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Today I’m grateful for Mom’s cookies. Of course everyone loves cookies, but there’s always something special about the ones Mom makes.

We’re visiting as part of a little pre-Thanksgiving trip, and as always, Mom has made a bunch of different cookies for the family.

These are brownies and scotcheroos… I’ve already eaten the caramel cookies, which are my favorites. Lately Mom has taken to cutting them into bite-sized pieces (well, two bites maybe) and that’s a fun way to put together a little sampler platter with a bunch of different cookies. You don’t feel like such a glutton for taking six cookies at a time.

In a larger sense, I can honestly say that some of my favorite foods are the ones I ate growing up. I suspect that’s the case for most people, but as someone who’s sort of a picky eater, I’m definitely picky in favor of what my Mom makes. While growing up, my siblings and I were tasked with making dinner once a week (when we were old enough), and that was a good system to teach us how to cook and be ready when we eventually moved away from home. Pepper and I did the same with our kids, and although all of us occasionally fall back to the old standbys like mac and cheese, overall it’s been good to know something about cooking. Thanks, Mom!

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Today I’m grateful for my car. Well, my cars to be exact. I’ve had the good fortune to have some really great rides over the years. I’m not really much of a “car guy”, meaning I don’t buy or drive cars because they’re cool or fancy or popular. They’re not a status symbol; they’re just a way for me to get from one place to another. And hopefully I can crank my music while I’m doing so.

It started back in 1993 when I bought my first car: a 1982 Nissan 200SX. I saw an ad on a campus bulletin board (back when they were physical bulletin boards, rather than online forums). Some Turkish exchange student was heading back home, and wanted to unload his car. It seemed like a good deal, so I paid $1,200 and enjoyed my first set of wheels.

This photo was taken about two weeks later, after I’d crashed into a highway barrier and destroyed the left side of the car. Also, the clutch had burned out a few days before, costing me $600 at a little repair shop in the middle of rural Tennessee (we were on a spring break road trip). Despite a rough start, I loved that car.

Two years later, I started my first job out of college. My little Nissan had brought me to Colorado, but died upon arrival when the emergency brake locked up and the car wouldn’t move. Flush with cash from my first “real” job, I took out a $12,000 loan and bought a 1995 Saturn SL1:

It looked black but was actually a pretty shade of dark blue. Saturn was an up-and-coming brand, and you’d see them everywhere. They were fairly cheap but well-made, and it served me well for a few years. Then some kid pulled out in front of me while I was driving 50mph, and the Saturn was no more. I took the insurance money (which was strangely more than I’d paid for the car) and dropped $14,000 on… another Saturn.

Yeah, the four-door sedan felt like a “big” car after my Nissan, so it was great to fall back to another two-door car. This was a 1997 SC2, complete with a “sports bra” which ostensibly protected the paint from bug splatters. Although it was small, the fold-down rear seats gave it quite a bit of cargo space. I loved the tinted windows and motorized sunroof.

The years passed, and it was starting to show some age. In 2010 I spent $15,000 on a 2008 Honda Civic EXL to replace it.

(You can see the Saturn parked on the street in the background, ready for someone to notice my Craigslist ad.) The Civic was, again, a two-door car with tinted windows and fold-down seats and a powered sunroof. It was an absolute dream. It was my fourth manual-transmission car, and I loved driving a stick shift. The car was small and zippy and just fun to drive.

Upon moving to Montana, the Civic struggled with our driveway. The front-wheel drive and low curb weight meant it had trouble climbing the steep, slippery gravel. Since our Honda CR-V handled the driveway like a champ, we decided a car with all-wheel drive would be a smarter option. I sold the Civic to Zack, and we bought a Tesla Model 3.

Although it’s not a stick shift and doesn’t have a sunroof (although the entire top of the car is glass), it’s a beast. Like all electric cars, the acceleration is staggering. It takes a little time to get used to the touchscreen interface, and driving without using brakes, but once you do it’s hard to go back to a sluggish old internal-combustion vehicle. Tesla has a fabulous network of charging stations around the country, and despite the naysayers, I’ve never had trouble getting charged… even on road trips covering thousands of miles.

The reason I was thinking about my cars today is that Alex texted me this photo just now.

He’d driven the Tesla to the airport to drop us off, and back at home he misjudged the distance to the side of the garage as he was backing in. He sheared off the mirror and put a huge scratch in the door. He felt terrible about it, but I reassured him that as long as he wasn’t hurt, cars can be fixed.

So, five cars in thirty years. And since Zack still has my Civic, he lets me drive it now and then just to remind myself how awesome stick shift can be. All five of these cars were fun in their own way, and I have great memories of them all.

