Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Two nights of storms have kept me awake and put my mind in perhaps the best state for where I sit tonight. My fire is low but cheerful and warmly radiant. I lay on a small spare groundcloth a foot or so away; close enough that the low red flicker aids my failing headlamp as I write for you. The side nearest the fire is uncomfortably hot, the opposite chilled by the damp of the ground and in the air left by the storm some hours ago.
A log, burnt through, fell and made me start with a shower of sparks. It has been burning for two hours now, and the soft pinewood has become a pile of ash that I must now readjust to be sure no log will roll out and spread flame to the soft floor of pine needles. This would not normally be a good place for such a fire, even with the rains, the pine needles will catch and burn along the forest floor, their pitch serving like lamp oil to keep a low flame alive long enough to cause trouble. It is my charge, though, to keep this fire through the night.
You know, this could so easily have been a fiction, but I am so glad to be writing this as it happens. Rather than the author looking back with a creative memory like the screen-writer of his own mind, it is easy to be honest with oneself in the moment. Honesty is a prize in writing. So many times I’ve camped and spent nights by a fire, but I’ve never watched one so intently, and with no other responsibility but to pay attention to it. Little flecks of ash land on my pages, as thought to remind me I ought no to be writing, and then a spark burns my arm to chide me for writing even then. I’ll walk around it for a bit, my over-tired body can use a stretch anyhow.
I have a little bag of almonds I’m eating five at a time every half-hour or so, just to see if the two handfuls I took just happen to work out to a multiple. I’m also not really counting every half-hour—rather I studiously avoid my watch in an effort to make time move faster. Of course, talking about it now makes me look, which isn’t fair. It’s like when you tell someone that the average person thinks of Abe Lincoln every 7.5 seconds—now that they’re thinking about it they don’t really have a choice.
Every time I shift something in the fire, bright new flames leap up and bring the opportunity to discover something new about my surroundings. This time it’s that my hands are dirty with soot invisible because of the dark; apologies for any smudges. Before that was that I sit surrounded by ripe black-cap berry bushes—if I feel bold enough to risk the thorns for a snack. Blackcaps aren’t actually blackberries, though they look almost identical. They tend to be more tart, but juicy and satisfying all the same in late summer. As a counselor, one spends a good portion of the summer warning campers not to pick them to preserve one’s own supply later on.
I push along through the minutes, wondering if I really want to be out here and alternating with my favorite Koan: “The student aked his teacher, ‘has a dog a Dharma-body?’ Teacher replies, ‘Mu’ (no-thing).” Time for a new log. Good, hard black oak that should burn for two hours slow and hot.
Daddy Long Legs just strolled across the far end of the big log that forms a wall of the fire. Just as he reaches the middle, a small breeze blasts him with the full heat of the fire that until moments ago carried mostly upwards, evidenced by the plume of smoke the wetter, punkier wood sends up. Poor guy was just looking to dry off after a long day in raindrops as big as his body. Never saw it coming.
In a stand of tall, straight red pines and even larger, knobby and spreading white pine, the strong breezes don’t penetrate low enough to be a bother with the full vegetation of late August. A boon, considering the unseasonably chilly weather of late. I’ve long ago had to pull on my old St. Olaf Ultimate sweatshirt. I’m pondering wrapping up in my sleeping bag for good measure, despite the hassle of having to air it out from the smoke and repack my whole rucksack. I just read Bill Bryson’s account of just how easy one can succumb to hypothermia out in the wild, along with colorful descriptions of the various states of confusion and dementia that the human mind likes to try and think itself out of. So the wind doesn’t much offend, but it does offer the most wonderful whooshing background to an otherwise very quiet night.
I have just watched for the past ten minutes what looks very much like a pool of liquid fire inexorably spread across the flat, slightly declined—which fact I believe is responsible for the exceptionally slow travel of the flame—face of my big wall-log where I now find no trace of poor Daddy Long Legs. The pool of flame doesn’t so much move, but imperceptibly incorporates each individual contour of woodgrain into the larger section of charred oak, just becoming ready to burn for real. I’m trying to teach myself patience, because I have somewhat lost the art of meditation. Practicing Taoism (philosophically) and Buddhism for a long time was something I strongly identifies with. I wonder if I simply lost the time to be more serious about mental and spiritual pursuits? Not only Tao and Buddhism, but things like conversation. I’ve been pretty hung up on what it means to be conversant and social of late. I’ve even written about it a few times, and here it pops up again! Never have I come so close a conclusion, however, about my feelings. Maybe I really just had to sacrifice some things that made me who I was, in the interest of my work life—who I was becoming? If that is true, then I’m looking forward to re-learning who I can be as it relates with where I’ve been.
So, two nights of storms have kept me awake, and now it’s my job to stay awake through the third. The mind changes drastically those perceptions which are often most familiar. It’s like waking up halfway in your room and seeing a drawer that you didn’t close on your dresser, but actually seeing some sinister shadow where none should be. This is the first really good feeling I’ve had for writing in some while, and I’m glad it’s been introspective for me. I can stare at the stars and wonder which constellations I’m only seeing half of. I used to know almost fifty constellations. Not sure how many I’d still get. None tonight, for the small patches of sky I can see. Since I’ve been here they’ve all shifted anyway. Maybe the sky needs to learn more patience.
Well, it’s time to put the fire out. Damn, only three almonds left. That’s too bad.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Masculine Ritual

