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March 15, 2012

Gaga Family Saga



"Why waste your money looking up your family tree? Just go into politics and your opponents will do it for you." -- Mark Twain

As you know, if you know, if you care, if you’re still reading, hello?, I have traced my lineage back to four U.S. presidents (see below: Dropping Names on my Foote). Is that something to brag about? Considering who they are? Curious? Taft was the best. The others are Nixon and the Bushes. Oh well, oh hell, hell’s bells, ding dong.

They say that several hundred thousand, if not million, Americans can trace back to cousinship with George W., so I’m not alone. Barack Obama is another distant relation of his predecessor’s. Okay.

But there’s news, big news! We’re all children of Adam & Eve? No, I found another claim to everlasting fame. Let’s see if I can get this right. My ancestor on my maternal grandfather’s side is Casper Strahl (1729-1799), who was named Casper von Strahlheim in Austria/Germany. His name was changed when he landed in Philadelphia in 1750 as an indentured servant with a contract for eleven years of servitude in exchange for passage. Twelve years later he married Rebecca Barger, a Quaker, who was disowned by the Society of Friends until her husband and children joined the Society. Casper and Rebecca had a son, Phillip, who had a son, Casper.

In 1817, Casper married Mary Todd, 17, in Warren, Ohio. They farmed and raised 8 children and moved to Salem, Iowa in 1844. Mary died in 1869 and Casper in 1873.

Mary Todd was the daughter of Stephen Todd and Sibellia Williams. Stephen was the grandson of John Todd, a Presbyterian minister in Virginia. John Todd was the brother of Levi Todd, grandfather of another Mary Todd, a second cousin to Casper’s wife. She was from one of the leading families of Lexington, Kentucky, but moved to Springfield, Illinois to live with her sister.

After a tempestuous courtship, this Mary Todd married a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln in 1842. They had four children, but only one lived to adulthood. Mary Todd Lincoln was First Lady of the United States from 1861-1865. Her cousin, Mary Todd Strahl (and Casper) had a son named William, who had a son named Charles, who had a son named Jesse Elvin Strahl, my grandfather. He was a sweet quiet man, a Republican like Lincoln. I was 14 when he died, and it was only many years later that I realized how I missed him.

Happy trials, Martin


Mutt: Name dropper!
Jeff: Don’t you hate that? What is he, better than us just because he has distant relatives who’re famous?
Mutt: You don’t like history, do you?
Jeff: Nah, you?
Mutt: Well, I do know that in 1905 the formula for rouge was reddy.
Jeff: In 1909 rodent traps were invented with hope that a lot of people would gopher them.
Mutt: Also in 1909 the first magician appeared on stage – he was so bad, he made the audience disappear.
Jeff: In 1911 the first radical engine was marketed – the inventor said, “Diesel be very good.”
Mutt: In 1911 the first pill to cure headaches was introduced, but people found it hard to swallow.
Jeff: In 1912 the first ceramic coffee mug was invented by a couple of guys – everyone said they made a nice cupple.
Mutt: In 1913 valentine-shaped candy boxes were made for sweet hearts.
Jeff: In 1914 the Panama Canal locks opened, but they forgot the cream cheese.
Mutt: In 1915 pancake makeup was invented, but most people still preferred syrup.
Jeff: In 1920 the branding iron was invented – the cattle were really impressed.
Mutt: In 1924 Thomas Jack, an Englishman, invented the automated packaging machine – he was known as Jack the Wrapper.
Jeff: In 1925 card playing reached the pinochle of success.
Mutt: In 1931 the first shipment of hot dogs to the U.S. arrived from France – to pay off a foreign debt of 3 million francs.
Jeff: In 1932 a banana-skin briefcase was made – for lawyers who wanted to appeal their cases.
Mutt: In 1933 card playing was first banned aboard naval vessels – ships lost their decks.
Jeff: In 1935 the first greyhound raced behind a restaurant – the biggest bet was made by a man with a hot dog.
Mutt: In 1945 the first all-white Dalmatian dog was spotted.
Jeff: In 1948 the first dentist was hired by the National League to put on baseball caps.
Mutt: In 1949 the first tightrope walker was hired by a circus – he was high-strung.
Jeff: In 1951 vegetable farmers from all over the world held a meeting – it was the first peas conference.
Mutt: In 1958 two men invented the radial tire – everyone said they made a nice spare.
Jeff: In 1961 the skateboard was invented – it was a wheelie good idea.
Mutt: In 1968 pantsuits for women became fashionable, but ladies tried to skirt the issue.
Jeff: I guess that says it all.
Mutt: Oowah!
Jeff: Double Oowah!

March 8, 2012

Hey, you’re cracking my spine!


I read mostly used books. I’m cheap. I can buy ten used for the price of one new. I only buy new books if they’re written by my friends. And I don’t have that many friends.

Recently I’ve noticed something that I’ve always noticed about used books. That is, I finally asked myself why so many of my used books crack when I open them. That is, these wonderful volumes have clearly never been read. For instance, I just read four old books by John Barth, a fantastic writer. All four broke into pieces in my hands. That’s because the glue from the 1960’s is so old that it’s brittle, one even had a hardback spine that torn in two, but what bothers me is that these books have no signs that they’ve ever been read.

