Jon Thysell

Father. Engineer. Retro games. Ukuleles. Nerd.

Month: July, 2012

My soul was forged in the redwood forest

The reason why we feel good when going to a great forest or a hill is because our spirits are usually cramped. – Chuangtse

I have enjoyed the wilderness my entire life. A decade in Scouting let me hike and camp up and down California, and one year even gave me a week in the forests of Oʻahu. But that’s not where my love of the great outdoors began.

As far back as I can remember, my family has made an annual camping trip to the California Redwoods. We’ve hit a few different spots, but our primary choice is Burlington campground in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Burlington has long history with my family; my grandparents used to take my mother there when she was a child.

We know the campground inside and out. We’ve hiked on every trail, from the short jaunts down to the river, to the two mile trek to Weott, where we stop to pick blackberries for tomorrow’s pancakes. As children we’d stop at the general store to buy comics and ice cream before the long hike back to camp. We ride our bikes down the the Visitor Center, and look at the same old displays we’ve known and loved for years. We hang out at camp and play cards or talk story around the campfire.

Some years we make the two hour drive to visit Paul Bunyan at the Trees of Mystery; other years we head to Ferndale, where we explore the little shops and admire the Victorian homes. As a child I’d spend forever in the used bookstores, trying to decide how best to spend my allowance.

In recent years, the highlight has been the trek to our secluded beach on the river. We drive a few miles up from camp, pull over on the side of the highway, and climb down the embankment. Then we pack our gear into an inflatable raft and swim to the beach on the other side, where it’s inaccessible by dry land.

We spend the day exploring the beach, swimming in the river when it gets too hot or stopping to make mud-castles. And at the end of the day we have to pack everything up again for the return swim, and the wet scramble back up to the highway.

Burlington and the redwoods are more than just a favorite vacation spot, it’s our home away from home, a place of family legends. The two times I almost drowned. The time my brother skidded his bike underneath a truck. The time we were hiking and an earthquake set the whole wood rocking. Each year we add more to our trove of Burlington stories.

This year I get the pleasure of introducing others to our family traditions. My girlfriend Anne and I will drive down from Seattle; it’ll be her first time camping in the redwoods. I’ll also be witness to the breaking in of my two nephews, as they write themselves into the family history at Burlington.

I’ve seen a good deal of the world’s beauty in my travels, but there’s a certain swell of the soul that only comes when standing before the majesty of a redwood forest.

It is, and shall forever remain, my favorite place in the world.

/jon

Taoism suggests experience over education

The following passage from the Chuangtse is one of my favorites:

A boat may be hidden in a creek, or concealed in a bog, which is generally considered safe. But at midnight a strong man may come and carry it away on his back. Those dull of understanding do not perceive that however you conceal small things in larger ones, there will always be a chance of losing them. But if you entrust that which belongs to the universe to the whole universe, from it there will be no escape. For this is the great law of things.

The Chuangtse is a key Taoist text, and a literal reading of this passage provides a level of understanding that coincides with the larger Taoist thread against materialism and the cleverness that a materialistic society values.

There is however, a deeper level of understanding present, one concerning the nature of knowledge and understanding itself. First, a problem is proposed:

Those dull of understanding do not perceive that however you conceal small things in larger ones, there will always be a chance of losing them.

Beyond just material objects, this also applies to knowledge and in particular knowledge that affects how we should act. Almost all belief systems proscribe a set of behavioral rules or suggestions for their adherents to follow. These suggestions provide the practical application of a belief system’s ethical and moral values.

As a species we’re addicted to telling stories and so ancient sages figured out pretty quickly that stories are powerful methods for teaching and spreading knowledge. In belief systems the world over, we have innumerable instances of stories meant to teach us how we’re supposed to behave. In the words of the above passage, we have knowledge (small things) encoded (concealed) within stories (large things).

So what’s the problem?

Cultures change. Language changes. Stories become translated and reinterpreted. Sometimes the author just wasn’t clear enough to begin with. When we depend on stories to protect our knowledge, we risk losing the original knowledge within the details of the stories themselves. When the stories are brought in and out of context with other stories in a belief system, we risk further degradation of the original signal.

