Monday, 31 January 2011

Street Level Zen: Play It Again, Sam

Woody Allen once said "Eighty percent of success is just showing up."

I agree with him.

And eighty percent of love is just holding your ground.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Hermitcraft: Trinity Tar

(I mentioned this stuff last time, and since it's a handy thing to have around, here are the particulars for anyone who'd like them.)

Trinity tar has been around forever. It's the West's original varnish, our equivalent of Asia's lacquer and t'ung oil. And unlike a lot of pre-industrial standbys, it can still be whipped up from ingredients found in any hardware store. You may even have them sitting around the house right now.

Everybody ready? Sharpen your pencils and listen carefully, cos here it comes:

f 1 part boiled linseed oil
1 part gum turpentine
1 part white vinegar


1. Pour ingredients into a tightly-lidded container.
2. Shake

Shhhhh. Don't tell anybody.

Yeah, that's all there is. The chemistry works like this: linseed oil cures with exposure to oxygen, into a hardish, satiny, impermeable surface. Boiled linseed oil (which in our day is really chemically treated) dries much faster than raw. Turpentine thins it up to penetrate more deeply. Vinegar contradicts the oil's natural tendency to mildew.

The proportions can be altered according to taste and application. When used to finish furniture (an excellent idea, by the way), the vinegar is sometimes eliminated, since the expected environment is dry. But at least half the reason to use this stuff is its smell, very homey and aromatic and unpetrochemical, so I always add vinegar for the bouquet. Hey, you can never have too much (medically benign) antifungal.

And the fact is that in its traditional form, trinity tar is about as inoffensive as it gets. If made with raw oil instead of boiled, you could even use it as vinaigrette, which it closely resembles in the jar. In fact, I'm told veterinarians once used the same philtre to treat constipation and colic.

Users have developed their own tweaks on the formula to need. Sometimes a measure of commercial varnish is added to get a faster, harder finish. (Generally half a part or less, in my experience.) For outdoor use I replace the gum turpentine with paint thinner to give the mix even more antifungal kick, and may add a touch of roofing tar as well, to darken it up. (See photos of some of these projects here.) This is, after all, the Urpaint; pretty much all paint started as trinity tar with added colorant.

Application is simple. After sanding the wood, lay on a thick coat of trinity tar. I usually apply the first coat with a brush, to get as much on as possible. Then leave the piece alone for an hour or so, or until most of the oil has been absorbed, and repeat. (This can happen once, or go on for a day, depending on what kind of wood you're working with.) When the oil no longer disappears quickly, rub that final application well into the wood with a soft cloth, until evenly distributed and no slicks remain. Leave the piece to dry overnight. (Faster if set near the woodstove.) You can repeat this step ad infinitum, deeping the finish each time, but never leave wet oil on the surface of the wood; it will coagulate into a dirty, gummy mess.

As this is an emulsion (an uneasy alliance of oil and water; remember the salad dressing?), it needs shaking up a bit during work to stop it separating.

In a matter of weeks the finish will oxidise to a pleasing honey colour, and continue to smell great when it warms, as when the sun streams in or you handle it. The finish can be updated occasionally by a good wiping down with straight turpentine, then reapplying as before. To remove it entirely, either sand the piece lightly or scrub well with naphtha.

In its purest form, this concoction will neither offend chemical sensitivities nor provoke same in habitual users, and will impart to any room a memorable "Grandpa's house" glow and smell, at least if you come from country people. Let me know if you innovate on the recipe; it's all about the experience.

Friday, 28 January 2011

A Brief History of the Stick

You can't beat the stick for longevity. (Actually, you can't beat a stick at all. Think about it; it's like biting your teeth, or seeing your eye.)

This is our first tool. Humans have been using it since before we were human. Even people without trees go somewhere else to get one. Picture an Inuit on the move. Guy has a stick, right?

To this day, the walking stick occupies a profound niche in our psychology. Some time ago I read a blog by a professional craftsman of walking sticks, which sadly I can't find to link to now. In it, he pointed out that an elderly person holding a walker or aluminium cane comes off as disabled, mentally and physically, while the same person with a natural wooden stick becomes an Elder, a curator of wisdom and judgement. He's right. Do the thought experiment yourself.

Amazing, eh?

Sanding is a
meditative process
It's true that wise old rustics are usually depicted this way in the media, but I'm going to go out on a limb (get it?) and suggest that this phenomenon is rooted in our genetic matrix. After hundreds of millennia, the Spiritual Stick of Authority runs deep in blood memory.

