Tuesday, 1 October 2013

BBQ!



K and I are both certified KCBS BBQ judges. In order to compete KCBS style, you need to provide four entries for judging: pork shoulder (pork butt), beef brisket, pork ribs, and chicken. If you’ve ever watched one of the BBQ reality shows and wondered what it’s like to compete without a few hundred thousand dollars to drop on a rig, here you go:

We headed down south for some fun with the in-laws and a combination MBN and KCBS BBQ competition. I realize that every part of a BBQ competition can be met with a 12-year-old’s sense of humor, so when you’re laughing at “meat inspection” and “smoking meat,” know that I did too.

We competed on my brother-in-law’s team last year, so we had a decent idea of what was going on, but this was our first solo competition. We started the trip out with two goals. One, do better than last year. Two, place in the top half. Half of achieving your dreams is having low expectations, so I tailored my own goal: Don’t come in last.

Two people makes for a pretty small team, so we kidnapped our closest friend and put him to work. He proved to be smarter than both of us, as he had a cot/tent overnighted to my in-laws’ house. While I slept at a 90-degree angle on wet, hard plastic in the back of my car, he was happily sprawled out in his seven-foot bed for the weekend.

We packed up the car, drove the nine hours down after work on Wednesday, and arrived shortly after midnight. My mother-in-law greeted us with boxed wine and a smile, so we were off to a good start. I set her up with an e-cig, and she was happily vaping with one hand and smoking with the other when I went to bed.

We got up early on Thursday to set up our competition space. We invested in a port-a-potty for the weekend, borrowed two tables from the VFW, and set-up our smoker. We brought one pop-up tent with us, but had to purchase a second one when the hurricane-style rain hit. One of my friends from Texas posted a nice picture of the storm, which stretched from Mexico to Canada. Our ambassador was kind enough to acquire/steal some cardboard so we could craft a “floor” in the muddy parking lot.

The first night featured a fish fry and chicken wing competition. We didn’t place in the top five in either category, but that’s not the point of entering. For auxiliary events, the contest provides the meat. So, we got 10 pounds of free chicken and fish to “compete with” and then eat/share with everyone around us. Delicious and economical.

We hit up the local liquor store for some discount rum and presented HB with a gift for joining us. K and I opted to sleep on a real mattress for the first night and left HB in his rum-scented tent to guard the port-a-potty.

K and HB attended the 0800 meat inspection on Friday, which I felt entitled to skip out on. I showed up at noon and pretended to be interested in prepping the pork shoulder and brisket. Meanwhile, the next-door RV battery shorted out in the rain and partially electrocuted one of the competitors. Luckily, K used to work for a battery supply company in town, so he took the man of the RV over to the warehouse to pick out a new battery.

K and I went to the head cooks’ meeting at 1600, where we heard some inspiring quotes such as, “You can’t have a BBQ competition without teams.” Then we picked up our gift baskets, which consisted of 70-ish pounds of free charcoal, moonshine, soda, beer, sauces, T-shirts, apples, aprons, rubs, key-chain razor blades (yes, you’re reading that correctly), and notepads. We already felt like winners.

We finished prepping the chicken thighs and ribs (gross) and setting up for a long night of smoking meat (hehe). After a rousing game of meat tetris, we accepted that it wasn’t all going to fit on the smoker and decided to add my father-in-law’s Weber grill. He also brought us the industrial-style florescent light from his shed to help with the nighttime cooking. It worked. You can see that thing from space.

Once everything was prepped and we had a timeline set up, we took the opportunity to check out our competition. Some of their rigs cost more than my house, but I have to admit they do look really cool! After confirming that the VFW team was already shithouse drunk, we returned to our homemade setup, ready to win.

My brother-in-law stopped by to inform us that the VFW team had called in back-up cooks, but even they were starting to slur unintelligibly. My father-in-law used to be a competitor, and has many great stories of teams that were unable to get a single category turned in on time due to alcoholic difficulties. This competition was starting to look up for us.
We feasted on chili dogs as we prepared hundreds of dollars worth of meat for our anonymous judges. The waste is always concerning to me, as each judge will take a tiny bite of the meat and the rest is thrown away. It not as though we enjoy wasting good BBQ. I was told in judging class that if you only take a small bite of each competition piece, you can expect to eat two pounds of meat in one afternoon.

