Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category

Freedom Trail is Best When it’s Not Quite Free

Sunday, September 18th, 2016

I had one day to spend in Boston and had done zero research about the best places to visit. The only outing planned in advance was a trip to Fenway in evening, so that was one landmark we knew we’d see. What to do before that? My husband said I had to follow the Freedom Trail.

It’s like following the Yellow Brick Road, except that the bricks are red and the flying monkeys look more like pigeons.

There is no charge to walk between the landmarks on the Freedom Trail and the route is marked on the sidewalk, but if you want to know what the landmarks actually are, it helps to have a guidebook. So my walk started with the purchase of a $9 guidebook in the visitor’s center on Boston Common. I followed the red brick trail from the visitor’s center to the first landmark. It was a statue. At that point, I was ready to toss the book in the trash. Even to a history nut like me, statues are BORING.Kate Dolan finds a graveyard on the Freedom Trail

The next stop was a church that was locked. But the third stop was a burial ground that advertised more famous skeletons than any other graveyard in America. Things were looking up. Trying to avoid the groups of tourists clustered around costumed tour guides, I decided to focus on the gravestones of un-famous people, figuring they might feel left out. I took pictures of the stones with the best skull-carvings coated with the least amount of bird poop. Only after about ten minutes of this did I see the polite sign asking me to stay off the grass-covered graves. (more…)

The 4th of July wasn’t much fun in 1776

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

Americans are getting ready to celebrate the 4th of July with parties, food and fireworks.  This year marks the 240th anniversary of the signing of a document in which we declared ourselves to be an independent nation.  And we will  wave our flags and think that the 4th of July in 1776 must have been a pretty great day.

But it wasn’t. The delegates in Philadelphia actually signed the Declaration of Independence on July 2, but the news didn’t reach George Washington and his army in New York City until July 6. Unfortunately, the British navy had arrived a week before that, throwing the city into a panic.Kate Dolan writes about the 4th of July in 1776  So many ships arrived in such a short period of time that one Pennsylvania soldier said their masts looked like trees in a forest.  The streets of the city were jammed with families trying to leave while militia members from surrounding regions were trying to come to join in the city’s defense.

George Washington could not have been resting easy. Only a few weeks before, he’d learned of a loyalist plot to assassinate him and his officers when the British fleet arrived in New York.  Those arrested for involvement in the plot included the city’s mayor and two members of his Life Guard.  Alarm guns fired frequently in the city, perhaps reminding him that just five of the 120 British ships at anchor carried more firepower than all of the American guns along the shore. And they carried 10,000 troops, with thousands more expected daily.

The announcement that the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence did inspire celebrations in the streets and at least one officer reported that he and his cohorts spent the afternoon “merrily.” And it must have been reassuring to know that the governing members of the colonies were now publicly committed to a course of action that would be punished as treason if they failed. It was all or nothing, and they were all in it together.  As Benjamin Franklin famously summed it up, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Washington received a copy of the Declaration  on July 8 and had it read aloud in the city at 6 p.m. the next evening. Afterwards, swarms of people marched out to tear down a giant statue of King George III, hack off the statue’s head, cut off his nose and mount what was left of the head on a spike in front of a tavern.  Lead from the statue would  later be melted down into musket balls.

But the celebrations didn’t last long. Within three days, British ships brazenly sailed up the Hudson River and while American gun crews fired furiously all day, the ships suffered no harm and the only casualties were six Americans killed when their cannon blew up due to their own mismanagement.  More ships followed, and soon the British had a comfortable base on Staten Island.

To the British, the Declaration of Independence was a joke. The British admiral’s secretary said the document revealed “the villainy and the madness of these deluded people.”

Ships and troops continued to arrive throughout the summer until the end of August when the British attacked and defeated Washington’s army in the largest battle fought on North American soil up to that time. While Washington and his men were able to elude capture, they suffered a series of defeats and were chased out of New York.

Seven years of brutal fighing would follow before the Treaty of Paris ended the war in 1783.

So this year when we wave our flags and head out to parties to celebrate our nation, let’s be glad that “bombs bursting in air” above us are decorative amusements and not weapons designed to destroy. And let’s drink a toast to our forefathers who were willing to set aside their differences to “hang together.” We could use a little of that right now.


