Book Review: The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Coffee & Tea

The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Coffee & Tea, by Travis Arndorfer and Kristine Hansen

While I have had fewer than five cups of coffee or so my entire life, I am relatively well known as a fan of sweet tea [1].  As I had a book about coffee coming out on my blog soon I thought it would be good to pair that book with another one on a similar fashion, and so I found this enjoyable book and thought it worthwhile to explore what it is that made coffee and tea so worthwhile as an area of study.  What I found is that both coffee and tea have a lot more going on than meets the eye and that both drinks have long histories and a recent history that includes a great deal of differentiation in order to market to niche audiences and encourage people to deal with a barrage of a seemingly infinite variety of choices.  All of this I find greatly interesting despite the fact that I do not care for coffee at all and do not care for it more after reading this book than I did beforehand.  Whether or not that is a failure of the book or simply the fact that my interest in coffee is more intellectual I will leave for the reader to decide.

In terms of its contents this book is very heavily slanted towards talking about coffee rather than tea, spending about 2/3 of the 300 pages talking about coffee and only the remaining third or so talking about tea culture.  The first part of the book talks about coffee as the other black gold, pointing out that next to oil it is the biggest world commodity in terms of export value.  The first chapter talks about the basics of the coffee bean, and then the authors move on to growing and processing coffee, and coffee origins and regions.  The second part of the book looks at capturing coffee’s flavor, with chapters on roasting, cupping and blending, brew tools, and brewing basics.  The third part of the book has a series of chapters on the Espresso family, beginning with some basics, navigating the menu of a cafe, looking at equipment, talking about extraction, preparing milk, drink making, and giving a discussion about the barista as a career.  The fourth part of the book finally takes a look at tea, its various types and its discovery and spread, along with how it is grown and processed, the teas of the world, various “tisanes” or herbal or nontea teas, as well as blending and brewing teas and tea culture and tea rituals.  The fifth and final book looks at the holistic side of coffee and tea, its humanitarian concerns and its health benefits and risks.  The main text of the book is followed by a glossary of terms, a brief discussion of food pairings, and a list of coffee and tea resource that may or may not be up to date.

As a whole, this is a book that is designed for people who enjoy coffee a lot more than I do.  In particular this is a book for a certain hipster audience of fans of coffee and tea who enjoy determining various blends and are fascinated by questions of how the drinks change based on small changes in how they are prepared with overpriced equipment, especially at home.  The hipster mentality of this book extends to the book’s lengthy discussions about fair trade and the benefits of buying coffee beans and self-roasting or buying whole leaf tea because buying preroasted beans and bag tea is too mainstream and too “stale.”  Admittedly, not all aspects of this book were to my tastes, but as a whole this was an interesting and informative and thought-provoking book, and definitely a wortwhile one for anyone who wants to know a bit more about their caffeinated beverages.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Coffee, The World, And Jesus

Coffee, The World, And Jesus, But Not Necessarily In That Order, by Ron DeMiglio

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Kregel Book Tours.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

Although I do not like coffee at all, I wanted to like this book.  I wanted to find it witty and humorous and lighthearted, but unfortunately it did not take very long into reading this short volume of about 150 pages before I realized that I did not like this book at all.  There is a fundamental disconnect between the author’s obvious intentions and his woeful lack of self-knowledge.  This is one of those hipster-oriented books [1] where the author tries desperately hard to show how cool he is, whining about how uncool Christianity is and having plenty of white liberal guilt about privilege and about how Americans are ugly bullies.  Meanwhile, the author shows himself to be utterly clueless, a hypocrite of the worst kind–the kind who knows he is a hypocrite but still feels it necessary and appropriate to be harsh and bullying anyway, nearly entirely lacking in redeeming qualities.  How this man has a loving wife and family is an immense injustice.  I found very little to like or appreciate about this work at all, and given that this work depends on likability, that was a very serious failing indeed.

