A Dab of Luck?

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Elliot Engel, Author “A Dab of Dickens, a Touch of Twain.” (Photo credit: Asheboro Public Library)

(Or: How astrology seems to impact the pattern of literature)

Let me begin with a disclaimer: I do not buy much into the belief that where the stars are when you are born plays a large role in your development as a human being. I’m enough of a hard determinist to refrain from discounting the possibility, but I would think that the ability to measure what must be minute causal affects and their subsequent effects would be next to impossible. Having said that, we proceed.

I’m currently enjoying A Dab of Dickens, A Touch of Twain, a book by renowned lecturer Dr. Elliot Engel, in which the doctor follows the development of English-language literature from Chaucer to Hemingway. In each of the couple dozen biographical sketches, Engel shares pithy insights, wit, and just a dab of what went in to making the literary greats–well…literary greats.

One interesting point he raised is that lasting literary genius generally occurs in clusters of five or six authors who come onto the scene around the same year and exit in their own good time. Specifically, Elliot notes that great literary periods are born in five-to-six-year spans, with the birth dates of the authors clustered inside.

Examples of this phenomenon abound, but perhaps the most well-known cluster today entangles the Modernist greats.  Dos Passos (January, 1896) led the pack. He was followed promptly by Messrs. Fitzgerald (September, 1896), Faulkner (1897), and Hemingway (1899). Steinbeck provided a punctuation mark on the whole thing, being born on a cold February morn in 1902. According to Engel, following this explosion of literary genius, there wasn’t much in the way of lasting writers. And there certainly wasn’t a dearth of them.

That got me to thinking about the cultural relevance of great writers in their own day and how they seem to transcend the time in which they write by finding a universal relevance. And, relevance it is. With the glaring exception of Dos Passos, all of the modernists are well-remembered for both their books, their impact on society of their day, and their lasting value to the study of Literature. And note the capital-L literature, please.

I don’t know what the answer is to this conundrum. It’s hard to forget they were all alive and most of them fighting in World War I. Surely that had a cultural impact on them. But they all also felt what they had to say was important enough to warrant putting it down on paper and then asking people to pay them for the privilege of reading it. Say what you will, and remember, I’m speaking as both a journalist and a multi-published novelist, that takes cajones.

Then again, all of these people knew one another. They were, if not friends, at least colleagues. Maybe the literary atmosphere itself is part of the catalyst? I really don’t know. But looking at the best-selling writers today, I’m terrified of what the future holds for literary studies of the early 21st Century. The other day, I found a well-loved copy of The Notebook tucked in between Moby Dick and Madame Bovary at a local book fair. I’m certain it was either a misfiling on the part of an overworked volunteer or a change of heart from someone who realized they already have a well-loved copy of The Notebook next to their own copy of Moby Dick. Nevertheless, I have had a constant stream of nightmare visions of trudging into a bookstore when I’m seventy and finding the Classics section overrun with Danielle Steele and Nicholas Sparks.

The joys of a french press

English: French Press
A French press service. (Image via Wikipedia)

For years, I was one of those people who looked at the glass and steel lines of a French press sitting in the corner of a friend’s fancy-dancy kitchen with about the same look of condescension that I shot at countertop pasta machines. I mean, seriously, people. Why does a simple cup of coffee require special cups and surgical-grade pyrex and stainless to prepare?

Then Starbucks quit brewing my favorite variety. And, to be quite frank, what passes as brewed coffee in a Starbucks is much more aptly described as “burned coffee bean husks in muddy water.”

So I complained. That’s when the helpful barista  changed my life.

“Why don’t you order a French press?”

Surely she was joking. Who on earth would want one of those effete phallus-wannabees on their table? Certainly not me. I was anything but convinced, so she pressed on.

“Really, it’s great! I’ll give you one on the house.”

Now was I in a pickle! While I thought the French press was little more than a poncey affectation the Frogs used to mask an obviously depraved cultural turpitude, I had spent a king’s ransom in Starbucks over the years. Here was my opportunity to put one over on Starbuck and those dandy hairdressers all at once. Then I took a sip.

Sitting on the corner of my desk, right now, is the poncey coffee maker. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, and I most certainly didn’t buy one of those stainless numbers. No, mine is a much more reasonable plastic-and-glass model by Bodum. But it makes damned good coffee, even from crap beans. Every time I make a pot, coworkers flock to my desk, their cups perched in their open hands like something out of Dickens.

Now that I’ve had a press for about six months, I do have to admit I was wrong. There is something infinitely relaxing about the hands-on nature of making a press. The plunger slides–no, glides–the plunger glides down, leaving in its wake delicious refreshment. The glass beckons quietly from that shelf in the kitchen, “Hey…pick me.”

And sometimes, I imagine what happens when I leave the house and it’s just the kitchen utensils and my three cats.

They’re on the sofa, listening as the Bodum argues with the Keurig about which one makes a better cup.

