Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Cinch Review

Celebration versus entertainment: more Abraham Joshua Heschel (from “Who Is Man?”)

There could really be no end to picking things out to reflect upon from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s little book Who Is Man?

Take this brief passage:

The man of our time is losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating, he seeks to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state—it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle. Entertainment is a diversion, a distraction of the attention of the mind from the preoccupations of daily living. Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions.

When did he write that? This morning? It reads like the perfect commentary on our 24/7-non-stop-info-and-entertainment-cavalcade of existence, bouncing from one screen and gadget to the next, sucking up amusement from fifteen different sources every second. But the book is from 1965, based on lectures given in 1963.

Of-course, he is also highlighting a tendency in human nature that is timeless; that is, to bury oneself in entertainment and amusement and to forget the meaning at the heart of everything, or indeed to forget even to ask whether there is any meaning. It was possible to live that way three thousand years ago, although there were probably more frequent reminders of the limits of one’s powers and one’s lifespan. Today, it’s merely a lot easier to keep the volume up and drown out any still small voice that might be asking one to celebrate instead of just to continue blithely consuming. Continue reading Celebration versus entertainment: more Abraham Joshua Heschel (from “Who Is Man?”)

Fleischmann's Gin

Fleischmann’s Gin (and Some General Notes on Gin)

A review of Fleischmann's ginIt was Kingsley Amis who introduced me properly to gin.

I would like to say that it was at some soirée hosted by that famous (late) English author, but no; it was instead in a collection of his writings on alcohol-related topics, titled Everyday Drinking, released in 2008, with an introduction by another well-known (and late) English drinker, Christopher Hitchens.

I say that Amis introduced me properly to gin because my first (most improper) introduction was of a character I’ve found to be all too common among my peers. As a young lad, I was in some social situation or other where the only available alcohol was gin. I drank it, mixed perhaps with tonic (or maybe with some kind of lemonade—I can’t remember), and found it went down easily and promoted cheerfulness on my part and that of my acquaintances. A little being good, it seemed a cinch that a lot would be better, and indeed it was. Until, that is, the morning, when I awoke with a kind and degree of hangover that I’ve never experienced before or since. Without ticking down through the more well-known symptoms, my overwhelming feeling was that I had drunk several pints of window cleaning solution (the blue kind, with ammonia, not the eco-friendly type you see around these days). The taste in my mouth, which would not leave, was such that I believe I could have licked clean all the windows of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and still had potency remaining.

I swore never to touch the stuff again, and kept to that faithfully for decades, during the course of which I’ve drunk almost everything else, but gravitated mainly towards spirits, especially the Irish and Scotch varieties.

In my circles, I’d never heard someone attest to actually liking the taste of gin, on its own.
I read the Kingsley Amis collection on drinking for enjoyment and general edification, the book containing some opinions I shared and some I didn’t, some information that was interesting and some of little relevance, but all written with the Amis verve. It was his reflections on gin, however, that surprised me most, and, you might even say, turned my life around (though the final destination remains unclear). In my circles, I’d never heard someone attest to actually liking the taste of gin, on its own. This however is what Amis stated, indicating that his favored way of imbibing the old spirit (invented in Holland but adopted most enthusiastically by the British) was merely by adding a little water, and savoring the taste of the juniper berry and other assorted infused botanicals. This was fascinating to me, and presented the challenge of confronting that old demon from my past head-on, without any buffer such as tonic or even vermouth. As one gets older, one realizes that acquired tastes are, after all, the ones truly worth acquiring, and I thought I would give this one a try. Amis had fairly catholic tastes in gin—speaking well of the readily available and reasonably-priced Gordon’s—but seemed to have some difficulty identifying water of sufficient quality so as not to ruin his drinks. This didn’t surprise me so much, considering his context of time and place in England. However, I live in New York City, where we are blessed to have the best water in the world running for free through our very faucets. (Fresh out of the faucet it can be uneven, but if you let the tap run a little while, then fill up a bottle and put it in the fridge overnight, in the morning you will have a liquid so wonderful and clear and refreshing as to make the product of those Polish springs seem by comparison something more akin to milk of magnesia).

