In Defense of Idleness

Just think of all the things that you could accomplish if you made the most of your time. What if you replaced every television episode that you watch with a lesson in a foreign language? What if instead of checking Facebook, you did a mini workout? So many hours, and days, and years are wasted by each and every one of us. But is making the most of your time the same as making the best use of your time?

It is well-established that taking breaks improves production. Periodic breaks, whether to stretch your legs or just to think about something other than work, are not a waste at all. Rather, they are part of staying healthy and productive.

Even more extended “time-wasting” can have value. Reading a trashy novel, watching sitcom reruns, or playing a cell phone game are all defensible uses of time. For one thing, if you are actually enjoying the book, TV show, or video game, it is certainly not a total waste. The Teacher commends the enjoyment of life and says that there is nothing better for man to do than to be merry. So if you get more enjoyment from reading Twitter feeds than you would from more “productive” pursuits, that’s not so bad.

And as impressive as it would be to “relax” by taking a deep dive into metaphysical philosophy or intense language study, that is simply not realistic for most people. One cannot give maximum effort every waking hour.

Of course, this is not to say that one ought to be totally idle. Television, social media, and the like often are dangerous time-wasters. The point is to be conscious and conscientious about how your time is spent. All too often we lose track of how much time we have spent. We suddenly realized that we have watched an entire television series in one sitting, or that we spent an hour on a cellphone game that we started playing for no particular reason. The biggest waste of time is letting it slip by unnoticed. So watch your favorite show, read some chuckle-headed beer blog, leisurely sip a beer while doing nothing at all productive. But do those things with the goal of enjoyment. Be mindful; do not merely waste time.

Beer of the week: Budweiser Copper Lager – Barrel aged beers are very hot right now.  Budweiser his trying to cash in on this popularity by offering this lager, “aged on real Jim Beam barrel staves.” The best thing about it is it’s lovely red-brown color. The head, of rather large bubbles, dissipates very quickly. The aroma is somewhat malty, and the beer actually starts off with some warm bready malt flavor. But the beer does not finish especially well. I fancy that I get hints of whiskey, and a bit of smokiness in the end, but that might be the power of suggestion. Either way, it is a middle-of-the-road beer for a bottom-of-the-road (how’s that for a figure of speech?) price.

Reading of the week: Transcendental Wild Oats by Louisa May Alcott – This is an excerpt from a wonderful short story in which Alcott relates the history of Fruitlands, the utopian commune co-founded by her father. According to Alcott, her mother did all of the domestic work while the men of the group sat around the fire and built castles in the sky. The men regarded “being” as more important than “doing,” so nothing got done. Naturally, the whole project lasted barely half a year.

Question for the week: I have recently taken to memorizing poetry. What other relaxing pastime could one adopt that would be both enriching and relaxing?

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Erik’s Sons Were First

This is the forty-third in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLIII: American Historical Documents

As a member of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Michael Angelo Musmanno set a record for most dissenting opinions filed by a justice. In fact, it only took him a few years to write more dissenting opinions than all of the other justices on the court had collectively written in the previous 50 years.

Musmanno was, in a word, quarrelsome. He was extremely vocal about his opinions of Nazis, Communists, jazz music, and Henry Miller. But what really fired him up was Vikings. He hated Vikings. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “nothing aroused his volatile Italian temper so much as any claim that Christopher Columbus did not discover America.”

To refute arguments that Icelanders, rather than Columbus, reached North America first, Musmanno wrote a book called Columbus Was First. Of course, we now know that he was wrong. Vikings certainly reached North America around 500 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In 1960, ruins of a Norse settlement were discovered at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, confirming Mussmano’s secret fear.

But why was Musmanno so certain about something beyond his ken? At least partially, it was racial pride. Musmanno was deeply invested in Italian-American advancement. If it turned out that the Italian hero Columbus was a half-millennium late to the party, that would be bad for the cause. But Musmanno probably fought so hard on the side of error mostly because he was a quarrelsome jerk who wanted to impose his own opinion on everyone and everything.

