Back in April I wrote in this blog that technological change appears to be accompanied by old jokes. That was six months ago, and jokes have dried up a bit. The boredom continues, but people have overcome isolation through the use of modern devices. The use of new technology changes how we live.
For example, new technology has changed our lives by providing us with virtual education through Zoom meetings. My granddaughter before the pandemic played drums in the high school band. The pandemic stopped that. Now she teaches younger students how to play percussion through the internet. She has two students, one eight-year-old and one about thirteen, and she has written to me about her challenges teaching drums using Zoom.
My granddaughter becomes irritated after sitting in front of a computer screen for eight hours doing high school work. She takes a break by writing me a long-hand letter that she places in an envelope, stamps and mails. I’m sure she also bangs on her drums now and then for the pleasure it gives her. I treasure her letters and they bring back old memories.
Fountain Pens Were Once New Technology
My father’s pen, coated in dark red wood, felt heavy in my hand. An early fountain pen, its gold point wrote smoothly. My father loved doing this. I think his pen, a gift from his parents, brought back memories of his childhood. He loved the beautiful sleek instrument and valued it more than jewelry.
Fountain pens came with rubber inserts that carried more ink than a simple dipping, and in its day represented a great innovation, a new technology. The defective ones leaked, but fine fountain pens became works of art and style. They were favorite gifts to children, and writers used them to create wondrous long letters. Without the fountain pen, Bob Dylan might not have written the 20-page letter to an ex-girlfriend, from which he later extracted the lyrics to “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Fountain Pens Had Style
In response to my grand-daughter’s letter, I dragged out my old fountain pens from a box at the top of my closet. I answered her last letter using one and it wasn’t easy. Like shoes, fountain pens have to be used regularly to feel comfortable. Their points change shape over time and the pressure used by the writer affects how much ink is released. I wasn’t used to my own pens, and my favorite one seemed scratchy. In this case, technology (new pens) has changed my life for the better.
Nobody thinks about pens as valuable any more. Modern technology produces pens that write smoothly, are cheap and easily replaced. Who needs fancy pens when nobody writes letters? The old companies- Parker, Waterman, Cross- don’t exist any longer. Their brand names now belong to foreign firms that manufacture mostly in China. We communicate through smart phones and the internet.
Technology Changes Life in Unforeseen Ways
We already can see the next revolution in how people will live. Pens are ordinary cheap instruments, but changes in their use affects the economy. Great companies disappear when people no longer buy their products. We can’t foresee all the effects of people moving their work back into the home, and communicating electronically instead of personally or through the mail.
Ruth Goldman in her book “The Domestic Revolution” writes about the shift from wood to coal fuel in sixteenth century Elizabethan England. The population of London grew and wood prices became exorbitant because wood had to be shipped from miles away overland. Coal could be shipped by sea from Newcastle. Britain was the first country to convert from wood to coal fuel and it happened quickly.
The switch to coal transformed the country. Since wood wasn’t needed for fuel, forest areas were converted to agriculture. Smoke stacks with chimneys were built to vent the noxious fumes caused by coal fire. Once tall smoke stacks were being constructed, it made sense to build larger buildings and London began to see two and three-story buildings topped by chimneys.
Coal burned hotter than wood and British industry began to develop and produce cooking utensils made of iron and brass. This laid the foundation for the Industrial Revolution hundreds of years later, based on knowledge and machinery using iron and coal.
Technology changed life dramatically. People cooked, ate and lived differently. Coal fires stained walls and wall hangings. Tapestries came down and wall paints were developed as well as wall papers. Coal ovens could be regulated producing a steady temperature. The use of coal-fire for cooking allowed foods to be roasted. With the new technology, the British invented boiled puddings and kidney pies.
Coal Fire Made Possible the Baking of Steak and Kidney Pie
Will the Use of Virtual Communication and Technology Change How we Live Long-term?
