Headmaster’s Thoughts – May 2013

Recently, Jayme and I dined at a restaurant that presented, along with their wine list and their food options, a menu of water. They offered a variety of at least ten different bottled waters—all of which were, well, water. With different prices for each different water! Which confused me because water is… just water, is it not?

For some reason, it reminds me of a geography teacher I had in high school, Mr. Cox. He was a nice man but one with a weird view of measurement. We had to draw maps. He would explain the lengths in terms of inches. Not just any inches. “Boys,” he would say, “a big half inch between here and here, a little inch here, a big quarter inch here…” And so on. Until I met Mr. Cox, I thought an inch was an inch. I actually once put up my hand to ask a question when he told us to draw an inch line. “Is that a big inch, sir, or a little inch?” No one (including Mr. Cox) saw any humor in this. He told me to draw a small inch.

But back to water. There was a time when you went to restaurants, and they served you tap water. You sat down, and they immediately served you a glass of water. Now they come with the superior air of a sommelier and ask you if you want flat or gas. That is it! I know they are talking about water, but, in theory, they could be talking about lots of things. Planets! Would you prefer your planet flat or with gas? Of course, it is a ludicrous example, but so is the bottled water business.

Here in New York City, we have fine water running from our taps. I cannot tell tap water from Fiji water. I hope they do not “schlep” it from Fiji (I will translate if there is anyone from Mars reading this who does not know what “schlep” means.) If they do, then they are creating an environmental carbon disaster in the transportation of said water and are practicing the polar opposite of the principle of “eating local.” (Sorry about the serious bit there, readers, but I have a daughter who is a professor of environmental studies and she can get quite “prickly” about all this.) I do not believe that Poland Springs water comes from Poland Springs in Maine. Jayme and I met at Tripp Lake Camp in Poland, Maine. If all the water sold in those green bottles came from there, Poland Springs and its surrounds would be a desert by now. Have you noticed that in Italian restaurants, they serve you Italian bottled water (like San Pellegrino) while in French restaurants they serve French water such as Evian or Perrier? So tasteful! I don’t think Chinese restaurants yet serve water from China, but give them time.

I have always had a sneaking sympathy for the man (and it is always a man and never a woman) whose prime job is to carry out a giant pepper mill and offer to grind it over your food. In the old days they had pepper on the table, but now they serve pepper in things the size of bedside lamps. Following the tradition of the word “sommeliers,” I call these men “peppiers.” I don’t know why. I probably should call the man who asks the “flat or gas” question a “waterier” to be consistent. It is not a perfect title because they could be confused with gardeners. Soon, I predict, they will have another vast implement that will grind rock salt on your food, and that grinder person (maybe a woman, one can but hope) could be called a “saltier.” I like that title better. Maybe they will have different types of salt. “Will that be Kosher or non-Kosher?”–the implication being that Jewish people know far more about this sort of thing, and you should go for the more expensive “Kosher” variety. Then maybe they will produce a list of “Kosher” salt options; Italian restaurants will offer Italian Kosher salt; French restaurants, French Kosher salt; and so forth.

The “waterier” is sometimes the same man who interrupts you as you are chewing away, or just getting to the punch line of a story, and asks, “Is everything fine?” Sometimes they get carried away and ask if you are having a wonderful time. The reply “orgasmic!” is one that I have learned to control.

I have noticed that our students carry around water bottles and seem to alleviate their innate adolescent hyperactivity by drinking from them in class – this in spite of the fact that there is a water fountain serving New York City tap water on every floor. Bottled water is more expensive, liter for liter, than gasoline. You would have thought that our students might spring (I am allowed a pun now and again) for better things with their money, but no, they have been sold on the idea that bottled water in plastic containers that have a half-life of one million years to degrade is better than free water from paper cups. Hooray for Madison Avenue!

In last month’s column, I complained about the price of bottled water in airports once you have passed the security point. That is where you have to give the uniformed people any water bottles you might have inadvertently packed in your hand luggage, so that they can drink them later. I notice that there are no more water fountains once you have gone through security and received back your shoes. In my April “Thoughts” I railed against airport swindles, but it is worth repeating that water coolers are a thing of the past inside the terminals. So clever!

The ubiquity of bottled water is staggering. My daughter, you remember her, believes that bottled water actually lacks minerals and nutrients that tap water provides. She agrees with the idea that something capped (or closed) is perceived as better than something “loose” or free, and that this partly explains the bottled water phenomenon. Well, I have to be honest and admit that we, at York Prep, have fallen for the foolish fad and serve bottled and not tap water at school parent functions. We have succumbed. Will that be flat or gas?

Oh heavens, all this talk has made me thirsty. I am going to have a glass of water.

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org 

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