The Coffee Brined Rib, Why Not?

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It seems the world is on its head these days.  People are being paid to hurl insults at rallies and others are openly talking about a revolution.  One is rude and unethical and the other is treason.  Both may be illegal. Up is down and down is sideways.  Let’s shuffle off to realm of food.

I’ve been playing with a coffee brine for my ribs.  I’ve seen recipes that say to soak your ribs in coffee for several hours prior to smoking.  Nope too simple.   I have done this twice and I think I have a good feel for what works.

A brine is a salt water solution that imparts a great amount flavor to meat while keeping it moist.  I almost always brine my chicken breasts.  A brined, smoked and grilled pork chop is to die for.  But I haven’t brined my ribs often.  Brining pork, especially ribs takes time.   A short marinate or brine is just that, short on flavor.  I have brined my ribs for 36 and 72 hours.  I will stay with Alice Waters’ recommendation to brine chicken 24 hours and pork 3 days.  I’m pretty sure there is never a time NOT to take her recommendation.  There was a remarkable difference going the full 3 days.  Don’t skip on time.

I hear you; you don’t like coffee, blah, blah, blah.  Ok then.  Move on, this isn’t for you.  But if you stay, you’ll have some mighty fine eats.  I promise.

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I cut the racks of ribs in half, because my brine buckets won’t really handle the length of a full rack (that’s what she said).  I prefer to remove the silver skin from the ribs, you might not.  It’s a matter of personal taste.  I also rinse of the ribs prior to brining to remove excess blood and stuff. There is always stuff.

Coffee Brine
1 pot of hot coffee (Philz’ Jacob’s Wonderbar)
1 cup kosher salt
1.25 cup sugar
1 tsp Cumin
8 Allspice berries, crushed
10 Juniper berries, crushed
6 whole Cloves
10-20 whole, peeled cloves of garlic
1 bunch of thyme
3 Bay Leaves
1 TBS Honey (add after the coffee to help disolve it)
1 TBS ground pepper or 10 – 15 whole pepper corns.  I like the ground better for more heat
1 TBS Fermented Pepper sauce (recipe on my blog) you could use some tabasco or other hot sauce
Water to cover, Ice to chill

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I like Jacob’s Wonderbar for this as it has a very rich flavor and chocolate tones.  I set up all my ingredients in my brining tub, while the coffee is brewing.  I have a 12 cup pot and I make it strong.   Pour in the coffee and stir to dissolve the salt and sugar.  I like to let everything steep for 30 or 40 minutes after the salt and sugar are dissolved.

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The brine should be cool.  At this point I add some ice and cool water to roughly double the volume of liquid.  I add in the ribs slowly as not to make a mess; this is no cannonball pool party.  At this point I add more water so the liquid covers the ribs by 1/8”.  I put a plate on top to keep them submerged.  The brine goes in the fridge for 3 days, so if like me, you are smoking on Sunday, I start the brine on Thursday so I get 3 days plus a bit, instead of less than 3 days.

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About 2 hours before the ribs go on the smoker, I take them out of the brine.  I remove any bits that are stuck to them (like the cloves) and rinse them off.   I let them drain in a colander for about an hour.  Then I rub them heavily with my rub on all sides and loosely cover them with saran as they come to room temp.

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Lee’s Coffee Rub
0.5 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
0.25 Cup Smoked or Hot Paprika
1 TBS Coarse (Salad Grind) Black Pepper
1.5 tsp Chili Powder (I like the New Mexico chili powder specialty sellers like Berkeley Bowl or Whole Spice or the Chili Powder from Rancho Gordo)
1 TBS Granulated Garlic
1 TBS Onion Powder
1/4 – ½ tsp Chipotle Powder)
1 TBS Kosher Salt
1 tsp Ground Oregano (I crush dried Mexican Oregano)
1 TBS unsweetened Cocoa Powder (I like Scharffenberger)
¼ cup whole coffee beans, ground semi-fine.

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Ground coffee. Not the full amount in the rub

Mix the brown sugar with the paprika, until fully incorporated.  I prefer a manual whisk to my stand mixer.  Then add the ingredients 1 at time, mixing fully at each step.  Most of the salt in this recipe comes from the brine.

I get the fire started and smoke as I normally do.  I try to keep the fire at 225, using mostly oak, with some apple and cherry mixed in.  I rotate the ribs every few hours for even cooking as I’m cooking on two levels, one slightly hotter because heat rises.  I don’t use a water pan.

I do spare ribs for approximately 5.5 hours and baby backs for 4.5.  I think that’s because my heat spikes a few times throughout the cook.  It’s a manual process filled with human imperfections.

I often spritz my ribs every other time (every 45-60 minutes) I stoke the fire after the first hour.  My spritz is approximately 4oz apple juice, 2oz apple cider vinegar and 1TBS liquid margarine (seriously). Mix it up and spray liberally during the cook.  This keeps the rub from burning and helps create a nice color.  Totally not necessary, but it does make the ribs a bit prettier and tastier.

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I generally serve my ribs dry, with a sauce on the side.  In this case, the saltiness of the brine in the smaller ribs plays well with the sweetness of the sauce.  I coat the ribs 3 times in the last hour or so, letting each layer caramelize for 15-20 minutes.

Lee’s Coffee BBQ Sauce
2 Cups Ketchup
0.25 Cup Molasses (I like the heavier Brer Rabbit, you might need more with other brands)
3 tsp Worcestershire Sauce
Juice from 0.5 Fresh Lemon (or more if you like the tang)
1/4 tsp Tabasco® Brand Hot Sauce
3/8 Cups Dark Brown Sugar
1 TBS Honey
1/4 tsp Cayenne (Red Pepper)
4-6 Cloves Minced Fresh Garlic
1 TBS Coarse Black Pepper (the pepper adds heat over time as the sauce sits, you may want less)
0.5 Cup Strong Coffee (again, using Philz’ Jacob’s Wonderbar)

Add everything to a pot over low heat. Stir to combine.  Bring to a simmer for 10-15 minutes.