After ensuring all of our gauges were reading correctly, we retired to our respective sleeping arrangements. Around 0500, I gave up on “sleeping” and began to clean the prep space and set up for the day’s events.

Everything made it to the grill/smoker at the appropriate times. HB began designing the turn-in boxes with the tenacity of an Adderall-fueled housewife. Every piece of parsley was specially chosen and carefully laid to enhance the appearance of the meat. Box design is an art, with only certain types of greenery allowed in competition. Then again, you have to trust that your judges can distinguish curly leaf parsley from arugula.

HB’s dedication to vegetable arrangement scored well in all categories. After everything was turned in, we did shots of tasty, tasty whiskey with the neighbors in exchange for local wine.

HB and I headed back to the house to shower and change before the awards ceremony. While he was in the shower, I sat down to rest. I woke up late that night, confused and still reeking of BBQ. We’d missed the awards ceremony, but I’d successfully caught up on 3 days of sleep.

We headed home the next day, with our gift basket in hand. K’s already preparing for the next competition, and I’ve been buying more salads.


Tuesday, 20 August 2013

In the End


It’s been a crazy, weird summer. I finished my Masters with my 4.0 intact and received a perfect score on my thesis. I suppose I should feel ecstatic right now. I set a goal, formulated a plan, and I completed said goal. However, I feel a little…empty.

For one, whenever I answer the dreaded question, “What did you get your degree in?” I’m met with blank stares and then the inevitable, “What are you doing to do with that?” I’ve found that replying with, “Who cares?” does not elicit a positive response. Truthfully, I have no idea what I will do aside from thinking critically and taking pride in the fact that I completed the degree that posed the most interest to me. Also, if you misquote classic literature, I can totally call your ass out on it.

I have another degree in the works because, why not? My inner masochist apparently enjoys learning new things and earning degrees, which is as good a hobby to have as any. I think the reason I feel a certain emptiness has more to do with the timing of my graduation than anything else.

In July, I experienced a death in the family. I’ve experienced the deaths of friends before, both from senseless violence and from the inevitability of being a veteran. I understand that we will all eventually die, and I’ve lost my youthful belief that I am somehow immortal. I don’t take as many risks as I used to take. I buckle my seatbelt, don’t smoke, and try to eat vegetables every now and then.

But in the end, we all die.

As I spoon-fed thickened cranberry juice into the mouth of a man who taught me so much about life, I couldn’t feel excited about another piece of paper framed on my wall. In the end, this man that I admired and thought was larger than life, slipped away from me.

I’ll always have my memories and the lessons I learned from him, but he’s gone from this world. I can’t pick up the phone and hear his voice. I can’t hold him. I can’t get irritated with him or love him in spite of it. It’s times like this that I wish I still believed that there was a magical place where we’ll all meet up and laugh about that one time I got a massive speeding ticket in Iowa.

This led me to many nights of tears and wondering about the purpose of this crazy thing we call life. My adventure partner summed it up pretty well during one of these dark times, saying that maybe it’s just to leave this place a little better than we found it.

This week, in a dark moment at work, I went into the cooler and cleaned out all of the dead flowers that never made it into arrangements. I emptied the muddied water, tossed out the wilted buds, and swept the floor clear of debris. I may only have two days left at this job, but the cooler is cleaner because I was here. Today, as I listened to the soft cries of a woman on the phone ordering flowers for her lost friend, I accepted that my role at that point was to pacify her pain for a few minutes.

I can’t change the world, I can’t bring back the ones that I love, and although I’m still crying right now, I know that if I can bring a moment of peace to someone who needs it, my work here is done. I end this post with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thoughts on success, if nothing else to prove that an MA in Humanities in useful:

Success

To laugh often and much
to win the respect of intelligent people
and affection of children; to earn the
appreciation of honest critics and
endure the betrayal of false friends;
to appreciate beauty, to find the best
in others; to leave the world a bit
better, whether by a healthy child
a garden patch or redeemed
social condition; to know even
one life has breathed easier because
you have lived. This is to have
succeeded.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, 20 May 2013

Some Observations on Work



I'm aware that getting a graduate degree doesn't guarantee career success. Luckily, I didn't tie my degree to my economic success. I went for the degree I wanted, and left my career to my experience.

