Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Birds are setting fire to the world. Run!

Well, not really, but check this out...

There is something called the "Gaia principle."

As I've said from time to time, the idea is that the world is essentially a single living organism and all the living things upon it make up its constituent parts. One part of the body is out of whack, the rest of it acts to get things back in balance. So if an organism like, say, humans, were not living in harmony with the rest of the whole, then a new virus might emerge to get humans back in check. Obviously it's highly contestable and it's not much more than a notion at this point, but it's one I've always been curious about. I don't know if it's at work in what I'm about to examine, but keep it in mind.

A study published in The Journal of Ethnobiology cites 20 different examples of Australian hawks starting fires in order to flush out prey. That's a bit misleading actually, as it conjures images of birds with either lighters or flint and steel. Wildfires are not uncommon in Australia. What has been observed are these birds of prey carrying already burning twigs and dropping them in vegetation, thus creating new fires. These fires force small mammals out into the open and the birds then have a greater chance of catching a meal. This means that there are now three reasons why wildfires get started: lightning strikes, human causes, and birds.

Most astonishingly, it would be the first recorded case of animals other than humans using fire.

I first read of this research on the Facebook wall of astronomer and science fiction writer, David Brin. CJ Cherryh, yet another science fiction writer, commented that birds already know how to weave and build with mud. And they've discovered fire.

What next? Was Alfred Hitchcock on to something with The Birds? Well, one of the reasons I like that film so much is that it hits back at all the obsequious cries of the "greatness of humanity". Yes, we've made impressive technological achievements, but we are not the only organisms capable of reasoning and problem solving...and note how in The Birds that technology did little for us. While I don't expect an animal revolt anytime soon, a finding such as this about birds and fire should serve as a reminder that only human arrogance would ever presume we are the only intelligent species in this world. After a previous post about species die-off, I find this bit about birds to be heartening.

Like I said, I don't know if this qualifies as Gaia-related, but I hope it gets your creative mind percolating with possibilities.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Insect population in steep decline

Good news! Our inexorable march towards extinction continues.

A study released last October asserted that the abundance of flying insects has diminished by two-thirds over the last 25 years. Based on my own experiential data, namely swatting those tiny, swarmy annoyances while I walked Chewie last summer, I would scoff at such claims. Yes, I'm well aware that is no basis for any kind of conclusion, but I believe it's indicative of how people think. "I don't see it. Therefore, it is not happening." From the linked Guardian article:

“Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on Earth [but] there has been some kind of horrific decline,” said Prof Dave Goulson of Sussex University, UK, and part of the team behind the new study. “We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects then everything is going to collapse.”

Look at that second to last sentence. "Ecological Armageddon." That might seem to be hyperbole at its best, but take a moment to consider the role that insects play. Besides annoyance and revulsion, that is. I have already blogged quite a bit about the bee die-off, but what I didn't realize was that bees are only one species of winged insect we rely on for pollinating crops and flowers. Moths and butterflies do much of the heavy lifting as well.We must also consider how these insects serve as a food source for many other actors in the ecosystem, such as birds. Each organism in the ecosystem serves a purpose. As extinctions become more widespread, the world we live in becomes more and more like a broken machine. 

And we have to live in it. (Or not).

It is unknown as yet just what is causing this drop-off. Weather has been ruled out, as have landscape changes. Overuse of pesticides is thought to be a leading contender, but data has yet to be collected on that subject. There will no doubt be counter-cries discounting the study and others hand-wringing and wailing that environmental efforts are really Sisyphean undertakings. In other words, it's just too much money and effort.

Then we're not oblivious to our own decline. We're knowingly walking right into it.

I don't much like feeling like a prisoner to things, like I'm strapped to the roof of a runaway train. I had enough of that in 2017. Perhaps a shift in point of view may be in order. Maybe instead I should be in awe of the intricacies of entropy and continual collapse.

"If you want to learn how things work, watch how they fall apart." -William Gibson

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Fusion reactor halfway completed

During rough times for alternative energy, it's nice to read a bit of good news.

The world is about halfway towards having its first fusion reactor. 

