Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On

MONDAY MORNING MUSINGS

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

–William Shakespeare, The Tempest

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

–Edgar Allan Poe, “A Dream Within a Dream”

I had a dream the other night that I was explaining the difference between a comma and a semicolon to my niece’s six-year-old son.* Unlike my niece, he got it right away. (My niece is amazing, but she is the first to joke about her sometimes grammar-challenged writing.) Unfortunately, I don’t remember my great nephew’s dream sentences now, but they were kind of deep reflections of life and death in nature. It’s funny what we remember from dreams, and what we don’t.

I often have dreams of writing. I also dream of food and recipes I want to try. While finishing my forthcoming World of the American Revolution, I dreamt of editing primary sources. I actually saw and read texts in my dreams. In a half-conscious state I’ve written brilliant prose in my head (or so it seems) that I promptly forget once I’m up and about.

I’m waiting to dream of a masterpiece, something like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” For those unfamiliar with the poem, subtitled, “Or, a vision in a dream: A Fragment,” or with its origins, it is a well-known poem, one of the great works of Romantic poetry, a poem of beauty and imagery, and a poem of dreams. I can remember my dad reciting its opening lines. (You can read the poem here. ) Coleridge said the poem came to him while he was in the midst of an opium dream. While writing it down, he was interrupted by someone who came to his door. When Coleridge returned to his desk, he could not remember the rest of the poem.

Coleridge was an opium addict. Opium, in the form of laudanum, or a tincture of opium dissolved in a base of alcohol, was a common household medicine in the nineteenth-century in England and the United States. (The modern hypodermic needle was invented in the mid-nineteenth century, allowing morphine to be injected to relieve pain—and creating a group of Civil War veteran addicts, among others.) Laudanum did not require a prescription, and it often cost less than alcohol. Poor parents and unscrupulous nurses dosed infants with laudanum to keep them from crying from hunger or to induce sleep. Men and women took it to relieve the myriad pains of nineteenth-century life—everything from toothaches and menstrual pains to migraines, diarrhea, and severe coughing. It was a common ingredient in patent medicines. Many of the other Romantic Poets also took laudanum, although perhaps not as often or notably as Coleridge.

I would love to awaken with the memory of a brilliant book, poem, play, or other creative work that I could quickly write down before it disappeared from my memory. (I could say I dream of it, but I won’t.) Unlike Coleridge, I would have to do so without actually taking any mind-altering substance. Unless you include chocolate or caffeine, or an occasional glass of wine, as mind-altering–which I suppose they are in a kind of happy mouth-feel kind of way. Yes, I do dream of chocolate. You’re not surprised, are you?

If you have a cat or dog, you’ve probably seen them dreaming. Their bodies twitch and sometimes their legs move as if they’re running. I remember one of our dogs sometimes barked in her sleep. I always wonder if their dreams are happy and what they see. Dreaming must be necessary for them, as well as for humans.

Dreams are essential to human life–both the nighttime fantasies that take place as our brains process the events of the day, and the daydreams we all have. C’mon you do, too. Dreams can be scary. They can bring out inner demons and taunt us with visions of things that cannot be. At least not now. But the dreams of artists, scientists, explorers, and revolutionaries have led to discoveries and movements that have changed the world. Dreams are the visions of the real and the unreal that meet and mingle in our brains. Dreams twist time and space. Sometimes they even twist and shout.

Most Americans probably know of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” If you haven’t read or heard the entire speech, you can read and listen to it here. It is still soul-stirring.

Perhaps what’s odd is not that we have dreams, but that we seldom remember or act upon them.

* If anyone needs help with commas and semicolons, here’s a great post from The Oatmeal

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us. And the world will live as one.”

–John Lennon, “Imagine”

A Stab at Pie, or Life’s Constants

Monday Morning Musings

Saturday was Pi Day, Sunday was the Ides of March, and tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day. What do these things have in common? Through food and art, my husband and I paid homage—of a sort–to all of them this weekend.

Confession: math was almost my least favorite subject in school. I can’t remember numbers, and I tend to skip over the graphs, charts, and number parts of any article I read. But I do know that Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. (Gosh, I hope that’s right.) It’s a constant—that is, it’s fixed and doesn’t change, the opposite of variable. (In case anyone is interested, my favorite episode of the TV series Lost was the episode called “The Constant,” in which we learn that Penny is Desmond’s constant throughout time—and a constant is apparently necessary when time traveling.) Pi is also an infinite number 3.1415. . . .

Here in the US, March 14 is sometimes written as 3/14 (month, day). With the year added, it becomes 3/14/15, so this year Pi Day was extra special.

Pi Day was not a thing when I was growing up. I don’t remember anyone mentioning it or celebrating it, so I decided to look into when Pi Day started.

It turns out that although pi has been know for thousands of years, Pi Day was not invented until 1988 when physicist Larry Shaw of San Francisco’s Exploratorium created it. I found several great articles about Pi Day. This one by astronomer Phil Plait for Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog is a wonderful post of Pi facts, including some myth-busting information. OK, it’s possible I skipped some of the real math in it, but it was still interesting.

Danica McKellar’s Youtube video on pi and Pi Day is also great fun.

