Ales & Astros: Day 3

I’m really impressed with Williamsburg. I’m a history nut, but I’ve never been here before. I really didn’t know what t0 expect. It could really be cheesy, but it’s not. Anything but, really.

We’ve been in the conference area in the Art Museum so I figure the staff is pretty carefully chosen, but they are really good. Exceptionally good. I don’t think I’ve encountered a single staff member who hasn’t said “hello” or “welcome” and many have struck up conversations. Given that we spent most of our time in sessions means we didn’t get to do much exploring. It’s been rainy and chilly since yesterday and that didn’t lend itself todo in a lot of walking around. My knees didn’t either, truth but had the weather been nicer I think I would have been up to push myself a bit more.

So this is where the conference was held.

You’d think with the weather it’d be awfully uncomfortable to hold a conference here, but luckily we were actually underground. That building on the left is the back side of the Public Hospital building and the wall on the right is the top floor of the Art Museums. Here’s a cutaway showing how the two are connected.

There’s a large auditorium where all our sessions were held on the same level with the tunnel.

I’ve spent a lot of years doing A/V support for conferences and meetings, and I have to say this was one of the cleanest, best produced meetings I’ve seen. The tech came off without a hitch. I was glad to hear both the organizers and speakers give shout outs to the crew.
This had the feeling of one of those conferences where years from now somebody is going to write a book or make a beer or do something really interesting and when they get interviewed about it we’ll find out that the seeds for that project started at this conference. An occupational hazard of being an introvert is that I tend to observe more than interact. There were several folks I’d love to have talked to, but I have no idea what I would have talked to them about. It just would have been weird fanboy awkwardness. It’s motivation for me to actually do something so I’ll have something to talk to them about the next time.

I think I’m going to be able to brush off some of my old grad school interests. Hearing about the development of industrial scale brewing and the systemization of brewing technique reminded me of things I encountered in a couple philosophy of science courses. Why, for example, did distilling adopt the use of the hydrometer to monitor the efficiency of fermentation more than 50 years before brewing? And why did cheap brown malt not fall out of favor until the hydrometer shows up. Brewers certainly had to have noticed through experience that it took more brown malt to get a given strength of beer than the newer pale malt. Why did the hydrometer settle the question? How was it that Isinglass started being used as a clarifying agent? You have to wonder what world someone is living in when saying “Hey!  I know!  Let’s use dried sturgeon bladders!” is sensible.

It remains to be seen whether I’ll ever make any headway on any of that. I’m not sure there’s anyone who’d want to read it. It probably won’t stop me from seeing if I can find anything out, though.

We shift gears tomorrow. After breakfast we pack up and head up to Lorton, VA to get on the AutoTrain. We have a roomette for the night and we’re supposed to get into Sanford, FL on Tuesday around 9 AM. Then it’s time for Astros Spring Training.

We’ve had an enormous amount of fun so far. Can’t wait for what’s next.

No reason other than I found this to be funny.


Ales & Astros: Day 2

7AM came pretty early this morning. I’d love to make a joke about it being historically accurate, but I’ve got nothing. A town crier or something would have been nice. As it was we didn’t have breakfast because we ate so late last night and we got over here just in time for the first session. Coffee and interesting presentations have made all the difference. 

This is a great conference. So far today we’ve heard that there was more beer being made in Ancient Greece than is usually acknowledged. I hadn’t heard about Oklahoma “Choc” (short for Choctaw) beer.  Now I must try some. We heard a fascinating talk on the genetic history of brewer’s yeast. We heard about how hops came to be used in beer in the Low Countries and another on the long history of brewing in Ireland.  And there was this.

Maltster-piece Theatre
Maltster-piece Theatre
The woman on the left is Andrea Stanley who owns a malt house in Massachusetts.  The gentleman on theright is  John Mallet who’s the Director of Operations at Bell’s. He’s portraying one of his ancestors who was a maltster and brewster in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Andrea is portraying a brewster from Great  Britain who lived a century later. The “conversation” between the two are drawn from their letters and othe writings. 

