Mustard: From Prehistoric Pot to Ballpark Dog

This is my favourite condiment, absolutely.  I have a book on mustard:  A Dash of Mustard, Mustard in the Kitchen and on the Table, by Katy Holder and Jane Newdick, Firefly Books, 1996]

Mustard has a long history–not only in our cuisine, but also in our medicaments.  Most of us have heard of a ‘mustard plaster’ no doubt, although its utility has passed out of fashion long since.  Where did the use of mustard for food or medicine start, we wonder?  Archaeological evidence tells us that early humans used mustard seeds to season their food…

Prehistoric Humans Used Spices Too

Shards of 6,000-year-old cooking pots from northern Europe show traces of mustard seed, likely used as a seasoning for fish and meat

By Joseph Stromberg,, August 21, 2013

A new analysis of food residue encrusted on millennia-old pottery shards collected from sites in Germany and Denmark shows that prehistoric humans used the spice mustard seed to season the plant and animal staples that made up the bulk of their diet. The artifacts…are between 5,750 and 6,100 years old, an era during which people in the area were in the midst of transitioning from hunter-gatherer to nomadic societies. []

pottery with mustard seed

Food residue encrusted on 6,000-year-old pottery fragments from Northern Europe, such as the one above, show traces of mustard seed, which was likely used as a seasoning for fish and meat. Image via Hayley Saul

So how did mustard wend its way from prehistoric Europe to a baseball fan’s ballpark hotdog?

First a few basics, for ‘them as doesn’t know’ (which included me until I read this).  The flower of the mustard plant is always yellow, but the ripened seeds are of three types:  white, black, and brown.  White (sinapis alba, a.k.a. brassica alba) is naturalized throughout northern Europe and North America; black mustard (brassica nigra) is native to southern Europe and western Asia; brown mustard (brassica juncea) is native to India.  Mustards are part of the same plant family that includes all the cabbages and broccolis, radish and watercress.  None are poisonous.  (p. 10, A Dash of Mustard)

Here’s a bit on medical uses:

“Mustard seeds when crushed produce an oil which is fierce and pungent.  Used externally, this oil first irritates then partially anesthetizes the sensory nerves and so it has been used for centuries to relieve the symptoms of rheumatism, gout and arthritis as well as colds and fever.  Taken internally in large quantities, mustard oil is a powerful emetic, but used in smaller doses it has the effect of a digestive and diuretic, and also a stimulant.  Other remedies incorporating mustard include chewing the seeds to relieve toothache and gargling for a sort throat with an infusion of mustard and warm wine.  Mustard footbaths were a popular everyday treatment until quite recently, and mustard baths for the whole body have been in and out of fashion over the centuries.  Poultices have definitely gone out of vogue, but these messy “bandages” were regularly prescribed for all manner of ailments at one time and often included mustard in their list of ingredients.”  (p. 7, A Dash of Mustard)

I’ve heard of mustard plasters, but not mustard poultices…

While most people have heard of “mustard plasters”—and some still remember from their childhoods when their mothers stuck those smarting congestion-alleviators on their chests—there is less awareness of mustard “poultices,” used not only by Hippocrates, but well into the 20th Century in the United States.

What is a poultice? Picture mixing some mustard into a hot porridge, wrapping it in a towel and putting it on your chest. That’s the basic concept.

Applying a mustard poultice was less drastic than using a plaster (mustard paste spread inside gauze, towels, or other dressing). A medical doctor, Finley Ellingwood, explained in his 1919 work, “The American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy”:

“When mild counter-irritation only is desired, which is to be prolonged for some hours, a poultice is made in the proportion of one part of mustard to four or six of linseed meal or flour. This is not, however, effective in acute pain, but only where there is soreness or prolonged distress. Vinegar and mustard also make a good poultice for prolonged use, as vinegar destroys an excess of activity of the mustard.”

REMINISCING (Column), Metropolitan News-Enterprise, Page 15

Mustard Poultice: a Gushy Version of the Mustard Plaster

By ROGER M. GRACE, Thursday, February 24, 2005,

And as for the origins of mustard for medicinal use…

The ancients held that mustard was good, and good for you, if not a virtual panacea. The Greeks credited Aesculapius, son of Apollo and god of medicine, with creating it. Dioscorides, the first-century a.d. Greek physician whose De re medica was the standard pharmacological text for centuries, prescribed mustard for everything from swollen tonsils to epilepsy, and as a tonic against “feminine lassitude.” The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder ground mustard seed with vinegar and used it as a poultice for snakebite and scorpion stings, while the Greek physician Hippocrates favored mustard poultices for treating bronchitis, pneumonia, rheumatism and neuralgia—ample precedent for today’s folk medicine remedy of a mustard plaster for many of the same ills.

—Smithsonian, June 1, 2000

In medieval cooking, mustard was used to make old meat or fish edible by masking rancid flavours.  The seeds were either roughly crushed or used whole.  At one point in its history it was considered a cheaper way of adding heat to a dish, instead of the more costly black pepper, and it was around before the arrival of chilies in Europe.  (p. 8, A Dash of Mustard)

The Romans first introduced mustard to France (or Gaul, as it was then known).  The epicenter of the French mustard industry was and is Dijon in Burgundy, which is also a major wine- and vinegar-producing area.  It seems that the mustard makers of this region adapted Duke Philip the Bold’s motto (Moult me Tarde) for their own commercial trademark, and it is surmised that this was abbreviated to “moutarde”—the French for “mustard.”  The Dijon area saw the beginning of the great family companies Maille and Grey Poupon (this last named for the partnership formed by  Maurice Grey and Auguste Poupon in 1866).  (p. 9, A Dash of Mustard)

Very little mustard seed, however, is actually grown in France today; most of the world’s supply comes from western Canada.

