Archive for October 2018

Internet-related icons

According to the most recently available statistics, roughly 4.2 billion of us earthlings—over 50% of the planet’s population—are internet users. We’ve come a long way since this date in 1969, when a UCLA student named Charley Kline, under the supervision of Professor Leonard Kleinrock, sent the world’s first email message to Stanford University. It was also the first email outage, in that the message was supposed to be the word “login” but only the first two letters—”LO”—made it through before the network crashed. Nowadays it takes a bit more to crash the global communication grid, and we’ve moved on from one-word messages to endless advertisements and scams, with the odd occasional legitimate message sprinkled in for variety. But where would we be without it? I’ll tell you where: we’d be making phone calls, like savages. The horror!

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A glass of water on a plate

There’s more to not eating than you think

Because of my abiding interests in food, cooking, and unusual stories, I was excited to discover the books of Margaret Visser. Visser achieved literary fame for her books on the culture of eating, including Much Depends on Dinner and The Rituals of Dinner. But the first book of hers I read was The Way We Are, a collection of short essays on all sorts of interesting things, from the unexpected origins of words to the stories behind everyday customs and cultural artifacts—each one backed by a solid bibliography. Hmmmm, a series of short essays on interesting things. What a concept! Although I did not deliberately try to emulate Visser’s M.O. on this site, it certainly was an implicit inspiration. (When Morgen and I were living in Paris, we had the honor to meet Margaret Visser and spend time together on numerous occasions. She’s just as interesting and delightful as her books suggest!)

One of Visser’s topics in particular caught my attention: fasting. On a few rare occasions I had fasted for a day at a time, but Visser was talking about extended fasts—those lasting more than a few days. According to Visser and other sources I consulted, an extended fast has some fascinating characteristics I had never contemplated. For one thing, hunger is supposed to disappear after the first three or four days. The body adapts to the absence of intake and more or less goes about its business without complaining. Intriguingly, the mind purportedly becomes more alert, less sleep is needed, and thinking becomes clearer. On the downside (or perhaps not, depending on your point of view), sexual energy and desire diminish. Accumulated toxins are also released, which can be healthy for the body’s organs but has a side effect of significant body odor and bad breath. All this continues for anywhere from three to six weeks, depending on a variety of factors including the size of your body and overall health. At that point, hunger returns, signaling that you must eat soon in order to survive. Ignore this sensation, and your muscles, bones, and organs will rapidly deteriorate, leading to starvation.

It’s Not Food, It’s Me

Let me be very clear about this: I love food. Eating is more than nourishment for me—it’s a hobby, it’s entertainment, it’s educational. I enjoy cooking, trying unusual foods, and experiencing novel tastes, smells, and textures. And I like the rituals and trappings of a good meal, especially at a fine restaurant. I have been called many things but never anorexic. I’m reasonably fit but in no danger whatsoever of wasting away. In short, I have a good relationship with food and have every desire to maintain it.

But as I read Visser’s description of fasting I found the idea strangely compelling. The promised clarity of mind, without a doubt, was a strong selling point. There were also any number of personal reasons for considering a fast. For one thing, it seemed like a good spiritual discipline, a way of refocusing my attention on more important things than I usually think about. I also felt I could stand to break some bad habits, such as excessive (even for me) consumption of coffee and chocolate, and a sometimes inappropriate ratio of food intake to exercise. Besides, I figured I had enough body fat to keep me going for a few weeks, at least, and that there would be no particular harm in having a little less. But what motivated me even more was simple curiosity. I like to have experiences—even if I don’t anticipate they’ll be pleasant ones—in order to learn, add to my collection of stories, and expand my horizons.

Fast Times

So I tried it, and over a period of several years I’ve undertaken three extended fasts, ranging in duration from ten days to three weeks. (I have not attempted to go the proverbial 40 days and 40 nights without food.) The experience was indeed quite interesting and not nearly as unpleasant as I thought it would be. Each time, the overall pattern was about the same. The first two days were quite difficult; the third was excruciating. I felt intensely hungry, weak, and light-headed, and had tremendous difficulty concentrating. But by the fourth day, all these symptoms began to subside rapidly. By the time a week had passed, my body and mind alike had become accustomed to not eating, and it no longer felt strange. I also found myself needing less sleep, and as expected, feeling more alert and clear-headed. I don’t want to overstate this mental clarity: it wasn’t overwhelming, but definitely noticeable. I am reliably informed that my body odor and breath were not more objectionable than usual during my fasts, but then, I also did not consider it necessary to abstain from bathing, using deodorant, and brushing my teeth.

