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The Mighty Lalouche: A Heartening Underdog Story Illustrated by the Great Sophie Blackall

What Parisian boxing from the early 1900s has to do with contemporary technoparanoia about robots replacing us.

The more you win, the more you win, the science of the “winner effect” tells us. The same interplay of biochemistry, psychology and performance thus also holds true of the opposite — but perhaps this is why we love a good underdog story, those unlikely tales of assumed “losers” beating the odds to triumph as “winners.” Stories like this are fundamental to our cultural mythology of ambition and anything-is-possible aspiration, and they speak most powerfully to our young and hopeful selves, to our inner underdogs, to the child who dreams of defeating her bully in blazing glory.

That ever-alluring parable is at the heart of The Mighty Lalouche (public library), written by Matthew Olshan, who famously reimagined Twain’s Huckleberry Finn with an all-girl cast of characters, and illustrated by the inimitable Sophie Blackall, one of the most extraordinary book artists working today, who has previously given us such gems as her drawings of Craigslist missed connections and Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book. It tells the heartening story of a humble and lithe early-twentieth-century French postman named Lalouche, his profound affection for his pet finch Geneviève, and his surprising success in the era’s favorite sport of la boxe française, or French boxing.

One day, at the height of Parisians’ infatuation with the novelty of electric cars, Lalouche’s boss at the post office informs him that a new electric autocar is replacing all walking postmen, who are too slow by comparison. Desperate to provide for himself and Geneviève, Lalouche sees a flyer offering cash to any sparring partners willing to fight the champions at the Bastille Boxing Club. Though Lalouche is small and “rather bony,” his hands are nimble and strong from handling weighty packages, and his feet are fast from racing up apartment stairs in his deliveries — so he signs up.

One should never underestimate a man who loves his finch.

Thanks to his agility and love for the birdie, to everyone’s astonishment, he goes on to defeat each of the champions in turn — even the formidable Anaconda, “the biggest, baddest beast the city has ever seen,” infamous for his deadly sleeper hold. But when the postal service chief realizes the autocar is just a gimmick good for nothing and asks whether Lalouche is willing to take his job back, the tiny champ gladly agrees, for his heart is in the joy he brings people as their mail arrives.

Underpinning the simple allegory of unlikely triumph is a deeper reflection on our present-day anxieties about whether or not machines — gadgets, robots, algorithms — will replace us. The story gently assuring us that the most quintessential of human qualities and capacities — courage, integrity, love — will always remain ours and ours alone.

But what makes the book particularly exceptional are the curious archival images uncovered in the research, presented here exclusively alongside the soulful and expressive illustrations Blackall reincarnated them into:

Boxer trading cards, 1895

Boxer pose, 1911

Boxer pose II, early 1900s

Three boxers, early 1900s

Complement The Mighty Lalouche, relentlessly delightful and endearing in its entirety, with an essential reading list celebrating Children’s Book Week and this unmissable interview with Blackall, in which she discusses her brilliant Missed Connections project, the secrets of subversive storytelling, her famous NYC subway art, and working with optimism.

Images courtesy Schwartz & Wade

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How to Make the Perfect Cup of Tea: George Orwell’s 11 Golden Rules

“One strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes.”

After the recently examined history of how coffee changed the world, the most democratic thing to do would be to offer those of us who prefer tea a comparable treat — and what would be more appropriate than a reading of George Orwell’s his secret to the perfect cup of tea? The passage, which discusses “one of the most controversial parts of all” — the matter of the milk — is part of his altogether fantastic 1945 essay “A Nice Cup of Tea,” originally published in the Evening Standard on January 12, 1946, and later included in the indispensable 1968 anthology George Orwell: As I Please, 1943-1945: The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters, Vol 3 (public library). Excerpted below, it presents Orwell’s eleven “golden” rules for the ultimate tea experience.

UPDATE: There seems to be a bit of confusion about the recording: To clarify, it is a reading of Orwell, not by Orwell, from an old documentary. The voice is that of actor Chris Langham. No recording of Orwell’s voice is known to exist.

