Sunday, January 31, 2010

Throwback Mountain Dew

Has there been a Back-to-the-Roots campaign in Soft Drink Land? Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, and Mountain Dew have killed the High Fructose Corn Syrup kick and added real sugar for a limited time. They’ve also rolled back the old-fashioned cans. Throwback Mountain Dew resembles a lowbrow beer. If that’s not going to get you excited I don’t know what will.

I need to be upfront. My first sip had me shaking my head. For whatever reason, it tasted a bit like Theraflu. I think it needed a bit more chill-time. All beverages have an optimum serving temperature. The only lukewarm soft drink I can bear is ginger ale, but that’s me. After a while, the Throwback Mountain Dew opened up. What at first threw me for an ephemeral loop grew on me. The sour side became savory; its sweetness unveiled. It had balance reminding me of the great pour-me-a-pitcher’s-worth homemade lemonade my best buddy’s mom made from fresh-squeezed lemons. Throwback also reminded me of Mellow Yellow. Remember that bad boy.

The more I started to enjoy it I wondered why I had a first impression of Theraflu. Then I recalled one of my most memorable white wine experiences, Coenobium, a wild quartet of four seemingly implausible grapes: Verdicchio, Grechetto, Malvasia, Trebbiano— none of which were indigenous to the parcel in Lazio where the Sisters of the Cistercian Order toiled over the vines. Forget about all the nun-plowing-the-fields hype, which I was fully aware of, I had set high expectations for this Bea blend. I had never been a big fan of the father’s (Paolo) hyperbolic Sagrantino, but I was willing to put aside my hang-up with nepotism to improve my palate.

I was dumbfounded by the rich savoriness of the wine. From the first sip I had this woozy liquid penicillin sensation jitterbugging on my tongue. To another wine slut this might be a turnoff, but I was lulled. I direct your attention back to the Theraflu greeting from my Throwback Mountain Dew. The more I reflected upon it I realized that I was making a connection to pleasant wooziness. This is I had also done with my first taste of Coenobium. Who knows why we make all these weird associations? Some of us have weirder tastescapes than others but it helps to be in tune with it so that you translate it properly long after the first impression has worn off.

Down to the bottom of the can, I wished I had gambled and picked up a full case. The tinny quality pressing into the lip beats anything bottle-poured (particularly plastic bottles). There, I’ve tipped my hand. Throwback MD is cursed with a yucky aftertaste. There’s a brilliant softness like a wet ball of cotton candy melting to its final speck whereas its evil twin with artificial sweetener is loaded to the gills with syrup.

The promo label gets it all wrong. There’s a hick getting rocket-corked through the brim of his skuzzy hat. Call me a sucker for irony. This is the perfect soft drink for unwinding in one’s Jacuzzi, a cold towel wrapped sausage-like around the neck. It’s one heck of a swill.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

God Bless you Mr. Salinger

I guess this will serve as my first elegy to a great writing mentor. Salinger is the first writer I truly admired and tried to emulate. I devoured his books and actually reread them. I loved the way he got under his characters’ skin and slipped under my own. I loved that he topped off by the two-hundred page mark.

Vonnegut passed away a few years ago and I meant to write about how profoundly he had and still influences me, but I haven’t gotten around to it. I’m a champion procrastinator. Updike checked out last year. That didn’t shake me. Frankly, I was more familiar with his criticism, book reviews, and New Yorker pieces than any of his fiction. I paid my respect by dusting off a copy of “Rabbit Run”.

Salinger though is a bitter pill to swallow. Still, his death is anticlimactic. He made himself untouchable. I imagine many folks are surprised he whisked into this new decade. Salinger peeled out of hibernation briefly in 1996 when he gave the green light to a small Virginian press Orchises to publish the last of his New Yorker stories Hapworth 16, 1924. Salinger, of course, reneged and Seymour Glass’s 7-year-old camp letter never made it into book form.

Over the years much has been said about the Sound of Salinger’s Silence. Some have suggested that the reclusive nom de plume William Wharton belonged to J.D. In 1976 John Calvin Batchelor wrote a famous mock-sleuth essay contending that Thomas Pynchon was J.D. Salinger. The following year Gordon Lish tried a stunt with Esquire publishing an anonymous story entitled “For Rupert— with no promises.” After much speculation and hope that Salinger had written the piece Gordon Lish, then the editor at Esquire, admitted that he penned the story.

In 1997, I remember picking up a copy of Esquire from the newsstands and turning the pages with trembling fingers to an article on Salinger. Ron Rosenblum wrote a terrific piece, but it left me along with many others longing for that chance to reconnect with Hermit from Cornish. There’s an awesome line that pretty much sums up what I perceive to be the Salinger Sensibility though Rosenblum included Delillo and Pynchon as also being disinterested in uber-publicity.

