Archive for the ‘Domestic Training’ Category

The Basilikon Doron, or "Royal Gift", a Constitutional

Saturday, February 1st, 2020

The Basilikon Doron was written in 1599 by James VI and I1 as a set of instructions for his eldest son Henry, the heir apparent, who was but five years old at the time. The King had seven copies printed and distributed these among trusted members of his court, considering the book his metaphorical will and testament to his heir, as well as the canonical reference point to be used for nearly any question naturally passing from a son struggling with the heavy burden of sovereignty to his experienced father. James advises his son in an epistle dedicatory to regard the book as a treasure and not to lose or forget it, as though it were a stand-in parent of sorts: "Receiue and welcome this Booke then, as a faithfull Praeceptour and counsellour vnto you: which, because my affaires will not permit mee euer to bee present with you, I ordaine to bee a resident faithfull admonisher of you."

That James wouldn't be entirely accessible to his son (either while ruling or, of course, in the grave) is fine enough a reason for such a text, as is the plain fact that information of import fares a great deal better in writing than in speech --especially as complexity and length grow2. But a possibly unforeseen cause for this very worthy work is the guidance of people in general, both in its contemporary context and for later ages. I say possibly unforeseen because four years after the original septuple-print, the Basilikon Doron was republished and widely sold, though whether this was due to one of the safekeepers leaking the text or the monarch's own decision to make the work public is unclear. Making things muddier is James' second epistle dedicatory, "To The Reader", which awkwardly apologizes for and attempts to justify any unfriendly political or religious slants perceived by his subjects with the excuse that after all, the text was only meant for his son, as a ruler. If James never intended the work to reach beyond a few select sets of eyes, however, why speak to the public at all, much less condescend to reason with it? And yet still, perhaps it was merely the king's good nature and earnest desire to be ascertainable that drove the dedicatory.

In any case, what's left to us, either deliberately or by happy accident, is a piece of real education the likes of which has just about been wiped out of human activity; a pearl of that process of the passing of the torch from one generation to the next, these days feebly and inadequately performed more often by television and happenstance than conscious parenting. James' instructions exhibit the sound structuring of real and honest thought, the scaffolding of primary sources indicative of thorough, fluent scholarship, and even the gentle consideration of the reader's human frailties that belies a genuine fatherly love. What greater thing could a young ruler want than a compendium of answers to his nagging midnight questions as to what he should do, neatly compiled and with a bibliography, even, produced by a fine predecessor? "What do you get for the kid who's got everything," right? This. This book. You cannot gift someone experience, or wisdom, or fortitude, or humility, indeed, but you can meaningfully describe them; you can reason through great nets of choices, you can point out what you've seen work and what you've seen fail, you can recite the best ideas, and if done well, you can produce a thing of lasting value.

For the value of the Basilikon Doron does last, and we need not be kings to appreciate it. There is, as ought to be expected, some measure of the publish date's context that sticks out from the sense like straightpins in a shirt: the forced fusion of scholarship with religion steals some portion of our show, as does a smattering of specificities now irrelevant through fashion, from jousting to codpieces. But neither time nor station block James' advice from relevancy. The text is essentially a primer on how to study, how to reason, how to choose one's friends, and how to conduct in public and in private in the interest of being a competent human (which I suppose could make a useful definition of a king, for our purposes, if the alternatives are "contentedly ignorant farmer", "drunken minstrell", "tunnelvisioned computer fungineer" etc). James gave his son a splendid gift, and gave us perhaps an even greater one, for if we've the leisure and consideration to understand and apply guidance meant for rulers, have we not trod in some part on the hard-worked backs of those who came before us to reach our lofty hammocks?

This text offers more, however, than merely being taken straight, though there's sufficient tonnage of such to warrant its reading. In tandem with Samuel Pepys' diary, which itself spurned my initial interest in the Basilikon Doron, I am satisfied the work is a true organizational trunk of study in the following domains: European (as well as specifically British) History (and therein the Restoration and Reformation), Monarchy, and English and French as well as Classical Literature3. A major problem of (predominantly Western, I think, though I've nothing other than suspicion to suggest things are better anywhere else) intellectual life these days is the tendency to teach by niche interest, declining to convey either the existence or utility of properly-constructed trees. Topics are presented without context, without relation to their predecessors or issue, and so everything is "new"; a shrub in a sad and dusty scrubland, instead of a fresh branch on one of the many well-known trees in a flourishing and ancient forest. Occasionally one finds a text, however, that by its references provides the bigger picture --not important just for being bigger, but for being comprehensive and correctly done. If you follow the links, as it were, of Pepys and Stuart4, you will plant and well-populate your knowledge of the mentioned domains. There are few things more satisfying than researching some unknown aspect of a work and finding discussion of the very reference and source in question, owing to the strength of the relationships5.

The cause of due interest and enthusiasm well-established, then, I hope, let's examine what follows those dedicatories after all. The Basilikon Doron is "devided", as it announces in its title page, into three parts: the first part, "Of a King's Christian Dvetie Towards God"; the second, "Of a King's Dvetie in His Office"; and the third, "Of a King's Behavior in Indifferent Things".

I. The First Booke

The marriage of church and state of the period makes the first book's thick reliance on the bible unsurprising; Henry was being trained to function not only as a political leader, but as a religious one as well, and as such he would've been expected to exhibit cultivated, authoritative belief in god. Constant catfights of varying size and effect in Western Europe between Catholics, Protestants, and Puritans at the time made the role especially fraught, but James refrains from making much sectarian pronouncement, for the most part. Rather, and certainly for our purposes, the bible's role in the Basilikon Doron is as a definitive text with which to work towards useful scholarship, and as a general moral compass. The king's first and oft-repeated counsel is to exercise humility, even in the knowledge of greater-than-average capability, for this only means the capable are obliged to work that much better and harder:

"A moate in anothers eye, is a beame into yours: a blemish in another, is a leprouse byle into you: and a veniall sinne (as the Papifts call it) in another, is a great crime into you. Thinke not therefore, that the highnesse of your dignitie, diminisheth your faults (much lesse giueth you a licence to sinne) but by the contrary your fault shall be aggrauated, according to the height of your dignitie; any sinne that ye commit, not being a single sinne procuring but the fall of one; but being an exemplare sinne, and therefore drawing with it the whole multitude to be guiltie of the same."

In order to arrive at the correct course of action, then, James proposes two necessary components: firstly, to study, and secondly, to humbly "pray for the right understanding". This easily transmutes to "think about it" with the god blinders removed --for the prayer herein suggested is little else than the consideration of one's own fallibility and patterns of wrongness covered by Dunning-Krueger. In the same vein, the king points out that a thinking person fits their head to reality, rather than attempting to fit reality to their own head:

"But aboue all, beware ye wrest not the word to your owne appetite, as ouer many doe, making it like a bell to sound as ye please to interprete: but by the contrary, frame all your affections, to follow precisely the rule there set downe."

Scripture itself is summarized as two imperatives: there is a command to do and a prohibition against the contrary. The king is careful to remind his son that one without the other is useless; doing the right thing doesn't make right that which isn't, nor vice-versa. These points are just about mundane enough, I'd say, to be overlooked and forgotten by the majority of folks otherwise professing to want to study and do good work. As for an example of one who follows both dictums, James proposes himself. Did your father ever tell you to approach such broad horizons exactly as he had? I grant it's possible, but the certainty of the plain statement is marvelous, especially if we take the "never meant to be publicly published" view of the text.

What follows is an ordered and well-explained charting of the bible6. This tree happens to be neither balanced nor binary, but it exemplifies the sorts of constructions featured in the text: simple, succinct, and informative enough to serve as a launching pad. There's also a legend of sorts for using it (and clues for moving outside the scope of the given tree). Check out Ask Jeeves James:

"Would ye then know your sinne by the Lawe ? reade the bookes of Moses con- taining it. Would ye haue a commentarie thereupon ? Reade the Prophets, and likewise the bookes of the Prouerbes and Ecclesiastes...Would yee know the doctrine, life, and death of our Sauiour Christ ? reade the Euangelists. Would ye bee more particularly trained vp in his Schoole ? meditate vpon the Epistles of the Apostles."

Not just what, but also how to read is covered. A simple rule, self-evident and yet so unspoken, undershared, glossed over, and self-esteemed away that the man would doubtless be branded a child pornographer were he writing today: enjoy what's easily comprehensible, but pay special attention to the parts you don't understand! Assume problems of meaning originate in your own head! Of course, we'll have to temper these maxims with the sad reflection of our current circumstances, in which we cannot rely on the basic fact of a thing's being published as evidence of any sort of soundness, correctitude, or authority. Quite the contrary, actually; whereas a book, and especially an old one, had meaning in itself in centuries past, by now a book (and for definitions of "old" that go back less than forty or fifty years) by its nature is suspect. James distinguished, at least, between works "that may best serue for your instruction in your calling" and "foolish curiosities vpon geneaologies and contentions, which are but vaine, and profite not". Even with a much smaller pool of published material to work with, the prince wouldn't be able to read everything; one's stuck having to choose, and hopefully the harder choices are indeed rooted in subject and scope, rather than sanity and trustworthiness. Nevertheless, if and once the problem of literary identification is settled, the importance of insisting on comprehension of the confusing and attributing error first to oneself can't really be understated.

Tailing study, James' conception of thought in the form of prayer is described as "nothing else, but a friendly talking with God". Evidently some people move through life without the anatomical development (or environmentally-supported enlightenment) required for recognizing that thought does not involve an external third party; they're stuck living in a bicameral mind. It'd make sense, then, to consider the process of thinking about what you've read as a "friendly talking with God". It'd more readily be called talking with your own conscience, but either the royal brain structure hadn't quite fully evolved or else the argument for thought as part of study was cloaked in nonsense by wilful stupidity (or political expediency). Such considerations aside, James counsels to praythink when quietest, and always before bed as a daily check-in of sorts. He warns against supplanting honest and frank reflection with formalities ("bee neither ouer strange with God, like the ignorant common sort, that prayeth nothing but out of bookes"), and also against lazily approaching the process without due consideration and respect ("nor yet ouer homely with him, like some of the vaine Pharisaicall puritanes, that thinke they rule him vpon their fingers").

