Saturday, March 26, 2011

Today's Tidbit - The Devil's Drink

I had to go out and buy a new coffee maker today - couldn't stand the thought of a Sunday morning without my "cup of Joe", my "Brewtus", my "Go Juice", my mug of Mojo, my "Wakey Juice" - and it reminded me of this tidbit!

 What popular beverage did many medieval Christians believe was "the Devil's drink" until Pope Clement VIII approved its consumption in 1592?

 Answer:  Most of us wouldn't be able to start our day "right" (or get through it!) without a cup or two of this beverage: coffee.  Coffee is the most popular drink in the world today with over 400 billion cups being slurped each year, and the United States is the world's largest consumer of coffee (2.5 million lbs. a year).  But for such a commonly enjoyed drink, we know little about its origins.  

There are many legends about the origins of coffee.  The most common tells of an African goatherd by the name of Kaldi who, in around 600-800 C.E., was tending his animals in modern day Ethiopia when he noticed they were acting quite strangely - jumping around and very hyperactive.  On investigating, he saw they were eating the red berries of a nearby bush.  Curious, Kaldi ate some of the berries and found himself strangely invigorated.  Both man and beast had tasted the power of caffeine!  Kaldi shared his discovery with a monk from a nearby Islamic monastery, who took the new discovery back and experimented by crushing a few berries and then pouring boiling water over them - the first cup of coffee!  The monks grew to like the coffee because it helped them stay awake during their long hours of prayer and the use of it spread to other monasteries.  

Devout Muslims began to believe that coffee was a divine gift brought by an angel from heaven to the faithful on earth, and so the drinking of coffee rapidly spread throughout the Middle East.  Wherever Islam went, coffee went to: from India to North Africa to the eastern Mediterranean.  Arab nations tried to guard the secrets of growing and roasting coffee; it was illegal to sell coffee beans as seeds to non-Arabs.  It's believed that no coffee seed sprouted outside of Africa or Arabia until the 17th century, but it was impossible to stop the demand for the dark, delicious drink.  Coffee became so closely associated with Arabs that during the years of the Crusades many European Christians refused to drink it because it was considered the "wine of the infidels".  When priests in Rome demanded that the drink be banned in 1592, Pope Clement VIII took a sip of it and then declared, "This Satan's drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall cheat Satan by baptizing it." 

With the Pope's blessing, the demand for coffee rapidly spread across Europe.  The 1st coffeehouse was opened in Venice, Italy in 1683.  Drinking coffee in England, famous for being the land of tea drinkers, became so popular that there were more coffeehouses in 18th century London than there are today.  But many still thought it to be an evil drink.  In 1674, British women organized "The Women's Petition Against Coffee", complaining that men were spending too much time enjoying themselves at the coffeehouses.  Prussia's Frederick the Great tried to block the imports of coffee to his country in 1775.  He thought coffee was "disgusting" and encouraged his subjects to drink beer instead - he even employed "coffee smellers" to stalk the streets sniffing for the aroma of the outlawed drink.  Tea was the favorite beverage in the American colonies until the British raised the tax on it, leading Americans to switch to coffee in protest (and to ultimately revolt!).  

The Dutch became the people most responsible for spreading coffee around the world and Amsterdam became the coffee capital of the world.  But the Brazilians were the slyest.  In 1727, Brazil's emperor decided that he wanted a cut of the coffee market so he sent an aide of his, Lt. Colonel Francisco de Melo Palheta, to French Guiana to settle a border dispute between the French and Dutch - and to steal some coffee seedlings.  Palheta not only settled the dispute, but also had the "energy" to initiate a passionate affair with the wife of the French governor!  She was so enamored with Francisco that, as a farewell gift, she gave him a bouquet of flowers in which she had hidden some coffee seeds and cuttings.  It is from these "love shoots" that the world's greatest producer was born.  Brazil's huge coffee plantations soon turned coffee from a drink only for the rich elite to an everyday drink that any "common Joe" could afford.  And finally, if you think you're a coffee addict, you couldn't be as bad as the French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778). It's reported that he drank 50 cups a day!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Today's Tidbit - The "Surprise" Party

Any time I need a laugh, I always remember this tidbit!

During the Presidential election of 1940, the two chief candidates were Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic incumbent, and Wendell Wilkie, his Republican challenger.  However, in the spring of 1940 a 3rd party candidate for the "Surprise Party" successfully stole the limelight from these two men and was enormously popular.  Who was the candidate for the "Surprise Party" and why were they so popular?

