That golden light of fall

25 Oct

Everyone has their “season” – people say “I’m a summer girl” or “Spring is my thing” or “Give me winter” and of course “I’m a fall person.”  Your “season” influences your personal color palette, when you feel you’re at your best, etc. etc.

Growing up, I always felt myself to be a summer person – it’s when my birthday is, every summer as a kid was spent at the pool, on the golf course, on my bike, doing outdoor stuff all the time.  I was always one of those kids with a chocolate-brown tan and chlorine-bleached hair.

As I got into college, I began to realize, I’m really a fall person.  I feel energized by fall – it’s the starting point of so much – school, sports seasons, etc.  The cooler weather makes it better to be outside (now that I’m not a little kid with a local pool to go to every day).  Cold mornings are invigorating and warm afternoons are to be savored.  The trees turning make the world a technicolor dream for a few weeks in October.  Hearty, satisfying foods that smell up the entire house are the order of the day. Fire pits. Walks in the forest preserves kicking up leaves. Happy dogs outside, etc.

I married a “fall girl”.  Robin has always described herself as a fall person – her choice of colors trends to earth tones, which compliments her olive skin coloring and dark hair. She is not a big fan of heat and humidity (unless palm trees and sand are involved too). She also comes alive in the fall – it energizes her like no other season.

This morning is a spectacular “Indian Summer” day – it is supposed to be quite warm today, and while cool and crisp this morning, only a light jacket is required. Clear, bright and sunny.

I was thinking about what I like most about fall and I think I have figured it out – it’s the light. While I don’t think any of us like days getting shorter and shorter every day, there’s something about how the lowering sun angle makes the sunlight a nicer, more golden glow. Shadows are longer. The sun comes in the windows of the house more during the day. Sunrises are rosier and seem to last longer.  Sunsets are more orange and seem to linger longer.

Photographers know that “golden” low sun angle well. You need look no further than any Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue for evidence of that – it seems like every shot was made at either sunset or sunrise. Designers would call this “color temperature” – the lower sun angle makes a warmer “color temperature” – more yellow, more golden. Less blue and less harsh.

The header shot on this blog is a great example of an early-fall sunset.  I shot that from my friend Professor Troutsteam’s sailboat on Lake Michigan in late September a few years ago. We went for a “sunsetter” sail – left the dock about 5:30 PM on a Saturday afternoon, and headed in about 7:00 PM. That incredible orange glow just doesn’t happen in mid-summer.

There is a Jewish angle to fall as well – it is the time of the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. You celebrate a new year beginning, you celebrate renewal. You take stock of your life, you make amends, and you atone for wrongs. We also “reset” the Torah every fall – the Torah (for those not “in the Tribe”) is the first five books of the bible, and in Jewish practice, you read a portion (called a “parshah”) every week in order from beginning to end.  You reach the end, re-roll it backwards and start from Genesis again.

Some would say spring is the time for renewal – the critters have their babies, the trees leaf out, the flowers bloom, the plants rise. For me, fall is when we are at our fullest. The harvest is in, the plants and all are at their fullest size. School is on, life is moving fast and forward.  Things are accelerating, not slowing down.

Regardless of if you’re a fall person like me, or not – enjoy the season. Get out and walk among the trees and leaves. Jump in a leaf pile. Gather with friends for a beer in the crisp air and sunshine. Attend a football game, Get up early for a rosy sunrise, and be sure to enjoy a sunset. Savor it.

As you were,

Stew

I’m back.

24 Oct

Hi Friends:

I know it’s been more than six months since my last blog post – this sounds like I’m in the confessional (not that a Jew like me would know much of that) – forgive me friends for I have committed the sin of not writing for more than a half a year.

I’ve had a lot going on. And my close friends know what.  To say that it consumed my thoughts and therefore my ability to write about it is to understate the obvious. “It” was also not something I wanted to live out in social media. Thankfully, life moves forward and so am I.

The last six months have been interminably long, and I learned a ton about myself.  One thing I learned is that I’m immensely resourceful. I also learned (not too surprising here) that I’m not wired to be idle. Thankfully, I’m anything but at this point, and now instead of too much time to think, instead I don’t have enough time for anything. And I love that.

The long story short? I’m back.  Let’s just leave it at that. The pub that pours a steady flow of Stew’s Brew is back open for business.

What prompted this you ask?  Mentorship.  That’s what.

It took me close to 4 years to do this, but I have been able to pay forward the favor done for me by my friend David Deal when he and I sat down for a delicious Chicago Dog and he coached me into starting my personal blog.

Today, I coached/mentored a young colleague into starting his blog. We met to discuss how he could contribute to the company’s blogging and content development effort and the conversation turned into “how do I get started with blogging?” Four hours later, he’s banged out his first post. I like to think I’ve added a little something new to the world. I’m thinking he’s going to go far in this.  My friends and followers, meet Tom Fowell:

“History is Written by the #”.

Much more to come, my friends, much more to come. From me, and well, I’m sure Tom will have much to say too. Life has not stood still while I took my break from writing. But in the meanwhile, enjoy the words of this fine young writer. And some fresh Stew’s Brew will be poured within a day or so.

As you were,

Stew

Bartending taught me about Client Service

19 Aug

My new post on my marketing blog – enjoy and share if you feel so inclined:  Bartending taught me about Client Service.

Wheels

28 Mar IMG_1010

Well, last weekend, I finally got to do what I’ve been wanting to do for ages, and that is buy my oldest son, Joel, a car. Which is only the ending part of the story. As I mentioned in my story from last spring, when we bought our twin sons a car to share, we’ve always been in the camp that kids don’t need their own cars. Neither my wife nor I had our own cars until deep in college, and so we never bought the kids cars when they turned 16. Is it more convenient for them to have their own at that age? I’m sure it is – but it just wasn’t how either of us were raised, and therefore, it wasn’t how we were going to proceed. But at some point, necessity wins. For the car we bought for Alex and Brian, it was Brian heading off to community college every day this year that forced the hand. And for Joel, well, it was landing the coolest summer internship we and he could possibly imagine.