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Today I’m grateful for plumbing. It’s really kind of a love-hate thing. We have a new sink, and the pipes beneath the old sink are no longer in the right place. After reinstalling the garbage disposal, I fidgeted with the drain piping to see what I’d need to do. There were two gaps: one just beneath the sink, and another below the t-joint.

Although the gaps are only about an inch in both cases, it’s enough that I’ll need new pipes. I went to Home Depot and picked up a few parts, then came back. Upon returning to the house, I realized I’d forgotten my plumber’s putty at the checkout stand. Back to Home Depot, where someone had set the putty aside at the checkout. I grabbed it and drove back home. Once there I realized I needed another fitting, because the one I’d bought wasn’t quite the right type. And a hacksaw to cut the pipes to the right length. Sigh. Back to Home Depot a third time. This time, though, I had what I needed, and everything came together as planned.

Everything drains well, and we can enjoy our new sink.

So doing plumbing work is a horrid thing, and it always seems like I have to fit and re-fit the pipes until I get things lined up right. Oh, and it’s inevitable that plumbing work has to be done in a cramped space. Crouching beneath the sink is frustrating. But frankly it’s not actually that complicated, so it’s not worth paying a professional plumber $200 an hour to crouch under the sink and fit pipes. I end up doing it myself, and I cuss under my breath whenever I’m faced with plumbing work.

But plumbing itself is actually pretty wonderful. When the pipes are all working and hidden beneath sinks and behind walls, it’s magical how all the water gets where it needs to go. Our showers are warm, our dishwasher and washing machine clean things, our faucets all run, and our toilets all flush. It’s a good example of how our modern world is filled with conveniences that we hardly even notice (until they break, that is). Today’s example is plumbing, but the same applies for everything from electricity to transportation to computers. I’m grateful for all the things that make our lives easier, more comfortable, more efficient.

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Today I’m grateful for Duolingo. At the start of the year I made a goal to learn Spanish. I’ve been using the Duolingo app every day– sometimes for a single quick lesson, and sometimes for a more extended learning experience– and I think it’s been really helpful.

Admittedly, the vocabulary taught by the app is quite basic. I’ve learned how to navigate a city, talk about my family, go shopping, and so on. These would probably be useful if I was traveling, but it’s difficult to have a “normal” conversation with a Spanish speaker unless they want to go shopping or something. And I don’t know that many native speakers. Alex is fluent as a result of serving a two-year mission in Peru, but I don’t have the opportunity to talk to him frequently. And Pepper served a Spanish-speaking mission in Boston, but it was a long time ago and she wasn’t really immersed in the language. Still, I do have the opportunity to talk to her frequently, and she helps me with my grammar.

My friend Nate, who works at Rosa’s, also started learning Spanish this year. However, he’s using a more “professional” course, and spends an hour or two a day working at it. As a result, he’s quite a bit more advanced than I am. Lately he’s been forcing me to order my lunch in Spanish; fortunately I get the same thing every time, so I’ve been practicing phrases like “Quiero una pizza pequeña con peperoni”.

I have a long way to go before I’m competent at Spanish, but even in these short, simple lessons I do, it’s been fun to see some progress. Español no es fácil pero es divertido!

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Today I’m grateful for my desk. It’s been three years since we designed them and had them custom-built, and both Pepper and I love them.

We’re so glad we decided to incorporate the adjustable-height motors, so we can sit or stand as we like. I remember back in my home office how I used cinder blocks beneath my desk to give me a standing option. A few years after that, at the recommendation of a friend I bought a Varidesk platform to raise my keyboard and monitors to a standing height. It’s actually a great little device, but it only has space for two monitors and once you go to three, you don’t go back. When designing our desks, I carefully measured to ensure I’d have room for a set of three thirty-inch beasts.

Although I don’t do web development eight or ten hours a day any more, I still spend a considerable amount of time at the computer. There are always photos to be edited, board games to be designed, and blog posts to be written. It’s really nice to sit for a while, then stand for a while, then go back to sitting, and so on. I keep my desk and workspace fairly clutter-free (a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, or something like that). It means I can always pull out a project and get right to work.

A while back, Thom and I had a fun discussion about desks and how the way one organizes a desk can boost (or hinder) the work that happens there. I actually thought a lot about that, and even as my desk has evolved over the years, I continue to find it a place where I can feel productive and creative.

State flags

I think it was fifth grade when I took Missouri History class. It was one of those required classes in elementary school where you’d learn about, well, Missouri history, and take a few field trips to notable places. I remember the Daniel Boone home, and something about the start of the Lewis and Clark expedition, both of which were right at home in St Charles.

As part of that class, I distinctly recall having to draw the Missouri state flag. From far away it looks fine, but when you look closely at the Great Seal in the center, you realize there’s all sorts of madness for a fifth-grader to draw in crayon.

