The Relative Value of a Bag of Tea

Gerry is upstairs watching a very early morning soccer game and I’m downstairs in the kitchen making a cup of tea.

I’m downstairs making a cup of tea … Exactly. The. Way. I. Like. It. Not weak—but not too strong either. It should look dark and hearty, and the minute it does, I zip that tea bag outta there. This gives me a smile because I remember the surprise of a recent houseguest—a dear friend of ours—when I didn’t save the bag to use a second time.

Oh, I used to do that, when I was a much younger woman. My mother, a child of the Depression, did it, and I am her daughter. I think the Depression is the operative concept there—we were definitely a waste-not-want-not household, and that extended to tea bags. We set it aside in a saucer and used it on the next cup.

I don’t know if they’re actually intended to be used a second time, but that cup of tea never tasted as good, and I gave it up years ago.

There’s a deeper history at play too. When I toured a Georgian house museum in Dublin a decade ago, I learned that the housekeeper (not the homeowner, not the lady of the house) carried a ring of keys fastened to her belt. The silver was locked up, foodstuffs were locked up, anything of value was locked up. The lady of the house, though, carried just one key—the key to the box that had the tea leaves in it! Tea in those days was more valuable than silver. It had to come such a long way.

Anyway, all this progression of thought—from my perfect cup of tea, to my friend’s thriftiness (inherited no doubt from her Depression-era parents), to the relative value of a tea bag in the twenty-first century—gave me a smile this morning. I hope you have a cup by the keyboard as you read this.

Mug by Nicholas Mosse, clematis pattern.

Mug by Nicholas Mosse, clematis pattern.

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Curiosity-Driven / Science

“The type of science that I do is sometimes known as”curiosity-driven science”—this means that my work will never result in a marketable product, a useful machine, a prescribable pill, a formidable weapon, or any direct material gain—or if it does indirectly lead to one of those things, this would be figured out at some much later date by someone who is not me. As such, my research is a rather low priority for our national budget. There is just one significant source of monetary support for the kind of research that I do: the National Science Foundation, or NSF.

“The NSF is a US government agency, and the money that it provides for scientific research comes from tax dollars. In 2013, the budget of the NSF was $7.3 billion.* … Remember that this figure must support all curiosity-driven science—not just biology, but also geology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, psychology, sociology, and the more esoteric forms of engineering and computer science as well.”
—Hope Jahrens, from Lab Girl**

This is the sort of thing scientists stuggle with every day—continuing their work in the face of competition for shrinking budgets.

On my way to have dinner with a friend recently, I heard on the radio that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have donated $3 billion (billion!) to science—with a stated goal to cure all diseases by the end of this century.

Mark Zuckerber and Pricilla Chan Photo credited to the AP by Business Insider

Mark Zuckerber and Pricilla Chan
Photo credited to the AP by Business Insider

And at the time I thought, well, that is a worthy goal … but how many other worthy goals are there? I was thinking of Lab Girl.

Then I read this article about it in Business Insider:

It’s ambitious framing for what is in fact a more straightforward and concrete goal. The donation, administered through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), essentially exists to shake up many funding schemes and career paths that dominate the field of modern medical research (along with most other fields of science).

In short, CZI plans to make it possible for large groups of scientists to focus on riskier projects that won’t necessarily yield results for years or even decades. That is, they want to give medical scientists the opportunity to work like coders in an ambitious Silicon Valley startup.

“That means we can look at projects that can pay off in 20 years, and 50 years,” Zuckerberg said.

So THANK YOU, Mark and Pricilla. I still think the eradication of global poverty and stopping global warming (because it is manmade) are more important. But I’m not the one with the $3 billion.*** 🙂

* And given the recent election, my guess it will be less in the coming years.
** Transcribed by me from pages 122 and 123 of my hardback copy of Lab Girl, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
*** And there’s always Bill and Melinda Gates—or other billionaires, some of whom participate in the Giving Pledge.

Life Lessons: Kindness

I keep getting older and, thus, generally, better. 🙂 And as one does, I think about what’s really important, the one or two traits you can carry in your toolbox that will guarantee success.

Kindness is one.

I don’t know how I missed this—this graduation speech to the Syracuse University class of 2013 from author George Saunders—but it’s wonderful, it’s what I wish to say, and maybe you do too. “To the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.”

