Thursday, December 30, 2010

how we roast

 Not sure how this got started but we buy green coffee beans and roast them ourselves, really good coffee is quite a bit cheaper as green bean, oh yeah, we tried buying coffee here in Culebra (I'm tempted to expand on this theme but perhaps that's not a good idea) and it was all really bad. This became our DIY solution.
 these photos were taken about 4 minutes apart: start off on high flame and start to reduce heat as smoke begins, ending on low flame, stirring the whole time. Expect smoke, flying husks and snapping/ crackling over the 20 or so minutes of roasting.

call it quits when they look dark enough for your taste (lighter brings out citrus, darker brings out chocolate, too light tastes sour, too dark tastes burnt)
this move helps cool things down and gets rid of the papery husks
the flavor of freshly roasted beans seems to improve for a few days then levels off, a bur grinder (as opposed to those blade choppers) grinds more evenly and makes it easier to duplicate a good pot of coffee. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Friday, December 17, 2010

I think I understand the reality of living on a boat, but I am still trying to grasp the mystique, the myth of it, the thing that makes all the bits and pieces cohere and make something that lights your mind on fire. I have made peace with the idea that this myth will not come to me whole, that I may be left with pieces.

This morning when I jumped into the dinghy a school of tiny silvered fish leapt, startled, landing on the bottom of the boat—they were in our shoes, and the bailer, and the lifejackets, and everywhere, with the large unclosing eyes of prey, and we reached for their tiny silvered bodies and tossed them, delicately writhing, soft sparks, back into the water.

Something I have noticed at sea—how things get left behind. It is a place where the old, landed grudges and regrets can dissolve into nothing, which is their natural state. On a clear day, running with the wind, ordinary, bound life disappears, and we may be made new by our imaginings.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

foam angel
Stomach flu and a hard-hitting virus have taken a toll on quality blogging lately, but I'll be back soon.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

 Grandpa Dan has been documenting Tallulah's new experiences on vacation in New Hampshire.

Friday, November 19, 2010

More from St. Thomas

Latest foraged fruit, from the University of the West Indies experimental gardens.

I'm competing in a new Virgin Islands sport, which involves riding a life jacket while towing a small child and a plastic bag. Here we are coming in for the finish.

"There's a kind of fruit that grows in the cold areas, where there is snow on every branch. And it tastes like a pig being launched into a car."

Friday, November 12, 2010

In the University of the West Indies library, I overhear an exchange between what must be a teacher and student in the psychiatry stacks. The student says, “I wish I wasn't struggling so much with it”--something like that, I haven't tuned into the conversation yet; the teacher responds, “Through struggle you learn, so struggle is a good thing.” Kind of rapid fire, as if this is part of his professor patter, but at the same time he really means it. And then they say something else while I'm fussing with my computer cord and by that point they've moved a yard away and I hear the teacher say, “Manhood isn't something you're born with or given. You earn it. And this is how you earn it.” And the student says, “Thank you. I'll do my best tomorrow.” And he walks away standing a little bit taller, I could swear it, and I think I can see his shoulders square. I'm pretty sure they're talking about a test that the student has to take tomorrow, but they've ended up affirming what seems like a beautiful principle. I realize I've never actually heard anyone talk like this. And it makes me want to ask them, What is manhood? And is there any way that I could earn some, too?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

In St. Thomas

Of late I’m impatient with children’s books. Though, thinking back, I remember I read Edgar Allan Poe in Spanish translation to Tallulah as she nursed, two or three months old, soliloquies in Hamlet as lullabies, and Sandra Cisneros’s La Casa en Mango Street before she was two, and she was happy. Lately she revealed an interest in The Odyssey, and sobbed uncontrollably when Beowulf died, and requested repeated chapters of The Sun Also Rises, intrigued by the fishing and the bullfighting and the drinking. (She knows from drunk mans.) She began to invent games featuring Lady Brett Ashley. Hemingway wrote some nice, simple, prose—like a kids’ book, kind of, yet so much more satisfying. (“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”) The Odyssey and Beowulf, though—they were meant to be spoken. The emotions and motivations emerge stark and spare, like hillsides of granite.