If you achieve what you're after through study and thought, suggests James, it's upon you to be thankful; if you don't achieve it, you must be patient and work harder or better for it. If even so it doesn't work out the prince's commanded to let it go. It'd seem the turn-of-the-Seventeenth-century "it's not for you" is articulated thusly: "that which yee aske is not for your weale". In tandem with the best practices of greeting success and failure in stride, James advises his son to keep his conscience clear, "which many prattle of, but ouer few feele", with the admirably logical reasoning that while he's alive and at leisure, the prince may address any blemishes therein, but he shouldn't want to see his list of deeds ugly on his deathbed.

The call to keep the conscience clear isn't a vague prosaicism here; James identifies two typical diseases, in fact, that he sees as infecting conscience. The first, "leaprosie", he describes as atheism, though on further reading this resolves to a plain "senselessness of sinne" and careless security. Trusting without verifying, in a word, that happy waking ignorance of self and surroundings that keeps most people practically asleep even when their eyes are open. So long as we're dealing with flesh-eating afflictions in the abstract sense, the prevention's the same as the cure, and here it's described as regular, systematic review. James says to take the time every single day to review all the last day's actions7 and to look for problems both in doing what shouldn't have been done and in omitting what should've been done. Search for these problems, he advises, search for their solutions, do it thoroughly and regularly, and especially do not let yourself off the hook for recurrent problems. These seemingly minor maxims made extraordinary by modern neglect are then crowned by James (by way of Horace) with stoic splendour8: "Remember therefore in all your actions, of the great account that yee are one day to make: in all the dayes of your life, euer learning to die, and liuing euery day as it were you last; Omnem crede diem tibi diluxisse supremum 9."

The second disease of the conscience is superstition, "when one restraines himselfe to any other rule in the seruice of God, then is warranted by the word". Further described as the source of heresy, this ailment speaks to the inutility and potential harm of investing authority in the wrong places. "Yee must neither lay the safetie of your conscience vpon the credit of your owne conceits, nor yet of other mens humors". Instead, James says, that safety must be based on knowledge, identified for his purposes as Scripture, but easily understood as primary source material (like, say, the very text in question). The king offers anabaptists and papists, respectively, as exemplars of trusting too much in one's own authority, or the authority of annointed men, which maps rather neatly, I think, to menalone and pantsuits. History does not merely repeat, it metastasizes; for what else are these atrocities of our age but the same imbalances, split, stretched, and translated over the centuries and social preoccupations?

In concluding the first of the Basilikon Doron's three books, James rests with a few concentrated thrusts: do what is right, not what is fashionable, and do good work because it is good, not as a chip in a bargain, to get something out of it.

II. The Second Booke

Themes of personal responsibility, thoroughness, and good sense follow the first book into the second, where James describes approaches to carrying out the duties of majesty. These duties principally consist of establishing and executing the law, and Henry is expected to lead by example in both pursuits, as people cannot help but mimic their masters monkey-style. Just so, Henry should follow the example of good kings, and know the bad examples of tyrants, and for distinguishing the characteristics and practices of these, James leans heavily on classical authors, arguing from Aristotle and Plato that governments should fear their people, not people their governments; from Xenophon that a good king's greatest honor is to invest his capabilities into facilitation of the welfare of his people; from Cicero that the good king's private interests are accessory to the interests of his subjects, which are to come first, and so forth10.

James argues a while for small government, beseeching his son to hold parliaments only when necessary for the establishment of new laws, because "few Lawes and well put in execution are best in a well-ruled common weale." He advises Henry to be especially careful, when coming to power, to administer and execute laws thoroughly and regularly, as tyrants operate by initial displays of (what people would perceive as) saintliness, pardoning with a large brush and turning a blind eye to concrete wrongs. Beware the Quinquennium Neronis11, James says; as Henry would ascend the throne(s) by hereditary right rather than in precario, without proper title, so there would be no need to placate the people with overindulgence of crime. The king insists on strict justice during his son's initial reign in part because of his own difficulties when coming to power:

But in this, my ouer-deare bought experience may serue you for a sufficient lesson: For I confesse, where I thought (by being gracious at the beginning) to win all mens hearts to a louing and willing obedience, I by the contrary found, the disorder of the countrie, and the losse of my thankes to be all my reward.

It's true, you know. Leadership that consists of flattening power structures by its very definition is not leadership, and the nonsense is palpable to even the lowliest peon. Once the prince has thoroughly demonstrated his ability and will to tightly uphold the law, he may then "mixe Iustice with Mercie", considering such elements as past offenses in his judgements.

Some crimes, however, are unconditionally unforgivable, in James' mind. The list of these is fairly interesting in itself as a window to the culture and mores of the time and place. What were the platforms, the plea agreements, the mulas of the time? Witchcraft, wilful murder12, incest ("especially within the degrees of consanguinitie")13, sodomy, poisoning, and false coin14. James admits he'd also like to put slander against the royal family on the list too, but he acknowledges his own bias. In administering justice for these and lighter crimes, James says, "care for the pleasure of none, neither spare ye anie paines in your owne person, to see their wrongs redressed". Oh brave old world, that has such simple and straightforward notions of justice in it.

James is well aware that people can't well be ruled, judged, nor even much considered without an understanding of their faults and tendencies. He just about writes off the Highlanders (and especially the Highlander islanders) as barbarians not worth attempting to comprehend. As for his other subjects, James describes their vices by estate, in the tripartite sense of the Ancien Regime, in a lengthy passage that reads something like an airing of greivances, though a potentially useful one15: the clergy are prone to avarice, pride, ambition, and imagined democracy, wherein they fancy themselves public tribunes, "leading the people by the nose, to beare the sway of all the rule". These vices, he warns, are liable to make the Scottish clergy, or at least its more agitated elements (particularly the puritans), overcritical of Henry, as they were of James himself. To fight against this, James counsels the preferential promotion of clergymen who know their place, hopefully culminating in the restoration of the first estate to the Scottish parliament, which James says he hopes to at least initiate during his reign16.

Of the nobility comprising the second estate, James says their principal vice is "a fectlesse arrogant conceit of their greatness and power", and as evidence by way of fallout he points to the abundant feuds endemic to this group. He advises the holding of the nobility to the very letter of the law, especially those whom the prince loves best. Indeed the partial treatment of the personally favored is a main node of conflict --but how often do those responsible acknowledge this? Aside from being intolerant of feuds and exercising fairness, James suggests cracking down on guns to ease the ills of the second estate. There's cause to believe the man truly detested them, in fact, as he refers to them as "Gunnes and traiterous Pistolets" here and mightily disdains their use in hunting (one of his favorite activities) while describing proper kingly leisure later on.

As for the third estate, the burghers, James divides the group into merchants and craftsmen, both of which he finds guilty of holding too much esteem in their self-perceived quality and worthiness of profit. Their prices are too damned high, and at the wrong times, and for the wrong reasons! The merchants "transport from vs things necessarie; bringing backe sometimes vnnecessary things, and at other times nothing at all...", and the craftsmen "thinke, we should be content with their worke, how bad and deare soeuer it be, and if they in any thing be controlled, vp goeth the blew-blanket"17. What's worse, the merchants are the hole through which the night of "false coine" comes in. The remedy for each is the same: insist on internationally competitive prices for goods, and invite foreign merchants and craftsmen to participate in the market. No other subject but that of puritans and papists gets the king quite so riled up as the third estate's habits, and yet his advice is sound. It's certainly more sensible than many responses to successful market participants both before and after the time.

Once the people's problems are out of the way, James can get to instructing his son about handling the people themselves. Well, mostly. There are still problems. Commoners left to their own devices are wont to talk a lot of trash about their government, even if it's a just one. As such, James advises the holding of holidays and spectacles within reason, and insists upon visiting the principal parts of Scotland once a year to stay in touch with and in sight of the masses. If Henry acquires other crowns, James bids him visit these once every three years, and to set up councils of men from these very countries in their own lands, judging "principal matters" himself when visiting.

The prince is further reminded that subjects won't only need protection against each other, but from foreign powers as well, "And therefore warres vpon iust quarrels are lawful: but aboue all, let not the wrong cause be on your side". In relation with other princes, of paramount importance is to stand by all of one's promises, to be "plaine and trewthfull" in diplomacy, and to treat all treason and rebellion against them as though it were against oneself. Wouldn't you like to be this man's friend? I would.

Warcraft is explicitly stated as laying outside the scope of this work, moreover, James acknowledges the ample material already published in the field18. Besides, war is better learned by direct experience than study, he says (and indeed, if being led into battle you'd likely rather follow he who knows because he's bled for it than he who "knows" because he's read others' accounts and prescriptions for the bleeding). Armed not with a strategy manual, then, but lines ready to embolden a future king's heart with courage, he says: "Let first the iustnesse of your cause be your greatest strength; and then omitte not to vse all lawfull meanes for backing of the same." Henry is to remember that money is Neuus belli; the muscle of war. He's also held to consider that irredeemable mistakes can be made in war, which makes the enforcement of discipline and order a top priority.

The duty of the king within his own court is introduced by way of another division between thought and action. To rule well, Henry must have some way to mean what he says, and to do it, "for it is not ynough that ye haue and retaine (as prisoners) within your selfe neuer so many good qualities and vertues, except ye employ them." As for doing, he'll have to construct his court, a task rife with opportunities for seemingly small blunders that compound over time. James describes the ideal: in the first place, he'll need young lords to grow with. There's no better method of choosing the young, he says, than simply picking those of the right age, whose families are rather known for virtuousness. These must then be balanced with older, experienced men capable of advising. In either case, legacy is important, and those members of the Jacobean court with further years of service or promising offspring to offer should be duly considered. This is the only type of favor permitted; otherwise, through the abuse of gifts or calculated deals, Henry is likely to run into the same problems his father had in his minority, when the court was arranged by bribe and brown-nosing to no great benefit. James explains, in this particularly lengthy section, that his minority court required continuous shuffling to accommodate his father's tangle of deals, and he was left with men whose goal was to ingratiate themselves with the most favored court members, rather than than to serve the king. Though it's not altogether clear how he would've done things differently, as a child, the stress on these points shows the guyman19 thought that a well-chosen court assembled from the start is crucial.

