Voice of the Past: Emerson on Procedures

Ralph Waldo Emerson

We’ve all been there; a situation where someone in authority over our work, day or life relies upon a procedure, codicil or regulation to snap things back into bureaucratic harmony. Nothing is more infuriating than procedure getting in the way of common sense. (An aside, I have always found common sense to be an oxymoron for reasons that become obvious upon an appeal to it.)

Among many of his Bon mots, this particular gem by Emerson offers a retort:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

The challenge, of course, is that a reader looking to massage their own ego may think that being inconsistent in all things is somehow a stroke of genius. I’d contend that the difference between those who are inconsistent and brilliant against those who are inconsistent and neurotic is in their productivity. Put another way by the screenwriter Bruce Feirstein in his version of 007:

“The distance between genius and insanity is measured only by success.” –Super villain Elliot Carver, in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).


Emerson is saying more than to be an iconoclast, he means that small minded people cannot shake the feeling that being consistent is a virtue. Or perhaps feigning consistency to impress those who think consistency is a virtue is somehow good in its own right. There are cases in life where consistency has its purpose, building a house, the scientific method and responding to a fire come to mind. But those are not small-minded endeavors.

Sometimes to resolve a problem or to focus on what matters, the old way will not suffice, as the old way will end up creating the same result. Einstein said as much too, in his reflections in trying to solve a problem with the same failing solution with the expectation of differing results.

Like a lot of quotes, cutting off the explanation leaves the real meaning lost, denuded. Here is the full quote:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”– Emerson, Self-Reliance

Emerson Books18 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)


On Eostre


Ostara by Johannes Gehrts

The Easter story–the Christian Easter story–gets its day in the sun this week. The story of life and rebirth is welcome after every hard, cold winter. As a kid, swinging my Buster Brown’s up against the oaken pew, doodling on the backs of tithing envelopes at the old Methodist church, I wondered a bit about where the word Easter originated. After all, it is a word that has no reference in Scripture, nor is derived from a Greek or Latin word. The answers to my childhood inquiry would not be found in that part of the ancient world. The word Easter, like Yule, originates from the Germanic tradition, the holiday of renewal.

The story of religion building and borrowing from other religions is nothing new. Like the Catholic usurpation of December 25th from the Roman Saturnalia to observe Christ’s birth, Easter was borrowed to convert the pagan Germanic and Norse tribes to the faith. Of course, Christians have the benefit of knowing approximately when Jesus died, during the Passover. While the exact date may be lost to history, the movable feast follows the Jewish calendar year.


Universal Symbols

As a young student, I had an exceptional reading teacher who found a way to teach Greek and Roman mythology as part of our curriculum—long before the “Common Core” and “No Child Left Behind” obliterated the education profession. Later, a high school lit teacher introduced me to the writing of Joseph Campbell. Campbell strove to find a kind of “unified field theory” for the themes and symbols of all mythology, and in his canon of writing, did so.  From an ethnocentric view, Greek and Roman myth has very little to do with my northern European ancestry. When it comes to “living mythology” in our day an age, the Norse can lay a greater claim to the survival of their symbols in the modern age. Sure, we have democracy from the Greeks. But we have Christmas Trees, Groundhog Day, and several Easter symbols from the Germanic tribes and their Norse and pagan mythology.

As Campbell would agree, Norse and Germanic myth differs little from Greek mythology at its core–being polytheism. With its own pantheon of Gods representing certain emotions and symbols, the Norse match point-for-point the Greek and Roman gods. Zeus? Try Odin. Apollo? Try Thor. Aphrodite? Try Freya. Hercules? Siegfried. Muses? Rhein Maidens. Hades? Valhalla. Animal reverence was more common in the Norse, but present in Greek and Roman as well.  What differs among the three is what was physically left behind. Greeks and Romans built magnificent marble temples that are still imposing in ruin today. We have their written word, through Plato among others. Germanic tribes however were mobile, or built their structures from wood that would not last the millennium. They put their effort into fine jewelry work, most of which was melted by the conquering Roman legions. Regarding their subjugated tribes as “barbarian,” the Romans did little to appropriate the Norse gods into the Pantheon. And, with the conversion of the empire to Christianity, what little symbolism remaining in Northern Europe was expropriated and reassigned within the Christian tradition. For the most important observance in Christianity, the Goddess Eostre–or Easter–was given a “page-one rewrite.”

