07/13/14

The Lore of Tea


4 World-Famous Chinese Green TeasWhoa! Down the rabbit hole I tumbled this week. I started reading about tea in several books I recently purchased. What a story. What a delight! Many hours spent between the pages absorbing culture, history, types, classifications, production, terroirs and marketing.*

I’ve read bits and pieces about tea before; mostly history and cultural notes; some tidbits about specific types and specific bits I’ve gleaned from online sources. I never read any significantly detailled work about picking, grading and production previously. Nor was I fully aware of the range and depth of teas, the complex terroir of tea and the variations in (and recommendations for) making and drinking tea.**

I had a vague notion, of course. My kitchen shelves stock several boxes and packages of tea in both leaf and bag form. I know the rough difference between white, green and black teas (black which the Chinese call red tea…). I know that tea from China and tea from India and tea from Sri Lanka are different, but exactly how and why, or how they got their names and manners, I could only hypothesize.

Now I am replete with information and wide-eyed in wonder, albeit I still have a lot to learn – and I puzzle over some concepts. Perhaps not enough bookshelf space left, mind you, to be fully educated in tea, because clearly I need to buy more of these publications. (Can one ever own too many books? Yes, but only if you run out of living space.)

I am also informed about how to make a good cup of tea – temperature, container, infusor and more. I don’t have a simple method of determining water temperature (mayhap I need another kettle, one with a digital temperature setting?) but it appears the correct temperature matters a great deal to the resulting drink.

Tea History Terroirs VarietyLike most folks, I suppose, until recently tea was mostly a drink that came in a box full of bags you plunked into a cup, added boiling water, and let steep. Then came some milk.*** Maybe a touch of honey or sugar, too.

Voila: a cuppa. And several more to follow during the day.

That is, I’m learning, to tea culture what a bottle of my homemade plonk is to viniculture. Crass. Pedestrian.
Tea – real tea –  offers so much more than a bag of grocery store tea dust. And I ache to learn more about it.

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06/11/14

The Hunting of the Snark


Hunting of the SnarkI’ve always wondered why Lewis Carroll’s wonderful poem, The Hunting of the Snark - an Agony in Eight Fits - has never been redone, rewritten in a modern version, with modern references and people. It seems to lend itself to revision, at least to my eyes.

Perhaps it’s because this sort of whimsical, satirical poem is not popular these days (it was written between 1874 and 76, a decade after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and three decades after Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense).

Perhaps it’s because it’s a long poem, and reworking it all would be a considerable effort. After all, it’s roughly 4,400 words and you need to make it both scan and rhyme.

Perhaps it’s because of the language: a combination of formal and nonsense writing. Wikipedia reminds us Carroll borrowed from himself with eight portmanteau words he coined earlier:

Eight nonsense words from “Jabberwocky” appear in The Hunting of the Snark: bandersnatch, beamish, frumious, galumphing, jubjub, mimsiest (which previously appeared as mimsy in “Jabberwocky”), outgrabe and uffish.

The Jabberwocky, from Through The Looking Glass, was equally brilliant, perhaps more so because of its brevity. Who can forget those wildly imaginative immortal opening lines:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Perhaps it’s because Carroll was just too brilliant to imitate that these works have not been widely imitated or mimicked. Who, today, could out-Carroll Lewis Carroll with similar language and fancy?

Snark has been replicated in various – sometimes odd – ways, such as Mike Batt’s 1986 concept album, released as a musical on DVD in 2010. But these are tributes, not reinventions.

And what did Carroll himself mean by the poem? Is it just entertaining nonsense, or was it an allegory? Late in his life, Carroll “agreed with one interpretation of the poem as an allegory for the search for happiness.” Others have suggested it was:

  • an allegory for tuberculosis,
  • a mockery of the Tichborne case,
  • a satire of the controversies between religion and science,
  • the repression of Carroll’s sexuality, and
  • a piece against vivisection
  • a “voyage of life”,
  • “a tragedy of frustration and bafflement,”
  • Carroll’s comic rendition of his fears of disorder and chaos
  • comedy serving as a psychological defense against the devastating idea of personal annihilation,
  • “attempts to create a sense of order and meaning out of chaos.”
  • dealing with existential angst
  • Carroll’s satire of himself.

So it’s pretty much open to interpretation. Reads always have to answer for themselves what or who the Snark represents - and what a Boojum really is.

