Category Archives: covid-free Friday

Covid-free Friday: My favorite place in the whole world

My legs were toast that day on our trip to Utah. I’d walked my ass off. Slot canyons. All the way to the bottom of Bryce Canyon. Up a good deal of the Narrows in Zion National Park. I needed a rest.

Laura, my wife, wanted to take another hike.

God bless you, no. I’m taking a break.

We were staying in Springdale, Utah, the village just outside Zion. The main industry–the only industry–is the tourism that comes into the park.

The thing about Springdale, is that while it’s not literally in the park, it’s still breathtaking, if you consider the American west to be such a thing. The park permeates everything about the village, from the small army of adventure companies and outfitters, to the motels and small markets, to the restaurants. There’s a bit of a new-age vibe.

There are tour guides, motels and lodges, restaurants, stores, a microbrewery (not the best in Utah, but not bad), and a coffee shop, called the Deep Creek Coffee Company.

The coffee shop isn’t big. Inside, it seats maybe ten people. If memory serves, the floor and the furniture are well-worn. But then, that’s part of the appeal. The vibe was what college Chris would’ve derisively called granola. Peace, love, and frisbee.

Then again, you’re spitting distance from one of the greatest national parks in the country. You shouldn’t be expecting Wall Street chic.

If memory serves, it was walking distance from the motel, so I walked there, got some coffee, and retreated to the rooftop deck.

The end of vacation loomed, just close enough to be noticeable, but not quite on the doorstep. But for that morning, it might as well have not existed.

I enjoy sitting in a coffee shop and writing. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It can be Panera, the local bagel place, or the deck on the roof of a place in paradise.

The temperature was perfect. You didn’t notice the air. There was no chill, but the sun was comfortable. A slight breeze, just enough to be pleasant.

And the scenery was amazing.

When Laura plans a vacation, there are binders full of materials and an itinerary that provides comfort for those who need structure, but flexibility for the guys (me) who want to roll with the moment and find those little hidden outcoves.

Utah is filled with them, but this was the best.

It was one of those times and places that you want to bottle and save some of for later.

Were I to hit Powerball, I’d be drinking coffee on that deck tomorrow.


Covid-free Friday: Everyone knows egg is plural

I don’t remember the first time I had Bavarian coffee cake, but I’m pretty sure it was on Christmas morning. My grandmother used to make it every Christmas and now it’s passed down as a family tradition. You roll up dough balls, coat them in butter and cinnamon sugar, then nuts. Then you let it raise and bake it. Freeze it, pull it out Christmas morning, and eat it. Very simple.

In 2002, when I working in on a 1099 job and worked most of the day Christmas Eve after having been laid off for almost two years, I was sure we wouldn’t have the coffee cake. I was working and my wife had to work at Walgreen’s because the COBRA ran out and the job I had didn’t carry benefits for us. You may have heard that the days leading up to Christmas are busy in the retail sector.

In short, it looked like no coffee cake that Christmas, because it was a pretty busy time. I don’t remember much about that Christmas, but I remember that somehow, she found time to make the coffee cake, which was a surprise for me Christmas morning while she was working.

I don’t recall if my eyes misted, but they should’ve.

For a few years, a former co-worker and I had coffee-cake wars at Christmastime at work. We’d pick a day when everyone was in the office and we’d both make our coffee cakes. Mine, of course, was better. But not for lack of screwing up.

So one Sunday, I pull out the recipe and set to work. And the dough doesn’t rise.

Huh.

So I throw it out and start over. And the dough doesn’t rise. So I throw it out.

At this point my wife is saying she’ll make it because we can’t afford to keep throwing out dough. I insist I’m following the recipe exactly as written.

So she watches me. When it gets to the part that says Add egg. I added an egg and moved one.

“Wait,” she says. “What about the other egg?”

“What other egg?”

“At the beginning it says two eggs in the ingredients list. You only added one.”

“It says Add egg, not Add eggs.

“Eggs is plural.”

“Not in English, it’s not.”

“So what do you do with the other egg?”

I insisted the recipe was wrong. I was forcefully told I was wrong. My friend, the one with the other coffee cake, laughed heartily at my mistake.

“What were you going to do with the other egg?”

“Shut up, that’s what.”

In eating that coffee cake, my grandmother, Grammy is still here. And in eating my other grandmother’s shortbread–the best you’ll ever have–she’s still here.

My son isn’t big on the coffee cake, but my daughter likes it, so there’s a chance it’ll pass to a fourth generation.

And a generation smart enough to know egg is plural.


Covid-free Friday: That year Santa brought the swing set

You’re gonna have lots of fun putting that together in the dark. Ho ho ho!

