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.

Clover photo courtesy Irene Davila at Unsplash

I always felt a little bit of a sham celebrating St. Patrick's Day. Like a true Heinz 57 American, I assumed I had some Irish blood in me somewhere; I just didn't figure it would be more than a drop or two. We did the DNA test thing last year, and I was pleasantly surprised. I can't compete with my husband's 56% results, but 6% for me is about 5% more than I would've guessed. (How wrong I was about other aspects of my own DNA ancestry is fodder for another post.)  I should've guessed I had a little Irish in me based on how much I enjoy drinking beer.

It's 5% more than I thought I had 🙂

Beer is a pretty big deal in Ireland. This is not news. What was news to me, however, were the following little factoids I distilled from some Googling;

  • Beer has been brewed in Ireland for 5000 years or more. Hops doesn't grow well there, so early beers were barley-based ales. They were brewed locally by women known as alewives. Brewing was traditionally a female profession from ancient history until the Middle Ages.
  • Half the alcohol produced in Ireland is beer. This may be news for the whisky fans.
An aerial view of the Guinness distillery in Dublin
  • Stout used to be the leader but was overtaken by lager in the 1900s. Stout initially meant higher alcohol content. In the Irish stout world, Guinness is king, In 1756 Arthur Guinness secured a 9000 year lease on the brewery location at St. James Gate in Dublin. It is the largest brewer of stout in the world. It began brewing Irish dry stout, using roasted barley, to avoid paying the additional tax levied on malted barley.
  • Porter is a  dark colored beer resulting from roasting the malts, barley, and other ingredients. Guinness stopped making ale in 1799 to devote its attention to porter.
  • I'm not a fan of dark or heavy beers. My favorite Irish beer is Harp. Harp is a lager style, which means it is lighter in color. Lagers are cold processed which means the beer ferments at a lower temperature. Guinness developed the Harp brand in the 1960s.
  • Irish red ales Such as Killian's Irish Red get their reddish color from the caramel in the recipe. Ironically, Killian's is no longer available in Ireland. Coors bought the rights to the name in the 1980s.

And last but not least (did I bury the lede?):

  • Until the 1970s, pubs in Ireland were closed on St. Patrick's Day. Excessive revelry during Lent was frowned upon in the heavily Catholic country.

It's hard imagining a dry St. Patty's Day in Ireland! We often throw a party at our house, but this year we're headed downtown to celebrate with a bigger crowd. I'm hoping it's dry, but only meteorologically speaking. Drink responsibly!

Not being a country music fan, about all I know about Kitty Wells before listening to her obit on NPR is that she was a singer in that genre. What piqued my interest was that she was one of the first female singers to hit big.  Her first hit, 1952's "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels", was an answer song to country music superstar Hank Thompson's version of "Wild Side of Life". Apparently one of the song's writers had been dumped, and wrote "Wild Side" to vent about what a tramp his ex was. "Angels" rebutted, basically saying if she was a tramp, it was probably due to some no-good man treating her bad. (Pardon my grammar - I am trying to be authentic with the topic here.)

First things first: are you telling me NO women were popular singers until the 1950s???? That just seems strange to me. But if it says so on Wiki, it must be true. Apparently record labels were hesitant to record solo women, thinking they would only sell if they were in duets or backup singers. Kitty Wells changed all that. Although it was initially banned by NBC radio, the Grand Ole Opry and others for its adult theme, people couldn't get enough of "Angels". With it, Wells became the first woman to have a number one song on Billboard magazine's country chart.

Note Thompson's song with the similar theme was not banned.

Secondly: to be honest I think I was more intrigued by the concept of the "answer" song. Apparently it was a popular trend in country music of that era. It has popped up in other genres from time to time. I wonder if there are more answer songs out there than we realize?

I Heard It Through The Grapevine - Marvin Gaye
answer: Won't Get Fooled Again - The Who

