When I bought Ellsworth Kelly stamps at the post office, I lied and pretended I knew who he was. The clerk expressed his surprise that they’d put out the Kelly stamps so quickly–he’d died fairly recently.
“Oh, that’s true,” I said.
In college, the teachings of Socrates inspired me to stop pretending I knew things in order to look smarter. Instead, I decided to just ask. I might look ignorant, but it would be better for me in the long term.
Asking is better than looking something up online later; you get a human perspective that’s missing from Wikipedia. Sometimes, also, you realize that other people don’t always know what they’re talking about.
Since I didn’t ask the clerk, I had to look up Ellsworth Kelly myself.
Kelly led a long life, made tons of art, and passed away in 2015. The single awesomest thing I learned about him? He was part of a WWII unit called “The Ghost Army,” which deceived the Germans into thinking there were allied armies where there were none. PBS made a documentary about it–I know the next documentary I’m watching.
I assumed that renting a six-hour documentary when I have a toddler was a ridiculous act of optimism. Surely, in these tiring times, my partner and I would lack the mental energy to watch a history documentary instead of the same episodes of 30 Rock for the billionth time. Surely, if we managed to start it at all, we would manage about 45 minutes. Then we would return it to the library, making sure not to do anything to invite a conversation with the librarian about our documentary-watching failure. I had high expectations about Ken Burns’ Prohibition, but I still didn’t expect it to be so fascinating that I would be motivated to finish it well before it was due.
I learned so many interesting things about Prohibition—and especially the social conditions leading up to it–that I have found myself telling people about it all the time. I don’t know how many unspoken social conventions I’ve broken by blurting out Prohibition stories in the middle of a conversation, but here are some of the ones that have stuck with me.
Income tax is just over 100 years old.
Since I never learned otherwise, I always assumed that income tax has existed since the start of the country to satisfy government greed and also to birth the energy vampire known as TurboTax.
Nope! Well, probably a little bit. But income tax was also related to the fight to prohibit alcohol—one of the things standing in the prohibitionists’ way was the enormous amount of tax revenue generated by the alcohol industry. With income tax passed in 1916, that gave the government an extra source of income to draw from, and struck a blow to the alcohol industry.
This is part of the reason that Al Capone was taken down on charges of tax fraud. Watching the documentary, I kept wondering why he didn’t just hire an accountant, when he was clearly rich enough to hire an entire team of accountants and maybe even pay them to fight tigers or make him sandwiches out of tiger baloney. Income tax, at that time, was still not well understood, and so it ended up being a weak point for Capone.
Alcohol totally took the rap for capitalism and patriarchy.
One of the chief complaints about alcohol, especially by the 19th-century women’s groups who initially sought to make the United States a dry country, was about husbands who would drink and then come home to abuse their families. Hand-in-hand with that was the idea that the men needed to go to the saloons on a Friday night after a hard work week. Their lives in manufacturing jobs were so tough that it was their right to unwind. Sounds like patriarchy to me—with a bit of capitalism for spice. In other words, alcohol became a scapegoat for what was actually a feminist issue, and a workers’ rights issue. Ultimately, banning alcohol couldn’t solve these problems.
Empowerment means awesome vigilante stone-throwing.
In the 1800s, there was a woman named Carry Nation, who was the head of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Kansas. Alcohol had screwed over not one, but two of her marriages, and after a number of ineffectual marches, she heard the Voice of God and turned into a crazed vigilante. She was especially pissed because Kansas was supposed to already be a dry state, but it sounded like there was a saloon every couple blocks. Kind of like Dunkin Donuts in modern day New England.* The morning after hearing god, she hid a bunch of rocks in paper wrappings, then went to the nearest saloon and starting chucking the rocks at mirrors, bottles, and all the other breakables. She then went on and did this at a few more places. She was arrested so many times that we lost count while watching, but every time it was the same story: she would be released from jail, and then go grab more rocks and break saloons. This sometimes happened multiple times in a single day. Eventually, she upgraded to a hatchet.
It’s possible to be so nice you lose all sense of morality.
One of the era’s big bootleggers, George Remus**, murdered his wife after a short stint in prison during which she had an affair with a prohibition officer. This apparently occurred while he was on his way to their divorce proceedings. Remus acted as his own lawyer, and decided to play the temporary insanity defense, which was a maverick move back then. The jury declared him not guilty because they knew he’d had a rotten Christmas the previous year, and wanted him to have a better one this time around.
So even though he took a life, the jury decided to give him a break for the holidays. That’s some Christmas song material, there. It’s better than Christmas Shoes, anyway.
And the number one thing that stuck with me from Prohibition?
A handful of slippery, vague ideas about how people act and opinions form. It’s a slow process. Then, as now, people tried to solve problems by attacking convenient scapegoats instead of the root of a problem. People keep saying that we live in politically divisive times. I think that’s true, to an extent, but the way that citizens of the 19th and early 20th centuries divided into wet and dry camps looked familiar to me. Movements rise and fall on the tide of opinions and ideas. That hasn’t changed today.
