On Being Normcore


Finding myself on the other side of the professor’s desk for the first time in my life, I realized immediately, as I looked at a regiment of Millennials with the harsh white light of their iThings reflecting off of their whitened teeth, that in fact, I have become old. Well, older at least. All of us would like to think that, upon our triumphant return to the old college stomping grounds, that in fact, one can be the BMOC again. Alas, having been born in the Carter era, this is a lie. To use the parlance of poker, there are four or five “tells” that give away decrepitude—pudginess and crow’s feet, graying and/or thinning pompadours, and attire.

Attire is perhaps the controllable variable, but to what end? My intention is not to blend in with the student body, but to stand before it. What was the grunge of the 1990’s became the 2000’s emo and hipsters of today. And throughout those trendy times, there has been a persistent American uniform, usually adopted about the time one realizes they are too grey, balding or weighty for The Gap or Abercrombie, or wherever the tweens shop anymore. Gone is the conspicuous consumption, the brandishing of designers and their logos.

I didn’t always embrace the idea of a brand-less, statement-less way to engage fashion. In fact, I was runner up for my graduating high school class’s superlative for “best dressed,” having to settle for “Most likely to be President.” In fact, I did not realize how far I had in fact fallen from the runway and catwalks until my sister’s boyfriend, upon a recent visit, remarked that I was “normcore.” And of course, not speaking a word of Millennialese, I consult Wikipedia first:

Normcore is a unisex fashion trend characterized by unpretentious, average-looking clothing. “Normcore” is a portmanteau of the words “normal” and “hardcore”. The word first appeared in webcomic Templar, Arizona,[1] and was later was employed by K-Hole, a trend forecasting group,[2][3][4][5] in an October 2013 report called “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom”

The arbiters of the popular language christened this look, this lifestyle, as “Normcore.” The portmanteau of 2014 borrows of course from the words “normal” and a separate slang “hardcore” to describe a certain ardor for the ardorless. It is like a koan. And a runner up for the O.E.D’s neologism of the year, normcore was reviled by year’s end by the chattering classes; a witty meme that had burnt so brightly in the social media sphere to expire before its zenith. By the time people like your author use the word, it is already out of style. But that is what happens when the trendsetters invent a word—it is no longer theirs. The culture will steal one’s darlings, and put them to its own use.

Thus, as it is now commonly understood, the “normcore” aesthetic is really just polo shirts and tee shirts, khakis and jeans from what I can tell. The devotees are unadorned, with no attempt to draw attention to oneself. It’s ball caps, sans logo. It’s striped regimental ties. It’s the Land’s End catalog, every last page of it. In fact, I’d imagine that most people who reach for this “fashion” are not doing it consciously, or rather, conspicuously. It is an understated consumerism.

But the truth is, this silly word was meant as a joke, an east coast irony, as tweens mock the timeless quality of simply not standing out in attire. It is Zen, a non-trendy trend. The absence of trend. Yet out here in the Midwestern trenches, what separates the Duck Dynastics from the college bubble is a buffer zone of normality—where normcore flourishes.

At some point, there are diminishing returns in the chase of high fashion, the fleeting feeling in clothing that is not designed to survive the season, the peacocking required to win the affections of another, the poor ROI when one tries to sell last season’s Michael Kors to Plato’s Closet. Yet there is a season for that, the hedonistic bacchanal of their twenties. It makes no sense for the single guy to embrace Land’s End Outfitters in their twenties.

There may be other, more nefarious reasons that normcore has evolved de facto, if not by a name. A recent article from the Wharton School suggests that minorities, immigrants and nouveau riche tend to grasp at the status symbols and labels to project success in a consumerist economy. But this of course ignores a lot of facts about who is doing the buying of the Brooks Brothers and the Jimmy Choos. It is youth, more than race, in this author’s opinion, that eschews the normcore asthetic.

