Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Samhain

Have a great time tonight, whatever you decide to do. I'm still debating...

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Spreading the Love

Brian over at Peace of Cake has been working for about a year helping to develop a great new play, written by Kevin Podgorski. It's titled F*ck Me, B*at Me, L*ve Me. I saw a staged reading of it a few months back, though 'staged reading' is inaccurate for something as fully realized as this was. I thought the writing, acting, and directing were all fantastic. The play deals with some complex, difficult stuff in gay life and relationships, and I was blown away by it. For one entire scene two really hot guys were in their underwear, and it should tell you something that I was able to concentrate on something besides the sexy dragon tattoo climbing up one guy's thigh. The writing was that compelling.

Brian and Kevin have decided to produce the play themselves. Accordingly, they're in the process of fundraising; over at Brian's blog you can send donations to his paypal account. If you have a little change burning a hole in your pocket, and you'd like to help bring a smart, funny, sexy new play to its just fame, go on over. Every little bit helps, seriously. Hey B, maybe you can post some press photos if/when you get some? (Hope it's okay that I stole your headshot.)

Brian, by the way, has been the source of much good in my life. I have him to thank for introducing me to Joss Whedon, Neil Gaiman, Russell Davies' Dr. Who, John Barrowman, and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, just for starters. So if you'd like to help a talented artist and a nice guy, drop some moolah over at his blog.

I won't be making these kinds of pleas here often; I just think this one is worth it.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Thoughts on Art Modeling

So you’d like to try art modeling, eh? I think that’s great. No, seriously, I do. Years ago I realized that as an actor I wasn’t really competing with other actors, so much as competing with myself, and this is even more true when it comes to art modeling. Art schools and studios like to have as many different models and body types as they can, they all complain in particular that there aren’t enough good male models, so there just isn’t any reason to feel competitive. Even if you’re another scrawny white guy in his forties, the differences between us are still likely to stand out more than the similarities. So dive on in, the more the merrier.

That said, however, let’s discuss your motivations, 'kay? Now, I could spend some time dispelling any illusions you have about this being a quick, easy job to break into or make money at, but let's be honest, shall we? There's really only one reason you're intrigued by this job, isn't there. You're dying to find out what it feels like to be naked in a room full of strangers. You’re wondering if it will be scary. You’re wondering if it will be freeing. You’re wondering, if maybe, just maybe it will be charged with the teeniest bit of erotic tension.

Well now, yes, you will learn what it feels like to be naked in front of strangers. I can’t tell you how you’ll react; maybe it will be scary, maybe it will be freeing, maybe you’ll learn all sorts of wonderful, fascinating things about your body image and your psyche and your place in a Judeo-Christian body-hating culture. Will you find it erotic? If exhibitionism alone does it for you, then yes, you might. If it matters who is looking at you, I can say that the vast majority of the time your audience will either be hip, retired grandmothers or pierced, sullen, purple-haired undergraduates. If either of those categories does it for you, then you’re in luck, but even so you’ll want to know one important fact:

They won’t care in the slightest that you are naked.

Figure drawing is a centuries old tradition, and sexuality has largely been removed from the whole proceedings. They will approach drawing you with the same excitement and focus they brought to drawing a bowl of fruit last week. Most of the time it will feel like you might as well be wearing a burkah for all the reaction you will get.

Okay, it’s possible one or more of them will be secretly thinking for about thirty seconds "dear god, that person has no clothes on!" but then habit will take over, and they’ll only be seeing lines, angles, shadows and shapes that they want to put on the page. If individuals do secretly find you sexy, the chances are virtually nil that they will let you know. Schools and studios make it clear that this is crossing a line, and could result in them being banned. I know that sit-coms are fond of the scene where some hunky guy (it’s always a guy, because naked guys are funnier than naked women) disrobes to appreciative gasps and admiring glances, but in the real world that doesn’t happen. Okay, to be fair, it’s never happened to me. Or anyone I’ve ever talked to. Maybe you’d get such a response, but frankly, if you inspire this reaction, I doubt it will be telling you anything you didn’t already know.

This brings me to another tricky topic, the whole body image thang. Perhaps you’re hoping that posing for artists will help you address the poor self-image you’ve struggled with for years. Artists make art, after all, so in using your image to create a thing of beauty, they will see beauty in you that you couldn’t see on your own. See above re: they won’t care that you’re naked. They also won’t care about making you look good. They’re unlikely to care what you think at all. If you don’t like what the mirror is saying to you, you’re unlikely to have a different reaction to someone else’s view of you. If you’re having a day where the mirror tells you that you’re a hippo, say, a chinless hippo with spindly, hairy arms and an unfortunate patch of fur at the base of your spine, well, chances are that’s what you’re going to see in the drawings done that day as well. Even if an experienced artist does make you look beautiful, you’ll dismiss it as mere flattery, a series of little white lies the artist has put on the page that bares minimal resemblance to you. Nope, the chinless hippo will just seem more honest somehow. If you’re looking to this job to provide some sort of emotional healing, I implore you to think again. Having a fat day? Got a boil on your shoulder? Is your hair looking exceptionally stupid? Tough shit, strip and get on the model stand. Occasionally people will say "you must be really confident in your body, to do that." Nah, not so much. I just know they really, really don’t care what I look like.

What's more, while you’re up there, be prepared for the instructors to talk about your body in non-judgmental ways that may still manage to focus on your greatest insecurities. I once had an instructor point out a useful shadow under one of my love handles, and no insult was meant by it ("couldn’t you use some sort of Latin term for them, you know, like quadriceps or glutes or something?" I asked, but apparently Romans didn’t have love handles). That’s just what was there to see, and was useful to note in the drawing. If you’re likely to take such comments personally, this job isn’t for you.

