Sunday, September 4, 2022
Yep. I’m late.
Where has the summer gone? My business is building, slowly but surely, and that’s exciting, but I can’t explain why I’m so overdue with this newsletter. But I’m still kicking! Cheers!
A Literary Loss: David McCullough (1933-2022)
A month ago we lost a literary giant, David McCullough, historian extraordinaire, who made the stories of America wonderfully available for and to the people.
I met him once, very briefly, at a fund-raising event where my fife-and-drum group was hired to perform. McCullough had just published his book, 1776, which is in effect the biography of perhaps the pivotal year in American history. McCullough and his wife Rosalee (who died in June 2022) had a home in West Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard (as well as other places), and were intimately involved in the community. It was quite natural that in the summer of 2005, the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society should arrange for McCullough to give a reading from his new book and to discuss various points in depth.
The historical society first reached out to the Middlesex County Volunteers (MCV), a professional-level fife-and-drum corps of great renown nationally and internationally. But MCV was not available (I think they were touring the crowned heads of Europe). Someone in that corps suggested that the historical society contact The Musick of Prescott’s Battalion, my little corps, to see if we could fill the need.
We could! Four of us signed up, three fifes and one snare drum, and early on the appointed day, we traveled to the southern coast of the “arm” of Cape Cod and boarded the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. Janel Blood, Anne Ronco, and I were the fifers, Peter Sullivan was our drummer, and Anne’s husband Scott, our favorite groupie, came along, too, to take pictures of our adventure.
We arrived in Oak Bluffs in time for lunch. With several free hours before dress rehearsal, we relaxed in a local eatery. The weather was hot but not humid, quite lovely for mid-August on a sea island. Our host escorted us to the historical society building where we stashed our uniforms and instruments, so as not to be encumbered as we toured the little town. She locked the door to secure our things, and off we went.
Around four o’clock we returned to the historical society, intending to practice with our instruments while we sat under the trees surrounding the little property, but the building was still locked. No need to fret, however. We fifers lay down on the grass while Peter strolled the shady streets nearby. It wasn’t long before one of us began to whistle the melody of a tune. Another joined in with a harmony. Then another with the second harmony.
“Would You Have A Young Virgin” (1651)
“The Lass of Patie’s Mill” (1725)
“Over the Hills and Far Away” (1719)
These old tunes are lovely airs with multiple parts. They were quite popular among the common people for well over a century, in both England and her colonies.
Our dress rehearsal was really no more than a walk-through so everyone would know where to come in, where to go out, and when to do our thing. We were to play music to entertain the guests waiting for the gates to open at The Tabernacle (the huge, covered, open-air meeting place built in 1879) and then while they sat before the program began. Then at the appointed time, we would escort Mr. McCullough onto the stage.
We played a tune or two to get a sense of the sound in The Tabernacle, which would soon fill with guests. Then Mr. McCullough arrived and listened until we were done. He hustled over to us, looking us up and down in our mismatched regalia.
The uniforms of The Musick of Prescott’s Battalion are not in the least bit uniform, unlike many fife-and-drum corps, which dress in matching shirts, breeches, vests, coats, hats, and shoes. We portray the volunteer citizen-soldiers, commoners who responded to the alarms at Bunker Hill and Lexington in 1775 – merchants, tradesmen, lowly laborers – what the British referred to as “rabble,” none of whom dressed alike. We wear reproduction clothing of this variety of the people who frequented the streets of Boston and its waterfront taverns in 1776. Our garments are neither color- nor style-coordinated, and they all sport mends, patches, grass stains, and missing buttons.
“You’re exactly who I wrote about in my book!” he exclaimed, beaming with delight.
His reaction made our day! McCullough would have appreciated the spit-and-polish, perfectly uniformed MCV and their finely honed musical talent – had they performed – but they would not have received this particular accolade.
To Tease Your Mind
Much of our lives involves the word ‘no.’
In school we are mostly told,
‘Don’t do it this way. Do it that way.’
But art is the big yes.
In art, you get a chance to make something
where there was nothing.
1937 – 2020
More on “no” in the Wordsmith Wisdom section below.
I’ve been meaning for months to sort the teas in my cupboard.
Besides an assortment of tins of teas in the pantry, I keep their stock of bulk teas in large coffee cans in the basement. The tins kept multiplying, like coat hangers in the closet. For one job, I had created a collection of small tins of teas to keep at the office, refilling them at home when they emptied. When that job ended, I brought the tins home and stored them in a box in the cellar.
Over the course of three or four jobs, I forgot about that box and made another collection for my most recent nine-to-fiver, which ended last December. So, while sorting through junk in the cellar last winter, to reduce our clutter and keep the local second-hand stores well stocked, I discovered both boxes. Consolidation was in order, which I finally got around to. Huzzah! Two boxes eliminated from the cellar!