Servants for offices of the crown and estate must be chosen with extra care; while other appointments largely affect the daily cheer or gloom of the private court, these have direct and significant impact on the whole of his people, so bad choices mean misery even outside closed castle doors. James labors to entirely rip out anything like partiality to schmoozers in his son:

"Choose then for all these Offices, men of knowen wisedome, honestie, and good conscience; well practised in the points of the craft, that yee ordaine them for, and free of all factions and partiali- ties; but specially free of that filthie vice of Flatterie, the pest of all Princes, and wracke of Republicks"

...wherein the prince is sure to be caught, as though his hand were in the cookie-jar, at some point during his rule, righteously tsked by a father well-acquainted with the youthful designs of self-indulgence. The choice of clerks and other money-receivers is expected to be tricky too, primarily because these men must be transparent, and happily so. James advises impromptu, personal review of these positions, to keep them honest, and avoid "mis-thriuing in money matters". In each of these offices integral to the functioning of the realm, a native of the land is preferable over any foreigner, the latter of which, he says, is sure to "stirre vp sedition". In any case Henry's court members should "know no father but you, nor particular but yours". And as Henry is to expect frankness, honesty, and loyalty from his court, he is expected to treat them justly. If people payed a tenth as much attention to the friends they made or the employees they hired as James advises, there'd be far more functional relationships, and far fewer buckets filled with crabs.

Of all those comprising Henry's future courtly company, the king promises his wife will be the "principall blessing". And "because I know not but God may call me, before ye be readie for Mariage; I will shortly set downe to you heere my aduice therein", James says20. The well-informed choice of a bride is paramount, as the union will prove either "the greatest earthly felicitie or misery", and the prince should endeavor to "prepare himself" by keeping his body clean21, because it belongs to his future wife, and besides, Henry has a duty to populate posterity with legitimate sons. That preparation must also include careful study of potential matches to ascertain their ability to serve "the three causes [wherefore Mariage was first ordeined by God]": the "staying of lust", the "procreation of children", and "that man should by his Wife, get a helper like himselfe"22. She should possess beauty, riches, and advantageous friendships by alliance; James calls these "the three accessories", blessings which if abused will become curses. To bolster and make good use of these, then, these Henry must look for strong traits of fecundity, wisdom, and honesty. Once she's been chosen, his wife should be strictly limited to the economic affairs of the house, having no involvement in governmental administration, her attendants and other company must be chosen for their chastity, and at no point is Henry to be angry at the same time as his wife, lest they create a positive feedback loop. If Henry has children, James advises him not to coddle them; to love them, but to show it "as the gentlenesse of their nature will deserue". As feuds are certain otherwise, Henry is also advised to keep the principles of primogeniture intact. Have you selected your chosen family because they're nice to you? And are you nice to the family you're stuck with because you're supposed to be? Did you ever consider that these are strategic choices, and treating them otherwise merely employs the "strategy" of ignorance, spelling, alllmost-guaranteedly, your doom?

In all relationships, the king is to set the example.

"And as your company should be a paterne to the rest of the people, so should your person be a lampe and mirrour to your company: giuing light to your seruants to walke in the path of vertue, and representing vnto them such worthie qualities, as they should preasse to imitate."

Of these worthy qualities temperance takes James' spotlight. It is by being moderate and balanced that Henry will thrive and encourage the realm to do the same. Though justice was discussed in the first book in terms of its desired treatment during the prince's establishment, it gets a more thorough examination in this second book where temperance in office is covered. A straightforward warning against the rot sinking the United States' "justice system"23 is offered:

Lawes are ordained as rules of vertuous and sociall liuing, and not to bee snares to trap your good subjects: and therefore the lawe must be interpreted according to the meaning, and not to the literall sense thereof".

This, this they call Early Modern. Instead of the much more apt Just Before Things Fell Off a Cliff. Tell me, did this come out of the most rockin' time, The Golden Age of Derpland? People regularly died of Typhoid Fever, you know. Or was this guy so ahead of his time we've had to go backwards before we can even approach the correct direction towards his dictum's rightful setting? Oh, it's an ancient idea, by no means his, he just read some books and had the really unfair advantage that they burned and tore easily and missed pages and who knows what language you're going to get even and "looking something up" likely involves a long hike or a complicated gift exchange and it's not like he had to spend sixteen hours a day to choose between talking into the clown mouth at the drive-thru or else thumb through lolcat pics waiting for the delivery pizza and...? Yes, the Basilikon Doron contains simple, old ideas. The fact that humanity has lost them twice now means you'd better treat them with the reverence of novelty, and continue "discovering" them at regular intervals.

Speaking of study, James reiterates that it ought to be undertaken not for the mere sake of knowledge, but for the ability to use one's office well. Akin to noticing only what you've done that you shouldn't've without reflecting on what you haven't done that you should've, and choosing a rich wife who isn't also wise, there are indeed a lot of half-measures available to the well-meaning, and James evidently seeks these out to quash them with extreme prejudice. Serving in the office of a king necessarily means attending parliament, and as much as James hints at its being a nuissance, he counsels fighting against the feeling: "delite to haunt your Session", he says, and observe carefully, remembering that the job of the king therein is to do justice and nothing else. To do justice well, Henry must "learn to discerne betwixt Iustice and equitie"; James draws upon the account of a young Cyrus the Great24 to illustrate this point also meanwhile very well lost on the masses. Ancient people25 learned these lessons as children, you realize. We're stuck with adults who still don't understand what happened there.

Clearly, reading's required for ruling well. James entreats his son to also be familiar with the histories of all nations, and especially the histories of his own. He's careful to exclude the "infamous inuectiues" of Buchanan (an historian particularly unfriendly to the House of Stuart) and Knox (a Scottish Reformation leader instrumental in the eventual execution of James' Catholic mother, Mary, Queen of Scots). For explicit recommendation, James gives the Commentaries of (Julius) Caesar, which he says are as good for the pleasantness of the prose as for the relevance of the subject matter; he furthermore chooses Caesar as the "farthest excelled" emperor.

Henry is expected to become proficient in liberal arts besides history too, though he's warned against pressing himself to mastery in these, as it's bound to distract him from the duties of his office. He wouldn't want to be interrupted like Archimedes, says James, by the enemy's victory over the town26, while buried in his work. Nevertheless, Henry must make at least "an entry" into mathematics, because it is instrumental in waging war. Henry won't be able to design camps, lead battles, construct fortifications, place batteries, and so on without it. I wonder when last it happened that a mentor told their protege, when inevitably asked why they'd need to know math "in real life", that it was necessary for wasting their enemies.

The second book is tied together with the extolling of constancy, liberality, and wisdom, with a few practical applications described with the brevity and haste of a man attempting to keep his advice from breaking any dams. Henry is advised to honor his parents and teachers, and is expressly forbidden to war against his mother, a common thing among young princes left to handle a power vacuum once the king their father has died; nevertheless, he says, if the son wishes to earn his father's blessing, he should earn his mother's in the king's absence. The prince must learn to feel the sting of life's unpleasantries, but never to let such feeling cloud his judgement or impede his action. He must cultivate the wisdom to discern truth from falsity by considering the messenger, asking whom the message may serve, and accurately identifying its likelihood --pursuits necessary for the sound fulfillment of just about any office superceding that of a grunt. Thus armed against the challenges of his work, Henry can move on to those he'd encounter in, for the most part, his private life.

III. The Third Booke.

Be carefull then, my Sonne, so to frame all your indifferent actions and outward behauiour, as they may serue for the furtherance and forth-setting of your inward vertuous disposition.

The minutious scrutinization of kings would mean all manner of innocuous comments and mannerisms get magnified and interpreted, potentially even swaying public opinion or, more's the point, influencing the behavior of the people themselves. This obnoxious if unavoidable fact of accessible leadership stretches even into "indifferent actions", James notes, but what exactly are those? The king has made a neat division: indifferent actions are either necessary or unnecessary (though convenient and lawful). The necessary class includes the daily inescapable: eating, sleeping, clothing27, speaking, writing28, and gesture. The convenient and lawful, but not necessary: pastimes, exercises, and the "using of company for recreation"29.

The mores and norms of the royal table are foremost on this list for the reason that they reach a larger amount and a wider variety of people than any other. Eating in groups is to be embraced. One of the marks of tyranny, says James, is the tendency to prefer eating alone, not to mention its suggestion that the diner seeks solitude for the sake of greedily overindulging in a manner that would bring him shame were there an audience. James is fairly ascetic in his advice regarding food itself; sauces, he says, are more like medicine than food30. The king warns against gluttony, recalling the aspersions cast on the ancient Athenian Philoxenus31. Business, the king notes, should never be conducted at the table, and "pleasant, quicke, but honest discourses" are preferred. It's by now quite a common complaint that people spend more time eating alone, or at the table but not talking, or merely gossiping and making each other hate the holiday meals that serve as the last remnants of communal feasting.

