Encore Presentation

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Thanks to my network of well-connected friends at work, I learned last week that, though it hasn’t been announced publicly yet (so don’t tell anyone), I got the job I wanted.  October 31st will be my last day in the old job, which feels perfect for this All Hallow’s Eve-loving metal head.  I relish the idea of walking away from my position of the last nine years on the day when many of my co-workers will don spooky costume apparel in – from my perspective – a macabre parade to celebrate my departure from the old job into the new one located on the Lower Level of the building; the Underworld.  So metal.  Tomorrow, I will begin the process of wrapping up my current responsibilities, including cleaning up files, emptying out my in-box, and attending a series of meetings for the last time.  It will be my one last tour with the old band.  The heavy metal metaphors are resonating for me now.

Last Friday, I facilitated an all day meeting as part of a project I will soon be stepping away from.  Knowing my tenure is short, I saw the meeting as my last major performance in my current role; my last gig.  I wanted to make it a good show, so I carefully prepared.  I planned the agenda, wrote talking points for the manager who had requested the meeting, practiced the presentation I needed to give as part of the agenda, and designed the process I wanted to use to facilitate the subsequent discussion.  This was an opportunity to use a lot of my skills to impress the audience, like a great band playing the hits.

Early in my career, I was a professional meeting facilitator. Agendas, presentations, and group problem-solving techniques were my bread and butter, and I loved the process of organizing a productive meeting.  I always saw it as a show I was putting on.  My role was to be both the road crew working to make the band – that is, the meeting participants – successful and the front man of the band, with a flipchart marker in place of a microphone, casting group dynamic spells.  It was my stage.  Working in a large bureaucracy depends on having a good imagination to make the work appear more glamorous than it might otherwise seem.  Strategic planning and performance measurement can be dry subjects if you don’t instill them with a bit of imagined excitement.  In my years of facilitating big group meetings, I have had many successes and a few epic failures.  Fortunately, the good outnumbered the bad, so I’ve managed to stay employed and get promoted over the last 25 years.  It’s been a long time since I’ve acted as a pure meeting facilitator.  For the past many years, I’ve been a manager, often running meetings, but not spending the time to carefully plan an agenda and design the process to move the group along.  I was nervous about the prospect of bombing on my last big show, so I worked hard all week to prepare.

Friday morning, I went to the meeting room early and cleaned it up, throwing away handouts from some previous meeting that were laying on a telephone stand, arranging chairs neatly around the large table, testing the dry erase markers for use in my presentation on the white board, putting flip chart paper on the walls, and setting out a pile of large Post-it Note pads and Sharpie markers.  I exhibit these same obsessive-compulsive tendencies when when I am preparing to cook a meal.  I can’t start cooking until the kitchen is clean and my mise en place is ready.  To return to the metal show theme, this was the sound check, with me as the roadie ensuring the instruments were tuned and the microphone was on.

The participants arrived over the course of ten minutes, like an audience filing into a venue.  When everyone had taken their seats, I called the meeting to order.  After the program manager made her opening remarks, following the notes I had prepared for her, she handed it over to me, like the old school concert emcee introducing the band to an excited crowd.  It was time for my presentation about performance measures, which, I assure you, is scintillating stuff.  I had spent a lot of time planning how I would draw out my key points on the white board, using a combination of words and images.  No PowerPoint presentation this time, just me and my markers, old school.  I started to draw on the board from a seated position but soon rose to my feet to continue the lecture and add to the ideas on the board.  I peppered my talk with humorous stories to hold the audience’s attention.  The presentation was based on a class I’ve taught for several years to leaders in our agency, so it felt like I was playing some of my biggest hits.  Real crowd pleasers, organizationally speaking.  As I filled the white board with images and words of wisdom about the types of and purposes for organizational measures, I glanced over my shoulder to ensure the crowd was still with me.  That’s when I saw two people with their phones held aloft, taking pictures of my presentation, thereby validating that this was my rock star moment.  Many times, I’ve been one of the people in the crowd taking pictures and video of the band, but I’ve never been on the other side of the camera.  In that moment, I felt more like Rob Halford or Ronnie James Dio than mild-mannered manager guy.  Mic drop.

I’m joining my new band in the basement on the Day of the Dead, which seems even more metal than quitting my old band on Halloween.  I couldn’t be more excited to start making new music and playing new stages.  I hope the audience enjoys it.

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At the Gates

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If you’re not a logophile, or if you just don’t like lengthy blog posts, you should probably stop reading now.  You are standing at the threshold.  You have been warned.

Sometimes – frequently, if the truth be told – I get a word stuck in my head.  It’s similar to the “earworm” phenomenon when you get an annoyingly catchy song stuck in your head, but, instead of leading to melodic madness, “earwords” cause me to do research on the etymology.  The word I’ve been obsessing over this week is “liminal.” I’ve known the word since college, but I recently used it in conversation for the first time in many years and felt a compulsive need to determine if I had used it correctly.  That led me down the rabbit hole that is Google.  In the past, I would consult my enormous 1989 edition of Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language to confirm a word’s meaning, but I’ve become an Internet research enthusiast.  As a result, I spent a generous amount of time reading online dictionary entries and watching videos of scholars expounding upon the meaning of the word.  I watched with relish, the way some, I imagine, watch the latest music video from Drake or Beyonce.  Assuming you don’t suffer from the same word fetish I do, I’ll spare you a recapitulation of their wise ramblings and just say that the online Oxford University Press defines “liminal” as “relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process” or “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.”  Without a doubt, “threshold” will be the next word to bedevil me, but now I have a few things to share from my study of “liminal.”

In my electronic wanderings, I came upon two related words: “liminality” and “liminoid.” According to Wikipedia, liminality “is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.”  “Liminoid” is used to describe an experience that is not a formal rite of passage but similar in the sense of being “neither here nor there.”  These words have resonated with me over the past two weeks, as I have repeatedly found myself betwixt and between.

It started when I went to see Venom Inc. play in Seattle.  Venom Inc. is two-thirds of the original members of Venom, which is one of the most influential extreme metal bands in the history of the genre.  Since 1981, they have carried the banner of satanic metal music, and, while I am no satanist, their music has held my soul captive for many years.  My metal brother, Sean, and I went together.  For me, going to a metal show is entering sacred space.  As a mild-mannered middle-aged manager, walking into a darkened concert venue is to step away from normal society, that is, a liminoid experience.  The opening band was Goatwhore, and they were fantastic.  I know some of you read that name and flinched.  It’s not a normal band name.  It’s not nice, it sounds scary, and that’s my point.  I was no longer Todd the state government manager, I was Todd the metal head going to see, without shame, Goatwhore and Venom Inc.  When Venom Inc. took the stage, Sean and I were in the front row, banging our heads and screaming along from start to finish.  The day’s meetings and emails drained from my mind, and I was only concerned with the music and the movement of the crowd.  When their set ended, the band came to the front of the stage to shake hands with the crowd and celebrate the metal journey we had taken together.  The drummer, with the demonic stage name Abaddon, carried a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in his left hand while he shook my hand with his right.  When he had made his way to stage right, he turned back and held the bottle aloft.  It was an offering, and Sean and I accepted it happily. He tipped the bottle and poured shots into our mouths, like a shaman administering peyote to eager initiates.  Of course, most of the whisky ended up on our T-shirts, and we decided it would be wise to each buy a new Venom Inc. shirt.  We had a long drive home, and it would be difficult to convince any law enforcement officer who decided to pull us over that we hadn’t really been drinking that night; the booze had been applied topically.  We made it home without incident, and in the morning, I returned to normal society, working from home, reviewing email and participating in meetings over the phone.  My liminoid metal experience had come to an end.

