; Cwyn's Death By Tea: March 2016 ;

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Should I buy it?

The genetics of bitter taste are well studied. Back in 1931, a chemist from Dupont named Arthur Fox discovered the genetics of bitter taste accidentally when he blew a cloud of Phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) dust in the lab. Several people tasted the particles and complained of a bitter taste. But Arthur Fox surrounded by a cloud of flying crystal dust tasted nothing. And he “should” have, because he stood right in the middle of that dust. This result evolved into what is called the PTC Taste Test, a laden test strip which people lick and say whether the strip tastes bitter or not.

In the general population, 75% are considered “tasters,” who experience a bitter taste of PTC, and 25% are non tasters. The non-taster effect is considered a recessive genetic trait. The “taster” trait is assigned to the “PTC gene” TAS2R38 discovered and so named in 2003. But this isn’t the only gene involved in bitter flavor, in fact over 30 genetic markers have been identified as involved in bitter taste. Nevertheless, the PTC gene is so reliable that it was used in paternity tests in the 1940s and onward until more complex DNA tests were invented. And the trait varies somewhat with ethnic origin, at least in Europe. Large studies performed in various countries of Europe (with N>100, as high as N>1000) found non-taster rates as high as 37% in Slovenia and as low as 16% in Uẑice, Serbia.

On the other hand, those other 30 genes certainly affect bitter taste as well. In a very small study (n=8), Henkin & Gillis (1977) served a pie made from the fruit antidesma bunius berries. Two people stated the pie was “extremely bitter and inedible.” The other six people found the pie “pleasant tasting, enjoyably edible and sweet.” The researchers then did the PTC test. The two people who found the pie bitter found PTC not bitter, whereas the other six people who thought the pie sweet turned up bitter on PTC. Obviously PTC tasting status had nothing at all to do with who thought those berries tasted bitter. Only eight people, well I guess by now we have a larger sample pool just on a 2014 New Amerykah pie. How many of you finished off your cake and how many put it away hoping for better days?

Maybe the whole business of what tastes bitter or sweet has something to do with childhood. Studies of babies have of course shown a preference for sweet tastes, and formula feeding versus breast feeding apparently merited enough study of effects for tastes later in life. In a study controlled for PTC gene variation, however, young children who were asked to taste items and then assign the bitter ones to Oscar the Grouch and sweet ones to Big Bird showed no racial or cultural differences between each other. 

Interestingly, the children and mothers were studied with regard to bitter turning sweet, what we tea drinkers might consider “huigan.” Apparently this aspect of bitter tasting is also genetic. The researchers did conclude that children may be more alike to one another, because the children differed less from one another than they did from their mothers. Why then did children differ from their mothers? The study was inconclusive as to whether development of taste is affected by aging or by what is called “forced experience.” That is, the idea that we develop tastes based on what we are given to eat with no choice involved. In that theory, eventually we develop our adult taste preferences based on what our parents gave us to eat when young.

I can certainly see this effect in my own family. My mother cooked plain meat and served raw vegetables most days. (She was an Adele Davis mom, and in truth really wasn’t much of a cook). When my father remarried, I couldn’t adjust to my stepmother’s heavy sweet gravies and casseroles. In turn, I served my son plain meats and fish with raw vegetables, and his taste as an adult remains the same. My relatives complained he wouldn’t eat the casseroles and gravies when he visited. But my son still eats raw vegetables of all sorts daily with relish, and only reluctantly will eat cooked veggies even at the age of 25 when supposedly his taste should “mature.” I prefer mine raw or steamed lightly as well. To a large extent, two generations of my family are affected by the “forced experience” of one person.

But let’s go back to the berry pie. Why would one person decide that pie tastes sweet and delicious, and another person can’t stand to eat it, especially when PTC taster status did not factor into the conclusion? The truth is taste is complex, and if bitter taste truly involves 31 genes, the factors play out in such a confusion of individual differences that perhaps calling taste “subjective” is functionally the most useful. How useful is it to say “well my taste here is due to my 31 genetic markers?” even though such a statement is certainly quite “objective.”

An interesting theory I read is that the development of  sour and bitter taste may have something to do with specific environmental adaptations designed to identify poisonous plants and avoid them. We know that plants develop bitterness as a way to protect themselves from insects. So perhaps my idea of sour or bitter is connected with not eating that poison sumac in the yard (though I rather relish the stick marrow).  But my poison sumac may not grow where you live, and you have something else you must avoid eating in your yard.

