10 Things About Santa Claus

It’s that time of year. Parents are rushing to and fro, whether from store to store or website to website, to find the perfect gifts for their children. And children are making lists for Santa. They will write letters and make pleas for all the things their little hearts desire and mail them to a “jolly old elf” clad in red and white furs who lives at the North Pole.

But wait. Santa Claus is also known as St. Nick. And Saint Nicholas didn’t call the North Pole home. He lived in modern-day Turkey. So when did Santa move to his new arctic digs? And just how old is he?

Let’s follow the evolution of the legend and see what it can teach us about world-building. Here are 10 things you might not know about Santa Claus.

  1. Nicholas, who would later be canonized as Saint Nicholas, was born sometime around 270 AD in a town that was at the time a part of Greece, but today is part of Turkey. He lost his parents at a young age, but was left with a large inheritance. Nicholas decided to dedicate his life to the Christian church and used his inheritance to help those in need whenever he could. The most famous account of this is when Nicholas secretly gave money to an indebted father of three daughters so he would have the money to pay their dowries. That meant the daughters could marry instead of becoming prostitutes to support themselves. The story goes that Nicholas, on three separate occasions (once for each daughter as she came of age) threw a small bag of gold through an open window into the family’s home during the night. The bags landed in shoes or socks that had been hung by the fire to dry. It didn’t take long for the story to spread and children began hanging up their socks to see if they, too, could wake up to life-altering gifts.
  2. Nicholas was made Archbishop of Myra and served the post at a time when Rome was persecuting Christians. He was no stranger to imprisonment, and possibly even torture, but refused to abandon or renounce his faith. When Constantine came to power, he invited Nicholas to Nicea where he was part of the council that gave us the famous Nicene Creed.
  3. Nicholas died on December 6th, 343 AD. Hence the reason December 6th is his Saint day. In fact, December 6th is still the day that many cultures exchange gifts–instead of Christmas Day. Fast forward to modern times and forensic scientists have been able to use his remains to create new models for what Nicholas actually looked like. Spoiler alert, it’s not the chubby, red-cheeked guy that pop culture depicts. It’s a man with dark olive-toned skin, deep brown eyes, and a gray beard. While the forensic picture the scientists came up with had to take some artistic license based on probability and common features of people in his area during his time, it still seems much more likely than the Scandinavian looking, blue-eyed version we know. What they can tell is that Nicholas had a crooked nose from a bad break that didn’t heal correctly (possibly from his tenure in prison courtesy of the Romans).
  4. After Nicholas passed, the stories of his generosity lived on. The tradition of secretly leaving gifts during the night around Saint Nicholas Day became increasingly popular throughout Europe. The prevalence of the celebration continued to spread until a man named Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to a wooden door. After the Protestant Reformation, celebrating saints largely fell out of favor in Europe. However, by then people didn’t want to give up the St. Nick traditions, so they secularized him.
  5. Depending on which part of Europe we’re talking about, the new secular St. Nick took many forms. In some countries, he had taken on the abilities of old pagan deities/legends such as flight and immortality. In others, he not only delivered gifts in the night but also possessed the power to guide the hand of parents in disciplining their children whenever they misbehaved. In some areas, though, they dropped St. Nick altogether in favor of the “Christ Kind” or Christ Child giving gifts on Christmas day. However, the holy child didn’t seem one to be mean and discipline children, so he was given an accomplice who threatened to kidnap and/or beat bad children who didn’t deserve presents. What’s up, Krampus? In any case, and an ironic twist, the Germanic term Christ kind was eventually anglicized into Kris Kringle–another name for Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus.
  6. As you can imagine, as Europeans traveled the globe (and colonized everything they touched) they took their traditions regarding St. Nick with them. The Dutch took Saint Nicholas or Sint Niklaas, often shortened to Sinterklaas to the “New World”. This too was eventually anglicized into, you guessed it, Santa Claus.
  7. When the Dutch brought Sinterklaas to American shores, Christmas celebrations were not the family-friendly affairs we think of today. Unless you’re picturing rowdy and raucous holiday parties with heavy amounts of alcohol and at least one big bonfire. Then you’re totally on the right track. However, in the early 1800s it became the fashion for poets and novelists to write about Santa Claus and promote a much more heart-warming holiday. In 1809 Washington Irving gave Santa Claus a pipe and had him flying over rooftops in a wagon. In 1822, Clement Clark Moore, an Episcopalian minister and father of three young girls, wrote a poem for his children, “An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas”. The minister was very hesitant to have the poem published because of its whimsical nature, but his family adored it and pushed for him to do it anyway. It was instantly popular. We better know the poem today as “The Night Before Christmas”. It is in this poem that we first see Santa with a sleigh, reindeer, sliding down chimneys and being jolly.
  8. In 1881 Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, gave us a rendering of Santa Claus in his now-iconic red color (though this depicted long johns instead of fur robes) with a fluffy white beard, an armload of toys and a red hat. The image was published in Harper’s Weekly and quickly became the accepted image of Old St. Nick. During the 1930s a man named Haddon Sundblom took the concept Nast had drawn and ran with it. He replaced Santa’s long johns with red and white fur and replaced his pipe with a bottle of Coca-Cola. This image had been commissioned by the soft drink company as part of their holiday ad campaign and has been in use ever since.
  9. During World War II, American soldiers took their concept of Santa Claus with them across the ocean and the idea of a white-bearded, chubby, laughing, red-fur wearing Santa spread like wildfire. For a time, the Russian government even tried to bury Santa under the blue-fur wearing, New Year’s gift-giving, completely devoid of religious sentiment Grandfather Frost, but St. Nick persisted.
  10. As for Santa’s home at the North Pole, it has been a little harder to trace, but from I can tell it seems to stem from a set of letters that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his children from St. Nick (and sometimes his side-kick North Polar Bear). The letters were eventually published and there was great detail about how the North Polar Bear once wreaked havoc on Santa’s workshop through a series of accidents that almost ruined Christmas. The bear even wrote to the children in “arctic” and they had to decipher the language since it was too difficult for the bear to become truly fluent in English.

