Sunday, May 28, 2006

Traveling Roths' First Annual Pig Pickin'

We'd been wanting to have a Pig Pickin' at our house for a couple of years, especially after reading Bob Garner's book, North Carolina Barbecue: Flavored by Time. The initial plan was for 2004, but with the company I worked for quickly swirling around the toilet drain, we decided that it was not a good time to be laying out that kind of disposable income. Good thing, as I found myself unemployed about a month after we would've done the party. In 2005, I was gainfully employed again, but as a contractor, the cash flow also seemed too tenuous to blow on something like a big party.

But in 2006, permanently employed again, the time was finally right. We sent out pre-invitations to our Pig Pickin'; an event that we hope we can repeat annually.

Three weeks beforehand, I put down the deposit and payment for the weekend rental of a pig cooker; a converted 250 gallon fuel oil tank complete with a grate, doors for adding charcoal and controlling airfow, and chimneys, all mounted on an axle with a trailer hitch. $30 for the weekend, plus a $40 refundable deposit.

On the Monday before the party, after settling on as accurate a count as we would get, plus working in a fudge factor for the non-respondees, we decided on the size pig we'd need, figuring on one pound of dressed pig per person. Seventy pounds. I called in our pig order to Tom Inscoe's Wholesale Meats, on Alston Avenue in Durham. They're able to handle orders for pigs anywhere from 50 to 150 pounds.

Friday after work, I picked up the cooker and the pig. I'll bet you're wondering about the state of the pig when you get it. I know I was. It's fully dressed, meaning guts removed, cleaned inside and out, and de-haired, with the head and trotters fully intact. The backbone had been split down the middle so that the pig will lay flat on the cooker, like a butterflied chicken. There were USDA stamps all over the outside, and the pig was in a plastic bag. I had the kid at the meat market throw it in the back of my truck, and the pig, cooker, and I left for home, via the back roads as the cooker didn't really look like it was up for interstate highway speeds.

When I got home, after the obligatory photographs, the pig went into my Action Packer, and got loaded with ice. It was Friday afternoon, and cooking wouldn't start until Sunday morning. If your curious, a 70-lb. pig is roughly the same size as a Labrador Retriever.

According to the book, a pig the size of ours should take seven hours to cook, and require 60 pounds of charcoal. Since the party started at 5:00, I needed to put the pig on at 10:00 am, so I started the charcoal around 9. A word on charcoal. The guy in the book used charcoal briquettes, which I detest. They're sawdust and fillers like paraffin and creosote pressed together into a tiny pillow shape, and in my opinion good for nothing. I was using natural lump charcoal; charcoal the way Jesus intended. Charcoal with True Grit and none of that terrible jumble of insults and lame questions often found in lesser charcoal. (thanks, Mark). That being said, lighting it required about a quart of lighter fluid, which is something else I wouldn't ordinarily use, but in this case necessary since I needed to start with 20 pounds of coals.

I got the charcoal lit and while it was burning down a bit, I retrieved the pig from the action packer and started to prepare it. My part of the preparation involved drying the pig, and salting the inside. The hardest part was just wrangling it from the action packer. I couldn't imagine a career in the Mafia if a 70 lb. corpse gave me that much trouble. After hoisting the pig onto the grill (skin side up for the first six hours), I encounted what would be my main challenge in cooking this pig. The book said to keep the interior of the cooker at 225-250F the whole time, but that amount of real charcoal was going to burn much hotter than that. Every few minutes I would spray water on the coals to bring the heat down. Next year I'll probably use half as much charcoal to start.

So the first six hours were basically lighting and adding additional charcoal under the hams and shoulders, while keeping the area under the ribs coal-free to prevent this much thinner area of meat from finishing too quickly. At 4:00, it was time to flip the pig. With some help from Andy, we got the pig on its back, and began to butter and sauce the inside cavity. It was already looking and smelling great, and those of us present at that time (Andy, Jason, and I) sampled a bit from the ham. It was right! It just needed another hour on its back to crisp up the skin, and give the sauce (Eastern North Carolina-style; apple cider vinegar, red pepper flake, salt and pepper) some time to soak in.