The #Venerable #Bede - #BritishLibrary - - #fr

The Goddess Eoster

The Internet is awash in neo-pagan imagery of the Goddess Eostre, however the Norse myths around the name Eostre are fairly thin. The Anglo-Saxon historian and Catholic monk, the Venerable Bede, described Eostre as a pagan German goddess for whom the Eastermonth, now April, was named. He said:

“Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.”

By his time, the festival in her honor was supplanted by the Passover and Passion play. As is often the case with the Christianization of the tribes of Europe, the names of the deities changed by the holiday feasting and symbolism carried on, like techies replacing the operating system but keeping their computer hardware. Aside from that attestation in the 11th century Anglo-Saxon Bede’s De temporum ratione, there is little to go on. The name also survives in oblique ways—the Ostrogoth tribes to the east of Ancient Rome as described in Caesar’s writings on the Gallic Wars, the modern country of the Österreich (Austria), and even the surname Oster (as in the appliances among other uses) owe their root to the Germanic word for “East”—Ost. In fact, the alternative spelling of Eostre is Ostara. And, given the emphasis on the rebirth and renewal of the season, aligned with the vernal equinox, Easter is the rising sun, the rebirth of Spring and the renewal of life. Sounds like a familiar meme.

The Story of the Egg-Laying Hare

Myths around the Eostre goddess seem to be a modern construction, by neo-pagans and Wicca. Two in particular explain away the symbolism of another Easter symbol, the egg-laying hare. As a cultural touch point, Americans know well the Cadbury Egg commercial, of the clucking rabbit laying a chocolate, sugar filled egg. As far as my eight-year-old self was concerned, the Easter Bunny was the Cadbury Bunny, laying chocolate, fondant-filled eggs on television. I always preferred the mini-eggs, and still do to this day. Perhaps in a culture so steeped in animal absurdity–from the talking mouse to Brian in the Family Guy–no on thinks to ask where the idea of an egg-laying rabbit originates. And for that, we have to go to the Norse myth of Eostre and the Hare.

The Goddess Eostre, a lover of all of the creatures of the forest, was on her journey in the wood. She came upon a bird, its wing injured beyond hope. Eostre, so connected to the spirits of nature, shared in the anguish of the wounded bird and took pity. As the body of the bird would never be the same, she saved the spirit of the bird, turning the bird into a beautiful, bounding hare. Yet the metamorphosis was incomplete. In thanks to Eostre, the hare laid an exquisite egg for her, as a gift. (As retold by your author, playing Aesop)

Or something like that. The Wicca variation paints Eostre as more of a trickster, showing off for passersby, turning a bird into a rabbit. Eostre in this retelling broke a cardinal virtue–to do no harm. Eostre lost her powers, and was unable to return the hare back to being a bird, leaving the rabbit on earth to lay eggs.

But why a hare? And why eggs? Hares are prominent in Germanic lore. The Goddess Freya kept silver bunnies as companion animals. And eggs are a visual stand-in for the fertility of the Spring season. Our cultures most recent exposure to the magical hare was by Peter Jackson in his shameless embellishment of Tolkien’s Hobbit. Jackson employed rabbits as companion sled dogs of a kind, an obvious expropriation from Northern European folklore.

The translation of animal worship from Norse mythology to Christian tradition is again at the hands of the Germans. Those same Germans who gave us Groundhog Day (the reverence of the bear, or ground marmot as weather keeper) gave us the rabbit who lays eggs. The Easter bunny is prominent in America, in part because of the German settlers who brought the bunny with them. They turned it into a confectioner’s marketing machine, and sold off Easter eggs of chocolate. Thus, the ridiculous egg-laying rabbit became Christian. The very name Easter became the western name of the Resurrection celebration. The goddess was wiped from the historical record, the feminine replaced with the masculine (in terms of symbolism).

Faberge Egg
Eggs evolved from their fertility symbolism into something modern as well. When in Bavaria some years ago during the Easter season, I marveled at the local custom of painted eggs. These exquisitely decorated orbs were either drained of their yokes then painted upon, or preserved under layers of enamel. This practice is pre-Christian, but retained in Catholic Bavaria. Over time, the eggs would become so very elaborate, and in the case of Faberge, not even be made of eggs anymore, but of gold fit for a Tsar of Russia.