I feel compelled to add that at this exact moment, I don't have love handles. See what I mean? This job has done nothing for my neuroses

Now, for the guys reading this, I have some special advice. First off, if you find modeling is something of a turn-on, make sure to keep it to yourself, if you catch my drift. Getting an erection is considered very bad form, and is likely to get you canned and black-listed pronto. If it’s any comfort, keep in mind that the studios are frequently freezing. I’ve only ever heard of one drawing group that aimed to create an erotic environment, and it should come as no surprise that it was for gay men. I’ve never heard of any lesbian or heterosexual erotic drawing groups, but maybe they exist. I have to say, if I were a woman, I would be very wary of a straight erotic drawing group. If I participated at all, I’d do so only after reading three or more reassuring testimonials from trusted sources.

Guys should also keep in mind that while the nude male might have been the epitome of beauty during 5th century Greece and the Renaissance, those days are long gone. Nowadays most people, regardless of age, gender or sexual orientation are simply more comfortable drawing the female form and would rather be in the room with a nude woman. I have seen some change over the years; it’s been a while since I’ve seen anyone draw me wearing little imaginary swimming trunks (usually, but not always, this was done by college-aged guys), but people are still pretty honest about the fact that they’d just rather look at naked women. If this is going to be a blow to your ego, you’ll want to reconsider this job.

I would also argue that people generally want male poses to be more vigorous and active. The reclining female form is a staple of figure painting, in part because the curves of women’s bodies make such poses beautiful and dynamic, while men’s bodies, lacking those curves, are harder to draw lying down, but I also think our culture just finds the reclining form very feminine. It suggests sexual receptivity, to be frank, and seeing a man that way makes most people very uncomfortable. I was asked once by the (gay male) leader of a painting group to do a four week reclining pose. After the first week, none of the other men in the group came back; for three weeks it was just me, the leader, and the two women in the group. Art modeling is not ‘just lying around’ for either men or women often, but if it happens at all, it’s less likely for the former.

Okay, this entry has already gotten really long, and despite my opening paragraph, I seem to be discouraging people from trying this job. I could explain how a class is typically run, what you should expect to do, how often you should expect breaks, and many other bits of advice to help you with your modeling career, but you know what? Let me tell you the best things you can do. I can say, in all humility, that I am a very popular model, with lots of instructors. I can claim that I bring a lot of skills, training, experience and insight to the job, but here are my secret weapons, the real reasons I think I work so much.

1.If I book a class, I show up for that class.
2.I show up on time.
3.I show up in a good mood, or able to fake it.

I cannot tell you how far ahead of the pack this puts me. Any weird job will draw a fair number of flakes, but art modeling seems to get them in droves. Seriously, showing up on time by itself has earned me reactions of such surprised delight, it almost didn’t matter what I did for the rest of the class. It's not unheard of for models to be over an hour late for a three hour class. One thing about working in a job with a high flake quota, they set the bar nice and low.

So that’s just some of my thoughts about this wacky job I find myself doing. If you’re still interested in giving the job a try, I hope I’ve given you a better sense of what to expect. Later we can discuss necessary equipment (obviously this job has a low overhead), classroom etiquette, and the importance of stretching, but I think this will give you a good start.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Finished with the War

A Soldier's Declaration

"I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.

I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.

I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize."

Pretty powerful stuff, huh? Seems like an eloquent and succinct response to our present wars by someone in a position to speak with authority, doesn't it? Does it come as a surprise to anyone that this was written in 1917? (Yes, I realize the photo may have tipped you off.) Siegfried Sassoon was an English soldier and poet fighting in WWI, the Great War, the War to End All Wars. This declaration was even read in the House of Commons. WWI has not quite taken on the aura of romance and nobility that WWII has, but its image has gotten a bit rosey over the years. It's good to have records like this from the time.

Maybe there aren't exact corrollaries on every count. Our government, for example, has been quite good at giving clear, even simplistic statements about the purposes of this war, it just has also felt perfectly free to change those purposes whenever it likes. Sassoon's theory that clear goals would make it impossible to change them hasn't proven true in our case. I don't know if that's because it would have never been true, or because we are simply a different culture somehow, more jaded perhaps about the lies of politicians. Nor do I fully understand his statement about not criticizing the conduct of the war, unless what he means is his complaints are directed at the government, not the military. There might be some similarities there to our situation, Abu Graib and Black Water aside.

Lest I appear to be presenting this solely as an earnest yet smug inditement of our leaders, Sassoon's last statement comes as a dash of cold water to my own face. How much am I part of that callous, complacent majority lacking the imagination to understand the agonies overseas? I need to think about my own actions as much or more than anything else.

If you enjoy historical fiction, I can't recommend Pat Barker's WWI Trilogy highly enough; the books are Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road. The books follow Dr. William Rivers, a real person who was one of the first British Freudian Psycho-analysts. (On a side note, he was also the older brother of the little girl who inspired the Alice Stories of Lewis Carroll. ) Rivers was enlisted by the British government to treat soldiers suffering from 'neurasthenia', which seems to be a fancy term for shell-shock, and might today be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. His orders were to do all he could to return the soldiers to active duty. Sassoon was a decorated soldier with many acts of heroism to his name, so when he made this statement public, the army decided he must of course be suffering from a mental breakdown so they packed him off to Dr. Rivers' hospital.

