Friday, July 22, 2011

two thoughts over morning coffee


1) When I talk to people about coffee, and the things I taste in coffee, they assume this palate was cultivated during my childhood.  And they are correct.  My dad survives on a diet of granola bars, packaged crackers, and the occasional Whopper jr. or Double Cheeseburger. This is washed down with a few liters of Diet Coke, which is served warm in the morning, and all winter.  It isn't hard to draw the line between being raised in such a taste-conscious environment, and the palate I discuss today when I talk about the nuances in a cup of coffee.

2) The morning cup of coffee is what jolts our senses into daily routine.  It is what gradually stirs us to move forward into our day.  Such a cup of coffee should not be taken lightly.  It is the ship which guides us to our next shores; all it takes to ensure the voyage is filled with wonder is a grinder, freshly roasted beans, and a method of brewing which ensures regulation of temperature.  I'm not going to belabor the point of why these three things are important, but if you think coffee is a bitter brew, then you are missing a key step among those three.  And missing a step will cause your morning voyage to be windy and cold, fraught with peril.  That's not how I want to enter my days.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

three reasons

Three Reasons I enjoy hiking with Kim (vs. hiking alone):

1) When I hike alone, sometimes I tend to stumble to the left or the right. When I'm walking with Kim, I stumble directly into her and she points out how I am graceful like a deer bounding through the meadow as she tries to keep herself from falling into the canal. 

2) When I hike alone, common sense sometimes eludes me as I seek to get a great picture.  For instance, I have been followed by police/security as I photograph refineries (while on the property of said refinery), prisons (I didn't know it was still in use!), and seemingly abandoned quarries. When I hike with Kim, she says things like "that road is closed because it seems like a dangerous situation, as there are trucks with flashing lights investigating that giant plume of black smoke at the factory".  These things cause me to miss potentially great photos, but at the same time, I have also never been approached by security or police while I'm out hiking with Kim.

3) When I hike alone, sometimes I rip an article of clothing as I'm scrambling through the underbrush like a gazelle.  Sometimes this article of clothing is my pants.  And then I continue hiking,  stumbling clumsily across the path, carrying a large camera, pants flapping in the breeze.  At this point, most people keep their distance from me, as they assume that I'm missing some key elements enabling me to interact appropriately with the world.  When I hike with Kim, I don't scramble through the underbrush like a gazelle, and therefore don't rip my pants.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

the thick air of summer

In Chicago, we are in the season known as "summer".  I say that, because as I grew up, I knew summer as a time when being outside was like stepping into soup, and the only respite was the ever welcome presence of a pool, or a river, or better yet, an ocean.

This year, "summer" has had a few cool weeks, a few hot days, and recently, some absolutely gorgeous spring-time weather.  (last night was 60, tonight is supposed to be 65).  Of course, this is Chicago, where it is "winter" roughly 8 months out of the year.  The trade-off is summers that are tremendous for being outside all day long - sitting in the heat of midday, and walking in the cool of evening.
But you don't come to this blog for a description of the weather.  So here's a story:

I spent much of my teenage years at Assateague Island.   We would go year-round - there was no time that was not a great time to be at the beach.  In the winter, the bay was warming. In the summer, the ocean was respite for my boyhood dreams and visions - I would exhaust myself by swimming all day and then read all night.  These days were filled with wonder and excitement.

When Kim and I got married, I was excited to take her to Assateague.  We finally got an opportunity to go, when we were celebrating our 5 year anniversary.  We had a great day, walking in the sand, swimming, and getting sunburned.  In the evening, we were going to a Maryland style crab buffet - a family restaurant where they dump buckets of crabs on paper tablecloths, give you a shaker of Old Bay, and leave you alone.

We needed to shower prior to going to dinner, so we went to the "walk-in" campground (sites that are not accessible by car because they are deep into the dunes) and used the showers.  Kim went first, and I stood outside.  She heard me yelling and screaming to hurry up, and also heard me slapping myself as if I was a marauder that needed to be subdued at all cost.  She quickly finished, and walked outside, to find me completely covered in mosquitoes.   I would estimate that I got between 100-200 mosquito bites in a 5 minute time span.  We started running chaotically, swatting at the sky as if the salt air itself was attacking.

Roughly 15 minutes later (as measured by frantic running), we were at the main bathouse.  Kim went to shower, and I stood guard over our stuff.  Small children would approach me with looks of terror, and then they would go running.  Almost every adult that walked by said something like "What HAPPENED to you?"" Where were you?" and "will you be the subject of a new horror film I'm filming?"
It should be duly noted that the sunburn hadn't even set it yet.  These comments were simply geared toward the pile of mosquito food my skin had become.
In conclusion,
It was a great day.  Kim and I both enjoyed the ocean, the sun, and REALLY enjoyed gorging ourselves on crab.  This is what I remember summer as being:  Air so thick you could cut it with a butter knife, but a time when all wounds can heal simply by watching the tide come in at the ocean.

