Tag Archives: ideas

E/F – The glass (or cup, as it were) of coffee

Thomas Pynchon once imagined a conversation between Mason and Dixon (of the “line” fame, not the knitters, or the pollsters) that is as true in the twenty-first century as it must have been in the eighteenth.  Mason asked Dixon,

How is it … that of each Pot of Coffee, only the first Cup is ever worth drinking,— and that, by the time I get to it, someone else has already drunk it?”  To which Dixon answered that it’s because of “Coffee’s Sacramental nature, the Sacrament being Penance … whereby the remainder of the Pot, often dozens of cups deep, represents the Price for enjoying that first perfect Cup.”

Coffee is the original smart drug, but like all things good, it comes with a price. The key is to be mindful of how much you drink, for the beneficial effects advance only to a certain level, after which having more coffee produces something like a living nightmare of half-truths, unfinished thoughts, and incomplete sentences.

For these and other reasons, people have blamed coffee for the Enlightenment and related revolutions in rocket science and politics.  They all got started in coffee houses, perfect sites for the blending of conversation and caffeine, the ultimate result of which being a heightened desire for self-expression without, however, a commensurate acuity thereof.  Or as Pynchon put it when describing the scene as Mason and Dixon slipped into a coffee house in Philadelphia in the late 1700’s—

With its own fuliginous Weather, at once public and private, created of smoke billowing from Pipes, Hearthes, and Stoves, the Room would provide an extraordinary sight, were any able to see, in this Combination, peculiar and precise, of unceasing Talk and low Visibility, that makes Riot’s indoor Sister, Conspiracy, not only possible, but resultful as well.  One may be inches from a neighbor, yet both blurr’d past recognizing,— thus may Advice grow reckless and Prophecy extreme, given the astonishing volume of words moving about in here, not only aloud but upon Paper as well …

Coffee sounds a lot like alcohol.  Coffee houses and barrooms once upon a time shared the combination of low lights and incessant smoking that leads two or more people to make very bad decisions based on what little they can see or understand of each other, half-remembered bliss and release lifting like a fog with the clarity of morning.  The poor judgment brought on by low-lit coffee conversations that once resulted in revolutionary dreams, however, now leads mainly to snark and graduate theses.  Compared to alcohol, it’s more difficult to appreciate the terrible results of coffee, because they are so often taken for success.

The Tea Lounge, Park Slope, Brooklyn: a revolution is being plotted right here, right now.

People often combine alcohol and coffee, as if the effects of one can cancel out the other.  This is a mistake.  When you drink coffee while already drunk, you don’t become sober.  Instead, you achieve a much more keen awareness of how incoherent you are.  It’s called coffee-boarding and is outlawed by several international accords signed by everyone but the United States.

The relationship of coffee and alcohol to the truth is easily demonstrated by the degree to which various world religions have grappled with either or both.  Islam banned alcohol, and Muslims became coffee addicts, as did fundamentalist Christians though their coffee is not nearly as good.  AA meetings would be intolerable without coffee.  The Mormons banned both coffee and alcohol, which is why they wound up in Utah, though somehow Coca-Cola escaped the ban despite its (post-cocaine) base in coffee’s essential force, caffeine.  The Buddhists call for people to avoid intoxication by alcohol or stimulants, but they don’t make it inflexible.  This sounds like a pretty good idea, except that it’s impossible, which is the point.

The Tea Lounge, Park Slope

repurposing an old garage, the Park Slope way

The photos for this post were taken in the Tea Lounge, a venerable institution in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, the neighborhood that everyone (else) in New York loves to hate, according to the local newspaper.

The original shop was located in the South Slope on 7th Avenue but had to close a while back due to increasing rents, leaving the larger Union Street shop (pictured here) as the flagship in the heart of the neighborhood.  (Another Tea Lounge has opened in Cobble Hill, a couple nabes over on the other side of the Gowanus Canal.)

