The Truck That Launch’d a Thousand Ships

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It’s getting cold here in the Pacific Northwest, and that means my truck’s windows get foggy.  Leaving work one evening this week, I sat in the cold cab of my pickup truck, listened to NPR, and waited ten minutes for the condensation on the windshield to dissipate enough for me to see the road.  I love my truck, Helen, but she’s getting old, and she doesn’t de-fog a windshield like she used to.

I wrote about Helen – an ’88 Dodge Dakota – earlier this year when I recounted the tale of getting into a bumper bender on my way to work.  She survived the collision without the need for any repairs, which is good since I don’t have collision insurance.  Her face got pretty banged up, but she keeps on running, steady as a rock.  Her problems are largely cosmetic: the front bumper is now more abstract art than functional device, the seat cover is worn out and requires me to put down a towel to avoid getting foam rubber cushion dust on my butt, and I had to remove the cab’s ceiling liner as the adhesive stopped adhering, causing the liner to sag and generate static electricity when it rubbed against my head.  Also, the control knob for the heater fan fell off.

The first sign there was a problem with the knob was two years ago, when I grabbed it to turn up the fan and noticed it was hot – scalding, even – to the touch.  I knew that wasn’t normal, but I chose to ignore it, which is how I approach most automotive problems.  As long as I didn’t hold on to the knob, I could avoid getting singed.  That worked fine until the knob snapped off a few months ago when I reached to adjust the fan.  It made sense the plastic switch, having been heated up repeatedly over two years, had finally succumbed to thermal fatigue.  I solved that problem by inserting the tip of a small screwdriver into the slit in the dashboard and moving the adjustment mechanism up and down.  I didn’t leave the screwdriver inserted, as I learned my lesson and wanted to avoid the chance of burning myself on a hot screwdriver handle.  I’m no dummy.

Last month, the fan stopped working altogether, so I was forced to take it to the automotive shop where I get oil changes.  The worst part was recounting the history of this calamity, in which I was forced to confess I had largely ignored the problem for years and jury-rigged my way to avoid paying a repair bill that would now, of course, be higher due to my neglect.  The repair guy didn’t flinch, or laugh, when I had finished telling my story.  He must be inured to negligent vehicle owners weaving ridiculous tales, and I’m grateful he allowed me to maintain some small shred of undeserved dignity.  He said they would take a look, and I got a ride to work.  An hour later, he called to let me know they had replaced a resistor, or some such doohickey, and the fan was now working fine.  Better yet, it was not a costly procedure, so I was pleased.  They didn’t replace the knob, but I wasn’t expecting it.  The screwdriver was still required.

The next day, the blower didn’t work when I started the truck, so I returned to the shop.  He suspected there was a problem with the motor, which would be a much more significant repair.  Again, I got a ride to work, and, again, they called an hour later, this time to say it was working for them and there was nothing to fix, so I should pick it up.  I was relieved I didn’t have to pay another bill, but later that day it stopped working again.  I knew the next repair was going to cost a lot, so I considered my options.  After an extensive Internet search, I found an auxiliary heater with a 12-volt power cord, and my truck comes equipped with a cigarette lighter.  While vehicles now come equipped with 12-volt outlets for smart phone charging cords and such, I can still light a cigarette in my truck.  I wondered whether if I was a smoker, the heat of the cigarettes might help with the defogging, but other problems would undoubtedly arise from that course of action.

I have learned that 12 volts is not a lot of power.  While it’s adequate to light a cigarette, substantially more volts are required to run a proper heater.  The auxiliary fan I bought huffed and puffed a pathetic zephyr of tepid air onto the windshield, requiring constant readjustment to de-fog more than a small pinhole.  As the weather got worse, I decided this was unworkable.  Once the temperatures dropped below freezing, it would take a good 30 minutes to thaw out the windshield with my asthmatic auxiliary fan.