However, now that I'm knee-deep in my thesis, I can honestly say that I feel for those liberal arts majors who don't have the luxury of the GI Bill.

Before you embark on a graduate degree, consider how much it's going to cost you. I can say with personal experience that no one gives a shit if you have an MA in Humanities. Just this week I was commended on how hard I was working and told to hurry up and finish so that I could start working for just above minimum wage.

I'm lucky to be graduating without any debt, but if you're going to rack up a ton of student loans to finance your education, consider whether your future career will pay off those loans. Look at career projections and expected earnings for your area. You may have to move in order to find work, so be prepared for that.

I realize we're in a recession, but I can say with certainty that there are plenty of low-paying jobs available. It may not be your dream career, but it will provide you with some cash to pay down some loans while you look for something related to your degree. Take anything. You'd be surprised how much fun you can have (and how much you can learn) from something you weren't expecting to do. I wouldn't classify myself as a professional florist/art instructor, but I've learned a lot about customer service and people in general. Below are just a few of my observations.

1. Consider the intelligence of the average person, and then realize that at some point, you're going to come in contact with the bottom 50%.

The best example I can give is the fact that everyone loves delivery, but not everyone knows their own address. This is doubly so in rural areas, where people feel the need to describe the buildings around them in order to tell you where they are.

2. Everyone has a different pet peeve, and you won't know what that is until you piss them off.

Things that might not bother you will cause a complete stranger to flip the hell out. You will consider their outrage to be insane, until some other service worker pisses you off. I've had people lose their minds because they weren't sitting where they expected to be. If they're clearly insane, their friends will inevitably tip well to compensate you for the inconvenience, which is nice.

3. Every job has things that are less than ideal.

Maybe your coworkers are complete idiots, but you get as much vacation as you want. Look at the pros, and balance them against the cons.

4. High salary doesn't necessarily guarantee career satisfaction.

See every post from last year.

5. Your passion might not be everyone else's.

Want to build a website devoted to your deepest interests? Make sure that at least one other person on earth shares your passion. Otherwise, buy a journal and save yourself a lot of time and money.

6. Not everyone tips, but everyone has an excuse if they don't.

In cases where I wasn't expecting a tip, it just makes it awkward when you say something along the lines of, "So…you rock, but I don't have any cash on me..." Just smile and say thank you instead.

7. Some people are having a bad day. Don't take it personally.

I keep this in mind when people are raging over their funeral flowers. They're living the worst day of their life. If they need to take it out on me, I get that. It's better they let loose on a florist than venting their frustrations to their equally miserable family members.

8. Whatever you do, stay out of management.

I've never been so happy to not have a management position. It's so freeing to say, "Let me get my manager," and step away from the situation. My apologies to J; I understand how much your position sucks.

9. Know what works for you.

You might find out mid-degree that you hate people. If you're on the fast track to be a psychologist, it might be time to consider other options before you push through to the end.

10. As long as you're happy, it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks.

There are plenty of people out there who think I've lost my goddamn mind. That's fine, because it's my life. I'm the one who has to get up everyday and decide whether or not I'm happy with my circumstances. The same fact is true for you. Your definition of happiness might be living in a vamper and working as a parking attendant. It might be moving to a foreign island and making a living as a bartender. It doesn't matter, as long as you're ok with your decisions. In the words of Thoreau, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Find your path and own it.

Calling a Florist Doesn't Have to be Scary



Now that Mother's Day is over, I'm sure you all remembered to send your mom a nice floral arrangement or at least a card. If not, you might want to get on that.

For next year, allow me to explain how the floral industry works. Most of you probably logged onto one of the many online sites that promises to deliver some god-awful arrangement for the low-low price of $75 or more.

Here's the thing: online sites source to local florists. So you're paying a massive processing fee for one of these sites to send your order to a local florist. That florist may or may not have what you want in stock, hence that whole "substitutions" clause. If we have the exact flowers, they might be the last of a bunch, which doesn't guarantee that they're the freshest flowers we have.