I have, off and on, smoked a pipe since college. My father smoked a pipe long before I was born. My grandfather was a pipe smoker for decades before I was born. Those decades of history had been passed down over time and now resided in my house. The basement of my home during my formative years was very much like ten family's garage sales packed into the space of one. A favored pastime was burrowing into the mess--literally boring a tunnel into the teeming heap--until I made a sort of cave or found some undiscovered niche. There were desks full of yellowing and oxidizing trinkets, racks of old clothes that smelled very much like I remember my aunt's house in New York to smell, chairs we never used, tables, and the various and sundry smaller articles of my family's pre-90's life. Of all the treasures I found and hoarded, wondering ceaselessly about their purpose or value, the small circular rack with four of my father's and grandfather's old pipes is perhaps the one I miss the most today.

The indelible imprint left by this sort of object upon my memory is certainly responsible for my interest in picking up certain hobbies or rituals. When the Briar Patch opened downtown I would casually drop by to examine the wares and wistfully consider buying a cigar or, even more so, a pipe. Garage sales long past had claimed my prized rack of heirloom pipes, and I was hesitant at best to begin smoking avidly, product as I am of DARE programs and anti-tobacco ads. It took the better part of two years to convince myself that I wanted a pipe of my own, and I took great care in choosing one that suited my tastes.

The pipes I remembered were perhaps nothing special.  Straight-stemmed or only slightly curved; darkly stained briarwood  worn smooth in calloused hands. Budgetary concerns kept me necessarily thrifty in my own choice.  In the end, who can tell what makes this pipe fit more satisfyingly in the hand than that?

Such was my trepidation at the prospect of buying a piece of Italian craftsmanship--for it was with such thoughts the tobacconist had piqued my interest--that I left the store and returned on three occasions before setting myself to the purchase. I ended up with a beautiful Savinelli Duca Carlo pipe with a gently curved stem and smooth bowl in a dark walnut finish and a few ounces of a mellow and aromatic blend of tobacco called "Sweet Mist."

When I smoke, I am always outdoors out of consideration, and usually reading something that combined with my pipe-smoking gives the most pretentious air possible to a young man. That is all part of my ritual--the pipe is a relic of bygone times these days. A reminder of times when men were men and mistreated pretty much whoever they wanted to (a practice I've chosen not to continue), smoking a pipe takes care and patience; a ritual with minute but important actions telling of centuries of developing the best way to smoke; the right pressure for a consistent burn, allowing the char to build up inside the bowl, keeping out excess moisture. It's an intellectual practice, calming and simultaneously busying. It keeps my hands occupied without interfering with my ability to read--something that Ritalin never truly accomplished.

Rituals like pipe smoking, I gather, help a young man to feel grown up. The connection with past generations is a rite of passage that continues with each time we lather up to shave, tie the correct half-Windsor or St. Andrews, or sit down to truly polish our leather shoes. Rituals are the rise again.  I hope to examine the peculiar things men do in more detail in future posts.  I promise, I'll strive for brevity.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

And so the journey continues. With my recent acceptance to graduate studies in London, I prepare for an overseas move. Winding down my time here, I'll be selling off items I can't take with, and paring down the things I consider "necessary" to my life.

Obviously, what is necessary is not the same as what is necessary. Well, perhaps not so obviously. I mean that the conception of what is necessary to survival is perhaps different than the actuality. For example, I consider some form of hobby necessary. Something that focuses the mind, entertains, stimulates. People--at least me, for one--need something engaging basically to remain sane. Imagine if I were to move to London and for the sake of finances decided I couldn't afford to do anything; go to museums, bus tours, drinking, eating. Anything. I won't be able to travel with books. Perhaps not even my computer will come along. What do I do then? Short answer, I go insane. I don't enjoy anything about my time there, I take no benefit from travel, and I feel like I've wasted an opportunity in a foreign country.

So, I need to figure out now what will be most important to me in the near future. That may seem easy to most people. Most people have a definite hobby--I'm not sure I have one I can take with me. I feel like I am more surrounded by activity than I have felt in the past several months. Which of these are most important to me that I'll be able to continue. That is my quest for 5 months.

