DIY Death, or Living (Dying) Off the Escalator

Just a couple days after reading “Asexuality and the Relationship Escalator”, which brought to my consciousness once again the relationship escalator, I saw the documentary A Will for the Woods. For those who do not know, the ‘relationship escalator’ refers to the series of ‘steps’ which ‘serious (sexual/romantic) relationships’ are expected to automatically progress, and A Will for the Woods is the story of a man, Clark Wang, who literally planned his own funeral.

One issue which gets brought up in broader discussions about the relationship escalator is that … it’s not just about relationships. For example, in much of United States society, there are also expectations about completely college, moving out of one’s family’s home, getting certain types of jobs, and so forth, which often tie to the relationship escalator.

In the United States, we like to pretend that sex is a taboo, edgy, or forbidden topic. To some degree, it is in certain contexts, but a topic which people go to further lengths to avoid is death, particularly discussing death in any degree of detail. There is, in alternative culture, a backlash against this – for example, the “Death Positive” Movement. However, for the most part, death is not discussed, and when death does happen, most people in the United States are either filled with embalming fluid and buried in a cement vault, or they are cremated.

Clark Wang, the man featured in the documentary, did not decide how and when he was going to die, but once he had fair warning of both the cause (lymphoma) and timing (2011) of his death, he put serious thought into what would happen to his body in death – both in terms of environmental impact and the impact it was going to have on the people in his lives – and he figured out that he did not like any of the ‘conventional’ options. He persuaded a cemetery manager to create a different kind of cemetery just so he could have the kind of burial he wanted. This included preserving a patch of forest which had previously been destined for clear-cutting.

Through the documentary, I could not help but think that the way he stepped outside of the normal ‘track’ which United States society sets of for the dying and dead, thought about what he really wanted and what was best for his people, the environment, and himself, and then made it happen … is not unlike the people who get off the relationship escalator, think about what they really want and need, and build relationships around that rather than just ride the escalator.

As it so happens, I have not thought too much about my own funeral, or any wishes I may have related to that. Even though I’m still ‘young’, it may be something I should do … after all, one of my high school classmates, who I remember as being a lively and assertive person, died when she was just twenty years old. It’s also a conversation I should have with my parents, but knowing my mother – who will probably die first – it will not be an easy conversation to have, if we can have it at all.

Why I Identify as ‘Aromantic’ and Not ‘WTF/quoiromantic’

NOTE: I am only speaking about myself, and nothing in this post should be interpreted as a prescription for how anybody else should identify.

I feel like my experiences have a lot in common with many people who identify as ‘WTFromantic’ or ‘quoiromantic’. For example, I am often unsure what ‘romance’ is, and whether certain experiences I’ve had are romantic or not.

So why do I still call myself ‘aromantic’?

First of all, by the time I was really conscious of terms such as ‘WTFromantic’, I was already comfortable with IDing as ‘aromantic’.

I also feel that I’ve established that, whatever romance is, I do not experience to nearly the same degree as most adults do. I originally typed ‘same way’, but there is such diversity in how people experience romance that I think it is the degree, and not the way, which distinguishes me from the majority.

Identifying as ‘aromantic’ to me means “I don’t entirely get ‘romance’, but I think I understand it well enough to figure out that it is mostly not relevant to my life”. And I still prefer the term ‘aromantic’ to ‘quoiromantic’ when describing myself because ‘aromantic’ much more clearly indicates that I do not consider myself someone who participates in ‘romance’ AND that I think I understand romance well enough to know that I am not experiencing what most people mean by ‘romantic’ feelings.

Of course, ‘WTFromantic/quoiromantic’ and ‘aromantic’ are not mutually exclusive, as luvtheheaven demonstrates.

Maybe, if I had been introduced to the concept of ‘WTFromantic/quoiromantic’ at an earlier time, I would have chosen that lable over ‘aromantic’. Or maybe not. However, ‘aromantic’ is my broken-in pair of shoes with regards to romantic orientation, and as long as it’s a comfortable fit, I’m keeping it.

I Gathered, Cooked, and Ate Acorns (Part 2)

579px-Cloacorne

Part 1 is here.

So, what did I get out of this labor-intensive exercise of gathering and preparing acorns for consumption?

