Thursday, May 24, 2007


The pastiche and commentary below opens one of the funniest novels about life in the academy that you’ll ever read. It is a must-read for anyone living their life on campus. For those who are giving thought to leaping from the ivory tower to the safety of less rarified air below, I would recommend a different comic novel, Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. But for those entrenched, especially in the Liberal Arts, this is the one. David Lodge’s Small World.

OK, I’ll get to the quotation in a moment, but not before I tell you about the scene that made me love this novel. It had already given my enough belly laughs and quiet smirks that I was in love with it, but what changed the crush into a lasting affair is a subversive scene set at an annual conference of the MLA. At this conference, the big names in competing schools of literary criticism all participate in a panel discussion. Our hero stands up during the Q&A and asks them to suppose that everyone agreed with them. Then what? If everyone stopped fighting about how to interpret a text, the question implies, would we discover that no one actually reads anymore? Would we discover that the study of literature is no longer about the literature itself? In a room full of academics whose lives and livelihoods depend on talking about how you talk about literature, Persse asks what they would all do if everyone agreed with them (Part V, Chapter I, p. 319 in my old Penguin mass-market edition). And then the denouement is like a scene out of Plautus. I was and am smitten.

But that’s not what I wanted to quote here. Instead, I give you my favorite description of conferences: David Lodge, Small World, beginning of the Prologue. Enjoy.
When April with its sweet showers has pierced the drought of March to the root, and bathed every vein of earth with that liquid by whose powers the flowers are engendered; when the zephyr, too, with its dulcet breath, has breathed life into the tender new shoots in every copse and on every heath, and the young sun has run half his course in the sign of the Ram, ... then, as the poet Geoffrey Chaucer observed many years ago, folk long to go on pilgrimages. Only, these days, professional people call them conferences.

The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement. To be sure, there are certain penitential exercises to be performed—the presentation of a paper, perhaps, and certainly listening to the papers of others. But with this excuse you journey to new and interesting places, meet new and interesting people, and form new and interesting relationships with them; exchange gossip and confidences (for your well-worn stories are fresh to them, and vice versa); eat, drink and make merry in their company every evening; and yet, at the end of it all, return home with an enhanced reputation for seriousness of mind.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

On being an Ex-Suicide

1983 was a good year. It saw the release of both Mark Heard’s Eye of the Storm and the Talking HeadsSpeaking in Tongues. It was the year that the O’Cayce household (House of Chez Casa) was established, with an exchange of vows at the Pilot Grove Church in Old City Park, Dallas. And it was the year that Walker Percy published a piece of non-fiction entitled Lost in the Cosmos. (Be sure to read the customer reviews.)

The first edition hardback of LitC runs to 262 pages. Its full title is Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. The opening pages are a preliminary multiple-choice quiz about the Self, designed to see whether or not you need to read the rest of the book, thereby ensuring that the rest of the book will not be skipped. The rest of the book comprises a 40 page excursus on the semiotics of the Self (which the Author all but advises the Reader to skip, thereby ensuring that it will not be skipped) in the middle of just over 200 pages of a:
Twenty-Question Multiple-Choice Self-Help Quiz
to test your knowledge of the peculiar status of the self, your self and other selves, in the Cosmos, and your knowledge of what to do with your self in these, the last years of the twentieth century.

It is an odd and oddly delightful format. Quite a bit of the book is extremely funny, although the section I am going to quote is not.

Question 11 is about:
THE DEPRESSED SELF: Whether the Self is Depressed because there is something wrong with it or whether Depression is a Normal Response to a Deranged World.

Suicidal depression is something about which Percy knew a thing or two. Both his father and his paternal grandfather had used shotguns to end their own lives. Percy’s mother died when, a couple of years after her husband’s suicide, her car went off a bridge and into a bayou, which death Percy also took took to be a suicide. Percy managed to avoid carrying on the family tradition, and the Thought Experiment at the end of Question 11 is what taught me how to be not a non-suicide, but rather a former-suicide, an ex-suicide.

It worked for me, and it was necessary despite the fact that during the 80s I was still a Fundamentalist Christian and, according to Percy, should have been one of those blessed elect who are never depressed. I was certainly surrounded by Fundamentalist Christians who never seemed depressed. And let me tell you, being given to periods of depression while surrounded by those who are nearly clinically chipper and who consider happiness a divine sign of right living, that will only make one’s hole deeper and darker.