That’s comforting and depressing at the same time.
*If that was the case, then clearly, law or no, Kansas could not get rid of the saloons. How would anyone give directions?
**I don’t know if he has any connection to Romulus and Remus, or if he could turn into a wolf.
Every March, my partner and I host a brunch and tell our guests to bring a bowl of waffle batter. We invite all the friends and family, geeks and hippies, awesome, quirky, intelligent people we can, and they all co-mingle over a chaotic five hour feast of every type of experimental waffle you can imagine.
Ok, that’s not true. I can imagine a lot of waffles. Snozzberry waffles. But we’ve had chocolate waffles, chocolate mint waffles, blueberry waffles, jalapeno corndog waffles, taco waffles, bacon waffles, peanut butter banana waffles, pumpkin waffles, and all sorts of regular old waffles, made with everything from Bisquick to home grown goose eggs. We’ve had four waffle makers going at a time, and we always end up with batter-globbed counters at the end of the day.
Needless to say, my partner and I celebrated a slightly belated Våffeldagen the very next day. Nothing extravagant, just a batch of waffles with some leftover Santa chocolate chips thrown in.
The next year, when March 25th rolled around, we had the following awesome conversation, which planted the seed for what Våffeldagen would become:
“Hey, isn’t today Vaffeldagn?”
“I guess it is.”
“Let’s have some waffles.”
“Can they be chocolate?”
“Ok. Can you find a chocolate waffle recipe?”
You see, at this point, Våffeldagen wasn’t yet Våffeldagen. Except for in Sweden. For me, Våffeldagen was still on the level of President’s Day. As in, you have to ask, “Isn’t it President’s Day?” Then, whatever the answer is, you go about your life and don’t really do anything.
Except with Våffeldagen, we didn’t really do anything, plus we ate a waffle. From what I’ve read, that’s basically how it goes down in Sweden.
In late 2010 and early 2011, a series of events turned the Waffle Day into a Big Deal.
Here is the timeline:
August 2010 I find a job after a long stretch of unemployment.
October 2010 As a productive member of society*, I move into my first apartment with my partner.
December 2010 At Christmas, our relatives mainly give us things we need for our apartment. My brother buys us a square waffle maker. Dan’s brother buys us a Belgian waffle maker. We do not tell either of them that we already have a waffle maker, and could the gift be returned for something else we need?
Winter 2011 We remember Våffeldagen in advance instead of on the day itself.
And here is the math:**
2 waffle makers + 1 apartment + remembering in advance = inviting people over for waffles
Inviting people over for waffles x the idea of looking up different waffle recipes on the internet x “We are lazy and don’t want to cook a bajillion waffles.” =
“Let’s have a Våffeldagen potluck and invite other humans and tell them to each bring their own waffle batter.”
And that’s the story Våffeldagen, at least our Våffeldagen, and why I’ll be having a ton of people over this weekend cooking a ton of waffles. One day, it shall be the stuff of legend.
*Society still hasn’t sent me a membership card.
**If my brother (he of the square waffle maker) sees waffle math, he will hate it. Greg, I’m not sorry.
Back in olden days in Great Britain, you and your wealthy friends might be driving down the road in your olden days equivalent of a Porsche. Maybe talking about what sweet ride it is. “Oh man, gilded door edges, 8-spoke wheels and an 8-cylinder horse. Real improvement over the 1749 model…”
Suddenly, a rider gallops up to you, weapons drawn, and halts your carriage. “Stand and deliver, your money or your life.” And of course you hand over your money, except for the coins hidden in your stocking, and you protest as the highwayman insists on jewellery too, because your necklace is sentimental. And at last the highwayman is satisfied and gallops off into the sunset… to rob one more carriage of rich folk before calling it a night.
Typically, the whole thing went down something like this:
These days, you and your wealthy friends… ok, I I’m still working on those. These days, you and the pile of trash on the floor of the passenger side are driving down the road, when suddenly… cop. Maybe you see, but can’t slow down in time. You continue down the road, praying to Fharlanghn… but no, the cop car slips out of its sneaky hiding place on the side of a fish and chips joint, tracks you like a predatory animal, and then lights up like a seizure-rave of fireworks.
And you hand over your license and registration, except for that time when you’d paid for your new registration only a month before and hadn’t really gotten around to taking it out of that orange folder yet. And, if you’re unknowing in the ways of getting pulled over, possibly protest that you were on your way to a fire…oops that came out wrong. The cop doesn’t outright take your money or wear a costume that looks really good on Adam Ant, but the cop does give you a ticket which requires you to DELIVER YOUR MONEY. Just like what the highwayman said. Or sang.
It’s mostly tedium, answering questions about how fast you were going, sitting and waiting while the cop runs your information. No gun pointed at your head, no choice of delivering your money or your life. And yet… the cop does still carry a weapon, pull over your vehicle, and demand money.