If you're fearing that reading these books would be one long punishing slide into despair, let me try to reassure you. Yes, many things of a horrific nature are dealt with in the books, as they would have to be, but they are fast moving, eloquent, even funny books full of well-realized characters, believable relationships, and from what I understand, rich historical details. I've read the entire series at least twice, and last night at 3am found myself picking up Regeneration again, which opens with Sassoon's declaration. They're well worth it, if this topic or kind of writing appeals to you at all.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Bang Rocks, Patrick Angry

This has not been a good week for me and technology. We have a wary relationship at best, I have to say. Even as I inch slowly into the twenty-first, okay, maybe the late twentieth century, embracing email (1998), getting a cell phone (2005) and cable internet (September 21st), I feel like I have still been watching it warily from outside the spaceship, hoping it hasn’t read my lips, and is about to shoot me into the ether.

I’ve had reason to be more wary than usual this summer, because of a number of struggles, though I guess some of them had more to do with bureaucracies than technology. First my wireless company informed me I was eligible for a free new phone, but when I got it, it turned out they had decided that what my high-powered, mover-and-shaker big pants lifestyle really required was a second LINE. I thought I had things quickly corrected with the helpful customer service person I spoke to ("this happens all the time," she said; yeah, I’ll bet, and what does that tell you?), but when I received my bill, there were the new line charges, complete with start-up fees. The second customer service agent was also helpful and accommodating, but next month the fees were still there, plus (naturally) a late fee. Third agent, third assurance that all was now resolved, and this time the bulk of the bill was corrected, and I decided I wasn’t going to contest the remaining annoying but reasonably small amount. To be fair, my bill this month showed that all the charges had been forgiven, meaning I was now ahead in payments, so it may have taken a while and a lot of aggravation, but we got where I wanted to go. More than one agent explained that the problem was due to the fact that charges were simply generated automatically by the computer, and it took a while for corrections to go through. In other words, the computer generally complicated and SLOWED THINGS DOWN.

There was a similar problem with some hospital bills I got this winter. I attended physical therapy twice a week for six weeks, in an (unsuccessful) attempt to alleviate chronic pain I’ve had for fifteen years. I was going to Bellevue because of their sliding scale fees, and was required to pay the bill before each treatment. More than once the cashier warned me to save my all my receipts because the system was archaic, I would probably receive bills for these sessions again, and it would take at least two weeks for the system to catch up with itself. Sure enough, I got several bills, including not one but two warnings that the account was about to be sent to a collection agency. I called the first time to find that they were about to bring out the big guns because they thought I owed $20. When I asked if that was the only outstanding fee, the cashier said yes, but it wasn’t. The second time the threat came while I was out of town for the month, so I had missed the "do it or you’re in big trouble, mister" date. That was this August, nearly five months after my final appointment. Okay, this problem has to do with archaic equipment, and chances are budgetary and scheduling concerns make it virtually impossible for Bellevue to upgrade, but still, I felt like I was caught up in a Terry Gilliam movie, where my credit rating might actually get damaged from a twenty dollar charge I had, in fact, paid.

Then this last month was the cable debacle (say that out loud, s’fun). I signed myself up for cable internet at my roommate’s request, so we could get a router and a home-networking system giving him wireless access on his laptop. So, I go on live chat (oh how I loathe that phrase now), order the whole package, and am told I should hear from my cable provider in three to five business days, but if I don’t, I should call them. Seven business days later I call Time Warner, and we schedule the next available appointment, which is ten days following. I chose not to do the self-installation since I believed I would be getting the whole shebang, router, and all. Nope, that doesn’t happen, so I wait a few more days at the ISP’s recommendation to get my ‘welcome kit’ in the mail with the router, cds, instructions, etc. The date passes, I go on live chat again, to find there is a mysterious hold on my order, which the nice agent claims he releases. Wait five to seven days, no router, no welcome kit, I contact them again, reluctantly going on live chat after learning that they make it virtually impossible to call on the phone, once again I’m told there is a hold, but now there isn’t, I should receive everything in twelve to twenty-four hours. He promises this is the last time I will have to contact them on this matter. Really. I’m chatting (live) the Friday before Columbus Day weekend, so I’m not expecting this timetable to be kept, but still, I feel a promise has been made. The following Tuesday I get a call from Earthlink wondering if I still wanted my cable hooked up because he saw I had placed an order, but it hadn’t yet happened. Back to live chat, since the number left on my answering machine doesn’t actually get me anywhere useful (they really really want you to use the live chat), saying I’ve had the hook-up for two weeks by this point, but I still haven’t received any of the other stuff I’d been promised, not even now, three days past the 24 hour deadline. This agent tells me that, here again, THEIR COMPUTER hasn’t registered the new information yet, as far as it’s concerned I have dial-up still, and more importantly, this information will not change until the 24th when my bill comes due. After that the computer will ‘know’ I am using cable internet, so then, and only then will it allow the router to go out. So, this guy tells me by the end of the month I will have all the equipment. I say I have trouble believing that, since I’ve contacted them four times now, gotten four different answers (though secretly I’m thinking this last one might be true, since it sounds the most plausible, and the least like something a customer would want to hear), and if the problem wasn’t resolved by the end of the month, I would change ISPs.

I get a phone call the next day from a customer service agent. She tells me she’s been reading all my correspondence with the company and ‘gotten frustrated’ on my behalf. She is pretty sure she knows the problem. When the cable signed me up, they signed me up for Road Runner, rather than Earthlink, both of which they handle. That does indeed prove to be the problem, so now, as of last Friday, I am waiting seven to ten business days to see if this equipment I didn’t even want and am unlikely ever to use finally shows up. I ain’t holdin’ my breath.