The book consists of a variety of short and scattered chapters that deal with the author’s work in the coffee industry as well as his faith and his frequent travels.  Most of the books feature some sort of mishap where the author shows himself to be more than a little maladroit and where he views his fake candor as giving him license to be smug and sanctimonious about Christianity and America, neither of which were appreciated by this reader.  Each chapter ends with a mysterious “Shun Common,” showing that the author thinks himself to be far more unique and creative than he actually is, and totally ignorant of the love and regard that believers are to have for other people.  In his desire to escape being viewed as normal and ordinary, the author makes the classic hipster blunder of failing to recognize the irony of trying to escape being normal by being a common ironic hipster who thinks himself more witty and clever than he actually is.  If this book were self-parody without preachiness, it would have been amusing if somewhat shambolic.  Unfortunately, the author seems to be taking himself far too seriously here.

So, what kind of audience will appreciate this book more than me?  It seems pretty clear upon reading this book that the author is aiming this book at latte-drinking Christians who fancy themselves cooler and smarter and more socially conscious than the average herd.  This is a book meant for people who look down on ordinary Christians and Americans, feel a certain degree of liberal guilt over hip and relevant social causes, and are immensely critical of missionary trips and the trappings of ordinary Christianity and who believe that being open about their own foibles and flaws automatically gives them the credibility to poke fun of and ridicule and disrespect others.  There are plenty of people who would likely find the author and his approach appealing.  I did not.  And since this book lacked scriptural or intellectual depth, the lack of warmth I had for the author and for his attitude and approach in this book meant that there was almost nothing I found to be worthwhile about the book at all.  This book is a classic case of what happens when people care too much about looking cool in the eyes of the world rather than being right with God and with one’s brethren and neighbors.  It’s not a pretty sight.

[1] See, for example:

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Got A Hold On Me

It took me a while to notice the young woman.  The first time I saw her walk past my peripheral line of sight outside of the restaurant where I was eating dinner with a couple of other people, I thought she was walking to her car.  Then I saw her turn around and walk back towards the entrance of the restaurant, and back and back over and over again.  I thought it would be impolite to record exactly how many times she paced back and forth.  Watching her over the course of nearly half an hour, though, I got the distinct feeling she was walking back and forth feeling that she was about to be stood up.  Some people pace because they are thinking, but in this case it seemed that the young woman was pacing because of boy problems.  She touched her hair somewhat nervously, and given the fact that she kept on pacing back and forth within my view, my people watching tendencies got the best of me and felt compelled to watch her and try to get some grasp of what was going on through her nonverbal language.

I am no stranger to people watching [1], and my attention to this person drew the attention at the other people who were at the table with me.  My mother, of course, like me had a great deal of enjoyment at people watching and was similarly a student of the young woman’s body language.  She looked like she was attempting to have a conversation with herself.  Her gait was uneven, her hand motions occasionally herky-jerky, and as her waiting grew longer she would time her pacing to avoid having to interact with the people coming out of or going into the restaurant in twos and threes.  One could see her catastrophizing and coming up with worst case scenarios as the time she waited grew longer.  Would she get into her own vehicle, and did she have a vehicle of her own to get into?  None of that was clear.  What was clear is that she had her attention focused mainly on the road towards the interstate, and expected someone to come from that direction, it would seem.  While we watched and I sipped on my ice water, the other person at our table suggested we go and talk to the young woman.  As I often feel in such circumstances, I demurred because I felt it would be a waste of time.  I would only be getting in the way.

While all of this pacing was going on outside, and while those of us inside were waiting for our food to come, the music that played in the restaurant gave the strong feel of being a soundtrack to what we were watching.  Perhaps in a nod to the ungentlemanly conduct of whoever was making the young woman wait, Paula Cole was singing “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?”  At least as movingly, Christine McVie sang in her hopeful but often melancholy fashion that she had a love that had a hold of her.  Naturally, I was able to identify fairly strongly with the feelings the young woman was showing.  No one likes being made to wait for an interminable length of time, one’s thoughts moving from hope and patient expectation towards the gloominess of despair.  There was no question that, however shy and timid I was about introducing myself to the pacing young woman, that I had a strong feeling of empathy for what aspect of her suffering I was able to see and fathom.