I returned to the shop and, $300 later, had the blower motor fixed. Or replaced. I don’t pay attention to details like that.  I don’t know how to change the oil, so why would I concern myself with the specifics of my blower motor maintenance.  If it blows, I’m happy.  It takes ten minutes for the air to clear, but at least it does clear, and I have ten extra minutes to listen to “All Things Considered” on my way home from work.  It could always be worse.

I named her Helen, after my grandmother, whose passing resulted in an inheritance that gave my parents the money to buy a truck.  When my dad died, I inherited it from him eleven years ago.  All these years later, in addition to the problems I mentioned earlier, the seat adjustment is broken, so I am the only licensed driver in the family tall enough to drive her.  She’s all mine.  She delivers me to and from work every day, has made countless runs to the dump, waited patiently outside venues while I moshed it up at metal shows, and hauled several tons of rocks and dirt, the raw material for several backyard projects.  We’ve had good, occasionally exciting, times together.  Once, my dad and I transported a refrigerator from Portland to Olympia, an adventure in which we learned the importance, and difficulty, of properly securing the load so that the refrigerator doesn’t fall into a prone position while driving on Interstate 5.  Miraculously, no one got hurt, and the fridge worked fine when we arrived.  I love Helen, and I hope we have more years together, but I know it can’t last forever, especially considering my lackadaisical attitude towards maintenance.  Helen is going to turn 30 next year.  Perhaps I’ll get a birthday cake and throw a little party in the cab.  I can light the candles with the cigarette lighter, but I don’t think Helen will be able to blow out the candles without a little help.

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That’s The Way I Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll

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On January 16, 1991, coalition forces began an aerial bombardment campaign in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.  I was senior in college, and my girlfriend – now wife – and I gathered with friends to watch the coverage offered by CNN.  We listened to Bernard Shaw broadcast from a hotel room in Baghdad while the bombs fell throughout the evening.  We were too young to remember Vietnam, so this was our first “real war,” and we didn’t know what to think, say, or do about it.  Aside from nervously joking about whether any of us would try to hide in Canada rather than be impressed into military service, we mostly just listened to the TV.  Meanwhile, across town at the Tacoma Dome, AC/DC was performing.  As the heavy metal programming director at my college radio station, I had a ticket to the show waiting for me at Will Call, but I didn’t go.  Spending time with my friends as war was breaking out seemed like a higher priority.  I don’t regret my decision, but it left a gap in my rock concert resume.  I never got to see AC/DC.

Two weeks ago, Malcolm Young, founding member of the band, died.  He was 64 and had been suffering from dementia for several years, which caused him to leave the band in 2014.  Malcolm was one of the finest rhythm guitarists in the history of rock and roll, and I’m sad I never got to see him perform.  His brother, Angus, gets all the attention as the flashy lead guitarist dressed in a school boy uniform cavorting about the stage and shredding heavy blues solos, but Malcolm was the beating heart of the band.  His simple riffs propelled the music forward, making me want to bang my head and dance at the same time.  Some people say AC/DC just kept putting out the same record, but what a great record it was.  To me, AC/DC is the definitive hard rock band, and Malcolm’s blues-based rhythms are the reason.

I tried to do some Christmas shopping today, but I failed miserably.  The parking lots were full, the rain was incessant, and the stores were packed with people I didn’t really want to be with.  I wandered up and down the aisles of a Barnes & Noble and a Target and found exactly nothing I wanted to give to my loved ones.  I stopped at Five Guys to smother my shopping sorrows in a burger and went back home to hide from humanity.  So, here I sit at my little writing desk, clickety-clacking away at my keyboard, trying not to think about Christmas shopping, and feeling guilty for not having posted to my blog for more than two weeks.  I was getting stuck in my head, letting the fretting thoughts consume me, when it occurred to me that a little music might soothe this particular beast.  Johnny Mathis’ Christmas records will have to wait.  Instead, I called up AC/DC’s Fly on the Wall and let Malcolm’s Gretsch Jet-induced riffs shake my foundations.  Ah.  That’s better.