Some of the world’s greatest innovators and big personalities embrace a “normcore” mantra, to save the big decisions for well, big decisions. Avatars of the normcore look include Jerry Seinfeld, Louis CK, and even Bill O’Reilly. A real panoply. The late Steve Jobs is a prophet of normcore, having ordered dozens of custom mock black turtlenecks as his daily uniform. Back in my performing days, the monkish Christoph Eschenbach of the National Symphony Orchestra would lead us in nothing but mandarin collar dress shirts and dark slacks. Even the great Zuckerberg limits his dress to grey tee shirts. All of the above branded themselves without wearing a label. And even President Obama is on the record on pairing down his suits to grey and navy (and the occasional tan).  In a 2012 profile in Vanity Fair, the president remarked:

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

The reduction of complexity seems to be the “core” of normcore—the need to simplify in an increasingly cacophonous world. There is Buddhist-like quality to normcore. Like the Buddha remarked, upon giving up his possessions, “To want is to suffer.”  This is a particularly hard path to follow in the West, but it seems to reduce complexity, to allow focus on the more important things.

My path to normcore-mality (?) (Why not, made up words should have cognates), began with the simple idea that I did not want to wear college-branded apparel of schools that I had not attended. It seemed the act of a poseur to don a Harvard sweatshirt just because I have been there as a tourist, conventioneer and online course addict. From there, the downward spiral into normality began. I found that classic British regimental ties made more sense than the latest seasonal color. I could mix and match without much thought–all the more essential when toddlers manage to consume those moments once reserved for pairing ties with pocket squares and tie clips. I also found that indestructible Birkenstocks outlasted any pair of trendy dress shoes. I found that khaki, striped oxford shirts and blazers never, ever change and never ever go out of style. I then discovered the benefit of this simplicity, the ability to move my money into other things, like experiences and learning. And family.

But maybe the normcore aesthetic isn’t about simplicity at all. Maybe it is a quiet resignation; the first deference we give to the next generation of whippersnappers who now inhabit “the twenties.” It is like a former craven boss of mine said to me about drinking habits. As I quaffed my beer, he ordered a Scotch, neat.

“No beer?” I ask.

“I used to drink beer, but then I grew up.”

I hadn’t the life experience yet to suffer  appreciate Scotch then. Or normcore. I do now.

And so, unbranded v-neck sweater and all, I stood before my class the first day of the semester, confronting the horde of fashion before me. The only distractions would come from their peers, not a dandified professor before them. Those students are staring into their future, et in Arcadia ego, a normal, normcore future. But of course, their kids will call it something else.

Photo Credit: Huffington Post. Larry David. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/12/larry-david-curb-your-enthusiasm_n_895714.html


Tipple the Hitch

Glass of Scotch

April 13th marks the 65th birthday of the late Christopher Hitchens, perhaps the most prominent polemicist and essay scribbler of his generation. Hitchens was a rakish provocateur in the model of Dylan Thomas’ style, George Orwell’s indignation with a command of English all of his own.

When working in the DC area, I discovered that Hitchens would stop off at the bar in my office building—Johnny’s Half Shell—before and after his appearances on C-SPAN, Fox and NBC News. At that time in my nascent career, I didn’t quite recognize the rumpled, khaki-suited man in the elevator, perfumed in eau de Nicotine. Sadly, that is my only memory of the man in the flesh.  However my co-worker—an intense analyst we dubbed “Lattimer”—was a passionate media junkie and celebrity hound. Lattimer was the kind of guy who’d stop off to offer up unsolicited recitations on his intense weekends.


                “Good morning, [Lattimer].”

Hwaet! What’s with the trench coat and penny loafers, G. Gordon Liddy?”

                “Funny. Don’t you have an education policy to ruin this morning?”

“You won’t believe who I drank with yesterday at Johnny’s”

                “No, I probably won’t.”

“Christopher Hitchens.” he said, allowing the name to resonate in the cube farm. “There he was, and I sat down and ordered him a Scotch.”

                “Expensive date, Lattimer.”

“Worth it.  Worth it. He talked to me for a full half-hour.”

While usually I’d dismiss this as a big fish tale, there is a kernel of truth in this retelling. Hitchens was known for his generosity of time with people, not just fellow intellectuals, but anyone, who could carry a conversation. He was also known for his love of Johnny Walker Black Label. Lattimer was no dumb jock—he knew policy and he knew people. I am sure Hitch would have dismissed him early on if he were boring (which was Hitch’s existential fear, boredom). For the fan-boy Lattimer, he engaged in near pick-up artist tactics to capture a leading mind of our time for a moment.

