Needful Madness

I want to talk to you tonight: not as your affable host here at the Bistro, nor as your gregarious philosopher, but as a social theorist.
It is Halloween, and I want to talk to you about transgression.

Europe 2013 274When we visited Germany this summer, on our wandering extended exploration. Germany is a very ordered society, full of rules. There are signs everywhere telling you what is forbidden. We saw a sign forbidding us from blocking a driveway, that said: “Exit must be kept free.” Underneath it, somebody had scrawled in Sharpie: “Freedom For All Exits!”
This is how cultures work. Society sets boundries and norms, expectations and rules for us, and, for the most part, this is a good thing, and it keeps us all from killing each other on a daily basis. But to keep the all these norms from crushing us, we also need some rupture, a way of transgressing these norms and boundaries, and of letting off steam. There are rules, but then there is an undercurrent of freedom, where we express ourselves. In a healthy society, this can be done with humor, or with strange rituals.Rhinocerous in Chattanooga
Most societies have them: Ancient Greece had the Dionysian Rites, Ancient Rome had Saturnalia, where all the conventions were turned on their heads and the masters served the slaves. Evolving from this, the Roman Colonies in Britain retained the Twelfth Night Celebration, including Twelfth Night Follies where the men would dress like women and the women like men, and everybody would laugh and be silly (and sometimes learn something or be made uncomfortable by the gender roles they saw from a different side). Germany, where I grew up, celebrated the madness of Fasching before heading into Lent, as many cultures celebrate Mardi Gras.

The last remnant of this we have in the United States is Halloween, Skull in Charlotteand even it is co-opted by fear of strangers and commercial interests and the consumerist desire to fill ourselves with candy or booze.

In a class I once taught, a student, a young romantic, suggested that all of us should go completely mad every once in a while. At the time, I was a bit put out by this, since I had an inkling of the pain mental illness can bring. Now, I understood madness better, having experienced a bit of it firsthand, and it can be terrifying.
However, I am convinced we do need a bit of safe madness, we do need to break free, to dress up and be someone else, to howl at the moon, to be a zombie and chase humans around, to pull pranks or jump out at people.

So celebrate this Halloween, but also keep it in your heart the rest of the year, and find little forms of transgression and rebelling that won’t hurt you or others.
Find some madness and ride it like a wild horse.
Take the time to dance the night away with abandon.Pumpkin Awesome
Sing out loud.
Pull a prank. Or two.
Make an inappropriate joke and shock someone.
Read Poetry out loud.
Howl at the moon.
We are all mad here.
Take a walk on the wild side.

Happy Halloween!
Enjoy your madness, but be kind to each other.

Monday Night Leftovers: a word about irony


I have missed having Brandon around on Monday nights, and not just because he is the one with opposable thumbs (my left one is unreliable, but that’s a long story). I do trust that he is having smash-up great success on his other writing projects.
Until he returns, I thought we might recycle some left-overs.
This also gives me a chance to do an audio version, which can be found here.

Hipsters in Washington HeightsHey. Hipster.
Of course, you know I’m not talking to you because you are not a hipster, but hey, hipster, I’m talking to you.

I’m not a hipster, although my life has had some “Bobo” elements. I started wearing fedoras because I wanted to be cool like Bogart. At the time, everybody was trying to look like the BeeGees (ask your mom). I grew the facial hair to look scruffy like Springsteen and Dylan. I started wearing boots because I wanted to be cool like Sid Vicious. (Do you even know who Sid Vicious was?) I found I liked all these things, and I added vests because I liked them. They also give me a place to keep my watch.Dr Bear in Vest I’ve never read On the Road; although I think we used to pretend we had, that and other cool books. A long time ago, I used to carry around copies of Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, but some of that was posing, too. I do think that reading Turgenev’s Father’s and Sons might have changed my life, but I am certain that it changed my wardrobe. I like locally owned microbrews because they are really good beer. I buy cheap beer because I cannot afford locally owned microbrews. I love irony–I had forgotten my youthful fondness for irony & symbols until I recently found a picture of me in my 20s wearing a Mickey Mouse Tshirt with safety pins in MIckey’s ears. I also….

wode looking right(Wode Toad tells me that I am digressing, and need to get back on track…) Because I value wit, I also value irony. It is a useful & fun form of expression. It also seems an antidote in a world that is filled with people who are way too serious. But look, irony also involves a failure to commit; something said ironically, or even just hinted at ironically, can be disowned or dismissed if it gets too close to being called out.

