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The Birth of the Burpee

I find that a lot gets done around my house. Cleaning gets done, emails get written and sent, laundry gets folded, students get responded to, and shopping lists get conducted. The impetus to these things happening is very simple and the same in every case. I put on my workout clothes.   

As part of my never ending quest to not end up looking like a balloon with pants on, I work out five times a week. Not only does it help with that, but it also assuages any guilt I feel about eating bad food or drinking beer.

But before I work out, I stall, I hesitate, I walk around in shorts and a T shirt and find things to do. Though my workouts usually take about 30-35 minutes, I usually block off an hour because I know it takes me so long to get to it.  

One of the exercises I do most often is a little slice of hell called ‘the burpee’. If you’re in a self-loathing mood or your body does something to piss you off, then I suggest doing a few burpees to get back at it. How, you ask?

Stand on the floor with legs shoulder width. Squat down and put your hands palm-down on the floor in front of you. Now kick your legs back so that you’re in a plank position. While you’re in this position, torture yourself by doing a push up. Then bring your legs back so that you’re in the same squat position as before. Stand up and hop into the air. A burpee.

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Pink Floyd and Other Animal Outlaws

Sometime in April, a fisherman in West Texas happened to catch sight of a strange thing. There in the wetlands was a flamingo. He was standing on one leg just like that guy from Jethro Tull. The man was looking at Pink Floyd, an African flamingo who escaped from the Wichita Zoo in 2005.

Pink Floyd, whose zoo name was a downright unimaginative #492, has been on the run for 17 years and has evidently covered over 700 miles. He escaped with a friend, #347 who is still AWOL and unaccounted for. Along his travels he has made friends and been seen in the company of a Caribbean flamingo who might have been blown off course by a storm back in 2006. But they haven’t been seen together since 2013. Otherwise, Floyd seems to be a loner.

Stories of runaway animals always make me a little leery. For as long as I can remember, they have been part of our urban legend rollcall. As a kid I remember a story about a boy who had come across a baby alligator in Florida on holiday and which he smuggled back to the Bucks County area of the Philadelphia area. His mother found out and of course ordered him to get rid of it. Then, holding a great deal of respect in the boy’s judgment and evidently having never met another teenage boy, she left him to it. He flushed the alligator down the toilet.

That was merely the backstory. The main story was that this alligator was now grown and very sad and pissed off at having been not only discarded but discarded in a toilet. He was now swimming up toilets biting off the pendulous parts of boys’ anatomy in an effort to exact revenge. Forgetting that the alligator was now too big to swim up a toilet, I still spent a few weeks peering into my toilet before using it and then tapping a nervous foot while using it. No alligators ever appeared.

There are similar, though possibly true, stories of people buying tigers and pumas and then tiring of the big cats when they realize the cat A. can destroy their furniture and B. instinctually goes after one’s jugular. Thus the woods and glens of that area get an apex predator that wasn’t meant to be there.

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May 8 1886 – Coca Cola Sold for the First Time

In 1886, the United States was a confusing place. The New World was running away from the Old World. While Industrialization and urbanization created completely different lives for Americans, what had forgotten to keep pace was medicine. So, people suffered from ailments brought on by war, living in cities, and working in factories, but treatments were decidedly 18th century. This left the field wide open for hucksters and charlatans.

Enter the patent medicine boom. No western movie is complete without a snake oil salesman pitching the cure all benefits of their liniment. These were often pitched as medical panaceas, fixing everything from hemorrhoids to massive depression. The ingredients were often exotic and had names that vexed the mouth. 

Dr Bateman’s Pectoral Drops would cure your chest or lungs, Magician John Hamlin’s Wizard Oil promised ‘There is no Sore it will Not Heal, No Pain it will not Subdue.’ And Daffy’s Elixir would cure you of all your stomach ails. Though many of the patent medicines were made from harmless ingredients that would also do no good, many used a variety of liquors and elicit drugs. Dr. Bateman’s Pectoral Drops wouldn’t fix your chest but it was made of opium, so you didn’t care. No wonder John Hamlin’s Wizard Oil subdued your pains because it was made up of 60-70% alcohol including ammonia and chloroform. The marketing genius here is that you can’t feel any pain if you are blacked out on your bathroom floor. And Daffy’s Elixir would cure your stomach pain until you sobered up from the brandy in it.

