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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.

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.

I get that he needs to look this way for a role, but yikes.

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.

Photo by Ruth Hartnup on Flickr

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.

Sears shocks the horsey set by wearing pants to play polo. Would have been more shocking if she played without them IMO.

So I'm minding my own business, browsing my Twitter feed, when I see a tweet about a woman I had never heard of who was known as 'The Universal Female Athlete'.  For an amateur historian interested in women's studies, this is the ultimate click bait! I must know more! And click I did. This led me to the original tweet by the great folks at the National Womens History Museum. And on I went until my ultimate destination, an opportunity to purchase a biography of my quarry, Eleonora Sears.

Several links on Ms. Sears regurgitated the same handful of interesting facts. But the deeper I dug, the more great info I found.

It's only 47 miles

The original tweet I saw featured a photo of Ms. Sears at the polo fields. Her attire (wearing pants) resulted in strong criticism and pearl-clutching from the stuffed shirts and corsets in Newport. Sears was an expert horsewoman and polo player. She also won several tennis championships. But her athletic prowess didn't end there. Eleonora Spears was also expert at just about every physical endeavor she attempted, to wit:

Walking  - endurance walking was a thing in the 1920s. In fact a guy named Weston the Pedestrian was the Michael Jordan of his day. We're not talking walking two blocks to the local liquor store that seems like two miles when you run out of wine. We're talking dozens, hundreds, even thousands of miles. Sears once won a $1000 bet from a friend who bet her she couldn't walk the 47 miles between his house in Providence, RI and hers in Boston in under 15 hours. She did it in under 10.

  • driving - considered an extreme sport in her day. Come to think of it, still is in some sectors (yes, Dallas TX I am looking at YOU)
  • badminton
  • yachting
  • swimming
  • hockey
  • squash

Once when asked if she played squash, she replied, "No, but I could." She took up the game, and became the first female national squash champion in 1946. It's no wonder she earned the moniker, 'Universal Female Athlete'.

Sears was a real stuff-starter. There was nothing she liked better than being told 'no'. Women can't smoke at the club? Exactly why I didn't bring my ciggies - can I bum one from you? Women can't wear pants? Okay, see you at the polo field. Look for a woman wearing pants. Women can't drive? Tell that to the car dealer I just drove home from.

It didn't hurt that she was wealthy. Loaded. Old school, high society, related-to-the-Vanderbilts wealthy. She had the resources to do as she pleased. She chose to remain single, leaving plenty of time for pursuing whatever tickled her fancy. And what tickled Eleonora Sears was learning new things and becoming the best at them that she could. Sounds good to me.

This post originally appeared as part of the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.

Catching up on cleaning out my emails recently, and something happened that I often hope for but rarely experience: finding something outstanding buried among the detritus of newsletters and sales pitches I really need to unsub from. It was a link to a TED Talk by Adam Grant in which he discussed, among many other fabulous things, the science behind adding just the right touch of procrastination to the creative process.

I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about the TED Talk for you because I really encourage you to take about 16 minutes and watch the whole thing. But to the point of procrastinating: Grant quotes Aaron Sorkin, the successful creative mind behind many hits including two of my favorites, The West Wing and Moneyball:

Grant, who is an organizational psychologist, shared some statistics indicating that people who procrastinate just the right amount (just a little bit), at just the right time (after the project has begun, not before), often have better results with their end product than people who don't. Because SCIENCE.

Now that we have permission from the creativity experts to goof off (like we weren't gonna goof off today anyway *snort*), I can feel A-OK about my procrastination activity of choice: cleaning AKA ProcrastiCleaning. I know some of you are out there shaking your head, wondering why in the name of all that is holy, if I now have permission to goof off, I'm wasting precious goof-off time on such a mundane activity.

I wish I had an answer. I don't even LIKE to clean. I mean, I'm not a hoarder or anything, but at my house on any given day, one might find a layer of dust or a carpet that needs vacuuming if one were to look especially carefully. I'll clean, but I don't especially enjoy the experience. Unless there's writing to be done. The closer the deadline, the better I like it. Then I'll clean like a banshee. And I don't mean dusting and vacuuming. We're talking major cleaning jobs, like detailing the car. Or taking a toothbrush to the knots in the heart pine flooring to get every bit of Sheetrock dust from a recent project out of there. Or possibly disassemble-the-plumbing-under-the-bathroom-double-vanity-to-scrape-out-the-mysterious-crud-inside-the pipes-under-my-husband's-sink (but not mine!) cleaning. Not that I would ever do that. In any case, ProcrastiCleaning is not for the faint of heart (or knee, or back).

