Thursday, December 08, 2011

Catching up

Okay, time for some updates on previous posts.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

I survived another NaNoWriMo, just barely breaking the 50,000 word mark.  I had a good start, a terrible middle and a great finish, including days 20-29 where I average 2450 words a day.  Was there a lot of garbage in my 50,000 words?  Yes.  Did one of my characters stop to write blog posts?  Yes.  Did I write the words "I am so tired," over and over again every once in a while?  Yes.  Is my novel finished?  No.  It is terrible?  Pretty much.  Am I going to let anyone read it?  Um, not quite yet.  Am I going to keep working on it? Yes.  Are there at least some short stories that will come out of it?  You bet.  Did any of you write 50,000 words in a month?  Then shut it.

Besides just being a place for me to show off my word count, NaNoWriMo also runs a young writer's program.  To learn more or to donate, please visit http://www.nanowrimo.org/.  Hopefully you all will be reading my first novel in the near future, as soon as I finish writing it.


Winter Beers

Since we last talk, I've tasted a handful of the winter beers now clogging the aisle at liquor stores everywhere (seriously, I was at Binny's today and there must have been at least two dozen winter seasonals in stock).  I'll admit that I'm enjoying the New Belgium Snow Day but there has been one major drawback.  Every time I have drank Snow Day, I woke up the next morning with a headache.  Mike, you say, you cannot drink that much anymore.  Slow down, you say.  But I did, I answer.  I had three the first time, then only two, then just a single Snow Day.  The next morning each time I had a headache.  So I like the Snow Day, though not nearly as much as 2 Below, and I have even bought more.  Next time I won't drink three shots of whiskey before I drink Snow Day.

For those that want to hear a bunch of guys talking about beer, give a listen to the Broadcast Basement, where we will be tasting beers every few episodes and talking about what we like.  Well, some of us will taste them (sorry, Wild Bill).  


Gobble, Gobble, Tech Support and a Fish

I'm back in cable hell.  After the first round failed to solve the problem long term, I again jumped on-line for support.  And again I talked to Pashtel.  He must be the busiest cable tech support rep out there, or there is more than one Pashtel in the world.  We ran through the basic steps again, and quickly scheduled another visit.  This time, the only misunderstanding was when we picked the time, and Pashet gave me the 12pm-4pm slot and told me the tech would call before his arrival and I said 10-4. He responded with "There is no 10-4 time slot."  Ha.  Ha, ha, ha.  I guess they don't have CBs in India.

The second tech was here for almost five hours.  Problem solved?  Well, no.  It's better, but let me tell you how funny watching a hockey game is when the picture and sound are out of sync.  At least when the sound is ahead of the picture, I can hear about the big hit then look up and see it.

Halloween Candy

There is a single bag of candy left in the break room of our office, right next to the coffee pot.  In the bag are about eight pieces of.... wait for it... that nasty peanut butter candy!  If they are still there at the end of the year, I will toss them.  Or stick them in a drawer and foist them on unsuspecting co-workers next Halloween.

Thanks for reading.





Sunday, November 27, 2011

Gobble, Gobble, Tech Support and a Fish


The reception on our TV had gotten bad the last two weeks.  It started simple, a little freezing here and there when watching a recorded show from the DVR.  But then it got worse.  The sound would get out of syn then sometimes just disappear.  The little bits freezing turned into seconds of blackout, followed by pixilation, followed by me threating to throw something at the TV.  Sometimes, I’d turn the cable box off, turn it back on a minute later and it would be better.  Sometimes I’d do that and it would get worse, making me realize that what happened after I restarted it was completely random.  It finally became too much on Wednesday night when the Blackhawks game became unwatchable because of the jittery screen. 
It was ten o’clock the night before Thanksgiving.  The chance of me talking to an actual human being on the phone was zero, so I fired up my laptop and started with my cable company’s on line help.  After navigating through a few of the help wizards, all of which ended by telling me to restart all of the cable boxes, which, of course, did nothing, the next step was to go to the on-line support’s chat line.  So I clicked on the yellow box and the chat session started.  

