Monthly Archives: November 2015

Christmas Stockings

Now that Thanksgiving is over, it’s time to get our Christmas decorations out to bedeck our home for celebrating this joyous time of year. In years past, I’ve written about the Christmas trees and Christmas ornaments my wife and I have had over our lifetime together. But this year, I’m writing about those items that we might not think as much about, the ones that typically hang from our fireplace mantel—Christmas stockings. Because the stockings we have, like our ornaments, are treasures that have endured over time.

In going back through our old Christmas photos, I quickly realized that our stockings were often barely in the photo, certainly never the focus of the photo. In today’s vernacular, you might even say a rogue stocking “photo bombed” whatever was in the camera’s field of focus. I was disappointed to learn that these items were never the center of attention that upon reflection, they so rightly deserved. But I did find enough photos to at least paint a rough sketch of them over their lifetime with us.

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Interestingly, when I came across this photo, I discovered that the stockings we have now are actually not the ones we had when we first got married. These first stockings—ones I didn’t even remember us having—must have been bought along with some of our first tree ornaments the year after we got married. Since our apartment did not have a fireplace mantel to hang them from, our stockings hung from this console TV (smile if you remember those).

These two stockings didn’t last long because soon they were replaced with hand-made, hand-sown stockings that my oldest sister made for us and gave us one Christmas.

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I don’t know how long these took my sister to make, but I know they reflected the love she had put into them and they were most appreciated. And each Christmas as our family grew; she lovingly created new ones for our kids as well.

Before our first son was born, we moved from an apartment into our first home.   Unfortunately, like our two apartments we lived in after getting married, our home did not have a fireplace either. So I was back to finding creative ways to hang our stockings.

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The first year in our home, I hung them from the casing of the doorjamb leading into the living room, just barely visible in this old photo. We must have had to duck under them as we entered the room.

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The next year, either my wife or I came up with the idea of hanging them from the top of the window frame in our den. Where else they may have hung in that first home I don’t know. Fortunately, that problem was solved when we bought our second home.

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Finally, we had a proper place to hang our stockings where Santa could easily find them after his trip down the chimney.

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And the next year when our second son was born, my sister lovingly made a stocking for him as well (the snowman stocking just visible in this photo).

We lived in that second home until our oldest son graduated from high school. And every Christmas, our stockings adorned that mantel, aging right along with our kids.

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When we moved to our third home, we again had a fireplace mantel from which to hang our stockings. And a bonus in this house was that there was enough room to have our Christmas tree in the same room and so our tree and stockings finally came together in one place.

The next year, an addition was necessary, as our youngest son wanted our dog, Cassie to have her own stocking.

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So for the next few years, these six stockings hung from our mantel.

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But one year, our mantel was overflowing when we had relatives in town for Christmas. Suddenly we needed room for extra stockings, all of which couldn’t even fit on our mantel!

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After that Christmas, our original six stockings faithfully soldiered on for several more years.

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And then, our two oldest kids got married and we needed to add two more stockings. Although not of the original handmade design my sister had made for us, additions were made for our new son-in-law and daughter-in-law…

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…and just two years later, another stocking addition after our youngest son’s snowman. Finally, the stockings themselves became the center of attention for the photo.

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But wait there’s more. Now we need to find room on our mantel to squeeze in three more stockings for our new grandchildren!

So now after over 30+ years, our Christmas stocking collection has grown from just two, to five, to eight and soon 11. Will our mantel handle that many stockings? Thankfully there’s a catalogue company that can help me out with that wonderful dilemma.

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Every Man Should Own a Pressure Washer!

Every man should own a pressure washer—or maybe I should qualify that to say at least every man who also owns a home. You would be amazed at the multitude of uses you can find for such a wonderful power tool.

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I’ve written before what fun it is to undertake a project around the house and have to buy a new power tool to complete said project. In the case of my pressure washer, I can’t even recall when I bought it or for what original purpose I justified its purchase (which could partly be the fault of the aging process). It might have been when we were building our deck and I needed to “rejuvenate” the seven-year old retaining wall wrapping around the pool to better match the new pressure treated wood being added for the deck.

