Archive | People RSS feed for this section

I’m back.

24 Oct

Hi Friends:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“History is Written by the #”.

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

As you were,

Stew

Advertisements

There’s NO people like SNOW people …

28 Feb

Ever since writing my two editions of “Railroaded”, people keep asking me “Do other people you see, what about people on airplanes, what about people on vacation, what about …”, etc. Glad to hear that a) my writing makes you laugh; and b) that you think I’m a good observer of people. Today’s attempt at humorous observation looks at people’s reactions to snow – drivers, walkers, commuters, etc. Let’s see if this works.

What first inspired this post was driving around this past Tuesday, as Chicago got its heaviest/fastest-accumulating snowstorm of the season. This slow-moving, wind-driven, fast-accumulating snowstorm left about 8-10″ of heavy, wet, “heart attack” snow in the northern suburbs, where I live, and made a mess out of driving for a solid day. It also was a great opportunity to observe folks and their reactions to the snow. Here goes – this will be part 1 of several:

Part 1: Drivers:

Oh, drivers, oh drivers, in snow, how your true colors come out.

The Panicker: In my observation, The Panicker is not someone that likes to drive in the first place. In snow, they freak the hell out. They start driving so scared and so carefully as to create safety hazards for themselves and those around them as they artificially try to control the world around them to their state of panic. They tend to drive larger, conservative cars in colors like beige, white and silver (and either mainstream US brands like Ford, Chevy, Buick or Chrysler or mainstream foreign brands like Toyota or Honda). They clearly are not relaxed at the wheel. Add a few snowflakes in and, “OH SHIT!” – they completely wig out. And, they often do a terrible job clearing the snow off their car, making them also “Mailslotters”.

For example, as I was driving home from my suburban meeting Tuesday AM in the heavy snow (which was great as I didn’t have to commute at rush hour), I got behind a panicker. She pulled out of a parking lot in front of me (cutting me off of course), and then proceeded to drive down the middle of a four lane road! with her left wheels in the right wheel track of the right lane and her right wheels in the left wheel track of the left lane – on a snowy/slushy road where the normal speed limit is 45. She was going about 12 mph with no intention to go faster. Mind you, at this point in the snow storm, it had snowed about an inch. That was it. The road was very lightly snow covered with two bare tracks in each lane. I tooted my horn once and she spun around in her seat to see me behind her and to the right, and in that act, her car started to drift to the right lane. She then realized she was doing that and overcorrected BACK to middle, fishtailing in the process. How you just managed to fishtail a front-wheel drive car on a road that isn’t all that slick in the first place is forever a mystery to me, oh Panicker. I would have had to do a Scandinavian Flick to get my car to do that (see below). After she did that, then she realized that really should get out of my way, so at this point, she puts on her 4-way flashers and stabs her brakes, of course not thinking that perhaps by doing so she might come close to invoking a collision with me. She slides over to the right and slows down to, I kid you not, 5 mph (in a 45 zone of course). I make an evasive maneuver around her and motor on, shaking my head. She probably still isn’t home. Stay home, Panicker!

SuperSUVman: In a way, SuperSUVman is the opposite of the Panicker. Where the Panicker is paralyzed by a lack of confidence in the snow, the SuperSUVman has a case of over-confidence that is ridiculous, and it is borne out of the fact that they believe that by spending $40-$50,000 on a loaded up, 4WD SUV or pickup, that they have somehow also bought the “repeal the laws of physics” package. Ironically, on dry pavement, they drive pretty conservatively. That’s because they know that with their oversize off-road tires (that never see a speck of dirt) and their very heavy, very high center of gravity, that grocery carts generally handle better than SUVs. But put them in the snow, and by God, now they are on the Yukon trail and nothing, but nothing will get in their way. You are most likely to see these folks in ditches, in front yards, at close range with their bumper buried into your side doors, etc. as they discover (but do not learn from it) that even though they can attain prodigious amounts of forward momentum with their 4WD and V8 engines, turning and stopping (and generally staying in control) are entirely different things. Whenever I see one of these guys buried axle deep in the snow next to a rural highway, scratching their heads and dumbfounded that they are off the road, I just smile to myself and think “Karma, you are one cruel bitch.”