Here are a couple of interesting anecdotes from the days of mustard’s popularity in medieval France:

“King Louis XI of France (1423-83) carried his own personal pot of mustard, made for him by a Dijon mustard maker.  He had a disconcerting habit of arriving unannounced to eat with his Parisian subjects, producing the mustard pot at each meal.” Louis-XI

King Charles VI (1368-1422) of France also had a weakness for mustard in all his food, especially a peasant dish consisting of herb-coated chicken with a mustard sauce.  (p. 17, A Dash of Mustard)Charles VI of France

In Britain, mustard was used as frequently in cooking as it was in France, being a very cheap spice and also native grown.  Mustard was essential eating with salt fish, particularly herrings and stockfish (dried and salted cod and similar fish).  Tewkesbury was an early centre for mustard production, primarily in the 16th and 17th centuries, as immortalized in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II:

DOLL TEARSHEET:  They say Poins has a good wit.

FALSTAFF: He a good wit? hang him, baboon! his wit’s as thick as Tewksbury mustard; there’s no more conceit in him than is in a mallet.

Another manufacturer was Keen’s from Garlic Hill in London, established in 1742 and believed to be the reason for the saying, “as keen as mustard.”

Their advertisements united beef with mustard in the public imagination, so that beef and mustard were inextricably linked, although serving these two together had a long history preceding that point in time.  There’s apparently an expression that embodies this culinary pairing:  “Sympathy without relief is like to mustard without beef.”  The origins of the expression are apparently unknown, but perhaps connected with this conversation from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew? (ca 1590-92)…


I cannot tell; I fear ’tis choleric. What say you to a piece of beef and mustard?


A dish that I do love to feed upon.


Ay, but the mustard is too hot a little.


Why then, the beef, and let the mustard rest.


Nay then, I will not: you shall have the mustard, Or else you get no beef of Grumio.


Then both, or one, or any thing thou wilt.


Why then, the mustard without the beef.


Go, get thee gone, thou false deluding slave,

Beats him

That feed’st me with the very name of meat: Sorrow on thee and all the pack of you, That triumph thus upon my misery! Go, get thee gone, I say.

Colman’s is another famous mustard name, and well known to this day. When the appeal of mustard was waning in the 1920’s in Britain, Colman’s advertising agency came up with a campaign that used the sides of London buses for the message, “Has father joined the Mustard Club?”  The members of the club were fictitious characters, and there was a list of rules published for Mustard Club members:

  1. Every member shall on all proper occasions eat Mustard to improve his appetite and strengthen his digestion.
  2. Every member when physically exhausted or threatened with a cold, shall take refuge in a Mustard Bath.
  3. Every member shall once at least during every meal make the secret sign of the Mustard Club by placing the Mustard pot six inches from his neighbour’s plate.
  4. Every member who asks for a sandwich and finds that it contains no Mustard shall publicly refuse to eat same.
  5. Every member shall see that the Mustard is freshly made, and no member shall tip a waiter who forgets to put Mustard on the table.
  6. Each member shall instruct his children to “keep that schoolboy digestion” by forming the habit of eating Mustard.

The Password of the Mustard Club was “Pass the Mustard, please.”

Colman's Mustard Shop and Museum

I’m going to gratuitously include a photo of my particular favourite, along with some of its variations and permutations.:

Mustard-Family Frenchs

The following excerpt from an article by Joanna Blythman and Rosie Sykes is for ‘the foodies’ and comes from The Guardian online, Monday 18 November 2013:

Mustard, and mustard seed, is an indispensable ingredient in any cook’s larder. Whole, mercury-black mustard seeds, either dry roasted, or “tempered” in a hot oil with fresh curry leaves, show off their nutty character in southern Indian cooking. Once ground, mustard seed releases its warmth, earthiness and pungency. Smooth mustard brings a kick to otherwise mild and cuddly dishes, such as croque monsieur, quiche and cauliflower cheese. The emulsifying properties of smooth mustard make it handy in vinaigrette, or to help bring together and thicken a sauce. It’s a taste thing whether you go for the yellow, English, sinus-clearing type, or the mellower European sort. Wholegrain mustards can be aggressively vinegary, so be sure you want that acid note before you add it too enthusiastically.

Why is mustard good for me?

The Greeks and Romans were on to something when they used mustard seeds for medicinal purposes. The mustard plant, like broccoli, radish and cabbage, belongs to the brassica family, a group of vegetables that contain health-promoting glucosinolates. Enzymes in the seeds then break these down into isothiocyanates. These compounds give mustard its eye-watering pungency, and many studies now suggest that they also seem to inhibit the growth of cancer cells, most notably in the gastrointestinal tract and colon. Mustard seeds are an excellent source of selenium, a trace element that is also thought to have an anti-cancer effect.  UK soils are generally low in selenium so eating mustard, and mustard seeds, can help boost your selenium level.


And here’s a reference to mustard seed in the Bible, which reminds me of a dear friend who wore a mustard-seed pendant beginning at the time her baby son was born with a heart defect…

Matthew 17:20 – And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.

necklace, all things are possible

And so the mustard seed became a symbol of faith and hope, and that, as inscribed on the pendant pictured above, “All Things Are Possible.”