Why do people buy books? Because they feel an obligation to read something? Thanks university instructors for the guilt trip! Or is it because they know they will like the book, but there just isn’t time to read everything. Do they hang onto them for years and then give them away? I suspect the intention of reading is, for many people, stronger than the real reading habit. So if I publish a book and sell, say, ten thousand copies, how many of those are bought but left closed? How many are read by several people? How many wind up in the used book store for scavengers like me to find?

“I buy so many books I can never read them all.”
“You can’t go wrong giving books as presents.”
“We don’t have enough space in the garage for all these books. Chuck ‘em.”
“I’d feel bad just tossing good books into the recycling bin, maybe we could donate them or trade for more books.”

Of course, there are those exceptions that are full of writing, so that you get a double reading experience, yours and the previous owner’s. That’s fun. In the textbooks, the notes are heavy in the first chapter and peter out before mid-way. And then there are the truly read books which even after decades smell like the smoke of the person who enjoyed reading and smoking in bed back before remote controls and tablet internet. I opened a book recently and smelled the boiled fish someone was cooking years ago. Maybe reading in the kitchen. These signs are like a time capsule. That pipe smoker may be dead, but his pages carry on his scent to me across the world.

In my copy of My √Āntonia, a story of my grandparents’ Nebraska, some uneducated plains-dweller has written notes with a fountain pen like: ‘she’s so nice’, and ‘I don’t like him’. As if this reader felt like the characters were her neighbors. As if Willa Cather were sharing her journal. This dialog is probably from 1918 when the book came out. Amazing.

Happy reading trials, Martin


Mutt: Ready for some American history?
Jeff: I love American history.
Mutt: Not for long.
Jeff: Well, I know that in 1621 a Plymouth band began playing because they wanted to see Plymouth Rock.
Mutt: In 1634 the first twins were born in America on a two’s day.
Jeff: In 1640 the first calendar was produced – everyone knew its days were numbered.
Mutt: In 1803 the first chimney sweep was hired and everyone said, “Soot yourself!”
Jeff: In 1806 liquor was first made in the U.S. – it soon went into mash production.
Mutt: In 1841 the first suspenders were made, but the company was held up.
Jeff: In 1865 Canada sold the U.S. a herd of 40,000 bison. Then America received a buffalo bill.
Mutt: In 1868 the first dressmaker’s shop opened – it seemed to do very well.
Jeff: In 1869 walnuts were first introduced to America – some thought they weren’t all they were cracked up to be.
Mutt: In 1883 the first bakery opened on the yeast coast.
Jeff: In 1888 chains were made for pocket watches – for people who couldn’t afford to lose time.
Mutt: In 1889 the first lighter-than-air craft departed on its maiden voyage – everyone thought it was a lot of balloony.
Jeff: In 1892 a shipment of fruit was delivered by boat – it was the first water-mailin’.
Mutt: In 1898 the first submarine sandwich was introduced, but the company went under.
Jeff: Okay, and then what happened?
Mutt: One damn thing after another, brother, one damn thing after another.

March 2, 2012

Desperate Need of Nothing


Mutt: So what’s up with the Boss?
Jeff: Silence is golden.
Mutt: Maybe he doesn’t have anything to say. Ran out of brains.
Jeff: Never stopped him before.
Mutt: I heard he wrote some posts on the current political situation, but is too chicken to publish them.
Jeff: Squawk, squawk.
Mutt: Quack, quack.
Jeff: Did you hear about the two microbes who lived inside of a horse?
Mutt: What? Another microbe joke!
Jeff: They were just barely squeaking out a living by eating any small particles of food that passed by the tiny capillary in which they were living. After discussing it among themselves, they decided to move out to a bigger artery, and then to a large vein, but too late they realized their mistake. They forgot the old maxim: Don’t change streams in mid-horse.
Mutt: Once there was a King who was loved by all of his subjects, especially because of the hunting excursions he shared with them. As will happen, one day he died and his eldest son took the throne. Now this new king was an animal-lover to the core, and immediately outlawed all forms of hunting and fishing. His subjects accepted this for only a short time before they ousted him.
Jeff: So what?
Mutt: So what? Well, this is a truly significant event, because it's the first time a reign was called on account of the game.
Jeff: Every one a winner.
Mutt: Yabba dabba doo.
Jeff: It seems that there were these three pregnant Indian squaws, all due to give birth at about the same time. The first squaw gave birth to a boy, and the birthing was done on a deer hide. The second also gave birth to a boy, but this was done on a bear hide. And the third had twins, two boys, and she did this on a hippopotamus hide.
Mutt: I am really afraid to ask.
Jeff: This shows us that the sons of the squaw on the hippopotamus hide is equal to the sum of the squaws on the other two hides.
Mutt: I don’t get it.
Jeff: Neither do I.
Mutt: For the love of Mike!
Jeff: Oowah!