X-Mas Letter 2018

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It is somewhat of a tradition that every Christmas with cards to friends and family I write a letter on the year in review.  To my Bear Feeders out there, here’s yours to read and enjoy.

 

Happy Holidays

It is that time of joy and remembrance.  Of looking back at all the ups, the downs, and the somewhere in-betweens.  Every year at this time, I sit down and summarize the year and share with you all that has gone on.  While it seems harder every year to sum up the last 12 months, I think I can do 2018 justice in only three words:

Actually, Quite Boring

This December marks my second anniversary of moving to California with my fuzzy buddy Auggie the Doggie by my side.  At that time, I started as a Procurement Quality Assurance Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Lab (a NASA Center) located in Pasadena which I still continue to hold.  I currently live in La Crescenta, a neighborhood of Glendale, just a short drive from JPL  Back in 2017, I bought a house overlooking the Verdugo Mountains and a short drive from beautiful Downtown Montrose – all of which a short distance from all things Los Angeles County.  Basically, the status quo.

Working at JPL remains entertaining and exciting, but with not much to show externally yet.  JPL has had some obvious excitement this year including the launches of at least seven programs ranging from Mars Exploration to Earth Science to International Space Station experiments.  Because the work I do tends to be at the front end of hardware builds, nothing I have actually been involved with of any significance has launched yet (and likely won’t in 2019 either).  Two years in, however, I am no longer a newbie and what I am involved with feels like I am a part of something grand and beautiful.  So, just wait.

I did travel a heck of a lot for work.  In fact, for the first time in six years, my flight miles exceeded the criteria on American Airlines to reach a Platinum (50,000 miles) limit.  Back when I used to get that level regularly, I was going overseas two or three times a year.  This year, it was all domestic.  The travel, though, came with little extra time.  For one thing, having a dog to get home to kind of tightens my travel plans, but in all actuality, there was little downtime.  I did get a great weekend in Austin, TX and had a lovely day in Washington DC, but in hindsight, there wasn’t much in my travels that led to a great time off.

Heck, even my vacations were boring.  The longest was a week over Independence Day I intended to do some day trips or drives around Southern California.  Then on Day 1, Auggie came down with a bone chip in his shoulder, which meant that ten days was spent me watching him like a hawk as he mended.  I did go back to Wisconsin for Thanksgiving, but that’s not really anything different than I have done since College.

Well, except for one  In April, I made my long-awaited return to Anchorage, Alaska – the first time since moving away in 2014.  I came back on a whim to join in a curling tournament (or Bonspiel).  In many ways, it felt like I hadn’t left; yet it was always apparent that what really changed is that I am no longer there.  It was, however, refreshing to be around all the people that were such good friends in a place so beautiful and so unique that you remember how good life can be.

Changes that did happen are more related to my ‘extra-curriculars’, though even they were more of the same.  I continue to judge marching band competitions in the fall as I have for over twenty years.  This year marked the second that I was in a California organization, and this year included judging a ‘Super Show’ at UNLV marking now 16.  This past Winter and continuing next month, I train to judge Winter Guard – and indoor color guard & auxiliary competition – which should not only improve what I currently do but expand into new opportunities.  If I pass the training that is.

Writing has become a more significant part of my hobbies as well.  Many of you are aware of my way too infrequent blog (www.bearfeed.net), and that continues when I can.  This year, I got more serious about fictional writing.  I joined a critique group, where people bring their own work for others to give feedback on.  This is a fairly big deal as it isn’t an easy process – I have never shared this much of my own work with anyone, let alone people I just met for purposes of telling me how bad or good it is.  This is also the first step towards serious consideration for publishing.  The first of many many many, mind you, but it’s not writing for my own personal enjoyment.

Otherwise, there isn’t an overwhelming list of great things that have taken place.  Then again there were tons of little things.  Like visiting the Hollywood Bowl (for the first time ever) to watch the LA Symphonic perform the score to Star Wars as the film played on screen.  Like visiting Vandenberg Air Force Base and walking through what would have been the West Coast Space Shuttle Assembly building.  Having sushi just a few seats over from the actor James Franco.  Little things that are even smaller out of context, like sitting in a courtyard in Temecula with some good wine, like watching a webcast hockey game in Florida with my cousins, or just sitting out on my back patio with friends waiting for fireworks.

So yeah, this wasn’t a year like 2012 when I moved to Alaska, hiked the Appalachians, or visited friends I knew for years and never met.   Or 2010 when I found myself in Singapore and Rome just months apart.  Or 2005 when I watched Tour de France, met Brian Denehey, and almost got blown up by terrorists (that was actually only 3 days).  No, 2018 was far more mundane, but that’s okay.  Because it was still a good year.

