12/24/11

The long walk.

When Paul and I graduated from high school, he went away to Oswego College in western NY, and I stayed home and commuted to a local college. It was an odd time for two kids who had known each other since 7th grade and had spent the better part of six years as inseparable friends. For the first time since we met, we weren't a ten minute drive or a 20 minute bike ride away from each other. There also wasn't anything called "unlimited long distance" so we didn't talk on the phone much because it was expensive. Neither one of us was much of a phone guy anyway, unless a girl happened to be involved.

We both hated college, and hated what our lives had become. I had unexpectedly been accepted into my father's alma mater, and it was a great school, so I felt I had to at least give it a shot.

I had originally planned to go to RIT in Rochester, NY, but between my unexpected acceptance and (the ridiculously stupid reason of) not wanting to leave a rock band I was currently playing in, I decided to stay home and go to Union College instead. I think if I'm honest with myself, getting accepted there was also a little bit of a relief, since the thought of leaving home was a little scary to me at the time. That first year of college wasn't a great period in my life. The band broke up, I was miserable, I had no real friends because all my old friends were gone and since I wasn't living on campus, I didn't have much of an opportunity to make new ones. I wasn't even sure I had made the right choice of schools.

And electrical engineering? That shit is hard. I have to give my father credit for sticking it out, especially while working a full time job. I don't think I inherited much of his smarts, however, because I had no natural aptitude for math, and almost as little for physics, so it quickly became clear that I was destined to be a C student at best. Every day was going to be a constant struggle to study hard enough and long enough to pass my required engineering classes. It wasn't until I was almost a year into it that I realized the handicap I was working under -- all the other kids who lived on campus "studied together" regularly, and by studied together, I mean they passed around the test answers from the previous year's classes. I was the only idiot trying to get by on brains alone.

Paul was in a similar situation, but with the added burden of having left a girlfriend when he went away to school. He had been dating a junior, so when he went off to college, she got to stay behind. They tried to make it work for a while, but you know how it is when you're 19 -- your mind runs away with you and your head fills with all sorts of imaginary betrayals. Given the long distance nature of their relationship, they sort of unofficially broke up even though he was still in love with her, or at least he thought he was. At the time, I thought it was more of an obsession, since when we did talk on the phone, that's mostly what we talked about. I think she was a kind of anchor for him -- a link to home, a link to the the past, a link to everything good and honest and fine in his life. All the things that being "away" seemed to change and erode. I spent a lot of time doing what you need to do for friends sometimes; I reassured him, agreed with his assessments, told him things were going to work out; even though I knew I was probably just telling him what he wanted to hear.

It's amazing how all-encompassing your problems can seem when you're in college, but when you look back on them ten or twenty years later, they seem so insignificant. Test scores, grade point averages, girls who like you and girls who don't, whether you'll have a part time job for the summer -- writing it down makes it look even more ridiculous. Even so, the pressure can seem immense; I think because behind it all, there is something so daunting that you are only able to think of it in abstract terms. Your future. Your career. The rest of your life. Abstract concepts that, if you were anything like I was while in college, you could only allow yourself to think about for short periods of time, otherwise the unanswerable questions might drive you insane.

The summer after high school graduation was a weird time for us. Summer had barely begun, yet the end of it was always in the back of our minds. We spent the whole three months wondering what was going to happen with our girlfriends and even with our own friendship. We hiked a lot in the woods near his house, talked about our plans and, because we were geeks, played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons. We played the same campaign on and off for most of the summer, until my character Jaxom died in a random cave-in while on a quest. It didn't seem fair, and still doesn't, but by that time in our lives we both knew that life isn't always fair. Sometimes a cave-in happens when you least expect it and there's not a damned thing you can do about it.

We did see each other on and off during that first year, but since my school used some ridiculous thing called a Tri-mester, which split the school year into three equal parts with short breaks in between, our time off never overlapped. He used to come home for break after I had already gone back, and sometimes just for kicks, I'd drive by in the morning and pick him up in the Impala and he'd go with me to my classes. We'd sit in the back and he'd spend about a week being a bad influence on me, drawing cartoons and designing knives and swords in the margins of his notebook while I was desperately trying to understand whatever the teacher was attempting to explain. Once in a while, just to be a wise-ass, he'd raise his hand and answer a question. I don't remember him ever getting one wrong.

