Thursday, October 31, 2013

Day 172 - Rear Window

I have never Rear Window. As a film that is considered by many to Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest suspense thriller, adding it to the list as my “I have never…” monthly classic movie seemed an obvious choice for the month of October. After all, the month is known for its association with Halloween and all things spooky, which made the work of the father of modern thrillers and horror movies a natural fit for my new film experience. As a result, I started narrowing down the potential days I could set aside time to watch the film in October. After contemplating watching the movie somewhere toward the middle of the month, I realized doing so would take something away from a truly authentic experience, which made me hone in on Halloween night as the perfect time to watch Rear Window for the first time.

After obtaining a copy of the film from a local library, Rachael and I settled in to watch Rear Window with the noise of the dreary, wind-ridden weather whipping at the outside of the house. Having little exposure to the work of Alfred Hitchcock previously, I didn’t know exactly what to expect from Rear Window, but I figured the film had to have some degree of appeal to endure as one of the greatest films ever created some 60 years after it was first released. To my benefit, the plot of the film developed quickly enough to set the groundwork for what was yet to come. Without giving too much detail regarding the forthcoming events, Hitchcock carefully planted seeds of perspective from the eyes of the film’s protagonist, a temporarily wheelchair bound professional photographer, L.B. Jefferies.

A watchful eye...

As a man used to capturing moments from his observations of the world around him, a broken leg had left Jefferies’ world confined to the view of the windows lining the buildings around the courtyard visible from his apartment’s rear window. In turn, Jefferies spent his days observing the habits and behaviors of the people living around him, often pressing his limits as to what was acceptable behavior with his observations. Unaware of where the story was going, I felt suspense building as we watched these first moments of Jefferies’ behavior related to the buildings around him. His obsession growing, he spent late nights taking in the final moments of his neighbors’ days, watching them fall asleep, share quiet moments, and argue over trivial matters.


At first, I thought Jefferies’ watchful eye would result in him becoming obsessed to the point of derangement, and the similar concerns expressed by his caretaker, Stella, and significant other, Lisa, seemed to reflect that possibility. As a result, I was surprised when the story made a turn toward identifying the obscure behavior of one of Jefferies’ neighbors, a door to door salesman somewhat new to the neighborhood. During a late night observation Jefferies noticed a neighbor across the courtyard engaging in the strange behavior of leaving and entering his building with a suitcase several times. When Jefferies woke the following day to find the neighbor’s normally bed-bound wife was no longer in the apartment, Jefferies’ imagination began to run wild with the possibility of murder. In turn, his obsessive behavior turned almost exclusively to tracking the salesman’s actions, which set the tone for the remainder of the film.

Busting the theory

After observing the salesman begin packing his belongings to move out of the apartment, wrapping some hand tools in newspaper, and rifle through a bag of jewelry belonging to the man’s wife, Jefferies’ speculation took control, leading him to contact a friend and private investigator, Tom,  to help him prove his theory of murder. Upon being rebuffed by the investigator’s findings, Jefferies moved to recruit the help of Lisa and Stella to help him gather evidence, which forced the story forward into a series of missteps that would endanger those close to Jefferies and result in him facing the accused in the dimly lit space of Jefferies’ own apartment.

Gathering evidence

As the plot of the film accelerated into taking action sourced in Jefferies’ personal obsession, I found myself wrapped up in the unfolding story. The suspense over the inevitable outcome made the remaining portion of the movie fly by as Jefferies and the two women plotted ways to gather information related to the salesman’s actions. Eventually, this resulted in Jefferies distracting the salesman with a phone call to permit Lisa and Stella taking to the courtyard to dig up a portion of a garden that had been a point of interest for a neighbor’s dog some days earlier. I watched on as Lisa and Stella found nothing of interest in the soil, which caused Lisa to spontaneously take to the fire escape to break into the salesman’s temporary vacant apartment. I found myself wrought with anxiety as Jefferies watched the salesman returning from afar, unable to do anything to help Lisa when the salesman discovered her rooting through his apartment.


During the resulting scuffle Jefferies called the police to report the assault, which set him up to face the salesman face to face. As the police questioned Lisa, her signals to Jefferies across the courtyard caused the salesman to put together the pieces of the recent phone call, the break in, and the source of the disturbances. As the police took Lisa into custody, Stella followed close behind to post her bail, which left all eyes off of salesman. In turn, the salesman turned his focus to Jefferies, making the short trip to his apartment to confront the man that had been watching his every move. Helpless, Jefferies waited and watched as the Salesman slowly entered the apartment and walked toward Jefferies through the darkness. I found myself slowly squeezing the nearby blanket between my hands as the two mean drew closer and erupted into conflict. Unable to escape his wheelchair, Jefferies fought for his life as the salesman lunge toward him and started forcing him out the stories-high rear window that had been the single factor leading to that moment.

