Cures for What Ails You

Posted February 24th, 2012 at 1:00 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

I’m old enough to remember, not fondly, mustard plasters applied to my chest during my childhood bouts with the “croup,” and Vicks Vapo-Rub spread beneath a warm humidifier to help keep my perpetually clogged sinuses clear.  So I was filled with a kind of warped nostalgia when someone gave me a little booklet at the Autauga County Heritage Association’s “Prattaugan” Museum in Prattville, Alabama, earlier this week.

More about those folks and Prattville next week.

A country doctor makes his rounds in Scott County, Missouri, in 1942.  (Library of Congress)

A country doctor makes his rounds in Scott County, Missouri, in 1942. (Library of Congress)

The booklet didn’t directly relate to Alabama.  But it was straight from early, rural America, and it brought back many mustard-plasterian memories.  (If they can say “Prattaugan,” I can say “plasterian.”)

The booklet, written by what appears to be some anonymous country doctor many years ago, is called “A Century of Home Remedies,” with the important footnote: “For Entertainment and Historical Value.”  I endured quite a few of these “remedies” myself.

If you’re under 50, you probably have no idea that we did some of those things to each other!.  And that’s just as well.

With apologies to VOA’s real health reporters, I’ll list some of the “cures” alphabetically, by the nature of the condition or complaint.

I don’t advise attempting any of these remedies at home!


Two TABLESPOONS of castor oil, boiled and then poured into a glass of orange juice or Dr Pepper (a non-medicinal American soft drink).  Take before breakfast!

Country potions for sale at a general store in Faulkner County, Arkansas, in 1940.  (Library of Congress)

Country potions for sale at a general store in Faulkner County, Arkansas, in 1940. (Library of Congress)

What a way to wake up!

“Repeat in 3 weeks, then again twice more within a year,” the instructions advise.  This is said to prevent arthritis, if you can ever get the foul taste of castor oil out of your mouth.


There are several options here.

“Use a mixture of soot from the chimney and lard or oil.  Right.  A big glop of oily soot is going to help an open cut!

“Place a spider web across the wound. [No doubt being careful to check that the spider is not in residence.]

Cut your finger.  Here's the cure!  First, extract inhabitant.  (gradders52, Flickr Creative Commons)

Cut your finger. Here's the cure! First, extract inhabitant. (gradders52, Flickr Creative Commons)

This is an actual remedy, and so are the rest the ones I’m telling you about.

“If cut is small, wet a cigarette paper and place over the cut.”

Since everybody smoked back then, the third option was handier than, say, the nearest spider web.


“Take a wasp nest, make a paste by mixing water and put on a boil to bring to a head.”  Doesn’t this REALLY irritate the wasps and lead to other problems?


Pay close attention, ladies: “Place an old pair of shoes upside down under your bed.”  Works every time, and best if you have big feet.


An all-purpose ingredient in many country remedies.  (AndyRobertsPhotos, Flickr Creative Commons)

An all-purpose ingredient in many country remedies. (AndyRobertsPhotos, Flickr Creative Commons)

Vinegar warmed and applied will remove it.  (Yes, those unsightly flakes are gone, but you reek of vinegar.)

This entry had a curious footnote:  “DON’T cut hair in the dark of the moon, or it will cause baldness.”

I’ve been most fortunate in that regard.  I don’t ever remember getting a haircut at night, no doubt explaining my full, if bone-white, head of hair.


“Dig up yellow-root, boil, and drink.”

But isn’t just about EVERY root yellow?  What if I pick one from a poison oak?


Here’s an example in which the cure for this painful colon condition sounds as bad as the ailment.

After each meal — each meal! — take a teaspoon of petroleum jelly.  That’s right.  SWALLOW some of the stuff you rub on burns and chapped baby bottoms.  The petroleum product forms little globs in the inflamed pouches (the “diverticula”) that have formed in your intestine, supposedly soothing the pain.

To get this stuff down “easy,” the remedy booklet advises, “take a small swallow of blackberry or concord wine.”

Recipe for a “Pick-Me-Up for the Elderly”

Here’s a real “country” concoction:

1 Tbsp powdered sugar

1 raw egg — dash of salt

1 Tbsp. brandy

The fellow in the headdress is selling patent medicine at a medicine show in Huntingdon, Tennessee, in 1935.  (Library of Congress)

The fellow in the headdress is selling patent medicine at a medicine show in Huntingdon, Tennessee, in 1935. (Library of Congress)

A “pick-me-up,” all right.  Why do you think those “patent medicines” you see being sold out of the backs of “medicine show” wagons in old movies were 60 to 90 percent alcohol?

Fish Bone Stuck in Throat

I am not making any of the following up.  Imagine, as you read it, that you’re choking for air or feeling intense pain from a sharp bone stuck halfway down your gullet.

“Eat cornbread; bone will disappear.  If bone becomes stuck in the throat, eat a lemon or part of one.  The lemon juice causes the bone to dissolve.  [I like lemon on fish.  Will that save me?]  Eat banana to help move the bone.”


“Bind wilted beet leaves on the forehead.”  The headache disappears, and so will your friends.

Leg Ache

“Rub leg in kerosene, eases the pain every time.”  Yes, but please refer to “treatment for burns” after you set the house on fire. Read the rest of this entry »

In ‘Class’ — at Home

Posted February 16th, 2012 at 2:23 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

This week, the Virginia General Assembly agreed to consider and later vote on a bill that would allow some students who had been barred from playing high-school sports to compete on the school teams.

These kids are not lawbreakers, academically inferior, or lousy athletes.  In fact, they’re among the best and brightest, and in some cases the most gifted on sports fields and playing courts.

They’re banned from participation because they don’t attend school at all.

In many states, there's no reason that one or more of these high-school athletes couldn't have spent the rest of his schoolday learning at home.  (JamieL.Williams, Flickr Creative Commons)

In many states, there's no reason that one or more of these high-school athletes couldn't have spent the rest of his schoolday learning at home. (JamieL.Williams, Flickr Creative Commons)

They are among what appears to be a fast-growing group of children and teens who are taught at home, usually by one or both of their parents.  And in exactly half of America’s states — 25 of them — such kids are permitted to study at home all day, then show up at the nearest high school and try out for its varsity baseball, football, basketball, or other sports squad.

Not only that, but in Virginia, especially, as well as a few other states, parents of homeschoolers have organized athletic teams — outside of any school — for their children.  There are even national-championship competitions for such teams in basketball, volleyball, soccer, baseball, and 8-man football.

It has been five years since the U.S. Department of Education attempted to count the number of homeschooled children. The total then — 1.5 million — was up 38 percent from a similar survey four years earlier.

Students being homeschooled make a "pasta bridge."  (qwrrty, Flickr Creative Commons)

Today, thanks in part to the widening influence of “evangelical” Christians and the ultra-conservative “Tea Party” political movement, both of which strongly support homeschooling, anecdotal evidence indicates that even more young people are studying at home.  At 17 or 18, they compete with graduates of public and private schools for admission to college.  There, some homeschooled students step into a classroom for the first time.

If you’re reading this on a school day, you can be sure that in hundreds of thousands of homes across America, a parent — most often the mother — is passing out books, executing carefully drawn lesson plans, and teaching children everything from algebra to zoology.

This can be costly to the family in today’s tight economy, since, to do this, one parent almost certainly must stay home rather than hold an outside, paying job.

Homeschooling is nothing new in America.  But it took hold as an organized movement in the 1980s among religious conservatives.  The homeschooling movement has since broadened to include parents of all faiths — or none at all.

They seized upon the work of educators Raymond and Dorothy Moore, who sparked the “Early Childhood Education” movement in the 1960s.  The Moores asserted that formal schooling actually harms children academically and socially, especially by stigmatizing slow learners as stupid and shunting them off into “special ed” or “vocational” classes.  Home economics, craft-oriented shop, that sort of thing.

Students of all intellectual levels thrive when given the love, encouragement, and extra attention of a parent who’s tailoring a course of study to meet their abilities, homeschoolers argue.

A teacher, Miss Holmes, watches over her flock in a Connecticut one-room schoolhouse in 1940.  (Library of Congress)

A teacher, Miss Holmes, watches over her flock in a Connecticut one-room schoolhouse in 1940. (Library of Congress)

In these households, it’s not unusual to find several children, ages 4-16, being taught together.  Older kids help teach younger ones, as they once did in America’s rural, one-room schoolhouses.  And today’s explosion of freely available, online research and educational tools makes the “home teacher’s” — and the homeschooled student’s — job easier.

