It’s Here! A Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast

“This unusual encyclopedia focusing on the female breast is scholarly and exhaustive, yet pleasurable to read. It should find its place among one’s favorite reference books. “

–Marilyn Yalom, Stanford University; author of A History of the Breast

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Yesterday, my husband and I visited our younger daughter and her boyfriend in their new apartment. They live about an hour and half away from us in Reading, Pennsylvania. We had a lovely visit and a delicious dinner prepared by my daughter. We talked and their dog and cat entertained us, as pets do. When my husband and I got home—well past my usual bedtime—my husband discovered that my author copies of my new book, A Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast, had been delivered to our house while we were away. What a perfect end to my Saturday!

I don’t care how many books you write—it’s always exciting to see and hold the new one. And if it isn’t, you probably shouldn’t be a writer.

I realize that this book is not the type of book most people will rush out to buy for their personal libraries–although I would be pleased if you do! However, if you think it is a book that might be useful for any businesses you know of, or schools, or libraries, please do recommend it. I wrote several of the entries, and I compiled and edited the entire volume, but I also had the help of scholars from all over the world, including the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, Poland, Romania, Argentina, and Nigeria. The book covers nearly everything you could want to know about breasts—breast anatomy, breast cancer, breast augmentation and reduction, breasts in art, literature, movies, and pop culture, breasts in fashion, topless protests, breasts in history, and more. Come on, you know you want to flip through it now, don’t you? Really now, don’t you?

One of my assistants

One of my assistants

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He finds the box more interesting than the books.

A Short Stop on My Writing Journey

“Being a good writer is 3% talent, 97% not being distracted by the Internet.”
–Anonymous

“It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end.“
–Ursula K. LeGuin

 

Once minute I’m researching religion and the American Revolution on the Library of Congress Web site; the next minute my husband is telling me that none of the TV stations are coming in. We soon discover our Internet service is no longer available, our landline is out, and we can’t access the Internet from our cell phones either. Fortunately, we can still text and call from our cells. I was beginning to panic and wonder what good cell phones are in an emergency if we can’t use them. Not that this is an emergency, of course, but what if? Yes, that’s how my brain goes. And when I’m facing a book deadline, it doesn’t take much to throw me into panic mode.

It made me think about the whole process of writing and research —at least in the US in 2014. Or at least for me–perhaps I shouldn’t speak for others. I have a house full of books, journals, and material I’ve printed out. I also have papers and pens. I can use my laptop, and we have power, so there is not a problem with recharging it. Nothing is actually preventing me from writing, but I’ve become so accustomed to going online to find a citation, to fact check, and to look up material, that I’m almost paralyzed without Internet access. I am writing this now, but I’m unable to post it. Clearly, I can write, it’s focus I’m having a problem with. My soul is being tried, and I’m facing my age of no reason.

I suppose if desperate enough, I could go to Starbucks or my local library to use the Internet, but that would involve driving. And getting dressed.  You might think I’m joking. But one of the great things about being a writer who works from home is I don’t have to get dressed to work. Sometimes I don’t get dressed all day. I can work in my exercise clothes, my PJs, or some comfy sweats.

OK. Now that I’ve revealed way too much, I guess I should go back to my real writing work—at least what I can do without Internet access. My book manuscript is due all to soon. Eventually, my husband who has been on hold with Verizon for about half and hour might find out what the problem is. Until then, I guess I’ll hold off on the fact checking, and open one of these lovely books piled helter-skelter on the buffet behind me. Oh hello there, you wondrous thing! You marvelous book. I could never totally abandon you.

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I’m not joking about the book piles.

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My research assistant

But. . .oh Yay! We’re back online. I love you books, but I need to check Facebook now.

And the journey continues.

The Influence of One

“Blessed is the influence of one true, loving human soul on another.”
–George Eliot

“We don’t make a photograph just with a camera, we bring to the act of photography all the books we have read, the movies we have seen, the music we have heard, the people we have loved.”

– Ansel Adams

Influence. Who influences us and who do we influence, perhaps unknowingly? A recent blog post by Laurie Buchanan on her Tuesdays with Laurie blog made me ponder these questions.

