Good Works

In The Gift of the Magi (which is conveniently linked here and is a wonderfully short story), O. Henry says that “of all who give gifts these two [characters] were the wisest.” This is almost immediately after talking about the characters as “two foolish children.” So what is it that makes them both foolish and wise?

If you are not familiar with this wonderful short story, I won’t spoil it for you. Although the story is over a hundred years old, I am sensitive to the idea of spoilers in the works of writers such as Henry who employ so much irony. But without spilling the plot, what is both foolish and wise about the young couple in the story is their love. Love is what makes them sacrifice for each other. To make a sacrifice for someone you love seems thoroughly noble and right, but it is also foolish. It is foolish because the person who loves you doesn’t want you to deprive yourself of anything for his sake. Putting yourself out for the sake of somebody who wants nothing more than your happiness is foolish. And beautiful.

In truth, any gift, big or small is a good gift if it is given in love. The cliche “it’s the thought that counts” is not quite right. It is not the “thought” but the love that counts. Martin Luther wrote in A Treatise on Good Works that it is love and the belief in that love that makes men and women do things together “with joyful, peaceful, confident hearts.” And that applies to all of their interactions great and small, including giving gifts. It is only when they doubt themselves or their love that they attach especial significance to how great a work or gift is. “Where there is doubt, search is made for what is best; then a distinction of works is imagined whereby a man may win favor; and yet he goes about it with a heavy heart.”

So, as you do your frantic last minute Christmas shopping, believe in yourself and in your love for the people for whom you are shopping. It is the love that matters and the love makes all gifts special. Or give cash, everybody likes cash.

Beer of the Week: Pilsner Urquell – My Secret Santa at work got me a “Premium Beer Collection” 12-pack. The pack included three each of Pilsner Urquell, Miller Genuine Draft, Miller Lite, and Icehouse. “Premium” is a subjective concept, but the gift definitely came from the heart and I am positively thrilled, even with the Icehouse. Pilsner Urquell is actually a personal favorite of mine. The name means “Pilsner from the original source.” This beer is the original golden lager. After so many cheap Korean beers with almost no color to them, this beautiful glass of beer excited me. But it didn’t have the strong smell of noble hops that I expected. Neither did it have the crisp hoppy finish. I don’t know if it is because they came from a can or they changed the formula to better suit this market, but this particular brew is not the original; it’s an IMPOSTOR! Even so, I really enjoyed it. Without the strong hop flavor of the original, this beer showed a very pleasant depth of malty sweetness that was satisfying despite it’s simplicity.

Reading of the Week: A Treatise on Good Works by Martin Luther – The question of whether heaven is attained through faith and works or faith alone is one of the principle issues that drove the Reformation. Luther argued that for a man with faith all works are good works, so there is no need to seek out and perform special works for salvation. Taking a strong anti-utilitarian stand, he also asserts that all acts (no matter how “useful” or “good” they may seem) done without faith or in doubt “are not good works, and are all lost.”

Question of the Week: If you get any gifts for Christmas that are given in love, you should count yourself lucky. But is it even luckier if you are able to give a gift, however small or simple, in love?


Demand Satisfaction

It has been observed by numerous readers, and spelled out explicitly in the book itself, that the character of Alexey Karenin is rather unlikable because of his lack of spirit. What stands out particularly is that he is unwilling to challenge his wife’s lover to a duel. The baser sort of people in the book judge him harshly for this. However, the modern reader should feel more inclined to his side. He reasons that a duel does no good. No outcome of a duel can be really satisfactory. In one scenario, he, the innocent and injured party is shot. This, of course, would not do. In the other likely outcome, the offending party is shot. This, one may suppose, is a sort of justice  of which he could approve. But what would this result earn from his wife? He still cannot trust her and she must resent him for killing her lover. No, a duel simply will not serve the purposes of a modern rational man.

