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While I was researching my latest book, The Dala Horse, I read in Charles H. Russell's wonderful biography of Elise Waerenskjold that she and her husband had

Temperance as 'holy war' Currier & Ives lithograph 1874 Library of Congress

attempted to form a temperance society after they immigrated to Texas from Norway. They came to Texas in 1847. By 1855 they determined some temperance was in order.

Their guidelines were a little softer than the zero tolerance policies embraced later. Apparently some of the 'Texwegians' enjoyed a nip of brandy a little too often. And who could blame them - life was tough out there on the prairie! Elise's proposed temperance society aimed to eliminate drinking to excess, rather than eliminating drinking altogether. Beer and wine consumption was considered so harmless, it wasn't even included in their plans. But there was a disagreement how to handle hard liquor, or 'spirits'. Some felt it should not be allowed at all. It became clear this stance was a deal-killer, so in the interest of compromise, all agreed some hard liquor could be imbibed, as long as not to excess.

When I think of temperance, I envision early 20th century women in long skirts and big hats hoisting homemade placquards as they march on their local Main Street. Turns out I was only off by about a hundred years. By the 1830s it was already a thing, with movements documented in America, England, Australia, and New Zealand. There were societies, and songs, and pledges, and everything! Early temperance groups rarely pushed for government regulation of alcohol. Rather, they encouraged individuals to take personal responsibility. The Sunday pulpit and the local newspaper were the main vehicles of imparting this message.

Initial temperance movements focused on exactly that: tempering one's habits. Inevitably a splinter group formed, pushing to completely ban consumption. This view was labeled 'teetotalism'. Growing up in the south, I often heard non-drinkers described as teetotalers.

Let's digress for a moment and explore the origins of this word. There is a rather unkind anecdote suggesting it arose from one fellow's unfortunate speech impediment when trying to express that he was t-t-totally against drinking alcohol. Another theory is the repetition of the T in Total - "Tee Total" - adds emphasis to the speaker's strong belief in the philosophy.

The temperance movement gained momentum until it hit a speed bump in the U.S. during the Civil War. Temperance is all well and good, you see, until we need some taxes to pay for our war. Then we need to let the alcohol flow so we can collect the duties on it.

After the Civil War ended, and the need for alcohol duty income waned, the temperance movement resumed and became as powerful as it ever had been - until World War I. Ironically, rather than being seen as a way to generate tax income, alcohol production was now viewed as a frivolous waste of resources.The temperance societies thus got an unexpected boost in the early 20th century when alcohol supplies dwindled.

Supporters of temperance saw an opportunity. They pressed their advantage. Groups of women thronged outside of bars, shaming the occupants by singing hymns at the top of their voices. They staged the temperance version of sit-ins, but instead of sitting, they poured out or otherwise destroyed enormous quantities of (perfectly good) alcohol. There was even something called the Whiskey War in Ohio. Extreme Teetotaler Carrie Nation was known for busting up many a whiskey keg with her fearsome hatchet.

These stunts had the desired effect. What could be seen as their biggest success to date resulted occurred in the U.S. in 1920 with the passage of 18th amendment. This outright ban of alcohol sales at the federal level became known as the Prohibition Era. Other countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Finland, and Iceland also experimented with varying degrees of prohibition, such as reducing the alcohol content of some beverages, and mandating earlier closing times for bars.

Alas, it was not meant to last. People got downright cranky about not having any booze. The temperance movement fell out of favor. Citing rising crime rates related to black market (think Untouchables which btw is a pretty good movie if you haven't seen it), as well as a negative effect on the economy (again with the taxes or lack thereof), Prohibition ended in 1933. This was not the end of temperance; just the end of it being supported via national law.

