Exorcising Your Right to Vote

I once cheerfully disenfranchised my whole family. We were taking a vote on something trivial: what movie to watch—Mulan vs. Aladdin. My husband and kids voted for one movie. I voted for another. Gleefully, the kids crowed about winning. I doubled down.

“Put your hands down!” I ordered. I pointed to the twins. “You two aren’t old enough to vote.” Then I pointed to my husband. “And you can’t vote in this country because you’re English. Since I’m the only one in this family both old enough to vote and a citizen of the United States, I win!”

See how easy it is to make it hard to vote? There are all sorts of ways that people can try to take away your vote. Gerrymandering is a fun one. We once lived in Pennsylvania. After we left, the district we were in became one of the most gerrymandered in the United States. The press called it “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.”

Goofy Kicks

Donald looks more like Stitch to me, but regardless, the Republicans in Pennsylvania cheerfully created this district to give themselves more seats in the legislature by grouping together as many Republican votes as possible. Here’s how District 7 looked prior to this 2003 gerrymandering.

PA 7

And when we lived there, the district had even more regular boundaries than that! But lest you think this is only a nefarious plan on the part of Republicans, the Democrats are guilty too. Here’s Maryland’s District 3, which a local politician once said looked like “blood spatter from a crime scene.”

MD 3

Of course, gerrymandering is not a recent phenomenon; in fact, it takes its name from a former governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry. Gerry was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and James Madison’s vice president, but he’s most remembered as the governor whose administration enacted an 1812 law that created more senatorial districts in Massachusetts, thus giving his party more votes. Since one of the newly created Boston-area districts was said to resemble a salamander, the press dubbed it a “Gerry-mander.”

Gerry-mander

Elkanah Tisdale political cartoon of the “Gerry-Mander”

But gerrymandering is only one way to favor a particular outcome in an election. If you can’t redraw the map to make it harder for your opponents’ votes to count in the newly rigged district, you could try implementing a voter ID law. Twelve states, all Republican held, now have strict voter ID laws where voters have to show an approved ID to vote. Eight other states (six Republican, a swing state, and a Democratic state) require the ID, but they will allow voters to cast a provisional ballot without it. The problem here is that voters have to return with a valid ID within a certain time frame (usually a few days) for the provisional ballot to be counted. Which ID is valid varies by state. In Texas, for example, you can show your gun permit, but your university ID doesn’t count.

Opponents liken this mandatory voter ID system to a poll tax because the voter usually has to pay for the ID, and it is often inconvenient for voters to get because they have to go to a centralized location. Poll taxes (essentially a fee for voting) began in the late 1800s in the South as a way to keep African Americans and poor whites from voting, although the latter might be “grandfathered in” if they had a relative who voted before the Civil War. The legality of the direct fee-to-vote system was struck down by the 24th Amendment in 1964. So of course, proponents of strict voter ID laws argue that these laws are not a poll tax at all; after all valid government ID is useful in other situations besides voting. But an analysis of the effect of voter ID laws show that, like the poll tax, they disproportionately prohibit minorities, students, and the poor—the very people who struggle most to find transportation to a state-approved ID facility and the money to pay for the ID—from voting.

Poll Tax

While you might think these voter ID laws are a legacy from years ago, they are actually a relatively new voter suppression tactic. Indiana was the first state to pass a strict voter ID law in 2005. The Supreme Court upheld the law in 2008, and additional states have piled on since. Proponents argue these ID laws are important for preventing voter fraud at the polls, but study after study has found there are actually very few instances of impersonation voter fraud—the type that a voter ID would prevent. According to Justin Levitt, a professor with Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, that number is 31 attempts in more than a billion ballots cast since 2000. That result doesn’t even round to a hundredth of a percent; it is basically zero.

If you’re not a fan of looking at terrible voter ID pictures, you might choose to make it physically harder to vote. You can do that by closing polling places or shortening the hours of voting (both in the period leading up to the election when absentee ballots are cast and on the actual day of the election). This tends to create long lines, causes confusion on where to vote, and often forces the voter to have to travel farther to get to the polls. Again studies show this tactic disproportionately affects minorities and the poor. In the South alone, after part of the Voting Rights Act was struck down in 2013, almost 900 polling places were closed in areas that served these populations in the period leading up to the 2016 election.

And if you find it too much trouble to close down the polling places, you can always just drop people from the voting rolls (sometimes without telling them), prevent released convicts who have served their sentences from ever voting again, change the rules about how the voter has to go about registering, or any number of other methods politicians use to keep people from voting—usually in the fear that the masses won’t vote for their candidates and thus the only way to win is to game the system.

vote here

Sure, it feels great for a minute or two to win that election because you suppressed the vote (after all, I still feel sure my favorite Disney movie, Mulan, is superior to Aladdin,* one of  the kids’ favorites [Mulan is literally a kick-ass female lead; what’s not to love?]), but if we disenfranchise other voters, a tenet of our democracy is lost in the process. If the politician (or parent) has to rig the system to win, they aren’t really representing the will of the people. In the years since the movie incident, I’m pleased to report that my husband became an American citizen and the kids are now duly registered voters. Their votes each count equally to mine, and that’s how it should be.

