To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Part 3: Post 10: Philosopher's Stone Soup

A few weeks ago--I think it may even have been before we went to the Island, I was talking about something in group therapy--I think it was when I got all hung up on the importance  of asking permission to help someone--and afterwards Allen took me aside and asked me if anyone had told me about Philosopher's Stone Soup. Nobody had, so he did, saying it was a pot-luck dinner he hosted every Tuesday, except that instead of bringing finished dishes everyone was supposed to bring an ingredient. Everyone cooks together, and then talks. He said I should come.

"How  do I know what ingredient to bring?" I asked.

"You can bring any ingredient you like, as long as you can make it edible in twenty minutes or less," Allen answered. "So, no whole frozen turkeys, no live cattle..." His eyes twinkled. I didn't understand, and I think he knew it.

"So, how do you know what I'm going to bring, so we can, you know, make a meal of it?"

"I don't," he answered, still twinkling, "but I don't know what you're going to bring to talk about, either. I never know what anyone is going to bring to the table."

Most of the faculty have what might best be called extra-curricular activities. I mean, they are extra-curricular, but that makes it sound like Spanish Club back in high school, or varsity football or something, and I think these are much more what the Masters do for fun. For one thing, some of them curse, or tell dirty jokes at these things, which they certainly don't do in class. Uniforms aren't required. I've been to a couple of these things now--besides Philosopher's Stone Soup, I've been to Calaloo, which is a sort of open mike Kit hosts once a month (there is no microphone, but I'm not sure what else to call it), and once I sat in one night on Kit's Thursday Night Jam, even though I don't play an instrument. Twice I've gone star-watching with Karen and Joy. I'm also aware that there are other extra-curricular options that are secret, or at least by invitation only. Charlie doesn't seem to have any such group, which I find suspicious, and I know Kit has a teaching coven that is only interested to students seriously interested in Wicca. Philosopher's Stone Soup isn't secret or closed, it's just that somehow I hadn't heard of it before. I guess Allen figured out that if I had known, I would have been coming.

I missed that first Tuesday, for whatever reason, but I've been every week since then. My first week I brought a large loaf of bread from a bakery in town and we ended up making something that was closer to pizza than anything else I can think of, but I'm not sure I'd call it pizza, either. We met out near an old outdoor hearth near the main greenhouse, right in front of where the dorms used to be when this was a boy's boarding school. There are a few picnic tables there, and a grill, and a burnt place in the ground where I guess they have bonfires sometimes. Otherwise it's all long tickle of grass and mosquitoes and the fringe of trees. We used citronella candles and a lot of herbal bug spray and we cooked on the grill.

So we were all sitting around the table, chopping and dicing and mixing, when I noticed Allen watching Raven (the one who was so science-minded during our discussion of Bigfoot on the Island) with a hint of a smile on his face. She was busy cutting up garlic. She'd brought this huge quantity of garlic, maybe ten heads', and she'd carefully peeled all the cloves from maybe two of them. Allen saw me watching him watch her, and he made eye contact with me for a moment.

"How much garlic do you plan on cutting up?" he asked her, casually.

"I don't know--as much as I've got peeled here," she answered, with a touch of irritation. Raven, this Raven, I mean, is really easily distracted, but when she does get focused on something, she tends to really get into it. She appeared to be rather narrowly focused on cutting garlic. She seemed to be attempting to make all the pieces exactly the same size.

Allen got up and wandered around the table, checking on various people's progress or stopping to join different conversations for a moment. We had two tables joined end to end, and enough people that we tended to break up into sub-conversations. He went to check if the grill was hot enough, and then continued making his rounds. Except he had filled his pockets with garlic.

Slight-of-hand is audience-specific, meaning that the illusion is built around the perspective, visual or otherwise, of particular people. If you're not part of that audience, the trick is sometimes glaringly obvious. So I saw Allen casually peeling clove after clove of garlic as he wandered around among us, supervising the cooking, and I saw him deposit a couple of extra cloves in Raven's pile. Raven saw nothing except her work, and she went on chopping garlic.

All of us could see it. I watched as, one by one, everyone except Raven gradually noticed what Allen was doing. One by one, they all started to laugh but suppressed it, and thereafter kept a straight face. He added clove after clove, one to three at a time, never letting the number of cloves in Raven's pile drop below five. I read, somewhere, that above five it gets a lot harder to estimate quantities just by looking, without deliberately counting. A mountain of chopped garlic gradually grew beside Raven. and it kept growing.

Finally, Raven gave a sort of a jump, stared at her pile of chopped garlic for a moment, then at her pile of peeled garlic cloves, ready to chop, that never seemed to get any smaller...her brow furrowed a moment in thought, and then--


He was sitting beside her at the time, and she slapped and beat at him, not hard, and not without laughing.