And finally, what is the origin of the phrase “doesn’t cut the mustard”? There are a variety of explanations on the internet, but I thought this one was the most plausible:

“WHEN MUSTARD was one of the main crops in East Anglia, it was cut by hand with scythes, in the same way as corn. The crop could grow up to six feet high and this was very arduous work, requiring extremely sharp tools. When blunt they “would not cut the mustard.” All this and everything else you could ever want to know about mustard can be found at the Mustard Museum in Norwich.”  [,5753,-2242,00.html]

Of course the expression “doesn’t cut the mustard” usually means that someone is not capable of meeting requirements in some way.

So, while it’s nice to be ‘keen as mustard,’ it’s even better to be ‘cutting the mustard.’

If you are suspected of ‘cutting the cheese,’ however, it would be quite another matter.



VITALOGY, Lesson the First: Baldness, and How Hair Indicates Your Character

I have a wonderful book that I picked up at a flea market.  Its title is, “Vitalogy, or Encyclopedia of Health and Home.”  It is described on the title page inside the cover as:  “Beacon Lights for Old and Young, Showing How to Secure Health, Long Life, Success and Happiness, from the Ablest Authorities in this Country, Europe and Japan.”  The date of publication is 1922, it’s published by the “Vitalogy Association, Chicago, Illinois,” and there are two copyrights:  1904 and 1913.

It gives us a snapshot of medical knowledge at the turn of the century—last century, that is.  I find it hugely entertaining, and suspect that there may be hidden gems in it as well.  At the very least, it is a captivating history of medicine in the pre-antibiotic days, when there was much confusion about the causes of disease–and perhaps a little too much confidence in anecdotal evidence regarding potential cures.  Be that as it may, I’ll give the authors, Dr. Geo. P. Wood, M.D., and Dr. E. H Ruddock, M.D., Ph.D.,  top marks for trying.

I think that I’m going to make this a series, and present two or three excerpts from the book each time, detailing the causes and cures of various ailments.  May we all learn thereby ways to improve our health and happiness…


Causes—Excessive action of the brain, such as intense study, great mental anxiety, etc., producing unnatural heat of the brain-surfaces, thus causing the hair to drop off.

Remedies—People are often led to try many so-called specifics to prevent the hair falling off, but they are generally either useless or worse.  Doubtless, there are many thousands of pounds of hog’s fat sold every year as bear’s grease, etc., to cause the hair to grow abundantly and prevent its falling off.  Washing the head often with warm salt water and combing it with a fine comb, together with regular and temperate habits, are the best preservatives and restoratives of the hair.

The head should be as thoroughly washed as any other part of the person, and that weekly.  When the hair is very thick and long, its roots can be washed without wetting its entire length.  This is important for ladies and those children whose custom and fashion it is to wear the hair long.  The outside of the head has more to do with its inside than many people suppose.  A muddy and confused mind is often the effect of external dirt and neglect.  The natural perspiration is thereby suppressed, and serious evils are sometimes the result.

A very common cause of injury to the hair-glands is the practice, among families as well as barbers, of using the combs and brushes of others.  A comb or brush for the head should no more be used in common, by two or more persons, than a brush for the teeth.

The following is one of the best remedies in general use for baldness.  It has produced a luxuriant growth of hair for persons who have been bald for many years, and will nearly always restore it, if the hair-follicles are not dead.

Tincture of Spanish fly (Cantharides), one ounce; aromatic spirits of ammonia, one ounce; oil of rosemary, one drachm; alcohol and water, of each, two tablespoonfuls.  Mix.  With a sponge, rub this mixture well over the scalp, so that it will come in contact with the roots of the hair.  The use of it may have to be persevered in for six months or a year, and should be applied twice a week.

A celebrated physician called our attention to a fine head of hair succeeding baldness, which was obtained by a moderate use of kerosene, gently but persistently rubbed on the bald spot.


The character of persons is sometimes indicated by the color of the hair.

The bilious temperament, black hair and dark skin are generally found associated.  These indicate strength of character and sensuality.

Fine hair and dark skin show purity, goodness and strong mind.

Stiff, straight and abundant black hair and beard are usually combined with strong, unyielding, straight-forward and rather bluff character.

Fine, brown hair indicates exquisite sensibility, with a strong will for what is good and right, when unperverted.

If the hair is straight and lies flat on the head, the temperament is melancholy, but you may safely rely on that person, be it man or woman.

If the hair is coarse, black and sticks up, there is not much sociability, and much that is stubborn, sour and harsh, in the character.

Coarse, red hair indicates much fire and energy, with unusual strength and firmness.

Auburn hair, with a florid face, gives purity, intensity, and great capacity for enjoyment or suffering.

Fine, silky, pliable, easily dressed hair indicates delicacy, sensibility and goodness.

Hasty, impetuous and rash people have crisp, curly hair, but if it is straight and smooth, even and glossy, a warm heart, a clear head and superior talents are indicated.

White hair, as a general rule, indicates a good, easy, lazy fellow.

The hair, naturally parting in the middle and falling on either side, indicates womanly refinement, purity and delicacy.  When the hair extends and lies on the forehead in rings, it indicates a frank, open and genial nature.

The light-haired races are the thinkers, the poets and the artists of the world.

Dark-brown hair combines the two, and is the most desirable.

To sum up:

Black hair indicates physical strength.

White hair, mental vigor.

Red hair, a fiery temperament, passion and devotion.

Wavy hair, a pliable, yielding, accommodating disposition.

Straight, stuck-up hair, stubbornness and fidelity.

