Category Archives: True Stories

Free as a bird..

There’s nothing here that’s not been said before

But I put it down now to solidify my own views

And I’ll be glad if it helps anyone else out too.

Adam Yauch

The thing about advice is sometimes you just need to hear it, in order to recognize what you already know. Good advice makes sense because the truth in it is so obvious, and you know bad advice the same way you know bad tofu — every part of your being is shouting “that’s wrong!” Sometime the truth hurts because it’s too close to the bone, and sometimes you get the same pat and hollow answers no matter the question posed. It’s up to each of us to apply our human intelligence to our lived experience and hash out our own truths. Getting advice is part of the smell test.

I’ve been handed plenty of good and bad advice over the years, but one thing I’ve had to figure out is that a poor teacher doesn’t invalidate the teachings. If the advice is too far off the mark I might be left to figure out my own answers, but really that’s what I was going to do anyway so why not get down to it? This month marks the Lunar New Year and I’ve been dropping in on a number of Buddhist communities lately, in part to join in the celebration, and partly because I like to know what other people do all day. I had a brief conversation with an interesting fellow who told me he was once a monk. Now he lives nearby. I asked him curiously “So where do you practice?” and his reply was the best advice I’ve received all year. “I just practice.”

How to Freeze Raw Milk

I’ve gotten into the raw milk craze in these last few months and it’s worth spending a few words proselytizing on behalf of that cause. Mind you I’d nearly cut dairy out of my diet until I finally tried raw milk. Going as far back as childhood, I’ve had belly troubles and worse. These days I guess they’re calling that “I.B.S.”. Allergies have been another bane to my existence, and a little bit of cheese now and then is enough to make me take notice. But when I visited All Grass Farms in Dundee, IL, one of only a few farms in the state legally permitted to sell raw milk for human consumption, I figured I’d at least give it a try. I wanted to see what all the craze was about.

It was love at first chug! I only started out buying a half gallon, but I probably finished most of that on the drive back to Chicago. As soon as that first swig hit my mouth I could feel it going to work. My tongue and throat felt tingly with whatever probiotic mojo the milk was working on me. I finished that half gallon before the next day was through, and the whole while I could feel my entire gut getting familiar with its new inhabitants. It felt a little weird at first, but it wasn’t at all uncomfortable. It was almost like I was getting healthier, or growing new intestines. At the risk of sounding crass, pooping is something I don’t usually look forward to, but the raw milk was a big relief in that department as well.

Within a few days I drove back out to Dundee and picked up a few more half gallons. I quickly figured out that I could easily down half a gallon of raw milk a day, and realized I needed to start stocking up. It’s worth mentioning here that my day-to-day occupation as a carpenter in the film industry means that 82 hour work weeks are something I have to put up with. As a diabetic, figuring out how to maintain a healthy diet in the midst of an impossible schedule has been a challenge, to put it mildly. Within a month of adding raw milk to my routine I had dropped five pounds. Bringing a thermos to work was enough to keep me going through those twelve hour days without giving in to whatever donuts and snacks might otherwise be tempting me. A half gallon a day has been my average consumption, but some days it’s a little more or less. There is a little bit of a bother with phlegm-iness, but it’s outweighed by the overall benefits I’ve noticed, and probably the biggest factor limiting my consumption of raw milk to half a gallon per day.

A trip from Dundee to Chicago is most of half a day for me. Throw the occasional seven day work week in the mix and it’s hard to figure out how to keep my fridge stocked. I’ve noticed that raw milk still tastes fresh for a few days, and is drinkable for about a week, but that’s more often than I can make it out to Dundee without milk turning funky. It doesn’t spoil, by the way, but begins to turn into something that would probably become cottage cheese if I let it go any longer. Instead, I decided to fill the freezer with raw milk as soon as I got home. And that’s how I broke a few mason jars.

The key to freezing any liquids in glass jars is to keep the contents below the shoulder of the jar. That’s all you need to know. My first few attempts I left what I thought was ample room at the top of the jar, and the glass still broke, despite there being plenty of “head space” even after the milk had frozen. A little help from the internet and the obvious dawned upon me. That milk had nowhere to expand when it came up against a literal bottleneck, and something had to give, which of course was the glass. I’ve frozen several half gallon jars since then, and I’ve started resorting to this neat trick. I fill the jars about midway into the shoulder, and screw the lids on tight. Then I place them UPSIDE DOWN in the freezer, usually on a folded cloth towel. When the jar is upside down, there’s still about an inch of head space left in the jar, and there’s no bottleneck for the frozen milk to run up against. I’ve frozen at least half a dozen jars now with no more breakage. Perhaps I’ll update this post with pictures the next time my schedule cools down.