Let the ribs sit for 15 minutes or so prior to cutting.  Enjoy.

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Lee writes a review on Amazon

I know, can you believe I’ve never written a review on Amazon before?  I wasn’t going to, but my friend asked nicely in her “you will do it!” sort of way.  My friend Bailey designed the cover and packaging Hyde by Vince Churchill from Dark Region Press.  How could I resist erotic noir? (I believe that’s how she pitched — if not, I’m confiscating that term, trademark pending.)  Not only that I got a wonderfully inscribed copy, since you all know by now I collect books, signed books, books that require you to wear gloves to touch and books that shall not be touched.

Here is my review which let’s be honest is the cheater’s way of writing a blog post.  So sue me, its not like you pay to read my drivel and be amused by my outstanding (in my own delusional mind anyway) wit.

 

Redefining Erotic Noir, Emphasing The Noir

Up front, lets recognize that a. this book is not for everyone and b. it is more of a novella than novel. That being said, I could not put it down. Everyone who read or wants to read “50 Shades of Its not really like that” should invest the time to read this. Churchill takes the tired premises of exploring boundaries and twisted (according to some pundits who prefer to keep their proclivities closeted) tastes and repackages them in a neat, digestible treat. It is like have an exceptional, experiment 5-star meal after finally acknowledging that In ‘n Out Burger is THE BEST. Your view-point changes, your tastebuds are challenged and your mind expands. Are you ever really the same after that?

I don’t want to spoil anything, as it is quick rollercoaster ride that I read in 3 sittings. Nevertheless the first twist was predictable, leaving me to wonder if… Nevermind, that was the Double McGuffin. Very little was really predictable. The main character was well fleshed out, believable and interesting. My only complaint was that it was a bit shorter than I liked, with several places where motivations and consequences could have been mined for gold. Gold Jerry! I blame the over zealous editor.

An cheers on the cover and packaging. Everything suited and accentuated the moods that built throughout the read.

Joe Bob gives it 4 stars. Sadly there was no aardvark fu. Check it out. Or be tied up and have it read to you. hmm….

Trouble Me (with appologies to 10,000 Maniacs)

My regular readers, as opposed to my irregular writing schedule, will know that commuting is a common topic.  And why not?  I do commute 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year, more or less.  Today I got into my car and my chariot roared to life.  Soon the radio kicked in and Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” changed my consciousness.  It was 1988 and I was joined by 50,000 of my closest fans watching the Amnesty International Benefit Concert.  Being over the hill, I also like harkening back to my 20s and a simpler time without as many worries.

It was a great show. Sting cancelled so Springsteen and E-Street Band and Peter Gabriel and to play longer sets, which was fantastic, because dreams of blue turtles bored me to tears.  I thought about being 15 and riding my bike to the record store to get Gabriel’s first solo album.  Yeah I was that cool.  So cool I didn’t have a girlfriend, but my music rocked.

As I was enjoying my groove, I came to the 4-way stop where I turn left.  Still, bopping a bit, I watched the car to my left move across the intersection and the SUV to my right turn right.  As the first car  passed me, I pulled out.  (Insert the sound of dishes breaking.)  So much for my groove.  The 2nd car to my left decided the stop sign didn’t apply to her.  She slammed on her breaks and glared at me as I deigned to follow the traffic laws that did not apply to her.

I gathered my wits in time for the SUV’s driver to decide that he was really a wide receiver for the Denver Broncos and the turn was a fake, moving in a pseudo U-turn to cut me off.  Clearly, starting a turn and finishing it is optional today.  I missed that memo.

I moved along my path, keeping in mind I’m only 4 blocks from home.  Ok, maybe 6.  Up ahead is a stop light, with a free right turn.  There are 3 lanes of traffic on the busy artery ahead, but the turn lane is generally pretty empty.  A head sat a car, frozen in terror because all 3 lanes weren’t clear.  You know the driver; he won’t turn right unless they can turn into the fast lane.  What ever happened to merging?  I’m pretty sure this is the same driver that enters the freeway at 30 miles per hour because the people in the slow lane go to fast and they believe NTSB has empowered them to make the world safer.

Before we can turn and I can continue my descent into madness, the song changes to Rainbow’s “Since You’ve Been Gone.”  I turned it up to 11.  Or 12.    The car blocking my progress finally turned and because the artery was open for ½ mile, I had no trouble gunning it and passing them within 50 yards.  The rocking sound track clearly helped push my adrenaline forward and my mood moved from Peter Gabriel inspired Romance to heartbreak’s rage.

Your poison letter, your telegram
Just goes to show you don’t give a damn

My mind often jumps from tangent to tangent.  You know who doesn’t give a damn?  The GOP. My mind is still overwhelmed by this week’s spin that the President decided to shut down the government.  Even after that bastion of integrity John Boehner, decided that previous budget and spending agreements in congress could be left on the side of the road like a hillbilly’s trash, because it was time “to take a stand.”  Seriously?  Politics is all about compromise and agreements.  By showing that previous agreements can easily be reneged on to achieve specious goals, we can only conclude that any future agreements will be as solid as tissue paper.

This entire government shutdown is ridiculous, and seems to be staged by the very conservative right.  Let me restate the facts as I know them.

