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All good things.

It’s been two months now since we wrapped it all up. Could be that my lateness in writing about it was just to make sure that we really did mean that it was over. Or maybe I didn’t want to think about it being over. Most likely, it was sheer exhaustion and a house that needed putting back together.

In any event, certain parts of our final holiday party do need to be told. Sweet damnation, it was an amazing way to go out.

I’ve detailed the evolution of this particular fête previously, so I’ll just lay out the specifics. On December 11 my wife and I hosted the last event, completing an unintended triad of “world”-based themes that began two years ago with Around the World, continued last year with Out of This World, and culminated in this event, decisively, as The End of the World.

Newsflash: apocalypse isn’t the classiest theme for what is essentially a Christmas party. New Years Eve sorta has that tipsy tinge of impending end, but it’s never really the end, just a marker. (Except when the millennium flips, of course, and full-on pandemonium is acceptable.) We toyed with “at world’s end” as a physical location, ala Shel Silverstein’s sidewalk or cartographical terra incognita. But neither of these worked as well as the pure mayhem of doomsday.

Eschatology, it turns out, is a wonderfully flexible concept, so we went with it. Mad Max meets the Four Horsemen by way of Al Gore. With lasers and martinis.

The favor was a special challenge. The party takeaway has traditionally been some form of music-delivery medium and, though I have long since stopped considering compact discs adequate to this task, the truth is that they did lend themselves astonishingly well to what we came up with. See, it’s a clock. Tick tock, tick tock, time’s up. Get it?

We figured most people wouldn’t make the connection to the doomsday clock, though there is something wonderfully creepy about a bunch of clocks ticking out of time with one another (cf., Orbital’s “The Box” remix, part of the audio excerpt below).

The clock face was composed of two CD’s — Doomsday and Rebirth — which were smooshed together and bolted onto the clock axle, as below. To listen to the discs you had to dismantle the clock, which consisted of unscrewing a single nut.

The clock sat in small frame which itself rested on a small “time capsule” that contained a scroll with holiday wishes and a reminder not to come back next year.

The last piece, really the only thing having to do with rebirth, was a small (live) spruce sapling hooked to the back of the clock rig. It all looked rather nice, festive even, though it was awfully time-consuming to assemble and frightfully delicate. I’d love to know how many clocks made it in working shape back to partygoers’ homes at the end of the night.

At the end of the world we will eat pork, a sign declared. We’re still not sure what that means, but the porktacular was a hit. With a nod to our stockyards, I’ll note that we used everything but the oink. Faves included the Bacon Waffles with Spicy Chicken and Maple Cream and the Red Velvet Cake Ball Meteoroids. (Here’s the full spread.)

Fingers the One-Handed Bartender returned this year and was responsible for much mirth, day-after illness, and possibly one pregnancy. We had intended to enlarge his veal pen of a bar area but never got around to it. We did however rig a display above his head that gave details on the custom drink menu. And the DJ booth had a special trigger for thirst, below.

Possibly my favorite new addition to the party was the DJ outfits. Last year we donned jackets festooned with electroluminescent wire, a tough thing to upstage — but in the intervening year the iPad had been released. And of course it wasn’t difficult to find shirts custom-reinforced to accommodate an iPad slid right into it. It was great fun. We had disaster video, spectrum analyzers, music-appropriate imagery, and all manner of screensavery stuff.

But the most fun was a LED ticker-tape app that allowed tweeting directly to it so that the crowd could scroll their own messages right across our chests. (Pretty sure that snippet below is “And the DJ is doing a great job” a brief interlude between what-a-bunch-of-nerds themed tweets.) The account’s still live, by the way. Maybe you’ll catch me wearing the iPad at work?

Other new additions this year included a drink shelf below the perishable electronics in the DJ booth. Call it a lesson learned from last year. The mirrored tree cones, staple of most past parties, also got custom spinners to throw disco ball shards of light around the room to remind everyone that they were, in fact, in a post-apocalyptic hell. And the popular photo booth had all manner of goodbye-cruel-world props.

Custom posters inspired by Britain’s wonderful WWII anti-panic propaganda decorated the house. (If you have not tried the Keep Calm and Carry On Calm-O-Matic, you really should.)

Lastly in the new things category, we went low-tech with a “memory board” for people to scrawl their thoughts about the last decade of bashes. It remained remarkably free of crude comments for much (but not all) of the night.

And yet it is the music and dancing that defines and prolongs this party. We didn’t have much luck recording the full set of Jesse Kriss, Michael Tolva and I this year, but this self-contained set does exist.

Conveniently, lots of people were singing about armageddon in the 1980’s. Thanks, Strategic Defense Initiative!

The EL jackets returned, of course, made seemingly all the fresher by the release one week later of Tron: Legacy. Way fun, way photogenic, and way too goddamn hot.

This year our visuals maestro Tom Herlihy did not have a calendar conflict with Kabul, Afghanistan and so was able to man the lights and projectors during about an hour of sobriety. Tom’s ever-able understudy Chris Gansen also lit it up, so to speak. For once in a club setting the air raid siren made sense.

The liquor globes made a comeback as well. Luckily Malört, Chicago’s very own rotgut, neatly tied together our love of the Windy City and beverages that pretty much ensure that your world is coming to an end.

Which is a nice seque to illness. You could say that we were on-theme with pestilence, but the sad truth is that it seems our home — usually infested with the virus that is small children — was coated with a fine film of some mutant strain of stomach flu. Several got ill, including my mother-in-law who spent the entire party in the dual perditions of non-stop barfing and having to listen to four-on-the-floor bass until 4 AM.

The other casualty was Jesse Kriss, the DJ savant and ringmaster of the music-making that has jolted the past few years’ parties. Yet, Jesse played for at least 90 minutes, ashen-faced but not so lethargic that he couldn’t whip the crossfader. It was magic to watch, until he too collapsed into a bed upstairs and merely felt the party through the house frame vibrations. I think Joey and I did a pretty good job keeping the music interesting, but it simply was not the same without Jesse as mixmaster of ceremonies.