Apparently, I'm not alone. I can tell by the number of 'Amen, sistah!' responses on social media any time the subject comes up. And those are just from the ProcrastiCleaners who are loud and proud and out of the cleaning closet. For each of them, I'm sure there are twenty more writers out there, still pretending they are actually straight-up cleaning rather than avoiding a deadline. Never mind they just spent forty minutes learning how to use the attachments on the vacuum so they can Hoover the funnel cloud of dust bunnies out from under the guest room dresser. BTW Rookie Mistake: dead giveaway that you're ProcrastiCleaning if you're considering learning how to use the attachments on the vacuum.

I know cleaning to avoid writing is weird (if not bordering on counter-productive). I can't help it. But I'm not about to give it up. I have my best ideas while doing mindless non-writing-related tasks. And they're not limited to cleaning. Once I almost punctured my trachea in my haste to write down a plot twist idea I got while brushing my teeth.

This month I'm trying to salvage the brain dump also known as last November's NaNoWriMo upchuck. Now that the plumbing project is done, I need to go fire up the hub's power washer. Thank goodness for pollen season, or I'd have no prayer of meeting my deadline.


This post originally appeared as part of the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.

In honor of Women's History month, I want to give props to The State, our local newspaper here in Columbia, SC, for the fun article on South Carolina women they published last spring. The article was in a quiz format. Being relatively new to SC, I failed the quiz big-time.  I cherry-picked some favorites from the original 19 questions, just in case some of you are as woefully unaware of these cool factoids as I was.

Mary Chesnut. Photo credit: Ohio State University. What?? Not Gamecocks??

Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut was born on her father's plantation in 1823 in Stateburg SC which is between Columbia and Sumter. Chesnut is the 1860s female version of Jon Stewart - educated, opinionated, entertaining. Her claim to fame is her Civil War diary. An annotated version won the Pulitzer Prize. Ken Burns referred to it extensively in his Civil War documentary. I'm super pumped to get reading it as my kids gifted it to me on my recent birthday. One of hundreds of her pithy quotes regarded plantation life versus life in the big city: "These people have grown accustom to dullness. They were born and bred in it. They like it as well as anything else."

Mary McLeod Bethune. Photo credit: Talbot School of Theology.

I actually knew the answer to the first question in their quiz because I wrote a biography of her several years ago. But I had forgotten she was from South Carolina. Mary McLeod Bethune was born in 1875 in Mayesville SC, a hamlet of a few hundred souls between Sumter and Florence. She was obsessed with education. Through a somewhat miraculous series of events considering her family's humble circumstances, she attended school and eventually earned her teaching degree. Bethune founded a school for girls and was one of the first of her race and gender to serve as a college president. This child of former slaves advised Franklin Delano Roosevelt and three other presidents.

Eartha Kitt. Photo credit: Daily Mail

Who doesn't love Eartha Kitt? So talented, so lovely, so purrfect. She's been described in more feline terms than the Pink Panther. Orson Welles called her 'the most exciting woman alive'. Apparently he also found her delicious, as he is reputed to have bitten her during a scene they had together in the play "Time Runs". She was born in 1927 the amusingly named North, SC, a small town south of Columbia. So many fun little factoids about her, it's hard to choose one (and that one about Welles is pretty tasty!) but I love that later in her career, she referred to herself as "the original 'Material Girl'". Take that, Madonna!

Althea Gibson. Photo credit: whiskymoods.com

Tennis Grand Slam champion Althea Gibson grew up in Harlem but was born in Silver, South Carolina (between Sumter and Lake Marion) also in 1927. She struggled in the classroom but was an athletic prodigy. Her tennis skills earned her a scholarship to Florida A&M University. Gibson was the first African American to compete in the U.S. Open; the first to win the French Open; and the first to win Wimbledon, in 1957- almost 20 years before the first African American man would win that title (Arthur Ashe, 1975).  Not satisfied with breaking barriers in tennis, Gibson was also the first African American member of the LPGA (golf). Is there any game she couldn't play??

