Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Recession-Proof Thanksgiving, Take 2

I seem to recall last year about this time, the US was knee-deep in a crippling recession, the unemployment rate had reached obscene percentage points, the country was mired in several unwinnable military adventures overseas, and our president was suffering new lows in poll readings. Flash forward to late 2009 and....yep, pretty much the same story. Another holiday, another recession.

I pinch my pennies year-round, but I refuse to skimp on Thanksgiving. It's not a matter of flash or greed or gluttony, just a core belief that the fourth Thursday in November represents our rapidly fading country at its finest - calmly secular, harvest-based, seasonally-minded, in love with company, fellowship and rich foods.

As always, I attempt to top the previous year's efforts by unveiling a new batch of concoctions, few if any tried before, and all grouped around a specific theme. I enjoy the traditional turkey-potatoes-cranberry spread, but find myself unable to continually fall back on the tried and true. This year, I'm not even deigning to carve Ben Franklin's favorite flight-challenged fowl - I've moved on to the world of the goose. Others may cry foul (ouch) and argue goose is more the proverbial Christmas bird, but I believe traditions exist to be broken, or at least to be maneuvered around.

Last year, our dinner was themed around those European nations existing somewhere above the 55th Parallel - Scandinavia, Scotland, Russia, bits of Germany. This year, I've cast my gaze a bit farther south to the sun-blessed Mediterranean lands. The dishes I've selected, therefore, are all a little less severe but still autumn/winter appropriate (even southern Italy turns chilly in late November). And at least one favorite from last year has managed to squeeze its way onto the table once again. What can I say? I do take requests.

* Starter *

Smoked Wild Alaskan Salmon, with whole-grain rye bread, Colman's mustard and homemade pickles
(I've cured my own salmon, gravlax-style, in the past. But not this year.)

* Main Course *

Oca Farcita - Stuffed Goose
(Italian specialty, from the Milan region of Lombardy. The stuffing will consist of prunes, roasted chestnuts, filberts, salsicce sausage chunks and apples. The noble bird will also be draped with bacon slices.)

* Sides * (always the best part, in my humble opinion)

Catalogne Racante - Autumn Dandelion Crumble
(More Italian goodness. From the Adriatic coast of Apulia, a dish of dark bitter dandelion greens baked with garlic, tomato and capers, drizzled generously with olive oil.)

Navets Glace - Glazed Turnips
(French preparation from the Loire Valley. I find turnips to be among the most surprisingly tender and sweet of root vegetables if prepared properly, and I'm hoping this combination of butter, rich stock and sugar coaxes out the flavor. If not, I'll drizzle it with maple syrup. Either way, we win.)

Raw Grated Beets
(A true wonder food, with seemingly endless restorative properties - this finger-staining member of the amaranth family requires nothing more than peeling, grating, mixing with apple matchstick slices, and drizzling with safflower oil.)

Jansson's Frestelse - Jansson's Temptation
(OK, far from the Mediterranean - this one's from Sweden. But it proved so popular last year I had to return. A wonderful and unlikely variation on tried-and-true sweet potato recipes, this creation layers yam slices with chopped anchovy fillets and onions, before mixing with cream and butter flakes. The result is a heavenly-soft dish that alternates the sugary potatoes with a welcome salt tang of sardines. I know, it sounds unlikely - everybody last year requested seconds).

Jane's Roman Bread
(I'm not the only gifted chef in the household...)

* Dessert *

Pumpkin Pie
(Of course. Courtesy of Melissa. One does have to observe some traditions, after all.)

Pere San Martin al Vino Rosso - Winter Pears in Red Wine
(Italian specialty from the Aosta Valley. Simmered with cloves and rich red wine, drizzled with sugar, and most likely moistened with fine brandy, if I have anything to say about the matter.)

* Digestives *

Connemara Peated Single Malt Irish Whiskey
(Wonderful whiskey from the West of Ireland, smoked with the ubiquitous peat from the region's many bogs - a campfire in a glass, a wonderful discovery from last summer's excursion to County Clare.)

Pennsylvania Dutch Egg Nog
(The real thing. Made, as the label says, "with real dairy cream, rum, brandy and blended whisky". I've been saving it up for weeks.)

