What’s The Nine-Year-Old reading this week?

Although you wouldn’t have guessed it from this blog lately, The Nine-Year-Old hasn’t completely given up reading. She’s just more or less given up reading new books. Over the past few weeks, she’s been savoring books we’ve already featured on Caterpickles, which is one of the reasons I haven’t been too motivated to keep up with the Friday book posts.

More or less giving up reading new books is not the same as completely giving up new books, however, so at long last we have two new books to tell you about.

Magic Trixie by Jill Thompson

magictrixieWhat the book’s about:   Magic Trixie’s no-good very bad week. Her baby sister gets all the attention in the family. Worse, she’s the reason Magic Trixie didn’t get to eat her favorite cloudberry pancakes. With her turn for show and tell coming up at the end of the week, Magic Trixie decides to solve two problems at once — she’ll wow her classmates by making her baby sister disappear for good.

Why The Nine-Year-Old thinks you’ll like it: “This is a good book series. I’m grouchy that I can’t find the next book in any library other than my school library because their copies are always checked out.”

Fuzzy by Tom Angleberger and Paul Dellinger

fuzzyWhat the book’s about: Vanguard One Middle School has a new student, and it’s Maxine Zelaster’s personal mission to help him survive the experience, even if he is a robot.

Why The Nine-Year-Old thinks you should pick it up: “Tom Angleberger’s work is really good. Also Dellinger seems good too. Did you know Tom Angleberger is married to Cece Bell [the author of El Deafo]?”

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Classic Caterpickles: “How old is Santa?”

Image of Santa Claus from the 1870 edition of The Night Before Christmas. (Image via Reusable Art)

Image of Santa Claus from the 1870 edition of The Night Before Christmas. (Image via Reusable Art)

That depends on who you think Santa Claus is. Let’s examine the candidates, shall we?

Saint Nicholas

Also known as Nikolaos the Wonder-worker, Saint Nicholas was the 4th Century Greek Bishop of Myra who had a penchant for dropping coins in the clogs of the poor and who came to be known to the Dutch as Sinterklaas. St. Nick was born in 270 A.D., so if you think Saint Nicholas is Santa, then Santa Claus would be 1746 years old in 2016.

Father Christmas

Next up in our pageant is Father Christmas, whose preferred means of travel appears to have been by goat, not reindeer-pulled sleigh. Father Christmas was first mentioned in 15th C British Christmas carols, which would make him roughly 600 years old, give or take a few years.

Santa Claus

As Americans are prone to do, when the British and Dutch Sinterklaas came to the United States, we couldn’t quite get the pronunciation of his name right, so changed it to something a bit easier, like Santa Claus. The name Santa Claus was first used in the American press in 1773, making him a relatively spry 243.

Albert Einstein

As Gaute Einevoll points out, Albert Einstein bears a striking resemblance to the man in red. More importantly, Einstein has the in-depth knowledge of moving matter required to deliver all those presents on time. Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, so if you subscribe to Einevoll’s “Quanta Claus” theory, then Santa Claus would have turned 137 this year.

(Image: Odin the Wanderer by Georg von Rosen 1843-1923.)

The Norse god Odin

Every winter, Odin would lead a great Yule hunting party through the sky on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. Children would set boots filled with carrots, straw, or sugar by their chimneys as snacks for Odin’s horse. Odin would reward the children for their kindness by filling the boots with candy and gifts. If Odin is the original Santa Claus, that would make Santa very old indeed. Too old for us to count, I’m afraid.

My daughter, who was a mere Four-Year-Old when I first wrote this post: “What about Kris Kringle?”

Mommyo: “Yes, what is the story on Kris Kringle?”

The (then) Four-Year-Old: “Ask the iPhone!”

The Story on Kris Kringle

Thanks in large part to movies like 1934’s Miracle on 34th Street, we in the United States often consider Kris Kringle to be just another name for Santa Claus, but traditionally the two figures are completely separate. The name “Kris Kringle” is another example of the traditional name being Americanized when it crossed our borders (and as it turns out, the original story being completely lost). In this case, the renaming happened to the Christkindl.