Actually, if this theory holds true, the plants I’m truly evolved to avoid must be in northern or eastern Europe, rather than the Americas, because I’m only a second generation born here. Two generations isn’t really long enough for my genes to mutate very much. My sister had her DNA profile done and assuming she is truly my sister I can confirm from her results that I have the ability to taste pickle vinegar, I have a lactose enzyme which means I can digest and enjoy bovine milk, and I can smell asparagus in urine. And we learned that my grandfather was only 76% Ashkenazi which means somebody fooled around at some point without telling anyone, and subsequently everyone conveniently forgot.

In other words, we may believe we have an ethnic or genetic experience that guess what, we may not truly have. My sister swore she is lactose intolerant, one of the reasons she wanted a genetic test done. But in fact she carries the digestive gene, so her problems with milk must be due to another reason. This has to dampen pronouncements across the board that cow’s milk is bad. We do know that persons of Asian descent may lack the lactose enzyme, but this doesn’t mean we can conclude milk is poison or bad for the body if some people have a real ability to digest it. In like fashion, I don’t know if bitter taste is related to a skill of detecting poisons in one’s ancestral setting, but when considering the lactose enzyme, at least some environmental adaptation seems like a reasonable theory to me. One wonders with all the movement of people these days, how adaptations like taste will evolve in new directions in a few hundred years, and how difficult running a restaurant might be at that point because so many variations in taste live side by side.

Of course this is a tea blog so you all know where this is heading. Most tea blog readers are asking a question of a tea review: should I buy it? 

While taste is not entirely subjective, the objective factors are surely confounding enough to make them functionally subjective, in the end, when reading “advice” from supposed experts. I think enough evidence here suggests that you can buy what you like without apology. You don’t have to like sheng. You don’t need to appreciate shou. One person’s gyokuro is another’s soggy wet spinach. And one man’s fabulous first steeping is another man’s tossed storage brew. Nobody needs to apologize for their happiness with Lincang tea, or for their distaste of smoky tuos or spore-filled heicha. For sure one person’s dry storage is another person’s musty wet basement.

People shouldn’t feel inferior because they are not on the “Sheng train.” You can adore your First Flush Darjeeling and ignore anyone who complains. Beautiful, yes stunning teas of every sort are ours to buy these days. If you get a tummy ache from a tea, why keep drinking it? Buy another tea that makes you feel happy and relaxed. And nobody else’s 31 genes can tell you that yours aren’t experienced enough, or sophisticated enough, sensitive enough or appreciative enough because that tea tasted like crap. Your opinion is what matters, anything else is group think. 

And you don’t have to buy it. Unless you want to.

Requiescat in Pace

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Yang Qing Hao Group Buy samples

Within the past six months or so, many of my tea friends have participated in group buys of Yang Qing Hao productions via an intermediary on Facebook. The teas available range from 1999 to 2007 or so, and have brought more than a little excitement among pu heads in North America. Steepster now lists most of the teas available via group buy on Steepster. There, you can check out a few reviews from other tea writers, and you might find scattered postings elsewhere including on TeaDB.org.

I thought about participating in a group buy last fall, but then suddenly felt misgivings. The tea is stored in Taiwan by Mr. Yang, and I wondered, why isn’t this tea selling in Taiwan? We are either really lucky to buy Yang Qing Hao productions on Facebook or something is dodgy. At first I thought maybe the years in question aren’t the ones most sought after by collectors. But then a decent selection of tea from 2004 is available, which somewhat lies outside that 2006-8 period that some collectors avoid due to overpicking, pesticides, and price gouging. The prices offered in the group buys aren’t cheap, but many of the cakes are in the large 400-500g range too, so price per gram is a consideration.

So I haven’t yet purchased any of the YQH teas myself, but of course I’d be an idiot to dismiss the idea out of hand. If you are interested, I suggest visiting Steepster.com and look for the group buy topics which will give you the information and who to contact. Most of the buys occur mid-month or so. Prices have increased recently. I received three samples from a Steepster friend of about 10 grams each from his cakes. This is a very generous gift and I’m grateful for the thoughtfulness of my friend who asked nothing in return. All of these teas have a Yiwu profile and apparently have spent most of their time stored in Taiwan.

what a fat sample!
First I started with the 2004 YQH Tejipin Raw, which is a 500g cake when purchased whole, and at this writing is $390, or $0.78/gram. This is a tea that many tea heads recommend for the theanine stoner effects. So, I thought maybe this is a cake I’d be likely to buy. The sample photo I’m showing actually has more tea than I decided to brew at once. I really debated for a day or so how much of the sample to brew up. The baggie contains about 10g, but I remember my experience last summer with 2015 Last Thoughts when I went heavy on the grammage and kept passing out every two cups. I decided that 3g is an adequate dose for me of 2015 Last Thoughts, and to be on the safe side I went with 2g of the Tejipin in 50 ml water. Admittedly this is a light set-up. But my son is gone this weekend and if I keel over from stoner tea, the cat will eat my face before Son returns.

