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GP 5 April 2006: Fire and Darkness

Try Me Coffee.  We like our coffee to be high test, or otherwise it just does not get the engine going.  As we migrate from wine back to the rock hard stuff, such as rye, and vodka, and gin, we wake up in the morning and say, “English Breakfast tea just won’t do it.”  We’re giving up colored water for a while, and taking up vigorous drinks with deep color and body.  Substances where we can avoid the formulaic musings of Mr. Parker, whose rantings and ratings about wine have even crept into the supermarket.  We’re not sure, in any event, that cups full of weak potions that lead to weak notions will get us through the years ahead. 

So we got in touch with the people at Try Me and ordered up 5 packages of their splendid coffee-coffee, laced with chicory.  Cindy and even Caroline were gathered around, so we got to chat about everything, including all the eccentricities of all the faithful customers whom we have brought to their doorstep over the years.  We will have more to say about Try Me on the Global Province in April or May. 

Katrina had dealt them a 1,000 tragedies—more than a person can bear.  If we heard right, they still have 2½ feet of water out back.  The roof had a big hole in it.  But the lusty ovens survived, and all the family.  They got back in business in December 2005, just a few months after the storm, truly a miracle because they had to do all the repair work themselves.  So the business founded in 1925 by Henry Kepler, a young bank teller already suffering from career blues, will more than endure. 

LSU.  We love all the upsets that March Madness has brought.  All the top teams that tumbled, and all the upstarts that made it into the Final 4.  George Mason, an overgrown commuter university in Virginia, captured everybody’s attention.  But we are more taken with Louisiana State University whose defense put everybody to shame and proved much stronger than the levees in New Orleans.  J.J. Redick of Duke University could not penetrate this ironclad moving fortress.  Both LSU and UCLA offered strong defenses, where so many games are really won and lost, and where so many coaches display signal weakness. 

The sulphuric, fireball coach John Brady captured our heart, as he stoked the fires so high in each of his players that they could not fail.  “Big Baby” Davis added laughs and charisma to the team, giving it a personality that many of the automaton teams in the sport are lacking.  Colin Temple, Jr., who brought many of the players together, including his son Garrett, sat in the stands like a deistic god who set it all in motion, presiding over his creation.  Surely Louisiana is back, given this team’s victories, even if hopeless politicians in Washington, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans drag their feet in the mud and slow the rebuilding of the new New Orleans.  In fact, the fire never went out there, despite all the darkness.  Thank goodness neither the sportswriters nor the politicians are really in charge of history, and much of what they have to say is just spit on the water. 

Dialectics.  We’re at one of those points where history is constantly dealing us surprises, a time in which Lord Cornwallis could aptly once again command his retreating troops to play “The World Turned Upside Down,” just as they were reputed to have done in 1781 upon Washington’s final victory for the Revolution.  New Orleans was almost extinguished by Katrina, but the valiant, such as the owners of Try Me, fast staged a comeback, and LSU came out of nowhere to outshine in spirit all the teams in the South, even Mason.  In our “Irishmen Who Married Up,” we deal with the wondrous upsets that are now standard fare in the unpredictable world into which we have wandered. 

Surprising times, and everything has been a surprise after 2000, challenge us to comprehend them.  The lens that America’s pragmatic philosophers (America’s one true original contribution to philosopher) and then the logical positivists cast on human affairs gave us a pretty good way of handling the events of the 20th century, particularly after World War II.  We did not make great strides philosophically, because we could get along well on our old mental railroad.  But now that no longer works, and our leaders in several fields are leading us astray particularly because they have an outdated conceptual structure that looks at current events through the wrong frame. 

It might be time to hark back to Georg Wilhelm Fredrich Hegel, whose dynamic philosophy dealt well with Wagnerian opera, empire builders, and historically inflamed consciousness.  He was the mentor for the great American bridge-builder Roebling.  He allowed for a world, a spirit, and mental process of contradiction and negation, moving us through thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.  The sweep of ideas he pictured was like a battlefield where first one side advanced, then the other, until some temporary stability was achieved, only later to be overturned, as the dialectical process forged on, forever.  When the world is destabilized as it is now, one needs a philosophy of relentless change to come to terms with it.  In Hegel’s view of things, each successive movement emerges as a solution to the contradictions inherent in the preceding movement.  Hegel’s philosophy was the stuff of history. 