When I returned to the office, my next liminoid experience wasn’t far away.  I went for my usual lunch time run, and when I got back to the locker room, I showered to wash away the sweat that was at least as offensive as a whisky-soaked T-shirt.  As soon as I turned off the water, I heard a high-pitched alarm pealing through the locker room.  Fearing it was a fire alarm, I quickly toweled off and dressed in hopes that I wouldn’t be forced to retreat to the parking lot wearing nothing but a towel, which would be a liminoid experience all by itself.  The alarm persisted while I dressed, but I found that there was no evacuation in progress.  The piercing sound was localized to the locker room area, and I returned to my office wondering what had triggered the shrill alarm.  Later, I was told that the sump pump in the basement, where the locker room is located, had failed, and staff working on that floor were no longer able to use the bathrooms or water fountains.  The news got worse as we were notified that the necessary repairs would take a week or more to complete.  My next liminoid experience had begun.

I am devoted to my daily run, so for the next week and a half, I was forced to travel to our agency’s other building to use the locker room and shower facilities there.  This was not a liminoid experience of the same degree as the Venom Inc. show, but nonetheless I was stepping out of my routine.  I could run my usual routes, but I had to start them at what would normally be the halfway point.  Some days, I would run them in reverse.  If you are as much of a slave to routine as I am, you’ll appreciate how unsettling this was.  Compounding my problems, I was running without any music.  The MP3 player I use to play metal while I run had recently decided to cease operating, and, as a cheapskate, I was delaying buying a new one.  Those silent daily runs gave me plenty of time to think, and it took me about a week to accept that it was possible, if not likely, that the shower I had taken was the straw that broke the sump pump’s back.  I may have been the source of my own liminoid experience.  Of course, that meant I was also the source of 300 other people’s liminoid experience of no longer being able to pee without first ascending to the first floor of our building to find a functioning toilet.  My bad.

Last Sunday I had another running-related liminoid experience. I ran a half marathon, and while I’ve run many full and half marathons, thinking about this one in the context of my recent obsession with all things “liminal” infused it with new meaning.  Running 13.1 miles is certainly stepping away from normal society.  When I stand in a starting corral waiting to cross the line, it feels a bit like standing in the front row waiting for the band to take the stage, in excited anticipation of what might happen.  It’s the threshold idea, like the eaglet standing at the edge of the nest daring to take the first flight.  The half marathon demanded more from me physically than the Venom Inc. show, but they are both rituals in which the outcome is uncertain.  Both include the possibility of pain, whether from people moshing a bit too vigorously or from my own quadriceps burning up with lactic acid.  My shaman on the run was the pacer, LaDonna, who kept me and a few others together for the whole distance so that we could finish in two hours and fifteen minutes.  Thanks to her guidance, I overcame the challenges of rolling hills and aching muscles, and felt stronger for having done so.

Even my grilling habit entered the liminal space this week.  With September came cold and wet weather in the Pacific Northwest, and I am a seasonal griller.  I was ready to shut down the barbecue operation for the winter when the sun returned to the sky last weekend, and I decided to extend the season.  Over the weekend, I grilled one last batch of burgers topped with bacon, onions, mushrooms, and fried eggs, all prepared on my cast iron griddle.  On Tuesday, I grilled salmon, kissed by apple wood smoke, and Thursday it was simple chicken paillards.  But yesterday, the sun retreated behind the clouds, and the rain returned.  I’m standing at a culinary threshold waiting for what comes next.  Grilling season is all about rituals filled with heat, smoke, time, and toil, but the return of soups and stews and baked goods, the hearty fare of the winter months, is upon me, and that’s not a bad thing.

So, what caused this obsession with liminality, you may be asking?  I have tortured this liminal metaphor to no end, but it comes from a genuine moment of me standing at a threshold.  My boss is retiring at the end of the year, and the next boss has been chosen.  Change is coming.  I have been in my current position for nine years, almost to the day, and it’s time for something new.  This week I interviewed for a job, and I’ve recently been approached about another employment opportunity.  Whether I take on the challenge of bringing a new boss’s vision to fruition or move on to a new post, my professional life is going to change.  I am taking steps away from who I was, and I’m at the edge of what comes next.  In a true liminal ritual, there are three stages.  First comes separation from what was, like walking into a concert venue, standing at a starting line, cleaning the grills one last time, or wrapping up the last few meetings and emails.  Then comes the liminal stage of being neither here nor there. Finally, there is re-incorporation into society with new status.  Today, I am liminal, and that’s where the transformational work happens.  The waiting and wondering. The pain of running those 13.1 miles until I cross the finish line and put the medal around my neck.  Waiting for the chance to smoke another rack of ribs.  Headbanging and moshing until I walk out of the venue victorious with the smell of whisky on my shirt.  Based on my recent liminoid experiences, I have every expectation that I will emerge from this moment a different person, stronger from having endured the journey.  Wish me luck.  I may be a little old for a rite of passage, but such is life.

How to Avoid Killing Your Dinner Guests

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I intended to write a lot about grilling this summer.  One day, I hope to write a book about my life grill-side, as another opportunity to ramble on about the things I enjoy while, hopefully, making the reader laugh and possibly learn something.  My intentions, however, didn’t match up with my behavior.  It’s hard to find time to write about grilling while I’m doing it.  Like writing, grilling is labor- and attention-intensive work, and, as I am prone to sloth, the thought of engaging in two such demanding activities simultaneously is repugnant.  As a result, my grilling posts this summer have been limited to the recent “Results May Vary” posts.  Those seemed particularly important to write, because they included information about how avoid killing people.  On Labor Day, I had an experience that demanded similar literary attention.  I don’t mean to brag, but I’m pretty sure I saved lives.

My family was invited to a good friend’s Labor Day party, and I made the magnanimous gesture, if I do say so myself, of offering to do the grilling for our host.  Jeanne is a lovely and talented person, but she is not a great cook.  Her three children are happy but, in my opinion, malnourished, as Jeanne has an obsession with preparing healthy meals.  While that seems like a noble endeavor, it results in dishes with substitute ingredients, such as apple sauce in place of sugar and flax seed in place of flavor and pleasure.  She once made a meatloaf that arguably should have been called branloaf.  I worry that her children are missing out on some of the best culinary pleasures in life, and I am always looking for opportunities to grill for them.  Jeanne appreciates my charcoal competency and was happy to accept my offer of assistance.  The menu included chicken and burgers; classic Labor Day fare.

When we arrived, she asked if I was still able to help and I assured her I was.  She said she had just put the chicken on the grill and to let her know if I needed anything.  Aside from a beer, all I needed was tongs and a platter.  Beer in hand, I got to work, approaching her grill with some trepidation. I knew it was a gas grill, and therefore not a true barbecue instrument, but I didn’t know exactly what I would find ‘neath the hood.  I approached the device, and, as the lid was closed, I flashed on Brad Pitt in “SE7EN” asking with dread, “What’s in the box?” I tilted the lid back on its hinge and was flummoxed by what I found: small hunks of chicken laying on an enormous sheet of foil, stewing in their own juices.

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I admit, in the early part of my barbecue apprenticeship, I used pieces of foil on occasion to protect a filet of fish from getting burned by a direct fire, but that was before I learned the indirect heat method.  I had never before seen an entire grill surface covered with foil.  I sipped from my beer as I contemplated the mise en scene.  In effect, Jeanne had turned her grill into a large, flimsy frying pan.  My hostess joined me grill side fully prepared for my chastisement.  I tried to be diplomatic, but our relationship is characterized by mutual verbal abuse.  I told her this wasn’t grilling as much as it was sautéing or even braising.  She told me she used the foil because she was concerned about how the grill looked underneath.  I couldn’t imagine what evil lurked there, but it couldn’t be as bad as all that.  Could it?