So I was going to bake pies on Friday for Pi Eve for my husband, the high school math teacher—because math and pie. If we can have Pi Day, then why not Pi Day Eve? However, it turned out my husband had a school event that night, so I didn’t bake a pie then. We also had plans on Saturday. One of these plans was to see a performance of Macbeth at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia. (If you’re in the area, it was an exciting and well-staged production, a display of sight and sound. Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth was particularly good.) Modern western theater had its inception in the dramatic works of the ancient Greeks, who as I mentioned above, also most likely first calculated pi. And pies were eaten in the time William Shakespeare. So pi is linked to Shakespeare through pie. Or pi is linked to theater. Either way. Are you following me? Anyway, the pies of Shakespeare’s time were often meat pies. Sometimes the pie crusts, called coffins, were merely shells to hold the meat fillings.* William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, set in eleventh-century Scotland, and he also wrote the play, Julius Caesar, which includes the soothsayer’s line “Beware the ides of March.” Both plays involve tyrants, nation building, and stabbings. Lots of stabbing, lots of blood, and death. Well, they’re tragedies, after all. (See ancient Greek drama.) Pies appear in Hamlet and gruesomely in Titus Andronicus, and Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost at a banquet, which may or may not have featured pies.

On Sunday, the Ides of March, we went out again. This time, to see the movie, ’71, about an English soldier who gets left behind during a skirmish in Belfast in 1971. It was an intense movie, heart-pounding intense, but very good. As my husband and I agreed, the action took place in Belfast at a particular time and place, and that situation was unique. Nonetheless, many of the themes were universal and could apply to wartime settings during any period in history. As it is set in Northern Ireland, I told my husband it was our St. Patrick movie, albeit a grim one. There was a stabbing in the movie, too.

In ancient Greece, ancient Rome, eleventh-century Scotland, and 1970s Belfast, people celebrated and ate, as do we. It is a constant. As living beings, we must eat to live. Sometimes we eat pie. As humans we are also compelled to create works of art to express our emotions in music, dance, poetry, drama, and visual art. We also have the physical brains and the imagination to make abstract leaps, to think about math and science.

I baked my Pi Day pie (Apple-Cranberry Crumb Pie) on Sunday the 15th of March, the Ides of March. At dinner we had zucchini, which I had “spiralized”. The ancient Romans would not have zucchini or tomatoes, but they did have olive oil and garlic. (Top it with slivered Parmesan.) And zucchini is green, so there you go. Pi Day, Ides of March, and St. Patrick’s Day—connected through history, food, and art.

Spiralized Zucchini sauteed with garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes

Spiralized Zucchini sauteed with garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes

Perhaps my reasoning is circular, but it ends in pie. Sometimes we all need a bit of sweetness in our lives. That’s a constant. Enjoy!

Apple-Cranberry Crumb Pie

Apple-Cranberry Crumb Pie

Apple-Cranberry Crumb Pie

Crust:

I used Mark Bittman’s “Sweet Piecrust” (from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian). Here’s a simplified version:

1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. (about 5 oz.)

½ tsp. salt

1 tsp. sugar

8 Tbsp. butter, cut into about 8 pieces

3 Tbsp ice water, plus more if necessary (I always need a bit more).

Combine dry ingredients in food processor, pulse once or twice to mix. Add butter and process just until the butter is mixed into the dry ingredients. It should look like cornmeal. Bittman says about 10 seconds. I usually pulse it off and on. I keep the mixture in the food processor and add the water. Process only until the mixture begins to come together. Form into a ball and wrap in plastic. Chill the dough for at least 30 minutes. It can be made several days in advance or frozen.

Roll and press into pie pan. I just now noticed he says to refrigerate the piecrust for about an hour before filling. Ooops. Well, I’ve never done that, and it seems to be fine.

Filling:

Apples: I used 4 large apples and 1 smaller one, peeled and sliced thinly. My food processor blade worked well for this.

¾ cup, more less to taste, dried cranberries

¼ cup light brown sugar

1 tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. nutmeg

¼ tsp. ginger

2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

Butter to dot top (I’m not sure if this is necessary or not. The recipe I looked at used 4 Tbsp. I used about 11/2. I think you can eliminate it, if you want to reduce the fat a bit.)

Crumb Topping:

¾ cup flour

½ cup brown sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

5 Tbsp. butter

½ cup ground nuts (I planned to use walnuts, but I already had almonds ground. Yup, that’s how I do things.)

Combine filling ingredients together in a large bowl. My apples were very bland, adjust spices and sugar to your own tastes and needs. You should have enough to mound into a pie plate.

Combine crumb topping ingredients. I used my fingers to blend the butter in. Cover top of pie with the topping.

Bake at 350° for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. If the top gets too brown, cover it loosely with foil. The pie should be bubbling when it’s ready.

*For a history of pie, see Janet Clarkson, Pie: A Global History(London: Reakton Books, 2009).

I also discuss pie in my History of American Cooking (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013).

International Women’s Day–Make It Happen

“Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.”

— Hillary Clinton

“If you’re beautiful, you’re led to believe that you can’t also be smart. But you can be fun and fit and social and be really smart. And the smarter you are, the more capable you’ll be to handle whatever challenges come up in life.”