Like a man with a strong back, belief systems can hijack behavioral suggestions by bogging us down with the details of the stories that contain them.

Most belief systems are founded on the principle that their behavioral suggestions flow from their particular conception of the nature of the universe. Christian behavioral suggestions for example, flow from God because Christians conceive of the universe as the creation of God.

Such a conception however, can lead to an education problem. Even without the benefit of stories, the more knowledge a belief system has, the more it is necessary for a system of education to spread that knowledge. Encoding that knowledge in stories may make the teaching easier, but there’s still a lot to learn.

It’s really a problem of derivation. If the end goal is knowing how to behave properly for the right reasons, the question becomes: How many of the stories do I need to know in order to act right? For most belief systems, that means learning a whole lot of stories.

So what about Taoism? Taoism proposes a solution to the story trap:

But if you entrust that which belongs to the universe to the whole universe, from it there will be no escape.

Don’t trust stories for their knowledge; you’re practically guaranteed to not understand them completely as the author intended. Instead, put your trust in observing and experiencing the universe directly. The ancient sages came up with some great ideas on what behavior leads to a positive society, and they didn’t get it from stories, they got it from observing how societies operate, asking questions, and performing experiments. In the end, it’s all very scientific.

Of course as human beings, even the sages like to tell stories, and as they’re generally trying to help others, they encoded their knowledge into those stories. The difference is, whereas most belief systems ultimately say: “This is the truth, believe it,” Taoists instead say: “This is what we observed to be true, but don’t take our word for it, observe the universe for yourself.”

In fact many Taoist stories actually make fun of people who insist on studying the writings of sages, rather than gaining first-hand experience themselves. Even more exult the inability of teachers to pass on their wisdom to their students, and how frustratingly we want to teach others what we’ve learned.

Taoism concludes that observation and direct experience are preferable to education. They provide their own list of observations on how people should act in order to create a positive society, but they also follow that list with the empowering offer for us to experience the world and derive the list for ourselves.

I discovered Taoism through the writings of Lin Yutang. If you’re interested in Taoism I highly recommend his The Wisdom of Laotse.


An earlier draft of this article was originally published January 23, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here revised and expanded.

/jon

Recipe: Jon’s Ono Lomilomi Salmon

My favorite Hawaiian side dish is lomilomi salmon; when I visit my parents, my mom always makes it for me. It’s essentially a fresh tomato and salmon salad, and after years of asking for my mother’s recipe (and promptly forgetting to write it down), I finally went ahead and pieced it all together myself.

Servings: ~8 cups

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. fresh salmon (easiest is 2 half-pound fillets)
  • 2 parts salt (easiest is 26 oz. can Morton salt, not iodized)
  • 1 part white sugar (half-can of Morton, see below)
  • 4 large ripe tomatoes, diced
  • 1/2 medium sweet onion, diced
  • 5-6 stalks green onion, diced

Directions

Preparing the salt salmon, part one

First we need to cure the raw salmon in a salt-sugar mix for at least two or three days. You’re basically going to bury the salmon fillets in two parts salt, one part sugar, put them in your fridge, and let the salt suck all of the moisture out of them.

  1. Mix the salt and sugar in a large bowl. The ratio doesn’t have to be exact: for quick and easy measuring, cut off the top of the Morton can, empty it into the bowl, then fill the can halfway with sugar and empty that in with the salt.
  2. Next you’ll need a coverable container to cure the salmon in. I used a large rectangular tupperware container, but a 9×13 glass dish with saran wrap will do. Pour down a half inch layer of the salt-sugar at the bottom of the container.
  3. Now you need to stack your fillets inside, alternating with at least a half inch of the salt-sugar between each fillet. Also make sure that the fillets face like-sides, ie. skin to skin, and flesh to flesh.
  4. Cover the top with the remaining salt-sugar, then seal the container and put it into your fridge for at least three days.

Preparing the salt salmon, part two

After you’ve let the salmon cure for a few days, you’re going to need to rehydrate it before you can use it.