In case you’re living somewhere under a rock, Tesla Motors is the “it” car company right now.  It has been compared to Apple computer in the mid-80s – it is inventing the future as we speak, and that future is electric cars with rapid charging ability, high performance (rather than the whiny little golf-cart-esque things that other car companies are putting out), extreme luxury, unimaginable features, best-in-class-safety and incredible beauty all in one.   They are inventing a nationwide rapid charging network just for Tesla owners, they are building a battery plant that is 10X the size of anything around today to serve the industry, and again, they are inventing this category.

2013-Tesla-Model-S-rear-three-quarter-1

And they hired my son, Joel, as an intern this summer in their paint engineering department at their production plant in Fremont, CA, in the San Jose/Silicon Valley area.  Wow. So suddenly, the necessity requirement for the car purchase is being met.

This story wouldn’t make sense without getting to know my son a bit. This little boy has loved cars and everything to do with cars since he was old enough to make the Pbbbbbbbbbbbb sound with his mouth – and would push around non-car objects like they were cars – that at 7 months old. His favorite toys were all cars. At the ripe age of 3, he had the starting lineup of the NASCAR Winston Cup series committed to memory, and I’m not talking about just drivers names, but their sponsors, their numbers, their engine builder, their owner, the whole shebang.  I could have won bar bets with him, and when I took him to his first NASCAR race (a Busch Series race at the Milwaukee Mile) just after his third birthday, he demonstrated that prowess and got people to buy me beers (“Buddy, you’re raisin’ that boy right, lemme buy ya a beer.”).

He would watch NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula 1, World Rally Car (WRC), Super Bikes, etc. etc. non-stop on Speed Channel (RIP!), ESPN, national TV, etc.  He cried his eyes out when Dale Earnhardt was killed.  I bought him a pedal-powered Indy Car and a little play helmet and he’d strap that helmet on and race around the driveway, and then declare himself the winner, stand up in the car and conduct a winner’s interview with himself, perfectly mimicking the winner’s speech of “Well, the DuPont Pepsi Hendricks Chevrolet was just awesome today, and the work of the crew is what got me here.”

He would hold races of his 1/64th scale Indy and NASCAR toy cars on our dining room table, carefully logging the starting positions, the ending positions, the series points and more in notebooks. As he got older and got into video games, he would consistently completely ace the latest computer or console racing games. Right now he’s in the top percentiles of all registered players on some of the best/hardest racing games like Forza and others.

Most kids, when they get their licenses, do stupid things, get tickets, wreck cars, etc. Not Joel. Not at all Joel. He guards his driving privilege closer than anyone I know. Other than one unfortunate encounter with the corner of our garage and our minivan’s bumper a week after getting his license and one scrape of a mailbox a couple of months after that, he’s not had any accidents driving. He went five years with his license before he got his first ticket and that was driving back and forth from his internship with Nissan in Detroit last year.

He went to school to get a job with a car company. He started out as a mechanical engineering major and during his junior year, he realized that wasn’t for him and changed majors to his current one, Technology Systems Management, which, is really the applied side of engineering. Everything he’s done at school has pointed to that – the biggest of which is Formula SAE.  FSAE is a racing program sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers. FSAE teams design and build from scratch a “formula-style” race car (picture below) every year.  They then compete in FSAE competitions where they have a business proposal competition (how much does it cost to build it and what are the projected production costs in a volume run), a design competition and competitions in a variety of tests of the car itself – static tests where the car is still, and dynamic tests like acceleration, braking, skidpad, and then autocross and endurance racing. He started as a freshman apprentice, being a general go-fer, and has worked his way into the team leadership this year.

Here is Joel at the wheel of the 2013 Illini Motorsports FSAE car in a testing session last summer:

joel_fsae

So, I guess I’ve set the stage for “Joel is a car guy”. As part of his run up to a career in the automaker business, the next stage is interning – and last summer, he hit a great one.  He interned at Nissan in their technology center in Farmington Hills, MI. Nissan paid well, provided him a company car to drive (and damn nice ones too) and he spent the summer kart racing with an old friend of mine from high school who works there too (and helped foam the runway).  Unfortunately, Nissan wasn’t able to pick him up for this summer – with his change from Mechanical Engineering to Tech Systems Management that took him out of contention. He had fairly well planned on going back to his old summer job of being a camp counselor at a local day camp (which is a great job, so don’t take that the wrong way), when out of the blue, the dream internship happened. He got a call from Tesla Motors where someone that knew him from FSAE had recommended him. After a very short interview period, he got the job and he’s headed to California for the summer.

As a car guy myself (the Brits call it being a “petrol head”), it has pained me that I haven’t been able to buy my petrol head son a car, but it just hasn’t been a necessary expense. And when you’re dealing with five-figure expenses, it needs to be necessary.  But with the internship in California and all, it became time. So he and I started doing research – I should say he started doing research, with me sort of following. My wife was still pretty soft on the idea – she recognized the need but the expense scared her – and it does me.  But, we’ll manage. On Saturday, he came home for the weekend, and we set out to look at two cars, with no intent on buying either. But the second one we looked at, a pristine 2007 VW GTI just spoke to me.  Joel was meant to drive that car. The car looks and drives like new and had a perfect record on CARFAX with all service details documented.  Doesn’t get better than that. After much “gut wrenching” thought, and a quick phone call to Robin, much to Joel’s surprise, I said to the dealer “Ok, if we take it today, what can you do on the price?” I thought Joel’s head was going to pop. The look on his face was completely priceless. We did the deal and I thought the kid was going to do cart wheels on his way to the car.

One HAPPY kid:

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As I’ve mentioned before, my wife and I also have a VW GTI – a 2011.  It is the perfect blend of a performance car and practicality. Tons of room inside to haul people and stuff. And when it’s just you, a curvy road and the gas and brake pedals, it flat hauls ass.  So Joel and I have “dad and son VW GTIs.”  And while he’s over the moon happy that he finally has a ride of his own, I’d stack my happy against his and probably win that I was able to do this for him.

The boys with their toys:

 

IMG_1011

To him, I’ve said – “Have fun with it but drive it safely everywhere that’s not a race track.”  But I also said, “and when you do hit the track, look out for the guy in the midnight black GTI, because it’s going to be dear old dad who is not going to give an inch to you.”

