For maybe the last 5 or 6 years, I’ve been in charge of cooking our Thanksgiving turkey. This year, I wasn’t certain I’d be cooking for a bunch of people until fairly late, and I wasn’t able to pre-order a gigantic free-range, organic, summa cum laude turkey in advance. In the past, I’ve gotten a turkey somewhere between 20 and 24 pounds to feed a passle of people. This year I ran out three days before Thanksgiving and got two 12.5-pound turkeys instead (the larger bird being unavailable). They were frozen, which isn’t something I’m used to (in the recent past, we’ve gotten birds that were alive on Tuesday), and there were two of them, and I wasn’t sure how that’d work in my oven. They turned out to take nearly an hour longer to cook together than I think one of them alone would have taken. It all worked out, though, and they turned out about as beautifully as two creatures who have been murdered for the sake of a historically misinformed food glut can turn out.

I put nearly as much effort into my rolls, which turned out delicious and equally, non-grotesquely beautiful as the turkeys. My process photos below show how the rolls progressed. For the turkey, thank(sgiving)fully I show only the finished product.

I did have a first this year. It’s common when you get a turkey to find a little sack full of the organs, which generally one turns into giblet gravy. I didn’t like giblet gravy until I was a bit older, and my wife doesn’t like it, and my kids turn their nose up at gravy altogether, so we default to my wife’s preference (which is fine by me; I like regular old gravy just fine). This year, only one of my turkeys had the organ sack in its cavity. The other had the top half of the poor critter’s head. In general at least in the U.S., we tend to prefer meats that don’t much look like the creatures we’re killing. At least in this case, I suppose I can say that I looked the poor bird in the eye, at least one of them.

Meat is pretty gross (I contend that being a physical body in the world is pretty gross), and while we eat it with most meals, we don’t eat a whole lot of it with any single meal. During the Macy’s Day parade today, I heard the stat that some 280 million turkeys are killed in the U.S. each year for Thanksgiving. When I was in I believe the third grade, 280 million was the estimated population of the United States. It’s a staggering number. I mean, there was a turkey served in the U.S. today for each person who was alive in the U.S. when I was in the third grade. That’s crazy! I’m sort of ashamed to have contributed two of those turkeys, especially when for me the real hits of Thanksgiving tend to be the vegetable dishes, but I suspect that there’d be revolt if I proposed a veggie Thanksgiving in the future.

We also made cranberry sauce (from cranberries, not pooped out of a can), mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole. Others in the family provided other delicious sides, including perhaps the loveliest sweet potato casserole I’ve ever seen and a really yummy broccoli casserole, and we’ll make some stuffing and sweet potato casserole tomorrow to augment our leftovers.

It was a good Thanksgiving overall. I woke at around 7:15 and cooked and cleaned until about 12:30, then ate a plate of food and cleaned for a bit longer. It was nice to listen to the family chatting and to share some laughs, to hear my kids playing with their little cousins. The rest of the day stretches out before me. I’ll spend a few minutes making terrible noises on my guitar, then will read to my family, then will maybe watch some TV, and finally read until bedtime, and then I’ll sleep tomorrow until I feel like getting out of bed. I’ll feel sympathy for those who have to work tomorrow and will feel perhaps a sort of benign contempt (if that can even make sense) for those who spend the day doing cutthroat shopping (tempered by sympathy for those for whom the day’s deals amount to a necessity of the season).


A few years ago, we bought a car. We’re not car people. We don’t really care all that much about doodads and amenities, and we prefer inexpensive things, so we got a pretty basic Prius. Its fanciest feature is probably power windows. The guy who sold it to us tried to sell us on an upgraded media package that would have included I believe Bluetooth for playing music from our phones, but we preferred not to finance $300 more for a feature that we figured we could emulate using the portable Bluetooth speaker we already owned.

Over time, the sound quality (or at least the volume) of our Jamboxes has decreased. You can hear music well enough (if not quite loud enough for my tastes) if you’re sitting in the front seat, but sometimes we like to load up an audio book or listen to some Radiolab on longer trips, and the Jambox doesn’t work well at all for this. The kids can’t hear it if we mount the speaker on the dashboard, and I can’t really hear it over road noise if we set it on the console between the front seats so that the kids can strain to hear it. So over time, I’ve begun almost to regret not getting the media package that would have let us stream from our phones to the car’s speakers.

