Tuesday, January 27, 2004

On the Virtues of Drink

Much has been lectured about the vices, numerous as stalks of hops in Old World fields, of drinking, but little has been propounded in its defense, and what there is comes mostly from drunken guys trying to cajole pretty girls (and prettier, and prettier, ...) into having a drink along with them. But discount not the virtues of wine, of beer, of the velvet fire, for there are many! When alcohol seeps into the brain it softens the bonds that tie the mind to body, and allows the consciousness to float a little beyond its accustomed pale, to view life from a broader vantage; and as that ethanol is absorbed, it alters the specific gravity, as it were, of an individual's personality, bringing to the surface his inner character, which is normally obscured by affectations, or distorted by fears and manias. So take up your snifters of brandy, raise those steins of beer, throw back the shots, my friends---read on, and Abandon sobriety, all ye who enter here.

I am myself somewhat inebriated as I pen this paragraph, so I do hope that its account of the sensation is faithful. My overtly conscious mind, that part of my thoughts that is self-aware, that puts emotion into words---that part is floating behind my shoulder on a river of Mae Kong whiskey, watching me write, even watching me think the lower-level thoughts that are eventually fed upwards for distillation. This effect on one's consciousness is one of the primary commendable powers of drink. The psychic distance thus achieved reveals trivial worries and manias for the detritus of thought that they are, and when viewed with this clarity, they sublime into puffs of air. The feeling of otherness that alcohol manifests can also be used to allow one to introspect into the mind that normally is one's mental eye: as I sit here writing, part of my mind is disjoint from its common surroundings, and can look down upon the processes by which I formulate words and espouse my argument. And when a person looks on himself as from a distance, he acquires the aspect of a character in a play, and by writing the script for this character, one can have him be braver than one could be if wrapped in his body. With a broad vantage point and authorial separation from character, one can gain the courage to do things one knows is right, but which carry too much weight to be performed in a frighteningly sober state. The meek can most benefit from this asset of drinking, so those who would inherit the earth, take heed of your bottles, and know that drink can reveal certain stalwart philosophies otherwise elusive to all but the most devout.


Alcohol in one of its facets is like a magic mirror akin to that hanging in a cloistered tower of a medieval seer, that strips the facades from a person, reflecting back only her inner nature. With one's inhibitive consciousness floating apart from one's body, action and speech flow more directly from the subliminal rumblings that operate only covertly in a sober condition, and so one is arrayed unprotected to those who are around. This characteristic of drink is fearsome for people with secretly seething hearts, for cantankerous and belligerent individuals who daily put on a play of geniality, for sad-minded wanderers who hold back from themselves and others a caustic dissatisfaction with life---these are "bad drunks", though they often keep drinking because their moments of intoxication give release to the pressure built up by the psychological fermentation inside of them. But for the princes and princesses of spirit among us, those large-minded or rosy-souled people who are good and peaceful at heart, drinking can alleviate the weight of temporal exigencies and allow their élan to dance freely for a time---and they are all the more loved by their friends, because worries of pretense are made moot, and the nakedness, as it were, of personality bonds nice people quicker, in a way that none of them can quite articulate but which gives each a strong amiable feeling towards the others, because they have seen their unadorned characters, and found them bountiful. Drinking buddies become more than simply friends who drink together. The old aphorism of testing a man's (or woman's) mettle by watching how he drinks is rendered true, not by gauging how much liquor he can quaff into his belly, but by seeing what lies beneath when the alcohol, like the solvent that it is, washes away the cruft built up on the surface.

Do not think that drinking lacks its perils, spinning vertiginous terrors, and slow and quick deaths; but it is a mire whose murky waters can reveal the sheen of hidden gems. It can raise up philosophers and reveal human hearts, and let a person see the beauty of the world as in a dream. Drunkenness is not in its essence a depression brought about by the physiological effects of alcohol, but a state of mind, and the poets who oft used drunkenness as a metaphor for love or power or countless other mental flights, strike close to its truth. There are times when one can feel drunk (now again in the less fanciful sense) without imbibing, and times when downing a river of whiskey just makes one sick; and I advise for those who cannot physically tolerate alcohol, other than slowly building your familiarity through frequent but slight exposure, to keep your mind open to the waves of rollicking insouciance that sometimes pass through the ether, and draw a measure of hazy lightness from your inebriated comrades. Drink---but drink well---friend.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Shanghainese Bus-Driver School