At long last, around 9PM, a motorcycle driver came into the parking lot of the restaurant and parked near where the young lady had been pacing.  The quick in her step was obvious.  The conversation she had with the late fellow was shrouded by the bushes and it was impossible to tell how much was said.  Was the young woman glad that he had finally come?  Was she impatient to return home?  Was she angry at him or more relieved that he had been so very late and had at length arrived?  It was impossible to tell.  After a bit of time, though, the young woman could be seen putting on her motorcycle helmet and sitting behind him on the bike, her arms around his waist as they drove off into the gathering darkness.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: How Music Works

How Music Works, by David Byrne

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Blogging For Books/Three Rivers Press.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

Admittedly, this was not an easy book to read.  I did not necessarily expect to see a book of nearly 400 pages in length by the former front man of the Talking Heads to be easy, and this book certainly delivered.  The author himself claims this book to be a cross between a memoir of his own experiences as a musician over several decades as well as a discussion of music and art in the larger and more theoretical sense, and this book delivers on both levels.  In many ways, the two levels of this book’s discussion help to reinforce the other.  The author’s personal experience gives a certain expertise and credibility to his larger scale discussion of wider trends in music and its creation and marketing, while the author’s discussion of the bigger picture puts his own personal story, which is an interesting and worthwhile one, into a context.  As a writer and amateur musician, I am no stranger to the music business or being interested in it [1].  This book was a pleasure to read, and a very thought-provoking read, and for those who want a deep and personal discussion of the music business and how it works, this is a great place to go.

In terms of its material, this book is divided into eleven chapters.  The first chapter looks at creativity from the opposite point of view, showing and telling that context matters a great deal in what is created and what form it takes, contrary to popular opinion that it only depends on what is inside the creator.  After that the author spends a great deal of time talking about his own life in performance.  Two chapters follow about how technology shaped music both in the analog and digital era.  Byrne then turns his attention to the dilemma of choice and the way that curation and recommendation help people to find the art they really want out of the bewildering variety of options available.  After that the author talks about his own experiences in the recording studio and how that has changed over time.  A chapter about collaborations follows that shows the author to be someone who richly enjoys working with others and the joy that comes from sharing the creation of art with others.  At this point the book turns to more pragmatic directions, as the author then discusses the business and finances of the music industry and provides six models wherein artists can make a living depending on their risk tolerance and suite of skills.  After that the author discusses how one makes a scene out of the locations where music is performed, including some discussions on the need for low rent and a high degree of transparency.  The author then closes with a praise of amateurs and the creative capacity of those who do not profit from their love of music and a discussion of harmony around the world.  This book gives you way more than you bargain, and there is nothing wrong with that in the least.

Overall, this book shows a healthy combination of someone who is self-aware, to the point of frequently being considered too ironical to make a straightforward point, but also someone who is deeply observant of the world around him.  For all of the drama involved in tensions within the Talking Heads as well as the possibilities of bad blood between Byrne and the various labels he has worked with, this book manages to take the high road.  Byrne shows himself grateful for having been able to have a sustained and profitable career and make the sort of music he wants for an audience willing to pay him for it in terms of music sales as well as concert tickets.  He shows himself willing to let others respond to his comments, and this paperback edition features some expansion, including material from those who the author wrote about in the hardback version having their chance to answer the author back.  In general, this book is detailed, practical, and written with a great deal of graciousness.  All of these things make for an enjoyable read for anyone who has an interest in the music business or the career or context of David Byrne, whether with the Talking Heads or outside of that band.

