Your leaking thatched hut during the restoration of a pre-Enlightenment state.


Hello, my name is Judas Gutenberg and this is my blaag (pronounced as you would the vomit noise "hyroop-bleuach").


decay & ruin
Biosphere II
dead malls
Irving housing

got that wrong

appropriate tech
Arduino μcontrollers
Backwoods Home
Fractal antenna

fun social media stuff

(nobody does!)

Like my brownhouse:
   sassafras vodka
Saturday, August 14 2010

location: Ridge Street, Charlottesville, Virginia

I didn't think I had much of a hangover this morning, but then I set off for Barrack's Road Shopping Center to get supplies for the making of vegan BLTs, and gradually I started feeling kind of ill. I figured I had a good chance at finding a vegan bacon substitute at Harris Teeter, the most comprehensively-yuppie supermarket outside of Bethesda. But all that food and bright lighting did a number on my comfort circuitry. They say you shouldn't shop for food when you're hungry, but you shouldn't shop for food when you're nauseated either.
It turned out that Harris Teeter didn't have Smart Bacon, which is my favorite bacon substitute. They had product by Morningstar farms that I knew wasn't entirely vegan when I bought it, but being entirely vegan wasn't really the point.
Trace amounts of animal products really seem to help a meat substitute. As Jessika toasted bread and sliced up tomatoes and avocados, I sizzled fake bacon strips with mushrooms. I found the Morningstar strips much hardier than strips of Smart Bacon I'd sizzled. They could survive multiple spatchula flips without disentegrating into fragments. Though they crisped up nicely, I was disappointed that they didn't darken like real (or Smart) bacon.
The proof, though, was in the BLTs, and Aaron and Jessika thought they were delicious (though Aaron made the mistake of squirting too much Sriracha (aka "Rooster Sauce") into his, rendering it inedible to him but delicious to Jessika). Jessika mentioned something about pigs being smarter than dogs and that she didn't want to be eating them any more. Delighted by our BLT success, she announced that she would be getting fake bacon in the future. The bacon was so convincing that when Saras (see the account of my the last tubing adventure) came over while we were eating our BLTs out in the back, she passed through the kitchen and devoured a strip without knowing it hadn't been made from a pig. That's a random act of Pepsi Challenge right there.
Aaron and Saras have a social dynamic that seems to create an impenetrable wall of banter, insults, and one liners referencing late night drunken happenings and pop culture (though there was also a reference by Aaron to a disturbing story he'd heard on All Things Considered about a lynching that happened in Indiana in 1930). Mostly, though, it felt like we'd been beamed among the pages of People Magazine (this was largely Saras' conversational influence). It was poor context for an exploration of the humor in the fact that a friend of Aaron's named Adam Smith is in a band called "The Invisible Hand," but I found it funny nevertheless.
BLTs, even vegan BLTs, are the perfect hangover food. Something about the combination of crispy components, wet components, and greasy components satisfies a body that feels punished on a chemical level by alcohol. Jessika listens to a lot of podcasts these days (including many of my favorites, but also some I was unfamiliar with). She selected one on her iPod Touch called "What is a hangover, really?" on the Stuff You Should Know/How Stuff Works Podcast, and we heard witty banter between two gentlemen discussing things like dehydration and cogeners and the like. It made me want to drink a lot of water and maybe also lie down for a bit.
Instead, though, Jessika and Aaron invited me to joint them and their little dog Ramona (a Boston Terrier) for a walk in the nearby forest along a trail in the Rivanna Trails network. Their house is in a fairly dense suburban environment, and there are a bunch of big cheap tightly-packed houses in a new development just to the south. But beyond that is a deep forested ravine with a babbling brook and trails that go for miles (in this Google Maps view, it is labeled "Jordan Avenue Park"). All of this could be accessed on foot without much concern for even an off-leash Ramona being hit by a car. Perhaps because of a combination of the depressed housing market and the advanced state of indoor entertainment, the intervening neighborhood of big cheap houses had an eerie, unpopulated quality.
Aaron is a professional photographer, and he'd brought an enormous camera with which to photograph little snatches of nature. Unfortunately, he didn't see a pair of red foxes (watch out Ramona!) until they bounded away.
We were the only people on the trail for our entire multi-mile walk, though we did pass through another suburban neighborhood as part of the loop back to our start. Part of it included a wonderfully creepy pederastic-fantastic playground (seen here inside an isolated circle of asphalt) where hundreds of teeanagers have probably smoked pot, made out, and thrown rocks at kitty cats.
