Rewind, Play

Act II of The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov begins with these lines by Charlotta: “I haven’t a real passport. I don’t know how old I am, and I think I’m young. When I was a little girl my father and mother used to go round fairs and give very good performances and I used to do the salto mortale and various little things. And when papa and mamma died a German lady took me to her and began to teach me. I liked it. I grew up and became a governess. And where I came from and who I am, I don’t know. . . . Who my parents were–perhaps they weren’t married–I don’t know. I don’t know anything.” Charlotta is a woman with an uncertain past.

Shortly thereafter, Epikhodov speaks these lines: “I’m an educated man, I read various remarkable books, but I cannot understand the direction I myself want to go–whether to live or to shoot myself, as it were. So, in case, I always carry a revolver about with me. Here it is.” Epikhodov is a man with an uncertain future.

(Although Charlotta caries a hunting rifle in this scene and Epikhodov shows his revolver to the audience, neither gun goes off by the end of the play. This scene is the exception that proves the rule of “Chekhov’s gun”: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”)

Charlotta and Epikhodov present the audience with two questions that are central to the play: What is our past? and What is our future? These questions, although presented by two separate characters, are inseperable; our futures are intimately tied to our pasts.

This principle is easy enough to recognize. What is more difficult is determining just how much the past dictates the future. To over-emphasize the past is to abdicate one’s own volition and agency. (“I must do such-and-such because I am fated to do so.”) But to ignore the past is to give up our most valuable teacher, experience. As they say, those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

We must find a way to learn from the past without becoming slaves to it. And that sounds a lot easier than it is.

Beer of the week: Rewind Hefeweissbier- This brew comes from Chicago’s Around the Bend Beer Co. The name is a reference to the fact that Rewind is a classic German-style wheat beer. THe brewers at Around the Bend clearly intend to learn from the past. It is orange and cloudy, with a nice foamy head. The aroma is totally classic for the style, with very prominent banana notes. The flavor is packed with banana and spice, and finishes very smoothly.

Reading of the week: The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov – Chekhov called this play a comedy, but it is actually a sad story about the demise of a once-prominent family. At the end of the play, the bank forecloses its mortgage on the family’s estate–including the titular orchard. This week’s reading, from the end of Act II, is a very charged discussion of how the characters have to reckon with the legacy of Russian serfdom before they can move forward as members of an increasingly egalitarian world.

Question for the week: Are there times when it actually is best to completely forget or ignore the past?


Best of All Possible Blog Posts

Aside from his work in mathematics–and lending his name to a brand of butter cookie–Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz is best known for his philosophical optimism. He opined that ours is the best of all possible worlds. To oversimplify:
1. God, being good, chose to create the best world.
2. God, being omniscient, was able to evaluate all of the infinite facts and truths of all of the infinite possible universes to determine which is most perfect.
3. God, having determined to make the best possible world and having determined which world that would be, created this world.

Like God, people always act in pursuit of good. As Leibniz wrote in his Discourse on Metaphysics, God’s first decree on human nature “is that men should always do, although freely, that which appears to be the best.” This tracks with Aristotle’s claim at the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics that “every action and pursuit is thought to aim at some good.”

Unlike God, however, people are not omniscient, and therefore cannot infallibly determine what is best. “Each soul knows the infinite, knows all, but confusedly. As in walking on the sea-shore and hearing the great noise that it makes, I hear the individual sounds of each wave, of which the total sound is composed, but without distinguishing them.” Consequently, although we always act in the way that appears best, we very often misjudge what is best and/or how to achieve our objective. Without perfect knowledge of what is best, we “must often be content with the simple twilight of probability.”

So what can we do to improve our probability of identifying what is best and most accurately aiming our actions toward it?

One possibility (not suggested by Leibniz, to my knowledge) is to conserve rational energy by minimizing unnecessary decision-making. Have you ever come home from a particularly difficult day at work and felt like you simply could not decide what to have for dinner? This all-too-common experience is the result of an important reality: decision-making takes energy. And rational energy is limited. If you spend all day making important business decisions or solving problems, it shouldn’t be surprising if, at the end of the day, you lack the energy to make even mundane choices such as what to eat.