 Answer:  This popular Presidential candidate was none other than Gracie Allen, comedienne and wife of George Burns.  What began as a simple radio gimmick and skit took on a life of its own during the spring of 1940 - primarily because you never knew what Gracie would say next.  When asked why her party was named the "Surprise Party", she said "My mother was a Democrat, my father a Republican, and I was born a surprise."  She would pop up on all of the popular radio programs to offer her views on the burning issues of the day.  Gracie on wildlife conservation? - she said she would close all nightclubs by 10 pm.  On whether she would recognize the Soviet Union - "Well, I don't know, I meet so many people!"... On the Neutrality Bill? - "If we owe it, let's pay it."... Her party's mascot was a kangaroo named Laura (1940 was a leap year)... Party slogan:  "It's in the bag".  On May 17, 1940, the Surprise Party held its nominating convention in Omaha , Nebraska - thousands of wildly enthusiastic delegates attended and unanimously nominated her for President.  She had no vice-Presidential candidate however - Gracie warned that she "...had no toleration for vice in her Administration!".  Alas, on Election Day, FDR was reelected with 27 million votes; Wilkie finished 2nd with 22 million;  Gracie garnered only a few thousand, mostly from Oklahoma and Nebraska.  Still, the nation had had fun.  Gracie later said she was glad she had lost.  "I realized that the President of today is merely the postage stamp of tomorrow."... (Don't you wish politics were still this innocent and fun?).

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Today's Tidbit - Harry Houdini and WWI

Happy 137th birthday to Harry Houdini! (and 51st birthday to my sister Molly - magically, she never seems to look any older!)

Most would agree that the world's most famous magician and escape artist was Erik Weisz, or better known as Harry Houdini.  He was a master of outdoor spectacles and life-threatening magic and took his stage name from Robert Houdin, a French magician he idolized when he was a boy.  By the time he was 26, he was world famous and known as "The Escape King".  During World War I, the U.S. Army hired Houdini for an unusual task.  What did they hire him to do for them?

Answer:  Houdini was a great innovator and performer.  He literally invented the "challenge escape act", in which at various times he escaped or got out of any and all of the following: handcuffs, leg irons, straitjackets, jail cells, giant paper bags (without tearing the bag), iron boilers, a giant football, a sealed milk can, and the infamous "Chinese Water Torture Cell". In some of his escapes he was often hung upside down 100's of feet in the air and in plain sight of his audience.  Because of his talent, the U.S. Army hired Houdini in 1917 to train American troops on how to escape from handcuffs! (no report on whether any ever used the skill).  Houdini continued to perform brilliantly until 1926.  On October 26th, while resting before a performance he was "sucker-punched" in the stomach by a young college student.  Houdini died 5 days later in a Detroit hospital from a ruptured appendix (He did not die in a failed escape, as Hollywood would have us believe).  He is still known today as one of the greatest performers of the 20th century.

Life's Invitations

"Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without." (Confucius)

During the week Deborah and I attend classes at an inner life school called The Life of Learning Foundation, founded by author Guy Finley.  After every class, we walk away grateful for all that we learn and share there with our fellow students.  At each class, after Guy has finished speaking, students perform music for the class, and recently one student has been playing a piano piece that never fails to bring me to tears.

The piece is called "River Flows In You", originally composed and played by a Korean artist named Yiruma.  Here's a link to him performing the song (click on the title below).  Listen to it.

The piece touches me in so many ways.  It is at times light and happy, warming me and making me smile.  The notes jump and skip playfully, like water rushing over rocks, making me laugh like a little boy.  Then at other times, it slows and is reflective - inviting me to also slow down and to be still.  And its ending seems a little sad, as if the river - once free to go and do whatever it pleased - on entering the larger sea mourns its "death", its loss of freedom.  The song, as another student said last night, encompasses everything:  birth, life, happiness, sadness, death, renewal.  I'm humbled and grateful by the gift the composer, Yiruma, has given us. Such creativity!

I wanted to write about this song, not so much because I wanted to understand it.  The beauty and joy I experience listening to it is because of what I feel, not what I think about it.  So I want to be careful and not analyze it too much.

I think what I wanted most was to just share it.  I also wanted to remember, that beauty, like the river, is always around me.  Often I miss Life's beautiful moments because I'm caught up in my own small thoughts and plans.  And when I see or hear something beautiful - when I'm touched - it's because that same beauty is already inside of me.  Waiting to be touched by me.  Inviting me into a world larger than the one of my thoughts.  I hope my heart will be open more often to the invitations...

"Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends." (Alphonse deLamartine)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Today's Tidbit - America's Shortest War

Here's hoping our latest military action is a short one...they never seem to turn out that way...

What was the shortest war ever fought by the United States and who was it against?

 Answer:  The shortest war fought by the United States took place in 1867, and lasted only one day!... And the "enemy" was a self-styled "independent" republic in eastern Texas, which called itself the Free State of Van Zandt...  (tell me more!)...It seems the citizens of Van Zandt county would not accept Federal military rule after the Civil War, so they voted to secede (since that had worked so well for the Confederacy!).  U.S. General Philip Sheridan in New Orleans, when he heard the news, sent a cavalry unit to put down the rebellion.  The citizens of Van Zandt, when they heard the news, declared war vs. the United States, and then rushed to the county line with shotguns and rifles, and ambushed the cavalry unit!  The cavalrymen, who were expecting a casual ride into the country, retreated - mostly in surprise.  The Van Zandters, jubilant at their "victory", raised a mighty "Huzzah" - and then retreated to a tavern at Canton, Texas to celebrate...(And did they ever celebrate!).  The now more serious U.S. Cavalry unit returned that night, marching unopposed all of the way to Canton - to find the now less serious (and very drunk!) "victors".  The 100 or so rebels were arrested and put into a crude stockade.  But after 2 nights as captives, all of them were able to escape out of the stockade - and fled into western Louisiana - where they were never caught!  No one was ever arrested or tried for treason - the affair was quickly forgotten.  Except in Texas - today you can still see a sign on the highway leading into Canton, which reads: YOU ARE ENTERING THE FREE STATE OF VAN ZANDT.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Today's Tidbit - Pearls Learned From History

I began writing these 10 years ago.  Thought I'd start putting them on my blog.  Hope you enjoy them (and maybe even learn a thing or two!)

One of the world's most widely recognized foods is pizza.  Who invented it?  Where did the odd name for this popular dish, now eaten around the world, come from?

Answer:  It's not possible to identify a single person or culture as the "inventor" of pizza, though this dish most certainly originated among the cultures of the Mediterranean Sea.  Historical records show that the ancient Greeks ate flat, baked bread that they topped with olive oil, garlic, onion, and spices called "plakuntos".  Romans also ate a similar dish, but called it "placenta".  The modern word pizza is derived also from the Romans - the Latin word "picea" was used to describe the black, burned crust of the "placenta" as a result of its being baked in an oven.  And the ancient Egyptians also ate a flat bread seasoned with herbs to celebrate the Pharaoh's birthday each year.  But pizza as we know it today was first created in Naples, Italy during the Renaissance.  It was originally considered to be "peasant food" - a simple and tasty food that the poor could make from the limited supplies they had available: flour, lard, olive oil, cheese, and local herbs.  Tomatoes were not used on early pizzas because they weren't introduced to Europe until the 16th century, and were originally considered to be poisonous!  Gradually over time, southern Europeans overcame their superstitions and the use of tomato sauce became more widespread.  By the end of the 18th century, Naples had gained the reputation of having Italy's finest pizza.  Street vendors selling small pizzas (typically young boys) walked around the city with small tin stoves on their heads, calling out to attract customers for their freshly baked pies. (Talk about "hotheads"!)  The world's first true pizzeria was "Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba", which opened in 1830, and is still in business today.  (Now called "Via Port ‘Alba 18").  If there's any one man most responsible for what we know as pizza today it was an Italian chef, Raffeale Esposito of Naples.  In 1889, he baked a special pizza to honor the visit of King Umberto and Queen Margherita to his city.  To make the pizza more patriotic-looking, Esposito used red tomato sauce, white mozzarella cheese, and green basil leaves as his toppings to match the colors on the Italian flag.  The Queen loved the pizza, and Esposito's version soon became known as "Pizza Margherita", and is the model for most pizzas we eat today.  Pizza came to the United States at the end of the 19th century with the waves of Italian immigrants.  The first true pizzeria in the U.S. opened in 1905: "Lombardi's" at Spring Street in New York City (also still in business today).  But it wasn't until after World War II that pizza became a "national dish" for Americans - spurred by American GIs returning home from the war in Europe and wanting to eat the pizza they'd loved while in Italy. In the last 50 years pizza has become a part of almost all cuisines, though often topped with unusual ingredients (you can buy a "reindeer sausage" pizza in Iceland!).  February 9th is "International Pizza Pie" Day.  Americans eat an average of 23 pounds of pizza each per year, with pepperoni pizza being the clear favorite.  And in Naples, the "pizza capital of the world", the Association of True Neapolitan Pizza" ("Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana") maintains strict regulations insuring that pizza there is still made in the same way it was 100 years ago.