  1. The GOP does not like the Affordable Care Act (ACA/ObamaCare)
  2. The ACA is the Worst Thing that has ever happened to this country (Noelle Nikpour GOP Strategist)
  3. It is worth defaulting on the national debt to stop the ACA
  4. The GOP agreed to a spending bill/debt ceiling increase then decided to hold the nation hostage
  5. The ACA is a law that was passed. (We all know how bills become laws from School House Rock, right?)
  6. The GOP wants smaller government, isn’t that what they’ve just achieved?
  7. For every action there is an equal, but opposite reaction

My outrage reached a boil as I saw Noelle Nikpour make that statement on TV about the ACA being the worst thing to happen to this country.  Slavery, the great depression, the civil war, the Viet Nam war, Prohibition, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy all pale compared to ObamaCare (they should trademark that name to make sure it is hated by all the people who still think our president is a Kenyan Muslim. Of course he’s neither.)  I am sure there was always an undercurrent of hate and prejudice within politics, but it has become hard to miss.

I’ve put it out there; either you agree with me or you don’t.  I’m not going to change your mind and I respect your right to your opinion, though I believe the conservative movement often wishes we liberals and moderates were not allowed to have opinions.  What I want to do is bring two significant points forward that mean quite a bit to me and probably should to you.

First, when the government defaults and that seems to be the ultimate goal of the Tea Party influenced GOP, you and I will be affected.  When the economy tanks, those of us over a certain age and having attained some success are deemed expendable.  We can be replaced at 70% efficiency at 75% of the cost.  Leadership, influence and helping other achieve more are less important than pure cost savings.  I have been let go too many times not to understand what happens.  Hero on Monday; too expensive on Friday.  We all can be replaced.   I have been.  You might too.  Lifetime employment ended in the 70’s we didn’t see that till the 90s.

Since the GOP has taken the government and legislative process hostage because they do not like a law that was passed, how long before the Democrats do the same thing?  What does this mean for our way of life and democracy as a whole?  This is the political equivalent of a spoiled child taking his ball and going home.  Eventually that child either grows up and learns or has no friends.  I’m not sure we have time for the GOP to lean that lesson.  They have already spent years shouting that they refuse to.

I’m more depressed than I am angry.  And I’m plenty angry.  All that’s left is for the evangelicals to remind us that this is the first stage of the rapture they want and the rest of us are going to hell.  I expect that message in the second half of October.

 

Parking Wars, Carnage on the Oakland Front

There are many disappointments in our lives.  Santa never brought you that candy apple red Schwinn Stingray you had to have when you were 9.  Daddy never bought you a pony.  Your mother made you eat lima beans.  Don’t worry, mine did too.  Heidi Klum didn’t like your dress on “Project Runway” and told you were out.  (But then she kissed you.  Twice.)  And there is never a parking spot when you need one.

About a year ago my office moved to a new location.  It only moved a mile or so, but it moved a way from the BART station.  The City of Oakland does provide a free bus service that goes from BART to a few blocks from the office.  Sadly, the bus is not a time saver over walking.  Thus, my commute has increased by 20 minutes each day.  This necessitates driving to work on occasion, to make sure I am on time for early meetings.

Parking in our neighborhood is unique.  The lot next to the office is $6 for 12 hours.  That’s it, no options.  Across the street, and connected to the building over the train tracks, is a lot that charges $7 if you are in by 10 and out by 6.  Needless to say I generally work well past 6.  And when that lot changes to hourly, it is $2.50 per hour.  Of course I can afford either of these, but it galls me that I must pay for parking after driving and spending $10 or so in gas.  Call me petty.

There is plenty of street parking within 4 blocks of work.  What makes it tricky is that there is a mix of parking meters (too expensive), 2 hour parking (too short) and 4 hour parking (almost just right).  If I get to work before 9 am and move my car by 1 pm or so I can park for free.  A lot of thought has gone into this strategy.  I know the meter maids are focused on the meters.  4 hour spots are probably almost an afterthought.  What are the odds my car is being viewed right when I park? 0.  I figure there is also some grace between checking, so that it is a 5 hour window, if not more.  I drive at least 1 day per week and I’ve not gotten a ticket yet, knock on plastic.

When it comes to parking, people can be very touchy.  Perhaps you’ve seen the TV show “Parking Wars” where drivers and meter maids to at it tooth and nail.  No one ever believes they deserve a parking ticket.  Of course they do 99% of the time when they get one.  I also recall a study that was done years ago that proved that people took longer to leave a parking spot if someone was waiting for it.  It was a form of territoriality, drivers keeping what they perceived as theirs, not wanting another to have it.

That ranks right up there with people not wanting to split the bill at lunch or dinner in a group because someone “ordered something expensive” or “I didn’t have a drink.”  People are petty.  Don’t go out with a group if you can’t handle sometimes paying a bit more or bit less.  It evens out over time.  And don’t park in a spot if your fragile psyche can’t handle knowing someone will park there after you.  It is not your lover; it is a cold, undeveloped piece of ground.

As I started developing my parking strategy near the office, I avoided three loading docks between 217 and 229 Harrison St. in Oakland.  If you click on the link, you’ll see there are 4 loading docks, but there is a stair case in front of one.  It turns out, there are walls behind loading dock doors.  There is not a loading dock behind the doors, there is an office with a small window on each wall.

Of course each loading dock door is painted with the logo “No Parking 7/24/365.”  When they raise the doors, they also have no parking signs, the type you’d buy at the office supply store for $2.99.  These are, on the walls and the remaining loading dock edge.  Since you can’t simply put up a sign to prevent the public from parking in front of your wall (as opposed to a garage or loading dock), I consider this their art project.  I park there all the time.  It is very convenient to work.

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The third time I parked in front of this office, a note was left on my car.  I was appalled at the audacity of whoever left it.  How dare they say I couldn’t park there?  I guess they believe by putting up those silly signs they believed they were writing new laws.  Delusional and petty were the words that came to mind.  I took the paper and put it my car to throw away later.  Why litter?

