Monday, January 31, 2011

Emergency Supplies

Growing up in North Dakota I experienced many a rough winter. Tales of cars going off the icy roads and submerging in snowbanks, not to be found till spring (with their occupants frozen within) motivated most residents to carry at least one Emergency Kit with them. They might include some candy bars, candles, florescent streamer to tie to your antenna, a space blanket, a tin pie pan for melting snow for water, etc., etc. There were commercial ones and homemade ones, but you can bet that if the weather was bad I was thankful I had mine (including my sleeping bag, a shovel, and my own person repository of candy :)

But I don't drive here in Chicago and blizzards don't threaten my life like they did in North Dakota. Instead, something fouler and more loathsome threatens my livelihood.

Running out of Milk.

I am the consummate cerealist. Since I was a child I have considered cereal to be the forgotten pillar of the food pyramid and have, ever since, waged a personal campaign to consume such vast amounts of cereal that someone upstairs in corporate would notice and take pause.

Yes, I eat mucho cerealoso. And although I love other breakfast foods, there is nothing like the sound of ceramic and cereal clinking into my bowl in the the morning and getting out a heavy jug of cool refreshing milk from the fridge and mating the star-crossed lovers in my bowl. Cereal, O Cereal! Bound to the shelf, to the box, to isolation!! Milk, needing refrigeration, trapped in that cold tomb of darkness!!

K, I'll cut the melodrama...

Anyhow, like I said, I love other breakfast foods, but when I don't even have the option of eating cereal because we've run out of milk my day starts off a little gloomier.

Which brings us back to the horrors of venturing out into the wild during winter. Now, without a car, I must venture by foot or by bicycle. In those circumstances, I am my own Winter Survival Kit. My instincts fuel my hunt for milk, my will to survive heightens my senses, my wits protect me better than any florescent ribbon, and my love of milk and cereal wraps me in a cloak of passion warmer than any space blanket.

Into these perilous climes I sojourn undaunted. And seeing as how there is a blizzard on the forecast for Wednesday, I better make the journey today before the visibility drops to nil and arctic wookies come out of hiding like the Morlock beasts of the night from H.G. Well's Time Traveler.


By the way, if any of you are wondering why it is I think it's hilarious to turn my everyday misadventures into homeric epics, I can't tell you. I just think it's funny. I'm also inspired by the writings of Andrew Bisharat of Rock and Ice Magazine who writes the Tuesday Night Bouldering feature in every magazine. He molds and crafts his stories into modern epics that always leave my stomach aching from laughter and thankful that someone else pauses to think deeply, if not always seriously, about everyday life.

1 month down, 11 to go.

January is already written, folks. Here comes February.

Though I made a strong blog presence in early January, the last twelve days I've been quiet. Why? No reason in particular. Other things to do, more pressing concerns have been given attention.

So what has happened?

I've started learning Adobe Dreamweaver, Illustrator, Photoshop, and Flash. These are the cornerstones of web media. Gargantuan cornerstones to be sure. So I've been watching videos, doing tutorials, learning everything I can so that I can turn my parent's website for their B&B into pure gold. I'm only slightly intimidated by the scope and scale of my task.

So, there goes a bunch of hours for you...

I've actually been loving it. It's tapping into a creative vein that I haven't let flow for some time and it feels so good. Read that last phrase again slowly, savoring the goodness. IT FEEEELS SOOO GOOOOOOD! It's like reacquainting myself... with myself?

Anywho, it's fun having fun while doing business. Isn't that the dream?

What else, what else, what else....

I've learned that the pet industry of America is hilariously moronic. Yup. Moronic. Put supply companies have this golden opportunity in which the target for whom the product is made doesn't actually buy the product. Instead, an entirely different species does, and not using the same metrics as the target species would. Let me offer a "for example".

Kitty ran out of food. So, off I go to Pet Smart to compare prices with the Kitty food at Target. I arrive at Pet Smart without a clue about which one is good, which is bad, and how to tell the difference. Right away, however, I discover that it's not about the cat. It's about me. About me? About moi?



How can it be about me? Well, just as humans have designer jeans that are only slightly different from normal jeans, kitty owners have the luxury of choosing from a dizzying plethora of options too. Everything from Science Diet to Blue to Meow Mix to Purina, and these are just a few of the dry food options, not to mention the canned food. CANNED FOOD FOR CATS! Have you ever heard of anything so absurd? Oh, right, kind of like paying five hundred dollars for designer jeans...