The Christkindl, i.e. Not Santa. (Photo: Square87 via Wikipedia)

The Christkindl. Not Santa. (Photo: Square87 via Wikipedia)

Ironically, Martin Luther invented the original gift-giver, the “Christkindl” (also known as the “Christkindchen” or “Christkind”) during the 16th and 17th Century Protestant Reformation specifically to counter the growing popularity of St. Nicholas.

The Christkindl became the traditional gift-giver across Europe, parts of Hispanic America, and the Acadiana region of Louisiana. Although Luther intended the Christkindl to be a reference to the baby Jesus, over time the Christkindl sprouted angel’s wings and blond hair, becoming much more like a generous little 400-500 year-old cherub than an infant born in Bethlehem.

So how old is Santa?

Although the Miracle on 34th Street makes a compelling case for Kris Kringle being Santa Claus, we are going to side with Martin Luther and declare that the Christkindl cannot be Santa.

Which leaves us with St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Einstein, and Odin as the most likely Santa contenders. Depending on which theory you subscribe to, the perennially 70ish in appearance Santa Claus could be anywhere from 137 to Too-Old-For-Us-To-Count.

The (then) Four-Year-Old: “Mommyo, how old do you think Santa is?”

Mommyo: “At least 137. I think there’s really no way to know.”

The (then) Four-Year-Old: “I’ll ask Santa. And then I’ll ask him if he reads Caterpickles.”

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It’s December, must be time for some Classic Caterpickles

The (then) Four-Year-Old, inspecting the landing pad she drew on the beach for Santa and his reindeer. (Photo: Shala Howell)

The (then) Four-Year-Old, inspecting the landing pad she drew on the beach for Santa and his reindeer. (Photo: Shala Howell)

I can always tell when Thanksgiving is over because the searches for my Santa posts go through the roof. Most years, I repost the Santa questions on Mondays as Classic Caterpickles, which let me get through the holidays without doing any extra work. (Wait, did I type that out loud?)


This year, I have higher aspirations for myself. I’m still planning to repost those Santa questions because clearly, folks want to know when Santa’s birthday is, how old he is, and why some folks call him Kris Kringle, but I’m going to do them on Thursdays, and keep slogging through The Nine-Year-Old’s ever-growing list of fresh questions on Mondays. It’s the Caterpickles version of #throwbackthursday.

(For you Caterpickles trivia buffs out there, my most requested post of all time is “How long can jellyfish sting after they’re dead?” — which, interestingly enough, is a question that came up on Christmas vacation.)


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Wordless Wednesday: What do dragons talk about at breakfast?

(Photo: Michael Howell)

(Photo: Michael Howell)

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Caterpickles cleans house, Part 4

Taking most of the summer off from answering questions would have worked a lot better if I’d had established a Caterpickles Agreement with The Nine-Year-Old that she would take the summer off from asking them.

I did not, alas. The backlog of questions is really quite overwhelming (377 at last count) and stretches back almost to the beginning of my blog five years ago. Rather than ignore those unanswered questions completely, I thought I’d reach into the Caterpickles Way Back Machine and resurrect the idea of answering the questions in batches.

“Did they have tape 100 years ago?”

Yes, but it wasn’t the transparent Scotch kind. In 1845, Dr. Horace Day, a surgeon, created a fabric-backed adhesive bandage to hold his patient’s bits together while they healed.

Tape as we think of it now wasn’t invented until 1925 when 3M’s Richard Drew created masking tape as a way to keep paint from dripping onto the parts of the automobile where it wasn’t wanted. We also have Drew to thank for the Scotch tape The Nine-Year-Old relies on to post her favorite Calvin and Hobbes comic strips on her bedroom door.

Duct tape strong enough to repair the worn bits of heavily used cardboard transmogrifiers didn’t come on the scene until WWII.

Vesta Stoudt, the woman who invented duct tape during WWII. (Photo via BajaNomad)

Vesta Stoudt, the woman who invented duct tape during WWII. (Photo via BajaNomad)

We have Vesta Stoudt to thank for that. At the time she was working in the Green River Ordnance Plant, where she inspected and packed ammunition for the front lines. The boxes were sealed with a waterproof wax coating before shipping. A little tab of paper tape hung off each box. The idea was that soldiers in the field could pull the paper tab and release the wax coating, freeing the contents of the box.

