Month: February 2014

The Freedom of Bread

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I bake bread most every weekend.  The smell of fresh baked bread in the house is one of those pleasures that can only truly be experienced  if you’ve had your own hands in the dough, rolling it out, kneading it, feeling its warmth.  I don’t use a bread machine, but a big mixer and my own hands.  I use my own vegetables (squash mostly) in the dough as well as the spent grain from the beer I brew.  I do this for many reasons, but mostly the bread feeds me, but also and perhaps most importantly, my curiosity.

Baking bread is one of the human endeavors that separate us from other animals and bread is one of those few cooking endeavors that brings to life rather than takes life from the things that we cook (to paraphrase Michael Pollan [Cooked]). I’m not quite sure why, but bread-making is not only useful, educational and fun, but it is also as addicting as it is necessary.  That first mouthful of warm, wheaty bread is a luxury; the taste is exquisite.  But, it is not in the eating of the bread that the imagination takes flight, but rather in the making of the bread that mind finds solace.

There are hundreds if not thousands of recipes for bread that can be easily found, and I’ve tried a few, but the bread I bake is best when I simply poke my fingers in the dough before letting it rise the first time, adding flour or water as I see fit.  The best bread I bake is that bread that I scoop out of the bowl and watch the filaments of gluten and protein strands stretch and break.  Life from water, yeast and flour somehow gives life to mind, body and imagination.  This is, realize, all symbolic for something greater than bread.  I do bake bread, but I also garden, and am about to embark on beekeeping.  These all symbolize the same concept: freedom.

I am often reminded by many that I tell these things to that “it doesn’t pay”, and that “why do it when it is so easy to ‘just go buy it’.”  But to me, their words ring empty.  I answer, “Why just go buy it when you can just do it yourself?”  Their only answer seems to be that “It is easier.”  But, I ask, why is “easier” better?  Is it better bread?  Do you learn from it?  Are you freer?  For a while I couldn’t understand why it seemed that so many people became defensive when I talked about doing things rather than buying things, but then it dawned on me: baking bread, keeping bees, gardening, brewing beer; doing things symbolizes what we all believe that we have, but also reminds us that we often don’t actually have it and how difficult it is to achieve.

Baking bread comes at a cost.  Now that I bake bread, I want to make my own yeast strains, grow and thrash my own wheat; in short, become self-sufficient.  I have learned that while “easy” comes at a cost, so does freedom.  There are limits to what we can do, and there are limits to how free we can become.    Aristotle defines a virtuous life as one lived intellectually with intention.  This, he claimed, will lead the virtuous man to Happiness (Eudamonia), but in order to achieve this Happiness one must realize one’s limitations.  In other words, the road to freedom is paved with many un-risen loaves, but of course you can always compost them!

The Mediocre World

I don’t believe anyone makes it a goal to be mediocre, but somehow it seems that so many people have accepted mediocrity as the norm.  If none of us make mediocrity a goal, then how is mediocrity a norm?  There are some possible answers to this somewhat rhetorical question.   First, mediocrity is not the norm.  Secondly, mediocrity is the norm because most people lower their expectations of themselves and then others.  Lastly, we are simply defining the normal state of affairs as mediocre.  I am a philosopher at heart, but I also realize that philosophical analysis (a love of mine) is not necessarily a love of others.  Therefore, I will use an analogy (is this the entrance to mediocrity?) of beer to make my point.

First, perhaps mediocrity is not the norm.  For most of this nation’s (USA) history, micro brewing was the norm until the likes of Adolphus Busch created Budweiser in 1876.  When beer-making met with the industrial revolution, mediocre beer was born.  But what is mediocre beer?  If Budweiser is mediocre beer, then mediocrity is the lack of local specialty, a high level of consistency at the cost of special considerations, and a product made for a reason other than the reason for the product; this last one is interesting: Budweiser (it can be argued) is not made for the love of beer, but for the love of profit as its sell to In-Bev has proven.  If this is truly the definition of mediocrity, than it is a hard argument to make that mediocrity is not the norm.  All, including Sam Adams (the largest of microbreweries) microbreweries make up a whopping 5% (app.) of all beer sales.  It would seem that most people are being sold a bill of goods called mediocrity.

