Thursday, August 18, 2011

Was Confucius Happy?

In a recent, widely-discussed book, The Happiness Equation, an economist at the University of York (Nick Powdthavee) examined the relationship between various economic indicators and human happiness. The results could be encapsulated in a time-worn cliché, “Money can’t buy happiness.”

This reminds me of the slightly-less-well-known adage, “Money isn’t everything...but it sure beats the heck out of whatever comes in second.”

I don’t have a lot of money, and I haven’t read the book in question, because I’m a fairly happy chap myself, and I’m not really interested in what statistics and interviews can tell me about what other people say they feel.

I myself have noticed, and felt, a few things that may be of relevance to the question:

People who have read a good novel, or seen a good film, cherish it as if it were a god.

People sometimes return from expensive vacations and get excited only when they’re talking about the horrendous service they received at a restaurant in the Travestere.

There is a passage in one of Willa Cather’s novels, maybe My Antonia, that made an impression on me. I looked it up just now on-line:

“I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great…”

Politics can be a noble pursuit, but talking about politics can be dull. It often boils down to excoriating the selfish, bigoted folk who vote Republican. Such judgments are usually sound, but they don’t change anything or illuminate anything.

So, what should people talk about?

The other day, Hilary and I were sitting on the deck drinking a glass of wine. It was dark, we had a candle burning in our dragonfly candleholder, the crickets were chirping, and she was telling me about what Karen Armstrong has to say about Confucius in her recent book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Being the “Mr.-know-it-all” par excellence, I leapt from my chair and said, “I’ve got an idea, let’s see what Confucius himself has to say.”

I ducked back into the house and returned a few minutes later with three translations of the Analects: the groundbreaking Arthur Waley translation (1924); the Penguin edition translated by D. C. Lau (1979); and the recent David Hinton translation (1998). We began to read out loud, back and forth. Let me give you an example:

The Master said: “Of villages, Humanity is the most beautiful. If you choose to dwell anywhere else, how can you be called wise?” (Hinton)

The Master said, “Of neighborhoods, benevolence is the most beautiful. How can a man be considered wise who, when he has the choice, does not settle for benevolence?” (Lau)

The Master said, “It is Goodness that gives to a neighborhood its beauty. One who is free to choose, yet does not prefer to dwell among the Good—how can he be accorded the name of wise?” (Waley)

And then we would dispute which version was the best.

Clearly the Waley version is the best of the three here.

Among the discoveries noted by Mr. Powdthavee in his recent book about happiness, he mentions that the rich are slightly more anxious than the poor. He observes that many people are concerned not only about the size of their paychecks, but also about how their pay compares to that of their peers. This strikes me as a bit odd.

The review that I read appeared in the Wall Street Journal, and the conclusions the reviewer arrived at concerning labor demands and the benefits of immigration are worth a look.

In Book Six Confucius remarks:

The Master said, “To be fond of something is better than merely to know it, and to find joy in it is better than merely to be fond of it.” (Lau)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

BWCAW – Elemental

Why go there? Because it’s elemental. You pull out of the garage at 8:15, leaving the computer, the clients, the Tea Party, the unmowed lawn, and the half-painted woodwork behind, and six hours later you’re near the Canadian border, heading out across a pristine lake in an aluminum canoe, wondering where you’ll be setting up your tent for the night.

We hadn’t been on the water more than half an hour when I spotted a moose emerging from the woods on a back bay. That’s unusual. But therein lies the enduring interest—in the BWCA you never know quite what’s going to happen. The moose was a quarter-mile away, but with binoculars we could see it perfectly.

We camped at a familiar site on the north end of the lake, not far from the portage. I paddled out to get some water, hunted down a dead tree in the woods behind camp, assembled the all-important camp chairs, which consist of little more than some plastic rods and webbing to support a folder air mattress.

The wind was gusty and we weren’t entirely into the swing of things yet, though Hilary went swimming almost immediately and then gathered some blueberries. A little honey bee came by as we were sitting in the dirt, reading or looking out across the bay at the clumps of black clouds forming in the distance. Hilary held out her finger and the bee landed on it.

Two parties were fishing out in the bay. We could hear them exchanging pleasantries from time to time but they obviously weren’t together. Both canoes disappeared as dinner time approached but reappeared later for a few more hours of fishing before the sky grew dark.

Returning from our evening paddle, we passed right between the two canoes. As we approached the man in the bow of one of them got a strike. His buddy got the net out and they landed the fish. The man with the net then lifted an impressive string of fish out of the water.

“Walleye,” he said. (It’s hard to imagine how they’ll eat all those fish.)

Our dinner consisted of turkey jerky and almonds, followed by coffee made with water heated over the campfire. As we sat on the rocks a swarm of dragonflies appeared above us, just as they had years ago at this same spot.

Spectacular sunset, wisps of cloud tinted copper or pink, with one big dark clump near the horizon.

