Phantom voices

I got up at about 1:45am the other night because Baby G. was stirring and mumbling in his sleep the other night.  Mrs. Geek pulled this duty the night before and expressly asked me to get up if I heard him in the middle of the night.  When he did, I got out of bed, walked down to his bedroom, found a pillow, and stretched out on the floor next to his crib.  After a short while, I fell asleep.

I had a dream of the sort that I usually don’t have.   I dreamed it was dark and I was walking through rooms in my parents house that don’t exist.   I started in rooms that were indistinctly filled with sleeping people in bunk beds, through a series of doorways, doors, and chambers that became progressively less used.  Each next room seemed to be filled with several people indistinctly mumbling, only to fall silent and uninhabited as soon as entered.  I stopped in a room, looking for corner where I could curl up and sleep.  A disembodied figure passed through from behind me onto the next chamber.  I took it to be my father.  I asked it/him if these rooms were ever used.  He responded “If I ever told your mother that they were, I’d never get any sleep around here.”   I lay down in the corner of that room and went to sleep.

After that, I awoke saw from the clock that it was almost 3am and went back to my own bed.   For some reason, that passing from room to room with the next room full of indistinct conversation that then fell silent… that’s stuck with me since.

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It’s been ten years… really?!?

I happened to look down at the Archives list on the blog the other day and realized that it’s been ten years since I started blogging. Looking back at the early entries, it certainly feels like another life. I was about 2.5 years out from finally leaving graduate school and going to working for Company O. The job there still seemed shiny and new, and I was generally happy with it. Mrs. Geek and I had been in a dating relationship for almost a year, and were a couple months away from making that relationship more permanent. The Second Iraq War started.

I’m trying to remember how I actually found myself at Diaryland (the first home of this blog). I think it was due to the band the Asylum Street Spankers. Wammo had a blog on Diaryland that I found through the Spankers web site, and I started reading that regularly. From there, I started following a few other bloggers… among the first (if not the first) being Mrs. Roboto. From there, it just blossomed over the next five to six years, through my wedding, the first couple years of my marriage, and buying my first home.

In the process, I became the “imaginary friend” of a group of people I still associate with on Facebook. Looking down the Diaryland favorites list, I see Harri3t Spy (she eventually became not imaginary), who introduced me to Lass, Jeanne at Necromancy Never Pays, JoyHowie at The Crooked Line, and Freshhell. Mrs. Roboto introduced me to Eve Roboto(also not imaginary.) Through her, I met her husband and got involved with their web site Geeks of Doom until my day job and parenting responsibilities made it difficult to keep up with the pace of their growing web site. I wrote some popular early articles there, and feel proud that “I was in the room” when that web site was born. I also met Ariadne518, Teranika, and Eleanorio. I also get the odd, once in a while, update breadcrumb about Ilonina. Finally, I started reading the blog lionessden. I think there are three or four Ph.Ds conferred to that group in the decade (joining my own), a few moves across state lines (and occasionally international boundaries), a successful web site, a t-shirt I wish I hadn’t sent, some mix CDs both from me and to me, and a lot of very wonderful words.

Thanks everybody, for putting up with me this long and for letting read about your lives in return.

Finding my laugh

I haven’t felt much reason to laugh over the last three to four years. Some wonderful things have happened during that time (Baby G. being the most important of them) but I haven’t found to much reason to laugh. Work at Company O. kind of killed my ability to laugh for a while. As a child, my Mom would ask me “why are you laughing? are you re-living some joke again?” and often I would be. I had the ability to hold some bit of laughter in my memory and let some of it out simply by replaying it. For the last few years, Mrs. Geek would show me something and say “What? No chuckle? Anything? That’s funny!” and I often didn’t have the laughter in me. Everything around me seemed so serious and so depressing… putting my mind into a laugh inducing state of mind was hard to do.

With a change of job has come a change in temperament. Mrs. Geek says that there is a quietness and calmness about me that she hasn’t seen for a few years. Certainly an angry, frustrated core of emotion is gone. With that replaced by something more relaxed and genial, I was wondering if the ability to replay laughter might return too.

It did when I saw this not long ago:

I know. This bit of Photoshoppery, it’s wrong, so very wrong. Yet I think about it and giggle a little bit every time.

