Archive | August, 2011

Easing into Fall

25 Aug

Having spent this entire week in the SCORCHING heat of Scottsdale, AZ this week, I’ve been looking forward to heading back to Chicago and the start of the fall weather there.

Growing up, I was always all about summer. I have a summer birthday. I lived outdoors 12 hours a day or more, riding bikes, swimming at the pool, playing baseball, etc. But as I got older, I began to appreciate fall more and more. Here’s what I love about fall:

First of all, the weather. In Chicago, spring is an “iffy” thing – in fact most of us question its existence altogether. It always seems like we go from the frigid temps of late February and early March directly to sudden 75-80 degree, summer-like warmth in April, only to have days and sometimes weeks of damp, miserable, cold weather clear through until mid-June when WHAM, it is full-on summer time. Much of that can be blamed on our old pal to the east, Lake Michigan. Unless you’ve lived next to that monster of a weather-maker, you really can’t appreciate it. On a beautiful May day, you can be enjoying 80-degree weather with bright sunshine, and then all of a sudden the wind will shift to the east off Lake Michigan and the temps will drop into the low 50s in 15 minutes.

In the Fall, however, the pattern is reversed – the land is often cooler than Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan is warm instead of cold, and those sudden shifts don’t happen. The result – nice, stable weather every day with gentle breezes from the west. The gradual cooling is especially refreshing at night – the temps get cool enough to require a sweater, you can fire up the firepit without roasting, and you can enjoy opening up the house at night and letting those breezes blow through and freshen things up.

Then there’s a return to normalcy from the chaos of the summer. As I got older – into High School – I really began to appreciate heading back to school and getting back into the daily routine of it. College was always a blast to return to – heading to your favorite pizza place or bar, and seeing people you hadn’t seen in months. And now that I’m a dad with a college kid and two high school-age kids, the return to a normal schedule is very much appreciated. While you have less time to do things, ironically, because there is a schedule and rhythm, it seems like there is more time.

The change of the season is also welcome. While I’m sorry to see the day lilies stop blooming and the hostas start to turn brown, the changing of the trees is always a spectacular event. The cool nights and warm days are great for the lawn too – the grass seems to get more energized to grow better and crowd out those dandelions that grew when the lawn was crispy and thin during July. It is a time to do outdoor projects like plant bulbs, prune bushes and clean things up. All a pleasure.

And then there are the activities – Football games, tailgates, long walks outdoors when the temps are such that you don’t get soaked in sweat, early sunsets, outdoor cocktails by the firepit and under the patio heaters, later sunrises that let me sleep in a bit later. Bike rides. Farmer’s markets. Later in the fall, corn mazes and walks among the leaves. Barbecues that end with everyone enjoying the glow of the fire and the cool night air.

My pal “GASHM” and his wife “1.1” were over last evening – we sat outside and sparked up a good fire in the firepit. I’m traveling today so we shifted our standing Wednesday night cocktail appointment to Monday night. We talked about how good it was getting back into the routine of school, and while we were talking, I was thinking about how much I was going to enjoy this fall. The twins started back to school today, and while I miss Joel, I know he’s down at UofI, having a blast, getting back into his fall groove as well.

There are about 8 more weeks of great weather left for this year in Chicago until the cold, grey weather of late fall and early winter sets in. I intend to get the most out of them. See you out there – I’ll be the guy shuffling his feet through the fallen leaves, wearing a sweatshirt and happy about it.

As you were,

Stew

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Music – the Time Machine

23 Aug

As most of you know, I’ve been a musician to one degree or another for most of my life. I don’t even remember what my first instruments were but I remember having a more than a couple of toy guitars, a recorder or other flute-like thing in the house, and from the time I was 9 years old, a piano in the house as well.

I never took piano lessons (a decision I regret to this day, and something I will eventually do) but starting in 5th grade, I started playing the trombone, and in 7th grade learned guitar and bass guitar. Of all the things I was involved in in high school, music was the dominating factor. I was in choir, singing in both the full chorus and small groups. I was most involved, however, in band, playing in marching band, concert bands, jazz bands, small groups and combos, etc. Outside of school, I was part of a four-piece rock band that played together for about six years, with a few different members, playing bass and providing vocals. And through it all, it remains – I get no bigger buzz than when I play or perform music.

