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Roll The Credits

30 Jan

This was a momentous week in the Stew’s Brew household – our oldest son, Joel, has officially headed out of the nest and into the real world. He moved this week to the Bay Area of California to start his professional career with Tesla Motors as a process engineer in their big plant that turns out all the awesomeness like the Model S P85D with Insane Mode. He will be working on the paints and finishes team integrating new products into the production stream. Pretty amazing stuff!

His mom, Robin and I, would love to take all the credit for his success, but as Hilary Clinton most famously said, “It takes a village to raise a child” and Joel truly is the product of that. Obviously whatever we did as parents either a) didn’t screw him up that badly; or b) was great parenting (somewhere in the middle is the truth), and his own amazing hard work, singular focus, putting himself into position for success, etc., had a everything to do with it too.

But I’d like to acknowledge some of the tons of positive influences he had on his life as some of these folks really helped guide him. There are many, many others that I’m sure I’m not putting on the list.  As in the usual practice, I’m not going to use full names, but I’ll use first names, nicknames, etc. to identify folks.

We have to start with his grandparents, including one who never met him, his grandfather Donn Campbell. Starting with my Dad – Joel entered this world about 5 weeks after my Dad’s passing. He is so much like his grandfather Donn, as to be uncanny – his love of sports, obsession with making lists, success drive, general kindness, easy to meet people, etc. – all of that was expressed in my Dad too. None of us truly know how things work beyond this life, but we like to think that perhaps there was a meeting somewhere prior to Joel’s being born where he got some great coaching. My Mom, LindaC also has been a huge positive influence. From Joel’s love of cooking and the finer things in life, his crossword obsession, to the great experiences of going to “Camp Grandma” during the summer (and allowing Robin and me to travel and keep a great marriage) – and so much more – lots of Grandma Linda went into making Joel.

Robin’s folks, Julie and Merle, being the local grandparents, have had an enormous influence. Merle took care of Joel shortly after he was born to allow Robin to continue working – Robin used to go to her house to feed Joel on her lunch breaks – this daycare, at a time when we were struggling financially was just enormous. They also were big contributors to childcare for us – allowing us to travel and do things that couples should have time to do, and helped us out in so many ways. Thank you.

The rest of the family also continually provided such positive influences -his aunts and uncles Becky & Tom, Shari & Micah, Jon & Erica, his cousins, “greats and grands” like Steve & Linda, Reisa & Warren, and his departed great grandparents that he adored so much. The family is filled with secure, successful people and huge collection of long-lasting, great marriages. Much to emulate for him.

Joel, of course, loves his sports and is a soccer player, loved playing baseball and basketball – all of his sports coaches contributed – from his BGRA coaches like Ray, Steve (the Starbucks man), Elliott, and more; to his soccer coaches – Sherm in particular who coached him mulitple seasons – all of them instilled competitiveness in him, a sense of fair play and taught him the importance of playing on teams.

His work experiences of course have really guided him – and I’d like to call out two special couples.  Dave and Lucia, who own Tamarak Day Camp in Lincolnshire, were Joel’s first “bosses” – Joel started out as a camper at their camp – an experience all our kids enjoyed – immensely positive – and then as soon as he was eligible to do so, he started working there as have his brothers who continue to work there. Joel learned early on the value of a fair but firm boss in Dave and Lucia and the value of hard work, teamwork and more in his formative years there. Dave and Lucia, I hope you understand how important your mentorship is of not only your campers but your employees – all of my kids have said they enjoy working there even more than being campers there, and that they have learned so much from both of you.

The other special couple I’d like to call out are Mark and Ellen. Mark is a high school mate of mine, and despite not having seen each other in pretty much more than 30 years, he took on the role of “how to navigate the car business” advisor for Joel as he is an engineer at Nissan. He guided Joel early on as he was heading into Engineering school at Illinois, and then continued to guide him as he got involved in Formula SAE racing (crucial to his success) and finally, applied a bit of “runway foam” as Joel went after his first internship at Nissan’s tech center in Detroit, where Mark works. Which would have been plenty! But there’s more – that summer, when Joel was interning for Nissan – Mark’s wife Ellen took Joel under her wing, fed him dinner once a week, took him shopping when he needed it and generally adopted him as one of her own. Amazing! You two are truly special people.

Lastly, and not leastly, we’d like to thank all of our friends – we are firm believers that the family you choose is as important as the family you have – and you all are the family we choose. Our close friends, Chris & Gail, Bill & Robin, Steve & Pam (Faltese and Mitzi), Jason & Andrea, Les & Angie, Mark & Jodi, Harry & Liz, Gary & Jill, Joel & Tammy, Marc & Susan, Greg & Molly, and many more have all had such a positive influence on Joel in so many ways.

We always like to joke that Joel is one of the luckiest people we know and that “the universe works for Joel” – but that discounts his hard work, and that discounts the influences of all the people who positively influenced him for his growing up years. We have to chalk this success up to his intelligence and hard work, shaken and stirred with a lot of wonderful people who all rubbed off a bit of themselves on our dear son.

Thank you friends and family! We wouldn’t be at this point without you. And we love you all.

As you were,

Stew

Thankful

30 Nov

By now, Sunday morning of Thanksgiving weekend, most people will have spent the long holiday period (not exactly a weekend) getting hammered (Wednesday night – AKA “Black Wednesday” – the drunkest night of the year – even worse than New Year’s eve)j, overeating (Thursday, natch), overspending (Friday), overwatching football (all weekend long), drinking even more, etc. etc.  Many people approach Thanksgiving weekend with both excitement and dread and the dread comes from a variety of sources – time spent with family you don’t care to see, travel worries and hassles, dividing time among various family members (Thanksgiving is considered to be the most complicated holiday for that), etc.

