Simplicity

In recent weeks I’ve had a few people politely and privately comment on my blogs that they would like to follow them, but that the writing is in fact a bit too difficult for them. This is disappointing to me in a few respects, and I will make some efforts to improve in this regard if I can do so without “losing my voice” in the process.

Part of my point in starting into blogging to begin with, if I’m honest about it, was looking for ways to market my book designed to teach philosophy to teenagers. The book is regarded by many as a fairly successful attempt to put complex philosophical ideas into interesting and relatively easily accessible English for those who are not looking to go pro in the field of academic philosophy. So the point of the blog was originally, at least in part, to give free samples of the sort of language I use to explain philosophy in the book. But as my blog has sort of taken on a life of its own it seems I’ve sort of drifted away from that purpose.

My most popular entries here have been those which tackle religious or political concepts that outsiders find to be mysterious and incomprehensible on some level, but which they still want to understand in order to follow what people who are into such things are talking about: “Objectivism,” “Angst,” “the Rapture,” “Meritocracy,” “Pro-life,” etc. But these blogs tend to run well over 2000 words each, involving more intellectual lifting than the average non-academic wants to do as a leisure activity. Thus for one of my blogs to generate over a hundred hits makes it a pretty big hit by this page’s standards.

Compare that with my old friend Jim. Though we haven’t met face to face for nearly 30 years now, during which time our few mutual interests have sort of faded, Jim remains a friend. Jim has also become an amateur blogger in later middle age, but unlike me he is doing it “right”: He publishes about a blog a day, averaging something like 200 words each; usually brief rants against Democrats spiced with anecdotes of his day to day life as a grandfather and candy salesman. No one can accuse Jim of getting too complicated or intellectualized about his blogging, and thus all in all he manages to reach a much larger audience than I do.

Now I’m not really jealous of Jim. His blog reflects the simplicity and the group conformity inherent in the life path he has chosen, which in many ways I can respect in spite of how different it is from the life path I have chosen. The question is, regardless of the differences between his approach and mine, what can I still learn from my old friend? How can I make my blog ideas –– and perhaps my life in general –– more simple and accessible to “normal people”?

I decided to start with something that was easiest to relate to in Jim’s post-election comments this month: he talked about sharing traditional Lebanese vegetarian recipes with families of friends of his daughter. Jim is nothing like vegetarian himself, and not particularly health-conscious even as near as I can tell. He considers no-meat Fridays as part of Catholic tradition to be a Godly thing, but Mondays without meat for environmental or humanitarian reasons to be positively Satanic… but that’s beside the point. Jim’s mom is Lebanese, and the Lebanese are known for having one of the nicer forms of peasant cuisine to work its way into the American blend, so his discussion of such matters piqued my interest.

The dish he was talking about is based on lentils and rice: rather familiar culinary territory for me. Combining grains and legumes to get a whole protein is one of the basic vegetarian nutrition principles I am well familiar with, and lentils are the fastest cooking dried legume I know of. One basic bachelor lunch I’ve done more than a few times is to toss some lentils and 10-minute parboiled rice into a sauce pan with the appropriate amount of water to soak into them, plus about a half cup or so extra, and once the basic ingredients have softened up enough I season the quickie casserole with a packed of instant cup of soup mix of one sort or another. It’s cheap and cheerful, and usually keeps me going for a good while before I start getting hungry again. So doing such things “right” –– i.e., from scratch, and in a healthier form –– was of significant interest to me, and I could trust that Jim’s mother’s recipe would be a good contribution to my repertoire in that regard.

The name for this traditional delight, Jim tells me, is m’judra. While I was waiting for him to type out the recipe as we chatted one night I started looking for other evidence of such a concept on line. The closest thing I found was “mudra”, a collection of Hindu dance moves. Jim assured me that the two concepts are entirely unrelated.