Much of the information in this article comes from 1776 by David McCullough.

The sad story behind the Great American Road Map

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

As travelers prepare to hit the road for Memorial Day weekend, I thought I’d reflect on what we no longer need—a road map. Those of us who haven’t memorized the route we’ll be taking will rely on GPS to figure out how to get from home to Vacation Central and back again. The really old-fashioned among us may resort to directions from MapQuest. But virtually no one will pull out an atlas or unfold one of those crazy impossible-to-refold roap maps that still lurk in random glove compartments.

And that’s a shame, really, because the road map was a wonderful invention and absolutely essential to American travel for about 200 years. But it didn’t start out that way.

The first American road map was created by Christopher P. Colles, an engineer and visionary from Ireland who came to the colonies shortly before the American Revolution.  Using studies he created while serving in the army as well as other military surveys and additional surveys undertaken on his own for his new project, Colles produced the Survey of the Roads of the United States of America in 1789.

Kate Dolan writes about first American road map

This section of the map depicts roads just a few miles from my house outside Baltimore…not that my house was standing then


Jammed into something new

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016


When graphic designer Cory Gerard created an experimental iPhone game called “Jump Fuzzy Jump,” he never dreamed the trial venture would drag him into the world of competitive jump rope. And that’s because he’d never heard of competitive jump rope.  It’s not surprising – the sport is not exactly plastered all over TV screens and sports magazines.Kate Dolan supports Jump Rope Jam

But now he’s on a mission to change all that. Together with jumping expert Brandon Harrison, Gerard has started Jump Rope Jam, a media presence designed to raise public awareness of the sport of jump rope. Jump Rope Jam includes a website and regular podcasts with guest speakers, plus a blog, Instagram feed (@JumpRopeJam,) Facebook page and more.

How did someone who’d never heard of competitive jump rope suddenly find himself devoting substantial time and energy to help the sport gain recognition? (more…)

Political worries come back to haunt us

Friday, April 15th, 2016

“This country has reached a very alarming crisis. Torn by two parties…Congress enacting laws it is unable to enforce …only to substitute equally bad ones…”
Sound familiar? I’m know I’m not alone in finding the factionalism in the United States to be frightening, but it comforts me to know that this worry is not unique in time.Factionalism at work in our nation's early days The words above were written by Rosalie Stier Calvert in 1809. Like me, Rosalie is a mother who did most of her work from home in suburban Maryland. But while I would put myself in the “average” category in many areas, Rosalie would fit into the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” category. She was born into a wealthy European family who fled to the United States in 1794 to escape the Reign of Terror. Though they had to leave behind the family castle, townhouse and other property, they brought enough gold to ensure they could live like nobility. Rosalie did not much care for her new home. After a few months, she wrote “America displeases me more and more every day–you meet only scoundrels.” (more…)

Potato, Patata–and Stay Away from Green Ones

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

I can believe that some people say “to-mah-to” but I always thought that when Ira Gershwin wrote “You like potato, and I like potahto,” in the classic tune “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” he was just being lazy with his rhyme scheme.
Turns out he was being historically accurate. Sort of.
Potatoes were introduced into European culture by the Spanish, who discovered the crop in Peru. They called it the “patata” (maybe to go with the “tomata”). In any case, they still use the word, so the Gershwin lyric holds up. I’m sure you find that a relief!Kate Dolan warns everyone about deadly potatoes
But you should call the whole thing off if the potato is green. That’s because green potatoes are loaded with a poisonous substancen known as solanine. It’s a bitter-tasting chemical found in the leaves, stems and shoots of potatoes, and it protects the plants from being devoured by insects. When potato tubers (the part we eat) are exposed to light while growing, they turn green and fill with solanine as a means of protection. But what protects the plant is harmful to anyone who consumes it. Fortunately, because of the bitter taste, most people stop before they eat enough to cause major problems. But solanine poisoning can cause nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps, cardiac dysrhythmia, nightmares, hallucinations, paralysis, fever, jaundice, hypothermia and even death. Obviously this is rare, and it tends to happen only in places where famine is so severe that people are willing to eat something that tastes as bad as a solanine-infused potato.
And this made me think of the Irish potato famine. From 1845 until 1851, starvation caused by the repeated failure of the potato crop caused death of a million people in Ireland. I imagine those people would have been tempted to eat green potatoes, so I wondered if solanine played any part in the deaths. I haven’t been able to find any connection so far, and from the descriptions of the blight that ruined the crops, I imagine the potatoes turned to black mush before they had the chance to turn green.
It’s a pretty depressing topic for contemplation, and if you’d like to feel even worse, there’s a miserably informative series of articles about the famine starting here:
After reading about the devastating blight and the “relief” measures that pretty much succeeded in destroying whatever the potato fungus left behind, you might want to have a drink to forget your troubles.
It’s okay if your beer is green. But only on March 17. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Problems Only the Rich Have These Days

