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.

10 Things About Memorial Day

Earlier this year, I did a 10 Things post about Valentine’s Day. It’s a widely celebrated holiday in many countries and has evolved quite a bit over the years. This month, I decided to tackle Memorial Day. Though many countries have something similar to honor deceased soldiers, the day it’s celebrated in the United States can and does vary from other countries. The how and the why it got started is also different.

Since most of my 10 Things posts are specifically themed to help writers think about ways to round out their worldbuilding, I thought this might be an interesting way to take another look at a holiday. Conceptually, it is celebrated in other countries, but not usually at the same time and certainly with different traditions. Are there multiple cultures, real or imagined in your fiction? Do they have holidays that differ? Perhaps theirs are based on the local dominant religion or celebrations of important victories in national history. Some holidays may be shared in totality, others in concept, others not at all.

And yes, I know I could use a specific religious holiday(s) that just passed to make my point, but I’ll be honest. I don’t know enough about that holiday to do it justice and there are some things that online research can’t completely explain. If any of my readers know and celebrate such holidays and would like to volunteer to share some thoughts with me, I’d be grateful.

Anyway, here are ten things about Memorial Day:

  1. It was first known as Decoration Day. Starting as far back as 1864, widows would march together to the local cemetery to decorate the graves of deceased Civil War soldiers. While many different towns claim to be the first to celebrate Decoration Day, congressional recognition is given to Waterloo, New York who first organized a community-wide service in 1866. The holiday was first granted to living soldiers as a time to honor their fallen comrades without being docked a day’s wage on May 30, 1868.
  2. While Waterloo, NY is credited with the first organized service event, there is historical evidence that a year earlier on May 1, 1865 (two weeks before the Civil War officially ended) a group of freed slaves organized to rebury the dead of fallen Union soldiers in proper grave sites.
  3. It wasn’t technically a “national holiday” until the 1970s. Because it was first recognized as a day for soldiers (and eventually other government employees) to visit and decorate the graves of their friends or loved ones as a way to honor them, it wasn’t actually a holiday for civilians. The state of New York was the first state to recognize the holiday for all citizens in 1873. Other states began to follow suit, though many southern states didn’t officially recognize it until after the first World War. It was actually a state holiday that was celebrated by all the states on the same day. In 1971 Congress moved official observance of the day from May 30 to the last Monday in May (Uniform Monday Holiday Act) and made it a federal holiday.
  4. After World War I, it changed from a holiday to honor the dead from the Civil War to a holiday to honor fallen American soldiers from all wars. Evidence of this is the Biker Rally that began in 1988 and continues in Washington, D.C. each year as a way to bring attention to soldiers still “Missing in Action” from Vietnam.
  5. Officially, American flags should be lowered to half-mast until noon on Memorial Day and then returned to full mast. At 3 PM (local time), there is supposed to be a moment of silence to honor those men and women who lost their lives serving their country in military conflicts.
  6. Though Decoration Day was never limited to only the graves of Union soldiers after the Civil War, many states of the former Confederacy still chose to celebrate their fallen on a separate day–a day that is still on the calendar in many southern states. It is a different date for each state that celebrates it and while it is on state calendars, it is not widely celebrated. I’ve lived in the south the vast majority of my life and until it became part of a bigger heated discussion in a news story (about symbols, traditions, and monuments that still honor the Confederacy), I honestly didn’t know that my state even had such a holiday on the calendar. Don’t misunderstand, I’m certain there are people who do celebrate it, I just don’t personally know any (that I’m aware of).
  7. Again, though Waterloo, NY is credited with the first organized community event for Decoration Day (and history shows us that it was only the first recognized event involving white people–see point 2), earlier in 1866 a celebration occurred in Illinois and another in Mississippi (smaller event) where flowers were added to the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers as a way to promote regional healing while honoring those who lost their lives.
  8. About 5,000 people attended the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in 1868. Arlington National Cemetery sits on land that was confiscated from the wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee during the Civil War. When other local military cemeteries were close to being full, the Lee estate (known as Arlington House, which also once belonged to the family of George Washington and had been passed down via inheritance and marriage), was deemed suitable and desirable as a new location. However, after the war, the heir of the estate sued the government for confiscating the land without due process. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in his favor and the land was returned in 1882, after it had been used as a military cemetery for almost twenty years. He agreed to sell the land back to the government for $150,000 (about $3.5 million today) and signed the agreement with then-Secretary of War, Robert Todd Lincoln. Let me break that down. The son of the leader of the entire Confederate military sat in a room to sign documents with the son of the president who had been assassinated by Confederate sympathizers after the end of the war, and money exchanged hands. That is some Netflix worthy drama right there. I want to know what each man said to the other that history chose not to record. I bet shade was being thrown left and right.
  9. On Memorial Day of 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan gave a moving speech as a set of bones were added to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington. The tomb was first erected for the remains of a World War I soldier who could not be identified. It is guarded every hour of the day as a way to honor the soldier. Over the years other unidentifiable remains have been added in their own crypts within the tomb. However, the bones added on that Memorial Day in 1984 spurred an investigation that wouldn’t be complete for fourteen years. DNA testing was eventually able to identify the soldier and his remains were reburied near his hometown. His original crypt in the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier remains empty.
  10. Not everyone observes Memorial Day with solemnity. In 1911, the Indianapolis 500’s inaugural race was scheduled on Decoration/Memorial Day. The state of Indiana had observed the holiday since approximately 1890. An attempt to bring back the gravity of the day happened in 1922, when that was the day chosen to dedicate the Lincoln Memorial (with a crowd of 50,000 people present).