It was during the first of these breaks that we vowed we'd start writing letters to each other while he was away, but instead of doing it the normal and sane way, we decided to do it in the spirit of our D&D campaigns -- complete with an ink-dipped fountain pen, parchment paper and medieval script. We called them Scrolls, and even managed to send the first few as rolled up parchments in mailing tubes. The tubes didn't last long because they were a pain in the ass and expensive to mail, so we switched to envelopes almost immediately. The scrolls themselves contained lots of ornate drop caps and plenty of thees, thous and thines with a lot of -eth endings on the verbs to keep things interesting. Over time, we named our own kingdoms and wrote as the relative monarchs of said kingdoms, both trapped by our responsibilities, both looking forward to the day when we could afford to leave our castles for a period of time and wander the land as common woodsmen.

Completely geeky, I know. Even so, it always brightened my day when I checked the mail and had a new scroll from my friend. They always began with "Hail and well met, Lord Virgil," and just reading that salutation brought a smile to my face and lifted my spirits. In fact, it still does. We imparted news officially, as if it were news of the kingdom, and we spoke of our women in couched terms, referring to them as m'lady, harlots or wenches, depending upon our mood and their behavior. The mailman must have thought we were completely nuts, given the sealing wax and weird crests and symbols on the outside of the envelopes.

I saved them, tucked away inside an old notebook from school, and tonight is the first night I've looked at them since Paul passed away in '09. After he died, his wife found some of the scrolls I had written to him - which he had kept the same way I had - and she gave them to me. It was interesting to see both sides of the correspondence in one place, and it was a shock to see, some 25 years later, how depressed and beaten down we both were, and how much strength we took from each other's words of encouragement, even though they were disguised as Kingly Missives.

There was one scroll from Paul that I find myself thinking about every Christmas eve. It was a particularly bleak one because he had finally come to the conclusion that it was over between him and his girlfriend and he was feeling depressed and a bit adrift, and Christmas break was coming up. For the first time since he had gone away, he wasn't planning to see her when he came home for break. At the same time, I had a crush on a girl who liked me "as a friend," and she was all I could think about. I was also seriously contemplating a change of schools, and I hadn't had the guts to spring that on my parents just yet. I had finally figured out that electrical engineering wasn't for me, and I was averaging somewhere around a 2.5 GPA. Needless to say, neither one of us felt much like celebrating.

In the correspondence, we talked about honor and friendship, our own mortality and the future, and the importance of staying true to your beliefs, and to your friends. The scroll began with his news of the break up, and ended with him asking me to write back and tell him what I truly thought about his situation. We knew that even as events in our lives forced changes upon us, we would always be friends -- and through this series of scrolls, two very introverted geeks were able to admit to each other that sometimes in life you need to lean on your friends, and that each of us would be there for the other, no matter what our futures may bring.

He closed his scroll with this:

Snow, falling softly.
Songs and bells ring through the winter night.
People laughing and close....distant they seem.
This is Christmas - a time of love, or so they say.
Where is that love for me? Do you feel the same, my brother?
While others are merry, I shall be empty.
In your kingdom, is it the same?
I will walk in that dark and holy night,
and I will meet you in the fresh snow, and I will smile.
For this Christmas, we celebrate friendship and brotherhood.

Merry Christmas, my Brother. My friendship and fellowship is my gift to you.

Geeky? Without a doubt. Heartfelt and sincere? As sincere as a 19-year-old kid can be, and that's pretty goddamned sincere. Corny? It may seem so now, but it didn't at the time. At the time, it was a lifeline. That was a dark Christmas for both of us, but we helped each other get through it.

The following year, I transferred to Siena college and he did the same, and we spent four more years in Academia where we muddled through most of computer science, decided that it sucked, and ultimately switched to marketing and advertising, which was interesting and pretty easy if you were creative. Mostly what I remember about those years was the sheer amount of fun we had.

