April Fool’s: History and Intentions

Occasionally, and when one has little else to do, one happens upon a serendipitous connection.  Perhaps you know that Julius Caesar changed the calendar to allow for a leap year, but more importantly for this discussion, he established January 1 as the date for the new year to begin. Before that by 2000 years, the Babylonians began making New Year’s resolutions when crops were planted. Hence (one rarely gets to use that word), there may have been times when it was on April 1 for them and definitely was for the Romans: “In the Julian Calendar, as in the Hindu calendar, the new year began with the spring equinox around April 1.” Therefore, New Year’s resolutions were technically April Fool’s resolutions, if the two traditions cross-pollinated, which may or may not have happened. (The History Chanel has nice articles for April Fool’s Day and New Year’s resolutions.)

My family always took the activity of having resolutions seriously. (My paternal grandfather had written a pamphlet on the Julian/Gregorian calendar switch and used the word “humbug” in the title; I never quite understood the problem but he seemed quite adamant about it.) The practice seems to fallen out of use, though gyms do see a surge of attendance during January.

Although hoaxes have been common in the past, my expectation is that this year will be different. Levity is lost, for the moment. I suspected this might be the case when St. Patrick’s Day went uncelebrated on March 17. I happened to wear green because I remembered, and when people at the hospital noticed my attire, many commented, “Oh, yes, I forgot.” In that faraway yesterday of 2019, there would have been garlands of green shamrocks at the nurses’ station.

So if resolutions are not famous for lasting, what will? “Commitments” might. Using the phrase “Will you…?” works in many—if not all—circumstances. Energy levels being what they are, it sounds too formal and forbidding. Days being what they are, I submit the idea of April Fool’s Intentions. Think of all the cleaning and reading that have begun already. No gyms, obviously, but lots more walks, lots more serious things done. In real earnest, we can think of what we do when this sequestering ends.

My own short list:

  1. I intend to think/speak/act more slowly. Too often, I make a spur-of-the moment decision, blunder in with a remark, act on either of those, too quickly.
  2. I intend to call/write/interact with people I love more quickly and more often. While I can (and have) talked to them, that pervading loneliness is likely only to increase. I think of the store clerks where I do have to go for a time and wonder if they are as petrified as I would be to take someone’s cash, which we assume is dirty in the best of times.
  3. I intend to be more serious with my music/writing/gardening. Yes, I listen to music most days, but I rarely practice or play. And I write more than weekly but barely touch the surface of what I know I could be doing. Even gardening doesn’t get the attention it needs. I’d love to be a Master Naturalist, for example. Love, however, doesn’t always equal actual intention.
  4. I intend—and plan—and believe it must be—never to take anything or anyone for granted again. This isn’t an original thought, as I expect you’ve had the same intention. Happiness is one of the purposes of life, though we have so many ways to thwart it. For some reason, I’m hearing “Tomorrow” from Annie: “So ya gotta hang on!” You, too.

The Sleeping Beauty: Not a Metaphor for Now

Sunday morning last week, my husband became quite ill and had to be taken to the emergency room. I thought we might lose him that night. The next morning he was better, and the next. The world changed quickly, however. On Wednesday morning I woke up to the possibility that I wouldn’t see him alive after 8 a.m., and the distinct wish came that I’d rather sleep through the rest of our troubles. That’s a natural reaction; I can’t apologize for it. So I dutifully went to the hospital before 8, fed him breakfast, talked to apologetic hospital staff who were shutting the place down, and left. He would not go back to his residence until Friday afternoon, a place also closed to me.

