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Experiencing and explaining

Yesterday, I made cassoulet. Sadly, I took no photos, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it was visually appealing – at least until our crowd attacked it. It was also really tasty, filled as it was with yummy. Let’s talk about yummy for a moment and how it relates to the title of this post.

In the late 1800’s, in Paris, the bourgeoisie were finally getting their own great chefs. Even during the extended bloodlettings that were the various French Revolutions, the truly great chefs, including Marie-Antoine Careme, who baked Napoleon’s wedding cake and is credited with inventing French cuisine, worked for the aristocracy. For them, the appearance of food was everything, even if it wasn’t edible (or only barely so). Careme’s dishes, for instance, were often served cold because his sculptures of lard, marzipan, or spun sugar would melt at warmer temperatures. The appearance of decadence was what mattered, even if the “food” was largely (or entirely) inedible. The presence of yummy was not the only, or even perhaps the primary, consideration.

Enter Auguste Escoffier, stage right

Escoffier was a chef for the bourgeoisie. He did three important things. First, he wrote a cookbook, The Guide Culinaire, in which he effectively opined that the purpose of food was to be eaten and enjoyed. Second, he opened what was arguably the most revolutionary restaurant Paris had ever seen (as well as the most expensive). Third, he invented veal stock. Now long considered a fundamental part of classical French cuisine, it’s important to understand that prior to Escoffier, no one cooked with veal stock, simply because it did not exist. People tend to overuse the phrase that something “changed everything,” but in the case of French cuisine, veal stock did just that.

People raved about his restaurant and the food prepared and served there. It tasted like nothing they had ever eaten. Escoffier himself seems to have suggested that the veal stock infused food with something new, something different. A taste that could not be defined as salt, sweet, sour or bitter, or even some combination thereof.

No one, aside from his customers, was convinced. After all, Democritus had declared there were four basic tastes (having added “bitter” to the already recognized three of sour, sweet and salty). Plato was good with that, as was Aristotle. It worked for the philosophers who were the basis of Western civilization, and so it was. Escoffier and this customers could exclaim about the new flavor all they wanted, but it did not matter. Sweet, salt, sour, bitter were the only ones which existed. Four was the counting thereof, and no more.

Enter Kikunae Ikeda, stage left

Halfway around the world, a Japanese man named Kikunae Ikeda noticed something, specifically while eating a classic seaweed soup called dashi. It was good. Really good. More than that, it was good in a way that was not limited by the standard categories of tastes. Whatever could it be?

As it turns out, Ikeda was a chemist, and so he set out to learn exactly what this amazing flavor was. It was glutamic acid, which Ikeda decided to rename “yummy” (technically, he called it “umami,” but I’m writing this so we’re using my lousy translation). This thing which Escoffier was concentrating in his veal stock? Yummy. The thing Ikeda noticed in his bowl of dashi? Yummy. He published his findings in the Journal for the Chemical Society of Tokyo…and no one believed him.

It was almost 100 years later that scientists discovered the human tongue has receptors for, you guessed it, yummy. Umami was real. Escoffier and Ikeda were right.

What does that mean? In this case, it means that what some people had experienced or observed was real. Now, we simply have the science to explain it. That’s ultimately what science does. It explains what is observed or experienced*. It doesn’t change what we experience. It merely provides an explanation (sometimes accurate, sometimes not so accurate, but that’s a separate matter).

We see this in other areas of life, as well. St Paul would write in his first letter to Corinth (and in a specific context) that when he was a child, he thought, spoke and perceived as a child, but that all that changed when he grew up. That observation was not peculiar to him, of course. People have observed that phenomenon seemingly since we have been observing things. It was people like Jean Piaget who set out to develop a theory (one of many) to explain it.

“Why are some elderly people positive and cheerful, regardless of their physical condition and others are just grouchy and bitter” is a question, based on observation/experience, that has perhaps been asked by people for as long as there have been people. Erik Erikson would explain it with his theory of psychosocial development.

Whether we’re talking about food, how people develop intellectually, or how they act at different stages of their lives, we seek to explain what we see with theories. Sometimes, we run into difficulties due to conflicting views, not simply of explanations, but of how we perceive things. Allow me to attempt and explanation.

