396. My Family and Other Oddities

My family has been visiting for a little more than a week, which has been weird—the very best kind of weird. My parents live in Uruguay. My brother and his family moved to the Dominican Republic more than a year ago. It’s rare for my family all to be in the same hemisphere at the same time. At the moment, we’re all in roughly the same place. The wonders never cease.

During my family’s visit, I’ve been busy traveling, growing a patchy jaw-beard, making my dad watch Marvel’s Daredevil, and catching up with other things. With this and that, I’ve had hardly any time to work on this blog, so today’s post is just a few photos from the past week and my illuminating commentaries thereupon.

Enjoy.

Rest stop

My family and I spent a few days visiting various friends and relatives. With only one car—the trusty, rusty vehicle I’ve christened Eliezer—it was a challenge to coordinate our individual plans. Fortunately, we still had time to stroll through pretty, sunshiny places.

Tom's Donuts

For the third consecutive year, my my parents, younger brother, and I stopped at a doughnut shop by a lake. (Despite the lens flare, this photo was not taken by J.J. Abrams, I swear.) The shop’s founder, Tom, was there fixing something. My parents struck up a conversation with him, because chatting with random strangers is what they do.

Passed out

After the doughnut shop, I threw myself onto a park bench, clutching an empty coffee bottle and soaking in the sunshine like an iguana on a cold day. My mum sat demurely beside me. She is one of the most fabulous people in the universe.

Chillin'

I come from a family of coffee drinkers. At one point, my dad kept his coffee cool by chilling it in a river. It’s a shame the bottled stuff is so flipping expensive.

Water shadows

Sunshine, shadows, and cool water.

Churching

My older brother and his wife gave presentations on Sunday about their work in the DR. They manage a school for troubled teens, living on faith, donations, and coconuts. If you want to support their work, you can donate here—just look for Stuck Family: Lead Teacher and Family.

MANICHO

My parents brought back all sorts of goodies from Uruguay and Ecuador, including the best chocolate bar in the known universe. MANICHO IS LIFE.

The Paw

My dad usually hides behind the camera, but every now and then he and his ever-present leather jacket are caught on film. He is known to my family variously as Dad, the Paw, the Dude, the Dude-Paw, or Old Man. He receives these names as he receives everything else: with good humor.

Shaving

My older brother gave me a machete as an early Christmas gift. It’s great for shaving.

Communing

My family visited a zoo yesterday. (I would make a joke about my family belonging in a zoo, but they’re actually wonderful people.) I spent a few moments communing with this statue, and wondering whether the zoo would accept my typewriter monkeys as a donation.

My family will soon scatter like the autumn leaves. My parents will return to Uruguay in a few days, and my older brother will go back to the DR with his family. My younger brother and I will remain in Indiana, where we will do… whatever it is we do around here. I guess we mostly drink tea and argue about Steven Universe. (Greg is the best character; that’s all I’m saying.)

I thank God for my family. It has been nice to spend some time with them.

384. Spiders Are Noble and Misunderstood

Nearly everyone I know has an irrational fear of spiders. In fact, most of my friends and relatives react to spiders by terminating them with extreme prejudice. This is a shame. Spiders are noble, innocent, misunderstood creatures. I’m fond of the little guys, and I think they deserve better than to be slaughtered without pity or remorse.

I grew up in Ecuador: a tiny country with a bewildering variety of birds, animals, insects, and other creatures, including several species of spiders. At one point in Quito, my family and I had tarantulas burrowing in our back garden. No spider ever did me harm. Other bugs attacked me, such as mosquitoes; still more tried unsuccessfully to hurt me, such as scorpions and a Giant Mutant Killer Jungle Ant, but spiders were contented to mind their own business and leave me alone.

Most people refuse to return that favor. A friend of mine, whom I’ll call Socrates, once tried incinerating a spider with a flamethrower cobbled together from a lighter and a can of cooking spray. Other friends—less creative than Socrates, but just as violent—have wielded books and shoes in their bloodthirsty crusade against spiders.

Misunderstood spider is misunderstood

Heck, even J.R.R. Tolkien, a man of enormous creative genius and one of my heroes, hated spiders. A childhood encounter with a tarantula traumatized him for life. His arachnophobia surfaced in his stories; his most famous books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, both feature wicked giant spiders.