And so the pendulum swings the other way

Despite its disappointing defeat with the repeal of Prohibition, temperance has rocked on in some sectors. Many religions have a long history of banning alcohol, without any help from the federal government. Muslims and Mormons come to mind. Growing up as a Southern Baptist, I can report that we were expected to abstain (other religions used real wine during their communions; Baptists used grape juice).  In the American South, abstention was often the rule rather than the exception. Areas of my hometown of Dallas, Texas, were 'dry', meaning no alcohol was sold there. And many counties throughout the state were dry as well. But economics will out: many of these formerly dry areas have become 'wet' over the last twenty years or so. And when these areas become wet, their economies really boom.

In hindsight, it appears the heavy hand of government intervention that resulted in the Prohibition era was perhaps not the best solution for encouraging temperance. The early adopters had the right of it: let each of us govern ourselves. Enjoy responsibly.

This post first appeared as part of my participation in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.

"Chief Tuscumbia Greets the Dickson Family" Jack McMillen

I'm a sucker for art on a grand scale, like murals on the side of multi-story buildings, and the artist who wraps entire structures in fabric. I don't see many fabric-wrapped structures in my travels, but I do see murals fairly often. And when I do, I always think of the WPA, whether they're responsible or not.

The WPA, known as the Works Progress or Works Projects Administration, was, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest innovations of FDR's New Deal program during the Depression Era. The WPA operated from 1935-1943. It was intended to put at least one household member to work in every household that had no one working. Even better: if the unemployed person had no skills, they learned one as part of this program - no excuses!

"Themes of the National Parks" David McCosh

The lion's share of the budget for the WPA went for construction projects, like building roads and painting buildings and so forth. But a small sliver of the budget was earmarked for creating art in many forms: paintings, books, music, performance. And the beauty of the program was that it sought out artists who were unemployed, so experimental artists such as Jackson Pollock found support and recognition they otherwise may not have gotten.

The WPA program ended when the nation reached its goal of full employment in 1943. By then, millions of people had benefited from WPA programs, including an estimated 10,000 artists. And of course, millions more of us benefit today, enjoying the fruits of their labors.

As I was researching this post, naturally I wondered if there were any extant WPA projects near where I live. Turns out there are tons of public works-type projects in South Carolina - buildings, roads, bridges, etc. But I was delighted to find a New Deal painting exists in a privately owned but vacant buildin

"Peach Orchard" Irving A. Block

g in the town nearest to me (we live out in the boonies). It's called "Peach Orchard" by Irving A. Block. So get to Googling - there might be a WPA beauty on a wall near you 🙂

Fun Fact: Why peaches, you might wonder? Why not grits, or collards? Turns out South Carolina is the #2 peach producing state in the USA, second only to California. Take that, Georgia!

This post originally appeared during my participation in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.

It's not the first time, nor will it be the last, that I exhort you to visit the New York Public Library's stupendous online digital collection, home of wonder, lore and inspiration for writers (and fellow history nerds!) everywhere. Today we will explore the entertainment style known as Vaudeville, featuring images generously shared with us by the NYPL.

Vaudeville soft shoe dance act Doyle and Dixon

The origin of the word 'Vaudeville' is in dispute. Its roots are most likely French, if that final syllable is any indication. The Vaudeville style consists of a pastiche of several different acts bound into a single session of entertainment. There might be some comedy, some dancing, some acrobatics, maybe an animal act, or some recitation. Vaudeville was specifically geared toward more genteel audiences - no booze served, no cursing, no naughty bits. The bawdier stuff was left to all male venues such as saloons, and burlesque shows.

Fun fact: the custom of referring to off-color behavior such as nudity or cursing as 'blue' originated in the Vaudeville era. The B. F. Keith theater circuit was the Amazon of Vaudeville - they dominated the industry. Mr. Keith had very strict guidelines for the contracted performers. Anyone caught violating said guidelines would likely receive a dreaded blue envelope containing strong suggestions on censoring that part out of their act. If they didn't comply, they were censored - fired, cut, kicked to the curb. The blue envelope was the predecessor of the 20th century pink slip.