Eventually, we got out of school and got decent jobs; I somehow managed to marry the girl I had that crush on, and a couple of years later, he married a girl he met one summer up at The Slug's family camp. On some level, it's like that first miserable college year never existed. Time fades memories and if you're lucky, you remember the good times better than the bad. Based on some of the stuff I wrote, I think that's definitely the case for me, because I was one gloomy son of a bitch on paper.

Even back then, we both realized life was short. I think Paul felt it more intimately than I did, and I think he also somehow knew that he'd have less time on earth than most. We had more than one conversation about how the life expectancy of your typical viking was about 39, and the life expectancy of a viking warrior was probably much less than that. We marveled at the fact that you could be considered a wise old elder at the age of 35, even though as 19 year old kids, we couldn't even imagine being that ridiculously old. I think that knowledge of his mortality drove him much of the time -- then and later on in life -- and it's probably why he had accomplished more in his 45 years than most people could given twice that number.

Back in 2004, we found ourselves once again living in houses that were roughly ten minutes from each other by car. As a result, for five years we spent countless Sunday mornings drinking coffee and hanging around in each other's workshops. When the snow flew, we'd invariably joke about that scroll, and swear that one Christmas eve, when both of us were home and our wives were asleep on the couch, we'd take that long winter walk. He'd start out from his house and I from mine, we'd meet somewhere in the middle and, with little fanfare save a handshake and a quiet "Hail and well met, brother," we'd break out the flask of Drambuie and toast our lives and the sheer, unbelievable good fortune that had graced us with this enduring friendship.

Every Christmas eve, especially when the moon is full and there's fresh snow on the ground, I sorely regret never having taken that walk. Maybe someday, many years from now or in the blink of an eye, it will still happen -- if there is indeed something after this life, as he always believed.

In the meantime, I'll raise a glass of Drambuie to my friend, my brother, and take a moment to remember the good times we had.

Merry Christmas, Mate.

Hail, and well met.



12/22/11

Step on my back, break your mother's crack.

Or something like that.

A couple of weeks ago, I got a muscle spasm in between my shoulder blades, up toward my neck, so I went to the doctor. He gave me a prescription for a week's worth of muscle relaxers, and sent me on my way. I took maybe three of them over the course of the next day, and in a few days the spasm was gone. Also, I almost missed work because you do NOT want to wake up in the morning after you take one of those things.

I thought that would be the end of it, but no. For some reason, ever since then, when I hunch over at the computer to type, or extend my left arm while I'm sitting, I get what feels like a tingle in the middle of my back, and it radiates down to the first finger and thumb on my left hand. It's the weirdest thing. I figured it would go away in a day or so, but it didn't. So finally, last week I told my wife I was going to go back to the doctor, and she said, "Why don't you try my chiropractor? He's really good." I was skeptical. I watched as many Two and a half men reruns at dinner time as the next guy, and I'd never really been to a chiropractor, even though I've had friends and relatives swear by it. Me, I've always thought of it as a pseudo-science at best, similar to acupuncture. Maybe there's something to it and maybe not.

So I agreed to give it a shot. I know there are some bone-crackers who get into the kooky-spooky spiritual aspects of things and start talking about your energies and your aura and the color of your poop, but when I had my first appointment, this guy didn't seem like that at all. He seemed to be pretty much focused on the mechanics of your body; your posture, your joints, your spinal curvature, things that made sense to me. It was more like talking to a physical therapist. The other thing I liked about him is he put me on the table with my face nestled in some kind of vinyl butt, looked at my spine, felt around a little bit, and said nothing major was "out," which I think is the highly scientific term chiropractors use when they describe your bones. "Your C5 and C7 are out," they might say. Where they have gone, and what they might be up to while they are out is anybody's guess. Whatever it is, they are apparently not supposed to be doing it. I'm pretty sure it involves a hot-sheet hotel in a seedy part of town.

