Friday, February 28, 2014


by: A.A. Milne
She wore her yellow sun-bonnet,
She wore her greenest gown;
She turned to the south wind
And curtsied up and down.
She turned to the sunlight
And shook her yellow head,
And whispered to her neighbour:
'Winter is dead.' 

Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter, hasn't it?

Even here in the South, we've had more than our fair share of gray skies, sub-arctic temperatures, and rain falling to earth in an unnatural, solid state. In a region where any amount of snowfall is a rare treat, this winter has taught us to dread the words "frozen precipitation" This has been the year of the Polar Vortex, a climate event that sounds like it was conceived in the volcano lair of a Bond villain.

The entire North American continent is suffering from the winter blahs, but this week I spotted the light at the end of the tunnel: My daffodils bloomed.

These aren't my actual flowers. Or my actual barn. These are paid re-enactors.

I'm usually not much for spring. Typically, we get a week or two of pleasant spring temps, accompanied by bucketfuls of pollen in the air, and then we plow right on into summer. Spring is a quick pit stop on the way to the main event--heat and humidity.

But this year... man, I'm really digging the idea of spring. When I saw the daffodils in my front yard burst into their glorious yellow blooms, my heart opened right along with them. Yesterday, we woke up to yet another frost on the ground, and I feared the flowers were done for. But this morning they're nodding in the breeze, defying the lingering cold and forcing bright color onto our muted landscape of brown and gray.

When I studied abroad in France during college, I took an oral presentation course. One of our assignments was to speak about a festival in our hometowns. I'll never forget the speech given by a Swedish student. She told us about her town's annual spring festival, how everyone got together for days of music and revelry to celebrate having made it through the winter. In my area, we celebrate particular crops, like watermelons, peaches, cucumbers, peanuts... whatever a given little town produces lots of. The idea of celebrating basic survival touches on something primal and intrinsic. And after the brutal season we've endured, I think we're all due a little fun.

Spring reaches past our modern, civilized exterior to grab us right by our pagan roots. To this day, all of our spring holidays are about fertility, sex, new life, renewal. The ground thaws to accept seeds. Plants engage in passive sexual reproduction and douse our cars and our respiratory tracts with their sperm. Spring fever hits humans and other animals, granting us increases in energy and sexual appetites. The entire hemisphere (Sorry, Antipodeans, you already had your turn.) pulses with vigor and desire.

It's little wonder our ancestors welcomed spring with music and dancing and wine and fertility rites and feasting and little fuzzy bunnies and chicks. Flowers and soil and green and youth and breasts and sap and cherubs and the sun. The sun. That glorious giver of life and light. It came back. And we honor it, we thank it for keeping its promise. Every civilization throughout history has worshiped the sun. How can we not?

The sentiment... I get it.

I know winter isn't quite over for a lot of you. There's still a stretch of miserable cold and dreary, leaden skies in the coming weeks, but we're almost there. I promise. Daffodils don't lie. Hang in there. The ice is slowly melting.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Be Mine

Today is February 14, Valentine's Day, a holiday with the power to reduce the best of us to quivering heaps of adolescent uncertainty: Is it too soon to get him a gift? Will she think I lack imagination if I buy her chocolates? Will the comically oversized box earn back originality points? What if he doesn't like teddy bears? Haven't we been together too long for this nonsense? Is it weird to say "Happy Valentine's Day" to my boss, or is it weirder not to say anything?

Someone you encounter today will tell you Valentine's Day is a made-up holiday pushed by a secret coalition of greeting card companies, candy cabals, and floral cartels trying to boost profits in the post-Christmas slump. Those people are wrong.

Maybe. The above could only have come from a soulless
Faustian fraternity working in concert with the minions of Hell.

Here are some fun facts about the history of Valentine's Day you can use to put the naysayers in their place, and to dazzle your friends and lovers.

You might know that Valentine's Day originated as a Catholic feast commemorating St. Valentine, but did you know there is more than one St. Valentine honored by the day? Valentine of Terni was a second century bishop martyred during the Roman persecution of Christians. When he was jailed for preaching his faith, he reputedly healed his jailer's daughter of blindness, thus earning a few new converts and a date with clubs, stones, and the executioner's axe. Valentine of Rome hails from the fifth century. He was also persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, and executed. Romance! Legend has it that Mr. Of Rome performed secret marriage ceremonies for Roman soldiers, who were forbidden to marry. His flower-adorned skull is a relic on display in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin.

Your move, Hallmark.

The feast of St. Valentine was not originally fixed to the fourteenth day of February. Even today, the Eastern Orthodox church honors the Saints Valentine in July, on the sixth for Valentine of Rome, and on the thirtieth for Valentine of Terni.