The wife talked me out of a dish of caviar this year. She claims I was the only one last year who enjoyed it, and that I was laying it on a bit thick. Upon further reflection, I have to admit she was right. I do lay it on a bit thick.

Enjoy and revel in our most glorious federal holiday!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Bidding a Fond Farewell to Beer Week 2009

There were so many activities taking place across the city of San Diego these past ten days involving beer and food that I suspect if I had involved myself in even one-tenth of them, I'd be bloated and inebriated and probably lying in a prone position. As it is, with the wife off in the highlands of New Mexico, breathing in the thin, cool air of 7,000 feet and partaking in multi-part spa sessions, I chose to sit out the vast majority of beer-related activities. Some see drinking as a solitary existence. I feel I experienced quite enough of that during her last deployment, and prefer both company and the comforts of home as a backdrop to my alcohol intake.

However. I did manage to experience a few San Diego Beer Week activities, enough to convince me that our fine southwestern city has the proverbial dog in the fight against weak, yellow, fizzy piss-swill that passes for beer in many of the bars and liquor stores across this great land of ours. I think the last time I sipped the liquid dreck that is Miller / Bud / Coors / Whatever was during the Green Bay Packers' ill-fated scramble towards the NFC Conference Championship, which I observed perched on a squeaky bar stool in one of San Diego's countless Irish-themed bars. Glued to the plasma and marvelling at the vast amounts of snow swirling around the Packers and Giants, I ordered a draft for each quarter, which helped increase the camaraderie I felt for the fellow GB fans around me and cushioned the blow of disappointment as the game spiralled into overtime, countless interceptions and a loss at Lambeau Field. Somewhere during the third quarter, the attractive barmaid (is that term even used any more these days?) slid a tall glass of undistinguished yellow liquid in front of me, saying she couldn't remember who ordered it, nobody was laying claim to it, and I could have it. Free beer is free beer, I remember thinking to myself, and set about quaffing it down somewhere around the time Mason Crosby trotted out to kick a field goal. Whatever this vile brew was, it had a bit of fizz, absolutely no hops, and a slick aftertaste not unlike Mountain Dew. I'm led to understand that this joke is the top-selling beer in the United States and beyond. The tears I subsequently shed were equally for Corey Webster's interception and the market dominance of such a sham.

Needless to say, if the above slander makes me a beer snob, so be it, Jedi. I make very little excuses for my extreme tastes - I like my music loud, my literature complex, my food fancy, my wine refined and my beer strong (about automobiles, however, I'm known to take a less refined approach). And a quick glance at the many activities sponsored by my fellow San Diegan beer enthusiasts suggests I'm not alone. Just as film aficionados shun the multiplex and flock to the art house, as music lovers turn their backs on Best Buy and check out the local record store, and as gourmands drive past the Mickey D's and dig into some local organic fare, the enthusiasm displayed for craft beer and intelligent brew culture suggests a larger audience unwilling to accept the watered-down inoffensive nonsense in cans that has been pushed upon us by the powers-that-be. Drink whatever you want, certainly - and if that means Coors Light, well, more power to you. But until you've sampled some of the finely crafted offerings out there and determined that, no, it's really not for me, I can only suggest that you have no idea what you're missing.

In an earlier post, I made reference to the overwhelming response to Extraordinary Dessert's special beer dessert menu. I was able to take part in two other San Diego Beer Week activities, the first an inspired beer and pizza pairing at Newport Pizza and Ale House just a few blocks down the street from our home in Ocean Beach. Newport is locally renowned for having a truly awesome selection of excellent beers on tap ("No Crap on Tap" is their deadly accurate motto) and in the bottle, and on Wednesday night they offered seven courses of specially-made pizzas with paired craft beer, all for the agreeable price of $20. I adored their first offering, a "garden pizza" consisting of basic cheese and Canadian bacon topped with gently wilted spinach, fresh diced tomatoes, and onions. The "Mexican pizza' came courtesy of the good folks at El Rodeo Taco Shop, just down the block below the tattoo parlor - the green peppers gave just the right amount of heat. I even dug the "Thanksgiving Pizza," which arrived boasting a gob of cranberry and roasted turkey. The revolving selections of Double IPAs, Stouts and Bitters were even tastier.