The mother of them all was Vin Mariani (French: Mariani wine). This was a coca wine created in the 1860s by Angelo Mariani, a French chemist. Mariani saw the economic potential from adding coca to booze and selling it as medicine. The ethanol in the wine acts as a solvent and extracts the cocaine from the coca leaves. It originally contained 6 mg of cocaine per fluid ounce of wine but Vin Mariani that was to be exported contained 7.2 mg per ounce in order to compete with the higher cocaine content of similar drinks in the United States. Advertisements for Vin Mariani claimed (almost certainly accurately) that it would restore health, strength, energy and vitality. Which might be the exact nouns one might use to explain the effects of taking cocaine while drinking before they ran off to do some jumping jacks and hit the bathroom again. Not surprisingly, It was ridiculously popular. Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, the Pope, and the Rabbi all adored it, teaming up some very random people. 

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Calories

I walked into the kitchen last week in search of candy. It was a Sunday and I had convinced myself that since Sunday was the day reserved by many to praise deities, I could have candy. In the kitchen, Burke was aiming her phone at a package of ham.

“Are you taking a picture of the ham?”

“Hm?”

“Is the ham doing something interesting?”

“No…I’m scanning the calories.”

Against all my instincts, I asked for an explanation. And then I got one.

It seems that the not-getting-fat or the getting-less-fat people are the target market of lots of apps. There are apps to motivate you to eat better, to motivate you to eat less, to motivate you to eat nothing. Many of these apps are meant to deter your appetite. For an app to be successful in doing this with me, it would have to turn into a cheeseburger and stuff itself into my throat. The app Burke had found works on the premise of counting calories. This is a sadist’s app. So, let’s say one buys a packet of Oreos at the store. He is joyous, for he has bought Oreos and they are a solid part of his immediate future plans. And then, somewhere in between buying the Oreos and devouring the Oreos, he decides that what would really make the Oreos enjoyable would be knowing exactly how many calories eating them would transmute to him. He can then open this app on his phone, aim the phone at the Oreo barcode, scan it, and then instantly learn that by eating the Oreos, he will be fulfilling his caloric intake for the next 27 days.

Over the following week, Burke used it for everything. Everything. She became a font of information, all of it bad. The very number of calories in anything will make you recoil in terror, an action whose only benefit is that it burns about 4 calories. Everything became tainted with numerical information. I stopped seeing food and started seeing calories. A whole wheat wrap no longer was a tasty way to bring chicken to my mouth, it was now 320 calories. Hummus was no longer a salty part of my lunch, it was 180 calories. A beer was no longer a tasty way to forget my week, it was now 280 calories that I might as well tape to my ass.

There are some of you out there who will argue that before I ever knew about this secret world of ‘calories’ they still existed. You might say with annoyance that I just didn’t realize exactly how much everything I put in my mouth was uploading fat into my system. You might then put your hand on my padded knee and say words of encouragement to the effect of ‘knowledge is power’ and ‘being armed with information is a huge help.’ To you people, I say go eat a few spoonfuls of Nutella and then look at the calorie count. If you don’t shriek in horror, I’ll be impressed.

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96 Bags of Poop on the Moon

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I awake at 5:30 and everyone in the bed is asleep. No we’re not swingers (at least I don’t think we are). The cat’s at the foot of the bed in a ball, Burke takes up the right side, and between us, the little sliver of white hair known as Maisy the Shih tzu. I slowly slip out of bed, careful not to alert anyone to my movement. However, before I can put my toe on the floor a little head pops up and two sleepy black eyes blink at me.

I’m caught. Before I sit up, the dog is next to me as if she’s riding shotgun to my driver. She stretches her lower half and then awkwardly tumbles to the floor where she stretches her upper half. The stretch depletes her and she plops down into a long-bodied position and waits.