Some people didn’t believe that this was the end, but many knew. You could tell from the thoughtfulness of the hostess gifts, such as the handmade party logo ornament above and the retrospective photobook.

Right, so. No need to dwell on it. It was a great run. I’ll sum it all up with the text from the note we included in the time capsule. (Mind the sap. It’s sticky.)

Who the heck throws a holiday party with doomsday (and rebirth) as a theme, you might be wondering? Fair enough, but it’s a useful summary of the diverse emotions we feel as we end eleven years of parties with our favorite people. What started as a small gathering of disparate groups of friends as we were just getting our bearings as (kidless) Chicagoans has grown into an intense labor of love that is easily the highlight of our year.

But labor it is, and we feel our work is done. Energy that was poured into this spectacle now goes elsewhere, primarily to the three lovelies you see below, but also to you all — just in different ways. We know we’re lucky to have such happy and fun-loving friends and we’re immensely grateful you’ve chosen to spend a night of your year with us.

So let’s not focus on the end but rather the fun we’ve had and what comes next. A healthy 2011 to start, followed by more good times, and maybe a beautiful blue spruce in your yard many years from now.

——–

Here’s the full photo gallery.

Curious about past parties?

2009: recap | photos | giftmix | livemix
2008: recap | photos | giftmix | livemix
2007: recap | photos | giftmix
2006: recap | giftmix
2005: giftmix

Off-world, a party turns 10

Ten years ago my wife and I had just moved to Chicago. Kidless, dual income, cool new top floor condo. We threw a Christmas party for the few people we knew. It was fairly low-key: appetizers, beer and wine only, and holiday tunes softly played. The invitation even had an end time on it.

It isn’t like that anymore.

The get-together has become something of a spectacle, an entire year’s worth of creative energy throttled into a single night that reminds us of a youth I don’t think my wife or I ever actually had. And it’s kidless once more, having evolved into a house-sized version of stays-in-Vegas that the children would surely be embarrassed by later in life if they had the memories. (And will, thanks to this post, hundreds of photos, a full video feed and the Google bots. Sorry, kids.)

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The parties early on never had themes, but eventually we started giving away favors and that led to light theming, usually holiday-related (e.g., “I Think They Spiked the Nog” and “Lords a-Leaping”.) But themes are a gateway drug and soon enough we were in full-blown obsessive-compulsion about every last detail conforming to the chosen motif.

Last year, the theme was “Around the World,” celebrating travel of all kinds and lending itself handily to silly tie-ins. This year’s theme — Out Of This World — seems almost predetermined given the re-use it made possible of certain globe decor from last year, but also because of what a space nerd I am. (And yes, it lends itself to a world “trilogy”, more on which later.)

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The favor proved challenging as we had designed ourselves into a bit of a corner last year by dumping CDs in favor of USB keys. The consensus opinion (meaning my wife’s) was that people really didn’t use the key drives — leading me to question our choice of friends, frankly — and the decision was to go back to CDs.

This led to what I thought was a fantastic idea. I’d build an armillary sphere with the compact disc as the celestial equator! Wait, come back. If I admit that it would have taken months and every shred of sanity I have to actually make them, you have to admit it would have looked amazing.

Next idea: ringed planet. It was a contentious design process, honestly, but in the end it yielded something great. The CD (two actually) formed the rings, a styrofoam ball sliced in half and glittered formed the planet. This set like a garnish on a mini-martini glass which itself was set atop a coaster that was our holiday card (photo of kids with greeting). Initially Robyn suggested the card be a flag planted atop the planet. Which of course is silly, given that Saturn is a gas giant and you can’t plant flags on it. Sheesh! (This kind of thinking led to a chandelier planet arrangement that was far from accurate.) Our fantastic nanny, Ellen Gallerini, and her business partner — the Glitter Girlz — bore the brunt of the assembly work. Amazing, huh?

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But the real stroke of genius came from Robyn: the glasses were filled with Mentos and the entire favor display was backed with 2-liter bottles of Diet Coke. Blastoff! (If you’re unaware of the particular physics involved here, have a look.) Not sure if anyone tried this, but in keeping with our tradition of home-wrecking favors we have reports that the glitter got into and all over virtually everything it touched. I can’t imagine the discs were actually playable. (Which is OK: you can download it here.)

Food and drink stayed on-theme, my particular favorite being the red velvet frosted cake balls peddled as moon rocks. The custom drink list, bane of our hired bartenders and the ultimate scapegoat for much that happens, was equally tasty. Choice selections included the Tang-tini (Tang and blood orange martini), Fly Me To the Moon (Passion Fruit Vodka and Prosecco), and the Black Hole (Espresso Martini). Bottleable quanities of each of these drinks were sucked from our carpet by Stanley Steemer a few days after the party.

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A note on the bartender. Serving drinks for this party is pure misery. In an effort to encourage a flow through the house, we put the mixed drinks and bartender in the basement. This meant he was subjected to at least 7 hours of aural and visual assault in a very limited space. Add drunk revelers and dancing bodies. Stir.

Well, we’ve solved this problem and his name is Matt Vogel, aka “Fingers”. We didn’t know the reason for this nickname until he showed up. Fingers, you see, has only one hand. Fingers insisted we call him such and I protested until he produced a business card with “Fingers” on it. You can imagine our thoughts when a one-handed guy showed up for what is a tough assignment for a barkeep with four arms. But here’s the thing: Fingers was amazing. He kept pace, didn’t complain, and stayed late — all with a great disposition.

The theme is fun. The food, drink and decor are festive. But the genetic mutation that’s most responsible for the party’s evolution is what happens in the basement. To quote a friend, “I don’t even mess with the first floor anymore.” Let’s go there.

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Basically the lower level is just one big media generation machine. “Photobooth”, live video feed, lots of roving photo/video cameras, a closed-circuit feed to two projectors, two iSights snapping at regular intervals, and a recording of the audio from the DJ booth ensure that it is well-covered. Good thing too; there are a lot of cute boots down there.

It’s a massive effort. We move every last shred of furniture and decor out of what is a very functional and much-used basement (our family life routine is also effectively moved out), then load in a forklift’s worth of plywood to construct what becomes the Nightclub on Henderson Street.

