A Christmas (kind of) vacation

For Christmas, my brother got me two great gifts. The first was that he would plan a weekend for Sara and I, including a hotel room and entertainment. The second, and more important gift, was that he would watch the kids during that time.

This was elaborate planning. There were reservations and tickets and printed maps. In fact, there were too many things to do and we ended up missing out on some of them! I guess we’ll just have to do it again sometime.

First we went to the farmer’s market. The Madison farmer’s market is not for the faint of heart. It’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 BILLION times bigger than our farmer’s market. We got scones at their favorite scone place, and bought some honey, flowers, and pickled garlic scapes. Ollie would have prefered to stay at the pickle place all day long eating samples. He mowed through everything in turn, including some habanero pickles. Some lady tried one next, figuring if some little kid was fine with them, what did she have to fear? Unfortunately, her face caught on fire and burned off. Never mess with Ollie when it comes to spicy things.

Next we had a tour of the capitol, which is sort of old hat for my brother. Still we got up on the roof walk, peeked in the senate chamber, and walked around in the rotunda.

By the time the kids were getting pretty hungry (forgetting, naturally, that we had already eaten breakfast AND scones), so we went out to brunch. We ate at Graze, and I must say, it was quite awesome. This was definitely the best meal we had in Madison (more on that later).

Next up we went out to the Sassy Cow Creamery for a tour. They were having some kind of family day, which included ice cream taste tests, games, tours, and did I mention taste tests? Nathan got a little…turned around on the way there (how else to describe the fact that it took us 50 minutes to get there and only 15 to get home?), but it all came out okay.

Better than okay, in fact, because we saw the craziest thing ever.

We were standing in the main barn watching cows eat and pretending like it didn’t smell like we were actually standing inside a cow’s butt, when the tour guide casually mentioned one of the cows was giving birth. Sure enough, one of the cows was just lying on its side, heaving and pushing. They didn’t have it in a separate area or anything; even the other cows weren’t bothering to give it any extra room.

“Whelp,” said the tour guide, “looks like I better give ‘er a tug.”

He casually walks over and grabs some kind of crazy chain thing, reaches inside the cow, attaches the chains to the baby’s legs and PULLS OUT A BABY COW. Simple as that. “I guess we’re all honorary Wisconsinites now,” said Sara.


After that, it was time to split up. Nathan and Amanda took the kids to Cave of the Mounds, and Sara and I went to check into our hotel. We were supposed to go kayaking next, but we couldn’t make it. We had early dinner reservations in order to make the comedy show later, so we only had an hour or so before dinner. Therefore we decided to just walk around and do some shopping. However, we also realized that there was NO WAY we could eat dinner at 6. Between breakfast, scones, lunch, and ice cream, we just didn’t have any room left over. So we had to cancel our reservations. It looked like a lovely restaurant, but we stopped for a coffee instead.

Finally, we ended the night with an improv show at Monkey Business. The room was small and hot, but the improv was actually pretty good. I don’t attend many improv shows, but I have been to a few, and the games they played were different than I have seen before. We ended up getting some pizza, and it was pretty good too (ham, blue cheese and walnuts!).

The next morning we met back up with the kids and Nate and Amanda made us pancakes (beet pancakes no less! That’s a first for me.) On a whim, on the way home we stopped off at my Grandma’s house and took her out to lunch, since we clearly hadn’t eaten enough in the past few days. My Uncle from Madison had the same idea, so we all ended up going together (ironic that we spent the weekend in Madison, but didn’t run into him until we left!)

All in all a very nice weekend, and a Christmas present I would recommend to anyone who has kids. Believe me, a night without the kids is always a very, very good bet for a present, even without the hotel room! Heck, even an HOUR without the kids…

WisCon Report

This post originally appeared at Diabolical Plots.

Despite trying to be a serious writer for more than 5 years now, it has never occurred to me to attend a con. Writing has always been a very solitary activity for me, and sometimes I have this thing where going to do something just sounds like so much work (I think it’s called laziness). On the other hand, I’m a raging extrovert who is energized by being around people. Enter WisCon.

