Frogmore Stew

They had this in the cafeteria at work and I wondered if I could make it myself. It’s so simple.

It’s also called low-country boil (I don’t think there’s any difference) and there is a version for the grill. I’m interested in trying it on the grill. The steps I saw called for getting the potatoes and corn mostly boiled, then adding protein and finishing on the grill in foil packets.


Ingredients (4 servings):

  • 8 small red potatoes
  • Four ears of corn, quartered
  • Turkey kielbasa, sliced
  • 2 lbs of shrimp
  • 1/4 cup of Old Bay Seasoning
  • 8 cups of water


  1. Boil the water with the Old Bay.
  2. Add the potatoes and boil for 15 minutes.
  3. Add the sausage and boil for 5 minutes.
  4. Add the corn and boil for 5 minutes.
  5. Add the shrimp and boil until pink (or 5 minutes).
  6. Drain, reserving the water.
  7. Scoop out servings, drizzle with stock.

Retail therapy


One of my first retail jobs was at Howard Johnson’s working the ice cream counter when I was like fourteen. My mom was a hostess. My Aunt Polly was a waitress and my older brother Tom was a short order cook. My aunt got her job first, and then she got the rest of us in. The owner was an old man, a one-eyed Serbian named Louie. He sat by the cash register all night long. I thought he was staring off into space, but the restaurant had all these big windows in front, and Louie was actually monitoring the place by staring into the reflection of the glass. It was a bad job for me, because I never knew what to do with myself, and I have never thought much of the concept of trying to looking busy. I remember my mom racing over to me, whispering out the side of her mouth, “Louie is watching, Louie is watching.”

One time a cute girl came in with her family and I scooped her an ice cream and she took it from my hand, whispered something to her dad, and then he told the assistant manager that I may have licked his daughter’s cone. It was such a horrible, qeeby-inducing thing to be accused of, and the best I could do was screw my face into an indignant pose (I may have licked my wrist, but I swear my tongue never touched that girl’s cone). The assistant manager that night totally knew what to do. He snapped into action, tossing out her cone, scooping her a new one, and all the while just making all this jovial banter with her and her family, smoothing things over for me with her dad. As soon as they left, he turned to me and totally dropped the jovial small talk act.

Never lick your hand when you’re scooping ice cream.

I got kicked out of high school so I went to the Harrisburg East Mall and interviewed for a dishwasher job at Hot Shoppes. I had worked before, but it was my first interview. She was a thin woman about 40 or 50 and she wanted me to tell her about high school. I don’t remember what I said to her, but it was probably something negative about the school, particularly its policy around athletics, or maybe about the athletes who were all so venerated. I expected her to say something like, “Well, you’re a really smart guy, and you should just knuckle down and deal with your attitude” because that’s how those kinds of conversations had always gone in the past. Instead she reached into her purse, shook out a Pall Mall and lit up. It was the late 70s and everyone was smoking everywhere, but it still seemed like an odd thing for her to do in an interview. She offered me a smoke and I probably took it. She blew a cloud of smoke over her shoulder and said that in her opinion the whole education system was just in an absolute sad mess and when did I think I could start. I just looked at her. I had my heart on my sleeve and it was not the direction that I thought the conversation would go. I felt pretty stupid and defeated, but that lady handed it well. I don’t think I lasted more than a few days at Hot Shoppes. The dishes that came out of the machine were super scalding hot.

In the 80s, I financed a heroin habit partly by stealing designer jeans from department stores at the same mall. Not really a lot of planning. You just put on as many pairs of pants as you could wear out of the store, and then you brought them all back inside in a bag from the store and went right to the returns department. My partner was a guy named Vince and his strategy was to look for an older woman, someone with a little grey, who didn’t have a lot of investment in the store. Cash returns without a receipt are judgement calls, so the clerk always asked for a reason. Vince’s thing was to say something vaguely sexual or embarrassing like, “Too tight in the crotch” and then, because these were nice little old ladies, they would just immediately ring you out to get you out of the store and away from their face. If we had a good day and we could score, we would always debrief in the car, and he’d present his old lady return strategy. It’s not okay to steal or mess with elderly retail clerks, but those were some of the best times.

One time I remember a stealing a boom box and a store guard saw me and followed me out of the store. He yelled stop, so I ran and he followed me. He was a big beefy guy. I hadn’t run in a long time and was surprised at how out of shape I was. I realized I was going to have to stop because I was out of breath, collapsing on the hood of some car in the parking lot and looking over my shoulder. He was stopped too, with his hands on his knees sucking air. It was really hard to sell a boom box for any money and I had just grabbed it on impulse. You couldn’t even return electronics like you could pants, so I just hurled the thing in his general direction (it was still in the box) and then limped off to my car. I drove past him and he had the boom box under his arm, his uniform shirt all untucked from his pants, gasping for breath. I waved to get his attention as I passed him. He flipped me off. I flipped him off back.