“In a publicity-mad, celebrity-crazed culture, they have become in effect the Madonna and Michael Jackson of Silence, celebrities for their reticence and their renunciation of celebrity, for their Bartleby the Scrivener-like great refusal, the resounding echo of their silent "I would prefer not to."’ (Rosenblum Esquire 1997)

Imagine living in the Age of Twain. Anybody who ever crossed his path has long since left this mudball, but Salinger, well, he’s our modern day Twain. Perhaps, a reincarnation if you go for that fluff. The thing that really shocks the pants off me though is how many souls have actually plunked down their cold hard cash to own a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye”. It’s mind blowing. Sixty-five million copies have been sold worldwide. To give you an idea just what that means take this into consideration. In terms of record albums, only Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” has out-grossed “The Catcher in the Rye”. Salinger’s magnum opus has sold more copies than any two Beatles albums combined, including “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Abbey Road” more copies than Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”, The Eagles Greatest Hits”, the Bee Gees, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera”, Madonna’s “Immaculate Collection”, Led Zeppelin, and Nirvana’s “Nevermind”. I’m comparing apples to oranges because in this attention deficit planet of ours it’s a mega phenomenal accomplishment to have your book outsell the heart of rock n roll.

But let’s get down to the nitty gritty. How does “The Catcher in the Rye” stack up against hardbacks and the paperbound? Well, as you might have guessed the Bible, the Quaran, The Book of Mormon, Chairman Mao’s Poems, and “Lord of the Rings” have all sold more copies. Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” and Agatha Christie’s “And then there were None” rank higher than TCITR and I’m sorry but not surprised to say that “Da Vinci Code” has about 15 million copies on Holden’s story. But, it is still encouraging to note that Salinger has a handy lead on Paulo Coehlo’s “The Alchemist”, “Anne of Green Gables”, Anna Sewell’s “Black Beauty”, all the Harry Potters, “Tuesdays with Morrie” and “Bridges of Madison County”. Salinger eclipses “Diary of Anne Frank”, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, “The Communist Manifesto” and even “The Valley of Dolls”.

Does this give me new faith of my fellow Homo Sapiens? Not a chance. More junk will be published and read, but it’s a numbers game right? I digress. Sorry Senor Salinger. I went into a momentary sidetrack, perhaps I need to spend more time consulting with my local spiritual trainer to put me back onto Brahmin-track.

If anything at all Jerome David made me wish I was a neighbor of the Glasses. He was somebody I would trade all my Mickey Mantles to sit down and chat with the guy. I really would have loved to tell him how much I thought he pushed personality and time bomb-ticking sentiments over the edge. He plumbed into a new layer of youthful unconscious giving us unfiltered, wry frankness— a hairline between tragic comedy. There’s that part in “The Catcher in the Rye” when Holden admits that Somerset Maugham is a pretty good writer, but isn’t the kind of guy he’d want to call up on the phone to shoot the breeze with, but Thomas Hardy, now there’s a guy I’d love to ring up. Salinger’s characters drop bits of insight as if leaving behind a trail they will someday need to get out of the woods. Before the reader knows any better he’s foraged lifetime’s worth of confessions. We’re torn between hoarding it or mouthing it off to whoever. Certainly not J.D because he enlisted to be a hermit and I’m not saying that in a bad way I really love my solitary confinement.

In “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” there’s a dwarf camped in the backseat of the limo Buddy Glass is riding in along with the estranged bridal party. Our eyes are glued to that stovetop hat propped on the dwarf’s head as if the supreme adaptive edge for all mankind is hidden beneath the ill-fitting Brobdingnagian-sized hat. It’s as if Salinger wanted to defy the Chekhovian maxim show and shoot. One who has chronicled the Glass family through their many incarnations saw the gun go off in “A Perfect Day for Bananfish”. But while there is a whiff of self-immolation in much of his confessional prose Salinger, the writer, sweats it out through his unbearable lightness of being. He doesn’t Hemingway, Plath, or Foster Wallace his way off this mudball. He goes on. No public readings, podcasts, barnstorming tours, no Charlie Rose or Oprah interviews.

Just think of him as the complete antithesis of failbetter. Where do you set the bar after the Glasses and the Caulfields? Lit scholars can mock him worship him he deserves stones and psalms, but whatever you do you cannot put down one of his books and not mumble to yourself, bastard.

If you nuked his popularity and served his prose as a cold burrito you are still left with raw sustenance— moon juice. He’s on a quest to reveal the sound of one hand clapping. He is the crown prince of people. If Michelangelo forever changed the way we looked at the human form then Salinger dug under the skin and showed every foible. He examined the stuff of humanity under an electron microscope. In “For Esme— With Love and Squalor”, the young soldier makes a little boy furious then want to kiss him on the cheek. Sure that soldier’s motivation was to get his big sister in the sack, but this is Salinger’s brilliance. He’s a writer of love letters. Brothers write love letters to sisters, mothers, brothers, his epistolary style stretches ad infinitum.

