Saint Bernard

Making Time for “A Tea Reader”: A [NOT] Book Review

I am a slow reader by design. It takes me an inordinate amount of time to dive into a book. Most can devour a hundred pages in an hour (I would guess?); I can only manage thirty-three. I think that’s my record to date. Attempts to speed read were always met with failure. Suggestions to pursue a career in editing went ignored for this very reason. The time it would take for me to read, let alone edit, a book could be measured in seasons.

Mooched from the Blog of Patrick Rothfuss

Mooched from the Blog of Patrick Rothfuss

That said, I still enjoy leisure reading but don’t do enough of it in my spare time. The times that I do, however, have been chronicled on my website. While not exactly professional literary critiques, they provide my thoughts in as succinct a manner as I am capable (which might not be saying much).

A call went out by a very talented tea blogger – Katrina Avila Munichiello- in my “TeaTwit” circle to review a book she was putting out called A Tea Reader. The concept was genius in its simplicity. It’s a collection of vignettes and short stories – spanning centuries – about how tea inspires. As the books tagline (and, by proxy, the author) states: “This is not a book about tea. This is a book about people.”

I was beyond elated and honored to be chosen to review the book in advance of its official release. And I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little jealous that Mrs. Munichiello beat me to such wonderful idea. She succeeded where many of us tea writers only daydream…er…over a cup of tea. The approach she chose to take for the narrative was also inspired.

Now I just had to find time to read it. Several factors hindered the timeliness of my perusal. One: The aforementioned slow reading pace. Two: A very active “oooo shiny!” gland. And three: Georgia.

I’ve mentioned the last one in passing before. My cat – like many of her ilk – is not one to be easily ignored. She makes this point abundantly clear during feeding time. However, she also voices her displeasure in creative ways when something else holds my attention other than her. Y’know…like a girlfriend. A very…hairy…girlfriend.

Note: This photo wasn't staged. Seriously

Note: This photo wasn't staged. Seriously.

In the case of book reading, “G” will stroll in front of the book while I’m reading it. Attempts to shoo her away are interpreted as play time. Even when I relocate to someplace she wouldn’t normally go – like the couch in the living room – she’s only a step or two behind me emitting her usual growl-purr.

I found moderate success with the couch camping, though. It was easy to position myself in such a way she couldn’t interrupt. Eventually, her tiny little mind forgot what she came there to do. The couch also offered up an opportunity to successfully put myself in tea-reading mode. If there was one thing I learned, this book had to be read with tea a-brewin’.

But there was a second obstacle – the damn dog.

Note: This wasn't staged either.

Yes, folks, there is also a dog in the mix – a very large, year-and-change-old Saint Bernard named Abacus. He belongs to my brother. Every time I brew tea – and I mean every time – he is instantly drawn to my electric kettle. Add a gaiwan to the mix, and he’s enraptured. I can’t really fathom why. Maybe he just really likes oolong a lot. Dunno.

Those were obstacles to my reading Zen that I could not prevent. The preventable ones were the major problem. I blame the Internet. All of it. As one entity. I don’t blame myself. Okay…maybe a little.

Before I knew it, two months rolled by. Here I was, a week past the release date of the book…and I’d only made it halfway through. It wasn’t as if another book had taken its place; I had read nothing for the whole of Fall. I lamented my reviewer FAIL.

Then a thought occurred to me – not so much as a metaphoric light bulb but as a very cheery glowworm. This book was tailor made for distractedly slow readers such as myself. Let me explain: The beauty of anthologies is that they can be devoured a piece at a time. A reader can pick it up and put it down at their own pace, even the molasses ones like myself.

A Tea Reader is even more suited to this than the average anthology because the average vignette is, maybe four-to-five pages – essays, really. Tightly written ones, too, for the easily spacey. I didn’t really have that problem, though. The different viewpoints were ultimately fascinating. Particular standouts (for me so far) were: “I Don’t Drink Tea” (the tale of a coffee drinker’s denial), “The Mistri-Sahib” (about a Scottish engineer in India, what’s not to love?), and “Immersion” (about a woman’s first flight with gongfu).

