Obsession

So, it turns out that crafting a speech is a whole lot harder than writing an essay. At least, it’s harder than writing the type of essay we all wrote in high school. It’s not an ‘oh shit, I have to turn this in tomorrow and it’s midnight!’ affair, it’s a ‘wow, this borders on obsession’ affair. I haven’t passed a day in the past week without sitting down to tinker with its contents. As I write this, it’s Friday, and I’ve just done my bit for the day. Yesterday, I spent twenty minutes tinkering with a sentence I’d put to song – a song that echoes the excitement of first going to New York as a boy.

Yeah, I’m obsessed.

When Mary Oliver died a few months ago, I was bereft. I’d learned of her quite by accident, and she’d quickly become my muse of grief and wonder. She accompanied me on the Appalachian Trail, through the devastating death of my friend, and on to the healing power of friends and friendship, fields and forests, mountains and lakes. As muses go, she’s in my top five. So when she died, I drove my sorry self to my local bookstore and looked for anything bearing her name. What I discovered was a slender volume dubbed ‘A Poetry Handbook’ – not exactly a consumer’s first choice. I was undeterred – it was a tie to a friend I’d never met, one taken, perhaps, too soon. I bought it.  

I picked up six or seven other books that day, and I turned my attention to an eighth – I read my friends’ books first. But in time, I looped back to this one, in hopes that it would help me craft a better speech. This speech. It did not disappoint. 

In her introduction, she discusses the importance of a steady practice in engaging the ephemeral element out of which mystery is born. This is what elevates a poem to memorable heights. I believe it’s what makes prose truly memorable too – I think Steinbeck, McCarthy,  Hugo – they strike chords in the soul that resonate across time. Such writing is a disciplined and solitary act, and its yield sparkles like gold in the sun. 

Speeches are no different. 

She cautions that, without a steady practice, the cautiously creative element of our interior may never surface; so unengaged, it can hide a lifetime. Consistency is key to its engagement. I’ve attended to my speech almost every day for four months. I worked with a mentor last weekend, overhauled the whole thing, then worked it every day since then. It’s now properly polished, at least to her satisfaction. I don’t know that I’ll ever be fully satisfied, but it feels good enough – we are our own worst critics, after all.  And it sounds good – Mary Oliver’s latest gift to me was an essay on sound. Dress rehearsal’s Monday; this speech sings.

That same practice is required of this simple blog, albeit with marginally lesser intensity. 

When my parents visited last week, my mother insisted that I read Educated, then went out and bought a copy to ensure that I’d do it. I was reading Jurassic Park at the time – a nod to my husband – and I told her it’d have to wait until after I’d finished it. Of course, I can’t refuse a beautiful book, especially one that touches at my roots and aspirations. My resolve quickly cracked; I read the prologue and was hooked. I put down Jurassic Park. I consumed Educated. Mornings for my writing, evenings for hers. I found my evenings slipping past my bedtime, my book in hand, my brain alert. Shutting down to sleep itself was an act of discipline. Daylight Savings Time really didn’t help. 

But my speech.

I’ve been listening Clear & Vivid by Alan Alda lately, and one episode in particular has stuck with me. It’s Sarah Vowell on Writing and Clarity – her motto is ‘start strange, end sad.’ It’s quirky, and it works for her. She also contrasts the difference of spoken media and written media. The difference is stark – in spoken media, the speaker is competing with traffic and the din of daily life, so points must be brief, deliberate, reiterated. There is, generally, no time to languish on tangential branches. 

Working on my speech has been an obsessively disciplined act of reduction – only deliberate tangents, and quick. How can I convey the meaning I seek to convey in the shortest but most impactful sentence possible? When you’re trying to stuff as much as I am into a 7-minute presentation, that’s essential. It’s also been a 3D puzzle. Where do I stand and when do I move there? What body language do I use to accentuate my message? How do I ensure that I come across deliberately but not mechanically? And tone, volume, pitch – how would you speak this next question?

Have you ever been totally transformed by an external event?

That’s the opener. It sets the tenor for everything that follows. It’s not an insubstantial consideration. Frankly, my friends, I want to win – I can reasonably see myself at the top of the Toastmasters heap someday.

Let’s address these several tangents:

Mary Oliver’s message, beyond one of a gentle discipline, is sonorous: a rock is not a stone. I took her message and massaged my entire speech with its precepts – aspirants, elisions, and plosive stops… I owe her a great debt of gratitude.