After the first batch of chicken was cooked, I removed the pieces from the foil and put them on a platter.  I was eager to remove the foil to see what evil lurked there.  I had burgers to cook, and, by God, I wasn’t going to cook them on foil.  I armed myself with the wire brush hanging off the side of the grill for use in scraping away the bits of food that stick to the grate.  It  looked like a demonic lint roller with thin steel fibers protruding from a wire frame.  It was old, medieval perhaps, and the head of metallic hair was thinning badly.  I didn’t like the looks of it and considered running home to retrieve my own grill brush as I pulled the makeshift frying pan of foil away from the grill surface.  Based on Jeanne’s concern, I assumed the grate would be covered with burned drippings leftover from previous grilling sessions, but, to my surprise and relief, the grate was clean.  There was a bit of rust, but that isn’t unusual in our dank Pacific Northwest climate.  What confused me was the amount of surface area.  In my experience, a grill grate has more open space than grate.  This, however, was a slab of molded cast iron with only a few small openings, like arrow slits in a castle tower, through which wisps of gas flame could permeate.  To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, they paved the grill grate and put up a parking lot.

It was as I was marveling over the amount of coverage that I noticed the other problem.  I had asked Jeanne to bring me some paper towel that I could use to clean the grate.  The idea was to dip the folded towel in oil and rub it, with tongs, over the grate to clean and lubricate the grill.  Given the amount of surface area, I would need almost a cup of oil to coat this surface.  I was scrubbing to the best of my ability when I noticed the most frightening part of the situation.  Across the surface of the grate were tiny metal hairs, deposited, no doubt, by the aforementioned lint roller from Hell.

I have heard the stories of how wire grill brushes pose a hazard when the fibers break off and end up on the grate where unsuspecting cooks lay down their slabs of protein.  The fibers adhere to the meat and, when eaten, become potentially deadly weapons, piercing the stomach or intestinal lining and causing internal bleeding.  It’s horrific to imagine, and, as a result, I am meticulous about throwing away grill brushes before they get too old and fragile and wiping the grate with a folded towel before placing food there.  In my many years of grilling at home, I have never seen a stray brush fiber, but this night, I was looking at a mine field of metal shards.  Dozens of steel hairs lay in wait for the burgers I was about to lay down.  As it turned out, Jeanne was correct to worry about her grill grate, but for the wrong reasons.  She was alarmed by the rust, but in my estimation, the rust would have been a beneficial boost for any iron deficient dinner guests.  What we didn’t need was an increase in the amount of steel in our bodies.  I called my wife and kids over to show them how frightening it was.  Our hostess came over to see what all the commotion was about, and I pointed out how she was, in fact, wise to have put foil on the grill.  She could have been responsible for the Labor Day Massacre of 2017.  My wife was quick to point out that I had nearly killed her just a week earlier because, while I was worried about paralytic shellfish poisoning from the oysters I was grilling, I had neglected to account for the broken knife tip laying in wait inside an oyster shell (if you missed it, you can read about it here).  Jeanne took some comfort in knowing that we were both guilty of inattention…and involuntary manslaughter.

I carefully blew the metal fibers off the surface of the grill and set about cooking up the burgers.  I had worked up a fierce appetite fretting over the proceedings.  As far as I know, no one was admitted to the hospital that night, and we all went back to work the next morning.  I felt good about feeding the masses and preventing disaster, and Jeanne’s kids got to enjoy some bran-free food.  Labor Day 2017 was a successful and satisfying feast.

Perhaps I have stumbled on the theme of my proposed book about grilling: How to Avoid Killing Your Dinner Guests.  Of course, I have more to share about the pleasures of grilled flesh, but it may be wise to start with how to keep your friends and family from ingesting metal objects.  Today, I will be smoking pork spareribs, and while there is little chance of steel poisoning in this particular preparation, rest assured I will be paying careful attention.  Wish me luck.

Avoiding Highways and High Technology

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I’m keeping the technology to a minimum today.  Admittedly, I’m using an Apple MacBook to write this, but aside from that literary necessity, I’m eschewing digital tools as much as possible, as they haven’t been working out well for me recently.  There’s something about the intersection of human frailty and technological hubris that produce the most annoying results.

Case in point: When Mom and I were leaving Seattle after watching the Mariners defeat the Yankees last month, I was confident I knew how to navigate from the parking lot to the freeway.  That should have been a clear signal that danger loomed, as I have no sense of direction.  Quickly we were lost, but I had the good sense to enter my home address into the Apple Maps app on my phone.  With a simple touch of the screen, the Siri-like voice set about getting us back on track.  At first, since we were lost, it didn’t bother me that Siri was leading us on a rather circuitous route.  When I get lost, I usually do it thoroughly, and it takes a while to recover.  However, after traveling several miles on back roads, I was beginning to doubt my phone’s intention.  I glanced at the screen and saw the estimated arrival time at our destination was two and a half hours hence.  The trip normally takes one hour, so something was amiss.  I pulled off the street we were on into someone’s driveway, which gives you a hint that we were nowhere close to the freeway.  My mother and I are very close, and we have been lost together many times, so she was not surprised at my passionate use of the “F” word.  I employed it as an explicative, adjective, and noun over the course of a single sentence.  After I took a deep breath to regroup, I remembered that on the recent road trip through several western states, my wife had changed a setting on the mapping app, so that it would stop forcing us to head towards a certain freeway we wanted to avoid.  In the Driving Options menu, she found a way to force Siri to “Avoid Highways.”  That served our purpose well at the time, but now it meant I was being directed to travel from Seattle to Olympia using only side streets.  Understanding the root cause of my troubles did nothing to ameliorate the problem, however, as I had no idea how to turn off the (F’ing) feature.  I was coherent enough to realize that my phone also has Google Maps, so I switched over, and it wasn’t long before we were back on Interstate 5, one hour from home, and only slightly ashamed at myself for swearing so much in front of my mother.

My technological challenges aren’t exclusive to smart phones.  In my workplace of 3,000 people, we have an intranet site for sharing organizational updates.  While the cafeteria menu is the most popular page, there are other news items posted every day, and each article provides the opportunity for readers to comment.  This carries some risk in the age of online trolls, but my organization mitigates it by ensuring that anyone who comments must do so under their own name.  Since we all log in to the same network each morning, the comment feature on the intranet recognizes the user and puts their name in front of their statement.  If you want to make controversial remarks, you can’t do it anonymously.  Since continued employment is a consideration, the discourse is generally civil, but it does get a bit spicy at times.  This week, an article was posted that resulted in an employee commenting with a question about my part of the organization.  It wasn’t scandalous, but it was budget related, which is a sensitive topic in a government agency.  I was asked to provide a response, and I wanted to be sure that my chain of command was comfortable with the draft reply, so I emailed it to my boss and asked him to confirm with his boss that it was appropriate.  They were meeting together at another facility, and a few minutes later, my boss replied that the big boss was o.k. with the response.  I was eager to get one task crossed off my list, so I went to the comment section, typed in the approved text, and hit enter.  My official response to the budget question was now available for all to see. Todd Baker has spoken.

One minute later, the big boss emailed me and said the response was problematic and needed to be changed.  This was the same person who not five minutes earlier had given the green light.  I again made use of the “F” word in expressing my annoyance as I returned to the comments page to delete my offending text.  The interface did not include a delete button, so I clicked “edit” and deleted the text, only to discover a feature of the site: you can’t delete the entire comment.  You can revise it, but you can’t make it go away.  I called the agency’s webmaster, but he didn’t answer, nor did his colleagues.  It took me four tries to find someone who could assist me in making my two sentences disappear.  That person said he would take care of it, and I breathed a sigh of relief while refocusing my attention on coming up with a new draft response.  That focus was interrupted when, one minute later, I received another email:

Subject: Comment Policy Violation

You posted a comment that violated the Comment Policy. Please click the link below to access your comment again and correct it.