I wish you all better luck in your Christmas shopping efforts.  Remember, if you’re nice, Santa might put a copy of Back in Black or Highway to Hell in your stocking.

Preflight Checklist

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I’ve never been a Boy Scout, but I do appreciate their motto: Be prepared.  That’s why, when I’m going to a metal show, I always make sure I have my ticket with me.  Throughout the evening, I double and triple check that it’s safely tucked away in my pocket.  These days, it’s not uncommon for concertgoers to use an electronic ticket, which the venue can view and scan from your phone when you arrive, but I don’t trust in the availability of a good cellular connection to guarantee my entry, so I prefer to print out my ticket.  I’ve been carrying paper tickets to shows for thirty years, and they’ve never let me down.  “Bring Your Ticket” has always been on my pre-show checklist, but based on my experience going to a show with my brother-in-metal, Sean, last Tuesday night, I’m adding a few things to my metal show preparedness checklist.

2. Check the Address

Sean and I had done the concert math, in which we estimate what time each of the four bands on the bill will take the stage, to ensure we would arrive in time to see our favorites.  We are too old and crotchety to sit or, more likely, stand through sets by bands in which we have little interest.  Enjoying pre-show beer in a seated position at a comfortable pub, and discussing exactly what time we should leave, is a far more agreeable pastime.

We made it to the venue at our estimated time, and I was glad for it, as I had an urgent need to relieve myself.  We found parking nearby and entered the club after a brief pat-down search at the door to ensure we weren’t carrying any weapons.  As I walked in, I was confronted by a gruff man who demanded to see my ticket.  He was exasperated right out of the gate, annoyed that I didn’t immediately present it to him.  My hands were full of my wallet, keys, and phone following the search, and I had to refill my pockets before I could unfold my ticket.  I moved as quickly as I could, wanting nothing more than to be granted access to the restroom.  When I did present my ticket, he scrutinized it carefully, nodded with approval, and crumpled it up  to dispose of it in a large garbage can behind him.  This venue did not have a bar code scanner, so throwing my ticket away ensured I wouldn’t pass it to someone else to gain entry.  I love keeping my tickets at souvenirs, but I wasn’t going to argue the point.  Meanwhile, Sean presented a piece of identification so the angry ticket taker could look him up on the Will Call list.  He informed Sean he wasn’t on it.  Frustrated, Sean went to look up the email on his phone, and after a moment of staring at the small screen, he looked and me and asked, “Where’s your ticket?”  I said it was in the trash, and he told me to get it. When I asked why, he said we were at the wrong venue.  Crap.  I rummaged through the garbage barrel to recover my crumpled ticket, which was easy to find since it looked nothing like the others.  It’s good to know, for future reference, that the doorman at Studio Seven will accept any document as a valid ticket, regardless of what venue or band name is printed on it.  That should save me a few bucks in the future.  With my ticket safely back in my pocket, we returned to the car to drive across Seattle to the correct venue, El Corazon.   Sean offered to wait if I wanted to pee in the parking lot, but I decided the possibility of getting arrested for public urination wasn’t worth the risk.  Even if I could afford the ticket, I’m guessing the arresting officer wouldn’t be supportive of letting me finish.

3. Buy a Tour Shirt.

While El Corazon did have a scanner to validate my ticket, thereby allowing me to keep the paper copy, I wanted a more substantial souvenir: a tour T-shirt from the headlining band, Finland’s Children of Bodom.  The main tour shirt with the band’s Grim Reaper mascot was sold out in my size, so I opted for one that stated, in big, block letters, “I SURVIVED LAKE BODOM.”  I realized this could lead to a lot of questions, since very few people outside of Finland or metal fandom would understand the reference.  Children of Bodom, in true extreme metal fashion, named themselves after three teenagers who were murdered near the shores of Lake Bodom in Espoo, Finland in 1960.  The shirt is a pun, implying that attending a Children of Bodom concert is like surviving a murder attempt.  To a metal head, it’s a clever reference.  To normal humans, it’s confusing and, potentially, disturbing.  To the families of the actual victims, it’s probably quite offensive.  If I should ever visit Finland, I will leave the shirt at home.