Then this last Monday I learned my cash card number had been stolen. To my good fortune the monitoring system caught it almost immediately and called me for verification. The thief managed to buy a $25 credit report, which scares me, but when he or she tried to buy a $400 airline ticket, no dice. This poor bastard thought this was a credit card, or he or she thought I had $400 to my name. Man, that kills me. How droll.

I’m relieved it all got resolved so quickly, and yes, that was thanks to technology, I admit, but I’m still freaked out by the theft. I’ve let the card out of my hand exactly once, to pay for a restaurant meal, almost every other time I’ve been swiping it through a machine at a store or paying bills online. Sure, it’s possible the waitress at the sushi place is the culpritt, but the odds really are it happened online. Some sort of worm, or trojan horse, or virus or phisher, or sculquer or cole-myner or theeph or sneeque got past my Norton protection that yes, I’m paying to protect me from such things even though we all acknowledge that it’s an uphill battle staying ahead the hackers, one of these little miters got through and read my number and the safety code. Chances are slim to none that this person will ever be caught, nor will I ever know exactly how it happened, so I don’t know how to avoid the problem in the future, short of not using the card. I feel this kind of defeats the purpose of the card. Granted I think the hologram is cool and all, but I’m not holding onto it for the artwork. I’m wanting to buy things with it, once in a while. At any rate, the replacement is scheduled to show up in a week to ten days. I bet it gets here before the router.

Then, for the grand finale (oh please tell me it was the finale), yesterday I elected to wash and dry my cell phone in the pocket of my jeans, thus necessitating the purchase of a new phone, even though I’m realizing today that I was actually eligible for a free replacement and will have to tackle all that if I want justice in the wireless world. I can’t blame that on technology though, much as I might like to. They pretty much warn you that washing and drying (on high, for thirty minutes) is not a great idea. This new one comes with all sorts of bells and whistles and I bet I never learn to use half of them. If I wasn’t feeling enough like a caveman through all this, the phone comes with an analog clock on the front, nice Roman numerals, and the twelve-year old selling me the thing pointed it out as a problem, but assured me I could switch it over to digital. Now slow down there, Youngin’, I’m not sure I cotton to your newfangled time piece there. Yes, I can speak digital, but my first language is still analog. When I look at a clock, I want to know what size pie-wedge I have to go. 11:47 doesn’t really register with me, but show me one quarter of a pizza (with just a bit trimmed off), and I know what I’ve got to work with before noon. But soon this tongue I speak will go the way of the passenger pigeon.
So. I’m considering joining the Amish, provided they let me bring deodorant, and some shorts.
All right, I use and appreciate plenty of modern conveniences; I’m a huge fan of indoor plumbing, electricity rocks, and I’m delighted to have been able to go as far afield as Seattle or Ireland without having to spend five days swallowing my weight in coal dust. Nonetheless I feel like modern life is kicking my ass, and isn’t going to stop anytime soon. Yes, I realize what the common denominator is in all this, so I’m working my Norman Vincent Peale as hard as I can, but damn.

Please don’t let me get shot into the ether.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Call of the Wild

A nice thing has started to happen for me because of blogging. Until recently my blog reading and writing has been limited to people I already know and love, and that has been great, since geography or circumstance prevents me from seeing them most of the time, with the occasional exceptions of Melissa and Brian. Recently though, I've been getting to meet some wonderful people whom I only know through the blogosphere. It's always fun getting a glimpse of other people's lives, but it's particularly appealing when they seem to be living one of your alternate fantasy lives. The first time I came across this is Cooper's Corridor. Cooper lives in British Columbia, so he's already living my fantasy of being Canadian. He lives and works -in forestry, I believe - in what I know to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, and he recently adopted two young sons. I chose years ago to pursue acting as a career, and thus far that has required me to live in cities on the edge of poverty most of the time; the only living things depending on me thus far are houseplants. I am ambivalent to say the least about this, so visiting Cooper every once in a while is like walking through the wardrobe to meet Mr. Tumnus. Cooper is very grateful for the life he has worked so hard to create, and he never seems to take it for granted. What's more, he tends to notice and appreciate the same sorts of things I do, which only enhances the feeling that he is living one of my roads not taken (yet). His personal entries range from nature observations to epitaphs for lost loved ones, and they often end in prayers of gratitude. It's been good for me to read the thoughts of a glass-half-full person on a regular basis. He's also introduced me to some other fun folks, like Tornwordo (who is living my fantasy of marrying a Canadian) and Somewhere Joe (who works as a writer/photographer, and seems to be living my fantasy of living on the beach), but we're still getting acquainted, so I know less about them. They are all fun reads, go check them out if you haven't already.

As the title of this entry suggests however, I started off intending to write about something else that Cooper reminded me of. I've told the story of my encounter with timber wolves so many times that I had to go through all my blog entries to make sure I hadn't written about it already. I didn't find it, so I'm hoping I didn't already tell it. I guess it's a good thing I only have 76 entries to check, as lame as that seems after a year and a half of blogging.

Boy howdy do I find some weird things to feel lame about.

Okay, focus Patrick, timber wolves. As long as I can remember, another one of my fantasy lives had me living in the woods or jungle as a wild animal. I wanted to be Mowgli, basically, as I discovered when I first came across the Jungle Books. As a child I blissfully ignored the drawbacks of such a life, the infestation of fleas and other parasites, the constant near-state of starvation and exposure to the elements, the relentless physical and emotional grind, yada yada yada, but of course I grew out of this fantasy over time (didn't I? I did, right? Right?).