The transit from Sawbill to Cherokee Lake takes you through some interesting country, with small lakes, streams, portages, reeds, creeks, and mossy escarpments. At one point a beaver dam has raised the water level in a slough, making the boggy stretch easier to navigate and turning a 92-rod portage into a 12-rod portage. That’s OK with me.

We came upon a couple of spotted sandpipers on Cherokee Creek and admired the water lilies and pitcher plants. A raven crossed the creek ahead of us several times, monitoring our progress.

Cherokee Lake itself is a gem, and I suspect many parties just head up there and sit for a few days. The lake is studded with islands and the countryside to the north and easy is hilly, which gives the lake itself some added drama.

We took a campsite on the west side of the lake, much improved since the last time we camped there. There’s more greenery and the tent site has been artificially leveled with clay and a few well-placed logs.

The weather took a turn for the worse, with deep rumbling in the distance, darkening skies…yet with patches of blue sky still prominent. The wind seemed to come with the clouds, with fierce squalls followed by patches of utter calm.

This is what you do. You sit under the tarp and wait for the rain to come. An innocuous sprinkle from time to time, but at 3:30 all the serious weather was still passing us by to the south and east. Our moment will come.

Wandering the high rocks behind the campsite, I notice that the forest is very healthy. Very little dead brush, few deadfalls. Mountain ash here and there, jack pine, balsam, bitch. Blueberry season is over.

Time for a nap in the tent. It’s like a furnace in there, but the deer flies won’t get you. The wind rises; the wind dies down. A seagull flaps by fairly high. I adjust the straps on the tarp, cinch them up.

It started to rain in earnest at 6. A few minutes of hard rain, but medium to light for the most part. Again and again, it seems to be letting up—it’s an aural illusion. If it were happening as often as it seems to be, the rain would have quit long ago.

We cooked and ate our “pouch” dinner of beef stroganoff under the tarp. When I rather cavalierly dumped a pool of water that had collected above our heads over the edge, it began gushing along a path between the exposed rocks and dirt directly under the tarp past where we were sitting, rendering the chairs useless.

It occurred to us eventually to put on our raincoats. We heated water for coffee. I could no longer stand erect under the tarp, but had the options of crouching over, squatting like a Japanese baseball player, or stepping out into the rain.

It was a soft rain, not a pelting rain. I enjoyed wandering the campsite, looking out at the dark gray clouds in every direction.

Just as it started ro rainin earnest, three canoes had passed on the far side of the channel. Scrutinizing them with binoculars I could see they were thirty-something men with shaved heads and muscle shirts. They bivouacked on a island a half-mile away, but left again before the rain quit, no doubt due to the coming darkness. Finding a campsite of Cherokee can be tough at that time of the day, regardless of the weather. I felt sorry for them.

The rain finally let up at eight. I made a fire (with wood I'd prudently tucked under the tarp) and we watched the vague orb of the moon rise through the thinning clouds.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Early August

It sounds like a minor film by Yasujirō Ozu. Early August. A time when thought begins to bend almost imperceptibly toward cooler, quieter days ahead. A delicious time of the year, in my opinion, with three months of wonderful weather in prospect. Maybe a few vacations, too!

In our neck of the woods the crickets started to chirp on July 31. The Cedar Lake rail line is now dominated by the mauve of wild bergamot in profusion (also in decline) and seven varieties of sunflowers, cone flowers, and back-eyed Susans none of which I know the precise name of.

The Twins are limping along with fading hopes but the new bike trail under the stadium is a boon to recreational bikers. It connects the downtown riverfront with communities as far away as Hopkins and Excelsior, and also serves as the northern leg of an easy 20-mile loop in conjunction with the 28th Street Greenway. We took that route the other day, stopping at the Longfellow Grill for a midmorning breakfast of meatloaf hash topped with two eggs and a dollop of Béarnaise.

My August reverie may have been spurred by a visit to the Scott County Fair a Wednesday or two ago. There weren’t many people there, which gave me the opportunity to chat with the men and women in the food wagons while Hilary was off tending the Scott County Booth.

The young woman in the cotton candy trailer told me she’s from Macedonia. She’s just here for the summer earning some easy money. The man at the Elkburger stand filled me in on the recent chronic wasting catastrophe in the local elk population. Evidently the market in North Korea for elk antlers has taken a nose-dive, too. I would like to have bought a burger from the guy…but I’d already been to the 4-H booth and didn’t have the appetite.

Just yesterday, eager to take advantage of the cooler weather, we headed to Faribault (less than an hour south of town) to do the Sakatah Singing Hills Trail. The trail passes through rolling fields, crosses the Cannon River twice, follows the shores of a few lakes and alongside several remnant prairies before reaching the mature forests of Sakatah State Park.

