Wednesday, July 27, 2016

In Vino Veritas

I confess to an ulterior motive in suggesting the topic of "your favorite beverage."  A couple of years ago, I read a fascinating book title A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage.  His essential thesis was that you can trace the development of human history in the world by looking at 6 different beverages.

In order of the chapters, here are the 6 glasses he discussed: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, coca-cola, with a post script chapter on water.  Here is a quick summary, if you are curious to know a bit more about this book.

As human civilization was beginning, water could not be trusted as a healthy source of liquid. Thus, when the first discovery of beer (or wine...there's an uncertainty as to which occurred first) was made, humans had a solution to how to partake of a beverage without getting sick from the mere drinking of it. Beer and wine were both safe sources. 

Then came spirits--i.e. hard liquor. Standage traces the trade cycle that was set up--slaves, sugar, spirits. Thus, the distilling of hard liquor was intimately tangled up with the burgeoning slave trade--a linkage I had not contemplated before.

Next was coffee--which in part helped to fuel the age of enlightenment. Coffee houses sprang up, people gathered and talked over emerging ideas.

Tea was known long before it became a global drink--in China and in India. But when European empires began to push outward, and tea was among the discoveries, it soon became an international commodity.

And last, there is coca-cola. Well, that one you can figure out for yourself, given its most recent development.

Water--that's the next beverage that will (or is) having an impact on human history. Standage doesn't explore this beverage in depth, but notes that future clashes will occur around availability of water.

So, what's my favorite beverage. Well, the blog title tips it--in vino veritas

I was raised in a family that belonged to a tee-totaling church. In fact, my grandfather felt so strongly about temperance that he postponed traveling from Ontario, Canada where he was born and raised, to the U.S. (to marry my grandmother) because there was a local law under consideration that banned alcohol.  I don't know if the law passed, but if it did, it was doomed to failure--as was Prohibition in the United States.

It was not until I was in high school, working at my first summer job, that I even tasted anything alcoholic.  When my husband and I first got married, wine was not much of a presence on the American scene. That is ironic, of course, since the U.S. third president, Thomas Jefferson, was very much an oenophile.  In the late 1960s to early 1970s, wine was mainly available as "wine coolers" (remember them?) or sweetened wine.  So my introduction to "real" wine was quite delayed. 

In the last number of years, my husband and I have gone of various trips to parts of Europe. Several of these trips have included wine tastings--though that is not their primary purpose. Through this exposure, I have slowly enhanced my understanding of wine and appreciation of it. And, for me, it's RED wine!

Beverages may seem like an odd topic--but, think about it. Liquids are essential to human existence. Many of the traditions which we have in celebrations--for example clinking our glasses together--arise out of beverage consumption. Standage, the author of the aforementioned book, notes that beer was usually drunk from a common container--everyone drinking out of the same vessel. So, uniting our glasses by touching them recreates an age-old ancestral tradition.

So, here's to your health--as I raise my glass! 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Upstairs, Downstairs

There are many rites of passage in the life of a child--learning to walk alone, learning to ride a bike, walking around the block (or whatever) the first time without mom or dad. Of course, there's the really big rite of passage--learning to drive.

But perhaps one of the bigger rites of passage is joining the working world. Understandably, it is a critical step in a child's journey from childhood to adulthood. Of course, we don't encourage child labor, as such. No returning to the heartbreaking images of the 19th century where children worked in factory jobs--a practice that sadly continues too many places in the world today. But it is important for a child growing into adulthood to begin to learn responsibility through that first job.

I have worked at something a good portion of my life, since I was a teen until I was an older (ahem) person. I firmly believe that a child growing into an adult misses out on a valuable experience if she or he doesn't have a job, usually during the summer months. Frankly, I look askance at young people in our neighborhood who do not "work" during the summer, assuming of course they are old enough. We have one such young man who lives nearby. He is an only child--his parents having thought they were unable to have children. Perhaps that circumstance alone has made them not insist on his developing some maturity. He is on the brink of turning 16, and has not as yet mowed the lawn.

Ah, lawn mowing and baby sitting. Two of the first jobs available to many teens in the United States. I certainly did some baby sitting in my teen years.  Oh, I can recall the children for whom I baby-sat.  What I am trying to recall is the first long-term summer job.

I think it was the summer I spent in Canada, along Lake Erie, working for wealthy Americans with summer homes along the lake shore on the Canadian side.  I wrote more extensively about this job here, but a few details can be replayed.

The matriarch of the family I worked for assigned each of us girls--yes, there were three of us, to our own jobs. One girl baby-sat the grandchildren of the family, one girl was the cook, and then there was the girl who cleaned all the rooms, made the beds, did the laundry--that would be me.

You can read the outcome of that first job in my earlier post, linked above. Suffice it to say that, having been part of house staff (think downstairs a la Downtown Abbey) I vowed that should I ever be able to afford to have someone clean for me, I would not treat them as dismissively as my first employer treated me.