Correct conduct in the bedchamber likely doesn't strike quite so many modern nerves, though I'm sure it's still contrary to the daily experience of many. It revolves around learning to fit sleep and fatigue to one's affairs, not fitting one's affairs to the cycles of sleep. James notes that such discipline is especially needed in times of war. He dismisses the supposed importance and meaning of dreams, advising against the attempt to interpret them. The need for trustworthy and discreet attendants in the bedchamber is revisited; Henry must insist that those who wash and dress him are "without blemish". And in dressing, James prescribes a bevy of rules mostly consisting of what not to do, in a strange departure from his usual care to enumerate goodness. In fact the passages addressing costume bear the biggest contextual crutch, which is impressive given the heavy and overt religious overtones. With stern admonitions to shun over-complicated, wrongly-accentuating clothes, you'd almost expect James to appear in something like a wool-lined, plain pyjama with "Ye King" embroidered over the chest. And yet,

james-fashion-week

But I guess fashion's fickleness is nothing new. Good security, however, is eternal. James says to have good arms and armor about himself at court, and to take special care to avoid and forbid "toilsome" weapons and "traiterous defensiue" armor, like "plate-sleeues and such-like unseen" pieces. The old Scots fashion32, he asserts, is best.

Speech and writing mark the return of advice more likely to be of broad utility; both call for plainness of form. Oration is broken without gesture, neither of which should rest on artifice --advice plenty of current "speakers" who seem to be stuck pushing around imaginary boxes while intoning after Philip Glass could use to serious benefit. Specifically, "iowking"33 and nodding are fashionable orational gestures to be avoided, characteristic as they are of "aspiring Absaloms"34 than "rightful kings". James plainly indicts effeminate and mignard terms in speech and writing; girly men, we presume, ought to get back in the kitchen and make him an unsauced steak35. He marks that the language of reasoning is very different from that of official pronouncements and writs, but notes that this does not mean the latter should not be reasoned about first. Unofficial writing, if Henry wishes to publish such, should be edited by skilled men, and the prince is entreated to write in his own tongue, as "there is nothing left to be saide in Greeke and Latine alreadie". And if approaching poetry, of which James himself published some, Henry should remember that the rhyming itself is not what's important, but the quality of devices, such that if "shaken sundrie in prose", would still be good.

Only the unnecessary, indifferent activities are left to us. Admire how this category, minor in name as well as substance, comes last, as well it should, and wonder with me: is the serene appreciation of proper structure a blessing of comprehension or a curse of otherwise rotten environment? At any rate, James encourages exercise principally as a means to ward off the evils of idleness, and also as a means of keeping the royal body limber for travel and war. Good exercises include palle maille (Pall Mall, a precursor of croquet), dancing, leaping, and field games. Best of all are those performed on horseback, especially the tilt, the ring, and low-riding for handling of the sword (various types of jousting events). Hunting is good, but is to be done with hounds, as guns and even bows are the tools of thieves. Hawking is inferior to hunting, James says, because it is less like warfare, and worse still, apparently, can be very frustrating36 --but it's still permissible.

Cards, dice, and other "sitting house-pastimes" aren't forbidden, because while some men find their ruin therein, and the games train neither mind nor body, they at least prevent the horror of idleness, and so present an acceptable activity in times of rain or moodiness. Chess, however, James describes as overly wise and philosophical, too smart for its own good; Henry would be better off considering his affairs of state. Gambling at any game is to be done only for fun, and the sums wagered should be written off mentally at the time of the wager, and constitute no more than the gambler would be happy to tip someone. To these broadly wise and oft-neglected rules James adds the instruction never to cheat, and ultimately, if the prince cannot abide by each of these points, he should abstain from gambling altogether.

James calls upon his friend Guillame de Salluste Du Bartas37 to illustrate why Henry should not seek to play musical instruments and especially not those which lay people use to make their livings: "Leur esprit s'en fuit au bout des doigts" (their spirits fly from their fingertips). Acting is similarly frowned upon as is keeping comedians and dancers in the royal retinue. It seems Thalia and Melpomene were thoroughly devalued by "Tyrans" who "delighted most in them", and so they're tucked away from acceptable Scottish court life. Possibly the performing arts were simply too rife with loose women, and would make James' warning against them too difficult to follow: "And chiefly abstaine from haunting before your mariage, the idle companie of dames, which are nothing else, but irritamenta libidinis". James had a series of prettyboy favorites, who supposedly helped him circumvent this rule. It's not that one couldn't see the attraction, especially in the countenance of the most prominent, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham --but why not teach his son this trick?

James reservedly anticipates that his son will eventually sit on the English, as well as the Scottish throne, and so counsels that the prince follow the indifferent customs of whatever land under his rule which he deems most civil, trusting that proper adoption among the people will take place over time through the intermingling of the kingdoms --forcing cultural assimilation is out of the question. He notes the "inuiolated amity" between himself and (his cousin) Queen Elizabeth at that point, viewing it as a foreshadowing of pleasant coexistence and the healing of old wounds.

Whether the prince's present actions are indifferent, exercised in his office, or as part of his quest to understand the world and himself, James reminds him to let his actions belie the righteousness and virtue of his heart. Writing from a reign that saw considerable, objective turmoil, James tells his son to be constant in his resolution. To achieve this, he must think of the body as a microcosm for potential of action: he has two eyes to discern, two ears to hear both sides of a dispute, and yet one tongue to plainly pronounce; one head and heart to stay himself, and hands and feet with many digits for swift execution of his decisions38. The king's greatest glory, he says, is to advance the good within his land, a precept useful to all. Should Henry wish to think himself fully in his father's favor, he is to always remember the gravity of his duties, and to make their carrying out with sincerity and justice the chief aim of his efforts. James signs the work with encouragements from the Aeneid's Anchises telling his son Aeneas how to steer himself:

"Excudent alij spirantia mollius aera,
Credo equidem, & viuos ducent de marmore vultus,
Orabunt causas melius, caelique meatus
Describent radio, & surgentia sydera dicent.
Tu; regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(Hae tibi erunt artes) pacique imponere morem,
"Parcere subiectis, & debellare superbos."

Which we'll let Williams give as

"Let others melt and mould the breathing bronze
To forms more fair, --aye! out of marble bring
Features that live; let them plead causes well;
Or trace with pointed wand the cycled heaven,
And hail the constellations as they rise;
But thou, O Roman, learn with sovereign sway
To rule the nations. Thy great art shall be
To keep the world in lasting peace, to spare
humbled foe, and crush to earth the proud."

Anchises gave this counsel to his son in the Elysian fields; for all James' seemingly genuine belief in Christianity, he was wise enough to spare his son the journey towards hell to find his own guiding words. Seasoned with some measure of bias owing to the time and place, the Basilikon Doron nevertheless provides a useful collection of ideas; ideas that are old, ideas that are basic, but ideas which are honest and considered, preserving their breath of life and making them a treasure for modern readers just as they were doubtless treasures for James' successor.

A well-structured read, drawn from the bitter experience and sublime repose of James himself and a litany of rulers and wise men before him, the text is essential for any endeavor to understand its time in the stretch of history, or the meaning of able, effective guardianship. For while parents may not choose the ways in which their children prosper (or fail to do so), they may form the latticework for greatness. If they are lucky, they may be followed by people worthy of their wisdom. And if they're not, perhaps still, in lines less linear, they may find willing prosperity reaching out to receive their gifts in barren times, in trying lands.

* * *

  1. Of Scotland and England, respectively, though this work predates Elizabeth I's death and James' subsequent ascension to the English throne by a few years. []
  2. Consider the logs: what if, horror of horrors, we had been sitting at table together this entire time, speaking but not writing? Even if we still had the deeds on record, and blog articles were set down in ink, what would you do if you had to make a speech at, say, a heathen bitcoin gathering? What if you wanted to write a v-patch for the first time, or the first time in a while? What if you were considering a journey at sea? You're going to remember all of that, seriously? Yes, it was important at the time, and behold that there were even parables and other devices to help you recall. And yet.... []
  3. Admittedly this last is squarely in the Basilikon Doron's purview; Pepys rarely if ever ventures more than a coincidental snippet of Latin. []
  4. James Stuart, forgive the equivocation for the sake of surnominal uniformity if you will. []
  5. A pleasure well-known, of course, by any diligent Trilema reader --and I hope the similarities between the titular work and Popescu's far more encompassing, ongoing opus aren't lost on anyone. Treasure those sources that insist on regular, correct reference, and which do not shy away from discussing the uncomfortable or inconvenient. They are the legacy of their time for posterity, and whatever personal opinions you imagine you have are utterly irrelevant. []
  6. My attempt at organizing the prose:

    "Scriptures"

    I. "Olde Testament"

    a. Is concerned with the "Lawe"

    i. Which man cannot keep, and which

    ii. "Sheweth sinne", and "containeth iustice", given in

    ii.a. The ten commandments,

    ii.a.i. the obedience and disobedience of which is given in the Histories

    ii.a.ii. and as related by Moses

    ii.a.ii.i. as he is interpreted and applied by the Prophets

    II. "New Testament"

    a. Is concerned with Christ

    i. Whom god send to save man, and who

    ii. "Pardoning sinne, containeth grace",

    iii. And whose birth, life, death, and resurrection is contained in the four histories,

    iii.a. found in the Epistles of the Apostles and

    iii.b. the practice of which is found in the Actes

    []