As much as I admire Tolkien, I think E.B. White was closer to the truth when he wrote Charlotte’s Web, a children’s book about a sweet, noble friend who happens to be a spider.

Charlotte's Web

Everyone thinks spiders are awful, but look at that goose! That bird is clearly evil, and probably possessed by many devils.

Charlotte is basically any and every spider: hardworking and considerate, spinning beautiful webs to rid the world of pests like flies and mosquitoes. E.B. White understood, guys.

Flipping heck, even cartoons for young children get it.

Spiders quietly eliminate true pests. Have you ever tried sleeping with a cloud of mosquitoes buzzing around your ears? I have. It sucks. Have you ever been annoyed by flies, stung by bees, or menaced by cockroaches? I have. It sucks. (Cockroaches, my archenemies, are the worst creatures on God’s green earth.) Spiders prevent the proliferation of these wretched beasties. If spiders did not exist, the world would be overrun by filthy pests. Spiders are God’s guardian angels.

Spiders aren’t so bad, really.

Look, I get it. Spiders look scary. They have a lot of legs and too many eyes, and the way they move is a little creepy. Spiders are odd-looking. However, if it were okay to kill things just because they looked odd, Pete Docter would have been murdered ages ago, and Pixar’s Inside Out (which Docter directed and co-wrote) would never have been made. So there.

Pete Docter

I have nothing but respect and admiration for Mr. Docter, but he sure is a goofy-looking guy. He has roughly 70% more forehead than most people.

If we killed everything that looked weird or made us uncomfortable, I probably wouldn’t have made it to my teens.

An expert on Englishing

There’s a reasonable explanation for this. Probably.

Yes, some spiders are venomous. Some can kill you. Do you know what else can kill you? Donkeys. (They have a vicious kick.) Human beings also kill each other occasionally, but I like to think most of us aren’t so bad—and neither are most spiders.

So the next time you want to slaughter a spider out of fear or disgust, consider showing some mercy and putting it outside instead!

In Defense of the Fist Bump

In my twenty-odd years, I’ve done some traveling and been immersed in many different cultures. It’s been fascinating to observe different customs for greetings, goodbyes, and displays of respect or affection.

In Ecuador, where I grew up, it’s common for men and women to greet each other with hugs or kisses on the cheek. Uruguay, where my parents work, can be a little more effusive: men often greet other men with cheek kisses. The US, where I currently reside, generally frowns upon such intimate displays of affection; waves and handshakes are the norm. In South Korea, where I spent a month teaching, slight bows are used to demonstrate respect or gratitude.

Yes, I’ve seen all kinds of greetings. Which is the best? My all-time favorite greeting, by far, is the gentleman’s gesture known as the fist bump.

The fist bump is quick, friendly, informal, and surprisingly healthy. Handshakes spread germs like nobody’s business. Besides, palms perspire and that’s gross. There’s also the discomfort that comes from knowing neither how hard to grip a hand nor for how long to hold it.

Hugs, especially with strangers or distant acquaintances, aren’t much better. Am I the only person who finds it awkward to press my body up against someone whom I don’t know well? It was also uncomfortable in Ecuador and Uruguay when people swooped in to kiss me.

I… actually have no criticisms for slight bows. I bow to people occasionally. It’s a pity bowing hasn’t caught on in the West.

Fist bumps are definitely my favorite greeting, though. They represent a kind of warm, casual friendliness while never getting too up close and personal. Fist bumps are quick, easy, and sanitary. When I worked in a group home for gentlemen with disabilities—an environment in which no one washed his hands without being asked—fist bumps were an especially welcome alternative to handshakes.

If you ever happen to run into me, dear reader, feel free to give me a fist bump.


This post was originally published on August 22, 2014. TMTF shall return with new content on August 24, 2015!

378. TMTF’s Official, Essential, and Utterly Invaluable Guide to Brewing Hot Tea

Typewriter Monkey Task Force is a blog often wasted on personal rambles or geeky nonsense, but not today. TMTF justifies its existence today by offering invaluable insight and time-tested tips on an all-important subject.

I speak, of course, of the brewing of hot tea.

TMTF makes tea

I have twenty-something years of experience brewing and drinking tea, yielding a few successes and one or two truly harrowing failures. (Don’t ever mix black tea, yierba mate, and cinnamon sticks—just don’t.) Although I drink more coffee than tea these days, tea was my passion for many years. It was my special-tea. (I’m so, so sorry.)