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We amped up the lighting this year, figuratively and literally, adding three high-powered spots, stage washes, and a physical control panel to the full roster of DJ spots, LED cans, strobes, projectors, and laser. This is all due to a guy who wasn’t actually at the party. Tom Herlihy, visuals expert and total lighting nerd, loaned all the equipment, trained a totally capable assistant, Chris Gansen, and then decamped for Kabul, Afghanistan for work. And this was the reason for the live video feed. Tom caught parts of the party in the Dubai and London airports. Totally worth it.

The DJ booth is simply a beast. Originally constructed to accommodate two people, enlarged to fit four, and then, this year, completely rebuilt. The 2009 version situated the three DJ’s more comfortably while giving the AV control a kind of crow’s nest above it all and, importantly, providing a dance platform behind the DJ surface, since that’s where we found people pooled anyway.

Clearly raised areas attracted people in past years, so we build two dance platforms out in the crowd. These were sturdy and festooned with instructions that we figured even the drunkest partygoers would understand.

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The DJ setup this year exceeded all past. The unbelievable Jesse Kriss returned (this time from Seattle rather than Boston) and provided the real turntable chops. He was the master of ceremonies for all audio, messing with whatever Joey and I were pumping out via Ableton and Traktor. We also had a Korg KAOSS pad (a tactile/visual effects and loop controller) which were totally smitten with mere seconds after hooking it up.

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We played for over eight hours, covering a serious range of tunes. Jesse, Joey, and I really seemed to click this year, handing off more smoothly than catastrophically most of the time. (I stress most of the time. See custom drink menu, above.) The floor was packed with dancers for hours. The apotheosis of the party, truly.

Below is the full set, annotated with interesting bits on the timeline. Click the link for a larger version.

[Download | 8h 6m 48s | 484.5 MB]

Jesse’s fantastic beginning set is excerpted here with full tracklisting.

The built-in downfall of the party, it seems to my wife and I, is the ever-more-difficult challenge of making the spectacle that much bigger year-on-year. But that’s a problem for the future; we hit the mark this year. Inspired by Daft Punk inspired by Tron we constructed three glowing jackets of electroluminescent wire for the DJ crew. The nerdfest began about four hours in and was met with a solid wall of cheering.


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The jackets were a bit of a pain in the ass, as we had to affix the somewhat delicate EL wire with tiny safety pins from inside the jacket. But my god was it worth it. Everyone wanted to wear them, which was fine by us as they were hot as hell. Biggest upside: wearing a jacket of copper wire with electricity coursing through it was an effective deterrent to me taking my shirt off, something that has regrettably become a de facto tradition at the party. Not this year!

Though there’s no end time on the invitation anymore, there’s something about this party that demands a discrete finale rather than fading out with hangers-on. Last year this finale came courtesy of the Chicago Police Department. We escaped that this year, somehow. (How we weren’t charged with “operating a public place of amusement without a license” is beyond me.)

This year the ending came via a small explosion.

Piecing together exactly what happened was a massive chore taking weeks and all kinds of CSI-style cross-referencing of testimonial and media timestamps. The folks still there at 3:45 AM said later on that the power cut out. Apparently I rushed to the circuit breaker in the back bedroom to check this and in the process intruded on two sleeping guests who had called it quits.

But that wasn’t it. Couldn’t have been. The recording of the night proved that power remained as it continued for hours uninterrupted after the music ended. We were pulling from four separate circuits in the basement, having learned our lesson from the strobes in previous years.

The next morning the only thing people recalled was me saying “Party’s over. Get the hell out!” But my laptop was completely dead. Dead, but seemingly unmolested. No drink spills apparent anywhere. This is not, however, what Apple repair ultimately said. “Extensive internal liquid damage” was the diagnosis. As best we can tell, liquid seeped in through the Superdrive bay slot on the right side of the laptop and then destroyed everything but the hard drive and wireless radios. No idea how that could have happened.

And that’s how the party ended.

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But how it came to be is more important. Dozens of people gave dozens of hours to realize such a thing. We’ve mentioned Tom Herlihy, Jesse Kriss, Chris Gansen and my brother Michael, but that leaves out Justin Bowersock, Alyson Higgins, Cathy Brennan, Heidi and Pat Potter, David Balcom, Mike Bloebaum, Ricky Thorpe, Michelle Simpson, Tom Alter, Ellen Gallerini, Jodie Deschler and others who absolutely made it happen. I’ve said it before and I don’t give a damn if I say it again. This your party too. THANK YOU.

The experience is extraordinary, for sure, but so is the toll it takes on the family to bring about. The half-jokes Robyn and I made about this being our last party during the run-up became less than half as the party approached. But we recognize that we can’t just end something like this without warning. Too many people have too good a time to do that.

So I’ll ask you, dear reader, if you’ve been around the world and off the world, what’s the only thing left to do to the world?

——–

Here’s the full photo gallery. See also Chris Gansen’s great shots.

Curious about past parties?

Read about 2008 (photos!), 2007 (photos!) and 2006.

Or listen in: mixes from 2008, 2007, 2006 and 2005.

At the end of the world.

Certainly there was sweat. Our battered hands prove there was blood. And in fact it ended, for some, in tears. Yes, folks, the silence on this blog can be explained in only one way. We’ve pulled off another holiday party. And avoided arrest, even.

Above: Around the World Timelapse from John Tolva on Vimeo. Timelapse from my laptop camera (right) and a second one (left) pointing out from the DJ booth. (Higher-resolution version)

We’ve done this a few times before. In fact eight times before, when planning had primarily been logistical: How do we accommodate as many people as we want to invite? How do we feed them? How do we make sure they don’t slink off to any other soireés?

But we’re beyond that now, having basically mutated the gathering into a nightclub-meets-Norman Rockwell split-level affair. For as long as we run this little shindig we’re going to be dealing with the bounty of what we’ve sown — a bumper crop of merry-makers ready for (in fact, expecting) one hell of a party.