WisCon 38 logo

WisCon was a very easy “intro con” for me because 1) I live in Chicago and Madison is very close by, 2) I could crash with my brother, and 3) everyone kept repeating over and over again what a kind, small*, welcoming con WisCon was. I’m happy to report, the experience was absolutely wonderful, and I would be more than happy to attend again, or perhaps branch out to other cons.

*Note, did anyone actually say it was a small con? Because it totally wasn’t, at least by my definition, but that was certainly the impression I had been given! But kind and welcoming were accurate at least.

On the other hand, we do have a longstanding commitment for Memorial Day, which conflicts with WisCon. This meant that I attended the con without Sara and the kids, which was probably best for all of us. (Side note, holy childcare Batman! $1 per kid for the entire con??)

To show how absolutely committed I was to attend this con, I rode the bus from Chicago. It was very crowded, but it wasn’t nearly so bad as it could have been. However, though I did get *some* writing done, it wasn’t as much as I had hoped. Turns out bouncing around in the dark, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, is not the conducive writing environment you might think it would be.

In David Steffen’s WorldCon report, he spoke of “finding fandom”. That’s definitely how I felt. I met so many writers that I’ve known online for years. It felt like everywhere I looked I saw nametags of people I recognized. “Hey, I enjoy that guy’s stories!”, “Hey, that woman sends me rejection letters!”, and “Don’t I see that name in my twitter feed a lot?”

Being as this was my first con, and never having attended any panels, it didn’t seem right to sign up to be on any panels. I didn’t know if I would have anything to offer on a panel. That was a mistake. In the very best panels, I was dying to chime in on everything. I will not make that mistake again.  (Did I mention I’m an extrovert?)

I found myself wearing a lot of different hats at the con. Some panels I attended as a writer, some as a blogger, and some just as a fan (a Welcome to Night Vale panel? Say whaaaaat!?). When I didn’t find a panel that sounded interesting, I attended readings, wandered the dealers’ rooms (print of a tiny dragon snuggling with a kitten for Evie’s birthday? Check!), or grabbed a coffee in the con suite. Oh con suite, you were exactly as advertised: stuffed full of free pop and coffee, frozen pizzas, and those hot dogs on rollers. With dusseldorf mustard! DUSSELDORF MUSTARD!

The biggest and best part of the con is that it made me feel like a writer.

The first part of that was the reading I did as part of Clockwork Lasercorn on Sunday morning.

clockwork lasercorn

(Sorry Catherine, we didn’t think to take a picture until you were gone!)

Considering that I hadn’t actually met any of the others in real life until about 15 minutes before the reading, and considering that we were slotted at 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning opposite a lot of other great programming, it all could have gone horribly wrong. But it didn’t! At all! Our group totally meshed, everybody’s stories were awesome, and mine seemed to be well received. I got compliments afterwards. I don’t think anybody knew I had never done a reading before.

Our reading was at a coffee shop, which I kind of liked, because anybody could just come in off the street and listen. It was pretty dead when we got there, but it actually filled up. I think we had about 18 or so, plus the 5 of us. And best of all? Ann “Ancillary Justice” Leckie came to my reading! Little did I know, she’s friends with my co-readers, and also super, super nice. This was the closest to my fanboy moment of the con. She just beat Neil Gaiman out of a Nebula for best novel, what, a week ago? And now she’s listening to my story? Awesome.

But! But! That was not all, oh no, that was not all.

I dropped by the Crossed Genres booth to pick up a copy of Long Hidden (which sold out after their excellent panel, so I’m glad I grabbed a copy early!) and to see if I could say hi to Bart and Kay who published me in OOMPH. Not only did I get a chance to chat with Bart for awhile, but he asked me sign all the copies of OOMPH they had on hand.


I can’t tell you how much that made my con. I’ve never done any kind of book signing before, and it was pretty cool. They even put a little “author signed” tent on top of the books later. The only downside is that I kept bumping my head on the door after that, since I was walking around 10 feet tall. The thing is, Long Hidden is blowing UP right now (for good reason! I just started reading it and it’s already so good!), and Bart had a lot going on this weekend. Yet I felt like he really was enthusiastic about meeting me and went out of his way to make me feel good whenever I bumped into him at the con.

