I’m a wine philistine and a better wine drinker because of it

wine drinker

In some ways, being a wine drinker with a terrible palate is better than being a wine drinker with a refined palate. Bear with me for a moment, because it makes sense, I promise.

I am a wine drinker and for several years I tried to parlay that enjoyment into being a wine enthusiast, if not exactly a wine snob. I read wine books and magazines and looked at wine web sites and listened to wine podcasts. I tried to understand how to drink and evaluate wine in order to smell and taste all the various elements: oak, dirt, red cherry, citrus fruit, even cat pee. (Yes really, certain varieties of wine have cat pee in their taste profile as a good thing.) I bought good wine and put it in an online database as if I were amassing a cellar instead of a handful of bottles. I even bought a very expensive Burgundy when Isabella was born with the expectation of it maturing when she turned 18.

And yet, I never got it. Yes, I could sometimes taste or smell the extreme profiles (like cat pee or citrus), but subtle flavors like chocolate or mahogany eluded me. No waxing rhapsodic on the subtle nuances and qualities of the wine for me. I finally had to conclude that I was never going to be able to tell the difference between fine wine and cheap wine for any bottle under about $50 or $60 retail.[1]

Wine Drinker, not Enthusiast

You know what? That’s awesome! It means I’m free. I’m free to buy the wine in the sale bin based on the varietal (e.g. chardonnay or pinot noir) or geography (e.g. Burgundy or Port) instead of whether it’s “worthy”. I could be just a wine drinker who enjoys wine.

Sure I can taste enough difference that I know I prefer Sauvignon blanc from New Zealand over those from other regions, for example, but when I look at two dozen California pinot noirs in the racks at the wine shop I don’t have to agonize over the “right” one because they all taste the same to me. (Most consumers who aren’t wine enthusiasts, but simply wine drinkers, buy based on the pretty label anyway.[2])

So in this case ignorance really is bliss. I know I can walk into a wine store, buy whatever’s on sale for $5, $10, $15 per bottle and be pretty sure I’ll like it. If I were a wine expert, I imagine I’d have to spend a lot more time finding something to please my expert taste buds. As a wine drinker, I can just enjoy the wine.

  1. For wine that retails above $60, I have to admit I can taste the difference. I’ve had a truly amazing $90 Barolo once and other wines in that rarified company a few times, but I’m almost certainly never going to be able to drink those on more than rare occasions.  ↩
  2. “How much do the labels on wine bottles influence what we buy?”, Vinepair.com  ↩

Photo: “0007-sdj2010-PTK 2474 klein” by VictoriaDruschel 01 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:0007-sdj2010-PTK_2474_klein.jpg#/media/File:0007-sdj2010-PTK_2474_klein.jpg


A Ripping Good time for my DVDs and AppleTV

As I mentioned in my year-end retrospective, I have the new AppleTV that allows third-party apps and have combined it with my Synology NAS[1] running the Plex service to serve up all kinds of multimedia straight to my TV.

To complete the circuit, I’ve spent the long weekend ripping all my old DVD collection to the NAS with Handbrake. It hasn’t been too tedious since it’s just a matter of swapping disks every hour or two. The Plex software automatically grabs the metadata (title, description, cover art, etc.) from the Internet based on the title of the file once it’s ripped, which it did for all but the more obscure or older titles in my collection.

A big advantage of ripping them is that I can then store the DVDs and not have them taking up precious space in the already crowded office where the TV lives. It also makes them more present since I rarely look at the DVDs when wondering what to watch, but will scroll around on the AppleTV. Another big benefit is that if I have a Plex subscription I can stream the movies over the Internet or download them to my iPad or iPhone to take with with me on trips.

