Saturday, April 23, 2016

give me corks or give me death

M F K Fisher was a great observer of the rituals that gather around meals. Here she is about drinking wine in France, which she first encountered in 1929: “Drawing the cork is a great ceremony--waiters cluster around the wine-master, and the man who has ordered it listens anxiously to see if the pop sounds right. Then the cork is waved under his nose, and he sniffs it loudly. Finally the wine is poured, still in the cradle, into his glass, and he sips it slowly and with the most amazing noises. The waiters and the wine-master watch his face to see if he likes it, and finally go away.”
This is funny and ethnographically accurate, for its time.
The funny part, of course, for Americans, is the fuss. At the time, and even now, the middle class American norm is to separate food and drink – which is good or bad, and served in large or small quantities – from how it is delivered. Yet oddly, no people on earth have ever devoted more ingenuity to packaging and photographing food. Incredibly threatening blown up pictures of, say, hamburgers are a standard part of the American visual ecology. I’ve never heard anybody remark on how gross this is, but I assume that my feeling, when confronted with a picture of a sloppy taco that is ten times the size of an actual taco – which is that anorexia is not such a bad option after all – is not uncommon. Americans are bombarded with films of meat frying, of fruit being crunched at orchestral sound levels, and of fizzy drinks being poured, deluge like, over ice cubes like small icebergs, and we shrug it off. But when it comes to the activity of the meal, manners and customs are as rigidly separated from the substances the meal aims at as cookbooks are from etiquette books.
In spite of this, eating is not, I’d contend, a rational, calory maximizing consumer activity that has accidentally spawned a few ignorable spinoff behaviors. To my mind, taste and the pleasures of taste are inseparable from context. By which I mean, corks count.
The cork, as we all know, is being replaced, little by little, by the plastic bottle cap, suitably geeked. And wine geeks are all about this, since, chemically, they assure us that these caps can allow us to assert more control over oxydation and all the chemical processes that go on when the juice from a cask is syphoned into a bottle. I’m confident that this may be true.
I don’t care, though. I like it that a dry cork alerts me, immediately, that the wine is probably suckworthy. But I like even more that the cork, the normal, healthy cork, has to be taken out of the bottle before I can get into it. That friendly cork, that bit of a tree grown, as I vaguely imagine, in Portugal, accompanies the whole wine imbibation. The plastic top does not. The plastic cap is not about trees in the hot Meditteranean sun, but about a factory in East Baton Rouge converting petroleum to the polyurethral products that are inexorably junking up our world.
Taste. Taste is association. This just isn’t some Proust effect. The meals you eat and the people you eat them with wrap themselves around the meals you will eat.
But what can I say? The world goes downhill on all fronts, and I need a sign to hang around my neck so I can parade around 3rd street in Santa Monica, warning of doom.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

the case against Clinton for beginners

I, too, find the Clinton supporters puzzling.

