Growing up a stranger

Dear beautiful daughter, my dearest Grace,

Tubingen RiverfrontOnce upon a time, there was a beautiful city, over a thousand years old, named Tübingen. It lay surrounded by vineyards along the lazy Neckar River. Beyond it on one side was the dark, primeval and hauntingly beautiful Black Forest. Beyond it on the other side loomed the Swabian Alps, the mountains capped with castles and monasteries and further in the distance, brilliant snow.

The old gray cathedral cast cold shadows about it, especially the window of the martyrdom of St George (one of several, apparently; a durable fellow) showing his limbs being threaded through a giant wheel. But the town hall, with the gilded paintings staring down upon the brightly colored umbrellas of the farmers market always seemed warm. At Christmas, the market would fill with crafts and toys, and the smell of gingerbread and candied almonds and fresh Crepes. In the warm summers, the students would guide long boats up and down the river beneath the ancient city walls with poles, and would sing folk songs.

The narrow cobble stone streets had been tread for hundreds of years by famous poets (Holderlin, Hesse), philosophers (Schelling, Hegel), scientists (Kepler, Alzheimer), Theologians (Melanchthon, Moltmann), students, even a few saints, and one wandering boy.

This was my Tübingen, the city I eventually discovered, and which I return to in my memories, and which I am always embarrassed to talk about because it sounds like I made it up. It was never my own city—it had belonged to others before Christ was born—but because I was my own self we could look at each other, and nod, and grin.

As I said, however, it was the city I eventually found, and the city I remember, not the one I arrived in. I arrived feeling very small, my shirt un-tucked, my dark bangs in my eyes, clutching the only two or three things I owned in a pillow case. The most important thing in that pillowcase, the most valuable thing I owned, was the threadbare stuffed giraffe who would often seem like my last and only friend. Leaving Pennsylvania, I would never again completely feel at home.

The next day, I went to school, only knowing 3 words of German: Schwester, Gabel, & Wohnzimmer (Sister, Fork, and Living Room). Although I could pass for a German—and even for a local, a Swabian—within a year, I never would be; I would always be an alien, a stranger, an outsider. At the time, I was under the impression that returning to America would be like returning home, but it wasn’t. I had become a stranger.

I think that is why I love wandering—that is the place where I am supposed to be a stranger; it hurts to feel like a stranger when one should be settled, but it feels natural when one is a wanderer. In addition, I am good at learning how to adapt to a strange place; it doesn’t feel as foreign because I expect every place to feel foreign, but I also expect to find the stories, the wonders and the sensations I found in that magical city on the Neckar River.

It taught me how to survive loneliness and pain, and to rely upon myself; sometimes, that is good, sometimes I suppose it isn’t. I have trouble trusting people, of relying on them. No, that’s too simple. I don’t trust people, and I don’t make the effort to help them be people I will rely on, to let them know what I need, because I am afraid of needing anything.

Talking to Dwayne, one of the owners of The Beckner on Main, the other day, he said that one of the things he learned living as a child first in New York, then in the Caribbean, then in Southern France was to become an accomplished mimic. For most folks, their voice—the words and persona they present to the world—is an unexplained starting place. For a person living in a foreign culture, the voice is a projection of which one is sharply aware and which one always must strive to control or conform. Your own voice is both your own and the force of a foreigner, a stranger’s voice. It becomes part of a projected you between your private self and the alien world.
Many people who move a lot feel this, this strangeness of who they have to keep becoming; in a foreign language, this strangeness is much more pronounced (a truth, as well as a subtle pun).

Although I could pass for a native, I often chose not to; I knew I was not, and chose be be who I was—I would never feel at home in Lederhosen. Being the foreigner taught me not to fear being weird, because I had no chance to be “normal.” There was a power, almost a magic to being different, to being exotic, like the giraffe who came to Paris in 1825. I could invent stories that were new to them, and, although I was awful at their games (mostly soccer), I was good at inventing games because I wasn’t bound to the world in front of me the way they were.

It taught me German, which is helpful, and which is a beautiful language, and it taught me how to think in German, which is not at all the same as thinking in English. For a few years after getting back into English, I would still reason things through in German which had to be logical and organized. English is a language of daydreaming and imagining, but German is a language of science and philosophy.

When, in a graduate course, Alasdair MacIntyre discussed a topic which was in his then forthcoming book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? suggested that different languages and cultures actually lived in different worlds, it made sense to me, because I had already lived in a German world and an English world, and I knew they were different, and that the only way one would understand that was to live in each. When I encountered Heidegger’s statement that “Language is the House of Being,” I knew how powerful that statement really was. Eventually, I would choose to write a Thesis on Johann Gottfried von Herder because his Outlines of a Philosophy of History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View explores how languages and cultures form us, but how that ultimately remains untranslatable, and sometimes even incomprehensible to those outside that culture. Later, I wrote my dissertation on Social Practices and Cross-Cultural Understanding.