So he asked me more about the referral pain down my arm, told me to lie facedown on the table, and then hooked me up to electricity. He put contacts on my back and connected wires to them, and then I'm guessing he took the ends of the wires and jammed them straight into a 220 volt socket, because suddenly my shoulder muscles contracted, my arms went straight out and my head tried to pull itself into my ass from the wrong direction. (On second thought, there's probably not really a right direction.) Anyway, this went on for a few seconds until he got it adjusted. After he dialed it back to 11, I was just ever-so-slightly shrugging my shoulders every three seconds, like I just didn't care about something over and over. He put some some sort of moist heat pack over the electrodes and my shoulders, and then left me there for 10 minutes.

When he came back, he worked over the shoulder muscle for a few minutes, rubbed some sort of camphor and menthol goop into my neck, told me he thought my pain and weird tingling fingers were due to a muscular problem, and charged me $65. I didn't feel much different, other than now I smelled like someone rubbed me down with Ben Gay and vodka, so I made another appointment and went home. In my head, I figured I'd give this guy a week or two, and then I'd head to an orthopedic or something.

The next appointment went about the same, and again there wasn't much improvement. He sent me for an X-ray, and what that told him is that due to not having great posture (have you ever seen an X-ray of a drummer's spine?) I had lost some of the "curve" in my neck. There was also some bone spurs in my cervical vertebrae because I'm old as dirt and I guess after you turn 40 your bones start doing weird shit to protect themselves and in another 20 years I'll probably have extra phalanges sprouting out of my coccyx or something.

He said the X-ray wouldn't show a disc problem, so he wanted to get an MRI if my insurance would cover it. Either way, he said he thought I could benefit from a good stretching and decompression. I figured he was going to give me some 5th generation, crooked, copy machine printout of some exercises that featured a faceless figure with an oval head and lots of dotted lines, but instead he brought me into the next room where this happened:


I sat back on the table and he put my neck into a vise, and then strapped my head to this sled-like assembly. Attached to the sled was a cable that ran up to the back of the table, and the whole thing was attached to a computer. He programmed it, and after making sure I wasn't too uncomfortable (I wasn't, considering I was strapped to a machine being controlled by what looked like an IBM 486 pc from the early 90's) he turned the lights on low and told me he'd be back in 15 minutes.

The first time it went to 27 pounds of pull, I was pretty sure I was going to be paralyzed from the neck down. I remembered the quality of the graphics on that video screen and prayed it wasn't running Windows Me under the covers, because that OS was so bad it would pull your head off your body just for the fun of watching you die.

After a while though, it started to feel kind of good. It would slowly pull up to 27 pounds, then release to 14 or so. Then back up again. Before I knew it, the 15 minutes were up, and I wanted one of these things for my living room.

I've been on it twice so far and I can't really tell if it does anything or not. It feels pretty good when it stops, but then again, so does stabbing a fork into your eye. I know one thing, I'm going broke in this place. Really what's happening is I'm paying thirty five dollars for someone to give me a half-assed back rub and then pull gently on my head for 15 minutes.*

What I mean to say is, if it's truly muscular like he says, I could probably go to an actual massage therapist and pay about fifteen bucks more for an hour-long massage.

I have the MRI scheduled for Wednesday, so I'm probably not going back to him until I have some pictures of the inside of my spine. Wish me luck.



*That sounds dirty, but I'm leaving it.


12/20/11

Beans, Beans are good for your heart.

So the other day, I made these:


Well, I didn't actually make them, I mean I didn't grow them in my garden or anything. But still, I had something to do with their transition to that state.

If you didn't know, I'm a bit of a coffee snob. If someone offers me a cup of coffee and I accept, and they immediately take the can of Maxwell House out of the freezer, I always have second thoughts. Sometimes I'll change my mind and say I'd like tea instead, or sometimes I'll choke it down if I'm trying to be polite. I think "Good to the Last Drop" is probably one of the biggest and oldest marketing lies out there. In other words, I prefer to grind my own beans and I am partial to a darker roast and using a french press.

And then it all went to hell, because I read a stupid article on the stupid internet about how I could roast my own stupid coffee using nothing but a stupid $20 ebay popcorn popper.