This afternoon, I ventured into North Park for a visit to one of my favorite San Diego restaurants, the farm-to-table mainstay The Linkery. Starting at noon, the restaurant highlighted the excellent offerings of Bluelake, California's Mad River Brewery, with a specially-designed six course menu of Mad River beer paired with appetizer-sized Linkery specials. I didn't have quite the stamina to try all six (sorry Pumpkin Panacotta paired with Pumpkin Ale - I'm sure you were memorable), but I did make a valiant assault.

-Double IPA paired with rosemary-skewered grilled shrimp (a perfect high-alcohol thirst-quencher)

-Double Brown paired with pork mole taquitos (a lovely slow-burn mole that meshed nicely with the nutty brown ale)

-Scottish Export paired with the scotch egg and grapefruit marmalade (the gentlest, flakiest scotch egg I've ever tasted, not that I've tasted many)

-Chili Beer paired with BBQ Pastured Lamb Sliders (don't mean to get too orgasmic here, but the combo of spicy-hot mini lamb burgers with the honest-to-god hot chili pepper aroma of the Chili Beer was food porn of the highest order. I swear you could smell the habanero skins when you sniffed the brew)

-Bourbon Stout paired with the Sweet Potato Pecan Fritters and horseradish aioli (the sharp sting of the horseradish was a wonderful match with the honeycomb goodness lurking beneath the bourbon stout)

One of my friendly waiters told me that Beer Week has proved a madhouse for the place, and that I had been wise to come down for lunch rather than waiting for dinner, reckoning that come 6 PM, they'd be wiped clean of their Mad River pairings. I ended up taking a long walk around North Park, relieving Off the Record of a few of its Feelies and Vaselines albums, and slowly sipping a cup of strong coffee to allow my Linkery buzz to drift into oblivion before heading back to the beach. Thanks for an inspiring week dedicated to craft, skill and responsible inebriation, San Diego - at times like this, I suspect that our city is one of the few in America that is truly made of of individual neighborhoods, linked by geography, each unique enough to keep one interested, all open to the curious and adventurous few that venture beyond the tourist-mandated watering holes and parking lots. Cheers.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Salute to San Diego Beer Week: Some Beers I've Known

San Diego Beer Week kicked off this past Friday, and for the next ten days the city will be literally hoisting a glass to a growing craft beer scene here in the southland. One can check the official webpage for the event(s), and even a cursory glance shows that Beer Week is far more than a weekend suds party. In fact, brew-chuggers may be a bit disappointed - the vast majority of the events involve careful food pairing, craft celebration, behind-the-scenes looks and even film screenings. I posted earlier in the year about our trip to Escondido's Stone Brewing Company, and noted how San Diego still lagged behind those two epicenters of beer culture, Portland, OR and Seattle, WA, but our city is rapidly approaching world-class beer status, both on the actual production front and on the cultural stage. Restaurants increasingly feature diverse arrays of local and foreign beer choices, quality bars and brewpubs seem to open and expand every day, and festivals like the ongoing Beer Fest attract legions of intelligent, enthusiastic and adventurous fans of hoppy concoctions.

A deadly combination of work, school requirements, and a trip to Taos will be slicing heavily into our ability to sample all that San Diego Beer Week has to offer, but the hope is to at least sample the many activities taking place across the city. Last night, we made the trek to the Little Italy location of Extraordinary Desserts, to meet a friend and try some of the specially featured "beer desserts" on the menu for the week. Unfortunately for us, but fortunately for the restaurant, the event was already proving so popular that they ran out of the special beer creations before 8:30 (they assured us they'd have more throughout the week). For the record, the promised desserts included a chocolate truffle loaf cake made with Rogue Chocolate Stout finished with chocolate ganache frosting, a Coconut Porter beer float, and a caramelized apple pie with house made St. Peters Cream Stout Ice Cream. I managed to snag a bowl of the stout ice cream, and it was delish.

