The Mourning

21 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom.

As you were,

Stew

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Railroaded: A Series of Unfortunate Events

11 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, not so much anymore.

As you were,

Stew

New York City, starring Chicken Delicious

18 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s play two indeed!

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

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

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

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

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

As you were,

Stew

It’s a POLAR VORTEX ladies and gentlemen!

6 Jan

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

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

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

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

flick-flagpole

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

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

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

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

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

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

milk-box

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

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

Maybe we need more soldiering on in this world.

As you were,

Stew

The dark part of winter

2 Jan

Well, Christmas is old news.  New Year’s was the day before yesterday.  Now we head into what I always think of as the darkest part of winter.

The days are of course getting longer, but they are starting from a very short place on December 21.  With the end of the holidays comes the end of holiday decorations and all the lights associated with that.  The weather tends to be fairly “iffy” – with clouds and snow or rain being the dominant feature.  Sunny days tend to be bone-chilling cold as the weather that supports having sunny days is, guess what?, ARCTIC high pressure systems – cold fronts from the North Pole. So even when we get a sunny day, it comes with a nasty price tag.

Ok this sounds like a bit of whining, and it is exactly that.  Winter’s only been rolling about 4 weeks now and already I’m bitching?  No, not really.  The snow is beautiful, and well, if we’re going to have to deal with cold, we might as well have the beauty of snow to go with it.

So, what’s my problem, you say?  Well, my problem is that I think decorating outdoors with lights is a fine idea that’s wasted on Christmas.  Now, those that know me, know I grew up in that religion that celebrates Christmas, and now I’m Jewish.  And, those that know me, know we celebrate Christmas with my family, so please, don’t think this is a bash on Christmas.  It’s not – sorry, Sarah Palin, you won’t get the satisfaction of saying I’m a Jew waging war on Christmas.

My point is that, well, the lights are pretty.  They break the darkness that is winter from January until the middle of March.  But for some reason, it’s a) in bad taste to run your outdoor light decorations all winter long; and b) decorating outdoors with lights somehow is the exclusive property of those that celebrate Christmas.  Wouldn’t it be fun to drive down your street every night coming home after work and each house is festively lit up a bit, or a pretty tree is decorated with lights?

And what about us Jews?  Wait a minute – isn’t Hannukah THE FESTIVAL OF FREAKIN’ LIGHTS?  So why don’t we seize the tradition and show everyone that we OWN THE LIGHT.  But nope, we instead light a handful of forlorn skinny candles that burn out in 20 minutes, sing a couple of songs in a minor key and we keep the outside of our houses dark.  Honestly, my tribal pals, I do think we can dial up the Festival part of the Festival of Lights a bit.

I’m sure every one of us has enjoyed going to a restaurant somewhere where they have the trees, or the patio, or whatnot, decorated festively with twinkly little lights in the summer time. Why don’t we decorate our houses with those in the winter? Let’s add a little glow to the darkness, gang!

Over our patio, we have a very large pergola – a large trellis-like structure that provides some shelter and dappled shade in the summer.  For parties and such, I’ve strung it with lights, and after our last big party out there, my 50th birthday, we left them up and turned on until the string completely burned out.  But you know what, it was festive.

Light up the night folks – those with lights up – do me a favor – leave them on a bit longer this year. I won’t say anything bad about you for doing it.  Take them down of course when the snow is gone and it’s no longer dark at 6:00 PM, but for now, in the coldest, darkest part of winter?  Leave them on.  As for me?  Well, it’s too damn cold for me to go put anything up, but just maybe next year, I’ll do some outdoor lights – I’ll find a light up Star of David or Menorah to make sure I’m representin’ the tribe correctly, but I think I’ll do it.

The famous quote is “tis better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness”.  Well, how about we light up a few hundred twinkly lights instead?

As you were,
Stew

Meet the New Year … same as the old year!

2 Jan

Ah, the ritual greeting of the New Year.  The calendar turns. You have to get used to writing a new date on checks (although who the hell writes many checks anymore what with e-banking).  Celebrations are had – champagne popped, fireworks shot off, Auld Lang Syne is sung, etc.  New laws are announced.  And people make New Year’s Resolutions.  That are promptly forgotten. 