Every morning, it begins to fill up with freelancers of every type imaginable – writers, designers, editors, bloggers, people looking for jobs – who stay there all day sipping coffee and making the American economy what it is (hey, they’re telecommuting).  One morning a week (which one has rotated over time) the place fills up with mommies and nannies and toddlers when Lloyd comes to sing for the kids.  Those of us who’re working (including the staff) double down, shut our ears, and keep on working.  The place features in Amy Sohn’s satirical send-up of (and not-entirely-ironic homage to) Park Slope mommyhood, Prospect Park West, as the “Teat Lounge,” so-called for the ubiquitous nursing of infants that goes on there to the soundtracks of Neil Young, Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, and the occasional contemporary indie-groove (think Jem).

A review by Elizabeth of the Anti Tourist describes the Tea Lounge like this:

Studious laptop users sat beside romancing couples and chatty friends and I have to say, between licking the whipped frosting off of my OREO cupcake and sipping a glass of Riesling, I was immediately at ease–especially when my friend bought me a second glass. So yes. Conclusively, I like Tea Lounge. Is it a perfect place to work? Eh. Maybe not. Is it a good place for a date or a drink with a friend? Definitely.

Notes and Credits

All photographs by the author.

Thomas Pynchon on coffee in Mason and Dixon (New York:  Henry Holt, 1997) page 467 for the first quotation and 305 for the second. It’s an historical novel that follows the eighteenth century British astronomers Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon throughout their lives, from their early collaborations in England and South Africa through their pioneering work to survey the border between the Pennsylvania and Maryland colonies from 1763 to 1768.  As novels go, it’s a wonderfully comic buddy film with a touching ending that reaches deep into the emotions surrounding friendship and fatherhood.

Stephen Johnson in The Invention of Air:  A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2008) provides rollicking imagery of the confluence of coffee, truth, alcohol, rocket science, tobacco, and the Enlightenment.  The thesis is simple:  replacing beer with coffee as a way to avoid bad water propelled the Enlightenment foward with clear thinking at long last.  Of the London Coffee House, the meeting place of Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestly, and other men of science and revolution, Johnson wrote (p. 17)—

The London Coffee House lay in St. Paul’s churchyard, a crowded urban space steps from the cathedral, bustling with divinity students, booksellers, and instrument makers.  The proximity to the divine hadn’t stopped the coffeehouse from becoming a gathering place for some of London’s most celebrated heretics, who may well have been drawn to the location for the sheer thrill exploring the limits of religious orthodoxy within shouting distance of England’s most formidable shrine.  On alternating Thursdays, a gang of freethinkers – eventually dubbed “The Club of Honest Whigs” by one of its founding members, Benjamin Franklin – met at the coffeehouse, embarking each fortnight on a long, rambling session that has no exact equivalent in modern scientific culture.

It no doubt would be interesting for Mr. Johnson to survey the clientele at the Tea Lounge and find out what revolutions are brewing for the near future here.

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Filed under fiction, freedom, ideas, individuality, life, Park Slope, philosophy, politics, revolution, struggle, truth

The truth and Twitter, part 3: The Swarm

bees-2

Act 1:  The buzzing of keyboards

The 140 Characters Conference was held at the New World Stages in New York on June 16-17, 2009.  The New World Stages are a large complex of five stages seating different audience sizes, up to about 500 people, along with lounges, lobbies, and galleries.  Much of it is underground – one who’s never been there is quite unprepared for what he or she will find once inside the doors and down the escalator.

In the theatres, the seats rise on a steep gradient.  Everything is painted black, and the lighting makes anything on stage come out into the setting, seeming to float in space, vividly in color.

During the conference, I was distracted by a low hum in the background: the sounds of fingers on keyboards.  At least half the audience had their laptops open and were tapping away at all kinds of messages, dozens of Tweets being unleashed as each speaker spoke about the world of Twitter and Tweeting from some different point of view.

The hum was distant and faraway, sounding as though it came from some hollowed out source not quite in the room.  It was enchanting, if in an industrial kind of way, bringing to my mind in a Proustian moment an incident that was altogether different and yet fundamentally similar.