In some communities, homeschoolers have formed cooperatives in which children from several households spend part of each day in neighborhood groups, learning from parents who have particular academic or professional backgrounds.  Historians, journalists, biologists, etc.

Parents who prefer to educate their children themselves point out that in a schoolroom, where a teacher often must instruct 30 or more students at a time, lessons roll along with little opportunity to stop and help those who are falling behind.  Homeschooling parents say their kids have a better chance of being independent thinkers and hard workers.

In nationwide surveys in 2003 and 2007, they told pollsters that five factors, in particular, motivated them to teach their children at home:

• They believe they give them a better education.

• They can incorporate religious training into learning.

• They feel their neighborhood school offers a poor learning environment.

• They have personal reasons. For example, the mother may be at home anyway, caring for an elderly parent.

• They say public school doesn’t develop their children’s character or morality.  To the contrary, in some cases.

Grandma and grandson watch another child, who's being homeschooled, draw.  (kellyhogaboom, Flickr Creative Commons)

Grandma and grandson watch another child, who's being homeschooled, draw. (kellyhogaboom, Flickr Creative Commons)

Critics of homeschooling argue that parents as their children’s teachers are often not trained or supervised, their standards can be low or haphazard, and that in some cases homeschooled children are browbeaten into learning.  Other critics object to what they call the “religious indoctrination” of children, which, they say, stunts their curiosity and free expression.  Still others worry that homeschooled children will become socially isolated and miss out on valuable school and social activities.

Homeschooling parents reply that their kids go to scout or church meetings, play sports, and shop at malls with friends, just like children who attend traditional classes.  And because their study schedules are flexible, activities can be more easily arranged any time of day or night.

They certainly can break away each afternoon to walk or get a lift to the nearest school to join in activities such as band practice and basketball and chess-club matches.

The main administration and classroom building at Patrick Henry College.  (Patrick McKay, Wikipedia Creative Commons)

The main administration and classroom building at Patrick Henry College. (Patrick McKay, Wikipedia Creative Commons)

About five years ago, I drove from VOA’s Washington, D.C., offices into the Virginia countryside to what’s sometimes called “horse country,” to visit a brand-new college: Patrick Henry [1]in Purcellville.  It’s a private, four-year Christian school with a twist.  A large number of its 400 or so students are homeschooled.

That was one of its reasons for being.  Its founding president — now chancellor — was Michael Farris, a constitutional-law expert who had also founded the Home School Legal Defense Association. [2] It has successfully advocated for court rulings and government policy changes that favor homeschooling.

Farris, who has been politically allied with fundamentalist Christian leaders such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, ran unsuccessfully for the Virginia lieutenant-governorship in 1993.  He and his wife, Vicki, have been teaching some — and at one time all — of their 10 children at home since 1982.

Farris told me that Patrick Henry, the revolutionary patriot,[3] orator, and statesman, was the perfect model for a college that eagerly welcomed homeschooled students.

The patriot Patrick Henry, famous for a speech in which he said, "Give me liberty or give me death."  (Colonial Williamsburg)

Patrick Henry was a Virginian.  He was homeschooled. He learned his trade by a lot of hands-on activity. He didn’t go to college or law school.  He was mentored.  And he was a strong Christian. The college is in Virginia.  We have a homeschool emphasis.  It’s a Christian college, and we love liberty, and so it was a perfect opportunity to name a college after him.

When Farris and others decided to start a college in little Purcellville, support poured in from the Christian homeschooling community.  All but two of Patrick Henry’s first 90 students were taught at home.

Many homeschoolers have been suspicious of the federal government, especially when it imposes specific testing standards for students.  So Patrick Henry College accepts no federal aid.  Private donors contributed more than $5 million to get the college started.

On that visit to horse country, I met Matthew Douglas of Templeton, California, then 18 years old, who, along with his sister, was educated at home by his father, an air-conditioning and refrigeration repairman, and by their homemaker mom. Read the rest of this entry »

Depression Ethic

Posted February 10th, 2012 at 7:28 pm (UTC-4)

I’m a Tweener.  Not an 11- or 12-year-old between childhood and teenage years, certainly, but a child of what’s been called “The Smallest Generation,” born during World War II between the Depression-era “Greatest Generation” and the postwar “Baby Boomer” generation.

We war-baby Tweeners would have had to be pretty precocious to know about the war that was raging while we were in diapers, of course, and by the time Boomers were rebelling their fool heads off during the protest years of the 1960s and getting stoned in the ’70s, many of us were a little old for that.  Not that we didn’t like the music.

An orchard choked to death by dust.  (Library of Congress)

An orchard choked to death by dust. (Library of Congress)

But our parents drummed in the hard lessons they took out of the Great Depression of the 1930s, when joblessness, bread lines, unrelenting dust storms, and labor strife were a grim reality . . . a reality that I am showing you in the photographs on this posting.

Now, in the 2010s, after many Americans spent decades fixated on gadgets and comforts and excesses, some of their admonitions about frugality are circling back around again.


The story of the daunting Depression was told in books and films such as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  And the haggard faces of those times were unforgettably captured by Depression-era photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.  Children’s grimy visages were among them, and young and old alike never forgot what poverty and hunger and loss of homes and dignity felt like.

Boys in a migrant camp.  (Library of Congress)

Boys in a migrant camp. (Library of Congress)

“My children need three square meals a day,” Woody Guthrie sang as tens of thousands of families in Plains “Dust Bowl” states were forced to leave their homes to become refugees.  “Now my children need three square meals a day/ My children need three square meals a day, Lord/ And I ain’t-a gonna be treated this-a way.”

The economic depression that swept the world after the collapse of the U.S. stock market in 1929 threw millions out of work, spreading hunger, homelessness, and some hopelessness until the economy rebounded in the early 1940s as the United States joined World War II.

In Children of the Depression, a book about youngsters who lived through these times, the faces of city kids, country kids; white, black, brown and red kids; babies and teenagers, and shy boys and girls, peer at readers in stark black-and-white images.

Hillary Mac Austin and Kathleen Thompson's moving book.  (Indiana University Press)

Hillary Mac Austin and Kathleen Thompson's moving book. (Indiana University Press)

According to Hilary Mac Austin, who, along with Kathleen Thompson, edited Children of the Depression, these images by Farm Security Administration photographers Lange, Evans, and others were a blatant propaganda effort by President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration:

They needed to convince a public that they should care about people that they don’t know, people in different regions from where they lived.

And so they sent these photographers out to basically record the lives and the changes that the government was making in those lives, in order to convince the American people to continue to support the [social programs of the] “New Deal.”

The photographers’ lenses captured the fear, hardship, and desperation in the faces of some of the children and their parents.

Kathleen Thompson pointed to one photograph that shows a filthy, barefoot little girl, five or six years old, huddling in the corner of a day laborer’s tent home in rural Oklahoma. Two bony chickens peck at her feet.

A Depression breadline in Brooklyn, New York.  (Library of Congress)

A Depression breadline in Brooklyn, New York. (Library of Congress)

“People were really poor in Oklahoma,” she told me.  “And that child was a child of a family that wasn’t making it.  We don’t know whether they ended up leaving Oklahoma and going to California or not.  Certainly thousands and thousands of children like her did go.

“And a lot of them died as their parents went to try to find work.”

“They used to tell me I was building a dream,” Rudy Vallee sang during those hard times.  “With peace and glory ahead/ Why should I be standing in line/ Just waiting for bread?”

A family dinner after a day of chopping cotton. (Library of Congress)

A family dinner after a day of chopping cotton. (Library of Congress)

And Vallee sang this, too:

“Say, don’t you remember?  I’m your pal/ “Buddy, can you spare a dime?”

A couple of years ago, I wrote in this space about my visit to a Depression-era refugee camp called “Weedpatch” in Northern California.  There isn’t much of it left, but every year some of its survivors, including Earl Shelton, go back to reminisce.

“Hard times was why we left.  My dad and grandpa had 12 acres [5 hectares] of cotton,” he told me.  “And there was no cotton.  There was leaves and stuff on the stalks.  Dad would hunt during the night.  Well, then, he would bring home maybe three or four skunks.  And he’d get ten cents a hide for preparing those hides for the market. The shed where he hung ’em, it stunk.”

“I wouldn’t want to skin a skunk, myself,” I told him.

