Tag Archives: readings

What is the Holiday Spirit?

(Author’s Note: Yes, I’ve been away too long. No, this break up isn’t permanent. To demonstrate this, let me share with you a reading  I performed that was received quite well at my company’s Holiday party.

Also note – I’ve turned off comments. This is permanent, for reasons that I will gladly share with you. If you feel the need to respond to any of my thousands (!!!) of posts, feel free to e-mail me via the contact form.

- Kate)

All rights reserved by masahiro miyasaka. Used via Creative Commons License.

I’ve been doing Quality Assurance now for fifteen years. It is a very long time to be in that sort of job position, and it really begins to affect the way that one looks at the world.

To illustrate this, I would like to share with you a recent corrective action I wrote.


Dear Santa,

I am entering this corrective action against a feature that you had implemented upon your sleigh long after your initial design had been approved. I can find no documentation surrounding the implementation of your RLD, better known as your Rudolph Lighting Display. As you know, Section 21.93 of the Code of Federal Regulations defines a major change as a change that affects fit, form, or function. Adding a ninth reindeer whose primary function includes illuminating a relevant pathway to the aircraft, fits that definition.

I strongly recommend sitting with your  SME/DER to determine your best course of action in light of this finding. Perhaps documenting an alternative means of compliance? Regardless, I would expect at least you to be able to answer a question regarding what is the mean time between failure for reindeer.




I’m pretty sure I’m getting a lump of coal this year.

Before getting too much further into this, let’s take an opportunity to thank the members of the Employee Activity Committee. If you guys could stand up, lets take a moment to thank them for all the work they’ve done here tonight.

In discussing over the entertainment part of tonight with Norma, the initial thought was that I would read from one of my books. I understood where she was coming from, but the idea didn’t seem that…festive…to me.  So I suggested that I could write something especially for tonight. The question though, was what?  I asked Norma, and she said “I dunno, something that puts them in the Holiday Spirit.”

What is the Holiday Spirit?


It’s a simple question, really. One that is often asked in various holiday specials and sung in a multitude of songs found on light rock radio stations after Thanksgiving.


What is the Holiday Spirit?

My parents raised me agnostic, so I was raised under the holiday tradition of bright lights, family get-togethers,  and many awful songs. I didn’t have access to some of the more religious components of the season. When I was a child, I didn’t connect with the sanctity of the season. As such, it has taken me far longer to understand what the “Holiday Spirit” entailed.

As a child, everything I knew of this spirit, I gleaned from the various animated holiday specials that I watched on an annual basis. A Charlie Brown Christmas taught me that procuring a sickly tree was a just reason to be mocked. The Year without Santa Claus taught me that Christmas is best left to the professionals, and, as an added bonus, also  taught me that Global Warming and the Coming Ice Age is little more than a battle between the Heat Miser and Snow Miser. The Little Drummer Boy taught me that everyone digs a drum solo.

Let’s talk about The Little Drummer Boy for a moment, because it was my favorite Christmas Special. Sure, I recognized that the story was about the simplicity of the gift being appreciated by Mary and the Baby Jesus, but what had me enthralled was the fact that the drummer boy was able to connect with the animals with his drumming. The Ox and Lamb kept time! What a conceit!

The only time that I’ve been able to communicate with animals with music was when one time, when I was singing, my cat coughed up a hairball.

Anyways, somewhere in all of these shows resides the Holiday Spirit, but clearly I was too young to figure it out.

My misunderstanding was so bad, that, when in fourth grade, when asked by my teacher  to give an example of what Christmas means to me, I wrote:

 Christmas means to me, that even when someone steals your presents, trees, and roast beast, if you just stand in the middle of town and sing, the burglar will turn himself (and his dog) in, and we will hold a feast in their honor.

Yup, 9 year old me, not only plagiarized  The Grinch who stole Christmas , but I turned it into an adorable story of felony breaking & entering with a touch of Stockholm syndrome.  This was something my fourth grade teacher explained to me later, after I read her note on my homework which read simply “Please see me after class.”

My understanding of this “spirit” became even more confused as I entered my teen years, where I was apparently under the belief that the Holiday Spirit meant that I was to get whatever music I desired, and that the failure to get said music provided just reason to throw an appropriate tantrum. This belief led to the “REO Speedwagon” incident when I was thirteen, the “Night Ranger” incident when I was fifteen, and the “Metallica” incident when I was seventeen.  While at the time I believed the change in my musical tastes illustrated some measure of maturity, in truth, all of the incidents are too similar in motivations to demonstrate any measure of understanding of what the Holiday Season is all about.