We did briefly try out a device that lets you stream your phone via a radio station, but it didn’t work well at all. I recently found myself thinking that it’d be neat if somebody invented some kind of fancy device that would work somehow with the CD player in a way somewhat analagous to but technologically more advanced than those old cassette tape deck adapters we used back in the olden days. I imagined that it’d have some receiver in it that you could connect to via Bluetooth and that it’d do something like flipping bits on the media on the fly so that the CD player could read it and play whatever audio was being sent over. This no doubt ludicrous idea probably illustrates pretty well the depth of my ignorance about how audio technology works.

Last weekend, I was in my friend’s car, and for some reason I noticed that his radio was set to AUX mode. I asked what that was about, and he said that it was how he could play music and podcasts from his phone on his car speakers. Here let us imagine the sound of a needle being dragged across a record in that universal “stop and let’s consider what has just occurred” sound we’re all familiar with from the movies. I felt like a moron. All these years I had been complaining about crummy audio in my car and all I’ve had to do was find the auxiliary jack in my car and push a button to play music from my phone?

I came home that night and ordered a cable for the purpose, and I’m pleased to report that yes indeed I have been a moron, and now I can play whatever I like from my phone and figure that the whole family will actually hear it. This bodes well for belting out holiday tunes on the way to visit my dad for an early Christmas in a week or two.

Secret Santa

My wife has five siblings with something like a 15 year spread from oldest to youngest. That’s a lot of adult siblings to buy Christmas presents for when you’re the youngest in high school or college, so when the youngest were younger, we decided to do a Secret Santa exchange at Christmas. Siblings and significant others (who’ve been around for a while) play along, and everybody draws a name and gets a gift for one among the group. It’s nice because instead of stressing over being more frugal about gifts for a whole bunch of people, we can try to think about one person and get something thoughtful and with less concern about balancing the old budget.

Because I write code for a living, I volunteered years ago to automate this so that it could be truly random and truly secret, and also to impose certain necessary restrictions. For example, I’ll already be getting gifts for my wife, so I shouldn’t get to draw her name in the Secret Santa drawing. As we’ve added more significant others to the mix over the years, the restrictions have become more, well, restrictive.

A couple of years ago, I found some bugs in my code that made it sort of surprising that we’d never had a big snafu. It was possible (though unlikely) for a person to get drawn twice, if I recall correctly. The code does record who drew whom, but I use some simple reversible encryption to obscure the data so that even if I view the data, I can’t tell who drew whom without jumping through some hoops to decrypt the data. It looks like this:

mysql> select id, selected, selectee, spouse from people;
| id | selected | selectee                   | spouse |
|  1 |        1 | Š­ð·4Ì9ΟO*Ú                |      2 |
|  2 |        1 | àßúœÉsë1‘™                 |      1 |
|  3 |        1 | 4èàÿ|tB Ýá)Öœ–             |      0 |
|  4 |        1 | Ñkdt»ÙŽ¼üHÚ©z%             |      8 |
|  5 |        1 | ã,oŒô-ârvó-b               |     11 |
|  6 |        1 | (Ûk;Öîì(:vû^­ƒ€             |     13 |
|  7 |        1 | Éãä“úHàücLݦÙ5*            |     12 |
|  8 |        1 | åÐï÷¡I•Ò0Ñ´Y               |      4 |
| 12 |        1 | Á/ðE™©„“Ü%                 |      7 |
| 11 |        1 | ®§V$]n1½ŽÂÎw«y             |      5 |
| 13 |        1 | †Ì>í…²”[Å*çƒ@©             |      6 |

So even if someone had in the past been selected to receive more than one gift, it wouldn’t have been readily obvious, and it would have been tricky to fix, since the code fires off an email to everybody letting them know whose name they were assigned.

So say Joe and Bob both draw Mary. They’d each get an email letting them know to get a gift for Mary, and unless I snooped a bit, I wouldn’t notice, and even if I did notice, I’d have to regenerate the assignments for the whole group, which’d result in confusion. Inevitably somebody would wind up looking at the older email, and we’d have chaos. Luckily, we had no snafus, and I fixed the bug.

I have occasionally played with the idea of mixing things up a bit, though. For example, I think it’d be fun to make everybody get me a gift. Or, to put a less actually selfish spin on it, it’d be sort of fun to make everybody get me a gift and then in turn get everybody else a gift. I’m far too lazy for that, though, so once again we’ve got a random selection (within the usual constraints), and hopefully everybody winds up being happy with it.