That aside, I thought of Sleeping Beauty. That’s not her name, of course. Strictly speaking, she is THE Sleeping Beauty, the name of the fairy tale. Her name (at least in the Disney version) is Aurora, from Charles Perrault’s adaptation, which you can read here. It’s charming, and while the Disney changes are obvious, and some don’t completely make sense, they stay true to its spirit. Peter Tchaikovsky’s ballet uses the same version but adds lots of dances with other fairy tale characters like Little Red Riding Hood (whose name may have been Blanchette; this WPA poster from the 1930s is cool, though in Perrault she ends up eaten at the end of the story), four other suitors, some cats, and the Blue Bird. One final note: The theme song “Once Upon a Dream” throughout the Disney movie is actually from the Tchaikovsky—listen to them side by side here. If you want to watch the entire ballet, you can enjoy it lots of places. It’s interesting to watch as the same choreography is used, again something I didn’t know much about: The Australian Ballet, the Bolshoi, Italian, and a tiny trailer for the new Bolshoi version that was in theaters. Back when we went to such things…

Far afield, I know. I had to review the story so I could decide if it is a metaphor for our time or not, with one thing leading to another. I’m thinking it’s not. What happens in Disney and the other versions involves not only Aurora sleeping for many years but the same happening to all her loved ones. They pick up where they left off after true love’s kiss. In addition, the fairy who prevented Aurora’s death by blessing her to sleep (The Lilac Fairy or Merryweather) allowed them all to dream. But they missed everything else, all the reality that gets so daily.

So, what would we miss? The isolation, the deprivation, the losses. News of the hoarders (an Australian store accepting toilet paper as currency) and the scammers (targeting the vulnerable elderly, as usual, special place in Hell reserved, as usual). Fear of fear, most famously articulated by Franklin D. Roosevelt: “This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” You can read the entire speech here. It’s important to remember that this was 1933, well before the war that was to come. The country was in the midst of a Great Depression (good source including pictures here.) Deprivation, loss, isolation were very real.

What will we gain? Hard to say, but I thought of Mr. Rogers: “Because if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.” In this 58-second clip, we hear him as an older man retelling what his mother taught and extending advice for news media, suggesting that rescue teams be included in reporting disasters. That does happen so often, and I wonder if they took him to heart or just instinctively knew to do it. Children need comforting. We all need comforting. We give it when we can, but we should also accept it and even seek it when we need it. Lists of what to do when isolated crop up. More people than ever are on FaceBook and other sites, connecting and making the best of it. Creativity abounds. Families cook together again. Abandoned projects are reconsidered. Houses cleaned, gardens planted, dogs walked. The sweetness of life is savored.

In whatever form we choose to take it, Eden was a paradise of bliss through ignorance. We chose to leave, making the decision to endure the bad so that we could know the good. So that we could experience not the eternal nap of a cat, not caring which week it is or who feeds us. It was a kind of sleep, then, that we reject every day we wake up to life. We will see goodness.

When I was leaving the hospital, I saw a van with this message: “Until we meet again.” I smiled. Someone up there knows me and loves me. A tender mercy or a random coincidence? It doesn’t really matter. I’m not sleeping through this, although the occasional nap is a good thing.

The More, the Worse

The familiar phrases “the more, the merrier” and “the more, the better” do not always apply. The more ways we have to contact each other, the worse the results. Daily, emails go unanswered, phone calls unreturned, and texts unacknowledged. The fault does not always lie with the recipient, however. Technical difficulties with equipment, sorting issues, overwhelming numbers of contacts—these reasons and more yield failed connections. How best to solve the misunderstandings and missed messages? Three things must happen: we need to establish and share our own best protocols, we need to relearn the courtesy of a reply, and we need to expand our reliable ways to respond.

Telephones became commonplace in the 1920s. The intervening century has seen vast changes, from wires to wireless, from listed to unlisted numbers, from immobility to almost universal mobility. These days, a phone call may not be the best way to contact someone. Many of us decline multiple calls a day when we do not recognize the number. Therefore, when we are exchanging information, it will is increasingly essential to identify our approach to contacts. For example, we might say, “I don’t always answer, so please leave a message” or “I will see that you called and call you back.” Perhaps more targeted responses are: “Text me first before you call” or “I prefer text or Messenger to a phone call.”

Email communication can be equally frustrating. Some texts provide “Read” responses. Some email does as well. Response time varies widely and for obvious reasons: busy schedules, volume of emails, misdirection, or faulty equipment. Human error results in failure to send an email or accidental deletions. A partial solution involves a high level of sorting with a system such as Gmail, with its Primary, Social, and Promotions tabs. Helpful but not flawless, this option sometimes results in misassignments that are not easy to detect or correct. Another solution is the courtesy of a simple response such as “Received.” The recipient has responded, the sender is aware, and the connection is established in a way the system will recognize for future exchanges.