Perhaps you are not given to bouts of depression, have never heard the black wings beating about your head. Perhaps your own depression is of a different etiology and requires a different treatment. Perhaps, like me, you have at some point gotten so deep into the self-talk, thought-driven sort of depression that you needed chemical help to find your way far enough back to even be able to retrain your thought life. All I can say is, this has worked for me most of the time. I am still an ex-suicide.

Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book
by Walker Percy
pp. 75-9 (1983 HB edition by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux)

Thought Experiment: A new cure for depression.

The only cure for depression is suicide.

This is not meant as a bad joke but as the serious proposal of suicide as a valid option. Unless the option is entertained seriously, its therapeutic value is lost. No threat is credible unless the threatener means it.

The treatment of depression requires a reversal of the usual therapeutic rationale. The therapeutic rationale, which has never been questioned, is that depression is a symptom. A symptom implies an illness; there is something wrong with you. An illness should be treated.

Suppose you are depressed. You may be mildly or seriously depressed, clinically depressed, or suicidal. What do you usually do? Or what does one do with you? Do nothing or something. If something, what is done is always based on the premise that something is wrong with you and therefore it should be remedied. You are treated. You apply to friend, counselor, physician, minister, group. You take a trip, take anti-depressant drugs, change jobs, change wife or husband or “sexual partner.”

Now, call into question the unspoken assumption: something is wrong with you. Like Copernicus and Einstein, turn the universe upside down and begin with a new assumption.

Assume that you are quite right. You are depressed because you have every reason to be depressed. No member of the other two million species which inhabit the earth—and who are luckily exempt from depression—would fail to be depressed if it lived the life you lead. You live in a deranged age—more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.

Begin with the reverse hypothesis, like Copernicus and Einstein. You are depressed because you should be. You are entitled to your depression. In fact, you’d be deranged if you were not depressed. Consider the only adults who are never depressed: chuckleheads, California surfers, and fundamentalist Christians who believe they have had a personal encounter with Jesus and are saved for once and all. Would you trade your depression to become any of these?

Now consider, not the usual therapeutic approach, but a more ancient and honorable alternative, the Roman option. I do not care for life in this deranged world, it is not an honorable way to live; therefore, like Cato, I take my leave. Or, as Ivan said to God in The Brothers Karamazov: If you exist, I respectfully return my ticket.

Now notice that as soon as suicide is taken as a serious alternative, a curious thing happens. To be or not to be becomes a true choice, where before you were stuck with to be. Your only choice was how to be less painfully, either by counseling, narcotizing, boozing, groupizing, womanizing, man-hopping, or changing your sexual preference.

If you are serious about the choice, certain consequences follow. Consider the alternatives. Suppose you elect suicide. Very well. You exit. Then what? What happens after you exit? Nothing much. Very little, indeed. After a ripple or two, the water closes over your head as if you had never existed. You are not indispensable, after all. You are not even a black hole in the Cosmos. All that stress and anxiety was for nothing. Your fellow townsmen will have something to talk about for a few days. Your neighbors will profess shock and enjoy it. One or two might miss you, perhaps your family, who will also resent the disgrace. Your creditors will resent the inconvenience. Your lawyers will be pleased. Your psychiatrist will be displeased. The priest or minister or rabbi will say a few words over you and down you go on the green tapes and that’s the end of you. In a surprisingly short time, everyone is back in the rut of his own self as if you had never existed.

Now, in the light of this alternative, consider the other alternative. You can elect suicide, but you decide not to. What happens? All at once, you are dispensed. Why not live, instead of dying? You are free to do so. You are like a prisoner released from the cell of his life. You notice that the cell door is ajar and that the sun is shining outside. Why not take a walk down the street? Where you might have been dead, you are alive. The sun is shining.

Suddenly you feel like a castaway on an island. You can’t believe your good fortune. You feel for broken bones. You are in one piece, sole survivor of a foundered ship whose captain and crew had worried themselves into a fatal funk. And here you are, cast up on a beach and taken in by islanders who, it turns out, are themselves worried sick—over what? Over status, saving face, self-esteem, national rivalries, boredom, anxiety, depression from which they seek relief mainly in wars and the natural catastrophes which regularly overtake their neighbors.

