10/6 Mad Hatter Day!

 

The Mad Hatter has always been a beloved character, and a bit of a cultural icon. He occupies just a small amount of the Alice stories, but he is one of Lewis Carroll’s most popular inventions. In fact, he is so popular, we even have a day to celebrate him! Today,  October 6, is National Mad Hatter Day.

Why October 6th? Well, if you remember the original Alice illustrations by Sir John Tennial, you might know that there is a slip of paper on the Hatter’s hat that reads: “In this style, 10/6.”

This means the Hatter has an order to make a hat in exactly that style, and it will cost ten shillings and sixpence. (It has nothing to do with October. But then again, Pi has nothing to do with March 14th, and we celebrate Pi Day on 3/14 anyway.)  In U.S. date representation, the month comes first and then the day, so 10/6 means October 6th.

Mad Hatter Day was founded in 1986 by a group of computer programmers in Boulder, Colorado who noticed the “date” on the Hatter’s hat. They thought it would be a good idea to make this a national holiday, and petitioned for it. Although it is not official, Mad Hatter Day is recognized by hat enthusiasts, time travelers, March Hares, and Alice fans worldwide.

But where did the Hatter come from? Was he really mad? And what exactly was his big gripe with Time?

Madness and Mercury

Lewis Carroll did not invent the idea of an insane hat maker solely on his own. The phrase “mad as a hatter” was part of popular jargon as early as 1837, some thirty years before the Alice stories were published. Many real life hatters were known to exhibit erratic, flamboyant behavior, talk to themselves and have mood swings.

What made the Mad Hatters mad?

In the 18th and 19th centuries, hat makers typically used mercury nitrate as part of the process for curing felt.  Exposure to mercury resulted in some weird behavior. Symptoms of mercury poisoning include anxiety, muscle weakness, memory loss, hearing and vision problems, slurred speech, drooling, and diarrhea. Top hats, so popular during the Victorian era, used a great deal of cured felt, so maybe there was a “rise” in madness during the time Carroll wrote Alice. Hence “mad as a hatter” became a popular phrase.

Luckily, use of mercury was eventually banned from the hatting industry. In 1898, laws were passed in Europe that protected hat makers from the risk of exposure. By the 20th century, mercury poisoning among British hat makers had become a rarity. The United States, however, did not ban mercury until 1941, when the Public Health Service deemed it hazardous and finally prohibited its use.

Insane Inventions

Ironically, Carroll is said to have based his Hatter not on a real hat maker, but on a furniture dealer named Theophilus Carter, who was known locally as the Mad Hatter. Carter always wore a top hat. (But apparently not in this picture.)

Carter was an eccentric with some far out ideas, and he produced some wacky inventions. One such invention was  the “Alarm Clock Bed”. This contraption contained a mattress that would tip the sleeper out of bed and into a tub of cold water to wake them up. According to the Virtual Victorian website: “At the appointed hour of alarm, after the sound of ringing bells to wake the ‘modern’ sleeper, an automated mattress tipped and flung the poor wretch from his bed to a bath of cold water  – supposedly refreshed and restored for the brand new day ahead.”

I am not making this up! The bed was actually featured as an attraction in Prince Albert’s Crystal Palace Exhibition, which took place in Hyde Park in 1851. We don’t have a real picture of this notorious thing, but it was thought to look something like this:

The ladder on the bottom would slide the victim into the refreshing tub of “seaside” cold water below.  Yeah, I can see why this invention didn’t take off…

Time Waits For No One

Or does it?

Perhaps it is significant that Carter’s invention involved a clock. Both Lewis Carroll and his Hatter were obsessed with time. As you may recall, at the Mad Tea Party, it was always six o’clock, tea time.

The time never changed, and this was because the Hatter was being punished. It all started at a concert where the Hatter was appointed to sing for the Queen. Halfway through the song, the Queen yelled that the Hatter was “murdering the time!”

As a result, Time would not cooperate with the Hatter.  “And ever after that,” says the Hatter, “he won’t do a thing I ask. It’s always six o’clock now.” (Time, according to the Hatter, is actually a “he” not an “it”.)

At the Tea Party, time stands still. They must keep full table settings all around, as they move from place to place to get clean cups  — because time never changes.

