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Julie Sheehan
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David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, a 1948 recipe book and glimpse into privilege, has this to say about an after-dinner cordial called the Widow’s Dream: "This is a Benedictine Flip (see Flips), topped off in the glass with sweet cream. And may heaven help the poor widows if that is what their dreams are like!" Tee hee. But now, poor widows don’t need heaven. They have the GOP! A Republican minority is blocking resolution on a national budget unless they get their pet ideas, defeated in the last election, put into action. These include getting rid of reforms to a health care system that works for insurance companies, hospitals and certain pricey specialists, but not for sick people. There was a reason Obama ran on health care reform back in 2008. It was among the reasons he won. Another wonderful idea brought to us by a Republican minority is to cut back on feeding hungry people. Why should all those old people and children get to cuddle up to their free cans of soup? They should cuddle up to our free market system instead. Same as the freeloaders in this photo, from 1939, when our nation started a food stamp program to feed its citizens: See that kid in the used, doesn’t-fit-him jacket with what looks like a bandage on his head? Get a job! And stop looking to government to help you with your festering wound! Good grief, those liberals just don’t get it. If we are heading to a shutdown, I’m thinking Democrats in the Senate should top off all those Iraq and Afghanistan war widows’ dreams with sweet cream and serve them up. To wit: Sure, we’ll delay Obamacare for one year, provided that any citizen in the country regardless of age can sign up for Medicare. Just to tide them over while we work things out with your tiny but vocal group of Tea Party hostage takers. We’ll make it effective immediately, as if everyone has turned 65. Don’t worry, we’re sure that the free market will have no trouble luring them back off Medicare once that year is up. After all, the free market has done such an incredible, crackerjack job of delivering health care in the past! Who wouldn’t want to fall back into its soft embrace? Oh, totally understand how we can’t afford the $78 billion it costs to feed our citizens for a year while they endure a jobless recovery caused by gazillionaires. Hey, I just found out the Defense budget spends $128 billion per year for weapons and $74 billion for research and development. How about we put our military in charge of Nation Building here at home? They use half that money—just half—to buy food for poor people instead of drones, and suddenly the hungry would get to eat on more than their average budget of $134/month. And given the $161 billion Defense spends on its employees, it must have a few extra folks who’d no longer... Continue reading
Posted Sep 28, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
A b ar survives as a small business because people come in and buy drinks. How does that happen? Well, it might be because people sense a hip vibe, it might be because the beer is cheap, it might be because all the Yankees fans in the neighborhood have decided to watch the tragic series against the Tigers together on one particular flat-screen TV, it might be because the bar gives out that terrific goat cheese thing at happy hour, it might be because everybody knows your name. Any of these and more might make a bar successful. None of these have anything to do with tax policy. Or regulation. Instead, they have to do with the existence of customers—i.e., people. So if you’re talking about “creating jobs” or “helping the middle class,” you ought to be thinking about people. Why did the rabbi and the priest walk into a bar? They both had enough money in their pockets to splurge on a cocktail or pitcher of beer or glass of Bordeaux or whatever it is clergy order when they’re in a joke. And that money came from a job, in their case, a job with an organization that pays no taxes. The tattered idea that lowering tax rates for business will increase hiring is absurd. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia pays $0 in tax, and yet closed St. Mary of the Assumption, along with some s maller parishes and many schools, this past summer. That means not only an out-of-work pastor, but teachers, secretaries, janitors, clerks and administrators all losing their jobs. The Roman Catholic Church’s taxes couldn’t get any lower; what the enterprise lacked was parishioners—i.e., customers—i.e., people. And regulation? Well, The Catholic Church, along with other religious institutions, is exempt from many regulations, particularly the ones that promote equality and fairness by forbidding discrimination. For example, in Iowa, a business is not allowed to hire or fire someone “on the basis of age, race, creed, color, sex, national origin, religion, or disability,” unless it is "[a]ny bona fide religious institution or its educational facility, association, corporation or society.” But most regulation exists to keep people from harm, not from injustice. Rules against serving toxic food or dumping slag in the drinking water or selling cars that don’t have functional braking systems are good for people—i.e., customers—and, indirectly, for businesses, because they keep customers—i.e., people—alive. The reason bars have to get liquor licenses is to protect those customers—i.e., people—from a substance that can be very dangerous if not properly handled. A dead customer will not boost revenues. A dead customer won’t enhance that hip vibe. A dead customer won’t bring his friends in next April, when the Yankees’ chances look pretty good again. O burdensome regulations! O burdensome taxes! In Mitt Romney’s Bar & Grill, he’s pouring a secret jobs potion that’s going to jump-start our economy without even a sideways glance at the actual human beings behind economic transactions like ordering a Fuzzy Navel. The only people in... Continue reading
Posted Oct 20, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
When I was an undergrad at a fancy university, I remember being criticized on several occasions for not being “discriminating”—it was suggested I should be more exacting in whom I accepted as friends; it was said also that, as a Midwesterner by birth, I was “too nice.” Nice, Midwestern, not discriminating—those were euphemisms for consorting with the wrong sort of person, for an unseemly lack of contempt. In truth, I could be plenty contemptuous when faced with a bad argument, but when faced with a human being, I took all comers, high and low. Not bad training for tending bar. Maybe I wasn’t discriminating enough when I donned my apron (sans heels, btw), but I needed the money and, besides, I was proud to hold this difficult, demanding, and weirdly powerful position. Bars are experiments in democracy, in that anyone, with a few exceptions, can walk in. Like voters, bar patrons have to be a certain age. And like convicted felons in some states, certain patrons, patrons with prior convictions, can be banned from participating, usually because they wrote bad checks or ran out on tabs. Fraud is not tolerated; the punishment is to be 86ed—permanently exiled. Drinking too much, on the other hand, even if the result is disorderly behavior, gets pa trons only temporary suspensions—and jocularity upon their having slept it off and returned. After all, people who drink too much spend a lot doing it, which is good for business. So in my bar, I served hundreds of people every week, thousands over the course of months, and while I carded assiduously to keep youngsters out, I had to consult the 86 list of banned patrons but once. The number of patrons on that list? Two. Fraud was not a big issue in that particular democracy, nor is it in our national democracy, and yet, our 86 list is about to get really long, thanks to a Republican-led wave of voter suppression laws across the United (not) States. Absent from that list will be people who wrote bad checks—who turned out to be impersonating a dead guy or who say they’re citizens but aren’t really—in short, people who have actually committed acts of fraud. Instead it’ll be full of people who are the “wrong sort,” like the ones I was supposed to shun in college. Black people, brown people, poor people, disabled people, those are the ones Republicans are systematically trying to weed out of the polling booth, where they stand in the way of “taking back America.” Republicans need a long-term strategy for shrinking the electorate because where they want to take America back to—Jim Crow? 1919, before women got the vote? the 1950s?—isn’t popular with the electorate we have now. And it’ll only get less popular, as America’s skin color gets browner. But popularity is the factory of democracy. Or, as the distinguished senator from South Carolina, Republican Lindsey Graham, has it, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business.” Hence the... Continue reading
