The Thistles and Fairies of The Botanist Gin, a review

I’ll admit upfront that I loved The Botanist before I ever tasted it. When my boyfriend told me about a gin, which , in addition to nine traditional botanicals, features 22 others that grow wild on the Scottish island of Islay, I was immediately smitten. I asked him to nab the last bottle in the shop where he works and hide it till payday. Meanwhile, I would look into these botanicals…

 

The Botanist’s website is a rabbit hole for those who like to geek out on plants and booze and legend. Take, for instance, this little tidbit from #3 of the 22 native botanicals, creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense): “The thistle is of course the symbol of Scotland and is believed to derive from the battle of Largs in 1263 when a barefoot soldier of the Norse king Haakon IV inadvertently trod on the thistle while advancing in stealth on the Scottish encampment. His cry of pain was heard by the Scots and the attack repelled.”

 

And this from number 6, gorse (Ulex europaeus): “In the Scottish region of Argyll, home of The Botanist, gorse is closely associated with the Cailleach (Divine Hag), or the spirit of winter. The Cailleach is credited with forming the landscape of Argyll with her hammer as she strode across it creating mountains as stepping stones, and perhaps leaving a trail of hardy gorse in her wake.”

 

But if this whole botany & gin romance is new to you, may I refer you to The Drunken Botanist–or The Bible, as we lovingly call it chez nous! In her introduction, Amy Stewart describes how the idea for her book was born. She was hanging with a fun bunch of garden writers, and found that one of her companions, an Agave (Tequila) expert, expressed his disinclination for gin. En route to convincing him with a cocktail, she subjects him to her “rant on the many virtues of gin”:

 

“How can anyone with even a passing interest in botany not be fascinated by this stuff?” I said. “Look at the ingredients. Juniper! That’s a conifer. Coriander, which is, of course, the fruit of a cilantro plant. All gins have citrus peel in them… Gin is nothing but an alcohol extraction of all these crazy plants from around the world—tree bark and leaves and seeds and flowers and fruit.”

 

In fact, gin would basically be vodka–a neutral spirit–if not for the botanicals. As The Botanist says on their website, “Botanicals are the very essence of gin; its raison d’etre.”

 

Strange to say, my love of gin all started with Dry January. Perhaps because I am a masochist, I found that during a month-long abstinence from drinking alcohol, I derived great pleasure from reading books about alcohol. One of my favorites was Craft Distilling by Victoria Redhed Miller, who is, by the way, a badass–not only does she make her own booze, but she built her own still! Anyway, it was during one dark and dry January that I learned about the botanicals in gin.

 

Of course I’d always heard that juniper was the thing that made gin gin, but I did not know why or how that was, and, due to some unfortunate youthful encounters with cheap gin and tonics, I did not drink the stuff for many years–the very smell made me gag. But when I read in Miller’s book that “Top-quality gins are distilled at least three times” and that “during distillation, the vapors rise through a special basket that holds the botanicals, picking up the flavors and resulting in a subtle and complex gin,” I was intrigued. The process of making gin sounded a lot like the process of making the essential oils and hydrosols I’d been pleasuring my nose with in recent years. So my intellect turned to gin and my palette had no choice but to follow!

 

It turns out that there is quite a bit of research out there that suggests that our enjoyment of wine and spirits does require a mental grasp on the thing in question to appreciate it. As Adam Rogers writes in Proof‘s chapter on “Smell and Taste, “People who teach wine-tasting classes often tell funny stories about how their students, even with training, prefer box wine in a blind test. And research shows that people say they enjoy a wine more if they know it’s more expensive. Sure, that bottle of red from the little village you found when you and your first love got lost in Tuscany on that rainy night was the best bottle of wine the world has ever made. Just don’t try the same bottle again alone, sitting in front of a Star Trek rerun.” In other words, the intellectual or emotional situation shapes our taste enjoyment.

 

Rogers quotes Tim Gaiser (one of only about 200 “master sommeliers in the world) as calling wine a “shared hallucination”. This suggests that what we really like about this wine or that does not, in the usual sense, exist, which is cool.

 

I can relate.

 

Thanks to a strange phenomenon called Charles Bonnet Syndrome, which sometimes affects people who lose their sight later in life, I experience almost constant hallucinations. Basically, having felt rather proud and useful–happily processing stuff sent to it via the retina–and now deprived, my visual cortex gets bored and manufactures visual hallucinations.

 

On hangover days these hallucinations can be quite manic: parades of lurid faces and multitudes of jugglers and circus horses all surrounded by complimentary pulsating breathing designs. In other words, my hallucinations have generally got the humdrum visible world beat, which is precisely the point of this detour: Latin binomials and Celtic Mythology can provide structure and play to our appreciation, and appreciation of booze (or music or art or food…) can be learned precisely because it is tied not only to the acuteness of our sense organs, but also to our intellects and imaginations.

 

I should say though that today’s hallucinations are quite pleasant–reminiscent of a kelpie paradise with shimmering fish and gently undulating flora–perhaps because last night I sipped my first bit of Botanist!

 

If I had not been predisposed to loving The Botanist before getting a hold of the bottle, I would have fallen for it the moment I touched it because, printed in raised letters are the 22 Islay botanicals! I’m not going to say that they are easy to read–raise Latin characters are not so legible as braille, particularly when they are justified, but this blind drinker enjoyed the hell out of first picking out Juniperus communis, juniper, which is of course the only botanical absolutely required to get the label gin slapped on your bottle.

 

Next, I found Sambucus nigra, elderflower, which is a force to be reckoned with. “Elder is one of the most powerful trees in mythology. Judas is said to have hanged himself from an elder tree … As a consequence elder has traditionally become associated with ill-fortune and bad spirits – to cut down elder is to be plagued by the demons that live in the tree and many woodcutters would refuse to chop the tree.”

 

In The Big, Bad Book of Botany, Michael Largo puts it like this, “People have long loved the elder for its beauty and host of benefits. Naturally, superstitions grew around the plant; for example, if someone dared to kill one of the stouter varieties to make furniture, the chair or table fashioned from its timber would seek revenge. A chair might fling itself across the room or move about on its own and haunt the home’s residents for abetting the plant’s destruction.”