Some years back, I actually traded messages by way of the bathroom mirror as sort of a tribute to “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”. “Emulation is one of the highest compliments, but it is also juvenile” writes Stephen Kuusisto in his seminal memoir “Eavesdropping”. My copycat impulse reified. Instead of swiping J.D’s words I enacted scenes. Maybe I don’t judge a man by his suitcases, but I pass judgment on the books he palms, the way he orders his coffee, and what type of haircut he wears. I’m not only suspicious of phonies I have my own silent restraining order imposed on them.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Memory is the Heart’s Gravity

“Memory is the heart’s gravity.”
- Riccardo Pau-Llosa

This line stirred me. I read it from the poet Riccardo Pau-Llosa’s “From the Cuban Dead.” Memory has long been a preoccupation of mine. I still subscribe to the Charles Dana Foundation newsletter that snailmails me a copy of the latest noggin news. I am drawn to documentaries that attempt to shed light on our wise ape species and how we came to distinguish ourselves from our hominid ancestors, but as much as I long to deepen my knowledge of purely intellectual capabilities I cannot help but consider the more sensitive side of the brain.

I was struck by a recent episode of The Human Spark on PBS in which Paleo anthropologist Randall White showed remarkable evidence of the first necklaces in the caves of France. In fact, those necklaces were made of strung-together teeth of anatomically modern Homo Sapiens. A bit macabre one might say, but on the other hand endearing. Our ancestors didn’t exactly have a material-clogged estate to sift through. Cousin Ruthie gets the silverware, Uncle George gets the rocking chair, and Aunt Phyllis can make do with the Chiapets and Tupperware. No. The Neanderthal and the ancient Homo Sapiens didn’t have that luxury of picking and choosing what to keep. They were Hunters and Gatherers for crying out loud, they were always on the go. The toothbrush hadn’t been invented so it wasn’t yet going to be buried with loves ones [Ancient Egypt].

Teeth were just about the only memento our primogenitors could take with them for posterity’s sake.

I have a Billy club that belonged to my grandfather and a few china bowls from my grandmother, and also an iron-clad toy soldier from a great uncle I never met. Many of us have some of these forget-me-nots in their junk drawers, attics, basements, independent [cost you an arm and a leg] storage facilities. Some of us even wear these post mortem trinkets on our wrists, necks, and pinkies. And let’s not forget about the urns filled with loved ones ashes stashed our homes in our dining rooms, over on the mantle, peering at the grand piano home. Yes, this too might seem macabre, but also maybe a bit endearing.

I don’t want to lead you to believe that we’ve been evolutionarily wired to remember and pay tribute to our ancestors I am only suggesting that there is a tender ethereal element inside us that wishes to carry the weight of our precious memories around our necks, within in our hearts, but it doesn’t make us human because Neanderthal is the first species to have been recorded as setting funerary practices— laying down flowers by grave sites. But let’s take it a step further because primates don’t have the monopoly on emotion. Elephants mourn the death of their families. They have been observed wailing the loss of their tumbled kin.

What I’m getting at is this, it pleases me to know that with all the preoccupation we have with invention, book smarts, street smarts, yada yada, there is plenty of room in our brains for emotional intelligence. Make room.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The $99,000 Answer Is

New Years is a time for resolutions, a whole day reserved to get over your hangover. I think of it as a chance to indulge my insatiable appetite for a certain Bensonhurst bus driver named Ralph Kramden. Every year without fail the Honeymooners Marathon is broadcast on WPIX. It’s a chance to relive one of the greatest comedy combos Art Carney and Jackie Gleason to ever gloss the idiot box. As a kid, I was a huge fan of their humor, their improvisational acumen and the simple, sidesplitting chicanery.

I long for a program redolent with their comic signature that never seems to get old. Maybe I am wired for it. the setting is sparse and the scenarios, by and large, are same. Ralph and Norton are cooking up another hair-brained scheme that’s bound to go awry but you keep rooting for them because the two of them are teeming with an unbridled crapshoot in the game of life. They believe they are mere inches away from reaching a big payoff, but they, time and again, grossly miscalculate. They are brought back down to earth. Ralph is back in his two-room, that sink, that stove, and those four walls. No, Alice you are not going to get to see Liberace. And yet they are still happy-go-lucky.

I love “The $99,000 Answer” episode (#18 of the classics) written by Leonard Stern and Sydney Zelinka. Ralph seems so close to hitting his high note. He knows all the popular songs, he can even knows the obscure Italian folk music and operas Mrs. Manicotti crones to him. If Ralph doesn’t get kicked out of the apartment for having Norton playing the piano all hours of the night before the big show then Ralph is, for sure, going to be a champ— he is that sharp when it comes to his musical knowledge. But, of course, it wouldn’t be the Honeymooners if things didn’t go kerplooey by the end. “Mr. Kramden, for one-hundred dollars, who sang Swanee River?” “Huminiahumina humina Ed Norton,” Ralph says and you cannot laugh at the irony of his forgetting the real composer of Swanee River and hazarding his ridiculous guess as his old chum Norton as the composer.

I’m also a huge fan of “TV or Not TV” which is considered the first episode of the classic 39. Who can forget that pithy, poignant line— “Official Space Helmet on Captain Video.” Really I could spend a whole day rattling off lines. Before Seinfeld, this was the most highly quotable show. Was it in fact? I don’t know, but I bet it was at least for me.

Zip zip it is done.