Act 2:  One dog, one man, and thousands of bees

On a sunny spring day in April of 2008, I laid down with Duke under a gnarly, knotted, scrubby, runty tree.  There we rested for some time, children (including my own son) playing nearby, blue sky and warm yellow sunlight all around.

bee-tree

I noticed a bee flying just over me.  It wasn’t trying to touch me, though it came close.  As it buzzed off, I saw another coming down, slowly descending – then another, and another.  Suddenly, hundreds of bees reminded me of World War II photographs of paratroopers, but unlike paratroopers, no bees landed on us.  They came close and then flew off.

In the air above, I heard the low grade, ambient sound of buzzing.  Unlike anything I’d ever heard, it was assuredly distant, warm, and safe.  An aural blanket covering the scene, enchanting in a distinctly pre-industrial kind of way.

Act 3:  Enter the Queen

I sought a pattern in their behavior, and I soon found one.  Each bee – after buzzing around in an inert, hovering, apparently directionless state – slowly made its way to an extended branch of that knotted tree.  The swarm began packing itself on one part of the branch, growing from a small ball of bees to an enormous, undulating bulb.  A huddled, tired mass, to be sure.

Swarms like this occur when the Queen decides it’s time to move the whole the colony to a new home, or when a new Queen is born and leaves with part of the old colony – her brothers and sisters and not her offspring – in order to establish a new one.  Somewhere beneath the mass of bees above me was the Queen, who would be vulnerable until they built a new home.

Act 4:  Of the social organism

In the Queen, the insect colony becomes incarnate and we see that very magic trick that occurs again and again in nature:  the metaphysical made real.  To live or die as an individual bee makes sense only as a function of the Queen’s existence.  She alone carries the source, yet she cannot exist alone, without her offspring.  The social organism is a whole that has no physical being in itself, but is instead a thing greater than sum of its irreducible, individual parts, each of which will fight to the death to protect the Queen.

The social impulse, according to Donald Ingber, is something we can see in fractals throughout organic nature, beginning with bacteria, single-cell based colony creatures, cellular cooperation in larger organisms, insects, and possibly ourselves.

One group of Argentine ants may have broken the geographical barrier between kinship and colony.  These ants have created a kind of mega-colony that exists in North America, Europe, and Japan.  Even though they live across such vast distances, they behave like ants who live in one colony, refusing to fight each other and yet ruthlessly destroying non-kin ants they find in their way.  It is the “largest of its type ever known for any insect species, and could rival humans in the scale of its world domination.”  Interestingly, these ants were able to establish such distant colonies because people, however unwittingly, carried them there.

Human beings are the only large animal that has managed to populate the world in numbers and social structures that can be compared to the social insects – ants, bees, termites.  Our technologies – language, boats, smoke signals, printing presses, as well as the World Wide Web and Twitter – have enabled us to break the micro-social, hunter-gather barrier and form true social organisms.

Act 5:  Living in the land of ideas

Unlike ants or bees, however, we may be creating a new kind of meta-social being that relies on the very gap between the individual and social organisms.  In that gap, we remain as individuals happily, fruitfully, and contentedly human in the smallish communities that make our lives meaningful.  Exploring that gap was the whole point of the 140 Characters Conference, as it is of the plethora of commentary on Twitter and social media that one can find all over the Web, from those who damn Twitter for destroying thoughtful cultural production to those who celebrate and explain its benefits.

Further distinguishing ourselves from social insects, each Twitterer and his or her followers constitute a kind of spontaneous swarm that exists only in cyberspace.  Unlike the swarm of bees that I witnessed overhead last year, one very busy bee in Twitter can be part of many swarms, in addition to being the Queen of his or her own.  These swarms are multiple, derivative, tumescent, and utterly human.