I didn't actually brew this much.
I’m brewing in a tiny Petr Novak pot I purchased recently. I really love the little cups which are actually from another set by Novak. The cups have a shape that I also own in Lin’s tea ware, and I like the bell shape because it seems to create a ball of the liquid when you sip, really allowing the tea to spread around the mouth and give its best. I wasn’t at all convinced cups matter until I tried this cup shape. I think the tea pot is around 65 ml but I didn’t fill it because the lid is so tight fitting any tea bit will make the lid too tight, this is definitely not a criticism. A well-built pot is my friend.

I threw out two rinses. The first two steeps exhibit the sourness of recent drier storage. This tea shows browning from humid conditions, but overall the tea does not qualify as a traditionally stored tea, rather what we call “natural” storage. This means the tea doesn’t taste musty at all, and has some characteristics of drier periods such as the sourness typical of teenage tea. Really I view the sour tea in years 2-10 as that of drier fermentation. But I can see the tea had some short but very muggy periods. And the nose on the tea gives me the reason why.

Second steep.
This tea has the odor and flavor that results from processing issues such as heavy wood smoke, problems with baking or frying resulting in char. I call this odor and flavor Chinese Medicine sometimes, because the smoke has been integrated with other flavors like camphor and flowers, resulting in an incense or ginseng medicine quality. Sometimes this flavor is referred to as “tobacco,” or “common puerh.” But it is so overpowering in my sample of only 2 grams I wonder why I don’t remember reading about it. A quick check online and sure enough people have indeed mentioned it, but under terms like “tobacco,” “smoky,” “woody leather,” and “ginseng.”

For the sake of generalization, I’ll just call it “common puerh” since people associate this flavor with such a variety of descriptors. A common puerh scent and taste, processing of smoke or char, tobacco quality to some terroir according to some, like Xiaguan but honestly that’s not quite accurate either because Xiaguan doesn’t always have processing issues. This tea does. The question is whether it can fade out.

Ah, now this tea leaf must have been quite something when fresh and new. The honey is in here, and sturdy leaves. And then we have theanine. Good lord, this is a stoner tea, my face grew numb by steep four, literally numb. The stoner effect is present entirely in my face and ears, like young sinsemilla. The soup has decent thickness in steeps 3 and 4, and the initial sour notes are gone. I’m not feeling any real throat action except for the camphor cooling, and no real body feeling or legs down into the stomach. The action is all in my numbed face. I could go to the dentist on this stuff. Not much qi, I distinguish stoner tea from qi in that qi has spinal nerve sensations for me of movement and I should feel it upon circulating the breath as in meditation. I’m just stoned though, which is enough to send me back to the pot to keep pouring out and lining it up.

I feel rather invigorated, and I’m not passing out thankfully. Well I did lie down for a nap eventually, but only after steep eight when the tea had pretty much cashed out. Only two grams after all, this won’t last as long as a decent session will. I get some vanilla along with the honey. But honestly the sad fact is that this tea is permeated by that common puerh Chinese medicine profile which drowns out anything else for me. Dry peat smoke plus leather, camphor and wood.

Super brown but not musty. Natural storage, or forced early?
Now many puerh enthusiasts do not view the common puerh Chinese medicine profile as a flaw. But I do. I don’t own any teas with this profile myself, but I have found it in dozens of samples, especially from places like SampleTeas, Ebay and Taobao. Most recently I received a sample of a brick tea from puerhshop.com with this profile. I tried to find that brick but it must have sold or got removed recently. All I recall about it is that puerhshop found the maocha and got it pressed into a brick. Hate to say it, but I associate it with cheap teas that I would never buy. What a shame. I feel as though the tea probably got a very healthy dose of wood smoke, and I see a bit of char in the strainer, and red oolonged type leaves. I selected a brand new, unused bamboo strainer for this session so no other teas are affecting the flavor.

Smoky wood processing or wok issues are common in puerh tea. Fortunately, in recent years the western facing vendors we buy from are working with tea farms to stop frying over wood fires lacking any ventilation. Last year, Glen from Crimson Lotus noted in his journal blog, or maybe forum postings, that he is working with his farmers to wok outdoors or add ventilation. He said that a few farmers hadn’t been told before about this idea that the smoke is distasteful.