Tech Support: Good evening my name is Pashtel (named changed to protect, oh hell, who am I kidding; I can’t remember the name but it was something close to Pashtel). 

Now I’ve heard lots of stories about getting support from overseas, and I’ve had some myself.  I still miss those few years when every time I called IBM tech support I was connected to a call center in Ireland where I talked to people with a thick Irish brogue.  With chat support, it was even easier for companies to send their support overseas to cheap call centers where operators could follow a script and instead of having to talk to people, they just needed to press a button and the words would automatically be relayed the chat session.

I briefly explained my problems with the picture to Pashtel and the steps I had already tried and he (or she) send back the appropriate “I am sorry you are having trouble, yadaa yadaa.”  He followed his script and asked a bunch of questions, had me check the picture on some other channels, all things I had already done.  Then, he told he was going to reset the box. My first reaction was “I already did this,” but then I thought, hey this guy is sitting in a cubicle in some giant cubicle farm in some giant office building in India and he can restart my cable box.  In order for me to do that, I would have to get up off the couch, navigate the sea of scatter toys my children left all over the floor, bend down, press the power button and hold it for at least five seconds, then wait to see what happens.  Or I could just let Pashtel do it for me.  Isn’t technology cool?  We’ve come a long way since the clapper.

So after trying what I had already tried, we had come to the end of the tech support script and Pashtel had to schedule a technician to come to my house.

Pashtel: Do you have any pets?

Me: Yes, two cats.  (pause).  And a fish.

I don’t really have a fish, and if I did, would it matter.  I understand asking about cats and dogs.  Every cable guy who came to our house when we had our pit bull-boxer mix was deathly afraid of him, even after I told them the dog was blind.  But I wanted to see if Pashtel would follow through his job or figure out I was joking.  But just having him write down that I had a fish wasn’t enough.

Me: Are your technicians afraid of fish?
(Long Pause)
Pashtel: I don’t think so.

He asked a few more questions and we scheduled the appointment for between 8am and 12 noon two days later, which was not too bad.  Right about here through I wondered why they could restart my cable box from thousands of miles away but couldn’t give me an appointment window smaller than four hours.  Then can tell what time I started an on-demand episode of Yo Gabba Gabba, but they can’t figure out how to schedule their technicians to fit into a reasonable time slot.  I’m going to tell my boss next week that I’m going to come to work sometime between six and ten and see what he says.  But I digress.

As we were wrapping up, Pashtel was copying and pasting the standard end of chat session messages, thanking me for being a customer, and making sure I was fully satisfied before ending our session.  Then, the final exchange.

Pashtel: Thank you and I hope you and your family have a happy Thanksgiving.
Me: You, too.  Gobble, Gobble.

Gooble, gobble is my standard goodbye greeting right around Thanksgiving.  It’s really the only time of year it is appropriate unless you work on a turkey farm.  But clearly not everyone is aware of this.  There was a long delay then the chat session let me know Pashtel was typing.  Finally, his text came through.

Pasthel:  I’m sorry but I don’t understand.  What does gobble, gobble mean?

I laughed out loud.  No really, I did. I wasn’t rolling on the floor laughing my ass off but for once I could have just said LOL and it would have been accurate (did you know that LOL does not get auto-corrected by Microsoft Word?  Damn you, texting!).  My head started racing. What kind of story could I make up about the meaning of gobble, gobble.  I could go into some long winded, overly detailed diatribe about something entirely unrelated to turkey noises, and I gave serious consideration to it.  But then I realized that Pastel was just a guy (or girl) doing his job, following a set of procedures and that he would stay on with me until I was completely satisfied.  So I cut him some slack.

Me: It’s the sound a turkey makes.