Very smooth, close-lying hair is “Oily Gammon.”

The good doctors do not tell us what sort of a character a bald person would have.  Evidently these people are capable of tremendous mental activity (which, as we are informed, is what caused their hair to fall out), so it seems likely that they might be the entrepreneurs of the world.

bald headed entrepreneur

Image by marin at


At least I think we can agree that this white-haired man might be a good, easy, lazy fellow with mental vigor…



But some of us would have a hard time agreeing that the light-haired races are exclusively the thinkers and artists of the world.


Well, there you have it.  I trust that you will use this information to your general betterment.  I’ll just finish with a disclaimer regarding the advice to use kerosene for curing baldness…if you decide to try this, stay away from any and all sources of open flame.  Or you’ll be missing more than your hair.

Be well, and don’t use anyone else’s hairbrush, okay?


Sugar in the Morning, Sugar in the Evening, Sugar at Suppertime…

…be my little sugar, and love me all the time.  (‘Sugartime’ song written by Charlie Phillips and Odis Echols and published in 1958.  The McGuire sisters made it popular at the time—and, strangely (for me), ‘The Man in Black,’ Johnny Cash, also recorded it in 1961, six years after ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’)

But back to sugar…yes, it would never do to live in our world of convenience foods and not like sugar.  The trouble is that sugar is the current demon responsible for the epidemic of obesity in the Western world–the root cause of high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritic joints, etc., secondary to the excess body fat produced by over-consumption, perhaps.

And it’s hard to avoid sugar, if one uses convenience foods.  Food manufacturers put it in darn near everything that they process, package and sell.  I once wrote a letter to Dempsters, telling them that their multigrain bread was TOO SWEET.  If I want a sweet bread, I’ll buy a sweet bread (although I would never want a sweet bread).  I can make French bread in my bread machine and not put a grain of sugar in it—so why can’t they?

A problem (maybe THE problem) with sugar seems to be that it turns off our ‘satiety switch’…the physiological indicator that we’ve had enough and can stop eating.  So the point at which we should want, or need, to eat any more food at one sitting is thereby hidden from our awareness and consequent behaviour.  We continue to eat to the point where our stomach is stretched beyond its normal dimensions–if the doctors performing gastric bypass surgery on the “My 600 lb Life” television program are to be believed.   So, if we eat to the point of discomfort–until we’re in pain and our eyes bug out–next time we feel hungry we’ll need more food.  And so the fat is larded-on to our skeletal frame with consequent health problems of all sorts.

And sugar is implicated in other disease processes, not necessarily related to obesity (although possibly connected in some cases)…cancer for one.  It has been noised abroad that cancer cells somehow feed on sugar/glucose in our systems.

This is from the Canadian Cancer Society site:

Over the past few years, there have been reports, e-mails and websites that say eating sugar feeds cancer or that sugar makes cancer grow faster. All cells in your body consume sugar as they grow and divide, but eating sugar does not make cancer cells grow faster.

Here’s their website:

Hmmm, okay…but let’s examine that further…

I’ve read anecdotal evidence of people with certain cancers changing their diets to follow the macrobiotic diet–just for palliative purposes, to alleviate some of the symptoms of the cancer–and then after a time experiencing a remission of their disease.

But you’ll wait a long time before you can find any medical acknowledgement of this possibility.  (Please note that I’ve said POSSIBILITY.)  And why is that, we wonder?  I just did a quick search on ‘macrobiotic diet and cancer’ and hit on this link from the U.K…

They say (the emphasis in all cases is mine):

“Available scientific evidence does not support claims that a macrobiotic diet can treat or prevent cancer.”


“Some people think that a macrobiotic lifestyle may help them to fight their cancer and lead to a cure. There is no scientific evidence to prove that a macrobiotic diet can treat or cure cancer or any other disease.”


“Some organisations say that a macrobiotic diet and lifestyle can help people with cancer and other health conditions. But researchers have not tested macrobiotic diets in randomised controlled clinical trials as a way of preventing, treating or curing cancer. So we don’t know whether they work.”

The trouble is that the earlier statement, “available scientific evidence does not support claims that a macrobiotic diet can treat or prevent cancer” indicates to me that the “available scientific evidence” is the result of investigation.  Then there’s the later statement, “there is no scientific evidence to prove that a macrobiotic diet can treat or cure cancer.”

Ah, SO…if there IS NO scientific evidence, WAS there an investigation, we ask?  And the third statement is the clincher, “researchers HAVE NOT TESTED macrobiotic diets.”

AHA! we say.  So THE EVIDENCE doesn’t support it—but wait a minute–THERE IS NO EVIDENCE—and why not?–because researchers HAVE NOT TESTED macrobiotic diets in connection with cancer treatment.

That is my biggest gripe with the medical profession…that they somehow feel justified in claiming that something does-or-doesn’t help, OR is-or-isn’t bad-or-good DEFINITIVELY, as a bald statement of FACT, even though they really don’t know one way or the other.  Because they don’t have any proof.

I’d prefer that they said, “Well, there’s anecdotal evidence that this is helpful, but there are no scientific studies to support it.”  And then go on to assess whether the alternate therapy would help or hinder in terms of a particular person’s overall physical condition and stage of disease.  What would be wrong with that?

Maybe because then they’d have to explain why there are no scientific studies, for or against.  I hate to cast aspersions, but the pharmaceutical industry (Big Bad Pharma) would not profit from a prescription for a macrobiotic diet.  There’s no MONEY in it.