If you look up ‘tea’ in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points.

This is curious, not only because tea is one of the main stays of civilization in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.

When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:

First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.

Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britannia ware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.

Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.

Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realized on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.

Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.

Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.

Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.

Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.

Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.

Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.

Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.

Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.

These are not the only controversial points to arise in connexion with tea drinking, but they are sufficient to show how subtilized the whole business has become. There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tea leaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping the carpet. It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure of wringing out of one’s ration the twenty good, strong cups of that two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent.

The same year, Orwell published one of his most celebrated and enduring essays, titled “Why I Write” and exploring the four universal motives for creation. It appears on this essential reading list of famous writers’ wisdom on writing.

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How to Worry Less About Money

What Goethe can teach us about cultivating a healthy relationship with our finances.

The question of how people spend and earn money has been a cultural obsession since the dawn of economic history, but the psychology behind it is sometimes surprising and often riddled with various anxieties. In How to Worry Less about Money (public library) — another great installment in The School of Life’s heartening series reclaiming the traditional self-help genre as intelligent, non-self-helpy, yet immensely helpful guides to modern living, which previously gave us Philippa Perry’s How to Stay Sane, Alain de Botton’s How to Think More About Sex, and Roman Krznaric’s How to Find Fulfilling Work — Melbourne Business School philosopher-in-residence John Armstrong guides us to arriving at our own “big views about money and its role in life,” transcending the narrow and often oppressive conceptions of our monoculture.

He begins with a crucial distinction, the heart of which echoes James Gordon Gilkey’s 1934 advice on how not to worry. Armstrong writes:

This book is about worries. It’s not about money troubles. There’s a crucial difference.

Troubles are urgent. They ask for direct action. … By contrast, worries often say more about the worrier than about the world.

[…]

So, addressing money worries should be quite different from dealing with money troubles. To address our worries we have to give attention to the pattern of thinking (ideology) and to the scheme of values (culture) as these are played out in our won individual, private existences.

While modern money-advice tends to fall into two main categories — how to get more money and how to get by on less — Armstrong points out that this bespeaks our culture’s fixation on troubles rather than worries. He writes:

This is a problem because the theme of money is so deep and pervasive in our lives. One’s relationship with money is lifelong, it colors one’s sense of identity, it shapes one’s attitude to other people, it connects and splits generations; money is the arena in which greed and generosity are played out, in which wisdom is exercised and folly committed. Freedom, desire, power, status, work, possession: these huge ideas that rule life are enacted, almost always, in and around money.

He draws an analogy from the philosophy of teaching, which distinguishes between training and education:

Training teaches how to carry out a specific task more efficiently and reliably. Education, on the other hand, opens and enriches a person’s mind. To train a person, you need know nothing about who they really are, or what they love, or why. Education reaches out to embrace the whole person. Historically, we have treated money as a matter of training, rather than education in its wider and more dignified sense.

Indianapolis Newsboys buying brass checks in a newspaper office, 1908
The U.S. National Archives, public domain

Underpinning our money worries, Armstrong argues, are four main questions that have far less to do with our financial standing than with psychoemotional and social factors — questions about why money is important to us, how much money we need to achieve what’s important to us, what the best way to acquire that money is, and what our economic responsibilities to others are in the course of acquiring and using that money. We’ll never overcome our money worries, he argues, unless we first recognize those underlying questions:

Our worries — when it comes to money — are about psychology as much as economics, the soul as much as the bank balance.

Key among Armstrong’s strategies for alleviating such worries is developing a good relationship with money, which parallels human-to-human dynamics:

One thing that’s characteristic of a good relationship is this: you get more accurate at assigning responsibility. When things go wrong you can see how much is your fault and how much is the fault of the other person. And the same holds when things go well. You know that part of it is your doing and part depends on the contribution of your partner.

This model applies to money. When things go well or badly, it’s partly about what you bring to the situation and partly about what money brings. What money brings is a certain level of spending power.