But the thin paper tape the company used wasn’t strong enough to break the waterproof seal on the boxes. Stoudt’s two sons wrote to their mother that their fellow soldiers often had to tear at the boxes while under enemy fire to get the ammunition they needed. When Stoudt took her idea for a strong cloth-backed tape to her supervisors at the Green River Ordance Plant, they didn’t listen. So Stoudt wrote to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He passed her idea to the War Production Board, which tasked Johnson & Johnson with developing Stoudt’s tape.

“Are sirens taped?”

If by taped, you mean “do fire trucks, police cars, and ambulance come equipped with electronic devices that produce a standardized sound that may or may not be trademarked by its manufacturer but which sounds more or less the same for each class of emergency vehicle no matter where in the United States you hear that siren,” then yes, the sirens in emergency vehicles are taped.

That’s why you can tell just by listening whether it’s a fire truck, police car, or ambulance zooming by.

“How tall was Goliath?”

After reading the story of David and Goliath one Sunday morning, The (then) Five-Year-Old wanted to know how exactly how tall Goliath had been. First Samuel 17:4 in the King James Bible describes the Philistine giant as being “six cubits and a span.”  Bible Study Magazine helpfully translates this for me as being 9 feet, six inches.  But they immediately mitigate their helpfulness by noting that Biblical sources disagree widely on Goliath’s height.

The King James version of First Samuel 17:4 is based on the Masoretic text, a Hebrew manuscript dating from about 100 A.D. But the Dead Sea Scrolls contain other versions of the Old Testament. And in some of those, Goliath is reported as being only “four cubits and a span,” or a mere 6 feet, 6 inches.

Given that the average height of a man in those days was slightly less than five and a half feet, even a four-cubit Goliath might have looked like a six-cubit one. Especially if the only weapon you have to sling against him are a few paltry rocks.

Goliath's guesstimated height vs. the historical David and our own Shaquille O'Neal. (Chart: Bible Study Magazine)

Goliath’s guesstimated height vs. the historical David, the world’s tallest man, and Shaquille O’Neil. (Chart: Bible Study Magazine)

OK. That’s enough for this week. Only 374 questions to go.

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Look what the 9YO left on my computer this time

(Powerpoint slide: The Nine-Year-Old Howell)

(Powerpoint slide: The Nine-Year-Old Howell)

I wonder which book inspired this?

Also, Admiral Canelo is going to have to learn not to leave his Top Secret CAT-FACE files open on a shared computer if he wants to keep his Level 12 Security Clearance.

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Let the post-Thanksgiving stupor commence

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you from all of us.


Photo: Shala Howell

We hope you had a wonderful, and occasionally relaxing, day.

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My carefree no-fuss Thanksgiving

Visions of Thanksgivings past: Homemade apple and pumpkin pies (Photo: Shala Howell)

Visions of Thanksgivings past: Homemade apple and pumpkin pies (Photo: Shala Howell)

As regular readers know, I’ve hosted Thanksgiving for the past few years. Since cooking is not an activity that comes naturally to me, this involves about three weeks of planning.

We live in a third floor walk-up, so I like to begin bringing in the Thanksgiving supplies a bit at a time, so that the load on any given grocery trip isn’t too great. There’s nothing I can do about the giant turkey itself. That trip is just going to be a bear, but if that turkey isn’t paired with 10 pounds of potatoes, my life is immeasurably better. So I stage the grocery shopping out, which requires careful planning.

The cooking is spread out over a few days as well. I’ve got charts and timelines telling me what to do when. Most years, the turkey itself only takes several hours, but I’ve got a set of charts for the years when I decide to do Alton Brown’s brined turkey, in which the active turkey prep starts on Monday.

Cooking doesn’t come naturally to me, but planning does, and most years, executing a major campaign like Thanksgiving is a lot of fun. Even if dinner is greeted with a chorus of “There’s no way we’ll be able to eat all this” and “This is pretty good for turkey.” Admittedly, it’s slightly painful to witness my handmade cranberry sauce passed up in favor of the stuff that you slice up from the can, but most years I have the fortitude to bear it.  I often manage to greet day two with equanimity as well, even though my patented turkey enchiladas are invariably welcomed with “Turkey, again?”