Are you F’ing kidding me?  The guy who agreed to help out wasn’t able to remove all evidence that I had commented, rather he invoked the administrative policy function causing me to be shamed by an auto-generated email.  I clicked the link and was taken to the comment page where I saw that the text had been replaced with “Todd Baker: This comment has been removed.”  Anyone who has spent time in an online comments section knows that when a comment gets removed by the site administrator, it must have been pretty inflammatory, and thanks to our anonymity-free comment policy, I was called out as the troll in question.  It was another hour before I could compose myself enough to come up with a sufficiently vague response to the original question so that I could post it and clear my now besmirched name.  During the interim, a friend, with a concerned look on his face, stopped by to ask me what I had written that got me banished.  Aargh.  Eventually, I came up with an acceptable response to the original question that, thanks to managerial misdirection and the marvels of modern technology, turned me, however briefly, into a monstrous troll.

To get my mind off the perils of technology, I’m spending the next few hours tending a grill, slowly roasting three pork shoulders until they yield to the powers of fire and smoke.  The only digital tools I will be using are the thermometers to monitor the heat in the grill and the temperature of the meat.  These devices don’t avoid highways or remove comments, and they are not connected to my router.  I’m as off the grid as I can get here in my backyard, and it feels F’ing good.

Results May Vary…The Rest of the Story

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Lesson 1: Grilled beets are delicious.  The royal rounds of purple roasted slowly at the edge of the fire.  They were kissed by smoke as the fibrous root softened and and the salt and pepper tempered the natural sweetness.  They were a delicious complement to the seafood feast that was Saturday night at the Baker house.

I wasn’t planning on writing another post about Saturday’s grilling adventure, as the point of that post was to talk about the importance of experience in culinary success. However, my experience was tested, and I learned lessons I feel compelled to share, including the suicidal nature of oysters, how to avoid accidentally killing your wife, and the value of a good sous chef.

The menu for the evening was grilled oysters on the half shell, steamed mussels and manila clams, roasted corn on the cob, and garlic-rosemary focaccia.  While the vast majority of my grilling endeavors feature pork, beef, or chicken (in descending order of frequency), every so often, I must have shellfish.  It’s a primal urge, like when Spock was overwhelmed by the pon farr in the classic “Amok Time” episode of Star Trek.  As I child, I enjoyed seafood, but my shellfish intake was limited to shrimp and the occasional lobster.  I wouldn’t go near a clam, and mussels were those things that you stepped on when walking on the beach in Southeast Alaska.  They were not food so much as fragile rocks.  Oysters, renowned as a dish best enjoyed raw, were unimaginable.  But when, as an adult, I dared myself to try an oyster shooter, I fell in love.  Juneau, where I grew up, sits on the edge of the ocean, and the briny oyster tasted like home.

I don’t know the specific species I brought home from the farmers’ market, but the oysters were enormous. I grilled them on the half shell over a hot fire.  The shells provided a perfect cooking pot, keeping the marvelous mollusks from burning while they cooked quickly in their own brine topped with melted butter, garlic, and cilantro.  I knew they would cook quickly, but I wanted to be sure they were cooked through, even though I knew, scientifically speaking, that cooking doesn’t kill the bacteria responsible for paralytic shellfish poisoning.  I had no reason to think these oysters were dangerous, but I am a worrier.  Apparently, I let them cook a moment too long, and that’s when I learned an interesting lesson: oysters are suicidal.  One of them only managed to flip itself completely over in its shell, but another ended its life by leaping from its calcium cocoon and landing on the concrete patio floor.  I quickly removed the others from the grill to ensure we wouldn’t run out of food.  Several of the mussels had died before I could cook them, and prematurely dead mussels are not good eats.  I was unsure if they, too, were suicidal or had simply frozen to death in the ice bath in which I had stored them, and I was concerned about how many of my shellfish would make it to the dinner table.  In the end, we had plenty of the ocean’s bounty to sate our hunger.  Lesson 2: oysters on the half-shell have a popcorn-like quality when high heat is applied.

I also learned that I need an oyster shucking knife.  Since my shellfish obsession is infrequent, I’ve never bothered to acquire the implement specifically designed to remove an oyster from its shell.  Instead, I used my three-inch Henckel brand knife to split the hinge.  My rarely-tested shucking skills, combined with using a less than ideal tool, resulted in the tip of the knife snapping off.  The broken tip slipped inside the shell beneath the oyster inside.  I had every intention of removing the shard, but I was behind schedule and the coals were ready and waiting to begin cooking, so I pressed on and prepared the remaining six oysters.  My daughter informed my wife of the situation, and I declared that whoever found the knife tip “wins.”  I hoped making a light-hearted game of it would distract her from the thought that I might be trying to kill her.  My bride found the tip while she was eating her second oyster, and asked what the prize was, but I thought surviving the meal was reward enough.  After all, it would be two hours before we could be sure that paralytic shellfish poisoning wasn’t an issue.  Lesson 3: Keep track of where you left the broken knife tip; the oysters can wait.

The rush to get the oysters shucked before my coals had burned themselves out was an indicator that my experience betrayed me a bit in terms of the preparation.  I thought it would all come together more quickly, but I found myself floundering in the kitchen.  I called to my daughter for help, and she rose from the couch to the occasion.  I had her prepare the baste for the oysters and the steaming liquid for the clams and mussels.  She is a seasoned cook and fearless when it comes to jumping into the culinary fire.  Put a recipe in front of her, and she will deliver.  Our seafood feast wouldn’t have worked out as well as it did without her able assistance.  She allowed me to focus on suicidal oysters while she finished the work I asked her to do and then immediately set about wrapping the focaccia in foil for warming on the grill, carrying bowls of mussels and clams to me at the grill-side, and setting the backyard table so we could enjoy our meal under a beautiful August sky.  Lesson 4: Never underestimate the value of a good sous chef.

I am proud to say that both of my kids are accomplished in the kitchen.  They can cook for themselves, and not merely by means of a microwave or toaster.  They can boil, simmer, stir fry, bake, and roast their way to a great meal.  They can feed themselves from scratch, and it feels good to know they will never starve for want of knowing how the stove works.  And now they know about the importance of a good oyster knife.  Lesson 5: Appreciate the good stuff your kids do, and remind them how amazing they are.

Results May Vary

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The oysters that got me obsessing. Thanks, Jamie.

I’m winging it tonight, and, while I feel good about the oysters, the beets are a crapshoot.  I’ve been craving oysters for the last three weeks, as several friends have posted photos on Facebook of brackish bivalve feasts they have enjoyed at home or at restaurants.  Some friends grilled them, and others did raw shooters, and both preparations triggered a Pavlovian reaction in me.  The briny mollusks have been calling to me, and I succumbed to their siren song today with a trip to our local farmers’ market, which features two seafood vendors.  At the first, I found the oysters for which I was longing.  $11 for a dozen is reasonable, but I feared a dozen oysters may not make for a full meal.  As a result, I ended up with a pound each of manila clams and mussels.  The mussels were offered by the second vendor along with fresh salmon and halibut filets.  A pound of mussels went for $4.50, while the halibut was going for $27.  In addition to the taste, another reason I like shellfish is that, as it is considered weird, and even gross, by a significant portion of the population, it tends to be cheaper than the fish that swim.  Being a well-stocked farmers’ market, I also found a lovely loaf of garlic rosemary focaccia bread that will serve nicely as a shellfish residue soaker-upper.

