Archive | May, 2012

The Indy 500 – why it belongs on everyone’s bucket list

30 May

If you’ve read my blog before, you know well that I’m a bit of what the Brits call a “Petrol Head” – I like cars. And I like driving fast cars on race tracks and watching fast cars race, both in person and on TV. Folks that are not racing fans don’t get why I like seeing cars going in circles and well, I don’t pretend to enjoy watching soap operas or golf on TV either (can’t stand either of them). That said, I think everyone ought to go to the Indy 500 at least once in your life. It truly is an American spectacle where the enormity of the event outweighs what actually takes place at the event itself. Going to the Indy 500 isn’t about cars making 800 left turns at better than 200 mph (although that’s way cool) – it is about witnessing something truly and uniquely American.

I have been going to the 500 for more than 25 years now – my first 500 was a spur of the moment thing that happened with my long-time hometown pal Tom called me the Thursday before Memorial Day in 1987 to ask me to go as his father-in-law couldn’t make it with him. Of course I said “Hell yes!” and a life-long tradition was born. I’ve only missed three races since then – one when a friend of mine was getting married (and didn’t wind up getting married that day … whoo that’s a long story, one when my twins’ birth was potentially imminent (it happened just three weeks later), and once when my sister-in-law was getting married. Two out of three of those were worth missing the race. The race was Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. I’ve already ordered my tickets for next year. Two days after the race.

For those that don’t know it, here are a few cool facts about the Indy 500:

  • This year was the 96th running of the race, and the 101st anniversary of the race. There is not a single sporting event that has gone on this long.
  • It has been for years, and continues to be the single largest-attended event in all of sports. Even though attendance is down from the heyday of Indy racing in the late 1980s, when attendance was nearly 500,000 people, 300,000+ people still go to the race, with more than 250,000 seated in the stands. Pretty amazing.

The track itself is stunningly huge – the track is 2 ½ miles as a square-cornered oval. The straightaways are 5/8s of a mile long, the “chutes” between the corners 1/8 of a mile long each and the corners are about ¼ mile each. The actual facility is huge – more than a mile from north to south, and ¾’s of a mile from east to west. There is an 18-hole golf course on the grounds – 9 holes of which are in the infield of the track! The track also features a nearly-3-mile per lap road course that uses about 1/3 of the oval and then snakes through the infield. The roadcourse is used for the US Moto Grand Prix.  I’ve heard a stat that 15 NFL-sized stadiums would fit inside the track.  I believe it – it’s huge.

The track was originally paved with bricks – and hence earned itself the name “Brickyard” – the namesake of the Brickyard 400 NASCAR race held there in August. There is one yard of the bricks left exposed – at the start/finish line.

The speed at which the cars go around this track is simply stunning. There’s nothing in your life that can calibrate your senses for it. They go by so fast that your eyes cannot track them unless you pan your head like a camera. Seriously. To give you a sense – this year’s qualifying speed around the track was a four-lap average of around 227 mph. That’s straightaways and corners combined – which means that the cars are going nearly 250 mph at their peak in the straightaways and more than 210 mph in the corners. To give you another idea – jet airliners typically leave the ground at approximately 165 mph.
… and more and more.

So, you’re asking, “OK, it’s huge. The cars go really fast. It’s got a great history, and lots of people go. Meh. Why should I go?

Again, the 500 is America with a capitol ‘MERICA!. For starters, it is held on Memorial Day weekend every year, and the entire race day is dedicated to those that serve our country and those that have made the ultimate sacrifice. In the lead-up to the race, they have:

  • A parade of military personnel walking up the main straightaway as part of the opening ceremonies – always gets a huge standing ovation.
  • A parade of the same military personnel riding around the track in the back of convertibles or trucks waving to the crowd – again, a standing ovation.
  • A haunting moment of silence to remember those that died for our country, where all 300,000 or so people all stand silently – followed by the most haunting rendition of “Taps” you’ll ever hear – a lone bugle, ringing over the sound system across this gigantic facility. With all 300,000+ people standing silently, remembering.   Goose bumps!
  • Performed renditions of America The Beautiful, God Bless America (sung by Florence Henderson), and “Back Home Again in Indiana” (sung by Jim Nabors).
  • An invocation prayer – this year’s was especially great.
  • A military jet flyby (this year was “multi-generation warbirds” that included P-51s from WWII all the way to an F-16. In years past, there have been stealth bombers, Harriers, F-16s, F-14s, B-52s, etc. etc.) at the end of the National Anthem.
  • The Purdue marching band playing all sorts of march music
  • And more … all kinds of America there.

Plus, there’s all the traditions – the bottle of ice-cold milk served to the winner along with the rose wreath (that always makes the winner look like some sort of racehorse), Gasoline Alley – the garage area, where fans can walk and mingle among the drivers and crews, the three-abreast start, which is the only place in motorsports that this occurs (interestingly, at the narrowest oval track in all of motorsports), and much more.

And it’s family traditions – we know so many people where going to the 500 is something the family does together. You see it all over the stands – people renew their seats over and over and get to know the people next to them – it’s like a strange, annual family reunion.

My own traditions on this are even more fun. For starters, where we park – we park in the yard of this small house in Speedway, IN – here’s a Google Maps view of it. A kindly old woman by the name of Mary Ann owns it – her husband, Art, passed away a few years ago. I’ve been parking at Mary Ann’s house for more than 20 years now. There’s a whole group of folks there where, for one day a year, we catch up with each other’s lives. We’ve all seen our kids grow up from babies to toddlers, to grown men (as my sons are now) – we’ve seen new friends introduced. There’s also been a few of those touchy moments where someone who has been there for years, just isn’t anymore … as the person has died. Divorces, new husbands, kids coming “out”, etc. A little microcosm of life on Cole Street in Speedway, IN.

Staying at Mary Ann’s is like staying at your grandma’s house – and comes with all the comforts of home – she just opens her house to those that park there. Most are not strangers and are repeaters, but … once a year friends. We’ve slept in the house when the weather has been bad (this year, Joel and Brian slept inside in the A/C while Alex and I “marinated” in the tent outside in the heat), we can take showers in the morning. She feeds us a wonderful breakfast of egg strata (I like to call it “cholesterol express”) and Monkey Bread – other folks bring donuts, and there’s always a steady flow of coffee.