I never lost my love for wolves though, so it was especially exciting the summer of '85 when I worked at an adventure camp in Tennessee, where a trio of timber wolves were being housed temporarily. A local veternarian had rescued them somehow - I don't remember the specifics, seeing as how timber wolves are not native to Tennessee- but since she lacked the space, she asked her friends to put them up. Most environmentalists would probably find this whole story rather sad, and I completely understand that. The pen was not that big, probably only about thirty feet square, so the wolves weren't able to run at all. The camp leader used them as educational tools for the campers, teaching about ecology, the dangers of extinction, the lies perpetrated about wolves, etc. The kids loved it. Everybody loved it, but I doubt the wolves were happy.

Aquila, one of the two females, was almost a dog, friendly, affectionate, unafraid of most people, she even wagged her tail. She let people pet her through the fence, which we all did eagerly. The other two, Tasha and the male, Illich, were very scared of most people and tended to avoid them. They had started to become comfortable with the family caring for them, but were most comfortable with the vet and the daughter of the family, who both happened to be petite blond women.

For the 4th of July weekend, we were all on vacation and the camp was rented out to others, who, unfortunately, decided they needed to let off a gazillion fireworks. They were well up the road at the camp, quite some distance from the wolf pen, but this didn't make a difference to the wolves' sensitive ears and skittish personalities. No one knows how it happened, but it's assumed that the noise so terrified Tasha that she was able to jump or climb the high fence to escape. As far as I know, she was never found again. I hope roaming the in the Smokey Mountains was too her liking, and she didn't starve to death, or end up shot.

This left Aquila and Illich, and I think that change in dynamic might have shaped what happened later that summer. One day off I was down at the wolf pen watching the son of the family play with the wolves. He invited me in, and we all assumed I would get to play with Aquila but that would be it. I deliberately stayed slow, calm and quiet, no sudden moves, and believe me, no loud noises, and began romping with Aquila. At one point I was sitting on a log scratching her behind the ears while she tussled playfully with my shoelaces. I was in heaven. Suddenly I realized Illich was behind me, snuffling in my hair. I pretended not to notice, didn't turn to look in his eyes -which believe me, was hard because they were a beautiful silver - and kept rubbing Aquila's ears. By the way, I think petting dog or wolf ears has got to be one of the best tonics in the world. I can feel the stress drain out of me anytime I get to do it. Back to Tennessee though (boy I do like tangents, don't I. Also parentheses), I'm petting, Aquila is tussling, Illich is snuffling when suddenly WHOOMP, he jumps on my back, throwing paws the size of dinner plates over my shoulders. No, he wasn't attacking me, nor was he trying to mount me (you pervs), evidently he had decided I was all right and it was time to play. I've occasionally wondered if the fact that my hair had a texture similar to their fur, helped the situation. I wonder too if Illich wouldn't have taken this step if Tasha was still around (but maybe she would have liked me too, and we all could have played). Whatever change occurred, I was thrilled and, I'm sure you'll understand this, deeply honored. I always am honored when an animal (or a child) takes an instant liking to me, but having it be this noble, enormous, shy creature was overwhelming.

That afternoon is one of the most glorious times of my life. The three of us romped, wrestled, and played for hours. I've wondered sometimes if my retelling of the story has warped my memory some. Did Illich really take three quarters of my head in his mouth? Was he really that big? Did I really know I was safe at that moment? In my memory it all happened, and it was all amazing. I ended the day covered with scratches. Both wolves had a very intuitive sense of how hard they could bite; they used their teeth on me a lot, especially tugging me around by my hair, but never once did they break the skin. I wonder if they were treating me the way they would have treated a cub. They couldn't help their claws though, of course, which is why I had all the scratches. I didn't care.

From that day on, Illich became more and more like Aquila, gradually letting campers pet him through the fence. I am obviously ambivalent about the role I played in domesticating a wild animal. I don't know what happened to them after that summer; I hope they were eventually taken somewhere with lots more space, ideally to a national park or some such, where they might even have been able to join other wolves (though that is tricky), but I suspect they were too dependent on humans by that point, and lived the rest of their lives in some form of captivity. I hope it was at one of those wolf sanctuaries where they at least had space to run and roam.

None of that diminishes the joy I feel when I think about that afternoon, though. It stands as one of the peak experiences of my life, awe-inspiring and humbling. I feel like nature blessed me somehow. I feel the gratitude to this day.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Margaret Smith Lacey's Zen Bread

When I was ten, my family lived in London for a year. As a family of adventurous eaters, we all had a wonderful time exploring new-to-us cuisines. My first tastes of Indian, Greek and French happened there, just to name a few. But we also found ourselves seeing old favorites in new lights. Mom, Dad, and I all found we much preferred the peanut butter we got there, because there was no added sugar. In 1977 Indiana, it wasn't easy to find unsweetened peanut butter when we got back, though somehow Mom managed it. My brother and sister both preferred the sweetened stuff like Jiff, which has led to an ongoing good-natured battle to this day. Lunch on peanut butter day is likely to include the following exchange.

Person A: "Please pass the peanut butter.... no not that stuff, the REAL peanut butter."
Person B: "This IS the real peanut butter."
Person A. "No, that is peanut JAM, gimme the peanut butter."
Person B: "Oh, the LIBRARY PASTE. Here."