5:00 came, the guests started arriving, and the pig was ready. We did the serving true Pig-Pickin' style, leaving the pig on the cooker, and letting people come up and get it themselves.
Stephen, who grew up on a hog farm in Eastern NC, which is were the best barbecue in the world comes from (don't let anyone tell you any different) grabbed a knife and fork and checked out the secret areas of the pig to see how badly I'd screwed it up. Surprisingly, he gave the pig his blessing, and gave me an A+ for my preparation of the pig. When he found out it was my first time, my grade was upgraded to A++. Coming from Stephen, that meant a lot. We were now officialy ready to eat.

Ironically enough, the first person to the pig was Shakir, a Muslim guy from Morocco who was in the midst of his first trip to the States. He didn't speak any English, but you could tell that he was really excited to be there, and enjoying this great American Tradition. This is probably how Americans cook out in their backyards all the time right?

So the party was a huge success, thanks in large part to Andy and Shelley for their constant help with everything, Jason for showing up at the right time and finding the keg, and Mebane Presbyterian Church for letting us nearly clean out their ice machine, and borrow their chairs and beverage cooler. (That was just iced tea in there, honest!) Thanks be to the guests too, whose wonderful assortment of side dishes and desserts, as well as their excellent company really made the evening.

So mark your calendars, the Traveling Roth's Second Annual Pig Pickin' is scheduled for May 27th, 2007.
Monday, May 15, 2006

Lake Tahoe, Day 5

Death at 6500 feet.

From the time we knew we were going to Lake Tahoe, I started investigating the area using Google Earth. If you look at the lake from above, you'll see at the 12:00 position is a little isthmus that juts into the lake. The California/Nevada border runs vertically right through it, plus there's a bit of a hill on it, just behind our hotel.

I also noticed a trail or path of some sort that runs from just behind the hotel to the peak of the hill. Before we got there, I knew I wanted to find that trail and get to the top of the hill.

And find it we did. Granted, we could've walked to the peak right from the hotel parking lot, but it was really steep. The road, which was blocked off to cars about halfway up, was an easy walk, and it turns out that there's a little park, benches, and a nature trail at the very top. No one we had talked to knew about this awesome little vantage point. Thanks Google Earth!

Here's a self-timer portrait of the family, looking due south

Here's the parking lot behind the hotel, with the tip of my finger on the cottage we stayed in.

From there we went to Chimney Beach, a few miles up the road from Incline Village. The big empty parking lot was locked off, so we parked on the street in front of it, and hiked about a half mile down to the beach. It was a cool park area, with some big boulders right on the water.

A DOT worker or some other quasi-official person came down, asking if we had parked in front of the closed parking lot gate, and that the tow trucks were on the way. Crap. I threw the camera in the pack, and took off at a jog back up the trail.

If you'll remember the Day One post, a short walk up a couple hundred feet (when we're already over a mile up) almost seemed life-threatening. Now I was running, and it was a lot farther than a few hundred feet. I knew this would end badly.

I was able to keep up my pace for longer than I had anticipated, but as the trail got steep, a bad piece of Engrish from a roughly translated Kung Fu movie kept running through my head; I am damn unsatisfied to have been killed in this manner. By the time I got to the top, the official was giving me more crap about my parking, and how I was lucky the tow truck hadn't gotten there yet. He didn't remember I was the same person he was giving crap to at the bottom. I'd like to believe that I was too mature to make the comment, "Sorry I parked there. Too bad there isn't a HUGE EMPTY PARKING LOT THAT'S MYSTERIOUSLY LOCKED OUT DESPITE THE FACT THAT PEOPLE OBVIOUSLY WANT TO PARK THERE," but in reality I didn't have enough air to get that many words out without losing consciousness.

I moved the truck, everyone else eventually caught up, and we, along with Jonas, consolidated into Laura and Graham's minivan and headed out for a clockwise circumnavigation of Lake Tahoe. There were quite a few interesting spots along the way. Not least of which was Emerald Bay. We had a picnic there, and did a little hiking and picture taking where some river descended to meet the lake.Now to completely change gears. . . .

Jonas and Jordan had told us about a favorite burger place of theirs in Carson City. In-n-Out Burger. So off it was to Carson City.