Hunting of The Snark
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05/11/14

Confused Science


Confused In his book, The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin posutlates the ability to make or participate in music may have conferred an evolutionary advantage to early humans. It’s a reasonable hypothesis based on both archeological and anthropological evidence. And some paleontological finds, too.

We know from remains of bone flutes and other instruments, that humans made music at least 40,000 years ago. What that music was like, what role it played in primitive culture and society, what ceremonial or bonding purposes it had, will always be speculation (although we do know they likely used the pentatonic scale). We can only infer music’s roles from its uses in historic – i.e. since the invention of writing – civilizations, but we can never be sure what happened – and why – before the historical record.

When humans started singing, drumming, or making instruments to accompany themselves is simply something we will never know. Anything to suggest when is mere speculation. And even suggesting why is, too. We’re using post hoc analysis to infer purpose and reason.

We do know that group singing and dancing involves the release of certain neurochemicals like oxytocin, that can have powerful social-bonding effects on individuals, but we don’t know whether the particular chemistry is recent, ancient or even had the same effect on earlier cultures. However, given the relatively common and similar effects observed today, it’s another reasonable speculation that they occurred earlier within our evolution and helped humans bond, cooperate and accomplish group tasks.

And we do know that non-literate or non-technological societies – what few remain, such as those rare Amazonian tribes – use music and singing in social and cultural activities and rituals. Music and singing are as powerful in their cultures, in their daily lives, as sex and magic.*

(The co-development of music and civilization is fascinating, but apparently fragile. Music was mostly a communal activity, much more participatory, before the post-WWI development of communication technology. Today, thanks to the internet, digitalization and newer technologies, music is less a shared, bonding activity than it is a passive experience. Musicians – the people who create the experience – still create and shape public opinion and taste, but like alchemists and shamans, they are on the fringe of society.

There is a glimmer of hope that music may be returning to its communal, social roots with the recent growth in popularity of the ukulele and the resurgence of communal ukulele groups…)

Levitin – as brilliant as he is about neuroscience and music – seems confused about evolution and natural selection. And a few other sciences, as I’ll explain below.

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04/26/14

Just Six Songs?


The World in Six SongsAuthor, musician and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says all music can be classified into a mere six types of song. That’s part of the premise in his 2009 book, The World in Six Songs. I recently started reading it and it has opened some interesting areas of thought for me.*

A mere six fundamental themes in song, Levitin writes: friendship, joy, comfort, religion, knowledge and love. And he provides a chapter for each in what is a literary combination of sciences, music, social commentary, cultural anthropology and personal reminiscence. And he offers a lot of conjecture that, while not necessarily provable, is always entertaining and thought-provoking.

That reductionism seems like a challenge to the reader. My first thought was, are these six discrete or can songs overlap and share categories? What about music without lyrics? Soundtracks? Where do they fit? What about non-western music? What about satire and comedy songs? Storytelling songs? Songs of mourning and lament? What about Gilbert and Sullivan?

What about Bob Dylan? I listen to and play a lot of Dylan’s music and there are some songs that I have never been able to classify or explain, even after decades of familiarity with them. Where do you put a song like Stuck Inside of Memphis with the Mobile Blues Again? or All The Tired Horses? The Gates of Eden?

Or Bach’s Goldberg Variations? The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1? Leo Kottke doing Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring on slide guitar? John Fahey’s The Yellow Princess?  Puccini’s Un bel di vedremo from Madame Butterfly? How can a song in a different language you don’t understand move a listener to weep openly? It’s not simply the lyrics. Music reaches inside us in ways we really don’t understand.

And, of course, I immediately came up with my own mental list of songs and tried to fit them into Levitin’s boxes, often without finding a comfortable fit. But that’s part of the fun. Willie the Pimp? the Velvet Underground’s The Gift? The WCPAEB’;s Watch Yourself? Too many to list that don’t fit (as I read it) into comfortable categories.

What about Honshirabe? It’s the classic Zen piece for solo shakuhachi; a stunningly beautiful, haunting piece that speaks volumes to the listener about Japanese culture without lyrics. It is powerful enough to stop me in my tracks and force me to sy stand still and listen, and can easily move me to tears. Where does that fit in the six songs?