Raw milk thaws out perfectly well, and tastes just as fresh as when I brought it home. I shake it several times as it’s thawing out, and also as it’s freezing TBQH, but it could probably be left well enough alone and do just fine. It does take something more than a full day for a half gallon brick of frozen whole milk to return to liquid in the refrigerator, so plan accordingly. My last trip to All Grass Farms I stocked up on four gallons of milk in half gallon jars. I’m thinking maybe I should invest in a pony keg or maybe a small tanker truck.

A few post-scripts related to raw foods and processed foods: After becoming accustomed to the raw milk diet, and only drinking super high quality local organic milk (shout out to Kilgus Farmstead) when I couldn’t score the raw stuff, I had a chance to drink some of that incredibly filtered and reconstituted milk which I won’t list by name brand here, but it was on set while I was working one day and I mostly wanted to see how horrible it was. It tasted completely dead to me, like a cardboard imitation of what milk should be like. I understand that more and more folks are having all sorts of dietary problems these days, but I’m convinced that the answer is to return to natural foods and not to find even more ways to process and adulterate foods beyond recognition.

I’ve also been downing raw honey by the tablespoon with my morning tea, especially during peak allergy season (ingesting local pollen is a great way to deal with that problem), and I’ve noticed no real problems with indigestion or glucose levels. One morning not so long ago I was feeling under-caffeinated on my way to a side job, so I stopped at Panera and drizzled some of their honey into my black tea, no more than a teaspoon I’m sure. I was almost immediately overcome with heartburn and I couldn’t stop belching fire. Whatever fauna are living in that raw honey, they’re obviously helping me digest the stuff, and I don’t think I’ll eat honey again unless I know that it’s the raw deal.

Thanks for reading and be healthy everyone!

Augustus Fischer might be proud

Another great day on the farm today. It’s Civil War Days at the Fischer Farm but that didn’t stop me running the walk-behind tractor and getting my contour line ready for planting. Farmer John was out watering the pumpkins and gave me a quick run down on the Grillo tractor. I tilled the weeds out of the quarter acre pumpkin field and did a good piece along Grand Ave where I’m going for some kind of ornamental display, then turned my attention over to the 150 foot contour line that I’ve been fine tuning. Cannons and muskets were firing the whole time but there’s always work to do around the farm.

Found myself explaining what contour is a few times today and hope I did an all right job. I do have a full blog post drafted but as that’s turning into sort of a manifesto I haven’t finished editing it yet. The quickest explanation I can think of about contour is that it is essentially the shape that water makes upon the landscape, and that paying attention to how those shapes play out on the land can have big impacts in farming and in restoration. Essentially, soil is either being deposited or washed away, and there’s a line (or multiple lines) across every landscape where you can see this demarcation as the land goes from convex to concave. I picked one of those lines and decided to plant a row of sunflowers. A whole lot of surveying went into plotting out that line and a modest amount of site prep, but now it’s ready to get sown and tomorrow I’ll make it happen.

In addition to the hundreds of sunflower seeds I have ready to throw down I bought two flats of stiff goldenrod from Prairie Moon. They are a great nursery in Minnesota and I’m thrilled with the mixed flat of native perennials I ordered from them earlier in the year and planted in my urban garden. When I got the email that their remaining flats were on clearance I figured I would order a few more for the Fischer Farm. It turns out that the ten percent I saved on these flats doesn’t offset the twenty percent I’m probably losing in viability, as these clearance trays arrived looking much worse than the plants I ordered earlier in the year. Lesson learned, but I already knew better.

Fortunately I have all sorts of tricks up my sleeve and I’m going to share some secrets here. Okay none of it is really at all secret and I’m sure you can find this info all over the internet, but in case you didn’t already know, all parts of any plant in the Salix family pretty much are a rooting compound. These are the trees you know as willows. There’s even one in the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pond that was reputedly struck in half by lightning, a fully mature tree, and both halves were replanted and are still there currently, decades later, looking lovely. Check it out sometime — it’s one of my favorite spots in Chicago.