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But no matter the original reason, ever since I got it, I have put it to good use.

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Just last year, I used it to strip off the old stain from the red cedar decking that had begun to chip and peel so that it could be re-stained.

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And this year, I even found a new use, cleaning mold out of a shower. I left the engine outdoors and passed the pressure hose through an open bathroom window. Fortunately the hose just reached into the shower. One word of caution, you WILL get wet if you try this. I wisely chose to don a swimming suit, as I got quite soaked from the pressurized water spraying in such a small, confined space. But it wiped out that old mold.

This fall, I again returned to the primary use my pressure washer has performed, cleaning our aggregate drive way and walkways so they could be sealed with a waterproofing material.

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When we first bought our house, we only had small trees near our driveway. But as they grew, sap began to drop from them and stain the driveway an unsightly black. Crepe Myrtles must be particularly known for this and ours have grown as large as trees in our front yard. But probably what got me motivated to not just clean, but to seal it as well was seeing all of the cracked and broken driveways of our neighbors’ homes. And finding long cracks in my own driveway, much like finding wrinkles on my own face, prompted me to immediate action.

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Winters are usually not that cold in Memphis, but rainwater or melting ice can seep into the cracks, freeze overnight, and cause the concrete to crumble and break up. In fact this type of cold and then freezing weather is even more common than snow, much to my wife’s chagrin.

So it was with this freeze prevention in mind that I started what has turned into a biennial fall ritual. As I gassed up my little red toy and got her going, I began to think what fun it was to use this tool.

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I began to write words and then pressure wipe them out—this wasn’t work, this was play!

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And as I swept back and forth with the fine pressure nozzle, I was rewarded with a wet clean finish.

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As I worked my way up the walkway to the backyard, I even decided to have some more fun and give the old fence a clean look as well.

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Doing the driveway is normally a three consecutive day job. The first day, I pressure wash, the second day, the driveway has to dry thoroughly, and then the third day, I roll gallons of the sealant on using a huge paint-like roller. Unfortunately this year, a business trip interfered with my progress and I ran out of time before I could even finish pressure washing. By the time I got back from my trip, I could see that up by the garage door, the black sap was already marring my freshly cleaned aggregate. Then I began to notice that the half of the driveway I had already pressure washed still looked to be in pretty good shape with no bad cracks.

At that point, I decided that this should become a biennial springtime project when there would be no sap falling from the trees in the middle of the process and no falling leaves to constantly contend with having to pick them from the sticky sealant with every fall breeze.

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So the job I did in September of 2013 will just have to last a little longer. And then when the distractions of college football and college basketball are over, I can come out into the warming spring air and have more fun with this power toy, this tool that every man should have.

Coffee, Coffee, Coffee!!

In 2004, our daughter moved to Berkeley, CA for graduate school and on one our first visits there, she introduced us to Peet’s coffee. I won’t say it was love at first sip because I honestly can’t recall but I do know that after visiting our daughter several times, Peet’s became one of the first stops we always wanted to make upon our arrival. (Interestingly, one of the founders of Starbucks actually worked for Mr. Alfred Peet and Starbucks even bought their beans from Peet’s when they first got started, four years after Peet’s opened).

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While there were no Peet’s stores in Memphis to satiate our craving, our daughter told us about “Peetniks”, a Peet’s service we could subscribe to where they would mail freshly roasted coffee directly to our home on a predefined frequency. I felt we had finally reached coffee nirvana. By simply providing our mailing address and credit card information, we could have delivered to our door, whole bean coffee that had been roasted a mere seven days prior.

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The one missing piece to our coffee paradise was a burr grinder.   If you Google the difference between burr and blade coffee grinders, you will find that for the best flavor, burr is the way to go since it grinds the beans much more uniformly, an important attribute for making high quality coffee. And since I am the designated coffee maker around the house, I tried to simplify my morning routine by purchasing a combined coffee grinder & coffee maker, one, which in fact had a burr grinder.

