Author Archives: Darius Liddell

About Darius Liddell

some dude

How much is a (black) life worth?

I avoided writing about these issues of police brutality against black folk for a long time, because I was afraid that once I did, the chronic depression that lies latent within the black cultural consciousness would rear its ugly head — and it did. The names and “heartbreaking cases” seem endless, and posterity treats them as hashtags: #JusticeForTrayvon #MikeBrown #TamirRice, #EricGarner #ICantBreathe #Ferguson #Blacklivesmatter #Crimingwhilewhite #DariusLiddell — Because it’s only a matter of time until it happens to me or someone close to me, why should I be exempt? I take walks at night in middle-class neighborhoods — isn’t that precisely the crime Trayvon committed? I played around with toy guns when I was a kid, making shooting noises at people [1] — isn’t that what Tamir was doing?

What made Tamir and Trayvon, two unarmed human children, so unchildlike and so inhumane that a fully grown and armed police officer decided to shoot them down?

***

On the day of his death, Tamir Rice’s actions were not very remarkable or even rare: he was just another kid playing with a toy gun, whether on the lawn of his home or in the local park. According to the 911 caller, the gun was “probably fake but he’s pointing it at everybody”. Also, it was mentioned that he was “probably a juvenile”.

The dispatcher repeatedly asked (after the caller tried to evade the question) whether Tamir was black or white. Why did this matter at all? (For identification purposes perhaps, but how likely was it that the race would be needed in a case like this?). You can hear the entire call here.

The outcome of the Tamir Rice case literally leaves me speechless: Police shot him within two seconds of arriving on the scene; questions were not asked nor negotiations attempted. The abdominal wound proved fatal, and when his sister arrived at the scene to see what happened, she was tackled, handcuffed and shoved into the back of the police car. The full video is here. Tamir’s wounds were given no aid (afterwards of which it was obvious his gun was fake) and the ambulance took ~10 minutes to arrive — could this issue have been handled more poorly?

I wonder if the kid was white, would he still be alive or would anyone even have called the cops? Or what if it had been a little white girl toting a toy gun — would anyone have even blinked an eye? Some probably would have chuckled and smiled, even! But one thing is for sure, if the little innocent kid was white — because we all know Tamir Rice was innocent — there would be a lot more national outrage — about gun laws/control, about trigger-happy cops killing random people, and more generally, about America’s inevitable ascendency towards the militarization of the police.

But what about Tamir? Where is the outrage for him? His death was not an accident; no apologies were made. The City of Cleveland even went so far as to blame Rice and his family for his death.

You can’t make this stuff up. Little white girls from middle-class families are kidnapped and CNN follows them for days, aka The Missing White Woman Syndrome. Trayvon was 17, and the courts were able to convince themselves that he was on the verge of beating an armed grown man to death. Tamir was 12. How young is too young? When do boys become men?

***

The Trayvon ruling set an ugly precedent: an armed cop or “neighborhood watch guy” has a scuffle with an unarmed teen at night, kills the kid, yet is ultimately proclaimed not guilty because it was “self-defense”.

The Mike Brown ruling set an even uglier precedent: a cop can kill an unarmed teen in broad daylight with multiple (albeit conflicting) eyewitnesses present, and the case is deemed not even worthy of a trial.

Then along comes Eric Garner, who is blamed for his death because he resisted arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes. Several parties even went so far as to argue that Garner’s plethora of physical conditions (asthma, heart condition, obesity) means that he would have died anyway — in other words, if Garner didn’t have so many health problems to begin with, he would have survived the altercation. (Although the coroner’s report confirmed that Garner’s death was a homicide by “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest, and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.”)

***

How, really, is Garner’s case different from a public lynching? There were New Yorkers walking by as Garner died; some must have stopped to watch. Oscar Grant was shot in the back face down in a BART car. Face down.  He was no longer a threat to anyone, he was fully subdued — he could have simply been taken into custody. Why wasn’t he?

What is so frightening is that if a case like Garner’s and Grant’s can be explained away, what does it take for a police officer to be convicted for an obviously avoidable murder — and get a comparable sentence as would be accorded a civilian? (Arguably, police officers should actually get heavier sentences, to dissuade them from abusing their enormous power over civilians — power under the law and in the street — because they should be held to stricter standards than civilians, not more loose ones.) [2]

The power that is afforded police officers to kill with impunity is astonishing. Sure, even if you believe that most cops are good — even if they really are all good — the law would still allow cases like this to avoid a fair and thorough trial or have a trial wherein the officer is allowed to explain how his “split-second decisions” are totally justified in hindsight. Gail Sullivan says it best:

“But it’s not what’s on a video that matters so much under the law. Nor is it even whether the officer did or did not harbor racial prejudice. It’s what was going through the mind of the cop in the few seconds when he chose to use force that counts and whether his decision was “reasonable” under the circumstances at that time, not with the benefit of hindsight.

And “reasonable” is defined not by what the general public may think but what cops in a similar situation would think.

That’s what the U.S. Supreme Court has said. And that’s among the reasons it’s so hard to bring charges against cops when they use force — even lethal force.

All this gives police considerable leeway and if they testify before the grand jury, as Pantaleo did in this case, considerable potential sway since they have the opportunity to describe why what they did seemed necessary.”

Bottom line, if an officer happens to kill you, for whatever reason — he’ll be allowed to testify on his own behalf about exactly what his reasons were for acting in the situation that he did. He’ll be offered almost total leeway of subjectivity, simply because he is a police officer and for no other reason. [3]

***

Some say of Garner: “If he had just complied, he would not have died”.   This is a ridiculous argument because it assumes that no matter the charges police bring against you, you should never resist arrest under any circumstances. The brute facts are that cops don’t need proof of the charges when they arrest you — proof is what the verdict of the trial is supposed to ascertain. The police could have nothing more than hearsay, and you simply have to comply because they are wearing a uniform paid for by your taxes. How much power are we willing to give to a uniform?

Never resist arrest — because you might die, and even if the cops did get punished (which they probably won’t, at least not in any sense that a civilian would find commensurate for the crime), you would still be dead — so it’s not worth it in either case. Don’t sacrifice yourself for the petty pride of your conscience; subordinate yourself to the whims of the state (or whatever persons the state has designated worthy of wearing their uniform).

To make resisting arrest a crime lays the groundwork for a police state.

***

Honestly, all these suggestions about how to avoid getting killed by the cops seem eerily similar to how we advise women on how not to get raped by men. “If only you hadn’t resisted arrest (or said yes/no at the proper time with enough assurance); dressed in sagging pants with a hoodie (or in that skanky way at that frat party last night), talked with the utmost respect and deference towards the officer (or turned down his offer for just one more drink or bong hit), if only you knew how to read the minds of your police officers (and those of random power-hungry men) and could anticipate their next move at any and all times, then you wouldn’t have been raped/killed.” Sound familiar?

That’s because it’s an old story. The oppressed has to know the whims and peculiarities of the oppressor. The people and parties at the bottom or middle of the hierarchy have to learn the tastes of the ruling class in order to join it. You have to fake it ‘til you make it, essentially. For historical reasons, women have had to know men at a much deeper and more holistic level than vice versa. (Arguably, men have had to do the same but their motives were much different). I have to become acquainted with corporate culture to succeed in it, but no white person has to take black or Hispanic culture seriously in America — simply because we are not the dominant culture. To put it in crude, postmodern terms, I have to know ‘stuff white people like’ at a much subtler and deeper level than whites have to know ‘stuff black people like’. The bourgeois decides taste; there is only one real and true way to be sophisticated, according to the dominant culture, of which the first step is to articulate with proper grammar and structure (i.e. don’t talk like your black great grand-parents – you ain’t gone get no job like that). Being educated is nothing more than wearing the outer markers (dress, conversation, goals, etc) of the currently educated class.

***

But, let’s be honest, regardless of how you feel about any of these generic cases of “white cop kills black male (female cases abound — 10+ cases to get you started: here & here — but simply get way less media attention), you have to acknowledge that the outcome in all of them seems patently ABSURD when juxtaposed with the outcome of the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. Here are the highlights: James Holmes walked into a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises and killed 12 people and injured ~70 others. Everyone knew he was the killer. He was arrested without resisting and was taken to a detention center to undergo several psychiatric evaluations, while his lawyers continue to make “diminished capacity” pleas on his behalf.

But in the other cases we discuss, each black person was killed because they were perceived or suspected threats.  Holmes had already proved he was a threat by killing a dozen people and injuring many others… The evidence against Holmes was overwhelmingly clear, and yet his life was deliberately preserved! Excessive care was taken to ensure that Holmes was not hurt in any way, even after he had already killed a dozen people!

This is the pure, pure essence of white privilege. The treatment of Holmes versus any of our other cases cannot be justified under any circumstances.

***

In our time, it’s fashionable to disdain rage. In social dynamics, anger is perceived as a sign of weakness, a sign that you feel you’ve lost power, “lost control”. Anger is usually feared if it comes from the dominant party in the altercation, but pitied, ridiculed, or even ignored if it comes from the less powerful party. In our case, in order to deflect the great pains and horrors of any nuanced and honest racial discourse, we employ more acceptable ways to express/deflect rage, such as cynicism and irony, and transform it into laughter (and those who still become too angry are usually said to be overreacting, or in our case, “just another black person who needs to get over it”, “a race-baiter”, etc). But humor, sarcasm and cynicism are forms of coping; and as much as these methods have their place, their only true purpose is to incite change, and nothing will change as long as we use these tools to deflect our true feelings rather than empower them.

The most effective tool against racism is anger. The seemingly opposed movements of black power and nonviolent action both had the same element at the core: pure, unbridled rage.

[1] I was 5’8 at 13 just like Tamir was 5’7 at 12, so we both looked older than our age stature-wise, which would have made us both look “threatening”.

[2] It appears that it is incredibly hard to indict a police officer in cases where the civilian is severely injured or dead, because the court cannot prove that the officer did not have “objective reasonableness”. Check out the 1989 case of Graham v. Connor and a few articles (here, here, and here) detailing how the courts, the police, and the prosecutors somehow all manage to stick together when it comes down to it. (This is worth a whole blog post in itself)

[3] The black victims are always pitied in the same manner (or perps, as in every case, the cop was deemed the victim, and the still black body is always unfortunate collateral): “You know, It wasn’t supposed to be this way, I was following protocol.. I had no choice.. We make tough decisions sometimes, we didn’t want anybody to die”. It reminds me of the herd-mentality of the soldier or the employee… “I was just following orders”.

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Feb 17 – Mar 1: Azienda Agricola Mauro Iob, Vetralla

After staying with Bridget in Tuscany, my next stop was in the province of Viterbo, in the small medieval town of Vetralla, littered with waterfalls and caves. When I arrived, Rita had trouble finding me at the train station, but I’m not sure why, as there are several obvious reasons why I’d be not so difficult to spot.

the directions that I never used

the directions that I never used

Rita and Mauro are probably some of the nicest people I know; it’s surprising how at home you can feel while moving into the home of a random middle-aged couple in central Italy.

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Their daughter and her friend arrived that night for an excellent welcome dinner. And when I go to bed after the first night, I find these two quotes carved into my room wall:

ogni uomo doverebbe conoscere i propri limiti
(every man should know the proper limits)… but I ask limits for what, set by who, and how?

la vita ti chiede ciò che sei in grado di affrontare
(life asks only what you can bear)

Rita was also a huge fan of Siddartha by Hermann Hesse (of which my attempt to read in Italian was an utter failure), while Mauro likes Per Una Vita Migliore Ovvero il Libro della Autosufficienza (the English translation that is used is ‘The Guide to Self-sufficiency’) by John Seymour,

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…so from these alone, we had some interesting springboards for conversation — not to mention the vertiginous times where we had entirely too much wine and dipped into slippery squabbles, about the unintended byproducts of cheap labor, or how Italy is becoming the ape of America in some way through adoption of ‘gym culture’.

The work

Their main business is an agritourismo, doubling as a small hotel and a farm, and they hold courses on beekeeping for children.

Spring was not yet arrived, so the work was very preparatory in nature: clearing the garden, hauling manure, which is mainly why they keep the donkeys — which we mostly put in the asparagus garden, which is more fun than you might think. Before hauling, you have to make sure it’s not too damp or else it’s too heavy, but you also don’t want it to dry out — so it’s a delicate balance. But you collect it in one place and let it rot down for about 1-2 months, to let all the bacteria and germs do their thing. Hauling manure downhill is not easy, and as the maggots and beetle larvae multiply, the load can get quite heavy and intimate. (I’ve learned quite a lot about manure at this point, but I’ll save it for my time in Cherni Kamuk, Bulgaria) I bet the donkeys don’t know or care what we do with their manure. While I slave to haul their dung, they lazily graze by the wayside, and the dog chases them occasionally, playing, ducking.

There is also fencing to keep the donkeys out of the asparagus garden, not because they eat the asparagus, but because they trample over them. Generally, they eat grasses (but trees and bushes, if they are desperate) they can see or reach, and whenever we come near them, they expect us to have a handful of grass or hazelnuts. They wait for about 2 minutes, then if they get nothing, walk away. In the summer, during the day, they stay in nearby caves for shade, and feed at night, as Italian summers can be very hot and dry.

The donkeys were actually one of my favorite parts; watching them graze is quite peaceful. I think they already know how to live in the present without being taught. But I doubt such a thing can be taught, but only realized — in the same way that poets don’t live their experiences, but are merely swept up by them, buoyed up onto the crashing waves of surrealism. I try not to transform or meddle with the experience, but surrender myself to it.

they're easy to love

they’re easy to love

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We dig up the weeds — ‘waste not, want not’, we feed them to the donkeys instead of discarding them — which are unwanted plants in the garden, but it wasn’t for vegetables or herbs, but so we could plant specific flowers that Mauro wanted for the bees, of which one of my favorites was rosemary.

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up close and personal

up close and personal

 

spring sent us an early gift

spring sent us an early gift: cherry blossom

As soon as I get my hands in the dirt, I feel so much life. Spiders, worms, millipedes, ants, bees, aphids, everything else, there is so much life all around us, that we never see. As soon as we are truly aware of life, the reaper smirks with eyes twinkling: dying leaves signal autumn; clothes were plants once, as was paper. Every time we eat, a life is being extinguished so another life can continue. Aren’t plants alive, too, vegetarians? Life lives on life. We are all murderers or conspirators with murderers — either way, we roam at large.

Worker bees can only sting once, and die shortly afterwards. The male honeybee dies as soon as he mates with the queen: his mission is finished! I mean, aren’t insects are the most varied and probably most important species on earth? So many things that crawl have been doused with bad press: spiders, cockroaches, flies, and other “pests”. Many agricultural pests are just nature’s way of dealing with overgrown monocultures. Insects should be allowed to write opinion pieces in our papers if we truly had “freedom of the press” — But then again, their views are written all over the earth, only in a language that we neither understand nor respect.

 

***

There are many types of honey in Italy listed here (le miele da castagne is chestnut honey, spicy and pungent) being the most expensive, and the type of honey is whatever flower the bees are pollinating. Most honey in American stores is clover honey or miele millefiori (multi-flower honey), the latter meaning that the keepers don’t care which flowers the bees are visiting. Funnily enough, what the flower smells like is totally unrelated, and sometimes completely opposite, to what the honey tastes like. Mauro likes to tell of this one flower that everyone was raving about, but when they tasted the honey the bees made from it, it was awful.

Also, the worker bees generally make more honey than they themselves need, and we just take the surplus. The other part of the work, which was really time-consuming but worth it, was shelling hazelnuts to make butter, which is the base ingredient for gnutella (but I doubt gnutella in the store uses real hazelnuts). We made massive amounts of delicious butter, and the oil naturally rises to the top, so you know it’s the real thing.

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As a parting gift, they gave me a jar of honey and butter, which I am (unsuccessfully) trying to send home, along with the oil I got from my very first farm in Monteleone Sabino.

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They also use their honey, instead of cane sugar, to make jams, which is healthier and tastier. Sugar is added more for preservation than sweetening, because without added sugar, most marmalades won’t last past a few days, as the fruit ferments quickly. And most fruits are cooked and then sugar is added, and both of these processes harm the intrinsic vitamins — so the less sugar you can add, the better.

i basically drunk half of this

i basically drunk half of this

Luckily, these hazelnut trees were on the land when he purchased it, so all he has to do is pick them. The “first come, first serve” harvest is in September, and you have to wait for the nuts to drop from the tree and race to get them, before the squirrels do — and squirrels wake up at 4-5am.

***
Rita and Mauro have agreed to speak only in Italian with me from now on, which is great, because I feel like there is no true cultural exchange without making an attempt to learn the language. Which is why I despise common tourism, because it makes no attempt to actually talk to a person, or suggest that you might have a conversation with a local beyond how to greet and ask for things, but merely insists on teaching you “standard phrases” so you can “get around” and get exactly what information that you need. Yes, the locals may be pleased that you can say basic things, but you cannot actually engage any further with a person unless they speak a little of your language. And since the whole ‘civilized world’ is on the fast track to English fluency… motivation is not widespread among Americans to learn another language.

I like to help my hosts improve their English; obviously they express themselves much better in Italian. I see them suffer and grasp for words in English, and I picture myself doing the same thing in Italian, and the epiphany comes: either they stumble and fall, sometimes succeeding, while trying to speak my native language, or I do the same while trying to speak theirs (invalid in cases where one person is fluent in both languages). The least I can do is meet them halfway, and we can split the embarrassment evenly.

 

What’s most disturbing about this is how we judge intelligence by articulation and pronunciation: if someone doesn’t enunciate correctly or spell words right, we count them uneducated and look askance at them in amusement or pity — and conversely, if someone articulates very well, they are assumed smarter. (Because if you sound smart, you are halfway there. Appearances appear to be more important, so they are.) And sometimes, however wrong and absurd, this is the first thought I have if this person stumbles over basic things in my language, as the ancient Greeks thought that every foreigner was somehow subhuman. The Greek barbaros, from which barbarian was derived, literally means ‘foreign’, which essentially means anyone with different speech and customs. Although now, we take the word to mean primitive and uncivilized, which are very loaded concepts — that ultimately are relative, and objectively, mean nothing, in and of themselves. — And Montaigne’s references are pointed (Book I, Ch. IX, “Of Liars”)–

An ancient father says “that a dog we know is better company than a man whose language we do not understand.”

Ut externus alieno pene non sit hominis vice.

[“As a foreigner cannot be said to supply us the place of a man.”
—Pliny, Nat. Hist. vii. I]

No matter where we go in the world, if we speak the language, we are automatically more human to the local people than someone who doesn’t.

I think language is the first way people identify with others, “OK, this person is one of us.” — or for immigrants who speak the language — “This person is trying to be like me, like us. Let me help them assimilate.” — and perhaps all other ways (race, class, sex, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality) we have used to limit and divide ourselves are only as influential as the words that buttress them. — Word choice, and the subtler use(s) of silence, is the most important choice, the bane of our existence, but Solomon was more poetic, for,

“death and life are in the power of the tongue, and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof” Proverbs 18:21

…and how do we know if there is any truth in the words we choose, or even how and why we choose them?

“Words lie in our way! — Wherever primitive mankind set up a word, they believed they had made a discovery. How different the truth is! — they had touched on a problem, and by supposing they had solved it they had created a hindrance to its solution. — Now with every piece of knowledge, one has to stumble over dead, petrified words, and one will sooner break a leg than a word.” The Dawn, Nietzsche, s. 47

or from the spacey and ethereal view, a wee Wilde, from The Portrait of Dorian Gray,

“Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?”

Language is the original philosophical problem, to which all others succumb, but which all happy religions must overcome.

***
Wine consumption here is so indulgent (I hear, there are some 350 varieties of grapes in Italy): we have at least a bottle or two with every meal, because, — well, why not? Mauro claims it’s because he’s from Trentino (a northern region of Italy) where they drink in much larger quantities, and Rita is from Umbria — Every time, Mauro takes a 5-10 minute break from working to roll some tobacco, he occasionally drinks a glass of wine also — it seems to prepare his palate for the ensuing never-ending Italian meal? 🙂
And we have the typical vino, formaggio, salumi con il pranzo e qualche volta la cena se non siamo troppo pieno

i did gain a few kilos, but I needed them, some would say.

i did gain a few kilos, but I needed them, some would say.

And we actually get some massive (decent) boxed wine for 10 euros that’s fairly excellent, beside which is some home-brewed hazelnut liqeur.

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And we even listened to opera or (squabbling about Italian politics), and Mauro mentioned once when it was in German instead of Italian. So picture listening to opera while gorging yourself on wine, cheese and oil, then entering a half-serious debate on whether opera should really be sung in languages other than Italian, then realizing you are drunk and need to take a nap… but there is donkey manure to be shoveled later that day!

Olive oil and wine are considered ‘high-brow’ things in the US, which just shows there really is no true culture for either in the states. (Mauro is an official olive oil taster, so we had had some excessively detailed conversations about oil.) In the US, to be a wine connoisseur is deemed a plea for sophistication. If you care excessively about olive oil, you are so rare and so faux-European, that you can probably can afford to care. It’s funny to me how America looks up to Europe (esp. France and Italy) in terms of food and wine. Even so, at all the ‘serious’ culinary schools in America, French cuisine has yet to be dethroned from her lofty, contemptuous stance. And because of the way the US looks up to these countries, in our quest to produce olive oil and wine, we are merely trying to imitate the best oils in Italy and the best of French and Italian wines — just as many artists and writers can be obsequious disciples of their greatest influences. What a pity that so many seek mastery by imitating previous masters, when true mastery lies in the honest and unbridled attempt at originality. ‘But’, we think to ourselves, ‘tis better to be a copy of a renowned original, than to be an original.’ — And the whole world approves by honoring our pursuit only of what posterity has deemed great. Because others are more likely to recognize and praise the copy of a famous iconoclast, than someone who is unique on their own terms, in spite of the dominant prejudices of their time. It is not so difficult to be original, as to avoid imitating past originals. An acute historical sense is both rare and costly: if you are too filled up with your education and what you have been taught to know and cherish, then how can you give to your contemporaries what is really you? A refined and cautious ignorance has its uses. ‘Tis better to peek, sigh, and glance at what is commonly revered in history — and not try to surpass them, but merely seek to be different — but beware that the world only respects certain flavors of ambition.

