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The Thymes They Are A-Changing: A Few Thoughts on Recipes

A few months ago, I had a Girls’ Night Out with my friends. Digression: for us, “Girls’ Night Out” means three things: wine, food, and pants with elastic waistbands. While not actually going out.

In other words, it’s pretty much this:
eating

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On this particular night, we went to my friend Inga’s house and she made dinner, a delicious peanut squash soup. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. This soup was everything: a little sweet, a little spicy, just the right consistency to be a comfort food. I asked if I could have the recipe, and Inga said, “Oh, it’s easy to find. Just Google peanut squash soup and it’s the first recipe that pops up.”

(Note: I did, and it was, and here’s the result. TRY IT. You won’t be disappointed.)

I remembered this exchange a few days ago because I was thinking about the ways recipes have adapted and changed over time. I sometimes write posts for the historical blog The Recipes Project, and even a brief perusal of that site shows that old recipes are both surprisingly familiar (quantities, instructions) and shockingly different (recipes for pimple creams and breast cancer cures can be found near recipes for preserving quinces).

That exchange at Inga’s house highlighted that as much as recipes have changed over time, it’s possible that–with the ease of finding things on the internet–the recipe genre may be having its most radical transformation yet.

Not so long ago, if somebody asked you for a recipe, it could feel like an imposition. You’d have  to get an index card and painstakingly handwrite the recipe, making sure it fit on the card, that the measurements were correct (I’ll never forget the time I wrote down 2 TBSP of cayenne instead of 2 tsp), that you hadn’t forgotten any steps.

In short, it was kind of a pain in the ass. But the labor involved meant the recipe itself was a thoughtful and time-consuming gift.

With that gift came individuality. In early modern recipes, that took the form of instructions like “take the amount of rosemary that would fit on a two-pence piece.” And everyone’s heard stories of trying to recreate Aunt So-and-So’s pie or chicken or tamales but never quite getting it right because her ingredients involved “smidges” and “dollops” and “handfuls.”

(My own favorite quirky recipe is from my Grandma Sherman, whose fudge recipe calls for “5 cents worth of Woolworth chocolate.”)

Now, not only can we Google a recipe, we can sort by ingredients, cost, user rating, regional origin…the list goes on. Then, when you locate just the right recipe, you can pin it to your Pinterest board and download it to your phone, which has an app to find a coupon for the ingredients you need. And the quirkiness of those recipes have gone the way of the “update” button on the blog.

Perhaps because it has become so easy to find what you want with so little effort, online recipes themselves have become more personalized and narrative-driven. Some blogs are as much about the voice of the writer as they are about the quality of the recipes. This recipe for “Drunken Chicken Marsala,” for example, reads as though it wasn’t just the chicken that got a little tipsy. And this recipe for masala sauce: can we agree that calling a masala sauce “life-changing” is a wee bit hyperbolic?

Anyway, I’m not trying to be overly nostalgic and romanticize the past. I love the ease of internet browsing as much as the next person. But I do sometimes miss the old recipe box: the serendipity of finding some funny old recipe, that softness at the very edge of the cards that comes from years of thumbing, the memories that come rushing back with the sight of a beloved relative’s handwriting.

So, like the rest of you all, I’ll keep toggling back and forth between the new and the old, Google and the cookbook, the search function and the weathered old index card. And as I say a prayer of thanks to the patron saint of the internet (who IS that by the way?) for making it easy to find instructions for pie crust, I’ll also keep my flour-dusted recipe box near at hand.

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Yours, Mine, or Ours? The Centuries-Old Debate over Public Lands

I grew up in Humboldt County, California. It’s known for a lot of things, but mostly for marijuana, great coffee, and gorgeous landscapes like this:

Humboldtrockefellerforest

Rockefeller Forest, Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sadly, Humboldt County is also known for sometimes violent battles that pit economic development and conservation against each other. So I grew up thinking of forests, oceans, and lakes as contested spaces, places of both sublime beauty and imminent threat.

I now live in Oregon, one of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse states in the US.