I took a walk to the ferry dock at an unaccustomed hour. It had gone dark. I passed the usual detritus, the plastic bags and go cups and empty Medallas shining under the streetlights. The wind was coming from the sea on the other side of the hill as I listened to the sound of the coquís, and one of the men playing dominoes outside the bar lifted his plastic cup of liquor and called out Hi, loudly in English.
Is it tristes tropiques, whatever those are, exactly? (I look up Levi-Strauss on the internet.) Are tristes tropiques like cruisebummers—that haunted sense of something missing, a void to be filled in paradise? I passed the house of a woman we’d known. She had died of cancer two days ago. She’d gone up to her old home in Vermont to die and because I never saw her leave I couldn’t shake the feeling that she hadn’t. I walked past the empty restaurant where a young chef we’d met had started working, when the tourists didn’t come to her restaurant up the hill.
Then I understood that melancholy was something I was looking out of, into the night--displacing it to this other world presumptuously from the world in my own head. The feeling that I don’t belong here, and I can tell, somehow, that I never will. And the places I’ve loved—are they closed to me, indefinitely? That’s the thing about wandering, for me, the intensified awareness that things are always changing and temporary, the craving for difference alternating with the need for certainty, some place that is safe and unchanging. Some place that I now know, and always will, does not exist and yet—like those beautiful archetypes—it is, it must be.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Día de los Muertos

At the edge of Strom Thurmond Lake on the border of South Carolina we pulled over for a picnic. Restless, I went walking on the verge of the access road, into nothingness, the sun shining. I found a cardboard box with the bottom rotted out—the spine and hipbone of an animal resting on lichen and dead leaves, discolored by the elements—a small dog, perhaps. Empty beer cans and a candle tipped in the underbrush, the tall glass cylinder filled with white wax. I used to see them on the low shelves of grocery stores in New Orleans, used for offerings. We tossed food into a stand of pine and drove on. In Edgefield the signs will tell you that a beautiful woman’s head was once split open at the foot of the courthouse steps.

Strom Thurmond and my grandfather were cousins, born in the same house. A wide white house, nothing special, save for the whispers of my grandmother and grandfather, newly wed, living on the second floor. She’d wanted to be a lingerie buyer for White’s department store in Augusta and fly down the road behind the wheel of Model T and drink beer across the river. She came here to teach school and lived in a boarding house. Her father-in-law asked her to drive him. She was beautiful behind the wheel. Strom Thurmond’s grave is marked by a giant slab of local granite, the carved words sonorous--survived by his black daughter, the child of a family servant he must have cornered in an upstairs bedroom when he was just a teenager.

Liberty Hill Road stretched past anonymous miles of pine. At a clearing in the woods my mother pulled the car over. Once she’d come out to her ancestors’ plantation and found a pile of chicken parts. The house was gone now, faded on back into loam. She walked over to a mound of broken granite. "They’ve plowed up the gravestones," she said. "They plowed the gravestones up." It must have been mere broken rock, not gravestones at all. For the coffins, those would have rotted, too--but what had happened to the bones?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

I’m in Georgia with Tallulah—on shore leave while Adam works on the boat and eats pressed meat sandwiches and bachelor biscotti. I’ve been working on and off on a project about the Confederadoes, Southerners who left the south after the Civil War for points farther south—Mexico, Cuba, Brazil. These were some of the most committed separatists, perhaps among those who envisioned themselves becoming white Yankee slaves. South Carolina, where my mother’s family has lived for generations, was the first state to secede, so it’s no surprise that the Edgefield (SC) Colonization Society was prominent in discussions of expatriation. And, as it happens, one of my ancestors, a man named Harrison Strom, was a member of the Society. I sat trying to imagine Harrison Strom. I imagined him sitting in an upright chair in a dim parlor, reading Ballard S. Dunn’s Brazil: A Home for Southerners. People, even prominent people, would have been poor, I figured, after the war, and maybe he didn’t have much money for lamp oil. Harrison Strom was thinking. He was thinking about what to do. As he lives in my mind he is filled with bitterness. His thoughts are angry thoughts, and he dreams of leaving this mess behind even as his blood feels tied to the land. Perhaps he populates the unknown country of Brazil with docile slaves and makes the fields grow rich crops, the Portuguese names of which he has heard, but which slip from his brain like water.

Harrison Strom never went to Brazil. He lived and died in Edgefield County, and I have no idea what happened to him. Perhaps he died in bitterness. As for the real Confederadoes—some of them went and came back, some of them formed Southern colonies, and their descendants speak fluent Portuguese, and many of them have dark skin.

On Friday we drove over to Greenwood to visit my grandmother, who is 96 now. Her voice drops a note and grows confident when she talks about the past. I remember her haunting small-town archives and libraries, researching genealogy. She found things that shocked her—like the ancestor taken away by Cherokees, who turned his back on the world he’d left. This seemed deeply embarrassing to her, yet she confessed it as if she wanted us to know. Perhaps she has secrets. Her daughters tell each other stories about her. She was illegitimate, they say. Her father was a mulatto. There is nothing but stories upon stories, blurring the edges of each other, wearing upon each other like water does on paper and I’m left with vague impressions as powerful as vivid dreams.