As it turns out, the Vikings who beat Columbus to the punch were, themselves, racist and belligerent. According to the Saga of the Greenlanders, the first encounter between the Vikings and Native Americans (whom the Vikings called “Skrellings”) did not go well. The Norsemen killed eight of the first nine natives they encountered. Ultimately the norse settlement of North America failed because of violent conflicts with the natives and because of the Vikings’ inability to live peacefully even among themselves. Maybe Musmanno would have found kindred spirits in the ancient Viking settlers, had he only given them a chance.

Beer of the week: Zhygulivske Lager – This beer from Ukraine’s Obolon Brewery is named for the beer of the Soviet Union. On the label appears to be a Viking longship (for some reason.) Zhygulivske is an amber-colored lager. The aroma is faint, but pleasant and malty. The flavor follows the smell. I can’t pronounce it, but I sure can drink it.

Reading of the week: Saga of the Greenlanders – The Harvard Classics appears to incorrectly identify this text as part of the Saga of Eric the Red. Although both sagas tell of the discovery of Vinland, they are distinct texts with some key differences.

Question for the week: Does the Viking “discovery” of North America really diminish thr achievements of Columbus?


Chastity

This is the thirteenth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.

CHASTITY: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
-Franklin

Like Temperance, Frugality, and Silence, Franklin’s version of Chastity could easily be viewed as a sub-virtue of moderation. He does not advocate sexual abstinence any more than he advocates absolute silence, parsimony, or teetotaling. Rather, Franklin’s advice is to limit sexual exertion to a healthy level. Sex is not bad; over-indulgence is bad, particularly if it leads to a damaged reputation.

This view of chastity and eros would have served Hippolytus well. The mythical Hippolytus worshipped Artemis, the chaste goddess of the hunt, to the exclusion of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. In Euripides’ version of the story, Hippolytus comes on the scene with a an offering for Artemis: a “woven wreath, culled from a virgin meadow, where nor shepherd dares to herd his flock nor ever scythe hath mown, but o’er the mead unshorn the bee doth wing its way in spring; and with the dew from rivers drawn purity that garden tends.” And he follows this carefully cultivated sacrifice with a total rebuff of Aphrodite. “No god, whose worship craves the night,” he says, “hath charms for me.”

Hippolytus’ sage attendant understands the error of this attitude, and advises him to maintain at least “courteous affability” with all of the gods. Although he does not say so in so many words, this is because the gods of the Greek pantheon represent the many facets of humanity. It is fine, even proper, to have a favored god as a patron, but all of the gods must have their due. To deny any of the various gods entirely is to deny an entire aspect of human nature. And that is as true of Aphrodite as it is of the rest.


Beer of the week: Indio – When it comes to Mexican beers, darker is almost always better. This Mexican dark lager pours with big, sticky bubbles. The aroma is not much different than a Corona. The flavor is profile includes some rice and a slight hint of caramel that lingers. And, although it has more flavor than most pale lagers from south of the boarder, it is just about as refreshing.

Reading of the week: Hippolytus by Euripides – The play begins with Aphrodite spelling out exactly what her plan is to avenge herself upon Hippolytus. She is intent upon “bring to ruin all who vaunt themselves at” her.

Question for the week: Is rage particularly tied to love in a special way? Could Hephaestus, god of craftsmen, or Athena, goddess of wisdom, be as spiteful as Aphrodite?


Conspicuous Consumption of Killian’s

When I worked in an Italian restaurant, a customer remarked by way of compliment that “it’s clear that there are real immigrants working in the kitchen.” I confirmed that the cooks were, indeed, immigrants and that I would pass on the compliment to the chef. I neglected to mention where the immigrants in question came from originally; I suspect very strongly that the customer would have been less effusive in her praise of the food if she knew that the chef was not Italian, but Mexican. Preconceived notions have such a peculiar way of effecting perception.

Some years later, it was my duty (nay, honor) to purchase kegs of beer for campus-wide college parties. Substantial though my allotted budget was, it was not inexhaustible. To save money for very good beer at the biggest parties, I purchased cheaper beers throughout the year. For the most part, people seemed to like this plan, but I occasionally got complaints. I was always surprised when people had the nerve to whine about having to (or, more properly, getting to) drink Yeungling or PBR at a party. Everybody’s favorite beer should be free beer.