When I started my first fast, I had the idea that I would consume nothing but water. After a while, however, I began to feel this was unhealthy and unnecessary. I did not have the luxury of taking time off from work and life for several weeks of contemplation, and I needed to have at least a modest amount of energy. So I took vitamins and fiber capsules and drank a small amount of fruit juice (or sometimes vitamin water). Some people would say that’s cheating or call what I was doing a “juice fast.” I would differ with that interpretation, but then, there are many views on what constitutes a “proper” fast and that is of no particular concern to me.

The Food Conspiracy

I did find a few things to be unexpectedly difficult. One was exercise. I don’t exercise heavily, but even a half hour of t’ai chi was exhausting. Specifically, I felt as though my muscles just didn’t have the strength or endurance they usually do. But the big surprise was social, not physical. Even though I normally eat at home, several times a week I found myself in some social situation in which eating was expected. For example, Fridays at work were Bagel Day, and there were often business lunches, birthday celebrations, and other events where food was served. Friends would invite us to have dinner with them, but felt awkward when I wasn’t eating like everyone else. I began to notice that so many of my social habits (“Let’s go out and…whatever”) assumed the shared consumption of food. Being unable to participate was frustrating.

Then, of course, when I declined food and someone asked why, I had to explain that I was fasting. This is not easy to do. Fasting for extended periods of time is extremely uncommon these days and therefore it’s regarded with suspicion. Was I fasting because of some medical test? No. Was it some sort of religious ritual? No again. Are you sure this isn’t just a thinly veiled weight loss strategy? Yes, quite sure. How long was I going to be fasting for? No idea—I’ll decide when I get there. And so on. I was hard pressed to give satisfying answers.

Returning to Food

More than anything, though, I simply missed food. It wasn’t that I felt hunger pangs or cravings, I just missed the sensation of eating, as well as the social and logistical conveniences it provided. When I began to feel that the desire to resume a normal life outweighed the benefits of continued fasting, I started eating again. To the extent that fasting helped me to break bad habits, the reform was fleeting, but I still value the brief dose of perspective it gave me. And I fully expect I will fast again—perhaps as an annual ritual, a sort of internal spring cleaning.

If you are thinking about fasting, it is prudent to talk to your doctor first, as some people are medically unable to fast. (This is a matter of “do as I say, not as I do.”) Under the type of health insurance most Americans have, casual visits to the doctor to chat about minor health questions are strongly discouraged—inconvenient and awkward at best. Don’t expect tremendous encouragement either—but it never hurts to double-check that you’re free of conditions that would make fasting dangerous.

There are many good reasons to fast. Besides exercising discipline over your own body, it gives you a chance to exercise some social discipline as well, questioning the assumptions of our food-based culture. And it is, without question, an interesting experience. When you resume your relationship with food, it will be more intentional and circumspect—and more meaningful.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on May 14, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on August 14, 2004.

Image credit: By Jean Fortunet [CC BY 1.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Since I started tracking these national/international daily observances back in April, no theme has appeared more frequently than chocolate. Indeed, this is the 19th chocolate-related “holiday” in the past seven months. In my professional opinion, that’s slightly too few. We need to raise the bar here, folks. There ought to be at least one chocolate-oriented holiday per week. (Pauses to munch a few more dark chocolate-covered cacao nibs.)

Yes indeed, the Elixir of Life deserves all the attention we can give it. And today is an especially auspicious time to stock up on chocolate, particularly in the form of snack-size prewrapped chocolate candies, because Halloween is right around the corner, and you wouldn’t want to disappoint the children. Seriously, think of the children. And who knows? Maybe 500 kids will show up at your house on Halloween. Probably not, but is it worth the risk of disappointing those adorable little costumed trick-or-treaters? So buy extras, and then if you have only, say, three visitors, that is not a problem because you know who else would love some chocolate? You would. Isn’t that convenient? (And if you’re that weird person who doesn’t, I’ll take it off your hands for you. That’s how much I care about chocolate the children.)