If you look at Chawangshop’s Chawang Lao Yun series, you can actually buy both a smoky and non-smoky version of the tea. The smoky version has a campfire smoke smell and quality when the tea is new. It mostly airs out, but obviously some is still going to remain in the tea. This version is the one prepared by women to drink themselves, but they also produce the same tea without this smoke. In 2015, the smoky version cost $12 for 200g, and the non-smoky version sold for $18. When aired and drunk immediately within a year or so, the smoke really isn’t all that noticeable. Keep in mind this is a separate issue from tea leaves that have a tobacco quality any way, but also that a tea can have both issues, a fresh tobacco tasting tea leaf AND processing problems. The Lao Yun tea consumed fresh is probably the best way to take it, because down the road it will taste more like what I’m tasting now, assuming some short wet periods are interspersed with drier periods.

Storing the tea somewhat wet in those early years is one way a vendor might try and save a tea or hide the flaws. But right now with the Tejipin sample, the leaves are very brown, there is little green left in here and no bitterness at just 12 years old. Nowhere to go in terms of storage. The common puerh smell and taste which remains may dissipate a bit further, but in dry storage such as we have here in the states, it likely never will. It also is what contributes to astringency in the tea, very drying but of course I take medications which are drying as well.

Let’s give a disclaimer of course that I only had 2 grams off one cake. But I have to start somewhere with myself if I’m looking to buy a cake with a big price tag. $390 is quite an investment sum, at least it is for me! Most collectors are looking to get in on a tea in early days when the price point is low. Once we get at the $400 price point, the group of likely buyers thins out considerably. If not, then we’d see more sell-outs at places like white2tea. Instead, the real way to sell it is parceling out by the gram, or else you’re looking for a one-off buyer looking for a short sale, who wants to pay less than you paid. The time to buy in for collecting is very early, or very lucky. Later on for aged tea you will pay a premium, especially for good base leaf quality and some humid storage time.

If you know what I mean by the Chinese Medicine or tobacco profile, you probably already know where you stand with your personal taste. For some this isn’t a flaw at all. For me, it is a big flaw. I could see myself thinking “heck I’ll purchase this tea because it is a good stoner tea!” But then I know when reaching for a tea, I will think about this one and reach for something else because I’m turned off by the profile. This means I might buy it, but I won’t drink it in the end. I just find this profile distasteful. If any reason at all exists why this tea is sold to westerners now on Facebook rather than locally in Taiwan, it must be because of the processing issues. Why else? The tea leaves with this stoner effect should be selling easily anywhere at all. The only reason why not has got to be the taste and aroma profile. I cannot think of any other reason.

The aged or middle aged teas I buy generally have had much more humid storage than these teas, which I feel is sensible for my crock storage process, and are more bitter in general to start with. I can work in humidity and it makes sense for me in a drier climate to buy aged teas with some wetness and then finish them off myself in a year or two. Or I can buy a fresh clean cake and abuse the hell out of it adding moisture. So, I haven’t spent any time trying to see if I can work out the Chinese medicine, but to even try the tea needs to have some green bitterness or something left to work with. This tea is all but done, though. It is smooth now with nothing bitter left. I don’t feel confident at all in the idea of trying to get rid of this aroma and taste. It is what it is.

Now you can say, well you only drank 2g, but more right now is just more of the same. I put the remainder of my sample into a tea caddy. I’ll leave it there awhile and honestly if I change my mind you’ll hear about it. However, if you are in the market for stoner tea, let’s compare it with 2005 Naka to see if the Tejipin is priced well in line with other stoner teas.

Price: $0.78/g for Tejipin, $0.89/g for Naka.
Storage:  Tejipin is Natural, Naka has a slightly musty note.
Condition: Tejipin has fine leaf quality, not bitter, pretty much finished. Naka is slightly bitter, smaller leaf, less complex.
Stoner quality: Tejipin wins on theanine.

Obviously Tejipin at 500g is a decent deal and probably a must-buy if you are after a stoner tea and don’t mind the common puerh profile. If you can look past that you might find a bit of vanilla, tobacco, camphor, honey and leather. As for me, I just don’t like it. I’d rather have a humid cake with some bitterness and less smoke. Or a fresh cake with no smoke. Or buy something on EBay that tastes like this for $15 and get free shipping and have a cigar along with it.

I received two teas of YQH Chawangshu, a 2004 and a 2006. The 2004 had an even stronger odor of the common puerh just on the dry leaf, so I decided to caddy up that sample and not try it now. But the 2006 smelled a bit more promising so I brewed up 3g of that one in the same pot.