  7. Note the implicit distinction between actions and ruminations. Note also the weight of this implicitness; whereas it didn't need to be stated that feelings weren't of much interest at the time --even in a broad didactic work--, I can recall being coddled and coerced into "considering my feelings" as some sort of conscience mod-podging activity from a pretty young age, and I'd wager most contemporaries can say the same. []
  8. Do you think this is an oxymoron? []
  9. Believe all days that dawn upon you are the last. []
  10. These draughts upon antiquity, by no means limited to this section, are already well-documented in the source text linked above, and I see no reason to be selectively redundant by reproducing them --but inasmuch as the Basilikon Doron is proposed as a sturdy trunk for study, these all make excellent choices for further investigation. []
  11. Trajan is said to have described the first five years of Nero's reign as being better than that of any other emperor, a contention fairly perplexing given Nero's populism and generally accepted incompetence. James seems to use the reference as an egregious example of broadly-appeasing yet ultimately doomed attempts to appear clement. []
  12. The man has a preoccupation with the distinction between treatment of bad things done on purpose and bad things done without the intention of doing harm, which I suppose pervades in the difference, say, between punishment for murder and manslaughter. Given that he's the land's supreme font of justice, it stands to reason that he'd be so preoccupied, though somehow his advice to his son that he enact mercy on those who commit wrongdoing in the absense of premeditation stands to my eyes in great contrast against the reasoning of the rest of the work. Perhaps it's simply the form of the idea, or the lack of greater detail, that yields this effect, but in any case I was struck by the (multiple) appeals of forgiveness for otherwise unqualified "rash" evil while reading. []
  13. On one hand, one wonders what fuck (pun intended, tax me) incest is supposed to be if it's not about consanguinity. On the other, this'd seem a pretty tall order, given his paternal grandmother was the half-sister of his maternal grandfather. The quick and I'm sure correct way to resolve both of these lies in scope: it must be the case that consanguinity for the context means siblings, and that incest also involves cousins, and that otherwise half-relations don't count, or at least, they don't count once or twice removed. I'd be surprised if there wasn't a large body of work at the time on who may have sex with whom and how, but beyond the amusement of this shallow snippet I don't really have much interest. []
  14. Heh. []
  15. Check out Reformation-era anger management strategies here! []
  16. Catholic clergymen were booted from Parliament in the mid-sixteenth century following the Scottish Reformation; laymen landed in the vacuum created by the wealth of Catholic monasteries, and though they sat for parliament, there was no denying their belonging to the second estate, the nobility. Some sprinkling of Protestant bishops remained, but the paradigm was broken, and despite attempts to restore the first estate's footing, James didn't manage. []
  17. The blue flag of the Incorporated Trades Guild. It seems James had union problems. []
  18. Sadly, and uncharacteristically, he does not see fit to cite or recommend anything in particular to this end. []
  19. I carried over this faux pas from my hand-written notes, where I had absent-mindedly written "guy" and immediately felt the coincidental but still very strong insult to the author it implied. "A penny for the guy", that bit of harmless beggary by children dressed up in masks and hoping for a spot of spare change with which to buy fireworks for Guy Fawkes' Night is where the epithet originated. And who was Guy? Remember, remember, the guy who did, by all accounts, an exemplary job of standing up to inquiry and torture following his involvement in one of the many plots to murder...King James VI and I. And his family. And his parliament. Oops. []
  20. I suppose this is as good a place as any to point out, as some will doubtless recall and others will know for the first time within a context fully supportive of the fact's sadness, that young Henry died before coming into his throne. At eighteen years of age, with his parents still well, and during the marriage celebrations of his sister, Henry contracted typhoid fever and ruined the hopes of a great many of his would-be subjects (and, of course, those of his father). By all accounts, he was an accomplished student, possessed of the curiosity and conscientious fortitude that foreshadow a good monarch. In short, he seemed the ideal pupil of and for this text, but it was his misfortune to live in a time when handwashing wasn't much understood or prioritized. Allegedly, King James refused to attend the funeral. Henry's younger brother Charles became James' heir. []
  21. Had this reduced to actual, sound advice in washing, rather than the implicit interdict against fucking, possibly Henry would've been alive and crowned and with a satisfied wife? The irony here's a little too thick to avoid this moral anachronism, I can't help it. In fact, if anything could be said to counter the true gift of this text, I'd propose it's this line --blameless, in context, as it knew no harm by simple reason of humanity's failure by that point to have discovered sanitation, but still at fault. I suppose I see, after all, why I ought to judge "unwilfull" crimes with mercie. Fancy that! []
  22. Hey, they do wear matching hats, I can see it. []
  23. If you imagine the quotation marks are snarky or cute or at any rate think they're anything other than dead serious, go re-read The Crime of Being American. Yes, that means twice, if it's new. Do you still live there? Read it again. []
  24. Cyrus the Great, King of the World, among his many other titles, founded the first Persian Empire in 559 BCE. Xenophon's Cyropaedia, written a couple hundred years later, is a delightful account of the ruler's deeds and their context. Xenophon includes rather compelling cause to have written (and in turn, naturally, for you to read) the work:

    "...We were inclined to conclude that for man, as he is constituted, it is easier to rule over any and all other creatures than to rule over men. But when we reflected that there was one Cyrus, the Persian, who reduced to obedience a vast number of men and cities and nations, we were then compelled to change our opinion and decide that to rule men might be a task neither impossible nor even difficult, if one should only go about it in an intelligent manner. At all events, we know that people obeyed Cyrus willingly, although some of them were distant from him a journey of many days, and others of many months; others, although they had never seen him, and still others who knew well that they never should see him. Nevertheless they were all willing to be his subjects."

    Xenophon describes the stages in which men are trained and put to use in the Persia of Cyrus' youth. Up until the age of puberty, boys are schooled together in the "free square" wherein the various government buildings, including the palace, are located. They arrive each day at dawn, and learn justice, "just as in [Greece] they say that they go to learn to read and write". They spend their time launching charges at one another, and learn from older men how to judge and punish them, and indeed they are punished according to the findings. The passage James refers to in order to illustrate the difference between justice and equity is found in section 1.3.17, in which Cyrus' grandfather, the King of Media, invites the boy to come live with him, and when his mother asks how he will learn justice if he's away from his school, Cyrus states he understands it thoroughly. "How so?", his mother asks.

    "'Because', said he, 'my teacher appointed me, on the ground that I was already thoroughly versed in justice, to decide cases for others also. And so, in one case', said he, 'I once got a flogging for not deciding correctly. The case was like this: a big boy with a little tunic, finding a little boy with a big tunic on, took it off him and put his own tunic on him, while he himself put on the other's. So, when I tried their case, I decided that it was better for them both that each should keep the tunic that fitted him. And thereupon the master flogged me, saying that when I was a judge of a good fit, I should do as I had done; but when it was my duty to decide whose tunic it was, I had this question, he said, to consider --whose title was the rightful one; whether it was right that he who took it away by force should keep it, or that he who had had it made for himself or had bought it should own it. And since, he said, what is lawful is right and what is unlawful is wrong, he bade the judge always render his verdict on the side of the law."

    Two thousand years ago. Rounding down. You know? []

  25. Nobility, royalty, make whatever protests you wish; ancient historians describing these deeds only considered as "people" those who owned land and sat as representatives, which is why Xenophon reports the population of the entire Persian Empire to be around 150k. Much like the morons responsible for the collapse of the ROTA would like to imagine they're "people" on the basis of I don't know, having held some bitcoin, or that they "tried", or whatever. []
  26. Plutarch, in his Life of Marcellus, accounts that Archimedes was studying "some problem with the aid of a diagram" while the Romans sacked his native Syracuse after a two-year siege during the second punic war. So absorbed by his work was Archimedes that he was neither aware of the battling nor the city's impending demise. []
  27. I'd class this with the "unnecessary though convenient", as that's exactly what it is unless one lives in extreme climates. []
  28. And I'd say he's right, here; clothing is an unnecessary convenience, but writing is necessary. []
  29. This is later described in terms of playing cards and the like. Do you think James mentally counted sex in this category, or the other? Or maybe (likely, even) he never even tried to fit it into this scheme, god and wifery making it something other than "indifferent"? Do you suppose this mis-categorization has anything to do with the truckload of bizarre assumptions and hangups people have with sex? []
  30. A notion dominant in the description of the admirability of Cyrus' ancient Persians, offered in part as explanation of their superiority over Media etc. James notes the Romans similarly regarded sauce as vice. []
  31. An infamous gourmand hated for his habit of roving from home to home with a train of condiment-bearing slaves, seasoning others' dishes to his own taste and consuming them, as well as for what James calls "his filthie wish of a Crane-craig", a bird's nest delicacy. I sank a good hour into attempting the deciphering of this last bit until giving up and petitioning Mt. Popescus, which mulled it over a half-beat or so and promptly sent the answer back in a lightningbolt of whoa. []
  32. By which is meant a maille hauberk and some manner of helm, lest someone imagine the whole kilt-socks-and-golf-hat caricature is seriously proposed. []
  33. From its usage in contemporary Scots works I take this to mean "yoking", something akin to the very movement I described above with imaginary boxes; two necks are joined together with the hands in that emphatic, usually meaningless dance of the hands. []
  34. The biblical Absalom, King David's hot and populist but ultimately traiterous son. []
  35. I wouldn't recommend the filet mignon. []
  36. I wonder if this means this rather enchanting portrait evoked for James annoyance rather than the great fun it looks to me:

    james-mini-hawk

    . []

  37. Du Bartas' La Sepmaine, a poem describing the creation of the world, was wildly popular on the continent, and his success in Scotland and England is largely due to James' appreciation and invitations to his court. []
  38. Considering the body in this way would likely bolster talent in acting and playing instruments, sadly. Perhaps, after all, James' injunction against such sports was rather akin to his disdain of chess; being too distracting and ripe with opportunities for wandering off from daily duties, these pursuits were not a good match for heavily burdened officers. []

A Little Bit of TinyScheme, a Lot of Cozonac

Monday, November 25th, 2019

There are few things as quintessentially Romanian, to my mind, as cozonac; the golden, nut-swirled, babka-like pastry dolled up and drummed out into the daylight for the two major Eastern Orthodox holidays. Then again, I'm not even so sure it's actually Romanian. Cozonac's one of those things that most states in the region boast as being their own, right up there with moussaka, smoked eggplant salad, goulash, and stuffed cabbage rolls. The diacritics and thus pronunciations may change, but not much else does. I guess it's proper, then, to introduce cozonac as an Eastern European thing, and to point out its specific spelling is Romanian.

Now that we've gotten there, we can promptly throw out a good half of what Romanians, and Eastern Europeans at large for that matter, think they know about cozonac. There are two main problems: the first's that folks don't put nearly as much of the awesome chocolate-walnut filling in their loaves of cozonac as they ought to1, and the second's that they put way, way, WAY too much sugar in it. A fairly common artifact of modern processed diets, the whole "dessert means heaps of sugar laced with occasional other ingredients" fanaticism is a hoary old positive feedback loop.