Notice the key missing element of the above is what the core of the holiday is supposed to be about? Giving thanks?

It seems like in our efforts as a country to over-program everything (admit it, we do) is extracting the basics of this holiday. The “first official shoppng day” of the Christmas season is now the day where everything USED to be closed, and people were home with family. Black Friday was officially usurped this year by Thanksgiving Day, according to the National Retail Federation’s tracking.

I have to admit to participating a lot in the overindulgence – but at least I think it is focused on family and friends. Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Professor Troutstream and I, plus our families and some select close friends gather at a pub for our annual “Burgers, Beer and Bourbon (and Tots)” fest. We do get a wee bit, umm, happy there, but the biggest feature is just great stories and tons of laughs.

Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, Robin and I hosted 22 for dinner at our house Thursday evening. We choose to do our big TG dinner in the evening – and that conveniently allows those who are having to split time, to hit multiple Thanksgiving celebrations. Most of our crowd was family – my mom, Robin’s parents, her aunt and uncle from Ohio, their kids and spouses – but we also had two couples that are among our best friends there – both couples are empty-nesters with no local family to go to. Happy to be their “local family”.

Friday was a chill day – I used it to get some house projects done, the most notable was getting my music studio organized in the way I have been planning to organize it since we redid our basement 2 years ago. Have a small PA system set up, a dedicated computer for playing and recording music, mutliple amps for visiting players, etc.  Pretty sweet. Still need to get all the guitars on the wall, but step by step. Friday evening, my inlaws hosted a wonderful dinner for the whole family plus a few more at a local Greek restaurant – and it was a huge treat and much fun.

Yesterday, on the idea of son #1, I got The Fanbulance out of storage, piled the three sons into it, and headed to Evanston IL to pick up Professor Troutstream and watch the Illini of U of Illinois play the Wildcats of Northwestern. The Prof and I enjoyed a bit more Kentucky “brown water” at the tailgate (goes great with Egg McMuffins!), and then left the game about halftime and headed to a pub where his wife joined us and we waited out the rest of the game and the arrival of the sons.  Last evening, was just a chill night – my mom made a delicious gravy to accompany the leftover turkey and we made “stuffing waffles” (heat up stuffing in a waffle iron – best idea ever!) to put all the good stuff over. Our local high school, Stevenson, was in the state championship football game and I watched them win that – enjoying the 4th quarter from bed.

Today, it’s just another chill day although we need to put the house back in order from the bash Thursday night as well as I need to put away our patio, run the gas out of the power lawn tools, etc.

So, now that I have bored you with a rundown of my weekend, I’ll return to the point of this post. I spent the entire weekend in the company of all of those I love the most – family, closed and dear friends, and more. Did we overeat and overdrink? Bet your ass we did. To me, that’s what Thanksgiving weekend is all about though – spending the time in the company of your friends and family.

And I have so much to be thankful for – my wonderful wife of 28.5 years, the three amazing young men that are my sons, my mom, and the fact that at 78, she is as sharp as ever and in generally good health and able to travel to us, live on her own, etc., Robin’s family and how they all travel in to make this such a fun weekend, my great pal Professor Troutstream, all of our other close friends, the fact that I have a challenging and rewarding career with a continued upwards trajectory, a nice home, a loyal dog, etc. etc.

Overindulge I did. Did I gain a few pounds this weekend?  I’m sure of it – back onto track with my Weight Watchers program this week. Do I creak and ache like a typical 50-something person? Sure do. But that’s how I know I am alive.

If you follow my blog, you most certainly know that my focus is on living life. It is entirely too short. I’m thankful for the opportunities I have to be able to live life so well with people I love.  There’s the sentence I was looking for.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

As you were,

Stew

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That first car

12 Apr

We reached a fun milestone at the Campbell house last night. I came home with a car for my sons. We staved off this decision for as long as we could for a combination of both money and principle but with Alex and Brian graduating this spring, and Brian staying local for college and living at home next year, it was time. Which of course, brought me around to thinking about first cars, my first car, other people’s first cars, etc. etc.

I think getting your first car must be a uniquely American rite of passage (and I’d love it if my pals in the UK could weigh in on the concept). And I think it’s probably a bigger deal for males than females, although I do know a lot of girls that love their cars and were so excited with their first cars. The timing of a first car is also an interesting thing – I do know many people that got their first cars on or around their 16th birthday – and it was truly a car for them. The really lucky ones (and some might say spoiled) got NEW cars for that occasion. Then, there were those of us that got cars at a later age. I got my first car the summer before my junior year in college. My sister got her first the fall of her junior year in college. My folks were of the opinion that high school kids didn’t need cars of their own, and the family ride was perfectly fine. Considering that my dad liked to have a fairly new car as the family car, and we liked a bit of luxury, though in a Midwestern, conservative vein (think Oldsmobile, versus Cadillac), I always had a nice car to take on dates. Whereas I think if the folks had gotten me a car of my own, it would have have been a smaller, not as nice car.