On Tuesday, November 6, voters will once again head to the polls to vote in the midterm elections. As we’ve seen, plenty of people want to suppress your vote. Don’t let them. Please check your local requirements and take the time to let your voice be heard. It belongs to you alone, and it matters.

Text © Rebecca Bigelow
Photos from Wiki Commons

Additional Reading

 

*Hey, Aladdin fans, I like your movie pick. I just like mine more! YMMV.

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Bailing on Straws

Costons soda_fountain 1909

My mother liked to take us to an old-fashioned soda fountain for special occasions when we were young. I liked the coin-operated vintage music machines that played songs from piano rolls or hole-punched metal disks. I liked the marble table tops and the wrought-iron chairs. I liked the egg salad sandwiches cut into triangle quarters, and of course the milk shakes were excellent. The only thing I didn’t like about this trip to a time my great-grandmother might have found familiar was the paper straw.

The paper straw was, I felt, a worthless invention, as it became soggy after a few minutes in my chocolate malted. The waitress would bring a new one, of course, but I’d run through a few of the paper straws before my shake was done. Authenticity triumphed over convenience here, so if you wanted to go on this outing with Mom, you just learned to suck it up. At home, we had a set of pastel-colored, straight, aluminum straws from when my mom was a girl. They had a little paddle on the bottom. My mother said that was to scoop up your milk shake. I thought they were pretty and retro, so I liked to use them, but they were a pain to keep clean, so they didn’t come out very often.

The older I got, the more abundant the plastic straw seemed, although it is quite likely that I just did not see them very often as a kid because we did not eat out that much. Today, if you order a drink out, the plastic straw is often already plunked in your beverage when it arrives. So many of us use these straws that, in the United States alone, we go through half a billion plastic straws each day (yes, billion with a B). That’s shocking given there are only 325 million of us in the country!

Sumerian Straw

The first straw was found in the tomb of a Sumerian dating from circa 3000 BCE. Art in the tomb shows two Sumerians drinking beer with straws from a large jar, presumably to avoid the sediment at the bottom of the container, and a gold, inlaid straw was found in that same location. Of course that is just the first evidence of straw use. As long as there were hollow reeds and grasses, ancient people were likely using them as straws. In fact, this natural use of grasses gave us the modern straw, as the inventor of my childhood frustration, the paper straw, didn’t like the grassy taste his rye straw gave to his afternoon adult beverage as it disintegrated into the alcohol. To fix this travesty, Marvin Chester Stone wound paper around a pencil, coated it with paraffin, and promptly patented that sucker in 1888.

paper straws

There were improvements along the way to the modern plastic straw: Joseph B. Friedman made the straw bend. He received a patent for that in 1937, creating the accordion shape by crimping a paper straw on a screw, and by 1939 he was selling a lot of them to hospitals because they made it easier for reclining patients to drink. Plastic straws came in, competing with paper straws at first, because the plastic ones were too buoyant for fizzy drinks; plastic finally won the straw wars because the plastic straw could be jabbed through a plastic lid, whereas a paper straw could not. Indeed, by the time I was a kid, the plastic straw was ubiquitous, and the paper ones, like my nemesis found at ye olde soda shoppe, were old-timey.

And with the rise of fast food and more people eating out, we arrive at 2018 and 1.5 straws per person per day. Of course, if you are in the straw business, this is great news. If you’re a sea creature, not so much. The plastic in straws doesn’t biodegrade—it just breaks down into ever smaller pieces—so the problem of plastic straws in the environment doesn’t go away. Regrettably, straws are also hard to recycle. Most are made of #5 plastic, which certain recyclers will take, but just as they float in fizzy drinks, they are also too light to make it reliably through the recycling machines. They bounce off the belts and fall through the screens. They end up in landfills or, worse, blowing around in the environment, where they often end up in the ocean. In fact, plastic straws are now one of the top-ten items found in beach cleanups, and zoos often don’t allow them because they too easily end up in the animal enclosures.  Animals may think the straws are food and ingest them or otherwise become entangled with them. One viral video this spring graphically showed a sea turtle having a plastic straw removed from its nose, where it was obstructing its airway and causing breathing issues.

plastic straws

Luckily, people are becoming increasingly aware of the plastic straw problem. The United Kingdom announced they would ban all single-use plastics (straws, drink stirrers, etc.), and the law is set to go into effect next year. Seattle’s law banning straws begins July 1. Reimagined paper straws (that thankfully don’t collapse as quickly as they did in days of yore), bamboo straws, compostable straws, even pasta straws are being tried in various markets. We bought sets of metal and silicon straws for home use, and the “hard to clean” aspect of my mother’s metal straws was solved because they came with flexible brushes, so you can give the insides a good swab.