Variety acts had been around since jesters learned to play a lute in addition to

Vaudeville era magician Howard Thurston

singing and telling jokes. The Vaudeville style of variety shows began to flourish toward the end of the 1880s when theater manager Tony Pastor got the bright idea to carve out a niche for himself. He decided to literally clean up the acts, offering family-friendly entertainment in his shows. It was a huge hit. Two enterprising businessmen took things to the next level when they came up with the idea of forming a chain of theaters and contracting with performers to present the same show at various theaters in the chain. This innovation helped performers by giving them a longer contractual period (weeks or months rather than one night stands) and thus more stability. It also benefited the venue managers by simplifying the booking process and likely reduced their cost per act when hiring for multiple dates.

Vaudeville began to wane in the early 1900s when radio, television, and movie technology emerged. Audiences loved the new forms of entertainment and couldn't get enough of it. Gradually the grand old vaudeville theaters installed screens and projectors and live acts took a back seat. The last Vaudeville acts closed their doors in the 1940s. But the concept of offering variety persisted into the movie era. Just ask anyone who was a kid in the 1940s what they got to see for a nickel at the Saturday matinee. It was probably a couple of cartoons, a news reel, and a main feature.

Two of the experimental dance group Three Little Maids

Many entertainers in the 1930s and 1940s got their start in Vaudeville. Judy Garland, Harry Houdini, Will Rogers, and The Three Stooges come to mind. Some famously did not make the transition, immortalized by the Nora Desmond character in the movie Sunset Boulevard. Remnants the of Vaudeville format remain in more modern entertainment classics such as The Carol Burnett Show and, more recently, late night talk shows, which often intersperse multiple guests of various talents with musical interludes. Like Nora Desmond, Vaudeville may have been left in the dust. But variety is still very much the spice of entertainment life.

This post first appeared as part of my participation in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.

All that alliteration leaves me tingly

Ran across an interesting article reviewing a new book about dictators here. With tags including 'villain', 'lurid', 'perverse', and 'evil', how could I resist? Egotism, narcissism, torture, genocide, welfare moms - this story (and one presumes the book as well) has it all!

But what really caught my eye was this quote from the author being interviewed.

As a discipline, history is fuzzy and woefully unscientific. History is part gossip, part propaganda, part hearsay, and part theory, often supported by unsubstantiated attribution or outright fabrication.

Eureka! At last I have discovered the root of my fascination with a discipline widely associated with boredom by the majority of my fellow bipeds. But it says right there on the Internet that history has gossip, lies, it's unscientific, and it's fuzzy! What's not to like??

If you think about it this way, your average history class is basically National Enquirer minus the eyes-blacked-out photos of celebrity cellulite. This is a definite plus IMO. Some of the stories they are still shoveling in History 101 are right up there with Enquirer's bread and butter: Bigfoot/UFO/Elvis sightings.

Italian Explorer First European To New World!

Yeah, this guy Christopher Columbus had a pretty big day back in 1492. It used to be taught that he 'discovered America', which is grossly misleading. Not only was he NOT the first (as author Patrick Huyghe points out, in many ways, Columbus was LAST - the Norse were def here before him, as well as possibly the Celts, Chinese, Polynesians, and Libyans. Yes, Libyans.), he never actually set foot on the continental US. The Americas (Central and South) and the Caribbean, yes. The good ol' U. S. of A., nope. BTW in addition to the more recently accepted historical facts about the discovery of the New World, there are plenty of, shall we say, interesting theories not quite reaching 'proved' status. Check out the controversy surrounding the Kensington Runestone, or the academic practices (or lack thereof) of historian Barry Fell, for starters. Gossip! Hearsay! Propaganda!

English Settle North America, Pilgrim-Style

The Thanksgiving myth is beloved, mainly due to the ridiculous feed so many Americans put on to celebrate it. The two days off work and the shopping frenzy known as Black Friday cannot be overlooked. But what exactly are we celebrating? Yes, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, had a rough go, and likely would have died if it were not for the help of the local Native American population. But they weren't the first European settlers. That would have been the Norse, the Dutch, and even other English before them. They didn't bring civilization to the wilderness of the Americas (ref Inca, Aztec, Maya). And that lovely first Thanksgiving meal did not result in a future of champagne and giggles between Europeans and Native Americans.  There wasn't even any green bean casserole!