Is a path that can be followed worth following? Can we only go farthest when we don’t know where we are going? The competitive urge often defeats its very purpose: we want to conquer this one game in this one field, and forget that there are a thousand fields, each with a thousand games, right over there. We want to be better by setting other’s achievements as our goal, surpassing them, and then looking around at the world and saying, “Hey, look at me! I beat them!”, while it has always been more admirable to simply differ — to stop comparing oneself to past, present, or future greats. How can I have peace until I stop comparing myself to others? Money, status, prestige is only one type of rat race — there are a million others (re: the so-called ‘hipster’ culture) in which people are doing nothing but comparing themselves [to death] with others on the same path. Every ladder of comparison has infinite rungs, each of an infinite length…

And some rainbows have pots of dung at the end, not gold, and maggots churning, no leprechauns.

***

After morning work, we stop for a 1 hour lunch at 12 or 1, and afterwards take a 1 hour riposo (literally: repose) in the Italian style (Spain is apparently well-known for its afternoon siestas, where the shops close and everyone naps — or does whatever they want except work — after lunch). There are whole towns that essentially “go to sleep” in the afternoon here, especially in the summer.

Isn’t it obvious you definitely shouldn’t go back to work right after eating? — for digestive reasons, and also because meals should never be rushed for stress purposes (it’s not like we have to guard our food from predators or vultures) — but that is what most do in America. Whether you are on the clock or on salary, to take “too long” of a lunch break consistently may get you fired — you may be seen as lazy and unproductive, abusing the system, etc. I’m not saying that Americans should have a 5-course meal like Italians and the French, but just that we enjoy our food, slowly, succulently, whenever we eat. Gratitude never rushes: some African proverb says, “A man in a hurry is already dead”. I joke here that if I had wine with lunch every day in the US, eyebrows would be raised, suspicions of borderline alcoholism would be in the air. And even so, my American brain is having trouble adjusting… wait? you mean we just nap in the middle of the day, every day, no matter what? Even if we didn’t work that hard in the morning, we still deserve a bottle of wine for lunch, then an hour’s rest? And don’t confuse siesta with a “power nap”, those hideous progenies of time management. Why can’t a siesta be an end in itself? Why must a rest be a means for more work? I think vacations and retreats have that function: if some people didn’t need to rejuvenate to go back to work, they wouldn’t even go on vacations, because they only see time off as a means to perform better at work. Leisure should be an end in itself; I think we, especially Americans, work entirely too hard — I once confused someone by saying, “my most idle moments have also been my happiest” — and forgot to add that ennui is the mother of art,

Quiet fruitfulness. The born aristocrats of the spirit are not overeager; their creations blossom and fall from the trees on a quiet autumn evening, being neither rashly desired, not hastened on, nor supplanted by new things. The wish to create incessantly is vulgar, betraying jealousy, envy, and ambition. If one is some­thing, one does not actually need to do anything–and neverthe­less does a great deal. There is a type higher than the “produc­tive” man. Human All-Too-Human I, Nietzsche, s. 210

***
They let me borrow a bike, to roam through the meandering Viterbese countryside

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….

We say bon appetito: they share a kiss before every meal, and Rita always sits on the right of Mauro… so it’s essential that I don’t accidentally sit on his right, or else he’ll go in to kiss me, simply out of habit. [I should have tested this theory]

Mauro left home when he was 18, he told his parents he wanted to travel alone, without them, and they were vaguely offended and horrified: but one night, he planned a trip to travel with his parents, but later that night packed his bags, snuck out alone, left for the south of italy, and his parents called the police, and they said something like “Well, he is 18, there is nothing we can do, he is his own man now”… So he came back after spending the whole summer hitchhiking in Italy, penniless — and being a young traveler, strangers invited him back to their homes and was curious to know who he was and his story. (You can’t make this stuff up)

Mauro hates cell phones, hates being connected all the time, and is OK with people waiting for him at the landline if he is not available at the moment. He thinks people work too much to buy things they don’t need or things they think they need because everyone else has them (and he counts a cell phone among those superfluous things). Living is only as difficult as we make it and we probably don’t need to work as hard as we do. — And the concept of merit in the work we do is vastly overrated: to deny the role of chance is hubris; pride and gratitude divorced when Lucifer fell. One could almost say that people can be less grateful for things they feel they deserve, in the case of relationships and friendships especially — because they feel they are entitled to them. The concept of debt has always ran rampant in friendship and love, for,

If our friends do us a favor, we think that because they are called friends they owe it to us, and it never occurs to us that they do not owe us their friendship. – Vauvenargues

.. and what is this “You are entitled to your opinion”? This actually gives others license to defend their opinions with little to no argument, for few defend what they feel they are entitled to — why should they?

We work hard and so think we deserve only good outcomes, so because we expect to be duly compensated, we forget that chance is often a more powerful force than merit… so are we more likely to be grateful if we give credit to chance instead of merit? Is believing “I deserve this” incompatible with humility? The earth is indifferent to my wishes, as it is towards those of the human race — so, why should the human race be any less indifferent towards me, and the things I deem worthy in this life?

***

But anyway, they read ‘Il Fatto Quotidiano’ (the everyday facts), one of the few independent newspapers in Italy, that is not supported by public funds, which of course means that it can say whatever it wants, while the other newspapers are beholden to the opinions of public officials, the shareholders of this thing we call ‘the world’ — or are ‘we, the people’ the shareholders? Not quite sure how this whole capitalism thing is supposed to work.

Funnily, another part of the cultural exchange is watching American romantic comedies dubbed in Italian — foreign films and tv shows are always dubbed in Italy — with English subtitles (if the film happens to have them).

awful

awful

I would never have watched “P.S. I Love You” or “A Cry of the Heart (or whatever it was called)” in the US. The reach of American pop culture is, unfortunately, very far. But I learned vast amounts of vocabulary like un stronzo, “a piece of shit”, and “ti voglio bene”, which is how to say “I love you” to family or relatives, as “te amo” is usually reserved for romantic situations only.

**

Lastly, Rita made some awesome food, which I would be remiss to talk about.

We had two types of very tasty octopus, with fennel, oregano, and red pepper.

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and of course, pasta

and of course, pasta

Slow-roasted artichokes with potatoes, rosemary, olive oil and parsley, and cauliflower baked with gorgonzola (or pecorino, I forget?)

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cauliflower with pecorino is kinda like a really good macaroni and cheese

cauliflower with pecorino is kinda like a really good macaroni and cheese

Rita’s brother came down from Umbria (we talked and listened to blues and soul for a bit), bringing some prosecco.

prosecco, the Italian champagne, or Champagne is the Italian prosecco, they joke here, as the Franks rage

prosecco, the Italian champagne, or Champagne is the Italian prosecco, they joke here, as the French rage

They trade some of their honey for good homemade sausage; also, we get a nice cut of pork to butcher up ourselves.

a successful barter

a successful barter

 

fresh, organic ribs (and flanks below)

fresh, organic ribs (and flanks below)

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And last, but not least, Mauro understood and appreciated my addiction to olive oil, so I could indulge myself freely :-O

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Feb. 8-17, Castagneto Carducci, Le Catre

Tuscany is as beautiful as everyone says it is: a region heavily frequented by tourists, Italians and foreigners alike, for its wine and generally hideous landscape. Much more green and lush than Monteleone, it also rains a lot more. Also, Castagneto Carducci is 5 km from the beach, where we took the dogs for a few hours Sunday morning.

a little more green than Lazio

a little more green than Lazio

in the far view, you can see the Tyrrhenian sea

in the far view, you can see the Tyrrhenian sea

But I also have this fool to wake me up every morning at 6am (or really whenever he feels like it, he needs to work on his consistency, or maybe I should work on tolerating his inconsistency), my own personal alarm clock, infinitely better than any electronic one:

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The town is named after Giosuè Carducci, a very famous poet, whose statue is in the city center, and whose quote I ran across:

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which translates to, roughly, “Sweet country where I wore the fierce dress and heard such a disdainful song, I shall nevertheless see you again and my heart jumps in the meantime.” I suspect poetry is only translatable in emotion, not words. Indeed, I suspect if a poet is great, the poetry should be so subtle and profound as to make translation impossible — or conversely, as to make it seamless, because the emotion should transcend the language it is written in and encircle all human experience. But what do I know?

***

The area is less renowned for its olive oil (within Italy, but worldwide very much so) but certain Californian olive farmers began their cultivation by buying and importing the actual olive trees from Tuscany to the US. It sounds weird to import a tree, but it is very common, as there are many difficulties in the quest to produce good oil. Just to name a few: you need to be rich because you need to buy and maintain the land, and give the trees time to grow, and when they are full-grown, they may not produce olives when and how you want them to, and even if they do, these olives may not produce good oil, and then you must prune the trees, and then you decide which variety of olive you want to cultivate… and only if the climate of your particular region is right and if you can wait 15-20 years before you see any return on your investment… then you can produce olive oil, if you are very lucky… and planting a few hundred trees would be advisable, as some of them will probably die, as having many children was advisable a few centuries ago for the same reason!

At Le Catre, we do a little bit of everything: a bit of olive oil (just enough for ourselves), various fruits (figs, persimmons, pears, etc), spices (garlic, mint, parsley, oregano, etc), vegetables (asparagus, artichokes, fava beans, etc). Conservation of energy is a big focus as well: There is no central heating/air system so we haul and chop wood down to a certain size to fit in the fireplace (and we only heat a few rooms, so we have to make sure to keep the right doors closed when the fire is going). This seems to be a common theme among the farms I visited, as a way to save money, but for every penny you save, you make up for it in solid, rigorous labor. We have solar panels, we collect rainwater in tanks to store up for the year-round water supply and for irrigation as well for the extremely dry summers in some parts of Italy; we use a washing machine, but no dryer, we always hang the clothes out on the line (I’ve been to 4 farms, and they all do this.)

how long depends entirely on whether the air is humid or not

how long depends entirely on whether the air is humid or not

We plant certain ‘nitrogen-fixing’ plants to use them as compost later on. Nitrogen fixation is when N2 in the atmosphere is converted into ammonium (NH4) or nitrogen dioxide (NO2). N2 by itself is relatively inert (apparently), so nitrogen-fixing plants and animals free up nitrogen to combine with other elements, so it can then act as fertilizer, or be the building blocks for other amino acids. Many legumes (for example, we used fava beans) are great nitrogen-fixing plants.

***

(WWOOF: Willing Workers on Organic Farms, the organization that facilitates contact between the volunteers and the hosts, http://www.wwoof.it/en)

Bridget is our host, a Scottish woman (also head of WWOOF Italia for some years now) who moved to Tuscany 30 years ago, and fell in love with the place, as I am catching myself doing now.  Where can I get this good wine for so cheap? Or succulent oil so plentiful and inexpensive? For fresh produce, organic is always better for two reasons:  organic produce is always seasonal, and you know it has only been picked when it is ripe. (I have heard the standards for what passes as “organic” are taken more seriously in Europe than US, but I’m not sure.) I haven’t had a bad orange since I’ve been in Italy, and we eat them every day for dessert, which is an excellent way to finish a meal. In the main, there is no concept of seasonal produce for the American general public: we expect any of the fruits and vegetables to be available in the markets whenever and wherever we want them.

Bridget is very knowledgeable, without even trying: I’ve learned how to identify many herbs and spices in the wild, and fruit trees as well. Rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, and fennel are indigenous to Mediterranean shores, so we dry it for cooking and I love watching the bees at the flowers.

a wheelbarrow full of rosemary, the bees really like the flowers too!

a wheelbarrow full of rosemary (from pruning, and for eating)

the bees like the buds of the rosemary, just like me

belliiiissimoooo

Once you realize that most foods that we now cultivate once started in the wild in whatever climate they were indigenous to, paying for food seems a bit strange; many farmers I work with have a barter system with other farmers. (Although in theory, money is just a medium of exchange, so it is more flexible than the barter system.)