What you bring to this relationship includes imagination, values, emotions, attitudes, ambitious, fears, and memories. So the relationship is absolutely not just a matter of pure economic facts of how much you get and how much you spend.

In discussing research indicating that more money, after a certain threshold, doesn’t mean more happiness, Armstrong offers a necessary definition of happiness:

When we talk about happiness, what do we have in mind? Probably a mixture of buoyancy and serenity; you feel elated but safe.

The relationship money has to these attributes, he argues, is “real but diminishing.” While money can buy the accoutrements of buoyancy — chocolate, weekend getaways, expensive shoes — many people feel unhappy despite having these. His explanation, echoing the philosophy of Alan Watts, leads to the obvious conclusion:

Money can purchase the symbols but not the causes of serenity and buoyancy. In a straightforward way we must agree that money cannot buy happiness.

Market scene, 1922
The Field Museum Library, public domain

Since Armstrong’s main argument is premised on the idea that our culture is geared toward addressing troubles rather than amplifying well-being, which parallels the disconnect that Martin Seligman observed in the field of psychology when he founded the positive psychology movement, it comes as no surprise that Armstrong’s key construct in solving the conundrum mirrors Seligman’s philosophy of flourishing over “happiness.” Indeed, Armstrong argues that while serenity and buoyancy are appealing, they fall short of reflecting what people really want out of life:

Most people realize that they really need to do things for other people. There is a deep fear that one’s life will be lived in vain — without making a contribution, or a benign difference, to the lives of others.

[…]

Flourishing means getting on with the things that are important for you to do, exercising your capacities, actively trying to “realize” what you care about and bring it into life. But these activities involve anxiety, fear of failure and setbacks, as well as a sense of satisfaction, occasional triumphs and moments of excitement.

And yet this is in no way a motion to flatten the full dimensionality of the human experience:

A good life is still a life. It must involve a full share of suffering, loneliness, disappointment and coming to terms with one’s own mortality and the deaths of those one loves. To live a life that is good as a life involves all this.

While the things money can secure — like power, influence, and access to resources — may not be shortcuts to serenity and buoyancy, Armstrong argues, they are inextricably linked to flourishing by enabling you to pursue the things that are important to you and, in the process, to contribute to the lives of others. Here, the relationship between amount of money and potential for flourishing doesn’t flatline the way it does in a more narrow conception of happiness:

Armstrong’s key point, however, is that while this correlation of growth might be directly proportional, money isn’t a cause of flourishing but an ingredient in it, a mere resource with which to build the life we want, catalyzed by virtue:

Money brings about good consequences — helps us live valuable lives — only when joined with “virtues.” Virtues are good abilities of mind and character.

Reminiscent of Ben-Franklian virtues like temperance, frugality, and moderation is another essential skill in alleviating our money worries — the ability to distinguish between wants and needs. The need-desire distinction, Armstrong suggests, is useful in warding off mere desires, like the longing for the latest shiny gadget, even if it’s of little utilitarian value, or that sleek new bike, even if the old one works perfectly fine.

If we want to be wise about money we should resist the impulse to follow our desires and concentrate instead on getting what we need.

Need is deeper — bound up with the serious narrative of one’s life. “Do I need this”? is a way of asking: how important is this thing, how central is it to my becoming a good version of myself; what is it actually for in my life? This interrogation is designed to distinguish needs from mere wants. And that’s a good distinction to make.

But it is important to see that this is not the same as the “modest versus grand” distinction. Our needs are not always for the smaller, lesser, cheaper thing.

The ultimate purpose of purchases, he argues, is to help us flourish. His strategy for mastering the needs/wants balance thus rests on not conflating this dichotomy with familiar ones like basic/refined (“a distinction about the level of complexity of an object”) or cheap/luxurious (“a distinction to do with price and demand”). Instead, he recommends a seemingly counter-intuitive approach — to consider our needs first, without taking price into account.