I would like to think that I grew in college, and to some extent I did.  Mostly I renounced my material ways, and understood that the Holiday season isn’t really about gifts, either in the giving or receiving. Unfortunately, I painted everyone with the same large brush, mocking anyone who participated in such a gross, materialistic way, and that even a simple purchase of garland or tinsel meant that one was complicit in the great Holiday-Industrial complex conspiracy, and that even humming “White Christmas” meant that you were brainwashed.

Luckily for my family, I spent most of the holidays with college friends, where I attended various anti-Holiday parties with various English and Theater majors of the university I attended, and consumed holiday feasts consisting primarily of Wild Turkey, and Cranberry and Vodka. This was when I first understood what wisdom was. Let me say that if I now have to consider a choice between  going to parties where their primary theme is “No one really understands how miserable the world is but us” against the option of oh, I don’t know….let’s say test witnessing, I’ll choose test witnessing every time. I have truly become older and wiser.

It wasn’t until my first year after college that I started to truly understand what the Holiday spirit meant. I was on my way to a family get-together, sharing a ride with my older sister. About halfway through the drive, long enough, mind you, to demonstrate that she had given full on consideration of what she was about to say), turned to me and said:

“Don’t be a fargle.”

Actually, she said more than that, to which I’ll get to in a minute, but I need to explain the word “fargle”.

You see, my family works blue. We curse, a lot. Not drunken trucker level of cursing, but certainly a level to which it would be appreciated by a drunken trucker. So when I say “fargle” ,  for the sake of decorum, I’d like you to fill in your own obscene gerund and/or  epithet.  The point I want to illustrate here is that my sister called me a fargle.

Actually, what she said was even more profound.  What she said was “Don’t be a fargle.  Christmas isn’t about just you. And…would it kill you to smile for the sake of the rest of the family?”

At the time, I took it as a personal admonishment, which it was. But upon reflection, I realized how much this correction to my behavior was an apt description of the Holiday Spirit.

We live three-hundred and sixty some odd days of misery, of stress, or of indifference to our fellow travelers on this planet. We live in our own tragic routine, a rote application of what we’ve defined to be our lives.  Thomas Hobbes once wrote that the state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. But the collective “we” have been able to create this holiday season that allows us to celebrate what we can be – Joyous, Peaceful, and full of friendship and love.

The Holiday Spirit is the embodiment of that understanding.  It’s a feeling where we understand that we’re all in this together, and that we share this planet with one another. And that for at least one day out of the year, we should try to smile with one another, or, at the very least, we shouldn’t begrudge another for striving for an uncynical joy. Because the holidays aren’t about you, or me. It’s about us.

And let’s face it: Our lives in this season would be far better off once we understand that we shouldn’t be such a fargle.

Happy Holidays Everyone! May you and yours have a full day of peace and joy.

Notes From Last Nights Reading

(Note: I gave a brief talk last night at the reading of Sweet Tooth at Theo Chocolate. I’d thought I’d share what I had written down before the event and later shared with the many folks who showed up last night. I didn’t cover everything listed below, but was able convey the key points.)

This is my second book, the first one being 99 Drams of Whiskey released in 2009(Quick! There’s still time to buy a copy for Father’s Day), and now this book release.  I have to say, I’ve enjoyed the process surrounding the researching, writing, and promotion of the book. 

The reason I’ve enjoyed it is because there is no “Orientation 101″ to being a published writer. There is no, “when you find yourself here, this is the only correct course of action.” No “here’s a list of things you should never, ever do”. Writing a book and having it published is a text-book example of the “sink or swim” principle.    

It’s when it comes to the “promotional interview” that this concept becomes clearly understood. You are on your own, with a complete stranger, who wants to talk about your book, but on their terms. Your publisher isn’t there. If you’re lucky enough to have a publicist, they aren’t there either. And when you’re in a “sink or swim” environment? All you can do is learn. 

And do you want to know what I’ve learned about participating in “promotional interviews?” 

I suck at them.  I’m horrible.  I’m the promotional equivalent and an elementary school choir trying to sing Handel’s Messiah. The only ones who think I’ve done a good job are my friends and family. 

I’ve tried to figure out why I’m bad at them, and I’ve come up with several reasons. And they boil down to three key reasons. Me, myself and I. 