 

By Oregon's Mt. Hood Territory. (http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/byways/photos/62736.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Oregon’s Mt. Hood Territory. (http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/byways/photos/62736.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

oregon coast

The Oregon coastline looking south from Ecola State Park, with Haystack Rock in the distance by Cacophony (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Oregon_welcome_sign

Oregon welcome sign at Hells Canyon by Staplegunther at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Given that I spent my youth learning that open land meant open conflict, I’ve been increasingly nervous about local land-use skirmishes. For example, last summer, a dispute over a mining claim at the Sugar Pine Mine, just a half an hour from my home, almost spiraled out of control as a call went out to militia and “patriot” groups to take up arms against the Bureau of Land Management.

The whole thing fizzled, but I was still on tenterhooks.

Then a bunch of gun-toting, skewed-Constitution wielding, cowboy-wannabe militants took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. Schools closed. Offices closed. Residents were intimidated. Federal employees were harrassed and had personal information like social-security numbers and credit-card numbers stolen–in some cases they even had to relocate. As these stories emerged, I realized how close my own community had come to living out that nightmare.

So I was already thinking about these issues when I read this article in The Guardian about urban public and private spaces in London and elsewhere, and about this protest to end the privatization of public spaces.

The two situations are entirely different for a number of reasons, of course, not least of which is that England has a long and embattled history over enclosure, the closing off of common lands and restriction of their use to one or more landowners. In early modern England, enclosure was used to create deer parks and to convert arable land to the more-profitable pasture for sheep and cattle. Eventually, conflict over  enclosure led to violent riots.*

While anti-enclosure acts were passed in 1489 and 1516, the practice continued and the situation grew worse as England’s population increased. Those who farmed grew increasingly resentful of those who tended herds and flocks. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, enclosure riots pitted tenants against gentry. In part galvanized by debates over enclosure, a new political movement emerged that espoused ideals of liberty and commonality: the Levellers (named after those who tore down, or “leveled,” hedges during enclosure riots).

Admittedly, I haven’t done much research on the Levellers, but graduate school friends had, and I was used to thinking of them as (problematic) foot soldiers in the long march towards equality and democracy (yes, I know that’s a progressivist view of history, but there it is). In other words, I was taught that I should admire the Levellers for their egalitarianism and proto-democratic ideals.

With the comparison of any two historical events one is tempted to draw parallels, and a cringe-y part of me wondered if the Bundy militia members who took over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge had ideological roots in the radical movements of 17th-century England (especially since the Bundy militia declared that the only legitimate basis of American civil rights was the Magna Carta, a claim the Levellers also made). I wondered: with their claims of taking land back “for the people,” were the Bundy militia the philosophical descendents of the Levellers?

There are similarities: both the riots over early modern enclosure and the armed takeover of the wildlife refuge were violent. Both had their roots in questions of power and authority over land. Both situations were influenced by changing population patterns and socio-economic realities.

But there is one critical difference: the land the Bundy militia attempted to take over is ALREADY public land, owned by the American people. It has been enclosed, in a sense, but access and usage are managed in such a way to balance agriculture, conservation, and recreation.

In fact, while they purported to be returning the land “to the people,” the only concrete idea the Bundy militia espoused was one they recycled from the standoff at Bundy ranch in Nevada: allowing ranchers free access to the refuge (and, indeed, to all federal lands in the West). In essence, they wanted to re-privatize the land, to close it off to all but grazing. In that sense, they are more related to the landowners of early modern England, those who would take the lands out of public usage.

After a long and tense standoff with the FBI, the Bundy militia have now been cleared out of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. One of their members is dead, many others under arrest. They destroyed habitat, desecrated Native artifacts, and dug latrines near sacred ground. They left behind trash, firearms and explosives, and even human feces. And chaos. They left behind them utter chaos.

No, the Bundy militia weren’t part of some egalitarian effort to free the land for the people. They were selfish, deluded egomaniacs intent on misreading the Constitution for their own personal gain.

