No, We Didn't Light it but We Tried to Fight it.

Someone said to me that they couldn't even begin to understand how someone could deliberately set the Santiago fire.

I can.

There is a certain phase that I think almost all men go through sometime in their adolescence, in which destruction holds a certain fascination, in which carnage is simply cool and seems a valid end unto itself, the bigger the better. During this time a boy puts virtually no thought to the consequences of that destruction, to the danger to others or to the monetary value of things ruined. I know that I certainly went through this phase. I was a regular vandal and pyromaniac when I was in junior high school.

I'm not exactly sure where this urge, this mindset comes from but if made to play armchair psychologist, I would guess that it's a product of being that age. At twelve or thirteen years a boy is too old to be a child but nowhere near to being an adult. His physical strength and intellectual self-reliance are just beginning to come to the point where he feels he should be able to have an effect on the world but, culturally, he has virtually no outlets to do so. This desperate, unspoken need to do something of note that leads to destruction and vandalism of all sorts.

Sure, he could play on a sports team or learn a musical intrument but what will that get him, a trophy, congratulations from beaming parents? Hardly the currency of greatness. A fire or some other act of cultural nihilism arouses the attention of higher authorities, of the community, perhaps local media, certainly the police. To a young man not yet ready for manhood, that kind of attention can be deeply rewarding. It lets them know that they are not simply at the mercy of others, that they can take action and alter the landscape in which they exist and that they are, in some small way, a force with which to be reckoned.

I know what you're thinking. Tom, the Santiago fire was started by someone old enough to drive and with at least some experience in pyro-engineering. Obviously this person was an adult.

You're right. This fire, and the others like it, were set by adults, not by adolescents. I see two possibilities. These people may simply be emotionally stunted. They stopped growing as people sometime around their fourteenth birthday. Given how many guys I know that never really got over being twenty-one this seems entirely plausible, though unlikely.

The other possibility is that these people are hugely disaffected. They are angry, disappointed men, feeling powerless and perceiving themselves to have been abandoned by the world. Like so many youths, they desperately need to do something that has an effect on the world, something that gets noticed, something big, something that lets them turn on the television and say, even if only to themselves, "I did that."

I can understand that feeling. I hope that just about everyone can on some level.

I'm not excusing anyone. Whoever did this should be prosecuted and punished severely. The fact that I can empathize with these people doesn't mean that I don't think they are reprehensible, criminal, wrong, but one should also understand that there is an element of tragedy here other than the destruction and chaos wrought by the flames, themselves. Though inevitable, it's tragic that some people end up that way. If only the world were just a bit more tolerant, a touch more understanding, would this sort of thing still happen?

Who knows.


Talking to the Rainmakers

My father called them "soft afternoons," a fairly common expression in his native country. I call them "English days." The precipitation is just too heavy to be mist but couldn't be called rain. The chill goes deeper than simply temperature and the lightest of breeze is mistaken for a biting wind.

I love these days.

These are the days when I most like to go walking. The sidewalks, slick and dark, are empty of the people who fear to venture out in such weather and the ring of radials on pavement can be heard from twice the normal distance. The cold and the damp bother me not at all. I quite like them, in fact, reminders of the visceral and the tactile that others would chagrin for casually wasted comforts. The city becomes contemplative and I become likewise, strolling at great length through drizzle and gray, my travel and my cognition both wandering as they please, taking some small bit of the rainy world with them.

It's been dry in Atlanta of late and I haven't had enough of these silent and solitary days. They hadn't been missed until this week. Though, I suppose it would be hubris to count my meditation as another casualty of the water crisis.

I think I'll go walking for a bit.


On Film Making: The Gaffer

I get a lot of "What does a _________ do on a film set?" questions. It's understandable. A number of film jobs have cryptic names. Many radically different jobs have decidedly similar designations. That, and our professions are open to public scrutiny in a way that they are not for other industries thanks to the ending credits. On the whole, the public just doesn't understand what we all do.

The one that's got to take the cake, though, is the Gaffer. Maybe tied with Best Boy, Gaffer is the job title that film laypeople are least likely to understand. I even had two different professors in film school, both of which were film academics, not professional film makers, who failed to understand the term.

Simply, the Gaffer is the head of the electrical department. Virtually everything on set that runs on electrical power comes back to or is reliant upon the Gaffer and his/her team. Most notably, this includes all of the lights used to compose a shot but it also includes a vast array of other items. While operating generators and providing electricity to the other departments on location is one of the electrical department's two main priorities, that particular set of tasks is normally delegated to the Gaffer's right hand, the Best Boy Electric. The Gaffer, meanwhile, is the Director of Photography's go-to. He or she orchestrates all of the lighting and is responsible for all of the attendant equipment and expertise.

