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It is one of life’s delightful conundrums that the most fundamental human truths are often found in unexpected places. Take, for instance, the pumpkin patch. At first glance, there is not much to learn from fields of curling vines and trampled squash. But in bucolic settings across the country each fall, the humble gourd reminds us that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.

One of my little pumpkins with his little pumpkin

We usually get our holiday pumpkins out of the big cardboard bins near the front entrance of the local grocery store. This can be a time saver but is nowhere near as much fun as the pumpkin patch. For one thing, I find it very hard on the shoulders and back to rearrange a half-ton of loose pumpkins so that my children can inspect each and every one. “Just pick one!” I implore, but they insist they are looking for “the perfect pumpkin”. So I upend myself into the bin, legs flailing in the air like grasshopper antennae. I hoist gourds from one side of the bin to the other. Inevitably I cause a pumpkin avalanche and have to start over. How this usually ends up is I get tired of the whole thing and repeat, “Just pick one!”, the italics evident in my tone, and we go home with pumpkins that are almost perfect, but not quite.

Thanks to having out of town visitors one fall, we had an excuse to visit an authentic pumpkin patch instead. The day of our visit could not have been a more perfect Minnesota fall day. The crisp clear air dictated a light jacket; the brilliant sunshine, dark glasses. At this particular patch, the pumpkins lay scattered over a couple of acres of gentle hills. Pumpkins of every size, shape, and color awaited our all-knowing selection process. They clamored for our attention – a fetching turn of orange rind here, a saucily curving stem there. This was not going to be easy. As I accompanied my daughter among the furrows, this is how it went.

How about this one?”

No, too small.”

This one?”

It’s flat on one side.”

This one?”

I don’t want one with any green on it.”

This one?”

No stem.”

How about this one?”

Yes. That one looks great. Wait – it’s rotten on the bottom.”

And we would start all over again.

Over there is one,” was our mantra. Over there, over there, our necks bent at the same angle as when we hunt for shells at the beach. The next time we looked up from our search, we found ourselves on the far edge of the patch, led astray like Cortes searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola. At last, at last, we found The Perfect Pumpkin. It was of medium size with a goodly stem, strong enough and long enough to use as a handle. It was uniformly, yes, perfectly, round , that perfect pumpkin orange in color. Feeling pretty proud of ourselves, we cruelly detached it from its life-giving vine and retraced our steps to the entrance of the patch. We had not traveled five steps before my daughter spied another Perfect Pumpkin. This one was dark green with lighter green stripes, more tall than round and about the size of a small coffee can. So much for the 'no green ones' rule. Snap! went the vine and we added it to our small collection.

Back up the hill we went to pay for our treasures. We passed a young mother struggling to turn a stroller around on the uneven ground. Two very large (and slightly imperfect) pumpkins occupied the front and back seats; its intended occupants were nowhere in sight. We stepped aside to get out of the way of another pumpkin patch customer. She had large, space-age combination wagon-wheelbarrow contraption full to overflowing with at least a hundred pounds of pumpkin aboard. Definitely not perfect pumpkins, but to some people, size matters.

A young fellow of three or four years was in the process of educating his father in the pumpkin selection process. “Do you like this one?” the father asked, pointing to a traditional-looking specimen. “No, Dad,” was the reply. “I like the green ones.”

Behind the checkout counter, pumpkins lined a table awaiting the Pumpkin Shuttle. The Pumpkin Shuttle relieves one of the task of hauling one’s pumpkins over hill and dale, from the patch all the way back to the parking lot. I marveled at the variety awaiting the Shuttle. You could make the argument that the table should be filled with Perfect Pumpkins because of course all of the Imperfect Pumpkins would be left behind in the fields. You might imagine all of the pumpkins on the table would be of about equal size, shape, and color in order to meet the universal criteria of ‘perfect’. But of course, this was not the case. These pumpkins were a jumble - tall, oval, short, squatty, orange, yellowish, green, combinations of all colors, streaks, lines, stems, no stems. There was a Perfect Pumpkin there for every person who was at the patch that day. And of course, everyone was certain THEY had selected the Perfect Pumpkin, leaving the rest of us to settle for less. But I smiled at my daughter in smug satisfaction. We both knew the Perfect Pumpkins were going home with us.