By reducing the number of choices one must make in a day, one may conserve some of that precious decision-making energy. Supreme Court Justice David Souter famously ate the same lunch every day: yogurt and an apple. Steve Jobs’ constant turtleneck and jeans combination was part of a conscious effort to reduce decision fatigue. By eliminating trivial decisions, one frees up brain power for more important issues. Hopefully, by saving mental energy, we can make the best possible decisions in this best of all worlds.

Beer of the week: Alter Ego – Some people even drink the same beer all of the time. Once you know what you like, why not stick with it? No regular reader will be surprised to know that I enjoy the decision-making that goes into picking what beer to drink. So even though I have had various “go-to beers” over the years, I would never commit to a single brew for long. Alter Ego is a hazy, orangish IPA from Tree House Brewing Company. Its rocky head hangs around for quite a while. The aroma is quite fruity, and the flavor is of tropical fruit with a decent malt body.

Reading of the week: A Letter of Leibniz – In this excerpt, Leibniz uses two synchronized clocks as a metaphor for how one’s soul and body can be perfectly in sync, even though physical and non-physical bodies cannot act on each other. In typical Leibniz style, he ends the passage with the claim that he has more profound proofs, but the clock metaphor will suffice.

Question of the week: Were Leibniz and Aristotle correct in asserting that every human act is aimed at some good?


Partly Cloudy

This post was made possible by a generous contribution by Eva and Matt toward the BeerAndTrembling education fund. Now that the campaign is no longer live, I encourage readers to participate by reaching out in the comments or through the “Make a Recommendation” page.

My wife recently asked me why I wear the same pajamas in winter that I do in summer. I replied, “because I live indoors.” William Faulkner once complained that “there are no seasons at all any more, with interiors artificially contrived at sixty degrees in summer and ninety degrees in winter, so that mossbacked recidivists like me must go outside in summer to escape cold and in winter to escape heat.”

It is not merely our living spaces that have lost their seasonality. For many of us, particularly those of us who work in offices, the most pronounced way that the seasons affect our work-day is in our commute. I, for example, wake and return home in the dark during the winter. The character of my work, however, remains the same year-round. I do not exactly envy the landscaper who annually parks his lawn mower and tunes up his snowblower, but at least the seasons prevent his work from being entirely monotonous.

Schoolchildren, of course, know the value of the seasons. In the winter, the prospect of an unplanned day off of school is truly magical. And, although they may lament the end of sledding and snow days, a child’s enthusiasm for summer is without parallel. Aside from vacation as a respite from schoolwork, summer weather is all but universally more conducive to play.

We adults should be better at living seasonally, in two ways at least: eating and playing.

Eating seasonally means eating fresh and eating local, both of which have clear benefits. Eating local produce means less waste: less spoilage, less delivery fuel, and less packaging. It also means supporting local farms and markets. A fresher more local diet is also much more salubrious. Vegetables are most nutritious when they are most ripe, and vegetables that must be shipped a long distance must be picked well before they are ready.

Play is, perhaps, our closest tie to the seasons. With our most of livelihoods protected from the elements, it is only our recreation that still relies on the weather. Consider two examples:

1. A friend of mine, an avid alpine skier, (very) often comments that winter is his favorite season. While others focus on the ways in which winter weather interferes with their otherwise year-round activities–such as commuting–he focuses on the ways that winter weather allows him to play in a way that he cannot most of the year. And once the last of the snow melts, he breaks out his croquet set, yet again playing in a way that conduces to the season. And, although I gather that he does not eat especially well, he drinks local, seasonal beers.

2. Another friend lives in central Florida. He golfs every weekend, year-round. His dinner menu is virtually unchanging for 51 weeks of the year. (Although his vacation diet, I understand, is very local and very seasonal.) He drinks the same macro-brew every night. Even though his world appears to be without seasons, they still affect his play. As an avid sports fan, he breaks up the calendar, not into winter, spring, summer, and fall, but into football, hockey, and baseball seasons. The weather under the dome of Tropicana Field may always be the same, but the baseball season is still dictated by the weather of the rest of the country. His play remains seasonal despite his removal from seasonal weather.

Faulkner’s complaint about our loss of seasonality is as true today as when he published it in 1962–if not more so. But many of us are starting to question the homogenization of our lives, and getting back to seeing the seasons as part of our own natural cycles.