SportsCarSchmortsCar: The SCSC combines some of SuperSUVman’s seasonal disregard for physics with The Panicker’s ability to block traffic. The SCSC is someone who drives a small, lightweight, over-powered, performance-tire-clad, rear-wheel-drive sports car. Their attitude with snow is “I’m doing the best I can! Yeah it’s a sports car, but it’s how I roll.” Think Camaros, Mustangs, Z-cars, Mazda RX or Miatas, BMWs, Mercedes, etc. They can most often be found stuck in their own driveways, stuck on a level street or parking lot, spun out on a residential corner, turning 360s on expressways, taking an entire cycle of a stoplight to wheelspin themselves across an intersection and more. As they delay the rest of us, they give us that shrug and hands up in the air look of “well, whatcha gonna do?” Here’s what you should do: Buy a $500 beater for winter and park that stupid thing when it snows! That said, I fully and openly admit to being one of these people having had over the last 8 years a Mazda RX-8 followed by a BMW 330Ci convertible. Both of which were utter nightmares in snow. That said, add front or all wheel drive and proper winter tires to a sports car – like Audis, BMW X-drive cars and suddenly these cars and their drivers become …

WRCWannabe: First an explanation: WRC is World Rally Championship – this is the racing series where guys in overpowered little two-seat racing cars go racing over dirt roads through the woods in foreign countries. Here’s a link to some video of this in action: http://www.wrc.com/video/. So … in the winter, WRCW’s are generally people that own performance cars that are very capable in snow, and therefore, turn into capable boy-racers when the roads get slick. And I admit to being this guy now. You can see them launching hard out of stoplights, doing the “Scandinavian Flick” to rocket their cars around corners, using handbrake turns, and generally having a ball in the snow. This is how driving in the snow ought to be! After getting rid of our BMW, we bought a front-wheel-drive VW GTI and put Pirelli Sottozero 210 winter tires on it for snow season – and OMG – now a drive to a friend’s house in the snow becomes an exercise in “how much fun can I have” versus a white-knuckled “holy crap I’m gonna die” experience.I’ve see guys in everything from Subaru Imprezas and Outbacks, to Audi A3 and A4 Quattros, BMW X-drive 3 Series cars, and of course, my own beloved VW GTI, out blasting around in the snow and having so much fun. Cars equipped in this way truly do repeal the laws of physics in the way that the SuperSUVman can only dream about. But, when other cars are around, we just motor on, knowing that when you all are safe at home nursing a scotch after that harrowing ride, we have the snow-covered streets all to ourselves to go have fun on!

The Mailslotter: We all know who this is, right? These are the people who can’t be bothered to brush the snow off their car – so they clean a little slot on the windshield to see through, leaving a foot or more of snow on the hood, on the roof, the side windows covered, etc. Doesn’t need much explanation other than “stay the hell away from me please” – so when you see one of these guys, just know that they cannot see you.

So that wraps up this edition of “Snow People” – look for the “on foot” edition, coming soon!

As you were,

Stew

Social Networking 101

20 Feb

So, it’s been several weeks since I’ve written anything. Part of it is the pressure to be funny and witty and interesting, part of it is that I’ve been busy as hell at work and haven’t had much time to think of anything to write about, and part of it is the “winter doldrums”. Whatever. I’m writing today!

I thought I’d take up the subject of social networking from the perspective of someone who works in the business. Because of my chosen profession, and because I’m a very active participant in it, I gete a lot of questions about things like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, etc. What are they, why should I use them, what’s the point of them, how do they make money, etc. etc. So, without much more conversation, here’s sort of a “social networking for dummies” that you can use when someone says to you “I just don’t understand Twitter” or “Why does Facebook mess with the experience all the time?” I’m also going to do this in the form of Q&A – trying to cover the questions I get from people. So, onwards:

  1. “Why does Facebook keep messing with the experience? I hate timeline, hate that my news feed isn’t what I want it to be, etc. Why do they do that to their customers?”
    Well … you see, dear Facebook user, you ARE NOT THE CUSTOMER. Repeat it, you are not the customer. Here’s how you can tell? How much money do you send to Facebook each month for the privilege of using it? None? Hmm. So here’s the deal, Facebook’s PRODUCT is you – very simple. And their customers are both advertisers and people who buy their data. The data is made up of information that you and your friends generate as you interact online. YOU are the product because it is you using Facebook. When you meet with a Facebook advertising rep, the first thing they tell you is that Facebook has nearly a billion subscribers worldwide, and something like 200 million in just the US alone. You are the product that Facebook monetizes. And they get you to stay and interact not because of their experiences but despite them. You stay because that’s where your friends are.Here’s my prediction: I do think Facebook’s influence and growth has pretty much peaked – I think everyone that is inclined to use it is using it. I do think that they are not going away anytime soon, and their revenue will continue to grow as they get better with their ad products, but in terms of user growth, the curve has flattened a lot in the last year, and I think is about at it’s peak.
  2. “What’s Twitter? Why twitter? How do I use Twitter? Etc.”
    I’ll be honest, I’m not much of a Twitter fan nor much of a Twitter user. I do “tweet” (the act of posting a 144 character post on Twitter), but I don’t use it that much. Basically Twitter is Facebook but in a shorter form. You are limited to 144 characters for each post – whether a tweet (original post), a reply, a retweet (when you share something someone else tweeted), etc. Where Twitter loses me is wading through all the tweets to find things that are interesting (see the next topic, Hashtags). There’s just too much traffic. The typical power-user of Twitter has the whole thing linked to their cell phone through texting. Outgoing Tweets, incoming tweets, etc., all deliver to your text messaging. If you choose to receive, you better have unlimited texting, I’m just saying. I can’t imagine getting that all in my phone. I visit Twitter once a day, scroll through Tweets from people I care about, search hashtags that interest me and that’s about it. I Tweet primarily to share articles, promote my blog, etc. I’m not one of those “eating dinner” “on the bus” Tweeters.
  3. “What’s a hashtag? I think that’s a Twitter thing but I see them on Facebook now. What are they and what’s the point?”
    A hashtag is a word, preceded with the # symbol that is designed to improve the searchability of your Tweet and to organize Tweets by topic. It has been adopted by Facebook users as well, although the searchability of those posts is still really early stage. That said, it’s generally used as a way to follow a trending topic. During a big event, like the Russian meteor event from last week, people will start hashtagging their posts with something like “#meteorshower” or “#russianmeteor” or “#armageddon” or whatever, and the more people that use that hash tag, the more content that Twitter has to categorize into a common thread. If you go into Twitter’s site or mobile app and type in a keyword preceded by a hashtag, you’ll see posts by that topic. It’s that simple.
  4. “What is a ‘trending topic’ on Twitter and Facebook?”
    Pretty much anything that is a hot topic on Facebook or Twitter – and on Twitter, it is generally denoted by a hashtag. So for example, when Marco Rubio got cotton mouth last week (humorously so for anyone other than a Republican), immediately, there was a whole bunch of humorous tweets with the hashtag of “#rubiothirsty”. During the Superbowl, when the blackout occurred, there were tons of posts (many funny) with the hashtag “#superbowlblackout” (among others). Hashtags are how Twitter has become useful/meaningful for me – it allows me to categorize all the noise that’s on Twitter.
  5. “What’s Pinterest and why should I use it?”
    Like Twitter, I’m not a Pinterest expert, but it’s basically a version of Facebook or Twitter where sharing things you like or are interested in happens, but in this case, it’s all about images. You can be online, see an image in a story, a catalog, etc., and “pin” that image on your Pinterest “pinboards” (and you can have different ones for different topics), and those are shared with friends who are following your activity.  You pin them through a utility that you install on your browser.  I have a Pinterest account but have to admit to not using it much, if ever. It is actively used by companies and brands though to promote their products, and I know a lot of foodie friends who use it for recipe sharing and such.
  6. “What’s Instagram and why should I use it?”
    Instagram is basically a social network based on photos you take or upload to the site. It differs from Pinterest in that Pinterest is more about sharing images you see elsewhere online, whereas Instagram is more about what you create yourself. I think Instagram is one of the most creative spaces on the web. It allows you a huge leeway in how you process and modify images, and there’s some amazing creativity going on within it. I dabble with it – I love taking pictures, and do so a lot with my iPhone 4S (which has a great camera in it) and enjoy sharing them on Instagram. Now then, Instagram was bought by Facebook and Facebook has integrated a lot of Instagram’s functionality into it, but … Instagram on it’s own is a pretty cool thing, If you’re interested in photography and art, I definitely recommend it.
  7. “What’s LinkedIn and why should I use it?”
    LinkedIn is the social network for professionals – you put LinkedIn and Facebook together and it’s the social networking equivalent of a mullet – business in the front, party in the rear!  Seriously though, it’s an unbelievably powerful networking tool.  I literally got my job through networking on LinkedIn and probably get five job opportunity solicitations per week.  If you’re in business, it is absolutely essential.  And if you’re not, it’s not.  Your LinkedIn profile is basically your resume, people can endorse you with skills and capabilities and write recommendations for you, you can post articles, comments, status updates etc. just like Facebook, and you can link your profile to friends and network contacts.  The critical thing about LinkedIn IS your profile – having a powerfully-written profile is what puts the wings under you – and by powerfully-written, I mean “search friendly”.  I literally have an entire paragraph, that while written in plain english, is jammed full of keywords for searching to find me.  I manage and curate my LinkedIn profile constantly.  It is an absolute essential for my career. You can look at my profile here, and of course if you’re a LinkedIn user, well, let’s connect!

