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Roses

November 16th, 2020

rosebuds - from a public domain image


Is there an evolutionary imperative for peace? Logic and common sense would certainly dictate as much, given the premise that war equals death and, in the nuclear age, even the potential for species-wide annihilation. But I am no logician.

I am reminded of rose bushes, and something I first learned about them from an Argentinian landscaper I met in the San Francisco Bay Area in the summer of ’95.

I was there visiting my brother, who had lived in the Haight-Ashbury district for a time before moving across the Bay to northern Oakland, just a few blocks from the Berkeley border. One of his housemates, named Jerry I believe, had been in that house for many years and cultivated a beautiful, color-coded flower garden in the back yard, grouping all the blues with the purples, the reds with the oranges, and so on. It was spectacular, especially at dusk. At the very back of the yard was a huge fig tree, in the ample shade of which was an elaborate and spacious old wooden shed. My brother helped me clear out the spiders and clitter to make it habitable, and there I slept for the next couple of months. As I write this, long-forgotten memories are coming to mind, of early morning sunlight through fig leaves above my head, just outside the window; of the complexly tendrilled fig roots that had forced their way in through the walls; of a half-destroyed spiderweb; of the vague scent of moldy wood; of shadows and beams and sleeping pads under my sleeping bag, cushioning me from the futon frame on which I slept; of stumbling past vivid colors and buzzing bees, across the small yard and into the kitchen for a mug of delicious, sacred coffee.

In the Help Wanted section of a local newspaper, I found an ad by a guy looking for a landscaping assistant. I had no experience, other than yard work around the house growing up, but it paid nine bucks an hour—a pretty generous wage back then, from my perspective—so I thought what the hell, and picked up the phone. The guy who answered was friendly, and either my timing was really lucky or he was desperate, because after asking me a few questions, he hired me right away and said he would pick me up at eight o’clock the following morning for a trial run.

I ended up helping him out whenever he had a larger job and needed an extra pair of hands. He had been a landscaper for many years, and had a ton of regular clients; most of their properties he had already built and landscaped, and just needed maintenance. He made me do all the unskilled menial tasks, like sweeping or pouring dirt or hauling rocks etc etc, while he did the stuff that required more finesse and skill. One of the first things I learned from him was that if you pick the dead rosebuds off of rose bushes, it stimulates them to flower more, and actually keeps them healthier.

So. Does killing serve that purpose in the human species? Is war a mass removal of rosebuds? I’m not positing that it is; in fact, I hope it isn’t, and I don’t believe it is. I’m just wondering.

What evolutionary imperative does war serve? Any?

What evolutionary imperative does peace serve? Any?

I once read a book that had a section about groups of Choctaw in Tennessee and Mississippi, and part of the focus was on their relationships with each other, the local deer population, and other factors. These groups were separated by forest, and in the forest were (duh) deer, so that was the humans’ hunting ground. As they killed more and more deer, they had to wander farther for game, and would eventually bump into other Choctaw groups; this usually led to war, which would whittle down the human populations and cause them to pull back from each other’s territories. In peace times, the deer population would thrive and multiply, and so, then, would the human populations. It was a repeating cycle.

Again, it makes me wonder about rosebuds.

But then another part of me believes strongly that there are much better ways of picking off dead buds (my metaphor for unhealthy and dangerous ideas) than killing each other with guns. *shrug*



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Australloween

October 26th, 2020

Australloween! taken by Fiona Post
Photograph taken by Fiona Post. All rights reserved.

This morning I was dwelling for a bit on the fact that we have not done anything for Halloween this year. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, as it’s an American holiday anyway, not an Australian one (though that seems to be changing), but still. A lot in me is saying that this kinda sucks.

Patriots beware: I’m going to put on my American-expat-living-in-Australia hat for a second here. And I might even get to sounding a bit gripey, though I don’t mean to :-)

So, as I was saying, we haven’t even carved a pumpkin this year. (The photo above is from last year, when we were in the States. The really cool-looking one with the graveyard scene was done by my artist brother.) We’ll be down in Sydney on Halloween night; we’re driving down early that morning to spend the day cleaning out a garage. I wonder if the kids are going to do anything, and I also am curious to see if there are any trick-or-treaters. There weren’t any when I first moved to Australia, thirteen years ago, but times have changed, and the stores are now pumping the Halloween merch like never before.

I remember the first time some would-be trick-or-treaters showed up. I think it was back in 2011 or so. There was a knock at around 4:30 in the afternoon, and at the door were four or five kids. None of them wore any sort of costume; most were still in their school uniforms. No one said “trick-or-treat” at first, either; they all just stood there, looking very unsure of themselves. I was actually about to ask what they wanted, thinking maybe they were there to see our youngest, even though I hadn’t ever seen any of these kids before. That was when one of the older ones, a girl, piped up with a half-hearted “trick-or-treat.”

I said, “Oh. But it’s November 1st….”

Since then, we’ve had a few knocks on the door at Halloween in both places we’ve lived—never more than one group of trick-or-treaters per year, and not every year, but still, there have been a few. Most times they have worn costumes, unlike that first group, especially in recent years. I hear the ghoulish American tradition has caught on more in some densely populated neighbourhoods in big cities like Sydney. So, Halloween is here now, I guess.

But it just isn’t the same. I can’t put my finger on it.

Maybe it’s because there’s none of the thrill of wandering around in the dark, with half-imagined spooks lurking about. Maybe it’s because here, it’s basically only become a holiday because for-profit stores are pushing the commercial products so hard. It’s just another commercial event. It’s all about buying costumes and props, and getting candy. There aren’t any (or many) Halloween parties for adults, or haunted houses, or homemade costumes. Or caramel apples. Or that obnoxious health-conscious adult who always gives out something lame like toothbrushes instead of candy, every year, but you’re too young and hopeful to remember which house it was, so you knock anyway. Maybe it’s the lack of understanding that if there are no treats, tricks WILL be done. Or the older brother and his friends driving around while you are trying to trick-or-treat in your cool capes and swords, looking like warriors out of some epic fantasy novel, and them throwing little packets of skittles at your head as they drive past and laughing as you fall in the ditch to get out of the way. Maybe it’s a lot of things.

Speaking of temperature, at least the weather this week is cooperating to make it feel a little less un-Halloweenish. We’re in spring here, of course, so there’s none of that lovely rotting leaves smell that makes Halloween feel so wonderfully Halloweeny… but a cold front has blown in, and here in the mountains at least, it’s gotten very chilly and rainy. If I close my eyes and pretend, it feels almost like autumn.

This will be our first Halloween since we moved to Katoomba, and I must admit to feeling a bit bummed that we won’t be here. There are not a lot of kids in this neighbourhood, so I wouldn’t expect many knocks on the door anyway, but there is a little girl across the road, so that’s something. And like I said, they are marketing the hell out of the Halloween merch this year in the grocery stores (they actually started back in early August!). I’ve even seen proper orange, North-American-style pumpkins for sale (for exorbitant prices, of course). So who knows? Maybe if we bought one, carved it, stuck a candle in it, and were going to be here on Halloween night, a few little sweet-toothed ghouls and witches might just show up. Candy is an international language, after all.

Er, um, lollies, I mean.


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Magic

October 19th, 2020

What is magic?

Magic is

That electric anticipation of a kiss:

The parting of lips,

The flow of breath,

Heartbeats accelerating

Into interweaving rhythm.

It is that touch of a father’s hand

To his son’s shoulder,

Wise eyes on the horizon,

Patiently silent through the younger man’s sobs.

It is dawn,

Exploding through the clouds

In colors never seen,

Drawing song from feathery throats

And delivering myriad minds awake

To new possibilities.

It is the smile in a mother’s eyes,

That amused set of her jaw;

It is her poise at the picnic table,

Chin propped in age-spotted hand

As her daughter searches through modern lenses

For that perfect shot.

It is dragons

It is melody in a canoe beneath the stars

It is strolling hand-in-hand

It is clarity

It is memory.

Magic is forever;

And forever and always,

Magic is real.


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What Exactly Is This Thing Called “Science”, Anyway?

October 19th, 2020

There is a lot of fear in the world these days. Fear for the future, fear of the other, fear of the bottom falling out from under us. Fear of the unknown.

Just recently, the president of the richest and most powerful country of the world has mocked the rival presidential candidate because the latter will “listen to the scientists”.

That mocker is not alone, either; despite the fact that the vast majority of humans on Earth accept and have some understanding of science, there are still many, many people voicing distrust of it.