My mother was telling me the other day about her grandfather—he was superintendent of schools in Edgefield, then signed up soldiers for World War II. And out of the story—not a story, really, but a kind of meandering river that doubles over on itself, leaving ox-bow lakes—in a instant I felt this man, whose name I still don’t know. I felt him very near, even, I would say, in my blood. I knew then that he had lived with the intention of creating me. So that I—he could not have known it was me—so that I (not only I) could live. And now I present some part of him to the world. This rural Southerner, with a patch of cotton and a job downtown and who knows what thoughts in his head. This unknown man suddenly seemed almost as real to me as my own child. Almost. Just for a single, vertiginous moment.

I opened a book about Edgefield, a work of scholarship that, according to the inscription, my sister and mother and I presented as a gift to our grandmother in 1985. None of us have any memory of that. There was a blue piece of paper inside, carefully folded, with a little dot of something in the center. I touched it idly, like you would an old receipt or tag-end of paper that might be good for writing a grocery list. After awhile—I was doing something else at the same time--I took the paper out again and unfolded it. It was a letter that had been written and posted in Edgefield. It said something about a debt. An ordinary thing committed to paper. The fine sepia ink was dipped by A. Simkins as he wrote to R. M. Fuller about some piece of business that concerned them both. It startled me, I admit it. The paper didn’t seem to have aged at all in a hundred and fifty years.

It's what's for dinner

A big batch of bachelor biscotti!

Adapted from A Treasury of New Zealand Baking

2C 3Tbsp flour
3/4C  sugar
1 tsp b powder
2 large eggs and 1 yolk
2/3C hazelnuts (blanched, whole)
3oz dark chocolate chunk
optional--citrus zest

another option--forgo nuts and chocolate, add liquor--and don't put that bottle away, keep it close, that's your friend


Combine flour, sugar, b powder in large bowl.  In separate bowl, beat until just combined eggs and yolk--add to the dry ingredients and mix.  Add the hazelnuts and chocolate, using your hands to combine all ingredients thoroughly until mixture forms a ball.

Transfer to clean surface and knead the mixture about 2 minutes.  Divide the mixture in 2 and shape each part to a flattened log shape, about 12 inches long.  Place on baking tray.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until lightly golden and firm to touch.  Remove from oven.  Use a heavy, sharp knife to slice each log on the diagonal into pieces 1/2 inch thick.

Lay biscuits flat on the tray and return to the oven for further 10-14 minutes, until golden. 

Cool before serving. Store in airtight container up to 1 month.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Building a better mousetrap

The main question I have is how did it get here. How? I was reading Tallulah a bedtime story. She was lying there, looking up, when suddenly she exclaimed, “Look! A little mouse!” She says many outrageous things that turn out to be true. I looked. There was nothing. A second later, a mouse appeared in the porthole. It seemed surprised when I squeaked with delighted dismay. Later, in the night, I was awakened by a loud crunching sound. There was the mouse again, silhouetted in the moonlight. When it saw me it threw up its little hands and ran away. We read on the internet about how to make a no-kill mousetrap using a 2-liter Coke bottle, but the mouse went in there and ate the food, leaving only a little je m’en foûtre behind. The ante has been upped.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Since turning forty, some things have become clear to me. For example, that bachata music is beautifully overwrought, like the kind of poetry you can write in Spanish—like this one, for example, from a book of poetry for Puerto Rican schoolchildren :

Madre mía, hoy es tu día
y yo te doy mi alegría,
que es lo que te puedo dar.
Madre mía, yo quisiera,
que tu pena fuese mía.
Qué más puedo desear?

“My dear mother, this is your day, and I give you my happiness—for that's what I have to give. Oh my mother, I wish your sadness were mine. What more could I desire?”

Or this, from “Itinerario para náufragos”—náufragos meaning “the shipwrecked”:

Vivir el movimiento que habita las palabras,
conocer la apariencia, amar la soledad
de los frutos caídos y que, ahora,
con la luz de la tarde
desvelan el pasado en las ruinas del tiempo.

A sorry translation: “To live in the movement that inhabits words, to understand the meaning of surfaces, to embrace the solitude of fruit that has fallen—and now, with the afternoon light, they keep the past from sleeping among the ruins of time.”

This translation is lame partly because I’m not sure how the infinitives in the first two lines fit with the third person plural in the last. But who cares! What is this about? I have no idea. I just find it strangely stupendous. I’m moved by poetry in Spanish more than any poetry in English except maybe Walt Whitman, because he, too, gives voice to the most vague, exalted sentiments in unrestrained, unapologetic flights that sometimes choose not to return, leaving you high.

