Nostalgia, Toys, and Making Connections in a Small World

Much has been said of how the Internet has made the world smaller and more connected. So often in fact, it has now become cliche to comment on it at all. But occasionally one gets reminded of it in such a strong way, you can’t help but shake your head in disbelief …and just a touch of wonder.

Let’s go back to 1980. There’s a small boy, nine years old, sitting on the floor of his family’s living room staring with quiet intensity at what’s before him. We notice he’s small for his age, both in height and in weight (not quite at the point where he disappears if he turns sideways, but it’s a near thing). He has large blue eyes, a mop of dark blonde hair, and a head that is quite a bit larger than the rest of him. He’s been sitting where he is for about two hours, quietly doing what makes him happiest — building.

He has a Millennium Falcon and a X-Wing nearby, along with the requisite action figures. But he’s not playing with those right now. Instead he’s building an Imperial prison. Then he’s building a Rebel base. Now it’s another spacecraft, but one never dreamed of by the masters of model building and practical effects employed by George Lucas. This isn’t LEGO, ruled by right angles or poor stepped approximations of diagonals. This is something infinitely more flexible. It’s a construction set called “Ramagon” and it inspired that young boy like no other toy before or since.

Vintage-1979-Toy-RAMAGON-2000-Construction-System

It also doesn’t exist anymore. Out of production for years now, I had even forgotten the name of it for awhile.

As you might guess, that boy was me, and that Ramagon construction set was, without a doubt, my favorite toy ever. It had a unique hub and strut building system that allowed you to make beautiful and strange creations that not only were large, but looked like the very definition of “the future,” circa 1979. While you could still make right angles, you could actually make connections in twenty-six separate directions off a single piece. While the structures you built looked and felt lightweight, they were substantial and sturdy.

It was not only a fascinating toy to build with just for the sake of building, it was the perfect way to build things that you could use with other toys and action figures. With triangular and square panels, you could create platforms and give your creations heft and solidity. Without the panels you could create airy, skeletal constructions that looked very similar to the plans for a space station that NASA had been planning at the time. I built elaborate worlds for my Star Wars toys. I built towers taller than I was. But the most fun I had was just building really complex geometrical shapes and seeing what I could do with them.

Ramagon  Micro base

I got older of course, and my Ramagon set eventually disappeared – probably in some charity donation. But I played with that set for a good six or seven years. Looking back later I realized that it hadn’t been just a toy used for entertainment, but something that helped me learn problem-solving and spatial visualization. I learned how to break big problems down into smaller pieces. I learned to balance having a plan with spontaneity and imagination. And while I love LEGO too, just connecting one brick to another isn’t very exciting – the building process with LEGO felt like a grind, the focus being on what you were building more than how you built it. Ramagon on the other hand opened up a whole world of possibility — not only allowing you to think about making connections in all directions, but encouraging it.

Flashing forward a number of years, and I now had two children of my own and I wanted to give my kids the same toy I’d had and more importantly the same experience I’d had. The first hurdle was one I’m ashamed to admit: while the toy had stayed fresh in my memories, the name of it was something I’d forgotten decades and decades ago. I did a lot of web searches for “1980s construction toy” and looked at a lot of pictures. I even searched for “1970s construction toy” as, with a child’s self-centeredness, I had no idea how long it had existed before I got mine.

Finally I had my eureka moment and found references and pictures on some sites that listed older toys. It was… Ramagon. Honestly, how I forgot a name like that I’ll never know. And to be fair, the Ramagon pieces were never emblazoned with a brand name the same way way LEGO pieces are.

Well, now I had a name but my jubilation was short lived. Turns out that by the time my kids were old enough to play with them and I went looking for them, they had been discontinued. I was crushed. As a parent, we all tend to want our children to be introduced to the things we loved best from our own childhoods and it looked like I wasn’t going to be able to do that. This was especially discouraging as I thought that Ramagon was the ultimate building toy that could be enjoyed by both my son and my daughter. Especially as both of them have tons of LEGO, and the later Ramagon sets had added panels that allowed kids to integrate their creations with LEGO bricks. I knew they’d love the possibilities it represented. It was frustrating knowing the perfect toy existed at one point but now was effectively gone.

I’d occasionally look for people selling Ramagon sets and would find some outrageously priced sets on eBay, sigh dramatically, and go about my business. My kids continued to get more and more LEGO sets and other construction toys and I continued to comment “Those are cool, but back in my day, I had the perfect building set…” They would roll their eyes and go back to what they were doing.

In the second half of last year I started wondering about where Ramagon came from. Who had invented it? It’s funny – so many commercial toys are completely divorced in the public mind from the person who invented them. Big toy companies don’t have much interest in promoting creative talent the same way tech companies do (obvious break-out hits like Rubik’s Cube being the exception). But I had a feeling that it would be possible to identify a single individual as the inventor – the set, its history, and everything I’d found out so far made me feel like this was someone’s passion, not the result of corporate focus groups and demographic targeting.