Where this information comes in helpful to gardeners is that you can take willow branches, leaves, stems, whatever cuttings you can take, chop them up into lots of pieces and boil them for a while, let that water settle all the way to room temperature, and water in your transplants with this rooting compound, aka willow water. If you want to get biodynamic about it, and why not, right, add in comfrey, nettles, yarrow, and chamomile, in whatever ratio you have available, with a good dash of unsulphured molasses to really feed the soil biology. I have a pot of this brew on the stove right now and after it cools overnight I’m going to strain it into a two gallon pump sprayer. When I get out on the Farm tomorrow morning first thing I’m going to do is get all those goldenrod plugs in the ground and water them in with the hose. AFTER they’ve gotten a good soaking I’m going to go BACK and feed them the willow water biodynamic juice.

Why the two step soaking? Well for one thing I only have a two gallon sprayer and I’m watering a 150 foot row. But it’s also a fact of biology that dry soil doesn’t actually hold a lot of water. Whoa, crazy talk! I think about it like that Dagwood fellow from the Blondie cartoons. He could never eat on an empty stomach. If soil is too dry it’s actually just going to shed water. It’s about surface tension and hydrophillic action, field capacity, all sorts of mumbo jumbo. Once your soil is good and watered, though, then your plants can take a drink. If you’re watering your house plants you should generally water them twice, a little bit first and the rest later. If you’re feeding your garden, get the soil watered first, then go back in a while with your organic potions and fertilizers.

It’s been a really long day and I have a lot of work left to do tomorrow but if I don’t write it down it’s like it never happened. Also that pot is still on the stove and I needed something to do while that brew simmers so I hope that some of this was useful for someone. I look forward to landing a forty hour week job someday where I can actually farm and have a life and blog about all of it in maybe a more coherent manner. Until that happens good night and good luck everyone.

June update 2017

Still under a time crunch but feel I should get a few thoughts down before they vanish entirely. Spending a lot of time lately thinking about how to get the Fischer Farm started, and spending even more time lately working in the motion picture industry building all sorts of crazy pipe dreams. Can’t talk about that so much on account of all the NDAs I don’t remember signing, so I’ll have to reserve this space for farm dreams, which is kind of what the blog title was supposed to suggest.

Farming is real hard work and I’ve never had any illusions to the contrary. The Fischer Farm isn’t hardly ready for growing anything yet but sometimes you have to charge ahead just to get the momentum to do what you want to do. If it were up to me I would sow three acres in clover and let it sit two years while we figured out the rest of the plan, but right now we’re going 1/4 acre in pumpkins. Maybe. The seeds aren’t in the ground yet and I don’t know when I’ll have time to get around to it. I’ve got a farmer in charge of that 1/4 acre but he’s a little tied up with his own life these days. I won’t get into the particular setbacks that we’ve run into but there have been at least a few, and a lost day here or there is a big deal when you’re dependent upon the weather cooperating with a very limited schedule. There are bigger and longer term plans in the works, but I don’t want to spoil those details until they’re at least a little more fleshed out.

I decided to skip the Permaculture Design Certification course I was planning on taking this summer. I also bailed on a recent trip to KTD in Woodstock that I had been looking forward to since Winter. Both decisions were financially dictated. It’s feast or famine in the film biz, and while I’ve been working like a hurt dog lately, there were too many months in a row with no money coming in. Now I have to make up for lost time, and skipping town for two weeks just isn’t viable, even if it is in the interest of furthering other projects. Lama Karma was in town the other weekend, and while I was still too busy to even attend his teaching, I did at least get him to bestow a long life blessing upon My Bunniness. I opted to spend a small portion of the money that I won’t be spending attending the PDC and went in on an order of cover crop seed and two flats of goldenrod for the Fischer Farm. Thank you Johnny’s Seeds and Prairie Moon Nursery. Scored discounts on both orders. Somewhere in those two weeks I would have been gone I hope to find a day to get those plants and seeds in the ground.

My plot in East Garfield Park is looking all right even if the kitties and the workload haven’t been helping things along. I did get some more starts in the ground today, and the first Prairie Moon order I received is mostly thriving. The Liatris mostly got scorched but one or two are looking strong. Comfrey is thriving all over the yard and I have a few different strains of nettles growing. The chamomile is even coming back around now that I’ve got soaker hoses installed. Bought a new daisy, a Becky, and the seller told me she was pretty sure it was from Elite Growers. I keep track of that sort of thing on account of my years in the industry and watching which plants have thrived and which have fizzled in my urban gardens. I’m looking to cultivate several strong daisies after last winter killed off most of those I’ve had growing anywhere.

