WSJ Historically Speaking: A Short History of Surfing

Photo: UNDERWOOD ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: UNDERWOOD ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

One of the great sights of the dog days of summer is a surfer riding the perfect wave. In those instants of frothy flight, athleticism and grace combine in pure harmony with the rhythms of the sea. It’s no wonder that the sport inspired its own musical genre, epitomized by the happy-go-lucky melodies of the Beach Boys. Indeed, “everybody’s gone surfin’. Surfin’ U.S.A.”

Perhaps because of its popularity as an escape, surfing is often mischaracterized as the refuge of the eternal beach bum, not the sport of kings (and queens)—which it is.

For the Hawaiians, who invented the sport, surfing was no mere pastime but a profound expression of their religion and culture. They called it “he’e nalu,” or “wave-sliding,” because it was about communing with the sea, not dominating it.

Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: From Gladiators to Mickey Mouse: Disneyland Turns 60

PHOTO: GENE LESTER/GETTY IMAGES

PHOTO: GENE LESTER/GETTY IMAGES

Sixty years ago, on July 18, 1955, the “Happiest Place on Earth,” better known as Disneyland, opened to the public. But on that day, the former orange grove in Anaheim, Calif., was one of the most miserable places in America. A heat wave caused the park’s new asphalt to stick to people’s shoes. A gas leak forced parts of the site to close, a plumbers strike led to a water shortage, and lax security resulted in dangerous overcrowding.

Reviewing the $17.5 million theme park, a journalist wrote in a local newspaper, “Walt’s dream is a nightmare…a fiasco the like of which I cannot recall in 30 years of show life.”

Undeterred, Walt Disney added ever more attractions and innovations, transforming mass leisure from its violent origins in the ancient world to today’s amusement-park industry, with $12 billion of annual revenue in the U.S.

Though the ancient Greeks were among the first to build leisure spaces in the form of parks, gardens and gymnasiums, the Romans expanded the concept into a way of life. By the first century, most of Rome’s citizens were living in semi-idleness, while thousands of slaves and coloni—the equivalent of sharecroppers—toiled ceaselessly on their behalf.

Continue reading…

The Sunday Times: Marshmallows and a toasting fork: the insignia of high office

Photo: Jeremy Ricketts

Photo: Jeremy Ricketts

August 1963. Little Stevie Wonder (as he was then) had the No 1 spot on the US Billboard Top Tunes chart with his song Fingertips Part II. The second spot belonged to Allan Sherman, a singer-songwriter who remains almost unknown outside America.

Sherman was an enormously talented parodist who rose to fame on the back of his first album, My Son, the Folk Singer, a collection of humorous songs about Jewish life in America.

It was his 1963 hit Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh that made Sherman a national hero. Americans from all walks of life could relate to his song about a boy’s first experience of summer camp. Set to the melody of Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, it begins:

Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh

Here I am at Camp Granada;

Camp is very entertaining,

And they say we’ll have

some fun if it stops raining.

Continue reading…

The Sunday Times: The American dream keeps rolling in a camembert chuck wagon

Photo: Daryn Bartlett

Photo: Daryn Bartlett

Call us a nation of fatties, lard-lovers and super-sized seat-hoggers. But it’s hard to stay lean when the greatest food revolution since the invention of the sandwich is parked enticingly on every street corner.

So excuse me while I hoof it over to the Korilla BBQ food truck to grab my lunchtime Porkinator: a taco filled with pulled pork, bacon, kimchi slaw, shredded cheese and barbecue sauce. Last week we had the Taim Mobile in the neighbourhood offering a kind of Middle-Med falafel fusion. The week before it had been Palenque, a Colombian-themed food truck that had sent out its siren call of beef-stuffed arepas. For us New Yorkers it’s the American dream on a paper plate.

Millions of people eat from food carts and trucks every day. Behind the beef short rib, marmalade-glazed onion and camembert grilled flatbread that I had last Thursday lies one of the key reasons why this country is still a better economic bet than Europe. In a word (well, three words actually): market-driven innovation.

Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: When Summer Is a Bummer

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Summertime has officially begun. But is it really true, as the George Gershwin song claims, that “the livin’ is easy”?

Benjamin Franklin advised his fellow Americans against seasonal complacency, observing, “Some are weather-wise, some are otherwise.” For many people, summertime means either the threat of floods and hurricanes or the pain of wildfires and droughts. Nothing easy there.

In Britain, however, summertime has always posed a somewhat different problem—more existential than experiential. As with invisible protons, being certain of the existence of the British summer requires a leap of faith. Lord Byron wasn’t convinced, writing, “The English winter—ending in July, to recommence in August.”

Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: A Brief History of Avoiding Exercise

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Winter storms have become so frequent in the U.S. that they now have names, like hurricanes. This week saw the arrival of Seneca, making for a touch-and-go race about which will run out first: the alphabet or the jet stream. The weather in the eastern U.S. has been brutal enough this year that millions of Americans have been confined to their homes. In a country where, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one in six of us does anything like the recommended amount of physical activity, “Snowmaggedon” is a danger to the country’s health as well as its roads.

The ancients knew well that people will use any excuse to avoid exercise—bad weather, of course, being among the most popular. To counteract the natural human tendency toward inertia, the Greeks had their Olympics, the Chinese their tai chi and the Indians their yoga. The Romans went so far as to make exercise a legal requirement for all male citizens age 17 to 60. With the exception of Thomas Aquinas, who was colossally fat, lack of exercise was rarely a problem in the Middle Ages. Few people had time for aerobics when survival was the order of the day.

Continue reading…