Tag Archives: revolution

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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E/F – The glass of history

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“We do not draw the moral lessons we might from history … In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind …  History consists for the greater part of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites which shake the public with the same.”

This passage from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, written as the French Revolution began in 1789, is shot through with contradiction, like Burke himself.  It takes a little more time to digest than a shot of Santayana – Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it – or the oft-cited quip, We learn from history that we learn nothing from history, which is often attributed (erroneously, it seems) to George Bernard Shaw.  But it’s worth it, because Burke got it right.

Notes and Credits:  Burke and history and quotations

This quotation from Burke is taken from the Google books archive, which features the 2nd Edition of the Reflections on the Revolution in France, printed in London for J. Dodsley, M.DCC.XC (1790), pp. 207-08.

Burke’s writing fleshed out the impassioned complexity of his own life and commitments.  As a member of parliament in the 1770s, he was a staunch supporter of the American Revolution, something of a libertarian.  With the fall of the Bastille, however, he became enraged at the treatment of the French royal family and the disregard for history and tradition by the revolutionaries and their Enlightenment muses.

In the Reflections, he seems to predict the horror that would follow in the “Reign of Terror,” as well as the problems of revolution in general, and this work became the foundation of modern conservatism.  Interestingly, the degree to which a conservative relies on Burke in his or her own thinking is the line between the intellectual side of the movement (George Will, David Brooks, Thomas Sowell) and the populist mobs (Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh) that one such as Burke would so rightly disown.  (Note:  George Will’s use of Burke to attack blue jeans is just silly, but Will has earned it.)

A searchable, copyable, full text of Burke’s Reflections is available here.  As a life long leftist, I don’t share the commitments that George Will and David Brooks have, but I do admire complex thinking and impassioned writing.  As Sina Odugbemi points out, Burke’s supposed “conservatism” was really about finding the appropriate – and constant – means for reform of the state:  “You reform in order to conserve; without reform you cannot really conserve a political system.”  If only the opponents of health care reform had the tact and intellect of Burke.

In response to a call-out on Facebook to find out where the G. B. Shaw statement mentioned above came from, my friend Katie replied with:

I tried to use the power of the internets, and what the internets are telling me is that I should infer that it is a popular misattribution. It’s not on his Wikiquote page, but it was on the Anonymous Wikiquote page for a while–if you look at the talk page someone mentioned a similar quote attributed to Otto von Bismarck. Here is an actual political scientists saying it’s popularly attributed to Hegel: http://bit.ly/1Xp8RD .

Notes and Credits:  The teacup

The Chinese teacup in the photograph is half-filled with lukewarm jade tea.  It belongs to Kaoru Wang, a friend who responded to my call-out for photos of half-filled glasses in the first E/F posting.  The teacup has been in her family for “years and years and years.”  She photographed it on a pretty carpet of unknown origin.  She sent another photograph showing the cup with its cap, which lets you keep the tea warm while taking your time to drink it over pleasant conversation or in reflective solitude.

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Teacup, with cap

The tea itself was given to Kaoru by a friend who left his family’s tobacco business in order to build a tea company in Vancouver, bringing his knowledge and experience with leaves into a concern that could contribute positively to the health and well-being of his customers.  Among his clients are some of the most prestigious hotels around the world.

In her note to me about the teacup and its surroundings, Kaoru wrote that it is “comforting to reflect how much history and warmth there is in the most basic of items,” a sentiment that drives my own writing here and elsewhere.  Kaoru’s observations about life, her experiences, and her work can be found here.  She is currently making a film about education and change called “The Killer App,” which she writes about in several places, including the film’s blog under its previous title, “Something Far Finer.”

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... with persimmons and more of Roosevelt Island

Through the window, behind the teacup, we have a blurred view of Roosevelt Island, a 2 mile long sliver of land in the East River between Manhattan and Queens.  A self-contained family farm from the late 1600s to 1828, it was known as Blackwell’s Island (after its owners) for most of its modern history, being named for FDR only in 1973.  After the Blackwells sold the island to the city in 1828, it was given over to “a long succession of institutions and hospitals,” which included a lunatic asylum (“The Octagon,” so called for its signature building); a hospital; a Smallpox laboratory (The Strecker Laboratory); and a prison that at one time or another housed Boss Tweed, Emma Goldman, Mae West, and Billie Holiday.

In 1969, the city leased the island to the State of New York Urban Development Corporation, which has created a unique urban community on the island.  Home to about 12,000 people today, the island is closed to car traffic and accessible by bus and tram.  The Roosevelt Island tram is a notable piece of New York architecture, frequently featured in films and television (CSI: New York, City Slickers, The Professional, Spider-Man, Cold Souls, and others).  The residential buildings have innovative designs – such as duplex (multi-story) apartments that make is possible for the elevators to stop only every 3 floors.  In the spirit of contemporary wealth-and-consumption-driven governance and planning, The Octagon has been restored and is now a high-end apartment community with a mall and a lot of solar panels.