I Want To Hold Your Hand - The Beatles
answer: Born To Run - Bruce Springsteen

Ain't Too Proud To Beg - Temptations
answer: Let's Get It On - Marvin Gaye

Let's Stay Together - Al Green
answer: Beat It - Michael Jackson

Welcome To The Jungle - Guns n Roses
answer: I Will Survive - Gloria Gaynor

Like A Virgin - Madonna
answer: Losing My Religion - REM

How Will I Know - Whitney Houston

I'm a sucker for a good singer-songwriter

answer: You Oughtta Know - Alanis Morissette

Yes, I am just having a little fun with titles. The true answer songs are 100% devoted to answering the original, beginning to bridge to chorus to end. Some answer songs are lame, simply turning a few of the original song's lyrics around to reflect an opposite viewpoint. Others are fully formed and could stand on their own. My favorite example of this is Lynyrd Skynyrd's angry, indignant "Sweet Home Alabama" in answer to Neil Young's "Southern Man". Extra points awarded when the performer is also the songwriter. Somehow this gives more authenticity to the 'answer'. It's not unusual for singers to perform songs written by others. In fact, it is the norm. But after all the hype about Ms. Wells' groundbreaking offering with "Angels", it was a letdown to learn she had not written the lyrics and was just called in to sing that day as part of her recording contract. Who even knows if she actually identified with the lyrics, and was striking a musical blow for women's rights? Unfortunately it is more likely she just came in to the studio, sang the song, collected her paycheck, and went home.

Whatever the circumstances, thanks, Ms. Wells et. al., for giving female performers a jump-start in 1952 and also to the writer of 'Wild Side', without which we would have had no need for an 'answer' song. Who knows how long it would have taken otherwise?

The original version of this post first appeared in July 2012.

Mother Nature dropped a bitterly cold nastygram on our doorsteps this week. While I abhor cold weather in all its guises, I admit I am crushing on the meteorological moniker sometimes bestowed upon these events: 'polar vortex'.

A NASA image of a past polar vortex. Image source here.

Polar Vortex.

Polar. VORtex.

I find myself swishing it around in my mind as well as my mouth, enjoying the feel of it as that V and that X come tantalizingly close to colliding, were it not for the abrupt intervention of R and T. I really don't care what it means (although I did Google - NERD). It's one of those great phrases I will be tossing around for as long as I can get away with it. Somebody please name a car and a lipstick and a Ben & Jerry's flavor after this thing ASAP. Marketing gold, I'm tellin' ya.

Which of course got me thinking about other phrases I enjoy saying, hearing, thinking, regardless of what they mean. In my favorites, the words just sound great together. Much like a fine wine, the individual components intertwine in a way that guarantees satisfaction. It's all about the perfect pairing of consonants with syllable count. Too many vowels, and you come off wheezy and ineffective. Too many syllables, and it's clunky and unpronounceable. And don't forget about a touch of emphasis at the proper time. In the above example, it must be the VOR; not the PO, not the LAR and certainly not the TEX.

Here are a few more of my favorites. Check out those consonants!

Battlestar Galactica - it's all about the 'ac', a little about the added 'a'. Battlestar Galactic would be fairly cool, but that extra 'a' is the cherry on top.

Big Bang - short and sweet, yet explains a complex astronomical phenomenon even a four-year-old can understand. And you can't ignore the sexual overtones here. Apologies to all the four-year-olds.

Event Horizon - maybe due to the perfectly wretched eponymous movie, but a shiver runs down my spine whenever I hear this phrase. It says Ruh Roh! in the classiest possible way.

Superconducting Super Collider - all those S's slamming around, describing something so smashing, one 'super' doesn't do the job!

Boom Stick - Originally intended for baseball bats, but I hijacked it for my tennis racquet. At my age this is a bit of a stretch to describe my game, but it amuses me, so it stays.

Seeing a pattern here. The science community must have a heckuva marketing linguist stashed away somewhere!

There is some science behind my amateur analysis of what makes words 'sound' good together. Turns out most people prefer words with a good balance of vowels and consonants. Words containing letters that make more noise ('plosive' to you linguists out there) attract more attention - the backfiring cars of phonetics. And as in most things, sexism also rears its ugly head. Some letters are perceived as masculine; others feminine. There is some overlap between the noisy letters and the masculine letters, as anyone who has raised boys could have predicted.

The cold is already receding from  my part of the country. I won't miss it, but I will miss hearing and reading about the Polar Vortex throughout the day. I know I can count on the wordsmiths to come up with a few more delightful word pairings to get us through the winter. A pity we also have deal with the not-so-delightful weather they accompany.

 

This post originally appeared in January 2014.

Cliff 'Red' Jones
My dad, Clifford 'Red' Jones, pitching for the Alpine Cowboys ca 1956

Soon we will be rescued from two months of ho-hum televised sports viewing with opening of the baseball season. Huzzah!

I know, I know, baseball has an image problem. The fan base is shrinking. Many consider it boring. You know what? I don't care. I feel the same way about certain sports, so, non-baseball fans, I share your pain. You watch your stupid boring sport, and I'll watch something worth watching. How anyone who watched the final game of the 2016 World Series thinks baseball is boring is beyond me. But I digress.

