Saturday, January 01, 2011

The Mystery of the Speckled Hen

The Mystery of the Speckled Hen, a summer vacation story from the 2010

Part 1: In the Middle

"Dead zone.... nothing but a giant dead zone" I mumbled under my breath as my friend Tom hurled us at a mile a minute towards our destination, a small park in a small town plopped almost in the middle of nowhere. Certainly a wireless dead zone. Neither of us had bothered to preload our GPS units with the coordinates of our destination. Tom forgot to press save, I relied too much on technology. In the dead zone, there was no way were getting the coordinates over the air. We were going to have to rely on Tom's memory and geo-senses, having found dozens of geocaches like this in the past.

Having located this particular cache before, Tom recognized the park but not GZ, ground zero, the holy grail of any cache hunt. I eyed up the park gazebo, the usual suspect for these little park caches. There would be no such luck as neither the construction or the landscaping gave any cues. I wandered about with the Pre held high in the air desperately looking for signal while Tom wandered about with his GPS. No signal, no coordinates, not even a description of what we were looking for. Oh to have had pencil and paper and have written this all down when we were back in the so-called civilized world of too much technology.

A couple of teenagers and the park groundskeeper were about. I wandered over to a bench surrounding a tree thinking it was a likely cache hiding spot, having given up on 21st century technology in lieu of common sense. Imagine that. Not seeing any metal on the wooden bench, I wandered over to some nearby electrical equipment -- a likely place for any magnetic key holder to be hidden, the most likely cache type to be located in a park hide like this.

By now we attracted the attention of the groundskeeper who was looking for a break from the back and forth motions of his grass cutting. "You guys geocachers?", he shouted from atop his industrial mower. Busted. "You were a lot warmer over by that tree than over there" he smiled as he motioned towards the electrical boxes. Busted. At least now though I stood a chance of finding the cache, a high tech treasure hunt using low tech knowledge and a friendly municipal employee.

With the log signed and a new smiley on the map Tom and I set off for a local micro-brewery. Eschewing technology for an old-fashioned map we did our best to either get further lost or towards our destination, trying to correlate squiggles on the map to what road we were on, roads with no names and no proper signage, no sense of north or south. Why bother? The locals knew where they were. After a few false leads around the town square we were just about on the correct road. I was on the lookout for the highway signs. That's when I spotted it, a little square blue and white sign with a picture of a chicken on it, with the works 'The Speckled Hen' and an arrow imploring us to go in that direction.

Part 2: In the Beginning

"Chick-CAAAAAAAAAN" the kids shouted from the cramped back seat of my little blue coupe, putting an extra emphasis and drawing out the second syllable, "Chick-CAAAAAAAAAAN!!!!" "Don't worry, daddy!", they shouted in unison, "every time we see the sign we'll shout out Chick-CAAAAAAAANN!!!! and you'll know to make a turn!!". It was mid-August, 2006, and the kids and I were on vacation while my wife remained home as she unhappily lacked the vacation time to join us. She was furious and let me know at every turn. Going out on an adventure, even if it was just for dinner, was almost a means to an escape as we headed out of cell phone coverage. Being alone with the kids for a week I thought it would be a treat to try out 'all you can eat pasta night' at a restaurant that advertised heavily in the free newspaper. My only GPS was a primitive hand-held unit that lacked any mapping function other than to let us know we hadn't yet driven off a main road. I called ahead to get directions, was told 'it was complicated', and to just look for the blue signs guiding the way. Relying on paper maps in these pre-dashboard navigation GPS days I had not much else to go on to span the 14 or so miles we needed to cover until we got close to those blue signs I was beginning to wish I never mentioned.
Paper maps and two over-enthused children shouting "Chick-CAAAAAAAAN!!!" and how they were going to guide me to our destination. Paper maps, road signs, and dead reckoning. And kids in the back seat shouting "Chick-CAAAAAAAAAAAAN!!!" every time they were going to see the blue and white road signs with the picture of a chicken and an arrow. My 'back seat GPS units'. "Chick-CAAAAAAAAAN!!!" the kids again shouted, reminding me over and over that whenever they see a sign they'll be SURE to let me know. We passed at least 3 Speckled Hen signs, none of which they saw, all the while reminding me of their plans to diminish whatever hearing I had left by shouting "Chick-CAAAAAAAAAAAN!!!". They never once did either see ANY sign or call out a proper direction change. But by now had my ears ringing with the sound of "Chick-CAAAAAAN!!".