Before I start: if you have any doubts, Santa is real. He has to be. The presents are there for you, right? And they say From: Santa right on the tag. So he has to be real. It’s important to establish that.

Sometimes Santa needs help. He’s delivering stuff to all the good kids all over the world. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for those gifts that require assembly. Santa seems to love those gifts best of all.

The first year we lived in our house, Santa decided to bring a swing set for our kids. Santa knew that every kid needs a swing set at some point. I had two of them–one in Schenectady and one after we moved to Galway.

Neither one of them were as good as the swings at the playground at Lincoln School. I mean, that swing set was easily, like, a hundred feet high. Or maybe a thousand.

And me and Mike Ostermann used to get the swings going as high as we could, then right when it hit the highest point, probably half a mile up, we’d jump. There was an instant when it seemed like stuff would freeze, that point at which you aren’t going up any more, but you’re not coming down.

If I’m remembering correctly, at least one teacher really wished we wouldn’t do that.

But just as good with the home swingset is the satisfying thump of when the pole returns to it’s hole after you’ve gotten the swing high enough that it pulls it up a little.

How could Santa deny any kid that experience? He’s Santa. He had to bring the swing set.

What we didn’t know was that Santa wouldn’t assemble it. And that Christmas Eve that year would be one of the coldest nights in Florida since we moved here almost 22 years ago (no hyperbole).

So Santa leaves this box for us to assemble after the kids have gone to bed. It’s a swing set. How hard could it be to assemble? In the dark. With gloves on. After a few celebratory drinks?

It took forever. I thought we’d be putting it up until we had to take a break to take the kids to college.

When the kids got up, Laura and I knew the swingset was there, just outside the window. We’d spent half the damn night building it. My in-laws helped build it. If memory serves, they drove home to Palm Harbor so they could sleep a little before returning to our house Christmas morning.

When the kids got up, we said nothing about the swing set. We just opened the blinds on the sliders and waited for them to notice it. In real time, it probably took less than five minutes. In my memory, though, it seemed like half the day. And part of me wanted to step over to the window, point outside, and say, “There. It’s a big freaking swing set? How the hell can you not see it after we practically froze to death putting it together?”

Eventually, they saw it and got excited and praised Santa for bringing just the right thing. I expect they didn’t spend a long time out there because swings aren’t fun on a cold Christmas morning when you’re wearing your best Barbie nighty.

For years afterword, my daughter swore she could hear it when Santa dropped the swingset out of the sleigh, fully assembled on the ground.

The swing set wasn’t the long-term hit Santa thought it might be. My daughter was nearing the end of her playground phase and my son wound up roaming the neighborhood with his friends, more than staying in the back yard.

But for one morning, Santa hit a home run. And after being up most of the night making Christmas dreams come true, the nap he took that afternoon was a happy one.


Covid-free Friday: Paper stadium guy

Last fall, a guy named Trey Ashby built a scale-model replica of the University of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium completely out of paper. While stadium budgets typically run in the hundreds of millions, his budget was $5. His replica even included minature statues of former Nebraska coaches Tom Osborne and Bob Devaney and former player Brook Berringer.

When he finished his stadium, he filmed a grand unveiling complete with Also Spach Zarathustra, better known as the theme from 2001.

After his tweet, things kind of went viral, including human interest pieces on local news. And Ashby, a 30-year-old PE teacher from Papillion, Nebraska, near Omaha, became something of a minor celebrity.

To build the stadiums, he starts with the field, then constructs a base for the structure of the stadium, then fills in from there. The video below shows his process for building his current ballpark, San Fransisco’s Candlestick Park.

Ashby started by building his parks for about an hour each night after his two children (yes, the stadium geek has a wife) were put to bed and he’s had to be careful to keep his creations away from the kids, lest little hands King Kong them to death.

Although he’s done Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field, his most ambitious project to date may be the Astrodome, which he constructed with configurations for baseball, football, concerts, the famous (at the time) college basketball game in 1968 between UCLA and the University of Houston, and even an Evel Knievel jump.

It even has a removeable dome roof and Tequila Sunrise seat coloring to match the Astros uniforms from the 70s and 80s, which mirrors the colors in the Dome at the time.

Ashby isn’t alone in this pursuit. A former University of Wyoming wide receiver named Josh Barge has created a paper model of Wyoming’s War Memorial Stadium, where he played from 2002-2005.

Pretty impressive work by both of them.

And you were feeling good about that 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle you completed last week.


Covid-free Friday: Last time past the castle

I wrote this more than nine years ago, when my daughter was getting ready to graduate from high school. I don’t know if she remembers the house in South Tampa she called the castle. I’d include a picture of it, but I didn’t take one then and I can’t really take a drive down there because…well, you know.