This place is pretty unique. They've been around since 1948, have always been family-owned, never franchised, and never taken public. They have a number of restaurants in the west, particularly California and Nevada. There is not a single freezer in any of them. The meat is never frozen, the fries enter each restaurant as whole potatoes, and there are no preservatives in the rolls.

I could write a whole bunch on the details of In-n-Out Burger, but Wikipedia does a much better job of it. Make sure you read the part about the "secret menu". Needless to say, this is now our new favorite burger place, and wouldn't you know it, there isn't a single one within 2,000 miles of our house.

So now we're planning future vacations around a great cheeseburger.

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Sunday, May 14, 2006

Lake Tahoe, Day 4

Mothers Day(TM)

We skipped the "Biltmore Breakfast" today, and after giving Jennifer her cards, met up with Julia and Jared, and Laura and Graham and headed across the street to the Crystal Bay Club

Why there? Because they had a sign advertising their $12.95 Mothers Day Buffet. The rest of the family ate at the Lone Eagle Grill, part of the Hilton (or Hyatt?) where Jonas works, where they had a $60 Mothers Day Buffet. Now I enjoy good food as much as anybody, but I just couldn't wrap my head around the idea that The Lone Eagle's buffet was four times better than the Crystal Bay Club's. If you've read my travel journals before, you'll recognize that everything comes down to food and money with me. $240 breakfast (plus tax, tip, and a cut of Laura's too, since she is Jennifer's mother) would have bought us an additional plane ticket to Reno. The breakfast we did eat was great, and even came with champagne. And to top it all off, they only charged us for one of the kids. (I tried to get them to correct the bill, thinking it was a mistake on their part, but they assured me that it was intentional.) Bonus!

After a brief period of indecision, we met up with the rest of the family at the other buffet, where a coherent plan of activity for the entire family could not be agreed upon. The Traveling Roths decided that we were going to Kings Beach, California, maybe a mile down the road from our hotel. Everyone but Joe, Pam, and Nonna followed suit.

We stopped at Raley's, the supermarket in town,to load up with picnic supplies, and headed to the beach. This was a public beach, so it had a lot more people there who didn't look like us. But it was a beach with water, so that means Tristan and Zoe were going to get wet.

None of the grownups (unless you count Jonas) went in, because as you can imagine, if you see a lake with a background of snow-covered mountains, the water is probably freezing. That never stops T&Z, much to their credit, and they only came out long enough to lay on the hot sand to re-heat. The lake had somewhat of a muddy bottom, which meant one thing; mud fights. I guess Tristan must have won.

Next to our picnic table was a Spanish-speaking family, and they offered us some of their food. It was some kind of grilled, seasoned beef, with fresh salsa, avacado slices, and a squirt of lime juice on a warm tortilla. It was definitely up there as one of the best tacos I've ever had. I just wish I knew what cut of meat that was, and how they seasoned it. There were plenty of fresh jalapenos in it, which put me into somewhat of a pardox; it was so hot that I could barely eat it, yet so tasty that I could barely stop. I did finish every bite, then had to go on a search for some kleenex.

After a long day at the beach, we went back to the hotel and got cleaned up, and then headed out to Truckee, California which is near Donner Pass.

Here's a nice shot right by the train station in Truckee of three of the four extant generations of the female lineage of Jennifer's family.

Since some people were leaving the next day, this was our last opportunity for a big, everybody meal. And if you know the Saias, you know that restaurant meal = Italian food. (Actually, nearly every meal equals Italian food.) We ate at Pianeta Ristorante on the main street. It was pretty good, and as much fun as a large Italian family meal usually is. Tristan ended up falling asleep before we left, but we did manage to get this photo beforehand.
Saturday, May 13, 2006

Lake Tahoe, Day 3

The day many thought would never come, did. Five years and three schools after finishing high school, Jonas would actually graduate. The champagne breakfast started early, so Jonas is probably half-lit in this picture. You can't see it here, but Jonas had his hat decorated with "4 4 4", referring to the fact that he was the fourth of four children in his family to graduate from college, and "KT" in reference to a favorite professor who left the college after the administration pressured him to "improve" the grade of a student whose parents were big financial backers of the college. It wasn't too warm outside, but it was very sunny, so the altitude coupled with the hot Nevada sun made the graduation ceremony pretty tedious. In addition to that, the faculty felt the need to make some personal comments about each graduate.

