Just Get Going

On Monday, my friend asked me to teach him how to sing. I’m grateful he did. 

Tom’s request led me to a podcast, Sing Better Fast. It was a slow week at work; I listened to it in the quiet times in my office. The show is hosted by two men: one of them is a dedicated athlete; the other can shatter crystal with his voice. This grows important – this podcast is not just for singers. 

The very first episode is a twenty-five-minute philosophical inquiry into the disposition of humanity – if you listen to it at 1.5x speed, as I do, it’s even shorter. In it, they classify the world into two populations: those who believe the can’t, so they don’t; and those who believe they can, so they do. It was a healthy kick in the butt – a pep talk worth repeating. I found myself almost insulted, but fully engaged. I tend to surrender to the winter doldrums – I have fallen into the I can’t, so I won’t camp. I’m emerging from them now. I listened to six episodes in succession on my first day. 

If you do nothing more, I recommend you pull up this podcast and listen to episodes 1, 2, 6, 9, and 10. You can even listen to them slowly, one by one. They are general enough to apply to any endeavor, and they are compellingly done. I found myself taking notes. I found myself altering my attitudes and behaviors because of them. I even found myself in a bit of a quandary, trying to pursue multiple unfinished objectives at the same time; these podcasts agitated me, unsettled my psyche. I’m learning to further focus and layer my time. I will give these episodes another listen, maybe even a third. 

The truth is, it’s too easy to be lulled into an easy complacency in this fast-paced and wireless world. It’s too simple to Netflix and chill at the end of a long workday, frittering the evening hours away, day after day. We’ve done enough, we say; I’m out of juice, okay? But to settle so easily is to accept that we’ll never account to anything more. We are watching Huxley’s feelies, consuming his soma. It’s a soullessly productive existence. This should be discomfiting: life’s not meant to be lived without soul. That’s not life; that’s shallow survival. We’re all better than that. 

I find myself renewed in several pursuits. I find my yoga practice deepening. I find my writing improving. I find myself reading more than I have in years. I’m re-training my voice to sing too. Try sustaining lip bubbles – purse your lips together and blow a raspberry. It’s hard, right? Now try to reduce your airflow as you do it. Give it pitch. Change the pitch. Keep trying. This is a basic singer’s drill – not easy, right? I now have greater justification to sing in the shower!

This is what they call an attitude of incremental refinement. The pursuit of mastery demands an attitude of incremental refinement. A master never rests content in his achievement; he presses on in the pursuit of greater knowledge and comprehension. Mastery requires neither conceit or arrogance, but rather a humility and a willingness to ask questions, to learn from others. Humility is fundamental to lasting success. 

What I think I admire most about these guys is that they stress accepting yourself where you are, then working from that baseline. You can’t deliberately grow if you don’t deliberately and honestly assess where you are. Many of us have delayed starting projects that matter to us because we lack the self confidence to do so; there’s no time; or we lack the support to start. Self-doubt squashes big dreams. I’m no saint here – I have a laundry list of projects I’d like to work through but haven’t, though the means are at my disposal. I’ve owned a guitar for four years. I’ve never really played it. I’ve fallen into the ‘others can’t, so I can’t’ mentality more than I care to admit. 

I’m not advocating that we cut our pleasures to pursue our dreams. I’m suggesting that maybe we use Netflix as a reward rather than a medication. Maybe that means that we read for half an hour before we tune in to our favorite show. Maybe that means we go for a walk to unwind. Maybe that means that we set specific hours for sleep and stick to them. 

I bought Raise your Voice, Jaime Vendera’s book. I found it on Half-Priced Books for half of what it costs on Amazon. I’m excited to work through it. I’m excited to grow a life-sustaining passion into something profitable. I will teach Tom how to sing, and in the process, I’ll deepen my own understanding of an art that has long buoyed my spirits.  

Growing up, I watched a lot of Malcolm in the Middle – as a family of four boys, we could relate to Francis, Reese, Malcolm, and Dewie. Malcolm once quipped ‘You want to know the best part about childhood? At some point, it stops.’ It was the line of an exasperated kid, and it was funny. Many people feel the same way about school. I think the best part about school, though, is that it can teach you how to learn on your own. Learning for your own sake is a joy. Joy is a deeper emotion than happiness; it is a state of being that transcends the ups and downs of daily life.

Practice what you love. Practice it again and again and again. Every master was once a beginner, and every master has wrestled with his own demons. We are all mere mortals. With discipline, mere mortals can achieve greatness.

Listen to this podcast.

James 

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Water

Have you ever been so thirsty that desperation set in? That your next drink became your only thought?

I was a migrant moving north on my own search for a better life, and the earth I walked on was baked, bone dry and barren. I was an Appalachian Trail hiker, and all my earthly possessions fit in a 60-liter pack on my back. Though I had the capacity to carry four liters of water at a time, I’d been heavily influenced by the ultralight mentality in my research, and I routinely only carried two; I was in Pennsylvania, after all, and water is everywhere up there! But that year, water was dangerously scarce, even there.

We hikers had our coping mechanisms, of course. Using our trail guides, we’d meticulously plan, only taking shelter near a reliable water source – and only close to the trail; we were too lazy to do more. We’d top off on water each evening, drink a liter the following morning, and carry two full liters every time we stepped off. Planning for a liter of water every hour, this would generally allow us to travel three hours before we needed to repeat our water ritual: draw three, drink one, carry two. With a bit of foresight, we could plan our trail breaks near a brook, spring, or stream – stop less, travel farther. This generally worked to our benefit.

But sometimes, it didn’t.

One particular day stands out. It was a hot sunny day in central Pennsylvania, and the earth was parched: it hadn’t rained in weeks. I remember the grass, brown and brittle in the summer sun, the trail, a mix of sand and dust. I must’ve walked twelve midday miles without passing a single water source. Maybe I’d gotten cocky. I think that, more likely, I’d just run through it all; I routinely drank seven liters those days and still pissed yellow. Hydration is no joke.

When you’re walking like that, water is your everything. I remember the sinking feeling as I pulled up to a guide-designated source and found it dry; it would be four remote miles before I got another shot, and I was parched. Those were a painful four miles: my mouth became chalky; my skin, caked with salt; my body, heavy and slow. Most significantly, my mind, in a twisted meditation, fixed solely on the prospect of my next drink.  I could think of nothing else for miles.

The Appalachian Trail was an iterative exercise in gratitude, but never was I more grateful than I was then to reach water at my effort’s end. Looking back, I’m sure I could have pressed on, but I was certainly in no state to try: the mind does get its say. When you’re walking like that, even food is secondary; water is your only link to this mortal coil.

Latin American migrants are dying for want of water. We generally decent people are letting it happen.

Were I to write a Trail memoir, my focal point would be the people. The people who sat at the side of the road with a cooler of drinks and a bag of snacks, baking on the pavement, just waiting for a chance to give a guy a Gatorade. The people who left two chilled water bottles at the trail’s edge with a note: ‘We know you were low on water last night. Here are a few to get you through. Good luck! Be Safe!’ I never met those people, but they meant the world to me. I bet they knew it, too.

Better yet though, the day hikers who packed in way too much food, then ceded fresh fruit and veg to us stinky types at the end of their leisurely day – fresh is not a common hiker adjective, at least not as it pertains to food. I still smile at the memory of a bag of sweet peas kindly given; they were heavenly. But best, oh, the best: those who’d dedicated their lives to making the Trail what it is today.

Connecticut looms large in my mind: Greg of the Toymaker Cafe, who left corporate life to let hikers camp on his lawn and squat in his kitchen; Pat at the package store, who took the time to personally know me, then connected me with her friend in Salisbury, who was no longer listed in the trail guides; Maria, that friend, who’d been hosting hikers for thirty years in her home, who was 87 and going strong in her community, who met me at the door, insisted that I leave my wet clothes outside, and gave me a towel and a shirt to make it happen. Maria, who fed me physically, spiritually, intellectually. Maria, with whom I was vulnerable, honest, loved. Maria, who left an indelible impression on my soul.

