Myth-ing Persons : Heroes of Myth and Legend

January began as one of the last months of year, not the first.  The start of the Roman calendar (and the astrological one) was March. Back then there were only ten months to the year, totaling 304 days. Between was a miasmic 66 monthless days of “winter.” According to legend, Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome (after Romulus himself), added January and February to codify that winter term (along with a catch-up month every other year of 22 days).

Was Numa a real figure? History leans toward yes, born around 753 BC. Both Plutarch and Livy (major Roman writers) wrote about him. He codified Roman laws and religion, so we know he actually lived, but like many legends, there are stories about him that are most likely fable.

Every culture has their grandiose heroes of myth and legend. Some we know are fantasy (Beowulf), while others we know are fact (Jesse James). Let’s look at some famous heroes that history can’t make up its mind about.

Mulan

Disney’s Mulan is based on a Chinese poem called The Ballad of Mulan. She is believed to have lived somewhere between 386 CE and 620 CE (if you’re not up on your history, Common Era has replaced the Anno Domini). She takes her aging father’s place in the army, and serves for twelve years without her fellow soldiers realizing she’s a woman. Depending on the source, her name might be Hua Mulan, Zhu Mulan, or Wei Mulan. Although she’s first mentioned by the 500’s, historians can’t decide if she’s real or just an interesting story.

 

 

 

 

John Henry

The steel-driving African American of song fame who managed to hammer more rock than the new-fangled steam drill before collapsing and dying was likely a real man. In the 1920’s, sociologist Guy Johnson tracked down not only people who claimed to have worked with John Henry, but one man who claimed to have seen the showdown. The front runner for the actual location is during the cutting of the Big Bend Tunnel in Talcott, West Virginia, around 1870, but no one has definitive proof.

 

 

 

 

William Tell

A folk hero of Switzerland, Tell was an expert bowman. When Switzerland fell under control of the Habsburgs, a magistrate put his hat on a pole and demanded all citizens bow before it, or be imprisoned. While in town with his son, Tell refused to bow, was arrested and sentenced to death – though, since he was such a marksman, the Magistrate would let him go if he could shoot an apple off his son’s head. Tell did so, was arrested anyway, escaped, and the people rose up in rebellion, in an act considered the founding of the Swiss Confederacy, around 1307. Some historians believe Tell is merely a new twist on an old Danish fable.

Robin Hood

     The story of Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Prince John, King Richard, and the Band of Merrymen has been told for almost a thousand years. We know King Richard and Prince John are real (Richard took the throne in 1189), but there is debate about Robin Hood. Most likely a yeoman, not a noble, the name Robin was about as common as fleas, and the word Hood (sometimes Wood; the Old English were creative spellers) simply meant a man who made or wore hoods – more common then than hats. History’s been singing about him since the 1300’s, but his true identity isn’t known. If you can, check out the BBC series Robin of Sherwood.

 

 

 

 

 

King Arthur

Oh, Arthur! How we want to believe! Of all legends, yours is perhaps the most influential of any! Your mage Merlin/Myrrdin is the direct ancestor of Gandalf, Dungeons and Dragons, Dumbledore, and more.  “Arthur” (depending on spelling) is believed to have actually been a military leader who fought battles against the Saxons around the end of the 5th century. The earliest possible references to him date to the 600’s, though some discuss a Battle of Badon but give no mention of a king named Arthur.  Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to give a romanticized version in the 1100’s, then Thomas Malory came along in the 1400’s and standardized the legend. T.H. White called him the Once and Future King, and Lerner and Loewe put it all to music so we could remember it easier. Arthur was probably real, but not quite as mystical as we’ve been made to believe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January’s a harsh month, but 31 days is sure better than 66, so curl up with a legendary figure, real or possibly not, and decide for yourself.

 

Devil in the White City

NOTE: This post deals with a difficult subject matter, serial killers, so if you’re easily disturbed, you might not want to read any further.

A book kept passing through my hands and it seemed intriguing – psychopath, history, award-winning – probably good, and I read it at last. The Devil in the White City  by Erik Larson tells the true story of the great Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, a celebration of Columbus’s 400th anniversary of discovering the new world and an attempt to outdo the 1887 Paris World’s Fair, which amazed the world with the new Eiffel Tower, the tallest structure in the world. The fair covered more than 600 acres – almost six times the size of Disney’s Magic Kingdom – and attracted more than 27 million visitors in its 6 month-run (versus 20 million visitors to Magic Kingdom in 2016). It also chose Tesla’s AC electric current to power it because it was cheaper than Edison’s DC current, cementing the road for America’s future electrical grid.