 

Notes:

*more info about later conflicts surrounding enclosure can be found here: The Enclosure Movement in England and Wales, R. Oliver

**These complex and heated debates over who owns the land—the federal government or the state—that have impacted me and my community in very immediate ways. The federal government ended payments meant to reimburse timber-dependent counties for loss of revenue, and now—because the voters in my county tend to be very anti-tax and voted down a library district—my local library closed for 18 months and is now only open thanks to donors and grantors. And public safety in our community is practically nil–if you live outside of the county seat, you have a handful of law enforcement officers available to return your call, and then only between the hours of 9:00 to 5:00 Monday-Friday. Our public safety system is like a car spinning wildly out of control…and about to go off a cliff in July when federal payments end.

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Five Expert Tips For Sucking At Writing

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NUMBER ONE.

Write in a café.

There’ll usually be someone saying something incredibly weird and/or offensive. Once you tune in, you won’t be able to concentrate anymore, but you’ll be cool with it because it’s all fodder for the novel.

So far, I’ve overheard the following conversations:

  •  A man, staring soulfully into the eyes of his companion, telling her she has a “luminous energy.” That his one regret is that he hasn’t spent enough time with her. That he wants to kiss her, then and there. That his wife probably wouldn’t approve.
  • A man discussing the remodel of his home, bemoaning the cruel fact that “toilets these days just aren’t constructed for the modern American asshole.” I’m preeeeettty certain he meant it in an anatomical rather than metaphorical sense, as he went into great detail (I will spare you).
  • A blind date during which the first question was “What kind of rifle do you own?” followed by discussion of the vast medical conspiracy behind flu shots and the following conversation:
    Him: What’s your last name?
    Her: Turner.
    Him: Are you related to Ted Turner?
    Her: …..?

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NUMBER TWO.

Read widely and well.

This will make you a better writer. It will also make you a better procrastinator.

You will endlessly compare yourself to another writer who is not you and whom you will never be. Ignore that the writer cannot be you and you cannot be that writer because that would defy all known laws of the universe and everything would implode. Wish you were Geraldine Brooks anyway, universe implosion be damned.

Bonus: If you read a wide variety of authors, you’ll return to your writing sounding like one of those old See ‘n Say toys that comes back with a different voice each time you pull the string. Paragraph 1, you’ll sound like Donna Tartt. Paragraph 2, Donald Trump.

Showing three fingers isolated on white

NUMBER THREE.

Go to conferences.

You will get to spend a lot of money and sometimes it will be worth it but sometimes it will just be a chance to go out of town and drink a lot of coffee and wine instead of staying home and drinking a lot of coffee and wine.

On the plus side, the other conference attendees are likely to be cool and interesting. They’ll also appreciate the bookish-seeming shoes you’ve been dying to wear (like, I don’t know, maybe these which I bought for my birthday and that I love so much I want to marry them):

shoes

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NUMBER FOUR.

Do your research.

Before you’ve finished your first draft, go to QueryTracker. Research all of the agents who represent your work. Fall in love with one or two of them—I mean, just know in your heart of hearts that she/he is THE ONLY AGENT who could possibly really understand you and your work. Imagine the laughter and hijinks as you get together for drinks in New York to discuss the details of your publishing contract. Get so excited that you finish your half-assed manuscript and don’t really bother with editing or beta readers (because you’re certain that the #MSWL Your Dream Agent (YDA) tweeted out last week was just like what you’d written and A SIGN FROM THE UNIVERSE). When YDA rejects your query/manuscript (or worse, never gets back to you), assume that it’s not because you jumped the gun and sent out your work before it was ready but because you are the worst writer who’s ever dared put pen to paper (or, I don’t know, finger to keyboard?). Your ideas suck. Your words suck. You suck.

(The above has definitely not happened to me. More than once. Or twice.)

number-5-hand-finger

NUMBER FIVE.

Keep being a horrible writer.

Because writers are doing what they’ve felt called to do. Because there’s something about writing that taps into a soul-deep core of human need for stories, for connection and meaning. Because when we don’t write the world seems a little flatter, a little grayer, a little less shimmery.

Write on, friends.

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We’re A Nation Of Cowards

pexels-photo.jpg

 

Original Post:

About two weeks ago, my husband and I were casually chatting with our daughter. Out of the blue, she said, “Mom, you know how sometimes I hug you for an extra-long time in the morning and kind of seem like I don’t want to go to school? That’s because I’m wondering if today’s the day there will be a shooter in my classroom.”