Now, since I was staying with my brother, I didn’t have the “true” con experience of hanging out in the bar, attending any of the con parties, or signing up for any of the tabletop gaming sessions (I missed a chance for both Last Night on Earth and Small World). The fact that there was a Jem party that I did not attend is outrageous. Truly, truly, truly outrageous. On the other hand, while I would no doubt have had a good time doing any of those things, I think I would enjoy them more if I had “con friends” whom I was anxious to see. Maybe in years to come.

However, I did get a chance to experience some of the general Madison ambiance, such as drinking liters (that’s plural) of beer out of a boot to the tune of polka music, attending the world’s largest brat fest, and grabbing a to-go lunch from a place that offered to substitute your fruit cup with a “cheese cup” (yeah, that’s pretty much what it sounds like).

beer boot

I did want to make one final note about WisCon. As you might have guessed from the logo at the top, WisCon is the “world’s leading feminist science fiction convention”, with a strong focus on embracing people traditionally left out of science fiction fandom: women, people of color, people with disabilities, gay people, transgendered people…you know, the vast majority of everybody in the world.

Now, I must admit, as a white, cisgendered male, this made me a little nervous. Not because I feel uncomfortable around these groups of people (which is good because, you know, they’re the vast majority of everybody in the world), quite the contrary; I believe anybody who knows me would tell you I am fully prepared to rock a feminist science fiction convention. No, I was nervous because I was worried about intruding.

As a person of undeniable privilege, I kind of thought, “Maybe this one’s not for me. I can go a lot of places and be comfortable doing a lot of things that many of these people can’t. Maybe I should let them have this one, since us white, cisgendered men already kind of have all the rest of them.”

However, I have to say, it wasn’t an issue at all. Not only was everyone wonderful and welcoming as only a crowd of people who know what it feels like to be unwelcome could be, but there really were people of ALL stripes present, including people like me. And honestly, when I looked around the con, it didn’t occur to me to see women, people of color, people with disabilities, gay people, or transgendered people. What I saw was just a lot of people. The best kind of people: science fiction and fantasy nerds.

MY kind of people.

Head ShotShane lives in Chicago with his wife and two kids, where he writes software by day and avoids writing stories by night. His fiction has appeared on Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction, OOMPH: A Little Super Goes a Long Way, and elsewhere. He blogs regularly at shanehalbach.com or can be found on Twitter @shanehalbach.

I have an appearance!

I’ll be doing my authorly duty and doing a reading in Madison at 10 a.m. on Sunday, May 25th.

The reading will be part of WisCon, which I will be attending for the first time. However, the reading itself will be at Michelangelo’s coffee house, free for anybody to attend.

We’ll have an eclectic mix of stories, from Science Fiction to Fantasy, from shorts to novel excerpts, so if you happen to live close to Madison and you don’t have much going on at 10 am on the Sunday before Memorial Day, come be entertained by me and 4 other talented writers!

Hmm, too bad I don’t know anybody who fits THAT bill…

Baconfest 2012, Taste Test

We had 4 new competitors throw their hats into the ring this year:

  1. Willow Lake Farms (Custom Quality Meats)
  2. Pecatonica Valley (Madison Farmer’s Market)
  3. Oscar Mayer Pre-cooked (any old grocery store)
  4. Jim’s Double Smoked (Jim’s Market, Madison)

The focus was really on local (well, local to Madison anyway!) bacons, or at least ones you can’t just walk into the supermarket and buy. Indie bacons, if you will. Of particular note was the Willow Lake Farms’ bacon, because this is Amanda’s family’s personal bacon. For realz. They not only own the butcher shop (Custom Quality Meats), they actually raise the animals that eventually become their product. It doesn’t get any more “local” than that!

The sharp eyed among you will note that the exception, of course, being the Oscar Mayer pre-cooked “control” bacon. This was supposed to be a surprise, which necessitated that this year’s test be a blind taste test, but I saw the box in the cooler the night before. So only my brother actually knew which one was the Oscar Mayer. I knew that it was in there, but I actually forgot about it until I had recorded all of my observations. Suddenly I broke out in a cold sweat. What if I actually ranked it as the best? Oh, the disgrace!