And that’s how a Turkish Archbishop gained immortality and moved to the North Pole. Is there a legend that the people in your fictional world believe? Perhaps it, too, evolved over time from something real to something fantastical. It might affect the way people celebrate or don’t celebrate something. Or it might add a touch of magic and evoke emotion. That’s why the Salvation Army began using Santas to ring bells to gather donations near Christmas. The tradition began in the early part of the 20th century when the organization needed to raise money to help pay for the meal they provided each year for families in need. They hired homeless and/or unemployed men to dress as Santa and ring bells on street corners to get attention. It was such a successful campaign that it continues today, though the bell ringers are now volunteers.

A man who became a tradition. A tradition that became a poem. A poem that became an image. An image that became a legend. A legend that became an icon. Never underestimate the power of a person with a good story to tell.

Happy Holidays.

10 Things About Nutmeg

food white seasoning spices
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There is a cold front hovering over the northern part of Mississippi right now. It’s definitely colder than usual for this time of year and will get even worse over the next couple of days before the front moves on. But while it’s cold, I’m indulging myself by making my favorite fall treats. Apple cake, wassail, mulled cider. I love the way they smell and the way they taste. It’s hard not to feel warm and fuzzy while drinking mulled cider and smelling apple cake.

That’s the key, really. The smell of it all is what calms me and puts me in the right frame of mind for sweaters and fuzzy socks. Y’all can harp on skipping Thanksgiving all you want (I like Christmas movies and carols, dang it. Get off me), but when I start to smell nutmeg on a regular basis, it’s time for warm fires, thick blankets, and saccharine holiday movies.

That’s my signal: nutmeg. Everyone always mentions cinnamon, but in most of my faves nutmeg is the star of the show. I love cinnamon, too, but nutmeg is the fragrance I adore. So, this month, I’m showing love to an underappreciated spice. Because, after all, our characters should be using all their senses to draw the reader into their world/experience. Smell is closely associated with memory. Wars have been fought over access to spice routes. And some of the things in your spice cabinet today, probably aren’t as innocuous as you think–and the same is true of your characters.

10 things you might not know about nutmeg:

  1. It comes from the ground up seed of a type of evergreen called “true nutmeg”. The seed covering is also used to make a spice. True nutmegs are native to a small island in Indonesia.
  2. The islands around where nutmeg grows are known as the Spice Islands and Indonesia still has a 75% market share of nutmeg exportation worldwide.
  3. Indonesian traders would trade with merchants in India and the Middle East. Those merchants would then carry nutmeg to European ports, but wouldn’t divulge the origin of the spice. It wasn’t until the Portuguese invaded the islands that it was discovered (in 1512).
  4. In medieval Europe, nutmeg was thought to be a treatment and a preventative measure against the plague. Though today researchers say it has no medicinal properties, it made the spice quite lucrative at the time.
  5. Though the Portuguese were the ones to invade the Banda Islands (the part of Indonesia where nutmeg grows naturally), they weren’t able to completely conquer them. It wasn’t until the Dutch East India Company came a-colonizin’ in 1621 that the islands lost a monopoly on the spice (along with so many other things).
  6. In the 17th and 18th centuries, unscrupulous and desperate merchants would actually fake the look of nutmeg by grating wood and selling the shavings. “Wooden nutmeg” eventually became a common term for many types of business fraud.
  7. There are other types of trees that also bear the name nutmeg (the California Nutmeg, for example), but they are not closely related and do not produce the same flavor of spice.
  8. In small amounts, nutmeg makes a fragrant and flavorful addition to culinary dishes. However, in its purest form, or in large quantities, nutmeg is a toxin and psychoactive substance. Common symptoms of nutmeg intoxication are chills, anxiety, delirium/hallucinations, nausea, dizziness, headaches, and amnesia. It may take several hours for such symptoms to begin, but they can last for several days.
  9. When a new nutmeg tree is planted, it takes approximately nine years before the first harvest of nutmeg seeds can occur. The tree reaches full production after about twenty years.
  10. While we (and I mean “I” because I can’t really speak for anyone else) most closely associate nutmeg with the smells of the holiday season (pumpkin pie, etc), it can also be used to make industrial lubricants, toothpaste, and cough syrup.

What plant or spice is native to the world your character lives in? How does its cultivation/exportation affect the character’s world and/or life? What is it used for? You may not use all of those details in the story, but if you know the answers to the questions, you’ve already made your world more unique and identifiable.

10 Things About Halloween

It’s October. Cue the Monster Mash and start (erroneously) bashing the taste of candy corn. Seriously, there are worse candies out there. Candy corn isn’t half bad in small doses, it’s just too sweet to binge.

ANYWAY, much like I have for other holidays throughout the year, I thought this month I’d scrape up some trivia about Halloween. Holidays all start somewhere, and many evolve over time. This could be important for the world you’re building in your writing.

But I’ve said this over and over in previous posts, so I’ll skip the lecture this time and jump right in. Here are 10 Things About Halloween.