And you, an ex-suicide, lying on the beach? In what way have you been freed by the serious entertainment of your hypothetical suicide? Are you not free for the first time in your life to consider the folly of man, the most absurd of all the species, and to contemplate the cosmic mystery of your own existence? And even to consider which is the more absurd state of affairs, the manifest absurdity of your predicament: lost in the Cosmos and no news of how you got into such a fix or how to get out—or the even more preposterous eventuality that news did come from the God of the Cosmos, who took pity on your ridiculous plight and entered the space and time of your insignificant planet to tell you something.

The consequences of entertaining suicide? Lying on the beach, you are free for the first time to pick up a coquina and look at it. You are even free to go home and, like the man from Chicago, dance with your wife.

The difference between a non-suicide and an ex-suicide leaving the house for work, at eight o’clock on an ordinary morning:

The non-suicide is a little traveling suck of care, sucking care with him from the past and being sucked toward care in the future. His breath is high in his chest.

The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

For married friends

I bumped into an old e-mail sig, one I had lifted from Margaret Atwood’s Power Politics. This is the third stanza of a poem entitled Their attitudes differ:

You held out your hand
I took your fingerprints

You asked for love
I gave you only descriptions

Please die I said
so I can write about it

But the better poem from that collection has no title but its first three words, “We are hard.” I’m quoting all four stanzas here. When everyone else was raving about Mary Oliver, this is what grabbed me. Especially the third stanza.


We are hard on each other
and call it honesty,
choosing our jagged truths
with care and aiming them across
the neutral table.

The things we say are
true; it is our crooked
aims, our choices
turn them criminal.


Of course your lies
are more amusing:
you make them new each time.

Your truths, painful and boring
repeat themselves over & over
perhaps because you own
so few of them


A truth should exist,
it should not be used
like this. If I love you

is that a fact or a weapon?


Does the body lie
moving like this, are these
touches, hairs, wet
soft marble my tongue runs over
lies you are telling me?

Your body is not a word,
it does not lie or
speak truth either.

It is only
here or not here.

Pax omnibus.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Not the First Tribute

We’ve been waiting for Mira Nair’s The Namesake to come to Cola, and this is the weekend. It has the standard half-week run for an indy flick in this market, so see it now or get the DVD. But that’s not all that happens this weekend. It’s also Mothers’ Day.

Since all the b’s-i-l and s’s-i-l are doing their own Mothers’ Day celebrations in honor of all the mothers in our generation, m-i-l was in danger of being overlooked. But wait! The cat isn’t doing anything for Lizzie, so we can host Bobbie, and do so far from the madding crowd. So we’re taking SWBSWMBO (She Who Bore She Who Must Be Obeyed) to a movie tomorrow afternoon.

If you haven’t heard of The Namesake, scope out the overwhelmingly good reviews at MetaCritic (82% overall, 8.5/10 by viewers), Rotten Tomatoes (85%), or even Google’s movie review search (4.3/5). And if you haven’t heard of Mira Nair (the director), think Mississippi Masala (not bad) and Monsoon Wedding (very good).

The screenplay is based on a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, and this is not the first time that Mira Nair has brought one of Lahiri’s works off the page. Back in April of 2006, This American Life aired an episode entitled “Fake I.D.,” in which half of the program consisted of Nair reading aloud a short story by Nahiri. The story, taken from Nahiri’s Pulizer-winning collection The Interpreter of Maladies, is a touching and lovely snapshot of the early days in the married life of a mis-matchmade marriage between two NRIs -- Sanjiv, a staid, conservative engineer, and Twinkle, an ebullient MFA candidate who is delighted at all the Cheesus (tacky Christian knickknacks) that they keep finding in and around their new house. Hit the link to the episode and listen to the show. The story starts just before 23 minutes into the show and finishes just after 50 minutes in. (Sorry, since TAL changed their coding a while back, you can no longer fast-forward or rewind the free, archived version of the show. But you can pay $0.95; or you can rip the stream for free if you have the software.)

I hope the movie’s as good as I think it will be. Especially since we’re taking SWBSWMBO.

Blueberry Chutney

My mother-in-law is a big fan of blueberries; she says it’s for the anti-oxidant properties. She also likes salmon. So for Mothers’ Day (is that apostrophe placed properly?) I’m going to try broiled salmon over grits with a blueberry chutney (which will probably destroy whatever anti-oxidants there are; perhaps I should save out some berries for the spinach salad).