[1] See, for example:


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Book Review: Republic Of Outsiders

Republic Of Outsiders:  The Power Of Amateurs, Dreamers, And Rebels, by Alissa Quart

I had a complicated reaction to this book.  On the one hand, there were many–perhaps too many–ways that I could identify with many of the people discussed in these pages and their problems with social norms and expectations as well as our corrupt contemporary culture.  On the positive side, I greatly appreciated the way that the author showed herself very knowledgeable of the larger historical context of eccentricity and diy-sensibility that is often forgotten by those who praise contemporary outsider subcultures without recognizing their intellectual outsider forebears.  That said, I found something about the book deeply alienating as well, regardless of how aware I am of my own eccentricities and my own status as an outsider [1].  Part of the alienation was due to the fact that the author deliberately chose outsider groups that correspond to certain socially liberal or “progressive” causes and deliberately slanted her discussion away from those whose morals and ideals were close to my own.  On a more fundamental level, though, the book was alienating because it looked at the use of identity politics to join people in cult-like connections, which is far removed from my frequently solitary existence.  This book, and the author’s perspective, fell into that uncanny valley that was both too close for comfort and too far for full identification.

This book is divided into three parts and takes about 200 pages, making it a quick read even at the risk of being passè and obsolete because of the way that the most popular outsider cultures can become easily swallowed into an increasingly decadent mainstream.  First the author tackles aspects of outsider mentalities, from those who seek to overcome the stigma of mental illness (something I am deeply familiar with having been diagnosed with three of them over the course of my troubled life), the so-called sexuality spectrum with its reference to the contemporary politics of gender identity, and the culture of socially awkward but intelligent neurodiverse population along the higher end of the autism spectrum.  Then the author turns her attention to those who seek to make movies and music outside of the mainstream by cutting out the cultural gatekeepers and seeking the direct involvement and support of their audience.  The author then looks at meat substitutes–something very popular here in hipster Portland as well as the desire to overcome mass marketing and its expenses and the compromises one makes.  After this there is a postscript on an abortive attempt to overcome exploitation for the underbanked through an Occupy debit card as well as afterword and acknowledgements section.

Part of my own complex reaction to this book was likely due to the author’s own complexity.  This particular author speaks for a great many people who might consider themselves to be cool, after a fashion, or at least part of the left-wing hipster cultural elite.  Yet the very outsider elitism that the author represents is always under assault because such outsiders are either stigmatized and rejected with the force of law or the cold shoulder of custom and tradition or they are co-opted into a system and then become part of the wider culture that those who wish to be cool hold in the deepest contempt.  Without either being particularly cool or particularly mainstream, I find the author and her approach to be complicated because what she wants is not something that is really in her power to obtain for herself or for others like her–the right to claim a position of cultural elitism from which to criticize the mainstream as reactionary and exploitative without the potential that those opinions and positions will be watered down and co-opted for the corruption of the masses.  The author’s awareness that his has all happened before only makes her desire for this time to be different all the more noble but all the more futile all the same.

[1] See, for example:

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If It Takes All Night

During the fighting of the Overland Campaign of 1864, Ulysses S. Grant is reported to have said to President Lincoln that he proposed to fight it out along that line all summer if necessary to defeat rebel armies led by Robert E. Lee.  Depending on how one views that statement, it could have been an understatement or an exaggeration.  It would take longer than the summer of 1864 to defeat Lee’s army and conquer Richmond.  A lengthy siege of the city of Petersburg was followed by a daring but ultimately futile attempt to escape, leading to the famous surrender at Appomattox [1].  Yet in one line of view, Grant did not fight it out along that line all summer.  Instead, after suffering a bloody reverse at Cold Harbor, he shifted his direction and sought to move on Petersburg rather than continuing to try to find some way of attacking Richmond directly.  He fought all summer, but not on the same line he had fought in the first four weeks of the war, in the eyes of many historians.