There are plenty more social network products and experiences out there of course – Tumblr, Reddit, etc. etc. and there will be more to come. But above are the most common questions I get from folks about social networking.

Hope you find this interesting and useful!

As you were,

Stew

Railroaded, Part II

11 Jan

Since I had so many people tell me that they loved the “Railroaded” post – one of my co-workers kept saying “so damn funny” every time he walked by me yesterday – and so many people responded with some railroaders of their own, I thought I’d write “Part II” to it.

As I said in “Railroaded” – that was written in 2010 – a few months after I restarted commuting to downtown Chicago on the Metra rail system for work. In the ensuing 2 ½ years since then, I’ve had occasion to observe a whole lot more folks, so let’s get started.

The Cosmetologist – Everyone who commutes sees this – and unfortunately everyone who commutes by car sees this. It is the women who apparently don’t have enough time to get their makeup done in front of the bathroom mirror, so they save the effort for when they hit the train or worse, get in the car to drive to work. In fact, straight across the train from me at this very moment, is a woman putting on her makeup. Her picture is below. Now … let’s be honest, among annoying tendencies, this is probably the smallest one – they don’t take up a ton of room, they don’t make noise, no weird smells, etc.

A Cosmetologist in action this morning

But, there’s always this guy:

The Razorman: I don’t experience it too often but every now and then you’ll see this – a guy whips out an electric shaver, fires up the fuzz-buzz and proceeds to “mow” his face. Thankfully, it’s not a real long time to listen to the buzz, and it’s again, a bit limited, but … nonetheless, having used plenty of electric shavers in my day, I do know those tend to generate a cloud of clipped hair as they operate, and well … it’s a bit gross. And once, just once, I watched a guy use a standard Gillette twin blade razor on the train – dry shaving himself as the train lurched and vibrated along. Really?

The Oral Hygenist: Again, you ride the train long enough, you see everything. Always there’s the toothpick guys – guys with a toothpick in their mouths, chewing on it. When this gets gross is when they throw them onto the floors. But … I’ve seen it all – full-on toothbrushing, using a water bottle and a coffee cup to rinse and spit, of course lots and lots of flossing, which again, is just something you don’t want to see. And mouthwash – but what’s amazed me on the mouthwash guys is that they seem to swallow it – and it usually is a fairly drunk dude riding a late train out to home after an after-work bender.