Anywho, within all those varieties are an entire world of varieties based on the age of the cat, the dietary needs (and or preferences) of the cat, and so on and so forth. Ingredients, percentages, organics, flavors, ages, diets, and PRICES! Why would I ever pay twenty dollars for Science Diet when I can pay 8 for Purina or 4 for Meow Mix?

(I'm not stupid. I'm sure Meow Mix is four dollars for a reason.... Or maybe I am stupid. Maybe Meow Mix is correctly priced and everything else is gross inflation...)

How am I supposed to know? They all say that they contain a balanced blend of nutrients. So what does it come down to? Packaging. Marketing. How can we appeal to cats when they aren't even the ones buying it. Appeal to the human, not the cat! For CAT food. Ridiculously genius.

Speaking of flavors, by the way, I want to know who decided that my cat needs to eat Lamb and Rice? Or Tuna? Or have Oceanspray flavor food? Were I to release my 2 lb. cat into the wild she would never take down a sheep, harvest rice, or fish for Albacore. In fact, I don't even know if she'd show any interest in the rotting carcass of a ram. Nope. Here's what would appeal to me (because it might actually appeal to my cat): Sparrow and Mouse flavored Kitty food. Afterall, when was the last time your cat dragged a lamb chop up onto the front porch? Never? Didn't think so.

So, I got the Purina. Not because of the advertising, but because it was a middle-price option and happened to be on sale.

And don't even get me started on Cat litter.

Litter for multi-cat homes, organic litter, clumping litter, non-clumping litter, and on and on and on and on. I walked away feeling bludgeoned by options.


What else happened this last few weeks.....

I set a new personal record and biked to work in 3 degree weather! Wind Chill was something awful but with my handy dandy face mask I was rock solid! Or, maybe closer to Frozen solid. It wasn't exactly pleasant, but delightful to know it was bearable.

Do I qualify as insane yet?


No new baking adventures, I've been remiss in that department. Although I did create a fabulous black bean stew with a cornucopia of peppers and spices and veggies, paired with aged cheddar and garlic cheese bread breadbowls. THAT was the epitome of comfort food. Oh! I just realized that I made that on the 3 degree day. No wonder that's such a good memory!

Last week Amy and I went to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. We spent four or five hours there on one of their winter free days and only saw about one eighth of the place, and that might be a generous estimation. It's HUGE!!! Of course, the highlight of the trip was taking a tour of the U-505, the only captured German U-boat of WWII. Unbelievable experience. Second only to manipulating a tornado in their live science exhibit! That was pretty awesome too. Basically, if you've never been to the Museum of Science and Industry, you need to go. And if, like us now, you've been there before, chances are likely you should go again. Because you just can't see it all in one day.

So, it's been busy. I'm getting to teach my Sunday School kids about Abram and God's amazing faithfulness these days and it's been a blast. A real highlight.

Well, as this has been a shotgun blast of topics and no real depth of reporting about anything, you can bet that now that I'm blogging again I'll post pictures from the museum and give a real update on our fantasti-cat Marshmallow.

Until then, sleep better than I do (a.k.a. why I'm writing this after midnight)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Edible Resume

For the last few weeks I've been trying to find bakeries and cafes that I would want to work at and while coffee shops abound, bakeries do not. Or, at least bakeries that I respect.

But there is one around the corner from where I live called Letizia's Fiore, and it's fantastic! Old-world quality baked goods and pizzas, fresh, modern decor, everything is cooked on a wood-burning stove right in front of you... could it get any better?

So I applied, and met the manager, shook his hand, and made small talk. But I'm not the best at talking myself up and didn't know how to make a stand-out impression, so without further adieu I thanked him for the opportunity and made my exit.

But last night while our friends were over for dinner I was serving individual-size Cranberry Apple tarts and I realized that an application is standard and a nicely formatted resume looks great, but who wants paper when I can give them an edible resume?!

Enter exhibit 1:

Letizia's Fiore specializes in individual size pies and tarts and other such pastries, so why not bring them pure ambrosia? Imagine this... I walk over there with a fresh, oozing, just-out-of-the-oven cranberry apple tart with a deluxe butter crust and latice topping and two scoops of vanilla bean ice cream on the side and say, "I've brought you an edible resume. At the end of the day it doesn't matter where I went to High School or how fancy my references are. Instead, taste this fresh, golden brown Cranberry Apple tart and let it do the talking."

What do you think, blogosphere? Should I be bold? Should I pack a secret weapon next time I fill out an application?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Phobic, in a bad way.