I play the guitar. That’s what I call it, anyway. Some people disagree (critics are everywhere!). One of the hardest things for me to learn was how, when playing rhythm, to pick a strum pattern. I could look at the music and note the time signature. I could tell you what the numbers meant. In spite of that, much of my playing was wooden. It wasn’t until a guitar player I really admired told me to “stop trying so hard and just let yourself feel the rhythm” that I was able to progress. The same thing was true with chord changes in a song. It was only when I allowed myself to “feel” the music that I suddenly realized I could anticipate not only the need for a chord change, but even what that chord was likely to be. In my case, I had the theory (or at least some of it), but not the feel. Other people struggle from the other direction. They can feel the music (Robert Pirsig’s acquaintance who said “you just have to dig it, man”) but can’t necessarily explain the theory that explains it. Our challenge is to incorporate both into our lives, whether with food, cognitive development, psychosocial development, music, or the vast myriad of other facets of human existence.

Sadly, some people are so afraid of the approach that doesn’t come easily to them that they denigrate it, or even deny that it can produce anything of value. “Artists are frivolous” and “scientists are rigid” are both examples. This fear and subsequent hostility are understandable, I guess, but short-sighted. I didn’t really appreciate music theory and how it can help a musician (or a would-be musician like me), until I let myself “feel” the music. Likewise, I didn’t really understand just how much my family of origin influenced who and what I am until I took the time to study and gain some understanding of family dynamics and systems theory.

Enjoy what you enjoy. Experience what you experience. Don’t fear or avoid the things that can help you understand and explain it.

And every once in a while, eat something yummy.

*During my first college career, I was a hard sciences major, so I understand that science also observes in order to collect the data which is analyzed to draw conclusions and on which to build theories, but I’m speaking broadly here. 

Finally retired tech

I have an admitted soft spot for all the US armed forces. After all, I began my military career in one (USCG) and retired from another (USN)*. Anyway, a good friend of mine from years ago has long proclaimed that the USAF, his service (of which he is justifiably proud, I should note), is more “high tech” than either of the services of us he calls “boat people.” Which means that finding this little gem on The Silicon Greybeard’s blog filled me with no end of childish glee. I include only the briefest of excerpts:

You may have seen this entertaining little story going around the last couple of days, but the Air Force has finally retired 8-inch floppies from the missile launch control system. Those would be the strategic missile launch facilities.

Yep. 8-inch floppies. Not 3.5-inch floppies. Oh, no. The big, if-you’re-not-my-age-you’ve-likely-never-seen-one 8-inchers. You may not understand my gleeful chuckle, unless you both served and really enjoyed the fun that is military sibling rivalry. If not, you missed something special.

“Aim High,” my friend.

*Incidentally, this makes for some odd looks when I go hear a military band and they play their typical medley of service songs, as I stand for both “Semper Paratus” and “Anchors Aweigh.”


That is my official “I spent several years as a psychiatric/mental-health nurse” assessment of Hillary Clinton, based on her recent rant. Jill Stein is a Russian asset? Jill Stein? Really? Great shivering Shiva on a crutch. Oh, and Tulsi Gabbard (for whom I would not vote but for whom I have more than a little respect), is being “groomed” by the Russians? Give me a f***ing break.

If my assessment offends you, then allow me to suggest…never mind.

On a related note, I’m sorry to hear of Gabbard’s impending suicide.

Gifted amateurs vs professionals

Obviously, this is a post about hunting.

As a hunter, I am like almost all humans, a gifted amateur on my very best days. On the other hand, Bambi, Bambi’s mom, his dad, cousins, friends, and yes, Faline, are all professionals. This point that was driven home to me during four days of hunting. The spot in my freezer reserved for venison remains empty. Because I’m an amateur. And deer are professionals. And they won. Again.

Other point of note/point of advice. If your scoped weapons reside in a soft-sided case, do not allow anyone to “help you out” by packing them in your car. Let us not discuss the implications of discovering your crossbow is suddenly and unexpectedly shooting 20 inches low at 50 yards. Why would I allow someone to do that? Because I’m an amateur.

That’s okay, Bambi. Laugh it up. General season (aka “rifle” season) opens November 2. It is my plan to introduce you or a relative to that thing known as “150 grains of .30-30 love” very soon. Or not. Because I’m an amateur.

Lest we forget

Today, September 20, is Unification Day. Go, find an Alliance bar. Make it a point to raise a glass to those who still wear the brown. Remember, our side “may have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.”

Once upon a time, when I was underway

Recently, I was asked if I had ever been seasick, given that my military career was split between the US Coast Guard and the US Navy. It is said that therein lies a tale…if only because I said it.