How has the world gotten to this point? What is it about “science” that so many people don’t trust? Could it be simply that they are ignorant of what science actually is? Could this be another example of fear of the unknown? What exactly is this thing called “science”, anyway?

Google, in partnership with the Oxford English Dictionary, defines it as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”.

The Oxford Learner's Dictionary reiterates and adds to that definition of science by calling it the “knowledge about the structure and behaviour of the natural and physical world, based on facts that you can prove, for example by experiments”.

Merriam-Webster uses the following definition: “knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method”.

Okay. So, something to do with provable knowledge and truth. But since definitions are by nature sometimes rather wordy and abstract, I want to explore this question further through a concrete example or two.

The scientific process begins with asking a question. Here’s one: How long does it take a tomato plant to grow from seed to the point at which it begins to produce tomatoes?

Well, there are plenty of ways people could answer that question; someone could yell out “Twenty-three years, six months, thirteen days, and four hours!” Others might shake their heads and claim, “Nope; it takes exactly two hours to grow a tomato plant from seed to maturity.” Someone else might say, “Roughly six to eight weeks, depending on location, soil conditions, climate, etc.” Still others might shout, “Banana!

Okay, all four of those are answers to the same question—but are they correct answers? Just how true are they?

Science, at its core, is a method used to find facts, or to get as close as humanly possible to doing that.

This method involves a very careful system of experimentation, observation, and fact-checking.

Say we plant a few seeds in some pots. How do we observe how long it will take for them to grow into mature tomato plants that are beginning to bear fruit? Well, the simplest way is to just sit back, wait, and watch.

If we have followed the advice of gardeners on how best to grow healthy tomato plants, then based on what we’ve heard, we should expect to see them eventually poke through the soil, grow up, flower, and fruit (i.e. start growing tomatoes) within a couple of months. We predict that this time could vary, of course, depending on our location and other factors—soil type, sunlight, temperature, how well we’ve cared for the plants, and so on—but for the sake of argument, let’s just say we predict it might take six to eight weeks, give or take.

Okay, so, let’s now say that we find our plants to be a bit slower than average, perhaps due to lack of coffee (I can relate), and they end up taking exactly 8 weeks to begin to bear little unripe tomatoes. Eureka! We now have our answer!

“8 weeks!” We shout into the void.

But then someone replies, “Nope; you’re wrong. Fake news. It actually takes tomatoes twenty-three years, six months, thirteen days, and four hours to grow from seed to where they start bearing fruit! I know it’s true, because my scientific experts told me so, and it also happens to be written so in this here book I claim to read but which I really only touch when my daughter takes it out of her handbag and hands it to me to hold during photo ops.”

Hmm. Okay. So, we now find ourselves in a situation in which one person is asserting one truth, and another person is asserting another.

What does scientific method do to help us figure out which truth is truer?

It has to rely on the experiments and observations of others—many others, over the course of a very long time. In our example, this means we have to wait until lots and lots of people, from all manner of backgrounds and in many locations around the world, conduct the same experiment, that experiment being to plant tomato seeds in pots, care for them the same exact way we did ours, and observe the results.

Let’s say one hundred thousand people conduct the same tomato-growing experiment, using the same conditions and growth methods as we used in ours, over the course of many years. At the end of this trial run, we can look at their results.

If fifty percent of people found it took their tomato plants twenty-three years, six months, thirteen days, and four hours to grow from seed to fruit-bearing maturity, and the other fifty percent of people found it took only six to eight weeks, then we are back to square one, without a clear answer, and we need to expand our experiment’s parameters so that we can eventually figure out which claim is true.

If, however, the vast majority of tomato-growers find that their results agree with one of the claims over the other—namely, that it takes about 6-8 weeks—then we have found an answer that is pretty friggin likely to be close to the truth.

That’s all science is: It’s asking a question, and then carefully and thoroughly performing experiment after experiment to find the answer to that question, and then carefully and thoroughly observing the results; and then, it is having other people check our results by performing the same experiment and making their own observations. Over time (stress TIME here… scientific method generally cannot be performed carefully and thoroughly in a short period of time), all those observations are compared, discussed, poked at, challenged, cross-challenged, and so on; further experimentation and observation may even be necessary—but eventually, answers—the facts—do tend to be found. I personally feel that one of the great beauties of science is that when done right, it is an unrushed, collaborative effort that brings together many minds and produces a heap of creativity and ideas.

Are all scientists reliable? Of course not. Some are quacks, some lie through their teeth in support of vested interests, and some have simply made mistakes at some point in their experimentation. This is the reason data (the observed results of how long a tomato plant takes to grow) need to be checked by others, double-checked, triple-checked, checked again, and again, and again, and again, etc etc etc.

When, after decades of careful and thorough experimentation, observation, and cross-checking, 97% of all the tomato-growers end up being in agreement that tomato plants take six to eight weeks to grow, and only 3% of them are saying otherwise, then we of course can still decide for ourselves which group to believe, but if we look at the numbers, and perform our own honest experiments, we are quite likely to find that the 97% are indeed correct.

So, what exactly is this thing called science, and should we be afraid of it?

Science is simply a system for finding answers to questions, and then double- and triple-checking each other’s answers to make sure no mistakes have been made; it involves repetition, ad infinitum, until the answers are discovered. Science is a system of using evidence, found carefully and thoroughly by many, many separate observers, to verify.

And no, we should not be afraid of it. Much, much more terrifying are ignorance and arbitrary denial; those two things will end the world if we are not careful.



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Vadim

October 12th, 2020


In the end, life is quite short. What you leave behind is your legacy, and for an artist -- that is his soul poured onto canvas, sculpted into clay and stone. - Vadim Bora, (1954-2011)

I lived in Asheville, North Carolina for a couple of years. It was on a cool afternoon in the early spring of ’99, at an outside table in front of Old Europe coffee shop, that I met Vadim.

I had gone there a couple of times to write, people-watch, and stare into space over a cup of joe, as I often do, and had already become acquainted with a handful of regulars, including a guy named Rico (who worked in an office upstairs, and with whom I ended up designing websites for a stint). It seemed a friendly place, and was located on one side of the Flat Iron Building just up the street from the French Café.

Not long after the sun set that day, a middle-aged man with a well-trimmed beard walked from the coffee shop’s entrance over to our table. After he traded a few good-natured barbs with Rico, the latter introduced us. The man named Vadim said hello in a Russian accent, smiled a very infectious smile, and gave my hand a firm friendly shake before lighting a Gauloises and taking a seat.


Vadim bora


He had with him an old backgammon board, very worn from years (decades?) of use. Over the next couple of hours, I got my ass whooped over and over, and by the end of the evening, I owed a bottle of vodka—and it wouldn’t be the last! (Although, to be fair, over the next couple of years, Vadim would occasionally pay for the bottle of whatever-we-decided-the-prize-for-winning-would-be, just so that I wouldn’t have to all the time—for I rarely won, as he was quite a master at the game, having grown up playing it. I recall his telling me that backgammon is one of the most ancient games in the world.)


Vadim's backgammon board
The board we used to play on; it was his parting gift to me, during a later visit back to Asheville.

Vadim Bora was born in 1954 in Beslan, Russia, in sight of the Caucasus Mountains. After living in various places, he settled in Asheville in 1993. I must have met him when he was forty-five, or thereabouts.

Oh, gee.

I just realized I’m now older than he was then.

That’s really hard to believe. Okay, I need a minute to ponder that….


Waiting for a Miracle
“Waiting for a Miracle” by Vadim Bora

Stagehand 2
“Stagehand 2” by Vadim Bora

Untitled III
“Untitled III” by Vadim Bora

...Back now. Wow. Life and time are crazy, eh? Anyway.

Vadim was an artist, in the truest sense of the word, and is quite well known internationally for his work—from jewelry to sculpture to painting—all of which I find utterly amazing. I’m just posting a few examples of his work, pieces that I recall fondly, but there are heaps to look at; at the end of this blog post, I’ve included a link to his studio-gallery.


Wild Apple Tree
“Wild Apple Tree” by Vadim Bora

Into the Water
“Into the Water” by Vadim Bora

Obviously, he was exceedinly talented. To me, though, first and foremost, he was a friend. I happened to meet him during a time of my life when I was in great need of one; I was rather lost, to say the least. In retrospect, Vadim was also a bit of a father figure for me, and over many a late night conversation up in his studio, usually over a cup of alcohol or tea or coffee while sitting next to his various works in progress, he gave me some invaluable insights and perspective which were of great help in leading me through the bramble-clogged thicket of my mind. Vadim was always welcoming and patient, and never too busy for me. I will always cherish those memories.


