Finally Free

Many years ago, I found myself in an off-campus student apartment late at night. The evening had started with cheap keg beer, had proceeded to cheap Canadian whiskey, and, eventually, dumpster-dived Trader Joe’s orange juice. (The OJ was excellent and expiration dates are a lie.)

Anyway, I was in an unfamiliar apartment, with a few people whom I had only just met. I was sitting in a lounge chair. It’s owner, for some reason, decided that the time was right to inform me that his mother had died in that very chair. I was not horrified by the information, but I was fairly rattled by the next sentence:

“My father looked at me and said, ‘We’re finally free.’ ”

In the moment, the idea of a loved one’s death as liberating did not make any sense to me. This appeared to me to be the “monstrous joy” in Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour; the perverse realization that another’s death can brighten our own prospect for happiness. And the joy is all the more monstrous because it is so plausible. One simply must deny that there can be any joy in the passing of a loved one, yet there are so many ways in which such an event may be liberating.

But all these years later, I see how little I understood of the situation. I finally appreciate that the statement “we’re finally free” is not the same as “I am glad she’s dead.” I also understand that the “we” in the father’s statement may have included the mother. If she had suffered from a long and painful illness, she may have been freed by the “sweet release of death.”

My own shock on hearing the story was in large part because I have been so lucky with respect to the health of my loved ones. I had not witnessed a long, slow deterioration of health, or even been affected by any untimely deaths. I do not know now how I will react to any given loved one’s death, but I hope that I will not judge myself harshly for my own response. Whether I weep for days or laugh at all of the fun times we had, grief (like death itself) is not something to be planned.

Beer of the week: Zipline Copper Alt – This dark amber altbier comes from Nebraska’s Zipline Brewing Company. It has a nice, rocky head that fades quickly but leaves some noticeable lacing. The aroma has sourdough hints. The label says to look for chocolate and hazelnut notes, but I only get the hazelnut. This beer is a good find.

Reading of the week: The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin – I don’t want to spoil this excellent story here, so I will only quote from the first line: “Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death.”

Question for the week: Is there a “wrong” way to grieve?

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Vital Air

Science and beer go together like philosophy and beer. Or art and beer. Or pretzels and beer.

Around the time of the American Revolution, brewing played an important role in the early study of chemistry. Dr. Joseph Priestley was one of the first people to isolate oxygen and identify some of its remarkable properties. He wrote a six-volume work entitled Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air in which he describes a number of different “airs” – “gasses” in modern English – and his experiments with them.

His “fixed air” – our “carbon dioxide” – was readily supplied by a nearby brewery. The fermenting beer provided such a great and steady supply of the gas that it became a favorite subject for experimentation. Dr. Priestley found that in fixed air, “a candle would not burn, and a mouse would have died presently.” He even used an upside-down beer glass for his make-shift gas chamber:

If I want to try whether an animal will live in any kind of air, I first put the air into a small vessel, just large enough to give it room to stretch itself; and as I generally make use of mice for this purpose, I have found it very convenient to use the hollow part of a tall beer-glass… which contains between two and three ounce measures of air. In this vessel a mouse will live twenty minutes or half an hour.

For the purpose of these experiments, it is most convenient to catch the mice in small wire traps, out of which it is easy to take them, and, holding them by the back of the neck, to pass them through the water into the vessel which contains the air. If I expect that the mouse will live a considerable time, I take care to put into the vessel something on which it may conveniently sit, out of reach of the water. If the air be good, the mouse will soon be perfectly at ease, having suffered nothing by its passing through the water. If the air be supposed to be noxious, it will be proper (if the operator be desirous of preserving the mice for further use) to keep hold of their tails, that they may be withdrawn as soon as they begin to show signs of uneasiness; but if the air be throughly noxious, and the mouse happens to get a full inspiration, it will be impossible to do this before it be absolutely irrecoverable.

If that description made you feel bad for the mice, you should know that you are not the first to have that reaction. At least part of the time he was making these experiments, Dr. Priestly was a tutor at the Warrington Academy. A colleague of his at Warrington had a daughter named Anna Laetitia Aikin, later Anna Laetitia Barbauld, who grew up to be a prominent woman of letters. One of her early works was a poem, dedicated to Dr. Priestley, called The Mouse’s Petition. The poem was written from the point of view of a mouse that had been trapped by Dr. Priestley and lamented it’s prospective demise on the alter of scientific research. As the story goes, Anna placed the poem in the trap with the mouse, and when Dr. Priestley found it in the morning, he set the mouse free. Scientists, after all, are not completely heartless.