The first surprise with this recipe was that it calls for about an hour’s worth of cooking –– more than four times as much as I’m accustomed to putting into my lentil foods. He suggested leaving things to soak to cut down on that time, but that wouldn’t actually help much in my case. Even so, with my open floor plan apartment it’s not a serious hardship to have something cooking in the kitchen area while I’m typing, reading or watching videos for hours at a time in the same room. So I even if I couldn’t do it for a quick lunch I could still try it for a dinner experiment for one some night.

The main ingredients are about a pound of brown lentils mixed with rice and fried onion. I usually go with red lentils more on a day-to-day basis, but I wanted to try it his way at least once. He also recommended brown rice rather than the long-grain white stuff I usually use for convenience. So I went shopping before trying this out. Unfortunately the local gro here only carries two sorts of lentils: red and green. So I decided green would have to be close enough. They were a sort of brownish green anyway.

The starting point was to put the lentils into the pot with about twice their bulk in water, and to add a relatively small amount of rice, as a glue of sorts, once the process was at about the half-way point. Since the recommended cooking time for brown rice as a side dish is actually far longer than that for lentils I went ahead and put both of these right in at the start. The water seemed like a very small amount, and indeed I did have to keep adding during the process, but perhaps my “vigorous boil” was a bit more vigorous than what Jim’s mom used to do operate at.

The next step was to dice and fry up the onion in oil, and to mix the onion and oil in with the rest. Jim said to get the onion nearly black, and I thought that might be a bit of overkill, but in frying on high I actually got closer to his instructions than I intended to. That part was actually seemed to be fine though. The idea seemed to be that with my glasses off I wouldn’t be able to tell what was lentil, what was rice and what was onion. It was all one homogenous looking brown mass.

The challenge really came with the spices: salt, pepper, cinnamon and allspice. I thought I had all of those, but it turned out that allspice was missing. Normally I keep allspice in the house for Christmas baking if nothing else, but I had not bought any since returning to Europe from Africa in May… so I decided to improvise. I substituted some “Christmas cookie spice mix” that I had for the cinnamon and allspice, and the ginger and clove in that mix turned out to have a bit more kick than anticipated. I saved the dish (for my solo eating purposes) by adding a little molasses to take the edge off, and at that it actually ended up going down quite nicely with a bottle of Christmas beer I happened to have in the fridge. What it lost though was its simplicity and Lebanese purity. I’ll have to try again in that regard.

In other areas of life as well I struggle to find a proper balance between simplicity for its own sake and the sort of complexities that I trust to bring safety, convenience and efficiency into life as I know it.  Let’s not even bother discussing how dependent I am on electronic gadgets and fossil fuels; I’m as hopeless as any white man in such things. What I really want to work on is finding the right balance in terms of reducing the intellectual complications that tend to dominate life as I know it. Can I ever get my life down to the same level of mental simplicity as my friend Jim? Do I really want to even?

Rather than seeing things in terms of tales of the virtues of our ancestors that we need to find our way back to (Jim’s conservative perspective) –– or in terms of some broad narrative about the primitive prejudices, superstitions and ignorance of our ancestors that we need to overcome (the archetypical political liberal perspective) –– I see our societies as a complex mix of both. I’m thus unable to divide the world up into good guys and bad guys, angels and demons, super-ego and id factors so easily as my friends with more monolithic world views. So I’m continuously complicating what they see as simple issues with what they see as impurities or unnecessary added ingredients. This keeps me from being able to write the sort of pure and simple polemics that both friends and foes would be able to use to conveniently categorize my ideas.

This cattle ranch, currently for sale outside of Great Falls, Montana, is actually bigger than the whole Gaza Strip.