So, in tribute to San Diego Beer Week, I offer a photographic display of some of the many bottles (most of the large variety) of microbrews and craft beer I've been sampling and enjoying over the past year. I find it hard to discard and crush individual bottles, and have been moving most of them to shelving units out in the garage. Some were brewed within our zip code, others hail from overseas. All deserve to be served at the proper temperature, in appropriate glassware, and should be poured at a cautious angle to preserve the head. And all that good stuff.

Stone Brewing Company, Escondido, CA - the grandaddy of the San Diego craft beer scene.

Ayinger, purveyors of authentic Bavarian bierkultur since 1878. This is the highly sought-after Oktoberfest Märzen.

Affligem Abbey, located between East Flanders and Flemish Brabant, was built in 1074 and has been releasing monk-brewed beer since the French Revolution. This seasonal special is for Noel, and is an appropriate holiday bottle.

Baggywrinkle Barleywine Ale, from the tiny Cisco Brewers on the island of Nantucket, given to me by some friends who spent time on the island earlier this year.

Nice unique release from Orange County's Bootlegger's Brewery. Another gift, this time from my wife's co-worker and fellow beer enthusiast. Available only in limited quantities, this dark stout was brewed with coffee and chipotle peppers.

All beer lovers recognize the plodding pink elephant as the sign of a quality beer - Ghent's
Brouwerij Huyghe Melle and their two Delirium variations - tremens and nocturnum.

Lovely bottle from Bavaria's Schneider-Weisse - the Aventinus, a chocolate-flavored wheat dopplebock.

Portland, Maine's Allagash Brewry, one of the strongest of the contemporary New England brewers, and their golden-hued winter seasonal Grand Cru.

Little need be said about Chimay Ale, the flagship offering from the premier Trappist brewers. One of these days, perhaps they'll release their legendary patersbier, currently made only for the monks, to the wider public. Until then, we can all dream.

New Belgium Brewing Company, located in Fort Collins, CO and home to the popular Fat Tire Ale (and the Tour de Fat), also offers the delightful Lips of Faith series. The above is the springtime special Biere de Mars, features lemon peel and assorted spices that result in a citrusy zing.

Attractive bottle from Kansas City's Boulevard Brewing Company, this quadrupel ale, The Sixth Glass, is the most authentically Belgian beer I've tasted that was actually brewed in the Midwest. Serious work.

More Belgian-inspired brewing from the states, this time from baseball-famed Cooperstown and the good folks at Ommegang. A nice malty Abbey Ale.....

...and the wonderful seasonal release of Chocolate Indulgence.

Back to California, and Larkspur's Marin Brewing Company. A nearly sherry-flavored Star Brew Triple Wheat Ale.

A rare find from Dexter, Michigan and Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, courtesy of an adventurous beer enthusiast at Ocean Beach's Olive Tree Market. Flanders-style amber ale, called La Roja.

More mile-high brewed goodness, from Boulder, CO's Avery Brewing Company. A wonderful group, here with a strong and hop-heavy American Double style IPA, the Maharaja.

Not many quality beers are made in the deep south, due to the complex webbing of alcohol-unfriendly "blue laws" that predominate, but Louisiana's Abita Brewing Company is a notable exception. The Abbey Ale is a nice Dubbel.

Real old world stuff here, from Sunnyvale, CA's Rabbit's Foot Meadery - the Belgian-styled strong ale Diabhal. Pure funkiness.

From tiny Boonville, California. The Anderson Valley Brewing Company offers a delightful double abbey style ale - Brother David's Double.

More old world goodness, from Bungay, Suffolk, U.K.'s St. Peter's Brewery Co. A refined, reddish defiantly non-New World porter.

Serious stuff - Petrus' Gouden Tripel Ale, with low alcohol and not unlike a champagne. Pop it open!

Another San Diego-area brewer - Port (once known as Pizza Port), up in North County by way of San Marcos, a schwarzbier featuring a groovy surfer catching a gnarly one just in front of the Self-Realization Fellowship Temple in Enicinitas.

More San Diego (more San Marcos, actually) craft beer - the totally awesome Lost Abbey folks.
Amazing concoctions, amazing artwork.