Posted Sep 29, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
The feast of the wealthy upon the little guy should long be over and we should have moved on to after-dinner drinks: tax hikes in gleaming snifters for the country club set; for the rest of us, a minimum-wage hike and jobless benefits, lifted to our lips and kissed like the whipped cream on an Irish coffee. Yet the little guy, despite his morsel size, is still being battered, fried up and served with a side of frozen fear to an already obese elite. That glob of fear on the plate is that the superrich, poor fragile creatures, won’t create our jobs if we ask them to contribute to the upkeep of our country. The Bush tax cuts, a boondoggle for those that already gots, were first enacted in 2001, over a decade ago. These senseless giveaways have not only remained in place, but been fattened up for the fattest among us, wallet-wise, all in the hope that those grotesquely wealthy people will use their tax refunds to create jobs. Ten years later, our country had roughly 3 million fewer jobs. But the superrich keep getting richer. The “job creators” theory has been tasted, re-tasted, tasted yet again—still no jobs. It’s easy to see why. Imagine earning $22 Million in 365 days. (Almost half of all Americans make less than $25,000 per year.) That comes to $60,274.00 per day. How would you spend over $60,000 in one day, then wake up and do it again the next day, day after day, including holidays and weekends, for a whole year? Sure, you could buy some big ticket items, a Maserati here, a home in La Jolla there, but you’re probably not going to buy hundreds of Maseratis or resort get-aways. Nor will you necessarily create a lot of jobs if you do. For consumption to drive an economy—and ours is consumer-driven—you need masses of people buying masses of Fords and Chryslers, not the 1% buying a handful of fancy imports. At $16,000, the 2012 Dodge Dart, a modest compact, is out of reach for that 48.1% of Americans earning less than $25,000 per year. “No,” say the defenders of the rich getting richer. Wealthy people create jobs by investing in new companies or in the expansion of old ones, not by consuming stuff themselves. Unfortunately, neither the behavior of so-called investors nor that of the businesses they allegedly invest in fits with this argument. Wealthy people spend less than 2% of their money investing in new companies. Moreover, companies themselves don’t want to expand, even though they already have the cash to do so, without any investors. The reason they are not hiring, if we are to believe them, is that there’s no one to buy the extra stuff they’d produce. Remember, almost half of us are making less than $25,000 per year. We can’t afford more stuff. We can’t afford the stuff we already have, which is why our standard of living has been going down. So Job Creators, you... Continue reading
Posted Aug 10, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
In last night’s anxiety dream, I was suddenly tending bar at an unfamiliar restaurant, a wine bar with a sprawling, open floor plan of tables and a sleek, steel and glass bar. It wasn’t busy, but nonetheless I fumbled around trying to locate even the most basic items, like ice, an order pad and lime wedges. My apron lacked pockets—it was, in fact, an Amish-looking calico thing out of keeping with the clean aesthetic of the joint. As the dream wore on, the place got steadily busier, so that the 15 minutes it was taking me to find a gin called Target Red (never heard of it, took a while to figure out it was a gin) multiplied exponentially into a hopeless, 2 hour wait for even the simplest glass of house wine. I woke up, as one does, upon point of death: a waiter had just put in an order for a Bubblegum Glider. What on earth goes into a Bubblegum Glider? Only your butt, it turns out. There is no such drink, but in an anxiety dream, no-win situations are the point. As a veteran of these recurring things—in addition to tending bar at a surprising variety of unfamiliar restaurants, I have also been pushed onto a Met-sized stage in an 18th-century ballgown to find myself in an unfamiliar opera, and I have chased down lost wallets, tickets or luggage in the world’s most bewildering airport or train station minutes before final boarding—I can claim intimacy with and proud obsessiveness about uncertainty. At least, that’s what I call it, to be performing a task in a climate of unpredictability, without the tools and knowledge to do it properly, or at all. The word “uncertainty” has gotten a lot of circulation lately, not always in sentences I understand. I am especially suspicious when the sentences come out of the mouths of right-wing political operatives, like Karl Rove and his buddies at the superpac, American Crossroads: “Former President Bill Clinton and now even Warren Buffett don’t agree with Obama’s policies, which are adding uncertainty and instability to the economy and making it worse.” Really? Last time I looked, it was big banks and a real estate bubble, both private sector activities, that caused our economic uncertainty. I also marvel when overpaid CEOs conjure its specter. Why has “uncertainty” become the lament of the 1%, who would seem better equipped to handle it than your average bartender? What do they mean by this word? The Oxford English Dictionary gives us this first definition: “The quality of being uncertain in respect of duration, continuance, occurrence, etc.; liability to chance or accident.” The idea here is that uncertainty is an absence where measurable or knowable data should be. My anxiety dreams have this quality: in a bar where I’d worked before or an opera in which I’d been cast and rehearsed, I’d be fine. Instead, I know I’m in trouble the moment the dream starts, and the evidence only mounts as it goes... Continue reading
Posted Jun 9, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Bars are not democracies, but in both cases, you get what you order with regularity. Voters pick the guy who’s going to deregulate, reform education and cut taxes, and lo! that’s what he does. Voters pick the guy who’s going to reform health care, cut taxes and get us out of Iraq, and lo! Ditto! There are few surprises. Scott Walker’s bait and switch aside, elected officials are actually kind of predictable. So what do voters mean when they complain about slippery politicians? It means they ordered up something they don’t want after all, and instead of admitting their own mistake, they find a crack in the glass, a fly in the soup, a crook behind the bar. Obama the candidate was pretty clear about seeking to reform healthcare should he be elected. Guess what? He did just that. But voters want to send back the Obamacare cocktail, and now he’s ignoring his own biggest legislative achievement. He could say, “Hey, you got what you ordered.” But he won’t. As every bartender knows, you dump the perfectly good drink and make another, to the customer’s specifications, even though it’s the customer who’s at fault. Having been maneuvered into this defensive posture more than once, here’s what one former bartender used to do: suppress customer turnout. In other words, I took preventative measures, steps to avoid filling the orders of customers likely to return them, by discouraging the customer from staying at my bar. I profiled. Here’s the kind of customer who’s going to send a drink back: Asks for, then spends a very long time parsing, a Drinks Menu Chooses based on the garnish, hence ordering that which comes with an umbrella, cucumber, or specialty ice cubes in the shape of florets Giggles Consults friends and neighbors before ordering, but does not consult the bartender Zeroes in on the flaming drinks Someone who fit this profile would learn from me, much to my disappointment, that the key ingredient (crème de boullion, a sparkler) was out of stock. If I had to, I’d invent a key ingredient. This method is highly inexact and therefore thoroughly unfair. No doubt many lovely customers got caught in my dragnet. Tough. Since I’d earn better tips from taking care of fewer, less problematic drinkers, prevention was too winning a strategy to ignore. Which is why Republicans are very busy suppressing wide swatches of the electorate with “anti-fraud” laws, lest some few of them vote for Obama, and why I here suggest that Democrats try the same, anti-democratic, elitist, un-American, immoral strategy. Here’s how: Card the usual suspects: every white person over the age of 50. Make sure each has a valid passport or similar to prove U.S. citizenship. Inspect the ID photo—does it really look like its bearer? Or like a younger, more attractive cousin? Since passports are good for 10 years, a number of photos will be out of date. Challenge these. Check the address—is it within the polling place’s district? Some of the... Continue reading