Varieties of Tea, as Explained by Science

Are you ready for science? I bet you didn’t expect science.

Et-Webscout16The beverages called tea fall into two categories: tea and herbal tea.

Tea comes from a plant whose scientific name is Camellia sinensis. Black, green, oolong, and white teas are all prepared from the leaves of the tea plant. The difference lies in how they are processed from fresh tea leaves to dried leaves. Tea processing involves oxidizing the tea leaves—which is a fancy way to describe the process by which oxygen interacts with the tea, changes its molecular structure, and gives it its taste.

In simple terms, white tea is oxidized only slightly, green tea is oxidized a little further, oolong tea is oxidized even more, and black tea is oxidized completely. Generally speaking, the further a tea is oxidized, the darker its color, the stronger its flavor, and the higher its caffeine content. Black tea is most common in the West, though green tea is also popular. White and oolong teas are a little harder to find.

Kinds of teaTea is often infused with other ingredients; such teas are called blends. For example, Earl Grey is a famous blend of black (and sometime green) teas with bergamot oil.

The other broad category of tea beverages, herbal tea, is not actually tea. An herbal tea is some other plant, herb, or spice infused in hot water in the manner of tea. (I can only assume these beverages are called tea for their style of preparation.) In Ecuador, my homeland, herbal tea is more accurately known as agua aromática, or aromatic water. Common herbal teas include cinnamon, chamomile, mint, and ginger.

Preparing to Brew a Proper Cup of Tea

You should start with fresh, cold water. Do not use hot tap water; hot water pipes tend to corrode, giving hot tap water a flat, metallic taste. You will also need a method for heating your water. I recommend heating a kettle on the stove or investing in an electric kettle. (I use an electric kettle: it’s fast, easy, and well worth the price.) I do not recommend heating water in the microwave. Most microwaves build up an oily residue from the foods it has heated, which can flavor the water and give the tea an unpleasant aftertaste.

Brewing Tea: The Basics

As a general rule, the darker your tea, the hotter your water should be and the longer your tea will take to brew. Use boiling water for black tea; for white and green teas, use water that has just boiled.

When the water is hot, add tea. It ain’t hard.

Tea is brewed by a process called steeping, which infuses tea’s soluble substances in hot water. Once again, darker teas require a different set of rules from lighter teas. Most black teas should steep for two or three minutes to bring out their full, robust taste. White and green teas should steep for only one or two minutes—any longer and the tea develops a harsh flavor.

Many tea drinkers leave tea leaves, whether loose or in a teabag, in their tea as they drink it. This is a matter of personal taste. However, I do not recommend it, as tea releases compounds called tannins when steeped for too long. Tannins give tea a bitter and astringent taste, which overpowers its more delicate flavors.

Unlike genuine tea, whose preparation is pretty consistent, there are few universal rules for brewing herbal teas due to their staggering variety.

Teabags Vs. Loose Leaf Tea

The most popular preparations of tea are teabags and loose leaf tea. Teabags are small packets of tea leaves, generally attached to a string for easy removal. Simply put a teabag in hot water, let it steep, and pull it out by the string. Loose leaf tea consists of dried tea leaves. Brewing tea with loose leaves is slightly more challenging, requiring a small strainer.

Tea bag and loose leaf teaBoth of these preparations have benefits and disadvantages. Teabags are widely available, easy to use, and conveniently sized for individual servings. However, teabags offer a less robust flavor than loose leaves. Loose leaf tea is generally more expensive and harder to find, requires a tea strainer or brewing basket, and must be separated into portions for individual servings. However, loose leaves offer a much fuller flavor than teabags.

Adding Stuff to Tea: The Basics

By itself, tea is fairly bitter. Sweet additives such as sugar, honey, artificial sweeteners, and even agave syrup are popular. A small amount of milk, when added to darker teas, cuts their bitter flavor for a smoother drink. (Milk has a similar effect on coffee.) Lemon or lime juice gives tea a refreshingly tart flavor. (Do not add milk and lime or lemon; trust me on this.) Small amounts of liquor give tea a bracing taste. Fresh mint leaves are a tasty garnish to lighter teas and some herbal brews. Around Christmas, a small candy cane in a cup of strong black or mint tea is a festive touch.