I think it’s going to be a good meal, but I have to figure out how to cook it since it is a grilling night.  The oysters will be easy: shuck ‘em; top them with a bit of melted butter, garlic, and herbage; and grill them on the half shell for about five minutes.  The clams and mussels are less obvious when it comes to the grill.  Most often, I steam them with white wine and garlic on the stove.  I perused a few cookbooks and Google results to see if there were any more direct fire options, but they didn’t offer a lot of good pot sauce for which to make use of the bread.  I think I’ll use my cast iron dutch oven to steam them on the grill.  I won’t get much smokiness infused into the critters, but I’ll make more use of the charcoal fuel.  I’ll also grill corn on the cob, but my wife insists that corn is not a vegetable, so I need to add another side dish.  We try to eat the proverbial well-balanced meal most nights, and while I argue that corn grows in a field and is therefore a vegetable, my bride says it’s a starch.  As I headed to the store to get white wine for the clam and mussel broth, my daughter suggested beets as the veggie.  I don’t recall the last time I ate a beet, but I saw it as another grilling challenge.  I know I’ve had them roasted, which is a methodological cousin to grilling, and Google provided corroboration that it could be done on the grill, so beets will be the vegetable part of the food pyramid tonight.  I’ll check later to find out if beets, as a tuberous bit of vegetation, is considered a starch, but I’m hopeful the novelty of it will pass my wife’s scrutiny.

All that is a preface to make clear that while I am not certain how everything will turn out tonight, I have some idea of what to expect.  I have experience cooking these types of foods in various preparations, and I know how to manage my grill to replicate an oven or stove environment with the added bonus of smoky goodness.  Experience is important, and as anyone who has some will tell you, experience comes from a lot of failure along the way.  Recipes don’t always give you the whole story, and you have to under- or overcook a lot of food before you figure out what went wrong.

I had a poignant reminder of this earlier in the year when we were invited to my in-laws for dinner.  I didn’t know what was planned for the meal, but I knew that whatever it was would be delicious, ready, and set out on the kitchen island for us to fill our plates.  There’s no idle pre-dinner sitting around and chit chatting at their house.  You arrive, get your food, sit at the table, and start eating.  We can talk later.  That’s how my in-laws roll: tasty and efficient dining.  So, imagine my surprise that night as we arrived to find the meal was not ready.  Mom was fretting in the kitchen, worrying over the oven and the roast beast inside.  She told us to relax and watch TV while it cooked, which is great for me, but after an hour of waiting, Mom asked for my assistance.  That’s when I learned that she had been lied to.  She told me the meat in the oven was a small pork shoulder, and the recipe said to cook it at 300º for two hours, at which time it would ready to pull apart and serve as the filling for pork tacos, but according to her instant read thermometer, the pork wasn’t done.  I explained to her that, based on my experience smoking pork shoulders, it would take approximately ten hours at 300º for this one to be ready to pull apart.  Based on the elapsed cooking time thus far, dinner would be served at 2 a.m.  While that would give me ample time to compose a sternly-worded letter to the publication that produced such a faulty recipe, I decided to help her try to salvage the meal.  We cranked up the heat to force the internal temperature of the pork to get up a little bit past raw within an hour, then removed it from the oven.  We cut a few hunks of roasted pork from the outer edge of the slab and diced them for use in the tacos, but as we didn’t have enough protein to feed the assembled masses, we cut up some of the rare bits and (the horror, the horror) microwaved them until any trichinosis was irradiated.  The tacos were not good.  The tortillas, salsa, and other fillings were fresh and flavorful, but the pork was a disaster born of a bad recipe and inexperience.  I do not blame my mother-in-law.  She was following the instructions carefully, but those instructions were provided by someone who has quite possibly caused thousands of Americans who read the same recipe magazine to eat raw pork tacos.  Mom learned a valuable lesson about how to cook a pork shoulder that night.  That lesson being: Let Todd do it.  I’m always happy to help.

I hope you are all enjoying tasty and safe grilled, or roasted or, gasp, even microwaved meals this evening.  I wish you all the best of luck in your culinary endeavors.  Cheers!

Eclipsing Happiness

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Maybe I should spend some time in that Mindfulness Room I wrote about last week, as I’m not suffering from an overabundance of happiness at the moment.  A recent series of annoyances has been nagging at me.  For example, the expensive treadmill I built and blogged about broke down a couple weeks ago.  The main console that controls the machine burned out and had to be replaced.  While the manufacturer shipped a new console at no cost, installing it required disassembling a significant portion of the treadmill, which necessitated following the hieroglyphic-like assembly instructions in reverse order.  A degree in electronic engineering would have been helpful, too.

Our wifi router also needed to be replaced in order to maintain family harmony.  The intermittent Internet service we had been experiencing was putting a strain on our ability to focus attention on our respective devices, and my son groaned each time he was forced to put down his phone and interact with his family.  Since those interactions were largely based on inquiries as to when we would get the router fixed, my wife took it upon herself to visit the local Comcast outlet.  The Comcasters offered her the opportunity to upgrade to their fancy xfinity wireless Internet and cable TV package at no extra cost.  That appeared to be a good deal until the installer came to our house and was unable to locate the cable splitter that he needed to tinker with.  The splitter is typically found behind an outlet cover on a wall in or near the garage.  In our house, the splitter is located somewhere behind several thousand feet of drywall.  We don’t know exactly where, because the drywall contractor didn’t cut an access hole for the splitter.  The cable installer made a few educated guesses about where it might be located, but the three holes he cut in our garage wall failed to reveal the location.  In the end, we have improved wifi service, but our cable TV is still operating on a sixteen-year-old splitter that won’t be replaced unless I succumb to my obsessive-compulsive tendencies and cut a hole every sixteen inches along the walls of my home until I find it.  I doubt that would improve my mood.

My car insurance just doubled as a result of the fender-bender accident I wrote about previously, I decided I just don’t have it in me to run a marathon this year, my job continues to be a source of frustration, the country seems to be coming apart at the seams, and there is a total solar eclipse tomorrow, which could be a harbinger of doom, if the ancient Mayas are to be believed.  I know this litany of woe, aside from the eclipse, epitomizes “first world problems,” but they’re getting under my skin, so I’m going to try to solve them with a “first world solution”: a TED Talk.

I love TED Talks, and I recently watched Shawn Achor’s TED Talk called “The Happy Secret to Better Work” in which he posits the merits of positive psychology.  I could have dismissed the subject matter as being a bit too light and fluffy to be taken seriously, but Mr. Achor’s presentation was hilarious.  He is a skilled comedian with perfect timing, and laughter is a potent medicine for me.  I was still giggling as I wrote down his five steps to more happiness:

  1. Three Gratitudes – Write down three new things for which you are grateful each day.
  2. Journaling – Write about a positive experience you had today.
  3. Exercise – Get regular exercise.
  4. Meditation – There’s that mindfulness thing again.
  5. Random Acts of Kindness – Do something nice, such as sending a complimentary email, for someone.

I’m supposed to do those five things every day for 21 days in order to experience an improvement in my overall happiness, so I’ll start today.  I’m thinking this post counts for the journaling part.  I hope I can get exercise credit for the eight miles I ran yesterday, but I suppose I could do a few pull-ups, too.  I’ll work on the meditation and random act of kindness later, but, for now, here are my three gratitudes:

  • I’m grateful that I got a discounted entry into the Bellingham Bay Half Marathon.  I may not be up for a full marathon, but I can run a half and doing it for $25 is a bargain.
  • I’m grateful that I got to sit in front of a bonfire with my daughter last night and listen to stand-up comedians on her phone, streaming through our improved wifi service.
  • I’m grateful that my first world problems are the only ones I have at the moment.  Truly grateful.