Posted May 24, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Equal parts gin, whiskey and brandy, shaken and strained. According one Prohibition-era recipe book, Here’s How!, once you serve it, you’d better run. The Thunderclap does sound pretty awful, and lethal too—a hit-and-run act of weather not unlike the real weather we’ve been having, most recently, a coordinated attack of tornadoes across Oklahoma, Kansas and a few other Midwestern states. Who is responsible for this vile concoction? Here’s How! suggests that the bartender is, and that his best course of action is to leave the scene of the crime. But when it comes to the equal parts raw sewage, mining residue, and smog that polluters serve up, denial is the favorite course of action. It’s as if the bartender poured you a Thunderclap, stood before you while you downed it, and then said, “I gave you no such thing.” Unlikely as it seems, the denial tactic has been very successful. Pew’s latest poll shows 62% of Americans don’t believe that pollution is heating up the planet, either because they’ve bought the “natural patterns” argument (“This Thunderclap is perfectly harmless! It’s the water vapor ya gotta watch out for.”), they haven’t seen enough evidence to form a belief (“Thunderclaps are just a theory”), or, scariest of all, they haven’t yet reached the question of responsibility because they deny the planet is getting warmer in the first place (“Thunderclap? There’s no Thunderclap here.”). Among Republicans—i.e., those charged with protecting the 1% from taxes and the polluters from governmental regulation—a very thick layer of denial obscures facts that in clean air would be glaring. Only 19% of them think pollution is driving up the temperature. Ease of denial comes, in part, from the language concerned environmentalists use to talk about their passion, a set of terms drained of all passion. So forget global warming, greenhouse gasses, carbon footprint, human activity, climate change, CO2 emissions, and all the other post-doc terminology when it comes to a sober discussion of the state of our planet. Let’s ask one simple question of climate deniers (what does that term even mean? taking a stand against the existence of weather?): “Gosh, that was some tornado/hurricane/tap water on fire. Do you think pollution has anything to do with it?” You’ll get a resounding “yes.”Even from Republicans. It’s similar to the “yes” you would have gotten in 2006, if you’d asked my neighbor, “Wow, your crappy 2-bedroom ranch is appraised at a half-million dollars! Don't you think that’s a little high?” Among my home-owning friends at the time, the ridiculous price tags attached to our modest dwellings was a common object of marvel. And yet when the bubble burst, howls of “We didn’t knoooowwwww!” arose—not from us, but from the banks, real estate hustlers and speculators who’d driven the prices so high. Those are the same howls polluters will send up, when the weather gets too bad to ignore. But don’t worry: we won’t hear them under all that angry, gray, flammable water. Continue reading
Posted Apr 16, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
To see pigs feeding at the public trough, look no further than for-profit schools, which, like “private” prisons and Blackwell, aren’t the market solutions to failed Big Government that our conservative, pro-business friends tout them as. These entities aren’t market-based at all. They’re dependent on taxpayers. Call them socialist pigs instead of capitalist ones, because what they’re doing is redistributing your wealth to their owners. And these owners are rich enough to bankroll big fights against any attempt to regulate the flow of federal dollars coming their way. That’s because they charge higher tuition than self-identified state schools like the one where I teach. Meanwhile, the mission of educating students at for-profit colleges is an afterthought, as is made clear by their websites. I challenge you to go to Phoenix University’s and find out anything useful about the curriculum or faculty without having to chat with a sales representative. Or read this, an easy A for effort in 9 easy steps. 1. All of the for-profit universities have special software tools and pop-ups designed to get you to enter your contact information. Phoenix nudges you toward this on its home page, with a 4-step “Ready to Change Your Life” tool. Phoenix is big on breaking processes into steps, of which there are rarely more than four. If you’d like to change your life, the 4 Steps are to enter your area of interest, educational background and contact info into Phoenix’s database so that an “Enrollment Advisor” can reach you. Tada! Your life has been changed into fodder for their targeted marketing! Hi, I’m Shawn! Your advisor! I was also a contestant on “The Bachelor”! 2. You beat a hasty retreat from the “Change Your Life” tool, returning to Phoenix’s home page in search of academic information. Scrolling down, you spot a practically invisible link for “First Year Sequence,” which Phoenix provides on the off-off chance people browse university sites in order to discover what they might learn. You click, expecting a list of courses or a description of the pedagogical philosophy behind the core curriculum. You are disappointed. Whatever the “First Year Sequence” of study might be, the site tells you only that it’s “more than prerequisites and busy work.” Because what could be a bigger waste of time than laying the foundations for higher education? 2½. You’ll also find two videos on the “First Year Sequence” page. Phoenix's website uses a lot of videos, lest you get the impression that you’ll be asked to read in college. One video is called “What to expect” and the other, “Funding your education.” Hopeful, you click on the first. But “what to expect” is mostly about how college isn’t free, it costs money, and nothing about what you might learn. What you should expect, and Phoenix is very clear on this, is to pay tuition. How much tuition, and for what, it doesn’t say. You turn to the next video, “Funding Your Education.” This one also neglects to specify tuition costs. Instead,... Continue reading
Posted Mar 17, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
The case against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. ObamaCare, is not nearly as fun as an Imperial Fizz, though it's definitely fizzy. All of the law's ingredients, the whiskey, rum, lemon juice and sweet, sweet sugar of insurance policy arcana--all except the sparkling water of a mandate--have already been mixed and are being shaken as we speak. They can’t be taken apart at this point without dumping the whole shebang down the drain, which is not to say that the Supreme Court won’t do exactly that. And the glacial pace of the Affordable Healthcare Act's implementation, like the slow-motion process of its enactment, gives opponents plenty of time to whip up a frenzy of anti-Imperialism, before this drink ever hits the coaster. I, ______________, should not be forced to pay for health insurance. Fill in the blank with “taxpayer,” “small business,” “Utah” or “Catholic bishop,” and you’ve got the argument against ObamaCare. All of its critics base their opposition on that word forced, raising issues of liberty. Certainly, the recent contraceptive flap was initially introduced—by Republicans, not the media—and framed as a question of religious liberty. But if we’ve discovered anything from that debate, it’s that liberty is not the only value Americans hold dear. Liberty’s not the only value enshrined in the Constitution, either. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the big three, and it wasn’t long before the national conversation morphed against Republicans’ will into one about a different set of values: whether women deserve to pursue the kind of happiness that comes from choosing when they have children, and to have the kind of life that comes from preventing pregnancy when it poses a health risk. Guess which two values trumped the third in a contest between the religious liberty of bishops (total of 195 in the U.S.) and the life and happiness of women (more than 150,000,000 in the U.S.)? Not only are bishops a tiny group, they don’t use contraceptives and nothing in the health care law is making them do so. But when they act as employers, rather than as leaders of spiritual flocks, they have to follow the same rules as secular hospital or university administrators. As employers, they can’t dictate the health care decisions of their employees. They are not Imperial, though they do have nifty regalia. Leaving the contraception coverage rule aside, I look at the broader debate over health insurance and find it odd that so much resistance to ObamaCare has come from the religious community, particularly fundamentalist Christians. Jesus had a lot to say about taking care of each other, from loving thy neighbor to all those blessings on the poor and vulnerable in the Beatitudes. He spent quite a bit of His time healing people and feeding them, and none of it lobbying. While He never ran for office, it’s easy to imagine Him favoring universal access to health care. On this specific topic, He said, “It is not the healthy who need... Continue reading