  1. Most scholars and sources trace our modern observance of Halloween back to a Celtic practice 2,000 years ago. At the end of the harvest, the Celtics celebrated Samhain, a day in which they believed the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was at its thinnest. They believed the dead could return to the land of the living on this one night. It was common to leave out offerings for loved ones, bonfires were lit through the night to guide the spirits, and sometimes disguises were worn to avoid confrontation with ill-intentioned spirits.
  2. While most scholars credit Samhain as the starting point for the evolution of what would eventually become Halloween, I find that it would be myopic and rude not to point out the holiday that would eventually become Dia de los Muertos had a similar origin with the Aztecs and other Nahua people groups another thousand years before the Celtics began observing Samhain. The Aztec believed that once a year, also in the fall, the veil or border between worlds grew thin and the dead could return. They also believed that when someone died and entered the land of the dead, they had to complete many different challenges to get through different “levels” of the land of the dead before actually getting to the final resting place. This process could take years and so leaving offerings for a loved one who you believed was still forging through the challenges as a way to encourage them was common. This belief would eventually blend with medieval Spanish beliefs and Catholic traditions to become what it is today, which IS NOT MEXICAN HALLOWEEN. It’s different. However, to not point out the similarities between the original celebrations and what they have become seems remiss.
  3. The Celtic tradition of Samhain would eventually get tangled up with the Roman tradition of Feralia when the Romans invaded, as they had a tendency to do. Feralia was a day, generally in October, the Romans set aside to remember and honor the dead.
  4. In 609 AD Pope Boniface IV established All Martyrs’ Day to celebrate those who died defending and spreading the Christian faith. However, All Martyrs’ Day was in May. Pope Gregory III chose to expand the holiday from all martyrs to all saints and moved the celebration to November 1st.
  5. Sometime around 1,000 AD the Catholic celebration of All Saints Day and the Celtic celebration of Samhain collided in the British Isles. Celebrations bled from one into the other. In Middle English, All Saints Day was said Alhalowmesse. Eventually, that became Hallowmas. The night before Hallowmas was Hallow’s Eve. Add several hundred more years, mix in different dialects, throw in a case of lazy mouth and we get “Halloween”.
  6. As Europeans, especially the British, colonized North America, they naturally brought their beliefs and celebrations with them. However, in most of the early Puritan settlements, Hallow’s Eve was strictly discouraged. It was, however, more commonly celebrated in the southern colonies (pretty much everything from southern Maryland down through Georgia). There is was further mixed with the celebrations and practices of several different Native American nations and became more of a harvest celebration/autumn festival.
  7. During the Irish Potato Famine in the late nineteenth century, Irish immigrants brought over their Halloween traditions and they quickly spread throughout the nation. These traditions included souling, guising, and innocent pranks. Souling was the practice that had the poor knocking on doors of their more affluent neighbors and offering to pray for the souls of their loved ones in exchange for loaves of bread. Guising was the act of wearing a mask and going door to door asking for food or coin in exchange for singing, dancing, recitations of poetry, or other performances.
  8. Over the years the innocent pranks portion of the tradition evolved into something more like vandalism. Where today we think of toilet papering houses and throwing eggs, at one point things got so bad that businesses began bribing the adolescents and young adults of the communities with candy or treats to keep them from damaging their stores. By the 1930s, it was pretty common for teenagers to go to both businesses and residences asking for these treat bribes. Anyone who refused got pranked. Trick or treat. Your choice. The definition of extortion.
  9. By the 1950s the holiday tradition had become more kid-friendly and the tricks a little less threatening. Now the adorable little princess or superhero at your door wasn’t actually threatening to bust out your windows or slash your tires, they were just asking for some free goodies using a mild threat they didn’t even understand. Ah, how precious.
  10. Today, Halloween candy, costumes, and decorations represent a more than $6 Billion industry with the vast majority of celebrants not knowing or caring why they wear masks (to hide from evil spirits), bob for apples (to celebrate a Roman goddess and to divine the future), or eat copious amounts of sweets (again, a history of extortion). They generally do know why they drink, they just might not know when to stop.

So there it is. The Celtics get all the credit, the Aztecs get overlooked, most Native American nations get left out of the story altogether, the Catholic church gets to name it, and lots of money gets spent. Halloween.

For kicks and giggles, I’ll end this post with a funny family anecdote. When I was very young, we lived in a tiny town where the Halloween tradition dictated that the more popular you were in school, the more likely for someone to roll (or toilet paper) your house. My older siblings were quite popular, but our house never got rolled.

Why?

Because when my eldest sister first got old enough for her friends to try to roll the house, my dad hatched a plan. He dressed in all-black tactical gear and hid in the bushes in front of our house alongside our completely black German Shepherd and armed himself with a super soaker filled with gentian violet–a generally harmless substance that stains the skin purple. When the kids showed up in our yard, he and the dog leapt from their hiding spot, already terrifying the poor lot, and sprayed them all.

Y’all.

It takes a few days for that stuff to fade away.

The HOMECOMING QUEEN had to accept her crown that year with a not-quite-faded purple streak across her face. Her mother was LIVID.

Nobody EVER rolled our house.

Trick or Treat.

10 Things About the Influenza Pandemic of 1918

I thought about doing a post about the traditions and origins of Homecoming Week, but I realized that I’ve done a lot of posts about sports-centric or sports-related topics. But while I was contemplating a post on Homecoming, I came across a piece of trivia that steered me in a new direction. Most of the homecoming celebrations for colleges and universities in the United States that try to lay claim to the longest celebrated tradition almost all have a gap in 1918 and/or 1919.