We’ll end the personal grooming habits, with one woman I liked to call “the reverse stripper“. I caught her routine about four times. She rode the train last summer and I’d put her age at “in college” or early 20s most likely. Young woman, likely headed to the city for an internship. She was riding the train from an earlier stop than mine, so I never saw her get on, but on the train, she’d be sound asleep behind huge sunglasses, a sweatshirt or other baggy t-shirt, and pajama pants with wet hair pulled up into a pony tail. She always carried a big sports bag. At some point in the ride about 15-20 minutes before we hit downtown, she would literally get dressed for work. Again, you see a lot of things on the train, but this little phenomena caught my eye when I happened to see her pull a bra out of her bag, slip it up under her big t-shirt, pull her arms in and put it on! Then, using an odd combination of plenty of dexterity with some illusion mixed in, she managed to then put on a blouse over the t-shirt and somehow slip the shirt over her head without exposing the rest of us (much) to too much of her, then sort of half-stood-up in her seat, shimmied into a little skirt over the pajama pants, and remove the pajama pants. Then a cute pair of heels came out of the bag, and she was done – she then turned into a “Cosmetologist” to do her hair and makeup, and of course the crowning touch was just a touch of cologne which wafted through the car erasing the coffee aroma. Everything else went into the bag, and when we stood up to leave, there she was – a young girl ready for work in a big downtown office. Pretty crazy! I honestly have to say I was impressed by her ingenuity. Now calling a category from yesterday, she was also a “Seat Hog” so she had the room to do this.

These days of 60 hour work weeks and the like, both train rides and train riders have changed a lot. With wireless internet, you can work from everywhere, so on every train, every morning you have:

“The Executive”: The executive is someone who is working 100% nonstop all the time on the train. They get on the train, out comes the laptop, usually there’s a wireless USB or hotspot involved, and they are off to the races. Now, this isn’t at all unusual, and I fit this category most days in the “light” version – at the computer, catching up on email, occasionally doing some writing, reviewing, etc. – but the “heavy” version is where it gets ridiculous – they turn their seat into a rolling office. On Metra trains at the end of each car compartment that is the “front” in the direction of travel, there are a pair of seats that face each other. Metra trains, they flip the direction of the seats to always face forward – the seatbacks flip over to do this. So, those facing seats are desirable because it is the only place where being a Seat Hog is acceptable behavior. There isn’t enough room, unless you’re married to the person across from you, or you’re with your kids, to seat four in those facing seats but two Seat Hogs fit nicely. There’s one woman that rides my train line most days and she’s a classic Heavy Executive. She always grabs that double seat section, spreads out across her two seats, opens files, lays out work, does stuff on her computer, and … holds conference calls. It’s all good until she dials into her 7:30 AM conf call. She is clearly the boss, and she’s clearly talking to a group of her staffers that are already in the office. In a loud, stern voice. And by the tone of her voice and how she runs that meeting, well … she doesn’t sound like a pleasant person in the least to work for or with.

Again, I do the The Executive Light thing most days, but I rarely hold conference calls from the train, and when I do, I use my headphones and do my best to keep my voice very low.

Phone Jerk: And speaking of keeping your voice very low, there’s these idiots. We’ve all experienced them. Their phone rings and they proceed to have a phone conversation at normal speaking tones, and they will say ANYTHING – even though it’s in public. I’ve heard people shouting at their kids and spouses, guys trying to arrange to get lucky, girlfriends speaking to girlfriends describing their dates IN DETAIL (yes, even THOSE details! I never thought I’d ever hear “Oh my God, his XXX was so small, I almost started laughing” on a train. But I have.) And the behavior isn’t limited to those that speak English. In fact, I think if you speak Russian, you must think it’s OK to talk loudly on the phone the entire train ride.

And since this train ride is approaching Chicago, I’ll end with this person:

The Petri Dish: Yup, it’s the sick guy or gal on the train, bus or airplane. Hack, wheeze, sneeze. Big wet drippy exhortations of the cold and flu season. Blowing of noses, coughing jags, huge sneezes, etc. etc. Touching everything and spreading the love everywhere they go. Having flown so much and for so many years, thankfully, I think I’ve got the immune system of an alley cat. I very rarely get sick (and by saying that, I’ve doomed myself), but when I do, I’m positive it is because of one of these jerks who cannot figure out that they should take a sick day until they stop being contagious.