Beer of the week: Partly Cloudy IPA – Part of recognizing the role of the seasons in our lives is not wishing away inclement weather. Without cloudy skies, clear skies would lose meaning. Virginia’s Solace Brewing Company produces this cloudy IPA. The aroma is of citrusy hops with grass undertones. Although fairly bitter, I don’t think the fruity hops notes are as prominent in the flavor as in the smell. Partly Cloudy is a nicely balanced, not overly-hopped beer.

Reading of the week: Song of Solomon, Chapter 2 – Beautiful though a crisp winter day may be, the coming of spring always evokes strong positive emotions. “Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away,” writes Solomon. “For, lo, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth.” (By the way, I picked the King James Version for this reading. Is it the most poetic translation? No. The most literal? Not likely. I picked it because the KJV has “turtle” for “turtle dove”, which conjures images of trees budding in the spring sun, while flocks of shelled reptiles precariously perch on their branches and “sing”. I find that very amusing.)

Question for the week: How do the seasons affect you? Do you make any effort to embrace each season?


A Sound Heart and a Deformed Conscience

This post was made possible by a generous contribution by Muriel toward the BeerAndTrembling education fund. Now that the campaign is no longer live, I encourage readers to participate by reaching out in the comments or through the “Make a Recommendation” page.

Mark Twain’s writing is always quotable, usually funny, and occasionally sublime. There are, of course, the odd missteps. For example, I find A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to be a very uneven mix of sunny humor and dark, cynical satire. And I was generally unimpressed when I recently cracked open Innocents Abroad. But tastes vary, and no body of work can be all chefs d’oeuvre.

Even Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not unalloyed genius. Earnest Hemingway advised readers of Huckleberry Finn to quit before the final chapters. But, at least in my opinion, almost everything before Hemingway’s recommended cutoff point is excellent. The book begins with a notice: “PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” Despite this stern warning against looking for meaning in the book, it is impossible not to see something important in Chapter XXXI.

By that point in the book Huckleberry Finn and Jim have travelled a considerable distance down the Mississippi River together. Huck is running from his abusive father and Jim is running from slavery. Eventually, they fall in with two traveling grifters. These frauds try to earn quick money by giving dance lessons and lectures on temperance, “missionarying, and mesmerizing, and doctoring, and telling fortunes, and a little of everything.” They are, however, generally unsuccessful. Eventually, they decide on a more profitable scheme: they betray Jim and sell him back into slavery.

It is under these circumstances that Huck is faced with a moral crisis. He sees two options. One option is to contact Jim’s “rightful” owner, in the hopes that Jim may return to his previous slavery rather than the possibly harsher slavery with of his new masters. Or he can attempt to help Jim escape bondage yet again. It may seem easy, from the reader’s point of view, to see what the “right” thing to do is. The problem for Huck is that he has been taught that what is lawful is good, and what is unlawful is bad. And, according to the laws of man and God, Jim is meant to be a slave. To defy those laws is to become a social pariah and invite eternal damnation.

Huckleberry, as the narrator, describes his inner turmoil. He knows that helping a slave to get his freedom, according to society, is about the most wicked, low-down, rotten thing that he could do. He’d be positively ‘shamed to death to face his friends and neighbors after doing such a despicable thing. Moreover, he believes truly that “everlasting fire” is the reward for aiding Jim’s escape. He sincerely, desperately wants to be good. But being good means he must abandon his friend when he needs him the most. Huck tries to pray, but can’t because he cannot repent wanting to help Jim. And if he cannot repent, he cannot be saved. So he makes his choice:

“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell” …

It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

Twain later wrote that Huck’s inner conflict was the collision of “a sound heart and a deformed conscience.” Society had played Huck a cruel trick by convincing him that virtue was evil and evil was virtuous. So while he believed honestly that he was irredeemably wicked, he was actually irrepressibly good. His sound heart overcame his deformed conscience.

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Beer of the week: Bud Light Orange – Like some of Twain’s writing, this beer seems caught between being for children or adults. On the one hand, it smells and tastes like an orange lollipop. It occasionally even causes that peculiar pain you can get in the back of your jaw when eating citrus candies. On the other hand, it is beer. In fact, although it is too sweet, it is not quite candy-sweet. It actually tastes a bit like beer. But whoever Bud Light Orange is for, it ain’t me. (Although I honestly would try it as the base for a float with vanilla ice cream, because I am a kid at heart.)

Reading of the week: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – There is not much more to be said about this excerpt that I didn’t say above. But I really do find this to be one of the most moving pieces of writing I’ve ever read.