“Well,” he replied, “you would if you had nothin’ to eat.”

When I was a boy — a somewhat sickly one who turned into a generally healthy adult — I spent many a week at home in bed.  One of my only diversions while my mother was across Cleveland, teaching in elementary school, was listening to her old — I say old, but they weren’t so old then — 78-rpm phonograph records.  One song, more than any other, has popped into my head from time to time ever since.

A shacktown child from Oklahoma.  She looks a lot like my middle daughter, Juliette, at her age.  Julie, though, was better fed.  (Library of Congress)

A shacktown child from Oklahoma. She looks a lot like my middle daughter, Juliette, at her age. Julie, though, was better fed. (Library of Congress)

It was sung by Harry Richman to the gentle strains of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra:

“Grab your coat and get your hat,” Richman sang, liltingly/ Leave your worries on the doorstep/ Just direct your feet/ On the sunny side of the street.”

Americans in the throes of the Depression were trying to cheer themselves up any way they could.  They had also sung “Happy Days are Here Again” when Franklin Roosevelt was first elected president in 1933, when 11,000 of the nation’s 24,000 banks had failed and were closed tight.

Happy days, it turned out, would be more than a decade off for most people, because just as the Depression’s ravages were healing, along came the sacrifices that went along with fighting a second world war.

“When we look at children in this book, working in fields and sawmills, these kids did not go out to work just because their families were broke,” Kathleen Thompson told me.  “That’s what children did.  The tragedy of the Depression is that often these children were taking their parents’ jobs.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Harlem of the South

Posted February 9th, 2012 at 10:24 am (UTC-4)
1 comment

In the years immediately following the American Civil War of the 1860s, thousands of African Americans, including both former southern slaves and northern soldiers, moved into a lively neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia, the capital city of the defeated Confederate States.  The neighborhood became known as Jackson Ward locally, and to blacks across the American East as the “Harlem of the South.”

It’s the perfect neighborhood to examine during the nation’s annual February observance of Black History Month.

"Bojangles" Robinson struts his stuff in Jackson Ward.  (taberandrew, Flickr Creative Commons)

Richmond is sometimes called the “Monument City” because of its boulevard of memorials to Confederate generals and admirals, as well as world-famous African-American tennis player Arthur Ashe.  And in a grittier part of town not far from the Virginia State Capitol stands another, far less somber statue.  High on a pedestal, a concrete figure saucily waves a bowler hat above his head as he dances up a short flight of stairs.

This monument honors Jackson Ward’s most famous son — Bill “Bojangles” Robinson — the pioneer tap dancer and occasional singer who dazzled vaudeville and movie audiences in the 1920s and ’30s.

During the first half of the 20th century — when restrictive rules called “Jim Crow laws” consigned whites and blacks to separate restaurants, bus seats, public toilets, and even drinking fountains — Robinson and other black celebrities often frequented night spots on the street that locals called “the Deuce.”

A building at the corner of Second and Jackson Streets today.  (taberandrew, Flickr Creative Commons)

A building at the corner of Second and Jackson Streets today. (taberandrew, Flickr Creative Commons)

This was Second Street, the heart of the action in Jackson Ward.

Through the eras of ragtime, jazz, swing, and be-bop, trumpeter Louis [pron: LEW-is] Armstrong, piano master Duke Ellington, and singer Cab Calloway unwound with jam sessions in Jackson Ward after performing at the whites-only Mosque Theater downtown.  Black athletes such as boxing champion Joe Louis and baseball star Willie Mays stayed at the ward’s Slaughter’s Hotel.

On the Deuce, a fellow named Tom Mitchell was a regular customer at the Hippodrome and Globe “picture theaters,” as folks called those movie houses, and at the Armstrong Athletic Club, which was both a gymnasium and a bar.

The old Hippodrome.  (Courtesy, Walker Row Partnership, Inc.)

The old Hippodrome. (Courtesy, Walker Row Partnership, Inc.)

“Nobody called it that, though,” Tom told me one day when I visited Richmond, where my middle daughter lives and works.  “Everybody called it ‘Tat Turner’s Place.’ There’d be doctors and lawyers, and at the end of the bar was the free trade — reserved for special friends and police.  And as you know, the police have ears. And that was one of the main ears that they had on Second Street.”

During World War Two and the Korean War in the 1940s and ’50s, Jackson Ward swelled with black soldiers on leave from nearby Fort Lee.  Clubs and restaurants such as the Golden Gate — Richmond’s largest dining room open to blacks — stayed open all night.

A porch, porch-sitters, in Jackson Ward in 1979.  (Library of Congress)

A porch, porch-sitters, in Jackson Ward in 1979. (Library of Congress)

Memorabilia from Jackson Ward’s vibrant days are preserved at Richmond’s Black Museum and Cultural Center, housed in one of the neighborhood’s old mansions.  Carolyn Brown, now retired, was a historian at the Center.  She calls Jackson Ward a “city within a city,” where blacks formed what they called “benevolent societies” to look after one another.

The white insurance companies, most of them, would not insure black people.  So they formed their own little societies.  They saved money in these societies. And when someone became ill, there would be money that could be used for purchasing medication and what not.  When someone died, there would be money for that person’s burial.

Jackson Ward is often acknowledged as the “birthplace of black entrepreneurship.” In addition to benevolent societies, blacks formed their own banks and savings institutions, and other African-Americans prospered in medicine, law, and similar professions.

“There were banks in Richmond that would simply not accept money from African Americans,” Carolyn Brown told me.  “So they used, as they had a way of saying, ‘Miss Maggie’s Bank.’  This was because of devotion to her, because she was a person who did everything that she could to uplift people in the community.”

"Miss Maggie" as a young woman.  (National Park Service)

Ah, yes. “Miss Maggie” Walker, the daughter of a former slave, who in 1903 became the first woman of any race to found and become president of an American bank.  Three of its branches still operate. Maggie Walker also founded a newspaper and a department store called “Saint Luke’s Emporium.”

Walker was the matron of the “cradle of black capitalism,” as the Washington Post put it in a profile story earlier this month.   At her home, now a National Historic Site, visitors were intrigued by one of Walker’s granddaughter’s dolls.  It was, Post reporter Ellen Perlman wrote, “a ‘Tu-In-One’ doll’ . . .

. . . a Siamese-twin-like doll with a head on either end, instead of feet.  It becomes a white doll with a bonnet or a black doll with her hair tied up in a red cloth, depending upon which head the dress covers.

These could possibly have dated to the days of southern slavery, which did not end until the Union victory in the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s.  I can imagine children of both races playing with such a doll, with the “massa’s” child speaking with the slave child, depending upon which way one flipped a wrist.

Women in the accounting office of Maggie Walker's Independent Order of St. Luke's.  (National Park Service)

Women in the accounting office of Maggie Walker's Independent Order of St. Luke's. (National Park Service)

Maggie Walker went out of her way to hire black women at her bank and other businesses.  “It meant that these women could escape the drudgery of working at one of the three main occupations available to black women [in Richmond] at the time: laundress, domestic servant, or tobacco factory worker,” National Park Service ranger Ben Anderson told the Post.

Visitors begin their tours by watching a short videotape in which an actress portrays Maggie Walker.

“All of these good things — the newspaper, the bank, the emporium, were possible because we put our hands, brains, and might together and made jobs for ourselves,” the character says, presumably quoting Walker.  “There is no reason why any man, woman, or child should stand by idly waiting with folded arms, saying there is nothing else I can do. With education and determination, you can do anything.” Read the rest of this entry »

Man Caves and Woman Caves

Posted February 3rd, 2012 at 8:19 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

I sort of hope you’re reading this before the big Super Bowl American football game on Sunday — an undeclared holiday in millions of U.S.  households.  But the points I’ll make hold, even after the game.

There’s a sports-talk host whose work I like and follow, both on local radio in Washington and on his national Yahoo Sports Network morning program.  His name is Steve Czaban — pronounced ZABE-in.  “Czabe,” (Zabe), his friends and listeners alike call him.

He’s a middle-aged guy, a little sensitive about his spreading bald spot, and an opinionated sports fan like millions of American men who don’t have his platform to express their strong points of view.  Sometimes Czabe doesn’t let the facts get in the way of those opinions, but then, neither do other sports fanatics.