The original version of this post first appeared in August 2011.

As a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan, I was once watching them play the Detroit Lions. A win meant advancement to the playoffs. A loss meant the end of the season. It was a sloppy mess of a game for Da Boys. In the closing minutes, the Cowboys were ahead 24-20, but the Lions were driving. Defender DeMarcus Lawrence recovered a fumble.

If he had simply fallen on the ball, end of game - the Cowboys would have taken possession, taken a few knees to run out the clock, and headed to the post season. But Lawrence didn't fall on the ball. In his excitement, he tried to run the ball into the end zone a mere 20 yards away and seal the deal with six more points. Unfortunately, he was stripped of the ball and the Lions recovered.

Let's take a moment and consider this carefully. A rookie defender has the game literally in his hands, and fumbles it away with a rookie mistake. I suppose that's why they call it that.

No doubt Lions fans across the nation roared with glee at this moronic mistake. They had the ball back with plenty of time to score. They had a quarterback with a strong arm and perhaps a stronger will to win. By some miracle, they dodged the fumble bullet and had another chance.

But something crazy happened. DeMarcus Lawrence also got another chance. DeMarcus Lawrence also roared. Eight plays later, he stormed across the scrimmage line, sacked the quarterback, forced AND recovered a fumble. This time, he fell on it like all good little defenders should. Game. Over.

I couldn't believe it. True confession: I screamed like a girl. It was the talk of sports radio for days afterward, and good reason. It got me thinking: how often does a chance at redemption happen, with a positive outcome? I mean, every time any of us makes a mistake, our fondest wish is for a do-over. But do-overs are so rare. So I Googled. Nothing beats a great redemption story.

Browns def. Jets 23-20 1987 Division Semifinals

It took them two overtimes to do it, but the Browns cashed in all their redemption cards in this one. Quarterback Bernie Kosar had two interceptions to make up for. The offense wasted a chance at a game-winning touchdown due to excessive celebration after a pass reception that had put them within field goal range, and had to settle for said field goal. Kicker Mark Mosely won the game with a field goal in the second overtime, but he had missed three of five earlier attempts, including an easy 23-yarder in the first overtime period. The Browns had no redemption in the conference championship the following week, losing to the Denver Broncos in overtime 23-20.

Giants def. Cardinals 5-4 Game 3 of 2014 National League Championship Series

Outfielder Juan Perez tried twice and failed twice to sacrifice bunt off St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Randy Choate with one man on base in the 10th inning. Giants management basically said, 'forget the bunt - he's struggling' and dropped the bunt signal. Perez must have been very thankful. A few pitches later, Perez singled to advance the runner and of course get himself on base. The batter following Perez was able to bunt successfully, resulting in the game winning run. The Giants went on to win the NLCS 4-1 and the World Series 4-3 over the Kansas City Royals.

2012 Adventure Racing World Championships

That's Mr. Fa'avae on the far right

Okay, I admit I had to Google and Wiki on this one - never heard of 'adventure racing'. Teams of four compete in multiple stages of biking, climbing, kayaking and other somewhat extreme sports. New Zealand's Team Seagate won in 2012. The win was sweet redemption for team member Nathan Fa'avae. The previous year, the team earned a four hour time penalty when Fa'avae had failed to keep track of - oh, the irony! - a tracking device, leaving it behind at one of the locations early in the competition. That four hours made the difference between a world championship and a third place finish. Needless to say, the fellow made no such oversights the following year.

David Ragan, 2011 NASCAR Coke Zero 400 Winner

Ragan won this event at Daytona International Speedway just months after a rules penalty robbed him of a victory at the more well-known Daytona 500 race. He changed lanes improperly after a re-start. In NASCAR, that's all she wrote.

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

Man, that's a lotta corn

I'm currently working on a YA trilogy one could describe as Dystopia Lite. It takes place in a society that relies heavily on processed food (see what I did there?). Non-processed foodstuffs are illegal and are classified as controlled substances. It's an adventure/quest/conspiracy tale, very tongue-in-cheek, and I'm having a ball writing it.

Researching it has also been very enjoyable. Lord knows there's plenty of material out there. One of the most intriguing research threads has been about what I think of as The Rise of the Agricultural Machine, and why a huge percentage of what we consume, either to eat or to use, is made of corn or a corn product. But I digress.