One place where my tendency to “complicate issues” has got people on both sides angry at me in the past week is over the Gaza issue, where I don’t see either side as having the high moral ground or as deserving of my public support. At the heart of the matter is the fact that both Hamas and Israel consider themselves to have a God-given right to this silly little piece of land smaller and more naturally unproductive than some Montana cattle ranches. If either would effectively admit that their claims to that territory are based on ethnocentric hubris rather than an unquestionable divine command –– opening the way for them to find some other stretch of God-forsaken mountain and desert terrain to live on –– or if both could come together and say, “Fine, leave us in peace and you can have this stretch of land over here for as many generations as your descendants care to stay there. Don’t you let any of your people attack us and we won’t let any of our people attack you,” the hostilities could be done with this week already. Neither side has demonstrated the integrity to do either of these things though.  Meanwhile the Gazans seem to have an obsession with turning themselves and their children into martyrs –– in both literal and figurative senses –– and the Israelis seem to be more than ready to assist them in this process. To say that they deserve each other would be callously cruel to both, yet in some basic sense quite true.  All I can say for sure is that the situation it is too complicated for me to take up the moral cause of defending those on either side.

A slightly less complex issue perhaps, but one I likewise do not presume to take sides on, has to do with developmental projects in the Philippines taking place at the expense of traditional ways of life. A former student of mine called this subject to my attention this weekend and asked me to sign an on-line petition on the subject, which I am not yet ready to do. Basically it seems that a major economic infrastructure development program has been rushed through official channels and forced onto the local people through a process of eminent domain seizures.  The protests against this could very well be a worthy cause to support, but based on what little I know I am not ready to assume that I know what is best for the Philippine people in terms of what their leaders should and shouldn’t be allowed to do to encourage economic development and to provide basic services for their citizens. It could well be that government officials there are taking bribes from business interests to allow them to build industrial complexes and tourist infrastructure that could end up doing the common people more harm than good, but then again this could also be a means of increasing these people’s life expectancy by ten years or more through better health care, more dependable income and a more nourishing diet. I’m really not in a position to say, and compared to other environmental and human rights crises in the world I am aware of, this doesn’t seem to be among the most critical. But with further information I reserve my right to change my mind about the subject later on. That’s the way things go for us complicated people.

Yet there is one form of simplicity that I treasure more than virtually any other joy in life: interaction with children of all ages. The highlight of my Thanksgiving week this year was in fact sitting and doing barnyard imitations with a 4-year-old, and being called back for endless encores. From newborns to teenagers, every phase of childhood and youth provides its own rewards for adults who have the inclination and opportunity to interact with those at such a level. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or expensive, though teenagers in particular seem to be easily tricked into thinking otherwise. The main point is that life is continuously moving forward for all of us, and appreciating the opportunity to make the simplest forms of human contact along the way –– especially with those who are likely to continue on with it long after we are gone –– is one of the experiences that makes the process of life most rewarding.

So as we once again find ourselves racing into the Christmas season, I would like to encourage all of you to stop and consider the combination of complexity and simplicity that the holidays are bringing into your lives. Don’t try to simplify your life by making crude generalizations about people and things you don’t really know that much about; and don’t let the simple basic pleasures of life, like the time you spend with those you love, get unnecessarily complicated. In all your Christmas shopping and partying don’t get tricked into trying to prove something about yourself through some artificial forms of ostentation, and remember to appreciate the value of those around you, from the closest loved ones to the most complete strangers. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.

I might consider my old friend Jim to be a complete jerk when it comes to politics, and he might well feel the same about me, but underneath all of that crap there is a kind-hearted fellow that tried to keep me interested in doing art photography and with whom I could commiserate over our difficulties finding girls to go out with back when I was in my late teens and he was in his early twenties. If I can still make basic human contact with him regardless of all of the complications that try to come between us, I believe my life will be far richer for it. If there’s something I can learn from him in terms of connecting with other people in a more simple and straight-forward way via this medium, so much the better.

To those I have alienated with my unnecessary complexity, I’m sorry, and I will try to improve. That doesn’t mean I’ll be willing to join into causes that I see as more complicated than you do, or that I’m willing to convert to your particular brand of religious experience, but it does mean that I want to better learn to keep such complications from isolating us from each other. If within those limits you feel like you could help me with this process, I’m quite available to consider whatever hints or instructions you have to offer.

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Filed under Empathy, Epistemology, Love, Priorities, Tolerance

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