signs and portents

Sometimes big changes are prefigured by small events. I believe that one such event occurred recently when I had to make benefit elections at Company O. for the coming calendar year. Among the other changes I made is the creation of a “Dependent Care Account” for the year 2012.

What does this mean? It means that we will be setting aside money for day care in 2012, money we will lose if Baby Geek isn’t in day care. Day care means that Mrs. Geek will be going back to work, or trying.

Dreams seem to tell of other future events. I had a dream a few nights ago that I’m still trying to decipher. The dream started with me and “a friend” walking with a lot of other people through what looked like a studio back lot or some other kind of commercial industrial complex. We were there trying to find some sort of music concert that was happening. It was one of those “looking for but never finding” dreams, where we went this way and that but never seemed to find the concert. Eventually I ended up in a room that had an oval table at the middle with 6-10 people seated around it and multicolored curtains along all the walls. I sat down and discovered that everyone was playing various kinds of poker. I was dealt in… I got one or two cards a hand over successive hands until I had about seven of them in front of me, the cards coming from different decks with different patterns on the back. At no time however, was I allowed to play the cards or make bets. I looked down at the cards I had — at first I saw three aces and two tens (a strong full house), but then discovered that I had four aces and two tens (four aces). Finally, the dream ended when I turned to the casino-style dealer and said “Excuse me, will I ever get to play?”

After waking up, this dream felt like it had something to do with my relationship with my employer… causing me to ask a few questions about what makes me happy in my professional life. That’s a topic I want to re-visit here in a future posting.

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The vacation with no sleep

I am currently in the middle of day four in my five day Thanksgiving break, and this is a vacation with no sleep.

Part of the sleeplessness is due to the holiday.  I cooked a 12 pound turkey, dressing, gravy, and cranberry sauce on Wednesday and Thursday.  The turkey was smoked, for almost 12 hours at about 215 degrees F — a time consuming process.   The gravy is made from homemade stock, a stock made by roasting and then boiling turkey necks.   The stuffing is constructed from homemade cornbread, using a recipe that comes courtesy of The Lass — a recipe upon which she tells me I must pay a royalty (I left the payment in unmarked small bills in a brown paper bag at the bus station with a note… hope you got it.)  The effort required to prepare all this taxed me significantly over the last few days.

It was particularly taxing because of two things going on with Baby Geek at the moment.  The first is that he doesn’t sleep particularly well at night because he is teething.  He already has eight of his front teeth.  Now we think he is working on two additional teeth further back in his mouth.   Judging from the amount of ear tugging going on, it’s got to be uncomfortable.   The second is that he is transitioning from two naps a day to one.  Mrs. Geek and I are improvising how to handle this change, much as Baby Geek is. It means that there is a lot of grumpy behavior on Baby Geek’s part during the day.   It ultimately means that Mrs. Geek and I find it difficult to both sleep through the night and nap during the day.

So much for vacations being restful…

The quest for ‘cue

One of my more pleasurable pursuits during the last three years has been a quest for good pulled pork and spare ribs made at home. I mentioned toying with buying a cheap water smoker in an entry in August of 2008. I somehow neglected to mention that I did indeed purchase such a thing later that month.

The quest began in a rather geeky way. I was looking for a fun project to do on a warm Saturday afternoon that preferably did not involve yard work. Being a big fan of Good Eats, I’d seen Alton Brown construct his own cooking apparatus over the years — including salmon smoked in a cardboard box and bacon smoked in a junked industrial locker. For some reason I asked myself “could I make a smoker out of a galvanized steel garbage can?” That sounded like a very fun project indeed, at least to research.

Figuring that I was not the first person to ever consider such a thing, I turned to the Internet. The ever lovin’ Internet told me that no, I wasn’t the first person to have this idea and that it’s probably not the best one to try. Why? Galvanized garbage cans are coated with zinc. Using them as smokers could heat up some of the zinc and get it into the food. Too much zinc in your food can lead to zinc poisoning, which is bad.

Someone on one of the discussion forums did mention another option: why not buy an El Cheapo Brinkmann (ECB) and modify that? Further research showed that an ECB is one of a line of cheap ($99 or less) column water smokers made by the Brinkmann company. They aren’t great smokers from the factory, but they are hundreds of dollars cheaper than their competition (the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker), and there is a whole community dedicated to modifying them. This sounded like a fun project!

Little did I know that it was a project that would take about three years to fully complete. I spent a couple weeks doing research to figure out which Brinkmann smoker to buy. I settled on the Brinkmann Gourmet Charcoal Smoker because it was new and supposedly fixed a number of problems present in previous Brinkmann smokers.