Interestingly, Albert Einstein himself held a point of view similar to the Mad Hatter’s!

Einstein was obsessed with, and distressed by, the conundrum of the present moment, or the “Now”.  According to Einstein, “the experience of the Now means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but this difference does not, and cannot occur within physics.”

Think about it. It is always Now.  You are reading these words Now, but I am also writing these words Now.  It is always Now. You can’t do anything tomorrow, or yesterday. You can plan or recall, but you cannot act. And what you actually do, you DO RIGHT NOW.  But Einstein tells us the experience of the Now cannot be grasped by science nor explained mathematically! Perhaps the Hatter was right. It was always six o’clock. Because it is always now. 🙂

In his sequel Through the Looking Glass, Carroll puts the Hatter in another unique time experience. Hatta (aka Hatter, in the version also the King’s messenger) is in jail for a crime he has not yet committed. The Queen explains to Alice: “He’s in prison now, being punished, and the trial does not even begin until Wednesday, and of course, the crime comes last of all.”

Alice wonders what will happen if he never commits the crime.

Similarly, the Queen justifies not serving jam. “The rule is jam yesterday, and jam tomorrow, but never jam today.” So they just never have jam. Which is a shame. They should have it NOW.

Crazy, right? But in his book Relativity (1952) Einstein wrote: “Since there exists in this four dimensional structure [space-time] no longer any sections which represent “now” objectively, the concepts of happening and becoming are indeed not completely suspended, but yet complicated. It appears therefore more natural to think of physical reality as a four dimensional existence, instead of, as hitherto, the evolution of a three dimensional existence.”

Einstein believed in an undivided solid reality, with no true division between past, present and future. When Einstein’s dearest friend Michele Besso died, Einstein wrote a letter of consolation to Besso’s family, summing up his thoughts:

“Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. For us physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future only has the meaning of an illusion.”

Lewis Carroll was an Oxford mathematician. I have argued before that he was ahead of his time. Perhaps Carroll was toying with the concept of non-linear time years before Einstein was even born! But then again, it is all in the NOW, so, from that perspective, one CANNOT BE “ahead of one’s time.” 

This is clearly a holiday worth celebrating! To make the most of Mad Hatter Day, you might want to:

Drink tea!

Wear hats!

Re-read the Alice stories.

Watch some Alice movies.

Ponder Einstein and time. Do it NOW 🙂 No time like the present. Or wait a minute… (CAN  we wait a minute??) See what I did there?

Have a great Mad Hatter’s Day!

 

 

 

 

 

A Mad Tea Party

 

Today, April 21 is “National Tea Day” in the UK.  It also happens to be the 92nd birthday of Queen Elizabeth II. It seems a day could not be more authentically British. In honor of this I am wishing all my friends in the UK (and tea drinkers everywhere) a Happy National Tea Day!

No tea celebration would be complete without stopping by what is perhaps the most famous tea drinking occasion in history – Alice’s Mad Tea Party.

After chasing the White Rabbit down his hole, Alice encounters the Cheshire Cat,  who tells her she will definitely be meeting up with mad people. It’s unavoidable.  ( “We’re all mad here,” the Cat assures Alice. “I’m mad, you’re mad.”) Alice  asks the Cat how he knows she is mad. “You must be,” he replies, “Or you would not have come here.”

Alice then wanders upon a tea table in the middle of the forest.

There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and talking over its head. `Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse,’ thought Alice; `only, as it’s asleep, I suppose it doesn’t mind.’

*** We know right away there is going to be trouble. The March Hare is a wild animal, known for his crazy antics during mating season. The sleeping Dormouse seems pretty benign, but watch out for the Hatter, as they were known at the time to have some mental deficiencies due to mercury exposure involved in the process of making hats.

The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: `No room! No room!’ they cried out when they saw Alice coming. `There’s plenty of room!’ said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.

`Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. `I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.

`There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.

`Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.

***  Alice is only seven years old. Good thing the Hare did not actually have any wine to offer her. Today he might be arrested for child endangerment.

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’

*** Again, the mercury exposed Hatter is known to be wacky.

`Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. `I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.–I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, `that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’

*** The study of “meaning what you say” and “saying what you mean” is an interesting one. Carroll shows us how just a few words of juxtaposition can give a completely different meaning. Try it yourself, just for fun! “I know who I am — I am who I know? I believe what I see — I see what I believe? We are what we eat — we eat what we are?” Yes, it should drive you a bit mad 🙂

`Have you guessed the riddle yet?’ the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.