I put on my Facebook wall yesterday that I’m not much for New Year’s Resolutions.  My feeling is if you’re going to commit to something, commit to it.  Why do you need a big milestone to do so?  That said, I made a rough list of things I want to do more and less of … that’s here:

– more guitar playing and singing. Perhaps some lessons too!
– more time spent on reading, less time on social media (yes, I said that.)
– more investment in learning to cook more inventively and more healthy cooking
– more eating healthy meals, less crap. Dabble in vegetarian/vegan meals.
– more talking and joking about bacon. Per above, less eating it.
– more exercise, less sloth. 
– more time spent with friends I don’t see often
– more time spent with family I don’t see often
– less worrying, more positive planning, less stress, more action
– NO big DIY home improvement projects (three were enough for 2014 – sheesh!) instead, finish all the little details on things that I’ve been wanting to finish.

And as I hopped on the train this morning, I thought to myself … and more writing in my blog.

As you know, my muse has been sparse to visit me this past year. I think after the challenges of 2012 I had with health and all, and then my focus in spring of 2013 of making a career change – something that found me but nonetheless took a ton of energy and more than 5 months to close the deal, I was sort of out of topics.  I hope that changes this year.  I’m going to make much more use of the features of WordPress to be able to post interesting content – photos, quotations, reposting of other blogs and more.  I’ll post more about food and cooking, and of course will use my observational capabilities to your enjoyment.  There’s quite a few folks on my train still to introduce you to, plus I’m commuting by bus from the train station to the office right now and that’s a bit of it’s own trip.  So, more “railroaded” posts to come.  I’ll also be traveling a ton for biz, so that’s a good ripe topic to mine as well.

A quick bit of observation for you this morning – it started snowing in Chicago the day before yesterday and it hasn’t let up yet.   That’s 36 hours of straight snowfall, and it might go all the way to 48 hours what with this lake effect thing that has kicked in and is just POURING snow from the sky.  That observation on its own isn’t remarkable.  We live in Chicago. Snow is what happens here in the winter and the lake effect is part of it.

But what is remarkable, always, is how Chicago just sucks it up and deals with it. Living in Iowa growing up, it snowed there too of course – and pretty much the streets were covered with packed ice and snow from mid-December through mid-February.  Highways would often be “tracked” versus clear, and well, that’s how it was.  They weren’t very effective in making it go away.  Here in Chicago on the other hand, fates of Mayoral careers (hello, Michael Bilandic, it’s Jane Byrne calling!) have hung in the balance.  It snows here, and by G-d the city just keeps on going.  Plows are rolling by constantly and a dried ocean of salt is poured on the streets to keep them from icing up.  Usually, within 4-6 hours of the end of a snow storm, the streets are completely clear of snow and ice from curb to curb.  The expressways generally only get wet and slushy during a snow – only when it’s really cold and therefore, the salt isn’t working well, do they get badly snow packed.  It takes an immense blizzard to stop this city.

And it just gets more beautiful with a layer of snow.  I can’t wait to be downtown today and look out at the city from my office windows.

So … Happy New Year, my dear readers.  Have a great day.  Here in Chicago, we’re having a snow day, but it’s not a Snow Day. 

Image

A Stunning September Day

24 Sep

A Stunning September Day

I’m quite lucky that I have this amazing view from my office window in Chicago. To locate this for you, my office building sits right at the Michigan Avenue bridge across the Chicago River – this is the view east from my desk. Absolutely stunning September day. With binoculars, I can see the Michigan shoreline from my office window, 50 miles away.

Dirty Room Problems

23 Sep

My wife and I are very, very blessed with three young men that we’re pleased to call our sons.  They are smart people, who have always made great choices.  In high school when other kids were having drinking parties or smoking weed, our guys were doing things like board game parties or “LAN” video game parties.  Nerdy?  Perhaps a bit, but also just simply they had great friends who shared their values and they would have the kind of fun that they would prefer to have.

In short, they really didn’t give us a lot of worry – they weren’t out late carousing, they weren’t out tearing around in the car, they weren’t drinking or doing drugs, they generally got decent-to-great grades, they have kind and respectful friends and well, we didn’t have much to worry about.  But like everything, “water seeks its own level” – which means in this case that without much to worry about, little worries become amplified.  I firmly believe that the parent/child relationship requires a bit of this dissonance to work – yes, you can be good friends with your kids, your kids can be pretty golden, etc., but at the end of the day, parents and their kids naturally need to go at it a bit.  Which brings us to  the topic of this post:  Dirty Room Problems.

We always have joked that the biggest problems our kids gave us were dirty rooms.  Which, is a nice way to say, we are counting our blessings with them.  Literally our biggest source of conflicts were about socks all over the family room, their bedrooms being kept very cluttered, the basement “man cave” being an absolute mess, and more. Absent of other conflicts, these were the problems we chose to argue about with them. 

