Monday, January 24, 2011

Hand-Knit Pocket Square

A brilliant musicologist friend of mine, in addition to teaching, is in the final paces of writing a book. To unwind and to clear her head before bedtime, she knits--and has become very good at it (very long, slender fingers). During dinner last week, she came up with the generous, ingenious idea of a knit pocket square; a few days later, she worked up this lovely little prototype.

I've tried it in a few simple folds, and the results are very promising (not the suit I'd wear with a knit pocket square of course, but it works well for illustration purposes). Lends itself nicely to a winter wardrobe. Let's hope she gets insomnia this week--I could use one in maroon!

(Downloadable pocket square fold instructions as well as tie knots can be found on this page at

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Bedtime Fable

Seems to me that there aren't enough bedtime stories and fables for children on these here here's one for you and your pups. If you don't like it, fine--but please keep in mind that it was written and offered at no charge. ~W


On a cranberry hummock in a swamp, there lay a tiny mud-brown turtle. He spent his days hunting small minnows, swimming among the sunken logs that filled the dark, cool waters. His low, plain shell allowed him to slip through the watery undergrowth with ease; he loved to glide swiftly through the sunny, swaying water grasses, sometimes allowing the gentle current to carry him downstream. When he wasn’t hunting or playing in the water, he could be found basking in the midday sun, falling into a deep, warm sleep. He was almost a content little fellow.

Despite his simple, carefree life, the turtle couldn’t help but feel that something was lacking, although he was never quite able to say with certainty just what it was. This feeling would come and go, but over time it loomed larger and larger in his turtley brain. Then one sunny day, while resting on a tree stump, he looked down into the black water and at last discovered what was lacking: it was he.

It was he!

He gazed with shock and dismay at the drab little animal in the reflection. His leathery head was devoid of all markings, save the wrinkles on his neck. His claws were scratched and worn from his autumn burrowings and summertime frolics. His shell--oh, his shell was the worst of all: it was a mound of dead grasses and mud! What little of the shell that did peek through this pond-crust resembled an upturned wooden bowl. It was almost spectacular in its dullness, if such a thing was possible. The turtle wanted to flee from this insipid little creature; but alas, it followed him everywhere, aping all of his movements, as if mocking him.

The turtle wailed, his scaly little legs paddling in utter despair, his thumby, hot little face buried in a lily pad, sobbing.

At this very moment, a flutter of blue color and metallic chimes surrounded the hapless turtle, spinning him around and around.

“Goodness gracious! Gracious goodness!” cried the turtle in dizzy astonishment.

“Ching! Ching!” cried the feathery cloud, as wings, beaks, and claws swirled about the turtle’s earless head. “Ching! Ching!”

The commotion stopped. The turtle looked around, but saw nothing. He then looked above and behind, and saw a large, splendid-looking blue jay perched on his dreary, dirty little shell.

“Ooh,” the turtle cooed, forgetting himself, “What a fine-looking fellow you are!”

“The rock-worm speaks!” cried the blue jay in surprise.

“Rock-worm? You’re on my back!” scowled the turtle.

“Oh dear—so I am!” said the jay. “I thought you were a muddy stone, what with all the grass and algae on your…”

The turtle gave the jay a cross look. The jay decided not to push the matter.

“The sky seems to make all its creatures so shiny,” muttered the turtle.

Upon hearing this, the vain little jay’s stout white chest swelled. “I try to take care of myself,” he declared.

“Oh jay, I am so plain,” lamented turtle. “My life is so simple and dreary: nothing but mud, grass, and water. How I would love to be as magnificent as you.”

A glint appeared in the jay’s beady eye, and before the turtle could blink, the great bird was aloft, chirring away in the clouds above. The turtle, having assumed that the jay had bored of him, let out a heavy sigh and cast his eyes downward, when he suddenly felt a weight on his shell.


The jay, perched on turtle’s back, had something red and shiny in its beak. Before the turtle could say anything, the jay was busy embedding the glistening bauble into his muddy shell.

“Have a look!” cried the jay.

The turtle slowly crept to the edge of the hummock, and looked down with delight at his reflection. He wasn’t just muddy brown anymore. Now he was topped with a shiny beacon of fiery red!

“Oh jay, it is so beautiful!” squealed the little turtle, trying to hold back tears of joy. “Can you find more of these?”

“Certainly,” said jay. “I’ll be right back with more. Maybe some blue to complement that fetching red, eh?”

Nearby, a young couple were resting on a riverbank, watching with amusement at the funny little blue jay who kept coming back again and again for bits of candy and bottlecaps.