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It is hard to imagine what went through the broken mind that wrote this note.  I guess a single “no” was not enough. Bold strokes and underlines were also required it seems.  And, as you have clearly surmised, knowledge of the law is not necessary to create nasty notes.  It is not illegal to park in front of an office wall.  At least to my understanding of traffic laws.

I guess intimidation works.  The spots in front of the loading docks are open fairly often.  From the notes they leave on cars and the effort they’ve put into their “art project” I have concluded that these are not stable people.  I’m not inviting them over for dinner.  Given my druthers, I’d park elsewhere, but these are convenient spots.  Over the last 11 months I’ve collected 8 flyers.  Maybe they will appreciate like baseball cards.  Actually, I wet them, and stick them back on the windows of their office.  It is my way of adding to their public art project.  I assume they wanted participation.

A few weeks ago I was not parked in front of the loading docks, but I noticed that 4 cars had notes on them.  The last one as I walked by had 2 notes.  I had to laugh as I noticed the flyer on the driver’s side was from the car’s owner.  I don’t recall the exact words, but the note called the “parking authority” on the concept of having a legally parked car towed.

Earlier I had come to the conclusion that the building wanted the parking spaces kept empty so they could use them.  What hubris, I thought.

The next day I had this confirmed.  I had parked in front of the stairs, which is a spot that is never harassed.  Behind me they had put out orange cones to keep the spaces empty.  Hubris is not strong enough word.  The cones were stamped “apple bottom” or something equally ridiculous.  Not PG&E, a cable company, a phone company or the government.  My quick thinking lead me to believe these were a public danger, fallen off the back of some turnip truck.  It was my civic responsibility to removed them from the street, to protect other members of the community.  I picked them up and stacked them on the stairs.  Crisis Averted.

Later I came back to my car to go to lunch.   The cones were back and there was a note on them.  I figured someone else could move them this time. I’d move them after lunch.  After lunch, as I surmised, someone else moved them.  I sense a movement starting in the neighborhood.

The other day I was meeting a friend for coffee.  I went downstairs to meet him and ran across him coming out of our parking lot because it full.  Being ever the quick thinker, I jumped in and guided him to these often vacant stops.  After we parked and started to walk away, some sort of sad station wagon pulled up.  A woman of certain age leaned out the window.  She was a sad case.  Her hair was dyed too dark, with an overly trendy and trying too hard platinum stripe ringing her face.  I stifled a laugh as she called out to us.

“You can’t park there.”

“Sure we can.”

“You can’t block our loading dock.”

“It’s not a loading dock. It’s a wall.” I laughed out loud.

“It says no parking.”

“So? It’s not an official sign.   It is an art project.”  I kept laughing

“We need access to the loading dock.”

“It’s a wall.”

“Sometimes we use the window.”

I looked at the window.  The glass didn’t pop out.  The screen was roughly 1.5 feet by 3 feet.  Its bottom edge was over 7 feet off the sidewalk.  I should my head.

“Now you are just being ridiculous.”

We walked away and ignored her as we went for our coffee.  I saw her glaring at me that night when I walked back to my car across the street from her office.

This ends year 1.  I predict year 2 will be an all our war.

Writer’s Note:  I spoke with a traffic enforcement officer the other day.  I asked about the legality of these notes and the threat of tow.  She laughed. She suggested that if they tow me, I should sue.  I am wondering if I should harass them, as they have harassed me.

And now for something completely different…

Protestations to the contrary, I really never fear for boredom.  On a daily basis I look around me see things that are so silly, ludicrous and stupid I can’t help but laugh.  The other day I was leaving the train station and an older, frail woman seemed oblivious to the rules of the escalator.  You stand on the right and people walk to left.  You’d think being older, frail – indeed small—she’d have no issues keep the left size clear.  Nope.  She had lots of bags and placed them in front of herself.    I could almost hear the station operator saying “Back up on Escalator 2! All Agents to Escalator 2!”

Later in the week, I was again stuck behind a slow, older woman.  And if you realize I’m in my 50s, you recognize this is odd during the morning commute.  I thought she should have been at home at her kitchen table, agonizing over which pills to take why the Sudoku book sat lonely, begging for attention.  She had an odd slow shuffle and traffic pattern of commuters prevented me from passing her.  When finally my opportunity to make a jailbreak came, I down shifted for acceleration and she stepped left in front of me.

Hitting my pedestrian brakes, I was dumbfounded.  Had she traded Sudoku for radar?  I re-shifted, hit the wheel hard the right and made my move.  I took one step and she shuffled back to the right, using the wall the same way a good cornerback uses the sidelines.  At this point I slowed down, gave up and took video to send to the producers of “The Walking Dead” in hopes a finder’s fee for showing them how zombies really should shuffle.

We know that all bad things come in threes; of course there is one more commuting anecdote.  Coming home one night the train was crowded and day was hot.  Getting home any time between 6 and 7 means 2 things:  it’s hot and there are lots of people.  This had been train that started at the airport; there were too many people with luggage.  I think travelers should stay off commuter trains.  The train gets us to and from work; the side benefit is that it takes people on vacation. It’s bad enough they went away while we work; the semi oblivious way they use their luggage to create a steeplechase is just ridiculous.  Isn’t there a law about being oblivious in public?

I had finally crawled over several steamer trunks and piles of gift bags to get off the train and make my way to the escalator.  Amazingly enough the left side is open and we are descending from the platform smoothly.  This time of year this is amazing, because there are always kids coming home from San Francisco who just stand 2 across and 2 deep unaware of the rules we adults have.  Sadly, my euphoria is short-lived.  Just ahead of me is a man with 2 large suitcases on the escalator.  With both of them in front of him, it is obvious to me he has not developed or considered his exit strategy.