Hitch’s preferred poison was Johnny Walker Black, cut with Perrier. Like getting into Wagnerian Opera, Slow Foods, and Baseball, Scotch requires patience and perhaps a bit of personal tragedy to enjoy. I tend to look at my own preference for Scotch through the lens of honoring my Scots and Scots-Irish ancestors, as a communion over time, enjoying the same taste experienced by each generation. For Hitch though, Scotch provided inspiration and bestowed panache.

And how should one tipple like the Hitch? Only his own words will suffice the explanation:

“I work at home, where there is indeed a bar-room, and can suit myself. But I don’t. At about half past midday, a decent slug of Mr. Walker’s amber restorative, cut with Perrier water (an ideal delivery system) and no ice. At luncheon, perhaps half a bottle of red wine: not always more but never less. Then back to the desk, and ready to repeat the treatment at the evening meal. No “after dinner drinks”—most especially nothing sweet and never, ever any brandy. “Nightcaps” depend on how well the day went, but always the mixture as before. No mixing: no messing around with a gin here and a vodka there.”—“Hitch-22


Martin Amis, Hitch’s best friend in the world, advised him that “making rules about drinking is a sign of an alcoholic,” but nonetheless, rules there were:

“Of course, watching the clock for the start-time is probably a bad sign, but here are some simple pieces of advice for the young. Don’t drink on an empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food. Don’t drink if you have the blues: it’s a junk cure. Drink when you are in a good mood. Cheap booze is a false economy. It’s not true that you shouldn’t drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain. Hangovers are another bad sign, and you should not expect to be believed if you take refuge in saying you can’t properly remember last night. (If you really don’t remember, that’s an even worse sign.) Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less and are not designed—as are the grape and the grain—to enliven company. Be careful about up-grading too far to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won’t be easily available. Never even think about driving a car if you have taken a drop.” –Hitch-22.

Perhaps too much thought has been given here to something delightful. I don’t particularly find rules and relaxation to go hand in hand. However, for those in the production of the arts—whether essays, music, craft or other culture–letting the rules go and indulging too much has led to exquisite cultural touchstones (The Beatles, Picasso, Oscar Wilde) and conversely I suppose, death (Kurt Kobain, Ernest Hemingway, Tchaikovsky).

Perhaps rules are a good thing, at least for the mixology. What is it about Scotch and soda that works exactly? For me anyway, bubbles are the difference between drinking a glass of motor oil or experiencing something transcendent. Think about it, like wine, Scotch sits a long time in a barrel, aging and growing grizzled, adding complexity where there was none before. Scotch develops character in the dark, dank underworlds.

(An aside: a few years back, I got to perform a stage production of Beethoven’s Fidelio. There is a moment in the opera where the prisoners are given a chance to see the sun for the first time in what must have been decades for them. I often think of Scotch’s liberation from the barrel with this music in mind.)

Water alone cannot help the Scotch along to breathe again in the sun. Bubbles—by way of club soda—is an accelerant. But the problem here is that club soda is just cheap carbonated water, cranked off in a factory, pumped through a bartender’s nozzle into a glass of finely crafted elixir. This is where Hitchens steps in, to champion an alternative solution—natural carbonation. And Perrier? Seems snobbish at first, but those natural bubbles and minerals seem to dance with the Highlanders, like French mermaids. In fact, when trying to think of an historical context where the French and Scots have aligned before, I think of Mary, Queen of Scots—the Scots-born Queen Consort of France and pretender to the English throne too. If not for Hitchens, we might think of the combo of Perrier and Scotch ordering up a “Queen Mary” instead.

So, in homage to Hitchens, and perhaps Queen Mary and (if I must), Latimer too, think of cutting your Johnny Walker with Perrier, the up-scaled Scotch and soda of our time. And on April 13th, remembering days of Auld Lang Syne, I join other Hitch fans in honoring the man of letters with his favorite restorative (Of which, several posts of “Henry’s Eclectic” have been aided tremendously.).


Photo credit: dvanzuijlekom / Foter / CC BY-SA 
Hitchens by Paintings on the Side by Cara and Louie: An original painting of Christopher Hitchens. Ink and Paint on Panel Original available for sale on Etsy.com

The Original Little Black Book: The Moleskine

Sad, lonely , unloved, Oops !!!

