The King’s Privy

People often have romantic notions about the kings and queens of yore.  We think about turreted castles and fluttering pennants and knights in shining armor, but not about the uglier, nitty gritty details of what life was really like in those days — before modern dentistry, and the invention of air conditioning, and countless other developments that contribute every day to making our lives much better than they have ever been before.

mann-wrathIndoor plumbing obviously is one of those developments.  Which raises the question:  how did kings deal with that essential aspect of the human existence?

Historians note that England’s King Henry VIII — he of the six wives — actually had a courtier called the Groom of the Stool to take care of that element of the King’s daily routine.   The GOTS apparently was a high-ranking (if not coveted) position that involves taking careful notes about the monarch’s bowel movements and maintaining the “Stool Room.”  The Stool Room was a private privy where the King used a padded chair “covered in sheepskin, black velvet, and ribbons” positioned above a pewter chamber pot to take care of business.

Other members of the Court had their own private rooms with their own chamber pots, but the masses weren’t quite so lucky.  The article linked above indicates that servants working at the King’s palace tended to answer the call of nature in whatever happened to be nearby.  Fireplaces and the stone walls of the castle were popular targets, giving the castle a distinct aroma by the end of a long day.  And visitors and the staff also used a huge, open-air facility called the “Great House of Easement” that had 28 seats and no stalls or interior walls.  The facility and its tank were cleaned by a group of boys called the Gong Scourers who were appointed by the King.

Still entertaining romantic notions those days of olde?

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Ancient Headgear

If you needed further evidence that the world is a weird place, here’s something:  you can actually buy a hat made with authentic woolly mammoth hair for only $10,000.

World's only woolly mammoth hatThe hat has been put up for sale by Vladimir Ammosov, a man from Yakutsk.  His relative had gone to the “woolly mammoth graveyard” at a village in Yakutia and filled a plastic bag with woolly mammoth hair.  (In this part of Siberia, hunting for remains of the gigantic, shaggy, elephant-like creatures who thrived during the Ice Age is a popular local pastime — hey, what else are you going to do in Siberia? — and there is a lively trade in mammoth remains, especially tusks.)  The relative needed cash, and sold the bag of hair to Ammosov, who then had to decide what to do with it.

First, Ammosov got the expert at the local mammoth museum to confirm that the bag did in fact contain mammoth hair, then he decided to have the woolly mammoth hair crocheted into a head-hugging hat in the traditional Yakutian style.  Typically, the hats are made of horse hair, but the ancient mammoth hair served just as well.

It’s not exactly a flattering piece of headgear, and because mammoth hair was coarse — after all, it served as protection against the cold during an Ice Age — the hat is described as “prickly” to wear.  It was put up for sale in August, but I’ve found no follow-up stories to indicate whether it has actually been sold.  Could it be that there is no one out there willing to pay $10,000 for an ugly, uncomfortable hat woven from the hair of extinct, long-dead creatures?  Maybe the world isn’t quite as crazy as we think.

Measles — And Vaccinations

There’s been a serious measles outbreak in Europe this year.  In the first half of 2018, there have been more than 41,000 reported cases of measles in Europe, and at least 37 deaths.  The 41,000 cases during the first half of 2018 is almost double the number of measles cases reported during the entire year of 2017 and is almost eight times higher than the reported measles figures for Europe in 2016.

pri_65784434There is a simple apparent cause for the European measles outbreak:  a drop in immunization rates.  Routine vaccinations of young children with the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine — which is shown to be 97% effective in preventing measles — are falling in countries like Italy, Romania, and the Ukraine.  It’s not clear whether parents are simply not as attentive as they once were, or whether they think measles has been wiped out and vaccination isn’t necessary in the modern world, or they’ve fallen prey to scientifically dubious arguments that MMR vaccination leads to conditions like autism.

The decline in vaccinations in the general public is the key to measles outbreaks, because measles is one of the most virulent, communicable diseases around.  It’s spread by droplets in the coughs and sneezes of an infected person, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that a person with measles can infect 90 percent of the non-immune people who come within close contact.  And even though measles seems like a simple childhood disease, it can have serious complications, like pneumonia and encephalitis, in some cases.

According to the CDC, there are no measles outbreaks in the U.S.; as of August, there had been only 124 cases of measles in 22 states in 2018, and none in Ohio.   It’s a marked contrast to the figures reported in Europe.  The outbreak in Europe, however, shows that parents and doctors need to keep their guards up and ensure that kids get vaccinated.  And it shows something more:  in this interconnected world, we’ve got to be able to depend on each other to follow the health care basics.  If people stop getting the routine, proven vaccinations, measles may end up being the least of our concerns.

Driving Forward In The Kingdom

It’s June of 2018.  And as of Sunday, June 24, women in Saudi Arabia are finally legally able to drive.

p06byymkIt’s astonishing when you think about it, but until yesterday the kingdom of Saudi Arabia had maintained a ban on women driving — the only one in the world.  It was one of the most visible elements of differential treatment of men and women in that country.  The decision to finally allow women to drive is part of an effort by the Saudis to liberalize and modernize their benighted internal policies, which have received a lot of international criticism over the years.  And, as is so frequently the case, the move also has an economic component.  The Saudi economy has taken a hit because of oil prices, and allowing women to drive is expected to increase the employment of women and allow them to make more of a contribution to the gross national product.

Not surprisingly, many Saudi women took to the streets in cars to celebrate their ability to do something that women the world over have taken for granted for more than a century.  “I feel free like a bird,” one woman said.  “The jubilance, confidence and pride expressed by Saudi women driving for the first time in their country, without fear of arrest, brought tears to my eyes,” another one wrote.  And Saudi women posted videos of themselves driving on social media.

