Lifestyle 101: How I Learned to Love Scotch Whisky

The title of this article is: How I Learned to Love Scotch Whisky. A better title might have been: Why Did I Learn to Love Scotch Whisky? But right off the bat (if you’re new to whiskey) you might point out that I spelled whiskey wrong. Whisky versus whiskey. Non-Scotch whisky is usually spelled whiskey with an “e” but Scotch whisky omits the “e.” If you’re interested here is a great article on the subject.

My first taste of Scotch whisky was in a sleazy bar in the Patpong red-light district of Bangkok, Thailand in 1967—and I absolutely HATED it. I was a very young (and naive) nineteen year old Marine Corps Sergeant on a three-day R&R from Vietnam. I was revelling in the fact that I was back in civilisation if you could call Patpong civilised. But my hotel had hot running water, western flush toilets and clean beds—civilised living conditions.

Living conditions in Vietnam were not civilised. No hot water, pit toilets, lousy food and dirty clothes were the order of the day. Hot and humid weather just compounded a bad situation and made for really lousy living conditions. R&R offered a brief respite from all that and I eagerly boarded my plane in Chu Lai. On the flight out of Vietnam to Thailand (on a vintage Marine C-47) I had hooked up with two other Marines heading to Bangkok for R&R like me. In case you’re new to the term R&R stands for Rest & Relaxation (in Marine-speak getting drunk and getting laid). Both would be a new experience for me—I was both excited and nervous. Like I said, I was naive.

The three of us were sitting at a table in the bar and wanting to get drunk (great ambition, right?). There were over 200 girls out on the dance floor and each was wearing a number. For a little company you simply asked the waiter to bring over the girl with the number you pointed out. They would order a drink but it was always tea at alcohol prices (standard procedure for a B-Girl). If you wanted all night companionship rates started at $11 USD for a twenty-four hour period. Your new girlfriend would act as tour guide, translator, dining companion and bunk-mate—all for $11 USD. For lonely young Marines a long, long way from home it didn’t seem wrong.

 

With maturity, social awareness and the current focus on the evils of human trafficking the practice now seems barbaric. But in the context of the times it passed for normal. Most of the girls I met in Asia performed these tasks voluntarily, they were not kidnapped or held prisoner. Most were Buddhist and there was very little (if any) stigma attached to their profession. It was good money, they got to meet foreigners (mostly American servicemen) and had an opportunity to learn English. Many sent money home to their rural families and more than a few used the money to go to college. I’m not making excuses, I’m just stating the facts in the context of the times.

Back at our table I was trying to figure out what to order in the way of booze (I had absolutely zero experience). The father of one my young comrades was a lawyer and always drank Scotch & Water—so we all thought what was good for a lawyer should be good enough for us. We all ordered Scotch & Water (on the rocks). It really sucked. It was harsh and made my lips and throat burn and the girls laughed (with their tea) when I scrunched up my face. But by the time I emptied my glass and ordered another one I was feeling pretty good. Very sophisticated and grown up. From that point on Scotch spelled class in my book (lawyers drank Scotch).

Once I started sweetening my drinks with Coke or 7-Up things really improved and a lifelong love-hate relationship began with Mr. Al K. Hall. But in the back of my mind I suspected real men drank Scotch. Alcohol freed my inhibitions (I was and am a bit of an introvert) and relaxed my social interactions. All of a sudden I was the popular guy I always dreamed of being: witty, charming and urbane (or at least I was all those things in my mind’s eye). I was medicating even in the beginning, a habit that would follow me for years—stress at work or at home was medicated with booze. And besides everyone in my generation either drank, did drugs or both (I never got involved with drugs other than alcohol).

I’ve always been a whiskey drinker, bourbon mostly. But every few years I would try Scotch whisky again. To me it tasted like someone had dumped a cup of dust into good bourbon, it tasted old and musty. I was responding the medicinal taste of peat in the Scotch. Peat (harvested from the many peat bogs in Scotland) is used to varying degrees in the distilling process of Scotch whisky—none more so than the fine whiskies from Islay. It’s definitely an acquired taste and has become my adult beverage of choice. While visiting other countries I will often drink the local brew: tequila, mescal, rum, pisco or whatever is customary.

However, I always come back to Scotch whisky like an old friend. I don’t drink to medicate anymore and it’s not about the buzz or the freeing up of social inhibitions—today I drink Scotch whisky because it tastes good. To me Scotch represents sophistication, class and style. With increased palate awareness and education comes discernment and appreciation—not unlike fine wine aficionados (or cigar aficionados for that matter). Scotch is one of the finer things in life. Due to availability and cost while travelling my Scotch consumption has been cut drastically. When convenient I will imbibe the brew but more often than not I find myself drinking good local beer.