I’d already learned that it was never a toy in the same league as LEGO or Erector (or the later K’NEX) in terms of popularity and I would get met with blank stares and shrugs whenever I told people about it. After a consulting job that had me researching various patents, I decided to try looking through registered patents to see if I could find the person who had created, in essence, some of the happiest moments of my childhood.

US4129975-1Thanks to the Internet and specifically Google, searching patents is much easier than it used to be. That said, trying to find a patent without knowing the inventor or even the company that originally manufactured it (I knew the license for the toys changed hands over the years), is very difficult. Especially as the Ramagon name itself likely wasn’t even going to be mentioned in the patent (though later patents for similar toys did mention the toy by name). After much searching and looking at crazy toy designs (most of which were probably never sold anywhere) I found one: U.S. Patent 4129975 A. Inventor: Richard J. Gabriel.

So Mr. Gabriel invented the toy I still thought about all these years later. My question was answered, but I didn’t know what to do with that information. However, as I sometimes do, I drafted a letter in my head, thanking Mr. Gabriel for having created something that meant so much to a quiet, shy kid who found a way to express himself by building what he saw in his imagination. I was sure it was a letter that would never be sent. How could I even find him to send it? Would he even care? Was he even still alive?

And once again we come back to the point I made at the beginning – the world is smaller than it used to be. I grew up at the end of the era of three TV networks and rotary phones, and while I’m frequently an early adopter of new technologies, I can’t say that my thinking isn’t a little colored by a worldview now several decades out of date.

I went ahead and searched using Mr. Gabriel’s name and the word “Ramagon.” I found quite a few hits, mostly the meta cruft that is often associated with business listings. Lots of information, but none of it especially useful. I paged through more results, and finally… unbelievably… I found not just a website, but his website. Fittingly, he’s been an architect for more than 25 years, and there on his website was his email address.

I typed out basically what I’d already drafted in my head and sent him an email, not really expecting anything, but just wanting more than anything to say “Thank you.” That same day I received a reply from his wife Ann letting me know he’d get back to me in a couple of days. I was astounded.

Richard (and his wife Ann) wrote back and thus began a correspondence we’ve sporadically maintained in the midst of busy schedules. Richard and Ann have led fascinating lives, and I’ve loved hearing about what they’ve done and what they have planned. I even managed to provide a little help to them involving web design and online marketing. It was literally the least I could do in return for what I’d already received from Richard. I consider myself lucky to now count Richard and Ann as friends.

This had all started with the itch of unsatisfied nostalgia. I had gone looking for an old toy, and by extension, my childhood. I wanted to find a way to express appreciation for something that gave me so much joy as a child. I found so much more than that.

I found a link to my past that gave me a new perspective. I found new friends it felt like I had known for years. And thanks to the unbelievable generosity of Richard and Ann, I found something else too. In the mail this week, I received the following:

image2(1) image1(3)

Richard had, at my request, even signed the boxes for me. And with that, I was finally able to pass along to my children that idolized toy from my childhood. And along with it, a connection to a world that is both smaller and more amazing than the world I lived in some thirty-five years ago.

From the moment I pulled the sets out of the box they were shipped in, my kids’ eyes lit up. There were appreciative oohs and ahhs from both of them. My oldest, who just turned 13 and who has begun to have a pretty good idea of the value of such things, commented “It almost seems a shame to open them up.” I answered back “It would be a bigger shame not to.” And with that, we set about building.

I may have bogarted the toys a bit at the beginning. The pieces felt comfortably familiar in my hands. The click as pieces came together providing the same satisfying completeness that it had so many years ago. We built a spaceship. We built a Martian base. We built.

FullSizeRender IMG_4357

This isn’t a story about nostalgia, or toys, or being an uber geek about something (though it obviously includes all those things). For me, this experience has been about the sort of connections possible in the small, connected world we live in, and the connections that exist within ourselves. How those connections can go off at any angle but that together, they can make something beautiful, strange, and the very definition of “the future.” It’s been about how when things click together just right, it provides a sense of completion.

And I hope for Richard that this is a story about how if you build with passion and creativity, as he did, what you built will last far longer than you could have dreamed.

I want to once again express my heartfelt thanks and deepest appreciation to Richard and Ann. Nine times out of ten, or maybe even ninety-nine times out of a hundred, if someone in a similar situation had received my email, assuming they even read it, they’d likely just smile and move on. I think it says something that they didn’t. Maybe with all their experiences across the globe, they realize that while it may be a small world, it’s full of large stories and the greatest fun comes either from making your own or from being a part of as many of them as you can.