Caught Red Handed

Now, of course I won’t go into the exact details of how Rear Window draws to a conclusion. It wouldn’t be such of a suspense film if I did. That stated, I will say that my first experience watching Rear Window was well worth sacrificing two hours of my time. Without changing the setting once, Alfred Hitchcock was able to make a movie that was gripping to the bitter end. In fact, I was caught by surprise when I realized two hours had gone by following the end of the film. As a movie made in 1954, Rear Window still stands up against many modern suspense and thriller films I have seen in my life. Sure, some aspects of the scenes and the special effects obviously date the movie, but the plot and the cinematography rival some of the best of our time. In an era of fast paced, vast storytelling I find it hard to believe there are very many modern directors that could make an engaging, two-hour long film with a static background. It rarely, if ever, exists in modern film, and that’s just one feature of Rear Window that makes it stand out as a heart pumping, anxiety-fueling story of suspense. On a night like Halloween, I don’t think I could have picked a better way to spend my time.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Day 171 - Attending Nerd Night

I have never attended a Nerd Night. For those that are unaware, Nerd Night is a national movement of local gatherings focused on discussion of science and technology. Similar to TED talks, Nerd Nights give experts the ability to discuss topics in their given fields before an audience of people curious about general science and technology information. The only differences between TED talks and Nerd Nights are the obvious differences in size and the fact that Nerd Nights tend to be hosted in local bars, which gives attendees the ability to have a few drinks while they take in the information presented. Needless to say, the mix between knowledge and a night of fun was more than enough to entice me to attend a Nerd Night. As a result, I decided to add the event to my “I Have Never...” list, and I set aside time to attend a Madison Nerd Night at the nearby High Noon Saloon this evening.

The introduction
When I arrived at the bar, final preparations were being made to begin the evening. A large crowd of people gathered before a stage containing a man, a microphone stand, and a laptop computer perched on an aged metal stool. After a few moments of tinkering with the laptop, a basic introduction screen was projected on a screen behind the man. In response, he gave a quick thumbs up and smiled before approaching the microphone stand and beginning the show. In unscripted remarks, the man welcomed the crowd and a gave a brief summary of the three talks that would be given during the Nerd Night event, which included a discussion of zombies in the kingdom of insects, a talk on the economics of Malware, and a comparison speech on pneumatic tube postal systems and the internet. Intrigued by each, I quickly settled into a location near the middle of the room and listened on as the man on the stage wrapped up his introduction. With that, the Assistant Director of Education for the UW Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, Ben Taylor, took the stage to begin the first of the night’s presentations.

Humor makes parasitoids interesting
With energy and humor, Ben introduced the crowd to the subject of his talk, which centered on the neurological effects of bee venom on a variant of cockroach in sub-Saharan Africa. Although the subject matter seemed dry and uninteresting at first, Ben was quick to gather the interest of the audience by injecting jokes routinely in his introduction of cockroach and wasp behaviors. Eventually, this led Ben to a discussion of the evolution of wasp predation, reproduction, and venom, which all revolved around finding a host for the wasp eggs which would inevitably serve as the food source for the hatched wasp pupae. Narrowing his topic, Ben began discussing the specific evolution of the Emerald Cockroach Wasp, which had developed a chemical concoction that eliminates the fear response in the brain of a specific cockroach, making it into a zombified slave that the wasp uses as a living host and ultimate food source for its eggs.

As he delved deeper into the topic, I found Ben’s speech and the science behind the wasps’ technique for making a living cockroach zombie to be much more interesting than I ever would have anticipated. Of course, a large portion of this is a direct result of the style in which the information was presented, but the information about the specialization of the wasp on its own was enlightening and engaging, which held my focus for the remainder of Ben’s presentation. Eventually, Ben wrapped up with a brief summary of how it is believed such a relationship developed before fielding a few questions from the audience. After taking a few, he concluded his time and relinquished control back to the host for the evening, who announced after a brief break security architect Pat O’Connell would begin his presentation.

Break time... Taking a walk around with a freshy

After grabbing a beer during the break, I returned to my location at the center of the room as Pat took the stage. Using a very different approach than Ben had used in his earlier presentation, Pat began his discussion on Malware by offering a series of staggering facts about the breadth and economics of the use of the software. With several stories of groups using Malware to obtain hundreds of millions of dollars with the release of a single virus, the crowd sat in stunned silence at the information Pat was presenting. In little more than five minutes he had laid out the foundational elements of the multi-billion dollar Malware industry, and he stated the threat to all internet users was far greater than anyone thinks.

Malware is scary
Continuing, Pat explained the efforts of hackers are largely dictated by the economics behind the process. While he assured the audience that any hacker worth their weight could tap into the internet connected devices throughout the room, he stated such an effort provides little incentive when much larger targets with much more lucrative rewards now populate the internet. Remaining on that topic, Pat explained a series of recent Malware attacks that targeted large corporations, government agencies, and data centers containing consumer information. He explained his experience has revealed Malware developers and the crime rings that use the software tailor their approach to steal the most financially beneficial information possible, which can range from direct theft of financial records, to the theft of proprietary patents, and to the theft of classified information of value to organizations and governments around the world. 

Moving toward conclusion, Pat provided some advice to help avoid the threat of Malware and to protect personal information whenever possible. He then opened up to questions from the audience, which moved some wary attendees to ask him about the best methods to ensure their information was safe, to which Pat provided some insight on his approach to protecting his personal computer equipment and private information. Although the advice was well received, it was clear the audience was still floored by Pat’s presentation, which helped spur conversation between audience members during the break between the end of Pat’s presentation and the final presentation of the night.

