under pressure.

relax

I need to take some lessons from my cat.

Things have been … stressful … recently. Getting by as a single-income household, even temporarily, is difficult. I face new challenges at work; I welcome those, because many involve changes that are overdue, but they are difficult nonetheless.

It’s a lot of pressure.

I don’t like this. I spent much of Tuesday at my desk with my teeth clenched, trying not to flip out on my colleagues. I had to run errands in Cranberry after work, something that won’t exactly help anyone lower stress levels. And when I got home, I plopped down on the couch with a bowl of mac and cheese and three hours of The West Wing queued up on Netflix.

Sure, there are worse ways to spend an evening. And yes, I’m not ever going to argue that an evening of escape isn’t helpful once in a while.

This month two years ago, I started running. It worked. I did it consistently. I felt good, about a number of things. I was at the age where I had to start thinking about things like my health, my weight, the fact that I work a very stressful job and that my family’s history with heart problems wasn’t exactly encouraging.

Hey, look — all those things still exist, except that I’m two years older. Hm.

I’ve run sporadically this fall, but I’ve managed to turn that into a chore as well. My bed is warm and hitting the snooze button is really easy — and then I beat myself up over the fact that I’m supposed to run 10 miles with Fred on Nov. 3. Boom. More pressure.

Take a look at Miles up there. He’s 13 years old. The internet tells me that’s the human equivalent of 75. Yes, he sleeps a lot. Yes, he doesn’t need to worry about websites or mortgages. But you know what else he does? Even at his age, he plays. He runs. He kills the catnip-filled bananas and furry mice he has stashed all over the house. And then he’s got a really good reason to take a nap.

I wish I had same kind of time for napping that my cat does. It looks like it does him good, because he’s in pretty good shape for an old guy.

But the other old guy in the house does have time to do something for himself. He knows from experience that taking that time makes him feel a lot better. He knows he’ll be better off, at home and at work.’

And, judging from the weather forecast, he’s going to be running in a cold rain tomorrow morning. And he’ll feel pretty good about it too.

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awful.

EAUCNFFC killer.
EAUCNFFC killer.

I knew it was going to be bad.

I didn’t think it would be this bad.

Thirty five people entered the Eighth Annual Uncle Crappy NCAA Final Four Challenge (Brought To You By Bocktown). And at the conclusion of the Elite Eight weekend, there are 16 — SIXTEEN — Blutarskys (and if you don’t know what that is, I’ll explain in a moment).

Given the general carnage of the tournament, I knew there would be some downright ugly entries — including mine, after Saturday night’s loss by Ohio State at the hands of Wichita State. But this, this is unprecendented in the history of AUCNFFC.

Before we get to the futility, let’s take a look at how everyone else is doing. There are a bunch of you who picked Louisville to not only make the Final Four, but to win the whole tournament. But in each of those cases, you guys had just one correct Final Four pick — the Cardinals — with the possibility of adding more points only if Looavull advances.

And yeah, it’s looking like the tiebreaker is going to be even more important this year than it was a year ago.

Those who have Louisville winning the tournament; in all cases, you two points for the correct Final Four pick and a possibility of 10 more:

  • My Mom
  • Aunt Annoyed Angel
  • Casey
  • Clara
  • Calipanthergrl
  • Barb
  • Scooter
  • Patrick

I think there’s one other person who would win the whole freakin’ thing, but she’d do it if Syracuse comes out on top. Jenn has the Orangemen beating Ohio State in the final (sigh); she has two points in hand and as many as 10 more to earn if ‘Cuse is the champion.

As we work our way down the standings, it’s worth pointing out that Pghrugbyref is actually our leader at the moment. He correctly picked both Louisville and Syracuse making the Final Four; unfortunately, he also picked Kansas and Ohio State to play in the title game, so he has no more points to earn.