 

Hurrah for the magical Elder! I LOVE elderflower! Elderflower tastes like chocolate, if chocolate were indigo velvet.

 

Here beginneth my (extremely idiosyncratic) tasting notes: I take a sip of The Botanist, and the first thing to fill my mouth is a violet icing of soft flowers spiked with juniper’s pinecone. Then there is a complicated herbal intensity, which gives rise to a lingering tingling, as if my tongue were dusted with iridescent fairy dust.

 

This last makes sense because number 7 of the 22 Islay botanicals is Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), which marks the entrance to the otherworld and is therefore closely associated with the world of spirits and fairies.

 

In the entry on ghosts in The Encyclopedia of Spirits, Judika Illes writes, “Hawthorn allegedly repels evil ghosts, while permitting the entry of helpful souls. Maintain a barrier of living hawthorn bushes and trees outside the home or bring branches within.” But she warns, “hawthorn is among the plants most associated with Fairies. Do not break off a branch without first seeking permission from the Fairies, lest ghosts become the least of your problems.”

 

If I’ve not yet convinced you that you will find spirits–other than alcoholic ones–in a bottle of Botanist, then allow me one more go…

 

Number 15, Red Clover (Trifolium pratense), is “the species of the legendary four-leaf clover… Many of the Celtic races revered the clover, believing that if one carried a (three-leaf) clover it would give advance warning of evil spirits ahead, and a four-leaf clover would provide active protection. Similarly medieval children were told that a four-leaf clover would allow the bearer to see faeries where they were hidden.”

 

Apparently the chances of “finding a four-leaf clover are estimated at 10,000-1,” so “there has to be at least one in a bottle of Botanist somewhere…”

 

*Originally published at Quail Bell Magazine for Distill My Heart, a column about all things alcoholic and aromatic!*

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Likenesses, A Family History Through Photos, Real and Imagined

My story Likenesses, about love after death, was first published in the Spring 2016 issue of FLAPPERHOUSE.

You can hear a fun interview with me discussing the writing of it with the smart and charming Ilana Masad on The Other Stories Podcast, episode 63!

 

And, if you like to listen to your literature…

 

[1981]

 

When they found Leona’s body it was curled about an old grey cat, also curled and stiff. The funeral director’s assistant (who did all the dirty work with the fluids and convex plastics to keep skin from sagging, while the funeral director–the artist, he called himself–fussed with lipstick and wigs and hands folded just right) said he’d never had such a hard time prying two bodies apart, said he’d almost given up and buried them together, “but of course one can’t find a casket shaped like that.” He was telling his cronies at the bar after work and they all laughed to hear how the cat’s stiff paws would not let go of the human hand. “The thing that gets me is how they must have died at the same damn time,” he said and drank his whiskey dry. “That’s some crazy bond.”

 

[Mama and Papa, 1910]

 

Mama was born Katherina Wiget, of the original Canton Schwyz Wigets who boasted a family crest of gold wheat on a field of blue. If she had been a joyous child, nobody in America knew, for her unhappiness blossomed with her youth when she was unceremoniously shipped off to distant relatives after her father married a younger woman to replace her dead mother (the young wife having no use for her predecessor’s children). At age twenty, Mama found herself working as a seamstress in St Louis, where she met Albert Beynon , another Swiss, but from the other side. He spoke no German and she no French. Their common language was their adopted tongue of English.

A young and charming rake, whom the Americans called Frenchie, Papa worked as a mechanic on the ford Model T for much of Leona’s childhood, first in St. Louis and then in San Francisco. Not the factory type, Papa managed always to steer clear of the assembly line, working independently as a mechanic who fixed cars for the youngsters who’d grown up wanting them, not making them. Having apprenticed in Geneva in the early days of the internal combustion engine, he was a tinkerer at heart. If he had not the temperament nor genius nor entrepreneurial spirit of a Ford or a Benz, he shared with them a great facility for putting things together and taking them apart, as well as a soft spot for the new and ingenious which found expression in his trade of mechanics and his hobby of photography.

In Leona’s photograph of them, Mama dwarfs Papa, whose head is nearly level with (and not quite as big as) her enormous breasts. Dressed in calico, she seems painfully aware of how ludicrous they must appear in the eyes of posterity and hence refuses to meet our gaze. She stares off camera and away from her husband. For his own part, Papa adored posing for pictures almost as much as he loved taking them. Hence he looks directly into the camera, seeming almost to delight in his new wife’s embarrassment. The result is a portrait of a couple whose eyes’ trajectories form an acute angle, symbolic of their married life.

 

[Papa, 1923]

 

Papa left on his first solo sojourn when Leona was thirteen. She cherished the photograph he sent back in which a swashbuckling Papa wearing tilted hat and lace-up boots is surrounded by otherworldly trees with knotted flowered arms that stretch to the sky, on the back of which he wrote, “6 November, 1923, Mojave Desert Love Papa.” Leona felt not the least resentment towards him for leaving (Mama felt enough for the two of them) and rather admired the rugged jauntiness of his likeness, as well as the cleverness of the timer-camera and the hand-built automobile, which, though they did not make it into the frame, add greatly to the charming picture of independence.

As the ’20’s roared along, Papa spent less and less time in San Francisco, so that when the Crash of ’29 hit, his absence was more fixed than his presence. The sporadic letters wrapped around small bundles of cash had also grown scarce then vanished altogether, but by then Leona was a woman. She took jobs cleaning Nob Hill houses to help support the family, which also included her little brother Arthur who, being eight years her junior, was almost more son than brother.

Mama had a tyrannical disposition which, if it were not for Leona’s being her equal as a workhorse on the one hand and impervious to black moods on the other, would have made the double-mother household unbearable. As it was, the two balanced each other out, and raised Arthur with much discipline and coddling respectively. Arthur rewarded their ministrations by being the first in their family and their acquaintances to go to university. Good at math and eager to travel the world like Papa, Arthur studied mining, a subject which had, since the Gold Rush days, become a marvel of science and engineering, while it maintained its adventuring mystique.

 

[Alcidos and Leona, 1939]

 

Working and helping Mama to Raise Arthur had left Leona no time for socializing or finding a husband until Arthur went to work in the Nevada City mines and began sending money home. By then she was no longer young–nearly thirty–so of course she thought herself very lucky when she found Alcidos at the William Tell, where they offered Swiss fare and nightly dancing.