I am terrified of the intrusive powers of the Anti-Cruelty society.

A little over two weeks ago Amy and I returned from ND and found ourselves living in a little apartment in a big city, far far away from family. Sometimes we have friends over, but it's not the same as having a family. So we got a cat. It wasn't completely impulsive... but we might have had mixed motivations. Anyways, I'm not getting into that.

Regardless, we have a cat. She's awesome! She comes when we call her, loves to play games, sits on my shoulder like a pirate's parrot, and has an awesome name: Marshmallow. She is incredibly affectionate and her latest new game is to wait under the desk, chair, table, or behind doors and fake pounce on our legs when we walk by. She doesn't attack us, and isn't being malicious, she just likes to play hunt with us. It's absolutely adorable.

But then I remember where we got her from. The ruthless, coldhearted, glorified pound that needs so much help overcoming the negative stigma from having a building that looks like a lab for mad-scientists that it puts the words anti-cruelty right into its name.

The Anti-Cruelty Society.

When I read this I don't think, "Oh, a group of people who care about animals," I think, "Slick advertising - $10 bucks says they sell the rejects to hotdog vendors." Okay, I just made that up. But doesn't it seem a little hokey? "Oh yes, we're the anti-cruelty society! No cruelty here, ho-ho-ho, we're the saints of animal rescue!"

What gives me the heebyjeebies is that when we "rescued" Marshmallow from the wannabe despots they made us sign a form that gave them the right to visit, unannounced, whenever they want. WHENEVER THEY WANT? I just gave strangers the key to my back door? For crying out loud, why don't they just put it in plain English, "Yes, give us your money and take home the kitty but don't you ever let your kitty get hungry or her kitty box dirty or her dish unsanitary or let her shots get out of date because WE'LL KNOW, AND WE'LL TAKE YOU TO COURT AND LOCK YOU UP FOR INFINITY TIMES THREE!!!!"

It's all just a little Faustian if you ask me. Maybe I missed the check box that allowed me to include my soul in the deal...

Anywho, the reason I'm all up in a twist is because little Marshmallow (who isn't so little anymore ever since she actually started eating all of her allotted 1/3 cup of kitty food for kitties her size) came pre-spayed. Quite the convenience if you ask me. Except the stitches weren't out yet and we had to take her home with two little sutures in her tummy. We were told to bring her back at a certain time for them to take them out, but we were busy and couldn't go.

But we didn't sweat it. We figured that we could just call and reschedule, right? Wrong.

Instead, I got an answering machine that didn't mention anything about clinic reschedulings. Still, I persisted, and left my name, number, situation, name, and number again, and then hung up. I had done all I could do, short of barging in with a kitty under my arm and an uzi in my other hand like a weak-sauce impression of Rambo or something. Not that Rambo ever had a kitty emergency...

So we waited and waited and waited. And didn't hear anything back. And waited some more. And I became impatient.

And [GASP] I took matters into my own hands.

I got my scissors, cleaned them up, and went snip, snip, tug, tug. No more sutures.

Marshmallow initially hated me, but after a few hours she realized I'd removed the bane of her self-cleaning regimen and I was her new hero. Trumpet noise: dah-dah-dah-dahhhhhh

Except now I have this nagging spectre of doom stalking me, threatening to play pounce for real. The face of the nagging spectre? There isn't one. It's hooded, and masked, and all that comes from the slits that are vaguely in the right region for nose holes is a vaporous cloud. A haze of guilt and impending doom. I KNOW WHAT YOU DID. YOU DON'T HAVE A VETERINARY LICENSE. YOU PERFORMED SURGERY ON YOUR COUCH. YOU WILL PAY. YOU WILL PAY.

Pretty soon the apartment is swarming with Anti-Cruelty undercover agents. Marshmallow is being crated, I'm being dragged off, and Anti-Cruelty agents are trashing my place. I'm hauled off to the Anti-Cruelty Re-education Center (read: Gulag), Amy has to move in with her parents, and Marshmallow get resold under a new name. When her new owners ask about her past, the Society (as the like to refer to themselves) just says that there isn't any on file!

All this and more. And I think she has a booster shot coming up...

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Basic White

Found in the chapter Basic Yeast Bread and Other White Flour Breads is found the very first recipe of James Beard's Beard on Bread. And as the beginning is the appropriate place to start any adventure, that is where I have started mine. The Basic White.