First, I have to give a shout out to interviewers because they do a heck of a job. They’re trying to do twenty-five things in any given day, and their interview with me is often 24th on the list of their priorities, right below making sure that their dog has taken their heart-work medicine.  They work under deadlines everyday, which is an environment I could never work under, as I would seize up like a Catholic Cardinal who had just received a phone call from a reporter from the New York Times. 

I can only imagine what they think when they deal with me.  I’m horrible at remember ing specifics. This is why I’m a writer. I write them down specifics because I can’t possibly remember them all.  There seems to belief that writers have committed to memory everything that they’ve written, and instant and total recall of every fact, figure and sentence that was committed to the page. 

“So Kate, what were you thinking as you wrote page 64?”

 “Oh I don’t know. Maybe, that, I had to write another 230 pages?

 Or my favorite question that I received when I was promoting my whiskey book:

 “Do you remember in your book when you wrote about the tax legislation that the English government imposed on the Irish distillers?


 This is what I call a learning moment.  And what I learned was three things:

  1. That under no circumstance was it a good idea to imply to thousands of listeners that the host of the their trusted radio program had invited an idiot onto their show.
  2. If you must make that implication, it’s best not to do it with a single word answer.
  3. If you must give a single word answer, preceding it with “uhhh”…well, that  just makes you sound silly.

 These are the things I learned when I was doing interviews for 99 Drams of Whiskey. And now, with this Sweet Tooth book, I vowed to be more prepared for these interviews. I approached the problem in the same way that a press secretary would, creating talking points- several key points that I conveyed in the book that I should work into the interviews as much as possible in order to make either the book, or by extension, myself sound interesting enough that it would encourage people to buy my stuff. After all, that’s the point of promotion.

 And after several interviews for my book, not one has yet to use the bits of the interview where I effectively and adequately used my talking points in the correct context.

 I have, however, repeatedly used the phrases “phlegm” and “bowel movement” to a National Irish audience during a recent interview with their national radio service.

 Yeah, I suck at interviews.

 The reason I bring this up is that these talking points are relevant to why I’m here at Theo.

 For those who haven’t read the book yet, Theo plays an important part in the book. They are the last company I visit, and it was this company that allowed me to come to terms with certain aspects of the candy industry.  However, when Audrey Lawrence, the Sales and Marketing Manager here at Theo, first contacted me back in January via e-mail to ask how can they help- I don’t think they knew they were in the book. 

 I e-mailed Audrey back, with a plan on getting her an advanced copy of the book, so she could read it to ensure that I didn’t refer to their tour as “an ecstasy trip gone horribly wrong”.

 You may laugh, but that phrase does come up at least once in the book when referring to another company…like Cadbury.

 So St. Martin’s sent Audrey a copy, she read it, enjoyed it, and again, asked “How can we work together?”

 To which I answered with another question  – Could we do a book release at your place?

 The result of that? Well, this is why I’m here.  And as I’m here in front of you, I thought it would be the perfect time to tell you of the key talking points that I had written for the interviews surrounding Sweet Tooth.

 If there’s one thing I’ve learned in writing this book (and the whiskey book, to some extent), is that I have a list of characteristics that a company must have in order for me to respect them. I’m not saying this list is universal, nor that everyone should look for them and judge companies based on them. This list is personal and is little more than an opinion base on my experiences.

 Now hold on, because here’s the talking point:

 In my opinion, a good candy company should have 3 things

  1. A sense of responsibility
  2. A sense of place.
  3. A sense of fun

 Let me extrapolate on them a bit:

 A Sense of Responsibility – This comes in two forms: Respect the ingredients, and respect the people.

 First, ingredients – Let’s use Hershey’s as an example. Did you know that Hershey wanted to change the legal definition of milk chocolate? They wanted the definition be changed to allow for less expensive ingredients –  specifically replacing cocoa butter — the ingredient famous for giving chocolate its creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture —with vegetable oil.

 This practice – resulting in what is now known as “mockolate” – leaves the chocolate gritty and oily, and notably less in quality than a standard milk chocolate bar.

 I don’t know how to make a great piece of chocolate, but I do know how to make a mediocre one. Create a recipe that aims at the lowest common denominator of the marketplace, and then ensure to over process it with lower quality ingredients. Good candy takes thought and an ability to coax the best aspect out of every ingredient.

 There’s no better way to demonstrate this than to compare two alike products from two different companies. More often than not, the company that respects the ingredients will make a better product than a company that is looking to have a greater profit margin.

