Kitchen scraps garden

Last year was not a good summer for gardening at my house.

It was our first summer in a new house, and between my toddlers keeping me busy and a list of other good habits I was seeking to sustain, I ended up really doing nothing toward my garden. My one half-hearted attempt to do not nothing was when I tried to get rid of the grass covering a section of lawn that I thought I might want to use as a garden THIS summer. To my great pride, I was not completely unsuccessful in that endeavour.

This year is already off to a better start. I am not promising a good garden this year, since I’m still very very much in the learning, experimenting, amateur, making mistakes phase, but at least I should make some kind of progress this year.

I found out that you can put some kitchen scraps into water to get them to grow into new plans. You can do it with lettuce, garlic, onions, and sweet potatoes, among others. Those are the ones I have on my kitchen sill at the moment.

Sweet potatoes take a really long time to grow in water. My two sweet potatoes have some fuzz floating around their base, which I hope is what will develop into some roots eventually. Not much to look at yet.

My lettuce is looking good, and I’m already learning how to make it grow better. I think, or at least I hope, that I’ll be growing lots of lettuce in my garden this year, from reusing scraps that I got started in water on the window sill.

My allium vegetables are developing more rapidly than the sweet potatoes, but more slowly than the lettuce. They’ve started growing some thin little roots and stretching up little green things at the top. Not as lush and glorious as the lettuce though, not yet.

I know there are other plants you can start like this. Basil is one I’d love to try.

But basically, I’m really excited about this approach to gardening. I would be buying these foods anyway, and so it doesn’t really cost me anything extra, even in terms of inconvenience. And I have this food to put in the water in the first place because it’s food that my family buys and eats regularly anyways, so if I succeed in growing it there will definitely be a place for it at the Ottens family table.

I have many dreams of things I’d like to be able to do in my gardening, and it will probably be years before I get around to doing all of them. For the time being, if I can get this particular experiment off the ground then I think I’ll have a good gardening base from which I can build in future years. I’m quite excited and hopeful.

In a few months, I’ll be putting some little green plants into the dirt. Until then, my family gets to have a little miniature green garden growing out of some clear glass and plastic holders (old tomato sauce jars and hummus containers, for now). It feels like an excellent beginning.

Farmer, soldier, intellectual-priest-politician

There are three kinds of communities of people that I find especially admirable, and they correspond to three kinds of people who to me exemplify in different ways strength and happiness and self-sufficiency.

The first kind is the farmer or gardener. The people who have the knowledge and the skills to grow their own food, especially in more self-sustaining ways that require minimal extra artificial chemical inputs, are a blessed people. Their food comes not from continents away, not from chemists and geneticists, not from giant grocery stores, but from soil and sunlight and water and seeds. They make the earth around them healthy and beautiful, wilder than lawns but tamer than wilderness. Their lives are cheaper when times are good, and they have sustenance when times are bad, and at all times their wholesome habit more than pays for itself. When they congregate, they talk about weather and pests and harvests over food lovingly grown and lovingly prepared.

The second kind is the soldier, the warrior, the tough. The people who can defend themselves when the need arises have a confidence and swagger that everyone else will envy or admire. They know how to train their bodies and sustain them at a high level, for endurance and for strength. They know how to support their bodily health with good nutrition and rest. They know how to fight effectively without any weapons, and which weapons to use when weapons are called for, and how to use them. They can organize themselves and others, know how to think ahead, anticipate, defend, to lash out at weak points. One of them alone is a force to be reckoned with, an island around which the waves of people will quietly slide. A community of them is given full respect.

The third kind splits three different ways in my head. For my background, and my interests as a Straussian, this triplet fits together naturally, but for others it will seem an irreconcilable combination. The three are the priest or theologian, the politician, and the scholar or philosopher. In the ancient world where society is divided in three parts, the first two tend to be farmer and soldier, and the third tends to be some portion of this final triplet, whether we are thinking of Plato’s Republic, Isocrates’ Busiris, or the medieval view that “some work, some fight, some pray.”

The scholar can spend hours learning new ideas or tools, seeking to understand histories and interpret texts, and searching for truth and for defences of the truth. It is long, painstaking work, and it is a delight in itself and a blessing to the world. The wise person seeks knowledge that can help the world, and searches out the words and the avenues by which that knowledge can be delivered where it is needed most. The solitary scholar is happy and hardworking, and the community of scholars is a network of debate and ever-increasing insight.