2006 Chawangshu 
This tea also starts out sour, but the green left in the leaves gives me something to explore. The sourness never really goes away in the first 7 steeps, but it isn’t a flaw in my mind. The tea is only 10 years old, it had less wet storage than the Tejipin, and still clearly is in the middle of fermenting, not yet changed over into a more mature tea. In fact the sourness turns sweet on the lips and tongue. This tea is more bassy, it coats the throat nicely although without the strong camphor of the Tejipin, and lingers on in the chest and stomach. The Tejipin gave up the thickness early on but at steep 4 and 5 the 2006 Chawangshu was just getting started and continued to thicken in subsequent steepings with no additional time added to flash steeps.
I let steep 6 cool a bit while I cleaned the kitchen, and the cooler tea had a sour vomit smell in the cup and in the tea pot. This disappeared in the next steeping, after which I think I got the storage off and the real tea began to emerge, a bit sweeter with some lingering bitterness but not a whole lot. This still isn’t a bitter tea, and I feel like a few years on this will make a big difference. The tea is at a stage when I really wouldn’t normally want to drink it. In fact, after 7 steeps I got a bit of a tummy ache, but to be fair I’d had an ibuprofen tablet early in the day which could have contributed to an extra sensitivity on my part. I decided to eat something and then keep going.

Fourth steep.
The tea also has some significant theanine effect, and more what I consider qi, the feeling of movement along and up my spine. I feel a stoner effect in my face, not the dental face numbing of the Tejipin, more of a heavier relaxing effect in the face, chest and back. Really very pleasant. I’m fine with the sour because I feel that will depart from the tea, it is a fermentation flavor. The tea started out with the common puerh scent, but it was very light and gone right away. I’m not even sure it is intrinsic to this tea but could be something it picked up in storage from other cakes. 
I drink steeps 8 and 9. Then I give up. You know what, they are just sour. I don’t taste any bitterness. Extending the steep time shows me the tea has plenty left to go, I’m at a minute or so. This tea has some hope down the road once it slows down fermenting.

After steep 9 or so, these leaves are greener and still just opening.
Now, maybe someone else has a different opinion, who owns a full cake, or a better cake or a better sample. I’m droning on and on and trying my best because I really, really wanted to like these teas. I drink puerh all the time, so it's not like I haven't got around, and people send me wonderful teas every week. I feel like the Teji was amazing leaf when it was young, but got wrecked in processing and the wet years unfortunately can’t make up for it. Sure, the stoner effect is stronger than almost any other tea to date, but you know what, it tastes awful. Think what you will, I just don’t like this tobacco/leather/incense/smoky profile, I can buy it on Ebay if I want it.

By contrast I have the 1999 Yiwu from white2tea which also is a woody/leather but it is spicy, and vanilla, and it has bite, with some bitterness remaining. This 1999 Yiwu has steeped a personal record 42 steeps for me. I served it at the Wisconsin Fermentation Festival last fall to 12 people and two begged to go home with a thermos of this tea and some leaves to steep out. The 1999 Yiwu isn’t smoky nor tobacco flavored and doesn't taste like an incense shop. Does it have the dental stoner effect of the Teji? No, it doesn't. But the Yiwu I have is plenty relaxing. This is just one example of a tea I have with similar natural storage that just tastes better, and is a much more durable tea. Here I have to go with the Chawangshu if I were to pick which to buy, but honestly I’d rather have another cake of that 1999 Yiwu (sold out) or maybe hope for better with the Dinji which seems to be another price tier up.

Thank you so much to my dear tea friend and I promise you I will give these another try in six months. I’m happy to revise my opinion down the line if I can do anything to get these samples in a more palatable state. And like I stated at the beginning of the post, if you don't feel my opinion merits any consideration, you can find different opinions on Steepster or elsewhere online.

But really, I find myself yearning for a bitter Bulang right about now. I gotta rummage around for something to clear out the sourness from my palate.

Nap in peace.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

My Chinatown Trip

Nothing is more deliciously relaxing than settling back on my pillows with a tea blog, and so I am a fan of long form tea blogs. Few people write enough paragraphs in a blog post to justify the time loading the page, and on so many blogs the page barely loads such that when the loading time finishes, I’m already done reading. My favorite long form blogs lately which comprise a Saturday morning tea in bed include the curmudgeonly Steepstories by lazyliteratus, a writer whose prose just gets better and better. And of course, James at TeaDB.org posts a long form every other Saturday, a blog I anticipate and miss on the off-weeks.

OolongOwl is the other long form blogger I read with no rival anywhere in the professionalism of her layout and high quality photos. Behind the crocheted Japanese owls lurks a Tea Master whose palate goes easily from pristine white tea to the funkiest puerh, and with equal deftness covers tea ware, kettles and even Korean cosmetics. In fact, I think OolongOwl’s site isn’t just a blog, it’s a one-woman magazine. In her site I’ve found invaluable discoveries on brewing tips and tea ware. She digs deep into tea, the how-to's with brewing to get the best out of tea, and honest notes, sometimes correcting her own parameters right in the post.