Good News Everybody! I Made Four New Year’s Resolutions So You Don’t Have To…

I’ve always believed New Year’s resolutions were… well, bullshit to be quite frank. Why wait for a day to roll around on your calendar to decide to change something about your life? Yes, yes – there’s the end of the year and maybe you’ve had some time off from work or spent some time with your family and received just that little extra bit of changed perspective that inspires you to change. If so, go for it! But I suspect the majority of resolutions come about because:

  1. We think we should because everyone is (supposedly) doing it
  2. We’ve tried to make a change in the past and it didn’t work out, so we hope the impetus of a new year is the boost we need to make it happen
  3. We’re desperate due to some unhappiness in our life and we can’t face another year without trying to do something — anything really — to try and change that.

With the exception of number 1 above, those are good reasons, and again I say go for it! (But maybe don’t wait for the calendar to force you. No time like the present and all that.)

So why am I writing a piece the purports to put forward a set of resolutions for all of us if I think they’re not that helpful? It comes down to that “all of us” bit. These aren’t resolutions for each of us as individuals, these are resolutions for us collectively as humans. Now, to be clear, it takes a fair bit of arrogance to presume you have all the answers and while I have never been accused of being overly modest, I honestly don’t think I have all the answers. Or even most of them for that matter. But some things have stood out to me more and more over the past couple years and I want to encourage us to try and address them. I could be wrong and freely admit that, but if one of the ideas below gets you to thinking about something in a different way, I say mission accomplished!

One note about context: most of these came about because of exchanges and postings on the Internet. That, however, does not mean that they only apply there. And that leads to to…

Error MessageResolution #1: Let’s stop pretending the Internet is something different from everything else. Just because communication is broken down to 1s and 0s and then reassembled does not offer some magic transmutation that isolates this mode of communication from everything else. As I’ve written before, there is no “real life” and “online life” – it’s all just life, because it’s us. That’s all the validation it needs. This idea that because something happens online – whether it’s a posting to Facebook, meeting someone, or whatever is different from “real life” is not only wrong, it’s toxic and unhealthy. By distancing what occurs online from “real life” we are hamstringing our empathy, which when it comes down to it, is the only thing that makes the great sea of humanity around us at all tolerable. Without empathy, without the ability to see those you interact with as humans and something like ourselves, interactions devolve into tribalism, wars, distrust, and hate. So basically the worst part of ourselves. When we view “online” as separate from ourselves and our lives, we take no ownership for what happens there. The “tragedy of the commons” writ larger than it has even been writ before in human history and our ability to communicate with each other being the resource being depleted.

There are other aspects as well, especially legal, where it makes no sense to treat what is online or digital as somehow different, but those are mere inconvenience next to the giant morass that is our inability to constructively interact and communicate with each other. One can argue (fruitlessly it seems to me) about what “makes us human,” but when it comes down to what makes a civilization and culture, it’s the ability to communicate and empathize. So if we like that sort of thing, we should probably at least consider this one.

256px-Radio_News_Sep_1928_CoverResolution #2: Stop watching TV news.
I grew up (back in the ancient times of the ’70s and ’80s) watching the local news, the national evening news, and in my later teens, the local evening news. I also grew up listening to news radio and reading the newspaper, weekly news magazines, and pretty much anything else I could read. (tl;dr – my parents were news junkies for various reasons) Then as I grew older and the Web came to be a thing, I stopped. First went the local news. Then the national news. Then the newspapers and magazines. But when it comes to current events, I consider myself better informed than most (thanks Internet and diverse news sources!). For some of you millennials, I’ll probably have to explain that it used to be the case that something wasn’t regarded as having happened until the likes of Walter Cronkite told us so, and then we read the paper the next day to figure out the details of what it was that happened, and then we read a weekly magazine like Newsweek to find out what it all meant. We’d spend up to two weeks just getting it straight in our heads what happened. It was imperfect, flawed, and slow, but it worked in it’s own way.

Then something changed. We got 24-hour news channels. To fill all that time, they’d hype stuff relentlessly, just to keep eyeballs glued to the screen (because that got viewers and that gets advertisers and that gets money). Local and national network broadcasts changed to compete in an escalating war of “This common household product may be killing you!” stories. Then they hit on the real winning formula. Celebrities. But not just movie or sports celebrities – anyone who had the least bit of fame was fair game, and being a democracy, we have a whole host of people who are most notable for being slightly famous – politicians. So now we treat entertainment gossip as “news” and political news as gossip. Today, those channels still have 24 hours of programming to fill, and they continue to create “narratives” rather than news. “The reveal” morphs into “the backlash” which then dives into coverage of “the debate,” and this in turn will sometimes spinoff into the “why this difference of opinion reveals how broken everything is“, and then it all either gets ignored (if it just becomes too boring but no worries – it will be revived later with the “whatever ever happened to…” piece in a year or two) or it merely starts again – rebooted if you will – once some new event happens. I mean, we all complain about movie reboots, but CNN and Fox News have been pulling that crap for years.