Justice Done As Nut-Job Harper's Ferry Attacker Hanged

Who needs Instagram?

What's the first thing you think of when you think of John Brown (if you do think of him at all?)? I bet it is one of three things: his appearance (wild-eyed, unkempt ZZ-Top beard); his mental state (bat-sh** crazy); with his politics (abolitionist) a distant third.

If so, the historic sensationalism that rules the textbook industry has done its job, feeding you the headlines that will sell papers/keep students awake and ignoring the deeper context that will result in broader understanding of historical events. Quoting James Loewen, author of one of my favorite books Lies My Teacher Told Me and by which portions of this post are inspired, "From 1890 to about 1970, John Brown was insane. Before 1890 he was perfectly sane, and after 1970 he regained his sanity." Meaning of course that Brown's mental state was interpreted differently based on who was telling the tale. But isn't that what sensational Enquirer-type journalism is all about, spin? Was Brown crazy, or was he the Johnny Smith of his day?

So history lovers everywhere, rejoice! Just about anyone in the field can write just about whatever they want about just about any topic, and if they give it enough spin, it will start to sound legit. It's our job to sniff this stuff out! History isn't boring if you stop accepting it all as gospel and start giving everything you read the Royal Stink-eye. Gossip! Lies! And it's fuzzy!

This post first appeared in February 2013.

Recently I was down the glorious Library of Congress digital collection rabbit hole, looking for something to post relevant to the Memorial Day holiday. Look what I found:

It's an illustration from Puck Magazine from Memorial Day 1899. In case you can't read the small print, its caption says 'Three Veterans Under One Flag'. History nerd that I am, naturally I wondered which three wars. Just from looking at the uniform of the Colonel Sanders character on the left and doing the math, I figured he was from the Civil War. But the other two had me stumped. Mexican-American War, maybe? Guy on the right, no clue (fail!). Had to research it. And here's the scoop:

Colonel Sanders is indeed from the Confederate Army of the American Civil War (1861-1865). Interesting that they were generous enough to consider him as 'under one flag'.

Cowboy Bob in the middle is from the Spanish-American War (1898). This is the war infamous for its slogan 'Remember the Maine', which referred to the sinking of a U.S. naval ship in Havana harbor. It's the one some historians theorize was instigated by decidedly biased coverage in the Hearst newspaper empire. The one featuring Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders? The one where we helped Cuba gain independence from Spain? I wouldn't blame you for forgetting. It only lasted ten weeks.

The third guy on the right is a Union veteran, also from the Civil War. That's where they got me - I was thinking it needed to be three different wars.

By Memorial Day 1899 there were three other wars fought by American soldiers that could have supplied images of veterans for this illustration: the American Revolution (1765-1783); the War of 1812 (1812-1815); and the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).

BTW The Library of Congress has loads more entertaining illustrations from Puck Magazine. Puck was published from 1871-1918. It was a combination of humor and political satire - think BuzzFeed meets The Daily Show. This particular illustration is by artist Udo J. Keppler.

 

Originally published May 2016

Like many who grew up in the 1960s, I'm a huge space nerd and as a by-product also a big sci-fi fan.

I'll shell out for just about any sci-fi movie. Watching The Martian, which BTW was fantastic (but as great as the movie was, of course the book by Andy Weir was even better), and more recently a re-run of Gravity on TV (great special effects; sappy internal conflict aka pity party), I was reminded of why we don't send stupid people into space. NASA's astronaut training program is highly selective and rigorous, as well it should be.

I had the privilege of writing a children's biography of one of these space geniuses several years ago. Ellen Ochoa was the first female Hispanic astronaut in space. I felt some kinship with her when I discovered

  • we share a birth year
  • we're also both female, natch
  • we love to read
  • we had a hard time deciding on a major in college

and that's where our paths digress. Dr. Ochoa finally settled on physics for her bachelor's. Let's just say, I didn't. She got that 'Dr.' in front of her name studying electrical engineering at Stanford. She has some patents in optics. And of course there's the whole astronaut thing.