Monday, July 6, 2009


I am married now, and so I have a lot of things to take into account every day that simply weren't there before. Many people are familiar, I'm sure, with the playful jabs that a married man's bachelor friends tend to throw when he checks with his wife if he can "go out to play." This was frustrating at first--and is still mildly irritating, but it's all in fun--because I don't think I understood the underlying situation fully.

It's not as though I can't go hang out with my friends if she says no. The point is that my actions have a very real and immediate effect on another person's life. Part of being a good husband, or just a good friend, is consideration; part of consideration is placing another's needs ahead of your own. Thus we have the old ball and chain metaphor arising every time a man calls his wife before grabbing a beer with his buddies.

Personal freedom is at a premium with most people, but takes on of necessity a new dimension when two people merge their lives. I would love to quit my job. I'm waiting to hear from graduate schools, I could find work for the several months leading up to our departure, although without the benefits of my current work. Yet I hesitate. My wife, unsurprisingly, wants me to stay on for the pay and benefits until the last possible minute before leaving for grad school. To what extent is it in my power to decide this for myself? Ought I to take the hit for the sake (and reasonable arguments) of my wife or come up with and implement my own plan for this part of my more individual existence? A conundrum, to be sure.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Something I wrote a little while ago, have been working on. I like the personal essay format, ala Montagne because my mind tends to wander through things anyway, and it's a nice venue to make those random connections more meaningful:

A man seated next to me at the bar, while I wait for the new bartender struggling to get the credit card machine to process my tab, decides to strike up conversation. I’ve seen the man before—he may have been one of the 10:00 am regulars during my stint as the barkeep here—but we’ve never shared as much as a smile before this. I’m standing in front of his crutches, leaned against the wooden bar rail with their rubber stoppers a few inches too far into the walkway, begging for an incident. I suppose since I was hovering over his only means of getting around, he was justified in paying me some mind and finding out whether I was the type of person who would abscond with two lonely crutches.
Jim, as I was much later introduced to him, is a like a caricatured version of multiple movie characters. He is tall and portly, almost too much for one barstool. Long gray hair streaked with black, and a full beard pouring over his threadbare checked shirt give him the unmistakable and stereotypical ‘working class’ air. He still wears sunglasses, though it’s nearly 11:30 and the bar is kept dim for atmosphere, but that actually doesn’t strike me as anything odd. I have a memory of a camping trip with my family on which my father, sitting around the campfire as day faded to night, forgot that he had on his sunglasses and struggled getting from the campfire over to his tent until my sister and I laughed and told him to take off his shades. I’ve always loved how habitual items—a watch, sunglasses, or a certain necklace—items that we always have with us, are the first ones we misplace on our own bodies. It has nothing to do with memory loss, in these cases; rather some outside factor that made one go against their grain. I had to switch my watch to my left wrist once because of a burn I suffered under the band, and while wearing a long-sleeved shirt I panicked for nearly two hours that I had lost my new watch until I rolled my sleeves up. Jim’s sunglasses were likely as much a part of him as his crutches; one in essence and adding to the overall effect of his appearance. He looked very much like an aging Vietnam veteran as portrayed in some movies. Not quite ready to let the 70’s go.

And so on...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mooooo! Don't eat me!

Oh you delicious ungulates. Bison bison--no really, that's actually the scientific name for these even-toed brutes--bison bison is a scintillating and surprisingly healthy macrofauna; sporting a meager 2.42 grams of fat per serving, less calories and cholesterol than beef, and more iron and vitamin B12.

While a shoulder or top roast can be rather tough, slow cookin' is definitely my thing. Think about it; 1. Place meat, frozen or otherwise, in pot. 2. Turn pot on. 3. Go about your day as normal. 4. Eat delicious and tender meal 8 hours later. Slow braising is marvelous.

Even more marvelous may be the pulled-bison sammiches for days afterwards, cooked up quick in plenty of it's own jus, these were phenomenal!

Friday, June 19, 2009

What's Brewin'?

Brewed a double batch about two weeks ago with my future brewpub partners.

Here they are a'stewin, looking for all the world like the same beer, but aha! They are not. On the left we see what promises to be an amazing Baltic-style porter; thick and creamy, quite sweet due to the brown sugar, honey, and blackstrap molasses in the wort. Lots of fermentables in there, probably going to end up around 8% ABV.