Speaking of amazing bottles...Oregon's mighty Rogue Ales Brewery offers the skeleton-bedecked red bottle of the 2009 Double Dead Guy Ale. For the strong.

And back to SoCal, with San Clemente's Left Coast Brewing Company, just over the Orange County line, and their Hop Juice Double IPA, with plenty of bitters enclosed within its 9.4% alcohol level.

Farther north up the California coast comes Fortuna's Eel River Brewing Co. - wonderful organic beer. The Triple Exultation is an English-style Old Ale. More strong stuff.

The pride of Chambly, Quebec - Unibroue, and Trois Pistoles, a Belgian strong dark ale. Released in a strong dark bottle, too.

More San Diego craftiness - the Black Lightning Porter Fall Seasonal from Black Lightning.

No, I won't resist making the inevitable pun, and will go ahead and say something about a "Rogue's Gallery". I'm especially partial to the Hazelnut Brown Nectar Ale.

Fort Bragg, CA and the mighty Brother Thelonious Dubbel-style bottle from North Coast Brewing Co. A friend once burned me a copy of a Thelonious Monk-themed cd and, lacking a suitable cover for the jewel case, peeled off the label from this bottle and affixed it forthwith.

Wychwood Brewery, hailing from Oxfordshire, produce a mild English Brown Ale, the Hobgoblin, complete with a sneering and sword-wielding Hobgoblin on the label.

More from New Belgium - 1554, the "Enlightened Black Ale," and Mothership Wit, an organic wheat beer.

Juneau's very own Alaskan Brewing Company, with a rather mild IPA.

A fun-loving and experimental brewery from the Southern Californian city of Petaluma, with plenty of year-round special releases. The Hop Stoopid Ale is a perennial favorite, but I really dig the richness of the Capuccino Stout.

And why not end on a real high note - a 20th Anniversary special release from the pioneers at Oregon's Deschutes Brewery, one of the greatest purveyors of craft beer in the country. A citrus-smooth witbier that I'd love to stumble across again.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

How I Was Welcomed Aboard by the U.S. Navy

Any moderately informed individual could probably produce a long list of shocking deeds committed by the United States military against the various peoples of the world. I put forth that the greatest American military crime of all time is the damage inflicted upon the English language by the good men and women in uniform. It is some kind of tribute to the overwhelming influence of military culture on our society that so many of us knowingly or unknowingly speak the language of battle and readiness in our daily and professional lives. Even the most basic search into American-coined terms, phrases and vocabulary will reveal that nearly all stem from the world of business / finance and the military. The French gave the world je ne sais quoi and fin de siècle; the Germans produced gestalt, Sturm und Drang and Bildungsroman; America has offered "collateral damage" and "fragging" (and, it must be added, "boondoggle" - a great word).

I recently accepted a student work position at the Navy hospital in town, working in the center's library facility - a paid position, largely focused on searching for articles and medical literature. It will be the first library job I've held since leaving upstate New York several years ago and beginning my slow pursuit of the MLIS degree, and my first job period here in what our local politicians have dubbed "America's Finest City". Any attempt to re-enter the workforce after a prolonged absence is bound to experience a few bumps and sputters. But after going through the months-long process of beginning work for the U.S. military - the paperwork, the applications process, the faxing, the Q&A, the online training, the orientation, the wandering lost through cavernous interiors, and the realization that These People Do Not Speak English - I suspect that I chose the single most painful and frustrating route to becoming gainfully employed available on these fair shores. I don't mean physically - I wouldn't compare what I've been doing to construction work or slaughterhouse details. And I certainly haven't been put in any danger, which is obviously not the case for many military employees. But mentally, emotionally, intellectually - it's been bad, BRAVO-ALPHA-DELTA bad.

I seem to recall getting my first library job back in Albany after literally walking off the street and asking a librarian about any part or full-time positions that might be available. If memory serves, I was collecting my first paycheck within the week. I first inquired about possible internships within this military library sometime last summer - late June, early July. After a bit of back-and-forth, and a few visits to the facility, it became clear that most of the intern spots were already filled. However, a non-credit yet paid student work position was available, and it sounded like a decent opportunity, so I made the appropriate noises, sent on a resume and was told to wait for Human Resources to get back to me. This went on for the rest of the summer - the waiting for Human Resources bit, that is. A few more visits to the facility and many more emails later, I heard some encouraging words. Messages featuring the cryptic statement that I had been "tentatively selected" for the position appeared in my inbox, followed by ominous silences. Sometime in late September, a new individual sent me a message with another tentative selection promise and a firmer offer. I was also given electronic links to two massive online files. These files, helpfully labeled Employment Part A Forms and Employment Part B Forms, consisted of instructions to complete all forms marked with a check. Part A featured twelve different forms, Part B roughly the same. Each form was several pages long. They were to be filled out and faxed to a specific individual within three days. This individual would peruse them for errors, email me back if things looked all right, and the files were then to be printed out and mailed to the individual. That was Part A. Part B Forms were to be completed and printed out, and then brought with me to my first day of work, which was scheduled for October 26th - nearly a month from the date I first heard from Human Resources. I dutifully printed out page after page of required documents, filled them out as accurately as possible, and attempted several different fax attempts, all of which failed. I even went to the library I'd be theoretically working at and attempted a fax, which also failed. Eventually, I was told to just send the documents through the mail.

This was all just for Part A. Part B proved even trickier. Stupidly waiting for the evening before my first day, I stared incredulously at the mountain of paperwork and red tape I'd need to plow through before being accepted for this seven-month student work position. The most comprehensive was a pair of background checks, both of which had been checked as required, even though I later found out that this had been a mistake and that I shouldn't have filled out either one. Every single example of anything I'd ever done needed to be verified independently by somebody I'd once known. Attended Lawrence University between 1996 and 2000? Give the name, address and phone number of somebody who knew you there. Lived on Henry Johnson Blvd. in Albany, NY for a few years? Give the name, phone number and address of somebody who knew you well at that address. And on and on. I apologize to any friends or acquaintances who may be surprised by ominous late-night phone calls from Navy INTEL. They mean very little harm.

My first day at work consisted of being handed a two-page "check list" of various stops across the hospital that needed to be made within a single working day, from Pass and Decal for my vehicle to numerous InformationTechnology stops. Most of these consisted of somebody lifelessly signing my check-in sheet and sending me on to the next station. None of them were next to each other. I needed to phone the wife to figure out where Building 26 was (the layout of the hospital includes buildings 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, but I couldn't imagine where Building 26 was located. I also couldn't figure out how or why the building numbers ran from 1-6 and 26). I also needed to get a skin poke for a TB test (my second - the first TB test had been conducted several weeks earlier). One of my final stops was supposed to be the security office, which took me several attempts to locate. I was buzzed in and confronted with a small waiting room and a uniformed man literally speaking to me through a hole in the wall set with thick metal bars. I was told to put my name down and have a seat, and the man slid shut a marbled glass panel to completely cut himself off from me. When I attempted to hand in the required two background checks. I was told that this was not satisfactory. I was informed that HR continues to misperceive the required documents and has yet to correct the problem. I was told that what I really needed to do was complete a longer online program to complete the background check, and that this program needed to be conducted at home. I was also told I needed to get fingerprinted. I was told the fingerprint office was closed for the day. I was not told how I was supposed to get all of the required steps completed before the end of the day, as spelled out within my check-in packet. I was given an apology for any inconvenience I might be experiencing.

Dejected, confused and sporting what must have been an impressive blood pressure reading, I returned home to chew the situation over and attempt my online background check. An effort to phone Human Resources and let them know I'd be completing my check-in process a day late resulted in nothing more than me leaving a phone message. When I started the online program later that night, I quickly saw that I would not be able to easily breeze through the 40+ pages of questions and details included, and when, hours later, I came to the section that required my father's passport number, I gazed towards heaven and mumbled impure thoughts about our creator. It was approaching midnight.