Why is not a great mystery to any world history nerd, or Twilight fan for that matter. The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 killed millions of people worldwide. Hospitals were overcrowded with sick patients, so universities and colleges (and churches, high schools, community centers, etc) were often converted to makeshift clinics. And since the flu is, as it always has been and continues to be, highly contagious, you can imagine why people might have wanted to avoid crowded sporting events and the like.

When people think of an illness that killed millions and affected world history, most conjure up thoughts of the Bubonic Plague. However, the “Spanish Flu” affected more people. And a single virus that makes its way around the world could give a writer a lot of ideas about how something as simple as a cough can shape the worlds we build.

10 Things About the Influenza Pandemic of 1918:

  1. An epidemic is an outbreak of disease that spreads quickly and across multiple communities, but a pandemic spreads throughout the world. Both words are Greek in origin and epidemic means “among the people”, while pandemic means “all the people”. The people part can also be translated as “district”, but since I have a less than rudimentary grasp on Greek, I’m just going to roll with it. The Influenza Pandemic affected most of the world, including remote islands and the Arctic. It killed somewhere between 3% and 5% of the Earth’s population at the time.
  2. Afraid of mass panic, many countries coming out of the war censored how widespread the flu was as much as they could for as long as they could. However, Spain had been neutral in the war and had no wartime censorship in effect. Other countries felt free to report on how the disease was ravaging the Spanish population, including the king. This misled the general public to believe that the flu originated in Spain, and that Spain was hit particularly hard by it. In truth, scholars and historians still aren’t certain where it began. So it’s called the Spanish Flu because of how newspapers reported it, not because it actually has any tie to Spain itself.
  3. It was not any more aggressive than previous influenza strains, or most since. However, a combination of crowded medical camps and hospitals, poor hygiene, and malnourishment helped it spread quickly. Many of the lives lost during the pandemic were actually from bacterial infections that patients got because their immune systems were so weak from fighting the virus.
  4. The reason for overcrowded medical camps and malnourishment had a lot to do with World War I. If the war had never happened, the pandemic might not have either. That’s not to say that the flu originated in Europe at the time. Different researchers have claimed the spread of this strain of the flu began in China, Southeast Asia, North America, and Europe. There is still great debate about where the spread of the disease began. But as travel modernized, the disease could be carried quicker and more efficiently than ever before.
  5. It has been dubbed “the greatest medical holocaust in human history”. It killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS killed in twenty-four years. It also killed more people in a single year than the Black Death killed over the course of 100 years. Think about that the next time you pass on getting a flu shot.
  6. The pandemic was truly worldwide and not just “Euro-centric World”, “First World”, or “Developed World”. There was not a single region of the globe that was unaffected. 3-5% of the world’s population died, but that was only somewhere between 10% and 20% of the people who contracted the flu at the time.
  7. While typical flu epidemics tend to be more dangerous for the very young and the elderly, the 1918 pandemic was different because it actually killed mostly young adults. Half of the fatalities were between ages 20 and 40.
  8. Because of secondary infections, symptoms such as bleeding from the ears, coughing up blood, and bloody stools, the flu was misdiagnosed as a number of other conditions early on. These included dengue, cholera, and typhoid.
  9. It came in two waves, but disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared. The first wave of flu during the pandemic wasn’t much worse than the usual flu season numbers. The second wave was the deadly pandemic. However, less than three weeks after the largest spike in death tolls, many cities were reporting that the illness seemed to be disappearing. There are many theories about why this is, but the prevailing one seems to be that the virus began to mutate (which is common) to a less deadly strain.
  10. Even after the flu died down at the end of the pandemic, the havoc wasn’t over. Studies showed that babies who were in utero during the outbreak were more likely to exhibit physical abnormalities or disabilities at birth and in the long-term were less likely to achieve the same socioeconomic status or educational milestones as the generation before or after.

The Pandemic of 1918 changed how we study the flu, how we classify the flu, and how we treat the flu. Generations were affected and populations decimated. All from a “simple” respiratory illness. There are a lot of plot and world-building possibilities in that concept.

Also, flu season is rapidly approaching. Get vaccinated.

One more time for the people in the back.

GET. YOUR. FLU. SHOT.

And if you are running a fever, stay home if at all possible.

10 Things About the History of American Public Education

While a lot of the country is still enjoying the last few weeks of summer vacation, in the Southeast we’re already back in school. We start earlier than a lot of the country and get out earlier too. I’ll talk about why in just a moment. My oldest child started Kindergarten on Wednesday. He’s in love with learning and has really enjoyed school so far. I can only hope his enthusiasm doesn’t wane over the course of the year.

But, with a child in elementary school, my brain has been focused on school-related things lately. Back-to-school shopping (supplies and clothes), Meet the Teacher night, ensuring proper registration for school, etc. In honor of my back-to-school focused brain, this month’s 10 Things post is focused on American Public Education.

Let’s do this.