And then there’s this from “Oncology Nutrition,” from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (

They say:

The idea that sugar could directly fuel the growth of cancer cells can lead some people to avoid all carbohydrate-containing foods. This is counter-productive for anyone struggling to maintain their weight while dealing with side effects of cancer and treatments. More importantly, the inevitable anxiety of trying to completely avoid “all sugar” creates stress. Stress turns on the fight or flight mechanisms, increasing the production of hormones that can raise blood sugar levels and suppress immune function. Both of these things may reduce any possible benefit of eliminating sugar in the first place.

Much research shows that it is sugar’s relationship to higher insulin levels and related growth factors that may influence cancer cell growth the most, and increase risk of other chronic diseases. Many types of cancer cells have plenty of insulin receptors, making them respond more than normal cells to insulin’s ability to promote growth.

All carbohydrates you eat are broken down to simple sugars in the intestine, where they are absorbed into the blood, increasing blood sugar levels. The pancreas releases insulin in response, which travels throughout the blood stream, and performs several important jobs…

Good grief.  Trying to avoid sugar in one’s diet might produce stress at a level sufficient to trigger the ‘fight or flight mechanism’?  Very bizarre statement.  One would have to be pretty neurotic to experience an  adrenaline rush from the stress of declining the chocolate cake after a meal.

“When our fight or flight response is activated, sequences of nerve cell firing occur and chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into our bloodstream. These patterns of nerve cell firing and chemical release cause our body to undergo a series of very dramatic changes. Our respiratory rate increases. Blood is shunted away from our digestive tract and directed into our muscles and limbs, which require extra energy and fuel for running and fighting. Our pupils dilate. Our awareness intensifies. Our sight sharpens. Our impulses quicken. Our perception of pain diminishes. Our immune system mobilizes with increased activation. We become prepared—physically and psychologically—for fight or flight. We scan and search our environment, “looking for the enemy.””

Yes, where lurks the murderous mousse, the killer cake, the predatory pudding?  This is the stuff of which nightmares are made.

And what’s wrong with me that I don’t get this…they appear to be saying that sugar does not directly fuel the growth of cancer cells BUT that research shows that, “it is sugar’s relationship to higher insulin levels…that may influence cancer cell growth” AND that “many types of cancer cells have plenty of insulin receptors, making them respond more than normal cells to insulin’s ability to promote growth.”

So, they say:


But that sugar is not implicated in cancer in any way.

And we’re supposed to believe that.

Oh well…

We started with a song and we’ll end with a song…

For a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,

the medicine go down, the medicine go down.

Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,

in a most delightful way.

I’m sure you’re right, Mary Poppins.



Remember this?…  “Do you feel lucky?   Well…do ya, PUNK?”

I love Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry films.  As long as Our Hero was always right, we didn’t mind that he played fast and loose with the rules, did we?  Who cares about a serial killer’s rights, when you KNOW he ‘done it’!

Okay, that’s fun in a movie, and maybe we like to feel that someone, somewhere, can even the score with the bad guys on our behalf; but in real life such behaviour does leave the door open to abuses.   We’ll keep Dirty Harry in celluloid, and avoid promoting the careers of his imitators in our municipal police forces, shall we?  Because his imitators cannot be relied upon to know who the bad guys are–and who they are not–since they won’t have a scriptwriter who is all-seeing and all-knowing.  The imitators might confuse ME or YOU with the bad guys in real life, and that would not be good.

Me dear ol’ Dad and I went to Bingo at the retirement residence recently.  (Yes, yes, it’s a bit of a stretch from Dirty Harry to Bingo with Daddy, but work with me, all will be well…)

I won diddly-squat from the Jackpot, as did Dad.  It was Lorraine’s day to win Bingo, twice.  I don’t begrudge it to her, because she usually doesn’t win at all, and Dad and I have won a few times previously.  But the Bingo gods did not smile upon us that day.  We will, however, be trying again…oh yes.

And that was essentially the impetus for this article, because I went on to wonder about luck, and the absence thereof.  Some people can win multiple lottery prizes, and the others don’t get a shoe-in.  How is that?

When I arrived home after visiting me dear ol’ Dad, I picked up my mail on my way into the house, and amongst my letters were two envelopes to my husband and me from the CRA (Canada Revenue Agency, for ‘them as doesn’t know’).

WHY do I automatically think that somehow I’ve done wrong and will have to pay for my sins when I receive unexpected official government correspondence?  My husband and I keep our noses CLEAN when it comes to squaring-up with The Tax Man.  We deprive him of NOTHING.  It is our earnest desire that he should partake of ALL our worldly goods, in much the same fashion as we pledged to each other on our wedding day.  But even so, I looked at those envelopes from the CRA, and I automatically felt worried.  The doors to the torture chamber and the rat-infested dungeon gaped wide.

It was nothing, as it happens.  Something our accountant did that required some forms to be filled out and signed.  No biggie.

But this momentary discomfort put me in mind of the times I’ve returned to Canada from foreign parts and had to pass through Canada Customs (another government authority).  Never a good thing.  Our Canada Customs Agents were given an exemption from Charm School, God Bless their bureaucratic, authoritative, snarly souls.

What is it about these people that makes me  nervous?  I was born here.  I do not bring goods into the country above the dollar limit allowed by law.  I have not got baggies of illicit drugs stuffed up my wazoo.  And yet the sweat beads on my forehead and I quake in my shoes when I hand the Canada Customs agent my passport with trembling fingers.  I always know that it’s only a short walk from there to a private room for an orifice search.

