03 June 2024

A taste of honey. Or vinegar. Pick your poison.


There’s no accounting for taste, thank God.

The discrepancies provide an incredible richness of opportunity, a cornucopia of variety, bottomless choice. That doesn’t mean I’m not constantly bewildered by people’s preferences in books, art, love and lighting fixtures.

I’ve long since abandoned the notion that someone’s devotion to something I find utterly without merit denotes a lack of character. I hope others allow me the same tolerance. If you believe ABBA represents the pinnacle of musical achievement, I respect that. Even if you fail to appreciate the profound importance of Grand Funk Railroad to the triumph of 20th century American Popular Music.

Granted, I tend to associate with people who share many of my tastes and predilections, as every person does. We’re a self-organizing social species. It’s natural and expected. That’s why it can be unsettling when one of my close cohort professes a love for Jonathan Livingston Seagull or the Cowsills.

Speaking of lighting fixtures, go into the biggest lighting store you can find and look at the stuff hanging from the ceiling, then imagine any of it lurking above your dining room table. Or better yet, leaf through one of those gargantuan books of wallpaper samples. Be aware they only sell this stuff because people buy it. Oh, the humanity. Some people are utterly devoted to avant-garde music. I try to imagine setting up a romantic evening of good wine, fine food, comfy couches and an hour or two of a John Cage composition featuring a bucket of bolts thrown on the piano strings. I admire people who admire this stuff, but I don’t understand them at all.

Much poetry escapes me, though I don’t read enough, I admit. When I stumble on a nice poem, I’m smitten, even if I don’t know why. I feel the same way about opera; while much of it sort of grates, the right aria can make me weep. If I’m in the right mood.

I’ve never met a mystery short story I didn’t like. Yet I’m confounded by many of the general short stories in publications like The New Yorker. I think, what’s the point? Is there a point? What am I missing?

As to literary fiction (a definition I’d argue with), I feel if you don’t have much of a plot, the writing better be fantastic. I love words, perfectly constructed sentences and clever metaphors and similes. When those are present, I really don’t care what happens. Though give me a stem-winding thriller with a few clunky turns of phrase and I’m all in. When the writing and the story are well rendered, I’m in heaven.

Clothes have nothing to do with writing, but I’ve worn basically the same style my entire life. The Harris Tweed sport coat I wore for my fifth-grade class picture, and my high school senior portrait, is still hanging in my closet, having suffered a few alterations. It’s disintegrating, so maybe it’ll have to go to the dump, though not without a small ceremony.

I agonized mightily in the early seventies, when everything sartorial turned to shit. I used to cut down the heels of platform shoes with a hot wire, and had tailors reduce lapels and pocket flaps. I had a decent stockpile of thinner ties from my father’s business career that kept that segment alive. If you see me in a leisure suit, I’m a corpse. Everyone thought I was just being contrary, but I held firm until things shifted back toward the sane in the 1980s.

Back to good writing, it’s always been there, you just have to seek it out. And more has been written in the past few thousand years than I’ll ever be able to read, so the well never runs dry. Political speech has rarely been worse, so that category has suffered serious degradation. On the other hand, there are a lot of very talented political journalists who revere the language and demonstrate it with every column. Again, you just have to hunt around for the gems.

As a cabinetmaker and house designer, I keep up with trends, and lately interiors have all been white or grey. Light grey, with no natural wood to be found (my houses are loaded with cherry and mahogany, oak floors and the occasional chestnut beam). Fashionable exteriors tend to board and batten siding and black window frames. The most recent house I designed used those elements, because that’s what the client wanted. It looks fine, though I had to go well outside the contemporary mood to convey any distinctive style.

Which tells you all you need to know about taste. It’s the tyranny of the popular, and the poverty of individual imagination.

12 comments:

  1. I can like a little of almost any genre but my idea of a dream team is Alan Parsons (of Edgar Allan Poe musical fame) writing lyrics for Styx. I got hooked on what would be come progressive (head) rock, Ultimate Spinach, Pink Floyd, and Moody Blues after they acquired synthesizers. So it mystifies some that I enjoy classical music, particularly baroque, but threads of Bach shimmer in King Crimson and Mike Oldfield. There’s a reason so many progressive groups appear with orchestras.

    In my na├»ve opinion, what a listener identifies with depends on their emotional stage, not so much sophistication and ‘maturity’ in the educated sense, but whether their heart has broken or they’ve lost someone dear. A sophisticate who normally avoids country music like they stepped in something has never heard a robin weep when leaves begin to die. They’ve never been so hurt and angry that Under My Thumb begins to resonate. They’re still happy, they still like to dance. They haven’t experienced the pain.