Moments after Pat completed his presentation, my friend Ross arrived to join me for the remainder of the Nerd Night event. With information from Pat’s Malware presentation still spinning in my head, I was quick to rehash the highlights from the presentation as I brought Ross up to speed on the earlier presentations. The conversation easily filled the remaining portion of the break, which left a final presentation on the history of infrastructure development leading up to the modern internet from assistant professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at UW-Madison, Molly Wright. After a brief introduction from the host, Molly took the stage and began her presentation on the development of pneumatic post and its relationship with modern networking structure that provides the world access to the internet.

A series of tubes, you say?
Molly’s history-centric approach to her talk immediately garnered my attention as Ross and I listened on. With a variety of amazing historical photos accompanying her topic, I watched on as Molly explained the role of pneumatic tubes in the spread of information and news during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Specifically, Molly focused on the pneumatic post system in Paris, which made it possible to deliver information across the massive city in a matter of minutes during an era when telegrams were the main source of long-distance communication. As someone that was unaware of such a postal delivery service, I was stunned by the leap in technology offered by the pneumatic system, which left me wondering why the technology faded into a sort of oblivion over time.

Fortunately, Molly spent the remaining portion of her talk addressing the factors that led city planners to turn away from pneumatic systems, which was largely driven by the over-the-road transportation made possible by gasoline powered engines. Toward the end of her presentation, Molly shifted to the schematics and networking of the pneumatic systems in major European cities, discussing how their structure is still used in the development of modern internet networks. Adding to that point, Molly showed a series of pneumatic tubes still running below the streets of Paris that now house the fiber cables that permit internet connectivity. On cue, she wrapped up her presentation by advising the audience that the internet really is a “series of tubes” as the Late Senator Ted Stevens was once famously quoted as saying.

Following the end of Molly’s presentation, tonight’s Nerd Night event rapidly drew to a close. As Ross and I finished the last of our drinks, we talked about the information presented and shifted our conversation from one point to the next. Eventually, we found nearly an hour had passed since the end of the event, which caused us to head for the door. After saying my goodbyes, I started the short drive home from the High Noon saloon, still baffled at how quickly the night had progressed.

With that thought in mind, I realized the late hour likely meant Nerd Night had fulfilled its purpose. After all, the presentations given inspired Ross and I to discuss scientific, technological, and philosophical topics that wouldn’t have come up on a typical night, which meant we were engaging in the sharing of information and experiences that helped both of us become better-informed, more knowledgeable people. While it is obvious our conversation was likely child’s play in comparison to some of those had among a room full of some of Madison’s smartest people, Ross and I engaged in some informative discussion that helped advance the idea of Nerd Night; to learn, to grow, and to have some fun. That’s the kind of event I can definitely get into, and although I don’t know when I will be attending a Nerd Night again, I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself attending another in the future.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Day 170 - Eating Headcheese

I have never eaten headcheese. In fact, I never had any intention to eat this sandwich meat comprised of the flesh of a pig head, muscles from pig feet and heart, and a natural adhesive gelatin that forms when boiling the pig skull to remove the meat. I need not explain further after that list of ingredients, but I found the idea of eating a rubbery mix of pig head flesh unappealing the point that the very idea of   doing so made me cringe. Of course, underneath my surface response to the food, I knew eating headcheese wasn't much different than eating any other kind of meat, I still struggled to come to terms with the idea of making headcheese a part of any meal. That stated, in a year of new experiences I have found myself trying some unique foods that I would have been unlikely to eat at any other point in my life, and on the Tasty Tuesday before Halloween, I figured what better food to eat than the skull meat of an animal.

As a result, I contacted a few butchers, delis, and grocery stores today to track down a few sources of headcheese. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any stores that sold the food after making a half of a dozen calls, which left me wondering if my "I have never..." plans for the day would even be possible. As I weighed my alternative options if my original plans fell, I thought about the unexpected degree of difficulty I was facing in my effort to find headcheese. Although it the degree of difficulty I had in tracking down the food was a bit surprising at first, a brief review of the food's sources and its standing unpopularity in the United States made it obvious why most of the establishments in an around Madison didn't carry headcheese. Regardless, I knew a city the size of Madison had to have one store that carried the food, which pushed me to continue in my search.

The Tasty Tuesday before Halloween?
...Time for some headcheese!
Eventually, my efforts paid off when a local grocer informed me they carried one brand of headcheese at one of their four locations around Madison. Relieved I had final track down a source of the food at the center of my "I have never..." event for the day, I drove to the location immediately after my workday and searched the meat department for a package of headcheese. After walking through the aisle briefly, I found myself standing before a small section of "specialty" meats including organs, feet, and other random parts of animals deemed fit for consumption. At the very top of the section in three narrow rows sat the packages of headcheese the grocery employee had mentioned to me earlier in the day. I didn't let myself hesitate even for a moment when my eyes caught glimpse of the small package of pink and white marbled meat, knowing it may very well deter me from following through with my "I have never..." objective. Minutes later, I was walking out of the store with a single package of headcheese, ready to taste the food for the very first time.