And then we have the handful of people who made one correct Final Four pick — Louisville  — but don’t have that team going much further. These folks have two points in hand, with the possibility of earning four more. It ain’t going to be enough to win, but making any correct picks this year should be something to be proud of:

  • Tim
  • Fred
  • Kewyson

We have one more person in the Two Plus Four Club, but she got there via a different path. RPM has Syracuse going as far as the title game, but not winning the title.

Another group, this one including entries who gained two points for a correct Final Four pick but cannot earn any additional points:

  • Jaci
  • Ethel
  • Susan
  • Joe
  • Sheepthemoon

And that brings us to the special group, those of us who — this year, anyway — ride the college basketball short bus.

If you are new to AUCNFFC, you may not be familiar with the term Blutarsky. You are likely familiar with the scene from Animal House,  when members of Delta visit Dean Wormer in his office, to discuss the mid-term grades of the fraternity’s members. We all recall what happened when Wormer addresses John Belushi’s character. The words, at this point, are immortal.

“MISTER Blutarsky…”

Without further ado, the EAUCNFFC Blutarsky award winners:

  • Uncle Crappy
  • Mrs. Crappy
  • CrappyDad
  • DJ Lunchbox
  • HP
  • Bluzdude
  • Otimemore
  • Infinitebuffalo
  • Grandpa Caldwell
  • Styx4me
  • Carla
  • Kelly (and Evan)
  • Dish
  • Michael
  • Zombie Dudders
  • Juan

I would point out that this year’s tournament made it unusually difficult to make correct picks of any kind. I would point that out, but I would just be making excuses for my — our — pathetic performances. Thanks for playing, fellow Blutarskys — I hope we all do better next year.

three days. four pizzas.

Who takes three days to make one serving of grilled pizzas?

Me. And pretty much only me.

My quest for the grilled pizza began sometime late Saturday morning, when we began our endless discussion: what’s for dinner? We knew we wanted to grill something, as we wanted to take advantage of last weekend’s glorious weather. Mrs. Crappy would have been happy with cheeseburgers, but I was bent on something fancier.

I don’t recall which one of us came up with grilled pizzas, but I know it took a while to get to the final decision, as Mrs. Crappy shot down all manner of grilled seafood, as well as flank-steak fajita recipe that I was dying to try. But once we got there, it all seemed pretty easy. I remember with great fondness the grilled pizzas I had that one time at Michelle’s house, and after I looked up the recipe (it’s here), we headed off to the grocery store while happily chattering about the toppings we were going to use.

I grabbed the Kitchen Aid mixer (first time using the dough hook!) when we got home and put together the ball of sticky dough we would use in an hour or so. For whatever reason, bread has always been massively intimidating to me, but Michelle’s instructions were perfect and I plopped the ball in an oiled bowl and waited for it to rise.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

After nearly 2 hours, it had started to puff up a little bit, but by then it was 9 p.m.; Mrs. Crappy was cranky, I was hungry and we settled for beer and Spaghettios. In addition to that rather unsatisfying* option, we faced a dilemma: would the dough hold up in the fridge for a couple days? I work on Sunday nights, so we would be waiting until Monday to try the pizzas, and I wasn’t sure the dough would hold up that long.

The internet assured me it would — we might even get the added bonus of a sourdough-esque twang in our pizza crusts after all that time — so I wrapped up my precious ball and stuck it in the fridge, ready for me to grill as soon as I got home on Monday night.

Except that on Monday night, I was looking at what seemed to be a rapidly approaching wall of rain**, as well as a wife whose interest in grilled pizza had waned considerably since the weekend. Fine, goddammit — I’ll make my pizzas on the grill pan.

dough

Which, for the most part, worked OK. As per the recipe, I browned one side of the rolled-out crusts, took ’em off the heat, topped them and threw them back on to finish.

One the left: artichoke heart and crab white pizza. On the right: pepperoni and onion.
One the left: artichoke heart and crab white pizza. On the right: pepperoni and onion.