It's important for families to have traditions.

One thing we all agreed on however was that the bread we got in London was vastly better than the stuff we could buy at home, even Pepperidge Farm, our previous staple. Lots of things were different, but here again, sweetness, or lack of it, was key. When you've gotten used to no sugar, even a small amount is overwhelming.

This led Mom to start experimenting with bread recipes. As cooking has become more popular in the last few years, some of the mystery has been removed from the process, but in the late 70s bread-baking was seen as an esoteric ritual somewhere between brain surgery and voodoo. Recipes required all sorts of odd, non-negotiable things. You had to have a brick or stone in the oven, a bowl of water for steaming, the dough had to be protected from drafts and noise while rising and baking, one had to bathe in Mare's milk and dress in clean white robes before approaching the flour, the dough had to be kneaded for at least twenty minutes, always in a clockwise direction, and you never baked during a full moon in the year of the horse.

I'm not exaggerating nearly as much as you think I am.

So, one of the first things Mom discovered as she experimented was how much of that was bullshit. No bricks, no bowls of water, no need for tiptoeing around the dough while rising or baking. Best of all, NO SUGAR. Trust me on this. I'll have more to say on this subject in later.

This has been the daily bread of my family for thirty years. Bread options, indeed all food options, have improved in my hometown in the last few years, but Mom still bakes two loaves every two days. I've been baking it too for years now (though mostly just when I'm having guests), and it usually gets a very strong reaction. A lot of them call it Patrick Bread, but I feel it's important to give credit where credit is due. Later I'll explain why Mom calls it "Zen Bread."

This is the recipe.

2 and 1/2 cups warm water (not too hot)

2 teaspoons salt

1 package yeast (or 1 tablespoon, if you buy it in bulk)

6 cups of flour

In a large mixing bowl, dissolve the salt in the water. Add the flour and yeast in any order you like. I typically will add three cups of the flour, then the yeast, then the remaining flour. After about four cups, you will find it easier to knead the flour in, rather than mix it with a spoon. Basically though, I don't think there is a bad way to combine these ingredients, as long as the water isn't too hot when the yeast goes in.

When it comes to kneading, this is where the Zen comes in. Mom discovered that she could knead a lot (as all previous recipes demanded) or not much at all, and not only did it not matter, often the bread tasted BETTER if she barely kneaded it. Her feeling is that the more you ignore this dough, the better it turns out. As long as most of the flour has been incorporated into the water, you've done what you needed to do. I actually enjoy the kneading process, so I often do it for a while, but I never do it longer than is fun.

For those new to baking, when you knead, you want the work surface and your hands to have dry flour on them, so as to prevent the dough from sticking to you or the surface.

Cover the dough (Mom uses just a paper towel, I use a dish towel, we're not talking airtight by any means), place it in some out-of-the-way area and let it rise for 1 and 1/2 hours, or until double in size. I usually put it in my gas oven, where the pilot light keeps it warm, but not so hot that the yeast gets killed.

After it has risen, punch it down again, kneading as much as you feel like, then if you want standard loaves, cut it in half, shape the two portions into loaves, and place them in greased bread pans. If you want to make French loaves, I find I can get six loaves out of this dough, and I place them on two greased cooking sheets. Don't be worried if the French loaves look too skinny, because they're going to rise again. You can also make rolls if you prefer. It's up to you how many you want, and how large you want them to be. They also go on greased cooking sheets.

(There are ways of shaping the dough to get a standard, even shape, but I thinking trying to describe that here would be too confusing, and give too much weight to the idea. Trust me, even if you end up with eccentric looking bread, it's going to taste just fine. If you really want to know how to control the shape somewhat, I'll have to show you in person sometime.)

Let the loaves/rolls rise for 1 hour.

Bake in a 400 F. oven. Apologies to my Dutch and Canadian friends, I haven't a clue what that is in Celsius (maybe somewhere around 170/80C?). The standard loaves will bake for 40 minutes, the French loaves and rolls will need about 20 minutes. With the standard loaves especially, you can check to see if they're baked all the way through by turning them out of the pans, and thumping them on the bottoms. If they sound hollow, they're done. If they make a wet, heavy, thunky sound, they're still raw in the middle; return to the pans and bake for at least five minutes, maybe ten.

So that's it. It may sound more daunting than it is. Sure, as with anything, your ability to read the process will improve the more you do it. I've found over the years that I can finesse the rising times if necessary, or even stop the process in the middle by shoving the dough in the fridge. I've usually allowed the loaves to come to room temperature before baking them, but on at least on occasion I've taken the loaves straight from the fridge to the oven, allowed a little more time to bake, and gotten good results.

Obviously this will taste great hot from the oven. The lack of preservatives means the bread will dry out after just a few hours, but then it makes amazing toast. If you're not going to finish it in two days, keep it in the fridge, to prevent or at least slow molding.

Mom, my sister, and I have found this dough to be remarkably versatile. We've added a little olive oil to it (no more than half a cup) and used it for pizza dough or foccaccia. I also found a recipe in the Moosewook Cookbook for pita, and realized that once I removed the unnecessary sugar, the dough was simply a half portion of this recipe. Go check out the book if you're interested. Mom has even doubled the yeast and used this recipe to make bagels. That is WAY more work than I'm willing to do, with the boiling and all, but if you know how to make bagels, this dough will work for it.

Now, the sugar issue. Many times friends have tried the recipe, and told me later "well, it was okay, but it didn't taste as good as yours. It just wasn't the same, somehow." So I'll ask them to describe what they did. They'll be talking me through it, and say "then I added the half cup of sugar (or honey)-"

"-Wait, what? You added sugar? This recipe doesn't use sugar."

