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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I Won! Almost...and Kind of

Exciting news.  My story on crocodile hunting in Belize received 2nd place in the Blog Carnival held at 20 Something Bloggers.
Thank god they are easily impressed.

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I won a free year subscription to a foreign language program of my choice through Live Mocha.  I'm about to get my espanol on.

Congrats (and a defiant fist) to my conqueror, Igor, who wrote about his Surreal Adventure in Peru.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Doing Less in Order to Do More

Over the last few weeks, I have been writing quite a bit about getting rid of my possessions, going without new purchases, taking breaks from online networking, etc.  Since then, I have received several emails asking what I have "against" technology, arguing the importance of gadgets, social knowledge about TV shows or new music, and the like.

I have nothing against technology.  Really.  My focus is on using these new tools that are available to make my life better instead of just busier.  As I see it, the more "connected" we all become, via Twitter, via Facebook, via a hundred other mediums, the less enjoyment I personally seem to get out of it.  What was supposed to be fun becomes just another "have-to."  Remembering to respond to a comment or message on Online Network #1 becomes part of my to-do list for that day.  Keeping up with a list of blogs, out of duty instead of out of enjoyment takes time away from something else, and I have come to resent this creeping obligation.

I know that I am not the only one, as there have been dozens of books out recently about the effects that multi-tasking, constant web-surfing, and perpetual connectivity have on our brains, our moods and our relationships.  For all of this, I still view these tools as a positive thing, so long as they are used appropriately.

And this is what I am struggling with.  What are the limits?  What are the best ways to balance the benefits of new connectivity tools with the need for direct, authentic and personal interaction?  Does "liking" someone's facebook status really bring me closer to that person?  Is it an acceptable substitute for a phone call or a face-to-face conversation?

The more I think about these questions, the more I try to minimize, and the more committed I become to doing so.  I try to minimize my possessions in order to spent my money on experiences, investments and the people I care about.  I try to minimize my time spent online so that I can have more time offline.  I try to call my customers and see them in person, rather than just exchanging long email chains.  The time I do spend online is mindful, and I want to connect with friends instead of just jumping all over the place.

I am still struggling to find a perfect resolution for all of this, but I do think that I am getting closer, and I like the direction that I am heading.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Living Smaller

"He did each single thing as if he did nothing else."
 - Charles Dickens

Multi-tasking is vastly over-rated.  By focusing on one thing at a time, we can give that person, task or responsibility the attention and value that it/they deserve.  The only way to do this is by eliminating distractions.  Lately, I have been doing so.  I keep only one tab open online.  I changed the settings on my instant messenger services so that they do not log me in automatically.  For now, I have deactivated Facebook.  I consider that temporary, as it has become one of the best ways to keep in touch with friends.  For now though, I needed a break. 

By continuing to minimize my time and commitments online and in the real world, I can focus more effectively on what I do care about.  My work is more productive.  I write more.  I read more.  I box and run moreI brew beerI make soap.  When I talk to my family, I only talk to my family.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Making Soap: The Tyler Durden Chronicles, Volume1

In response to my comment expressing the difficulties I was experiencing in making soap from scratch, my friend offered the following:

"Yeah, its too bad that society hasn't progressed to the point where such products are offered in readily available portions at affordable costs. Oh wait..."

He has a point.  But I think there are plenty of reasons to learn about and practice making soap from raw materials.  They are as follows:
  1. Competence - learning how something is made is always worthwhile, especially if you can then duplicate this task.  You are never worse off for the knowledge.
  2. Quality - Unless you are spending top-dollar, most soap that you buy is made from the cheapest of materials.  Much like brewing your own beer, making your own soap allows you to use the top quality materials, with the cost savings associated with doing the work for yourself.  For less money per unit than your average bar of Dial soap, you can have top-level artisan soap.
  3. Fun - I love projects, and this is a good one.  Complicated and dangerous enough to be fully engaging, long enough to require focus over extended periods of time, and you get a usable and valuable product out of your efforts.  This is fun to me.
 First, a big, giant warning.  Making soap from scratch involves working with chemicals that are highly dangerous.  Sodium Hydroxide (Lye) will burn the living shit out of your skin, and god forbid that it gets in your eyes.  Protective equipment, such as heavy-duty gloves and goggles are a must.  Strict attention should be paid when handling raw lye.  Even when being careful, it is possible for lye to splash up, which would do you serious damage.  This Rugged Life is in no way responsible for your burned body if you injure yourself while making soap.  If you have not seen "Fight Club," or even if you have, it is recommended that you watch this scene from 0:30 - 3:00.  This IS what can happen to any part of your skin that the lye touches.  ALWAYS keep a jug of vinegar nearby to neutralize any burns.

