For the past few weeks I have been reading Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland at the recommendation of my daughter, Wendy. If you’ve ever read any Pynchon, you know that he can be quite the challenge, but many of the websites that offer advice on how best to read him say we should simply accept that we’re in it for the ride, much like cruising along with Haruki Murakami or David Mitchell. Anything and everything is fair game for Pynchon, and although we may feel at times as though we’re navigating an impossible labyrinth, there are instances of clarity that are amazing in their brilliance. I recently had a moment just like that. One of the characters in Vineland wants to learn more about her mother and is engaged in some online sleuthing late one night on a library computer. She comes across a particular photograph of her mom and a very close friend taken in a rare moment of tranquility on a college campus during the tumultuous 1960s when both women were fairly extreme activists. Realizing the lateness of the hour, the daughter powers down the computer and heads off to bed. Pynchon continues:
Back down in the computer library, in storage, quiescent ones and zeros scattered among millions of others, the two women, yet in some definable space, continued on their way across the low-lit campus, persisting, recoverable, friends by the time of this photo for nearly a year, woven together in the intricacy of backs covered, promises made and renegotiated, annoyances put up with, shortcuts worn in, ESP beyond the doubts of either.
I read and reread this paragraph many, many times. What was it that caught my eye? There were so many things, but for starters, I loved the idea that the image of these two women would continue to be held in a place delineated by binary switches. I’m regressing back to my early days right after college when I began my original career in IT as a programmer writing in a language one level above machine code, and those same ones and zeroes had a serious propensity for keeping me awake at night. We often forget that the device that rules our modern lives from its throne in our pocket or purse operates on this same principle of what is turned off and what is turned on, albeit many levels down on the scale of complexity. I was also drawn to the idea of the photo being persisting and recoverable. Aren’t those the very adjectives we’d hope would describe all our closest relationships? More than anything else, however, I felt myself gravitate towards the power of the connection between these women, and the way in which the attachments we have with other human beings are formed.
A bit of my own online sleuthing led me to the concepts presented in A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, a book in which the authors draw an analogy between emotions and music, both of which are connected to the limbic system of the brain where anything related to mood, instinct, and drive are processed. When a musical note is played, we hear it because it vibrates at a certain frequency, but as the vibrations slow down and eventually stop altogether, the sound dies off as well. Lewis, Amini, and Lannon compare this to our emotional reactions: “Emotions possess the evanescence of a musical note… an event touches a responsive key, an internal feeling-tone is sounded, and it soon dwindles into silence.” Taking it one step further, the authors make an important distinction between emotions and mood: “Where an emotion is a single note, clearly struck, hanging for a moment in the still air, a mood is the extended, nearly inaudible echo that follows.” But there is also a significant connection between the two. The emotional experience or “notes” of any given day will continue to “echo” and set our mood, priming us to then react to any events or situations that come along and strike the same chord. Additionally, “emotional tones in the brain establish a living harmony with the past in a similar way… [where] every feeling (after the first) is a multilayered experience only partly reflecting the present, sensory world.” Our past feelings inform our current reactions, creating neural pathways that cause us to unknowingly disconnect from our emotional reality and render us almost totally unable to feel any situation as new. At the heart of this discord is something Lewis, Amini, and Lannon term limbic attractors, or the preset ways in which we react to what we perceive, rooted deeply in the limbic area of the brain and tied to our emotional past. Think of the same connection we have with music and how a certain song will always retrieve the same memory and its corresponding emotional response.
Although these attractors may seem as though they would limit us because they predispose us to behave in certain ways, they are also the very thing responsible for connecting us to other people with whom we’ve formed close relationships. Furthermore, and this is the best part, when we are intensely connected to another person in any way, there is a certain “limbic resonance” that occurs between us as our emotional worlds become integrated. We share responses at the collective level and soon begin reacting to situations in similar ways, creating a mutual past experience that further reinforces the process. We evolve into two instruments playing together in harmony until “one mind revises another; one heart changes its partner… who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.” Wow, wow right?? If we tie this back to Pynchon, we find these two women captured together in a moment in time, literally nothing other than a series of binary switches, or a collection of pixels, and yet the daughter is able to intone that there is so much more. She sees it in the tilt of their heads, in the way in which they are walking, and in their relaxed faces with just the beginning of a smile playing on her mother’s lips. Yes this is fiction, and yes this is most definitely Pynchon, but do we all not have similar photos stashed in a drawer or memory box, or quietly sitting on a hard drive or in cloud storage somewhere? If we study them, will we not see the same things? We are tied together by the ways in which we are willing to take a stand for one another, by the promises we’ve made, and most especially by the ones we have trouble keeping and have to renegotiate. We absolutely do overlook annoyances, create shortcuts and shorthand, know how to cajole, and how to finish sentences. But Pynchon’s last phrase becomes the most important and the one we now understand with much greater clarity. The sense of intuitive connection we feel with another person does not comes from an internal psychic gift or from external divine intervention, but rather from a place that is profoundly instinctive and worn in by mutual experience, our “limbic resonance” if you will. We strike a chord, and the response comes in an instant, somewhat deeper, somewhat higher, sometimes harmonious, sometimes discordant, but always exactly what we need, its echoes reverberating in a space that has been shaped and reshaped by our mutual exchange of the highest form of love.
For today’s cocktail, I was certain that I wanted it to be a riff on a Bee’s Knees because I immediately thought of the many ways in which bees are so instinctive in their behavior patterns. They strive to pollinate, they seek out the company of others, they follow their queen. While I kept the gin and the lemon juice, I decided to swap out the traditional honey simple for one infused with chamomile. These tiny white and yellow flowers are among the oldest of the medicinal herbs, and bees find them irresistible. They are symbolic of so many things, but harmony is right at the top of the list, reminding me of the musical connection at the heart of this post. I used the chamomile bitters for the very same reason. I also added an IPA beer to create complexity, depth, and substance, fitting parallels for the theory of limbic attractors! Finally, for the drink’s garnish, I went with zinnia petals and a small rosemary sprig for friendship and remembrance respectively. Listen for the music when you spend time with those you know and love best. It’s always there. Cheers everyone. Happy Friday!
2.25 oz of your favorite gin
1 oz honey chamomile syrup*
1 oz lemon juice
.5 oz IPA beer**
2 dashes chamomile bitters
Long shake over ice.
Double strain into a cocktail glass.
Garnish with a small rosemary sprig and a few zinnia petals
*Brew 4 oz of chamomile tea. Reheat gently with 4 oz of honey until incorporated.
**You’re looking for the fruitiest, most floral IPA you can find.