Lunar New Year’s Resolution

This is the first in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts will be available here. Volume I: Franklin, Woolman, Penn

Happy (Lunar) New Year! For those of us who are bad at planning ahead and/or following through on goals, Lunar New Year presents an excellent second chance at a meaningful resolution. Did you forget to pick a New Year’s resolution before midnight? Have you already thrown in the towel on your resolution a month and a half into 2018? Well Lunar New Year is here, so give that resolution another go.

Nearly two years ago, I received a set of The Harvard Classics as a gift. I have not, however, made much use of them since. To be sure, several readings on this blog have come from that set, but there are certainly volumes that I haven’t even cracked. So my (Lunar) resolution for the blog is to take a reading from each volume of The Harvard Classics for the rest of the year. Because a Lunar Year is just over 50 weeks, and The Harvard Classics has 51 volumes, I should finish just in time to pick a New New Year’s Resolution.

It just so happens that the first volume of The Harvard Classics has already provided readings for this blog: from William Penn’s Some Fruits of Solitude and Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. The only other work in Volume I is The Journal of John Woolman, an excellent place to begin thinking about how to make the most of a new year. Woolman was obsessed (that just may be the best word for it) with the simplicity and cleanliness. As a Quaker, simplicity was not just a personal goal, but a tenant of his faith. He refused to eat or drink from silver vessels, a decision precipitated by a fever dream in which he saw slaves working in a mine, cursing the name of Christ and the greedy Christians who would enslave their fellow men and put them to such hard labor for the sake of something as unnecessary as gems or precious metals. He also eschewed dyed fabric, which he also regarded as a superfluity. Although that level of simplicity may seem a bit extreme, he reasoned that “if the value of dye-stuffs, and expense of dyeing, and the damage done to cloth, were all added together, and that cost applied to keeping all sweet and clean, how much more would real cleanliness prevail.” Why should we clutter our lives with unnecessary objects and expenses, when we could put our energies toward living a more tidy and ordered life?

So here’s to a simpler, cleaner New Year!

Beer of the week: Fat Alberta – Woolman would not have much good for a beer this complex.  This is an imperial stout from Throwback Brewery with peanuts and cocoa. With that in mind, I was expecting something more like a chocolate peanut butter cup. But peanut butter cup flavored it is not. Fat Alberta pours with big bubbles and lots of sticky head. On the nose is dark chocolate, but there is not a super strong aroma. The first sip is quite bitter, like eating baking cocoa. The dark malt flavors are very strong, which covers the 10% alcohol. After the initial shock of having a bitter rather than sweet beer, I noticed a bit of coffee and a hint of peanut (or was that the power of suggestion from the label?) The alcohol makes itself known in the end and the bitter cocoa hangs on the back of the throat.

Reading of the week: The Journal of John Woolman – This reading is actually the very last entry in Woolman’s journal, written just a month before his death of smallpox. He was, at the time, touring England, visiting Quaker meeting-houses throughout the country and preaching.

Question for the week: Now that you are aware of your second chance at a New Year’s Resolution, what do you resolve?

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Contemporaneous Living

A recent social media exchange reminded me of one of my favorite anthropological facts: human beings have been in Australia for some 50,000 years, but humans have been in New Zealand for less than 800 years. Just about a thousand miles of sea separate the two nations, but in dozens of millennia, it seems that nobody made the voyage across the Tasman Sea. In fact, when humans finally did arrive in New Zealand, they were Polynesians rather than Australians.

This fact does not tell us much about the cultures of the Maori people or the Aboriginal Australians, but it does help create a larger context for the settlement of New Zealand. A persistent problem in the study of history is the failure to appreciate “the big picture.” Maori settlement of New Zealand happened about the same time as the founding of the Ottoman Empire by Osman I. And although neither event had any effect on the other, knowledge of their coincidence can be interesting and helpful.

This sort of perspective is equally important (and striking) when thinking about historical figures. Many historical figures had famous relationships, such as Thomas More and Erasmus; Aristotle and Alexander the Great; Cicero and Julius Caesar; or Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes. But other sets of contemporaries are less obvious. I remember very distinctly my surprise when I realized that Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States at the same time Napoleon was Emperor of France. (I had always thought of the Napoleonic Wars as pre-dating the American Revolution.) Likewise, had never thought of Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein as contemporaries, but they exchanged letters on the subject of war.

But one of the oddest examples, in my opinion, is Mohandas K. Gandhi. He exchanged letters with Count Leo Tolstoy (whom I would have guessed was dead before Gandhi was even born.) But Gandhi also actually wrote letters to Adolph Hitler (who was only 20 years his junior, and whom Gandhi out-lived by less than three years.)  What makes it so easy to be surprised by these connections is the fact that the Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Hitler are all associated with very different countries and periods. But, evidently, their places and times were not as disparate as they may seem at a glance. In fact, the world is much more interconnected than we often appreciate.