We live in a country where democracy and human rights are, or should be, evident whenever we  come in contact with government representatives.  But I try not to expect that, to avoid disappointment.

I’ve often wondered whether there might be another reason why I have an instinctual fear of authority figures; because, really, why should Customs Agents and envelopes from the CRA make me nervous?  Does this hearken back to my elementary school days where, as a shy eight-year-old, I was subjected to abuse from a tyrannical school principal?  Not sexual abuse, I hasten to add, just unjustified physical punishment and garden-variety terrorism.  Or does it recall my first job, working part-time at a grocery store while going to school?  My boss there was another loud-mouthed bully who had good sport terrorizing a timid, 16-year-old girl.  Perhaps the earlier one primed me for the later.

My first school principal and my first boss were nasty, rough men (not kindly, gruff men—I do know the difference; one causes pain and injury, and the other would cut his own throat before doing so).  These two were the earliest authority figures in my life outside of my family.

Coincidentally, they were somewhat similar physically.  One (the store manager) was larger than the other one, but neither was tall.  The elementary school principal was five-foot-nothing.  The store manager was maybe five-foot-seven, and stocky.  They were both men in their late 50’s who had eyeglasses, grey brushcuts, small moustaches centred above their upper lip (Hitler-style, but possibly a little wider), and brusque manners.  One would take them for brothers—the one perhaps better-fed in his developing years than the other–if one saw them together.

And I did see them together.

I remember the day the elementary-school principal and his wife checked through my register at the grocery store.  I hadn’t seen him since my childhood, six to eight years previously, and remembered his abuse of me vividly.  My blood turned to icewater on that day, but I managed to go through the motions of checking-through and bagging his groceries while he stood there and studied me, whistling almost soundlessly (as was his habit), not saying a word.  Then I saw the store manager come down from his office and exchange boisterous greetings with the elementary school principal.  I discovered in that moment, to my eternal astonishment, that they were good friends.

What are the odds that these two men should have been friends?  They were so similar, I almost think that the mother of one of them might have some ‘splainin’ to do.

And so I will not stop buying lottery tickets, nor playing Bingo with me dear ol’ Dad, because I have seen quite clearly that things of chance can easily happen.

The question in my mind at this point is whether these two men are the reason why my encounters with anyone in authority will, to this day, provoke feelings of uneasiness and anxiety.  Is it because I KNOW, thanks to them, that it is possible to be  completely innocent of wrongdoing and STILL be subjected to punishment?  After the age of eight I had to be on tranquillizers or I couldn’t go to school.  Thankfully I was able to discontinue these shortly before leaving high school.  My parents never knew why I needed them in the first place.  I could not tell them until I was in my late forties.  I couldn’t tell them that when I learned for the first time that violence could be done to me gratuitously and at any time by someone in authority–someone whose power over me was (to my mind) absolute–it rocked my world.

I remember being that 16-year-old cashier at the A&P on that day, and for one mad moment having the thought of following the elementary-school principal, his wife, and their buggy-load of groceries out to the parking lot to give him a tongue-lashing for his crimes against my eight-year-old self.

It would have been madness, because I was upset well past the ability to speak intelligibly.  But I didn’t do it only because I knew that there would have been more than my own head on the chopping block afterwards.  That store manager would have fired my mother as well as me.  Her long years of service to the company, her ability and her dependability would have counted for nothing.  My mother could do fast mental calculations—a real advantage in those days before scanners.  (Twelve oranges cost $1.72…how much are 5?  Quick!)  She could remember the price of every item in the store, and could multi-task under pressure while continuing to be courteous to the most obnoxious of customers like no one I’ve ever seen.  She was a lady, and a clever one.  I saw that the manager seemed to like her, and he held her in grudging respect, but I readily believe he would have fired her as well as me.  I’m quite sure the pleasure of exercising power while simultaneously causing pain would have been too irresistible.  Somebody else would have had to hire and train her replacement, and mine, anyway.  No skin off his nose to lose two employees simultaneously.

And so, we come back around to the subject.  Luck.  It was my luck–bad luck–to have been thrown in the way of these horrible men at vulnerable, early stages in my life.  How I wish they were alive today, because I feel ready, finally, to ask them some questions, and to demand answers.

When I hear about other people who have been abused, I am able to understand that it is often down to luck and nothing else if one manages to pass through the early stages of life without permanent injury.

I’ll finish this with some good, practical advice to all abusers:  choose very young victims, and—mark this carefully—only cause harm to them while you are in late middle age.  That way you stand a chance of being dead before they are older, stronger, and able to come looking for you to talk about ‘old times.’

Because it might be a very unwelcome, unpleasant, UNLUCKY renewal of acquaintance for you, Punk.–and my other Favourites

What a joy to this bibliophile’s frugal heart is the website! FREE offerings of electronic books of all sorts (books which are no longer protected by copyright law in the U.S., that is), available to readers with no registration necessary.  Book choices may be read online, or downloaded in various formats.

This is from their website:

“Project Gutenberg was the first provider of free electronic books, or eBooks. Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, invented eBooks in 1971 and his memory continues to inspire the creation of eBooks and related technologies today.”

And the online books are organized in various ways to make searching for something in particular a breeze. Additionally, we can see which books are popular downloads for our fellow readers by clicking on the “Top 100 Books and Authors,” or we can click on “Recent books” to see what has been added to the inventory since we last visited the site, or visit the “Bookshelves” to see groupings of related books, or access the online catalog and “Browse by Author, Title, Language or Recently Posted,” and so on. There also appears to be some sheet music on offer, and audio books, etc. I haven’t explored it all, but there’s a vast and growing body of literature available to readers—with no strings attached. Needless to say, I support the Gutenberg project with my donations. It’s a worthy and worthwhile endeavour.