They are very, hyper-conscious of the incidents in the campaign, and yet surprisingly blank about what they want from Clinton as president. For instance, what kind of foreign policy do Clinton supporters want? Clinton’s experience – which is often touted as, simply, experience – is best exemplified here, as far as I can tell. As a senator from 2000 to 2008, I don’t see a lot of leadership on the issues of that dirty time. She seems to have been a standard Daschle democrat, and Daschle was one of the most feckless dem politicians ever to grace the national stage. Her stamp, however, seems very strong on the foreign policy of the Obama administration in its first three years. I think she is very proud of what she did. She’s proud of the overthrow of Qaddafi, she’s proud of the weapon sales to the Gulf states, and she’s proud of trying to push Obama to do a Libya like intervention in Syria – as she pointed out in the last debate. She is, in short, on the hawk wing of the D party, with an ideology that is pretty much like Joe Lieberman’s. She even defended the coup in Honduras, which is pretty amazing.
On domestic policy, she’s more to the left. For instance, it was pretty great that she made a deal out of the lack of questions about abortion. And yet, the Clintonian line on abortion – that it should be legal and “rare” – has been a disaster for abortion rights. If you really think it is the gov’s business to make it rare, it is hard to argue against the slew of laws that force women to view films, or get “therapeutic” advice, etc., before they get abortions. Jessica Valenti made this point in 2014.
As for health care, raising social security benefits, and government action to reduce wealth and income inequality – I haven’t any firm sense that she, on her own, has any ideas here. Rather, she seems to be pushed into ideas – for instance, she seemed to be pushed into opposing the TPP, even though she lobbied for it as a sec state, and she seems to be pushed into opposing fracking, though she, again, facilitated fracking around the world when she was sec state. She opposes Keystone, now, although she has close campaign associates, like Jeffrey Berman, who lobbied for it. To an extent, that she is pushable is a good thing – politicians, in a democracy, should be the pawns of an aroused populace. But her actions as sec state, and as a Clinton foundation something – what does or did she do for them? – and as a speaker, seem to indicate that she can be pretty easily pushed the other way.
The argument of Clinton’s supporters is that this is irrelevant. But I’m not sure why we are editing her experience while at the same time arguing that she is the most experienced candidate, and that this is a big plus over haplesss Sanders.
So, the bottom line is: what is in it for me? If I’m a member of a black household where the unemployment rate is still in the depression era digits and the median household wealth is five times less than a white household’s – is there going to be any change? If I’m a woman with two small kids and I’m not breaking glass ceilings but working as a cashier and uber driver, is there going to be a push for national child care? Is there going to be a strong push to overturn abortion restrictions popping up all over the place? Is the pledge to rid the water supplies of all american cities of lead in the next five years going to go down memory hole?
The argument against Sanders is that, though I’d benefit from what he advocates, he can’t pass what he advocates. But the argument against Clinton is surely that she seems not to advocate anything but stasis, baby steps in the style of the Clinton presidency in the 90s. That, to me, is a promise to waste the next four years,, or cede them to the ever more radical right.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

letters to a young plumber

In one of the famous “Letters to a Young Poet “, which Rilke wrote when he was merely 28, he gives this advice:
“You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you - no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must", then build your life in accordance with this necessity…”
I don’t think any poet has ever been so finely, so spiritually, so absolutely one-upped. After Rilke was finished with the job, the poor young poet probably went back to the family haberdashery business and tossed out the ditties.

Now, I wouldn’t dream of putting myself on the same stage with Rilke, but, recently, I was in a similar situation. A young plumber, who knew my reputation with a pair of pliers and couple of cross cleats, sent me the specs for an S trap that he’d recently installed and asked me if I thought his teflon taping technique was any good. He admitted, like the young poet, that he had asked many others, one of whom (a beerish chap who happened to be his boss), had asked him if he was fucking around on the job again. Ah, the vulgarity to which the delicate soul of the dedicated plumber is subject. I, of course, followed Rilke’s lead. Has the proper conduction of detritus and the hydrodynamics of faucet flow,  I asked him, sunk into your dreams, your hopes, and your sex life? In the quietest hour of your quietest night, I asked, have you ever pondered an existence in which, by some tyrant’s order, you were forbidden to use a strap wrench? Would you feel like one of Beckett’s tramps, that you couldn’t go on, or do you think you’d just jerryrig a substitute with an indutrial pair of sheers and the elastic strap wripped from an old pair of BVDs? If the latter, I am afrain I can’t help you: crassness has crept over your soul like aspergillus fumigatus over a damp carpet. If, however, you affirm, with every turn of your locking jaw wrench that I will, I must, I just haveta plumb – then, and only then, my son, have you found the pivot of your service in the construction, maintenance, and sanitation industries! In confirmation of which, I urge you to buy a six pack of Blue Ribbon and drain it on Saturday morning, before breakfast, whilst chanting dithyrambs to the ancient Greek Muse of Plumbing, Drainophene, as is done by all the true plumbers I’ve ever met.


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...