Saturday, August 31, 2013

Day 111 - Canning Vegetables

I have never learned how to can food. While obtaining such a skill wouldn’t have been a priority earlier in my life, my efforts to grow a variety of vegetables in recent years has left me with few options to use all of them before the season turns. As a result, I figured learning how to can food would be a good skill to learn and use so I could reap the benefits of my gardening efforts year round. This objective set me to work finding time to learn the skill sometime this summer or fall and finding an outlet to learn the process. Fortunately, my Mother was well versed in canning and also took an interest in growing her own food over the past years. In turn, I contacted my Mother, Kathy, to find a time to learn how to can, which resulted in us making plans to work through the process this evening.

You know what we need? More vegetables...
Upon arriving to my Mother’s house this evening, I was immediately stunned by the quantity of vegetables and supplies strewn about her kitchen. As someone coming into my canning lesson with no previous experience, the sight of overflowing bowls of vegetables, food processing equipment, massive pots, racks, rows of jars, and a variety of tools set me back a bit. Of course, this was likely due to the fact that I knew next to nothing about canning before tonight’s experience. I knew the process involved jars and food, I knew boiling water was somehow involved, and I knew the jars pinged when the process was complete. Otherwise, I was oblivious to the process of canning. As I stood at the edge of my Mother’s kitchen questioning the necessity of each item, my Mother and her fiancé, Rick, reassured me the canning process was relatively easy. Acknowledging my uncertainty, my Mother said she would walk me through each step to make I gained the full experience before throwing her hands up and saying, “Ok! Let’s get to work!”

Step one!
Although I was still uncertain about how the process would come together, I knew the only way I was likely to learn how to can was to get my hands dirty. As a result, I entered the kitchen and prepared to receive direction. In response, my Mother explained we would be making and canning salsa during my first canning experience and proceeded to give me a brief run through of the entire process in a series of simple steps. Her explanation of the process and the tools we would use helped me gain a better understanding of the fundamentals, but I knew guidance would be necessary for me to be successful in my first canning effort. With her explanation complete, my Mother explained we would first have to load a wire rack with empty jars and submerge the jars in a large blue metal pot full of water sitting on her stove. Following her direction, I grabbed empty jars from the counter filled them with a bit of water, and placed them in the rack, which was now resting directly over the blue pot. Once the rack was full, my Mother instructed me to fold in the handles of the rack, drop it into the pot full of water, and turn on the stovetop. Explaining the reasoning behind my actions my Mother continued, “We need these to get hot, so we’re going to turn this on ant let it boil while we work.” Understanding the intent, I nodded my head is agreement and looked over the kitchen. “Ok, what next?” I said in anticipation.

In response, my Mother moved to heaps of vegetables on the island table at the center of her kitchen and began making a workspace. “Step two is chopping!” she said raising a single finger in the air. “You can start by chopping up the peppers. I’ll take care of the tomatoes” she said as she placed a cutting board on the table in front of me. Confident that was a task I could handle, I immediately set to work quarter groups of bell and jalapeño peppers. Behind us, Rick worked the food processor to mince our cut vegetables in preparation for the salsa. Once finished processing each grouping of vegetables, Rick them poured each container into a massive metal pot on the other side of the stove top. As we continued working I was astounded by the quantity of vegetable we were working through. After nearly 15 minutes of chopping and mincing, the pot was little more than half way full, which meant we still had a lot of work to do. With each passing minute the once massive pile of vegetables at the table diminished further until we were left with several empty bowls and a small pile of remaining tomatoes.

The full pot
“Well, that should do it,” Rick said with a chuckle as he poured the last container of minced vegetables into the nearly overflowing metal pot. Amazed at the quantity of chopped vegetables in the pot, I promptly responded with a question of how many of salsa the pot would yield. “Oh, about eight,” Rick replied frankly. While I knew the jars we were preparing were substantial in size, the number seemed surprisingly low to me. Considering the effort we were putting in, I guess I was hopeful we would walk away with a massive haul, but I also knew the fruits of our labors would be well worth the effort. With the estimated yield sinking in, I stood before the pot of mixed vegetables for a moment before my Mother grabbed my attention. “Ok, the next step is adding the ingredients to the pot and bringing it to a boil,” she said as she hurriedly prepared for the next step in the process. After turning on the heat beneath the pot of vegetables, my Mother moved to a nearby counter and instructed me to get the next ingredients ready. At her direction, I added vinegar, seasoning, and a few herbs to the pot of vegetables and stirred the heavy mix of vegetables. “Now we keep an eye on it and wait for it to boil,” my Mother said looking over my actions, “Then we will be ready to can.”

Mix that s***!

While we waited for the mixture of vegetables, vinegar, and seasoning to boil, we busied ourselves with some simple tasks meant to assist us in the final phases of the process. Eventually, small bubbles began to form on the outer rim of the mixture, which prompted my Mother to direct me in taking the empty jars out of the large blue pot on the other half of the stove. Using a tool somewhat like a curved tongs, I plucked each of the jars out of the blue pot, emptied them of water, and placed them on the nearby counter. 