Not Steve's, and not this year, but a typical Super Bowl party gathering.  (Joe Schlabotnik, Flickr Creative Commons)

Not Steve's, and not this year, but a typical Super Bowl party gathering. (Joe Schlabotnik, Flickr Creative Commons)

For the past week, he’s been telling his broadcast colleagues — and us — about the neighborhood Super Bowl party he’s about to host in his basement Man Cave, the prominent features of which, I gather, are comfy couches and reclining chairs and at least three giant TV screens, which normally are tuned simultaneously to different live sporting events.  This saves Steve the hassle of having to click between games.  Whereas women can do many things at once, it has been scientifically proved — I’m making this up — that men can watch many sports programs at the same time and not miss a single play.  This can be, and often is, a football game on one set, a hockey game on another, and a show that runs sports scores and highlights on another.  And all the while, male viewers have the uncanny ability to mute, zip through, or zap the annoying commercials that keep them from the action.

None of that will be necessary on Sunday night, however, since the whole world, it seems, will be watching the same game at the same time — and actually looking forward to the commercials, which are the freshest, most creative — and most expensive — of the year.

Old movies will be getting a good run opposite the Super Bowl.  (Wikipedia Commons)

Old movies will be getting a good run opposite the Super Bowl. (Wikipedia Commons)

So I’m assuming all the screens in Czabe’s Man Cave will be displaying the Super Bowl.  Other networks gave up trying to put sporting events up against this monolith long ago.  They “counterprogram” on “Super Sunday” with “Puppy Bowls,” “Lingerie Bowls,” weepy dramatic movies, and other shows as far removed from sports as possible.

By coincidence, without knowing I was thinking enviously about Steve Czaban and his Man Cave, a female colleague shot me an email, calling my attention to an entire Web site on the subject.  It’s full of testimonials to the karmic value of such in-house male retreats, plus pictures of some that make you drool, gasp, or — if you think such things are silly excess — toss your cookies (an expression I’ll explain in Wild Words).

The site was founded by Mike Yost, a retired U.S. soldier who works in information technology in Arizona.  He tells me that he built the site in 2007 after a friend, Marty Peterson, created a Man Cave.  (Note that we men hold the idea of Man Caves in such reverence that we capitalize the words.)  Marty had put a lot of effort, and a lot of money, into his Man Cave, and Mike wanted to help him showcase the room somewhere on the Internet.

Marty, right, the Man Cave maker; and Mike, the Man Cave chronicler.  (

Marty, right, the Man Cave maker; and Mike, the Man Cave chronicler. (

Since he could find no such centralized place, Mike created it.  He planned to keep the Man Cave site up for two years as a test, but it has grown to the point that it now displays 368 Man Caves in a “Cave Gallery,” and, he says, it attracts an average 1,200 visitors a day.  Mike and Marty even released a book about Man Caves that, Mike says, is doing well.

Man Caves are retreats, refuges, sanctuaries — spare bedrooms, lofts, converted basement “rec rooms,” even sheds and garages — where men carve out their own space, literally and figuratively.  Obviously this is not always possible or practical in an apartment or small house.

In addition to the requisite big TVs, oversize speakers, and plush seating, I’ve seen (mostly online) Man Caves equipped with poker tables, golf putting greens, actual seats salvaged from sports stadiums that were torn down, full bars with lots of beer on tap, popcorn or hot-dog machines, dartboards, rows of footballs or baseballs or miniature stock cars, slot machines, jukeboxes, car parts or entire automobiles, pool tables and large games such as air hockey — even hot tubs or saunas.

Me and (some of) my beer bottles.  I haven't yet put a "Man Cave" sign on the door.  But now that I've written this . . . (Carol M. Highsmith)

Not all of those things at once, of course.

“Women are always invited,” Mike Yost told me.  “They just don’t have decorating authority.”

I’ve never called my den a Man Cave, but, with its shelves displaying my 1,937 beer bottles collected from all over the country, it’s certainly a room that Carol doesn’t spend much time in.

I also hang out, alone, smoking an occasional cigar, in my toolshed, where I listen to sports on satellite radio and read the newspapers I’ve collected here at work.  Carol doesn’t go there either, because of the cigar stench.

Consider this comment:

Men are not your “typical” decorators.  They don’t care about the drapes, whether you use lemon, maize or tangerine paint for the kitchen, and they don’t care if you get a throw [thin blanket] for the sofa.  But if you give them their own turf, they’ve got ideas galore, many of which involve the latest hi-tech gadgets, comfy leather seats and a beer fridge.

A bright, and also beery, Man Cave.  (

A bright, and also beery, Man Cave. (

A “Man Cave” is a room . . . where a man can get away from the pressures of daily life.  It is his personal refuge full of his favorite things.  Man Caves come in all shapes, sizes, and themes, but one thing they all have in common is loads of testosterone.

This was written on a site called MyBadPad by “Gwen,” whom I can only assume is a woman.   One who appreciates a man’s need for such a hangout.   Sure, it smacks of the 1950s attitudes about which I wrote recently, when “hubby” would come home from a “hard day at the office” and need pampering by “the little woman.”  But since “the little woman”  has put her foot down on such nonsense, or is off working somewhere herself, we men have taken matters into our own hands and created comfort zones under our own roofs.

The man of this Man Cave likes race cars. (

When I got to writing about this, I wondered why there aren’t Woman Caves as well.  I mean, both sexes once lived together in them, rubbing sticks together, cooking saber-tooth tiger stew, and drawing pictographs.

So I asked some of my female colleagues and friends what they thought, both about Man Caves and the dearth of Woman ones.  At least they were friends until I got them going about Man Caves.

None was quite as charitable as “Gwen.”  They all treated the subject dismissively, haughtily, as if men had never grown up and were still kids, up in their rooms, playing with toys.

And the problem with that is???

The most charitable of these women replied, “Men seem to need quiet, solitary, ‘down time’ to re-energize before they venture back into society.  Women, on the other hand, and this has been scientifically proven, get re-energized by being in the company of other women. In fact, science shows that when women talk with one another, they release a hormone called Oxytocin, which is a feel-good hormone much like endorphin.”

Now she seems to have actual science on her side.

Another woman told me, “Women don’t have them because the whole rest of the house is the woman’s cave.  We pretty much decorate the house to our tastes and relegate his bachelor furniture and other décor to distant parts where we won’t have to see them.  I think the woman’s equivalent of a ‘man cave’ is ‘Me time.’  That’s the kind of space we crave.”

Psychic space.  Or pampering time, another woman told me, at the hairdresser, spa, or maybe a cruise ship or ski chalet.  Those aren’t permanent places they can go to get away from it all, of course. Read the rest of this entry »

Hog Culture

Posted January 31st, 2012 at 3:27 pm (UTC-4)

As I write this post, I am looking down at my mostly black mouse pad, which is emblazoned with stars, rippling U.S. flags, and a large emblem of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle company.

Pabst, a maker of beers appealing to the blue-collar crowd, brewed one under the Harley name for awhile.  (mcwont, Flickr Creative Commons)

Pabst, a maker of beers appealing to the blue-collar crowd, brewed one under the Harley name for awhile. (mcwont, Flickr Creative Commons)

And to my right is a photo of my four kids, taken on a day when they visited VOA some years ago.  It’s encased in a black picture frame on which a different Harley logo — this one winged and pewter — appears.

By the look of it all, you’d think I was a big-time biker, a “real bad mamma jamma,” as the Geico insurance company’s smooth-talking lizard puts it in a commercial pitching motorcycle insurance.

Well, not exactly.  In fact, I’ve ridden on a motorcycle only two or three times in my life — and, then on the back, clinging fiercely to one unfortunate person or another.

Yup, there's a Harley Barbie doll.  (Mellicious, Flickr Creative Commons)

Yup, there's a Harley Barbie doll. (Mellicious, Flickr Creative Commons)

The Harley accents in my office came courtesy of my son, Rob, from the time he worked at a Harley-Davidson outlet store on the Delaware shore.  It seems that Harley-Davidson has become such an iconic brand, almost synonymous with motorcycling and an entire vroom-vroom culture, that it sells millions of dollars of goods — from dice to men’s hats (oh, I have one of those with the Harley eagle, too) — that have nothing directly to do with motorcycles at all.

I learned the power and reach of this brand several years ago on a visit to the Midwest farm state of Wisconsin.  There, you’ll find thousands and thousands of hogs.  Not just four-legged swine, but also steel and chrome Harley motorcycles that riders affectionately call “Hogs” – the only motorcycles still mass-produced in the United States.  Wisconsin’s largest city – Milwaukee – is home to the Harley-Davidson Motor Company and an entire Harley culture.