Beer of the week: Breakfast Beast – This imperial stout from Clown Shoes is aged in bourbon barrels with cold brewed coffee. It is very strong, and oily dark. It is also extremely thick and smooth. It is practically a complete breakfast. Delicious.

Reading of the week: Correspondence between Mohandas K. Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy – For additional historical perspective, consider the following: Gandi was murdered 7 years ago next Tuesday. These letters exchanged between him and Tolstoy are pretty special. In his letters Gandhi, a professed admirer of Tolstoy’s writings on pacifism, seeks support for political movements in South Africa (at that time, the Transvaal) and India (then, British India.) Tolstoy replies that “Your work in the Transvaal, which to us seems to be at the end of the earth, is yet in the centre of our interest.”

Question for the week: What is your favorite surprising historical coincidence? Or, if you prefer, what is your favorite historical gap? (For example, the Great Pyramid of Giza was older to Cleopatra than Cleopatra is to us.)


“I’ve given the Muse the day off.”

Writer’s block has proved to be a very fruitful topic for a number of authors. When heeded, the classic advice “write what you know” leads to an awful lot of writers writing about writing and writing’s attendant struggles. The film Barton Fink, for example, is a film about a screenwriter who can’t seem to get any words on paper. It is no mere coincidence that the Coen brothers wrote and produced that film while taking a hiatus from writing and producing Miller’s Crossing. Unable to find the right way to finish the first film, they turned to writing about writer’s block. (Unsurprisingly, Barton Fink features many of the same cast members as Miller’s Crossing. But that might have more to do with the fact that the Coen’s work with the same actors repeatedly.)

A quick google search turns up innumerable pieces of advice on how to overcome writer’s block. From a change of scenery, to a change of diet, there are heaps of “sure-fire ways to get your creative juices flowing.” But nobody seems to ask the question: should the person be writing at all?

In Phaedrus, Socrates relates a myth about the god called Theuth. Theuth was a great inventor, who devised mathematics and astronomy as well as “draughts and dice”. His greatest invention, however was writing. Theuth congratulated himself on giving such a great gift to humanity. But as it turned out, his gift was not as beneficial as he had expected.

People now do not have to remember anything, since they can always just reread anything they don’t recall. As a consequence, apparent knowledge is everywhere, but actual knowledge is seldom seen. Likewise, writing does not make people more wise. One does not become wise by reading, but by internalizing and understanding. Particularly where there is a very large amount of available writing (for example, a library or the internet,) one is apt to read more but understand less.

As a result of these contemplations, I have elected not to write a blog post this week. Kindly disregard the foregoing. (I wrote the beer review beforehand, so you might as well read it.)

Dundee Stout

Beer of the week: Dundee Stout – After declaring that I was done with winter beers last week, the weather forced me to reconsider. It snowed the next day, as well as several subsequent days including this morning. I suppose that one more hearty stout is in order. This very dark brown brew pours with a pretty tan head that fades just a bit too quickly. There are hints of ripe, dark fruit in the aroma. Although stout is not my favorite type of beer, I really enjoy this one. The dark roasted malt gives a sort of chocolate-covered espresso bean flavor to this beer. I did not expect much of Dundee (brewed by the the same company as Genesse,) but I think they might actually be one of the best values in American beer.

Reading of the week: Phaedrus by Plato, 274c – 275e – Phaedrus intended to impress Socrates by reading to him a beautiful speech. Socrates, in typical fashion, totally derailed his interlocutor’s desired course of conversation. Instead, the couple discuss at length the art of rhetoric.

Question of the week: What do you do when you feel creatively stifled?


One Last Winter Warmer

“We each of us fill a very small space
On the great creation’s plan,
If a man don’t keep his lead in the race
There’s plenty more that can;
The world can very soon fill the place
Of even a corner man.” – Banjo Paterson

Last week, some parts of the country got hit with a spring snow storm. Judging by the long-term weather forecast, that storm was old man winter’s last gasp. Another season has come and gone. Of course, this winter hardly showed up at all for some of us. (Standing outside in a t-shirt on Christmas Day was a first for me.) But seasons pass on to seasons, and each year is more or less the same as the last.

The same can be said for seasonal beers. Apparently the Boston Beer Company that has driven the demand for seasonal beers. I was told by an employee at the Red Hook brewery that everybody in the industry has started producing more seasonals, earlier (respectively) in the year to keep up with Sam Adams. As a big fan of beer variety, I can’t complain. However, the earlier seasonal beers are released, the earlier we give up on a season and move on. The calendar may say that it is spring, but I am not ready to quit on winter. And just because the days (and beers) march on, each one very much like the last, doesn’t mean we should give up on taking our time and enjoying the moment.

