Bacon-Wrapped Slow Cooked Pulled Pork Sandwiches!

Today my roommate and I continued our Barbeque Week with another fantastic recipe from the website Tasty. Not long after we woke, we made ourselves a pot of joe, and as it brewed we set about the creation of the day’s recipe: Slow-Cooked and Bacon-Wrapped Pulled Pork Sandwiches. We discussed the culinary landscape of the USA, and said that Kansas City seemed to pull together all the disciplines of BBQ to form the “Barbeque Mecca” of the nation. Texas we associated with beef, and South Carolina with pulled pork sandwiches. So we decided on using a South Carolina sauce, which tastes more of vinegar than the sweeter flavors of KC.

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Although the recipe called for 3 lbs of boneless pork shoulder, all we could find at H-E-B (the grocery store that Tim Duncan- one of my favorite all time athletes- does commercials for) was a 6 lb bone-in pork shoulder. We initially hoped to cook with the bone included, as this would add flavor, but all this wouldn’t fit inside the cooker. Taking it down to size, my roommate used what he described his best chef knife- which had been bought for him as a Christmas present from his brother. Watching him cut so smoothly through the pork in the early morning hours was a soothing and therapeutic experience for me. Once we had the pork in roughly half-pound slices, we seasoned them liberally before wrapping them in bacon.

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These were slow cooked for about 7 hours, even though the recipe called for 6. For lunch, we finished off our chicken sliders that we made the night before. When the pork was ready, we both shredded it with forks before broiling it for a few minutes so that it was dark and crispy. We then poured the finished pulled pork and bacon into a bowl, smothered them with the South Carolina BBQ sauce, and spooned generous portions of these into large dinner buns. We then quickly added some salad to act as a side, fearing condemnation from our little lady in Colorado. Tasty’s recipe calls for slaw as a side, but we decided not to make this as I’m not a big fan of slaw.

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We ate dinner early, about a quarter to five in the afternoon. The sandwiches were so much better than I could have hoped. They were moist and succulent, and about as perfect a sandwich as I can remember ever having. I probably enjoyed these puppies more than I did the chicken sliders- although this is no great surprise, as I tend towards pork more than I do chicken. I would most definitely recommend this recipe to a friend!

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I’ll leave the recipe right here:

“BACON-WRAPPED SLOW COOKER PULLED PORK

Servings: 8-10

INGREDIENTS

3 pounds boneless pork shoulder

1 tablespoon sea salt

1 teaspoon garlic powder

½ tablespoon liquid smoke

8 strips of bacon

Coleslaw

½ cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoon mustard

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

2 cups red cabbage, shredded

2 cups cabbage, shredded

1 cup carrots, shredded

PREPARATION

Quarter pork to portion into approximately ½-pound pieces. This will cut down cooking time.

Place pork into a large bowl. Add salt, garlic powder, and liquid smoke, and mix until each piece of pork is evenly covered.

Wrap each pork with 2 strips of bacon.

Place pork into the slow cooker and cook for 6 hours on LOW.

In a small bowl, combine mayonnaise, sugar, lemon juice, vinegar, salt, and pepper, and mix well.

In a large bowl, add the vegetables and pour over the dressing and mix until the slaw is fully coated.

Take pork out onto a baking sheet. With 2 forks, pull apart the meat into desired size.

Broil on high for a few minutes to until the ends of the pork start to crisp up.

Serve on a bun with slaw and enjoy!”

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BBQ Chicken Sliders & Jarritos Ice Cream Milkshakes!

Today marks the first culinary blog post for TumbleweedWrites! One of my favorite aspects of American cuisine is Barbeque. I can’t get enough of the stuff. My best experience of it was in the BBQ capital of the USA- Kansas City. There I attended two of the most famous BBQ joints in the world: Oklahoma Joe’s and Gates BBQ, eating at the former on the halfway point of a cross-country road trip to Texas and the latter at the halfway juncture of the return journey. My experiences in that city forever cemented my love of Barbeque- especially in the form of pork ribs and pulled pork sandwiches.

One of my roommates isn’t so keen on the stuff however, and given that she is in Denver, Colorado for the week for some important conferences in the field of Behavior Analysis, her fiancé and I decided that now would be the best time to experiment with some delicious and creative BBQ recipes. We used a website that the future Mr and Mrs often draw upon for culinary inspiration. The website operates a Youtube channel called Tasty. So I just wanted to give them credit beforehand, lest my inbox get inundated with emails requesting me to drink bleach for seemingly passing off the recipe as our own.

So, without further ado, here is the recipe for BBQ Chicken Sliders!