He ended our session without another word.  On Friday, two technicians came to my house and spent nearly three hours chasing down gremlins.  They replaced coax in the house, checked signals everywhere and even swapped out my HDMI cable.  For a short time the picture was better but not for long.  As I write this, the TV still pixilates every few seconds and during the Bears game, I’d sometimes see two plays interlaced on top of each other.  But while they were here, the techs new I had two cats.  And a fish.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, November 25, 2011

What's up with those Minivan Stencils?

So while I was driving last week I saw a minivan.  Well, that’s not my point, I see minivans all the time and in fact my wife drives one.  Sometimes she lets me drive it to.  So I see this minivan, it’s a Honda Odyssey and it has the required AYSO sticker on the bumper.  Well, it’s not really a bumper anymore, not like they used to be back in the day, all chrome and shiny.  Now they are plastic and bend and crack and the slightest bump, just as designed and we are all safer.  But besides the AYSO sticker and the new plastic bumpers this car had one of those stencils on the rear window.  You know, white stencil of a family.  This particular one had a mother and a father, a son, two daughters, three dogs and a cat.  That’s a pretty big family.  Someday I want to get one of these for my car.  It’s pretty cool.  Like how fighter pilots marked their planes back in World War One and World War Two.  Do they still do that now?

But I have a few questions.

First of all, where do I get the stickers?

Second of all, do I have to run over all of the people at once or can I add them one at a time?  Like if you get the mother but the dad ducks out of the way, do you have to go back and get the same dad, or can you get a different one?  And the dogs, that should be easy.  Do they have bird ones?  I know I’ve gotten a bird or two in my life, and a squirrel once, but I didn’t even see him. I tell you, I can get the kids but I’m going to feel real bad about it.  I think I’m going to find one of those schools where the send the bad kids and trying to get them after class, or maybe hang out near juvenile hall and take out some young offender instead of one of those good kids.  And how do people do this without getting caught?  I mean, they put them right on their car, it should be so easy for the cops to just pull them over as soon as they see the stencil on the car.

Wait, what?  Those are their kids?  Their pets?  Not kills?

Wow, do I feel dumb now.  That makes a lot more sense.  Just forget I ever brought this up.  Really,  it’s just a total misunderstanding.  I am  truly, truly sorry.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The End of 2 Below



I’ve always been a fan of good beer.  I like trying new beers, drinking local when I travel and generally staying away from the big three: Miller Lite, Bud Light and Coors Light.  In my apartment in college, my roommates and I lined the top of our kitchen cabinets with a bottle from each different kind of beer we drank during the year.  I don’t remember the exact count by I know we were well over one hundred by the time finals rolled around in June.  Back then, my stand by, my go-to every day beer was Bass Ale.  Even today Bass is still among my favorites and usually be found in refrigerator under my bar at home. 

Since the craft beer craze started in the late 80s, beer selection has exploded.  Breweries are putting out a larger number of brews and now included seasonals.  You’ll have your summer beers, like Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy, Goose Island Summer, and others.  Then there are the Oktoberfest beers in fall.  But right around this time of year is when my favorites come out: the winter seasonals.

For me it started in 2004 with Sam Adams Winter Lager.  Sam’s has always made good beer, but there was something about Winter Lager that kept me coming back.  There was a slight hint of mint in this beer and it went down so smooth.  It wasn’t too heavy or too hoppy, and it wasn’t a light beer either.  This was my gateway to winter beers and a favorite for a few years.  Until New Belgium came to Chicago.

New Belgium, based in Fort Collins, Colorado, is best known Fat Tire, a beer I had every time I visited my friends in Colorado.  It seemed to be the only beer they drank, or at least the only beer they drank when I came to visit.  It was a good beer and often I’d take a case home with me since I was unavailable to get it at home.  Then, finally, New Belgium struck up a distribution deal in the Midwest and soon they were everywhere.  What I didn’t know is that New Belgium made some top notch seasonals as well.

Fast forward to December of 2006; I went to the liquor store near my house, one of only a few on the south side that had a wide selection of craft beers.  I was there looking for a twelve pack of Sam Adams Winter to replace the one I had bought for a Christmas party but drank before the party came around.  Sadly, they were out of Sams but had a handful of other winter brews.
           