I worked night shift at a mini mart gas station in Steelton, the small town where I grew up. The guy who ran the franchise was a beefy ex-biker named Joel with tattoos all up his forearms. He knew my family but I didn’t really know him, so we were trying to get to know one another, but doing that little dance you do to let another shady person know where you’re coming from, but also to keep the boss employee boundary in place. He gave me a test he said every employee had to take. It was this crazy test that had questions like “if your mother came into the store and she hadn’t gotten her disability check, but she was sure to get it tomorrow, and she needed milk tonight what would you do?” So it’s multiple choice and like four answers seem like reasonable solutions (give her a half pint and start a tab, pay for it from your salary, etc.) and then one answer is all, like, fuck your Mom, tell her no. I read a few of the questions and they were all like that, so I wasn’t really sure what to do. I asked Joel and he gave me this look. What do you think you should say? he asked. He told me he couldn’t hire me unless I filled it out correctly.

I laughed.

I picked all the “fuck mom” answers, and he hired me on the spot.

I was at the mini mart gas station at the start of my shift. This was the 80s and scratch lottery was a new thing. I had a stack of scratch tickets as thick as a textbook at the register. A guy bought one, scratched it off and hit for $50. Boom. He told me I had to take it out of the register and pay him. I looked into it and he was right. Something about him earning a cool $50 that way just intrigued me in a way that wasn’t healthy. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. He scratched and boom–he was ahead 50 bones. So I had like 5 bucks. The early part of the night wasn’t so busy so I scratched five tickets. Five losers. Now I was broke. But I still had the fever. So I scratched five more. Then five more. And five after that. Now I was in the hole and it dawned on my (too late) that there might not have been another fifty dollar pay out ticket in the whole stack. But I was committed. I earned a few small wins. Maybe a few two dollar winners. Maybe a five. I was keeping track in my head. The stack of scratch tickets was getting smaller. The cops came into the store and wandered around. They did this most every night. It was a small town and they knew I was an addict, so it was all very cordial and cool. They got coffee and sipped. Their radios were going off. They always parked their car out of sight behind the store. Some guy came in to prepay for gas. He saw the cops and gave me a big bill and went to pump his gas. I wanted to get back to my scratch tickets, but it wouldn’t have been cool to scratch five tickets at a time in front of the cops. I was thinking I should just go to the automotive aisle and drink a gallon of antifreeze. Finally the cops left. The dude who had prepaid for gas also took off without getting his change, probably because the cops were in the store, and maybe because he was a little drunk, but it was a nice little chunk of change. I adjusted the tally in my head, but I was still way off.

What could I do? Keep scratching. It was like 4:30. Joel came in at 6 am. I had an hour and a half to work a miracle. At about 5:30 I scratched off another $50 winner. I almost wet myself. It sounds terrible, but it felt pretty good. I will never win another scratch lottery and feel that good. I don’t even play them anymore.

So I was within 8 or 10 of my goal. So close.

Fat Tommy Defrank came in the store and asked for all the hot dogs rolling on the grill, like three or four. You can just pocket all the hot dog money and pretend that you had thrown them all away because they’d been rolling on the grill all night. Joel hated hearing that, because he knew Tommy liked burnt hot dogs, but you could make a convincing stand based on principle. But it would only work on one condition. If and only if, Tommy could eat all of those fucking hot dogs before Joel arrived at the store. I raced back to the refrigerated drinks and grabbed two little chocolate milks, so Tommy could wash all those nasty hot dogs down. I gave them to him, on the house, but no, he wanted to pay. I used the raw power of my mind to will him to stuff those buggers in his mouth and chew chew chew. Finally they were all gone.

I was actually a dollar over and had to pull that dollar out of the till and put it into my pocket to allay suspicion. Joel came in at 6 and I tried to act cool, but my heart was pounding. He noticed the stack of scratch tickets was as slim as comic book. He tapped the stack. I grinned, Yeah, there was a run on those things last night.

He said something like you’re drawer better work out. The morning shift dude came in and I rang out my drawer. It did work out. To the penny.

Now when I get all fucked up with fear and anxiety and can’t see how I will make it to the other side, I think:

Keep scratching.

Don’t drink anything from the automotive aisle.

The march in Seattle

This is the park right at the start of the march. It was a gorgeous day, lots of fun signs and pink hats. I never did anything like this before. I ate like a pig, but marching creates a hunger, I guess.

