How to be a beer brewer

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What you’ll need: grains, hops, water, yeast

Songlist: Beer for My Horses by Toby Keith, 99 Bottle of Beer on the Wall

Further reading: How to Brew by John Palmer

My brother was only home for 48 hours this Thanksgiving, but it was enough time for a new family tradition to be born. The day after Thanksgiving will now officially be Brewing Day, the resulting beers ready just in time for Christmas. Perfect!

In fact, our brewing is better referred to as a return to family tradition. My great-great-grandparents owned a brewery in Elizabeth, New Jersey. They called it the Rising Sun. The Rising Sun had been in business since 1887, but officially closed its doors in 1920 to abide by Prohibition laws. They reopened in 1933, changed the name to Seeber Brewing Co, changed the name again in 1937 and then closed forever in 1939.

Or so some of our virtuous ancestors would have had us believe. In fact, the Rising Sun was run by gangsters (including New York’s Public Enemy #1, Waxey Gordon) and continued to brew beer illegally throughout Prohibition. It was raided at least four times, and led to the death of a Prohibition agent in one of those raids. The gangsters escaped but were picked up again in a speakeasy…in St. Paul, Minnesota, my hometown. Ah, family history, how full of strange coincidences.

A Rising Sun beer bottle

So if we say that beer flows in our veins, it’s not just because our blood alcohol content is getting dangerously high. I think when my mom picked out a home brewing starter kit for my dad last Christmas, it must really have been her ancestral inheritance calling out to her. Fermentation systems! Malt syrup! Pale Ale!

I was on hand to help her pick out all the necessary tools, from a glass carboy to a beer thief (there sure are a lot of weird words in beer brewing–kraeusen, trub, wort, zymurgy…) We marveled at the specialized additives one could choose–berries, spices, orange rinds–and dreamed of the experiments we might someday make.

For beer brewing truly is an exciting experiment. On Friday, my parents and brother and I gathered around the how-to DVD, pausing after important parts and racing to the kitchen to make sure we were doing everything right. We mashed the grains and stirred in the malt syrup, added the hops and aerated the wort, sterilized the funnels and bung, measured the specific gravity. We even sampled the dried hops, unfermented beer, and malt syrup–it was all disgusting. And after three hours of this hard work we were the proud owners of five gallons of burping pea soup.

The beer now sits down in the basement, letting the magic happen. And in about three weeks we’ll transfer it into beer bottles we’ve saved up–there are about 80 sitting empty in the basement–and then come Christmas we’ll have a taste of the holiday cheer. Here’s to holiday traditions, new and old!

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I feel pretty

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One of the most famous shopping scenes in cinematic history is Julia Roberts going from streetwalker to chic walker in Pretty Woman. It epitomizes the goal of every clothes-shopping experience: feeling special, feeling pretty. Any retailer who lets the customer feel less than beautiful is making, as Ms. Roberts would say, a BIG mistake.

In the black

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An Anthropologie storefront

As planned, I went to the new Anthropologie a block from my house yesterday. I hadn’t realized their 50% deal only lasted until 11 am and had started at 6 in the morning. And I was glad I hadn’t known–perhaps I would have woken up painfully early, fueled by the worry that everything might be gone later. When I arrived at 10, though, the store was still packed, with clothing and people. I waited 10 minutes in line to try on a few shirts and dresses, and then waited another 20 or so minutes to purchase them. And then I went home. All in all, I bought three items for about 25% of their original price and felt successful.

At home I read the status updates of my friends who had braved much more unpleasant conditions–Walmarts and Best Buys and Targets at 4 in the morning or midnight on Thanksgiving. All but one was sorry for having gone. Many bemoaned the fate of humanity after seeing the mad rush on electronics and toys. Many said they went for the experience and, having had it, would never seek it out again.

We all know of the 2008 death of a Walmart employee trampled by consumers. The stampede did not let up even for police officers trying to help the man; a pregnant woman was hospitalized due to the same event. Apparently, Black Friday has reached new levels of crazy every year in the past decade; before that, it was not quite as insane of an event. The term originated in the late 1960s when the Philadelphia police complained of the overwhelming traffic jams the day after Thanksgiving brought to the city center. Only in the past few years, though, has it been the expectation of major retailers to open their stores earlier and earlier. This year was the first that Walmart officially began their sale at 10 pm on Thanksgiving night. Who can say how early sales will be pushed, and to what level the insanity will rise until consumers have had enough?

There are always those Cassandras who can foretell tragedies; in the case of Black Friday violence I present Sinbad and Arnold Schwarzenegger:

Thanks

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Today I am thankful for all the things that cannot be purchased. I am thankful primarily for my family. And I am thankful that, in Minnesota in late November, I was able to make the Thanksgiving centerpiece entirely from plants I found blooming in my front yard: a pumpkin, dusty miller, pink and yellow mums, and even a few pink snapdragons.

Happy Thanksgiving!

How to be in retail

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What you’ll need: patience, perma-smile

Songlist: Money Can’t Buy Me Love by the Beatles

Further reading: Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail by Caitlin Kelly, Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

As I was thinking about this week’s theme, I considered all the things that mean Thanksgiving to me–family, gratitude, travel, food. I’ve kind of done those all already, though. And then I remembered the other Great American Holiday happening this week: Black Friday.