I hate be insightful.  Right on cue, he and his bags left the order of the escalator and mad a pile at the bottom.  The people walking on the right had to stop, forcing those not paying attention to walk into them.  The people on the left were coming off faster than the buffoon and his bags could get out of the way.  There was jumble of arms and legs and “heys.”  It was ugly and ludicrous in a way that only stupidity could be.  How could he not know to wait till the escalator was empty or, god forbid, use the elevator.  Yep, there is an elevator for just this reason.

But ridiculous things are not limited to my commute.  This week I was catching up on several TV shows on the DVR and while the DVR makes avoid commercials easy, it minimizes them more than eliminates them.  Sadly, the bumper for the TV show “Save Me” was unavoidable on several occasions.  Yes, I was watching NBC.  The tag line for the show is, “She choked on a message from G-d.”  Seriously?  All I can imagine is that this 3 second clip is on heavy rotation in Wal-marts in the Bible belt.

I kept wondering when the Westboro Baptist Church was going to start their protest.  This seemed like this is right in their wheelhouse.  The second or third time I saw the indigestion inducing spot, I realized the start was Anne Heche.  I know that here resume has been far from stellar, with many mediocre titles to her name, but everything about this resonates career ending.  I don’t believe this is the vehicle to give her cache.  After all, isn’t the first thing you think of when I say “Anne Heche” is “Ellen’s ex-girlfriend?”

NBC generally has decent comedies, but their dramas tend to, shall we say, suck.  I guess they are trying to pull their comedies in line with those dramas. I know when I think the path to TV rating success I think NBC taking a cancelled concept from HBO and putting their own unique spin on it.  I’m thinking next time someone says Anne Heche you’ll be thinking, “ wasn’t she just cancelled?”  That’s right, I’m choking on a message from NBC.

 

Looking Beyond The Box Score: A Baseball Metaphor

Baseball is really an individual sport.  We think of it as a team sport, but when you analyze it, 90% of it is made up of individual contributions.  Yes the pitcher and the catcher coordinate on calling the pitches and creating the flow of the game, but 90% of that activity is dependent on the pitcher executing his pitch; the speed, location and ball movement have very little to do with what pitch the catcher called for.  While there is coaching, only the batter can hit the ball.  Fielding batted balls, throwing and catching are individual activities, chained together to make a play.  It really is an individual spot.

Of course, that type of thinking will get you in trouble.  Just look at the LA Dodgers <cue boos!>.  They were 2 games behind the SF Giants <cue cheers!> when they added 6 key players to their team – 3 of them stars with huge potential.  What happened?  Of course they imploded.  There is an intangible side to baseball which is what makes it a team sport.  When the team gels, mountains can be climbed.  When they splinter, they circle the drain (ok, the 72-73 Oakland A’s are the exception that proves the rule.)  It doesn’t matter how much of an individual contributor you are, if your teammates don’t back you, things fall apart, disaster ensues.

On a cohesive team, when one person fails to execute, the others don’t feel the pressure to “pick him up.”  They want to pick him up.  They want to help everyone move forward.  Internal values will have been created that tells people it is time to do something for the team; excellence is often created.  In times of pressure you can see great teams work to cover “failures”, fix issues and exceed.  And you can see splintered groups place blame and try to justify why it isn’t their fault.  Often this comes from the fact that some players are more worried about their statistics and their next contract than the success of the team.  When the team is placed second, everyone suffers.

Other times, it is more about chemistry and how the team bonds and works together to build that feeling of wanting to succeed together.  I cannot say that there are selfish or “me first” players on the Dodgers – I really don’t know.  We all know one or two players added late in the season can be the catalyst to spark a team forward to over achieve.  In my mind, adding so many players to the Dodgers over such a short span may have fractured the camaraderie of those left and making it impossible to find that mixture of talent, desire and teamwork needed to succeed. It is clear the Dodgers did much worse after their roster revision than they did before.

We have all heard the phrase “there is no “I” in team.”  I have always understood it, but never really been in a position to see one or two seriously selfish people destroy a team.  Often, when you are an individual contributor you don’t think about how to interact with others.  You know your stuff and you make it right.  The problem is that there really are very few roles left for individual contributors in today’s business environment.  Most everything in today’s wired world requires a high degree of coordination, communication and cooperation.

I’ve shared some of the rough patches I have gone through recently in some past entries.  As rough as those were, they were nowhere near the roughest. The last 2 weeks were devastating in many ways.  I saw firsthand multiple contributors working on their portions of a project and refusing to effectively communicate with others and with me.  In some cases, there was significant lack of cooperation – ok let’s be honest, there was zero cooperation between most of the participants.  This lead to disaster after disaster; lack of communication leading to tasks that could not be done.  It was chaos, individuals telling other individuals they were smarter and better prepared than the others and more fighting than you can imagine.  There was zero teamwork and definitely less camaraderie.

The project was supposed to be completed Saturday at 5pm.  Here it is Tuesday – 10 days later – and there is still much to do.  We were able to cobble some things together and have some critical services available by 9am Monday and most of the services people see done by mid day on Wednesday.  And then the blame game came into full effect.  You can tell your team players, at least the ones that want to be on a team, as they own their mistakes and don’t look for reasons to blame others.  They are busier looking for solutions and trying to help others than in trying to look good.  The team already looks bad; there is no potential to shine. The divisive ones look to find ways to rationalize mistakes and blame others, trying to find a spotlight.  In a time of crisis or clean-up as we were, trying to blame others is counterproductive.  We needed solutions and teamwork, not to look for kudos.

I sat through meetings and side bars this past week (people talk to me and I try to be the glue on the team, but I didn’t do so well this time) blaming others and trying to rationalize why they were not at fault.  Everyone placed another comparatively at fault – 90%-10%.  In truth, it was 55%-45% in every case; basically everyone was at fault, but no one seems to be able to see it.  In retrospect this has been going on for 3 months, and I was completely unable to change things.

