On Becoming a Teaist

In reality, cowboys preferred coffee … Arbuckles coffee in the earlier years. But, even then, when alone on the trail it was often quicker and easier to brew a cup of tea than it was to roast green beans in a frying pan over the fire, grind the roasted beans, and finally brew the coffee. So, with that lonely cup of trail-brewed tea in mind, this short essay was written in 2000 and has appeared on a number of web sites over the years since then.

Cup of Tea, what memories that phrase elicits … granddad’s tea when I was five in 1933 … a cup of hot water with sugar and a splash of milk. But that was long ago and with advancing age I have, perhaps, become a teaist now better steeped in the true art of teaism.

The person who would become a teaist must be willing to borrow from others. After all, there are well-developed techniques and strategies in other classes of snobbery and there is no sense in re-inventing them. The secret is to adapt them and apply them to the world of tea.

Thus, the first principle of the learned teaist … to borrow … is itself borrowed, in part, from the historic world of academia. Just think of it. You can borrow, and build upon the strategies developed and honed to perfection by centuries of academic conflict fought in the hallowed halls of Oxford, Harvard, and scores of like and less-like institutions around the world.

To apply these strategies in conversations with the less learned, you must learn to wrinkle up your nose a bit and purse your lips as though you had just tasted a spoiled lemon as you say the most dreaded word of the true teaist — “Lipton.” If you have difficulty with this, go into a locally-owned neighborhood espresso shop and watch and listen to the devotees of latte as they say “Starbucks.” In coffee circles, this is a true art form. It is a wonder that Starbucks has survived that toss of the head, that roll of the eye, and that twist of the lip, as the loyal fans of other roasters cut the competition … Starbucks … into linguistic ribbons. Well done, coffee lovers, we teaists have much to learn.

Yes, we can learn from them, borrow from them. And don’t worry, you’ll soon get the hang of it.

For many, “Bigelow” is a greater challenge than “Lipton” what with its three syllables and the incorporation of popular herbal blends into the company’s line. But a word of caution — under no circumstances should the teaist open up a second battlefront by challenging the herb lovers of the world. Better to leave that war to others and stick to the products of the Camellia Sinensis. After all, we teaists know that it is only from that one herb that true tea can be brewed!

A warning: Americans should also be rather careful about any obvious depreciation of English teas when communicating with their British friends. Some of these otherwise friends of America are still a bit stiff lipped and sensitive about the departure of the colonies from the Realm and may be somewhat miffed that they were not invited to the Boston Tea Party. Not that they would have liked it. After all, the tea was steeped in salty water  …  more in the Tibetan or Mongolian style than in the “splash of milk” tradition of the Empire.

The world does enjoy the teas of Britain, the land where tea is an institution. Even there, however, great mysteries surround the origin and blend of English Breakfast Tea — is the true tea a pure Assam, a pure Keemun, or a blend of Indian or Chinese teas? The teaist will fix upon one of these and defend it against all argument. A great defense is a slight shake of the head, a deep sigh, and a roll of the eyes to the heavens as some less-learned individual puts forward a different version. The teaist knows but must forever suffer the ignorance of the unlearned masses!

An equally plaguing mystery concerns the origin and blend of Earl Grey Tea. Each of two companies claims to have the “original” version. The knowledgeable teaist will steer clear of the argument. After all, why argue about a tea which is said to be so ordinary that it must be smothered in bergamots and citrons in order to be palatable? And how about that version from the colonies  …  that Earl Greyer Tea? Look again to the heavens.

To become a true teaist (a word which, incidentally, I borrowed from The Book of Tea written in 1906 by Kakuzo Okakura), you must learn the language of the tea aficionado. You must never, for example, brew “a cup of tea.” No, today you must brew a “cuppa!” To add the word “tea” to “cuppa” is a redundant redundancy in the mind of the modern teaist. And, once it is brewed, you must not pour it into a cup and sip it, you must “cup” it. To the true teaist, it doesn’t matter if these words jar the ear, irritate the mind, and defy understanding by non-teaists. “Cuppa” and “cup” will undoubtedly go down in history with such other monumental linguistic achievements as “veggie” and “oleo.”