Monday, July 11, 2011


I get out on the canal as much as I can in winter.  The world stops; I can hear the whisper of snow falling, and I feel completely at ease.

A related thought - Kim keeps waiting for the phone call where I've fallen into the frozen canal, because though I'm normally graceful as a large animal that has been scared by a loud noise, on snow in boots I am like a gazelle.  A large, clumsy, gazelle wearing boots.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

break the wave before us

These days, I know I'm underwater; foam from passing waves is dancing around my head.

"I have no rulebook for this situation."
(Alec Baldwin, in "Elizabethtown")

Except maybe I do have a rulebook. The older I get, the more I can see the water coming from around me - not towards me. And much like the cold days at the ocean where it makes no sense to be in the water I take a breath, run, and let the water hit me full on. In that moment, it is a baptism where I see glimpses of all the things that make me alive; it is a symphonic swell which takes me with it.
Giddy with excitement, I turn around, look at the safety of the shore, and laugh. 

"I had my whole life been a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck"

-Annie Dillard "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek"

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Hole in the Wall Story

Let me start by saying that I have no idea how old I was when this happened. If I had to guess, I would say somewhere in the neighborhood of 6th or 7th grade.

This story captivated my life - I would tell it once or twice an evening, particularly if we had guests at the dinner table (which was frequent).

The Hole in the Wall Story

My dad designed the blueprint for our basement. We have a half underground basement, with a modular design dropped on top of it for the upper floor. As such, dad had the opportunity to design a dark-room (for developing film) in the basement. This is not the story of the dark-room. This is the story of another room - a main room in the basement, which dad had measured to fit a ping-pong table. He had left enough space for ample movement to front and back, which is necessary because my dad plays ping-pong in a frantic, surging state. He constantly moves forwards and backwards with a sort of lumbering, groaning motion; when I was younger this is what I pictured when giants were being toppled in fairy tales. Now that I am older, I know this is not how everyone plays ping-pong; most people seem to approach it with the casualness of horse-shoes or lawn darts - they may care about winning, but not enough to break a sweat. My dad, on the other hand, runs in a circle which seems to operate under the assumption that ping-pong is what defines the rulers of our age, and as such he dedicated his whole body to its pursuit.

So, to work my way back to the story, I sum up by saying it is not at all a surprise to me that my dad designed a room to fit a ping-pong table perfectly. It is also not a surprise to me that he altered the room and added a closet, because it would save money (I'm not sure how) to put a closet in that room. Here is the source of friction in this story: The closet infringed on the pre-measured ping-pong table space. Wisely, he did not add a solid door to the closet, but instead had a folding partition which separated it from the rest of the room. (The closet door faced the ping-pong table). This was the "guest" side of the ping-pong table. The table was pushed so that there was slightly less room on that side, so occasionally a vibrant guest would go crashing through the partition in an effort to return a particularly strong serve.

The other side of the ping-pong table, my dad's side, had dry-wall behind it. This side had plenty of room, but because ping-pong is such a strenuous sport my dad would occasionally back into the wall. Gradually, over a period of months, twin ovals began to appear approximately waist high in the dry wall. My mom, sister, and I analyzed it, and decided that my dad's butt had broken through the dry wall as he was playing ping pong. According to my mom, my dad came home and noticed the holes, and blamed Debbie and I for messing around in the basement. My mom then modeled how a human buttocks fit perfectly into the hole (there are pictures of this). My dad, a little sheepish, then enlisted an Irishman named Frank to fix the dry wall.

Which he promptly pummeled into submission with his butt during some celebratory ping-pong.

So then Frank the Irishman put wood paneling from the floor to approximately halfway up the wall. This stopped Dad's unrelenting ping-pong butt dead in its tracks - and in fact gave him some added resilience, as he could freely bounce off the newly wood-panelled wall.

Why did this story captivate me?

-It took my giant-size dad, and cut him down to human-size.

-It became my story. I was the one who always told it, and it never failed to get laughs. (This is my memory anyway. I'm pretty sure there were instances where I told the story at inappropriate times, and I was the only one laughing. Though I was probably laughing like the hyenas in "The Lion King" and couldn't hear the deadened silence of the room.)

-And because it taught me a valuable lesson.
There are very few things in this world that can stop you -
as long as you lead with your butt.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

beans from merrillville

this is known as the "beans from merrillville" story.  enjoy.

kim and i watch a lot of white sox games (though, not recently, as the white sox seem to be focusing on something other than baseball - possibly spitting, or maybe juggling).
  a frequent advertiser during these games was a car dealership, that would advertise "lexus of orland and merrillville".  i will mention at this point that everyone i know refers to merrillville as MERR-I-VILLE.  the "ll"s go stubbornly unpronounced.

  this car dealership has two distinctive qualities in this jingle:
1) the jingle was clearly written for "lexus of orland".  the melody cadences down, and only recently had they dubbed in "and merrillville".  it clearly seemed like a post-script, and yet
2) they pronounced it MERR-ILL-VILLE, and relatively slowly.  i understand that this is the way it is spelled, but i have never heard it pronounced that way other than that commercial.
this commercial indicated to me that this dealership had recently opened a new branch, but hadn't actually visited the town it was located in.