My default mode is to protest newfangled contraptions. I postponed my exploration of the world of Harry Potter for ten years, waiting for the fuss to calm down a bit so I could enjoy the world of JK Rowling without the opinions of the chattering mainstream. Put another way, I buck trends as much as possible. Another example? I took to the Seattle sound of 1990’s grunge–the music of my generation–fifteen years after the fact (and as a result, will not indulge hipsters or the music of Macklemore no earlier than 2029).

Moleskine ruled notebook, inside view

I prefer analog approaches over digital, when possible. Of course, there is irony here, given my choice of blogging (a habit I didn’t begin until microblogging made plain old blogging obsolete). While I will admit to using a tablet to read the newspaper nowadays, six years passed before I gave up newsprint. I will still grab a Sunday Times (New York or London) if I can find an abandoned hard copy. But when it comes to scribbling notes, I just cannot embrace the digital post-it, Microsoft’s One Note or Apple’s gizmos. No, there is only one tool, timeless and true, that I use. And thanks to one of those venture capitalist types–the Moleskine has been saved for those of us who still believe that the pen–and not the stylus, pointer finger or app–is still mightier than the sword (and the pad of paper, its scabbard).

Oscar Wilde\'s notebook

Oscar Wilde’s Moleskine
Trusted reliquary of inspiration, the Moleskine appears at first to be a modest notebook. What gives it is character is its quality, and the protection it provides to what is stored within it. The simple device sports rounded edges and flexible paper weight that moves with its master while stored in a pocket. Stiched binding keeps the folio taut, yet perforations allow for hasty snatches to be removed from the inventory. The originals wore black. When presented in a salon or mixed company, the black book announced to the group that these words and statements would be recorded. Journalists kept the raw material stored on its pages to later sculpt into dispatches by twilight back to the AP or press syndicate. Artists no lesser  Oscar Wilde, Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, Van Gogh and Bruce Chatwin would allow their creativity to splash the tiny canvas, holding onto ideas for later casting and cultivating.

the little black book

Black books, in any form, have always been potent. Some of the earliest uses of the black book–by British peers and headmasters–was as a shit list. Being in the black book meant you were blacklisted, persona non grata. The black book was an important record. Nixon would have appreciated the early example of his own “enemies list.” But, like all phrases, meaning changes with the passage of time. Perhaps the use of the black book by bohemians led to the American idea of the Little Black Book–the whimsical lists of the ladies man, a place where a Casanova records not only the names and phone numbers of his paramours, potentials and friends with benefits (to use the modern parlance), but perhaps lurid details, rankings and measurements. (I believe this function has been replaced by facebook, smartphone and the “sext.”)

As a companion for inspiration instead, the black book survives. According to the current maker of the book, it was Chatwin who called the little device a “Moleskine.” Before that, they were just little black books. These notebooks were a rarity found only in France and in their own way were a talisman of the traveled intellectual. Crafted by a small family in Tours, the slightly expensive notebooks became increasingly rare in the post WWII world of mass production and the “Big-Mart”-ing of the global economy. By 1986, the little black notebook had gone the way of the Dodo, on display only in the museums of those great thinkers and artisans, also extinct.

As Moleskine explains, Chatwin was determined to use these notebooks until the very end:

“In the mid-1980s, these notebooks became increasingly scarce, and then vanished entirely. In his book The Songlines, Chatwin tells the story of the little black notebook: in 1986, the manufacturer, a small family-owned company in the French city of Tours, went out of business. “Le vrai moleskine n’est plus,” are the lapidary words he puts into the mouth of the owner of the stationery shop in the Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, where he usually purchased his notebooks. Chatwin set about buying up all the notebooks that he could find before his departure for Australia, but there were still not enough.”

A connoisseur of this analog technology, Modo&Modo revived the little notebook in 1997 in Milan. And, in the 21st century economy, good products with a niche market (such as Hostess Twinkies and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer) can be salvaged by venture capital, Syntegra Capital, manufactured under the nom de guerre “Moleskine SpA.” I do not care who makes this thing of beauty today, whether Paris or Milan or Turkey or China. Each book is handmade and can be returned in the unlikely event of a defect.