334. Pussy Willows (Feral Cat?)

A Brief Note on Fuzzy Palm Fronds

Some Christian traditions did not translate well in the cooler Northern European climate. For example, it was difficult, if not impossible for the laity to acquire actual palm fronds to celebrate Palm Sunday. A local, abundant substitute would have to suffice. The foothills of the Alps bloom with Pussy Willow in the spring, about the time of the Easter celebration, becoming a substitute for Palm Sunday. Pussy Willow branches usually begin appearing in stores around Lent, and were a prominent fixture in my childhood home, no doubt a tradition passed down from German settlers who knew no differently before the age of globalization could bring palm fronds to every chapel around the globe.

Cognitive Dissonance or Good Clean Fun?

Stripped of the universal and borrowed themes, the Christian Easter focuses on the leap of faith that every Christian is asked to make, of the passion, resurrection and salvation through belief. It is a leap of faith that cannot be made once, but as Soren Kierkegaard observed, must be made over and over again. That allusion—the leap of faith and renewal—of the recurring spring, the recurring observation that after the cold, barren winter life goes on should be lost on no one, in no culture. Humans welcome the return of hope in all things.

It is easy to appreciate why more fundamentalist strains of Christianity have tried to move away from those Germanic traditions, as they are not canonical or even related to Christianity. However, for those early proselytizers, trying to convert Vikings and Goths and Celts to a religion rooted in Bronze Age Judea, it is easy to see how appropriating local symbols and customs aided in conversion. The Middle Ages gave rise to Europe as Christendom, and the new, hybridized faith that emerged was exported to the United States and the world. However, as many Americans either observe the holiday or only the secular trappings of candy baskets today, it is clear that the feasting day of Easter looks very different than its roots as a resurrection story from the Fertile Crescent thanks to the admixture of Norse mythology into its symbols.

Eostre Goddess Photo credit: Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0

This is the Place: Salt Lake Old and New

This is the Place Monument

In 1847, after a grueling 1300-mile exodus from Missouri, over the vast plains and megalith Rockies, the first Mormon settlers arrived in what would become Utah. Looking over the vast valley from the Piedmont of the Wasatch Mountains, Brigham Young declared to his flock, “This is the place.”

That place, the Salt Lake Valley, must have looked like Eden from that distance. Cottonwood trees climbed the mountains, exposed limestone would provide the foundation of their new terrestrial Kingdom. In the distance, what seemed to be a lake of plenitude must have signaled to Young a perfect place for a new Eden. Of course, that lake would be the brackish Great Salt Lake, providing no drinkable water. No bother, must have thought Brigham—it is a Dead Sea in the New World!

Salt Lake City is the first city of Mormondom, a place on the map that is the home to the fastest growing religion in recent memory. Yet half of the population are “gentiles,” as the faithful call us. Its adherents will tell you about it without much inquiry of your own.


Conferences are the usual reason for my travel, and Salt Lake was not immune from this trend. My pursuits off-the-clock in Mormondom were three fold—I wanted to find the local fare, desired to tour as much of Temple Square as I could, and I wanted to find the green shoots of the new “Gentile” Utah peeking through centuries of dogma. As I began my pilgrimage, locals could tell I was not from around Salt Lake before I even opened my mouth.

“How can you tell?” I’d ask.

“You have a beard!”

Sporting stubble was a tell, as Mormon men have been clean shaven since their honor code days and missionary work. Prior to these edicts, manly manes were common among the Mormons. But, as the post-WWII Americana developed, church elders encouraged the flock to clean up, assuring Mormons were integrated in American society—that they were as American as any other. So, the IBM look came into fashion among the young, and often carried on through life. But, like any religion, doctrine takes time to change, and now those short-sleeve dress shirts and clean-shaven men again look as though they are from another age.

Salt Lake City, May 2012

Salt Lake is the most liberal of Utah’s cities, but that isn’t saying much. A Utah liberal is probably closer to a New York Republican on the political spectrum. Locals have elected Democratic mayors who look toward economic development as a safe foil to stand against fundamentalist “values voters.” At the time of my visit, no fewer than 15 major construction sites were active downtown. The Salt Lake of my memories is already a new world—a new city. Not the easiest of cities to take on by foot, I hired a cab. Mentioning my past career in state governments, the cabbie gave me the ground truth about Utah politics. “I like the governor, but he’s like the rest of the statehouse…towing the Mormon party line.” An interesting turn of phrase, revealing that Utah politics are squarely divided between the faithful and the fallen, in his estimation anyway.