Each thematic section is divided into “steeps” rather than books or acts, providing one with a figurative tea expression to go along with the read. The author herself provides commentary to bridge each steep with her own thoughts. Her tone is relaxing and concise, marking the perfect lead-in for stories “steeped” (har-har) in the esoteric and evocative.

Which brings me to the book’s one principle flaw…if it can even be called that.

This is not a book for the uninitiated, and by that I mean non-tea drinkers. Tea appreciation has its own language – its own lexicon, if you will. And this book is imbued with it. Part of that is due to the inclusion of older essays as well as new and their dispersion throughout. The author does her best to include footnotes to some of the more obscure terminology, but at times it can be jarring. I, however, didn’t really find this to be a flaw.

As I said earlier, this is a book that screams, “Read me with a cup of tea, damn it!” To not do so would fail to capture the full effect, as far as I’m concerned. What’s the point of reading a book about people inspired by tea if you aren’t reading while drinking tea? That’s like going to a baseball game without a foam finger on one hand. Can’t be done.

In summary, I’m at the “glass-half-full” point of the book, and I’m loving every self-styled-slow minute of it. I start a new vignette with a cup of tea when I have a spare minute between distractions and pet mayhem. I hope to do a follow-up commentary on it once I’ve finally reached the end, but I still felt I had to put something to “paper” in appreciation. Just as these contributors and their maven did…all over an inspired cup of tea.

For more information on the book, go HERE.

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Monday, October 31st, 2011 Reviews, Steep Stories No Comments

2010: A Year in Rant…er…Review

The quintessential and clichéd way to begin an entry like this is to declare, “What a wild ride it’s been…” And with other years, and other people, that might be entirely applicable. 2010 was an entirely different beast, however. I can’t say it was wild by any stretch, but strange things did happen – some good, some life-changing, and others terrible. I’m not even entirely sure how this entry will play out. So, I thought I’d summarize my year – to the best of my ability – and reach a conclusion. I have some idea of what that conclusion is; still finding the words to voice it, though. Here we go.

Good ol’ Baby New Year ’10 began with a “THUD!” in the form of a road trip, one I took in order to see a girl again. Funny what men will do in the name of the opposite gender.  Wars have been started for and about the fairer sex. And in my case, near crashes and snow storms. The former of which should’ve been my first clue that this trip was a bad idea.

A mere ten miles outside of home, a car spun out in the fast lane. I caught sight of it before it 180-ed in front of me, put on the breaks just in time, and then veered around the “ruh-tard” by inches.  In a flurry of curses, I pulled off the Wilsonville exit to catch my breath. That should have been my cue to turn around in the complete opposite direction.  But I didn’t, I continued on unimpeded, blind in my resolve.

The good? By the time I made it down to SoCal, I was able to see my grandparents, Dad, Evil Stepmother, uncles, aunts, and cousins again. A new tea shop was notched off with friends, I saw Air Supply in concert (I know…”WTF!”), did a mad-dash through Disneyland, and – of course – spent quality time with said girl.

The bad? Just about everything else.

Fast-forward to the spring. I hate that time of year, and it has no fond feelings for me either. I’m not sure what happens to me when things “spring” forth anew, but I tend to go completely batshit. Not “rifle-on-a-clock-tower” nuts…but still impressively annoying. Usually, my changes in mood (of which there are many) result in loud declarations and hermitism.  In essence, Seasonal Male Menstrual Syndrome.

The trigger this time around was social networking sites – the Internet’s drama lubricant. Several friends of mine who followed me on Twitter found my plethora of tea updates boring and annoying. They had a point. Not everyone is as fascinated as I am about dead, dried leaves steeped in hot water. As a result, these several friends “unfollowed” me. I didn’t take that well.

To me – at the time – unfollowing was akin to a friends’ list removal. It was a very clear sign, in my mind, that I was an irritant. Instead of puttig up with online disapproval and “butthurt”, I ranted, then deleted all my social networking incarnations – Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google Buzz, everything. My only outlet to the “Intel Inside” world was my website.

I kept this e-embargo up for the worse part of four months. Parallel to that, I sunk into a deep and denial-based depression. I rarely went out and rarely corresponded online. I went to work, I slept, I drank tea; rinsed, repeated. The one bright (and sometimes frustrating) spot in all of this was the adoption of a furry, cuddly, and whiny Maine Coon mix named Georgia.