Let the canning begin!
Once I was finished, my Mother removed the massive pot of vegetables from the stove with two oven mitts and placed it on a cutting board to the left of the rows of steaming jars. “Alright, now we grab a funnel, fill the jars to the base of the rim, and add some pectin. Then put together a cap and screw it on.” Acknowledging her remarks I grabbed one of the empty jars and complete each of the three steps. This continued until I had eight lidded jars of salsa filled to the top. Satisfied with my efforts, I took a step back and said, “There we go!” which prompted my Mother to respond abruptly. “We’re not done yet!” she said with a smile. Confused, I took a step back and waited for more instruction.

Taking a dip
My Mother proceeded to explain the final step in the process was to place the jars in the rack and submerge them in the blue pot once more. “After boiling for 45 minutes,” she said, “They’ll be ready to go.” In turn, I started grabbing the jars of salsa and placing them in the rack once more. Eventually, this process made it apparent I would have to remove water from the pot to avoid forcing water over the rim and onto the stove and floor. Slowly and carefully I removed scalding hot water from the pot until enough water remained to cover the jars without causing a flooding incident. With my efforts a success, my Mother, Rick, and I took a break from the kitchen and let the jars roll in a boil for the next three quarters of an hour. When this time finally passed, I returned to the metal blue pot and lifted the rack out of its center. After carefully moving the jars of salsa from the rack back to the counter, I turned to my Mother. “That’s it! Now, we’re finished!” she exclaimed as I back away from the counter. The only step left was to let the jars cool.


Realizing it would be quite some time before the jars of salsa cooled to room temperature, I waited around for the first jar to ping before I called it a night and headed home. Although the canning process took several hours, the overall experience was a very positive one. Spending time with my Mother is always fun, and the insight and knowledge I gained from the experience is something I will be able carry with me for the rest of my life. While the process looked daunting at first, my Mother was correct in stating canning is relatively simple. It just takes time, a little know-how, and some tasty vegetables. Considering what you get from the work, I think it is worth contributing every one of those things to the process… but I should probably taste the salsa before I set that conclusion in stone.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Day 110 - Rachael's 30th/Attending Atlas Improv

I have never celebrated Rachael’s 30th birthday, and I have never been to Atlas Improv in Madison, Wisconsin. Tonight both of these things were on the schedule, which meant it was going to be a busy Friday. Let me start off by saying that I feel lucky to have a woman like Rachael in my life, and celebrating her 30th, and golden, birthday with some of our closest friends meant a lot to me (and her, of course). Leading up to tonight’s dinner event we actually had to make last minute changes to the location of the event because the restaurant Rachael originally picked couldn’t take a reservation of our size. With nearly 20 people showing up for her birthday dinner, it was quite an event, and it made me feel lucky to have so many special people in our lives. So, first thing’s first. Happy birthday, Rachael! I love you to the moon and back!

Happy birthday!
Our evening began with our birthday dinner plans at the local Mexican restaurant, Pedro’s. Although Pedro’s trademarked brand of so-so service left something to be desired, the nearly 90 minutes it took our group to receive our food after ordering gave us plenty of time to catch up, have plenty of laughs, and have some fun. Drinks flowed and people were merry. It was a great way to end a work week and an even better way to celebrate Rachael’s big day. Unfortunately, obligations tomorrow morning meant Rachael couldn’t stay out late, so the party began to wind down quickly after 9:30 pm.

The dinner crew

With knowledge I intended to make Atlas Improv my “I have never...” for the day, Rachael previously indicated she was interested in attending. However, a few margaritas and a pending early rise caused he to change her mind just before the show was scheduled to start. After confirming she was still ok with me attending (she is awesome), I proceeded to the home of Atlas Improv on East Washington Avenue in Madison. Upon entering the building, I was greeted by a man standing behind a counter standing before a movie themed poster advertising a “Friday Night Double Feature” improv event. The sounds of the improv group warming up bounced off of the walls in the building as I approached the counter. At first afraid I was late for the start of the performance, the man behind the counter quickly informed me I was one of two people in attendance for the late show. After confirming the show would still go on, the man asked me if I was still willing to attend despite the low turnout.

In response to his remarks I furrowed my brow and gave a quick glance around the building. A feeling of hesitance gripped me as I stood before the counter contemplating my next move. I started questioning what I was getting myself into as I stood silent before the man. Seconds ticked by as I rifled through the thoughts in my head. “Can it really be that bad?” I thought as I reluctantly pulled my wallet out of my back pocket and pulled out some cash. “Yeah, fine. Let’s do it” I said as I handed the money to the man and did my best to prevent my assumptions from turning into premature disappointment. After hand over the cash the man stamped my hand and invited me to take a seat in the performance area. In response, I walked down a small hallway to my right and around a corner into a dimly lit room with a small platform at its far side. The chairs were empty except for one man occupying a seat in the front row. Feeling awkward about the whole experience, I made my way to the center of a third row and took a seat just before an introduction of the improv troop began.