Alcidos Goodin, of French Canadian ancestry, was born with surname Godin, but followed in the footsteps of several of his twelve elder siblings by adding the additional ‘o’ in order to avoid the unfortunate American pronunciation. A construction worker who followed WPA jobs from Minnesota to San Francisco, Alcidos proved a perfect gentleman and a brave worker too. He’d helped build the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge as well as its younger and more splendid sister span, which had opened just before Leona and he met. Alcidos would have good, if dangerous, work for years to come. Best of all, he also loved to dance and wanted lots of children.

Unlike the portrait of Mama and Papa, the photograph Alcidos and Leona had taken at the Golden Gate International Exposition shows two bright-eyed smiling faces, serene and confident in their future happiness together.

Thus, as you might imagine, the first time Alcidos returned, Leona did not recognize him. She was so big, the baby due any day, that she mistook him for an angel. She had been resting for a moment on the little back porch of their new home in Visitacion Valley, when the hummingbird flew to her and hovered, drenched in sunlight. Her heart sang with joy. The baby would be swaddled in love and happiness as voluminous as any babe could want.

It was not long after that, friends of Alcidos who had been working on the job with him, and his foreman knocked on her door. The darkness that encompassed them chilled her. It was an unthinking certainty of doom. Probably the foreman spoke first, clutching his hat, “How sorry we are to have to bring you this sad, very, very, sad, dreadful news…And, especially as you are in your condition, Mrs. Goodin…We are not sure how it happened…” He did not want to say it right out. He wanted to prepare her.

Strangely, she was suddenly the calm one. She asked, “My husband has been hurt?” Their hesitation and furtive glances told her what they could not say. “Alcidos is dead,” she whispered, to herself or them it didn’t matter. They were relieved. They continued as if it had been one of them that had braved the evil words. Leona let them prattle on, condolences and regrets piling one atop the other, a rubble heap as tall as at one of their construction sites.

Others, tongue-tied or talkative, came and went. The parlor filled with the sounds and scents of birth and death. Gifts of baby booties and tiny crocheted hats sat alongside impossibly dense clusters of flowers and baked goods. Cards of happy congratulations mingled with those pronouncing sorrow. Mama took care of her in the four days between death and birth, and remained with her thereafter. Alcidos Goodin Junior (Alci) was born while his father rumbled away on an eastbound train; his family wanted to bury him in their Minnesota plot. Leona was too shocked by the first loss to protest the second, but it developed that his body was inconsequential.

 

[Alci, 1942]

 

Alci’s first years passed while the Second World War raged in Europe, and many in Visitacion Valley (which resembled more closely the ranch it had once been, than it did the rest of San Francisco) went back to their roots to survive. One day Mama came home with a crate of chickens and soon thereafter bartered eggs for goat’s milk from the neighbors across the fence.

In this way, Alci grew up chasing chickens and looking, with his hand-me-down brass-buttoned coat and handmade knit cap, “just like Papa as a boy,” said Arthur chuckling, and snapped a picture of the funny little Old World child. When she saw the photograph Leona thought how her son had been born in mourning and was being raised in calamity, but that somehow his cheeks remained flushed with a happy rosy glow.

It was around then that Leona recognized her husband in the figure of a chicken. He had not been one of those Mama had brought home but rather sauntered into their yard from nowhere it seemed, and made himself right at home, laying more eggs than the other three together. Leona couldn’t say for certain when she recognized the chicken as her beloved husband exactly, but when it came to her, she’d known it as a fact. She’d felt that her dear Alcidos hovered near, watching over them, almost from the moment her son had been born, but now it appeared to her as a comforting and certain truth, as if an unseen hand gathered in all that was good and kept everything else out. From her moment of revelation, Leona lived with the father and the son in a trinitarian paradise, while Mama hung in the background like a reliable, if disagreeable, clock.

 

[Alci, 1958]

 

After the chicken Alcidos returned as a dog. Actually two dogs. Alci found the first on the street on his way home from school. The pup grew monstrous in size and in his devotion to Alci. For a few years he was bigger than the boy, and the two were inseparable. The second, a spotted brown runt, Leona herself found sniffing around her front stoop petunias. Leona realized that although Alcidos wanted to watch over his son, he understood that the boy had become a young man whose every care was not about pups. It was Leona who mostly took care of the second dog and she was grateful that it was small, almost no trouble at all. Her husband seemed to be conforming to their ever-changing situation.

During high school Alci (or as he preferred, Al) was hardly home. When he did come home, he merely patted the dog as he went to his room and on his way out again. He was very popular in school, a yell leader surrounded by other fine young men and a bevy of pretty cheerleaders. He told her, “yell leaders are as popular as football players but without the bruises.”

In his graduation picture he wears a sweet smile and glasses that enlarge his hazel eyes, twinkling with a touch of the devil, just like Papa.

Alci graduated from SF State with a degree in sociology and, after bouncing around the city with a few odd jobs, decided to join the military. Leona could not be surprised; the wanderlust was in his blood, but her future loneliness and uselessness blanketed her in a black fog. She forced herself to play a part, acting happy although her heart was breaking. A handsome young officer off to see the world, She did not want to dampen his excitement. On the day of his departure, his taxi arrived and she kissed him goodbye. When he was truly gone, she crawled back into bed and indulged in self-pity for the first and only time in her life.

All were gone and it was February. The previous February had seen the death of Mama. In February, twenty-three years earlier, her husband had died and her son had been born. How many anniversaries can a person cram into one dark month? She lay in her tiny creaky bed and cried until she could not cry anymore. She watched the ceiling turn gold to black. Looking back on that day with no little shame she thought perhaps she had feared her husband would leave too.

That night, Alcidos visited her as a man. He walked into their room just like he had done in the short precious year they’d had together so long ago and lay down next to her. She nestled into him and he folded her into his warmth. They did not talk for a long time and when they did it was in whispered breathless phrases punctuated by sweet kisses. He told her how he’d been walking the roof of the Rincon Annex, whistling a silly medley of popular “baby” tunes: “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” “Yes Sir That’s My Baby,” “When My Baby Smiles at Me,” “I’ve Found A New Baby,” and thinking of his wife glowing with their baby inside her.