Recommended Blends and Recipes

Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorites.

Earl Grey

This aforementioned blend of black tea and bergamot oil has a light citrus flavor. The Twinings and Bigelow tea companies offer the best blends, which are widely available in the US. Twinings’s blend is subtle and delicate; Bigelow’s is bold and bracing. They’re both delicious, especially with sugar and just a bit of milk.

Gollum Juice

Named for J.R.R. Tolkien’s morally ambiguous monster, this one packs a punch. Start with a really strong cup of black tea, add a lot of honey, and squeeze in a couple of fresh limes. (I recommend not using bottled lime juice; the fresh stuff is much better.) Fish out any stray lime seeds, mix it all together, and enjoy—but carefully.

Yierba mate

Popular in Uruguay and its surrounding countries, this herbal tea packs a murky flavor. (This is the tea I’m drinking in this post’s title card, and it makes an appearance in one of this blog’s banners!)

Mate and bombillaAlthough Uruguayan culture demands an elaborate preparation with specialized cups called mates and metal straws called bombillas, a simpler option is to use an ordinary cup and a tea strainer. Yierba mate is definitely an acquired taste, but a light infusion with sugar and even a little lime juice is quite refreshing.

Still Not Ginger

Add a spoonful of honey and two of brandy to a cup of ginger tea. This is a particularly good recipe for cold days. If you recognize the pop culture reference in the name, I will personally brew a cup for you.

Cinnamon tea

Fill a small pot or large saucepan with water, bring it to a boil, and toss in a couple of large cinnamon sticks. I find cassia cinnamon makes a much better brew than Ceylon cinnamon—and yes, there is a difference.

Cassia vs. Ceylon cinnamon sticksLet the brew boil for a minute or so, then turn off the heat and add a lot of sugar. Cinnamon tea is spicy, fragrant, and delicious. This is another good one for cold days.

Jasmine green

This famous blend of green tea and jasmine blossoms is delicious, especially with a little sugar. Brew it from loose leaves if you can; you can sometimes find them in Asian food stores.

That, dear reader, was TMTF’s Official, Essential, and Utterly Invaluable Guide to Brewing Hot Tea. Go forth and brew!

Question: Should TMTF feature more Official, Essential, and Utterly Invaluable Guides to things? Let us know in the comments!

377. That Time I Discovered Coffee

Sixteen years ago, somewhere in the jungles of Ecuador, something happened that changed my life. I was nine years old, bookish, chubby, fond of Star Wars, and—if my memory is correct, which it probably isn’t—recently bespectacled. (I wasn’t born wearing glasses, you know.) The thing that happened on that day shaped my destiny in ways I could not have imagined.

On that day, I tasted coffee for the first time.

In the brightly-colored blur that is the life of Adam Stück, such concrete details as dates are elusive. It’s hard enough for me to trace most memories to a particular year, let alone a specific month. In this case, however, one fact allows me to place the day I discovered coffee in April, May, or June of 1999. My life-changing experience happened around the time Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was in theaters. I am certain of this.

I had just turned nine, and was eager to seem as grown-up as possible. My joy and excitement at receiving eyeglasses was tremendous; wearing glasses seemed like a huge step toward the sophistication of adulthood. (It turned out to be a huge step toward a world that isn’t blurry.) Yes, I wanted to be a grownup, and nothing seemed more grown-up than coffee.

Adam, roughly 1 B.T.C

Adam Stück, roughly 1 year B.T.C. (Before Tasting Coffee)

However, some faint intuition told me coffee wasn’t suitable for children. It was an adult drink, like whiskey or vodka, and therefore beyond my reach. I had only ever seen adults drink coffee. Whenever it was served to adults, kids were offered milk or juice instead. The message was clear: Coffee ain’t for kiddos.

I was mistaken, of course. My parents would surely have let me try it. However, convinced coffee was exclusively a grown-up drink, I was too timid to ask.

The day before that fateful morning, my dad and I (and maybe my younger bro; I don’t remember) piled into our dusty Trooper and drove from our home in Santo Domingo de los Colorados to a place my dad called “Charlie’s camp,” a campground surrounded by jungle. Charlie’s camp surely had a proper name, but I don’t remember ever hearing it; I can only assume a man named Charlie either owned or managed the place.

