Monday, September 22, 2008

Cocktail of the Day: The Pegu

Three years ago, almost exactly, I caught some appalling virus from some student or other. As a result, most of my olfactory nerves were destroyed. I could smell almost nothing--except the most bitter notes of coffee and occasionally gasoline, faintly. I could taste nothing at all, except bitter, sour, salty and sweet--and those only very faintly.

This sucked, losing the two senses through which I experienced much of the pleasure of the world. My house had been full of nicely-scented things: green tea soap, candles that smelled like musk and rain. I've always grown lavender so I could pick a sprig of it and enjoy its scent on my fingers. And I used to love, almost more than anything else, going into very good restaurants and trying new and complex combinations of food and wine. And then, of course, scent and taste are ways of knowing other people, and even oneself, more truly than words.

All of these pleasures, all of these ways of knowing were just---gone, for well over two years. Fortunately, olfactory nerves usually grow back, so I had reason to hope. In the meantime, I began to appreciate Zen and the Heart Sutra. Life without major senses could also be quite peaceful.

In the meantime, I became interested in vintage cocktails, and the nearly lost art of balancing bitter, sour and sweet to precision and perfection. I ran across a recipe for one that was both exquisite, challenging to the contemporary palate, and perfectly exemplary of the spirit, mood and flavor of the classic vintage cocktail: The Pegu.

I saved the recipe all these years, in the eventuality that my senses would come back to me. And now that they have, mostly, I finally made a Pegu for the first time, today.

Like most things that attract me, the Pegu cocktail comes with an evocative but troubling backstory. The Pegu club, so legend has it, was a British gentleman's club just outside of Rangoon, in the 1880s. And these gentlemen--British officers with backstories of their own, sipped this delicious, icy gin concoction after breathing Burmese dust after a long hard day of colonizing. Think Rudyard Kipling. Try not to think of the horrific British colonists in Conrad's Heart of Darkness who, when asked how they kept their whites so white in Africa, responded in clipped tones: "I have a wench to do it for me."

Think of the lovely modernist and exotic romances that accompany the hand watercolored drawings of the lovely but affordable clothes in the J. Peterman catalog: a South that was full of gentlemen who knew horses and ladies sashaying on verandas, with nary a slave in sight, or an exotic Orient lavish with silk and spices, minus systematic colonial eradication of complex local structures.

It's forever been an issue with me, a sybarite with a social conscience, refusing to sacrifice either. I've refused to embrace the puritanical denial of all pleasures that resolves the issue for most socialists I know. And I've refused as well to forget that most of the luxuries I enjoy come at the cost of somebody else's labor.

Politically, I've always claimed to be an anarchist of the Bakuninite tradition. Bakunin, seriously and passionately devoted to the anarchist cause, was said to have guzzled the finest brandy like wine, and smoked 1,600 very good cigars in a single month of imprisonment in Saxony.

I do not wish to do away with luxury. I wish that all the world should enjoy beautiful things.

And so today, my very first taste, after three years waiting, of the Pegu.

Ai, it was worth the wait--sweet dry sharpness of good gin, sweetness of oranges, sour brightness of limes, all rolling cold and delicious and bitter sweet across my tongue.

Here is an easy recipe: Combine in a shaker, with ice: 1.5 oz of good dry gin, .5 oz cointreau, .75 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice, and 2 dashes of angostura bitters. Shake until your hands freeze to the metal of the shaker and you think of the poor stupid little brother in A Christmas Story with his tongue stuck to the metal pole, shattering all your banal vintage exoticist fantasies. Strain into a pre-chilled martini glass. Sit down and prepare to savor---very slowly. If you want to go for vintage authenticity, use orange bitters and orange curacao instead.

This is a cocktail to consider, to savor for its own exquisite bittersweet sake. This is a cocktail for every one of your senses, for being wide awake and brightly, blessedly alive.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

In the Material World

Last week, I was going to post a blog about the difference between high Victorian architecture and Craftsman style, because they express two completely different, and conflicting philosophies of building. I was going to post this because of something I knew intellectually but learned on a whole different level in the process of rebuilding our front porch.

The style of architecture generally associated with Victorian houses--Queen Anne and Gothic, with all the frills and points and swoops and arches and fiddly bits, is all about outrageous fakery. Most of what you see isn't structural. It's all trimming and disguise, fanciful stuff meant to suggest that the solid stuff of the material world--brick and wood and stone, is all paper and lace and angel wings. The support structures--load-bearing columns and beams, for instance, are all hidden under swathes of trim. It's _about_ fakery, style and surface, kind of like postmodernism is--excess for its own sake. This has to do with the beauty of the manufactured world, the dream world.