I spent a number of my growing up years near the sea (southeastern North Carolina, right on or near the coast). It was great. When I first went to college, I wanted to be an oceanographer. Actually, I wanted three degrees: one in oceanography, one in marine biology and one in oceanographic engineering. Surely, Jacques Cousteau would hire me then, yes? (Not necessarily, as it turns out, and I got to see the RV Calypso anyway, but that’s its own story) I spent a lot of time on boats during college, and before when I was a kid. I even had a stint as a commercial fisherman. In all that time, I never got sick. I’ve been on big Navy ships and small Coast Guard cutters. I’ve been on research vessels (the RV Eastward, for instance). ‘Nary a twinge from my stomach, regardless of the weather. I had, I decided, a cast iron gut.

As it happens, both the sea and her evil minions know as “naval architects” are intolerant of hubris. And so, long ago in their foresight, they conspired to construct a heavy weather rescue boat, for to torment Mrs. Rabon’s little boy. The Coast Guard 44’ Motor Life Boat (MLB) was that torment. (I have it on good authority that “MLB” is the English abbreviation of an ancient Etruscan phrase which means “round-bottomed pig boat from hell”) Did it roll a wee bit, you ask? Oh, my dear God did it roll. Like a roller coaster. Like a horse that was always trying to sun its belly. Like a pig in cool mud, it rolled. And I began to feel…not well.

I am told that when I am in the midst of a bout of seasickness, a few things happen. My face turns red, the veins of my neck and forehead stand out and I make a noise that sounds, I’m told, like the mighty Kraken of old come to the surface to destroy the poor sailors it finds thereon. Not to fear, though, the Kraken sought only me and the sacrifice of my most recent meal to appease his mighty wrath.

Those of gentle digestion should proceed no farther.

I’ve heard people complain of being seasick and feeling weak. Some speak of emptying their stomachs and being left with only the occasional dry heave and a rather unpleasant yellow fluid. Some refer to going beyond that, and having dry heaves with the occasional production of bile. Amateurs and posers, all of them. One has not been really seasick, well and truly, disgustingly and disturbingly seasick until one’s dry heaving (every 15 minutes, on the money) produces a revolting brown substance (don’t ask). For hours on end. Shoot me, dear God, shoot me now. I swear, by the time I got out of the Coast Guard, I could step on dear old CG 44366 at the dock and begin to feel queasy. It was like having my own, personal and highly revolting Pavlov.

Even writing this has produced a hint, a twinge, of that distinctly unpleasant feeling.

Yes, I have been seasick. So now, I acknowledge the power of the sea to hurt me. She and her minions are mightier than I.

And I still miss being underway.


Suspending disbelief

I am an absolutely unapologetic fan of zombie apocalypse (hereinafter referred to as “ZA”) genre fiction…and movies…and games. It would be embarrassing if I was any good at being embarrassed. (I used to be good at it. Then I went to boot camp.) Anyway, I enjoy the genre a lot. I also happen to like guns quite a bit. It’s not the katana or baseball bat which is the ultimate weapon for killing zombies. It’s the rifle. Which reminds me…

Me: “Hi. I’m Ken and I’m an ammosexual.”

Rest of room (in unison): “Hi, Ken!”

With that out of the way, let’s continue.

There are some things about ZA entertainment that require me to suspend disbelief – a lot of disbelief. The whole walking corpse thing comes to mind, for instance. I’m a nurse, so that’s a big suspension of disbelief on my part. I do it because I enjoy the genre. Only head shots being effective, once one has accepted the whole ambulatory corpse thing, is not as much of a stretch for me. But I still have my limits. When people ask “what’s the likelihood of a real zombie apocalypse,” I feel obligated to ensure their corn flakes are adequately urine soaked because, you see, it’s fiction. It’s not even historical fiction. It’s ZA fiction, sometimes urban fantasy, or some sort of noir fantasy, or maybe even what Lovecraft called “weird fiction.” What it’s not is reality. It’s not real-world stuff, okay? That various government agencies have used it because it’s a useful metaphor in readiness training doesn’t make it real. In the real world, a ZA would last a few weeks and the story would end with some version of “and then everyone went back to their normal lives.”

That may help explain why I’m struggling to write that sort of thing. I can suspend disbelief when I read it, but when I write it, I’m very aware of just how unimpressive zombies are. As in

Panicked reporter: “Aieeee! The zombies have arisen in Wilmington, NC. The horde is now headed north. What will stop them? Are we done as a nation?”

Spokesperson for the 2nd MARDIV: “Yeah. We got this.”