Being built in Cadarache, France, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) will spin plasma that is ten times hotter than the Sun with magnets colder than interstellar space.

Nuclear fusion is what powers the stars. Atomic particles fuse together to form heavier nuclei, for example, tritium and deuterium fuse to form helium. This creates tremendous amounts of energy, far more than our current fission reactors which split nuclei and create hazardous waste.

Whenever I hear the claim that we're close to fusion, I can't help but be skeptical. I was studying physics at the time the whole Pons and Fleischmann debacle occurred.

Yes, at one point I wanted to be a physicist. Then I found out I'm really awful at math and the wind pretty much went right out of those sails. But I digress...

Since fusion takes place in the cores of stars, it goes without saying that it's a nuclear process that requires extraordinary levels of heat. In 1989, two men named Pons and Fleischmann claimed to have done it at room temperature. That turned out not to be the case and all the buzz generated ended in a whisper followed by evaporation into obscurity. I know that ITER is not the same thing, but I'm still leery. At least the proponents behind ITER are realistic in saying that it will be a long while before fusion can affordably provide enough power to the public at-large.

Still, it'd be nifty as heck to see fusion reactors actually become viable. I also don't think it's any coincidence that ITER is being built outside the United States.

Doesn't look like we'll be leading the way to clean energy any time soon.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Meteor over Michigan gives a bright light...and a warning

Photo from ABC News.

Residents of Michigan were treated to a flash of light and a loud boom last Tuesday night.

The National Weather Service said that this phenomenon was not due to thunder and lightning, but rather a meteor entering the Earth's atmosphere. The sonic boom from the space rock registered as a 2.0 magnitude earthquake just outside of Detroit. Security cameras, and other varieties of omnipresent cameras these days, captured pretty impressive footage which you can see at Space.com.

I've seen meteors before, of course. They've taken many forms, such as the ubiquitous "shooting star" that lasts all of a second. I've seen icy blue bursts of light that last smidge longer, but the same overall effect. I have even once witnessed a "fireball" meteor and will not soon forget the hot fragments raining from it as it fell.

The Michigan meteor and the others I've described that many see around the globe each night, are "entertainments" in a way. They grant excitement, they give us something to talk about over morning coffee, and they don't...usually...do any harm. What entered the skies over Michigan could have been much worse, though. To wit...

I've blogged about it several times. 

To me, meteors and asteroids are no mere hunks of rock floating in space. They are humbling. We humans have such an irritating habit of seeing ourselves as the pinnacle of the universe's achievement, when we are more likely its enfant terrible. These inert fragments of planetary debris, acting with no intelligence and utterly enslaved to Newtonian physics, could cause the extinction of humanity and maybe even the erasure of all life from Earth.

They are out there right now, waiting for us in space. It's a numbers game. Eventually, a large enough one will head our way.

Whether or not we can do something about it is a subject of debate.

The phrase for today is "Extinction Level Event".

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, January 11, 2018

On teaching writing

First, a warning.

This is not a formal, silver-tongued treatise on composition pedagogy. This post is based purely on personal observations and experiences. I have no data to offer. I am also aware there are many counterpoints to what I'm about to write. I will try to address a few of them, but by no means all of them as there are no doubt many I have yet to consider. What follows is just a snapshot of my thinking at the present time. In other words, this isn't headed to Cross Talk in Comp Theory anytime soon. Here goes...

I am now a mechanic.

"See what you got there is a comma gumming up your flow. It's conjoining two independent clauses into what we in the biz call a 'comma splice.' Now, there's a couple things I can do, like pop a conjunction in there. Oh and this whole paragraph needs to move up to the top of the second page. See? Now it fits. So we're going to go ahead and take a look at your APA style now..."

In a "straight out of the can" template for a First Year Basic Composition class, one instructs by giving grammar drills, model essays to read, and then working through a sequence of standard academic genres. Usually that means a softball personal narrative at first, maybe a little compare and contrast, then moving on to argument, and finally research and citation. At times it's like a math class and it's a rather tedious experience for both professor and student.