This turned out to be a decision with mixed consequences. On the one hand, yes, some previous problems were fixed. On the other, there was far less material at the time about what to modify on the smoker because it was so new. Still, I soldiered on. I made some mods. I experimented. This included a couple temperature tests where Mrs. Geek got home, saw me sitting with the smoker, and asked “so, what are you making?” She found it amusing when I replied “nothing.” There were some notable successes, including a smoked Turkey for Thanksgiving that a friend said looked like it should be in the pages of Gourmet magazine. The charcoal in the smoker needed to be changed about every two hours, and the pulled pork it made never seemed quite right… even if it had a nice smoke ring.

All that changed about three months ago. Two things happened that advanced my knowledge about my smoker. First, Alton Brown re-visited the preparation of pulled pork in an hour-long episode of Good Eats that, alas, will be among the last ever made. This taught me a few new tricks about how to make good pulled pork. That, in turn, prompted me to see if there was any additional information about how to modify the Brinkmann Gourmet that developed in the three years that elapsed.

More information was found. A guy wrote the Brinkmann Gourmet modification Bible. His findings confirmed a bunch of ideas I had about how the smoker worked, and offered a couple additional modifications that I thought would fix some of my problems. I did a little more research to answer some questions about the cooking of pulled pork and made my plans: I would make modifications, do one “dress rehearsal” pork roast to check everything, and then prepare to make pulled pork for Baby Geek’s first birthday party on Labor Day weekend.

The plan went off with only a couple hiccups. I didn’t prep the surface of the smoker well enough for one step, and so some fiberglass rope didn’t stick too the unit too well. That didn’t really cause a problem until late September, however — when I reattached it much more firmly. Both the 3-4 lb half boneless pork shoulder “dress rehearsal” roast and the 8-9 lb boneless pork shoulder “birthday” roast came out delicious. I remember telling various friends at Baby Geek’s party that “this is the pulled pork I’ve been looking for for three years.” It was true, and they must have agreed; there was barely enough of a 8-9 lb raw roast leftover to make one pulled pork sandwich.

Here is a picture of the fully modified smoker:

The neighborhood supermarket had pork butt on “manager’s special” over the weekend, and here’s the latest pulled pork product:

Yes, it is good to have finally “cracked the code” of pulled pork.

The other blogs I follow

Dear fellow bloggers,

I know at least a couple of you found this blog because I elected to follow your blog using the “Read Blogs” tab on wordpress.com. I have since come to discover that while this does work for blogs on wordpress.com, it is not working for me with blogs located elsewhere (typepad, for example… and other WordPress-powered blogs like geeksofdoom.com). I am in contact with wordpress.com support over this and we will hopefully resolve this. Until then, I have edited by “Read Blogs” list and removed a bunch of blogs because I discovered that I not only can’t read some of them, I can’t remove many that I can’t read. Something is very wrong here.

I have posted a page of blogs I read that appears as the Feeds I’m Reading menu above. I will continue reading, but from Google Reader, not WordPress.

Thank you. That is all.

The holidays have become complicated

I am angry and frustrated, and felt that way for the last few days.

Mrs. Geek have heard a lot of stories from friends over the years about how they seem to come up short when it comes to how they’re treated in comparison to other family members. Siblings who spread information told “in confidence” to other family members as gossip. Parents who pay for vacations with each of the families of their children, alternating one child per year, until it is the turn of the youngest; that year is a milestone wedding anniversary year and everyone goes. Wedding anniversary family photo retrospectives at getaway destinations that include no photos of one of the children, except one taken a few days before. Offers of paid travel, with huge hassles over strings and conditions about who must stay where and when because another sibling has wishes that cannot be ignored. Parents who practically live with one sibling during holidays, but are loathe to even talk about visiting the homes of their other children. Innumerable dropped or forgotten invitations among siblings for family gatherings.

While our story this year is not any of these, it’s becoming clear that there are “insiders” and “outsiders” as far as who gets to plan things for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, and Mrs. Geek and I are out in the cold with one side of the family. We were finally told a couple days ago about who would be doing what for Thanksgiving after asking some weeks ago… and it doesn’t in any way involve us. So it’s time for a “Plan B” with another side of the family, or it may be Thanksgiving alone this year.

Argh! Clocks!

Since today involved changing all the clocks, I think it’s an excellent time to confess a short shameful secret: my house has timezones. The front bedroom is five minutes behind the living room and kitchen. The back bedroom is five minutes ahead of the living room. The computers in the office are synchronized to some international time servers, so they are rock solid. The rest of the house seems only loosely to any conventional temporal moorings.