The large tins of loose tea in the basement still occupy their shelves, but from the pantry supply, I threw out ancient loose and bag teas (they had no smell left at all). I used to buy jasmine in quarter-pound tins at Asian markets. I saved the empties – nice tins – handy when I found an online site with good bulk-tea prices (good, if I bought their two-pound bags – two pounds of tea last a long time). Now the cupboard is full of neatly stacked tea tins, labeled with their different teas, with room (not much!) for my smaller population of herbal teas and hot chocolate mixes.
Tea is interesting stuff. It has a history of cultivation about as long as the history of mankind. The specific species is Camellia sinensis and many cultivars (like the variety of breeds of dog, all of which are the same species) have been developed over thousands of years. Tea growers continue to breed cultivars today.
Every tea has a different “bouquet” – flavor, scent, strength, look – depending on its specific cultivar; how mature it is when harvested; whether it is dried only, partly oxidized or fermented, wholly oxidized or fermented, or smoked; which herbs or spices it is flavored with (if any) – the variations are endless. That’s why bulk teas resemble grass clippings, tiny twigs, gunpowder, black sand, dried shredded seaweed, and other shapes, colors and sizes.
Most of us are familiar with three generic kinds of tea – black, oolong, and green. White tea is less commonly found in retail stores; I don’t consume it myself, because (to me) it has no flavor, although it may have nutritional or medicinal benefits. (I prefer a full-bodied flavor in my tea.)
The general public often thinks that green teas are the herbal infusions popular with the hippie and back-to-the-earth, organic crowd. Those are green, true, but they are not botanically tea. (I don’t disparage them: They do have values that improve or enhance physical, emotional, and mental health. Some of them are in my cupboard, too.)
All those variables, which determine what kind of tea is produced, rely on some pretty specific, scientific methods and processes. I don’t have the time to produce a treatise about them all here, nor do you have the time to read such a tome. But here’s a general run-down.
One kind of cultivar might be better for black tea, another kind for oolong (or “wulong”) tea, and another for green tea.
Black tea, the most familiar one, is produced by a process that ferments (or oxidizes) the tea fully before roasting it. This develops the caffeine and other elements natural to the plant. (Roasting deepens the flavor; steaming enhances the color.)
Oolong tea is partially fermented before it is roasted. Its caffeine content is much less than in black tea.
Green tea is not fermented at all. It is usually steamed to fix its color. Its caffeine content is low.
Teas are called “black,” “oolong,” or “green” (as well as other names for other types), but the “black” or “green” label doesn’t mean that the tea looks black or green. Some black teas are distinctly green in color; some green teas are distinctly black in color. The terminology, if taken literally, may not mean a thing. (What color is “oolong?”)
Rolling the tea is part of the final preparation. Prior to mechanization, rolling the tea was done on large tables, using the hands. The Forbes House Museum in Milton, Mass., has framed prints collected by Captain Robert Forbes, a ship’s captain in the lucrative China Trade of the 19th Century. Besides the cargo he brought back, he acquired prints showing people working in the tea industry. One of the prints shows them at the tables, rolling the tea with their hands.
(Aside from that, the museum has several remarkable collections that include Victorian accessories and novelties, unique Chinese porcelain, and Lincoln and Civil War artifacts. It is well worth a visit. https://www.forbeshousemuseum.org/)
Depending on the desired result, the technique produced either tight rolls, the tea leaves looking like tiny twigs, or looser rolls, and even tiny balls. Gunpowder tea usually comes as “pinhead” gunpowder tea (tiny balls) or “pearl” gunpowder tea (larger balls, the size of a small pearl).
Gunpowder tea, a green tea, is so called because its color resembles that of gunpowder – a greenish-gray or a blackish-gray.
One of the weirder teas is lapsang suchong, a strong black tea that has been smoked. It’s definitely a kick-in-the-seat-of-the-pants beverage. It will jump-start your system first thing in the morning.
Another interesting feature about tea is that when it is not cut (most commercial teabag teas are), it never gets bitter. Leave the tea in the cup or teapot for hours and it may get stronger, but never bitter.
Tea aficionados like me (and I’m a poor representative, being mostly ignorant of the finer aspects) prefer our tea in bulk, not in bags. A proper cup or pot of tea is brewed with loose tea – no tea ball. Tea’s flavor develops better without confinement. Upon pouring boiling water on the dry leaves, they rise to the surface. The heat and moisture unroll them. As they open fully, they sink slowly to the bottom, steeping the tea on their way down. Once they have all sunk, the tea is ready to drink. The leaves generally stay put without straining.
In Gontran de Poncins’ book, Kabloona (1941) (which I’ve mentioned before, here), the Eskimos (Inuit) in northern Canada brew their tea, drink it, then eat the tea leaves. The author, who lived with them for five months, never saw them consume any other vegetation. (Some digestive system!)
Many teas are flavored with aromatic flowers, herbs, nuts, fruits, spices, and/or oils. Earl Gray, for example, is flavored with oil pressed from the rind of the bergamot, a citrus fruit closely related to the orange. Jasmine gives green tea an incredible aroma as well as flavor. My mother used to make a spiced tea at Christmas time to give in small tins as gifts – “Ceylon Spiced Tea” with cardamon, cinnamon, orange peel, and cloves mixed into loose black tea.