As you were,

Stew

“Tribute Band” music – my outing to see Brit Floyd

24 Mar IMG_0990

A ton going on right now in my life and much, much to write about, but I’m going to go a topic at a time, so today’s topic is my outing last Thursday night to see Brit Floyd, ostensibly a “Pink Floyd Tribute Band” play the music of Pink Floyd at the Chicago Theater. I’ve never been a huge Pink Floyd fan – and in fact, it’s a topic of humor with my wife of late – we both realized that with Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and a few other major acts, there are a lot of songs we know and music that we like, but don’t ask us the names of the songs, and don’t ask us to name our favorites, as we won’t be able to tell you.  Now that said, it is a wee bit easier with Pink Floyd – there’s a couple of major songs from The Wall (Another Brick …, Comfortably Numb), from Dark Side of The Moon (Money, Time, Wish you were here), etc.  But even those, if you come into them in the middle of the song, we don’t hit right away.  The game we play now is if we’re in the car listening to Classic Vinyl on Sirius XM, and a Pink Floyd/Led Zeppelin, etc. song comes on, is to cover the radio display and say “Ok name it” … and neither of us can.

ANYWAY (the linguistic version of when you realize you’re down a rabbit hole you didn’t intend to explore), my friends Beavis and Peter Pan started emailing when this show was announced, and I thought it would be a good way to both have a great night out with two good friends and also perhaps get to know this music better.

So, the whole “Tribute Band” thing seems to be something that has cropped up in the last 15 years or so – bands that specialize in the music of one famous act from the classic rock era – and now starting to extend into the 80s and 90s.  Most of these are bar bands, some of them go so far as to basically play characters that are intended to be the original members (can you imagine the arguments?  “I want to be Paul Stanley.”  “No, I do, I can do the New York accent better.”), complete with costumes.  And some even go further than that and play them in different eras.  A local Beatles tribute band, Modern English does that – starting out in classic “Ed Sullivan/Liverpool” dress of black suits and skinny ties, morphing into Sgt. Pepper costumes, and then into the White Album/psychedelic era wear and wigs, fake beards, etc.

As I said, for the most part, these are bar bands, or at best, are touring local festivals – like Modern English does all summer in Chicago doing every “Taste of” “4th of July Fest” etc. around.

That got me thinking – is this really a new phenomenon, this “Tribute Band” thing, or is it something that has gone on for a long time – and the analog to it popped up like stepping on a rake – for the most part, most “city symphony” orchestras (like the Chicago Symphony), are tribute bands but are tributes to Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, etc.  Now that said, really what they are is cover bands – playing  the music of others, where truly a “tribute band” does the music of one band/artist, etc.  But, it really isn’t something truly new.

So, on to Brit Floyd – so what makes Brit Floyd such a cut above other “tribute bands” that they sell out a 6500 seat theater in Chicago at ticket prices ranging from $45 to $120/seat?  Versus going and seeing “Journey to the 80s” an 80s tribute band with a hairy overweight guy screeching out his best Steve Perry falsetto?  Quality … and musicianship, through and through.  That and these guys WEREN’T playing characters.  Were they a band that only played the music of one artist/band?  Yes.  That’s where the similarity ends.

To give it an analog, Brit Floyd is the equivalent of seeing the CSO play Beethoven’s 9th symphony in its entirety, while some bar band Pink Floyd tributeers might be the equivalent of the local high school’s “B” level orchestra scratching out the first movement.  Unbelievably professional musicians, incredible staging and production values, and while they were faithful to the Pink Floyd music, they also made it their own by extending the songs deeply – “Another Brick In The Wall” goes from being a 4:15 album cut or a 3.5 minute radio play to an 8 minute jam with extended/expanded guitar solos, a unique ending, a deep/long beginning that worked into the start of the song, etc.  It was like that all evening.  And it was incredible.

That was some of the best rock music I’ve heard in a long time.  The guitarists were virtuosos – both playing and contributing incredible versions of David Gilmour’s soaring guitar solos.  They had two percussionists, an incredible group of female backup singers, etc.  And their vocals, while again true to the Pink Floyd genre and sound, were their own voices – they weren’t playing characters, or singing in affect accents or any of the other typical Tribute Band garbage you see in the bar bands.

As I age, and become more and more attached to music as my right brain outlet, both playing and listening, I have often wondered, “what is the future of rock music”?  An acquaintance of mine, Dean, who is a professional musician, playing everything from folk to rock to blues to jazz and multiple instruments, has of late been posing the question – “when did music make the turn from professionalism to production values?”  He promotes his gigs as “no auto tunes, backing tracks, loopers, or unnecessary electronics – just pure quality music.”  Versus seemingly anywhere you go to hear music these days, bands use backing tracks to add additional instruments, people, etc. that aren’t out there playing.

I’ve been thinking about that, and about, “what happens to the music we love when the artists die off or retire (or both)?”  Certainly there are these tribute bands in the bars, but I hope there is more “Brit Floyd” level acts forming up to cover and expand and interpret and make their own, the music we all know and love.  I, for certain, would pay to hear that.

Much more to come in the next week or two … lots happening.

But the train ride is at an end now, so …

(and pictures are below)

As you were,

Stew

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Sharpening the Axe

19 Mar Townshend_Pete_2010_redStrat

In Stephen Covey’s list of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” he talks about “sharpening the saw” – which is his euphemism for actively learning.  He recommends continually putting yourself through education, training, reading books, listening to tapes, etc.  And while one most certainly could say that he included this one just to make sure his devotees had continued motivation to buy his stuff, nonetheless, I strongly believe that continual learning one of the keys to lifelong happiness as well as continued mental health and sharpness.

Which brings me to my topic – “Sharpening the Axe” – of late, I started taking guitar lessons again as part of my rededicated devotion and focus on playing my guitar (hence the “axe” reference) and music in 2014 that I shared in my post around the New Year.  Since the start of the year, musically anyway, I have …

- Rebuilt and reorganized my home-grown guitar songbook into something far more organized and scaleable.  I also printed 15 copies of it, with one designated as a gift for my pal Professor Troutstream, who is also getting his strum on again.