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Beer of the week: Autocrat Coffee Milk Stout – Unless there is a deep, dark corner of my refrigerator that has been left unexplored, this is my last winter seasonal for the year. Narragansett Brewing Company’s milk stout is mixed with Autocrat brand coffee to create a brew that pours with a creamy dark tan head. The aroma is of mild coffee, which is not surprising. The lactose (another unusual ingredient) does not ferment, so it remains in the beer to sweeten it. Between the coffee, the lactose, and the dark roasted malt, this beer tastes almost like an iced mocha. Only the slight hoppy finish reminds one that this is a beer. And a delicious one at that.

Reading for the week: The Corner-Man by Banjo Patterson – This poem’s conclusion is that the world will “jog along just the same” after we die. In some respects, it is a very disheartening idea for those of us who think much of ourselves. On the other hand, it may be regarded as a liberating prospect. Oh, and I suppose that I ought to mention that the poem includes a minstrel show. I had no idea that there were minstrel shows in Australia.

Question for the week: What is the best season for beer?


The Irish Don’t Keep Their Lovers Waiting

Earlier this week, there was a post in celebration of Casimir Pulaski Day. This post is meant to be a head-start on celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.

The Irish are a prolific people in some ways. There are plenty of jokes about the leporine breeding habits of Irish Catholics, but I am more interested in their prodigious writing. The first reading on this blog was by Oscar Wilde. Subsequent readings included works by Shaw, Oliver ByrneLord Dunsany, and Jonathan Swift. American writers of Irish descent have also been featured on this blog; Poe, Twain, Fitzgerald, and James all inherited the Irish way with words.

But it is not just in literature that the Irish excel. So prolific are the Irish in America, that no fewer than half of this nation’s presidents were of Irish descent. It may be unfair to hold that fact against the Irish as a whole, but it is not clear what that fact tells us.

The aspiration to public office in America is often maligned as merely seeking to suckle from the public teat. Or, as H. L. Mencken put it, the politician under democracy “is a sturdy rogue whose principal, and often sole, aim in life is to butter his parsnips.” This is perhaps unfair to the politician; it could be that there is something more noble driving him.

Even if there is a righteous impetus for the politician, he still must suffer for his efforts. Every effort put toward political success in a democracy has its price in the form of effort that cannot be exerted elsewhere. The question of whether one can be a good politician and a good man is still unclear to me. It seems possible that one cannot rise to any reasonably high level in government without compromising everything that makes one noble. For Mencken, of course, the answer was more clear: even if a good man could get elected to high office, he’d soon either turn bad (because of the company he’d be forced to keep) or jump out of the window.

Though many an Irish-American has sought and found political success in this country, perhaps they would have been well to consider the words of fellow son of Ireland, William Butler Yeats:

The Muse is mute when public men
Applaud a modern throne:
Those cheers that can be bought or sold,
That office fools have run,
That waxen seal, that signature.
For things like these what decent man
Would keep his lover waiting,
Keep his lover waiting?

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Beer of the week: O’Shea’s Traditional Irish Stout – Surprisingly, I have had relatively few Irish beers, so I was happy to find this one at the store. This stout is very dark brown with a quickly fading tan head. The aroma is slightly sour, of dark bread with hints of vanilla. The body of the beer is surprisingly thin. The finish is pleasantly smokey. This is not my favorite style of beer, but as far as dry stouts go, this one isn’t bad.

Reading for the week: A Model For The Laureate by William Butler Yeats – The first time I read this poem, it was part of an essay denouncing Yeats for his “anti-democratic philosophy.” The poem compares “good and great” kings, strong-armed tyrants, and democratic politicians. The more I read it, the more I am convinced that Yeats considered the last of these three to be the worst.

Question for the week: What is the greatest Irish contribution to our culture?


Dark November

Sad or depressed people will often sit in the dark. They may watch sad or depressing films or listen to sad music. What they want is for their surroundings to mirror their feelings. And this is no new thing. The narrator of Lord Byron’s poem My Soul is Dark requests that sad music be played for him. Music as dark as his soul.

But it is not just our controlled environment (lights, music, etc.) that we like to match our state of mind. In My November Guest, Robert Frost says that “dark days of autumn rain” are beautiful. They are even more beautiful, though, when he is sad. When he has sorrow in his heart, that sorrow rejoices to see the world as bleak and cold and barren.

So on this autumn day think dark thoughts, drink dark beer, and ponder how much more beautiful the world can be when it matches the way you feel.

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Beer of the Week: Lancaster Brewing Company Milk Stout – Apparently, yeast can’t ferment lactose. That fact makes lactose an interesting ingredient in beer, since it can increase sweetness without any fear of the sugar being converted into more alcohol. In this case, it results in a smooth and slightly sweet stout. There is not much hops to speak of. The dark malt provides some body to the flavor, but doesn’t impart any rough or smokey taste. Over-all, it is a satisfying and easy drinking beer, but it is pretty filling and not very flavorful.