  1. The reason we start school in the fall in the United States has long been attributed to agrarian needs. However, that’s false–not to mention illogical–and is an excuse the urban elite have been using for decades. Think about it. In farming, there is a lot of work in the spring during planting season and a lot of work in the fall during the harvest. In comparison, summer and winter have moderate amounts of work to be done. Why, then, would farmers send their children to school in the fall and spring? They wouldn’t. And didn’t. Agrarian schools in the early days of public education generally had a summer term and a winter term. However, in densely populated urban areas where summer heat (before the invention of air conditioning) could be stifling, smelly, and dangerous the wealthy would retreat to summer homes outside the city until the weather cooled again. When public education started being federally funded and compulsory, it was decided that all school calendars (both rural and urban) should more or less match up. Guess who won that battle.
  2. As I said in the opening paragraph though, schools in the South often start earlier than those in the North. We start in August and are out before Memorial Day (in late May) whereas the majority of the country starts in September and finishes in mid-to-late June. The South once lined up our start and end dates with the rest of the country, but have changed in the last two decades. The reason? State testing. The South struggles with federally mandated standardized tests–a price paid for racist and classist education policies starting in the Colonial Period and continuing through the Civil Rights Movement–and so by starting earlier, we have more time to prepare for before the testing dates and we end the school year shortly after the testing period ends.
  3. Public school hasn’t always meant free. The first public schools were open to the public–for a comparatively smaller fee than hiring private tutors or paying for boarding school.
  4. The first public schools were connected to specific churches. The objective was to teach children to read so that they might be able to read and better understand the Bible. Moreover, the schools would only admit students who were a part of the specific denomination of the church. Brown University was considered quite progressive and liberal in its early days because, while it was started by Baptists, it would admit young (white) men from other denominations. Women, minorities, or even white men with other religious affiliations–including Catholics–were out of luck.
  5. Until the early 1800s, teachers were overwhelmingly male. The only women who received more than rudimentary education were generally from wealthy families who hired private tutors. They were training their daughters to be better prospective wives for other wealthy men. However, there was a movement in the early part of 19th century that spread the idea that women were much more suited to educating children, even young males, because of their natural maternal instincts. This gave rise to more young girls being admitted to schools, a prevalence of “teaching colleges” where women could specifically study how to be better educators, and new job prospects around the nation.
  6. Home Economics courses are disappearing from most schools, but it was a fight to get them started at all. Women’s groups and charities fought for and funded courses on sewing and mending for young women in public schools. The reasons were two-fold. First, for those young women who would eventually have to find work, this gave them the training necessary to apply for a position as a lady’s maid or other domestic service position. That meant better pay, better working conditions, and better life prospects. Second, some of the young ladies who attended public school institutions were poor and would show up to school in torn or tattered dresses. By teaching them how to sew and mend at school, they were able to better care for themselves and help their families.
  7. School didn’t become compulsory in each state at the same time. Massachusetts was the first state to lead the charge in both compulsory and free public education, as well as the education of women. Other states followed, some more slowly than others. Much of the south, for instance, didn’t make public education mandatory until the early 1900s. Even so, education was only compulsory through the eighth grade. High school attendance became more popular after World War I, and enrollment in secondary schools rose significantly after World War II thanks to the original G.I. Bill that helped pay for military veterans to attend college. Students had a reason to finish high school. They could serve in the armed forces and then the government would pay for them to get a college degree, greatly increasing job prospects and upward mobility. The bill was not limited to men. Women veterans could also claim G. I. Bill benefits. However, only 2% of American veterans of World War II were women. Side Note: The original G.I. Bill expired in 1956, but has revamped and extended time and again. In 1984, the Montgomery G.I. Bill was one of the newest incarnations of the bill. Named for G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery, a congressman from Mississippi and a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, who authored the bill.
  8. When public (and free) education (through 8th grade) became compulsory nation-wide, it didn’t mean there were suddenly Elementary and Middle Schools on every corner. Most schools were one room, one teacher, and all the students within walking distance–generally a five-mile radius from the school.
  9. While Black citizens had to fight for access to education, Native Americans were sometimes ripped from their tribes and families and forced to attend residential schools where they had to learn to dress, speak, and act in an “Anglo-American” style. The argument was that it would make Natives “more civilized” and ease tensions between Whites and Tribal Nations. Spoiler alert: It was a horrendous practice and not-so-shockingly a failure. The first Indian Residential School opened in the mid-1800s and the last one officially closed in 1973 (in the United States. It’s my understanding that some Indian Residential Schools still operated in Canada into the 1990s). The Bureau of Indian Affairs must have had the motto of “If at first we don’t succeed, we’ll keep forcing the same policy down your throats for over a century.”
  10. The official color for public school buses in the United States is “National School Bus Glossy Yellow”. While the name of the official paint color has changed, the yellow hue has been more or less the same since it was agreed upon in 1939 at an education conference funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Yellow with black lettering was voted the standard because it is the easiest to see in the dark of the early morning (more modern research studies have confirmed that you are more likely to notice something yellow in your periphery or in the dark than something red). The first school buses were not all motorized, some were yellow wagons pulled by horses. The design has certainly changed over the decades, but the color has remained the same.

American Public Educations has had its ups and downs. In the early 20th century, we had the highest literacy rate in the world. While that is no longer true, we don’t have to view it as all doom and gloom. I am a product of the public education system, and I hold two bachelor’s degrees from a public (though certainly not free) university. I received a quality education (my penchant for typos and my ongoing war with commas notwithstanding). However, I have also been a teacher in the public school system. Most of the pitfalls we (Americans) face are of our own making. The situation is certainly not hopeless, though the most effective solutions won’t be the most popular ones. And until we have someone in Congress who actually has experience in public education, or–heaven forbid–has a child in the public school system, nobody wants to take on that battle.

But I digress.