She told me she and her best friend even have a bucket list, just in case they get shot at school.

She’s 12.

About a week later, on Friday, October 1, 2015, a gunman killed nine people and wounded nine others at Umpqua Community College, about 70 miles from where we live.

On Monday, a bomb and shooting threat was received at Rogue Community College, in our town. The campus was shut down and schools in our county were either locked-in or had extra police officers.

Last night, a note containing unspecified threats was found at Southern Oregon University, about 40 miles from us, prompting officials to close the campus.

I just don’t know what to say. Over the last few days, in person and on Facebook, I’ve had conversations with those who (like me) favor gun control and with those who don’t.

Those who would like to see more regulations are frustrated. We keep having the same conversations: why not? Why not put commonsense gun laws in place?

Those who oppose gun regulations are also frustrated. Our conversations go something like this:

I say there are too many guns. They parrot Wayne LaPierre of the NRA and say the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. (Ignoring that the police can’t possibly tell the difference between the two when entering an active shooter situation.)

I say we need better gun laws. They say that won’t work because criminals don’t obey laws. (Ignoring the obvious slippery slope—if the lawless won’t obey laws, why do we have laws about theft, or murder, or drunk driving?)

They say we don’t need gun control, we need mental health. I nod and say, okay, let’s have better mental health.

I say over 90% of Americans agree we need better background checks for gun purchases. They say that it’s a slippery slope to abolishing the second amendment.

The same conversation. Each time.

And now I feel like a massive raw nerve, shaking with anger and confusion and fear.

I want to kick and scream and yell into the universe, “WHY? WHY NOT AT LEAST START SOMEWHERE?”

Why can’t we start having better background checks? Start improving mental health access? Embrace logic and reason and empathy when we’re discussing guns and gun control? At least start and see if it works. See if we end up with fewer dead kids.

The sad, disillusioned core of me knows the answer. We can’t do these things because of the NRA.

The NRA has carefully crafted an environment of paranoia that makes people think  having armed teachers in the classroom is a viable solution to gun deaths.

The NRA has purchased enough elected representatives that Congress recently extended a ban on research to even find out what forms of gun control work best.

The NRA has created a dystopian society in which it can produce a cartoon for kids, warning them to stay away from all of the guns lying around. You know, because it’s the grown-ups’ constitutional right to leave guns lying around.

And gun manufacturers just keep churning out more guns, more profits, more death.

I want to yell and scream and shout and holler, but I’m scared nobody will listen. Because I’m just a mom. Everybody expects parents to get all hysterical about their babies being in danger. It’s not like I’m a politician or a lobbyist or somebody important.

To be honest, writing this scares me. I’m afraid of voicing my opinions. I’m afraid of the scorn and ridicule of even my own friends and family, those people I love but disagree with.

But we’re a nation of cowards. America has been afraid of the NRA and gun manufacturers for too long. We need to demand accountability from our politicians. We need common-sense gun control, and we need research and respectful debate about how to balance constitutional rights with the rights of our children to grow and thrive in safety.

What kind of world do we live in that we can even think about debating whether a teacher should have a gun in the classroom? In which Congress would actually BAN research on reducing gun deaths? In which 5-year-olds regularly have “dangerous intruder” drills? This is complete fucking insanity.

I just don’t know what to do or say to my kids. We’ve left them such a mess.

 

Another Update, 5/18/18:

This time it was in Santa Fe, Texas. 10 dead.

Another Update 2/14/2018:
This afternoon, a shooter (again, I won’t say his name) killed 17 people and wounded numerous others in Parkland, Florida. I’m so afraid. Not just of shooters and bullets and seeing the bodies of my dead children, but afraid that as a society we’re growing numb, that we have no problem thinking about the unthinkable.

My friend Jennifer J. has an idea. What if we keep our kids home from school until SOMETHING is done? I propose that “something” be doing away with the Dickey Amendment, which threatens to defund the CDC if it funds research on gun violence (even Jay Dickey, eponymous sponsor of the amendment, changed his mind about it, saying “We need to turn this over to science and take it away from politics”).