So what I’m suggesting is, that no matter your ideological bent,  we all just stop watching TV news. No more MSNBC, no more Fox News, no more CNN… no more network evening news — none of it. Sure, other news sources are just as beleaguered, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with them as formats. Whereas news and TV are inherently incompatible – TV news provides the illusion of being informed with none of the substance – it has no information density and becomes merely an echo chamber. Want to learn something about what’s happening in the world? Do literally anything else. Read a newspaper (if for no other reason than you can tell your grandkids about it one day), or preferably go online. But don’t just go to one site, go to as many as you can – read articles from places where you won’t know what the article is going to say before you read it. Don’t know where to start? Browse Twitter. Sign up for Feedly. Just whatever you do, don’t turn on the TV to get your news – it not only doesn’t work, it pollutes the well of discourse in the name of increasing some megacorp’s bottom line. When a news source becomes more concerned with it’s bottom line than in reporting the news, it should stop being considered a news source.

Resolution #3: Realize no one gets a cookie for being right. What do I mean? I mean that, especially in America, we are so concerned with winners and losers, we’ve lost sight of the fact that not every issue has a winner or a loser. We seem to have become so uncomfortable with gray areas that we avoid thinking or talking about them and every issue becomes a battle between opposing sides, and the ultimate casualties are nuance and understanding. We’ve all become this:

Except we’re all this way with everything now, not just the Internet

To give you an example: the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare.” Back before this was passed by Congress and signed by the President, there was discussion about what the legislation actually did (not nearly as much as there should have been, but some). So what do we hear about now? If you’re a Republican holding office, you’re stance is pretty much required to be “Repeal it!” or at the very least “Sabotage it’s implementation!” And if you’re a Democratic office holder, you’re dictated stance is “Protect it at all costs.” The debate has stopped being about how to generally improve health care in this country, and become who can score the most political points off the opposition over this flawed piece of legislation that nonetheless has improved healthcare for millions.

Photo by sajbrfem / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It’s mental laziness. Rather than thinking about the hard stuff, we drift towards what’s easy: declaring ourselves right, and anyone who disagrees with us as wrong. Never acknowledging what’s wrong in our own assumptions and what’s right in the assumptions of others. I could literally spend all day giving other examples: abortion, the death penalty, climate change, race, guns, police use of force, GMOs, sexism … the list goes on. These issues have become entirely focused on the debates themselves and have lost sight of trying to find solutions that actually might improve the world we all live in. The only time a specific point is raised is when one side attempts to wield it like an intellectual Excalibur to slay every argument of the opposition.

So let’s be clear. Being “right” doesn’t entitle you to anything. No awards. No trophies. And no cookies. And it most certainly doesn’t entitle you to stop thinking about things. Which leads us into…

chooseagain-8ballResolution #4: Choose again. Lastly, we come to this. All good fiction, in my opinion, is transformative for the reader by definition. But once in awhile, you’ll run across something that truly and deeply changes your perspective. Such was the case with myself and Dan Simmons Hyperion/Endymion novels (known as ‘The Hyperion Cantos‘). A fascinating amalgamation of sci-fi, horror, and fantasy liberally sprinkled with literary allusions, it introduces a Messiah-like character named Aenea whose message for mankind is simply “Choose again.” To explain that, let me provide this excerpt from Rise of Endymion, the fourth book in the series:

“I got my message down to thirty-five words. Too long. Then down to twenty-seven. Still too long. After a few years I had it down to ten. STill too long. Eventually I boiled it down to two words.”
“Two words?” I said. “Which two?”

“Choose again,” said Aenea.
I considered that for a wheezing, panting moment. “Choose again?” I said finally.
Aenea smiled. She had caught her wind and was looking down at the vertical view that I was afraid even to glance toward. She seemed to be enjoying it. I had the friendly urge to toss her off the mountain right then. Youth. It’s intolerable sometimes.
“Choose again,” she said firmly.
“Care to elaborate on that?”
“No,” said Aenea. “That’s the whole idea. Keep it simple. But name a category and you get the idea.”
“Religion,” I said.
“Choose again,” said Aenea.

When we look for answers, humans tend to either adopt a stance based on what they think they should (parents, society, etc.) or by rejecting a stance based on what they dislike (again parents, society, etc.) — but, and this is the part where we all fail time and again, we don’t often revisit those assumptions. By believing in them, we take them into ourselves and they become a part of us, and when they are challenged, we react as if we ourselves have been attacked. Once that happens, discussions stop being about the issue and become about us.