Tasty Fry Sauce

Fry Sauce and a Blue Iguana 

Task one was locating Utah’s contribution to the Great American Buffet—fry sauce. For the uninitiated, Fry Sauce is a curious yet convenient condiment spread over fast food from Provo to Park City. The mixture of ketchup and mayo into one puddle on a plate is called “a mess” back East. I was prohibited in making such a concoction on my plate as a child, certainly. In fact, when the two emulsions meet on a burger, most Americans are so embarrassed by the mess that we put a bun on it and hide it from view. Arctic Pop, a local burger chain, originated the sauce.

“Are you sure you want to go there?” he asked.

“I do, I read about it on Yelp!”

“Yeah, but, it isn’t that great.”

Is this the place?” I asked, hoping for a rise out of my cabbie.

He responded, without catching my best Brigham Young impression.

He was right. The poor shop looked like the last Burger Chef on earth, décor untouched since 1978. And sadly, I couldn’t get fry sauce in a nice soufflé cup. It arrived in a pre-sealed shallow tin.

“Hmm. This isn’t the place.”

The cabbie agreed to wait for me. Cab traffic is pretty light in Utah. Quickly coming back to the car with some disappointment, he offered, “Want some real food?” “How about Mexican? You’ll like the Red Iguana.”

Red Iguana: The Killer Mexican Food

The Red Iguana is known for its mole (pronounced like MOH-lay). Mexicans began moving to Utah in force in the post-NAFTA years, bringing some flavor into a part of the country where “Jell-O” is the unofficial food of the state.

“Is this the place….for mole?” I asked some departing diners.

“Sure, but the Blue Iguana is better. The family divorced, and the husband opened up a new restaurant.” Or, so the passers by gossiped. Copious research did not show any relation between the two restaurants, save for the choice in mascot. The mole was better than fine. A thick savory puree of coffee and chocolate, ancho and Serrano peppers, tomato and onion dress up the grilled chicken. I could eat a bowl of this stuff and have them hold the chicken. Who needs fry sauce…the state condiment of Utah should be mole.

Temple Square, Salt Lake City, 1899 retouched

This is their place

Dusk seemed to be the best time to tour Temple Square—the beating heart of the Mormon faith. While modern buildings have sprouted up around the grounds, the Square remains the focal point of the downtown core. Admonitions await the visitor, on carefully placed signage:

My arrival, unlike the ancient Mormon settlers, was heralded. I was immediately approached by two young men, matching missionaries in their IBM uniform look, welcoming me (and perhaps assessing my beard for signs of heathendom).

“Hiiii, just looking around.” I offered immediately, expecting the sort of proselytizing that arrives at my doorstep periodically.

“Okay. You may want to see the visitor’s center, or the Museum of Church History and Art.”

Is this the place?” I asked jokingly, expecting the missionaries to at least catch my increasingly inside joke funny only to myself.

“No, it is over there,” they monotonously directed. Still, no one catching my Brigham Young impression.

“Can I go in the big building too?” pointing blasphemously at the Temple, another tell that I was not among the Elect.

“No, only if you have a Temple Recommend,” they dismissed. “But there is a model of the temple in the South Visitor’s Center if you want to take a look.”

Verily enough there was a model. This came as a surprise to me, as I always thought the interior of the temple was a secret. I approached a young woman missionary pair in the Center, asking about this revelation.

Salt Lake Temple Model

“The temple isn’t secret, but sacred,” they offered in a well-turned, rehearsed and pitch perfect reply.

Ah, well that makes more sense to me. While the connections between Mormon practice and Masonic ritual (the alleged inspiration of some of the faith for Joseph Smith) are well documented, I forgot for a moment that what was an anthropological experiment for me was a faith for others. These grounds, in their Marriottesque décor, were the Mormon St. Peter’s Square. This was the Mormon Vatican.

Many of the missionaries in Temple Square were from other countries—a veritable EPCOT center of nationalities purposefully assigned to this place, to show the global majesty of the church. Their name tags are augmented by the flag of their home country. Mormons are polite to a fault. I knew as much from my acquaintances over the years, and knew that this was the place for me to try out my traveler’s pidgin polyglot of languages without fear of ridicule.

 “Ist das die platz…fur die alte Tabernacle, bitte?” to the Swiss and German pair.