With some 3,000 teas in the world — all, incidentally, from the same genetic line — an entire language has developed to communicate among teaists. Every nuance of producing, testing, packaging, marketing, brewing, drinking, enjoying, and mystifying tea is covered, discovered, uncovered, and recovered.

Having its own language doesn’t necessarily mean that the subject is boring or stuffy. Quite the contrary. To know and use the words puts the teaist far ahead of the uninformed who’ll never know the words, let alone whether they are being used correctly. But their use can prove that you truly know that the true tea, Camellia Sinensis, can be bright, bold, brassy, full bodied — even pointy and chesty — standing immediately and fully revealed in full bloom, and not at all coarse or dull. So is the language of tea.

In conclusion, the would-be teaist must do as other would-bes have done in other fields — make a science of a simple subject, depreciate the opposition, cloak the topic in undefinable terms, and write quasi-technical dissertations for delivery to their peers. When you can do these things as you “cup a cuppa,” you are well on your way to becoming one of a select few  …  a true teaist!

John Search The Enemy

It was a hot day in August 1931 when a Sioux Indian Chief (John Search The Enemy) invited me to sit with him on a blanket in front of his tipi at the Custer County Nebraska Fair.

Of course, I was only three years old so I didn’t know his name. However, a few years ago in 2009, I got curious and inquired of the fair officials by email as to what chiefs were present at the fair that year. At first they replied that they didn’t have such information…it was too many years ago. About half a day later, another email arrived, this one from the fair manager. He said he was curious so he checked some old records and had found a daily paper, The Daily Fair Edition for August 18, 1931, which contained a list of all the Sioux in attendance at the fair and he had mailed me a copy of that page. What a wonderful gift!

There were two chiefs present, Iron Shell and John Search The Enemy. From their descriptions in the article, I knew that the one who spoke to me was the latter one because he was slightly younger than the other.

The chief must have entertained me for close to an hour, telling me stories of The People and how they came to be as well as tales of The Coyote, a joker who could lead a person astray! He told me I would remember him and I certainly do! As I left he reached into his pocket and pulled out a buffalo nickle which he gave to me. The coin has  an image of a buffalo on one side and the head of a chief on the reverse.

Somewhere around here I must still have that nickle given to me nearly 85 years ago by John Search The Enemy, a Sioux Indian Chief.

Poem Hunter

You know, it’s sometimes tough being a poet. There are times when writer’s block hits the poet and the bucket full of titles just dries up like spit on the sand. It’s then that the poet gets down and dirty in hunting for a poem, accepting even the ridiculous as brilliant and sublime!

He had been on the trail for weeks,
hunting there, on his own,
but the target was elusive
’cause he did hunt alone.

It would have been much easier
had a friend come along,
at least company on the ride,
a ride so very long.

The target was so ill defined
just one line would not do;
it would take a full paragraph
to describe it for you.

But that long ride was tiring.
Vowing, when he got home
he’d give up the poetic search
and never more would roam.

But then he saw it at long last
his target, very terse.
It was a simple one he saw,
a poem with one verse.

Oh, yes, there was big game out there
but this one verse would do.
Better have just one stanza now
than wait around for two.


Quatrains offer a neat challenge to the poet because each requires a complete thought, image, or story in four simple lines.

There Were No Mourners
Western cooks had tough lives and, although
berated and cursed, most managed to survive.

Beneath this stone lies Cookie.
They buried him here today
‘cause he ate his own cousine
just before he passed away.

A Rural Third Grade Saga
Rural school districts often hired teachers
right out of high school and, honest,
some of the students were older than the teachers!

The teacher married a student,
perhaps her choice was fine,
but she was only seventeen
and he was twenty-nine.


At the Dance

We all looked forward to the dances held down at the schoolhouse each month. Although the events were generally peaceful, there were those occasional times when a fight might erupt, fueled by white lightnin’ and ignited by the glances of some country belle. Maryann was a cute little gal and an accomplished flirt.