And lest you think that “orange pekoe” tea is orange-flavored or -colored, the term dates back to at least the 17th century. Its exact origin is not known, but some speculate that it is from “the Dutch House of Orange-Nassau, in association with the Dutch East India Company, who helped popularize tea throughout Europe.” Whatever its origins, the term “orange pekoe” refers to a particular quality grade (one of many) of black tea.
This time, this section is less about tidbits of wordsmith wisdom and more about our individual, personal sense of unworthiness at wordsmithing (or anything else creative). Our inner critic (which we all have to some degree) yammers at us constantly that we’re not allowed to do this or we’re not smart enough to do that. Our culture amplifies exponentially the fear of failure, crushing the imagination juices out of our souls.
A post on LinkedIn from Dr. Bonnie Wims, PsyD, called “Professional Insecurities,” came through my email recently. Wims addresses what many call “imposter syndrome.” This is a self-inflicted beating-up that tells you that even when you achieve success, it’s just pure luck, you’ve duped the world, and you don’t deserve the accolades. It’s just a matter of time before your deceit is discovered and you’re punished with ridicule or worse. Wims’ “professional insecurities” are just as easily applied to “amateur insecurities,” no matter whether we want to write, dance, sculpt, compose, paint, or design.
Dr. Wims opens: “I was 50 years old when I graduated with my Doctorate in Counseling Psychology. It was and still remains the most satisfying experience of my life and I am immensely proud of myself for this accomplishment. Having said that, the five years of study were very difficult and full of deep ebbs and flows of confidence, procrastination and fear that pushed me to nearly quit many times. Why was it so hard?
“I think I knew on some level before I started the program that I lacked confidence in myself academically, but there was a specific moment during the process that brought my deep underlying belief [of being a fraud] to the surface.” (Read the entire article here.)
Another blog post cruised through the same day, with a different take on the subject. Nikki Nelson-Hicks’ attitude is at the other end of the spectrum. Her interview with Kristen TseTsi, “If You Don’t Feel ‘Literary” Enough,” was posted recently on Jane Friedman’s blog (here: it’s a fun read!).
Nelson-Hicks is a zany author whose fiction crosses and blends genres with abandon. She doesn’t answer to anybody about what she writes and what she wants to write. As listed in the interview, she “tips her pen in a plethora of genres from Horror to Holmesian to Steampunk to Supernatural Detective Pulp to Weird Western,” none of which fits neatly into any book-marketing cubbyhole.
She dismisses the false importance of titles, imposed on us by others (for example, “Writer” with a capital “W”), as nothing more than societal expectations, which no writer is obligated to honor. She says, “Think of all the stories we’ve lost because of that fatalistic mindset, that divisive idea that you must be born gifted THIS WAY if you want to create THAT THING.”
Nelson-Hicks is an independent spirit, writing what she wants, and the world be damned if it doesn’t like it. A good lesson for us all.
(Just gotta love someone who wears a duck on her hat.)
Embrace the catch-phrase so popular in the 1960s: “Do your thing.” No one else can write YOUR story.
Calendar & Announcements
August 11, 2022 (first aired)
Dr. Judith Briles’ Author U Podcast – Guest Podcast with Sally M. Chetwynd
“Writing with Heart and Voice”
Listen at Dr. Judith Briles Author U – Your Guide to Book Publishing
Google Podcasts: http://bit.ly/BookPublishingPodcastGoogle
Amazon Music: http://bit.ly/BookPublishingPodcastAmazon
Dec. 3, 2021 – Saturday – ARIA Book Expo
Crowne Plaza Hotel
801 Greenwich Avenue, Warwick RI 02886
10 am – 5 pm
Over 100 authors exhibiting their books, including me
Panels and seminars on writing and publishing
Free admission! Raffles!
Fill those holiday gift needs!
Do you have comments or questions about this post?
I’d love to hear them. Let’s talk!
Happy reading! Happy writing!
Image: David McCullough
Article: “An August David McCullough Carries Audience Back in Time,” James Kinsella, Martha’s Vineyard Magazine, August 15, 2005.
Image: The Tabernacle
Wikipedia: Wesleyan Grove – Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association/The Tabernacle
Image: Marvin Bell
Image: Tea plant (Camellia sinensis), print from Kohler’s Medicinal Plants, 1897
Image: Two men rolling tea leaves by hand (Chinese artist, ca. 1850)
Image: loose tea in mug
Article: Orange pekoe tea
Image: Dr. Bonnie Wims
Dr. Bonnie Wims, PsyD, LinkedIn post “Professional Insecurities”
Image: Nikki Nelson-Hicks
Nikki Nelson-Hicks, interview with Kristen Tsetsi, Jane Friedman’s blog, July 26, 2022