Well, another “Railroaded” post has been crafted on yet another train ride. Hope you enjoyed the ride! And, stay tuned for “Railroaded III – the Late Night edition” … oh yeah. Riding Metra at night is a trip for sure!

As you were,

Stew

Railroaded – People watching on the commuter trains

10 Jan

As you know, people watching is pretty much one of my most favorite activities. Anywhere you go, the show goes with you. In line at Starbucks, at the grocery store, and of course famous people watching places like the Iowa State Fair and Walmart. Who hasn’t seen the People of Walmart website? Well, riding public, whether it is the Metra rail in Chicago, or the CTA El in Chicago, the bus, the Metro in Washington DC, the NJ Transit in New York, etc. etc., is ripe ground for people watching. So, here’s a little missive on people I see on the commuter trains.

Full disclosure – this is a repost of one of my favorite little essays – I wrote it towards the end of 2010, about six months after I joined my current job, iCrossing, and was back to riding the trains every day after a nearly 10-year hiatus. I’ve made a few updates to it and well, I wanted to publish something, so here we go. Enjoy:

Nine months ago (UPDATE: and now make that more than 2 ½ years ago), I rejoined the world of the commuter train riders when I reinvented my career by going to work for the rockin’ cool digital marketing agency, iCrossing. (As a Senior Account Director at iCrossing, I should say that my opinions, as always, are mine and not those of my employer. Although I’m sure my commuting iC colleagues have probably seen all these folks on their own commutes and probably find the same humor in them that that I do.).

When I did my job change, I wrote a reflection of what it meant to me to transition from 10 years of working at home to going back to working in an office. Much had changed in 10 years – and it was both a jarring and welcome transition. And, I had to get used to bathing again on a day to day basis.

That said, as much as the world of working in an office has changed, not as much has changed in the commuting world. But, there are changes. Overall, there are definitely fewer people reading newspapers, and the mobile devices – smart phones, iPads, tablets, laptops, etc. are ever present on the train. My own personal habit is to get onto the train, turn on my laptop and immediately get online. In the morning, I check email, make to do lists, fiddle around on Facebook, scan several online news sources, etc. Afternoon, I listen to music on my iPhone, play games, finish up work I didn’t finish at the office, etc. MY behavior has definitely changed. 10 years ago, I was reading books on the train, or the newspaper, and that’s pretty much it. Now, I’m online all the time.

Another broad-scale observation is that the casual office has completely won – it is rare to see folks dressed in suits and ties on the train – most everyone is “business casual” or even more casual than that. It used to be women were in their business clothes and wearing running shoes with little white socks, carrying their heels in their bags. Men would be in suits, ties, topcoats, etc. Big leather briefcases ruled. Now it’s Dockers and jeans, leather and fleece jackets, comfortable shoes all the way to flipflops in the summer, and backpacks are the rule for anyone carrying anything.

So, with that all said, my favorite sport is, of course, people watching, and the train is one of my all-time favorite places to do that. So, let me introduce you to a few folks that I’ve met over the years of riding the train – both in the last nine months and in years past as well.

The Train Runner: The train runner is someone who, the second the train arrives at its destination, bolts out the door and RUNS at a sprint to wherever they run off to. Most often, they are observed at the suburban stations, bolting off the trains in the afternoon so they can be the first to get to their cars, and blaze out of the station in a cloud of dust. Train Runners turn into Parking Lot Terrorists the second they hit their cars. I literally was almost run over by one the first week of my new commute as I had forgotten about these jokers. Train Runners are also often Me First people too. See below.

The Sleepers: The sleepers all have one thing in common: They sleep on the train. You’d think “not so interesting – everyone does this”, But, it is how they do it that makes it interesting. On my morning train into the city this winter, there was a woman who literally went back to bed on the train every morning. We’d board the train, she’d take off her coat and shoes, pull out a little fleece blanket from her bag, pull out a little pillow, clip her ticket to the seat in front of her, and then curl up on the seat with her head on her pillow, her feet up, and the blanket over her (hence becoming a Seat Hog, see below), and sleep until downtown. There’s another guy, and I just haven’t got the heart to snap a picture of him, that literally rubber bands his train ticket to his head, facing the conductor so he doesn’t have to be awakened. Another variant is a jackass I sat next to just last week. I got on the train first, found my spot next to a window, and pulled out my laptop and went to work. This guy sat down next to me just as the train started to move and proceeded to throw his head back, and fall asleep snoring, spreading his legs out so one was in the aisle and the other was crowding me, his elbow in my ribs, etc. And, when it was time for me to get off the train the guy acted like he was mad at me for waking him up. Idiot.