 


BBQ CHICKEN SLIDERS

Servings: 12

 

INGREDIENTS

1 12-pack of dinner rolls or Hawaiian sweet rolls

3 cups cooked chicken

⅓ cup BBQ sauce

½ red onion, thinly sliced

6 slices pepper jack cheese

¼ cup parsley, finely chopped

2 tablespoons melted butter

 

PREPARATION

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F/175°C.
  2. Slice the rolls in half lengthwise.
  3. Place the bottom half on a 9×13 baking tray.
  4. Spread the chicken evenly on the rolls, followed by the BBQ sauce, red onion, jack cheese, and parsley.
  5. Place the remaining half of the rolls on top.
  6. Brush with melted butter.
  7. Bake for 20 minutes.
  8. Slice, then serve!

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The sliders were lush! As we chowed down on these puppies we commented on how crispy and toasty the bread was, which my roommate said might actually have been his favorite part of the meal. The bread was buttery and lovingly seasoned, and crunchy to the bite. I then commented on how I loved how the Monterrey cheese and the red onions just congealed together and melted on the tongue. Overall, the sandwiches were absolutely heavenly- and I urge you to try them!


Our experiments in the kitchen did not stop there however. My roomie- knowing my adoration for the Mexican soda Jarritos– showed me how to make a Jarritos ice cream milkshake whilst we waited for the sandwiches to bake. To make it, you will need: milk, Jarritos, ice cream and a blender. How much of each you put in the blender really depends on your personal preference, but the milk should be no more than a quarter cup or so. For a thicker shake, add more ice cream. We used Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream and Mandarin Jarritos.

The shakes were amazing! We thoroughly recommend! Check out this video of our blender in action:

My Top Five Small Towns in Wisconsin

Throughout my travels in Wisconsin- from my student exchange in the fall of 2012 to the back to back legendary summers of 2014 and 2015- I have been lucky enough to see what might be referred to as the “essence” of the Badger State. And that, I believe, is comprised of its small towns. I am especially interested in those little microcosms of yesteryear, and the way in which these towns formed. The movement and placement of people is traced back to Wisco’s oldest industries- namely logging, the manufacture of paper, dairy farming, and the harvesting of cranberries- but also the state’s long history as a place of recreational activities. So I have decided to make a little list- a list of five small towns that have made a particular impression on me. They are communities from all corners of the state that for one reason or another I have found interesting.

#1 Cedarburg, WI – 2012

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Founded: 1844

Population: 11,400 approx

County: Ozaukee

Trivia: Cedarburg has the oldest covered bridge in Wisco!

Located in Ozaukee County in southeastern WI, this town is perhaps the prettiest on our list. I visited this place in 2012 whilst taking a road trip with my family from Atlanta, GA to Eau Claire, WI. We found that we preferred the pace and scenery of these small towns to the big cities, and opted to see what Cedarburg had to offer, instead of spending our day heading into Milwaukee. Cedarburg has a dreamlike, picturesque quality to it, like the dying dream of a soldier far from home. To me it represents the rural idyll of the American Midwest. It’s the kind of town replicated in miniature railroad sets.

The town boasts a beautiful mill situated on Cedar Creek, a winery, and several art galleries. The streets feature an array of houses that date back to the late 19th century. Therefore, it is no surprise that Cedarburg is a popular tourist destination, and a great stop for a weekend’s drive in the countryside.

#2 Alma, WI – 2012

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Founded: 1868

Population: 770 approx

County: Buffalo

Trivia: Alma is named after the Battle of Alma in the Crimean War! (Alma is a river in Crimea)

I visited Alma in 2012 and I think it is quite a unique and atypical Wisconsin town. It’s absolutely tiny and sits on the banks of the Mississippi River. The land in this part of Wisco is different to the rest of the state, and during our time there we observed bright marshes and high, rocky bluffs thick with trees. Alma is located right next to the Lock and Dam No. 4 of the Mississippi River and you can watch the towboats going through the dam with their cargo. The Lock is also a notable nesting ground for bald eagles, which are among the most magnificent native animals I have observed in the wild. Buena Vista Park is a great place for a picnic, and provides visitors with an opportunity to photograph the Lock and riverboats below. Another strange feature of this town is the Castlerock Museum- which is home to a collection of Roman weapons and armor.

#3 Tomahawk, WI – 2014

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Founded: 1886

Population: 3350 approx

County: Lincoln

Trivia: The Kwahamot Water Ski Club is based here, and they put on a fine show for the locals every summer!

I first went to Tomawhawk in the summer of 2014, during my stay at my friend’s family cabin, which is located about a half hour’s drive away at the scenic Seven Island Lake. Once there we got ready for the aforementioned water ski show. It was still light in the evening, and “the kids” and I headed on over to the local Dairy Queen where we shared a massive cup of Gatorade with multiple straws. We all joked about how “trash” we were, with one lass declaring herself “Duchess Dumpster”. The water skiing was a nice, relaxing way to spend the evening.