Beer of the week: Rusty Red Ale – Building on the work of Dr. Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier demonstrated that respiration and combustion are forms of oxidization: oxygen bonding with other elements. Like respiration and combustion, rust forming on iron is a form of oxidization. This red ale is from Wisconsin’s O’so Brewing Company. It pours a dark red-brown with a head that dissipates very quickly. The aroma is mostly of roasted malt. The beer is bready, and the flavor follows. It is pleasant and malty, but I’d like a little more flavor. Even more caramel malt or more hops bitterness. Or both.

Reading of the week: The Mouse’s Petition by Anna Laetitia Barbauld – Barbauld’s narrator mouse makes compelling appeals that are both philosophical and sentimental. The poem also has a line that makes me curious about how intimate the author was with Dr. Priestley’s work. The mouse claims that “The cheerful light, the vital air, / Are blessings widely given.” The term “vital air” was one of the names given to oxygen, so it is possible that Barbauld was making a specific reference to Dr. Priestley’s experiments with different gasses. Also, lest the reader get the wrong idea about the good doctor, Barbauld added a note to this edition of the poem to say that she did not mean to attribute any cruelty to Dr. Priestley, of whom she maintained the highest regard.

Question for the week: The use of animals in scientific research is a touchy subject. Some extremely important discoveries have resulted from the death and suffering of countless animals. Is there anything like a clear line that can be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable animal testing? For example, might we agree that testing cosmetics on animals is never ok, or that testing prosthetics on animals is always ok?


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?


Roland in the Deep

This is the forty-ninth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLIX: Epic and Saga

If you need help, ask for it. Help is out there. To be sure, there is plenty of value to doing things for oneself. Self-sufficiency is a tremendous virtue. But so much unnecessary struggle and pain comes from people not asking for help when they really should. And it often comes down to pride.

In the epic poem The Song of Roland, the titular hero refuses to ask for help. With the great Saracen army bearing down on his position, Roland’s wise adviser Oliver repeatedly exhorts him to blow his horn and call for reinforcements. Roland, out of a sense of pride, declines time and again. Oliver, in an effort to respond in kind, responds, “I deem of neither reproach nor stain” to ask for help. Of course, that appeal is of no avail.

The worst part of people refusing to ask for help is how often others get hurt because of it. If Roland wants to make a heroic, suicidal last stand, that is well and good. But why should he subject his men to unnecessary danger and hardship? After Oliver fails to convince Roland on a point of pride, he points out the harm to his men. “Were the king but here we were spared this woe… Where standeth our doomed rear-guard the while; They will do their last brave feat this day, No more to mingle in mortal fray.” Predictably, Roland’s response is to call Oliver a coward. All Roland has to do is swallow his pride and blow his horn. To do so would not only improve the odds of victory, but would a probably also reduce the number of casualties. Instead, he insists on satisfying his pride, even at the cost of his men’s lives.

Relatively few people are put in the position of Roland, but everybody needs a little help from time to time. And refusing that help can hurt more than just oneself. So take care of yourself, and ask for help if you need it. For everybody’s sake.

Beer of the week: Krankshaft – “Kölsch” is a protected geographical indicator, meaning that beers brewed more than 50 km from Cologne, Germany may not use that term. (Enough has been said already about protected geographical indicators.) Hence, this brew from Chicago’s Metropolitan Brewing is called “Kölsch Style Beer”. Whatever it is called, it is smooth and malty. It is pale in color with a fluffy head. The yeast imparts a some nice sour notes to this very enjoyable beer.

Reading of the week: The Song of Roland – This excerpt is from the prelude to the battle, and ends just before the fighting begins. You will be glad to know that Roland does eventually blow his horn to summon Charlemagne and his men. However, he does so only after it is too late for the reinforcements to reach him. And, for good measure, he blows the horn so hard that he ruptures his own temples. What an ass!

Question for the week: Is there an important distinction between refusing help when offered and not asking for help? Is one worse?


Impostor Syndrome

This is the forty-eighth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLVIII: Thoughts, Letters & Minor Works by Blaise Pascal

The Galaxy Song by Monty Python contains the advice: “remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure, how amazingly unlikely is your birth.” Blaise Pascal put the concept slightly differently: “you find yourself in the world at all, only through an infinity of chances. Your birth depends on a marriage, or rather on the marriages of all those from whom you descend. But upon what do these marriages depend? A visit made by chance, an idle word, a thousand unforeseen occasions.”