This week, OolongOwl wrote a travelogue on a recent trip back to her hometown of Vancouver which included a tour of tea shops and Chinatown. I adore travelogues written by people who share my interests. I bookmarked that page immediately and started looking around for inexpensive silver plate covered sugar bowls on Ebay that I might use for gong fu, after reading about tea water prepared in a silver kettle at The Chinese Tea Shop. I love reading tea travel stories, and in fact a Younger Cwyn traveled to Vancouver not once, but twice. A long time ago, not for the tea but for the pot, the other kind of pot. I got to remembering one trip after reading OolongOwl’s post this week.

 This post is not about tea. Not really.
I’ve traveled to Seattle twice now, 20 years ago or more, to visit my former brother-in-law, traveling with other family members and both trips included day jaunts up to Vancouver. But I have to back up here in my recollections, because much like reading OolongOwl’s travelogue this week, my Vancouver trips were also preceded by reading travelogues, back then from High Times magazine. Now, I used to live in what was then left of the old hippie neighborhoods of Madison, when we still didn’t have internet and unless you worked in a bread shop or food co-op, you didn’t dare subscribe to things like High Times magazine. I used to buy my copies with cash at a store on State Street, not for the high quality bud photos which gave me anxiety much as million dollar tong photos do today, but rather for the travel section, for I was determined to follow along on as many pot tour travels as possible.

Yes, dear readers. Old Cwyn was a pothead back in graduate school and I venture that is the only way to do graduate school. In fact, I was baked all the way through to the end of my dissertation, and at the time I was convinced I had insights into multiple regression not accessible to ordinary students arriving to class only on latte cocktails. So while I didn’t dare to mail subscribe to High Times back in those days, instead I bought single copies at a store which also boasted the only location in town for computer LAN gaming. You young people won’t even know what that is, or what a wonderland gaming shops were for us in the days of IBM 8 inch floppies. But I’m trying to get around to the travel section of High Times in which I discovered a pot tour of Vancouver, because my goal was to get there and follow that tour. And so I did.

My son’s father and I were already living separately, but remained good friends and we traveled with our son and yes, my mother-in-law, going from Seattle to Vancouver for a couple of days with no real plan. That would be the same mother-in-law who stayed at my house last summer. I’m still having trouble recalling now what years exactly we went to Vancouver, and I’ve never publicly told this story before. Maybe someone can help me with the dating.

Back in Seattle, my brother-in-law worked for one of the newly sprung up computer hardware companies. This brother was a long-haired hippie sculptor back in the day, living on air and weed but with a hobby for computer animated cartoons in the 1980s, and this hobby placed him in the right place at the right time when personal computing began. He landed himself a plum job with more money than he knew how to spend, and he had rented a huge house in Redmond with almost no furniture. He himself slept on a futon on the floor much as he’d always done, as we all did back then. When staying at his house, however, the rest of the family got the spare bedrooms which meant my only choice for privacy was to sleep in the car. I have a long history of sleeping in cars when I travel because I’d rather not share a room.

Current drug of choice.

So, we went up to Vancouver for a few days, staying at a hotel attached to a large shopping mall where the train stopped for a quick lift to downtown. By then I was seriously jonesing, because I didn’t dare bring any weed on the plane and after a few days with my ex’s relatives, I deserved a break. While the rest of the family toured the mall, I hopped in my bedroom car to head downtown for the High Times Pot tour.

My destination was the shop owned by marijuana activist Marc Emery in downtown Vancouver. The state of this shop at the time I visited might help with dating my tour. I visited before Mr. Emery was arrested and imprisoned for the long sentence, but after the raid on the café with the bong-installed tables. So at that point, the café was gone and the store sold only marijuana seeds and growing equipment. Vancouver residents then could legally own up to two marijuana plants, and I could see the legal two on apartment patios along the downtown area where Marc Emery’s store was located.

Pot is still illegal in Wisconsin where I live, and the main reason why I don’t use it any longer. It’s just not worth the trouble to be a girl and smoke weed unless you grow it yourself, because you deal with men ripping you off. Or you have to sleep with someone, and sometimes that guy will rip you off too. I got fed up with the whole nine yards. I don’t have stamina like Mr Emery, we all know what he went through. Let’s face it, very few of us have his guts. Sometimes the most honest thing you can do to support a movement, if you can’t handle the heavy lifting, is to stay out of it. Leave it to people who know what they are doing and give money to the places they ask you to.

But I was dumb and didn’t know it back then. At the time, to actually see a shop with, well, everything out in the open was just heady stuff. I imagine today that walking into the Chinese Tea Shop might be equally exciting. Upstairs I could see Grow equipment like lights and bottles of fertilizer, things I had no chance in hell of carting over the border unless I wanted to risk a tear-down of the rental car. Downstairs was the seed shop, boasting varietals and clones from around the world, and the store displayed samples of various clones. Mr. Emery did not sell marijuana, the samples he had were grown by others. He also did not serve any, though the customer was free to try display materials.