Chicago was no charming city, known for stink (stockyards), grime (trains and soot), crimes and vice. And in this mix lurked a serial killer, H.H. Holmes. Holmes’s background was a perfect mix of known factors of psychopathic development – strict, cold, abusive parents with severe religious obsession. By the age of 6, Holmes liked to dismember animals, and by his teens was implicated in the death of a young boy but cleared due to the pitiful state of investigations. He fled to Chicago, where he became a con artist, bilking insurance companies, furniture companies, and drug supply stores. He also charmed single ladies, killed them, reduced them to skeletons, and sold them as medical supplies. He built an elaborate hotel nicknamed “The Castle,” complete with gas jets in the rooms, soundproof rooms, and a personal crematorium in his basement. When finally cornered for killing his long-time assistant, Holmes confessed to 29 killings, though only 9 could be proven, but his total might have been as high as 200. He was hung for his crimes. Leonardo DiCaprio bought the film rights to the book, and a film is in production with Martin Scorsese as director (it had a tentative 2017 date, but is still in process).

Serial killers – those that kill large numbers of victims over time – are rare as far as murder goes, but the extent of their crimes garners a lot of press. Connecticut has its own serial killer in Amy Archer Gilligan of Windsor, who killed as many as 48 of her nursing-home patients for insurance claims between 1885 and 1917. Some of the more notorious American serial killers include:

Jeffery Dahmer (1991), who killed (and ate) at least 16 young men and boys. Not a high count for a serial killer,  it was the cannibalism that made him famous. He was beaten to death in prison not long after his conviction. Some things scare even murderers.

John Wayne Gacy (1978), who dressed as a clown for kids’ birthday parties and killed more than 33 men.  Stephen King said “It” was fiction.

Charles Cullen (2003), convicted of 40 murders while he was a nurse, but possibly responsible for up to 400, making him the most prolific not only in New Jersey, but the USA. Carl Watts (1982) was also a nurse, convicted of six murders but possibly as many as 130.

Ted Bundy (1975), one of the most famous and perhaps sickest, who killed more than 30. He decapitated at least 12 victims and kept the heads in his apartment, and often performed sex acts on rotting corpses (I warned you). He was executed in Florida.

Gary Ridgeway (2001)  the “Green River Killer”, with 49 proven deaths, 71 confessions, with a probable total closer to 90.

Ed Gein (1957)– Gein was convicted of only two murders, but if you’re looking at psychopaths, Gein is King. Gein had a bizarre attachment to his mother (back to that cold/abuse/super-religious thing), and would go to graves and dig up women’s bodies, skin them, and save parts attempting to wear his mother. Gein was the inspiration for Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic, incompetent, and died in a mental facility.

What predicts a serial killer? Most professionals look for early abuse, neglect, brutality, bullying, and mental illness. Animal cruelty, especially in young children, is a warning sign. Killers are often charismatic (Holmes, Bundy, Jim Jones, too) and manipulative, gaining friendship and trust.  Lack of empathy for their victims is  always present. Some do it for attention, especially media attention. One interesting point: 70% of serial killers had experienced significant head trauma as children; with what we now know about violence among football players and boxers who receive blows to the head, could this be a risk factor?

So hug your kids. Be patient. Be kind to them and to others, and teach them to be kind as well. Take bullying and animal cruelty seriously, and report it to authorities. You don’t know how many lives you might save.

Summers of Scandal

astonished faceIf you’re like me, you’re cringing every time you turn on the news, open a newspaper, or stare at the tabloids in the checkout line. No matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on, this country’s politics are a mess. While we keep reminding ourselves this isn’t normal, scandal IS more normal to the office of the president than we think.

Remember Watergate?

Sure, if you didn’t suffer living through NixonAll the President's Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward and Watergate, you at least have heard the story (or seen the movies) of the break-in at the DNC headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, how cash was traced to the Committee to Re-elect the President (Nixon), and how President Nixon was caught lying about the fact he knew about it. A president lying under oath was grounds for impeachment, but Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, before he could be impeached, giving us the never-elected Gerald Ford. That’s the biggest official Presidential Scandal to date, but by far it’s not the only one.

SMarilyn Monroe with John F. Kennedyure, Clinton’s affair caused a major row, but flings among presidents are almost as common as presidents eating cheeseburgers. John F. Kennedy’s affairs were kept out of the press, but half the country was winking at his activities.  Harding, FDR, Eisenhower, Jefferson, and Lyndon B. Johnson were all known to have had affairs of heart while in office, and not one of them was ever brought up on charges. Cleveland, however, had not only one but two scandals that caused an uproar.