They giggled, feigned appreciation for my butchering of German grammar (no religion can temper German efficiency and directness), and began their checklist of engaging a hairy gentile on his path to conversion. I entertained this a bit, wanting to see just how the conversation works within the compound. They shared their favorite passages from the Pearl of Great Price. They asked about my own beliefs and what I think happens to my soul when I expire. All deep questions for a guy wandering around in shorts and a backpack, sneaking chomps of a candy bar despite the extolling not to eat on hallowed ground.

“Danke schoen, nein danke.” “Ich war einmal Methodist.”

Christmas at Temple Square

In the old Tabernacle—the choir hall—I find myself alone. No tour was in the place at the moment. This building housed the first Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which has gone on to become a rather famous singing ensemble comprised of volunteers. As a former chorister, I have my own judgments about the choir’s curious diction (but perfect pitch and articulation), but I reserve those judgments and take in the hall. I belted off some of my own Baritone to hear the world-famous acoustics—so clear that you can hear a pin drop on the podium 200 yards away. My Bach chorale cycled along the domed ceiling like an inverted velodrome, growing like a tidal tsunami until returning back, the effect like singing in a shower the size of a sports arena. Some other tourists and a few missionaries opened the door. I had stopped singing in what felt like an hour ago, and the sound was just now diminishing. We made eye contact, and I just shrugged. Rather than letting a conversation erupt, I walked out the nearest door, a la Steve McQueen (“do something awesome, then leave.”) or Snoop Dog (droppit like its hawt).

Across from the older campus is the newer world headquarters of the Mormon Church, a 1950’s era pile of alabaster that looks like it landed from Planet Eisenhower. The building sports a massive Mercator projection of the world, not too unlike something Mussolini might have wanted in his den. All of the major activities of the church—from the performances of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to the semi-Annual conference are held at the Conference Center across the street. This building blends natural elements and stone in yet another amusement-park-tacky-yet awe-inspiring way.

Plump-faced sun

I should pause here to say that Mormon architecture should be analyzed by its own vocabulary. It is hard to adjudicate it otherwise. The temple itself is based on the biblical proportions (as understood) of Solomon’s Temple. This created a footprint that seems squished—a very long, slightly narrow rectangle. The use of repeating elements—spires, windows, and asymmetry—differs greatly from the use of the Greco-Roman architecture in most public buildings in the antebellum 19th century. Symbols—a rising, smiling sun and the oxen—are all elemental in Masonic imagery, and are used liberally on the old Temple façade.

“Ni hao,” I offered to the Taiwanese missionary, “Zai Nali Museum…uh…ma?”

Gentiles can tour the Temple Square without worry of conversion. If you have an open mind, and are willing to treat the Mormons with respect and leave the sarcasm and contempt behind, walking the grounds and seeing a unique American story first-hand is worth the effort. The church even provides shuttles from the airport to give lay-over passengers a brief tour if their schedule permits. The Mormons, of course, hope visitors will be won over by their visit to the Square, but this is not a requirement for admission.

As I left the square, a young couple walked slowly, blissfully toward the front of the old temple. The setting sun back-lit the edifice like a great corona, as if the temple was emanating divine light. The long shadow over the square blanketed the flower beds in dusky hues. The girl looks up in awe, as I did, at the scene. And then he made his move, she turned to find him on bended knee, the diamond hurling bolts of sunset all around. I am just far enough away that the whole scene occurred in near silence—like a colorized Oz as a silent film. She contorted in laughing joy. The nod. The hug. Another eternal couple forged. Even the most skeptical can’t help but appreciate the numinous in that experience. I do not think they knew that I was a voyeur to their moment. They expected someone looking on, perhaps their Heavenly Father from atop the Temple. For them, this is the place.

Polygamy Porter Pint

The new Salt Lake City

Ending on that note, it was time for me to find my place. Two blocks down, I found my third goal—the new Utah. Aside from Robert Redford’s Sundance and the occasional independent bookery, Salt Lake has grown from its conservative founding into a cosmopolitan city. Since the 2002 Winter Olympics, Utahans have relaxed their once totalitarian laws on the consumption of alcohol. At the Beer Hive, the bar carries Utah’s contributions to the craft beer movement. Wasatch Brewing Company has been in business since 1986, surviving the old “club” days when imbibers were required to buy a “membership” to a pub, and were also required to buy food with every two beverages. Wasatch led the Reformation, serving up fine micro-brew to the Gentiles and doing it well.