For most of the walk I was hoping to find sassafras. Instead, though, mostly what I found was its relative Spice Bush. But about three quarters of the way through our walk I finally found a seedling that I could uproot. And there it was, that gorgeous sassafras fragrance. "We can make tea!" I said. "How about flavored vodka?" Jessika replied. "Yeah," said Aaron, "let's make sassafras vodka!" Later on in the walk we found a place where Eastern Juniper (aka Red Cedar) had fallen across the trail and been cut up by whoever maintains it. I showed this to Jessika and she thought she should come back some time with a saw to get some with which to line the inside of her closets. Holding the only piece of it small enough to carry, she seemed to be liking its smell about as much as I was liking the smell of the sassafras. Had anyone been outside in the new development of big cheap houses, they would have been perplexed to see us emerging from the forest, both of us holding our respective sticks up to our noses. But the only witnesses were members of a murder of crows sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on the railing at the precipice of an impressively-tall stone retaining wall.
Back at Jessika and Aaron's house, I started grinding up the sassafras in preparation for the experimental manufacture of sassafras vodka. Jessika had found me a fine cheese grater of the sort used for shaving ginger. The problem, though, is that sassafras root is hard and woody in a way that few household spices are (excepting, perhaps, cinnamon bark). It took me a good 20 minutes to shave that root down into a pile of sawdust, and even then I hadn't done it all. Meanwhile Aaron had gone to the liquor store and come back with Svedka vodka (which is the Ikea, Volvo, or Abba, though probably not the Saab, of vodka). I poured the vodka over the sassafras sawdust in a container and proceeded to shake the concoction for about twenty minutes while listening to another couple of podcasts Jessika had queued up. One was about a 50 page hand-written porn "novel" a woman wrote back when she was eleven and the other was about a guy who (worst case scenario!) lost control of his bowels while on a picnic with his date in Central Park. (I wish I could find these on the intertron, but they're proving elusive.)
Using a coffee filter and a makeshift funnel, I managed to strain the sawdust out of the vodka and return it to the Svedka bottle. Now the vodka had the color of weak tea but was otherwise transparent and not cloudy in the least. Jessika used some martini equipment to quickly make up a martini of straight sassafras vodka, and I was amazed at the results: this stuff was delicious! It had a strong but not overpowering sassafras flavor, so it was hard to determine what if anything might mix well with it. In the end I drank it and a Tecate beer at the same time. There was always enough sassafras in my mouth for the beer to taste exactly like root beer.
Around this time Jessica S. showed up. I'd met her back during the 2005 Charlottesville visit and she'd been part of a couple very drunken evenings as well as a tubing flotilla down the James. I hadn't seen her since, though I'd come close a few times (most recently when Gretchen and I had stayed at a vegan bed and breakfast she'd recommended down near Scottsville in 2008). Having just been reminded of the tight and chinkless manner in which Saras and Aaron converse, I was curious to see if Jessica and Aaron would communicate that way. But their interaction was quite different, drawing me in and allowing me to be much less of a spectator. In some conversational contexts I can be a major participant, but I quickly shut down if conditions aren't right.
We all sat out in back for awhile as the light went dim, drinking and drinking and talking and a having a good time. At some point, we decided we should probably eat something and consensus emerged that we should go to Monsoon, a Thai place near the Downtown Mall. It would have great vegan options (Jessica says she's mostly vegan these days) and a pleasant outdoor area. Also, there would be cold sake for us to drink from small square wooden boxes.
So there we were at Monsoon drinking that sake and ordering that delicious mostly-vegan food. When asked how spicy I wanted my curry (on a scale of one to five) I said five. In Bangkok that would have been a mistake, but not Charlottesville. I often use spiciness to slow me down and keep me from antisocially eating all my food within a few minutes, something I can do without even knowing I'm doing it. Jessika and Aaron ordered something that was 4 on the hotness scale, which (in conformance with the Sriracha experience earlier today) was just right for Jessika but too much for Aaron. Five was definitely hot for me, but not beyond the way I occasionally spice food for myself. It didn't slow me down as much as I'd expected. The protein in my curry came in the form of sort of tofu balls, and they were delicious.