There are other conferences here. For a minute we thought this one was really specific. Alas it’s really The Classical Society of the Middle West AND South 
There’s also a person here who I’ve decided is the most annoying person in the world. I will say no more about him. I made the mistake of talking to him once and now I move across entire rooms to avoid him. I suspect that by the time this ends tomorrow people will be running from him like Tokyo residents fleeing Godzilla dropping by for a visit. I doubt he’ll notice. 

Ales & Astros: Day 1

It’s been a long day. It started at 5 AM this morning at home and is winding down almost 17 hours later in Williamsburg, VA. And this is just the first of nine days on this trip. A little background: Several months ago Carla heard about a conference here in Williamsburg called Ales Through the Ages from Tanya Brock at Carillon Brewing in Dayton. She’ll be speaking Sunday about being a Brewster at a brewery that brews the way it was done in the 1850s. Once we saw the schedule of speakers we were hooked. We had to come. Then Carla poked around and realized that we can go from here to Lorton, VA to catch Amtrack’s AutoTrain to Sanford, FL. And the Astros are having their last Spring Training in Kissimmee this year. Oh, and did I mention this is Cincinnati State’s Spring Break? Plans made.

So we got up this morning at the butt-crack of dawn, loaded up and got coffee at what we lovingly refer to as the World’s Fastest McDonald’s. We were headed east by 6:15 AM. I can’t say that the drive was all that exciting, but the sky was blue and the sun was out. The fact that it’s Spring became more and more apparent the further east we went.

We stopped at a rest area somewhere in West Virginia a bit east of Charleston and I was amused by a sign on the bathroom door.

I really kind of wanted to stop since I’m not sure what advances have been made in pouring water over your head in the last few years.  Alas, we had to make time.

When in West (by God) Virginia there is only one place where one gets lunch (or breakfast, or really any meal): Tudor’s Biscuit World. We did our civic duty.

Everything went swimmingly until we got on the leg of I-64 that goes through Richmond and then to Williamsburg. I think I understand how McClellan was never able to make any progress against the Army of Northern Virginia:  he was stuck on I-64. I shall say no more about it, except to say it attracts one of the worst collection of drivers I’ve ever seen anywhere at any time.  Atlanta included.

We arrived in Williamsburg in good enough time, however. We were able to get checked into the hotel and then go over to the Art Museums for the opening session of the conference. It was great. More will be written another day on Hoperatives.  Conference participants got a very kind invite to go to a preview of a new brewery in town, The Virginia Beer Company. They don’t actually open until next week, but they’re ready. Good stuff.  They had a Pecan Smoked Porter that was out of this world. The weather is supposed to get colder and rainy tomorrow, but for tonight it was gorgeous.

We were too tired to do anything adventurous for dinner, but I’d discovered that they have the Holy of Holies of convenience stores here:  Wawa. So we went to get sandwiches.

And while we were there we found out why Williamsburg isn’t quite like anywhere else. Colonial-era reenactors everywhere agree that nothing beats a Wawa sandwich after a long day of pretending you lived in a time where there were no Wawa sandwiches.

This is going to be a fun trip.  Hope you enjoy coming along for the ride.

Breakfast of Champions

Chorizo and Egg tacosI love breakfast tacos. It’s one of the things I miss about Texas. Considering how much I don’t miss about Texas, that’s a pretty big deal. For the record, I also miss the bluebonnets blooming in Spring. I’m having a difficult time coming up with a third one. There are certainly people I miss, but they don’t get on the list that easy. Roads and planes run both directions, after all. I guess I miss good Tex-Mex in general. There are a couple of places around here that make good food, but it’s not the same. That’s why it’s so funny that the best breakfast tacos I can get regularly are in Gibson City, IL.

The thing about Gibson City is that it’s relatively prosperous. There aren’t many closed storefronts on the main drag through town. It’s at the junction of two state highways. One runs from just west of Champaign-Urbana up to the western suburbs of Chicago (and into Wisconsin, eventually). The east-west highway carries traffic from Bloomington-Normal over to the Indiana state line. Keep going and you wind up in Lafayette, IN if you’re into that sort of thing. When you’re in a town like this restaurants never close, they just change owners and names.