Trooper

Our Trooper was a beast with the roaring power of a rhino and all the spacious comfort of a coffin.

My memories of Charlie’s camp are few. There was a river nearby with muddy banks studded with rocks. I recall fences with rusting barbed wire, and remember munching a bag of Star Wars-shaped sweet crackers. My recollections of Charlie’s camp are faint, but one stands out clearly after all these years.

After spending the night, we ate breakfast with the camp crew. It was a campesino (rural) meal of pancitos (bread rolls) and boiled eggs. Black coffee was the only drink available. With nothing else to drink, I realized I might be able to persuade my dad to let me try a cup, even though coffee was clearly and obviously not a drink suitable for minors.

Much to my surprise, my dad raised no objections, and I was finally free to try the stuff that had tantalized me for so long. I filled my cup, lifted it to my lips… and very quickly set it down again.

Coffee was disgusting.

At any rate, that’s what I thought at the time. I was a foolish, ignorant child.

Faced with the prospect of drinking an entire cup of bitter coffee, I did what any sensible child would do—shoveled in plenty of sugar. I took another sip. The taste was much improved, and I felt like a proper grown-up.

The rest is sweet, sweet history. I started drinking coffee regularly in high school, and it gradually replaced tea as my beverage of choice. In college, I began drinking my coffee with milk instead of sugar for health reasons. My daily intake had increased so much that a proportional increase in my sugar intake would probably have caused my heart to explode.

HRRRNNNGGG

Don’t laugh, guys. It could’ve happened.

That’s the story of how I discovered coffee, and how one day changed my life forever. In the words of that guy from the latest Mad Max movie: Oh, what a day. What a lovely day!

373. That Time I Ran Afoul of Jellyfish

Jellyfish are nasty little gits. Sure, they may look pretty when you see them in aquariums or on television, with their billowing bodies and delicate tentacles, but jellyfish are rotten company when you’re in the water with them.

When I lived in Ecuador, my family and I vacationed at the beach or the jungle. Our favorite beaches lie on a stretch of coast not far from the city of Esmeraldas. (We spent a few years in Esmeraldas in the early nineties; we’ve moved around a lot.) One of the best beaches belongs to a resort called El Acantilado, which is Spanish for The Cliff. As its name suggests, El Acantilado is located on a cliff overlooking the beach.

Acantilado beach

The beach below El Acantilado is lovely in a brownish, grayish sort of way.

My family and I loved El Acantilado, and visited its beach once or twice a year from my childhood to my graduation from high school. Of course, not every visit was perfectly pleasant. It was in the murky, gray-green ocean just off the beach that I had a run-in with jellyfish.

I had forgotten this dreadful encounter until a couple of days ago. As anyone who has known me for more than five minutes can confirm, I have a wretchedly poor memory. Every time I think I’ve finally run out of interesting stories to share on this blog, I recall some new misadventure. This one was brief, but painful.

I don’t recall in what year I ran afoul of jellyfish, but I’m pretty sure it was during my middle school years. My younger bro and I were messing about in the surf when I felt an excruciating pain along one leg. (I don’t remember whether it was the right or left.) “Get out of the water!” I shrieked, stumbling through waist-deep water toward the beach.

I reached the safety of land, collapsed upon dry sand, and inspected my leg. My entire calf had turned red, with pinpricks of crimson, and was beginning to swell. It hurt like the dickens. My parents and younger brother (who had made it safely to the beach) gathered round to examine the sting.

Within ten or fifteen minutes, my calf had swelled and hardened; I remember saying my leg felt like a heavy club. The swelling went down overnight, but it took nearly a week for my calf to heal. My skin burned and stung for days. Needless to say, I didn’t go swimming again for a while.

The ocean beyond El Acantilado is opaque, so I never saw the little blighter that drifted against my leg. For all I know, it may not even have been a jellyfish; I suppose it could have been some other stinging marine creature. Whatever it was, its sting hurt like all heck. Flipping awful little git.

Besides that miserable jellyfish, I haven’t been stung by anything but bees, though I once narrowly escaped a sting from a bullet ant. Good times, good times.