I lingered there; I made the upstairs beds for her, broke my fast with her, sat on the porch and communed with nature with her. Not so many people can coax a chipmunk to eat out of their hand. Before I left, Maria had a chipmunk eating of my hand. I was most reluctant to leave her; I knew she was not long for this world, and I wanted more, more of her. My path, however, beckoned; I heeded its call.

Time and again, I have been blessed by angelic acts of altruism. Maybe the practitioners found moral fulfillment. Maybe those giving had also known need and were simply paying it forward. Maybe they were just Boy Scouts doing what they were told. Whatever their reason, they all thought beyond themselves, and I was the grateful other. To love one’s kin is human. To love mankind is divine.

You might imagine my dismay, then, to read that four humanitarian aid workers had been convicted for leaving water on federal land for people walking in the desert sun. In shadeless, draining, ruthless three-digit heat. For people who were dying.

Every media outlet has its angle, but this does not change the basic facts: every year, people walking north are dying of dehydration in Texas and Arizona, and every year, more come. To evade detection, they walk through remote, waterless venues. Cabeza Prieta is a remote and water-scarce national wildlife refuge through which migrants pass, and these aid workers entered it – without a permit – to leave them water. Customs and Border Protection officers, upholding the law, found the cache first and destroyed it. The four were found and held to account. They now face jail time.

Every year, all across the southern deserts and plains, men, women, and children are dying for want of water and a better life, and our national policy is simply to let it happen. That’s the humanitarian crisis.

Now, I understand that the magistrate who sentenced them was also upholding the law. Clearly, these aid workers did perform the acts of which they were convicted. Per the law, one of them drove onto a restricted area; four of them entered a refuge without a permit; and they all abandoned personal property: water – yes, water. For human beings. To quote the judge, they defied the ‘national decision to maintain the Reserve in its pristine nature.’ A nature out of which 127 sets of sun-baked bones were recovered last year.

These four criminal aid workers understand something that the law does not allow. Martin Luther King understood this thing. Gandhi understood this thing. Revolutionaries and gentle souls the world over understand this thing: that legality and morality sit on two unequal planes, and sometimes, the only way to act morally is to break the law. We have learned this time and time again across the course of history: our founding fathers, who tossed imperial tea into the harbor; our female suffragists, who spent months in dingy jail cells to secure the right to vote for every woman; our Civil Rights protestors, who suffered to make painfully plain the injustices of separate but equal. They all broke the law for the betterment of mankind.

Moral law is our birthright. Moral law knows that man is fallible, but that each and every human being has inherent and irrevocable dignity and worth. Moral law knows that the long arc of history bends towards justice, but there can be no justice without brave people pressing the outer bounds of man’s law. Moral law knows that to rise above the narrow confines of our inherently tribal minds is a transformational act of courage. Moral law knows that peace requires action. Moral law tends to the underserved. Moral law loves every other.

I don’t know how to resolve the problem of illegal immigration. I do know that it wasn’t such a big issue until we made it one – check out Radio Lab’s Border Trilogy for that story. I do know that prevention through deterrence does not work. I do know that, until we address the underlying issues that drive people to leave their homes, we will not stem the tide of migrants moving north. That means, among other things, checking our drug habits and giving a damn about our Latin American foreign policy. I certainly know that I can no longer sit on the sidelines of this issue. And while I don’t live close enough to the border to act myself, I can give my voice to raise awareness and my money to a cause I believe in. That cause happens to be diametrically opposed to the law as it now stands, and that’s fine by me; I know my own moral line. I will stand and be counted.

I turn 30 this month. This year, I’m dedicating my birthday to No More Deaths. I’ve already signed their petition to drop the charges levied against them. I may even elect to give monthly charitable donations to them – let the government see that on my tax returns. I, for one, am done.

Nobody deserves to die for want of water.

James

 

 

 

Heroes

I’ve spent this whole week thinking, writing.

I’ve spent so much time thinking and writing, in fact, that the piece I’ve produced rises above the level of a simple blog post, at least in my esteem. So, I’ll post a link to it when it’s published. Suffice it to say, I feel rather passionately about my topic, and I think that I have the rhetorical tools to address it effectively. I’ll tip my hat to Toastmasters for that one. Toastmasters, and lots of reading. For a writer, for a thinker, there is no substitute for quality time spent immersed in the works of literary masters; I know my own pantheon of heroes. 

Speaking of pantheons, perhaps you’ve heard of Le Panthéon in Paris, France, or Walhalla near Regensburg, Germany. Both are monumental buildings filled with busts of the greats of these societies, from science to art, literature to government. Both are worth visiting. I wish America had such a consolidated and accessible place of its own. Who would fill it? Who would decide? I could think of quite a list myself. I’m also strongly opinionated and not exactly mainstream in my opinions. 

But I digress. Heroes. 

In Walhalla, at the entrance to the grand hall, there is a prominent bust commemorating a young woman, Sophie Scholl. Sophie grew up in Nazi Germany and was, at one time, active in the Hitler Youth – it had its allure. Her boyfriend deployed to the Eastern Front 1942, and in May of that year, he wrote to Sophie of German war crimes, namely the mass execution of Russian prisoners of war and the mass murder of Jews – I’m not sure how this made it past military censors, but it did. The news effected a dramatic change in Sophie, and she began practicing a passive resistance with conviction.

Nazi power was approaching an inflection point in the summer and fall of 1942. The party controlled every facet of the German nation, from early education to religion, top to bottom, cradle to grave – no one was beyond its power. The German army, flush with victories to that point, began to realize that it could not crush the Soviet army; an important battle ceded to stalemate, then defeat. Concurrently, German citizens were beginning to understand the full toll of their war, and this threatened the effectiveness of the weakened Nazi propaganda machine, and thus, the state. Any further threat to it, then, was seen as an existential threat. Germany was a very, very dangerous place to be a dissident.

Sophie did not waver. That fall, she discovered that her brother was writing and distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets with a group of his friends. She joined the effort and together, they churned out tens of thousands of copies, manually reproduced, of two more pamphlets for distribution across a number of major German cities; they were blatantly appealing to all Germans in a bid to end the war from within. One went out in January of 1943, as the largest, longest, and bloodiest war to date raged on. By the end of that month, the German Sixth Army suffered a devastating defeat. In February, Hitler acknowledged the defeat, shifting favor against him. Sophie and crew released their final pamphlet. They were the White Rose.

The Nazis must have been desperate; Hitler’s propaganda minister declared a total war, citizens and soldiers alike, on 18 February 1943. That day, while distributing that pamphlet at the University of Munich, she and her team were apprehended and arrested by the Gestapo. The Gestapo pieced together the story, identified her brother’s handwriting, and took him in. To quell further inquiry into her ring, Sophie took full responsibility.  She knew that she would certainly die.

Four days later, Sophie appeared before a magistrate to account for her crimes. She was allowed no opportunity to give a defense, but reportedly said, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.” She was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. 

The Nazis wasted no time. Sophie was guillotined within hours of her trial. Party officials watched over the execution, intent on seeing it through. They could not endure this threat from within.

Dissidence is anathema to a dictatorship. Sophie knew this from the beginning, yet she acted out her convictions despite terrible risk; she knew that she’d eventually be caught and killed. Dissidence is anathema to any organization that is not open to the light.

Sophie Scholl did not mourn her own passing. With a frankness that is very, very German, she told her cell mate following her sentence, “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

That, my friends, is the power of one.

I’ll admit, I did not know all the specifics before I sat down to write and research her story. For me, it was enough to know that student who had fought and died for the better angels of our nature was respected enough to garner a prominent spot, on a pedestal all by herself, in Germany’s national hall of heroes. Nobody else holds that honor. Not Johann Sebastian Bach, who is unequalled in the entire musical canon; not Martin Luther, who ignited the Reformation and shook the world;  not Johannes Gutenberg, who irrevocably democratized knowledge with his printing press. Sophie Scholl. A student dissident. A peace activist. A girl. 