I had to try it. Apparently the popper I wanted was called a WestBend Poppery, or Poppery II. I found a Poppery II cheap, so I Bought it Now, baby. Then I went on a search for green coffee beans, having visions of the sweet, sweet aroma of freshly roasted coffee wafting through my house.

I researched a few other things, too. Technically, coffee is "stale" about 5 days after it's roasted. You can slow that down with vacuum packing, but once you open your bag, use it up quick. Green coffee beans supposedly stay fresh and good for 6 months to a year in their unroasted state. I learned about chaff, and first crack and second crack. I found a place called Sweet Maria's, and I ordered up some coffee.

I got the popcorn popper first. It sounded like a worn out blow dryer with a bad bearing, but it got pretty hot and looked clean. I cleaned it up a little more, found a glass lantern chimney to replace the plastic top, and waited for my coffee to arrive.

I had ordered the "sampler pack" which means I got about 8 pounds of coffee total, with four different types of beans from different countries. It finally showed up a few days after the popper, and I was ready to roll.

The labels on the beans read like terms you'd hear at a wine or beer tasting. "Fruited bittersweet balance, chocolate biscuit, plum, sweet spices like cinnamon, ginger, clove and coriander" was on one package, and another read "Dried mango, peach, tamarind, rustic chocolate" (Rustic chocolate? That doesn't sound very appetizing.) I was excited. I had to try this asap.

I set everything up on the kitchen counter and plugged the popper in. I opened one of the bags of coffee and dumped in around 4-5 ounces of green beans, and got a wooden spoon to stir it with until it lost enough moisture to stir itself.

The first thing I noticed was that roasting coffee smells like ass. It smells nothing at all like coffee, and instead of a heavenly aroma of coffee wafting through my house, instead what I had was something that smelled like rotten grass slowly heating up in the sun. I turned on the fan over the stove, and started stirring the beans with the handle of the spoon. Immediately I noticed another problem. In order to look at the coffee, I had to put my head directly over the top of the popper, and since it's a hot air popper, air that smelled like ass was blowing directly into my face. It was like being forced to talk to someone with bad breath because they have something you want. After a minute or so, I noticed the chaff starting to come off the beans. This is the outer skin of the coffee bean, and it's very light. Think of that thin covering over a peanut when you take it out of the shell. Like that. This isn't so bad, I thought, leaning in for another stir.

Suddenly, I was in the middle of a brown, smelly snowstorm and chaff was blowing all over the kitchen. I had half-expected some kind of mess, which is why I decided to do this when my wife wasn't home. It was then that I heard what they call "first crack" and it sounds exactly like it was described. Sort of a popcorn-y sound, but not quite. It was less violent, maybe more like the sound you'd hear if you broke a candy cane in half. Suddenly, all the beans were doing this, and the popper was getting pretty lively. The smell didn't really improve much, however.

After most of the chaff had blown away, the beans started to brown. After about 14 minutes of this, I heard what I thought was "second crack" which sounds just like first crack except it's one higher. I wanted a nice dark roast, so I kept things going for a bit, watching the color of the beans until I had what I wanted. The fan over the stove wasn't cutting it, and the room was getting a little bit hazy. I was pretty sure that I saw the beginning of a little smoke, but I wasn't positive. Maybe the bean fumes were getting to me.

When I had a color I could live with, I unplugged the popper and dumped the beans into a metal colander, in order to quickly cool them. As I swished them around, I leaned in to take a little whiff, and sadly, things hadn't improved. It didn't smell like rotten grass anymore, but it certainly didn't smell like coffee. But that was OK. It was my first try, and I figured I did something wrong. I dumped the beans into an airtight container, and cleaned up my mess. Mission accomplished, sort of.

That night while I was in bed, I kept smelling that ass-grass roasting coffee smell. My wife didn't mention anything when she got home, so I figured airing out the house had worked OK, but this was really strong. It took me a few minutes to realize it was my hair. From sticking my face over the popper, I had that oily stench pretty much embedded in my scalp.