I have burned through about a dozen of these notebooks since discovering them a few years ago, and continue to fill them at a clip of four to five a year. They are not slick like a Jobsian glass screen, nor do they contain titillating apps (though doodles abound). My inquires, inspirations and ignorance fill these pages. They are as close to a sketch of the author as any brooding diary could capture. The Moleskine captures not so much my sentiment, mood or thoughts but rather, the way I think; the things that intrigue or revile me in the moment, the turns of phrase I can stow away for future use. They are thoroughly broken in by the time I am through with them, but still stand up as a reference, a personal encyclopedia.

Little Black Book

I cannot imagine a device that could ever connect me with my own thoughts as efficiently as acid-free paper, capturing the ink of my roller ball, spell-check free and uninhibited, as the Moleskine. And whether Hipster or Crankshaft, Steampunk or Conservative, do reach for this pad, before the iPad, next time you have a thought worth keeping.

Picasso's sketchbook

Picasso’s Moleskine…looks like “Blue Period” work.

Mangled iPad Photo credit: Nina Matthews Photography / Foter / CC BY

Open Moleskine Photo credit: Sembazuru / Foter / CC BY-SA

Moleskine in Red Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA

Little Black Book Photo credit: vince42 / Foter / CC BY-ND

Open Notes Photo credit: djwtwo / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
Acknowledgement: MOLESKINE is a trademark registered worldwide by Moleskine SpA, located in Milan, Viale Stelvio No. 66, 20159 – Italy.

Modern Mona Lisa: Afghan Girl

Afghan girl

This image is considered by many to be the crowning masterwork of the National Geographic Magazine’s photographers. Taken (a perfect double meaning, as I will explain) by Steve McCurry in 1984, the image appeared on the cover of the June 1985 issue of the magazine, highlighting the refugees of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. She made an encore appearance in the October 2013 issue–the 125th anniversary issue of the magazine, a cover girl again. And in between, she has been used as a model for coffee table compendiums, wall posters and other ephemera.

America didn’t know much of Afghanistan when the photo was snapped. What we did know even then was that it was a place where empires go to die. After all, the Soviet Union’s excursion would set of an economic ripple that by 1989 would level the great rival of the Cold War. Afghanistan was more than the USSR’s Vietnam, it was its Waterloo. As for the girl in the photo, so perfectly composed, so innocent and fiery, so beautiful, Steve McCurry captured humanity in a way that Da Vinci did with his medium centuries beforehand.

National Geographic’s team took this image at a refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984. Her tribe of Pashto Muslims were being exterminated by Soviet gunships. She was orphaned shortly before this photo was taken of her. She was 12, before her age of maturity, before her wearing of the veil, and before her child marriage, as we would learn some years later.

Over the prevailing 17 years, no one knew what happened to “Afghan Girl.” But in America, her image became a cultural icon. Determined to find what had become of the magazine’s most successful cover girl, McCurry headed back to Afghanistan in 2002, with a team of scientist, to try to find those sea green eyes. McCurry found her, amazingly alive. If you are interested, her whole story is recounted in the April 2002 edition of the magazine.

Le Louvre - Mona Lisa

For this posting, I began with a sense of wonder at this image–a true modern icon like that of the Mona Lisa. I thought of approaching it a bit like an art historian, expounding on the composition (filling the frame in a near-triangular composition), use of color (greens and contrasting reds with a sfumato background), medium (glorious old Kodak Kodachome!) and context (as described above). No one who sees this image cannot help but be arrested by those eyes. Only later do you notice the tattered clothes, the dirt and grime and the overall intensity. Like the Mona Lisa, the image has lost some of its impact over time. As a work of art, it is a masterpiece. And the same qualities that make the Mona Lisa an icon are the same for Afghan Girl. For nearly two decades, so little was known about the sitter for this portrait that wild speculation filled the void. And given her age, she remained forever young in the eyes of the Western World, a vibrant gem among the killing fields of Afghanistan.

But that art critique is as far as I could go, for at what expense do Westerners get to exploit the girl in this portrait for art’s sake alone? After all, this is a picture of a pre-adolescent Muslim girl, whose religion forbids the iconic fascination with a “graven image.” While it tells the story of refugees, and surely creates a sense of pathos, I can’t help but feel a bit like a slum tourist after gazing too long. Her adulation by photography critics seems intrusive, if not an exercise in cultural voyeurism.