Fall Seven Times - Stand Up Eight

"Fall seven times - stand up eight." (Japanese proverb)

When I think of Japan, this is what comes to mind.  Serenity.  Peace.  Beautiful gardens.  Haiku and silk kimonos.  Beauty found in the smallest brush stroke and every sip of green tea.  A people living in a world that is one with nature.  I admit that I've never been to Japan, so most of what comes to mind are just images; my imagination at work, as it often is, creating "pretty pictures" for me to think about.

But then, life intrudes on the pretty pictures and gives me a jolt.  Ten days ago, a massive earthquake (the 5th largest in history) rocked northern Japan and generated 40 ft. tall tsunami waves that pulverized the country, killing thousands, leaving millions homeless.

And I've been left mostly speechless.  Humbled by the awesome power of the ocean and Earth.  Staggered, as I'm sure the survivors of this tragedy are, by the random suddenness of it.  One minute, it was just another Friday afternoon:  children heading home from school, people looking forward to the weekend.  Twenty minutes later, their entire world destroyed.

The shock waves from the quake and tsunami traveled all the way to my little world.  Harbors in Crescent City, CA and Brookings, OR destroyed.  Ripples of fear, fueled by sensational media reports, sent some people scurrying to other "safer" parts of the world.  And though I was certain that I and Deborah were safe and sound, I wondered, "What was there for me to learn from this?"

Then I saw this picture, and many others like it.

A small group of survivors in Japan, surrounded by the rubble of all that they perhaps once knew as their homes.  Praying.  Not fighting, not weeping, not angry, not running to "someplace safer".  Praying together.  I'm sure asking God for help.  Praying for each other.  Patiently waiting to rebuild a world in shambles.

The picture moves me.  Such is the nature of true courage; of true grace; of true strength.  These people show me that when Life's storms rock my world, when its tsunamis wash away my confidence and poise, my real strength will be found simply in surrendering - surrendering to Life, asking God for help, instead of scrambling to "fix everything" myself, or crying out in anguish.  And they remind me of the power of persistence.  Patiently waiting.  Being willing to accept what Life brings to me, and to act when called, knowing that what I need will be given me.

Precious pearls uncovered by this tragedy, thousands of miles away.

Today I pray for the people of Japan.  May they receive the help they need.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spring's Happy Nudgings

"Italy, and the spring, and first love all together should suffice to make the gloomiest person happy." (Bertrand Russell)

I always knew that my heritage was mostly German, with a little Finnish sprinkled in (just for fun?).  And at times, I love to pretend that I'm "Irish" and stroll around with a twinkle in my eye and a knack for telling a bit of blarney.  But now it seems clear that there is another genus in my genes, another latent lineage, unrecognized until  this morning, when I rose and sat squinting out my window at the gray March morning.

Grants Pass' resident groundhog, "Mr. Marmota Monax", had reappeared!  The West Coast's version of Punxsutawney Phil had risen after apparently seeing his shadow 8 weeks ago and fleeing back into his hole.  Now at last, the first faint whispers of spring, the first dim rays of sun, peeking through the clouds had finally tickled his toes and gently lured him back out.  "Come out and play!  See what's new!".  And here I am.

"Spring is God's way of saying, 'One more time!" (Robert Orben)

I am grateful for Spring's persistent nudgings - to begin again.  To venture out again.  To stretch and to grow, and to breathe fresh air and to shake off the dust and cobwebs of busyness, of sameness, of "I'm too tired", and "Maybe tomorrow".  Spring invites me to take off my cozy winter slippers and put on my Wellies and yellow slicker and jump messily back into the puddles of Life.

So, as I enjoy this week of Spring vacation, I'll go about doing just that.  I'll whistle happily while Deborah and I swirl around the house doing our Spring cleaning:  new paint, new kitchen counters, "Out with the old!  Bring in the new colors and carpet!  Easter bunnies, yes - dust bunnies not allowed!"  Our home will be refreshed and reborn - new and alive - and so will I.

And like the little pink crocuses poking their heads up outside my window, I'll even find the time to write again.  Because I know it helps something good inside of me bloom.

Life's treasures are found only through Life's stirrings...and being willing to be stirred.

So, let Spring be sprung!  Time to "Stop dilly-dallying, Jonathan!" (as my mother would say!)...and time to get busy!