On the other hand, there's the Craftsman style, which was deliberately antithetical, which emphasizes the clean solid beautify of real materials, where all the architecture is clean and visible. Nothing is hidden, and therefore the craftsmanship in the construction needs to be perfect. This movement was all about the return to authenticity, and the beauty of the material world--things as they truly are.

I have a copy of House Beautiful magazine from 1907. In it is a piece by Jack London, and he is ranting about exactly this difference. In this pretty little magazine, that advises women what colors go nicely in which rooms and which fabric to use for curtains, is the Famous Author in a full-bore rage about buildings that lie--especially the house he bought in Oakland and its fake plaster pseudo-columns, which he despises because they bear no weight and therefore have no purpose. "Someday, when I get the time, one of two things will surely happen. Either I'll go forth and murder the man who perpetrated the atrocity, or else I'll taken an axe and chop off the lying, fluted planks."

He goes so far as to blame the devastation of the San Francisco earthquake on the proliferation of these lying buildings. People with no architectural appreciation deserved what they got.

Anyway, I was going to post about all of this last week, and to try and figure out where I stood on the issue. I like both styles. But I got another lesson in the nature of materials. It's been raining incessantly here for days at a time--sheets and pounding sheets of grayness. My partner noticed a fair bit of water on the basement floor, and thought we had a leaky pipe. I took one look and said "that's not a pipe. We have flooding." He said he couldn't see where it was coming from, but it took me about 30 seconds to find the fist-sized hole in the corner of our foundation, with murky daylight coming through.

It amazes me that many people don't really see the world around them. They don't really look at things. It's as if reality--the real world of solid objects, is some mysterious thing that people don't see. Generally, I do see things, but not always. It took me weeks of studying other people's porches before I realized how they were made, saw the difference between the fake and the real of their construction.

We had a fake wall in our basement, made of pegboard, which covered up the original fieldstone. It's there that the water seemed to be seeping through. Once we tore that down, we discovered, much to our delight, that the previous owners had covered up an old basement window. With thin cheap plywood. And then put dirt on the outside of it, and the pegboard wall over it. Wood has its nature, and so do water and earth. They cause wood to rot. And so it was that we had a two by three foot leaky rotten hole in our basement wall, the rest of which was a sheet of cobwebs, stinking black mold and ancient dryer lint, on the century-old, loosely-mortared fieldstone behind the cheap pegboard.

So my partner went outside and dug down into the dirt around the foundation, in order to start mortaring the hole over. It wasn't supposed to rain that night, so he laid plastic lightly over the hole.

It did. Torrentially. The plastic collapsed. Spectacularly. We had quite literally a waterfall in the basement--a surging nightmare of water, mud, mold and ancient dryer lint--me with my face in that muck trying to staple plastic over it, coughing my lungs out because I'd been sick with a cold all week and the mold wasn't helping, and he out in the mud and rain patching it up from the outside.

Two baths later, and after that "I'll never be clean again feeling" had receded, I had more thoughts about the nature of the material world, fakery, and the strange fact that so many people just don't seem to really pay attention to what's around them, to the nature of wood and water and stone, and to wonder why that is. And I wanted to wonder why it was that people mystify things so--looking to God or the great maybe beyond or some random miracle or various dogmas instead of what's right in front of them and readily observable.

But I was too freaking tired and cold and wet and sick for the next several days to put the words together.

The basement is mended and much less stinky now. The porch is still a half-built shambles. I am trying not to think about that either.

Image source:

Monday, June 23, 2008

Cocktail of the Day: The Cosmopolitan

One of my life lessons seems to be that I should stop underestimating girly things.

For example: have you ever really looked at a cheap paperback romance novel? Your aunts, sisters, girl cousins, and grandmothers read them in full view of children, god and everybody. And nobody actually looks at them, because they're, you know, romance novels.

They're pure soft core. Nothing but cover to cover fucking, only with a slightly different vocabulary.

Also, I used to think, before I actually tasted one, that a mint julep was the antebellum southern equivalent of a wine spritzer. The first time I had one, in New Orleans, my eyes crossed, my nipples shot out, and my hair knotted itself into tiny coils. Pure minty bourbon! On ice!!! My entire view of southern womanhood changed inexorably and forever. Those corseted, hoop-skirted ladies with their fans and vapors, were sitting on their verandahs drinking pitchers of the stuff and admiring the field hands.

So it is with the Cosmo, a drink I have hitherto scorned as impossibly, ridiculously, commercially girly in the very worst way.

Until I actually had one, quite by chance, last Saturday night, in an otherwise uninteresting highwayside road house in Coldwater, Michigan.