Very few people know how to identify the wild plants that all modern cultivated plants are descended from, and fewer can identify even the ones that we have cultivated — all most of us know is what the end product looks like — that is, after the local market has sprayed it with pesticides and coloring. (I’ve had delicious oranges that were not even orange, and just because an apple is full of bruises doesn’t mean it can’t be scrumptious. Isn’t it strange that in the grocery store all the different types of fruits are so uniformly arranged and all the same size?) In organic produce, the size and look of every fruit varies widely. Advertising does not really intend to deceive, but merely to convince us to accept its point of view — conveniently forgetting that the two often coincide.

She is one of the main people in charge of WWOOF Italia, so she has many stories to tell — from how the experience can subtly and drastically disturb people’s opinions, to the legal hurdles in getting and staying certified to be an organic farmer, or how having travelers in and out of the house all the time always reminds you and your family how ridiculous and dense the human race is — and really embodies the spirit of WWOOF (passion for organic agriculture, understands the importance of flexibility and adaptability for each host and wwoofer, and readily disabuses WWOOF of its romantic aspects). She refused a picture, but here is the only one I could find on the web:

Tidge Lamentano

I volunteered with Matt, an Australian; this was his first farm and I think he had a welcoming experience. It is a big change from your normal life: going into someone’s home, eating every meal with them, being forced to make new friends, learning way too much, and sometimes, having to play with their kids, or just getting really, really good at listening to people.

She keeps a heavily varied forest garden with a friend, with herbs, fruits, vegetables, and forestry (ash, chestnut, hazelnut, and many more). She mentioned that monocultures are unnatural, and unfortunately, nearly all modern agriculture (including most organic as well is carried out in monocultures. Row after row of only one or two of the same crop, because most companies specialize in only one crop, or a few crops in the same family. So a more organic and natural way is to try and mimic the wild: using only plants that are native to the area, and mixing the species and varieties up (trees, shrubs, flowers, vines, etc). Also, I imagine this is better for the insects and the bees as well, as they depend on many plants for health (and vice versa), just as we do.

**

But we also have ways to protect the crops without hurting the animals. For example, some put a CD on the fruit or olive trees that is used to stop the birds from eating the fruit. Apparently, the reflection from the CD, as it hangs and rotates from the tree, distracts and disturbs the birds enough to make them go to elsewhere.

There is also a clever trap that guards against the olive fruit fly. The flies harm the tree in two ways: in quantity, they remove a significant portion of the pulp which reduces the yield of the crop, or in quality, by causing much deterioration of the quality of the olive oil. I don’t know exactly how the trap itself works, but I think the basic idea is that the plant is saturated with a pheromone that attracts the male fruit fly (because they want to visit the tree where the female has laid her eggs), and then sterilizes the fly, and then lets it go, so the damage cannot be done.

**

She complains of the farmers nearby, who breed pheasants, solely to introduce them into the wild to hunt them down. The funny part is that these hunters get angry at local residents if they let their dogs “go astray” and roam the land (which is what dogs, and presumably we too, are supposed to be doing anyway), because the dogs sometimes manage to catch the pheasants before the insipid hunter gets a chance to craftily sneak in with his absurd costume and his contraptions. To what lengths do we sometimes go, with ears gullible and tongues loose, to control inputs and results! (Bridget was once scolded for her dogs, Brandy and Whiskey)

“Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it” – Kahlil Gibran

As amiable as they look, they only chase any animals for play, and don’t (usually) eat them.

BRANDY!

brandy

WHISKEY!

whiskey

Let’s all have a moment of silence for how ridiculous human beings can be, and usually, are: we want other humans to control their domesticated wolves, so these wolves don’t hunt the birds that we artificially introduced into the wild. It’s not the dog’s fault that they are better hunters than we are. Instinct is the higher form of intelligence, as well as its basis: that is what we have trouble admitting, no matter how many times we try to escape her bosom, her saddle.

**

The work is varied and interesting, but it should be disabused of the romantic notion. Many times, we do work that is unpleasant and difficult: cleaning the chicken coop, pruning and clearing various brambles and thorns that are overgrown and inconvenient (of course, we humans decide what those words mean…) because we want to replace them with plants we prefer, or sometimes having all the work you did yesterday undid by rain, snow, or heavy winds the next day. You try your best to work with nature, but it has no obligation to work with you.

the fava beans we buried under the ground as compost. every job we do is harder than it looks.

the fava beans we buried under the ground as compost. every job we do is harder than it looks.

Bridget has a story she likes to tell to ridicule our insatiable need to control nature. Some time ago, they installed a pond and put some fish into it. However, they were worried about the fish population growing too big, but a heron turned up at the pond and starting eating the fish. Then, they were worried about the heron eating up all of “their” fish that made the pond look so nice. But before long, a fox came and ate the heron. So even though this pond was introduced artificially, somehow nature intervened to set things aright. Doesn’t always happen this way, but it’s interesting to note: in spite of our worries, the world has wisdom we cannot predict — but the meteorologist needs to make money, no matter how hollow his hubris is.

Just making the decision to grow your own food has unforeseen difficulties, as Nature has its own agenda, which it hides from you constantly — not out of malice, but rather from indifference. The weather does what it wants, when it wants — and we had better be content about that. Complaints about weather or about time — for are not nature and time two of three gods, the third being chance? — are the most commonly ignored signs of our confidence run amok. Atheism means nothing in the face of these three: they will make you believe in them; the choice is emphatically not yours. Try to manage time: she will manage you; dismiss chance: she drops anvils on your goals; ignore nature: she kills you, and then gives an all-too-honest eulogy. At the hands of those who have no mercy, a little sycophancy and reverence are indispensable.

***

But in how many ways do we ignore nature? We mismanage our bodies, and we take drugs to correct, instead of looking to diet and habits first. We sit down all day, and wonder why back problems are so widespread. We spend so much time “indoors”, in our offices, our houses, our cars, that getting a breath of fresh air is almost like an event. “Being outdoors”, “going on a hike” [1] or whatever other reasons we find to be outside, are seen as excursions, when they should be the norm. All air should be fresh — we shouldn’t have to go and “get it”.  And some people don’t even exercise outdoors — even when the weather is “nice!” — because some exercise only when they go to the gym.

The first step in the direction of being civilized — spending more and more time indoors — is a step backwards for our health. I feel incomplete if I don’t get at least 2 hours each day among the trees, even if I just walk and stare in complete idleness. In whatever ways primitive humans were barbaric and uncivilized — to say nothing of how specious and flimsy the words and connotations themselves are — they had one thing right which was exceptionally genius and quite simple: they spent the majority of their time outside. They did not “go outside”.

But what is civilization, really, but wanting to reach the limits of our potential, to know and discover all that we can? How precious and undervalued is such a wisdom that places bounds even to knowledge! [2] All facts are not created equal; neither are any two paths which arrive at the same fact.

***

I try to describe all outdoors work, even the unpleasant work as ‘intimate’, because there is an undeniable energy and emotion when working in the air, that the plants offer as a gift. The work is intimate if we receive the gift; harsh if we reject it, harsh if we have no feeling for nature, if we see the plants, spiders, and insects as something in our way. There is an undeniable and divine pleasure in watching insects, just as there is in watching people. Whenever we deal with other living things, vulnerability and insecurity is at play with our emotions, irrepressibly jazzy and giddy, so there is much intimacy at stake. Why not relish that intimacy? Why not become it?

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***

So as you might imagine, all this work takes an incredible amount of work and planning. The path towards self-sufficiency (or really just trying to work with nature as far as is humanly possible) — meaning to plan for and provide one’s own food, energy, and water, as far as one can — is quite difficult, and if you ever get there, and that’s a big if, can you maintain it? The idea of being self-sufficient easily seduces many who want to live ethically with the environment but are simply tired of compromising with a world who could care less about preserving and respecting the environment of which it consists. Self-sufficiency is a way of opting out, living ‘off-grid’ so to speak, and any time you choose to forego the benefits of mainstream society — because you are appalled to discover the unintended consequences of these benefits and conveniences that are so highly extolled by others or simply because you despise the path of least resistance — countless concerns pop up.

But many never think of opting out of the benefits (whether these are conveniences or superfluities depends on how far one inquires into the depths) of society because they are afraid of the alternative. Civilization only makes sense within the narrow confines of our literature and culture. If you ever leave the civilized world, and really attempt to test the origins of your habits and traditions, a very puzzling and stultifying can of worms appears before you. It will beckon and flirt with you to come play, and only someone doltish and reckless enough to ask too many whys, hows and what ifs is overjoyed to flirt back.

Even when we go for excursions in the woods, the nature trail is carefully marked for us, always there to care for and guide us. There is nothing natural about the way we live, even when we go out ‘into nature’: some of us can only have sex in a bed. And others brag about all the risqué places they have had sex in — as if they had liberated themselves from this prosecutor called society! And what do all other ‘wild’ animals do? They have sex ‘outside’, in the open air, without even the slightest desire for privacy: mamma mia, how daring and rebellious the insects are!

We are forever confusing wants with needs, and many wants become needs because our eyes are greedy, our noses sniff pots without respect, our ears drop eaves without discretion, because we want what our friends or our peers have, because we want to elevate ourselves — in dress, intellect, or verbiage — beyond the average person, because we are lonely — and one way to soften the pangs of solitude, if only temporarily, is to constantly acquire new things or experiences that we believe are necessary to make us better, smarter, richer — and do all of this, faster. Productivity! “But at what cost?”, says no one ever.

***

But, on a related note, I think whatever work any of us find worth doing, we have to love the process, and not be so enamored with the result. Of course, we want to final product to be excellent, but if it isn’t, we have to be satisfied with what is, not with what could be or should have been. We always hear, “It’s about the journey, not the destination”, but why is it true? Because the destination is a mere point, a fleeting moment — indeed, the goal is as Carl Sagan once described the planet Earth, “a pale, blue dot” — but the journey takes up all the time. And time is what life is. The views on the way to the mountaintop are just as much as, if not more than, important than the coveted summit: that is what everyone forgets. Travelers are the worst here: they check off cities after only a few days, the camera gradually replaces their neglected eyesight, they neglect learning the language because they only see the blinding difficulty of the goal (conversation, fluency) and overlook the inherent joy and silliness in failing and learning another interpretation of life.

In short, better to appreciate the process and fail at the result, than to despise the process, but actually meet one’s goal.

Or, dare to neglect the false dichotomy between process and result, as well as the one between you and me.

