Hosting

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Ben asks

What’s the most elaborate, complicated meal you’ve ever cooked?

Well.

Once upon a time, I lived in a house with five other people. Being moderately adept at mathematics, I can say that that means that there were six of us. Six (nominally) adult males. Six tidiness-impaired individuals, six individuals highly resistant to direction and organization and six… healthy appetites. The appetites are important because….

Despite the intrinsic resistance to organization of the undergraduate male, we had some rules.

A few.

In particular, we had six (really eight, but some of them were small) jobs that we decided had to be done every week. So we had a schedule and it rotated so that everyone had to clean the upstairs bathroom but only once every month and a half. And, there being six of us and six nights in a week (we decided Sundays didn’t count), everyone had to cook dinner once a week.

Cooking for six adult (ish) males can be a little tricky (due to volume) but not too tricky (they’ll eat almost anything, after all). It’s made trickier by the inevitability that in any group of six people — let alone six males in that age range in that time period — there will be some that are not overly gifted in the kitchen. One guy, for example, had to be convinced that things like onions and garlic were not the work of the devil and could be useful additions to some dishes. (It took about a year.) Another guy had a dish that he liked to prepare that he called “chef’s revenge.” (Often the people tasked with shopping — one of the eight six jobs on the schedule — would ‘forget’ to buy him the right ingredients. Damn.)

One night it was my turn to cook. I knew this. No problem. I had this. That week I had decided to make a dish created by an American humorist in around 1960. I had made it before, it was fairly quick, fairly easy, scaled conveniently and everyone (well, everyone in that group) liked it. Win for everyone. I gave the assigned shoppers the ingredients that I’d need and waited for my day by doing other things like going to class, doing assignments and ridiculing med students. Eventually Der Tag arrived. I went home and started slicing onions.

The first crack in my carefully constructed facade of calm came from the guy that lived downstairs in the front room. Could his girlfriend come for dinner?

Now, this wasn’t all that unusual. Some of the guys had girlfriends. Sometimes they came to dinner. And let’s face it — none of the girlfriends ate all that much. (Certainly not compared to the walking stomachs that inhabited the house.) No, the addition of a girlfriend wasn’t a problem; it meant setting another place at the table but that’s all. No problem.

A little while later another guy (or it could have been the same one — this is one of the details that I don’t remember and it doesn’t really matter anyway) came into the kitchen and said that his sister was in town and could she come to dinner?

That was, of course, a slightly different kettle of fish. For one thing, I didn’t know this sister. Did she have a dainty girlfriend-like appetite? Would she be hungry after a day on the road? Heck, would she even like grayish sludge? And no matter what the answers to these questions were, she did represent a second extra person at the table; perhaps it would be prudent to extend the recipe a little.

We had a can of cash over the sink for situations like this. And we lived a short walk from a supermarket that isn’t there any more. I  snagged a roomie (an electrical engineer if that matters — engineers are often detail-oriented people and he wasn’t doing anything right then anyway) and sent him to the supermarket that isn’t there anymore to get some more ingredients, mostly protein and ballast (#4). End of crisis.

It got worse.

By the time the engineer came back with the supplies I had set another place at the table. Things were going okay when the roomie-with-the-sister came in and counted the place settings. He looked unhappy.

“Didn’t I tell you my sister was coming?”

“You did. That’s her place right there.”

“Well, yeah, but she’s bringing her husband and two children.”

I panicked. Three extra mouths? How could he have forgotten to mention that? Three extra mouths? The kids were a huge wildcard — I didn’t even know how old they were — but another guy? Guys eat a lot. I definitely didn’t have enough food and there wasn’t time to send the engineer back to the supermarket that isn’t there anymore. I had two options. The first of these was to lie on the kitchen floor, scream and kick my feet. The second option — the one I decided to take — was to go through every cupboard in the house and examine every single foodstuff I found. For each one I asked myself a single question: “Would it be a disaster if I added this to the pot?”

A lot of things wound up going into that pot.

After dinner the sister came up to me and said “I’m told you made dinner.”

Uh-oh. I remember thinking that she probably thought that I’d poisoned her kids — I had been told they had no food allergies, honest — so she was going to have to kill me. I wondered if I could make it to the back door before she got to the knife block. (No cleaver though. The comic potential of a cleaver in that sort of scene cannot be overstated.)

I counted the steps to the door while I faced the music. “I did.”