This was a huge lesson in teamwork, or lack thereof.  Sure, you can add a bulldog to a team to drive vendors and outside entities.  But you still need to think about how that force interacts with your team.  Even if you think you might have an underperforming team that can use some improvement, you need to consider how personalities mesh – and what is the cost of achievement.  I’m not sure the cost outweighed the damage in this case.  Certain things got done better than they would have been, there is no denying that.  Others were made worse as information became embargoed and fences erected to keep people away from fiefdoms.

As someone who tries to build teams and cohesion, I was both stymied and broken.  Yes, broken.  You can’t talk to people who aren’t ready to listen and even the strongest of us break under constant abuse and pressure.   I take a lot of ownership of this team’s failures.  It really wasn’t a team; it was 3 different factions, each trying to make the others look incompetent.  All that did was make it nearly impossible to complete the project.  I’m not placing blame, but there what little chemistry existed was corrosive.  I didn’t have the right chemicals to neutralize it.

Have you seen the Internet meme which proves, without a shadow of a doubt that there is an “I” in team?  After the last 3 months, it seems very appropriate.

Chicago: Day 1

As we flew into Chicago’s Midway Airport, I noticed the landscape was very different from home.  Green open spaces and small forests, covered with trees unfit for lumber filled my view.  Then houses and more spaces.  But no real hills or mountains.  I thought it odd that the genie in my iPhone didn’t jump to Liz Phair’s “Stratford-On-Guy”

In 27-D, I was behind the wing
Watching landscape roll out like credits on a screen

</required song quote> Of course I was in 22-C, so there was some logic to the Genie’s decision.  Looking across the row out the window by Lambchop, the description was apt.

A friend had recommended we take the L into town rather than a cab.  A $4.50 train ride beats a $40 cab ride most of the time.  We had two large rolling bags, a duffel bag, a computer and my murse.  I know it’s a messenger bag, but since my niece named it, I always hear her voice when I think of it.  Had we been on a Sunday stroll, it would have been a nice walk. It went on.  And on.  There were elevators and hallways.  Ups and downs.  Lambchop was a trooper and didn’t complain, but I knew she would have been happier in a cab in traffic. Take a  cab on the way back

A few years ago, they added an extension to BART that ran to SFO.  My current position allows me to commute on the train (but of course by now you know this.)  About half the trains I take to work end at SFO and half I take home come from there.  The amount of luggage and neophytes on those cars  make the journey harder than it used to be. Somewhere along the way people decided their luggage should block the aisle and empty seats. Commuting etiquette has gone the way of the dodo. As we wheeled our luggage into the L  and looked for ways to be out of others way, I realized the cost of cab ride made me “that guy.”  I guess everyone does have a price.

As we rode into town, I saw what a different place Chicago is from San Francisco or Oakland, my local urban references.  Flat.  Lots of brick.  Houses, then industrial areas, followed by more houses.  And then, looming to the right, a large skyline.  As much as I love San Francisco’s skyline, it is just a cute puppy compared to Chicago’s Polyphemus – awe-inspiring and, perhaps, partially designed by gods.   We were speechless.  As we drew closer on the train, I think we both noticed each other’s smiles broadening.

Finally getting to our hotel, we quickly checked in and kidnapped our Aussie friend Neal for some <food!> Chicago Style Pizza </FOOD!>and to begin drinking. There was a larger group going out later, but evil forces had scheduled a fantasy football draft at 8pm local time and it was 6pm.  We really hadn’t eaten other than the crackers and pretzels on the plane.  Football and famine demanded a meal then and there.

Dining alfresco was fun, but the humidity did take some getting used to.  We caught up on the last year and enjoyed the cocktails and beers.  I had a chocolate stout that just blew my socks off.   The pizza was pretty good too.  The final crescendo to the meal was our waitress; explaining we were in town for a convention, I asked her for some recommendations.  She came back with a 3 page hand written list that looked like it came from a laser printer.  Such penmanship must delight the kitchen staff.   Mine isn’t good enough to be a doctor.  My favorite Chicago spots were on that list including 1 I had not heard of yet. But one I was to learn to love.

After dinner we headed back to the hotel and my football draft.  Later, we headed down to the bar where we knew our friends would be.  There they were, in the bar almost, but not quite, waiting for us.   We squeezed in to hang out with our friends.  New friends were made and there were copious drinks all around.  Then, there was more drinking.  I had a few cocktails and discussed the “Cheezborger! Cheezeborger! Chip! Chip!” SNL skit  with the guy  that wrote The Song of Ice and Fire books.  Did I neglect to mention we were in town for the World Science Fiction Convention and that is basically the only sectioned event for the Brotherhood without Banners, the George R.R. Martin Fan Club?  I may be a Knighted Ser of that group, but I learned early on that I couldn’t drink like Jebus or schmooze like Ser Cam.

It was a great start to what was about to become a most excellent week.

Napa in 3 dots or less

By now you’ve figured out that I have way too many thoughts running through my head.  It has always been the case, but it can be harder to hide it as I write about diverse topics and try to weave topics together.  Most every day, I start a post only to realize it’s going nowhere fast.  Much like Hawaii, my blog has a minimum speed limit.  Those posts don’t see the light of day.  One day you’ll thank me for that.

Someone recently urged me to write about my last Napa trip so she could live vicariously though my blog.  That post never materialized.  Too many moving parts and too few coherent thoughts prevented that from happening.  But I do have a few things from that weekend.