There are two downsides though: The DVD extras aren’t included, which isn’t a huge deal, and I only have a DVD reader attached to my computer, not a Blu-Ray reader so I can’t rip any of my newer stuff like Lord of the Rings, Star Trek or Star Wars. I may pick up an inexpensive one soon off of Amazon[2] because while I know I can buy movies as digital downloads, for the movies I buy on disk now, I really want the extras to watch at least once. And plus even if they do a “George Lucas” (i.e. edit the beloved version into some new incomprehensible mess while pulling the old version offline), I still have my original discs. At least that’s the theory.[3]

  1. In case you’re wondering which NAS I have it’s the DS214se, which has been replaced in the product line by the DS216se.  ↩
  2. This is the one I’ve been recommended: Epartsdom@USB 2.0 Slim USB External Blu-Ray Player External USB DVD RW Laptop Burner Drive White  ↩
  3. Unfortunately, ripping BluRays is more complicated than ripping DVDs, but with these instructions it’s not too bad.  ↩

Looking Back on 2015

Continuing my annual tradition[1], here’s my review of the past year in our life. We end the year pretty much how we started it with no major changes in our family or my employment. We have no new children nor pregnancies, which is like last year, but unlike every other year of our marriage. I have the same job and we live in the same house, driving the same cars.

So what did happen?

1. Same Job, New Job

In addition to my work as Communications Director of a collaborative of two parishes here in the Archdiocese of Boston (down from three at the beginning of 2015), I have now also been hired part-time as the Managing Director/COO of SQPN, which is quite exciting as I’ve worked with them for a number of years on several projects and been a part of the listener community for even longer, back to the beginnings. We’re just getting started, but our main priority in the near term is to re-focus on the mission of Catholic new media and begin putting our resources there. On the other hand, Fr. Chip Hines and I ended our weekly radio program on the Station of the Cross radio network because it was too much for us both to keep up with while doing our other work.

2. Star Wars

We started the year with me showing the kids “Star Wars” for the first time, which resulted in it occupying a lot of their imaginary games for the rest of the year. At the other end of the year, we had an actual new Star Wars movie, “The Force Awakens”, which I saw first by myself on opening night and then a few days later again, with Melanie. Short review: Awesome. Everything I’d hoped for and more.

3. Vacation at the Lake

Maine Lake Vacation 2015

In 2014, our big vacation was a trip to Virginia and Washington, DC, to visit my mom and sister. This year we stayed a bit closer to home, although even up to relatively late in the year, we didn’t know what we were going to do. It turned out that we were able to rent a lakeside cottage in western Maine at a very generous rate and it was amazing. For a week, we lived in a beautiful well-appointed house on a hillside so that it had three split levels. The main level included a deck overlooking the lake that was a quiet spot for early morning coffee and prayer while listening to the loons cry. There was also a swimming dock and the kids and I spent time nearly every day in the water.

It was so amazing to be there that I kind of went in mourning when we came back to our smaller house without it’s open, airy floor plan and serene vistas.

4. Sophia’s First Communion


While we had Sophia’s First Confession and First Communion in 2015, unlike Isabella’s sacraments, done by herself at our local parish, Sophia’s First Communion was done with other homeschoolers at St. Adelaide’s parish in Peabody, along with her cousin, my sister’s daughter, and other children.

She’s been so happy with receiving Communion, even if a bit less so with Confession. (She gets very nervous when we bring up the subject of Confession.) Just this past Christmas, she told me and Melanie that even better than going to Midnight Mass is going to Midnight Mass and receiving Jesus in the Eucharist.[2]

Since her First Communion, either Melanie or I have had to make sure to go up to receive behind her because she’s so tiny that often the priests or extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist just pass over her. I have to make sure they know it’s okay for her to receive.

5. Hospital Visits

We didn’t get out of 2015 without our share of bumps and bruises, but it could have been worse. Lucia had the worst of it. She got a cold last summer that really made her latent asthma so much worse that Melanie took her to the local emergency room. They were concerned enough that they sent her and Melanie in an ambulance to Children’s Hospital in Boston where they stayed overnight. That was a little nerve-wracking. Thankfully, my brother John and his wife Patti and my niece came to save the day by watching the kids and picking up my car that I left at the hospital as I went into Boston to bring Melanie and Lucia an overnight bag of essentials. Everything turned out all right, although Lucia does have to take a round of nebulizer medicine every night before bed now.