A good year is all I wanted.

From Auggie & Mitch

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year

Fancy Fish & Franco

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It started with a cool idea, and now includes a famous actor in its portfolio.  It is what is being called ‘Fancy Schmancy Dining’.   It simply is about going out to a nice restaurant and having a meal that could threaten one of the best dining experiences of your life; and making plans to do just the same every few months.

Actually, it more or less started with months of sharing stories about some great meals we have had over the years.  A small group of people in the same office-ish area here at JPL told stories about steak dinners, fancy meals, and other culinary experiences.  Then it became ‘wouldn’t it be neat if …’  Then a plan.  It sounds easy, but there is a big factor holding us back that is more of a challenge here than would be anywhere else.

Los Angeles is arguably one of the great culinary cities in the world.  Sure, it doesn’t have the regional influence of a Rome or Paris, nor does it have the more intense culinary competition of a New York; but what LA lacks in focus, it picks up in variety.  LA’s restaurants tend to offer every type and ethnicity of food in the world; sometimes crossed over and fused into other new twists and ideas.  Any place else I lived before meant that if I wanted a fancy schmancy meal, it meant one or two or three places to go to.  It’s a laundry list here, and that’s only counting those places that they make TV shows about.

The trick, also, is finding the friends daring enough to do this kind of thing.  Mostly from a cost aspect.  We aren’t talking about $10 blue plate specials.  The first one we did included a steak that cost $140 … that’s the steak alone, not the fixing, appetizers, and dessert (which we got).  People doing this with us are made well aware that they have to budget in advance and let the horses loose when they walk in the door.    It also means to be daring with what you eat.  The goal is to swing for the fences, and while these places are expected to be far from striking out you will have to eat and experience things you normally wouldn’t.  Case in point is the adventure we had last week.

The meal was omakase sushi meal.  This is essentially a personal sushi experience.  Now, I know some of you, sushi is exotic enough, but this takes it to its normal/legal limit.  It’s a multi-course menu — primarily nigiri sushi (fish placed on rice) plus sashimi (fish only) and handrolls (fish & rice wrapped in seaweed) —  and it features many of the more adventurous sushi items that dedicated sushi eaters have come to appreciate.  All of it prepared by a master chef right in front of us.  In total there were twenty-one (21) courses lasting just over 2 hours.  They included some pretty common sushi fish like albacore tuna & scallops, to more luxurious bites like lobster & salmon caviar, to the incredibly exotic.  Our meal started with Jellyfish in a vinegar sauce … that’s the start.  Fresh Octopus (with a beautiful bit of sea salt on top), ruby snapper, monkfish liver pate, and deep water kenmedai.  We even got two of the most sought-after sushi.  Toro Bluefin Tuna which is meat from the bluefin’s belly that is extra fatty and rich like the most tender of beef; and Uni which is (get ready for this) the egg sack from sea urchins which is best thought to be fish butter.  Dish after dish of exotic, rich, and perfectly prepared sushi.

Of course, the experience of such a meal is important, and watching Chef Fujita was the experience.  He boasted about his knives that were more than 30 years old, and showed skill with them that seemed classic, controlled, and elegant.  He bantered about where we were from, what we did, and what we liked.  On the website, his resume reads like someone who was way too important to serve the likes of us, yet he did so with the grace and commonality of a master.  Yet when we asked him what he was having for dinner that night, his answer “Double-Double” …  The guy was going to In-n-Out burger.  Said he does that most nights of the week.  Much of this, I was unaware of.  I just knew the sushi was going to be good, if not great.

One other thing I wasn’t aware of was what was going on down the bar from me.  The experience happened in a special room at a larger restaurant.  To be intimate, the whole meal is set up for only 10 people.  Well, there was 8 of us in the group, so they allowed two more to be with us.  They arrive late, and sat at the end, but were mostly quiet through the meal.  I didn’t know it, but my friends who could see who it was were sharing whispers and texts to confirm who it was.  Only when we got up near the end, did I get a good look.  It was James Franco.  Oscar-nominated for 127 hours, Tommy Wiseau impersonator in the Disaster Artist, seen in multiple Judd Apatow movies like Pineapple Express, This is the End, and the TV show Freaks & Geeks.  Yeah, I had Sushi with a movie star.

So, to answer the question if this was one of the best meals of my life … well, no honestly.  It was good, even great.  In the end, 21 courses were about 3 more than I was able to handle and could have called it after the monkfish liver pate, if not for high expectations for the sudachi sorbet.  The good news is that we have an aggressive plan for 2019 to bring in a few more great experiences including a culinary experience in New Orleans in January.  Yet this was a good enough experience to keep swinging for the fences.