“I was in bliss over the idea of having two babies to love when my foot stepped onto a loose board in the scaffolding. Heaven knows how many times I’d stepped on just such rickety things before and not gone tumbling over the side like a klutz! I worked on the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge and it was a post office on Market Street that did me in!” He chuckled and Leona let out a little laugh that turned right into a sob. He continued, “That time I went flying because my mind was not on my work but on my love. Do not cry darling Leona,” he hugged her tighter, “for it was meant to be. You see, I have been able to stay with you and our boy all these years. I have always been here whether or not you have recognized me.”

“Will you go overseas with Alci?”

“I will be with you forever.”

When Leona woke the next morning, her eyes were burning and she felt bereft of her husband all over again, but then she washed her face and bustled about the house, cleaning and humming those happy songs from between the wars.

That evening, when she opened her kitchen door onto the back porch, a tabby cat came running in meowing. She laughed and picked him up and kissed him on the head. Then she opened a can of tuna for him. That began the age of the cats.

 

[Alci and Demi, 1968]

 

Alci returned home to San Francisco, which he had done periodically through the years, but this time it was for a purpose. He planned “to get hitched.” He had received a promotion and, after five wild years in the Far East, would be living on a base in Virginia surrounded by families. He told his mother, “A wife is vital in a place like that. Everyone will be married. A nice girl will keep me out of trouble.”

He took the old high school sweetheart, whose name was Demi, out a few times, then got drunk one afternoon and called her at The Emporium where she sold cosmetics. Leona almost dropped the dish she was drying when she heard him say, “Do you have a dowry? A dowry, yes. How much will your father give me for you?” The wry smile could be heard in his voice and the woman seemed to understand he was joking, for Leona could hear her laughter through the phone line before she hung up.

She called him back though, and they went for dinner that night. Alci returned home with her and announced to his mother that they would drive to Reno on the weekend to tie the knot.

“You’re eloping? Can’t we at least have a party?”

“There’s no time Ma. I ship out next week. When we get settled, we’ll fly you out.”

In their wedding portrait Demi wears a white lace mini-dress with a hem appropriately short for the times and startlingly prophetic regarding their marriage. The bride appears shy, perhaps embarrassed by the brevity of the dress and the recent courtship, while Alci looks like a rooster preparing to crow.

 

[Michelle, 1976]

 

After five years of military sojourning and the creation of a girl child, they separated. Alci called to say that the marriage was kaput. It was a distant event since they were stationed in Holland, but still Leona felt it to be dreadful: the slow dissolution of her parents’ union by inherent unsuitability, the abrupt termination of her own by tragedy, and now the divorce of her son–Were the marriages in her family under some kind of curse? No, she decided, Alcidos and she were different, for their love tethered them despite universal laws.

One wonderful repercussion resulted from the breakup; the wife returned to San Francisco bringing with her the granddaughter. For that Leona was grateful. Michelle, that was her granddaughter’s name, was as clever and eager to please as Alci at her age and it was a joy to have her around. Whenever she visited, she would ask, “Where’s Kitty?” and would poke around until she found him. (Leona had named all the kitties Kitty so as not to slip up and call them by her dead husband’s name and cause people concern for her.)

Michelle loved to run around the house trailing string for the cat to chase. Leona chuckled at the way Alcidos teased his granddaughter. He clutched at the string and jumped and pounced. Then just as the little girl ran down the hallway, he pretended to lose interest so that she was forced to peer around the corner to see where he was.

Leona had a camera of her own now, a Polaroid Instant that her son had given her, and managed once to catch that sweetly expectant expression. After the image emerged, Michelle asked if she could put it up on the mantle with the other photographs, which stood like sentinels in little gilded frames.

 

[1981

 

Her last cat grew all white about the whiskers while he waited patiently, watching as Leona taught Michelle how to make Christmas ornaments, pancakes and apple head dolls. The little girl grew, but had not yet reached an age to leave her grandmother when her grandmother left her. One evening Leona lay on the couch curled around the cat, the cat curled around her hand, when she whispered into one furry ear, “Please Alcidos, do not leave me again. Take me with you this time.”

Above on the mantle, the family photographs would remain, innocent of death, the likenesses nearly as slender as the life lying coiled before them.

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Accessible Coding chronicle

Last week’s ScreenReader Coding Workshop took place in a portion of a giant complex in Brooklyn called MetroTech, which is home to NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. Within one of the several large building surrounding the square, on a floor buzzing with giant video game consoles and laptops with huge monitors and kids chatting about code and playing/creating video games, we found the Ability Lab, where we were to begin learning code as blind people.

I had rushed to the restroom (because once I’m sitting, I don’t tend to want to move) so that by the time I got to my workstation, the others were already settled. I plugged in my earbud–it is easier to hear both what’s going on around you and what your screen reader has to say with one earbud in and also, in a class with six computers chattering away, earbuds rather than speakers are vital if you don’t want to lose your mind.

But the volume was too loud so I couldn’t hear what was going on outside my computer. I went to the volume mixer to turn it down, but that proved more complicated on this laptop than the one I have at home. An assistant helped me. Finally, I was present to the sounds around me but I had already missed much of the introductions. All I can tell you is that the three instructors–Claire, Atul and Taeyoon–all do cool things involving art and accessibility and programming–stuff that’s hard to internalize when you don’t have much in the way of reference points.

I’m sorry to say that mine is the introduction that I remember best. I said that I got my PhD at NYU, but in the Humanities, so I knew nothing about coding except that a while back, when I first took over my WordPress site from my web guy, I figured out how to <a href=http://www.drmlgodin.com/>The Greatest Blog Ever</a> and was positively thrilled when the link worked. And, to those savvy coders out there who want to interrupt me right now, “You forgot the quotes.” I’ll get to that momentarily, but first we had to tie our shoes!

Or rather, in the interest of learning about algorithms, we had to write, step-by-step instructions of how to tie shoelaces. The test would be Claire tying (or failing to tie) her laces based on our precise instructions.