So here’s my advise: Don’t. Stop it right now! Stop trying to be ironic. Don’t speak ironically, speak honestly and passionately; don’t flirt, love. The original hipsters viewed the quotidian society with irony, but threw themselves into life, into dancing to bebop, into loving the women and men they were with, they threw themselves onto the road. Tear it up. “Sound your barbaric Yawp over the roofs of the world!” Throw yourself into where and what you are; learn to be, and do not be ironically.

Photo courtesy of EGS feet courtesy of the divine meg

You are being ironic because you are afraid of being silly, but why? If living fully, if experimenting with life makes you look silly, then own it; everybody looks silly the first dance, the first time stepping on a long board, the first step into freezing water at the beach, but they look sillier if they hesitate. Jump into life, even if it seems silly.

(Besides, I’ve seen your little hats and your mustaches; you already look silly.) Stop being ironic right now!

No, that’s too harsh: Tshirts, bumper stickers, & memes can be ironical. Jokes among friends can be ironical; comments whispered about other people can be ironical, especially when to do otherwise would be cruel.

Just don’t be ironic to people; always be honest to people. Especially yourself.

Monday Night Leftovers: Bistro Bennys

BennyWhat we have here, is a bed of sautéed greens–chard, mustard greens & arugula sautéed with some garlic, soy sauce & sesame seeds–over that a nest of locally grown and ground corn grits, some cheddar, and then a poached egg. For presentation, we added some tomato, some orange and purple bell peppers, and topped it off with sriracha.
Fine with coffee, tea, or Duck-Rabbit Wee Heavy Scotch Ale.

Mind your Happiness

What is it that we want more than anything else?
What is it what we work those long hours at jobs for, keep relationships alive for, save for, spend for, climb into the mountains for, drive into the city for, sit and wait for, climb those trees for?


step inside for happiness3Even the closest rivals for what we might want more than anything else—that 22 year old single malt, that night dancing, that meringue, the sweet heat and tingle of physical pleasure, the intoxicating exhilaration of power, success, money—these are all things we desire in the faith (or the hope) that they will make us happy. But these are all fleeting, and too dependent upon the black and red wheel of fate or upon the whims of others.
What we want is happiness and fulfillment.

Aristotle argues that happiness is the end towards which all our Aristotle Coverhuman means are ultimately aiming, and that a happy human life is irrevocably tied to what it means to be human. To be a human being is ultimately to be a social being, and a rational being, so any account of human happiness will be an account of the character and types of actions and activities that allow us to find fulfillment—both socially and intellectually. The little ball on that wheel might not land on our number or even our color, and we might be smacked around by an indifferent world and cruel compatriots, but as far as our striving towards human flourishing, towards happiness, towards fulfillment is dependent upon our choices, we can cultivate virtues, excellences of behavior, and of the mind.

That, my friends, is a very concise summary of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

I’ve discussed the virtues of character elsewhere, and will again, I’m sure, but this week, I was struck by his discussion of the virtues of the mind. One reason I have tended to breeze through this part is because it is a bit vague, technical, and abstract, but especially because the moral virtues are so much easier to have discussions about. However, the main reason is because I have always associated Aristotle’s account of the importance of the development of the mind in general, and the importance of contemplation and the acquisition of wisdom with Plato’s contemplation of the forms. Aristotle’s account is much richer than that, though.