I’ve always been “a car guy” though – I love the damn things, much to the disdain of my finances. I’m sure my net worth would be a six-figure number higher if I’d driven tired rides to their graves versus buying or leasing new cars every 3 or 4 years through most of my adult life. But, I wouldn’t have had as much fun and at the end of the day, life is worth living. And since cars are a part of my life, it’s been a worthwhile and necessary expense. My first car therefore, was a great “car guy” car – high performance, super fun to drive, etc. A 1979 VW Scirocco.  (while the picture at left isn’t mine, mine looked exactly like this)  1974-volkswagen-scirocco--2_460x0wIt was just at 4 years old when we bought it, had about 60,000 miles on it, and ran like a rocket. In a day where 5.7 liter V8 engines in Corvettes and Camaros and Mustangs were smog-controlled back to about 165 HP, my little Scirocco cranked 115 hp from it’s 1.8 liter 4 cylinder in it.  And because the car weighed all of 1950 lbs, it’s power to weight ratio was better than that in a Firebird Trans Am. And that made it just as fast.  The best/funniest thing about it was my Dad – any time I pulled my car into the driveway behind his, it would be gone the next morning – he loved that little thing and it’s 5-speed manual transmission and thundering stereo. He would pull off the sunroof panel (remember those?), pop in a cassette of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, slap it into gear and blaze off, redlining the engine on every shift.

I remember the day we went to buy it like yesterday. My Dad had given me a car shopping budget and basically no parameters beyond mileage – not more than 70,000 miles, and not more than $4000. Beyond that, have fun. I knew about Sciroccos and VW Rabbit GTIs (not coincidentally my current car is a 2011 VW GTI), and so I looked at those as well as other sporty import cars and few others. I knew I wanted small and light, with great handling. I didn’t want a Camaro or Firebird, and Mustangs were just awful at that point. I found this at a dealer about 30 miles away. I came back, told my Dad about it, and the following Saturday, we went to look at it. He had done some research on it and had called the previous owner. It was a solid car. Unbeknownst to me, he had already called the dealer and negotiated a final price, so when we showed up, we went for a fast test drive, which my Dad drove of course, and when we came back, the salesman (and through a fit of “why is information like this still in my brain”, I still remember his name – Dennis Matney) was standing there with a file folder in hand. We hopped out and my Dad turned to me and said “So?” and I said to him “Umm, So?” and he said “Is this the car you want?” I smiled and said “Yup, that’s the car”. He turned to the salesman and said “Ok, let’s do this.” He pulled out his check book, wrote a check for $3600, and the salesman handed us the paperwork. We were done in less than 5 minutes. I was in heaven when he dropped that key into my hand!

As a dad, I’ve been looking forward to yesterday for forever. After looking for a bit and trying out a bunch of cars ranging from a very tired old Blazer all the way to a perfect condition 2000 Mercedes Benz CLK320 convertible (that would have been Robin’s and they would have gotten one of our current cars to drive), we settled on a Honda Civic – it was owned by a work colleague of a good friend. 2008 model year, only 40,000 miles. Looks and runs like a brand new car. And only $10,000. While at the top of the budget we set, considering its age and mileage, it is worth the investment.

We also were of the opinion that 16 year olds do not need cars – they can bum rides, take our cars, etc. And we’ve always had a fun ride in the house. To wit: Poor Joel, our oldest son, when he first got his license had to choose between a 2004 screaming yellow, 240 HP, rear drive, 6 speed manual, Mazda RX-8 sports car, or an electric red, convertible, every-option 2002 BMW 330 Ci. Poor kid. That said, Alex and Brian, as much as Joel IS a car guy and a driving addict, are not even licensed yet. At nearly 18 years old. It just hasn’t been something that’s been a priority for them, and well, if it’s not their priority, why should I push them? While I’ve saved a ton of money on car insurance, it’s now time to get licenses. So on Sunday when we called them after buying it and said “Guess what? We bought you a car!” we were met with, “Oh, Ok. Thanks. Umm. Yeah.” Not exactly the fist-pumping excitement I had hoped for. But, I got the reaction I wanted last evening when I brought the car home. Suddenly it became tangible – they have a car. And so, the excitement came through. While not fist pumps, I sure got high fives and hugs. I’m sure they’d have been more excited if they were licensed and could go motor off in it but, they are not. So the game plan is to have them drive nothing but their new Civic for the next few weeks, and then they will get their licenses in time for graduation. And then the true reality and freedom of the road will be upon them. God help me and them and my insurance rates!

As you were,

Stew

Here’s the ride:

Miss ya, Dad.

1 Jul

Twenty years ago today, my dad, Donn Campbell, passed away.  Hard to believe it’s been 20 years.  I was only 30 years old when he passed – my wife Robin was pregnant with my now-about-to-turn 20 years old son, Joel.  He was born only six weeks later.  I’m 50 now.  Hard to believe how time flies.

I wanted to write about my Dad today for a number of reasons.  There are so many people in my life now that never knew him, and I’d like to introduce you to him.  Obviously, another reason is simply in memory of him.  And, well, I miss him. Earlier this week, an old friend from my hometown, Sharil, wrote a beautiful missive on Facebook about her dad, who had passed in 2005.  I never met him but after reading her story, I felt I did.  So, thanks for being my muse today, Sharil.

I’m going to attempt to introduce you to my dad today.  This isn’t a sad story about a life ended too early (It was.), or a tearful drone about missing him (I do.) – instead, I’m just going to tell you about him.  And hopefully, you’ll get a glimpse into who he was, what he was about, and why everybody who knew him thought he was pretty much the nicest guy they had ever met.  I’m going to try to make this NOT sound like a eulogy.  We’ll see how I do.