With this coffee maker, I could measure out my whole beans at night, fill the water reservoir, set the brew time, and in the morning, I too could enjoy a freshly brewed cup of coffee as soon as I got out of bed. But as anyone knows, grinding coffee beans to a fine powder is a violent, messy process and unfortunately, the chute from the grinder to the drip basket would occasionally clog yielding varied tasting coffee day to day.

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After a trip to Canada and seeing one of these at a local store, I got a snazzy red burr grinder, ditched the combo brewer, and went back to a plain cone drip coffee maker.

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And once we got our condo in midtown, I had to replicate our coffee brewing experience there as well, just in a different color.

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We had in fact reached coffee nirvana and with two in-town locations, now it was time to literally take it on the road. (This pair actually journeys with us whenever we travel by car; just ask any of our friends whose homes we have visited and met at the door with our coffee machines.)

Sitting on the sidelines this entire story has been my daughter, who was the one who actually planted the seed for me to tell this story. Somewhere along the way between the time of her being just Daddy’s little girl…

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to her moving to California, getting married and completing her PhD, she became a coffee connoisseur in her own right (maybe the apple doesn’t fall that far from the tree).

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Whenever we would visit her and her husband, I obviously would fix coffee for all three of us (her husband doesn’t drink coffee). For herself, she would normally grind a few beans with her blade coffee grinder and brew a single cup with a small cone filter. But when we visited, this was quite a time-consuming process for three individual cups each morning—never mind refills for everyone! Before one of our visits, my daughter took pity on me and purchased a drip coffee maker so I wouldn’t have to make individual cups.

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But on several of our visits, as we shared precious moments over a cup of delicious Peet’s, at the close-by coffee shop, I realized that since she too had become quite a coffee lover herself, that I needed to help her ramp up her own coffee program so she too could enjoy the full pleasure of fresh Peet’s coffee every morning. Interestingly, the opportunity came for me to act with the birth of our first grandchild, her first child.

Knowing that we would be going out to CA for a week to meet our grandson for the first time (and knowing that coffee would likely be an important part of those early sleepless nights with an infant), I ordered my daughter one of those snazzy red coffee grinders and had it delivered to her home as an unexpected gift—needless to say she was delighted.

When we arrived, I quickly fell into a new coffee routine. Each morning, I would get up around 5 AM and drive over to my daughter’s home. I would quietly let myself in and then make coffee using her new coffee grinder. Once it had brewed, I would give a cup to my daughter and then take a travel cup back to my wife who was still asleep at our hotel. Then my wife and I would drive back over to spend the day with our daughter and brand-new grandson and enjoy more coffee.

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This year, we were back in CA for another one of my September teaching events and had a chance for a real treat. While in Berkeley, our daughter took us to the original Peet’s location, the one Mr. Peet opened in 1966 (the one that predated Starbucks by four years).

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In the small museum behind where all the wonderful coffee is brewed, we got a chance to greet Mr. Peet, at least his photographic image since he had died in 2007, only a few years after we had discovered his wonderful coffee. When we walked in to the almost packed store, we were met with the now familiar wonderful Peet’s coffee aroma. And although we didn’t have the time to enjoy a cup that day, I know we will be back for many more. Because, thanks to Mr. Peet and the modern coffee tools we have, my daughter, my wife, and I all can enjoy the coffee nirvana we have realized—snob or connoisseur, you be the judge.

Click here for a peek at that original Peet’s store.

Coffee, Coffee, Coffee!

Note: Readers beware. This post is filled with coffee. If you are not a coffee drinker, you may want to skip this one. But if you are looking for a good reason to start drinking coffee, this may be the story you’ve been waiting for as it predates the ubiquitous Starbucks.

 Some people have called me a “coffee snob.” And maybe after you read this, you might agree. But considering my coffee drinking started out pretty plainly, it might be difficult to reconcile how it all came about. But I will leave it to you, my reader, to decide if I am an arrogant coffee snob or a refined coffee connoisseur.