I am reminded of something I once heard said about Zen. "You can't teach Zen," they said. "You teach Zen by teaching something else, like archery or changing a car's oil."

That is my current thinking on teaching writing.

When I taught at Saint Joseph's College, I felt that I did my very best teaching of writing not in English, but in the Core Program. For the uninitiated, I might be here for a while trying to explain Core, but the TL;DR is that Core was an interdisciplinary humanities curriculum. Each semester of Core corresponded to a different era in the human story. Freshmen year was one class on contemporary issues and then a class linking those issues to revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment and the 19th Century. Sophomore year started out with the Sumerians and went up until the Renaissance. In these classes, there was a constant cycle of read, discuss, and write.

The discussion of readings generated ideas. Students would then respond to writing prompts by thinking through those ideas ("prewriting") and then express them in written word. As part of writing instruction, we would of course pause to take a look at, say, "how to argue a point." The student would then follow the method and write out her ideas.

I did my best teaching of writing when I taught something else.

My gut is telling me that when essay form and function are the focal points of a semester-long class, everybody just starts to check out. I am thinking that it is more pedagogically effective to have the student focus first on a topic or issue and then see writing as a tool with which to engage that issue. Now, for the objections.

"But don't students need to know the format and discourse of an argument or a research paper or (fill in the blank)?"
Of course they do. We did that in Core, but in a sort of "backdoor" way. In the course Contemporary Situation, for example, students would generate their own opinions on a subject such as poverty, racism, or climate change via reading and discussion. They would then offer these ideas supported by evidence. To do this, we went over the form of argument. But the mechanics of that genre were not the focus of the class. The students' minds were focused first on bigger, weightier issues and the form and function of genre were covered as a tool with which to express those ideas, not as the subject of entire semester of class time.
What sounds more interesting...
"I'm taking a class on Humanity in the Universe"
"I'm in a Basic Comp class"?

"What about grammar? Isn't grammar important?"
As much as I have become a proponent of descriptive grammar, it does of course go without saying that to successfully navigate academic discourse, one must adhere to a standard of grammar. It is indeed important. I believe this can be addressed contextually. Any good writing curriculum has the essential component of revision. Rather than worksheets and going through rote grammar (yes, it still happens at the college level), get after the grammar issues by working on them through revision. In the "living laboratory" of revision, common grammar errors will show themselves and you can work through them together as a class. Show grammar correction as a tool in revision, not simply something to be memorized and spat back out.

"If the writing class has a pre-determined subject, doesn't that take away the student's ability to write about whatever she wants?"
Up until now, I believed that allowing students to select their own writing topics would enhance the learning process. Wouldn't you be a more engaged writer if you were passionate, or at least interested in, the subject? Sometimes, this does indeed work.
I have been surprised at how often it doesn't.
"Can't you just assign what we're supposed to write about?" I invariably have had a student ask. "I have no idea what to say."
"Don't you have interests?" I'll counter-ask.
"Not really."
So what ends up happening, especially for arguments, is that students Google "essay topics" or "controversial issues." Then I get deluged with the same, repetitive essays on vaccines, gun control, steroids, and legalizing marijuana.
What if we required the students to engage their mind differently and think about big ideas, cross-disciplinary ones, and still taught good writing? To me, that's a big win all around. Plus, it would still be possible for students to write about their own interests. It just takes a somewhat flexible writing prompt. Besides, "interdisciplinary" study should allow for students to connect their interests with the subject at hand, no matter how "frivolous" or "pedestrian" the interests might seem to the tweedy jackets of academia (that's a whole other subject for another time.)

I'm probably not saying anything all that revolutionary. After all, SJC had this approach, so there are undoubtedly other higher ed institutions doing the same (though not quite the same as SJC as no one had what we had).

Anyway, those are my pedagogical thoughts at this late hour. They will undoubtedly undergo revision with time...just like any other writing.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

My Godzilla conundrum

Since the age of six, I have been an avid viewer of foreign film.

Granted, these films were mostly Japanese and almost every one of them involved men in rubbery monster suits slugging it out with one another while reducing a major metropolitan area to rubble, but I wouldn't call it uncultured really. Well, I'm getting to relive them all.