Question for the week: How can we avoid having our consciences deformed by a misguided society?


Bird Law

It has been said that cross-examination is the attorney’s opportunity to testify. That is because on cross-examination, lawyers are allowed to ask leading questions. So the lawyer shapes the testimony, and the witness is simply asked to confirm it. The witness doesn’t have a chance to explain himself or expand on his answers; he is simply expected to say “yes” or “no” on cue. And, as any Socratic interlocutor knows–or quickly learns–giving a series of yeses and noes can often lead to an indefensible position. On redirect examination, the other attorney may be able to get out any explanations or expansions needed to rehabilitate the witness, but it may be too late.

Once one recognizes the power that the questioner has, The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe becomes infuriating. The titular fowl answers gives the same one-word answer to every single question. The narrator recognizes almost immediately that the word “nevermore” is the raven’s “only stock and store.” And yet, the narrator still frames every single question to the raven in a way that is guaranteed to disappoint him! Instead of asking questions that call for negative answers, he continually seeks positive answers.

Here are a few places he could have greatly improved his interview with the raven:

Original
Q: [Will I ever] forget the lost Lenore[?]
A: Nevermore.

Improved
Q: Will I continue to be tormented by the loss of Lenore?
A: Nevermore.

Original
Q: Shall [my soul] clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore[?]
A: Nevermore.

Improved
Q: Will I remain separated from Lenore?
A: Nevermore.

See? Once the narrator knows the answer that is coming, all he has to do is arrange the question to suit that answer. Instead, things get worse and worse as he keeps asking the wrong questions. And when it is time to rid himself of the bird, he makes the same mistake.

Original
Q: Take thy beak from out my heart and take thy form from off my door!
A: Nevermore.

Improved
Q: Do you plan on staying here long?
A: Nevermore.

It’s almost like the narrator didn’t really want to forget Lenore and be rid of the avian manifestation of his grief.

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Beer of the week: Sorachi Ace – This farmhouse ale from The Brooklyn Brewery is brewed with the somewhat unusual Japanese hybrid hops variety of the same name. The beer is quite light in color and slightly hazy, with a foamy white head that dissipates quickly. The aroma is yeasty and lemony. The beer is crisp and bright, and finishes with a bit of spice and a lingering tartness that hangs in the back of the throat.

Reading of the week: Apology by Plato – Expected The Raven, didn’t you? Well that poem has already been used as a weekly reading, so although it is certainly worth rereading (which can be done here,) I picked Socrates’s cross-examination of Meletus for this week. Nearly two and a half millennia later, this portion of the Apology remains a masterclass in cross-examination.

Question for the week: In what contexts do you carefully frame questions to your advantage?


New Year’s Resolution Complete!

I don’t know what the official success rate is for New Year’s resolutions, but it’s got to be crazy low. For that reason, I am positively shocked that I’ve actually I followed through on my 2019 resolution all the way to the finish. As I detailed in March, June, and September, my resolution for the year was to memorize two poems per month. The final quarter of this year, I memorized:

October:
The Charge of the Light Brigade
 by Alfred Lord Tennyson. The military action immortalized by this poem took place in October, 1854, 165 years ago.
The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. Although the poem is principally set in a “bleak December”, it is most associated with Halloween. (Especially for fans of The Simpsons.)
November:
My Soul is Dark
 by Gordon, Lord Byron. November is often a dark, cold month that inspires dark thoughts.
My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns. I actually wanted to memorize To a Mouse, which is set in November, 1785. But the Scots language Burns employs would make memorization a bit too tough for me. My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose is much more… English.
December:
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
by William Wordsworth. The true value of the beautiful sight of daffodils dancing in the breeze was not in the moment, but the ability to call the scene to mind long after the flowers have wilted.
A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore. How better to end the year than with the single most popular Christmas poem of all time?

And so concludes this year’s resolution. I intend to continue memorizing a poem a month until I run out of memory and need to delete some things. Brains work like magnetic disc drives, right?

Beer of the week: The Grey Lady – The Grey Lady is a spiced wheat beer from Cisco Brewing Company on Nantucket. The beer is pale and hazy, and smells yeasty and a bit fruity. The flavor has pronounced notes of ginger and clove and just a bit of tartness at the end. It is an excellent beer, but I think I’d like it to be just a bit more flavorful, both in terms of sweetness and spice.