Well, first of all, it made me look at my surroundings in ways I had not before. Even though I grew up around oak trees … I never even really thought about the fact that they were oak trees, let alone try to observe them. However, once I got it into my head that maybe I should try gathering acorns, I started paying way more attention to the oak trees which have been there since before I was born (actually, they may have been there since before my grandparents were born). I finally made seemingly obvious connections such as, hey, this is a major food source for the local squirrels and scrub jays. In fact, as I was watching the acorns ripen, I felt a bit of competitive heat with the squirrels and scrub jays – I was concerned they would take all of the good acorns before I could (as it so happens, there are plenty of acorns for everybody).

I also looked out for oak trees wherever I went during the acorn season. I noticed that acorns in Santa Cruz and Niles Canyon were ripening faster than in San Francisco, which is why my first harvest was from Niles Canyon. I noticed there were two species of oak trees in Niles Canyon, but only one was producing acorns – I don’t know whether I was simply out of season for the other species of oak tree, or whether the climate in Niles Canyon simply is not right for acorn production in the other species (which makes one wonder how it could reproduce in the canyon).

Furthermore, many of the acorns from Niles Canyon had been infested with acorn grubs (larvae of a beetle which feeds on acorns), whereas I have yet to find any signs of acorn grubs in the San Francisco acorns. Granted, I won’t know for sure until I start shelling the San Francisco acorns, but it is interesting that the San Francisco acorns both ripen later and seem to be less (or not at all) afflicted with acorn grubs.

"Quercus agrifolia acorns Mount Diablo" by John Morgan from Walnut Creek, CA, USA - Acorns. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Quercus agrifolia acorns Mount Diablo” by John Morgan from Walnut Creek, CA, USA – Acorns. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

At first, I had hopeful notions that I could turn this into a real source of food. Some approaches to living in harmony with our ecology (for example, permaculture) strongly encourage getting food from trees since trees contribute more to the ecological system than, say, cereal grains, tree-agriculture does not require tilling the soil, etc. And as it so happens, some of the best examples of societies which managed to sustain itself for 10,000+ years without agriculture at relatively high population densities by getting much of their food from trees are … the indigenous societies of California, who had lived right here in what is now the San Francisco Bay Area.

California, as you may know, is going through a major drought, and for some reason commercial nut trees (such as almonds) require a lot of water. However, these oak trees are doing okay and producing acorns without irrigation – in fact, oaks are so common in California partially because they are drought-tolerant. A number of people who are looking for ways to get food in ways which do minimal harm to the environment have been paying attention to acorns … and I wanted to see how practical it would be for myself.

Well, given the way our economy is currently set up, DIY acorn gathering does not make a ton of sense. It simply takes too much labor to shell and leech the acorns. Granted, there are machines which could do the shelling for me … if I were will to invest a few hundred dollars, which I am not. Leeching is actually not so much of a labor issue – for example, one trick used by modern-day indigenous people is to store acorns in toilet tanks and let the leeching happen automatically every time the toilet is flushed – but it just takes a lot of time/water to do it, and if you want to preserve the oil/starches, it gets more complicated.

Of course, it only seems like a lot of water because I got to observe all of the water used in the process. Considering that the oak trees don’t need any irrigation, producing edible acorns actually requires less water than producing edible almonds.

However, 400 years ago, people in the San Francisco Bay Area would not have needed money, nor would they have had ‘jobs’. They would have had plenty of time to do the gathering, grinding, leeching, and cooking, especially since they did not need to expend any labor to care for the oak trees themselves. And it was a social activity for them – I know shelling acorns would be more fun if I could chat with people I liked while I did it.

"Quercus agrifolia 2" by Franz Xaver - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Quercus agrifolia 2” by Franz XaverOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It feels satisfying to have participated physically in activities in some ways like the activities of those people from that older economy. It also feels satisfying to participate in the processing of my food from when it comes from the plant to when it appears in my mouth – and experience I have up to now only had with fruits and vegetables.

Maybe I’ll get better at processing acorns, or at least find less labor-intensive ways to do it, in which case it may become a semi-regular part of my diet. But even if it doesn’t happen, it was definitely an educational experience.