Well, I figured you just forgot to write it down. Yeast needs sugar to rise."

No. No no no no no. Yeast needs gluten to rise. It will be perfectly happy with sugar, honey or high fructose corn syrup, it's true, but it is just as happy with flour. Sugar won't destroy the recipe, but it won't give you the same result. For my family, getting rid of the sugar was the whole POINT. So, if you want it, fine, just don't expect it to taste the same. (My mom had one supercilious houseguest announce that it simply wasn't possible for yeast to rise without sugar, and this twit was EATING THE BREAD AT THE TIME. I don't know what was going through her head. Did she think Mom was lying? What on earth would be her motive to do so? People crack me up.)

Now on the subject of flour types, I have to admit I have never gotten good results when I've used 100% whole wheat. I've ended up with twenty pound bricks. They were edible, but they didn't please as much. One felt terribly virtuous, perhaps, but it wasn't necessarily all that enjoyable. My best results have had half whole wheat, half unbleached white. Maybe whole wheat does require sugar since the gluten is harder for the yeast to access through the kernel. Maybe doubling the yeast would help. Maybe one HAS to knead 100% whole wheat dough for more time. I know one can also buy wheat gluten, I just don't know how to use it, whether it replaces some of the flour, or is additional. I would recommend making the recipe above a few times with no more than half whole wheat to get the hang of it, then start experimenting (and let me know what you discover).

You can also add up to half a cup of leftover oatmeal (or any cooked cereal), oat bran, some ground flax seed (I'm still experimenting with this, I wouldn't recommend more than a few tablespoons), fresh herbs etc. I almost always add uncooked oatmeal too. I've yet to experiment with non-wheat flours, but I would expect that anything which likes yeast will work.

I have this theory that this is the first dough, the one that was discovered at the dawn of time, as people began switching from nomadic to agrarian lives. There are a gazillion different variations, but they all start with this dough. Everything else is just ornamentation. When I'm making it, I feel connected to some deep, archetypal activity. Over the years it's become a form of meditation, and a prayer of gratitude, for my friends, my food, my working hands and body, even just the fact that I have a roof over my head.

So go, experiment, have fun. Feel free to send questions, and let me know what you discover.

And even when you become master bread-bakers, I hope you'll still come to my house for dinner sometimes.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Heartwarming Story

I went up to Fort Tryon Park to see what the garden up there was up to. (This picture is not from there, but from my sister's and brother-in-law's garden in Indiana, by the way). It was remarkably lush and beautiful, full of many more blooming things than I would have expected. One bush in particular caught my attention, however. It was full of middle-sized blossoms, with yellow-orange centers, and deep orange petals. I don't know what they were, they were the same shape as Black-eyed Susans, but with the different colors. Anyone?
Anyway, they were lovely, but the reason they caught my eye was because of the cloud, I mean FLOCK of monarchs that were feeding on them. If you've ever tried it, then you know it's not easy to count live butterflies, but I would say that there were never less than twenty on the bush, and often close to fifty feeding, floating on the breeze, flitting about in that butterfly way of theirs; since their wings were virtually the same color as the flowers, the whole thing seemed to be shimmering and dancing. Just in case I got too sappy about the glories of nature, I also watched a praying mantis catch and methodically eat one butterfly. None of the other Monarchs seemed bothered in the slightest; they kept drinking nectar right next to the mantis. So, just a little 'nature red in tooth and claw' to keep me grounded. I'm cool with that.
I sat and watched at for a couple of hours. I was sitting right under it, on a little raised brick border that runs along the path into the park. Anyone who has ever seen or been a child knows that this is the sort of thing one simple has to walk on, pretending to be a tightrope walker or some such. Okay, I admit it, sometimes I still have to pretend to be a tightrope walker, and walk on any narrow wall no matter what the height. At one point a little boy, no more than six, came along doing just that. When he got to me, he stopped to see what I was so engrossed by. His eyes widened at the wonder of glorious nature spread before him.
"Awww SHIT!" he said. Mom made some sort of mild remonstration, but kept walking.
"MOM!" he bellowed," I want a BUTTERFLY!" Then he scampered off after her.
Don't ask me why, but somehow I feel like this epitomizes my experience of New York.

Monday, October 08, 2007

So Yeah, I'm Doing A Meme, Make a Big Deal, Make a Really Big Deal, Make A Federal CASE Out of It

I came across this meme on the blogs of two of my friends, Brian, and Kate, and was drawn to it more than I usually am to surveys. I am not entirely clear on how this list gets compiled, to be honest. Most often marked 'unread'? Do libraries check this sort of thing on a regular basis? How is it, for example, that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (copyright 2004) and Anansi Boys (copyright 2005) are on the same list as Dickens, Dumas and Austen? I don't know what the number after most of the books signify, but since they go in descending order, I have to assume they indicate some kind of ranking, so how can Jonathan Strange... somehow be MORE unread in just a few years than oh, I don't know, The Aeneid? I have to assume the latter was quite a hit back in the day, so maybe this survey doesn't include Romans circa 600 B.C. I don't know what Library Thing is, but I question how randomly selected the survey population was. I think a bunch of Neil Gaiman haters stacked the it, for one thing.

Okay, whatever, I still thought it looked like fun, so I did it too. It made me feel like a bit of a neanderthal of course, which is probably the point, but I'm not losing any sleep over it. See below for instructions.