So it is with El Rodeo Mexican American Restaurant. When I started going there with Carla and her parents 18 years or so ago it was called the Sunrise. I think it may have been something else briefly after it was the Sunrise, but I’m not sure. When the current owners took over they added the Mexican items onto the menu. We’ve been there for dinner a few times, but breakfast is my favorite meal there. Pictured are my standard breakfast items: chorizo and egg tacos on corn tortillas. It only occurred to me to take this picture after I’d already eaten the first one. You can get a side of rice, beans, guacamole and sour cream if you like, but it gets messy. I’m utterly addicted to their salsa verde.  Both the red and green sauces are made in-house and they’re both fantastic.

The point of all of this is that it confuses me why I can get a good Mexican-American breakfast in at town of 3,500 people, but I’ve yet to find a good one in the metro area of over a million where I actually live. It’s not like we don’t have a population of people here who know how to make such things.  We do. And there are places where you can get amazing tacos (I’m looking at you Taqueria San Miguel). But they don’t do breakfast. Why is that? I’m not talking about places that do hangover food at 11AM.  I’m talking about a place you can go have tacos for breakfast at an hour when people are having breakfast.1

We’re going to Gibson City a lot right now, but that’s not going to last forever. I can’t be driving four hours just to get a good breakfast taco. Somebody get on this, will you?

1If you say “McDonald’s” or “Taco Bell” or “Sonic” to me I will find you and I will hurt you.

Two codas

Sunday is going to be spent driving home again.  The weather is going to be nice and we’re going to take some back roads. It adds a little time, but the extra 20 minutes or so are worth a change of scenery. Things are going extremely well with my father-in-law, but I don’t like to talk too much about it so the man has some privacy. There are a few more trips to make, then we can get back to a more regular schedule. This will be a brief post because, frankly, I’m very tired. Two things happened, though, that are worth mentioning since they have bearing on the last two posts.

In Friday’s post I talked about driving and made an off-handed comment about how many Interstates can trace their history back to animal trails. One of the rituals we’ve developed on our many visits here over the last few months is making the 14 mile trip east over to Paxton, IL to go eat barbecue at The Humble Hog.  It’s really quite good. I’d call it Chicago-style on the pork side and leaning more Kansas City-style on the brisket. The sausage reminds me of what I used to be able to get back in Texas. The sides are really, really good, which is all-too-rare at most barbecue joints. It’s a must-visit for us. Their menu is the one I used as the picture in this post (and a meal there that day inspired the post itself).

This story is not about the restaurant, but something we’ve seen every time we drive back and forth. A month or so ago Carla’s brother Neal, her dad, Carla and I went over to Paxton.  A couple of miles outside of town there’s a big red barn that has the words “Ten Mile Grove” on it. Neal mentioned that he’d always wondered what the grove was ten miles from. Nothing really matched the geography as it stands now. I filed it away and decided it was going to be one of those things that just bothered me. It never occurred to me to Google it. It’s easy to forget stuff like that works out here.

Anyway, the last time we were here (or maybe the trip before) I noticed that there was a historical marker on the side of the road opposite the barn. I figured it would provide a clue.  Turns out it did more than that.  Neal was with us today on another trip to the Humble Hog and we stopped to get this picture:

Click to embiggen
Click to embiggen and read

Turns out Route 9 follows a prehistoric trail. Go figure. At least it’s been paved since then. And Ten Mile Grove is named for being ten miles from someplace that isn’t there anymore.

The other coda for the week is provided by our old friend, short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump. You remember Donald, right? The man who got the vapors when the Pope pointed out that views he’s espoused might not be rightly called “Christian?” He seems to have gotten over his whole “no man should judge another’s faith” thing.

His supporters won’t care, though. They’ve already constructed walls around their humanity.


Clouds are neat, too.
Clouds are neat, too.
One of the reasons I love to drive long distances is it gives me a reason to stare out a window and think without it appearing to be a waste of time. I’m a big fan of audiobooks and podcasts, but sometimes I just want it quiet. Carla is the same way. Most of the time we’re in sync. We’ve made Yet Another Trip to Gibson City™ to help get my father-in-law settled in his new digs. There’s no part of I-74 from Indiana Highway 1 to the exit at Mahomet, IL we are not intimately familiar with. It’s just over a four hour drive which isn’t bad as such things go. We know where all the good exits are. We know where all the bad exits are. I can make this drive in my sleep and there’s some evidence that I might have done that already.