Freedom.  Adventure.  Pavement.  Leather.  Chrome.  These are some of the words that spring to the screen when you open the Harley-Davidson Motor Company’s Web page.  The company boldly asserts – and most owners agree – that a Harley is more than a machine that goes fast.  It’s a way of life.

See what I mean when I say bikers take over little Sturgis?  (christopher.d.heald, Flickr Creative Commons)

See what I mean when I say bikers take over little Sturgis? (christopher.d.heald, Flickr Creative Commons)

That’s true of all large, loud motorcycles, of course.  I think of their rebel image, dating to Marlon Brando’s portrayal of the leader of a motorcycle gang in the 1953 film “The Wild One,” in which he rides a Triumph Thunderbird.  And of the annual gathering of thousands of motorcyclists, who have pretty much taken over the little South Dakota town of Sturgis every August for the past 71 years — and will do so again this year.

But it’s my impression that Harleys are a breed apart. And lots of the folks who ride Hogs look nothing like the image that some people have of bikers as “bad mamma jammas:” bearded, tattooed Hell’s Angels gang-member types.  In New Berlin, Wisconsin, I ran into Randy Martin, a 52-year-old, clean-shaven, conservatively dressed brewery employee who had just traded in his ’96 Hog for a new, solid-black Harley with lots of chrome.

Bikers are big into leather.  It very warm without being bulky.  (Rob Lee, Flickr Creative Commons)

Bikers are big into leather. It very warm without being bulky. (Rob Lee, Flickr Creative Commons)

“Once you get the bike, you have to get all the motor clothes that go with it,” he told me.  “And it’s fun, ‘cause there’s always new things comin’ out. It’s like your own personal trademark that says something about your personality.”

Like what? I asked him

“I want to look macho on the bike.  I want to blend in with the rest of the bikers.  And I enjoy the total experience.”

As he looked around Hal’s Harley dealership in New Berlin, Randy had his pick of jackets, gloves, T-shirts, jewelry, golf balls, knives, stuffed animals, picture frames (like mine), beer steins – even fish hooks – all imprinted with the trademark orange, black, and white Harley-Davidson logo.

You can even buy Harley-Davidson coffee.

Hal’s general manager, Kirk Topel, told me he had been racing Harleys since he was 16.  His office looked down on six rows of new Harleys, the largest of which cost $25,000 and came with a wrap-around fiberglass windshield, cruise-control acceleration, and a communications system that connects driver and passenger.

It weighed more than 350 kilos.  We’re talking motorcycle, remember.

He said wind in your hair, not a pussy cat.  (julesagogo, Flickr Creative Commons)

He said wind in your hair, not a pussy cat. (julesagogo, Flickr Creative Commons)

“There are very few modes of transportation where you become a part of the country that you travel through,” Kirk said to me.  “The freedom of just being able to turn a wrist and accelerate, with the wind in your hair [never mind our helmet laws], and the breeze in your face, and feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin…”

I could almost feel it.  And I could faintly hear the strains of a country song by Turner Nichols called “Harleys and Horses.”

It’s Harleys and Horses

Old habits that are forcing me to think

I may never change my ways. Read the rest of this entry »


Posted January 24th, 2012 at 5:15 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

Perhaps you’re one of those dreamy older folks — or a dreamy young folk, for that matter — who fantasizes about a nice-and-easy retirement.  “I’d love to live on a houseboat,” you may have said, wistfully.

A happy houseboater!  (Telstar Logistics, Flickr Creative Commons)

A happy houseboater! (Telstar Logistics, Flickr Creative Commons)

You know: loll around all day on deck with a good book and a cool drink.  Toss a line over the bow and catch dinner.  Fall asleep to the gentle swells in the harbor and a foghorn in the distance.  Take ’er out for a spin — if that’s the right term for a boat — to visit friends down the way.

Before I give you my thoughts on this preposterous idea — I guess I just gave you one — let me clue you in on what houseboating is all about.  I know this not from firsthand experience, but from hanging around with some live-aboards in Louisville, Kentucky a few years ago.

“Live-aboards” is what fulltime houseboaters call themselves.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 200,000 Americans live on the water year ’round.  They’re part of a subculture — similar to that in many parts of the world — whose home is on the water.  Not on the water like the oceanfront Kennedy family compound in Massachusetts is on the water.  Atop the water, floating.

Thousands of Kentuckians are among them, dwelling full-time in houseboats on the many lakes that dot that Mid-South state.  Others park their flat-bottomed houseboats along the banks of the broad Ohio River.

Harrod's Creek.  Purty, as they might say in Kentucky.  (merfam, Wikipedia Commons)

Harrod's Creek. Purty, as they might say in Kentucky. (merfam, Wikipedia Commons)

A few years ago, I visited some of them on Harrod’s Creek, which flows off the Ohio in Louisville — Kentucky’s largest city. I’ll tell you what they told me about the live-aboard life, and then bring you up to date on what’s become of them and how they now feel about residing on the water.

Jim Garrard was a computer specialist for a lumber company.   He and his wife Linda, who’s a nurse, hung out on an 11-meter-long, double-decker houseboat, the Cajun Angel.

“We have a 360-degree waterfront view, and no grass to cut!” he told me. “You’re within a few minutes of work. You come home from work to kind of a relaxing atmosphere.”

“Yeah,” Linda chimed in. “It’s like being on vacation year-round.”

The Garrards had greatly compacted their lives when they left a four-bedroom house in New Orleans, Louisiana — which explains the Cajun part of the boat’s name — nine years earlier to move to Louisville.

Jim and Linda at Christmastime aboard the Cajun Angel.  (Courtesy, Jim Garrard)

Jim and Linda at Christmastime aboard the Cajun Angel. (Courtesy, Jim Garrard)

The Cajun Angel’s lower deck held a kitchen, a head — as mariners call the bathroom — a microwave oven, a television set attached to an outside satellite dish, and a couch that folded out into a bed.  You climbed a ladder through a hole in the ceiling to the couple’s bedroom, which was just 3 meters long by 3½ meters wide.

The houseboat’s top speed was five kilometers an hour.  “We’re not in a hurry anymore,” Linda told me.  “We just like to take it easy.”

On a houseboat, loafing is an artform.  There are the innumerable chores of any boat — swabbing the deck, polishing fixtures, draining waste-water tanks, tinkering with the engine, and — once every few years — pulling the boat out of the water to remove the freshwater mussels that affix themselves to the hull.

Eight or nine months a year in Louisville’s temperate climate, life on the Garrards’ houseboat was centered on deck.  Barbecue grills up and down “houseboat row” filled the air with smoke and mouth-watering aromas.

“You can sit here at the water and watch the fish jump out.” Linda said.  “I don’t consider that boring.”

A good look at the Cajun Angel.  (Jim Garrard)

A good look at the Cajun Angel. (Jim Garrard)

“Yes, that does sound exciting,” I replied, not meaning a word of it.

“Well,” she replied, getting my drift, “We do go out, and we do have fun.”

“A movie or two?”  (I mean, the marina and surrounding woodsy area weren’t exactly crawling with entertainment options.)

“That’s true.  And we go on vacation from this life of being on vacation.”

This “good life” is not for everyone, though, no matter how many fish jump out of the water and into your frying pan.  I was struck by the houseboats’ close quarters; by the ever-present, if faint, odor of gasoline; and by the marina’s relative lack of privacy.  You can’t build fences between you and your neighbors, after all.

To me, anyway, “Everybody knows everybody” sounds real friendly-like, but only up to a point.

The Garrards liked their neighbors, though.  Jim even produced a video about the houseboaters on Harrod’s Creek, set to the country song “Redneck Yacht Club.”

Rednecks sometimes live in "double-wide" trailers.  This looks like a double-wide HOUSEBOAT.  (Wacqu, Wikipedia Commons)

A redneck, in the unlikely event you don’t know, is a term for a southern white person of the “working class.”  It’s derisive or affectionate, depending upon whether YOU’RE the redneck!

I asked Jim whether the live-aboard life was cheap.

“There’s a dollar boat here — a $1 boat,” he said, chuckling — “up to some that cost a couple-hundred thousand dollars.”

I never saw the $1 boat, which is probably good.

The Garrards thought they would save a ton of money on living expenses when they bought their houseboat.  But there were clothes to be washed and dried at a laundromat, storage lockers to be rented for all the goods that would not fit aboard, and, believe it or not, property taxes to be paid on the boat’s berth.