There was much mumbling and grunting as we worked out how to tell a pretend computer how to tie its shoelaces. Then it was time to share. Chancey, who is famous in the blind community because she put together many of our computers when she worked at the Lighthouse Guild tech center and now organizes many cool events as the Assistive Technology Coordinator at the Andrew Heiskell Library, went first. At a particular instruction, I almost cried out to say, that’s not right! But before I could, Claire said, “my shoes are tied.”

“What, really?” Gus, who was sitting across from me and with whom I hoarded the Oreos, and I were perplexed. “We don’t tie our shoelaces like that!”

I’ll spare you the messy details of a comparative analysis of the two-loop-double-fold and the single-loop-wrap-around-pull-through methods, and simply say that one very important lesson was learned: there is often more than one way to get the same job done. This is apparently true in programming as well as in shoelace tying, and really, when you think about it, in most realms of life.

My first action to beginning any computer class is to open a separate document for notetaking, but I did not realize that there was already a screen open to notepad, so that for the first half of a three-hour class I was taking notes in the sample open html document. In other words, I was taking notes in the middle of a page of code. For those of you who can see, it is very obvious, I think, how many windows and programs are running, but unless we perform a key stroke to list these things, or clumsily alt tab around in circles to get the lay of the land, you don’t really know what’s going on.

We moved on to syntax, which frankly went by very quickly–from <> to {} to tags, such as buttons and attributes, which is when I learned that you are supposed to enclose your link in quotes, but of course I was confused because it had always worked for me without the quotes. Atul explained that, for some very common syntactical constructions, there is some leniency in certain…browsers is it? Or platforms? Not sure, but the fact remains that I was doing it wrong and WordPress let me get away with it, though apparently not using the appropriate quotes might present problems down the line.

The biggest revelation of the day for me was the relationship between the Notepad++ document and the html page, and likewise one of my favorite moments was making a button to nowhere called “Nowhere Button.”

Perhaps I should pause here to explain to my sighted friends that buttons and headings and edit boxes are generally screen reader friendly. They help to organize pages for us. For example, when I’m on a new webpage, the first thing I usually do is press “h” which will move me to the first heading. On the other hand, fancy-pants websites that do not bother to delineate the HTML skeletal structure–May I blame CSS or Java for this?–are not so accessible.

Anyhoo. From what I could gather, CSS is rather the enemy of the blind, and I was dazzled by the acronym until I had a debrief with my buddy David who said it stood for cascading style sheet, which at least gives me a visual image, but it seems a very difficult thing to detect with a screen reader, and Java is apparently no cakewalk either.

Now we come to variables, which was my favorite part of the class, because we got to play a game. We were given a sack of tactile operators (<, >, ==, !=, etc.), and several tactile playing cards numbered 0 to 3. The game began as one of chance–drawing cards and placing them on either side of a random operator to see if the statement was true–but we immediately wanted some strategy, so Phil, who runs the New York City Tri-State Blind and Visually Impaired Community Facebook Group, and I developed a game in which one would draw an operator tile and then pick from his or her cards a number which would present the most difficulties for the opponent. We both realized instantly that a “0” could present a real problem if the opportunity arose, so Phil sat on his “secret weapon” until the moment struck, and he was able to hit me with a 0 is > than, for which, of course, I had nothing to make the statement correct. He and I both grew up in gambling cultures–he in Hong Kong and me in a Greek-American family where poker was played at every get together, so we were ready to throw down, but alas, it was time to move to the coding example…

There was a button named “click me repeatedly” that you clicked repeatedly until you got an alert message like, “that’s annoying” at 7 times and ” arrrgh! ” at 11. In other words, if the number of the variable is greater than 6, then you get one snarky alert, and > than 10 and you get another. The code for this, which included Java, was maybe more complicated than my brains, which were beginning to creak and grind, could handle in this first class. But as Claire said in her agenda, this was to be a “whirl-wind introduction” and therefore I accept ignorance and confusion.

At the end of the workshop, we had a lively conversation about processing, or rather how to make processing accessible. I confess my precise lack of understanding of what is meant by processing in this context. I think it refers to the output of our programming. That is to say, how can we check our work, which is typically presented visually. I offer some of the suggestions we came up with (as pilfered from Claire’s notes):

1) Artificial Intelligence for image recognition

2) Sounds

-Binaural audio (Gus mentioned the Papa Sangre video game)

-Sound fields with system of tonal output (eg. pitch changes for up and down movement)

-Do some math on the fly with coordinates and generate sounds (can’t tell if something is colliding)

3) How PowerPoint templates work in terms of accessibility

-graph or chart templates/frameworks that are manipulatable

4) P5 on a touchscreen?

 

By the way, I was very excited about the “video game without video” called Papa Sangre and downloaded it the next night, because as a sighted kid I loved video games (such as they were back in the Neolithic Period), but was quickly frustrated at my inability to master walking or orientation in the dark, and never did make it to the game. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, I’m really bad at being a blind person, and apparently, this extends to virtual reality. Sigh.

To finish up, thanks so much to Claire, Taeyoon and Atul for this great starter. Though the handful of us students had many dissonant opinions, we all agreed that we wanted more and can’t wait for the next one..!

Sighted and blind friends, non-coders and coders: please don’t be shy to comment below with questions and corrections…

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The Poetry of Alchemy, Distillation, Transmutation and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 33

I do love my booze, but even beyond the literal satisfaction of imbibing spirits, distillation offers a wonderful metaphor. You take a thing that you really really like, put it into an apparatus, subject it to fire, force its volatility, and are rewarded with a high concentration of the thing you liked about the thing you like. In other words, you make the thing you like more like the thing you liked about that thing. Get it? No? Ok, I’ll try again, but first let’s drink to our health…

Ah, that’s better.

It’s like this: writers who are worth their salt know that the writing itself is fine and/or painful, but it’s the edit–the distillation –into high proof prose or poetry that knocks socks off.

Writing–the putting words on paper or device–is like dropping berries in a bucket–fermentation will happen and you will get something mildly alcoholic. You can thank the yeast fairies for that. Likewise, you can thank the human brain for the stories and images that drop into the buckets of our imagination. But it is the work of the writer to distill the fermented mash into a strong-ass spirit.

In Proof, a delightfully geek-inducing book on the science of booze, Adam Rogers writes, “Distillation tells us that having less of something can make it more potent. It is concentration. It is focus.”

