Friday, April 20, 2007

The Daiquiri Doldrums

Warning – this post turns nasty.

Some good news at last – even if it is from the Daily Mail. Drinking strawberry daiquiris can help prevent cancer!

Scientists have found that treating the berries with alcohol boosts their cancer-fighting properties - suggesting that strawberry-based cocktails may be better for us than we realised. The researchers, who were looking for ways to keep the fruit fresh during storage, discovered that alcohol enhances the strawberry's ability to mop up harmful molecules linked to cancer, heart disease and arthritis.

Of course we might want to question exactly how the researchers chanced upon this great discovery and what they thought they were looking for. Maybe, like Ernest Hemingway who is said to have had a big hand in the road testing if not the actual invention of the daiquiri in the fabulous El Floridita, Havana (pictured), they were simply experiencing a downturn in ideas and seeking solace in decorous distraction. They say this is how Watson & Crick happened upon DNA. Although a couple of pints of bitter down at the Bunsen Burner and Beaker doesn’t have quite the same romantic ring to it.

I’m always very pleased when alcohol is found to have health benefits just as I am when chocolate is advised. But sooner or later almost everything enjoyable will turn up on some recommended list of good foods or other, unless of course you have too much of it, in which case the benefits are negated. That never made a huge amount of sense to me. Surely if something is good, the more you have, the better it is. Still, I am pleased for any excuse to drink a refreshing daiquiri.

As is the way with thoughts, which can also be very bad for you, one led to another and I started to think about the growing obsession we have with discovering ways to prolong, preserve, protect and perfect our lives and what happens when a rogue event slips past all these security devices. That trail led to contemplating the difficulty of realistically evaluating the ‘preciousness’ of life in the various contexts in which it is presented to us. No matter how you look at it, life is finite.

This week, a man called Cho Seung-Hui killed thirty-two people, most of them students with their whole lives ahead of them, on a university campus in the USA. He left a video indicating that at that moment in time, he was deranged, delusional and dangerously homicidal, prompting a huge public demand for the heads of the person or persons responsible for failing to prevent this terrible thing happening. For days authorities in Virginia have been painstakingly and repeatedly explaining in press conferences that the man who carried out this appalling massacre had done nothing to warrant being incarcerated or committed. He was simply a weird loner who’d hassled a couple of girls – until he snapped.

Also this week, an unknown man or men killed over a hundred and fifty people, many of them mothers and children with their whole lives ahead of them, in Baghdad’s Sadriyah market. Although one of the worst massacres of Shiite civilians in Iraq it was by no means an unusual event so no one is driving themselves nuts trying to figure out why. These two events have far more in common than they have to distinguish them. How more or less important is the motive when the end result is exactly the same? People who were living last week are no longer living this week because of a random act of inexplicable brutality and that is tragic, but can we ever expect death to give us a logical explanation? Perhaps someone could and should have helped Cho Seung-Hui deal with whatever madness was happening in his head but it’s not possible to know who that someone might have been and if they would have made any difference to the final outcome and neither was it possible to know what was going on in Cho’s head because he chose not to reveal it.

The human body is both awesomely robust and wretchedly vulnerable as Hemingway demonstrated by surviving not one, but two plane crashes and then being felled by his own precarious mental state. He shot himself and, fortunately, didn’t take anyone else with him. It’s very rare for suicides to kill someone else as well and even rarer for it to be random strangers. Please don’t think I’m making light of these awful events that happen in the world. Regular readers will know that I am a fatalist by nature. My points are that people can have a dark side and there's no magic way to detect whether it will lead them to harm any more than there is a way to predict if they'll die in a car accident, and that the quality of individual life can’t be assessed according to the circumstances of its end.

Of course there are calls to review the gun laws in Virginia - which should be done, and to find ways to ensure that this never happens again – which can’t be done. I’m not sure that I will ever agree that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, no matter how dangerous the world seems. I am more inclined to think the price of liberty is reasonable risk because the alternative, under consideration in Britain this week with regard to the Mental Health Act, involves curbing the freedoms of thousands of people who have never done anything wrong and, in all probability, never will, in an attempt to prevent one or two chaotic events. I think we have to accept that catastrophe on the scale of what happened in Virginia can never be completely eliminated from the realms of possibility and be grateful that it is so rare. And we should not expect either the mental health or security services to guarantee our safety any more than we should expect strawberry daiquiris to stand between us and death. They didn’t work for Hemingway.