Perhaps more exciting is that concoction on the right, which you can see dry-hopping with about 2 oz. of citrusy-floral Cascade hops. This, my friends, is a black rye IPA. I orginally planned for a standard colored and bodied IPA; pale orange to amber colored. I used a higher Lovibond caramel malt, however, so I expect it will be quite a dark amber in the glass. Even more exciting was the addition of rye grains for that spiciness that is so great in porters and stouts. A lot of hops went into that bad boy, and I expect a spicy-bitter flavor with a bountiful bouquet of floral hops aroma. Planning to bottle in about a week and a half.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Amuse-Bouche, Amuse-Mind

Stumbled across my friend's foodie blog--that wonderful invented term for us young hipsters who enjoy getting high class in the kitchen. The new Bohemian eats rather well, as it turns out.

After the (more or less) rejection of the fast-food craze by younger, well-educated people, I have been continually amazed by the creativity and explosive interest among my peers in cooking. Not just in making cookies, or omelets, or pancakes, or any normal fare; I should make the necessary distinction and say cuisine. I'm talking chickpea flour tortillitas with shrimp and herbs, or sopa de musclos ala catalana. Not exactly like mother used to make.

A great many of my transcontinental conversations have been culinary. How do you cook red potatoes best for a side dish? Where can I find arugula? What's for dinner tonight? Every time we get together these days--more and more rarely as we age--the general consensus is that we ought to cook for each other. Some fantastic, if poorly paired items have come out of these forays. Curried-carrot soup, the aforementioned tortillitas, anything involving steak.

My newest fascination is a 4-pound bison roast I look forward to slow cooking on a bed of herbs and aromatics until it melts.

I think part of this particular group's fascination with cooking is that--once we found mom wasn't there to cook for us anymore--we realized that we ate better than any college student had a right to at St. Olaf, and we weren't willing to give that up. More than that, cooking for oneself affords the opportunity to be extremely health conscious, and explore a certain diet for the specific beneficence it offers. Pat is perhaps my favorite example, and I hope I'll get to this point soon. He no longer eats meat that he hasn't hunted or fished for himself. I'm just not sure I could actually shoot something myself. I've never done it, who knows? I do know that I have been better able to control my own weight and feelings of well-being since I took control of cooking my own meals. Less oil, more flavor, smaller portions.

Another friend took his fascination and ran with it, completing a course at Le'Cordon Bleu School and now working as the head chef at blossoming restaurant in the area. His French-fusion style is creative, attractive, and delicious, and one of only a few places you could go in this area for high-level cuisine that focuses on presentation, portioning, and a varied menu. He has been toying with reinstating the prix-fixe tradition and serving multiple course meals for lunch and dinner most days. His cooking was my first experience with the concept of amuse-bouche; not quite an appetizer, not quite a course. That little extra something the chef puts all of himself into without really caring if everybody will enjoy it. My first was a savory custard, served in the eggshell with what remains, thanks to Christopher's recalcitrance, a mystery sauce I'll never be able to forget.

My own forays, while perhaps less intensive, will continue and be a continued source of amusement, comfort, and nourishment.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Listening to Joy Cardin on NPR today, there was a comment she made to a caller that set me off a little bit.

The discussion was centered around a book by a Muslim-American woman which attempts in a clear-cut way to illustrate some of the true "rules" of Islamic culture. When I came in to the discussion--and I apologize for not being able to give you the title or author, I was in the car and can't seem to find it on NPR's site--but when I came into the program she was discussing the historical precedent for judges throwing out cases of a woman's adultery where death by stoning was considered. In light of recent events, an altogether noble effort in itself.

This isn't what struck me, however. A caller asked for the guest's comments about the more or less publicized US-policy of George W. that it's "with us or against us." The caller felt (rightly in my mind) that the former President's policies and actions were basically anti-Islamic. Joy, with a more or less "shushing" tone, corrected the caller that Bush had gone out of his way post-9/11 to be seen with Imams and stated fairly often that Islam was a religion of peace.

That may all be factually correct but why, then, is Islamo-phobia the catch-word of the day? The US vs. Them attitude that prevailed certainly wasn't contradicted by the administration's actions or foreign policy stances--or by a deceptive war waged, ostensibly, against Islam itself.

Posturing for power is endemic to politics, that's no secret. I can't help but think that it was in W's interests to appear amiable in this situation while simultaneously promoting mass hysteria. Public opinion for an already unpopular war would have been unsustainable and provoked action. I can't abide this sort of posturing, however, that places in opposition and hatred and fear a group of people so vitally important to American relationships around the world. There's something wrong with consenting-by-silence to a rise in racism.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

New blog...and whatever to do with it?

I hope that...whoever makes there way here also finds it entertaining or edifying in some way. On to a topic:

Beer: It does some wonderful things. Also some less than wonderful, but I think more often than not it leads to moments like this. This may be why I brew my own. The simple pleasure of creating refreshment rewards on multiple levels. It requires the craft and careful attention of the artisan, and provides the relaxation and community of a pub.

I hope to share my successes and failures with you as time goes on, but I just wanted to kick things off tonight.