- Created a much more musically-inclined space for myself in our newly-remodeled basement, with all my guitar gear there, space to sit and play both by myself and with others, and also playing along with music on the surround sound stereo system down there.

- Bought one of my “dream guitars” – a candy-apple red Fender Stratocaster.  Now I’d love to say it’s an American Custom Shop Stratocaster that cost $2500 or more – nope, a Standard, built in Mexico. (For those that care about this stuff, maple neck, 50’s style headstock, three single coil standard pickups with a hot bridge pickup.) And red stratocasters have been played by my guitar idol/icons for ages – guys like Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Joe Walsh, Stevie Ray Vaughn.  Looks perfect and plays like an absolute dream.  Best value in guitars around – great action, sound, sustain, etc.  Not sure why I waited so long to get this.  But I love it.  Here’s Pete with his:

pete_red_stratocaster

And me with mine as I was unpacking it from the shipment box:

stew_strat

 

- And, in the last four weeks, I started back up with guitar lessons.

Over my lifetime, I’ve probably had 40 or so guitar lessons – I took guitar classes back in Jr. High from Mr. Elliott at Central  JH in Newton, IA – I think that was 7th and 8th grade.  Mr. Elliott taught me the basics but he also taught me to love the instrument and for that, I’m lifelong grateful to him.  After that, I took a handful of lessons here and there from various local folks, both officially and unofficially, and also my bandmates taught me stuff while I put down the rhythm with my bass guitar – amazing what you can learn just by watching.

About 15 years ago, when I picked guitar back up, I immediately started with lessons and quickly found that even though I was coming off a nearly 20-year hiatus from playing, that I was close to a better teacher than the teacher.  I gave that up, dabbled around in guitar books and such and online bits and pieces, then went through two more guitar teachers trying to find the right match.  One guy is a really accomplished Jazz teacher and well, he teaches Jazz guitar, which isn’t what I wanted, and another guy just really didn’t feel like much of a match.  A bigger issue is that I was struggling with articulating what I really wanted from this.

Finally, after thinking about it a lot, I figured it out – the handful of things I really wanted to learn were:

- finger style right hand picking on an acoustic guitar
– jazz and blues form rhythm guitar chord work and additional voicings and forms for chord work

But most important:

- how to solo as a blues and rock guitarist.

THAT, my friends is my holy grail.  I knew the basics – I had learned improvisation as a bass player back in high school at the hand of Mr. Omanson at Newton High Sschool.  It’s all just scales.  I even more or less knew several of the scales – minor and major pentatonics, minor and major straight scales, mixolydian scales, etc.  But I didn’t know how they translated to actually making a guitar solo sound good and sound coherent. Little things like root notes, bends, riffs, transitions from one pattern to the next, pattern extensions, etc.

I found a teacher near me by searching online, and read his website. Accomplished Blues and Rock player.  Good.  You Tube videos of his playing, great! Flexible schedules? Now we’re getting somewhere!  “I’ll teach you what you want to learn”.  Winner winner chicken dinner, ladies and gents!  I sent him an email describing my situation and he emailed right back – he thinks he could help – and the first lesson is free as he wanted to see if we had a match.

Well, happy to report we have a match. I learned more in that first 45 minute free session than I learned from all the guitar teachers I had since picking this back up.  I just had my third lesson last night and already he had me playing a solo over him playing along to a blues “jam track”.  DAMN!  Now this is progress!  I feel so energized by the learning, I’m having such a blast playing.  I play at least an hour a day as much as I can, and for the first time, I can hear the music in these scales. Blues songs are running on my mental iPod on a continuous 24 hour loop.

You know you’re primed for the learning experience when you can’t learn it fast enough.  That’s me right now.

Coming back to the central point and theme of the post here though – you’re never too old to pick up something and learn it.  Whether you’re just starting as a rank beginner, or you’re doing as I’m doing and going from a medium level to a more advanced level of knowledge or skill, there is no substitute for learning and for getting the learning from a competent educator or other source.  Your mind expands with every bit you learn.

Think about it.  What do you want to learn? Go learn it.

As you were,

Stew

The Mourning

21 Feb

Kind of a tough topic, this one.  Not exactly a toe-tapper for a Friday, but appropriate given the week.  We’re very good friends with our next door neighbors.  He happens to also be our Rabbi, she happens to be wonderful, and their two sons are great young men and we’ve forged equally strong friendships with them.  Not too often you find friends like this.  Since I try not to name direct names in Stew’s Brew, other than my own family, I’ll just call them Rabbi, the glassblower (for son #1, since that’s his profession), Miami (son #2 goes there to school) and for the wife, who defies all description, I’ll just call her The Most Interesting Woman in The World.  (And those that know her, will laugh, as will she!)

The Rabbi’s dad died on Monday of this week – he had been stricken ill by a catastrophic stroke at 81 years old.  Generally, he had been in great health up until late fall, when he had what seemed like a smaller version of this and had fallen and hit his head, but he was rebounding from that and coming along well.  And then … well, G-d was merciful and swift.

The funeral was yesterday, Rabbi spoke, his sister spoke, Rabbi’s uncle (brother to the deceased) spoke, and the glassblower spoke.  All of them had such eloquent words to say about their departed dad, brother, and grandfather.  Funerals are both wonderful things and terribly sad things.  When attending funerals such as yesterdays, I find myself thinking a couple of thought streams – one, “what stops us from saying such wonderful things about the living?”  And two, a thought I have when I don’t know the deceased well, “I sure wish I knew him better.”

The things I already knew about Rabbi’s dad were that he was a nice man, he was always impeccably dressed whenever I saw him, even if the dress was casual, he had a very close relationship with the two grandsons I knew, the glassblower and Miami, (Rabbi’s sister also has three kids, and there’s more), The Most Interesting Woman in the World thought he was a wonderful grandpa and father-in-law, and loved his wife, and he was very proud of his son, the Rabbi.  I also knew that his first wife had passed some years ago, but I wasn’t sure how long, and that he had found someone and remarried, and she is a wonderful person too.  But honestly, that was about it – we’d been around him and his wife for events where their family was present, and sat across from each other at a few Shabbat dinners but that was about it.