She smiled. (She smiled?  What was she, some kind of psycho? But wait, she was talking…) “That was really good. I was wondering if I could have the recipe.”

So I did what anyone in my situation would have done. I said “No.”

She was taken aback. Apparently you don’t often get told “no” when you ask your host (me? a host? doom!) for a recipe. Clearly I was some sort of culinary snob. But I wasn’t — it’s just that I had almost no idea what was in that pot and even less idea in what proportions.

Is it any wonder that, thirty years later, I still don’t like the sobriquet ‘host’?

 

Abandoning (another travelogue)

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About seven hundred years ago, an Italian fountain (?) had a vision. In his vision he was lost in a forest and attacked by wild animals. Fortunately for him, though, he was rescued by a dead poet and soon after they encountered a famous gate, over which was inscribed

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate

Since I don’t read medieval Italian (or any other kind for that matter) I looked for a translation. The always-helpful Project Gutenberg tells me that it translates as

All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

Beyond the gate Dante found Hell. That’s one interpretation — I think that it’s also possible that he somehow got a glimpse of the modern travel experience and just assumed it was Hell.

The boiling blood, of course, was his idea.

I have said before — more than once — that I hate travel. Bad things happen when you travel. Bad things happen when you get ready to travel. Heck, bad things happen when you even think about travel. We recently tested these statements when we dipped a toe into Phlegethon: old friends of ours (TV and LM from ‘Wedding‘) were planning an excursion to a tropical island hideaway when they had a momentary lapse of reason and invited Ms. Rose and I to join them. Tropical islands are nice. They also mean Travel.

Uh-oh.

Our interaction with the travel ‘experience’ started tentatively, almost playfully.

Our local airport is small. How small is it? Well, it’s so small that it pretty much only has one — you name it and there’s probably just one: One carrier. One security line. One pre-security bathroom. One post-security bathroom. One departure lounge (on the plus side, at one time it was full of interesting aviation art). One non-departure lounge (no art, but it has, um, beams). One gate. And so on.

Because of this, after we had checked in it didn’t take long for the nice lady from the check-in desk to chase us down.  Apparently they had discovered that the plane was full. (How they managed not to discover this earlier is a mystery to me — after all, the plane only holds 19 people; even I can count that high.) Because of this discovery they had to send the nice lady running through the terminal with a fistful of updated boarding passes. Her message was simple: delicate blossoms of femininity like Ms. Rose were to sit at the back of the plane while bloated monstrosities like myself were to sit at the front. I was so entertained by the nice lady running through the terminal that I almost let the implied weight criticism slide. Almost.

And they took down all the art in the departure lounge. :-(

The flight itself was uneventful except for the conversation the guy in 1A had with the co-pilot:
“I can fly the plane if you want.”
“Are you a pilot?”
“No, but I play video games.”

They decided not to take him up on his generous offer. Probably a good thing — he totally didn’t have the right hat.

The second leg of our trip was a trans-continental one: Five and a half hours in a confined, germ-filled metal tube. Five and a half hours sitting motionless and worrying about blood clots. Five and a half hours with two nearby babies prepped and ready to scream at the top of their tiny but incredibly healthy lungs. (Fortunately, one of them didn’t. Much.)

Eventually we arrived, met up with TV and LM and started to plan for the next leg of the journey. That leg involved a ferry ride, a thirty-four kilometer drive and another six hours flirting with deep vein thrombosis. Piece of cake.

Except things were going a little too well; we were about due for that “bad things happen when you even think about travel” thing to happen. In particular, two unnecessarily cunning canines figured out that Something Was Up and decided to ‘help.’

The official plan was to drop them off at a local (-ish) canine boardinghouse the night before the ferry ride; it was thought that doing so would significantly reduce any last-minute ‘excitement.’ Of course, within minutes of being dropped off, the slightly disabled canine — the one with ONLY ONE HIP — jumped a fence and escaped, his partner in crime right on his heels. (Do dogs even have heels?) Their landlady promptly labelled them ‘troublemakers’ and evicted them forthwith.

Miss T and Mr. G

The instigator (right) and his co-conspirator.

Cue the excitement.

Not only was there excitement, Plans had to change — in particular, the thirty-four kilometer drive had to quadruple in length. And of course the ferry was late, there were massive, never-ending traffic jams, there were broken-down vehicles in the WORST POSSIBLE PLACES and there were several “you can’t get there from here” moments. The icing on the cake happened after we had ejected our brace of smirking canines, after we had driven from one end of the city to the other (twice), when we were mere minutes from our final destination — so close that we could see it. Nothing could stop us.

