An Elogy for Imbers

The clothes make the man, goes the old saying.  If this is the case, my prospects just got a lot worse. Yesterday I found out that Imber’s Men’s store in Edwardsville is closing up.

It was never much to look at – the wood-panel decor was reminiscent of a classic station wagon, and the suits hanging on the racks were obviously intended for men well past their prime.  Thus it was easy to pass up after a casual glance, especially for someone accustomed to rummaging through sales racks to find the odd sizes that my frame supports.

While I was killing time during one of April’s frequent and lengthy shopping excursions, I wandered in to Imber’s with an interest in finding a suit coat, as well as avoiding the antique store that had drawn April in.  An impeccably dressed man greeted me and introduced himself as Alan Legow, owner of Imber’s.  I didn’t know it until later, but this much more than a polite gesture- it was an opportunity for him to size me up.  I mentioned the suit jacket, and he whipped three coats out without asking me my size or preference.

It’s a bit of an affront to a shopper with modern sensibilities – I was a bit unnerved by such close attention, and itching to slink off to a sales rack.  Alan found me a coat that was good-looking, but a bit wide around the middle.  Part of the problem was the t-shirt I was wearing – it didn’t really fit like a button shirt would.  After a cursory glance at the shirt stock, Alan said he really didn’t have any shirts I could try on that would fit me properly.  Had I ever had a custom tailored shirt?, he inquired.

I haven’t ever really had a custom anything – all my suits and shirts were from the glorious sales rack, and fit me like a garbage bag.

That’s when I was hooked – he pitched, and I swung hard.  I didn’t have time that day for a full detail of measurements, but I promised to come back.

A few weeks later, I was ready.  For 45 minutes, Alan measured every dimension of my torso, asked me what style of cuffs I liked, how long the shirt should taper, what style back, whether or not to have breast pockets, monogram style, etc.  It turns out my right shoulder is a full inch lower than the left – I think it must be a casualty of playing tuba in the marching band for so many years.

While he was writing down my measurements, I was instructed to look through an enormous book of cloth samples.  Each was only about 2″ square, but there were hundreds of them, each with a letter after the name of the cloth.  I started with the A’s and B’s – simple prints, solid colors, smooth fabrics.  C’s and D’s were more intricate pattern, finer cloth, richer colors.  I found a J that was stunning – like no fabric I’d ever seen before.  He asked if I’d made a decision about the cloth, and I didn’t hesitate to whip out the sample of J that caught my eye.  He just smiled, and handed me another sheet of paper- the prices.  A’s and B’s cost about $90 for a whole shirt, C’s and D’s between $100-$200, and so on.  J fabrics were a cool $400 per shirt.

I found a great D fabric that fit the bill.  It would be about a month before the shirt was finished, and when the day came, it was like getting my first car.  The shirt was amazing – nothing has ever fit me so well.  The real magic was the feeling of power it gave me – I felt like a prince, ready to order my servants to bring the car around and grab me a cold beer while I wait.  Compared to retail, the shirts also cost a princely sum, but I tend to think of them as long-term investments. I have several now, I was married in one of Alan’s shirts, and God willing, I’ll be buried in one.

The whole experience is unorthodox, and it leaves me with the distinct impression that if this was the way clothes used to be purchased, then we are considerably worse off than our ancestors.  Maybe not everyone is or was like Alan – a man who was clearly educated and could have chosen any field, and tailored clothes because it is his passion.  Seeing someone derive true pleasure from their work makes you wonder why everyone can’t figure it out.

Imber’s was another one of those surprises that makes life more fun, and I would do well to be as happy and successful in my work as Alan was with his.

 

The Big Goodbye

It took me awhile to figure out what funerals are all about.  In this case, it didn’t take me this long because I’m slow, it’s just that at my age, funerals are a relatively rare occurrence.  Anyway, funerals are not about the dead – they could care less what happens, as far as I can tell.  Rather, funerals take place to reassure the living that a similar ceremony awaits them.

The realization hit me at my Great-Grandma’s funeral this summer.  First hand accounts of her parenting skills left a lot to be desired – as a mother, she was indifferent and negligent.  I only knew her as an elderly woman, but the stories I heard seemed accurate based on her actions at family gatherings.  She died this summer at a ripe old age, which led me to the catholic church in Athens once again.  To hear people talk about her at her funeral, the scope of her benevolence and tenderness meant we could expect her to be beatified any day.