Anyway, I guess I’m going to try to make some blueberry chutney this afternoon. I have everything but the blueberries and the ginger root. Here's the recipe I’ll try. I will doubtless have to change this post later:

Blueberry Chutney
  • 1 c. blueberries
  • 1/4 c. golden raisins
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped onions
  • 1/4 c. packed brown sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. cider vinegar
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • S&P to taste
Place all ingredients in a large sauce pan.
Bring to a slow boil over medium heat for 1 minute.
Remove cinnamon stick.
Add 1 medium ginger root, finely grated (added Summer 2010)
Reduce heat & reduce sauce to proper texture.
Remove from heat & refrigerate.

We’ll see how it goes. I think we’ll try some of it on brie tonight before experimenting on our guest of honor tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Why I Ride

I once wrote a little essay trying to explain why I enjoy riding motorcycles so much. The sad truth is that if you need an explanation, none will suffice. But occasionally, someone does a very nice job of almost capturing the ineffable. Dave Karlotski got pretty close back at the end of the last millenium. I'll paste that essay below, and by all means hit the link in the title of this post to hear him read another version of the same essay.

In fact, this little essay circulates fairly frequently, usually with no author ascribed. And there are several versions out there. I first read an anonymous version of it in an e-mail in 1999. You can find different versions (mostly without authors) by web-searching [motorcyle joy machine] or [motorcycles are joy machines] or [a motorcycle is a joy machine]. But better just to read and enjoy.

To read Karlotski's largest collection of stories, point your browser to The751, but don’t do it during work hours; you won’t get anything done for a while.

MPR’s The Savvy Traveler has several of Karlotski’s essays available for reading and listening, but their internal search engine doesn’t seem to work at all. So here's a partial list:
on the Badlands
on Labrador
on Mammoth Cave
on Lonely Roads
and, of course, Season of the Bike


Season of the Bike
by Dave Karlotski

There is cold, and there is cold on a motorcycle. Cold on a motorcycle is like being beaten with cold hammers while being kicked with cold boots, a bone bruising cold. The wind’s big hands squeeze the heat out of my body and whisk it away; caught in a cold October rain, the drops don’t even feel like water. They feel like shards of bone fallen from the skies of Hell to pock my face. I expect to arrive with my cheeks and forehead streaked with blood, but that’s just an illusion, just the misery of nerves not designed for highway speeds.

Despite this, it’s hard to give up my motorcycle in the fall and I rush to get it on the road again in the spring; lapses of sanity like this are common among motorcyclists. When you let a motorcycle into your life you’re changed forever. The letters “MC” are stamped on your driver’s license right next to your sex and height as if “motorcycle” was just another of your physical characteristics, or maybe a mental condition.

But when warm weather finally does come around all those cold snaps and rainstorms are paid in full because a motorcycle summer is worth any price. A motorcycle is not just a two-wheeled car; the difference between driving a car and climbing onto a motorcycle is the difference between watching TV and actually living your life. We spend all our time sealed in boxes and cars are just the rolling boxes that shuffle us languidly from home-box to work-box to store-box and back, the whole time entombed in stale air, temperature regulated, sound insulated, and smelling of carpets.

On a motorcycle I know I’m alive. When I ride, even the familiar seems strange and glorious. The air has weight and substance as I push through it and its touch is as intimate as water to a swimmer. I feel the cool wells of air that pool under trees and the warm spokes of sunlight that fall through them. I can see everything in a sweeping 360 degrees, up, down and around, wider than PanaVision and higher than IMAX and unrestricted by ceiling or dashboard.

Sometimes I even hear music. It’s like hearing phantom telephones in the shower or false doorbells when vacuuming; the pattern-loving brain, seeking signals in the noise, raises acoustic ghosts out of the wind’s roar. But on a motorcycle I hear whole songs: rock ‘n roll, dark orchestras, women’s voices, all hidden in the air and released by speed.

At 30 miles an hour and up, smells become uncannily vivid. All the individual tree-smells and flower-smells and grass-smells flit by like chemical notes in a great plant symphony. Sometimes the smells evoke memories so strongly that it’s as though the past hangs invisible in the air around me, wanting only the most casual of rumbling time machines to unlock it.