My intent here is not to draw parallels between Nazi Germany and Trump’s America. Donald Trump is no Adolf Hitler, though he has his fancies and inclinations. My intent is to share the story of one of my role models, who just so happened to live, fight, and die in Hitler’s time.  How much freer we are as a population today!

Our time needs heroes too. 

There is great strength in the power of one. Little people can make a big difference, and every voice has merit. Individual acts of courage have ripples; they radiate, illuminate, and root in hearts and minds. Sixty years after her death, Sophie Scholl was formally honored with a bust in that big German hall. Nearly eighty years later, we’re still talking about her.  

May we all, too, find a cause above and beyond ourselves to believe in, to act on, to live for. May we live so that we not fear death, boldly, out loud. May we find purpose in so doing. We, too, can be heroes.

James

KonMari and Me: A Toastmasters Tale

I scoped out my Toastmasters club before I even left European soil. I scoped out lots of things – I was unemployed and looking for new opportunity.

Anyway, as much as I wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail after the army, I wanted to join a Toastmasters club. I saw them both as means to purge said army from my system – one to let everything go, the other to start integrating into life anew. Everyone needs a tribe, after all, and I’d left the two tribes that had been mine for a lifetime: my church and the military. I’d also come out gay and married a man, which threw a curveball in that ‘integration’ aspect. Not gonna lie, it’s been a winding road. Whose life isn’t? 

But this club, my club, is Leadership Lambda, the first gay-aligned Toastmasters club in the world. The ‘first’ bit doesn’t matter so much any more, but understanding that it was a thing before Ellen was Ellen is pretty significant. More importantly, it was (and is) full of vibrant, fun-loving, and committed souls, and it became my home and my tribe right away, day one forward. I’ve been to all but maybe two meetings since then, and I’ve been in a leadership role for… most of my Toastmaster time. I love it.

Having grown up a theater kid and a bit of a ham, I love the opportunity to stand up in front of a crowd and deliver my thoughts – I’d like to think that I have the best thoughts, Mr. President. Anyway, it’s a way to keep my mind sharp, to practice my love of language, and to influence others. Toastmasters also offers ample opportunity to listen, to observe, and to be influenced by others. I journal now because of a Toastmaster. I have a mantra rather than a list of resolutions because of a Toastmaster. I trade cookies for biscotti because of a Toastmasters. It’s a delicious arrangement, both sweet and savory!

Increasingly, the aspect I love most about public speaking is the ability to powerfully and personably relate a story – funny, sad, silly, whatever. Storytelling is an art worth pursuing, I think, as it will still work when our technology fails us. It’ll quell the restlessness. That, and it’s just satisfying. 

I wrote and delivered a speech on Monday. I’d been chewing on the content for a while and opted to fill a hole in the evening’s programming. This week, it is the meat of this here blog. Without further ado, KonMari and Me.

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Have you ever felt like you just have too much stuff? If not, when’s the last time you moved?

For my husband’s parents, that last time was two years ago, from icy Indiana to subtropical southern Florida – Fort Myers. They spared nothing in their move, dragging every last thing from their home of thirty years across the country. Loc and I visited that Indiana house last summer – it was desolate. We did not, however, visit For Myers – it’s far too expensive for a weekend flight, and long breaks are for National Parks! But we have our own move pending, and Loc wants his comic books. So we booked a trip – Christmas to New Years, a proper family reunion.

Now, Loc is quite a collector. When I met him, he had a trinket from every country in Europe in a cabinet, and a magnet from every country in Europe on the fridge. We were apart for our first Christmas together, but we were together for our last in Germany, and we went all out: we now have enough ornaments to adorn two trees – and, until recently, two trees to put them on. By contrast, the only piece of furniture I owned before I met him was a bed. But I digress: the comic books.

I figured we’d carry an empty suitcase to Florida to bring Loc’s comic books home – a large suitcase even. Maybe, maybe we’d have to mail a box or two, media mail ground. We had flown into Orlando, met Loc’s elderly childhood neighbors, and driven three hours to Fort Myers, where we joined his parents and sister. We slept on the pull-out couch in the living room. His sister occupied the sewing room, off of which laid our long-pondered objective. We spent three days touring as a family; on the fourth, the elders rested, and Tam flew home: Objective Alpha was ours. We moved in.

I was staggered by what I saw: a slope of stuff extending the full length of a walk-in closet, from front floor to back wall. And against that back wall, sat Loc’s boxes … Loc’s very visible boxes. My estimation was, I learned… incredibly inadequate. We’d need not just a suitcase and a few mailers, but a small SUV to haul all of those comics, and we’d have to move a small mountain just to reach them! Having braced ourselves, we began. It took three days.

We went full Marie Kondo on Loc’s mom. Every single item in that closet became a pile on the floor. We found reams and reams of industrial fabric; boxes of ‘90s fashion, tags still attached; and stuffed animals enough to stock a petting zoo! Out it all went, into semi-organized piles in her sewing room. Loc held every item up to his mother, and together, they sorted everything into two piles: keep and toss. We filled two RAV4s with her belongings; we filled a third with his own. Then we reached the comic books, 32 archival-quality boxes in all. We emptied the closet, tossed every second thing, brought in new shelving, and put it all back together, neatly, comic books perched by the door. It was a proper Queer Eye affair.

Now, I’m prone to collecting crap too. My mantra this year is ‘simplify.’ It’s a quest. So when Loc and I acquired our sixth and seventh strainers last weekend, it flipped a switch. At home, I set about sorting bowls and strainers for donation – gone, gone, gone. It was getting late, though, so I decided to turn in. In bed that night, I read a Christian Science article that made me laugh: Boomer parents: One Day This Will Be Yours. Grown Children: Noooo! It cited The Life-Changing Art of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo’s 2014 book that has swept the globe. I kept reading and learned about her new Netflix series, Tidying Up. Thinking of Loc, I giggled, leaned over to him, and whispered ‘Marie Kondo!’ He quickly responded ‘no! Nononononononono!’ I poked, he reacted; it turns out that he already knew about this Marie Kondo. And with that, I had found my husband’s scariest phrase: let’s get rid of some stuff! It was hilarious – I could hardly sleep for the joy of the prospect.

But with time, I wore him down. We have now watched two episodes of Tidying Up. He’s even liked them! And, her message nests neatly with my mantra, simplify: work through groups: clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous, and sentimental items; finish discarding first; tidy by category, not location, work sequentially, and ask if your things spark joy. So far, I’ve managed to discard… the colanders that I brought into our relationship; the count is now five. I admire the KonMari method; he does not.

But when we move this summer, we’ll court Marie Kondo anew. The American Enterprise Institute reports that American homes have grown by over 1,000 square feet since 1973 – big Americans need big spaces! I don’t imagine that Korean homes have kept pace, though. And, as it seems that that’s where we’ll be going, it’s time to lovingly consider each item, ask if it sparks joy, thank it for its service, and , if need be, to let it go.

I’ll spare you the Frozen song.

 

James

Yo! No-Knead Bread!

Guys, I had an epiphany on Monday – I can make no-knead bread!

This may not sound like much of a revelation to you, but to me, it was as exciting as, well, exciting as it gets around here. I haven’t baked bread in a long while; my yoga teacher training schedule has really cramped my culinary style, and I’m pretty sure my sourdough starter is dead in my fridge. This is all to say, I chose my priorities last fall, and bread was not one of them. So here we are.

Anyway, on Monday, I was poking around the Internet at the end of the workday, when I happened on the New York Times no-knead bread recipe. It’s basic – volume, not mass – and plain – 100% white flour – but it caught my fancy all the same. Apparently, it’s one of the most popular recipes the New York Times has ever posted! Wow!

Now, purist that I am, I started baking bread way back when with a sourdough starter – the most finicky of all bread making methods. My early progress is on Instagram – it was a steep, sloppy learning curve. Over time, I worked to proficiency in both sourdoughs and yeasted breads, both lean and enriched, never once seriously considering this simplistic method I saw from time to time on YouTube – I ain’t that basic, thanks. Or, leave it to me to tackle the summit first.