The First Existentialist.   But even more useful, we think, is Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, whom we describe as the “First Existentialist.”  We tend to think that virtually every modern strand of philosophy had an antecedent in the Ancient World, which is handy, since we can then see with some clarity in what historical setting a philosophy plays well.  He came forward as the Persians were invading Greece, and the Greek city states were losing their kings.  Heraclitus is one of the greats who does not inspire argument, but conjures up striking images.  Somewhere, as we remember, he described a world where fire and brightness advanced everywhere, reducing darkness to practically nothing.  Then, in turn, darkness advanced and turned the world so black such that all that is left is a bare spark.  More than Hegel, whose philosophy was rather teleological, Heraclitus just thought about perpetual flux—mostly without resolution:

Heraclitus lived around 500 BC in the city of Ephesus in Ionia, Asia Minor.  He became famous as the “flux and fire” philosopher for his proverbial utterance: “All things are flowing.”  Coming from an eminent aristocratic family, Heraclitus is the first nobleman in the cabinet of Greek philosophers.  He introduced important new perspectives into Greek thought and produced a book of which his followers said … it is hard to read.

They say that Euripides gave Socrates a copy of Heraclitus’ book and asked him what he thought of it.  He replied: “What I understand is splendid; and I think what I don’t understand is so too—but it would take a Delian diver to get to the bottom of it” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Philosophers, II 22). 

The Greeks before Heraclitus focused on the essence of things, its nature and being, which they deemed unchangeable.  In contrast, Heraclitus said: “You cannot step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.”  This simple sentence expresses the gist of his philosophy, meaning that the river isn’t actually the same at two different points in time.  It is a radical position and Heraclitus was … (very original) to conceive it.  He looked at everything being in the state of permanent flux and, hence, reality being merely a succession of transitory states.  He told people that nothing is the same now as it was before, and thus nothing what is now will be the same tomorrow. With this he planted the idea of impermanence into Greek thought, and indeed, after Heraclitus Greek philosophy was not the same anymore. 

Heraclitus held that fire is the primordial element out of which everything else arises.  Fire is the origin of all matter; through it things come into being and pass away.  Fire itself is the symbol of perpetual change because it transforms a substance into another substance without being a substance itself: “This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be eternal fire” and “Fire lives the death of air, and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death of earth, earth that of water.  Measures of it kindling and measures of it going out.” (Diogenes Laertius) 

From The Big View

Heraclitus embraced the idea of opposites, as well, which were part and parcel of his dynamic world of fiery flux.  He, Hegel, and others best prepare us for a world of perpetual turmoil and unimagined contradictions.  Every assertion generates a counter-assertion; every movement an opposite movement.  It’s much easier, with such thinkers in the back of our minds, to understand the tremendous polarization inside and outside America, to understand why no yesterday prepares us for tomorrow. 

The Sacred and the Profane.  Our spice lady, whom you will want to read on her SpiceBlog and on the Global Province at SpiceLines, has just toured through the spice regions of Mexico.  There she met a civilization that is just as materialistic as our own, but, paradoxically, sensed always a spirituality that is incandescent at all times:

Susana Trilling, author of the cookbook, Seasons of My Heart, took us on an off-the-beaten-track culinary tour of Vera Cruz—from the city’s small but wonderfully lively fish market, replete with soft shell crabs wrapped in sugar cane fronds, and seven-inch shrimp fresh from the water, to a vanilla plantation in Zamora Gutierrez where the vines clamber up orange trees.  There we watched a descendant of the Totonac Indians hand-pollinate a vanilla orchid with a tiny beveled wooden stick; the creamy flower opens only once for a few hours so workers roam the plantation constantly, examining every vine for buds on the verge of blooming.  Mexico was the original birthplace of vanilla and it is the finest in the world, with an unparalleled depth and intensity of flavor.  At Gai-Mex, one of the region’s top vanilla producers, we saw thousands of wrinkly brown vanilla beans laid out on woven mats, slowly curing in the sun.  In the adjacent warehouse, where the beans rest on wooden racks after their daily sunning, the fragrance was intoxicating. 