Out in the world, we are learning to refuse the straw. This isn’t as easy as it sounds because it is so ingrained for the waitstaff to give a straw with your water or soda. The key is to try to remember to say you don’t need a straw when you order, otherwise your drink may come with the straw already in. Often the waitstaff is trained to leave straws on the table when they set down the drinks, and we’ve had this happen even after we said no to the straw. Then the trick is to get the wait person to pick the still-wrapped straw up and return it to the pocket of his or her apron, because if the straw is still on the table at the end of the meal, the bus person is likely to just clear it with the rest of the trash.

Actually, this is a conversation starter with the waitstaff. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many of them are aware of the problem and say they are actively working to get their managers to make a change (although they admit the constrawversy will continue as long as the plastic ones remain the most economical). Of course there are people who actually need plastic straws to drink because of a disability or medical issue, but the rest of us can cut straw use by refusing the straw or using a personal travel straw while out.

Still, you may say, this straw thing is only a small part of our plastic use. And that’s true, but once a straw goes into use, it has a life expectancy of less than an hour from unwrapping to trash, so it is an easy place to think about reducing our dependency on plastic. We aren’t going to solve our pollution issue by banning straws alone, but it is an excellent first step on our way to the last (plastic) straw.

Text: © Rebecca Bigelow;
Photo 1: Costons Soda Fountain, 1909, Public Domain;
Photo 2: The Met, Public Domain;
Photo 3: Stone’s Julep Straws Ad, Public Domain;
Photo 4: Horia Varlan, Wiki Commons


Resources:

Video of turtle having straw removed from its nose: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wH878t78bw

Patent for the bendy straw: https://patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/01/04/f2/13db9a8c162c5b/US2094268.pdf

The Met’s page on the Sumerian straw artwork (see upper right of photo): https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/324572

Additional Reading:

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/11/the-amazing-history-and-the-strange-invention-of-the-bendy-straw/248923/

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/06/disposable-america/563204/

https://www.bonappetit.com/entertaining-style/trends-news/article/history-of-the-straw

 

A Day That Will Live in Infamy

guard-tower-hmwf-yoshio-okumoto-coll-500x313

A guard tower at Heart Mountain—
the barbed wire and armed guards were to keep people in.

Seventy-five years ago, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which established so-called Military Zones in the United States, a national policy based on fear and racism. This order laid the groundwork for the eventual removal and internment of tens of thousands of people of Japanese descent, including American citizens, people who were not convicted of any crime.

Sadly, this shameful stain on American history has actually been cited recently as a “precedence” for the potential registry and internment of people of the Muslim faith. Those who do not learn from history . . .

I’m using this anniversary and the rhetoric about suggested current bans as an opportunity to educate those who may be unfamiliar with this aspect of U.S. history. In 1992, I had recently earned my MA in history, and I was shocked at how hidden this chapter of our American past was. I don’t believe it rated a single paragraph in my high school history books, and when I chose the topic for my own capstone project as a grad student, much of the secondary source material was recent—as if historians themselves had only just discovered the topic.

After I wrote my thesis, Friends Journal, a Quaker monthly publication, announced they were dedicating their November 1992 issue to a retrospective of the internment experience. I penned the overview (which can be read in PDF form without leaving this website) that introduced the issue. My essay tells the story of internment in brief, from the issuance of 9066 to reparations. Other voices in that issue offered reflections from those who lived through the actual events on both sides of the camp fences and updates on apologies and healing.

Today, there are many more opportunities to learn about the camps and what happened seventy-five years ago than there were even in 1992. The Japanese American National Museum opening coincided with the fiftieth anniversary. Manzanar was also named a National Historic Site in 1992, although the interpretive museum would not open until 2004. The Rohwer museum opened its doors in 2013. And of course, George Takei, of Star Trek fame, interned as a child with his family at Rohwer, has been an advocate for bringing this story to the forefront, through his blog and his passion project, the musical Allegiance (Broadway run 2015–16).

If you want to learn more about this period, I invite you to explore the links in the additional reading section. I think people who truly open their hearts to these events—the tragedy of internment, the suffering of Japanese American families, and the understanding that the internment did absolutely nothing for American security during the war—will see that this is not a mistake we, as Americans, want to repeat.

Text : (C) 2017 Rebecca Bigelow;  Photo: National Archives


Additional Reading

Rebecca Bigelow, “Certain Inalienable Rights,” Friends Journal, November 1992. Note this is a link on Curiosity Seldom Pays. All other links are to external sites.

Friends Journal archives are available to paid subscribers if you want to read the entire issue on the subject of internment.