Secondly, perhaps mediocrity is the norm but only because people have lowered the expectations they have of themselves and others.  This is sad, but seems to be more often true than not.  However, back to beer!  Budweiser has outsold its nearest competitor by a long shot until recently.  This could have two implications: that people have raised their expectations of themselves, or that mediocrity (in beer at least) is shifting from Budweiser to something else; that something else being microbreweries since they are they only growing beer-market currently.  But beer snobs consistent point to all of the mediocre beer drinkers (translated as Bud, Coors etc…) as mediocre and themselves as having higher standards of beer tastes.  This has serious implications for us beer snobs!  This reason seems to fail as more and more micro and nano-breweries pop up across the nation.  Both drinkers and brewers seem to be expecting more and more from themselves and others.  However, this may not be the whole story.

Lastly, maybe we are simply defining normality in a way that lends itself to mediocrity?  Budweiser was the most “normal” choice of beer drinkers for decades, and now it seems that as a nation we are beginning to define “normal” choices of beers as micro brewed concoctions.  There is a caveat to this line of thinking… PBR.  Pabst seems to have made a comeback with those “in the know”, but let’s face it: Pabst is not a good beer.  Bland, unmistakably lacking in any special characteristic, highly consistent and certainly not brewed for the love of beer Pabst is a staple at most bars that make it their business to cater to the “in” crowd, a crowd that consistently does not deem themselves as the “norm”.

So where does this leave us?  With beer?  With mediocrity?  Well… I don’t believe anyone makes it a goal to be mediocre, but somehow it seems that when enough people accept something as normal, that thing becomes mediocre, and those that accept it become mediocre.   I think that this is the fault of those people that accept the thing as well as the fault of those people who try to fill that desire.  I define “Truth” as a relationship between the idea of a thing and the thing itself (sorry for the philosophy?).  In that case, perhaps mediocrity is simply a low-quality relationship or understanding?  I’m sure that Budweiser didn’t start out as a mediocre, bland tasting concoction, but as Adolphus realized the riches to be had brewing his beer, his reasons for brewing Budweiser changed and with it the quality of the relationship between the idea of Budweiser and the beer itself?  Maybe he gave up on his ideal of beer in order to make a buck or a billion?  Maybe to be a true beer snob and not just another snob, one must truly love, study, taste and understand beer, and when we brew (or drink) for a reason other than that, we become mediocre?  If that is the case, then even us mediocre home brewers are making nothing but amazing, love-filled bottles of bliss.  Cheers!

The Roadmap of a Face

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A man’s face is the roadmap of his life.  Following the lines that crease his skin and furrow his features, anyone can see the effects of events and situations that he has visited, that he has lived through, endured and enjoyed.  They come with time because it takes time to make such trips, such maps.  Time drips upon him slowly. He looks at himself in a mirror and then his face, mocked with signposts of his life, becomes his past as he worries about, as he looks forward to his future; and the lines are drawn.  Pain and pleasure, resentment and contentment, fear and folly draw the map.  It continuously gets drawn and each line and mark is different, they are never the same.  The map left on each our faces, and there is one in each moment of our lives that is drawn however subtle, however deep is the map of our future.  The young face is like a moon-pie, smooth and devoid of life that has not yet touched it.

Truth changes, foundations falter; importance turns to triviality, happiness and disappointment share the same bed.  Life teaches us these things and maps are drawn so we know how to get back in order to have the chance to learn the lessons that living has taught us, however way we choose to live.  We many times call these lines the ravages of time but they are really the roadmaps of our faces.  Roads that we have taken, that we have chosen with the time that we have, that we think we might still have are all carefully drawn with the knives of each of our decisions.

If we could hover over our own lives we would perhaps see the landscape, some parts cracked and dry and some parts lush and green.  Some ways cross, some don’t but there is always room for more until the horizon.  Life is a verb, not a noun.  Look in a mirror and see where you have been.  Look in a mirror and see who you are.  Follow the roads you have built and look for new ones to build or wait for what comes.