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***

This may seem like a stretch, but working in the fields, especially when the work seems overly repetitive and mundane, makes me feel like a slave. (Although I know it is very, very different because I am volunteering at different farms as an eco-tourist, and I can leave at any time on a flight “back home”, and I have money, and I am not beholden to my master…), but bear with me. I mean that, doing unpaid physical labor (even though I have always gotten much better intangible gifts in return), can be pleasant, but also dull and aching and — “boring”. But then I think of those old, gospel spirituals, “amazing grace”, “take me to the water”, “near the cross”, or “i’ll fly away” and start humming or singing, and I think I am so lucky to take part in such a rich culture and to have grown up listening and breathing to such beautiful songs…. And somehow I feel some unfathomable, voluptuous solidarity with my brothers and sisters who once invented those very songs under much harsher conditions than I face today — and I can only feel a tiny fraction of what they felt; yet I can feel it. And Du Bois was right to call them ‘sorrow songs’, because somehow sad songs overcome their cause;

“Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins. Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true?” – Du Bois, Chapter 15, “The Sorrow Songs”

***

Food

For all the serious lovers of peanut butter, I recommend making it the old-fashioned way, as we did: shelling and grinding up the peanuts, and adding salt to taste. But, the peanuts don’t make enough oil by themselves (at least the ones here in Italy don’t), so, in typical Italian fashion, we make up for the deficiency by using olive oil. It tastes great, and add some of the homegrown jams (we had peach, orange or raspberry to choose from; we didn’t get to make the jams during my time there sadly) that Bridget makes, it’s absurd how something so healthy can taste so good. And shelling the nuts can be very intimate and meditative, and we say whatever comes to mind, with no form or fashion to our meanderings.

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healthy fat and cholesterol rom the nuts and the oil

robust, healthy fats from the nuts and the oil

As for the rest of the food, I’m so accustomed to the quality and quantity of the olive oil, wine, the seasonal and fresh fruit, that I’m spoiled now, I’ve come to expect it: having high standards is the ubiquitous cause for disappointment. It no longer feels touristy or novel, because we eat it every day. But two things at least have changed drastically: at home I never consumed coffee or cheese — now I eat so many different types of cheese every day and have un caffè doppio, sometimes con latte, in morning and afternoon. So, I have adapted, which means I can also hold full conversations in Italian — with a lot of patience.

Bridget complains that I eat too slow — but also that I eat too much. But I think I eat more because I eat slow; I chew my food well so I don’t get full as quick. But you have to eat slow to appreciate and love your food. Food is an experience, and all experiences worth anything need patience and time. Chew slowly for food; breathe slowly for air; savor slowly for love. (It’s funny because I used to eat very quickly, but when you grow up with three brothers, the sword and shield never go down) — But loving slowly is a rare art, not because we don’t know how, but rather because we find it difficult to try — for love wants so badly to be feverish, intoxicating, devilish, like a whirlwind.

***

To end on a positive note: for lunch one day, we had ‘rigatoni alla puttanesca’, or translated, “whore’s pasta”. It’s unclear where the name came from: some say Neapolitan (Napoli) prostitutes cooked it in between clients, or because so many random things go into the pasta, and there are at least a dozen other suggestions. At any rate, it has lived up to its name, in that so many claim to know the story behind the name. For us, it was tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, onions, and pancetta, which is Italian bacon, made of pork belly cured with salt.

our vacant next door neighbor

our vacant next door neighbor

the dogs were so happy we took them on this 3 hour walk

the dogs were so happy when we took them on this 3 hour walk

Footnotes:

[1] interesting anecdote on the word ‘hike’, from here

[On a Sierra Club Outing, author Albert Palmer tells of a conversation he had with John Muir on the trail. He asked Muir, “someone told me you did not approve of the word “hike”. ‘Is that so?’ His blue eyes flashed, and with his Scotch accent he replied]:

“I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”

[2] (Nietzsche, Dawn, Section 429)

“Why do we fear and hate the possible return to barbarism? Because it would make people unhappier than they are? Ah, no! In all ages barbarians were happier: let’s not deceive ourselves! – Instead, our drive for knowledge is too strong for us to be able still to value happiness without knowledge or the happiness provided by a strong, deeply rooted delusion; we find it painful even to imagine such a state! The restlessness of discovery and ascertainment has become just as appealing and indispensable to us as an unrequited love is to the lover, a love he would never trade at any price for a state of apathy; indeed, perhaps we too are unhappy lovers! Knowledge has been transformed into a passion in us that does not shrink from any sacrifice and, at bottom, fears nothing but its own extinction; we honestly believe that under the pressure and suffering of this passion the whole of humanity itself to be more sublime and more consoled than previously, when it had not yet overcome its envy of the cruder pleasure and contentment that result from barbarism. Perhaps humanity will even be destroyed by this passion for knowledge! — Even this thought holds no sway over us!”

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Jan 9-25, Monteleone Sabino at Ozu farm

[I plan to write a different post for every farm I visit. More than going to Italy, I’m visiting small parts of people’s lives for 2-4 weeks each. Volunteering through farming is a very different way to ‘travel’ because you worry about money way less, you live with locals, you can treat it as an apprenticeship, and you actually have a relationship with the food you consume, instead of having a typical tourist restaurant experience and seeing sights. The only sights I want to experience are people, for the most interesting thing I have ever done is get to know another person — and I suppose that will always be the case.

I fully expect every farm and family to be different, which makes more sense than trying to make any generalizations about “Italians” as a whole. So I cannot really answer the question “So, how was Italy?”; therefore I apologize in advance 🙂 I find the more I get to know people, the less I can make any final conclusions about them… the more we know, the less we judge; the less we judge, the more we live… ]

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From Jan 9-25, I was in Monteleone Sabino, working at Ozu Cultural Centre (www.ozu.it)

It’s very easy to fall in love with the olive tree.

carismatica

carismatica

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the field where we work.

Before I realized it, I was swept up, lulled, enchanted — enraptured by her branches, her succulent olives and her graceful leaves. Yes, I believe in the olive tree, and I would be honored to care for her — for better or for worse, through sickness or health — even though she doesn’t need me. But maybe that is what love is: to love them without feeling the need to possess them, without being jealous when they love — or are loved — by others at the same time, for,

“there is more self-love than love in jealousy” – La Rouchefoucauld, Maximes, 324

Monteleone Sabino (‘mount of lions’, ~60 km east of Rome) is quite the quaint mountain town. The houses next to where I am are mostly stone-hewn cabins with chimney and sheds, most situated next to their own olive groves and vineyards. Wild herbs are not hard to find: my hosts pick rosemary,

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bay leaves, chili peppers, and various berries in the spring. When we have to go into the town to buy something, we talk of going “down to the village”.

the view from somewhere

This town was very isolated for centuries, as a road connecting it to another town was just built only in 1970. Before that, there was just one gravel road, that farmers used to get from town to town, by mule, which took around 6 or 7 hours to reach the end of. So, yeah, barriers can enclose us in bubbles if we let them. The surrounding towns share similar fates, so every region has its own distinct character, pride, cuisine, and dialect.

You can see a large swath of the Apennines, the mountain range that runs down the middle of Italy, from my bedroom window, as the fog sweeps over, and snow blankets the summits (when it rains here, there’s snow up there). It’s all very idyllic, really — even more so than you’d imagine. The winds are robust and howling, but the best part is all the birds that you can only find here in the mountains. How they maintain such a magnificent chorus through the entire day is beyond me. Davvero, che fortuna.

It’s almost depressing how difficult it is to capture the natural beauty — the many-sided beauty that you can feel, see and hear — of Monteleone Sabino; no matter how expensive the camera is, some moments and landscapes simply refuse to be captured, even as you beg otherwise.

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romance

i’m not convinced this picture is real

Yet, the desire to capture moments may be totally misguided in itself: the camera can easily prevent us from living in the present, as we try to bottle up the past. Can you even imagine a world without photos? Whether traveling or at a big life event, everyone wants to see the pictures. It almost seems that if you did something and didn’t take photos, it didn’t really happen. “Did you document it?” Everyone else wants to share the experience with you and you want to bottle it up for yourself — which is fine, but a world without photos is well worth imagining, if only because it did once exist, and still does for “primitive” tribes everywhere.

**Do photos make it impossible to live in the present?** (… as I drown in irony…)

Why not just stare and appreciate? I frequently enter spiritual raptures, and feel I can’t fully appreciate certain trees, dragonflies, bees, or pinecones — even after I’ve stared at them for hours. And believe me, I’ve tried. — And I will keep trying, because who ever succeeds at fully appreciating their mother(s)?

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what i see when i wake up

l'amore di nuovo

l’amore di nuovo

***

My hosts are Enrico Blasi and Paolo Simoni, and Ettore, their 6 year old who drags me to watch Kung Fu Panda, Storia del Giocattolo (Toy Story), and I Puffi (he’s obsessed with the smurfs). They regularly hosts artists and writers at their place, a cultural centre where they hold art and cooking classes in the summer. Tracy and Christina, my fellow volunteers were great, too, and it was a privilege to get to know them, and I hope we keep in touch.

i miei amici nuovi

i miei amici nuovi

christina toughing it out

christina toughing it out

Here is their description of the farm:

“We have 3,5 hectares of land with 350 olive trees, fruit trees and a vineyard, 60 km from Rome. The land is very steep in places and has been abandoned and is therefore overgrown with blackberries. Help needed with clearing, maintenance and with pruning the olives and vines. The woodland needs clearing… Meals are sometimes organic but are principally made using local produce, and we buy from farmers and the supermarket. We collect wild vegetables and fruit.” ( paraphrased)

We’ve had some interesting conversations so far: concerning different interpretations of original sin, ideological differences between America and Western Europe (someone said, “America has the very best and the very worst of the West”), the distinct cultural and linguistic differences between regions in Italy (it’s really like a bunch of small city-states, similar to India, where every region has its own flavors of cuisine and dialect), and why Monsanto is ruining the world, and i fascisti nuovi in some parts of Italia and many, many more…. If I could list them all, they wouldn’t nearly be interesting enough!

The 6 cats (hard to catch them all at once) gather for warmth most mornings, as they leer at Balu bothering them.

molto freddo

molto freddo

leering

leering

They (not the cats :p) patiently correct my Italian, and I help them with English (though they need less help than me). Even though I understand very little, it’s so useful to just sit there and listen to the intonations and inflections of the language. Accent means so much, especially in Italian. A little Italian goes a long way, and actually trying to make legitimate conversation beyond basic etiquette and ‘standard phrases’ is totally unexpected. It really opens up people who would otherwise treat me as just another tourist (American tourists are notorious for not trying to speak the other language), even if I stumble over trivialities and sound like a total dunce (which I always do). We say we don’t want to learn a language unless we can use it[1], but I really think it’s because we don’t want to look ignorant and awkward, as we are reduced to communicating solely by gestures and facial expressions, and constantly trip over subtleties that are so obvious to the native.

Pride goes before destruction, the Scripture says, and the fear and failure of learning something new is the classic example. We collect excuses in our closets, some have grown stronger over time as we’ve rearranged and redecorated them for new and improved cases, while others sport cobwebs as we’ve matured past them. Or maybe some lose their savor because the situation which supported them has changed, and not us?

“When our vices leave us we flatter ourselves with the idea that we have left them” [La Rouchefoucauld, Maximes, 192]

— and usually we manage to be proud of our excuses, as if they were born from logic, and not cowardice. As if our excuses were always won with hard-earned effort, and were last resorts when we have tried everything we could. I mean, really, what is the difference between an excuse and a reason? [2] Clear questions rarely get clear answers, while unclear questions get none. Certainty dies a thousand deaths, but only if we are honest. I’ve seen people keep certainty on life support; for them, it is more important that certainty live than they flourish.

****

Food

“Oil” here always means olive oil, and we put on everything, which is great for two reasons: healthy and great taste. The olive oil is so good it’s absurd: aroma, texture, etc; I truly felt spoiled and indulgent.  Il pranzo (lunch) is usually some variation on pasta, zuppa o i panini (panino is singular) — and lunch is almost always an event, to say the least. We picked wild broccoletti (totally unrelated to broccoli) for lunch and had guests over. We had espresso before lunch, wine during, scotch after, then another espresso. “Lunch” was from 2-7pm. Lunch at someone else’s house was from 1-6.