“More! More!” demanded the turtle, with wide eyes. “I want my entire shell covered!”

“I’m getting a bit tired…” muttered jay.

“Oh please, jay!” pleaded turtle. “Can’t you see how close we are?”

“Well, alright,” said jay, “but I think you’re getting a bit carried away with all this.”

After a few more flights, turtle’s shell was a completed masterpiece. Every single inch of his once lackluster shell was covered in bright colors: a towering dome of greens, yellows, purples, and vibrant pinks glistened in the afternoon sun. The other turtles of the lake soon took notice, and before long were following turtle’s example, piling brightly colored pebbles, leaves, and feathers on their dowdy little shells. They were quite a luxurious sight, to be sure. But around this time, turtle’s tiny belly started purring under his shell. All this excitement made him hungry.

Turtle tried to plop into the water to glide about for food like he always had done, but something had changed. Turtle could not move, let alone swim. One by one, all the turtles in the lake discovered they too were unable to move. The howls of a hundred despondent turtles filled the air. It was a pitiful sound: “Oooooooooohoohoo!”

Turtle felt like a fool. Without realizing it, he had given up playing, hunting, and swimming--the very things that made his little life a happy one—for a useless luxury. For a few fleeting minutes, he was grand, colorful, even special. But now, he was a prisoner. His shell felt heavier and heavier.

By this time, the sky was growing dark. Jay was somewhere in a high treetop, sound asleep. Turtle didn’t know what to do. Then he heard thunder. The rumbling got closer, and flashes of lightning appeared behind the trees as the wind tossed them about. Soon, sheets of rain fell from the sky, and pelted the marooned turtles.

At first the turtles were terrified, but then something miraculous happened: the rain softened the mud on the turtle’s backs, loosening all those heavy pebbles and candies, which plopped one by one into the glossy, pinpricked lake.

Turtle cried out in relief. He was free again!

As the morning light came, jay landed on the hummock where turtle, back from a long swim, was basking contentedly.

“Your pretty shell—it’s gone!” cried jay.

Turtle had been closely studying his shell earlier that morning, and had discovered something. His shell, which he once dismissed as drab, was actually full of delightful patterns: concentric ridges, delicate variations in the browns--even the scratches in his shell lent some character. Turtle smiled to himself.

“Oh no, jay—it’s still there,” he said softy, as he drifted into a deep, warm sleep.


Friday, January 21, 2011

That Bottom Button, Marooned by Tradition

I'm very much with The Grumpy Owl when he says:

Convention says that one should always leave the bottom button undone. I hold to that convention. But I don’t like it very much.

The tradition originated in the court of King Edward VII. He was too fat to button up his bottom button. The flakes and lunatics that surrounded him immediately stopped buttoning theirs. And a tradition was born.

I hold to this idiotic tradition because it’s one of those little details. You know the ones: If you don’t do it, it looks like you have no idea what you’re doing even if you do know what you’re doing and why you’re not doing it. Buttoning that bottom button will make every half-smart dick think they have something on you. And the only thing more insufferable than a half-smart dick is one who thinks he has the upper hand. So fuck it – I leave it undone.

But I yearn for the day when my vest buttons can all be done up. The day when I can stop aping some fat monarch.

To this purpose, I humbly submit that we assign meaning to buttoning the bottom button. That it becomes a protest against all illegitimate authority. We shall call it the anarchist button. Doing it up will symbolize our unwillingness to be bossed around by obese inbreds.

The revolution starts here. Right above my crotch.

But not in public. I’m not crazy.

The Grumpy Owl Blog

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Time Hack

"The Time Hack is an experiment aimed at exploring whether our perception of time is influenced by our actions.

"The year-long project aims to test whether time itself is flexible and whether our brains measure time differently than the clocks around us.

"Research suggests a person’s perception of how much time has passed between two points and how well memories are recorded onto an individual’s brain are partially dependent on the amount of new experiences that person has during any given day.

"Experts argue that when one engages in a new experience, that person’s perception of time differs from when that individual engages in a mundane or repetitive task.

"The Time Hack aims to explore these two ideas.

"Each day, I engage in a new experience to understand how my perception of time speeds and slows in relation to each event. Can I accurately gauge how long each new experience lasted? Do I remember the details of the new experiences more accurately than repetitive events during the day?

"Through this website, I collect data by pitting recorded times and footage of each experience against time estimates and written accounts of what I believe took place during each event."


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Naturalist Wall of the Dead

Richard Conniff, author of The Species Seekers, asks in his op-ed piece for the NY Times: "We go to great lengths commemorating soldiers who have died fighting wars for their countries. Why not do the same for the naturalists who still sometimes give up everything in the effort to understand life?"