Tomahawk is situated at the confluence of three rivers- the Somo, Tomahawk and Wisconsin rivers- that damming has joined together to form Lake Mohawksin. The area was originally inhabited by the Ojibwe peoples, before the postbellum logging boom brought about the founding of the town by American business interests. It’s a lovely place to visit if you are staying Up North during the hot Wisconsin summers, and caters to the cabin folks with some impressive bait shops.

#4 Fish Creek – 2015

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Founding: 1857

Population: 990 approx

County: Door

Trivia: Fish Creek is home to one of the last remaining clockmakers in Wisco!

I checked out Fish Creek two years ago whilst on a day trip to Door County with some folks I consider family. As we drove down the hillside we had a lush view of crystal-blue waters of Lake Superior. We grabbed lunch at an awesome pizza place called Wild Tomato Wood Fired Pizza and Grille- which to this day is the finest ‘Zza I have had outside of Italy.

Fish Creek is very much a community based on tourism. I imagine it would be a completely strange and quiet place outside of the summer months. The town is full of these amazing antique stores and art galleries. The day we went, we visited second-hand bookstores, antique stores, confectioneries, designer clothing stores, local ice cream shops, a hats & caps store and much more. For a long time I examined a collection of fringed leather jackets worthy of a Hell’s Angel. The town is a favorite place of artists and craftsmen alike, and is home to the Peninsula School of the Arts. I honestly cannot recommend this place enough!

#5 Oneida – 2015

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Founding: 1903

Population: 4000 approx

County: Outagamie

Trivia: The largest ethnicity of Oneida is listed as Iroquois, with 56%. The Oneida nation were originally one of the Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee) Confederacy’s six nations, which also included the Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora tribes, who banded together to dominate the fur trade in the Ohio Valley.

Oneida- both the name of the town and the Indian Reservation, whose names are derived from the Oneida tribe of Native Americans (who in fact are from Upstate New York, but had been displaced)- has served as the boyhood home of my best friend. It proved to be an interesting community, and one that I feel is wholly different from any of the other towns on this list. I had no idea, prior to visiting, what life on an Indian Reservation would look like. For some reason I always imagined adobe houses, abandoned gas stations, and chain-link fences halfway fallen down. I imagined something barren where nothing grew, something that reflected the poverty of Native Americans and the gradual erosion of their way of life. But of course, not every reservation is the same, and as far as I know the idea of adobe houses in Wisconsin is a quite ridiculous idea.

In June of 2015, my buddy’s mom made us an absolutely massive feast of crispy bacon, chocolate pancakes, and fresh strawberries. A bunch of us then walked Riley (a Brittany Spaniel) and Trout (a pug) in the warm Midwest sunshine. The geography of the reservation included much farmland, and we passed by large barns and pastures that grew soy beans. The houses were modest and clean suburban houses, all with huge yards, complete with American flags and Golden Retrievers.

Through the center of the Reservation runs what one of my buds described to me once as being her favorite river, a little stream called Duck Creek. For those-like her- who are interested in the language, culture and history of the Oneida tribe, the town offers a little museum/cultural center that provides fun information!

The Time I Got Bon-dangled by Border Patrol

Well I finally made it back to Houston. It’s my fifth stay in the United States and the fourth year in a row I have roomed with my friends for the summer. My return to Texas is also something of a farewell tour; come next year it is likely that my pals will be living in a state with a less punishing climate, and begin their life together as husband and wife. Their wedding will ensure a sixth visit to the US of A, but the years of the mythical summers will come to an end. So it is that this year then becomes my last chance, at least for a while, to see more of what Houston has to offer. The plane came in to land around suppertime and everything was much as I had left it and it was bright in the evening. Out of the window I had an unobstructed view of the low, gray buildings and the low, dark hardwoods. The grass was pale and everything had the sticky quality of a swamp. As we got closer to the runway, more buildings came into view; car dealerships with seas of glimmering car-tops and modest, gray motels, and every building site and industrial complex was low and spread out among the swamplands.

I figured at this point that I’m a seasoned traveler. I’ve been here five times now and twice to the Big Country- so what did I have to fear? No doubt I would be akin to an old guest at a nice hotel, the kind that makes jokes with the doorman and has his lucky room reserved for him by the winking desk clerk. But no, that wasn’t the case. As a general rule the folks at border protection are largely a humorless bunch- and this is no more true than in the case of those who guard the shores of the USA, the nation that, although built by immigrants now considers it something of a curse word. There is something very detached about the way the officers at customs interact with us travelers. The lady who dealt with me asked me to scan my fingers and have my photo taken, before suddenly informing me that I was to be escorted to Immigration for some unspecified reason. I said “Okay” and reached for my passport before she snatched it away and put it in a folder.

“Oh, you’re keeping that are you?” I asked.