After Monsoon, we went briefly to the Box where some DJ was spinning some unhelpful beats for the entertainment of a surprisingly small collection of Saturday night revelers. From there we went on to The Southern, a large bar/venue combination off the Downtown Mall. Tonight the band was an Indy Pop band with a name something like Birdmouth. By this point we'd completely lost Aaron and Jessika was out in front holding court talking to various people. So that left Jessica and me in the air-conditioned bar area, where we drank PBRs and talked to Shane, the guy who was acting like a DJ to entertain those who at the bar who hadn't paid the cover charge and gone into the venue to see Birdmouth. It turned out Jessica and Shane are actually in a band together. Jessica plays keyboards, though I got the feeling that she isn't great about showing up for practice.
Jessica and I were interested in maybe seeing birdmouth, but we didn't have enough cash and the cover charge couldn't be paid by credit card. By the time that problem was solved, we were able to sneak into the venue for free. The band wasn't really to my liking, but the atmosphere was good. It was very dark and very cool in there. [REDACTED]
After the band played their last song and the lights came up, Jessica and I went over to Shane's DJ area and danced like we were at sock-hop to music from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Sliding one's feet on the ground is so essential in dancing to that sort of music that at one point Shane dumped a bottle of talcum powder on the floor.
When we next saw Jessika, Jessica was hardly done with her evening and was agitating to go on to Millers. But Jessika thought we'd all drunk enough and, since she'd been unable to find Aaron, we should just walk back to her place (a mile and a half away). Somehow Jessica convinced me that we could get a ride at Millers, but when we told Jessika these plans, she said "fine" and stomped off towards home. She was upset that I'd first agreed to walk home with her but then decided the Millers option was better.
So then Jessica and I were out in front of Millers at a little before 2am, just in time for last call. There were a few others I knew there, including Josh Mustin and Saras. Jessica introduce me to a pleasant bearded fellow named Ian who had volunteered to drive us back to her place, which these days is somewhere on Cherry Avenue. So we walked to Ian's vehicle over in the Garrett Square area. It was an overly-comfortable 80s perp van, but it did the trick. Before long, we were at Jessica's house with her big overweight rescue dogs and surrounded by her super-tasteful household decor. Her drinking was far from over, but she was having trouble finding anything drinkable in the house. Eventually a couple more beers were found, and later she scared up a bottle of red wine. By this point it was going on 3am. The reason she seemed to have so much more energy and appetite for alcohol than anyone else was because she'd been recreationally chugging prescription cough syrup all night, the stuff with codeine.
At a certain point in the evening, it became obvious that Ian was actually there in hopes of romancing Jessica and perhaps I was interfering with his plans. This became particularly clear after he brought out a bag of gifts he'd bought for her in Virginia Beach. These gifts included a super white-trash shirt featuring a pre-torn outer layer and an inner layer with the words "VIRGINIA BEACH" in gaudy neon letters. There was also a skimpy little dress that Jessica immediately put on (at our insistence). I fell asleep somewhere for awhile but was awaken by very loud music. Eventually I decided it best to just walk back to Jessika's house.
I'd walked a couple blocks when I realized I'd left my glasses back at Jessica's house. So I had to walk back to her cul du sac and try to figure out which of the houses was hers. Luckily my intuition was correct and I found it, retrieved my glasses, and resumed my walk. But there were no stars and it was difficult to know which direction I was walking on Cherry Avenue. When I got to Shamrock, I wondered if perhaps I was going north (the wrong way). But the neighborhoods I'd been walking through had been very unfamiliar and, most tellingly, not run down. That seemed to indicate I'd actually been north of Shamrock and heading south. Cherry grows increasingly sketchy as one heads south.
Back at Jessika's house, I found all the doors were locked as was the one window I'd successfully jimmied open earlier in the day. [REDACTED] Eventually Jessika got up and let me in. She'd been mad at Aaron for abandoning us last night and was sleeping on the couch, which put her in a good place to hear me scratching at the door like some sort of entitled raccoon.

Jessika and Ramona in their kitchen this morning.


Jessika, Aaron, and Ramona on the Rivanna Trail.

Spectator crows on the rail above a retaining wall. Note the cheap big houses behind them, with their vinyl siding and puny windows.

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