I was really pleased with my topping choices, and generally pleased with the overall result.  I did, as usual, learn some things for next time:

  • The grill pan technically worked, but it’s not the best way to do these. Covering the grill pan steams the dough too much, and controlling the cooking speed is difficult; I had to finish mine in the microwave to have melted cheese AND a crust that wasn’t burned.
  • I thought I rolled the dough thin enough. I was wrong. I like a very thin, very crisp crust, and my dough patties needed to be MUCH thinner.
  • I liked the slightly sour taste that an extra two days of fermentation gave my crusts, but if I want to cut my grilled pizza production time to, you know, a single day, I need to either A) leave myself extra time for the dough to rise or B) buy fast-rising yeast. Caveat: I pretty much don’t have any idea what I’m doing when it comes to cooking with yeast (see: Great Failed Homebrewing Attempt of 2011), and if someone who does has tips to offer, I’m all ears.
  • Roasted garlic. I mean, why not?

dun

OK, I don’t want you guys to get the wrong idea. I destroyed the kitchen while cooking Monday night — always a sign that I’m enjoying myself — and in spite of all the griping, the pizzas were delicious. And I’m pleased to know that next time I make them, they’ll be even better.

*I normally LOVE Spaghettios — but not when I’ve been thinking about homemade pizza for the entire day.

**That rain? It didn’t show up until about an hour after I cooked, ate and cleaned up the kitchen.

belgium. via florida.

I knew I had read something, perhaps in the spring, about the possibility.

But until I heard a piece on NPR’s Morning Edition on the morning of Dec. 12 that I remembered — Westvleteren 12 was on sale. In my country.

A brief bit of background: Westvleteren is brewed by an order of Trappist monks in Belgium, and, to put it mildly, their beer is highly regarded; their quad, Westvleteren 12, generally shows up near the top — if not in the top spot — of best-beer-on-the-planet lists. Part of the hype has to do with very limited supply and the resulting mystique.It’s available only at the monastery, and not always there; if you’re nearby, you contact the monks, and if you’re lucky they’ll give you a date and time to show up and buy your share.

The monks make only enough beer to fund a fairly simple existence. But that’s what was behind the exports of 2012 — the monastery needed repairs, and the monks figured selling special packages of the 12 in Europe and North America would be a good way to raise the money.

I heard the NPR piece while I was on the way to work that morning. After taking care of some work stuff, I fired up Google and found a list of the locations that would have some of were being called the “bricks” — boxed gift-packs, with six bottles of Westie 12 and two logo goblets.

Pennsylvania? To the surprise of no one, nope. Ohio? Of course, Vintage Estate in Boardman had the beer, but it was holding a lottery the following Sunday to unload its allotment, and I would be at work. We were going to be in Cleveland on that Saturday, but I was certain the two stores there would be sold  out by then.

And then my eyes drifted to the Florida portion of the list. There, I saw that Total Wine and More stores in every Florida town of a decent size were carrying the beer. Including the one in Naples, a store we know well from our visits to my sister and her family.

Ooo. This has promise.

I called the Naples store, and a bored-sounding clerk said they had plenty.

I then left messages for E, on her home phone and her cell. I must have sounded desperate, because she called me back shortly. After some initial chatting, I popped these questions:

“So, you think you could go buy me an $85 six pack? And then ship it to me? And could you go do it now?”

My sister, a mother of three, is a woman of infinite patience, because she immediately got in her car, drove to Total Wine and dropped a ridiculous amount of money to satisfy a whim of her brother. I PayPal’ed money to cover the cost of the beer and the shipping … and about a week after my sheepish phone call, there was the box, on my desk at work.

The package arrived safely. I got it home safely as well. I put two bottles in the beer fridge and stowed the other four in our cellar. We would drink two for Christmas this year and crack one for each of the following Decembers, until they were gone.

westies

How was it?

Very, very good. A silky texture. Ripe, dark fruit, mixing with caramel. A little bready, a little funk. Not too hot, especially for a beer with a hefty ABV. And not overly sweet, as I had been led to expect.

A world-class beer, worth the money I paid to get it? Absolutely.

The best beer I’ve ever had? No.

Or, at least, not yet. Ask me again in four years.

out of the gate.