If one went to a funeral every funeral in town for a few days, you might get the impression everyone who recently passed was a modern day saint.  Most eulogies read like hyperbolic Madlibs – all you really need to do is change the names.  So-and-so loved their kids more than anything, worked hard, had a wonderful life, saw the lighter side, cared for the poor, smelled like fresh roses, and damn near wiped out world hunger.

Obviously, not every dead person could really live up to such standards.

My theory is that those who speak of the dead invent fabulous stories about them to reassure the gathered family and friends that when they pass, a similar degree of polish will be applied to their lives.   You’d be hard up to find someone who pronounces the deceased as dishonest, unkind, or douchebaggy, even if that were truly the case.  And who can blame them?  If I told the truth about someone I knew well, and said they were a normal person, that they made mistakes, weren’t a perfect friend/parent/Christian, etc, I would get run out of the church and probably disowned.

And that’s if  I told the truth – not trying to stir up shit like the cretins at Westboro baptist (may they live long enough to die regretting what they’ve done).

The reason behind all this seems clear enough – we are mortally afraid of death.  That it is the end, the very end, and that our lives may not have lived up to our own or others expectations.

This should be the real message a funeral sends – that life is short and precious, and because its conclusion may come at any time, we should live in happiness and excitement, not fear.

Instead, I strap on rose-tinted glasses whilst listening to speechifying about my Great Grandma, and wonder what they’ll say I meet my maker from old age  falling into a volcano.

Drinking Like A Man

At this point in my life, I’m married, own a house, have a job, speak 3 languages decently, and can tie a bow tie.  The only thing that I’ve missed in the quest to become a gentleman is being a Scotch drinker.  Now, I’m resolved to take this final step into manhood.

My first encounter with Scotch wasn’t pretty.  I was probably 20, and my Dad offered me a swiggle of his Glenfiddich.  It struck me as unnervingly similar in smell to the polyurethane I use to seal my wood floors, and the taste wasn’t much better.  The impression it left me with was overwhelmingly negative – I didn’t intend to get to know it better.

Some years later, I met Scotch again at a Christmas eve family gathering.  My uncle Rick got a bottle of 15 yr old Scotch that he insisted I try.  I held my nose and took a tiny sip.  It burned,  but I managed to get the whole thing down.

Fast forward to last week- I got to try a 20 yr old Scotch, and it was delicious.  Tradition dictates that Scotch should be enjoyed slowly and carefully, but I was the first one to finish my glass and would have asked for more, if it weren’t so damn expensive.

Yesterday, I picked up a bottle of 12 yr old single malt Glenlivet from the good people at Sam’s Club, and this evening I’m trying it out.

So far, so good.

It still burns, but I find that a little water in the glass helps ease the burn and lets you taste a bit more of the flavor.  The flavor itself is very difficult to define – slightly sweet, and a little fruity.  The predominant tastes are almond and honey, maybe some smoke.  There are other tastes too, but they’re too subtle for me to grasp.

Like so many things life, knowing a bit about Scotch helps to enhance my enjoyment of it, and, I hoped, would help me figure out what I was tasting.

The Scotch I’m enjoying is a single malt, meaning it comes exclusively from barley, a grain seemingly capable of anything.  The early stages of Scotch production are almost identical to beer – the barley is sprouted, which ramps up sugar production, then dried and ground into coarse bits.  These bits are then steeped so the sugars are released into water, and becomes malt.  From there, the path diverges from beer a bit, and I don’t quite follow all the ins and outs of fermenting and distilling.  Eventually, the unfinished Scotch is put in barrels, and must be aged a minimum of three years.

If you’re thinking that honey and almond don’t quite follow from boiled and dried barley, you’re quite correct.  My hypothesis is that yeast is a major player.  In the brewing world, the choice of yeast can have more influence over a beer’s final flavor than all the other ingredients put together.  Those little critters can somehow impart flavors of fruit, bread, flowers, you name it.