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Don’t we feel sorry for the poor troubled aristocratic family in Downton Abbey? Not so much, I think. Because even on their worst days, they never even have to think about taking out the trash or scrubbing crusted food off a dinner plate. They have servants to do those things for them.

Kate Dolan writes about problems with servants

Less than a hundred years ago, even families considered “poor” usually had at least some hired help living in or near the house and assisting with household duties. But today the price of labor has increased so much that it is a true luxury to have help around the house, especially on a full-time basis.

So now most of us can enjoy hearing about problems with servants since we can’t afford them anyway. Jonathan Swift, best known as the author of Gulliver’s Travels, apparently had a great deal of trouble, either real or imagined, with his household staff. He wrote sarcastic “Directions to Servants” instructing them how to perform their duties as poorly as possible.

Here’s an example: “Masters and Ladies” he says, “are usually quarrelling with the Servants for not shutting the Doors after them: But neither Masters nor Ladies consider that those Doors must be open before they can be shut, and that the Labour is double to open and shut the Doors; therefore the best and shortest, and easiest Way is to do neither.”

Hey, makes sense to me. And it will keep down the heating bills.

I wonder if he had kids in mind when he wrote this next bit of advice, because modern parents can definitely relate. “Never come till you have been called three or four Times;” he advises, “for none but Dogs will come at the first Whistle: And when the Master calls (Who’s there?) no Servant is bound to come; for (Who’s there) is no Body’s Name.”

Another piece of advice that might also apply to teens is how to handle the situation when you’ve been out on an errand and stayed out a little too long (2,4, 6 or 8 hours). He offers a list of excuses such as (1)you had to say goodbye to a dear cousin who is about to be hanged next Saturday; (2) a fellow servant who owed you money was about to run off to Ireland so you had to track him down; (3) you were pressed into service in the navy and it took three hours explaining before the Justice of the Peace why you couldn’t go; (4) your dad gave you a cow to sell; (5) you were told your master was in a tavern so you had to search for him “in a hundred Taverns between Pall-mall and Temple-bar;”or my personal favorite, (6) “Some Nastiness was thrown on you out of a Garret Window, and you were ashamed to come Home before you were cleaned, and the Smell went off:”

While we might have to deal with some lame excuses from our children or employees these days, we do not generally have to worry about being hit with the contents of a chamber pot thrown out someone’s window. And for that, I am grateful, even if it means I live in a day and age where I can’t afford servants.

Mercy, what have you done to Petersburg?

Monday, February 8th, 2016
When I glanced up at the TV screen, the first thing I noticed was the big poofy Scarlett O’Hara gown. So I was looking at some show set during the Civil War. But there was not a plantation in sight–in fact, it was a town of red brick buildings. And then I remembered a brief visit to downtown Peterburg, Virginia about nine years ago. Kate Dolan recognized Petersburg in PBS series Mercy StreetI had been completely mesmerized by the collection of buildings that looked as if they’d been left untouched since the 1860s. At the time, my kids were not so mesmerized, so we kept the visit short. But I vowed to return. And now I’m wondering if it’s too late. That woman in the Scarlett O’Hara gown was part of the PBS miniseries Mercy Street, most of which was filmed in Petersburg. The filming process can wreak havoc on a site. I dug out the article I wrote about my first impression of Petersburg, and I’m posting it below. In a few weeks, I will hopefully have the chance to visit again and I’ll report back on what I find.
Why Can’t We Just Stop at McDonald’s? 