I don’t drink all that much anymore. In fact during my Buddhist phase I gave up alcohol, cigars and meat entirely for over 7 years. Mostly it’s beer these days—finding Scotch while trekking the world can sometimes be difficult and when you do find it is expensive. Since returning to the USA for a visit I have enjoyed my Scotch again, though in moderation. I will admit I’ve been tempted to overindulge with the recent loss of my granddaughter Lianne but I haven’t succumbed to the temptation. I’ve found over the years that alcohol doesn’t make the pain go away, at best it only numbs it for awhile. SFD 

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You Got Me—Grandpa Doing the Dab

Stephen F. Dennstedt

You got me! Yes you did. OMG Lianne I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that you’re really gone. You were like a lightbulb that just burned too hot. Your grandpa is very sad and I know you would hate that. But it’s true even though I’m trying to work through it. These past weeks have been like a whirlwind. God, how I miss you kid.

You had more natural energy and incandescent light than any kid I ever met. After an absence of almost six years (as your great-uncle Jo-Jo and I trekked Latin America)  it was so neat reconnecting and seeing the beautiful young women  you and Jaimee became. BTW, Jaimee has been a rock through all this.

You taught your old grandpa how to do the Dab and my new daily phrase: You got me! I guess that makes me a bona fide hipster (or maybe just a dotty old fool). Anyway, you had the innate ability to make people laugh and feel happier. You were kind, beautiful, smart and full of life but your special gift was your ability to bring joy to those around you. So you just go on and keep doing the Dab sweetheart because—you got me. Love grandpa.

Lianne Dennstedt (August 9, 1998 to September 18, 2017)

Photography 101: Point & Shoot, Mirrorless or DSLR?

Stephen F. Dennstedt

What should you shoot? Point & Shoot, Mirrorless or DSLR? It’s a valid question. But the answer will require that you do some real soul-searching. What is it you want to accomplish with your photography? If you’re a social media shooter (only) your answer might be one thing, but if you’re a professional (or serious amateur) your answer might be something different.

The video I’ve included below is produced by Thomas Heaton, a professional landscape photographer. In his video he discusses this very subject. How much camera is enough? Like Thomas I shoot the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV full-frame DSLR with L-glass. This camera and lens combo produces stellar results. For wildlife I back it up with my Canon EOS 7D Mark II APS-C crop-sensor camera.

Checkout Thomas’ video and his YouTube channel. He’s a really good photographer and I’ve followed his progress and success for sometime now. He’s good. I also love his take on all things photography and his British presentation style. I always learn something from him (even though he’s half my age) and am thoroughly entertained by his productions. There is no perfect piece of gear, like so many things in life your gear should be tailored to your needs and skill-set. Point & Shoot, Mirrorless and DSLR, they all have their pros & cons. Pick a system or systems that work best for you.

Philosophy 101: 5 Life-hacks For When You Get Gobsmacked

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Five life-hacks for when you get gobsmacked. Gobsmacked? What the hell is gobsmacked? A British-ism for astonished, astounded or surprised. Gotta love the British and their charming and quaint colloquialisms. Nobody plays with words (the proverbial wordsmiths) better than the British—after all they have the Bard Bill (William) Shakespeare.

A gob (in British vernacular) is a mouth and smacked speaks for itself. So by extension gobsmacked means to get literally or figuratively punched in the mouth. We Americans would probably say punched in the gut or stomach but I love gobsmacked and plan on adding it to my everyday vocabulary. British-English is so much cooler than American-English.

Life is a bitch and a bitchy-bitch at that. Apologies to any militant feminists out there, it’s just an expression. A sports analogy (typically a male perspective) would be that: life is always throwing you a curveball. And ain’t it the truth? Just about the time you think you have things figured out—wham, you get corked in the old bean. I’m an old guy and you would think by now I would have life figured out—well I don’t. Sorry to disappoint. The one truism seems to be: don’t take life for granted.

Because as soon as you do (and you can trust me on this) you get a curveball to the noggin or you get gobsmacked. Call it what you will: Karma, fate or just plain bad luck. Life is full of surprises. What’s the old biblical saying: God (life) doesn’t always give you what you want but usually gives you what you need. I’m not a religious person but I would have to agree with that premise in the main. Proper perspective provides hindsight and hindsight (as most of us know) is 20/20. In other words perfect vision only comes after the fact. So how do we, as mere mortals, cope with life’s little surprises? The gobsmacks that come our way.