    I also have short patience with ‘literary’ stories. Even Hemingway: There’s more to The Killers than is commonly recognized (discussed in a previous SleuthSayers article). But a subset of Generation Y and Z disdain ‘genre’ stories, declaring them ‘old school’ or worse, simply ‘old’. This group claims plots are unnecessary and fiction is merely a tool to explore exciting new avenues devoid of ‘old’ rules. Fortunately, other Generation X, Y, Z noobs are striving to learn writing, taking lessons from earlier times seriously.

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    1. I also have a wide, deep and eclectic appreciation for music of all sorts. I'm with you on much of yours. There's a brand of what I call orchestral rock, that as you note, is full of actual classical references. As is the best of jazz, to the discerning ear. I think your analysis is spot on. We go with what hits us at the time we hear it.

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  2. FYI

    My parents were shocked when new neighbors painted the cherry staircase in their house. My girlfriend nearly cried when the purchaser of her family's home in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburg, cut back and painted their oak staircase and ripped out the stained glass rosette at the top of the landing. No accounting for taste.

    Hurricanes and floods ruined my red oak floor and walnut desk and cabinets, but I still have my bedroom furniture, solid cherry, 50 years old, no veneer, no behind-the-scenes cheap woods, oil rubbed and never stained. It's turned a deep natural red. I picked up a 75yo dining table from same little company called The Sampler.

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    1. I nearly wept when 75 Main in Southampton painted their wall of mahogany doors. Too much time and money to preserve, but what a loss. Europeans are better at this sort of preservation than we are. Italy is full of exterior wood that gleams with stain and varnish.

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  3. My musical tastes range from Gregorian chant to Taj Mahal. I have always tried to avoid Abba and most pop music, and the "Nashville sound" country music. I like Hank Williams Sr., who knew all about pain ("I'm so Lonesome I could Cry" is probably the saddest, most heart-wrenching song ever written), and also John Prine, who I revere. Lou Reed, yes. Jethro Tull, Joni Mitchell, Ricky Lee Jones. And Bach (especially the Bradenberg Concertos), Mozart, Pachabel's Canon, and Arvo Part's "Spiegel im Spiegel."

    My house is a funky mish-mash of hand carved furniture and things we picked up on the street 45+ years ago. There are books - and I mean bookshelves full of books - in every room. Art on all the walls, ranging from my husband's work to tapestries I picked up in Canada and Venice. And a couple of my own weavings from my younger days. It is not, never has been, and never will be, better home and gardens.

    And I strongly believe in plots, good writing, and giving the reader a reason to read the damn story. (I totally agree with you about 95% of The New Yorker stories.)

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    1. I'm with you all the way. We've given away thousands of books and they still cram every room. I saw Taj in Amagansett on Long Island at a concert where he was in the audience and they invited him on to the stage. Incredible. Huge man dressed all in white. Paul Simon was also there, but he demurred.

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    2. I listened to Taj Mahal's "Giant Step" album and it took me deep into African music. His 1999 album "Kulanjan" with Toumani Diabate is... wonderful.
      I never got to see Taj in person - but I've seen John Mayall, Eric Clapton (during his lean years, in a very small venue, unbelievable), and David Bromberg, who tore down the house with his blues.
      And right now I'm collecting as much of Coyote Oldman's CDs as I can find.

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  4. Chris, I am absolutely astonished at the popularity of internet 'influencers' and why people follow them. Can't people make up their own minds? And then I think that perhaps I've surrounded myself with writers all my life - people who are creative and individual thinkers. Perhaps that's the difference? We writers aren't the normal ones? Melodie

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    1. We writers aren't the normal ones. I know a lot of them, and you're right. I refer you to
      "Think for yourself" by the Beatles. Written by George Harrison.

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  5. Elizabeth Dearborn03 June, 2024 14:29

    My kitchen floor is being redone even as I speak. This involves tearing out several (4?) layers of flooring, which the building code possibly allowed for at the time the house was built, in 1900. So the whole place is basically torn up at the moment. Before this we had two levels of front porch rebuilt, & after the kitchen, the same contractors will work on the upstairs bathroom. I grew up in a house where ALL the interior walls were painted gray & the furniture was Scandinavian, so I prefer a more eclectic look. I'm a terrible housekeeper anyway & suffer from a terminal case of tsundoku.

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  6. I've done a lot of that sort of work. Once I was using an organic solvent to strip out some old foam underfloor and got so high I started thinking Pink Flood was God.

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  7. Bedankt voor het delen van deze inzichtelijke blogpost! Je hebt waardevolle kennis gegeven over het belang van make-upspiegels en hun voordelen. Wij bieden ook een reeks make up spiegel van hoge kwaliteit tegen betaalbare prijzen. Bezoek ons gerust voor meer informatie en verbeter uw schoonheidsroutine!

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