While fermentation is natural and will happen with or without us, distillation is a human invention, a technology. As Rogers puts it, “Distillation takes intelligence and will. To distill, literally or metaphorically, requires the hubris to believe you can change the world.”

And who better to turn to for advice about the hubris of changing your world than the very lunatics who, if they did not ever hit upon the philosopher’s stone, did invent and perfect distillation–the alchemists.

Though alcohol was not the first thing to come out of their alembics, we must thank the long and secretive contemplation of transmutation for the eventual revelation of distillation. The alchemists figured out how to turn wine–ironically perhaps?–into water, specifically aqua vitae from which developed such delightful “waters of life” as eau de vie (French), akvavit (Scandinavian) and whisky (from Gaelic uisce beatha).

But before fermentations of grains and fruits went into the still, strange things like Sulphur and antimony went in; the ultimate goal being the philosopher’s stone, a substance that would turn base metals to gold.

For many centuries and many alchemists chrysopoeia was the name of the game. Chrysopoeia means the making of gold–chryso is the gold part and poeia is the making part. And if that poeia part looks familiar, it’s because the Ancient Greek word “to make–poiein” has come down to us as poetry.

At its most basic level writing poetry means to make or create, and to take it one-step further, the transmutation of base metals into gold is not unlike a poet turning the mundane and painful stuff of life into something sublime.

As we turn to Shakespeare’s Sonnet, I think it’s helpful to understand that our modern tendency to want to find in poetry straightforward one to one analogies and symbols was not shared with our Renaissance counterparts. As Lawrence Principe puts it in The Secrets of Alchemy, “premoderns tended to conceive of and visualize the world in multivalent terms, where each individual thing was connected to many others by webs of analogy and metaphor. This view stands in contrast to the modern tendency to compartmentalize and isolate things and ideas into separate disciplines.” So as we turn to the highly distilled Shakespeare sonnet, we ought not to forget that multiple and even contradictory readings are possible. In Sonnet 33, I would argue that Shakespeare indulges in the contradictions inherent in the human heart, and intentionally leaves us unsure.

 

Full many a glorious morning have I seen

Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,

Kissing with golden face the meadows green,

Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;

Anon permit the basest clouds to ride

With ugly rack on his celestial face,

And from the forlorn world his visage hide

Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace;

Even so my sun one early morn did shine,

With all triumphant splendor on my brow;

But out alack, he was but one hour mine,

The region cloud hath masked him from me now.

Yet him for this my love no wit disdaineth;

Suns of the world may stain, if heaven’s sun staineth.

 

In the first quatrain, we have a lovely picture of morning, more specifically the morning sun, flattering the lowly mountains (a reversal of the usual flattery of the lowly towards his superior), and in the next two lines the sun becomes the artist–both like a painter who kisses with gold light to create a brighter green, and an alchemical artist who would cover the natural world with gold.

Suddenly in the second quatrain everything changes. Anon, meaning shortly, the effect is reversed. Now it’s the base things, associated with the world, that darken and disgrace the face, i.e. the “ugly rack” of clouds are permitted to ride the sun and darken the forlorn world.

The third quatrain superimposes a new and personal element to the poem. Now the poet is involved, so that the first two quatrains are compressed into a single quatrain divided into two couplets, signified by the dividing semicolon. The first couplet refers, for the first time in the poem, explicitly to a sun, specifically “my sun,” indicating possession, albeit brief, by the poet.

If we read this through the lens of the first quatrain, we might see how the poet enjoyed a brightening and gilding not unlike that experienced by the lowly mountains and streams. And, as in the opening octave, very quickly the poet experiences a reversal and the “region cloud”–perhaps another lover? Has come between the poet and his sun, leaving him to see only a masked, or covered-over splendor.

In The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Helen Vendler demonstrates how the brevity of what we might call the personal third quatrain narrative may be filled out with the vocabulary of the seemingly impersonal description of a morning sun being obscured by clouds:

 

“Even so my sun (glorious, golden, sovereign) one early morn did shine (flattering, kissing, alchemizing) with all-triumphant splendor on my (pale) brow; but out alack, he was but one hour mine, the (basest) region cloud (permitted by him to ride with ugly rack on his celestial face) hath masked him (hiding his visage) from (forlorn) me now (as he steals in disgrace away).”

 

In the final couplet, a kind of parable enters the poem and offers a rather dull platitude: if the heavenly sun may be so easily stained by ugly dark clouds, then of course the suns (a pun on sons) cannot be blamed (disdained) for taking on a stain, or blemish.

Besides the direct reference to alchemy in the first quatrain, and the transformative powers it infers, the sonnet as a whole displays the transmutation of the prosaic into poetry in a stunning reversal: first we have the metaphor and, until the “even so” that opens the third quatrain and its shift to the literal event (the disgrace or perhaps betrayal of the friend or lover), we do not really know that this description of morning is meant to symbolize anything in particular. A more typical construction would present the loss of lover first and then set about describing how it makes the poet feel. In the case of Sonnet 33, the metaphor, or philosopher’s stone of the poem reverses the project and turns a golden morning into a base and rather relentless couplet of blemishes–the word stain may even strike us as crass and overused.

By the end of the fourteen lines, it is not clear whether or not forgiveness is felt as deeply as had been the joy and the suffering. Knowing that all earthly creatures are susceptible to corruption is not the same as feeling compensated by this knowledge.

Likewise the dwindling away of poetic space–from the octave metaphor, to the quartet narrative, to the couplet platitude–suggests a kind of lessoning of interest or importance. Though the final couplet may assert an unarguable fact of human nature, it cannot compare to the magic of poetry that may transform clouds passing over the sun into the sufferings of a disappointed lover.

 

To finish an inherently unfinishable investigation, I will clumsily return to our opening metaphor of distillation and remind my dear reader that 2016 marks four hundred years since the death of Shakespeare. Hence we might be wont to spend time with the bard, perhaps even his sonnets which, though they be difficult, beckon us in this auspicious year. If so, I offer this disclaimer, or WARNING label if you will: Do not guzzle! Sip as you would your favorite 180 proof spirit and keep your interpretive lens away from the flames of modernity and the scientific method, for the power of the philosopher’s stone lies in what you discover en route to what you thought you wanted!