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The truth and Twitter, part 1: The Mix Tape

twitter-iran1

The truth will be digitized.

Last week, I went to the 140 Characters Conference here in New York.  There, hundreds of people met to explore how Twitter, new media, and micro-blogging are disrupting life these days.  People were asking important questions of all this new technology:  What do we get out of it? Is it changing anything that matters in any interesting way?  Where’s it going?  What does it mean?

The conference couldn’t have been more timely, though this was completely an accident of fate:  On the very days of the meeting, June 16 and 17, the Iranian people were using Twitter, cell phones, and other inventions to coordinate and narrate a national uprising to protest the (allegedly) fraudulent results of the recent presidential elections.  The story is available only over the internet, because Iranian control of the press and media have made it impossible for regular journalists to cover the events on the ground.  Thus we turn to Twitter and bloggers to understand what’s going onHuffington Post’s Nico Pitney is singularly inserting himself into the moment by providing the only comprehensive, live blog of the event.

These are the largest and most disruptive public demonstrations since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when masses of Iranians overthrew the US-backed Shah of Iran.  The Iranian Revolution was one of the few documented true revolutions (to use a political science term!), in which the structure of society itself, and not merely the regime, was changed in a rapid convulsion of political will.

Something similar might be happening today.

The events of 1979 have an interesting parallel to the present, for the earlier Revolution was spurred along by the innovative application of a radical new technology that not only subverted the regime but also fit neatly into the lifestyles and habits of regular Iranians.  The new technology was accessible to everyone, regardless of education, age, gender, or geographical location.  I am referring, of course, to cassette tape recordings, which in the 1970s took the entire world on a quantum leap of do-it-yourself cultural production, re-production, and mashing-up.

In the West, this took the form of the mix tape.  We used the songs of our favorite bands to declare love or war, to apologize for insensitivity, to make a stand, break up, explain any of the preceding, or simply state the case for plain, animal lust.   The truly radical could even place Yes, The Clash, and Air Supply on the same tape, just to make a point.  The mix tape reached its all-time high with Nick Hornby’s novel, High Fidelity, in the mid-1990s, which was later immortalized on the silver screen with John Cusak at the very moment in time when the cassette tape itself was tossed into the dustbin of history by the arrival mix-CDs, MP3 playlists, and (a few years later) the iPod.

At the same time that mix tapes reshaped the possibilities for personal expression in the West, Iranians were gathering in private, often hidden, rooms to listen to cassette tapes of sermons by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a prominent religious leader who was exiled from Iran in 1964.  Khomeini took refuge first in Iraq, which has a large (majority) population of Shiite Muslims, and later in France.  His sermons were smuggled into Iran, where they met a large audience, hungry for his words.

Khomeini’s message was both religious and social.  He married basic Islamic piety to a consciousness of poverty, economic injustice, and outrage at the atrocities of the Shah’s violently repressive state.  The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was deeply tied to Islam’s notions of charity and essential human equality (not the same as “freedom” in any Western sense), tenets of belief that the Shah’s regime violated so openly and egregiously. Cassette recordings overcame the literacy barrier and brought this message to wide audiences that might have missed him had he been restricted to paper texts and photocopies.  Cassette tapes were the samizdat of the Islamic world in the 1970s.  Anyone could listen.

Cassette tapes allowed the Iranian opposition to gather, communicate, and plan for a better day.  When that day came, in the heady rebellion of 1978-79, it seemed as if the world exploded, just like it did this week as Iran commanded center stage everywhere.  It’s no small coincidence, it might be added, that some of the chief protagonists of the present turmoil – Ayatollah MontazeriMir Hossein Mousavi, and Hashemi Rafsanhani were there in 1979, in similar roles, only as much younger people.

So Twitter brings us full circle, from cyber space and cell phones – whose ubiquitous flip-top form bears more than a passing resemblance to the original Star Trek Communicator – back to cassette tapes.  Déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once noted.

Today, Twitter and cell phone videos are our cassette tapes of Iranian change, bringing us the haunting images of people shouting Allahu Akbar from the rooftops at night, just like they did in 1979.  Then, as now, regular people sang the traditional Muslim declaration, “God is great,” to indict the regime in power.

That’s the original cultural source of change in Iran.

Note

This is the first of 3 postings on “The truth and Twitter.”  More to come…

Credits

Opening photo:  www.life.com/image/ugc1002722/in-gallery/28782/eyewitness-from-tehrans-streets.  LIFE has several dramatic series of photographs from the current events; other photographs are here. Looking at these photos, I can feel, in my bones, what “history” means.

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