Saturday, July 27, 2013

Mark Twain, Edward Abbey, and Esophageal Aerodynamics

“Far in the empty sky a solitary esophagus slept upon motionless wing” (54).

Twain, Mark. A Double-Barrelled Detective Story. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1902.


In a review of The Autobiography of Mark Twain in the March 2011 issue of The American Spectator, Joseph Bottum calls Twain “the man who could write the perfect comedy,” and as evidence used the line above. Here it is, in complete context:

     It was a crisp and spicy morning in early October.… The sensuous fragrance      of innumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere; far in      the empty sky a solitary esophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere        brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God.

Aside from mocking the flowery and purplish prose that characterized the Victorian era (and laying the foundation upon which Ernest Hemingway would later establish the framework for American writing that endures nearly a hundred years after his first publication), Twain wanted to show how a word like esophagus could be used (or misused) without being noticed. Twain was mocking more than the overblown style of the era; he was mocking the reader.

This was bold, but it highlights something we often do to our founding literary figures: we refer to them, we celebrate them, but we don’t actually read them. As Bottum put it: “We seem to end up enjoying him as a writer more than we actually enjoy any particular thing he wrote.” The process for this deification is a human one that has basis in our cultural approach to research.

In my composition classes, when I teach research, we discuss the cycle of how something becomes a source that can be used in a student’s writing. And event may occur and be reported for a day or a week in the news. From there, if it’s important enough, it might be featured in a weekly or monthly magazine. If it affects our society, it could be studied by academics and appear in scholarly journals. Finally, it may be written about in book form. And there’s something about the shape of a book that we think solidifies and justifies the ideas within it. That’s the place that Twain occupies--and now probably transcends. He’s an untouchable, a literary god.

And yet Twain remains relevant with those of us who do read him, and lines like the one that opened this essay reflect a measure of sarcasm and parody that has established a vein in not only my writing, but my outlook on life, and, to a certain extent, my approach to innkeeping. Regular readers of this column will confirm the frequency with which I question the principles and practices of modern innkeeping, as well as the behaviors of modern travelers.

This can be risky; you’ve got to know your audience. I think I do. I see the look on their faces when they check in: “You’re the writer,” they say. Or, “I’ve read your blog.” But as opposed to “knowing” or “identifying” my audience--my customers--I’ve chosen to create them, to lure them out, to let them know that I won’t do anything it takes to separate them from their money. To many American ears, this sounds crazy. Radical. Foolish. Why do this? Isn’t making money and being successful the American way? The answer is easy: Edward Abbey.

Abbey is another writer who has deeply affected my writing, and my thinking. If Abbey wasn’t the first eco-vandal, he was certainly the first to write about it his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. But it’s Abbey’s essay “A Writer’s Credo” that informs--or should I say reflects?--my approach to writing, teaching, and innkeeping. Abbey’s thesis appears in the first line of the essay:

     It is my belief that the writer, the free-lance author, should be and must be a      critic of the society in which he lives.

Abbey argues that it’s easy to deride the foreign, the fuzziness of the far-away, and that a writer unwilling to critically examine the immediate community around him should find some other line of work, and stop bullshitting the rest of us. This is a perfect argument that explains the white noise contemporary culture that vomits a steady stream of books and film that are forgettable for their navel-gazing focus on the bottom line.

While Abbey’s impetus is on society as a whole, the template can be applied to all our sub-cultures and specialties. For me, it’s innkeeping. For another writer, it might be academia, or Hollywood. Speaking up and speaking out about the hand that feeds you is always dangerous. I realize even as I write this that there may be someone reading this who will be so turned off by what I write that they decide not to stay with us at the Auberge. That’s okay; that’s why I write this blog. While I won’t bury any lines about flying stomachs in my prose in order to dupe you, gentle reader, I will turn my pen upon my experiences in an attempt to better understand the world I live in.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Coffee, Wine, and the Crepuscular War on Truth

Every morning around 5:30, I go downstairs, let the dog out on his leash, feed the cat, drink two glasses of water, and fire up the coffee. I drink my coffee from a green mug decorated with shamrocks, tattooed with the traditional Irish Blessing:

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
May the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

The mug was given to me by my mother-in-law, and it’s my principal hot liquid delivery device (HLDD). Before that, I drank my coffee from a Goddard College mug. I ostensibly bought the mug for my wife, but as soon as I got it home, I coveted it, greedily guzzling tanker-truck loads of coffee from it.