 

*First published at Quail Bell Magazine*

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A Flame’s Progress, Greek Easter 1981

We arrived late as always, so that there was no place to sit, though there’s not a whole lot of sitting in Greek Orthodox churches. Standing in our coats, clutching our unlit candles, we crowded in with the others who, like us, came to church but once or twice a year. I was between my mom and my Thea Yvonne and on the other side of her was my Uncle Art–there’s a strange convention in our family to call our Aunts by the Greek thea but our uncles by the American uncle. I don’t know why, but it pretty much sums up the willy-nilly Greek/American distribution of traditions on my mother’s side of the family. And if there ever was a perfect blend of these two strains of holidaymaking, it was for me Easter, when I got the best of both worlds.

 

I waited impatiently for the music that heralded the candle lighting, and when it happened, the church erupted in song. “Christos Anesti!” (“Christ has risen!”) was sung over and over again. Wikipedia tells me that this is called the Paschal troparion, originally written in Koine (common) Greek, the original language of the New Testament, but translated into countless languages and sung in Eastern Orthodox Churches all over the world, as witnessed by this YouTube video.

 

The gold ceiling caught fire as the candlelight passed from the priest to the ancient and impossibly shriveled old ladies who sat at the front of the church swaddled in black, like ornery newborns. I could not see them, but knew they were there because they were always there, coming early for the good seats and staying late against their doom.

 

The stone church glowed like an oven when the first candle of my relatives was lit. My mother nudged me to hold my candle with its protective cup to catch dripping wax, straight. This I did with great anticipation, mouthing the words of Greek I wished fervently I knew, a desire, which would be forgotten by morning when American Easter baskets of chocolate bunnies and sugar flowers would drown out the yearning for the culture in which I feebly swam. But for now, it was the dark ritual that sparked passion in my young heart, and it was coming to its wonderful climax.

 

Being in the back meant that although we were among the last to arrive and receive the flame, we were the first to leave. Once all candles were lit, and a final round of Christos Anesti sung inside the church, the doors were flung open and we took our fire and our song and our ancient ritual with its pagan roots outside.

 

We circled the Ascension Cathedral thrice and, so embedded is the celebration of light in the human imagination, that even my profoundly secular heart (which loves all dark and mysterious things without attributing the magic of life to any great being) find this ritual memory moving to the point of tears. Who can deny the beauty inspired by belief? There is horror inspired by belief also, but this essay is a celebration of the beautiful.

 

Atop the Oakland hill, the streetlights twinkled below. Our flames’ progress was not the only light in the darkness, as our forefathers may easily have imagined on some Hellenic hill in centuries past, but still, as my eyes were just beginning to show signs of the degenerative disease that would eventually mar distinctions between day and night, I easily imagined ours to be the only light in that dark bosom of midnight. What ten year old could fail to appreciate the delicious transgression of wakefulness? Or to relish the solemn joy that was the reenactment of the ultimate Christian paradox: in order to live, one must die.

 

Perhaps some of the congregation reentered the church to finish out the service, and there is some part of me now that yearns to return with them into that quiet place, filled with the recent echoes and rustles of some hundred souls. But that was not then my yearning. In the back seat of my uncle’s Cadillac, I stared at my candle and chattered about how beautiful it all was while already my mind was turning to dinner with its own set of light-hearted rituals.

 

The table spread out like an Easter parade with silver candelabras waiting to embrace our still-lit candles set next to baskets with glittery grass and shining colored eggs. We did not then do the red eggs as is traditional in Eastern Orthodoxy, though, in recent years, my mother has placed the incongruous blood-red eggs (with all their gruesome metaphorics) into American Easter baskets. But when I was little, she wanted me to enjoy the sweetness of the American dyes as if to preserve my innocence, although, even then, the veil had begun to fray.

A mysterious dystrophy was happening in my retinas and I’d already been to one or two ophthalmologists that year. It was precisely those doctors who, confronting their own ignorance and inability to explain why their lenses could not correct my vision, opened a great and never-to-be-closed chasm in my child’s psyche: I was made suddenly and irrevocably aware of the limits of human understanding. It was in 1981 that I learned how the smell of ignorance permeates all–never mind the bright white robes of clean and apparent knowledge.

 

 

It is also in my memory that at that year’s Easter dinner I had my first taste of watered wine and felt very grown up. I was the youngest and only girl at the table. The only other kids there were two of Thea Yvonne’s three sons, who were quite a bit older than I. Thea Yvonne had yearned for a girl child that she might pamper with all the sweet things her own childhood in the Greek mountain town before and during World War II had not offered her and her sisters, and I was happy to step in. Her beautiful house offered me eyefuls of objects to gawk at and love, as well as a storehouse of visual memories to treasure, now that I can no longer see:

 

A collection of Madame Alexander dolls dressed in costumes from around the world, and Art Deco prints with elongated women in peacock dresses whose skirts are attached to gloved hands. Pristine and plush white rugs led out to a dark pool–one made of stone that puts aqua fakery to shame. And, beyond the pool, Thea Yvonne’s rose garden taught me to love outrageous blooms with august names like Queen Elizabeth and Sterling Silver that resembled not at all the upright uniformity found in shops. One blossom presents itself to my mind’s eye in a cinematic close-up: a pale rose with a dark center, its ivory petals rimmed with wine.

 

I am suddenly tempted to Google “Easter egg fight,” to know if it is American or Greek, though I suspect the latter for two reasons: First, Greeks tend to be a competitive lot, and second, because the tabletop tournament requires some Greek be spoken. But I will not. I prefer to remain blissfully ignorant and pretend my family invented the game.

 

I believe my mother conducted the Easter egg fight that year, but that could be because she was my first combatant, sitting next to me as she was. “Pick your eggs!” Everyone reached into the baskets and chose, very carefully, the egg they believed would beat the rest. I chose a purple one. It felt strong and solid as a stone.

“Ok, pointy end to pointy end,” said my mother. “You want to hit first?” “Uh-huh,” I said and poised my egg above hers.

“Christos anesti,” I said and my mother responded, “Alithos anesti.”

“Oh!” we both cried. I was victorious.

“Turn your egg around.” This time she hit me, but again I prevailed.