If we all get through the eclipse tomorrow, and the earth doesn’t split open thereby releasing jaguars that will eat most of the people (as the Maya Lacandón people predicted), I encourage you to join me on this happiness journey.  If nothing else, you’ll get a little exercise and make some people feel good because of your random acts of kindness.  That’s probably a better approach than getting angry at the plethora of idiots on your fancy cable TV.

The Eightfold Path to Organizational Effectiveness

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I work in a five story office building, six if you include the basement.  There are close to 2,000 employees occupying the space each day.  Overall, it’s a cubicle farm, with rows of four to six foot high walls portioning out each employee’s workspace.  Since the building opened in 1992, there have been a few efforts to rearrange the space, but they have most often been about making more space for more people.  I was involved in one such effort in which dozens of work stations were moved eighteen inches to the left in order to make room for another row of cubicles.  We all had to box up our belongings so the facilities staff could make the change.  While moving to a new workstation can be stressful, or even exciting, most of us felt only a mild pang of annoyance at “scooching over” to make room on the metaphorical couch.

Recently, there have been efforts to create a “modern work environment.” According to the website promoting it, “Building a Modern Work Environment is about trying new ideas — thinking outside the cubicle — and creating an effective, efficient workplace that best suits the important work we do.”  In our agency, those efforts have been inconsistent and not universally embraced.  “Modern” amenities get added on, like fashion accessories, but the comfortable clothes underneath don’t vary much.  Our organization’s rate of culture change is glacial, even receding as new ideas calve off the face of innovation.

Some of the changes are cosmetic, such as the fancy digital signboards stationed in elevator lobbies, in place of paper flipchart easels, designed to communicate information about upcoming events or share important reminders with flashy graphics.  As employees rush by on their way back to their cozy cubicle, the signboards are little more than brightly lit subliminal message generators.  Hopefully the folks that create the messages are using their powers for good and not promoting Orwellian tenets.

Some changes are about where you do your work and with who (or whom, I can never remember that grammar rule).  Telework is being promoted and, recently, we adopted a “infants at work” policy, which allows new parents to bring their six week to six month old babies to the office, helping ease the transition from p/maternity leave to full-time work.  I thought it was a great idea and was surprised to hear criticism coming from several female colleagues.  I can see their point: if the baby is a colicky mess, no one will be happy, and if it’s a real cutie, cooing all day long, the work group might not be able to focus on their work in favor of waiting for their turn to hold the wee one.  As I recall, though, babies sleep for a significant portion of their first six months, so I think it will work out.

To be clear, I’m supportive of the “modern work environment” concept.  I’ve even gotten into the swing of it with my office.  A colleague and I decided we could share it, so we had her desk moved in to my space.  We worked well together, and sharing the office provided an opportunity to collaborate, just like the proverbial brochure advertised. However, she got a promotion and moved out, so now I just have a big office with two desks.  One of my employees, who works in another city visits every so often, but he isn’t paying the rent, so I’m accepting applicants for a full-time roommate.

The most recent addition to our modern work environment is the Mindfulness Room.  It’s on the third floor, behind a closed door.  I went through the door on Friday, and found a dimly lit space that looked a bit like a waiting room.  That is, a wading room near the ocean, as the only sound is a recording of waves lapping against a shore. There were several padded chairs next two tables.  A young man was sitting in one of the chairs reading.  To the right, I saw a folding screen room divider that partitioned the space.  When I walked behind the screen, I found two rows of three soft vinyl lounge chairs.  It looked a bit like a mass-production therapy lounge.  There were no psychiatrists, but the chairs were such that you are forced to lay down more than sit up.  I tried reclining in one of them, but it was almost painful to relax enough to allow my head to lay back on the chair.  Clearly, I wasn’t ready for this level of mindfulness.  I’m not accustomed to laying down at work.  It’s almost never on my to-do list.

There was another folding screen, and behind it was a third, more intriguing space.  Here, in this inner sanctum, the sound of waves was gone, the lights were even lower, and the space was deeply serene.  There were no chairs at all, just eight large square cushions, each topped with a smaller pillow, arranged in a circle on the floor.  My first thought was that there was not enough room for eight people to lay down with their heads on the pillows, unless they were a very cuddly group, which is discouraged in most workplaces.  Upon reflection, I suppose the pillows are intended for use as cushions to sit on and practice meditation, but it looks like nap time in a kindergarten class.

The idea of the Mindfulness Room is a quiet space where people can go and find some stress relief.  It’s a widely studied and highly regarded approach to stress reduction.  It’s legit, and I believe in the psychological science of it, but I had a lot of questions: Do you need permission from your supervisor to go there?  How long can you stay?  Our official breaks are fifteen minutes.  Would it be rude to set a timer?  Alarms and mindfulness seem contradictory.

I’m not sure I’m ready to explore my mindfulness at the office.  Personally, I would be very self-conscious – and not in the good Buddhist way – about going into a quiet room to pursue mindfulness.  Perhaps it’s my own shortcoming that I am uncomfortable with the possible stigma associated with it, but I don’t want to lie on a couch or the floor at work.  I confess I did it for a few weeks as part of a weekly yoga class, but I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, making it feel like a workout, which it was.  Perhaps that implies I’m more a proponent of Hiduism than Buddhism, but I assure you, I was in it for the fitness.

I know John Kabat-Zinn – the chief proponent of mindfulness – has tried to separate the practice from Buddhism, but I like source material.  My first encounter with the concept of mindfulness came via my study of Buddhism and the Noble Eightfold Path to Enlightenment.  Right mindfulness is one of the paths.  I am a fan of Buddhism – at least on paper. Like any religion, there are problems in practice and politics.  Buddhists have done some terrible things, too. But the spirituality of it, the search for truth and meaning, is valid and beautiful.  However, I know that right mindfulness is just one of seven other paths to enlightenment.  Specifically, right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, and right “samadhi” (I.e., meditative absorption).  I like to think, as public servants, we’ve got the right livelihood part down, but I’m not sure we’re ready for right mindfulness until we get a bit better at the speech and conduct.  Spending a few minutes being mindful doesn’t make the bad behavior of co-workers and crappy bosses go away.

While I won’t be visiting the Mindfulness Room too often, I will reserve judgment for those who find value in it.  Good for them, being who they are, liking what they like, and doing cool stuff.  Personally, I’ll keep my meditation upright and at home.  And I will work on the other paths, too, and I don’t mind being more public about them.  Considering the abhorrent speech, conduct, effort, and resolve shown by the racists who gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend, I have no intention of sitting quietly and allowing that sort of hate to go unchallenged.  Life is too short.  Be well, my friends, and take care of each other.  We are all in this together.

Road Trip, Part 2 – On the Road Again

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Two weeks on the road.  Officially, my wife and I were taking our son on a tour of college campuses so he can make an informed decision about his post-high school education.  Unofficially, I was pretending to be a roadie for a metal band touring the American West.  Each time we rolled into a new town, my son and I would “load in” our gear for the “gig.”  Our gear was luggage, the venues were hotels, and our gigs were dinners at some local restaurant.  No one in my family is a musician, so I had to settle for the road crew aspect of my heavy metal fantasy.  We enhanced the realism by packing heavy, so loading up the luggage cart was not unlike hauling stacks of Marshall amps into a club.  In twelve days, we covered five states, eight cities, and 3,500 miles.  The rock star life.

Our first stop was Medford, Oregon, and our first gig was at a pizza place with a Grateful Dead theme, album covers serving as decor.  While there’s nothing metal about the Dead, they were a band known for life on the road, so the fantasy held up.  Medford was little more than a refueling stop, which, by the way, I hate doing in Oregon, where drivers are forbidden from pumping their own gas.  I knew this going in, but I still find it unsettling.  I can only imagine the confrontations that must happen when drivers, unfamiliar with Oregon’s anti-self service fiat, try to grab a gas pump handle.  Viva la Revolucion!