The Eaters: Ok, I fully admit to bringing a snack on the train now and again – a bag of “Nuts On Clark” popcorn from Union Station, or a small bag of chips. Occasionally even a McDonald’s meal if it is late and I know I won’t have dinner at home. But some folks turn it into both a daily occurrence – to the point where I have to wonder – do you ever eat at home? The other morning someone got on the train with one of those “squatty” soup thermos containers, opened it up, opened a Ziploc bag containing dried fruit and brown sugar, dumped it into the thermos container and proceeded to have a fine morning meal of oatmeal. Smelled good too! But, really, oatmeal on the train? And then there are the folks that eat the smelly stuff. The worst actually was not on a Metra train, but on a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles. This guy actually opened a CAN of freaking TUNA and proceeded to eat it. [GAG]. I had to get up and leave!

The Amateur: Like every commuter, whether train, bus or car, we all resent The Amateur – that’s anyone that doesn’t regularly do this. They get in the way, they slow things down, etc. On school holidays, it can be the haggard mother dragging her three kids onto the train after a day visiting the museums in Chicago. It can be a young guy, or someone not so young, dressed to the nines in an interview suit, heading off to get a job. However, you still have to feel sorry, for the most part, for these folks.

The Seat Hogs, on the other hand, get no such sympathy. These people are the ones that get on the train and take up two seats and if and only if the train is packed, and sometimes NEVER will they give up their extra space next to them. They glare at you when they do, they “huff” and “sigh” and just make it abundantly clear that they feel that they are special and more worthy of that space than anyone else.

Then there’s the Me Firsts – these are the ones who jockey to be the first one on the train in the morning, get up well before the stop and stand in the vestibule so they can be first off, and they are well known for elbowing people out of the way who keep them from being first.

So, that’s some of my categories of individuals – here’s another category: Groups. These are typically people that ride in groups on the train, have been riding together for years. They comprise two most common variants: The Posse and The Party:

The Posse is typically a group of folks that just sit and ride together. They clearly have a common commuting habit, and most of these are unremarkable, except for a couple of groups I’ve observed over the years. One group, that my friend “Arbi” and I affectionately named “Harold Washington and The Supremes” was led this older, heavy set, grey-haired African American man that looked like, sounded like and (or so we imagined) acted like former/deceased Mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington. He and “the Supremes” – which were three women, one AA, two white, would sweep onto the train, and “Harold” would direct each of the women where to sit– “You sit here, honey, you here, you here…”, and then, even though they’d all be sitting about 4 seats apart, would hold court with his three minions. As near as we could tell, Harold Washington and The Supremes worked for the Chicago Department of Water Reclamation.

The Party is generally always remarkable – typically, this is a group of folks who have been commuting together for years and they drink every night on the train. They seem to have a specific car and group of seats that they sit in, and you get major glares from them if you encroach on those seats. Typically, it is the assignment of one or two people to buy the bottle or beer, another couple of people to buy the snacks, and it rotates. And these people are true friends and have been for years. They play cards, they just chat, etc. Because there is alcohol involved, they are always loud. And sometimes, the conversation gets quite amazing – two guys in a recent “Party” group I observed started doing an amateur review of a recent porn film that they had handed around among themselves.