Right then.  Despite the need for care, soap-making is common, and should be fine so long as you use proper caution.

While part of the fun of making anything is customizing it to your own standards, I would recommend using a already-perfected recipe for your first few goes.  These are readily available online, including this one from The Simple Dollar, which includes lot of good ingredients like coconut oil and oatmeal.

Soap is basically made up of oil(s) and sodium hydroxide.  Sodium Hydroxide is also used to make methamphetamines, so it can be difficult to find.  I purchased mine from Bramble Berry.  They will ask you to sign and email back a Hazardous Material form, which clears them from lawsuits if you burn the shit out of yourself.

Different recipes will include different types of oils and fats, but olive oil is commonly used, and a soap with mostly olive oil will make a Castile soap, which is fairly soft.  Lard, Coconut Oil and other fats can be added, or used as substitutes. 

Two basic mixtures will be created, one including all of the oils and fat, and the other consists of the lye and a liquid, such as water or milk.  Once both mixtures have reached the appropriate temperature, the lye mix is added to the oil mix.  The order of this is important.  Carefully monitor the temperatures of each.  My failure to do so made my life much harder than it needed to be.

I made a few mistakes on this batch, such as allowing my oils to get far too hot, and allowing my lye to get too cool.  Invest in a second thermometer to avoid a similar problem.

Lye/Milk Combination - the lye took frozen milk to over 140 degrees in seconds
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I got creative with my soap molds, using a bunch of strangely-shaped items that I found at the Salvation Army store.  The problem was that I did not line the bottoms with plastic wrap or aluminum foil.  My failure to do so made it nearly impossible to get the hardening soap out of the molds, and I ended  up wasting a lot of precious materials because of it.  The soap that was not wasted came out pretty...rough-looking.  Its not the cool-looking ovals and rectangles that I was hoping for, but it should be functional.

Once the lye and oils have been mixed, you have a lot of stirring to do.  Hours, actually.  Unless you invest in a stick blender, which will cut the time to a half hour, or far less. 

Once you have removed the soap from the molds, it must be left for 3-4 weeks before using.  This allows the lye to continue mixing with the oils, settle down, and become something that you can actually use on your body.  You can lay plastic wrap over the bars, and then put a blanket or towel over it to let it cool down slowly.

Ugly soap
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Be careful during cleanup.  While the mixture is now "soap," the lye is still wrestling around in the ingredients.  While it will no longer cause chemical burns, it can still irritate your skin, and would do worse to your eyes.  You should keep your gloves on while cleaning up your mess to be on the safe side.  Even with the gloves, some of the soap got onto my forearms, and the skin reddened up fairly quickly.

Safety, I has it
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That's it for this volume of the Tyler Durden Chronicles.  The next segment will talk about the finished product, some fun information about soap, and possibly more of my fuck-ups.  Cheers.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Almost Wordless Wednesdays (3)

About 5 hours into the Cactus to Clouds adventure, probably the most difficult single day of work in my life.  I was accompanied by my comrade, Kalvin, and the "hike" would span 22 miles, 14 hours, and well over 12,000 feet of elevation change.  Here I am looking out over the desert floor where we started the day at 3:00 A.M.

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Monday, October 11, 2010

"Red Eyes Mean Evil" - Hunting Crocodiles in a Belizean Swamp

I am sipping on Blue Moon's Harvest Seasonal Ale, and running through a mental catalogue of adventures.


As per the usual, I have procrastinated until the very last minute on this.  Travel story, travel story...I need a travel story...I could talk about dining on fried tarantulas and cobra whiskey in Siem Reap, Cambodia, but no, I have done that far too often, and no one wants to hear that tired shit anymore.  Well then, I could talk about the attack dogs in a grungy alley of Southern China, but similar thing, we have already heard that one.  Motorbike accidents in Thailand?  No, that's boring.  The international sex trade?  Inappropriate.  I need something with some grit and suspense, maybe even a little danger.