My best high school memories revolve around Jazz Band. Junior and Senior year, our high school had this amazing band teacher, “Mr. O”, who really cultivated a spirit of performance in the band. Our Jazz bands, senior year, went on a contest “tour” all over the Midwest, with stops in St. Louis, Kansas City, Kirksville MO, Omaha, Waterloo IA, Iowa City, Davenport, Des Moines, Ames and other cities. Our Jazz One band – the top tier – was well known in these competitions and we would usually dominate, coming in first or second in most of them. I played bass and was part of a very strong rhythm section. Our trumpet section featured five guys that could positively wail with the best of them, and our sax section provided a strong anchor to the show. We combined that with some unusual features that included an electric violin, occasionally two “trap” drummers with one playing electronic synthesized drums, and more.

Our music selections were innovative as well – it was a combination of old-world big band music from folks like Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, etc., with more modern Jazz of folks like Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich, Miles Davis and others. Additionally, our leader, “Mr. O”, also was a composer and wrote some truly off-the-hook charts for us, including one voluminous work, “Spaces” that generally won us every competition where we performed it.

As a band, we had some badass swagger as well. All the guys (and please, remember the era – late 1970s, lest you become judgemental), all wore Stetson cowboy hats for the tour trips (although we didn’t wear them onstage), and would walk around whichever town or school we were visiting with them on – the other cities got to know us by this. I seem to remember the girls had some sort of wardrobe thing they did as well, but can’t remember exactly what.

The other key thing in our swagger was our warmup work. At each tour stop – normally a high school or college campus, you were assigned a classroom or other practice space for your band to be able to put your stuff, get your gear in tune, practice, etc. Other bands would set up in their practice space and spend hours before they went onstage practicing their performance numbers. While we usually made a brief dip into those songs – usually just the opening and closing bars to make sure we were tight – Mr. O instead encouraged us to develop a warmup that was anything but our performance tunes. As a result, we developed a number of amazing jam numbers – with one favorite being an instrumental version of Master Blaster by Stevie Wonder. If you’re familiar with the tune, you know this is a great song for a bass guitar player – and being our band’s bassist, it was my favorite. Other bands would make sure their doors to their practice space were closed, but not us. We’d get ripping on Master Blaster and Mr. O would open the door and soon there’d be a crowd in the room, spilling out into the hallway, just to watch us jam. Kids from other schools would come up to us and say how cool that was. And intimidating.

Which loops me to this weekend. Just for something random to do on Saturday, I decided to cruise the town and hit garage sales – my buddies “Charlene” “Jayce” and “GASHM” are big garage sale devotees so I thought I’d try it. At the second garage sale I struck gold – a little Fender bass guitar combo amp. 15 watts – perfect size for my home office/music room. My “big dog” bass amp bit the dust a few years ago and I gave it away, so I hadn’t had anything to play bass through in quite a while.

I hustled home with it and plugged it in – first with my electric guitar. Works fine! I strapped on my ancient old Univox “Hi-Flyer” bass guitar that has seen years of gigs and tuned it up – amazingly, still in perfect tune even though it hadn’t been played in more than 2 years. I then plugged my iPod into one of my other guitar amps to give myself a track to play along with.

You can guess now what I played.

While some of the runs are really rusty, I can still jam along with that song, 30 years later. And it had probably been 30 years since I actually played it.

And just like that, I was crammed in some high school history room, with the 20 kids that were my best high school friends and we were banging out some of the scorchingest jazz sounds to be heard that day.

Music IS a time machine. And one that I know will work for the rest of my life.

As you were,

Stew

Listening to Albums

13 Aug

This summer, I’ve had the unique, fun and nostalgic experience of hearing two of my favorite artists, play two of my all-time favorite albums end-to-end in concert.   First was Peter Frampton playing Frampton Comes Alive straight through on July 5th (great way to celebrate the night of our 25th reunion, by the way) and the second was last night with Steely Dan playing Aja all the way through.  Both were treats.  And trips.