My Dad was sort of the epitome of the song “Small Town” by John Mellencamp.  In that song, Mellencamp talks about a guy who was born in a small town, lived in a small town and will probably die in that same small town.  My dad was born and raised in Newton, IA and lived his entire life there, and well, died nearby, and is buried there as well.   He was fiercely proud of his hometown, his state and his alma mater.  Out traveling, he’d be the first guy to proudly speak up with “we’re from Iowa”.

Being one of those rare folks that lived his entire life in the same small town, he was immensely proud of his town. Newton IA is a tidy little town, 30 miles outside of Des Moines, with a population of about 15,000 people.  When my Dad passed, Newton was still riding pretty high – Maytag Co. hadn’t yet overgrown its opportunities and gotten sold off to Whirlpool, dealing the town a hard blow.   He went to the local high school, where I graduated as well, and played football there.  He had season tickets to the Cardinals and went to nearly every football game there, following them like someone might follow an NFL team.  Newton’s football nights are the embodiment of Friday Night Lights, and without the presence or distractions of nearby pro sports, it’s everyone’s outlet for sports fan activity – an outlet my Dad always enjoyed.  He was actively involved in a number of aspects of the community and I think was one of its most ardent supporters.

He was a broad-based sports fan in general – he’d pore over the Sports section in the Des Moines Register every morning, especially the stats page – that’s a habit my son Joel has today.  He was also a tremendous fan of his beloved Iowa Hawkeyes – he had season tickets to the Hawkeyes for years, and when I was in school, my favorite thing was to roll out of my dorm or frat room bed and head across campus to my parents tailgate bashes.  He rarely missed a home game for the Hawkeye football team, and frequently made it to Iowa City for basketball as well.  When he went to Iowa, he was part of the championship-winning team in that era, as a manager.  He was still wearing his letterman’s jacket years later – I remember him wearing it when we’d go sledding.

After college, he went into the US Air Force – he was in ROTC in college and went in as an officer – a 2nd Lieutenant and left the service 3 years later with the rank of Captain.  My dad was fiercely patriotic – shortly after we moved to the house my mom still lives in – in 1971 – we erected a 20 foot flagpole in the front yard and proudly displayed the Red White and Blue every day.  We’d have an epic 4th of July brunch every year with a flag-raising party.  I think that was one of his most favorite days of the year.  Those that know me locally know that ever since I’ve had a single family home (20+ years now), I’ve had a 20-foot flag pole in my front yard too.  And it displays Old Glory every day.

His career, and his “other” life was his business – Maytag Dairy Farms – makers of the delicious Maytag Blue Cheese.  His dad/my Grandfather helped the Maytag family found the Blue Cheese business in the late 1930s/1940s, and when my dad graduated from Iowa and returned from the Air Force, he worked for the Maytag Company for a few short weeks before the Dairy Farms hired him to work at his dad’s side.  When my grandfather retired as Chairman, and died shortly after, in 1973, my dad ascended to President of the company and ran it until his death 20 years ago.  He loved that business – loved both the cheese and the farm operations side of it (in addition to making cheese, Maytag Dairy used to have a championship-winning Holstein dairy herd.  He had a strong partnership with his “boss” – Fritz Maytag, who is widely known now as the father of the craft brewing movement.  Together with Fritz, they built Maytag Blue Cheese into the brand that is widely known today, and expanded production, introduced new products, build brand buzz through press, restaurant menu distribution, events and more.  I was never given the opportunity to work there, and in fact when I asked my Dad about it two years before his passing, he discouraged me from it, saying he believed that I would be bored there.  He was probably right. But it was his favorite thing.

So, what was my dad like?  He was just a great guy.  Very simply.  He was always that guy that would invite you to join into whatever he’d be doing at the time with a hearty smile and a firm handshake.  My best memories of him as a kid are a mix of adventures – such as hiking in the Rocky Mountains, fishing in Northern Minnesota lakes, and of parties and entertaining.  It seems, as I look back on being a kid, that my folks were always entertaining people – from their epic Hawkeye game tailgates, to parties, to simply having others to our home for dinner or even just a beer on the patio in the afternoon, my parents were the consummate hosts.  My mom, of course, has much to do with that, being an incredible cook, and an even better host, but my dad was an equally willing partner.  This is something that has carried forward, of course, with me.  I would much rather cook and serve dinner for friends in our home than go out to dinner.  People ask Robin and I where we get that, and it comes from our families.  It’s what we do, because it’s what we’ve done for our entire lives.  And I can put a lot of that inspiration on my Dad.

My dad was also naturally outgoing,  a “friendmaker”.  He would make a new friend everywhere he went, and naturally engaged strangers in conversation, and of course within seconds of the start of the conversation, two points would be made that a) he was from Iowa, b) have you had Maytag Blue Cheese?   And everytime, he made a friend.  I can’t imagine anyone ever meeting my dad and afterwards saying anything derogatory about him.  He also generally had a great sense for people, and well, a bit of a naive trust that everyone was a good to the core, and as nice and well intentioned as him.  My favorite “dad made a friend” story comes from one of our Colorado skiing vacations we took during high school and college.  He had ridden the chairlift with a couple of interesting guys from Columbia, who were staying in what was at the time in Breckenridge, the ritziest condo development in town.  Later that day we were invited to their condo, and of course it was incredibly opulent.  My mother and I, being the skeptics in the family, started putting two-and-two together when we were hearing that these guys flew to Breckenridge in their private jet, had houses in multiple cities, etc.  These were cocaine moguls.  My dad would hear none of that, though a few years later would just chuckle and say “Yeah, well, that’s probably right.  But hey, they were still nice guys!”