  1. Awareness. Be aware of what’s going on around you and manage your expectations. Buddhists would invite you to live in the moment. If you are aware you won’t be surprised as often.
  2. Acceptance. Accept the fact that what’s going on is real (deserved or not). Once the immediate crisis has passed and your perspective changes you will often see things differently.
  3. Humour. See the humour in things—life can be really FUNNY. This is a hard one because often things don’t seem too damn funny when they’re happening. But looking back they often are.
  4. Flexibility. Go with the flow and bend with the wind. Be a reed and not an oak. A reed is flexible and will survive a storm whereas an oak is rigid and often breaks before the tempest.
  5. Resilience. The ability to bounce back when you’ve been knocked on your ass. Whether it’s a gobsmack or a punch to the gut get back up and fight. Fight as if your very life depends on it because it often does.

I’ve been gobsmacked so many times I’ve lost count. With the recent loss of my granddaughter Lianne I’ve been gobsmacked once again. It sucks but it’s life. Life is a bitchy-bitch and sometimes I hate her but at the same time I love her. Someone should teach us how to navigate life but I guess it’s primarily a solo adventure. The wisdom teachers do their best to teach us but in the end it’s up to us to find our own way. The 5 life-hacks I’ve outlined have been helpful to me but in the end I have to keep learning the same lessons over and over again. I think that’s true for most folks.

 

Philosophy 101: Why Does Power Corrupt?

Stephen F. Dennstedt

There are certain aspects of life that just seem to be cast in stone. That power corrupts appears to be one of those truisms: the I do it because I can syndrome. The following quote by John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (10 January 1834 – 19 June 1902) is arguably the most famous expression of that assumption, but is it true?

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

I found a short (but really interesting) article in Smithsonian Magazine that speaks to a study published, in the Journal of Applied Psychology by Katherine A. Celles & colleagues, about the relationship between power and corruption. Their conclusion was that power, in and of itself, doesn’t corrupt—power simply exacerbates a pre-existing ethical condition (a predilection towards unethical behaviour). This makes total sense to me whereas Lord Acton’s quote seemed rather simplistic.

In sum, the study found, power doesn’t corrupt; it heightens pre-existing ethical tendencies. Which brings to mind another maxim, from Abraham Lincoln: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

So it’s not necessarily the political office, institution or position of leadership that corrupts the individual, but rather a very real human foible that draws certain people to power like a moth to a flame. Abusers of power often share similar traits: they can be narcissistic with low self-esteem, insecure with an overreaching need for control, neurotic and in extreme cases can exhibit overt sociopathic and even psychotic behaviour. In my opinion this is the classic bully syndrome. In the beginning these behaviour traits might be covert (passive aggressive) but as time goes on they often become more overt.

The point I’m trying to make is: an individual’s propensity towards abuse (of power) can be predicted based on past behaviour. Knowing that, can we really be victims of abuse when, in fact, we are complicit in that abuse? I think the answer is no. We as a society (at least in a democratic society) are ultimately responsible for who we allow into positions of power—we create these monsters. There is a legal term called due diligence (simply stated: do your homework) that should be applied more often than it is—look to past events (behaviours) to predict future events (behaviours).

History repeats itself (over and over again ad nauseam) when we turn a blind eye towards the past (either through laziness, ignorance or both). Can a people be held (collectively) responsible for the actions of its leader(s)? They can and should be, especially in the case of a democratic society with a freely elected government, you need look no further than Adolphe Hitler and Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. I suggest we remain skeptical (if not cynical) when viewing leaders and institutions: politics, religion, business, education and even the press.

Knowing that often the least of us strive for power and control over the rest of us should give one pause. Saying to yourself or others: I can’t believe (fill in the blank) just said or did that is complete bullshit. Remember, past events (behaviours) predict future events (behaviours). Performing due diligence (your homework) is not only a right but a responsibility. Be cautious of your endorsement, agreement or support of any individual or institution occupying a position of power because you will be intrinsically linked to that stance. And ask yourself why do I align myself with that person, position or institution?

 

 

Travel 101: My EDC (Every Day Carry) List

Stephen F. Dennstedt

EDC or Every Day Carry seems to be a hot topic. Checkout almost any blog or YouTube channel dealing with adventure travel, survival or the Zombie apocalypse and you will find a post talking about EDC. I usually take them with a grain a salt because they are very, very subjective. Give me reasons not simply opinions. Please.

On occasion I learn something new (and agree with the recommendations) but often as not I find myself laughing at the armchair cowboy and the wannabe survivalist. It’s one thing to be sitting in front of the television shoving pizza into your pie-hole and quite another to be in the field trying to stay alive (Zombies aside).