The point (to Pascal, if not Python) is that we have no particular “right” to anything we have. Although it may be possible to earn things, we already won the existential lottery simply by being born. Consequently, our own merit accounts for relatively little of what we’ve “accomplished.”

As important as that understanding is, it is vital not to be overwhelmed by it. In the face of such a realization, one may be tempted to give up every effort and ambition on the grounds that an infinity of conditions beyond our control may crush us at any time. A more commendable reaction is to try harder to be the best that we can be. As Epictetus recognized, even though we are subject to an infinity of forces beyond our control, what we can control is our reactions to those forces.

Beer of the week: Creeker Double IPA – Through an infinity of chances, I happened to visit the Ithaca Beer Company recently. This IPA from that small brewery is hazy and yellowish, with plenty of head. The aroma is replete with citrus and tropical fruit notes. The flavor follows. And despite the fact that there is relatively little malt flavor, the beer does have a nice, full body. And at 9% alcohol by volume, it packs a punch.

Reading of the week: Discourses on the Condition of the Great by Blaise Pascal – In this essay, Pascal is particularly interested in the chance that makes one man an aristocrat and another man a commoner. Perhaps he should have focused on the when and where of people’s births; everybody who reads this post almost certainly has a higher standard of living than any of the nobility in Pascal’s day.

Question for the week: What is the biggest factor in an individual’s success: station of birth, education (if that can even be distinguished from station of birth), or something else?


Beer as Water

This is the forty-seventh in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLVII: Elizabethan Drama 2

“Let the wine be plentiful as beer, and beer as water. Hang those penny-pinching fathers that cram wealth in innocent lamb-skins.” Thus Simon Eyre, the mayor of London, opens the feast at the end of Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday. But very few coffers are deep enough to long sustain such a prodigious flow of libations, and the play is somewhat ambiguous on the virtue of thrift.

Earlier in the play, before Eyre was mayor, he promised his workmen a dozen cans of beer. But when he placed the order, he slyly told the errand boy to purchase only two. When the delivery came up ten cans short of the promised dozen, Eyre feigned surprise, but was clearly glad to get twelve cans’ worth of good cheer from his workers for the price of two.

At the beginning of the play, another character relates how his nephew wasted a veritable fortune, reveling his way across Europe:

A verier unthrift lives not in the world,

Than is my cousin; for I’ll tell you what:

’Tis now almost a year since he requested

To travel countries for experience.

I furnished him with coins, bills of exchange,

Letters of credit, men to wait on him,

Solicited my friends in Italy

Well to respect him. But to see the end:

Scant had he journey’d through half Germany,

But all his coin was spent, his men cast off,

His bills embezzl’d, and my jolly coz,

Asham’d to show his bankrupt presence here,

Became a shoemaker in Wittenberg,

Of course, the time spent as a shoemaker ends up serving the young man very well, but one can hardly argue that carousing to the point of bankruptcy is sound policy.

If The Shoemaker’s Holiday has a lesson regarding thrift, it seems to be that one should be willing to spend money for the sake of enjoyment, particularly the enjoyment of others, but not to live beyond one’s means. Lacy was wrong to waste so much of his uncle’s money in Europe, and Eyre was arguably justified in buying his men less than the dozen beers he promised. But once Eyre’s fortune was made, he quite laudably spent a great deal of it on feasting the shoemakers.

So let the beer be as plentiful as water… so long as you can cover the bar tab.

Beer of the week: Broegel Bock Beer – One way to stretch the beer budget is to buy “store-brand” beer. Aldi grocery stores sell a few beers that appear to be “knock-offs” of better known (and slightly more expensive) beers: Kinroo Blue (Blue Moon), Independence Harbor (Sam Adams)Cerveza Monterey (Corona). Based on the label of Broegel Bock, I assumed that this was simply Aldi’s version of Shiner Bock. The packaging is extremely similar. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Broegel is brewed by Brouwerij Martens NV, a prominent white-label brewery in Belgium. The beer is dark amber with a tan head of very large bubbles. The aroma is of bread and caramel. The flavor matches the smell, with sourdough notes to go with the sweet dark malt. This is a much better beer than Shiner Bock.

Reading of the week: The Shoemaker’s Holiday by Thomas Dekker – To be a minute late to this play would mean missing some very important plot points. The opening conversation establishes the forbidden relationship that drives the action of the play.