— Danica McKellar

Monday Morning Musings

Yesterday, March 8, was International Women’s Day 2015. I had intended to have this post ready then, but other projects and the change to Daylight Savings Time through off my schedule. (Can I just say how much I hate time changes? Forward or back, it makes me miserable and takes me days to adjust.) It is now March 9, but I don’t think the world has changed overnight.

While driving home from visiting my mother-in-law on Saturday, my husband and I listened to a program on the Baltimore NPR station. One segment of the show featured three female surgeons at different stages of their careers. All three had contributed to an anthology, Being a Woman Surgeon. All of them discussed their lack of role models as they began their studies, and even after they became physicians.

The story made me reminisce about my own graduate school days. When I started my graduate studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, there were only one or two female history professors in the department. (A few years later, a female history professor at a large Midwestern university would tell a group of women at a dinner meeting that I attended that when her department was finally about one-third female, some of the male professors started complaining about all the women in the department.) There were no women in my department who covered my fields of study when I began grad school. After I began work on my dissertation, there was a female professor who I asked to be on my dissertation committee. She was a wonderful scholar who always attempted “to prime the pump” as we discussed my work.

It’s funny, but when I first began grad school, I didn’t really think about the lack of women professors in the department or the lack of role models. My father had received his Ph.D. in history at Temple only a few years before. The same professor chaired both of our dissertation committees. There were other women grad students who became my friends, and there was a cohort of slightly older women who had successfully defended their dissertations and had jobs in the field, although some were temporary. I had role models in the generation of female historians who had written important articles and books that influenced the course of my work. These women dared to write about women in history, recognizing the obvious fact that both men and women lived in the past, as well as the present. They also wrote on social issues such as divorce and birth control.

Looking back, I think what I lacked were female role models who were professional scholars and parents. I remember one well-know historian, a brilliant scholar and someone I admire, saying that she arranged her pregnancies so that she gave birth in the summer during break. She seemed to imply that women who didn’t do so were somehow lacking in foresight. But delivering a baby during a break between terms only covers birth and the short time after that. What happens after that?

I held a one-year position at a nearby college. My younger daughter was about seven months old then, and I was still breastfeeding her. Fortunately, she began drinking from a cup at six months, so my daycare provider could give her a bit of formula and food. I would nurse her, take the girls to the sitter, and pick them up a few hours later, the benefits of an academic schedule. The two other women in the department had children, but they were older. The one time I called out sick because one of the children was sick, I realized I should have said I was sick. Being a mother was okay, but having childcare issues was not. And breastfeeding is still an issue. Female breasts can be seen in movies, but not when feeding infants. Breastfeeding is still something that must be hidden.

One of the female surgeons in the radio interview acknowledged the same problems of childcare and breastfeeding—although her schedule was much more grueling than mine had been. She described secretly pumping breast milk in a closet, her motherhood something that could not be acknowledged.

Of course, childcare is a parental issue. Mothers and fathers should be able to have parental leave to be with their children. Obtaining quality childcare should not be such a difficult issue.

Later, after my one-year position was over, I taught some courses here and there—always late in the afternoon or at night or weekends, when my husband could take care of the girls. One time a friend arranged for me to teach a course. He didn’t tell me in advance, but simply announced it to me as a fait accompli. I told him that it was too difficult for me to find someone to watch my younger daughter or pick up the older one from school. I had tried it the previous semester, and it was awful. All of the work to prepare for a course, the half-hour drive there and back, leaving my child unhappy, and the actual cost of the care—it wasn’t worth it. I don’t think he understood at all, and he was annoyed at me for turning down the offer.

I’ve been bothered lately by people who think feminism is a bad word, or a word that has to be qualified. Feminism means women and men should have the same rights. Do you believe women have the right to be educated? To get a job? To vote? If not, you probably don’t want to read my blog.

All over the world–including the United States–there are people who think women do not deserve to be educated. There are some who believe it is fine for girls as young as nine or ten to be married. There are many who believe that any woman who dresses in a way they do not consider appropriate or modest enough, or any woman who ventures outside her home unaccompanied by a man is asking to be raped. There are horrible reports of global sex trafficking, rape, and abuse of women. Rape is used as a tactic of war, as it has been for centuries. (For a brief report see this. Also see the Women Under Siege Project.)

I’m am fortunate to have had strong women as role models—my mother, my immigrant grandmothers, and my mother-in-law, among them. I also had a piano/music teacher who was a single mother and a singular free spirit. She helped to boost my confidence during my shaky, emotional teenage years, and then became a friend. Both of my parents believed I could do anything, be anything I wanted to be.

I have not been much of a marcher or organizer. I haven’t given speeches, or rallied the troops. I did not continue with an academic career. I’ve occasionally heard that my books have inspired others, and I’ve been asked to chair conference sessions and write letters of recommendation. But my husband and I have done something right. We have two strong, wonderful, brilliant, talented daughters. They are proud feminists, as am I.

“Extremists have shown what frightens them the most: a girl with a book.”