But purism takes a whole lot of time. A single batch of sourdough – in my latest incarnation – requires that the sourdough be removed from the fridge, fed with two parts flour and water, then fed again eight hours later, before sitting overnight to rise before the final dough is mixed. It must then be laboriously, arduously kneaded until nearly full gluten development – this precludes the successive folding required of lesser-kneaded doughs – before it is left to proof for four hours. Following those four hours, the loaf is lightly shaped, rested on the bench for fifteen minutes, then proofed again, this time in a wicker banneton, for three hours. Two hours into that final proof, the oven and Dutch oven must be preheated – yes, it takes that long to preheat cast iron properly. And fifteen minutes prior to the bake, the loaf must be dusted and inverted onto a parchment round, scored both for effect and appearance, and set for loading into the 450-degree cast iron pot. An 18-ounce loaf will bake in 45 minutes, of which the first 30 are covered, the remaining 15 uncovered – depending on the oven I use. It’s a demanding lifestyle; it can easily eat up a weekend. I haven’t had weekends to spare for some time lately. So, we’ve reverted to store-bought bread. It lasts suspiciously longer than it should…

…but this – this no-knead bread! 100 parts flour, 70 parts water, two parts salt, and one part yeast – scale, mix, set overnight. Twelve to twenty hours later, proceed with shape-proof-bake. Simple! I set about it with great interest – mix, cover, carry on. I went to bed, woke up, went to work, came home, and returned to my dough; it had risen from a rough lump to a nice pillow-like pile of dough. I scraped it out of the bowl and onto a floured counter; shaped it loosely, and left it to sit, covered. I cleaned up all my dishes, then shaped it again, tightly, before placing it in a well-floured banneton. It rose there until I was ready to bake it, after which I flipped it over.

Here’s where the fun happened. The loaf, though floured, stuck to my banneton. I’ve been there before – I pried it away gently, loaf unharmed. I transferred it to a piece of parchment, placed it on my pizza peel, and prepared to load it into my piping-hot cast iron pot. I pulled my pot out of the oven, staged it for loading, then went to transfer my dough – slide from peel to hand, drop into pot, cover, cook.

Nope – this one fought like an octopus at every edge; it’d overflowed its parchment and onto the peel below, to which it was solidly stuck. I tried to pry it off gently, then roughly, then gave up, used a bench knife, folded the thing into a taco, and quickly dropped it into the pot. As the blob defied definition, I dropped it awkwardly; it made contact with the wall of the pot and fused immediately. To top it off, I hadn’t even scored the loaf, a sure recipe for a blowout – the most novice of novice moves. I thought I’d have a spaceship of a loaf for sure. Or maybe a lopsided volcano. I’d like to think I’m open minded.

Rather than vent any frustration, I just laughed; I’m learning! I had no clue whether the parchment was under or in my dough, and it was bound to be a unique loaf, given its placement. I placed the lid back on my pot and placed it back in the oven. Forty minutes later, I had a golden brown boule, my first in months. It looked a bit like a volcano, a bit like a toothless monster, devouring my parchment paper. But it was light, airy, and delicious – a welcome break from the dark days of the empty bread box.

With a bit more confidence, I mixed up a brand new batch of dough, set it in the corner, and called it a night. I put it in the fridge the next morning, and baked it the following evening. Bread’s back in my court! I just pulled my third loaf using this method out of the oven, and I’ll be using it until life slows down. And when’s that, you may ask? Probably never… the writing’s on the wall: we’re moving to Korea!

James

Musing. Me, Thirty?

Lately, I’ve been giving life a lot of thought.

I’ve always wrestled with journal keeping; for me, a fairly introspective person, an entry can go on for pages. I’m also a busy person by nature and not terribly fond of sitting still, so that does me in; I haven’t written regularly for years. 

Last month, though, I figured a reasonable format out. I’m on the cusp of turning thirty and, though I’m married to a man in his mid-thirties, I still find the prospect intimidating (my metabolism!). So, I’ve turned to books. I’ve been on this yoga niyama/yama kick – these are the ten principles of yoga that precede the physical practice in importance (more later), but I’ve also been reading The Road to Character, by David Brooks. It’s given me a lot to chew on. 

From David Brooks, I learned that Dorothy Day loved Leo Tolstoy. From A.N. Wilson, in his introduction to War and Peace, I learned that ‘Tolstoy was without zest for literary work. He was too happy.’ And yet, Tolstoy cranked out not one, but two masterpieces of humanitarian literature. I’m fortunate in many ways; among them, I don’t share Tolstoy’s easy joy. I brood. I find I’m drawn to the sorrow of Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell; in it, he mourns the passing of his mother. Should Have Known Better resonates strongly for me, as do numerous other pieces in the album. But, unlike Sufjan, I still have both of my parents. And yet, I always carry a sense of loss. That’s life, I guess. It does get heavy at times. 

Anyway, I picked up this reasonable format in my reading. To bring myself out of my everyday doldrums, I’ve decided to focus on the positive things in my life. It’s pretty simple; every day, I write three things that I’ve done that I’m proud of – going out of my way to be kind, not acting on an impulse, paying complete attention to another. And, in the spirit of self improvement, I also write three things that I wish I’d done better – I’m trading in new year’s resolutions for incremental change. Last year, my main goal was to reduce my waste to to as near zero as I could. As part of that, I created a closed-loop food waste system, to keep my food waste out of landfills. I did reasonably well – having a worm bin has been great. This year, I’m working on impulse control, simplification, and other little acts of discipline. I’ll continue building on last year’s goals too – these are lifestyle decisions I’m making, not whims to be fancied then forgotten.

Yoga has gotten me into a regular habit of morning meditation and exercise, and I find that journaling fits perfectly between mindful meditation and my practice. Nested as such, I’ve found this habit an easy one to add to – and keep in –  my routine – far easier than, say, flossing. It fits within the larger trajectory that I’ve set for my life as well, as it’s a way to continually return to what I value. We are what we perpetually do, are we not? 

So, here’s to a new year, a new decade, and a steady dedication to the things that matter. 

Oh, and my metabolism? Today’s diet features Belgian waffles with all the fixings, and homemade crème brûlée. I’ll believe the hype when it happens.

Peace,

James

Butter, Worms, and Sundry Suds

I think it time to cast this Upward Aspiring brand aside.

For some time now, I’ve been journeying downward, from individual people to pets to plants to microbes, and I’ve been happily tinkering at the frontier of fermentation and microbiology in ever-expanding arcs – left, right, and down. If a life is indeed how we spend it, I am not so much reaching for the stars as rooting through the dirt, and I love it.

I’ve decided to dedicate 2018 to the development of my micro-biotic passion, and to executing said development with an eye towards a zero-waste lifestyle, also called sustainable living. It’s a big goal, but a worthy one too.

I made some strides in that vein this week.

Last week, at Loc’s request, I resuscitated my sourdough starter – a 60% hydration 100% white flour creation – and used it for Sunday’s bake: Jeffrey Hammelman’s Normandy Apple Bread. This bread uses both a sourdough and commercial yeast as leavening agents, but also a cup of apple cider and roughly 6-8 sliced apples, dried just to the consistency of leather: sounds divine, right? I wrestled a bit with it in the fermentation process, but the finished product came out nicely. It disappeared before I could take a picture… mea culpa. I’m heading back to the sourdough basics for the time being, at least while the weather’s still reasonable.

On Sunday also, I began culturing cream with an eye towards butter. To do this, one simply adds a bit of plain yogurt (with live cultures) to a bowl of cream, mixes it all well, then lets it sit at 72F for up to 48 hours – hell, maybe even longer, but I stayed within the lines this time. Even without salt cultured butter is much more richly flavorful than commercial butter, and it’s so easy to whip up in a KitchenAid. I whipped it up Thursday after a spell in the fridge, and it yielded about a quart of richly aromatic yellow butter and two cups of buttermilk – real buttermilk. Pretty fancy!