The benefits to changing this — to constantly and consistently deciding to “choose again” — are two-fold. First, we can better adapt (you know, that trait that got us from being single-celled critters intent on eating each other to creatures that could wear smart watches and order a Triple, Venti, Half Sweet, Non-Fat, Caramel Macchiato) – to changing circumstances or new evidence. Secondly, by focusing as intensely on questioning ourselves as those around us, we gain better understanding of ourselves and empathy towards others. Institution after institution throughout human history has survived and even flourished by working against this – and yet human progress continues on, always because of someone deciding to choose again. And then the the disruption becomes the new status quo, until someone chooses again – often at great cost.

It’s by no means easy, but let’s realize perfect is the enemy of good enough and give it a try. What can it hurt?

And there you have it…

So if everyone follows these resolutions in 2015, can I guarantee world peace, an end to hunger, and whiter whites and no ring-around-the-collar? Nope. I can’t guarantee bupkis. That’s sort of the whole point. And certainly none of these ideas are original to me. But are any of them inherently flawed? I don’t think so. In my own can’t-quite-shake-being-a-child-of-the-70s way, I do believe if enough people adopted these as their own, the world would be a better place. There is so much energy that we pour into discussions of certain issues without ever realizing we’re talking about effects without ever dealing with causes. So if by some miracle, some consensus is formed that allows us to move forward, we’ve only won a temporary reprieve as the original cause still has not been addressed.

And the original cause is almost always us. Humans. We continue to push back the edges of what we know about the universe and yet spend so little time and attention on understanding ourselves and how we interact with one another. My daughter has already been taught the basics of economics in 1st Grade (she was explaining this to me just the other day), and yet she’ll probably never receive any in-depth instruction in school about:

  • Critical thinking
  • Conflict resolution
  • Effective personal communication
  • Developing emotional intelligence

…suffice to say, the list goes on. We have an educational system that’s main avowed purpose is to turn out the next generation of workers, when what we need is the next generation of decent human beings. Again, I don’t have all the answers, but I know enough to see that things can’t continue as they are.

On a personal note, my goal (no, not a resolution!) is to write twelve posts about these sorts of topics in 2015, one each month. I hope you’ll check back in occasionally.

Inauthentic but genuine: my take on a recipe for chili powder

Introduction

(if you are not interested in the how’s and why’s, you can just jump to the recipe.)chili powder

My parents are from out west and so I grew up eating home-cooked Mexican food. Now with a family of my own, we often do the same — with some differences of course. I’m much more likely to do some research and try to create more authentic dishes than my parents and of course now there is a general focus on fresh, quality ingredients. Back in the ’70s? Not so much.

Surprisingly though, “authentic” had very little to do with me creating my own chili powder. My first discovery on researching this was that chili powder, like so many “Mexican” dishes in the U.S. has nothing to do with Mexican cuisine. While there are various accounts about who invented it, and I think the best claim for inventing what most of us use goes to one Willie Gebhardt. If you read through that article, you’ll see that chili powder was basically the invention of an German immigrant to America looking for a way to preserve chilies.

First, chili was only a seasonal food during the late 1800s as fresh chilies were not available during the fall and winter months. Moreover, no known method for keeping chilies fresh existed at the time. Although dried chilies were known, they were mostly reconstituted with hot water and then diced and served in the chili. However, their texture was tough and they lost much of their flavor. Fresh chilies were preferred. Willie discovered that if he dried his chili peppers and ground them into a flavoring powder, he could keep the concoction fresh for months at a time.

And so chili powder was born. The current commercial process used to create it is, from what I’ve been able to discover, basically the same – the dried chilies and spices are soaked in a combination of water and alcohol, the liquid is expelled/drained and the cakes of spice mixture are then dried at around 125° F. Now, I’ve made a bit of an amateur study of herbs and the preservation of them (drying, extracts, etc.) and I know that if you’re trying to preserve as much of the original flavor as possible, you don’t soak plant-based materials in liquid, remove the liquid, and then subject it to more heat. What’s left over has as much in common with unprocessed dried chilies as an old tea bag has with unused loose tea. So I set about to see if I could make something better.

It should be noted that, according to some websites, the U.S. government has standards for the labeling of what can be sold as chili powder. Unfortunately, with the many reports of lead and salmonella contamination of commercial chili powders, I don’t think that makes me feel any safer. One of my goals in this was to use as many whole, unprocessed ingredients as possible, as that’s honestly the best way to avoid many contamination issues. Can spices, even whole ones, still contain bad stuff? You bet. But I try to buy from trustworthy sources and I know nothing I do in the processing of these ingredients is going to introduce something I don’t want.

In addition to the above reasons, there were a few other factors that served as inspiration for this recipe.