All the kids wanted was a restroom. But I was searching for more–I was on the lookout for a respite from the unmitigated dullness of I-95. This is not a new theme for me. Ever since my parents moved to South Carolina eleven years ago, we’ve been traveling that 600 mile stretch of highway, which is always either incredibly boring or incredibly stressful (and sometimes even the stress gets incredibly boring). Today, since the kids needed a break just south of Richmond, Virginia, I decided to unravel the mystery of Colonial Heights. Was it really colonial? And were there any heights?

I grew up in a town called Arlington Heights, Illinois and am embarrassed to admit that until I was in my mid-twenties, I thought that “Heights” was just a fancy term for a collection of housing developments. It wasn’t until I was reading a description of the battle at Harpers Ferry, when they described attacks from “Maryland Heights,” that it finally dawned on me that the army was not attacking from a suburban housing development. They were attacking from those big bluffs overlooking the town. (Actually, I think I first asked someone about housing developments during the Civil War before my fiance explained what the heights were.)

My confusion is understandable if you are familiar with the northwest suburbs of Chicago: there are lots of housing developments and no hills higher than a pitching mound.

So anyway, I wanted to ask someone if Colonial Heights lived up to its name. But there was no historical marker or visitor’s center for Colonial Heights. Just a mile south, however, was the exit for the Petersburg Visitors Center. So we pulled off and started following the signs.

Though we didn’t have to go far, it seemed a long way because we had to turn every two blocks. I felt like we were going in a giant circle, (my son thought it was more of a stair-step pattern.)

But we arrived, the center was open, and the restrooms were clean and inviting. Housed in an early 19th Century building near the old train depot, the Visitors Center looked promising. But to my disappointment, only the basement of the building was open. And while they had racks of brochures, there were no exhibits about the town. In fact, when I started asking questions, the friendly guide admitted that they didn’t even have any brochures about the tourist attractions in Petersburg. She did recommend visiting a number of sites, including the Siege Museum and the Blandford Church. And she told me that Colonial Heights did indeed live up to its name – during the Revolutionary War, Continental soldiers fired down from the heights during the battle of Petersburg. (I didn’t see any heights as we drove past the town, but maybe they’ve turned them into pitching mounds.)

So we struck out, in terms of finding a great informative visitor’s center like we found in Halifax last year. But before we left, we spent a few minutes walking through the streets (labeled “Old Towne Historic District”). Despite the bright mid-day sun, my daughter said she thought the area was “sort of creepy and all run-down.” My son asked if we could hurry up since his black shirt was absorbing all the sunlight and making him hot. They both asked why there were so many cars parked around and yet no people in sight. Then they asked why I was writing down everything they said.

I decided it was encouraging to see so much of the old town preserved – all the uneven brick streets, the early 19th Century buildings, and odd train relics including something that looked like an early locomotive. But it was sad to see the area so devoid of life. Further up the hill, the buildings housed antique shops and restaurants, and those seemed to be doing some business. All in all, it was an enjoyable place to walk around (unlike Emporia, where we tried a similar stop a year or two ago).

On our way back home, I hope to return to Petersburg to visit the Siege Museum and maybe the tavern on the next block up from the visitor’s center. We may even try to stop by the store with fresh painted bricks advertising “live and dressed poultry” for sale.

Think how much fun our dogs would have with those souvenirs!

Until next time…


(Thanks to KFTV for the photo –

Rodent extortion and other ways to celebrate February 2

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

Happy Cross Quarter Day! Today we celebrate the fact that we are halfway between Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Okay,  in the age of electric lighting the Cross Quarter is not a big deal for most of us, but every day closer to summer is a victory in my book. Plus, back when people lived their lives by the cycle of the sun, it was really something worth celebrating. And what better way to celebrate than with large furry rodents?Kate Dolan explores the history of Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day itself seems to be an American tradition, but for centuries before Punxsutawney Phil made his debut, some Europeans celebrated this highlight in the calendar by watching bears, hedgehogs and badgers.  The legends say that if these animals see their shadows (i.e., it’s a sunny day) then we will have six more weeks of winter weather. If they don’t, then spring is supposed to start.  Germans brought these traditions with them to the United States, and of course Americans turned the idea into an opportunity for commercialism and extortion. During Prohibition, Punxsutawney Phil supposedly threatened everyone with 60 more weeks of winter if he couldn’t get a drink.