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Bringers of sound and light

It started, as so many things do, drinking at a bar. Vacationing in Kennebunkport, Maine this June my wife and I had been pondering a theme for the party, the glue that ties it all together. Last year was the first time we’d really used a theme (“Naughty/Nice”) and it was a useful, light framework to hang all the party pieces from.

But themes are tough. There’s a reason you don’t have Star Trek birthday parties any more. (Really, put the tricorder and confetti away.) Seasonal themes seem right but are blasé. Joy to the world? Yay. We liked “naughty and nice” because it had other undertones, but really that was the limit.

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View from the basement stairs

I suppose because we were on a vacation in a new place and because my travel this year had been so frequent and diverse that it was natural that we’d land on “Around the World” as a theme. Initially it was Christmas Around the World, à la1 the MSI exhibit, but we quickly ditched that from the sheer amount of work it would take to pull off convincingly. All we had to do was avoid the extremes of foreign Christmas traditions (too complex, not exactly fun) and collegiate “around the world” drinking parties (too formulaic and, um, college) and we’d be just fine. We thought.

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The party favor, carry-on size

The favor was always intended to be a piece of luggage. Just when we were going to settle for flimsy junk we stumbled on to these beauts. Surely they are custom creations because none of them are exactly the same and they were exquisitely crafted.

Inside went this year’s music mix. I finally ditched the CD (and, sadly, the Jewelboxing packaging that always accompanied it) in favor of a USB memory stick full of tunes and a short video. I had naïvely2 figured that with the ever-falling cost of RAM a few dozen 64MB keys would be at most $100. Wrong. That particular price graph ain’t linear. But I’m no economist and just didn’t want to mess with burning CD’s. We settled on 1GB keys and I filled them with our family’s favorite music of the year.

I’d love to know what percentage of the 100+ guests actually loaded the music onto their systems. One guest said she could not get the “whistle” to make any noise.

The favor also contained some treats and a postcard-style message to our friends with (bonus!) a mini-version of our holiday card on the back. Postage, saved.

Of course, there was hooch. There’s always hooch. After last year’s re-fermenting bottles of homemade raspberry wine exploded in people’s homes (“Happy Holidays! Here’s a timebomb of bright red liquid!”) we almost ditched the tradition. But no. Obviously we needed mini-liquor bottles like they serve on airplanes.

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Victuals and bits

Bottle procurement proved very challenging. The brain trust in the Chicago city council apparently decided recently to ban the sale of mini liquor bottles citing them as being favorites of alcoholics. I found this out by asking our local liquor guy who explained to me the rationale as he served up a flask-sized bottle of liquid fire to an obvious alcoholic just stumbled in from the street. Ultimately I hauled myself just outside of the city limits and bought the cheapest minis I could find. The alcohol in which formed the foundation of …

Homemade cranberry liqueur! For the first time ever, we did not ferment or distill anything ourselves. Instead we essentially mixed up a massive cocktail. We used fresh cranberries (following this recipe and adding in some things like ginger and lime) so we still got to enjoy the annual festival of crushed fruit nastiness in the bathroom. Tolva liquor, like laws and sausages, is something you simply do not want to see made.

With a screw-on bottle top and no moonshine-grade alcohol (lethal quantities of ginger, another matter) you might think this was the first party with nothing booze-related that might kill you. You would, of course, think wrong. Robyn ran with the theme and ordered little metal airplanes shaped, seemingly, from paper clips and meant to attach to the lip of a drink glass. Cute, sure, this twisted metal — but also nearly invisible if dropped into your drink. No reports of GI tract lacerations from anyone, so far.

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Ready for departure

The drinks are designed for whim and power. Pretty sure we succeeded on both fronts. Budget cuts forced us to ditch the ice luge, but we made up for it with globe liquor dispensers serving Rumple Minze and Jägermeister3 like magma from the breached core of the planet. This was the downfall of many guests, I believe.

There’s a degree of pity one has for hired bartenders at our parties. It’s loud and crowded and my wife’s specialty beverages are only slightly less difficult to handle than her wrath if the drinks are improperly made. But Jim the Bartender did marvelously. I even caught him dancing a bit in the four square foot veal pen we gave him to operate in. The menu included Cruising at 37,000 Feet (white cranberry Cosmopolitan — cloudy, you see, with killer airplane clips), Around the World in 80 Proof (rum punch), The Red Eye (Espresso Martini — a crowd favorite), The French Connection (French Martini), and Roman Holiday (Italian Bellini).

Also brought out late were “TSA Blues” shooters — blue raspberry mixer, vodka, and white cranberry juice — served in security theater-approved three ounce containers. I suppose we should have made guests take off their shoes and unload their cell phones while taking the drink. And, lest you think we actually succeeded in classing up this affair past a college party boozefest, a friend showed up with red and green Jello shots late night. You would have thought she was doling out nuggets of purest gold. They went instantly.

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The UN of Cheesecake Lollipops

(Here’s the recipe.)

The food. Yeah, that. Possibly the only thing that has remained constant in nine versions of this party is a firm ban on catering. My wife enlists assistance from friends, but basically the spread is and forever shall be all hers. Year-to-year favorites include Texas chili con queso (con Fritos FTW!), bacon-wrapped dates (a near-perfect texture-taste match), cheesecake lollipops, and pepperoni bread. Newly added to acclaim were corn cakes with BBQ brisket, sausage-stuffed mushrooms, and chicken satay bites.

One clever idea from Robyn was to put up a map and have people mark their 2008 travels on it. If nothing else it was a conversation starter, but it looked cool by the end of the night, especially since we had folks in from all parts of the country and — this year’s long-haul winner — Ricky Thorpe came from Helsinki via his home in the UK.

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Map of our guests' travel in 2008

I can’t encounter a geospatial data set and not want to do something with it, so here it is transcribed to Google Maps. Suggestions on how to further extend this most welcome.


View Larger Map

The map and out-of-town visitors was the inspiration for this year’s photo “booth” props. We had a few dozen “x miles to y” signs printed up, though it isn’t as though anyone needed prompting to vamp in front of the camera.

And yet, none of this is why people really attend the party these days. Or, at least, it isn’t why anyone stays. This year the basement reached its apotheosis as a full-fledged nightclub. And the club-goers responded.