My dad loved life.  He liked both simple pleasures and big times as well.  He loved home improvement projects like painting the house because it allowed him to just relax and do things – a pleasure I understand well.  He’d derived just as much pleasure from a good walk after dinner as he would from going to a big event at their local country club.  His favorite thing was to provide for others – treating you to dinner, entertaining you in his home or at his tailgate, providing cheese for a charity event, or just volunteering.  I write a lot about “the little things” in this blog.  I learned this from my Dad.

At my dad’s funeral, our next door neighbor, who was the Chairman/CEO of Maytag at the time (Leonard Hadley), came up to me and gave me a big, uncharacteristic hug (this guy wasn’t a hugger), and with tears in his eyes (again, incredibly uncharacteristic), said to me “Your dad was the nicest man I’ve ever met.”  Wow.

I think a lot of folks would agree.  As would I.  For those that never met him, I hope after reading this, you’ve gotten a sense of that as well.

Miss ya, Dad.  Love you.

As you were,

Stew

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

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

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

Triple D Road Trip and My Three Sons

19 Apr

Ostensibly, this post is NOT about the Triple D Road Trip – it’s about my sons.  The impetus, is of course, the Triple D road trip.  I have to count myself among a very tiny minority of exceptionally lucky people who have teenaged children that a) would want to go on a road trip at all (“17 hours in a compact car? Like, whatevurrrr …”); b) would want to go on said road trip with Dad, of all people; and c) would make the highlight of that trip two big museums, and the featured city of said road trip, Cleveland, OH.

Yet, I hit the lottery on all three.

As I’ve stated before, Spring Break is not anything special for us, between Robin working for an accounting firm, and now with Joel, the oldest, at school, not having even coordinated spring breaks.  So in years past, just to get the kids out of the house and away, we’ve packed up for Iowa and headed to my mom’s home, where the guys would hang out, be bored, play video games, occasionally go to the Y to burn off steam, and I’d eat and drink too much with my mom and our friends out there.  Therefore, this year, when the guys asked me, “so, when are we going to Iowa this year during spring break?” my answer was “well, actually, I was thinking we’d do something different.  Let’s Road Trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” (aka Rock Hall).   And that was met with “Hey, that sounds fun!”

On road trips, our guys are long accustomed to them – as I’ve said before, we’ve been a road tripping family since they were born, with 4+ annual trips to my mom’s in Iowa (5 hours) and multiple trips to Boston/Cape Cod, New York, Colorado, etc. – they feel like anything short of 3 hours there’s not even a reason to stop the car, and 5 hours is just a lob. So, a trip of this length wasn’t new territory for Alex and Brian.   And, I did make this Road Trip friendly for them as well – A&B, by the nature of being twins, have always been on the short end of the travel accommodations stick.  On trips where we’ve stayed in hotels, they’ve always had to share a bed – which as teen boys now, isn’t so fun for them.  They’ve always been the passengers, not the directors of the trip.  On this trip, I made it different.  For our hotel, we stayed in an extra-large suite at the Embassy Suites in Cleveland (overall hotel rating?  Meh.) – when we checked in, we got to the hotel, I said “you guys have the bedroom” – they pop open the door to the two queen beds and “Hey!  We’ve got our own beds!”   And they had an active hand in every decision on the way – from when we would stop for the bathroom, to buying road food (Jerky.  Road food of champions.), to destinations, the Triple D restaurants, etc.  And they were champs.  There were zero conflicts between us, between them, etc.  And other than “ugggh … I’m so full!” after yet another Triple D restaurant stop, no complaining either.

This trip really reminded me of this – I feel truly blessed with my sons – and this includes Joel, my oldest, of course.  Somehow, in the lottery of parenting, where nothing quite goes as planned, we are blessed with three sons who count long family dinners, sitting at the dining room table, time spent hanging out with mom and dad, time spent hanging out with mom and dad’s friends, and time spent with family in general, as among their favorite things.  I’d love to say it was all in our parenting style, but there’s got to be something more to it.  Clearly, all we did was raise them as our parents raised Robin and me, so maybe it’s that.  Maybe they are genetic anomalies that are born without the “whatevurrrr” gene.  Maybe it’s because that yes, while as their parents, we treat them as our children, we also recognize that they have a pretty much equal voice in our household and their votes do count.

I’d be remiss without spending a bit of time on them individually here.