I have a great deal of empathy and compassion for people as awkward as I am.  Being a person of great awkwardness, shyness, and a deep native reserve and timidity, it is immensely difficult for me to set the stage for difficult conversations.  I may fret over what I want to say for weeks or months, lose large amounts of sleep, pray and fast and reflect, and often find that all of the concern has been for naught because the message I am trying to send simply does not get across.  At least in my observation, this does not appear to be an uncommon experience.  As I have been the initiator of many an awkward conversation or interaction, so too others have blindsided me with equal awkwardness, and likely they too have spent a great deal of time and effort and concern and care preparing and laying ground for a difficult conversation only to find it go awry because it triggered some kind of panic or alarm in me.

The timing of when one plans difficult conversations matters a great deal. One of the most crucial steps is ensuring that something is a good time for both parties.  It is easy for us, when we are concerned about something and want to get it off of our minds and release the burden on our hearts, to think about when it is most convenient for us to engage in these conversations at the time of our convenience.  Often this does not prove to be convenient for others–more than a few times I have found my own sleep harmed by people who felt it was absolutely necessary at 11:30PM to have a serious conversation I was entirely unprepared for, which is not conducive to having conversations that are enjoyed by all parties with mutual pleasure.  No doubt my own efforts at having difficult conversations have been equally inconvenient or unwelcome to those I was conversing with.  Before we have difficult conversations, then, we need to have a talk before the talk, one that sets the stage, finds some common ground, and makes the conversation less difficult.  We need an agenda, and some kind of mutual consent to agree on a conversation, because where there is coercion there will never be the sort of meeting of minds, much less hearts, which people desire from their communication with others.

Like Ulysses Grant, we may pride ourselves on or even be praised by others for having a bulldog-like tenacity.  Before we become carried away, though, by this sort of self-congratulatory attitude, we need to examine to what ends and by what means we are being tenacious.  Are stubborn for our own self-interest alone, or is our tenacity a strong sense of loyalty to our commitments?  If it is merely the first, then all of our stubbornness merely leads us to run over others and deny them their own freedom to make decisions.  If it is the second, we may well be unsuccessful, but there is at least nobility in what we are about.  It may take all night to resolve problems with someone, it may talk all summer, and sometimes, if we are wrestling with ourselves as we ought to do, it may take our entire lives to wrestle with and overcome the burdens that we have been given.  Be that as it may, much depends on how we wrestle with those issues, in the realization that other people are not simply the problem, but are people who even at their most frustrating and difficult are worthy of respect and honor and even love.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: A Study Of Open Hearth

A Study Of Open Hearth:  A Treatise On The Open Hearth Furnace And The Manufacture Of Open Hearth Steel by Harbison-Walker Refractories Company

I must admit that I have no particular idea that this is a practical book for either myself or a great many other people.  This book was published in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1909 and relates to the open hearth process of processing steel.  It has been some time since Pittsburgh was a world leader in steel production, and there are few people who work in that field in the United States at all, and no doubt there are many differences between contemporary steel manufacture and the work discussed here.  Even so, from time to time I greatly enjoy reading about old-fashioned and even obsolete matters [1] that nonetheless give context to a world that is now gone but that once was and once was state of the art.  So it is with this book, as the author proclaims the efficacy of using open hearth techniques to handle pig iron with a certain amount of phosphorus that would be impossible to use by other processes.  One does not need the specific information to be practical to gain some use from how the author thinks and drawing appropriate parallels.

The book itself is a short one, being under 100 pages and containing six chapters.  The first chapter looks at the definition of steel–by no means as simple a matter as one might think–and the design of furnaces that are used to forge steel from pig iron.  The second chapter examines the fuels used for heating the forge, praising natural gas where it may be found and oil with some caution about the heat of the flame it produces.  The third chapter focuses on the acid open hearth process and how impurities are removed thereby.  The fourth chapter, another brief one, looks at recarburation and how to test the ores for their suitability via various methods.  The fifth chapter discusses the basic open hearth process and how impurities are removed through the addition of lime and ore.  The sixth and final chapter looks at some special processes that are more complicated but that can provide great insights on the production of steel.  It is unlikely that many people at present will be asked to make steel, much less understand the processes, but this is a short and practical book even with that proviso in mind.