Valentine's Day was first connected to romantic love by Geoffrey Chaucer in the high middle ages. To commemorate the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia, he penned "Parlement of Foules," which begins:

For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

Mid-February isn't really sexy time for most species of birds in England, so this poem also provides a clue that Valentine's Day wasn't always observed on 14 February, but sometime later in the spring. Also, we know the engagement was made official in a treaty signed May 2, 1381. Aww, political marriages. Romance!

Over the next many centuries, Valentine's Day really hit its stride. It was a big hit with followers of the courtly love traditions. Valentine love poems and letters dating back to the 1400's have survived to tell the tale. Donne and Shakespeare both wrote about Valentine's Day ( in "An Epithalamion, Or Mariage Song, On The Lady Elizabeth, And Count Palatine Being Married On St. Valentines Day" and Hamlet, respectively).

The giving of flowers and chocolates on Valentine's Day are folk traditions from the UK which commemorate the early advent of spring. In some places, sweets and gifts were left for children, while other communities latched onto it as a celebration of romantic love.

The ducks are an interesting artistic choice.
Charges of mass-produced sentiment are frequently leveled at manufactures of greeting cards, but you can't blame American Greetings for spreading a bad idea. In 1797, The Young Man's Valentine Writer was published in Britain. Its pages were filled with verses a young swain could copy out to send his beloved. A few commercially produced cards embellished with sketches and poems, called "mechanical Valentines," were available in the late 1700's, although they were not manufactured on a large scale until the Victorian era. By the turn of the nineteenth century, young lovers of both sexes were sending an astonishing number of poems and letters to one another through the post, using the holiday as an excuse to toss propriety to the wind.

A couple years back, one of my favorite blogs, Two Nerdy History Girls, featured this amazing anti-Valentine's Day screed written in 1805 by an indignant father and published in The Gentleman's Magazine:

 My eldest daughter who never receives any letter which she would wish to conceal from her parents, finding that her billet contained what appeared to be Poetry, began to read it to us; but she fortunately had not gone beyond the second line, when I recollected (from having heard of them in my boyish days) what the sequel was; and, snatching, as quick as lightning, the abominable Valentine from her hands before she could possibly arrive at the meaning, threw it upon the fire, congratulating my daughter on having escaped reading the most horrid obscenity that depravity could invent.

This is just an excerpt. I encourage you to read the whole post at Two Nerdy History Girls for the entire, hilarious epistle. The gentleman must have, in his own youth, utilized a publication akin to The Young Man's Valentine Writer, to be so familiar with the "horrid obscenity" his daughter received in the morning post.

On Life's Sea
In Love's Boat
Ever with thee
I would float

The poetry really hasn't gotten any worse, although that's not saying much.

From Victorian times onward, commercial valentines have been a mainstay of the holiday, making observation of the occasion affordable for everyone, down to the least popular kid in the fourth grade.

I hope you've enjoyed this little overview of the history of Valentine's Day. Whether you're celebrating with a special loved one, children, friends, or a box of chocolates pour un, do so with a clear mind, knowing that by sending flowers and buying cornball greeting cards, you're doing your part to uphold ancient, proud traditions.

Thursday, February 6, 2014


Almost three years ago (Has this blog been around that long? Yikes!) I wrote about my annoyance with the use of "Lolita" as a pejorative. I'm here today to rant about another inappropriately hijacked name-turned-adjective:


This one doesn't stem from the misunderstanding of a fictional character, but rather from an incomplete comprehension of a real man's literary legacy.

Yes, Elizabeth, I hear you saying, but what does it mean? I'm so glad you asked!

Machiavellian or Machiavelian  (ˌmækɪəˈvɛlɪən) 
— adj
1.of or relating to the alleged political principles of Machiavelli; cunning, amoral, and opportunist
— n
2.a cunning, amoral, and opportunist person, esp a politician

Wow, that Machiavelli guy must have pretty bad, to have a whole word meaning "evil politician" dubbed in his honor, huh?

Bzzzzt! Wrong!

So, what's all the hubub about this man? How can I claim his name shouldn't be shorthand for everything we hate about politics and politicians? Good questions. Let's discuss!

Dark Ages are over, baby! Somebody bust out the
scientific method and the booze. Wooo! 
Niccolò Machiavelli, known today as the father of political science, was born in Florence, Italy in 1469. The keen among you will note that this places him squarely in the Italian Renaissance. Though a wonderful era for the arts, sciences, literature, and philosophy, it was sort of a crap time for Italian politics. In fact, the nation of Italy, as we know it, did not yet exist. Instead, Italy was a collection of independent city-states constantly warring over territory. And within the city-states (Venice and Florence being the biggest kids on the block), rival political factions kept overthrowing one another. The Papacy was active in fighting for land, as were foreign powers such as France, Spain, and Switzerland. It was all very tumultuous.

Over the years, Florence, Machiavelli's hometown, had gone back and forth between a republic system of government, and a monarchy. At the time of his birth, the Medici family had held Florence for half a century. But they were ousted from power in 1494, and the republic was reestablished.