Without further ado, here are the rankings:


Brand Rating (1-10) Comments
Willow Lake Farms  7 Very lean, mild flavor
Pecatonica Valley  8 Salty, stronger flavor, just enough fat
Oscar Mayer Pre-cooked  4 Super thin – not a meaty taste, salty
Jim’s Double Smoked  7 1/2 Thickest cut of the day, well seasoned, good amount of fat


Brand Rating (1-10) Comments
Willow Lake Farms  8 Very mild flavor, perfect breakfast bacon – not smokey & not too sweet
Pecatonica Valley  6 pretty sweet, a little salty
Oscar Mayer Pre-cooked  5 looks thin, not much flavor, slightly smokey at the end
Jim’s Double Smoked  5 very meaty flavor – almost too much like ham, not smokey enough


Brand Rating (1-10) Comments
Willow Lake Farms  7 plain, not too flavorful, versatile, not too salty 🙂
Pecatonica Valley  7 1/2 similar to blue circle with a slightly smoky taste
Oscar Mayer Pre-cooked  5 a little stale and chewy, but still bacon
Jim’s Double Smoked  6 thick, a little chewy, saltier than others, thick strip of fat is kind of unappetizing


Brand Rating (1-10) Comments
Willow Lake Farms  6 salty, little fatty, thicker, almost tough
Pecatonica Valley  7 perfect texture, salty, almost oilier somehow, but not fatty, similar taste to blue, but better texture
Oscar Mayer Pre-cooked  5 almost brittle, not as salty, average
Jim’s Double Smoked  5 chewy, more piggy

Overall Results:

Brand Average Rating
Willow Lake Farms 7
Pecatonica Valley 7.125
Oscar Mayer Pre-cooked 4.75
Jim’s Double Smoked 5.875

Overall, I felt like all the bacon was relatively similar, and therefore hard to rank. Two interesting things from the results:

  1. Oscar Mayer lost by a decent margin. Thank god, all is right with the world! I really forgot to pay attention to that during the test, and I really was worried I would accidentally like it. However, without knowing which bacon was which, everybody ranked it the lowest.
  2. Amanda’s family’s bacon did not win. However, it did miss out by only .125 measly points! That is one small margin of victory. Amanda didn’t seem upset about this, but I think she was relieved that she at least ranked it the highest. She attributed it to the fact that she always had this bacon growing up, so when she tasted it she immediately thought, “That’s what bacon is supposed to taste like!”
I should also point out that we had a second kind of bacon from Willow Lake Farms for breakfast (a round “sandwich bacon”) that was most excellent, but not part of the taste test.
Just like last year, we let Evie fill out a ballet, even though we didn’t count it in the rankings. Evie opted for a graphical depiction of her emotions, rather than a 1 – 10 ranking. And just like last year, Evie was again dead on: her favorite was the grand champion (Pecatonica Valley), and her least favorite was the grand loser (Oscar Meyer Pre-cooked). You’ll notice that all of the bacons received a smiley face except that one, which received a frowny face with tears:

I can assure you, I’ve never been prouder as a dad. She obviously has a finely tuned pallet. Maybe she has a future as some kind of sommelier for bacon?

Missing: One Blogger

So, you’ve probably noticed there haven’t been a lot of posts lately.  That is because we have been having some crazy weeks lately!  First off, I went to Detroit for business from Tuesday until Thursday night, then Friday we left for WI for a family reunion until Sunday, followed by camping with family from Sunday until Wednesday, followed by one night in Madison with my brother, then back to Chicago on Thursday when people began arriving for Evie’s big birthday party which was on Saturday.  I think we are mostly cleaned up now and everything put back in order, but there are still a few loose ends.  Lets just say I am not looking forward to going to work tomorrow, but I am looking forward to a weekend off next weekend!

So lets see, camping.  Well, let me say for starters that this was the most exhausting vacation I have ever had.  Camping tends to be a lot of work in the first place, but with a baby it is 10 times worse.  There are so many more things to take with you and remember and every time you leave the campsite you end up making 3 more trips back because of all the things you forgot.  So we were planning on driving all the way to the reunion but by the time we got out the door and then with typical Friday rush hour traffic, we realized we were crazy to think we could go that far in one day.  So we ended up finding a campsite at a state park along the way.  Even though it meant putting up and taking down the tent one extra time and rearranging the car a little, it ended up working out pretty well.  It was only $30 total for the night (rather than $100 or who knows how much for a hotel) and it really wasn’t all that much work.  The only bad thing was the mosquitoes!  Due to all the flooding, the mosquito population in WI is really out of control.  I probably got ~25 bites that first night.  They were actually fine for the rest of the trip, but that first night we couldn’t even leave the tent.

The reunion was a lot of fun, although it seemed like a lot of people were missing; specifically my cousins!  Very few of them were there.  Attendance was a little down this year, I think it was around like 170 people.  This was my first time at the new site, but I liked it.  The only complaint I have about the whole thing was the fireworks.  Now, I understand that not everybody has a sleeping baby and its not like I am one of those parents who thinks the whole world should stop and bow to my will because I have a kid, but I have to tell you it was as if the fireworks were going off on top of our tent.  In fact that is not wholely inaccurate since I was standing outside of my tent when the first one went off and an 18 inch piece of debris landed about 2 feet away from me.  Aunt Lois actually found some of the debris inside her car the next day!  But I digress.  By the time Sara made it to the tent she found me huddling over Evie with a pillow covering our heads.  But it worked apparently because she was back asleep as soon as the fireworks were over.  She even slept through the 4 wheeler drive-by / off road show a few hours later.  Oh, and (as usual) our dish to pass went over very poorly.  That wasn’t so bad though, since we ate it for pretty much the rest of the trip.

The rest of the camping went pretty good as well.  There is not a lot of time to relax since (like at home) you are always thinking about the next thing the baby needs to do.  By the time you get everybody up and showered and dressed, you start thinking about breakfast, then diaper changes, then naps then lunch, then more diaper changes, etc.  Before you know it you are working on baths and pajamas and bedtime.  It was fairly hot, but we (I) managed a dip in the pool I think every day.  The campsite was really nice, I would definitely recommend it.  It was obvious that the people really work hard to make it a nice place.  The pictures on the website don’t really do it justice, but maybe that is because they are constantly upgrading everything.  My family has gone there I think 7 of the last 8 years or something like that.  Some of them even get Christmas cards from the owners!  I would definitely go back there again.  We would probably still tent camp, but the cabins were probably the nicest cabins I have ever seen at a camp site.  Our tent was the perfect distance from the site where we had a fire every night: far enough away that we wouldn’t wake her up, but close enough that we could get there in a hurry if we needed to

Speaking of being away from the tent, Sara had this great idea I think she got maybe from parent hacks.  In order to separate ourselves a little bit from the tent when Evie was sleeping, we improvised a baby monitor.  Sara would call my phone, put both phones on speaker and then mute my phone.  Her phone would stay with the baby.  Since we don’t use minutes between our phone, we could let it go like that for hours.  The only hard part is remembering to charge our phones constantly.

Anyway, Evie was again walking like a maniac all the time and again improved so much on the skill that she is now walking.  Everyone was really helpful with her and it was very appreciated.  She is starting to have some serious mommy issues (like separation anxiety).  Also, she got some major diaper rash which meant kicking and screaming at every diaper change as well as hating the outdoor baths.  Even though there were plenty of people to take her for long periods of time, I just got more and more worn out every day that went by.  By the time we left I was sooo glad we were staying in a hotel the next night and not camping or even going back to our own house.  If we went back to our place we would have ended up unpacking, etc.  So the hotel was perfect.

So we went to Madison and got to take a tour of the capitol where little brother works.  His co-worker gave us a tour, and he could definitely be a tour guide.  He has worked there for something like 38 years so he definitely knew what he was talking about.  Our hotel was literally across the street from the capitol which was handy since we had to leave early from the orchestral “concert on the square” to get Evie to bed, but we could still hear and see it from our room.  We walked around the shops and things and ate at some restaurants and generally confirmed what everybody says:  Madison is a great town!  We even discussed what it would be like to live there, although probably not until we retired.  The only thing we’re not sure of is that it, like much of the rest of Wisconsin, seems to be built on quite a beer culture that we have no desire to participate in.  Well, it was just an intellectual exercise, but it goes to show you it is a nice town!

Okay, I think that is enough for one night!