One way that I avoided complaints was to purchase Killian’s Irish Red. Killian’s certainly seems classier than PBR or Bud Light. I personally think that it tastes better as well. The twist, however, is that a keg of Killian’s is no more expensive than a keg of Coors Light. (Which is not surprising when you learn that Killian’s is brewed by the same giant company.) Many of the students who complained about cheap macrobrews applauded my decision to serve this cheap macrobrew, simply because they didn’t know how cheap it was.

Thorstein Veblen wrote of fashion that people have a strong bias against anything cheap. People of taste will reject a beautiful, well-made garment as soon as they realize that it is not expensive. “[The garment] loses caste aesthetically because it falls to a lower pecuniary grade.” The same (and its reverse) is often true of beer: if it is 50¢ per can, people believe that it can’t be good, and if it is $15 per bottle, people believe that it can’t be bad.

Part of why I favor drinking from a glass is so that the label (and the price tag) don’t distract you from the beer.

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Beer of the week: George Killian’s Irish Red -Killian’s is ruby red and certainly more eye-catching than a domestic light beer. The roasted malt that provides the color (at least I hope that the color comes from the malt rather than food coloring) also imparts some flavor. To be sure, it isn’t a great beer but it does have decent body and some good bread and caramel notes. I definitely recommend it if you want a beer that seems more fancy than it is.

Reading for the week: The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen – Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe the myriad ways in which people indulge in luxury goods and activities (and let everybody else know it.) In this excerpt Veblen discusses how fashion can show off wealth. Not only can a man in a tuxedo afford to buy a tuxedo, the pristine cleanliness of his tuxedo makes it obvious that he does not have to perform any manual labor.

Question for the week: Not that many people would be willing to admit this, but have you ever liked something until you found out that it was cheap and only then decided that you did not like it?


Penmen: First Class

Last week, the reading was a poem by Charles Bukowski. Aside from Martin Luther King, Jr., Bukowski is the most contemporary author to be featured here. For the most part, the readings on this blog are classics: Homer, Aristotle, Bacon, Poe.  The Bukowski reading certainly did not seem out of place, but it raised the question: what is a classic?

The 19th century literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve informs us that the word “classic” as applied to literature is derived directly from the word for social class. A writer of classics, therefore, is an author from a status above the plebeian wordsmiths, the literary hoi polloi. Traditionally, this meant the great authors whose works survived from age to age: “an old author canonised by admiration.” The Greek and Roman works that were still available in the middle ages were practically classics simply by virtue of their age and origin. But it takes more than time to make a classic.

In Sainte-Beuve’s opinion, the term “instant classic” (if that phrase had existed in the mid 1800’s) would not be an oxymoron. It is not the age of writing that makes it classic, but the quality. A commonly cited synonym for “classic” is “timeless”, and the word timeless really does capture what makes a work stand out among the ever-increasing catalog of human thought. The work of Charles Bukowski certainly may be considered classic, since despite its newness, it captures something eternal about the human condition and something that is true for all readers, in all times.

So what is a classic? Writes Sainte’Beuve: “A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.”

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Beer of the week: Yuengling Lager – I consider Yuengling Lager to be an American classic. Known simply as “lager” throughout much of Pennsylvania, this beer is the flagship product of America’s oldest brewery. Yuengling is also neck-and-neck with the Boston Brewing Company for largest American-owned brewer.  Yuengling Lager is darker and somewhat (though not much) more flavorful than most other mass-produced lagers. It smells and tastes of cheap grain, but for what it is, Yuengling is a decent value. It may actually be a classic because of how long it has been around; Yuengling is partially flavored by nostalgia.

Reading of the week: What is a Classic? by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve – At the end of this essay, Sainte-Beuve imagines a great “temple of taste” with alcoves for all of the world’s classic authors. In the beginning, however, he describes the history of the term and tries to establish his own meaning.

Question of the week: Sainte-Beuve suggests that he may not be able to answer the question adequately, but may guide his readers to answer it for themselves: what is a classic?