– Malala Yousafzai

*******

I’ve never thought being a feminist means I can’t enjoy cooking. My gender has nothing to do with it. I don’t cook because I’m a woman and that’s my role. I cook because I want to cook. Here’s a recipe that I’ve written about before. I made these cookies for archivists while working on my dissertation, which became my first book, Breaking the Bonds: Marital Discord in Pennsylvania, 1730-1830. The cookies are called “Mommy Cookies” at my house because they are my favorite. Enjoy!

Mandelbrot

3 ¾ cups flour

1 cup sugar

1 cup oil

2 tsp. baking powder

3 eggs

1 tsp vanilla and a little bit of almond extract (maybe about ¼ tsp?)

dash or two of salt

Chocolate chips (I use a whole bag of Ghiardelli bittersweet chocolate chips.

Some people might prefer less, although I can’t imagine why)

Finely chopped nuts (I use a mixture of walnuts and almonds. Maybe about ¾ cup?)

Cinnamon and sugar mixed together to sprinkle on top

Beat eggs with whisk; then add sugar, oil, vanilla/almond. Add dry ingredients. Add chocolate chips and nuts. The dough should be able to form loaves on a cookie sheet. Add a little more flour if necessary.

Oil your hands and lightly oil 2 cookie sheets. Parchment paper lined sheets help. Shape the dough into 4 “loaves” on the cookie sheets. I make these cookies all the time and my loaves are never the same. Sprinkle the loaves with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar—thoroughly cover them and try to get the sides, as well.

Bake at 350 degrees for ½ hour. Then cut each loaf into slices. Put slices back in the oven for about 10 minutes, turn and put them back for another 10 minutes.

Purim, Savory and Sweet

The rain has finally turned to snow here in south Jersey. My husband’s school is closed, and we won’t be going anywhere, so it’s a good thing our house is stocked with Hamantaschen, the triangular cookies traditionally made for Purim. And wine! The cookies are named for Haman, the villain of the Biblical Book of Esther. I always thought it was odd that cookies were named for him. Shouldn’t cookies be named for Esther instead? Well, no one asked me. Purim is normally celebrated with the reading of the story, in which Esther saves the Jews of Persia, noisemakers are used to drown out the name of Haman, people dress in costumes, and there are celebrations with lots of food—and lots of drinking, too!

I just found this quick cheat sheet on Purim. I Google so you don’t have to! (And yes, Google is now a verb.)

When I was growing up, we didn’t celebrate Purim. My mom sometimes bought Hamantaschen. They were never that exciting to me, and as a child I was not thrilled by the traditional poppy seed filling. Now, Hamantaschen recipes are all over the Internet. (Really, just Google it. I’ll let you do it this time.) Fillings are only limited by imagination–and good taste, or what you think tastes good.

So this year I made chocolate Hamantaschen filled with chocolate chip cookie dough, and some filled with Nutella. If you have to ask why, these are not the cookies for you. I followed this recipe, using Special Dark cocoa and butter in the chocolate chip dough. (Actually, my sister found the recipe, so I could make the cookies for her.)

Chocolate Hamantaschen with Chocolate chip filling and Nutella filling

Chocolate Hamantaschen with Chocolate chip filling and Nutella filling

Then I made more traditional Hamantaschen, which I filled with a variety of flavors: some of the leftover chocolate chip dough—because you can never have too much chocolate, Nutella—because chocolate and hazelnut—and then I made a new flavor for this year. It’s what I like to think of as Sephardic meets Ashkenazi in one delightful cookie. The filling is Clementine-Almond.

Here’s what I did. I was inventing it as I went along, so no measurements. There’s a surprise, right?

Clementine-Almond Filling

Boil Clementines (I used 3) for about 1 hour, or until soft. I removed the stems. Drain, and chop the entire fruit, peels and all, in a food processor until it’s like a sauce. Return to pot, and add some sugar. I didn’t want it to be too sweet, but I also didn’t want it too bitter, so you just have to taste it. Cook until sugar is dissolved and the mixture seems thick enough to use as a filling. I then added about a teaspoon of honey, which made it perfect, and finely ground roasted almonds.

Clementine-Almond Filling

Clementine-Almond Filling

An assortment of Hamantaschen

An assortment of Hamantaschen

With some many hours wasted spent in baking (did I mention I went to the gym first where I thought about this filling the entire time?), I decided I might as well continue instead of actually doing any work. So, I thought, what about a savory Hamantaschen for dinner? I am brilliant. I adapted some recipes for mushroom turnovers and made Mushroom Hamantaschen. Dinner and dessert Hamantaschen. YES!

Jewish holidays tend to be reminders of sorrow and joy in life, the bitter and the sweet–so I think I’ve got it covered.

Mushroom Hamantaschen

Dough: Mix 8 oz. cream cheese, 1 cup butter, and 1 ½ cups of flour together. Add a pinch of salt, if using unsalted butter. Chill dough.

Filling: Finely chop 1 onion, about ¾ lb. of mushrooms (your choice). I used some baby bellas. Cook in oil for a few minutes until softened. Add salt, pepper, and ground thyme to taste. Sprinkle with a tsp or two of flour, and stir in ¼ cup of sour cream.

Roll out dough and cut into rounds. Put a spoonful of mushroom filling on each round and shape into triangles. Bake on parchment lined baking sheet at 350° for about 15 minutes.