Our usual race weekend has us driving to Indianapolis on Saturday morning, arriving at Mary Ann’s place in early afternoon. Job 1: Open the coolers and grab a beer. Job 2, unload, and set up camp – a tent in the back yard, portable grill, table and chairs, etc. From there, we usually head over by the track to walk around – outside the track’s main straightaway stands is Georgetown Road. It becomes a pedestrian mall of sorts – there are food vendors, RVs parked and playing music, wacky people hanging out, etc. Indy has a reputation of being Mardi Gras like, and the tradition is the guys encouraging the girls to, umm, “share” … so that’s going on all day as well. There’s a fan fest at the track itself, with big companies having exhibit tents, games, etc. And the Speedway Hall of Fame museum, which we toured this year for the first time.

From there, we get back to Mary Ann’s later in the afternoon, sit in the shade of the big tree in the back yard and have a beer or two – this year, we got into a spirited Eucher game (it’s a card game). We snack, and then fire up the grill and grill some nice-sized steaks, with baked potatoes, a salad, etc. Later in the evening, we usually wander back over to Georgetown Road to people watch – that’s when the weirdness cranks up to 11. Besides the aforementioned Mardi Gras action, there are wandering bands of evangelicals trying to convert the sinners, many, MANY more sinners pointing out to them that it’s not happening. Families, guys and girls walking together, groups of goofy drunk guys, etc. It is quite a scene to see. We usually split from there by 11:00 or so – as about then, it starts getting pretty crazy, and I don’t need to be around when a fight starts.

We dive into the tent and go to sleep – only to be awakened at 5:30 AM by a ground-shaking BOOM! – the military bomb that they set off in the infield of the track to announce that the track gates are now open. We usually manage to drop back off to sleep for another hour or so, then emerge from the tents and head inside to line up to take a shower, get coffee and be around as the rest of Mary Ann’s crew arrives – there are only a few of us that camp. After enjoying Mary Ann’s homecooked breakfast, it’s time to strike the campsite, reload the van, and head across to the race – about 2 hours before the start, where we enjoy all the pre-race festivities, and then, of course, the excitement of the race itself.

When I decided to start ordering tickets, I was looking forward to someday attending with my wife and kids – our plan was always to have two children, and even if it were two girls, this was something our family was going to do. We didn’t plan on having three boys though, and this has turned out far better than I ever imagined. Over the years, I’ve of course done a bunch of “guys weekend” trips – myself and three buddies – a 24 hour exercise in competitive drinking, eating and general silliness. We’ve done couples trips where Robin goes and we bring another couple – and those are always a blast. And, for the last several years, it’s just been me with my three sons. As I said, I never imagined ever when I started this, that I would be bringing my three boys with me. And to boot, I’ve got one studying to be an engineer, and he hopes to be working for a racing team for his career. I can’t imagine coming to the 500 as his guest. But I hope it happens!

As I said, the Indy 500 is truly something to add to your bucket list. I do have to say I’m blessed with a wonderful set of memories because we luckily found a “once a year” home at Mary Ann’s house – I look forward to that scene as much as I look forward to the race itself. The race, and the events around the race do have to be experienced once in a lifetime though. You’ve never seen anything like it. And you owe it to yourself to experience it. Just once. And if you like it as much as I do … well, 23 times so far for me …

As you were,

Stew

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Chicken Fried Toes – aka “It’s the little things” … Summer Edition

23 May

When our oldest son, Joel, came home for winter break this year, he brought home something new he was into. Now, this isn’t exactly unusual behavior for college students – we all discover new things while away at college. In fact, my mom even said to me the day that they were dropping me at University of Iowa for my freshman year (and my Dad gave both her and I a look that was the embodiment of “eyeroll” and “facepalm” all in one): “It’s not for knowledge that you go to college, but the beer you drink while you’re here.” The point being not to encourage alcohol abuse but instead to embrace the concept that really what you do at college is grow up and create your own life shaped by your own experiences. Anyway, thankfully what he brought home needed neither medical treatment nor legal intervention: he had grown to like Country Music while away at school. Apparently the guys in the race shop at Illini Motorsports (the engineering-school Formula SAE racing team he is a part of) keep country music blaring on the shop tunebox, and well, he came to like it.

We were introduced to a variety of new artists and songs over Christmas Break, including the silly anthem of this past spring, Red Solo Cup. That said, one artist in particular really rang with Joel as he thought of me and that was the Zac Brown Band. Zac Brown’s music can be described as a little Lynyrd Skynyrd, a little Willie Nelson, a little Allman Brothers and some Bruce Springsteen rolled into one band that plays great, guitar-driven songs that are musically complex while at the same time being easy to play and sing if you’re a “cover guy” like me, and have really good, well-thought out lyrics. Joel picked out two tunes that he thought would particularly resonate with me – “Toes” and “Chicken Fried”. Toes is a song about being on an island vacation. My kids well know that there’s nothing that makes me happier than being on an island vacation, and this song describes it well. More below. And the other song that he picked out was “Chicken Fried” – a simple song that observes that the best things in life are the little things. As you well know, that’s something I always seek – enjoyment of the little things. We all get wrapped around the axles too much in our busy daily lives to remember that the things that are most rewarding are the little ones.  “Chicken Fried” is a celebration of that.
The chorus is:

You know I like my chicken fried
A cold beer on a Friday night
A pair of jeans that fit just right
And the radio up …

Well, I’ve seen the sunrise
See the love in my woman’s eyes
Feel the touch of a precious child
And know a mother’s love

Zac Brown goes on in this song to talk about how these values were just a product of how he was raised and grew up. “It’s funny how it’s the little things in life mean the most, not where you live, what you drive or the price tag on your clothes. There’s no dollar sign on peace of mind, this I’ve come to know.”

I want to believe that that’s a key way of how I live my life, and I know I’m not perfect in it, but I do think it’s true. Yes, we lead a very fortunate life, in a comfortable home in an affluent area of the Chicago suburbs. But our friends, and the things we do, are entirely focused on the little things – conversation over a shared home-cooked dinner. A beer on the back deck or front porch. A relaxing walk. A “dive bar”. Etc. Our closest friends are those that share the same values and feel the same way. What is more important is the time spent. Not where we went or what we own. Our dear friends that we met in Cancun and recently visited in Alabama are the embodiment of that.

Speaking of Cancun, Zac Brown’s other “it’s the little things” song also embodies the spirit of enjoying the little things – albeit on vacation in a warm, tropical place.

 

I’ve got my toes in the water,
Ass in the sand,
Not a worry in the world,
a cold beer in my hand,
Life is good today.
Life is good today.

 

 

That pretty much checks off what I love about escaping to anywhere warm and tropical. Now, what’s interesting is that there is a bit of a conflict there – in the first half of this post, I’m talking about the little things, not what you have or what you do but enjoying the little things in life, and now I’m talking about vacationing in Cancun, which, most would say, is a pretty luxurious thing to do. So, I guess I will cop to a little conflict there. That said, honestly, it is both a key to my sanity and a key to my happy marriage with my lovely wife, Robin.  We’ve managed to get away just us for a bit of time almost every year of our marriage. This year is no exception.  I do have to say that we do do these vacations on the cheap.  With all my business travel, we usually use mileage to get where we’re going, and the place we stay in Cancun is not a 5-star resort at all – more like a little 3 1/2 star, but more importantly, it does seem to embody my view of the little things being important.  Where we go is all about the people and all about the party.  The fact that we made a group of lifelong friends there shows that for us.

So, what’s the point? The point is, it’s summer, folks. And to me, summer is all about the little things. Putting up the hanging baskets and flowers on the patio and then sitting back and enjoying it. A quiet glass of wine or cold beer in the afternoon shade of my deck. A night grilling burgers with our friends. Outdoor eating. Long walks with the dog in the early morning or evening twilight. 4th of July, with little kids and sparklers. Washing the car in your bare feet and then standing back and admiring the shine. Loading up said shiny car with the family and driving to Dairy Queen for an ice cream cone. Sitting on my friend GASHM’s screened porch in the evening. Enjoying a summer thundershower. Late sunsets. Early sunrises.

These two songs mean a ton to me, and I have to thank my son Joel for two things: One, introducing them to me. And two, for showing that he knows and loves his old man enough to hear a couple of songs and know that they are in the music of his dad’s heart.

Go find some little things this weekend. It’s the official kickoff of summer.

As you were,

Stew

Tech Support Top 10

15 May

When you spend a major portion of your life working in digital marketing and information technology, you tend to wind up being the local expert on all things computer related. The irony of which is that you wind up generally hating goddamned computers. I enjoy using computers and technology – comes with being a serial early-adopter, but I do have to say at some points, I think I want to just skip them all across a pond and move to an island and never seen another one as long as I live. As usual, because of my helpful nature, I have managed to cast myself as being tech support for my family and for a lot of friends. I’m generally able to diagnose networking issues, sort out misbehaving iPhones/iPads, etc.,help out buggy email, eradicate viruses, rebuild computers and I’ve even built a number of “frankenDell” computers for the family out of obsoleted Dells that were castoffs from Robin’s family. So, I’m pretty good at this. But it doesn’t mean I enjoy it.

Additionally, because I am, A) a social media addict; and B) work in the digital marketing realm where online search, social media and other online experiences are the stock in trade of what we do, I’ve become an expert in those arenas as well, both from a user perspective and from a business perspective, so plenty of people seek my advice there as well. As you can imagine, I don’t mind talking about this area – although while many of the principles that big brands use to achieve dominance in online marketing DO translate to local business, the scale at which big brands do this also enables their tremendous results – therefore, it frequently boggles the mind of a small businessman who is for example, struggling to get search ranking on his site, to find out that a company like a major brand spends multiple millions of dollars per year on just search engine optimization.

On the tech support side, by and large the questions relate to internet connectivity – why can’t I get online, why does my internet connection seem so slow, how come my emails aren’t coming through, etc. etc. From an internet perspective, the questions generally run to how things work – how does Google decide which item to rank up first, how come Facebook changed to timeline, why, when I talk about something on Facebook, an ad pops up that seems to mirror that topic, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind helping out – in fact, for the most part, I enjoy it, unless I’m trying to undo a problem that was self-inflicted, like some horrifying piece of spyware that a family member got by clicking on something that they shouldn’t have clicked on.

One interesting thing about working in the tech business for all these past years is the number of silly acronyms that we seem to have regarding users of computers or products. “RTFM” is an admonition to someone that should consider perusing the product documentation. “PEBCAK” is an acronym that is used to classify a problem that seems to be rooted in user error. It stands for Problem Exists Between Chair And Keyboard. And of course the old fave: IIOHOINHAA. Actually, I’m pulling your leg – that’s not really an acronym. But it certainly represents a bit of advice I’ve given numerous times over the years when asked a question about “why did it do that??” In fact, it’s my first answer below.

So therefore, in no particular order are more or less the ten most frequent answers that I give when someone asks for help with a computer or internet question. Note that a few of them are questions to answer the question. You can supply your own questions:

  1. If it only happened once, it never happened at all.
  2. Just type that into Google. It will give you your answer.
  3. You can buy that on Amazon.
  4. You have to understand that the monetized product on Facebook isn’t the thing you interact with but instead is you – you’re Facebook’s product that they make money on.
  5. Just because you read about it on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true.
  6. Sounds like your web connection is down.
  7. Because Google has all the answers to everything, that’s why.
  8. That’s not good. I can fix it, but we’re talking serious bottles of scotch to get it done.
  9. Restart your computer.
  10. It’s FM Technology. And Science!

Happy computing!

As you were,

Stew

Pickin’ and Grinnin’ – Guitar Work

15 May

Shortly after I hit “Publish” on my last post, I realized I missed a key topic for our Sweet Home Alabama trip – playing guitar and singing with Chris “Coach”. Coach is a very talented self-taught guitarist and vocalist – he plays in a few iterations of various kinds – solo, with another guitarist, and then as guitarist for a local band in the Rainsville/Scottboro, AL area called The Big Band which plays at places like Margarita’s, Geno’s Live, etc. Chris and I found an instant chemistry when we went met for the first time in Cancun last year – and it was primarily over music. We got to talking and of course, since both of us play and sing, this was one of the first introductory topics that we covered. Later in that first afternoon, we were all sitting around the pool singing boozy renditions of old tunes we all know (the most memorable being “Cover of the Rolling Stone” by Doctor Hook) and a friendship was cemented.

Once we set our schedule to go to Alabama for our vacation the first week in May, we were already planning how we’d play together – I’d bring a guitar or two down with me, there was the possibility of me sitting in on one of his gigs, or we’d just sit and strum together and entertain our friends. The one thing we didn’t count on was me getting a nasty cold and upper respiratory infection and completely losing my voice – had not only no range other than a cracking croak (sounding somewhat like a frog going through puberty), but also didn’t have any breath capacity behind it. For a guy who loves to play and sing, this was torture, as it was one of the biggest things I was looking forward to on this trip – both playing and singing with Coach and also singing Karaoke at Brian’s karaoke night our first night in Rainsville.

Nonetheless, we made a go of it anyway – the Saturday night we were there, we got a big fire roaring in the firepit (after having obtained some properly dry wood), and then hauled out the guitars for a good strum – we played at least two hours outside, then the party moved indoors and Chris and I stayed up for another full hour playing some more. While I couldn’t sing much above a bare whisper, the hands were working fine, and I really enjoyed the play time.

The point of this post really isn’t to talk about that, but to talk about the joy of making music with others. Every person who has musical ability and either plays an instrument or sings knows what I mean – it is entirely one thing to sing and play solo, and that does have enormous enjoyment, but to make music with others – whether informally getting together and playing, or formally in some sort of organized group, band, choir, etc., is where there truly is a wonderful thing that happens. I liken music to team sports a bit. As a baseball player, you can go to the cages and hit against the machines all you want, but there is no better thrill than cranking a fastball off an imposing pitcher, dropping the bat and running hard for first base. So goes music.

My love of playing music, I’m sure (and my mom can probably fill in details more than me) dates long before I actually picked up a guitar or trombone. That said, my actual music education began, like it does for most, in 6th grade when I started playing trombone – then you move into 7th grade band and suddenly, you understand why, what you’re doing works. Even though that 7th grade band is awful and out of key, suddenly you hear how those notes you’ve been playing fit with all the other notes the others play and the result becomes music. In 7th grade, my guitar obsession truly began – although I had been dabbling with it for about a year at that point, with my sister receiving an acoustic guitar as a gift about then. I decided to learn bass guitar when I found out that the music for bass guitar generally mirrors that for trombone – learn the bass clef, learn how a tune goes and all you’re doing is moving your hands in a different way, versus blowing through a horn. That made learning bass very easy for me. I also truly learned guitar at that point by taking lessons through the school (Mr. Chas Elliot, thank you!), and then also from taking a handful of random lessons from some local guitarists (see my Rock and Roll Hall of Fame post for more on that). About spring of 7th grade, I was approached by another guy a year older than me who asked if I’d be interested in playing bass in the band that he and three other guys were starting up – I did, and the rest is history. Even though our repertoire was limited to just a few songs, man, we were making music! The first songs we could play were just Smoke on the Water (are there any young bands that don’t start with that? Ironically, now that I’m older, I’ve found that that song is actually quite complex, versus rudimentary.) and a variation on a I-IV-V fast blues riff that we somehow morphed into Roll Over Beethoven by Chuck Berry. Nonetheless, I still remember that first practice in a garage and how amazingly fun it was to make some rock and roll.

Through school, I also started playing bass guitar in Jazz band – and was in the “A” Jazz band throughout high school – we had a scorching rhythm section, anchored by my pal and drummer for my rock band, Jay (the Eyeguy) – still to this day, our Jazz shows when we were on the contest tour senior year are some of my best memories.  The joy of performance never, ever gets old.

Fast forward to being an adult – I picked up guitar again about 12 years ago, mostly out of a desire to have a hobby again that was less frustrating and far less expensive than golf. I found that years of music love had actually honed my abilities a bit, and after some refresher lessons – after a few lessons with a guy that specialized in beginning guitar players, I discovered that I was a better player than my teacher – I was off and playing again. Instead of being focused on bass guitar though, I bought an electric guitar and an amp. Shortly after, Robin, after figuring out that this wasn’t a passing fancy, bought me my pride and joy guitar – an Ovation round-back six string guitar. (I’m playing it in the shot above). These are unique because instead of a big wooden box, the back of the Ovation is a parabolic shaped plastic bowl with a spruce top affixed. They are generally all acoustic-electric guitars with built-in pickups, tuners etc. When they were introduced in the 1970s, they were considered very forward-looking guitar technology. Back when I was in high school, I badly wanted an Ovation acoustic guitar, and in fact, had saved enough to buy one – but, for whatever reason – popular idea, wanting to follow along with my friend Phil, etc., I spent the $300 or so I had squirrelled away on a bicycle – and well, I did ride that thing all over the state of Iowa and get in much better physical shape. But … I didn’t get the guitar of my dreams. Shortly before my birthday that year, Robin and I went to a Melissa Etheridge show at Chicago’s House of Blues and somehow found our way very close to the front. Melissa was playing a gorgeous Ovation with a round center sound hole (some ovations have small sound holes near the upper arch of the guitar) and a sunburst finish. I pointed it out to her and said “see that guitar? That’s the guitar I’ve always wanted.” Well, my birthday was a few weeks later, and by G-d, my lovely wife had done it – she had gone to Sam Ash Music, had picked out an Ovation (albeit from their “amateur” series versus the nearly-$5,000 pro series) that looked, and more importantly SOUNDED exactly like Ms. Etheridge’s guitar. I was in heaven.  I’ve since added the matching 12-string guitar to my collection as well.

Well, my interest from there took off – I started putting together large songbooks of the music I wanted to play, with lyrics and chords, I started “eating up” as much music as I could, and played for my friends who were a wonderful, if a bit boozy, audience to my sing-alongs. But, the missing link was playing along with others. On the great fun side, I inspired a dear friend, GASHM’s wife “1.1” to take up guitar on her own – and we had a lot of fun for awhile there. That said, her desired style of play is a lot different than mine – she was learning the instrument much as one would learn a piano – and well, I’m a strummer and singer (and a picker and a grinner and a lover and a sinner … ) – so we sort of stopped playing together. After suffering through a lot of neck and shoulder issues, she hasn’t played in quite a while. There are others that I play along with, however – “Zohan” – who is quite a good “strummer/singer” guitarist in my own vein, with a predilection to Creedence Clearwater Revival music – he and I play together ever few months, and we have a lot of fun doing it. He and I need to get a bit more focused on this –we could actually put together a set and perform if we both put our minds to it. Same with my friend Steve, who plays at a similar level as me, and has very similar musical interests. My brothers –in-law, Jon and Micah, are both solid players in their own right – with Micah just having picked it up in the last few years. Micah and I manage to get together for a strum fairly often and each time it offers a great brain break and mental stretching.