I’ve never gone shopping on Black Friday intentionally. One year we accidentally scheduled getting a family picture taken at the mall the day after Thanksgiving. Chaos. And last year my family from Wyoming was visiting, and we went looking for a wedding dress for my newly-engaged cousin on Black Friday. As she tried on gorgeous dresses, another bride-to-be was exclaiming on the lines she’d waited in at 3 am that morning in front of Best Buy. Madness.

Helping America, one boot at a time

But I can’t deny my consumerist instincts. Whenever I go to a mall I always feel better after I’ve bought something so I can walk around with the bag–proof of my economic influence. Not only did I just purchase a pair of leather boots, I helped America, man. And if I happen not to buy anything, I leave defeated, knowing I’ve let my country down.

I love beautiful clothing, but rarely have the money for it, and thus working retail at my favorite stores always held that employee discount allure. Sure, you end up spending way too much of the minimum wage you earn on clothes that are still expensive after the discount, but…at least you have the clothes? An Anthropologie store is opening just two blocks from my house this coming Friday and when the interview notices went up earlier this summer I considered, for the briefest of moments, quitting my two jobs to be a cashmere cashier.

Alas, I did not apply to Anthropologie. Because the truth, as far as I can tell, is that retail sucks. I’ve only worked at one store, a gay and lesbian bookshop in Provincetown. The only stressful part of that job was having to lie about which new lesbian spy thrillers I was excited about (“umm…all of them?”) Retail in general, though, sounds exhausting. One of my good friends, Elsie, has worked at J. Crew stores for the last 3 or 4 years, and used to regale us with stories–good and bad–from her days there.

Sometimes at the Mall of America store she acted as a moving clothes rack for foreign dignitaries’ wives–she said some women spent a few thousand dollars in a matter of minutes, piling cardigans and jumpers high in Elsie’s arms. Meanwhile, the visiting Japanese women never seemed to realize that they could lock their dressing room doors; Elsie walked in on at least one confused woman per day. And yet the women she had the most problems with were the bored suburban wives who had nothing better to do with themselves than see if there was anything new at J. Crew. She swore there were many mothers who’d come in to find clothing for their children without said children in tow, but would still ask Elsie, Would this look good on Billy? Inevitably, when Elsie asked about Billy’s size, the mother would just shrug.

While Elsie somehow maintains her energy for all these shoppers and looks good while doing it, I know it would kill me. So I probably won’t apply to any retail jobs in my future. And I probably won’t be waking up at 2 am this Friday to take part in one of the most bizarre of American traditions. But will I be making a trip to the newest Anthropologie at Grand and Milton this Friday? Oh yes, most definitely. And I’ll probably feel proud of myself if I leave with a shopping bag in hand.

Diseases in history

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John Snow's map of cholera cases

I had a fabulous pair of books as a kid, Earthsearch and Explorabook, that introduced me to magnetism, light rays, bacteria, optical illusions, and all sorts of other cool stuff. One of the most memorable sections was about John Snow, a nineteen-century British physician. During the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, Snow mapped out the occurrences of infections and found they all centered around a water pump, leading him to believe contaminated water was the cause of the disease. He convinced officials to break off the handle of the pump, which effectively ended the outbreak. Now snow is regarded as one of the fathers of epidemiology.

In a 2008 book, Irwin Sherman names cholera as one of the twelve diseases that have changed the course of human history. Some of the diseases he picks are important not only for the devastation they’ve caused, but also for the innovations that have led to their treatment. For instance, the fight against tuberculosis promoted the use of pasteurization and the search for antibiotics. Likewise, the science of vaccination was developed to combat smallpox.

Mad King George

Other diseases are important for their sociopolitical effects, such as the genetic blood disorders of hemophilia and porphyria. Due to incestuous bloodlines, the Russian Romanov dynasty and Spanish royal families were overcome by hemophilia and died out. The Bolsheviks rose in Russia, and Francisco Franco took over Spain. Meanwhile, many British monarchs suffered from Porphyria, also known as the Vampire Disease, which can have neurological complications as well as the physical symptoms that gave rise to vampiric stereotypes (pronounced teeth, skin sensitivity to sunlight, an aversion to garlic). King George III was retroactively diagnosed with porphyria, which may explain his mental illness and the reason why he lost control over the New World.

Epidemics are often caused by the movement of people and introduction of foreign flora and fauna to new environments. Thus, there is cause for concern with the ever increasing globalization of trade and the ease of foreign travel in the present day. However, we have also become ever more adept at treating outbreaks, at least in the developed world. Epidemics now seem to highlight the divide between first and third world countries. After the hurricane in Haiti, almost 5,000 people died from cholera due to poor sanitation–a problem that is both preventable and treatable. Though the sociopolitical implications change over time, disease will continue to shape our history and future.

Doctoring without borders

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This title is taken, of course, from the very fine organization Médecins Sans Frontières, known as Doctors Without Borders in English. It, like the Red Cross, has made its mission to serve those who would not otherwise have access to medical care. And though these are two of the largest health-based organizations, there are certainly many hundreds more than do just as important work. Medicine has the capacity to bring out the incredibly philanthropic nature of humans, such in the case of two brothers, Milton and Fred Ochieng. They were raised in a small village in Kenya, and were sent to Dartmouth by their community. Their dream was to return equipped to make their village of Lwala a better place.

I won’t ruin the rest. Check out their amazing story on this ABC news special or at their website lwalacommunityalliance.org:

 

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