But, ultimately, Armstrong points out that the things most essential to our flourishing — despite what our monoculture might dictate — are often unrelated to material goods:

The crucial developmental step in the economic lives of individuals and societies is their ability to cross from the pursuit of middle-order goods to higher-order goods. Sometimes we need to lessen our attachment to the middle needs like status and glamor in order to concentrate on higher things. This doesn’t take more money; it takes more independence of mind.

Still, the material and the spiritual are inextricably linked:

There are quite profound reasons why we should care simultaneously about having and doing. Both are connected to flourishing.

What we do with our lives is obviously central to who we are. What we expend our mental energy on, what we put our emotional resources into, where we deploy courage or daring or prudence or commitment: these are major parts of existence and are inevitably much connected with work and earning money. And we need these parts of existence in order to find proper application in activities that deserve our best efforts. We don’t’ want to reserve our central capacities for the margins and weekends of life.

Despite certain cultural stereotypes, Armstrong points out that, precisely because of these parallel forces, doing well and doing good don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and there could in fact exist a straight positive correlation between intrinsic worth and extrinsic, material reward:

At an individual level, one is trying to find a way of making this happen in one’s own life. But because intrinsic worth isn not just what is good for me, but what is actually good, this is a public service as well. It’s not greedy to want to make quite a lot of money — if you want to make it as a reward for doing things that are genuinely good for other people.

In considering yet another essential difference — that between price and value — Armstrong makes a key distinction, which most of us intuit but can rarely articulate with such eloquence:

Price is a public matter — a negotiation between supply and demand. A thing’s price is set in competition. So the price of a car is determined by how much some people want it, how much they are willing to pay, and how ready the manufacturer is to sell. It’s a public activity: lots of people are involved in the process, but your voice is almost never important in setting the price.

Value, on the other hand, is a personal, ethical and aesthetic judgment — assigned finally by individuals, and founded on their perceptiveness, wisdom and character.

Armstrong finds a certain artfulness to the issue of managing our money-worries:

Ultimately, one is cultivating an art — one of the minor political arts, the art of domestic finance. By saying that it is an art, one is getting at the idea that there are multiple motives and rewards, which are integrated. There is an aesthetic or order — a physical beauty that is connected to neatness and clarity — like the beauty of the periodic table, or the elegance of a mathematical equation, or the rightness of a note in a sonata. It is a classical beauty.

In a chapter considering the problems of the rich, who are able to use money to fulfill their desires, Armstrong writes, with a wince and a wink at the “hedonic treadmill”:

Money does not liberate people in the way that we assume it must.

[…]

There is a very imperfect relationship between desire and flourishing. Desire aims at pleasure. Whereas the achievement of a good life depends upon the good we create. And the opportunity to follow whatever desire one might happen to have is the enemy of the effort, concentration, devotion, patience and self-sacrifice that are necessary if we are to achieve worthwhile ends.

Armstrong goes on to outline a number of practical strategies for improving our relationship with money and thus mastering our worries, concluding with a wonderful anecdote of a man who epitomized that relationship at its healthiest: Goethe.

‘The civilized ideal: elegance and devotion to work.’
Jonathan Joseph Schmeller, Goethe in His Study Dictating to His Secretary John, 1831

From his many writings about his own experiences, we know that he was determined to get well paid for his work. He came from a well-off background but sought independence. He switched careers, from law to government adviser so as to be able to earn more (which made sense then; today the trajectory might be in the opposite direction. He coped with serious setbacks. His first novel was extremely popular but he made no money from it because of inadequate copyright laws. Later, he negotiated better contracts. He was very competent in financial matters and kept meticulous records of his income and expenditure. He liked what money could buy — including … a stylish house-coat (his study has no heating). But for all this, money and money worries did not dominate his inner life. He wrote with astonishing sensitivity about love and beauty. He was completely realistic and pragmatic when it came to money but this did not lead him to neglect the worth of exploring bigger, more important concepts in life.

Complement How to Worry Less about Money with The School of Life’s How to Find Fulfilling Work and How to Stay Sane.

Quoted text excerpted from How to Worry Less about Money by John Armstrong. Copyright © 2012 by The School of Life.

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