4. Bring Your Sense of Whimsy.

The opening band we so carefully timed our arrival to see is called Carach Angren, named after an obscure J.R.R. Tolkein reference to a pass into the mountains of Mordor.  It’s not even the one Frodo and Sam used to get into Sauron’s stronghold.  That was Cirith Ungol, which is also the name of  metal band, of course.  The members of Carach Angren wear “corpse paint” makeup, popularized by Norwegian black metal bands, and,  in the darkly lit club, the singer had a skull-like appearance.  They play symphonic black metal, with the symphonic parts played on a keyboard.  At one point, as I was admiring the swirl of sounds generated by the keyboard player, I noticed his instrument had moved such that the musician was playing as if it was hanging on a wall.  It continued to move throughout the set, apparently connected to a servo motor, causing him to play in a number of awkward positions.  When I told a friend about it, she wondered if it was an ergonomic keyboard designed to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome.  That’s funny.  The band didn’t have a bass player, which is unusual, but it didn’t take anything away from the powerful music.  Carach Angren have five albums, all of which are concept records, each of which tells a complete horror story.  Their set list included selections from each record, thus resulting in the musical equivalent of going to see a Shakespeare play and being presented with random scenes from different plays.  I was glad they played my favorite song, and when the titular chorus came around, I screamed along “Charles Francis Coughlin!”  It’s not too often I get to scream a full proper name.  If that all sounds absurd, you are correct.  Heavy metal is, in many ways, a silly genre that metal heads take seriously.  To be a devoted fan and maintain your dignity, you have to have a sense of humor about it.

5. Bring Your Inner Child.

When Children of Bodom took the stage and shredded through songs from their first four albums in a tribute to their 20th anniversary of being a band, I grinned for all 90 minutes.  Lead guitarist and vocalist Alexi Laiho is a true metal god, and I banged my head, cheered, and fell more deeply in love with metal music.  I was surrounded by hundreds of fans, packed shoulder to shoulder, and nothing else mattered.  This is the place I play.  I was caught in the moment and wallowed in the pure joy of the music.

6. Bring a Friend

After a night of brutal, silly, technically precise, and perfectly performed metal, Sean and I returned to his car to make the drive back to his apartment 30 miles to the south.  On the way, he dialed up a classic metal record, Painkiller by Judas Priest, on his car stereo.  We listened straight through and sang all ten songs at the top of our lungs in a pale imitation of Rob Halford’s powerful shrieks.  Side by side, we banged our heads and reveled in our metal brotherhood.  To be 48 years old and share this evening with a friend who doesn’t judge me for my bad singing voice, who appreciates the silliness of it all, and who has the same passion for the music, the bands, and live performance, well, that’s just about as good as it gets.  Cheers, Sean, and everyone else who remembers to be who they are, like what they like, and do cool stuff.

The Reset Button

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On Tuesday afternoon, I carried two boxes from my spacious first floor office of the last nine years to the cubicle in the basement that would be my new workstation starting Wednesday morning.  Believe it or not, the job is a promotion.  To quote the genie in Disney’s Aladdin, “Phenomenal cosmic power…itty bitty living space.” I may not have that much power, but my facility footprint has shrunk by a factor of, at least, four.

I’m not upset about the smaller space, but I was a bit concerned about loneliness.  When I first arrived at my new desk, it seemed as though I had been stationed in a vast desert of vacant cubicles.  The space was formerly a server farm that became obsolete, so the facility elves quickly turned it into dozens of workstations to be used by project staff.  I presumed the apparent lack of people was due to a recent dearth of project work, but, after two days in this new environment, I realized I was not alone.  I heard occasional murmurings, noticed a few heads popping above cubicle walls, and every so often, someone would walk by my desk.  I’m not alone, I’m just surrounded by quiet people.  They seem friendly, but there isn’t a lot of chit chat going on in this habitat.  As a result, when I’m at my desk, I am forced to focus on my work, at which I’m not particularly adept.  I was accustomed to frequent interruptions and hallway conversations in the old job.  With so few distractions around me, I’ve been very productive in the first three days.  I’m curious how the native fauna will respond to musical stimulation, but I’ll wait a while before I start playing metal music over my computer’s speakers.