Cutting to the chase, I found myself in agreement with Amis. Gin could indeed be a wonderful drink in and of itself, with delicate and undulating subtleties of flavor and aroma. What’s more, due to its relative purity as compared to whiskies, it is actually far less prone towards giving one that terrible hangover. It is in the mixing of gin with tonic and other beverages that the mischief is wrought (though naturally excessive consumption is inherently bad and be sure to consult your doctor before adopting any new diet or fitness regimen mentioned in these pages).

Discovering a way of appreciating this heretofore-shunned spirit opened up a new world. There are lots of gins, at just about every price-point. I quickly found that I preferred what I perceived to be the ginnier gins; that is, those still most loyal to the distinctive flavor of the juniper, as opposed to those that lean far towards very citrusy and orangey flavors and seem instead to be gins for people who don’t like gin. That includes some quite expensive and fashionable brands.

Fleischmann's GinThis piece, however, is in the end intended as a review of just one: Fleischmann’s gin. Amis certainly didn’t deal with it in his book, as it is not even an English gin. It was, in fact, the first American gin to be distilled, beginning in 1870. And much of its marketing and claim-to-fame during the hey-day of cocktails, sixty years ago and more, seems to have been that as an American gin it was well-suited to gin cocktails which originated in America, notably the martini and Tom Collins. The ads proclaimed it as being more mixable.

In the glass, both straight and with a little water, my first impression of Fleischmann’s (which I have not had reason to revise since) was that it possessed about the same flavor balance as Gordon’s (surely about as uncontroversial and plain an English-type-gin as you can find) but was distinctly milder and smoother. That might be a pro or con for some. Sipped in a glass with a splash of cold water and/or a nice clean ice-cube, it’s quite easy to forget you’re drinking much of anything at all. However, since it is 80 proof you will eventually realize it (although it should be noted that it and a number of other currently-80-proof-gins were once sold at 90 proof and more, so they are not precisely the same spirits they were decades ago). Another perspective would be that its mild flavor demands that you savor it all the more carefully. Continue reading Fleischmann’s Gin (and Some General Notes on Gin)

The Cinch Review

Washed away but holding on

There’s a single vignette from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in a piece by Corey Kilgannon of the NY Times about a 68 year-old musician named Kenny Vance, who lived on Beach 137th Street in the Rockaway section of Queens, New York. He’d gradually built his home into a veritable museum of his decades in music, intersecting with the careers of many others. He’d had no serious problem in previous storms—never even getting water in his basement. Then Sandy came along and pulverized everything in a matter of hours. Kenny Vance (who was traveling at sea when the storm hit) lost prized musical instruments, photographs, and many irreplaceable original recordings and master tapes. In fact, he lost his entire house and everything in it but a few scraps and shreds he’s managed to dig out of the sand.

Reading the story, I think it’s fair to say that he never saw it coming. And why would he? We build up our homes and collect our memories, our souvenirs and our treasured possessions, and they look safe in our cabinets and on our shelves. We don’t do it with the thought that one day they will be turned to ruin or swept out in the surf. In the case of a lot of us, the grim reaper that claims our possessions will be rather less dramatic, but maybe even more depressing: it will be the garbage truck that takes away the accumulations of our lifetime from the curbside where our next-of-kin deposited them. Not a cheerful thought, but at least we don’t expect to be there to see it, as opposed to when you lose it all in a disaster.

The whole thing brought to my mind some verses from a psalm recently encountered in a Bible study. The very first part is quite famous; the succeeding lines are heard less often. It’s Psalm 146, verses 3 and 4:

Put not your trust in princes,
nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.

His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth;
in that very day his thoughts perish.

That last statement is one to pause on because of its surpassing finality and grimness: “in that very day his thoughts perish.” It’s bad enough to think about dying without being reminded that your thoughts will perish too. Every plan and dream, every intention, every cherished belief and affection: gone. It’s merely echoed by the fate of our possessions, which likely had such meaning for us in life, yet are destined for their own destruction. So, the psalmist says, don’t put your trust in a man, “in whom there is no salvation,” but in God, “who made heaven and earth … who keeps faith forever,” and in whom there presumably then is salvation.