I’m confused about the presence of two huge bears, and the silhouette of a smaller one. Bears don’t seem to be a thing in Missouri. And there’s a crescent moon more reminiscent of the flags of Islamic countries than what you’d see in a warm summer night sky. It feels like someone threw in the great seal of the United States– a bald eagle holding an olive branch and arrows– as kind of an afterthought (“What should we put in this part of the seal? How about an eagle or something?”). There’s a bunch of Latin, mixed with English (held together with a belt buckle), and some Roman numerals for good measure. In short, it was a nightmare to draw all that when I was eleven.

About a decade later, I moved to Colorado, where they have a very sensible and easy-to-draw flag.

Moreover, the Colorado flag design can be used in all sorts of creative ways, because the big red “C” is quite distinctive and works for everything from window decals to sweatshirts. My kids always thought the Colorado flag was the best, and I’m inclined to agree.

A few decades after that, I find myself in Montana. I admit I don’t think I ever looked very closely at the Montana flag before moving here, but of course now that I’m here I see it everywhere.

Flying majestically in a breeze, backlit by the sun, it’s not too bad. But then you look more closely, and it becomes kind of horrific.

Let’s start with the font, which is basically something from the Helvetica Bold family. Nothing fancy here, no sir! It’s like the designers of the flag looked for the most boring font they could find. But it’s not really the font that kills me; it’s the design of the Great Seal of Montana. It literally looks like it was drawn by, well, a fifth-grader. “Oro y Plata”, or “Gold and Silver”, is kind of a silly motto, but whatever. The artwork shows mountains, a sunset, a waterfall and river, a copse of trees, some kind of plow device, and a shovel and pickaxe. I guess whoever came up with the idea felt like all of these things represented the state, but the execution of that idea is terrible. Really terrible. Montana’s flag is ranked as one of the worst in the Union. I even wrote about it four years ago, when we first moved here.

I’ve been over this ground before, but the point of today’s post actually concerns Minnesota’s state flag. Let’s take a look at it.

First, that blue is just a bad shade. It’s hard to describe why, but I think it’s because it’s not quite sky-blue, but not periwinkle either. It’s definitely not royal blue. And then, as I look more closely at the Great Seal of Minnesota, I can’t help but think it’s pretty much on par with the artistic level of Montana’s. There’s some guy plowing a field, that same waterfall and river we see in Montana, and apparently a Native American on horseback in the distance. Throw in a bunch of poorly-drawn flowers (or something) around all of it, add some circles and stars, more Helvetica Bold, and call it a day.

Well, apparently the government of the Land of 10,000 Lakes has decided it’s time for a change. They announced the start of a process to redesign the state flag, and– this is the best part– opened it up to the public via a web form. As you’d expect from the denizens of the internet, the designs have been pouring in. Many of them are fine. Here’s an example of one that’s pretty simple, although I’m not entirely sure what the various parts represent.

And while it’s heartwarming to see some six-year-old make a contribution…

… there are just as many MS Paint masterpieces.

The creativity and graphic design prowess is definitely on display in a design like this:

Or this hot mess:

Let’s not forget the puzzled koi fish, whose mere presence on a Minnesota flag is puzzling in itself:

Perhaps one of the best designs is this one.

In the end, five of the public’s entries will be selected for final consideration by some legislative committee, who will then choose one to be the new Minnesota flag.

The point of all this meandering is that I really really wish the Montana legislature would follow Minnesota’s example and solicit a new design for our atrocious flag. I’d be happy to contribute…

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Today I’m grateful for Rosa’s Pizza. This unassuming little restaurant is just down the road from me.

And it’s probably second only to my home as the place in Montana where I spend the most time. I’m at Rosa’s two or three times a week, on average, and there have even been times when I was there for lunch and dinner on the same day. The employees are all really great people, and I know most of them by name (and vice versa). The owner, Monty, is a good man who works hard to make his little business successful.

There are three reasons I spend so much time at Rosa’s:

  1. Their lunch special is a killer deal. Five bucks gets you a personal pizza and a drink. I can’t think of any other restaurant where you can get a meal for five bucks these days. Not only that, but the pizza itself is fantastic– probably my favorite pizza anywhere.
  2. I like supporting local businesses, and this one in particular has so many employees I know by name. It has a “homey” feel to it.
  3. Monty lets me and my friends spend hours in the upper room playing board games (or Mahjongg). Since it’s in Bigfork, it’s a convenient place for all of us to meet up to play. Even though the place is quite busy, a lot of their business is delivery and carry-out, so the restaurant itself has ample space for us to take over a table or two for games.

Back in Longmont, I loved Nicolo’s Pizza, which was walking distance from our house and had a very similar vibe. And, like Rosa’s, I know the employees and owners by name because I was there so often. So maybe I have a “thing” for frequenting local pizza places…?

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Today I’m grateful for Herbie. No, not the sentient 1963 Volkswagen Beetle. Herbie is our palm plant.