 

Butter

Hard, creamy, aromatic butter in a .5 L jar – to serve with sourdough!

 

I used that buttermilk to make pancakes yesterday – King Arthur Flour’s Muesli pancakes. That’s a wondrous little recipe in which one soaks the muesli in buttermilk overnight – at room temperature – then incorporates the rest of the ingredients into a batter that must rest but fifteen minutes to hydrate before cooking on a cast iron skillet. Cast iron is my jam. And, after melting a few plastic spatulas on my cast iron, wood is my peanut butter. Ask me for the recipe – I’ll share it. Wish I could say I spread my butter on my pancakes, but those are good with syrup alone. This is my second batch of butter in Texas – my first with such a long fermentation time. More to come!

Perhaps most wondrously, I attended a class on vermiculture, worm composting, yesterday morning at the Texas Worm Ranch. What was wondrous was not so much the material as the fact that 32 Texans of mixed sex, varying ages, and diverse cultural backgrounds, drove from near and far to learn about worms on a Saturday! We did get to take our very own worm bins home with us at the end of our two-hour class (which was my primary purpose in attending said class), but I was blown away by the broad swath of ordinary Texans who want to do better. It was an earthy few hours, enough to stoke my faith in humanity. Heather, the owner/instructor warned, one bin may turn into a 12,000 square foot warehouse of bins – maybe, maybe. I would like to stay married, but maybe. In the meantime, I’ll find a community garden to channel my energy.

Also, I have a worm-composting bin! It’s just a little Roughneck tote with holes drilled in the sides and bottom of it. Inside, the base layer is composted soil. The action happens on the surface of this base layer, which is where the worms dwell, and where I am to feed them – a handful of organic material every 3-4 days, alternating from side to side of the bin. All of that’s covered with a thick layer of moist shredded newspaper – just carbon-rich material. This is meant to emulate the ground cover of leaves in a forest ecosystem. It helps the fungi to keep moisture in the system and keeps the worms happy. It doesn’t stink! I’m keeping mine in my living room, right next to my south-facing window and all my plants… and the couch.

 

Worms

See that discrete little bucket? From most places in the living room, you can’t!

 

I do plan to grow an organic vegetable garden on my balcony this year – that worm compost is part of my fledgling plan. I already have a rustic little indoor herb garden; I’ll expand it to fully use the two square yards of concrete porch space towards the production of tomatoes, zucchinis, strawberries, peas, potatoes… much puzzling and planning to be done on that front. The assessment of forces has begun.

 

Pots

This is one wing, the sunnier wing, of my porch. In its entirety. 

 

Unexpected success of the week: I found reusable mesh produce bags, 3 for $2.40, at Sprouts yesterday! They’re branded, but I don’t mind. One source of plastic waste: gone.

 

Mesh

For scale – these things are perfect!

 

Last, I made soap. In addition to my exhaustive web research on sites such as DIY Natural, Soap Queen, and Bramble Berry, I read two books: Making Soap from Scratch, by Gregory Lee White, and The Everything Soapmaking Book, by Alicia Grosso. DIY Naturals got me started, Gregory entertained and inspired me, and Alicia got me going on my first batch of soap. The recipe is simple:

11 ounces olive oil

5 ounces coconut oil, 76 degree

.5 ounce avocado oil

5 ounces distilled water

2.3 ounces lye, NaOH

In a nutshell, one decks oneself out in protective gear, then mixes the oils in a double boiler, then pour the lye over the water outside (the snow falls on the lake, lest explosion), lets both solutions cool to around 110 F, then mixes the lye into the oil and begins stirring. Alicia told me that I could stir to trace, or the point of emulsification, in 10-20 minutes by hand. 35 minutes later, I was still stirring. A stick blender then applied did the trick in mere seconds. I poured the stuff into an old takeout container, covered it with plastic, put it on a wooden board, and wrapped it all in a towel – gotta keep it warm. I’ll unmold it and cut it tonight.

Life, boys and girls, is fun.

To a life spent tinkering at the edge of the unknown –

James

Ho Hum New Post

IMG_0844

Greetings, friends,

Isn’t she purty? She’s a mutant mother aloe plant!

Anyway, it’s been a good stretch since I last wrote, and I could attribute that to any number of factors. Suffice it to say, the pursuit of many tasks must, of necessity, relegate some tasks to darkness – it’s been a good while since I’ve played my piano, and my French is fermenting like a fine aged cheese. This, alas, has been one more of those tasks. Oh, the things that we surrender to the march of time.

Not that writing is a task, mind you. Since I’ve stopped writing on my blog, I’ve begun writing speeches towards my Toastmasters credentials – me, a future competent communicator! I’ve enjoyed those speeches because they give me a chance to vocalize my writing, to focus on speaking in a more colloquial style. As you may or may not know, I have a penchant for poetic prose, and it doesn’t lend itself particularly well to everyday communication. My brother will have you know that I’ve also been a historically stiff person à la C3PO, but I’ll pin that one on a suppressed sexuality – no more!

I’m closing in on the final month of my marathon training – unlike my last effort, I gave myself more than one month to train! My goal is to qualify for Boston 2018, and I see no reason as to why I should fail. I’ve seen my times drop from the uncomfortable eights into the low and sustainable sixes. Pending the arbitrary heat and humidity of a Dallas morning, I’m pretty sure I could clock a sub-3-hour marathon tomorrow. Alas that I have a full-time job, and another month yet to finesse my best. I gotta start eating on my runs again. Bananas. Mmmmm.

Expect to see more of me as time progresses – I’ve quite enjoyed this post-run writing session, and I might broaden it to a series of one-hour-or-bust-type affairs. When I’ve not been working or writing or speaking or teaching or singing or running or cooking, I’ve been tinkering with ferments far and wide – or low and deep. I’ve gotten pretty good at grains and beverages, I daresay, and I’ve been crossing into dairy with increasing regularity: I make all of the yogurt Loc and I consume, I make my own butter, and I have everything (short the milk, which I can source this Saturday) to make aged cheese IN MY POSSESSION!

Yeah, I’m pretty pumped.

A brief note on bread: I’m going to have to delve into proprietary affairs before I start divulging my recipes, many of which I’ve pulled from books (I love books). There’s a wealth of sourdough stuff floating around on YouTube and the blogs, but the true success of the loaves I make rests not so much in the recipe as in the technique – the baker’s craft is initially academic, but overwhelmingly a matter of foundation-based intuition an experienced eye and hand. I’ll teach you some of that stuff though; it is really, really cool – and positively delicious!

In conclusion, life is just too fascinating to be lived in ascetic silence. By any measure, I’m not an ascetic, anyway, and I’ve got a passion or two that I’ve been itching to share.

As per the scribbled note in my Ragnar Skul cap,

Be a dynamo of irrepressible joy.

Happy Tuesday, everybody.

James

 

Belarus: Europe’s Last Frontier

Hailed as the last European dictatorship, Belarus had long been on Loc’s radar – and mine, once I met him. See, Loc has been on a quest to visit every country in Europe, and after visiting both Moldova and the Ukraine last year, he was down to just one, and I, along for the ride.

There was just one problem: Belarus didn’t want us.

We booked our trips to the Ukraine and Belarus at the same time last fall. At the time, such a trip required that we purchase travel insurance, a visa, and a tour guide’s company for the duration of our stay; it could easily cost $1,000 just to get past customs. Nonetheless, we booked our flight, then scoured the shoddy English of the state’s poorly maintained immigration page, then canceled our flight – more courage required.

This past January, President Alexander Lukashenko announced that he would be opening his country to the residents of 80 nations globally, including America, provided that a) they fly into Minsk, but not from Russia, and b) they spend no more than five days in the country. He announced his policy a month before it came into effect, so we waited our month – and then some – before booking our tickets.