So, what worth can someone in the contemporary era gain from an understanding of the variety of different processes for the production of steel.  The author notes that the development of different processes allows different types of ores to be profitably used, indicating that in industrial processes as a whole it is worthwhile to have a variety of processes in one’s intellectual toolbox, as different processes will work best with different types of materials.  The author even comments on hybrid methods that also work well in certain circumstances.  This eclectic approach, and a realization that the best solution to the complexity of the world is having a complexity of thinking and processing in mind, is useful in other areas.  All too often businesses and institutions in general operate from a one-size fits all approach, and as a result they fail to examine and act sensitively with regards to those people and those situations that are outside of the boundaries where a given process works well.  Having an understanding that there are various processes that work well in different circumstances, some of which are more expensive or time-consuming and some of which are more robust, some which work best with certain types of ores, and so on, helps us to be more sensitive to the circumstances we face in our lives when dealing not only with pig iron but also with people.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Colorado Cook Book

Colorado Cook Book, published by The Young Ladies’ Mission Band of the Central Presbyterian Church

Although I consider myself no particularly great cook, I am no stranger to reading and enjoying cookbooks [1].  Nor am I a stranger to church cookbooks, as they are not uncommon in my own background.  Among the more notable aspects of this book that stuck out to me, and even troubled me a little, was the fact that the cook book was so short (at only about 45 pages or so) but so full of advertisements.  Perhaps it is more common for religious works to be filled with advertising in other traditions, but in my own that is not the customary way of proceeding, and I was struck by how commercial the book was, to the point where it resembled some of the trade magazines I have read and reviewed previously.  I had expected this book to provide a focus of food that would relate to Colorado, but found that many of the dishes had followed the congregants from the South, of all places.  This was definitely a book that surprised me and confounded my own modest expectations, although whether or not that is a bad thing is difficult to say.

The contents of this short book are straightforward.  Much of the content is taken up of advertisements, as has been previously noted.  The remainder of the content is taken up with the expected recipes as well as an index at the end.  The book opens with a reminder that the ingredient of common sense is necessary to use this book profitably, and that is a wise precaution to take.  Included are recipes for bullion soups, entrees, bread (and even yeast), as well as various cakes and other sweets.  Some of the striking qualities include a simplicity of ingredients, although there is a marked fondness for lemon and New Orleans molasses.  There were quite a few meat dishes although there was a striking lack of vegetables other than starchy ones like potatoes.  Modern readers will find the fare discussed here to be hearty but lacking in many of the refinements and wide variety of foods that are available to contemporary cooks in local grocery stores.  Unsurprisingly, the fare here resembles the sort of fare a person would expect on the Oregon Trail rather than in a contemporary Trader Joe’s or similar establishment.

What is remarkable about this book as well is the sort of assumed knowledge many of the recipes have.  Many contemporary cookbooks, aware of the lack of homemaking knowledge of their readers, spell out what equipment to use to make what dishes and also give detailed instructions on preparation of the items discussed.  On the contrary, these recipes assume a high degree of background knowledge, expecting someone to know what is needed to make an omelette, for example.  The simplicity of the ingredients and the laconic nature of the instructions means that most of the recipes included here are immensely short.  Whether or not this brevity is to the taste of the reader depends on the background knowledge they bring to this particular book.  This book is perhaps best read for background knowledge of the eating habits of people in the late 19th and early 20th century, especially for use by writers and historical reenactors looking to build authenticity in the portrayal of the eating habits of the time and place.  Other readers will likely find this book to be quaint and entertaining, but that is not necessarily a bad thing and this book is certainly easy enough to enjoy on its own modest merits.