In the buzz of Twitter, our ideas themselves become protagonists.  As Jay Rosen, one of the more thoughtful mediators of the phenomenon puts it,“Twitter keeps me in touch with people who are friends of my ideas. I know about their projects and current obsessions; they know about mine.” Todd Chaffee, a digital media expert, goes so far as to call Twitterspace “the global mind.”  One blogging group, The Hive Mind, is comprised of 5 science writers who actively swarm around topics and blog their work.

William Saletan, Slate’s prolific blogger on science and the human condition, observes a migration going on between dual and overlapping worlds of physical experience and cybercommunication, as we “shift our mental attention and our comfort zone from the physical to the digitally enhanced environment.

He notes such people are “lost in invisible worlds,” but that’s not true.  They’re living in the spaces between very real and tangible worlds, seen and unseen, building swarms and with them the ethereal sounds of buzzing keyboards humming in the background of everyday life, as audible now to the rest of us as presumably the sounds of automobiles once were to our great-grandparents’ generation.

Dénouement

I doubt we’ll ever truly understand ourselves as a social organism.  We are biologically individual creatures, and we perceive the world through individual minds, even when our perception is helped along by the grand edifice of knowledge and social consciousness that helps us understand the world.

Yet solipsism isn’t what it used to be.

We needn’t be as depressed and desperate as Sartre or Morrissey, nor as arrogant as Richard Dawkins, in order to understand how the gap between self and other makes us who we are.  That gap is the place of creation:  of all art, science, technology, storytelling, representation, and myth-making.  Einstein, unicorns, cave paintings, and Twitter all come from the same urge to touch the whole, and in these bursts of creativity we see truth and beauty and all that makes our short time in the conscious world as good, or bad, as it can be.

Notes and credits

A special thanks goes to Marcia Stepanek, a friend and colleague whose Cause Global blog chronicles how new developments in technology and communications affect the worlds of philanthropy and cause-based action.  She invited me out to the 140 Characters conference which made my observations on Twitter possible.  You can also see her blog postings at Pop!Tech and the Stanford Innovation Review.

On the micro-social, hunter-gatherer societies:  For people, these are the smallish, tribal societies that were the basic form of human social organization for most of our history, say from the time we began living on savannahs until the advent of large, social agriculture.  This covered a time period of roughly a million years or more, depending on how you want to define human beings.  In the animal world, wolves, lions, elephants, wasps, and a few other animals still use this form of social organization.  Some of the writers I’ve read on this period of our history are Jared Diamond, in The Third Chimpanzee and Guns, Germs, and Steel, his blockbuster on technology and change in the social organization.  Also quite interesting is Colin Tudge, The Time Before History, which examines human history and the impact of people on the planet for the last 5 million years.  Tudge’s book is good fodder for thinking about global warming in a very long-vue sense.

William Saletan’s posting which I quote above was not about Twitter, but rather about Blackberry and cell phone usage.  Interestingly, a search of Saletan’s blog at Slate for “Twitter” brings back no results.  Full disclosure:  his blog, “Human Nature,” has been a source of inspiration for a number of years.

Chris Weingarten’s presentation at the 140 Characters Conference was one of the more raucous and interesting.  Among his provocations was this:  “Crowd sourcing kills art,” and I reference him above as a critic of Twitter, who is also a constructive, critical user of it.  At @1000TimesYes, Weingarten is reviewing 1000 CD’s on Twitter, even while he provides a very pointed view on the negative impact of Twitter on cultural production. Weingaretn’s blog is called Poisson d’Avril.  Here you can see the Twitter reviews and appreciate the minimalist form of review on your own, such as the review of one of my favorites, Green Day, “If the world ends tonight, Green Day made the album of the year.”  Or the more esoteric pan of someone whose music I have also enjoyed, Regina Spektor, “In New York, even our twee is meta.#4.5.”  Gonna have to find the album just to figure out what he means, though I have an idea.

Counterpoint:  Solipsism isn’t what it used to be, but for Chris Weingarten and lots of others, social media like Twitter have the ironic effect of increasing solipsism by creating flocks of people telling each other “all about me.”  It’s a topic I am thinking about.

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