Finally, if communication is to be improved, we need to expand our skill sets. FaceBook, for all its flaws, allows people to share news easily. Other platforms attract younger users, a phenomenon which will never end but which can be anticipated. Perhaps not everyone will actively participate in SnapChat or Instagram but more can learn their strengths.

In conclusion, as we recognize our divisions, we need to find ways to ease frustrations. With so much distraction, we tend to default to those things which cause us less stress. Taking simple steps such as declaring how best to reach us will alleviate another’s anxiety. Using good manners to let others know we hear them also helps. Rather than letting new technologies pile on, if we target what we want to learn from new methods, we will open new vistas rather than remove ourselves. It will, in the end, yield more– and better–communication.

“The Thing That Came Before”

On Friday, I attended a session in a college teachers’ conference having to do with technology in the classroom. The presenter—a young person, I shall add—could not remember the word for the thing people used to write on with chalk. Not the whiteboard she was standing in front of, but “You know,” she puzzled, “the…the thing that came before.” Finally, someone helped and said “Blackboard.” Ah, yes.

It was a powerful way of expressing the past. We always have something on which to base what comes next, but sometimes the transition is stark. For example, blackboards and chalk have a long history, beginning in the 11th century in India. Someone in Scotland invented colored chalk in 1814 by mixing dyes with ground chalk and (?) porridge. Whiteboards, now in common use in schools, were invented in the 1960s but did not gain wide use until the 1990s. The methodology is vastly different, on one hand; on the other, the principle is the same: transferring one substance to another to leave marks.

A different principle explains the transition from stovetop to microwave cooking, however. Although the appliance was available after 1946, it was not until the 1970s that home use was affordable. The history and additional applications can be learned here. What is less obvious concerns the method used in the cooking. We know it’s faster, but we don’t consider why. There is no actual heat in a microwave; microwave radiation excites the molecules in the food. (That’s a technical term, not a judgment.) I have no real understanding of this process. I have learned that the levels are not just less radiation or energy but less interior time. Full power is obvious, but defrost level uses two seconds on and five seconds off, per this article.

That no heat but a different type of energy is used led to the urban legend of the microwaved pet. Originating soon after the appliance debuted, the story went that an elderly woman bathed her poodle and then put him in the microwave to dry. We believed it, naturally, because the basic misunderstanding of the new principle as applied to an old concept represented an advance of knowledge without understanding. The story was not true, however, though sadly the image of the exploded pup is hard to remove from one’s mind.

Last evening, the two oldest grandsons and I were sitting around the kitchen table playing Boggle. They are two of the brightest people I know, but they are not (yet) Boggle whizzes. But they were game for the game, so it was fun. A younger sibling came in to check why they were yelling “NO!” so frequently. We had hot herbal tea and hot cocoa made with milk and stirred with chocolate spoons. Well, I didn’t have a chocolate spoon in herbal tea, but one of them chose such a thing. The younger of the two then remarked, “This is such an intellectually interesting time. Just like the old days…the father reading the paper, the mother crocheting by the roaring fire, the kids playing jazz.” I smiled. Had such a thing ever happened in his memory? Obviously not. Still, it was something that had come before, though not in reality.

I brought up the pitch A which is set in the US and Great Britain at 440Hz when one of the boys randomly went in to the piano and played an E. For years having tuned to that A, I now can—on a good day—have good relative pitch and could identify the E because the A is in my head. You can hear it here. As we were on an intellectual spin, I then reminded them of Bach’s A Well-Tempered Clavier. You can hear one version here with Sviatoslov Richter or another here with Kimiko Ishizaka. (Not to brag, but I can play the first one, slowly, but only because it requires just one finger at a time—an object lesson in itself.) Not to be outdone, the older child asked if I’d heard of The Well-tuned Piano, which you can hear here, if you have five or so hours. It’s not new, the first version from 1962. Microtonal in function, it’s not an easy listen. Minimalist in form, it might be good for listening while sleeping, the young person offered. I hadn’t heard of it and listened to a little bit of it. We also spoke of John Cage, his piece 4’33”, based on his experiment with silence in the anechoic chamber in which he heard both his nervous system and his blood pulsing. Or not. There is some discussion that it was simply his tinnitus and heartbeat.