When I wasn’t sitting in my Hobbit house, I was in meetings, talking to my new colleagues.  I’m learning – a lot – and loving it.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been the new guy, both in terms of tenure and topic, and I feel like Samwell Tarly in Game of Thrones quickly trying to become a learned maester.  While Sam stole books from the forbidden section of the library to learn about dragon glass, I sneak furtive looks at my phone to Google words like “SSIS” and “WebSphere.”  I had been the most senior manager in my old division, so being woefully ignorant again is exhilarating.  Some people like to play to be reminded of childhood, but nothing makes me feel like a kid again as much as the simple act of learning something new.

When lunch time rolls around, I go for my usual run, but it’s taken on renewed meaning.  For the last couple years, my run has been routine, but this week, it has been a refreshing respite from the time spent in my head. I came back from those runs renewed and ready to learn more.

Friday night, after my third day on the job, we went to a party at a neighbor’s house.  I was tired when I arrived and thought about how I would like to be home doing absolutely nothing.  However, as an accomplished ambivert, I rallied and spent the evening talking to friends, and I’m glad for it.  We ate comfort food and laughed ebulliently.  When the giggles subsided, just as I thought I was done for the evening, the hostess approached to ask about my new job, and we talked for a long time.  She is an executive coach, and we had an energizing exchange of leadership jargon.  She offered to help me with my LinkedIn profile, pro bono (I hope), and mentioned a book about “design thinking” that sounds amazing, and I was emotionally transported back to the time early in my career when I was a management consultant, learning about ways to help my clients be more effective.  When the festivities finally came to an end, I smiled on the walk home, reflecting on the simple joys of talking and laughing with friends and gaining a fresh perspective.

I am going to a experience another simple joy on Tuesday, when I go to see the Finnish melodic death metal band Children of Bodom play a set of songs from their first four records as a salute to their twenty year career.  It’s a retrospective on the records they put out before the larger metal world discovered them; a refreshing return to the beginning, when they were a young, hungry band ready to take on the world.  I’m excited for this show, as a metal head and an old guy who just got a chance to press the reset button.

This blog is all about encouraging you to pursue the things you love with passion, but it can be easy to forget why you loved those things in the first place.  If you have the opportunity, I hope you can take a step back from what you’ve been doing and remember why you love to do it.  It’s a pretty cool feeling.

The Dog Ate My Homework

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Wednesday night was going to be Writing Night, and I had it all planned.  My wife and daughter would be hosting bunco night downstairs, thereby allowing me to retreat to our “bonus room” – the large room above our garage that serves as a home office and arts and crafts studio – to, finally, get back to working on my European travel journal writing project.  I have been avoiding the work as it causes me some anxiety thinking about confronting the blank page that I must fill with clever and witty phrases.  I frequently doubt my ability to write well, so I don’t, and that only adds to my sense of panic and dread.  What good is a writer who doesn’t write?  I had gotten to a point on Wednesday that I was finally excited at the prospect of writing again, but my dog had other ideas.

I love my dog, Autumn Islay (pronounced “I-luh;” it’s Scottish. You can follow her on Instagram, of course, at autumnislay).  We celebrated her first birthday earlier this month, and this first year with her in our lives has been wonderful.  She is a source of pet-owning comfort and love for all of us, something we haven’t before experienced as a family.