We’re all influenced by the times in which we live. Perhaps a Neolithic storyteller imagined worlds beyond ours, a place filled with fantastic creatures that swooped down from the sky. It’s possible. But it’s unlikely that he or she imagined televisions or the Internet. Perhaps though that storyteller inspired others to create new tales or paint, or think of worlds beyond. Entirely possible, and a scene I like to imagine. Still, although a rare genius such as Leonardo da Vinci can imagine or predict objects far beyond the imaginations of his or her contemporaries (see for example, his moveable cart, “the world first self-propelled vehicle” ), most of us are constrained by our times and knowledge.

As a historian, I study the past and past influences. In turn, I’m influenced by the words and actions of those who lived long ago. As a writer, I’m influenced by everything around me. But who knows for sure where that creative spark comes from? I have some way of seeing things that others perhaps do not, some odd synaptic firing that allows me to put images into words on a page. But I am still influenced by what I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, music I’ve heard, art I’ve admired. I’m influenced by the sound of the crows outside my window engaged in their “Marco Polo” calls to one other, the sunlight reflected and glimmering on the butterfly bush gently swaying in the faint summer breeze, and the cat sleeping next to me, lost in his feline dreams.

As a writer, I hope that my words influence my readers, and make them think, laugh, or cry. As a human being, a parent, wife, and friend, I also hope that I’ve influenced others, as they’ve influenced me.

Last week all of these various worlds—history, creativity, family, and influence came together in one wonderful example.

Those who read my last post, know that in my house the Mandelbrot cookies I bake are known as “Mommy Cookies,” and that I baked them for my daughter’s wedding rehearsal dinner. Two days after the wedding, while visiting a historic site, my newly married daughter and her wife encountered a historical interpreter portraying an early twentieth-century Jewish immigrant making Mandelbrot in her New England kitchen. My daughter’s reaction was to get a bit teary-eyed (as I did when she told me the story), as she thought of how I make those cookies, our Mommy Cookies. A traditional recipe that I’ve updated became a family tradition that has influenced and affected my daughter and me. The reenactor, however, will never know how her portrayal in that historic site resonated and influenced my daughter.

And now that I’ve told you, the influence of that portrayal has expanded.

 

“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

-William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5

 

 

 

 

Love and Marriage, Part 3–Food

And so it’s done. My little girl, my first born, is now a married woman. I am still teary-eyed, but happy and content to know my daughter is married to the woman she loves.

She and her lovely bride were married this past Sunday in a beautiful, tender, loving, and funny ceremony at the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, NJ. The brides were beautiful—my daughter wore my wedding gown, now known as “our gown.” The weather was perfect, and the aquarium setting was striking. Shark tanks inside and the Delaware River and Philadelphia skyline outside—what could top that? Only the love in their eyes as they gazed at each other.

In the days leading up to the ceremony–which of course were filled with last minute chores to do and items to pick up, drop off, and assemble—we all tried to find ways to relax and de-stress. On Friday night, my daughters and soon-to-be daughter-in-law and I went for a long walk through our town and along the river. My husband then joined us for a family movie night as we watched “Frozen,” a movie none of us except my younger daughter had seen. The tears and laughter during the movie were a prelude for the wedding symphony to come.

Of course, over the days leading up to the wedding we ate and ate. On the Thursday before the wedding, I baked the brides-to-be a pre-wedding challah. We tore chunks of it off to eat with cheese, as we sat outside at a local winery on a beautiful summer night. Bread and wine—looking back it seems symbolic and perfect for a pre-wedding feast. Plus, I’m all for eating bread for dinner.

Challahs cooling on the counter

Challahs cooling on the counter

Food is often an important feature of holidays and special occasions. In my family, food is always a feature, a necessary and expected part of such celebrations–if not the most important part. Why should weddings be any different? I baked many batches of cookies to give to those who attended the rehearsal dinner. After all, I wouldn’t want anyone to get hungry in the middle of the night!

Because food is so important, I made it the subject of my toast at the rehearsal dinner. I hope the brides will not mind if I share an edited version of that toast:

Tonight I’d like to discuss what’s really important in marriage. That, of course, is food.

When two people marry, they bring their pasts with them—and this often includes family quirks and traditions. They attempt to meld or accommodate different ideas about proper meals—when and what to eat. Vegetarians and meat-eaters; picky eaters and adventurous eaters; those who like formal dinners and those who prefer casual dining—it can be a challenge to make these differences work.