Our first inclination that this hermetic nation still didn’t reeeealy want us came when I purchased our flight: goodbye, hello? I’d never seen such an itinerary before – every other

Flight Itinerary - Goodbye,Hello

Our second inclination came when we checked Apple Maps, simply to find our hotel: nothing.

Minsk_AppleMaps

By contrast, here’s a map of Vilnius at the same scale:

Vilnius_AppleMaps

We teased out the location of our hotel through Google Maps, which, for some reason, has markedly better imagery than its competitor. We booked it, paid for it, and laid on parking at the Prague airport as well.

In the interim, our car died. Fortunately, we were not in it when it died. Unfortunately, it could not be revived. So, we made other arrangements. Fortunately, we had an afternoon flight.

To get to the Prague airport, we left our apartment at 0540 to walk the 900 meters to our train station, from which we caught a train into Nuremberg. We arrived just before 0700 for an 0720 departure via bus to Prague. After grabbing a coffee, we walked over to the bus station to catch our scheduled bus. The appointed time came and went, and still, there was no bus. There were, however, three German women waiting to catch the same bus, and they allayed our fears. Twenty minutes later, our ride arrived, and we boarded and departed in short order.

It’s a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Nuremberg to Prague, and ours was largely an uneventful one. DeutschBahn buses are a lot cleaner than Greyhound buses, and our fellow passengers were an almost uniformly tidy lot. It had wifi too, which an automatic voice announced over the broadcasting system… in Czech and English. I could have streamed movies on that wifi. Instead, I tried to check in to our flight, but was denied: check-in opens two hours before departure and closes eighty minutes later, full stop.

We took a different route into Prague than we normally do when we drive, and it brought us up from the south along the west side of the river – it was beautiful. We arrived at Prague’s main bus station, which is likewise beautiful, and wandered around a good twenty minutes looking for the ticket counter to procure our bus tickets to ride a half hour back west. We found them and fell in line behind a busload of people… we boarded, standing room only.

Check-in was indeed limited to a very precise window, and we made it just in time for its (grand) opening. Though entirely old school, it flowed smoothly, and we had our boarding passes in hand within minutes.

IMG_5249

Customs, however, was a monstrosity. I typically allow Loc to go first through security, as he is my sponsor while we are in Germany, and my paperwork is all linked to his. However, a new line opened up next to mine when I was the third person back, and I quickly jumped into that new line, beckoning to Loc to move over too. Alas, this grumpy German couple fell in between the two of us, and I went into the maws of the beast all alone.

Ten minutes later, I was still standing there. The Germans were audibly disgruntled. I was physically shaken… I’ve never been held up at customs before. The officers had never seen anything like my SOFA card and didn’t know what to do with it. Their superior had never seen anything like it and didn’t know what to do with it either. At this point, Loc came forward and provided his passport and ID card, which helped the Czechs sort things out, and we were both through in relatively short order. I opened a new account in my empathy bank that day.

Our plane boarded late and departed about fifteen minutes behind schedule. It must have been a 1970s-era plane, as it had absolutely unintelligible overhead compartment clasps; I was surprised that it didn’t have ashtrays in the armrests. Takeoff was smooth and silent – no headphones allowed. What a pity.

After we’d reached cruising altitude, the flight attendants distributed boxed lunches. I wish I’d taken a picture of these. My meal included a white roll, a wedge of Laughing Cow-like cheese, three small dry pickles, two small dry black olives, two slices of a cheddar-like cheese, three pieces of gummy mystery meat, and a small bar of chocolate. Loc warned me that the meat was inedible as a sandwich, though I found mine quite chewable. Everything was wrapped in bulky cellophane – it reminded me of Little Shop of Horrors.

The flight was a short one, about an hour and a half, and shortly before landing, the flight attendants came around with migration cards. I drew two, which was fortunate because absolutely no mistakes are allowed on these cards. They asked for simple things like my passport number, my birthdate and nationality, my destination hotel, and departure flight – the most important of all bits of information. We are allowed but a five-day stay, and an unauthorized extension comes with complications and fines.

Migration_front

Passing through customs was surprisingly easy. We had been advised to purchase travel insurance through a Belarusian agency, and a machine was available to do just that before you reached the queues. Loc had purchased our insurance at a rate of $7 for our stay; this piece of paper coupled with our migration cards was required to enter the country; the customs official took the arrival half of our cards and stamped the front side of our departure half.

The tourist information booth was open and helpful, though under stocked and a bit strange. The attendant spoke English and helped us book a taxi at half the rate of the drivers hawking their service outside. The informational pamphlets were few, and exclusively in Russian, Hebrew, and Chinese. It was really no bother; we had a tour guide waiting for us at our hotel.

Even Minsk has a rush hour, and it happens to be the five o’clock hour. Our taxi driver took an odd turn heading into town, and we spent fifteen minutes slowly inching our way up a six-degree slope… in a manual. He did this cool thing where he’d pull the emergency brake when he stopped, then accelerate out of his position with the emergency brake still initially in place. It was a much cooler alternative to rolling backward a bit and potentially bumping into your new friend.

Migration_backLoc had booked us a stay at the President Hotel, which happens to be right next to the presidential compound. It’s a gaudy thing, with lots of translucent beads suspended from a backlit-mirrored ceiling. The attendant there took our migration cards, returning them with a signature atop the hotel’s stamp. Our tour guide was waiting for us, so we dropped off our bags in our room then returned downstairs to head out on our way.

Of note here: Loc and I took off our wedding rings in the Czech, or Czechia as they now like to be called. We would not be the remotest bit gay in Minsk, because homosexuality is still listed as a psychiatric disorder and same-sex marriage is constitutionally banned. Same-sex activity is legal, but same-sex couples are not afforded the protections given to their heterosexual counterparts.

Anyway, Minsk is built in the Soviet authoritarian style. On the outskirts of the city, there are monstrous apartment complexes that must house thousands of people apiece, but in the city proper, all of the buildings are the same height. You can get a same idea of the effect in eastern Berlin – Karl Marx Allee, to be precise. The city is home to two million people but has an incredibly abundant amount of green space – made possible, no doubt, by stacking people sky high.

Only a handful survived the Great Patriotic War, and they’re all made out of stone – a few churches, an art gallery, a circus. These have positions of prominence in the city, and they’re all in pretty good condition. In fact, Minsk as a whole is in very good condition; the streets are wide and clean, and much busier than I’d read they’d be. There were actually a good number of people on the streets, both young and old, and smartly dressed: there is no hipster movement there, yet.

LeninThe most iconic square in town is Independence Square, one of the largest in Europe and a landmark of the 15-kilometer Independence Avenue. It boasts a triumphal obelisk, a Roman Catholic cathedral, and a monumental statue of a very intense Vladimir Lenin in front of one of Minsk’s oldest buildings, built in 1934 (the city was first mentioned in 1067). That building has a Belarusian flag on it, and we were advised against photographing any building with such a flag on it. Nonetheless, we did snap a few shots, and no green men came in pursuit.

Lee Harvey Oswald, a former Marine and self-declared Marxist, spent three years living in Minsk, from 1959-1962. While there, he built a life and took a wife – all under the watchful eye of the KGB, who assigned him both an apartment and a job, then monitored him around the clock. His apartment is still standing in the heart of the city today, but it is deliberately unmarked, lest some sadistic form of tourism arise akin to that of Jim Morrison’s gravestone in Paris. Our guide, Andrei, pointed out the bland building as we passed but could not – or would not – provide more specificity. We walked on.

Our next stop was the Isle of Tears, just a brief distance from the apartment. Inaugurated in 1996, the Isle of Tears commemorates the 700 Belarusian soldiers who died in the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-1989. It features a small chapel that’s seemingly borne on the backs of grieving mothers facing the four cardinal directions. Behind it, a small Madonna and Child stands enshrined in a stone alcove; I can find neither literature nor photography to expand upon its meaning there. And most poignantly, at the opposite end of the small island, a single angel stands weeping over a pool of tears; he symbolizes the grief of those who came home whole in body, but not in spirit. Today, newlyweds rub his genitalia in the belief that the act will guarantee the bride children.