Well, this is awkward

Over the next few minutes I sat and watched as an announcer in the back left corner of the room introduced each of the 10 improv performers in the Atlas troop. I honestly felt bad for the group as their numbers continued to swell with each new name bellowed over the speakers. Their crowd was 1/5 of their improv team, and that had to be hard to swallow. Despite that fact, each of the members of the improv team took the stage with enthusiasm and excitement, which gave me a greater degree of confidence the experience would still be worth it. That stated, things got a bit awkward again when the troop began looking over the empty room asking for ideas from the audience as they began the show. I chuckled a bit at the fact they weren’t addressing the two of us in the room directly before I gave them a few responses. In response, about half of the improv team set to work crafting a movie preview off of my suggestions. To my surprise, the group was actually quite witty and very funny. They didn’t seem to care there were only two of us in attendance, they were simply happy to be spontaneously coming up with the funniest things they could think of in response to my suggestions. Minutes into the performance I was laughing hard which quickly drove away my previous concerns and earlier assumptions about the night’s event.

This theme continued for some time as the improve troop moved into the next phase of the performance. As a part of the “Friday Night Double Feature” a member of the Atlas team explained the rest of the night would involve the team acting out two movies based on suggestions from the audience. After the man sitting in the front row gave them a few more ideas, the troop immediately broke into an improvised movie about a man, a chiropractor, the most popular girl in the world, and a motorcycle accident. The story that followed was equally as funny as the first few minutes of the performance, with members of the troop moving in and out of characters and bending gender barriers to work with one another in telling the tale. Much to my surprise, I was laughing hard and often, which made the experience entertaining and enjoyable. I was actually surprised to find nearly 20 minutes had passed when the troop wrapped up the first “movie” and prepared to move into the second.

On stage
After a change out of players for the second round of the improv, the Atlas crew moved into the second “movie” in the double feature. The other man in the audience offered some suggestions again, which set the troop into action crafting a tale about alcoholics anonymous and a medieval mace. While the majority of the group remained as funny in the second half of the performance as the players had been in the first, the second half of the performance was much weaker. Largely the result of one player consistently moving the story off track and adding elements with little-to-no humor to the store, the performance dragged on and offered little by way of laughs. There were a few funny moments in the second half of the performance, but it definitely didn’t hold a candle to the troop’s first effort of the evening performance.

Eventually, the improv show drew to a close with the conclusion of the horror themed improvisation, which brought my first experience with Atlas Improv to a close. Although the lack of attendance was originally off putting, I give the Atlas team a lot of credit for giving it their all to put on a show for a crowd of two people. For the most part, the crew was funny and entertaining, which was great to see and experience. While I don’t know if my schedule will permit me to attend another show at Atlas Improv in the near future, I will say the folks that perform in the Atlas troop deserve a lot of credit for putting on a good show. These folks know how to make people laugh, and they deserve a much larger crowd than the one I was in tonight. Overall, it was a good new experience, and I thank Rachael for being cool enough to let me have it on her special day.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Day 109 - Attending a Performance at The American Players Theatre

I have never attended a performance at the American Players Theatre. For those that are unfamiliar, the American Players Theatre is an outdoor theatre nestled in woods about an hour west of Madison, just outside Spring Green, Wisconsin. While I have known about the theatre for some time, I never really had any intention of attending a performance at the complex. With many options for live theatre in Madison, I figured I can always look locally and save myself the long trip if I ever had the desire to attend a play. Of course, this perspective changes when I found myself in a scenario where I was at a loss for today’s “I have never...” event after a schedule change caused my original plans for today to go awry. Luckily a friend of mine, Allison, had made me aware of an extra ticket she had to attend Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the American Players Theatre tonight. In turn, I took her up on her offer and prepared to gain a new and unexpected experience attending a show I had never seen at the American Players Theatre tonight. 

After finishing my workday, I immediately started the journey to the theatre. While I didn’t initially look forward to spending an hour on the road after a long day at work, the drive was actually quite relaxing and felt surprisingly brief. From my office my route took me down less traveled highways north of Madison that meandered through the hills and bluffs of southwestern Wisconsin. Against the backdrop of a late summer evening sun, the landscapes provided beautiful scenery that kept me occupied for the length of the trip. As a result, I found myself turning into the American Players Theatre parking lot much sooner than I had expected. Fortunately, the sights around me on the trip made the hour of travel seem much more like 20 or 30 minutes, which was a welcomed occurrence on such a full day.