And there can be danger on the creek.  The Garrards rode out one flood in 1997 in which they had to push away uprooted trees that were rushing downstream, straight for the Cajun Angel.

A houseboat that really looks like a house!  (Pseudotriton, Wikipedia Commons)

A houseboat that really looks like a house! (Pseudotriton, Wikipedia Commons)

A few slots down the marina, Paula Zipp told me she remembered falling off the top deck of her houseboat and breaking her arm. Then there was the year the Zipps had to zip back to their boat (sorry) during a flood.

And when we got there, there sits my boat.  It looked like it was in the middle of the river.  The only thing holding it was an electric cord that had been lashed to a post.  The flood had broken all the ropes, but it had not broken that.  And if it hadn’t been for that, the boat would have been down and over the dam.

At another marina on the creek, Allan Dayton and Debbie Elder lived aboard the Key Largo, a 1972-vintage houseboat.  Allan was a computer troubleshooter.  Debbie took in sewing and made draperies on the Key Largo’s deck.

“If you have a bad day, you come home, you can sit on the back of your boat, look at the water, and you relax,” Debbie assured me.  “You just keep your sanity.”

The Key Largo was one of the entertainment centers on Harrod’s Creek.  Allan cranked up a karaoke machine that played the harmony parts of popular songs while guests attempted — and I do mean attempted — to sing the melody.

“We’ve many times seen the sun come up with the karaoke machine still blaring away,” Allan mused.

Lucky neighbors.

I mentioned that houseboating is a worldwide thing.  This beauty is in Kashmir.  (Bashrat Shah, Wikipedia Commons)

I mentioned that houseboating is a worldwide thing. This beauty is in Kashmir. (Bashrat Shah, Wikipedia Commons)

If that’s not enough excitement, houseboaters can always rev up the engine and rumble off to a riverfront restaurant, a festival or a fireworks display.  Or they can walk a few meters down the dock and start a conversation — or a party — with like-minded folks in Louisville’s tight-knit community of live-aboards.

Only it’s not quite as tight-knit as it used to be.

Shortly after we talked, Jim Garrard got a promotion that required a move to Memphis, Tennessee.  He and Linda now live across the Mississippi River in the state of Mississippi, and on dry land.

There are two reasons, Jim says.  The Mississippi itself runs far too fast, with too much barge and other traffic, for anyone to tie up a houseboat.  And the closest quiet creek to his job is 1½ hours away. Read the rest of this entry »

Looking at Leaping

Posted January 20th, 2012 at 8:01 pm (UTC-4)
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So you just noticed that this is a Leap Year in most of the world, and you want to know everything there is to know about this phenomenon.  You have leapt to the right place.

Actually, Leap Year isn’t exactly a phenomenon, since its existence was quite planned, and it comes around predictably once every four years.

Or just about every four years, as I’ll explain later.

But leap year is unconventional in the scientific worlds of calendar-making and timekeeping, in which precision is otherwise highly valued.

In case you haven’t peeked at February — the coming short month that most of my friends and family routinely mispronounce as Feb-U-wary — it has a rump day, an extra day, or what astronomers call an “intercalary day” this year.  It’s even called a “bissextile” day in some scientific circles that I do not frequent.

To me, it’s Leap Day.

The calendar company had to print an extra page in 2008 and will again this year.  (Nieve44/La Luz, Flickr Creative Commons)

The calendar company had to print an extra page in 2008 and will again this year. (Nieve44/La Luz, Flickr Creative Commons)

Without that extra day, February 29th, every four years, the calendar would work its way out of whack over time, compared to the seasons we see outside the window.  We’d look out on a Christmas Day in the Northern Hemisphere, and things would look green and sultry, like July.

You’ll remember (won’t you?) that I said Leap Years come along almost every four years?

That’s one of many Leap Year oddities that intrigue mathematicians, astronomers, and the rest of the bissextile crowd — but whiz past you and me.

I’ll snag the reason for you, however: There’s a Leap Day every four years except those that are divisible by 100 but not divisible by 400.

You have my permission to pause here to digest the previous sentence.  You may use both your fingers and a calculator if it will help.

The year 2000 was a leap year, but 1700, 1800, and 1900 weren’t.  Nor will 2100 be, in case you stand a chance of being around 88 years from now and are interested.

You’ll be taking the usual Leap Day on February 29th, 2096.  But you’ll have to hang in eight years instead of four, until 2104, for the next one.  February 2100 will have only 28 days.

You’ll understand why, I hope, as we review the colorful history of Leap Year.  All right, maybe “colorful” is a stretch.  How about moderately interesting, in an intercalary sort of way?

Here's Calendar Man, better known as Julius Caesar, as seen in a bust fashioned during his lifetime.  (Tataryn77, Wikipedia Commons)

Here's Calendar Man, better known as Julius Caesar, as seen in a bust fashioned during his lifetime. (Tataryn77, Wikipedia Commons)

Leap Year has been around since the Egyptians came up with the idea a couple of hundred years before Christ.  The Romans picked the February 29th date for Leap Day in 45 B.C., when the Julian calendar was introduced, fittingly, by Emperor Julius Caesar.  He or his calendar team came up with both the regular 365-day year and a Leap Day every fourth year in an effort to standardize what had been a jumble of calendars used throughout the Empire.

It took a millennium-and-a-half to change that calendar much, at least in the West.  In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII — were there really 12 previous Pope Gregories? — revised the Julian calendar.  It became known, not very imaginatively, as the Gregorian calendar, not to be confused with Gregorian chants.  That was one of those other Gregories.

The Gregorian calendar tidied things up, celestially, by instituting that “every four years except those divisible by 100 but not divisible by 400” Leap-Year wrinkle.

Here’s why:  We add the leap year quadrennially because it takes the earth a tiny bit longer than 365 days to make a complete revolution around the sun in one year: 365.242190 days is a little more like it.

Pope Gregory, as painted by Lavinia Fontana in the 16th Century.  (Wikipedia Commons)

Pope Gregory, as painted by Lavinia Fontana in the 16th Century. (Wikipedia Commons)

That’s .242190 days, or about a quarter of a day, that the earth is huffing and puffing to complete its rotation each year.  (It’s a metaphor.  Work with me.)  Those quarter-days would really add up over time if we didn’t account for them every four years or so with Leap Days.

But — read this closely, now — all those Leap Days actually overcompensate, just a hair, over three or four centuries’ time.  So Gregory came up with the idea of cutting out a Leap Year every once in a long while.  He set us up for a Leap Year every four years except in three out of four century years.  2000: yes.  2100: no.  2200: no.  2300: no. 2400: voila!

The result is as close to perfect at keeping summers looking like summers and winters looking like winters as anybody had made it.

How about a breather in all this?  Some refreshing Leap Year factoids!

That's little Ellie, a leapling, and his mom.  (Jason Tromm, Flickr Creative Commons)

That's little Ellie, a leapling, and his mom. (Jason Tromm, Flickr Creative Commons)

Leap Year obviously directly affects those born on a February 29th or those who marry on that date.  If they’re strict about birth and anniversary days, they won’t be enjoying as many parties and celebration dinners as the rest of us.  Someone born on February 29th, 2000, for instance, will be marking only his or her 3rd birthday next month.

Happy birthday, you little nipper!

It reminds me of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Pirates of Penzance, in which I sang the major-general’s part in high school.  That’s the only reason I know this:

In the show, Frederic, a gullible young pirate’s apprentice, learns that, because he was born on a Leap Day, he must serve the surly pirates until his 21stbirthday, rather than for 21 years.  In other words, until he’s 84.  Various oratorios ensue as a result.

People in this predicament (or their parents) usually make up for the paucity of celebrations by marking the event on February 29th every Leap Year, and on the 28th the rest of the years.

Government agencies, insurance companies, and others with highly crunchy computers, too, make adjustments for Leap Year, although skinflint financial officers and payroll chiefs aren’t thrilled about the extra day of pay.

There have been instances in which people born on a February 29th have been . . . what’s a polite term . . . mistreated as a result of the happenstance of their birth.  One fellow I read about had to wait several months to get a driver’s license because the computer at his state’s Motor Vehicle Administration didn’t know how to deal with his February 29 date of birth.  Even though he was tall for a 4-year-old, sported facial stubble, and had quite a deep voice for a tyke, rules were rules.  The state doesn’t issue licenses to 4½-year-olds.