The religious person prays and receives sacraments, learns orthodox doctrine and experiences mystical realities. The quest is for virtue and a pure heart and the vision of God. The religious person continuously desires for God’s will and God’s justice to be present in our world. The saint is a manifestation of light and love, and the religious community is a burning fire stretching toward heaven.

The politician knows how to give a speech to a crowd and also knows when and whom to address in private, and how to motivate the key actors who might be hesitant. The politician knows how to get things done, and has also worked to understand what worthy ends we should apply our political efforts toward. Alone, an orator like this can save a community from destruction if circumstances allow. In concert with others of the same ilk, an entire programme of civilizational renewal becomes a possibility.

Rubber hits the road

It’s sometimes easy to forget that ideas matter. And maybe that’s a good thing.

When nothing is immediately at stake, you can have a lighthearted and entertaining debate with someone about rationality and irrationality, about the value of human life, about expertise and governance, about moral obligations and societal expectations.

In those situations, the people with the most extreme and unconventional views can be the most stimulating to debate, the funniest, the most thought provoking. I believe that these sorts of conversations probably have a place, and can be valuable experiences as a person matures and learns how to think.

It’s striking, though, how quickly things look different as soon as people start following through on their convictions in environments where their actions might have real consequences.

I took an epistemology class once in which we spent a week or two discussing conspiracy theories. It was fun to argue both sides, to experiment with daring postures.

But when you have actual friends believing actual conspiracy theories that do actual harm, it doesn’t feel as fun anymore. I was listening to an interview the other day about someone whose romantic partner went all the way down the QAnon rabbit hole and became a very different person. It’s frightening, nauseating stuff.

I think it’s a good thing to be able to explore new ideas in a setting where the biggest thing to fear is the disapproval of one’s peers. I think it is also really important to see, later, how those ideas really matter, and to reevaluate them in light of their effects on the world and the people you love.

Josiah and Exile

I’ve been reading through some large chunks of the Old Testament recently. I get seized by the impulse to do so every two or three years. What caught my attention this time around was how close together the high point and the low point of the southern kingdom are. I’ve read these stories before, several times, but I can’t remember this fact striking me so powerfully in previous visits.

Josiah is one of the best, perhaps the very best, of the kings in the history of the southern kingdom, from the standpoint of the biblical author. During his reign the book of the law is discovered or rediscovered, which had been unknown to previous generations. The Passover is celebrated for the first time in centuries, from the sound of it.

And then a decade after Josiah’s reign, the Babylonian invasion has begun. Within a couple decades of his rule, it’s all over. Many people in Judah lived to witness both the discovery of the Law and the renewal of the Passover and the destruction of the pagan shrines that had been there since Solomon, on the one hand, and also the conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the palace and of the temple and the deportation of the Jewish people, on the other.

Considering how important the Law and the Passover and strict monotheism were for the rest of Jewish history, the timing is pretty remarkable. A few years later with the discovery, or a few years earlier for the invasion, and the people going into exile would not have been anything like the Jewish people who have been so consequential to the history of humanity and the world.

Even as it was, it is surprising that these changes that were so recent managed to become so deeply a part of Jewish self-understanding before the exile. There was not a chance for the beliefs and rituals to become habituated or traditional. How did it happen?

On the other hand, perhaps a few more decades between Josiah and the exile would have also led to a Jewish people in exile very different than the one that history has given us. The kings after Josiah were closer to the model of Manasseh than Josiah, we are told. Perhaps another few decades would have folded the monotheism of Josiah’s reign (or stricter henotheism, as some would prefer) back into the polytheistic patchwork that prevailed before.

The prophets of our canon were surrounded by other prophetic schools who contradicted the biblical prophets and what they stood for. What a delicate set of circumstances it was that made them the ones whose voices have shaped our past and our thinking so profoundly.

PhD as beginning rather than end

I don’t know if I will ever have a PhD. The future is never certain. But I’m much more hopeful, and much more committed, now than I was even a couple years ago.

My mindset on what a PhD is has shifted substantially. Up until this past year, I’ve always thought of the PhD as the narrow point at the end of the educational funnel. You start out with the broadness of grade school, and become more narrow and focused while moving through undergraduate and master’s studies, and finally with PhD you are restricted to one narrow question which you have to devote years of your life to.