A little more research shed some light on how the drying of the barley takes place.  Instead of using plain old hot air or convection to dry the sprouted barley, some Scotch distillers burn peat in kilns and use the smoke to dry the barley.  The centuries of cumulative biomass in the peat introduce all sorts of interesting flavors, which I guess collectively comprise all those unnameables I mentioned earlier..  It’s just the sort of wacky behavior you’d expect from the folks who invented golf.

As I finish this glass, everything that went into it seems so clearly connected.  The land, the crop, the bottle, and the ceremony all belong together.  It’s humbling to think that this particular Scotch was made when I was 16, thinking about who I was going to hang out with this weekend.  Now, my thoughts turn to the men in my family who drank Scotch, and what their lives were like at 28.

Mostly wondering what they would think of me now.

 

 

Crap Translations: Episode 1

A few days ago I was thinking about a piece I sang with the SIUE concert choir called ‘The Enemy’.  It was part of a suite of songs based on the text of Charles Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil.  It’s pretty obscure, so I was having a hard time finding a the original French text.  After a bit, I tracked it down, only to discover that the English translations I’d found online were mostly garbage.  They mistook the meaning of words, left things out or added non-existent phrases and ideas to the original.  This is not acceptable.

In that spirit, I present the first attempt to correct a litany of terrible translations with one that is faithful to the spirit and letter of the original text.  Here’s the original text:

L’Ennemi

Ma jeunesse ne fut qu’un ténébreux orage,
Traversé çà et là par de brillants soleils;
Le tonnerre et la pluie ont fait un tel ravage,
Qu’il reste en mon jardin bien peu de fruits vermeils.

Voilà que j’ai touché l’automne des idées,
Et qu’il faut employer la pelle et les râteaux
Pour rassembler à neuf les terres inondées,
Où l’eau creuse des trous grands comme des tombeaux.

Et qui sait si les fleurs nouvelles que je rêve
Trouveront dans ce sol lavé comme une grève
Le mystique aliment qui ferait leur vigueur?

— Ô douleur! ô douleur! Le Temps mange la vie,
Et l’obscur Ennemi qui nous ronge le coeur
Du sang que nous perdons croît et se fortifie!

 

My youth was one raging storm

crossed by brilliant shafts of sunlight;

so devastated by thunder and rain,

that few ripe fruits remain in my garden.

Now, in the autumn of my mind,

I must employ the shovel and rake

to repair the flooded terrain,

where water cuts trenches as deep as tombs.

And who knows if the tender flowers of my dreams

will find in soil washed away like the shore

the mystical nourishment that gives them strength?

-Oh pain! Oh pain!  Time devours life,

and the misty enemy who gnaws at our hearts

grows strong on the blood we lose!

Imagine There’s No Google

…it’s really hard to do.  I’ve been faithfully using Google services for years now, and watching their products leapfrog the stagnant competition in one arena after another.  Giddily adopting these services wasn’t so much a choice as a logical extension of the satisfaction I derived from their search- the mail service that offered gigabytes while others offered megabytes, the map software that let you see the God’s-eye view of your house,  the free photo management software that had cute animations and could read raw files – they all worked in concert to give one the impression that Google was a brilliant and benevolent force that had come to free us from the tyranny of inferior and expensive software.

All it really cost was being exposed to some textual ads- nothing about your erectile dysfunction or breast size, just ads that were contextually based on the contents of your email.  The lesson to the privacy-minded was quite simple – don’t write about anything that you wouldn’t want to see an ad for.

This strategy served me well for years – I didn’t mind giving Google some information.  My personal data and interests were meted out across several Google services, many of them recent acquisitions that at first barely fit in the stable of existing Google services.

Things started to go awry one day last Fall.  I was using Google Books on my Android phone, while listening to Google Music  (a truly marvelous accomplishment of technology), when it occurred to me that Google knew my location, what I was reading, what I was listening to, who was e-mailing me, what they were saying, and collecting recordings of my voice through Google Voice search.

Perhaps it’s just an excess of vanity, but it bothered me that Google had taken such a keen interest in my life.  No friends or family know all of these details of my life; and even I am scarcely aware of all of them all at once.  Yet I gladly surrender them to a company that I know only in the most superficial way- through the products that they market to me.

Even this uncomfortable arrangement might have lasted, were it not for the recent change in Google’s privacy policy – now, data I generate on any Google service is aggregated to provide me with the best possible experience.