Tara Westover was a child when the ATF laid siege to the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge; her book, Educated, opens hauntingly with a childhood fantasy of that scene, instilled by her bipolar father. My speech picks up with the Murrah building, and could just have easily touched on Waco and Dave Koresh – all three of these events are steps along the rise of white nationalism in America. Ruby Ridge and Waco both inspired Timothy McVeigh; he was piqued by the first and hardened by the second. His truck bomb detonated two years to the day after the fiery conclusion of the ATF’s botched siege on the Branch Davidians. Alas, there’s no room for these stories in this particular speech. 

And Sarah Vowell reads everything she writes aloud. Starting weird and ending sad is an entertaining proposition too, and I am rather fond of the written tangent. All have merit for writer and speaker alike.

I’m in a reader’s rut now. Have you ever read a book so good that when you finally put it down, closing it slowly, reverently, its wonder washes over you, and you suffer for want of an equally good book for what seems like forever? Educated is one of those books. Jurassic Park is still at my bedside. I’m not ready for that one yet. I have Nabokov’s Laughing in the Dark; Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse; Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom; and Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun on my short list. I think I’ve settled on the last of these – it’s a bedtime book. I don’t think that Nelson Mandela is a bedtime author. My speech closes with him. He too loved Invictus, and to great and inspiring effect.

When I post my blog next week, I will know the outcome of my competition. Whatever the result, the project itself has transformed the way I think about writing, and that alone is worth the effort undertook: it’s changed my relationship with myself. 

I think that’s pretty cool.

Happy Sunday!

James

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A Speech Unveiled

Well, I did it. My parents came too. It was surreal. 

What is it, you ask? I’ll tell you. 

But first, some back story. 

Way back in January, we received notice of this year’s Toastmasters competitions – Evaluation and International. In the Evaluation Contest, a guest speaker is brought in to deliver a speech, which is then evaluated in turn by each of the competitors, while the others sit ensconced in a separate room. It’s a lot of fun, and I considered competing in it too. But my real interest was in the International Contest – I enjoy its allure. 

The International Contest has such a lofty name because it carries with it the potential to compete on the international stage. You can see a selection of past winners on YouTube – I’ve watched them time and time again myself. They are engaging, instructive, theatrical – very much a performance. 

An international speech is a story worth telling, one that runs the audience through an array of emotions in seven brief minutes. They usually revolve around a transformative personal experience, from whence this emotional array derives. I think it’s the epitome of solo stagecraft – every movement has an impact on your delivery. It’s the most layered and nuanced bit of writing I’ve ever done. 

Anyway, I competed at my club on Monday – I performed that piece of nuanced writing. My parents were in attendance; they came to Dallas on a whim, but this speech was one of their compelling reasons. I was glad to have them. 

We had three other speakers. Of them, one is qualified to progress to the next level of competitions, and he surprised us by registering when he showed up to the meeting. Whoa. I’m really proud of my Toastmasters club. The other two guys spoke for the opportunity to practice; they haven’t hit the threshold required to advance just yet, but they’re hungry. One of them gave his first speech ever in front of a group, and he killed it. I admire the strength of will that he demonstrated. Toastmasters is great for nurturing your faith in humanity. All three were worthwhile, relatable, and engaging stories. I enjoyed them immensely. 

And then I was up. We’d drawn lots at the beginning of the meeting, and I’d gotten the coveted slot – last in presentation, first on the mind. The only drawback was that I was hungry, but couldn’t eat the delicious chocolate chip cookies that Amanda baked because I didn’t want to gunk up my vocal cords. I’m a singer; I’m licensed to be a bit dramatic. But I didn’t feel any nerves until I was standing awaiting my introduction. I’d been preparing for this moment for two months. 

The air in the room shifted palpably. We’d heard about attending church as a gay couple; the importance of sports to character development; and Europeans cheering for Martin as he huffed up the hill in his second attempt to bring his wife a glass of champagne. Now, the topic was grim:

At 9:01 on April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh seared the nation’s psyche.

I survey the audience – hands had drawn to chests in response to emotional upheaval. My audience is largely my parents’ age; they got the reference. I continue: 

He had detonated a truck packed with explosives near a federal building in Oklahoma. The percussion was so great that it struck a 3.0 on the Richter scale, 16 miles away. It left scores dead, hundreds wounded, and a thousand homeless. It was the worst act of domestic terrorism to date. I was six.  

I stood, arms at my side, until the Richter reading. Then, I lifted one arm and extended it slowly away from me, stressing those sixteen mile. The floor was mine.  

I don’t remember that, nor the trial that followed; I was just too young. What I do remember is his execution. The day was June 11, 2001; I was twelve. Watching the news, what struck me most were his last words: Henley’s Invictus, a defiant declaration of self determination: 

I am the master of my fate

I am the captain of my soul

Finger to chest emphatically, survey the room. Eye contact is powerful. 