When Doug and I first started dating—way back when—he had never experienced the joys of a full Jewish brunch—lox, cream cheese, “yum yum” fish, bagels, and everything else. Nor had he been exposed to the spicy, “exotic” foods of India, Thailand, and China. But he willingly embraced it all. (He also was not used to people blurting our wildly inappropriate things during holiday dinners—or people who cry at everything–so I will try my best not to do either, but instead stick to the subjects of food, love, and tradition.)

Many of our family traditions involve gathering around a dinner table. Food is a source of gustatory delight and memories—the strawberry shortcake dinners we ate after picking strawberries, for example– but it also a source of comfort and tradition. During holidays we eat foods that represent particular thoughts or events. We savor the round challah at Rosh Hashanah (made from my Aunt Sima’s world famous recipe) and enjoy it with honey for a sweet year; we devour way too many fried latkes and donuts at Hanukkah in remembrance of the oil in the temple; and we eat the matzoh, charoset, and other foods at our Passover meal that symbolize the ancient story of the Jews fleeing Egypt and slavery.

When Megan and Sheryl were growing up, I baked lots of cookies, including Doug’s favorites, which became known as Daddy Cookies, and my favorite, which became known as Mommy Cookies. Daddy Cookies are Welsh Cookies, a type of tea biscuit cooked on a griddle. They are popular in the Scranton, PA. area, and I got the recipe from his grandmother. Mommy Cookies are my version of Mandelbrot, which I describe as Jewish biscotti. These cookies are totally different—in shape, texture, and ingredients. Yet, they are both sweet and delicious, and Megan and Sheryl grew up eating both types. Doug and I are very different, but even though we prefer different types of cookies, we can appreciate the other’s favorite. We share many mutual beliefs, interests, activities, and love. Megan and Clare are also very different people with different backgrounds and tastes who have come together because of their love for one another and their shared interests–including food.

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Welsh Cookies, aka “Daddy Cookies”

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Mandelbrot, aka “Mommy Cookies”

Megan and Clare –it makes my heart sing to see you together. I am so glad you found each other and that you’ve chosen to share your lives together, and that we here are fortunate to be able to share in your celebration.

Doug and I are pleased that we can gather together with all of you tonight over a fine meal and share food, love, and traditions. We’ve prepared a little gift bag of symbolic goodies for each of you, which includes Mommy Cookies and Daddy cookies. There are also some sweet and salty fish-shaped treats. Fish, obviously, symbolize the aquarium site for tomorrow’s nuptials. Sweet and salty represents the happiness and tears that come in marriage.

Please raise your glass now and join me in toasting my daughter and my almost daughter-in-law. To Megan and Clare—may you enjoy many delicious meals together. May your lives be filled with sweetness–and may you cry only tears of happiness. I love you. L’Chaim!

 

 

© Merril D. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Summer of Breasts and Revolution

 

I’ve been busy this summer with professional projects and personal issues and events. Unfortunately, this has left me little time to post to my blog or visit the blogs of others. I apologize and hope to have more time later in the fall.

 

In July I reviewed the page proofs for my forthcoming book, Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast. It covers everything you always wanted to know about breasts in history, art, fashion, literature, movies, popular culture, and science. It should be out in October, or perhaps even before that. Grazia De Michele reviewed it for the Breast Cancer Consortium. You can read the review here:

 

I’ve also been working on my next book, another encyclopedia, titled World of the American Revolution (ABC-CLIO). As the deadline approaches (GULP!), I am scrambling to write numerous entries on a wide variety of topics. Let me just say there have been ISSUES. Contributors dropping out; contributors not coming through with acceptable articles; contributors who plagiarize. . .But I have also had some wonderful articles submitted. So it goes.

 

In addition research, editing, and writing entries for my books, I’ve been writing many test items this summer—after all, I have a daughter getting married and there are a few expenses to be covered. The bridal shower has past and the wedding will soon be here. I can’t believe that something that seemed so far away is now almost here! There will be more on that topic in the future.

 

With so much going on, my husband and I did not even attempt to make vacation plans, but we have taken a few hours here and there to visit places in the area. Following my theme of “revolutions,” we went to Eastern State Penitentiary for the “Bastille Day” Celebration as envisioned by the Bearded Ladies theatre troup. My husband and I stood for free with the mob. We cheered and jeered as Edith Piaf introduced celebrated figures from the past to help bring about revolution. Or something. Well, we all know from Les Miz that revolutions need songs. And apparently they need line dances, too. Because this is Philadelphia, Marie Antoinette—joined by Tonya Harding—threw TastyKakes from the top of the prison with the cry, “Let them eat Tastykakes!” It is true Philadelphia craziness that has to be experienced to be believed. You can see more about it here.