But we won’t go into the flea epidemic she brought upon us. You can read about that HERE.

There was another momentary distraction in the wake of my netizen exile. The parents required help in June for a cross-state move to Wyoming. I was asked to take time off from work in order to help with the endeavor. At first, I was ambivalent to the travailing trek. I was a wuss, completely useless as a mover. Added to that, I wasn’t a fan of readjusting my sleep schedule (I worked nights) to accommodate the request.

My mood brightened on arrival. The process of moving went rather quickly, and the rest of the trip was spent bonding with the bros and stepdad over various microbrews. What started as a weekend I dreaded became a three-day trilogy of remembrance. To this day, it’s one of my more memorable trips.

That reverie wouldn’t last long upon my return to Oregon. I was greeted with a lay-off.  My job was posted on Craigslist, or at least a part-time version of it. My occupational existence of the last six years changed with a blip of the computer screen. Luckily, the parting was somewhat amicable given the circumstances, and I tried to view it as a necessary evil.  Finally, I got the kick in the proverbial pants I needed to move on with my life.

On the suggestion of my mother, I attended various job and networking groups to “get out there” again. With six years gone, I was a little rusty on my job-hunting skills. Wrestling with the unemployment office was also becoming an arduous experience.  By the end of summer, I was down to the wire financially. My bro/roommate was (thankfully) patient and understanding during the process.

In the interim, one of the biggest recommendations made by the job groups was to put my online presence back together. I returned to Twitter and Facebook, actively updated my blog again, and put feelers out there among friends that I was seeking employment. Unfortunately, due in part to my long absence, my social circle had decreased by half. Part of the blame rests with my outburst and subsequent hermitism. That sudden realization – and my car going “kaput” – made August a very dark month.

My brother changed this a bit with the declaration that he wanted to adopt a puppy. Not just any type of puppy, a Saint Bernard. I joined him for the jaunt to Camas to pick out the little fella. In the litter there were many to choose from, but one in particular stood out; a fuzzy, forehead-dotted little critter that was licking my shoe. I pointed to him, my brother picked him, we named him Abacus, and the rest is history. (My cat can’t stand him. We’re working on that.)

September saw two more gestalts to the ol’ routine (or what was left of it). My sister also decided to move to Wyoming and – again – I was drafted to help with the move and clean-up of her old place. While I can’t claim the task was easy, it was a welcomed distraction from the work-related/wallet issues. By coincidence or fate, right as we were about to take to the road again, my first unemployment check arrived. A summer-ton weight was lifted from my shoulders.

Partial gainful employment appeared a couple of months later in two forms thanks to the feelers I put out three months prior. I landed two temporary gigs doing floor sets and meeting setups, and a return to an old art gallery cashier job in October. Things were looking up.

November rained down soon after with the arrival of mounting debts. Red tape held up my unemployment benefits, and I was making nowhere near enough to pay my bills. Searches for additional part-time work were next to impossible given my limitations in availability. I could only work on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays. Other days affected my art gallery gig.

Additional help would arrive once the red tape with the unemployment office cleared up. And – again – thanks in large part to a very patient and humble housemate.

Which brings us to December. Sales at the gallery were good; I had many writing posts under my belt. I sampled new teas from far-flung locations, and still found time to hang out with friends. The only speed bump was a speeding ticket. Christmas came and went, spent in the company of intermediate family and candlelight services. (Although, my first present on Christmas Day was a computer virus.)

And – now – here I sit, reflecting on the “Year That Was”. In the middle of concocting this narrative lump, I had to backtrack as other significant moments popped back into memory. “I almost forgot the dog!” I inwardly exclaimed. Had this been scribbled on a piece of paper, it would look like a jigsaw puzzle.

So what does 2011 promise?  I have no clue, and I’m not just saying that to be cheeky. My temporary “contract” at the gallery ended today, and I’m back on the job hunt. I will hopefully start up a novel of some sort, while simultaneously juggling a blog/review schedule. My “Tea Want” list has grown to thirteen – including (but not limited to) a British-grown and blended Earl Grey. Not that many of you care. (*Cue chuckle*) Beyond that, I don’t care. It’s a start.