Let’s start with Joel.  Since I’ve been writing a lot about A&B for the past few posts, Joel gets some “inches” here.  We’ve known since pretty shortly after he was born, that Joel was indeed a unique animal. He is scary intelligent, with an analytical brain and a memorization capability like none I’ve ever encountered.  The kid was making lists and organizing things since he was two.  As a little boy he was a HUGE NASCAR fan –  Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, the Labonte brothers, the Waltrip brothers, etc. – all his idols.  And so, he had a huge collection of the little 1/64th (“Matchbox” sized for those of us of a certain age) scale NASCAR toy cars and he’d have races on our dining room table with them.  He’d set them all up on the middle of the table like they were in the garages in the infield, literally grouping teams of them together (he knew all this info at like 3 years old, by the way), and then he’d have them qualify, methodically writing down the qualifying order, then he’d line them all up, and he’d have a race.  Somehow moving 30 or more cars around and around the table, and the best part was giving audible play by play as if he were the booth announcers.  I really am sorry I don’t have this on video.  As he got older, and got into sports, and video games and sports video games, he’s pursued the same thing in those areas – pressing the capabilities of those systems to create games, seasons, schedules, tournaments, etc.  He’s an engineering major at Illinois now – the car thing has carried over, he’s actively involved in building race cars at University of IL.   Joel was always our challenger – when you’re that smart, and that independent, it’s hard to grow up and still be a kid.  And well, it was hard for us as well – his senior year in HS was rough around the house – and well, we all didn’t get along.  He was pulling hard at the ropes and we were hanging on for dear life.  It was because we hadn’t come to terms with the fact that he really was already an adult. The best thing that happened in our relationship was him was him going off to school.  Now, he gets us, and we get him.  There’s still some battles of course, and normally it’s because, well, we’re still not quite ready to cut all the ropes yet.  That said, of my three kids, I worry about Joel the least.  He will make a great living, he will be a great husband to the lucky girl that gets him, and will be a great dad to his kids.

Alex has always been our complex one – he is also brilliantly smart, but instead of being analytic, he’s expressive.  Both he and his twin brother have embraced Rock music as much as their old man, and took several years of guitar lessons.  I’d love to see them pick it back up and continue with it – they were both becoming pretty accomplished players and they can still pick up the axes and jam with the old man.  Alex also has become a huge lover of film – and again, same with Brian.  I’m not sure if there’s a “who was first” thing there – but the way they analyze movies, film, etc. and by extension now, web video is amazing.  Lastly, Alex is positively hilarious – he never, EVER fails to make me laugh, and his humor is wacky, dry and amazing.  On our road trip, he was definitely the supplier of the wacky wit.  Alex also has a quiet intensity about him, he is amazingly handy, and has always been the “no problem” guy – you ask him to do something, it just happens.  Between his love of film and the internet, I’m thinking he will find his way into doing something in the internet content world – and in video.

 

We’ve always called Brian our “hippy dippy man”.  One of our favorite phrases has been to say to him,  “Dude, what color is the sun in your world.”  He looks at things from a different perspective.  He is the embodiment of “Hakuna Matata” – no worries in Swahili, always being relaxed and carefree.  Now, that has its ups and downs – school doesn’t come that easy for him, although he’s just as intelligent as his brothers – but hey, he’ll get to it.  But the thing with Brian is,  he is one of the most happy guys I’ve ever met.  Things just don’t seem to bother him – he finds the cool in everything and cool in the little things, he is relaxed and easy going, he has great friendships, he’s artistic and more.  He LOVES children and little kids – he’s really found a groove as a swim counselor at the camp where the boys work in the summers.  When we took a family vacation to Hawaii back several years ago, there was a guy working at our hotel that was the “beach concierge” – literally a hotel concierge, situated on the beach.  He could make you dinner reservations and also sign you up for the surfing classes, the snorkeling, etc.  He was the most easy-going chill guy ever, with huge local knowledge and was an instant friend to anyone he met.  We continually say that that would be the ideal situation for Brian – he makes friends instantaneously, he is extremely comfortable talking to anyone and he loves helping people.  And he’s mellow.  So, he could be that guy.

Anyway, in closing on this, we are just incredibly blessed with these three guys.   And the Triple D Rock Hall trip, and the trips that we take as a family, and just us guys (Indy 500 in just over a month – all four of us.  Look out.) and, most often, family dinners, continually prove that to me.

This ends the Triple D road trip saga.  Now I have to find something else to write about.

As you were,

Stew

Triple D Rock Hall Road Trip – the Museums

18 Apr

Well, it took me more than a week to get back to writing about the trip – sorry about that!  But, real life does intervene now and again.  So, let’s talk about the destinations on the journey:

My kids were laughing about how on this trip, it really was “let’s visit Stew’s favorite things” – and those favorite things would be great food, Rock-N-Roll, fast airplanes and fast cars.  On the trip, we visited the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, forever referred to going forward in this space as the Rock Hall – in Cleveland, then we visited the National Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, near Dayton, OH, and finally, made a pit stop (literally) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame/Museum in Indianapolis.  And of course, the great food was the Triple D restaurants we visited in between.

The original destination of the trip was the Rock Hall – in planning the trip, Robin and I were talking about what I’d like to do with Alex and Brian for spring break – something different than going to Iowa since there won’t be many more of these – and I thought of the Rock Hall in Cleveland.  So the original plan was to just drive there one afternoon, stay overnight, do museum and drive back.  Then, I did a bit of checking on my hotel points accounts and realized I have a ton more points than I thought, so we decided to add a night to the trip. That gave rise to thinking about an interesting dinner one night in Cleveland, which, in between viewings of “Triple D”, inspired the Triple D eat-a-thon.   Then I began thinking of where else we could go – Robin has an aunt and uncle in Dayton OH, and we’ve been to the USAF museum there before, so that got added, and finally the Indy museum literally was a snap decision made the day before we left, as we wanted to stop in Indianapolis and visit the kind elderly woman who owns the house where we park every year for the 500.  Got all that?  Yeah, I’m still figuring it out myself.

So, the Rock Hall – first of all it’s a positively stunning building – designed by architect I. M. Pei, on the shore of Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland.  Interestingly, it’s not that big of a thing – a pyramid of glass that’s maybe 200 feet or so on a side – not the typical big and monolithic building one associates with museums.  We got to the Rock Hall right as it was opening, spent about 4 hours there, took a break at 2:00 PM and then came back for another hour and a half until it closed at 5:30 PM.