George Takei’s Allegiance, the musical about internment, is playing in select theaters nationwide on Sunday (tomorrow), February 19, 2017, to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of 9066. This is the filmed version of the Broadway production starring George Takei, Lea Salonga, and Telly Leung. Check the Fathom Events site to see if it is playing near you. Also note that fans are asking for the film version to be made available for in-home viewing, but there are no official announcements on this yet.

A selection of museum sites:

Heart Mountain (Wyoming)

The Japanese American National Museum

Manzanar National Historic Site (California)

Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center (Arkansas)

Science Is Golden

I’m what you might call science adjacent. I’m not a scientist, but I keep crossing paths with them. As an editor, I spend a lot of time correcting their grammar, and on a day-to-day basis, I share my house with two of them: my husband and our daughter.

I may have ended up as an English and history major, but I’ve always liked science. It’s useful for everyday life. Need to bake a cake? Chemistry will help you there. Planting a garden? Show gratitude to botany for your knowledge of Hardiness Zones. Need to know how scary a theme park ride is? Ask about the gravitational force on Space Mountain (calculated by a local news team1 as more than 3.5), and you can nope right out of that ride thanks to physics.

Science appeals to my logical side. For a theory to be accepted, it has to be replicable, so scientists have to be able to lay out all the steps for how they reached their conclusion. “Because I said so,” may be the fallback position of frustrated parents everywhere, but it would not fly in a peer-reviewed science journal. And when science gets things wrong—and it does, after all the earth is not flat, there are no canals on Mars, and the planet Vulcan only exists in the Star Trek universe2—other scientists eventually correct the mistake with new evidence.

Scientists don’t know everything, nor do they claim to, and they don’t always explain things to lay people in a way that they can understand. Sometimes their scientific bent even gets them into trouble. When we were dating, my husband told me he was 99 percent sure that he loved me, but he could never be 100 percent sure because he was a scientist.3 I married him anyway.

The upshot of all this is when the vast majority of scientists agree on something, it behooves us to listen. Scientists agree that climate change is real, and 97 percent of climate change scientists agree that humans are causing it. Now, granted, that is not as certain as my husband is that he loves me, but it’s pretty darn close.

So when scientists tell us that climate change is real (and coming soon to a city near you!), we should listen.  After all, if you were in the way of stampeding heffalumps, and someone yells, “Heffalumps!” to warn you, it would be unreasonable to stand around debating the origins, causes, and motivations of A.A. Milne characters run amok. No, the first thing any reasonable person would do is to try to stabilize the situation: get out of the way, seek shelter, or otherwise try to reduce the number of rogue creatures escaped from the Hundred Acre Wood.4

The same theory applies to climate change. Even without agreement on the causes, it is clear that there are things we can do to mitigate the effects of climate change and to try to stabilize the situation. I know I’m just an English and history major, but it seems to me that we can reduce our carbon footprint now and worry about the whys and wherefores later. After all, the planet doesn’t care where exactly the greenhouse gases are coming from, all that matters is to reduce them.

Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for the current administration to recognize the heffalump, er, elephant in the room. We can each take steps to limit our own carbon footprints. And with these few small individual steps, together we could make great strides. That said, governments can create the most change because they can affect general policy. If a government is unwilling to act, it makes sense to ask, “Who benefits if we don’t do those things?” The answer seems to be that certain corporations, politicians, and individuals have a vested self-interest in keeping carbon emissions unregulated.

But climate change is only one example of science under attack by the current administration. Being science adjacent, I’ve been alarmed this week when our new president has set in motion several anti-science policies, including issuing gag orders on science communities and canceling long-scheduled scientific conferences. Silence may be golden, but in this case it may be deadly. For science to thrive, research needs to see the light of day, so that other scientists can hold it to the high standards that come from reproducible results. Silencing the scientific community when we are on the cusp of a global crisis is crazy. Scientists are pushing back with alt-websites and planned marches on Washington, but we non-scientists need to speak up as well.

Even if you mixed up mitosis and meiosis throughout your high school biology class, you can still appreciate science—from the computer you are reading this on to the life-saving medications that extend both the quality and quantity of life to the special effects used in the latest blockbuster.  I promise you can learn about these things without having to memorize a single formula. If your current home is free from vector-borne diseases (translation: bugs that carry scary illnesses that they then transmit to humans) or you can get a variety of fruits and vegetables from the local supermarket year round, and you’d like to keep these things, consider reading up on climate change. By learning how to help—from recycling to speaking up for scientists in the wild—you can make a difference. Anyone who likes living on this planet has a stake in the outcome.  As the protest sign says: There Is No Planet B.

 

Text ©2017 by Rebecca Bigelow

________________

  1. See http://forums.wdwmagic.com/threads/orlandos-local-6-news-tests-g-forces.78170/ for discussion of G forces on Disney rides.
  2. Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier, a nineteenth-century mathematician who had successfully used math to predict the existence of Neptune, hypothesized the planet Vulcan could be found in Mercury’s orbit. Other scientists confirmed its existence at first, but later scientists realized that the anomalies in the orbit were not caused by a new planet but by the proximity to the sun. See an article on Real Clear Science for further discussion.
  3. This space available for the rebuttal and justification to be provided by said husband.
  4.  Apologies to A.A. Milne and his fans. No heffalumps were harmed in the writing of this piece.