The term 'organic' as it refers to food emerged in the counterculture era of the 1960s. It had been used earlier to encompass a feeling of more general opposition to the changes technology rained down on society during the Industrial Revolution in the early twentieth century.

Early Rodale publication

Health food guru J. I. Rodale was more directly responsible for using the word organic related to food cultivation. If you're familiar with the magazine Prevention, the surname Rodale may ring a bell with you.  He championed the growth and consumption of what we now think of as organic food all the way back in the 1940s. Twenty years later, his teachings caught on with the hippies. Flower children co-opted the term and the philosophy, combining it with what they were trying to achieve living in communes. Today we would call that living off the grid. Theirs was a sort of back-to-nature movement with the additional goal of sticking it to the military-industrial complex.

One of the things I love about writing fiction is that while doing the research, I inevitably turn up stuff from real life that is way crazier than anything I could ever make up. For example: the notion that organic food was considered by some as something to be avoided in the 1960s and 1970s, like we avoid letting our mouths touch the spout on a water fountain. Big government and scientists in the pocket of

The bounty available at the Dallas Farmers Market

Big Ag were very concerned that this new movement would erode their efforts in maximizing the industrialization of agriculture. They had spent a lot of money and scratched a lot of backs in Washington, D. C. to restructure government aid to farmers and reinvigorate foreign trade in commodities (mainly corn). They didn't want any disruptions and were probably mindful of the antiwar protests that had rattled the government bureaucracy and ended the Vietnam War. So they discredited the organic movement at every opportunity:

- In 1974 a kangaroo court of food 'experts' convened a panel on 'The Food Supply and the Organic Food Myth', branding the movement as 'dangerous nonsense'.

- Quoting from Michael J. Pollan's most excellent book The Omnivore's Dilemma:

"Henry J. Heinz, Jr. branded the organic movement 'food faddism', and he wrote that its advocates 'are persuading thousands to adopt foolish and costly eating habits'."

- and from the equally excellent Eat Your Heart Out by Jim Hightower, written contemporaneously (1975):

"Agriculture Secretary [Earl] Butz . . . became almost wild-eyed in his assertion that the specter of organic food production promises starvation for 50 million Americans."

Why all the panties in a twist over a micro movement that had little or no impact on the bottom line of the 1970s era food business? Because billions were being spent on marketing as well as production. Butz's Machiavellian machinations were restructuring farm subsidies as part of a grander scheme to change the way the agriculture sector worked. This new strategy depended on farmers flooding the supply of food to get the price to consumers down to absolute minimum. And BTW the consumers they were trying to please weren't you and me - they were mega corporations like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland.  The food biz was very mindful of the effects of the Vietnam War protests and how powerful the voting public could be if properly motivated. They didn't want a repeat wrecking the demand side if the organic food movement managed to generate a 'mistrust' of the food supply.

by Sidney Harris as seen in Eat Your Heart Out by Jim Hightower

It is a great comfort to me, reading Hightower's book with forty years of perspective, that the organic movement has survived and indeed thrived since that time. There haven't been any food sit-ins or demonstrations or protests that I'm aware of. But people are voting with their pocketbook, and it's having an effect. Organic food still needs to overcome the stigma of being too pricey, too hipster-buying-kale. But the big food companies are taking pains to offer choices that appear to be healthier. Food co-ops and community gardens and farmer's markets are all the rage.  If you're not sure that's true, take a look at the financials for Whole Foods, Earth Fare, and Trader Joe's. The wheel is turning slowly, but it is turning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so the pendulum swings the other way

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

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

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

"Chief Tuscumbia Greets the Dickson Family" Jack McMillen

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

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

"Themes of the National Parks" David McCosh

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

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

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

"Peach Orchard" Irving A. Block

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

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

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

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

Vaudeville soft shoe dance act Doyle and Dixon

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

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

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

Vaudeville era magician Howard Thurston

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

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

Two of the experimental dance group Three Little Maids

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

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

All that alliteration leaves me tingly

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

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

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

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

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

Italian Explorer First European To New World!

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

English Settle North America, Pilgrim-Style

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

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

Who needs Instagram?

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

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

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

This post first appeared in February 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Originally published May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cyrillic monogrammy of the letter Y circa 1902

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

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

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

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

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

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

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