Tomorrow I’m heading to the Farm to build a bonfire that I’m going to light off on Friday night for Family Camp. Had a real successful work day at the Fischer Farm over Memorial Day weekend and camped over with a few of my friends. Decided after that weekend that it’s important to get to know all of the folks who have a connection to that place, and while I probably don’t have time to camp out again this weekend I can play Fire Marshall for a few hours one evening. Hoping I don’t get too much time off anytime soon on account of all those bills I still haven’t paid, but I have made some solid additions to my library lately and I’m looking forward to working my way through those texts eventually. Will be fun to report back.

That’s all I’ve got tonight. Haven’t really gotten down with adding photos to the blog lately so here’s a video. Not my work..

Loss Leader

This week I lost a number of seedlings. A tray I had been cold stratifying in the fridge up and germinated before I noticed and half of those babies died. Harvesting weeds for My Bunniness at 4 a.m. the other morning I accidentally uprooted the cilantro I’d been nursing from seed and had just transplanted. Today I came home and found that the neighborhood feral kitties had ransacked the trays I’d been hardening off and had planned to get planted tomorrow.

I’ve been working 60 hour weeks for too long now, and I’m keeping those hours low on account of I refuse to work weekends. Guys I work with are losing fingers and winding up in the hospital on an all too frequent basis. In the grand scheme of things I’m keeping my losses to a minimum, but there’s definitely a cost associated with keeping these hours. It’s heavy on my mind but I still haven’t come up with a better way to pay the bills. I’ll chalk my lost seedlings up to poor timing and note the experience, and I’ll continue to spend whatever spare seconds I can find throughout the week working out a better plan. It’s going to be a rough haul any way it works out. Hopefully I can still get those sunflowers planted this summer.

There are moments in all the chaos where tranquility just happens. On Saturday I got to drive a 1937 Allis Chalmers tractor around the Fischer Farm. I spotted a Monarch butterfly and tried to keep up with it for a while, jerking that big orange machine around the field as my target flitted and then vanished. It was but an instant but I’ll probably still recall that moment decades from now. Space gets bigger in moments like those and there’s room for all the aggravation and heartache to disappear. Almost room enough to lose sixty hours in.

That’s a Dandy Lion!

20170424_083441One of the great joys in working to restore the Fischer Farm is in witnessing how many visitors come by to enjoy the Farm each week. It’s not just the regular volunteers, or the groups taking wedding photos, or the attendees of the many events that are scheduled there. It’s not just the birthday parties, the 4H getting crafty or the ROTC or the Boy Scouts parading around. Most importantly it’s the casual visitors, some of whom have just discovered the Farm for the very first time, and others who come back every year.

As I was out walking the fields the other morning (on my birthday no less), I spotted a couple of strangers picking dandelions. You may not yet know, but I am a big fan of dandelions, and I can and will go on at length about their many benefits, both to soil and soul. I approached the nearer of the two strangers and met a wonderfully punk teen who reminded me just a bit of myself at his age. I asked him what he was doing, making it clear that he was welcome to as many dandelions as he could help himself to, and he told me that he was picking them for his mom. So I wandered a bit further afield and met a radiant woman closer to my own age, with glowing red hair and a pleasing accent. She told me that she was gathering the dandelions to brew a home remedy passed down from her father, and I asked her if she might share the recipe. She obliged, and I am glad to share that remedy with you here. It’s a general purpose winter remedy or immune booster, and will keep you in good health for a long time to come.

Gather 500 dandelion flowers, and let them sit out for some time for the ants to disperse. Simmer in one liter water for one hour, let sit for twelve hours and then drain the flowers, making sure to squeeze out any remaining liquid. Add 1 kg sugar and the juice from two lemons. Cook again, slowly, for another hour. Pour into a jar with a tight sealing lid, and turn upside down while the mixture cools to room temperature. Keep the jar in a cool, dark cupboard and it should keep for a few years. Take a few  teaspoons of this remedy at the first sign of any sore throat, or throughout the winter as a general immune booster.

Thank you Agnies for sharing this bit of your family’s heritage. You are welcome on the Farm any time!

Failure is an Opiton

“There are no mistakes in #Permaculture..” Mark Shepard

What a total epic disaster. . So glad I played the game. .