Have you ever been driving 75 mph on I-95 between Boston and New York, on a rainy day when you can hardly see ten feet in front of you, only to jerk the wheel in surprise as some massive object hurtles past, careening on two wheels, and then seen that it was the Fung-Wa Chinatown bus making a $10 run? Well, those drivers are apparently Shanghai tour bus drivers who were awarded a merit for special safety. The bus drivers here change lanes by pulling two inches behind whatever unstable cement truck is impeding them, and then other cars be damned, drifting into a faster lane, letting all smaller vehicles with the cojones to drive in five feet of space, go around them. I guarantee the horn gets more use than the brake---hell, I'd be surprised if the brakes worked at all. As Mr. T might say, I pity the fool who crosses in front of a bus and expects to go home with his spine in one piece. I wish some of those busses made their way to the States to take out the Volvos (^) driving 55 in the left lane.

^ - No insult to Volvo drivers. Well, actually...

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Shanghainese Subway Etiquette

From what I have seen in my few days roaming Shanghai, the locals follow two basic tenets in their use of the subway: aggression and laziness. Though seemingly in conflict, the two traits both come to the fore in a common scenario, in which the microsecond the subway doors open, a person waiting on the platform will perform an Olympian feat of athleticism in leaping through the crowd of exiting passengers, arms raised, ready to put the pimp hand down on Mother Theresa herself if she were to try to sit in the seat he had eyed from outside. Then contentedly sitting for the three minutes it takes to reach the next stop, the Shanghainese commuter will repeat the previous display in a mad dash for the escalator, while two wide flights of stairs remain blissfully vacant. I've had eighty year-old women throw me a hip-check because I dallied too long in front of a standing pole, but to their credit, I'm sure they would have taken it in stride had I tried to wrestle them for rights to use a disabled seat in a bus. Ask no quarter, give no quarter---fierce.

Wednesday, January 7, 2004

Those Wacky Puritans

In Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, he writes about how when he was seventeen he got into conflict with his brother and decided to leave town; however, because of his tendency to have argumentative debates about religion, and certain other liberal views, the town council and father were disposed against him, and would attempt to block any travel plans that he made openly. As such, he arranged with a friend to be smuggled to New York aboard a ship, and because it would be too scandelous to tell the captain that he was a bit liberal, they concocted a more acceptable excuse: "[I] had got a naughty Girl with Child, whose Friends would compel me to marry her, and therefore I could not appear or come away publickly."

Can you envision a modern version of such a story?

"Bobby, where have you been? It's almost 2AM!"
"I was at the Democratic National Convention."
"What!? How could you do something like that, you dirty boy?"
"Did I say Democratic National Convention? I meant to say that I was on the street corner, impregnating naughty Girls."
"Oh, okay, you should have just said so in the first place."

Sunday, January 4, 2004

The Water

I went out recently in the waters southeast of Miami, on our sailboat in the late afternoon of a winter day in these tropics. The sky was still a brilliant blue as we idled through the channel leading to open main; on the rocks jutting up from the surface in low tide stood hundreds of birds, gulls and herons, biding their time and watching us go by. A daytime moon hovered above, pale and full, growing brighter as the sky faded with the hours. When we cut the engine, all that remained to us was the sound of wind blowing across the waves---the jumbled land noise that we don't even realize is constantly around us, was muted, leaving a contemplative peace in that now free part of my brain.

With a white wake behind, and only the undulating swells in front, we glided to the north, where in shrouded distances one could make out the tall buildings of Miami. The sun was setting in a crimson blaze, igniting the clouds lying on the horizon and painting striations of pink and brown and white on the tarrying tail of the day's sky. And then night came upon us, and the moon shone brightly enough so that I could see my shadow dimly on the faded white deck of our boat, and the wind becalmed so that all was in quiet.

In tropical climes, the clouds have a way of catching the last bit of light, and they look like streaks of glowing paint brushed onto the firmament, silhouetting in black the land and trees, and littler things we make. So was the world we saw as our sails carried us back to the docks and dry land, eager for our comforts yet begrudging to leave that potent briney atmosphere. For those who have been long near the sea, its expanses of water come into one's mind and spread themselves out beneath conscious thought, rumbling and echoing and always drawing one back to their shores.