Made it!
Upon arriving at the theatre I met up with Allison and a few of her friends just before the performance began. Together we walked up a small path ascending a hill in the middle of the woods until we came upon a massive structure built into the terrain. After taking a quick look around the area, we made our way to the main aisles for the theatre seating. As we moved to find our seats, the sight of the theatre was incredible. Constructed entirely of wood, the theatre rested in a pocket of dense forest filled with the sounds of birds signing and cicadas buzzing. The rows of seats arching before the performance area sat embedded in the hillside and tapered down to a tiered stage backed by three distinct walls. At first glance it was obvious the American Players Theatre was a highly distinct performance area that would likely provide a highly memorable experience. Before the play had begun I was already happy I had made the trip.

Minutes after we took our seats a final announcement rang out over a set of loudspeakers before the lights dimmed and the play began. As the actors took the stage, I didn’t know quite what to expect from the forthcoming performance. After all, I had little background on the plot of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead outside of the program we received upon arriving at the theatre. I knew it took place behind the scenes of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and I knew it was a relatively recent work. Otherwise, I was in the dark on the specifics. Once the play began it quickly became obvious I was in for a treat. Humor remained a common thread as we watched the story of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern develop while the story of Hamlet unfolded somewhere off stage. At first confused as to who they were, where they were, and why they were there, the two men struggled to put together shards of details they could hardly recall. Eventually, the introduction of other characters in the story assisted them in their efforts until they were finally drawn into Hamlet by the actions of the royal family and Hamlet himself. As the story progressed, I found the balance between the two stories highly amusing. The actors would move in and out of Lambic Pentameter as they transitioned from passing scenes in Hamlet back to their sideline efforts to put the pieces of their story together.

The stage... Unfortunately no photos
were permitted during the show

As the play moved to its second half, the persistence of uncertainty and the confusion that came with their role managing Hamlet’s mania began to weigh on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. While the humor of the work remained, it quickly became clear the story was being drawn toward and ultimate conclusion. After a story of foresight from a hilarious (and very, very open) acting troop, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern started to realize the inevitable conclusion of their roles in the story of Hamlet, which sent the duo into a scattered state in an effort to find a way out of the drama and madness that followed Hamlet. Despite their efforts, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern eventually found themselves on a boat bound for England with nothing left to do but face their collective fate. With a bit of hesitance and ultimate acceptance, the two fulfilled their role in the story of Hamlet and made true the title of the play that bears their names. In the final scene, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s actions fell back into place in the final act of Hamlet before the curtain fell. While the ending left questions unanswered, it felt right; at least for the story of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

At the end...

At the conclusion of the play our group headed back down the wooded trail and started making our way back home. On the drive back I rehashed my first experience at the American Players Theatre and my first experience with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Considering the unique setting and the entertainment value of the play, I was quick to conclude today’s “I have never...” event was time well spent. Although the theatre was out of the way, making the trip was well worth the experience, and for that, I’m grateful. After tonight’s experience I can say two things. First, I would gladly go back to the American Players Theatre in the future. It’s simply a great place to escape and see some quality performers do their thing. Second, after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead I should probably see Hamlet so I can put everything in context. I guess I will just have to add that goal to the “I Have Never...” list!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Day 108 - Lawrence of Arabia

I have never watched Lawrence of Arabia. As a part of my ongoing “I have never...” journey, I have been watching one classic movie I have never seen each month in an effort to broaden my horizons and experience a variety of cinematic masterpieces for the first time. Following my return from Ireland, I thought watching a classic movie would be a great way to unwind and help me get back into sync with my home life. At first I threw around a few ideas for some potential films to watch for the first time tonight, but returning to one of the hottest weeks of this year made Lawrence of Arabia seem an obvious and appropriate choice. In turn, Rachael helped me track down a copy at our local library and I settled in to watch the Hollywood cinematic account of T.E. Lawrence’s role in shaping the modern Middle East.

Doing the unimaginable...

...and winning the respect of many
I will start by saying there is nothing I can say about Lawrence of Arabia that hasn’t already been said. Additionally, any effort I put into trying to recount the amazing story of T.E. Lawrence’s life would likely be much less eloquent and much more lacking than those that came before me. I will simply say the role a single man from England had in the recent history of the Middle East is astonishing, and Peter O’Toole’s acting in the recreation of T.E. Lawrence’s tortured life was powerful enough to make me feel as though I was seeing the events of World War I Arabia as they happened. Shortly after I started the film, I sat engaged as the events in the film unfolded and escalated. Early on, Lawrence’s efforts to prove himself to the Arabian tribes and his strategic and overwhelming victory at Aqaba masqueraded as the focus on the tale, but it quickly became apparent Lawrence’s emotional struggles with the violence of war, with his own devotions, and with his identity would serve as the centerpiece of the film. While I was gripped by the uncommon, and almost unbelievable, elements of Lawrence’s story, I knew the conflict he faced on the battlefields was second to what he was facing within himself.