Instead of paying a mark-up to get something close to what you want, just call the florist yourself. Maybe you know what flowers you want; mention those (i.e. iris, tulips, roses, etc.) By doing so, you're guaranteeing the freshest flowers and saving yourself a ton of money. The florist knows exactly what you want, and can tell you whether their lilies are fresh or close to death.

Another idea is to opt for a blooming plant. Then you know your mom will enjoy the plant for years to come, and she won't have to clean the wilted mess off her counter top the following week. In either case, by contacting the florist directly, you'll have a better idea of what you're getting, and you'll get personalized service at a discounted price.

Florists want you to have a positive experience and to enjoy your arrangement. We can't guarantee that if you choose a product we don't have in stock. You'll only know what we have if you call. Also, consider calling early. Then we can order the exact flowers from our wholesalers, and have them on time. There's nothing we can do if you call at 2:00 pm on Valentine's Day. We understand your plight, but it's on you to plan ahead.

If you're totally at a loss for what you want, mention your mom's favorite color. She likes purple? I can do a kick-ass purple arrangement. You don't have to be an expert--that's what we're here for!

Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Joys of Being a Landlord



The good news: we got our house back! The bad news: unpacking is still a nightmare.

We scheduled our movers and U-Haul well ahead of time and picked an unseasonably warm weekend to move. Then the blizzard happened. We managed to get everything loaded into the U-Haul and only slipped on the ice a few times. Then we realized there was too much snow to get the truck out of the parking lot. Giving up, we decided to spend another night at the apartment.

Me: Um, if the mattress is in the U-Haul, where are we going to sleep tonight?

K: It'll be just like camping!

We were able to get the truck to the house the following day and “unpack,” which means we dumped everything in the garage and called it good. The last few weeks have been devoted to moving boxes into the house and attempting to create some sort of order from the chaos.

We’ve moved 6 or 7 times in as many years, so it’s not like we’re new to this. We’re just a bit burnt out. I’ve decided I’m going to die in this house, because I’m never moving again. After too many international flights in the cargo hold, I think the cats are in agreement with me. Although I do enjoy the labels that are stuck all over their carriers:

Fail

One of the joys of unpacking is that you start to notice all of the little things that happened to your house in your absence. For example, we can’t plug the TV into its normal spot because someone decided to cut the cables. Also, someone ran off with the remote for my lights. It’s not that I need a remote to turn on the lights (I’m not that lazy yet), but the remote is the only way to make the dimmers work.

I’m fairly laid back when it comes to damages, because I understand that crazy shit can happen to anyone. That being said, it’s been an interesting few weeks.

I understand not being able to pay your rent from time to time. I don’t understand racking up thousands of dollars worth of damages and unpaid rent before finally getting evicted.

I understand misplacing things. I don’t understand running off with my light bulbs, showerheads, sink faucet, and the batteries from the dead bolt. I’ve pulled batteries from TV remotes in moments of crisis, but I generally replace them afterwards.

I understand putting a hole through a wall after a long day at the office. I would expect the hole to be somewhere around shoulder level. I don’t understand how a hole made it through my bathroom door six feet off the floor.

I understand not noticing a leaky toilet for awhile. I don’t understand how you could miss that until the garage ceiling started caving in.

I understand the occasional scorch mark in the kitchen. I don’t understand how it happened in the laundry room.

I’m generally amused by the things I find in the house, and all of the damages have been easy to repair. We did luck out with our last tenant, who gifted us a cord of firewood and a nice grill for the backyard. As I sit amongst the boxes and freshly painted walls, it’s good to be home.

Friday, 22 February 2013

And Then There Were Two



After being unemployed for 8 months, I accidentally found myself working two jobs, neither of which are related to my carefully-crafted life plan.

I started working as an art instructor in December. It’s fun and different from anything I’ve ever done, but it’s very part-time. I consider twelve hours at the studio to be a “busy week,” and I supplement that with several hours of practicing, creating personal requests, and taking art classes each week. I consider my continuing education to be a job-related expense, since we do get a few people in every class who have art minors. My approach to art has always been more of a Nike slogan than a valid instruction method: Just do it. Effective when I’m painting, not as useful when I’m teaching someone else.

Since grad school is on hold until April and I only had a few shifts each week, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a text asking if I was available to work at a florist shop during the Valentine’s rush. I would finally have a real, full-time week processing orders on the computer. Perfect!