Image credit: By Siona Watson (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Detail of "Dancing Couple"

Precision measure for drinking games

I never cease to be amazed at how frequently the interesting things I merely imagine turn out to be real. For instance, while writing a few stories years ago on a theme we called “Throwing Down the Goblet,” my research in the field of goblets and challenges led me to wonder whether there might be some special type of goblet used in drinking games. A quick web search told me, after a fashion, that such goblets do indeed exist. In fact, depending on one’s willingness to stretch the definition of “goblet,” which in my case was boundless, there may be several very different sorts of goblets that figure in drinking games.

For example, there’s a dice game played in Bolivia called Alalay. It’s quite similar to Yahtzee, in that it involves rolling five dice, with scoring based on the values of various number combinations. As in Yahtzee, the dice are placed in a small container and shaken before being thrown. In Alalay, this container, which is made of stiff leather, is called a goblet. Alalay is sometimes played as a drinking game, though the goblet itself is never used for alcohol; it wouldn’t do to get the dice wet.

I’ll Drink to That

But I found an even closer and more literal match for drinking-game-related goblets: something called a passglas (sometimes spelled pasglas)—a design that was popular in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, and Sweden during the 16th through 18th centuries. A passglas is a tall glass—sometimes cylindrical but more often having six or eight sides—that looks suspiciously like a chemist’s graduated cylinder. It is tapered and stemless but, like all goblets, has a foot. And not unlike a graduated cylinder, it’s marked with glass rings or bands at regular intervals.

Etymologically sophisticated readers will guess, correctly, that passglas means “pass glass,” and the name accurately describes its use. The glass was filled with beer (or, depending on the locale and the desired depth of inebriation, schnapps). The first participant drank down to the first mark and passed it on, but if he—naturally, it would be a “he”—drank too much and the liquid level dropped below the line, he would be obligated to drink all the way to the next line, and so on. Presumably one’s precision decreased as the liquid drained, increasing the rate of consumption. Depending on the number of participants and the type of alcohol used, several refillings could be required in order for all parties to reach a suitable state of intoxication.

The Art of Drinking

Despite the apparent ubiquity and popularity of the passglas in its heyday, it’s rarely mentioned in literature or depicted in artwork—but there are some examples. Seventeenth-century Dutch artist Adriaen van Ostade specialized in paintings and sketches involving peasants, drinking, and drinking peasants. One of his more obscure paintings, called Het dansende paar (“The Dancing Couple”), painted some time between 1680 and 1685, shows a man drinking from a passglas while the next drinker eagerly waits his turn.

Nowadays passglases are sold as antiques or found in museums, and are little known outside the parts of Europe where they were once popular. This is too bad, because although modern drinking games may be more sophisticated in some ways, they rarely if ever involve a test of how skillfully one can actually drink. Precision drinking competitions could add an entirely new dimension to, say, New Year’s Eve celebrations—but a modern Pyrex measuring cup doesn’t match the simple elegance of the passglas.

(For a full, uncropped view of Adriaen van Ostade’s “The Dancing Couple,” from which the image above was taken, see Wikimedia Commons.)

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on September 25, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on December 29, 2004.

Image credit: Public Domain

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day


You know how it is with these made-up holidays. Because they’re mostly unofficial, collisions and confusion are bound to occur. My calendar told me that today was supposed to be National Potato Day, and I found a few sites on the web that claimed the same thing, but without any evidence as to why they thought potatoes were the thing to celebrate today. However, I found significantly more evidence that August 19 had been National Potato Day in the United States, while October 5 was National Potato Day in Ireland. So I don’t know what the deal was with the extra potato day, but if you like potatoes, knock yourself out. However, speaking of being knocked out, one thing every calendar seems to agree on is that October 27 is National American Beer Day. In the interest of avoiding controversy, let’s go with that today instead. Except…

Look, I live in San Diego, where you can’t walk a block down any street without tripping over two or three microbreweries. Craft beer is a big thing here. And that’s what I think of when I hear “American beer.” Unfortunately, what some people think of is…I can’t even bring myself to type it, but it rhymes with Mud Fright. I made my feelings about this foul concoction known back on International Beer Day and I shan’t repeat them here. Suffice it to say that there are many fine American beers, and they are not hard to find. Don’t waste this important holiday on amber-colored water. Life is too short.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day