The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

That Special Feeling.

What if you could drink a lot without having to worry about a hangover? Well, you can, if you stick to drinking water or milk or even coffee or basically anything non-alcoholic—heck, even if you drink windshield cleaning fluid you probably won’t have a hangover, although you’re also unlikely to still be around the next day to report on the effects. The thirty-eight months of 2020 have also left all of us pretty hung over even before we could start the New Year’s celebrations. I’ve also heard it said that a twenty dollar bottle of vodka and an eighty dollar bottle of vodka will taste the same; the difference is how you feel the next morning. One way or another you’re gonna pay for it. Anyway a British scientist has been working on a synthetic alternative to alcohol that not only promises no hangover but also that you can’t get drunk—it promises a relaxing effect, making people more sociable and chatty but it’s designed so the effect is supposed to be limited: drinking more isn’t going to make you any more intoxicated.

It sounds like science fiction, maybe because it has been: on Star Trek synthehol was—or is, I guess, since technically it happens in the future—supposed to be an alternative to real alcohol that provides a warm buzz without excessive drunkenness or hangovers and less time required to sober up. And it’s supposed to be so much like the real thing only certain very discerning starship engineers, who also happen to be Scottish, can tell the difference. Still I think there’s another question that’s not being answered: what about other species? That’s a question not even Star Trek bothers with but is one answered in Larry Niven’s Tales of The Draco Tavern, a collection of stories set in a fictional spaceport bar in Siberia, and it’s hard to imagine a place that needs a bar more than a spaceport. A hangover is nothing compared to the jet lag of a few trillion miles. Niven uses the casual encounters between aliens and humans as a way to delve into pithy philosophical issues but what I find intellectually intoxicating is the detail that various species from around the galaxy all have their own ways of getting hammered. Humans have alcohol, some aliens get a buzz from beef consommé, some imbibe radioactive rocks, however that works, and some enjoy a low voltage electrical charge. That last one, actually, doesn’t sound that unusual. There was a kid in one of my high school shop classes who got a charge out of hooking up with a small generator, and I guess that’s one way to keep the spark in your relationship.

To get back to the original subject, though, I’m not sure an alternative to alcohol is such a good idea. For one thing no matter how harmless it seems there’s someone out there who’ll find a way to abuse it—probably that kid from my high school shop class. And I’ve found that it’s possible to have a drink without the hangover. It’s called moderation. Yes, I’ve also said that everything taken to excess is bad for you, including moderation, but if you have a hangover that’s your body’s way of telling you not to have so much next time. And it’s a good reminder that excess should be reserved for special occasions. For instance one late December morning several years ago I was in a liquor store picking up something to ring out the old year and see in the new one with a hangover when I heard a young man ask, “Do you have any Moet & Chandon?” I was feeling pretty sociable and chatty because I’d had a few more cups of coffee than usual and I couldn’t resist blurting out, “Yes! She keeps it in a little pretty cabinet. Let them eat cake she says, just like Marie Antoinette.”

Everybody in the place looked at me like I’d been drinking windshield cleaning fluid. And since it was a special occasion I invited them to come to my house so I could yell at them to get off my lawn.


Swan Dive.

Why don’t we eat swans? I thought I’d jump right in with that question since it’s been on my mind lately. The holidays have become a time for turkey although in Britain at least the goose used to be traditional, and in fact one year for Christmas my mother cooked a goose, which was different from the time my father’s goose was cooked because he forgot their anniversary, but you know what they say: what’s good for the gander is good for making a silk purse out of a sheep’s clothing if you have your cake too, but that’s another story. The main thing I remember about the goose my mother cooked is when it was served it was literally swimming in its own fat so it went from being waterfowl to being fatterfowl, which like the most insulting thing that can happen to a goose aside from being turned into foie gras.

The other thing I remember about the goose is it tasted pretty much like chicken, which got me thinking about the birds we eat. Some are off-limits for obvious reasons. Vultures, condors, and ravens are carrion eaters which is why we carry on whenever we see a group of them hanging around, although some of us have been known to eat crow—if, for instance, we forget a spouse’s anniversary. Hawks and falcons have traditionally been used for hunting so they’ve been useful in getting food rather than being it. Most small birds aren’t eaten because, well, they’re small, although the French eat ortolans, and somewhere there’s a recipe for two dozen blackbirds baked in a pie and, based on what I’ve heard, they’re served still alive. The dodo didn’t go extinct because it was stupid. It was wiped out because sailors who stopped off at the isle of Mauritius ate so many of them and their eggs.

We also eat ducks, and even eat chickens stuffed inside of ducks stuffed inside of turkeys, a pretty tasty combination although I’m a little wary of eating anything that starts with the word “turd”.

So what is it that makes swans special? Yes, they look pretty, but so do Canada geese and, well, as far as I know no one eats those either. Anyway it is probably their looks that saved them. For a long time they were favored by royalty and therefore protected—or at least it was only royalty who could eat them, although at least one Victorian cookbook has a recipe for roasted swans, although they reportedly have a fishy flavor and most people prefer their fish to taste like fish and their fowl to taste like chicken.