Finally, there are just the individual characters – people that you see every single day and you just wonder about but they don’t necessarily earn a label. One I remember well was this duo from about 10 years ago, male and female, that my friend and I affectionately called “Moose and Squirrel” – they were a Russian couple, dressed always in black – him in a black trenchcoat, her in a black fur-trimmed long leather coat. They always spoke Russian to each other, they clearly were not a couple – no holding hands or anything – and they just looked mysterious. Another famous one was a guy that a friend had named “Stride Rite” – this guy sat on the upper level of the bi-level passenger cars, and had immense feet, always wore wing tips, and always put them up on the rail so if you looked up, all you saw were these monster soles of his shoes. Ironically, ‘ol Stride Rite was also a train runner. We were amazed he didn’t trip over those things. And finally, just this month, I’ve noticed this guy at my stop and I call him “The Office” … he’s this sort of intense looking guy, he wears these giant oversized aviator-sized eyeglasses straight out of 1985, and he always wears the exact same outfit – a French blue button-down dress shirt, khaki pants, maroon penny loafers and white socks. Wow. Finally, recently, there’s been a guy I like to call “Sarge”. He’s clearly an ex-marine from his jacket (a leather jacket promoting the US Marine Corps, his ramrod straight posture, his “burr” haircut and intense stare. He’s been commuting on and off to downtown this year (2012), and he’s reading training books all the time. I’m hoping he is on his way to get a job, and wish him success. And I feel just a bit safer with this guy, who is clearly a badass, onboard.

There’s plenty more of course, and I wonder if anyone has ever named me … but people watching being my favorite sport, I do have to say, I love my train ride.

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

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

Think Different. A Tribute to Steve Jobs.

6 Oct

We all know now what happened yesterday – Steve Jobs, the incredible visionary behind Apple Computer, passed away at the entirely too-young age of 56 years old.  Steve truly was a person who created disruptive thinking that forced entire industries, and one could say the entire technologically-driven world into reinventing themselves to fit the brave new circumstances.

We all know the technologies he invented – he led the personal computer revolution first with the Apple II, then the original Macs, then the iMacs, iBooks, MacBook Airs, incredibly capable desktop machines used in graphics and more.  He invented the category of advanced computer animation for filmmaking with his founding of Pixar Studios.   He changed how we buy and consume music to a track-by-track model, and allowed us to imagine carrying our whole “record collections” in our pants pockets.  He created the entire smartphone category and gave it wings with the iPhone, and again with the personal tablet category with the iPad.  And who knows what else is in the pipeline yet to come from Apple that will disrupt our world again.

I’m a firm believer in reinvention – reinvention and change are what drive our world forward, it is what pushed cars onto roads to replace horses and buggies, replaced prop planes with jets, replaced gas lamps with electricity, telegraphs with phones, encyclopedias with the internet, and more.  Progress.  There are many in this world who fight change at every turn (and I’ve riffed on that before:  Ch-Ch-Changes), who want to return to the old ways of doing things, who fight progress, who fight making our world a better place, a greener place, a less polluted place, who fight technology that can fight global warming, who fight new healthcare breakthroughs because they are afraid of challenging their own beliefs, who avoid the difficult conversations we need to have about our world because they represent change.

Steve Jobs succeeded because he “thought different.”  At every turn, he pushed his people and his teams to think different, be different, make different things. He famously disliked and did not use market research because he believed that the consumers don’t necessarily know what they want yet.  Doing so freed him, and the people that worked for him into being able to have truly disruptive, innovative, different thinking.  The concept of “because that’s the way we’ve always done things” did not occur in his world.

Much in our country, and in our world, in the years ahead, is going to require us and our leaders to Think different.  We can’t do the same old crap.  We can’t go back to the “ways of our forefathers”, the literal interpretations of “the framers” of our country’s constitution, to old ways of thinking.  We must push forward, and we must, absolutely must, think different.

Do I hope that Steve’s legacy is some really cool stuff yet to come from Apple, and a company that has the discipline to continue to turn out really cool stuff?  Yes, of course, as a dedicated gadget geek, of course I hope that.  But what I really hope, as we mourn the loss of a great man and a great thinker, is that perhaps some of his thinking – his tireless pursuit of reinvention, his endless push to do new things, try new things and more, will result in our people, our leaders and our nation, and the world being motivated to ditch the old ideas and create the new ones.  Because that, folks, is the only way we move forward.

Think different.

Because Steve Jobs told us to.

As you were,

Stew

%d bloggers like this: