31 December, 2016

Twenty Sixteen

drinking my coffee
before the interview
making it last

buying a ticket
to buckingham palace -
yes, a return please

the old lady's dog
watching the ambulance
drive away

kneeling in chapel
before made my offering
were those lamps lit?

there goes a cupboard -
old kitchen burns quickly
in the garden stove

surprise visit -
coming home early to
the armadillo

school interview
holding his rubber duck
the three year old

the englishman lost
asking directions from
budapest pigeon

returning home
cold and wet on my cheeks
dog dribble
(from a dream)

twelve boys
twelve waterpistols
father has the high ground

before opera
the opening movement
waffles, beer, ice-cream

dementia book
lists things he has forgotten
front cover - goldfish

the open door
welcomes to Midnight Mass
my drunken self

03 August, 2016

Today's Agenda

Today's agenda: got the shengpu up in the Sentra.

Go to room 1-12, 
tell 'em Miss Lin sent ya.

Please make your brewings clean, rinse up in between.

Rule #1 about me: I am pathologically contrary. If you tell me that I have to like something, or, even worse, that it is cool to like something, then I will almost certainly dislike it, on principle.  This is not something over which I have conscious control.

So, when the (super-cute, "Mister Scruff") wrapper of "Poundcake" tells me that it says a lot about you if you not feeling us, then I am almost preternaturally indisposed to find the cake undrinkable.  Without intervention of any decision-making process, that's just how it is.

On the bright side, this cake ($50/200g) was green and fruity; Miss Lin described it as being "outlier Yiwu", which is accurate.  There is a hint of sourness at the back, which terrifies me, because it has a leafy green-brown flavour that tastes a lot like everything I try to avoid in shengpu.  The opening infusions were much better than the tannic later infusions.

"This is quite ordinary", notes my dear wife, as she offers an opinion in passing.  I silently rejoice, wondering if I might not be mad, after all.

Calm as possible, make the deal go through

$38/200g is, on the grand scale of modern tea, reasonably affordable.  I love the way that the wrapper says "Will this do?", as if Miss Lin ran out of time or ideas.  You couldn't say that about some of the 2016 cakes with their plush wrappers!

The leaves are rich, and dark, and spicy.  The pale yellow soup is thick, and comforting, and very sweet.  I appreciate the beefy, almost meaty, aftertaste.  The dry opening is so dry that I am half-expecting to find grapeskins mixed in there with the leaves.  It chugs on nicely, with the buttery scent of a clean wok'ing.

It is a solid little drinker, but the background has a hint of sourness that terrifies me; those of us in cooler climes ware the sourness like a werewolf fears silver.  "Nice, but not for me", I hurriedly conclude.

I got a hundred bricks, 14.5 a piece

Now this one - this one is a bad boy.  You know I saved the best until last, and it's absolutely true in this case.  I totally dig 200% the cheesy old wrapper that looks like a leftover from the 1950s.  This is real Communist space-race tea.  Admittedly it's from 2005, but the ambience is very "planned economy".

This is another White Whale, and old Captain Ahab knows total embargaination when he sees it.

Like the Whale, this is clean orange in its brew.  Like my purple-wrapper Dingxing (inexplicably prized from the hands of the dodgiest Taobao seller imaginable), it is sweet in its rustic Yiwu stylings.  Unlike either of those two, it has a complexity in its scent, with floral summer-flowers.  Hell, it even leaves an explicit cooling sensation in the nose.  The nose!

So good is this tea, that it even managed to see off the cold that I had incurred recently, after hitting some deadlines.  It cured the common cold, you read it here first.

The first half-dozen infusions are the best for this tea; while remaining clean, sweet and robust, it fades a little after that.  For $88/400g, I think it has earned to right to do so.  Complaining about this later infusions of this tea would be like complaining about the colour of the leather interior of a classic Jag that someone sold you for 10% market value.

The tongs, they are a-purchasin'.

29 July, 2016

2015 Green Shroom (w2t)

Nothing helps a situation like a serious cup of tea.

Looming deadlines? Cup of tea.

Student trying to convince you to let them submit an unready doctoral thesis, while their primary supervisor has disappeared to South America? Cup of tea.

Electricity and water not working while the builders try their hardest to destroy what little remains of your sanity? Cup of tea.