I told Marc that I saw his store in High Times, and that I was from Wisconsin, and gave him proof in a cigarette lighter with the Bongo Video logo. Bongo Video was a VHS tape rental shop in Madison once owned by neighborhood friends and activists Nancy Streckert and Carl Degner. Their shop also sold Dunhill tobacco and rolling papers. Alas the once-successful shop succumbed to the age of streaming video.

Best video shop in the history of the world.
We miss you.
Logo photo at dane101.com
Marc laughed at the Bongo Video lighter, and so I gave it to him.

“Here, roll yourself a joint,” Marc pushed a tray of samples. “We don’t sell weed here and I don’t serve it myself anymore.”


I’m not a good joint roller. Nobody rolls joints in a pot-illegal state, unless you’re using weed to try and quit cigarettes or deal with a health problem. Joints are wasteful. Instead, we cut off chair legs and make pipes from the wood. When the cops show up, all you have to do is put the chair leg back on. And of course the chair is a curb pick anyway, who knows where it came from?

But I rolled something of a joint and lit up, passing it back and forth with Marc. Okay, now this was seriously the best weed I’ve ever had. Unreal. I don’t think I could move for at least 90 minutes. Instead I just watched people drifting in and out of the basement section of the store. I purchased six seeds of Blueberry something or other. Back then seeds were like $8 on the low end each, so this purchase cost me like $50, but I didn’t feel as I could leave without purchasing anything, given the generous hospitality. Marc told me that if I needed weed, I might find people across the street with some, just to tell them he sent me. I went across the street to see, and found a dark hallway with a man down on the end. This looked a bit scary so I decided to head back to the hotel and managed to find where I’d parked the car.

Now this is when my problems with Vancouver began. I had no problem whatsoever finding the shop, but couldn’t find my way back to the hotel. The city seemed to think that putting up a street sign on every corner is a waste of public dollars. Only a few streets actually had street signs with the name of the street. And to make things worse, the city had no left turn traffic lights. None. If you wanted to make a left turn, you had to sit in a long line of cars hoping for a break in the traffic. And by this time of day, rush hour had started. So instead of Vancouver thinking “hey let’s put in left turn signals to reduce congestion, and mark streets with signs so people can find their way around,”  well no, instead “we’ll just decorate the median strips with flowers and sculpted bushes so people have something nice to look at while they are sitting in cars not moving.” In America, you won’t see a whole lot of decorated median strips because you will whiz by too fast to notice them anyway.

Steep it while it's legal, people.
Yeah, okay, I was stoned out of my mind. But I knew which street I needed to get back to the hotel, and it just wasn’t there. Drove around in circles for at least ninety minutes and finally pulled over on a side street to try and either take a nap or figure out my location. The afternoon waned and the sky was getting dark, and I couldn’t even remotely tell where I was. Just then, the street lights came on, which also included rather fancy sidewalk lamps.

“Now these look odd,” I thought, “this street is so decorated.” I looked up at the storefront next to the car. A café, with Chinese lettering on the window. Then I looked up the rest of the street. All the shops were in Chinese. I was in Chinatown, at dusk when the lights came on.

Suddenly I wasn’t in English anymore. A wave of paranoid terror ran over me, and I started up the car to get the hell out of there, fast, before someone noticed a stoned white girl in a foreign country and a rented car. Chinatown wasn’t so tony back then. Hit the gas and drove like mad.

Found myself on something like a four lane, maybe, the traffic heavy so I just kept going until I had some room to maneuver and finally pulled off into an open lot. I sat back just to breathe. No idea where I am. I closed my eyes for a while until the Blueberry spinning subsided somewhat. Looked around. The only cow land references I could see were buildings like silos and a few cranes. Grain elevators, maybe? Yes, I must at the wharf, I see water here. Okay this idea gave me at least a north-south perspective, one I’d lost once the sun went down. I knew where the hotel was in relation to the wharf, so using a notion of a street grid in my head I finally managed to find my way back to the hotel. A ten minute drive had turned into a trip of nearly four hours.

Back at the hotel, feeling guilty and irresponsible, I found a note from my son’s dad that they had all gone to a movie at the Mall. “Men in Black.” My ex had taken my 4 year old son to a violent Rated R movie. And I’m not exactly in a self-righteous position to complain, given I’ve been gone half the day, partying at a head shop and then arriving back stoned out of my beejeebers. Decided to go to bed.