This post is for writers, as always. The public education system isn’t a bad idea, nor did it begin with bad intent. But the system has never been perfect. And bad decisions have been made along the way that negatively affected a lot of the population. So when you create a world, even if you design a complete Utopia, remember that just because something is a good idea and meant for the greater good of all, doesn’t mean it won’t face or create challenges. In fact, this could serve as the perfect opportunity to flesh out the implicit biases of your characters. What beliefs do they hold that could keep an altruistic venture from succeeding? How could that cause a rift in their perfect society? How does that affect your main character’s worldview or experience?

Not everybody all at once. Raise your hand.

Class is officially in session.

10 Things About Title IX: The Role Sports Play in the Fight for Gender Equality

Note: I don’t usually write about politics, at least not directly. However, this is an example that could be relevant and useful for worldbuilding or plotting in stories. If you say rude or mean things in the comments, I will either ignore or delete them. 

The US Women’s National Team just earned a fourth star for their jerseys by winning the 2019 World Cup. Give me a moment.

USA! USA! USA! USA!

Okay, I’m good now. Mostly.

The USWNT has done a lot to bring attention to the gender discrimination inherent in their pay structures compared to the USMNT (US Men’s National Team). While some people may roll their eyes at this, the truth of the matter is that you can’t claim that the women don’t bring in as much money. The USWNT sells more merchandise than their male counterparts, they sell more tickets, they get better viewing ratings for televised events, and they travel for more paid engagements. Because the USMNT has been in a performance slump for the last few years (for a number of reasons I’m choosing not to elaborate upon because I have neither the time nor the word count for it) while the women have continued to show improvement while also being the best-ranked team in the world and bringing in rapidly increasing revenue to boot, it’s well past time that they get to ask why they aren’t getting paid as much as the Men’s Team.

The struggle for equality in sports is not new. Title IX is not new. In fact, Title IX does not even exclusively relate to athletics. But sports are the most visible way to see whether an institution is striving for equality or whether they’re making excuses.

I should point out that the USWNT is not governed by Title IX because they are not affiliated with a specific educational institution. They are just the reason I began thinking of this post (and I kinda wanted to brag on them a bit).

So, for those unfamiliar with the law, here are 10 things you might not know about Title IX.

  1. Title IX was signed into law in June of 1972 by then-President Richard Nixon. It reads: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Athletics are ruled an “educational program or activity”.
  2. It took less than two years after signing Title IX into law before a bill demanding its repeal was filed in Congress. When it failed, a bill demanding that certain sports (cough cough FOOTBALL cough cough) be excluded from the Title IX athlete, equipment, and services mandates. It also failed.
  3. Though the application, scope, regulations, and enforcement of Title IX has been debated time and again in Congress (and as recently as 2011), over 80% of voters support it. That is true across political parties, genders, and socioeconomic brackets.
  4. In 1996 Brown University (they got taken to court over it, but they certainly weren’t the only school doing it) argued that they were compliant with Title IX even though they offered significantly less athletic opportunities for females because “girls aren’t as interested in sports as boys.” The courts ruled that an institution cannot use gender stereotypes to opt-out of Title IX compliance.
  5. Not only is it a sad excuse for not complying with the law, but the stereotype of girls simply not wanting to play sports has been proven wrong. Since 1972 when Title IX was signed, female participation in school sports has increased over 900%. Girls want to play. All they need is the opportunity.
  6. Opponents of Title IX have long argued that it is unfair to male athletes because it requires schools to decrease the number of men’s sports to be equal with those of women’s sports. This is wholly untrue. The requirement is that each institution much offer equal opportunities (and, in practice, if a school can show that it is expanding female opportunities and making the effort, even if the numbers aren’t exactly even, they are deemed in compliance). However, individual schools have cut some men’s sports to save money while adding women’s sports and when met with resistance from alumni have perennially blamed Title IX. The truth is that it’s a matter of revenue versus expenditure. The school doesn’t want to lose revenue by adding more expenditures, so they decide to make cuts. If anyone ever argues that sports aren’t a business, point them to the history of the opposition of Title IX. It’s all about the money.
  7. In 2011 it was ruled that Title IX requires allegations of sexual harassment and sexual violence to be handled according to University policy for all students, including athletes. An institution can’t just “let the team handle it”.
  8. Title IX applies to any and all educational institutions that receive any federal funding. There is no percentage requirement. The funding does not have to be given toward all sports. If the institution receives federal funds, it is subject to Title IX. However, the level of male vs female participation opportunities does not have to be 1:1. It is based on the overall student population percentages by gender. It is also not solely applied to the betterment of female athletic opportunities. The language of the full clarifications and rulings say the “underrepresented gender”. So if a male feels that he is being discriminated against based on a lack of compliance with Title IX, he can file suit too.
  9. “Athletic opportunities” also apply to more than just spots on a roster. The treatment, benefits, financial aid, quality of equipment, and access to facilities, coaches, trainers, and staff of all athletes are covered.
  10. As you can see by the language of the original law, Title IX applies to any educational opportunity or activity. That means that while Title IX is most visible to the public via athletic representation, it also applies to the admittance of females (or the underrepresented gender) to academic programs too. And as of 1992, if a student–athlete or not–files suit based on a Title IX violation, they can be awarded punitive damages, not just an injunction.

If any program was ever deemed in blatant and repeated violation of Title IX, they can have all federal funding for the institution revoked. To my knowledge, that’s never actually happened. The Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, who governs the application of Title IX, usually gives the school a list of things to complete in a given time frame instead. It is simply the threat of being able to withhold funds that the OCR counts on.

Since the 1970s, Title IX has been used to attempt to shine a light on gender discrimination. While the biggest debates over its application involve its relation to sports, Title IX is primarily about gender equality in education.