After the ceremony, we posed the various incarnations of Famiglia Saia for the requisite photographs. We're all facing the sun in these, but the people are positioned to block a construction dumpster. In the zoomed-out version of the picture, you can see the white-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada range behind Lake Tahoe.

Joe, Joe's mom Elsie, Jared, Jared's wife Julia, Jonas, Jordan, Laura's husband Graham, Laura, Dave, Joe's wife Pam, and Tristan, Zoe, And Jennifer in the front. Interestingly, in my family, I'm one of the shortest men, but in Jennifer's, I am the tallest!

After the graduation, we hauled a bunch of stuff, including the deflated bounce house to Burnt Cedar Park. One thing struck me once again about the differences between the East and the West. We brought a gas grill, liquor, beer, and an inflatable bounce house to a public park/beach, and even plugged the bounce house into an outlet on the restroom facility, and nobody said word one about it. I couldn't imagine that happening back East. Everyone is so afraid about liability, that they legislate the fun out of pretty much everything. Anyway, we took a lot of good pictures, and had a lot of food.

After the party, we decided to take a drive through the mountains, so we headed up the Mt. Rose highway, one of the main passes to Reno. There was still plenty of snow and snowmobilers. Here's a picture of Zoe next to some building. We were at ~8300 ft. elevation here. The snow behind (and under) Zoe is probably about 12 feet deep.

We stopped at yet another scenic overlook to take more pictures. Here's a good one Tristan took. Incline Village and Lake Tahoe are directly behind us, about a thousand feet below.

That night The Traveling Roths and Jordan went to Wild Alaskan Outpost Cafe in Incline. We enjoyed an excellent Thai fish soup, and wild salmon. The kids both had Teriyaki chicken rice bowls, and Jordan had the halibut. I highly recommend this restaurant if you're ever in the town.
Friday, May 12, 2006

Lake Tahoe, Day 2, 12 May 2006

With our stay at the hotel/casino, we got daily coupons for free Biltmore Breakfast in one of the place's restaurants. So in the morning, we found our way through the casino to the restaurant. We each claimed our complimentary breakfast of three eggs (any style), choice of pork, hash browns and toast. Jennifer and I each added-on a bottomless cup of coffee, bringing our tab for the four of us to the whopping sum of $2 and change.

The Traveling Roths hopped in Laura and Graham's rental minivan, and headed over to Virginia City, Nevada, site of the famous Comstock Load.

The town was pretty cool, though I couldn't imagine living there. We took the tour, ate at one of the restaurants, and got some ice cream.

We headed back to Jonas's, where Jennifer's older younger brother, Jordan had arrived. He had travelled with their grandmother, Nonna, from Pennyslvania, and they had missed a connecting flight the day before, and had to spend a day in Ohio. This time, in addition to the bounce house, Jonas and Tristan and Zoe were playing with Jonas's 'Sand Buggy' which is a modified '83 Subaru hatchback, sans doors, and roof. They took turns making sandy laps around the back yard.

For the first time in three years (since Jared's wedding in May, 2003, in Albuquerque), Jennifer and her brothers were in the same place at the same time. This would be the first of quite a few Jennifer-mandated family portraits.

Jonas brought us some pizza from somewhere, and then we headed to Incline Beach, a private beach for land owners, a mile or so from Jonas's house. We were not land owners, but since this was pre-season, no one seemed to care. It was a tiny bit chilly, but the kids were too busy filling their pockets with cool-looking (to them) rocks.

Tristan probably had five pounds of pebbles in his pockets, and had to continually pull his pants up. The pebbles spent the rest of the trip on the top of the toilet tank back at the hotel, until the last day when we made them throw out all but the best couple.
Thursday, May 11, 2006

Lake Tahoe, Day 1, 11 May 2006

We went to Incline Village, Nevada for the college graduation of Jennifer's youngest bother, Jonas Saia. He's been a student at Sierra Nevada College for three years now. Our trip is 11-16 May.

We got up at 4:00 am, left the house by 4:30, and got to lot Purple 3 at RDU airport by 5:15. There were a surpirsing amount of people waiting for the bus at that time of the morning. By 5:30 we were in the terminal. I had to print my boarding passes as somehow the Continental website wouldn't let me print mine in advance.

