Thursday, 27 April 2017

Hermitcraft: Tea Hacks

Teepause Tea is an integral part of Zen practice, and, for those of us with old-school British or Japanese roots, life. It can also become an attachment in the negative sense when you can't get any, or the stuff you've got is uninspiring. Over the years I've learned a few tricks to smooth out these bumps, and this week I'm sharing them in the hopes they'll do good for others, however trifling.

Accidental treasure

I'll start with one I discovered by accident: if you seal a sachet of robust green tea, such as Dragonwell, in the same container with another of lapsang souchong, and leave them there for a while, the green acquires the other's smoky character, resulting in a brew that's good both hot and iced. Doesn't seem to damage the lapsang souchong, either.

Upgrading bad tea

Sometimes you have tea – black or green – but it's not very good. Though Not Very Good Tea can be depressing, you can amend it into Passable Tea (or even Enjoyable Tea) with other herbs.

The list of candidates is inexhaustible, but a few are so useful, and so common, that they deserve special mention.

Mint (Mentha) is common in most parts of the world, typically growing in drainage ditches and near any body of fresh water, to say nothing of residential areas where it's escaped cultivation. Throw in assertive, pleasant flavour, and mint may be the most useful tea-mixing herb there is. I especially prize the endless spectrum of flavours brought out by mint's promiscuous lifestyle. As varieties freely cross-pollinate, no two patches taste the same. Some are peppery, others icy, still others citrusy… the discoveries are endless. And of course, mint anchors a fine herbal mix all by itself if you have no real tea at all.

Several mint relatives are also handy. Catnip (Nepeta) is especially tasty, and frequently found feral. Lemon balm (Melissa), easily identified by its very mint-like appearance but strong Lemon Pledge odour, is too harsh to anchor a mix but welcome in restrained quantities in others. And bee balm (Monarda), a popular garden flower that was used as a tea substitute in colonial times, also mixes well with green or black tea.

Common non-mint tea stocks that
Bee balm (Monarda).
can enliven an uninspired cup include sweet white clover blossoms (Trifolium repens), lemony sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) or wood sorrel (Oxalis; see photo below), and orange peel or zest. Both of these last tend to be fairly bitter, especially whole peel, so proceed mindfully.

No tea at all

When you're flat out of Camellia sinensis, a few substitutes can put you back in the game.

Blackberry or raspberry (Rubus ssp) leaves, dried and crumbled, are a defensible green tea surrogate. I've found that the red winter leaves of our local native trailing blackberry (Rubus ursinus) work best, having a rosy flavour and less tannic bite, but I've had good luck with other species as well. Add amendments, and you have a worthwhile mix

Many people don't think of conifers when preparing food and drink, but at the risk of ripping off Euell Gibbons, many parts are useful.

Black spruce (Picea mariana) is a famous beverage stock, for its comparatively sweet bouquet. (Bearing in mind that all conifers taste like turpentine. They're an acquired taste, but once acquired, nothing else will do.)

The soft new pale-green tips of many others can also be tasty and nutritious. (Loads of Vitamin C, for starters.) Among my favourites are Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga) and Sitka spruce (P. sitchenensis). Hemlock (Tsuga) is another standby, but because it's fairly tannic, I prefer to mix it with weaker herbs to give them a real-tea edge, rather than use it as an anchor.

Roasted rice is another good stop-gap. Just spread a handful of brown rice in the bottom of a dry skillet and toss it over medium heat until the grains become dark brown and smoky. Some may even pop like popcorn.

The toasted grains can be infused as-is, but make a much better beverage if ground first. A mortar and pestle is adequate for this. Grind only as needed to preserve freshness and potency. Useful amendments include milk, baking spices (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg…), toasted fucus, or orange peel. Some like a few grains of salt in it.

Civilisation in a cup

Tea-mixing is a huge topic, the possible ingredients literally endless. These are some the most easily- and universally-accessible, and all of them support my practice on a regular basis.

Here's hoping they enrich yours as well.

Wood sorrel (Oxalis).