 But it’s more than being responsible to the ingredients. It’s about being responsible to the people invested in the product.

 I’m not just referring to stockholders and stakeholders in a company, but everyone who has a vested interest in the company, from the farmer who supplies the cocoa and sugar, to the consumer who buys the product.

 There are aspects of the current start cocoa farms that are nothing short of tragic, including the worst forms of child labor. A lot of this is the result of the major chocolate companies wanting cheaper prices for the commodities used in their products.

 Theo has a different business model. Their  founding principle is that the finest artisan chocolate in the world can (and should) be produced in an entirely ethical, sustainable fashion. In other words, they have that sense of responsibility to those who supply the cacao used right here in this plant.

 A Sense of Place:  This relates to the sense of responsibility, but ties it to the local community.  One of the constants I’ve come across in my travels is how proud communities are to the confections that define their region. Whether it’s the Pontefract Cakes that come out of Pontefract, England, to Hershey in Pennsylvania, there’s a deep sense of pride that defines the people of these regions, and they surround confections. It becomes part of their identity.

(This community identity existed in a small town outside of Bristol, England called Keynsham (KEEN-shim). The entire region had deep roots to the history of chocolate, thanks in large part to the Quakers in the area who played an integral role in that history.  As per their traditions, the Quakers who owned the chocolate companies (Fry’s, Cadbury, and others) committed themselves to the success of their communities.  But as the companies became larger, the more the more these community traditions were lost. When Kraft bought out Cadbury in 2009, they closed the one remaining plant in the area in Keynshem, and the history of chocolate to the region is little more than an afterthought. We have a multi-billion dollar chocolate industry that started in the Bristol region, and today the only marker we have to that history is a closed factory. )

 And if you think it couldn’t happen here, I should let you know that Hershey’s has talked about on more than one occasion about moving their plants to Mexico, a move that would devastate the town of Hershey, Pennsylvania.

 When I look at Theo, I looked at a company that’s a perfect representation of Seattle and its work ethic. In my mind, Theo represents perfectly what being from this area means. I can’t think of any location better in the United States  for Theo to exist and thrive than here in the Pacific Northwest,  here in Seattle, and here in Fremont.

 Finally – A sense of Fun! Let’s be honest here – candy is a luxury, possibly the cheapest luxury on the planet. And Luxuries are meant to be fun. Candy is meant to be fun.  I believe the great candy companies know  this, and it manifests itself in two ways.

 The first is obvious – they add a goofy, silly name to the confection.  This is how we end up with candies with the name: Abba Zabba, Big Daddy, Big Hunk, Snickers, Twix, Jelly Babies, Hubba Bubba, Skittles, Gobstoppers and a whole list of other names to numerous to list here. This sense of fun is what allowed  Roald Dahl to come up with names such as Nut Crunch Surprise, The Everlasting Gobstopper, and Fudgemellow Delight and allowed Monty Python to invent the name “Whizzo Chocolate Company” for their “Crunchy Frog” sketch. We ascribe playfulness with the words we choose surrounding candy. Why, because  sweets bring out the playful side of us.

It is this playfulness that mark the better candy companies. Rare is the great confectioner who sits down and tries to “engineer” a candy bar based off of market research and sales patterns. This approach is for hacks and industrial giants. 

No, the best confectioners in the world get into their kitchen and play with their food, and ask some variation of the following question “Ooo…Wouldn’t it be cool if we did THIS?!?”

It is this playful attitude that has resulted in a world renown chocolatier adding marmite to his chocolates just to see if it would work (It does). It has resulted a marketer at General Foods deciding to release a confection called Pop Rocks that fizzled in your mouth when consumed.  And we see that here at Theo in their Fantasy Flavors line, where Chai Tea can be found in one bar, and Curry can be found in another.

These are candies that play with our inner child, that allow us to have “fun”, even if only for a moment. 

And as I looked at these three different characteristics,

  1. A sense of responsibility
  2. A sense of place.
  3. A sense of fun

 I realized something. These aren’t just characteristics I like to see in a company. These are characteristics I like to see in people too.  So, in search for a solution for my mid-life crisis, what I found was my own personal definitions of what I think are the best qualities of all of us. I admit, that’s a little woo-woo, but there you have it.

 But how did I arrive at that conclusion? Let me read to you the first chapter of the book, which sets the stage for all of what I just said.  (read first chapter)