The next morning, I went downstairs to the kitchen and opened the container and...it was coffee! Honest to god, fantastic smelling, fresh-roasted coffee that smelled like you would expect it to. I brewed it up, and I thought it tasted pretty good for my first attempt. It wasn't as strong as Starbucks, but it wasn't as bitter either. I am now going to try a bunch of other bean types, and roasting times, just to see what I end up with. Also, I'm doing this in my shop now. No more kitchen counter. Here's a little video of that roast in the first picture when it was almost done.

I've tried all four in my sampler pack and here's what I've written down in my log so far:

Ethiopia Harar Longberry:
What I am supposed to taste: Hints of dried mango, peach, tamarind, and spicy cinnamon
What I actually taste: Weak-ass Coffee

Sumatra Dry-hulled Aceh Bukit:
What I am supposed to taste: Fruity, chocolate biscuit, plum, sweet spices
What I actually taste: Your Basic Really Good Restaurant Coffee

Brazil Cerrado DP Fazenda Aurea:
What I am supposed to taste: creamy body, very nutty, chocolate in darker roasts, banana, melon
What I actually taste: Average Coffee

Costa Rica Bajo Canet de Tarrazu:
What I am supposed to taste: Brightness (?), heavy fruit aromatics, banana, melon, orange peel, dark brown sugar
What I actually taste: More Coffee

So clearly I have to work on my tasting skills, because I have none. They all taste like coffee to me. Good, and fresh, but similar in nature. I need to learn more about the limitations of this corn popper method, too. Maybe that's my problem. Maybe I need to get an $800 home roaster so I can turn into a pretentious dickhead and pretend I taste all that stuff in those descriptions.

More so, I mean.


12/7/11

Doing it wrong.

This has to be the ballsiest way ever to commit suicide:

Flesh-eating piranhas kill man in Bolivia
By The Associated Press

Authorities say piranhas attacked and killed a young man who leaped into a river infested with the flesh-eating fish in northeastern Bolivia.

Daniel Cayaya is a police official in the small city of Guayaramerin. He tells The Associated Press that the 18-year-old man was drunk when he jumped out of a canoe in the nearby town of Rosario del Yata, 400 miles north of the capital of La Paz.

Cayaya says the man bled to death after the attack, which occurred last Thursday. First word of the incident emerged Tuesday, when it was reported by the Erbol radio station.

Cayaya says the police suspect suicide because the man was a fisherman in the region who knew the Yata river well.

That's just crazy. It's like deciding to kill yourself by juggling a bunch of hornets nests while dancing a jig on a fire-ant hill.

12/5/11

I probably won't buy these.

They confuse me. Do they give you the crabs? Or take them away?


And what's up with the company name? Utz? It sounds like the noise you make when someone hits you in the solar plexus with oh, I don't know, a giant crab, for instance. Come on, snack food machine filler guy, stop being a lazy piece. I know you put shit like this in the machine just so you don't have to fill it as often. Next thing you know, we'll have three different rows of Necco wafers up in there to keep those disgusting Chuckles company. Is there anything more vile in taste and consistency than the black Chuckle? No, there is not.

So let's dispense with The Crab Chip, ok? Bring back the Cheddar SunChips, or the extra crunchy Cheetos. You know, the real food. Crabs and Lobsters are nothing more than nasty looking, underwater bugs. All you people who say you love the taste of lobster and crab -- face it; you just love the taste of melted butter.

Speaking of bugs, did you guys see this thing? Holy shit. My wife would have a stroke if she saw one of these in the house. Also, I wouldn't recommend stomping on it to kill it. I have a feeling it might shoot up your pant leg like a giant mayonnaise packet or something. I mean, I'm not afraid of bugs as a general rule, but that thing eats carrots.*

Whole carrots.

Jesus.


*I did some additional reading and it turns out that some people cook these bugs and eat them. That's just disgusting. But I suppose if you could feed it a carrot, a potato and some celery right before you cook it, you could save some time on Weta stew.

Edit: OK, i bought them today. First they are...not horrible. They are extremely salty, and they remind me a little bit of the old Wise Barbecue chips we used to get when I was a kid. I ate most of the bag, but didn't finish them. Sorry to say, they're not my favorite. I think that honor has to go to:


They are awesome. Trust me.