Salvation is not the easiest word to define. Different religious orthodoxies have different thoughts on it. But perhaps at least this much could be said about salvation: you know what it is when you need it. Continue reading Washed away but holding on

The Cinch Review

Thanksgiving

This evening, at a Thanksgiving Eve service at our little chapel in the wildwood, we heard a beautiful performance of a piece called Dank sei Dirr, Herr, sung by a mezzo-soprano accompanied by only piano. I was not familiar with the tune, but it was credited to Siegfried Ochs (1858-1929) in the service guide, and a little checking suggests that this is the widely-accepted accreditation these days, although it used to be believed that Handel had composed it.

Anyway, I was quite struck by it, both the beauty of the performance and the composition, and also its moving aptness in a Thanksgiving service. I’m embedding a version via YouTube at the bottom of this post, a grand performance with a singer named Gundula Hintz. The lyric is in German (which I’ll put below the video) but the translation is as follows:

Thanks be to Thee,
Lord God of Hosts:
Thou broughtest forth Your people
with Your mighty hand
Israel safe through the sea.

Lord, like a shepherd
Thou hast led us;
Lord, Thy hand protected us
in Thy goodness tenderly as in ages past.

The words sound reminiscent of any number of songs of praise and psalms from the Bible, but I don’t know a precise source, if there is one. The last few verses of Psalm 77 could be one.

Yet, the message is beautifully historic and specific and at the same time up-to-the-minute, relevant and universal. You might paraphrase it: Thank You, Lord God, for protecting Your people in the past, and thank You for protecting Your people now, every moment of every hour.

Some of us might just add a prayer that we indeed count among God’s people. Continue reading Thanksgiving

The Cinch Review

Windmills: A Post-Mortem post

The analysis has all been done and everyone has assumed his or her corner, but something has made me wait till the hubbub died down a little to put my thoughts in writing (briefly) on the outcome of the recent election in the United States. My prediction in the matter proved to be wrong. Actually, it’s about as wrong as I’ve managed to be about anything, ever, at least in writing. (I even had to issue a correction on a related post about Bob Dylan! Unprecedented!)


I have to suppose that the big-time pundits, like Michael Barone, Dick Morris, et al, can just roll over the next morning and dive right back in, but not so for everyone. Personally, I found myself deeply disillusioned in the wake of November 6th. I could blame it on the faulty analysis from people like those previously mentioned, but that wouldn’t be honest. Sure: I bought into the idea that Democrats were being oversampled in the polls, and that the turnout models being used were flawed by being based overly-much on 2008. Yet, my reasons for expecting Barack Obama’s defeat in 2012 went much deeper than any Gallup poll or punditry. Last year, during the GOP primaries, I fully expected that any Republican nominee ought to be able to beat President Obama (barring a credible third-party candidacy). I misjudged the center of gravity of the American electorate. And that’s a serious thing indeed and not one that this writer—insignificant though he may be—can just shrug off. Why should I have any credibility in the future?

With hindsight, there are reasons for all of it, but they are of limited comfort. I don’t blame Mitt Romney personally for losing; subsequent to getting the nomination, he ran what was probably the best campaign someone named Mitt Romney could have run, reasonably speaking. Even though he wasn’t my guy in the primaries, I came around to respecting him and liking him to a significant extent, despite my admission in the week before the election that he still seemed somewhat “soulless” and “a cipher.” Election choices are relative, none more so than the U.S. presidential election when you have two candidates and the choice between the two will determine so many decisions for the nation over the next four years. However, I was mistaken (as were others, including Romney himself) in presuming that the entire Republican base had done the same internal calculus and simply “gotten over” their dissatisfaction with Mitt. In the end, what was wrong with Romney was what was wrong with him in the beginning: he didn’t bring the whole base with him, and they didn’t all come out to vote for him on November 6th. That Democratic turnout would be lower than 2008 was something we all assumed, and it was true (if not to quite the extent anticipated). That Republican turnout would be lower was mind-boggling.

Still, I can’t say that that explains the loss. Where was the center? What is the center? How could the results of the Obama presidency be embraced by the country to the extent of asking for four more years of the same thing? (And he promised nothing new.) That is what shook me. I think it’s fair to say that it has shaken a lot of people. Continue reading Windmills: A Post-Mortem post

Abraham Joshua Heschel Who Is Man?

Abraham Joshua Heschel on Happiness (from “Who Is Man?”)