I am not sure if dogs are lovers of routine or if our dog has just become accustomed to our routine. But now she has her own. She’s up with the earlier person (usually me), who brings her downstairs to relieve herself. Once back upstairs, she aggravates the cat with nosebutts until she gets fed. After breakfast, she might wander the flat for a few minutes before getting back into bed with Burke. When Burke moves to the living room to start planning and organizing her day of teaching, Maisy sleeps on a blanket on the couch until about 10.

Bringing a dog outside between 5 and 6 in the morning is an activity that becomes far more pleasant as the winter turns into spring. It’s lighter, warmer, crisper, the grass is green. The only advantages winter brought were that the dog did her business more quickly and I could more easily see the poop of other dogs in the snow. Now, as I bring down Maisy in the not-quite-light, I tiptoe through the faecal minefield.  

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On April 14 1865, John Wilkes Booth Goes to the Star Saloon for a drink

The events of April 14 1865 are some of the most infamous in American history. Abraham Lincoln went to a play at Ford’s Theatre, he sat in a box and watched the comedy Our American Cousin. In the third act, actor and confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth snuck into his box. When actor Harry Hawk delivered “you sockdologizing old mantrap!” the crowd roared with laughter, just as Booth knew they would. He took the opportunity to pull the trigger of the Deringer he held up against Lincoln’s head. Mary Todd Lincoln and Clara Harris screamed as Major Henry Rathbone jumped up and struggled with Booth. Booth stabbed Rathbone, screamed “Sic semper tyrannis” which is Latin for “See you in your grade school history book!” and broke his leg while jumping onto the stage and into the annals of monumentally bad fucking decisions.

In America we learned this story in grade school, along with the words “assassination,” “coma,” and “dagger,” but not “sockdologizing mantrap.” We learned the power of context, and would never again hear “Ford’s Theatre” without attaching it to bad omens. We learned context to relativize the magnitude of the event. When Mr. Hancock explained that John Wilkes Booth killing Abraham Lincoln was like Harrison Ford killing President Reagan, we were aghast.   

What we don’t learn is how the events of April 14 were linked to alcohol. Before Ford’s Theatre, Booth stopped at the Star Saloon next door for a few whiskeys to steel his nerves. He might have looked down the bar to see the president’s coachman Francis Burke, his valet Charles Forbes, and John Frederick Parker having a drink. When Booth would arrive at the president’s box a few minutes later, he would get inside with ease because the police officer in charge of guarding his box, John Frederick Parker, was at the Star Saloon. Across town, George Atzerodt was set to shoot Vice President Andrew Johnson at the Kirkwood House Hotel. Atzerodt went to the hotel’s bar, spent the evening getting shitfaced, and eventually lost his nerve and ran off into the night. Perhaps Lincoln might have been spared had the barman at the Star Saloon poured drinks like the barman at the Kirkwood. One of the best accounts of Lincoln’s assassination is that of another barman, James P. Ferguson, who was in attendance in Ford’s Theatre. He ran the Greenback Saloon, which flanked the theatre’s other side. Because his wife was ill, his guest that night was Mary Ella Cecil, a girl with whom he would fall in love and gift a canary named Jimmy.

And so, surrounding one of the most infamous murders in history is the full spectrum of human beings in pubs. On the one hand, Booth drinks at the Star Saloon to prepare for a difficult task. Nearby, you have ordinary working men enjoying a drink while their boss is at an event. As a result of his boozy appetites, Parker shirks his duty, which results in tragedy. George Atzerodt gets too drunk to do what he’s supposed to do but ruins his life anyway. One can only imagine the horror he felt in the morning along with his hangover. For as long as pubs have peddled booze, people have fucked their lives up in them.

To say that Abraham Lincoln’s death was influenced by alcohol is like saying a soldier’s death in combat was influenced by gun violence. Alcohol was ubiquitous in 19th century America. People made it in mass quantities, other people drank it in mass quantities, and a growing number of people wanted to get rid of it in mass quantities. Abraham Lincoln was a non-drinker; nevertheless, his attitudes towards alcohol were increasingly scrutinized by a public that was finding alcohol a worsening social problem. The growing temperance movement had only gathered steam during the Civil War, when soldiers matched alcohol with its troublesome soulmates – trauma, depression, and guns. A war, by the way, that was partially financed by a tax on alcohol introduced by one Abraham Lincoln. About five score and two years before Lincoln won the Republican party’s nomination in 1860, George Washington bought rum to court voters. Washington also had a whiskey distillery. But by the time Lincoln came around, politicians were expected to address America’s troublesome relationship with booze. Perhaps, given the change in attitudes towards alcohol, it’s only fitting that his murder would be so linked to it.