I sip my beer and look out the window pensively.  

Oh yes, I have one.

It was just after midnight in the middle of a central American swamp.  The rickety boat creaked in the light wind and swayed piteously.  To be fair, describing it as a "boat" speaks to a generosity of spirit that does not come to me often.  It could more accurately be described as a "canoe," although "dinghy," or simply, a "piece of shit" would certainly not be far from the truth either.

We were hunting crocodiles.  Sorry, there I go lying again.  To "hunt" means that we actually had some sort of plan to engage them upon discovery.  We were merely looking for crocodiles.  Two of us to a boat, with one guide, we paddled softly across the dark water, sensitive to any ripples or movement in the water.  Because they are evil, a crocodile's eyes show up a deep, red glow when light is reflected on them at night.  As I swept my flashlight across the top of the still waters, red eyes were everywhere. 

The guide had explained that you could tell how large the crocodile was by how far apart the eyes were set.  Most of them were very small.  When we saw eyes just an inch or so apart, we would paddle towards them.  These small ones were usually hiding in and around the reeds of the bank, and we could get close enough to see their entire bodies, 1-2 feet long, floating completely still even when we were close enough to reach out and touch them.  None of us reached out and touched them.

Now and again we would see much larger creatures, eyes set far away from each other, a good 4-6" across.  These would wait briefly while we steered towards it, and then sink under the surface, sending large ripples arcing back towards us, gently rocking the small canoe.

Now and again, small fish would leap out of the water to escape from the roving predators.  Perhaps mistaking our canoe for a large croc, these same fish would often jump out of the way of our forward progress, seeking temporary shelter in the air.

Crocodiles are normally nocturnal hunters, often floating motionless on the surface of the water as their prey approaches.  When the attack comes, it is lightning fast, and the reptile will snatch its prey and drag it immediately underwater to drown it.  Once submerged, this relic of the dinosaur age goes into its famous "death roll," as it attempts to both drown its prey as well as rip the body apart.  As we slowly approached the largest of these predators, I thought of such things. 

"Hey Onn," I said.

Silence.

"Onn?"

I looked back.  My friend Onn was lying on her back in the canoe with her hands over her face.
I tapped her shoe.

"Hey Onn.  What the hell are you doing?" I asked.

She peeked out from under her crossed arms.

"This is not what I thought it would be.  Just tell me when its over," she said, and re-entrenched herself protectively back under her arms.

I stared at her for a moment, and then nodded.  She had a point.

There are two types of Crocodiles in Belize.  The first is known as a Morelet Crocodile, and they have a wide snout, and will not exceed 8 feet in length.  The second are American Crocodiles, and can reach lengths of 21.5 feet.  Wild American Crocs will rarely exceed 13 feet these days.  I repeated this fact to myself a few times, comforted.  It then occurred to me just what little chance I stood against a 13 foot carnivorous reptile.  Onn's approach to the situation seemed suddenly far more reasonable.

Dead silence across the length of the swamp.  No red eyes anywhere.  We stopped paddling the canoe and stared into the blackness without moving and barely breathing.  A light breeze blew over the water, cooling the sweat on my face and neck, trickling down my arms.  Our guide tapped me on the shoulder and pointed off to our left silently.  I slowly swung the flashlight in the direction.  About 20 feet away were two horribly bright red eyes, staring fixed and unblinking in our direction.  They were set far across from each other, what seemed so impossibly far apart that at first I convinced myself that they must belong to two different animals.  They were not.

Turning the canoe starboard, we set the paddles into the black water and rowed as slowly as possible towards the dark mass just under the surface.  From the set of the eyes, the Crocodile looked to be as big as our small boat.  Closer and closer we rowed until we reached a point less than 5 feet from the massive creature.  Finally, at the last moment, and without the slightest hint of fear, the animal sunk deeper under the gently lapping wake of our momentum, rocking our canoe badly.  Exploding out of the water, a small fish leaped away from certain death, passing an inch from my face and spraying me with cold water.

And that was the time I screamed like a girl.

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This post inspired by the 20sb.net Blog Carnival for travel writing, and the winners receive a free 1-year subscription to the language course of their choice through livemocha.com. 