Peanut Johnson

Have you seen that commercial envisioning the time when we see the first pitch thrown by a female in a major league baseball game? Well, it's sorta been done. Mamie 'Peanut' Johnson was one of the first women, and the first pitcher, to play in the Negro Leagues baseball league. She was born in Ridgeway, just north of the Columbia metro in 1935. She honed her pitching skills by throwing rocks at the crows on her grandmother's farm. Peanut played for the Indianapolis Clowns in the 1950s. She retired with a record of 33-8. All those wins from a player who was only 5'-3".

Linda Ellison aka Fabulous Moolah taking down an opponent

There are some wild and woolly tales floating around out there about Lillian Ellison, aka Fabulous Moolah. Even her birthplace sounds fantastical: 'Tookiedoo'. I have never heard of this place but apparently it is, or was, in the Columbia area. Moolah led quite a life. Sex, drugs, match fixing, racial tensions, sexism, feminism, fraud, midgets (their term, not mine) - name the issue, Moolah dabbled. Her favorite move: the 'flying mare'. "A flying mare is when you get a girl by the hair of the head and pull her over your shoulder, then slam her to the mat as hard as you can. And I love doing that."

She only lived there for two months before moving with her family to the

Viola Davis. Love the hair!

northeast, but South Carolina is not one to be swept up on a technicality, so that two months counts, by golly! Viola Davis was born in 1965 in St. Matthews, which is an easy drive down I-26 from Columbia. She's been in a ton of stuff, but here's a fun tidbit: it's her voice we hear grilling George Clooney in the first scene of Ocean's Eleven. She's got a hit with the TV show, How To Get Away With Murder. And she can now add an Oscar to her list of accomplishments.

I would love to see all of these gals at together at a Girls Night Out. I think Chesnut and Moolah would get along like a house on fire.

The original version of this article was published in March 2016.

Not to be outdone by Dr. Pepper's '10, 2 and 4' campaign . . .

A recent rabbit hole started innocently enough as I enjoyed an article about local foods/drinks that are not easily available outside their home geographic area. The North Carolina beverage Cheerwine was prominently featured.

When we first moved to the Carolinas several years ago, Cheerwine had me guessing. Is it wine? If so, why is it sold in a can like beer or soda? Of course the best way to get my questions answered was to try one. Turns out it's a soft drink, or as we say in Texas, it's a coke. Tastes similar to Dr. Pepper but is even sweeter IMO if you can imagine such a thing. Fruity, hint of cherry, hence the name.

I've always been curious about that name, so close to what it actually is, but just a little off (like using the Car Fox to shill for the Car Fax product. Still confused about that.). Shouldn't Cheerwine be Cherr Wine as in 'cherry'? But then maybe Chair Wine to get the pronunciation correct, because you know everyone would be pronouncing Cherr 'share'. The problem with Chair Wine is of course that we sacrifice meaning for pronunciation. No one would have a clue what it's supposed to be - is it so awful/amazing, you need to be sitting in a chair to drink it? Obviously way too many issues with Cherr/Chair, so they went with the next best thing: Cheer. That still doesn't explain the 'wine' part. . .

But I digress -

So I'm reading this article and my South Carolina hackles rise because we have our own local soft drink here, Blenheim Ginger Ale, so where's the love, dang it?? Blenheim was omitted from the article, but you know I won't leave it out of this post.

I did a little poking around and found some interesting stuff about the history of soft drinks. The term 'soft' is to differentiate them from 'hard' drinks, or drinks that contain alcohol. Soft drinks are non-alcoholic (or very low alcohol) and are often, but not always, carbonated and flavored. The soft drink biz is a $50 billion industry (flavoring and manufacturing combined) in the U.S.  Yes, billion with a B. Their popularity is linked to many serious health issues including diabetes and obesity. In other words, people can't get enough of the stuff!

The roots of this addictive habit can be traced to ancient times, when naturally carbonated mineral spring waters were prized for their healing properties. It's our nature to believe this stuff is healthy! But in ancient times, no festively decorated 18-wheelers rolled into your village and dropped off conveniently packaged cans of the stuff.  If you wanted some, you had to hoof it to the nearest mineral springs, the locations of which may have been the origin for the phrase 'few and far between'. Most folks just were not up for that, considering they were busy avoiding the Mongol hoards, Viking raids, the Black Death, and other delights of bygone eras.