“What will it be?”

“Something local, dark, and free of false hope, perhaps.”

The bartender picked up on my irreverence. The beard must have sealed the deal.

“Ah, try the Polygamy Porter.”

“Pardon?” I snuff, attempting to see if the bartender back peddles. He holds his ground, seeing through it.

“Polygamy Porter,” I look at the tap handle, and sure enough, the logo says it all. Buxom Victorian nudes around their beau, with the slogan.“Bring some home for the wives.”

“Brilliant,” I thought. “This is my place.”

Polygamy Porter

Photo Credits

This is the Place Photo Dean / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Vintage Missionary hoveringdog / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Salt Lake Skyline CountyLemonade / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Tasty Fry Sauce BenSpark / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Red Iguana vxla / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Temple Square Photo credit: Foter / Public domain

Temple Model Interior nan palmero / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Tabernacle J Mullhaupt / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Nauvoo Sun Stone quinn.anya / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Polygamy Porter MikeOliveri / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Temple Square Sign: The Author

Tipple the Hitch

Glass of Scotch

April 13th marks the 65th birthday of the late Christopher Hitchens, perhaps the most prominent polemicist and essay scribbler of his generation. Hitchens was a rakish provocateur in the model of Dylan Thomas’ style, George Orwell’s indignation with a command of English all of his own.

When working in the DC area, I discovered that Hitchens would stop off at the bar in my office building—Johnny’s Half Shell—before and after his appearances on C-SPAN, Fox and NBC News. At that time in my nascent career, I didn’t quite recognize the rumpled, khaki-suited man in the elevator, perfumed in eau de Nicotine. Sadly, that is my only memory of the man in the flesh.  However my co-worker—an intense analyst we dubbed “Lattimer”—was a passionate media junkie and celebrity hound. Lattimer was the kind of guy who’d stop off to offer up unsolicited recitations on his intense weekends.


                “Good morning, [Lattimer].”

Hwaet! What’s with the trench coat and penny loafers, G. Gordon Liddy?”

                “Funny. Don’t you have an education policy to ruin this morning?”

“You won’t believe who I drank with yesterday at Johnny’s”

                “No, I probably won’t.”

“Christopher Hitchens.” he said, allowing the name to resonate in the cube farm. “There he was, and I sat down and ordered him a Scotch.”

                “Expensive date, Lattimer.”

“Worth it.  Worth it. He talked to me for a full half-hour.”

While usually I’d dismiss this as a big fish tale, there is a kernel of truth in this retelling. Hitchens was known for his generosity of time with people, not just fellow intellectuals, but anyone, who could carry a conversation. He was also known for his love of Johnny Walker Black Label. Lattimer was no dumb jock—he knew policy and he knew people. I am sure Hitch would have dismissed him early on if he were boring (which was Hitch’s existential fear, boredom). For the fan-boy Lattimer, he engaged in near pick-up artist tactics to capture a leading mind of our time for a moment.

Hitch’s preferred poison was Johnny Walker Black, cut with Perrier. Like getting into Wagnerian Opera, Slow Foods, and Baseball, Scotch requires patience and perhaps a bit of personal tragedy to enjoy. I tend to look at my own preference for Scotch through the lens of honoring my Scots and Scots-Irish ancestors, as a communion over time, enjoying the same taste experienced by each generation. For Hitch though, Scotch provided inspiration and bestowed panache.

And how should one tipple like the Hitch? Only his own words will suffice the explanation:

“I work at home, where there is indeed a bar-room, and can suit myself. But I don’t. At about half past midday, a decent slug of Mr. Walker’s amber restorative, cut with Perrier water (an ideal delivery system) and no ice. At luncheon, perhaps half a bottle of red wine: not always more but never less. Then back to the desk, and ready to repeat the treatment at the evening meal. No “after dinner drinks”—most especially nothing sweet and never, ever any brandy. “Nightcaps” depend on how well the day went, but always the mixture as before. No mixing: no messing around with a gin here and a vodka there.”—“Hitch-22


Martin Amis, Hitch’s best friend in the world, advised him that “making rules about drinking is a sign of an alcoholic,” but nonetheless, rules there were:

“Of course, watching the clock for the start-time is probably a bad sign, but here are some simple pieces of advice for the young. Don’t drink on an empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food. Don’t drink if you have the blues: it’s a junk cure. Drink when you are in a good mood. Cheap booze is a false economy. It’s not true that you shouldn’t drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain. Hangovers are another bad sign, and you should not expect to be believed if you take refuge in saying you can’t properly remember last night. (If you really don’t remember, that’s an even worse sign.) Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less and are not designed—as are the grape and the grain—to enliven company. Be careful about up-grading too far to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won’t be easily available. Never even think about driving a car if you have taken a drop.” –Hitch-22.