Thus armed with spite and sparseness, we can proceed to actually make some of this stuff. Except that I wanted to try out Mircea Popescu's image processor for blog articles, and also jfw's version of the same. Except! It turns out the box I'm using for publishing doesn't have Image Magick, required for both tools. An' I'm not happy about installing things --at all, much less things I don't know much about to "just get it to work". I do have Gimp, though, which was what I'd been using to process my pictures manually. And! It turns out Gimp uses TinyScheme, which wouldn't be a total waste of time to muck in a little as it's an interpreter of a dialect of Lisp, and maybe not too many layers removed from relevancy to learning to use some tools likely to survive the Republic's reckoning, thereby.

The following gets saved as batch-scaler.scm, to be placed in the ~/.gimp2/scripts directory:

(define (batch-scaler pattern
			new-width
			new-height)
	(let* ((filelist (cadr (file-glob pattern 1))))
		(while (not (null? filelist))
			(let* ((filename (car filelist))
				(image (car (gimp-file-load RUN-NONINTERACTIVE
								filename filename)))
				(drawable (car (gimp-image-get-active-layer image))))
			(gimp-image-scale image new-width new-height)
			(gimp-file-save RUN-NONINTERACTIVE image drawable filename filename)
			(gimp-image-delete image))
		(set! filelist (cdr filelist)))))

Note that I've put extraneous spaces between all multiple parentheses; you'll have to take these out. If someone has a better idea for preventing MPWP's cannonical footnote plugin from interpreting lisp parentheses as footnotes, please write in. The very MP in question has a fix for this in the comments, works splendidly.

Running it goes like so, from the directory where your selected but otherwise raw pictures are:

gimp -i -b '(batch-scaler "*.JPG" 1024 638)' -b '(gimp-quit 0)'

I scale my images when I re-size them, so I grabbed gimp-image-scale from the "Script-Fu Procedure Browser" and worked it into a batch processor, which goes through a glob of files according to the pattern given when running it (as long as the glob isn't empty) and then without loading the Gimp GUI, loads the pictures themselves, selects the drawable part, scales them according to whatever's set when running, saves them, and deletes the originals.

Some important problems: this only works for landscape-oriented images; you could pick out portraits, put them in a different folder and run this on them with different size parameters, but that's not so efficient. If I figure it out, I'll update this article, otherwise if anyone would care to modify this, please do. Ideally the width should be set to 1024 while preserving the aspect ratio, rather than manually specifying the length, too, regardless of orientation. Another thing to consider is that this creates one set of images, not a display size and larger size pair as in MP's process. Further, this just overwrites the images and saves them as such; the file-jpeg-save function takes fourteen, FOURTEEN, parameters, and I really can't be assed. So once the above is done,

ls -v | cat -n | while read n f; do mv -n "$f" "cozo-$n.jpg"; done

Then you can proceed to upload them as normal.

Anyway, I was saying: let's make cozonac. The instructions below are for two loaves, because who does this laborious stuff one output item at a time?!

First comes the filling. I typically make the filling the night before as it needs to cool completely before being used, otherwise it'll make steam pockets in the dough and fuck up the whole thing. Grind about a half kilogram of walnuts3 and add them to a saucepan in which you've dissolved about a tablespoon of brown sugar into 150ml or so of milk over low heat. Keep stirring; you want a paste-like consistency, for which reason you may use a little more or a little less milk. After it's thickened admirably, stir in a little rum.

cozo-1

And five or six tablespoons of unsweetened dark cocoa. Zest an orange or three and stir in the zest, too. Your mixture should be fairly thick, and very nicely scented. Set it aside, or put it in the fridge if you're saving the rest 'til tomorrow.

cozo-2

For the dough, melt 150 or so grams of butter into another 150ml or so of milk. Dump two more tablespoons of brown sugar in there, and once everything's dissolved and incorporated take it off the heat and zest two oranges and a lemon into it, and add some vanilla; either scrape the seeds into it or steep a pod in the milk while it heats, or better yet, do both.

cozo-3

Also while you're waiting for the temperature to drop, get something like 2/3rds of a kilogram of bread flour into a big bowl, add a pinch of salt, a teaspoon each of cinnamon and nutmeg, a handful or so of the best raisins you can find, and plenty --that's around 6 grams-- of dry yeast, and distribute it all evenly.4

cozo-4

Once this concoction's cool enough to touch but still warm, break three eggs into it and stir.

cozo-5

Now dump the wet stuff into the dry stuff, and knead it until it's pliable and doesn't stick to your hands too much. You might need to add a little more flour; not too much though, or your dough will be too tough. Once you're done kneading form the dough into a ball and let it rest in a warm kitchen under a slightly damp towel.

cozo-6

If your kitchen is cold, heat your oven for a few minutes, then turn it off and put the bowl in there. Leaving dough to rise in a cold place is begging for disappointment.

cozo-7

Once your dough has doubled, which should take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half or so, prepare a workspace for rolling. Your filling should be room temperature, either because you've let it cool for several hours or you've taken it out of the fridge a few hours before --note that very cold filling is no good here, as it'll cool the dough for its second rise and you'll be stuck waiting f o r e v e r to get your loaves in the oven.

cozo-8

Oil your countertop/foil-lined table/friend's back/whatever surface, and do the same with your rolling pin/wine bottle. Generously butter two loaf pans and sprinkle them with flour.

Divide your dough into quarters. For each loaf, roll out first one quarter and then the other into rectangles, until they're quite thin but not too thin to pick up. Spread each with a quarter of your filling, leaving small margins at the edges.

cozo-9

Roll these up lengthwise, then twist them together to make a floppy, unwieldy helix; immediately plonk them into the loaf pans before they get any unwieldier.

cozo-10

Brush them with an egg yolk beaten with a bit of milk, and let them rise another hour or two, until they've started to threaten the edges of the pans. Then bake at 200C, preheated if you're stuck with an electric oven, for just about an hour. After fifteen minutes or so in the oven, lightly cover the loaves with aluminum foil to keep the tops from burning.

cozo-11

Let them cool for a few minutes after taking them out, then remove them from the pans and cool them completely, resting on their sides, and switching sides occasionally. There's a delicate juxtaposition of dense chocolaty nuts and light, puffy dough inside --it has to cool down gently and evenly, hence all the elaborate dancing.

cozo-12

Once they're cool, slice and enjoy. Cozonac also freezes very well, and can even be eaten as frozonac, for the adventurous. All in all this is a rather heathen recipe, unlikely to be approved of by most Romanian cooks, who tend towards the strict and unexaminedly-traditional side. It is however highly praised by those whose opinions I actually care about, and owes something to the instruction of Ellie, whose basic discussion of procedure managed to somehow break through very heavy Hallmark-isms, Jesus worship, cups and cups of sugar, and other incompatibles to teach me something.

  1. "Ought to" maps, of course, to as much as MP would like, here. []
  2. I'm using 2.8, fwiw. []
  3. You can also add some measure of pecans, almonds, pistachios, or macadamias, though walnuts are the traditional, and really the best for this recipe. []
  4. You can also use fresh yeast, which imparts a pleasant flavor for those with a taste for it. It'll also cause your dough to rise a little faster, which isn't a bad thing. To do this, mix eight to ten grams of crumbled fresh yeast into the warm milk mixture after you mix in the eggs, which are coming. []

The Right Thing

Sunday, November 3rd, 2019

The right thing fuzzes into being for most people sometime during childhood through some episode or other of a previously unperceived wrong going punished, and describing the right by its difference. Later in adolescence the struggle for the right thing often enough leads to blood and blows, or maybe experimentation with drugs, or running away from home, or what have you. The right thing rules life complete for the adult (not that all that many people mature into adulthood). There's no period of life aside from natality, and no state aside from sloth, exempt from the right thing's dominion --making awareness of the same an arguably decent prerequisite for being actually alive, or human, if you like.

Any familiarity with the Republic makes one likely to load a particular meaning for the right thing; the variety speak points to Republican separation from pretenders who came before, and who (fail to) coexist now, accepting to make their wine with some percentage of shit, to compromise integrity for convenience, and to stand behind nothing but a false-toothed grin. The right thing has often enough been summoned in discussion when ironing out the particularities of a piece of software or the branches and leaves of a system, but its practical and present use in no way cordons it off from its true scope, which is: everything.

Everything, terrifying as that may be. There is always a right thing, though it may not always be known or even approachable. What is anxiety, after all, other than the experience of a human mind confronting the uncaring vastness of the possibility of correct and incorrect? What is philosophy, other than the attempt to codify correct and incorrect, whether from the understanding of the universe, or of man within it, or of god above it, or whatever other angle?

And yet it's not merely the vastness of the right thing that lends to its horror; it is its separateness from us, its objectivity, that makes for who knows how many sleepless nights spent on this spinning globe. The right thing has no connection to what you'd prefer to be the right thing. No influence, no possibility of meaningful exchange, nothing. Neither is it subject to your conceptions, conscious or not, of what could possibly be the right thing, or whether or not you'd be capable of doing or even choosing it. It does not love you. It will never even know your name. Love of the right thing is the quintissential unrequited love; there's just nothing there.

But you love it anyway, because that's who you are --good for you. You're now welcome to spend every waking moment obsessing over which of the paths before you are right, from when and how and why to brush your teeth to which and whether and why not way to climb the stairs and so on and so forth. You're welcome to waste your life (can it be wasted on the right thing? better figure that out before the next question comes!) spending every moment looking for possibilities and choosing amongst them meaningfully and with confidence. Inasmuch as the potential rate of personally experienced phenomena is quite a great deal faster than your fly-brain moving through real time, you're in fact welcome to inevitably fail. Aww. And all you wanted was to do a good job, wasn't it?