Enter 2Below.
            
Hmm, I thought.  A winter brew by New Belgium.  I couldn’t go wrong.
            
 I bought a six pack of 2 Below and a couple other winter six packs, just in case I didn’t like one of them. Later than night, I opened a 2 Below and poured it into a glass.  I like to see what the beer looks like the first time I drink it.  I stuck my giant honker of a nose into the pint glass and took a sniff.  Yep, it smelled like beer.  I raised the glass to my lips and took a sip.  Hmm, pretty good.  It’s got some hops, a little hint of mint, not as much as Sam Adams, and man was it smooth. I took another sip.  Then a big slug.  Two minutes later I had downed the entire glass.  I poured myself another.  Clearly, this beer was staying home with me and the others were headed to the Christmas Party
            The next day I went and bought another six-pack.  Since it was a seasonal, I didn’t how long it would be around.  Sadly, I couldn’t keep my fridge stocked.  I’d have one with dinner most nights, and maybe a couple while watching football on the weekends.  On Saturday mornings when I was out running errands, if I came anywhere close to the liquor store, 2 Below beckoned me like a beer siren.  “Come buy me.  I might not be here next week.”  I’d duck into the parking lot and pick up another six-pack.  I think they called me the 2 Below guy when I wasn’t there.
             
By late January, 2 Below was no longer available at the liquor store.  I kept twelve bottles in the fridge, tucked behind the Miller Lite, and rationed them out.  I drank the last one on March 1st.  It would be almost nine months before my next one.
             
2 Below had roped me in.  All I could think about was just making it through the summer beer season, beyond the Oktoberfest ales and back to winter.  Most people hate winter; the snow, the cold, it gets dark so early.  I was looking forward to it for the beer.  One year, while traveling for work in California, I went with a group of co-workers to a Mexican restaurant.  I was checking in with my wife while everyone at the table ordered their first round.  I faintly heard the words “2 Below” and while my wife was in mid-sentence I said, “Honey I need to go.  Did you say you have 2 Below on tap?” I asked.
           
“We do,” the waitress replied.
            
 “Bring me two,” I asked. 
             
They were fantastic.  They were as good as 2 Below in a bottle, but better.  I was in heaven.  I knew when I got home that the 2 Below would be coming to Chicago soon.
             
That year my beer scouts were out at the liquor stores doing field work for me.  Within twenty minutes of each other on a Saturday morning, I received three emails from my fellow 2 Below lovers who picked up their first bottles then notified me.  I ended up buying six twelve packs.  I didn’t share any until our annual Super Bowl, er, Big Game party when I realized I still had thirty left.  I might have over bought that year.
           
As Thanksgiving approached this year I was looking forward to another winter of drinking 2 Below.  I stopped at my liquor store last week to see if the 2 Below was in yet but it wasn’t.  The girl at the store said probably next week.  I told her I’d call.
             
At a birthday party I talked up 2 Below, telling everyone there that it was my favorite beer in the world. Most of them had never had one before and I was looking forward to being there for their first tastes in the next week or two.  At the party we drank some other winter beers, but I went on and on about how they all paled in comparison to my beloved 2 Below.
           
It turns out that day will never come.  The very next morning I received a disturbing email from one of my scouts.  “No 2 Below but a new winter brew called SnowDay from New Belgium.”
             
What do you mean no 2 Below?  I went online and quickly found an article from a Colorado newspaper.  I could barely read it.  2 Below was gone.  Kaput.  Over.  They were doing a reboot of their winter seasonal.
           
I should have seen it coming.  New Belgium had changed up a couple other seasonal brews, replacing the summer Skinny Dip (which I never liked much) with Sunshine Wheat.  But 2 Below?  For a second I thought I was going to cry.  Had I known it was not coming back there was no way I would have shared my stash at the Super Bowl, er, Big Game party back in February.  I could have enjoyed those last 2 Belows myself well into March.
             