That’s when we were hit by a Honda Civic.

After the traditional accident song and dance we were running a little short on time but, as mentioned, we were basically AT our destination and there were no obvious injuries so off we went. After all, nothing could stop us, right?

Except perhaps the airline — they did try. Despite them we made the plane (although we did have to have a conversation with another nice lady). And of course the screaming baby also made the plane. The screaming baby always makes the plane.

On the way home, well, things were no better but were at least different. We were supposed to arrive in Vancouver at 8:32. It didn’t happen. In actuality, we arrived a couple of minutes after 9. That was a problem, but not, by itself, a disaster. Problem was, they wouldn’t let us off the plane. It wasn’t just us, though — they wouldn’t let anyone off the plane: the bridge thingy was broken and apparently our only option was to wait for the maintenance folks to come and fix it.

That was a disaster.

So we missed our connection and entered that entertaining but stressful realm of zombie passengers waiting for a Flight With Room. “We can put you on standby for the flight that leaves in three hours” said the nice lady named Maria. Trouble is, the carrier constantly massively overbooks that flight so it was likely that some (many?  most?) of the zombies would be left behind.

Including us — we could have gotten one of us on the plane but it wasn’t clear that Splitting Up was a good strategy. I mean, it never is in horror movies. (Fortunately, the guy flying to Chile who had a valid ticket that the carrier wasn’t willing to honor got on.) “Well” said the other nice lady at the other service desk “you can try standby again on the flight that leaves in two hours or we can get you on the one in that leaves in four and a half if we act now.”  “We’ll take the sure thing” we said and ran off to look for a hotel in Toronto — anything close to the airport with a shuttle.

We found one (got the last room in a ‘Halloween sale’ whatever that is) so it was only a matter of waiting. (And eating — the doughnut I had at lunch was the high point of the entire day. Apparently the doughnut chain mentioned in ‘Meeting‘ sends their best doughnuts to YVR. Interesting, if inexplicable.)

So we waited. And waited. And waited some more. And then sat with another screaming baby for four thousand kilometers until we arrived in Toronto sometime after 1:30 (AM) and had to find the one pillar in the place with the hotel shuttle. We went to the ground floor (I assumed that shuttles would arrive on the ground floor) to look for ‘our’ waiting area and… it wasn’t there. We found an airport employee (they’re a little thin on the ground at 2AM; an empty airport is somehow even more depressing than a full one) and he directed us to the other ground floor (who knew?) where we found a crowd. They were waiting for… the same shuttle — apparently lots of people took advantage of the Halloween sale.

By 3AM we were in bed. Fortunately, the clocks went back an hour that night so we had four whole hours of sleep before the alarm went off. After a quick stop at the caffeine store in the lobby (this hotel had it all) it was back on the shuttle and back to the airport by 7AM.

Things were a little busier than they had been six hours earlier. In particular, the check-in line was just over a hundred meters long — it snaked through the cattle chute, down a hallway, around a corner and down another hallway. Of the ten check-in desks, two were open. (Now where have I seen this before?) After making it through that lineup, the security line was only slightly better.

And during this, what music were they playing? Not Brian Eno, but Carole King.

I’ll say one thing about airports: they definitely know how to create a mood.

On the other hand, sometimes it’s actually worth it.

View from 10,000

Ten thousand feet up Mauna Kea.

Halema'uma'u

Legend has it that a goddess lives in that hole (Halemaʻumaʻu).

Pololu valley lookout

I was too damned lazy to walk down to the beach.

 

Opening

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On Wednesday Ben told me to talk about Monday. It was, in some ways, a fairly typical Monday.

The first thing I did (well, aside from turning off the alarm, grimacing at the unraked leaves in the back yard (EVERY SINGLE ONE clearly visible in the morning light) and stumbling groggily to the shower) was select the tie-dye shirt most likely to make my skip retch. (I had got The Call to spare; apparently he had called everyone better — or at least less annoying — on the spares list.) (Oh, and it worked. He did retch, but it might just have been my shotmaking; I can’t be totally sure.) Despite my attitude, ‘skill’ and wardrobe, we handed a defeat to a team that hadn’t lost a game all season. (Our lead was a shriner – even though he left his fez at home, that’s probably what put us over the top. I don’t think I helped matters much when I started throwing shots while lying on my back with my head in my armpit.)