When I got there, I found out that I was going to be running the computers as well as taking orders over the phone. I hate answering phones like most people hate cleaning bathrooms. In fact, I would clean a bathroom any day before answering the phone. I equally hate being the person to place the call. I get physically ill at the thought of calling customer service, for anything. Caller ID has been a lifesaver, because there are probably four people on earth that I will answer the phone for. See Mom? You are special!

You don't ring, I won't cry.

The first day, I stayed exclusively on the computer. It was an awkward start, as my helpful trainer explained to me how to use copy/paste. I didn’t expect him to be nearly as excited as he was when I “mastered” it. After a short break, in which I assured him that I was not a complete idiot, he described some of the other holiday-help workers he’d been forced to train and it was smooth sailing for the rest of the week. I carefully avoided all phone calls for the first day.

Day two was a different story. At some point, I was going to have to answer the phone and interact with society. Not my strong suit. It’s not that I don’t care when you call, I do. I’m just not very good at understanding what you want and how to achieve that goal if I can’t rely on visual cues. I’ve never been able to process information solely via audio; I need to see your face or preferably a PowerPoint to fully grasp the conversation.

As any instructor will tell you, there are a few distinct learning styles that are used to categorize people: visual, auditory, and tactile (or kinesthetic/kinetic). For some reason, tactile people like to tell me that they’re “touch-learners.” That makes you sound like a sexual predator; please stop. At any rate, I am very much a visual person. Given the choice between a deaf person and myself on the phone, you should go with the deaf guy every time.

I did manage to take several phone orders throughout the week, and I think I only pissed off most of them. Success?

Three days into it, I realized that I loved working at the shop (phones aside). Everything about processing orders and designing arrangements appealed to me. I asked if they needed any help after the holidays, to which my trainer asked me if I’d ever made a floral arrangement before. I responded that I hadn’t, but then again I’d never used their computer system before and that went pretty well.

I got hired the next day, without any resumes, applications, or interviews. Thank Christ, because I don’t think I can sit through another generic interview where we both dress up and pretend to give a shit about each other’s five-year plan. Job interviews are like a first date without any hope of drunken sex at the end.

I’ve been working at the florist shop for two weeks now, and I’ve been excited to show up every day. Each afternoon, when it’s time to leave, I’m surprised to see that I haven’t looked at the clock once. I didn’t even know what my hourly wage was until this afternoon, and even after recovering from the shock and Googling “poverty” I still wanted to continue working. Is this what people mean when they say, “job satisfaction?”

I may never enjoy answering the phones, but it’s not as terrifying after the first hundred times. I even called customer service to try to get a W-2 this afternoon and realized after I hung up that I wasn’t even shaking. This is a serious step in the right direction for me.

I’ve also learned how to use a helium tank to blow up Mylar balloons. The first few were disastrous, and I couldn’t help but think, “How many engineers does it take to blow up a balloon…”

Somehow, mine never end up looking like these.

Properly inflating those things (without exploding them) and then attaching a ribbon without letting them get stuck to the ceiling is quite possibly the most complicated thing I’ve done in a long time. Maybe I would be better at it if I was a “touch-learner.”

Monday, 18 February 2013

The Pen vs. The Sword: An Update



After a month of calligraphy class and six weeks of fencing, the sword is mightier than the pen. I say this because the worst thing I encountered in calligraphy was stained fingertips, whereas I left fencing class to spend most of my Saturday morning in the local ER. The staff were friendly and helpful as usual, but that was probably due to the fact that everyone wanted to come see what a “saber injury” looked like.

I should probably include some backstory. Fencing is one of those sports that attracts people who wouldn’t normally be considered “athletes,” myself included. Granted, there’s a lot of very athletic people, but there’s also an eclectic mix of those who just like swords, for various reasons.

I mentioned LARPers before, but I never really explained that acronym. LARPing (as done by LARPers) is Live Action Role Playing. Basically, you dress up in costumes and reenact scenes. If you think back to being a kid, what’s the one thing that everyone wants to “reenact?” Fighting! If you’re going to take the time to find/create a kick-ass costume, you may as well add a sword.

The sport of fencing also carries over to Renaissance faires, pirate fairs, conventions of all types (Comic Con, Combat Con, etc), and pretty much any other situation where it’s socially acceptable to carry/use a sword.