And until the Goddard mug came along, I took my morning brew in a United States Military Academy mug given to me by my brother-in-law. It was a stout, unbreakable mug. “Like an army infantryman,” my brother-in-law, le colonel, told me. (As of this writing, my sister-in-law, Pat, has not contributed to my coffee mug collection. Ahem.) Those three mugs have covered my last ten years of coffee drinking. So the question is, Why do we have favorite coffee mugs? Or wine glasses? Or pillows? What the heck’s going on?

On the surface, it would seem that the manias of the human mind would be responsible for these compulsions. While Freud might blame the sexually aggressive id, there might be some real biology--or anatomy--behind our choices. I like my green mug because it’s Irish-y, and I love Irish-y things: “Oh, look at me, aren’t I Irish, drinking me coffee from a green mug, in the pre-dawn darkness!” (For full mocking effect, the preceding line should be spoken in the voice of Lucky the Leprechaun, the mascot for Lucky Charms cereal.)

But I also like my mug because of its weight and balance. The shape of the handles fits my index and middle finger smoothly, allowing me to easily grasp my mug without looking, while I see who got drunk and posted on Facebook the night before. The thickness of the rim of the mug is perfect for my thin, bloodless lips. I’ve never lost a drop sipping from that mug. To contrast, we also have Green Mountain Coffee Roasters mug. This mug is the thick-walled, solid variety found in diners across the world. It’s a serious biceps workout, and it can be used as a defensive weapon, with the right training.

I’ve never loved drinking coffee from these kinds of mugs because unless you get free, unlimited refills, it feels like you’re getting cheated. Chantal refuses to drink from this mug. It’s too lumpy and ungainly, and the collagen-injected rim overwhelms her smallish mouth. The same thinking holds true for wine glasses.

While we don’t serve wine for breakfast at the Auberge, we do host an open house every Friday evening from 5 to 7. An eclectic collection of lawyers, cops, retirees, ski bums, artists, Auberge guests, family, and any random visitors can be found toasting the end of the week. We provide the cheese and crackers, they provide the vino. This kind of regular gathering requires a good stock of wine glasses, and like our coffee mug fetish, we have our preferred wine glasses.

When Chantal first met my mother, my mom was into gigantic balloon wine glasses. You  could fit about a gallon of Carlo Rossi in the glass and it would only be half-full. Having emigrated from parsimonious France, which, in the early 90s was still recovering from the ravages of World War I, Chantal was aghast at the amount of wine she was expected to consume. I quickly learned that she preferred much smaller wine glasses--19.5 centilitre (7 ¾ ounce) Vicomtes from Cristal d’Arques--a set of which we later received as a wedding present.

I’m okay with this smaller presentation, though it makes it more difficult to mask my consumption of wine. Over the years we’ve managed to accumulate a diverse collection of glasses that we break out on Fridays. I like to set out the glasses, then open a bottle of wine and look expectantly at our guests to see what kind of scrum will ensue--sort of a musical chairs for claiming wine glasses. Choice is usually divided according to gender, with men choosing biggest wine glasses to go along with their 16-ounce Heady Topper double IPAs.

This devotion to style is really kind of silly on the surface, but it speaks to a deeper longing within us, a longing for stability and permanence, the two things our human condition denies us. So we evolve manias and rituals to combat the eventual and inevitable, and we take our victories in small sips, at daybreak and sunset, a crepuscular war on truth that we fight with coffee and wine.