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View from the DJ booth

The transformation of the basement is, by far, the most time-consuming, complex undertaking of the whole deal, basically starting right around Halloween.

First thing is to get nearly every piece of furniture out. It’s physically exhausting, logistically challenging (“do you really think we should put that chair in the rafters?”), and psychologically unsettling. My desk, center of a not altogether stable universe to begin with, has to be disassembled — leaving me a laptop-toting nomad in my own home.

The biggest upgrades this year were a huge leap in lighting and the introduction of turntables. Last year’s lighting was an afterthought (though I am still proud of the LEGO disco lights). This year it was the first thought, thanks to the ridiculous inventory and commitment of Tom Herlihy. One night in November Tom came by and loaded several thousand dollars worth of gear into my garage. Robotic spots, LED cans, pattern generators, strobes, projectors, a haze machine, a laser (yes!) — and that was just the stuff I ended up using. There were dozens more.

The best part, though, was Tom’s mastery of the visual machinery; he wired all the lights up using the DMX protocol and hooked them into this control app. Tom set up all kinds of cues — all spots rotate to bartender (i.e., “the DJ needs a drink!”), LED chases around the room, a laser “surface” above dancers’ heads, etc — and controlled it all by touchscreen.

In addition, Tom’s mutant-huge AV laptop powered the visuals on the screen built into the DJ booth and the projector that threw to the back wall. We had all kinds of funky beat-responsive geometries on the screens, but the best may have simply been the rotating globe courtesy of Google Earth. The visuals transformed the space utterly. Tom is my hero.

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Clubbers

Of course, if you read this blog with any regularity you know that what I really care about is music. And this is how the story figuratively and, as it turns out, literally ends. If Tom was the hero of the visual, Jesse Kriss was the hero of the aural.

Jesse is truly a superstar. He’s a colleague at IBM (creator of one of my very favorite projects), but I first came to know him by way of his Visual Scratch and History of Sampling work. (He’s also my collaborator on the moribund breakbeatbox site. Really should get that going again.)

Anyway. Jesse came in from Boston … by train. He’s a turntablist at heart so he brought a kickass mixer and we rented two decks in Chicago. This was all hooked up via Serato Scratch such that he could control digital music with all the tactile control of old school vinyl.

It was perfect. For one, in the era of laptop DJ’s people go even wilder to see someone actually, you know, doing something to make the music. (The night before as we set up and rehearsed my mother-in-law noted to my wife “They’re all up there with headphones on pushing buttons.”) But also it was a perfect accompaniment when my brother or I were playing the main music. Jesse would drop in beats or scratches, on-the-fly annotation of the stream of tunes.

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Twiddling

We had some issues recording everything (with seven laptops up there you’d think we’d have been OK), but I did manage to get a portion of Jesse’s set. Probably the highlight of the night was when he layered in portions of Obama’s election night speech. I thought a certain female supporter of the president-elect in the crowd was going to jump up and rip his clothes off right then and there. (Note: Jesse is working on an inauguration mixtape. A must-post when it is released.)

Jesse Kriss, set two (25:25)

I had my usual rig set up with Ableton and the monome ready to control an atomized version of Daft Punk’s “Around the World,” the obvious theme song of the whole night. You can hear one version of it (we dropped it in throughout the evening) in the set below. That moment, as I hazily recall, was probably the most raucous. Everyone singing, everyone moving.

John Tolva, Around The World 2008 (1:59:53)

My brother rounded out the DJ lineup, keeping the tracks young enough for everyone to pretend we were hip. Joey was the designated Rickroller dropping ol’ Astley in from time-to-time to the delight of some and confusion of most.

With Tom on the visuals and the three musicmakers in the booth we were a uniquely dorky quartet, but a few different people noted that it looked like we were having a blast. We most certainly were. I’d do it again even without a crowd.

In fact, I just may. For one, I ignored just about every request that came my way so it isn’t like I was reading the crowd. For another, the DJ booth got a massive overhaul this year and I’m reluctant to tear it down. It was much wider, more stable, and roomier (with space for a projection rack behind us). But the clear killer feature — added only hours before the party by the industrious Jeff Greer — was carpeting. That’s right, it was plush bordering on posh up there in mission control. I just can’t bear to part with that degree of luxury.

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All this music was pumped through a dedicated sound system, also courtesy of Tom. No more tripping the circuit of our media center amp. (Actually we deliberately overloaded the circuit box about a week before the party to see how far we could push it. Tip: watch the strobes.) The bass was delivered from a monstrous four-foot-cubed subwoofer tucked into the corner — a seismic rumbler that surely shook our neighbor’s foundations.

How can I be so sure? Well, the police told me so. Around 3AM when the basement was still thumping Chicago’s finest showed up and declared the party over because of “multiple” complaints from neighbors about the noise. Given that our neighbors on one side were actually at the party, I’m fairly certain I know who was complaining. Guess I better invite them next year.

Actually I think I’m to blame. It was fairly toasty down in the basement (I thought, though few others did) so I cracked the windows. This, I bet, was the source of audio leakage that was the ultimate downfall of the party.

And yet, there’s something right about a party of this magnitude not stopping on its own. I suppose we’ve all matured since high school as no one, to my knowledge, fled out the back door when the 5-0 came knocking. The cops actually said they had come by once before in the evening and someone shut the door in their face. Nice.

There were other hijinks this year (and thank god the kids were with their grandparents), but there’s no need to impugn reputations or submit these tales to the Google index for perpetuity.

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It was a spectacularly good time. With the sole exception of my wife using Comic Sans to create address labels for an otherwise carefully-designed invitation, I think we’d change nothing. (No open windows next year, obviously.) Many complained of a “Tolva flu” the next day, but this is what you get for drinking booze from a globe, or a TSA container, or a Jello mold.

And how many parties have you been to that make the cover of a city newspaper the next day? (Look for the record.)

There is simply no way we could pull this off without the help of our friends. Deep thanks to Justin Bowersock, Kellie Burke, Chris Gansen, Jeff Greer, Tom Herlihy, Alyson Higgins, Jesse Kriss, Ricky Thorpe and Michael Tolva. It is your party too.