I had some pretty big plans for 2015 — well calculated, thought-out sort of plans. Plans that would more than make up for the goat rodeo that was 2014 (still not ready to blog about that fiasco), but also an all-or-nothing sort of gamble that didn’t allow any room for error. Following on the trajectory of “award-winning community gardener” all the way through to Farm Manager for a nationally recognized urban agriculture program (across the street from a sitting President’s home, no less) I thought it would be a great idea to really farm some land this year, for real. It was a great idea, too, it’s just that the weather didn’t cooperate. Turns out that’s farming for ya.

In December of 2014 I enrolled in the New Illinois Fruit and Vegetable Farmers program through Extension, which I knew to be an outstanding program, having sat in on several classes that year as a guest. Part of that program was supposed to be that I had to figure out a viable plan for a ¼ acre incubator plot in St. Charles, and follow through with it. More on that in a moment.

I have also been spending some quality time at the Fischer Farm in Bensenville, now part of the Du Page County Forest Preserve District, and formerly my extended family’s actual farm. Although I did not spend any time there growing up, it was a working dairy farm all the way through the 1990s. It’s a shame that they weren’t able to keep the farm running, but I am grateful that, thanks to the good stewardship of my forebears, Illinois has a few hundred acres of remnant prairie, wetland, and woodland that might otherwise be pavement. It’s now a historical preservation site, and I had agreed to provide all of the pumpkins for their Heritage Day festival in October, plus whatever other decorations I could grow. That festival turned out to be the same date as my sister’s wedding, and she also wanted pumpkins and various fall ornamentals. These seemed like pretty convenient opportunities, especially since my “off-farm” income doesn’t provide me with anything in the way of free time come July or August. Growing tomatoes, in other words, would have been out of the question.

So I placed an order with Johnny’s Seeds and waited for it to arrive. I was also waiting for the Frost Free Date to arrive on the calendar, which despite global weirding, is still at or about May 30 for these parts. Had a friend grow out some melons and a few other starts just for kicks, and I did manage to get some of those in the ground, but it rained an awful lot in June. The plot I was assigned spent a lot of time underwater, and those waters never really receded. I made several visits to the site and muddied my boots all the way through, but the ground just wasn’t workable. When I didn’t have any seeds in the ground by the first of July, I had to face the possibility that I wasn’t going to see any pumpkins this year. I did make a last ditch attempt on another borrowed site, simply trying to provide enough pumpkins for my sister’s wedding, but that site had serious mold and mildew problems and more than a few squirrels. And that’s pretty much my farming experience for 2015, without so much as a sunflower to show for my efforts.

Way back in the summer of 2014 I spent a long weekend at Mark Shepard’s farm in Viola, WI for a Restoration Agriculture Intensive, and I learned more than a few lessons there about farming with trees and plants and animals and such. As I recall, it rained an awful lot there too, but that’s beside the point. Mark had all sorts of pearls and snippets of wisdom to share with us as we sat in the classroom or meandered about his farm. “There are no mistakes in permaculture” he often repeated. One of the core practices in permaculture is deep observation. Gather all the data that you can, without judgment or prejudice. Don’t rush to interpret, just observe. Sooner or later, decision time is going to come, and when that time does come, remember that all decisions are made with incomplete data. Take the best data that you have available to you at that moment, make the best decision you can based on your accumulated wisdom and experience, and go back into observation mode. What happens next? What sort of outcomes do you get when you decide to do such and such? Gather ever more data. Rinse and repeat.

I may still farm next year, but I won’t feel bad if I take even more time to come up with a better plan. That plan now has to cover all the losses I incurred this year, not just the immediate cost of seeds and such, but there’s also the matter of all the time I put into the farm that I didn’t spend pursuing more viable income opportunities. Valuable lessons were learned, for sure, and I am grateful for the experience I gained, and for the convictions I solidified. I have for a while now subscribed to the philosophy that you shouldn’t play ball where you don’t own the field. The Extension program was a great opportunity, and if the stars had aligned it could have worked out great, but if that same piece of land were somehow mine, I would spend the first year cutting swales, sowing clover, and figuring out some way of turning excess rainfall into a resource instead of a liability. I already knew that at the start of 2015, but there’s a difference between reading about something and having first-hand experience.