To this end, Conniff has compiled a rudimentary Naturalist Honor Roll of those who died on expeditions. Reading this list is a rather sobering reminder of the hazards that naturalists continue to face.

Conniff concludes his article with this thought:

"But it also occurs to me that they might prefer to be remembered some other way than on a stone monument, or on paper. So here is another idea: On their first trip as part of Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program, Gentry and Parker helped bring international attention to an Amazonian region of incredible, and unsuspected, diversity. (Parker found 16 parrot species there and projected that it might be home to 11 percent of all bird species on Earth.) As a result in 1995, Bolivia created the Madidi National Park, protecting 4.5 million acres, an area the size of New Jersey, and all the species within it. Peru soon designated the adjacent slope of the Andes as the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, protecting an additional 802,750 acres.

"Like many species seekers, Gentry and Parker did not live to see their discoveries bear fruit. But I am pretty sure that this would be their idea of a fitting memorial.

"Honoring the dead is good. We can do it by protecting the living."

Jacobus in the 14th Century on Fairies

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Rancocas Creek

My usual kayak route in winter.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


A band that deserves far more attention.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Sartorialist

When I think of Scott Schumann's Sartorialist blog, I can't help but associate it with Baudelaire's The Painter of Modern Life, and the idea of the flâneur, the wandering urban aesthete who takes in the sensed qualities of his time and place.

Scott brings up some really nice observations in this video. Have a look and listen.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Softness and Serenity

Perhaps it's because I'm a middle-aged crank, but it seems that serenity and softness are now verboten in most quarters of American life--so much so that they have come to arouse boredom and contempt in most people. True serenity and softness are rather thin on the ground: they're occasionally given lip service, but are rarely embraced. What often passes for softness and serenity is really a mawkish, sickly-sweet pantomime of said qualities--which of course further encourages peoples' impatience and hostility.

One is tempted to propose the half-baked theory that perhaps everyday life isn't hard enough to inspire an appetite for such quiet pleasures, but given the present grim realities that many of us face, that notion is destined to die in its proverbial cradle. Perhaps it's closer to the truth that we've become too desensitized, impatient, and lazy to enjoy softness and serenity on their own quiet terms?

Something to mull over and dismiss on a snowy evening.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Colonial Tofu

My friend Joel Fry, archaeologist, historian, and curator of Bartram's Garden, invited some of us out to the Bartram house this week. Chef Walter Staib of Old City Tavern is going to be cooking in the kitchen hearth at the Bartram house for his PBS program "A Taste of History". Chef Staib is cooking two entire meals, so there will apparently be plenty of hearty food to go around.

The thing that interests me most is that Chef Staib is also going to be making something that us laypersons would never associate with colonial-era fare: tofu. Apparently William Bartram was sent a recipe for producing tofu, courtesy of none other than Benjamin Franklin. Joel is somewhat skeptical that the Bartrams ever made any tofu from the recipe, but even he concedes that it might be possible.

Joel sent another email that included the text from a now-lost letter sent by Franklin to the Bartrams. Joel writes:

It happens I just pulled together the documentation on the Bartrams and tofu for the chef, so I'll paste in a copy for you to read at your leisure.

This is based on a letter Benjamin Franklin sent John Bartram, January 11, 1770 sending seeds of soybeans, which also included two enclosures describing tofu. Over the years the letter and the enclosures got separated and only recently has the whole story been re-assembled. (The original Franklin letter is currently missing, but it was published with other Bartram letters in 1849 so the text survives.)


Benjamin Franklin to John Bartram
London, Jan. 11, 1770.

My ever dear Friend:

I received your kind letter of Nov. 29, with the parcel of seeds, for which I am greatly obliged to you. I cannot make you adequate returns, in kind; but I send you, however some of the true Rhubarb seeds, which you desire. I had it from Mr. Inglish, who lately received a medal of the Society of Arts for propagating it. I send, also, some green dry Pease, highly esteemed here as the best for making pease soup; and also some Chinese Garavances, with Father Navarretta’s account of the universal use of a cheese made of them, in China, which so excited my curiosity, that I caused inquiry to be made of Mr. Flint, who lived many years there, in what manner the cheese was made; and I send you his answer. I have since learnt, that some runnings of salt (I suppose runnet) is put into water, when the meal is in it, to turn to curds.

I think we have Garavances with us; but I know not whether they are the same with these, which actually came from China, and are what the Tau-fu is made of. They are said to be of great increase.