Copper glazed cup by CeramicSoul, etsy
The next day, we all planned to walk around downtown before heading back to Seattle. I realized my mistake on the road, I had actually been driving on the correct street more than once the day before, but without the street sign I didn’t know it. The offending sign-less turn signal mocked my failures as a parent. I started to feel better walking around downtown with the family, their khakis clashing with my gunny sack dress, but the appearance of dignity restored. And we were just so close to…

“I’ll be right back,” I told the others. The shop was nearby after all, and I didn’t need to be the one driving. Made it quick this time, and wisely visited the bathroom to stuff my seed purchase where the sun doesn’t shine.

Now here’s my advice with traveling contraband, but it only works if you’re a chick. You need to save one of your monthly menstrual supplies and yes, it needs to be a used one. Wrap it in plastic if you’re squeamish, but in goes your contraband, all tightly wound and bye bye no one sees. Then you need a used pad too unless you’re currently in a position to make a fresh one yourself. So if you get stopped by the drug dog, well it’s not your fault the dog likes your crotch.

I was all set for the border. Or so I thought. We had no problems on the way in, but while my buzz was comfortably wearing off and my ex driving, sure enough the border patrol took our birth certificates and said “Can you pull over to the parking spot, please.”

Oh shit shit shit. No time for eye drops. I tried to look appropriately sleepy, which wasn’t too hard considering the café was even more fun this time. But far worse, the patrol officer heading over was a big, burly man. This is not good. I squidged my seed baggie, trying suck it in further up, hoping I didn’t have to bend over and cough.

“Is this your kid?” the officer asked.


“Is this your son?”

“Yes, of course he is,” I said.

What the fk…

“Can you prove it?”

“He’s four years old,” I said.

Back then, a child under the age of five traveling with his parents didn’t need to have a birth certificate, so we didn’t bring his.

“The United States forbids the trafficking of children from Canada,” said the officer.

“Oh, yes. Well of course he’s ours. Can’t you see the resemblance?”

My son looked like me in the face. Awake now, the boy was in a child restraint seat in the back seat looking up at the officer.

“Son, are these your parents?” the officer asked.

My son stared up with a blank look. He had just started early childhood special education, and had been born with a brain injury. He struggled with understanding language, a problem he still has today. Back then, if anyone said something he didn’t comprehend, he tried to get rid of them by saying “no.” So my son was about say “no” and I’d soon be coughing out additional evidence to add to my child trafficking charge.

“Son. Are these your parents?” the officer repeated.

I thanked the good gods for my ex taking the boy to see “Men in Black” the night before. For once my son was sufficiently scared to keep his mouth shut, a smart tactic around officers of any type.

The officer gave up at that point, and decided to wave us on. After all we were a family of three plus one old lady in a rented station wagon. Wisely, the border patrol has better things to do.

So there you have one story of my visits to Chinatown in the days before tea. Back at home, I gave my seed purchase to a friend who was a grower. Typical to the weed underground, I got nothing for my smuggling efforts, and my friend denied remembering the seeds later on when I asked about them.

Washing an old Ding Xing wrapper. You can buy this tea in
Vancouver or online at thechineseteashop.com
It all adds up after awhile, and this trip was one among many that led to me not wanting anything more to do with the hippie scene as I was living it then. When Marc Emery was arrested not long afterward and assigned a long prison sentence, one which he was forced to complete in a country which actually is more forward thinking than my own, I realized society had reached a point where I didn’t want to be part of any movements any longer. My father is allowed to kill himself with alcohol, and people can have their two drinks or more a day without anyone thinking the worse of them, but god help the person who wants to imbibe a plant that never killed anyone.

Along with that, the peaceful hippie scene got worse in other ways. People started throwing tomatoes at people like me wearing secondhand fur coats. Hippies were no longer wearing gunny sack dresses, leather fringe and fur. No, they started wearing plastic shoes and belts and fabrics you will still find in a landfill 1000 years from now. I got fed up with the whole movement which had moved from peaceful and healthy living, to rabid city politics targeting rural ways in the state. So after 9/11 hit and our society descended into an even deeper chasm of irrational politics, I realized it was time to get out of Mad City. I sublet my dump of an apartment in the neighborhood which has since been completely rebuilt with cheap materials to so-called modern standards, and purchased a vintage stone foundation house in the rural cow town where I live now.

And believe me, I’m the happier for it. I don’t share most of the politics around here, but I value my neighbors’ penchant for independence and no government interference. Even if for reasons I don’t share. We’ll see how long this lasts. Any day now I expect they will start regulating my tea too. Someone, somewhere, is going to give the wrong person a cup of dizzy puerh and it will be all over. I just hope I check out first.

Requiescat in Pace

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