Zombies, after all, aren’t intelligent critters. They’re just mindless, walking appetites. As Max Brooks, the apparent authority on all things zombie, notes, they are barely able to muster one step every 1.5 seconds. FWIW, if we assume an average stride length of 30 inches, that means they can manage 1.14 mph…rounded up. With high quality ammo, their numbers could be decimated with Ruger 10/22s and Marlin Model 60s.

So, given my preference for weird fiction, I decided to search for a more sinister, more dangerous and more difficult monster. I selected vampires.

Vampires are scary, yes? Of course, they are. They’d be a poor horror monster, otherwise.

I’ll be dealing with fairly “traditional” vampires. One of the most important things to remember about the traditional vampire is that it is evil. As such, it seeks to corrupt or pervert the innocent and the righteous. That seems to take care of the sinister part. Unfortunately,  it is the evil nature of the vampire, and its attempt to corrupt, that are tied to many of its weaknesses.

We see things in myth like its inability to enter a home without an invitation. In some medieval literature, we find reference to demons and the like calling to people from outside the home, trying to elicit an invitation. It seems to be related to the idea that people become monstrously evil, as opposed to a more mundane, everyday sort of “bad,” because they choose to allow evil into their lives. It is reflected, I believe, in the almost ubiquitous reference to a vampire’s sex appeal. There may also be a reference to many ancient traditions that saw the threshold as a sacred place – almost the first of family altars, if you will.

Sunlight, silver and the wood of some trees are all associated with purity and goodness. Thus, depending on the legend, vampires are harmed by one or more of these. The heart, that seat of good and evil, is destroyed by having a wooden (especially if made of the right wood) or silver stake driven through it. (Duh! It’s a stake. Through the heart. You’d die, too.) In the West, the Cross is considered sovereign against vampires, though there is some variation (Is it the Cross itself, or must it be presented with faith? If it is faith, can another symbol work?).

Without going too deeply into Christian theology and the different views of various denominations, it is this good vs. evil motif that explains the weakness of vampires as regards holy water and blessed communion wafers (which in the Catholic tradition literally become the body of Christ). I think this explains the idea of, once the vampire is decapitated, the mouth is stuffed with blessed Communion wafers and sewn shut with silver thread. The evil simply can’t overcome that much pure good.

Other things regarding how to permanently kill vampires seem to be related to medieval mythology. The body is burned and the ashes spread asunder. The head, after the mouth is filled and sewn shut, is placed in a bag and buried at a crossroads (the ideal being that the Vampire’s evil spirit would be unable to find its way back to the remnants of its body).

The belief in the efficacy of garlic may be related to the belief that the drinking of blood was part of the evil of the vampire (and the making of another one) and to the use of garlic to cure or prevent some diseases.

Anyway, those are the vampires I chose. So, how to deal with them?

  • Remove anything and everything from the outside of my house that could possibly be construed as an invitation to enter. If I can find one, it might be worthwhile to have an attorney’s point of view on this (“bloodsuckers” and all that).
  • Garlic hung at all entrances. I don’t know why garlic is believed to keep vampires out, but hey, if it works…
  • Silver crosses over the doors and near windows.
  • I would wear a crucifix or cross around my neck at all times.
  • It would be important to deliberately designate the place I lived as my home, rather than merely a place I happened to sleep.
  • External and internal full-spectrum lighting around not just the house, but at strategic points around the property. Backup power consisting of a generator. All power lines either buried and/or contained inside heavy steel conduit. Thus, I give you (bear in mind, the fun is at the end of the clip)

  • All buildings would have fire sprinklers, powered by a pump which pumped holy water from a storage tank. A similar system would be used to pump holy water to external lawn and garden sprinklers.
  • Kinetic energy, ultimately because Sir Isaac Newton
  • Hand loading time for all firearms. Bullets cast in a lead/silver or copper/silver alloy. As long as some degree of penetration is assured, that’s all that matters. It will deliver all its energy to the target (the vampire) and leave the silver in contact with the critter’s body.
  • Explosives. Lots of explosives. I know its a vampire, but physics beats evil, undead bloodsucker

So, vampires, too, would not be that impressive. As it happens, humans are really good at killing things we consider a threat, especially when we work in concert. The result? I have to suspend disbelief for a vampire apocalypse about as much as I do for the more pedestrian zombie version.

Ah, well, the search for an impressive monster goes on. In the meantime, I’ll continue to write about my favorites.