Darkness having fallen, we retired for dinner. Our guide took us to a basement restaurant near our hotel; a shiny TripAdvisor sticker adorned the door. We entered, checked our coats at the bottom of the stairs, then proceeded to our table inside. A woman sang traditional folk songs to the accompaniment of a guitar – it was lovely, though our guide could shed no light to its authenticity. Surprisingly, the menu was not just in English, but it had a full three pages of the history of Belarusian cuisine, with further paragraphs explaining each unique item on the menu. We had a delicious savory mushroom soup with a course of potato pancakes and a cup of Kvass, a drink traditionally made of rye bread. It was delicious – and they took card! Our local restaurant scene is still very much a cash economy.. oh Deutschland.

With that, we turned in for the night. I took the opportunity to catch up with an old friend via Facebook video chat – the hotel wifi was strong enough to stream live video feed! We went to bed shortly thereafter and fell asleep to the rhythmic thump of club music ten stories down – across the street from the presidential compound.

Boy_Goose_Presidential Palace

In the background, the presidential palace

Breakfast at the hotel was a steep 25 Euro, so we balked and headed out into the streets to find our own fare. The first plausible spot we found was a McDonald’s, which we passed up in favor of whatever the locals were eating along the long plate glass windows next door. They were eating pastries, and we ordered with pointed finger – croissants and madeleines, with a cappuccino. Following breakfast, we climbed up a set of stairs to the grocery store on the second floor. I picked up a few bottles of water, a Snickers bar, and a pint of milk advertising a fat percentage between 3.2%-4.0%. Realizing we were running up against our next appointment, we returned to the hotel, put the milk in the fridge, and met Andrei in the lobby.

On our drive to Nesvizh Palace, Andrei delivered a century-by-century history of the Republic of Belarus. It’s long and full of occupational forces and fires. Nesvizh is some 120 kilometers from Minsk, so we saw a lot of the very flat countryside, broad and deep swaths of farmland for days. The country’s growing season spans from May to October, so the most we saw was tilled or fallow fields. At one point, we did drive through a cloud of topsoil sweeping across the road – I wonder at the agricultural practices in this windy place.

Nesvizh PalaceFacing a rainstorm, we ran from our parking lot to the palace. Inside, we paid our entrance fee and donned little plastic slippers over our shoes before touring the building. It’s a fairly typical European country palace, though I suppose not at all typical for Belarus. It’s nicely situated on an ornamental lake with gardens around it. The interior is simple with touches of myriad European cultures inside. Most amusingly, only the lady’s chambers feature a double bed; the lord led a life of some poverty in his own opulent chambers. He and his entourage got their entertainment afield; a downstairs room boasts hunting trophies and some pretty fancy cannons.

Back in our van, we retraced our route a bit, then Mir_Fortressdetoured off the highway a bit to Mir Castle. Similar in landscaping to its palatial cousin (they were owned by the same family), Mir Castle is much more of a fortification than a palace. Andrei told us that the interior wasn’t worth the price of admission, so we had borsch, bread, and potato pancakes in the castle’s basement restaurant before exploring the town – shabby but proud. We also picked up a handful of souvenirs from the parking lot souvenir tents by the castle.

Our tour concluded, Andrei dropped us off back at the hotel. We regrouped briefly, then went out on our own to hunt for souvenirs and see the sights on our own timeline.

By intuition more than anything else, we worked our way towards the historic old town, where we found information boards in English amidst beautiful white church architecture. We also found souvenir kiosks in a square there, meeting Loc’s quest. Exploring the surroundings, we walked past a band of four teens playing music, with a fifth teen aggressively shoving a cup in people’s faces – that was a bit weird.

Minsk_MarketSquare

Wending our way back to the murals of the day previous, we stumbled onto the People’s KFC, so I took a picture. Okay, I took a few pictures. We then found a Papa John’s! Loc didn’t want pizza though, so we continued on to the murals, near which Andrei had told us there were great burgers. We did burgers before photographing the murals; I got their signature burger, and Loc got one with bacon and an egg. Loc’s burger was simply bacon and egg… but it was delicious, and the service staff spoke English too. Following, we shot photos of our murals, then turned in. I was super excited for my morning’s pint of whole milk – easy calories.

I ended up dumping that milk; I’d been looking forward to drinking it all day Saturday, but it smelled so strongly of sulfur when I opened it that I couldn’t stomach the thought of tasting it. So, down the drain it went. With a fat content range of .8% in one carton, their whole dairy industry seems mighty questionable to me…

We caught an uneventful taxi ride back to the airport and arrived 30 minutes before the check-in window opened. A souvenir shop proved a worthy distraction; we bought a lot of stuff there.

Outbound passport control was surprisingly easy; they just took our migration cards, stamped our passports, and sent us on our way. Security was interesting; I began to pull out my computer and liquids but was told to stop. I placed my entire bag, computer on top of tablet on top of toiletries, on the belt; doffed my jacket and belt into a bucket; and went through security. Too easy.

There are thirteen gates on the departure floor of the airport; access to each of them hinges on successful navigation of heavily perfumed commercial overload. We made it.

The flight again featured mystery meat; Loc and I both passed, having eaten at the airport. Upon landing, the people clapped; it was a much smoother landing than our outbound flight. Passport control was easy – I made Loc go through first – and two good friends picked us up to whisk us away to Deutschland.

Loc had met his goal: all 44 European countries in five years. I’d explored a quirky hermetic kingdom. And we’d both evaded the clutches of the KGB.

The Dinner Crew Does London

A few months ago, as Loc and I were contemplating the remainder of our time in Europe, we cajoled our dental dinner friends into coming to London with us, simply to watch The Lion King and have a good ethnic meal. That trip, long scheduled, came due this past Friday.

As arranged, the Lassiters met us at our house at 1900, and we left for the airport consolidated in our one car. This worked nicely until a fierce red ‘Generator Werkstatt’ message came on, complete with bright red lights and jarring beeps on a three-second interval, as we were approaching the highway. Kevin directed us to a parking lot just beyond the junction, and we flipped a U, beeper beeping and lights alight, and drove home. With no time to troubleshoot our vehicle, I backed it into a spot outside the garage, and we transferred both personnel and baggage to the Lassiter’s vehicle. Disaster averted, we departed anew a mere fifteen minutes after our first attempt. The ride passed without incident.

We met Griffiths at the airport, got our visa stamps from the counter, got the Lounge Pass card from the information desk, and went through security – an easy process at that hour. Boarding was called as we processed through security, so we briefly went to the lounge, grabbed a few snacks, then walked to the gate. RyanAir is getting smarter – they scanned our tickets on our way into the gate’s waiting area, and once we began moving, we boarded the plane without any delay. Sweet.

We landed at 2320, short the trumpet fanfare typical of RyanAir. It was a decent flight by RyanAir standards, though the kid behind me woke up to a nightmare or sinus pressure or something of the like as we began our descent, and he whined and whimpered the whole way down – and substantially beyond. Clustered together as we were, we all appreciated stepping off that plane.

Border security was not terribly scrutinizing, nor busy at 2330. We managed to get through it all by midnight (yes, that’s typical of the London border fence), then walked to the rail station to take the Stansted Express into town – a 45-minute ride. That ride was uneventful, and a few of us even managed to stay awake. I love Liverpool Station – it is an awe-inspiring building from the early 20th century with almost cathedral-like architecture and much wrought-iron embellishment. We walked the platform at our leisure, then got shepherded out of the atrium in single file by transportation workers clad in neon yellow, who hustled us out along a narrow corridor into the night.

We queued (because that is what one does in Britan) to purchase Oyster cards at the metro station across the street, but there was only one machine functioning, and the line to use it was both very long and very drunk. Recoiling from the mess, we opted to take an Uber, which Kevin requested in short order. We walked a few hundred yards down the street, passing a number of embarrassingly drunk and scantily clad girls in 3” heels… on cobblestones. The common sentiment among us was one of thanks for having made it through that phase of life with our dignity intact. Our car arrived, and we took it to the traffic jam a few hundred yards from our hotel. Checking in was a breeze, and we all turned in for the night – it’s been a while since any of us have been up that late.