Finding New Ways To Lose Sleep

The “terrible twos” have arrived at our house (along with a new two-year molar or three). Baby G. has been more moody in the last few weeks, and prone to throwing tantrums in which he screams and either throws himself on the ground or tries to bonk his forehead into something if he’s unhappy. He’s moved from “2T” to “3T” between October and February, and he seems taller every time I turn around and look at him. All this change has got to be unsettling. Add to that the fact that he’s still not talking — he can now perform a variety of simple tasks if you ask him, so there is plenty of language cognition but he has little interest in mimicking others (for fun or not) and is very selective in how he vocalizes — and he’s got to get plenty to be frustrated about, I’m sure. Since he doesn’t talk and can’t ask, we don’t bother to explain what is going on even though he could probably understand some of it. Mrs. Geek and I need to be better about that.

Things were particularly bad two weeks ago. Baby G. was waking up in the middle of the night a lot. He also seemed to be want to cling to Mrs. Geek or myself than usual. His appetite was off. Mrs. Geek took him to a “newborn to toddler” parenting class in which the parents meet in one room while the kids have (supervised) playtime together in another room, and he had a pretty bad meltdown. This struck us as rather odd, because he’d attended the class during the previous two weeks and everyone was very impressed with how easily Baby G. was able to separate from his mother.

The reasons for his apparent bad mood became clearer to me a couple days later when Mrs. Geek was at a scrapbooking event for the evening and I gave Baby G. a bath. I happened to peek into his mouth and saw a new two year molar breaking through in the back. If it wasn’t “problem solved”, it was “problem better understood” at least. He continued to be grumpy, and up occasionally overnight all through the following week. It felt better knowing why.

If all this wasn’t enough, the alarm system panel at our house started making these sequences of six beeps every few hours during both the day and the night over this past weekend. I first noticed the problem at around 3am on Saturday. Baby G. was up again at around 1am, and I’d brought him with me to the sofa in our living room where (thankfully) we both fell asleep again fairly quickly. So that got me up for a second time with a front row seat because the alarm panel is only about six feet from the sofa. By late morning, I’d done some searching online about the problem and figured out that the system has a small lead acid battery that it uses as a backup power supply. That battery was dead or dying, prompting both beeps from our control panel and signals to the alarm company. Those alarm company signals resulted in robo-calls to our house saying “your alarm system has a low battery”.

I tried at various times during the day Saturday to call the alarm company to get advice on what to do. That initially proved fruitless. The robo-calls we got referred to a web site, and the web site referred to a 1-800 help line that called an automated phone tree. The phone tree eventually tried to call a number that prompted one of those “You have dialed a wrong number. If you reached this number in error, please hang up and call again.” messages from the phone company. After a few more episodes of beeping alarm panels during the day, I stepped up my efforts by looking at the contact numbers available on our monthly bills. One of those connected me to a human right away, and I finally found myself taking apart the alarm panel at around 5pm with the help of someone on the phone.

Getting at the battery proved fairly easy, but finding a replacement was less so. About the only place where I figured I could find such an item after 5pm on a Saturday was the local electronics megamart chain. It’s a great place to go for absolutely all things “technology geek”, but their customer service is absolutely horrible and their business practices cut every corner possible. Yet, they are a “one stop shop” with a lot of stuff you can’t get elsewhere, and cannot be ignored for that reason. I follow two rules when shopping there: 1. don’t call and ask if they have something because the sales drones always lie about what’s in stock, and 2. never buy anything “previously opened with manufacturers warranty” because all returns seem to be put back on the shelves at least once, even if parts are mangled, broken, or missing. Knowing that this might involve a journey, we decided that I should wait until Baby G. was fed, bathed, and in bed before I departed.

I finally began my quest just before 7:30pm. I headed to the nearest store for the battery, which the chain web site indicated was in stock. As with calling on the phone, I discovered that “in stock” on the web was a relative term. After looking for 10 minutes where on the shelf that the battery was supposed to be but wasn’t, I flagged down a sales drone and he looked at the inventory system. It said that there was supposedly one item in inventory, but the drone happily conceded that it was often difficult to locate an item if there was only one of them in the system. I had the presence of mind to ask about inventories at other stores; he said there was a store 10 miles away with four, and a store 20 miles away with twelve. I opted to head for the store 20 miles away because it was getting toward 8pm and the stores closed at 9pm. I’d rather go the distance and definitely find a battery than stop at a second store only to have to move on to a third and be worrying about closing time.

The further store did indeed have plenty of the batteries, though it took me a while to find one because each store is laid out differently and I hadn’t been to that location for a long time. The replacement battery took about 10 minutes to install and then 24-30 hours to charge. I had it installed by 9pm on Saturday, and the low battery warnings (with the attendant beeps and robo-calls) didn’t finally end until Sunday night. The system did not report that it was healthy again until I got up on Monday morning.