How I Got My Job at Microsoft Corporation with a Degree in the Arts


Every now and again someone asks me if it’s even possible to get a job at Microsoft without a technical degree. I’ve been at Microsoft for more than ten years as a technical writer, and I have an undergraduate degree in English. Here is how it worked for me.

I moved to Seattle from New York City in ’96 with a B.A. from Hunter College and quickly found work writing for small software companies. My first jobs as a technical writer were for consumer products in vertical industries (healthcare accounting, court record search). They wanted people who weren’t afraid of computers but not necessarily heavy-duty tech heads. My job was to explain to their nontechnical customers how to use the specialized software those companies made. The nice thing about consumer software is that the people who hire you often understand that they’ll have to explain how the tech works to you, with the expectation that you’ll then be able to relay that information in easy-to-understand prose for their customers.

I interviewed for a position answering phones in Microsoft support in 98, but didn’t get the job. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was good news for me, because a job in support would have derailed my career in technical writing. I was discovering a real passion for writing about software. Because I had experience writing about software, I was eventually able to get contract writing jobs at Microsoft. With my first contract, I owned the documentation for Windows Media Player. At that time, Microsoft was converting a lot of its contract positions to full-time (FTE), so I interviewed for the position I already held as a contractor. Once again, I didn’t make the cut. This, too, was probably more good fortune for me. I realized that if I wanted a good paying job in technical writing, I would need to know a lot more of the technical details in a specific area, like server administration or computer programming. I started teaching myself system administration by reading textbooks (Doug Comer basic textbook on TCP/IP is a really good, readable book) and experimenting with personal web sites.

After the first big tech crash in 2000, I started getting writing jobs at bigger software company (Concur, RealNetworks). By the time I got to RealNetworks, I was documenting heavy-duty systems administration stuff. The job at RealNetworks was a decrease in salary for me, but it offered me hands-on job experience I wanted on my resume. I eventually went back to contracting at MSFT, this time on the Windows Server writing team (ServerUA). I got that job based on my experience at RealNetworks, but I needed some official paper to bolster my technical skills, so I started looking at Microsoft’s technical certifications. If you work at Microsoft (even as a contractor) Microsoft allows you to take its certification tests for free. During my last contract, I earned a few related Microsoft certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE). Through some connections I made in Server UA, I got an interview for another FTE writing position.

On my third try, I got the job. Yes!

Microsoft is a great place to work, especially if you get on the right team. I’ve been lucky to find a few. I hope this information is helpful. If you have specific questions, leave me a message in the comments. I may not have the answer, but I am happy to respond.

Good luck you liberal arts majors!

Hot new black chick in the house


Her name is Lucy (pictured). She’s about 48 hours old.

She chirps a lot.

She chirps very loudly.

Today I was home alone with her, and our new puppy, Emma. I was in the back room. I heard some noise in the living room, and I sat at my desk trying to determine what it might have been. And then I thought: It’s probably Emma. She’s probably . . .


I dashed into the living room. Emma looked guilty.

I put her in the back yard. Holly told me she has seen Emma licking her chops as Lucy chirps away.

Right now everything is quiet. The living room is awash in a red glow from the heat lamp. There are two new chicks in the house. I don’t know the other girl’s name for sure, but I think it might be Bill.

Chicks are too cute.



I did an interview with the good folks who are organizing the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat coming up in the spring. Check it out. I’m so excited about Wild Mountain. If you come, make sure to grab me and say hi!

wild mountain memoir retreat / MARCH 15TH-17TH, 2013 / Washington's Cascade Mountains

What if your first published personal essay were in the New York Times?  What if your memoir proposal was snatched up by a publisher in your first round of submissions?  Then, your name might be Tim Elhajj, author of Dopefiend: A Father’s Journey from Addiction to Redemption Tim talked to us today about how he came to memoir writing.  Looking forward to meeting up with him again at Wild Mountain in March!

Theo Pauline Nestor: How did you get started writing?

 Tim Elhajj: I loved to read when I was a boy but had a hard time imagining myself as someone would could pull a story together, much less a book. I went to college later than most and ended up in a fiction class taught by Alice Sebold. More than anything else, Alice gave me the sense that writing was a lifestyle. Not so much a profession…

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Team Elhajj Swims at PNS

Kennedy trucking on the 200 free finals

This past weekend was spent at the impressive King County Aquatic Center in Renton. It was a grueling three days of swimming competition. I also got a new Windows phone with an app that can make animated gifs. The loop in this image pretty much captures what the weekend felt like for all of us.

It was a lot of swimming. And then we swam some more. But the weekend was not without its little moments of pleasure.