Our plans for the day were few. They included breakfast, then a stop at Anthropologie for Ellie and Made in London for Loc, then the show that evening. We did breakfast at Muriel’s, which is a cute pastel-colored restaurant with a swinging table and chairs at the front window. We were too numerous for said table, but we enjoyed a hearty breakfast all the same. Ellie and Kevin then split off to get a tag removed from an article of clothing she’d bought in the States, and Loc and I led Bethany and Ryan to Made in London, where we picked up a lithographic print of London by air – it’s cool. We moseyed up the road after that, meeting the Lassiters at Hamley’s. where four employees danced cheerfully to an earworm-worthy tune in the street. We all agreed that mustering such cheer all day must be exhausting… they reminded me of David Sedaris’s Santa Diaries: so much secret snark. We explored the basement Star Wars section, but made it no further; it was enough.

IMG_5037Inspired by an ice cream join, we took the metro up to Camden, where we spent the day in the Horse Market – a market in a massive complex that was formerly a stable. There’s a bustling counterculture scene there, with lots of art and solid street eats. The architecture is all brick, with hints of Spanish influence in its adaptation to its modern purpose. Loc and I bought a bunch of small superhero prints, then joined the crew at Chin Chin Ice Cream, which advertised razor-thin ice cream scraped off of a nitrogen-frozen slate board; it was good, but not *THAT* good. We wandered, ate, wandered some more, ate some more, (I) burned a little, and then took the tube to Hyde Park to see the blooms.

Row upon row of browned daffodils greeted us; the blooms were past their prime. Loc proposed, then led, a course from our location to our hotel through various gardens. We passed in front of Buckingham Palace and got our fill of vibrant and orderly floral arrangements, then walked through St James Park and enjoyed more traditional English gardens and a diverse array of waterfowl. It seemed that the whole city was out, soaking up one of the few dozen sunny days they get a year – there were even sunbathers aplenty in the park! Before we knew it, we were again at our hotel.

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Opting against the typical dinner before the show, we took an hour to refresh, then capitalized on the hotel’s three-hour happy hour – wine, cheese, wine, and ice cream! Those of us drinking drank the better part of a bottle apiece, and we all enjoyed our second helping of ice cream that day – vacation is nice, eh? To balance the heavy snack and aid in restful slumber, we booked a reservation at a Japanese restaurant near our theater and left around 1840 to wind our way over there.

We had prime tickets to the Lion King, and Loc picked them at 1900 while we waited outside the theater. We then we descended on the Wellington, the bar at the corner, for a drink. I thought it would be a stodgy British place, but it was pumping club beats and churning out pre-theater drinks. It was a quick one – by the time I was halfway through mine, the theater workers were calling everybody inside… curtains up at 1930 sharp. Bottoms up, we filed inside and to our seats.

Ours were six seats right of center in rows I and H. Loc and I sat behind our four friends, two empty seats to our left. After the awe-inspiring opening number, probably a dozen people filtered in to fill their seats in the front ten rows (I could write a volume on why this irks me); a large Syrian man and his wife filed in next to me. Of course, the man sat on the inside to protect his wife, and of course, he had the widest leg stance he could possibly have, which he maintained for the entire first act; I felt my Arabic returning to mind as if I’d spoken it yesterday. I held my tongue, happy for their happiness.

The show’s a good one, and largely true to the movie. The set, costumes, and stage work impressed me most – they’re simple, yet wonderfully rich in their simplicity. In our final tally, Loc enjoyed the opening number most, while I favored the opening of the second act – He Lives in You; I was blown away by the kaleidoscope of puzzle pieces that coalesced into Mufasa’s face, and then faded away just as fluidly into the night. And, well, Elton John wrote the score – what’s not to love?

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Satisfied by the performance and worn out from our travels, we emerged from the theater and walked to dinner, where we found my friends Megan and Annette waiting. We enjoyed a wide array of unique and delicious sushi and sashimi while discussing the show and catching up with my friends. Megan is moving back in with her parents in New York in 17 days and is super anxious about it all – I don’t blame her; moving, especially transcontinental, is stupid stressful. Following dinner, we parted ways with Megan and Annette and went to the hotel and up to our rooms – no alarms set, thank you. The girls went out; I just couldn’t.

Loc and I woke up around 0800 and checked out around 0930. Our friends decided to go to church for Good Friday mass, and we considered watching Power Rangers in Leicester Square. We opted instead to have a small breakfast at Muriel’s, then worshiped in our own chapel, a bookstore (I opted against mass because I felt underdressed in my jeans and t-shirt). We emerged with books on Brexit (for those who still trust experts), urban gardening, and a xenophobe’s guide to Americans – a solid win; check out their work at http://www.xenophobes.com!

Instead of fancy dining, we all opted for a burger at Shake Shack, where we all convened following the church service. ‘Twas a satisfying meal; the strawberry lemonade was on point, and I’ve never enjoyed cheese fries quite so much. Even we European-minded foodies sometimes pine for the fast food of our home country.

Loc and I had passed a Harry Potter ephemera store on our way up to Shake Shack, and we broke away to work our way back down there after our communal lunch. The store is four floors of limited edition Harry Potter prints, the work of the two artists behind the movies. There was some really impressive art, though prices were a bit more than either of us was willing to pay. We may regret our choice someday; the premium stuff was all signed by the artists. We burned the rest of our time at a TK Maxx, where I acquired two Pyrex loaf pans for a song, the French stuff. My pack gained ten pounds in two days… worth it.

With that, our time was nigh, and we returned to the hotel to secure our baggage and begin the trek to the airport. Our friends met us there, and we took the metro to the train and the train to the airport. We made said train by a whopping 70 seconds, and only found seats in the last car – but we found seats, by prodding people to remove feet and luggage from otherwise vacant spots. It was hot – warmer than yesterday – so we opened the windows in our compartment. I dozed off in the heat.

Stansted Airport is… a zoo, but one that played to our advantage. We made it through security, by my count, in seven minutes and thirty seconds, then through the commercial melee and to the Escape Lounge in another fifteen. Credit for the short security line goes to a worker who opened a new lane and ushered us from the middle of the queue to it. That latter part was utter chaos; whoever designed the terminal did not design for traffic flow. Thus, the Escape Lounge was truly an escape – good food and drink in a peaceful setting. My greatest regret there was that I did not grab brownies earlier; as I closed in on them to grab them (there were six little bites remaining), a worker picked up the slate slab that held them, and took them away. I skulked away in defeat – wah. Loc and I walked up a few minutes later to ask for them, but were rebuffed; a cake slate took the brownie slate’s place.

In compensation, I bought a bag of M&Ms at our gate. We boarded the plane and found ourselves in the company of an American family, father, mother, and three girls. They were a boisterous lot that calmed after takeoff, and the most eventful in-flight happening was a sunset that I managed to capture – schön.

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It turns out that that American family was both American and military, as were a number of families on the plane. This one, however, had a trick to clear customs up their sleeve. They deployed daddy, looking worn, to weave his way from the back of the customs line to the front, then mommy conspiratorially coaxed her three daughters, from youngest to oldest, to go stand with daddy; I watched this all from the baggage carousel. The only two people separating the family were… Kevin and Ellie. Traffic in another lane flowed by as a man ahead of them worked through documentation issues for his young child; I watched the Rasta family who joined the line last pass through while the Lassiters waited. As this drama unfolded, Ellie turned around and asked the woman bluntly if she’d like to pass her. The woman stuttered, sputtered, and choked, then passed anyway, caught red-handed but carefree. Kevin was the last passenger on that plane to clear customs – it made for good comedy on our ride home.

We arrived home to find our car truly dead, five weeks short of our homebound flight. I suspect marmots, but it is an eighteen-year-old car, so perhaps it’s just lived its natural life.

Watch this video. Get hyped. Go see Lion King.