When McCurry found her years later, she seemed so very worn, so cold. This is of course due to custom–to speak to a man outside of one’s marriage is grounds for death in Afghanistan. Most astonishingly, when asked if she had ever seen this image, she said she had not. What could have McCurry and National Geographic expected? The first image was a photographer’s dream–capturing that perfect instant, serendipitously, and winning accolades. Going back to relive the moment seems a bit like going on vacation to the same place over and over–the first experience can never be recaptured. And in this poignant case, the young girl has grown up. Time has been no friend. Her fearful eyes now flash contempt and confusion.

When I read the April 2002 issue again, I realized the bittersweet nature of this art.  I have been a subscriber of this magazine since I was nine years old–a gift from my great uncle who gave me the world each month in my mailbox. I love their work–they are a worthy institution. They are not above criticism though. Taken once, the photo is artful. Taken and used again and again, this work is exploitative of another culture, and plucks the woman from her context. She is no celebrity, though many have made money off of her. She is no victim either. She is a survivor within her culture. And that to me is the frame for this portrait–a true enigma, like Mona Lisa. We think we know her so well, and yet we do not know her at all.

(NB–I have left out her most recent photo from the less famous April 2002 edition of the magazine. Some things are best left alone. We even know her name, but even that seems like an invasion that I am not willing to pass onward through my own blog. And yet, I too cannot look away.)

Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sharbat_Gula.jpg (See ‘Fair Use’ Rationale)

Mona Lisa Photo credit: Gregory Bastien / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Voice of the Past: Mohammad on Cats

Turkish Angora cat

One of the more charming customs of Islam and its adherents is the reverence shown toward cats. Being a bit of a cat person, I was amazed upon my first trip to the region to see the care strangers offered the street cats. People left out food for them, some were taken in a house pets. In fact, my wife’s first kitten as a child was adopted in that way, off the streets of Istanbul and hauled around the world.

The reason for this compassion, I’d like to believe, is human nature. But in Islam, the compassion comes from emulation of Mohammad, their prophet. When not spreading Islam, Mohammad had a soft spot for felines. His favorite cat, Muezza, was described as being an Angora with a blue eye and a green eye.

Several of his sayings—captured in the Hadith—say that Mohammad had a fellow traveler who was nicknamed “King of the Kittens”—Abu Hurariah. He claims that his cat saved Muhammad from a snake bite. To show appreciation, Muhammad stroked the cat’s neck, causing the cat to arch up for more caresses. Believers say that Muhammad’s blessing gave all cats the “righting reflex”—a well-known cat behavior.

For more practical reasons, cats are admired for their cleanliness, as bathing is a hallmark of Islamic custom. Cats are thus allowed to roam into Mosques, homes and hospitals. Food sampled by cats is considered clean—or halal. Others believe that cats are always looking for those in prayer, and will reward the pious with their company.

The most famous cat crazy story in relation to Mohammad follows like this:

Mohammad arose to the call to prayer—the adhan—by the muezzin of the mosque. He reached for his cloak only to find his cat, Muezza, asleep upon its sleeve. Rather than disturbing the cat’s slumber, Mohammad cut the cloak from the sleeve, leaving the cat undisturbed.

While some might see that to be a waste of outerwear, only a cat lover could appreciate such a sentiment. However, as much as I like my cats, I am not cutting off the sleeve of my parka to accommodate their seeming narcolepsy.


Turkish Angora Cat Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn / Foter.com / CC BY

Depiction of  17th century Ottoman copy of an early 14th century (Ilkhanate period) manuscript of Northwestern Iran or northern Iraq (the “Edinburgh codex”). Illustration of Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī‘s al-Âthâr al-bâqiyah ( الآثار الباقية ; “The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries”)  Photo credit: unknown / Foter.com / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Grattis Knut Dag! (Happy Knut’s Day)

Canute, Tallinn

Much of my blog’s content is about asking “why.” When I think about a city, a travel opportunity, a cuisine or custom, it is usually through that particular interrogative that I engage, and thus learn.  The answer to that question often leads to among other things, ethnicity and nationality. So much of our daily habits, from our food, language, clothing and holidays derive from the rich palate of ethnicity and nationality. Usually, Anglo-Americans do not celebrate a particular ethnicity, given our place as longest-simmering in the great American melting pot.

