Sunday, September 28, 2014

I Remember Brunch

In one of my classes recently, a student timidly raised his hand.

“Professor, what was ‘brunch?’”

“Ah yes,” I replied, wisely stroking my beard. “Brunch. Twixt breakfast and lunch there was brunch. How well I remember it. Brunch, you see, was a way people got drunk on Sunday morning, and it was considered perfectly respectable.”

“How could that be?” asked the student.

“The world was different back then. People didn’t worry so much.”

“But how did it work?”

“Well, on Friday nights you went out and got schnockered. You spent Saturday morning and afternoon dealing with your hangover as best you could. There were all sorts of folk remedies. Coca-Cola with vanilla ice cream. Spicy chili with raw onions. Junk food. Black coffee. Alka-Seltzer. Worcestershire with a raw egg. Aspirin, of course. But the most historically significant folk remedy proved to be tomato juice.”

“Why was that?”

“Because,” I answered patiently, “a group of government scientists were working on a cure for the hangover, and one day someone cried, ‘Eureka,’ which means, ‘I have found it.’ Tomato juice, you see, is an ingredient in the Bloody Mary. And sure enough, if you drank a Bloody Mary on top of a hangover, the hangover went away. Like magic. It was believed that the Worcestershire combined with the fresh-ground pepper was what did it. Though some claimed it was the celery stalk. In fact, two or three Blood Marys helped even more.”

“What does all this have to do with brunch?”

“Patience is a virtue, Young Person. I am about to explain. One way or another, you got yourself ready for Saturday night. Friday night was sort of like winter break at school, while Saturday night was summer vacation, so to speak. By Sunday morning you were in no shape to deal with anything. So you got together with some friends or whomever and went to brunch.”

“And this was in the late morning?”

“Usually. Supposedly. But it could be mid-Sunday morning. In fact, it was not uncommon for people to pass out before noon on Sunday. But sometimes, too, it happened in early afternoon, by the time everyone got themselves together.”

“Would you eat anything?”

“Oh, of course. It was a meal, after all. People ordered fancy omelets with themes, like the Mexican Omelet, the Texas Omelet, or the Tex-Mex Omelet.”

“Were there egg white omelets?”

“Certainly not. People had it rough back then. You had to work hard just to keep a roof over your head. No one even heard of egg white omelets. You might as well ask if there were music videos.”

“So besides the omelets what was the big deal?”

“The omelets came with home fries and maybe refried beans with lots of hot sauce. And of course, toast. You never ordered white bread toast, as it wasn’t as nutritious as whole grain. Oh, and I almost forgot. To drink, you asked for ice water—probably a pitcher for the table—and a Bloody Mary. As was already explained, a second or third Bloody Mary may have been in order. Usually someone had to ‘break the ice,’ so to speak. Like maybe the first person ordered orange juice, and then the second person would also order orange juice, and then say, ‘No, wait a second—I think I’ll try a bloody Mary.’ Then the first person would say, ‘You know, that sounds good. Please change my orange juice to a Bloody Mary.’”

“Screwdrivers are made with orange juice. Did anyone ever order one of those instead?”

“Not often. Something about the Bloody Mary seemed more breakfast-like. Screwdrivers were considered uncouth for first thing in the morning or afternoon or whenever it was. They implied one had a drinking problem.”

“Did you ever drink anything else?”

“Sometimes just to be different people might order champagne cocktails, which also seemed brunch-like somehow.”

“Did they help with hangovers, too?”

“Indeed. Again, it was said to be the Worcestershire that did it. Since champagne cocktails were lighter, you needed four or five of them. Or even six.”

“How long did brunch last?”

“Usually a few hours. By the time it was over, everyone was ready to go home and nap for the rest of the day.”

“Did people wake up with hangovers?”

“Yes, on Sunday evening people awoke feeling terrible. But then it was considered proper to drink something else. Like straight whiskey with a beer chaser.”

“What about Monday morning?”

“What about it? People just plowed their way through it as best they could. It was considered a character building experience to have to go to work after a three-day drinking binge. Or as it was sometimes called, a lost weekend. You kids anymore—you don’t know how hard we had it back then. Xanax and Prozac hadn’t even been invented.”

“‘Character building’—what does that mean?”

“Becoming a stronger person.”

“Huh. You don’t say. Were there cars?”

“Yes, and also TV. But there was no cable, so you only got to pick from three main channels, plus some local networks.”

“How did people survive?”

“It was hard, Young Person. It was hard.”

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Doritos Theory

Is social anxiety disorder the new normal?