________________

Additional Reading

For now, both the EPA and NASA have climate change websites available.

This is a list of the alt-twitter sites set up by scientists after the gag orders started rolling out. Many of these also have Facebook pages.

Rolling Stone magazine published an article in 2015 that discussed some of the effects of climate change that were already noticeable and happening at a much faster rate than predicted.

This site messes with my OCD a little bit. They advertise 50 ways individuals can help combat climate change, but then they only list 49. Overlook that and read the list anyway.

If you have kids, NASA has a page just for them.

Pilgrim’s Progress

When the Pilgrims and Native Americans sat down at their three-day celebration to give thanks for a bountiful harvest in 1621, they could not have imagined the trappings of a modern thanksgiving. Football? Green bean casserole? A 2.5 mile parade through a metropolis? All inconceivable!

More than 200 years later, the idea of our modern-style Thanksgiving gained traction when it was made a fixed national holiday in the United States by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Football on Thanksgiving came a few years later in 1869, but green bean casserole wasn’t invented until 1955. In between the two latter dates, R.H. Macy loaned his name to the best-known holiday parade in the United States when employees organized the first procession to Macy’s flagship store in New York City.

Will It Play in Peoria?

Although the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade is now synonymous with Thanksgiving and is the way millions of Americans herald the holiday season, it isn’t the longest running holiday parade in the United States. That honor belongs to the Santa Claus Parade in Peoria, Illinois, which is now held the day after Thanksgiving and first welcomed Santa in 1889 (versions of the parade were held in both 1887 and 1888 to celebrate first the groundbreaking and later the completion of a new bridge, but St. Nick was not featured).

And despite the Macy Parade’s starring role in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street, Macy’s wasn’t even the first parade held on Thanksgiving day. Ironically, that honor belonged to Macy’s real life—and reel life—rival: Gimbels, which first held their parade in 1920 in Philadelphia. Ellis Gimbel attracted children (and their parents) to his toy department with a parade that included 15 cars, 50 people, and the jolly elf himself. Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving parade remains the longest running one in the country, although since the demise of Gimbels stores in the 1980s, the parade has been renamed several times to recognize new sponsors.

 Broadway Debut

Four years after Gimbels’ first parade, in 1924, New York Macy’s employees held their first attempt, but the parade didn’t look much like the one held today. Although held on Thanksgiving, it was called a Christmas parade, and it was held without balloons. The route, which ended at the Herald Square Macy’s—as every Macy’s Parade since has done—began not at 77th Street as the parade does today, but at 145th Street and Covenant in Harlem, making the original route more than six miles long (or more than twice as long as today’s approximately 2.5 mile route).

elephants Macy's
Elephants from the Central Park Zoo.

Kris Kringle—already the main event—was brought in by “a retinue of clowns, freaks, animals and floats,” according to an article in The New York Times. The freaks were not explained, but the clowns were costumed employee volunteers, the animals were borrowed from the Central Park Zoo, and the floats had a Mother Goose theme to match the decorated Mother Goose Christmas–themed windows at the Macy’s store. Crowd estimates were put at 10,000 in Herald Square and another 250,000 along the route.

Santa Macy'sThe first Santa float.

Once Santa arrived, he was crowned “King of the Kiddies.” The event was declared a rousing success, and Macy’s vowed to repeat the effort the following year. Indeed they have done so every year since, with the exception of the years 1942–1944, when the rubber and helium used in the parade was deemed more valuable to America’s war effort than to the parade. Interestingly, however, both Philadelphia’s and Peoria’s parades continued through the war years uninterrupted.

So Much Hot Air

Freaks notwithstanding, the Macy’s parade began to look less like a circus parade and more like the modern version in 1927—the first year balloons were used. The early balloons (four in the 1927 parade, including a dragon and Felix the Cat) were brought to the parade by puppeteer and theatrical designer Anthony Sarg. They were small, filled with air, controlled like a puppet by the volunteer handlers, and were more like floats (falloons, in modern terminology) than today’s high-soaring balloons.

Felix the catThe Felix the Cat balloon. Look, Ma! Only four handlers.

Still, the cat was out of the bag, and the live animals were permanently retired to the zoo. Helium was added to the balloons a year later and has been used every year the parade has run since, with two exceptions: In 1958 a helium shortage force parade organizers to transport the air-filled balloons on trucks and with cranes, and in 1971, high winds grounded the balloons.

P1180481Helium tankers deliver the gas to the public balloon inflation on Wednesday.