The final irony for me was this--years later, with the availability of information on the internet, I "googled" the name of that employer family. I learned that the grand dame had since died--not surprisingly given that decades had passed. I read in her obituary some of the details of her early life. She and her husband had, as very young people, eloped. So, no doubt she was recalling her own poorer childhood and now a grand dames she decided she didn't want a young, somewhat pretty teenaged girl who her son and some of his friends found attractive working for her.

I can't really say I was fired, but I was not invited to return the next summer.

There are many lessons learned in a first job. Of course, there is learning the value of work, of responsibility. There is learning the joy of being paid for doing something. And there is also the value of learning that just because you are "fired" doesn't mean that you have failed.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Vignettes of Teachers Past

Having been challenged to write about the best teacher in my life, I knew immediately who I would write about. But first...

I have many memories of teachers. Some memories are fraught with negative recollections. There was the algebra teacher who forever ruined whatever interest or capability I might have had in any math subject.  She was returning exams and took the time to bring me to the front of the class. She returned my paper (which had earned a passing grade--one of only two students who passed!). Then she proceeded to berate me saying I should have done better, that I had the ability to do better.  And that, dear reader, was it. I have never since had any confidence in doing math.

There were several high school teachers. Since I had spent the bulk of my elementary and secondary education years in schools overseas, I was somewhat at sea coming into the U.S. education system. So I particularly responded to good or commanding teachers. There was the high school history teacher who had this habit of repeating a phrase--we students began to call him Mr. B, Mr. B, imitating his repetitive style. But I wrote a research paper for his class on medicine in the Civil War and still remember the interest he generated in me for history. Or the advanced biology teacher who was so engaging that when he died recently, I joined other students in an outpouring of memories of his excellence as a teacher.

Of course, there was my first ever teacher--my mother. Since we were living on a mission station away from any town, my mother taught me for kindergarten and first grade. Long before home schooling was possible, my mother was my teacher.

And now, to my favorite teacher ever. When I entered college, I had thoughts of becoming a physician. I don't know how I thought I would accomplish that without any interest or ability in math. It was chemistry that ended any thought of becoming a physician--chemistry, of course, requires some math ability.

I wasn't at loose ends about choosing a major, however. I redirected my academic goal into English literature. And that's when Dr. S became my favorite teacher.  The college I attended had a small student body and a correspondingly small faculty. That meant that many of the various courses I needed to take as an English major were taught by Dr. S. Interestingly, he had a brother who also taught at the college--so there were two Drs. S. And the brother was a history professor, so I took English history courses from him.

From Dr. S, I learned critical thinking. I was encouraged to approach information curiously. All things were open to discovery. And that trait remains with me to this day.

When I graduated from college, I went off to graduate school.  During that year, I was moved to write a letter of thanks to Dr. S. His response was most unexpected and surprising. He asked--did I want to return to my alma mater to teach for a year, filling in for a professor on sabbatical leave. Of course, I said yes. That year turned in eight. And my career was thus begun.

A memorable teacher, indeed. Not long after I returned to teach, Dr. S. moved on to other academic institutions. I have lost contact him. But the memory of his excellence remains.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Thus It Ever Was

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair.
Perhaps it is inevitable that every generation views its own time as "the best and the worst" of times.
Dickens wrote this opening sentence for his classic A Tale of Two Cities--a novel set during the French Revolution.  The dichotomous structure of the sentence perfectly captures the thrill and the terror of tumultuous times.
I was born just before World War II ended. I have occasionally thought about my parents--getting married in 1942, having their first child in 1945, going to Africa as missionaries in 1946 (flying there because shipping was still not without danger from all the mines that had been placed in the oceans during the war).  There must have been an element of "the worst of times" sense for them. Those were tumultuous years indeed.
And, yet, it must have also been "the best of times." Beginning a life together, welcoming a baby, embarking on a life calling.
As I contemplate the present world, so many examples of "the worst" leap out at me. Bombings in Baghdad  or Brussels (or any other city), non-stop rapid gunfire in Orlando, Newtown, Charleston, San Bernadino, wildfires up and down the western U.S., flooding in West Virginia, Houston, Paris, Pakistan., political upheaval in the United Kingdom, in the United States, in Brazil, in Bangladesh.
The list seems endless. The worst of times.
But for every "worst" there is a "best". These stories do not as readily grab the headlines. After all, we seem to prefer blood and guts more than human kindness. At least, the news moguls seem to think so. 

What strikes me is the way in which generation after generation has experienced this dichotomy. We think our times are the hardest, the worst, perhaps the best. We view our existence as the pinnacle of human history ( Lord, help us all).
So, is it the best of times? the worst of times?
Two thoughts remain with me--first, there is balance. First, just as those in medieval times focused on the great wheel of fortune--what is cast down will be thrust up, what is thrust up will be cast down--we do well to remember that. And second, thus it ever was.

"What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun."
Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NRSV)
Illustration from a manuscript of a work by Boccaccio