Posted Mar 13, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Entertaining as Rick Perry’s November 9, 2011 “Oops” moment was—you know, the one when in his frenzy to take a hatchet to government, he forgot which heads he was chopping off—the more significant and now completely repressed “oops” moment for the American right occurred three years earlier, on October 23, 2008, when Alan Greenspan confessed his “state of shocked disbelief” that markets don’t regulate themselves. Without rules, the free market is kind of like the punch you might have served at parties in your college dorm. Who knows what toxic assets were swimming around in there? Fermented Hi-C? Grain alcohol? Nail polish? Why not, when punch itself was invented by desperate sailors who had run out of beer and turned to the locals for a stimulus package. One of the oldest recipes calls for arrack, which tastes a bit like a credit default swap and is made from palm trees. Any punch worth its floating lemon wheels is meant to creep up on guests, unleashing a voracious appetite for risk. In dormitories, that means regrettable sex. Greenspan’s deregulatory punch unleashed a voracious appetite for paper profits, what he called “euphoria” and the rest of us call greed. Beyond chopping off regulatory heads wherever they might be, Chairman Greenspan left another insidious legacy. He handed off a historically low 4.25% interest rate to his successor, Ben Bernanke, who then had very little room to cut it. Fiddling with the Federal Funds rate is one of the few tools the Fed has. Roughly put, the idea is to crank the rate up when the economy’s “euphoric.” Paul Volcker raised it to 20% in 1981, and was duly vilified. Nobody likes a spoiler, but ever since the Depression, the Federal Reserve’s job was supposed to be to take away the punch bowl just when the party gets going. And part of why you take the punch bowl away is so that you can bring it back, by lowering rates in a crisis like the one we have now. That’s hard to do when rates are already low. Greenspan not only failed to take away the punch bowl, he spiked it with 80-proof easy money, in the form of both low interest rates and deregulation. No wonder the speculators got drunk. His tenure fit right in with the larger recklessness of the Bush years, the blind appetite for risk, the unwillingness to weigh long-term consequences against immediate gain--in the case of the invasion of Iraq, the neglect to think even one week ahead into a post-Saddam future. The attitude was to take the easy profit in the short term and let the future fend for itself. Thus so-called fiscal conservatives and budget hawks gave away a budget surplus to the 1%, rather than saving it for a rainy day. Meanwhile, the rest of us journeymen got punch drunk, battered in the early rounds of what turned out to be an economic TKO to the middle and working class. At his 2008 hour of reckoning,... Continue reading
Posted Feb 26, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
I see into your heart. Not really. I wouldn’t presume, not while Rick Santorum’s on the case. He’s like Santa, knowing whether your theology is naughty or nice. Or phony. If your “worldview” is one that “elevates the Earth above man,” for example, it’s phony. Never mind that no one on earth actually has such a “worldview,” or can figure out what it is. Is it a pre-Copernican understanding of cosmology? Could Santorum draw a little diagram, please? Most of us value Earth selfishly, as the planet upon which we selfishly live. Though we acknowledge the solar system in a superficial way, we really believe the sun revolves around us. To lay waste to Earth would threaten us, the center of it, and so we try not to. This human-centric “worldview” is not one that “elevates the Earth above man.” A few of us are selfless enough to view Earth as a gift from God, and therefore something to which, out of reverence, we should not lay waste. Is that what Santorum means? If so, it’s “some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible,” as Psalm 24 so clearly states: "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it." Or maybe he’s thinking of Leviticus 25: "The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants." Either way, it’s clear that the Bible agrees with Rick Santorum about how unimportant Earth is, and how important is alien, rent-paying man. The Bible’s right in line with Santorum’s free-market, property-rights, capitalistic theology, and the anti-immigration stance he so Biblically takes. What else could “The land must not be sold permanently” and “you are but aliens” mean? And even though the Constitution is a political document, not a theological one, if you are “trampling on a constitutional right” as Rick Santorum reads it, your theology is bad. To wit, don’t let individuals make their own decisions about contraception, because that would be to impose “ideology on a group of people expressing their theology, their moral code." Where to begin with this convoluted thinking? Santorum can impose his “ideology on a group of people,” but if “people” have other ideas, they are “phony”? And possibly, as one of his aides suggested of President Obama, Muslim? What if the pesky ideology being imposed is enshrined in the Constitution? As lazy thought and self-defeating rhetoric, Santorum’s statements taste a lot like a Maiden’s Prayer. I say this for two reasons: first, this cocktail has serious varieties of religious experience. Secondly, its recipe is lower-case catholic—i.e., you can put whatever gets you elected in there and still call it a Maiden’s Prayer. To the first point, like a “worldview that elevates the Earth above man,” we must ask, what is it? What is the Maiden Praying? Turns out, the Maiden is Praying to get laid. Consider two of the alternate names by which this cocktail goes: Leg... Continue reading
Posted Feb 20, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Cordials took a hit with the advent of infused liquors. They used to be our sturdy flavor friends, rarely useful, but rising to the taste when called upon. Now they’ve been downsized, as vodka got more productive, infusing itself with a frightening range of non-vodka tastes. Many of the flavors, raspberry or mint, to name just two, supplant a hard-working cordial like Chambord or crème de menthe in contemporary drink recipes. And cordials have another problem: their biggest purveyor in the US is probably DeKuyper, whose labels tell all: I WAS DESIGNED BEFORE POTTERY BARN EXISTED! Enough bartenders brew their own bitters these days—the culinary equivalent would be starting a fish stock not by putting a carcass into a pot of water but by tying your own flies and heading off to Idaho—that brightly colored corn syrup ain’t coming near their specials menus. Cordials weren’t always so out of touch. I can’t help but think they are due for a comeback, like moderate Republicans. Indeed, a smattering of cordial missionaries are out there in their Bay area back yards, going to insane lengths to recreate crème de noyaux. Don’t try this at home, really, no matter how much Mr. Manhattan says you can. You have to crush the pits of apricots in order to get the kernels, then crush the kernels into a powder, then steep the powder in brandy for a month, then…we’re just getting started. Plus nobody seems to know the full recipe. There might be other kernels—cherry? peach?