From the very first day I saw this one particular guy in our class, I recognized a perfect storm of geeky hobbies, physical strength, and social awkwardness that was only going to mean one thing: this guy was going to take a beginner’s fencing class way too seriously.

And so it began that I learned to hate fencing against this guy. We’ll call him “Kyle,” because that’s his name. He’s a very sweet kid, and it’s easy to see that fencing is way more than a recreational sport to him.

Anyway, every time I fence against Kyle, I find myself trying to stay the hell out of the way and praying to whomever might save me. First, he’s a solid foot taller than I am. Second, he has a certain “intensity” when he’s fencing, and by that I mean he looks like he actually believes his life is in danger. This will be an excellent advantage in competition, not so useful in a Saturday morning community college class.

In this particular class, we were using sabers. In saber, you can score points by either “stabbing” the opponent with the tip of your blade, or by “slashing” and hitting with the side of the blade. In either case, you’re using your wrist to move the blade, so although you will feel the attack through your protective jacket, it’s unlikely to leave more than a slight bruise if anything.

I fenced against Kyle as usual, but for some reason I decided to go in for a hit. To do this, you lunge forward with your blade, and hopefully hit the other person’s jacket with the end of your saber.

In a perfect world, Kyle would’ve parried my attack (knocking the blade out of the way and then returning the attack) but instead he went straight for a counter attack, by bringing his blade down directly across my outstretched forearm. His “intensity” caused him to put his back into it instead of using his wrist. As I said before, sometimes I think he believes this shit is real.

I immediately believed in the reality of the situation as well, and discovered the meaning of the phrase “blinding pain.” The worst part is that he made me cry in fencing class. There’s no crying in fencing, dammit! I finished out the final 10 minutes of class but I was pretty sure that something was messed up because I couldn’t hold my blade straight.

At the ER, I didn’t even have to put the Vicodin in my own mouth. The kindly nurse did that for me. The service was impeccable at that place! The good news is that it wasn’t fractured. Seeing as I prefer to use my right arm to teach painting, this is excellent news for my job. The bad news is that I have some beautiful crushing of the deep tissue, and I get to wear this sweet arm brace and sling.

Naturally, I returned to fencing that afternoon sporting my new get-up. Kyle started out by telling me what I did wrong in class and why I got hit, but I think he can also recognize rage and decided to leave me alone for awhile. On the prompting of my adventure partner, he bought me a botanical G&T after class and all was forgiven. Apologies are good, but apologies with liquor are better. The best part about a fencing injury is that everyone wants to know how you hurt yourself, and saying “I got hit with a saber” sounds way cooler than “I slipped on the ice.”

This week I’ll be learning how to fence with my left hand, so that should I encounter this problem again in competition, I’ll be able to finish the fight. I also get to wear these cool black leather arm guards under my jacket, that will look awesome at the Ren faire this spring. I’m looking forward to becoming ambidextrous, and I still think that fencing is the coolest sport in the world. But that could just be the painkillers talking.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Is the Pen Mightier than the Sword?



In our quest to answer this age-old question, we’ve signed up for calligraphy and fencing. Calligraphy is pretty cool, although I keep having flashbacks to learning cursive in Catholic school. There seems to be less yelling, Jesus, and missed recesses in calligraphy, so I imagine I’ll be fine.

Fencing, however, is awesome! I’ve never found a sport where I felt so immediately at ease. I’ve wanted to try it for a long time, but I finally took the chance and got up at the ass crack of dawn to drive the 45 minutes to class. When my alarm went off, I couldn’t figure out what to do with this loud, shrieking device, so I handed it to my adventure partner and went back to sleep. Luckily, he’s much better at functioning in the mornings, and ensured we made it on time.

As soon as our instructor put the foil in my gloved hand, I felt the spark. Everything made sense, and the lesson flew by. My shoulder is aching and my legs will probably be irritable tomorrow, but it was worth it.

My legs were still a bit sore from my earlier adventure this week—roller-skating. I haven’t been roller-skating since I was a kid, but it’s like riding a bike. After a few shaky laps, I felt like I’d never stopped.

All in all, it’s a great start to the new year and I guarantee we’ll have plenty of new adventures to share.
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