When visiting these sites I first look for the poster’s Street Creds (what makes them an expert I should listen to, what is their experience?). In the case of adventure travel and survival I typically look for military or wilderness experience. I don’t know anyone who has had real-life experience with Zombies (do you?). Seriously, do you know anyone over the age of thirty who really gives a shit about Zombies? That goes for Vampires and Werewolves too (just saying).

1. Marathon GSAR (Government Search & Rescue) Watch

When looking for credible military experience I immediately search out the Special Operations guys: Navy Seals, Army Delta, Rangers and Green Beret Special Forces and of course my alma mater the United States Marine Corps. These are the folks with real-world experience (the real deal). In the civilian world I look to the mountain climbers, wilderness guides, hunters, scuba divers and seasoned adventure travellers. I would also include many first responders too: law enforcement, firefighters, doctors, nurses, paramedics and search & rescue.

2. Maxpedition CMC Wallet

 

Next I look for a photo (yeah I’m shallow) to visually validate the stated experience. The experienced people I mentioned above usually walk-the-talk their entire lives, it’s unlikely to see a former Navy Seal looking like a 300-pound mass of quivering protoplasm in a photo (even if he’s Vietnam vintage like me). Also, we’re talking serious people here with a serious life & death skill-set. They can have a great sense of humour (and often do) but when a situation turns serious they have the ability to flip the switch (immediately). I always look to their eyes (the windows to the soul) and often find their smile never reaches their eyes.

3. REI Pocket Organiser

So what are my Street Creds? First, I don’t claim to be an expert in anything but I do have knowledge and experience with lots of things. Also, I’m a bit anal—I research subjects of interest and equipment to death. I spent six years in the Marine Corps (with one combat tour of duty in Vietnam), I was a backpacker in my younger days and an ultra-light backpacker in my older days and I was a trail runner (8 to 12 miles a day) well into my fifties. I now trek the world 365 days a year. I tend to put on weight easier these days but no one has ever called me fat much less obese. The common thread that runs through serious people is discipline.

4. Personal Totem

Disciplined people are often born with that personality trait but it can also be a learned skill-set (my Marine Corps Drill Instructors were pretty damn good at installing discipline).The old adage comes to mind: the right way, the wrong way, the highway and the Marine Corps way. Disciplined people are typically serious people regardless of job description: look for the squint, the crows feet and the eyes that can turn to glacial ice in a heartbeat. Crazy people (and I’ve known a few) oftentimes have glittery eyes but serious people have unwavering eyes (they don’t dart about, they are focused like a laser).

5. Small Notebook and Pencil or Pen

So I always (well almost always) have these five things on my person when travelling. They are not wilderness survival tools (that list would be entirely different) but they are my adventure travel items. I travel the world 365 days a year as a photographer, writer and occasional armchair philosopher. If you’re planning an encounter with Vampires, Werewolves or Zombies your list will be different but I might suggest such things as: silver bullets, wooden stakes, mirrors, garlic, crucifixes and a big-ass gun like a .357 magnum, .44 magnum or .50 caliber Desert Eagle (just saying).

  1. Rugged Watch. A rugged watch is a must in my opinion. Cellphones suck and are not watches (or clocks). A cellphone (I don’t own one) doesn’t even make my list. 99.99% of my subscribers will disagree with me. My watch is a Marathon Swiss Made GSAR (Government Search & Rescue). It’s a mechanical automatic (no batteries) with a Swiss Made ETA 2824-A2 automatic movement. ISO 6425 dive rated to 300 metres, stainless steel and comes with a rubber strap (other straps available including a stainless steel bracelet).
  2. Maxpedition Wallet. A good travel wallet should be small, lightweight and secure. It should be water and sweat resistant. Leather is not your friend when travelling. I spend time in hot & humid environments (jungles, rainforests and monsoon rains) photographing wildlife. A leather wallet will quickly get soaked and start to mildew, it’s not a pretty sight. This is a good time to mention that I prefer Mil-spec clothing and equipment. Military specifications insist on ruggedness, durability and value—it’s a good place to start.
  3. Passport Holder and Pocket Organiser. I wear Mil-spec cargo pants when I travel. Rugged, poly-cotton rip-stop with plenty of pockets. A good pocket organiser is a great way to protect your passport and other important documentation (like vaccination cards, medical prescriptions and extra passport photos). Like your wallet it should be made of tough, water-resistant, quick-drying polyester material (leather is not practical). I bought this one at REI but Maxpedition also has their own version I think.
  4. My personal Totem. Often referred to as a Talisman: An object, typically an inscribed ring or stone, that is thought to have magic powers and to bring good luck. I am not a particularly superstitious man but the three items I wear around my neck have special significance. My Burmese green jade Kwan Yin is the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, the small heart was given to me by a special lady friend in Yucatan, Mexico (she’s had it since she was 15 years old) and the amber pendant with an entombed prehistoric bee is 10-million years old. These talismans represent (to me) eternity, loving compassion and an open heart.
  5. Notebook. I always carry a small spiral-bound notebook (and pen or pencil) in my shirt pocket. It’s invaluable for jotting down quick notes and reminders (like place names, email addresses and the name and address of my hostel). Moleskine makes some beautiful little notebooks but they are hardbound (great for journaling but not for ripping out pages). When arriving in a new country it’s so easy to write town my hostel name and location (and phone number) and just hand it to the taxi or tuk-tuk driver.