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After the “execution,” my husband and I went on an after hours tour of the prison. If you are ever in Philadelphia, visit this museum. It is fascinating. The prison opened in 1829 and was considered a model prison with each prisoner kept in a solitary cell. The prison was in use until it closed in 1971.

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On another day, in lovely summer weather, we walked through the famed Philadelphia Museum of Art. We saw an exhibit of proposed architectural changes to the museum. The alterations, if they happen, will be done in stages, and will take decades to complete. The proposal that has met with the most discussion is one that would change the famed “Rocky” steps.

 

After visiting the Medieval and European galleries, we went outside to have a picnic lunch and walk. It was a beautiful day to walk by Boathouse Row and along the Schuylkill River. When looking walking along the river, it is easy to imagine the nineteenth-century city of Philadelphia.

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Looking at the Philadelphia Museum from the Waterworks

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A solitary rower on the Schuylkill River

 

We have also managed to make two brief trips to the beach (down the shore, as we say here), as well as some trips to local wineries.

 

So this is my summer of breasts and revolutions–and a soon to be wedding. It’s been brightened by family and friends, sunny skies, stress-busting trips to the gym, and some glasses of wine. Chocolate, too, of course. I hope all of you are having a good summer! Back to work for me.

 

Love and Marriage, Part 2: War

There are marriages that turn into war zones, as husband and wife become enemy combatants in the trenches and minefields of their shared lives. But sometimes partners who love each other have the misfortune to live or to be separated during an actual war and to live in a real war zone.

 

Lovers parted by war. It’s a theme found in ancient myths and stories, as well as more recent tales. Homer’s famous epic poem, The Odyssey, is the story of Odysseus, as he journeys back to his home and his wife Penelope in Ithaca, following the Trojan War. The Odyssey has provided inspiration for many works. In 1997, for example, Charles Frazier recast The Odyssey as a Civil War tale in the novel Cold Mountain. In this story, W.P. Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier, becomes a deserter. As he travels back home to find his love, Ada, he is helped and hindered by people and situations resembling some of those in The Odyssey. Although they knew each other only briefly, it is the thought of seeing Ada that keeps Inman going. The story alternates with Inman and Ada narrating chapters. Ada learns how to survive and finds strength she never dreamed she had. The novel was made into a successful movie and will soon be an opera.

 
The wonderful quirky 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? by Joel and Ethan Coen, was also loosely based on The Odyssey. It involves 1930s-era escaped convicts led by Ulysses Everett McGill, played by George Clooney. It also boasts a wonderful soundtrack of country, bluegrass, blues, and gospel that features Allison Krause, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, The Soggy Bottom Boys, and others.

 
But the reality of war is something else. It boasts soundtracks of battle cries, tears, moans, gunshots, and bombs, as well as music. War separates soldiers and their families, sometimes forever. Those in the midst of battles and ambushes might literally fight for their lives, while those left at home are sometimes left to face occupying troops or deserters, destruction of their homes, and food shortages. The recent tragic and sometimes horrifying news from places all over the globe demonstrates that these situations still exist. We humans are very good at finding ways to destroy our cultures and ourselves.

 
And yet, love endures. Goodness, hope, and beauty endure.
“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”
–Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl

 
As I work on my next project, an encyclopedia of daily life during the American Revolution, I’m reminded of two things—life goes on during war AND daily life is changed by war. Sometimes it is undeniably and irrevocably changed, for the better or for the worse. For many Americans, the era of the American Revolution is confined to images of “Patriots” fighting “Redcoats,” the “Founding Fathers” gathering in Philadelphia, and perhaps some faint knowledge of the Boston Tea Party. It is something remote. But of course, as in all wars, there were real people who fought, died, profited, mourned, and just went on living. There were also those left at home who planted crops, sewed and washed clothing, gave birth, committed crimes, were victims of crimes, wrote poetry, got drunk, lived, and died. And they loved and were loved.

 
Those who were literate and had access to paper, ink, and a way to get letters delivered, attempted to communicate with their friends and family.

 
“I am rejoiced to hear you are well; “I want to know many more perticuliars than you wrote me, and hope soon to hear from you again. I dare not trust myself with the thought of how long you may [illegible] perhaps be absent. I only count the weeks already past, and they amount to 5.”
–Abigail Adams to John Adams, 14-16 September 1774

 
War. It goes on. But so does love.