What I learned about him at the funeral is that he was a quiet, steadfast guy, who immensely loved his family, worked exceptionally hard his whole life to provide well for his family, that despite having a son in the rabbinate, that he wasn’t a terribly religious guy, although he loved watching his son do the work, and that when he remarried late in life, he became Grandpa and “Dad” to his new wife’s whole family as well.  We also heard so many wonderful and often humorous stories as each person spoke.  There was much love in the room in this funeral.

I wish I had known him better, for sure.  I do know first hand the emptiness Rabbi and his sister must be feeling, having lost my Dad 21+ years ago.  There’s no moving on from that.  The ache gets replaced with warmth, but the hole in your life is never refilled.

This takes me in a different direction.  Since embracing Judaism, I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by the Jewish grieving process.  First the burial process is even different.  If geography, family arrival, etc. all align, the tradition is to have a funeral no more than two days after death, and ideally, the following day.  They don’t embalm the body, and in traditional ways, the bodies are never left alone from death until burial, nor are they dressed in street or fine clothing but instead are lovingly washed and then wrapped in a simple linen shroud.  The casket is all wood, and is placed in direct contact with the earth.  The funeral services are somewhat similar, but the graveside is quite a bit different, and well, comforting.  You literally watch as the crew lowers the casket into the grave, and then at the end, the tradition is for each mourner to shovel three scoops of dirt into the grave on top of the casket.  And after that, the tradition is to wait until the crew fills the grave with dirt.

After that, the tradition moves to “Shiva” which is gathering at the home of the mourners – and do what folks do in that sense – eat, schmooze, reminisce and tell stories of the deceased.  It is somewhat like a wake, but takes place after the funeral.  Very traditionally, it is a week-long time – but most cut that to a few days at most.  The Shiva period I think is very unique as it allows the mourners to sort of “ease back into life” from the shock of death and the rawness of the funeral.  By being around friends and family, having others attend to things like food and drink and housework and cleaning, the mourners can concentrate on remembrance and healing.  It’s a good tradition.

My own observations are interesting.  The first time I was confronted with the dirt shoveling thing, was at a friends’ brother’s funeral and I’ll be honest, I couldn’t do it.  Since then I’ve come to terms with it, and I feel it is very much like “putting someone to bed” for the last time.  At a time when that person can no longer take care of themselves, we on this side of the spectrum, take care of it for them. Make no mistake though, it is I think the moment of a funeral when the grief is the most raw.  And after that’s done and you walk away, it is time to start “coming back.  If you look at grief as an upside down bell curve, the bottom of the curve is that moment.

While I don’t know anyone that “likes” going to shiva, the process is wonderful to watch – it’s a bit like a party, wake, family reunion, etc. all rolled together.  It is traditional to have a brief service each day, and the rhythm of it, I truly do believe, serves the needs of the bereaved.  The mood seems to get progressively lighter, until by the last day, everyone is just ready for it to all be over so they can get on with life.

So anyway, a melancholy blog post to end a melancholy week. The weather was weird and gray, and miserable and this happened too. Ugh.

As this went on, I was reminded over and over this week of the passing of my own dad in July of 1992, and much of the same things were said about Rabbi’s dad as were said about mine.  “He was a great guy.”  “He was all about his family.”  “He never met a stranger.”  “Everywhere he went, he always knew someone.”  “He was always helping others.”  That made yesterday both a very tough funeral for me, and a very, well, enjoyable one as well. And, as I said before, I wish I had known him better.

Shabbat Shalom.

As you were,

Stew

Railroaded: A Series of Unfortunate Events

11 Feb

Living in the Chicago suburbs and working in downtown Chicago, I’m fortunate in being able to utilize one of the better commuter rail systems in the country to make my 40 mile trek to the office every morning.  That said, with this winter’s incredibly severe weather, with extreme cold, constant snow, etc., the commuting experience has been challenging.  At the height of the Polar Vortex mess in January, the trains were barely running – on one afternoon, Metra was so screwed up that they cancelled half their schedule, and the part that remained, only 30% ran on time.  On my line that day, the North Central Service line, there are only six trains – four during rush hour, and two more.  The hour rush hour trains were all combined into one – the 5:31 departure, which “sailed” at 10 minutes until six.

Yesterday was another very cold day and I had a commute that could only be described as “a series of unfortunate events” – borrowing from the movie and book title a few years ago.  I decided to catch the 5:31 departure, which means I need to be out the door of my office by about 5:00 PM to catch the bus to the train station.  I arrive about 10 minutes before departure and the outbound train hasn’t arrived yet.  Not a big panic, this happens fairly frequently – the train will pull in about 5 min before departure time, everyone gets on, and off we go.  Well, 5:31 comes and goes, and no train – Metra, who has been accused of poor communications is over-compensating now, but most of the communications are useless. For example, they often have circular logic “your train is operating 10 minutes late today due to the train operating late” or something like that.  Useless.  And yesterday was no exception – all they kept saying was “the 5:31 North Central Service train will arrive on Track 5 and depart shortly after”.  Ooh, thanks for that.  How about the one thing we all want to hear?  When?  When indeed.  Read on.

The train arrived at about 5:35, and the crowd piles in.  Thankfully, I was at the head of the line to board and was able to grab one of the plumb seats that people don’t expect you to share.  These are on the upper level against the bulkhead and are a full-sized seat, but no one but couples ever share those.  So a lucky moment there.  And we sit.  5:40 comes and goes and no announcement.  Finally at 5:45 the conductor comes on the PA and says that we’re late due to a mechanical issue that they are fixing on the locomotive, and that the same issue was the cause of the late-arriving equipment.  He comes on again at 5:50 and says “Ok, we’re close, should be leaving in a minute or two” – and we did.