`No, I give it up,’ Alice replied: `what’s the answer?’

`I haven’t the slightest idea,’ said the Hatter.

`Nor I,’ said the March Hare.

*** The riddle is never actually solved, but I heard a possible answer: Why is a raven like a writing desk? Because Poe wrote on both.

What follows is a discussion of time in which the Alice states she must beat time in order to learn music. The Hatter insists that time is a ‘he’ not an ‘it’. Furthermore: ‘He won’t stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock. For instance, suppose it were nine o’clock in the morning, just time to begin lessons: you’d only have to whisper a hint to Time, and round goes the clock in a twinkling! Half-past one, time for dinner!’

Finally Alice can take it no longer. She gets up and leaves.

`At any rate I’ll never go there again!’ said Alice as she picked her way through the wood. `It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!’

Contrary to Alice’s belief (and providing we don’t dine with Hatters) more tea drinking would probably be good for us. Tea is full of anti-oxidants and is known to boost our immune systems. According to sage wisdom, tea with honey is great for soothing sore throats. Besides that, many cultures celebrate tea drinking with particular rituals and ceremonies.

A tea ceremony is like a meditation — time set aside for rest and contemplation. In fact, tea drinking could probably bring about more civility, peace and sanity for us all.

Whatever you do today, take some time out to enjoy a nice cup of tea 🙂

a mad tea

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Lewis Carroll

 

Lewis Carroll

Today we celebrate the life of Lewis Carroll, best known for his books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass.  He was an author, mathematician, Oxford don, part time babysitter, photographer, inventor, and a bit of an all-around inscrutable person.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know of my big obsession with Alice in Wonderland. I have long been fascinated by its white rabbits, mirrors, painted rosebushes, flamingo croquet, and the man who brought then to life.

His given name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, but I will call him Lewis, since he is best known by his pen name Lewis Carroll. He was born on January 27, 1832 in Daresbury, Cheshire, England.  Yes, Cheshire! No evidence as to whether or not he had a cat 🙂

Cheshire_Cat

Carroll’s father was a conservative minister in the Church of England, one in a long line of Dodgson men who had respectable positions in the Anglican clergy. Lewis was home-schooled until the age of twelve and developed an early love for reading amd writing. He attended grammar school at Rugby in Warwickshire, and began study at Oxford University in 1850.  He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and graduated with high honors.  In 1855 he won the Mathematical Lectureship for the college of Christ Church at Oxford, which he held for the next 26 years.

In 1856, a man named Henry Liddell took a position as Dean at Christ Church. Henry arrived in town with his young family, all of whom would eventually serve to influence Lewis’ writing. Lewis became close friends with  Liddell’s wife Lorina and their children, particularly the three sisters Lorina, Edith, and Alice Liddell.

LewisCarroll3

It was this Alice Liddell who served as the inspiration and namesake for the fictional Alice.  Lewis frequently took the children on outings. It was on one such outing, a rowing trip, that the girls begged to hear a story; the result eventually became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

It is said that Carroll never intended to publish Alice’s adventures, but his friend, fairy-tale author George MacDonald convinced him to do so after Macdonald’s own children read the stories and and loved them. Good thing they did! Can’t imagine a world without Alice.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published in 1865. The book quickly became an international hit, and was liked and promoted by Queen Victoria herself! In 1871, Carroll published the sequel Through the Looking-Glass. The Alice books are still among the most popular in the world. Reportedly they are also among the most quoted, second only to the Bible and Shakespeare.  And many of those quotes are really phenomenal, full of wisdom and humor.  Some of my favorites:

“I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?”

“I give up,” Alice replied. “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter. 

“I wish the creatures wouldn’t be so easily offended,” Alice thought to herself.

“Shall I never get any older than I am now? That will be a comfort, in one way — never to be an old woman. But then — always to have lessons to learn? Oh, I shouldn’t like THAT!” 

“How am I to get in?” asked Alice. “Are you to get in AT ALL?” said the Footman. “That’s the first question, you know.”  It was, no doubt; only Alice did not like to be told so.