With apologies to the Freudians, I don't believe any of this is phallic. The thing simply made us, and, back when other animals had a competitive edge, even defined us. When was the last time you saw a lion, or a kangaroo, or even a chimpanzee, walk with a stick? (UPDATE! Turns out we ain't so cool after all. Read all about it here.) That's why the pursuit of a higher life, to this day, is signaled by taking one up.

Big leaf maple
sands very nicely
My stick is on both orders. That is, it's a symbol of my hermit practice, and a working tool. It's a limb in every sense of the word, an extension of my body; I feel unbalanced when I'm without it. It used to be a big leaf maple sapling, until I did some yard work at the zendo. As a wood it's light, strong, and takes a polish.

The hook on the end greatly extends the stick's usefulness. With it I pull down fruit, hang fudos, drag apart wads of stuff on the beach, and hang up the stick when at home or rest.

The blank was stripped and allowed to dry in a stable climate for several weeks, then trimmed and machine sanded with medium-grit sandpaper. Then it was hand-sanded with medium grit, and again with four successively finer grits.

To keep your monk stick strong
Eeeeeyou must whip it!
The ground end was whipped with tarred seine twine and coated with PVC cement to prevent splitting. (Update on this experiment here.)

Finally the whole thing was rubbed several times with trinity tar and hung near the woodstove for half a day between coats to cure. The ultimate polish was done with nothing but my hands, rubbing vigorously enough to raise heat, for about an hour total. (Though not all at once.) Naturally, my hands also continue to polish it with daily use.

I now have a renewable finish that raises the natural grain of the wood, pleasing to the hand, with a silky feel and deep, three-dimensional luster you can't beat with a... well, you just gotta admire.

Behold, I have mastered humanity's earliest technology!

I already had a stick,
so I made myself one.


This week's cereal box prize:

Terrific video by Russian Buddhist Boris Grebenshchikov and his band Аквариум (Aquarium). It's called Не могу оторвать глаз от тебя ("I can't even look away from you"), but in spite of the pedestrian boy-girl title, it's a love song of a different kind. One of my favourite vids of all time.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Why Doesn't This Barbarian Have a Beard?

This blog brought to you by the
Loyal Order of Crazy White Boys.

Recently a sangha sister said one of the nicest things I've heard in a long time. She compared me to Bodhidharma. Like the best of kind words, it was "soit dit en passant," an aside dropped on the way to another point. But for a modern hermit, it was sustenance.

Bodhidharma was the founder of Zen. A war veteran from India, or possibly Persia, he left for darkest China in the early 5th century, having grown disgusted with the violence of the "civilised" world and the self-satisfied nature of established Buddhism.
 Determined to practice exactly as the Buddha instructed, he sat zazen for nine years, eschewing all outward forms of practice. In the end he was enlightened, and his "just sit" teaching opened the path of Ch'an (Zen).

As you can see, my man Bodhidharma was a white guy, with the big nose, spidery hands, and full beard typical of his race. This fact remains central to his historical identity,
Photo taken months ago in
front of my meditation hut.
I swear I had no idea.
as he is often referred to in Asian texts, somewhat redundantly, as "the bearded barbarian from the West."

Apparently, other unruly Caucasian monks may also raise his iconic image in some minds. Of course, I got a long way to go before I'm Bodhidharma. Any round-eyed rebel can go around in a robe and beard and sneer a lot; it's the sitting that makes the saint. But in a world and tradition where hermits are often suspected and rejected, it's nice that someone noticed the family resemblance.

Cereal box prize for those who read this far: Tuxedo Junction, the coolest swing site ever! Page features multiple playlists. Just load it, click on the playlist you like, and you're off! I just listened to an hour of Glenn Miller. Fantastic!

Friday, 14 January 2011

Real Men Drink Tea

(This is one of my most popular bylines. It's a bit dated now; anybody else remember that "Coffee Achievers" ad campaign, wherein the coffee industry tried to flog their product as health food? But the sentiments remain mine, and I still get kind words about it from time to time. For any friends who missed it, and those who have asked for a valid URL, here it is.)

For a nation whose birthing cry was an act of vandalism protesting the high price of tea, Americans are strangely ambivalent on the subject today. While working-class guys in India, Japan and the UK belt down tea by the thermos-capful with nary a qualm, American men write it off as wimp juice. It's a historical riddle, really. The mere suggestion that tea might be unmanly would have prompted those paint-smeared, buckskin-clad Bostonians of yesteryear to heave the sceptic into the harbour like so much top-grade pekoe, yet their descendants fear the stuff like tight briefs. How did we fall so far?