This could be a walk-out. Or a one-week strike. Or longer. Perhaps we could wait until the bell rings and then pull them out one minute for every student who lost their lives today? (Thanks to Ann S. for that idea that preserves school funding.)

Can we change things? Can we live with ourselves if we don’t try?

(And please, if you don’t like this idea, call your representatives, join an effective advocacy group, or write a letter to the editor.)

***

Update (September 14,2016)
Early this morning, in a nightclub in Orlando called Pulse, a shooter (I won’t say his name) killed 50 people and wounded 53. The shooter’s father said the shooter became enraged when he saw two men kissing on the street.

This is the worst mass shooting (in terms of numbers of dead) in US history. The shooter used an AR-15, a type of assault rifle also used in Newtown and Aurora. We do not know how to keep this type of weapon out of the wrong hands, however, as Congress has rejected an amendment that would have repealed a ban on conducting research into the causes of the gun violence epidemic.

We need to act. We need to hold our elected officials accountable. We need policy, not just prayers.

Here is a link from the Huffington Post on contacting your representatives: “An Easy Guide to Contacting Your Elected Representative About Gun Control.”

***

 

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October 8, 2015 · 12:49 am

Libraries Matter, No Matter What

A young JCLI volunteer (my daughter!) protesting the library's closure.

A young JCLI volunteer (my daughter!) protesting the library’s closure.

In May 2007, all four branches of the library in Josephine County were closed due to lack of funding. More than 82,000 people were left without access to any library whatsoever.

(Over eight years later, I still feel a little shocked writing that.)

A past library levy had been absorbed into the county’s general fund. When the federal government failed to renew a decades-old subsidy (meant to reimburse county governments for the loss of income from logging on federal lands) and voters (mistrustful of county government) failed to pass a measure establishing an independent library district, the libraries were closed.

I was there, and I was devastated. I kept thinking about how a whole generation of kids would grow up receiving the message–from their own community–that books, literacy, and knowledge don’t matter. That learning about the world outside their borders doesn’t matter. That libraries don’t matter.

In August 2007, a group of concerned citizens banded together to form Josephine Community Libraries, Inc. (JCLI), and after 18 months of fundraising—stuffing envelopes, staffing information tables, and begging councilors and commissioners for money—volunteers reopened the Grants Pass branch of the library. Committed to providing library services throughout the county, the board of directors made it a priority to reopen the other three rural branches as soon as possible after the opening of the main branch.

I’ll never forget the opening of the Children’s Room on that cold December day in 2008. I was standing at the circulation desk so I could take pictures. On the other side of the ceremonial ribbon stood crowds of excited and curious kids. When the ribbon was cut, the kids streamed into the room. When it came time to check out, they had stacks of books in their arms and magic in their eyes.

On that day, we sent a message to the kids in our community: we care. We care about their education and imagination. We care that they have a future in the larger world.

Last fall, citizens placed a library district on the ballot in Josephine County that would have provided long-term, sustainable funding for libraries in Josephine County. Sadly, it didn’t pass. If it had, renovating the Children’s Room would have been one of the first priorities.

However, despite our disappointment in the results of the election, JCLI remains determined to provide quality library access for the children in our community by launching First Chapters, a project to modernize and enhance the Children’s Libraries in Grants Pass and Cave Junction.

The project will fund updated books, mobile bookshelves kids can reach, and furniture that actually fits them. It will provide technology that matches their need to learn and resources that fit their need to play.

Just one of the many books that needs replacing.

Just one of the many books that needs replacing.

JCLI has also partnered with Oregon’s Kitchen Table, a group of non-partisan, non-profit community organizations that is helping JCLI with crowdfunding, so that as many people as possible can donate to the project, to feel ownership of the amazing work libraries are doing in our community. If you’d like to help out, you can make a donation here.

First Chapters

By reopening the libraries, we transformed the message we were sending to our kids. Instead of telling them that books, knowledge, and culture are expendable, we taught them the importance of lifelong learning and connection with community and the outside world. With First Chapters, we can reinforce that message. We can teach them that libraries matter, no matter what.

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Wigging Out: Mrs. Corlyon’s Method for Extracting Earwigs From The Ear

So I wrote this post for The Recipes Project to answer the perennial question “What do John Donne and Taylor Swift have in common?”