The next stop was Santa Cruz, which, on the whole, was also Grateful Dead-themed.  We visited the famous boardwalk that my son dubbed “The Forever Carnival,” which was not a term of endearment.  He’s not a fan of large crowds.  Our true purpose for being there was to get a tour of the University of California, Santa Cruz.  UCSC is in the woods, and it looked as much like a challenge course as a college campus.  We thought zip lines might be helpful to get across the grounds.  Then again, my son and I are afraid of heights, so we were content to walk.

From Santa Cruz, we headed south towards Pasadena and CalTech.  Halfway there, my brother-in-law, who was stalking us with the “Find My Friends” app, texted us to roll up our windows and turn on the van’s air re-circulator when we got to Coalinga.  He wouldn’t explain why, but as we crossed State Route 198 on I-5, we saw Harris Ranch, the largest beef ranch on the West Coast, producing 150,000,000 pounds of beef each year.  We decided to find out just how dire the warning was, so I opened my window for a moment.  The stench was palpable, as if a cow had climbed in to our van and relieved itself.  It was a good five minutes before we could breathe freely again.

We spent three days in the Greater Los Angeles area and enjoyed seeing the CalTech campus.  For fans of The Big Bang Theory, CalTech is where Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard work.  Of note, the tour guide made no mention of the show, which I thought would be a selling point.  Then again, kids who are qualified to attend CalTech are smart enough to know that those are actors and, no, we couldn’t go visit their offices.  Later, we had dinner with my favorite groupies, which I wrote about previously (Thanks for dinner, Mike and Lisa!).  We also visited The Getty Museum, and my son made sure we saw every objet d’art on display.  He was under the impression we needed to get our money’s worth despite the museum not charging an entry fee.  I’m glad for his determination, though, as he ensured we saw the Impressionist gallery which we almost skipped after four hours of art appreciation. Van Gogh’s Irises and Monet’s Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning are sustaining, like a good Motorhead album.  Speaking of Motorhead, we visited Lemmy’s favorite bar, The Rainbow, after a day at the museum (which I also wrote about previously).  The only downside of our visit to L.A. was the hotel room’s coffee maker.  While I am caffeine free these days, I do still enjoy a morning cup of joe, but it was not to be.  The coffee maker was a constipated, asthmatic machine that spit hot water rather than percolate.  First world problems of the highest order.

After L.A., we traveled to Chandler, Arizona, where we reunited with former neighbors who had moved away eleven years ago.  Thanks to Facebook, we remained in contact, but we hadn’t been in the same room for all those years.  We talked about our kids and reminisced in a Thai restaurant until the evening cooled down to a comfy 95 degrees.  We didn’t visit any schools in Arizona, which is fine as my son functions optimally between 40 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.  (Thanks for dinner, Shae and Perry!)

From Chandler, we headed to the Grand Canyon, which, quite simply, was.  I won’t try to describe it.  I have decided that if photographs can’t do it justice, my vocabulary won’t fare any better.  Put it on your bucket list.  While my son and I had to confront our fear of heights head on, we persevered and looked across and down into the massive expanse.  It was breathtaking, and not just because of the 7,000 feet of altitude.  From there, we headed north to Kanab, Utah, and the drive was the most beautiful 200 miles I have ever experienced.  Between the Grand Canyon and the subsequent scenic drive, I had to recalibrate my definition of awesome.  I vow to use the word sparingly henceforth, as I have now seen its reference standard.

We arrived in Kanab as the sun was setting, and after loading into the hotel room, we crossed the street for dinner at the Iron Horse Restaurant and Saloon.  The waitress led us to a table in the all wood interior of the restaurant, which was my mind’s eye image of a Texas roadhouse.  We ordered drinks as two perfomers were wrapping up their set of country music, leading the crowd in a singalong of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”  Even a grizzled metal head like me can’t resist crooning along to that song, especially with a beer in hand after six hours on the road.  We were weary travelers, and we wallowed in the moment.

The next morning, we were back on the road towards Draper, Utah, where we would have dinner with my nephew and his family.  Along the way, we stopped at Bryce Canyon.  We ignored National Park Service warnings not to drive into the park due to limited parking options and still managed to stop at two of the view points.  Bryce is quite different from the Grand Canyon, but spectacular in its own right.  I would like to see more of these large holes in the ground.

Arriving in Draper, the GPS led us to the gate of the state correctional facility. It would probably be a cheap place to stay, but checking out is tricky.  We, thanks to Lynn’s sense of direction, made it to the hotel by dead reckoning towards a building which had a hotelish quality, even though it was largely unmarked.  The city of Draper was, apparently, built yesterday.  The streets were unfamiliar to GPS, and the hotel was shiny and new.  Even the sheets were scratchy in a never-been-washed way.  Hopefully they had never been slept in, either.

We visited family in nearby Herriman, including my two nephews, their wife and girlfriend (respectively), my niece-in-law’s parents, and my rambunctious grandniece and grandnephew, who serve as titular reminders that I’m getting older.  It was  fun evening, and our third free meal of the trip (thanks, Waltons!).  Technically, dinner came at a cost, as we helped assemble the trampoline given to my grandniece for her 4th birthday.  Then again, we volunteered for the job.  Driving through these suburbs of Salt Lake City, my wife noted that, with all due respect, churches in that area are like Starbucks in Seattle: ubiquitous.

Next stop: Boise, Idaho, where we had dinner at the Boise Fry Company, featuring gourmet french fries made from your choice of six types of potatoes cut five different ways and dozens of gourmet salts and dipping sauces.  They offer burgers as a side dish, and they are delicious.  Before even having visited the campus, my son was pretty sure he wanted to go to Boise State University so he could eat at Boise Fry Company every day.

From Boise, we headed back to Washington to visit Whitman College in Walla Walla.  It’s a small liberal arts school, and while my son liked what they had to offer, I was ready to enroll.  I fell in love with the campus and curriculum, and I found myself getting sentimental for my undergraduate years at the University of Puget Sound.  Walla Walla itself is a lovely town, and thriving thanks to the booming wine industry in the region.  We will return one day, regardless of my son’s final decision, to again partake of the Walla Walla Bread Company’s fare.

Our last stop on the 2017 College Tour was Washington State University in Pullman.  After the campus tour, we had a chance to meet with the head of the Physics department, who was most certainly not following the Admissions Office “How to Successfully Recruit” script.  He offered a brutally honest litany of reasons why WSU might not be the right school for anyone who wants to study Astrophysics, including the Washington State Legislature’s directive that public universities feature a “breadth” of education, rather than a focus in one discipline.  As he put it, my son would have to take a bunch of classes that are irrelevant, which I inferred were the liberal arts classes my wife and I got degrees in (not much offense taken), and he would be surrounded by other freshmen who didn’t “share his commitment to learning,” which, by his tone, I inferred to mean “morons.” He was successful in reducing my son’s list of college options by one.  WSU had one endearing feature: Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe, which is the storefront for the university’s creamery.  We each enjoyed a large cone of “concupiscent curds”* before heading west to our home in Olympia.

Twelve days on the road can be disastrous for a band, but our troubles were few.  Aside from the fact that all of us snore and thereby disrupted one another’s sleep each night, the scariest thing that happened was when the “Check Engine” light illuminated as we approached the Grand Canyon.  Rather than ignore it, as is always my default approach to problems, we retreated to a service station to have it checked.  While I raised the hood to allow the mechanic access to the engine, he climbed into the driver’s seat next to my wife and plugged a diagnostic device in beneath the dashboard.  His automotive stethoscope indicated that my Honda’s heart was beating appropriately, and he reassured us that, with no other symptoms presenting, it was probably a faulty sensor.  Of course, this only reinforced my faith in the “ignore it” philosophy.