On Christmas Day, the El Rey network ran a marathon of Godzilla films and all this month that god among mortals, Svengoolie, will be showing the King of Monsters every Saturday night as part of the marvelous Super Sci-Fi Saturday Night line up on MeTV, which you can almost always find me live-tweeting.

Watching the movies now as someone...well, far older than six, unfortunately...I find I'm having a new, unexpected reaction. It is not one of delight, but rather uneasy suspiration.

A standard trope of the giant monster movie or the "daikaiju" film as aficionados know them, is when the Japanese military rolls onto the scene and blasts the gargantuan creature with all manner of ordinance. Heck when my brother and I would play out these films as kids, one of our very favorite parts was to line up all our plastic, green army men plus their heavy equipment and have an explosive battle that the army would ultimately lose. All great fun. Except that's not my response now when I see rockets and bombs hit the monster.

Now I think I'm just watching an animal get hurt.

I have analyzed this reaction and made a few determinations.

First, yes...I do realize it's just a man in a suit. Indeed when said actors in the suits break into wrestling moves with another, I still laugh quite heartily.

Second, there is a practical aspect at work. If such a giant monster did actually threaten a city, I would expect there would be little other course of action than to deploy force in order to save lives.

Third, this reaction may all be due to my being a "dog dad" for 12 years and that while I've always been sensitive about animals and animal rights, I now see my fellow self-aware beings in an entirely new light.

Fourth, written narratives of slaying beasts are at least as old as Gilgamesh. It seems part of the human condition and in keeping with the basic theme of "man versus nature."

And yet...and yet...I think there is something else at work and it all has to do with writing.

Of course, I would say that.

It's because I first noticed these feelings percolating as I watched the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis remake of King Kong. While loaded with cheese, that adaptation was written in order to evoke an empathetic response. Kong and the inhabitants of Skull Island have a pretty good thing going until a greedy oil corporation shows up and steals Kong for a marketing gimmick. Of course there are broader statements on the environment happening here, but it is also the story of a thinking, feeling animal taken by force from his habitat, resulting in death and destruction. I still can't watch the end. For these reasons I was reluctant to see Kong of Skull Island last year, but was pleasantly surprised.

Could the harm befalling these giant monsters be in line with these themes?

I'm not sure, but I have started to see a paradox in myself. I'll weep for Kong, but not one of the obscure scaly, tentacled beasts of the Toho menagerie? Is it because Kong has fur?

If I could not bear to see rockets and artillery blast into a giant version of this...

Why would I accept the same with this...

Is my compassion reserved only for the cute or anthropomorphic? Please don't hurt that bear cub, but I have no problem with you gassing that hornet's nest. It's a philosophy akin to opposing the consumption of horses while going for a bucket of fried chicken. But I digress...

Perhaps it's the way Kong and Godzilla are written...and yes indeed they are most assuredly written just as any human character would be. In later films, each has a distinct personality and even a code of conduct. Indeed in films such as Destroy All Monsters (my favorite movie second only to Star Wars as a kid), Godzilla is seen convincing his fellow denizens of Monster Island that they need to band together and fight to save Earth. While there is of course no dialogue, I prefer to believe that Godzilla is arguing Kant's "categorical imperative" and the concept of "duty" to his fellow monsters.

Point being, these rubber-suited behemoths aren't portrayed as blind forces of nature. They don't come off as bland and mindless, mere furniture to provide a plot, such as the thing in Cloverfield. The Toho films create a sense of empathy and attachment with what is, in reality, a guy in a foamy, rubber suit. So for that and many reasons, yeah...I sort of cringe when I see them with wounds or worse.

In the case of Godzilla, I feel I can take solace in one of the mythos' greatest themes. Godzilla has his origin in the atomic bomb testing that took place in the Pacific. War, in a sense, created him. Therefore, the implements of war can do nothing to harm him.

Besides, in the denouement, there is almost always the impression of his survival.

"Godzilla will return in..."

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Two of my greatest lessons

"Don't you have anything positive in your life?"