Mushroom Hamentaschen

Mushroom Hamantaschen

So what’s today’s work-avoiding project? I think a pot of yellow split pea-pumpkin soup sounds perfect. With Hamantaschen. And wine, of course.

****Sorry about the quality of the photos–this is why I don’t actually write a food blog!

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30 Interesting Facts about Books

merrildsmith:

Some fascinating and fun book facts!

Originally posted on Interesting Literature:

30 fun facts about books, in honour of World Book Day 2015

SF writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) is the only author to have published a book in all ten Dewey library categories.

When asked what book he’d like to have with him on a desert island, G. K. Chesterton replied, ‘Thomas’s Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.’

Hugh Lofting, author of Dr Doolittle, thought books should have a ‘senile’ category to complement the ‘juvenile’ section.

Dickens’s house had a secret door in the form of a fake bookcase. The fake books included titles such as ‘The Life of a Cat’ in 9 volumes.

Playwright Joe Orton went to prison in 1962 for defacing library books. One of the cartoons he drew shows an elderly tattooed man in trunks.

Books BerlinThe first book bought on Amazon was called Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought.

Author…

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Disease, Mortality, and Lessons from History

Monday Morning Musings

“Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all: the conscientious historian will correct these defects.”

–Herodotus, The History of Herodotus

“The forms of diseases are many and the healing of them is manifold.”

— Hippocrates

I’ve been thinking about the intersection of disease and history. Stay with me here–both subjects have been much in the news. The word “history” comes from the ancient Greek word meaning inquiry or investigation. Historians investigate a variety of materials, and then we evaluate, interpret them using the available facts (which often change over time), and chronicle them. History is not a science, but science has its history.

The current outbreaks of measles here in the United States and elsewhere can be examined through a historical lens, as well as through scientific ones. For example, my own history: I had the measles, chicken pox, and many other childhood diseases because I was born before there were vaccines. According to one report, there were 102 reported cases of measles in the United States, in fourteen different states, that are linked to one outbreak in California. (See this.) As a child, I did receive the oral polio vaccine. Due to the effectiveness of that and subsequent vaccines, polio has nearly been eradicated.

As of January 2015, no new cases of polio have been seen in Nigeria or Syria, where there were cases found last year, but the disease still exists in the wild in Pakistan. This is a disease that can be eradicated. What many people do not realize is that one case of a disease such as polio can cause an epidemic. According to the World Health Organization:

“Despite the progress achieved since 1988, as long as a single child remains infected with polio virus, children in all countries are at risk of contracting the disease. The polio virus can easily be imported into a polio-free country and can spread rapidly amongst unimmunized populations. Failure to eradicate polio could result in as many as 200, 000 new cases every year, within 10 years, all over the world.”

World Health Organization. 2014

Polio cannot be cured, but it can be prevented through proper vaccination.

Measles can also be eradicated. Many young doctors have never seen actual cases of the disease because the vaccine is so effective. One could divide history in the United States into a before vaccination for childhood illnesses and a post vaccinations period. Look back at family histories—how many children were lost to not only diseases such as polio and measles, but also scarlet fever, whooping cough, and others? Measles can cause severe complications, and the disease can also be fatal. There is NO scientific link between measles vaccines and autism. There is no debate about the efficacy of vaccines. Some children cannot be vaccinated because they have cancer, allergies, or auto-immune problems, but parents who choose not to vaccinate healthy children put not only their children at risk of getting the disease, but also help to spread the disease to others.

Epidemics have changed the course of human life and events. Most people probably know of the plague, the “Black Death” that occurred throughout the world in waves in the mid-fourteenth century–and killed millions of people. Fleas carry the plague bacterium. Many have theorized that rats harbored the plague-ridden fleas over decades, which caused the epidemics to break out in waves of plague throughout the mid-to-later part of the fourteenth century.

Some scientists now believe that Asian gerbils brought the disease to Europe. By examining tree rings, the scientists determined that weather conditions in Europe during plague outbreaks were not particularly conducive to rats. However, whenever the weather was favorable to gerbils and fleas in central Asia, the plague bacteria appeared a few years later in European harbor towns, and then spread across Europe. Of course, anyone who has ever had to deal with fleas brought in my pets or people, knows that they easily hop to new warm bodies, so carrier fleas once introduced into new locations, could jump to mice, rats, cats, dogs, livestock, and people. Rats are not off the hook, but the black plague of the fourteenth century may not have originated with them. (See an article about the study here.)

After the fourteenth century, the plague periodically reappeared. In England, the Great Plague of 1665 is perhaps the next most famous plague period, but there were others. I came across this story about plague graffiti left in churches. The article features a bit of graffiti: the names Cateryn, Jane and Amee Maddyngley that were inscribed on the wall of a church in Cambridgeshire after the plague of 1515 broke out in London and spread to the south and east.