So … 20 minutes late.  Not a trainsmash (RIMSHOT), but not ideal.  We roll along, making our usual stops and as we’re gaining speed coming out of the O’Hare Airport Transfer stop, suddenly the lights and HVAC in our car goes out and the train starts coasting to a stop – silent.  Normally, even on a very long train, you can feel the rumble and thrum of the locomotive.  There’s no rumble or thrum.  Just the dim emergency lights.  Uh oh.  We roll to a stop and … sit.  For a solid 8 minutes we sit with no updates from the crew or anything.   Finally the conductor comes on the PA and says “Well folks, the issue earlier with the locomotive was that we were getting a warning light that there was a problem with the water pumps on the engine.  We checked and everything seemed to be OK, so we thought it was the computer.  We finally were able to clear it and go.  And just now, that same warning flashed on and less than a minute later, the engine just quit dead.  The computer won’t let us attempt to restart it. I guess the computer wasn’t kidding around. So, sorry about this, but we’re working on a “plan b” for you here.”  REALLY?

Thankfully, plan B departed the station just 10 minutes behind us – the 6:00 PM train.  After about 5 minutes, the conductor came back on and said that the 6:00 would come up behind us, they’d couple the trains together, and would push us.  He estimated it would take 15 minutes to get the two trains together.  We heard the train roll up behind us (I was in the last car, so you could hear the engine), and the conductor made another announcement that there might be some jolting as they hook up the trains.  Well, jolting indeed.  It took them three tries to get connected due to the cold affecting the couplers – the final try had them bring the trains together quite hard.  Thankfully, they warned us. That all took 15 minutes. After that, they had to hook up the brakes, and well, that didn’t go so well.  I would presume the cold was affecting this as well.  After the big jolt that got the trains to couple up, the conductor said  “ok, we need just a few more minutes to get the brakes connected and we can roll.”   Well fully 15 minutes later he comes on and says “folks, we just can’t win tonight – we’re having difficulty getting the brakes connected.  We hope to have this resolved soon.”  And another 15 minutes and they did.  So … now, it is about 7:20 PM.  I was supposed to be out to dinner with my son Brian at this point, enjoying my second beer and watching the Olympics in a sports bar.

We start to roll, and only go for about 8 minutes, quite slowly, and then roll to a stop.  You can hear a huge collective groan ripple through the train.  We sit for a solid 5 minutes and finally the conductor comes on and says “folks, there’s nothing wrong – we’re holding here for some other trains to cross on the UP tracks in front of us.  Due to our delayed status, we have no priority through this intersection.”  Which seems backwards to me but … I’m not in charge.

Finally we roll again and we’re homeward bound.  Because the train consist was now two seven-car Metra passenger trains and two locomotives long, we’re much longer than what will fit the train stations, so at the first two stops, only the last two cars of our train opened – the conductor was great about urging people to come to the back cars if they were planning to get off the train.  And those stops were fairly short.

At Buffalo Grove, where I live, a large number of folks board and exit every day – it’s the single biggest stop on this line.  At least half the train gets up and leaves there.  And the last insult to all the injury happened here.  At most train stations, there are two tracks and two platforms.  And the inbound trains run on one track and the outbound run on the other.  At Buffalo Grove, I think to help serve freight traffic there, normally, we both depart and arrive on the same platform – the one closest to the station.  At stations where they use tracks, usually, you have to wait for the train to leave before you can cross over and walk to your car.  At this point, I’m done, I want to be home, go to dinner with Brian and be done.  It’s 7:45 PM.  And so, time for the final screw up.

For whatever reason, they brought us in on the opposite track, and at this station, they wanted everyone that wasn’t staying in BG to get off our broken train and get on the good one so they could completely shut down the dead one.  Which meant everyone that wanted to just go home in Buffalo Grove had to stand there for another 20 minutes because the great big train was blocking the tracks while everyone got off one train and got onto the other.  Ugh.

Finally at 8:05, I was in the car and headed home.

So after-analysis:  I do believe that the quality of service of Chicago’s suburban rail service has become worse and worse. This agency has been part of political scandals, personal scandals (the head of the Metra board was being investigated for corruption and just before he was to be removed from his post, he stepped in front of a Metra train and committed suicide – this was about 3 years ago), there are budget shortfalls, political patronage scandals and more.  Thankfully, they ARE trying to raise their game – the communications are getting much better, they are starting to use technology more, etc.  But there’s getting around the issues that their rolling stock is antiquated and crumbling, their track infrastructure that they control is a mess, and the parts they don’t control they are an afterthought from CN and UP when those cooperative deals were sold to the public as Metra having priority.

And I have to rely on it to get to work.

It is what it is.  Beats driving.  But not by much anymore.  I know the guy who wrote the tagline “Metra, The Way to Really Fly”.

Well, not so much anymore.

As you were,

Stew

New York City, starring Chicken Delicious

18 Jan

I just completed a week in New York City and I’m writing this from the American Airlines Admiral’s Club at LaGuardia – a place where I’ve spent countless hours over my career.  A fun and interesting week for sure.  I arrived on Sunday as I had three days of meetings with one of our clients here from Monday through Wednesday, as well as two meetings with Google, and then yesterday and today, participated in the iProspect Senior Leadership Team “SLT” meetings at Aegis Media’s HQ office on 42nd street near Grand Central.

I’ve been coming to NYC fairly steadily for work for at least 15 years, and prior to that on an occasional basis (except for a 2 year period where I more I less lived here).  So, The Big Apple is familiar territory for me.  I generally know where I am at any given point, and even do “New Yorker” things like use the subway to get around.

There is no place like NYC.  If you think you’ve seen it all, wait less than two minutes and then you haven’t.  What continually, always amazes me is the pure size and scale and density of Manhattan.  As a place on earth, Manhattan isn’t a particularly large place – an island about 2 1/2 miles across at its wide point, and about 10-12 miles long.  The city of Chicago, by comparison, is tremendously larger.  Of course, NYC isn’t JUST Manhattan – it consists of the five boroughs of Manhattan, Staten Island, the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn – each of which is as big as or bigger than most other cities in the US in population.  But, my focus, as usual is on Manhattan.

If you’ve never visited it, well, you just can’t appreciate it until you do.  It is one solid “business district” from end to end, edge to edge, with people living everywhere among the businesses.  Yes, once you get out of midtown and especially on the upper east and west sides, it does get residential, but only in the NY sense – rowhouse an apartment building standing wall to wall, block after block, and no where, anywhere, are you more than a few steps from a grocer, a dry cleaner, a bar, a pizza place, a chinese restaurant, more restaurants, a drug store, etc. etc etc.  For this small town boy from the cornfields of Iowa, it never, ever ceases to amaze me.