See you next year!

  1. That’s three foreign, accented words in not much column space. I am taking this post around the world, you see. 
  2. Apparently this linguistic grand tour is stuck in France. 
  3. Hallo, Deutschland! 

Fest

Though the basement looks like the aftermath of a meteor impact and the smell of alcohol emanating from my desk induces dry heaves in those of even robust health, I must ignore such distractions. For now is the time to tell the tale of the holiday party.

The metamorphosis of this particular annual get-together is actually the inverse of the changes in our larger social habits over the past few years. Which is to say: the party has gotten crazier while our lives — with one, then two, now three kids — have overall become more calm. Perhaps this makes a certain amount of sense. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps you want me to stop this silly introspection and post photos of attractive partygoers. (In due time, in due time.)

It started when we first moved to Chicago in 2000 as a way of reaching out, establishing connections in a town new to us. The party then was a relatively sedate, buttoned-up affair. My wife insisted on calling it an “open house” and putting an end time on the invitation, apparently to encourage people to move fluidly in and out, but only during certain hours. (I never understood that. Is 11pm the last time people are allowed to come in or does everyone need to leave by then? Or both? Either way, it harshed my buzz, man.)

Back then it was all Christmas music, all the time. Which was fine. But, you know, just … fine. We never catered the party, though we went back-and-forth on the amount of food my wife would prepare. Sometimes just desserts, sometimes appetizers too. Why am I telling you all this? Because you must understand that this was all just practice, the farm leagues, a naive apprenticeship in the trade of party-as-a-verb.

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Above, the clear fan favorite from this year, Cheesecake Lollipops. (Click for recipe.)

So here’s the short version of how it happens. A few weeks before Thanksgiving we panic. Typically we’re still reeling from getting three children costumed for Halloween (which also happens to be my four-year-old’s birthday) and want nothing more than a long winter’s nap. But with a Turkey Day break coming up we calm down a bit and put together a to do list. Then we resume panic.

Thelovelywife takes food, drink, hiring help, and most decoration not involving rewiring, plumbing or (and she will admit this) any design sense that rises above laying out a nativity scene in a sterile grid. I take invitations, party favors, music, and the increasingly intractable problem of ensuring equal distribution of attendees throughout all the house’s open space, excluding bedrooms (which may have to open up next year, sorry kids).

This year we added a light theme to the party. No, wait, come back. It wasn’t that bad. Just something to stitch together the aesthetic of the various visuals (invitation, favors, signage, etc) and to have something to suggest coherence of planning where there was none. The idea was naughty vs. nice. This is not to be confused with the last-minute Halloween ploy of taking a regular profession’s uniform and making it “naughty.” (Naughty Nurse, what a clever idea!) If I have in any way legitimized this practice by theming our party this way, I earnestly apologize.

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I had been thinking about a double CD mix for the party favor this year and our new theme fit this rather well. I mean, the possibilities were endless: speed metal vs. calliope music, slap bass solos vs. Gregorian chant, glitch vs. anything. In the end the mixes were not thematically naughty or nice, but there is about a 20-40 beats-per-minute difference between the two playlists. Apparently, in my world if you are behaving badly you do it at a faster pace. Have a look at the tracklisting.

For the last four years we’ve used Coudal’s wonderful Jewelboxing system to package up the music. While the attention to detail of the cases and liner templates won’t make you a good designer the actual shape of the case’s hinge which forms a small empty chamber does rather beg for creativity. Two years ago we filled it with red, green, and white Tic Tacs. Last year, with glow sticks used for night fishing. This year, still smitten with the illuminated cases of last year, I sought out something that would glow for longer than a few hours. This led me to find a thing called a flourescent rod which hunters apparently use in their rifle sights. They absorb UV light and emit visible light. The irony of using accessories for hunting animals as party favors two years in a row was not lost on me. What was lost on me was how to make it work, thematically. What on earth does a flourescent rod have to do with a CD cover that looks like a list of who’s naughty and who’s nice? Damned theme.

The problem was solved by my wife who suggested shoving a small pencil in the hinge chamber. You know, for checking the list (twice)? We ended up ordering custom printed golf pencils with the name of the mix on them from a company who specializes in short-run golf pencils. They even agreed to a custom font, which forever endeared them to me. The best part is that, though we were pretty sure they would fit lengthwise, we knew that if they didn’t we could just sharpen them down. Thankfully we did not have to do this. You can get a good look here.

The theme served nicely (ahem) in allowing us to throw two parties essentially. This was a pragmatic consideration initially: the upstairs was really too crowded last year — and we were expecting about thirty more people this year — so we had to entice people to leave the food. The plan? Move the drinks to the basement and keep the people there by playing music — the kind without jingling bells.

So, things were nice upstairs. Fire in the hearth, tasteful decorations, appetizers, sweets, relatively quiet space for conversation, soft music with jingling bells. Downstairs (“you know, where Daddy lives” as the kids say) things were, if not naughty, then less strictly nice. For the backbar we cleared everything off my desk, a job of unwiring that I’d not wish on my scroogiest foe. We moved a bunch of furniture to the back hallway, effectively blocking any form of emergency egress (to quote the term the city uses in the letter of the law we were most certainly breaking). Then we pushed sitting surfaces to the walls, opening up … a dance floor. And all dance floors need a DJ booth, of course.

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Now, alert readers of this blog will call me out on this, noting that it cannot be a coincidence that the people-density issue was solved by allowing me to be a DJ all night. But that’s part of what makes the season so magical. You’re asked to believe in things, like Santa, that you know not to be true. So, let us call the fact that I was a DJ a coincidence. And if you don’t believe then you must be a hateful Grinch.

The DJ booth itself was formed by the end units of our entertainment center turned around (so the components were facing the wall) and put on an angle. I slapped a piece of plywood across the top, secured it, threw a black tablecloth over it all and voila! Except that it could only be played comfortably by nine-foot giants. But that opened up the opportunity for the best part, the construction of the booth platform. This was a few bolted-together pieces of cut plywood on top of eight milk crates. I didn’t really know how sturdy to make it, but, according to my brother, there is a strength metric used in the world of professional DJ’ing that roughly corresponds to — how to say this? — its ability to support sexual congress without splintering. So we built to those specs, though I am here to admit that I did not fully test the platform before or during the party so I cannot claim the product to be certifiably sound.