I'm rather skilled in the fine art of bullshitting, but I suspect I would have had a hard time faking my father's passport number, and seeing how it was nearing 2 AM back in Wisconsin, I wasn't about to pursue the matter any further. I switched off the computer and attempted sleep. When I finally managed to contact HR the next morning to explain away my second failed attempt at concluding my check-in process within the allotted single-business-day perimeter, I was blithely informed that it didn't matter and I should just try to get it in before the weekend. I suggested that such flexibility might in the future be indicated somewhere on the packet.

With my father's passport number in hand and no visible signs of TB spreading across my left arm, I confidently made my way back to the base, gave up my fingerprints freely, and handed off the completed paperwork to security folks. All that was left, I was told, was a visit to IT and the turning in of my check-in sheet. I skipped over to IT, where a woman with a grudge against the entire world looked at me as if I had dried vomit caked across my shirt. I apologetically gave my name, prostrated myself before her for requiring her services, asked her meekly to help me set up my account and commence work. I managed to make it out of her office with my hide, if not my pride, and hurried along to receive the Holy Grail of Navy access - a CAC card.

It was only after sitting for one hour and twenty-three minutes in an extremely uncomfortable chair that I was informed by the bemused man behind the desk that CAC cards were not created until twenty-four hours had elapsed from my IT visit. I was told to make an appointment for later in the week. I suspect that my lady friend in IT was well aware of this situation. Seeing how she had actually given me directions to the CAC office, I smelled foul play.

When I returned to the hospital later in the week for the CAC baptism, I was informed that the computers were down and I should return on a later date. Luckily, I took my time and did not storm out of the office, because I was called back as I reached the door and informed that the computer system was "back up for now". I left with my CAC card burning a hole in my pocket.

Now, there were further CAC adventures this past week, requiring several treks across the entire hospital grounds and an additional visit to my IT nemesis, who concluded our second encounter with the hopeful phrase, "If that don't work, I can't do anything else for you." Two days were spent at Command Orientation in the Building 5 Auditorium, in which every single new hire, from physicians and nurses to the cleaning staff and yours truly, listened to endless presentations, viewed numerous PowerPoint disasters, and grew very familiar with the phrase "so, let me tell you a little bit about myself". What was the low point during these hours of captivity? Impossible to narrow down, so I offer a few candidates :

- two separate presenters building speeches around the phrase "Success is judged by those we serve"

- being told to stand up, stretch and rub the shoulders of the person to our right (the preeningly homophobic dude in uniform to my right told me he didn't need his shoulders rubbed, in case I had any ideas)

- breathing in wafts of the most foul-smelling chicken-salad sandwich on earth from somebody seated a row down for the entire afternoon session on Monday

- breathing in the equally foul smells emanating from the product-slathered heads of two prior-military chumps sprawled in front of me

- witnessing a representative from Facilities Management refer to a PowerPoint slide of arrows representing budget numbers as his "Circle of Excellence" (this same individual later tossed out the term "readback," as in a paperwork type of feedback)

- a nearly incoherent union representative who managed to confuse everybody in the room, refused to answer any questions and referred to the woman who asked her for clarification as an "interrogator"

- a testosterone-reeking representative from Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) who forced us to stand up and do calisthenics and referred to himself as "Mr. T"

- the woman who sounded like Rachel Ray after a sugar binge, who attempted a disastrous presentation including a seeing-eye dog that actually involved the dog falling off the stage and being unable to find a way back up, much to his distress

Oh, enough. You get the idea. There were moments so ludicrous this week in the auditorium that I kept scanning the side exits to see if Peter Sellers was about to be pushed out in his Dr. Strangelove wheelchair. On Tuesday, I was handed my Command Orientation Graduation Diploma and welcomed aboard, sent off to commence work, to do good, to make my country proud, to be employed for seven months as a student. I climbed the steps to the medical library, ready to show off my CAC card, wave my diploma around a little, set the world on fire.

I was handed a 5 sheet packet with links to the twenty-nine different required online training courses I'd need to take before I could start work. Later that afternoon, I was told I'd been given the wrong packet (I needed the "Initial Training Sheet for Civilians, Contractors and Volunteers" rather than the "Annual Training Sheet for Civilians, Contractors and Volunteers") and that I should start over. They apologized for any inconvenience.