When your characters celebrate a holiday, do they know why they celebrate it? Why it’s that day? Do they care? These are things that can help shape both the world you are creating and the personality of your characters.

Think about it. And maybe, if you’re in the U.S., you’ll get a little extra writing time in on this year’s Memorial Day.

10 Things About Snack Foods

 

popcorn serving in white ceramic bowl
Photo by Felipe Cardoso on Pexels.com

Snacking, while not unique to American life, is very much tied to American culture. And like so many other things we enjoy, our favorite snack foods have influences from many other cultures. Historically, snacks have also represented divisions in socioeconomic levels. There’s a lot more to that bag of pretzels than salt and dough.

As a writer building a world or setting a scene, don’t forget or ignore the cultural significance of food. We don’t necessarily need to see your character eat every meal, but food has the power to bring people together or divide them further. Does your main character always know what fork to use, or does it cause them embarrassment during a gathering? Do members of your ensemble cast bond over a shared favorite indulgence? Perhaps things in your political thriller hinge on a diplomatic dinner going well, only to discover that the menu includes massive cultural faux pas.

Food can be the source of simple sustenance, great joy, or emotional struggle. However, it can be easy to overlook in the grand plot scheme. Readers don’t usually want to read through a six-course meal. But using food, a seemingly minute detail, to enhance worldbuilding or showcase a class divide is realistic. What foods are common to the culture of your Fantasy world? Do your characters fight for every scrap of food to avoid starvation, or do they live in a world of indulgence and opulence where food is more about showing off than survival?

If characters have enough food in their day-to-day lives to also be concerned about snacks, it says something about their economic standing and food scarcity. In the U.S., snacks are a big industry, and we certainly have our favorites. Let’s look at a few.

Here are 10 Things About Snack Foods:

  1. In Western European history, after silverware or utensils became prevalent, any food eaten without the use of proper utensils was considered lower class. This didn’t change until sometime in the early 1900s. Those cucumber finger sandwiches that your great-aunt likes to serve at parties would have marked her as a poor peasant woman less than a century and a half ago.
  2. Peanuts came to the United States through to avenues. North from South America where evidence of their cultivation predates the arrival of Europeans, and across the Atlantic from West Africa during the slave trade. Knowing their origin, it’s not a surprise that they were first prevalent in cuisines in the Southeastern United States and didn’t become common in the North until after the Civil War. However, once their popularity spread it didn’t take long for them to become the preferred snack at early baseball games and even vaudeville theaters.
  3. Popcorn has been around for thousands of years. Evidence backs up cultural histories that say Native nations in the United States and Mexico began making popcorn over fires for anywhere between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. It wasn’t called “popped corn” until the mid-1800s and the modern day microwave popcorn bag was patented by General Mills in the early 1980s.
  4. Pretzels came to the U.S. with German-speaking immigrants to Pennsylvania who would become known as Pennsylvania Dutch. The origins of the pretzel in Europe are disputed, but that hasn’t affected their popularity in America. Though, until the late 1800s and early 1900s they were closely associated with street vendors and saloons which made them decidedly lower class. However, as ballparks and concert halls began to sell them, they gained popularity across the board. With new strides in packaging and manufacturing processes since the 1950s, pretzels became one of the most popular snacks in America.
  5. The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair debuted Dr. Pepper, waffle cones, and cotton candy. It also popularized “carnival foods” like hot dogs and hamburgers.
  6. The most popular cookie in America, the Oreo, was first sold in 1912. The origin of the cookie’s name and who actually came up with it are both points of dispute, but they got their embossed design in 1952. There are more than five patents associated with the original Oreo cookie.
  7. Candy bars such as Mr. Goodbar, Butterfinger, Baby Ruth, and Mounds, along with other candy treats like Mike & Ike and Reese’s peanut butter cups all gained massive popularity in the 1920s during Prohibition. They were a feel-good treat that could still be enjoyed in public while alcohol had to be consumed behind closed doors. Prohibition also saw a rise in a new drink, 7-up, though since the first incarnation of the recipe included a mood stabilizer that’s probably not surprising.
  8. Girl Scout Cookies started as a simple bake sale fundraiser and only included one flavor, sugar cookies. However, in the late 1930s the orders started to become so large and so common that they had to begin outsourcing the baking to commercial bakeries. Considering the nation was still largely suffering the effects of the Great Depression, that was quite the impressive feat.
  9. M&M candies were introduced in the 1940s. The candy coating was designed to be a little more heat resistant than tradition candy bars because they were specifically meant to be shipped to soldiers serving in World War II. Tootsie Rolls also appeared on the market for the same purpose. Anybody who could spare the money could send a sweet treat to their loved one to remind them that someone back home cared.
  10. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Graham Crackers were invented by different men and at different times, but for the same reasons. Both Kellogg and Graham believed that indulging in decadent foods somehow led to sexual promiscuity. Corn Flakes were meant to be sustenance without flavor so that one could eat without carnal temptation following. Graham Crackers held the same purpose, but modern incarnations include so much added cinnamon and sugar that they wouldn’t be recognized by their inventor and namesake. And he would be beyond appalled at the use of his crackers as part of a beloved sweet snack like S’mores. The scandal!