Moving people back to home from the place of work reverses trends of the last few hundred years. The industrial revolution began with cottage industries. Workers in their own homes had to produce goods, without regulation of hours, working conditions and no restrictions on child labor. When factories were built, they were considered an advance in living conditions. Factories had light, heat, and were designed to produce goods efficiently.
Factories moved manufacturing out of the home and away from crafts and hand labor. Eventually abuses brought about strikes and legislation regulating conditions of work.
When we move work back to the home, we aren’t going back to the eighteenth century. We’ll expect our salaries, pensions, health care and other legislatively provided protections to continue.
Nevertheless, we’re moving back. A house that contains workers as well as families has to be built to accommodate all the functions necessary for the people living and working in it. Will houses be redesigned to house work spaces? What would that kind of house look like?
If very many people work at home, will food delivery services have to improve and increase? What will happen to food production and delivery, if restaurants stay in a state of decline? Will our stay-at-home chefs come up with brand new food ideas and how to prepare them?
What about big cities and big office buildings? Will the city of the future be simply an entertainment park where very little productive work is done? Technology changes how we live, how we eat, and how we work in unpredictable ways.
Technology has Already Changed How We Live and More Change is Coming
We are aware of how technology changes how we live, but we don’t see the wider picture of where we are going.
But the following describes what we are experiencing now:
- You have a list of 15 phone numbers to reach a family of four
- Your reason for not staying in touch with friends and family is that they don’t have email addresses
- Accidentally you enter your password on the microwave
- You haven’t played solitaire with real cards in years
- You pull in your own driveway and use your cell phone to see if anyone is home to help you carry in the groceries.
During the Golden Age of Piracy (the early eighteenth century) royal governors treated pirates as criminals, even though no established law of the seas existed. Pirates operated outside the law, and brought prosperity, and even chocolate. Pirates when caught on land could be held in jail for ransom or executed for crimes against the king’s justice.
Ship owners, to avoid being labeled pirates and hounded by tax collectors, could pay for a charter issued by the king’s bureaucracy. They could then sail their ships for the mother country and pillage whatever other ships they could find. A pirate with a charter complied with the law. He became a privateer, and on the seas he could break all of the laws that existed on land.
Pirate Ships at Work
Who Became a Pirate under the Law?
The general public saw through this and didn’t think of pirates as criminals. If ships brought needed goods to the ports of the new world and sold them at a fair price, the pirates who sailed them became popular. Blackbeard was popular during his lifetime and remains so to this day.
Of course, if pirates didn’t pay the ransom demanded by the law established by royal bureaucrats and governors for their charters, they could sell their goods at a competitive price. They could charge less for the same goods, compared to privateers who paid the price of the charters.
In the early 1700s only people appointed by the established monarchy could become governors and bureaucrats. Civil service exams didn’t exist. In Virginia, the House of Burgesses exercised power over local taxation, but the bureaucrats in London decided the cost of a ship’s charter for ships crossing the ocean.
Pirates operated outside the law and freely. On the seas they could make their own laws. They elected their captains and adopted a system of sharing the profits from their voyages. In this environment, pirates could enlist whole crews of ships they seized at sea as volunteers. Sailors decided to join pirate fleets for the feeling of freedom and the hopes of sharing in the ship’s profits.
Pirate captains commanded large fleets. For example, historians estimate that Blackbeard commanded a fleet of more than forty ships when he blockaded Charleston harbor in 1718. For more on this, see my book, Blackbeard’s Legacy.
Pirates, the Law, Science, and the Development of Chocolate
Not only sailors on rival ships joined pirate fleets. Anyone with a skill that could be used on board a ship could try to join. For example, people who wanted to see the world volunteered. A ship needed navigators, doctors, and a variety of specialists. If a ship operator planned to load agricultural products and foodstuffs, he needed a specialist or botanist to help with the selection, loading and description of the cargo’s uses.
William Hughes, a serious botanist, served on ships that plundered the Caribbean in the 1630s. Hughes was interested in the characteristics of the New World’s plants. A low ranking sailor, he manned a long boat that took sailors to shore during various raids.