As writers who create worlds complete with politics, biases, and usually some thematic fight for justice, we can use Title IX’s forty-seven year (as of 2019) history as an example of how issues are often interwoven into other parts of society. If there is an argument over an issue at the highest level of the government in the political entity you create, it will show itself in other places and other ways through every tier of said society. Sometimes the cry for justice doesn’t come from a battlefield or a senate floor. Sometimes it comes from a soccer field, a basketball court, or a high school classroom.

And sometimes even after the cry is heard, you find yourself still fighting the same fight nearly fifty years later. Because equal means equal, not “a smaller discrepancy than before”.

10 Things About The College World Series

It’s June. That means it’s time to decide which university in the US gets to claim they are the best baseball team in the country. My own beloved Mississippi State Bulldogs hosted a Regional tournament and are now hosting a Super Regional series. If they win tonight (I’m writing this during the 5th inning on Sunday night–we’re ahead, but I won’t count my chickens before they hatch), they’ll go to Omaha for the College World Series. If they lose, they’ll play again on Monday and have one last chance.

If you can’t tell, I’m in a baseball state of mind. But I know not all of the writing community knows much about sports. I’ve said before that world building with athletic events can help give your characters something to bond or fight over. It can be a gathering place, an ice breaker, or just something to round out the feel of a full society. I’ve done a post that looks at the evolution and/or championships of other sports, so let’s take a look at baseball.

Here are 10 Things you might not know about the College World Series.

  1. It’s called the College World Series because it is the collegiate version of the MLB (Major League Baseball) World Series. The MLB is called the World Series because of a challenge thrown down between the Pittsburg Pirates (best team in the National League that year) and the Boston Red Sox (best team in the American League that year) in 1903. The owner of the Pirates challenged Boston to a World’s Championship Series. Boston won, but a tradition was born. The named was shortened to World Series and became an official league tradition in 1904. The “World Series” is trademarked by Major League Baseball and licensed to the NCAA for the CWS. Since MLB’s World Series decides the best team in the US (and one in Canada) the actual World Champion today is determined by the World Baseball Classic.
  2. The first College World Series was played in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1947. Eight teams were divided into two single elimination (lose once and you’re out) playoffs. The winner of each playoff competed in a best of three series.
  3. In 1948 the playoffs became double elimination.
  4. The tournament moved to Wichita, Kansas in 1949.
  5. 1950-present the tournament is held in Omaha, Nebraska. In 2011 a contract with the NCAA extended the tournament’s presence in Omaha to at least 2035. Realistically, fans treat the CWS and Omaha as synonymous so moving the tournament would be a big decision for the NCAA.
  6. From 1950 to 2010 the CWS was played in Rosenblatt Stadium. Originally built in 1947 as Omaha Municipal Stadium for a minor league baseball team, it was renamed in 1965 to honor the former mayor of Omaha. Johnny Rosenblatt was part of the initial team to work toward bringing (and keeping) the tournament to Omaha.
  7. The tournament actually lost money for ten of the first twelve years that Omaha hosted it, but a small group of local individuals, including Mayor Rosenblatt, fought hard to keep the tournament coming back.
  8. In 2011 the CWS began playing in TD Ameritrade Park Omaha after Rosenblatt Stadium was demolished. The Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium now owns the Rosenblatt land and plans to use it to expand the current zoo grounds while also building a Little League sized park in honor of the site’s history.
  9. In the early 1950s, there were no preliminary rounds (no Regionals or Super Regionals). The eight teams to play in the CWS were chosen by committee from each of the eight NCAA districts. This changed in 1954 when the first preliminary rounds (Regionals) were introduced. The format evolved again in the 1980s (the final championship was a single game and not a series) and the early 2000s (the Super Regionals evolved). The current format has remained the same since 2003 (the championship is now a series).
  10. Former US President George Bush played on Yale’s CWS baseball teams in the CWS in the late 1940s. He was First Baseman for the Bulldogs.

Unlike some of the other sports I’ve done posts about, the NCAA Division 1 Baseball Championship, aka the College World Series, is very closely linked with its longtime location. Fans refer to the preliminary tournaments as “The Road to Omaha”. There are sports all the way back to the ancient world that are associated with a specific place. This might be because of the origin of the sport, or the magnitude of the competition, but it can also relate to the traditions of the spectators. And sports, especially ones that draw large crowds, affect the places that host them. It can boost the economy or drain town finances. All of this can help shape the world you’re building in your story.

College Baseball’s Game of Thrones

The 2019 NCAA Baseball Tournament begins on Friday with the Regionals. The winner of each Regional will go on to play a Super Regional. Winners of the Super Regional will proceed to Omaha, Nebraska to compete in the College World Series. The whole process takes multiple gut-wrenching, heart-stopping, glorious weeks. It’s a thing of beauty. And pain. But in the end the last team left standing gets to claim the title of National Champion until next year when they are challenged for the title in a new tournament.

You might say they are playing for the College Baseball Throne.

Oh wait, Mississippi State (my beloved alma mater) already hosted a Game of Thrones theme night and has that throne. Side note: we’re also hosting a Regional this weekend. I sincerely hope they bring the throne out again.

It’s gorgeous.

Confession: I never really watched Game of Thrones. Don’t come at me with your indignation, I know the plot and most of the details because I don’t live under a rock. Also, I read the first book in the series, but I’ll spare you that rant. It’s a fight for another day.