It's tempting to pin the demise of the noble leaf in America on coffee. As a he-man beverage, coffee brings a lot to the party. It looks bad. It tastes bad. It smells... OK, it smells pretty good. But coffee boasts up to four times the caffeine of black tea, as well as lurid health hazards that the laid-back tea leaf can only dream of. In other words, coffee is macho. All told, it logs in slightly below blowfish and a little above football on the Pain-Indexed Virility Scale. Madison Avenue knows this, at one point hiring no less a guy-icon than the great Joe DiMaggio to hawk one of the first drip coffee machines.

But none of this explains why simple, honest tea strains under the stigma of unmanliness. Maybe signing Joltin' Joe to push caffeine was a no-brainer, but would someone tell me why Mr. Coffee's manly glass belly now reflects the dainty porcelain curves of Mrs. Tea? She's not even Ms. Tea. This alleged machine (just what does a "tea maker" do, anyway?) isn't just targeted at women, it's targeted at old women.

Not that it really makes a difference. A TV ad for bottled tea ran in heavy rotation a few summers back. The spots initially captured my attention because they featured a shouting male voice-over of the sort usually heard bellowing, "Sixty-four MONSTER TRUCKS!!! Meet Playboy's MISS AUGUST!!! BE THERE!!!" over your car radio. Unremittingly masculine... until you notice that the rebellious young tea-slammers are three unremittingly feminine supermodels. "This ain't no SIPPING TEA!!!" sneers the announcer. Apparently, being gulped is all the envelope-pushing that tea can stand.

I don't get it. Time was, men were men, and men drank tea. (When they weren't launching it into the bay, that is.) The intrepid mountain men of the Hudson's Bay Company so relied on tea to maintain their masculine mystique that they seeded the West with the Labrador tea plant, whose leaves they used to stretch or replace precious stores of black tea. That's right: rugged outdoorsmen, known to go a year between baths, collapsed in a quivering mass if a tea bog were more than a day's schlep away. Think of it as the early-nineteenth-century equivalent of the latte stand. And, hold on to your boxers, brothers: now we're talking about herbal tea.

Of course, guys used to wear wigs and face powder too, habits generally frowned-upon in locker rooms today. But let's face it: for the man of action, tea beats the pants off coffee. All you need is reasonably tasty organic matter and boiling water. No fuss, no gizmos, no blackboard with x's and o's on it. Hot water. Leaves. Tea. Yet somehow, between Lewis and Clark's tea-fueled expedition to the Pacific and the Civil War, American guys stepped off the tea wagon. And we've been chumps ever since. Yankee and Rebel soldiers brewed coffee over their tiny campfires, packing the clanking paraphernalia in their marching kits and waiting, feet ice-cold in the snow, while it took its sweet time perking up. Ditto the cowboys. American soldiers in this century dipped barely-drinkable boiled coffee from a huge cauldron; the last GIs in line got half a cup of grounds. These days, soldiers fall back on MRE packets of "instant coffee-type beverage, hot."

This beats a pot of tea? Given a fistful of decent leaves and a heat source, a guy can brew the same cup of darjeeling on Mt. Everest that he enjoys in his living room. And he can drink it before he succumbs to hypothermia. Now how much would you pay?

In the end, logical arguments are really beside the point. This is ultimately an emotional issue, turning less on what men do than how we feel about it. Given that the words "I feel" frighten us even more than tea, it may be some time before American men come home to tea. But it's a shame. My own British background steeped me in "tea sense," a Pavlovian reaction to tea's aromatic khaki swirl that science has yet to confirm. But you can take my word for it. As long as tea is up, I'm all right. You say my girlfriend ran off with my record collection? I put on the kettle. Have I slogged ten miles in mud and freezing rain, with ten more yet to go? My backpacking stove heats a quart of water in two minutes. My agent called to say she could sell my manuscript on auto maintenance, if only it had a sex scene? A splash of hot water and a spot of milk restore equilibrium to an unbalanced world.

The re-hinging power of tea is real, and real men respect it. A retired US Army officer I once interviewed remembered watching Royal Air Force pilots blast enemy fighters out of the North African sky for hours on end. At the first lull, the Englishmen would land their Spitfires, leap onto the sand, and pour a hasty cup of tea. Forty years later, the American still remembered how the twentysomething flyers called each other "old man" and chatted like businessmen on an evening train. But not for long. Soon, another squadron of Messerschmitts would come snarling over the dunes. Exhausted, grimy, hungry, the RAF men dumped the lees of their cuppa in the dust and, with a quiet "Tally ho!", roared off to defy death again.

Coffee achievers, indeed.

(Text previously appeared in The Herb Tea Book, Interweave Press,1998. Photo of Pietro da Cortona's Ananias Restoring the Sight of St. Paul [NOTE BOY ON RIGHT SERVING TEA -- COINCIDENCE? I THINK NOT] courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)
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