I’m glad I’m not expected to settle that particular dispute. They can discuss it amongst themselves, when I’m not there.

The end of hatred on (our) airwaves?

(Or: Rush Limbaugh should just STFU.)

I believe we are witnessing the death of hatred on the public’s airwaves.

Let me start by saying that I will defend, to the death, the right of anyone to say anything they damned well please, so long as they do not represent a public threat (the classic “shouting fire” rule).  When Rush Limbaugh took to the airwaves on his nationally syndicated talk radio program and verbally attacked a Georgetown student because she wants her insurance to pay for birth control, he inadvertently taught us a valuable lesson.

This is America, where every citizen has a right to say whatever vile, hate-filled and disgusting things they can think of. Thank the Founding Fathers and the First Amendment for that right. Rush is absolutely protected from prosecution from the government for calling the student a slut, a whore, and several other equally unflattering and, frankly, misogynistic names.

But that doesn’t mean Rush is free from the effect of his words.

Today, national advertiser “The Sleep Train” pulled its ads from Limbaugh’s show, citing intense blowback from the mattress manufacturer’s customer base, which took to the interwebs to defend the young woman against Rush’s fury. The advertiser made what it believes to be the prudent decision to cease a voluntary affiliation with someone who spouts hatred and venom, as Rush did in his attack on the Georgetown student. This will cost Rush and his investors precious revenue and will cut, however insignificantly, into that $20 million he makes a year. To his credit, Rush has yet to call out The Sleep Train on their withdrawal from his program.

But Rush and his somewhat-smaller bank book is not where the real story lay. For that, one has to understand how syndicated radio works.

Talk radio operates on advertising revenues. Rush makes money because Sleep Train pays him to run its ads during his program. Affiliates pay Rush for the right to broadcast his show, in which Rush has a certain number of advertising minutes reserved for The Sleep Train and other show sponsors. The show comes down with gaps in Rush’s programming, which the individual affiliates hope to fill with advertising of their own — enough to pay the affiliate fee and to produce a profit  justify carrying his program.  Pay attention, because this is where it gets a little tricky.

Radio stations sell those ads to local businesses. Some stations also take part in regional or national advertising networks that ship them ads to fill space. So, without having any real input, Molly Mabry Realty and Joe’s Seafood Emporium are advertising on the Rush Limbaugh Show, whether they realize it or not.  So are some national companies, like Century 21.

And lest you think Century 21 is unconcerned about this dilemma, they took to Twitter today to confirm that they are in point of fact not a sponsor of the Rush Limbaugh Program, in direct response to the Georgetown Birth Control flap.

Now the affiliates are involved in revenue loss, perhaps they will start paying attention to what goes on their airwaves. Just maybe, they’ll take notice of Rush’s antics and rein in the Big Guy. Or, maybe, they’ll find out he can’t be reined in and they’ll just remove him from the airwaves all together. Either way, this is the start of something very different, very exciting and quite new. And Rush doesn’t get to complain about this. It’s simply the effect of the free market.

God bless the United States of America.

Wal-Mart, you’re still the Devil

A couple of weeks ago, I tweeted that Wal-Mart is the Devil. This morning, the company’s Twitter-monitor replied. Below is the e-mail I sent to the Twitter-monitor, who asked if there was anything that Wal-Mart could do to make my customer experience better.

To Whom it May Concern:
I recently received a tweet-reply to a comment I posted about the fact that your company is the Devil. Thank you for your concern about my recent experience at a Wal-Mart store. There are, in fact, things your company could do to make my customer experience better.

1.) Hire qualified people. The people you hire are the lowest common denominator of the lowest possible level of competence or initiative. Better people would make a better company. That would make for better customers.

2.) Hire more people. It would be one thing if the people were just incompetent. Your stores are ludicrously understaffed. This makes it doubly infuriating when, after wandering a store for 45 minutes looking for someone to direct you to whatever abandoned coal mine the toothpicks have been moved to, you find the person and they speak so poorly, are so uninterested in their jobs, and are so under-trained that your 45 minute search for help would have been more productive if you’d spent 45 minutes finding a tall edifice from which to throw yourself.

3.) Carry more than 1 variety of a product (in addition to the Greater Value brand, which is quality-shy, at best) and stock more than two of them.

4.) Quit removing self-checkouts. We already detest most of the employees in your company because of incompetence, rudeness, or unprofessional behavior. The one island of serenity is that moment when the polite, soothing and efficient computer voice welcomes us to Wal-Mart at the self-checkouts. When you eliminate those, turn them off, or don’t repair broken ones, that forces us to interface with the incompetent, mismanaged and (sadly) overworked cashiers that you guys just sprang from the county clink. That’s just bad form.

I could go on, but I think we both agree that to do so would be to waste my time and yours. After all, the chances of Wal-Mart actually attempting to fix any of the 2.8 trillion or so things that are wrong with the customer experience are next to zero.

Thank you again for your attention,

Michael DeVault