ON THE AVENUES: Getting back, moving forward, drinking coffee.
A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
There’s a venerable joke, wherein a man dies and is transported to his permanent home on the other side – not high in the sky astride a cloud bank with a harp (the instrument, not the lager beer), but to the other place.
After ID checks and processing, the devil’s service associate shows the man his various options for eternal punishment, each worse than the last, until finally there is a seemingly benign alternative. In a room with pleasant classical tunes playing, people are standing knee-deep in raw sewage, sipping coffee.
The man takes his place in the coffee line, but before he’s even been handed a mug, the supervisor appears.
“Okay, coffee break’s over. Back on your heads.”
For reasons that remain obscure, this joke always resurfaces just as the taxi rolls to a stop in front of the departures terminal at (fill in name of the European airport), and I must sadly face the facts, because by the end of the day, the coffee break’s over — and it’s back to NA.
Yes, the missus and I just returned from a week in Tallinn, Estonia. It was the first foreign excursion for us since my failed mayoral bid last year, and the concurrent period of my ongoing disassociation from the New Albanian Brewing Company.
This latest stint abroad wasn’t nearly long enough for me. Are they ever? However, a seven-day coffee break is better than none at all, and thankfully, in addition to the sightseeing and “continuing education” aspects of the journey, there was ample time for thinking and conversation while drinking.
This always pleases me.
In 2015, when I took a leave of absence from NABC in order to campaign for mayor as an independent, there wasn’t much time for reflection. I leaped from one treadmill to another, shifting overnight from devoting a disproportionate number of waking moments to beer and business, to embarking on a breakneck municipal affairs learning curve.
It was only after my final decision to leave NABC, and the subsequent thumbs-down electoral verdict from our voters, that strange things began popping in my noggin.
Not to put too grandiose a spin on it, but it just might be that I’m rediscovering the joy of pure discovery, or vice versa, many aspects of which were placed into cold storage during that quarter-century of involvement in the food and drink trade.
Late last year, I commenced an obsession with YouTube documentaries, to which I’d previously been indifferent.
First came a wave of videos about Eastern European history during the Communist era. Then I shifted into current events in and around Estonia and Sicily, where we’ll be visiting later this year.
For decades, an interest in volcanoes had remained latent. With Mt. Etna in our future, it suddenly resurfaced. Besides that, I haven’t been to Italy since 1989.
After reading a biography of poet Ezra Pound, whose Italian sojourn yielded mixed results, my gaze shifted to documentaries about all sorts of writing and writers. First came Englishmen (Larkin, Burgess, Amis), then expatriated Americans in Europe (Hemingway and Fitzgerald), but also a few Americans remaining stateside (Philip Roth and John Steinbeck).
In turn, this yielded to visual artists, primarily painters: Kokoschka and Schiele from Austria; Englishmen Sickert, Bomberg and Nash; Magritte and de Lempicka in Paris (1928). There also was a fascinating BBC series on the origins and artistic uses of the colors gold, blue and white. It’s something that never occurred to me.
Admittedly, apart from a film about the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, these various immersions have occurred within the familiar outline of the “Western” canon. There have been far too few diversions to topics that don’t feature white males like me, although one of two current reads, The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, has been nothing short of revelatory.
The same is true of the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. If you believe that writers of the Renaissance have nothing to say about sex, and in particular, about diverse female perspectives, it’s time for a reappraisal. 650 years on, the naturalness and candor of these vignettes are astonishing.
Being at loose ends is simultaneously daunting and liberating. Previously, I’ve likened it to awakening from a self-inflicted coma. Personal interests long submerged beneath the weight of My Life in Beer and Brewing are returning with a vengeance. Of course, they never went away. I scratched these various itches throughout the NABC era in my available time, but now there’s a window allowing better concentration, and while the coffee break lasts, I’m undeniably fortunate.
It remains true that music is vital. In musical terms, I generally prefer listening in the present tense, not the past. This does not stem from a desire to be hip and trendy. Rather, it’s an expression of evolution as an individual, feeding fresh data into the system to see what comes out the other side. What interests me is the way I hear music, and how this process changes along with my own growth.
My simple goal is to keep abreast of what’s new in music insofar as it pertains to whatever styles of music make me happiest. As an example, while rock and roll may be “dead” as a genre, the world still manages to disgorge youthful rockers, and some of them are damned entertaining.
I customarily allow myself to listen to “oldies,” but only in a controlled and rationed context. The ghosts of my consciousness are profuse and insistent, and they cannot be allowed to frame the present via the past, especially since in musical terms, the reactions engendered are so very personal.
The idea is to interpret one’s past through music, not relive it.
When my father was a much older man, the way he heard Glenn Miller’s songs owed directly to his first experiences with them, as a Marine in the Pacific Theater during World War II. My dad played these songs for me, and to this very day, I hear them differently, as a boy in the milieu of the 1970s.
Same tunes, radically different worlds – and yet a common language of enjoyment for both of us.
It so happened that two weeks ago, it occurred to me to make a list of my favorite 1990s albums, because an oddity had become apparent and needed to be addressed.
Rock and pop releases from this decade are of inestimable and deeply affecting value to me, and yet I’d gotten to the point of excluding them entirely from the rotational retrospective, even past my own point of calculated limitation.
Why was I doing this?
Well, sometimes it takes a martini to sort through it. For me, the decade of the nineties was about building a pub and pizzeria business. It was a period of personal and professional inception in many senses, which led to other beginnings as well as a few ends, and these albums were absolutely integral to all of it.
They were the soundtrack, inexorably connected to those crazy times, but since the jury’s out with regard to many of those memories, the music becomes just as complicated.
In the present time, with an altered personal view of my relationship to the beer and pizza business – pride, disillusionment, appreciation, annoyance, and perhaps stages of mourning that I didn’t even realize were being suppressed – my ever-alert inner watchman seems to have filtered the playlist to protect me from possible discomfort.
Well, enough of that.
I believe it’s time to move past my mind’s weird and circuitous coping mechanisms, reclaim the music I cherish, and restore it to a place in the narrative. Once the 1990s album list is complete, there’ll be an exception to normal practice, and over a period of days, I’ll listen to them all.
Given that the list is close to 75 in number, perhaps it will take weeks, and that’s even better.
Because: If one serving of coffee is all that stands between upright bliss and deluge revisited, then we’d best make it a bottomless cup. There’s more time to learn things that way.