It's a valid question. If you've followed ESE in the past year, then you'd be forgiven for asking it. The truth is, I have several positive presences in my life for which I am most grateful. Why don't I blog about them? Well, there are things that I want kept just for me and I don't necessarily like to place them in the public sphere. That might sound odd to you or even selfish. I will cop to the latter as these things are, as I've said, mine. Lately however, I feel compelled to share two of the biggest positive forces in my life.

I've mentioned my dogs from time to time, but I've never done a post exclusively about them. This is partly because I think there is already an inordinate amount of pet content on social media but also because, as previously mentioned, they are aspects of my life I want kept just for me. But I can no longer go on without mentioning two of the people who helped get me through the worst year of my life.

That's Butterscotch on the left. That's Chewie on the right. They are, believe it or not, litter-mates and the picture is actually rather deceptive. Chewie is at least twice his sister's size. Debbie and I got them 12 years ago when they were but seven months old. Earlier, you may have caught that I called them "people." That's because I think of them that way. They have their own distinct personalities and the past 12 years have convinced me they have their own souls, their own consciousness. I love them every bit as much as a human son and daughter. I would like to fully introduce them to you as such.

Butterscotch got her name because her coat resembled a burnt piece of butterscotch candy. The phrase "social butterfly" was invented for her. She wants to be friends with everyone she sees, be they human or other mammal...which can get particularly interesting if that other mammal happens to be a skunk. I find I can most clearly express her personality by describing her as if she were a human teenage girl, specifically one from the 1980s because, well...it's not like I have any sense of what it means to be a teen today.

She would have her hair tied in a ponytail off to the side. She would chatter in endless loops about all her friends at school and what they gossiped about that day. I'd be listening with half an ear, because I never liked that stuff even when I was that age. In this case however, it's my little girl so I would at least try to be interested. Her CD collection would feature Paula Abdul, Taylor Dayne, Pebbles, Janet Jackson, and others I would be forced to endure on family car rides. She has a deep interest in the culinary arts. I say this because she follows me into the kitchen and watches everything I do as I cook. It's almost as if she lived before and was chef in that lifetime, because her eyes sometimes seem to say, "Noooooo. That's not how you do it. Oh Papa..."

As testament to this, note this photo I took of a dish I made. Look closely. It was photobombed.

"Ummm,,,are you going to eat both of those? I noticed you seem more interested in that baseball game on TV, so I could just take one of those off your hands..."

In time, I could see her becoming someone like Giada de Laurentiis. Like her, Butterscotch is cute, personable, knowledgeable about cooking, and worthy of her own TV series. Which is nice. She could take care of the rest of us.

This is Chewie. My boy. I took this one while we were on one of our walks together, an activity he truly loves. Were he ever to get off leash, he would quite likely also love to chase the ducks and squirrels in the subdivision. Indoors, he likes to sit up and stretch out towards me with his front legs, a maneuver that makes him look like E.T.

In keeping with the same method of description as applied to his sister, I see a human version of him with longish black hair, wearing a t-shirt with the Van Halen logo on it. The sleeves are torn off, of course. He's in his room, plopped on his bed with loud music playing. I imagine our exchange going something like this:

Me: I'm going out to get dinner. What do you want?

Chewie: Arby's. Big roast beef.

Me: Okay, I'll...

Chewie: And curly fries.

Me: Sure, I'll...

Chewie: Dad, I want curly fries.

Me: I heard you.

He's much less social than his sister. I'd get calls at work, telling me he's been in a fight and they've placed him in detention. I feel safe in saying that because I've gotten the equivalent of such calls from the day camp at PetsMart. There was also a most frightening incident with a neighborhood child who got too close to Chewie's "territory."

Which is why he probably would grow up to be an Airborne Ranger. He wants to eat, fight, and f...well, you can figure it out. More than that though, his combative tendency comes from an overwhelming urge to protect what he loves. I have no doubt that if he could speak English...and the fact he can't is something I consider to be a great failure on my part...he would say, "Worst fight I ever got in? I was protecting my Mom and my sister." As much as he can be a fighter, he has an equal if not greater capacity for love, as evidenced in this photo...