Ellis island 1902

While later immigrants from Europe brought with them some of their traditions, most of those traditions have been either ubiquitously commercialized (Guinness, Pizza, Croissants) or slowly faded and forgotten (Wienerschnitzel, Spotted Dick). Ethnicity, in the long genetic view, is rather fleeting. And in the cultural view, the formula for survival is its frequency of use. Consider that over the past few years, more people have embraced Cinco de Mayo with Margaritas. Yet Dyngus Day is a holiday only known to the sons and daughters of Poland.

I have gradually tried to bring in old customs from my forbearers in my daily life, even if some of them amputated them from our family traditions generations ago. I am more likely to say “Gesundheit” over “Bless You” and have hosted a few Oktoberfests of my own to celebrate my maternal family’s Bavarian roots and my paternal grandmother’s Rhineland and Swiss heritage. I have yet to convince my own family to sup on Haggis to celebrate Rabbie Burns and our Scottish heritage through my surname and my wife’s maiden name, though I do take in Scotch not so much as a celebrated restorative but rather a birthright. I don’t do much for my English heritage, lacking a palate for boiled food, flat ales and fish and chips and all.  


But this time of year, coming loose from the Christmas holiday (a holiday whose trees and yule and holly and elves harken past the Christ child and right into Norse mythology), I found a way to draw in my maternal grandmother’s Swedish and Norwegian heritage, and close out the holiday season with a tip to my Swedish ancestors on Knut’s Day.

Knut’s Day is a religious martyr’s day, commemorating the death of Canute, a Danish prince and heir to the Holy Roman Empire, assassinated in 1131 by his jealous family who wanted another scion on the throne. The day of his death coincided with the Feast of Epiphany, and as the years moved on, Canute and his story became a sort of final act for the Christmas season. Folks in Scandinavia would dress as a goat (?) and take down the Christmas festivities. Knut’s (an alternative spelling) Day was changed to the 13th of January to try to break the confusion. Today in Sweden, the day is usually reserved for tearing down the Christmas decor. For those who still decorate their trees with sweets and savories, the children are allowed to raid the tree of its candy canes and cookies, in homage to their raiding Viking heritage perhaps.

Canute had a relative, King Canute, who was also assassinated. (We are talking about Vikings, here). Both owe a certain polar cub, named Knut, for a rehabilitation of his name. You may recall Knut, the adorable polar cub saved by the Berlin Zoo, whose Bieberesque exposure led him to psychosis from the shutterbugs and fanatics. Of course, long time fans of Notre Dame football recognize Knute Rockne’s name, in any form.

Polar bear cub Knut in the Berlin zoo.

Ascribing so much meaning to a spot on the calendar may seem overkill. After all, most people toss their trees when the garbage pick-up says so. Some people follow the Christian season right up to Epiphany. Others want the Tannenbaum out before the first touchdown of the Super Bowl. Yet meaning is often under our noses. Most of the days of the week in the English language owe their names to the Norse Gods—a “win” for my Viking ancestors and their adoration of their god of war (Tiu’s dag),  the god of the hunt (Wotan’s day), the god of thunder (Thor’s day) and the goddess of love, (Freya’s day). Aside from the days of the week, my choices in observing anything Swedish in my year are limited to either this particular day, or perhaps going to IKEA.

yellow line on  blue wall

(I cannot deny that I sometimes tingle with scant nationalism for Sweden when seeing a big blue box blazed with gold on the horizon. My people?)

King Canute Tours North Carolina Shoreline

King Canute Photo credit: tm-tm / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Ellis Island Photo credit: unknown / Foter.com / Public domain

Swedish Tomte Photo credit: jpellgen / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Knut the Cub Photo credit: beingmyself / Foter.com / CC BY-ND

IKEA Exterior Photo credit: ChromaticOrb / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Knut’s Crown Photo credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com / Foter.com / CC BY

Voices of the Past: George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens on Tea


The Midwest, and other parts of America, are in for a heck of a winter. It’s been cold, below freezing and steady snow for weeks. And, it isn’t winter even yet. Months like these require a constant kettle of water boiling, to keep my tea cup filled to the brim. Many have strong opinions about tea, and the British seem to have the strongest of them all. This has always stricken me as odd, in that the Brits merely appropriated tea as part of their acquisition of Empire. Knowledge of tea is not innate within them, but what seems to be in their genes is a mastery of the prose required to write about tea. Two such Brits come to mind.