Aside from a goldfish and two guinea pigs, she is our first family pet.  The goldfish wasn’t a pet as much as a chore.  It was my responsibility to clean the tank each week to keep the little critter from being overcome by its own filth.  While it was obviously appreciative of being fed, it wasn’t capable of expressing affection.  Its unblinking eyes did not convey warmth, and cuddling on the couch was out of the question.  The guinea pigs had a similar ocular limitation, but they could be petted and held.  They could not, however, be in the same cage together.  Cocoa Spots and Thistle Down may have been siblings, but those girls did not have a strong sororal bond.  Thistle would bristle and lash out whenever she shared a space with Cocoa, so, to prevent further violence, we put up a wall to divide their spacious living quarters into two small pigger apartments.  Thistle thrived once she stopped raging against her sister, but Cocoa had a tough life.  She loved her sister and wanted to be with her, but that couldn’t happen.  As a result, she would anxiously gnaw on the wire frame of her cage.  This caused her top teeth to break, which is a big problem for a guinea pig.  Rodent teeth grow continuously, and without those top teeth to rub against, Cocoa’s bottom teeth grew too large.  We had to take her to the vet occasionally to get her teeth ground down.  The stress of it all was the likely source of what we diagnosed as a stroke that she suffered.  She ended up blind in one eye, but her demeanor changed. While normal guinea pigs have the air of someone living in a state of constant fear, no doubt based on the genetic knowledge that they reside near the bottom of the food chain, our buck-toothed, half-blind, mentally impaired Cocoa seemed simply amazed most of the time, like a newborn.  Cocoa died prematurely as a result of the difficulty she had eating and, I imagine, her angst about her sister’s disdain.

I learned Wednesday evening that Cocoa was not our only pet with anxiety.  As the bunco guests began to arrive, I retreated with Autumn into the bonus room and closed the door.  I hoped she would lay at my feet while I clickety-clacked away at my keyboard, but she had other concerns.  She knew her girls – my wife and daughter – were downstairs, and they were with strangers.  This created an unbearable tension for our one-year -old labradoodle, and for the next two hours she scratched at the door, paced the room, and begged me to let her out.  I did what I could to reassure her, speaking in gentle tones, and trying to pet away her concerns, but she was inconsolable.  As I sat at my desk, she sat at my feet, looking into my eyes and pleading with me. She whimpered, yelped, and barked her frustrations to me.  I knew she would be o.k., but she did not share my belief, and it broke my heart a little.  I’d been here before.

More than ten years ago, I was putting my daughter to bed when she told me, in no uncertain terms, that she needed to see her grandmother.  Grandma lives on the other side of town, and it was bedtime.  This was not a rational request.  There was no reason my daughter needed to see her grandma, but as I persisted in denying her request, it became clear that this was not about reason.  This was a desperate need based on my daughter’s feeling that she might die if she did not see her grandmother at that moment.  I didn’t know what to do, and I told her no and reassured her it would be o.k.  She begged, pleaded, and demanded, and, still, I said no.  I didn’t know it then, but this was anxiety, and it scared me.

I’ve learned a lot about anxiety since then.  My daughter continues to struggle with it, but she has gotten help, and it’s much more manageable these days.  It is a part of who she is, but it doesn’t define her.  She is among the most creative, generous, and loving – not to mention funny – people I know, but that pot of anxiety is always simmering on the back burner.  Anxiety sucks.

The bunco party came to an end, and Autumn Islay was happily reunited with her girl, my daughter.  Autumn is going to become a therapy dog, helping others manage their sometimes crazy feelings.  My daughter will work with her on the training and certification.  Together, they will make a difference in other people’s lives, based in part on their shared understanding of the pain that our brains can put us through.

My anxiety about delving back into my pile of notes about traveling through Europe is nowhere near as debilitating as what my girls have experienced, but I gain strength from their courage.

P.S., I may have caused Autumn to have another panic attack Thursday night.  I was cheering, that is shouting, so vociferously as I watched my Oakland Raiders win a last second victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, she ran from the room and hid under my wife’s desk.  When I’m watching the Raiders, I’m not my rational, mild-mannered self.  Sorry about that, Autumn.   Since the Raiders aren’t playing on this football Sunday, I should be able to spend some time writing about Switzerland.  I promise not to yell, so feel free to sit at my feet while I clickety-clack away.

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.

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.