I also have to factor in all the time I spent driving around between three counties, and whether the experience I gained is enough to offset the environmental cost of all the fossil fuels I burned, not to mention all the miles I put on my vehicle or the time I could have spent elsewhere. Probably, this time, but from now on I’m going to be taking a hard look at how I can consolidate all of my efforts, and I can think of a few places where I’m already spending a lot of time that could benefit from the planting of a few paw-paw trees. Stay tuned, because this story ain’t over, and I ain’t even close to quitting.

Karmapa Khyenno!

Coyote Beautiful

As I was walking over to the Garfield Park Conservatory the other afternoon, I spotted a furry creature nosing around outside the Monet Garden. It certainly wasn’t a dog, and it was too big and too grey to be a fox. I wondered if it might be a coyote, but it was sleek and beautiful. The last time I spotted a coyote was in the Rockies, where everything is a bit rugged. I was whistling as I walked over, and the creature paused for just a moment to look at me, curiously, before it trotted off. I ran up toward the fence surrounding the Monet Garden and I could have hopped over, but my furry friend had already slipped away.

Instead I made my way through the Conservatory and back out into the Monet Garden, where a few kids were gathered – none of them older than ten years old if I had to guess. I asked them if they had just seen some kind of crazy dog or fox or something, and I was quite excited about it. A young girl, who was probably the oldest of the three, told me “It was a baby coyote.” The tone in her voice was the best part of the whole story. I got the impression that she has seen at least a dozen baby coyotes just this week, and that she was absolutely tired to death of having to explain such things to ridiculous and patronizing grown-ups.

I’ve lived in this general area of the city for most of the time I’ve been in Chicago – close to twenty years now. I’ve heard of coyotes in Lincoln Park, and I once saw one in Winnetka, but I’ve never heard of a coyote in Garfield Park. It’s about time! I know a few folks around here who keep chickens and other livestock, and I’ll have to let them know that there’s reason to keep an eye out, but I’m glad to see some more wildlife around these parts. I’m not sure how much one coyote is going to do to keep the rat population in check, but I’m sure there are other benefits to be had. Begin the trophic cascade!

Which paramita is this?

Today I had the opportunity to help a corporate office in Chicago get set up with a composting operation. I’m not going to name names (I signed an NDA) but it’s an internet company that everyone has heard of, and the office was replete with ping pong and shuffleboard tables, Skittles and granola by the hopper full, even Goose Island on tap. It was surreal to say the least. I’m sure it’s a great place to work, and I applaud them for stepping up their game and getting on board with a real composting program. They provide a catered breakfast and lunch for their employees, and there’s a lot of potential in all those salad scrapings and paper plates. Check out The Ground Rules to see where those eggshells and coffee grounds are going to end up. It’s the sort of project that gives me hope for the planet, and hope is hard to come by these days.

By way of contrast, I spent last weekend in Cicero with a bunch of Tibetan buddhists, reciting long prayers in an odd language and going nearly two full days without food or liquid of any sort. As difficult and challenging an experience as that was, I learned that I can get by on a lot less than I am used to (which can be not all that much). I once heard someone very wise remark that the thing about suffering is, “the more you have suffered, the more you realize how much more everyone else has suffered than you.” That stuck with me. It was pretty rotten starving myself all weekend and kneeling on a wooden floor, but it could have been a lot worse. It isn’t anything I’d just do on a whim, but there are plenty of people out there who had a tougher weekend than I did.

And back to Chicago, where if you’re lucky, you can get a job in a nice office with all the Starbucks coffee you can drink and banana smoothies and whatever else you can scrounge up from the snack bar. Or maybe you’re not so lucky. I noted a number of panhandlers and homeless folk on my way to the office this morning, and before I left I jammed my pockets full of Snickers and KIND bars. I also stuffed an empty potato chip bag full of salad greens for the pet rabbit that I left home alone the whole weekend I was in Cicero, and held onto a bar of bison jerky for myself. Nobody even glanced at me as I was pilfering the corporate stash. It seems like there’s enough to go around.

It wasn’t half a block before I encountered my first panhandler. I struggled to get the Snickers bar out of my back pocket, and it didn’t seem like it was appreciated. It was 91 degrees outside, and I was standing there with a bottle of pilfered Vita Coco handing out a smashed up, already half melted Snickers bar. I thought about handing out the coconut water, but I was also thinking that I’ve got a quarter acre to get planted tomorrow and not much to bring with me in the way of lunch. Work is picking up again, but it’s been slow for too long. That bison jerky is gonna be my lunch tomorrow. I had two more KIND bars in my pocket, but I figured I’d run into another panhandler before I reached the el. I didn’t.