“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”

real

Lewis Carroll was also an amateur photographer. He ran in artistic circles with pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

He took this photo of Alice Liddell. dated 1868. Alice would have been about six.

Alice LIddell

Years later, Julia Margaret Cameron photographed the grown up Alice.

Alice LIddell 2

Despite the fact that the Alice books brought him fame and fortune, Carroll never left his position as don at Oxford. Other than traveling a bit throughout Europe, he seems to have lived modestly. He wrote a few more books — The Hunting of the Snark, a fantastical “nonsense” poem, and Sylvie and Bruno, a fairy tale which satirized English society. Neither had the astounding success of the Alice stories. He also wrote several treatises  on mathematics, which he published under his real name, Charles Dodgson. His writings included works of geometry, linear and matrix algebra, mathematical logic and recreational mathematics. Yes, complicated stuff!

Carroll/ Dodgson’s mathematical contributions are noteworthy. Apparently, he was exploring The Matrix long before Keanu Reeves.

matrix

At Oxford he developed a theory known as the “Dodgson Condensation”, a method of evaluating mathematical determinants and patterns within equations. His work attracted renewed interest in the late 20th century when mathematicians Martin Gardner and William Warren Bartley reevaluated his  contributions to symbolic logic. This led them to the “Alternating Sign Matrix” conjecture, now a theorem. The discovery  of additional ciphers that Carroll had constructed showed that he had employed sophisticated mathematical ideas in their creation.  Perhaps he understood that through mathematics and chemistry, humankind may eventually reach the kind of alternate worlds he created for Alice.

alice matrix

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Lewis Carroll died of pneumonia on 14 January 1898 at the age of 65.

Some Fun Facts:

  • He was one of eleven children, the oldest son
  • As a young child, he suffered a fever which left him deaf in one ear
  • He was six feet tall — really tall by Victorian standards.
  • A self- deprecating guy, he often referred to himself as “the dodo” and is said to have modeled the Dodo in Alice after himself!
  • In actuality he was hardly a dodo, more like a near genius.
  • He invented the earliest version of Scrabble — a type of word ladder in which the words were changed by adding one letter.
  • He was an ordained deacon of the Anglican Church.
  • Don’t let the stoic pictures fool you. Although he never married, his letters and diary entries indicate he had relationships with several women, both married and single, which would have been considered “scandalous” by Victorian standards.

 

Happy Birthday Lewis!

alice-vogue

 

 

 

 

Bruno and the Dark Fairy Tales

 

riding-hood-pd

Fairy tales were meant to be dark. Dark and sinister, full of evil stepmothers, vengeful ogres, big bad wolves and seemingly unsolvable problems. Fairy tales take us into hidden realms of the psyche, thus giving an opportunity to explore, provoke, and discover new power.

No one understood this better than 20th century child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. Today I pay homage to this man, born on August 28, 1903, in Vienna, Austria.

bruno b

Having spent the greater part of his professional career involved with emotionally disturbed children, in 1976 Bettelheim published his masterpiece The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.   In this book, Bettelheim explained how fairy tales are symbolic of healthy human development. He advocated fairy tales as necessary for children to make the process of ‘growing up’ easier.  A good dark fairy tale gives the child a chance to stimulate his/her imagination and think up creative solutions to problems.

While Disney was busy sanitizing Cinderella, and while the censorship dogs fanned the flames of banned books, Bettelheim became an advocate for exploration of the scary monsters, the bloodthirsty giants, the magic mirrors.

Bettelheim himself was no stranger to the Dark Side. His life was a series of unfortunate incidences, but it was also full of unprecedented victories.

Born just after the turn of the 20th century, Bruno was the son of a wood merchant. His family was Jewish and middle class.  In his early twenties he began study at the University of Vienna but when his father became ill he quit school to take over his family’s lumber business. Dark strike number one.

As it turned out – the illness Bruno’s dad was suffering from happened to be syphilis. This reportedly brought a slow and painful death, not to mention irrevocable shame and stress upon his family. Dark strike number two.

In 1930 Bettelheim married his first wife Gina. Eventually he returned to the university, earning a Ph.D in philosophy. In 1938 he became an accredited psychiatrist and was one of the last Jews in Europe to be awarded a Doctorate degree before the Holocaust.