 
In one of the most poignant and beautiful letters that emerged from the blood and horror of the American Civil War are these lines from Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah:

 
Sarah, never forget how much I love you, nor that, when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name.”

 
Sullivan Ballou was killed at the first Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861.
You can read the entire letter here.

http://www.nps.gov/resources/story.htm?id=253

Love and Marriage–Part 1

Weddings are on my mind. Last month, my husband and I celebrated our 36th wedding anniversary. Like most couples, we’ve had our share of good and bad times, but fortunately more good than bad! Weddings, of course, are merely the start of a marriage. They’re like the first stage-setting paragraph of what one hopes will be a long, enthralling novel—the type that has you turning pages as fast as you can, even while you savor each word and hope it never ends. The wedding is the preface to the book, the overture to the opera.

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During our very own opera semiseria, we’ve raised two wonderful, talented, kind daughters, one of whom is getting married (wearing my gown!) next month—hence my focus on weddings. She is marrying a wonderful woman, and they are deeply in love. Over the weekend, I attended a shower for the two brides, organized by our younger daughter for her adored older sister. Both brides were indeed showered in love and affection.
Throughout much of history, and among many people of many different cultures, marriage was based not on love or even companionship, but instead on economics and politics.
“Your daughter should marry my son so we can join our two clans—or nations.” “What dowry does she bring?”
Or as the song, “Matchmaker” from Fiddler on the Roof explains:
Hodel, oh Hodel,
Have I made a match for you!
He’s handsome, he’s young!
Alright, he’s 62.
But he’s a nice man, a good catch, true?
True. . . . . .

Did you think you’d get a prince?
Well I do the best I can.
With no dowry, no money, no family background
Be glad you got a man!

For those who don’t know the show or movie, Fiddle on the Roof is based on Sholem Aleichem’s tales of Tevye the dairyman in the small shtetl of Anatevka. The three oldest of Teyve and his wife Golde’s five daughters marry for love—unheard of! This prompts a song between the Teyve and Golde who wonder if they love each other? “It’s a new world,” Tevye says.
Around the mid-eighteenth-century, Anglo-Americans began to place more emphasis on “companionate” marriages—and to expect more love and companionship from their partners. This is not to say that loving marriages did not exist before this time.

For example, Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) wrote the following poem to her husband, Simon:
“To My Dear and Loving Husband”
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov’d by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole Mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that Rivers cAnneot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompetence.
Thy love is such I can no way repay.
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

The rise of a companionate ideal does not mean that all marriages were based on these ideals. Many marriages took place for economic practicality—farms benefit from having men to do heavy agricultural work and women to do the preserving of food, the cooking, laundry, and childbearing. Even urban households needed someone to raise and care for children.

 
Regardless of love or economic necessity, enslaved people were not permitted to marry legally. Slaves were not citizens and had no rights. Some masters permitted their slaves to “marry,” but it was not legal, and all slave relationships were transient because families could be broken up at any time. Race remained a factor in marriage after the Thirteenth Amendment officially prohibited slavery in 1865 because interracial unions were not permitted in many states. Finally, well into the twentieth century, in Loving v. Virginia (1967), the Supreme Court ruled that states could not prohibit interracial marriages. Mildred Jeter, who was black, and Richard Loving, who was white, married in Washington, D.C. in 1958, but they were arrested after they returned to and lived in Virginia, where they were arrested. The court gave the couple a suspended sentence under the condition that they leave Virginia. “Under our Constitution,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren, “the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”

 
My younger sister is getting married in October to her long-time partner. They love each other, but now that Pennsylvania has permitted same-sex weddings, they also want the legal protection that goes with marriage. Love and the practicalities of life.
So I will be attending two “gay weddings” within a few months. In my mind, however, they are simply weddings—a celebration of and for two people who are deeply in love choosing to publicly declare their love for each other—and wanting to have the same legal safeguards that other wedded couples have. Two couples who are choosing to begin a new chapter in the book of their lives. I am fortunate to be able to share their joy.

The Nourishment of Friends

“Make new friends,
but keep the old.
One is silver,
the other is gold.”

