Notes from the Green Couch

seven-up on bitter

The 7-up series continued in '07 with a new theme

Thursday, February 22, 2007

In early 2004, as yet another school year approached, Tom Devaney contemplated new ideas to attract more people to the Kelly Writers House. The program coordinator did not just want undergraduate student writers. He racked his brain for an event, no more than an hour long, which would help people from all levels and sects of the university to discover his quaint Victorian on Locust Walk.

Who knows what exactly stimulated the idea. Maybe he wanted to quench his thirst with a fizzy drink. Maybe he was daydreaming about classroom games he used to play in early grade school. Or maybe it was just a stroke of genius that hit Devaney when he dreamed up the Seven-Up program.

Notes from the Green Couch

"Seven people reading, talking, singing, doing their thing for seven minutes each on a given topic," explains Devaney. "The Seven-Up format worked on each of these levels truly embodying 'community and collaboration' and in addition it also was a lot of fun, something we all were looking forward to."

That September, Devaney moderated the first version of his brainchild - Seven-Up on Gold. Playing off the evening's theme, Devaney prefaced the main performance by saying, "community and collaboration are our gold standard" at the Writers House.

It was a golden evening, indeed. Devaney was followed by professor of earth and environmental science, Herman Pfefferkorn; former KWH director Jennifer Snead - who lent her voice to the Philadelphia Mummers unofficial theme song, "Oh Dem Golden Slippers;" archaeologist William Brad Hafford dressed entirely in gold-colored attire; student Talia Stinson; student Jenny Suen; Al Filreis and finally his daughter, Hannah Filreis.

Three semesters later, in January 2006, Seven-Up returned to the Writers House to honor Ben Franklin in light of his 250th birthday. While the real Ben Franklin was not able to attend, a look-a-like welcomed guests all evening long. Once again, members of community of all fields and ages took the podium to honor Penn's founder through a variety of readings and performances.

Third is usually a charm, but on February 22, 2007, the Seven-Up series was the bitterest of celebrations. After all, the Hub planning committee had selected bitter as the evening's theme - an interesting selection considering the Writers House is hardly a bitter place.

"[We] debated for awhile about a possible menu for the reception," remembers current Writers House director Jessica Lowenthal. "Ultimately, no one argued with the 'bitter chocolate' theme once it was suggested!"

What exactly is bitter, though? To answer that question, the Hub consulted one of its own - poet and grad student, Julia Bloch, to lead off the evening's discussion. Delving into the etymology of the word, Bloch provided a broad definition of the adjective, using synonyms such as "acrid, astringent, distasteful, distressing to the mind, and marked by intense pain and suffering." After citing several examples of the word's uses in literature throughout the centuries, the Writers House was ready to explore the different facets of 'bitter.'

Richard Lawrence, voted as the Hub's most bitter member, reflected on his own bitterness toward art, poetry, people who do not recycle, and relativists, summing his presentation up with a statement about "Truth with a capital T": what makes him better is the deliberate disregard for Truth - in other words, as he so eloquently puts it, "bullshit."

Professor and writer Meredith Broussard examined another source of human bitterness - love. Broussard shared the story of a brokenhearted woman, whose married lover proceeded to leave not only his wife, but also her - for yet another girl. Because revenge is "cheaper than therapy," the woman breaks into the man's apartment, stuffs his hollow bedroom curtain rods with raw shrimp, and watched from afar as his relationship unraveled due to the repugnant odor.

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann made the short commute from the new Reconstructionist synagogue in West Philadelphia to explain the biblical use of bitter in the Old Testament. Rabbi Lauren focused primarily on the bitter herbs the Jews eat at the annual Passover Seder, as a reminder of the embittered lives they led as slaves in Egypt. The taste of horseradish is so strong because Judaism wants you to experience the bitterness your ancestors felt in ancient Egypt - the tears and digestion of bitterness.

Doctor Greg Smutzer, professor of biology at Temple University, traveled from the opposite side of town to discuss bitter in a very different setting - taste. As a researcher at the Smell and Taste Center (incidentally, Philadelphia is the smell-and-taste capital of the world) Smutzer has explored the significance of tasting bitterness to human health. Through research, Smutzer explains that bitter taste buds helped detect natural toxins, thus helping us avoid being poisoned. Similarly, but on the opposite end of the spectrum, medicines all taste bitter because they act as toxins in the body.

Kira Baker-Doyle won the hearts of the Writers House Hub by seducing the audience with samples from her workplace: John and Kira's Chocolates. To preface the bitterness of chocolate, Baker-Doyle described the bitterness felt during the process of starting the business with her husband - emphasizing that with each bit of bitterness came sweetness, too. After getting past the business, the chocolate maker got down to business, delving into the world of chocolaty bitterness. Surprisingly, chocolate's health benefits come from its bitterness; the American chocolates that have been stripped of bitterness to concoct a more "mellow" taste have also lost any nutritional value. Furthermore, bitter chocolate's taste can be enhanced, more often than not, by other bitter ingredients. To prove her point, Baker-Doyle passed out bitter chocolate with Earl's grey tea - a taste she guaranteed people would be talking about the morning after.

Writers House favorite Jamie-Lee Josselyn concluded the evening's festivities with a memoir about bitter cold. Growing up in Epping, New Hampshire, young Jamie-Lee endured painfully long minutes waiting for the bus during wintertime, struggling to keep warm at the end of the driveway in the wee hours of the morning. And, for the record, according to Jamie-Lee, if your snot is not frozen, it is not bitter cold.

Over the course of the seven performances, the word had both a positive and negative connotation; described people heated about a certain topic as well as people freezing; and described people, food, and temperature. So what is bitter? Essentially, it is the opposite of sweet. Bitter people leave others with a certain distaste for their cynical outlook on the world. Bitter chocolate sends your mouth into recoil, rather than delighting the tongue. And as for the bitter cold, well, even the most obsessed skiers cannot describe a day at the beach is bitter.