Question for the week: The balance between quantity and quality is difficult to establish. Is an $18 six-pack really twice as good as a $9 six-pack?


The Gentle and the Vulgar

This is the forty-fourth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLIV: Sacred Writings 1

The structure of the Analects, or Sayings of Confucius, is not entirely clear to me. Some chapters apparently deal with more or less specific themes. For example, Chapter X is a description of Confucius’s character and habits. Other chapters, such as Chapter XV, seem to be mere collections of thoughts and precepts without any particular organizing principle. As such, it is rather difficult to know how much the order of the sayings matters. However, it as only fair to assume that somebody thought that the structure was important, otherwise, why should the sayings be in the order that they are?

Assuming, then, that the sayings were purposefully ordered, two adjacent lines in Chapter XV stand out to me:

15.19
The Master said: “A gentleman fears lest his name should die when life is done.”

15.20
The Master said: ‘A gentleman looks within: the vulgar look unto others.”

I gather that “gentleman” here is “junzi” or “prince”. However, unlike the original meaning of “prince” as the hereditary heir to the throne, the word is used throughout the Analects to signify an ideal moral actor. Confucius appears to have favored a system of meritocracy, where morally superior men of any birth-status could rise to prominence. One goal — perhaps the primary goal — of the Analects is to instruct readers on how to be junzi.

Line 15.19 makes it appear that reputation matters to the gentleman, even after death. However, given the idea of the gentleman as an ideal moral actor, he would not merely want to be remembered, but to leave a legacy of being righteous. He would not want to be remembered for any act or characteristic that is inconsistent with the well-deserved status as “junzi.”

However, 15.19 seems to be at odds with 15.20.

In 15.20, Confucius contrasts the gentleman with “the vulgar.” It appears that Chinese word can also be rendered as “the small man” or “the petty man”. Throughout the Analects, the small man is given as a counterexample to the gentleman. Unlike the ideal morality of the gentleman, the small man’s ethical vision is narrow and self-serving. While the gentleman is inclusive, the small man is partisan. While the the gentleman seeks the good, the small man seeks profit. And so on.

It could be that 15.20 merely extols self-sufficiency; the gentleman is self-sufficent, while the small man relies on — or even leeches off of — others. However, read in conjunction with 15.19, it seems that the gentleman “looks within” for validation of his own worth. That is, he judges himself based on his own (proper) ethical standards, while the small man requires the validation of others. The problem, of course, is that the “others” to whom the small man looks are most likely vulgar themselves. In short, a gentleman takes little stock in public opinion of him because he holds himself to a different (and better) standard. The small man, desirous of public approval, is willing to debase himself for the sake of popularity. This reading is similar to the argument in Plato’s Republic that it is better to be good-but-reviled than to be lauded as good but actually not be. Though all the world think ill of you, it is better to know that you are good in your own heart than to succumb to the wrong public opinion of what is good.

But if that reading of 15.20 is correct, what sort of legacy can the gentleman hope to leave behind in 15.19? Who will remember the gentleman if he has has taken no particular stock of his public reputation? It seems possible that, worse than not being remembered at all, the gentleman will be remembered poorly by the vulgar masses because they lack the capacity to properly judge his virtue.

One way to reconcile the apparent contradiction between these sayings is that the gentleman ought to take stock of the opinions of other gentlemen. The gentleman in 15.19 is anxious to be remembered, not by the masses, but by other righteous men. And the small man’s error in 15.20 is seeking the approval of the vulgar, rather than the approval of his betters. That reconciliation is somewhat unsatisfying because it makes 15.20 appear to be an incomplete thought. Although the gentleman should “look within”, he should also be conscious and sensitive to the opinions of other gentlemen. Although the approval of others should not drive his actions, it may be a useful tool in determining whether his own opinion of himself is accurate.

Beer of the week: Busch Beer – This extremely pale macro lager is a bit of a surprise. It has the classic cheap beer smell and taste, but without much or any of the bad off notes. There is a bit of corn in the flavor, but none of the stickiness or sharp tastes that often come with that. For what it is, Busch Beer is a totally serviceable brew.

Reading of the week: The Sayings of Confucius, Chapter XV – This chapter also includes such gems as “A gentleman does not raise a man for his words, nor scorn what is said for the speaker,” and “Do not do unto others what thou wouldst not they should do unto thee.”

Question for the week: How important is it to leave a legacy?