Interestingly, though where I’ve gotten the most “play along” satisfaction is when I get the treat of sitting in with someone who is clearly better than me – and there are a few of those folks in my life. First, my next door neighbor and spiritual “rudder”, RavMarc – who is a very accomplished folk singer and guitarist – his music tastes are more folk than my acoustic rock tastes, although we do find ways to collaborate. And then there’s two guys who are both better than me, and have perfectly matching tastes – my old work pal Rick, and now, Coach. Unfortunately, both live out of town. Rick and I were colleagues at another company for about 8 years and we discovered our mutual “playalong” compatibility when he was visiting me for a business trip. After that, we both schlepped our guitars to the Dominican Republic for a company fun trip and entertained not only our work colleagues, but pretty big crowds of folks at the resort as well. And, he invited me to sit in once at his standing gig at a bar in New York City, which was completely enjoyable for me. Probably less so for the folks in the audience. I hope we get to repeat our session sometime again. And now, most recently, Coach – Coach clearly knows his stuff both as a guitarist and as a singer and we discovered that our music styles are completely compatible. It was great to be able to play along with him, providing depth and texture with my rhythm guitar work while he was able to rip away at solos and also focus on his vocals. Hopefully in Alabama, that was first of more than few times where we can jam along together. I’m hoping we can both bring our “cheap beater” guitars to Mexico with us later this summer and repeat the jam up by the pool.

So, where does this arc lead us? Well, again, like sports, music is best made, at least in my view, in a team setting. You compliment each other’s strengths, compensate for each other’s weakness and the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. There’s no more fun, at least for this amateur musician, than to be part of a bigger sound, making music that others enjoy and sing along to. And, like sports, you find that one of the best ways to raise your game is to play with others that are of higher skill than you – it forces you to raise your stakes and learn more to be able to play along.

As you were,

Stew

Sweet Home Alabama – We All Live The Same Lives, Just at Different Addresses

10 May

This is the second installment of my blog posts about our Alabama trip last week – in this one, I address the people – our dear friends Keary and Lisa, Chris (Coach!) and Sharon, Brian and Leslie, and Tammy and Jerry.

This trip to Alabama, as I mentioned in my last post, was borne from meeting Keary and Lisa at a resort in Cancun in 2007, which led to us rendezvousing on a beach in Grand Cayman in 2010, and a week together in Cancun last summer. Last summer, they brought along the rest of the couples mentioned above and we all became fast friends – the two city kids became honorary “Bamy’s” and we joined in the chorus of “Roll Tide Roll” every time Sweet Home Alabama was played by the pool. This trip was born when we were sitting around the pool in Cancun and after about the 50th time we heard “y’all gotta come down and visit us in Alabama, we’ll have so much fun”, Robin threw down “Ok, sounds great – first weekend in May, next year. I’m done with tax season, the timing is perfect.” With the date set, we were game on.

As we were preparing for this trip, we kept thinking of what a different life we were going to observe in Alabama – these folks live in a tiny, one-stoplight town of 5,000 – we live in a bustling suburb of 42,000 people, surrounded by an unending carpet of suburban sprawl. Their entire county has a population of about 70,000. Our Metro area has a population of 9.8 million and spreads more than 100 miles north to south and 60 miles east to west. Life HAD to be different. Right? Well … no, not really, in actuality.

The title of this post actually comes from my pal “GASHM” who coined it one evening when we were commiserating over raising teenaged kids and talking about how we all have the same problems, hassles, etc. “We all live the same lives, just at different addresses”, he said. Truer words have never been spoken. And it applies here – other than geography, these folks are in the same boat we are – either raising or just finished raising their kids (Keary and Lisa just achieved “empty nest status” in the last 2 years), working for a living, trying to find the time to do it all and balance it all, while still seeking to have fun.

There are some characteristics of these folks though that do make them different than what we typically see in the big city.  First of all, they are fiercely proud of where they live – and I say that not in a “boastful/prideful” way – which would be negative – but in a simple “they love it here” way.  Each of them is deeply connected to the area and the community.  They are all from either Rainsville or the immediate towns nearby – like where I’m from in Newton, IA, one gets the sense that people don’t move here, but instead are born here, and if they stay, well, they stay and love it.  Secondly, they all recognize that life there is different than it is where we live, but they don’t see that as a negative, just a fact.  They marvel a bit about things like when we talk about the fact that our high school has close to 5000 kids in it when their K-12 school has 1600, or that I work in a 43 floor highrise in downtown Chicago, and ride a train to work every day.  But that wonder is matched with a healthy dose of “better you than me, man!”  They love the fact that their idea of a traffic jam is when they catch the redlight at the intersection of Hwys 35 and 75 red, and have to wait one minute.  While they wish they had more choices for shopping and restaurants and gourmet groceries, they wouldn’t give up for a second their quiet, small town lifestyle.  They all want to visit us here in Chicago.  We can’t wait to have them.  And after their visit, I’m sure they will hit Rainsville again with newfound appreciation of the quiet, easy pace.

Although I covered this in the last post, it also bears mentioning again – the impact of the tornadoes of April 27th, 2011 is unmistakeable.  The week before we arrived, the town unveiled a large stone monument to the people that were killed in the tornado – this was aggressively pushed through the city and county government by a committee that included our friends Lisa and Tammy.  Coach took us on a 30 minute driving tour of the damage area – and I was literally getting spine tingles when he was identifying empty house foundations with “and three people died here, two here, 15 people were killed here where this trailer park was, I knew the kid that was killed here”, etc.  Everyone in that town knows or knows of everyone that was killed.  We all marvel when we hear the news stories of these events “and 22 people were killed and more than 100 injured” in the national news – for these folks, those aren’t stats. They are people.  People they knew and loved.