Tossing the maps aside and relying on the blue and white signs, back seat GPS notwithstanding, we managed to get onto a narrow and winding dirt road more akin to Children of the Corn than what I thought to be a popular place based on its heavy advertising.Certainly there would be a large crowd on all you can eat night. We pulled up alongside an old renovated farmhouse with a giant sign with a picture of a chicken on it, located next to a field with some old trucks and smokey and smelly trash fire burning. "Chick-CAAAAAAAAAAAAN" the back seat finally clucked properly, this time on target but too late to be useful. If I had relied on them we'd probably have been in Canada by now, still clucking. We had arrived at the pinnacle of our journey, something we were talking about all week, The Speckled Hen and its all you can eat pasta night. Counting the three derelict trucks, there were 4 vehicles there, including us, in the middle of God's country, at a small renovated farm house calling itself The Speckled Hen, along with a smokey stinky fire and a farm yard full of animals.

Inside I could hear spaghetti sauce bubbling on a stove and a local radio station softly playing. I felt more like I was inside someones house than an actual working restaurant. We sat down at a table overlooking the trash fire, got some menus, and found out how complicated it was going to be to order all you can eat pasta. We chatted, our food came, and we enjoyed the atmosphere of dad and two kids enjoying a special time together. We had to. The food was... ...OK. Not the best experience, not the worst, certainly the sauce was just not to my liking. After the anticipation, the build-up, the excited trip, the all you can eat part was simply anti-climatic.

Post-dinner we were invited to go outside and see the animals, something which my son and daughter enjoyed more than the meal. My son took to the goats, petting a more tame one, even bestowing upon it a named he held in reverence, 'Bitsy Thomas', a name he modelled after Thomas the Tank Engine. My daughter was more into the chickens, running back to the kitchen to obtain stale bread to feed to the fowl. We stayed for what seemed like hours, a magic time in a magic place that made me forget that I probably just ate what I considered to be the worst spaghetti sauce of my life. Two bowls of it at that.

The evening was soon sadly over. Somehow we made it using pencil, navigating there by map and pencil and paper and road signs. Road signs they somehow never saw while excitedly telling me how they would inform me of their presence. The 'back seat GPS' was giving about as useful directions, it would turn out, as my main GPS unit would years later on a return trip. Full and tired we navigated back by memory, nobody interested in the slightest peep of "chicken..." Instead we all simply chatted about the future of Bitsy Thomas and the hens in the barnyard and that we'll visit again next year. A visit that never happened later that year. Or the next. Or the next.....

Part 3: The End

Summer 2010 marked when we'd finally make a return visit to the Speckled Hen. As far as summers go it was not the best. The weather was not cooperative combined with generous amounts of life happening. On a sunny Wednesday afternoon we made a late start for a day's worth of activities that was to be capped off with dinner at the Hen.

The first mistake was trusting the Mio GPS because the damned thing would have us drive off a cliff if it had calculated doing so would save us .07 seconds off the trip. As we drove deeper into God's country it soon had us driving off paved roads and anything resembling civilization and on dusty gravel roads, with no buildings or power poles visible anywhere. I got the feeling this wasn't going to end good. Sure enough it was soon announcing we had arrived at our destination, the middle of nowhere, and likely with no human beings around for miles. We continued on our way hoping to end up SOMEPLACE. The collection of back roads took us to nowhere in particular although we did stumble back upon human civilization, but only after we encountered a lone cow leisurely walking along the road. Not coming to the Speckled Hen we backtracked, going past the point we turned onto the one road, thinking maybe the GPS meant RIGHT instead of LEFT when it was busy barking out its orders. Our hunch proved correct and we soon came upon a familiar looking building that had a big sign, YES WE ARE OPEN. Everybody missed the smaller FOR SALE sign, the unkempt bushes, the weeds, and the wreck of a barn yard.