[1] See, for example:

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The Madness Of Calculators

[Note:  As I was in the middle of writing this particular entry, I found out about the death, likely by suicide, of Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington, at the age of 41.  While I had not intended on writing this entry on anything that was topical in the wider world, as someone who was fond of a great deal of Linkin Park’s music [*]

As a result of adding to my reading of the works of G.K. Chesterton [1], I came across a striking insight of his in his masterpiece Orthodoxy that I wished to share because it was something that hit home surprisingly heavily for me.  It is an example of a counterintuitive piece of wisdom that proves to be deeply insightful.  We are prone to look for madness among poets, but Chesterton comments that rationality is the place where people go insane and not imagination.  He posits that it is one’s capacity for imagination that allows people to maintain what sense of balance and sanity they often possess.  I wish to take that insight and follow the thread a little, and I hope that others may not find it a very boring or unprofitable sort of discussion.  Given my own complicated mental health history, I am somewhat cautious about engaging in such a discussion, but I trust that while I may be all too well understood, I am not likely to be viewed as less than competent to engage in such a discussion, seeing as I draw my own personal knowledge in the situation.

I have often mused about the problem of insanity or madness or severe mental distress on several occasions and from several perspectives [2].  From childhood, due to both my native high degree of sensitivity and to a traumatic youth, I have been afflicted with various troubles relating to mental health that I have dealt with as quietly and bravely as possible.  In my own experiences, those periods where I have been in the greatest distress and trouble felt like being caught in a black hole as it is described by scientists, where light cannot escape, where the gravity of one’s own concerns and obsessive rumination on oneself and one’s own issues collapses the whole universe of one’s cares and concerns into a gloomy event horizon from which one seeks desperately and often unsuccessfully for an escape.  Thankfully, such times are rare, but they are not unfamiliar to me.  Nor are they likely unfamiliar to many others who have suffered with such issues.  My own experiences have given me a great deal of compassion for those who struggle with feelings of despair and gloominess so intense that they fear it will never end so long as they draw breath.

My own experience, therefore, would tend to confirm what Chesterton is trying to get at about the aspect of ourselves from which madness springs.  Madness does not so much as afflict us through our imagination, for although a worried and anxious person can easily imagine potential problems and difficulties in life, many of which prove to be illusory, so too the imagination gives us such possibility of escape as we can have from problems.  Our imagination can give us resources through giving us possibilities which we can then work through, and working through possibilities saves us from despair by giving us something, anything, to think about other than ourselves and our own misery.  Sometimes, if we read speculative fiction, we may develop the resources to imagine other worlds that are more pleasant than our own and other versions of ourselves that are possessed of resources we cannot see within ourselves if we look through the dull and prosaic eyes with which we view ourselves critically.  And if we are particularly lucky, sometimes by imagining ourselves to be better, we may be able to see that our imagination tells us truths that we could not see any other way, and so we may in dreams or in focus on those things outside of ourselves or in the efforts of those who are outside of our own quantum singularity find ourselves to be free of that which we fear in the long dark nights of our often troubled souls.

It is, in contrast, our reasoning that can lead us into deep despair.  We rely on our head to know better than our heart.  Most of us, unless our longings are particularly problematic or our track record when it comes to seeking relationships and intimacy particularly unfortunate, are willing to accept that our hearts are not always wise and not let it trouble us to any great extent.  In contrast, we rely on our head to be wise, at least wise enough to find us ways out of the troubles that we inevitably find ourselves in.  And yet our minds often fail us, they are lazy, they get into ruts, and all too often when times are particularly grim they often fail to show us ways outside of the various traps we have fallen into.  It is not so often the sadness of a gloomy heart, painful as that is, that leads us into despair, but the failure of the mind to see a way out of where we are that marks our descent into madness.  When our minds cannot handle the difficulties we place ourselves into by giving us a possible way out, many of us fail to take the sort of steps that would allow us to carry on or overcome.  It is failure of imagination that often proves decisive in our struggles.