This Year, the Word Was “Other”

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Yeah … so the Bear Feed has been kinda quiet for the last month, except for an odd alert about a something something with respect to an article, but that’ something for a future post.  The main reason it’s been quiet is that … well … it’s November.  November for the last five months means I was participating in the National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo).  Faithful Bear Feeders might remember this from past years, or more directly just a month ago in Let’s Talk NaNoWriMo.  The goal of this process is to write 50,000 words during the month of November in the process towards writing a full length novel.  They call reaching this goal as “Winning” because an event about words had to pick a confusing word to describe reaching the goal.

So how did I do?

I won.  Meaning I reached 50,000 words … barely.

This was my fourth attempt at NaNoWriMo that resulted in a win.  It was my latest win, and my lowest word count in a winning effort.  I left work on November 30th with almost a thousand words left to right, and questionable amount of material in my head to cross that front.  It took nearly three hours (a slow rate for me), but I got there with more than enough time to celebrate.  Here’s some data in comparison, a year by year crunch:

  • 2015 — Reached 50k on Nov 29 — Total: 50,434
  • 2016 — Reached 50k on Nov 27 — Total: 55,280
  • 2017 — Reached 50k on Nov 27 — Total: 57,109
  • 2018 — Reached 50k on Nov 30 — Total: 50,366

In more detail, 2016 I was able to reach 55k, win early, all while quitting my job and beginning my transition to come to California.  2015 was my first every ‘win’, so I was still figuring it all out … plus I had surgery.  2017 I coasted for much of the last week and still blew the number out of the water.  2018 should have been easy.

It nearly was.  I reached 40k by Nov 17th – at that rate, I was due to finish by Thanksgiving.  What happened?  Well … life.

Ask anyone who does something to create and they will tell you that creating requires your head to be in a certain mindspace.  That’s what I love about NaNo, actually.  When it’s good, you’re in that mindspace continuously, even when you are not writing.  This year, it was broken up by a number of events that I really didn’t need to let break it.  I lost a bit of my control, and I spent day after day burning up my writing time with trying to mentally deal with things that weren’t worth that time.  I got where I needed to go, but only through perseverance, following a plan, and accountability (which while good for most goals, is really tough when you are creating).

I mentioned in the prep post, I am talking way more about what I do during NaNo and sharing things from it.  Heck, I even discussed the plot with my parents … who let’s face it, aren’t the best ones to share with, especially when it has to do with dead hookers.  But I was still sharing more than I ever had.  Every couple days I shared excerpts on Facebook, on internal JPL writing group threads, and just with random people.  That created this dialog that helped me build up my confidence, something that never really wavered.  The biggest support included a good friend Rhi Rhi who was trying NaNo for her first time; but I got to say, my Monday Night Wine-In Write-In writing group who get together, swig wine, and occasionally create fancy words (I am writing this blog right now, and we are discussing how the personality of a guy changes by changing the spelling of his name from Robert to Rhobert … which is getting hilarious).

The novel isn’t finished, far from it.  It probably has another 20,000 words left in it, but it’s more in reach than any novel I gave a first try at in my NaNo history.

Since I am talking about, why don’t I talk about it.  The story is based on an interesting conversation on ‘what if’ I had about seven years ago with a fellow creative.  It went … what if we could genetically manipulate ourselves to become anthropomorphic to be part human and part animal – like part cat or part dog.  Then, what if people did it as a way to be ‘cool’. Then, what if some bad seeds spilled the lot, and those half-human-half-animals are now relegated to the a skid-row bad part of town, which just makes more bad seeds.  So this story takes place in the rough broken down time; and the main characters have to deal with the death of one of the many forgotten and downtrodden souls.  Or as I like to joke … It’s Zooptopia with Dead Hookers.

So as I sat there struggling to get out those last few words, I am writing a scene with people coming together at near the end of the novel, and I wrote:

That’s when I started laughing again. A belly laugh. The kind of laugh that starts hurting your side.
The other two looked at me and I shook my head. “He … he pisses there … he said he pisses there all the time like he couldn’t control it. He’s going to be buried in his own pee.”
The others start laughing too.
And start wiping tears away.
At some point, our arms were around each other.

The last word was my 50,000th.  It was a nice ending to a grueling last couple of days.  It was satisfying and that’s what matters.

Now the real work begins.  I have to finish this first draft, which means closing a load of plot holes.  Meanwhile, the brutal process of editing begins, which is the real work.  So, if you ask me “can we read it”, I’ll tell you “it’s not ready for you” over and over again.

…. until it will be.