For my day job, I have the whimsical title “Happiness Gardener.” Honestly I don’t love the title. When asked to provide my title for paperwork, I tend to just say “developer” since that’s the sort of work I tend to do, though you wouldn’t know it from my title. I work on the support team, providing debugging and tool support for colleagues who interact directly with the people who use my company’s products. These colleagues are called Happiness Engineers, a title that is still whimsical but from which does make a certain sense once you connect it to the role these colleagues fill. Getting from “developer” to “Happiness Gardener” takes a little more squinting, I think.

So, the Happiness Engineer position existed before the Happiness Gardener position. Back when there were a dozen or so (maybe even fewer) Happiness Engineers (HE for short) at the company, a developer was hired to fill the sort of role I now fill. The idea was that he would sort of clear out weeds by fixing things that affected HEs and customers, while also cultivating improvements that’d help HEs flourish in their roles, and so the Gardener title was born. I was later hired as the second Gardener. The original Gardener has moved to a different team after about 5 years in the role, and now I lead a team that has grown to 7 members.

Happiness started out as just a few people working together on one team, but over the years, sub-teams focusing on specific products or on specific types of support have formed, and now we’re around 100 people. Some teams have come and gone, or been renamed, and people have floated from one team to another. Over the years, a few in-jokes have popped up as well.

Employees at my company work remotely, from coffee shops, airplanes, their homes, and pretty much anywhere they fancy working from at which power and wifi are available. Once a year, we all get together for a big meetup. In preparation for this year’s meetup, some colleagues designed and ordered a bunch of patches for people who have worked in the Happiness organization. The patches are something like 1.5 inches in diameter, and each of the various teams and represented in-jokes have a patch. I knew about this project a few months in advance of the meetup and was uncharacteristically excited to get my hands on the patches. I’ve got a backpack embroidered with the WordPress logo (a perk of working for the company I work for), and I’m eager to get these patches stitched to the backpack.

Because my work tends to touch a lot of the Happiness subteams, I was deemed eligible for a bunch of the patches. Now I just have to find a way to get all of them stitched onto my backpack in a pleasing way. The Happiness Gardener patch is the one that looks like a rake. The origins and meanings of the others I’ll leave to your imagination for now.

Grandma Wooten

Here are a few pictures of my Grandma Wooten from around 1970. I knew she was a nurse at some point but hadn’t known she had gone back to school for it when older. I don’t know when she was born exactly, but she’s clearly not 22 here. She always seemed much older to me than she probably was. This is a few years before I was born, and she aged a lot between these photos and when I was accustomed to visiting her. I remember once crying as a very little boy when we drove to Wrightsville Beach to visit her because I thought she was mean and I didn’t want to visit. She was extraordinarily wrinkled and was cranky and sat in the same spot on the couch in the dimly lit house she rented, smoking nonstop and drinking tea from a brandy snifter and watching NASCAR and Cubs baseball and National Geographic.

She and my parents would always argue for about half the time we visited, and though as I grew up, I learned that arguing about a topic doesn’t always mean you’re actually fussing with each other, I think it sometimes got a little mean spirited, which didn’t help my impression that she was an old grouch.

The only toys at her house were a motley set of rusted miniature (bicycle?) license plates from various states. I would pull these out and balance them against one another to make little buildings. Sometimes my sister and I would walk a couple of hundred yards down the street to Johnny Mercer’s pier for a few minutes, or to the hotel between the pier and her house (which she rented the downstairs of from a man she seemed to hate named Walker Brown) to buy a soft drink from one of the vending machines in the parking garage. Otherwise, we mostly sat around watching whatever Grandma had playing in the background on the television.

She had a way of holding a cigarette in a hand near her face and rubbing her lower lip absently with the ring finger of the hand. Her hair by the time I came along was pretty much completely white and curly and looked very soft, like wool.

One room of her home that we didn’t go into very often had a collection of minerals in a wall-mounted rack with dozens of little compartments. She had several large geodes, and some sculptures of sharks or dolphins made of I don’t recall what — perhaps porcelain. She had various other curios that were neat to look at. I think she was fairly interested in science and the natural world. I think that if I had known her when I was older, I might have found that she was a pretty fascinating person.