The things that struck me about the museum was the level of incredible detail – and the small little artifacts that illustrate Rock music.  This really is a museum about a cultural shift, as much as it is a hall of fame for the performers of Rock Music.  There’s an entire section devoted to various efforts to try to “put down” Rock music – much of which sounded like the same sort of “we have to stop this …(name your outrage here) before it ruins our country” that is being spewed by the Republican Party at all times.  There’s a wall devoted to rock radio, there’s a wall devoted to venues, to cities, to the midwest, etc. etc.  All really covering what Rock music has done to our culture as much as the music itself.  Positively fascinating.

The detail in all the displays is stunning.  The unexpected little details like a lyric idea written on a cocktail napkin, an entire gymbag full of hotel keys (remember those … versus today’s key cards?) collected by Joe Perry of Aerosmith during years of touring, hand-written lyrics from every artist imaginable.  Here’s a “huh, who knew??” for you:  Jimi Hendrix was a well-recognized youth artist in his teens and won all sorts of awards and contests.  There was a whole display case of his sketches and  drawings.  One of the things that really got me was reading the hand-written lyrics, by Joe Walsh, of one of my favorite songs – Life’s Been Good.  That song came out in 1977 and my pal Phil Hadley and I played the grooves off that record.  But it wasn’t seeing that – it was seeing Joe’s handwriting.  Now Joe, in my view, is sort of an outlier – a wacky guy, who is both humorous and an incredibly talented musician.  For some reason, my “mind’s eye view” of his handwriting would be that it would be messy.  Like mine.  Nope.  He had beautiful cursive script, with flourishes not seen anymore.  I pulled out my iPhone, cued up “Life’s Been Good” and played it – reading along with the lyrics in Joe’s own hand.  Pretty cool.  Also on the lyrics theme as well, there were numerous instances where the song was clearly a “work in progress” or the paper displayed was “working sheets” – with scratched out words and phrases.  There was one Beatle’s tune where a phrase that we all know and love had at least 6 different scratched out versions before the final.

One thing I guess I did but did not expect was the theaters playing concerts and the amount of video content.  There was one theater, quite big, with the most amazing sound system and acoustics.  Outside of the theater you could hear music coming out of the doors, so it caught your interest but it wasn’t like it was disturbing anything else – but you walked in, and in the center of the room, it was big, loud and awesome – damn near concert-level loud, and most certainly “hey, turn that down!” loud.  That theater was playing the U2 induction concert from Madison Square Garden, and U2 played with Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Will I. Am and Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas, and many more.  Very, very cool.  Another neat “watch” was in the entrance to the inductee’s hall where they had a constant flow of inductee speeches – and what was funny here was the sign on the wall:  “Caution, these videos contain adult language. Enjoy, but viewer discretion and evaluation for age-appropriate content is recommended.”  I’d characterize these videos as “Drunk rock musicians demonstrating artful uses of the F-Bomb.”  Adult language indeed!   Finally, in the Beatles section, there was a video wall that represented all of their albums released over their career, and video/film of the recording sessions for all of them.  We literally spent more than an hour watching that content, divided in two stints.  Amazing.

And then it got personal. I was standing in front of U2’s display case, which was dense with 75 or so items of memorabilia, when a word jumped out at me:  Ames, IA.  This was on the explanatory cards at the bottom of the case.  I bent down to read it, and it talked about how the item displayed was a window promotion card that was displayed on campus at Iowa State University, promoting the gig that U2 played there in their early days in 1981.  I scan up and there’s the card:  “Columbia NEW WAVE recording artists U2 (picture), at the Fillmore, Friday, April 10, 1981.  Below the picture, in small type, it said “With Special Guests: Jonesen” (sic).  HOLY SHIT – I about jumped out of my skin.  Jonesin’ (as the correct spelling goes), was a band from my hometown, Newton, IA, consisting of guys about 5-6 years older than me and they played all around the Central IA area at the time.  I knew or knew of most of the guys in the band and had even taken a guitar lesson or two from their lead guitarist!  And it was right there at the Rock Hall.  Awesome.  Never expected that.

I could go on for hours about the Rock Hall – all I have to say is, you should go if you are at all a fan of Rock music.  It is a really cool walk through the culture.

The USAF museum is again something I could write for ages about – but won’t.   It is an incredible collection of aircraft from huge to small, and again, just dozens of little details, from all eras of the USAF’s journey – every war, every era.  My favorite thing to do in this museum, and it’s one of the few where you CAN do this, is just walk around underneath some of these monsters – the big ones, you can do that.  B1 bombers (Pictured is a B-1B), B-52s, C-147s, etc.  Amazing that these beasts fly, and fly they do or did.  One of the most stunning things there isn’t actually in the museum, but is outside – the memorial garden.  It is more or less a grave yard (although no one is buried there) with monuments to individuals, squadrons, battles, etc., all donated or erected by those involved. It is a very solemn thing to visit there.  The USAF museum should be a must visit for pretty much anyone.  It is a both a demonstration of the incredible sacrifices of our military, and a visual demonstration of the immense capabilities and power of our country, when we can put our collective minds to it.