That framing is not appealing to me. There is so much to learn, so much to study, so much to receive from those who have been scrutinizing important questions ahead of us. I feel claustrophobic thinking of focusing on one thing relentlessly. Maybe one day I could make the sacrifice of not studying anything else, but not yet. For now there’s still so much that I don’t know!

Obviously that depiction isn’t entirely false. But it misses something very important.

My entire perspective changed when I began to think of a PhD as the first step into the life of scholarship. After completing a PhD, you are allowed, even encouraged, to research any question that is worthwhile and within your abilities. After a PhD, strenuous and wide-ranging reading and writing is an advantage, not a distraction. It’s the job description! A PhD is just the few years it takes to prove that access to the scholarly community and job market is something you should be able to handle responsibly.

If a PhD were the lens that focused a person into a laser that would never deviate from a very small circle, then I would feel great reluctance to consider it.

If it is a door, though, opening into a world full of the smartest conversations, then I find myself much more interested.

Virtue matters

We all have intellectual or abstract convictions, beliefs about the world. Some of us have more than others, some hold theirs more strongly than others.

We also have emotional reactions to things that do not always align with our intellectual convictions. Sometimes an emotional response betrays us, when we find ourselves in a situation where we feel strongly in a way that is at odds with our beliefs about the world. Other times, maybe we have little emotional response to an issue that we have strong intellectual commitment to, or vice versa.

And much of the time, we are suspended in an in-between moment, where we have intellectual beliefs about a thing but we haven’t yet encountered a situation that will reveal how our emotional experience will align with those beliefs.

For several years now, I’ve had a strong conviction about the importance of virtue. I’m attracted to the belief, I think there are compelling arguments for it, and it has been sometimes difficult but always worthwhile to act on that conviction when making decisions about the direction of my life.

Perhaps surprisingly, in those years I haven’t really found myself in situations where I’ve had a strong emotional response that reflected or opposed that conviction.

Recently though, there have been times when my dear son, still a toddler, is forced to choose between doing what he knows is right, and doing what is selfishly most attractive. He makes a choice that involves self-sacrifice, does it, but then afterwards he is grieved because in the short run, there is no benefit to him, only deprivation and emotional pain. Sometimes he feels the unhappiness very keenly, even as he sticks with his choice to do what is right.

My powerful emotional response is one that I’m glad to see in myself. I feel overwhelmingly proud of my son for this small but very significant act of virtue. And I long helplessly for the words to communicate to him that what he got was so much more valuable than what he gave up. It’s not just me as a parent wanting a peaceful life — it is a genuine desire to pass on to my beloved child what is most valuable.

On this matter, my heart and my head are agreed, as it turns out. And I am so grateful to know it.

Being right quietly

I go through phases where I think that I have all the evidence, all the arguments and rebuttals, to convince anyone of a truth that is obviously true. Anyone who’s willing to have a conversation with me about the subject should find themselves convinced, or at least humbled.

It is inexpressibly difficult to come to terms with the fact that in our world, that will just never be how it works.

Now, when there are people who are clearly aware of their own ignorance, and questing for an answer to an important question, then all the arguments and evidence and rebuttals will probably make a difference for the person.

But a great deal of the time, even people who present themselves in this way will have an answer chosen beforehand that they want to see triumph, and woe to you if you don’t get the right one. The person who is disposed to be a genuine sponge of learning is rare indeed.

It is also possible, if a person doesn’t care about a question or its answer at all, but has great respect for you, that the arguments and evidence can have an effect.

In basically all other discussions, we should resign ourselves either to not trying at all to convince the other person, or at least to not having any expectation of success. Practically speaking, for me what I’ve been trying to do lately is just allow myself to feel sad for the other person’s wrongness, while fighting my impulse to try and fix it. This is a lesson I’ve been learning for a lot of years, and it is still one I’m struggling to absorb fully.

If a person is convinced of a wrong answer, you are almost certain to fail in convincing them of a different one. Depressing, but true. That’s not to say the attempt couldn’t have some good outcomes — it’s possible — but at the very least they won’t be the ones you probably expect them to be.

Preparing for lessons

I have this funny quirk, which sometimes works against me and sometimes in my favour.

I hate feeling like I’m wasting money. Like, really hate it.

I love to spend money on good things, when I can afford to. That gives me great pleasure. But in some areas, I hate the idea that I’d be paying someone else to do something that I could do for myself for free if I just knew how.