Although it is sad to think of the deaths and the survivor who wrote the names of these three sisters, I had immediate questions. First, an observation–how cool is it that there is church graffiti survey! Then I wondered who had left the graffiti. And why? Was it simply a memorial? Was there more? Did the survivor feel guilty? Was it a brother? Of course, the other obvious thought was that he or she (but probably more likely he) was literate, and I wondered about literacy in this 16th century English village. The article says the family was likely tenant farmers, which encompasses a great economic range. Perhaps the unknown graffiti artist attended one of the grammar schools that were established at this time. Because it’s unlikely that whoever left this graffiti left a record saying so, we will probably never know who inscribed these names, or most other church graffiti. But it is so interesting.

This is part of what makes the study of history fascinating and relevant. One can look at an event—the outbreak of plague in London in 1515–and from there follow all sorts of historical paths. It can lead to studies of epidemics, village life, family life, class, church history, agricultural history, and education, among others.

Recently in United States, some politicians have tried make the teaching of history in public schools fit their ideas of what should be taught, whether it is accurate or not. Some have attempted to rewrite or censor textbooks. Recently, Representative Daniel Fisher of Oklahoma introduced House Bill 1380 in the state to prohibit teaching the US History Advance Placement course there, unless it was changed to fit his ideas of what should be included in such a course. He and others who support him believe the AP US History course is not patriotic enough. Mr. Fisher lacks understanding of both the AP Course and US History. AP courses are designed to be similar to a first year college course. Students are expected to not merely memorize facts, but to investigate and analyze material, including a variety of primary texts. His version of required documents for US History included the Ten Commandments and the Magna Carta. The Ten Commandments should absolutely be studied—in a course on world culture or religions. The Magna Carta is important for a course in English history or government. Despite his desire to rewrite the past and influence the present, however, the United States is not and has never been a Christian nation, and “the Founding Fathers” were not all devout Christians. (See this.)

I agree that students—indeed all Americans—should be familiar with such documents as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but how does it detract from the significance of these documents to know that many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slaveholders? Good and bad things have happened in the United States, and students should be aware of them. They should know that along with fighting for freedom during World War II, the United States also interred thousands of Japanese Americans. This is part of our history. Political documents, like works of art, are richer for knowing and understanding the context in which they were created. The Founding Fathers did not live in a bubble. They had wives, families, servants, and slaves. They suffered from chronic diseases and were often in pain. It is also important to know about the lives of the less famous, and to understand the context into which both famous and unknown people lived their lives.*

If we are to understand the past—or at least to make educated guesses–then we need to know about more than kings and presidents, the wealthy and educated. To understand the past, we need to examine its rats, fleas, and dirt, along with its shining surfaces, palaces, and plantations. We need to appreciate the devastation of an epidemic, as well as the glory of gaining independence. We need to look at the graffiti and scribbles, as well as the portraits and treatises.

*******

Next week, my new Monday Morning Musings history blog post will return to more familiar and delicious territory. But so I don’t leave you without mentioning food, here’s a report of an exhibit that used cake to depict disease. Look if you dare!

Also, two wonderful historical novels that focus on plague in England: Connie Willis, Doomsday Book, which also involves time travel. It’s one of my favorite books. Geraldine Brooks’s novel, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, is based on a true story of a village in England that was struck by the plague in 1666. It is elegant and heartbreaking. I seem to remember reading it in one sitting, and crying.

*My World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia (ABC-CLIO) should be out in September, at least that is what Amazon tells me!  It is full of information about things that Representative Fisher probably thinks are totally irrelevant.

Going to the Movies with the Smiths

My husband and I have a tradition for our birthdays: we go out to the movies and then to dinner at our favorite Indian restaurant. It’s an inexpensive celebration that is usually doable on a weeknight. Sometimes we have additional celebrations, such as the wine events we attended this year around the time of both of our birthdays. This year, for my husband’s birthday we saw Still Alice—because who doesn’t want to celebrate getting older by seeing a movie about a woman who discovers she has early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease? “Another uplifting film,” my husband would say.

(Yes, we’re a fun couple. On Presidents’ Day we saw Leviathan, the Russian film nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards. It’s an epic tragedy about one man’s fight against the corruption of Russian bureaucracy, especially against his antagonist, the piggish, evil mayor. The film also has stunning shots of the Barents Sea coast, where it was filmed.)

So Still Alice. After it was over, my husband turned to me and said, “I think that’s the saddest movie I’ve ever seen.” That sparked a dinner conversation about sad movies we’ve seen recently. (See, aren’t we fun?) There are different types of sad movies, of course. There’s the overly sentimental maudlin sad, for example, the type of movie that doesn’t really appeal to me. Still Alice is sad, but it focuses on the woman and follows her through her life as it changes over the course of her illness, instead of becoming a sappy emotional vehicle. The movie boasts an amazing performance by Julianne Moore. I asked my husband if he was sorry he had seen the movie, and he said no, he was glad he had seen it. I don’t know if we would say we “enjoyed” the movie, but we were both glad we had seen it, and we both agreed Julianne Moore did an incredible job in portraying the articulate, fashionable, university scholar and professor who becomes the slightly unkempt, nearly wordless, vacant-faced victim of a disease that robs her of her memories. It is the journey from those two extremes that makes the movie so memorable–and that also makes it so sad.