A ride on a summer afternoon can border on the rapturous. The sheer volume and variety of stimuli is like a bath for my nervous system, an electrical massage for my brain, a systems check for my soul. It tears smiles out of me: a minute ago I was dour, depressed, apathetic, numb, but now, on two wheels, big, ragged, windy smiles flap against the side of my face, billowing out of me like air from a decompressing plane. Transportation is only a secondary function. A motorcycle is a joy machine. It’s a machine of wonders, a metal bird, a motorized prosthetic. It’s light and dark and shiny and dirty and warm and cold lapping over each other; it’s a conduit of grace, it’s a catalyst for bonding the gritty and the holy.

I still think of myself as a motorcycle amateur, but by now I’ve had a handful of bikes over a half dozen years and slept under my share of bridges. I wouldn’t trade one second of either the good times or the misery. Learning to ride was one of the best things I’ve done.

Cars lie to us and tell us we’re safe, powerful, and in control. The air-conditioning fans murmur empty assurances and whisper, “Sleep, sleep.” Motorcycles tell us a more useful truth: we are small and exposed, and probably moving too fast for our own good, but that’s no reason not to enjoy every minute of the ride.

Old Fashioned

As long as there’s bourbon in the house...

Many moons ago I ate something at a conference that did not agree with me. I went to the hotel bar and asked the barman what he recommended to stop a tummy from going flippy floppy. He fixed me soda & bitters with a twist and charged me not a single dime. I tipped him and wobbled back upstairs with my beverage. It did the trick.

I remembered this recently while attending a friend’s natal day celebration and needing something that looked convivial while keeping me sober (I had arrived and was leaving again on two wheels, and while I enjoy both bikes and adult beverages, they don’t mix well.) After I got home, I was wondering what in the world bitters are, and so Lizzie & I ended up reading the relevant entry in the wikipedia. Woo hoo! Patent medicines!

A small bottle of the stuff runs ~$3 at the local purveyor of adult beverages, so I picked one up. And then I remembered where else I’d seen bitters referenced recently: in a blog pointed out to me by a colleague.

I teach Latin at one of the larger private schools in town. There’s a guy doing a similar job over at our arch-rivals. He has a friend who writes mysteries, and that friend has a blog to which my fellow Latinist directed me one day. And what should I see on that blog but a picture of a bookstore a scant half mile down the street from where the O’Cayces used to live. It’s a good bookstore, the Regulator is. So I kept poking around the site and ran into this post, which contains the wondrous sentiment, “a couple of Old Fashioneds, taken around noon on Thanksgiving, will help the rest of the day unfold in a splendid manner.”

If I ever take a turn for the autobiographical, I’ll have to post a few Thanksgiving Day memories and explain why that sentence resonates so. For now, I will restrict myself to shamelessly stealing the recipe.

(makes one)
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 dashes of bitters
  • 2 oz bourbon
  • 2 oz club soda
  • slice of orange
Put sugar in bottom of a short cocktail glass and douse it with bitters. Pour in bourbon and muddle. Add club soda. Fill glass with crushed ice and joogle it around some to make sure the sugar is fully dissolved. Garnish with orange. This will help you tolerate relatives who are otherwise intolerable.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Derby Pie

OK, it's not the official, trademarked, name-protected Derby Pie (which appears to use walnuts rather than pecans). But what most people mean by Derby Pie is a chocolate-chip, bourbon pecan pie. I could find no one in Columbia making any such thing for the 133rd Run for the Roses. (And wasn’t it a thrilling run! Calvin Borel and Street Sense ride the rail from 19th place and eating dirt to a commanding 1st place win. That was a race!) So I put out a request on the school’s intra-net for anyone who knew where I could go pick up a decent pie. Nothing. But we did get a couple of good recipes.

Here’s the recipe Lizzie used, sent to me by our school nurse, who has heard Lizzie give a keynote and do a Q&A. Small world.

Derby Pie
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 6 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons bourbon
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate morsels
  • 1 cup pecans, coarsely chopped
  • 1 unbaked deep dish pie crust (or two 8" crusts)
Combine all ingredients except nuts and chocolate. Mix well and then add the nuts and chocolate. Pour into pie shell and bake on the lowest rack at 375°F until set. (35 to 40 minutes)


Lizzie has made quite a few pies over the years, and we have quite a few pie pans (metal, glass, stone, ceramic) in several sizes. She has not currently found the magical combination of heat and time to make a deep-dish pie (high walls, twice the filling) set up. For now, she either does half the filling in a single crust or all the filling in two crusts.