Phot0 - It's me with EH at El Floridita in 2005. Taken by Ozmicro and ruined by me


Janejill said...

I am in a quandary over this; I start to agree with you re the rights of the individual who has committed no offence, then I think of the number of times I have read and heard about families in terrible misery because they cannot find a hospital willing to accept a son or daughter, who is in a very poor and possibly dangerous mental state. I have read that about 10 per cent of these people commit suicide (1400 per annum); there are around 50 homicides each year too - not a huge percentage but I think these figures conceal a huge amount of human misery, and often terrible fear.
I know that if you accept that certain individuals might lose their freedom though they have not committed an offence, then you are allowing another person to play "God". Of course, the person will be medically qualified, and, hopefully act fairly and with integrity, but that does not mean they will always make the right decision. You could compare it to a doctor misdiagnosing a physical symptom I suppose.
In the early eighties I used to visit many people who had been released out into the "Community" - Community being a total joke. These people were abandoned with little effective or meaningful backup. Despite all the organisations which have proliferated since then, many distressed and mentally disordered people slip through and they and their families' lives are agonising and hopeless- we surely must find a better solution than the one we have now? If there were a suitable care system then there would be no need for incarceration, but that is unlikely to happen.

Ms Melancholy said...

You are always a voice of sanity. Someone in the house of lords commented - on the Mental Health Bill - that she could think of no other group who might have their liberty so easily curtailed in order to potentially prevent a very small number of homicides. When did we decide that all risk should be eliminated, whatever the cost?

That's so pants said...

Hi Jane Jill. You are right of course and we have a situation like this in our family which is stressful for all involved. The line can never be neatly drawn so that it fully protects the rights of everyone. This is why professional support is so important. I watched one of the press conferences about the Virginia shootings yesterday and the spokesperson for the local social services commented several times on the impact of the withdrawal of funding for mental health services. Expertise doesn't come free and yet there is this expectation that mental health services should be all-seeing.

My point is that, in this particular situation, even with the most sophisticated support system, this young man would most likely have fallen through the net because he went from being a weird nuisance to a homicidal maniac without going through any stages that would have afforded opportunities for legitimate intervention.

What I wanted really to question was the hysterical demand for total protection being used as an excuse for limiting freedoms. Since this tragedy happened in America, it's possible to observe the suspension of logic being thrown into stark relief. A major factor in enabling an event like this is the easy availability of commando style weaponry yet this is not allowed into the equation, skewing the significance of other factors like Cho's mental state and the potential culpability of the university authorities. In this case, the authorities are expected to compensate for a factor that isn't even acknowledged. How can anyone expect to get it right in those circumstances?

For me there is a really big problem in trying to make the law fit situations rather than the other way around. I'll be extremely cross if this awful event gets commandeered by our government to support its case for the Mental Health Bill.

That's so pants said...

Ms Melancholy - how grand to have you back. I thought for a while we'd lost you to music. I have been scrutinising Amy Winehouse videos for a sighting of you on Fender strat in the background. Please don't give up your day job as you write better on mental health than anyone I've ever read.

Ms Melancholy said...

Hey Pants, I have gotten stuck with guitar hero, so back to blogging for me after a tiny wee break. It's good to be back. JJ, I agree with much of what you say. But the important thing to remember is that the new Mental Health Bill will do zilch to improve community mental health services or provide more hospital beds for those in an acute episode. What it will do, if it becomes law, will severely curtail both the liberty and the right to refuse 'treatment' (read psychotropic medication) of people who pose no immediate danger to themselves or others. We really should be very, very worried about this. Fortunately the House of Lords, that last bastion of radicalism, has the measure of this bill and has forced a number of amendments already. The current mental health act is perfectly adequate at protecting us from those who are potentially dangerous due to mental ill health. Professionals in the field, including most psychiatrists, have absolutely no idea why the government has pursued this so enthusiastically.

Janejill said...

Pants I am loving your novel - I'm so tired I cannot read more but will be there again tomorrow; I am not a critic and have no place to comment but I admire your style and hope you find success with it - there is a long list of the things which sparked off strong repsonses (but the very worst thing is.... You seem to be younger than me)I have no ability to transform food either and I loved the idea of "postboding"

That's so pants said...

Hi again Ms M. I agree that we have good reason to fear. For me it's a symptom of a much wider problem in that authorities in general simply don't know what to do about rogue elements in the population so they compensate by subjugating the whole and hoping for the best. At least they are doing something. I read on a blog recently - it was either Fisking Central or Not Saussure - that when you elect lawyers, what you get is legislation. This seems very true.