I Gathered, Cooked, and Ate Acorns (Part 1)

Shelled acorns, sitting in a jar of water.

Shelled acorns, sitting in a jar of water.

Ever since I was a young child, I knew that the indigenous people of northern California ate acorns from oak trees as their staple food. Acorns are high in fat, protein, and starch, and oak trees take care of themselves, so the indigenous people did not need agriculture to have a steady, reliable source of food.

As it so happens, I live near groves of native oak trees, yet it was only last year that it occurred to me that I could also gather acorns and eat them.

Once the notion got into my head, I started paying a lot more attention to oak trees than I ever had before.

Last October, I visited Niles Canyon. I noticed that, whereas the acorns in San Francisco were still immature, there were already plenty of ripe acorns in the canyon. Impatient as I was, I decided to gather lots of acorns in the canyon.

Under a big blue sky, we see hills covered with yellow dead grass with splotches of green trees on them, and a road winds around the hills in the bottom right

Niles Canyon – the landscape practically screams ‘California’

I had acorns, great!

Then I had to shell them and remove the tests. That was time-consuming, not in the least because acorn shells are soft … rather than cracking them off, it was more a matter of peeling them off. At least it’s a relaxing, not-mentally-challenging activity, so eventually I got a bunch of shelled acorns.

Now here is the real rub with eating acorns … they are high in tannic acid. Humans can tolerate tannic acid in very low quantities (indeed, a number of foods do have low levels of tannic acid), but acorns have way more tannic acid than humans can tolerate. On top of that, tannic acid tastes very bitter. The tannic acid needs to be leeched out.

“The Best Way to Make Acorn Flour” and “Acorns, the Inside Story” were my main guides for DIY acorn preparation. As recommended, I blended the acorns with water, made a slurry, and tried to change the water until the tannins were (almost) all out. However, I did not find their methods for changing the water entirely practical, so I ended up doing my own improvisations, such as using a baster to extract the tannic water.

Here is the acorn-water slurry.  The tannic water (brown) is at the top, with a light layer of starch, with a (slightly darker) layer of acorn meal below the starchy layer.

Here is the acorn-water slurry. The tannic water (brown) is at the top, with a light layer of starch, with a (slightly darker) layer of acorn meal below the starchy layer.

My first attempt … I thought I had leeched out the tannins, since I couldn’t taste it in the water, but I did not taste the acorn meal itself … uh uh. The results were inedible.

I tried again. I kept on changing the water again and again and again … and it just seemed to go on forever. Eventually, I was not sure whether there were tannins left in the meal or not, but what the heck, I was tired of changing the water so much.

The acorn meal, straight out of the jar.

The acorn meal, straight out of the jar.

After pouring out the acorn meal, I used a flour sack towel to squeeze out all of the water I could.

This is what it looked like after I squeezed out the water

This is what it looked like after I squeezed out the water

I then put it in a pot, added fresh water, and cooked it as a porridge. The results … there was still a faint tannic taste, but all I had to do was add a dash of cinnamon, and then I could not taste the tannins at all. It probably was no more tannins than are in foods such as walnuts (indeed, the tannic taste made me think of walnuts), so I figured it was not a health risk.

In my next attempt, I tried a different leeching method – I used whole acorns rather than blended acorn/water slurry, and rather than just using fresh water, I used a mix of water and baking soda. After a couple weeks I was getting impatient, so I tried the hot water method – boiling the tannins out of the acorns, and changing the tannic water with non-tannic hot water about every 15 minutes. A few hours later, I had boiled acorns with the tannins mostly removed (they could still be tasted, but not so much more than walnuts, so I figured it was safe). I then roasted the acorns, which made them a little firmer, but they were still fairly soft.

In addition to the acorns from Niles Canyon, I have also gathered acorns from San Francisco, so eventually I intend to shelling, leeching, cooking, and eating them as well. Hopefully I’ll get better at this process.

So, aside from edible acorns, what did I get out of all of this effort? That is a question I will answer in Part 2.

Lois McMaster Bujold is being nice to characters now?! A Review of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

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I consider this review is spoiler-free, though I could not avoid hinting at some of the events. So … spoiler-free, but not teaser-free?

