Keeping my Whigs straight

I've gotten burned on history before. Remember that Columbus scam?

My foster son is five-and-a-half months old. I want him to be a senator. Well, really, I want him to be president, but I don't want to pressure him, so I just call him senator. By the time he is elected to his rightful place in the Senate, Strom Thurmond will be 120 and my son, a man of the people, will be his archrival.

I recently started showing my little senator "Delegates of 1787" flash cards, the Constitutional Convention's 55 members in portraiture and biography. I had never heard of 53 of them. I was embarrassed. If only I couldn't name every "Brady Bunch" cast member.

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It's not that I don't read about history as an adult, it's that so little sticks with me. I think I've gotten burned retaining history facts before. Remember the Columbus scam? I think back on it now and feel like such a fool. They had us singing songs about the guy, reciting poems, drawing pictures, and celebrating his day with abandon. Then one day, Miss Resse, my beloved fifth-grade mentor, casually mentions that the Indians already lived here and some Vikings had come and gone before Columbus arrived. I'm sure that's why history just won't stick to my brain anymore.

I read Carl Van Doren's biography of Benjamin Franklin a couple of years ago. It was a hardcover copy, probably three inches thick. I fell asleep while reading and dropped the book on my nose more than once. It'll heal. All I can remember from the whole book is that he invented the flippers that you swim with, and that he had postal correspondences with many women in France. Then I found out from another source that he died of syphilis. No wonder the fine art of letter writing has died.

The biography on the back of my James Madison flash card says that he was the "principal architect of the Virginia Plan which prompted the convention to create a vastly strengthened government," and was "the only member to keep a full set of notes for each day's convention proceedings." But I just finished reading "Decision in Philadelphia," by Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier, and they suggest that Madison, the "Father of the Constitution," failed to record in his notes that 21 provisions in the Constitution were first mentioned by Charles Pinckney.

So now I don't know what's true. The flash cards say that William Blount of North Carolina "signed the document," but played "no major role in the convention." Well, how do we know that's true? He probably kept an even more thorough account than James Madison. Through some strong-armed Madison tactics these Blount journals were probably kept from us 'til now:

June 15. William Paterson presented a new plan of government. I believe he shaves his head. If Mary ever suggested I shave my head, I'd take her over my knee.

Damnation, I just injured my eye with my quill. I am a danger to myself. That James Madison has been industriously recording the debates for days and he has yet to impale his eye. I have never really trusted Madison.

Paterson proposed something called "The New Jersey Plan." Oh, that would be a pretty picture, New Jersey telling all the states what to do. I sprang from my chair and denounced the plan. Others shouted, "I second that," and "We're with Blount, of course," before the matter was laid to rest and we headed to the alehouse.

June 16. The buckles on my shoes hurt. I cannot write.

June 30. Dr. Franklin addressed the delegates in today's session. He likened proportional representation to making a table of planks. Truly, if his picture ends up on paper currency, I shall be forced to deal in pelts.

Letters to Paula

Send Paula (paula@motherjones.com) your questions about American history--or anything else!

J.R. Brown, e-mail: Are you computer literate or do you have an e-mail address because it's in vogue?

A: I am very excited about the possibility of appearing in vogue. However, about this e-mail thing--some highly skilled person at Mother Jones prints those letters out for me and sends them. I can barely read them.

I just recently got a television with a remote control. I have wept over not being able to operate my VCR, only to find that the television was not on Channel 3. The cable repairman has come to my home more than once and flipped a light switch on my wall to turn the cable box on for me. I have many more stories of my inability with electronics, stories that would make you shudder with fear, but I'm sure you get my point.

Tracey McCartney, e-mail: I am a second-year law student, and I still don't understand the rule against perpetuities. Could you please explain it?

A: Since Raymond Burr died and I don't think Susan Dey actually knows any law stuff, I called a friend who is a federal court judge in New York to seek an answer to your question.

At first he said he knew what it was when he was a second-year law student but that he wasn't sure now. He's a funny guy.

I think this is how it works: If you made a will or trust and wanted to pass on, say, your land to your kids and then to their kids, etc., you can't make it go on forever. You must include a clause that covers the living people the land should go to. It may continue to the last living person plus 21 years.

I thought I hadn't gotten it straight so I called my lawyer. He told me no one understands it. So congratulations on fitting in, Tracey. I myself recently appeared in vogue, you know.

Rebecca Moore, Huntsville, Ala.: I notice that when recycling plastic two-liter bottles, we are to remove the plastic top and the neck ring. I have no problem with the top, but can you tell me how to remove the neck ring without ripping off my fingernails?

A: When I had an office and a staff, we had a mostly successful recycle, reuse, conserve philosophy there, but I never knew about this top-and-neck-ring issue. I mostly drink soda out of cans because someone dared me to drink a two-liter bottle of soda once and I still feel sick from it.

I called my recycling company, hoping for good news like "It's not necessary to remove the top and neck ring," or "Trees thrive on plastic," but no such luck. You were right.

I would suggest using a retractable blade, those scissors that the father from "Eight Is Enough" advertises on television, or an open-ended pair of pet nail clippers (I do 60 claws every two weeks).

Emily Okada, Indiana University, e-mail: A continuing issue in librarianship seems to be the (unfortunate) stereotype of librarians as frumpy women who wear sensible shoes and say "shhh!" a lot. I've met very few librarians who even come close to the stereotype. What do you think?

A: I think the "Marion the Librarian" number in "The Music Man" went a long ways toward creating this living hell for librarians. I tried to call the library in River City, Iowa (the town the movie takes place in) to see if the stereotype really applies there. The town doesn't exist. There's a Riverdale, Iowa, and a Riverside, Iowa, but neither town has a library. If they have women there who fit that description, they must work at the discount sensible-shoe store or "Frumpy's" dress shop.

I talked to a librarian named Kathy at the Des Moines, Iowa, library. She said she has never said "shhh!" ever. She wears heels at work and switches to running shoes when she gets home. I asked Kathy who she would have write her life story and she said Nora Ephron. She also told me that Shirley Maclaine would be the best choice to play her in a movie.

The woman in research at the Dubuque, Iowa, library said it was their policy that she couldn't talk to me. They must be covering up scandalously unstereotypical librarians.

Heather Brodie answered the phone in research at the Framingham Central Library in Massachusetts, where I did research for my written report on Japanese bathing customs in the seventh grade. She said Julia Roberts should play her in her life story. Heather wears loafers to work and no shoes at all around the house. She thinks she said "shhh" once. She became a librarian because she was talking to a friend in a bar one night and it just came to her that she should be one.

This totally scientific survey should shatter once and for all the oppressive and unfair librarian stereotype. They do all have kind of pinched mouths, though, don't they?

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