I think there is an almost Dickensian flavour to the frenzied control mechanisms that government is scrabbling to introduce. I feel quite imperiled by it a lot of the time. Australia is a controlling society too, but not quite as scary as Britain. What makes it doubly dangerous is the incompetence of the public services. Add to that the diminishing power and will of the people to fight back and you have a very unhappy and resigned population.

The analogy that springs to mind with this proposed Mental Health Bill is shark nets. In Australia many of the popular beaches have nets to catch sharks that are headed into shore. The presumption is that all sharks are a danger to humans is false. The truth is that some sharks attack humans and there is no way of predicting which individuals, if any, would have.

In any case, it's extremely rare and people still swim and surf on beaches without shark nets. The nets also catch dolphins, turtles, harmless sharks and other large fish. The nets are an extremely inept solution to a hypothetical problem and punish ONLY (since no shark caught in a net has yet attacked a human) the innocent, but they make people feel safer.

That's so pants said...

Hi again Jane Jill. Thanks for the comment about Pear. Some people do like it, unfortunately no agents or publishers are along them. I think it was Jeanette Winterson, or someone just as smart, who said you should write at least one book where you play with ideas and language to your heart's content. Pear is that book. Almost everything I write is about injustice and/or identity. My first book A Republic of Angels,(which publishers thought was a romance!), is very stylised in an 80s kind of way. The language is curt and racy and the imagery dark but the characters are young and resilient.

Pear is the opposite. Heather is the oldest character I've written (she's 45). Although Heather's prospects are dark and her state fragile, the language is mostly florid and expansive and the imagery bright. The beginning is deceptive - but important. A lot of people really don't like it. I corresponded with a woman for a while who had published a novel and she took great exception to it - telling me in no uncertain terms that I had to 'grab the reader' in the first couple of pages or all was lost.

I tried changing the beginning but the whole thing simply fell apart, so I reinstated. It is the book I wanted to write and not a different one. I guess one person's pear is another's poison. A successful short story writer of my acquaintance read the whole thing and told me it reminded her of Midnight's Children. It's a broad church. You feel free to say what you like.

I warned everyone that I write like a jerk because I do and Pear is the jerkiest thing I've ever written - Heather is an outsider - but not a cool outsider.

The book I'm working on now is much more conventional. It contains a proper plot and little or no expletives. I'm enjoying the discipline of taming the language. With Pear, I felt no obligation to provide a logical sequence. Heather is chaotic and most of the characters around her are ciphers. The threats around her don't conform. With the new one, the people around the narrator Ben do influence the course of events and are obedient to type so I am playing by the rules a whole lot more. My incentive is not entirely commercial, I just wanted to do it this way. I am aware though that it has more of a chance of being seen as marketable. At least I HOPE it does.

Reading the Signs said...

I was just going to tune in to say lovely post. And to ask whether you could dredge up some good news about smoking which has been creeping insidiously back into my life.

Then, seeing what Janejill said about your writing, and your response: would like to say again how much I like the way you write. And I wish I hadn't put up the comment I did on your Pear blog because I have the feeling that it didn't come across like that - I went on a bit, which is what I tend to do when I'm interested and engaged.

That's so pants said...

Hi Signs

Smoking - everyone is going to tumble on me for this but I don't believe smoking is addictive. I smoked regularly until 1991. I stopped completely for a number of years and then, about five years ago, I started having the occasional cigarette or even packet. I've had about two cigarettes this year. I've gone from being a regular smoker to a very occasional smoker and it does work, so enjoy and don't feel obliged to label yourself.

Re Pear - I'm allowing a free flow of dialogue on the Pear blog because there's no reason not to. I'm not intending to interfere or get defensive at all. I've known all along (it was finished in 2001), that the beginning presents problems for a lot of people. Some that are pleasantly intrigued by the multiple teasers but many more are annoyed. It is what it is. Please don't worry about what you've said because it's all fine with me. I'm not at all precious about it. It's a long novel (127,000 words) and the postponements all get dealt with eventually.

Reading the Signs said...

What you just said about smoking and not labelling oneself: I love it! And I love my two (or maybe three) cigs a day. I swear I feel better with them than without. Cholesterol doesn't agree, but you can't please them all.

That's so pants said...