Armed & Lonely
“Armed & Lonely” by Vadim Bora

Indian Summer
“Indian Summer” by Vadim Bora

Mother and Child
“Mother and Child” by Vadim Bora

In our conversations into the wee hours, or while shooting the shit over a game of backgammon, Vadim and I did talk about his art and my music occasionally, or of world events etc etc. But our friendship, brief though it was, transcended beyond those things. He was simply a friend when I needed a friend, and I will forever be grateful. I just hope I was one for him as well.

Sadly, I moved overseas at the end of 2000, and therefore didn’t get to spend more time getting to know him and his work. I returned to Asheville for short visits over the years, usually to play music with friends, and I always looked Vadim up and at least found time to poke my head into his studio or the coffee shop to say hello—but it just was never the same as it had been back in the days when I lived in town and could spend some unhurried hours, deep in a tobacco haze conversation, with nothing overly pressing to do in the morning.


Alone
“Alone” by Vadim Bora

The Path
“The Path” by Vadim Bora

Cornelia and Cedric
Cornelia and Cedric” by Vadim Bora

I am happy that my wife got to meet him during one such visit, brief though it was, at a concert I was playing which Vadim attended (he was always very supportive of my creative efforts), and then over a rather rushed cup of coffee at his studio the next day while he was preparing for an art show. That was the last time I saw Vadim; alas, a few years later, he passed away very suddenly and while still quite young.

Vadim left behind his wife Constance (to whom I am very grateful for giving me permission to use these images of his artwork! Thank you!), son Georgi, brothers German and Felix, in-laws Ken and Irene Richards, and many friends, colleagues, and admirers of his work.

I will always remember his wonderful generosity and his down-to-earth perceptiveness into human nature, not to mention his charming humour. Vadim Bora was one of a kind.

Thank you, Vadim, for all that you were and are, and for everything you taught me. I will never forget you.


 S-P, in Green
“S-P, in Green” by Vadim Bora

To learn more about Vadim’s life and work, visit his studio here:

Vadim Bora Studio-Gallery

All images used in this blog post are © Vadim Bora Studio-Gallery. None may be used for any purpose without express permission. All rights reserved.


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Indirect Heat

October 12th, 2020

The other day I decided to cook some ribs. I’d been seeing pork ribs for sale at the grocery store at a reasonable price, so I decided, hey, what the hell? I might as well give it a go.

I had eaten good ribs, so I knew what they tasted like; I’d just never attempted to prepare them before myself. I started doing a bit of research, and came across this video:

In it, Mr. Reed talks about how, given the preference, he would always choose to slow-cook ribs in a smoker, but that for people who don’t own one (like myself), it is perfectly doable on a gas grill. I thought, okay, cool, and followed his instructions to a T. The only variations I did were in the actual recipes (I made up my own bbq sauce, very loosely based on one I found online; and I also made my own rub, which was based on one of Reed’s rub recipes—but again, with so many changes that it wasn’t recognizable), and in the cut of meat I used (I got some basic pork ribs at the grocery store (Woolies), whereas the ones he uses in that video are a St. Louis cut, I believe, and most likely purchased from a butcher).

Cheers!

Now, my wife and I do have a kettle-style grill, and many would recommend doing ribs in that, such as my friend here:

Kettle grill

However, I’d already decided I wanted to try it on the gas barbie like Reed does in the video. So I got to work. From here on, I’ll do my best to describe the entire process in detail, in case you want to try it. First I should of course point out that grilling is a fire hazard, and all sensible precautions should be taken to avoid injury and disaster.

The first step was to soak some woodchips in cold water, for a good 25-30 minutes. I bought some that were cherrywood and mesquite, or something like that, because they were on special, but you can just make your own by chipping / whittling any wood you have around (as long as you don’t use poison ivy or poison oak!!!). The point is to have something that will put out smoke when burned, so you don’t absolutely need to go out and spend a bunch of money on some fancy-schmancy woodchips. Unless you want to of course. I bought them in part because I was lazy.

Soak the chips

Next, prep the grill:

Prep the grill

Essentially, the method is to slow-cook the meat using indirect heat. Ours is a 6-burner grill, but you can do it with a 4-burner one, too. Turn on the burner(s) on one side (I fired up the ones on the far right), with a plan to put the ribs over on the left side (NOT over the direct flames). The idea is basically to turn your gas barbecue into an oven (and if you want to skip the smoking process, most of these steps can actually be converted to work just fine in an oven, though the result will lack the smokey flavour of course).

Aim for 250F/121C

Every gas bbq/grill is different, so you’ll have to adjust the knobs and experiment a bit to get the temperature just right. Aim for a stable 250 degrees Fahrenheit / 121 degrees Celsius, measured at the far left side of the grill (assuming your direct heat burner is on the far right). Our bbq/grill has a lot of holes through which heat can escape—a large one right along the back, plus one on each side for where a rotisserie skewer can go—and after struggling to get a stable temperature, I ended up plugging all these holes up using a couple of layers of aluminum/aliminium foil.

Note of caution: The built-in thermometers in some gas grills are grossly inaccurate. Ours was WAY way out—like, not even close to being accurate—hence the oven thermometer I used (pictured above).

While you are waiting for the grill to heat up, you can make your rub. Click here for Malcom Reed's "Killer Hogs Dry Rub Recipe". As you can see in the image below, I changed the ingredients up quite a bit, but I stuck more or less to his proportion ideas (not the healthiest thing to do, but hey, the goal was flavour!). Part of the fun of making sauces and rubs is to experiment and add your own style, so feel free to get creative and use whatever ingredients you like. Some like hot-spicy, but I don’t (not on ribs anyway; I LOVE heat on other things though!).

Rub mixture

After you’ve made your rub mix, remove the thin membrane from the bone-side of the ribs racks. You can google how to do that, but I didn’t find it very difficult; I just used a spoon to get it going, then pulled it off with my fingers. If you leave it on, it can go a bit tough and prevent some of the flavour from getting into the meat.

Next, wet the ribs with apple juice or water (or oil – come to think of it, I believe I used canola oil—mybad! But I did read somewhere you can use apple juice, and some people even soak the meat for a while in it). The point is to get the rub mixture to stick better. Next, generously coat both sides of the ribs racks with your rub mix.

Rub it on good

Next, make a smoke tube. Take the pre-soaked woodchips, wrap them in a double layer of aluminum foil into a log or tube shape, and then poke some holes in the top to let the smoke out.

Smoke tube

By now, after some tweaking, you should have the temperature in the meat side (left side) of your gas bbq at a more or less stable 250F/121C, or thereabouts. Place your smoke tube on the far right, directly over the heat source (the burner or burners you have burning), and then place your rib racks bone side down over on the far left. The setup should be something like this:

The set-up

You’ll notice in the above photo, besides the fact that my set-up is the opposite (right to left) of the one he does in the video (but with the same effect), I also have my oven thermometer in the center rather than farther to the left. Don’t do that. I’ll tell you later why it was a mistake; for now, suffice to say that I thought the far left of the grill was a lot hotter than it actually was. More on that later. If you place your thermometer closer to the far left, it will give you a more accurate gauge of how hot your meat is getting on average.

Now close the lid and let it slow-cook for a good hour or so. Meanwhile, you can make your apple glaze (I suppose it’s more a sauce than a glaze, but still).

Apple glaze 1

I poured some apple juice into a pot and boiled it until it had reduced. I don’t know how long; I just did it by feel. Once it was nice and sweet and rich, but still very liquid-y, I added some margarine:

Apple glaze 2

Next, unless you want to use a store-bought one (boooooo), it’s time to make your bbq sauce. You can find a lot of good recipes online; here is the recipe I loosely based mine on (scroll down until you get to the “Barbecue Sauce for Pork Ribs” section). Adjust your proportions as necessary. There is also a lot of other helpful info on that page.

Homemade bbq sauce

You don’t strictly have to cook it, but I wanted to let the spices get to know each other a bit and mingle a little, so I cooked it over a low heat, stirring frequently.

Homemade bbq sauce cooking

After your ribs have been on the grill for about an hour, spritz them with a moisturizing liquid. I just mixed some apple juice with some red wine vinegar in a plastic spray bottle. You can also put in a new smoke tube at this point if you want a heavier smoke flavour, as the first one will likely have burned out by now, but I didn’t.

Sptizing

After you’ve given the ribs a good spritzing, close the lid again and let them cook for another 45 minutes or an hour. Always keep an eye on the temperature, and do whatever you have to do to keep it more or less a steady 250F/121C.