Speaking of boredom, I recently watched an episode of “Love American Style,” a cloyingly listless program from the early 70s that featured tepid vignettes about tepid relationships. It must have succeeded because it gave its audience permission to be lethargic. I know I was. Life, thy name is Doritos.

However, the episode I happened upon featured a young Diane Keaton. She and a man had been corresponding through letters, and finally meet in person. The intimacy of their correspondence vanishes when face to face. So she hits upon the idea to go into a different room, whereby they may slip notes to each other under the door. The End. Keaton lent the story a sweetness that made it more enjoyable than it should have been, and I could see why she became a star. 

But beyond the fair Ms. Keaton’s destiny meeting with my approval, I realized this tale prefigured our current state of high tech communication. What the couple was begging the universe for was email. And, of course, texting, chat rooms, home pages . . . oh, and I guess blogs. 

To show you how old I am, I remember when email first came out. At a university computer lab I would see these two people sending messages back and forth, even though they were sitting next to each other. “How pathetic,” I thought. “I’ll never learn how to do that.” Yeah, right. Just as I’d never get a VCR (remember those?) or a smart phone, or various other curiosities. Why even talk to someone on the phone—let alone in person—when you can just send them a message? Listening to college students talk to each other, I often hear them say things like, “You won’t believe what happened. I’ll text you about it later.”  Sometimes of course the students are in a hurry, but even if they had time to talk, it would appear they’d rather text.  

I don’t like texting—I have big, clumsy hands—but otherwise I have been as seduced as anyone else by our high tech world. I even have emailed someone sitting next to me. Likewise, it is easier to buy things online, or look up information through a search engine rather than go to an actual library. I can publish a book without having to “do lunch” with my editor. Anyone remember gas station attendants? Bank tellers? We can check out our own groceries so that we do not have to interact with a checkout clerk, and the fast food industry is becoming evermore fast—more automated. We are all too busy, too preoccupied, to bother with each other.

We hear a lot about how technology is ruining our ability to communicate; people do not know how to talk to each other anymore, and so forth. I would add a friendly amendment here:  in the pre-Internet universe, people did not necessarily communicate well, or at all.  And in many ways, the Internet makes more communication possible. Still, millions of people day by day communicate as much as possible through technological means rather than face to face, even when face to face is possible.

This posting is actually quite political, so I suppose I should get to the point. On Facebook (see, Internet?) I have made friends with people from a wide spectrum of political beliefs. So on a daily basis, I read both left- and right-wing calls for dramatic social change. Sometimes the word “revolution” is used. On the one hand, the Internet makes possible more political dialogue and exchange of information. I often sign online petitions. But when it comes to social change, the Internet has its limits.

Even the briefest glance through human history shows us that major social upheaval is not pretty. Revolution, for better or for worse, includes violence. The folks in control don’t just say, “You’re right, please take our power away.”  And though my crystal ball may prove to be fuzzy, I do not think virtual bloodshed will replace the real thing. To control a society, you have to control the forces of coercion, i.e., police and the military. We may send drones into battle, but it’s people that get blown up.

Social change of a revolutionary scale would require us getting off our duffs. We’d have to meet not just to organize, but also to form necessary strong bonds with each other. Otherwise, there is no incentive to make sacrifices for a greater good.That means no TV tonight, no chat rooms or Facebook.  And whether one is left or right of center, or even in the dead center (note the word “dead”), I simply cannot envision masses of people doing this. We are not willing to sacrifice our Doritos in front of the boob tube, let alone put our lives on the line.

Karl Marx predicted world communism. In a nutshell, he said that workers would increasingly be replaced by machines, so more and more people would be out of work. And when no one could buy what the machines produced, capitalism would topple, workers would unite, and so on. So far this has not happened. Maybe that makes you happy, or maybe that makes you sad. But one of the things Marx had no way of knowing was how much we would love our machines. They are our best friends.

Machines replacing humans in the work force? We all allow this to be the case about a million times a day. Whenever we use our computers, smart phones, or even now our watches to do something that used to require human interaction, we are making more jobs obsolete. We ask our leaders to “create more jobs,” without stopping to consider exactly what it is that out of work people should be paid to do.

So, is everyone ready to throw their smart phone in the trash? No, I didn’t think so. Religion is not the opiate of the masses, technology is. In fact, one of the things that can seem “weird” about religion is the thought of being part of a community. Spend time with people when I can be by myself? How crazy is that?

Machines do not only take away from the work force, although this of course is nothing to take lightly. They also are eating away at our basic need to bond with others of our species.  And if people cannot even be bothered to say hi to a checkout clerk, how can they be expected to make real sacrifices for the greater public good?

Pass the Doritos, please. And be quiet, my twelfth-favorite show is on.