Okay, full disclosure: I have powerful, sentimental motivation to follow a sport that admittedly can be a bit of a slog if you're not familiar with the game. My dad was a multi-sport athlete in high school and earned a baseball scholarship to Sul Ross University in Alpine, Texas (my birthplace). Alpine is out in the far west mountainous triangle-shaped frontier of Texas. Back then it was just a wide spot on the road. but it was a real baseball hotspot due to the obsession of wealthy rancher Herbert Kokernot. Dad played for Mr. Kokernot's Alpine Cowboys until he was signed by the Milwaukee Braves in 1956. He pitched for the Braves in their farm system for a few years before realizing the baseball biz wasn't likely to support his growing family. Oh, how times have changed.

Opening Day always opens the memory floodgates of our family baseball lore. There's the tawdry yet amusing shenanigans of baseball wives (told by my mom - about other wives, natch - Dad claims no knowledge of any such goings on). Mom does wish we'd quit telling about the time she dashed out of her seat to dodge an incoming foul ball tip, leaving me behind, an innocent, gormless infant,  blissfully unaware of the 70 mph cowhide-wrapped bullet of death about to rain down on my head. Handy tip: foul tips are possibly the lone disadvantage of players' wives getting those great seats behind the home dugout.

I'm thrilled to be able to show you the hilarious grainy video of the players milking cows on the mound as a publicity stunt. Luckily for my dad, he was a country boy born and raised. He knew his way around a set of udders just as well as he did a baseball diamond.

I am able to share with you an example of the requisite yellowed newspaper clippings like the one here, bragging up my dad as 'the big righthander' and 'fireballer' and the pitcher of not one but TWO shutouts in post-season play as a highschooler. Ain't no thang. Just two shutouts. In two appearances. Probably in the same week. Yawn.

This is why, at the Jones household, we understand why the baseball pitcher's arm is considered the most valuable body part in professional sports. This is why the Rangers' devastating loss to the Cardinals in the sixth game of the 2011 World Series still gets me a little choked up (we will not speak of this *sniff*). And this is why I'm so freakin' pumped for baseball season to start. Got the hat. Got the shirt. Got the remote. Let the games begin.

Dad and I paying homage to another Brave Eau Claire WI 1999

A version of this article first appeared in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.

While browsing the news one day when we still lived in Minnesota,  I read about a woman called Ann Bilansky. Ann has the dubious distinction of being the first white person and first (and last) woman executed after Minnesota became a state. She was hanged in 1860 after being convicted of the poisoning death of her husband.

This news nugget made me wonder about other women who have been executed for their crimes. There aren't that many, thank goodness! But there are more than fifty that have met that fate from colonial days to the present. A small percentage compared to five figures' worth of men executed, but still, fifty is a lot.

Of these, half a dozen were considered serial killers; most in the modern era. Several were killed during the Salem Witch Trial era. A disturbing number were convicted of murder by poison, usually arsenic. I suppose it's true what they say: poison is a woman's weapon (unless you run Russia or North Korea).

Fellow writers, if you're looking for story ideas, look no further. There are some real doozies. And as they say, truth is stranger than fiction.

Some notorious female criminals are familiar to many of us.

  • The movie Monster starring Charlize Theron was based on the life of serial killer Ailene Wuornos, who was executed by lethal injection in 2002.
  • Ethel Rosenburg and her husband Julius got the chair in 1953 after being convicted of espionage (selling nuclear secrets to the Russians).
  • Mary Surratt was hung in 1865 for her role in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

And then there are the less well-known. As you can imagine, there are some fascinating stories lurking in the background. Consider:

  • Martha Beck, who got the chair at Sing Sing in 1951. She was one half of the infamous Lonely Hearts Killers duo. Trust me, folks, this is one of the rare occasions I did NOT enjoy the research process. Lawd. I think the entire series of Law & Order SVU is some iteration of their sordid tale.
  • Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh was executed in 1846 for poisoning her husband. She was hanged while sitting in her rocking chair, as she was tremendously overweight and the executioners wanted to avoid botching it.
  • Two unfortunates who did not avoid botching: Roxana Druse, whose botched hanging in 1887 resulted in a slow, agonizing death by strangulation; and Eva Dugan, who was decapitated during her hanging in 1930. Both fiascos resulted in a change in methods of execution in the respective states (Arizona and New York). 
  • Josefa "Chipita" Rodriguez was hanged in Texas in 1863. She said little during her trial for murder during the commission of a robbery. It's thought she was covering for her son.  Her last words were something to the effect of 'I'm not guilty'.  Rumors abound that moans were reported coming from her coffin. Her ghost is said to haunt the town of San Patricio, where she died.
  • Hannah Ocuish is the youngest known legally executed person in American history. She was 12 when hanged in 1786; her victim was 6. Hanna beat her friend to death for ratting on her over some stolen strawberries.
  • Lavinia Fisher was hanged in 1820, convicted of crimes perpetrated on guests at an inn she and her husband owned in Charleston, South Carolina. There are some wild rumors about their exploits. My favorite is that like one of the female villains in the James Bond lexicon, Lavinia killed by crushing her victims' heads between her legs.