Keep an eye on the temperature!

After 45 minutes or an hour, remove the ribs (in the video I linked above, Malcom Reed shows some great time-saving methods and logistical tips to do with transferring the meat to and from the grill etc; I recommend watching it).

Lay a couple of sheets of aluminum down, slather some of your apple/margarine glaze down, then place a rib rack meat side down on top of it. Spoon some more apple/margarine glaze on top, then wrap the ribs in the foil, leaving no holes, so that it traps in all that good moisture. Do the same with the other rack. (Sorry; I forgot to take a photo of this step in the process!)

Now put the wrapped ribs back on the grill, again on the indirect heat side and at the same temperature as before. Close the lid and let them cook low & slow.

Check after an hour

Check them after an hour. You should be starting to see a bit of pull-back on the meat, with it pulling back from the bone. It probably won’t be done yet though. Wrap them back up and return to the grill, and cook for another 45 minutes or so. Meanwhile, make some aluminum boats (like Reed does in the video).

Is it done yet???
Is it done yet???

By now, the meat should be pulling back from the ends of the ribs bones nicely, indicating that it is getting nice and tender. It’s time to uncover them and start the final process.

Place each rib rack in a boat (not wrapped in foil), bone side down, and then cover generously with more of your rub mixture. Return to the indirect heat of the grill, and close the bbq lid; let cook for another 15-20 minutes. At this point I turned the heat up to around 300F/149C.

Now you have a choice: You can eat your ribs dry or wet. For dry ribs, they are done and ready to serve. For wet ribs, slather a very generous amount of your homemade bbq sauce onto the top of the rack…

Slather on your sauce

… and then close the lid and let them cook for another 15 minutes or so.

Your ribs should now be ready to eat. Take them off the grill, bring them inside, and dig in.

dry rack
I did one rack as a dry rack, without the sauce; just some extra rub.

wet rack
I did the other rack wet, with plenty of sauce.

As you can see from the photos, my first attempt at ribs was not 100% successful; due to the temperature gauging error I mentioned earlier, the temperature to the far left of the grill was not hot enough, as I’d measured the temperature from the center of the grill where I’d placed my oven thermometer. This resulted in underdone ribs. They were still cooked through and even had some very delicious and juicy parts, but over all, the meat was not falling off the bone; the ribs could have used another hour of cooking at that temperature. Had I gotten the temperature right, it should have worked the way his did in the video. It also could have had to do with the quality of meat; these pork ribs I bought at the grocery store were not the best.

Dinner is served!

Still, though, all things considered, it was not at all a bad first attempt :-) I absolutely nailed the flavours, both in the rub and in the sauces, and the ribs were pretty good-eatin’. We served the ribs with granny smith apple chunks, very sharp tasty/cheddar cheese, and some chips.

The leftovers were even better the next night, because we stuck them in the oven and let them cook another forty minutes or so, and the meat was a lot more tender then. Still, lesson learned for next time!

Good luck with your ribs, and if you have any comments or ideas on how to do it better (I’m sure there are plenty of excellent methods!), then by all means, feel free to click the button below! :-)



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Caving

September 21st, 2020

The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

I’ve been reading a novel called The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling. I’m just over two thirds of the way through it, and while it’s been a very long, slow build, at times frustratingly so, the wait is definitely beginning to pay off, and I am riveted :-)

I won’t give too much away here, but the story takes place in a cave. Okay, that’s all I’ll say, because I absolutely hate spoilers, and wouldn’t want to subject you to them!

But this novel takes me back. I grew up in middle Tennessee, which is basically part of one giant limestone shelf (or perhaps a series of shelves? If any knowledgeable geologists are reading this, feel free to correct me in the discussion forum!). In our late teens and early twenties, my brother and I did quite a bit of caving—from exploring the little hole in the side of the ridge up the street from where we grew up, from which water would gush after a big rain, to camping out in vast, winding caverns that seemed to never end. There were muddy wet slogs through subterranean creeks, dry gravel crawls under enormous, claustrophobia-inducing slabs of rock with bats zooming straight at our faces, gorgeous stalactites and stalagmites, blackness blacker than the blackest night, and utterly awesome silences.

It was a very dangerous pastime, in retrospect, and one I cannot recommend, but our parents had taught us to respect the wilderness with caution and meticulous planning, and my brother and I extended this level of prudence to the friends we took with us on some of those excursions by not tolerating any rashness or frivolity while underground. What we did above ground was another matter; I have to admit, we did some pretty stupid things! But those are stories for another time.

Again without giving anything important away, there is a reference in The Luminous Dead to sensory deprivation. When you’ve been underground for a long time, and your sense of time is all out of whack and the world of the surface starts feeling like a distant memory, it's amazing what your mind starts convincing you that you are seeing (and hearing!). The author of the book certainly got that part spot-on! When all the torches/flashlights are out and there is no possible source of light anywhere, and you are supposedly all alone in the cave, your imagination can really go to work. It could get downright scary, especially when we were spending the night inside a cave, and we definitely got ourselves nice and spooked with many a ghost-story-telling session in the pitch dark ;-)

Speaking of lost sense of time, I once went into a cave with a couple of people in the late afternoon, spent three or four hours inside, and then came out—only to discover that it hadn’t been three or four hours at all, but more like eight hours; the stars were out and it was after one in the morning by the time we returned to where we’d deliberately left our watches (on the insistence of one of my companions) at the mouth of the cave. The place was called the Grutas de Lanquín, down in Guatemala. It was the summer of 1992, and I was hitchhiking around southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize for a month. In Guatemala, I’d met a guy named Kellan (Kellan, where are you? What was your last name, anyway?? I hope you are well!) who happened to be going in the same direction as I, so we’d become temporary travelling companions.

After wandering eastward from the highlands near Huehuetenango and Todos Santos (which back then was a very isolated little village), we found ourselves at the end of a bus line in the tiny town of San Agustín Lanquín. There we bumped into the only other gringo around—well, gringa, technically—an American girl named (doh, can’t remember her name) who was stationed there as part of the Peace Corp, helping the locals with various engineering projects. Anyway, she was gracious enough to let us stay at her place (because back then, there was no accommodation in the area—we could have found a place to pitch a tent, but were more than happy to take her up on her offer of floor space in her spare room and a shower with actual hot water!), and during conversation over lunch, we learned of the nearby caves. So that afternoon, flashlights and ropes and candles and snacks and extra water in our packs, we walked the kilometer or so over to the entrance.

Picture a mountain. Now picture a big fat turquoise river flowing right out of the side of it. Not a creek; a river. This thing was big. And the water was lovely and cool; we took a dip (me paranoid about snakes, until I eventually relaxed). To the left of where the turquoise water flowed out of the mountain was a hole not much taller than an adult human. Rita? Greta? Martina? I think her name might have been Martina—anyway, Martina told us we needed to hurry, because it was nearly dusk, but wouldn’t let on to what exactly we were hurrying to see.

She had me and Kellan stand in the entrance to the cave, with our arms outstretched. Then she just told us to wait. We were extra patient (probably because we both thought she was extra pretty), and did as we were told. After a few minutes, a bat came whizzing out of the cave, and we both freaked out because it flew so close to us. Martina laughed, and told us, “Okay, don’t move; the sun’s going down. It’s starting.”

The sun was indeed well behind the mountain, and had been for some time, casting the valley in shadow. Another bat whizzed out, this time right under Kellan’s arm. He yelped in surprise and I laughed at him. Then a group of three or four bats winged out, banking around us, nearly flying right into our faces. Just then, my nerve began to waver, but I held my ground, as did Kellan.

The bats kept coming. Within moments there were hundreds of them, and over the next few minutes, hundreds became thousands, and then tens of thousands. We both nearly shit our pants, but once we realized we weren’t going to get bitten or anything, the exhilaration took over, and we were yelling and laughing as the little sonar-guided beasties streamed around us. They flew in droves, like river currents of leathery wings and tiny furry bodies—under our arms, around our heads, even between our legs. For lack of a better word, the experience was intense.

After the bats had passed and we'd gathered our jaws up off the ground, Martina led the way into the cave. We paralleled the river for the first half hour or so, but then the main passage took us up and left, and after a time we found ourselves in a dry cave full of amazing, beautiful formations. There was one room with enormous, pipe-like and fin-like stalagmites which resonated with different tones when we beat our hands against them. This delighted Kellan and me so much that we declared a dinner break right then and there, dropped our packs, and set into an impromptu percussion session that lasted who knows how long. The tones and harmonies seemed otherworldly. Spent, we ate some food and drank some water, and then pressed on.