Conclusion? 2010 was a ride; not a wild one, not a slow one. I liken it to driving my Ford Focus. It doesn’t look pretty, doesn’t stand out, but at least I can see where I parked.

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Friday, December 31st, 2010 Musings 4 Comments

“The Flying Tearoom of Tally Furrowbrow” – (A Children’s Novel Treatment)

I’ve been toying with this idea for a children’s novel since late-January. The story behind it can be found HERE. I’m just as shocked as you are that I even thought of something that didn’t involve zombies and spaceships.

Lemme know what you folks think.

Caleb Priddy Pace is a 12-year-old street urchin with a polite demeanor residing in the mountain town of Grayslot – a port-of-call for deploying soldiers, planes and train-delivered goods. There is a war on, a global conflict. He is unsure of who is fighting whom. It is beyond him and beneath him. He flits the day away playing an ocarina and melodica at an abandoned train station. Both instruments – to him – symbolize the parents he never knew.

Said station has tracks on either side that lead to nowhere. Yet Cale cares not. He figures that whatever passerby happens to leave him money from so remote a location is a worthy one. He stays there because it brings him some semblance of peace. A part of him has always felt drawn to the station, and every time he arrives, he practices the same song in front of the tracks; a song that has been in his head for as long as he can remember.

All this changes when he sees something peculiar, a cream-white cat riding on the back of a Saint Bernard. Both stop in front of the train tracks. From the distance, a whistle sounds. As if out of thin air, a steam locomotive (hovering slightly above the tracks) appears. The cat and dog board it, Cale follows suit.

Upon entering he is greeted by, not human passengers, but scores of creatures only found in storybooks – elves, dwarves, goblins, halflings, miniature dragons, and some still unidentifiable. An orc-ish looking passenger bumps into him in the hallway declaring, “Outta my way, winged worm.”

As the train picks up speed again, he travels down the aisle looking for either the cat or dog, or at the very least a familiar (read: human) face. He sees a girl about his age seated to the rear of the car – violet hair, pretty face, fancily-attired, face in a a book (James Hilton’s Lost Horizon). To her side, a dwarven handmaiden with a perma-smile.

Cale sits in the seat across from them; at first worried they’d protest the intrusion. Quite the opposite happens. The handmaiden waves at him, while the girl pays him no attention at all – still enraptured by her book. A conductor – a thin, slight-of-build minotaur – demands to see his ticket. The boy’s face goes white.

The well-dressed girl pipes up from her book, “He’s my luggage boy. Move along.”

The minotaur bows apologetically and continues down the aisle.

The dwarven handmaiden, Llysiph, introduces the both of them. The girl is Lady Rhiaveth par Danann of Ireland. Rhiaveth rolls her eyes at the title. As Cale converses with Llysiph, the little “lady” snorts, then let’s out a rather loud, boyish sneeze. Her fairy wings unfurl as she does so. Cale’s jaw drops.

He emphatically declares, “Is anyone on this train human?”

Both Rhiaveth and Llysiph appeared taken aback by the question. Llysiph’s perma-smile vanishes, replying that no humans can board this train. Cale then asks how he was able to board.

Rhiaveth finally removes herself from her adventure book. Her face lighting up. She instantly starts drilling him for questions. The boy is taken aback…slightly.

Llysiph appears worried, and interrupts the conversation, stating that no one must find out he’s human. Such an occurrence would be considered an emergency. Thinking fast, she removes a feather duster from her satchel and some beeswax. She paints the wax around Cale’s mouth and plants the duster on his face.

“There. Now you’re a dwarf. Sort of,” Llysiph says with a large grin.

Rhiaveth opens the window and pokes her head out, Llysiph tries to bring her back in. She hocks a sparkling loogie out. Cale – being the boy he is – peers out to see where it lands. He looks down and sees that there is no ground. Rather…water. The train sails along over the ocean, unimpeded.

Cale notices a coastal town approaching fast. He asks why no one can notice the train. Llysiph explains that all magical things exist “outside” of human notice. She tells him to look again at the coastal town, Cale does so. Where before there were just a few squat buildings, a giant spiraling citadel with several rings is nestled among the man-made structures. How something like that could escape notice, he couldn’t fathom. The fairy noble girl and dwarf giggle at his shocked expression.