Returning after victory at Aqaba

By the time the film reached its intermission, the heaviness of Lawrence’s experiences in victory and defeat left me wondering whether the man would be capable of persisting in the throes of war. While I knew his survival was guaranteed, I doubted Lawrence’s ability to mentally face the continued horrors and uncertainty of his role in Britain’s World War I military conquests. As the second half of the film moved forward, my perspective was reinforced by Lawrence’s wary, unstable reactions to his circumstances. Following his efforts to engage in guerilla warfare against the Turks and his ultimate capture by enemy hands, I watched as Lawrence vacillated on points of his commitments, his allegiances, and his identity. He was a man lost as he led the Arab forces toward Damascus, which led to the inevitable slaughter of Turkish forces after Lawrence’s abandonment of his cause and principles. War had broken him and driven him to a point of no return.

Reaching a breaking point

The aftermath

After Lawrence’s failed efforts to bring the Arab tribes together in the newly claimed land, I was staggered by the abrupt ending of the film. I watched on as a newly promoted and highly dispirited T.E. Lawrence took his final look at a passing Middle Eastern caravan as he was escorted away from Arabia in a British staff car. With that final glance the film drew to sudden close with a black screen displaying the simple words “the end.” Although it caught me by surprise, the ending, and its inherent symbolism seemed appropriate after watching the story of T.E. Lawrence unfold. What Lawrence was and what he became was likely left in those final moments of his time in the Arabian desert, a feeling that was implied in the film’s opening sequence immediately following T.E. Lawrence’s death in a motorcycle crash. All I can say is Lawrence of Arabia is powerful and moving. It is clear why so many consider it a masterpiece.

One last glance from a dejected man

After watching Lawrence of Arabia I must say the film is a cinematic experience worth having. While the movie is nearly four hours in length, the story of T.E. Lawrence’s life as told in Lawrence of Arabia is an engaging tale. At no point did I feel an aspect of the film was unnecessary, and the span of the work captures Lawrence’s tormented struggles so well it makes the viewer feel embedded in the story. Needless to say, I’m happy I took the time to watch Lawrence of Arabia tonight. Although it ended up being a late night because of it, watching the movie was a great way to spend this evening. Now, I just need to find a way to cool off in this persistent summer heat.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Day 107 - The Wisconsin State Capitol Tour

I have never attended the Wisconsin State Capitol tour. While I live in the state’s capital city and have visited the state capitol building plenty of times, taking the formal tour is something I have never sought to do. Basically, my perspective on the tour was that I could see everything the tour entailed on my own if I really chose to do so. After all, the Wisconsin State Capitol is a public complex that prides itself on accessibility. In turn, I never made a point to take the tour before today. My decision to do so would prove my assumptions on the experience incorrect and would expose me to a depth of state history I had never previously encountered.

The capitol
My first experience with the Wisconsin State Capitol tour began a little before 1:00 pm this afternoon. With a “recovery day” built into my schedule after my return from Ireland, the early afternoon trip to the capitol provided a nice outlet for me to occupy an afternoon without trying to fit in a full day. When I arrived at the capitol I approached the information desk at the edge of the Capitol Rotunda, which was full of protestors engaging in the ongoing daily hour long “Solidarity Sing Along” protest. After confirming I was in the correct location for the 1:00 capitol tour, I turned my attention to experience the controversial “Solidarity Singers” firsthand. Although the protestors had recently blanketed local news with stories about their arrests at the hands of Capitol Police, I found the group to be a respectful and joyous crowd simply exercising their first amendment rights in “the people’s house.” They were not interfering with anyone’s workday, they were not defacing any part of the building, and they were not preventing anyone from accessing or using all parts of the building. They were there only to use their voices in protest of the current administration as they stood surrounded by walls that displayed words and pictures of the underlying tenets of democracy. Their actions seemed acceptable against such a backdrop, which made me question how the decisions of the current state government and the Capitol Police force reflect a government that claims to support freedom and democracy.

The end of the sing along
With knowledge the capitol tour was scheduled to start at 1:00, the protestors promptly ended their “Solidarity Sing Along” a minute before 1:00. As they promptly moved out of the building, a nearby tour guide emerged alongside the information desk and called for all tour group participants to gather around her. In response, a small group of people and I moved closer to her, which prompted her to begin the tour. After giving a brief background of the capitol building, the woman led us up a flight of stairs and down a hallway. There, we met a small chamber containing a badger statue and a single door that had “Office of the Governor” painted above it. The woman stopped us for a brief moment to explain the significance of the badger statue in Wisconsin’s history before leading us through the single door and into an elaborate conference room.