Reading for the Week: My November Guest by Robert Frost – In this short poem, Frost doesn’t say that one must be sad to appreciate a cold, wet autumn day. But he does say that sorrow makes them all the better.

Question for the week: Some people suffer “Seasonal Affective Dissorder”, depression that comes and goes with the seasons. Did Frost really have a preference for November when he was depressed, or did the bleak weather cause his depression in the first place?


I ain’t gonna study war no more

When Barry H. Obama announced that he was going to use Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bible in his second coronation, Dr. Cornel West said that it made his blood boil. He compared Dr. King’s “three crimes against humanity that he was wrestling with” to the problems that exist in this country today. Whatever you think of Dr. West in general, it cannot be denied that he is an eloquent speaker. And in this case, I think he makes a number of good points.

In his sermon entitled Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam, Dr. King lists “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.” So how has the battle against these evils fared since Dr. King’s murder, and what is the status of these issues today?

Poverty: From the collapse of the housing bubble to government bailouts, no reasonable person will argue that economic exploitation and poverty have been fixed in this country, let alone world-wide. Our high unemployment rate is especially hard on the outrageous number of new college graduates who attempt to enter the workforce each year already well up to their eye-balls in debt. This is compounded further by the fact that government sponsored student loans are exempted from bankruptcy law, so there is absolutely no way out of them short of death. To be fair, poverty will always exist, and most of the poor in this country are a lot better off than the poor in some other places. Still, there is plenty of work to be done. For one thing, the poor (and specifically poor minorities) are disproportionately victims of our “prison industrial complex”, which leads me to:

Racism: Dr. West refers to the present prison system in this country as “the new Jim Crow.” More than a few people have called the “War on Drugs” the “War on Blacks”. The connection may not be obvious at first, but DrugWarFacts.org informs us that black Americans make up some 15% of drug users and 60% of all felony drug offenders in state prisons. According to Trevor Burrus, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, “In many American inner cities where the drug war is most earnestly waged, up to 80 percent of young African-American males have criminal records. These young men will endure a lifetime of legalized discrimination, and difficulty finding employment, often because they simply chose to put a prohibited substance into their own bodies.” The hypocrisy of Obama on the issue of weed is fairly pronounced. He has admitted to using marijuana and “blow”, yet if he had been arrested and prosecuted for these “youthful transgressions” he could never have become president. Still his administration has aggressively gone after these victimless crimes, even in states where marijuana has been decriminalized.

Aside from the “War on Drugs”, Dr. West points out that “not one executive of a Wall Street bank [is] goin’ to jail.” He also states that no wire-tappers or torturers under the Bush administration are being prosecuted. (He omits torturers under the the Obama administration, but they are not being prosecuted either.) Which is related to:

Militarism: It should be obvious at a glance that American militarism has gotten much, much worse since Dr. King spoke out against it. There can be no doubt that Dr. King would be extremely critical of his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barry Obama. Rather than run out a laundry list of the awful things done in the name of “national security”, I will simply mention here that the United States government has targeted weddings, funerals and rescuers. Weddings. Funerals. Rescuers. The very thought of it makes me sick at heart.

What response can we have but to speak out against such crimes against humanity? “It is time for all people of conscience to call upon America to come back” to its moral grounding.

I suspect that this post will not be popular with some readers. Some may be turned off simply because it is dark and unpleasant. Others may take issue with what they perceive as my political biases. I also suspect that some people will accuse me of being unpatriotic for being so outspoken against our duly elected chief executive and the government on the whole. But I take heart in the words of Dr. King:

 “I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love.”

Beer of the Week: Guinness Original – The world’s problems shouldn’t drive you to despair; they should drive you to drink. Sure there are lots of problems in the world, but there is also a heck of a lot of good. And among the good things is beer. Quite a while back, I reviewed Guinness Draught. Since I am getting back to my anti-war roots with Dr. King, I decided to get back to the roots of Guinness by reviewing Guinness Original. This beer does not have the fancy nitrogen widget that gives Draught its trademark cascading and creamy head. The bubbles are larger and the color is a darker tan, but Original’s head is still quite impressive. The aroma is dominated by the dark roasted malt and the taste is a bit smokey but generally very pleasant and surprisingly fresh and light.

Sermon for the Week: Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – In the tradition of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. King stated that “Every man has rights that are neither conferred by, nor derived from the State.” And like the Founders, King realized that the people must be willing to stand up against an unjust state, even if it “means being abused and scorned.” Since sermons are meant to be heard, not read, I have included a youtube recording.

Question for the week: Have you spoken up for truth and justice lately?