In Italiano, “pizza” refers to the style of bread that is prepared, irrespective of what is put on it. I’ve had pizza with le patate e il rosmarino, or with nothing but l’olio d’oliva e salsa di pomodori on it — no cheese or “toppings”.

The main antipasto throughout the day is freshly baked pane con olio e sale. Sometimes we soak fresh chili pepper in the oil, which gives a reddish, succulent hue. Wine is always there as an drink option, so now I’ve had wine for lunch every day, which in the states would be considered irresponsible and eccentric, if not downright alcoholic.

Fruit is the typical dessert: tangerines, mandarins, blood oranges, apples. My kind of people.

On a Saturday, they laid out a big block of wood on the table, spread polenta on it, then poured tomato sauce, sausage, and other meats on it, then gave everybody a fork, then “Cin cin!” (Cheers). That was the Southern style of polenta, then we had Northern style the next day of mixing it all together and eating like porridge.

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Paola laughed when I called this “corn on wood”

pouring the sauce on

pouring the sauce on

Also, I eat a lot of pepper (by my host’s standards), so they laugh at me. We grind the peppercorns by hand with something that resembles a small cudgel (a baby version of the one Cain used to kill Abel) and stone chalice.

the intimate process of grinding pepper with a cudgel

the intimate process of grinding pepper with a cudgel

Work:

The farm mainly produces olive oil, some they sell, but most for themselves. Lesser crops are wine, vinegar, various fruits.

Picking olives is quite peaceful and fulfilling. The raw olives are not usually eaten, but can be, and are spicy and bitter; the flavor is not at all what you would expect. They taste nothing like olives on American pizza or salad; I brought up the subject of olives in America and my hosts laughed with derision. With ebullient contempt, Enrico describes American pizza as ‘something on top of something else’.

If the olives are not pressed immediately for oil, they are cured. Curing the olives is a way to make them edible by placing them in salt for ~20 days to drain the bitterness, and then soaking them in olive oil, in a tightly sealed jar.

Pruning, the strategy of removing and shaping branches to alleviate the task of picking, is more of an art than a science. 50 different people can prune the same tree in 50 different ways, and they can all be “right”. Pruning is also related to health of the tree and quality of the oil, but mainly is done to make the picking process easier. At its best, pruning is a highly strategic and refined process that takes a while to get used to, because it seems counterintuitive: you’re killing parts of the tree to make it healthier. It seems another case of humans doubting that nature has its own intelligence. — But as I have more experience with it, I learn more about it, so I will keep an open mind.

I used a shovel to dump our firewood ashes around each of the trees. Apparently, forest fires are a natural occurrence, and have been discovered to increase plant and animal diversity through regenerating the soil — so we pour ashes as fertilizer to imitate nature. It seemed weird, but it made sense.

***

How some tried to talk me out of this:

I was warned repeatedly that “farm work” would be tedious labor that I would quickly become bored with. I needed a higher quality of intellectual work to sustain my brain! Farming is not for the illustrious ‘Stanford’ graduate! I shouldn’t sell myself short! I deserve better! (And obsession with money and social status hovers in the background of all these retorts and concerns). I don’t know what I want to do as a career, but it’s telling how many people seem repulsed and startled by the idea that farming would even be considered as a worthwhile career choice. We have so little regard for those who produce our food because most of us have no knowledge or experience concerning the process — we just want the result. We treat our food like we treat our internet browsing: we want a friendly and seamless user experience with little regard to who makes that experience, and how they work their magic. We want our food affordable and in a convenient location down the street, but we can’t (or don’t want to or know how to) grow it ourselves — the local supermarket has many of us in a chokehold, unless we can afford the farmers’ market.

In a way, knowing everything you can about your food is so basic, because your diet literally makes and sustains your body. Only the healthy are rich.

What a tired, false distinction between types of labor: that physical labor is less skilled than labor that pays well and needs a ‘degree’. Nearly all physical labor is consistently degraded as ‘unskilled’ labor, and farming is no exception. Sustainable and organic agriculture, for yourself or as a business, requires an extraordinary amount of strategy and patience: so much can go wrong, and you have to foresee all of it, or bear the brunt of the consequences — just like any other highly-touted, well-paid job.

On the contrary, the work is rewarding and stimulating. And even when the days are rough and long, it’s such a bonus to be outside in the fresh air. My body may be exhausted, but being outdoors and doing work that matters is a great combination.  And what could matter more than food? Work for food — not for money to buy food, but work directly for food — is the only essential work there is. — And so there is nothing more important than the quality of our food and the relationship we have with it.

***

On a side note, Balu is having a terrible day:

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So, yeah, I miss this place and the people, and already thinking about returning.

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Next? I’m going north to Tuscany region, but I am in Roma from 1/26-2/1.

Tell me your thoughts.

[1] Since when did practicality mean so much? Everyone enjoys things that are “useless”. But enjoying is the point! Usefulness is only useful in moderation.

[2] Maybe, the difference is that an excuse is something that neither party accepts as a valid reason. And we only concern ourselves with our excuses for failures and not successes, which, tangentially, reminds of something Mill said, “… success discloses faults and infirmities that failure might have concealed from observation…”

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Aphorisms and a short story

I have a collection of aphorisms to present that I’ve been working on. The art of the maxim has gone out of style somewhat, lamentably. The less we say, the more others hear — if we say it well. It is so easy to rant on the Internet or in private with our friends, but more rewarding to first organize our thoughts first and distill what we have to say. Brevity is the soul of wit, they say, but if the brief is unnecessary, the wit is superfluous. Though we are loathe to admit, Twitter has its advantages; constraint demands creativity. By limiting ourselves, the eternal can be reached, through finite means. Isn’t this the whole purpose of art? — to explain the utter chaos of the human condition in dense, honest flavor?

Ok, back to the point. I hail from the tradition of Nietzsche, La Rouchefoucauld, Chamfort, Chateaubriand, Vauvenargues, Heraclitus, the comments section of the NYT, ATCQ, Nasir, squirrels, and the most plump of bumblebees. Below are some of my original aphorisms. Enjoy, if you can. Think, if you enjoy. Scoff, if you think.

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The poor who want wealth redistribution will change their mind if they are rich, as will the rich who are against it if they are poor.

Few are nice enough to be your harshest critic.

Those who can’t handle criticism don’t deserve praise.

Price is set high to obscure quality.

To know wants from needs, and adjust expectations accordingly.

The love of money is always unrequited, yet its lovers abound. Fame, too.

Confidence concerns character; arrogance concerns reputation.

Conviction suffocates intellect.

We spend more time convincing others we are happy than being happy; happiness is its own pursuit.

We despise bragging for fear of its accuracy.

We mistrust praise — and yet desire it — because of our insecurity.

We are not afraid of heights, but only afraid of falling.

To know who you envy, who envies you, the cause and effect of both: a rare wisdom.

We are most insecure when we abuse love and love abuse.

The worst type of guilt is feeling guilty for not feeling guilty.

Politicians begin as sophists and end as demagogues.

A politician’s success depends on how well he can fool two parties: the people and himself.

Every god gets the atheists it deserves.

You want to be unique? So does everyone else. Join the crowd!

We hate being misunderstood, unless we are also admired.

The stylish are simply following the trends. And concern with being ‘stylish’ is a trend many follow.

Give unexpectedly without expectations.

High expectations and low patience: quick to marry, quicker to divorce.

***

finally, a short story on the power of excuses:

Every day, Jerome was stoned to death by his excuses. Yet the very next day, he always got back up, like the little train that could, worshipping at the altar of “Lights, Camera, Inaction!” His excuses gave him great comfort — something had to fluff his pillows at night, putting his fear in words made him feel invincible; as long as his excuses could find no obvious detractors, they were the only eulogists that he would ever need. Besides, excuses were renowned for their jealousy; they forbade other idols and gifted brimstone to those who doubted their omnipotence.

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A Conversation with John Stuart Mill

If you haven’t read J.S. Mill’s classic work, I highly recommend it for 1 main reason: it is a keen and succulent defense of individual rights. The book changed my life, in a very painful and liberating way, because it forced me to be extra critical of the rules and customs that society imposes — which is uncomfortable not only for my friends, but for my conscience. I’ll go through one of my favorite excerpts below, with commentary interspersed.

Disclaimer: This is really just an excuse for you to read one of my favorite books. Victorian prose can be exacting and meticulous, though brisk and subtle, and Mill proceeds very logically and methodically. It is no Jane Austen in style, but it is in truth.

Taken from Chapter 2: “On Liberty of Thought and Discussion”

“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

Really? No matter how offensive or ignorant the opinion is? Wow, this is an unbelievably high standard for entertaining the opinions of others. No one believes this would work out in practice, but it’s worth noting in theory, because if you were that ONE person who differed from the rest of the world, then it would matter immensely to you, and you would want the world to listen, no matter how ‘crazy’ you were. For what is a ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ person but one who disagrees too greatly with the rest of the species? Life is a basketball court; an insane person is just someone who steps out of bounds too often, or ignores the out-of-bounds marker completely.

Let’s see how Mill justifies this ridiculously high standard.

“Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.”

Ah! Brilliant! Silencing anyone’s opinion isn’t necessarily bad because of insulting that person, but rather, it is “robbing the human race”. It’s hindering the thought process of “those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it”. To silence the opinion of anyone arrests the progress of everyone. (This takes on a whole new meaning, of course, with the advent of trolling, on websites and in real life.)

“If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

The latent assumption here is that we know the difference between right and wrong in whatever is being discussed. And if we don’t know the difference, will we admit it to ourselves — and to others? Rarely do we admit to themselves privately, and are often too proud to admit to others. But if we do admit it to everyone, how do we proceed from here? So many places we can go astray here.

“… We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.

First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”

We only suppress what we believe to be wrong or too uncomfortable, but that assumes our opinion, and the motives from which it arose, are both flawless. How can we be so arrogant as to decide what everyone else should believe about a certain topic, and also decide their reasons for believing it? And then we get mad if they don’t believe what we want them to. We blame them for failing to understand or agree with us, as if it was their fault for not agreeing entirely with what we think is ‘knowledge’ and ‘evidence’. “If only they could see MY point of view! If they could see it, they would be sure to agree!” Often when people talk of ‘changing the world’, they really want to make the world over in their own image.

“Absolute princes, or others who are accustomed to unlimited deference, usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on nearly all subjects. People more happily situated, who sometimes hear their opinions disputed, and are not wholly unused to be set right when they are wrong, place the same unbounded reliance only on such of their opinions as are shared by all who surround them, or to whom they habitually defer: for in proportion to a man’s want of confidence in his own solitary judgment, does he usually repose, with implicit trust, on the infallibility of “the world” in general. And the world, to each individual, means the part of it with which he comes in contact; his party, his sect, his church, his class of society: the man may be called, by comparison, almost liberal and large-minded to whom it means anything so comprehensive as his own country or his own age.”