The badger!
Around the massive t-shaped table at the room’s center were walls painted a deep red and aged artwork occupying the free space at the center of each wall. Each corner and frame in the space was encompassed by intricate gold embellishments that were complemented by a massive marble fireplace at one end of the room. I was staggered by the sight of such elegance in our state capitol building, which the tour guide explained was a result of an effort to model the conference room after the interior rooms of an Italian palace. As the woman continued speaking about the room, I did my best to take in the details of the elaborate space around me. I couldn’t help but feel such elegance embodied a disconnect between the government and everyday people, but the tour guide’s comments about the room’s nearly 100 years of age made me realize that disconnect is not a new phenomenon. Continuing, the tour guide informed us it was a rare occurrence to have access to the room given its routine use in state government affairs. The comment made me feel lucky to start off my tour experience with such an event, which caused me to linger in the room a few moments longer after the guide had begun leading the group onto the next stop in the tour.

The governor's conference room
After taking in the final views of the governor’s conference room, I rejoined the group at a hearing room known as the “yellow room” in the capitol. The room had walls constructed of pale yellow marble with a ceiling constructed of a brilliant yellow stained glass organized in geometric designs. The guide informed us of the history behind the room before leading us further into the tour, which carried through the State Supreme Court, senate, and assembly chambers. All three areas of the capitol maintained the themes of the hearing room, with ornate fixtures surrounded by beautiful marble walls illuminated by natural sunlight streaming through intricate stained glass panels in the ceiling of each area. It became apparent each room in the capitol maintained a consistent color theme that tied into the overhead glass panels, which gave a unique feel to every room we encountered. As we walked, our tour guide pointed out the objects of historical significance and explained the history and construction of each room. I was astounded at the information she presented, and ultimately found myself developing a renewed sense of respect for the capitol building and the history that occurred within its walls. Although I had always found the building to be a beautiful piece of architecture at the center of my state’s politics, I didn’t truly realize the significance of the building until taking the tour, and that was something worth taking away from the experience.

The senate

The assembly

The Supreme Court

Eventually, our tour wrapped up in an area overlooking the Capitol Rotunda. After a brief explanation of some of the most outstanding pieces of art contained within the capitol dome, our tour guide instructed us we could ascend a nearby elevator to take in the sights from the capitol’s observation deck. For whatever reason, I was the only member of our group to take her up on the offer, which resulted in me finding my way to the deck alone. After taking the elevator and walking up a few flights of stairs, I exited to the exterior of the building near the top of the capitol dome.

Upon exiting to the hot summer air, I immediately walked to the railing and looked down on the city of Madison bustling beneath me. As I stood in the peaceful, quiet air high above the ground, cars and people hurried from block to block in the middle of the intense summer heat, doing their best to meet whatever obligations they held as a part of their routines. I thought about how many of them likely traveled these streets day after day and, like me before, probably never made time to fully experience the state capitol building they see every day. It was another moment in my “I have never...” journey that made me glad I decided to break out of many of my routines, if even momentarily, to gain new experiences like the one that brought me to the capitol observation deck. Before, I didn’t know what I was missing because my eyes weren’t open, but now that I’m taking time to look around me I’m seeing the flaws in my old perspectives. Sure, there was comfort in my routines, but I can’t help but wonder what I was giving up for the sake of familiarity. For whatever I’ve missed, I’m glad I’m doing something now to make up for it. I’m starting to realize living is all about making the most of the moments we are given and about the stories that we tell. It’s not about our routines, our titles, or the things we call our own. It’s about who we are as people. In these moments I feel like I’m truly living and that’s a damn good feeling.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Day 106 - The Guinness Storehouse

I have never been to the Guinness Storehouse. Luckily a midafternoon flight out of Dublin on the last day of our trip to Ireland gave Patrick and I a little flexibility to explore Dublin before we left the country. Considering the fleeting opportunity to visit the Storehouse and the fact that Patrick had never had a Guinness before, the decision to spend a chunk of our final moments in Ireland hanging out at a brewery and drinking Guinness was an easy one. In turn, Patrick and I woke early this morning to get to the Guinness Storehouse when the facility opened, which gave us ample time to take in the history, the craft, and the beer made famous by the lineage of brewers at the Guinness brewery.

A little bit of heaven in downtown Dublin

Upon arriving at the Guinness Storehouse, Patrick and I made haste in finding the start of the self-guided tour. After a brief introduction from a Guinness Storehouse employee, we were set free to explore the facility and engage in many of the interactive elements of the tour. At first, we took time to soak in the original 9,000 year lease signed by Arthur Guinness that granted him the right to brew beer on the property the Guinness brewery still sits today. With the lease positioned under thick glass in the floor of the Storehouse center, we took time to lean over the document and weigh its meaning at the heart of the modern complex. It was clear the history of the Guinness name was important to the more than 250 year old operation. In fact, our tour of the complex would show routinely that this history was a point of pride for the Guinness company and for the whole of Ireland, which made the overall experience all the more incredible as we wandered the Storehouse grounds.