Hughes used his opportunities to explore unknown coasts. He met with native peoples and took detailed notes on his discoveries. After he returned to England he published a treatise on New World botany, The American Physitian (1672). In it he included notes on sugarcane which he described as “both pleasant and profitable”. He described lime as “excellent good against the Scurvie.”
The longest entry in Hughes’ book addressed chocolate which he described as “the American Nectar.” He included a recipe and a long list of potential ingredients. His hot chocolate recipe is discussed by Marissa Nicosia of Cooking in the Archives in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s “First Chefs” exhibition.
Pirates and Law: Chocolate is Still with Us
When Hughes sailed, Spain and much of Europe already drank hot chocolate. Columbus had brought the cacao bean to Europe more than a century earlier. Hot chocolate had already become a popular drink sold from street carts and chocolate houses.
Hughes didn’t say much about his experience as a buccaneer, but returned to his profession as botanist and gardener. He ended his life working at the country estate of a noblewoman, Viscountess Conway. In his later years, he published a book on grapevines, and later his notes on the New World.
Here is Marissa Nicosia’s plate of ingredients for hot chocolate (cocoa nibs, chopped dark chocolate, cocoa powder, sugar, vanilla, breadcrumbs, chili flakes, and milk):
Ingredients for Hot Chocolate
Jokes about Chocolate
An elderly man lay dying in his bed.
In death’s agony, he suddenly smelled the aroma of his favorite chocolate chip cookies wafting up the stairs.
Gathering his strength, he lifted himself from his bed. He slowly made his way out of the bedroom, and, with even greater effort, forced himself down the stairs, gripping the railing with both hands. With labored breath, he leaned against the door, gazing into the kitchen.
Were it not for death’s agony, he would have thought himself already in heaven: there, spread out on the kitchen table, were hundreds of his favorite chocolate chip cookies.
Mustering one final effort, he threw himself toward the table. His aged and withered hand painstakingly made its way toward a cookie when it was suddenly smacked by a spatula.
“Stay out of those,” said his wife, “they’re for the funeral.”
If Bob has thirty chocolate bars, and eats 25, what does he have?
Never eat more chocolate than you can lift.
Stuck in my house since March due to the pandemic, I now write short essays and letters instead of major 50,000 word pieces. I think short pieces are easier to follow, and from letters I seek understanding.
Last year, I completed a document detailing my experience being treated for lymphoma. Now I hate to remind myself about anything to do with that. I can’t look at the piece. It sits in my computer, like a sulking neglected child. It cries to me and makes demands, but I resolutely ignore it.
Instead, I started a blog. I also write letters to my grandchildren. These are actual paper letters, written by hand, placed in an envelope with a stamp, and delivered by the post office. Remember what those are?
Last week I received my first response, from my fourteen- year- old granddaughter. She writes, “It’s been forever since I’ve had to write a letter. Emails just aren’t the same.”
What a clever girl!!
She can write, and her handwriting is less cursive and much easier to decipher than mine. My writing is cursive destroyed by years of practice and annoyance at how long it takes to put my brain on paper. After all, there’s much more in my head than a few written words can say.
When I started my essay about lymphoma, I thought about my own personal history. For my generation, major events were communicated by letter. People understood what was happening from letters. I guess that’s why I write to grandchildren.
Understanding Letters and Family History
For example, in my family, letters went back and forth constantly. My mother lived in New York City, as did two sisters and three brothers. Two more sisters and a brother lived in Richmond, Virginia. My two aunts from Virginia came to visit every year when my grandfather was alive. They took the train and spent their time on board playing canasta, evidently with numerous other people taking the same trip. Always arriving with pockets full of cash and newly minted silver dollars which they used for gifts to the children, they came with stories, gossip, and jokes. The rest of the year, they exchanged letters with the New York family.