She had this thing where she was always the last person to leave practice. Even after the coaches. Man, that used to piss me off. But I sort of miss it in a way. It was a worthwhile investment in the woman she’s become.

She’s been overseas a lot since then, the Marshall Islands and mutiple times to Africa. She didn’t go overseas to school, but we were able to help make her life more fully lived than I ever considered.

Later this month, my daughter, is going overseas, way overseas, to visit a college campus for a program she applied to almost on a lark.

This is the same little girl who used to light up like the morning sky if I said I’d take her to the McDonald’s with the indoor playground in the dead of winter. She’s the same little girl who became quite put out when she found out she’d have a little brother rather than a little sister like her friend had. And whose anger evaporated when she held him in her arms for the first time just a couple hours later.

This is the same girl who stood next to me and sang at the top of her lungs when we went to the U2 concert together, and who looks at me with bemused annoyance at any of my plethora of off-color remarks. Fortunately and unfortunately, she’s also the incredible young woman who’s just now starting the most exciting part of her life, her hard work paying off in ways she never imagined.

I used to take her to swim practice and drive through some of the higher-income neighborhoods. She called one of the houses there “the castle” and loved to drive by it. Every Tuesday and Thursday I’d pick her up after work and take her to the pool. Then I’d go to Panera and eat dinner, drink coffee, and write until practice was over. Then, most nights, we’d drive past the castle.

Because of the crush of homework, college applications, scholarship applications, and some other things, I drove her past the castle last week. Considering graduation’s less than four months away, I was a little melancholy when I told her, “This might be the last time I drive you past the castle.”

These are the moments that are most meaningful, bigger than any big idea. They’re real and tangible, and they actually happen.

As someone trying to write fiction, I know my work will be an escape and, I hope, carry some social relevance, as well.

But the pretend battles between good and evil are unlikely to be as poignant as the last time by the castle. That’s what really matters.


Covid-free Friday: The sous vide

I wasn’t too sure about it.

A eye-round roast in bag. In a clear bin of water. For twenty-four hours. And it would come out as tender as a filet mignon.

It was the Instant Pot that got my wife hooked. The ability to make just about anything with almost microwave speed. The next thing, she said, would be the sous vide.

If you aren’t familiar with it, a sous vide warms water to a relatively low temperature and circulates it, creating a low, constant heat that slowly permeates your meat and brings it to the temperature you want.

It’s perfect for dense, tough cuts of meat. And anything in the round group–the top, bottom, or eye, fit the description perfectly.

Through high school and college, I worked in the meat room at a place called Galway Market, in Galway, New York. The first time I paid attention to an eye round roast is when I had to pull one out of the freezer, let it thaw a little, then slice it a little thicker than cold cuts on the slicer.

You’d throw it in a pan for a bit with some butter and it was just like a Steak-Umm, except it didn’t look like particle board and it was really good. Minute steaks. Exceptionally good, but kind of tough.

But if you look at a round, it’s a dense, incredibly lean cut of meat. Pretty tasty, too, if you cook them right.

Imagine that taste with the tenderness of a filet.

We didn’t do anything special to the roast. Just coated it with salt and pepper.

To sous vide the roast, you need to put it in a zip lock bag and remove all the air. For a long cook, like a roast, you need to boil the meat for 15 to 60 seconds, to remove the lactobacillus bacteria–which isn’t bad for you, but might make your roast smell like bad cheese.

After you do that, you put the roast in the water and insert the circulator. It’s difficult to get a perfect seal with no air, but you need to keep the entire piece of meat under the water. My wife got a cage for the roast, which forces it underwater, even if a little air is left in the bag.

Our sous vide consists of the circulator, a cylinder with a control panel at the top, and a plastic bin that almost looks like something you’d get from RubberMaid, and a hinged lid that has a hole which is a perfect size for the circulator.

Put the roast in, set the circulator to the right temperature and time (for us, 133.5 degrees at a little more than 24 hours) and walk away.

When the roast is done, you have to sear it briefly, then you’re good to go.

It’s an amazingly simple process. What started as a dense, tough piece of meat, ends as a cut as tender as the filet mignon you’d pay three times as much for.

The science makes sense–the low temperature for a longer period breaks down the denseness of the cut, gradually making it more tender.

Cleanup is easy, too. You have a bin to dry out, a sear pan to wash, a cutting board, and a knife.

It’s not the cheapest thing in the world. The Anova Nano, which is what we have, sells for $99. You can get container on Amazon for about $30.

So far, we’ve had mostly roasts, but you can do steaks and fish–though with much shorter cooking times. I’ve even seen recipes for eggs and desserts.

It’s odd, watching your roast cook in a plastic bag submerged in what looks like a storage bin. But the results are amazing.