Nothing about that exchange felt comforting, but I also didn’t notice anyone else doing a damn thing. I’m still unsure how I feel about the whole encounter. There is a big hazy area in between generosity and selfishness. If I don’t take care of myself, I won’t be of any use to anyone. At the same time, token generosity just so I can feel better about things is worthless. I should have given away the coco water, and all the KIND bars. I can drink tap water tomorrow, and it’s probably better to make a big gesture for one person than a lot of meaningless gestures for several people. One thing is certain, nothing is easy, and just because my intentions are good, that doesn’t mean that they’re well thought out. More lessons learned, or to ponder anyway.

I’m not sure that this post is really finished, but I’m tired, and I’ve got a lot on my plate tomorrow. I’m finally going to get planted, and then maybe I can start blogging about farming. I think that’s why I started this thing in the first place.




So that happened. .

“Although I wallow in the slime and muck of the dark age,

Still I aspire to see his face.

Although I stumble in the thick black fog of materialism,

Still I aspire to see his face.”

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, The Sadhana of Mahamudra

How can I even begin?

In the past week, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, visited Karma Thegsum Choling in Cicero, IL. For the unfamiliar, that’s an awful lot of consonants jumbled up against one another. I will do my best to explain.

The Karmapa is the spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu lineage in Tibet. The Kagyu lineage dates back 900 years and is one of the four major lineages in Tibet. As best I can gather,  it’s also the lineage that I was sworn into, although my vows were administered in Tibetan, and, well, frankly it gets a little complicated. For the past decade and a half I’ve been doing my best to make sense of things, hashing out my own liturgy as best I can, based on hearsay and observation. I have met some truly wonderful and inspiring individuals along the way, and I have also met with my share of deceit and betrayal. It’s been a bumpy ride, but the best intel I’ve been able to gather suggests that the Karmapa is the real deal, and for some time now I have hoped I might be able to make my own assessment of that situation. On Monday, I was granted that opportunity.

Given the extraordinary nature of international politics, the Karmapa is rarely free to leave his monastery in Dharamsala, India. For most of his two-month tour here in the United States, His Holiness has been visiting universities, packing auditoriums to capacity. Tickets vanished within minutes whenever they were made available. Karma Thegsum Choling is a modest Buddhist center, hardly an auditorium.  As a carpenter, I even had to make some modifications to the building exits just so we’d safely be able to meet our expected capacity (of less than 100). The event was deliberately not publicized, and tickets were given out by invite only, just to ensure that things remained manageable. In short, it’s incredibly fortunate for those involved that His Holiness decided to visit us at all.

And it almost didn’t happen. The day before he was due to arrive, the Karmapa apparently became ill. His visit was quickly rescheduled for the following week. Not long after that announcement went out via email, an earthquake struck Nepal, on the very same date that His Holiness was originally due to visit Cicero. Certainly no one would have been offended if the Karmapa deemed it necessary to cancel his remaining itinerary and head back home. Several of us expected that he would do so. And yet he stuck with the revised schedule, despite the inconvenience it certainly posed.

The actual ceremony, the pomp and circumstance, the incredible tension and release, that I cannot attempt to explain. The majesty and grace that His Holiness presented will sound like horse hockey if I try and describe it here, but I had the experience of being near some sort of quantum distortion field, as if his presence were larger than anything else in the room, or in the entire universe. All of that was undercut by his incredible humility. Browse through the webcasts posted on  or on the Karmapa’s YouTube channel and you can get a sense of this quality. In person, it was overwhelming.

At the request of Lama Sean, center director at KTC, His Holiness offered some instruction for us that day on the practice of Chenrezik, or visualization of the bodhisattva of compassion. This is one of the main practices, or sadhanas, undertaken at Karma Thegsum Choling. While commenting on the 1,000 armed form of Avoliketeshvara, His Holiness related that he could personally empathize with the desire to manifest 1,000 arms, as he would need that many arms to fulfill all of the requests for help he receives each day from countless beings. Was there a hint of sadness in his voice as he said this? Was it resignation? Was he simply still feeling ill?

“His Holiness wants to see you. .”

After the ceremony had concluded, I waited to see if there was anything else I might help with. The room was filled with electricity. Some folks had already headed downstairs, but many were hanging around the main shrine room, chatting excitedly. As I stood there not knowing my place, a head poked out of the crowd. “Rob! His Holiness wants to see you.”