The co-worker who sent me this recipe notes, “I just use the roll out Pillsbury pie crust in refrigerated section of the grocery store.” It turns out that this is also what Rhudine, one of the best-known bakers on campus, uses when she makes pie (her specialties are cakes). Lizzie made her crust from scratch. I would reduce the amount of salt in the crust to ~3/4 or even 2/3 tsp; it was a very good crust, but a bit salty on first taste. You couldn’t tell at all when the crust hit your tongue with filling, but nibbling on that top edge all by itself was another story.

Lizzie made a double recipe and produced three pies, two 8" and one 10". The 10" pie filling rose more slowly and ended up with more of the fluffed-jelly consistency I’m used to in a Derby Pie or a pecan pie. It also required more time in the oven to set, although the crust was done. So Lizzie's suggestion is:

Make one recipe in a 10" pie crust. Shield the crust and bake for 20 minutes, then remove the shield and bake for another 30-35 (total 50-55 minutes).

All I can say is that the 10" pie was about as good as a pie could be. The 8" pies were tasty as well, but the texture was better with the 10" pie.

I think that next year, we may need to try this with walnuts instead of pecans. Or maybe half each.

Pie Crust
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt (but see untested suggestion, above)
  • 2/3 cups Crisco plus 2 tablespoons
  • 1/8 cup water
  • 1/8 cup vodka (Lizzie added this one Christmas 2011; too little water and you can’t work the dough properly; too much and the crust gets soggy on the bottom; she heard this trick on the radio and it worked well.)
Measure flour into mixing bowl and blend in salt. Cut in shortening until particles are the size of giant peas. Sprinkle with water, a tablespoon at a time, mixing lightly with a fork until all flour is moist. Gather dough together with fingers so it cleans the bowl. Press firmly into a ball. Roll out or keep in waxed paper in refrigerator until ready to bake.

One last note:

The 10" pie and one of the 8" pies were made in glass pie pans. The other 8" pie was made in a stone pie pan. Lizzie likes the stone pan for things like cornbread, but pie crust always wants to adhere to it. A number of the pieces of pie were damaged coming out of the stone pan. Stick to glass. Or use glass and don’t stick. Or something.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Derby Day already?

Let the hunt begin for fresh mint and a decent supplier of chocolate chip bourbon pecan pie (Derby Pie). We already have the main ingredient for the day's traditional beverage.

Speaking of which, since I pull down my copy of Walker Percy's Signposts in a Strange Land every year to check the recipe and to inflict the essay upon unsuspecting guests, I figure it must be time to store it here on the cyber-vault.

Update: I no longer destroy tea towels with my mallet to make the snowy ice. I use this machine.

by Walker Percy
taken from the posthumous collection Signposts in a Strange Land, Farrar Straus & Giroux 1991, pp. 102-7.

This is not written by a connoisseur of Bourbon. Ninety-nine percent of Bourbon drinkers know more about Bourbon than I do. It is about the aesthetic of Bourbon drinking in general and in particular of knocking it back neat.

I can hardly tell one Bourbon from another, unless the other is very bad. Some bad Bourbons are even more memorable than good ones. For example, I can recall being broke with some friends in Tennessee and deciding to have a party and being able to afford only two-fifths of a $1.75 Bourbon called Two Natural, whose label showed dice coming up 5 and 2. Its taste was memorable. The psychological effect was also notable. After knocking back two or three shots over a period of half an hour, the three male drinkers looked at each other and said in a single voice: “Where are the women?”

I have not been able to locate this remarkable Bourbon since.

Not only should connoisseurs of Bourbon not read this article, neither should persons preoccupied with the perils of alcoholism, cirrhosis, esophageal hemorrhage, cancer of the palate, and so forth—all real dangers. I, too, deplore these afflictions. But, as between these evils and the aesthetic of Bourbon drinking, that is, the use of Bourbon to warm the heart, to reduce the anomie of the late twentieth century, to cut the cold phlegm of Wednesday afternoons, I choose the aesthetic. What, after all, is the use of not having cancer, cirrhosis, and such, if a man comes home from work every day at five-thirty to the exurbs of Montclair or Memphis and there is the grass growing and the little family looking not quite at him but just past the side of his head, and there’s Cronkite on the tube and the smell of pot roast in the living room, and inside the house and outside in the pretty exurb has settled the noxious particles and the sadness of the old dying Western world, and him thinking: “Jesus, is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?”