 

I took my winner egg to my cousin, whom I may have had a little crush on, as I did most boys since I didn’t have many of the male persuasion in my life after my parents divorced and I started at an all-girl school. But I beat him too, on this my favorite and most special Easter ever. And on it went “Christos anesti–Christ has risen!” Alithos anesti–Indeed he has!” BONK Smash CRACK I went around the table to the eggs that remained uncrushed and crushed them all!

I was so proud. My champion was placed back into the basket with great solemnity.

 

Then I selected another egg to be sacrificed to my dinner–sliced and generously sprinkled with salt and pepper and eaten on top of buttered pita bread–what we called the sweet Easter bread that required much love and warming blankets to encourage its multiple risings. I was not much of a meat eater back then, so I can’t tell you about the leg of lamb, but my current, wiser self knows it was delicious and regrets her youthful folly!

 

Eventually my eyes grew droopy. There was no more postponing the inevitable. I was tucked into bed. First to sleep, first to rise, I woke up to a new house–one transformed into an Easter Bunny’s playground, and enjoyed an Easter egg hunt made for one, traipsing around the house finding little nests of candies with clues to the next treasure written on cards decorated with baby chicks.

 

Because my eye disease stole my central vision first, it would not be long before I could not read such cards, but on Greek Easter 1981, the year I was ten and balancing on the cusp between seeing the world through a bright child’s lens and darkly through that of an adult, I was filled with excitement at finding what had been created just for me. I ran upstairs to show my mother each piece of candy and trinket I found, as if she had never seen it before, as if we’d never either of us seen anything like it before. Or would ever again.

 

*First published at Quail Bell Magazine*

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Hendrick’s Cucumber: Story of a Drink

I’ve been obsessed with gin on the one hand and hydrosols on the other for a little while now, and mixing them together seemed only natural, though they may strike the uninitiated as strange bedfellows. Hydrosols and alcohols (as well as essential oils) are all distilled. So what is distillation?

Simply put–which is about all I can manage since I’m no scientist, distillation is the heating of a liquid to create steam in order to separate out substances. Different substances have different boiling points. The two vapors are run through condenser tubing and cooled which results in two new liquids–alcohol and water, for example. In the case of distilling for alcoholic spirits each distillation results in a higher ratio of alcohol by volume to water and other chemical compounds–in other words the proof of wine is miraculously transmuted into brandy beer into whiskey, fermented potatoes into vodka… and the angels sing hallelujah!

In the case of hydrosols and essential oils, steam passes through aromatic plant material–rose or orange blossoms, for example, and the volatile oils separate out from the waters. In this case, both the substances have their uses as the resulting essential oil is very potent and lipophilic while the hydrosol (AKA hydrolat) is water-soluble and much milder. This is why essential oils should be diluted, while the corresponding hydrosols have historically been used in cooking and can be used undiluted. A quick Google search offers up thousands of recipes using both essential oils and hydrosols (including cucumber) in homemade beauty products and home remedies, but since this article is about drinking I will just get to our booze of the day.

The word gin derives from jenever, which is the Dutch word for juniper. As Italy has grappa, Poland vodka, Ireland whiskey, the Netherlands offers jenever as its national treasure. It travelled to England and was transformed into London dry gin, and the great destroyer in the eighteenth century as illustrated by the degenerates in Hogarth’s “Gin Lane“.

Gin differs from most other spirits because, at some later distillation–after one has been left with a fairly neutral spirit–the alcohol is run through a still that has some place to hang a basket of botanicals. This makes its production even more similar to that of hydrosols and essential oils. The alcoholic vapors pass through the plant material and pick up its volatile oils–its aromatic chemical compounds–and is flavored. In order to be labeled gin, the botanicals must include juniper, but as for the rest, it’s a free-for-all. Because so many of the botanicals in gin are the same used to produce hydrosols, the possible pairings to highlight this botanical or that is limitless.

Hendrick’s gin launched in 1999, but its history is long and peculiar as described on its website. Though a rather new label in the gin world, where brands like Tanqueray have been around since the early nineteenth century, it is quite established when compared to the many wonderful micro-distilleries that are popping up everywhere–even in my Astoria!–and all of which I plan to get friendly with until my liver gives out…

Besides its unique blend of botanicals, Hendrick’s infuses its gin with cucumber and rose, Rosa damascena for those aromatherapy geeks out there. Because we’ve been having a fickle end of winter here in NYC, I decided to make my first hydro cocktail spring forward by highlighting the green brightness of the cucumber, but if you like the floral, which I do, the following simple recipe can also be done using rose hydrosol.

The Cucumis genus of viney fruiting plants includes our Cucumis sativus as well as melons, and this particular cucumber hydrosol that I purchased at Stillpoint Aromatics, has a distinctly melon-like aroma.

Having lured some friends over with a bottle of Hendrick’s I proceeded to pour out a shot for everyone so that we could appreciate the happy floral and green goodness of this award-winning gin, and while they were sipping and cooing with delight, I poured out an ounce of seltzer water from a liter bottle and replaced it with one ounce of cucumber hydrosol, put the lid back on and gently tipped the bottle upside down once or twice. Do not shake unless you are looking to have a cucumber shower–which by the way would be wonderful for your skin, but probably put a damper on your night!

Because we were buds from way back, I didn’t worry about getting fancy pants–just poured some Hendrick’s into vessels, tossed in an ice cube and topped with the instant cucumber seltzer, et voila–yum!

If we were high-class with actual furniture instead of folding chairs and tall glasses instead of mason jars, we’d have garnished with cucumber wheels or perhaps a citrus zest, but we’re simple people. Upon his first sip of this sparkling elixir, my boyfriend said, “I want to have this every morning!” In other words, it’s very refreshing.

Cucumber hydrosol is great for digestion. It is even said to have some appetite suppressant benefits if taken before a meal. Speaking of dieting, how about a delicious and refreshing cocktail with no added sugar? It’s amazing how hydrosols strong aromas trick the brain into perceiving sweetness, without the need for the high fructose corn syrup of commercial tonic water.

Finally, because I’ve got some cucumber hydrosol left in the fridge and no gin, I will leave you with this warning: if you are not up to finishing a bottle of Hendrick’s in a couple hours, you should probably not make Hendrick’s Cucumbers, for the night was young when the gin ran out, which was the only sad part of this hydro-booze experiment.

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