I was not expecting that the moment would become any more surreal. I suddenly felt like I had swallowed a ball of molten iron. I wasn’t sure what to do next, but I made my way through the crowd as quickly as I could and headed downstairs to the apartment where His Holiness was waiting. What was this feeling I was experiencing? Panic? Bliss? Terror?

I entered the room and bowed, completely unsure of what to do next. Should I approach him? Keep a respectful distance? Time was an abstract. Seconds were frozen, and at the same time they raced by. It was as if the room were on fire. Here I stood face to face with the Karmapa, and still I could not gauge his presence. Was he seven feet tall? One hundred? Up close, it was apparent that whatever illness had plagued His Holiness was lingering with him. He appeared a bit fatigued, a little sweaty, and yet he stood larger than life. I’ve met Presidents who didn’t have as commanding a presence. The Karmapa extended his hand and I approached. We shook hands. “Thank you,” he said. Apparently Lama Sean had related that I was essential in preparing the center for the Karmapa’s vist . “Thank you!” I gushed in return. I did not know what else to say. “Rob is a carpenter,” Lama Sean repeated for His Holiness. “Let’s build a stupa!” I exclaimed, stupidly. A stupa is a traditional buddhist monument of sorts, and plans had been announced earlier that day for a stupa in Zion, IL, the site of the 16th Karmapa’s passing. His Holiness had explained that this was, in fact, the main reason for his visit to the region, that he might recall his previous experience here. Suddenly I was embarrassed. I had spoken half a dozen words and I felt I had overstayed my welcome. “Yes, stupa,” the Karmapa repeated in his halting English. The next visitor was already on his way in, carrying a small child.

I left hurriedly, unsure whether or not I was going to pass out, fall over, or wake up. In the days that have passed since, I have tried to make sense of all that happened, and I am at a loss. At first it was as if I was in some sort of post-karmic depression. Not so much a feeling of sadness, but a sense of the weight of the world, of everything that the Karmapa must bear on a daily basis. Despite his limitless burdens and obligations, he not only went out of his way to visit our little dharma center in Cicero, IL, but he took the time to thank me personally for installing some door hardware and laying some carpet. Who knows how many thousands are praying for him this very moment to relieve their very real suffering, and I installed some carpet. The dude rolls with Secret Service escort, and he took the time to thank me. I have worked harder for guys who drive cargo vans, and they have not so much as said “nice job!”

As I reflect upon it, I realize that even my exclamation about the stupa was in a sense, selfish. Certainly I would like to see a stupa in Zion, and certainly it would bring joy to many others, but currently, I am without a full-time job, and if there were some work to do to prepare the stupa, I might have something to do for a little while, and then I could feel useful. It isn’t for the sake of all beings that I want to see a stupa. It’s just so that I might gain some personal satisfaction, or perhaps deepen my own spiritual practice and connection in some way. After the Karmapa left, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche answered some questions from those who had stayed behind, and he spoke about the benefits that a stupa could bestow. Many who visit a stupa wish that they might gain material satisfaction, win the lottery, or some such thing, and that is the wrong approach. If one instead visits a stupa and makes a sincere aspiration to be of benefit to others, the stupa will speedily grant that wish.

If there is an overriding theme to the Karmapa’s many public comments and teachings on this tour, it is the importance of developing compassion. When he spoke to the crowd at KTC on the practice of Chenrezik, he told us that if we want to know if our practice is truly deepening, we need simply look at our own compassion, and see how it is developing. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. As I think back on the few seconds I had to share with His Holiness, I regret that I didn’t simply ask him, “how are you?” or wish him a speedy recovery from his illness. I am sure that he took no offense, and admittedly I was overwhelmed and more than a little off guard, but it remains a valuable lesson nonetheless. How many times have I walked into a room and been too distracted or hung-up on my own agenda to acknowledge that anyone else was present? This being human business takes constant practice, but it is an opportunity worth perfecting. Some years from now I may be able to judge what effect meeting the Karmapa had upon me. In the meantime, I will be paying more attention to how I pay attention to others. That may be the greatest teaching he could grant me. For now, it is what I will be working on. It’s a start, anyway.

UPDATE: A wonderful article was posted on, complete with photos, which does a much better job of describing His Holiness’ actual visit and the content of his teaching than I have done here.

Some edits for clarity and factual correctness.