“Yes, of course I am” she snarled, in this real patronizing way as though I knew what the hell was going on. She stared me down for a few seconds like I had insulted her, as I looked around for where Immigration was. She pointed me in one direction, before yelling at me to come back and wait for an agent who would escort me. I get taken to this little waiting room and left among a bunch of other miserable looking travelers who similarly have no idea why they have been disallowed entry. Across from me is a mother from India balancing a baby on one arm whilst trying to rein in a screaming naked toddler with the other.

One of the officers came over and demanded the mom get the kid some pants. The mom tried in vain with her one free arm to get the child into some pants whilst he made a screaming wheel of himself on the floor. The officer then came over again and yelled at the woman to control her kid, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this lady had the odds stacked against her. This pattern repeated itself for about 45 minutes and the naked kid started attacking his mom. Everyone watched without saying anything as the little kid- who had been screeching without pause for the better part of an hour now- started clawing at his mother’s face, gauging her eyes, and pulling her hair out. There was murder in his little eyes. Finally the officers, who found there was no luck to be had in screaming at this woman themselves, brought her husband in, and it wasn’t long before he lost his temper and tried to smack the kid like he was a housefly. At this point the officer strode over and wagged her finger an inch from the guy’s face and said several times “NO. NO. YOU CAN’T HIT KIDS IN OUR CULTURE,” in the kind of voice one would use for a disobedient dog. I half expected her to follow it up with “BAD BOY”.

No one seemed to be checking on us and no one told us why we were here or how long we would be delayed. I swear that room was a Kafkaesque nightmare. We were infinitesimal drops of spray against the high stone walls of bureaucracy. I could observe the officers joking with each other, but as soon as they interacted with us they fixed us with these mechanical eyes, and all sense of human empathy was lost. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Ray Bradbury recently.

Anyway, we were a right motley crew in that waiting room. There were a dozen of us from a dozen different corners of the Earth with a dozen different problems. We were told that we couldn’t leave the room or use our phones. One British girl who was there for having her green card stolen was only allowed to go for a piss with an armed escort. Most of the people’s issues that I witnessed seemed to be mere bureaucratic errors. I overheard things like “Look, lady- just because you have been approved to adopt this baby, doesn’t mean you have completed the adoption progress. You need to go back to Pakistan and call this number…” or “Ah, so it looks like glitches in the fingerprint scanners are logging people as having criminal records, so we have to wade through your criminal history”. It turned out that the reason for my being there was something like this- somewhere down the line there had been a misunderstanding or misstep in their system. I got interviewed by a guy with a thin, downward-curling mouth and steel-colored eyes, who responded to even the most straightforward answers I gave him with a confused “huh”. I guess my student visa from five years ago had confused their system, which is strange, because I have visited the USA in 2014, 2015, and 2016 all without incident. The guy grumbled at me to call a number and sent me on my way, two hours after I had landed.

I got a call from my friend, who informed me that there was an active tornado warning and that he, his fiancee, and their puppy Adelaide had locked themselves in the bathroom and turned out the light. I had to watch out that I wouldn’t get blown halfway to Cuba as soon as I stood outside. But first I had to worry about where the hell my luggage was. I was late, so none of the conveyor belts had bags on them, and I was the only passenger left in the area. I asked the only folks around- a couple cleaners- if they had seen my bag. The answer was that, since it had been so long since my plane landed- or indeed any planes had landed- that I would have to find the nearest British Airways agent and hope that my bag wasn’t destroyed as a potential bomb threat. I passed through a set of doors that informed me I wouldn’t be able to return through, and in the distance in a long, empty room, I spotted my bag casually abandoned beside a wall. I picked it up, and left with the feeling that the day’s drama was behind me.

I went over to the first cab I saw and asked if I could use it. The taxi driver asked where I was going and I told him “NASA Space Center”. He said okay and for me to get inside whilst he loaded my bags. Then, inexplicably, he ran over to his supervisor and had a short, animated conversation. The driver came running back and asked me to leave my bags in the car and convince his supervisor I needed a cab. I did this, and the driver then ran over to us and exclaimed to his supervisor “He asked me to take him to the hospital, I swear!”

“No I didn’t,” I said.

“Get this man’s bags. You can’t take him,” the supervisor said.

“But HE came to ME,” the taxi driver protested.

“Get his bags, now,” the supervisor demanded. Turning to me, he said, “I’m sorry sir. Go to that cab over there. He will get your bags.”

The cab driver, visibly irritated, grabs my luggage and complains that I should get my own bags.

“Really,” I say, “I can go over and get it, it’s fine.”

“No, you don’t have to do it. He’s gonna do it for you, sir.”

The cab driver protests some more and I go over and take my bags off him. The supervisor apologizes to me and I get in the cab he indicates to me. I see them start to argue behind me. I tell the new cab driver “NASA, please” and we finally get going. A couple minutes pass before the driver tells me, “Yeah, that driver back there is gonna get suspended for a week now. Not your fault though”.