Thursday, October 7, 2010

Review of Casa Del Schatz - AKA, I'm a Great Host

As my home has resembled a Bed & Breakfast over the last few months, I am pleased to present my first guest review.  Guest post by Alison Blease, who is most commonly found in exotic locale, knocking out challengers in Muay Thai and badly mangling words from what should be her native tongue.

Review of Casa del Schatz, Santa Monica, LA
 
My 9 day visit to Casa del Schatz began with an airport pick up by no less than the proprietor himself, Mr Martin Schatz. Although his omission to give me his address led to immigration almost not letting me into the US of A, he did manage to get me out of this pickle by answering his phone when the immigration lady rang him. Anyway, problem solved and I was on my way to Casa del Schatz in a lovely BMW (even if I couldn't open the doors myself) with my genial host doing his best to make conversation with a rather travel worn and incoherent me - so far, so good.
 
Accommodation & amenities
 
Casa del Schatz is a clean, well appointed 2 bedroom flat in Santa Monica barely 8 blocks (meaning 5mins) from the beach. I was shown to my room where I promptly ditched the giant hoodie I was wearing and cursed the fact that my entire bag was filled with the finest Peruvian alpaca woollen garments - and LA was getting bloody hot by 8am already. The flat comes with free wifi, a bathroom big enough for a sea lion, an anglo-proof blender and if you're lucky then entertainment may be provided by gun fights and attempted murders in the nearby alley. Sadly I had to make do with DVD nights and gin rummy, where you would be advised to follow my example and let the host win, if you ever want to see your bed anyway.
 
Local activities
 
These are numerous and varied. During the course of my stay I mastered surfing on the straight-out-of-Baywatch beaches (well I stood up anyway), stroked sharks at the Long Beach aquarium, hiked in the Pacific Palisades, explored Santa Monica pier and people-watched extensively at Venice Beach (personal favourite being the middle aged man in a string thong who popped into the bar I was at for a quick pint on his way home from work). In addition many a day can be whiled away popping seaweed on the beach - though a word of advice to those visiting from cooler climes: WEAR SHOES ON THE SAND. Yes, you might look a bit of a lemon, but not as daft as when you do limping about for 2 days afterwards thanks to the actual burn blisters underneath your toes courtesy of the scorching sand. Oh and try not to coincide your visit with a heatwave. Also my host was kind enough to lend me his bike. There is a cracking bike path all the way along the beach, give or take, for you to explore. I recommend south though someone left a sodding great marina in the way so you have to navigate round that by road and they do insist on driving on the wrong side. Further portions of my time was spent drinking margaritas and some small amount of time may have been spent eating.
 
Food
 
Casa del Schatz offers a mean line of meat products cooked on the BBQ. The steak and burgers are particularly recommended. Be warned though, the host considers meat to be a complete meal so count yourself lucky if you are offered guacamole on the side. However Mr Schatz is also an excellent source of knowledge on local food outlets and in 9 days I managed to sample sushi, Caribbean, Thai (x2), a steak house, Mexican (restaurant and street food), diner food, American pancakes (just called pancakes there), fast food, Brasilian and fish and chips to name nothing like all of them. Not bad going I know. The host is happy to provide breakfast each morning as long as you don't come between him and his first coffee and in return make him desserts all week. Anything custard related goes down well, as does English cheesecake, and proper scones ("skons"). Following extensive research clotted cream can, and should, be obtained in LA.
 
The host
 
Unfortunately I really don't think words can do this gentleman justice - I mean, how am I supposed to capture his frighteningly realistic sea lion impression? Just don't ask for the mating call of a killer cow, you'll be in counselling for years. He even sat through my Peru photos and accompanying babbling on the first morning.
 
Despite addictions to coffee, beer and whiskey, (and a worrying fixation with his neighbour's English bulldog) he is surprisingly adept at holding a conversation, though more often than not he has no idea what he's talking about. He speaks fluent Americanese and passable English, but is looking to learn from guests to improve in this area. Don't be put off if he repeats pretty much everything you say back at you, he is a slow learner. But check your travel insurance before you set foot in a car with him, I have never had my life endangered quite so many times in a 6 hour journey. Perhaps best of all, when his hermit tendencies get the better of him and he has had enough of a house guest, instead of ditching you he generously shares you with his lovely family and the verbally abusive women he is lucky to call his friends.
 