Although she was a bright kid, Ochoa never considered becoming an astronaut because there was no such thing as a female astronaut. Imagine that! Oh, the irony of growing up in the 1960s. But when she was in grad school at Stanford, guess what happened? Or should I say, guess WHO? Yep, Sally Ride broke the glass ceiling in space in 1983, and Ellen started getting ideas. It took her a couple of tries and a year of training, but she made history as part of space shuttle Discovery's crew in April 1993. She was also a crew member for the first time the space shuttle docked with the International Space Station in 1999. Ochoa completed a total of four space flights and has logged more than a thousand hours in space.

Her last space flight was in 2002, but Ochoa was hardly put out to pasture. She continued a career at NASA. Dr. Ochoa is currently the director of the Johnson Space Center (second woman director; first Hispanic director). Something tells me if she ever found herself in a pickle like Sandra Bullock's character in Gravity, there would have been a lot less pity party, and a lot more git 'er done.

Note: the original version of this post first appeared on my blog in May 2016.

Cyrillic monogrammy of the letter Y circa 1902

Branding is all the rage now. Business owners from solopreneurs to megacorporations are encouraged to come up with a visual symbol to represent ourselves to the world.

The concept of branding may seem like a recent development, but it's hardly new. Literal branding of livestock (as well as human property, unfortunately) has been practiced for thousands of years. It was a simple and effective way of denoting ownership and discouraging theft. (Best not to ask how the brandee felt about it.) The subset of branding known as monogramming, or combining letters to form a new symbol, also is nothing new. Ancient coins were marked in this way to denote place of origin. Artists also found it a handy shorthand in signing their work.

Technically, it's not a monogram unless there's more than one letter represented.

The monogram became associated with the upper classes because long ago, the upper classes were the only ones who had any property worth protecting! Gradually the trend filtered down through the various layers of nobility. By Victorian times, monogramming was all the rage among the non-royal wealthy. As sewing skills were widespread among the middle and lower classes prior to the industrial age, monogramming became an inexpensive way to add a touch of class.

Tennis legend Roger Federer is the master of his brand as well as the court

These days monograms are everywhere, from the fingertip towels in Aunt Hattie's guest bath to the toned torsos of sports superstars. Maybe it's time for you to get on the branding train. If you're stumped for a brand logo, get back to the basics and use your initials. Just pick a cool font, avoid embarrassing letter combinations, and let your initials represent.

This post originally appeared during my participation in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.

I know I promised an update on our Berlin travels. Apologies it has taken me so long to get back to one of my favorite topics! Last time I posted about this trip, I described our mid-afternoon arrival and how we spent the rest of the day. In this post, I'll pick up from there and focus on our first full day exploring Berlin.

First, though, I want to give my two cents on the issue of jet lag. We departed on an early evening flight. The long part was 7-8 hours overnight. Of that, I estimate we slept maybe 3-4 hours of questionable-quality sleep on the plane. By the time we arrived at our final destination, it was mid-afternoon their time. We went about our business and went to bed at a more or less reasonable hour. But we slept until 11 a.m. the next day! Haven't done that in probably thirty years! So my theory is: 'jet lag' is a trendy phrase for 'sleep-deprived'. We had maybe 3-4 hours sleep in about 22 hours. No wonder we slept in!

German stranger on left; my late father-in-law on right. The German fellow passed away in 1962. The photo of my father-in-law was from his wedding day in 1945-ish. There is some German on his side of the family tree . . .

As I mentioned before, the weather was unseasonably warm for September in Europe, but just about right for us southerners. We started the day with an easy walk across the street for some breakfast at a Starbucks-ish place that served coffee, tea, and all kinds of delicious breakfast options including more or less healthy fare like egg white omelet wraps and such. From there we had another easy walk of a couple of blocks to the Berlin Wall Memorial. It's a fascinating area, well worth your time. They have a display of photos of everyone who died while trying to cross from East to West Berlin. One fellow so strongly favored my late father-in-law, they could've been brothers. That was some food for thought.