—to pulverize as well. And something to make it pink. Unless it wasn’t pink back when people knew how to make it. Who can say? Lots of question marks here, but then lots of distinguished cordials—Chartreuse, Benedictine—have secret recipes and exotic histories involving religious oddballs. Which brings us to Mitt Romney, the endangered cordial of presidential candidates. Surely no one can dispute the oddball history: a great-grandfather, packed off to Mexico with his five wives to preserve polygamy. Oops, that’s three wives. Wife Number Two divorced that particular Romney and he hadn’t married his fifth one yet. He got around to her later, in 1897, seven years after the Mormon church “banned” polygamy. Apparently he was not alone in defying the LDS church ban. The man who issued it, Wilford Woodrow, added a wife or two to his own post-ban collection as well. All of this was over a hundred years ago, and it’s fair to ask whether any of it matters. After all, Jimmy Carter’s oddball brother was alive and operating during his lifetime, and the less said about Newt’s three wives at this point, the better. Plenty of other presidential candidates have had recent messes, from W’s drinking problem and Ron Paul’s racism to Obama’s Jeremiah Wright problem. What matters from a voter’s perspective, though, is not how recent the event is but how the candidate handles its relevance. Romney’s an active member and elder in the Mormon church. He talks the faith talk incessantly. He’s even taken... Continue reading
Posted Feb 8, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
What am I doing in January, you ask? Why, I'm teaching a poetry workshop in Kenya. As Robert Frost, who clearly did not have my good fortune, would say, you come, too! The dates are January 2-11, 2012, and the trip is offered though the MFA in Creative Writing program at Stony Brook Southampton. That means you can take this trip for credit. You can also apply as a curious outsider. The idea here is to gather an ecclectic bunch, including creative minds in fields other than poetry, to write some poems, learn a little Swahili, take a few field trips and hang out with very interesting people (more on the full cast of characters to come). Most of your ten days will be spent at the Turkana Basin, a mecca for fossil-seeking types in the northern part of Kenya. Situated on the banks of the Turkwel River, on the west side of the Lake Turkana, the Turkana Basin Institute was founded by world renowned paleoanthropologists Richard and Meave Leakey as the preeminent facility to study the origins of modern man. The institute is affiliated with Stony Brook. With 7 million years of fossil record under your feet, channeling the human experience has never been so visceral. The terrain is extraordinary. The energy of neighboring villages is a far cry from the tourist traps of southern Kenya. Turkana is an isolated oasis where culture, creativity and life converge. Plus Richard Leakey will be there and has promised a talk on the evolution of language. Other faculty from my program--in creative writing, theater, film and visual arts--will be there too, mostly so that they can brag about swimming in the Turkwel River. While in Nairobi, our point of departure, we'll take a day safari to Nairobi National Park. The poetry workshop will focus on strategies that came to us through the oral tradition. We'll attend to the sounds a poem makes, and explore the connections between sound and memory, aiming for an unforgettable experience. Eating, sleeping and cocktails are included in the package. Warning: while the food's excellent and the accommodations perfectly adequate, there's no air conditioning and it is HOT there. This is not for the delicate of constitution, nor is it for strict vegetarians. But if the adorable Richard Leakey can do it, so can you. And how much does this cost? The Curious Outsider rate is $2,930.00 and includes 2 nights in Nairobi, the safari, the round trip flight from Nairobi to Turkana Basin, 8 nights at the Institute, excursions to an archeological site (i.e., time travel to 5 million years ago) and to Elive Springs, and cultural exchanges with neighboring Turkana villages. To get graduate-level credit for the Turkana Basin Writing Workshops, you will need $3,422.00 if you are studying in the fine state of New York or $4,208 if you're not. Again, the dates for this extravaganza are January 2-11, 2012. Continue reading
Posted Sep 22, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Here’s a drink I would never order: an Everybody’s Irish. It calls for despoiling Irish whiskey with green Chartreuse, green crème de menthe, and an olive. Ugh. There are any number of reasons to shun this drink. It tastes awful. The name incites me to resentment. Everybody’s not Irish, and three of the four ingredients in the drink aren’t either, though they are green, which is the only reason they are in the drink. I resent that color, not taste, should determine what goes into a cocktail. Moreover, if you go to Ireland and actually look at it, you quickly realize its dominant hue is emerald gray. Thus the relentless, tired equation of Irishness with bright green is not only a cliché but a lie. I resent the attempt to cash in on the supposedly universal appeal of those wonderful, whacky Celts regaling us with their charming whiskey-drinking ways right out of the pages of Angela’s Ashes. Oh, wait, that book was about abject misery. Whatever. People with last names like mine were raised on sentimentality about The Old Sod. It’s hogwash, of course, but “Everybody’s Irish” not only tells an objectionable lie—that the Irish are fun drunks and people want to be like them—it tells the lie flimsily. It tells a Made in China lie, oversimplified and oddly threatening, with its conformist absolutism. “Everybody’s Irish” should be a curse, not a cocktail. As rhetoric, it resonates with the “You’re all individuals!” bit in Life of Brian. CROWD: “Yes! We’re all individuals!” INDIVIDUAL: “I’m not..” In David Foster Wallace’s excellent essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” he notices that sometime in the 1980s, advertising had shifted away from the appeal of belonging to a group (drink this soda and you can join these happy people) to the appeal of avoiding a group (drink this soda and you’ll stand out from the dull. gray herd). The group became the villain. Everybody’s not Irish. Wallace points out a commercial motive behind this. Salespeople know the lone customer is an easier mark than one who shows up with friends, family or clan in tow. It makes sense for companies to vilify company, in the hope that you’ll go shopping by yourself. But Wallace also rattles off any number of larger sociological explanations for this, including the rise of the political right in the US. If you think about one group in particular, what we call government, the right is definitely Vilifier in Chief. It makes perfect sense for a party proclaiming itself on the side of the individual. Republicans have been systematic in redefining government as a villain—Big Government, it’s called, never “good government,” and rarely just “government.” Other collective nouns in the right’s diction also get pejorative adjectives: The biased media. The liberal Elite. One-size-fits-all education. Singular words, words for people in groups of one, meanwhile, are mated with other positive words—personal freedom, faith-based initiative, individual liberty. Why, then, are the freedom-loving folks on the political right so conformist? “We’re... Continue reading