Heschel Happiness Who Is ManWhat is happiness? It’s an odd word, one of such centrality to our lives, and to our reason for choosing to continue to be, yet so far beyond easy definition. The U.S. Declaration of Independence refers to the unalienable rights of every human being which (it says) include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We generally know what “life” means (although in our post-modern age it is not exactly a slam-dunk) and we can at least engage in meaningful debate over the definition of “liberty,” but where do we even begin in defining happiness? I do think that it is a beautiful thing that the U.S. Declaration of Independence includes this statement; it is the cleaving of a chasm between that moment and the way things were ordered in the world before it, and yet it is also somewhat maddening. It invites trivial and trite interpretation. What happiness? Whose happiness?

Legalisms aside, it is a little easier from a philosophical point of view to approach the question of what happiness is by first defining what it is not. The following is a very brief extract from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s wonderful little book, Who Is Man?, which I’ve recently read, in which he is touching on this question.

Happiness is not a synonmym for self-satisfaction, complacency, or smugness. Self-satisfaction breeds futility and despair. […]

Self-fulfillment is a myth which a noble mind must find degrading. All that is creative in man stems from a seed of endless discontent. New insight begins when satisfaction comes to an end, when all that has been seen, said, or done looks like a distortion.

The aim is the maintenance and fanning of a discontent with our aspirations and achievements, the maintenance and fanning of a craving that knows no satisfaction. Man’s true fulfillment depends upon communion with that which transcends him.

So, if as Heschel says “man’s true fulfillment depends upon communion with that which transcends him,” then that is a communion which can never be quite complete. You can reach for communion with that which transcends you, but you cannot totally commune with it … because it does transcend you. In effect, you can pursue happiness, but never quite get there. Alternatively, it is in the pursuit of happiness that happiness is most tangibly present. Continue reading Abraham Joshua Heschel on Happiness (from “Who Is Man?”)

The Cinch Review

Veterans Day 2012 in New York: Honoring Military Working Dogs

Veterans Day Military DogsYesterday, Sunday, November 11th in New York City, the annual Veterans Day Parade (known as the largest in the nation) engulfed Fifth Avenue between 26th and 56th streets. For the first time in the history of this parade, what are officially known as “Military Working Dogs” (MWDs) were honored. A group of canines and their handlers, actual veterans of recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, marched up Fifth Avenue accompanied by signage and a decorated float. Photos (taken by yours truly) are below. Click on each for larger versions. May God bless each and every one of our veterans.

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From the War of 1812 to the current war in Afghanistan, dogs have served alongside American troops. Although we usually think of German Shepherds and Dobermans, a vast range of breeds have served, including American Coon Hounds, Jack Russell Terriers, Mastiffs and mixed breeds. Continue reading Veterans Day 2012 in New York: Honoring Military Working Dogs

The Cinch Review

Bob Dylan predicts Romney in “a landslide”

Update and correction (11/17/2012):

The audio has become available from Bob Dylan’s November 5th, 2012 show in Madison, Wisconsin. Dylan’s words are different to how they were reported in the media, and different to how he himself reported them on Facebook. What he says in full is the following:

Well thank you everybody. We tried to play good tonight, after the president was here today. Y’know we just had to do something after that — it’s hard to follow that. I think he’s still the president, I think he’s still going to be the president. [Cheers from crowd.] Yeah we know — y’know the media’s not fooling anybody — it [sic] probably gonna be a landslide.

The phrase I bolded is the key one, because it removes the ambiguity that I zeroed in on in the reported words. Dylan was clearly predicting Barack Obama to be the winner; no ifs, ands or buts. In this he was far more accurate than yours truly. It was not exactly a landslide in the popular vote, but he did win the popular vote and he won very decisively indeed in the Electoral College. So, I was wrong in my “spin” of Dylan’s reported remarks. I was guilty of projection, in a big way. I personally expected Romney to win, and thought it would be decisive, and I just presumed Bob had bought into the same election theories that I had, and was therefore making some kind of double-entendre joke the day before the election. Crazy, huh? No one’s ever projected before when it comes to Dylan.

Why do I think he made these remarks? Well, clearly I’m the wrong person to ask. In this case, let Bob explain himself, should he ever be asked to do so. However, given Dylan’s answers to questions about President Obama in the recent Rolling Stone interview, and given how he’s behaved during his visits to the White House during Obama’s first term, I would still suggest that believing Dylan is in fact a big fan of Barack Obama in a political sense amounts to some kind of serious projection in itself. And, y’know, it takes a projector to catch a projector.