Some moderately famous Leap Day babies have managed to muddle through life, however: Read the rest of this entry »

Help Me Help You Help Me

Posted January 17th, 2012 at 3:57 pm (UTC-4)

If you go on the Web site for — which, as you may well know, sells everything from pickles to garden hoses but built its reputation selling books — enter “self-help books” as a search term.

If ONLY we could find happiness in a book.  (wrestlingentropy, Flickr Creative Commons)

If ONLY we could find happiness in a book. (wrestlingentropy, Flickr Creative Commons)

First, you’ll see that there are 243,000 selections available, so the site helpfully divides the subject into categories, including:


self help & personal development (24,023 titles)

self help motivational & inspirational (20,799)

self help personal growth happiness (6,656)

self help personal growth self-esteem (5,956)

self help personal growth creativity (2,387)

and even self help sexual instruction (4,321)

That’s thousands and thousands and more thousands of books about how to feel better, look better, think better, eat better, sleep better, remember better, love better, and feel better about yourself while you’re doing it.

And at amazon’s Kindle Store, which sells electronic books, you’ll find 33,000 self-help e-books as well.

Click on this and check out the title of the "husband" book in the middle.  "Hubbies" still need extra care and feeding, it seems.  (Casey Serin, Flickr Creative Commons)

Want to lose weight?  Quit smoking? Discipline your children?  Get out of debt?  Find a spouse?  Not a problem.  We’ve got a book, e-book, magazine, video, or TV infomercial just for you.


They’re hot, as every American knows, but what I realized, looking into this, is that our self-improvement craze is nothing new.

There have been self-help guides in America since the Revolutionary War. The prolifically published patriot Benjamin Franklin issued some.  By the mid-20th century, self-help books and record albums were everywhere, teaching people how to shape up . . .


Or how to get ahead in business, or catch a mate.




On long-playing albums, you could find a self-help guru pitching products, ideas, or advice. (Can you picture it, actually putting the record on a turntable, setting down the needle, and sitting back for a scratchy load of advice?)

On one record, aimed at businessmen and entitled “Hammer Home the Difference,” G. Worthington Hipple spelled out checkpoints on the road to success:

One: determination.

When things get tough, the tough get going.  All it takes is enough desire and self-discipline to overcome any handicap.

Two: perseverance.

The best defense against procrastination is to deliberately pick out the things you dislike, then do them first.  Your day will then be perfect.

And so forth.

Several years ago, Jennifer McKnight-Trontz, a writer living in Florida, noticed that shelf after shelf in bookstores was jammed with self-help books.  So many that she wondered how you’d ever pick just the right one that would be good for you.

One of Jennifer McKnight-Trontz's titles.  (Chronicle Books)

One of Jennifer McKnight-Trontz's titles. (Chronicle Books)

At used bookstores, thrift shops, and community yard sales, she ran across self-help materials that were 50 or 60 years old.  She started collecting them, and then — what else? —published her own book all about them.


But it isn’t full of super secrets of self-help wizards, gleaned from the ages.  It is simply a bunch of covers from some of the funniest and most nostalgic self-help books and records.  To wit:

When to Bare Your Chest!

Pretty Clothes Do Bring Happiness!

Don’t be Old-Fashioned.  1947’s Sex Discoveries Now Revealed!

McKnight-Trontz also compiled a book with nothing but home-economics tips from the era, not so much earlier, when it was assumed that “the wife” spent her days in the kitchen.  And another tongue-in-cheek book with tips on becoming popular and making the grade with others. Here are some of the chapter titles from that!:

Mirror, Mirror.  Are you the fairest one of all?

The Magnetic You.  How to attract.

Best Friends.  And how to get them.

The Life of the Party.  It’s you!

And True Love.  The most important popularity of all!

This sort of advice reminds me of a magazine advertisement, probably from the 1950s, that someone sent me.  It was for a kitchen appliance, and the copy read:  “The Chef does everything but cook.  That’s what wives are for.  I’m giving my wife a Kenwood mixer.”

Another ad shows a smiling woman beaming as she beholds her Christmas present: a vacuum cleaner.  The copy reads:  “Christmas morning, she’ll be happier with a Hoover.”

See for yourself!  Wives had to be dutiful to hubby, but could use their seductive powers to get . . . products!  Hard to believe this appeared in the 20th Century.

See for yourself! Wives had to be dutiful to hubby, but could use their seductive powers to get . . . products! Hard to believe this appeared in the 20th Century.

Still another one reads, in huge letters: “WIVES.”


Underneath, the copy instructs, “Look this ad over carefully.  Circle the items you want for Christmas. [All are kitchenware such as toasters.]  Show it to your husband.  If he does not go to the store immediately, cry a little.  Not a lot.  Just a little.  He’ll go, he’ll go.”

Ya think the quaint books from yesteryear that Jennifer McKnight-Trontz snagged were paternalistic?

So was the music.  Jack Jones, for instance, sang “Wives and Lovers”:

Hey little girl, comb your hair, fix your makeup.

Soon he will open the door.

Few women were portrayed as working outside the home.  Their every thought was directed at the needs and comfort of the man of the family — the “breadwinner” —  who was king of his castle.

For wives should always be lovers, too.

Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you.

So a good way to please your husband and look better is to . . . work harder!  I feel a Gloria Steinem comment coming on.

So a good way to please your husband and look better is to . . . work harder! I feel a Gloria Steinem comment coming on.

Whole checklists about how to keep husbands happy were published.


Help Your Husband Get Ahead!

Will You be a Successful Wife or an Unhappy Old Maid?

The Kind of Woman a Man Wants!

One book from the 1950s even taught women how to belly-dance for their “hubbies.”

And a woman named Debbie Drake recorded an exercise album in which she said men need “constant attention and affection.”

No wonder women flocked to self-help books, trying to find self-esteem through something other than just “hubby.”

Writer Jennifer McKnight-Trontz told me there’s something inherent in the American character that makes these books especially popular:

Anyone can become successful in this country. It doesn’t matter what kind of family you were born in or where you come from or how poor you started out.  It’s that whole idea that people — if they work hard — can make a success of themselves.  I think sometimes these books may not give you the absolute necessary tools you need to succeed, but they give people hope. It gets you inspired.

A good memory has always been a big deal.  This lovely photo of "Memory" a relief a front door at the Library of Congress, was shot by . . . uh . . . oh yes, my talented wife!!  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Mind power was an important attribute, according to early self-help books.  A good memory was particularly useful to a man, it was said, because he met so many people in the course of a hard day’s work.  Even as a pimply-faced teenager, I remember trying to master memory-improvement books that taught techniques such as word association.


If you met a man named Mr. White and thought it was vital to remember his name, you’d study his face and try to picture a snow-covered mountain.  Of course, in my case, I’d meet him later and call out, “Well, hello, Mr. Snow!”

These days, I wouldn’t remember him at all, even if his name was Mr. Kilimanjaro.

All this memory training was important to men, you see, because, you’ll recall, the “little woman” was busy at home, getting beautiful for her husband.

I remember running across a woman’s self-help audio tape called “Coiffure Dynamics,” in which a male speaker intoned with a thick French accent:

Bonjour. Lesson one. Apply your setting lotion as evenly as possible and comb your hair back behind your ears until it is flat and sleek.

And besides looking ravishing, the “lady of the house” was supposed to be in the best of moods when her darling walked in.

Such, my friends, were the seeds of the women’s-liberation movement.

There were a few self-help ads directed at men, mostly having to do with succeeding in business and looking good doing it:

Build a dynamic physique through vibro-power.

Would you like to become two to four inches [five to ten centimeters] taller in only six weeks?

Some campaigns aimed at both sexes.  If you wanted to stop smoking, lose weight, or play better golf, you could even learn in your sleep!  Or, as “Raveen,” a sinister-looking fellow with a menacing goatee, piercing eyes, and a single name, taught those who bought his records: simply apply self-hypnosis!

Just get yourself completely relaxed.  Good.  Gaze at one position high above your head.  Breathe deeply and relax.  Yes, your eyes are already warm.  They are moist, they are watery.  Your eyelids are very heavy . . .”

This isn't Raveen.  It's a 19th-century hyptonist and his "hysterical" subject, painted by André Brouillet.  (Wikipedia Commons)

I tried hypnosis, just for fun.  “Your eyelids are getting heavier,” I’d say, ever so softly, to a friend.  “Heavier and heavier.”


Didn’t help me a bit, but it made my dog, Taffy, drowsy.