Posted Aug 5, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Sitting in a bar with a guy’s guy, a man so manly he not only writes crime novels, but also solves actual crimes, I lost control of the debate and joined him in ordering a Sambuca. To illustrate how far from sophistication I’d slid,Sambuca does not rate an entry in Alexis Lichene’s Encyclopedia of Wine and Spirits. Ouzo gets an entry. Pernod. Pastis. Absinthe. But not Sambuca, refuge of ex-cops and the Common Man, especially the Italian-American, went-to-community-college, Tea Party version of the Common Man. Sambuca is an angry liquor. If you don’t believe me, set it on fire. Watch it burn. Let the whole goddam Federal budget go down in flames. See if I care. Well, I do care, but as I mentioned, I lost control of the debate. Sometimes Sambuca comes to your table flaring up against government interference and high taxes. A licorice-based apertif like pastis might have noted that from 1932 to 1986 the tax rate on rich people never dipped below 50%, while now it is 35%, pretty low by historical standards. Only taxes on poor people have plateaued at a higher level—10%—than in 1932, when a person earning $2,000 would owe 4% of his wealth to the guvmint. Samuca, flavored with star anis (so close to anus!), could care less about such pointy-headed facts and figures. Other times, like this one with the ex-cop, Sambuca arrives in a calmer mood, with its three little coffee beans floating in clear resolve to take back our country, take it way back, back to the late 19th century, when violent boom-and-bust cycles were a commonplace of a deregulated market, the gap between rich and poor yawned, and a cabal of super-wealthy industrialists had the politicians in their pockets. Sound familiar? Never mind, says Sambuca. And never mind that the 1890s kicked off the Progressive Era, named for the pinko policies that came out of such extremes—child labor laws, women’s right to vote, restrictions on how much arsenic manufacturers could put in wallpaper. (Seriously, arsenic gave wallpaper a vivid green tint you could admire until you got poisoned and died.) Never mind. Obama’s a socialist and let’s get rid of the EPA, Department of Education and collective bargaining, which fought for the pension check that Mr. Sambuca used to paid for his drink. Sambuca’s inability or refusal to grasp complexity is born out by what happens when you add a splash of water. It becomes cloudy, confused, opaque. So do Pernod, pastis, ouzo and absinthe, all of which are frequently taken with water as a matter of taste. In the writing program where I teach, we value such complexity, but because Sambuca hates the taste of compromise and never reaches across the aisle, its tendency to cloud up when assimilated with other substances is so little known it’s practically classified. Also a state secret is why Sambuca is served with those three beans. One conspiracy theory contends that the beans represent health, happiness and prosperity, three qualities that... Continue reading
Posted Jul 31, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Yes, it’s Oktoberfest, which means beer selections in a faux Gothic type so ornate you can’t read it, as if Germany had a corner on the Middle Ages. Okay, printing press and all that, but hello, Ariel Narrow, anyone? That said, there’s some fine beers out there in Oktoberfest land—I just can’t get past the font to tell you what they are. I had something that began with an H as I sat with my Libertarian friend (!!!) who works for a right-leaning think tank. My “H” beer (Haufbrauhaus? Hefeweizen? Hichbineinberliner?), according to the waiter, was “on the dark side,” and so was my date, but as it happens, he regaled me with stories of how open minded and curious Al Franken is. He’d spent some time at the Washington Press corps dinner with the guy and discovered that Al Franken is someone you’d enjoy having a Hefeweizen with, a non-ideologue who willingly explores the issues of the day with a wide range of people, including Libertarian People®, while still retaining a sense of humor. Would that my beer was with Al Franken, you’re thinking, except that my friend also turned out to be enjoyable to hausgab with, liked exploring the issues of the day without freezing into Tea Party rigidity, and had a sense of humor. The older he gets, he says, the less riled he becomes about the ideas that got him into politics. He’d never, never win a primary in his own party, the ® GOP ® ®. Meanwhile, back at a German joint in “Middle Long Island,” I’m wondering what a beer drinker is to do about that font and that 9.2% unemployment rate, as my waiter “Ryan” goes beyond solicitousness to outright ass-kissing and my Think Tank® friend moves on to discussing how he likes Obama, too, not the policies but the man himself, an intellectually curious guy not unlike Al Franken, a fellow Democrat—why is it the Democrats are so much more likeable?—and how no President could possibly be popular when unemployment is so high. This guy votes Republican®, though, and come Tuesday, he will negate my vote for progressive candidates at the local, state and national level with his vote for slash-and-burn candidates at the local, state and national level. Unlike him, I’ve never met Al Franken, nor have I shaken hands with Barack Obama. I’ve never even chatted with my local congressman, Tim Bishop, and yet I’ve attended call parties for him and dragged my 9-year-old around the neighborhood with door knob hangers, explaining that this is how changes happen. It’s not how change happens. My Right-Leaning® friend is the perfect swing voter, he ought to cross over from the dark side to support people he actually likes, and yet he won’t. My 9 year old can’t tip the balance, being ineligible to vote for the next decade. How do open, curious Republicans with senses of humor stand by their party? When I sip a dark beer, I think of weight. Dark... Continue reading
Posted Oct 28, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
This was a fantastic conversation with two really smart people. And me. Oops!
Until its death by Anheuser-Busch in 2006, there was one and only one reason to order a Rolling Rock. You were slumming. Rolling Rock occupied that peculiar little niche, described in the linked article as “economizing drinkers, college students and, to a certain extent, hipsters who might be attracted to its painted-on labels, cool iconography, and the mildly mysterious number ‘33’ printed on every bottle,” happily for decades. While it passed as a working-class beer, at home in dive bars and the banged-up hands of plumbers and electricians, Rolling Rock was equally likely to be found in hands whose most strenuous act of late had been to pick up a volume of Heidegger. It was stinky beer for the upper-middle-class-bound, the group primarily interested in slumming. Slumming has a fascinating history as a slang term. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1839, it meant “passing bad money,” but by the 1880s, it had taken on its present-day denotation of visiting poor neighborhoods “esp. for charitable or philanthropic purposes.” I’m going to take issue with that part of the OED’s definition, the purpose. To begin with, the illustrative quotation right next to it, from 1884, reads, “I am not one of those who have taken to ‘slumming’ as an amusement,“ suggesting an entirely different and uncharitable purpose: doing it for fun. Slumming has always seemed on its surface to be connected to class consciousness, like the reform-minded muckraking journalism of the Late Victorian period exposing corruption in high places, or like ecotourism today, but those are essentially documentary endeavors, interested in fact-finding and, for all their ideological overlays, open to new information. Slumming, on the other hand, seeks thrills, not social change, and gets there by exploiting the existing social order. It’s only amusing to visit a slum if you can leave. The second illustrative quotation in the OED is from 1894: “Slumming had not become the fashion at that time of day,” and that one, too, emphasizes the superficiality of the act. “Fashion,” not philanthropy, is the prime motive here, which makes perfect sense going back to slumming’s earliest incarnation as slang for counterfeiting. The slummer pretends to be poor, but isn’t really. Both quotations suggest slumming is a counterfeit of caring about the economic misfortunes of others, a pose more attuned to Decadence than altruism. Rolling Rock had its own brush with counterfeiting when Anheuser-Busch closed down the only factory this dive-bar staple had ever known, in Latrobe, PA, moved it to New Jersey, and tried to re-brand it as a “craft” beer. Obviously, its parent company missed the whole point of Rolling Rock, which was to get away (temporarily, at least) from one’s own status as an artisan cheese eater who listens to R.E.M. Now there’s no reason to order Rolling Rock, nor is there a reason to go slumming. To paraphrase Walt Kelly, we have met the slum, and it is us. Remember, the amusement value of slumming derives from the ability to leave. But those... Continue reading