The first bite
Upon arriving home, I promptly began preparing a plate with bread and a few slices of the headcheese. As I pulled a few slices of the meat from the wrapper, the rubbery and incredibly greasy texture of the headcheese immediately made me question my choice of "I have never..." event for the day. Despite my initial hesitation, I continued with my task until I had three slices of headcheese laid evenly between two pieces of bread. Watching my actions warily, Rachael reacted with a simple question. "Aren't you going to put something on it?" she said staring at the sandwich. In response, I glanced at the sandwich on the plate resting on the counter in front of me and gave her the only answer I could, "Well, it's about gaining the full experience, and I guess the best way to do it is to eat it plain..."

A little mayo for flavor
Rachael shuddered in response to my reasoning, but the reaction did little to deter me from proceeding to the dining room and taking a seat at the table. I was beyond the point of return in my first experience with headcheese, and the only thing left to do was to sink my teeth into the mix of bread, head flesh, and gelatin. As a result, I lifted the sandwich from the table, gave it one last look, and took my first bite of headcheese. As my teeth passed through the headcheese, the meat's rubbery texture immediately made its presence known. The feeling was enough to make my hesitate for a brief moment before I reluctantly squeezed my jaw closed around the sandwich meat. The meat offered a slight resistance as I bit down, eventually breaking free with a slight snapping sensation similar to that of an old gummy candy. Regardless, I kept pressing on and did my best to focus on the other elements of the headcheese. While the texture left a lot to be desired, I was surprised to find that the taste of the sandwich wasn't all that bad. In fact, it tasted very similar to a peppered bologna, which made it a little easier for me to continue with my meal. It wasn't good by any means, but it was good enough to eat.

Better with mayo and cheese...
After taking a few more bites of the headcheese, I decided it was time to add a little more flavor to the sandwich so I could make it through to the end of my experience. In turn, I grabbed some mayonnaise from the kitchen and returned to my plate with a little reservation. After testing the taste of the mayonnaise on the headcheese with a small sample bite of the mixture, I decided spreading the condiment across the sandwich would help me finish the rest of the meal. With the few bites of headcheese I had taken minutes earlier already starting to rest heavy in my stomach, I quickly spread a light coating of mayonnaise over the sandwich and set back to work on the headcheese. Unfortunately, I still found the sandwich lacking after one more bite, which sent me back to the kitchen in search of something additional to give the otherwise limited flavor profile a boost. Ultimately, a little digging through the refrigerator resulted in my locating a single slice of sharp cheddar, which seemed the perfect complement to the pork-based meat. Hopeful the cheddar would be the solution to making the remaining portion of my first experience with headcheese a little more enjoyable, I returned to the dining room and threw the piece of cheese on the half eaten sandwich, ready to take on the remaining portion of the meal.

...Until you bite into a chunk of skull
Taking the first bite of my fully built sandwich, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the cheddar cheese had actually made the sandwich noticeably more delicious. So much so that I told Rachael it would be something I could eat again assuming I could overcome my disgust of the food's composition. I contently nibbled away at the sandwich as Rachael and I continued talking between my bites of the remaining headcheese. I was making good progress on completing my objective for the day until I felt a small, hard object roll across my teeth as I took one of the last bites in the sandwich. In response, I paused and fished the object from my mouth, which revealed a small piece of bone pinched between my fingers.

Pushing through to the end!
Disgusted, I slowly lifted my hand in front of my face to get a better look at the small white chunk of bone that had been a part of the headcheese moments earlier. The discovery forced me back in my chair and caused me to pause before the remaining piece of sandwich on my plate. After a few moments of hesitation, I gave the rest of the headcheese a once over to ensure no more unpleasant surprises remained in the final portion of the sandwich. Confident I was in the clear, I hurriedly forced down the rest of the meal and stood up from the table. In the face of a series of unforeseen challenges I had taken on my first experience with headcheese and emerged roughly unscathed; lest the small degree of psychological trauma from clamping down on a piece of pig skull, of course.

Following tonight's "I have never..." event, I can honestly say my first experience with headcheese was roughly what I expected. While the texture of the meat and the surprise nugget I found during my meal were somewhat unexpected, the basic flavor and plentiful undesirable characteristics of the headcheese weren't a surprise. It is safe to say headcheese won't become a routine part of my diet after today's "I have never..." event, but at least I can now say I have the experience to justify that decision. At this point it would take something incredible to convince me to try headcheese again, and if that's the only takeaway from this "I have never..." experience, I will gladly take it.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Day 169 - Making a Time Capsule

I have never made a time capsule. While this is not an event that I originally planned on including in my “I have never...” year, an upcoming house project and the realization of the underlying creativity that could into the process made me think the experience would be one worth having. After all, a significant driver behind my “I have never...” year has been my persistent fear of the passage of time, and creating a time capsule, although simple, probably serves as one of the ways to best face the impermanence of time head on. The very concept requires locking away items that represent the present moment in time with full knowledge they will likely remain uncovered until someone unknown stumbles upon them well after our time has come and passed. As a result, I set aside time to put together a time capsule this evening to give ample time to put it together before I missed the opportunity to seal it away in a part of our home.