Balloons and floats for the modern parade are all created at Macy’s year-round parade studio in Hoboken, New Jersey. After several accidents in high winds, balloon size has been reduced, the number of handlers required for each balloon has been upped to a minimum of 50, and the balloons must be tethered to a vehicle, not just people. Additionally, traffic signals are turned out of the path of the parade or removed altogether, and the balloons are grounded if winds are sustained over 23 miles per hour. Floats have their own requirements on size, but the elves at the Hoboken studios make them so they fold up to 12 feet by 8 feet so they can fit through the Lincoln Tunnel on their way to and from the parade.

P1180696Notice the traffic lights have been moved out of the way.

 No Strings Attached

How much does it cost for Macy’s to create a balloon or float? Well, Macy’s is notoriously tightlipped on this matter. They have stated that they consider the parade to be a gift to the people of New York and the viewers at home, arguing that a gift giver does not announce the price of the gift to the recipient. Still, there are estimates that a new balloon will cost the sponsor as much as $190,000, with a repeat entry coming in around $90,000. A float is said to average $60,000.

In 2015, the balloons are a lot bigger and require many more handlers than in the earliest parades.

The performers are volunteers—mostly with Macy’s—but the groups that come to the parade, like a marching band, pay their own expenses. Last year, the University of Virginia marching band estimated their trip cost would be in the neighborhood of a quarter-million dollars. Groups that come from farther away have higher costs. Stephen F. Austin State University, which came from Texas, estimated their costs at more than $1,500 per person for their more than 300 band member because they had to charter planes. The University of Illinois’ Marching Illini did not announce a final price tag, as fundraising covered most of the expense for their trip, which included seven charter buses, meals and hotels, rehearsal space, and more, for approximately 400 people in the band organization for their four days in New York.

In exchange, after weeks of practice and hard work, and a two or three a.m. rehearsal in front of Macy’s for the live performers, each balloon, float, or band is rewarded with a few seconds of television coverage on Thanksgiving morning. In fact, each band was allotted one minute and fifteen seconds for their Herald Square performance this year. It may seem like a lot of work for little reward, but 175 bands auditioned for the chance to participate this year. Twelve were accepted. Macy’s has no shortage of bands, performers, and sponsors that want to be part of this annual holiday tradition.

I Always Think There Is a Band Kid

As traditions go, I confess, I think football should be a 15 minute game played between two halves of a marching band concert, and I think green bean casserole is an abomination to green beans. But I love a parade. And the approximately 3 million people who lined the streets of New York and the millions of viewers on TV who made last year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade the highest rated non-sports show of the fall season agree with me.

Text ©2016 by Rebecca Bigelow;
Historic photos (1–3) Macy’s Public Domain;
Remaining color photos ©2015 by Rebecca Bigelow and Ian Brooks

Additional Reading:

Early Parade Information:

Information on Parade Costs:

Macy’s Parade Tidbits:

2015 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade Marching Band Info

 

 

False Advertising? Coca Cola and the English-Only Debate

Sunday, Coca Cola had a Super Bowl ad that set off a firestorm on the Internet.

Some people objected to the fact that “America, the Beautiful” was sung in multiple languages, not just English. The ad featured seven additional languages: Arabic, Hebrew, Keres, Mandarin, Senegalese-French, Spanish, and Tagalog. Some of the more printable Internet responses were along the lines of #Boycott Coke and “This is America, speak English.” As is wont to happen on the Internet, civil discourse quickly devolved. Racist comments and hashtags were rampant, and I was left shaking my head in frustration with some of my fellow Americans.

I was also left wondering: Just how many languages are spoken in the United States anyway?

Making Every Language Count

It turns out that this is not an easy question to answer. How many living languages there are in the world is itself open to debate. Different sources group dialects differently and decide whether the language is unique or an offshoot dialect of another language. For example, there are many dialects in Chinese—thirteen with more than two million native speakers each. Sometimes these are counted separately (as Mandarin, Wu, and so on) and sometimes they are lumped together in different ways, the broadest way, of course, being simply “Chinese.” Taking one source, for the sake of argument, Ethnologue currently lists 7,105 living languages. Interestingly, that number is up more than two hundred languages since the U.S. Census Bureau cited the same source in 2011. (Not sure what is happening there, but likely it is simply different categorizing of dialects and unique languages.)

The U.S. Census Bureau took Ethnologue’s number in 2011 (then 6,909) and distilled that into groupings of 381 languages spoken in the United States. They asked the census questions “Does this person speak a language other than English at home?” and “What is this language.” The respondent self-reported and filled in a blank for the second question. The census people grouped those answers into the aforementioned 381 languages. In their report they list thirty main languages and lump the rest into categories of others. Tagalog (one of the languages used in Coke’s ad), for example, is listed separately, but “Other Pacific Island Languages” are grouped together. Navajo has its own listing, but Keres (another Native American language, which was also used in the ad) would fall into the “Other Native American Languages” category.