Posted Jun 19, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Satire amazes me with its quickness on the uptake. No sooner had Arthurian legend started making the rounds than Marie de France began collecting these oral tales and making fun of them. Chaucer has the Knight’s tale, a Romance, and the Wife of Bath’s Tale, a parody of a romance, cheek by jowl in the same book. Sarah Palin and Tina Fey performed in near perfect synchronicity, as if choreographed by Busby Berkeley. So what cocktail is the satire of a cocktail? I suppose the recipe would have to be the key—a skewed catalogue of mismatched ingredients. Catalogues are often sources of humor, sometimes without trying. Think of the annoyingly complete laying out of possibilities, grouped into sets and subsets of sets and subsets of subsets, that Aristotle did for rhetoric. (“So much for Kindness and Unkindness. Let us now consider Pity, asking ourselves what things excite pity, and for what persons, and in what states of our mind pity is felt.” p. 1396! As in, 1,395 previous pages of this stuff! Good grief!) I got into Aristotle because I’m reading about humor these days. I find that everyone who writes on this subject, going back to 500 BC, makes the same disclaimer: that funniness is so circumstantial and responsive, it defies catalogue or definition. But if, as Henri Bergson writes of caricature, “form is always the outline of a movement,” you’d think a recipe would be just the ticket for cataloging humor, being the outline of what happens when you make the drink. A recipe that is a satire of itself would be a working definition of what makes us laugh and a refreshing beverage, to boot. Certainly, Aristotle, Bergson and Quintilian, for that matter, seem to satirize themselves when they take on the subject. Maybe we don’t need a quaff of huffcap on the side. Humor might define itself in its doing more than even pornography. If I were Quintilian (hint: I’m not), I’d be enumerating the four ways in which humor differs from pornography. But I am the Constituent Bartender, so I’ll stick with cocktails and nominate the Millionaire: bourbon, Pernod, triple sec, grenadine and one egg white. Here’s my self-satirizing Aristotelian analysis: Let us first consider the Name of the Cocktail, asking ourselves what connotations the name stirs, and in whom: a Millionaire is supposed to be rich, but it’s not really that rich anymore. So far, BP has spilled much more than a million gallons of oil into the Gulf, at a probable rate of more than a million per day. AIG’s payouts to Goldman Sachs: silly amounts beyond one million. More in the $12 Billion range. So there’s something wonderfully quaint in the name, as if a mere Mil meant much (hint: I live in the Hamptons). So much for the connotations of the Name. Let us now consider Bourbon and Pernod, to wit, the improbability that Bourbon and Pernod will play nice. The people who drink bourbon whiskey also invented “white wine” as... Continue reading
Posted Jun 18, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Okay, Cosmo drinkers out there, maybe I was a little hard on you yesterday, with the hypocrisy comparison. I don’t want to get bonked on the head with a Kate Spade bag the next time I step out, so I’ve chosen to feature a cocktail nobody’s heard of, the Pain Killer. It’s made with dark rum, pineapple juice, coconut cream, nutmeg and orange juice, which makes it a natural for drinkers who are underage, hung over, or hiding something under the cover of strong fruity tastes. The Pain Killer is as shocked as his parole officer to learn that, wow, there’s rum in this drink. I propose that the pain being killed is the pain of discovery. Imagine how a banana feels, being peeled. Now imagine what happens if you peel a hypocrite, who offers a pretty juicy, irresistible, banana-like target. John Ensign, Eliot Spitzer, Roy Ashburn, these were media feeding frenzies for a reason. We love to watch hypocrisy get squeezed out of its sanctimonious rind, we have powerful urges to see it exposed, and every once in a while, we are gratified by a set of overwhelming facts, perhaps caught on video or confirmed by thousands, that comes along to slice right through that ignorant bliss. But unlike bananas, hypocrites don’t just sit there. They react, seeking to replace the discomfort of exposure with an artificial bliss induced by rum. Into this Pain Killer also go strained rationalizations, false apologies, and flat-out denial of the facts, no matter how glaring they are. There is one other possibility: the honest confession. I call this the Papaya Smoothie response. It is rarer, but a lot healthier. It has no alcohol, for one thing, just lots of fruit with honey as a natural sweetener, and it is the consistency of cheerfulness. If you’ve ever listened to public radio during a pledge drive, you might have noticed Ira Glass showing off his knack for finding people who cheerfully admit their hypocrisy after it is pointed out to them. This is no small thing. He gets people on the telephone who are rumored to listen to NPR without donating to it. He asks them if, indeed, the rumors are true. They groan or laugh and fess up. Then they write a check. Cheerfully. I’m no Ira Glass, having never found anyone who is cheerful during the pointing out process. I mostly find Pain Killer types, especially ones who rationalize. For example, a dear friend used to merge into an already crowded highway during morning rush hour like this: he’d stay in the merge lane until the last possible moment, until he was practically driving sideways on the concrete barrier, then he’d insert his car ahead of all those other cars patiently waiting their turn. We call this behavior Budging in Line, and it dovetails with hypocrisy’s penchant for holding others to standards (or traffic laws) it has no intention of following. I discussed this driving behavior with my left-leaning force-for-good-in-the-world friend. What gives... Continue reading
Posted Jun 17, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
The Cosmopolitan is the most hypocritical of cocktails. All Juicy Couture, with magenta sequins on the hip pocket and a heart over the "i," it is in reality a stealthy, dark, sleek, long-range, off-the-radar missile designed to get you bombed. You're drinking a vodka martini, folks, even though it doesn't taste like one. Don't kid yourselves. But you do kid yourselves. You wouldn’t order one of these horrors if you weren’t trying to kid yourselves. You’d order a martini, preferably made with gin, which shouts itself out, not vodka, that trickster, and certainly not pink vodka, sweetened with Cointreau and—arghhh!—dressed up in cranberry juice. “You” in this case is the consumer. “You” in this case is also a hypocrite, if we take hypocrisy to be saying one thing (“I am not gay”) but doing another (soliciting sex from other guys in the men’s room). The Cosmo drinker’s hypocrisy is to say, “I am a nice girl. See my pretty drink?” but then, like her prototypes on Sex and the City, to get drunk and sleep with her unattractive divorce attorney. I’m curious, though: what is the active agent in hypocrisy, besides Cointreau? (Active is the word: hypocrite got its start as the Greek word for actor. See my last post for the etymology of cosmopolitan.) We like to think that hypocrites know they are hypocritical, which suggests that deception is the main ingredient. We’re pretty sure that Larry Craig recognizes some inconsistency between his statements and his actions. You can tell when you’re having gay sex. You can also tell when you’re voting against including sexual orientation among hate crimes. And when homosexuals get beaten to death, as Wyoming student Matthew Shepard did back in 1998, you, in nearby Idaho, are surely worried for your own safety, so that your desire to deceive only deepens. It’s villainous, this hypocrisy, because it denies safety to others that you covet for yourself. Bristol Palin, teen mom, and, now, Abstinence Ambassador for the Candies Foundation, provides another curious example of profound dissonance between what she says and what she does. These days, she pledges not to have sex until she’s married. What is she thinking, pledging abstinence of all things? Right there on Oprah Winfrey’s show? With the world watching and a custody battle over her out-of-wedlock child in progress? How does she jibe that custody battle with her early 2008 pledge that she and her two-month-old’s father are going to get married, that Levi Johnston, high-school drop out, is "a really hands-on dad"? He’s so hands-on that a year later, he’d coughed up only about $4,000 in child support. We like to think hypocrites are Iago-esque villians, twisting their lemony fingers in glee, cackling, “Heh, heh, let’s see if they’ll swallow this whopper,” until we remember that Iago is one of the most cryptic, baffling characters in the history of theater—precisely because he seems motivated so purely by a desire to deceive others. The deception theory is unpersuasive when we consider Bristol... Continue reading
Posted Jun 16, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