A couple of hours later (which didn’t seem that long at the time), the passageway narrowed, and then ended in a low-ceilinged room with a big pile of slabs at one end. It looked as though there had been a collapse of some sort, eons ago. Martina thought this was where the traversable part of the cave ended, but stubborn me scrambled up the pile and found a way down the other side that led into a very narrow tunnel. I hollered for them to follow, and we spent the next several minutes carefully navigating a dusty, circuitous passage.

Eventually, it widened out into a tunnel large enough to stand vertically and walk three abreast, and several meters farther on, it ended at a ledge. Kellan had the most powerful flashlight, so he shone it into the darkness. Below us, about ten meters down, we could just make out a floor covered in deep dust that stretched off to the right and around a misty bend with diagonally-leaning column-like formations that looked like ancient supports from some dwarven ruin. And that passageway was utterly huge; if I had to guess, I’d say it was half as wide as a football field, and longer than that as it disappeared around the bend, and there’s no telling how tall. To the left the wall curved around, but then it vanished; both above us and straight out from us, the light could find no purchase. It was too far away; the cavern was too vast. So enormous we couldn’t see the other side.

But what I’ve described so far was just what we could and couldn’t see. That wasn’t the most astonishing part.

What absolutely blew my mind, and what I will never forget, was the sound: A very distant, low roar, almost like wind in trees. But more like water on rocks, I thought, and that was when my imagination exploded with the realization of just how absolutely vast this cave was. We were hearing the river, far far away, deeper in than we could possibly go, and still sounding every bit as big as it had looked several kilometers downstream where it flowed out of the side of the mountain. This cave was huge. And we had only seen a tiny fraction of it.

We did have a rope, but we also were sensible enough to comprehend that we’d gone as far as we could safely go, so after gazing into the blackness in awe for a while, we headed back out. When we exited the cave, the stars were out—not a cloud in the sky, the Milky Way scattered bright and colorful over our heads. I do believe I discovered the existence of magic that day.


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Bigger

September 21st, 2020

Like all species, we humans are, by our very nature, selfish creatures. By that, I mean we put our own survival and interests first and foremost. I am not saying humans are incapable of generosity or magnanimous gestures or love; of course we are. But when it comes down to survival, we’ll eliminate anything we perceive to be a threat or obstacle in a heartbeat. And I would argue that in our haste to attain security, our tendency as a species is to neglect or at least overlook other routes that would be less destructive to our surroundings and fellow Earthlings, and some of those routes, when looked at in the long term, would actually benefit us more.

Thus, a large part of our problem seems to be short-term thinking. Why do we have such a hard time planning ahead? Why do we consider a mere fifty or hundred years hence to be “the distant future”?

In just thirty years from now, by the year 2050, wild koalas are predicted to be extinct in New South Wales “unless there is urgent government intervention to prevent habitat loss, a year-long inquiry has found.” Thirty years. That’s soon, right? For anyone reading this who is in your thirties or older, think back thirty years: That’s a long time, right? Your brain started having the capacity to form long-term memories when you were small. Even though most of those memories have now faded, you still at least have some vague images and recollections from when you were a wee ankle-biter, yeah? Okay, now fast forward a few decades from now to when you are in your sixties, and I guarantee you that your thirties won’t seem as long ago then as your toddler years do now. And yet, the same amount of time has passed; thirty years is still thirty years. To a three-million-year-old space mammoth, thirty Earth years are just a blink, or a drawn-out fart at most. It’s all a matter of perspective.

My point is that no matter how short or long thirty years might seem, it is, in the grand scheme of things, a very short-ass period of time. Blink a few more times, eat some beans, and 2050 will be here.

And the koalas will be gone.

Why?

Because certain humans in power would rather make a quick buck by allowing their real estate developer pals to chop down even more stretches of gum tree forest, which is the habitat and food source for wild koalas. Notice I said “the” and not “a”. While we humans might be able to adjust and relocate whenever we deplete a food source, by farming and fishing instead of hunting, for example, koalas cannot; they need eucalyptus leaves to munch and trees to hide in. And if the New South Wales government succumbs to pressures from those very selfish monied interests, then too many of those forests will be gone -- within thirty years from now -- and NSW’s wild koalas will be no more.

We’re bigger than that, aren’t we? Do we humans really need to be so selfish? Is having more room to build more subdivisions really a matter of survival for the human race? Does making hundreds of millions in profit really justify extinguishing the flame of another race? Okay, okay; I did begin by pointing out that species are innately selfish—but do we humans have to be?

We’ve got big brains, perceptive eyes, and very dexterous fingers and thumbs. We can invent shit that takes us beyond our primordial states of being. Haven’t we developed to the point that we should be able to look beyond a five-year plan? Why does the ability to think in terms of centuries or millennia continue to elude us? Why, if a million years really isn’t very long, do we still perceive it to be?

Shouldn’t we be bigger? Shouldn’t we be able to see the benefit to our long-term survival and happiness—because if we’re honest, it is no longer just about survival—of helping koalas and the myriad other dying species to survive with us? Do they not deserve their own protected and generously large places in the wild, where they can live without fear of extinction? Isn’t that what we’d want for ourselves if the tables were turned?

We humans have had our run of selfishly raping and pillaging this planet without giving much thought to the future. Koalas, with their thirty-year deadline, are not the only vulnerable species at stake here, and if you really take a good hard look at the data, you’ll acknowledge that we “the people” have got our own deadline, too—and once we cross it, we’ll all be gone. And after that happens, what will the point have been?

It’s time for us to grow up, and learn to be bigger than we have been so far.


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Pottery

September 14th, 2020

Last year my wife and I took an entry-level pottery course three times in a row. For both of us it was our first time doing anything artistic with our hands like that since primary/elementary school, unless you count helping kids with school projects. Each course lasted six weeks, and took place at the Old School Farm just outside of Nashville, Tennessee. We learned heaps and had a ton of fun.

We went into it not knowing at all what to expect. Chris, our instructor, wore a red beard and a very stylish hat, and was absolutely brilliant. That first class—our class was always Monday evenings, 6:00-9:00—he began by showing us how to use the wire to slice off a small chunk of clay from the clay blocks we’d purchased. He then told us just to take a few minutes and play with it, feel how it felt in our hands; squish it, roll it, kneed it, whatever, and not worry about trying to make any sort of shape yet.

“It’s... so, it’s almost... well, just play with it and get used to how it feels. Yeah, like that.” He showed us how, and we dove right in. “For now I just want you to get familiar with it. Relax; enjoy how it feels in your hands. Remember back when you used to make mudballs when you were a kid. Do that.” (That isn’t a direct quote – sorry Chris! – but he said something to that effect, and that advice is what made me fall in love with clay.)

We spent that first session just molding things by hand. First he had us make a “pinch bowl” – just a small bowl, formed with pinching motions (as opposed to being sculpted on the pottery wheel), and then he taught us how to make coils, which were basically just skinny rolls of clay rolled out against the flat of the table or between our palms. After I was done with my little (tiny, lol) bowl, I got very ambitious and attempted a salt shaker. To make it, made a bunch of coils and bent them around into circles, shaped them a little, and then mashed them on top of each other. I then made a top for it. The mistakes I made were to not leave enough room for the cork to stick out of the bottom, and, later in the process, to glaze over the holes (and that glaze is very hard; I broke a couple of drill bits trying to clear the holes!). After making our pieces, we set them on our shelves, covered in plastic, so that they would dry very gradually and therefore be less prone to cracking.

My salt shaker and pinch bowl.

Drying my first pieces of pottery under plastic.

The next week, Chris gave us an introduction to the wheel. “Throwing”, it’s called, because you literally throw the clay against the wheel to help it stick. At least that’s why I think it’s called that. Anyway, after saying a few words about the basics, such as making sure we were using enough (but not too much) water to get the clay good and wet, teaching us how to use the foot pedal to adjust the rotation speed, and showing us how to center and stabilize the clay to that it doesn’t get wobble-sided (yes, I just said “wobble-sided”—thank you for that word, Mr. Whitaker!), Chris then told us to take a good long while... and just play with it... to get used to how it feels; to enjoy, and not overthink it. Either he or someone else (I can’t recall) said, “With clay, feeling is usually better than thinking.” And I am so grateful that my then racing brain just chilled out for once and let me do exactly that: Play.