McVeigh gave the warden a handwritten copy before he was strapped to the chair; he died, but his poem lived on. I was intrigued; I quickly put it to memory. It really scared my mom. 

Three months later, the towers fell. 

Nearly eighteen years later, that emotion is still raw. I let it course over me, through me. Pause for dramatic effect. I continue: 

This, too, I remember. I was at school, seventh grade. I was also in New York, albeit several hours from the attack. This was before cell phones; my school broke the news at lunch: they gathered us together to deliver it once. 

I forget the speaker’s name; we called her Lord Farquaad. Shrek was big in my family then, and Lord Farquaad was the ogre’s absurd antagonist. We could relate. But Lord Farquaad spoke now, and her topic demanded gravity: 9/11 eclipsed Oklahoma immediately and viscerally. I was emotionally struck, but not externally impacted. Some of my peers were not so fortunate. Hurt was everywhere. My childhood died that day; such evil shook my young soul. You too?

Lord Farquaad got a hearty laugh; I let it run full cycle before resuming. By the paragraph’s end, I had my audience near tears. You too? They nodded in somber accord. Pause for reflection. Resume: 

9/11 did not recede. Rather, it swelled into a crescendo of the 24-hour news cycle: I saw the towers fall a hundred times; I heard New Yorkers rally together with love; I sensed the drums of war beating on the near horizon. 9/11 dramatically informed my life. In response, I turned inward. In 2002, we invaded Afghanistan. In 2003, we invaded Iraq. The weight of the world fell on my shoulders. Singing was my escape. 

Tempo, tone, intensity – I leveraged that crescendo to my advantage, then pulled out back to address its impact on me. Scene change: 

In the fall of 2002, before Iraq, I was in Once On This Island, our middle school musical. I was a lead, one of four strong singers. At our director’s behest one day, we each sang an audition on audio cassette. I was more thrilled to record than I was to audition: this was a first! Because of it, I can proudly say that I have once done more with a cassette tape than just destroy it! Maybe you can relate. But I digress.

At 30, I’m one of the younger people in the room. The cassette tape flies. 

In January, my mother got a call: I alone had been chosen for a national honor choir, singing tenor. She was elated; we danced around the room in ecstatic joy – hers more than mine. Joy felt unattainable those days; it was a harsh winter, and I was prone to seasonal depression. But puberty had transformed me, and I was no longer a tenor. I was a bass – a bass who was going to New York!

Puberty’s a funny word, and it did happen then; it threw a wrench in my plans, but eh. That choir was one of the great privileges of my young life. Few things were of greater developmental import:

February came, and with it, my big break. I still wonder at the timing. War in Iraq was imminent, and teens were singing for peace next to the two craters of the towers while armed troops stood on street corners and people flowed past them in protest. It was a tumultuous time. It was a sacred time. 

I’m ever so grateful that I run. Try saying that mouthful in one emphatic breath. Pivot to the divine:

It was then that I first sang the prayer of St Francis: ‘Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.’ His words rang truer than anything I’d ever known: they soothed my shaken soul; they still do. I learned then that I could captain my soul and share it too. My mother’s worry was allayed; I could be unconquerable and kind, a steadfast warrior for peace.

Resolution. Yes, I sang. It took a lot of discipline not to eat that cookie. It paid off. 

Epilogue and charge:

Because of 9/11, I became a soldier. I commissioned from West Point speaking Arabic, determined to use my gifts for good. Because of St Francis, I had the wisdom to do it well. And I did: I deployed to Afghanistan, where Arabic is the language of God. With it, I served Afghan and American alike. Pain had led me to this place; love was my response. Pain in this life is a given; love in this life is a choice. Pain is all around us; what do you choose? 

I cede the floor.

The club transitions to a vote. Once complete, ballot counters collect all ballots and retire to another room to tally them. The Master of Ceremonies introduces the hosts of contestants to the audience with a brief series of questions; it’s a chance to get to know the speakers a bit. I am last. Scott queries, ‘how’d a redhead star in a show about Pacific Islanders?’ I was blue. ‘Oh wow, that’s amazing.’ Yeah, I grew up in the shadow of Ithaca College and Cornell – there were lots of amazing people there. He recedes to his own private reverie; in ways, my childhood is a gay guy’s dream. Dani shakes him out of it.

My mother speaks: ‘I need to give a speech to explain this speech. I just wanted my son to be happy!’

My father relates how my scout troop chose to give up a planned boating weekend on Cayuga Lake to raise money for the Red Cross at the mall. It was a tender and touching moment – fuel for phase two of my speech.