George Saunders

George Saunders

Yes. That. Be kind. In this moment in US history in particular, be kind.

(Here are some other interesting commencement speeches, including the one that Kurt Vonnegut never gave.)

A Lighter Shade of Pale, Beyond?

We’ve got an exciting national election cycle goin’ on here in the good ol’ US of A, with one candidate making some pretty interesting claims and the opposing party reacting with outrage. (See how I did that?) My Irish immigrant husband has spent hours watching debates and newscasts and commentaries on the television. He also follows the news online, where he saw a tweet remarking that something a candidate had said was so outrageous it was “beyond the pale.”

The Irishman was surprised to hear it.

“Have you ever heard the phrase beyond the pale?” he asked. “Do you know what it means?”

Of course I do. My parents were wordies, remember? This is one of those phrases I grew up with. It means “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.” Synonyms might be: unacceptable, unseemly, improper, unsuitable, unreasonable, unforgivable, intolerable, disgraceful, deplorable, outrageous, scandalous, shocking, exceptionable, uncivilized. You might say someone was out of line. You might say it just isn’t done.

The Irishman persisted. “Yes, but do you know what it really means?”

Oh, honey. I married a Dubliner, didn’t I? (I’ve made quite a study of Irish history, aided by the magnificence and sheer number of Dublin bookstores and my husband’s willingness to indulge me in them.) Yes, I know what beyond the pale really means.

It means, put simply, anything outside Dublin. Americans do know the phrase as “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior,” but I suspect many of you may not know from whence it came.

It all starts with the dictionary (as so many things around here do). Pale is most commonly used as an adjective or a verb, but there’s an older meaning, a noun:

1 a archaic : a palisade of stakes : an enclosing barrier : paling
b obsolete : a restraining boundary : defense
2 a : a pointed stake driven into the ground in forming a palisade or fence
b : a slat fastened to a rail at top and bottom for fencing : picket
3 a : a space or field having bounds : an enclosed or limited region or place : enclosure
b : a territory or district within certain bounds or under a particular jurisdiction
4 : an area (as of conduct) or the limits (as of speech) within which one is privileged or protected especially by custom (as from censure or retaliation)
<conduct that was beyond the pale>
5 a obsolete : a vertical stripe (as on a coat)
b : a perpendicular stripe in an escutcheon

The word is Middle English, from Middle French pal (a stake), from the Latin palus. It dates from the 1300s, and is a doublet of the word pole, which has the same Latin origin. So a pale, in the Middle Ages, was a wooden stake, often sharpened on the top, meant to be driven into the ground, often to be used (with others) as a fence or a boundary. Impale, you see, also stems from this word. (As a side note, the adjective pale, while just as old a word, comes from the Latin pallidum [pale or colorless], from which we also get the word pallid.)

So what’s that (sniff) “anything outside Dublin” business? It’s history. The Norman invasion in 1169 brought Ireland under the control of English kings, but as time went on and the Anglo-Normans assimilated with the Irish locals, this control waned. (The English had a lot of infighting to look after on their own island.) By the Tudor era in the 1500s the English crown really only exerted power in and around Dublin—and they’d built a fence to protect it. Really, it was just a fortified ditch. A pale.

And the language, the vernacular, reflected that: the pale was “a defence, a safeguard, a barrier, an enclosure, or a limit beyond which it was not permissible to go.”

Beyond the pale, then, was anything outside the boundary. Wikipedia says, “Within the confines of the Pale the leading gentry and merchants lived lives not too different from those of their counterparts in England, save for the constant fear of attack from the Gaelic Irish. The idea of the Pale was inseparable from the notion of a separate Anglo-Irish polity and culture. After the 17th century and especially after the Anglican Reformation and the Plantation of Ulster, the “Old English” settlers were gradually assimilated into the Irish population … The term continues to be used in contemporary Irish speech to refer to County Dublin and its commuter towns, generally critically—for example, a government department may be criticised for concentrating its resources on the Pale.”

See? My husband was a little surprised to find the phrase common parlance in this country, but he’s forgotten that the phrase came here with English settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—when the Pale would have been a thing—and it stayed here.