The genius behind the dystopias 1984 and Animal Farm was also known in his time as a prolific essayist. Some years ago, George Orwell’s entire canon was available, should you wish to read the man’s thoughts on every subject. One of my particular favorites include his brief work, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a celebration of the cast iron house plant–a plant that served its owner to signal to others that they have attained middle class-hood. (Think about it, for whom would keep a plant that wasn’t food unless one could afford such excess?) Orwell also expounded on every Englishman’s favorite past-time, the consumption of black tea. In his 1942 essay, A Nice Cup of Tea, Orwell attempts to lay down the rules of proper brewing, in 11 steps:

“First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea…Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.

Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware…

Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand…

Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right….

Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot….

Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about….

Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.

Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is,the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.

Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.

Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject.

The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.”

History is harsh to the essayist. Moderns will forever appreciate Orwell’s literary masterworks, but his essays may fall to the wayside in a hundred years. Few essayists can expect their work to survive their lifetime–Mencken, Thurber, and Twain come to mind, but who is reading say, Mike Royko nowadays (aside from your author?) As for contemporary essayists, time will tell if Christopher Hitchens will join Twain or perhaps fade into the ether of the late 20th century. Hitchens, the late Anglo-American essayist and polemicist, idolized Orwell for many reasons–the economy of his pen, his opposition to fascism, and his exposition on the balance every British citizen must take with their heritage–pride and shame. When it comes to tea, Hitchens tried to rescue Orwell’s advice, in his own words. Hitchens made a point to mediate upon Orwell’s sixth rule:

“Now, imagine that tea, like coffee, came without a bag (as it used to do—and still does if you buy a proper tin of it). Would you consider, in either case, pouring the hot water, letting it sit for a bit, and then throwing the grounds or the leaves on top? I thought not. Try it once, and you will never repeat the experience, even if you have a good strainer to hand. In the case of coffee, it might just work if you are quick enough, though where would be the point? But ground beans are heavier and denser, and in any case many good coffees require water that is just fractionally off the boil. Whereas tea is a herb (or an herb if you insist) that has been thoroughly dried. In order for it to release its innate qualities, it requires to be infused. And an infusion, by definition, needs the water to be boiling when it hits the tea. Grasp only this, and you hold the root of the matter…

If you use a pot at all, make sure it is pre-warmed. (I would add that you should do the same thing even if you are only using a cup or a mug.) Stir the tea before letting it steep. But this above all: ‘[O]ne should take the teapot to the kettle, and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours.’ This isn’t hard to do, even if you are using electricity rather than gas, once you have brought all the makings to the same scene of operations right next to the kettle.”

It is entirely possible that in fact, Americans never, ever learned how to make a proper tea correctly. And if we did know, the knowledge has been lost over the decades, a victim of the mass production of everything. There is hope though, as tea purists and the nerdy predilections of those with “first world problems” are perhaps seeking out quality over quantity. And perhaps then, we will not need reminders from British essayists on how to brew tea, as the practice will become innate within the population.

One last note from Orwell, worth repeating here. While I wholeheartedly disagree that tea should be bitter and enjoyed like a warmed over British IPA, sugar in tea is pointless. You’d be better off drinking sugar water and sparing yourself the cost of the tea leaves:

“Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.”

Orwell, always the gentleman, ended on that illustrative note. Hitchens, always maintaining his elan and sardonic humor, ends his exposition differently:

“Next time you are in a Starbucks or its equivalent and want some tea, don’t be afraid to decline that hasty cup of hot water with added bag. It’s not what you asked for. Insist on seeing the tea put in first, and on making sure that the water is boiling. If there are murmurs or sighs from behind you, take the opportunity to spread the word. And try it at home, with loose tea and a strainer if you have the patience. Don’t trouble to thank me. Happy New Year.”

What is your favorite tea? Do you have your own way of brewing your favorite cuppa?

Christopher Hitchens Photo Credit: Paintings on the Side by Cara and Louie: An original painting of Christopher Hitchens. Ink and Paint on Panel Original available for sale on Etsy.com

George Orwell Photo credit: PVBroadz / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND