Saturday, December 31, 2016

Trump's New Transparency - Politics in the Age of Trivial Spin

As a child of the 1950's (I was born in 1947, near the beginning of the baby boom), the predominant "social media" device was the telephone. People then would stay in touch by phoning, or writing letters, or perhaps sending telegrams (what an old conduit that now seems!) to each other. Early "walkie-talkies" or (later) CB radios enabled people to talk without land-line hookups, but those weren't things most people used, or had access to. In my generation, the telephone became a focus of interaction among teenagers, who weren't always allowed to meet or associate in person, so were relegated to connecting via the family 'phone. I was a somewhat atypical teenager, and didn't begin having phone conversations with friends until the last year of high school. Long, avid telephone conversations were something that girls mostly did, though they were the crucial conduit for boys who wanted to engage with, or seduce, specific members of the opposite sex. I was born without charm, and I had almost no appetite for small talk, so regarding the telephone as an essential, indispensable tool of my life never really occurred to me. When I finally did begin to communicate with other kids, it was usually to discuss ideas, not to compare notes about the social milieu. In that respect, as in other ways, I was a nonconformist, and I would then have rejected the idea that my curiosity, or my desire to be in contact with others of my own generation, was a priority. I rejected all notions of "teenage" behavior, because that would have been an admission that my significance as a person existed within a kind of limbo, neither excusable and "cute" as in childhood, nor burdened with the necessities and responsibilities of full adult-hood. Being dismissed as "teenaged" behavior meant that your actions, your ideas, your feelings, were somehow irrelevant--and that seemed entirely objectionable as a status. 

With the coming of the computer revolution, and the advent of the cell-phone era, we've entered successive plateaus of interactivity which have transformed our culture, especially the so-called "youth culture" (the old "teenage" culture). When I was an adolescent, boys and girls might be preoccupied with talking to each other on the phone, sometimes for hours at a time. This was regarded, at worst, as a kind of bad habit. How much trouble could you get into by talking on a telephone? It might be a waste of time, or an unjustified expense of a high(er) phone bill, but mostly it was a diversion from chores, homework, exercise, or just living in unconnected reality. 


Every generation regards technological progress with some degree of apprehension, even alarm. It's often a knee-jerk reaction to simple change, as if just preserving the status quo were an inherently desirable goal. When personal computers first hit the scene, I was dead-set against our buying one, since I suspected that our son would immediately become infected by the attraction of computer games--a fear that was eventually confirmed. In the end, though, I was the one who would in due course be most dependent upon the new gadget, while the younger generation were moving on from computers to hand-held and cell-phones. 

I was a late comer to blogging, coming in just at the tail end of "list-serve" and "chat-groups" period, but once I got a taste for it, I crashed the new party, posting and commenting with abandon. Clearly, kids talking on the phone the way they did in the 1950's isn't equivalent to people talking on their cell phones today. What is the difference, and what can we tell about that difference? 

Today, no matter where you go, or what you are doing, you are surrounded by people monkeying with their cell/hand-held computers. Whether it's business, or pleasure, or sheer bored diversion, people are constantly calling and receiving calls and browsing hyperspace.  

During the early days of blogging, much of the contact consisted of postings, brief essays, commentary, and e.mail. E.mail basically eliminated the need for most telephone exchanges, as well as snail-mail. Both cell phone use, and the new "social media" online sites, are both expansions of e.mail and telephonic exchange, as well as a new kind of group interactive forum. 

What I like about blogging is the freedom to write at length, to develop thought, to conduct real discussions with others. While blogging fed the desire for serious interaction, it may have seemed slow and lugubrious, especially to younger people. The makers of computer devices saw that the new horizon was portability and convenience, freeing people from their land-locked computer units, as well as the old land-line phones. They saw that exploiting the urge to conduct quick, low-density content messages could open up vistas of commerce--hence Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the now notorious online forums. 

This has had the effect of seducing people away from more demanding (and unlimited) media, namely blogging and e.mail, to progressively quicker and briefer levels of exchange. It's inconvenient to type more than a few words in a social media stream, especially since one can't address a keyboard with all your fingers in play. I've seen people who've mastered the "thumb" technique, and can type words almost as fast as I can on a traditional keyboard. Is touch typing a thing of the past? Will traditional QWERTY keyboards someday become obsolete? 

What's the next plateau of communication going to look like? We can now call people, send recorded messages, instant e.mails, and group posts on forums. Will the next generation begin to conduct communications with robots? 

My primary gripe against all this low content exchange is that it encourages people to think primarily in abbreviation, as if the only thoughts or opinions that mattered were those that could be summarized in 50 words or less. Our new President elect Donald Trump is a child of our age, who uses Twitter to make statements and comment on the affairs of the day. One senses a connection between the triviality of his grasp of current affairs, and the media limitations that have grown up around us. We've created a generation of people who think that all the world's problems and issues can be addressed peremptorily, with little research. Also, that understanding the meaning and significance of complex matters doesn't require careful, considered research and consideration; that we can form coherent thought and make progress solving involved disputes and difficult situations, simply by making momentary pronouncements. 