(Top photo courtesy of Kristina Walter and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

WW: Drum log

(A hemlock recently fell across the trail and was cleared by someone with a chainsaw. Seeing the sections on the shoulder I felt a distinct uptick in heart rate; my dad taught me to call this a drum log, for the simple reason that you make a drum from it. This is a good one, too: two feet in diameter, well-rotted within and perfectly sound without. You thin this shell out with a chisel and even it up, then lace rawhide heads across both ends, and Bob's your uncle.

The remains of a large yellow jacket nest that occupied the cavity were also strewn about.)

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Street Level Zen: Awakening

Insomnia (4316137831)

"Until the sleeper is aroused from his slumber, everything that transpires inside the dream makes perfect sense."

Joe Queenan

(Photo courtesy of Faisal Akram and Wikimedia Commons.)

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Pale Green Pants With Anatta Inside

When my brother and I were four and five, we were obsessed with the Dr. Suess poem What Was I Scared Of?, better known to adherents as "Pale Green Pants With Nobody Inside".

This gothic thriller, in which a disembodied pair of cabbage-coloured dungarees relentlessly creeps out Our Protagonist, is ripped from the pages of The Sneetches and Other Stories. (Not literally, unless you want serious grup trouble.) These days you can also read it online, though the text is accompanied by only two of the original Lovecraftian illustrations. Suffice it to say the experience pal… I mean, underwhelms, by comparison.

For reasons I can no longer fathom, over a period of months this story completely possessed our young imaginations. At one point we actually stuffed a pair of green denim jeans with wadded newspaper and stood it in the corner of our shared bedroom, to serve as icon to our prostrations. Then we would cower on the far side of the bed, peek out at it, and scream "Pale green pants!" before diving to the floor.

Needless to say, the book itself became liturgy, to be read aloud (yet again) by any adult we could talk into it. The most memorable kokyo was my grandmother, who, having intoned the poem's macabre refrain ("Pale green pants…. WITH NOBODY INSIDE!"), remarked, "I think the pale green pants are scary enough." Commentary worthy of Mumon.

These days I judiciously abstain from looking deeply into this whole adventure, for fear of stumbling on uncomfortable truths about religion in general. But having recently recovered these memories – or recovered from them – I plunged down the Internet rabbit hole to find out if others were similarly enthralled to this scrap of Seussgeist.

tldr: Yes. Yes they were.

Far from falling into obscurity, it appears PGP is so popular today you can buy just that, stripped of epistolary padding. What's more, its illustrations – o feat of nefarious genius – now glow in the dark. Which has led one believing dad to read it to his kids under a black light. Or he did, until he was picked up by Child Welfare.

Nor are my brother and I alone in making idols unto the Chartreuse One. Another fellow stuffed a pair of pale green pants (!) and stood it in the corner of his preschooler's bedroom (!!) because the kid was afraid of the dark (!!!). OK, that guy may really be evil, but another – professional artist, this one – taxidermed some chromatically-correct britches in a relaxed yet empty posture and gave them to his (25-year-old) sister for Christmas.

Upshot: ours is not the only family to find Deep If Somewhat Disturbing Significance in this tale of tailored terror.

Surprisingly, I've yet to encounter a single Net-cruising helicopter pilot wailing, "Never let your tender darlings read this horrifying book!!!!!", or claiming that it's a thinly-veiled Wiccan conspiracy to make our children worship Satan and wear ugly pants. Closest was one mom who recommended only middle school kids be permitted to read it. Right, lady. Best get a few years under your belt before you meet The Doctor.

Or maybe that's insensitive. Perhaps the spectre of unfashionable clothing run amok has special resonance for women. I'll withdraw the statement.

In the end, it may be that the scariest thing about Pale Green Pants is its power to inspire such vague obedience in all of us who, once as children, fell under its mildly-alarming spell. It's the single thread running through every account I've collected, starting with my own: we all fear the Pants, we all cheer the Pants, we all stand ready, like an army of cereal-munching Renfields, to serve the Lime-Hued Lord. How much more exciting all of this might be if He actually wanted anything.