Going individual, as I mentioned above and in the last post, Keary and Lisa own one of the two funeral homes in Rainsville, AL. Chris is a History teacher and the head football coach at the local high school and his wife Sharon is a nurse in a medical practice in the next town over, Scottsboro. Brian and Leslie own a DJ business, and Jerry works for the local John Deere business while his wife Tammy is the clerk at the local court, and together they own a small cleaning services business. With employment in small town America being what it is, this seems pretty typical. There aren’t a lot of big employers – to work for a big company means a long commute to Chattanooga, TN or Huntsville AL – both cities about an hour away or more, so you work local – own a business, teach, work for the municipality, work in a local service business, etc. Last summer after our Cancun trip, I wrote about these folks, and in that I said something to the effect of “work, for these people, does not define them – it is a means to which they live their lives.” And it really is true.

About the only person in the group that I can see is a bit defined by work is “Coach” (Chris) – and that’s merely because he so clearly loves what he does. It is not a definition by status like you see around where we live. He is all about the kids and all about the game and the experiences it brings them. We had a very nice moment on Sunday when we were standing around outside Keary’s lake house enjoying the afternoon, and Coach, Keary and Keary’s son Blake were talking. Blake is 20 and played football for Coach. He said to Coach “You know, I don’t think I’d be who I am today if it wasn’t for you.” Obviously, as a teacher, and as Coach, well, you hear that and you know you’ve done your job. His wife Sharon is one of the kindest, and funniest people I’ve ever met. On our Cancun trip last summer, she was reeling from a huge tragedy in her life – the death of her sister, which happened just before we went. But Sharon still managed to be the life of our party, and quite frankly, the person who was able to get me to bust out of work mode and into vacation mode. She had me laughing the entire time.

One of the more interesting experiences for us was staying with Keary and Lisa – as their primary residence is above the Funeral Home. They have built a beautiful apartment above the funeral home (which is an immense building, in Rainsville scale) – it allows Keary to be close to the business, “on call” at all times when possible, and yet be able to get away for a respite upstairs in their lovely home. Their home looks like an exhibit from Southern Living magazine – beautifully and comfortably appointed with not a detail out of place. I need to hire Lisa to come to our place and detail it like that – we just don’t have the eye for it. But being close like that allowed us to observe the rhythm of it. Like babies being born, people die on their own schedule, and well, that means that this business can be 24×7. On our last evening there, a case that Keary had been expecting – a 15 year old boy who had gone into hospice care just before we left for the lake house on Friday – passed away. Keary got the call during a late dinner at Brian and Leslie’s house. One of his staff was dispatched to the boy’s home to pick up the body, and when we got back to the funeral home, Keary had to go to work embalming the body at 10:00 at night. Just a reality of the business.

On our first night of the trip, Keary, Lisa, Brian and Leslie joined us in Nashville for the evening – it’s only a 3 hour drive and they came up on their beautiful Harley Davidson Electra Glide motorcycles to join us for fun in Nashville. I covered the music scene we hit in the last post, so I won’t bother now, but what was fun about this was that they got to show us some of their favorite things. Among them are of course, country music, and the John Stone band. But in addition, we also were reminded of how we met Keary and Lisa in the first place. The two of them are natural “friend makers” and Lisa is the ring leader – she will literally go up to anyone and start making instant friends with them. Don’t be a hurry if you’re with Lisa walking somewhere as she’s going to chat with just about anyone walking by. It’s just her natural, outgoing personality and it’s really cute and endearing. The way we met Keary and Lisa in 2007 was similar – they were sitting on the pool steps at the resort, having a drink and chatting up another gent they had met there – we came and sat down near them, enjoyed our first cocktail in the pool, and when I got up to walk/swim across to the swim-up bar to get another, Keary said “well, y’all mind getting us another round”, while Lisa invited Robin to join the conversation. The rest is history.

Our second night, we had the fun of going to watch Brian in action – in addition to doing weddings and parties as a DJ, he also does Karaoke at local restaurants and bars. On Thursday nights in Scottsboro, he’s at a local Mexican restaurant – Margarita’s. Brian is great at what he does – he has this terrific, “made for DJing” baritone voice, he is a great singer so he can fill in when necessary, and his between-songs banter keeps the fun going.  He has a great sense of “party pacing” and it seemed like he knew every person in the place.  Which, I’d bet, he does. I came to call Brian “Chamber of Commerce” as he possesses a great local knowledge about both the Nashville area and about the Sand Mountain/Rainsville/Scottsboro area. Leslie, of course, is his ardent supporter – she’s busy raising their daughters, and until recently, had a small resale shop. In what Robin and I consider to be such a sweet gesture, Leslie organized putting together our parting gift – “Bubba” the Big Boy tomato plant, planted in Sand Mountain dirt. Sand Mountain, the area where Rainsville sits, is well known across the southeast for its farmstand produce, and especially tomatoes – something about the sandy, acidic soil is great for tomatoes. Leslie got a tomato plant, a bucket of Sand Mountain soil together and loaded us up. Bubba now lives in a place of honor on the sunny corner of our deck where we have big expectations for him of tomato goodness!

Tammy and Jerry are such fun – Jerry is an easy-going, fun loving guy with great jokes. Tammy always has a big smile, a big hug and a big laugh for everyone. Tammy has hit the jackpot with her daughter and she is so happy for her – she’s finishing up at college with a very high GPA, has met a nice young man there and is set to take on the world. But in a great example of nothing ever goes as planned, Tammy and Jerry have taken in a young boy that is the son of one of Tammy’s family members – a bad situation where that family member wasn’t able to care for him – so right at the age that they thought they’d be heading into empty nester time, they are back in the parenting world again. He’s a nice young boy and I’m sure they will do great with him. Coach and Sharon are in a similar boat – they had one daughter of their own, who is a lovely girl in early high school – and with the death of Sharon’s sister, they have taken in her son, who is 11. I think the lesson learned here is that these folks take family seriously and it was never a question of if they’d do the right thing. The “right thing” is in their DNA. One of the best days at the lake house was Sunday, when all of the couples’ kids came out to the lake to join us for the day. They are a great bunch of well-behaved kids who are reflections of the qualities and values of their parents.  It’s not easy to raise good kids.  These folks are raising great kids.