–Anonymous

I used to sing this song when I was a Girl Scout—a million years ago, or so it seems. At that time, the words meant little to me. After all, at age 8 or 10 how old can your friends possibly be? But I understood the intent, that we were supposed to welcome everyone, new and old, to our Girl Scout troop, and I did enjoy singing the song as a round.

         Truthfully, at that time I did not have real friends, other than my younger sister—my first and my always and forever friend. I was the shy, nerdy girl who always had her nose in a book. My family was from Philadelphia, and I did not readily embrace Texas culture. The girls in my 1960s Dallas, Texas classes and troop were not mean to me, and I was not bullied, but we had little in common, and I did not know how to make friends with them.

         I’m still not the most outgoing person around, but I do have friends. One of my friends (see?) and I used to joke that since we don’t like to mingle at parties—we should sit and let people come to us. (This works best if you abscond with the spinach dip–and perhaps the wine and best chocolate dessert, too.)

As most people do, I have different types of friends. My very best friends are my sisters. But others are friends of specific time and place—gym buddies, blog friends, and people I connect with and talk to on Facebook but seldom see. They are all real, and I enjoy the interaction. And sometimes, such casual friends “crossover” to become “real” friends.

I met one of my good friends years ago when she sent me an email asking about submitting an article for a book I was working on. For over a decade, we’ve written long—sometimes very long–email “letters”—about history, our children, husbands, houses, books, and of course, food. “Have you read this?” “What are you making for dinner tonight? I’ve made hummus with mint from our garden.” We’ve had long catch-up phone conversations, and a few chances to get together in person, too–most recently in Philadelphia when her husband attended a conference and she came with him.

Long before telephones or the Internet, Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814),the political playwright, essayist, and pamphleteer, kept up an extensive, transatlantic correspondence network that included both intimate friends and valued political leaders—Abigail Adams, Catherine Sawbridge Macaulay, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, among them. In June 24, 1793, she wrote to her friend Sarah Cary, “No my dear Mrs Cary I have not forgotten you. I am not one of those who ever forget their friends.”

         I think it’s important to have friends who do not forget you.

         I have a group of friends who have been my friends since college or shortly after. We went through what one of my friends calls “the lost years” when our children were young and our lives were wrapped—bubble wrapped–around their school and extra-curricular events, leaving us little time to get together. Yet, while we may have gained a few pounds, wrinkles, and gray hair during the “lost years,” whenever we’re together it’s like no time has passed. And as Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.”

Emerson is correct. I’m certain I’ve been stupid with mine, but they are forgiving. Old friends are tolerant of your flaws. They are also supportive of your successes. They share your joys and your sorrows. We’ve shared life events—the births of children—and grandchildren. We’ve mourned the death of parents. We lived through (literally) serious illnesses together. We’ve seen our children succeed and fail. We’ve laughed and cried together. We’ve eaten fabulous meals and enjoyed fabulous—OK, sometimes totally stupid–conversations. And we’ve laughed and cried—sometimes at the same time—and we’ve ranted.

         I understand equating friends with gold and silver because they are valuable. But the value of gold and silver is artificial. The metals are precious because they are rare and people have decided that they are beautiful—and so we attach value to them. I think friendship is better expressed as bread and chocolate. (Yes, I do relate everything to food, and if you’re my friend, you will go along with that. What’s more, you’ll even expect it.) Food is more valuable than gold or silver, isn’t it? Beautiful jewelry may adorn our bodies, but food—and friendship—sustains our bodies and souls. Like bread dough, when we carefully nurture it and treat it correctly, good friends rise to help us. They supply us with strength and nourishment as bread does, but they should not be neglected. We speak of “breaking bread” together. Bread is fundamental. Friends bring sweetness and pleasure, too, like chocolate—and sometimes it’s bittersweet.

         So here’s to my friends—the old, the new, and the yet to be found. You are my bread and chocolate. And while we’re at it, let’s say you’re my wine and cheese, too! L’chaim!

 

        

 

Blog Tour: Tag You’re It, or Hide and Seek?

Marion Beaman of Plain and Fancy graciously invited me to participate in a Blog Tour. Participants are supposed to discuss their own writing and writing techniques and then “tag” others. I am truly honored that Marian asked me, and if you are not familiar with her blog, you should be. Marian is in the midst of writing a memoir, and her blog is filled with wise thoughts, witty and profound quotes, and photos—many of which are from her childhood “Plain” life in Pennsylvania. I’ve never met her offline, but she is kind, gracious, and intelligent, and her blog reflects this. Through her blog, I’ve been recently introduced to the wonderful blogs of Traci Carver, Judy Berman, and Laurie Buchanan.