When I was in probably middle school, she moved out of Walker Brown’s place into a condo that my uncle owned. There was a mall nearby that I would sometimes walk to to browse a book store. The visits remained pretty much the same, with Cubs or National Geographic or racing on television and with the arguments maybe becoming more vitriolic. I remember that one Thanksgiving my mom packed up some food to take her a Thanksgiving meal. She lived about an hour away, so it was a little bit of trouble. Grandma for some reason or another was kind of a jerk about it, and I think Mom packed up the food and drove home crying over it.

I don’t know how much having had a hard life excuses being mean to people, but it’s my understanding that Grandma had a rough life. Her husband was I take it another pretty fascinating person, but he wasn’t nice to her (what that means exactly I’m fuzzy on), and she had three kids and was essentially a single parent in the 50s and 60s.

Drinking wasn’t something I ever saw her doing, and I never saw my parents drink any alcohol (a vendor once sent my dad a few bottles of wine that went unopened for years), but I remember once looking in the pantry at her condo and seeing a bottle of Jim Beam back there. I must have been a teenager at the time, and I remember being surprised and in a way sort of pleased.

She had cancer when I was in high school, and she wound up dying alone and in a grotesque way and was found by my other uncle, who had been living with her at the time but been away from the condo at the time of her death. Since I had always found her pretty uninviting and uninterested in me and basically mean, I wasn’t too bothered by it, but I have thought a few times since that I might have liked to know her before she grew bitter, or to have better understood and known her when I was older, as I really do think she was probably a smart and interesting person I just never had a chance to get to know properly.


Trixie 1981.JPG

I was looking through some old photos and found this one of Trixie, a dog we owned when I was little. Really it’s  more of a photo of the dog house my dad built than of Trixie, and I remember the pen (which he also built) and the dog house more than I remember the dog. In the photo, she seems more stout than I remembered her being. About all I can recall about her is that sometimes we’d keep her on a chain in the yard (with lots of room to move about) and that she at least once broke the chain and ran off. I think she either ran away or was hit by a car. This photo is from 1981, when I would have been 4 or 5, and I have photos of our next dog, Bo Peep, from 1982, so this must have been pretty close to the end of Trixie’s time with us.

Potato Monster


Occasionally a potato goes rogue and falls out of the potato bin and rolls around to some hiding spot in the pantry, where it becomes the home of a potato monster. Observe this fine specimen, with green flyaway hair, arms stretched skyward as if in anger or aggression, protuberant ocular organs, radial nipple clusters (a sign of fecundity), and an extreme outie of a belly button. If his upstretched arms weren’t clue enough, you can tell that he’s angry by the purplish blush apparent on his left cheek. He is a carbuncled fellow in general (who wouldn’t be angry?), and should his legs finish forming so that he can separate himself from the spud, he’ll be a fearsome character indeed.

Poirot and Holmes

For the whole of my kids’ lives, my wife and I have read aloud to them. They’re about 3 years apart, so for a few years, we split the kids up and read littler kid stuff to my son and bigger kid stuff to my daughter. I’ve tended to prefer to read things at a level above what I’d expect my kids to understand on their own, and I explain and we talk things through as needed. This is fun sometimes, like when you’re reading the Bobbsey Twins to your 4 or 5 year old and are confronted with explaining not only things like what Obsidional coins are, but also what veiled racism and unfortunate parody of stereotypes and entrenched classism are.

As my son got a little older, we were able to read more together as a family rather than splitting up. We’ve read things like the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings, the Prydain Chronicles, and lots of other stuff. It’s a family activity that we all look forward to, and reading aloud to my kids is one of my very favorite things to do.

A couple of years ago, when we had exhausted a lot of the books I was willing to read and were looking for something classic, I decided to try some Sherlock Holmes. We got a collection of Doyle’s stories and novels and dug in. My son was less interested than my daughter, though he hung on through a couple of novels and a number of stories, but eventually my daughter and I split the Sherlock stories off and read those together separately from the family reading.

They’re kind of a mixed bag. Some of the stories are really neat, but others you read and feel just kind of meh about. As with the Bobbsey Twins books, there are some anachronisms that need explaining, and there’s the occasional drug use (Holmes liked cocaine) to talk about, not to mention lots of murder. Mostly we’ve enjoyed the experience of reading about Sherlock, though.