So the trick to enjoying refreshing drinks was either to live near a mineral spring, or find a way to bring the mineral spring waters to you. In 1767, Joseph Priestly made this one step closer to a possibility. If you're thinking he was a master plumber of the Roman aqueduct school, not exactly. Running miles of plumbing pipes wouldn't have worked - the spring water would get flat by the time it arrived at your house. If you're thinking he invented glass bottles, wrong again by over a hundred years. No, what Mr. Priestly came up with was pretty ingenious - he figured out how to add bubbles to plain old water.

Riker's Drug Store soda fountain New York City 1923

Okay, great - now, with the right equipment, we have the potential for creating an endless supply of bubbly water on premises. And that's exactly what businesses did. They set up carbonation rooms and connected the bubbliciousness to a tap. Voila! Fizzy water on demand without all that annoying trekking cross-country to the mineral spring.

This was all well and good except for one small problem: the product didn't taste all that great. Appetizing ingredients required to create the bubbles such as sulphuric acid, calcium carbonate, and marble dust didn't translate well to the average palate. But not to worry: recall that the early mineral waters were consumed primarily for their purported health benefits, so the natural place to purchase them was at the local pharmacy. Also note: many early medicines were consumed in liquid form. Experienced pharmacists had long been in the business of making yucky liquid medicine taste good enough that their patients would actually take it. If it tastes good, they will drink. Light bulb moment! By the mid-1800s the great experimentation with adding flavors to carbonated water had begun.

Soda fountains also came in tabletop versions if you couldn't afford a big production like Riker's

Flash forward to the early 20th century. Soda fountains were popular, but bars were still their primary competition - until Prohibition came along. From 1920-1933, the soda biz exploded (literally as well as figuratively - explosions during the carbonation process were a known hazard). The trifecta of technology (carbonation process), increased demand (due to the addition of appealing flavors), and economics (Prohibition drastically reducing competition from the bar sector) resulted in a boom time for soda fountains. It was very similar to what we are seeing today with craft beers. As with all things, the soft drink boom did not last. Once the bars were back up and running, the soda fountain business flattened out. But a surprising number of these drinks are still around. Many have been gobbled up by conglomerates, but their hometown roots are still there if you look hard enough. Here's a great article listing the local brews from all 50 states.

Some fun facts

Because the soft drink boom was long before artificial colors and flavors existed, many early soft drinks relied on plant-based ingredients such as roots (ginger, sassafras, gentian), vegetables (celery), and fruits (grapes, cherries, lemons, limes) for their flavors. You're probably aware the original recipes for many popular drinks also contained ingredients that are now considered illegal and addictive. After all, Coca-Cola didn't get its name because the inventor had a stammer - it actually did contain a form of cocaine. Around the turn of the century, soft drinks were positioned more as health pick-me-ups, the forerunners of today's energy drinks. Ingredients were often touted to improve health in various ways, and early on, products from the coca plant were considered beneficial. Lithium was also included in some early recipes, notably 7UP, and of course caffeine. Lithium and coca were eliminated when their possible deleterious side effects were discovered. Curiously, the same cannot be said for sugar, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, and the various alphabet soup of chemicals currently in many sodas. Maybe some day we will all be reading one of my future blog posts talking about the olden days when people actually enjoyed drinking the gut-destroying concoctions known as 'soft drinks'.

New York entrepreneur John Matthews is known by some as the Father of the Soda Fountain. Not long after he emigrated from England and determined to get into the soda fountain business, the iconic St. Patrick's Cathedral had undergone a recent renovation. Knowing that marble dust could be used in the chemical reaction to create carbonation, Matthews bought up all the crumbled marble. It's estimated the holy scrap fueled 25 million gallons of soda water.