Berlin has a space needle/radio tower. You can see it from just about anywhere you go. This was taken from one of the bridges crossing over to Museum Island.

Next up, and another very pleasant walk, was to Museum Island. There were many museums to choose from. But on recommendation from our daughter and son-in-law who had been there previously, we chose the Pergamon, mainly because it houses the Ishtar Gate of Babylon and I'm a sucker for monuments on a massive scale. It didn't disappoint!
We had to get back to the hotel because our son-in-law had to do a sound check for his gig. But we stopped for a nosh at one of the curry wurst shops. Curry wurst is Berlin's version of fast food. There are curry wurst shops everywhere. Curry wurst is a wurst-style sausage served with a ketchup-y sauce that apparently has some curry flavoring. Ours were served in one of those rectangular paper bowls you often see at state fairs full of cheese curds or fried mushrooms, and had a side of fries just like you would find at a McDonald's drive through. It was great, definitely a good choice if you want to sample the local Berlin fare but are not exactly a food adventurer.

On the topic food, I will also add there were dozens of restaurants in the part of
town we explored on this day. All kinds of ethnic food, just about everything you might want. It was amusing to see American food presented as a type of ethnic food. We saw several American style restaurants. Most featured hamburgers. A couple promoted themselves as Texas cuisine. I also spotted one place that sold barbecue. Our stomachs weren't large enough to sample any, but it was fun seeing them. Maybe next time!

We had just enough time before Cooper's gig at 9pm to walk down to the
Brandenburg Gate, which is one of Berlin's most famous tourist spots. It is lovely, very impressive. Many vendors congregate there, like a street fair, hoping for tips and tourist money to find its way into their pockets. We saw one fellow dressed head to toe as a Native American chief. My favorite sight, however, was the bicycle beer keg contraptions. You reserve a spot on this gigantic rolling multi-seat bicycle thing that serves beer as you ride along. Totally doing that next time.

After Brandenburg we returned to our hotel, met Coop and the other musicians, and had dinner at a great Vietnamese place called Co Chu. You'll see this will be a running theme throughout our trip: eating ourselves silly.

Just after dark we headed over to Cooper's gig which was a block or two from our hotel so again an easy walk. It was in an underground jazz club called the Schlot. Very authentic brick and exposed beams decor. Jazz is jazz wherever you find it, but audience etiquette varies, or so my daughter informed us. German audiences listen respectfully. Talking during the performance is frowned upon. And don't even think
of calling out, clapping, or otherwise expressing your approval until after the song is over. We of course wanted to avoid being the obvious noobs in the crowd (and embarrassing our son-in-law in the process), so we minded our manners. We shouldn't have worried. Part way into the first set, two gentlemen arrived and sat at a table near us. One was clearly not interested in adhering to societal norms.  He yapped to his friend throughout, waved his arms along with the music, and otherwise behaved very un-German-like (although he did appear to be German from the sound of his loud discourse with his friend). The bar manager spoke to him quietly at one point, so apparently this was indeed annoying to her and presumably the other clientele.

Detail from the Ishtar Gate, Pergamon Museum

One other interesting aspect of the performance mentality in Germany: marketing/promoting is also frowned upon. You may see a sign or poster or calendar indicating dates and performance schedules. But promoting more actively such as ads in the paper or social media, is considered gauche. The logic is, if you are any good at all, word will get out and people will come. As a result, often the first night of a multi-night gig is less well attended than the following nights. So different from Americans who brag themselves up at every opportunity.

The sets went well. We adjourned to a bar across the street to celebrate their success, then retired to the hotel when we were basically dead on our feet. Our stay in Berlin was coming to a close. We were sorry to leave so soon, but very excited for our next stop: Munich! Oktoberfest!

So I'm out to dinner with some friends I only see occasionally. These are friends from way back, the kind you spend most of your visit catching up on all the stuff you would already know if you saw each other more often. Toward the end of the evening, the topic turned to books. Conversational style changed from quiet chatting with those seated near you to a more organized, but less organic approach. And like that dreadful team-building activity where you pass the talking stick around the circle, my turn was soon coming.

I flashed back to times in elementary school when I was not only The New Kid but also Teacher's Pet with a side order of Nerd. All too often my attempts at contributing to a group conversation were met with blank looks and sniggers. What did you do this weekend? Kid #1: egged Charlotte Shrenk's brother's car, the pansy. Kid #2: Lifted a pack of gum from Skillern's. Kid #3: Looked through my uncle's stash of Playboy magazines. Me (too honest/naive to come up with a more exciting lie): Stayed up most of Saturday night to finish The Hobbit. Cue embarrassed silence and blank looks.

Then, as now, as the virtual stick approached, I was too slow coming up with an amusing line of BS, so I just went with the truth. I bungled the intro, already knowing this admission would be the turd in the punchbowl, the pin in our balloon of reminiscing revelry. "The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt", I said, hoping against hope this book, unbeknownst to me, had made Oprah's Book Club, and it would be the darling topic of our dessert course. I was close. It did win the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2011. Strangely, this does not equate to Oprah's Book Club-like popularity. Cue blank looks. Strike one.

"It's a really cool book I first heard about on NPR." Cue eye glaze. Strike two.

"It's about the chance rediscovery of a previously lost ancient manuscript written by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who basically ended up influencing all modern liberal thought as we know it." In that moment, I discovered that the killing of a buzz does indeed have a sound, and it is this: the sound of a great iron gate banging closed, ringing the ears as it fades to an ominous silence. Not a called strike, #3, oh no - it was a hundred mile-an-hour fastball luring the batter into a cartoonish 360° whiff, the kind that spins him so hard, the only thing keeping his tuckus from hitting the dirt is his quick hands using the bat as the third leg of his human tripod. Any notion that the Teacher's Pet/Nerd had shaken her grade school persona and become cooler, more worldly, sophisticated, even, in middle age, was immediately quashed by my nerd reading confession. Someone smiled thinly and said, "Sounds great!", and thankfully we lurched back into Conversation Lite.

But since this is, after all, my blog, and I can talk about whatever I want, I feel I owe it to Lucretius to spread the word about him. I have to admit the book was something of a grind. Sorry, Mr. Greenblatt! Having written some non-fiction, I know it is a challenge living up to the Laura Hillenbrand/Mary Roach gold standard of edutainment. The Swerve plodded along for the first half. But I was determined to finish what I had started, and I am so glad I did. When I finally got to the meat of the matter, Lucretius' own words laid out in black and white as they had originally begun thousands of years ago, my liberal heart soared.

  • He outlined the basic structure of the universe, proposing that all things were made up of tiny particles, infinite in number, combining and recombining, eternal in time and space. Pretty advanced, not to mention accurate, for someone who lived a thousand years before Galileo.
  • His thoughts about these small particles and endless combinations led him to theorize Nature is constantly changing and experimenting and yes, evolving. Sound familiar?
  • He had some incendiary thoughts about organized religion as well (thought it was bunk). Some describe him as an atheist, but he was more of a deist. He never said god(s) didn't exist. He just didn't think they gave two hoots about what we puny humans were up to.
  • He talked about sex (it's a really long work), including a passage W. B Yeats called 'the finest description of sexual intercourse ever written'. If that's not enough to encourage you to check out Swerve or The Nature of Things, I give up.
Spiral galaxy via Hubble Telescope

 

My favorite passages are more philosophical. He may be the founder of today's minimalism movement, for he believed life's goals are simple: seek pleasure, avoid pain. But there are boundaries, and failing to recognize them leads to acquisition and excess, which spoils everything.

He believed in something Greenblatt calls a 'swerve'. Call it serendipity, or happenstance, or the butterfly effect. Lucretius applied this concept at the molecular level and beyond, proposing these minute and random changes often produce the most remarkable results.