  1. Take the container out of the fridge and dig out the salt salmon. The salt-sugar should be like mush, and the salmon a little stiff.
  2. Fill a large bowl with cold water, and set the fillets inside to soak.
  3. In twenty minutes or so check the fillets. Cut off a tiny corner and taste it: if it’s still super salty, change the water in the bowl and let it soak again.
  4. When the fillets aren’t too salty anymore, take them out of water, remove the skin and dice into quarter inch chunks.
  5. Set the salmon chunks aside.

Preparing the vegetables

  1. Dice the sweet onions and set aside.
  2. Dice the green onions and set aside.
  3. Dice the tomatoes, and set aside.

Lomilomi time

It’s time to mix everything together. Now, the dish is called lomilomi salmon because lomilomi is Hawaiian for massage, and it’s traditional to mix everything together with your hands.

  1. Wash your hands.
  2. Pour the chopped vegetables and salmon chunks into a large glass bowl or tupperware container.
  3. Dig in with your hands, and mix everything throughly.
  4. Finally, throw in a couple of ice cubes, cover the container, and put it back into your fridge.

Finishing touches

Now it’s time to let your lomilomi salmon set. By the time the ice cubes have melted, it should be ready to check. Take it out of the fridge and give it a good mix. If it tastes too sharp or the vegetables are still too crispy, try adding a small amount of plain tomato juice (not V8!), mix it up, and put it back into the fridge to set a while longer. Otherwise, serve and enjoy! It’s best served cold, especially alongside fresh steamed rice.

Remember, it is a salad dish, and does contain fish, so it won’t last more than a couple of days. Don’t leave it out longer than you have to: keep it in the fridge in a sealed container.

Eight cups serves about 16 haoles, 8 hapa-haoles, 4 Hawaiians, or 2 homesick Hawaiians. 🙂

Like it? Love it? Say so in the comments!

/jon

Updated 12/25/16 to fix the ratio of ingredients and serving sizes.

Bushido, education focused on self-reliance, and treating matters of great concern lightly

This quote, taken from Hagakure, often puzzled me when I first read the text in 2002:

After reading books and the like, it is best to burn them or throw them away.

Compiled by Tsuramoto Tashiro at the dawn of the 18th century, Hagakure is a collection of commentaries on Bushido from his conversations with the then retired samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo.

The text covers many topics concerning the way of the warrior, many of which I identify and agree with. Particularly with regards to education, Hagakure addresses the constant need for an individual to learn:

Throughout your life advance daily, becoming more skillful than yesterday, more skillful than today. This is never-ending.

Do not rely on following the degree of understanding that you have discovered, but simply think, “This is not enough.”

After reading such lines, and many more like them, it is easy to be confused as to the meaning of the first quote. Surely, someone who promoted constant and never ending education would not advocate the burning of books!

The key to understanding this paradox, I find, is in the following quote:

Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.

which is explained as follows:

Thinking about things previously and then handling them lightly when the time comes is what this is all about. To face an event and solve it lightly is difficult if you are not resolved beforehand, and there will always be uncertainty in hitting your mark.

So then, in order to handle a given situation, we must have been previously resolved to handle that situation. To be resolved, we must know what to do before the situation ever arises.

Since there are a multitude of possible situations that we may encounter in our lives, we must then strive constantly to become more skillful and more knowledgeable in as many areas as possible.

However, skills and knowledge are most useful to us when we are free of the need to consult references. That is, in order to treat a “matter of great concern” lightly, we must be confident that we can act immediately, without the benefit of books to consult.

Taken from this perspective, the suggestion to burn books after reading them is designed to help us internalize the material and be better prepared for using the knowledge that we’ve obtained. Even if the burning is not taken literally, reading a book with the expectation that you won’t have access to it later can be a powerful motivational tool for remembering the material.

So, the suggestion is to read as if you won’t have the text with you when you need the skills and knowledge that it contains. This promotes self-reliance in knowledge, from which stems the confidence to treat matters of great concern lightly.

When we are confident in our knowledge and our skills, we can be resolved to handle anything. But remember, we must be both confident and yet unsatisfied with our current level of skills. Overconfidence breeds intellectual stagnation, which can undermine our self-reliance.

If you’re interested in learning more about Bushido you should read William Scott Wilson’s translation of Hagakure.


This article was originally published January 23, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here with some slight modifications.

/jon