So the “this is America, speak English” sentiment is problematic to begin with because, while likely thousands of languages (as recognized by Ethnologue) are spoken in the United States, the U.S. Census Bureau recognizes 380 language groupings besides English as being spoken here. “But!” the Internet sputters, “English is the language of Americans! Those people came from somewhere else! They should learn to speak our language.” Setting aside the issue that many of these people also speak English well, remember that the Pacific Island category, for example, covers Hawaiian (an official language of Hawaii, along with English), Chamorro (an official language of Guam), and Samoan (an official language of American Samoa). All three languages are spoken by people native to those islands, but Hawaii, Guam, and American Samoa are, respectively, a state and two territories of the United States. The people who live there are recognized as either U.S. citizens or U.S. nationals (both groups can freely travel within the United States, but there are differences in voting rights for the territories). And let’s not forget the indigenous people who speak a variety of Native American languages, including the aforementioned Keres. I think it is safe to say that the ancestors of these people were here long before my English-speaking ancestors showed up to the party.

English Only, Please?

But if we ignore our native populations (admit it, we’re pretty good at it after all!), when Europeans did finally show up to colonize the place, they spoke three main languages: English, Spanish, and French. And remnants of those colonizers live on in languages spoken by people born here, in places like Louisiana and Florida, where French Creole still exists, and Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, where Spanish is still spoken and whose people are U.S. citizens. Again, the Internet may point out that the British Colonies prevailed and thrived (for the most part—see the story of the lost British Colony at Roanoke, which did not end well), and it was these colonists who won independence and started our nation. Of course, even the British colonists spoke a variety of languages (Scottish Gaelic and Welsh, for example, both of which a few thousand people still speak at home today in the United States). And as people immigrated here (either by choice or by force), they brought even more languages and traditions—adding to the polyglot nature of our country.

But How Do You Say That in English?

And English, being a great adaptive language, absorbed thousands of words from these other languages.  This has been going on for centuries, but a list of loanwords acquired by English since the Colonial period includes: cavalry, cachet, and clique from French; armadillo, armada, and adobe from Spanish; pizza, pasta, and piano from Italian; bagel, kibbitz, and schmuck from Yiddish; avatar, karma, and yoga from Sanskrit; bungalow, pajamas, and shampoo from Hindi; jazz, yam, and zebra from African languages; and moose, potato, and squash from Native American languages. We claim these words as our own, but they didn’t start out that way. Never fear, however! We also loan English words to other languages. I am sure the French are grateful for le parking and le weekend and German parents may want to hire der babysitter so they can have an evening out.

Even our American English is geographically specific. What do you call a meat-filled sandwich on a long roll? What do you call the shoes you wear on your feet when you are in gym class? What do you call a fizzy soft drink (like Coca Cola)? Your answers help linguists pinpoint your language origins. Even syntax is different from region to region. My British-by-birth husband speaks English, but even after more than a quarter century of marriage we still find the odd phrase, word, or syntax that has the other one saying, “What did you say?” Is his brand of British English okay with the Internet or should he speak exclusively in American English since he lives here now? And what about slang? Should that be allowed or not? Should we assume all those people clamoring on the Internet for Americans to speak English mean Standard American English? If so, can we apply that rule to written English on the Internet? As an editor and writer, I grow weary of the poor grammar and spelling I see there, but we all make mistakes—even editors and writers—so I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t help keep America beautiful, but it does help keep conversation civil.

Ownay Atwhay? 今度は何なの?Que faire maintenant? Was nun? ¿Y ahora qué? Sasa nini? Na te aha?**

More than a thousand Standard American English words later, I’m not sure where this leaves us. To recap: Coca Cola put together a nice ad with a multilingual version of “America, the Beautiful”; the Internet exploded; Americans speak (and sing) in lots of languages, not just English; and even our English isn’t as English as it used to be. It’s exhausting. We probably all need a Coke (soda, pop, tonic, fizzy drink, or whatever you want to call your soft drink of choice—or heck, it’s a free country, have a Pepsi even) and to chill a little. Sip it while repeating (in your language of choice): there’s no place like home.… Beautiful, America.

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**Pig Latin translation by me; translations of Japanese, French, German, Spanish, Swahili, and Maori by Google Translate.

Sources:

Text © 2014 by Rebecca Bigelow; ad © 2014 Coca Cola

Ten Things I ♥ about NYC

I grew up in New England. New York City, with all its bustling excitement, was about three hours away. We took several school fieldtrips there. My family would also visit my grandfather—a retired professor at Columbia, who still lived a few steps from that venerable institution.

Twelve years ago this week, the unthinkable happened in the city I love to visit. It hurts to watch destruction and carnage anywhere, but this was particularly painful because it was a place I had visited (I had been to the top of the World several times), so I could imagine everything as it happened. The terrible loss of life and emotions of that day and those following will be forever writ on my heart and that of everyone who experienced that awful day. Yesterday, the anniversary of that horrible day, there were plenty of memorials to those tragic events. But I don’t want to revisit that in this blog. I want to celebrate New York City and what I love about it—then and now.