I also dreamt about the movie last night, but I was Alice. In the dream, I told my friends, Chris, Pat, and Irene about the diagnosis. As we have shared the heartaches and the joys of our lives for many, many years, it seemed this would be one more crisis we’d all weather together somehow. That was sad, too. Then I had another dream that involved food. Life goes on.

During our dinner discussion of sad movies, I mentioned first Amour (2012), about an elderly French couple—the husband cares for his wife, a brilliant pianist, after she has a stroke. After seeing trailers for it, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to see it, but my husband and I both agreed that it was a very good movie. It may tie with Still Alice as “saddest.” A couple of other movies that we discussed during dinner: The White Ribbon (2010), a German movie, that is bleak, cold, and disturbing, as well as sad. I don’t remember it as well. I do remember “bleak” though. It is all black and white and gray. The Lives of Others (2006), is a terrific movie about spies and spying and life in East Germany. It’s one I would definitely watch again.

Lest you think my husband and I are like Alvy Singer, Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall who is constantly going to see The Sorrow and the Pity, the French documentary about the Holocaust, let me assure you we are not. (I do love Annie Hall though.) The latest Hunger Games movie (Mockingjay, Part 1) was my birthday movie in December. OK. I guess that’s not really upbeat either, but honestly, we do sometimes see comedies. Recently, we’ve seen Mr. Turner, Into the Woods, Birdman, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, among others, so we have seen an eclectic assortment of films. I have seen most of the movies nominated for Best Picture, all except Whiplash and American Sniper, and I will probably see both of them at some point. We’ve seen two of the four movies nominated for Best Foreign Film (Ida and Leviathan), and have seen many of the other movies nominated for various other awards this year.

Sometimes we need an escape from reality. Books and movies help provide that escape. Sometimes they also make me think and reflect about my own life.

Movies form a backdrop to favorite family memories, as well. I began to see some movies in different way because of our children. When my older daughter was about three, she wanted to see a particular scene from My Fair Lady and referred to it by the color of Eliza’s dress. (She also referred to a restaurant by the color of its door, which we had never noticed. Can you tell she’s an artist?) Our younger daughter cried and cried every time she watched The Fox and the Hound, but she still insisted on watching it. I remember my husband and I laughing and laughing at Peter O’Toole in My Favorite Year.

Do you watch sad movies? Do have family memories associated with movies? Do you try to see the movies nominated for Academy Awards?

Public Service Announcement

merrildsmith:

CS Boyack has asked people to share this post in the hopes that it might help others.

Originally posted on Entertaining Stories:

I’m going to invite everyone to re-blog, tweet, and otherwise share this post today. We all wish our posts got that much love, but this one is important. If you are a man, love a man, or maybe both, this post is important.

I debated long and hard about sharing this at all. It involves personal information, and I like to keep a bit of privacy. I had to weigh the fact that my mother reads this blog, along with at least two co-workers, against the possibility of helping someone else. Someone else won.

Popular rumor holds that a man should have certain things checked medically once he turns 50. In typical male fashion, I waited until I was 53 and 8 months to schedule my colonoscopy. This is a degrading procedure that involves shoving a camera into places that aren’t visible by design. I thought it was degrading, but…

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Valentine’s Day Wine and Chocolate: Heritage Vineyards

My husband and I usually don’t do anything special on Valentine’s Day because of all the February birthdays in our family. This year, however, since Valentine’s Day was on a Saturday, we decided to attend a wine and chocolate event at Heritage Vineyards. (This was a New Jersey Wine Trail event, and wineries throughout the state had wine and chocolate events.)

The obligatory Selfie

The obligatory Selfie

We’ve been to Heritage Vineyards before, and we like many of the wines they produce. The vineyard is located in Mullica Hill, NJ. There were three ticketed time slots for the event (also held on the 15th), and we went to the last one, which began at 4 PM. I really know very little about wine, so these are simply my impressions and not a review. After checking-in, we received our glasses, and a woman, who poured us a Moscato Spritz, greeted us with a “Happy Valentine’s Day”. The drink was light and refreshing. We then moved to the Wine and Chocolate Pairing, held in the heated tent.

Wine and Chocolate Pairing

Wine and Chocolate Pairing

The woman who poured for us (I believe her name tag said Kim) was great. She was knowledgeable and friendly, despite having been there since 9 AM. The pairings all worked very well, even though some of the wines were not wines we’d choose to buy. I really enjoyed the Late Harvest Chambourcin, a port-like dessert wine. I’m not a fan of sweet wines, but this was a great dessert wine that worked with the dark chocolate drizzled Oreo. (I’m also not really a fan of Oreos, but it was delicious with the wine.)

I like wine.

I like wine.

We then did the Dry Wine Flight. I don’t know the young man’s name who poured our wine, but he was also very helpful and knowledgeable. I don’t always like Chardonnay. Sometimes I think it has a weird grapefruit taste, but maybe that’s just me. I do like this 2013 Estate Reserve. My husband and I both enjoyed the 2011 Merlot, which to me has sort of a silky feel. The 2011 Malbec was interesting. I thought it had a bit of pepper in the finish. Each wine sample was more than a usual “tasting,” so I have to admit I was a bit buzzed by the time we finished. Fortunately, my husband is not such a lightweight!