There you have it. Sex, drugs, and cookies. Never underestimate the power of food.

10 Things About Tornadoes

Since I mentioned the communities in South Alabama in a recent post and asked you to take a moment and send a kind thought their way, I’d thought I would talk a little more about what a tornado actually is and does. Some of my readers are from parts of the world where tornadoes are less common than where I live and aren’t as familiar with what that kind of storm entails.

Also, as an update, the communities I told you about have been on the receiving end of such an outpouring of generosity that they have now asked that people stop sending donated items. They have the physical items they need to help the population at the moment, and are now in need of money and extra hands for clean-up and rebuilding.

As for my fellow writers, a lot of people will say that unless it’s pertinent to the story not to write about the weather. But sometimes, it makes a difference. And for worldbuilding purposes in Fantasy and Sci-Fi worlds, you might want to think about what kind of weather would make a difference. Perhaps the spaceship can’t enter the atmosphere in the spot it needs to because of a large lightning storm. Or maybe your wind mage is throwing a hissy fit that could level a town. Sometimes the weather does matter.

Anyway, here are ten things you might not know about tornadoes:

  1. Tornadoes can and do form in every U.S. state and, in fact, have been recorded on every continent except Antartica. While they are more common in some regions than in others, and in some places are quite rare, they can form anywhere.
  2. The most commonly affected place in the United States (and by a small margin, the world) is known as Tornado Alley and encompasses The Great Plains and large portions of the Southeast, though no exact boundaries have ever been defined. This is largely due to both geography and topography, specifically the areas between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains, with weather patterns greatly affected by the jet stream and the Gulf of Mexico.
  3. A common misconception is that tornadoes cannot cross mountain ranges or bodies of water. While it’s not a common occurrence, storm cells have been recorded passing over mountain ranges. And a tornado passing over water is a common enough occurrence that a tornado over water has a special name–a waterspout.
  4. In the current early warning system, a Tornado Watch means the storm conditions in the area are conducive to creating a tornado. A Tornado Warning means a tornado has been spotted on the ground or via radar and you should take cover immediately.
  5. Tornado warning systems have steadily improved over the last seventy years (since the first warning system in 1948), but because of the nature of the type of storm, the longest warning times average about thirteen minutes. Most of the time, people in the affected area have less time than that to get to their safe place.
  6. The tornado warning system has about a seventy percent false alarm rate because it’s better to be safe than sorry when strong funnel clouds start appearing on radar. However, this means that some (large portions) of the population don’t always take tornado warnings as seriously as they should. Also, some people wait to hear their local tornado siren, but it can be easily drowned out by the noise of the storm–or be destroyed by the storm before it has a chance to alert locals.
  7. In a tornado, the safest place to be is underground, preferably in a concrete storm cellar. If no storm cellar is available, the bottom floor of a house or building, in a room with no exterior walls or windows, especially under stairs. In my house, my master bedroom closet is the only room that fits this description–and yes, I’ve dragged my kids and my dog into that closet with flashlights, snacks, a weather radio, blankets, and pillows when the local tornado sirens have sounded.
  8. Tornadoes most commonly have wind speeds less than 110mph and are about 250 feet in diameter. They also only commonly travel a couple of miles before dissipating. The largest tornadoes on record, though, had wind speeds exceeding 300mph, diameters of approximately 2.5 miles, and traveled dozens of miles.
  9. Tornadoes are rated on an EF scale. The EF stands for Enhanced Fujita and is an upgrade from the previous Fujita scale, named for the scientist who created it. The scale ranges from EF0–where a storm will down trees, but probably not cause significant damage to substantial structures–to an EF5–a storm that can rip houses off their foundations and pull large trees out of the ground or snap them in half. It is common for a tornado to have its rating on the EF scale upgraded after assessing the damage it caused.
  10. A single tornado can be a single vortex or a multiple vortex grouping–meaning multiple funnel cloud formations that officially touch down to the ground, but all originate from the same cell.
lightning and tornado hitting village
An example of a single vortex tornado (from pexels.com).

So all you Fantasy writers out there with wind mages in your story, they are not to be underestimated!