On the other hand, I’ve been clued in to the value of balance. Such an ordinary thought--banal even. I was wondering the other day why I intermittently fantasize about a totally different life in which I’m one of those people who search out props and necessary items for movies, or scientific operations. In a book I read I learned that this job has a name. It isn’t “procuring.” Anyway, it boils down to hunting for interesting things in a new place and then buying them with someone else’s money. Perfect for me. In my other life, I participate in a floating household that tries to maintain a high degree of self-sufficiency, give voice to its creative longings, earn money, and raise a small child far from most of our friends and family. And things break. Like, relatively important things. Or someone gets sick. Someone gets in a snit. What is wrong? I used to blame it on the boat, lack of money, bad food, isolation, whatever. Now I realize those are just excuses. Deepak Chopra spoke to me in a dream. He said, This moment is perfect. And I said, I like that better than This Moment Bites. And I said, When we feel crazy, let’s shout—silently, if necessary—OM! And he said, Do whatever you need to do. And I said, Deepak, it actually works!
Gratuitous child photo.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Birthday weekend

Turning 40 can be kind of scary, so I needed a Chihuahua on hand. And a 7-Up. (Thanks, Raquel!)
The other day Tallulah said, “Daddy, I’ll always be your baby. But you know why people need to grow up? It’s because they need to see better.” Yeah. It's cool how all those things that were just above your head—like what’s on the stove, and what really matters—suddenly get a lot clearer.

Daphne and Raquel at Flamenco Beach.

Top secret information.
Party at Lori and Fred's!
Talking about Malta, Thibodeaux, and titty twisters.

I think of this as trashy lush but I don't want anyone to take that the wrong way.

Tallulah's present was a couplet: "It's good when you hear/A please in your ear!"
The best cake decoration ever: palm trees with little coconuts on them.
Author photo for my next book. Still working on the book part.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Plus ça change, they say in French, plus c’est la même chose. That line makes sense to me on and off. Sometimes it sounds like something that’s supposed to be clever. Last week it seemed like the unvarnished truth. We set off from Culebra, reached St. Croix—did things there now vague to memory—and prepared to journey on. We were careful, of course, because as any sailor knows, particularly one as half-assed as myself, you do not mess around with the weather. So we had our weather relay and we had our diesel and food that probably would not induce seasickness and our wits about us, as much as you can hope for at any given point in time. The only problem was that a few things went wrong. One of them was: While lying low, keeping my nausea tuned to a manageable level, riding it out, I looked up and saw smoke eagerly billowing from the closed door of the engine room. Look! I shouted. Smoke!

Leaping up from where he was nursing his own juice-induced nausea (it’s an art as well as a science, figuring out what to eat underway, and in each new port it seems I’m tempted by something that soon proves deadly), Adam dove into the smoke. Long and short, there wasn’t an actual fire, but the engine had gone dead.

Sailing engineless is nothing new for us, of course. We hadn’t even been using the engine. Later, though, the port side sailtrack ripped out of the deck. Adam jerry rigged something or other—I have no idea what it was because I was trying not to be sick while reading some kids’ book aloud down below or getting food for Tallulah, who seems to recover from her own little flares of seasickness with stunning speed. But no engine and a compromised rig in someone else’s boat in unfamiliar waters during hurricane season adds up to Not OK. You have to be able to get away from the storm. I used to be kind of blasé, but after evacuating New Orleans at dusk with the electric bite in the air of pressure dropping, along the empty highways—then, weeks later, driving with a will back into the ruined city to touch things that the storm had left behind, dripping with prisms of mold—I find my cells shudder at the notion.

But at some point after we decided that the safest thing to do was return to Culebra, a thunderhead like a mushroom cloud possessed the horizon. It staged a bloodless coup. It was so big it didn’t need to make a sound and it looked marshmallow soft. Long jagged clouds the color of pewter balanced across it as the sun shot that soft whiteness through with pink gold. When it reached us, it was sheeting warm rain and blowing 45-knot gusts in the darkness while the boat plowed the waves like some Greek’s mythical horse.

We knew this—this Invest 92, this tropical disturbance we’d been watching for days and now, with our change of plan, it was tickling the edge of our westward trajectory with its long white plume. And we prayed, for the first time in years, because sometimes in the dark ocean you hope there really is some kind of benevolent higher power, even if that idea seems unfathomable in the clear light of day. Because sometimes if you’re not calling out to the heavens for mercy you’re singing all chirpy in your head, “The Minnow would be lost, the Minnow would be lost…”

It’s a fact of life when sailing that plans are not that relevant. A fact not always pleasant or easy to deal with, sometimes one of the most frustrating axioms for me of life aboard. Because I’m pretty good with uncertainty but not that good and that’s probably why I live on a sailboat, because I have to learn my lesson. Maybe. I’m not really sure. Anyway, we went sailing. And now we’re back.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Happy Birthday, Tallulah!

Guadalajara, Tucson, Apataki, the Virgin Islands, Tallulah travels thousands of miles between birthdays. We had ice cream with Lori and Fred in Culebra, and cake in St. Croix.