I hope to revisit Ecuador someday, and El Acantilado is near the top of my list of places I want to see again. (Other locations on the list include the Pailón del Diablo waterfall, the Papallacta hot springs, and a tiny bakery called Bom Pan that has the best bread rolls in the universe.) Someday, God willing, I may return to El Acantilado.

Flipping heck, I miss this place.

Flipping heck, I miss this place.

I’ll probably stay out of the water, though.

365. Collectible Card Games

A few days ago, as I chatted with a dear friend from Ecuador, our conversation turned to his brave but ill-fated attempts to teach me to play a collectible card game. Years ago in Quito, my friend and I sat down with colorful packs of Magic: The Gathering cards. He wanted to teach me to play; I wanted to learn to play. It seemed simple enough.

However, there were two things neither of us considered. That first is that I am easily distracted. The second is that I have a deplorable memory: especially in the case of rules and systems. As my friend, whom I’ll call Socrates, explained the rules of the game, I flipped through his cards, looking at the pretty pictures and reading incomprehensible bits and pieces of game instructions.

Magic The Gathering cards

The rules for most collectible card games are only slightly less comprehensible than Finnegans Wake. (I’m sorry; I can’t help making lit jokes occasionally.) The pictures are nice, though!

When Socrates and I tried playing a round of Magic: The Gathering, I asked him an average of thirty-seven questions per turn. We gave up in the end, opting for Mario Kart or Super Smash Bros. or some other game that wasn’t so far beyond my feeble intellect.

For years, I could hardly sit down at a table without having to brush away collectible cards. My friends in middle and high school collected cards from all kinds of games: Magic: The Gathering, which featured fantasy elements in the vein of Dungeons & DragonsPokémon, starring Nintendo’s cutesy Pocket Monsters; World of Warcraft, which had leaped from computers to tabletops; and Yu-Gi-Oh!, which featured the most egregious anime hair I have ever seen.

Yu-Gi-Oh! hair

Yu-Gi-Oh my gosh that hair is horrible.

I never got into collectible card games, except for a brief fascination with Pokémon cards as a kid. I went through what I can only call a Pokémon phase in fifth grade, in which I collected dozens and dozens of cards. I never learned the rules of the game, but that didn’t stop me from playing it with friends. Fortunately, my friends were as clueless as I, and our card games turned into anarchic free-for-alls with rules made up as we needed them. (It was sort of like Calvinball.)

I’m not sure what happened to all of my Pokémon cards. They probably slipped away to whatever inscrutable corner of the world swallowed up Amelia Earhart.

Pokemon cards

To this day, I have not forgotten the value of a holographic Charizard.

Since I finished high school, collectible cards seem to have vanished from my life, though news occasionally reaches me. I hear there’s a new My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic collectible card game making the rounds, and Magic: The Gathering seems to be doing well. World of Warcraft cards have been replaced by an online card game. The anime hair in Yu-Gi-Oh! is probably just as bad as it was eight years ago, but I’m too disinterested to find out.

I enjoy looking at them, but I don’t plan to buy collectible cards any time soon. My money must go to necessities like rent, gas, coffee, and food. Besides, my life is complicated enough without the unintelligible rules and instructions for card games! If I tried to learn all the rules to a new game, I would probably lose whatever sanity I have left, and end up eating grass like old Nebuchadnezzar. No card is worth that!

Well… a Charizard might be; I suppose it depends on whether it’s holographic.

359. Rain

Rain was falling when I awoke a few days ago. I lay on my floor, tangled up in a sleeping bag and a light blanket, slipping in and out of consciousness, listening to the soft roar of the rain, and remembering.

The sound of the rain took me back to the jungles near Shell Mera, the town famous for Operation Auca and the brave men who lost their lives for the Gospel of Christ. When we lived in Ecuador, my family and I vacationed in a cabin with a corrugated metal roof. The rain thundered when it fell. I drank tea made from fresh hierba luisa leaves, lay in a hammock, and read a book or played a video game as rain beat the metal roof like a titanic drum.

Mangayacu cabin view

The view out of the cabin was beautiful, even when it was blurred by heavy rain.

A few days ago, as I lay listening to the rain, I recalled the rainstorms that hit my grandparents’ home in Florida. Once, after a heavy rain, I saw a rainbow rising from the yard next to the house where my family and I were staying. The rainbow disappeared when I got too close, but I was able to pinpoint more or less where it touched the earth. There was no pot of gold, but it was still exciting.