No, you're right: functioning electricity was an aspiration, not a requirement.

Much of this last year, I've enjoyed tea in one of two places: (i) feet up back at Chez Moi, huddled over my teatable, while children bounce off the walls; (ii) sitting in my lab, huddled over my computer keyboard, while researchers bounce off the walls.  Both of these seem to work well to a surprising degree.

I've noticed that I've developed an unexpected ability to enjoy tea at the unlikeliest of times - by setting up my secondary teatable in my office, it's genuinely surprising how much enjoyment I can get out of even the most mediocre tea when it's brewed right.  And by "right", I mean "strong".

Mediocre tea is no short supply: much of the intake has been "gift tea", provided by generous colleagues as they come back from China and India.  Gift tea looks nice, and is characterised by being, let's say, "accessible".  It needs to be inoffensive, by definition.  Good tea is rarely inoffensive, however.

Wimpy wulong?  Just double the amount and perform a "flash brew".  Humdrum hongcha?  Crank up the amount of leaf in the pot, and enjoy the tippy first infusions.  Dodgy Darjeeling?  There's little that maximum amounts can't overcome.

"If in doubt, just overwhelm them with violence."  It's a family motto that I like to like by.

Rarely, I get to drink outside, but that's another great way to improve even the laziest leaf (pictured above, in that "sweet spot" between the students leaving at the end of the academic year, and before the tourists arrive in their bazillions).

Thankfully, w2t has made a tea that (i) I love so much that it seems too big to fail, no matter how it's brewed; and (ii) is unavailable, naturally.  Perhaps the latter is part of its appeal - the one that got away.

When you're making tea that looks like something from Super Mario, then "you had me at hello".  If this were available, my entire life would be filled with such cuties.  Perhaps it is good, then, that (as ever) I got to the party too late, and this had sold out before I got around to drinking the sample from "MISS LIN" (chortle).

As the kettle fires up, I find myself humming the theme-tune to Super Mario Bros.  At one point, I'm sure that I even said, "OBEY WARIO - DESTROY MARIO" to my youngest son.

Dubs (i.e., w2t) has morphed from being super-cheap-and-cheerful into a more premium outfit, and that's entirely fair.  Miss Lin (chortle) makes great tea, and if she wants to charge a living wage on top of it, then I'm not going to whine.

I realise that this makes me a massive hypocrite: the Hobbes from nearly ten years ago, back when the ol' Half Dipper started off, would have been vociferous in condemning a vendor for charging for their tea.  Now, I'm more laissez-faire.  If the tea's right (and w2t's tea is right), then I'm fine with Miss Lin making her margin.

As a thought experiment, I asked myself if I would be equally content with another vendor doubling their prices.  I concluded that I would not be content.  Why, then, am I content for w2t to charge thus?  Perhaps it's personality: personality goes a long way.  The cakes are great, and they have personality.  Additionally, and I think this is the crux for me, there is always a bargain available for sale.  You can grab a huge stack of Elephant Cakes, or Rocket Yiwu, or whatever it might be, for a good and fair price.  That helps a great deal, and discriminates between "ripping off customers wholesale" and "offering something for everyone".

This is, by far, the best tea that I've had for some time.  It is Menghai to the max, but it has a hint of complex darkness.  It  has the heavy scent that matches its dark leaves.  It is green, and especially violent, because I used the whole sample.

This is my kind of town: strong, dark, and unexpectedly fragrant.  The fragrance won't last as it ages, I suspect, but it is a consequence of the complexity of the leaves.  If I wrote "it tastes like a bizarrely-delicious broccoli" you'd be forgiven for thinking it was dreadful, but, really, it is a complex mixture of fruits and vegetal tones that thrills me.

On checking my notes, I was amused to see that this was the last tea that I drank before the builders pulled one side of our house off, in a process that has only just completed, some 11 months later.  The memory of this tea stays with me, and I sorely wish that I'd bought at least one tuocha while it was still available.

Drink 'em while you've got 'em!

04 July, 2016

Strange Days

Warriors, poets, and warrior-poets: I bid you welcome.  I trust that all is well, with you and yours.  These are strange days indeed, but first, let's fire up the trusty ol' tetsubin before we get down to business.