(Spoiler #1: no I didn’t–it just worked out that way)

(Spoiler #2: earwigs)

Wigging Out: Mrs. Corlyon’s Method for Extracting Earwigs From The Ear

 

 

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Laughing at History

By Netherlandish (possibly Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Netherlandish (possibly Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday the website The Mary Sue published a post of mine, a short, lighthearted little thing about the malady known as green sickness.

After it was published, I committed the cardinal internet sin of reading the comments. Normally I don’t do that, but The Mary Sue’s readers are savvy and smart, and I was curious what they said.

Most comments were written in the same vein as the post—funny, a little snarky, lighthearted. But one comment made me pause. In a nutshell, it asked “Why is this something to laugh at? Surely this was a real problem for some people.”

It’s a compelling point and one worth bearing in mind, always. When we laugh at things from the past, are we demeaning the lived experience of real people?

I hope I would never do that. I did, however, want to poke fun at a system of beliefs about women that reduced them to uterine function. The theory behind green sickness was that a virgin was vulnerable to all sorts of maladies because the ultimate function of the uterus was to be occupied, either by a man’s seed or by a child, and until that happened, it was a site of blocked humors and disease that made a maiden sick, weak, and listless.

It’s the same system that attributed a host of physical and mental disorders to a woman’s “wandering womb.”

It’s crucial we remember the role that set of beliefs played in the history of medicine, how it served as a foundation for the ways we think about and discuss women’s health.

It informs the social structure that allows Todd Aiken to mystify reproductive biology and argue the rarity of child conceived in a “legitimate rape” because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” 

That system still shapes the way we talk about menstruation and menopause, even about PMS.

Every day I read news stories that sound like they come right out of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. Women’s reproductive rights are being eroded day by day, from mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds to the limits on abortion even in the cases of rape or health of the mother.

And for a chilling analysis of how the past seems to repeat itself when it comes to the regulation of women’s wombs, read this piercing analysis by Margaret Lewis of the similarities between 17th-century infanticide trials and the 20-year sentence given to Purvi Patel. (Especially shocking is the use of the “lung test,” which has been recognized as scientifically flawed for the last 200 years.)

We need to remind ourselves of that system that used biology to define women, by their very nature, as weak, helpless, and incapable of decision or action without a man’s help.

I deeply appreciate that commentor’s reminder that there are real people behind these stories and diagnoses and treatments. It’s something I hope never to forget.

But I don’t think I can stop laughing at the ridiculousness of a system that reduces women to one particular organ. Because if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry.

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The Spitting Image

Floram Marchand, a man who regurgitated water transformed into several colours and into separate vessels. Reproduction of a stipple engraving. Wellcome Library, London

Floram Marchand, a man who regurgitated water
transformed into several colours and into
separate vessels. Reproduction of a stipple
engraving. Wellcome Library, London

I came across this image while browsing in the online collection of the Wellcome Library (heaven only knows what my search terms were). Even in the often-bizarre world of the Wellcome’s collection, with wood engravings of eyes swollen shut by a witch’s curse and pictures of possessed men spitting up nails, this image stood out.

Regurgitating, spitting, expectorating—it all gets a pretty bad rap. About the only time it’s marginally socially acceptable is when done by cute babies. (Witness the time one of my daughters (in the interest of familial harmony, I won’t identify which one), age 12 months, spit up on her grandfather just as my camera was clicking to take their picture. I now have a permanent record of the look of satisfaction on her face and the blend of surprise, disgust, and great good humor on his.)

In the 16th and 17th centuries, however, some performers were able to take the act of regurgitation to a whole new level.

V0007186 Biagio di Manfrè, who regurgitated water transformed into ot

Though this image has Floram Marchand’s name, the Wellcome Library identifies this as Blaise Manfred (Biagio di Manfrè). Engraving after Wenceslaus Hollar. Wellcome Library, London.

Popular entertainer Blaise Manfrede was known for his ability to seemingly transform the vast amounts of water he swallowed into other liquids like milk or wine.   His student, Floram Marchande, the subject of the above engraving, was known for turning water into a variety of wines, each in its own arc spit high above the crowds.