Then there’s the mythology. There was Zeus who seduced Leda in the form of a swan, eventually leading to the Trojan War, which makes it sound like Leda would have been better off grilling the swan than sleeping with it. And then there’s Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling which is kind of like a swan itself: beautiful from a distance but it gets worse the closer you get. It’s a nice idea that for the “duckling” things get better but he doesn’t really do anything except get older. If life were that easy we could all just spend those awkward teenage years in isolation which, now that I think about it, doesn’t sound so bad.

There’s also E.B. White’s The Trumpet Of The Swan, which I think I got for Christmas the same year my mother cooked the goose. It was his last novel—sort of a swan song, although he’d live another fifteen years after it was published, and follows a trumpeter swan named Louis who’s born mute so his father steals him an actual trumpet which, like his namesake the great Satchmo, he learns to play. And he goes to school, works at a summer camp where he saves a kid from drowning, composes his own music, does a pretty good cover of “Old Man River”, and tips a waiter who brings him watercress sandwiches.

Now there’s a swan I’d hesitate to eat even though he has good taste.

Food For Thought.

Dog’s breakfast-Disorderly, messy. This British slang term originated in the late Sixteenth or early Seventeenth century with fox hunting and the hastily thrown together breakfast dogs were served before setting out.


Couch potato-A person who sits around watching TV. American in origin, apparently from the early 1970’s, the term may derive from the appearance of slothful individuals but also from the growing consumption of potato chips during the Watergate hearings.


Piece of cake-Extremely easy. The exact origins are unclear but use became more widespread with the development and distribution of commercially manufactured cakes in the 1920s that led most people to binge on whole cakes.


Tough nut to crack-A very difficult problem or undertaking, or a difficult person. Probably derived from nature and the difficulty of cracking certain types of nuts. The first known appearance in print is from A.F. Doni’s Morall Philosophy, published 1570, but came into wider use during World War II when German Enigma machines used Brazil nut code.


Selling like hot cakes-Extremely popular, in high demand but with limited quantities. Of North American origin the earliest recorded use is from 1839, but why hot cakes specifically is unclear.


Fruit Basket turnover-Complete disruption of the established order. This term derives from the children’s game of the same name and is primarily used by spinster history teachers from Poughkeepsie.


Cream of the crop-The very best of a particular group. Presumably derived from the fact that cream rises to the top of unhomogenized milk it reached urban areas in the mid-19th century with the rising popularity of creamed corn, creamed spinach, the less successful creamed eggplant, and the disastrous creamed cotton.


Icing on the cake-An added bonus to something that it already good. The origins are obscure since cake without icing is just chocolate bread.


In a pickle-A dilemma or difficulty. Derived from the use of empty pickle barrels to hold local lotteries with unpicked tickets left “in the pickles”.


Gravy train-A means of making a great deal of money with very little effort. Derived from actual trains that carried gravy West to feed Mack Sennet’s insatiable appetite for pork drippings.


Spill the beans-To reveal a secret. This is derived from a 19th century practice of storing prophylactics in containers of dried beans but since it was the Victorian era no one admitted to ever having sex.


Going cold turkey-To quit a bad habit (usually smoking, drinking, or drugs) immediately rather than gradually stepping down. Possibly derived from a term in a satirical British magazine from 1877 it may also refer to a belief that tryptophan causes unconsciousness making it impossible to indulge, unless your bad habit is oversleeping.


Putting money in a Wurlitzer and getting a pita bread sandwich of rotisserie-cooked meat—self explanatory, derived from going to Greek restaurants on Thursday when the musicians took the night off.


Feeling Catty.

Animals pop up regularly in Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. There are rats in The Pit And The Pendulum, the orangutan in The Murders In The Rue Morgue, a gold bug in, well, The Gold Bug and deathwatch beetles in The Tell-Tale Heart, and a horse in Metzengerstein. Poe’s famous raven was, in an early draft, an owl, and in The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether there’s a woman who thinks she’s a “chicken-cock” and I never want to see that on a KFC menu, but that’s another story.

And then there’s The Black Cat. It’s the first Poe story I ever read, and I distinctly remember sitting in the school library giggling like a fiend not because it was funny–it’s not–but because it was just so over the top gory and horrifying I couldn’t believe it.

It’s the ultimate Poe story, really, drawing not just on animals but other themes from his work: someone sealed in a wall, as well as a narrator who tries to shut off his violent impulses, repressing them until they erupt. There’s no moral, no message, no point really. The narrator barely makes an attempt to justify his actions and clearly feels no remorse, because, as Stephen Peithman says in The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, “the narrator sees everything in terms of black or white There is no middle ground.” He’s done evil things and therefore can’t see himself as anything but an evil person.