If I should appear to be suggesting that such a man proceed as quickly as possible to anesthetize his cerebral cortex by ingesting ethyl alcohol, the point is being missed. Or part of the point. The joy of Bourbon drinking is not the pharmacological effect of C2H5OH on the cortex but rather the instant of the whiskey being knocked back and the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and the hot bosky bite of Tennessee summertime—aesthetic considerations to which the effect of the alcohol is, if not dispensable, at least secondary.

By contrast, Scotch: for me (not, I presume, for a Scot), drinking Scotch is like looking at a picture of Noel Coward. The whiskey assaults the nasopharynx with all the excitement of paregoric. Scotch drinkers (not all, of course) I think of as upward-mobile Americans, Houston and New Orleans businessmen who graduate from Bourbon about the same time they shed seersuckers for Lilly slacks. Of course, by now these same folk may have gone back to Bourbon and seersucker for the same reason, because too many Houston oilmen drink Scotch.

Nothing, therefore, will be said about the fine points of sour mash, straights, blends, bonded, except a general preference for the lower proofs. It is a matter of the arithmetic of aesthetics. If one derives the same pleasure from knocking back 80-proof Bourbon as 100-proof, the formula is both as simple as 2 + 2 = 4 and as incredible as non-Euclidean geometry. Consider. One knocks back five one-ounce shots of 80-proof Early Times or four shots of 100-proof Old Fitzgerald. The alcohol ingestion is the same:
5 x 40% = 2
4 x 50% = 2
Yet, in the case of the Early Times, one has obtained an extra quantum of joy without cost to liver, brain, or gastric mucosa. A bonus, pure and simple, an aesthetic gain as incredible as two parallel lines meeting at infinity.

An apology to the reader is in order, nevertheless, for it has just occurred to me that this is the most unedifying and even maleficent piece I ever wrote—if it should encourage potential alcoholics to start knocking back Bourbon neat. It is also the unfairest. Because I am, happily and unhappily, endowed with a bad GI tract, diverticulosis, neurotic colon, and a mild recurring nausea, which make it less likely for me to become an alcoholic than my healthier fellow Americans. I can hear the reader now: Who is he kidding? If this joker has to knock back five shots of Bourbon every afternoon just to stand the twentieth century, he’s already an alcoholic. Very well. I submit to this or any semantic. All I am saying is that if I drink much more than this I will get sick as a dog for two days and the very sight and smell of whiskey will bring on the heaves. Readers beware, therefore, save only those who have stronger wills or as bad a gut as I.

The pleasure of knocking back Bourbon lies in the plane of the aesthetic but at an opposite pole from connoisseurship. My preference for the former is or is not deplorable depending on one’s value system—that is to say, how one balances out the Epicurean virtues of cultivating one’s sensory end organs with the greatest discrimination and at least cost to one’s health, against the virtue of evocation of time and memory and of the recovery of self and the past from the fogged-in disoriented Western world. In Kierkegaardian terms, the use of Bourbon to such an end is a kind of aestheticized religious mode of existence, whereas connoisseurship, the discriminating but single-minded stimulation of sensory end organs, is the aesthetic of damnation.

Two exemplars of the two aesthetics come to mind:

Imagine Clifton Webb, scarf at throat, sitting at Cap d’Antibes on a perfect day, the little wavelets of the Mediterranean sparkling in the sunlight, and he is savoring a 1959 Mouton Rothschild.

Then imagine William Faulkner, having finished Absalom, Absalom!, drained, written out, pissed-off, feeling himself over the edge and out of it, nowhere, but he goes somewhere, his favorite hunting place in the Delta wilderness of the Big Sunflower River and, still feeling bad with his hunting cronies and maybe even a little phony, which he was, what with him trying to pretend he was one of them, a farmer, hunkered down in the cold and rain after the hunt, after honorably passing up the does and seeing no bucks, shivering and snot-nosed, takes out a flat pint of any Bourbon at all and flatfoots about a third of it. He shivers again but not from the cold.

Bourbon does for me what the piece of cake did for Proust.

1926: As a child watching my father in Birmingham, in the exurbs, living next to a number-6 fairway of the New Country Club, him disdaining both the bathtub gin and white lightning of the time, aging his own Bourbon in a charcoal keg, on his hands and knees in the basement sucking on the siphon, a matter of gravity requiring cheek pressed against the concrete floor, the siphon getting going, the decanter ready, the first hot spurt into his mouth not spat out.