Yes, But Did You Hear About That Cad Cleveland?

The first was a secret surgery to remove a cancerous growth on the roof of his mouth.Grover Cleveland political cartoon America in 1893 was caught in a severe Panic – the pre-1930 name for a Depression. Cleveland felt that a president with a potentially life-threatening issue could further destabilize the people and the economy, so he chose to have the surgery in secret – on a boat traveling the shores of Long Island! Because it caused a bit of disfigurement, he attributed it to having two bad teeth removed (I saw a display on it at the Mutter Museum once). That wasn’t the worst though.

Cleveland was president during the Victorian era, whose straight-laced propriety and denial of anything related to sex, including body parts, haunts us in a weird duality to this day. And in that era of moral decorum, Cleveland was routed out as having had a love child in 1874, before he married his wife. Not only an illegitimate child, but he had the mother locked up in an insane asylum, and farmed the baby out to another couple! Even though it made a huge scandal at the time, he freely admitted it, and it didn’t stop him from being elected not just once, but twice, proving that moral flexibility is nothing new, either.

Abraham Lincoln quote: "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."Men of power get to the top position by wielding their power, and the office of the president is no different (I suppose we could let Jimmy Carter off the hook. He’s an anomaly to the rule, and no doubt why he was a somewhat wishy-washy President and often considered not strong enough during the Hostage Crisis. People just wanted to get away from Watergate). It doesn’t matter what party platform you’re running on, mainstream or not, chances are somebody somewhere is going to dig up a scandal on someone, and if not, the elected just might create one of their own (such as Reagan and Iran-Contra). It’s nothing new, and it’s not likely to go away again in the future. So grab some popcorn, and school yourself on these hot-button scandals of the day (Check out the movies of All the President’s Men, Frost/Nixon,  Argo, and Mark Felt ) :

 

A Reading List for Pride Month

Pride Month (also known as LGBT Pride Month) is celebrated each year in the month of June to honor the 1969 Stonewall riots in Manhattan. The Stonewall riots were a tipping point for the Gay Liberation Movement in the United States. In June of 1969, patrons and supporters of the Stonewall Inn staged an uprising to protest the police harassment and persecution to which LGBT Americans were commonly subjected. This began of a movement to outlaw discriminatory laws and practices against LGBT Americans.

The American Library Association has also named June GLBT Book Month, celebrating the authors and writings that reflect the lives and experiences of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community. Whether you are a part of the LGBT community or not, finding your self in one of these books or going outside your comfort zone, these books about the LGBT experience can help to foster a greater understanding of the diverse world we live in.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932Lovers at the Chameleon Club by Francine Prose  by  Francine Prose. At the Chameleon Club in Paris, Lou Villars, a star athlete and scandalous cross-dressing lesbian, finds refuge among its patrons, and as time passes, she experiences a transformation that warps her earnest desire for love and approval into something dangerous.

When Katie met Cassidy When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perriby Camille Perri. A romantic comedy about gender and sexuality follows the experiences of a traditionally minded Midwesterner who, in the aftermath of an ended engagement, finds herself in a transformative relationship with a self-assured New York businesswoman.

MiddlesexMiddlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides by Jeffrey Eugenides. In the spring of 1974, Calliope Stephanides, a student at a girls’ school in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, finds herself drawn to a chain-smoking strawberry blond classmate with a gift for acting. The passion that furtively develops between them – along with Callie’s failure to develop – leads Callie to suspect that she is not like other girls. In fact, she is not really a girl at all.

The Danish Girl  The Danish Girl by David Ebershoffby David Ebershoff. Set in 1920s Copenhagen, this tender tale of love and marriage in the midst of fundamental crisis introduces a man who discovers he’s a woman and the woman who will do anything for him.

The Lauras by Sara Taylor. A thirteen-year-old girl on the run with her mother from her father revisits her mother’s former foster care homes to repay old debts and keep promises, learning astonishing truths along the way, in a novel that strikes at the heart of a mother-child bond and the exploration of gender identity.

If I was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. Amanda Hardy only wants to fit in at her new school, but she is keeping a big secret, so when she falls for Grant, guarded Amanda finds herself yearning to share with him everything about herself, including her previous life as Andrew.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson  by John Green & David Levithan. When two teens, one gay and one straight, meet and discover that they share the same name, their lives become intertwined as one begins dating the other’s best friend, who produces a play revealing his relationship with them both.

Prudence by David Treuer. A haunting and unforgettable novel about love, loss, race, and desire in World War II–era America, about the secrets we choose to keep, the ones we can’t help but tell, and who—and how—we’re allowed to love.