You know; play. Remember playing, when you were a kid? I didn’t. Not really. Somewhere along the way to adulthood and growing up and all that Very Important Stuff, I had completely forgotten how to play. But over the next two and a half hours, I put my hands in that cold wet clay, felt it spinning against my palms, zoned completely out of my world of stress and worry, and did exactly that: I played.

I didn’t think or plan or consciously create at first; I just played. It was like my hands were remembering how to play in the mud, that fundamental childhood skill I’d long become oblivious to—and, perhaps most significantly, my mind gradually opened up to the very startling and, well, very grounding realization of just how much I needed to play. So I just sat there at my wheel and spaced out, fingers in the mud as it went round and round and round, and just forgot the world for a while. I highly recommend it.

That evening rocked me to my core. My wife and I learned many things from our instructor Chris over the next several weeks, but for me, that was the single most valuable thing he taught me: How to play again. And for that, I will forever be grateful.

We took three six-week courses total, back to back, and made a bunch of cool stuff (the first photo, with the pretty bowls and mugs, is of some of my wife's pieces; the other junk is mine):

Some of Fiona’s pieces.

Some flutes I made.

My mark, “Tuhuo”.

A mug I made for a friend.

Half of a pair of bowls I made.

My ugly vase.

Pottery by Gaines Post.

I feel pretty confident that we learned enough of the basics that someday, after covid and once we’ve gotten our own place (with a dedicated pottery room and a place to build a kiln, of course!), we’ll be able to pick up our education where we left off last year, and shouldn’t take too long to recall those early skills that Chris, our other wonderful instructor Eric, and several very helpful fellow students taught us. I look forward to getting back into it :-)


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Arrow

September 14th, 2020

Arrow studied the 3-D topo map of the ocean floor that he had called up on his retinal display. He had had a fascination with maps ever since he was little, when it had just been him and his mom, exploring amongst the stars. For his mother, those journeys had been all about making as much cred as possible, and surely had been the exact opposite of “fun”; but for Arrow, they had been grand adventures that had sculpted his imagination and, on some level, continued to drive him to this day.

There. Highlighted on the map was a relatively flat spot surrounded on three sides by cirque of jagged peaks, in the midst of the long ridge rising up from the ocean floor that he had come to think of as “The Leviathan Mountains”. A closer look would be necessary, of course, as well as a whole heap of tests, before Arrow felt confident of the location’s safety, but it at least appeared to be a good candidate for settlement attempt #2.

Other challenges would undoubtedly crop up, some of them unpredictable despite an abundance of caution and data analysis, but at least he and the others would not have to contend with the winds and storms of the surface that had obliterated settlement attempt #1. With not a single piece of land anywhere on the entire planet, unless one counted the constantly shifting polar ice caps, the ocean floor was their best bet. Arrow hoped this would be a viable solution; he would hate to have to wake the crew with the news, “sorry, but we had to retreat to the lunar staging area; we’re just gonna have to study this planet from there.” That would be stupid; they had travelled so far. He was not going to give up.

There were of course those giant floating islands of vegetation, some of which could well be thick enough to support the humans and their structures and equipment. The fact that the computer modelling showed the ocean currents taking these “land” masses on a continuous, intricately weaving pattern all over the globe, potentially exposing them to violent seas and temperature extremes they might otherwise avoid, would have been enough to give him pause, but there was an even bigger obstacle that, in Arrow’s mind at least, seemed insurmountable: Ever since their craft had arrived in orbit and begun studying this planet, its instruments had observed a phenomena that he as yet could not explain. Now and then, at very long and completely irregular intervals as far as he and the computer could tell so far, one of the floating masses would abruptly break apart into smaller parts or even disappear altogether. Talk about unstable ground!

So, no; it looked to him like there was no other choice: It was either establish a foothold on the sea floor somewhere, or retreat to the moon.

Arrow concentrated on the spot he had found in The Leviathan Mountains for another minute, and then took a deep breath. Double-checking the vectors, he keyed in the launch sequence.


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Poof

September 7th, 2020

Momma, I thought you said you don’t like watching humans because they make your skin crawl away.”

The many-armed witch goddess smiled and turned an amused eye toward her beautifully glowing son. “They make my skin crawl, yes; they do indeed. Always have, if I’m honest. And normally I don’t like watching them, you’re right... but... well, things are starting to get pretty bad down there.”

The boy nodded, still not understanding.

She pointed at the television screen. “Here, have a look. This one, with the orange hair -- see that man, standing there at the podium in the middle of the tv screen? See that corrupt piece of work who won’t shut up and let anyone else get a word in edge-wise? Well, that’s one human I probably should start paying attention to, before things come to a head.”

“Yes I see him Momma. Which head though?”

“Oh, it’s just an expression, my son. It means when things get out of control and something really bad happens.”

“Oh.”

They watched the man with the orange hair shouting and spitting from the podium at a group of other humans who seemed to be vying for his attention, raising hands and trying to ask questions. A moment later, the man said something that made the witch goddess frown and shake her head. “That evil, bigoted, good-for-nothing sonofabitch!

“What’s big-goated mean, Momma?”

She sighed, but not at her son. “Oh, it just means this human thinks he’s better than other people.” She considered for a moment, and then added, “It means he’s full of fear, and that fear makes him hate anything he doesn’t understand. And in his case, well, he doesn’t understand much, so he’s got a belly full o’ hate.”

“So basically it means he’s stupid,” the boy said.

“Well, he ain’t exactly enlightened, that’s for sure.”

“Is that why he has orange hair, Momma?”

“No, darling. Remember orangutans? They have orange hair, and they’re plenty intelligent. No; with this human, it’s something else that makes him so angry and cowardly. But hey, speaking of color, part of his being bigoted is that he doesn’t like people who aren’t the same color as he is.”

“Oh.” The boy nodded sagely. He looked over to the little side table near his mother, eyeing the wooden remote control. “Couldn’t you just change him to another color then? Then maybe his goat wouldn’t be so big."

The goddess giggled merrily, turning again to appraise her son, this time with all sixteen flashing eyes. “I swear, child, you think of the darnedest things. That idea isn't half bad!”

She picked up the ancient remote control and twirled it in one of her many hands, wand-like, one fourth of her eyebrows arching as she continued to stare at the orange-haired human.

“How’s it work, Momma?” The boy asked.

She lifted the instrument and smiled. “Oh, it’s no different from other tools of magic; you just aim it at things and focus your mind on what you want it to do. Like this:”

POOF

The hair of the man on TV abruptly changed from orange to charcoal, and the skin of his face and hands from pale orange to a deep ebony. Several humans on the front row yelped, and the camera view suddenly shook out of place.

Wow! That is so cool!" The boy trilled. They sat awhile in silence, watching the chaos ensuing on tv. "Is that gonna make his goat smaller Momma?"

"Probably not, but it might at least make him think some."

"About what?"

"Oh, I dunno, son. About the errors of his ways, mayhaps."

"Oh ok." He pondered this for several seconds, then eyed the remote control again. "And it always does what you want it to?”

“Always.”

“Coooooool,” he praised, jumping to his feet. “Can I try it?”

She considered for a moment, but then, with a twinkle in her leftmost, centermost, and rightmost eyes, she tossed the wand-like remote over to her son. Just as he was about to catch it, however, another of her many hands shot out and snapped it from his grasp.

“Hey!” he chirped, grabbing at it and laughing gleefully as she teased him and juggled the object from arm to arm, always just out of reach. At length, before her son could grow frustrated, she let go of the remote. It landed in his popcorn bowl, causing several pieces to scatter across his lap. “Momma!”

She just grinned at him and shrugged innocently.

The boy’s smile faded as he picked up the remote control and began to concentrate on the television. “Can I change something else about the man with the big goat?”

“You may do whatever you like, darling.”

“What else makes him big-goated?”

“Hmm, let’s see,” the goddess yawned. “Oh, I know: He’s always saying mean things about women.”

The boy nodded, narrowed his eyes, and pointed the remote at the man on tv.

POOF

Suddenly, the human's body transformed, leaving him with a decidedly female figure. People on both sides of him made as if to come to his aid, but then hesitated, utterly confounded. Somewhere off screen, a squeal of surprise turned into a muffled chortle. The boy guffawed, clapping his hands joyfully, and so did the goddess. “Good! You’re getting the hang of this magic thing, my son. That’ll teach him! Well done. Okay, let’s see now.... Oh, I know: he also doesn’t like people who speak other languages.”

POOF

In mid-sentence, the used-to-be man with the used-to-be orange hair began speaking fluent Spanish, with a central Mexican accent.