These are the top 106 books most often marked as "unread" by LibraryThing's users (as of [whenever this meme started going around]). As usual, bold what you have read, italicize what you started but couldn't finish, and strike through what you couldn't stand.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (149)
Anna Karenina (132)
Crime and Punishment (121)
Catch-22 (117)
One Hundred Years of Solitude (115)
Wuthering Heights (110)
The Silmarillion (104)
Life of Pi: a novel (94)
The Name of the Rose (91)
Don Quixote (91)
Moby Dick (86)
Ulysses (84)
Madame Bovary (83)
The Odyssey (83)
Pride and Prejudice (83)
Jane Eyre (80)
A Tale of Two Cities (80)
The Brothers Karamazov (80)
Guns, Germs, And Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (79)
War and Peace (78)
Vanity Fair (74)
The Time Traveler's Wife
The Iliad (73)
Emma (73)
The Blind Assassin (73)
The Kite Runner (71)
Mrs. Dalloway (70)
Great Expectations (70)
American Gods (68)
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (67)
Atlas Shrugged (67)
Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books (66)
Memoirs of a Geisha (66)
Middlesex (66)
Quicksilver (66)
Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (65)
The Canterbury Tales (64)
The Historian: a novel (63)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (63)
Love in the Time of Cholera (62)
Brave New World (61)
The Fountainhead (61)
Foucault's Pendulum (61)
Middlemarch (61)
Frankenstein (59)
The Count of Monte Cristo (59)
Dracula (59)
A Clockwork Orange (59)
Anansi Boys (58)
The Once and Future King (57)
The Grapes of Wrath (57)
The Poisonwood Bible: a novel (57)
1984 (57)
Angels & Demons (56)
The Inferno (56)
The Satanic Verses (55)
Sense and Sensibility (55)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (55)
Mansfield Park (55)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (54)
To the Lighthouse (54)
Tess of the D'Urbervilles (54)
Oliver Twist (54)
Gulliver's Travels (53)
Les Misérables (53)
The Corrections (53)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (52)
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (52)
Dune (51)
The Prince (51)
The Sound and the Fury (51)
Angela's Ashes: a memoir (51)
The God of Small Things (51)
A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present (51)
Cryptonomicon (50)
Neverwhere (50)
A Confederacy of Dunces (50)
A Short History of Nearly Everything (50)
Dubliners (50)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (49)
Beloved (49)
Slaughterhouse-Five (49)
The Scarlet Letter (48)
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (48)
The Mists of Avalon (47)
Oryx And Crake: a novel (47)
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (47)
Cloud Atlas (47)
The Confusion (46)
Lolita (46)
Persuasion (46)
Northanger Abbey (46)
The Catcher in the Rye (46)
On the Road (46)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (45)
Freakonomics: a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything (45)
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an inquiry into values (45)
The Aeneid (45)
Watership Down (44)
Gravity's Rainbow (44)
The Hobbit (44)
In Cold Blood: a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences (44)
White Teeth (44)
Treasure Island (44)
David Copperfield (44)
The Three Musketeers (44)

Okay, that's funny. Anna Karenina is the only book I started and didn't finish, and the reason was I was reading it as I traveled around the West of Ireland when I was 20, I left the book at one of my B&B's, and just never got around to picking up another copy before school started again. So even though I haven't yet finished it, the book is tied in my mind to train rides through some of the most beautiful places in the world, mountains, ocean views, green fields, sheep, rocks, constantly changing skies.

I am embarrassed that I have read no Tolstoy, Woolf, Joyce (my GOD, they're going to take away my Irish card), and only one Austen. My parents and sister love Austen, Emma in particular, I loved Pride and Prejudice when I read it, yet somehow I never got around to any of her others. So there's a little something to work on. I also never felt it necessary to cross out anything, not just because I don't know how to do that (and I don't), but because I honestly didn't feel the need. I can think of lots of books I never finished because I couldn't stand them, none of them seem to be on this list.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles was my commuting book when I first moved to Seattle right after college, was unsure I'd ever do theatre again and was working at a pottery owned by Scientologists. I would leave the house at 6am, when it was still dark out, take an hour long bus trip to arrive in one of the bleakest industrial parts of South Seattle, work for eight hours in a grungy warehouse where the air shimmered with silica dust because the Scientologist owners didn't want anyone wasting time cleaning the place because one could only become sick if one believed one could become sick, so if we all just thought positive thoughts we'd be fine -and forget about health insurance because that, like the medical and legal industries was all part of a plot to take over the world and control our minds- then at 3pm, as the sun was beginning to set (days are short in the winter in Seattle) I'd take the bus ride home. So, two hours a day of reading about the slow yet relentless destruction of a human being by society. I don't know why I didn't throw myself under a bus that winter. It was a great book, I looked forward to reading it each day, but DAMN. It is now completely tied in my head with grey weather, darkness, physical exhaustion and deep hopelessness.

I toyed with bolding Moby Dick, because I read it for a high school English class, but my teacher had us skip all the chapters where Melville rabbits on about the workings of the ship, so I decided that meant I hadn't REALLY read the book, but maybe it counts as a 'didn't finish'. AS a closeted, depressed gay boy I was sure I was making too much in my head of the scene where Ishmail wakes up in bed with Queequeg lovingly spooning him, so it's nice now to recognize that the homoeroticism wasn't completely my imagination. I'm told I really should give Billy Budd a try.

I probably didn't read every single Canterbury Tale (for junior high school English), just can't remember, but I bolded it anyway. Bite me.