Back in the day (and friends around my age will get this), that’s how we listened to music.  You slapped on an LP, or later, a CD and played it from start to finish – all the tracks.  Flip it when needed, change records if it were a multi-disc set, etc.  But you got to know the album and the artist through the rhythm of the album.

There were plenty of occasions where you wondered a bit, “now why did they put that track there?”, “how come they buried this uptempo hit song on side two in the middle”, etc. etc.  I’m sure there are people that are far more knowledgeable about the music business than I am, that understand the idea and rhythm of figuring out what order to put the tracks in.  But at the end of the day, that’s how you knew your music.  After a few listens through, you knew which track was next.

A good friend of mine, Jason, is a music aficionado, and we will frequently get together with his wife, Andrea and Robin and me and sit and listen to old favorite albums straight through.  It is a rare treat.  Some of my all time favorite albums – Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, Boston’s first album “Boston”, Styx’s Pieces of Eight, Aerosmith’s Toys in The Attic, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Led Zepplin 4, The Eagles’  Hotel California, The Beatles’ White Album and Abbey Road, Steve Miller Band’s Book of Dreams, and of course the aforementioned Frampton Comes Alive, and Steely Dan’s Aja are just great works.  Yes, I love the songs individually, but there is an entirely different listening experience that comes from hearing the entire artist’s work, in the way that the artist intended it to be heard.

I guess this is a nostalgic post – in these days of iTunes downloads, YouTube videos, media sharing sites, Pandora, iPods, etc., this style of listening is entirely foreign to our kids in general. My kids, thankfully have gotten in the habit of buying CDs, not just tracks from iTunes (although with iTunes gift cards being a popular currency, there’s plenty of single-track buying being done), but I don’t think that they are in the habit of hearing the work striaght through.  The tracks get ripped to the computer, dropped into playlists, etc.  Thank goodness iTunes and iPods support album listening – because I’d be lost without that.

Overall, this has been a fantastic music spring/summer for us so far – in addition to seeing/hearing Steely Dan and Peter Frampton, we also have seen Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, as well as Steve Miller Band and in a few weeks, we’ll be seeing Lynyrd Skynyrd (also at Ravinia).

As we were listening to Steely Dan – Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, play through Aja, Robin and I were talking about how we doubt our kids will ever have the experience of hearing the artists of their youth, touring in their 60s, while they are in their 40s or whatever, and enjoying the trip back to their youthful days.  Who of today’s artists have music that has that staying power?  Damn few!  Perhaps Kid Rock, Nickleback, Jason Mraz and a few others, but certainly not Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, and all the other autotuned acts.  That’s a bummer.

Anyway, my advice to you my dear friends, is put on an album.  Sit down with a beverage of your choice, put on an album from your favorite artist (in whatever format you have – vinyl, CD, iPod tracks, whatever) and with perhaps a loved one or two, and just listen.  Think about the rhythm of the tracks and how they work together.  If it’s an old favorite, try to remember what comes next.  And immerse  yourself in the music.  You’ll be glad you did.

As you were,


Stew
(and other album covers for nostalgia purposes …)

Small Town People

10 Aug

Our recent trip to Cancun included joining some great friends we met at the same resort in 2007.  These folks are just great people, and when we tell the story of them, people find it hard to believe we found anything to talk about.  These friends are Keary and Lisa from a small town in Alabama, Rainsville.  When I say they live in a one-stoplight town, I mean, they live in a ONE stoplight town.  Although we learned on the trip that the town recently put in a second one outside the the school.

They brought along with them a group of their friends all from same area in Alabama.  Here we are, the big city Chicago folks embedded with the small town crew.  And after a week with these folks, we had plans made to join them in their small town in Alabama in May.  I cannot wait.  I want to see them, and I want to dip myself in all that small town goodness.

Most folks that know me, know I grew up in Newton IA.  However, I’ve lived in the Chicago area now for more than 25 years.  On Chicago-scale, that’s a small town.  On small town scale, well, it is a big town – the bigger town that tends to be the county seat (it is), employment center, etc. that is characteristic of rural counties all over America.  But still small town America.  And the more time I spend in suburbia in Chicago and observing people that have it great yet complain about everything, I realize just how resilient people that live in small towns are and must be.