I just finished reading Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, the newest book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga.

I enjoyed reading it. I also I think it could have been much better.

First, some of the things I liked:

– I liked that it explored certain aspects of polyamory
– I also just plain liked that it torpedoed the Vorkosiverse equivalent of the relationship escalator. Finally. I was getting tired of having so many sexual-romantic relationships in the Vorkosiverse following such a similar trajectory.
– A suspicion I have had for a long time about what was happening behind the scenes was … partially confirmed true. As in, I was correct about the broad outlines, but the details came out of left field (as in “What the hell, out of all potential characters, it was that no-first-name Lt. Jole from The Vor Game??!!!”)
– As in most of her novels, Bujold’s wit comes through, for example:

Miles’s lips twisted up, but he did not pursue whatever objection he was entertaining to that.

Cordelia, frowning, said to him, “I’m sorry that you were disturbed by the slanders. You never said much…”

“It happened at school, mostly. Boys trying to get me going, when the mutie insults stopped working. I eventually taught them…not to. Ivan had it easier. He could just slug them. I couldn’t get him to slug them for me very often, except for the one time some twit accused Aunt Alys of sleeping with you. That…went off well. In a sense.” A vicious grin.

“Alys came in for a lot of criticism in her own right for not remarrying,” said Cordelia. “Still, at least that one credited me with good taste. I was flattered.”

“Grandfather once said to me, when I was upset about, God, I don’t even remember which one, ‘We’re Vorkosigans. If the charge isn’t at least murder or treason, it’s not worth rolling over in bed for.’ Then he thought a moment and changed it to, ‘Treason, anyway.’ And after another, ‘And sometimes not even then.’”

– Much of the novel is driven by the suspense of ‘How will character X react when they find out the truth about Y?’ And I lap that kind of thing up in fiction.
– Sergyar is now my favorite planet in the Vorkosiverse.
– I loved the scene where Alex looks through his grandfather’s drawings

Now, there are a number of things I did not like about the novel, but the substantial ones are all tied to one thing: Lois McMaster Bujold is being too nice to the characters in this novel!!!!

Lois McMaster Bujold’s guideline for many of her works of fiction has been “So what’s the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?” as she explains in the afterword to Cordelia’s Honor:

I now had in hand a messy first draft of about a hundred pages of narrative, with no chapter breaks, that clearly wasn’t long enough to be a novel. I paused briefly, flirted with a really bad scenario about a convenient alien invasion that would force Barrayar and Beta to ally, decided “Why should I make things easy on my characters?”, and plunged on to the much better and more inherent idea of the Escobar invasion, thus accidentally discovering my first application of the rule for finding plots for character-centered novels, which is to ask “So what’s the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?” And then do it.

I think this “So what’s the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?” line of thinking inspired her to write some of my favorite parts of the Vorkosigan saga.

Alas, Lois McMaster Bujold did not do her worst to the protagonists of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen.

I’m not suggesting that, say, the Cetagandans should have attempted a genocide of everyone on Barrayar via biological warfare. I would not have wanted an action-adventure/mystery/etc. plot appended to this story if it did not belong. However, even within the scope of what this story is about … Lois McMaster Bujold really held back.

Now, one could argue the “worst possible thing” was the bombshell which dropped about three years before the novel begins. However … it dropped three years before the novel begins. I suspect this novel might have been better if it had been set (or at least begun) before that bombshell, because that was serious shit hitting the fan. Additionally, had the story been set at that earlier time, we probably would have been treated to even deeper explorations of polyamory/unconventional intimate relationships, which I would have liked. However, by the time this novel begins, the characters have already gotten past the worst aftermath of that bombshell, so that event no longer works as a “worst possible thing.”

One of the consequences of not doing the worst to the characters is that … it limited the amount of growth the characters could experience. Rather than the protagonists learning, adapting, and maturing to deal with their challenges, it seems they were mostly ready to meet they challenges already (again, this is why I wish the story could have started at an earlier point, before the characters had learned so much about how to deal with these challenges).

It’s not a bad novel but … arghh, it tantalizes me with wonderful possibilities which are not realized. Another review I read said that the novel feels like an epilogue. I agree. I felt like the real story happened before this one began, and darn it, I would like to read that story. Or failing that, I would have liked to read a sequel where the protagonists are thrown into a serious NEW challenge.

Vorkosigan fans will read this no matter what I say. I also recommend this book to people who are interested in polyamory and/or bisexuality in fiction, or in fiction which features protagonists over the age of 48 years old (and a female protagonist who is 76 years old). As far as the general reading public … it is a decent novel which covers some topics which are under-represented in fiction. Make of that what you will.

This is not part of the book review, but since this is an asexuality blog…

… I feel obliged to quote the part in Chapter 6 where asexuality (in humans) comes up. Has asexuality ever come up in any of the other Vorkosigan stories? I’ll let the asexuals who are reading this blog try to figure out this passage:

She sat back, crossed her arms, pursed her lips, and studied him. His chin came up in unconscious response to the challenge, and what a fine chin it had always been. “You know, it occurs to me—belatedly—have you actually had any practice at seducing people?”

His eyes widened, then narrowed back down. “Certainly! I’m hardly asexual, Cordelia!”

“I didn’t suggest that! You have to be one of the least asexual people I’ve ever met. Much to the puzzlement, I have no doubt, of those who have flung themselves so futilely at you over the years, poor sods. And odds.” Definitely both odds and sods.

The Fake Ruin, the Real Ruin, and the Ruin in Waiting

"Palace of Fine Arts SF CA" by Kevin Cole (en:User:Kevinlcole) - originally posted to Flickr as Palace of Fine Arts. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

Palace of Fine Arts SF CA” by Kevin Cole (en:User:Kevinlcole) – originally posted to Flickr as Palace of Fine Arts. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

Recently, I have visited three places in San Francisco which are geographically close to each other, and together, make a statement about the temporary nature of everything people build, and how deal with it.

The Golden Gate Bridge, as seen from Marin County

The Golden Gate Bridge, as seen from Marin County

The first one I visited (recently) was the Golden Gate Bridge, shortly after reading Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge. As the title implies, the writer is a big fan of the Golden Gate Bridge, and goes on at length about how awesome the bridge is. However, he is also a historian, and he knows that all great monuments are destined to become ruins. The Golden Gate Bridge narrowly avoided destruction a couple times already, is in a major earthquake zone, and requires high levels of uninterrupted maintenance to remain structurally sound. The writer of the book admits that the Golden Gate Bridge will last at most a few centuries. In other words, the Golden Gate Bridge is mortal. The writer finds this romantic – he imagines how future generations may marvel at the ruins of the Golden Gate Bridge, wondering how the bridge was during its era of glory.

Sutro Baths in 1894.

Sutro Baths in 1894.

Meanwhile, that future can already be found at Sutro Baths, which is near the Golden Gate Bridge. It was once the largest indoor swimming pool in the world, and for over seventy years it was the largest glass structure in San Francisco, as well as one of the city’s icons. However, over the decades it fell into decline, starting with financial problems, which led to the building being neglected, then abandoned, and in the 1960s, destroyed.

Sutro Baths, as I saw it in January 2016

Sutro Baths, as I saw in in January 2016

Today, Sutro Baths is San Francisco’s greatest ruin, and is popular with sightseers. As a child, I believed it was the ruins of an ancient Roman bathhouse (I did not understand at the time that the Roman empire had been on an entirely different continent). During my recent visit, some children passed by and one said that it was a ruin of the Aztec empire. The ruins deteriorate every year, and as time goes by, the remains of the baths will erode and become unrecognizable.

Sutro Baths, also as I saw it in January 2016

Sutro Baths, also as I saw it in January 2016

The Golden Gate Bridge is almost as old as Sutro Baths was when the building was destroyed, but I expect it will have many more decades of service. However, some day, one way or another, the Golden Gate will meet the same fate as Sutro Baths, and be a even more spectacular ruin until the forces of wipe the traces of its existence off the face of the earth.