  • Alpha Omega is fantastic winery. Thanks to my brother for getting us in and kudos to the staff for taking such good care of us.
  • Hartwell and Elyse remain my two favorite Wineries.    Both produce excellent wines and have fantastic staffs.  Hartwell is my luxury Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.  Elyse’s wines run a wide stretch of the varietals, each excellent.  I love their Cabernets and Petite Sirahs (on the Jacob Franklin label.) The Jacob Franklin Hayne Vineyard Petite is my favorite wine these days and the Quality/Price Ratio at Elyse is off the charts.  Rick at Elyse or David at Hartwell make both places warm, welcoming and must visits.  Drop my name, it might help.  But don’t be upset if it doesn’t.
  • If you must wear designer flip-flops this season, they should Gucci.  Prada is so 2010.
  • Sift in Napa makes great cupcakes judging by the half of the bacon cupcake I was allotted.
  • In Downtown Napa, I love the service, vibe and coffee at Caffe Molinari.
  • Sweetie Pie makes whoopee pies to die for.  Someone please send me a care package.
  • My BBQ is better than the 2 places I had BBQ at.  I’m not sure if I’m that good or they weren’t.
  • Dillon at Cindy’s Backstreet Café made every woman in my family swoon.
  • There was no Jello on the menu at any restaurant I visited
  • Bello Family Vineyards in St. Helena is an up and comer.  Nice wines, great staff and a spectacular tasting room.
  • I sat next to Abbie Hoffman, or someone like him, at the Oakland Raiders Training Camp.

Those are just some of the things I tried several times to weave into a narrative.  Continuing my homage to Herb Caen we have:

  • I have never had a better Greyhound than the ones at Van Kleef in Oakland.  There is magic in their grapefruit juice.  I do love a great dive bar.  Especially one with a Rhino, Boar and Bear holding court.
  • Keep your eyes open for Stag’s Luncheonette in Oakland.  You’ll hear about them soon.
  • Strange de Jim is not feeding me information. His silence frightens me.
  • The drama at work is never-ending.  I am thinking of asking Lemal to write a theme song.
  • I am very excited to being going to the Windy City for WorldCon.  The Brotherhood without Banners will be well represented.  An advance scout team from down under is in San Francisco and ready to drink.  Good times will be had.
  • If you learn nothing else from Robert Irvine, you need to use more salt and pepper.  And you shouldn’t get ice in restaurants.  Too many bad restaurants cause us to question all ice machines, even the clean ones.
  • A six-foot pallet makes a great planter.  But no fence is strong enough to support that weight.  Yes I might have bought 50 more succulents.  And some crazy grasses.
  • The donuts at Donut Savant in Oakland are great.  And small.  My mom would still try to limit me to half of the tininess.

And with that, I hope everyone has a wonderful weekend. Crack a few bottles, have a  whole donut or kiss your loved ones.  It’s all good.  Sometimes, its even better.

 

Opposing views

Wrong is wrong and right is right
Nothing changes overnight
I’ll believe it when I see it in black and white
Todd Rundgren  1976

When I was young, I really believed everything was black and white.  For example, my father was either happy or very angry, there was no in between; vegetables were peas and carrots and those were good or they were lima beans or cauliflower and they were hated.  I was the same way when I started my career things were right or they were wrong- the concept of gray did not exist.  I quickly found that didn’t go over well in the business world.

I am made of strong opinions.  People who don’t really know me see someone who is analytical and breaks everything down into an analysis that generates answers.  Like yes and no.  While I do have those skills and do that from time to time, I’m really much more intuitive, balancing facts, figures and formulas with perception, behaviors and politics.  I didn’t do that so much early in my career and found myself being a polarizing figure.  If you agreed with me or were persuaded by my arguments, you generally like me.  Otherwise, it has always been quite easy to dislike me.  I see that.  I still have strong opinions.  Sometimes I present them less forcefully.

This leads me to where I find myself today – not ready to throw away my principles, but always willing to listen and try to compromise.  The best solutions are not the ones you think of in isolation and force on others.  When you look around you and see who our workplace leaders are, who really holds power in your office or influences others, it is generally not the rocket scientists.  It is not the people who insist on being right 100% of the time.  It is the people who listen, cooperate and communicate.  It’s the people who traditionally did not have all the answers and learned to work well with others.  They probably shared their toys too.

Being able to solve most problems quickly and have the “right” answer has hurt me in retrospect.  It retarded my growth as a person and kept me from building some bridges and relationships that might have helped me in a previously unforeseen manner.   I am not perfect now, but age and my inability to stay in one job help change perspectives.  I no longer am the senior manager/executive who people look to for the answers and leadership.  I’m a consultant.  That’s a fancy name for a contractor with gray hair.

I often find myself disagreeing with the decisions and tactics my coworkers take.  I try to persuade them to consider other angles.  This generally works.  In many discussions with my “boss” I will disagree with him, give him my opinions and why I believe in them.  And then I reiterate that I will do what he wants – it is his shop after all.  I know I am a guest here and I really don’t want to be asked to move out.  Not everyone thinks like that.  I work with a few people who not only have to be right all the time, they need to be continually validated as the  smartest person in the room.  I stopped believing that is possible when I was 35.  Besides, I can usually tell who the smartest person is and it is rarely me.

The other day I overheard another person loudly tell another, “that isn’t best practice and I will fight you on everything that isn’t a best practice!”  Really?  I was appalled.  Beyond the fact that this was confrontational and counterproductive, it was unrealistic.  The concept of best practices is great, but what company is ready to institute best practices across the board?  Most aren’t.  Best practices are like recipes.  It’s great to have recipe, but you don’t always have all the ingredients. I think of recipes as frameworks to help me build the best thing I can. Life, work, cooking are all about improvisation in my opinion.  Except baking.  Baking must be exact and now you know why I rarely bake.