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Update 11:30 p.m. (11/6/2012) Fox has called the election for Obama. No landslide – Romney looks like he may win the popular vote. But the times they are not a-changin’. Well … hold on tight and may the Lord have mercy on us all.

Ah, Bobby, he can still grab the headlines whenever he feels like it, even on election day! The story multiplying via the wires is from Bob Dylan’s concert last night in Madison, Wisconsin. As ever, we won’t know for sure what he really said until we get the audio, but the way it’s being reported, when he came back after the encore (and probably while he was introducing the band) he said: “Don’t believe the media. I think it’s going to be a landslide.”

Previous to that he’s also quoted as having said, “We tried to play good tonight since the president was here today.” The president, accompanied by Bruce Springsteen, was in Madison earlier that day.

Why do I say he’s predicting it will be Mitt Romney in that landslide? Well, only because I give credit to Bob Dylan for not being a fool, and he’s been traveling plenty around the country and probably has as good a feel as any for what the mood is. No one with more than three brain cells expects a “landslide” for Obama, so it’s a process of elimination.

More than all that, of-course, he’s no doubt just tweaking people a little and having a chuckle. Nevertheless, the media predictably have jumped all over these remarks with a huge chorus of headlines announcing, “Bob Dylan predicts Obama ‘in a landslide’.” As I said, we don’t know exactly what he said unless we hear it, but even as quoted by the Obama-sympathetic-journalists, I don’t see where he is predicting that the landslide will be for Barack Obama. The money quote is simply: “Don’t believe the media. I think it’s going to be a landslide.”

“Don’t believe the media” is right.

A couple of months ago, this is the same Bob Dylan who was chased around by the interviewer in Rolling Stone, trying to get him to say something positive about Barack Obama—anything! One of Dylan’s exasperated responses was the following:

Look, I only met him a few times. I mean, what do you want me to say? He loves music. He’s personable. He dresses good. What the f*%k do you want me to say?

He utterly evaded saying anything about Obama’s political outlook and agenda. When asked about the “reaction against [Obama],” he merely compared him to past presidents, including specifically George W. Bush, making the point that “Anybody who’s going to take that job is going to be in for a rough time.” (What would Bruce have thought of that?)

When pressed on whether he thought that “some of the reaction against Obama has been in reaction to the event that a black man has become president of the United States,” his answer—again with noticeable exasperation—rejected that premise entirely.

Do you want me to repeat what I just said, word for word? What are you talking about? People loved the guy when he was elected. So what are we talking about? People changing their minds? Well, who are these people that changed their minds? Talk to them. What are they changing their minds for? What’d they vote for him for? They should’ve voted for somebody else if they didn’t think they were going to like him.

The interviewer, still dissatisfied with what he was getting, went on:

Q: The point I’m making is that perhaps lingering American resentments about race are resonant in the opposition to President Obama, which has not been a quiet opposition.

Dylan: You mean in the press? I don’t know anybody personally that’s saying this stuff that you’re just saying. The press says all kinds of stuff. I don’t know what they would be saying. Or why they would be saying it. You can’t believe what you read in the press anyway.

Indeed. Continue reading Bob Dylan predicts Romney in “a landslide”

The Cinch Review

Sandy: The political parade of mutual congratulation

In 2005, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush was caught on a microphone saying “Heckuva job, Brownie,” to the then-Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael D. Brown. This quick bit of positive reinforcement for his FEMA head was subsequently (and is to this day) hung around Dubya’s neck and juxtaposed with every iota of human hardship associated with Katrina and New Orleans. How could Bush compliment Brown when so many people were still suffering?

That was then. Consider what we’ve been witnessing since last Tuesday, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, in terms of political leaders and bureaucrats praising one another in a non-stop cavalcade of love and affection. You can’t tune into any of these press conferences, by Bloomberg, Cuomo or Christie, without hearing a great litany of how happy the various leaders and governments and agencies are with one another. “Unprecedented cooperation.” “FEMA is doing everything we ask.” “Couldn’t be happier.” “So grateful.” It has all been crowned, of-course, by the outpouring of gratitude and appreciation on Wednesday between Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and President Barack Obama. Continue reading Sandy: The political parade of mutual congratulation