Although our world is becoming more and more homogeneous, it is also very fragmented. We all move through many cultures—subcultures, generally, but pockets of difference—and we encounter many strangers each day. To recognize oneself as a stranger in a strange place, “a wandering Aramean,” is to open oneself to accepting and offering hospitality along the way—to children and waitresses and all.

The Swabians around Tübingen were direct and blunt, generous and kind, a little vulgar but in an earthy sort of way, and loved to argue—directly, passionately, and loudly. This is southern Germany, and like folks from most southern regions they were proud, but hospitable; they welcomed strangers and enjoyed talking.

They also loved the outdoors, our class was always taking long hikes, and my friends and I spent hours exploring the primeval forest between our apartment complexes at the edge of town and the little monastery village of Bebenhausen down in the next valley. They loved music; because of it’s consonants, German sounds like a harsh language, but because of its vowels, it sings beautifully. Most of my classmates knew old folk songs, and we would sing them on our long hikes. Our congregation sang beautiful harmony, and when we sang in counterpoint, it sounded like alpine shepherds singing back and forth to each other across the mountains. It is no accident that so many great composers—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and so many others—grew up speaking German.

They also loved good food—and they could make it! The Spätzle and the Knöpfle and the Maultaschen, the Laugen Pretzels warm from the bakers oven with cold butter, the Zwiebelkuchen baked each year as the new wine was sold, a whole universe of soups and fresh vegetables in season, and deserts, wonderful cakes and tortes and chocolates, served with dark coffee in fine china or hot tea in thin glasses.

The University culture was like the intellectuals you see in movies about the 19th century, always arguing about ideas, always protesting something, always reading or writing. The Hippies & Greens of the 70s had the same passion that the students supporting the French Revolution on the same stones had 180 years earlier. Intellectual life was not passive, but passionate.

I have taken all these things, and they are all part of who I am. They form the things I love to this day, my passions and my pleasures.

Most of all, somewhere deep inside me I still often feel that little lost boy clutching his stuffed giraffe, and each time I see somebody lonely or sad or feeling like an outsider or feeling like they are the strange one, I feel him inside me, alone and afraid, raw as ever.

Each attempt to be kind to someone is an attempt to reach that little boy and make him feel welcome.

Candied Almonds

Candied Almonds (Gebrannte Mandeln)
Gebrannte_MandelnThe German name of these is “Gebrannte Mandeln,” which literally means “burnt almonds;” they are something street vendors sold, and they have a unique smell which is a combination of carmelized sugar, toasted almonds, cinnamon, vanilla, and just a hint of rosewater. They are one of the “Proustian” memories of my childhood.


2 cup toasted whole almonds (if they are raw, toast them in the oven at 350 or so for 20 minutes or so)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
dash vanilla
1 Tbl. rose water (really, this is available at many stores, especially ones with a Middle Eastern customer base)

Step 1, the syrup: In a deep pot, on high heat, combine the sugar and the water, stirring, and stirring , and stirring, until it cooks down to a heavy syrup, and starts to turn brown. This will take  along time, and is quite dangerous, since the hot sugar will scald and blister you if it touches your skin.

Step 2, mixing it up: Add in the cinnamon and the vanilla and mix well, then add the almonds and stir until the almonds are all coated, and the sugar syrup begins to chrystalize or solidify just a bit.

Step 3, mixing it up some more: Add the rosewater; this will seem to melt the syrup again, and repeat the mixing process. Continue to stir (it will be stiff) over a high heat as the sugar begins to solidify, and then past that for just a moment, as the sugar begins to melt and carmelize. Quickly, before the sugar begins to burn, pour the whole thing out on a pan and allow it to cool and to dry.

Folsum Manor Blues

HeightsI hear Heathcliff a’wuthering; he’s wuthering on the heights,
and when he gets all angry, he gives me such a fright…
I’m stuck in a 19th Century Novel, and time keeps dragging on;
my only consolation: at least it’s not Uncle Tom.

When I was just a baby, my mother told me, Son:
always be a good boy, and not Dickensian,
But I’m stuck inside this workhouse,  I know I can’t be free;
eventually I’ll die of consumption,  what you might call TB.

There’s austentatious Gentry in their fancy country homes,
engaged in bright conversation, eating clotted creme with scones,
I’m stuck here in this Novel, like Marner at his loom,
Comedies of manner, voiced in proper decorum.