1. What am I working on now?

I am going to have a busy summer of writing and editing. My current book project is an encyclopedia, The World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia to be published by ABC-CLIO. My deadline is imminent. The book should be out next spring, assuming I survive the process of getting it finished. The project has proven to be much more exhaustive–and exhausting–than I anticipated. As with other encyclopedia projects, rounding up and keeping track of contributors has been a constant problem—even more so than in other projects I’ve worked on for some reason. As a result, I have had to rewrite several entries, and I’m writing many more than I expected to write.

Any second now, I expect to receive the copyedited manuscript for another encyclopedia project that Marian mentioned, a Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast, which should be out in September.

I also work as a freelance test-writer for ETS (Educational Testing Service), and during the summer, I always have more of this work. Then there is this blog—which I consider my “fun writing.”

2. How does my work differ from others in the genre?

For many reference books, and certainly for the encyclopedias, there are formats and guidelines that have to be followed. I think what might make my work different is the subject matter that I covered in several of them—rape, sexuality, women’s roles, and breasts! Most of the reference books I’ve done, I was asked to do by editors at the various presses. The book formats and subject matter were already approved. For my recent History of American Cooking, I was told what topics should be covered, but what I think made it “me” was the touch of humor and pop culture references I included—at least I hope that comes through. My first book, Breaking the Bonds: Marital Discord in Pennsylvania, 1730-1830, was an original work, and I think groundbreaking for its time. When it came out in 1991, historians had not written very much on the subject, and some of the sources I used had not been explored at all.

One has to follow very specific guidelines in writing test items, but there is some flexibility and creativity in the types of situations one can imagine. I always have little scenes in my head—even if it is only for a fill-in-the-blank grammar sentence. I could probably give you the whole back-story on some person mentioned in the sentence. I don’t know if this is typical. Probably not.

3. Why do I write what I do? 

Well, it’s a combination of love and work. Writing academic works is definitely hard work. On good days, it’s a labor of love. On bad days, it’s just work. The same goes for the test writing. Blogging is just fun.At some point, I’d like to work on something else—perhaps a memoir or novel.

4. How does my writing process work?

It’s kind of controlled chaos. I tend to write from notes scribbled on legal pads and sticky notes (yes, backs of envelops, too—hey, if it worked for Lincoln, why not?), and half-outlines that usually change as I go. I keep various folders on my computer desktop, too. And because I’m usually working on multiple projects, there are many notepads, many books, and many folders. But somehow from all that disorder, I usually manage to submit a decent product.

I usually work at my kitchen table with books and papers all over the place. I don’t like to be closed up in a study, and I like to be able to stir a pot of soup or bake something while I work. That’s my idea of multitasking. My workspace usually looks like this:

My Faithful Companion rests on the morning newspaper

My Faithful Companion rests on the morning newspaper

Coffee is a must--usually in a mug with my older daughter's play logo

Coffee is a must–usually in a mug with my older daughter’s play logo

Sometimes this happens.

 

An additional trick--he also pulls bookmarks out of my books.

An additional trick–he also pulls bookmarks out of my books.

 

Now for the rest of the tour. I should have remembered how bad I am at playing tag. I dutifully contacted several people “behind the scenes” to see if they would like to participate, but all were busy or for various reasons declined. Did I mention that not only am I bad at tag, but I also get bored with games? People are hiding, but I don’t feel like seeking. I tend to just go off to do my own thing–probably why I’m at home writing a blog post, right?

So instead of officially “tagging” people, I’m simply going to mention a few blogs I enjoy, and if the bloggers want to pursue the “tour,” they can, and if not, oh well, I guess the tour stops here. But don’t unfasten your seat belt until we come to a full stop. We’re not there yet.

Cynthia Bertelsen’s blog, Gherkins & Tomatoes is filled with exquisite musings on food and history, along with gorgeous photography. She is the author of Mushroom: A Global History, and is now working on a history of cookbooks, which should be amazing. Her posts always make me think about the history of food in new ways. Shanna Koeningsdorf Ward is not working on a writing project, as far as I know, but her blog, Curls and Carrots, is always filled with photos of delicious dishes she has prepared, often with the help of her two adorable children. I am curious how she pulls it all off—constant cooking and baking, photography, and keeping two children amused and photo-ready—perhaps she’ll tell us how she does it.