The tour was great, but I dreaded returning home and being asked by friends whether we had seen “must see” sights and visited “must go” places along the way.  Aside from what I described above, we did not see it or do it.  We were driving most days, and, most days, the drive was six hours long.  I had imagined doing some writing on this trip, but it was not to be.  Aside from driving, eating dinner, and visiting college campuses, we didn’t do much at all.

You might think, with all those hours on the road, I would, at least, have time to reflect on life’s big questions, but, the most profound realization I had was to discover why I always assume I am traveling in a northerly direction.  It occurred to me that the GPS app on my phone always shows the vehicle traveling “up,” which, of course, means north when looking at a map.  It was perhaps not a true epiphany, but, as I said, I wasn’t delving deeply into the mysteries of the universe.  That will be my son’s job once he gets his degree in Astrophysics.  Mostly, I reflected on the road I was on: the odometer, the signage, and the geology along the way.  It focused my thinking, which was a pleasant distraction from troubles and woes of work life.

I did manage a few observations along the way, including:

  • Seeing 3,500 miles of new landscapes was a gift.
  • Singing “On the Road Again” with Willie Nelson (on the radio) 2,000 miles into the drive is perfection.
  • There are no better tasting beers than the ones that come after six-plus hours of driving.
  • FaceTiming on the phone with our daughter, and the dog, each night – since they were unable to join us – was a technological blessing.
  • Spending time with my wife and son was wonderful, even with the snoring.

I may not ever be a heavy metal rockstar, but I’ll always remember this tour with my fellow roadies.  I love you.

Road Trip, Part 1 – No One Like You

Apologies for the dearth of posts over the last few weeks, but I just got back from twelve days, and 3,500 miles, on the road with my wife and 17-year-old son visiting college campuses.  He is interested in pursuing a degree in astrophysics after graduating high school, and as we drove to California so he could ponder higher-ed  options, I pondered how a studio art major (my wife) and literature major (me) managed to produce an astrophysicist.  I have nothing against studying the nature and structure of the universe, but it requires more math than the tip calculator on my phone is capable of, so I’ll stick with poetry.  On that long drive south, I also reflected on my 30 year high school reunion that took place three weeks ago in Juneau, Alaska.  As regular readers know, I did not attend. Rather than join the festivities, I wrote a blog post about it, expressing my apprehension about reuniting with people I haven’t seen in 30 years.

I posted the article on the Facebook group page set up for the reunion, and the response was profound and humbling.  In sheer numbers, it was the most viewed post I’ve published.  Yes, I admit it, I monitor my post page view statistics…obsessively.  Since I’ve gone to the trouble to put my thoughts out into the world, I like to know how many people read them, and I do get an emotional boost when the numbers tick up.  I had hoped that I could measure my writing success based on book sales, but that’s proven to be an elusive measure.  For example, my last royalty check was for fourteen cents, which makes it clear I’m not in a position to quit my day job.  As a result, I watch the blog stats and pay attention to how many “likes” the linked posts get on Facebook, which is the only available proxy measure as to whether readers enjoy them.  With each new thumbs up or heart icon that floats across my screen, I get a little thrill.  I realize a “like” on a Facebook post is no measure of a person’s worth, but the numbers are often all I have to gauge the audience’s reaction to my writing.  I guess, as I mentioned in that reunion post, I’m still a bit intensely desperate.  Unlike the heavy metal bands I love, who get to hear the cheers from their fans every time they take the stage, I don’t get a lot of direct feedback on my writing.

I recognize I had a somewhat captive audience for that post.  When a couple hundred old friends get together and are given the opportunity to read what amounts to an occasional poem about them on the Internet, odds are good they will read it, so the numbers themselves are anomalous.  But it wasn’t the numbers that touched me, it was the comments.  Dozens of my classmates, many of whom also did not attend the reunion, expressed appreciation for what I had written.  Some said I had captured their feelings, including the fear and guilt they had about reuniting with the JDHS Class of ’87, and they felt better knowing they weren’t alone.  I was told that a friend read the post aloud to the attendees, eliciting laughter and tears.  It was a surprising response, as I had not written the post thinking this is what’s on everybody’s mind.  I just wrote my usual self-deprecating observations, and it resonated.  For that, I am grateful.  It was a rock star moment for me.

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The icing on the rock star cake came at dinner in Pasadena after visiting the CalTech campus, when I met with my very own groupie.  Three years ago, a guy named Mike had found my book, Metal Fatigue, and tracked me down on Facebook via his wife Lisa’s account to tell me how much he liked it.  We have been Facebook friends ever since, but this was our first chance to meet in person.  At the heavy metal-themed restaurant Grill ‘Em All, we enjoyed obnoxiously constructed burgers.  I chose the “Jump in the Fryer” – featuring waffle buns, cheeseburger, fried chicken, bacon, maple syrup, and sriracha – because us rock stars are all about excess.  I felt some relief that Mike wasn’t a serial killer who had been plotting my demise for years.  It turns out he is a city attorney, but my son was skeptical.  After all, he mused, the best serial killers seem like respectable people. Ted Bundy was a lawyer, you’ll recall.  Of course, we survived the evening unscathed, and I thanked Mike for tracking me down.  Lisa presented me their copy of my book along with a Sharpie marker so I could autograph it.  My ego was having a good run.

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I thought a lot about gratitude and thankfulness that night.  I am so grateful that my writing has had a positive effect on people, and I relished the opportunity to thank Mike and Lisa for reaching out to me.  I’m not sure Noah Webster would agree, but I think gratitude is about appreciating what you have and thankfulness is about expressing your appreciation.  That was on my mind the next day when I walked into the Rainbow Bar & Grill in Los Angeles.  After a day at the Getty Museum, I made my fellow travelers follow me to the Sunset Strip so I could visit the Rainbow where one of my metal idols, Lemmy of Motorhead, spent his time when not in a recording studio or on the road.  Lemmy died a year and a half ago, and it broke my heart.  A bronze statue in his honor is placed at the back of the lounge, and I posed for a requisite selfie.  I didn’t think it would help my husband and father credibility to sit in a seedy bar drinking Jack and Cokes for two hours while my wife and under-21 son waited in the alley, so I quickly took the picture and turned to leave the bar.  I only made it one step before I saw Lemmy’s unoccupied barstool and the digital poker machine he played sitting on the bar.  A rush of sadness hit me, as I realized if I had been here just two years ago, I could have walked into the Rainbow Bar & Grill, strolled to the end of the bar, and thanked Lemmy in person for his music, for being an important part of my life.  I might have even gotten a selfie with him.  I missed that chance, and I feel sorry for myself, but I also feel sorry that Lemmy didn’t get to hear a thank you from another fan.  Of course, he heard a lot of thank yous in his life.  Every time he took the stage, he would hear the screams of appreciative metal heads, but I think each of us needs all the thank yous we can get.  Life is hard and short enough without them.

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I am grateful that I have this outlet to put myself into the world a bit more publicly and for the kind words Mike, Lisa, and the Class of ’87 shared with me.  I am deeply moved that others are thankful for what I’ve written. It is as special a gift as any I have received to be told that my words made a difference.  I encourage you to reach out and thank an artist, painter, writer, dancer, singer, musician, teacher, friend, parent, or mentor who has inspired, supported, or moved you in some way.  They will love to hear it.

P.S., Mike, don’t forget to do your heavy metal research on the early bands.  I’ve provided a list of essential albums for you starting on page 228 of Metal Fatigue.  I expect a full report the next time we meet. Go Dawgs!

P.P.S, The title of the post is a reference to the Scorpions song of the same name. The night before I left on the road trip, I saw a Scorpions tribute band perform, and they were amazing. Thank you, Second Sting, for rocking me like a hurricane.

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