Speaking of family, Friday was a special treat – we got a chance to meet the extended families on both Keary’s and Lisa’s sides of the family – first at a noon-time birthday celebration for Keary’s mother, held at the assisted living center where she lives, and then for a classic Southern family dinner at Lisa’s parents’ home. It was so special for us to, first of all, be able to meet the extended families, and secondly, that, as their weekend guests, they wanted to bring us around to meet the families.  Southern hospitality at its finest.  The families welcomed us with open arms (and in the case of Lisa’s mom – platters and bowls heaped with best Southern cooking!)  and a “y’all come back now” at the end. We will come back.

This arc leads me back to the beginning here – we all live the same lives, just at different addresses. Having grown up in rural Central Iowa, this was all very familiar to me. Geographically, the area that they live in reminded me a lot of the area around Greenwood Lake, NY, where Robin and I have vacationed several times in the past 10 years with the kids when I worked for a company based out there. We came into this trip expecting to see a very different lifestyle. In some ways, I guess we did – they don’t have the same access to big city culture, events and services that we take for granted here (example in point – we needed dry firewood for fires and when I said “well can’t we just call someone and have some delivered?”, all the guys broke out laughing), but that is really a minor detail. In the big city, we don’t think anything of a 15-20 minute drive to see something or someone – neither do they. Now in our area that drive will be through three other suburbs, while there it’s over a mountain and farm fields, but those are just details. Their lives are driven by family, work, friends and occasional fun, same as us.  Our biggest fun that we have at home is getting together with our friends for food, conversation and cocktails – the same with them.  They are very faithful people, involved in their places of worship, and we are as well – although their chosen faith is Christianity and Baptist, while ours is Judaism.  Nonetheless, faith and service to G-d plays a big part in their lives, as well as ours. We all struggle with parenting teen kids, but are generally successful at it – the same with them.  The same lives, just lived at different addresses.

We love our Sweet Home Alabama friends. I hope after this little introduction to them that you perhaps love them a little too.

As you were,

Stew

Sweet Home Alabama – the Trip

9 May

We just got back from a wonderful driving trip to Alabama for a week-long vacation. Time to blog!

This is the first of what will be a few posts in a series – I have to see how the thoughts come to me, of course, as my dear ‘ol blog is always done on the fly, extemporaneously, off the top of my head, pulled out of my ass, etc. That said, there seems to be a few topics to cover – the trip itself, the people we saw, and the places we went and food we ate. So, this one will be a light one – the trip itself.

Our trip was yet another version of the great American Road trip, similar to the one I just took with my sons in early April for their spring break. While that one was “one lap of Ohio – a trip from Chicago to Cleveland, to Dayton, and then back to Chicago, this one was a bit more linear, and more desitination-oriented. Specifically to Rainsville, Alabama. Population: 5000. Their civic motto? The Crossroads of Sand Mountain. Why Rainsville? Well, it’s not like we played darts or anything – instead it happens to be the home of some dear friends of ours, Keary and Lisa, whom we met in Cancun in 2007, then stayed in touch, met up again on a beach on Grand Cayman in 2010, and then joined them again for a week in Cancun last year. We met a bunch of their friends through that second trip – Chris and Sharon, Brian and Leslie, Tammy and Jerry, and now are fast friends with the lot of them. We’ll cover that in my next post – on the people.

As we were planning this trip, people were saying to us “Why Alabama?” We’d explain the friend connection and they’d say “oh, well, OK. Couldn’t they meet you somewhere else?” Obviously they hadn’t been to where I’ve now been and will return to many times more. As northerners, I think we’re conditioned that if you think of visiting a rural place in the deep south, you envision ramshackle tar-paper shacks, dirty kids running around throwing sticks, old coon dogs on the porch (which is peeling, sagging and gray) rusting yard cars, and people with no teeth. Not the case at all. Rainsville, and its nearby companion county seat, Scottsboro, AL, are tidy rural towns that would fit right in in any state in the union. They are agricultural – Rainsville sits up on a geological formation called Sand Mountain, which is a 1500 to 1700 foot above sea-level ridge that is about 25 or so miles wide and hundred or so miles long on average and is some of the highest ground in Alabama. Its sandy soils are supposed to be great for growing tomatoes. Leslie and Brian sent us home with a tomato plant set in Sand Mountain dirt – which is light brown and sandy. They say it grows the best tomatoes – so we’ll see if we can get “Bubba The Big Boy” to grow on our Chicagoland patio.

The trip was basically a 675 mile-long straight shot south – our route went down I-65 from the Gary, IN area to Nashville, then onto I-24 towards the NE corner of Alabama where you pick up US 72 into Scottsboro, hang a left, cross the Tennessee River and Guntersville Lake and up onto Sand Mountain and Rainsville. The next town southeast of Rainsville is Fort Payne, AL, made famous by the country Supergroup of the 1980s, Alabama. 675 miles is about 10 ½ hours of driving. We could have done it in one day, but half the fun of a road trip is stopovers, so we made our stopover on the way down in Nashville – about 8 hours from Chicago, and one the way back, made our stop in Louisville, which is exactly half way almost to the mile from between Rainsville and Buffalo Grove.

The driving from Chicago to Indianapolis is miserable. Dead flat, devoid of scenery. Like driving on a treadmill.   About the only interesting thing to see is a gigantic wind turbine farm near Rennselear, and the only good stops to make are at Fair Oaks Farms at Winamac and to eat at Triple XXX Drive In at West Lafayette (see my other post about Triple D restaurants). After Indy, it gets better – starts being more wooded and rolling and then south of Louisville, it gets downright beautiful – mountains and hills, big rock cuts for the Interstate – woods everywhere. Gorgeous! South of Nashville, it really gets interesting– with true mountain driving featuring 6-8% grades for miles at a time, steep turns occasionally, beautiful scenery. And once off the interstates and onto US 72 headed into Alabama, you follow Lake Guntersville and things are truly spectacular.

Our friends Keary, Lisa, Brian and Leslie joined us in Nashville – we stayed at the Marriott Courtyard which is in a beautiful converted bank/office building right in the heart of downtown and only 4 blocks from the Broadway music strip. Just a few steps away is the Ryman Auditorium, which Brian (who is a walking/talking Chamber of Commerce guide for both Nashville and his own area around Rainsville) liked to call “the Mother Church of Country Music” – the

original site of the Grand Ole’ Opry. We hadn’t been to Nashville in ages – I have been there about 3 times for business, and Robin only once for business, and each time we were there between us, we’ve just stayed at the Opryland Hotel. I did make it downtown once before to tour the music scene, but it had been ages. Thus, this was a real treat, made only better by our Alabama friends driving the 3 hours up on their Harley Electra Glides to join us.