This fall, though, I just wasn’t feeling it. So about a month ago, I announced to all concerned that I wouldn’t be cooking a turkey with all the trimmings this year. I would be having a Sunday dinner on Thanksgiving. Less food waste, less fuss. Maybe we could even go to the Thanksgiving Day parade this year, since I wouldn’t have to spend all that time in the kitchen cooking.

Visions of Thanksgivings Past: Beans, mashed potatoes, turkey, two kinds of cranberry sauce, and salad. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Visions of Thanksgivings Past: Green beans, mashed potatoes, gravy, turkey, two kinds of cranberry sauce, and salad. Might even have some broccoli there in the distance. (Photo: Shala Howell)

I expected this to be a very popular decision. I’m pretty much the only person in my family who actually likes turkey, and far from the only one who likes to see a bunch of food go to waste.

Oh my goodness, you’d have thought I’d canceled Christmas.

Selecting the sides was easy. Everybody got to pick their favorite, so we’re having mashed potatoes, green beans, and homemade bread. My daughter also wanted a rutabaga custard pie, so I added that to the list. Salad, too, because it’s easy.

The trouble was what to make instead of turkey. Considering how much they dislike turkey, my husband and daughter feel really strongly that turkey is the only possible choice for the Thanksgiving table. I’ve been sending up trial balloons for replacement meats for weeks. Ham, lamb, and prime rib have all been floated and shot down for one reason or another.

“What do you think about Cornish hens?” I asked, after exhausting every other possible option.

Daddyo gave me a pained look. “They’re just like chickens. That’s not very special.”

“But everyone gets their own chicken on a plate,” I said. “And they’re adorable and tiny. It would be a delectable Thanksgiving day joke — instead of serving this giant bird no one likes we’ll be dishing out really tiny ones.”

“That no one likes,” Daddyo said.

“I’m not eating a baby bird,” The Nine-Year-Old said firmly.

“Also, they’re full of bones,” Daddyo said. “I don’t like bones.”

“Did I mention everyone would get their own? I loved that as a kid,” I said.

“Wait,” said The Nine-Year-Old. “Does that mean I’d get my own wishbone?”

Now, I don’t normally like to make promises to my daughter that I can’t be certain of backing up, but the need was great and the cause just, so “Absolutely.”

“I’m all in,” said The Nine-Year-Old.

Daddyo looked disappointed. “I would still prefer beef.”

“OK,” I said. “You can cook your beef, and I’ll make Cornish hens for the rest of us.”

Daddyo looked at me darkly. “It’s going to be steak and it will be the really good kind.”

“Just tell me what to buy and I’ll go get it.”

“No. I mean the really good kind. You just have to be here to receive it.” Daddyo said in a tone that implied the steaks would come wrapped in little gilt packages.

“Should I dress up?”

More stuff we're not making this year: two kinds of stuffing and maize pudding. (Photo: Shala Howell)

More food we’re not making this year: dressing, stuffing, and maize pudding. (Photo: Shala Howell)

On the morning the steaks were due to arrive, Daddyo walked into the front room where I was having my morning coffee. “The steaks will be here between 8 and 10 a.m. today. Also, now that I know that it’s possible to buy just a turkey breast, I think you should get one of those so that folks who want to have just a taste of turkey can.”

“You realize that Thanksgiving is tomorrow, right?”

Daddyo was unperturbed. “I was looking in the pantry this morning and I noticed we didn’t have any of the Ocean Spray cranberry sauce to slice up for the table. We’ll need that too.”

“Let me get this straight. For our Sunday dinner on Thanksgiving, we’ll be having steak, turkey, cranberry sauce, homemade bread, rutabaga custard pie, salad, mashed potatoes, and green beans?”

Daddyo nodded.

“So pretty much the only thing we’re missing from our regular Thanksgiving table is the stuffing.”

“I bet you could get your mom to bring that.”

“Just so I’m clear, this year we’ll be having the full Thanksgiving meal plus steak,” I said.