When I’m out on the highway driving I often think of animals migrating. The Interstates were generally built along routes already used by older roads and many of those probably trace their lineage back to trails used to track animals. So the motorcycles, cars, vans, pickups and semis are this mixed herd of beasts moving from one place to another for any number of reasons. The semis are the elephants strung out trunke to tail. The pickups are cattle. Some are docile. Some rage. The rest of us are of gazelles, sheep and zebras. I suppose there’s still an Impala running around out there somewhere.

Many things along the highway amuse me because I’m easily amused.

  • The Crete Carriers trucking company likes to paint “Our Most Valuable Asset Sits Here” in huge letters on the sides of their trailers with an arrow pointing to the cab. “Your most valuable asset?” I think, “Then what the hell is the big trailer for?”
  • A driver in another car doesn’t think the five or so miles an hour over the speed limit I’m driving is fast enough, so they come ripping around me. “Hope that penis thing works out for you!” I say as they go by.
  • I’m in the left lane overtaking slower traffic in the right lane but I’m not overtaking them fast enough, apparently. The car behind me dives over into the right lane is astonished that he now has to slow down. “Watch a lot of NASCAR, do you?”
  • The number of semi rigs with Bible verses written on them that are traveling on a Sunday. So much for all that Sabbath crap.
  • How every little town is described as “historic” but are utterly silent with respect to anything that might have happened there or people who once lived there. “Look at us! Not off the map yet!”

I like to drive. The car may be moving forward, but by brain is solidly in neutral.

Life’s What Happens When You’re Making Other Plans

working-800pxMy goal for this year is to post here every day. I knew when I made the goal it wasn’t going to be easy. One of the rules for this is that I have no set length requirement. The idea is that I force myself to limit myself to one topic. Say what needs to be said. Then stop.

Here’s why today’s post is short: I’m training my replacement at work. It’s taken 100% of my time the last two days. I have a post underway, but I can’t do it justice in the time I have today. I need some slack for my brain to bounce back. I’ll finish it tomorrow when I have some downtime.

The title of this post is adapted from a line in the John Lennon song Beautiful Boy. In the song the line is “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I’d always thought this was one of Lennon’s little gems, but it turns out the line itself is apparently much older. As powerful a cultural institution in the American Conversation as Reader’s Digest’s “Quotable Quotes” is, I think we all owe John Lennon a vote of thanks for getting known a little more widely.

One piece of news and a piece of trivia that may help you win big on a game show. I’d say my work here is done for the day.

Food groups

Humble Hog Menu
No barbecue joint is worth a damned unless there are sauce stains on the menu.

I mentioned a while back that I one thing I do when I move somewhere is understand the local food. It actually goes a little deeper than that. I don’t feel like I understand the place until I understand the food. There are a lot of homogenous, chain generic food reheaters out there, but you only have to look a little bit to find something that’s the product of the place where you are.

I don’t know what it is about the chili dogs in Detroit, but they’re awesome. I also love the chili dogs at the Varsity in Atlanta and Athens, but they’re different. I don’t know how. I won’t pick one over the other, but they’re different. Two friends have recommended Nu-Way Weiners in Macon and now I cannot rest until I have tried them.

You can get a cheesesteak anywhere nowadays, but it’s only someone from Philly who understands how important the bread is. The Chicago Italian Beef is, in principle, not that different from the cheesesteak, but it’s entirely different and equally amazing. Go to Canada and the northern border states and you’ll find loose meat sandwiches. Once again it’s something similar, but uniquely wonderful.