Sifting through coins
When I first sat down to put the time capsule together, I found it challenging to find a place to begin. In preparation for the event I had obtained a small lock box to serve as the capsule, but I struggled to narrow in on the things I thought would be best to include in the box. Eventually, I started by gathering a handful of modern items lying around our house, including today’s paper, a bag full of coins, some photos, and a few trinkets from recent events we attended over the past year. With the materials before me, I initially set to work sifting through the coins to locate some modern currency. Although the it proved impossible to locate any 2013 coins from the pile, I ended up with some coins unique to the last decade, which covered three currencies from earlier international trips in my “I have never...” year. The effort provided a good basis for a window into our time, but the small pile of coins made me realize the time capsule was really intended to tell my personal story in some capacity. As a result, I turned my attention to the small stack of photos in hopes I could find images that would help whoever found the capsule better understand who I was, who Rachael and I were, in this time.

The final spread
With newfound inspiration guiding me, I sifted through a series of photos resting on the table in front of me. Eventually, that effort resulted in me choosing several photos of the house, a photo of Rachael and I, photos of us with our dogs Buddy and Baxter, and a photograph of my Brother, my Father, and I cutting down a tree in the front of the house. Considering the time capsule would eventually be buried underneath a concrete stairway connected to our house, I thought it best to give whoever decided to tear the stairs out a view of what the home was when it was ours. A part of me hoped the photos would simply help express the love we have for the home and the way our love for one another and our boys filled the house in our time.

Writing a note
With the photos picked out, I gave them one last look before setting them aside to continue putting together the rest of the time capsule. As I did ,an unexpected, subtle feeling of heaviness struck me. Taking one last glance at the stack of photos, I realized the moments captured on those pieces of paper would someday only remain in the photographs themselves. I paused briefly, staring at the pile of items in front of me. Fully aware my fear of time was getting the best of me, I reassured myself that my effort to make the time capsule was, in a way, helping those memories live on in fragmented pieces, which was more than would have been possible without my efforts to preserve them in a time capsule. After some thought, I settled on that idea, which spurred me back to action and gave impetus to continue toward my goal of creating a time capsule.

Searching for songs to save on the thumb drive
With the photos stacked and ready to be placed in the time capsule, I grabbed a few more items of relevance in our time, including a used cell phone (sans battery), a piece of Oscar Mayer memorabilia from an event sponsored by the local plant, and one of the business cards I had created to help explain my “I have never...” idea to people. I quickly flipped the card over and wrote “Day 169 – Making a time capsule” on the back and proceeded to set it aside. With the newly added items, the bulk of my time capsule was coming together, but it still felt like something was missing from the mix. After thinking about it briefly, I decided I needed to include some modern music in the capsule, which set me to work tracking down a storage device suitable to store music until the time capsule ultimately fell into the hands of another person somewhere in the distant future.

Putting the capsule together
After a little searching, I located a thumb drive with a limited memory capacity that had utility limited enough that Rachael and I were willing to part with it. In response, I immediately set to work tracking down music that meant something to me and helped tell the story of our time. Eventually, I determined the best approach was to include some local music that meant something to me, which helped me narrow in on a few PHOX and Daniel and the Lion songs to save to the thumb drive. Additionally, I decided I would leave an audio message with the music that explained my reasoning for putting all of the items in the time capsule and my hopes that whoever finds it enjoys the relics of the past. Following a quick recording, I saved my message to the thumb drive, added a few electronic copies of documents related to the house, and removed the thumb drive form my computer.

One last look
Satisfied with the mass of items I collected for the time capsule, I took one last look over the various items as I prepared them for the box. I carefully folded the newspaper, making sure it included a local grocery store flyer, before placing it in the capsule. Continuing, I squeezed the cell phone along the edge of the box and carefully laid the remaining trinkets and the thumb drive in the remaining pocket of free space in the container. Placing the coins in the box, I watched as their weight guided them to the bottom of the box as they slipped past the items already contained therein. Finally, I carefully placed the stack of photos on the top of the stacked items and took one last look at my time capsule.

Moments away from completing my task, I slowly closed the lid of the box and locked the contents inside. After affixing the keys to the outside of the box with a dust tape label, I sat back and looked at my completed work. Realizing the moment prior was the last time anyone would see the items contained in the capsule until it was opened again, my mind returned to the concept of the fleeting nature of time. The possibility that the contents would not been seen by human eyes again until our time had passed left me with slight feeling of sadness as I placed the sealed container in its location to wait until it could be sealed away. However, I knew any time spent on fighting that idea was time wasted, which forced me into reluctant acceptance of underlying concept. As I returned to the table empty handed, I made a few remarks about my thoughts to Rachael, which caused her to respond with a simple message, “The only thing you can do it make the most of the time you have, Caleb. That way it’s more likely those memories will live on, right?”