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Happy Unbirthday

It’s Monday and I’m looking for a rationale to have a drink. Before you say it, I know that drinking doesn’t need a reason. But I’m a sporting fellow, and I thought I’d try to track one down. April 11. What is there to drink for on April 11?

April 11 is international Louie Louie Day, Hug Your Dog Day, and Farm Animal Day. but I’ve always hated that song, I hug my dog every day, and the further away from farm animals I stay the better. It’s the day Apollo 13 launched (1970), Idi Amin was deposed (1979), MacArthur got fired (1951), the Civil Rights Act was passed (1968), and Joe Dirt premiered (1991). Some of these events are more impressive than others (how does one measure up to Joe Dirt, after all), but I am left unaroused by these facts. The search went on.

It was about 10 in the morning when I was struck by inspiration. My birthday is October 11, the polar opposite of my birthday is April 11. I leapt for joy and when the roomful of students eyed me inquisitively, I decided to come clean.

“April 11 is my polar opposite birthday.”

The students murmured in a way that suggested they didn’t share my enthusiasm or my spreading sense of dread. No matter, I thought, this will add to my reasoning for a drink. One student, a nice gent by the name of Honza, raised his hand.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Does that mean it is your…unbirthday?”

I looked at the screen and was struck that we were focusing our language portion of class on prefixes.

“Honza! You genius!”

Honza looked chuffed as hell. He looked around the room.

“You just invented a word.”

“I did?”

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Pickett Goes to a Shad Bake…and loses the U.S. Civil War

In late March 1865, generals on the Union and Confederacy sides were playing something of a chess game in Virginia. General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant smelled the end of the war on the horizon. Lee’s army was decimated by wounds and desertions. Morale of the Confederate army was at its lowest point. Lee was trying his best to hold his line and keep Richmond from falling.

The Union, as you might imagine, were trying to accomplish the opposite. Generals Warren and Sheridan were trying to maneuver an attack against the line on Confederate General George Pickett’s right flank. The Union generals thought they had him cornered, but Pickett surprised Warren by advancing and pushing him back. By doing this, however, Pickett realized he had unwittingly exposed himself and correctly surmised that General Warren knew this as well. He was forced to pull his men back to the lines at the crossroads at Five Forks. He immediately received the worst thing in history: a terse message from his boss.

General Lee: “Regret exceedingly your forced withdrawal, and your inability to hold the advantage you had gained. Hold Five Forks at all hazards.”

If Pickett was stressed about this, he didn’t show it. He set his line and, not knowing that two divisions were maneuvering to exploit his weakness, he was fairly confident he could hold it against General Warren. On the afternoon of April 1, scouts describing the area as quiet and thinking no action would be taken that day, he went to the camp of General Rosser, who had extended an invitation to a shad bake.

Before writing this article, I had never once heard the word ‘shad’ and had I been asked to define it, would have gone with a derogatory name for someone who had slept with a sheep or perhaps archaic past participles of shed, shit, or show. The collocative coupling of shad bake threw me through a loop and I deduced it was an animal. In the end, shad is a fish. It is a voluminous fish found in the North Atlantic, which then swims up fresh water streams to spawn.

It has a place of great importance and derision in the American story and it has been said that it is “the fish that fed the (American) nation’s founders.” Shad were introduced to colonists by the Native peoples of New England and the Lenape of the Delaware. William Penn negotiated with the Lenape over shad fishing in the Schuylkill River in the 1680s, having realized its delicacy in both pickling and smoking. At Valley Forge, George Washington’s men were said to have been saved from famine by an early thaw that tricked local shad populations into early spawn.

