Alcoholics Synonymous

Who could be surprised to learn that the pandemic has produced more heavy drinking? Recent studies tell us the obvious. The history of drinking in America has been fraught with ups and downs and ambivalence about booze, though for centuries drinking has been part of family life. It certainly was so in mine.

My parents seemed tacitly to approve of my drinking from about age fifteen—or at least were easy and permissive about it. Here’s how some of that culture came about.

One of my early memories is of my father mixing drinks at his opulent built-in bar, all stainless steel, mirrors and glasses, with a wet sink of course. I recall seeing in the cabinets below many fifths of Dewar’s White Label Scotch, a brand which I still like to this day. Dad used to take me to Bears football games in the dead of winter, and I learned the virtues of drinking out of a flask.

Scotch and gin were family staples, and my father had a six o’clock ritual of alternating Scotch on the rocks one night with Seagram’s yellow gin martinis the next. I once asked him what would happen if he drank martinis two nights in a row—a remark not wholly appreciated.

After my parents retired to Miami, that same alternating ritual continued. On a visit there which hadn’t gone too smoothly I poured myself a double Scotch one evening. Dad said, “John, you seem to be drinking a lot these days.” I got up and poured the drink out in the bar sink and he responded, “Well, you didn’t have to do that.”

But we also had our jolly times with booze. One such was the Boodles Gin incident, recounted in my book Jive-Colored Glasses (pp. 88-89). My mother and father had come to New York to celebrate the birth of my second son Ethan, and we celebrated, bombed out and jovial, with an afternoon of Boodles martinis.

My mother had her own preferences for drinking, which usually involved vodka and water with a squeeze of lime. She admitted that this was owing to vodka’s propensity to have no giveaway smell. After she died, her maid discovered a plain bottle labeled “DOUCHE” in the medicine cabinet. It contained you-know-what.

Heavy drinking seems to be as American as apple pie. Kate Julian notes this in her valuable piece on the subject:

By 1830, the average American adult was consuming about three times the amount we drink today. An obsession with alcohol’s harms understandably followed, starting the country on the long road to Prohibition.

What’s distinctly American about this story is not alcohol’s prominent place in our history (that’s true of many societies), but the zeal with which we’ve swung between extremes.

After noting that close to 25 percent of Americans admit to drinking more in the pandemic, she wonders how bad this excessive drinking really is. It depends, she says, “not only on how much you drink, but on how and where and with whom you do it.” We drink “because it is fun” and most of us avoid the “dark side” of drinking alcohol.

Yet drinking has lately become less social and more solitary, a typically American propensity. Julian notes that anxious women have become the new class of sometime drunks:

A growing class of merchandise now helps women carry concealed alcohol: There are purses with secret pockets, and chunky bracelets that double as flasks, and—perhaps least likely of all to invite close investigation—flasks designed to look like tampons.

She adds to these “the Poland Spring bottle secretly filled with vodka.” Some things never change.

Coltrane the Cultural Icon

I’m moved to write about the Great Jazz Messiah after reading what Ben Ratliff wrote in the Washington Post the other day. Ben, a good critic now somewhat retired from journalism, pokes and probes around the cultural goings-on of the early ‘60s to explain Coltrane’s evolution, from 1961 to be exact.

It’s a kind of “rambling, unfocused piece,” as one commenter put it. And it makes the usual generalizations about the era that can ring false to those who lived through it, as I did. His piece also testifies to why I don’t write jazz criticism anymore.

Ratliff focuses on 1961 because it was the time of Coltrane’s pathbreaking Live at the Village Vanguard recordings. Here’s part of his negative take on the culture of that time:

From my standpoint—I wasn’t born until seven years later—the culture of that period seems marked by tension, diffusion, doubt, repetition, foreboding, lengthiness, savviness, taut aggression, wary knowledge, inspired dread, disciplined joy. The music sounds post-heroic and pre-cynical; interestingly free from grandiosity; full of room for the listener to find a place within it and make up their own mind. I want to live in it—not necessarily in its material evidence (I am looking forward to the next Playboi Carti record, just like you), but in its sensitivity, its skepticism and refusals. I think I can.

(Whew! Some tortured language here. Just like you, I had to Google “Playboi Carti.”) Ben finds all this as a cornerstone to Coltrane’s music of the period. I heard it rather differently. As a college kid I had spent an evening hearing Coltrane live with the first Miles Davis Quintet, as recounted in Jive-Colored Glasses. In 1956-57 that marked a whole new sound from the hard bop noises we were used to.

When I came to New York in 1965 to teach at NYU I also found a quasi-career as a jazz writer. Coltrane’s music by then had moved on to its final phase, a sound of total feeling—formless, powerful, and to a degree ineffable. Ben Ratliff, it turns out, wrote one of the best critical books about this development—in Coltrane: The Story of a Sound).