Ben also got a visit to the ER in December when leapt from one piece of furniture to another, not quite making it and splitting open the skin over his eyebrow. That one took 10 stitches but he was a trooper as well, very stoic about it. That’s good because a few weeks later, he had to go to the dentist to get a tooth extracted and a couple of cavities filled. Oy.

6. Some New Tech, But Not All the New Tech

While my favorite technology company, Apple, was pushing out a bunch of new products, I did not jump at the biggest debut, the Apple Watch. I think it’s a fine product that will continue to evolve into something that I will eventually need, but for what it does today and at the current price, I can’t justify it in my life. For others, it’s just the thing and I’m glad for them. And while my iPad 4 continues to decline slowly following the dropping mishap last year, I haven’t yet reached the point where I have to replace it.

The new iPhone 6s Plus might be the reason why. When the iPhone 6/6 Plus came out in 2014, I was torn over whether to get the larger screen. So many reviewers and pundits made such a big deal over how large it is and unwieldy for people with small hands (and I do have stubby fingers) that I had stayed away. But I finally decided that the bigger battery and video and photo stabilizations that it has and the plain old 6 doesn’t made it worth it. Then when I finally had it in hand, I realized all those size concerns were overblown. It’s such a great screen and so large that I use it for some of the things I used the iPad for.

As for other tech, I did spring for the new AppleTV 4, whose biggest distinction is the ability to have 3rd-party apps. With the addition of the Plex app and having a Synology network-attached storage, I can now drop ripped videos from DVDs and Blu-rays onto the NAS and play them on our TV in glorious HD with no muss or fuss. The combination of the three pieces have been a wonder.

7. Books and More Books

At the beginning of 2015, I signed up for the Goodreads annual reading challenge, in which I pledged to read 30 books last year. It wasn’t exactly a lofty goal, compared to some of my friends or to Melanie’s book-consuming rate or even to me in my reading prime, but for me now, this would be a substantial increase over my recent consumption of books in which I read three or four books per year.

I’m happy to say I managed to complete 32 books in 2015 and that’s how many I’ve set as my goal for this year. This is a pace of two or three per month. That’s a high rate for me even now, but possible, especially if I intersperse some of the denser non-fiction reading with some light science fiction like I did last year.

Some of my favorites from 2015[3] are:
* Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine
* Sailing to Sarantium: Book One of the Sarantine Mosaic
* Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish
* Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples
* Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse Book 1)
* The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam (Bampton Lectures in America)
* The Sugar Season: A Year in the Life of Maple Syrup, and One Family’s Quest for the Sweetest Harvest
* The Glory of the Crusades

The secret to my increased reading success has been my reliance on the Kindle for all but one of the books I read, which gave me the ability to read in bed in the dark without waking the baby or Melanie. Plus the impetus provided by gameifying the reading challenge. Nothing like a bit of competitiveness to get me motivated.

8. Family Visits


Most of the usual host of out-of-town relatives came to visit this year. Melanie’s sister, Theresa, came in April for Sophia’s First Communion–since she is her godmother–and then again for Christmas and New Year’s. Melanie’s mom and dad also took turns visiting, her mom coming in August and then her dad in September for a week or so each.

These visits are so nice, not just because we get to see them and the kids get to spend time with their grandparents and aunt, but also because having another adult gives Melanie and me the opportunity to go out for a night. When her mom came in August, Melanie and I had an amazing dinner for her birthday at the Scarlet Oak Tavern in Hingham. We drive by it every time we go to the farmers market and have wanted to stop in. And in December, it was Theresa’s visit that allowed us to go out to dinner and then see Star Wars together.