POOF...

POOF...

POOF....

This little game kept mother and son entertained for hours. Afterward, she tucked the boy in and read him a story, and they both fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.


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Quoll?

September 6th, 2020

First off, I can’t believe it’s September already. Holy crap. This year is flying (which perhaps is a good thing!). Then again, thinking back, January and February seem a lifetime ago.

Yesterday the kookaburras were going off their nut, all day long, starting at about five in the morning. My wife and I got up at around quarter to six, and noticed we had a cuddly visitor down in the clearing back behind the house, munching grass. I took some photos with my ipad, but they didn’t come out very well, so instead I’ll show you one from a couple of months ago (the last time we had such a visitor – I guess they’ve been hiding from the winter weather, and now they’re back to enjoy spring!):

Wobbly!

That might even be the same wallaby, come back to munch more luscious green stuff :-) We looked it up, and of the three different wallaby species that apparently live in the area, this one looks most like a “swamp wallaby”. What an unfortunate name…. :-p

The kookas continued throughout the day. It was warm in the sun, and they seemed to be chasing from one clump of trees to the next, perching close to each other and laughing their little hearts out. We never did figure out what was so funny. Maybe it was just the clouds moving in; their laughter often heralds rain.

Late last night, shortly after we’d gone to bed (after watching Mary, Queen of Scots—which was not bad; I don’t know the history all that well, so couldn’t vouch for its accuracy, but the story was quite enjoyable, at least until until about the last quarter or so, which felt a bit rushed… but the movie had amazing costumes and beautiful views of the Highlands, and we even spotted a few places we had been, back in 2017 when we drove around Scotland for a month)... but I digress. Anyway, we had just turned our lights out when we heard a screeching and carrying on outside. We went out onto the back deck to see if we could get a better view, but it was dark.

Quoll?

Fiona saw something move quickly over a log (the horizontal one in the photo -- though it was dark, so we could barely see), but it was too fleeting to see for sure what it was. Anyway, there were at least two of them, whatever they were, and they were very loud! They seemed to be having a kerfuffle of some sort, shrieking at each other as they scurried up into the woods. This morning we did some internet research, and are wondering if it might have been a couple of spot-tailed quolls (also called tiger quolls):

Such a pretty animal! Sadly, as so many predators are, this species is listed as vulnerable in New South Wales (and endangered in Queensland and some other places), though not as endangered as eastern quolls are.

We both slept better last night; the kookaburras were not quite as raucous. Today (Sunday) is Father’s Day in Australia, and Fiona surprised me with some goodies, as well as a yummy Aussie breakie, which she cooked on the barbie (yeah, that’s a lot of “-ie”s) while I sat on my ass and drank coffee (at her insistence, lol):

Coffee!

Father’s Day!

Father’s Day!

King for a day!!! :-] hehe. Looking forward to trying those shirazes. So far no further backyard wildlife, but I will leave you with this, just ‘cause:

(Go on; watch it twice. You know you want to. And you know you want to go munch some grass. Dooooo eeeeet!!!)


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White Owl

August 31st, 2020

My brother and I used to freak each other out, intentionally. The more spooked we got, the better.

Growing up, our parents took us on many a road trip, often all the way out to Wyoming and back via Texas or St. Louis or both, stopping with relatives and car-camping along the way. I can’t remember what it was that we saw or read—a collection of stories somewhere? a show? perhaps my brother can recall—but whatever it was, it had us scared to the point of nightmares, and eventually inspired us to make up further stories along the same line. We called them the “white owl stories”, because a white owl figured prominently in most of them as a recurring motif. The owl was a herald of the unknown, the unfathomable, and impending fate—usually a doom of some sort!

When we were still small enough, we shared a big four-person tent with our mom and dad. It was very heavy, with thick canvas and a sectioned center pole made of solid aluminum (which back then was not exactly “ultralite” material, compared to the camping gear of today); this beast was not made for backpacking, but was comfortably spacious, and perfect for a KOA or state park campground. Later, as my brother and I got bigger, we were given our own two-person tent, which we shared for several years. That ended when we became older teenagers who wanted our own space, of course. I’m sure we probably bickered a lot while sharing the same tent, especially when tired and hungry, but all I really remember is the excitement of the road and the adventure of it all. That, and the dark of the woods at night, always fired our imaginations.

There was a face once—had it belonged to that bearded truck driver we’d seen, glaring at us from the window of his cab as our father drove past, us in the back seat with our little arms pumping up and down to get the truck to honk its horn? Or had it been the face of someone we had seen behind the counter at a gas station somewhere, in denim overhauls with a belt-busting paunch? Or had it perhaps been something more sinister: the visage of an intruder to our shared brotherly subconscious mind, lurking and waiting patiently for us to let our guard down?—in any case, this face haunted us, and made its way into one of our late night stories.

The wild eyes smoldered beneath a pale, bulbous forehead, the scraggly beard tangled and lichen-strewn from years, perhaps decades, of wandering through mountain forests. This man, if man he was, wore a tattered brown shirt. It was not likely that that had been the cloth’s original color; here and there could even still be seen a right angle or two of contrasting shades, denoting plaid... but now it was a matted brown, from layer upon layer of dried blood. Using the trees as cover, he would pad silently, stalking, sneaking, eternally patient in the dim twilight. If, whether by accident or design, he happened to snap a twig, you might look his way—perhaps even stare straight at him—but all you would see, or think you saw, would be a lichen-stained boulder or mossy log, for he would shut his smoldering eyes and wait in utter stillness until you looked away. The thing—for if we’re honest, thing he was; an ancient thing, perhaps not in body, but at least in possession, with this simply being its most recent incarnation—would crouch in total silence, unmoving, and await that moment when its prey had decided the twig-snapping noise had most likely just been caused by an animal or perhaps branches stretched across each other by the wind. And as soon as that moment came, the thing would uncoil, leaping on top of you, its impossibly long fangs bared, and devour you raw.

No one heard this particular attack, or any other, for that matter, because the lost soul with the grizzled face and smoldering eyes and lichen- and shelf fungus growing in its beard had grown wise in the art of timing and in its choice of meals. It ate quickly, a brutal machine of extreme efficiency and discipline; and once sated, it crept back into the cover of wilderness to continue on whatever unfathomable journey compelled it.

In the clearing, all that remained of the young boys were a seeping pool of blood and two neat piles of marrow-cracked bones, still glistening in the light of the newly risen moon. Overhead, a white owl perched on a dead branch halfway up a tree, its wide, all-seeing eyes taking everything in. It continued to stare and stare, head rotating around too far the way owl heads do.

At length, the white owl spread its wings and ghosted off between the trees, vanishing without a sound.

;-)


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ET

August 31st, 2020

Watching the most recent iteration of War of the Worlds on SBS, and am enjoying it so far. The character development reminds me a bit of The Walking Dead, and it’s neat seeing the story unfold in a few different places [spoiler alert!]--London, some suburb in France, and the French Alps. The acting and dialogue are decent enough, and I find the directing to be quite good enough that the lack of super big-budget, high-tech special effects really doesn’t matter or detract from the story.

I do sometimes wonder whether Earth will ever be visited by creatures that evolved on another world. At the moment, though, given all the insanity happening on our planet, I seriously doubt any would want to touch us with a ten-foot pole!

Part of me likes to hope that any visitors advanced enough, and resource-rich enough, to make the journey across the vastness of interstellar space would be wise (having somehow survived an adolescence of war and pollution-induced climate change) and benevolent, like the Asgard, and would save us from ourselves either out of the kindness of their [cybernetic?] hearts or some cosmic, unknowable compulsion to harmonize the galaxy or whatever.

Another part of me thinks that Darwin probably wins in this area, too, and that if life from The Great Beyond were to expend so many resources to travel all this way, its purpose would certainly be to conquer, devour, and/or inhabit.

Then there’s that other part of me—the annoying, logical part—which is a regular reader of Eurekalert.org and realizes that even though mathematical probability dictates that there very likely is intelligence somewhere out there among the stars, the chances that contact will occur between us and it, within the narrow windows of time and space that are only open until each species self-destructs or otherwise fades away or is annihilated, are close to nil.

Perhaps the Asgard will come through though. Or, better yet: Maybe we humans will survive our infancy, evolve, and become the Asgard ourselves.

One can only hope :-)


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Boxed

August 17th, 2020

Larissa dreamed of boxes—dozens, hundreds of them, of all shapes and sizes, all jammed inside a minivan and threatening to avalanche every time she opened the rear hatch. She had so far been able to keep them from tumbling out, but the constant vigilance was beginning to take its toll. A terror, of being buried alive, slowly crept through each and every blood vessel, filling every inch of her body with ice.