I'm up before the dawn chorus, this morning, which gives me the opportunity and the means: we have a 2010 Mansai cake from Essence of Tea (nee Nadacha) on the table.  The sweet thrills of this cake rather take me by surprise; I wasn't expecting to be thrilled, at 4 a.m., and yet thrilled I appear to be.  Apricots, dried fruits, humidity, sweetness - I am enthused.

It is my ambition, in the coming months, to write up some of the (copious) notes that have accumulated, as accretion is wont to do, in my journals.  I beg your patience, with respect to their arrival, and your tolerance, with respect to their quality; there is a certain rustiness in my ability to write, but rust can be worn away with sufficient elbow-grease.  Let us grease together.

To say that these days are "strange" is not quite to do justice to the batsh*t craziness that seems to typify life at the moment.

We have come a long way together, you and I, on our respective warrior-poet journeys, have we not?  When the Half-Dipper was started, I was a humble graduate student; I was subsequently a humble post-doc; then, father to two mighty warriors (one of whom has just finished his first year at school!).  I remain humble.  As of ten days ago, I am "tenured", which is to say "sufficiently knackered so as to be put out to pasture".  My colleagues refer to me as "professor", which is both extremely unnerving and simultaneously alienating.  Even my old boss uses the title, although, it must be said, not without irony.

A few days later, my countrymen voted themselves out of the European Union.  Much ink has already been committed to this subject, and I will not bore you with my own opinion, suffice to say that literally every single person in my life (personal, professional, adversorial) is of the same mind on this subject, which appears to be on the other side of the argument from the majority of people in the country.

Imagine the Republican Party and the Democratic Party suddenly having no leaders, nor firm idea of what should happen next, and you have some insight into the substance of these recent times.

Balliol lunch
after the referendum -
sauerkraut noodles

Friends, let us shoulder our lances and our quills. It is time to drink some tea - surely, this is the only cogent response to these Strange Days.

25 April, 2016

Travel-Worn Satchel, I-VIII

safety video
plays while I watch
the jet of steam

phonecall from Shanghai
hello - I think your wife
took my suitcase

toddler chooses
the next track for our journey -
God is a DJ!

all the questions
are provided in advance
Chinese press meeting

flapping in the breeze
the hem of her summer dress
caught by car door

england, nether-lands
separated only
by clouds

no! no! not ours!
she squeals as I point at the
yellow ferrari

fat loud abusive
learning new words -
beijing taxi

18 April, 2016

Cambridge Snow, I-VIII

cambridge snow
melts on contact with starbucks
and james brown

bacon espresso
orange clouds winter sky
train to cambridge

woman carefully
applying her eyeliner -
train hits a bump

the speeches begin -
alone in the garden
with tea and scones

five miles of tunnel
the traffic jam hides my voice
singing Guns & Roses

pines mountains snow
calm Lake Tahoe untouched
pines mountains snow

aeroplane window
are those tiny cricketers?

under a jumper
dreaming of thunder and rain -
my college sofa

11 April, 2016

Academic Year, I - VIII

on my bicycle
from classroom to lab
eating my lunch

winter rain
running past another don
our gowns tangle

the New Year's eve
college quads are silent -
except for my boys

governing body -
fifty gowns flapping
fifty opinions

on easter sunday
one does not simply walk
into Balliol

teapot for two
beneath the old buttery
pear tree

under the table
in my college office
we play hide-and-seek

singing responses
in the college chapel
to my sons

04 April, 2016

Beef and Cheese, I-VI

mealtime again -
massachusetts institute
of beef and cheese
changing timezones -
more tired at 8 a.m.
second time around

old cigarette ends -
disused flower garden of
the cancer ward

never waste a snowdrift -
english footprints made deep in
american tyretracks

looking down on
the English, I take my place
among them

two thighs
makes plenty of room
for two boys

Notes have been added to the 2006 Yiwu from 12 Gentlemen - after ten years, this has become a very tasty cake.  Many thanks to Shah for the suggestion.

18 January, 2016

Catching Oneself

every moment
is an opportunity -
turn it all around

sit up, back straight
shoulders back, head up -
pour the tea

when you brew yourself,
pour yourself, drink yourself -
this is zazen

I catch myself
writing about zazen -
steam from the teapot