Take language study. I could probably hire a German tutor for a pretty reasonable price. But I never have. Every time I think about it, I end up wondering how much German I could learn for free on my own without any difficulty. Surely I should learn that much on my own before I start paying someone for lessons? And so that’s what I’ve been doing for the last three years.

I find I think similarly about martial arts. There’s a part of me that has some interest in learning a bit about martial arts. But there’s a part of me that really wants to learn it for myself, teach it to myself as much as possible, before taking lessons. So I find I go through these phases of reading and watching videos, trying to grow in understanding.

In some ways, I’m an autodidact not through necessity or on principle, but just because I don’t want to use my money foolishly. I’m happy to spend my money — but I want to try to figure out as much as I can for myself first.

That’s what helped me learn to be an autodidact of the sort I am now. And to me, that all by itself has been truly invaluable.

Red pill?

I’ve never been attracted in any way to speaking of myself or even thinking of myself as “red pilled,” as the kids say. I was reflecting recently that that’s a little bit interesting, since on the rare occasions when I’ve looked into what this terminology signifies I find that I do have some areas of sympathy or agreement with some of them. So why the automatic distancing?

I think it’s in very large part a matter of “vibes.” It seems like the sort of people who call themselves red pilled are bitter, sarcastic, angry, ironic, very online, and not infrequently bigoted in ugly ways. (Perhaps “ugly” is inherent in the meaning of bigotry?) To speak of being red pilled is to signal membership in a group of people or identification as a type of person. I happen to have no desire to identify with that particular type.

The people who speak of themselves as red pilled want to be seen as muscular, bronzed, athletic, magnanimous, knowledgeable, suave, admirable. People who fit that description, however, do not spend their time acting like the people who self-identify as red pilled. When we read their online presence or watch their videos, the rest of us come away more with an impression of pale, oily, unhealthy, resentful, impotent, small-minded immaturity.

So then where do I find myself in partial agreement with some of them? Many of them at one time believed a version of the dominant social orthodoxy and then later came to realize, correctly, I think, both the falsehood of the doctrine and the hypocrisy of its purveyors, and learned it in the most painful ways.

Be yourself. Be proud. No one can judge you. We celebrate your diversity. We don’t think you should be held back for being who you are. We don’t think you should be denied love for being who you are. We don’t think you should be shamed for being who you are, for looking how you look, for living how you want to live. A well intended message, loudly proclaimed, with many good effects, and we heard it loud and clear for many years. I think in some form this is still the official truth.

Many of us believed that this was the world we were entering into, or at least that the people who most vocally supported the doctrine actually believed it. We thought that the people who focused on maintaining good looks and athletic ability were superficial and hopelessly behind the times. We thought that people who tried to seem cool, charismatic, conforming to cultural tropes of how we ought to be, were not only wasting their time but actively suppressing the delightfully idiosyncratic self hidden beneath the conventionality. We thought that those people focused on growing up to be rich as soon as possible were selfish and heartless.

Some of those suspicions were no doubt somewhat true. But it turns out that there’s value to having an external standard to live up to that can pull us out of our inward-turned, pointless, immature tendencies. And when you realize that fact only as an adult, it’s actually too late to do very much about it, for most of us; our decisions have been made, our path has been set, our habits and character have been formed, our health has been irreversibly compromised.

What is most painful, though, is to learn this harsh truth at the hands of the progressive people who continue to insist on that same orthodoxy. The employers who never call back, the myriad romantic interests who use the phrase “just not my type,” the respected figures who will secretly or openly demean those who had bought into the promise. Eventually we realize the truths that suddenly seem so blindingly obvious: unattractive people have more difficulties in romance and employment and social situations, as do weird people with strange interests or unconventional senses of humour, as do people who have not strived selfishly and strategically to be financially ascendant.

But blaming humans for acting like humans is a waste of time. That’s the way the world is, for better or worse. And blaming the generations before us for passing on the wrong message is useless too, and unjust. They were doing the best they could, at an unprecedented moment in human history. They deserve no special blame. The best thing to do is to recognize our mistakes as well as we can and as soon as we can, and correct them for ourselves as far as is possible, accepting the consequences of our past decisions. And we need to try to build on what our parents and grandparents gave to us, respecting and continuing their best aspirations while trying to fix their mistakes. We should do this in the messages we implicitly and explicitly communicate to all the people we interact with, and especially for our children’s generation. That’s all we can do, and if we do our best and don’t succeed as well as we hoped, then we still have nothing to regret. I think this is the attitude that is too often missed.