So what is today’s takeaway? I think it must be simple: Question. If we are about to be inside for two weeks each, what will we be doing? Working on those scraps we’ve saved for decades for the undiscovered ability to make a quilt? Probably not. I doubt the Internet will go down. We’ll be searching for data and entertainment. Ask where telephone technology came from, perhaps. It was never “that thing that came before” of tin can phones. What will come next? I don’t know. Perhaps we can play board games and make new memories, too, not old ones that never existed in the first place: make a tin can phone. It will be a way to be rich in the best sense.

Ann Lowe, An Epiphany, and Kipling’s “If”

Among the few podcasts I listen to, the first and perhaps still the best is The Memory Palace. Originator Nate DiMeo takes fewer than 15 minutes to describe the life of a forgotten person from history. Take Jackie Mitchell, a pitcher who happened to be female and who happened to strike out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig one day in 1931. The commissioner then promptly declared baseball too strenuous for women and canceled her contract. Otherwise you would have heard of her. If you were paying attention to your Google Doodles on February 25, 2017, you would have learned about Ida Lewis, a lighthouse keeper who rescued at least 18 people from drowning, rowing out to them in all kinds of weather. Not all episodes are about women, of course. In less than 5 minutes you can learn about George Melendez Wright, a young park ranger who worked in the national park system and, after studying what the service was mismanaging at Yosemite, researched the science that rebalanced nature: let the wilderness be wild, he believed. The episode is called “Nature, Naturally.”

The February 10th episode on Ann Lowe, however, brought me to tears. I’m not entirely sure why but will try to explain the resulting epiphany. Ann HoLe was a seamstress at first, then a designer. Her great-grandmother was a slave, her great-grandfather the plantation owner. The women in her family were known for their fine needlework. Ann began sewing as a child then made a career of designing clothes for the upper echelon of Southern society before moving to New York City. She said she was rather a snob about who wore her clothes. In New York, however—and this was something of a surprise—the school she attended was segregated, so she had her classes in a room by herself. This was 1917, but it was the north, not the south. She graduated then went to Florida where her salon was a success. Returning to New York in 1928, she worked on commission for several high-end stores but again opened her own salon. It was a success; Olivia de Havilland wore her creation when accepting an Oscar for Best Actress in 1947. But again, no fame. In 1953, she designed a wedding dress for Jacqueline Bouvier using 50 yards of ivory silk taffeta.

Here’s what Jackie Kennedy said later: It was designed by “a colored woman dressmaker—not haute couture.” No name, no credit, no honor. That statement resulted in my epiphany. I get that Mrs. Kennedy was of a time and place and a society not my own. I understand that she may not have intended disrespect. What struck me was that we don’t usually know when we are doing or saying something wrong or ignorant. Otherwise, we might not say it. These days, people label each other as if they are on a higher moral plane. That seems the height (or depth) of hypocrisy. Apparently, all those society women talked Ann Lowe down on her fees, resulting in near-financial ruin even at the top of her career. She was their “secret.” And I guess they just didn’t see.

Which brings me to Kipling’s “If.” I introduced it a few years ago as a foundational piece, often recited by my grandfather. You can listen to our dear Michael Caine read it here or a much different reading by Dennis Hopper on The Johnny Cash Show here. Different times. I have written about Ifthenism, but this is a bit different. If hate is your motivation, then it’s likely wrong. If your response to opposition is to oppose hate, then an examination is also in order. Name-calling never produces a good, no matter which side you’re on. Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” That opinion cost him his life, literally. I am still in shock that Jackie Kennedy, an icon of grace and civility, could be so thoughtless. My current goal is to examine what I think and do as well.