Having grown up in the home of a baker I had the privilege to learn much about cooking, baking, canning, pastries, etc., straight from my Mom and therefore was resistant to the idea of starting with the very, very, beginning. Basic White? Seriously? I think I'm ready for Advanced White.

But, I knew deep down that my hubris would be undoing and that if I really wanted to learn the ropes from James Beard I needed to buckle down and just bake whatever he told me to bake. But don't worry, I still brought the heat.

Basic White turns out to be just that - basic. Granted, there really isn't a whole lot that goes into a simple bread. A little flour, a little water, a little yeast, a little salt, and maybe some sugar if you want. Other than that all that's necessary is some butter to grease the pans. But as simple as that description just was, I quickly realized I was dealing with a baker writing to an audience from 1973!

Apparently, back in the days of yore, good flour products were hard to come by and so Mr. Beard wrote this recipe for those who couldn't get a hold of bread flour, whole wheat flour, rye flour, etc., etc. The Basic White of James Beard calls for All-Purpose! Is this blasphemy?!?

Nevertheless, I followed his instructions. As he says, "I have chosen it as my first recipe here because I think it will provide any beginner with the basic techniques of breadmaking." Again, I cringed a little. I am not a beginner.

Then again, maybe the constant mantra of "I'm always a learner" in essence expresses that I'm always a beginner.

So we began.

By far my favorite aspect of his writing is the degree of detail he puts into describing the process. It doesn't feel dumbed down at all. Rather, it feels like he's just in the kitchen explaining what's going on as it happens, explaining what should happen next, what texture the bread should have, and what consistency you're looking for.

First thing I liked about Beard: he proof's his yeast with sugar. This is something I remember my mom teaching me but was decried by The Joy of Cooking. I never understood why Joy would spread such heresy, so Beard's praxis was a comfort indeed. Chemically speaking, yeast, the leavening agent, is a bacteria. And bacteria feeds on sugar. Therefore, if you want to know if your yeast is still active (i.e. able to make the bread rise) you put it in a bowl with some warm water and a little sugar to see if it will react. If it does, you're golden and ready to add it to your flour.

Second thing I like about Beard on Bread is the diagrams. Even though I have a good deal of experience, it's still nice to see a picture from time to time of what it should look like.

Now, I do feel a little guilty about this, but I made the bread last Saturday, so all of this is going off of my memory of the bread. But this is what I remember.

A) I had to use a little more water that the recipe called for. Not a big deal. A number of factors could have caused this to be the case. Humidity, quality of the flour, etc. But I did find that at the ratios given in the recipe the dough was tough and difficult to fully combine without more water. In hindsight, I could've probably used even a little more water, but it turned out fine.

B) The dough did not rise as much or as fast as expected. This could also be attributed to the temperature of the room, the rising environment, etc., but it wasn't a major concern. Also, I got lazy with my loaf. This is not to blame James Beard or the recipe, I just got lazy when it came time to form it. Oh well. So it wasn't even. Whatever. It still tasted awesome :)

C) The loaf did not brown as I expected and so was difficult to judge by sight for doneness. I followed the recipe in every way and gave the loaf only a cold water brushing rather than an egg yolk wash or milk wash. As a result I turned out a very light colored, dense loaf that had a firm crust. It was perfect with soft butter and turned out very well.

Just as he said, it was easy, simple, and a good starter bread. Additionally, he gave several examples of kneading technique. I read them, but prefer the method that I've formed over the years.

All in all, Basic White was a great bread. I expected that it would be a nice beginner's loaf but nothing I'd ever want to make again, but I actually liked it enough that I would definitely make it, and enjoy it, again.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Julie and Julia Pt. 2 - Jonathan and James?

Either last year or the year before a movie came out about a girl who worker her way through the entire Julia Child's cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It was a fun movie and a great story about life and the adventures of kitchen mishaps, upsets, and disasters as well as the occasional and extremely satisfying success.

Well, I like to cook and would love it if someone bought me Julia's cookbook, but I love something else maybe even more.


And as Christmas present I received James Beard's Beard on Bread. Check it out here.

This man loved bread even more than I do. The book is filled with 100 of his favorite recipes and although I already know a little more than the average joe about bread, I decided today to work my way through and make every recipe in the book, cataloguing the experience here for all to enjoy!

I am stoked. While I have plenty of friends who enjoy the fruits of my labor, James will be my first official bread mentor. This is going to be awesome!

Groupon Glory

Whoever thought up Groupon is a genius. What is it? It's kind of like buying coupons, which would be stupid, except it's for places that would never ever have 50% off sales! Or More! And it's tailored to your city! Your favorite shops!