Jennifer McKnight-Trontz told me she didn’t think she’d become a neurotic wreck reading all those self-help books and listening to self-improvement records.  “I wasn’t looking to be changed,” she said.  “I wanted to be an outsider looking at them.  Because if you do think about all these things you’re supposed to do and the way you’re supposed to look, then you would fall apart.”

But that’s the idea, isn’t it, at least from the point-of-view of today’s self-help writers?  You are neurotic, inadequate, unloved, desperate to make the grade.  I can help!  Buy my e-book.

When I discussed this topic in our weekly VOA feature-writers’ meeting — in which, you may recall, I’m the only man among six to eight attendees — a colleague laughed about the self-help craze.

“Yeah,” she said.  “And they all use 10 sure-fire words to get readers.”

Ah yes, a list!  I'll bet my "sure-fire words" appear in lots of the titles.  (photoverulam, Flickr Creative Commons)

That’s pretty smart!  Combine self-help with Americans’ love of lists: 50 Ways to Find Happiness; 12 Keys to True Love, etc.

Here are the 10 can’t-miss self-help buzzwords:

Tips.  Dare.  Dream. Great.  Better.  Find.  You, too.  How to. (We’ll count those as one word each.)  Secrets.  Success. And, course, Sex.

Hmm.  I could get rich with my new self-help best-seller:

You Too Can Dare to Dream: Secret Tips on

How to Find Great and Successful Sex

It’s getting there, but I’ve got to figure a way to work in “Better.”

The Super Bowl(er)

Posted January 13th, 2012 at 5:48 pm (UTC-4)

This is the story of a superstar and his sport, though whether what he did for a living is a sport has been debated since the . . . activity . . . was invented.  The fact that I spent quite a few evenings engaged in it when I was a young man makes it all the more unlikely that it requires enough athletic prowess to make it a sport.

The superstar, whom I’ll introduce in a little while, was a professional bowler.  Settle down, you cricketers.  We’re talking indoor bowling, the kind where participants roll a heavy — and I mean heavy: often 7-kilo (15½-pound) — plastic or resin ball.  At first, when bowling balls were lighter, they were made of wood, then rubber.

Bowling balls aren't all the old, black lumps they used to be.  (jonnykeelty, Flickr Creative Commons)

Bowling balls aren't all the old, black lumps they used to be. (jonnykeelty, Flickr Creative Commons)

Bowlers stick three fingers into the holes that have been drilled in the ball, hoist it upward and cradle it in their dominant hand, and shuffle forward on a slippery floor in soft bowling shoes or their stocking feet.  Come on, what athlete competes in his Slipper Socks? Then they swing the arm that holds the ball backward while bending their knees, slide forward to a release line on the floor, and fling the ball down a long wooden row called a “lane,” 18.3 meters (60 feet) long.

It’s a lane, but the building that holds a bunch of them is called an “alley.”  A bowling alley.  Go figure.

Running along the sides of the lane are recessed “gutters” into which your ball is sure to wobble as you’re learning the game.

You get no points when it does, and it serves you right.

At the far end of the lane are 10 wooden pins at which you take aim.  Each, in fact, is called a “tenpin.”

Tenpins are hard, durable, and saucy, in that they often remain standing, mocking you.  (Andrew Ressa, Flickr Creative Commons)

Tenpins are hard, durable, and saucy, in that they often remain standing, mocking you. (Andrew Ressa, Flickr Creative Commons)

They’re funny-looking: chubby at the bottom, tucked in in the middle, and bulbous at the top — a little like those Russian nesting dolls, but less colorful.

What are thought to be among earth’s first bowling pins were discovered in a boy’s tomb in ancient Egypt.  Lawn bowling, in which balls crack into each other rather than pins, and an indoor game with one or more heavy balls and nine small “skittle” pins were huge across the British Empire.  And Australians borrowed the old German game of Kegel, rolling a ball at nine pins.

Even American bowlers are sometimes called “keglers.”  I used the word a lot in headlines when I was a sportswriter:

Kegler Rolls 210 at Hilliard Lanes

How many times can you write “bowler,” after all?

The object of tenpin bowling sounds quite simple: propel the ball in such a way that it smashes into the 10 pins and knocks every one of them down.  If you do, it’s called a strike.  Strikes are good in bowling and fishing, bad in baseball and labor negotiations.

If by some miracle you do this 12 straight times — in the 10 “frames” or turns that you get in each game — you’ve bowled a “perfect game,” for which you earn 300 points.  (It’s 12 in 10 because you must bowl three in the 10th frame to qualify for the perfect game.)  You are then, according to custom, permitted to jump in the air, shriek like you’ve won the lottery, pump your fists, and accept high-fives from friends and nearby strangers.

How easy it looks!  (U.S. Embassy New Delhi, Flickr Creative Commons)

How easy it looks! (U.S. Embassy New Delhi, Flickr Creative Commons)

Odds are, though, that you will never roll even one perfect game — I don’t remember ever doing it — because:

• you stink and send a lot of balls careening into the gutter

• you throw the ball like a girl, which is OK if you are a girl but will likely mean the ball is thrown weakly or in a bizarre direction (Allegations of sexism may be directed to my editor, Faith Lapidus, who happens to BE a, uh, woman… and not that bad a bowler, either, or so she tells me)

• you heave the ball as if it were a heavy stump that you’d just removed from a bog, causing it to land with a thud a couple of meters down the lane.  This, too, will likely send it into the gutter, and it is certain to draw the ire of the alley’s manager, who wishes to see no dents in the carefully polished lanes

• or you roll the ball beautifully, fluidly, powerfully, with a lovely little hook into the sweet striking spot that you have identified, causing the pins to fly in all directions — only to see one or more still standing despite your good efforts

When that occurs, you wait for the big machine down by the pins to roll your ball back to you, so you can take aim at the remaining pin or pins, hoping to knock them down and score a “spare.”

There they are, the remaining 7 and 10 pins.  Even LOOKING at this, it's hard to imagine knocking them both down with one roll of the ball.  (I-Interiot, Wikipedia Commons)

There they are, the remaining 7 and 10 pins. Even LOOKING at this, it's hard to imagine knocking them both down with one roll of the ball. (I-Interiot, Wikipedia Commons)

This can be even more bedeviling than felling all 10 pins.  Especially when one, the 7 pin, looms all the way over to the left, and another, the 10 pin, stands — and would be thumbing its nose at you if it had a nose — all the way to the right.  The dreaded, gaping 7-10 split confronts you.

You’re left with but two options, neither of which you’re likely to execute:

• strike one of the pins head-on with such force that it flies about like a straw in a cyclone and smites the remaining pin, quite by accident

• or roll the ball deftly and delicately toward the outside edge of one pin, gently nudging it inward so that it slides over to the other side and knocks the second pin down.  Most of the time when you try this, your ball thunks into the gutter.

Or, as happened in my bowling “career” after school and in an evening league or two, your ball will roll harmlessly down the middle, missing both pins by a wide margin.  Whatever is the opposite of jumping up and down, high-fiving, and drinking free beers is what you do in this case.

Some Americans take bowling VERY seriously.  They get duded up in a bowling shirt with their names and the team name — “The Bowling Stones,” “PinHeads,” “High Rollers,” clever stuff like that — stitched on the pocket.  They choose a ball with the care that a bridegroom uses to pick a wedding ring, then engrave it with their own, ever-so-witty names: Jim “Strike Force” Palooka; Barby “Bowlicious” Bowinkle; Karl “King Pin” Kowalski.

They polish their bowling balls, carry them in cases fit for an art treasure, file their fingernails before bowling, then wave their cuticles in front of the little blower that’s attached to the ball rack lest a drop of perspiration interfere with the ball’s release.

On technique, I vote for the woman in the middle.  (mattsaxey, Flickr Creative Commons)

On technique, I vote for the woman in the middle. (mattsaxey, Flickr Creative Commons)

Then, with a contortionist’s twist of the wrist and a carefully calculated knee-buckle and hip-wiggle, they waddle toward the line, then glide — not heave or throw but glide — the ball down the lane toward a predetermined spot precisely between the One and Three pins (the One and Two if they’re left-handed).  It’s a danze la bowl that would make a trigonometrist giddy.  If there were such a thing as a trigonometrist.

Bowling nerds study various grips, “rev rates” (ball rotations), and the drag effect of the finger holes on a rolling, spinning ball. Read the rest of this entry »

Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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