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I cannot even remember when I first started drinking coffee but I am sure it was sometime when I was in high school (early 1970s). I know it had to have been an acquired taste as I grew up in a home where my mom didn’t drink coffee and my dad drank instant coffee (don’t ever drink this) and the best “percolated” coffee of the day was Folgers brought to you by the forever memorable Mrs. Olson—“It’s mountain grown, that’s the richest kind.” (If you recognize this phrase you must be at least in your 50s). Even instant coffee went through several phases to try to improve its flavor; the first being freeze-drying the coffee, and then the introduction of General Foods International coffees (recall Café Au Lait, Suisse Mocha, and Café Vienna).

When I went away to college, I at least got a chance to drink brewed coffee, although it was institutional coffee. But it was better than instant! Getting up every morning from a late night studying in the library (or partying too much), I became accustomed to getting a rejuvenating dose of caffeine to jolt me awake. This was probably when I became a regular (i.e., daily) coffee drinker.

When I started graduate school in the late 1970s, I somehow found better coffee although I can’t remember where. I know this as after I measured out the appropriate number of scoops I needed for a pot of coffee, I took the time, using the lab faucet vacuum system, to pull a vacuum on my ground coffee container to preserve the flavor of the remaining ground coffee (returning it to its original, unopened “vacuum-sealed” state). With this fresh coffee, I would then brew coffee in the lab using my trusty Mr. Coffee maker, a great invention from the mid-1970s brought to us by none other than Joe DiMaggio. But I wasn’t enough of a snob (connoisseur) at that point to grind my own beans—at least not yet.

In the mid 1980s, a store opened up in Memphis, the Fine Grind, which roasted their beans on site. This was probably my first olfactory experience of discovering that coffee smelled better than it tasted. My first experience of the fragrance of freshly roasted beans was aromatic and delicious. But even if it didn’t taste as good as it smelled, what we bought there definitely tasted better than what we were used to since it was freshly roasted and you could also get it flavored. Hazel Nut was our favorite flavor.

It was during our “flavored coffee” days that we began to buy whole bean coffee and grind it prior to brewing. I think it was my brother (who would definitely be called a coffee connoisseur, a better name than a snob) who actually convinced me that grinding my own beans was a better way to brew coffee and yielded much better flavor. And I was all for getting the best flavor out of my coffee.

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On a trip to Atlanta, our family went to the International Farmer’s market and found a whole array of coffees originating from growing regions from which we had never had beans. We picked out a couple and as was our practice, had them flavored with Hazel Nut. Unfortunately the beans got left in the car on a hot day while we shopped elsewhere and when we returned and opened the door to the van, we were hit with a wonderful, but strong Hazel Nut aroma. In fact, the car never fully aired out that whole vacation and there was no doubt, little sleeping in the car as well.

When the first Starbucks finally made it from Seattle to Memphis, I totally embarrassed myself by going in and asking what flavored coffees they had. The knowledgeable barista kindly explained that Starbucks sold coffee from different regions in the world and that distinction would affect the flavor of the coffee. I wasn’t convinced but after trying a few, I found that different varieties did in fact have quite a span from a robust and bold flavor to a meek and mild flavor. After tasting a number of different ones, my wife and I decided that Guatemala Antiqua offered a favorable balance that was not too bold and not too mild. And to allow us to drink even more of this flavorful coffee without suffering from the caffeine jitters, we began brewing it 50:50 with a House decaffeinated coffee.

For a number of years, we enjoyed this Starbucks coffee with the only downside being that occasionally it was out of stock and we would have to pick another regional coffee. While being loyal Starbucks coffee drinkers, we also switched to a cone drip coffee maker which enhanced the flavor extraction from the finely ground coffee.

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We even got a chance to make a pilgrimage to the original Starbucks store in Pike Place market in Seattle. All seemed well in our little coffee world until that is, our world totally changed…

Why Do Things Take Longer Than I Think?

My wife is going to love this post because after more than 35 years of marriage, she has heard me say so many times on finishing a task, “Honey, it took longer than I thought.” In fact, at one point, she threatened to inscribe on my tombstone: “It took longer than he thought.” Thus when asked what slogan to print on my plate celebrating my 200 beers what better catchphrase to use than “Took longer than I thought.”