We drive into the night and the traffic on the freeway is almost non-existent. The trees give way to lots, and the lots become billboards; blazing violets and reds and blues of neon. We pass by every kind of cuisine imaginable. Everything is lit up, and you can hardly see the clouds for the great roadside advertisements. Soon we pass by the heart of the city and Minute Maid Park, and the whole thing never loses its grandeur. All the verticality of the city is condensed to this one, bright nucleus of skyscrapers that stand above the rest of the city, which spreads suddenly flat in all directions around it.

When I get to the apartment complex it’s raining but the storm has passed. I enter into the old place and Addie starts going mad, springing off her back legs five feet in the air. My friends had ready for me a homemade pizza, a slice of ice cream cake, and a cold glass of Jarritos waiting for me. We all heaved a sigh of relief, and thus, the summer of 2017 began.

Billy’s Rain: How One Book Changed My Outlook on Poetry

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Hugo Williams might be my favorite modern poet. I keep a copy of Billy’s Rain close by my writing desk, and I never hesitate to consult it, whether I’m looking for inspiration or for pleasure. It’s actually a funny story how I ended up with the book, and how it came to form such an important part of my library.

I touched on this in last week’s post “Notes on Productivity and Procrastination”; I had trouble getting inspired at school. I was always more interested in reading the books I bought for myself on the weekends than the ones assigned to me in class. I could never get disciplined enough to read them, and it reached a point where I just sort of accepted it and stopped buying the assigned reading altogether as a matter of course. I know, I was a twat (see, I admit it so it’s okay!). In my time spent at school, college, and two universities, I never once read a full length book that was assigned to me. I tried sometimes, but I could never concentrate. I had the attention span of a newborn pug at a Polka Dance.

In my third year of university, after giving up any idea of becoming a poet and thinking instead that my best bet was with fiction or screenwriting, I ended up taking a class in poetry writing largely because of my disinterest in the other options. I think it was called Modern Poetic Writing or something like that. Anyway, the class was being taught by my favorite professor and I figured I would give it a go for a semester. At first my expectations were low; the reading list was set, I didn’t buy any of the books, and I had to do the embarrassing routine every week of searching through my bag and going “Well, I must have left the blasted thing at home”. I would have felt less guilty if it weren’t my favorite professor I was deceiving. But there was always some kind person that let me share their copy. The theme was decided to be Confessional Poetry. We started with Robert Lowell (whom I have also since come to appreciate), and then moved on to Williams.

I remember being in a sort of haze one day, thinking about something far removed from the room I was in. It could have been anything. At the time I was mutilating the same short story every week to please another professor (only for the original version to get published as a winning entry of a competition months later), just getting hooked on The Walking Dead, and I had a Skype date where I was set to be introduced to my best mate’s girlfriend- a larger than life personality I was sure I was going to disappoint (she’s now my BFF). All this was on my mind and I was really just trying to get by with my classes and stay afloat. Then, I remember being suddenly snapped awake by my professor’s reading of “Blindfold Games” from Billy’s Rain. I was all of a sudden existing in the present. I was captivated by the words. Something about it just seemed to ring true. The feeling I got, listening to that reading, was of being inside someone’s head, seeing out of their eyes and feeling what they felt. Jealousy. Plain and simple. That was the theme of the poem, and in a very simple yet very profound way it resonated. I wasn’t particularly infatuated with any one lady at that point in my life, but it nevertheless seemed like such a universal and timeless part of the male psyche that was being communicated through that poem. Perhaps at some point I would feel about a girl the way that narrator did, I thought.

The book as a whole chronicles a love affair, which ends, and the aftermath of it. You can read the book like a novel, from front to back, if you want. As you get further into the book, you see William’s emotions and anxieties laid bare, as he goes from being the recipient of this woman’s affections to an observer of it. “Blindfold Games” is, roughly speaking, in the middle of the book, and details the narrator imagining his ex-lover going off to bed and making love to her new boyfriend. There’s just something very human and engaging about the narrator’s insecurities, and something very male about his keen interest in her sharing the intimacy that was once his, with someone else. I read an article a while back, which reported on a scientific study that examined the different ways men and women recover from the breakup of a relationship. The study found that women, at some point, are better equipped at putting it behind them, whereas men- even if they do find a new partner- will be troubled with it for the rest of their lives. I’ll put a link to the article below in case you are interested.

Anyway, you want to know how the story ends, no? I couldn’t get the poems of Hugo Williams out of my head, and “Blindfold Games” in particular. I wanted to write poems like that. During that semester I fell in love with poetry again, and it was all down to that class I almost didn’t take, and that book I never bought. My entire outlook on the genre had changed forever. I started to write poems that could be described as “Confessional” en masse, and I was extremely excited about the end of semester assignment where we had to produce our own portfolio of poems. My confidence soared in my ability not only to write poems, but to share them as well. I was always the last person to contribute in class, and I tried to get out of it any way I could- even if it meant skipping. But I reached inside of myself, the way Lowell and Williams had, and wrote this personal poem about being sad and lonely one time during an intramural soccer game at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire. The response I got from my fellow writers was great, and one girl even said it tugged at her heart strings. My professor said in a private chat that I was finding my voice as a poet.

