that this “Double Dutch” accompanied by silly sing-song rhymes was, in fact, the most ridiculous thing they’d ever seen.

Mad Skill
Mad Skill

The sport’s been though some highs and lows in its history, enjoying a resurgence in the 1970’s with the NYPD’s Double Dutch outreach to inner city youth that included the slogan “Rope, Not Dope,” a “rope skipping” campaign begun in Colorado by PE teacher Richard Cendali, and the Jump Rope for Heart program started in 1978 by Milwaukee PE teacher Jean Barkow.

And now, all over the United States, elementary students jump their hearts out around this time of year in order to do some good in the world and prove that Valentine’s Day, for all the angst and disturbing candy messages, can actually be pretty good for your heart.

jumpropeforheart

So in the interest of exhaustive (or at least exhausting) research, I felt it necessary to dust off my mad skills and jump a little rope. In the process I learned a few things:

  1. I am not at quite the same level of physical conditioning as my fifth grade self.
  2. My “Jumping Rope” list on iTunes needs more Pointer Sisters, Van Halen, and Kris Kross (sure to make me jump jump).
  3. I don’t know if this proves the Englishmen of New Amsterdam right, but my attempt to jump rope is probably the most ridiculous thing anyone could ever see. But won’t. Ever.
  4. Jumping rope is a fantastic way to work off all the empty calories in the heart-shaped box of chocolates filled with who knows what that I’ll probably scarf down in honor of Valentine’s Day.
The things I do for you.
The things I do for you.