Today's Groupon is 50% off at a little bakery I love called Red Hen Bread. The way it works is this: I pay 5 dollars but get a 10 dollar gift card/certificate thingy. Now, I was already going to buy their bread, so why not buy it at half price?

Awesome, huh?

I think you should join Groupon too. Follow my link (here) and be a part of the awesomeness.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Sad Numbers

Confused by the title of today's blog? You mean you never realized numbers had feelings too?

No. Of course numbers don't have feelings. But I have feelings, and sometimes numbers make me sad. Like that number over there on the right.

Yeah, the number that says I'm not awesome.

Okay. I admit. I'm the one who changed the title of the gadget from "Total Pageviews" to "my Awesome-ness rating..." But let's all be honest. That's what we really think when we see it.

Question: Should Mark Zuckerberk add a "Total Profile Views" gadget to Facebook?

Question: Why hasn't he?

By the way, those aren't rhetorical. I invite response via the comment thingy. And I recently changed the settings so you don't even have to have a blogger account to comment, so you have NO excuse.

Okay, I'm done. I'm not actually going to throw a pity party for myself, but I will leave up my Awesome-ness Rating thingamajigger. It makes me laugh.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Quiet home no more...

If you asked me if I prefer cats or dogs, I'd tell you dogs. Same goes for the wife. We like them so much that we went a little crazy this fall with wanting one. We picked out a breed, found some breeders, even made some inquiries, and then remembered - "hey, we're in a little apartment in Chicago. Is this really the right time to have a dog?"

Also, our landlord also has a no dog policy. So that ended that.

But that didn't end our desire for a pet. Fish are lame and make better food than pets. Birds are loud, messy, and annoying. And there's always that constant temptation to try and train it to sit on your shoulder so you can look like a pirate. K, maybe that's just me. Anywho, alligators are illegal and monkeys throw poop. Gerbils are glorified rodents and no matter what anyone says, I will never believe that a rock can be a good pet. Nope. No pet rocks for me.

So, after returning from The Big House (a.k.a. Mom and Dad's at Christmas), our apartment felt more like a mega-closet than a mini-home. And it was quiet. Too quiet.

So, pet fever set in again.

It also didn't help that a friend in the city was followed home by a stray cat and his wife put up pictures of the feline destitute.

Granted, that cat was so ugly I knew on the spot that if we got her we would just name her Ugly. Okay, I know that's harsh, but it looked more like a cow than a cat. It just did. End of story.

So it was time to hit up to world wide web. PAWS charges way too much for their cats so we went to, yes, that's right, The Anti-Cruelty Society. Duh, duh, duhhhhh...

Walking past the ACS building on Grand and LaSalle I always thought it looked more like the research center of a mad scientist than a kind home for cats and dogs in need of owners. It's not an abandoned warehouse or anything, it just never looked inviting. And with a name like "The Anti-Cruelty Society" I knew that it was either one of two things. A clever name meant to throw off innocent bystanders and mislead them into believing that good, humane things happened inside it's doors, or an actual operation by good-hearted, well-meaning, well-funded people who were bad at naming their organization. Wouldn't "Humane Society" be easier?

Anyhow, off we went on Thursday afternoon. Upon arrival the wife had to fork over her coffee because it wasn't allowed inside. First move by the ACS - uncool. But on to the kittens.

Inside the feline room were probably thirty-five to forty cages of cats of all ages. Kittens a few months old to cats on the last of their nine lives. We wanted a kitten, naturally, but the one we saw online was already claimed. Oh, no! Oreo was going to be someone else's! Egads!

But that freed us to give a fair appraisal of the other cats. There were tabbies, calicoes, persians, and all sorts. All black cats, all white cats, orange, brown, and mixed color cats. Big ones, little ones, feisty ones, frightened ones, fatties and anorexic kitties. Seriously. All sorts. So we picked out two kitties and took them out to play. First was Pineapple. He was a three month orange kitty with 'cuddly' written all over him. But after a little while we decided we wanted a cat with a little more personality. So back went Pineapple and out came Stella.

Stella was a mix between a calico, a tabby, and something else. I forget. Anyhow, where Pineapple was a flop, Stella was a homerun. One application, interview, and about forty minutes later we had a cat. Just like that. But not in a hat. K, I said that just rhyme. Back to the kitty... She's awesome. Sploches of color everywhere. Spots, stripes, patches of this next to patches of that, and then a ton of white mixed in. Black, orange, gray, white, spots, stripes, patches, and everything all mixed together. What an awesome cat! And, she came pre-spayed, with her vaccinations, deworming, microchip and everything. Pretty good deal.