The poems stayed in my head long after that class ended in the winter of 2013. They laid dormant in my subconscious for a while, as I became focused on writing my dissertation and then heading off to Wisconsin for a summer of eating ice cream, snuggling with that pug, and tubing on the Chippewa River. But afterwards, when I got down to writing again, the poems came back. So I ended up going out and buying Hugo William’s Billy’s Rain about a year and a half after it had been assigned to me! And now it forms a core part of my writer’s library. It’s a book I often return to, reading the same poems over and over again. Here’s “Blindfold Games” for you to enjoy:

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References

http://www.cosmopolitan.com/uk/love-sex/relationships/news/a48019/scientific-study-men-never-get-over-breakups/

The Witcher is Being Made into a Netflix TV Drama!

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O, what news! I was practically shaken out of my sleep this morning by my younger brother, with his news that The Witcher was going to be adapted for a Netflix TV drama. I am a huge fan of the franchise, and I proudly hang a map of the Northern Realms above my bed, and I lovingly adorn my aging laptop with the game’s complimentary stickers of the School of the Wolf’s sigil. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is my favorite game of the current console generation and perhaps second only to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic in my all-time power rankings. I was blown away by the poignant character-driven plotlines and the game’s dark, sinister twists on Slavic folklore. It completely restored my faith in high fantasy games providing nuanced writing that examined the human condition, and not being merely pretentious, unambitious attempts at Tolkien in which all the character’s might have had heads filled with Styrofoam for all we knew. The world of Geralt seemed rich and so alive. To help feed my addiction, my brother bought me a copy of Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Last Wish for my 23rd birthday. I’m a fan. And how gratifying it is to live in an age where to be a geek is all of a sudden trendy. I swear, back in my school days if I had skipped down the hall with a copy of The Last Wish clutched to my breast, humming the epic tones of Marcin Przybyłowicz’s soundtrack, I would have quickly been gang-banged by no less than a dozen chain-smoking rough lads, taking it in turns to stamp on my trachea with studded boots until I stopped breathing.

But we’re getting off-topic, aren’t we? Let us return to the news of the day! The Witcher is indeed getting made into a TV drama. It should be pointed out that it is the books that are getting adapted, not the games of CD Projekt Red. Therefore the show will be much closer to Sapkowski’s original vision. We will be seeing the world of Geralt of Rivia much closer to how he conceptualized it. Sapkowski, who had no input on the popular game series, will in fact be serving as a creative consultant for the new show.  It should also be noted that Tomek Baginski, who did such a wonderful job directing the intro cinematics for all three Witcher games, will be directing one episode per season.

It is good, I think, that The Witcher is being made into a TV drama and not a movie. Movies don’t have the time necessary to build the slow-burning character arcs that more finely approach those of books. I don’t trust a Witcher movie not to be a complete turkey, at least in the current climate of Hollywood blockbusters- the kind of movies more interested in making its audience masturbate over increasingly extraordinary levels of CGI than in engaging with the inner conflicts of its characters. I am encouraged by the successes of TV dramas such as Game of Thrones– perhaps the best indication of how a Witcher TV show might turn out- given that they are both dark fantasy narratives, based on novels written since the early 1990s. And that is a series that has enjoyed widespread popularity, from people of all ages and consumers of almost every genre. Netflix too, I would argue, is a good home for the series. Those folks have been absolutely ballin’ recently, giving us a range of exciting dramas- such as Daredevil and Stranger Things– all with the liberal creative license seldom afforded by the big TV networks.

Of course, it is early days, but why not get some discussion going amongst the community? Who would you like to see in the roles of Geralt and Yennefer? What would you like to see incorporated from the source material? Let me know!

5 Reasons why Chelsea Won their 5th Premier League Title!

Michy Batshuayi’s strike last Friday night saw Chelsea crowned Premier League champions for the second time in three seasons. It was a dramatic finish to a scrappy game from perhaps the unlikeliest of heroes, and at the final whistle, in the midst of the onrush of raw emotion- both on the pitch and in my living room- I thought back to how this team got here. All remnants of the great double-winning Chelsea side of 2010 under Carlo Ancelotti were well and truly gone. The titans of that team, characterized by its industrious midfield and its three-pronged, murderous attack, had since moved abroad or simply retired. In fact, I believe it’s only John Terry who remains from that team (the 09/10 side being the one that is most vivid in my memory, and will perhaps always be my personal favorite), and he has largely served as a Ben Kenobi-style mentor figure in the dressing room. It was strange seeing Frank Lampard (in my opinion, our greatest ever player) in the studio as a pundit, and I realized this is well a truly a new outfit. The previous backbone of the Blues that consisted of Cech, Terry, Lampard and Drogba has been replaced by the likes of Kante, Costa, and above all Hazard- who I consider to be the face of this franchise over the last few years.