Avenging one’s honor has not even always required a formal duel; for Benvenuto Cellini, a flying assault with cutlery or a patient ambush from behind some shrubbery would be adequate. According to Cellini’s autobiography, there was a certain young man named Luigi who was much obliged to Cellini for assisting him in a time of illness. Cellini advised this young man against getting mixed up with the wrong company. One evening, while attending a banquet at the house of his good friend Michelangelo (yes, that Michelangelo,) Cellini overheard Luigi cavorting with a “shameless strumpet” with whom Cellini already had quite a bit of bad blood. Rather than standing on ceremony, Cellini promptly launched himself out of the dining room window with his dinner knife in hand, intent on killing Luigi for disrespecting him. Luckily for Luigi, he was able to make his escape, leaving Cellini holding his cape. Undeterred, Cellini remained “bent on punishing the infamous young man, who showed how little he regarded” his erstwhile patron. Cellini promptly collected his sword and laid in wait for Luigi, hiding in a particularly thorny bush. When Luigi finally arrived, he was accompanied by a dozen or so soldiers. Undeterred, Cellini sprang into action yet again. Through the sheer chaos that accompanied his 1 on 12 attack, he got in a good shot against Luigi and slashed the strumpet right in the face. So surprised were the soldiers that several actually injured themselves and Cellini got away unscathed.

Unfortunately, this story really sends the wrong message. Luigi dies (although several days later in an unrelated equine accident) and Cellini doesn’t suffer any negative repercussions from his insane actions. If Cellini had been mortally wounded by one of the soldiers, one must wonder if he would have decided that it was worth it. Indeed, the dying thoughts of every man who ever fought a duel over a perceived insult and lost would be interesting to know. I side with most modern men (and, I suspect most men throughout history) who say, “Dueling swords hurt more than words, ’cause words can never hurt me.”

Beer of the Week: Kirin Ichiban – In the United States, a bottle of “Japan’s Prime Brew” will note on the label that it was brewed by Busch in California (or somewhere else on the continent.) In Korea, however, this “Imported” beer would surely be shipped in from the original brewery, right? No such luck. The Korean version is imported, but not from Japan. Instead this brew comes from China. Not withstanding, this is a pretty good beer. It starts with a light, but slightly hoppy aroma. There is a crisp, almost spicy, hops presence and it finishes with a pleasant lingering bitterness. Nothing too powerful, just a nice tingling on the tongue.

Reading of the week: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini – If the story of his attacks on young Luigi seem incredible, that shouldn’t be too surprising. Elsewhere in his autobiography,Cellini describes conjuring demons in the Colosseum. But don’t call him a liar, or he’ll come after you with a knife.

Question of the week: What ever became of honor?


Common Beauty

One does not need rose-colored glasses to see beauty in the world. Not only is there beauty to be admired, but there is quite a bit of the stuff. As the natural philosopher Michael Faraday observed, “most beautiful things are common.” This comment was not an aside related to the simple elegance of the law of universal gravitation or a musing brought on by consideration of the properties of magnets, although both of these are readily observable, extremely common and simply beautiful. No, in this instance, Faraday was commenting on the beauty of an inflated rubber bladder.

It is beyond a doubt that Faraday understood and appreciated the beauty of the scientific principles which made up his studies, and yet he went out of his way to comment on the beauty of the mundane rubber bladder. In so doing, he practically anticipated the art of Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp rocked the art world by exhibiting “readymade” art: manufactured goods that were raised to the status of art simply by being chosen by the artist. Although there are many who balk at the idea that a urinal is art simply because Mr. Duchamp deigned to sign it and exhibit it, the essential idea is that common things are often beautiful.

Charles Dickens, who specialized in writing about the beauty found in even the lowest and most common places, understood Faraday. In fact, Faraday’s lectures inspired Dickens and Percival Leigh to write an essay titled “The Chemistry of a Pint of Beer.” Now that is a study on commonplace beauty.