The train zooms through a tunnel that appears out of nowhere as a ring suspended in mid-air. When it arrives out the other end, land greets it. Or at least, a land mass hovering well above the ground, deep atop a layer of clouds. A floating island.

“First stop! The Flying Tearoom!” a voice bellows from all around.

Llysiph and Rhiaveth get up to exit. He bids farewell. Rhiaveth urges him to come along saying she still needs a “luggage boy”. Then Cale sees the dog and cat appear from amidst the crowded car to exit as well.

He agrees to disembark.

As Cale is literally given her luggage to carry, Rhiaveth walks ahead doing the occasional cartwheel in her fancy dress. He whispers to Llysiph that she’s not quite the proper “noble lady”. Llysiph giggles and explains that she was sent to the tearoom by her father to learn how to be polite and more ladylike. That is, after a certain incident regarding a dining room fire.

However, the tearoom is hardly the dainty place Cale would’ve thought it’d be. Loose stones of a castle’s foundation line the property. The estate itself – while large and inviting – hardly gives the impression of “tea”. Three towers rest on either side of the triangular property – one, a lighthouse, the other a windmill, and the last, a parapet/ residence. An herb garden and greenhouse are off to the side. To the rear, a large, bulbous, domed area with sepia-toned bay windows overlooking the sea of clouds.

The main entrance is even more peculiar, an arched doorway at the base of the lighthouse tower. Upon entering, they see that the walls are lined with books. A large Persian rug is spread with delicately woven fabric, spelling out “Welcome”. The lighthouse tower stretches up to multiple levels, all lined with further bookshelves. The tea bar itself rests to the right of the entrance, further past that, a sandwich deli. At the back of the tea bar are rows upon rows of water jars attached to pipes; all boiling at different temperatures. To the left, an entrance to the herb garden. Center-stage, the entrance to the tearoom itself; bearing the appearance of an airplane cockpit only far larger.

Cale sees the cat and the dog milling about. Both appear to be straining. Within seconds, they increase in size and stature to the frame of human adults. The cat says, “That’s ever-so-much better, eh, Abby?”

“M’yeah,” the dog shrugs, heading to his station at the deli.

Cale is wide-eyed. Rhiaveth excitedly introduces herself, Llysiph tries to correct her manner, encouraging a curtsy. The cat does a clumsy half-bow in return while donning a “Kiss the Kitty” apron. He introduces himself as Tally Furrowbrow. Since the Saint Bernard doesn’t chime in, Tally says his name is Abacus Rex.

The boy is perplexed by Tally, noticing that he does indeed have a “furrowed brow” – or rather, a brow-like scar above his eye-line. In appearance, Tally is a peach-point, cream-colored Ragdoll breed of cat. Cale even guesses as much out loud. Tally is impressed that he knows his cats.

Tally then turns to Rhiaveth and says, “So, your father sent you here to become a lady, eh? Well, I don’t know much about that, but I suppose we can show you a thing or two.”

He points to the books lining the wall and tells her to pick one. Rhiaveth asks what that has to do with tea. Tally simply winks. Cale and she go about examining the titles on the spines of the books. All of them bear names of tea. They realize that the books ARE the tea holders. They come to a consensus on the “Gnomish Oolong”.

“An excellent choice,” he says with a smile.

The book floats over to him and opens upon his motion. Inside the book, the two children see leaves dancing out of the pages, coming to settle in a small measuring cup in Tally’s hand. He drops the leafy concoction into one of the many boiling water jars – the one labeled “Oolong”. He whips out an hourglass. Cale and Rhiaveth whisper to each other, wondering what he’s doing. When the hourglass finishes, Tally withdraws two unassuming clay mugs. He pours the contents of the jar from a strainer-spigot. The tea stream magically split in two and fills into the cups.

“Every tea tells a tale, and every tale’s to a “T”.

Both Rhiaveth and Cale take a sip simultaneously and are instantly transported…literally…

To another time and place.


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Saturday, August 15th, 2009 Prose 2 Comments

I work for tea money.


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