You know what will instantly wash away all of the hassles of the previous year?

Jumping in an icy river on January 1.

After my initial doubts, I went back to the Mon for the fifth-straight year — and I’m glad I did.

8335128951_2b8ff8e37f_b

This year was not without some unusual problems. Jenda somehow managed to break her finger, probably while climbing out of the water; and while we all usually end up with some scrapes, Sorg had one cut deep enough that he got himself bandaged up by the EMTs who watch all the idiots — and by that, I mean us — every year.

I’m especially proud of the first-timers who we conned into joining agreed to join us on Tuesday morning. Frank is perfectly suited for such foolishness, Bob DROVE FROM MORGANTOWN SPECIFICALLY TO PLUNGE, and my co-worker Jenny — despite hyperventilating about this for pretty much two days prior to the event — showed up in her bathing suit, even while claiming she hadn’t yet made up her mind. Like all the others who have joined us for the plunge, they all rocked on New Year’s morning and are all certified bad-asses in my book.

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My friend Michelle — who showed up again to take pics of the craziness — noted that once I’m out of the water, I always seem to have a smile on my face. And that’s probably why I did it again. And will do it again. And again. And again.

Happy new year, yinz guys. I hope we’ll see you on the wharf in 2014.

yinz guys are awesome. and stupid.

After a little begging and pleading, I am pleased to say that enough of you have volunteered to come out to the Mon Wharf on Tuesday morning that I’ll safely be able to plunge for the fifth straight year without worrying about breaking Mrs. Crappy’s Have Enough People To Haul Uncle Crappy’s Carcass Out Of The River Rule.

This speaks well of your generosity and sense of adventure. If not for your intelligence.

(Note: As previously stated, this will be my fifth consecutive year swimming on New Year’s Day. Which probably makes me even dumber than you.)

A fair amount of you have done this before, so this post will serve as a refresher. But if you haven’t experienced the New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge, here’s where to go, what to bring and what to expect:

WHERE: The Mon Parking Wharf, a dingy lot right on the river, sort of underneath the Parkway East. You enter the lot at Wood Street and Fort Pitt Boulevard (See the yellow sign in the pic above? That’s where you’re going.), loop around and find a place to set up. If you’re swimming with us, HEAD TOWARDS THE POINT once you’re off the ramp; it’s a little less crazy at that end. Find me and my red Honda Element, and you’ll know you’re in the right place.

WHEN: This is the tricky part. The swimming doesn’t start until 9:15 or 9:30, but you should plan on being there by 8:30. I have friends who have missed the whole thing because they got stuck in the traffic that arrives late. I’ll have a Thermos of coffee — and, uh, some other stuff — to help keep us warm until it’s showtime.

WHAT TO BRING: Plenty of warm stuff for before and after. Towels. I recommend jumping in wearing shoes of some kind — water shoes, old Chucks, Tevas, etc. Don’t wear the shoes you just got for Christmas; it’s muddy down there and we might get a little snow on Monday night. And while this is a point of personal preference for me, it’s worth mentioning — the less you wear into the water, the less icy cold stuff you have to get out of when you’re in a hurry — and you will be in a hurry — to get warm.

WHAT TO EXPECT: You think you’ve been cold before? Sorry — not even close. The air temp won’t be too terrible — it’ll be somewhere near 30 when we swim — but the water temp has been around 37 each and every year I’ve done this, and that, boys and girls, is colder than anything you’ve ever felt. The shock when you hit the water is hard to describe; for me, my mind goes blank, with one exception: “GOTTA GET OUT OF THE WATER.” We’ll set up in an area where it’s easy to do that, but take a second and help everyone else out of the water as well. And once you’re out and dry(ish) and warm(ish)? Congratulations. You’re a Polar Bear, and you have those bragging rights for the rest of your lives, even if you choose to never do it again.

AND THEN: We go eat.

If you have questions, ask. Watch Twitter on Tuesday morning, and I’ll let everyone know when I’m there. See you New Year’s morning, boys and girls.