Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A brief history of lemons and lemonade

If the internet is to be trusted, it was Dale Carnegie (famous lecturer and author of How to Win Friends and Influence People) who first coined the phrase, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”

Today, Mr. Carnegie would be called a motivational expert or a self-improvement guru, but he was born ahead of his time, and so is simply referred to as a writer and lecturer.  Mr. Carnegie was one of the first people to realize that the essentially American combination of constitutionally protected freedom plus disposable income equaled one hell of an opportunity to profit from our long-standing obsession with self-improvement.  His book How to Win Friends and Influence People has sold 15 million copies since it was first published in 1936.  Lord only knows how many more copies have been pilfered from public libraries over the years.  He was a pioneer of sorts, paving the way for the modern self-improvement industry, which took in 11 billion dollars in 2008, according to Forbes.  Compared to the home-improvement industry, which had revenues estimated at 250 billion during the same year, this may not seem like much; but remember, people are generally much smaller than houses, and need to be reroofed far less frequently. 

Many people don’t really understand the important role lemons have played throughout human history.  Sure, most of us probably recall learning in elementary school about how lemons were used by sailors to prevent scurvy.  Interestingly, they never said how they used them.  Maybe they kept the lemons in their pockets, or rubbed them on their bodies, or hung them around their necks, like garlic was used to ward off vampires.  Personally, I have a hard time believing that they or anybody else would just eat raw lemons.  Scurvy can’t really be that bad, can it?  Still, it’s fun to imagine a bunch of pirates as they come swinging over the side of a captured frigate with their eye patches and their bandannas and their parrots, raising their swords aloft and then suddenly exposing bright yellow lemon smiles, the way kids like to do with orange wedges.  After all, if there was anything pirates were known for more than their lack of vitamin C deficiencies, it was a finely-tuned sense of the absurd. 

But the lemon’s influence on human affairs actually goes back much further than that.  It goes all the way back to the Bible.  In fact, lemons are mentioned in the story about Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden.   Well, maybe not by name, but it stands to reason that lemons must have been at the center of that whole God/snake/Tree of Knowledge kerfuffle. Which means the lemon is directly responsible for triggering the chain reaction of ever-increasing suffering and degenerate behavior that has subsequently plagued humanity, and continues to plague us in such forms as war, starvation, disease, and almost any show on the TLC network.  People have this misconception that it was an apple that brought these disasters upon us.  I don’t know how that idea ever got started.  Apples are good.  People like apples.  Apples don’t cause an averse reaction when you bite into them.  Lemons are the only logical culprit.  After all, the Bible only says Adam and Eve ‘ate of the fruit’ of the Tree of Knowledge, not that they finished it.  When’s the last time you saw someone finish a lemon?  When’s the last time you saw someone start one? 

I have a lot of sympathy for Adam and Eve.  Can you imagine how they must have felt when they realized that they had just traded a life of comfort and plenty in Paradise for endless toil and misery, with nothing more to show for it than (with apologies to Lady Gaga) a pucker face?  

When I was very young, my parents used to have a sign that said, When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.  It used to hang in the guest bedroom of our house, and it was one of those 70’s-era, earth-tone, homemade banners.  I think it was made from a piece of burlap, with glued-on letters spelling out Mr. Carnegie’s beloved proverb.  It was decorated with a couple of whole lemons in the upper left, and half a lemon sitting next to a pitcher of lemonade down on the lower right side, all cut from yellow felt.  I remember the first time I was able to read the banner for myself.  The metaphorical aspect went completely over my head.  I took it more as a general order along the lines of a household dictum like, “If you’re having cereal for breakfast, use a bowl.”  All right, I thought.  The next time I come across a lemon, I know just what to do.  But we lived in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, at that time, and even at my tender age I knew that stumbling across a lemon tree in the vicinity seemed highly improbable, unless maybe we were at the Domes. 

A little later, I was introduced to the schoolyard rhyme that perfectly embodies the pinnacle of second-grade sophistication in humor.  It’s the one that goes Milk, milk, lemonade/Turn the corner, fudge is made.  The words, of course, were scandalous enough in their own right, but what pushed it way beyond the bounds of any known standard of propriety were the hand gestures which accompanied the words.  In retrospect, I believe it may have been my first introduction to performance art.  At the time, being seven, I only knew it was unbearably hilarious, no matter how many times it was repeated.  Needless to say, I saw the lemonade banner in the back room in a whole new light.  And although I personally preferred this new interpretation, I have to admit it left me confused.  I knew from personal experience that my parents weren’t the kind of people who appreciated scatological humor, let alone the kind of people to emblazon it on a banner.   

I was probably eight or nine when the aphorism’s metaphorical significance finally dawned on me.  Oh, that’s what it means, I thought to myself as I stood there contemplating it for the eight millionth time.  It’s saying, ‘when life gives us something bad, try to turn it into something good.’  In many ways, discovering the adage’s true message was a big relief.  For one thing, it certainly cleared up a great deal of confusion about my parents; this was exactly the sort of sentiment they would whole-heartedly endorse.  Still, I remember being somewhat disappointed.  It didn’t have anything to do with peeing after all.  Bummer. 

I’m not sure what ultimately happened to that banner.  I do know that when my mom and dad packed the family up and moved us to Arizona in 1979, the banner didn’t make the trip.  Or if it did, it never found its way out of the box it was packed in.  Maybe mom and dad figured they were moving to a place where they were going to encounter a whole lot more lemons than they did before, and didn’t necessarily want to be reminded at every turn what they should be doing with them.  Remind me to ask the next time I see them.

In one of history’s funnier little ironies, Mr. Carnegie reportedly struggled for years to come up with the pithiest way to express the idea that one should try to make the something good out of something bad.  His first attempt was “When life hands you chickens, teach them how to play tic-tac-toe.”  While this early iteration was moderately successful in some quarters, especially third-rate carnivals, most people said they simply failed to see the point.  His next attempt was even worse.  “When life hands you sh*t, check it.  If it’s elephant sh*t, keep it.  Someday people are gonna make coffee out of that sh*t, and sell it for fifty bucks a cup.”  While eerily prophetic, at the time people felt it was too wordy to make for an effective aphorism, not to mention being patently offensive.   There was talk of indecency hearings, and possible charges, and Mr. Carnegie was briefly forced into hiding until his lawyers could smooth the whole matter over with authorities.  It was during this time that Mr. Carnegie entered a depressive state (most scholars believe the state was South Carolina, although recent evidence suggests it could also have been Florida).  This is when he began drinking heavily, mostly 7-up and Squirt, due to his fondness for citrus-flavored drinks.  One day during his self-imposed exile, he was at home mixing up a pitcher of lemonade and puzzling over the extreme difficulty he was having finding just the right words to capture the essence of his idea.  “How am I ever going to find a way to succinctly express the notion of taking something bad and turning it into something good?” he said, absent-mindedly picking up one of the extra lemons on the counter.  “Take these, for instance.  Why, they’re just an unbearably sour fruit that no one in his right mind would ever consider eating in its natural form.  But you squeeze them, add some water and some sugar, mix it all together and voila!  A completely delectable and highly refreshing beverage is the result.  If only I could find a way to express that exact idea in a simple, easy-to-understand metaphor…” 

Three days later, he let his dog out for a nature call.  As his dog did its business, he was reminded of lemonade, perhaps thanks to a rhyme he first remembered hearing in second grade. 

And the rest is history. 

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