I’m not sure why this is so. The front and back bedrooms have digital clock radios in them. Do solid state clocks go bad? I didn’t used to think so, but my eyes are telling me otherwise. It’s either that, or my house is located over a Mystery Spot.

They are pretty cheap clocks — chosen more for a particular feature of their alarm settings driven by the needs of two different kinds of sleep habits. I’m a creature of schedule. Wake me up at the same time for a few days in a row, and I start waking up at that time out of habit. I also have a hard time falling back to sleep once I wake up. Mrs. Geek is the opposite; she is someone who can easily sleep late and catch up on missed sleep. She also can roll over and fall asleep again if the alarm goes off and she doesn’t need to be anywhere. She needs an alarm to go off in the morning when she’s working. Me, not so much.

Since she needs an alarm and I don’t want to be awakened by one on weekends, we try to buy clock radios with a “7-5-2” alarm feature. You can make the alarm go off automatically on all seven days of the week, the five days of the work week, or the two days of the weekend. I discovered this feature when Mrs. Geek and I first moved in together. She wanted to keep the alarm on the clock radio set all seven days of the week — to avoid forgetting to set it on Sunday night. I wanted to turn it off on weeks to sleep in if I could. A 7-5-2 clock seemed to fit the bill exactly.

The thing is, it’s not that common a feature. It’s mostly found on clock radios bearing the once-proud Timex logo, which frankly seem kind of cheap. We bought three such clocks over the last seven years, in part because the clocks have built in “Daylight Savings Time” functions and Congress keeps moving the dates on that. (Looking around on the Internets, clock manufacturers seem to have wised up about this; “smart” clocks now have a DST switch on the back that changes the time by an hour, allowing each change no matter when Congress says the dates are.) Of course, two of these same clocks are now suffering from Mystery Spot disease.

So what to do? Well, I see that the local Costco has an iHome iPod dock/clock radio that has the 7-5-2 feature. Perhaps it’s time to give that a try.

Halloween II

It’s been a busy week. I don’t know exactly where the time went, but some things have fallen by the wayside. A wine club shipment is on its way to the winery because we missed the UPS deliveries… and didn’t get to the local office in time. I also neglected to describe our activities on Baby Geek’s second Halloween.

I elected to play hooky from work (ssssh! don’t tell anyone!) just because I was wiped out from cleaning house the previous day — little in the way of productive work would have been done if I had gone to the office. Mrs. Geek was planning to take Baby Geek over to her former employer — a school a few miles away — to show her former colleagues “cuteness in a costume.” I decided to tag along.

We arrived in time for the “Halloween Parade”. I put it in quotes because it was actually more like the “Halloween Assembly”. It was held in the school gym, with the bleachers pulled out so the parents could sit and watch. The entire K-8 school processed into the gym, about two classes at a time. After a couple announcements, the “parade” started. Each class would, in turn, get up, walk around the perimeter of the gym twice to create two “photo ops” for the “parent paparazzi” — a collection of dozens of parent still and video digital cameras. They would then head up to the stage on the far side of the gym and sing a song. We only stayed for about two classes worth because Baby Geek was nearing his nap time.

What to say about the children and their costumes? I’m sure all you parents born sometime in the 60’s or early 70’s know what I’m about to say. Costumes have gotten complicated. I think there were more homemade costumes when I was a kid. And umm… there were a couple middle school aged girls in costumes that involved hem lines well above the knee and knee-high or thigh-high stockings — can we say “push to express sexual identity”? I’m not sure how I would feel if they were my daughters.

After that, we had friends B. and R. and their daughter O. come by to go trick or treating. The plan was to order pizza from our favorite pizzeria, but we didn’t end up putting the order until about 10 minutes before our friends would arrive. There was over an hour wait for delivery, no 18″ family-sized pizzas, and no coupons accepted. That would not fit our schedule; our bad. We ended up ordering pizza from another pizzeria. Mrs. Geek picked it up and the outer crust was half black, but we had it in 20 minutes or so. She said that the sit down part of the place was almost completely empty, but kitchen was a blur of activity.

After we had the pizza, and B. and I. had a couple Belgian-type beers (mine aged in a Bourbon barrel at 11% abv), we loaded Baby Geek (a dragon, or a crocodile, or a dinosaur, depending on who you ask) and O. (a cute and very round pumpkin) into the Radio Flyer red wagon and headed down the block. We left a basket of candy on the front porch with a “please take one” sign. Just went from our house at the end of the cul-de-sac down to the cross street and back. We met several of our neighbors, some for the first time. They asked “did you just move here?” “Ummm… four years ago?” we replied.

Note to self: need to organize a block party next summer to really meet the neighbors.

In all, it was a good day… and that’s all you can ask.