And this ought not to be surprising.  Our minds are often focused on efforts of calculation, and we turn our minds to the solving of difficult but often terribly mundane tasks.  We pride ourselves on the acquisition of knowledge, not always very sensitive to what we are stuffing into our memory banks.  Not all of what we remember and “know” is helpful to us.  Not all of us realize the importance our mind has in helping us to get unstuck from ourselves.  Too often in difficult times we pull ourselves inward and look only within.  One of the great counterfeit pseudoinsights offered to our age is that the path to wisdom and enlightenment lies within, but that is exactly what is not true.  What is inside of us will often lead us into the darkest of despair if we let it run untrammeled on its dark course.  We need light and hope and insight from without, and unless our mind is focused on finding an escape for ourselves from what can seem like intolerable situations, then we will find ourselves worn down by the continual fight against the darkness within us, and ultimately unable to rise above the evils of our world and of ourselves.  As difficult as a time as artists in our time have with mental health, for the vast majority of us it is not the madness of poets that we should fear, but rather the madness of calculators that leads us into the abyss.

[*] See, for example:

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

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Book Review: Cultivate

Cultivate:  A Grace-Filled Guide To Growing An Intentional Life, by Lara Casey

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by BookLook/Thomas Nelson.]

In reading this book, I found that I share a great deal in common with its author.  I’m not sure how I feel about that, but it did allow me to relate to this book particularly well, because it placed one of my more unusual interests in gardening in a larger perspective [1].  Throughout this book, the reader gets a real sense of the author as a person, as someone who is more than a little bit on the perfectionist side, someone who struggles with the multitude of demands placed on her, and someone who ultimately values the process by which new life develops.  This is true whether we are talking about the new life of small children, or the new life of garden plants and animals, or the new spiritual life that God wishes to create within us, all of which are the subject of a great deal of reflection and mediation.  This is a far more layered book than I expected it to be, and a far more deeply personal one as well.

In terms of its contents, this is a well organized and structured book.  The author divides her work into three sections.  The first section encourages readers to dig in, the second part to cultivate their lives like gardens, and the third to prepare to gather in the fruit that results from the patient labor of God and man.  Each chapter includes a variety of discussion questions for the reader to ponder and reflect on, and a great deal of personal discussion from the author.  We hear the author discuss her somewhat hurried Vegas marriage, her struggles in overcoming a miscarriage, and her efforts at being supportive to her husband.  The author maintains that tricky balance between showing herself as a real person, warts and all, while also calling for reflection and personal change on the part of her readers to slow down and reject the acquisition-minded culture that is all around us.  In so doing the book ends up being a book both about practical Christianity as well as gardening and raising a family, and how all of these intersect with each other.

As is frequently the case with the books I read, this book is aimed at women, and while that can annoy me as a reader sometimes, in this case it was not irksome because what was said was generally applicable as well to male readers.  For whatever reason, female authors tend to assume that their readers will also be female, and on occasion this leads writers to miss the opportunity to reach out to a larger audience.  Fortunately, in this case the author manages to discuss gardening in such a way that it would be of use to men as well who enjoy cultivation, and who work to build the patience that results from working with the land and accepting the limitations of the environment even while hoping to encourage growth and life.  The author makes a compelling case for the way that the twists and turns of our lives can prepare us for noble God-given purposes and that gardening itself has a lot to offer as a spiritual discipline that is accessible to a great many people.  One gets the feeling upon reading this book that they know the author as a woman, and truth be told she is a pretty likable woman who one would indeed want to get to know a little better, whether through the pages of this book or in her busy life as a gardener, mother, and editor of a wedding magazine.

[1] See, for example:

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