The music scene in Nashville, as one would expect with the moniker “Music City” is fantastic. If you’re a fan of live music, this is the place for you. Downtown features at least 50 or more live music clubs playing everything from Country (lots of it), Rock, Blues, R&B, and even alternative and ska (as we saw from some places we passed on our morning walk the next day). After a brief and pretty good dinner at Demo’s Italian-style Steakhouse, we started up Broadway, with our goal being Tootsie’s Wild Orchid Club and a show from country music up-and-comer John Stone, a native of Fort Payne, AL and friend of our friends from Rainsville. Each live music club has a wide open front door and generally the stage is right at the front of the room – you walk past, turn around to watch. No cover charges anywhere – just a tip jar and a tradition of “pay to play” – you want to hear something played, you pay – $20 is the general medium of exchange. We hit at least three places – the final being Tootsie’s Wild Orchid – and danced and enjoyed a fun mix of country, rock, country/rock and country/ska. The experience at Tootsies was amazing – when we arrived, the early band was still on stage and rocking the room – two guitarists, a drummer, bassist and this beautiful girl playing a hot fiddle. Their focus was mostly country. The fun thing there was people kept offering them $100 and $200 tips to play additional songs, so they played an extra 20 minutes or so. A quick change of gear, and John Stone’s band came on – I think he called his band the Trailer Trash Trio or something funny like that. These guys rocked it though – great harmonies on the country stuff, played some great scorching rock including a fantastic rendition of Highway to Hell by AC/DC at the request of a Brit in the room. The place was jam-packed – it seems like fire marshall attendance laws haven’t caught on here. Downtown Nashville overall seems to be in a big renaissance phase with big high-end hotels being built, a new sports stadium and more. It is very impressive and we will be back.

Onwards to Rainsville, Sand Mountain and Lake Guntersville. Rainsville is a classic “crossroads” town of two major state highways that earn the town’s one primary traffic light (or “redlights” as they call them there) with businesses lining the two roads for about a mile in each direction, and the residential areas fanned out from there. The town is quaint, tidy and nice – a few too many shuttered storefronts of course, and some of the requisite chain encroachment including McDonald’s (but no Starbucks!!), but the usual – a couple of grocery stores, the usual service businesses of hair, dentists, cleaners, etc., auto parts stores, furniture, etc. While of course like any rural town, there are run down homes here and there, but for the most part, there are nice, tidy homes of smaller to average size. The town has an “all grades” school – Plainview  (Go Bears!) – that has about 1600 students spread from K-12. And a big business there, the Rainsville Funeral Home, where our good friends are the owners. Keary and Lisa’s funeral home is a huge, beautiful, stately building that’s beautifully furnished on a large tract of ground that includes a cemetery.

Rainsville and the whole area experienced a seriously defining moment on April 27, 2011 when the NE Alabama tornados tore through the town and the surrounding counties. That day, dozens of tornadoes went through the general area, and in Rainsville in particular, the largest one hit – an F5 that turned into a quarter-mile-wide monster, dropping down near the high school, destroying a large portion of that, tearing up the town’s civic center, then flattening dozens of businesses and homes and killing more than 20 people in Rainsville and the nearby area. We took a tour of the area and it is really eerie to see – the area is generally pretty wooded and there is a clear path you can see where the trees are all torn apart and every building is completely gone. There is rebuilding going on, which is great, and there are things that will never be rebuilt. The community, led by some of our friends – specifically Lisa and Tammy, recently erected a beautiful monument to remember those killed in the tornadoes.  The impact of this is unmistakable. Rainsville will clearly mark time for generations to come in terms of “before and after the tornado”.

 

 

We left Rainsville on Friday to head to

Keary and Lisa’s lake home on Lake Guntersville. Lake Guntersville, is one of the biggest competition bass fishing lakes in the southeast, and is just immense – something like 75 miles long and up to 2 miles wide at certain points. Nearby is a big state park, which I did not see, but featured a beautiful lodge on a bluff about 400 feet above the river. We saw eagles, cranes, pelicans, fish of course and much more. Keary and Lisa’s home is on a beautiful point toward Guntersville with sunset views. Just really didn’t get prettier. And there’s tornado damage there too – in fact the tornadoes took out a bunch of trees on his property, and damaged the house as well. Behind the house and in some other places around the lake you could see paths that the tornadoes made through the trees. We stayed out at the lake until Sunday around sunset, then back to Rainsville for one more overnight and then headed home, this time by way of Louisville.

We overnighted at the Seelbach Hilton Hotel – thanks Hilton HHonors for the free room! The Seelbach is a beautiful old property right in the middle of downtown Louisville. The 4th Ave Market is right next to it – an entertainment “district” of a block or so of restaurants and bars – with a covering over the street – very manufactured, but I’m sure quite fun. It has been at least 10 years or more since I was last in Louisville and it is impressive how much the downtown area is revitalized since then and is still coming up. This was a really dynamic place and there’s lots of good dining, hotels and fun to be had there. We walked to the Garage Bar – which turned out to be a much, MUCH longer walk east on Market Street than the hotel concierge made it out to be, through an area that, well, hasn’t been through the revitalization yet. While it didn’t feel dangerous in the 7:00 PM daylight, I’m sure it would be in the midnight darkness. I’ll write about the food in another post.

We got on the road after a wonderful breakfast (again, food details to come), and headed for home, stopping at Fair Oaks Farms for ice cream, and making a decision to come through downtown Chicago, even though rush hour traffic was building, just to enjoy the big city sights after being in the rural areas.

Our little VW GTI shined again for us – eating miles at a prodigious rate (cruise set about 80 mph most of the time), handling the mountain roads like it was born in Europe (wait, it was), blasting up slopes, burbling down them, hugging the curves and hauling it down fast when idiots without knowledge of the concepts of rearview mirrors would cut us off. All while turning in an average 29.8 mpg. The total: (which includes a fair amount of time driving around in Alabama): 1576 miles driven, 27 hours and 0 minutes spent in the car, 58 mph average speed with the 29.8 MPG. Fantastic.

Love our road trips!

And we loved Sweet Home Alabama.

As you were,

Stew

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