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04/17/14

Tudor politics: Elizabeth’s struggle


Elizabeth bookDavid Starkey’s book, Elizabeth: the Struggle for the Throne, is the best book I’ve read on the period of Elizabeth’s life between the death of Henry VIII and her own coronation. It gives a clear, richly detailled picture of the machinations, the politics and the society that she lived in during the 25 years before she became monarch – 1533 to 1558.

And what a life it was. In and out of favour, imprisoned, in fear of her life, threatened, cajoled, living on her wits, political puppet and Machiavellian instigator… Elizabeth emerges as a canny, quick and lively actor in these events.

I have a passion for the history of the Tudors, in particular Henry VIII and Elizabeth. I still enjoy watching the 1971 BBC dramatization of the Six Wives of Henry VIII

Thanks to my brother-in-law’s former position in the National Archives, I was able to see and handle several historical items and documents from both monarchs, on my visit to England in 2011, including a famous letter from the Princess Elizabeth to her sister and Queen, Mary, over Elizabeth’s alleged role in the Wyatt revolt. She protests her loyalty and allegiance to Mary at a time when a charge of treason would have meant her execution.

(A photograph of that letter (not mine) appears below, right; my own photographs, taken in low light because a flash was not allowed, are generally not as good for reproduction, but are steeped in nostalgia anyway.)

It’s an indescribable thrill to hold such a piece of history in your hands, knowing its history, its age, and its author.*

Elizabeth's letter to MaryAlthough I’ve read a considerable number of books on both monarchs and their times, I have read few on the interim period – the reigns of Edward VI, Queen Jane and Queen Mary. This book captures that period nicely. It’s a rich time for anyone interested in both history and politics because it was at a critical time in England’s development, socially, culturally, politically and religiously.

It’s exciting stuff, full of plotting, mystery, uprisings, secret meetings, international diplomacy and war. And the young Elizabeth navigated these rocky waters deftly. Most of the time. She was the child of both Henry and Anne Boleyn, and both were strong, intelligent and passionate people; traits that emerge in Elizabeth at an early age.

The book also has some darker moments; suggestions of sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather, Thomas Seymour,  when he was her guardian, but that get played here as more inappropriate and saucy than actual consummation.

In the early years, her sister Mary is almost a cast-out: her mother rejected, her religion denigrated, and she forced to serve as maid to the baby Elizabeth (while Anne was queen). That changed as her father’s marriages changed, and when Edward took the throne she was living alone (albeit in state), but one suspects it was a humiliation she never forgot.

The real story, the real excitement, gets into high gear when Edward VI dies, and Mary is crowned. Initially popular, “Bloody Mary’s” conservative Catholicism and intolerance towards any form of Protestantism, as well as a series of poor decisions and polices, turned the populace against her. And the Protestant Elizabeth looms as a greater threat as Mary ages and proves unable to bear an heir. It’s gripping stuff.

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03/30/14

Feetish or Fettish?


Crazy English
I was surprised to recently read in David Crystal’s book, The Story of English in 100 Words, that fetish – which I pronounce “feh-tesh” –  was once pronounced “feetish.” In fact, in the 1920s, Crystal writes, the BBC had that pronunciation in its guide for radio broadcasters.*

It makes sense, of course, when you think about it. Usually when there is a single consonant before a vowel, that vowel is pronounced long. It usually takes two consonants to shorten it. For example:

  • Holy and holly;
  • Mater and matter;
  • Scared and scarred;
  • Hater and hatter;
  • Pater and patter;
  • Diner and dinner;
  • Coping and copping;
  • Caning and canning, and so on.

So logically, it should be written as “fettish” or pronounced “feetish.” One or the other. But it isn’t. And who would ever say “feetish” today? It sounds rather prurient.

English is a wonderfully exceptional language – in that it has so many exceptions to the rules. Fetish-as-fettish is just one of too many to list. Part of the joy of learning and mastering English resides in these exceptions. And part of the frustration.

Locally we have a similar example: Paterson Street. Some folk pronounce that name “Pay-terson” – others “Pah-terson.” Which is correct? Both will be found in pronunciation guides. What’s right is whatever the locals call it, I suppose. To me, it’s logical to make it a long “a” because of the single consonant: Pay-terson. But the city of Paterson, New Jersey makes it short.

So you pronounce it however the natives pronounce it, and the logic of double consonants be damned. After all, how do you pronounce Worcester? That’s English for you.

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