Niccolò was an educated young man with a keen interest in history and politics. He held several posts in the Florentine government, serving as a diplomat to foreign courts, and running the city-state's militia for a time.

In 1512, the Medici returned to power, dissolving the republic, and in 1513, Machiavelli was imprisoned. Accused of conspiring against the Medicis, he was brutally tortured for three weeks before he was finally released. He retired to his country home outside the city, where he tried to stay involved in politics through his writing. He was a renowned intellectual. Besides his political writings, he penned books on history and war, as well as poems, plays, and other works of fiction. He died in 1527, at the age of 58.

Nope. Nothing remotely diabolical here.

So, where in this brief sketch of a biography will you find the underpinnings of the term Machiavellian? Niccolò himself seems a rather unassuming sort. He never possessed political power of his own, and was never more than a minor player in the government.

The term finds its roots in Machiavelli's most famous political treatise, The Prince. In it, Machiavelli discusses the different types of princes, namely hereditary and new. Machiavelli offers advice for those in power. Drawing from historical and contemporary examples, he uses the successes and failures of others to support his points.

Controversy swirled around The Prince almost as soon as it was published. Within its pages, you see, Niccolò Machiavelli asserts that a strong prince must do whatever it takes to seize control, stabilize the government, and retain his power. A prince must be willing and able to behave in immoral ways in order to meet these ends, including eliminating those who could threaten his position, lying, faithlessness, and developing a false morality to present to the populace. "But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic [faithlessness], and to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived."

Oooooh. Okay. Yeah. Now we're starting to get to the bottom of this Machiavellian situation. That doesn't look very good for old Niccolò, does it?

But here's the thing:

A lot of what Machiavelli says in The Prince is true. The leaders of countries really do have to grapple with decisions we'd consider immoral. Most of us can agree that killing is bad, mkay, but we know there's always the chance of war being declared. It may be justifiable in certain circumstances, but ordering the deaths of human beings is immoral. Yet we expect our leaders to be able to send armies out to kill human beings. So we, as a society, already accept a measure of immoral conduct in those who rule. And many of Machiavelli's observations regarding the nature of politicians sound just as accurate now as they did 500 years ago. Take, for example, this passage:

For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them.

Well, hey there, every politician ever! Look at you, espousing God and Country and Family and Children on the tee vee, while behind closed doors you're taking money from special interest groups, doing favors for your corporate buddies, and engaging in tawdry affairs in airport bathrooms and Oval Offices and the like. That's pretty spot-on, yeah?

But for centuries, historians and philosophers have wondered whether Machiavelli really meant what he was saying in The Prince, or if he was maybe up to something. The first clue is found right at the beginning of the book, in the dedication:

To the magnificent Lorenzo Di Piero De' Medici

You may recall that time, about ten paragraphs ago (man, this post is a lot longer than I thought it would be), when the Medicis had Machiavelli imprisoned and tortured for three weeks. So, what gives? Why dedicate his book to the dude who introduced him to the joys of strappado?

More like Lorenzo de' MeDouchey, amirite?

One idea is that Machiavelli was just toadying up to the man who could decide to make a human pinata out of him again whenever the fancy struck him. And you know, I wouldn't even say that's a terrible idea.

Some people, including the philosophers Diderot and Rousseau, argued that The Prince is satire. Others have hypothesized that the true audience of The Prince is not the nobility at all, who would already know everything Machiavelli advises, but the common people, who might be inclined (in the early 16th century, anyway) to trust the promises of their princes and kings, and to think them upright, pious men based on what they see in public.

One intriguing theory even suggests that Machiavelli--in true Machiavellian fashion--was attempting to lure Lorenzo de'Medici into a situation in which the people of Florence could easily rise up and overthrow him. In support of this idea is the fact that in The Prince, Machiavelli advises Lorenzo to arm the people, live inside the city, shun liberality, and lie to the citizenry. That's... kind of a genius recipe for disaster.

He looks so much less menacing with his eyeballs
properly filled in.

Additionally, The Prince is not the sum of Machiavelli's work. Following The Prince, he wrote another, much longer, political treatise. This one, titled Discourses on Livy, extolled the virtues of republics. In this book, he sets forth a system of checks and balances between the prince, the nobility, and the people. Contrary to the immoral behavior advised in The Prince, in the Discourses, Machiavelli states that extra-constitutional means should never be necessary in a republic (Some commentators have even suggested that The Prince is meant to demonstrate the moral superiority of republics.). He says that governments of the people are better than governments of princes. And it doesn't get more clear than this: "... if we compare the faults of a people with those of princes, as well as their respective good qualities, we shall find the people vastly superior in all that is good and glorious."

So... Machiavellian? I think there's a strong case to be made that Niccolò Machiavelli's work has been unfairly reduced to The Prince. The entirety of his political work and writings suggest he was strongly in favor of republics by and for the people. A true Machiavellian, therefore, would trust the people to govern better than a prince ever could.