“Absolute prince” is just another way of saying “asshole”. But those more ‘happily situated’, i.e. the rest of us, we who believe with utmost confidence only those opinions we share with others, or to those whom we ‘habitually defer’: family, co-workers, managers, law enforcers, spouses/partners, etc

We lack confidence in our own judgement, so we trust ‘the world’. I love how he puts ‘the world’ in quotes, because ‘the world’ is different for every person, as he lists the many micro-worlds we are a part of: religion, culture, political party, socioeconomic class, gender, age group, sexual orientation, “race”. All of us are a part of many small cults. Wow, we have made life is so complicated, so intricately organized without even realizing it. — I rarely get out of my own little micro-worlds every day, and somehow feel, that coming from such a limited and narrow perspective, I can get the truth of the human perspective in general. Ridiculous!

He goes on to describe our oblivion to these implications:

“Nor is his faith in this collective authority at all shaken by his being aware that other ages, countries, sects, churches, classes, and parties have thought, and even now think, the exact reverse. He devolves upon his own world the responsibility of being in the right against the dissentient worlds of other people; and it never troubles him that mere accident has decided which of these numerous worlds is the object of his reliance, and that the same causes which make him a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin.”

We know, but rarely experience, how different other “micro-worlds” are from our own, not just in the past societies, but societies right now — and “mere accident” has decided which of these worlds we are set into: our native country, native language, religion, sex, height, weight. Yes, height is a world too. Taller people see the world differently than shorter, as they are treated differently by others. Something as arbitrary as height, imagine that! How much more arbitrary, then, are the rest of these worlds that we feel make up our character? Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance comes to mind here in creating a just society: ‘If you were to enter society at a random position without knowing what advantages that position would give you, where would you choose to go and why?’

But the last sentence is my favorite:

“Yet it is as evident in itself, as any amount of argument can make it, that ages are no more infallible than individuals; every age having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd; and it is as certain that many opinions, now general, will be rejected by future ages, as it is that many, once general, are rejected by the present.”

How could we are better than our ancestors simply because we are the most recent version? and how are our descendants possibly better than us for the same reason? We assume both all the time.  This is arrogant because many things we take as truth now may be thoroughly debunked in the future. Every age (and person) is furthest from recognizing its own follies and successes. You could say the same about every politician.

A present success may be a future folly, as a past folly, if practiced today, can be a present success. Progress is not linear. Time does not heal all, but only what it is allowed to, and in some cases, worsens things that are swept under the rug or misinterpreted.

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On Time, Pt. 1

This is a first of a series on time, apparently. Time is great. Time is.

If you ask most people what their time is worth, they’ll think it’s an absurd question. Obviously, you can’t put a value on their time. Who do you think you are? Just like most progressive and morally upright human beings will say that a human life is also priceless. Yet we all act as if the reverse of this is true. We sell our time to our companies, jobs, and “the market” every day. We sign the job offer (that we are lucky enough to get), to serve the company, till death or dissatisfaction do us part, to have and to hold etc. (But in the fine print, there’s this sketchy thing called “at-will” employment. Which basically means the company doesn’t need a solid reason to fire you. Or if they do just so happen to have a reason, they’re not obligated to tell you. “Don’t take it personal. It’s just business. You understand, don’t you??” As if firing could be anything but a personal affair!) Life consists of time, so if we sell our time, we sell our life. Our life has a price, because we act like it does.

There is a fine economic irony which shows that sometimes our jobs cause ennui, a sort of physical and intellectual restlessness. How absurd. People get restless when they are bored, when they aren’t actually engaged even though they’re busy. It turns out you can be bored and busy when you know you aren’t really doing anything worthwhile anyway — or doing something that you literally could not care less about. And yet, you do care about it, because you are hired to care. Salaries for many jobs almost function as bribes. As in, many job positions would simply never be filled if they weren’t prestigious or didn’t pay so well. But isn’t bribery a form of corruption?

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“Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” – Paul Graham

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What is a job but auctioning off your time to the highest bidder, or at least the most aggressive or persuasive bidder? Of course, people who do what they enjoy have avoided this bidding war; for them, the perks of the job are the job.

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But my biggest realization about time has been this: the weekend is an social construct. As in, there is nothing special about Saturday or Sunday. The fact that we chose them as weekend days is totally artificial. Tuesday is Saturday, and Sunday is Wednesday — according to the universe. It’s just another day. The 5 day week/2day weekend is just the contract we’ve all signed to conform to this hullabaloo called “society”. This has bugged me because many people are literally “living for the weekend”. The existence of TGIF is problematic in itself. It’s good to ask yourself, Are you saying TGIF because it’s been an especially stressful week or if you say it every single week because you don’t like your job? And then people have to work to “earn” vacation time. IMHO, this is a lack of trust on the company’s part to trust their employees to use vacation time responsibly and maturely and not abuse it. It’s almost as if they hired kids and not adults. Sure, some discretion on the part of the employee is valid, but you shouldn’t have to work 52 weeks in America to get 2.5 weeks of vacation.

*********

There is a reason people ask “What do you do?” when they first meet you. Because, deep down, they are asking, “What are you willing to sell your time for?” They want to know what you are guaranteed to do every weekday, besides sleeping and eating. From a holistic point of view, we are not our jobs. We are much more, lovers, friends, thinkers, artists. But strictly speaking, we are. We spend 8-12 hours every day with the people we work with and what our job actually entails. EIGHT HOURS. Surely, something this time-consuming cannot be relegated as a “means to an end”. Time is one of the few nonrenewable natural resources.

Our whole lives are organized around the concept of ‘work’ and the time and energy we give to it. Our whole lives.

(I know there are plenty of people who have to work jobs they despise for very practical and pressing reasons.)

*********

“Time is a game played beautifully by children.” ― Heraclitus, Fragments

“They deem me mad because I will not sell my days for gold; and I deem them mad because they think my days have a price” – Kahlil Gibran

Here is a piece from The Gay Science by Nietzsche that sets a very high standard for work worth doing.

“Work and boredom. — Looking for work in order to be paid; in civilized countries today almost all men are at one in doing that. For all of them work is a means and not an end in itself. Hence they are not very refined in their choice of work, if only it pays well. But there are, if only rarely, men who would rather perish than work without any pleasure in their work. They are choosy, hard to satisfy, and do not care for ample rewards. Artists and contemplative men of all kinds belong to this rare breed, but so do even those men of leisure who spend their lives hunting, traveling, or in love affairs and adventures. All of these desire work and misery if only it is associated with pleasure, and the hardest, most difficult work if necessary. Otherwise, their idleness is resolute, even if it spells impoverishment, dishonor, and danger to life and limb. They do not fear boredom as much as work without pleasure…”

Check out what these three have to say on The choice of a Profession:

Paul Graham
William Deresiewicz
Robert Louis Stevenson
Henry David Thoreau

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A bit on Ignorance

I’m fascinated by ignorance for several reasons:

1. Few people completely understand it because few spend actual time acknowledging their ignorance, understanding why it’s there, and what it actually means. Can I identify something if I don’t understand it? Is ignorance a bad thing? If so, why? Everyone takes it as a given that ignorance is something that must be extinguished at all costs. The ability to discern why certain things are worth knowing and others aren’t is underrated. Discretion is the better part of knowledge as well as valor.

2. Many conversations rarely enter into the realm of actual knowledge, much less wisdom. I’m of the opinion that when we talk, we generally don’t know what we’re talking about, especially when we are talking about ourselves. There are many ways in which we lie to ourselves, to reify the self-image we deem most palatable, and to reinforce the image of the world that makes us look most congenial and intelligent. If you look into the world, and don’t like what you see, why blame the world? The world is a mirror — also, a mirage.

3. Everyone thinks they know what ignorance is for any given topic, and they’ve defined it such that their definition doesn’t describe them. What if there are different types of ignorance? It’s quite remarkable that we can be scared to death of a state of mind as natural as ignorance. If you don’t know something, you just don’t know — it’s OK. Feynman knew that it was inevitable, and almost glorious, to live and NOT know — this was part of his genius.

4. Ignorance is not the culprit, our attitude toward it is. We despise others for their ignorance about certain things[1], for example: American whites being ignorant about black history (conveniently forgetting that many Americans *in general* are ignorant about such), men being ignorant about feminist history (same argument as above). Generally, conversations along the lines of race, sex, or class discrimination tend to disparage and denigrate those who are ignorant, crying, “Oh my god, how could you NOT know about all this discrimination inherent in the system! You’re so ignorant! You’re such a bad person and so self-absorbed!” The rage comes to a boiling point and the person with “privilege” is made to feel as if they are despicable scum who walks around with rose-colored glasses. And yet we are all products of the same society, although we see it through different lens. I imagine if this rage was handled more delicately and respectfully when faced with the blinding glare of someone’s ignorance, conversations about social justice could actually be productive — instead of revolting and polarizing. More often though, people seek to educate and remedy the ignorance of others, instead of understanding the perspective of the other person and honestly asking themselves if they do not sleep in the same bed of ignorance.

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Here are a few of my vignettes on ignorance and knowledge:

* Those who know much, realizing knowledge is gained from personal experience, advise little. Those who know little, assuming experience rises from knowledge, advise much. Beware of penguins that advise you how to fly.

* The most common type of ignorance is not knowing the many masks ignorance cowers behind. And yet, given enough wine and enough time, can we not figure them all out? — or, at the very least, die laughing at ourselves in the process?

* Everything is difficult when you don’t understand it – and only when you do understand, is its difficulty most completely realized.

* (Below presupposes knowledge of The Fall in Genesis. I highly, HIGHLY encourage you to read it again, here.)

Taking pride in what we know, the main barrier to further knowledge, is our original sin. This is the real reason God was upset with the couple’s fall in the Garden. The serpent enticed Eve with the “knowledge of good and evil” — it was clearly an offer she couldn’t refuse. After the couple admits they know they’re naked, God said, “Who told you that you were naked?” – interpreted – “Who gave you knowledge – and why are you proud of it? Who would do such a thing?”

Today, nothing has changed; behind every conversation and argument is “What do you know?” or “What do you want to know, and why don’t you know it yet?”: both of these can be summarized as “Where does your pride lie?” It is fashionable for an educated person to talk of “love of learning” as the most admirable trait in the world.[2] And yet, is this rarely love of knowledge, but rather, love of pride in knowledge – and pride always goes before a fall.[3] For the more proud we are of learning and accomplishments, the less we are able to question it.

* Everyone asks to find out what they don’t know – but shouldn’t we ask to refine what we already do know? I need other people’s interpretations to counter and refine yours. [It is smart to ask questions about what I think I know — in conjunction with what I know I don’t know.]

And finally,

These are the lyrics to Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd. It’s a great critique of our views on ignorance and knowledge, and how both fit in our pursuit of happiness.

So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain. Can you tell a green field, from a cold steel rail? A smile from a veil? Do you think you can tell?

Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? Cold comfort for change? Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in the cage?

[1] Yet, we are rarely this hard on ourselves for being ignorant.

[2] They are so desperate to know. They panic and wither without their certainty and credentials.

[3] Proverbs 16:18

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On Intellectual Honesty

Below is an incomplete list of what intellectual honesty means to me. Let me know what I missed, or if I’m wrong. Please comment if you have any thoughts at all; I want to hear from you. Yeah, you.

1. Admit you could be wrong.

“The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.” – Nietzsche

This is a basis for all intellectual honesty: to not have a higher opinion of someone simply because they agree with you, to not base your opinion of someone on agreement at all, but on how well they can explain what and why they believe; in short, if they can prove they think for themselves.[1] Since most people assume they are right, it makes sense to have a higher opinion of someone who confirms their belief.