Ready for its concrete casing!
I weighed Rachael’s words carefully as I started into my nightly routine. Of course, I knew Rachael was right, and I knew it was up to me to make sure I was doing everything possible to live the life I want to lead. If anything, the idea of my “I have never...” journey is helping me do just that, and the experiences I am gaining from my daily experiences are helping me live a better, more complete life. I figure that’s the best I can do to truly find out what it means to live, and maybe that effort will finally help me come to grips with the idea of time. I guess that means I should spend more time focusing on the things I love and less time worrying about the possibility I might be missing those experiences. If it took putting a time capsule together to finally put those thoughts into action, I’m happy I decided to take on the task.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Day 168 - Riding the Grain and Grape Bike Tour

I have never ridden a bike tour. Now, this is not an event I would normally be excited to take on, but when I recently discovered the Grain and Grape Tour in Madison, Wisconsin that perspective shifted in a big way. Basically, the Grain and Grape bike Tour is a monthly event that takes participants around to the many local breweries, wineries, and distilleries in and around Madison. With an abundance of each popping up all over the city in the past decade, this gives bikers ample opportunity to tackle long distance routes with incredible pitstops all along the way. The concept by itself was enough to make me squeeze this "I have never..." event in as soon as I possibly could, but its happening at the end of my week of Wisconsin food, beer, and wine couldn't have been more perfect. As a result, Rachael and I pulled our bikes out of the basement and headed to the nearby Atwood neighborhood in Madison this morning to take a bike ride unlike any other we had experienced before.

Our touring partners

The short ride to the designated meeting location for the Grain and Grape Bike Tour gave Rachael and I a much needed opportunity to warm up our legs before we set to work on a yet unspecified route around the city. When we arrived, we speculated as to where the bike tour would take us as more bikers slowly gathered in the parking lot serving as our meeting point. As we waited, our group grew to around 10 people, which included a familiar face, Andres, who had helped me find the best beers on site during my previous "I have never..." event at the Great Taste of the Midwest. Happy to know the event was drawing some connoisseurs of beer, I asked the growing group about our possible routes through the city. While many were fast to say they had never experienced the event before, the few riders that had provided some insight regarding our likely path as we ping-ponged from one location to the next.

Fortunately, our speculation didn't last long given the tour organizer, George arrived shortly after the group had reached its peak. After introductions with each of the newcomers to the event, George laid out his tour route for the group, which had us completing a little over 20 miles with four distinct stops throughout town. As the group worked through the finer details of the fastest avenues from one location to the next, I excitedly geared up and prepared myself for the forthcoming ride. While I knew self-regulation throughout the day would be critical to making the "I have never..." experience a success, a part of me knew to gain the full experience I would have to try a variety of new drinks at our chosen locations. Luckily, our first stop, the Next Door Brewery, provided a second "I have never..." experience with ample opportunity to do just that.

The first drink with the crew

With only a few blocks from our meeting point to the Next Door Brewery, our group arrived at the location mere minutes after starting the tour. As someone that had never visited the Next Door Brewery before, I found the building's spacious interior, onsite brewing facility, and expansive food menu rather surprising. Doing our best to balance our intake of alcohol with the forthcoming long stretch of riding, it took Rachael and I little time to decide we were try the brewery's beer and cheese flight, which gave us the opportunity to sample several of the brewery's offerings with some unique, top-notch cheeses from around the world. Although it took some time to receive our order, it quickly became clear the wait was worth it. The beers were full of flavor and expansive in their range, and the cheeses with which they were paired provided a near perfect complement to the varied elements of each brew. Needless to say, we quickly worked through our flight as the rest of our party sipped away at the last drops of their beers. With that, we took to the road once more to tackle the longest leg of our journey, the Lake Loop bike trail that would take us to Lake Monona's south shore.

On the road
Our ride on the Lake Loop caught many members of our group by surprise given its length and uneven terrain. Although many of us had ridden the path before, the consensus among the riders was that it had been some time since anyone had ridden the full trail. We were certainly enjoying the ride, but we felt as though the Grain and Grape tour could use a little more "grain and grapes" between legs of the ride. As a result, we found ourselves discussing alternative plans for our second stop of the tour as we traveled deeper into our ride. Ultimately, the group settled on stopping at a location I have always wanted to experience, the South Bay Lounge, which falls in a unique place between south Monona residential homes and highway off-ramp big box retail space. After a nice ride through the rolling hills of Monona we were quick to find the South Bay Lounge tucked into a nook just off on the Madison beltline highway.

The South Bay Lounge
Upon entering the South Bay Lounge, I immediately knew the tavern was my kind of place. Two dogs grown chunky with plenty of bar food happily greeted us as we entered, and a small group of people wearing their Packers gear gathered around an aged bar. In many ways, the South Bay Lounge reminded me of one of the locations I visited very early in my "I have never..." journey, Simm's Place, the storied tavern that calls the Oscar Mayer factory parking lot its home. Like Simm's, the interior of the South Bay Lounge was dated, but it was clear it had stories to tell. It was simply a classic Wisconsin tavern, and that made me feel more than comfortable and ready to have another beer. As a result, Rachael and I ordered a beer and took a seat on the deck with the rest of the Grain and Grape gang. Over our drinks we chatted about our individual histories, shared stories about our biking experiences, and talked about Madison as a whole. Much like Simm's Place, it appeared the South Bay Lounge had a knack for pulling people together, which provided some of my favorite moments from today's "I have never..." experience.