My mother wrote her letters using Hebraic letters, but they were not in Yiddish. She used the Hebrew script to write letters in English, as did her sisters in Richmond. The Virginians always ended their letters with a “Love y’all,” phonetically written out using Hebrew script. They understood each other’s letters without difficulty, though I’m sure I couldn’t decipher them easily.
In contrast, my father treated a letter from a brother in Europe or a sister in Brazil as a major event. He wrote most of his correspondence in Russian and kept his family’s letters to himself. The letters told him about the events of World War II, the murders of his parents and his brother’s serving in the Russian army at Stalingrad. He hid a few photos in a small drawer away from everything else, as though if we were to touch or see them they would bring harm of some kind. My father never spoke out loud about these letters, although in response to them we sent regular CARE packages to his family in Europe after World War II ended.
Letters, Meaning and Understanding
Letters aren’t like electronic texts. When we understand them, they show force and strength, weakness and sorrow, love and happiness. Every person has a unique handwriting and choice of how to say things. Understanding written letters allows us to know something personal about the person who wrote them.
Physical writing isn’t easy. A writer looks at the blank page and knows that somehow it needs to be filled with something meaningful that another person can understand. The way a person writes can tell a lot about the writer, apart from the words being inscribed. Letters are about understanding meaning.
All of my historical novels introduce fictional characters who read and write authentic letters that carry the story. The more recent the time period, the more material exists in libraries. Letters held in libraries sometimes are originals; sometimes they have been transcribed into typed versions. Seeing the old letters, the wording, the size of the script, and the force with which script was put on paper, gives us some understanding of the character of the writer.
Revolution and History as Seen from an Understanding of Letters
My latest book, Washington’s Shadow, is based on the personal correspondence of Leven Powell with his family and about his work for George Washington. Powell knew Washington personally and worked for him in many capacities for over thirty years. In his later years, at Washington’s request, he ran for office and served as an elector in the 1796 election.
Washington Surveying the Field
Leven Powell was a supporter of revolution and an owner of a mill and a farm. Like Washington, he looked to the west. He wanted growth and expansion, and the settlement of new land. Serving as a colonel in the field during the revolution, he spent much time writing his wife detailed letters. Here is one excerpt, describing his feelings about a meeting of truce with representatives of his enemy, the British military:
I have been uneasy at not hearing from you for some time… Since my last letter, this neighborhood has been honored by the company of great men… As the head of a flag of truce…I had the honor of breakfasting on the best Hyson Tea with the Commodore, General Clinton, Lord Dunmore and several gentlemen Officers. I was received and treated with great politeness by the whole…On board the “Kitty” vessel I found 12 or 15 Officers, the most hospitable, kind people I ever met. …their treatment of me was so exceedingly kind that on my return I sent them a present of 20 bushels of oysters, 30 loaves of bread, a goose and a turkey. It grieves me to see men of such sentiments as those engaged in such a cause.
What His Letters Say About Leven
Understanding this letter tells a lot about Leven. When he wrote it, he held the rank of colonel and led a small army. Favoring the American cause from the earliest days leading up to the first hostilities, he’d served in militias and was a friend of George Washington. And he was a gentleman. Leven didn’t see the British officers he met as monsters and enemies to be slaughtered. He found them to be kind, and favored them with a generous gift of food.
Washington’s Shadow is a novel, a story of Leven Powell’s children and the first wave of western expansion. Washington’s presence permeates their decisions. They took meaning from their father’s letters. The plot is mostly fiction, but the place and the events are historic and recorded in letters.
The Written Record and More Recent History
In 1940 Germany began massive bombing of Britain, known euphemistically as “The Blitz.” Letters, films, and official and private postings showed the bombings and their effects. When we understand the personal letters, films and postings we can see what it was like to live at the time.
For example, Britain’s Richmond Golf Club posted the following temporary rules after German bombs hit the course in 1940:
- Players are asked to collect Bomb and Shrapnel splinters to save these causing damage to the Mowing Machines.
- In Competition, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
- The positions of known delayed action bombs are marked by red flags at a reasonably, but not guaranteed, safe distance therefrom.