A great secret of life, or perhaps it's not a secret and that's merely my personal collection of inadequacies fronting for the past lack of its obviousness to me, is that pretty much everything comes with, and is best described in terms of, two or more data points. You know, you bought fifty litres of gas, and gas is four euros a litre, the sort of details that allow you to get through the practical movements of life with some sense of what you're doing, and why, and how. Living with a solitary data point is the culprit of most states of ignorance and indigence. The same holds true for the right thing, conceptually; it's not just about whether a given thing is the correct one. It's also about whether it matters.

Holy shit, twenty-year old me is ranting furiously in the corner, tearing up bits of the phone book and frothing at the mouth, "what do you mean WHETHER it matters?! It always matters, what the fuck, just that question belies total traitorhood omfg where's the Captain Morgan?!"

For most of my post-pubescent life I held that the most important, sometimes the only important thing, was to always do the right thing. I also held that this wasn't actually possible, but the key benefit of time has been the realization that this impossibility is inherent in the system, and it is not a fundamental flaw of humanity that it cannot physically keep up. Rather, most people lack a way to determine when the right thing matters, and when it doesn't, so much; and manifest in either slovenly stupidity on one end of the spectrum or manic insanity on the other, most people fail at obtaining this second data point.

I'll dare to say now what I've been suspecting for a while, and what would've frightened me ideologically not even so long ago: those that fail at obtaining this second data point, and therefore at doing the right thing appreciably, have fairly clean crossover with those who fail to understand the role of management (or sovereignty, or whatever other mask you care to put on it). Because this is what management is for: to observe your struggle with doing the right thing, and to determine where you're faltering in applying your dedication to it. As a fanatic, you're naturally inclined to find management's determinations arbitrary and punitive. The true task before you is to decide, and to necessarily stand by your decision, as to whether or not the management available to you is sane1. If you're lucky, both the truth of the matter and your determination will be positive. If you're unlucky, one or both will come out with a dull thud.

Ideally, management should need only speak to you its findings to affect your course. Naturally, such smoothness is incredibly rare. How much of historical conflict is the result of the professedly managed needing more than a word to adapt to the determinations of the management? Other than particularities of the "professions" therein, it's necessarily one hundred percent.

I'm not entirely sure where to end here except to state that taking on the burden of both data points is an Atlassian task to which the vast, vast majority of people born on this planet will never be equal. The prayers, the wailings in the night, the starved children, the mangled, stray dogs, the incredible potential of sadness and ruin is but testament to the natural inadequacy of most to provide themselves, and their rings of people, with both data points. There's nothing bad or good about this; it's just the way it is, but I'd hope demonstrably so, for anyone who's had a look around. Be fucking humble, and keep your wits about you, when you encounter those who've assumed such terrible responsibility. The latter, because a great portion of even these will be bad; and the former, because there's nothing worthier of your time and your blood than those who are great.

  1. Yes, this means at some point T before the shit's hitting the fans so fast you're not advised to "decide" much of anything, just keep mopping. And yes, you are held to verify this decision now and again, as a regular part of your self-hygiene --but as a regular part, not as a reaction to managerial determinations you don't like. []

Blistering Choice

Friday, May 10th, 2019

The very thought of the development of the specific psychopathies over time is enough to make me sick. Imagine the movement through a lifetime of a worm, acquiring in slow succession now antennae, now carbuncles, now splotches and hairs, complicated feet and feet for the feet themselves, ever multiplying in sickening mathematical complexity until there's nothing in particular that can be focused upon. All you can do as an observer is zoom in or zoom out, and every movement is edged in razors.

At first it was a sweet dream. There was something so simple, so round, about the correctness of things, about the possibility even of correctness. Only being able to imagine that there was some difference between paths, that there was meaning in action just as there was meaning in inaction, was revolutionary. It was the answer to all problems, and the light in all tunnels.

But there is no choice as to scope or context. For loving what is right you are not able to prefer it sometimes, or in some places. There is only where it leads you, of its own accord, by some laws you'll never know, by some laws that cannot be known. There is no guarantee that the entirety of life will be spent any other way than being compelled to love the correctness of the clutching of a sponge. And in truth, why should it really be any different? Whether something is large or small, simple or complex, whether it takes a great deal to comprehend or even see it or it appears as though a speck, a blip on the map of an existence, what does it matter to someone devoted to the thing itself?

And yet it can. And yet it can, terribly. It can matter to the extent that nothing else does, and the correct sponge holding becomes as a hateful fact, a thing utterly loathed and dreadful to think about, idol and paragon of everything wrong and unhappy. The silence and space around small things is too much to stomach, too much to mouth, even. It encroaches and grows and mocks, leaving the observer stultified and saddened, without material for anything at all. With no material, themselves, in or out. A shell, if you could call it that, for there's not all that much defining the borders after a while. Just a sort of gas that moves around, maybe, for unclear reasons, and to unclear ends.

You do not get to choose. The shape of what a dream looks like is a trap inasmuch as it contains any detail. The slightest detail at all is a lie, is a shackle waiting to ensnare the dreamer somewhere along the way, killing both their movement through the dream and their ability to wake up. Why should precision be quite so deadly? Supposedly specificity is a great boon, is a prime tool towards the development or manifestation of anything, anything at all. And yet, what can really be manifested in the presence of specificity? Only the hollow, aching death of the thing that was actually planned for.

Not knowing isn't better. Not caring is the only thing. But why would one dream if one didn't care? What's to dream about if you care about nothing? To dream of nothing itself, maybe, like a monk. Like a monk who sits, a dipole in the atmosphere, producing nothing.

It is in the network of rot of all of this that the insects appear, all fat, horribly articulated bellies and iridescent wings. What better place for such creatures to infest than a tangled nest of grief and contradiction. What experience, exactly, is one supposed to have from within an itching mess that can't be seen out of? The experience of prurience with blindness, the constant removal of one's own skin, the constant irritation to grow more calluses where the old ones were painfully scratched away.

Wellington Schmellington

Friday, October 27th, 2017

Pork Wellington is a dish created by a certain gourmand and which I especially appreciate for its competent obfuscation of that off-copper, sub-glottal twinge that typically assaults one attempting to finish their liver1. It's pretty much a roast-in-crust, with the more common beef tenderloin swapped out for pork, and the pate made with chicken rather than goose liver, which is also deeply spiced.

Make the pastry first so it can sit in the fridge while everything else gets going. Follow a basic pate brisee method, but sift in some baking powder before you cut in the butter. Smoosh it into a disk and let it chill so it's easier to roll later.

wellington-1

Next make the pate. Dump about a kilo of fresh chicken liver into a big pot of boiling water and get ready to lose some of your enthusiasm about eating this thing later on (don't worry, it'll come back). Sorting through your livers to discard any gallbladders that might've gotten in there before this point is a good idea. A few drops of whatever vinegar you have on hand will help tame the smell and aid coagulation in the pot.

wellington-2

Keep it roiling for half an hour, then drain the stuff and dump it into a bowl with your spice mixture, which should contain around ten grams of allspice berries with black and white peppercorns to taste, finely ground. Mash these up with a fork, adding a pat of butter now and then to achieve a thick, clumpy velvet sort of texture. Remove any whitish membrane threads you find during this procedure. Once you're happy with the texture, add a few spoonfulls of fermented dairy --I used plain yogurt and some splashes of kefir, though sour cream would also work. This'll make the pate easily spreadable, a paste rather than a stucco.

wellington-3

Now it's time to sear your steak; heat a pan to suparhot with some butter, and brown the tenderloin on all sides, giving the whole thing no more than two minutes or so, then transfer it to a plate to cut the heat.

wellington-4

Your components now prepared, you can proceed to roll out the dough; try to make a shape that more or less echoes that of the tenderloin. Spread about half of the pate on the dough, leaving a goodly margin as below, then plop the seared tenderloin on top. Slather on the rest of the pate2. At this point you'd typically spangle the log3 with sliced mushrooms, but I opted to make a bechamel of dried porcinis instead. A sprinkling of fresh thyme leaves works well, too.

wellington-5

Anyway, wrap the thing up like any other package, taking care not to get much of any overlap of the dough, else it'll end up too thick in places. Seal on top or along the sides, brush with an eggwash, slash a few holes, and stick it in the oven around 190C for about 50 minutes.

wellington-6

Pork Wellington is best eaten with his dearest friends in tow: Sir Worchestershire, Herr Rottkohl, and Madamme Bordeaux.

  1. As part of some grand cosmic joke I'm not in on, the only working remedy for my interminable affair with anemia is weekly consumption of ~half a kilo of chicken liver, which I initally found abhorrent and by now swallow with only somewhat of a frown. []
  2. Depending on the "about" of your kilo of liver and the size of your tenderloin, you might end up with too much pate --you don't want to go thicker than about a third of an inch. If you end up with extra, put it in a glass jar in the fridge and enjoy with tomorrow's toast or whatever, tell your sister you've discovered a fabulous "hair masque" she just has to try. []
  3. Masturbatory euphemism not intended. []

If at first you don't succeed, scoop it into the garbage and ask how many cups of stupid you threw in there.

Friday, September 26th, 2014

I made a failed cake yesterday. I loathe few things more than failed foodstuffs, but like most anything, they require a bit of failure now and then to season a person into sanity. It was a pineapple upside-down cake, and while a specific procedural error led to the failure, the real cause of the soupy, inedible (but still quite deliciously fragrant, because fuck me) disaster that flowed out of my pan was a momentary preference for not thinking.

In general I don't use recipes when cooking, though only yesterday did I really understand why. Inasmuch as a recipe presents itself as a complete set of instructions and a material rider, it offers a replacement for thinking, if you're prone to succumbing to that sort of thing. So a recipe for pineapple upside-down cake that calls for fresh fruit and doesn't mention the need to wring the juice from the cut pieces nor to evaporate extra juice with a long, slow, caramel-covered sauna over low flame is a recipe for sludge --similar to the substance occupying the space between your ears as you mindlessly list-check and step yourself along.