It was an amazin’ rukus
there at the dance tonight.
A few cowboys was liquored up
and lookin’ for a fight.

That fight was over pretty quick
and no one went to jail
but black eyes did abound tonight
and sev’ral folks looked pale.

How it started no one would tell.
It just erruped there
and soon ev’ry one was involved
in that sordid affair.

But Maryann knew very well,
it was her flirtin’ way…
flippin’ her skirt, blinkin’ her eyes,
at the young lads today.

A cowboy gets mighty lonesome
ridin’ all by himself
so he gets mighty attracted
to a sweet western elf.

Today it’s back t’ward home
to nurse his blackened eye.
Rememberin’ sweet Maryann,
he breathes a heartfelt sigh.

One Regret

Here’s a simple three stanza cowboy poem written spontaneously to illustrate to a class the effective use of consistent meter and true rhyme. The poetic form is that of a ballad with a metric pattern (syllable count) of 8-6-8-6 and rhymes of ABCB in each of the three verses.

To be a cowboy for the brand,
he lived a lonely life.
The only true regret he has…
he never had a wife.

Oh, he had a bunch of chances
but he just passed ’em by
’cause he was havin’ too much fun
to give that life a try.

So today he’s old and lonely
just waitin’ for the end.
This cowboy has no wife or kin
on which he can depend.

A Cowboy Duo

This poem was written for a friend who was just that day celebrating the birth of a new grandson. His question to me was whether I had ever written a poem about baby cowboys. I hadn’t, but now I have!

Johnny is a cowboy
with boots and other stuff
just learnin’ of the west
where life is sometimes tough.

He rides a magic horse
across this western land,
just a baby cowboy
a-ridin’ for the brand.

A real experienced hand
at 18 months of age,
he greets new brother, Max,
this youthful cowboy sage.

Now in boots and levis
this duo rides the land,
just two baby cowboys,
learnin’ our west first hand.

A Shakespearean Observer

The other day I was just wonderin’, as many cowboys do, about how Shakespeare would have reacted if he were to have experienced life in our Great American West. This poem presents one possibility.

Forsooth, a cowboy indeed he might be
seen here from the balcony of the mill.
He doth look the part in dress and manner
yet fearful I stand lest he do us ill.

They come not too frequently to this place
burdened with weapons yet do ride so free
but stop to rest and quaff the ale we brew
and frighten the fair maidens they do see.

Must we, Brutus, tolerate these riders
who encroach so freely on our domain
to satisfy the urges of their souls,
to indulge themselves and then leave again?

Shall our fair maidens then be not so fair
when these invaders ride away scot-free;
shall barrels stand as empty monuments
with nary a drop left for me and thee?


In the old days, before helicopters and four-by-fours invaded cow country, cowboys actually rode horses to accomplish their work. That sure gave them a lot of time to think and wonder about just darn near everything. Of course answers often eluded them but the questions remained to cogitate on the next time they rode out.

My feet was in the stirrups
and the reins was in my hand
and I began to wonder
as I rode out for the brand.

I rode toward the sunrise,
just a lookin’ for some strays
while I was still a wondrin’,
about all these western ways

Us cowboys like to puzzle
about almost ev’rything
such as how this earth was formed
and how prairie birds can sing.

How the gals in town survive
tendin’ drinks at the saloon
and when can I retire
darn, it just can’t come too soon.

But I rounded up the strays
and I headed them back west,
my won’drin day is over
and it’s time I got my rest.

Star Light, Star Bright

Cowboys are great about cogitating, there are so many mysteries on the prairie, especially at night when the landscape is lighted by the moon and a myriad of stars!

The star is twinklin’
to brighten the sky
on long prairie nights.
It seems so nearby.

That star in the sky,
it’s twinklin’ tonight,
makes a man wonder
about it’s old light.

The light is ancient,
it’s traveled so far,
a million light years
since leavin’ that star.

It’s a true myst’ry
as we ride along
‘neath this ancient star
with light still so strong.