When I told my parents about all this on Sunday, my Mom humorously remarked that “all of you seem to try awfully hard to find new ways to lose sleep.”

I did get one consolation out of the shopping trip on Saturday night. The CD selection at the local electronics megamart has shrunk a lot over years (though it’s still better than say, Best Buy or Target) but they still have a rack for audiophile releases like SACDs and DVD-Audio discs. There, I was able to find a copy of the Mobile Fidelity SACD release of Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. This is a lush, beautiful stereo version (created under the supervision of Brian Wilson in 1997) that made for a gorgeous meditation as it played on my SACD player while I cleaned house on Sunday morning.

Christmas In My Memory

Christmas 2012 has come and gone. In general, it was a good holiday. I’ve been sick since around the 9th of December, and got some antibiotics for sinusitis on Friday, the 21st. They had me feeling much improved by the time Christmas rolled around (though I started another course of meds yesterday… but more on that later.) We went to Mass at 5pm on Christmas Eve, and then made it over to the in-laws by about 7:30pm to join them for dessert after a big turkey dinner. We opened gifts bright and early the next morning, and then returned to the in-laws for a less formal dinner on Christmas day (fondue and soup.) I made a Meyer Lemon Cake for the occasion that was a rather complicated to assemble — the cake is more a sponge/souffle and the filling is a lemon custard — but the amount of butter and eggs in the recipe ensures that it has to taste good.

Though my in-laws sometimes are sometimes a source of tension around the holidays, both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were largely a lovely time. One individual did briefly stir the pot a bit, as seems to be happening more lately, but two others jumped into the breach with some sympathy and understanding that smoothed everything over.

I believe it was when we were traveling on Christmas Eve that Mrs. Geek asked me “do you feel bad that we don’t go to the Land Of Your Birth for Christmas anymore?” I went home for the holidays for over a decade before I met Mrs. Geek, and we went a few times after we were married… the last time being 2007, I believe. We just don’t do it now. Airline equipment inventory and staffing and our vacation schedules just make it damn expensive and damn inconvenient to travel around the holidays anymore.

It’s more than that, too. The Christmas holiday in my parents house feels like part of my past. I could go back now, but it wouldn’t be the same. The relationship changed. I have my own home, my own family, our own evolving Christmas traditions. I’m sure that a visit at Christmas would be lovely, but parts of what made those Christmases past memorable to me are gone. Time marches on.

I finished a five day course of Zithromax on Christmas Day. By the following Friday, I felt sinus pressure return and sore throat assert itself. Clearly, the Zithromax had only won a temporary battle against the microbes in my head, not the war. A return to the Urgent Care clinic resulted in new prescription for a 21 day course of Levaquin. Take that, sinusitis!

filium suum primogenitum et vocavit nomen eius Iesum

Today’s entry comes to you courtesy of a blog chain by Harri3t Spy about holiday songs. Hugh mentioned the he was supposed to write 1100 words and mention six Christmas songs… I’m not sure that was part of the original assignment, but it sounds like a worthwhile goal.

The rest of the chain includes:
Harri3t at spynotes
Hugh at Permanent Qui Vive
Jeanne at Necromancy never pays
Cranky at It’s My Blog!
Dr. Geek at Dr. Geek’s Laboratory
Lemming at Lemming’s Progress
Readersguide at Reader’s Guide to…
Freshhell at Life in Scribbletown
edj3 at kitties kitties kitties
My Kids’ Mom at Pook and Bug
joyhowie at The Crooked Line
Magpie at Magpie Musing
Dave at The Ideal Dave
and back to Harri3t for a wrap-up at spynotes

I love Christmas music because it seems to reach back to the beginning of me. Some of the carols were probably the first songs for which I ever tried to learn the words. My Mom plays the piano and, then as now, she has a Story & Clark baby grand piano in the living room. In the bench for that piano, I recall two books of music, one green, hardbound, and thick containing many sorts of carols and folksongs, and the other red and white, soft bound, and much thinner solely dedicated to carols. Long before I knew how to read music, I remember looking in those books trying to figure out how the words to those songs flowed down the page from one line to the next, and then one verse to the next. When I later began to learn to play the flute, Christmas celebrations featured the extended family around a piano, my Mom or a cousin playing, with whatever instruments we knew to how to play… a flute, an oboe, a trumpet, one or two violins… accompanying a diverse group of voices, some dedicated to melody, others to improvised harmony.

I remember feeling particularly attracted to a number of songs in those years. “Jingle Bells” is perhaps the first song I recall, because its upbeat simplicity is something that attracts so many children. “Silent Night” was the first song for which I could read the words of the various verses off the written page. “Joy To The World” was a blast of radiant energy, as was “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing”. I also recall “Good King Wenceslas” as being a simple, plainsong favorite.

Another time and place that brought a couple favorite Christmas tunes to my memory was in my late teens. My Mom joined our Parish church choir. Being raised in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, she has a reverence for four part harmony that fuels her participation in choirs and choruses to this day. I eased into the Church choir, at least to help fill into the baritone section during the holiday season, because a flautist was sometimes required for descants or obbligatos. Since I attended rehearsals, why not sing? And if I was singing during holidays, why not sing throughout the year? For a couple years, it turned into a full membership.

Four songs that I recall with fondness from this period are “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”, “In The Bleak Midwinter”, “O Holy Night”, and the Latin text of “Ave Maria” set to the Franz Schubert melody of the same name. The last two were often used during Christmas Masses as the Communion meditation before the priest was seated, the church darkened and “Silent Night” was sung. The version of “O Holy Night” is particularly memorable when the choir director sang it as a tenor solo; I have two recordings of this, one by Harry Connick, Jr. from his Christmas Album, and the other by Mahalia Jackson on a Starbucks Christmas compilation album. The Mahalia Jackson recording probably comes closest to touching this memory for its pious simplicity, but it is a memory of a voice heard in person, of a particular place and time. As such, it lay slightly beyond the reach of present day events.

The last 10-15 years have brought more interest in secular Christmas fare. The soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” by Vince Guaraldi is a perennial favorite, at least when two tracks (“Hark The Herald Angels Sing” and “Christmas Time Is Here” (with vocals)) are excised to create a nearly instrumental jazz combo album. “Linus and Lucy” is nice to hear, but not really a holiday track. “Christmas Time Is Here” is a lovely, simple Christmas song… though of a more secular variety common to many holiday songs from the mid-20th century. Another favorite is “A Merry Affair: Starbucks Swinging Songs of Red Velvet and Mistletoe Kisses”, the 1999 Christmas Compilation CD from Starbucks. Later Starbucks compilation CDs have wandered more through a diverse range of time periods and styles (I have this and the six most recent discs from Starbucks), this one pretty much sticks to the jazz theme: Kurt Elling, Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan, lightly swingin’ Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Bing Crosby, Mel Torme, Lou Rawls, Charlie Hunter, Diana Krall, and Nancy Wilson.

But what of more religious Christmas material? Popular or jazz artists generally don’t embrace it. Being a good Catholic boy, Harry Connick, Jr. did put the Schubert “Ave Maria” and “O Holy Night” on his CD “When My Heart Finds Christmas”. Likewise, Gordon Sumner (aka Sting) was raised Roman Catholic, and his winter album “If on a Winter’s Night” includes versions of “Gabriel’s Message,” “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming,” and the “Cherry Tree Carol” that at least touch on the religious core of the holiday.

The one exception I have discovered in the last few years is the album “A Christmas Cornucopia” by Annie Lennox. A chorister in her youth, she chose traditional French and English carols, occasionally arranged with Medieval and Middle Eastern accents in an otherwise modern instrumental palate. After hearing the “date rape Christmas song” (Baby, It’s Cold Outside) and the “gold digger Christmas song” (Santa Baby) more than few times a Christmas season, it’s nice to hear more about “our Savior’s birth” than a Greek saint (St. Nicholas) with corrupted Dutch (Santa Claus) and German (Kris Kringle) nicknames, and dressed in a red and white suit inspired by 1930’s advertising art (Coca Cola) who is delivering gifts on the wrong day (St. Nicholas Day is December 6th). The song also ignited my interest in several carols that I had not previously appreciated, including “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, “The Holly and The Ivy”, and “The Coventry Carol”.

Thanks again to Harri3t Spy for giving me the opportunity to ramble through so many Christmas music memories. Lemming, you’re up next!

A meal that took seven days to prepare and two days to recover from

Thanksgiving 2012 is over. We had nine people (seven adults and two children) crowded around the holiday table and a good time was had by all. It was great, but I’m glad it’s over.

The full bill of fare was:
A smoked 12 pound organic turkey hen with gravy
Cornbread and sausage stuffing from an old Craig Claiborne recipe
Cranberry sauce with pinot noir from Epicurious
Potatoes au gratin
Brussel sprouts with lemon and pancetta
Homemade apple pie made with apples from our tree
Cheesecake and mini-bundt cake cupcakes

We started preparing in earnest for Thanksgiving dinner, about seven days earlier:

  • Friday, 16 November – I was committed to providing the first three items on the menu plus the apple pie, so spent an hour or two going over my archive of Thanksgiving recipes, plus a few new online sources to work up a master shopping list. My goal: to get as much grocery shopping done before the last three days preceding Thanksgiving to avoid the rush.
  • Saturday, 17 November – We have hardwood floors in the living room, dining room, and hallway of our house. They hadn’t been cleaned in far too long. Events early in the day kept me away from cleaning… so I got pretty much everything done between 6pm and 10pm.
  • Sunday, 18 November – What went for the hardwood floors on Saturday, went double for the bathroom floor on Sunday. I got that done by the early afternoon and then went to the local produce market to pick up the bulk of my shopping list with most of the rest coming from a nearby Whole Foods.
  • Monday, 19 November – While at work during the afternoon, I realized that I needed to increase the size of our turkey. The turkey was coming from Whole Foods, so I just called and changed the order from an 8-10lb bird to a 12-14lb bird. I also cooked up some cornbread for the dressing.
  • Tuesday, 20 November – Pick up the turkey day… a 12lb organic hen, that I promptly took home and put in brine for an 18-20 hour rest. I also stopped at a local wine merchant and picked up a couple bottles of Austrian dry Riesling. Some of the guests were bringing red wine, I wanted to have another option.
  • Wednesday, 21 November – After sitting in the brine, the turkey was removed and left to chill in refrigerator covered by a plastic bag overnight. I then picked the last four apples off our apple tree, combined them with one other that previously fell off the tree (a last apple fell off but rotted in the fridge) and a few of the same variety that I purchased on Sunday to make the apple pie.
  • Turkey Day, 22 November – The morning was spent doing some cleaning touch up and getting the table ready — the table was extended with a leaf, the table cloth changed, and the “good” china put out. Around 12:30pm, I started the fire in the smoker and put four quarts of water in the water pan. The smoker was slow to come up to the target temperature of 325 degrees F. It first started at around 225 degrees, perfect pork smoking temperature. I then lit and added additional charcoal, bringing it up to around 250 degrees. Then the turkey went in at around 1:15pm, figuring that if it went into the smoke for 60-90 minutes at lower temperature, I could finish it in the oven. I added more unlit charcoal, and the temperature climbed to around 295 degrees. After 90 minutes or so, the middle of the breast rose a third to a half the difference between the 45 degree starting temperature and the 165 degree finish. With bird in hand, I prepped the ingredients for the dressing. By around 4pm, the temperature rose to the 325-335 degree range, and the middle of the breast was 155 degrees. I made the cranberry sauce and cooked the dressing, and then saw to last minute details.

As it was, there was a small communications snafu — I told guests to arrive between 4:30 and 5pm, and Mrs. Geek thought I’d set a firm 5pm arrival time. So, husband, wife, and child were not quite as ready as we might have been when the first guests arrived around 4:30pm. That was my fault, entirely.. but it all came out ok in the end.

The turkey came out of the smoker at around 5:15pm and I made gravy. We dined on some cheese and charcuterie, while the last of the guests arrived. With a full compliment and some last minute (re-)heating, we sat down around 6pm and an excellent time was had by all.

A few pictures from the event:

Apples, home grown and store bought

A collection of apples, some from our tree, some professionally raised. The two runts on the ends are easy to spot as home grown, but the others not so much. I look forward to seeing what the tree will do next year!

Pie!!!

The apples (variety: Sierra Beauty) stay rather firm when cooked. I need to keep the apple slices on the thin side. I also used the America’s Test Kitchen “vodka” pie crust recipe — it makes a very soft dough, but I was afraid it would fall apart more than once. It did not. I need to remember to be more careful adding liquid. It made a good looking pie, don’t you think?

A good looking turkey

The turkey came out great this time around. A number of our guests had heard from me about smoked turkey and this one did not disappoint. The time in the brine generally made it so juicy that it practically made a mess of the kitchen floor once I started carving it.

Once the festivities were done, I was no good to anyone for about two days. It wasn’t so much as living as existing… but that’s what days off are for, I guess.