Enter the Nazis. In 1939 Bruno was arrested by the Gestapo. He was imprisoned in Dachau and Buchenwald. Dark strike number three.

bruno b buchenwald

Luckily, he was released through payment (Nazi officials not being beyond bribery.) Upon returning to a blighted Vienna, Bruno found that his wife had left him, his home and business were devastated, and he had lost virtually everything. Dark strike number four.

In 1941 he married his second wife Gertrude Weinfeld. They emigrated to the United States in 1943 and became citizens.  Bettelheim published his experiences from the concentration camps in his 1943 work:  Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations.  He eventually became a professor of psychology, teaching at the University of Chicago from 1944 until his retirement in 1973.

Bettelheim also served as director of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago, a home for emotionally disturbed children. His work there was world famous.  The Uses of Enchantment became a best seller. It was awarded the U.S. Critic’s Choice Prize for criticism in 1976 and the National Book Award in the category of Contemporary Thought in 1977.

burno b quote

To be fair, it should be noted that Bettelheim was also considered controversial. He has been called “inspiring, aggressive, irascible, dismissive of fools, and capable of both great kindness and great unkindness.”

Perhaps he had to be. He was up against academia and a culture that, for the most part, does not like to examine its own flaws.

The need to sanitize fairy tales was no doubt well intended. Walt Disney himself was also no stranger to the Dark Side.  His remedy was to create likable dwarfs that whistled while they worked and a sweet as pie Cinderella that never did harm to anyone.

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Never mind that the original Cinderella sent her birds to pluck out the eyes of her stepsisters. Never mind that the stepsisters literally mutilated their own feet with knives in a effort to fit the slipper. Never mind that the dwarfs had prurient intentions toward the nubile Snow White — who might be considered a prototype for Nabokov’s Lolita.  Some things are simply not for children’s eyes and ears.

However, Bettelheim argued that an attempt to hide hard and sinister truths from children would only hinder their development, making them less able to cope as adults. (Besides that, it would cut out a good deal of the fun!) Most children are very interested in the Dark Side. It has a magnetic quality.  They love to hate the villains and identify with the heroes.

harry-potter-banned

 

As our society becomes more self conscious and politically correct, we are more in danger of sanitizing reading material. This trend could greatly damage young people.

I once read an internet review of Alice in Wonderland in which the adult reader claimed this story was ‘way too scary for children.’

Consider the so called scary parts of Alice: Tumbling down a big rabbit hole and then having no control over your own growth. Facing a queen who threatens to behead the entire world.

alice mushroom

Bettelheim argues that this type of scary story is good for kids because it allows them a chance to face terrible circumstances in their imagination, and follow the hero to a creative solution. Thus when kids are with a real life problem, it will not be so overwhelming.

 

Bruno Bettelheim and Albert Einstein both knew this. Einstein, a great fan of fairy tales, often advocated for the use of them in education. Magic hits us in the quantum heart.

einstien fairy tales

If we want our children to be free thinkers, problem solvers and imaginative  individuals, we would do well to let them to explore the dark side of fairy tales.

Happy Birthday Bruno!

bruno-bettelheim-quotes-2

 

 

 

School’s Out!

 

alice cooper 1

Here in Chicago, kids are winding down for their last week of school. As we get ready for beaches, barbeques, rising temps and rowdiness, I could not resist this classic from the fantastic Alice Cooper!

Taking the Wayback  Machine way back to 1972 for this one — although I would argue the song is just as relevant today as it ever was.  “We got no class and we got no principles.” Puns intended.

I have always loved the Coop (maybe because his name is Alice, hehe). They share a penchant for top hats, animals and other-worldliness.

rabbit5 public domain

At any rate, turn up the volume, grab the sandals, shades and lemonade.  Get ready for a long, carefree summer, my favorite time of year 🙂

School’s Out!!

 

 

 

Mirrors

 

mirror 3

They fuse our vanity with imperfection, reflecting bone hair skin

undeciphered as we preen

fuss, adjust every eyelash every detail

and yet

fall prey to an astounding

disconnect.

 

Caught perpendicular, a grim imitation, false

replication

passed like alchemy though glass, copper, halide

and silver, a vast shattering

We are not

what we Are.

mirror 4