But having gone through the teen years now for the most part – all three are in college now – and watching our friends and acquaintances with their kids, and the challenges they frequently have, our phrase “dirty room problems” becomes our triumphant cheer.  When we have our blessings to count, we love those dirty rooms.

The “dirty room problem” concept can be carried to pretty much everything in life.  I firmly count my blessings every day, and can honestly say that I have little to worry about in this life.  Sure, the financial burdens of putting three kids through college are stifling, but we’re fortunate to both have good careers that pay us well.  Sure, my health could be better, but being 50 lbs overweight and having a treatable problem in my heart is infinitely better than what some face.  Is my house perfect?  No, but I sure do like it and we continually work to improve it.  Etc. etc. etc. 

Years ago, when I was facing an especially rough patch in my life – it was 1992 – I had lost a great job in the 1991 recession when the company I was working for began to fail.  I joined another gent from that company to start a business, and it was failing.  My dad had just died of cancer, and my first son was just born.  While I wouldn’t say I was in depression, I would say that I felt pretty bleak.  I took a three-day course called “The Forum”.   It was interesting in that it taught me to choose the life I have versus fighting it.  And especially, recognize exactly the truth about the journey that brought you there.

The clarity of thinking that I learned those three days has really informed me going forward.  And it leads me to recognize things for what they are, to not dwell on the negative but just to deal with it.  And of course, to appreciate the positive and enjoy the life that I have versus wishing for the life I don’t have. 

Dirty room problems.  At the end of the day, the vast majority of my problems are just that.  Dirty rooms.  A bit of picking up, run the vacuum through it, and problem is solved.  And for that, I am immensely thankful.  

As you were,

Stew

Finding my muse again

22 Sep

It seems like I have lost my way again with Stew’s Brew – my blog.  My goals with this are and have always been to be an enjoyable creative outlet, and also, just plain to give me a way to stretch my mind.  I think with my new position at iProspect, I’m much more intellectually challenged than I was at iCrossing, and that’s manifesting itself in less time to write and well, less need to as well.

That said, this is mental exercise, and therefore, I really should do it.  I hate to say it but I’m at that age where if you don’t push, pull and stretch the mind a bit, you’re setting the seeds for issues that will manifest themselves in 20 years as mental decline.  I AM definitely pushing my mind a ton at work.  The new job presents a much broader set of challenges, as the chief/leader of three different offices of iProspect, and having to track the personnel issues, facilities issues, financial responsibilities, corporate communications of those offices, business development, and much more.  All are things I’ve managed before, but all are amplified with the fact that I’ve got three offices, and more than 100 people laddering up to me.

Another thing I found is that I was somewhat a victim of my own success – in the last six months, I had several posts that went more or less viral, collecting thousands of views as people shared them around – my post about the Boston bombing collected 10,000+ views in the space of a week or two – just amazing.  As people shared and reshared that post – the power of “viral” really banged home.  And ironically, the weight of that success sat on me – “how can I follow that up?” kept occuring to me.

The other thing that seemed to weigh my blog down was that I’d found an interesting rhythm in writing stories that were about 1000-1500 words long – which, if you’re measuring pages, are about two typewritten pages of text, single spaced.  The stories were longer, had more room to breathe, etc.  But the alternate reality of that is that a 1200 word post takes a couple of hours to write, edit, think about, etc.  I tend to write on the commuter train and on weekend mornings.  But I’m so busy right now with work that all of my train time tends to be eaten with work tasks – and usually in the evening, I’m too mentally fatigued to write a blog post.

So, onwards – my intent going forward with my blog is to get back to that thing that started me up.  I started this to enjoy writing.  My friend David Deal, blogger and social media expert extraordinaire, whom I credit for getting me started with blogging, helped me originally define my motivation – am I writing for an audience or am I writing for me?  Very simple.  I write for me – for the sheer joy of writing (yes, I know for many this is a chore, for me it is an enjoyable task).  It’s a bit like my guitar playing.  Do I enjoy playing for others? Yes, of course – that’s the best.  But I play and sing for me.  I do it because I love the sweet joy of making music.  And I write because I like the process of it.

So … here we are again.  I’m working to tap the muse.  I’m going to give short-forming a try – I’m going to also try more photojournalism – I’ve invested in a device for my camera that allows it to automatically push photos onto my laptop or mobile device, so I can share through that.  It’s time to shake things up a bit and try some different things.  I hope you enjoy it.  And well … if you don’t but I do, well, that’s good enough for me.  I’m not going to make the artificial pressure to “go viral” weigh this thing down.

Glad to be back.

As you were,

Stew

So, what’s it like to work in digital marketing?