Getting back to town
After finishing our drinks at the South Bay Lounge, our group took back to our bikes and made short work of the remaining ride around Lake Monona. No more than 15 minutes after leaving the tavern we found ourselves back in the heart of downtown and headed back toward the Atwood neighborhood. With the afternoon quickly moving into evening, George decided we would make a stop at a Williamson Street bar known for their craft and microbrewery offerings, Mickey's, to enjoy another round and grab a bite to eat. After finding our way to the bar, Rachael and I grabbed a table with a portion of the Grain and Grape riders for a drink and a meal. After ordering some unfamiliar beers and a lunch, the two of us made idle conversation with the members of our group until our food arrived. Although the wait for our orders was unusually long, the food and beer proved a perfect way to top off a day of great experiences.

With the sun quickly setting and plenty of housework still waiting to be done, Rachael and I decided to part from the group after Mickey's given its proximity to our home. Although our fellow riders were sad to see us go, they were understanding and happy to give us thanks for being a part of the trip. In turn, Rachael and I expressed our gratitude to George for putting the tour together and for giving us a new experience that was unlike any we have encountered during my year of new experiences. That point became clear as we made the short trip home and picked up with the chores that were left to wrap up before the last light of the weekend faded away. As I mowed the lawn and raked up leaves I found myself still wishing I was on the ride with the Grain and Grape crew. The reality is the event was more about good, beer-loving people getting together to take a ride, have a few drinks, and make some conversation. Like many things in my journey thus far, the focus of the event took a back seat to the experience of getting to know new people and enjoying what life has to offer. That's never a bad thing, and when you're in a group that shares that perspective, you're among good people.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Day 167 - Milking an Animal

I have never milked an animal. Despite spending the first 18 years of my life in a small Wisconsin farm community, my exposure to livestock of any sort has been surprisingly limited during my life. In fact, I have largely avoided spending much time in the functional areas of farms throughout my life as a result of my persistent aversion to things I perceive as dirty. Given farms are literally a collection of buildings containing animals and all of their byproducts, spending time learning more about the processes that went into the practice, including milking, wasn’t high on my list of priorities. That stated, I always maintained an underlying curiosity about the process of milking an animal, which made me decide I would finally move to gain the experience during my “I have never...” year.

As a result, I began doing some research on local farms that would give me a hands-on experience with milking. Eventually, that effort led me to Hinchley’s Dairy Farm, a family-owned dairy farm operation roughly 30 miles away from Madison that offered tours and hands-on farming experience. Realizing a visit to the farm would likely give me the most authentic environment to gain my first experience with milking, I set aside time to visit the location today. As a result, Rachael and I hopped in the car this morning and made the short drive to spend a second day on a farm in as many days. Accepting the idea I was likely to face my dislike for getting dirty head on, I braced myself for what would likely be a unique and highly educational event in my “I have never...” year.

When we arrived as Hinchley’s, Rachael and I took a few minutes to look around central area of the farm to look for someone that could help us sign up for a tour. As we paced the parking lot we took in the sights of the towering silos casting shadows on the barns below and listened to the sounds of animals all around us. Eventually, our unsuccessful effort resulted in Rachael and I stopping in the middle of the parking lot to talk about our plan of attack. After a few moments of deliberation, we suddenly heard a woman’s voice calling from across the other side of the parking lot. “Hello there!” You here for a tour?” a middle-aged woman called from behind a fence bordering a nearby pasture. In response, I yelled back confirming that was the case, which caused the woman to immediately continued, “Well, alright then! Great! We can start with you helping me move some sheep!”

Rachael and I gave one another a quick look or surprise at the woman’s remarks before turning back to her location. Without delay, the woman had hopped in a nearby utility vehicle and began driving in our direction. As she drew closer, I immediately took notice of the woman’s dusty clothes and the worn baseball cap covering her hair. Complemented by her hardened hands and natural face, her appearance showed obvious signs of her hard work and commitment to the farm that served as her livelihood. With her vehicle coming to a stop before us, the woman gave us a smile and asked us to hop in so we could assist her on the other side of the farm. As we took our seats in the vehicle, the woman introduced herself as Tina Hinchley, one of the owners and operators of the farm. We promptly introduced ourselves in kind, which spurred Tina to begin driving back toward her previous location. With little distance between the parking lot and the flock of sheep, Tina quickly provided some information about the farm and explained the task at hand. As she spoke, her passion for the farm and her welcoming nature were readily apparent. There was no question we were going to get the full dairy farm experience under her guidance, which made me glad we decided to make the trip.

Herding some sheep
After finding our way to the pasture, Tina walked us through the basic setup and the method for coaxing the flock from the pasture to the nearby holding pen. Following her direction, Rachael and I prepared to assist in the process as we could, which we knew would prove challenging with our limited manpower. Luckily, another pair of tour-goers appeared just before we were set to begin the transition, which helped us form a broader chute through which the sheep could be directed. Although our first few efforts to move the sheep proved unsuccessful, Tina’s experience and persistence soon won them over, sending the sheep bolting in our planned direction and into their holding pen. Relieved the task took little effort, Tina thanked us for the assistance and stated we were ready to start the farm tour.