As we pulled into what was left of the parking area the look and feel was all wrong. It was closed, and a look inside the windows revealed an empty shell, a sad reminder of what once was but is now no more.

The Speckled Hen was gone.

We returned the way we came, looking for another place to eat. The kids openly wondered about their animal friends, former residents of the now overgrown barnyard which lay a silent testimonial to that magic evening of a few years earlier.

Later on I turned to 21st century technology to learn more. The Hen's web site was useless, still listing a menu, giving an e-mail address, and some old reviews, a ghost ship luring us to come visit its apparitions of summers past. Frustrated by limitations of the present I went to the past, using 19th century technology, the telephone, to find out what was going on. I dialed the number but it turns out it was disconnected.

I found the property listing on an on-line real estate site, offering us the Hen for a mere $65,000. With its matter of fact coldness the web page offered us no clues to the mystery, just square footage, number of bathrooms, and a few other facts and figures. The remains of the Hen were reduced to just numbers someone could crunch and plug into a spreadsheet, its soul stripped away and tossed upon the winds.

I wonder if we'll every know whatever happened to The Speckled Hen.

OK, here we go again...

We Don't Do Windows once again lay dormant for over a year. Let's see if I can jump start the beast again!

Blogging regularly is a lot harder than it looks, so maybe regular random musings will get me in the habit. There's lots of stories to tell in a forum less limiting than Facebook status updates.

So let's see what 2011 brings.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

All I want for Christmas is... or I Wish My Kitchen Appliances Would Stop Turning On Me

So picture this scenario: it is Christmas Eve 2008 and after a long day of preparing, snacking, and celebrating, the main course for dinner is just about ready. All the hungry friends and relations are at the table, and 5 minutes before the pasta finishes boiling the stove emits a strange series of loud bongs and its display is flashing some strange alien language.

Bong? What the hell is bonging?

Are the shrimp calling the mother ship asking for an emergency beam-out? Have the squid stormed the fortress and the revolution is about to begin? Is the pasta about to rise from the pot and seek its revenge, tangling all of its in its sticky tentacles as it slowly digests us over the course of dozen years?

Or is the most likely scenario that the range has taken this very moment in time, a table full of hungry holiday revelers, dinner minutes from being either consumed or ruined, to decide that it no longer wants to exist on this earthly plane?

A check of the owners manual verifies the worst. The language in the troubleshooting guide was just a polite way of saying "Ha ha sucker! Are you ever screwed!"

At least (at least, he says) it was 'only' the oven that took itself off-line, something about the appliance electronics equivalent of a dysfunctional family Christmas, with one electronic controller refusing to talk to another over something that may or may not have happened several decades ago but so scarring and jarring we'll take this argument to our graves. Or maybe something just short-circuited.

We managed to finish cooking with one finger (guess which) on the reset button to silence the cooktop's incandescent urgency and loud bobs of pain. The camp stove was quickly set up as a backup, and the meal continued unabated. But for the next week we have a stove up on blocks, the redneck kitchen equivalent of a dead truck on blocks in the front yard, as I set out to repair its faulty electronics. At least I got off cheap and knock wood it has been working fine ever since.

Fast forward to 2009, Christmas week. Family in town for an early Christmas dinner. Smoked turkey breast, a 6 pounder smoked in a tad under 6 hours. It came out beautiful, moist, and very delicious. Good food, good wine, family, stories, celebrations. We're all tired at the end of the evening. Good thing we have a dishwasher to help with the cleanup.

Or do we? The damned dishes were cleaner when we put them in the beast than when we took them out. The noises it made sounded like Satan himself was cleaning the china.

Yup, this year I now have a dishwasher up on blocks, awaiting repair.

I wonder if I should shoot the refrigerator now or wait until next Christmas?

Awake the Sleeping Giant

After a almost a year of inactivity I decided it was time to make a decision to either retire or recommit We Don't Do Windows. I more or less started micro-blogging on Facebook but looking back it's just not the same thing.