Daddyo nodded. To his credit, Daddyo’s planning to cook the steak, mashed potatoes, and green beans. And I can probably get The Nine-Year-Old to prep the salad and cranberry sauce.

Still… “I’m not doing an apple pie this year, you know,” I said, defiantly.

“That’s ok. I’ve ordered one.”

Next year, I’m just doing a turkey.  This care-free non-traditional Thanksgiving plan is too much work.

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Wordless Wednesday: “Do I really have to wear this?” #StuffonCats

Photo: Shala Howell

Photo: Shala Howell

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“Why did California ban paper money in 1850?”

Thanks for stopping by Caterpickles.

The good news for you today is that I’m mostly done writing about potatoes. But The Great Potato Gold Rush Project of 2016 still has riches to offer us. In the course of figuring out whether miners would have actually bought supplies with gold dust anywhere other than on a Hollywood set, I discovered a rather surprising fact.

When California became a state in 1850, its first state constitution explicitly banned the use of paper money.

Prospector panning for gold in the Mokelumne River during the California Gold Rush. Illustration: Harper's Weekly, 1860. Public Domain.

Prospector panning for gold in the Mokelumne River during the California Gold Rush. Illustration: Harper’s Weekly, 1860. Public Domain.

That seemed really weird to me. After all, I live in a world where I can pay cash for my chai latte and my barista will be perfectly happy to take it.

But in 1850, paper money didn’t offer the same protections we rely on today. Bank notes were issued by private banks, not the federal government. If the bank that issued them went out of business, the paper money lost all of its value.

Banks went out of business a lot back then. Things got so bad in California that when California became a U.S. State in 1850, its first state constitution specifically outlawed bank notes:

Sec. 34. The Legislature shall have no power to pass any act granting any charter for banking purposes; but associations may be formed, under general laws, for the deposit of gold and silver, but no such association shall make, issue, or put in circulation, any bill, check, ticket, certificate, promissory note, or other paper, or the paper of any bank, to circulate as money.

As the Haywood Gazetteer of 1853 summed it up, “the circulation of paper as money is forbidden.”

Paper money may have been outlawed in the pre-Civil War California, but coins issued by other countries were perfectly legal.

At the start of the Gold Rush in 1848, California was technically still a part of Mexico, although it was under American military control. The most common currency was the Mexican silver Real, valued at about 9 pence each. Still, even reales were relatively scarce, and as such, were typically reserved for gambling, a game in which having convenient access to coins of relatively standard value was pretty important.

This was pretty standard at the time across the U.S. by the way. After all, silver or gold coins at least retained the value of the metal they were made of. Foreign coins weren’t banned as legal tender in the U.S. until 1857, after the California Gold Rush had proven that the United States had enough silver and gold within its own borders to mint a steady supply of U.S. coins.

California wasn’t alone in viewing paper money with skepticism. The pre-Civil War U.S. government didn’t care for it either. 

Article One of the U.S. Constitution only grants Congress the authority to issue and regulate the value of coins. It doesn’t say anything about paper money. The paper money the Continental Congress had printed to finance the American Revolution had become worthless by the time Article One was drafted. Our Founding Fathers didn’t want to make that mistake again.

Something akin to our current system didn’t appear in the U.S. until 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Legal Tender Act. Passed in an effort to help fund the Civil War, the Legal Tender Act allowed the U.S. government to issue paper money that couldn’t be directly redeemed for gold or silver, but which could be used to pay off taxes, debts, and other obligations. Breaking the direct link between paper money and the gold or silver backing it made financing much easier to obtain. By the end of the war, the U.S. federal government had issued some $430 million of these new greenbacks.

1862-1863 U.S. Greenback. (Credit: National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History via Wikipedia)

1862-1863 U.S. Greenback. (Credit: National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History via Wikipedia)

But even the establishment of a national banking system to back the new federal currency in 1863 didn’t calm the fears of the everyday American when it came to paper money that wasn’t backed by some sort of gold standard.

Ultimately, Congress passed the Resumption Act of 1875, which allowed Americans to once more begin exchanging their greenbacks for gold. Knowing that they could exchange their federal paper dollars for gold from the U.S. Government was apparently all Americans needed to actually begin using them.

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