Maybe there is something to it, though. At the beginning of the story the narrator and his wife have acquired “birds, gold-fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat”. The cat’s name is Pluto and the narrator says he’s “sagacious to an astonishing degree”. Poe almost always uses the word “sagacious” ironically but here it seems to be sincere. Pluto’s a smart cat and his reward for it is the narrator cuts out one of his eyes then hangs him. The narrator’s house burns and even though the cat itself was cut down and thrown through the house’s window during the fire an after-image of a hanged cat is left imprinted on the wall.

Or is it? Supposedly others see it but we’re not exactly dealing with a guy whose word can be trusted here.

He and his wife get another cat–this one also missing an eye, and also black, but with a white mark on its chest. And the mark changes.

The reader will remember that this mark, although large, had been originally very indefinite; but, by slow degrees — degrees nearly imperceptible, and which for a long time my Reason struggled to reject as fanciful — it had, at length, assumed a rigorous distinctness of outline. It was now the representation of an object that I shudder to name — and for this, above all, I loathed, and dreaded, and would have rid myself of the monster had I dared — it was now, I say, the image of a hideous — of a ghastly thing — of the GALLOWS ! — oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime — of Agony and of Death !

I’ll let you look up a picture of a gallows if you want but let’s just say it seems a little too specific and elaborate to be a mark you’d see in an animal’s fur. It seems pretty obvious the narrator is projecting.

Or maybe that’s just what Poe wants us to see. Or what I think Poe wants us to see. Who can really say? When I was in fifth grade–just a few years before I read The Black Cat for the first time a kid brought a Ouija board to school. On a bright sunny fall day we convinced ourselves we were communicating with the spirits of the dead. There was a fence behind the school and woods beyond it, and that afternoon we all saw a face in a distant tree. One girl even said it winked at her, and I’m giggling like a fiend here because to this day I firmly believe we were only seeing what we wanted to see.

One Star Review.

This place is, like, really really off the beaten track. We wouldn’t have even found it if we hadn’t shut off the GPS. We started out on I-10 but it was late afternoon and truckers were going by us in the fast lane like they’d lost their minds. We got off at an exit, I don’t remember which one, and just started driving until it got dark. We were driving slow along this back road and could smell some kind of plant, or maybe it was churros or something. And we heard an old church bell off in the distance.

This place was really brightly lit and it looked nice so we thought it would be a good place to stop. Even after we saw the big gold Mercedes Benz up on blocks out front. We just thought that was funny. It didn’t seem like your usual B&B but that’s what we liked about it. There was a woman standing right out in front and we both thought, places like this can be really great or they can be terrible. Or kind of meh.  

The front room was pretty nice too. They had, like, a ton of Tiffany lamps all around. All done up in what I guess would be 1920s style. The woman who met us at the door lit a candle and showed us to a room, which I especially thought was nice, very atmospheric, and there must have been some kind of party going on because we could hear voices down the hall saying “welcome, welcome.”

Here’s where things got kind of freaky. The room was nice, with Shaker style furniture, but there were mirrors on the ceiling. I swear, mirrors! On the ceiling! What was that about? And you know how hotels always used to have a Bible in the table next to the bed? Some still do but this place had The Magus by John Fowles. Maybe an English major or somebody stayed there last?

Our room had a nice window that looked out over the courtyard and there were a bunch of shirtless young guys out there dancing. Some guy in robes and a pointy hat like Gandalf I guess was playing a guitar out there and that’s what they were dancing to. Not that I’m complaining but they were kind of sweaty. It wasn’t loud but I wondered if they would keep going all night.

We were still looking at the room when the woman who checked us in said, “We are all just prisoners here of our own device,” and, wow, I got chills, but we just laughed it off. We figured it was, like the theme of the room or the place. Creepy but you go with it, you know?

They were still serving dinner so we went down. This guy in a navy double-breasted suit and a cap came over and asked if he could get us anything to drink. I asked for some wine and he said, “We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.” Well, I don’t know what that meant because I asked for the 2014 Merlot they had on the list. I guess they were out of it because they brought a couple of glasses of some rosé chardonnay, but they poured it over ice. I was like, what is this, 1976?

Then I guess there was some kind of special event because we were invited into another room in the back. This part…I don’t really want to talk about it. It was dark and I think they let a live pig or something loose in the room. They had given us these knives and there was a lot of screaming. We ran for the door and got out of there fast.

We went back to the front room and there was this, like, statue in there. We thought it was just a statue but it turns out it was a robot. It came on and said, “Good night, we are programmed to receive.” Then it sighed and said something about the diodes down its left side hurting and how it had a brain the size of a planet. It told us we could check out any time but we couldn’t leave which could make anybody paranoid if you think about it.

Well, we got out of there and I didn’t think anything about it until I just got the credit card statement and we’re still being charged! I’m writing this while I’m on hold trying to get it taken off our bill.

All this because we took a wrong turn at Albuquerque.  

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