When we were crowned champions in 2015, it was generally agreed by journalists and fans alike that this was down to three key acquisitions by then-manager Jose Mourinho: Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas, and Nemanja Matic. With Costa providing that instinctual finishing not seen since the days of Drogba and Anelka in that aforementioned Ancelotti juggernaut of 2010, and with Fab and Matic providing a much needed change to a midfield in turmoil since the autumn of that double-winning year, it seemed like a perfect fit. Pundits were commenting that this Chelsea team would be around for a long time, and praised the “balance” brought by these three acquisitions. It was also the year Hazard had his best season for Chelsea, showing the world that despite the success of these newcomers, this was very much still his team. He was the first name fans would look for on the teamsheets, and dazzling the Bridge and the league alike, it was he who took home the coveted awards of PFA Player of the Year and the Football Writers Association Footballer of the Year, establishing himself as the finest player in the country.

Then, when it seemed as though a dynasty was about to take shape, Chelsea had one of the greatest- perhaps the greatest- self-destruction of any Premier League champion in their follow-up season. After some uninspiring performances, needless drama involving the medical staff, and rumors of a locker room on the verge of mutiny, Jose Mourinho was sacked by Abramovich for a second time. All of our stars- with the exception of the inimitable Willian- were completely shot of confidence and out of form, and our once bright future all of a sudden looked bleak. We had failed to qualify for the Champions League and the two Manchester clubs, who had also suffered seasons which fell short of satisfying their respective fanbases, looked to be strengthening massively. And Tottenham, despite taking home the unwanted distinction of finishing third in a two-horse race, looked to have the best nucleus of any team in the league. When Conte was appointed the reaction I saw among Chelsea fans was one of satisfaction but not of excitement. There was no feeling among the fans or the journalists that Chelsea would be one of the favorites to win the league. Despite having kept all those players that had performed so well in our 2015 title-winning season, there was a concern that they had lost their magic. Costa looked like he needed counseling, Hazard seemed completely without confidence, Fabregas seemed to have lost the pace and grit necessary for midfield, Matic was a ghost on the field of play, and there were worrying signs of age in Cahill and Ivanovic.

So, without further ado, here are my reasons for why I think Chelsea won the title!