Here’s the back story. When Pepper and I got engaged and bought our first townhome back in 1995, we received a bunch of coupons and “welcome to the magical world of homeownership” junk mail. Home sales are public record in Colorado, so companies in the area knew we owned a new home and probably needed furniture and appliances and tools and whatnot. I remember one of the flyers in the mail was a Home Depot coupon for a free plant. A free plant! So we picked up a little four-inch-tall palm plant at the local store.

Twenty-eight years later, this four-inch plant has become a six-foot monster. All I’ve done over those years is watered consistently and re-potted several times. Since I don’t have much of a green thumb, I’m pretty proud that Herbie is not only still alive, but thriving. He reminds me of a similar palm plant my grandma had– I think it was at least six feet tall as well.

That said, perhaps this whole post isn’t so much about Herbie as it is about those twenty-eight years. Essentially that timespan covers my relationship with Pepper, and you could say the growth of this hardy little plant is akin to the growth of our marriage and our lives together. Like any relationship, and like any plant, marriage takes effort and patience and diligence and nourishment. And the result, after all that, is something that’s far bigger and better than when it started. So thanks, Herbie, for reminding me of all that.

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Today I’m grateful for orange juice. I often refer to it as the “nectar of the gods”, and drink at least a quart of it daily. I have a massive mug specifically for my juice; here it is with a Lego guy for scale:

I feel like I’ve loved orange juice my entire life. Growing up, I remember that at breakfast we’d alternate between orange and grape juices. Thom loved grape, but orange was always so much better.

The juice is delivered in many ways– not just in my massive mug, but in martini glasses, a special freezer mug, wine glasses, small snack-size glasses, big dinner glasses, so-called “recycle mugs” from college, and sometimes just straight from the jug in the fridge. (I only do the latter when I know no one else will be drinking from the jug.) Last winter I enjoyed some homemade juice in Arizona, although typically I’m chugging the Costco brand. What’s the point of drinking in bulk if you aren’t also buying in bulk, right?

Even on this very blog, I’ve been writing about my OJ habit for twenty years. So today, as I eat my afternoon snack, I’ll hoist a mug of the nectar of the gods!

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Today I’m grateful for software. Yeah, it was the backbone of my entire career– despite the fact that in college I had no intention of getting into software development– but that’s not why I’m grateful for it today.

A few days ago I was processing a bucketload of photos for a friend. There were about a hundred of them that needed to be cropped, resized, and then framed in a certain way. Although the process wasn’t difficult to do by hand, one photo at a time, a hundred of them were going to take around half an hour to process. So, I decided to write some software to do it for me. And that’s one of the reasons I love software: it’s like an infinite toolbox, from which you can fashion a tool to do almost anything you need.

The program I use to manipulate images has a built-in scripting language, and if I could write a script I could then run it against my hundred photos and within seconds I’d finish my little project. Moreover, in the future when I have to do the same thing for other photos, I could just pull up that script and whiz through it. The only real headwind here was that I didn’t actually know the language! In a general sense, all programming languages are the same, and it’s just a matter of semantics. They solve the same kinds of problems in the same kinds of ways, but you have to know the syntax so you can structure a program in the right way. By all accounts I’m a pretty decent programmer, and I know about half a dozen languages fluently, and maybe another half-dozen at a high level. This one, however, was completely new to me.

So I sat down and started digging through the documentation about the language. I learned how variables are set, commands executed, and loops looped. Then I had to learn the API– the application programming interface– so I could use the language to do what I needed on my photos. That was another set of documentation. Finally I started writing my script. I tested it. I tweaked it. I tested it again. This is the way of software development.

The thirty minutes I would’ve spent processing the photos by hand soon became three hours of reading, writing, and testing. For some reason, the script just wouldn’t do what I wanted. Eventually I decided it was simply going to take too much effort for too little return (meaning I wasn’t sure how often I’d actually use this scripting language in the future). I heaved a heavy sigh, closed my editor window, and processed the images by hand.

Larry Wall, inventor of the Perl programming language back in the 90’s, was famous for stating the Three Great Virtues of a Programmer:

Laziness: The quality that makes you go to great effort to reduce overall energy expenditure. It translates into labor-saving programs that might take some time to create, but that, over time, will save far more time.

Impatience: The anger you feel when the computer is being lazy. It translates into ways to make the computer, and thus yourself, more efficient.

Hubris: The urge to write software so other people don’t say bad things about it. It translates into a pride of craftsmanship, writing a program that works well, handles errors gracefully, and is easy to maintain.

I’ve definitely felt all three of these Virtues in my thirty-odd years of software development. And even though I’m not writing software for clients, or working on a team with other people who have to understand what I’ve written, I find myself writing scripts and programs literally every week. Thank goodness for software.