So after its 11 month slumber, We Don't Do Windows is back, at least for the time being.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

My Review of Masterbuilt Master 10.5-Quart 7-In-1 Smoker and Grill

Originally submitted at Gander Mountain

Enjoy maximum versatility in outdoor cooking with the Master 7-in-1 Smoker and Grill. This camp cooker can be used for propane smoking and grilling, charcoal smoking and grilling, as a deep fryer, and for boiling and steaming. The smoker features a durable solid-steel 19" stand, cast-iron burn...

A very nice entry level smoker

By nucci6 from State College, PA on 1/27/2009


4out of 5

Pros: Attractive Design, Easy To Assemble

Cons: No ignitor on this model

Best Uses: Outdoors

I Am A: Family Older Kids

A friend put me on to the art of smoking meat. After a bit of a search I found this to be a well-priced entry model to try my hand at smoking, plus have the benefits of being able to BBQ and fry.

This is an entry model so the propane burner is smaller than most but for smoking this is a good thing as it makes it easier to maintain the lower temperatures required for smoking. This model also does not come with an ignitor so you need a long lighter or fireplace matches to light the burner.

The access door for adding wood to the smoker bowl is a bit small and I am not sure how to add water to the water bowl without lifting the smoker body, which causes all the heat to get lost. Keep long tongs handy for adding wood.

Assembly was not difficult and all the washers and bolts are handily marked to remove any guesswork which part is needed where


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dante's Inferno and Verizon's 9 Circles of Customer Service Hell

The other day as I cast a lazy eye towards the calendar I realized the due date for my Verizon bill was fast approaching. I dutifully logged onto my account, and was greeting with the text "The biling information could not be obtained for this BTN. Please try again later." OK, what's a BTN? (Billed telephone number, but it took a little more investigating to find that out.) So much for a clear and concise error message with information on how to act on it. Welcome to Circle 1, sloppy programming.

No matter, as I had plenty of time before the bill was due. Maybe.

So later in the day I again try, only to be greeted by this same BTN message. I try a different computer and even a different browser. Same message. Tried again an hour later. Same message. Welcome to Circle number 2, a problem that does not get resolved in a timely manner.

At this point it is getting late in the day, and I want to get this bill paid before it is too late. After all, I did switch to a non-paper billing for convenience, right? Right? So I whip out the cell phone and dial *611 for customer service. After navigating the voice menu (and remember to please listen carefully, as our menu options *have* changed) I get thru to a cheerful customer service agent. A little too cheerful. What's VZ putting in the company water cooler? Maybe the same stuff Rankin-Bass was putting in theirs back when they came up with their holdiday specials. But I digress. Funny how fast you get through the queue when you hit the option that says "I want to give you money." Often so fast it can suck the dust out from under your pant legs. No matter, I appreciated the friendly demeanor of the person I was willingly going to shell out a few sawbucks to.

The friendly voice on the other end of the ether proceeds to cheerfully explain that since I am on One Bill he cannot take my money, and that I need to call this other number and explain the problem all over again to them. I suppose he could have done that before I spent a few minutes explaining the problem. He at least offers to transfer the call so I am still not being charged for air time. Nonetheless we are in Circle 3, the 'sorry I can't help you here' stage. "Is there anything else that I can do for you today?" Yeah, let me pay my bill.

After a short wait I am now talking to another very friendly agent who lets me explain the situation for a second time. The productive parts of my life are getting slowly robbed from me as I go thru the explanation in full again. Can't you read the typed notes from the last CSR? All the while in the background I am logging on and off the VZ web site to see if I can escape the vortex I am being hopelessly pulled in to. This CSR explains he can take my payment but that there is a $3.50 service charge he does not have the authority to waive. Yep, Circle 4, 'we can help you here but it'll cost you'. At least he was able to explain in a way that made sense how they are held hostage by their third party processing firm but this is stil rotten eggs. However he does say that I may pay my bill at any VZ store to avoid the fee. CSR points for attempting to save me money.

