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.
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
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.
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.
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
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 Meand 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We writers often lead a secluded, sequestered life. It is said many of us are introverts. We prefer it that way. Combine this with a WFH schedule, and I often find myself unprepared for April Fool's Day hijinx. I forget all about it date-wise, and therefore am easy prey for Internet scams, like the one promising the Firefly series would be revived on Netflix; or the one touting an X-Files TV series comeback (if you consider that fiasco a comeback, the joke's on you).
I never think of April Fools that I don't wring my hands over whether or not to include an apostrophe. And also over the family lore of the time my dad thought it would be hilarious to break up with my mom in high school and let her think it was for real until almost the end of the day. Pretty sure when he bopped up to her locker that afternoon and said, "April Fool!", he's lucky he made it home with all his teeth. Strangely, Dad is now known for his sense of humor and comic timing. I guess he was still learning the ropes back then.
I like a good laugh as well as anyone. Much of the April Fool's horseplay has always struck me as dominated by the adolescent male bathroom humor types. They're either too silly, too gross, or do a poor job of disguising their latent cruelty. I know that makes me sound like a sourpuss. But I can appreciate an April Fools prank if it's done well.
I fondly recall the time, 30-odd years ago now, that I was roped in by one of the greatest April Fool's pranks of all time: the Sports Illustrated story by George Plimpton that ran in 1985 about a phenom baseball pitcher. I devoured the entire article, mouth agape, which got very messy as I was simultaneously salivating over the thought of watching this kid play in the upcoming season. It never occurred to me that it was a hoax until I heard a few days later. And it was such a gloriously prepared prank, I wasn't even mad about it. I spent no small amount of time turning it over in my mind like a piece of journalistic pyrite, marveling over how they pulled it off. That's the kind of prank I like - something so original and well thought out and perfectly executed, so very Sting-like (the movie, not the singer) that you can't feel too badly about being hornswoggled. They set the bar pretty high. Somehow, Vaseline on the doorknob and plastic wrap over the toilet seat pale in comparison.
It's been a while since anyone Fooled me on April 1. No fake break-ups with the ensuing lawsuits and dental bills. No tiresome Whoopie cushions or rubber snakes. I keep waiting for another great fake article from those devilish tricksters at Sports Illustrated. I understand why they can't run one every year. But I haven't read this week's SI yet. There's still hope.
This post originally appeared as part of the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.
I was born and raised in Texas. You might find some argument about whether Texas is South or West or some combination. But when it comes to southern expressions, Texas definitely qualifies as South.
I grew up listening to many of these expressions issue forth from friends and relatives. I thought nothing of it, until I once politely refused a second helping at a non-Southern soiree because I was 'full as a tick'. Jaws dropped. Eyes bulged. It was at that moment I realized I was, in fact, bilingual.
The great thing about learning to speak and understand southern expressions is that you don't have to learn a new language. You just have to rearrange some words from the language you already know.
Some southern expressions have gained widespread familiarity, like y'all (all of you, or maybe just you) and fixin' to (about to) and bless your heart (you're a moron). But there are many, many others. Most require some translation. Here are a few of my favorites.
Let's do the dogs first:
that dog won't hunt - whatever you just proposed or suggested has fatal flaws in its logic
I've got no dog in that fight - I really don't care what the outcome is
don't get the big dog off the porch - leave well enough alone; sometimes rephrased in other parts of the country as 'don't poke the bear'
Okay, done with the dogs.
all hat no cattle - full of bluster; someone who is too full of themselves for no apparent reason
I don't know whether I'm washin' or hangin' - one of my mom's phrases to indicate she's crazy busy
colder than a witch's tit in a brass bra - one of my dad's jewels. Sometimes you hear the first part by itself, but Dad being Dad, he always likes to add the bit about the bra.
Speaking of cold: butter wouldn't melt in her mouth - she is a cold person; shorthand for bi***
Feeling twitchy? You may be nervous as a long-tailed cat in a rocking chair factory or a one legged man at a butt kickin' contest
not my first rodeo - both my husband and I are overly fond of this one. It just means you've done whatever it is you're doing before. Often used in a snippy tone in response to someone who may express doubts at your ability to perform the task at hand.
fish or cut bait - make up your mind; occasionally more crudely expressed as sh** or get off the pot
happy as a pig in sh** - believe it or not, I've probably heard this said about newlyweds more than I care to remember. Some people substitute 'mud' in polite society, but sh** is what they really mean.
that and a nickel will get you a cup of coffee - whatever this refers to is worth zero zip nada
knee high to a grasshopper - Southerners hear this phrase about eight thousand times from older relatives when attending a family reunion or any time they haven't seen you since you were a kid.
It says something about southern culture that there are so many expressions for someone who is, shall we say, somewhat low in the IQ department:
not the brightest bulb not the sharpest knife in the drawer ain't got the sense God gave a goose doesn't know enough to come in out of the rain dumb as a carrot
In addition to the 'full as a tick' fiasco, I probably get the second highest number of quizzical looks when I use a Southernism to describe something that is diagonally across from something (kitty corner) or in disarray (cattywompus).
When I was a teenager, my dad sometimes said I would argue with a fence post. I thought it was a compliment.
If you're traveling with a Southerner and they say their back teeth are floating, you best pull over at first opportunity so they can use the facilities.
My cousin Nan contributed this one. Unfortunately I find myself using it frequently. For example, when watching the recent Academy Awards and trading red carpet attire critiques with my daughter via text, I told her Casey Affleck looked like Fido's tail.
If my brother and I happen to be out and about and observe the person walking ahead of us who is, shall we say, overly endowed in the posterior, my brother will inevitably whisper to me that her rear end looks like two beavers fightin' under a bear rug. And inevitably I will laugh my head off.
If you're like me and trying to embrace the new minimalist fad and get rid of too much stuff, here's another one of my brother's jewels that might help the next time you are tempted to buy more stuff: I need that like a hen needs a flag.
My strategy when learning a new language is to pick one or two phrases that might fit in with your lifestyle and try them out, gingerly at first, until you get the hang of it. Maybe tell your loved one their new outfit is fine as frog's hair. Or tell your kids to quit playin' possum and get up before they're late to school. And if I might offer a suggestion: when dining out with non-Southern friends, don't mention ticks at the dinner table.
This post originally appeared as part of my participation in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.