A passing resemblance

Ginger ales were far more popular in the early days of soft drinks than they are now. Many contemporary soft drinks available in a variety of flavors today such as Shasta, Polar, RC Cola, and Vernors have ginger ale roots. Literally. Ginger root has been used as a flavoring ingredient and as well as a health aid for thousands of years. When found to flourish in the Caribbean, ginger was readily available in the New World and as such, a natural to make the leap to flavoring carbonated water as well as many other types of food and drink. True ginger ale bears little flavor resemblance to the bland tasting stuff primarily used today as a background for mixed alcoholic drinks. My first Blenheim Ginger Ale was a delightful surprise. If you think you don't like ginger ale, and you have the chance to taste one of these heirloom brews, do it. You'll thank me. Beware the hot versions if you don't like spicy stuff. They're not kidding. Also beware that at a distance, to the South Carolina DNR (boat staties), a clear glass bottle of the golden goodness that is Blenheim looks very much like a clear glass bottle of Corona. . .

Speaking of beer: the various beer-named soft drinks of course do not contain alcohol, much to every child's chagrin. Who of us didn't feel a guilty pleasure/burst into giggles/think we were more grown up when allowed to have a root 'beer'? Root beer is the foundation for many soft drink dynasties such as Barq's, IBC, and the granddaddy of all root beers, A&W (interesting side note: California-based A&W was America's first franchised restaurant chain and the first restaurant to use drive-in and curbside service. Take that, Mickey D's!) The root used for 'root beer' originally was the sassafras root until one of its components, safrole, was found to be carcinogenic  - yikes! Nowadays the safrole is removed from the sassafras compound or an artificial sassafras flavoring is used. This is one of the rare cases when no one will be carping about going back to the original natural ingredient! Sarsaparilla is a close cousin to sassafras, and therefore root beer, in taste if not in taxonomy. Birch beer is flavored with an extract of tree bark, usually birch, and also tastes similar to plain old root beer.

Grape flavors have also proved popular over the years, as evidenced by Alabama's Grapico,

Arkansas' Grapette, and Louisiana's Delaware Punch (which is named for the Delaware grape, not the state). There's nothing like an ice-cold grape soda to give you a temporary but delicious soda mustache.

Arizona's orange-pineapple Cactus Cooler may not have as lengthy a pedigree as some drinks I have mentioned, but it's the only one I found that was inspired by a cartoon (The Flintstones).

Thanks to the bitterness of Maine's local brew's main ingredient, gentian root, it has entered our lexicon as a synonym for 'guts', as in, you have to have plenty of guts to drink it. The name? 'Moxie'.

Michigan's Feigenson brothers weren't pharmacists; they were bakers. Like pharmacists, their profession also lent itself beautifully to the soft drink biz. Icing recipes did double duty as inspiration for the many flavors of their in-house beverage, Faygo. Mmmmmm, icing . . .

As a kid, I grew up drinking Kool-Aid. One of the few bright spots of being hauled along on the drudgery of grocery shopping trips was being allowed to choose which Kool-Aid flavor packets went into our basket (Black Cherry was my favorite, and yes, my mom used real sugar when she mixed up a pitcher). But Kool-Aid wasn't always sold dry. Back when Kool-Aid was getting its start in Prohibition-era Nebraska, they briefly offered a bottled, carbonated version of the iconic powder mix.

New York's Dr. Browns figured out a clever niche for their product. They were one of the few, if not the only, early soft drinks that was Kosher certified. That may be why people continued to drink it, despite the celery they insisted on adding to their flavors. Celery was the hot new health fad once upon a time. Look for a blog post about that here soon.

No treatise on soft drink history would be complete without a mention of Texas' multi-ingredient, cherry cola-flavored Dr. Pepper. DP is one of the few drinks from the soda fountain heydey still going strong today. Invented in 1885 by a pharmacist in Waco, Texas, Dr. Pepper was light years ahead in the marketing game. It got a big publicity bump when it was featured at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. As a Texan, I have a soft spot for DP. Back in the 1970s Dr. Pepper earned my undying devotion when they introduced a diet version. It tasted great! At that time, the only other diet soda available in our area was an abomination known as Tab. Think carbonated cod liver oil. Diet DP was my morning office pick-me-up for years since I'm not a coffee drinker. Envision a hot summer day, walking in from the shimmering asphalt of the company parking lot, greeted by a blast of air frostily conditioned the way only Texans know how, and reach for that chilled bottle of DP straight out of the artic atmosphere of the behemoth coke machine. Heaven!