To be happy, to be fulfilled, to be self-actualized—whatever vocabulary you prefer—one must cultivate the mind, but also exercise it, and in all its dimensions.
He talks of φρόνησις—judgment—how we understand and choose appropriate behavior, the practical decision making of living with others. This is savoir-faire, a kind of knowing, but a way of knowing what to do, and as much a skill as a matter of content knowledge.
I think that the importance of exercising this part of the mind might go without saying—although we might not realize its importance in ourselves, we certainly recognize the lack of it in others—not just crudeness and lack of conscience, but an inability to recognize how are actions can make others happy or ruin their day. Since we no longer live within the confining certainties of Jane Austin’s world, we find ourselves largely playing this one by ear—I know killing is wrong, but when do I send a thank-you note? Even if you do not know the specifics, you can exercise some judgment:
if you do not hold the door for others, you are not a gentleman.
if you are unkind to the wait staff, you are not a good human being.
if you are cruel to children or animals, you are not human.
These are not open to interpretation.

He talks of τέχνη—skill—how we know how to do things. Like most philosophers, Aristotle privileges the abstract over manual labor, but he does recognize that craft and skill are important (he was, after all, a physician, a skill I appreciate). He also recognizes the way in which the knowledge of the hands is a form of knowledge.
To stretch the parts of our minds which create is as pleasurable as stretching our back muscles in the warm sun; to make something good is one of the most fulfilling things a human can do; to make something beautiful is to build ourselves a bit more soul. To not be allowed to make things, to not be able to cultivate skills which we know are ours, to merely process or move things back and forth, or to shuffle papers and figures for a living is deadening.

He talks of ἐπιστήμη—knowledge—and of νοῦς—understanding—both of which are ways we know things. He sometimes makes the distinction of knowledge being about knowing things, whereas understanding being about understanding the abstractions behind them (and wisdom being the understanding the first principles behind everything), but I like to think of them as knowing facts and data—Turkey is in Asia, Sweet Potatoes & Yams are not the same things, the average airspeed velocity of an un-laden European Swallow is roughly 11 meters per second or 24 miles an hour, etc. Understanding can go beyond this raw data and build upon it.
As anti-intellectual as we sometimes can be, the fact remains that we human beings derive pleasure from knowing and from understanding. We want to figure out what that 5 letter word at 8-down is, how to get all 9 numbers in each of the 9 squares, and we want to beat the dweebs on Jeopardy. We do memorize baseball statistics and keep track of basic Tardis data. We try to understand how UT might finally get a winning football team again and how the living dead move. We want to know how Sherlock survived his fall and where the second gunman on November 22nd 1963 was.

Of Aristotle’s fifth intellectual virtue, Σοφία—wisdom, sweet wisdom, holy Sophia, gift of Athena—I have, and will continue to write of her.

Using our minds is a necessary part of human happiness; if we have nothing to think about, we are miserable. Boredom gets us into more trouble than almost anything else.
When I talk to people suffering from losing the ability to discipline their thoughts, they are really suffering. To lose one’s mind is, of course, tragic, but even to lose bits of memory and reasoning is terrifying and terrible.

So exercise your mind—use your judgment, your skills, pick up new information and gain new understandings; not everyone can win at blackjack every time (except, so far, Summer), but you can use your mind, you can control this puzzle-piece of your happiness.
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Classic Pie Crust

Pies, Shoefly and Apple, Apple 6…and by classic, I am afraid I might mean Crisco®, because they are the ones from whom I garnered this recipe. I have always preferred pie to cake, but the crusts take a bit of practice to make. My mother is an incredibly good pie maker, and even worked for a time cranking out pies for a place called “Mom’s Pie Factory.”

This is enough for one single crust. For two pastry shells or a pie with a top crust, double the recipe. Not rocket science, folks.


  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 pinch of sugar
  • 1/3 cup ice cold solid shortening
  • 2 Tbsp ice cold butter
  • 3 Tbsp ice cold water

Step 1, sifting the dry ingredients: In a large bowl sift (mix if you don’t have a sifter) the flour, sugar, and salt. Mix thoroughly.

Step 2, pastry cutting: Cut in the ice cold shortening and sliced butter,Pies, Shoefly and Apple 4 using either a pastry cutter or a knife. I suppose some processer thingy can do this, too, but I don’t own one. The result should be crumbly.
(Just a note: with pie crusts and crackers, you are, in effect, using the oils to fry the flour, this is what makes it crispy and flakey)

Step 3, adding the water: as simply as possible–working pie or biscuit dough too much makes it tough–add in the water. It needs just enough to make it a dough, not any more.