Perhaps too much thought has been given here to something delightful. I don’t particularly find rules and relaxation to go hand in hand. However, for those in the production of the arts—whether essays, music, craft or other culture–letting the rules go and indulging too much has led to exquisite cultural touchstones (The Beatles, Picasso, Oscar Wilde) and conversely I suppose, death (Kurt Kobain, Ernest Hemingway, Tchaikovsky).

Perhaps rules are a good thing, at least for the mixology. What is it about Scotch and soda that works exactly? For me anyway, bubbles are the difference between drinking a glass of motor oil or experiencing something transcendent. Think about it, like wine, Scotch sits a long time in a barrel, aging and growing grizzled, adding complexity where there was none before. Scotch develops character in the dark, dank underworlds.

(An aside: a few years back, I got to perform a stage production of Beethoven’s Fidelio. There is a moment in the opera where the prisoners are given a chance to see the sun for the first time in what must have been decades for them. I often think of Scotch’s liberation from the barrel with this music in mind.)

Water alone cannot help the Scotch along to breathe again in the sun. Bubbles—by way of club soda—is an accelerant. But the problem here is that club soda is just cheap carbonated water, cranked off in a factory, pumped through a bartender’s nozzle into a glass of finely crafted elixir. This is where Hitchens steps in, to champion an alternative solution—natural carbonation. And Perrier? Seems snobbish at first, but those natural bubbles and minerals seem to dance with the Highlanders, like French mermaids. In fact, when trying to think of an historical context where the French and Scots have aligned before, I think of Mary, Queen of Scots—the Scots-born Queen Consort of France and pretender to the English throne too. If not for Hitchens, we might think of the combo of Perrier and Scotch ordering up a “Queen Mary” instead.

So, in homage to Hitchens, and perhaps Queen Mary and (if I must), Latimer too, think of cutting your Johnny Walker with Perrier, the up-scaled Scotch and soda of our time. And on April 13th, remembering days of Auld Lang Syne, I join other Hitch fans in honoring the man of letters with his favorite restorative (Of which, several posts of “Henry’s Eclectic” have been aided tremendously.).


Photo credit: dvanzuijlekom / Foter / CC BY-SA 
Hitchens by Paintings on the Side by Cara and Louie: An original painting of Christopher Hitchens. Ink and Paint on Panel Original available for sale on Etsy.com

Pike Place Market


Pike Place Market

There is rarely a morning sun over Washington’s Cascade Mountains and volcanic range. Morning is Seattle is glacial grey and perpetually 55 degrees Fahrenheit. It is for this reason that the locals imbibe so much coffee—a caffeinated solution for the Vitamin D-filled sunshine locked behind the billowy clouds. Locals don the practical outerwear of outfitters like REI, Filson and Columbia, being prepared at a moment’s notice to take to the natural world surrounding the city. And tourists and locals alike scurry toward the Puget Sound for their provisions, where along the vast Seattle shoreline sits a venerable West Coast institution, Pike Place Market.

Most Americans know the name, usually declared in its short form, “Venti, Pike,” at a million Starbucks establishments daily. The Pike Place blend is named for the very first Starbucks location, along Market Street in the heart of the market district. Pike Place Market has, like many charming destinations, been overexposed by the foodie industry’s minions. You know the type—the food porn intelligentsia and celebrity chefs that scour every bit of America for that unique, authentic local experience. Pike Place is a curious tourist trap in that most of the goods for sale there are perishables—Dungeness Crab and Alaskan Salmon, regional berries, nuts and vegetables. The tourist will neither haul Pacific seafood on a 2000 mile flight back east, nor prepare a savory dish in their hotel room. Aside from the instant edibles in the market stalls, and the occasional shrink-wrapped fare, Pike’s offers memories for the senses to preserve.