The map will be drawn regardless of what we do or do not do; regardless of what we choose or do not choose; regardless if we desire it to be, or fight the inevitable: change, the cartographer, is the only consistent.  The unknown to the cartographer is nothing more than a blank page awaiting the legend, orientation, neat-line and title; the topography unknown because the landscape is yet to be drawn; places not envisioned or visited.  The crow’s feet around the eyes remind us of past perspectives, the wrinkles in the forehead of contemplative comings.  The smile lines around the corners of our mouths bring back periods of pleasure, of happiness, of joy.

Bitterness, sadness and anger are all there as well; part of the landscape; islands of ire, flows of frustration, mountains of madness.  They too are part of the map and deserve a place, a path-line on the compass.  The fear, the doubt, the joy, the love, the bitter and sweet are all there.  What will be the next road you draw?  What will be the topography of your face; the roadmap of your past?

The Power of Empowerment

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Two discussions that I had this last week sparked me to consider the difference between the concept of power and the concept of empowerment; the first being dependent upon someone or something, the latter being independent of anything other than self.  In one discussion I came to realize or perhaps believe that the person that I was talking to was fearful of losing power and seemed to perceive me as desiring to, and capable of, taking it.  I realized that the problem with her premise was that I did not desire what she and I both perceived as power, and so this left her powerless.  The second discussion, happening afterwards, concerned my desire for self-reliance and realizing that such a life is not possible through being powerful, but of being empowered.  That is, willing to be and realizing the capacity in yourself of being self-sufficient.

This differentiation of empowerment from power led me to several conclusions.  First, the two terms are not interchangeable, but are related.  Secondly, that the two terms are often misused.  Also that empowerment, rather than power, is what most of us want perhaps without knowing it.  This is all well and good, but what does it matter?  The explanation as to why these questions are important (as the importance most often does lay in the question rather than the answer) is happiness in the Greek “eudemonia” sense of the word.  I’ll take each point in its turn, with an example to boot.

First, power and empowerment are not interchangeable but are related.  To empower yourself can be as simple as learning how to cook or fix something, or being capable of biking 50 or 100 miles, or running 25 miles: self-respect and responsibility for self no matter what.  Empowerment is a realization of both your limits and capacity. Power, on the other hand, is the realization of capacity alone; to realize that you can decide for others, over others, and sometimes without having to consider others and do so without limits simply because you can.  Power is the acquisition of capacity without realizing your limits; the typical Hegelian master-slave dichotomy.

So empowerment is self-contained and self-willed power while power is relative to and other-willed perception.  Empowerment and power are not interchangeable, but are often misused, and so an example.  I have often discussed my disdain for the feminist movement, and have been met with female irritation and ire.  I explain, however, that my disdain is not for the movement of equal rights for everyone including women (rights being a form of power), but with the belief that with being given rights anyone is empowered or for that matter equal: they are not.  Feminism is not about empowerment (the realization of limitations and capacities), as those in the movement often claim, but about power (capacities alone).  If the movement was about empowering people (not just women), then there would not be a movement at all, but rather a wholesale move towards educating, learning and becoming independent of any movements at all no matter gender (using this example) by all in society.  Of course, there are numerous examples and objections: maybe such movements are simply a process to help empower those involved?  Some people are not interested in equal rights for all; but my point is made here.

While people of all colors, genders, stations and cultures seem to demand the power to change society’s claims on them, I believe that they are barking up the wrong tree so to speak.  Their demand from others is a form of power rather than empowerment.  However, I do not believe that the demand is for power; unfortunately many of us look to others for acknowledgement, respect and embrace.  The demand from those that seek social and cultural changes are demands of empowerment, but asking society to “give” empowerment to you is akin to the belief that simply signing up for a class in college makes you smarter: it does not, and empowerment cannot be given by anyone other than yourself.

While power-struggles continue around the world, I would argue that the struggle for empowerment is to continuously transpire in each of us rather than the whole.  While lobbyist and special-interest groups vie for political and social positions, we each of us ought to learn self-respect and self-reliance as much as those things are possible at all.  We live in a world where power is esteemed and empowerment is often disparaged by whomever the “others” are.  But for those who strive for empowerment to revere and strive for power is to enslave yourself to the very thing that you are rallying against: a master.