"Palace of Fine Arts and the Lagoon" by Edwin Deakin

“Palace of Fine Arts and the Lagoon” by Edwin Deakin

Within walking distance of the Golden Gate Bridge is the Palace of Fine Arts. As a young child, I was convinced that the palace was an ancient Greek ruin, just as I had once believed that Sutro Baths were the ruins of ancient Roman baths. When my parents told me that it was not, that the Palace of Fine Arts had been built in 1915, I did not believe them. It looked just like the pictures from books about ancient Greece and Rome! Of course, it was no accident that it looked like a Classical Greco-Roman building. It was built as part of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition (PPIE), and is the one building from that world’s fair which still stands today in its original location.

2015 was the 100 year anniversary of the PPIE, and I attended one of the events celebrating the anniversary – specifically, a lecture about the closing of the fair. Even while the fair was open, a movement arose to preserve the Palace of Fine Arts, and it is thanks to those ordinary people that the Palace of Fine Arts has been preserved until the present day. There were people who wanted then entire fair, not just the Palace of Fine Arts, to be preserved, but it was impractical. The PPIE was built with the intention of being temporary, and it had been built accordingly.

Many people came to the closing of the PPIE, and there was much sadness as a source of much pride and joy in San Francisco came to the end. However, as the lecturer pointed out, the end of the PPIE was a planned end. The people of San Francisco had a chance to say good-bye, and it was dismantled in an organized fashion, not in the midst of a traumatic crisis. 1915 was less than ten years after the 1906 earthquake and fire which had destroyed much of San Francisco, and the lecturer claimed that taking down the PPIE on their terms and not the terms of a disaster helped the people of San Francisco heal a bit more from the trauma of 1906.

And a hundred years later, the Palace of Fine Arts still stands, having outlasted Sutro Baths and lasting long enough to co-exist with the Golden Gate Bridge. Heck, it is also a physical mark that, over a thousand years after the fall of ancient Rome, bits of ancient Greek and Roman culture continue to be part of the lives of the living, and is a promising sign that bits of our own civilization may continue to be with the living long after our own fall.

The Golden Gate Bridge is illuminated with the glow of the sunset

The Golden Gate Bridge, as seen from Land’s End (San Francisco)

Life is fleeting, and everything humans build is also fleeting. It is better to accept that, as the people accepted the mortal nature of the PPIE while they held onto the Palace of Fine Arts and celebrated the hundred-year anniversary in 2015. People also accept the fall of Sutro Baths, for most visitors would rather leave the ruins as they are rather than try to reconstruct the baths. In the present state of Sutro Baths I see the future of the Golden Gate Bridge. Yet planning for the inevitable decline and fall can greatly reduce the pain. And maybe the best of what our present civilization has to offer can be preserved far beyond its probable lifetime, just as the Palace of Fine Arts outlasted the PPIE by a hundred years and counting.

Letting Relationships Develop As They May

The January 2016 Carnival of Aces call for submissions includes the prompt “Do you go looking to start a specific relationship intentionally or do you wait to see if it happens serendipitously?”

The answer for personal relationships is very much “I wait to see if it happens serendipitously.”

Okay, there is a little more to it than that. I sometimes do something to deliberately increase my contact with people who may share interests with me, but that’s all I do – create opportunities for new personal relationships to form serendipitously.

None of the personal relationships I’m interested in come with scripts. Even ‘friendship’ does not come with a script. Therefore, I do not even know how I would start a specific relationship intentionally. I suspect that if I tried it would go something like this:

Me: Hey, I’m looking to for someone who may be a friend, or a queerplatonic partner, or something, and since I like you, I was wondering if you would be interested trying that out with me. I am not interested in dating, but if you want to go on dates with me, we could try that. But just to be clear, I am an aromantic asexual, so I do not want this to be a romantic or sexual relationship at all.

Other Person: What the hell?

I think it is a good thing that there is no particular script for the kinds of relationships I’m interested in but … I wish that it was easier to signal that I’m interested in close non-sexual/non-romantic relationships, and that it was easier to pick up other people’s signals.

Getting friendships by serendipity actually seems to work okay, and I cherish what I have. However, for serious, committed, close relationships … well, I have my parents, and I cherish them too.

Based on my experience and what I’ve read about others’ experiences, the best approach is to have a good relationship with oneself, so one is not dependent on getting into certain kinds of personal relationships with other people. And then let one’s personal relationships with other people be what they may.