As we passed through security a few minutes later, I found out why. I had been singled out for extra attention from the Thousands Standing Around (TSA). Now this makes sense, doesn't it? If you're searching for a terrorist, a good place to look would be a 30-something average looking white guy traveling with his wife and two small children. As anyone with a lick of common sense knows, terrorists always bring their kids.

That minor hassle aside, we were back on track. We were on the 6:30 flight to Houston, and when they boarded "anybody traveling with small children five or under," Zoe got to do a little acting. Five what? She's definitely under five. . . feet tall.

I just want to state now that Tristan (7) and Zoe (6) are very savvy travelers. After this trip, Tristan will have taken 18 flights in his life, and Zoe 16. Starting with our trip to Albuquerque three years ago, the kids have been required to carry their own luggage. And following a Traveling Roths' rule, we do not check baggage. So if you can't carry it, it isn't going.

We flew in a new-looking B737-700. It had winglets. The flight took about 2 hours 15 minutes, and set us back one hour, time-zone wise. We scored some free otherwise $5 headphones for each of us, and watched "movie" and had a rudimentary breakfast of a muffin. Upon landing, both kids added a new state to their lists; Texas.The airport was non-descript. We had about an hour to wait, so we refilled the water bottle, bought two soft pretzels, and a sandwich from Subpar to eat on the second flight. We boarded early again, and got settled in for the 3 hour 45 minute and two time zone flight to Sacramento. this time we watched "Nanny McPhee". That Continental route map is not technically accurate. We flew south of the Grand Canyon, and had a pretty good view of the south rim, and where we had vacationed in 2003. It looked remarkably like the Google Earth representation from that altitude.

Upon landing the kids added yet another state to their lists, California. I haven't been here in 26 years, but Jennifer was here two years ago. We took the shuttle to the rental car place, and collected our Chevy Trailblazer that we'd already bought through Priceline.

Why Sacramento? Well, usually Reno/Tahoe airport is cheaper because it's subsidized by the gambling industry, and it's closer to our destination, but on the dates we wanted, Sacramento was actually $40/ticket cheaper, plus according to Google Earth, the drive looked like it would be pretty cool, going from an elevation of a couple hundred feet to over 6000 feet in 123 miles.

Near the California/Nevada border, we took advantage of a scenic overlook that overlooked Donner Lake to get out and look around.

Some observations;
  • the pine cones are huge out here
  • they must get a lot of snow based on the amount of gravel/cinders on the shoulders
  • a tiny bit of exertion can make you feel like an asthmatic
Tristan and I went down the hill a couple hundred feet to get to some snow , and after walking back up, I felt like I needed a rescue inhaler. This would not be the first time I would experience this phenomenon on this trip.

Not a half-hour from there, we crossed the Nevada border and directly into the parking lot of our hotel, the Tahoe Biltmore.

This place was seriously old-school. It was built in the 1940's or 50's, and it's probably pretty much what you're picturing. We checked in with our $39/weeknight, $59/weekend night rate, and walked out the back door and up the hill to our cottage. Our room (242) is one of four in cottage E (lat:39D 13' 43.88" lon:-120D 00' 17.44'). It's pretty average, with two queen beds a bathroom and walk-in closet. There's no in-room or wireless Internet, and all the outlets are two-prong, so my laptop power cord won't fit without an adapter. Now I'm wondering if hauling my fairly heavy portable computer all this way was the right choice.

Also staying at this hotel are Jennifer's mom and her husband Graham, and Jennifer's brother Jared and his wife Julia. Jennif'er's dad Joe and his wife Pam, as well as Joe's mom Nonna (Elsie) are staying at the Hyatt where Jonas works in Incline Village.

We went down to the lobby and met everyone who was staying there. From there we went to Jonas' rental house in Incline. The houses in his neighborhood, although fairly average, sell in the $1,000,000 range, and are often uninhabited most of the year. Jonas shares his house with three or four other college students.

Most importantly to Tristan and Zoe, after seeing Jonas for the first time in probably two years or more, is that Jonas owns his own inflatable bounce house. This would be their primary preoccupation for the remainder of the trip.