The degree of autonomy a Gaffer has varies greatly depending on the director and DP. Some DP's simply indicate a general direction and intensity of light and leave the rest to the Gaffer. He or she chooses the lighting instruments and coordinates with the Grip department for the manipulation of that light. Others DP's dictate minute specifics intending the Gaffer merely to implement the setup. The knowledge base of the DP and the Gaffer overlap greatly and while most DP's begin as AC's, moving up through the camera department, it is not at all unusual for a Gaffer to become a DP.

The origin of the term is uncertain but I've heard two tales that are related and equally plausible. The first is that, in the early days of fiction film making lights and skylights were manipulated using long hooks that took tremendous physical strength to use. The people manipulating them were often recruited from the merchant marine because a similar type of long hook, called a gaff hook, and an equal degree of upper body strength was needed in the loading of sea cargo. Additionally, gaffer is English slang for an old man; 'geezer' is the American equivalent. Because Gaffer is a job that requires great technical savvy and experience the head lighting technician was traditionally one of the oldest members of the crew. A hybrid possibility is that, as manually loaded cargo ships gave way to more modern styles of transport, older seamen found their skills obsolete in the merchant marine and many of them found employment in the film industry.

Gaffers are, almost by definition, one of the most experienced, most technically skilled and most respected people on a film set and in the film industry. The job garners great prestige among professional film technicians. It takes a lifetime to learn and master the Gaffer's craft, learning to be one part painter of light, one part military commander and one part hostage negotiator. Without a gaffer, a movie is just a blank screen.

My hat is off to anyone who succeeds at this, most challenging, of film professions.


Tom's All Encompassing Theory of Life

This may be the only bit of legitimate wisdom I have ever produced.

Everyone has those days, the days when things just don't come our way, the 'mamma said' kind of days. Our lottery tickets loose; every light is red. Keys break off in locks; passing cars throw up unavoidable walls of water as they pass through puddles. We find that everything in the fridge has gone bad or that our checking account is five hundred dollars short. The computer crashes and the car won't start. We're the target of everyone's venom. So many things can go wrong in a given day that we're bound to have crappy days from time to time. It's something we just have to learn to handle.

In the interest of staying sane, I have concocted a method of coping.

When those days happen, when you're tempted to say, "Wow, my life really sucks today," stop and list for yourself all the reasons that your life sucks. I mean the real reasons, not the minor complaints or the life excuses, not "I got lemon juice in my hangnail, whaaaaaaa." No, I mean, "I lost my job." "I got locked out of the house in the rain." "My favorite pet died." "I got rear ended on the freeway and the guy drove off before I could get his tag number." "I discovered I have leprosy," etc. List for yourself all of the real reasons why your day or your life is so bad. Go into excruciating detail to the point that a potential listener might be overcome with despair at the pitilessness and pain of the world.

Then, once you've done this, you need to contemplate a single idea. Internalize this concept as it might be your only defense against the onslaught of worldly trials. Once you've listed all the reasons that your life sucks think about how much worse your life would be if you were forced to add to the end of that list, "And, I am currently on fire."

Nothing will seem that bad after that.

Contrawise, you may have a day where you say the reciprocal, "Wow, my life is really great!" You land the big promotion. You get home in time for your favorite show. The kids are calm and happy. The test comes back negative. You win at cards and the world generally agrees that, whatever it is, it's not your fault. When this happens, you can get some perspective by listing for yourself all the reasons that your life is good in much the same way that you previously listed the things that were bad. As before, go into frightening detail to the point that some theoretical listener would be overcome with despair at the knowledge that their life will never reach the level of perfection that yours has.

Then, once you've done that you, again, need to contemplate a sigle idea. Think of how much better your life would be if you were forced to add to the end of that list, "And, I am currently receiving oral sex."

Things won't seem quite as good as they had a moment before.

Now I know what you're thinking. "Tom, what if I were, perchance, already A) receiving oral sex or B) on fire?" I bet you think you're pretty smart you smug little shit. I have pondered this at great length and come to the conclusion that if you are either A) receiving oral sex or B) on fire, then that is the wrong time to be taking personal inventory. The thoughts in your head at that time should, in both cases, be dominated by animal instincts and guttural noises.

I will admit that there is one possible situation that my theory cannot encompass. So, perhaps I should not call it "Tom's all encompassing theory of life as I confess there is a singluar situation in which this principle cannot apply. If you were to ever find yourself simultaneously receiving oral sex whilst on fire, then you have reached some sort of zen-nirvana-yin-yang-dharmic perfection that I am not wise enough to address. I'm just not prepared to comment on that eventuality. If anyone finds themself in this situation, please comment or email so I might complete the theory.