  1. I wanted a lot of flavor and not crazy amounts of heat. This was both to make this as general purpose as possible and to meet the needs of several “baby-mouths” in my family. If you want more heat, you can either use different peppers or just add however much cayenne powder you wish. But the focus of this is really to create layers of flavor.
  2. I’m not a huge fan of Indian cuisine, but I love the culture that’s built up around it – particularly the masala. These spice mixtures, while sold here in the U.S. in bland plastic containers with words like “Authentic!” printed on it, are in India all different based on geography and family. The preparation and ingredients are matters of familial, ethnic, and regional identity and in chili powder, I saw the opportunity to create essentially the North American version of that. So experiment with what I have outlined below and make it your own.
  3. In that same spirit, I’ve outlined a “base” recipe and then highlight some additional ingredients and preparation steps that you can look at – either to do yourself, or perhaps give you ideas of your own.

JB’s Chili Powder

Ingredients

Where possible, I’ve linked to my usual sources for ingredients, but please feel free to buy from wherever you want. Also, be aware that when I make this, it’s usually a batch four times as big, so some of my sources are geared to much larger amounts than called for in this recipe.

Do me this favor: do not buy spices from the supermarket. Even with whole spices, sitting forever on shelves under bright fluorescents in clear bottles is not a good thing. If you have access to a Latin market, try there as there will be enough turnover to help ensure some sort of freshness — otherwise, the Internet is your friend.

Chilieschilies

Lightly roast the chiles over lowish heat, being careful not to burn them. The ancho in particular may require a little bit longer. You’re trying to bake as much of the moisture out of them as possible (yes, dried chilies can and do still have moisture in them). What I often do is after grilling dinner, when the coals have burned down a bit, I’ll stick the chilies in — making sure that they are only receiving indirect heat. If you have some wood chips or there was already wood chunks on the coals, all the better in my opinion. Of course, if you hate fire and fun, all of this can be done in an oven too (but not the microwave for goodness’ sake!).

How you do you know when they’re done? Well, this is one of the other ways my recipe goes off the beaten path. Google “DIY chili powder” and almost all of them will tell you to remove the stem and seeds before you roast them. I, of course, laugh at convention – and with good reason. By keeping the stem and seeds, you have essentially a deflated balloon. When the pepper is placed on the heat, the air and water that is left inside starts expanding and re-inflating the pepper. You can see exactly what I mean in this video:

Ideally, slow roast the peppers (with smoke added if you wish) at about 250° F for about 5 minutes and then find a little bit of direct heat right over the coals (or in a skillet on high if doing this the not-fun, no-fire way) and keep turning them until they start to inflate and remove them before there’s any burning. Seriously – these are for the most part mild peppers, but you do not want to breath in smoke from burning chilies. BAD IDEA.

When done, the chilies will have softened to an almost leather-like consistency. Remove from heat and layout in a thin layer on a cookie sheet or cooling rack to cool down. As soon as they are safe to touch, remove the stem and split open to remove seeds BUT FIRST, get some gloves.

Remember, you’re not just touching peppers as you would when cutting fresh ones, you’re digging around, pulling off stems and removing seeds. Even with relatively mild peppers like these, your day will go very quickly south if you touch anywhere on your body with hands covered in chili oil. You’ve been warned! Oh, and if using the chipotle peppers, get to them as soon as you can. As they have already been roasted and smoked, when they cool off, they’ll basically be as hard as rocks. At the very least, get them de-stemmed and split in half as soon as you can – the seeds can come out after they’ve cooled more if necessary.

If you want more heat in the final chili powder, I suggest going with hotter peppers but still taking the seeds out – yes that is where the heat is, but ground up in a powder (if you can get them ground up at all) it adds an unpleasant bitterness.

For now, hold off on grinding the  peppers — we’re going to get a little help with that first. But do check to see if there are any that aren’t quite crisp all the way around yet and finish them off in a toaster oven or on the stove top. We need them as crispy as possible without actually being burnt.

Spice mix and preparationcumin

As the peppers are completed, put them aside and then assemble the following:
(and yes – these are, unless otherwise specified, all by weight, not by volume – trust me, this works much better)

Possible additions (I actually use all of these)

Before the next step, I advise toasting the cumin seeds and then, along with the sea salt and the cacao nibs, run them through the food processor, a separate small spice grinder, or a mortar and pestle (if you have one …which you totally should). Otherwise they may be a little too chunky to break down.

Bringing it all together

Now, some people use dedicated spice grinders for this and ol’ Willie Gebhardt used a coffee grinder for his, but I prefer the food processor. Most spice grinders are too small for this type of application and electric coffee grinders (yes, even the nice burr ones) tend to overheat oil-rich items (especially sticky, soft, dried peppers), imparting a scorched taste to the finished product. The food processor with its big chopping blade and ample space will work much better.