To be continued. . . .

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California/Nevada pre-blog

(Tristan and Zoe near Donner Pass, California)

We made it to California, and then Nevada on Thursday, and everything is going great. Our hotel doesn't have Internet, and our cottage only has 2-prong outlets, so other than recharging/Internet connection trips to Jonas's (Jennifer's youngest brother) house, it's like we're in the 20th century.

Everything is going great, this place is beautiful, the weather's perfect, and we're all having a great time.

Check back later for more. Posted by Picasa
Sunday, May 07, 2006

Soccer, Week 9

This was the final game for the U6 Sharks, and they came to play. They beat whomever they played, handily. Zoe showed her signature move once again; when all eight kids on the field are bunched together moving the ball several inches at a time for what seems like an eternity, Zoe steals it and with excellent control, runs it all the way up the field, taking a shot from just beyond the center line, and putting it right into the tiny goal. This invariably leaves spectators who have never seen Zoe do this (including kids on the other team) asking, "Where did that come from?"

Next season (which begins in August), Zoe will be playing in the U8 league, hopefully on Tristan's team. We don't expect she'll be a standout first.

Saturday was also the first round (or quarter-finals, all eight teams) of the U8B tournament. The Strikers were #3 going into the tournament (even though they were tied for second place in regular season play), and played the #6 Tigers. Bryce Wilson was back on the field, and the Strikers regained their momentum, defeating the Tigers, 4-1.

The Strikers now move on to the semi-finals (four teams) on Tuesday night, where their opponents will be the . . . Posted by Picasa
Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Greenville, South Carolina

Greenville, May 2006

I’m going to Greenville, South Carolina for the Datastream Worldwide User Conference from Sunday, 30th April to Thursday 4th May. It’s about a three and a half hour, 219 mile drive from home. Datastream is the Computerized Maintenance Management Software (CMMS) that I spend a significant proportion of my time using at work.

I left Mebane around 5 pm, and got to Greenville around 8:30. There was a little daylight left for me to see the downtown area. Even at that time of day on a Sunday, I was impressed. This is what a zillion other blighted, generic downtowns should do. There are oak trees on each side of the street, between the sidewalk and the road. There’s one lane of traffic in each direction, and diagonal on-street parking in both directions. There seem to be plenty of cool shops, restaurants, and bars. Even the lampposts are cool looking. There were still plenty of pedestrians out and about. I don’t know if their downtown always looked like this, or if it was some kind of renovation project. If it was a renewal, I’d guess it was maybe 20 years ago, based on the size of the trees. (see Downtown Renewal on Wikipedia)

I checked in to the Westin Pointsett. A beautiful old-school hotel built in the 1920s. From there, I headed out on foot to finally find some dinner. Sticky Fingers was still open, and still busy, so in I went. This is a barbecue/ribs chain that I’d eaten at once previously in Wilmington, NC. I started with a Long Island Iced Tea, and then got the ribs/pulled pork sampler. Generally, I wouldn’t order something like that at a chain restaurant, because there are so many places at home that make real barbecue, Eastern-Carolina style. (Piedmont or Lexington style barbecue, often incorrectly referred to as Western Carolina, is also good, but no better than second place, in my book.) The barbecue was okay, but the sauce was too sweet. The ribs were pretty good, albeit tough, and with little bits of cartilaginous tissue that aren’t usually present in baby back ribs, making me think that these were an inferior cut. They were also cooked too fast, making them tougher than they needed to be. The slaw was a little bland, but the baked beans were good.

I walked back to the car, which I had parked on the street, and found the parking garage. I wonder how much that costs? Anyway, I lugged my stuff up to room 416 and got to work. I figured out how to use the iPass software through the hotel’s otherwise $10 a day Internet connection, and finished up the month-end reports that my (GSK) manager will need Monday morning. I couldn’t do them any earlier for fear of missing some April charges. The work seemed to go okay, so I submitted it, and finally relaxed, around 11:30 pm.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Woke up around 6:30, got washed and pressed, and headed down to the Gold room. I saw a sign on the way in yesterday saying something about a Datastream breakfast from 6:30 – 9:30. The conference is in the Hyatt up the street, but there are plenty of the 500+ conference attendees staying here too. There were so many orange-shirted people (as all the Datastream employees were dressed uniformly) that I thought maybe I was crashing their breakfast. No matter, I intruded all the same. Some scrambled eggs, a sausage link, a few pieces of melon, and some weak coffee. Good enough. Free.