You emerge from the woods at the lackluster town of Waterville, which bills itself as “Southern Minnesota’s Vacation-spot.” There’s a nouveau coffee shop on main street (with WiFi) but no one was in the tidy dining area when we stepped in to get an ice cream cone. Nor was the woman behind the counter especially friendly. Maybe there’s a connection. (Or maybe she was just out of sorts because all her regular customers were at the 127th annual Fireman's Weekend pancake breakfast over at the VFW.)

We wandered Main Street and examined the postings in the window of the real estate office, looking for a dirt-cheap cottage on the lake (dream on!) and then started the long haul back to Faribault. There was almost no one on the trail. A few warblers chirping in the deep woods. A kingbird on a fence-wire showing off the white band on his tail. A few robust walnuts above our heads...

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Pine Nuts

The price per pound was roughly half what they charge at a discount supermarket. And a few big clumps of basil happened to be sitting on the kitchen counter back home, waiting to be chopped into pesto and frozen for the winter. So I bought the great big bag of pine nuts at CostCo at $14 dollars a pound, little considering that due to their high oil content, pine nuts go bad quickly, and a pound and a half of those tasty little nuts will take you a long ways into the autumn.

We made the pesto—though a friend later reminded me that it’s better to toast the pine nuts in a frying pan and sprinkle them on top just before serving. And we gave some to my mother-in-law for her birthday. At that point I began to dig out a few tried and true recipes…

Why are pine nuts so expensive? Because they take eighteen months to mature (which seems very odd to me) and must be harvested by hand. I can remember driving north from Pie Town to Fence Lake, New Mexico, through several monotonous hours of miniature hills covered with juniper and piñon pine—a Georgia O’Keefe nightmare. There were pick-up trucks parked in the ditches here and there, and we finally figured out that folks were out gathering pine nuts. We stopped at a café—it may have been in Quemado—and I was pleased to listen in on the conversation of two chunky young Indian men in the booth next door. It seems that one absent member of the party wasn’t pulling his weight. I heard one of them say, “ Next year, I think it should be just you, me…and grandma.”

Pine nuts grow best at elevations between six and eight thousand feet. That’s the zone at which the snowpack is likely to linger, providing run-off well into the summer. But there’s no telling if a crop of nuts will mature or wither on any given year.

Harvesting pine nuts doesn’t have to be a drag, however. The Spanish composer Enrique Granados published a set of canciones amatorias in 1915 that includes a number called “They Went into the Pine Woods.”

Country girls from Cuenca go up into the pine-woods,
Some for the pine nuts, some for the dancing.
As they dance and shell the pine nuts
The pretty country girls enjoy
Throwing the darts of love at one another.
Between the branches—when blind Cupid
Asks the sun for his eyes to see them better—
You can see them treading on the eyes of the sun.
Some go for the pine-nuts, some go for the dancing.

I’m not sure what’s going on here, but it sounds a little more interesting than “you, me, and grandma.”

Quite a few species of pine trees produce edible nuts. The pine nuts they sell at road-side stands in the American Southwest are very different from the ones we buy at the store, being larger and perhaps less delicate in flavor. (Maybe they’d taste better if I shelled them.) The bag I bought at CostCo came from China. It’s said that in China they mercilessly denude the trees of branches to make the job of harvesting easier, and then just move on. I suppose it’s possible...

In any case, these Chinese nuts are as good as any I’ve tasted. In fact, the pesto we made the other day was almost too rich. I also recently made a salad of fresh beets, gorgonzola, pine nuts, and vinaigrette—you can’t miss with that combination.

But the best of the dishes I cooked up is an orzo salad that I rank among the most subtly pleasing concoctions in the world. What’s interesting about this salad is that when you take a bite, you don’t taste much of anything. There are little bits of flavor taking you this way and that, and only gradually does the full impact hit home. I once made a batch of this stuff and something seemed wrong. I finally figured out that the raisins were sticking to each other. Not getting dispersed. You need every little touch, in the right proportion, in every bite, or the thing won’t go.

Here’s the recipe.

Orzo Salad with Lemon, Feta, and Pine Nuts
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, plus more as needed
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 cup orzo
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup golden raisins
3 tablespoons finely chopped black olives
3 tablespoons finely chopped red onion
1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh basil
2 oz. feta cheese, crumbled

Combine the olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, oregano, salt, pepper, and sugar in a jar. Shake it and set aside.

Cook orzo according to package directions. Meanwhile, toast the pine nuts in a dry skillet over medium-low heat. Shake them from time to time — they burn easily. They should toast up in just a couple of minutes. They’re done when you can smell them and they start to turn brown. Lovely.
Drain the orzo and transfer it to a medium bowl. Add the dressing to the hot pasta and toss to coat. Let cool to room temperature. (Stick it fridge to speed things up.)

Add the pine nuts, raisins, olives, red onion, and basil and stir to combine. Add the feta and toss lightly. Taste and adjust the seasonings to your liking.
It’s a good idea to make this at least 4 hours ahead of time so the flavors can meld. It’s also fine right away and delicious the next day.