Reading of the week: A Visit From St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore – According to Wikisource, this poem “is largely responsible for the contemporary American conception of Santa Claus, including his appearance, the night he visits, his method of transportation, the number and names of his reindeer, and that he brings toys to children.” However, a couple details did not make it into the popular image of Santa. For one thing, Moore’s St. Nicholas smokes a pipe. Additionally, Moore’s St. Nick, although still “chubby and plump,” is quite small. He is described as a “jolly old elf” driving a “miniature sleigh” pulled by “eight tiny reindeer.”

Question for the week: Do you have any poems memorized? If so, which? If not, why?


Where the Story of Christmas Begins

I don’t know if you have had the same experience, but the snag I always come up against when I’m telling a story is this dashed difficult problem of where to begin it. It’s a thing you don’t want to go wrong over, because one false step and you’re sunk. I mean, if you fool about too long at the start, trying to establish atmosphere, as they call it, and all that sort of rot, you fail to grip and the customers walk out on you.

Get off the mark, on the other hand, like a scalded cat, and your public is at a loss. It simply raises its eyebrows, and can’t make out what you’re talking about.

P.G. Wodehouse

The Christmas story–the nativity of Jesus, not the beloved 1980’s movie with the BB gun–comes from the gospels. But each gospel writer took a different starting point for Jesus’ origin story.

Matthew starts the story 42 generations earlier, with Abraham fathering Isaac. The genealogy goes on through Jacob and Judah, Kings David and Solomon, and finally Joseph, husband of Mary. (Also in that bloodline are Jehoshaphat, Salmon, and Zerubbabel, whose names are curiously absent from most popular baby name lists.) Matthew goes into the annunciation (when an angel announced the holy pregnancy,) then the birth, and then the visit of the wisemen from the East.

Mark starts with a quotation from the prophet Isiah. He then skips Christmas altogether, and introduces John the Baptist and Jesus as adults.

Luke, not content to let the story speak for itself, starts with something of an author’s prologue. He addresses the gospel to someone called Theophilus (which, if my Greek is any good at all, must mean something like “God’s friend” or “God’s beloved” or “God-lover”.) Before getting into the classic Christmas stuff, Luke spends the better part of a chapter on the conception of John the Baptist, the annunciation, and John’s parents. It isn’t until chapter two that we get the birth, the manger, and the shepherds.

John famously starts his gospel “In the beginning…”, which seems reasonable enough. But the beginning that John identifies predates creation itself (if anything can be said to “predate” the very notion of time.) John covers the entirety of pre-creation through the birth of John the Baptist in about six verses. The birth of Jesus gets a single verse, and then jumps right into the exploits of adult Jesus.

As usual, a closer look raises more questions than answers. Why is the Christmas story relatively unimportant to most of the gospel writers? Why did the gospel writers start in such different ways? Who is Theophilus, anyway?

Beers of the week: Our Special Ale (2017 & 2019) – Our Special Ale is Anchor Brewing Company’s annual holiday beer. Having got my hands on a cellared bottle of the 2017 edition I decided to compare it with the 2019 version. (Although Anchor does not particularly recommend aging their holiday beers, they do claim that it will mellow with age.) The recipe changes from year to year, so differences between the two can’t be attributed solely to the aging.

The 2017 edition is very dark brown, with just a hint of red, and a tan, rocky head. Its aroma has notes of smoke and black licorice. The main flavors seem to come from dark-roasted malt, without much hops to speak of.

The 2019 is dark red-brown, with a lighter, more uniform head. The aroma has some bright hops. The flavor is nicely balanced, with some dark malt notes and a bit of bright hops and spice.

Between the two versions, I certainly prefer the 2019. It is brighter and more carbonated, probably because it wasn’t aged. And, whether it is attributable to the aging or not, the 2017 seems a bit flat and one-note.

Reading of the week: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, Prologue – As Wharton points out in her introduction to the second edition, “the climax, or rather the anti-climax, occurs a generation after the first acts of” Ethan Frome. As a result, she set the prologue of the book long after the principal action, introducing the title character as a fifty-two-year-old with a bad limp. The reader must cross many chapters and two decades to learn the limp’s cause.

Question for the week: Where would your story begin? At your birth? At the birth of your most distant known ancestor? Or, like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, would your story begin at your funeral?