The milking barn
With that, Tina walked us to the nearby milking barn to begin the tour. As we walked in to the main area of the barn, Tina provided an abundance of information related to her farm. Among rows of cows lining independent chutes, she discussed the dairy industry and the lifecycle of a dairy cow. The information she provided was direct and unfiltered, which she explained was intended to give our group the clearest possible picture of how a dairy farm truly works. Although some aspects of the information she presented were graphic, her fact-based approach was welcomed by everyone in the group. After all, we were there to learn about the workings of a dairy farm, even if it meant learning about the necessary functions that contained undesirable characteristics.

Following her explanation, Tina told advised us we had a perfect opportunity to milk one of the cows standing at the end of a nearby row of chutes. Eager to tackle my “I have never...” experience for the day, I was happy to hear the opportunity would come so early in our tour. As Tina continued speaking about the process of milking by hand, she guided us over to the side of the cow and gave a brief demonstration. With a quick placement of her hand and a subtle motion downward, Tina sent milk spraying from the cow’s teat to the ground. With that, Tina took a few steps back from the animal and held out her arm. “Alright, who’s next?” she said with a smile on her face.

Geting ready...
Rachael and I took a step back to permit the mother and son in our group to have the first chance to giving milking a try. After waiting for the cow to relieve herself (nasty), the boy excitedly stepped forward and placed his hands on the cow’s udder. Without hesitation he gently applied pressure and pulled downward, proving successful in his effort. After a few more successful attempts he took a step back with a big smile on his face and said, “That’s cool! ...but it feels kind of weird.” As the boy walked back toward his mother, I stepped up to the cow and squatted to get a look at the center of my objective. Although a bit worried about the massive animal’s response to my cold hands, I carefully placed them in same location I saw Tina place her hands moments earlier, positioned my fingers, and prepared to squeeze downward.

 “Pretend you are emptying a bottle of toothpaste,” Tina said as I settled into my position. Although unexpected, the visualization proved incredibly helpful as I began the downward motion of my fingers. Almost immediately, milk began spraying from the cow’s udder, which left me stunned at the ease of the technique required to complete the task. “Well, that’s easy!” I said as I continued, chuckling at the experience. For the first time I was milking an animal, and despite the straightforward nature of the task, I found myself amazed at the entire process. In a week of experiences that included a lot of events tied to Wisconsin’s roots, I was seeing the task at the very heart of the “Dairy State” I have called home for 30 years of my life. It was simple, but the experience left an impact... and, frankly, it was quite a bit of fun.

After a few more minutes of milking, I decided to wrap up my new experience for the day. Stepping back from the cow, I asked Rachael if she wanted to give it a try, which caused her to step forward and take a look at the animal. Although slightly hesitant, she decided to lean in and give the process of milking a try for the first time. Like our previous efforts, Rachael’s first try proved successful, which caused her to give a few more pulls before stepping back from the animal.

Satisfied with the results of efforts, Tina offered one last chance for members of our group to milk the cow before leading us further into the tour. Over the next hour we spent time looking around the farms various facilities, which included the calf barn, the milk holding room, the hay barn, the goat pen, and the chicken coop. At each interval of the tour we were able to gain hands on experiences with the functional areas of the farm, with the exception of the milking machines and production equipment, of course. The overall experience was highly informative and interactive, which left each of us amazed at the scope of operations on the Hinchley farm.


The open air barn

Although what we experienced on the tour was only the tip of the iceberg, the tour made it obvious the amount of work and commitment required to make a family farm successful is an incredible feat. The Hinchley’s dedication to their work and to the quality of their product requires more effort than any other job I have ever witnessed firsthand, and the reality is they do it for their family and all others. As Tina put it, there is no glamour, no wealth, and no days off in family farming. Yet families like the Hinchley’s put everything they have into their work because that’s where their heart is. From that, I realized the family farmers in the United States deserve a lot more respect than the rest of the nation gives them, and they deserve our support wherever we can give it.

As we wrapped up our experience at the farm, Tina had one of her interns show us around a few remaining locations and drive us out to the nearby pumpkin patch. There we picked our own pumpkins before taking a ride through the heart of the farm and concluding our tour. As we made our way back toward our car, I let Rachael know I was going to make one last stop before we left for home. In turn, I walked out to the field running along the center of the Hinchley property and took a look at the scope of the farm’s operations from a distance. From that perspective I found myself amazed at the innumerable intricate components within the confines of the space that composed the farm. It was mind boggling but enlightening, and it made me glad I took the time to learn more about the process during my “I have never...” year.

Before today, I thought I understood farming, and although that may be the case, I clearly didn’t know farming. What the Hinchley’s and every other farm family in the United States do each day requires more hard work and dedication than most Americans are probably capable of producing. The reality is without families like the Hinchley’s our nation simply wouldn’t work. They are the reason we are fed and we are healthy, which speaks volumes to the credit they deserve for their selfless choice of career. I never would have thought I would take so much away from trying to experience milking an animal for the first time, but the outcome from today’s experience makes me happy I didn’t nix this event from the “I have never...” list. Sometimes the simplest encounters can leave the biggest impacts, and today was exactly that kind of experience.

One last look at Hinchley's