We're being told that the new President-elect is a new kind of politician, one who lunges and lurches from distraction to preoccupation, unpredictably and irrationally, blurting out sudden statements and "tweets" impulsively, without thinking before-hand what the consequences might be. 

We've come to think that social media--which allows people to cohere briefly around a certain point of view--has a political meaning and impact that far outweighs its actual meaningful content. Just because a high office-holder can issue a momentary verbal salvo into hyperspace, doesn't suggest that his views are any more informed or considered than anyone else's. 

It used to be that holders of high political office had superior access to information, that their offices were clearing-houses of data and exchange that enabled them to form policy and position the rest of us couldn't. In the case of Trump, it's as if he no longer thinks he needs to consider the background or history of a problem, that an impulsive reaction has as much legitimacy as decisions tempered by advice and research. It's not just that Trump seems unable to understand the world--he actually seems to think it doesn't matter, that action--even on the national and international level--can be conducted by amateurs, that power itself somehow legitimates bold, impulsive decision-making, uninformed by facts or information.  

This is an entirely new stage in the development of political life. It's as if democratic office-holders now feel they have the freedom once relegated to dictatorship--that of acting without ordinary curbs and checks, like a child moving little lead soldiers on a battlefield board-table. It's unsettling to think that our new President may feel he can decide to go to war one morning by simply announcing his decision on Twitter, leaving his beleaguered subordinates to "work out the details" by lunchtime. 

Most astonishing of all, it may be that people now accept that as a given means of action and communication, that American Presidents can conduct business in full view of the world, without prior restraints or inhibitions. A sort of wizard of tweet tinkering with the future of the planet as if it were a board game. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Bottoms Up - Classic of the Genre

Oh my, another cocktail blog. This is surely going to ruin my reputation as a serious blogger, since no one in his or her right mind would consider drinking alcoholic beverages a sophisticated endeavor. 

It wasn't always so. Once upon a time, cocktails--and the opportunity to indulge in them--were considered something mostly confined to people who afford them. Access to a well-stocked bar isn't an universal privilege. Booze has always been expensive, and concocting different combinations (or mixes) requires a variety of goods and ingredients.   

And then there was the imputation of naughtiness, which alcohol has always had. 

Recently, in my travels as a book scout, I came across a copy of one of the classic texts, Ted Saucier's Bottoms Up, With Illustrations by Twelve of America's Most Distinguished Artists, Decorations by Russell Patterson, Cover Design by Al Dorne [New York: Greystone Press, 1951]. Visually, it feels very much like Esquire Magazine's look and style, with a few "tasteful" distaff illustrations of ladies in "compromising" poses, which I suspect were included not just for atmosphere, but to sell more copies of the book. Back in those days, there were few "legit" places men could see pictures of nudes, and any excuse to acquire them added to the interest of the product. The idea that drinking might improve your romantic opportunities has always been an adman's short-hand, and since its author, Ted Saucier, was in the public relations/advertising business, the connection fits. 

Saucier was identified with the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, which still survives today, and puts out its own proprietary bar book. He knew how to eat and drink, and he collected recipes from all over the place--many of them associated with celebrities and bon vivants--which are named for or linked to them. To judge from the reach and range of the batch he gathers here, you'd think he must have spent half his life bar-hopping around the world sampling signature drinks.      

It contains, as one would expect, a good number of the usual suspects, famous and reliable, which every bartender is expected to know from memory. The more complex the mixture, the more different ways there are to vary it, so for those who like to experiment and discover, a typical gin martini is pretty vanilla.  

Cocktail mixing books will give you the rudiments of how recipes are created, but once you're familiar, they aren't really necessary. Any bartender worth his salt is going to experiment, and discover new combinations. That's what I do. I've probably tried over a thousand different combinations, guessing how one or another ingredient will taste when put with another.  

The best mixology books bring something else besides just recipes. They can give a different spin on the world their authors inhabit, or imagine. 

Thank goodness I don't live in a Muslim country, where drinking is officially forbidden!

Thank goodness for the sexual revolution, which freed my generation and those that followed, from some of the hang-ups that beset our elders. I can't quite figure out what's supposed to be happening in the illustration above. Is it an open-air circus performer in London? Up and down, back and forth, as those odd little figures in seats watch the traffic go by. Are they priests?

I tried one drink from the book, the "Bullfrog - Courtesy, Embassy Club, The Windsor, Montreal." 

Juice 1/2 lime
1 1/4 oz. Canadian rye
3/4 oz. apricot brandy

--shaken and served up with a cherry as garnish.

Very nice. 

The Windsor Hotel was quite an establishment in its day. Opening in 1878, it survived until 1981.  Pictures of the place in its heyday are below. I couldn't find any of the bar, but I'll bet it was elegant. The world it represented is long-gone, never to return. But we can still sample the drinks they enjoyed there.  