Finally, our pitstop:  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum and Hall of Fame.  We didn’t actually pay the admission and tour the museum, we just stopped and hit the rest rooms.  We go every year to the Indy 500, and love every minute of it.  We’ve actually “not done” the IMS Hall of Fame yet, though have stopped by there (they have a big “fan fest” outside of it every year), and we’ve done the van ride around the speedway.  But, it’s pretty cool to go there when there isn’t a race going on.  It is a positively HUGE space and it seems even bigger when there’s no one in the stands, no cars parked everywhere, etc.  Folks who don’t go to the race don’t understand just what an event it is – 300,000+ attendees (which is down quite a bit from years past but still immense), and the speedway facility itself is positively huge – a 2 1/2 mile per-lap track.  The distance from the back of the North Vista stands (overlooking turns 3 and 4) to the South Vista stands is more than a mile.  Folks that have gone with me and haven’t been before are somewhat calibrated to sports venues on the scale of large football stadiums.  Something like 15 typical large football stadiums would fit in just the infield.  So anyway, we stopped, we gawked, we pee’d and we hit the road again.  I think this year, when I take my sons to the 500, we’ll go to the museum.  Should be pretty cool.

I would highly, HIGHLY recommend all of these stops to anyone looking for an easy weekender trip in the midwest.  Great stuff.

Next:  Awesome teenaged sons.

As you were,

Stew

Triple D/Rock Hall Road Trip – We’re back!

1 Apr

Well, we’re back from our epic Rock Hall/Triple D road trip – rolled in the driveway yesterday afternoon about 4:00 PM.  After writing the blog post from Wednesday, and that took me more than an hour in the evening, I decided to put off blogging about the trip until I got home – sorry about that!  And this morning as I sit here thinking about writing what I want to about this, I realize I have three core topics to cover – the Triple D restaurants, the Rock Hall (as those in Cleveland call the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame), and well, the reflections of what it’s like to travel with two awesome teenaged sons who truly both wanted to be on this trip, and truly enjoyed it and how special that is.

I do have to say that I’ve always loved road trips – we never flew on family vacations growing up.  For a family that had aviation in its DNA with my grandfather having been a pilot, because of where we lived, and the sheer cost of commercial air travel, I didn’t take my first commercial flight until I was around 11 or 12 and traveled with my mom to New Jersey to see my grandparents.  It was always the road.  And my folks did road trips right.  We weren’t one of those families that did the “let’s drive all night” thing.  The journey was always part of the destination.

We rarely drove more than about six or seven hours per day, either.  Our summer trips to New Jersey to see my grandparents included an overnight stopover in the Chicago area at our relatives, the Coxes – to hang and play with our first cousins, Tom and Doug, and then usually another overnight in Western or Central Pennsylvania.  Our Colorado trips always had a stop somewhere in Nebraska – Grand Island, York, North Platte, or Kansas – Salina or Lawrence.  About the only place we did the “straight through” drive was the years we went to Northern Minnesota and the fishing cabin.

Robin and I have done the same thing now as well – we’ve taken great driving trips with the family – twice to Cape Cod, twice to Greenwood Lake NY, once to Colorado, as well as countless driving trips to Iowa and Wisconsin.  We rarely cover more than 8 hours (although Colorado we did 12 hours in our first day, albiet with a full hour lunch stop at my mom’s in Newton, IA), we always made sure with the kids that we got to the hotel in time for an enjoyable dinner and a swim, etc.

On this trip, we drove 1040 miles and what was so fun about it was the trip WAS the destination.  Our first stop, about 2 1/2 hours out, was a Triple D restaurant.  That left about 4 hours of driving to Cleveland.  Cleveland to Dayton was another 3 hour run, then coming home yesterday, although the day’s total (like Wednesday) was about six hours, taking more than an hour break in West Lafayette at Triple XXX Drive In, as well as a 45 minute stop in Indianapolis to pee at the IMS Museum, and visit Mary Anne, our parking hostess for the 500 every year, really broke up the drive.

I come home having a great appreciation for a number of things:  1) My sons – more on that later, but they truly are great traveling companions.  They are funny, silly (different than funny), never putting on the sullen teenager act, they appreciate food the way I do, and we were all in sync the entire trip.  2)  Our country – this sounds strange, but the ease of which we can travel and cover great distances cannot be ignored.  While the highways can be smoother (and don’t get me started on the Republican’s goal to defund federal highway funding), and the traffic can be less, I nonetheless love traveling around our country and it truly is amazing that you can drive 1000 miles and really only tour around a small section of our country; 3) Music – if, besides eating, there was a single thing that defined this road trip, it had to be music.  We had a constant flow of great tunes playing, whether in the car or at the Rock Hall.  Between iPods/iTunes and Sirius Satellite Radio (Classic Vinyl was our favorite channel), this trip’s sound track was pure classic rock … with an hour-long dose of Jackopierce – the acoustic duo I recently discovered thanks to my pal Professor Troutstream.  4) Driving – while this is sort of a “well duh” item, let’s face it.  I love to drive.  I drove 18 of our 19 hours and never got sick of it.  Doesn’t hurt to have an awesome car to drive in my little VW GTI – that thing just eats miles and spits them out, all at 33 mpg going nearly 80 mph.  Awesome.

So, onwards.  I have a bunch of business travel this week, which means, inevitably, some serious downtime in which I’ll have time to write about the restaurants, about the Rock Hall, and the Air Force Museum, and about what it meant to me to travel with a pair of 16 year old boys who are both little kids and great grown men pals at the same time.

As always, the best part of a trip is often coming home.  Robin and Sprite were both very happy to have us home. We were done traveling yesterday.  But I’d do it again tomorrow if I could.

As you were,

Stew

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