Regardless of the fact that I haven’t spent the better part of the last several years following the saga of the Iron Throne, the baseball version is amazing. It’s the perfect collision of Sports and Fantasy. It’s the crossover I never knew I always wanted. And I most definitely want it.

I would set it in my living room as a conversation piece. Unfortunately, the conversation would probably go something like this –
Normal Human Person: Is that a throne made of baseball bats?
Me: Yes! Isn’t it great?
NHP: But why is it in your house?
Me: Because it’s a throne. Made of baseball bats.
NHP:…
Me:…
NHP: But why?
Me: Because it’s a THRONE made of BASEBALL BATS.
NHP: No, I get that, but why would you want something like that?
Me: I’m sorry. I don’t understand the question.

The Regionals start this Friday. The Game of Baseball Thrones is upon us. Omaha is coming.

Free Books!

Were more beautiful words ever spoken?

I love to read and so do my kids, hence our affinity for the local library (and the church library, and our “home library” which is actually just the guest bedroom that happens to have several bookshelves in it). Buying new books can get expensive, so getting them for free allows us to indulge our passions even more often.

But getting free books you get to keep? Even better! And if you are like me and mine, you jump at book giveaways. There are two opportunities this summer that we know of that cost absolutely nothing to get started and can result in a free book. I’ll share these with you in hopes that if you know of any more you’ll share them with me.

First, the local library’s summer reading program. For children and adults, if you join the summer reading program, you get a free book to take home (and keep). You have to choose from a set stock, but hey, free is free. And it’s not just for kids. Adults can join the SRP too! And while this is specific to my local library, I know there are a lot of others with similar program kick-offs so check with yours. The worst that could happen is that you end up in a library.

The second opportunity is through Barnes and Noble. They have their own version of a summer reading program. This one is only for kids (as far as I know), but it’s still free books. You have to go to your local B&N and get a reading log to fill out. The child keeps track of how much they read and the parent signs off on it. During the month of August you return the completed reading log back into the B&N location and get a free book for your efforts. I learned about this via an online press release, so if you want to call your local B&N to confirm this is actually happening, I don’t blame you.

Huzzah for promoting literacy! Free books all around! Here’s to a well-read summer!

ADHD is my Writing Partner

When I sit down to write, I’m never alone. And it’s not just because I have kids and am never physically alone. It’s because I have a writing partner. She’s always available whenever I sit down to write. Actually, that’s shortchanging her involvement in my life. She “helps” me with every aspect of my day. She’s my ADHD.

The great thing about writing with ADHD is that I’m naturally creative. My mind wanders and asking “what if” is practically a reflex. I’m not afraid to throw the rules out the window (after I’ve shown that I understand them). And when I’m researching something for a scene, I’m not just focused, I’m hyperfocused. I can spend hours reading articles, watching interviews, scouring historical texts and not bat an eye.

The hard thing about writing with ADHD is that I ask “what if” so often that I keep changing the story and never actually finish it. I can also become so intent on something that I end up burned out or overwhelmed. I can’t just sit down to write. I have to go through a list of coping techniques just to get started. Cut out as many distractions as possible. Have all necessary materials handy because if I have to get up and go searching for something, I might not return to my desk for hours–or at all. Set a phone alarm so that I stop working after a reasonable amount of time. Set small, attainable goals for a given time period so that I have a self-imposed deadline to meet. These things–and my other plethora of tricks–all seem so simple, but without them, I’m only setting myself up for failure.

It’s a gross oversimplification, but when asked what it’s like to have ADHD I sometimes say that it’s like someone else has the remote to the television in my head and they keep changing the channel without my consent. I’ve had to find a way to take the batteries out of the remote. But my ADHD, she’s a crafty one. She sometimes has back-up batteries.

To help give you a better idea, when my sister was diagnosed with ADHD and put on medication, she called me just a few days later in awe. “Kathryn, when I got home today, I realized that I could remember the entire drive home. It was so weird!”

We don’t black-out when we drive. We’re paying attention, but our mind dumps all that information as soon as we’re done using it because it’s deemed unimportant. We don’t NEED to remember that we stopped at the stop sign and waited our turn. It’s not required that we remember sitting at the stoplight until it turned green. We did it and now it’s gone. So we get home and unbuckle our seat belt to realize that we don’t remember actually driving there. But we can probably tell you every song on the radio during the drive, the entire life story of our favorite author, and what event signified the end of the Viking Age. Because that, for some strange reason, is what our ADHD brains choose to retain. It’s not so much “attention deficit” as it is “attention selective” and I don’t always get a choice about what’s selected.

When I was in high school, I would study for major tests with the radio on. Then when I was taking the test, when I came to a hard question, I would think about what song was playing while I studied that chapter. Singing the song in my head would bring back some of what I was reading during the same song the night before. I don’t know if this works for everyone with ADHD, I just know it was a coping technique that helped me.

So when I sit down to write, I have no trouble juggling an ensemble cast and remembering all of their life stories. I struggle with constantly wanting to change them. Writing a fun or action-packed scene is no problem, but writing the subsequent reaction scene is difficult. Finishing is difficult. Remembering to come up for air is hard. Not feeling like a failure when I spend hours at the keyboard and walk away with only half a page of words to show for my effort is a battle.

Whenever I sit down to write, it’s not just me. It’s me and my ADHD. Some days she’s a big help, other days she’s a massive hindrance to my progress. But she’s always there–dependable if nothing else.

Disclaimer: I only reference my ADHD experience and that of my sister because that’s what I am familiar with. Your experience may greatly differ. I have several other friends and family who are diagnosed as well and who experience it a bit differently than I do.