There is one key food group, though, that stands above all others.  Barbecue. You will never annoy me more than when you try to engage me in a conversation about what region’s barbecue is “the best.”  There’s no such thing. Barbecue is so elemental.  Meat. Heat. Smoke. What wood?  What grows where you are? Rub? What spices are popular where you are? Sauce? What’s that word mean around where you’re from? I was weaned on KC Style, but grew up on Texas Style. I will admit to sniffing at the vinegary Eastern barbecue until I finally had a chance to have something better than mediocre. It was a revelation. I am a recent convert to Tri-Tip. Cuban pork. Argentinian beef. And let’s talk about the variety of barbecued ribs you find across Asian cuisines. It just goes on and on

In my world, barbecue is the perfect food. It is the stuff of life.



Painting from Gibson City Country Kettle
This painting adorns the entire south wall of the main dining room of the Country Kettle in Gibson City, IL. In a town like Gibson City, breakfast is a social meal. Even if all you get is a cup of coffee and maybe some toast, breakfast is where you find out what’s going on in town. The Kettle is literally at the crossroads, sitting in the southeastern corner of the junction of State Routes 47 & 9. There’a a McDonald’s and Casey’s convenience store across the street, as well as one of the town’s two bowling alleys. Maybe a hundred or so yards to the south is the Harvest Moon Drive-In Theater.

The Kettle itself shares a parking lot with one of the banks. Regulars know that if you want to get out onto Route 9 to go to the County Market or Big R without sitting at the light on 47, you can cut through the bank’s drive-in exit. You’re not supposed to come into the parking lot that way, but if you’re my father-in-law that’s more of a suggestion than a rule. There are a few places to get a good breakfast in town, but I never mind it when Dad says he wants to go “down to the corner place.” The French Toast is pretty good there. The biscuits are good, but it’s just a white gravy with a rumor that it’s spent time in the same room with some sausage. I’ve never seen actual evidence it’s true.

I like going to “The Corner” because it means seeing The Painting. I’m no art expert, but it’s my belief that this painting may be one of the largest attempted by someone lacking in any sense of perspective whatsoever.

I don’t remember when I first noticed what an incredible work this really is. Gibson City is a small town in central Illinois and seeing a rural scene on the wall of a restaurant isn’t unexpected. I think my obsession was triggered when we sat at a table under one end it and I noticed the road with no visible means of support

Um … What?
Um … What?

I was hooked.

Let’s not eliminate the possibility that these are conjoined horses.

The more you look at this painting, the more you realize that it gets almost nothing correct. It challenges our assumptions. “There’s a wagon, a person and two horses. Of course the horses are pulling the wagon and the person is driving.”  But is that really true? It may be that the horses are merely strolling by. They’re certainly not in front of the wagon. Maybe the person on the wagon is just relaxing and trying to figure out which legs go with which horse.


Then there’s the barn with the disembodied levitating head. There’s certainly no room for a body in there. Perhaps the body was eaten by the freakishly large chickens that guard the front yard.


I think the artist does capture an important characteristic of the town. It’s a friendly place. That’s why it was important to depict the tiny city limits sign made especially for the gnomes who work the local fields. Farm work is already dangerous, but to these wee folk the giant steam-powered tractor from 1870s that roams the fields is a real danger. Luckily the roads are paved with some sort of flexible fabric. The bridge and stream? No idea. I’ve never seen anything even slightly resembling this around here. But I’m keeping my eyes peeled for the gnomes.


By the time the artist got to the left side of the painting, space was apparently running short. Gibson City actually has a rather prosperous little downtown. There are very few empty storefronts. Rather than going to the trouble of painting several of those buildings, though, the artist took the bold choice of combining architectural elements from several buildings and invented a single building that doesn’t exist and has no obvious purpose. Might be a church. Might be a firehouse. Hard to say  The gazebo-looking thing actually does exist in a park, though to my knowledge there are no trees growing inside it. This is the only water tower M.C. Escher ever designed.

I love this painting. I wouldn’t change a brush stroke. There’s not much danger of the Kettle ever going out of business as long as the town is here, but I’d contribute generously to a fund to preserve the painting if anything did. For all my snark about the composition, the color palette is exactly right. I don’t know why the artist thought there was a brick-arched bridge over an indeterminate-sized stream, but the town is made of brick and those bricks are exactly that color. It may sound like damning with faint praise, but I actually mean it.  I think the way the colors hang together is part of why it took me so long to actually look at the painting. Come for the impressionism. Stay for the surrealism.

