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 gin

It 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