While the voluminous shad might have fed America’s founding fathers, they might not have been so happy about this. The shad has been called an inside-out porcupine and the devil’s fish because of its thousands of miniscule bones. Picking them out is an laborious, frustrating chore. The legions of shad might be explained away by the fact that they were the last fish anyone wanted to eat. Thus it was only in desperation and when no other food was available that people ate the shad. By the late 18th century it became known as a poor man’s food.  

But the shad fad was not dead. The shad bake has its roots in the traditions of the native tribes of Connecticut. They apparently taught the colonists the baking method of nailing the shad to wooden planks around a fire and angling them in such a way that the excess oils dripped off the fish into dishes below. Thought the shad might have been the last fish anyone wanted to eat, the early 1800s saw a middle class interest in travel and Americana and so the shad bake was rebranded as a quintessential springtime event. It has remained so in communities in New England, throughout the MidAtlantic states, and in the South.

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Tramp

When we decided to get a puppy last summer, I, a cat guy, had some questions. For example, how often do dogs eat? And will it know how to pee outside immediately? The answers to those are all the time and evidently no, respectively. When Burke informed me that we were getting a female dog, I was instantly excited to be able to use the term “bitch” literally and without repercussions. However, it dawned on me that soon I would be living in a house of girls from three different species.

This didn’t seem to matter. The cat is always a psychopath, the human has her moments, but the dog was a puppy, a playful, happy, innocent puppy whose goals seemed to be as follows and in descending order of importance.

  1. Eat.
  2. Find food
  3. Explore under the couch (probably for food, but also sometimes for pens)
  4. Eat the cat’s food
  5. If 4 is not possible, then eat the cat’s poop (the next best thing apparently)

But then at month nine a little splotch of blood appeared from the pup’s nether regions and her nipples got big and some other biological things that I’ll let you imagine. We realized that our little puppy was in heat. My little girl was growing up!

Taking her for a walk elicited heretofore unknown levels of frustration. She smelled everything. Each drop of urine, each pile of poop were like tinder profiles for the neighborhood’s dogs. She smelled each one, took down the dog’s credentials (good diet, healthy, good testicle cleansing regimen). Then she shook her butt until a few inches away she came across Fido’s urine, the chihuahua from flat 12.

Her personality changed a bit as well. She became cheeky, like a teenager. She says mean things to me while I cook and refuses to acknowledge our relationship when we’re around the other neighborhood dogs. As she has long been in a feud with the cat for domination of the flat, she took to attacking the poor B Monster. She rushes her, even sometimes tackles her. The cat, surely remembering her own heat from 14 years ago, rolls her eyes and tells herself that it’s just a phase.

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March 19 1848, Wyatt Earp is Born

…and would-be problem drinkers all over the west get nervous

Of the people whose life is a mix of fact and fiction at every turn, Wyatt Earp is the head of that organization. Depending on your source, he is either a thug and a gang leader, the bravest dude who ever walked the Old West, creator of his own mythology, or, if your source is just TV, Kurt Russell. The mostly agreed upon facts are that Wyatt Earp was a lawman, a boomtown speculator, and a saloon owner.

Wyatt Earp was a saloon owner in various boomtowns that erupted in the West after the Civil War. The prospect of finding goal and fortune, as well as frustration from the fallout of southern towns in the reconstruction that followed the Civil War, sent a lot of men West. And someone had to get them drunk.

To be sure, the American West’s relationship with alcohol was much older. American fur traders would trade alcohol with Native Americans in the early 19th century. The fur traders would also engage in a yearly throwdown called ‘a rendezvous’ which was like a massive trading festival and binge drinking fest. Imagine Bonnaroo, but with more chewing tobacco and a lot more violence.

But it’s in the boomtowns that popped up all over the West in the mid to late 19th century that comes to our mind’s eye when we picture a saloon. The one you’re imagining now is a little square building on a dusty road. The building might be on a plank boardwalk next to some other squat buildings, it might sit alone on the dusty road. There’s a hitching post outside and the swinging doors so (as it turns out, erroneously) ubiquitous that they are now eponymous. Above it, in block or stenciled letters is a basic name on a flat marquee: Red’s Saloon, John’s Saloon, Sal’s Saloon. Often, the saloon was a tent on the ground and if it stuck around for long enough to make some money, a more permanent structure would be built on its spot.

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