Dejected, I sulked.  I thought of quitting drinking all together, but that was just silly (sorry, honey).   I thought about returning to Sam Adams Winter but that’s like watching a hockey game on a black and white TV after getting used to seeing it on a 42 inch hi-definition screen.  I thought about trying a whole spattering of other winter brews, but that was a lot of work. I finally decided I should at least give the 2 Below’s successo a chance.  How bad could it be? 
             
So last night while doing my pre-thanksgiving liquor shopping at Binny’s, after getting the Riesling, after getting a few bottles of Pinor Noir and a Chianti on a recommendation I went to the beer section.  They had the usual New Belgium offerings, lots of Fat Tire, some of their IPA, but Snow Day was nowhere to be found.  Wow.  Binny’s didn’t have it.
           
“You looking for the New Belgium winter?” the guy asked.
           
“How can you tell?” I answered.       
            
 “It’s in the cooler.”
           
I pulled a six pack from the rack.  I was going to ease a toe into this instead of buying cases. 
                
 That night with dinner I had my first Snow day.  I poured it into a glass and was dismayed at first.  It was a lot darker that I had expected.  I hoped it wasn’t going to be stout like, or too hoppy.  I took a quick sniff, then a small sip.
                 
Hmm.  Not bad, I thought.  It’s no 2 Below, but it’s decent.
                 
I took another sip.  Smooth finish, good aftertaste, a hint of nut and oak.  This was pretty tasty.  I finished the glass quickly.  And I have to admit, it was pretty tasty.  Maybe I shouldn’t be too quick to judge.  These New Belgium guys just might know what they are doing.
                 
The jury is still out on Snow Day.  Maybe after I make it through the holidays and into the new year I’ll report back.  I do have a handful of other winter beers to taste this year.  I’m going to be open to trying some new ones, see which one is my new favorite.  Over time, I’ll get over it and I’ll come to accept that favorites aren’t forever, just for now.
               
I do remember my last 2 Below. It was the first week of March and I hadn’t been in the bar fridge in a while.  I was restocking it with a twelve of Bass when I saw the brown bottle with the red label hiding behind a few Miller Lites on the bottom shelf (if you live in my neighborhood, you are required to stock Miller Lite and share it with your neighbor anytime he helps you with something, even if that something is standing in the alley and drinking Miller Lite).  I popped it open with my Homer Simpon bottle opener (“Mmmmm, beer!”) and poured it into a glass.  I sat down at my bar, something I rarely do and enjoyed it.  I knew it was the last of the season.  I didn’t know it would be my last one ever.  I took my time and enjoyed every sip.  It was quiet in the basement.  My family was upstairs and I’m sure they were wondering what I was doing down there for so long.  When I was done, I rinsed out the glass and tossed the empty bottle in the recycling bin.

Thanks for reading.  Have a  great Turkey Day.  Gobble, Gobble!
               

Monday, November 14, 2011

TWW Preface Reading Series

For those of you who are looking for something interesting to on Tuesday, November 15th, come on out to the Annoyance Theatre in Uptown for the Preface Reading Series for the Chicago Book Expo.  Two With Water, a Chicago lit magazine which will shortly be publishing one of my short stories, is thrilled to be a part of the series and I'll be reading along with other TWW readers James Tadd Adcox, Jacob Knabb, Muyassar Kurdi, and Josh Sinason.

The Preface Series showcases five unique presentations of Chicago-based reading series and the local writers that make them possible, including Artifice Magazine, Ear-Eater Reading Series, the Neighborhood Writing Alliance, and Write Club. Find more info about the Chicago Book Expo here.