It would be silly to generate an over-long blog post about Lucretius without actually quoting the guy. Here's a passage Greenblatt admired. I've experienced this feeling a couple of times. If you've ever volunteered to be the Designated Driver, you've probably experienced it, too:

"It is comforting, when winds are whipping up the waters of the vast sea, to watch from land the severe trials of another person: not that anyone's distress is a cause of agreeable pleasure; but it is comforting to see from what troubles you yourself are exempt. It is comforting also to witness mighty clashes of warriors embattled on the plains, when you have no share in the danger. But nothing is more blissful than to occupy the heights effectively fortified by the teaching of the wise, tranquil sanctuaries from which you can look down upon others and see them wandering everywhere in their random search for the way of life, competing for intellectual eminence, disputing about rank, and striving nigh and day with prodigious effort to scale the summit of wealth and to secure power."

Lucretius wasn't satisfied with defying convention and authority and being right about just about everything. Oh no. He had to write it all in verse. As a poem. In Latin, natch. (drops mike) Why on earth go to all this trouble? It was hard enough noodling around the concepts that drive society (or should) as well as our universe. Lucretius said he considered presenting his ideas as poetry "honey smeared around the lip of a cup containing medicine that a sick child might otherwise refuse to drink" (Greenblatt quote, not Lucretius). So basically, if he were around today, he would frame his work as an indie film or a rap song or a Banksy-style graffiti.

My FFF (favorite founding father)

Lucretius' poem The Nature of Things lay undiscovered for a thousand years until a papal staffer named Poggio chanced upon it in 1417. Once recovered, copies were made, at first by hand, then by press post-Gutenberg. Ripples of its influence spread from Florence outward. With the advantage of hindsight, one can see his impact on intellectual giants more familiar to us, including Galileo, da Vinci,  Newton, Darwin, a couple of Thomases (More and Jefferson), and even Shakespeare. One wonders what things might be like if Poggio had overlooked a crumbling manuscript in a musty library so long ago. It delights me no end that he didn't, and that it came to light again because of a swerve.


This post was originally published in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge. 

Legend says she constructed the prototype from two hankies and some ribbon

I've had the idea for this topic sitting around in my drafts folder ever since I learned that bras were originally designed to reduce the silhouette of the bosom, not enhance them. During the Roaring Twenties, the Flapper look was all the rage. It was as far from the previous style as one could get, from neckline to hemline. It dispensed with corsets altogether, thank goodness!  But as most of us ladies know through sad experience in the 1960s, the majority of the female population benefits from a little support up there, whether it is pushing up, pushing out, or pressing flat. Enter one Mary Phelps Jacob, a plucky New Yorker who invented the modern brassiere out of frustration with corsets.

Some interesting tidbits (yeah, yeah, insert bosom wordplay if you must):

 

  • Ms. Phelps used a nom de bra and marketed her new invention as 'Caresse Crosby'. That's a name made for a romance novel if I ever heard one.
  • She sold her idea to Warner Brothers Corset Company. Warner's Bras is still in business. They do not have any apparent connection to the movie studio of the similar name. However, they are the inventors of the alphabet cup sizing method still in use today.
Flappin' in the breeze 

As for the nether regions, modern undies also came on the scene in the first half of the twentieth century. Prior to that, there was a time when nothing was worn under all those heavy long skirts. Fresh air was considered good for the privates. In the 1800s, a light garment known as pantaloons added an extra layer, especially welcome in chilly climates. Initially they covered only the legs and were open nearer the top (some might say crotchless), for ease in answering the call of nature. Eventually they came to look more like a loose set of capri pants. As dresses shortened and became more form fitting, unmentionables needed to evolve as well. More items of interest:

  • Some think the modern ladies' brief is based on the design of a baby's diaper. Now that you mention it . . .
  • Wearing form-fitting undies daily is a relatively recent (20th century) development. Prior to that time, they were only worn during a certain time of the month to keep feminine hygiene products in place.

And with that, we'll stop and save that whole discussion for another blog post. You gents reading this can exhale now.


This post originally appeared in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.