- A ball moved by enemy action may be replaced, or if lost or destroyed, a ball may be dropped not nearer the hole without penalty.
- A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place. Penalty one stroke.
These written temporary rules meant, “Let’s muddle through.” Muddling through at this golf club meant keeping the game going, regardless of circumstances. They were serious. In golf, a player normally can replay a ball from the same place and take a one stroke penalty. Bombs, in this club’s rules, are to be ignored.
Mother’s Day in a lock-down requiring social distancing was bound to be different than the norm, but for me it actually wasn’t. As in most years, I received phone calls and promises of future calls and maybe a future zoom meeting.
My children and grandchildren are busy people. I know they are stuck in their houses and they continue with school and music lessons. In time for Mother’s Day, I received a video of two granddaughters playing piano. The video showed them individually and I could see their hands hit the keys. They were socially distanced from everyone when the video was made. Nobody heard me, but I applauded loudly for each of them, just like a grandmother should.
I received delivered gifts: a box of candy and a bottle of dessert wine from my daughter and her family; a box of candy and flowers from my son and his family. I did not have direct contact with the delivery man, just as in previous years, but this time I practiced social distancing.
Since Mother’s Day was still “locked down”, the florist called to say he’d be delayed. The good flowers weren’t yet available. Since I wasn’t going anywhere, I thanked him for the call and the information. The flowers arrived two days later and were worth the wait. Here is a picture (including the box of candy):
Mother’s Day Roses and Lilies
The roses opened to about six inches in diameter, and a week later, the lilies were still open and wonderful to look at. But they didn’t compare to my outdoor Russian iris:
Russian Iris: No Social Distancing
Social Distancing: the New Normal?
We’ve had a warm and wet May and the birds and flowers are loving it. They have no thoughts of masks and barriers and social distancing. Whenever I go out on the porch there is a jumble of tweets and loud sounds from a mass of small birds. I’m sure many of them are a lot closer to me than six feet.
We have been advised by the local authorities and some local businesses that we should get ready to go back to work, shop and live in the world again. This will be different from before, if everyone takes these rules seriously. For a haircut, there will be no shampoo; I will have to arrive with my hair already shampooed. There will be no children or pets allowed in the place. I will have to wash my hands before being issued into wherever the hairdresser will be located.
Social Distancing and Health Care
The Cleveland Clinic sent me their directive on their “new normal.” They are ready to resume in person healthcare services, but they encourage patients to use “virtual” visits. The notice states that with a virtual visit the patient can see a provider right away, or schedule an appointment for routine care using the smartphone.
I’ve already had one virtual appointment with my doctor and it was hardly a medical exam. There were no tests, and because I couldn’t figure out how to turn on my camera, the doctor could only speak to me. He saw nothing. We both agreed to schedule a regular in-person visit in September. Likewise, my dentist will see me in October. Maybe over the years I’ve been overdoing it with annual doctor’s visits and semi-annual dentist visits. Routine care doesn’t have to be constant care.
As with my hairdresser, the Cleveland Clinic will not permit patients to bring anyone with them for an appointment. On the other hand, children, elderly patients, those with special needs and those having surgery requiring an overnight stay may bring a guest. That probably accounts for a large percentage of the non-routine procedures done at the clinic. The notice states that the clinic is among the safest places in healthcare.
A few years ago, after I was released from a hospital stay, I was taken by a nurse to the entrance of the hospital in a wheel chair. As I got out of the wheel chair, the nurse said to me, “Take care, and don’t come back.” We both knew that hospitals are unsafe places.
Do the masks protect everyone? People now own them and wear them, but if you can’t see someone’s face, how can you trust him or her?
Insecure? It’s Happened Before.
I remember a Woody Allen story. Feeling insecure, Woody moved to an apartment building in the city because it employed a doorman for protection. On his second night, when he returned to the building, Woody was mugged by the doorman.