I was once privileged to visit the Galápagos Islands for my high school biology class. (Being a missionary kid has its perks!) As my classmates and I snorkeled in a rocky bay in a small island, a squall swept over us: driving sheets of warm rain that limited visibility to about fifteen or twenty feet. (It didn’t help that I wasn’t wearing my glasses at the time.) I treaded water, looking in all directions, seeing only water, hearing only the rain. It was one of the most magical moments of my life.

In Montevideo, where my parents now reside, rain is often preceded or followed by spectacular displays of lightning over the horizon. When the rain falls, it falls hard. I used to walk the dog in the rain—well, I used to try. My parents own a dachshund named Sam, known alternatively as Samwise, Samurai, or the Sam-pup. He doesn’t like getting wet, and he hates thunder. During my visits to Montevideo, I had to drag him outside by his leash when it rained. I loved the wet weather. The city blocks, lined with trees, seemed cleaner and lovelier when rain fell.

Rain washed away the grime of this dirty street and made it a corner of Eden.

Rain made this dirty street a corner of Eden.

A few days ago, I lay awake and listened to the rain: remembering, reminiscing, and—if I may borrow my younger brother’s word—nostalgifying. I love the sound of rain. No matter where I go, the gentle roar of rain never changes.

It reminds me of a line from the Kingdom Hearts games. (Although the story of these games is ridiculous, it has many moments of disarming pathos.) In a touching scene, a character raised near the ocean becomes stranded on a dark, deserted island. He has no hope of escape. There is only an empty beach, jagged outcrops of black stone, gloomy fog, and the soft swish of waves. It’s a bleak place, but the castaway finds a shred of comfort.

“At least the waves sound the same.”

A few things in my life have never changed. I love looking up at the stars. I joke that my childhood home is a particular video game, but it’s not really a joke: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has been more of a constant in my life than any place on earth.

Then there’s the sound of rain. In all these years, and in all these places, it has never changed. As I recently lay awake, I found myself thinking, “At least the rain sounds the same.”

Rain reminds me of the immutability and faithfulness of God. It exists in a state of constant motion, yet it never changes. Rain is beautiful, and it comforts me.

At any rate, it’s better than snow.

Mangling Spanish: A Beginner’s Guide

One of my new year’s resolutions was to improve my Spanish, and I’ve finally resumed my linguistic studies. How have I chosen to study? In the same way all great scholars do, of course.

I’m watching cartoons.

Specifically, I’m watching the Spanish language dub of Avatar: The Last Airbender, my all-time favorite show. It’s a wonderful way to study. Just hearing spoken Spanish again is working wonders for my vocabulary, grammar and syntax.

My studies have reminded me of the linguistic horror stories (or comedies, depending on your point of view) I’ve heard from acquaintances in my homeland of Ecuador.

For example, there was a gentleman who asked for sopa to wash his hands. He meant soap. He received soup.

There was a lady who tried to explain that she had been embarrassed by a pastor, and used the word embarazada because of its similarity to the English word embarrassed. What she announced by mistake was that the pastor had made her pregnant.

Another lady wanted to ride a horse without a rope attached to its bridle, and asked the owner whether she might have permission to mount his horse without the ropa. This greatly alarmed the owner, since ropa is Spanish for clothes.

My favorite story comes from the husband of one of my middle school teachers. One day a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to his door. He informed them in faltering Spanish that he did not care to hear about Jehovah’s Witnesses, and was baffled at how angrily they departed.

Only later did he realize that instead of calling them Testigos de Jehová, Jehovah’s Witnesses, he had mistakenly called them Testículos de Jehová—Jehovah’s Testicles.

Not every story is a painful one. A favorite of mine is that of an interpreter asked to translate the following joke into Spanish for an audience: “What did the ocean say to the beach? Nothing. It just waved.”

This awful joke, a play on words, works only in English.

That brilliant interpreter didn’t let that stop him. Without missing a beat, he translated the question into Spanish and answered it with a new punchline: “Hola!”

This Spanish word for hello sounds exactly like ola, the word for wave. That, dear reader, is pretty dashed clever.

I haven’t made any truly memorable mistakes in Spanish, but that’s all right. I’m already quite good enough at making a fool of myself in English.