Here's version one, in all its abortive glory:
bad cake

The conversation upon opening the springform went something like this:

Person Promised Cake: "So...how many cups of water did you put in here?"
Me: "...water?! There's no water."
PPC: "You put some water in here. Some liquid with water in it."
Me: "Uh, well the caramel had like a tablespoon of cognac in it...the batter had around four."
PPC: "Nah, you put like a cup of water in here."

I was incredulous and combative until the virgin pineapple was finally dragged on stage. This'd be another symptom of eschewing thinking for the instructions. It didn't call for a cup of water, I didn't just randomly throw uncalled for things in, obviously I didn't put a cup, a whole cup, even, of water in there! Except I did, because the poor pineapple is simply going to do what it does without a care for what should be or what someone else assumed it'd do.

It's not that cooking can't be learned in the presence of recipes, just as it's not true that math can't be done with calculators. The problem is that relying on such things to do one's thinking for oneself is a quick ticket to amorphous mush, of whatever kind follows from the inputs. I never knew what the fuck I was doing with basic math until I stopped using calculators and did things in my head, and I only learned how to cook well when I became actively engaged in making new things, which absolutely as a first step requires thinking. Faking understanding with tools may go unpunished for a while, especially in an environment marked by mickey mouse tests and tasters and "scores" that reflect what should be rather than what is. Math, cake, or anything else, though --it'll fall apart at some point, and the more you seek to find fault with the tools rather than with yourself, the worse it'll be.

Here's version two, which landed upside down cake firmly in my repertoire:
good cake

It's a banal accomplishment in the grand scheme of things, but served as an important reminder of the wasteful stupidity of tuning out, and of the pernicious poison of poorly-chosen submission.

Soup's On

Saturday, October 13th, 2012

Today I watched a pot boil. Immature as it may sound, I nevertheless find a little piece of pleasure in checking on a pot just before it hits the boiling point, proving the old adage wrong. I suspect we grow up with too many adages, whether they're formalized or not.

The pot I watched began to bubble and stir around various herbs of its own momentum; I was making soup. I've been making soups and having a bowl almost every day for a few years now. One of the major differences between cooking and eating in the US and in Romania is that here, there's always soup on offer, and generally it's eaten before the dinner meal. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've had soup before dinner back home. When I came to Romania, the tradition seemed insignificant --soup was more like this needless and boring thing, and it took me forever to make one, not to mention that I had no real idea of what to put into a pot. Today I make them in about twenty minutes, and a pot's good for me and company for three to four days. It's splendid how a good soup fills the house with the inviting scent of herbs and vegetables. It aids digestion. It's filling enough that it gracefully encourages eating smaller meals throughout the day. And while the cost varies according to season and what exactly I'm making, that three to four day pot runs ~$4.

In many parts of the world, soup is absolutely integral; in some areas soups are served in parlors specifically for the purpose of gathering people together to have a small repast and enjoy a game of backgammon or discuss whatever ongoing concern. Soup's good if you're sick or if you're well, whether you're old and frail or young, whether you have a meager grocery budget or want to try something epicurious. It's even been suggested that the proliferation of modern restaurants has as its original raison d'ĂȘtre the provision of soups for the public. The staple's been commercialized to all hell, of course, and cans of soup take up a big piece of your given grocery store aisle now, but I think the shortcomings of processed soup were largely to blame for my disinterest in the dish before I started to make it myself. When you make your own soup, you're free to put in exactly what you want, leave out what you don't, and perhaps most importantly, avoid all the preservative, chemical crap your body certainly doesn't need.

There are a few things you absolutely need for good soup, and a variety of things that can help but which aren't totally necessary. In that first category, perhaps the most important would be a good pot. Thick-bottomed, able to hold a gallon or more, and with a securely-fitting lid, preferably vented. And then you've got to have some ingredients. But there aren't really any absolutes. It's a good idea to have a basic herb garden (as it is within the context of all cooking). I grow a couple of pots of basil, and one each of rosemary, tarragon, and mint, though depending on your taste and your light situation you might also grow some coriander, fennel, thyme, or dill. Lovage, which doesn't seem too popular in the States, is absolutely wonderful, with a slightly sweet, broadly herbal taste that incorporates notes of licorice. I tried to grow it on my balcony this year, and learned the hard way that local birds apparently think it's some sort of ambrosia. I went out one morning and found my plants completely severed at the stalks, and caught a bird hopping around now and then checking out the damage to see if there were any scraps left. Next year I'll have a proper battle plan. I round out what I grow with what's in my cupboard. Paprika (which I wish was available smoked here, but they haven't quite caught on yet despite the fact that next-door Hungary is the preeminent producer of paprika), parsley, black, white, pink, and green peppercorns, powdered ginger and rosemary, coriander seeds, cumin, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, whole nutmeg, lemongrass, curry leaves, whole allspice, cayenne, oregano, and bay leaves make up the bulk of my stash and often find their way into soups in different teams.

Then you'll need liquids. This summer and fall I've been using plain old tap water for my soups, which is great when fresh vegetables are available at the market. In winter months, or if the goal is something particularly special, a stock is in order. I haven't yet found any prepared stocks here that are sane; there's a plethora of over-salted, hydrogenated fat-laden stocks that I won't touch, so I make my own stocks. For chicken and beef you'll need some bones, a little lean meat if you want, and some basic vegetables (carrots, a whole onion, celery root or stalks) and some bay. Simmer these in a big pot of water for a few hours, skimming off any foam on the surface, and discard the solids. For seafood, get some shellfish husks. For vegetable, follow the chicken/beef bit above but obviously omit the meat and bones. You can pour well-reduced stock into ice cube trays and freeze it, which gives you better quantity control.

By now, all you have to do is pick some core ingredients, like diced or pureed vegetables and/or bits of meat, and maybe some pasta, add your herbs and you're done. In Romania a lot of soups are heavily modified at the table, with lemon wedges, sour cream, hot peppers, and so forth. I like to eat the following soup with a splash of whole milk and a little bit of Sriracha (oh Cholula hot sauce, how I miss thee). So here's a soup I've been feasting on all summer, a welcomely sweet and herbal pause in the bitter iron-heavy diet I've slowly been phasing out as I get over some devilish anemia.

Summer Soup

Bring a pot of water to boil, and throw in sufficient salt, pink peppercorns*, paprika, turmeric, and ground fennel and fenugreek seeds. While the water heats up, peel and dice 3 - 4 carrots and a few ounces of celery root, and dump them in. Leave the pot be for a while, and in the meantime peel and chop a cup or so each of zucchini, green beans, and tomatoes. Slice a couple of green onions and chop a few basil and rosemary leaves; set these aside. After the pot has boiled for anywhere from ten minutes to an hour (depending on how done you like your vegetables and how strong you want the soup), dump all the other ingredients in and turn the heat down so it barely boils; leave this for about fifteen minutes. Sometimes I'll throw in a little fresh ravioli, which goes in with the zucchini etc.

Crusty bread drizzled with olive oil goes nicely.

*I like peppercorns floating freely in my soup, but if you don't especially enjoy the idea of biting down on a spicy bit of pale pink heaven, tie them in a cheesecloth before you drop them in.

It's Just What's Done

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

Outside of most apartment buildings in Romania, somewhere by a little garden fenced in by bits of scrap metal and sticks that might one day know the glory of being bushes if only the tenders would stop paring them down to the last branch, exists a metal frame. Three lines, like a giant staple coming out of the ground, crude and unadorned save for the occasional peeling strips of paint. For a while, I wasn't sure what these frames were for; maybe it was a bring-your-own-swing facility or a slightly confused reincarnation of monkey bars. I eventually saw one of these objects in use as a woman beat a rhythmic din into a rug thrown over the top.

An odd amenity, but an understandable one for a country so obsessed with the spirit of household chores it advertises pastel-colored irons for Easter in its newspapers. Aside from feeling somehow transported to a 1950's style domestic wholesomeness, I've come to recognize that like the proper level of over-zealous cleaning, there are many local practices that seem to be carried out not because anybody particularly enjoys it, or because there's some rational argument to be had, but because that's just what's done.

Being barefoot, to be sure, is not what's done in Romania. I've seen multiple charity sites and philanthropic calls to action insisting that the people of Romania need shoes, but I haven't yet seen a barefoot person, nor any city street that isn't littered with shoe stores. Being barefoot inside, no matter the environs, is also not what's done. People have slippers set aside in their houses for visitors. Doctors direct you to a shoe selection should you need to undress. A visitor to my own home, horrified upon seeing me barefoot, inquired as to whether the floor was heated. It doesn't matter if you're taking a stroll around the living room or moving five feet from the bath to the towel rack. I've heard the general idea is that if you expose your precious footsies to the ground, the ability to bear children is somehow snatched away, but seeing as this same rule is apparently applied to sitting on the floor or exposing one's back to the air, I'm satisfied that it's more of a superstition than a genuine belief.

I recently had a one inch nickel pipe clamp installed around my neck as a collar. Heading out to shop one spring afternoon, I wore a tank top and knee-length skirt and made my first stop at a pharmacy. The clerk looked at me in shock, but not because of the clamp. "Is it really," she wanted to know, "so warm outside you can wear that?!" Thankfully I'd had the heart to blow-dry my hair that morning, otherwise I suspect the woman would have fainted over her concern for my lack of concern about the Romanian concern over allowing one's body temperature to fall below a moderate fever. Wandering around the town, I've been asked on a few occasions by perfect strangers, mid-step, whether I'm not too cold.

Granted, some Romanian habits are rather nice and actually sensible, such as the inclination to begin meals with soup. Granted also that in the US, habits performed simply because they're what's done are by now less easily generalized and largely confined to the more abstract worlds of thought and language. Still, when I see the metal staple-frames standing proudly by their buildings as if to proclaim the decency and correctness of the dwellings they so inadequately decorate, I frown a little at the power that "it's just what's done" can exert on a landscape, beating it rhythmically into a familiar, but not especially functional, shape.