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Looking down there at the calendar and you’ll not that the last post was in December 2009. That’s right, almost two full calendar years ago.

Who sucks at blogging? This guy!

At this point, even my mother has stopped waiting for an update, so my meager reader base has officially dropped to zero.

C’est la vie.

 

Nina (the wife) and I have a few guilty pleasures. Driving around aimlessly at Christmastime and looking at the holiday lights is right at the top of the list. I love it. I love the garish and ridiculous tableaus of inflatable nativity scenes, running lights, sunglasses wearing snowmen, and cutout reindeer.

I’ve burned more gas this year cruising around and listing to Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas than I have going to work.

So far, we’ve seen inflatable Santa’s in every conceivable mode of transportation. Off the top of my head: Santa on a motorcycle, Santa driving a train, Santa captaining a tall ship, Santa piloting a plane, flying a helicopter, on cross-country skis, in a hot-air balloon, a canoe, a fishing boat, a NASCAR, crashing into a Christmas tree, in a stable filled with six (not eight?) reindeer, and backside-first climbing into houses.

We even saw an audio-animatronics Santa singing and dancing with a voice and cadence that sounds more like Beelzebub than jolly old St. Nick.

Here is a collection of some of the best houses we’ve seen. Note the garage filled with a life-sized manger scene…that’s my personal favorite. Please excuse the poor picture quality; these were taken with my cell phone rather than a proper camera. Next year, I’ll be sure to bring the goods.

As a kid, we never had a real Christmas tree. We had a large segmented tree that lived most of its life in the attic with the spiders, the long forgotten children’s toys, and dead relative’s furniture. Decorating day as always a to-do. Fighting up the drafty, cluttered, attic steps, to wrestle down the coffin-like box containing the tree and the dozens of smaller dusty boxes filled with ornaments collected over a lifetime.

We’d listen to Christmas carols piece together the tree, and perform the box migration in reverse.

For as long as I’ve lived with Nina (the wife) we’ve only ever had a real tree; mainly, because we would’ve had to have someplace to store an artificial tree when not in use.

Once we went out to a field in Illinois to cut our own and the adventure left me cursing, muddy, and with a tree that would put Charlie Brown on Prozac. I swore, never again.

Never say never, I guess. Now that we live in California, the lion’s share of our friends live up in the foothills, in or near a tiny town called Forest Ranch. Forest Ranch is 30 minutes up the hill, but like a different world to me. I live at 100 feet above sea level. The F.R. folks live at over 3,000. They get snow. They have bears. They wear un-ironic beards. They list shotguns as non-optional tools for living.

Forest Ranch is also the jumping-off point for the real mountains, for the Sierra Nevada that has nothing to do with malt, hops, and yeast. My friends Brian, and Sophia invited Nina and I to the mountains this year for a tree, and despite my previous cut-your-own debacle, we went, and I’m glad we did.

We—Nina and Myself along with three other couples—piled into Brian’s 4-wheel-drive truck and headed up the Humbug road into what they call the “High Lakes” and onto Cody Mountain where, according to one of our group—a Butte County Sherriff’s Deputy—was where pay-dirt-pine was to be found. Deputy Doug doesn’t disappoint, and we were in sap in no-time. Sap and snow about 18 inches deep.

We found a tree (the best of the bunch if you ask me,) cut it down, hauled it back, and head down the hill for a bloody mary at the Bambi Inn, my new favorite watering hole.

We finally got the tree back to our house on the flatland, and despite its overwhelming girth and 24-inch-too-tall height, looked quite nice in the corner of our dining room.

We trimmed it back, cut the tags, strung the lights, and hung the ornaments. If you look at it just right, it almost seems like a Christmas tree. Despite the disposable needle-dropping mess of the real thing, and the effort it takes to find one, I’m not sure I’ll ever want to go back to artificial. This way we get a handsome tree and a fond memory of the mountains to go with it.

Turkey Trials.

Editors Note: I intended on posting this yesterday, due to an unforeseen technical difficulty, it had to wait until today.

So the Thanksgiving meal is over and the turkey hangover has begun. We’re entering that grim limbo time where everybody starts to look toward Christmas, but the truth is I don’t feel it yet.