But let’s not get too excited about the loosening of repressive policies in Saudi Arabia, because a number of activists who strongly advocated for great women’s rights have been jailed and remain behind bars, even as the ban against women driving has been lifted.  Some believe that the jailing is intended to placate the ultra-conservative religious leaders who remain a significant force in the country, and also to send the message that only Saudi leaders — and not activists advocating for changes in Saudi policies — can produce reforms in the kingdom.

It’s a sign that, while lifting the ban on women driving is welcome, Saudi Arabia has a long way to go.  And it’s also a reminder that, in 2018, there are still a lot of repressive policies out there against women that still need to be addressed.

Boys And Toys

There’s a bit of a dust-up over in England because Prince George, the four-year-old son of Prince William and Kate Middleton, was seen in public playing with a water pistol.  The toddler, his Mom, and his sister were out to watch his Dad play in a polo match — hey, we are talking about the British royal family here, after all — and the young boy fooled around with the toy gun, as well as a toy knife and a slinky, as he sat on the grass.

prince_george_toy_gun-560x390This sparked outrage from some quarters, because Great Britain evidently has recently seen an increase in violence with guns and knives.  Some people said that water pistols shouldn’t be seen as fun toys, and it was wrong for his parents to allow Prince George to play with them.  One Twitter user fretted that playing with realistic toy guns could lead to children mistakenly shooting themselves with real guns.  Another critic, drawing long-term conclusions from the little boy’s play, said:  “Sad to see George playing with a gun when the whole country has a gun/knife crime situation. Maybe in training for killing wild life in later years.”  Really?

It’s hard for me to believe that people don’t have better things to do than worry about little boys playing with toy guns.  When I was a kid, the family toy box included a few western six-shooters and a sheriff’s badge, a cap gun, a few water pistols, and a machine gun that made a whirring noise and sprayed red sparks from the barrel when you pulled the trigger.  The other boys in the neighborhood had a similar toy arsenal in their homes.  All of these ersatz weapons came in handy when UJ and me and the other kids in the neighborhood were out playing “army” or “Rat Patrol,” cowboys and Indians, or cops and robbers.  These games were like a glorified form of hide and seek that allowed the kids in the neighborhood to get out, run around, and use up some of the energy that kids have in abundance, and having a fake gun was just part of the game.

Astonishingly, none of the kids in our neighborhood went on to become gun nuts or mass murderers.  We played with toy guns because it was fun, but it was just that — play.  And the army-style games alternated with playing baseball or football or freeze tag, or building forts, or catching lightning bugs on a warm summer evening.  Playing with guns didn’t glorify guns, or desensitize us to violence, or leave us permanently scarred because one of our gun-toting friends captured us, or any of the other psychobabble concerns that people are articulating now, they were just toys that were part of great games.  I’m not a gun person, but if I were a kid I’d do it all over again.  It was fun.

Obviously, people in England have a right to be concerned about violence, but we can be sure of one thing — whatever the cause of that violence might be, it isn’t four-year-old boys playing with water pistols.  Give the kid and his parents a break, and let him go about his play without projecting adult concerns on a little boy’s innocent fun.

Winging It

The on-again, off-again, on-again summit meeting with North Korea is set to occur next Tuesday in Singapore.  Yesterday, President Trump confirmed reports that he’s not exactly cramming and burning the midnight oil to prepare for the meeting.

5e6mikironhllmggtkqbd54s4i“I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about attitude,” he said. “I think I’ve been prepared for this summit for a long time, as has the other side.”  President Trump, who says the meeting won’t just be a “photo op” and may be the first of several meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, added:  “I think I’m very well prepared.”

The President believes that his tough language about North Korea and Kim has been a key factor in bringing North Korea to the table.  He uses the phrase “maximum pressure” to describe his approach to the country that has long been an international pariah, and said: “If you hear me using the term ‘maximum pressure,’ you’ll know the negotiations didn’t go very well.”  Nevertheless, President Trump predicts that the summit meeting will be a “great success.”

A year and a half into the Trump presidency, we’ve long since realized that President Trump isn’t like most people, who would never dream of going into an important meeting with an isolated, notoriously unpredictable country that feels like an international outcast and has been working to develop a nuclear weapons program to attract attention, put its neighbors on edge, and give it a louder voice in the world.  But President Trump is matching, and maybe even exceeding, North Korea in the unpredictability department, having first abruptly cancelled the summit, then determined that it is back on again.

So, is President Trump just supremely self-confident about everything he does, including meeting foreign dictators who have virtually no relations with other countries?  Or, does the President think that saying he hasn’t been spending much time hitting the briefing books helps to set the framework for the negotiations and gives him an advantage of sorts?  Is the statement that the summit is about “attitude” supposed to convey that the United States doesn’t think there’s much to discuss at this point beyond getting North Korea to end its nuclear program?  Or is it to communicate to North Korea that it isn’t really important enough to demand a big chunk of the President’s time?  Or is the plan to make Kim feel overconfident that he’ll be able to pull a fast one on a negotiator who admittedly hasn’t tried to master the details?  Or, is there some other, deep, Art of the Deal-type negotiation game afoot?

With President Trump, you never know.  But hey — what could go wrong?

Capetown Africa

For dinner Kim and I took a short walk to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront area – a wonderful collection of shops and restaurants – there are many public safety people at each intersection making us feel safe – we saw our first “wildlife” – watched the sun setting on Table Mountain and of course I felt the need to stretch my legs after having been crammed in an airplane the past couple of days making the “conga” guys smile – what fun !!!