After the game I destroyed a few (sixteen — only six hundred ninety-seven to go) resonators, then headed home and sliced chorizo.

Well, and other things.

Then came hockey. (Monday is, after all, hockey day.) Unlike that other time there was no Significant Music, just more than the usual number of, um, ‘aggressive’ drivers who collectively ensured that I arrived at the arena in plenty of time to have a discussion about the ritualistic inbreeding of graduate students with a goalie who has the same name as my brother-in-law. The game went pretty well — I didn’t score or even threaten to but we had three people on the bench (my favorite) which kept the celebratory barfing at bay.

After the game, after the shower, after the inevitable search for a missing elbow pad, I stumbled out of the more-than-slightly fetid change room, almost flattening several nice ladies in the process, and lurched toward an empty spot where I could sit, shiver and check my email.

There wasn’t much — just a last-minute crisis involving a gamer — so I stood up, grabbed my bag and headed for the door that led into the part of the building that was actually heated. At the door was a young gentleman, probably six years old or so. As I approached he opened the door and held it for me.

Not being totally without social graces I nodded to him and said thank you.

“Thank you” I said.

He beamed and replied “You’re welcome, old man.”

Well, that wasn’t typical.

 

Counting

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I’ve talked a bit about the tags that people assign to blog posts and how a given tag can mean wildly different things to different people. (A recent example: a week or two ago the tag ‘curling’ led to an article about Jennifer Jones, one of the most talented curlers and unconvincing actresses of her generation. It also led to something entitled “Tell Me About It, Stud.” I was briefly fooled by a picture containing significant amounts of ice but believe me when I tell you that it wasn’t about throwing rocks at houses. The conclusion? Tags are subjective.

Well, most of them.

Most of the time when I ‘write’, I don’t have a specific length in mind. Chalk this up to a lack of planning if you want; sometimes I think “this one will probably be short” or “this one might be a little long” but only sometimes. Most of the time I just drone on and on until I fall over backwards get thirsty and have to go get a drink. Not that anything I’ve written has been all that long — I don’t think I’ve ever broken 2000 words and Wikipedia tells me that a short story is usually longer than that. But there are tags — I’ve talked about one of them before – that relate to the length of a post; those are probably pretty objective and I’m a long time fan of ‘objective.’

Of course, it turns out they’re not. Even though they’re about numbers.

Numbers. How do I know the number of words in a posting? Well, the WordPress text editor thingy that I don’t actually use gives you a running count of the words in something that you’re editing. Handy thing, that.

In addition, since I typically almost always edit posts on a unix machine (it’s in Seattle which isn’t really relevant but I find the distance from my keyboard to the words typed on that keyboard an amusing factoid) I can use the tools provided by the second most important invention of AT&T Bell Labs. The file consists of plain text along with a list of links that I plan to insert so a command something like

cat blog.postings | grep -v '^http' | wc  -w

tells me the number of words I’ve typed.

I was writing ‘Meeting‘ (or, actually, cutting-and-pasting it from an invention of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory into the WordPress editor thingy) when I noticed that ‘Meeting’ was 1000 words.

Exactly.

(Well, that particular draft was. It’s changed since then.)

I was a little surprised. I was surprised that it was that long — after all it was little more than an anecdote about meeting someone at a doughnut shop; how on earth could it be that long? And of course, exactly 1000 words seemed darned unlikely. So the first thing I did was verify the number.

Unfortunately, wc told me that there were 1012 words, not 1000.

Well hell — one of them must be wrong, but which one? Obviously, I looked for a third opinion and picked an online tool that I’ve used before. I was confident that it would reveal which tool was right and which was wrong.

Unfortunately, it said that there were 1057 words in my text. A fourth tool said 1026. Now I  really didn’t know how long it was. Clearly all four tools define ‘word‘ in different ways but the actual definitions used aren’t immediately obvious. Worse, a google search for more information apparently uses similar keywords to one for search engine optimization so I learned stuff I truly did not want to learn and didn’t learn what people think constitutes a word.

What this means is that I don’t know what a word is or how to count to 1000 any more. Apparently, every day I know a little bit less than I knew the day before. I’ll add that to the list I keep of the unnecessary perqs of getting older — just below presbyopia, hair loss and getting up at 4 AM to find people in my living room eating cake.

Joy.