Pike Place Fish Market

Fortunately, I first came to know Pike Place not through the prodding of a food porn huckster, but by one of those cheesy videos that Human Resource directors love—the team building/inspirational type. The FISH! Philosophy was inspired by the fishmongers at the heart of Pike Place, the ebullient staff revel in their fish handing, tossing 30+ lb salmon through the air to one another with abandon (tourists can now try their hand at catching the flying fish.)

I cannot help but feel in a good mood wandering through the food stalls, the boutique markets, despite the gloomy overcast skies. On my most recent visit, I caught myself whistling the same tune over and again, preserved here via a jazzy, muffled (albeit tinny and poorly tuned) trumpet.

What can the tourist take home from the market then? New visitors are forewarned: Prepare for sensory overload. The early morning sound of farmers and fishers unloading their bounty, the yeasty plume of baked bread fills the streets. The glint of crushed ice catches the neon from the stentorian signage.  Buskers claim their corner for the morning, eeking out the first chords on the guitar. The earliest of birds are up before the tourist onslaught, to get their groceries and drink deeply of their morning coffee rituals.

Vital Tea Leaf, Seattle

What began as kiosks and grocers’ stalls in 1907 has become a celebration of fare and the joie de vivre. I usually began my trips at the far end, near the Vital T-Leaf, a Taiwanese tea house offering the visitor an authentic tea house experience. Sitting at the counter, the vendor prepares samples for his guests, reading the reaction of the sippers to the fermented pu-erh, the grassy green needle and the peaty monkey-picked varieties of green tea. Showing the correct temperature and method for steeping his prized teas (some of which are in the hundreds of dollars per pound), I settle on my particular favorite–Tie Guan Yin–the “Iron Goddess” oolong tea. He is as proud of his calligraphy as he is of his tea, and marks my sachet with the Chinese characters for the Iron Goddess.

Making cheese

There are other worthy delights. Piroshky-Piroshky offers up savory Slavic pies and pockets. Nearby Beecher’s has put cheese making on display, as cheesemongers curdle and press massive tablets of soft cheese for their toasted sandwiches and satin mac-n-cheese. And the Confectional offers up the sinfully decadent cheesecake truffle–a perfect trinity of candy, cake and chocolate.

The 1st Starbucks

Each of these vendors hopes for the good luck of another once-local, now international vendor, who grew from its humble roots as a 70’s era coffee and espresso shop into an American success story. Starbucks has maintained its store number one, complete with its Renaissance (yet burlesque) original logo, dated 80’s fonts and gritty counter tops as a museum piece. Nearby, a much larger Starbucks has opened to capture the overflow from the original act.  Ordering the “Venti, Pike” at the milestone seems as about as American now as taking the family photo before the Grand Canyon.

Still beyond the vendors are the shops that linger on the periphery–Restaurants in Pikes, the Pink Door-serving Italian cuisine–and the Athenian oyster bar offer a slow food experience amidst the hustle of the market below. Left Bank Books, near the main entrance, offers that jolt of socialism and anarchy for the bibliophile, as shelves heave with Marx, Trotsky, Gramsci and Abbe Hoffman, and nearby racks of pamphlets written by the next anarchist await a sympathetic reader. Left Bank is perhaps the only vendor activity eschewing any of Starbucks success of course. But I cannot help but note the irony of seeing tourists with their little mermaid paper cups thumbing through the Left Bank’s stacks with their corporate-coffee free thumb.

Pike Place Market, Seattle, Left Bank Books

Certainly other major cities can lay claim to having an older local market building–recently revived to capture the locavore spirit. But Pike Place is more than a weekend market or the must-see attraction, as declared by a food porn industry. The charisma, the experimentation, and the positive love of life within Pike Place for this author rank among the very best travel experiences. Pike Place is one of the oldest and longest running markets in the country. Its quasi-governmental board assures that the locals and tourists alike will “Meet the Producers” and not phony vendors pretending to be farmers and fishers. Pike Place is a pantheon to the food gods, a living museum, and the ur-farmer’s market that so many towns have emulated from coast to coast.

Day 230/365 - Sunset at the Public Market

Pike Place Evening Photo credit: michaelrighi / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Pike Place Sunset Photo credit: Great Beyond / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Fish Throwing Photo credit: dbnunley / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Left Bank Photo credit: Curtis Cronn / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Beecher’s Photo Credit: afagen / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Vital T Photo Credit: Sammamish Arts Commission / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

First Starbucks Photo Credit: Frank Kehren / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)