Frozen blood expands, just like any other sort of ice. As the crystalline structure forms, it pushes outward against the vessel walls, stretching them taut until they rupture. In Larissa’s case, this resulted in little ridges jutting up against the underlayers of her skin, pushing insistently, piling higher, stretching, piercing, and finally protruding like hundreds of little pink mountain ranges, from head to toe.

Some of the mountains had snow-like caps, though these were the first to melt in the warmer air above the surface of her skin. The resulting liquid blood flowed down between the peaks into tiny red ravines before dripping onto the asphalt below her feet. There it dissolved through like acid, opening up little sinkholes which in turn began to expand and coalesce. She eyed this phenomenon nervously, understanding that it was significant and perhaps even dangerous, but she also knew she could not move lest the boxes fall out—and something in her was absolutely certain that once they started, they would not stop; they would bury the world. And so she held firm on the rapidly weakening blacktop, trying to ignore the tickle of particles dissolving against the bare soles of her feet.

She could only imagine how ridiculous she must look to a passerby: Giant sheaves or fins of ice slicing outward at all angles, shredding her clothing and splitting her face; a pink blurry mass refracting sunlight, like some artist’s fantastic sketch done on mushrooms—yet at the same time, a horrible bloody nightmare, gushing now from her head, arms, legs, torso, the hungry traitorous blood pooling and eating away at her very foundation.

With a sharp crack that she felt before she heard, the remaining asphalt gave way, and she plummeted into darkness. No longer held in place by her ice-ridged hands, the boxes followed her downward in a beautiful but terrible cascade of cardboard and right angles, blocking the sky with their uncaring opacity until not a shred of light shone through. It was as if everything in the world had conspired to swallow her up.

Well, at least now I get to rest my arms, Larissa thought to herself, as she fell and fell and fell, spiraling into morning.


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Waterfall

August 10th, 2020

Below freezing this morning. Frost on the grass, ice on the car. An almost-full moon, bright in the paling sky, the last stars already fading. Storms are coming, supposedly, though you wouldn’t know it. Unless you were more attuned to the air, that is. Those low-chuckling kookas know it; they’re waiting. They’re ready for it, always.

I wonder if it’ll be snow. Would be nice, though most folks who have to drive somewhere would probably disagree. I’ll do a quick shop this morning, pick my wife up from the train station later this afternoon, long before the system moves in, and then we’ll hole up at the house, for the next few days if necessary. I suppose it’s nice sometimes, having the ability to work from home.

Being out and about is a whole different experience these days. I have a face mask waiting in the car for when I head over to Woolies to get the groceries (and, if the outbreak gets bad enough in New South Wales, I’ll be taking one with me wherever I go); in the right-hand pocket of my jumper is a pack of antibacterial (and antiviral, though that isn’t advertised; it’s alcohol-based, though, so works on most viruses, too) handwipes; and in my jeans pocket is a little bottle of hand sanitizer (which I mixed myself back in March, when panic-buying had stripped the shelves bare; not knowing how bad things were going to get, I’d bought a big gallon-jug of 100%-pure isopropyl alcohol from a hair salon supplier online). I am constantly vigilant against touching my face unless I’ve just washed or sanitized my hands, and I avoid others’ breathing spaces like the plague. Because that’s what this is.

It reminds me a little bit of the heightened sense of awareness we had last July and August when living with a brown recluse infestation. Sealed plastic container by the door for our shoes… constantly shaking out all clothing and towels, and our sheets, blankets, pillows every night before bed… pant legs tucked into socks (because the little buggers were literally running across the floor while we watched TV at night)… glue traps everywhere… terrible, sinking feeling at even the slightest corner-of-the-eye sighting of anything creepy crawly… but that’s another story for another time.

Some say we brought this virus on ourselves, and some even say it was inevitable. Certainly, further epidemics and pandemics are exceedingly likely if we don’t do something about the most problematic aspects of “modern” society. A glaring example is our very dangerous agrobusiness / livestock production & distribution system, in which animals—pigs, for instance; hundreds, sometimes thousands of them, and all near genetic clones of each other—are jammed into confined spaces, stressed and deprived to the point that their immune systems are severely compromised: A virus’s or bacterium’s playground. That system provides free reign for a deadly bug to potentially spread like absolute wildfire, right through all those poor animals, and with no significant genetic variance among them to slow or stop it. Once that happens, it can be primed for a zoonotic (species to species) leap with devastating effect, one that could even make “coronavirus ID #2019” look benign by comparison. The right(wrong) combination of deadliness + contagiousness would do it. Given how high its mortality rate is, just imagine if Ebola were also as contagious as Covid-19.

This is the sort of danger we humans flirt with on a daily basis. And no, it’s not just China that’s at risk of being the source of another novel pathogen; in fact, America is far more at risk of being the source of the next bad viral or bacterial outbreak than any other country, given the state of its livestock industry, among other factors.

Sadly, most humans don’t like to think about such dangers. I read recently that when asked how climate change made her feel, oceanographer and climatologist Katrin Meissner said, “It scares me more than anything else. I see a group of people sitting in a boat, happily waving, taking pictures on the way, not knowing that this boat is floating right into a powerful and deadly waterfall.” Amen.

It’s a whole lotta doom & gloom. I suppose that might be why the kookas are laughing; perhaps they can sense a cleansing with the oncoming storm. Perhaps they’ve even seen it happen before.

Still... I, for one, choose hope, so I’m gonna do my damnedest to pick up a paddle and start digging for shore. Who’s with me?


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Beyond Language's Reach

August 3rd, 2020

Years ago, I spent a semester abroad in southwestern China. When classes were over, instead of returning to the US, I chose to stay and travel. My goals were exploration and absolute language immersion; I wanted to become native-fluent in Mandarin.

As my mind sorted through all the new shapes and sounds with which it was being inundated, all those patterns, words, and even entire concepts that were so utterly alien to me, I gradually gained a sense of just how profound and fundamental a role language plays in not just human communication, but in our very ability to perceive and process the universe around us.

It's a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg situation, really; our brains learn to communicate as we develop, but they can only develop insofar as we learn to communicate. I have felt the same thing in music at times; the more fluent one gets in expressing melody, tone, and rhythm, the more one can “see” and understand a way forward—and the same goes with words and other structures in language—although, by “understand”, I mean something that is either beyond or subsurface to conscious intellectual comprehension. (Ugh. Even now, decades later, I lack the vocabulary to even talk about this stuff! And that dearth makes me less able to perceive and, therefore, digest and absorb these ideas. If only you were here to give me the right tools, Dad!)

As I wandered through the mountains and valleys, pushing the limits on my little more than caveman-speak Chinese at the time, I entered areas where Kham and other Tibetan dialects were more prevalent, and many of the people I met were even less fluent in Mandarin than I was. More and more frequently, I encountered that challenge that humans (and other beings, too, I believe) have faced since the dawn of our interactions with each other: How to converse when verbal language fails. It was in those high windy passes that I realized that language is much, much more than a matter of mere phrases and vocabulary, and that there is a space between spoken words—fleeting and ungraspable; a space that would seem to be forever beyond the reach of even the most adept eloquence.

And yet. And yet.

Despite my gut feeling that we’ll never be able to fathom it, I try anyway, because… well, I mean, why not? How better to spend our time in this world than in an endeavor to see and explore and understand as much as humanly possible, about both ourselves and other species? Perhaps, by opening our minds and reaching for that “beyond”, we can eventually learn to embrace our myriad similarities and differences. Perhaps we can even learn to love each other.


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Ready

January 15th, 2020

The chime had come a good twenty seconds too soon. An equipment error? Was she just being sloppy?

Think.

No. Not her; not ever.

What then?

It could really only mean one thing: Saadia had been compromised, and this was not her.

Trip stared at the screen of his phone for another second and a half before reluctantly placing it on the workbench, picking up a hammer, and obliterating it. Scanning around the room, he allowed himself to indulge in a moment of helplessness.

They'd all been aware of the risk. She especially, given the week she'd been having. This was not such an unexpected thing.

And yet he felt empty, lost, desperate. All he wanted to do was to call her, hear her voice, make sure she was okay.

Trip straightened his shoulders, cracked his neck, and stood. It was time to get the hell out of here. All was not lost, after all, and the others were still relying on him to get it done.

The Elevator would come down, and when it did, they would be ready.


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