Archive for June, 2022

How the Black Plague Led to the British Pub

Late June 1348 was probably an ordinary English summer in Melcombe Regis. People were preparing for the Feast of St. John the Baptist, which is the half-year twin of Christmas: exactly 6 months later, summer solstice vs. winter, longest day of the year vs. the shortest, celebrating light instead of preparing for the dark. People made bonfires of different wildflowers and marched through town with banners. Newcomers to town put out tables in front of their homes with beer, cheese, and bread to greet neighbors. Nothing makes friends like cheese and beer.

During the festival, the ties binding the lower classes were purposefully loosened. Peasants and farmers lived a life of constant and endless toil, but if they didn’t piss off God they would spend an eternity in paradise after dying in misery at 38. But on the Feast of St. John, they were allowed to let down their hair, which took form in dancing, feasting, and drinking. This got rowdy, and worried officials watched for riots. Partially relieving tension were violent sports such as mob football, which involved uncounted players trying to carry an inflated pig’s bladder across a marker ‘by any means necessary’. The proceedings led to gouged out eyes, broken limbs, and a death or two. Think MMA, but with less TV coverage and in a Russian gulag.  

As a harbor town, the inhabitants of Melcombe Regis were used to strangers in town. Soldiers, sailors, prostitutes, and their syphilitic counterparts were probably a common sight. So when a couple of ships ported from Gascony on June 20 (or so), nobody would have noticed. It might have been sailors from a spice ship or soldiers returning from the Hundred Years’ War. Soon, however, it became clear that someone had brought something to shore. By June 23 the chronicle of the Franciscan Friars at King’s Lynn recorded that the men of Melcombe who had been infected by the sick seamen were dead, noting it had barely been three days. The Black Plague (aka the Great Mortality or the Great Pestilence) had entered England and would dominate life and society for the next two centuries.

I won’t go into the gory details of the Plague. The gist: everyone died – badly. The long-term effects of the Plague were unprecedented. For starters, there were a lot fewer people. Two million people had died, which equalled 40-50% of Britain, complete towns disappeared. It halted the Hundred Years’ War between France and England; when people were dying at home there was no reason to send them off to die in a foreign country. The Plague also changed the position of the lower class. Since everyone else was dead, the people who were left found they had something novel – bargaining power. Though the gentry tried to quell this newfound position of strength among the peasantry, the power of the market was stronger. Manpower was needed, manpower was scarce, living manpower could charge better wages. It’s estimated that incomes rose 250% from 1300-1450 (and in the U.S. about another $1.25 since then).  

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Gate B

On Thursday, we packed out bags and embarked upon a weekend trip to Ireland. We were excited, as much for the airport Burger King as for the trip itself. We arrived – as suggested by a company whose name rhymes with CryinMare – 3 hours early. This was no problem since that gave us plenty of time to enjoy the aforementioned BK treat. But it did promise a long day.

Our flight time was 15:15, which got us into Dublin at 16:40, which in turn gave us lots of time to meet our friend and to enjoy many Guinness and whiskeys before they gave last call at 11:30. This, naturally, was not to be.

You have no doubt flown and understand the sequence of information one wants and one doesn’t want as regards to your flight. You get in the airport, you check-in, you expect to get a gate and you expect to get calls to go to gate and to board. On a bad date, you find out your plane is late and this puts a crink in any travel day.

As we walked through Duty Free, we noticed that next to the word Dublin was only Gate B. So we went to Gate B. With lots of time to kill, we slept a little, read, deeply considered buying a bag of M&Ms that would feed Guam. I walked around, and cast occasional glances at the pub. But something dawned on me at about 14:45 – we were still only Gate B. No number, no late notification, nothing. Just Gate B.

We felt as if we were lost at the end of the world. This is because the lack of information enhanced an already eerie atmosphere at the airport. These days the airports are slender on staff and as a result they are a shell of their former selves. Shops are gated off, cafes shut down, their chairs stacked on tables. The vending machines are dilapidated, the check-in desks are almost nearly all dark and quiet. It’s as close to the post apocalypse as you might get without actual zombies running around. So not only did we not have a gate number, there was nobody at all to ask. Information desks were empty.