I learned about occasional smoking when I lived in Spain - although I didn't smoke at all for the two years I was there. Until that point, I'd gone along with the Anglo-Saxon view that there were smokers (20 a day) and non-smokers (never smoked or given up). On the continent, there are many people who will smoke if someone offers them a cigarette and won't bother otherwise. Cigarettes are much cheaper though.

Janejill said...

Hell Pants - sorry , I didn't see the "Pear" Blog - will go on there...
another similarity - I stopped smoking when living in Spain , 5 years ago (and 3 months..)and did not once feel the slightest twinge of need. I have never risked having just one again, as I cannot be sure, I suppose. All I feel sometimes, when I'm stressed is that I wish there was something I could do or take or feel, but not a cigarette or alcohol.
I did the same with alcohol - just decided one day to stop and that was , God, 17 years ago; ( I had very very good reasons for wanting to stop - like kicking out unsuspecting boyfriends etc - the more I drank, the more solitary I would become..again I have not had the slightest desire for it since. I smoked 40 a day (Camel) And I probably drank 10 to 15 units a day, Every day- mad too, but I cannot have been addicted as nothing happened...I kept waiting and waiting, then I decided that it was a matter of turning the mental switch off; once that was done, then I was no longer in the same "zone."
What I've realised , however, is that I have a huge tendency to form habits, and HATE it when I am made to change them. Hence I have had a croissant and jam for breakfast every single day for about a year, and nothing or no-one stops me .... One day I will change and then I will never go back; strange. I am now struggling with......Chewing Gum! (only when I'm reading ( very odd)

That's so pants said...

Hi Jane Jill

As far as I know neither croissants or chewing gum are that bad for you. You raise an interesting point about the nature of habits. I think for some people there are physical dependencies on substances that have a chemical base like alcohol, cigarettes, painkillers etc but this is not true of everyone. People I know who have been through addictions always tell me that I'm talking pants when I say this but, like you, I believe it. I am quite dependent on my evening gin and tonic followed by glass of wine with dinner but I have been known to go without them for weeks at a time with no ill effect. I think the fact that I almost never smoke now is entirely due to opportunity. I am never around anyone who can give me a cigarette. There are a lot of types of cigarette that I don't like and will refuse as well.

Ros Barber said...

Lovely, lovely post Ms Pants, as always. You are a horrible distraction from work and I curse you. When is someone going to pick you up for a blook, I want to know? What is the matter with people? If they don't knock on the door soon, perhaps you could self-publish a blook on I'd happily buy a paper copy of your fiercely intelligent and thought-provoking musings, so I could read you on my sofa or in my bath instead of when I really should be working !

That's so pants said...

Dearest Ros - My you are NICE. I tried the Friday Project but they weren't interested. I thought - as you did, wouldn't I be a great little bus or beach, or indeed bath read. In fact I write uniform length posts (700-1,000 words a time)in the same style precisely to make it obvious that a nice little book of essays would be the perfect Chrissy present for right thinking people of high intelligence and warped sense of humour. I honestly don't know how much more I can do.

Reading the Signs said...

What I want to know is - why aren't you writing a weekly column like all those people (damn brain fog, can't think of any names apart from Julie Burchill) who then go on to publish a book made up of selected column extracts or whatever they fancy (thinking of William Leith now)?

How do people get these column-writing jobs anyway?

That's so pants said...

Well Signs - I think it works like this. Instead of following your English/journalism degree and radio experience at funky indie station with going to England and being in dead end bands, you go work for the NME. Basically, I fucked up.

Janejill said...

You might be appalled and you might even be outraged but I read that Saga Magazine were looking for bloggee writings and I heard they were trying to shake up the mag- make it cool and modern??- I think info was on or I might still have the mag - you need to be seen and read somewhere Pants. I have read so many people and enjoyed them but you combine many many qualities; thought-provoking is just a starter

That's so pants said...

Not at all Jane Jill - thank you for this. I have looked on Saga website before for submission details but it's not all that user friendly as I recall but then I'm not all that internet savvy either. I will try to find the reference and, if I can't, I will email you for details. Thanks again.

Nicholas P. said...

Actually Hemingway didn't invent the daiquiri although he is probably the most famous fan of the drink. A quick google search will reveal that it was invented by Jennings Cox, out of necessity rather than intention, in Cuba. This story is confirmed by an article in the 1937 Miami Herald, which can be found at:

I also linked my name to the url so you can verify the article for yourselves...