I wouldn't have thought you could hit a teacher, even in play, but Allen somehow managed to seem just as dignified while fending off the blows of this tiny little woman and laughing as he did at any other time. It's like he couldn't act undignified because his dignity isn't an act.

Like I said, I've been going to Philosopher's Stone Soup for several weeks now, and something like that usually happens. Allen plays tricks, or starts juggling potatoes...once someone bought pies and we called foul, as pies are not an ingredient but a finished dish. So, since we'd ruled out the pies for the meal, we had a pie-fight instead. Most of the time Kit shows up--I'm not sure if she's there as a co-leader or as a participant--and she  gets us playing these goofy games and songs. I expect she learned them in camp when she was a kid, something like that.


Sing "aardvarks are my friends" over and over to the tune of Yankee Doodle, and, if you do it right, each verse gives the words different line breaks, creating three different meanings; aardvarks are my friends, my friends' aardvarks are my friends, and friends' aardvarks are my friends' aardvarks.


Hi ho cried the merry dwarfs!
It's off to the woods we --- are!
We'd like to stay but time is ---- ---- short!

Sing it as a three-part round, and if the pauses line up right you end up hearing a new message coming like magic out of the song; dwarfs! are! short!

Once someone asked if anyone knew "This Is a What," which both Allen and Kit did, so they demonstrated and tried to teach the rest of us, but I don't think they succeeded.

Obviously, getting dinner ready often takes a lot longer than twenty minutes, but the food is always excellent, despite the hijinks, because Allen is a great cook.

But all of this is preliminary, because the central part of the evening happens over dinner when, at some point Allen asks "so, what do you want to talk about?" or "So, does anyone want to talk about something?"

And the question is a set-up, because whatever subject we bring up, he always picks it apart. He's the philosopher of Philosopher's Stone Soup, as in Socrates, as in the Socratic Method. He starts out asking clarifying questions and gently pointing out inconsistencies and logical errors, and he keeps right on going until he manages to thoroughly demonstrate that we did not know what we were talking about. He's not egotistical about it. It's not like he's trying to put anyone down, and it's not like he's setting it up like he knows better than we do. I used to think the Socratic Method was supposed to be about using questions to teach someone something, like you come out the other end of it knowing more than you did before. But I don't think that's it, or, at least I don't think that's all of it. Allen doesn't use his questions to refine our thinking until we're better thinkers, he keeps refining and refining until there's nothing left. He pushes and pushes, pressing us, chasing us out along the razor  edges of what we know and do not know, until--

It works because we follow him out. It's like that day on the Island when he led us out along the rocks until we ran out of rocks and ended up leaping into the antithesis of rock, which is water, the literal or figurative Unknown, where I don't think any of us would have gone had he not lead us, and yet had he ordered us in none of us would have gone, either. If he were a jerk about his questions, no one would go along with it. They'd get up and leave, or just give up and tell Allen he's right, just to please him, or just to shut him up. Because you know where the conversation is going. But Allen is a magician; his job is to get people to want to be duped, and knowingly duped, for the fun of it. You want to prove your point. You want to play his game, to use logic and reason to prove yourself to him. You think maybe, just maybe, this time I can do it, I can win the argument. And that argument takes you out to the edge, certain, tangible, as cold water.

Not that I never get mad at him in any of this. This past meeting, it was my turn, I guess, to get into the argument, and I mean I really got into it. We were eating dessert (some kind of sugar pie, like pecan pie without the pecans) and it was almost dark, and mostly we could only see each other by candle-light. We had decided wine was ok as a beverage, since you can also cook with it, and we were drinking wine out of old jam jars. And I was really trying to win, but I couldn't. Allen was just too damn slippery. He kept answering questions with more questions, none of which seemed to have any bottom. Finally, I got mad and raised my voice.

"Why don't you just answer the stupid question, you damn slippery...eel!"

Now, I have it in my mind that Allen laughed so hard at that that he sprayed a mouthful of wine all over the table, but I also remember finishing my pie, and both memories can't be true, but he did laugh.

"One of Socrates' friends said something similar," he said when he could speak. "Called him a torpedo-fish, which is the same thing as an electric eel. Really, I'm honored." He snorted again with laughter. We were all laughing, too. It was infectious, his laugh.

"What did Socrates do, when his friend called him a torpedo-fish?" I asked, trying to get a hold of myself.

"Called him out for flirting with him," Allen replied.

"I'm not flir--" I burst out, indignant, and everybody erupted in laughter again. Except that Allen fixed me with his incisive gaze and, very calmly, asked me how I knew I was not flirting with him. Then he busted up laughing again. Allen is the only man I have ever known who could do a dead-on perfect imitation of himself.

[Next Post: Friday, June 7th: Paleolithic Dinner]


  1. Hi, I'm Laura, belatedly visiting from the DT blog hop. I love the idea for this blog! I'll be curious to see how it develops :)