I am confident however, that any of the readers of this blog will probably not encounter that situation so you can now sally forth into the big bad world, knowing that you are prepared for nearly anything, confidently armed with Tom's very nearly all encompassing theory of life [TM].

Here Endeth the Lesson


Howling at the Moon & Such

I'm going to a Pagan festival this weekend. I'll be back on Tuesday if anyone needs to reach me.


Honey, I'm Home.

The first major decision you need to make in brewing mead:

Which varietal of honey should I use?.

While most people tend to think of honey as a simple thing, it's thick, golden, good in tea and shaped like a teddy bear, there's really much more to it. It comes in many varieties, varies greatly in quality and price and, along with your choice of adjunct, has a huge influence on the character of your final product. We've all eaten honey and we all know that it comes from bees but few people have a concrete understanding of what's really involved.

Honey is the sole item in a beehive's pantry, the store of food that the hive will use to weather the bulk of the year when bee-appropriate food is scarce. Bees consume the sugar-rich nectar of flowering plants, partially metabolize it and combine it with other organic compounds whilst ridding it of most of its water. This reduced sugar substance is produced by a specialized part of the bees' digestive systems and then regurgitated into the cells of the honeycomb for later consumption.

Chemically speaking, honey is a melange of simple and complex sugars, inert lipids - wax, water and a tiny percentage of aromatic compounds leftover from the harvesting of the nectar. It varies greatly in terms of color, viscosity and flavor.

A variety of honey is defined by the flowering plants from which the bees harvest nectar. Varietal honeys, sometimes called monoflorals, are produced from a single flowering plant. Most commercial apiaries are in the business of pollination-for-hire, using their bees to foster the growth of large swaths of domesticated cropland and thus the bees in their hives have access to only one kind of nectar. The honey is usually a byproduct, and extra bonus for the beekeeper. Orange blossom and tupelo honey are common in the southeast, where I live. Clover honey is widely available in Canada. Avocado honey is common in California and evergreen honeys are common in Greece. Cherry and apple blossom honeys are easy to find in the UK.

One common misconception is that, because most honeys are made from flowering plants that humans eat, that the honey somehow resembles the food that shares its name. This is incorrect. Monofloral honey will take some of its properties, mostly aroma and initial sweetness, from the flower from which the nectar was harvested. Only rarely do the flower and the edible parts of the plant share noticeable characteristics. Orange blossom honey tastes like a citrus orchard, not like a citrus fruit. Cherry blossom honey tastes like Washington DC in springtime, not like grenadine. Keep this in mind when both when setting expectations about your finished product as well as when buying honey, else you might shy away from distinctive honeys like buckwheat, fireweed and mesquite.

Note, 'wildflower' is not really a varietal in the same manner as those listed above. Honey is usually labeled wildflower if its constituent nectars have multiple sources or if the feeding area of the bees has not been determined. This is the most common and least expensive form of honey on the US market and for this reason it will probably be what you use for your first brewing experiments. Wildflower honey's main advantage is that, in a given area, it is usually consistent from year to year. Because it is simply a blend of local nectars it can vary greatly from region to region so be aware of where your wildflower honey originates.

Go out and sample several kinds of locally available honey. Taste them as you would taste wine, examining them critically, noting color and thickness. Take a tip of a spoon's worth and notice how it tastes initially and how that taste changes as it sits in your mouth. Examine the aftertaste. Breathe deeply while you do this and pay attention to the aromatics as this is the most noticeable quality that a particular honey will impart to a finished mead. Do this several times, clearing your palate between each. Most of that distinct, sugary, sweetness will ferment away. The more complex sweetness that comes later as well as the wax's bitterness and the semi-burnt ash flavor that resides deeply hidden in many varietals will remain, in varying degrees, in the finished beverage. Also note the color; this will translate into the color of the mead along with your adjuncts.

That having been said, if you're not yet a mead aficionado, you'll probably be fine with your local wildflower blend. It's much less expensive than monoflorals and will still produce a delicious and intoxicating brew. You can probably worry about the finer details in a later batch. Also, be aware of what adjuncts, and how much of them, you plan on using in advance. If you're making a pyment with merlot grapes, the tannins of the finished product may overpower many of the aspects of the honey, in which case varietal is not so important. Contrawise, if you were to make a pyment with pino grigio grapes, the honey's flavor and aroma are going to have a distinctive effect on the mead.

I'll say this a lot; the most important thing is - what do you like? Find the honey that tastes best or is the easiest to work with or the most consistent in your area or even the cheapest as long as it suits your taste.

Join me next time as I discuss where and how to buy honey for brewing. It's not so simple as going to the grocery, as you'll see.