A suggested $2 donation at the door will go towards the imminent printing of TWW Issue Number 2 featuring yours truly.  Hope to see you there.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Work Candy Conundrum



It’s ten days after Halloween.  The bat decorations and inflatable Frankensteins have been packed away in the attic.  The crappy ten dollar made in Malaysia costumes, which had no chance of making it through Halloween have been tossed in the garbage.  Rotting jack-o-lanterns have been discarded and replaced by ears of corn and an assortment of gourds (well, except at my house, where the pumpkins remain on our front steps).  Even the candy left in our house has been whittled down to Dum Dums, Milk Duds, and those gross peanut butter smelling things that come in the orange and black wrappers that even the raccoons won’t eat.

But at work, it’s a different story.  It’s ten days after Halloween but the dishes of leftover candy that normally disappear in a couple of days continue to get refilled, and not with crappy candy like Almond Joy or Milk Duds (sorry Milk Dud fans) but good candy like those fun size Snickers and mini boxes of grape Nerds.  And I don’t know about you but I am a total goldfish so if there is candy to be eaten rest assured I am doing my part.  The scale in my bathroom at home will back me up.  Every day I go to work expecting the candy to be gone but there it is, staring at me, mocking the healthy banana sitting on my desk, whispering “Eat me.” 

After I polished off a half dozen mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, wiped the chocolate off my fingers and hid the wrappers in my desk drawer, I wonder why there was such a backlog of candy at the office.  I could only come up with two theories.

The first theory is that compensating for the lack of candy in their houses when they were children, today’s adults bought too much candy.   Since Halloween was on a Monday there were fewer trick-or-treaters leaving a lot of extra Milky Ways, Starburst and Smarties to unload on unsuspecting coworkers.  There is plenty evidence in my house of the “Oh my god, we need more candy in case three hundred buses of trick-or-treaters show up on Halloween,” affliction that seems to strike every year on October 30th, causing my wife and I both to bring home another eight pounds of candy.  We end up passing out three pieces of candy to anyone who stops at our house on Halloween, and dropping even larger handfuls of candy for the kids who come after dinner.  Whatever is leftover is used by wife as bribes for good behavior out of her students.  Sadly, most students are so hopped up on sugar that the candy does nothing to motivate them.  But this can’t be the ultimate reason.

Theory two is that today’s kids don’t trick-or-treat nearly as much as my generation did and there are several reasons for it.  First off, we don’t let them.  There are official trick-or-treat hours and parents don’t let their kids go out alone or to houses of people they don’t know.  Second, they have no reason to.  Why go out and have to do all that walking for candy when there’s going to be fifteen pounds of leftover candy at home, free for the taking without having to say “trick or treat” or “thank you.”

(Here’s where I put on my old man hat.  If you want to get the full effect, read this next part out loud in your best Grandpa Simpson voice).

Back in my day, I was out trick-or-treating with my friends from the minute school ended up the absolute last second I could be out without getting picked up by the polce.  I didn’t go home for dinner because I’d just dip into my bag when I was hungry.  My parents didn’t walk with me.  My costume was carefully selected to maximize the amount of candy I could easily carry; multiple years I was a paper boy, one year I was dressed as a guy who picks up garbage with a stick that had a sharp point which let me carry a garbage bag and a sharp weapon.  On a good year, even eating as much candy as I wanted for two weeks there was still a lot left when my mother would finally pry the candy bag out of my cold, sleeping hands.

This year, after we had trick-or-treated down one side of one half of our block, my son wanted to take a break and go back to our house.  What he really wanted to do was to pass out candy to other costumed trick-or-treaters.  I don’t know whether to be proud that he wants to give or be angry that he isn’t out there getting his own candy.  On Halloween night we let both my son and daughter eat a few pieces of their hard earned candy.   After both kids went to bed, we put their orange pumpkin candy buckets on top of the refrigerator.   They haven’t asked about them since.  What was in their buckets is now in a zip lock bag for me to take to work to add to the bottomless buckets of candy (minus any Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, of course).  And while my son might be a lost cause when it comes to all out trick-or-treating there is still hope for my daughter.  She screamed for a good twenty minutes when we stopped trick-or-treating.  In fact, pretty much up every few minutes up until bed time she said, “I want to trick-or-treat more.”  Atta girl.