27 Jun

People ask me all the time, “what is it exactly that you do?” and also “what’s it like working in a digital agency?”

My new employer, iProspect is actively hiring in all of our offices and I collaborated on putting together this fun little ditty on how to tell if you’re a digital marketer.  It gives you a little snapshot of what my world is like.  Or at least a humorous one.  Anyway, enjoy!  And if you’re interested in a career in digital marketing – take the “test” below.  We’ve got opportunities in Boston, New York, Chicago, Fort Worth, Detroit and San Francisco.

And if you’re one of my regular followers, but not looking for a job, well, here’s a quick, humorous view of my work life.

—–

When I look up ‘digital marketing’ in the dictionary (online, of course) I get a standard definition, one that may be familiar to people who aren’t currently working in the space:

Digital marketing makes use of electronic devices such as computers, tablets, smartphones, cellphones, digital billboards, and game consoles to engage with consumers and other business partners.

 

But for those of us who do this for a living, what does it really mean to be a digital marketer – day to day? Here at iProspect, we are passionate, strong, enthusiastic, eager individuals who have the energy to not only keep up with but also shape this ever-evolving industry.

 

We’re on the search for people to join our team. Check out the below list to find out if the digital marketing world would be a fit for you!

 

  1. You spend time on blogs like Mashable, Buzzfeed, TechCrunch and Wired and are surprised that people read publications that are still printed on actual paper.
  2. A typical night in front of the TV: your computer is on your lap, smartphone in your hand doing three multiple things at once. Double points if you’re also using an iPad and triple points if you are using two computers.
  3. Your first, most immediate question to anyone that asks you a question about how to do something: “Have you Googled it?”
  4. To save your sanity, you break up your marathon Excel sessions with Cornhole tournaments against a colleague.
  5. Yelp – not a friend, colleague or family member – is your go-to for dinner recommendations.
  6. If something doesn’t change in your life at least once a week, you’re bored.
  7. If you left the house without your wallet for the day, you’d say “eh, whatever, I can borrow money.” If you leave your smartphone at home, you’d go all the way back for it.
  8. “Work hard, play harder” is your motto.
  9. Your face lights up at the thought of getting access to a company’s analytics.
  10. You can’t remember what life was like before Facebook and Twitter.
  11. You name your team’s beer fridge “302” because it is always temporarily redirecting you from where you meant to go.
  12. There are days when a fourth monitor on your desk would really help.
  13. You critique websites out loud as you’re shopping.
  14. You have knee-jerk impulses to ask “What’s the year-over-year change in performance?” when out in a bar.
  15. You can confidently pick out HTML versus JavaScript in the blink of an eye, and can still craft an eloquently worded explanation why a client’s favorite keyword dropped from position three to position four.
  16. You build AdWords campaigns so large that you need to leave your laptop running overnight to upload them.
  17. You are intrigued in the traffic patterns, user behavior, conversion rate and site experience between people searching for rental cars and car rental.
  18. You have deep, passionate, heartfelt opinions about the use of the word shoes vs. footwear.
  19. Efficiency is always on your mind, even when loading the dishwasher or packing a suitcase.
  20. When your mom reminds you to send a thank-you note, you reply with “It’s done. I already posted it on Facebook.”
  21. You would send a thank you email after an interview, even after they warned you about spending all day in Excel.
  22. At night, you dream of pivot tables and macros on a weekly basis.
  23. That new cat video? Yep, you saw it. Oh, the hilarious hamburger eating a panda GIF? So last week. The Ryan Gosling meme? You started it.
  24. You have no aversion to being “wined and dined” by your vendor partners and doubly returning the favor to your clients – champagne and caviar anyone?
  25. When you’re tasked with creating a 50-slide digital strategy, you might skip to your desk to get started (after stopping by the fridge for a beer, of course).
  26. Sometimes you register for a website just so you can judge the conversion process.
  27. You weren’t surprised when Yahoo! bought Tumblr.
  28. Learning something new every day is like chugging Red Bull – it gives you wings.
  29. Customized display ads do not creep you out – In fact, you appreciate it when advertisers do it. You’re so busy, you forgot you wanted to book that trip to Miami or buy that new pillow.
  30. Your significant other has to ask you to stop trying to optimize their Facebook page.

This somewhat silly checklist does make a point and each iProspect team member can find a variety of tidbits that resonate personally. If you read this list and thought to yourself, “Wow, that sounds like me” then take the next step and check out our careers page with opportunities in all our offices – New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Fort Worth and San Francisco. http://iprospect.com/careers

As you were,

Stew

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