Our oldest son Joel had his first real exposure to small town America this past year – he roomed with a great guy from Greenup IL, Tyler.  Greenup is also a one stoplight town, but as Joel learned when he visited recently, Greenup’s stoplight isn’t even a real stoplight – just a red blinker.  He visited there in late July and loved every minute of the small town life.  They played golf on what passes for a golf course there – they affectionately call it “cow pasture golf” – ain’t no bentgrass to be found there unless some animal took a nap on it!  They went to the local pizza joint, Panks.  Tyler’s folks threw a pool party while he was there, and it seemed like the whole town stopped by for a beer, a snack and a soak.  His observations:  Beautiful little town.  Lots of pride in every little thing.  Great people.  He got what I love about small towns.

After a week of observing our friends from Alabama, I was struck by how resilient they are, and how resourceful they are.  Employment opportunities are scarce there, but they still get by doing things that give them a living and an enjoyable lifestyle.  By and large, when you live in an area like that, you either own a small business or work for one,  you work for the municipal services in town. Often, all of the above.  Keary and Lisa own one of their town’s two funeral homes and are the funeral directors there.  Brian and Leslie own two small businesses – Brian owns a DJ/Karaoke business and Leslie owns a small resale/consignment clothing store.  Chris/Coach is the local high school football coach, and his wife Sharon is a nurse.  Coach supplements their income by playing in a bar band.  Jerry works for the local John Deere dealership and his wife Tammy is the clerk of court in their town.  I heard no complaints at all about work from any of them while we were there.  Work is, well, the means to which they seek to live their lives, and these people don’t seem to be either defined by their work nor defined by attaining material needs.  Refreshing after living in the affluent, overly-money-conscious suburbs we live in where people are often defined by what they do and what they have.  Not by who they are.  Fantastic people, all of them.

They are resilient in the face of adversity as well.  Their county and their town was hit badly by the run of tornadoes that killed dozens in Alabama this summer – 30 people died in their county alone.  Two of the couples on the trip have recently had to take in and most likely will keep permanently, young children of family members who by either tragedy or other circumstances have been left without parents to care for them.  They didn’t dwell on it, they just did it.  It’s what they do.  Do they worry about it?  Yes.  Complain?  No.

My own small town has had its share of trials as well – several years ago, Maytag company was sold to Whirlpool, killing off the local Maytag plant and wiping out a 500-person executive operation there.  Total job loss was close to 3000., in a town of 12,000.   That had ripple effects on every business in town – from small businesses that made their living selling things to Maytag, to the dentists and doctors, the lawyers, the dry cleaners, car dealers and repair, even Domino’s pizza felt the pinch.  The town has responded and is rebounding.  A group of investors in town got together, did research and discovered an untapped demand for a world-class auto racing facility – they did the job and now IndyCar, and the NASCAR series run races there.  Who’d have thought that folks like the Andrettis, the Penskes, Rick Hendricks, etc., let alone the national news media, would descend on Newton each summer and go racing.  Certainly not me.  Speaking to friends of mine and friends of my mom, none of these folks would trade their small town for life in the big city.

Being with my new friends from tiny Rainsville, AL, reminded me of John Mellencamp’s song, Small Town.

No I cannot forget where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be

As you were,

Stew

The crew:

From left – Tammy and Jerry, me and Robin, Leslie and Brian, Coach Chris and Sharon, Keary and Lisa

A Proper Martini

9 Aug

Outside of my office – 333 West Wacker Drive in Chicago – aka “where Ferris Bueller’s dad worked”, there’s a bus shelter, and of course they have advertising on the shelter.  They just updated the ad on it with this image:


Well, far be it for me to not be inspired by this – I snapped the picture above, texted it to my pal “GASHM” who promptly replied with “Funny, I was just thinking that a “proper Martini” is the way I’m going to relax this evening.  I could shake enough for two!”

So, about 9:30 PM, it was “Martini O’Clock” on GASHM’s screened-in porch.  We solved every world problem over a couple of ice cold Ketel One Martinis.  Perfect.