9. Museums and Field Trips

We had a number of fun trips out and about this year. In the spring, once the great thaw actually began, we drove up north of Boston to Hollis Hills Farm to watch them make maple syrup. It was quite impressive to watch all the steam bubble out of the evaporator. They also raised other crops and animals and provided a full breakfast of their own eggs, pancakes, bacon and sausage and, of course, maple syrup.


We also ventured out in April to Lexington Green the week before Patriots Day for the dress rehearsal for the re-enactment of the “shot heard ’round the world.” (The dress rehearsal is not as crowded as the actual re-enactment if not quite as polished.) It made quite the impression on the kids as later in the summer we found Lucia marching about with a stick, proclaiming, “Lay down your arms, you rebels!”

Continuing to revel in our Revolutionary War history, we took another day to walk the Freedom Trail in Boston. Even though I grew up here, I’d never done it, so we drove into Boston, parked under the Common, and then followed the trail from the State House to the old Granary Burials Grounds to King’s Chapel to Fanueil Hall with a couple stops in between. Despite all the walking, the kids handled it very well. The trail goes beyond Fanueil Hall into the North End and over to Charlestown so maybe we’ll do that this year.

#Hokusai at @mfaboston

We also returned to our old standbys as well. The Museum of Fine Arts, where we have a membership, had two great exhibitions this year, showing the art of the Japanese artist Hokusai and the Dutch masters in the age of Rembrandt and Vermeer. Both were phenomenal, going beyond just the art work to stimulate discussion of history, culture and society. The kids loved it as much as we did.

Our one-year membership to the New England Aquarium ran out this summer and so we made a last visit in July, taking the ferry boat from Hingham to Rowe’s Wharf as before. The boat ride is a much a highlight of the trip as the aquarium itself. While the animals and exhibits are great, the aquarium always seems to be so crowded so we tend to reach our limits early. And because we’re bound by the schedule of the ferry which runs with big time gaps in the middle of the day, we usually spend a lot of time waiting for the boat to come so as not to miss it.

Of course, we had a lot of other little trips to World’s End in Hingham and to apple picking and Melanie often takes them on school-related trips, but another big highlight for me came on an outing, not with the family, but with my work colleagues. One of my coworkers is a season-ticket holder with the Boston Red Sox and one of the perks is the ability to take part in a kind of public batting practice on the field when the team is out of town. So in late June, as a gift to the pastor, Fr. Chip, we boarded a charted bus, rode into Boston, and Fr. Chip took BP on the field. Afterward, we had the run of the place and were able to wander at will from the dugouts and locker rooms up to the luxury boxes and media suites and over to the top of the Green Monster. It was quite a day.

10. Catholic New Media Celebration in Atlanta

Also in June, I flew down to Atlanta to take part in the 10th anniversary Catholic New Media Celebration for SQPN. At that point I had not taken the job as Managing Director yet, so I was there as a friend and fan and contributor. I didn’t see anything of Atlanta beyond the airport hotel and convention center, but the weekend was well spent. I got to spend time with some of the most interesting people involved in Catholic new media, to brainstorm about ways we can continue our work, and to be inspired and entertained as we did so. This was my fifth CNMC and they’ve always been a delight, mostly because of the people I spend time with.

Last but not least…

11. The Winter from Hell


At the start of 2015, it seemed like we were going to have a dry, mild winter. On the day after Christmas, we had gone to the park and walked in light jackets. But by mid-February, we’d already endured the third-snowiest winter on record, getting as much snow in three weeks as we average over two entire winters (October-April). By the time we were done, we’d not only broken the previous record for snow; we smashed it. Just like our poor patio table whose glass top collapsed under the snow. Or our snowblower which gave up the ghost halfway through.

And the snow wasn’t the end of it because even after the last measurable snow sometime in March, we endured week after week of frigid, Arctic temperatures, keeping the snow from melting. Even though Easter wasn’t particularly early this year, we couldn’t do our Easter egg hunt because of the snow. We got to the point where pools for when the last snow would melt included dates in June and even July. (The last official recorded snow on the ground in Boston melted in June.)