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This question of why things take longer than I think came to mind again several weeks ago as I was preparing to go out of town. My wife had already flown out to see our son and daughter-in-law in California and I was traveling the next day to New Jersey to teach a new course before joining her later in the week.

Even before I had ever dropped her off at the airport early that Saturday morning, I had already made a mental list of all of the things I was going to do that day. I was going to clean up the condo, go for a run, get packed for my trip, pay bills online, get the pool ready for its week of our absence, study the owner’s manual of our new car so I could figure out all of the cool technology features it had, go to Mass, have a beer at a local brew pub, and then settle in at the condo for a night of reading; all of this while catching a little college football here and there as well (I like to multi-task).

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But even before the day was half over, I was already scratching things off my mental list that I knew I wasn’t going to have time to do.

Frustrated, it prompted me to explore, “why do I do this over and over again, over plan and under deliver?”

In my defense, this often occurs when I am doing something for the first time. Invariably, I under estimate the time it will take to learn what I am doing and then actually to do it.

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Case in point, if you’ve never used a wet saw to cut and lay ceramic tile on the point in a bathroom, how can you know that it is more than a weekend job and that you will have to shower in another bathroom for the beginning of the workweek? I don’t think I over estimate my abilities, but I know I do under estimate the difficulties I’ll encounter and the time it will take to solve them.

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Early in our marriage, every weekend, I would make a list of things I wanted to get accomplished over the weekend—I never completed the list. While I might actually accomplish quite a bit, it was never everything. But I know the fact that everything took longer was a hardship on my wife who typically spent the time, entertaining our toddlers and keeping them out of my sometimes-dangerous work area.

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Fortunately after our kids were older, my wife no longer had this chore and after the kids were grown, could even help with the project.

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From a practical perspective, I’m actually very good at math. So if I knew on the front end that these 6 chores would take 2 hours each, I would easily know that I could not complete them after work and before bedtime. I’d only attempt one chore for sure and certainly no more than two. The problem is the knowing how long something takes. Interestingly in my line of work, I have to frequently predict the future at least two years out when assigning an expiration date for a product. Turns out, I have been much more successful at looking into my crystal ball at work for these predictions than at home when figuring out how long something was going to take to complete.

When I think back over all of the projects I’ve taken on during our marriage; from the simple fixing of a toilet, to putting up a cedar fence, to the complex task of building the kids a clubhouse, they were usually things that I had never done before and so had no experience.

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Whenever I have to do something I have done before, I can often accurately predict when I will finish. But even these tasks that should be fairly predictable can run into overtime. This because I have to admit, I am a perfectionist.

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Take painting a room. This is one of those jobs I have done many times during our marriage. However, because I want it to look “professional”, I painstakingly tape off the trim, brush paint two coats on the areas that cannot be rolled, and then roll two coats. Then once the paint is dried (usually overnight) and I remove the tape, I fix the small mistakes with a small model paintbrush. My wife has learned once I walk in the door with the paint, not to come check too early on my progress—I’ll still be taping which as she says is so booooring!

Another aspect of my tasks is often they are fun and I almost hate when they are finished. (Maybe I subconsciously drag them out.) I so enjoy working with my hands, to the point of sometimes wondering if I would have enjoyed being an auto mechanic as I love cars which would have required me to work with my hands.

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When I talked my wife into helping me build a deck in our backyard by our pool—a multi-weekend job—I had a blast even in the July heat. Cutting with a table saw, a circular saw, and a jigsaw and then bolting together the foundation and screwing down the planks with a drill, I got a chance to use a lot of fun toys; I mean tools.

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And when we decided to redo our playroom and I suggested adding built-in bookcases in an alcove, my wife experienced little inconvenience for however long it took, as the playroom was a room she rarely used.

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Rare is the time when something takes less time than I thought. Those are very happy occasions indeed, as if I was given a gift of extra time. But sadly that was not the case the few weeks ago that prompted this introspection. Fortunately my wife was not there that Saturday to witness me go from optimistically planning to do about 10 things to actually getting about four of them done. She only witnessed me working extra diligently the day after we got back from California. But as she smiled as I scurried about with my chores, she no doubt knew—she knew because “it always takes me longer than I think.”