If I was free from this Novel, if the story it was mine,
I’d choose one with a plot-line, not quite as serpentine…
Far from 19th Century Literature, that’s where I’d like to stay,
and I’d let the 21st Century

….lose me in the buzz of fractured time and multiple perspectives.

Why should humans be moral?

My dear Emilee,
You asked me “Why should humans be moral?”
That is a really big question. It is also a very important question, and one which can open the door to long conversations and many more questions.Hello Questions

However, the question is phrased in such a way that makes it difficult, almost impossible to answer, and in such a way that always leaves a little gap of doubt. Why be moral implies that goodness–kindness and courage and honesty and generosity and whatever other moral words we humans use–are separate from us, alien to us, almost like a remarkably fancy yet highly impractical (and, need I mention, very costly) fedora which we can choose to put on our heads or choose to leave in the front window of the Haberdashery in State Street.
Morality is best not a noun, but an adjective describing humans, or even an adverb describing how humans are human. I would really prefer not to use the word “moral, ” but instead to ask “Why should humans be good?”

Of course, I really prefer to ask “why should humans be good?” because it is an absurd question. Good is desirable. Why should food be good? Because good food is–by definition–better than bad food. Why eat bad bread? Why should music be good? Why should I try to make this a good answer? Although trite, it is quite simply the case that goodness is good. A human being doesn’t desire to be a not good human being; if it is within our power, we are as unlikely to deliberately choose not to be good as we are to choose to be hideous, or even choose to be uncoordinated or unpopular.

Goodness is good, but we certainly do get sidetracked.
There is within most of us–within everybody I’ve met, and I have met many, many people from all the hemispheres & continents–a desire to be good, and generally, some sort of moral sense that suggests what that goodness might be. I am under no illusions that we actually are good–a day or two working retail or being a barista will show you that humans are capable of being saints and fiends and everything in between–but they each want to understand themselves as good, and be understood as good, and judge others as good or evil.

Yes, there are sociopaths, but they are exceptional, not typical (albeit amazingly common any place that serves espresso drinks).

Yes–and this is not at all exceptional–we often ignore the desire to be good. We human beings want to take shortcuts, and we want to taste forbidden fruit. “Yes, I want to be good, but it would be so much easier to tell a lie than to deal with this right now.” “Yes, I desire to be good, but I also desire the feel of her soft skin warm against mine.”

Yes, there are many different ideas of what it means to be a good person. There are disagreements within cultures, and there are incommensurable differences across cultural lines, but underneath these there is a desire to be good. In fact, one of the reasons the disagreements are so ferocious is how strongly we feel about being good.
We want to be good, and we want to be thought good. We don’t want our friends, our families, our acquaintances, or even total strangers to think we are a louse, a jerk, a letch, a cheapskate our mooch, a liar, a coward, and insensitive lout or a douche-bag. We want them to think we are a good person, in part because ultimately that is the only way we can know ourselves to be good. Sometimes we internalize the judgements of the world to create an interior judge, but we also externalize our own conscience, looking for concurring second opinions.

So, my dear young friend, my long-limbed albatross flying across the seas, my dear Emilee, my answer is, in short:
There is no Why should humans be moral. Morality, like rationality, like bipedality, like fondness for sugar and salt and fat, is part of human being.

The vital question isn’t why, but how?

…and that leads to a whole mess of new questions and conversations.Menu

Why eat bad bread?

Basic Wholesome Wheat Bread RecipeWholesome_Wheat_Bread.


3 1/2 cups warm water
2 Tbsp. Honey
2 Tbsp. Yeast (maybe 3 envelopes?)
1Tbsp. Salt
8-9 cups, give or take, of whole wheat (3 cups) and bread flour (6+ cups); Yeah, yeah, I don’t have an exact amount because there isn’t an exact amount–I live in a very humid, even damp, part of the country, if you are actually dry, you will need less flour. Using more whloe wheat will also require less wheat overall. I really, really love King Arthur Flour, and start with 2 cups of King Arthur Whole Wheat, then 2 Cups of King Arthur White Wheat, and then 5 or more cups of King Arthur Bread Flour, but you go with what you have.