So the first principle of being honest is the implicit conclusion to everything you say or believe: “I could be wrong.” Or the stronger, more courageous conclusion: “I am wrong”. Embrace the possibility of someone disagreeing with you; you’ll probably learn something, and they’ll appreciate that you are listening, instead of arguing. Even if I already agree with people, often I act like I don’t. Most people will not explain themselves if you too readily agree with them. Dissent forces them to reconsider their position, if only briefly: “Am I really right? Does being right or wrong even matter?” And it forces people to give reasons for what they believe, a great way of getting to know them.

Before I can stomach others disagreeing with me on my most precious beliefs, I have to learn how to attack myself, to disregard my feelings, and have it out with everything I hold dear. Nietzsche has a good point here:  “A very popular error – having the courage of one’s convictions: Rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack upon one’s convictions!”  I have to be my harshest critic. No one is nice enough to do it for me.

Unsurprisingly, this is the opposite of what everyone is taught to think. We rarely critique ourselves and generally find very amiable those we agree with. Unconsciously, our parents teach us to be like them, to be better people than they are, but only they get to decide what “better” means. (Of course, many parents do this consciously, and have no guilty conscience afterwards about how they dominated and saturated their child’s entire worldview[2]) Implicitly, most parents believe that whatever they taught you is right is also right for everyone else. The worst of these say, “If only everyone could teach their kids the values and standards that I have taught mine! If only everyone knew what I knew!” Even more, I find when I ask people why they believe what they do, few can defend themselves quite well, but most merely regurgitate one of four things: the status quo, what their parents taught them, what their peers think, what their company thinks. (Yes, some people are that indoctrinated by their companies — or more precisely, their paycheck.) Some just make up lies on the spot, because they realize they never had a good reason to believe in the first place. The most courageous act is always the same: to think for yourself. Which brings me to my next point:

2. Follow your thoughts to their logical conclusions.

It is such a tragedy that free spirits are, and always have been, so rare; but maybe there are many of them, who think differently, but never do differently. Only the brave and educated mind can — and will — follow all of its thoughts to their logical conclusions. Most people are great thinkers, and see where their thoughts are going, but they always stop short of the conclusion, because it doesn’t fit the model of the society they hold so dear or it disagrees with someone they admire or respect. And yet, they probably secretly despise the society they live in, but continually put up with it, because they believe they have no other choice. Nietzsche is funny here: “Whoever thinks much is not suitable as a party member: he soon thinks himself right out of the party.” Every party, group, or organization has a tendency to wallow and languish in groupthink, so thinking yourself out of the party usually doesn’t take much thinking at all.

3. If you don’t know, say “I DON’T KNOW” or be silent.

It is a sign of strength to own one’s insecurity and vulnerability. Not knowing is insecure, it’s scary, the great void of ignorance. If I don’t know, I should act like it. Admitting you don’t know something means you respect yourself because you have high standards for knowledge, and that you respect others because you won’t deceive them by acting like you know. Respect is the ultimate currency.

Besides, conviction suffocates intellect. The best part about being a skeptic is that you feel agile and free; beliefs and convictions can weigh us down if we let them, especially if they are sloppily obtained. Minimalism of the mind is healthy. Comfort with uncertainty and love of the unknown are habits worth cultivating.

4. Strive for understanding, not agreement. Discuss more, argue less.

“The thing I hate about an argument is that it always interrupts a discussion.” – G.K. Chesterton

It is not whether we agree or disagree, but whether we understand each other. The lack of desire to understand another’s opinion because we find it offensive or foreign is unproductive. Sometimes, we even purposely misconstrue other’s opinions to build our own case. This most commonly happens in political discussions along party lines, such as presidential debates.

I find that when I disagree with someone, they generally ignore me. As in, they’ll listen to what I have to say, but they already assume I’m wrong because they disagree with me. They aren’t trying to understand me or where I am coming from, but are merely looking for ways to convince me that they are right. Understanding never crosses some people’s minds; the need to persuade others they are right is so overwhelming. Even if people happen to agree, each should still give their reasons; two perspectives with the same conclusions often have totally different premises for their beliefs. How can this be? Because each person’s worldview is constructed separately, in their own mind.

All arguing starts with the need to convince. If we drop the need to convince, assume we might be wrong, that is a phenomenal step towards understanding and valuing the opinions of others. You have to understand the context, content and tone of what someone is saying before you can agree with them. But usually, it is the other way around: people ask themselves first “Do I agree?” and only seldom, if ever, do they seriously ask “Do I understand?”

5. Resist the urge to be intoxicated by great writing and oratory.

It’s great to appreciate the beauty in a well-crafted sentence, but it’s even better to hone in on what is actually being said.

Montaigne goes on, “In debates and discussions we should not immediately be impressed by what we take to be a man’s own bons mots [Fr. “good word”]. Most men are rich with other men’s abilities. It may well be that such-and-such a man makes a fine remark, a good reply or a pithy saying, advancing it without realizing its power. That we do not grasp everything we borrow can doubtless be proved from my own case. We should not always give way, no matter what beauty or truth it may have. We should either seriously attack it or else, under pretense of not understanding it, retreat a little so as to probe it thoroughly and to discover how it is lodged in its author.”

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Intellectual honesty is incredible hard to achieve, mostly because we can’t even get past our own biases and prejudices. Indeed, apparently — and this is a very strong apparently — studies have shown that being aware of your own cognitive biases doesn’t make you any less susceptible to them.  At most, this is depressing; at least, it is very humorous.

I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite quotes on the subject:

Everything that we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“Conviction is the belief that in some point of knowledge one possesses absolute truth. Such a belief presumes, then, that absolute truths exist; likewise, that the perfect methods for arriving at them have been found; finally, that every man who has convictions makes use of these perfect methods. All three assertions prove at once that the man of convictions is not the man of scientific thinking; he stands before us still in the age of theoretical innocence, a child, however grown-up he might be otherwise.” – Nietzsche, Human All-Too-Human, 630

“We cheat ourselves of what is rightly useful to us in order to conform our appearances to the common opinion. We are not so much concerned with what the actual nature of our being is within us, as with how it is perceived by the public. Even wisdom and the good things of the mind seem fruitless to us if we enjoy them by ourselves, if they are not paraded before the approving eyes of others.” – Michel de Montaigne, Essais, “On Vanity”

“Never maintain an argument with heat or clamor, though you think or know yourself to be in the right; but give your opinions modestly and coolly, which is the only way to convince; and, if that does not do, try to change the conversation, by saying, with good-humor, “We shall hardly convince one another; nor is it necessary that we should, so let us talk of something else.” – Lord Chesterfield, Letter to His Son

Further reading:

Tim Krieder’s essay in the NYTimes, The power of I don’t know
first paragaph of Nietzsche’s essay on “The Need to be Alone”

Walden by Thoreau
On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

[1] I’m not saying despise people who don’t think for themselves, but, if anyone, those who do think for themselves are the ones to hold in higher esteem.

[2] I know parenting is more complex than this, and I don’t see all parents as authoritarians, but some parents literally do want to dominate their child’s worldview. And they get very angry when the child strays from the path.

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Intro and critique of post-racial ideology

I posted this as a facebook status a while ago, and it resonated with some people; so I figured I’d post it here as well to kick things off. It’s about “race”, so I’ll give a quick intro of my views on race.

Race will not a huge topic for me, mostly because being black (full disclosure) I’ve already thought so much about race, it’s already caused me so much pain, angst, rage, and sorrow, that I’ve essentially decided to take long, periodic breaks from thinking about race. I think it’s good for all people who have been systematically discriminated against to occasionally shut it out of their minds (if they can) and simply live. It is a pity that some people let racial ideology color all of their thought and discourse. I went through a period where I read nothing but race-related literature, and although I learned a lot, I became militant and cynical.

Don’t get me wrong: The fight against racial injustice is far from over, but in order for a “person of color” (what a vapid moniker) to grow more fully in the great personal and Emersonian[1] sense, I sincerely believe they must take a break from all race-related thinking. For me, I can’t watch a movie or read a book about “black issues” or “the state of black men” without feeling the inevitable rage or disgust frothing and foaming in my bosom. It is there, I cannot deny it; and many times, I simply laugh it off. I know it is reality, but sometimes, we should leave reality. Why? To get a better view of our own condition, just like traveling helps you get a more comprehensive view of your own country.

I have been both victim and perpetrator of racism on several occasions. Weird, huh? I know you won’t hear many people say this, but I believe most racism is unconscious because of the subtle cultural cues we ingest as we engage with our environment, so it stands to reason that I could be both, even at the same time! (Especially from the American point of view: America was racially stratified from day 1. In other words, the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal” was an utter hoax, unless one assumes that black men were not actually “men”)

Anyway, if you’re still reading, athena bless you, and here you go:

Post-race as a stupidity. There is a false ethos that says America is beyond “race” (and whoever ascribes to this ethos thinks they are so wise, progressive, and free). With the advent of political correctness and the voice of its cynical and myopic backlash, you can’t be black and discuss racism at the same time without being called a race-baiter. [2] And so now there is a whole behemoth of schmucks who believe that every time race is mentioned as one of many possible causes or the main cause, the speaker instantly loses all credibility. “Race can be neither cause nor effect. Are you still talking about this? It’s 2013. C’mon! Just get over it, will you?” No method of coping could be more dumb and useless! [3] These people have historical Alzheimer’s. They really think America can deliberately practice all types of racism for several centuries, then eradicate legal racism in 1964 – and 50 years later, all incidences of personal and communal racism will vanish into thin air. Really, I wish they were right. Laws have always changed faster, and more gracefully, than cultural attitudes. And since racism was a fact of culture for centuries, this means it was handed down like a tradition, a “just the way it is” – in the same way that Christmas is a tradition. And now what people want is a national affliction of collective amnesia – and for everyone to shake off their past oppressions like a bad dream – “All the women please stand up, and shake off all the injustices men have done to you”. Women would very well be shaking for all eternity!

[1] To give you an idea of what I’m trying to say, here is an excerpt of Emerson’s seminal essay, Self-Reliance: “Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age; requires infinite spaces and numbers and time fully to accomplish his design; — and posterity seem to follow his steps as a train of clients.” Typical Emerson, right? But perhaps Ralph Ellison put it better in The Invisible Man by realizing that a race is the collection of its individuals, and we disallow ourselves to be whole human beings if we always think through the lens of race, politics, and/or ideology.

[2] If you are not familiar with the concept of ‘race-baiting’, read up on it. It is part of the “cynical and myopic backlash” to political correctness that I mentioned earlier, which is a direct outgrowth of insidious white privilege that fancies itself so objective, honest, and “post-race”. I will admit, there are some blacks and others who use the “excuse of racism” as a crutch, but I contend this is far from the norm. Trust me, no one would be thinking about race if they didn’t have to. Why? It sucks. This is not a call for pity; this is the lived experience of actual people.

[3] Word choice is the most agonizing task for a writer. By “dumb”, I mean it is a lazy and ahistorical way to view racial issues. By “useless”, I meant it’s basically ignoring the complaints of the oppressed, because it’s saying those complaints don’t exist. The oppressed are not always right, but they should be heard.

Most of my posts will be much shorter than this diatribe, as I’m terribly fond of the aphorism. To give you an idea of what to expect, I hope to offer you a series of very rich debate openings, in a very scatterbrained fashion. The life of the mind is utterly disturbing, enigmatic, and friendly — won’t you join me?

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