I actually fled from the confrontation I described .  Neither party was willing to listen to the other nor was I in the frame of mind to be the adult helping these two to grow up.  Sadly, I often take that role in the workplace. I had too many other things going wrong to also shoulder their immaturity.  Another thing I’ve learned along the way is that in order to really communicate with someone, they have to be in a place (emotionally, intellectually etc.) where they are open to listening.  They have to want to listen; they need to be receptive. In my mind this wasn’t in the realm of possibility,

One reason this confrontation bothered me was that hit too close to home.  In my world, I try to make politics off limits with my father.  He is very strong in his convictions and cannot discuss politics without yelling and demeaning.  Yes, he does watch much too much Fox News.  He doesn’t need a reason to get upset.  A picture of Obama will do it.  For the record I forced Clinton to have sex with Monica Lewinski and helped railroad Nixon. Its easy to pick on the right wing because they are so preposterous with both their attacks and their stance of being attacked.  But, I don’t care if you are watching the “liberal media” or the “right wing propaganda” both sides are screaming that the other is wrong and they are being attacked unfairly. Really?  In reality it seems to me that they have some similar thoughts, but insist that “theirs” is the right one.  The other is wrong.  and they will do anything to discredit the other.

Neither party gets along with the other.  Both use sound bites to make the other look bad with creative editing.  There are people on both sides of the aisle that are a bit nuts, that’s a given.  And both parties seem to have developed the strategy over the last 20 years that if you won’t do it my way, I’ll stop you from doing anything.  It drives me crazy in life and I saw that in the confrontation at work. When did we substitute compromise with stubborn opposition and blocking tactics?

You know what happened when Ned Stark refused to compromise. Did it matter that he was right? I think we all need a touch of gray.  Right?

But destined to take the place of the mudshark in your Mythology

We all know that sex sells.  Humor is memorable and indirectly sells too.  Another key emotion that advertising pulls on is nostalgia.  On Mad Men, Don Draper is always pulling out concepts that bring back happy memories to induce consumers to the products he is marketing.  Music is one area where nostalgia has lived for a long time.

When I was young, I had thought “the Fool on the Hill” a Petula Clark song.  Please forgive me I was 6.  I’m over it.  But it was a Beatles cover.  More fool me.  That’s how I learned about cover songs.  Granted, it was long after the original.  When I was 16 there was a new band.  They did a cover of “You Really Got” by The Kinks.  Of course that was Van Halen in 1978.  At the time I thought it was clever that they picked such an old song; It was 14 years old at the time.  No one disputes Eddie Van Halen’s guitar chops, but I’m sure the exercise of remembering the original and contrasting it with the late 70s production and sound was part of the appeal.

I often wonder what would make a good cover.  I think about songs in the 10-15 year age range. Of course there was only 7 years between The Rolling Stone’s “Connection” and the Montrose cover (you are all closet Sammy Hagar fans, right?)   I realize that many songs I think of for covers are much older than that.  Closer to 20-25 years.  I think as rock and roll ages, it stays fresher longer.  The distance from the Kinks to Van Halen (or The Pretenders) might be larger than the distance from REM to Rise Against. I keep thinking it’s time for someone to cover “Me in Honey” or “Up in the Neck.”  I am sure I am alone in those thoughts.

Music does funny things to people.  As I was growing up, my parents often politely said, “Lee please turn your stereo down.”  I’m paraphrasing of course.  It was closer to, “Shut that Crap OFF!”  It didn’t matter if it was the majestic sounds of Rush, the heavy beat of Led Zeppelin, the driving urgency of UFO or the Baroque tone of Yes.  My parents hated it all, especially at the volumes I chose.  I think they would have been prouder had I adopted The Ray Conniff Singers as my teenage soundtrack.  In 1995 the old man bought season tickets to the Oakland Raiders.  I probably went to a game every year with him.  It was always amusing to me to see him “rocking out” to AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” when the team took the field.  Previously this was a band he hated when it came thumping through my bedroom door, but there he was bopping and cheering to the music.  Who knew?

The feelings evoked by music have long been an arrow in the quiver of advertizing firms.  I recall the row that erupted when Michael Jackson licensed The Beatles’ “Revolution” to Nike.  We often forget he had enough money to buy the rights to the Lennon-McCartney catalog.  A few years ago, Cadillac licensed Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” for their CTS commercials.  Call me silly, but I believed that was the 2nd sign of the apocalypse.   The men responsible for the Cry of the Mudshark lent their talents to sell rich old men luxury cars.  It was sad.  Of course “Rock and Roll” is the 2nd most overplayed Led Zeppelin song, so I had no trouble tuning it out when it came on the tube.

There was roughly 33 years between Led Zeppelin 4 (or Sticks or whatever you and your friends called it) and the Cadillac campaign.  This year, there is a movement afoot to tie late early 80s music to back to school sales and office (school) supplies.  First, we have Target with the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat.”  Of course everyone loves the infectious nature of the song. Perfect for Miss Prissy Pants Teacher to be singing with cute kids.  Me?  I’m thinking about the song as a battle cry for Belinda and Jane to pick up make groupies to abuse.  You knew they made most male rockers look like altar boys right?  Now you do.  Think about that next time you see that commercial.  Changes things doesn’t it?

Staples decided to use Depeche Mode in their back to school sales ads.  When I think of Depeche Mode (and I’m not the world’s biggest DM fan) I think, “Electronica with thinly disguised BDSM themes.”  I don’t have a problem with that.  But I bet others will when they realize that their children are being seduced and tempted into the lurid world of “office supplies” where they “just can’t get enough.”  I know, like you needed me to point this out, but that’s my job.

The latest Target (I call it TAR-Jhzay) ad features Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science.”   Seriously?  It doesn’t matter what lyrics they’ve changed the ad to.  Everyone hears the original in their head – it’s the overwhelming familiarity and nostalgia that pulls at the strings of your emotions. Do you think Target means savings with these lyrics?

As deep as any ocean
As sweet as any harmony

I don’t’ think so either.  Perhaps next season someone will want to use Grace Jones’ “Warm Leatherette” or Khia’s “My Neck, My Back”  as their call to arms.  Maybe that will be Chick-Fil-A.