Went back to the room and called Tony, one of the other two people (the other being Cynthia) from my company/location who are here. Made plans to meet in the lobby at 8. While we were sitting on the shuttle, J. Peterman went walking by. By J. Peterman, I mean John O’Hurley. I think he was in town for the BMW golf tournament. It just seemed kind of surreal, in a very random sort of way. “Hey, there goes that guy from ‘Seinfeld’. ‘That’s cool.’ ‘Whatever.’”

Went to the conference registration in the Hyatt and got my complimentary (unless you count the $1400 somebody paid them for my attendance) laptop shoulder bag that included some swag, as well as an invitation to the Life Sciences dinner Tuesday night at the Commerce Club. Admittedly, some of the perks you get for having the name of a company on your ID badge that has ten billion dollars of profit a year are pretty sweet. Like I have any purchasing power. No matter. I’ll eat, be glad, and drink the wine.

Attended a first-time attendee session, to familiarize myself with the conference. After that it was in to the kickoff meeting. The entranceway was festooned with orange-shirted overly enthusiastic cheering, clapping Datastream employees. Inside the big conference room they had two huge projection screens, loud music, professional concert-style lighting, broadcast quality video cameras, etc. We sat through three or four executive presentations by some of the top guys at Infor, the company that evidently bought Datastream sometime recently. It was very rah-rah, yet uninformative.

At each break between sessions, there is Starbucks coffee, snacks; both good and bad, soda, water, etc. They definitely keep you well-fed. Each day has one long morning session (after the daily Keynote) lunch at your choice of about four different places, and then three afternoon sessions. All the sessions you signed up for are printed on the back of your badge, and the accompanying abstracts are in a bound book that was in the free bag you got. I’m not really going to go into any depth about the sessions because absolutely nobody would be interested in the details.

Monday’s lunch was at City Tavern, which is just a bar downtown. Cheeseburgers and chips. Not bad, but I had to eat mine with utensils because I skipped the bun…and the chips.

Monday night’s theme dinner was “Jungle Night.” The lobby, mezzanine, and several of the ballrooms at my hotel were completely decked out in jungle stuff; plants, vines, gorilla taxidermy, bamboo huts, etc. I was about ready to leave as soon as I got there. They had a loud band, but free drinks. It was like a Baby Boomer cruise without a boat. The food was buffet-style island-ish; conch fritters, tropical fruit, variety meats on skewers, sausage-stuffed mushroom caps, (okay, not island-ish, but still good) etc. I sat at a table in a room off the mezzanine because it was a little quieter. My tablemates were mostly from Titan Concrete, and surprisingly white-collar. They were curious about how a pharmaceutical company uses the same product they do. So was I.

After the eating, I bumped into various co-workers, both from NC and PA, and hung out with them for a while, in an area that was far enough from the noise, but close enough to the free drinks. After a while, I headed down a floor to view the “Tarzan Yell” contest. I just didn’t get it.

Now’s a good time to mention that at 36, I’d estimate that I’m still younger than about 75% of the people here, if not more. I'd posit that perhaps the disconnect between what the conference organizers think is fun, and what I do, may in part be the differences between Baby Boomers and Generation X, or maybe Datastream users are largely ex-frat boys. I just don’t find loud drunks that entertaining. The same holds for the keynote speakers. Nearly everything they say could be the tagline on a Successories poster, and/or some kind of sports metaphor. Sorry, once again, the power of these is completely lost on me. Maybe the occasional “Office Space” reference would have played better with my people.

But I digress. Jack Bauer beckoned, and when Jack Bauer talks, I listen.

Tuesday, 2 May

Same morning agenda. Today Tony also found the breakfast buffet. This morning’s motivational speaker was Daniel “Rudy” Reutigger, the basis for the movie, “Rudy,” which I have not seen. As far as I knew it was:

  1. a sports movie,
  2. had to do with Notre Dame

and therefore with two strikes already against it, it went way, way down to the bottom of my mental movie queue. Rudy ended up being a fairly entertaining speaker, but I still wondered if my morning would’ve been better spent sleeping-in.