Having exhausted most of those, we this year decided to give Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories a try. I had never read anything at all by Christie. We were struck right away by how similar the Poirot/Hastings and Holmes/Watson setup and dynamic are. The stories are darned near interchangeable if you just swap the character names out and substitute in some of Sherlock’s stock phrases for some of Poirot’s French phrases. In one of the stories we read last night, Christie makes a direct reference to Holmes, which was kind of neat to encounter. We’ve read a half dozen or so of the Poirot stories, and on the whole, I think I’ve enjoyed the Sherlock stories more, but there’s plenty more Poirot to read, and there’s been plenty to enjoy in what we’ve read of Poirot (I especially liked “Wasp’s Nest,” which we read last night).

It did my heart good that last night, I offered to turn on a Doctor Who episode we haven’t watched yet, and my son cried out for a Poirot instead. I’d still like to watch the Doctor Who, and so would the kids, but I’ll favor falling into a book over staring at a screen 100% of the time.

Youth Orchestra


Until this summer, I had no idea that my daughter would have the opportunity to play a string instrument in a school orchestra. She is fairly small in stature and so naturally she chose the cello (I suppose she could have chosen the bass). It turns out that there’s a vibrant extracurricular youth orchestra scene in our area, and the other night, I took the kids to a concert.

There were five orchestras at varying skill levels and with varying instrumentation (the most advanced had full percussion and some brass and woodwinds too). It was remarkable how good the kids were. Even the beginners were passable, and the most advanced group played some stuff that seemed really difficult, and they played it astonishingly well.

Some of the song selections included pretty predictable classics, and with the concert running right up until bedtime, the kids were a little sleepy through some of the well-played but kind of lulling songs. The jury’s out on whether we’ll go to another concert.

I really enjoy live music, how it fills your chest and turns into an almost tactile experience rather than merely an aural one. I love the richness of tone you can hear when the musicians are right there in front of you. I like watching the conductor dance around, and when there are several orchestras with several conductors, as was the case here, I enjoy observing differences in how the conductors interact with their musicians and express the music physically.

One thing that really struck me, as we listened to a few songs I wasn’t familiar with, was what an amazing act of creativity the composition of music is. A person just makes up all these layered sounds with their harmonies and dissonances and counterpoints, with their changes in rhythm and volume and brightness. An orchestral composition seems just a dazzlingly complex thing, and it springs out of a person’s imagination. I suppose visual arts and writing can also be extraordinarily layered and complex, but whereas (having written by now millions of words in my lifetime) I can sort of vaguely imagine constructing something complex from words, this idea of turning silence into beautiful music as an act of creative will boggles my mind.

I was in the middle of a sentence

A couple of times recently, my daughter, when her younger brother has interrupted her, has rudely spat out the sentence (interrupting him right back) “I was in the middle of a sentence.” Her tone when she’s done it has been horrible — hateful and curt and unforgiving.

She learned it from me. For a while, my kids both had a habit of interrupting me, and it began to annoy me something ferocious. So I got in the habit of interrupting them back and saying this sentence in what I now realize, hearing it reflected in my daughter’s voice, was a really awful tone. The first couple of times I heard this echo of myself in her, I didn’t say anything about it, but last night I did.

What I said was “I’m sorry.” Although I think I’m mostly a reasonably good parent, I’ve certainly done some things, or said some things, I’ve regretted. This has been one of my more shameful things in recent years. I started using this phrase at a time when I had begun introducing sarcasm as a way of providing feedback, and my introduction of sarcasm for this purpose is another of the parenting failures of which I’m really ashamed. I suppose I started this at a time during which I was frustrated and was sort of venting, and it was a really unhealthy way to parent my children and a crummy way to treat a human being in general. This year I made an effort to scrub sarcasm from my repertoire when giving the kids feedback about their behavior (sarcasm in general is still in bounds if offered humorously and with something like a wink), and I think I’m pretty well broken of the habit.

So, I apologized to my daughter last night for treating her (and my son) so rudely. I told her it was no way to treat a human being and that, as with the sarcasm, I was going to work on scrubbing this awful sentence from my repertoire. I said I hoped she’d join me.

There are certainly worse behaviors I could have modeled, and this at least is one that we can both learn from and use to improve how we treat other people, but I still feel like a pretty big dud over it.