So far, this winter replicates the early parts of last winter, but the forecasters say that El Niño this year will keep it that way. I’ll believe when I see it.

The Future

I’m not much of a prognosticator, but I’m hoping that we can have more of the same this coming year (except for the winter). We don’t have any particular milestones that we’re heading toward, but it’s my hope that 2016 will see us remain healthy as we raise our children in a home that is loving and faith-filled and full of joy.

  1. See my posts reviewing 2013 and 2014  ↩
  2. Speaking of midnight Mass, for the second year in a row, I wasn’t able to go. Whereas in 2014, both Ben and Anthony refused to be woken and dressed for the Mass, this year it was Anthony who we couldn’t wake up even a bit. So Melanie and her sister took the three oldest while I stayed home with Anthony and Lucia. And then in the morning, it was just Anthony and me, which was nice in its own way.  ↩
  3. For reviews of most of these books, see either prior blog posts, my Goodreads entries, or my reviews on the Amazon product pages.  ↩

Our probable cause police state

Federal judge: Drinking tea, shopping at a gardening store is probable cause for a SWAT raid on your home – The Washington Post:

“The investigation leading to the raid began at least seven months earlier, when Robert Harte and his son went to a gardening store to purchase supplies to grow hydroponic tomatoes for a school project. A state trooper had been positioned in the store parking lot to collect the license plate numbers of customers, compile them into a spreadsheet, then send the spreadsheets to local sheriff’s departments for further investigation. Yes, merely shopping at a gardening store could make you the target of a criminal drug investigation.”

I’m not in favor marijuana legalization or other drug legalization and I think we should prosecute drug dealers harshly. Likewise, I support the difficult work done by the police to keep the peace and enforce the law.

But this is getting out of hand. The militarization of police combined with a siege mentality and a need to be seen as getting the job done has created a police force that sometimes sees itself as above the law and accountable to no one while treating the general public with as always “guilty of something.” That’s not to say that all police are like this, but the numbers of those who are have been increasing.

Photo: WEBN-TV/Flickr. CC-BY-ND-2.0


I Don’t Care Where My Children Go To College

I Don’t Care Where My Children Go To College | Catherine Pearlman:

“I’ve made a decision: I am not going to steal my son and daughter’s childhoods so they may wind up at Yale instead of Westchester Community College. I am not going to force them to be who I say they should be by signing them up for every class and making them stick with it. Instead, I am going to sit back and watch them find their own path. I am going to expose them to life and do it as a family.”

Let me re-phrase this. I am not going to spend the entirety of my children’s childhood obsessing over getting into college, whether the right or the wrong one. I am not going to steal from them the carefree days I had wandering the woods and creating whole world in my mind, playing until after dark with my friends, reading some of the most amazing books ever.

I am not going to put my children on the treadmill in the vain hope that they will stand out among everyone else scrambling to claw their ways to the top so they can attend some top school and end up at some top job. Because really is that any different than hoping your kid will be a star in the NBA, NFL, or MLB?

Our politicians pander to this by pledging to put our toddlers into Headstart so that they can start stressing over developing their reading skills before they’re ready. Our schools do this by emphasizing college prep in elementary grades. There’s a whole industry of college preppers peddling advice more suited to creating drones than to creating spiritually whole human beings.

My children may go to college and get a degree. They may take up a trade and earn a good living. The girls may become stay-at-home moms or religious sisters. The boys may become priests. Whatever they choose–whatever they’re called to–will not come at expense of who they are now. Because right now they are not adults-in-training. They are children.


How to Help Priests Smell Like their Sheep

How to Help Priests Smell Like their Sheep:

“Families do need it. A shepherd’s presence in our pasture meant an abundance of blessings for my husband and me — literal blessings (check out how incredibly beautiful the prayer of ‘blessing of an automobile’ is!) and blessings of the soul. When the kids were finally tucked in after a late evening sibling blow-up, Father offered a bounty of encouragement and a tiny sprinkling of the gentlest of chiding, with the wisdom of a celibate consecrated to God, privy to so many lessons in humanity gleaned within the walls of the confessional.”

While Melanie and I don’t have the space to have anyone other than close family as a guest in our home (the problem being a lack of a guest room), we do preach the value of having priests as dinner guests, as well as others like young people discerning religious life and religious brothers and sisters. In addition to the benefits to our children–exposing them to those who embody the vocations they will have to choose among–and the benefits to us–friendship and camaraderie, there are obvious benefits to them as well, including friendship and the experience of a family life that isn’t your own nieces and nephews. (And given the decreased size of families today, it’s possible they don’t have any nieces or nephews.)

I have said before that while a priest doesn’t need to be married to be able to counsel the married, he does need to be around families and children regularly in order to remember what family life is like.

That said, it’s been too long since we’ve have a priest or other guest at our table. Time to rectify that.


Lessons from a Home Invasion

Under the Gun: New life after a home invasion:

“That moment of looking back over my life was so important that I will probably spend the rest of my life unpacking it. I stared at the bracelet of the Virgin Mary that I wear every day. The fear in my body quietly dissipated, replaced with a resignation. I came to terms with the idea that my life might end on the floor of my kitchen. I remember that I did not ask God to save me, but I did ask for a quick and painless death.”

When the author had a burglar enter her home and demanded money at gunpoint, she received a moment of pure clarity. God willing, few of us will ever undergo such a trial, but maybe we can learn from her example and take the lessons from it.


Governor of Connecticut Says He Will Push Gun Control Order

Governor of Connecticut Says He Will Push Gun Control Order – The Boston Globe:

“With last week’s mass shooting in California focusing attention on terrorism and guns, Governor Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut announced Thursday that he intends to sign an executive order barring people on federal terrorism watch lists from buying firearms in the state.

‘Like all Americans, I have been horrified by the recent terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Paris,’ Malloy, a Democrat, told reporters. ‘This should be a wake-up call to all of us. This is a moment to seize in America, and today I’m here to say that we in Connecticut are seizing it.'”

In theory and practice, I support restricting the ability of terrorists to buy guns here in the US. But here’s the problem with Malloy’s executive order. First, there are many people on the terror watch list who are there by accident. The story notes that the late US Sen. Ted Kennedy was even on the watch list, presumably in a case of mistaken identity. I know people whose minor children were on the list and even pets! Given these problems, the odds are that people who have nothing to do with terrorism are going to lose their constitutional rights. What criteria is used to place someone on the watch list and how rigorously are those entries checked?

That leads to my second problem, namely that I have a problem with restricting constitutional rights based on suspicions. Most of the people on the watch list have committed no crime and are not suspects in crimes. They are merely suspected of the capacity or inclination to a crime. That’s a very loose basis on which to strip people of their constitutional rights and such a precedent is very scary.


Nova Star ferry released from arrest, leaves Maine in disappointment

Nova Star ferry released from arrest, leaves Maine in disappointment:

“The departure came a little more than a month after federal officials seized the ferry and ordered it to pay back about $800,000 in unpaid bills.”

First, the way this was written annoys me. A ferry doesn’t pay bills; a ferry operator does. Likewise, a ferry cannot be arrested; it can be seized. It is property, not a person. Sometimes you can take cutesy too far.

Second, why is it so hard to establish a regular ferry route between New England and Nova Scotia? Melanie and I took a high-speed catamaran ferry from Bar Harbor, Maine to Yarmouthport, NS on our honeymoon and it was great. Instead of a whole day of driving, we were there in 45 minutes. It’s a little longer out of Portland, but it’s still better than driving. Maybe people just perceive it as too expensive.

In any case, this was the third attempt to run a regular ferry route from Mane to Nova Scotia in the past ten years. I hope somebody figures it out because I hope to go back to the Maritimes on vacation again and would much prefer time on a ferry, even overnight, to driving the whole way.

Photo: Matt Hinsta/Flickr CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0