The problem with Latin is that it sounds all egg-heady. Cocktails, which could conceivably both have eggs in them and go to your head, nonetheless rarely have egg-heady names. Would you raise a Pulchritude to your parched lips? Nope, it’s an American Beauty. Sip a Vehicle? Sorry, try a Sidecar. Our Old English, Celtic and Anglo Saxon words just sound better to put in your mouth. They’ve got chewier textures, a whiff of sensuality, the promise of tasting good. Browse a bartending guide and you’ll find Fizzes, Flips and Rickeys, Cobblers, Coolers and Kirs, Sours, Slings and Sledgehammers, Sharks, Derbies, Zombies and Knickerbockers. But Latinate names? I count only five that even come close. The first two that spring to mind, Cosmopolitan and Metropolitan, are both from the Greek, -politan meaning citizenship, and the prefixes from words for world and city. The Cosmopolitan is the citizen of the world, the Metropolitan of the city. Greek, as we know, is not Latin, but these two words do sound a bit egg-heady, and so they share the problem of Latin, a disembodiment from the senses. Another candidate is the Ideal Cocktail, idea- again from the Greek word meaning to see, which implies that our ideals are more tangible than we think. Judge is Latinate, and there’s a Judge, Jr. cocktail—does that count? I don’t think so. The name is so clearly straining to convert the beverage into a person, and no matter how Latinate a person’s name, a person remains rooted in the body. Personification, an egg-heady word, trumps egg-headiness. Personification in fact does the opposite of how it sounds. Finally, there’s the Income Tax Cocktail, made from gin, both kinds of vermouth, orange juice and bitters. That ought to get your 1099s in shape. Come is an Anglo Saxon word, one of our oldies, but in- as a prefix we get from Latin. Tax comes through Old French to us from the Latin word for touch. Touch sharply. Ouch. Luckily, income taxes only hurt when you have a lot of income. Many of us feel no pain in this regard, but that doesn’t prevent us from chortling about April 15, which is exactly why I have to disqualify this name, too. It’s a joke about Latinate names, the joke being that we respond to the intellectual challenge of our Latinate vocabulary much as we do to IRS instructions like “If your spouse itemizes on a separate return or you were a dual-status alien, see page 35 and check here”--by resorting to drink. Now compare the juicy, earthy names of cocktails to this quote from Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights on the news that, roughly a year after his execution by an anti-abortion fanatic, Dr. Tiller’s clinic will close: It is unacceptable that anti-abortion intimidation and violence has led to the closing of Dr. Tiller’s clinic. Not only have we lost a fearless defender of women’s fundamental health and rights in Dr. Tiller’s murder, but the closing of... Continue reading
Posted Jun 15, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
“Drill, baby, drill” is to slogans as Bull’s Blood is to wine and “subprime” is to finance. A risky proposition. Duh. It says so right there in the name. Who would care—or dare—to drink the blood of a bull? The same people who want to drill, baby, and who bet that “subprime” will suddenly translate to “above par” as soon as they pour their money down that drain of wishful thinking. What is going on with these people? Don’t they know that “subprime” means “not good,” as in, “bad”? Or consider the similarly risky mortgages called “liar’s loans,” as if “subprime” might be a shade too subtle. Hell bent though it is on screaming toxicity, that name seems to have had no deterrent value to investors. To the contrary, it attracts them like a promise: the worse for you it sounds, the merrier will be its consumption. I'm not entirely sure what to call this particular quality of delusion. Hypocrisy springs to mind. After all, the “Drill, baby drill!” folks like to preach personal responsibility without necessarily taking it. If you can’t find a job, it’s your own problem. You need to take personal responsibility, not government handouts. If you’ve got black skin and the sinking feeling that it’s hampered your progress through both corporate America and airport security, why, that means you’re not taking personal responsibility. It has nothing to do with discrimination. You lost your weekend home in the Hamptons betting on a “subprime” mortgage? WAIT A MINUTE! THAT’S NOT FAIR! I WANT MY MONEY BACK! Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, is a one-man illustration of what happens when you adhere to high principles only when they don’t apply to you. From Andrew Leonard’s article at, the headline read, “Bobby Jindal's oil spill crisis of faith,” and, below that, “The principled stimulus foe changes his mind about the evils of accepting government assistance.” The article detailed Jindal’s “principles,” which, as you might guess, involve personal responsibility when it comes to unionized auto workers in Detroit and homeowners in Nevada struggling with underwater mortgages. Contrast those deeply held principles to Jindal’s howls for federal help with his own state’s water problem. One way to wrangle Jindal’s about face into language is to call it rank hypocrisy of the first order. But I’m intrigued by the word “faith” there in the Salon headline. “Drill, Baby, Drill,” “Bull’s Blood” and “subprime” all strike me as calls to faith, just as a double-dog dare is a call to faith. The dare as an example of language has all the right features: it goes out of its way to be counterintuitive. It sneers, “what, are you chicken?” while urging its listener to take a flying leap into danger. It’s the verbal cue to perform an act of nerve. The faith being tested in such an act is the faith that we can defy the odds, that we alone are the exception to whatever rules of physics, ethics or biology pertain.... Continue reading
Posted Jun 14, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Here’s a bumper sticker concept for you: Free the Pour! Surely the Founding Fathers made room for free pours somewhere in their intentions, right? After all, we're talking about freedom, and freedom is exactly what good Americans all love, the Founding Fathers most of all, except when they weren’t so darned busy owning slaves. If I were Justice Scalia--such a dreamboat mind reader!--I’d know for sure. He's the psychic who could tell that corporations were yearning for freedom to express themselves. Maybe those little poems that corporations are constantly scribbling in their journals will finally be published. And not a moment too soon. Alas, I am no mindreader, but merely The Constituent Bartender, at your service, and Scalia’s, if he’d like another cause for judicial activism. Free the pour, Your Honor! Allow me to explain that a free pour is when you transport liquor into a drink without using a jigger to measure it. Lots of people (even the divine Rachel Maddow!) tell you not to do this. It risks imprecision, and since mixing cocktails is all about balance among the various ingredients, imprecision is your enemy. But when you’re tending a bar where people actually pay money for the drinks, rather than the one you set up on the picnic table in the backyard, and when those paying customers arrive in great numbers, sloth is your bigger enemy, and jiggers take too long. So you free pour. As I know from tragic experience, it won’t be long before your free pours are accurate within a fraction of an ounce. Any bartender worth her apron can deliver both speed and proportion. So can a judge. Yet some bars—casinos, hotels and Arizona lead the way here—attach a wireless monitoring device to their spout, to regulate the free pour, just as some jurisdictions—California and New York take top honors—impose mandatory sentencing for certain offenses on their judges. As if…what? As if they had no judgment. Judges who can't judge? Isn’t that their job? Bartenders who pour liquor? Ditto. Big corporations are especially keen to regulate their bartenders’ pours, not for Rachel Maddow’s aesthetic reasons, that the drink won’t taste as good, but purely for profit. Less pouring equals more ka-ching. That’s to be expected, I suppose. But what profit is there in hamstringing judges? It’s expensive to put nonviolent criminals in jail for sometimes ridiculously long sentences. It’s expensive to pay a judge to sit through a trial, through the presentation of evidence, then demand that the information she has gathered not be used to come to a reasonable decision. If there’s a bad judge out there, shouldn’t we get rid of that one person, rather than attach wireless monitors to every single black robe anywhere near a bench? No, profit’s not the motive. It must be fear. Only fear can move populations to such idiocy. I’m not sure what we’re afraid of, though. I hope it’s not fear of reason. Speaking of (and freely) reasons, I’m taking the opportunity of this... Continue reading
Posted Jun 13, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Jun 9, 2010