But now I'm back on religion. And in all candour, there may be a touch of Zen in there somewhere; a creak of the Gateless Gate in those selfless slacks. Witness this flash of Suessian insight:

I said, "I do not fear those pants
With nobody inside them."
I said, and said, and said those words.
I said them. But I lied them.

Been there, lied that.

(Adapted from Growing Up Home, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

WW: Retrogrouch

(So I'm getting ready for a ride and I happen to catch my reflection in the mirror.


A "retrogrouch" is a biker who bemoans the passing of older fashions and technologies that may not have flashed "I've got more money than I know how to spend", but also didn't look silly or fail to function.

I count myself a proud resident of that battered dustbin. If you're familiar with biking, you can't miss the symptoms: crocheted gloves; military surplus trousers; fad-proof helmet; German-made spectacle-mounted rearview mirror not made for decades; and the unforgivable Piece of Resistance:
toe clips.

Because I'm neither a racer nor Italian. Nor, for that matter, a fool.

Oh yeah, the attitude? Also regulation.

But I had no idea how deep it ran until I caught that glimpse. A few minutes on the Google, and it's diagnosis confirmed.

Either that, or transmigration is a thing after all.)

(Photo of my brother Vincenzo Milano – who was Italian, and a racer, and is probably swanning the bleeding edge – courtesy of GallerieFotografiche.)

Thursday, 6 April 2017

An Education

Asleep on my lap in bed.
Three days ago I had the sad duty of accompanying my mother's cat out of this life. A cherished family member, he's figured many times in these pages, most recently only weeks ago.

Since I was a child I've seen many pets die. It's been educational, in some ways more than human deaths. There's so little drama when an animal goes, so little desperation. Our pets seem to die as they live: with acceptance, if a little apprehension. When they become too sick to sleep well, you see this come into their eyes.

He was just ten years old, but probably had liver cancer for some time before it became debilitating, and therefore noticeable to us. Suddenly he became lethargic, lost his appetite, and started holing up in dark places. Most alarming, he refused to purr, no matter how much affection was lavished upon him. By the time we could get to the vet, I was fairly sure what I was going to hear.

That same day, before our appointment, he began crying, loudly and urgently. Mostly from fear of abandonment, it seemed. Therefore I stayed close to him, except when he was in the lab. At last the attendant brought him into the examination room, laid him on an old pink towel, and left us alone for a few minutes. He lay on his side, his breathing shallow, a dull, half-open expression in his eyes, as if in meditation. I stroked his soft, thick fur and struggled to tell him what a good kitty he was, how much I loved him, and to thank him for taking care of Mom these last years.

At last the doctor came. I fondled the kitty's ears as she searched for a vein. Her calm competence at the end of a long workday helped keep me from crying, as long as I breathed mindfully and remained silent. I did my best to remain present, and not confuse the observer (me) with the events.

It came fast when it came, with so little disturbance the vet had to tell me he was gone. I stopped petting and stepped back from the table, and she swept him up in the towel. The last I saw of him was his head and ears, disappearing through the swinging door.

You and I will be lucky to go so softly.

One of the great strengths of Buddhism is its recognition of the universality of life. I've known too many animals to believe there is some qualitative difference between sentient beings. Cats are born; they live, to the best of their ability; and they die. Scientists warn us not to be anthropomorphic about this, but I warn them back not to ignore the evidence. If it's true we can't know what's going on in an animal's head, it's also true we can't know what's going on in each other's heads, either. Yet decent people don't assume that we can't fathom the feelings of a crying stranger, just because when we do it, we're sad, scared, or in pain.

That would be stupid. And as I've often said, nothing stupid is Buddhist.

Animals may love differently from humans, but they love. And anything that loves is worthy of love.

Also: life – all life – is brief and unrenewable. So love now.

Because sooner than later, we all pass through that swinging door.

We called him Sherlock, by the way. We'll never know what his real name was.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

WW: Daffodils

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