I woke today to a miserable gray and rainy morning. Nina is off to work, and I’ll be damned if I leave the house to hobnob with the throngs of Black Friday shoppers. I don’t really understand the Black Friday mentality, to be honest, but then again, I don’t really like to shop. I would rather pay twice the price, and buy things at my leisure, than stand outside of a Wal-Mart with all of the other mouth-breathers in the freezing cold at 5 AM.

I’m going to try my best to not leave the house today. I briefly toyed with the idea of going to the gym, but that just seems feeble after my 7,000 calorie day. Too little, too late.

Instead I’ll recap my Thanksgiving, which I believe is my 5th year in a row away from home. Well, “home” being my folks’ house in Joliet. I guess I’m home, home, now.

Either way, our turkey day started out like all things—with the best of intentions.

Nina and I predictably woke up later than anticipated and had to immediately scramble to get things in order for our proposed 4 o’clock dinnertime. We bought a turkey breast and I brined it in salt, sugar and spices for 24 hours before the big day. I pulled the bird out of its brine and rinsed it and set into the oven to air dry.

Nina made pie crust the night before, and started assembling the insides of our bourbon pumpkin pie. She boiled potatoes and I picked bunches of fresh thyme. After the third mid-kitchen collision, Nina kicked me out. “OK, you need to go” she said, and frankly, I know better than to argue. I got dressed and started cleaning up our dining room, replacing the piles of library books and bills, with tablecloths, tapers, and plates.

When I came back into the general area around he kitchen, Nina was furiously kneading ropes of potato rolls and tying them into knots.

The pie went in the oven, the potatoes were whipped with cream cheese and thyme, the rolls were painted with egg wash and dusted with sesame seeds, and it seemed like a good time to break for lunch.

If there’s one thing we like in our house, it’s appetizers. On holidays, we often make appetizers to have as a lighter meal before the main event. For Thanksgiving lunch, I made Liver Pate with peppercorns and we ate it with sour apples, water crackers and three kinds of cheese. I love cheese. We regularly drive 80 miles to Sacramento just so we can go to Nugget Market and Whole Foods to indulge in their cheesy bounty. For this particular cheese tray we had three offerings. A double-cream, cow’s milk, brie-like cheese, called Fromager D’Affinois, another cow’s milk cave-aged Gruyere, and a cheese that was introduced to us the previous weekend during a high-end beer dinner: Fiscalini San Joaquin Gold. This cheese is bizarre because its makeup is similar to cheddar, but it is treated and aged like Parmigiano-Reggiano resulting in a quite sharp, dry-ish cheese, with tons of flavor. Tasty. We had this cheese-feast with some 2009 Beaujolais Nouveau, which was frankly disappointing. Not to be deterred, we drank the whole bottle anyway.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, Nina and I were talking and as it turns out, neither of us really likes turkey, and neither of us really like stuffing. This is what they call in sales, a “come to Jesus moment” when things suddenly become clear. The turkey, we can’t do without… (It is thanksgiving after all, we’re not godless Communists,) but the stuffing got the old heave-ho. We decided instead to make a recipe we found in Gourmet, for a roasted onion and Gruyere dressing, instead of the usual bread, sage and gizzard version. This recipe called for: white onions, red onions, pearl onions, Vidalia onions, shallots, green onions and garlic to be tossed in olive oil, and roasted until brown and sweet, then topped with bread crumbs, chicken stock, and Gruyere cheese. (See above.) It is something like a French onion casserole.  Awesome.

With the onions roasted, we tossed the bird in the oven and set to ironing out the details for the rest of dinner.

This, for me, is where things began to go wrong.

I like brining turkey, because the result is super juicy meat. The only problem is, that I have a hard time getting the damn thing browned while cooking. The breast meat was up to temperature and it was time to take it out, but the thing was corn silk pale and not the most appetizing to look at. I though, no problem, I’ll toss it under the broiler for a few seconds and get it to brown right up. Unfortunately, I got distracted while opening bacon, and a few seconds turned into a minute and my beautifully roasted turkey, had a burn spot the size of North Dakota on the top.

Then there was the gravy. I have a problem with gravy. No matter what I try, or what I do, it always turns out bad. This year was no different, we go the drippings out of the pan, separated the fat, and added flour but the gravy was WAY too salty. I tried doctoring it up with apple cider vinegar, sugar and some cream, but no luck, we were stuck eating salty gravy…again.