So go ahead and put your de-stemmed and de-seeded peppers in the food processor, and start pulsing the blade. After a few pulses, add about half the spice mixture above and pulse on and off for about 30 seconds. Now add the rest of the spice mixture and continue pulsing for another 30 to 60 seconds until the mixture is as fine a powder as it will get and well mixed. The idea is that the spices themselves will help break down the chilies.

Now you can go ahead and stop there if you wish, but if you want to help make sure the powder is as fine as possible, what I do is put it, in small batches, through a strainer-sifter. Take whatever is left that didn’t go through the sifter and run it through the food processor again (or a smaller spice grinder or a mortar and pestle if you have one …which you totally should). You’ll likely always end up with a few larger flakes rather than a perfectly uniform powder, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The main thing is to make sure all the seeds have been removed, as well as possible, at each step.

Storage

So we’ve completed this Herculean task of making our own chili powder! Yay! Go us! Now put it in your cupboard and be happy! Wait…

Your cupboard/spice cabinet is in your kitchen, right? Probably not too far away from your stove top, microwave, oven, etc. And there’s probably quite a bit of light in there, huh? For most spices bought from a mega-mart, that’s probably not going to do any more harm to them then has already been done. But this chili powder – it deserves better.

Here’s what we don’t want: light, heat, and air. So we need something preferably opaque, in a stable, cool environment and an air-tight container. Let’s take a page from how you should be treating your coffee: put it in the freezer. In an airtight container in the freezer, this stuff will keep at almost peak freshness for …well, a lot longer than the six months or so that Mr. Gebhardt managed, that’s for sure. And please make sure the container truly is air tight, and the container is non-reactive (so no plastics!). If you take care of it, it will take care of you.

Smoked Sea Salt

smoked sea saltIt hardly seems fit to call this a recipe. It’s just too easy. But since I continue to get questions about it, here you go:

On a large steel cooking sheet or aluminum pan, spread about 2 lbs of coarse sea salt. In your grill or smoker (again, this works really well if you start it after a normal grilling session), add in some wood (presoaked for at least 4 hours in water). I’ve used oak, hickory, maple, apple, cherry, pecan, and mesquite — and various combinations thereof. Put the cookie sheet with the salt on the grill, close the grill and go do something else for 20 minutes. Come back and with a metal or silicone spatula, stir the salt around. If you need to add more wood, do that too. Now go do something else for about 20 to 30 minutes. Or an hour. It doesn’t really matter at this point. It’s not like you can burn the salt after all! Basically, get it as smokey as you want and bam! You’re done!

So what to do with it after that? Well, you can use it in a chili powder recipe obviously. And it makes a great fancy finishing salt. On top of a quality dark chocolate, it’s pretty much divine, or a couple of grains added to a dish of ice cream with a chocolate or butterscotch sauce will rock your socks off. Basically, whatever you want. My family likes it so much, we bought one of these and put it, fresh ground, on pretty much everything — but especially on popcorn with a little of that True Lime I mentioned above. Best. Popcorn. Ever.

*That* Was A Pretty Good Day… (Twenty years & counting)

On this day exactly 20 years ago, this happened:

invite And 21 years ago, almost on this exact day, the events that set this all in motion happened. Unfortunately there aren’t any pictures of that moment – which seems sort of unfair as because of a chance meeting at a friend’s house, I got a wonderful wife, two amazing kids, and an incredibly rich life. That was a pretty good day.

I could go on and on about how the orbit of my life was moved by Katherine into something both more balanced and more exciting. I could go into detail how, in the words of a favorite aunt, marrying Katherine ensured that I “wasn’t such a little shit anymore.” (and she was completely right – notice she didn’t say I wasn’t a little shit anymore, just that I wasn’t quite as much of one. *grin*)

Or I could go on about our incredible kids. Or about how we still stay up far past the time we should have gone to sleep because we still just love talking to each other. Or even about how the troubles we have run into have been made less by the fact that we faced them together.

All of that would be true, but it wouldn’t begin to convey even the smallest portion of why I continue, every single day of my life, to be happy I married this woman…or happy that she still finds joy in being with me. When we started out, we were by all accounts too young, too poor, and too unready to have started down this path. Ninety-nine percent of the time, that would have probably been right, and there is no doubt that some amount of luck played into this, but the last two decades have been an incredible journey and I can’t imagine having made it with anyone else.

Now since we don’t have pictures of our first meeting 21 years ago, I’m now going to have to make do with pictures from that other event that happened a year later. :)

To all of the friends and family that were there, thank you for seeing us off on this adventure so ably. To all the friends and family that weren’t there or that we’ve met since then, thank you for continuing to help ease us on our way.

wedding_4_web
*This* was also a pretty good day ;)

wedding_1_webwedding_2_web

So young!
So young!