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I Dream of Emails and Movies

The best thing about writing is that you learn something every time you do it. This is true whether it’s information or style that you happen to be learning. Some of my best evolutionary periods as a writer have been when writing a format that’s new to me.

About 7 years ago I got a job writing at Sparknotes. This involved writing humorous short listicles on literature. Sounds right up my alley, yes. However, each section had to 1. be six sentences at most, 2. be funny, 3. convey a lot of information, 4. be an enjoyable read to our target audience, which was teenage girls. This meant my entire catalogue of M*A*S*H references and Johnny Cash jokes were as useless as a bag of popcorn in combat (as were tortured metaphors).

So what I once thought would be right up my alley was a lot harder than it seemed. However, I learned to write for audience and edit down to the demi-glaze of a paragraph. In the end, I developed a whole new level of skill. And plus, I now know that I can make teenage girls laugh.

In a recent moment of insanity, I decided to pitch a screenplay to a director. In an act of almost blatant cruelty, she accepted it and then, in a war crime act, asked me to write it.

“Wait. Write what?” I thought.

It hadn’t occurred to me that she would actually want me to write the film. And so in what can only be described as a mix of horror and terror that we’ll call terrhorr, I sat down at my computer and began writing this screenplay. Fun fact: did you know that a screenplay is made up almost entirely of dialogue!? And with that dialogue and some of your “imagination” a screenwriter is expected to tell an entire story!? And that story is meant to be told in 95 pages most of which is dialogue that’s rarely more than a line? Nope, it’s true.

But wait. There’s more.

I recently apparently drank a waterglass filled with peyote and when I had come to, I had accepted a job as a copywriter for an investment firm. Though I don’t do drugs, it’s the only explanation I have for why I would do this. Now I write copy, emails, SMS templates, and, oh it should be mentioned, I have no idea how to do that!

I sometimes sat alone in my kitchen looking at my computer and wondering what had happened. I never had the answer. But I got to work. And I get to work.

And then, here’s the thing, I am getting better. The first draft of my screenplay was a whopping 180 pages (yes, that’s literally double what it should be). The second draft was 140, the third 120, and now on draft four or five, we’re at about 105. Concepts and edits that were once out of my realm of understanding I have adapted to and can now deal with. Amazingly, what has happened is the creation of an almost-passable screenplay. The evolution is amazing to watch.

At the same time, I find that my brain sometimes now locates the language of corporateese, a language I was an A1 beginner in just two months ago. Not only that, business email structure has become second nature and I have a whole new appreciation for the versatility of verbs.

In sum, don’t be afraid to try new things. You never know what it’s going to lead to and how it’s going to help you.   


Best in Shop

As it’s national candy month, I (like you) have been devoting the last few days to reflecting upon my favorite candy. This is often a private and introspective activity, not unlike sitting in a church and wondering just how you’d ended up there. As I live in Europe, I have to contend with all sorts of American candy bashing, usually under the auspices of ‘it’s too sweet’ which, to me, sounds sort of like ‘gosh I hate fun and enjoyment. Instead of candy, I’d like that bag of nails.’

I thought I’d offer you my list of five favorite candies. I would give you an opportunity to rebut, discuss, or debate, but the fact is that 1. I am right and 2. See number #1. In effect, it is not only a list of my favorite candies, but a list of yours too.

I have


Snickers bars are to candy what Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan are to their respective sports. They are often overlooked but only because they’re too good. It’s like leaving God off your dodge-ball team.

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

The best day in the history of the Czech Republic was the day they finally woke up to the glories of globalization and welcomed the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup into their store shelves. It is a perfect cup of taste – half peanut butter, half chocolate, all love. Though there have been a number of variations, crunchy, dark chocolate, nothing is better than the original. It’s like coca cola and probably whiskey. There is, however, a special place in hell for the execs who came up with the white chocolate peanut butter cups).The woman who runs the shop across the street knows me as ‘that guy who buys the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups on Saturday.  

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