Overall Casa del Schatz is a great place to stay complete with a "quite good" host and comes highly recommended. Five stars *****

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Maintenance of Trans-Atlantic Relations

My friend Alison came into town for the last week or so from the UK.  My brother, Brittany and myself had met her in Siem Reap, Cambodia last December, and a night of cobra whiskey and fried tarantulas ensued.  I can STILL taste the way the fat abdomen of the palm-sized arachnid tasted when it's innards squished...

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Anyway.

For two people who supposedly speak the same language, there was a lot of confusion.  For example, Brits love the letter "U."  For example:
  • Colour
  • Favourite 
No, it does not make sense.  Wasteful use of letters, you ask me.

Other funny things that Brits say:
  • "Spot of tea" - Yes, they really say this.
  • "Guv'nor" - You, me, whoever else they are addressing
  • "Skahn" - Same thing as a scone, but they say it odd
  • "Tea" - means "dinner"
There.  Now you speak Britainese as well as I do.  Good times were had.  There was no eating of insects, but we did make a bunch of Pisco Sours from a bottle that she brought back from Peru.  She also brought me this sweet knife that has alpaca teeth and hair on it.  I can't wait for an invader to break into my apartment so that I can menace them with it.

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We surfed.  We didn't suck too horribly.  We went to the Long Beach Aquarium and saw sea lions, and then we impersonated their bark for the rest of the week.

We went on a road-trip, and we gave each other double high-fives when appropriate.  Note - it was always appropriate. During said road-trip, we visited my brother and Britney at their abode in Santa Cruz, and we ate a lot of meat and drank beer on a cliff over-looking the ocean at night.  I also whooped that ass at darts.

The following day we headed north to San Francisco, and watched all the crazies at Dolores Park.  I don't know if it was a scheduled rave, or if it was just another Saturday, but the park was packed with chemically-enhanced teenagers.  People-watching was prime.  

We were joined by good friends, Hanley, Clara, Shawna, Jai, Jas, Paris, Mae, and Eli.  Now I miss my old stomping grounds and friends in San Francisco.  I know I will eventually make good friends in LA, but I met some really good people while living in the Bay.  I am lucky.

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Despite the day-drinking, we all managed to last pretty late into the night, and played pool at a North Beach pub until closing time.  Shawna ordered tequila shots that I have yet to forgive her for, but she also let us crash in her living room, and made one hell of an omelete the next day, so she is well on her way back into my good graces.

The next morning, groggy and hungover, Alison and I made our way back down the lovely 5-freeway, passing close to a billion walking steaks (cows), and playing "I'm thinking of..." for hours at a time.

This was a good week.

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Monday, October 4, 2010

A Natural Detox

One thing I have learned; my life flows a lot more smoothly when I am consistently running.  It is not simply the exercise that is so uniquely beneficial, as there are a million more exciting things you can do to get a workout.  There is just something very therapeutic and meditative about long distance running.  You can thing about nothing and everything at the same time, and will often come up with answers and ideas to the current crop of life's challenges.

It was a rare rainy day in Los Angeles this morning, welcome after last week's record high temperatures, and it was deeply refreshing.  It made everything smell, look and feel clean, which is not easy to do in the middle of a bustling city.  I made my usual run, stepping out the back of my apartment complex into the alley where I watched a man get shot two weeks ago, and jogged down the main boulevard until I could get to a quieter side street.  From there, I headed west towards the ocean.
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The boardwalk was mostly deserted, and I did not have to make my usual dodging and diving shuffle around crowds of dog-walkers and baby strollers.  Dark and heavy clouds sat over the Pacific Ocean, giving the coastline a very bleak and forbidding appearance. 
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After my run, I walked down to the water, stripped to shorts and waded in.  The water looked like it would be freezing, but it was still quite warm from last week's heat wave.  I ducked my head under, and then I rode a couple waves into shore.  Like everything else within view, I felt clean, alert and revived from the soaking.

As has become customary, I walked back home barefoot.  Dan says that walking barefoot sometimes hurts, like when you stumble upon something sharp, and sometimes feels good, like when you walk on soft moss, but it is kind of like life that way.  When I first started walking home like this, the hot asphalt would burn the bottoms of my toes, and they would cut and bleed.  Now, hard callous has taken the place of soft blisters, and I walk easily up these same streets.


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