I like to joke that I’d love to pull up stakes and move to NYC for just one year.  It would be great – I’d live like a New Yorker, outsource my entire life (including laundry!), live in an apartment the size of my current master bedroom, with a kitchen that you can cook an entire meal in without moving your feet more than two steps, and a bathroom that you can shave, shit and shower also without moving your feet more than two steps.  I’d walk everywhere, ride the subway everywhere, have NYC pizza and eat it while walking down 6th avenue, folding it in half of course, Robin and I would go walking Sprite in Central Park on the weekends, have dinners in a different restaurant every time we ate out, have amazing bagels for breakfast on the weekend, and more and more.

And then I find out what people pay for rent – $4000 or more for a tiny one-bedroom.  The sheer costs of New York and especially Manhattan, sort of put that idea aside.  I can visit. And see the sites.

Monday evening was fun – we were out with our Google sales team that serves our NY client for dinner at a place in the Chelsea/Flatiron district called ABC Kitchen – a huge place where two restaurants are joined with a huge home store – what would occur if IKEA sold upscale goods and turned half of their space into high-end restaurants.  As we were leaving the restaurant, this VERY tall guy with a very 1980s-looking, dyed black haircut walks in with a beautiful woman.  I turn and do a double take – it’s Ric Ocasic from the 80s New Wave/Pop band, The Cars, with his wife, Paulina Poriskova.  The guy looks like a tragic beanpole with a punk rock mullet.

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So, it’s an official NY trip – a celeb sighting was had.  In the last two trips I’ve taken here with Robin, we saw Jesse Eisenberg, who was right at the peak of his stardom from the movie The Social Network.  He came into a little sushi place with an older woman that we guessed was his publicist and sat down literally right next to Robin at the next table.  And this past fall, right here at this very bar in this very Admiral’s Club, none other than quintessential New Yorker and star of Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, Matthew Broderick was sitting here having a beer.

Wednesday morning I had the interesting experience of visiting Google’s NYC offices at 111 8th Street – 8th and 16th.  While not allowed to take pictures in there, among other things they had:

  • A huge cafeteria with hot food served three times a day – and a tremendous selection as well, all generally very healthy
  • Multiple “mini cafeterias” with coffee bars, additional food and drinks, open 24×7
  • A full-on barista-manned coffee shop in yet another of the cafeterias
  • A hallway with at least 15 machines capable of playing a variety of 1980s video games including every variant of Pac-Man, plus Galaga, Galaxian and more
  • a huge space just devoted to games – pool, pingpong, board games, jumbo jenga, and much more
  • Most of the mini cafes had a theme – for example, on the 5th floor, there is a Lego-themed cafe with a huge play area with a wall covered in bins of Lego bricks, and work tables where you can build your creations and shelves to display them.
  • Many, many signs with “Googler’s only from this point forward” – clearly plotting the world’s takeover
  • and scads and scads of ridiculously happy people that work there

The one thing I could take a picture of was the immense neon Google logo rendition on the wall of the reception area:

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Wednesday evening was my “night off” from doing client and company-related stuff.  I started out with a couple of beers with Robin’s cousin “Doc Craig”.  We met up at one of Midtown’s ubiquitous Irish Pubs, this one being “The Long Room” on 44th Street.  We had a few good laughs for an hour and then I headed off to go to my dinner.  Here’s the shot I took of the Doc enjoying his first beer of the evening:

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After I left the Doc, I headed to the upper east side and I met up with my long-time pal, fellow MadMan, career mentor and all around great guy, Professor Troutstream.  The Prof works for “another big ad agency” in NYC and commutes from Chicago to NY for work each week, staying in his little pad he calls The Treehouse.  He’s earned his nickname because even though he’s been an ad man for more than 30 years, we all know he’d rather be teaching marketing part time at some university in a western state somewhere, and spending the rest of his time in waders, waist deep in a trout stream, going all catch and release on the local rainbows.

The Prof has been doing the NYC thing for a lot of years, and has some favorites.  He shares my love of funky, off the beaten path places, and so he recommended a choice of either Donohue’s Steakhouse on Lexington at 65th street, or an Italian joint called Mimi’s on 2nd Ave in the 50s.  He was selling Mimi’s on the information that it has a piano bar featuring one guy who “look’s like Eddie Money’s love child and can’t sing for siccum” and the next guy who “no shit, goes by ‘Chicken Delicious’ and plays a mean piano”.

We didn’t set out to go to both places – we made a reservation at Donohue’s at 7:00.  Donohue’s, if it were in Wisconsin, would be called the local “Supper Club”.  It is like 1968 arrived and the clock stopped in there.  Except for the aging of the patrons, who all looked like they might have been in their 40s in 1968 but, father time marches on.  I walked in, every head at the bar swiveled to take me in, I said “Hello!” to the bartender, which was greeted by a “harumph!”  The two 20-something waitresses were also appropriately rude to the new comer, although when I started asking about the food, and started talking cocktails with the bartender, he warmed up.

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The Prof arrived, we took a booth and he and I both ordered the same thing – filets medium rare, salad with blue cheese dressing, baked potato and sautéed spinach.  The food is outstanding and a huge value – where  in NYC can you get a prime steak dinner with all that stuff for about $40.  Of course the bar bill ran up the tab a wee bit, but the value there was stunning.  This place is definitely a “must do” for anyone wanting a delicious meal in NYC in a funky atmosphere with interesting people watching.

After some great conversation and getting a kick out of watching the local/regulars cycle in and out, we decided to walk back to our respective abodes, and as we approached Lex and 54th, the Prof said “hell Stew, let’s play two.  We can get to Mimi’s just in time for the second show.”  Hey … you all know me, I’m always all in on more fun.

Let’s play two indeed!