I often carry other stuff in my pockets as well: sunglasses, Chapstick, daily medications, chewing gum or whatever. But these five things are always on my wrist, around my neck or in my pockets. What does the old commercial say: never leave home without it. If you’re staying in all-inclusive tourist accommodations or travelling first-class it’s probably no big deal but if you’re trekking roughshod like me with just a rucksack and Pelican photography case then look for rugged and tough gear. Mil-spec is a good starting point, if it’s good enough for the Special Ops guys, Army and Marines then it’s pretty dang tough.

Stephen F. Dennstedt – Northern Amazon River Basin, Cuyabeno, Ecuador (2015)

 

 

Lifestyle 101: Housebreaking “Dippy”

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Who the hell is Dippy? Did Steve finally break down and buy another dog? I wish that was true but, alas, trekking the world doesn’t allow for a dog. If I ever stop, and I will have to stop someday unless I drop dead in my traces, I will definitely get another dog. No, I’m talking about my new watch—I actually anthropomorphised it. Insane, right?

In answer to your unasked question: yes—I do anthropomorphise dogs (they are human to me, better than human actually). So why not a watch? I nickname people all the time so why not inanimate objects? So why do I call my new watch Dippy? Hang on to your socks because this explanation is going to blow you away.

The manufacturer of my watch is Marathon Watch Company. It’s a Canadian company founded in 1904 who started manufacturing mil-spec watches for World War II allied forces in 1941. They’ve been producing Swiss Made high-end mil-spec timepieces for the military ever since (the Canadian Army, Canadian SAR, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Israeli Defense Forces and even the U.S. Marine Corps). Along with Hamilton we even had government issue  Marathon military field watches in Vietnam.

Dippy (Marathon GSAR) with a “James Bond” NATO Strap

The first person to run a marathon was a Greek by the name of Pheidippides (Dippy) in 490 BC. By the way, after Pheidippides ran the 26 miles to Athens and delivered his message of victory he died (but that’s really beside the point). My new watch now has a name: Dippy. I’m not the only crazy one, many horologists who own a Rolex Submariner call them a Sub or Subby, and owners of the Omega Speedmaster often call their watches Speedy or Speedster. Dippy is Marathon’s GSAR (Government Search & Rescue) and is Swiss Made with a Swiss ETA 2824-A2 25-jewel automatic movement (Dippy retails for $1,150 USD).

If you’ve never owned a mechanical automatic watch before there are some things to learn. First, just because it’s an automatic (winds with the movement of your wrist) doesn’t mean you never have to wind it manually. For instance, right out of the box it’s going to take 30 to 40 winds to initially charge the mainspring (don’t worry, unlike many vintage manual watches you can’t accidentally over-wind a modern automatic movement breaking the mainspring). Also, it’s not a bad idea to give it 10 or 15 winds before you go to sleep at night and another 10 to 15 winds when you wakeup.

Setting the date can be tricky if you don’t know what you’re doing. Typically you should not try to set the date when the hour hand is in-between the 9 and 3 o’clock positions. Oftentimes there is a date-setting gear that is engaged in that time range and using the crown to set the date can break or damage that gear. To be safe place the hour hand at the 6 o’clock position before setting the date and once the date has been set then set your actual time (in a clockwise direction). Automatic movements are not as accurate as Quartz movements—Dippy gains about +4 seconds in a 24-hour period (well within factory guidelines).

Note: Keep in mind that dive watches (like the Marathon GSAR, Rolex Submariner or Omega Seamaster) have crowns that screw in after each use (with rubber O-Rings that keep water out). If you forget to screw the crown back in (after winding or setting the time & date) and submerge your watch it will let water in and ruin your expensive timepiece. Additionally, rubber seals & gaskets need to be replaced about every five years to guarantee water resistance at depth (typically 200 to 300 metres) and annually if you’re an active swimmer, scuba diver or surfer. SFD