If you came at the later Coltrane from a more analytical (and less cultural) point of view as I did, you’d find the music hard to get into, hard to move you musically. After A Love Supreme he just lost me. Ben’s book quotes trumpeter Don Ellis’s criticisms (p. 163). Here are a couple of things Ellis points up that also bothered me. One is Coltrane’s sense of time:

That is, he never really gets “inside” the pulse, but rather plays over it. He now has his whole group playing with this same feeling! This is a good device, but it would be even more effective if balanced by strong “inside time” sections. In fact contrast in general is one of the weaknesses of this group.

 . . . In the great bulk of Coltrane’s work we get a good deal of filigree or decoration (in the form of continuous scales and arpeggios performed at a rapid velocity) but very little “meat” or positive strong statements or ideas. It is like he is playing chorus after chorus, solo after solo on only one idea—that of continually varying scale patterns and arpeggios.

That is valid technical criticism, but it really got under the skin of all those who wanted to find echoes of Africa in all that Coltrane did, to the exclusion of other influences. A kind of reverse racism, it seemed to me, and I wrote a piece about it that generated some commentary.

There has been so much written about the ‘60s, the white-black polarizations, the push for new Black Art, the musical cries of cultural pain. Coltrane’s late music, especially in Meditations and after, values feeling over form and rapidly became part of how American culture came to view jazz as a whole.

In that sense Saint John was certainly a revolutionary. But, like so much in our cultural life, his late music was not really open to replication. For all its angry devotional power, I think its closed, hermetic appeal was one reason why jazz lost its way and became a music only for the committed few.

By the Time I Retrieved My Fly Swatter,
the Fly Had Flown Off

Our concept of time constrains, to one degree or another, everything we do. Delay frustrates the best-laid plans, stresses every outcome, and makes for bad decisions. Look at the climate crisis. We still can’t comprehend the magnitude of its unfolding. The remedies proposed are insufficient and politically impossible, even if we had the time and will to impose them.

Democrats keep struggling to agree on their social spending plan, and the results look worse and worse. Biden wants an agreement before he goes to the Glasgow conference to avoid looking like a climate blowhard. But the pressure of time won’t make for a better deal. To link an event like Glasgow to drafting major legislation is typical of how we lock ourselves into political and social deceptions.

And yet I think we all function better with deadlines. Channeling the pressure of time to an agreed-upon outcome produces results, especially when dodging the deadline has serious consequences. But this only works on the mundane level of things to do. How does Nancy Pelosi enforce her legislative deadlines? Out of necessity she fudges them.

Political impotence is the result and has been for years. Anything short of major political reform won’t change things, and so we’ll keep trying to swat flies like Sinema and Manchin because we’re not going to see major political reform, are we?

My outlook is gloomy because real political reform seems more than ever a pipedream, and the world is enmeshed in a capitalistic system with deep historical and social roots. Amitav Ghosh has written a new book about this which I’ll be reviewing shortly.

Our concept of time has led to the great divorce from nature that has finally resulted in massive climate change. We still see time as something linear, progressing, moving always forward. But in fact, as I’ve said before, “progress is the spurious idea behind modernity, which fostered the separation of mankind from nature.”

The way we perceive time is basically an illusion. So says physicist Carlo Rovelli in a wonderful book, The Order of Time, which I’ve read. “Perhaps, therefore, the flow of time is not a characteristic of the universe: like the rotation of the heavens, it is due to the particular perspective that we have from our corner of it.”

Still, our awareness of time passing “contains all the ambrosia and all the gall of life.”

Old Jazz Posts Never Die

Some of you will remember jazzinsideandout.com, my old blogging hangout and the ancestor of Goodmanspeaks.com. I’m now reposting several of JI&O’s better pieces on All About Jazz, one of the longest lasting and most comprehensive jazz websites. This, courtesy of AAJ founder/publisher Michael Ricci.

The posts cover everything from a Louis Armstrong party to Miguel Zenón and can be read here. I hope you jazz lovers will check them out and, if the spirit moves you, leave a comment or two.

Living Here, Not There

Oaxaca, where I live, is a very transient community. Of the Americans living here, many visit for a few months a year or less, then move back in the summer to enjoy the heat, humidity, and dementia of U.S. culture. Snowbirds, we call them. They come from Canada too.

The transiency of this place also affects Oaxacanians. Over the past twelve years I’ve been here, two of my best Mexican friends decamped to the U.S. and it’s been hard to replace them. Some go there to work and support their local families. Others give up on the basically tourist economy. The pull of family draws others, gringo and Mexican.