OK. Now we’re done. I hope you enjoyed the tour.  Watch your step as you exit–you never know when a crazed blogger might jump out to tag you.

What is a Father?

“It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.”

–Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

As millions throughout history have discovered, it is easy to become a father—a few thrusts done in love, lust, or violence, and the biological act is completed and the father can walk away if he chooses to. It is much more difficult to actually be a parent to the child that arrives nine months later.

         Concepts of fatherhood vary across the globe. Through the ages, concepts of fatherhood have changed in Western culture. When British colonists came to what is now the United States, families were idealized as “little commonwealths.” Fathers were considered to be the head of the household, as a king was the head of a nation. By the mid-eighteenth century, the concept was changing, as were ideas of marriage, and many couples expected to be equal and loving partners within the marriage. Although men still had charge of business and politics, the domestic sphere became women’s domain, and so did most matters regarding child rearing.*

         Concepts of American fatherhood have changed within my lifetime. I was a quiet ninth-grade student when I first met my future father-in-law; I was a bit terrified. He was a stern father to his two sons, the epitome of the button-downed fifties man, the man in the gray flannel suit. Yet, there was no doubt that he loved his sons deeply. He mellowed as a grandfather, allowing our two little girls to wrap their arms and whims around him, as they prattled about things he was clueless about. What did he know about little girls? But he would sing, “C is for Cookie,” and played with them. Later, he became the adored “Grandpa With a Cane” to my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s son.

         A blogger friend and I have both commented in separate posts that our fathers did not know how to do laundry. My mother said that my father never changed any of our diapers, and she handled the household duties and childcare arrangements (as well as working full-time in their antique business). But my father played with my little sister and me. He took us on field trips—and after they were divorced, he took us on journeys to museums, movies, and historical sites. He even took our friends with us on vacations to the Jersey shore.

         My own husband was a “hands-on” father from the beginning. While women of an older generation marveled at this, I expected it. One summer when I had a fellowship and he was home from teaching, he would take the girls to the pool each afternoon, and I would meet them there later. “Isn’t he a wonderful father, taking the little girls to the pool?” they gushed. Well, yes, it was wonderful—in the same way that it was wonderful, when I, their mother, took them when he was at work. I guess that shows how times have changed.

         Fathers of all sorts are found in mythology, religion, history, and literature. For example, there’s Zeus, father of the gods, to the ancient Greeks. Often pictured with a thunderbolt, he ruled gods and humans–and fathered many of each. The Judeo-Christian-Muslim God is also portrayed as a father, and the bible is filled with patriarchs, such as Abraham. Kings and tyrants (sometimes one and the same) are often referred to as fathers of the country, but their literal fatherhood has been an issue when it came to succession—think of Henry VIII and his six wives.

         Here in the US, we refer to the Revolutionary Era leaders as “the Founding Fathers.” We know now that they were both ordinary and extraordinary. Many of them had lofty minds, but feet of clay—they were human, not demigods. George Washington, “father of our country,” was tall, imposing, and popular. He was elected unanimously to be the first president of the United States. He suffered from dental problems, and he and his wife Martha never had children of their own, although he helped to raise the children from her previous marriage, and then two grandchildren. Washington was a slaveholder. He freed his slaves in his will but was unable to free the slaves belonging to his wife.

         Fathers abound in literature, and they are as varied as literature itself. The tragic King Lear descending into madness to Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Bennet trying to cope with and marry off his daughters. Jean Valjean raises a daughter as his own and crazed Jack Torrance of The Shining tries to kill his own son. The heroic Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird is probably my favorite literary father.

         What is a father? I don’t know. Perhaps to paraphrase the famous phrase by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on obscenity, “I know one when I see it.”

         What are some of your favorite literary or historical fathers—good or bad?

 

*This is vastly oversimplified. For more on marriage and family in colonial and Revolutionary America, here are just a few suggestions:

Morgan, Edmund S. 1944. The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England. New York: Harper and Row.

Morgan, Jennifer L. 2004. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Norton, Mary Beth. 1996. Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800, with a new preface. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Smith, Merril D. 1991. Breaking the Bonds: Marital Discord in Pennsylvania, 1730-1830. New York: NYU Press.

Wilson, Lisa. 1999. Ye Heart of a Man: Domestic Life of Men in Colonial New England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.