Step 1, Proofing: In a large bowl (or the mixer bowl if you plan on letting the bread hook to the heavy lifting); whisk in the 2 Tbsp. of Honey, and the 2 Tbsp. of Yeast; mix until smooth. Whisk in the first 3 cups of flour–I usually move from the coarsest flour to the smoothest, so the wheat flour here. Now leave this in a warm place for 5 minutes and walk away. Fold laundry, try to figure out where you put the bread flour, dance, just leave the yeast alone.
Step 2, Kneading: Come back, Little Sheba. If it is bigger, and a little poofy, the yeast is doing great. If not, either you have bad yeast or a cold spot. Whisk down this living thing in the bowl, and add 1 Tbsp of Salt. Add in the Bread Flour 1/4 of a cup at a time, and thoroughly mix it in; when the whisk becomes impractical, use a big wooden spoon, when this is too hard, use a mixer with a bread hook or turn it our onto a floured surface. It is important to knead the flour in 1/4 of a cup at a time, and after each bit of flour, hook or knead the bread until it becomes one thing again–not a mixture of flour and dough, but one unit. When the dough is a single round thing holding on to itself and not sticking to other things, behaving about like a deflated volley ball, it is ready. The amount of the flour doesn’t matter–getting it to this proper consistency is what matters. Roll it around on the counter for good measure.
Step 3, Rising: Grease a smooth bowl 3 times as big as the dough. Roll the dough ball in the oil, and then cover with plastic wrap or a wet towel or something that will let it slip without drying out. Let this sit in in a warm place–in the oven with a heating pad on a different shelf, on the sunny side of the house, just a safe and warm place–until the dough has doubled in size. Usually, this will be about an hour.
Step 4, Second Rising: Grease 3 bread pans, or 2 bread pans and 2 little pans, or some such combinations. Turn the dough out onto a clean surface, and punch it down (forcefully knead it), which should reduce it to close to its original size. Separate this into 3 portions ( or 4 or… you figure it out) and shape these into loaves; make sure that there are not seams or spots the loaf might separate, maybe pinching loose edges and rolling it about a bit–each should be smooth and coherent–it’s own little self. Put each loaf into a pan, slit along the top with a sharp knife (this lets bubbles out) and set these into a warm place until they have grown–usually less that the first rise. about half way through this rise (20? 25 minutes?) pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.
Step 5, Baking: put them in the oven for 30 or 35 minutes, until the top crust is a nice dark brown. figure out your oven, and see if you need to turn them or rotate them to get them to cook evenly. When they are done, get them out, take them out of the pans, and put them on a cooling rack. Usually, at this point, I take a little butter and polish the top with them, but one doesn’t have to.

The Philosopher's lockerLast Step, Sharing: You may have noticed I made 3 loaves. You can, of course, use division and figure out how to make a smaller batch, but I suggest you make 3, and then figure out why you needed 3. The bread might be so good that one loaf is eaten before it even cools. Most importantly, if you have extra bread, you will have to give it away. Give it to a wandering Buddhist monk, a musician or a college student–all of these are good karma. You might give some to somebody you love, or whom you wish to love, or who needs to feel loved. My mom says it is just as easy to pray for somebody while kneading bread as it is just to pray for somebody; I don’t understand prayer, but I know everybody needs to feel loved and everybody loves good bread.

Note: this recipe is adapted from Family Fun’s Family Cookbook. I know, it’s Disney, but it is a great cookbook.

If you have a question, leave a question; if you need a question, take a question.

Pilosophy BistroSo, as I get started, are there any questions anybody would like to throw out?
Giedra: Here are my questions, as someone who never studied philosophy:  What misconceptions do decently educated people have about philosophy/particular lines of philosophical thought/particular philosophers?  What aspects of philosophy, if any, do you wish were more widely known/understood, and why?  What are the differences/similarities between philosophy and theology?  
Sarah: How can I get my mom to remember that her great-grandson’s name is that–Soren–and not Borst?
Jerri: I would like to hear your thoughts about why American culture vilifies intelligence and critical thinking.
Grace: What about Germany? How did it shape you, what reminds you of it, what was it like growing up there? Also: Existentialism vs Nihilism? Why does wandering make you feel less lost?
Melissa: How do you make bread from scratch?
Ben: Is there a correlation between Western society’s increased individualism, And their decreased threshold for discomfort, pain and suffering?
Abby: What’s for dinner when your fridge currently holds eggs, bacon, zucchini, and three kinds of cheese (and the zucchini needs to be used or tossed)?
Emilee: Why should humans be good?

shoes and books

I was listening to Richard Blanco’s Inaugural Poem today, and was struck by the following line:

“hands as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.”

ShoesSo much of your childhood I spent working
and missing you;
in classes I taught, phones I answered, files I sorted, keys labelled and given, customers I greeted and smiled to again and again and again.
Wondering, all the while, what story you might be telling if I was there.

But I had to work.
I had to work to buy you the things you would need,
Things like books and shoes.

Books to take you to whole new worlds,Books
and shoes to take you across this one;
books to feed you on dreams,
and shoes to walk towards them.

I have been a father,
and I have given you books and shoes and love.
Books and shoes to take you far from me,
and love to keep you always near.