Here are the wines in the Dry Wine Flight:

Dry Wine Flight

Dry Wine Flight

After the Dry Wine Flight, we wandered around the Tasting Room/Gift Shop. Although there was a musician, Dave Kelly, who provided live acoustic music, there was no seating available to make the event into a linger-around sort of thing. We purchased a bottle of Merlot to take home with us, and then wandered over to The Truffle Tree chocolate store next door.

When we got home, I made some sweet potato nachos (note to self, slicing potatoes after visiting a winery might not be the best idea). I’m not certain that the sweet potato nachos and the Merlot made the best pairing, but it was great with the Italian Espresso Truffle I ate afterwards.

Sweet Potato Nachos

Sweet Potato Nachos

IMG_2100

Italian Espresso Truffle From The Truffle Tree

I hope all of you experienced something sweet on Valentine’s, too!

Tumbling Down the Rabbit Hole of Memory

This might be a long post. You see, I had intended to write another post on books. It was going to begin something like this:

         When I was a child, perhaps about ten or eleven years old, my older brother gave me a copy of Alice’s Adventures Underground. It was a paperback book, a facsimile of Lewis Carroll’s manuscript that would become the book Alice in Wonderland. I think my much older brother might have purchased it while traveling in England. I seem to remember him telling me in his sort of theatrical, conspiratorial whisper that the book was a copy of the author’s original manuscript, as though it was a true treasure he had purchased for me. And actually it was. I was nerdy kid, and I thought it was very cool to own such a book. Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to it. The book vanished somewhere, along with my youth, down the rabbit hole of time.

         So that was what I intended to write about. But then Brian Williams happened.

         And then suddenly there was news everywhere about false memories.

         And I started thinking about a memory I have. I remember being in one of those old-fashioned elevators. It’s the kind that has the metal grill work door that you pull closed, and then you see can see everything outside of the elevator as you go up and down. Something like this:

"Montecito Inn3" by Vmiramontes - Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Montecito_Inn3.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Montecito_Inn3.jpg
“Montecito Inn3″ by Vmiramontes – Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Montecito_Inn3.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Montecito_Inn3.jpg

I remember taking this elevator in my grandparents’ apartment house in Philadelphia. Problem? Well, apparently this never happened. My mom said her parents never lived in a building that had such an elevator, and my brother confirmed it. Neither of them could think of any relative who lived in such a place. So was I ever in this elevator, perhaps visiting someone else? Or did my overactive imagination take some old movie I watched and make it my own experience?

         What are memories and what are dreams? And what are dreams of memories?

         My husband and I have been watching the TV show, Fringe on Netflix. In one episode, a former rock band keyboard player (played by Christopher Lloyd), now in a nursing home, has a late night encounter with his young son, who had died many years earlier. The keyboardist later mentions that when his son was younger, the son told him of a dream he had had. In the dream, he met his father in a nursing home. It turns out that the mysterious creatures known as the Observers experience time differently. One of them took the son when he a child to meet his father many years in the future. The boy thought it was dream, and for the father, the experience had not yet happened.

         Storytellers all over the world have written about time travel. There are time machines, and then there are stories of people who can just wander into another age. I have always loved these stories. Perhaps that’s why I’m a historian.

Philosophers and scientists have also theorized about time. It’s said that animals do not experience time the way humans do. They live in the present. Some human cultures also experience time differently. In fact, those of us in modern western culture probably experience time differently than those in previous centuries—before electric lights, accurate clocks, train schedules, and all the various social media devices we now have alert us to news 24/7. Not that time didn’t matter, but perhaps it mattered in a different way. The hours left of daylight to accomplish a task, the changing of the seasons, when a crop should be planted, when a cow should be milked—all of these things were important, but perhaps it did not matter to previous generations if it was 7:00 or 8:00, or even what year it was.

         Books and written records bring some past worlds to our present existence (as do other artifacts). But they are often incomplete. In reading an eighteenth-century divorce petition, I might discover the bare bones of a couple’s unhappy marriage—when they married, and why the petitioner sought a divorce. If there are extant depositions, I might discover more. Perhaps a neighbor saw the husband brutally strike the wife, or witnessed the wife having a sexual encounter with another man. (Some of those depositions are pretty juicy.) The documents also tell me about legal language and conventions of the time, and perhaps provide some details of how privacy—or the lack of it in the eighteenth-century–but I will probably never know more about that particular couple and their unhappy life. Yet I might glean some idea of how they lived from other records, from accounts and stories told by others. These records are not time machines, but they do give those in the present a window into the past.

And that brings me back to this.

Once upon a time, a teenage boy bought a book for his sister. This girl, living in Cold War America, read about the fantastic adventures of a girl in Victorian England. As she read, she traveled through time and space. She saw people dressed in nineteenth-century clothing who had weird tea parties and spoke in a way that was different from the people around her. She encountered magical creatures. In her dreams, she may even have tumbled down a rabbit hole with the English girl, Alice.

I might not remember the thoughts and dreams I had then, but I do remember receiving the book. A memory of a book, a gift of the past, it now exists in the present.

 PS. Shout out to Rachel Carrera! Her blog post on Lewis Carroll triggered this post. Check out her always interesting blog.