I also support the ‘’ site and the ‘Wikipedia’ site. These are also places that I visit regularly, and whose benefit to me is immeasurable.

I only have to look at sites supported by ads briefly to feel assaulted by their intrusiveness and junk content. I never stay in them long.

‘MSN’ is a prime irritant.  I sometimes end up there, like it or not, because I use hotmail.  Today I saw a headline flash by on the MSN page:  “Four dead, male suspect held in Canada school shooting – RCMP”.  I was shocked by the headline, and wanted more information immediately, but by the time I’d clicked on it, the photo and headline had moved on, and when I clicked, I ended up in some dog and dog-owner lookalike article.

How infuriating to suddenly find oneself in a rubbishy article like that, when one is trying to get information on what is apparently a terrible, tragic event of national proportions.  So I exited the dog-lookalike article, and scrolled back through the MSN items until I found the “Four dead…” headline again.  When I clicked on it, I found myself being forced to watch a car-sales ad, while a ‘McCafe’ ad, with whipped-cream-topped coffee mug and stacked chocolate cookies flashed some animated characters to attract my attention at the side of the screen.

So here’s a newsflash for MSN from me:  I did not click on the news item to be sold a car.  I did not click on the news item to be told by McDonalds that ‘Love is Everywhere’ and that I should have a cookie.   I needed to know what happened in a Winnipeg, Manitoba, school for four lives to be lost in a shooting.  Throwing obstacles in my way will not improve car, coffee or cookie sales.  It will merely cause me to grind my teeth and growl.

I realize that the user of these commercial sites is just ‘a mark,’ and fair game for anyone.  But I have to wonder whether the advertisers would persist in allowing their ads to be played indiscriminately on MSN if they were aware that they risk attracting the viewer’s enmity and disgust.  I might now have an AVERSION to their products as a result of this experience.

By contrast, my favourite websites are oases of calm and repose.  Nothing jars my sensibilities or impedes my access to the information I want.  These sites do not aggressively ram links to other sites down my throat; force-feeding me ads ‘here,’ scrolling photos rapidly across the screen ‘there’ while frantically running videos ‘someplace else’ on the same screen.

Giving Project Gutenberg, Brainpickings, and Wikipedia a few dollars now and again to support their efforts is an obligation that I gladly fulfill.  If everyone gave them a few dollars regularly, I’m sure their operating expenses would easily be met.

Imagine what the internet would be like if every site needed advertising dollars to keep it going–an internet with no respite from interference.  We’d find ourselves continually waiting interminably for our screens to unlock while some video ad that requires all our computer and communication resources loads something we have no wish to see.

Hideous thought.

That said, the reality is that websites require funding to continue their existence; and, for some, advertising dollars must be the way for them to sustain themselves.  We must hope that they can find a happy balance between service to readership and service to commerce.

I won’t make a habit of visiting them until they do.


Peacock-Blue Ink

It has been hovering in the back of my mind for lo these many years that I must yet again make an effort to write a journal–with diligence and a firm resolve to continue it faithfully into the future.  ‘Diligence’ and ‘resolve’ are provisos that must accompany this intent, because I have started a journal, or diary, many times previously, and somehow it has fallen by the wayside.

I think perhaps my problem is that once I start to write, I cannot easily stop before the sheer volume causes my writing hand to cramp up.  This would not be a bad thing (the pain aside), if time constraints did not thereby become an added obstacle to my journaling time.  At some busy time in my life, I will look at my journal and have to say to myself that I do not have an hour or more to write in it.  As subsequent days go by, the tendency to avoid taking up the journal intensifies, and it gets relegated to a place on a shelf instead of my bedside table.  Moving it from where the sight of it nags my guilty conscience is a necessary step for the promotion of a peaceful night’s sleep.  And so I forget about it entirely.  But thoughts of it lurk in the back of my mind, and I know that one day–oh yes–I will try again.

Why do I want to write a journal?  Lousy memory, partly.  I could use a source of reference for remembering things and events.  Also I find that when I record the events of the day, I can feel that I have accomplished something with my time.  I always appear more useful and productive on paper, for some reason.  (Fiction?  Probably.)   Also, some thoughts that are irritating, annoying or worrying can be offloaded in writing, and thereby cease, in some measure, from disturbing my mental balance and emotional harmony.  I really believe that I think better in writing.  It was always a way for me to see issues more clearly, and settle on future actions with more confidence and determination.

In past years, I have used ‘the New Year’s Resolution’ as a way of resuming journaling, but hadn’t intended that this year.  My thought to begin yet another journal started with a view of some beautiful handwriting in a historical document which I saw on television in a program presented by historian Dr. Lucy Worsley.  I’ve tried my hand at calligraphy, and believe that I might have some aptitude for it.  Be that as it may, I do enjoy trying.  So the writing tools one requires for making beautiful handwriting came to mind in connection with this–and also something that I remember from my elementary school days, when we used fountain pens (ballpoint pens not being sold in those days; oh dear, that dates me):  peacock-blue ink.