1. Theatre. I have vivid memories of seeing shows with my school and my family. We saw plays, we saw musicals, and we saw ballet. I can still recall the thrill and awe of the 40-foot Christmas tree rising from below the state at Lincoln Center during George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. It was one of my first theater-going experiences and the pageantry thrilled my seven-year-old heart. How did they get that huge tree to grow in the theatre? It was magic. It still is.

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2. Museums. Fieldtrips are supposed to be educational. Our school day in New York usually included the American Museum of Natural History or the New York Hall of Science. In part, my lifelong love affair with history and knowledge began in NYC: the life-sized blue whale that hung over one of the exhibit halls, the dioramas of Native Americans, the bones of dinosaurs that once wandered the valley where I lived—millions of years separating our existence. All of this and more is on display. New York allowed me to explore King Tut’s tomb at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and modern art at the Guggenheim. Heaven for the girl who would go on to write the blog Curiosity Seldom Pays. (Although I will confess to feeling that I could easily replicate some of the modern art—a canvas that is entirely red? Who can’t do that?)

3. Standing in history’s shadow. New York was the nation’s first capitol. George Washington was inaugurated on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in 1789. You can stand where he stood, and I have! If you’re a history buff, you can totally get your geek on just walking down the street in Manhattan—from the architecturally significant buildings to the ethnic neighborhoods that tell the story of the American immigrant to the literary pilgrimage spots. New York has history in spades.

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4. The Empire State Building. One of those architecturally significant buildings was completed in 1931, and for 40 years the art deco building was the world’s tallest at 102 stories (1250 feet, not including the spire antenna). With observation decks on both the 86th and 102nd floors, you can see all of New York City laid out below you, and on a really clear day, you can see almost 80 miles in every direction—giving you a glimpse of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania as well. History, architecture, and a really great view. What more could you ask?

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5. The Staten Island Ferry. It’s free! In a city where it costs $8.50 to get a small soda (okay, slight exaggeration), free is a miracle. Save your money and skip a harbor cruise; be a real New Yorker and try the ferry. The Staten Island Ferry makes over 100 trips a day during the work week (and around 70 a day on the weekends). The five mile, 25-minute (each way) trip offers a respite from the jostling crowds and some of the best views in New York: the famed New York Skyline, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty.

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6. Ellis Island. A recent addition to my New York favorites, we took the kids a couple of years ago. We were on what I like to call the Great AP US History (APUSH) Tour of the East Coast. I could easily imagine the nervous immigrants treading the stairs in the Great Hall. Some of my ancestors came through the earlier immigration station, Castle Garden, but I guess the feelings and emotions were the same. Freedom. A chance for a better life. The welcome of Lady Liberty’s raised lamp (Ellis Island opened in 1892, and the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886.), which offer the promise of light and hope for the future, is still a powerful symbol today. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum is an excellent chance to recall where we came from and to reflect on where we want to go.

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7. The food. When I was a kid, I loved it when my parents would buy us pretzels from the food carts. I grew up in a street-vendorless college town, so buying food off the street was an exotic experience. Then there were the restaurants: My first glass of red wine was in an Italian restaurant in Little Italy, which was also as my introduction to the antipasto platter. There was prosciutto and unusual cheeses from Zabar’s on the Upper West Side, which was my grandfather’s favorite; the smell of coffee from Chock Full O Nuts, where my dad liked to grab a cup of coffee and a snack; there were deli’s with stacks of meat on fresh rye bread—like at the Second Avenue Deli (which is no longer on Second Avenue!) where we took the kids on the Great APUSH Tour—and there was the fabulous New York pizza. (Note to the so-called NY-style pizza place locally: you’re doing it wrong.) So much good food and so many great memories of sharing it with family and friends!

8. The rhythm of New York. People moved quicker. They talked quicker. They seemed to live quicker. The pace of the town I grew up in was sleepy, so it was eye-opening—and exhilarating—to adjust to the pace of New York. As it turns out, I’m more of a college-town girl, but I still enjoy the periodic foray into an urban playground.

9. The subway. The subway is an awesome tool for an aspiring writer. There are hundreds of people riding with you. Where are they going? What are their stories? Are they happy or sad? Tourist or native? Worker bee or boss? How do they talk, interact, live? The possibilities are endless, the stories infinite. Oh, and it’s also pretty dang fun to practice subway surfing. Look, Ma! No hands!

10. Everything else. It’s impossible to list only ten great things about New York—the resilient people, the fabulous Central Park, the skating at Rockefeller Center, the Christmas decorations, the movie locations, the collective knowledge of the universities, the parades, .… I’m so glad to have some small ties to this iconic city. Rock on New York. I’m delighted you’re there.

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Text ©Rebecca Bigelow
Photos ©Rebecca Bigelow and Ian Brooks

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