Which of course inspired this blog post.  So many people seem to find the art of a proper Martini to be very daunting, but yet, it is very easy, if you just follow some simple techniques.  I thought I’d use this opportunity to teach you, my friends, the art of a proper Martini.

You know, just in case I come to visit or something.

Let’s pause a minute though to talk about what a proper Martini really is.  In my humble opinion, a proper Martini can be made ONLY with vodka or gin, Vermouth if you’d like, and some ice.  An olive for garnish or a lemon peel.  That’s it.  All those OTHER pretenders to the Martini throne – Cosmopolitans, Appletini’s, Chocomartini’s, etc. etc. are simply Martini-like cocktails.

I was taught the art of a proper Martini by none other than a woman named Tana Foreman – who was bartender in my hometown of Newton, IA back when I was in college.  Tana was the Newton Country Club bar manager – we only had a few customers that drank “up” Martinis back then and she took special care in making sure that I not only knew how to make them, but new how to make good ones.  People from Newton will remember her also from Palma’s Restaurant, and the Hawkeye Lounge at the Terrace Inn.  Hope she’s still around and kicking.

Finally, before the recipe, I have to give props to a good work friend and Martini aficionado, Lisa PF.  Lisa, who is a grand master wizard of market and language research, is a also a wizard of turning a phrase.  I LOVE the way Lisa orders a martini.  Her brand is Belvidere vodka and she orders it as such:

“Belvidere Martini up.  VERY cold.  VERY dry.  With olives.”

Of course writing it doesn’t do it justice – you have to hear Lisa’s cadence and emphasis to appreciate it.  But whenever she orders one, I’m powerless to say anything but “I’ll have what she’s having.”

The Proper Martini:

Gear:  Martini Shaker – I find that a dome-top shaker with a built in strainer and cap works well, and have a collection of them.   That said, I find that the BEST Martinis are made in a Boston shaker – which a two-part affair that most pro bartenders use – it has a metal cup that fits into a pint glass – this works great because you can get a bigger “shake” impact out of it – the shaker is larger and allows the ice to build up some speed before it whacks into the other end of the shaker.  The art though is straining it out – you can either use a separate strainer or do the “crack and pour” technique where you create a tiny slot by separating the two halves of the shaker just a bit and pouring from there.

 

Standard shaker

 

 

 

Boston Shaker

 

 

 

Cocktail strainer

 

 

 

Glassware:  the best Martini glasses aren’t those 8-oz monsters they use in restaurants these days – the best ones are 4 ounces – so you’re forced to make a smaller drink that stays cold while you drink it.

Ingredients:

  • Ice.  LOTS of ice.  My friends always kid me about how much ice I use.  But they NEVER complain about my cocktails.
  • Water (you’ll water see in a moment)
  • Premium Vodka or Gin.  Your choice on brands. My faves are Ketel One vodka and Bombay gin (but not Sapphire).
  • Premium white vermouth – my favorite is Noilly Pratt.
  • Olives – I prefer stuffed Manzanilla cocktail olives versus the big queen monsters that taste like all salt.

For ONE proper Martini:

  • 3 oz vodka or gin
  • 1 teaspoon vermouth
  • 1 olive

Pre-chill your glass by filling it with ice to the brim, then filling it with water.  Do this 10 minutes or so before you want to serve your martini.  You can also of course just keep your glasses in the freezer, ready to go.  Or, set it outside in the snow in the winter.

Fill your shaker 3/4 full of ice, and then add the vermouth.  Put the top on the shaker and shake vigorously for about a minute.  This breaks up the ice a bit and also coats the ice with the vermouth.  Pour out the vermouth and any water using the strainer of your shaker.  Remove the top of the shaker and add the vodka or gin.  Put the top and cap on the shaker and shake vigorously for a good minute, then set the shaker down to rest for a moment.  While your shaker is resting, drink the water from your pre-chilling martini glass and toss out the ice.   The water is good hydration – you need it when you drink Martinis!  Pick up your shaker again, and shake for another 20-30 seconds, then uncap the shaker and strain it into a glass.  If you’ve done it right, there will be little shards of ice floating on top of the martini.