I don't drink much in the way of soft drinks anymore. I gave up my hardcore forty-year one-a-day Diet Coke/Coke Zero habit in November 2013, thank you very much. At the peak of my addiction, I would scoff at my mom's insistence that cokes just didn't taste the same without the pure cane sugar and the other natural ingredients she remembered from her youth. I was so busy counting calories, I wouldn't have dreamed of drinking a 'real' coke. My, how things have changed. I think that's why I enjoyed that Blenheim ginger ale. So much flavor, without the chemicals in most modern soft drinks that I can taste now that I've kicked the habit. It's definitely an experience I would like to repeat in moderation. What's the best soft drink produced locally in your area? And how can I get some?

The original version of this post was published in July 2015.

 

Martha Matilda Harper, a real-life Rapunzel, had a great reason for keeping her hair long: it was her livelihood

Raised in a Southern Baptist household, I recall it being said on more than one occasion that a woman's hair was her 'crowning glory'. I understood the words and concept. But like most children, the deeper meaning sailed over my head.

I certainly didn't see that principle practiced at home. My mom experimented with many different hair styles when I was growing up. There was the home perm, the 'Dorothy Hamill', the pixie cut, the peroxide blonde, even one phase of wigs! None of which were anything I would put in the 'crowning glory' category. Not that her hair wasn't attractive - Mom always took great pains with her appearance. But when I thought of 'crowning glory', I guess I had more of a Rapunzel look in mind, and believe me, Mom never reminded me of Rapunzel. I believe it is the Pentecostal faith that disallows women from cutting their hair, not the Baptists. If indeed it was a Baptist tenet, Mom sinned mightily.

In my former day job as a tennis instructor, I have students of all different cultures and faiths. One of my Muslim students was eager to share about her faith and its various precepts. From her I learned how much a woman's hair is revered in their faith, and why after a certain age (when they 'become a woman'; i.e., get their period) they cover it up. Apparently the logic goes like this: when it is so long and luxurious, it is a tremendously attractive temptation to the males. Best cover it up rather than invite unwanted advances. Keep in mind she was about 10 at the time, so something may have been lost in the translation there. Apologies if this is incorrect.

I understand why long hair on women was perceived as desirable and attractive back in the day. With the origins of Christian and Muslim faiths in the Middle East where long, thick, wavy 'Princess Jasmine' hair runs strong in the gene pool, I bet Princess Jasmine hair was pretty common. If I had hair like that, I wouldn't cut it, either! But much has changed. Genetic diversity has resulted in diluting the Princess Jasmine gene. For every head of Princess Jasmine hair, there are many that are more Phyllis Diller or Bride of Frankenstein.  Leaping into the breach, technology in the entertainment industry has made fictional hair do things no natural hair could ever achieve. I love long hair when it looks like Cher's. But it's so rare anymore to see hair in a natural state that hasn't been colored or processed or flattened or curled or blown out and sprayed to within an inch of its likely very damaged split ends to achieve, however briefly, the cartoon ideal.

Actress Louise Brooks sporting her 'black helmet'

The Roaring Twenties ushered in an age of follicle liberation. Someone, somewhere decided all that long hair and tedious braiding and brushing and pinning just wasn't worth the trouble. That someone was a man: Monsieur Antoine, by some accounts the first celebrity hair stylist. The Czech-born Paris resident claimed he was inspired by Joan of Arc, who was in the process of being beatified about the time Antoine got his inspiration (early 1900s). Joan claimed to be inspired by no lesser style icon than God Himself to cut her hair into a 'pageboy', a style worn by many male knights of her era. Didn't work out so well for Joan, but nearly 500 years later there was a decidedly better outcome for women around the world when Antoine's stylings set off a short-wave tsunami.

Short hair styles for women have come a long way, but we've got a ways to go. For every chic trendsetting Twiggy, there are three extension-wearing pseudo celebrities. Short hair is often depicted as a tragedy or punishment in movies. One exception, ironically, is reality TV, where spiffy short 'dos are typically part of the winning formula in makeover shows featuring 'real' women. I'll feel better when we see a blockbuster with a strong, smart, female lead whose prospects improve AFTER she cuts her hair. Hey - there's an idea! Sorry - gotta go - there's a niche that needs filling!

The original version of this post was published in March 2014.