It’s easy to make fun of it. No, it’s a lot of fun to make fun of it. But I don’t love this painting for it’s innumerable faults. I love it because in its own weird, innocent, sweet way it does absolutely nothing it sets out to do. It presents a fantastical place where stereoscopic vision and Euclidean geometry are equally irrelevant.

You can call it bad. You can call it brilliant. You can order another cup of coffee.

It’s really just a matter of perspective.

POSTSCRIPT: I had a chance to talk to some longtime Gibson City residents about the painting. The artist was a woman, but they could ‘t remember her name. She was well-known in town for her paintings. I took that to mean in a good way. It turns out that building next to the water tower is a City Hall that burned down. The current city hall is a really neat art deco building, but it also features a tower. The water tower is gone, but it’s been replaced by a communication tower. Alas, it hews to things like geometry and gravity. Finally, the 1870s steam tractor depicted is actually on display in a small park within site of the Kettle. The consensus at the table was that it was unlikely that the artist is still alive, but if she is she should sign the piece. I’d go one step further and say that if she isn’t, there should be a plaque. This was clearly painted with love.

Road Trip

Today we start back. Some people look at the traveling part of travel as a necessary evil that occupies the time between leaving where they are and getting to where they want to go. I’m not one of those people. Carla isn’t either. It’s another one of those little things that illustrate how I hit the spousal jackpot.route_home

We both grew up in families who loved to travel but didn’t fly to get there. We drove. Long, long road trips. Pile in the car early in the morning, load up up on books. Stop at rest areas and get lunch out of the cooler. In my family’s case we tended to have our travel trailer behind us, so if it was a multi-day trip we’d find a KOA or other campground and set up for the night.

I really hate flying. I’m that guy no one wants to sit next to on an airplane. It’s no picnic for me either. It’s a dehumanizing experience all the way around. I choose not to do that anymore. I prefer to drive. When I was freelancing the last time, the folks I did onsite webcast engineering for found it very amusing how much I hated to fly. It probably cost me a couple of gigs, but if it did they never made an issue of it. They were actually very accommodating.

So while you are reading this, we’ll likely be on the road, It’s the classic I-75 route. Walt Disney World to the turnpike (SunPass FTW), the turnpike to I-75.  We’ll spend the night in Atlanta and see my sister-in-law, then back on I-75 north to KY-18 and we make a left. And yes, as a matter of fact, we probably did go to Wawa for breakfast on our way out.

We’ve made this drive so many times it’s routine. When we cross under the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway we’re really on our way. We’ll cross Payne’s Prairie up around Gainesville and also get Stephen Foster stuck in our heads for the hour after we cross the Suwannee river. Then South Georgia, the land that makes Audible pay for itself. The trip just hasn’t been the same since Tifton! (the exclamation point is silent) has quit promoting itself as “The Reading Capital of the World” on billboards.

The billboards are actually some of the most entertaining part of the trip. In Florida every fifth billboard proclaims  that heartbeats begin “18 days after con-cep-tion.”1 The other four billboards are for Ron-Jon’s Surf Shop. In Georgia you start seeing the billboards that tell you why you’re going to hell. They fail to point out that, by being in South Georgia, you’re already there.2 It’s always struck me that you see more billboards for strip joints and adult book stores in the Bible belt than anywhere else. Those start becoming less frequent as you get closer to Macon. I have nothing to say about Macon. No one does. I do enjoy going through Vienna, GA because of all the Ellis Brother’s Pecan billboards and seeing the site for the Big Pig Jig.  I’d like to see that some day.

Macon to Atlanta is an exercise in trying to figure out where Atlanta really starts.  I don’t have an answer for that yet. Then there’s the try-not-to-be-killed-by-an-idiot-Atlanta-driver on the way through.  Assuming we do that we’ll get to out hotel that conveniently shares a parking lot with Taco Mac. It’s not a bad way to end the day.

Then  tomorrow we go back to real life.

1I don’t understand the hyphens either, but they’re there. I’m assuming they’re having to break up the word because it’s too long for the target audience to parse.
2Motto suggestion: “If you were going to hell, you’d be home by now.”