Every stuffed animal in the house is completely intact. Why? Because Chewie is always gentle and kind with them.

As you may have guessed, I named him after Chewbacca in the Star Wars mythos, because it's what I always said I would name a dog if I ever had one. What I never counted on was just how much our relationship would actually be like that of Han Solo and Chewbacca. Chewie has all the strength, the blind love, and the loyalty of his namesake. George Lucas was a dog lover and it shows in the writing.

This thought spurred me to meditate on the subject of dogs and writing. I don't read fiction about dogs because fiction requires conflict and logic would dictate this means the dog protagonist would be in danger or worse. Think Call of the Wild or worse, Old Yeller. No thanks. I have about as much interest in that as parents of human children likely would in stories of kids getting kidnapped. Come to think of it, much nonfiction about dogs likewise comes to unpleasant ends (think Marley & Me). Consequently, I haven't consumed much dog literature.

Then what of dogs and the actual writer? Many writers had dogs or other such beloved pets. This pictorial from The Atlantic shows off a few of them. Writers can be, of course, solitary creatures and dogs allow for that. Remember the saying, "The more people I meet, the more I like my dog." The dog affords the writer companionship while allowing him or her the solitude to work. That's the theory, perhaps.

My two allow me to work for stretches at a time. Then they do the "sit and stare." I'll be typing and one of them (sometimes both) will walk over and...you guessed it...sit and stare. Sometimes Chewie will give me an almost sotto voce "woof." This means they either need to go out or they just want to be active and engaged parts of my life. It doesn't always go over well with me. "You need to go out again?"

In times like these, and times when they've basically been misbehaved children, and unjustly, times when I've actually been angry about something else like...I don't know...a few people closing my college, I've lost my temper. I've yelled at them and, I am ashamed to say, I've frightened them. Despite this, they invariably forgive me and show me love beyond measure. In this sense, they may be the truest Christians I have ever known. I am embarrassed by this, not only because of my behavior but for the grace I seem to lack while they display their own so effortlessly.

I would think about this in the car on the way to work or somewhere else after I had time to calm down. "I shouldn't have yelled at them," I'd think. "I shouldn't have said the things I said. I could have handled that much better." In those moments, I found that I came to understand my own parents and perhaps parenting in the universal sense. Despite our weighty charge of caring for another sentient being, we are still human. As such we have failings. We are subject to stress, fatigue, and all the anger and irritability that comes with such conditions. Under such strain, we make mistakes.

Therefore, Chewie and Butterscotch have given me one of the greatest gifts a writer can be given: an understanding of what it means to be someone else.

This is in addition to being given quantities of love and loyalty that I just don't think I deserve.

So in the wake of the worst year of my life, I can give you at least two reasons why I keep going. I get up in the morning so I can give Chewie and Butterscotch their walks and their meals. In return I get love, loyalty, and a few lessons.

Because watching Chewie on his walk, I notice that he just keeps going forward, tongue out and smiling, looking for whatever fun thing might be ahead of him.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, January 1, 2018


Fair warning: the following has a satirical bent.

I like to cook, but my tastes aren't exactly...worldly.

When I'm hungry, I want to eat. Pizza or a burger usually do the job just fine. Whether or not something is "artisan" or has a vegetable ingredient imported (by free trade of course) from the Himalayas is never a consideration.

Sometimes though...I get wild.

It all started when I had to get chestnuts for the holidays. The only place to find such nuts in my area, that I know of anyway, is a nearby fresh market. It's an establishment renowned for its fresh produce, quality dairy and deli delicacies, and good prices on it all.

I just call it "the place with the weird shit."


What exactly is that? Nothing the good lord intended for America. That's for sure.

Look at that. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of my favorite films. Getting one of those pods will not end well. Trust me.

This chick had a tree limb in her cart. A tree limb.

Each aisle carried the strong odor of damp earth and plant life. I scanned it all and muttered "What do you do with all this?" in sotto voce.

"What do you do with carrots and radishes?" a woman responded to me, much to my surprise.