Spear your olive with a toothpick, shake off any excess brine (don’t use those lame plastic swords!) and gently place in your glass.  Sip.  Savor.  Ahhh. Sandpaper – it takes the rough edges off.  (Right Lisa?)

Enjoy!

As you were,

Stew

25 years and counting – What makes “Robin and Stew” work?

2 Aug

Now that our 30-day celebration period of our 25th anniversary is drawing to a close (we started July 1st, and we’ll call it an end August 4th after seeing the Steve Miller Band concert in Chicago), and having just returned from a marvelous trip to Cancun, I thought I’d share something that Robin and I talk about a lot:  What makes our marriage a success?  What can translate to others?

We have a very simple formula when it comes to our marriage:  We are a couple first, above everything.   If you parse that a bit finer, we like to say that our priority system is this:

1) We are a couple first
2) We are parents second
3) We are working people third

Thankfully, we come from two families with DEEP histories of long, great marriages.  In our immediate family lines, there are no divorces.  My folks were married 35 years when my Dad passed away in 1992.  Her folks just celebrated their 50th.  Both sets of my grandparents were close to or over the 50 year mark (not sure …) when my grandfathers passed.  Both sets of Robin’s grandparents went more than 60 years!  And etc. etc.   We have lots of good examples to follow.  Yet, while  I don’t recall getting long-marriage advice from any of them,  it is clear to see that all of our parents and grandparents were and are great couples, who, whether they ever said it or not, followed a similar formula.

There are a few habits we have that help drive this.  We never go to bed mad.  No one sleeps on the couch at our house.  We always go to bed at the same time.  We try to always have dinner together, and focus on family dinners. We continually strive to find “just us” things to do – right now our favorite “just us” activity is a “date” to go to one of our favorite gourmet/fresh market grocery stores on a Sunday.  Sound mundane?  It is.  But we like it.

Additionally we recognize the need for space.  She does her things, I do mine.  We always communicate our schedules and what we are doing together to ensure it doesn’t cause conflict.   But if I want to have a beer with a pal after work, as long as it doesn’t conflict with a family activity, no problems.  She wants a girls night out?  Or a girls full day out?  Great!  By respecting the others interests and space, it sharpens and refines how we are when we are together.

Finally, a key thing:   Reconnection time.  We always find time and somehow find money to disappear together, just the two of us – without the kids, without friends from home, etc.  Some years, when we’ve had budget pressures, it’s been just simply for a weekend to somewhere as inexpensive as we could find – a friends lake house a few years ago after they had closed up in September, as an example.  And this year, it was a bit more extravagant, with a full 7-night, 8-day trip to Cancun, Mexico.  While we did join friends that we had met at the same resort in 2007, it was still leaving everyone and everything from home behind.  And that’s what’s key to this.

We have been lucky – we have a great support network at home in our parents, our families, etc. who have always stepped up and taken care of the boys – not an easy task when they were little guys, what with twins in diapers and all.  We realize that not everyone could do that.  And, now that they are teens, they are kids that can be trusted with the care of the house.  They were alone for 7 nights – and the house is clean and the dog was fed.  Can’t ask for more than that!   But so many of our friends only travel with their kids, only travel with their friends, and well, that’s fine for them, but we must have our “just us” time.  It is not extravagant. It is essential to the continued health and growth of our marriage.

Assuming all goes well, and praying for continued good health for both of us, we know we’re going to find ourselves to be empty-nesters in a few short years.  I see all this effort going into “couple first” as preparation for that day.  Think about it – in a long term marriage the progression is circular:  You start as a couple, just you two.  You add your careers to that.  You add kids to that.  The kids grow up and move away.  Then you retire from your careers.  And guess what – it’s back to the start of the circle.  Hope you worked on being a couple!

We loved our reconnecting week last week.  We walked and held hands.  We laughed.  We sat together talking.  We sat together saying nothing but just looking at the waves.  We partied, we danced, etc.  We had single time too – I took long “photo walks” on the beach.  She slept in and she read her books.  But most of all, we were together.  As we will always be.

As you were,

Stew

From Cancun one evening:

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