V0007188 Floram Marchand, a man who regurgitated

Floram Marchand, a man who regurgitated water transformed into several colours and into separate vessels. Reproduction of a stipple engraving. Wellcome Library, London

According to Joe Mitchell in Secrets of the Sideshows, Manfrede and Marchande employed special mouthpieces to help them spit the water in such dramatic fashion, and as for turning the water into wine—given that the “wine” got paler and paler the longer the act went on, it’s likely that Marchand ingested a red dye made from brazil nuts beforehand.

Though perhaps not as popular as it once was, the art of regurgitation has never really been abandoned. For example, in the 1920s and 30s, a Vaudeville performer named Hadji Ali was famous for swallowing and regurgitating water, nuts, smoke, handkerchiefs, and kerosene (which he would then spit out on a lit fire). You can see highlights of his act here:

Continuing the regurgitation tradition (if that can be said to be a thing), Glasgow-born Stevie Starr has made a career of regurgitating all sorts of items: broken glass, balloons, goldfish, and dry sugar. In 2010, he appeared on Britain’s Got Talent and flummoxed the audience by swallowing Amanda’s ring, a key, and a lock, and the regurgitating the ring—which was hooked onto the lock, presumably while in his stomach. Here it is (and oh my god, Amanda, are you really going to let the symbol of your enduring love be regurgitated by that man? Really, Amanda?):

Honestly, it’s enough to give a gal heartburn.

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Scratching “The Itch Infalable” at The Recipes Project

I wrote this blog post for The Recipes Project: Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine about a 17th-century anti-itching recipe: Scratching “The Itch Infalable”: Johanna St. John’s Anti-Itch Cure

On the downside, you may get psychosomatic itching after reading it, much like in 5th grade when you watched all those educational movies about lice. On the plus side, there is a largely gratuitous picture of an adorable scratching cat.

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I Am Not My Writing

Stipula_fountain_pen

“Power of Words,” Antonio Litterio. Wikimedia Commons

I’m currently revising a novel in which some folks have said I do a whole lot of telling and not enough showing.

I trained as an academic, so it’s practically a given that my early fiction attempts would skew towards the didactic, the wordy, the analytic. I knew that going in.

So if that feedback is so straightforward, why am I struggling with feelings of embarrassment, even shame? (And now we enter Inception-level neuroticism, in which I’m a little embarrassed about feeling shame.)

All I really have to do is add some more dialogue, inject more ambiguity in my characters by showing actions rather than explicating motives.

But when I sit down to do so, when I open the file and look and what I’ve written, when I revisit the feedback I’ve gotten, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t see these issues before.

Why do we writers do this to ourselves?

When I teach writing, I hammer the idea that writing is a skill, a techne, that improves with practice and feedback. I also insist my students share the following assumption: a critique of someone’s writing is not a critique of that person. I can object to a vague thesis or point out a comma splice and still think the writer is good and smart and worthwhile.

By the end of the quarter, my students can recite my mantra with me: “I am not my writing.”

So why can’t I take my own lessons to heart?

I think the answer lies somewhat in the mystification of the writing process. Those who don’t write regularly see only the final product, not the messy process, and so creation seems magical.

And indeed there are some inexplicable moments in the creative process when the right word or the perfect action is gifted to the writer by something that resembles a muse. But those moments are few and far between, patches of inspiration on a path littered with absurd turns of phrase and cringe-inducing dialogue.

Good writing seems to come from some place deep inside. I can deal with that.

The corollary, however, is chilling: if we can’t produce good writing, does that mean we don’t have good insides?

Obviously that’s poppycock, and yet . . . when has the subconscious ever made sense?

So I’m left relying on a process that seems to work for me: naming the thing that shames me. It’s a technique both modern and ancient. Dredge up the fear and give it a name. Call it by that name and declare its powerlessness.

My fear: if I write something someone doesn’t like, I am a bad writer, a poseur, an object of ridicule. I am bad.

That fear is absurd: I write to tell stories, to connect. If somebody teaches me how to tell a story differently, in such a way that I can connect with other people in better and more powerful ways, they have given me a gift. I want to use that knowledge to make my writing better.

I am not my writing.

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