    Lavinia Fisher

Presently there are fifty or so women sitting on death row somewhere. They may not all face execution. Some may escape, a la The Shawshank Redemption. Some may escape legally by having their convictions overturned. Some may avoid the chair or the needle if the capital punishment laws in their area change. Some may not outlive their sentence. One thing's for sure: that extra X chromosome is not much protection if you do the crime.

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

Ellis County Courthouse, Waxahachie, TX. Good luck pronouncing that correctly.

Back home now from a recent visit to Texas. The destination was nothing new - I grew up in Dallas. But traveling is always instructive if you pay attention. Some things I learned during my latest sojourn:

General travel stuff

  • The flight you are early for always leaves late.
  • The chances of your flight leaving on time (or even early! yes, it does happen! which is how I ended up spending the night at a Holiday Inn on Delta's dime recently) is directly proportional to how late you are running. Very late = very likely.
  • Checking a bag at the gate is the greatest idea since pop-top beer cans, especially if you don't have to worry about making connections.
  • Getting stranded overnight is fairly painless if the hotel is free and you haven't checked your bag.
  • The people whose airport jobs entail a lot of sitting on stools seem to be the ones most eager to take their breaks.
  • Taking off is fun every time.
  • Airplane wheels thumping back into the undercarriage is scary every time.
  • Handbags are useless for travel unless they can be carried over a shoulder.
  • If your travels take you through the Atlanta airport, wear comfortable shoes.
  • If you have less than a one hour layover through ATL, you will not make your connection.
  • Always let the ladies in heels go ahead of you on the airport escalators, bless their hearts.
  • Stepping onto a Down escalator with a heavy carry-on in one hand and a purse in the other, while wearing bifocals, is the closest I'll ever get to competing on American Ninja Warrior.
  • Having a family of readers who love to pass their books along is great, but makes for a heavy carry-on. Ebooks, people!
  • If I'm going to continue carrying this many real books in my carry-on, I need to get in better shape or get a carry-on size bag with wheels.
  • If you don't think losing 5 pounds will make much difference, try getting from ATL terminal T to D with a 20 lb. carry-on. Now I know why the pioneers dumped their heavy stuff all up and down the Oregon Trail.
  • What is with the creepy billboards at ATL? One was a slightly menacing message from a cyber security outfit. Another advertised software to 'influence' customer decisions. Big Brother, anyone?

Texas Stuff

  • Every time I go to Texas, I discover a new favorite beer.
  • Believe it or not, there is such a thing as too much Tex Mex.
  • Believe it or not, there is such a thing as too much chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and cream gravy.
  • Dallas has been overrun with donut shops. Add them to the list of taco stands, nail salons, and Walgreen's/CVS - there's one on every corner.
  • There is a heavy price to be paid for eating one's way through Texas (see what I did there?). The only thing that saved me this time: I don't like donuts.

Random Stuff

  • You get very little writing done until you put your cell phone away. Sadly, ditto for books.
  • Spanx are always a good idea. Always pack the Spanx just in case.
  • Dreds are the hair version of Hoarders.
  • Possums are way cuter as babies.
  • If NSA is creeping all of us online, how about hacking into Ancestry.com and 23andme family tree DNA data? Possibly solve some cold cases in the process, amirite?
  • When making your own window screens, aluminum window screen is to be avoided at all costs. Go with the fabric screen instead. 2 hours per screen vs 20 minutes. Hey - I said it was random!

This post originally appeared in June 2014.

My latest book, The Dala Horse, is set in post-Civil War Texas. As I was researching that era, I came across an amusing compilation of recipes for coffee substitutes. The Union/Yankees/Northerners included the port of Galveston as part of their naval blockade to cut off supplies to the South. Many items, not just coffee, were unavailable for years.