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It was all laptop DJ’ing. No turntables were harmed. But I wanted more of the spontaneity that a double-turntable setup offers since there’s little that’s as boring as watching a guy cue up tracks on a laptop. With two laptops, and a willing friend and brother, we were able to do some more complicated things, such as slave the MIDI clocks together so that no matter what one cued on one side it was in step with what was currently playing. This wasn’t beatmatching, more like BPM-matching, but it made things easier. Also, simply having two people up in the booth is more fun for the crowd since you can play off one another’s selections, make fun of each other, blame one another for missing a cue, etc. We were using a combination of Ableton Live and Native Instrument’s Beatport Sync with each laptop pulling off its own external drive of music. And we only tripped the amp’s protection circuit a few times, which I consider a success.

OK, so. Drinks, check. Tunes, check. Space to dance, check. Atmosphere? Not so much. We really struggled with how to set the mood without a real dance floor (way too expensive to rent), lasers, smoke machines, pyrotechnics, or hydraulics (next year, I promise). We needed ambient lighting and, since the invitation and mix both had a disco ball on them, this seemed a natural choice. Except that disco balls are invariably cheesy and there was no good place to hang one. But it occurred to me that we did have a little mirrored Christmas Tree, a “discone,” as decoration. If only we could rotate it and shoot some high-powered beam at it. My first solution was to stick it on an old record turntable I had, but even 33 revolutions per minute is way too fast. What I learned quickly is that a disco ball actually rotates very slowly. If it doesn’t you’re going to have a lot of barf to deal with on the dance floor.

The situation called for drastic measures. The situation called for LEGO blocks. I dug out an old Mindstorms set, Googled a bit, and hit paydirt. Unfortunately even this was too fast and, given my total avoidance of anything engineering-related in school, I had to beg a friend to teach me consult a series of experts, including a PhD, about gears in order to do anything about it. In the end I built a four-gear compound system that slowed the LEGO motor down to a crawl. I housed it all in thick black bricks, shone three LED’s at it and we had ourselves a homemade disco cone. Here’s a look at the innards of system.

In addition to this ambience we had a bunch of crazy YouTube downloads (and this which continues to crack me up) looping on the TV controlled by a hidden Mac mini courtesy of my pal Chris, the evening’s video jockey. Occasionally he would switch to the feed from the iSight camera mounted on the crossfader in the booth. Because, you know, sometimes people want to see the DJ’s actual fingers moving the volume slider close-up. Right? In any event, it was good fun. (Next year: full on beat-synched video-mixing.)

Well, it worked. Maybe too well. The basement was mobbed. People actually danced. And, being the DJ, I could arrogantly avoid eye contact and conversation with everyone. I permitted conversation only via cocktail napkin and I threatened to bounce anyone whose requests displeased me. The perfect way to host, if I may say. One legitimate worry we had was that we would end up actually throwing two parties, as if thelovelywife and I were merely tenants in the same condo complex. In reality this didn’t happen. There was good circulation early on and then everyone but the dance-phobic eventually ended up downstairs. The reverse problem from past years. Oh well. Did I mention I built a DJ booth?

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One “feature” piloted at last year’s party was a “photo booth” function where we hooked a crappy old laptop up to a high-end digital SLR on a tripod and allowed revelers to slap a key to take a shot, then view it immediately (with this app). It was great fun and provided a wonderful visual narrative of the night’s devolution. This year we added a slight delay on the photo snap and my brother hooked up an awesome pro flash canopy. My six-year-old was infatuated with it. He must have taken three dozen photos of himself and he appears, Forrest Gump-like, in a few dozen more. There’s nothing better than waking up the morning after a party like this and thinking, oh my god, we have a hard drive full of idiocy to look through. In the end, the camera captured 512 pictures. The first shot went off at 3:34 PM; the last at 2:36 AM.

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So what went wrong? Well, the bartender was awful. The moment I saw him I knew he’d be a problem. Now, there’s nothing wrong with older bartenders. But this guy exuded curmudgeon and I knew he’d be impossible to deal with after a few hours trapped in the sonic hell of my brother and I DJ’ing. He was rude to our guests, refused to multitask, and just surly about the whole affair — exactly what you expect from a bartender in a bar, but not one you hire. The real problem, though, was that he refused to properly assemble the specialty drinks that my wife carefully planned out. You see, the naughty/nice theme extended even to the drinks with the Mistletini, Sleigh Bellini, Sticks and Cola, Yellow Snow, Sugar Plum Fairy, and Bramble Punch. Take the Yellow Snow, for instance. This was basically a slushy version of vodka lemonade. But what put it over the top was a honeyed glass rim with coconut stuck to it. The clean snow, get it? Oh, this pissed off Burgermeister Meisterburger in a big way. I think he actually sprinted out of the house at 11 PM.

Oh, also, remember the brambleberry wine from a few posts back? We gave this as a party favor along with the mixes. Lovely idea, but somewhere between bottling and our guests returning home, fermentation restarted in some of the bottles and … pop! there have been reports of corks flying off and getting red raspberry juice everywhere. Merry Christmas, we hope you enjoy your timebomb! Ooops.

That’s about all there is to say. We’re all ill now from exhaustion and the general turn in the weather. The house isn’t really back to normal and the thought of hosting people, even for a night, makes us misanthropic and salty. Still, the only downside to it all (besides the expense, hangover, and cleanup) is that it makes the actual day of Christmas somewhat anti-climactic. That’s the challenge: getting the house and our seasonal cheer back in shape by December 25. More eggnog, please.

Hope to see some of you at the party next year. Happy holidays!

Quick quiz

Did I stumble across this lovely search entry from my wife (which produced results as you see in the tabs) before or after this last weekend’s holiday bash?

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Search query privacy indeed! (Tip to wife: Tools > Clear Private Data.)

Click for the astonishing answer.