(Note to self #2. I have also found that you sometimes get a much, much better cocktail in little, out-of-the way nowhere places than in expensive, stylish cocktail bars. Go figure.)

It was the summer solstice. The relentless solarity was pulsing hard on me. I had to drive home from Michigan a day earlier than I'd lazily planned, and I was a bit annoyed to be on one of the most tedious stretches of interstate in the country rather than somewhere interesting barking the sun up.

I was hungry, and bored, and wanted to indulge in a festive cocktail. Everywhere has flavored 'martinis' these days. Flavored vodka is cheap, fashionable and profitable. The cosmo stood out on the list--oh so a decade ago now, but made with cointreau and real lime juice.

It was exquisite, Plato's Ideal of Cocktail--just precisely the right balance of bitter, tart and sweet. It was deep red, like the rim of the setting sun (cosmo purists, please do not lecture me about the proper color being pallid pink. This drink was red,. like the sun, and a better metaphor, ok?)

I loved it so much, I had another, late getting home and long nasty drive be damned. So much pure, immediate happiness.

Why is it that I scorn stereotypical femininity so much? It's never what I think it's going to be when I really try it.

The Cosmo, like the mint julep and the romance novel, is consummately feminine. It's so easy to underestimate, to dismiss as light, trivial and pink--until you actually taste it, indulge in the blood-red, bitter depths, let it go to your head in the relentless hot gaze of the pitiless sun that hides nothing, takes nothing for granted.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Double Yellow Line

The best way to watch David Lynch movies is to watch as many as possible in a series. Essentially, they all tell the same story. Plus, you start to notice recurrent visual metaphors, one of which is a medium-distance take of the double yellow line of a freeway, whizzing very fast below in the darkness. It's in nearly all his movies.

It's iconic, that shot: of the cumulative mythology of the American highway, of forward motion and boundless space, or often in Lynch's case, of transition between worlds or conditions of ordinary and evil (only ordinary. Never really good).

Mt. Tremper is not much more than a narrow spot on a curve of road in the Catskills, somewhere between Phoenicia and Woodstock. This weekend, I rode my motorcycle from here to there, across the state and back again. The Catskill roads are gorgeous--lots of 30 and 40 mph sweeps and bends, but also challenging. I've gotten unaccustomed to vertical curves, tricks of light and strange cambers living so long away from mountainous terrain. The whole first day, I felt kind of disjointed and lurchy, like I did when I first learned to ride, out of synch with everything, and I didn't like it.

The only thing really notable about Mt. Tremper, besides the adorably decrepit and sweetly shoddy Victorian inn I stayed in is the Zen Mountain Monastery--"one of the West's most respected Zen Buddhist monasteries," their web page claims. I suppose it is. The building is pretty enough. I wouldn't know though. The gate was closed because there was a retreat going on.

Apparently, according to their calendar, they were doing stuff like sitting zazen for seven-hour stretches. Yoicks. That is a whole lot of nothing.

Across from the main Monastery building is a stretch of woods and some trails along the creek. It's kind of pretty from a distance--little wooden bridges and such. But keep out signs were posted every ten or twelve feet, admonishments to stay away and keep quiet, because there was Zen going on. WTF kind of zen is that, I asked myself, that designates certain things as zen (the luxury of silence and private property and exclusion), and everything else, the whole noisy, random world, as not zen and therefore forbidden? It kind of pissed me off, so I walked around on their precious paths anyway. There really wasn't much to see. For whatever reason, that little stretch of the the otherwise lovely Esopus Creek is scummy and stagnant. There were a couple of dead trees wrapped in wire cages and then neglected. And one or two human-made structures that looked like sweat lodges for woodchucks--the result, no doubt of some nature encounter thingie workshop. There was something seriously wrong with the earth energy there, in this supposed place of policed zen peace, way out of kilter with the rest of the deep green woods, stone-bubbling creek and gently worn mountains.

So much for zen. I was going for a ride. A really difficult one, to make the connection with the road and myself that had eluded me the entire ride there.

Friends who don't really like motorcycles don't quite get why I ride. But this is why. Because riding is zen--all the zen that the designated Zen place wasn't (but of course, that's zen too, because there isn't anything that isn't). It requires complete concentration, awareness, focus, breath. And the point of focus is that double yellow line.

Everything, especially on twisty mountain roads, depends on that line. Lose connection with it, misjudge your approach to it, cease to follow it, and you can die. Let the fear of dying seize up your mind, and your ride goes all jittery and bad. Focus and timing and breath are everything. You're breathing that line, those curves, aligning body and breath and pulse with the rhythm of the road. Only this, only this.