The archive...
A sample of every guinness bottle ever produced

The lease

From this first experience, Patrick and I moved through the self-guided tour at a relatively brisk pace. Our early arrival meant we encountered very few crowds as we moved through the facility, which gave us time to navigate the complex as we saw fit. While to self-guided tour provided a lot of amazing information and amazing sights, the constant accompaniment of video screens and audio clips made aspects of the tour a little overwhelming for the two of us. As a result, we pressed on through the facility until we reached the fifth floor of the Guinness Storehouse. There we encountered a woman standing at a counter before a room with laden with Guinness displays and containing three bars with two Guinness draught taps each. Intrigued, Patrick and I approached the counter as we peered through the windows into the room. Acknowledging our interest, the woman at the counter promptly addressed us. “Would the two of ye like to learn how to pour a perfect pint of Guinness?” she asked with a smile. Patrick and I excitedly replied we would love the opportunity, which led the woman to inform us the facility was not quite open but would be ready in several minutes. Happy to wait briefly for the opportunity, Patrick and I chatted for a few minutes before the woman swung open the doors to the bar room and invited us in.

No water, no beer.

Liquid (black) gold

Over the 15 minutes the woman from the counter explained the six steps for pouring a perfect pint of Guinness, taking time to ensure we understood not only how, but why, each step was critical to the flavor and experience of each pint. Now, while reading that may come off as a gimmicky process meant to enhance the tourist experience, let me assure you this woman knew what she was doing and was deliberate in ensuring we knew each step before she let us get behind the taps. Once she was confident we had the process down, she asked me to come to the backside of the bar and make an attempt of the perfect pint. Happy to oblige, I removed myself from my barstool and moved to the other side of the bar.

All to ourselves!

Let's do this!
As I stood before the tap, the woman began directing me through each step as I poured.  I did my best to absorb her comments as I put my hands to work working the (clean, dry) glass and the Guinness tap. Continuing, I angled the glass at a 45 degree angle underneath the tap, opened the tap fully, filled the glass three quarters full, leveled the glass to fill it to the top of the harp emblem, and then closed the tap. As instructed, I set the nearly full pint down to “settle” for 119.5 seconds before I continued to the final step in the process. As we waited, the woman talked about the color of the beer and the changes occurring that would let us know when it was ready for the final step. Unbeknownst to the woman, Patrick was timing the “settling” period on a stopwatch as the woman spoke, which he promptly stopped when she instructed me to top off the pint with a final, restricted pour. A quick review of the stopwatch showed the beer had been settling for 121 seconds as the woman spoke. Without any knowledge of the exact time the beer had been sitting, the Guinness employee was off by a mere 1.5 seconds by judging the beer’s color alone. Patrick and I were floored by that discovery.

Working the 45


After topping off my beer and getting decent marks on my effort, the woman invited Patrick behind the bar to complete the process of pouring the perfect pint. Patrick carefully repeated the steps he had observed as the woman guided him through the process. Although we knew Patrick was pouring his first ever pint of Guinness (at the Guinness Storehouse!), the added pressure didn’t faze him. He completed each of the six steps flawlessly, which earned him high praise from the Guinness employee who proceeded to tell us, “Those ones are on us” before giving us a wink and returning to her duties at the exterior counter. Grateful for the generosity, Patrick and I grabbed our pints and sat down at a nearby table to enjoy our drinks. The smooth, creamy taste of the beer was welcomed and familiar experience for me, but the moment was particularly special for Patrick as he took his very first sip of the world famous Irish Stout. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time” he said as he lifted the glass to his lips and took a drink. Pulling the glass away from his face, he paused for a moment as he looked at the glass. “Well?” I said in anticipation, which prompted Patrick to crack a smile. “That’s damn good!” he exclaimed before taking another drink and setting the glass down. Sure, it was something simple in comparison to the amazing things we had seen on our trip, but that moment was a good one that will undoubtedly be a story both of us tell for some time to come.

Midway through Patrick's pour

Patrick and I sat for a while as we drank down the rest of our “perfect pints.” Eventually, another group entered the facility to get their lesson on the pour, which resulted in them having to give up their complimentary drink ticket we had been lucky enough to retain (Thank you, awesome Guinness employee!). With our pints empty, we decided to wander the rest of the facility before ascending to the Skybar at the top of the Guinness Storehouse. There we grabbed our second complimentary pint of Guinness and took in the views of Dublin and the surrounding Wicklow mountains one last time. As we drank, we were lucky enough to observe the Guinness master brewer, Fergal Murray, as he recorded a video shoot for what appeared to be an upcoming update to the tour footage. As he worked, the man poured pint after pint flawlessly, being careful to sample to flavor of each before he began the next take. As we took the last sips of our pints, it was the cap of an amazing experience at a highly historic brewery at the heart of Ireland. I can’t say there is any better way we could have spent our final moments in Ireland before making the long journey home.