The blockade was called the 'Anaconda Plan' because it was supposed to squeeze the life out of the South. The 'Scott' referenced on the map was General Winfield Scott, U.S. Army. At 6'-5" and 300 pounds, when people say he was the inspiration for the term 'Great Scott!', I believe it.

Newspapers went kaput because newsprint was no longer available. Although many folks were used to making their own clothing at that time, they had the additional fun of having to make their own fabric during the war as well, since bolts of woven fabrics were scarce. But of all the things on hiatus in the South during and for a time after the Civil War, coffee was the most missed and most celebrated upon its return.

When contemplating this post I was sorely tempted to try out some of these substitutions and report on how they tasted compared to the real thing. There's just one problem: I don't drink coffee, mainly because I don't like coffee. I don't think I could have rendered a fair opinion. Roasted lug nuts would have probably tasted as good or better than actual coffee to me.

Then, as now, coffee was grown mostly in tropical hemispheres and imported for our consumption. So getting a crate of coffee beans delivered from Sao Paolo to San Antonio wasn't gonna happen with Great Scott's Anaconda snappishly guarding the door. But lots of other things grew wild and rampantly in the warm American South and were quickly pressed into service. Anything that could be roasted, ground, and brewed with hot water, was. Everything from corn meal to beets, rye, asparagus (seeds, not spears - mercy, no!), acorns, chicory, turnips, barley, parsnips, wheat, field peas, okra seeds, sweet potatoes, popcorn, cotton seeds, and tree bark was put forth. I kid you not. Tree. Bark. I will quote the actual 'receipt', as they were wont to say for 'recipe' back then, lest you not believe me:

"Take tan bark, three parts; three old cigar stumps and a quart of water, mix well, and boil fifteen minutes in a dirty coffee pot."
Arkansas True Democrat, October 17, 1861

And you thought Starbucks had exhausted all possible coffee iterations. If this really was a thing, it goes a long way toward explaining coffee drinker halitosis.

Every substitute suggested was strongly backed by the person suggesting it, claiming it was as good or better than the real thing. This is utter nonsense, of course (except maybe for the chicory, which I understand is still popular as a coffee ingredient in certain parts of the south). People couldn't wait to get their coffee beans back in the pot after the war. I wish the acorn recipe had panned out. I would be sitting on an acorn coffee goldmine thanks to the massive and prolific jack oak tree in my front yard. Instead, I'm forced to rely on the local squirrel population to remove them from underfoot, bless their hearts. If they can learn to operate a wheelbarrow, they can use mine, no charge.

There have been many other instances food shortages since the 'unpleasantness' between the North and the South. Many items, including sugar and dairy products, were rationed during World War II. But this was before my time. More recent supply chain interruptions have not been war-related, thank goodness. We had the 2015 Blue Bell listeria scare. And the Cheesepocalypse (the 2014 rumors of a Velveeta shortage). And the temporary Twinkie extinction of 2013. All three products are restored or soon will be, and their consumers are ecstatic - even though their waistlines won't be. (Is anyone else worried that the most recent shortages have occurred not in an effort to conserve resources for a nobler effort, but because of faulty business or manufacturing models of over-processed, unhealthy junk food we shouldn't be eating anyway?)

That's not to say current generations haven't experienced sacrifice. They've come up with a way to inflict one upon themselves. It's called a 'diet'. Just talk to anyone who has voluntarily given up meat or pasta or sugar. Their behavior is eerily similar to the pioneers who longed for their coffee beans. Here's the modern version of the Five Stages Of Deprivation:

1) Reminiscing - stories of how things used to be 'before', when their metabolism was fully functioning or before they learned more than they wanted to know about the processed food industry.
2) Self-pity - The sad little tear quickly wiped away after fruitlessly perusing a menu at a chic new bistro for something they are willing to eat, and having to settle for a side salad.
3) Ingenuity - The bizarre formulations concocted in a desperate attempt at approximating the missing item. Google 'gluten-free brownie recipe'.
4) False Confidence - The insistence that their substitute food of choice is just as tasty as the original. For the best example of this, sit next to your vegan cousin next Thanksgiving.
5) Ecstasy - The rapturous expression at the inevitable slip when they allow themselves a nibble of the forbidden item.

I wish it weren't so, but I've learned these things from sad experience. Our coffee supply is fine. But the ice cream - well, that's another story. Here at my house, we're somewhere between Self-Pity and Ecstasy. At long last, the first Blue Bell delivery in months finally arrived at our local grocery store. But it's so dang expensive, we wait for it to go on sale. They better hurry. We're starting to run out of tree bark and cigar stumps.

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