Comparison of motorcycles to sex is crude and banal. But both have tantric aspects. There have only been one or two times in my life when I've gotten so deeply inside the space that everything bent and transformed around me. When I'm there, on the bike, hitting the curves in perfect breath-rhythm, cornering so deep I'm scraping metal on the road, the motor sounds different--my heartbeat is a thrumming engine. It feels different--narrow band of rubber slick on the road. The world recede, ordinary thoughts are long, long gone.

Finally, finally, I found my lost rhythm again, me, the bike, the twisting road and green mountains one roaring thing---sound and dimension and motion.

Hung out with friends in a peacefully industrial oasis in Kingston, drank fine, fine microbrew, heckled the band (not to their faces. We're much too polite,) chatted about construction projects with the locals, assembled the verbal Rube Goldberg machines in person that we normally only get to do online. Rode back to the Inn on cold dark mountain roads. Walked in expecting to climb the narrow stairs and drift off to sleep reading the bad novel somebody had left lying in the room. But I didn't, because there was a party in the lounge. A young orthodox Jew from Woodstock, beard and little sidelocks and yarmulke and all, was grooving out jazz piano, accompanied by a hippie kid on a doumbek, mesmerizing a crowd of locals.

So instead, I hung out to watch, and got cornered into an odd conversation by the local geriatric hippie woodcarver, who wanted to talk about the modernist writers he'd been reading. Which was great because I love modernist writers, and he's read some good ones: Samuel Beckett and Djuna Barnes. But then he wanted to talk about Anais Nin and Henry Miller and fucking in elevators and blow jobs, and I remembered why I get creeped out by older hippie men. They seem to think, that generation, that it's somehow not only acceptable, but somehow revolutionary, to talk to a woman they've just met that way. Bleah. He, predictably, hit on me. I gently declined, and retired upstairs to my bad novel.

Rode back through rolling country in the yellowgreen sunshine of late spring, hitting every curve in keen rhythm, and following my double yellow line all the way home.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Everything Emptying Into White

The winter solstice occured at around 7am EST, two days ago.

I love the solstice normally--I always know around when it is, because I always feel this deep, blissy peace--soothing winter quiet, somewhere beyond words.

This one has been harsh though. The Christmas season can magnify everything so, especially anything having to do with memories, sentiment, connection. So for whatever reason, I've spent the last few days haggard and grieving--a mess of lost connection.

But that is its own kind of sublime state.

My mother's house is in a protected little dish, a lowland marsh beside the river. The snow was falling, and gently drifting, as it does this time of years. We were a little surprised when my mother's sister, on her way to visit in transit to another sister, called from the road not sure if they were going to make it, her seasoned Vermonter husband said it was the worst conditions he'd ever seen.

They just made it, around 12:30pm. Less than an hour later, I went to the supermarket to pick up a few things. Total, utter whiteout. The supermarket was less than a mile away; I'd been going there for years, and I could not find it. Or the road, or anything much else at all.

My little mustang is white, in a white storm. Every left turn was an exercise in mild terror, lest oncoming traffic smash into me.

The snow was bright and sharp and scintillating everywhere, all around. And "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy" was playing on the radio.

All the old philosophers of the sublime: Plato and Burke and Kant--define it as condition almost of terror--the point where the pretty or the beautiful becomes dangerous, faced with a sensation or emotion or a vastness that forces us to realize our limitations.

Fairies are so often depicted as coy, pretty cartoon creatures, and we do not, as a culture, really remember how very dangerous they are, sugarplum or otherwise. The pretty little ballet (one of my favorites, actually), and the spinning shards of snow and the brightness--made all the more sublime by the very real possibility of it all ending in death and wreckage. I was picturing myself in a horrible car crash, while the bright snow and the sugar plum fairies shimmered on.

Possibly at the exact moment I was thinking this thought, and driving that drive, there was a 100-car pileup on the Interstate not two miles away from where I was: 14 jacknifed trucks, Chicago bound, 30 cars crashing into them one by one by inexorable one, and dozens of cluster wrecks within a few miles at about the same moment--the same moment, in fact, my aunt and uncle pulled off that very same exit and toward our house.

They just made it. And I decided to shop at the supermarket near home instead of the one that would have required the highway.

I made it home perfectly safely with my tonic, limes and oatmeal (cocktail supplies are a necessity in a blizzard, as is breakfast)--I found out about it only by watching the news later that evening.

Pretty whiteness, ragged anticipatory grief and loss, over the top crashes, and the shimmering danger of sugarplum fairies. Solstice 2008.

Have a merry one, everyone, or if not merry, than intense. And if not intense, than at least cozy.

Image by owlet2007, and taken from here: