The power to be happy

Sometimes Merton can digress, but at other times he is brilliant. I’m reading his work No Man is an Island and have had to bookmark virtually every page in the chapter Conscience, Freedom, and Prayer. In regards to our means of pursuing happiness (which is what we’re all doing), the nail is hit on the head. This passage is rich:

It is true, the freedom of my will is a great thing. But this freedom is not absolute self-sufficiency. If the essence of freedom were merely the act of choice, then the mere fact of making choices would perfect our freedom. But there are two difficulties here. First of all, our choices must really be free – that is to say they must perfect us in our own being. They must perfect us in our relation to other free beings. We must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves. From this flows the second difficulty: we too easily assume that we ARE our real selves, and that our choices are really the ones we WANT to make when, in fact, our acts of free choice are (though morally imputable, no doubt) largely dictated by psychological compulsions, flowing from our inordinate ideas of our own importance. Our choices are too often dictated by our false selves.

Hence I do not find in myself the power to be happy merely by doing what I like. On the contrary, if I do nothing except what pleases my own fancy I will be miserable almost all the time.[!] This would never be so if my will had not been created to use its own freedom in the love of others.

Photo credit (Good luck and happiness)

Blogging 6 random things

Alright, so my wife tagged me with one of those “write 6 random things about yourself” chain-letter things. Here it goes!


1. Post the rules on your blog.
2. Write six random things about yourself.
3. Tag six people at the end of your post.
4. If you are tagged, JUST DO IT, and pass the tag along.

Along those lines:

1. When I was three years old, I burnt the back of the left hand pretty badly on a hot garbage incinerator barrel behind the house. I have a noticeable scar across my knuckles.

2. Growing up, I always hated tomatoes. Tonight at dinner, I ate 4 fresh tomatoes in a salad my wife made for me. Not too shabby!

3. Last time I was at the One World Cafe coffee shop, someone had left a copy of The New Yorker on a table. I flipped through it and ended up spending the next 40 minutes reading a long feature on the serial imposter Frederic Bourdin. This guy knows a bunch of different languages and can change his appearance to look really young. He has posed as a troubled teen all over Europe and lived on handouts. He even assumed the identity of an American boy that had gone missing and was flown back to America to live with them. He even faked a tatoo the boy had and conned various government officials into getting the proper paperwork put through. Even the family and his own mother believed him! Or so it seemed. Eventually, he figured something was wrong. His disguise was working too well. It turns out someone in the family had murded the son and it was a big cover-up. It’s still an unsolved mystery. Interesting story.

4. In a junior high basketball game, I went up for a rebound and bumped into a player on the other team. He broke his leg in the process! Oops. But I wasn’t called for a foul. The next week, I fouled out of the game in only the first quarter. Oops.

5. Shortly after coming to college, I took on a freelance computer job and was paid with a $100 bill. I put it inside of a book for “safe keeping”. Then I lost it. I couldn’t remember which of my hundreds of books I put it in. I searched through my collection for a couple hours in vain. As far as I know, it’s still there now, a few feet away from me, cleverly concealed.

6. Speaking of missing money, when I visited New York in high school, the guys in the hotel room next to mine found $1500 in cash (dollars) and about $2000 in Russian rubles in the drawer in their room. Drug money or something. They decided to give it to charity. I just had a Gideon bible.

Tag six other people? Not sure. Hold that thought.

Permission to be obsessive

Most people would consider it pretty weird that Jay Leno owns over 100 fancy cars. Guitarist’s who can’t play their scales but have 40 different effects pedals are silly gear Nazi’s. It’s OK to collect stamps, but if you spend every weekend combing through old archives for goodies, you’re a nut job. Do you like Lost? That’s cool. So do a lot of other people. Own all 4 seasons on DVD? Must be a fan. Have a T-shirt, write fan-fiction on your blog and have Lost dress-up parties with your friends? Um. You’ve obsessed. Stay away!

Ah, but wait. Some things society gives us (or at least some of us) permission to be obsessive about. Even applauds it. Food and cooking is one of those areas right now:

Along these lines, a comment from specialty coffee buyer Peter Guiliano:

“Most of the people who payed $130 a pound for Geisha had access to coffee growing right next to the auction lot that cost $12.50 a pound. Why would they pay $130 a pound?

“This is an industry where the participants have constant permission to indulge in hedonistic pursuits. We are entrusted to pursue pleasurable things, and pleasure becomes the dominating force in our lives. the culture of coffee is exactly the same as the culture of chefs: society gives us permission to be obsessed. That’s what we think about all the time. I love the hedonism to a certain extend…love when we are comfortable experiencing the world through our senses, but it gets a little weird. Especially given the power structure. At origin, we are like rock stars. We are surrounded by people who want to spend time with us, who offer us every enticement imaginable. You are traveling for a long time, you are a young guy, and it is easy to get caught up in that and lose you footing.

“You’ve got to be off-kilter a little bit to get attracted to this business…By the time you are a little successful, you’ve been poor for a long time. A lot of these guys were social outcasts in the younger part of their lives…don’t have equipment to deal with some of this stuff.” – Peter Guiliano

-God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee, p.232

Looking proper

Our local university has a well-established history of lamentable editorial cartoons. Lately though, things have improved!

Can someone explain to me how that messenger bag is supposed to give you hipster street cred?


Coffee and beauty

This, an excellent quote from coffee aficionado Peter Giuliano appears in God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee:

“Fundamentally,” Peter told me, “my interest in coffee is aesthetic. My family is from Sicily,” he explained. “I was brought up by my grandmother, who didn’t speak English. I learned rom her that life is short, brutish, and cheap and that misery lies in wait for you. What interests me in coffee is the beauty of it. The beauty of the moment that coffee can create.” (p.234)

Throughout the hardest ups and downs of life in the past few years, coffee has been a consistant comfort. For a while I was afraid my love of coffee might simply a hedonistic pleasure or maybe even a chemical dependence. Though there surely a bit of both of those things involved, my heart said there was something more. A really good coffee is more like looking at a beautiful piece of art or reading a profound story. It’s like a piece of fallen creation that has been redeemed. It is a good thing in both the eyes of God and man. We as men just have refined techniques of preparing and brewing it. It is the Lord who made the fruit, beginning a long time ago somewhere in Africa. Like any of his creations, it has a purpose. Be amazed.

Along these lines, Doug Wilson has been posting a lot lately on creation and food, God and beauty in cooking. He mostly riffs of of Robert Capon’s quirky book, The Supper of the Lamb. Some of these are really worth reading.

The three-martini Bible study

This humorous bit today from TechCrunch, a news site that follows web companies:

Traditionally, booze and social networking have always gone hand in hand. During the 20th century, men and women would leave their homes and visit drinking locations called “bars” and “pubs.” There they would imbibe various beverages and, if the fates intervened, would go home with each other for coffee and perhaps a moment or two of Bible study. Those, friends, were simpler times.

With the rise of electronic social networking, however, we find that the boozing imperative is sorely lacking. You could potentially send a friend a virtual beer on Facebook and most MySpace pages require ether or nitrous to truly appreciate in their gaudy brilliance but there is no one place you can go to meet some folks with similar interests and, ultimately, meet for coffee and/or the aforementioned Bible study. That was until CocktailMatch


Photo credit

Generous people just don’t get it, eh?

I’ve been reading God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee, a pretty recent book by Michaele Weissman. It’s a travelogue and history of the most recent (2000 – present) rise in the specialty coffee industry. She spends a lot of time interviewing the roasters and barristas at ultra-hip joints such as Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Counter Culture. She also spends quite a bit of time following them around in Central American and Africa as they visit the poor coffee growers face to face. It’s been a good read, though a little slow at times.

Anyway, these specialty folks really want to get their hands on better coffee. They have invested a lot of time and money into training the farmers in modern pruning, picking, and drying techniques to achieve a better product. Another way they’ve promoted quality is by holding contests in the countries of origin. A farmer whose beans place high are rewarded a premium at the following auction. This encourages competition and is an incentive to do a better job in the fields.

The largest of these yearly contest is called the Cup of Excellence. Remember, these farmers and their families live in tiny huts and make just a few cents an hour. They are some of the poorest folks in the world. The author had this to say about some of the contest winners:

It’s hard to imagine what $20,000 or $60,000 can mean to a impoverished coffee farmer. One year the top winner in Honduras was so poor that he couldn’t afford a bus ticket. He had to hitch a ride to the auction is Cup of Excellence earnings enabled him to get out of debt, purchase another small plot of land, and buy drying racks to prevent his coffee from rotting on the ground. In 2005 one of the top winners in Nicaragua, a small, spirited woman, used half her earnings to build a guest house; now her coffee plantation is an ecotourism destination, and she has diversified revenue stream. Not all the growers “get it,” of course. One bought a Hummer. Another gave all her winnings to her church. (p.49)

There is the heart of secular capitalism right there. The lady who gave all the money to her church just doesn’t “get it”.

And He sat down opposite the treasury, and began observing how the people were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent. Calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.”

– Mark 12:41-44

Now I applaud the farmers who got out of debt and invested in their future. That was a very wise thing to do with the money. That’s probably what I would have done! By upgrading his farm, he might now make thousands of dollars a year instead of a few hundred.

Oh, and a guest house for ecotourism. What a great idea! (Says the white Prius-driving, Berkley-educated English prof.) I’m booking a stay this summer!

The guy who bought the Hummer is obviously an idiot. It will take 3-months wages to fill it up with gas. Oops.

But the lady who gave all the money to her church just doesn’t get it. No she doesn’t. But she may “get it” more than anyone can imagine. The world is not worthy of her.

Photo credit

Jesus the Phoenix? (Or lost in translation)

Early Christians often cited the myth of the phoenix as a powerful representation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This magnificent bird self-destructs in a ball of flame, but from the ashes it rises again, immortal. Here is a picture of one from Aberdeen Bestiary, an illuminated manuscript from the 12 century.

It’s a very old legend of Greek origin. How did it every get applied to Christ? It kind of works, but maybe there is more to it then that:

In some early Christian circles the analogy was thought to be sanctioned by the LXX of Ps. 92:12, where, in the phrase ‘the righteous shall flourish like a palm-tree’, the word for ‘palm-tree’ is ‘phoinix’, the same as the Greek for the legendary bird.

-N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, footnotes on p. 482

So when the writers of the Greek Septuagint (the LXX), were doing their translations of the Hebrew old testament in 2nd century BC, “palm-tree” got translated as “phoenix”. See, the Phoenix myth is actually about Jesus! It’s right there in the Bible! Well, sort of. There are some obvious parallels even without the scripture reference, but it’s hard to imagine people taking the analogy as seriously throughout the years if it were not there.

Answer: The Library of Alexandria

My first week as a freshman in college, I was given the swift kick in the rear that is Dan Bukvich’s music theory and ear training course. 5 days a week. Very intense. No whining. I loved it, though I fell into some of the traps he sets for students early on.

I remember the very first lecture. After no introduction and with 80 students cramped together on the rehearsal room floor, we were taught a rhythm and concentration exercise involving plastic cups. After 30 minutes of this, he gave a short introduction and wrote a few notes on the chalk-board. He quickly mentioned that we would be learning a lot of something called “solfege“, and also said that the Library of Alexandra, which held all the knowledge of the ancient world, was burned in 391 AD as collateral damage when Emperor Theodosius had all pagan temples destroyed. Just an anecdote.

Back for class the next day. Chairs all out in rows. Exam! Test! Your first test of the semester already. This WILL count heavily in your grade. Etc. Take out a piece of paper. Write you name down. The test is pass or fail. One question: What year was the Library of Alexandria burned? OK, times up, hand you test into one of the TAs.

The collective murmer of “oh crap…” that went up from the room was a CLASSIC moment. From then on, my eyes and ears were glued to Dan. You learn to love him. Or not. Within a week, the class was down to about 50. They decided they didn’t really want to study music after all.

On deadly books and the labyrinths they hang out in

Who can resist the fascination of a labyringth of books? Piles of ancient tomes on either side. Treasures and mysteries to be uncovered behind every bin. Some of the best bookstores and libraries are messy ones with dim light, cramped ceilings and cryptic sorting. Or soaring shelves with ladders and vast collections. I’ve read three books recently that all feature this very environment at the center of their plots. Be careful with the volumes you pick up out of these joints. They might be bad news. Barnes and Noble would be a safer bet.

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