Just look at her! What a cutie!

But the name had to go. Now if your name is Stella, don't worry, we probably like you. But we didn't want your name for our cat. The naming game had begun.

Porky. Peanut. Asteroid. Georgie. Nala. Felix. Hobbes. Trudy. Tiger Lilly. Spas-ti-cat.

None of them fit.

Penelope was a little better, but it didn't have anything to do with her personality or her coloration or anything. We just liked the name. The wife liked the name Cricket because of how loud her purr was, but I wasn't a fan. And on and on it went. I'd like a name but she wouldn't and vice versa. I liked Moose, but she didn't. She liked Patches but it didn't stick. With her unique colors and markings it was difficult finding a food that she resembled. Turtle? Like the ice cream? It kinda works, but doesn't.

Until last night. Epiphany.

It had been on the tip of my tongue for days. Finally, while watching her play last night I realized what she resembled. Our cat is a half-burnt marshmallow. You know, one of those perfect, huge, Jet-Puff Marshmallows that you had too close to the flame and so parts of it got singed, but other parts of it are still perfect golden brown. And all gooey on the inside. Yup. That's our cat.

I think it works on multiple levels, too. It may just be the kitten in her, but sometimes she seems a little half-baked. Haha...

So, welcome to the family Marshmallow.

We're happy you're here :)

Christmas in North Dakota - Pt. 4

Sadly, while I took pictures fairly diligently the first half of the week, during the second half of the week it became more important to just be with the family and not necessarily take pictures of everything. So, there are only a few left and some of them not so great.

We enjoyed family meals together all week. Breakfast was usually a pajama affair and lunch was a general idea that could stretch anywhere between noon and four o'clock, but dinner usually happened with all eleven of us around the table. Some nights were quieter than others, some more rowdy, but it was always just nice to see everyone's face at the same table.

On the Christmas Eve eve, the 23rd, we had a fancier dinner with candles and everything. Santa even showed up and had presents for all. Somehow I made it into the "nice" book, and in some twist of fate my brother did too. But, we both have pretty awesome wives, so that probably explains it.

The 24th arrived and we went to church for the Christmas Eve service. We went to a church we'd never been to before because we assumed it would be smaller and easier for us to navigate with the little ones. We were also surprised by the service though. It's hard to say what it was we should have expected, but I'm pretty sure none of us saw what was coming.

It wasn't dramatic, there wasn't a pageant, and it was all fairly straight forward. But perhaps the kind way of describing the event is "unrehearsed". I could also add untalented, bad, poor, shameful, lacking, or pathetic to the list, but I'm trying to be nice. The two highlights were the special song and the candlelit number "Joy to the World". The special was indeed special, but only because the singer didn't know the words, was whispering more than singing, and seemed to be having an anxiety attack. To top off the awkwardness we were invited to join in on the last stanza. It was difficult not to laugh.

"Joy to the World" felt more like bad circus music than a rousing Christmas hymn. For the first two phrases the song leader swayed between three or four different keys. It wasn't slurpy country music. It was more like a his vocal chords were a slide whistle that just couldn't find home. At no point was the entire congregation in the same key, although I tried valiantly to belt out the correct one from the back row. I think a few families joined in, but it was the most raucous hymn sing I've ever been a part of.

So, Christmas Eve was kicked off with a memorable service, then we had dinner with Grandma and a neighbor friend and a few other family friends. Later in the evening we had a fantastic game of Settlers of Catan and tried to watch a little bit of White Christmas on TCM.

Christmas day was awesome. My nephew got a litte excited and started digging through his stocking before he was supposed to, but you can't exactly re-pack it and tell him to wait, so we were off to the races. The rest of the kids soon joined in and before too long the floor was a sea of wrapping paper. Later on we went to see the grandparents at the nursing home and then we cracked open the pinochle deck after dinner for a family game. Classic. Just classic.

So, Christmas was a success. It was hard to say goodbye when my brother left Sunday morning and even harder to leave on Sunday night on the train. As the fates would have it, our train was late getting home but spot on time to leave.

And after staying at a house of eleven people for a week, our little apartment felt like a glorified closet and a little too quiet. But such is life. Being home did much to remind me the value of staying close to my family and not losing touch with them in the next year. So, here's to family. Happy New Year, all!