For Americans, learning Spanish may just be too big a challenge. Some feel (rightly) that they will never really identify with Mexican culture and mores. Asking gringos why they choose to give up on living here—and how long they might stay—elicits many responses: Mexican culture doesn’t work for them; it’s too remote here, too different; they love the beach but it’s too hot in summertime; medical care is too erratic.

Some can’t stand the frequent bloqueos, where aggrieved social groups halt traffic on major thoroughfares for hours. Or the contrasts between poverty and wealth that abound. Living well here requires at least a modicum of wealth and a sense of history.

But the big draws are the rate of exchange (it’s cheap to live here), the food, and the climate. These can mean a lot. The small talk in my group usually covers all of the above, though conversation with the many resident foodies can get a little tedious—for instance, babbling on about the newest restaurant or the grand molé at Le Catedral.

Personal responses to living here vary considerably. One resident couple I know splits up frequently because she likes her time in the U.S. and he enjoys more time here. Another has a house at the beach but they also want to spend half time at the house in Arizona they are building. Another couple will be moving back to Virginia for better medical care and a more congenial social atmosphere.

Twelve years ago I decided to change my life, live more cheaply, and flee American politics and culture, with which I had been too involved. I told friends I was broke and needed a total change. I’ve explained some of the causes behind my move in a post here last July entitled “Expats Exposed.” Take a look if you are curious about my motivations.

My move here accomplished all I had hoped for. After living in many places in the U.S. and traveling abroad in my younger days, I can’t conceive of a better place to flop and face the bizarre, often desperate world we live in.

“A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”

Ed Murrow, the great newsman and commentator, said this. So did Bertrand de Jouvenal, a French philosopher. Everybody knows it’s true, even the sheep.I used this cartoon in an earlier post on Trump, because sheep are smarter than you think. In Rhode Island some years ago we lived near  a wealthy guy who kept a small flock of sheep and I got to like them. They are friendly, dumb and loyal.

They resemble the bikers who keep on rallying in Sturgis, South Dakota, despite the grave Covid risks they cause to themselves and others.

I want this blog henceforth to focus more on such people, whom we liberals clearly fail to understand. We are just too smug about them.

I also will be taking a more personal tone in some of these posts. I looked over logs from posts past and found the ones that clearly got the most interest were indeed the most personal. Also, my political punditry is something you can likely find elsewhere; there are limits to my brilliance and my approach. We all read too much of that stuff anyway. I’m also trying to find different ways to indulge my bent for politics. It’s not easy.

Climate is where we started with this blog. I’ll try to come back to it,  but again the subject is best dealt with by others who aren’t so  intimidated by its deep complications and overwhelming importance. We all have our limits.

 

 

 

 

Boredom, Tedium and Ennui Continues

Have we been able to break out of the Covid blues in the past year? What new rounds of exciting things to do have emerged? I’ve now got a regular weekly poker game with friends, and what else? Our biggest excitement was acquiring the vaccine, and that doesn’t alleviate boredom. Aside from folding laundry, most rely on TV and wine. I wrote the following in August 2020, and it still applies.

Isolation makes some people angry. Some take up knitting or art. Some are just bored to tears. I have experienced plenty of boredom in my life, starting with early formal dinners with my parents. Most classes in high school produced long stretches of stifling tedium. In graduate school my friends and I used to entertain each other by getting drunk and reading aloud from the Oxford English Dictionary. Kids today resort to their phones during lectures.

With the pandemic I find myself sleeping a lot more. I often avoid getting up in the morning, lying in bed and letting the mind wander into frivolous paths. Avoidance of boredom often produces more boredom: watching baseball on TV, trying to get into a boring book, avoiding the exercise machine.

It’s hard to agree on what constitutes boredom. Is the capitalist system at fault? Is boredom a social construct? A built-in human response? Margaret Talbot recently wrote a wonderful anatomy of boredom, which you ought to read. She touches on the many definitions and descriptions of the complaint. Here’s one I like: “a cognitive state that has something in common with tip-of-the-tongue syndrome—a sensation that something is missing, though we can’t quite say what.”

Some think it’s inherent in the human condition. Others, like Margaret, see it as a function of how we work and live, part of the capitalist nightmare:

David Graeber, in his influential “bullshit jobs” thesis, argues that the vast expansion of administrative jobs—he cites, for example, “whole new industries,” such as financial services and telemarketing—means that “huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.” The result can be soul-choking misery.

The French call boredom ennui, which adds the suggestion of lassitude or languor. Baudelaire’s great poem “Au Lecteur” (To My Reader) identifies it with decadence and death, calling all of us brothers, tainted with the apathy of evil. The best book I ever read on boredom is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

There’s an old saying from Pascal that most people couldn’t stand to sit alone in a room for fifteen minutes.