A fair point, but I don't like when public randoms speak to me, so I smirked. made a fast push with my right leg, and rolled off with my cart.

And that's when I saw it.

(Yes, that's a cameo by a honey bear. He just happened to be on the kitchen counter at the time.)

It was an amber fluid captured in a plastic bottle, looking identical in form and shape to a soft drink in a two liter. Only in this case, I could read nothing on the label, save for one phrase in English: "PRODUCT OF UKRAINE." It was sitting out in the open so I knew it couldn't be alcoholic. More to the point, it was on sale for 99 cents a bottle. No booze is going for that low and if it does...be careful. Very careful.

Anyway I had to know what it was and at 99 cents, I figured I wasn't risking much. Besides, the label had a monk guy on it and word that resembled "monastery." Couldn't be that evil, right?

So poured a glass when I got home. That's when I started to wonder just what I'd done. The scent, the color, it was all reminiscent of beer, yet...not. Just not.

A gave it a sniff, much as I would with wine. It's bouquet? Hoppy. Malty. A hint of fruit. I wasn't sure if it should be served cold, but I added ice anyway. If a drink is not meant to be served hot, then I want it cold. If a beverage is meant to be hot, it typically does not come in a plastic two liter. That was my logic anyway.

Before you ask about me the picture, yes. It's been cold in the Great Lakes region. Below zero, actually.

Only one way to find out anything more about this, what I'd started calling "kvas." Bottoms up. I was willing to take the risk on behalf of the rest of you, of course. Yes, even as I was analyzing this fluid, I anticipated a blog post. So no matter what it did to my taste buds, or my intestines for that matter, I felt I owed it to you, my dear readers, to find out what this beverage was like and to persuade you of its merits...or warn you of it's threat. Drawing it to my lips, I faced my instauration with this foreign fluid from a strange land with a stout heart and proud defiance. For I have tasted the Italian soft drink known as "Beverly" (subject for another post) and lived. How bad could this be?


I coughed. I swallowed hard, choking it down. Expectorating would not only have been an admission of defeat, but just plain gross as well. It tasted rather as it smelled: a beer with a hint of fruit and none of the booze. Which leads me to ask, "why bother?"

A Google of the label...yes, I know I could have done that first, but really where is the fun in that?...yielded the following information:

"Kvass [the sources I've found have an extra "s" at the end of the word as opposed to what's on the label.] is a traditional Slavic fermented beverage commonly made from rye bread,[1] known in many Eastern European countries and especially in Ukraine and Russia as black bread."

So it's like drinking bread.

In Latvia, the stuff is sold on the street, as seen in this picture from Wikipedia dated 1977:

Kinda looks like drinking out of a cement mixer.

While Wikipedia is not the greatest of sources, I couldn't help but be enthralled by the "Cultural references" subheading of the kvass entry. Apparently, all of the "big three" Russian writers mention the beverage in their works. Dostoyevsky has "monastery kvass" in a dinner scene in The Brothers Kazamarov, which so far is the only other "monastery" connection I've found. Chekov has a character ask for kvass in The Cherry Orchard. Tolstoy makes reference to kvass in his masterpiece, Anna Karenina numerous times, and in War and Peace, the soldiers of Napoleon's army find kvass in Moscow and call the drink "pig's lemonade."

Great. Now I feel like a snobby French occupier.

Debbie tried the kvass and said while it's not exactly a "I want to guzzle this on a hot day" beverage, it might pair nicely with a Germanic meal. You know, one of those "two meats and three starches" repasts? Intrigued, I decided to do just that.

For Christmas Eve, I grilled brats and heated potato pancakes, potato dumplings, cheese blintzes, and sauerkraut. I toyed with making sauerbraten too, but there just weren't enough hours in the day. I served it all with the kvass.

It worked. The meaty, starchy food complimented the kvass just fine. I stand corrected and carry my shame as the ugly American.

The problem is that, as I pointed out, kvass isn't all that great on its own and I seldom make such meals. Therefore, the kvass now sits in my garage. No doubt frozen solid by now.

Kvass-sicles. Hmmm. I'll let you know. 

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