Beer of the Week: Paulaner Hefe-Weissbier Naturtrüb – One can shift from natural science to natural beer and easily maintain a thread of elegant beauty. Paulaner may only be Germany’s eighth best selling brewer, but their beer is certainly common enough. There is quite a lot of sediment in this beer that can easily be seen swirling throughout the glass. The aroma is sweet and has a hint of vanilla. The flavor is not as sweet as the smell would lead one to believe, but it is still typical of a good wheat beer: citrus and a bit of spice. It is a great example of its type and an excellent beer all around.

Reading of the week: The Force of Gravitation by Michael Faraday – This short section of one of Faraday’s lectures may serve as a refresher of what we think we know about gravitation.

Question of the week: Faraday maintains that two ivory balls placed next to each other exert a gravitational pull on each other, even though his equipment was not nearly fine enough to measure that pull. He supports this claim by asserting that a ball placed next to a mountain would be slightly drawn toward the mountain. Does it seem likely that he actually has been able to observe and measure the pull toward the mountain or is this simply a thought experiment that employs circular logic?


Rust Stains

Some little while ago now, I went on a bit of an adventure. The details will remain vague to avoid any trouble with any authority figures and so that I do not inadvertently encourage others to do anything that they ought not do. I must stress that I cannot advise that anybody attempt their own version of this particular adventure.

The adventure started, as most great adventures do, with alcohol. And a rather large amount of the stuff at that. I met up with two friends on a Friday evening. After a light repast and a few beers, we decided to drink our way down to the river. I say “drink our way” rather than “walk” because it was a very short walk that was punctuated by stopping at each of the several convenience stores on the way for beverages of a refreshing nature. When we got to the river, we found ourselves at the base of a bridge. Exploration and skylarkings naturally followed and in a few hours time, we had crossed the river in a most unconventional way. Highlights included an excellent view, an abandoned hardhat, and an awful fright courtesy of a police boat that we thought for sure had seen us.

What we had done, none of us would have done alone. It was also almost certainly illegal. We knew that we were in the wrong, and still we pursued our course. I cannot help but feel that it had a rather bonding effect, strengthening our friendship through a somewhat unorthodox trial. But can friendship really benefit from unvirtuous actions?

In his dialogue On Friendship, Cicero places the greatest emphasis on virtue and even claims the true friendship can only exist between men of great virtue. He admits that men of ordinary quality may experience ordinary friendship, but even then “if virtue be neglected, those who imagine themselves to possess friends will find out their error as soon as some grave disaster forces them to make trial of them.” I must reconcile Cicero’s opinion to my position in this way: it is unreasonable and immodest to expect to have friends who are significantly better than oneself, but friends of approximately equal virtue are adequately provided to assist one another in becoming better people. Our adventure together put us on a common level of virtue, now we can begin to build each other up. That is to say, next time, we won’t drink as much and we’ll keep our adventures more or less legal. Beer of the Week: Max Special Hop 2011 – As I mentioned in the review of regular Max, the advertising plan for this beer is to play up the fact that it is brewed with German hops and 100% malted barley (that is, without rice or other adjuncts.) As part of their “superior ingredients” approach, each year they come out with a limited edition brew with specially chosen hops. This year, the hops are from New Zealand. This is the beer that I took with me on my adventure across the river. The hops shine through in the aroma; it is not a strong aroma, but sweet, floral hops are definitely the primary smell. The flavor is sweet, but not syrupy like many adjunct lagers. It is not really much better than regular Max (which itself is very bland,) but it is somewhat impressive to see a large brewer attempting to produce a higher quality beer.

Reading of the week: On Friendship by Marcus Tullius Cicero, paragraphs 61-66 – Cicero, in this passage explains why friendship is “a matter of supreme importance” as well as discussing how a friendship should be ended if a friendship must end. 

Question of the week: Cicero says that mutual respect is friendship’s “brightest jewel.” Does that seem right?