Even though Mexico’s middle class is hurtling down the road to materialism, most seem not to have lost their spiritual roots.  On the March 21, the spring solstice, thousands of urban pilgrims journeyed to El Tajin, a magnificent archaeological site near Papapantla in Vera Cruz.  There they raised their arms in homage to the sun, then lined up by ancient pyramids to receive limpias, or spiritual and physical cleansings, from curanderos, or medicine men and women. One curandero moved his hands around the outside of the patient’s body, as if sensing illness radiating from within; others rubbed seekers gently with herbs and flowers and sprinkle fragrant water while murmuring prayers. 

Managing Opposites.  The present day tells us that we have to manage opposites, highs and lows, success and failure, thesis and antithesis.  This is quite a different way to think about strategy.  It is not enough to have a great offense:  LSU and UCLA come at you with an unbending defense.  Top investors know that good performance comes from having a few big winners, but, day to day, the trick is to avoid those losers that sink you.  Big goliaths in every industry are faltering now because they ride their old steeds until they are tired out, and have no breeding stock to take their places: GM sinks under the weight of SUVs that once kept it on the road.  For every scenario, you have to prepare for its opposite.  Winning depends on your ability to think about losing.  We are now in a world gone bipolar, where everything is pulling in two directions at once. 

P.S.  Michael Eisner has risen from the ashes.  Saturday night he opened his new show “Conversations with Michael Eisner” on CNBC, the best thing that has ever happened to that extra-dull TV channel, part of the NBC combine that has lost its luster.  On first glance, we would say it’s not only the best thing on NBC: it may be the best thing on TV.  He did conversations with  Martha Stewart, Sir Howard Stringer (the man sent in to rescue SONY from the out of control techies), and Bran Ferren of Applied Minds, who designed the Tower of Terror at Disney World and is up to all sorts of worthy applied technology schemes.  Eisner, a mixed quantity who was run off the Disney reservation by heavy-handed Roy Disney after multiplying its stock value, has been painted as pure egomaniac.  But he’s much more complex and interesting.  Better than Charley Rose, he genuinely has conversations on his show, and all sorts of interesting threads emerge because he’s plain smart.  You can get a replay on MSNBC’s crummy website. 

P.P.S.  Both George Mason and LSU got smashed on Saturday night.  In the end, Florida, an avid football school, took home all the NCAA spoils.  But the LSU women kept the flame alive a day longer, letting us know that Louisiana will count in basketball forever. There will be another day. 

P.P.P.S.  The wonderful Princeton architect Michael Graves was struck down by virus 3 years ago, it laying waste to his nervous system, particularly the spinal column.  At the edge of death, he struck back, and in late 2005 even took a few steps.  Eight hospitals later, he’s at home and his firm is even more prosperous than ever.  We like best his comment early on about one of his hospital rooms, “I can’t die here.  It’s too ugly.” 

P.P.P.P.S.  “Is Success Spoiling Vieques?”  The answer clearly is “yes,” which you can read about in The New York Times, April 2, 2006, Travel p. 2.  Once an artillery zone where the Navy tried out the fleet and its big guns, Vieques, an island off the back side of Puerto Rico, has morphed, as the protesters shut down the naval activity.  Now the guns are silent and the kitsch is blaring, with trendy, overpriced restaurants and all the rest.  In the late eighties, you would stay with a local family unless you were part of a group at the rickety sports club.  It’s not all good that the military has pulled back here and there, as de facto parks are turned into commercial blunders.  Nonetheless, our roving correspondent will tell you in coming weeks about his good time in Vieques.

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