  1. The Switch to 3-4-3. This begins with the team’s early losses to Liverpool and Arsenal at the beginning of the season. Chelsea had started the season competently, but did not yet know how to get the best out of their players. The team was lacking that sense of identity and style, and after employing a flat back four, became very much exposed by the pace of Liverpool and Arsenal’s offense. Conte used these defeats to fuel Chelsea into a ruthless machine, one that became a tactical nightmare for opposing teams in the games to come. The 3-4-3 formation is one that I believe captures the zeitgeist of modern football, and is representative- perhaps even emblematic- of a more dynamic style of play. Over the past 15 years or so, the tactics of football have changed a lot, and they’ve changed fast. Hardly anyone uses a 4-4-2 formation anymore, which I remember as a kid being the absolute boilerplate of soccer strategy. What we have been seeing in recent years is the trend of old footballing positions being deconstructed. Players are being asked to do jobs not typical of their position, which has resulted in these positions becoming blurred. This is most true for the fullback role, in which those players are now expected to have excellent ball-skills and stamina levels to rival that of midfielders. What made Chelsea a tactical nightmare this season was the use of its wingbacks, who were essentially playing two positions. They formed part of a five-man defense when in off-ball possessions and acted as the primary wingers when going forward. This made Chelsea difficult to mark and equally difficult to exploit.
  2. Clinical finishing. As a Chelsea fan, my complaint for what might be called the Interim Years (2010 being the last championship of the old guard, and 2015 ushering in the new-look Chelsea) was that, whilst we dominated possession, we had little spark going forward. Our attack in that time lacked creativity and incisiveness, and we tended to bulldoze our way through games. Our 2012 Champions League Trophy seemed to be won by willpower alone. It was after the historic 09/10 season that the signs of age were showing in our best shooter, Anelka, and our biggest clutch striker, Drogba. We tried to combat this by signing Fernando Torres for 50 million in January 2011, but it was too late- his best years were behind him, and he was ruined by injuries and a complete lack of self-confidence. It was Jose Mourinho’s signing of Diego Costa that brought us the consistent and cut-throat finishing not seen since the glory days of Didier Drogba. After having a down year last season, Costa has very much returned to the form he displayed in 2015 in his first season at Chelsea. This year he has, at the time of writing, scored 20 Premier League goals. It is often said that titles are won at tough away games to mid-table teams. This is often true, I find, as such teams are becoming increasingly emboldened in their approach to playing the super teams in recent years. But performances this season such as their 3-0 win away to Everton, 2-1 win at Stoke, and 3-1 win at Bournemouth are demonstrative of Chelsea’s ability to grind out results against tough, motivated defenses. The true mark of a championship team is, I would contend, its ability to score even when it is not playing at optimal exuberance.
  3. N’Golo Kante. Perhaps part of the reason this Chelsea team was not receiving too much hype in the preseason was its relative lack of spending in comparison to the Manchester clubs. But while their transfer business was not as flashy, it was perhaps more shrewd. Manchester United spent 90 million on Paul Pogba, but Chelsea- in a quieter move- got a far better player for only a third of the price. That player was N’Golo Kante, who has now won back to back league titles with two different clubs. I noticed when watching Euro 2015 how Kante was keeping Pogba out of the French side with his unparalleled defensive talents. He is not flashy; his worth is in his raw effectiveness. He rarely shoots the ball, but he runs with the heart of a Leopard. Despite not being very tall, he is able to almost wrap his legs around the opposing player and steal the ball. There is no doubt in my mind, as a fan, that he is our MVP. Clearly, the rest of the league agrees, as he was recently awarded the PFA Player of the Year award and the FWA Footballer of the Year award, much as Hazard had done 2 years ago.
  4. Getting the best out of players’ potential. This, in many ways, is Conte’s biggest achievement this season. I felt for sure that Victor Moses would never play for Chelsea again after spending several years as a wandering mercenary for the Premier League’s mid table clubs. But Conte surprised everyone by not only bringing him back into the squad, but by making him a key part of the team’s success this season. Presently, Moses has started 28 of the team’s 36 games played. He is even a dark horse for Chelsea’s Player of the Year. He has been that good, that Conte has had him playing the best football of his career this season, and he, along with new signing Marcos Alonso, has showcased his talents as both a defender and an attacker. It is a point that often comes up in basketball, but seldom in football, when deciding on MVP’s, that the best player ought to be both skilled at defense and offense. Whilst football obviously is very different insofar as the more rigid nature of its formations and positions, I still think that it is worth mentioning that Moses is much more versatile than either Hazard or Kante when it comes to performing at both ends of the pitch. Pedro is another player that, under Conte’s guidance, has gone from being a competent substitute to a lethal weapon, one that can shoot and dribble, and do so in the big games. Matic and Fabregas are two more players that have improved their game since last year, notching 18 assists between the two of them. Lastly, a word must be spared for David Luiz, who, although being a summer signing, is still someone who has been seemingly resurrected by Conte’s influence. No one ever doubted Luiz’s talent- in fact he is pretty much the perfect combination of height, strength and speed- but rather, his decision making. This season he has flourished in a defensive scheme that seems tailor-made for him. He has been reliable and disciplined, and deserves all the praise he is receiving for his career renaissance. His improvement is reflected in his being selected for the PFA Team of the Year; no small feat in a season that has seen great defensive performances from the likes of Alderweireld and Virgil van Dijk.
  5. Balance. Chelsea have been firing on all cylinders this season, but it is not because that 2015 team praised for its balance has been restored. The players are more or less the same, but the team is completely different. The Chelsea of 14/15 was one characterized by an absolutely suffocating defensive back four of Azpilicueta, Cahill, Terry and Ivanovic, one that at the time was talked about as being potentially one of, if not the, greatest defense in Premier League history. This year the defense has been effective too, but for entirely different reasons. Instead of a flat back four we have seen a very mobile defensive unit, one in which the wings are guarded by Alonso and Moses, the strikers marked by Cahill and Azpilicueta, and with David Luiz acting as a sweeper for whomever breaks through. It has proven so effective that I have seen other teams such as Tottenham, Arsenal and Man City at various times try out the 3-4-3 scheme for themselves. The Chelsea of this year has been better equipped to deal with pace than the 14/15 outfit, but less strong in defending more direct approaches to football. I would argue that this Chelsea has been more creative in attack, and slightly better at breaking down defenses than Mourinho’s title-winning team. Hazard in particular has been enjoying playing off of Diego Costa as our team’s primary offensive conduit, in a role which does not require him wasting energy tracking back. I have noticed that it is often Costa who goes back to give a hand when defending, whilst Hazard is left up front. It is no surprise then, that Chelsea’s success is due in no small part to its counter-attacking potential, with a fast-moving, dynamic defense able to quickly distribute the ball to players such as Hazard and Pedro. The best example of the team’s balance this year was its 5-0 dismantling of Everton in November, a result which- at the time- was lauded by BBC commentator John Motson as being “The best 90 minute performance I have ever seen in the Premier League”. Whether or not that is true is of course subject to personal opinion, but his saying that is nonetheless reflective of the team’s hard work in every area of the pitch.
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