Tolerance Is Out, Drinking Is In

I recently took the position with a friend that what we call tolerance has pretty much gone out the window. The political scene is simply rank with intolerance (i.e., partisanship), and most Democrats still act as if the milk of human kindness will win out. How far has tolerance gotten them with Joe Manchin? Or Mitch McConnell for that matter. In Mexico we tolerate López Obrador, who campaigned as a liberal, while some make excuses for his authoritarian behavior.

Practicing tolerance requires coming to terms with a lot of conflict: setting aside your strong moralistic opinions (or beliefs) to respect and permit other viewpoints. Morally, we are motivated by the values we’ve learned and grown up with. That’s one reason why racial bias and hatred is so hard to overcome. Turning the other cheek has continually gotten the tolerators kicked in the ass. You don’t fight wildfires with fire extinguishers.

So it seems that people are drinking a lot more since Covid. My theory is that it’s not just about the dysfunction and disorder that the disease occasioned. For years now the U.S. has been forcibly pulled apart politically—and to a large degree socially. I had dinner the other night with three of my best high-tolerant friends. We had two martinis each before the food came. Conversation was lubricated; we even got through a few disagreements. No wonder booze consumption is increasing dramatically: “In 2020, beverage alcohol consumption in the US saw the largest volume gain in nearly 20 years.”

America was supposedly built on tolerance. We should buy Joe Manchin a drink and ask him what happened to that notion.

O Solitudo!

Here’s a blog I posted on July 4 of 2020. More than a year later I’ve gotten clearer about the benefits (and the downsides) of living alone. As the insanity around us grows, I find comfort with friends. But the routines and rituals I talked about here have helped me gain equanimity if not some tolerance for the irrational behavior of our species. I might write a book about it.

 The morning is easy. I have my routines after waking—breakfast, then the computer for an hour or two, checking out email and the news sites. Besides the usual Trumpcrap, there are always a few uplifting pieces like “Unemployment, isolation and depression from COVID-19 may cause more ‘deaths of despair.’”

Solitude isn’t always bleak. I’ve been living alone for years, mostly liking it, but the virus has put a new dimension on it. Instead of filling up one’s down time with friends, amusements and travels, we are for the most part confined to quarters. My life was bound by solitude before this; now there is more of it and it’s enforced.

Things got more pressing after I finished writing and publishing Moot Testimonies a couple of months ago. Searching for another writing project made me anxious and uptight. I finally gave that over for small bouts of exercise, TV, reading, a lot of sleeping, and music—none of which has proved very satisfying. I couldn’t develop or keep to the routines which are necessary to flatten time.

Occasional Zooms with family and friends didn’t do it for me. Trips to the market I eagerly looked forward to: just give me some masked human contact, for Christ’s sake! Finally I remembered Thoreau, the king of solitude, and “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It wasn’t despair that I felt but a nagging need to fill time with something productive or absorbing. I think we’ve all felt that.

I picked up Octavio Paz the other day, to reread The Labyrinth of Solitude and its search for Mexican identity. The book begins this way:

Self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall—that of our consciousness—between the world and ourselves. . . . It is true that we sense our aloneness almost as soon as we are born, but children and adults can transcend their solitude and forget themselves in games or work.

We do rely on games or work. In the COVID solitude we have to create them, and that is not easy. Yet if you face the prospect of solitude with some equanimity, you will beat it. We can import or create the routines and rituals that have sustained us, and perhaps they will flourish. What we bring to solitude is what grows there.

Random Thoughts

My Desk Chair

To someone who writes there is nothing more important than a desk chair. I think Philip Roth later on wrote standing up (he had back problems), but most of us cradle our glorious glutes for long periods of time in a device that must provide comfort and proper support. Writers thereby violate every orthopedic warning about sitting too long and the need for exercise.

Well, so what? The grand truths that emerge from this exercise in non-exercise come from gluteal contentment. No one should contemplate the cost, mental and physical, of sitting in an ill-fitting chair. If your butt don’t fit, your brain will quit.

I got this old Herman Miller chair when I was working at Lexis/Nexis in Charlottesville in 2002. I was doing some editing at home and asked the maintenance man if he had a chair I could buy. He gave me one free, and it was so good I brought it with me to Mexico. I’ve had it recovered and repadded a couple times. It has become part of my life.

 Seven Reasons to Make Only Short Visits to the U.S.

    • Racial dementia
    • The cost of everything
    • The potency of non-vaxers
    • Chick-fil-A
    • The MAGA madness
    • Changes in the cultural life of New York
    • Being associated with mindless exploits like the war in Afghanistan (though expats cannot absolve themselves from U.S. policies).