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Tale of Dan De Lion - Part the Second

[This is the second part of a blog about Tom Disch's poem The Tale of Dan De Lion.]

Is this propaganda? You bet your life it is. Is it "saved" from being propaganda, framed as "innocent" clever rhymes? Not at all. 

We don't really need to be reminded that juvenile literature contains as much violence, jeopardy, sadness, hatred and remorse as grown-up literature, do we? Most juvenile literature falls flat (and there's mountains and mountains of the stuff) because it fails to engage with and confront life's fiercest challenges and difficulties and contradictions. When it becomes an escape from reality--a "magic world" into which the self retreats--instead of returning us to the truths of actual life, it becomes ultimately irrelevant. 

The personification of good and evil, expressed in horticultural terms, becomes a short-hand for a larger point about nature versus civilization, environmental husbandry and ethics.  

Dan's descent into the symbolic underworld "where death gets all confused with birth," takes us into the philosophical arena, where important questions about mortality, rejuvenation, and endurance are worked out. 

In the poem's cosmology, earth becomes a source of refuge, renewal and life. 

Is Butterworth the evil witch she seems to be in this story? Should we regard her merely as a sophisticated hybrid of the kind who clubs up in ladies' and garden groups, striving to out-flower each other with superior specimens?

So if it's revolution you want, then cheer for the upstart weeds, whose determination and pluck have overcome attempts to wipe them out!

Even Thwaite, the slave to Belinda's selfish aims, deserts her. 

And so endeth the lesson. 

Copyright page

Tom Disch [older]

The Tale of Dan De Lion - Part the First

Tom Disch [1940-2008] was a gifted poet, critic and science fiction writer. In a fit of depression, he shot himself in the head. 68 isn't young, but you'd have to believe he could have gone on to write more novels and poems if he'd lived longer. For a complete account, visit his Wiki page here. He began as a poet, but his sci-fi novels were his his most popular work. Disch didn't write the kind of poetry that I find satisfying, but he was clever and could make delightful metaphors and narratives. 

Though I've never been a big fan of juvenile literature, occasionally I can be diverted by a book that seems to transcend the gulf we ordinarily associate with the separation between childhood and adulthood. Disch's book The Tale of Dan De Lion is one such.  

Typically, I'm not a big fan of "cute" when it comes to poetry, but I've read a fair amount of light verse in my time. Specialists--like Ogden Nash or Phyllis McGinley--manage to sound witty while they're being inventive. Light verse is one of the mainstays of juvenile literature--a fact that sometimes dismays me, since I believe that it prejudices young minds towards the frivolous aspect of poetry, and forever taints their understanding and appreciation of more serious work. (The other side of that coin is so-called religious poetry, a steady diet of which tends to inculcate readers with the idea that poetry is nothing more than a vehicle for devout thinking.)    

What's the excuse for light verse, aside from ease of apprehension, and the mild, negligent attitude towards existence it implies? Poems as jokes, poems as innocent fun--poems as a kind of parlor-game of rhyme and rhythm, no more edifying than square-dancing, cartoons, pantomime quizzes, or cross-word puzzles. 

But occasionally, someone comes up with a valid pretext for a nonchalant indulgence in silly verse. 

Traditionally, juvenile or light verse works well in tetrameter, or lines with a four-beat measure. Think of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky"--

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 
   Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
   And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son 
   The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun 
   The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand; 
   Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree, 
   And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood, 
   The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, 
   And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through 
   The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head 
   He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? 
   Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” 
   He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 
   Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves, 
   And the mome raths outgrabe. 

(Which is not to say, of course, that serious poems can't written in this measure.)

The Tale of Dan De Lion was published by Coffee House Press in 1986. Coffee House Press was started in Minneapolis, by my old (late) friend Allan Kornblum, after he closed down his letterpress operation Toothpaste Press outside of Iowa City. When I knew Allan, we both lived in Iowa City--during the early 1970's. Allan had a good eye for charming alternative literature, though I wouldn't have known it then. 

The Tale of Dan De Lion is the sort of contrary dystopian fable that appeals to smart children, and may be as attractive and intriguing to adults as well. 

I've reproduced the whole book here, rather than just refer to it obliquely. It's out of print now, so I doubt that anyone will be offended by my appropriation. 

Dan De Lion is a subversive little story about the competition between wild and domesticated plants--in this case between dandelions and domestic cultivated roses.  

The story imagines the garden as a scene of conflict, in which the natural flora, ignored and despised by sophisticated (and well-heeled) gardeners, compete for space and air and water and nutrients, with the pampered flowers of Miss Belinda Butterworth.   

Dan De Lion is a weed, a despised outlaw and invader of the tended bed, an enemy of Butterworth and her prized rose plants. 

The obvious political and social implications of this relationship feel not in the least obtrusive, presented in these terms, with clever stylish cartoon illustrations.