Another popular old festival from this time of year comes from the Romans, who celebrated the birth of their god Mars by parading through the streets with torches. Out of these pagan traditions, we ended up with Candlemas Day, which is supposed to commemorate the day of Jesus’s presentation in the temple in Jerusalem. People would bring in candles to be blessed for the year. They also made weather predictions such as the one in this popular English poem

“If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.

If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.”

Like many other church holidays, Candlemas was probably devised to justify continuing a popular pagan celebration. The appeal  of candles and torches is obvious at a time of year when we’re longing for more sunlight. The appeal of the animal weather forecasting doesn’t make quite as much sense, but then part of the tradition of Groundhog Day used to involve eating the groundhog after  it came out of hibernation, so a rodent feast could have spurred that part of the tradition.

Candlemas is known as el Día de la Candelaria in Spanish speaking countries, where celebrations can last as long as a week. Coming 40 days after Christmas, Candlemas marks the official end of the Christmas season. It also coincides with St. Brigid’s Day in Ireland, based on the pagan goddess Brigid whose feast was known is Imbolc.

So this holiday may have more names than other on the calendar. Pick one and celebrate, with or without rodents. Just don’t threaten me with any extra days of winter.


For some interesting stories about about Candlemas Day and all its permutations, check out

Mr. Darcy is Dartmouth – Mothers Today Are Not as Enlightened as We Think

Saturday, January 23rd, 2016

As a senior in high school, my daughter is in the midst of her London Season—the 21st Century version. Two hundred years ago, the greatest aspiration of a young lady of her age was to enjoy a successful social Season in London during which she would attend balls, parties and other events with the single goal of making a match with the best possible husband. Her whole life led up to this one definitive season. She was taught the right skills including music, drawing, French and dance so that she would be considered “accomplished.” She was taught deportment and trained in polite conversation so she would appear “well-bred.” For years, everything a young lady learned from her mother, governess and other instructors was directed toward the singular goal of making her look as appealing as possible to a future husband.Kate Dolan compares girls training in the Regency with those of today

Today in 2016, we’ve thankfully rejected the idea that a young woman’s best hope for the future is to catch a rich husband with social standing. But before we congratulate ourselves too much on our superiority over the mamas of the past, we need to consider that we haven’t changed as much as we think.

My daughter did not take French lessons to make her self look accomplished to a future husband. She took French classes to make herself look accomplished to a future college. She took cello lessons for the same reason. And calculus, statistics, physics, chemistry and a host of other classes in subjects in which she had no interest – it was all to make her look good to a future college. For at least the last ten years of her life, much of what I as a mother and her teachers and counselors at school have encouraged her to do was not because we thought she might like the activity or even use the skills she acquired. It was because the accomplishment would look good on a college application.

In 1816, a young woman tried to make herself attractive to a husband with money and status. In 2016, we direct young women to make a match with a college with the perfect blend of reputation and scholarship money. Not so very different.

And now for my daughter Meg, the years of preparation have led to this one season – the season of applications and honors college essays and scholarship interviews. Potential suitors have been sending cards for years. She has been formally introduced to several of the institutions that her parents found suitable, but they did not always agree with her. One was deemed too formal in attire; another was overzealous in its profession of religion. A couple of institutions who impressed in our first meeting have proven to be somewhat inept as correspondents. (One college has repeatedly sent her postcards urging her to apply soon so that she would be eligible for a particular scholarship. Somehow it has slipped their notice that she not only already applied to their school, but also been accepted for admission and offered that same scholarship. This is not impressive.)

Fortunately the one thing that her London Season has that was not available to the young ladies of the past is a deadline. May 1 is recognized by all these potential suitors as the date by which she must inform them of her choice, so she need not fear that her preferred college will retract the offer to her in favor of another young lady if she does not give an answer right away.

Now finally during this season, she should learn as much as possible about these future college mates. Unfortunately for her, she has little time to do so, for she must still finish those unwanted classes in statistics and economics because even after she makes her commitment, the school can reject her if she fails to be as accomplished as she professed to be.

Instead, she will need to examine her own feelings. What does she want? Which school seems to have the best chance of making her future life happy? And this is where, as an ambitious mama, I finally need to step back, stop pushing her to do things to make herself look good, and actually let her make a decision for herself.

Let’s hope I’m up to the task.