Once again, long morning session, lunch at “Café and Then Some” of roast beef and gravy (which was actually pot roast, in my opinion), rice (that I didn’t eat), and some yellow stuff that may have been squash casserole, and was surprisingly good. Three afternoon sessions followed. Dinner was at the Commerce Club, on the penthouse floor of the First Union building, directly across from the Hyatt. Datastream had advertised this evening as “dinner on your own” while secretly inviting various people/groups to events they hosted. This was one of them. We got to rub elbows with some of the Infor senior execs, and talked with their CTO for a while. Hot hors d’oeuvres, followed by broiled shrimp, steak, mashed potatoes, and asparagus, and dessert of Oreo cheesecake. There was also an open bar, and bottles of wine on the table.

Wednesday, 3 May 2006

Cynthia finally found the breakfast buffet. Once again, made the 10-15 minute walk to the Hyatt, arriving just in time for more gauntlet of clapping cheering Datastream employees. Today’s keynote was by Sam Wyche, some football guy I had never heard of, not that that’s saying anything. My “take away” (as the business-types like to say) from this presentation was that Sam Wyche sweats a lot. His image was projected onto the two jumbotrons at the front of the room, so it was very easy to keep an eye on the ever darkening area of his sage-green shirt. First the collar started to get soaked, then the part around the tie. Fortunately, he didn’t remove his jacket, but regardless, it was distracting. I think he said some stuff about effort, or attitude, or something.

Morning. Lunch at Commerce Club. Salad, bread, roast turkey (excellent), gravy, dressing, lima beans. After lunch I had the chance to check out the Falls Park, a block south of the hotel. It was absolutely gorgeous (pun intended). It’s built on a kind of gorge or gully in Reedy Creek. It’s exquisitely landscaped and traversed by an almost modern-art looking suspension pedestrian bridge. There are various theatres, concert halls, and modern urban loft-type housing adjoining the park. I don’t know where the city gets its money, but this all must have cost a lot. Back to the Hyatt for the afternoon. Just in case you’re curious, my sessions were “Flex SQL and Business Rule Automation”, “Facilities Day: Barcoding,” and “Parts and Repairable Spares,” You can thank me for having skipped over all of this to this point.

Wednesday’s theme dinner is “70’s Night”, or “Disco Night” or something. It’s at Soby’s , which is across the street from my hotel. Once again, I’m thinking that it was a Baby Boomer who thought the 70’s/Disco theme was a cool idea. Not that I have anything against the 1970’s, but at the height of disco, I was seven years old. Am I supposed to go to the dinner dressed as my seven year old self? Not the theme I would’ve picked.

So what theme would I have picked? Subtle Pop Culture References Night. Tom Cruise Likes Men Night. Counter Terrorism Unit: Greenville Night.

Okay, it’s now 7:15 and I’m back from 70’s/Disco night, after lasting one of the three hours it’s scheduled for. It was moderately cool. The weather is excellent, 80 degrees (F) and not a cloud in the sky. They had numerous buffet tables inside and outside, with stuff like nachos, meatballs, big shrimp with heavily horseradished cocktail sauce, pretty good sushi, a carving station with leg of….something, probably cow. Open bar once again. A lot of people wore their 70’s stereotype costumes, impugning my sacred memories of a decade that’s very dear to my heart. To me the whole atmosphere felt more like a middle school dance. . . but with more alcohol. Most people were sitting around, or standing around, holding a drink, trying to look un-uncomfortable, and watching the other people. Maybe it’s just me, but it’s hard to get excited about partying with people you don’t know, or with coworkers whom you do know (and like) but have spent several years worth of interoffice contact with over the past four days already. I really shouldn’t feel self-conscious. I’m younger, thinner, and less geeky (this is a computerized maintenance management software conference, after all) than the vast majority of people here. I know I’m an introvert, and I work very hard to overcome that a lot of the time, but an hour was all I could muster. Besides, I have a Sopranos DVD that I get to watch uninterrupted, which is a far rarer treat to me than getting to watch a bunch of middle-aged technonerds relive their young adult days.

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