Step 4, roll with it baby: Flour a clean, smooth counter surface (tables, desks and Pies, Shoefly and Apple 6sarcophagi will do, too, just so it is smooth, cool, and has plenty of space), and a rolling pin. flour the ball of dough, and pat it down to spread it out. Roll out the dough gently, a little at a time, starting from the middle and moving outward. if the edges become raged, moisten them, fold them in, and roll them again.

Step 5, into the pan: transfer the rolled out crustPies, Shoefly and Apple 7 into the pan. You might roll it onto the pin and unroll it, or a variety of strategies–I loosen it from the counter with a spatula, and then slide it to the edge and over/into the pan. Pat it down, trim or fold the edges of the dough over, and then crimp the edges. some folks like fork prints, I like to pinch a wavy zig-zag edge meandering around the pan.

Step 6, baking: Bake the shell by itself if you are going to fill Pies, Shoefly and Apple, Shoefly 1it with something, or insert your ingredients here. (to be continued…)

Where do I go from here?

Last week, I was serving drinks at the Bistro bar when someone asked: “Where do you go when there is nowhere left to go?”

It is a question I have been asking myself for over a year now. “Maybe it’s the time of year, or maybe it’s the time of man,” or maybe it’s the time of life in which I find myself, but there seem to be more walls and fewer horizons in my life than there used to be.

One option, of course, is to try to retrace, to try to go back to a time when there seemed to be endless possibilities—or, at least, there still seemed to be possibilities, or to try to recapture that person you once where, and then try to look for new directions, either new possibilities that might have been forgotten or over-looked, or new insights from rediscovering your earlier self.
It is not a bad start, and it may clear your head, but—informative as the past might be—the past is past. As Thomas Wolfe famously pointed out, “you can’t go home again.”
The past is a lovely place to visit, but a person has to find another place to live.

Another alternative is resignation, to choose to embrace the present, to look beyond the problems and limitations that seem to haunt you, and even the numbing dead-ends and losses of your professional and personal life, and to lose yourself in the moment, such as it is, one way or another.
Of course, you can deaden the present, and find solace and comfort where you can, looking for your own personal safe havens or clean, well-lighted places. This may avoid the problem, but it still leaves you with a slow, shuffling specter of yourself to live with.

Heidegger once said that without any real hope of progress, all that remained for the thinker was to prepare a place, a clearing, for the return of god. By and large, this seems to be the last philosophical suicide by an old man whose philosophical acuity had died decades earlier, not having survived his personal integrity by long. Are we worth saving if only a god can safe us?
However, passively resigning to fate and minimizing the desires of the self which connect us to this world is, for many, a viable strategy. This has been part of the rich heritage of Buddhism: to not gorge yourselves upon this world and your own self until you become trapped and wallowing like a fattened banana-fish. Accept the illusion of selfhood, and transcend it.

While it may be selfish to desire things, and it may be selfish to build up oneself—or even build protective walls around oneself—at the expense of others, it is not selfish to demand to have one’s own self, and perhaps even a place of one’s own. To be is to be myself; my own pain is not an illusion to be overcome, but is a part of me. My scars are my skin, and my skin is my scars, and I am both.

Another similar alternative is to seek comfort in the close company of others, to lose oneself either in the warm embrace of friends, or of family, or of other communities. This may diminish the discomfort, or may make it more bearable, but the heart resists and the mind wanders.

To be companions is more than just sitting and breaking bread—it is to be on a journey together, and this needs motions and change, destruction and growth, and perhaps even loss. However, to move is to live; Allons-y!

A final alternative that remains is re-invention. No, we can’t change the past, and we can change very little about the present, but the future will always be infinite possibility. There are limits to how far you can re-imagine yourself, but those limits are only slightly smaller than your imagination. The world will set limits on us, but the walls will close in on us and crush us eventually, so why not try to scale them? Why not leap?
Rage, rage! Dare! Sound your barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world! Wear bright yellow! Write new things! Say what you mean! Make cookies with Sriracha, and Scallops with Seitan!

Are you worried about what you will do after you leap?

“Why, you crazy! The fall will probably kill you!”

Life is uncertain