And most of all, I want to thank you Katherine. Thank you for being my partner in the truest sense of the word. Thank you for bringing so much magic into my life. Thank you for being my best friend. Thank you for bringing out the best in me and sticking by me when I am at my worst.Thank you for our children, and for working with me to raise them to embody the best of both of us and when that’s not an option, teaching them to find their own way. And with all my heart, thank you for believing in me so strongly that I had no choice but to believe in myself.

kathy_web

The past two decades have seemed to pass in an instant, and my thoughts now are the same as they were the first day we met and on the day we got married: I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

 

An Open Letter to Tim Kubart, a.k.a. ‘Tambourine Guy’

UPDATE:

And job done! Huge thanks to Tim Kubart for being an incredibly good sport about the whole thing and well, for being #TambourineGuy — because the world needs more of that.

Dear Mr. Kubart,

I invite you to view the following:

[Please note if you are not Tim Kubart, this disclaimer applies to you.]

Thank you! Now to be clear, I am asking this of you with Jess’ full knowledge and understanding – acquired while she was sober — which despite what the contents of the video above might imply, we both actually are more often than not. Continue reading An Open Letter to Tim Kubart, a.k.a. ‘Tambourine Guy’

Luxury Lane Soap and the Amazing Kylee Lane Need Our Help!

[Note: I don’t often ask people to support causes I believe in, and many who are reading this may have already donated and/or know Kylee, but for those who haven’t and who don’t know her, I sincerely ask you to read this to learn a little about her and consider adding your support to this amazing project. If you have already donated, please consider sharing this post!]

Have you ever met someone who not only showed you something new, but changed your ideas on what was possible? I have and her name is Kylee Lane. And I can say without hyperbole she’s also changed how I think about a great many things.

kylee_family
Kylee with her amazing family

A little over four years ago I ran across her on Twitter and saw her tweeting about her Luxury Lane Soap all-natural handmade soaps, one of which was her ‘Brain Wash Soap.’ On pretty much a lark, I bought it – truthfully not expecting much other than a cute novelty soap. But when it arrived, I was in for an epiphany. It was raspberry-scented but it didn’t smell like any raspberry-scented product I’d ever smelled… it smelled like real raspberries. Fresh, just-picked raspberries. I didn’t know such a thing was possible.

Now, I am someone who buys unscented products whenever I can – I find most commercial scents cloyingly artificial. But this was a revelation to me. I contacted Kylee almost immediately to let her know how amazing this was and ask what magic made this possible. She told me about how she mixes essential oils to make the scents and then mixes them into natural ingredients in a completely handmade process to make the soaps.

And one of the most important friendships of my life was born. A friendship that to this day has made my life a richer, more interesting thing. In that time I’ve seen Kylee produce more and more products, branching out from the geeky novelty soaps to the most amazing Organic Artisan Soaps and shampoos & conditioners, lotions, and now make-up. She makes this all by hand. Just her. And with levels of passion and creativity that are truly incredible. She is not just a crafter – she’s an artist practicing at the highest reaches of her art.

She’s also a business woman, who created this company from scratch and has continued to grow it every single year. But she needs our help! To continue growing her small business and to expand the number of amazing things she can make, she’s currently running an Indiegogo campaign to remodel space in her historic house as a new work studio. She’s figured out all the costs and she needs $5,000 to make this happen. She’s already over $4,000 and needs our help reaching her goal! And she has some really spectacular perks for backers!lls_ballroomWith this newly remodeled space, Kylee will be able to hire assistants, make more products, and create them more easily. Now, I’ve seen her produce an entire set of holiday orders (as in hundreds of orders) out of a small kitchen in her previous house. It involved lots of not sleeping, stress, and drinking coffee. With her family in their current house (which is pretty sweet by the way), she now has the opportunity to create a space where she can do the best work she’s ever done.

Now I could go on about the importance of supporting crafters, but I’ve already done that. Or I could go on and on about the importance of supporting small-businesses, but honestly if you don’t already think that’s important, then nothing I say will change your mind. So why should you – yes YOU – personally reach for your credit card and pony up some of your hard-earned cash?

Because quality matters. Because making things by hand is in danger of disappearing as a way of life. Because sometimes a thing is so magnificent or a person is so incredibly talented that it falls on all of us to help foster and support. The world needs more people like Kylee and this once, Kylee needs us.

I grew up in a world of politics and government. I’ve met Presidents, governors, senators, and congresspeople. In my various jobs, I met CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and some of the people credited with creating the Internet. And I say with all honesty that Kylee is one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met and I’m honored to be her friend.

I hope you will consider contributing to this project – both because I’m hoping for the best for her, but also because it’ll be a type of investment in the type of things this world needs more of. Like her handmade products, there is a genuineness to her that can’t be faked, 3D-printed, or mass produced.

Thank you.