Becoming Nicole : the Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt. The true story of a transgender girl, her identical twin brother, and an ordinary American family’s extraordinary journey to understand, nurture, and celebrate the uniqueness in us all.

Believe Me : a Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens by Eddie Izzard, with Laura Zigman. Writing with the same candor and insight evident in his comedy, Eddie Izzard reflects on a childhood marked by the loss of his mother, boarding school, and alternative sexuality, as well as a life in comedy, film, politics, running and philanthropy.

 

Embracing Earth Day

In January 1969, off the shores of Santa Barbara, California, on oil rig received a waiver to use a protective casing 61 feet shorter than Federal regulation allowed. The rig exploded with such force the sea floor cracked in 5 places. Three million gallons of crude left a 35-mile oil slick on California’s shores, and television brought images of ruined beaches and dying, oil-soaked animals into every home.

It was the flashpoint of the modern environmental movement.

So horrified were people that politicians banded together to pass the Environmental Protection Act (1970), the Clean Air and Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973) as they realized the impact pollution was having on the country. And spearheading that, as a result of that oil spill, Earth Day was born on April 22, 1970, to raise awareness and bring people together to discuss environmental issues.

The Troubling Truth

Earth in 1970 was a very sorry place. We knew we were in trouble since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring brought toxic issues to the forefront in 1962, but we did little. Air pollution killed scores of people through respiratory disease (a 1952 smog inversion killed 12,000 people in London. A 1966 attack in New York City killed 168 people in just 3 days. Smog.) Factories, farms, and mines dumped waste everywhere. Love Canal was killing children with 30-year old toxic waste. The Bald Eagle, symbol of our country, was hovering at less than 500 nesting pairs remaining, and (by 1987) the California Condor would drop to 27 remaining individuals, due to DDT (which made eggs fragile) and lead poisoning. The dropping rates of biodiversity were becoming obvious.

Environmental Victories

And with all the discussion and science, changes began to happen. DDT was banned in 1972. Leaded gasoline was phased out in 1973. Lead-based household paint was banned in 1978. Flame retardants were phased out of infant clothing (because babies have such capacity to spontaneously combust after sunset). Pesticides were examined, and many were quickly banned from use. And amazingly, the Earth began to recover. Today the Bald Eagle is off the endangered species list, with more than 5,000 nesting pairs noted – I almost drove off the highway when I saw one sitting on a light post in the Catskills. A living, wild, Bald Eagle. A few California Condors have been re-released into the wild, with more than 400 individuals now living wild or in captivity. New trucks and buses have 99% fewer emissions than those in 1970. The Hudson River now has fish again.

A Long Way Still to Go

While Earth Day and a commitment to protecting our environment – and thus ourselves – has spread around the world, the world remains a very, very polluted place. Toxins from the 70’s still lurk in the oceans. Oil spills remain in beach sand and marshes. The US boasts more than 1300 Superfund sites for government clean-up – 26 in Connecticut, and a former one here in Cheshire. Around the world, developing countries lack regulations and power to deal with toxic waste – China’s air quality is deadly due to coal-fired factories belching out pollution. Africa is poisoned by heavy metal mining. India suffers from toxic manufacturing chemicals. Lake Karachay in Russia is the most polluted place on Earth: an old dumping ground for nuclear waste, standing on the shores of the lake will kill a human in no more than an hour – far more deadly than the radioactive Chernobyl or Fukushima disasters, which will haunt us for thousands of years to come. Microbeads are choking animal life. Pesticides believed to be linked to some forms of autism still hide in lakes, and toys, furniture, and clothing manufactured in Asia can still contain lead and chemicals long-banned elsewhere.

The Importance of Individuals

While we may blow off our green recycling bins and never return our bottles, those little things, combined, make a big impact. Recycling aluminum cans saves 95% of the energy needed to produce new ones from ore. One ton of recycled paper saves 17 trees, lessening the greenhouse effect. One ton of recycled plastic saves 16 barrels of oil – $1,000 per ton. Multiply that by all the people in your town, your state, your region – and think how that snowballs. So celebrate your cleaner environment on April 22. Plant a tree. Pick up garbage on the side of the road. Recycle your bottles. Take a walk and look at all the diversity of trees and flowers and birds around you, and breathe deep of air that doesn’t burn your nose and eyes and make you cough (does anyone else remember the stink of the Uniroyal plant when the wind would shift in 1970’s summers?) Marvel at the sight of fish in the Naugatuck River, where nothing survived before. A clean planet is in our grasp. Give a hoot, don’t pollute, and save paper by checking these books out from the library!