I wondered whether it was still possible to buy peacock-blue ink, so I searched on the internet, and found some bottles of it on Amazon, where it’s called ‘turquoise’ ink.  There were two bottles available, and I bought both of them.  Then I wondered about a pen.  I have cartridge fountain pens with a calligraphy kit, but obviously I now needed a fountain pen that could be refilled from a bottle.  Found a nice-looking Pilot Metropolitan pen on Amazon (a Japanese make, apparently), with a lovely gold finish, and some decent reviews from previous purchasers.  Am waiting for it to arrive at my door.

When it does, I shall begin my journal again–or, rather, a new edition.  And this time I will enforce a quota on the amount of writing to be done at one sitting.  No more ‘writing until my hand cramps.’  I shall write a single page a night, just before bedtime, with my shiny gold fountain pen and lovely peacock-blue ink.


How Did I Get Here?

Well, I’m a little bemused at the moment.  I had no intention of starting a blog site, but it seems that starting a blog site was in the cards for me today.

“So what happened,” you say?  (A little flight of fancy on my part–imagining that someone, somewhere, will read this and want to know how my blog site came about.)

I started out reading a story written by a member of the writing club wherein I lurk–since I’m on their e-mail distribution list–and wanted to lend my support to her effort by ‘liking’ her story, since I enjoyed reading it very much.  (So I liked her story, and I wanted to ‘like’ it, if you know what I mean.)

The link to the story is above, and she won third place, tied with another writer, in the contest she had entered.

Anyhow, as I said, I wanted to ‘like’ her story, and when I clicked on the ‘like’ button below it, I was presented with a signon screen for WordPress.  Well, that’s fair enough, one cannot just ‘like’ things without being members or subscribers to a particular site, so I tried to register.  And I found myself signing up for this blog site.

Not that I mind.  I have a website domain and have been trying to get back to working on the design for it.  Was side-tracked earlier this year by my father’s illness.

All that effort to develop my own website; signing up for web design courses and javascript courses, and here I’ve just dropped onto something ready-made, apparently.

Am writing my second ‘bit’ for my new blog site, and feeling mildly perplexed that I’m sat here doing this.  I still must try to ‘like’ the story I set out to support, if I can find my way back there.  And while I don’t know how I got here, following the path of least resistance has been my ‘modus operandi’ throughout life.

No point in stopping now.

Navigating Through the World of Literature

One of the things I like to do is to read criticism by people whose own writing I admire; say, for example, Philip Larkin’s essays in Required Writing or Clive James’s essays in The Pillars of Hercules.  For me they provide a bit of guidance without, I hope, too much affecting my own opinions on the works or the authors they discuss.  In some cases, they introduce me to an author I might never otherwise have considered reading.

Take for example Clive James’s essay on Raymond Chandler, entitled, “The Country Behind the Hill”–this title referencing a remark of Chandler’s:  “He used to say that he wanted to give a feeling of the country behind the hill.”  I was of the opinion (out of ignorance, it must be said) that Raymond Chandler was a writer in the pulp fiction genre whose works were firmly and permanently lodged in the 1940’s.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I thought that all I needed to know about Chandler could be accessed through a Bogart movie.  I never thought of reading him.  Clive James tells me that Auden wanted Chandler to be regarded as an artist.  That endorsement certainly raises Chandler’s status in my mind, and piques my interest.

I once sent a note to Maria Popova (of the ‘Brainpickings’ site, which I enjoy enormously), thanking her for her critiques of nonfiction literature, and telling her how much I admire her writing.  She wrote back, thanking me, but saying that she doesn’t write criticism, only recommendations.  In other words, she will only review or discuss works that she personally likes and can recommend to others.

I like it that Maria gleans the wheat and discards the chaff, and I will continue to read her recommendations with great pleasure.  But I also like it that Clive James will give an opinion on something he doesn’t like, by an author who does not ‘hit the mark’ in his view.

In his essay on Lillian Hellman, entitled, “It is of a Windiness,” James says, “We are asked to believe that her own feelings about the McCarthy period were welling up to block her speech, just as the Russian friend’s experience of the recent past had blocked hers.  The two communed in silence.  That this equation was presented as a profundity seemed to me at the time to prove that Lillian Hellman, whatever her stature in the theatre, possessed, as an essayist, an attitudinizing mind of which her mannered prose was the logically consequent expression.”

James’s negative opinion about Hellman does not deter me from exploring her work, however, and I believe I can do so without his comments colouring my own thoughts.  It adds another dimension to my reading, in fact, that I can take another person’s thoughts along with me as I read, and consider whether or not I agree with him/her as I go.

And I suppose that I also do this when I read Maria’s recommendations and then follow-up by reading the original text discussed in her articles.  I’ve found that most of the time, I am able to agree with her, but there has been at least one author on whose work our opinions differ.

I suppose that reading another person’s praise or criticism is a bit like participating in a book club, which is something I have never done.  I have abstained out of fear that the quality of my fellow clubmembers’ minds might disappoint.  Perhaps that’s egotistical, but I think that if I’m engaging in an activity intended to improve my own mind, I must interact with people who can contribute something to that endeavour.  In choosing to read critiques or recommendations, I can select essays by people whose own writing and opinions I admire.

I look at this as a way of guiding my reading towards authors that justify the expenditure of my time–a way of navigating through the world of literature, with my chosen ‘book club members’ in print.  The advantages are manifold:  my book club is well attended, no one is ever absent for illness, conflict of schedule, or even death (in the case of Philip Larkin), and I choose my own time for ‘hearing them’ discuss their reading.  And usually, if these intelligent writers have given their own time to a discussion of a particular book, my time will be equally well spent reading both their opinions, and the work itself.