The Skybar
Overlooking Dublin
After leaving the Storehouse, Patrick and I started our route to the Dublin airport to give us more than enough time to make our flight home. As we sat waiting to board, I reflected on our experiences over the past week and thought about our time at the Guinness Storehouse this morning. The magnitude of new experiences I encountered on this trip stunned me as I recapped each day in my mind. In a week’s time I had crossed off so many “I have never...” events it was hard for me to recall all of them. While there were some moments and experiences that stand out more than others, every moment of my first experience in this beautiful nation populated by amazing people will be something that resonates through the rest of my life. In a matter of a week, Ireland and its people have worked their way into my heart. I know I will miss this place greatly, but I guess that just gives me a reason to find a way back in the near future.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Day 105 - Blarney and Kilkenny Castles

I have never been to Blarney or Kilkenny Castles. As two of the most renowned castles in the country of Ireland, I figured it would be foolish not to stop by these structures before leaving the country. Considering they were both on our way back to Dublin the day before our flight out of the country, the decision ended up being an easy one. As a result, Patrick and I made a point to schedule time for both locations during the course of our travels. The day’s events began with an early morning visit to Blarney Castle on our way out of town and a pit stop in Kilkenny on our way to Ireland’s east coast. In both locations Patrick and I would discover memories that will undoubtedly stick with us and sights that will resonate for a very long time.

Like other experiences on our trip, our experiences with Blarney and Kilkenny Castles left me struggling to find the words to describe the experiences. At Blarney Patrick and I spent our time absorbing the history and beauty of the place. At the advice of several Irish locals we encountered throughout our trip, we opted not to kiss the Blarney stone, which many of them called a “gimmick” and “a waste of time.” Instead, we spent several hours at the castle exploring the remote forests at the edges of the property, winding through the arboretum before the towering Blarney manor, trying to understand the odd, natural stone feature called the Dolmen, climbing the wishing stairs, taking in the castle’s epic poison garden, and standing atop the structure’s aged battlements. Our time at Blarney Castle was another series of events where it was hard not to feel the history embedded in our surroundings. Everywhere we turned there were hundreds of years of history and mythology that left me speechless. We were largely silent before the things we encountered simply because it was too hard to find words, something that has become commonplace during my first trip to Ireland.

The Fairy Glade

Blarney Manor

See above

The view of the poison garden from the battlements

The entrance to the wishing stairs

Looking down the wishing stairs

Eventually, Patrick and I left the Blarney Castle grounds and began heading northeast toward Dublin. After a little more than one hour on the road, we decided to make a stop in Kilkenny, a city we had both heard of well before our trip to Ireland. Upon arriving to the city, both of us were immediately taken by its welcoming feeling. People bustled around the city streets in droves and nearly every place we went we were greeted with warmth. After grabbing a quick lunch (I had Irish Lamb Stew… amazing), Patrick and I walked through the city until we encountered Kilkenny Castle. The structure was easily the largest castle we had seen in our trip, and before it laid a rolling stretch of bright green grass that carried on for hundreds of yards. The space was alive with people and families making the most of a warm Sunday afternoon. To me, the most amazing part of that initial experience was the fact that the people around us reading under trees, playing games in fields, chatting in groups, and relaxing in the summer sun were doing so against the backdrop of a towering mass of stone that once served as the home of royalty. It was strange and awe inspiring to think this was just another day at the park for many of them. The idea of having such depth of history and such an amazing structure as a part of everyday life baffled me, and one look at Patrick told me he felt the same way.

Kilkenny Castle

The view after a walk down
a small portion of the castle grounds

For some time Patrick and I walked the castle grounds before we decided to work our way to the Kilkenny Castle entrance. Upon entering the castle we were happy to find the bulk of the interior was open to the public. In turn, Patrick and I spent some time walking through the historically preserved rooms of the castle’s halls, bedrooms, dining rooms, and galleries (unfortunately, they didn’t permit photos to be taken). We were able to experience centuries of history that spanned the families occupying the castle since its construction. The picture gallery alone held the a lineage of said families in portraits that covered the walls of a room that was easily three stories tall and several hundred feet in length. The experience was incredible and served as a perfect way to break up an otherwise uneventful day of travel in the back end of our trip to Ireland.

The "backyard"

As our trip begins to wind down, I’m finding it hard to summarize everything we have done and to put experiences like today into words. I know if I tried it would likely come out as incoherent rambling that would never do justice to the stunning places that we have been on our trip. As a matter of fact, while eating dinner in downtown Dublin tonight I took time to think about how I would tell those back home about the experiences in Ireland. After a lot of thought and deliberation, I concluded the only thing I could do is tell them I wish they could have seen through my eyes during my time in this country. In my mind, that’s the only way someone could really understand the experiences I’ve had. While I miss everyone dear to me and look forward to returning home tomorrow, I know I’m leaving a piece of me in Ireland. While that might be something that causes concern for some, I’m glad the trip has affected me to that extent. To me, it simply means means I now have a little room to take a bit of Ireland back with me, and that’s an opportunity I'm happy I came upon.