The dinner actually turned out OK. Despite the burn spot on the bird, and the salty gravy, everything else was tasty. The brussel sprouts with bacon were nice, the onion casserole was good, the company mashed potatoes are always good.

In addition, we had rolls, canned jellied cranberry (I can hear the disapproval, but back off, I love them.) We ate all of this with a bottle of wine Nina and I bought on a recent trip to Mendocino County; 2008 Husch Vineyards Chenin Blanc.

My friends Brian and Sophia stopped by and we had Bourbon cocktails, pumpkin pie, and played some Wii Bowling. A good time was had by all.

The real tragedy didn’t come until this morning. Nina got up to go to work, and I joined her. While gathering coffee I noticed a tiny ant trotting across the top of the tin foil covering our leftover pie. I peeled back the foil and there were, roughly, 10,000 tiny pinhead ants having some sort of party in our pie dish. We had to chuck the whole thing in the trash, only 3 slices in. Tragedy in the purest form. Luckily, Nina has another pie crust in the fridge and we might be able to have leftover pumpkin pie, yet.

Today, there is nothing left to do but start in on the leftovers and look ahead to next year.

Well, it looks like I’ve been slacking once again. No posts or blog updates for well over a month. What can I say, I guess I’m just lazy / busy. Lazibusy?

A lot has happened in the past two months.

I traveled to the GABF and once again my liver was damaged, and once again it took me weeks to feel right again. (We did win gold this year, so that’s something!)

My folks came and visited from Joliet and stayed with Nina and I, which was nice, and I miss them already.

Our beloved hound Pulaski got terribly ill, and for a while there, it was touch and go… Thankfully she seems to be healthy now.

We celebrated our one-year anniversary with a nice dinner and belated travel.

In addition to that, I have been traveling a lot.

In the past three weeks I have gone from cliffs overlooking the Pacific, to the back streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I had dinner one Sunday under the Golden Gate Bridge and the following Sunday at Bobby Flay’s restaurant in Midtown Manhattan.

No matter what anybody might tell you, business trips are not fun. Even my business which revolves around drinking beer and eating fancy food, still requires me to spend more time than I would like wandering around in the A terminal at the Denver International Airport trying to decide if I can stick-it-out until landing, or if I should break down and eat at Panda Express…Yuck.

I feel like I have spent the entire fall in flux.

Moving here and there and always looking to what’s next rather than what’s now.

This seems to be a theme for me.

In Joliet, I couldn’t help looking for what’s next. In Woodstock, I insisted in scanning the horizon for the new move. Later in Norfolk, despite buying a house and some gesturing toward permanence, I still continued to play the field and working for the newest opportunity.

That was then, but it is still true now.

Part of my need for movement came with the idea of being a journalist. The way it is done (I was led to believe, anyway,) is that you move from one paper to the next. Always moving to the next big rag, up, over, out, angling for the better title, the better pay, the more niche work, to the mythical Shangri-la of newspapers, or the New York Times…whichever comes first.

Now that the newspaper business is in shambles, that is no longer an option for the journeyman journalist. Folks are lucky to even have a job at all, much less one where they don’t feel exploited and put-upon. I speak with friends still working in the trenches complaining about some new half-baked, revenue-building scheme thrust upon them from management. In the past, I would have hitched myself up on my self-righteous high horse and said “screw-em”… Now, I tell them to keep their heads down and hope for the best.

According to my friends, I’m one of the lucky ones. Not many people have a life raft handed to them, just before the ship sinks.

I did.

So what now?

In journalism, I had a plan. Work a lot. Take pictures. Move to the biggest, brightest spot on the horizon. Win some awards, and after my knees get shot, move to an editing desk, maybe wind up as a Director of Photography at a mid-level metro, and live out my days in budget meetings and peace until it’s time to retire.

Now in the beer business I have no path in front of me. No gold on the horizon. No plan. I’m kind of working day to day, or more accurately, project to project. My future is hazy. I have virtually no training or experience in my day-to-day work, and if things go pear-shaped at the brewery, I’m in trouble.

That said, I’m learning a lot about the ins and outs of making beer professionally.

Does this mean I don’t still squint toward the horizon?

I do, believe me.

I had two job offers recently, both in journalism, and much to Nina’s chagrin, I briefly considered both of them. But do I really want to go back into a burning building?

I don’t know what to do in 3,4,5, years.