Pre-party

This past weekend we threw our eighth holiday party in as many years. It was outrageous.

There are lots of choice tidbits and scads of photos, but right now I’m traveling to ice-pelleted NYC. As soon as I have some downtime the tale can be told.

For now, a photo that captures the tone of the evening pretty well.

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More soon …

Party as a verb

The deafening silence on this blog is attributable to one thing only: the obscene workload of preparing for our holiday party. Trying to one-up ourselves each year seems to be driving us asymptotically closer to insanity. And yet, it is a damn good time, bigger than Christmas day in some ways. Certainly more work, usually more fun. It all went down on Saturday night.

We were worried about the fire marshal and the ATF. The first because we invited way too many people and we don’t have a gigantic space. The second because, well, let’s just say the freeze-distillation of the homemade apple cider succeeded.

To combat the crush of people that inevitably orbit the bartender we devised a few ploys to get people down into the basement/mancave. We set up a DJ table downstairs. Two laptops — one running the Hercules DJ Console, the other running Ableton Live — were connected to a two-channel mixer which hooked into the stereo system. The trusty Denon AVR-4306 (oh how I love that piece of machinery) ably handled playing Christmas tunes upstairs and the mixer’s output downstairs. Everyone wants to be a DJ and, after a few drinks, no one seems to care that you aren’t. (Beatmatching, like downhill skiing, is not really something to be done drunk.) It was great fun.

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We also set up a prom-style photo wall, inspired by an excellent photostream on Flickr (which I cannot find at the moment) link (thanks, Craig). Borrowing a friend’s kickass SLR and installing some remote control software we were able to rig it so that the revelers had only to hit F9 to take their own shots. A laptop displayed the output immediately. 800 photos later, I am amazed at what people will do in front of a camera. In any event, the ploys worked and by 9pm the basement was throbbing with people vamping for the camera and thumping to the choons.

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Adding to the rave-like quality on the lower level were this year’s party favors. Traditionally we’ve created a mix using Coudal’s superb Jewelboxes. One of the great things about these cases is that the hinge between the covers creates a nifty little chamber. Coudal encourages creative uses of the chamber so last year (for a mix called “Shaken”) I filled the chamber with red, white, and green Tic Tacs. I was pleased with the results. So imagine my surprise when I learned that Coudal actually now has an entire sub-line of Jewelboxes with Tic Tac-filled hinge chambers! Flattering, I suppose. (Hard not to love Coudal. Even if they did steal my idea!)

Anyway. The rave-like quality. This year I searched high and low for glow sticks that were the proper size for the hinge chamber. My idea was to have red and green glowing CDs. Turns out glow sticks are made in a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes for everything from costumes to golf balls to fishing lures. This last category — called Lunker Lights — was the perfect size for the chamber. The effect was stunning — though it only lasted for about 8 hours. Rave on! (For those who enjoy stylistically schizophrenic playlists, the tracks are listed here.)


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Our ATF worries were less Ruby Ridge, more Al Capone. There’s nothing wrong with making your own hard cider, of course. It turned out very well, if a little dry. But the real hit of the party was the Applejack. This potent distillate is made by putting a quantity of cider out in the snow for a few days, letting the non-alcoholic liquid (which is most of it) freeze, scraping that off, repeating. Liquid volume reduction, no alcohol reduction. (Some pics at the end of this photoset.) You can figure out the rest. It isn’t precisely legal, but then who says I didn’t just leave the tub out in the snow by accident? Calvados is the name of store-bought heat-distilled Apple liqueur. I’m quite certain it tastes nothing like my Applejack. But people clearly drank it at the party and, refreshingly, we’ve had no reports of blindness or death.


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The last bit of party fun for which I was responsible (i.e. those things having nothing to do with food or decoration) was the train track. Every year we alter the track layout a bit and this year, frankly, we might have overdone it. For years we’ve had the traditional living room and tree base interlocking loops. But that’s for amateurs we decided. And by we I mean, me and my two sons. Nah. I just mean me. So we devised the trans-dining room spur. Since we were cramped for space I laid out a single track that would head into the dining room, loop around a side table, and then return on the same track. Silly me. Electricity (which flows in the tracks and powers the engine) no likey being made to double-back on itself. So that was a colossal failure. “Daddy, why can’t you make the train run?” [heart rends] I didn’t realize you had to be an electrical engineer to build a toy train.

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This set off a quest for two reverse loop track thing-a-ma-bobs. Inserting these into a loop of track basically segments off a stretch of track with reverse polarity so that the electrons may once again be happy and your train may run … until it gets to the junction point of the original polarity whereupon it stops and you have to go over to the control panel and reverse the direction manually. Way too cumbersome and not at all fun. So, we had to pitch the spur idea. But did we pitch the trans-dining room express? Hell no. We just made it bigger so that we could have a full fledged electrical physics-behavin’ loop. This was a source of great displeasure for my wife. (“Do you know how many drunk women in high heels are going to trip on that?!”) Chugga-chugga choo-choo.

Let’s end with the stats:

76 people drank …
2.5 handles of vodka
3/4 bottle stoli vanilla
1/3 handle gin
1 bottle scotch
4 cases of beer
2 bottles champagne
1 liter coke
1/2 handle bourbon
3 bottles merlot
3 bottles red zin
2 bottles chardonnay
1 bottle pinot grigio
1 bottle pinor noir
16 oz. homemade cider
1/2 gallon homemade applejack (god help ‘em)
and ate …
9 lb ham
36 rolls
1 9×13 spinach squares
50 bacon-wrapped dates
1 bucketload of queso
2 mega-bags Fritos scoops
1 plate asparagus appetizers
2 loaves pepperoni bread
2 dozen mini-cupcakes
1/2 recipe goat cheese torta
assorted Twinkies, Ho Ho’s and cupcakes
1 apple cake
1 9×13 gooey toffee butter bars
dozens of sausage bites (1.5 packs of puff pastry)
1/2 recipe Oreo truffles
1 bag hugs pretzels
prosciutto swirls
and did not eat …
choco-covered fruits
my sister’s cookies
fudge
pralines
brownies

Until next year, happy holidays!