I take him up on that option since I am cheap and $3.50 these days is at least a Creamery ice cream cone, and I kind of do resent getting nickle and dimed to death. Before we terminate the call the agent offers to transfer me to VZ's e-bill department to look into the BTN error message. I am assured the wait won't be too long and that my call is still airtime free, but given the events of the day I wouldn't be surprised if the next bill (if I can ever read it) might show otherwise. After a few minutes of hold music (music to calm the savage beast?) my agent breaks back in and apologizes for the delay. He bemused that the wait should not have been more than a few minutes, and that I am welcome to stay on the line, air time free but robbing more precious free moments from my life. He gives me a tool free number to call instead of waiting and in the interest of saving my phone battery for a call that might be more meaningful than listening to muzak. So far we've successfully only grazed Circle 5 (let me connect you to another departmnt who might either help you or pass you on to someone else, if only they will pick up the phone), but my bill still is not paid, the web site is still busted, and what's left of my patience getting thinner than my receding hair line. Unable to resist the gravitational pull, or more likely like a gawker at a train wreck, I am eventually sucked in.

I hang on on hold a few more minutes before ditching the call and to try again from the land line, saving the phone battery so I could do more productive things with it like play solitaire or doodle on the note pad. The hold music isn't doing its job and attempts in the background to get my billing information still haven't produced any results. Circle 6 and descending faster than an unpowered Boeing 767 over Canada, the 'you are in this so deep may as well keep going' phase.

By this point I have essentially forgotten that I have the speakerphone on hold and have moved on to other more important things. I glance up at the phone display to see the hold time is now almost an hour. Suddenly the tiny speaker jumps to life with the voice of a customer service agent who really wanted to be somewhere else than on that call at the moment. She collects some basic information and then the whopper comes when she insists on some 3 digit account code that apparently appears on my paper bill, if only I still received paper copies. Circle 7, we need the very information you can't get . She tells me I can look it up on-line. I try to explain that is the entire purpose of this call, because the web site can not and will not display my billing information. Apparently Circle 7 includes some lecture on security features but she fails to comprehend I cannot produce what she is looking for, and oh, by the way, again this is the entire purpose of the phone call.

Circle 8 (we're going to keep dancing around and around until you are blue in the face, die, or just give up) is with exasperation in her voice as we move on to alternate security questions such as "How much did you pay last month" or "How much is your bill for this month". "What part of I can't get to my billing information do you not understand", I want to shout, again explaining how we're caught in a circular trap, because said information once again is being held hostage on the very web site I am trying to report a difficulty with. Trying to be the only sane person on this ship of fools I navigate a series of somewhat meaningless links on my account page ("We truley are sorry but no account information on this BTN is available, and will not be until the cows come home, so just give it up already") until finally I stumble across an obscure link that actually DOES display my current balance. This information is either pulled from some other database table or I just won the VZ CSR lottery.

I at least can give this information to the CSR who can now proceed to process my request. Yeah, I think, the problem will get fixed and I an pay my bill on-line and save a trip to the VZ store, where at this point I wouldn't be surprised if they can't get my BTN as well. All hope is deflated when I am told I should hear back from them within 10 days. 10 days!!! That's speedy service and we just have to have descended to the frozen hell of Circle 9, the we'll get to it when we get to it even though a more timely response is required circle. Would you mind waiting the 10 days for payment? I bet not! I am on paperless billing you know, and that should require some parts of the on-line system actually work, or at least a system that allows me to pay my bills without paying some stupid fee.

Like Dante and Virgil I now finally spot an exit from within the 9th Circle, as this new found link somehow actually allowed me to pay the d***** bill. I expect in another week they might have everything else fixed. Maybe. But honestly I would not expect to see pigs flying out my monitor the next time I access the web site.

And all this was for an operation where I wanted to actually give them money.....

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Tuesday Lunch

A smaller than usual group, on a cold day, sitting near the entrance to the Blue Chip Bistro.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Yak Trax

With all the ice and snow we have had recently I am happy to have a set of Yak Trax.

It is like having tire chains for your feet.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Tuesday Lunch

A Roly Poly Day

No Tuesday lunch is complete unless there is an extended cell phone discussion. Today got out of hand with all our social technology gear on display.

Since I've ben remiss here are some photos from lunches past.

December 2008 at the BJC:

November 2008 also at the BJC:

and one from September (Cafe Laura):