Go into business? Start my own shop? Find another newspaper and try to make a go? Move back in with my parents and invest in a lot of sweatpants?

We’ll see, I guess.

For now, Northern California and the beer business as a whole are treating me well. I’m trying to think about today and leave tomorrow alone. As it turns out, the horizon is always a little farther away than it seems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It fegabfels like I just got past the hangover from last year, and here it comes again…

I’m off to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado…GABF for the uninitiated. Four days of standing around in a crowd of 50,000 of my closest friends and drinking beer from 9 AM to 3 AM one ounce at a time.

Somewhere around hour 7 it feels less like drinking, and more like pickling.

I know that complaining about my job of parties and cocktails sounds petty…and I assure you, it is…but I’m just not feelin’ GABF this year. There is something about the ever-present, gut-twisting fullness, the amazing geekeyness of it all, the stupid hats, the lame novelty glasses, the collective OHHHHH! that carries through the hall every time somebody drops a glass,  and the dozen unrelated men who will inevitably show up in kilts that makes me kind of queezy.crowd

Oh well, I guess it is not my place to question why, only just to do and die…as they say in the military.

We’ll see. I guess it could be fun. If nothing else, the receptionist at the hotel told me that the city of Denver has been taking heat because they booked the League of Christian Women’s convention in the same building on the very same nights. It might be fun just to sit back and watch the judgment fly.

So much for good neighbors.

Today I had one of those days that make people who aren’t in California, hate those of us who are.

First of all, I slept in until about 10 o’clock, which I haven’t done in a long time… the workday here begins at 8 rather than 9 in the morning, which means I tend (read:try) to get up well before 7 o’clock.

Regardless of the hour of sleep, today was a marvelous fall morning in Chico. While for other places in the world, fall means rainy overcast days and turning leaves, here, fall means slightly cooler temperatures and clouds. Not heavy dull gray skies, but clouds…period. For 85 percent of the year, Chico has a blanket of unbroken hazy blue sky. To the uninitiated, this may sound like a good deal, but from my perspective it can get a bit tedious.  Fall is the first sign of weather in the larger sense. We get clouds—big, puffy, battleship-sized cotton balls that add stark contrast to the even, blue dome above.

After a brief trip outside with Pulaski and a flip through this week’s Time magazine, we headed over to the farmers market for our usual grocery run. Several of the stands were closing up early and selling off the remainder of their produce at fire-sale prices. We got a pound of green beans, a bunch of arugula, a bundle of oregano, a bundle of thyme, a handful of basil, pasilla peppers, habaneros, an eggplant, some leeks, and a bunch of kale for under seven dollars.

After spending the afternoon a home we went to Sacramento on a tip that somewhere around midtown there was a place specializing in Chicago-style pizza. Zelda’s in SacTo, as it turns out, is a dead ringer for Illinois. If I had to classify, I would say that it is the perfect mixture of Gino’s East Pizzeria, Maurie’s Table and Merichka’s in Joliet, with a little bit of Rockdale thrown in for good measure…either way, South suburbs all the way and exactly what we wanted.

Afterward, we stopped into the Shady Lady Saloon for cocktails. I had a Sazerac with rye whiskey and absinthe produced less than 100 miles from where we sat, and Nina (the wife) had an Aviation cocktail, with gin, luxardo, lemon juice and crème de violette… honestly who carries violet flavored liqueur?

After finishing our drinks we went around the corner to Naked Coffee lounge and had espresso drinks to fortify our trip back home.

The drive back to Chico made me thankful to be living in California. The cool night temperature dropped to about 70 degrees and we barreled back North on a two-lane highway, coursing through almond and walnut orchards with the windows down and the stereo loud.  As we meandered through the valley, the stars shone brightly and I kept track of the big dipper, framed perfectly through the vaulted arch of the passenger window.

The farther North we drove and the closer we crept to Chico, the more I could make out the smell of a distant wildfire, ravaging the top of a mountain I will probably never see.  The aroma of wood fire both terrifying, and oddly comforting like the neglected smoldering of a festive holiday fireplace.

It is drives like this one that make me feel the most alive.  I feel free and confidant and in control. So much of daily work-life is determined by schedule and premeditated action. In the car, driving, there is both clarity and calm; headlights, breeze, stars, music and the inclination to take what comes.  Driving like a madman north, with nothing but a warm bed and the nagging, vague notion of dawn for a deadline.