I shall inquire of Mr. Collinson for your Journal. I see that of East Florida is printed with Stork’s Account. My love to good Mrs. Bartram, and your children. With sincere esteem I am ever, my dear friend,
Yours affectionately,

B. Franklin

Encloses letter of James Flint on “Towfu”
Jan 3d 1770


Dear Sir

1st Process

The method the Chinese convert Callivances into Towfu. They first steep the Grain in warm water ten or twelve Hours to soften a little, that it may grind easily. It is a stone Mill with a hole in the top to receive a small drain of warm water which passes between the two Stones the time of grinding to carry off the flower from between & keeps draining into a Tub which has a Sieve or Cloth at the top to stop the gross parts from mixing with the flower.

2d Process

Then they stir up the flower & put the Water over the Fire just for it to simmer, keeping stirring till it thickens & then taken out & put into a frame that has a Cloth which will hold the Substance, & press the Water from it, & when the Water is gone off the Frame with the Contents with a Weight on it must be put over the Steam of boiling Water for half an hour to harden or something longer. The pressing & boiling over the Steam brings it into the Form you see it carried about at Canton. This is the process as I always understood.

Now I shall give you my Opinion in what Manner I should proceed in the first Process I would send my Callevances to the mill to be ground, then I would put the Flower into water & stir it well very thin. Then strain the gross parts from the Flour & then you proceed to the 2d. For I look upon the reason they step the Grain & grind it with Water is that it is so hard they could not grind it with their little Stones. I hope you understand it, & wish the Complts of the Season I remain Dr Sr
Your most obedt Servant

J Flint


We don't know if the Bartrams ever tried to make tofu. The impression from Franklin's letter is he was very excited about this new food, but had no real knowledge of it, and certainly had never seen it. Franklin may have also been thinking about his younger vegetarian days. William Bartram's copy of the process for making tofu is in a section of his "Commonplace Book" with many recipes for preserving and pickling foods. It's possible William attempted to make some tofu following the recipe, but if so, it was probably more of a science experiment rather than a culinary revolution. Without any cultural context for the food, 18th c. Philadelphians would have had little idea how to cook, season, store or eat tofu.

Franklin's "Garavances" more usually spelled "Caravances" or "Callavances" here means soybeans. This is one of the earliest, if not the first introductions of soybeans to North America.

Soybeans had probably first got to London in the early 1760s, probably brought by two Englishmen, James Flint and Samuel Bowen. Bowen, a seaman who had spent some time in China, and particularly outside the usual closely controlled trading ports. Flint was a super-cargo and agent for the Royal East India Company in China over several decades, apparently fluent in Chinese.

Flint once had the audacity to actually address the Chinese emperor directly ca. 1760, asking that more ports be open to Europeans. The emperor had him jailed on Macau for three years and then deported back to England.

As additional evidence the Bartrams were interested in soybeans and tofu, William Bartram copied the instructions for making tofu [...] into his "Commonplace Book" probably sometime before 1773 when he left Philadelphia for his explorations in the South.


William Bartram MS “Commonplace Book” on page 215, (probably ca. 1770-1773):

How to make Teu-fu, a kind of cheese made in China from a little bean or Callevance

They first steep the beans in warm water 10 or 12 hours to soften ‘em. Then in a Stone Mill with a hole in top where in runs a small drain of warm water, which passing between the stones at the time of grinding carrys of the flower or paste which keeps draining into a tub which has a fine sieve or Cloth atop to keep the grosser part from mixing with the fine flower.

Then they stir it up and put it over the fire just for it to simmer, keep stirring it till it thickens; it’s then taken out & put into a frame that will hold the substance, & press the water from it, & when the water is gone off the frame with the contents, with a weight on it must be put over the steam of boiling water for about half an hour, the pressing & boiling over the steam brings it into the form you see it carried about at Canton.

Father Navarette’s account of the Tau-fu.
That is a paste made of kidney beans

They draw the milk out of kidney beans, & turning it to curd, with runnings of salt (Runett) while it is thin or liquid. they make great cakes of it like cheese as large as a sieve & 5 or 6 fingers thick. All the mass is as white as the very snow, & to look to nothing can be finer. It is commonly eaten raw, but generally with herbs, fish &c. It is excellent fry’d with butter. they also dry it & make it with caraway seed


So there you are. Even tofu has some historical surprises for us. If anyone tries this recipe, please let me know how you fare.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Playing to Type

Whenever movies featuring this particular stock character come out, I invariably get emails asking if I had seen them.

Seen them? Bah--I lived them!