1933: My uncle’s sun parlor in the Mississippi Delta and toddies on a Sunday afternoon, the prolonged and meditative tinkle of silver spoon against crystal to dissolve the sugar; talk, tinkle, talk; the talk mostly political: “Roosevelt is doing a good job; no, the son of a bitch is betraying his class.”

1934: Drinking at a Delta dance, the boys in bi-swing jackets and tab collars, tough-talking and profane and also scared of the girls and therefore safe in the men’s room. Somebody passes around bootleg Bourbon in a Coke bottle. It’s awful. Tears start from eyes, faces turn red. “Hot damn, that’s good!”

1935: Drinking at a football game in college. UNC versus Duke. One has a blind date. One is lucky. She is beautiful. Her clothes are the color of the fall leaves and her face turns up like a flower. But what to say to her, let alone what to do, and whether she is “nice” or “hot”—a distinction made in those days. But what to say? Take a drink, by now from a proper concave hip flask (a long way from the Delta Coke bottle) with a hinged top. Will she have a drink? No. But that’s all right. The taste of the Bourbon (Cream of Kentucky) and the smell of her fuse with the brilliant Carolina fall and the sounds of the crowd and the hit of the linesmen in a single synesthesia.

1941: Drinking mint juleps, famed Southern Bourbon drink, though in the Deep South not really drunk much. In fact, they are drunk so seldom that when, say, on Derby Day somebody gives a julep party, people drink them like cocktails, forgetting that a good julep holds at least five ounces of Bourbon. Men fall face-down unconscious, women wander in the woods disconsolate and amnesiac, full of thoughts of Kahil Gibran and the limberlost.

Would you believe the first mind julep I had I was sitting not on a columned porch but in the Boo Snooker bar of the New Yorker Hotel with a Bellevue nurse in 1941? The nurse, a nice upstate girl, head floor nurse, brisk, swift, good-looking; Bellevue nurses, the best in the world and this one the best of Bellevue, at least the best-looking. The julep, an atrocity, a heavy syrupy Bourbon and water in a small glass clotted with ice. But good!

How could two women be more different than the beautiful languid Carolina girl and this swift handsome girl from Utica, best Dutch stock? One thing was sure. Each has to be courted, loved, drunk with, with Bourbon. I should have stuck with the Bourbon. We changed to gin fizzes because the bartender said he came from New Orleans and could make good ones. He could and did. They were delicious. What I didn’t know was that they were made with raw egg albumen and I was allergic to it. Driving her home to Brooklyn and being in love! What a lovely fine strapping smart girl! And thinking of being invited into her apartment where she lived alone and of her offering to cook a little supper and of the many kisses and the sweet love that already existed between us and was bound to grow apace, when on the Brooklyn Bridge itself my upper lip began to swell and little sparks of light flew past the corner of my eye like St. Elmo’s fire. In the space of thirty seconds my lip stuck out a full three-quarter inch, like a shelf, like Mortimer Snerd. Not only was kissing out of the question but my eyes swelled shut. I made it across the bridge, pulled over to the curb, and fainted. Whereupon this noble nurse drove me back to Bellevue, game me a shot, and put me to bed.

Anybody who monkeys around with gin and egg white deserves what he gets. I should have stuck with Bourbon and have from that day to this.

POSTSCRIPT: Reader, just in case you don’t want to knock it back straight and would rather monkey around with perfectly good Bourbon, here’s my favorite recipe, “Cud’n Walker’s Uncle Will’s Favorite Mint Julep Receipt.”

You need excellent Bourbon whiskey; rye or Scotch will not do. Put half an inch of sugar in the bottom of the glass and merely dampen it with water. Next, very quickly—and here is the trick in the procedure—crush your ice, actually powder it, preferably with a wooden mallet, so quickly that it remains dry, and, slipping two sprigs of fresh mint against the inside of the glass, cram the ice in right to the brim, packing it with your hand. Finally, fill the glass, which apparently has no room left for anything else, with Bourbon, the older the better, and grate a bit of nutmeg on the top. The glass will frost immediately. Then settle back in your chair for half an hour of cumulative bliss.



The more autobiographical O'Cayce posted the report over on her blog.

Be sure to also read about what was going on with the rest of the family while I was out converting erstwhile dinosaur chow into harmful pollutants.