This post was originally published on September 2, 2013. TMTF shall return with new content on January 19, 2015!

Gangster Pastors

One of my most prized possessions is a weather-stained, gray cloth cap. If my residence ever burns down, this cap is one of the first things I will try to rescue from the flames. I call it my gangster cap, not because it fits the so-called gangster style, but because a gangster—or rather, an ex-gangster—gave it to me.

I was touched when my ex-gangster friend, whom I’ll call Miguel, gave me his cap, because it has great sentimental value for him. He had once lost it while plunging into a gully to escape from a rival gang. It lay at the bottom of the ravine for four months until he sneaked back to retrieve it.

Miguel was a car thief and a gang leader in Quito, the capital of Ecuador and the city of my birth. Besides his other crimes, Miguel occasionally worked for Mama Lucha, a notorious criminal kingpin. (I guess she should actually be called a queenpin since she was a woman.)

On one occasion, Miguel and his comrades tried to steal a long sheet metal sign welded to a pedestrian bridge. Unfortunately for them, they weren’t able to divide the sign into pieces as they’d planned. In the end they had to carry it whole through the streets of Quito, weaving furtively through city streets like some sort of monstrous metal centipede.

Miguel is currently happily married, working at a government job in Quito and ministering as a lay leader in his church.

It is a source of amazement, amusement and wonder to me how many of the church leaders I knew in Ecuador are former gangsters, thieves or occultists.

I’m not using real names in this post in order to protect the privacy of the leaders whose stories I’m sharing. I assure you, however, that to the best of my knowledge all of these stories are accurate, factual and true.

Paco is a kind, gentle and fiercely amiable pastor from the coast of Ecuador. Like King Saul in the Old Testament, Paco is about a head taller than everyone around him. His skin is black, his frame is muscular and his cheek is scarred by a gash from a knife. He used to be a thief on the streets.

Armed with a knife, Paco once accosted a girl at night with the intention of taking her money. The girl, who was a Christian, began talking with him about God. Although it was a long time before Paco would know Christ, he eventually put away the knife and escorted the girl to her home because—as he explained—it was a dangerous neighborhood and he didn’t want her to get robbed.

Paco eventually wound up in prison. Some of his fellow prisoners were personal enemies who wanted to kill him. However, before they had the opportunity, Paco was released. He didn’t know how or why—the only hint he received was a vague explanation that “some lawyer” had made all the necessary arrangements. What those arrangements were, and who the lawyer was, he doesn’t know to this day. It has been suggested to him that the lawyer might have been an angel. He doesn’t deny the possibility.

Then there’s Luís, another ex-criminal from the Ecuadorian coast. His skin is black, which makes his dazzling white smile all the more striking. Luís is a fantastic storyteller, and my dad has been privileged to hear accounts of several of his escapades.

Luís, while stoned on drugs, once tried to murder another man, also stoned. Having crept up on him from behind, Luís put a pistol to the man’s head and pulled the trigger. The gun misfired. Luís examined the pistol, peering blearily into its barrel, while his victim sat peacefully unaware of the attempt being made on his life. Luís tried again to murder his victim. The gun didn’t go off, but this time the man realized what was happening and fled shrieking while Luís resumed his bewildered examination of the gun.

On another occasion, Luís entered a church and sat down—only for a huge army knife to fall out of his shirt and hit the concrete floor with a thunk. Nearly every head turned to look at him, and a little old lady sitting nearby picked up the knife and sweetly gave it back to him.

A turning point came when a taxi crashed into a light pole as Luís leaned against it. The pole absorbed most of the impact, but Luís flew a considerable distance and landed hard. Just a few minutes later he met a Christian lady from his neighborhood. “Did something just happen to you?” she asked. “God told me to pray for you five minutes ago, so I did.”

After Luís became a Christian, two attempts were made on his life, once with a pistol and once with a sawed-off shotgun. The guns misfired both times—two more miraculous interventions.

All three of these church leaders have told my dad that they’re grateful to God for never letting them kill anybody. They all came frighteningly close to it. Looking back, they can see the hand of God at work in their lives, even when they didn’t care for him.

I believe, if we look hard enough, most of us can see the hand of God at work in our own lives.

I know I can.


This post was originally published on January 17, 2012. TMTF shall return with new content on January 19, 2015!