Now mind you, when the Prof was selling the idea of Eddie Money’s Love Child and a piano player named Chicken Delicious, well, I figured this was all “good copy”.  He is an ad man after all.  But NOOOO.  Truth in advertising baby.  We arrived just as Eddie Money’s Love Child was giving up the piano and Mr. Delicious himself was taking over.  Chicken Delicious is about 75, EXTREMELY flamboyantly gay and positively hilarious.  At the same time, he’s also a virtuoso piano player with hundreds and hundreds of songs committed to memory.  One of his especially interesting things he does is get into costume for various songs … he put on a two-piece Billy Joel mask to sing Piano Man, put on a stocking cap with long braids coming out of it for “You are always on my mind” by Willy Nelson, and etc.  Awesome.  And he tells stories and interacts with the crowd and will rubber band his iPhone to his forehead with a message on it and more.  Truly a great entertainer.  He said he grew up in Mississippi and by my guess, being as flamboyant as he was, well, had a rough time of it growing up.  But now, he makes his living entertaining tourists and regulars at a place called Mimi’s in NYC.  Here’s a couple of shots of Chicken Delicious himself:

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The best thing about New York is stuff like this.  You can find things that you just can’t make up, everywhere you turn.

The last two days of my trip were filled with two straight days of meetings with the senior leadership team of my company, iProspect. Ordinarily I’d look at two straight days of time spent in a conference room, looking at power points and listening to speakers with the same amount of excitement I’d give to having a colonoscopy – but not at all in this case.  Meetings like this are why I joined this company – it’s an extremely well-run organization and the senior leadership team are a great bunch of really bright folks.  We had a great finish to 2013 which has put us in a place to have an amazing 2014, we’ve got a bunch of work to do in 2014 to put initiatives in place that began developing in 2013 that will drive the business even higher.

So, is there a point to all this?  Yes, a small one.  But an important one – you find the bits of amazing when you go off the beaten path.  One of the big themes of our leadership meeting was “going outside of our comfort zone” … and it’s true.  Outside the comfort zone is where great stuff, great fun, great memories, great adventures and more happen.

I say it to anyone I talk to who has never been to New York City.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a small town person or a big city person.  If you haven’t enjoyed a few days in New York City, then your life’s adventures are seriously missing something.

As you were,

Stew

It’s a POLAR VORTEX ladies and gentlemen!

6 Jan

Polar vortex.  Historic cold wave. Subzero. Dangerous wind chills.  Coldest in 20 years! Flesh will freeze!  Auuughhhh!

Ok, yeah it is f’ing cold out there.  Yup, it really hasn’t been this cold in 20 years, I guess.  (Hello all you global warming naysayers, there’s a data point for you …)  That said, I really don’t like to play the “well when I was a kid” card, but hell … when I was a kid …

… I remember it routinely got to -20 in Central Iowa during January.  We were sort of proud of it!  “Booyeah!  20 Below!”  If it was promised to hit -20 and it “only” got to -19 or so, we were disappointed.

… We weren’t horrified of the cold, we were fascinated by it.  Different things happen when it’s that cold.  One of my friends always liked to say he could feel the boogers freezing in his nose.  If you wore a scarf over your mouth, you’d get a “frost beard” on your scarf by the time you got done walking to school (yes, we WALKED to school!).  You’d do things just to see how cold it was – spit on the sidewalk, pee in the snow (“Really, I swear it froze into an icicle on the way down!”), and of course the continual dares to lick the flagpole, although I don’t ever recall enacting that famous scene from A Christmas Story.

flick-flagpole

… Never, EVER burned a snow day on cold weather that I remember.  Didn’t happen.

… I can remember heading out to ski and sled in the back yard of our second house when the temps were below zero.  You just wore extra clothes and came in a bit sooner.  And the hot chocolate tasted that much better.

… Growing up, in our first house, we had an ice rink in our back yard – so much fun skating around back there.  Every night my mom would go outside with a bucket of water to groom the ice – no Zamboni – just pour fresh water on the ice.  On below zero days though (which were common …), sometimes the water would roll out across the ice and stop – creating a bumpy surface that sucked for hockey … but it’s just what happened.  No one thought much about it.

… Remember cars had carburetors back then?  That’s when you really had to worry about the car starting.  Carbs don’t like cold – the engine running right depends on fuel atomization into a mist, and that little process doesn’t work well in below-zero temps.  Nowadays?  Fuel injection and computers – turn the key, start cranking and when the computer senses things are at the right conditions, it squirts the fuel in and bang – no problem.  Biggest thing you need to worry about is keeping a full tank and a good battery.

… I remember my dad’s cold weather routine with the cars – both cars had engine block heaters that you’d plug in at night, so we had cords running all over the driveway – both were plugged into an outlet that was controlled by a switch in the kitchen.  For some reason, my dad thought it wasn’t smart to leave them plugged in overnight or he was just too frugal for that, so he’d wake up super early – 5:00 AM or so, and go down and “flip the switch” to turn on the engine heaters.  The mantra was if you had to wake up to pee in the middle of the night, then you needed to go flip the switch in the kitchen.  If it was going to be colder than 20-below, then the routine was modified to go outside and start both cars about 10 PM and let them both run for 20 minutes to come to operating temp (ah, cheap gas …) before going to bed.

… the other big, important thing was to go get the milk from the milk box (remember those?) before it froze.  The milk man from Anderson-Erickson dairy would deliver our order every other day (1 half-gallon “homo” – I don’t think they use THAT term any more for whole milk – 1 half gallon “skim”, 1 quart Tropicana OJ) at about 5:00 AM and on 20-below zero days, the milk would start to freeze pretty quickly, so immediately after “flipping the switch” you needed to get to the milk box by the door to bring it in.

milk-box

… on super cold days like this, we’d have school, but we’d have indoor recess, and that was always fun – you’d head to the gym and basically have a free-for-all – it was like disorganized gym class.  Occasionally, they’d organize something for recess like a show, or music, or something and you’d have to go sit in the gym, which sucked, because the point of recess was that we had been sitting too long and were needing to jump around.

So, as I sit on this empty train, and it’s a chilly -10 outside with a -35 wind chill, I think, would this train have been empty 40 years ago?  Nope.  We didn’t have 24×7 news cycles, The Weather Channel, social media, You Tube videos, etc. all telling us that hell is officially freezing over.  So we just soldiered on.

Maybe we need more soldiering on in this world.

As you were,

Stew

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