Let me end this with a Henny Youngman story about doctors:
A guy says to a doctor, “I’m having trouble with my love life.”
The doctor says, “Take off twenty pounds and run ten miles a day for two weeks.” Two weeks later, the guy calls the doctor, “Doctor, I took off twenty pounds and I’ve been running ten miles a day.”
“How’s your love life now?”
“I don’t know. I’m 140 miles away!”
The current corona virus pandemic, which now requires all of us to keep a safe social distance, comes with the march of technology. For me, a member of the old and vulnerable class, the last few weeks have provided some major learning experiences.
Several years ago my son and daughter-in-law decided my husband and I should have smart phones and we received them as gifts for Christmas. My husband keeps his in a nice box that he doesn’t open, except when he takes business trips. At least he knows where it is. My phone migrates to a comfortable place in my bag, but almost never rings. I usually have difficulty finding it. The phones come into play when we are traveling. We use them to make hotel reservations, to figure out where we are, and to call our children when we’re on the road.
During this pandemic my husband and I spend our days at home, with a few short trips to the grocery store. Though we know about the corona virus, we don’t think about technology. We haven’t used our cell phones. My son had other ideas.
Using the Cell Phone
We were advised to get our cell phones ready, and I used mine for the experiment. On an evening last week, using the smart phone, my son connected my daughter-in-law (at home in suburban Cleveland), my granddaughter (at home in Chicago), himself (in a town house in downtown Cleveland), to my husband and me in Williamsburg, VA. My husband and I used the smart phone speaker apparatus so we could both hear and speak to everyone. All of us were able to speak and listen, and in general, communicate. The experience was a bright spot in a dull boring week of too much television.
We’ve done this kind of call twice so far, and I don’t know how my son arranges it, but I’m amazed at the clarity and immediacy of the sound. When you enjoy it, technology is wonderful.
Understanding the Computer
I managed to get onto the system. I saw and heard the doctor, and he heard but couldn’t see me. The glitch was due to the fact that I had no idea where my computer camera was located or how to turn it on. Nevertheless, my doctor was happy with my answers to a few questions, renewed my normal prescription and said “see you in six months.” The examination lasted five minutes, the normal amount of time I spend with my doctor in a routine examination. When it was over, his office immediately called to set up real appointments for the next visit.
Following the doctor’s exam, I contacted my IT specialist, via the internet, about the picture problem. He sent me a photo of my computer indicating the location of the camera. It was attached to the back of my monitor and I was required to pull it up into position. I was now ready for my first “Zoom” meeting with my writers’ critique group which took place two days later.
“Zoom” allows groups of people to have meetings. They can see and hear each other on electronic devices and computers, if everyone’s equipment is working and turned on. I managed to enter the Zoom meeting without a problem, but I had trouble turning on the sound. I could see people, but I could not hear them, nor could they hear me. Eventually I found the Zoom audio switch and now I’m an expert.
My family is planning a Zoom meeting connecting all of us in a week or so. My daughter already cooks an evening meal together with a sister-in-law; she is in Chicago while the sister-in-law is in Massachusetts. Over a dozen people are in attendance at those communal meals. I don’t know if it improves the food, but it’s a fun way to spend time in an epidemic.
Corona Virus, Technology, and Old Jokes
The technology accompanying corona virus appears to come with old jokes. Over these last two weeks, I’ve received, over the internet, samples of stuff that apparently keep people from going crazy with boredom. The jokes fall into several categories, all somehow related to coping with the corona virus. Here are some examples:
“Where there’s a will, I want to be in it.
“Jewish irony: Passover canceled because of a plague.
“We’re about two weeks away from seeing everyone’s true hair color.
‘You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.
“Many parents are about to discover the teacher is not the problem.”
All this and videos too. I now have a long one about two cows. Without the corona virus and technology, I wouldn’t know so much about two cows.
A reminder:. From now till the end of June all of my historical novels will be available in the ebook version at a 35 per cent discount. Order them from ipgbook.com and use the code BMSpring2020.