The ballot counters return, signaling the end of our guest commentary. They deliver their results:

In third place, Martin! In second place, Tim!

In first, me. James. 

Now the real work begins. The speech above is a monologue, more or less. I’ve enlisted my mentor to help me turn it into a dynamic back-and-forth between me and my audience, one in which their participation is solicited time and time again to keep their interest. Writing and the spoken word demand different treatments: one allows you the luxury to languish in the lushness of the prose, rereading at will. The other is a fleeting moment, vocalized once and then gone. It kind of reminds me of the blue accelerator pads in an old racing game I had – use them or fall behind.

I can’t go on to the third level of competition this year; I’ll be in Germany for a dear friend’s wedding, and I won’t miss it for anything. But I’ll be damned if I don’t try to win what’s coming all the same. I’m tickled by the thought of presenting this to Texas crowd. Yeeehaw! 

Wish me luck!

James

To Craft A Speech

I am a writer.

Sometimes, the words flow like water from a fountain. Sometimes, they falter, like ink from a failing ballpoint pen. Always, they require an edit, though these vary in intensity and duration. I’m not writing for college admission anymore, so I’m at liberty to practice as I please. 

I am also a speaker.

Speeches are different. A speech, with care, can be theater. Like a piece of theater, a good speech is not written, it is wrought. The distinction is significant. 

To write is to put pen to paper, or fingers fingers to keys, with some degree of effort, and record. Typically, I can let an idea foment in my head for a few days, then sit down and write it out. I’ll give it a quick read for clarity once I’m done; a blog so executed typically takes me about two hours. This is writing. It’s almost formulaic. 

‘Wrought’ derives not from ‘write,’ but from ‘work.’ A good speech is not written, it is wrought, and it takes enormous time. It is envisioned, drafted, written, reviewed, reduced, focused, honed: every word matters, as does its placement. The arrangement of words within a sentence, or sentences within a paragraph, or even paragraphs with in a larger body, can confuse or clarify. My goal is clarity, which is relatable, engaging. Thinking a story into being is not a linear process, so emotion and ideas tend to surface before structure is built. Emotion is murky. Ideas are slippery. A good speech must be wrought.  

I have been working on one speech for six weeks. I’ve been thinking about it for eight. I look at it every day, morning, noon, and night. I speak the words, considering their rhythm, their tone, their effect – and if I don’t like it, I change it. I’ve changed this speech over and over and over again. I’ve sent it to writers for edits. I’ve considered their edits individually and deliberately. I’m laying body language against individual sentences. A work of this caliber is demanding. There is no quickness about it. It sets itself a part in presentation. I will deliver my speech next week. My parents will be in the crowd. 

There is a corollary benefit to the writer. A speech is an opportunity to tell a story. In Toastmasters, a speech is an opportunity to tell a story in 5-7 minutes. That’s not a lot of time to fill, so one must learn to tighten the material to just one subject. As one advances, layers are crafted within the speech, and these create depth and meaning, increasing opportunities for the listener to connect with what you’re saying – that is the game we’re playing, is it not?

In Toastmasters, you get immediate feedback, both written and spoken. You have a dedicated team of functionaries tasked to watch your language, your mannerisms, your body language – they focus on meeting your needs, as you state them. When writing, you’re lucky if people respond to your solicitations for feedback. Practicing oratory helps a writer hone his storytelling, which amplifies his potential as a writer. We are all storytellers competing for attention. It’s the good storytellers that get heard. Good storytellers practice. 

I believe that the same degree of effort must go into anything that one wishes to do well. With effort and direction, humans can learn most any skill. We’re an amazingly adaptable species. Three years ago, I knew how to make a loaf of quick bread. Now, I know how to make diverse loaves that I would proudly sell – and I do, at work. In the interval, I experimented, documented, practiced, failed, and practiced some more. And I read. I have a dozen books on the art and science of bread. Among the things I love about humanity is our inclination to share our knowledge and wisdom. Perhaps I’ll blog about the ease of the no-knead loaf. I’m going to teach my family how to do it next week, live and in person. I’m excited. 

Long ago, I decided that I was not content to be a mere consumer in our consumer-driven society – that’s one of the reasons I learned how to bake great bread. I think it’s important to stake a claim in the world and apply persistent effort towards justly taking it. The world is much more interesting when people pursue what interests them, get good at it, and then share it – it takes discipline, effort.

 We ought to all seek to be more than what we are. By steady degree, we can achieve greatness. To do so is to honor the immense potential that resides within each of us. Call it forth – what will you bring the greater conversation?

James 

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 

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.

————————————————————————————————————————————

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