There is something intensely disturbing about this; though it’s difficult to articulate exactly what I find so unpleasant about this policy.  Put succinctly, I don’t want to have to censure myself on an ongoing basis.  If I mention in a Gchat that I almost shit my pants when a car tried to run my motorcycle off the road, am I going to see contextual ads in other services for diapers and leather chaps?

Its a more gentle version of the Thought Police- I watch what I say, lest my words and actions be interpreted incorrectly by Google’s algorithms.

Suffice it to say, this thought quickly killed my Google boner.

Thus, in honor and in spite of Google’s new policy, I am migrating most of the Google services I use for personal needs to self-hosted or competitor products.  The list looks like this:

  • Email – self hosted through Dreamhost
  • Docs, Calendar, Music – Owncloud.org, also on my Dreamhost server
  • Pictures – Gallery 2 on Dreamhost
  • RSS Reader – FOSS android reader (non-cloud based)
  • Maps – Bing Maps
  • Search – Duck Duck Go (it’s not pretty, but I’m trying to get used to it)
  • Chrome – Firefox

Search has definitely been the hardest – my band-aid solution has been to use my browser in Private Mode while searching with Google, to avoid any messy cookie-mixups.

This is just the first step – next I have to convince everyone else with Gmail accounts to do the same 🙂

 

 

The future of consumerism: order now, supplies are limited!

I read an interesting article today about the future of consumer culture, and it taught me a few interesting things, and revealed (to my shame) that I’m as bad as the next consumer.

The premise presented in the article is this: everyone needs food, shelter, medicine, and other essentials.  These expenses are intrinsic to a healthy, modern life, and don’t count against your spending habits.  So, those are the essentials that you buy to survive, and beyond that, all of your purchases are optional.  This is where all that disposable income goes- to guitars, jetskis, and Cadillacs.  In my case, it goes to:

a. A motorcycle

b. Electronics

c. A new car

This is an essential part of American capitalism- if you work hard, you get to reward yourself. What’s strange about American capitalism, in comparison to other empires, is the circumstances under which it developed.  In days of former empires, there was an absolute maximum that a skilled labourer could produce, and that made his or her products valuable.  Since shopping as we know it couldn’t take place, other institutions drove society- like war, religion, philosophy, literature, theatre, etc.  Starting in the 20th century, for the first time in human history, mass-produced products are plentiful and cheap enough that there’s no limit to how much one can acquire, which reduces the value (both cost and emotional value) of those products greatly. This has made consumerism the driver of our society, and a national past-time that almost everyone indulges in.

So, we now find ourselves in the situation of having an unlimited number of cheap products to buy (made in Asian sweatshops for a nickel per hour), but at the cost of a decimated middle class, who were formerly skilled labourers and now face unemployment.

I’m not ready to tackle the 800 lb gorilla that characterizes the decline of the middle class; I simply want to point out that the society we live in is unique on account of our unparalleled potential to manufacture a glut of products without the need for skilled human labor.

As a small aside, I can also conclude that marketing as we know it is wholly the result of this flood of products- in a society that produces more than it needs, the need to advertise a certain brand or special product arose to convince us it is something we must have (Marketing all those products is a good job for the dwindling middle class that used to make them!).

So, all that background leads up to now, when the whole world has taken a break from rampant consumerism- not because we’re tired of it, but because savings, retirements, and even fortunes have been lost all across this country in the last 18 months.  The question the article I mentioned earlier poses is whether or not this respite from runaway consumerism will make us wonder why we need it at all.

Now, the $64,000 question- how hard are you willing to work to have disposable income?  I certainly don’t need a new car, and despite my craving for a new netbook, it wouldn’t really change my life at all.  When I stop and tconsider the value of the products that I work all week to buy, it makes the 50 hour workweek seem grotesque.

After some thought and multiplication, I’ve concluded that I would willingly take a 20% cut in my salary to reclaim one day of my week.  That is to say, I can easily meet my basic needs at 80% of my salary, and the extra 20% that I’m accustomed to is devoted entirely to my consumerist urges.

That might work for me, but would other people make a similar deal?

The end of the article supposed that a new societal driver would need to take consumerism’s place in order for it to be permanently reined in.  My suggestion?  Three words: 2011 Cat Olympics.