so here i've laid the groundwork; this brings me to the dream.

i normally never remember my dreams, or if i do, i remember oddities (like, why did my 4th grade teacher play tennis with a rubic's cube, why was i fleeing zombies, and when did i become a fire-man known only as "charlie"?)

every once in awhile i remember my dream with precision.  this is one of those dreams, where every detail is razor-sharp, and etched in my mind.

i saw a sign posted in the window of a shop in central IL.  the sign said "affordable lease-please call".  at the urging of LRG44 (kim's dad), i called.  the lease was affordable (hence the sign), and so i went to the bank and signed the appropriate papers to be able to open a coffee-shop. LRG44, helen, kim, and i immediately started working to set up shop; from my recollection, this process only took a few hours. (because really, a few hours is all it takes to establish a coffee-shop in an abandoned storefront!)
  i set up all of my coffee-makers, and kim and helen made menus and hung them in the shop.  i had a fair amount of business on the first day - people coming in and buying cups of drip, french press, vac pot, chemex, etc.

at the end of the day, we closed up shop.  at no point did i know what the shop was called - though kim and helen were responsible for putting up the sign above the door.

as i locked the door for the evening, snow had started to fall.  there was maybe an inch on the ground already.  i looked down the street, and was immensely satisfied.  all i had done all day was brew coffee and talk to people, but i remember feeling better than ever before.  i stepped into the street, and looked at the coffee-shop one last time.  and as i did, i saw in large letters the name of my shop above the door.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

open grids and open windows: or how i learned to stop whining and embrace the midwest

"The people I know from outside it distill the Midwest into blank flatness, black land and fields of green fronds or five-o'clock stubble, gentle swells and declivities that make the topology a sadistic exercise in plotting quadrics, highway vistas so same and dead they drive motorists mad. Those from IN/WI/Northern IL think of their own Midwest as agronomics and commodity futures and corn-detasseling and bean-walking and seed-company caps, apple-checked Nordic types, cider and slaughter and football games with white fogbanks of breath exiting helmets."
-David Foster Wallace, from A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

Kim and I have lived together in Illinois seven years. Kim is from central IL, and so she has breathed the communities deeply from a very young age, but for me this was a significant change from the mid-Atlantic cities and suburbs that were familiar.

The first thing I had to get used to was the long stretches of flat land, surrounded by other long stretches of flat land. At first, I could view them only as an "outsider" but as time went on, I grew to embrace these communities. There was a stillness to it that spoke to me.

There are some things about Illinois I'm still not used to:
being buffetted by wind on beautiful sunny days,
being buffetted by wind on rainy days,
being buffetted by wind all winter as the snow piles up outside our front window.

But when it is time to take to the road, I roll down the windows, breathe in the air, crank up the music, and enjoy the serenity of flat grids of fields repeating against each other.

I have learned to embrace the sameness of it. It has the same effect on me that I imagine zen-gardens have on buddhist priests, where familiarity of pattern is its own reward.

At least that's what I'm keep telling myself as I pay 9.75% sales tax.

Monday, May 16, 2011

getting out ahead of the story

there is an episode of the show modern family where gloria lists off things that drive her crazy about manny (her son). she assumes manny is out of earshot as she is saying these things - but he hears them all. she then makes a desperate attempt to convince him that this is not really the way she feels. a summary of that scene is that it is okay to complain about your kids - but not okay if they hear you.

while i was home last week, i heard my mom talking on the phone. my mom has a voice that booms with the authority of somone yelling to small children who have wandered into the street, but it gets to the level of someone yelling at small children in the next zip code when she is on the phone.

this is when it hit me:
most kids don't know what there parents say about them behind their back until they are much older, but in the case of my sister and i, we knew in real-time from a very small age.

i would be "napping" or "sleeping for the night", and hear my mom discussing the mis-adventures i experienced over the previous week. many times, i hadn't been previously aware of these mis-adventures. this may seem mean - as i overheard criticism, generalities about myself, and situations in which i interacted with the world discussed from a mother's critical perspective.

but it is not, in fact, a bad thing. it enabled me to get out "in front of the story". when i heard what i was "doing", i was then able to correct the behavior and therefore spin the story from a very young age. many see this as learning to be emotionally distant, but i see it as learning to control the conversation, and career practice.

i have been in sales for my entire adult life. some folks refer to the early stages of this as "retail", or "working at gap" however, those people did not go on to make a career of walking in and out of stores all day (to my knowledge the only people that do this are vendors, district managers, and the homeless and/or mentally infirmed).

as i look out toward the next years of my life, and anticipate a career change, i wonder what job will call out to me next, saying "do this now, you have prepared for it". i can only hope that the job that calls this out to me will do it with the volume of my mom talking on the phone; as now i have suffered some hearing loss and may not hear it otherwise.