Kennedy was part of the girls freestyle relay team that first electrified the crowd. This is her and two of her teammates congratulating the anchor girl who is still in the water. Check out the exasperated hands-on-head look from one of the competitors in the next lane over.


And of course Aaron gave us all a little excitement. He won his 50 Free event and 200 IM. This is his sister and teammates cheering for him as he rounds the corner and switches from breast stroke to freestyle. I was so focused on getting a picture I didn’t realize how close he was to winning until I looked through the lens and saw the look of urgency on his sister’s face. I love how this shot captures the emotion of the race.


Aaron also injured himself in a thrilling last minute relay win. He basically sacrificed his arm to beat the boy in the lane next to him, overextending his elbow as he came into the wall. He had to go to the ER and missed the final day of the meet.

All weekend long complete strangers were coming up to me and congratulating me on my children.

Happy Dad

What a world!

More pics at flickr.

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Political Conversations With My Daughter

Girl in the Woods

Last week I was taking my fourteen-year-old daughter to a sleep over after swim practice, and we were caught in traffic. It was bumper-to-bumper, no let up, the kind of traffic snarl that can make you curse. Apropos of nothing, K turns to me and says something like: “Mitt Romney is a very wealthy man and that’s not going to play well with the middle class.”

And then she did that thing where she  looks at me casually, but I’m pretty sure she’s searching my face for a reaction. It’s a crucial moment for any parent: who doesn’t want to give their child tall he things they want, and especially the things they really need; but there is so much out there that is unaffordable to me, or beyond my reach for a variety of reasons. Me helping out with her geometry homework, for example. But these moments when she seems to need a specific reaction from me seem within my reach.

My first impulse was to giggle or snort–these are the words of a pundit, after all–but I was so upset by the traffic jam that I easily managed to beat that impulse back.

“Good point,” I said.

I’m so glad I did. I can remember being ten or eleven and wanting nothing more than to be able to understand politics. It was the middle of the Vietnam War, Watergate was in full bloom, and every day the television news seemed to offer some fascinating new story about how the world worked. Or, more often, how it didn’t work. I felt terrified to step into that world, let alone articulate an opinion.

K and I had the best discussion.

I pointed out that she’d be old enough to vote in the next presidental election. We discussed potential candidates, which means we bandied about a certian ex First Lady’s name. We both agreed that if the country was ready to accept a black president, perhaps it would soon be time for a woman president.

K wanted answers to questions like these:

“Was Bill Clinton a good president?”

“What is impeached?”

And then we discussed Hillary’s qualifications:

She was a first lady; she’s Secratary of State.

Had the hutzpuh to get through her husband’s scandal without shooting leaving him.

“I think she’d make a good president,” K offered.

I can’t say that I disagree.

But at this early stage, I must say that I’m way more impressed by the makings of the fine citizen before me.

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Free DOPEFIEND giveaway at 80,000 words


My friend and fellow blogger, writer, and an all around extraordinarily great person to know, Christine Lee Zilka is holding a free giveaway of Dopefiend on her blog!

I met Christine through a comment she made on one of this blog’s posts. I followed her to her blog, 80,000 words, where I learned she had first ever story, Bile, had been published by Howard Junker in Zyzzyva (now available on the web). I added her to my Facebook profile where she turned me onto Sugar, an advice columnist on The Rumpus (then a secret identity, now known to all as the amazing Cheryl Strayed), whose columns I can no longer read at work, because they always leave me a tearful mess.

Not long ago Christine pointed out to me that the Kindle version of Dopefiend was no longer available on Amazon (a problem the publisher has since addressed) and I wrote her back, thanking her pointing out the problem, and asking for her address, so that I could send her a signed copy of the book. She said she’d be honored. I really believe it’s powerful to send out copies of the book to the really good writers who have turned me on to other really good writers or whose writing has inspired me. Christine does all of that for me.

And then she said we ought to do a giveaway. She bought her own copy of Dopefiend to give away. It makes perfect sense. I’m so excited. I have no explanation for why I haven’t done my own giveaway sooner. Probably because I needed to watch Christine in action on her blog. She’s done a lot of giveaways and it shows in the thoughtful the Dopefiend giveaway post she created for this event. I hope you’ll visit her blog. I hope you win a copy of DOPEFIEND. Know that even if you don’t win this time, I’m going to do a few more giveaways of my own later this summer. I really like the idea of giving a few books away.

If you go to Christine’s blog, I can promise you an absolutely adorable picture of a Wiener Dog named Scarlet reading DOPEFIEND! Scarlet actually looks very intent on what she’s reading. I imagine she must be at one of the good parts.

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