On a Summer Day in February

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Sounds like a good title for an article about global warming, right? I assure you I have no such lofty ambition. But it was an unusually warm, sunny day here in Chicagoland today and with very little residual salt visible on the roads to deter me, I decided to take Miss Scarlett out for a run.

First I had to clean her up a bit, as I have yet to put my dust cover on the bike this winter. I use a product called Plexus on my windshield. It’s a very effective cleaner, leaves a protective coating behind, and does not have a yellowing effect on clear plastics.  For all the bodywork, my favorite product for years has been Original Bike Spirits Spray Cleaner and Polish. As waterless detailing goes, these two products have given me very satisfactory results.

After a quick check of my tires and air suspension pressure, I disconnected my smart charger and fired up the bike. Sweet music indeed! I suited up and took a shakedown cruise through the neighborhood—always a good idea after spending more than a few weeks off the bike—before heading southwest toward Starved Rock State Park, a major attraction in the state of Illinois.


Major attraction indeed! The large parking lot by the Visitor Center was packed, with cars illegally parked along the outer drive lane. Later on I discovered, on my way out of the park, that the overflow parking lots had gotten pretty full as well. Ah, but what would one expect on such a beautiful day?

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I don’t consider myself a good “alone” person, but today, following a rather trying week at work, I was in serious need of this wind therapy and personal down time. As I rolled along Illinois 71, between Yorkville and Ottawa, I left all the stresses of the past week behind me. Once I had gotten to the state park and began my ascent to the top of Starved Rock, I had let go even more. By the time I’d reached the summit huffing and puffing, I’d forgotten  what I was so stressed out about.

 

 


I walked around the top of Starved Rock for a while and then walked to the end of the paved walking path before returning to my bike to head home. Under other circumstances, I might have been less than pleased about the number of attendees present. Instead, every time I passed a squirming rug rat or an errant dog,  I smiled from within, only too happy to have walked amongst all this humanity.

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I’ve been coming to this park since I was five, maybe longer. It’s beautiful. If you live in the region and you want to see something cool, please check this place out.

Thanks for hanging with me.

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Burnt Offerings of the Culinary Kind

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If you spend enough time cooking, sooner or later you’ll burn something. Trust me, I know. If you’re lucky, nobody will see you do it. But really, what are the odds of that happening?

Once when I was in college, sometime after the dinosaurs had died off, I was trying to cook a steak that had been given to me by a dear relative. And what a beautiful steak it was, nearly two inches thick and very well marbled. Problem is it was still frozen. Well, I reasoned, if I began cooking it, the steak would cook thoroughly on the outside and maintain some red in the center by the time it was finished. What can I say, I was young, foolish, and inexperienced. So I placed the steak in a pan, shoved it under the broiler and went to the living room to have a cocktail while my supper cooked.

Moments later, one of my housemates came through the front door and greeted me, “Hey, Mike.” He looked up the hallway, toward the kitchen, and then back at me. “Everything okay?”

“Hi, Rick,” I replied, “yeah, sure.” Rick shrugged and headed off in the other direction, to his room. Moments later, the smoke reached the living room, where I was still seated.  I leapt from my chair and ran to the hallway, peering through the light smoke only to see much heavier smoke billowing from the kitchen. My steak!

I ran to the kitchen, threw open the broiler door, and was greeted by blazing flames that appeared to be coming from a black, oily slab that had once been my steak. First I tossed some water on it… bad idea. The flaming and smoking only grew worse. Then I shut off the gas and slammed the broiler door shut, which seemed to do the trick. I opened the door again to find that the flames had gone out, but the billowing smoke had become ten times worse. I turned on every fan and opened every window in the house, before heading up the street to get a sub sandwich.

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Have you ever set corn on fire? I have.

Have you ever set pork ribs on fire? I have.

Have you ever almost set your wooden back porch on fire? I’m not telling!

Needless to say, I have more stories to tell regarding my culinary pyrotechnics. But you will have to wait until the book comes out before you can read about them. Ha! Thanks for hanging with me.

My Unfortunate Baking Misadventure

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As I continue compiling material for my first cookbook, I am reminded of the best and worst of my bread baking endeavors. I don’t bake bread often and what little I do, I learned from my mother, an Italian immigrant who make almost everything from scratch—and made it very well, I might add.

What I usually bake can best be described as a rustic Italian loaf. Long and somewhat oval in shape, it’s a somewhat hearty bread with a substantial crust, very well suited to dipping or eating with soups and salads. I tend to use unbleached and/or whole wheat flour, which makes for a more dense product than one would get by using bread-specific flour, which tends to contain more glutens. When it turns out right, my bread is a nice addition to the dinner table.

But alas, things do not always turn out as planned. Some years ago, when my parents were still alive, we were planning to have the family over to celebrate my young son’s birthday. In the tradition of my mother’s kitchen, where I learned so much about cooking, I had planned an abundant meal involving way more food than even this group of eleven people would ever be able to eat. I thought it might be nice to have a fresh-baked loaf of my homemade bread, but I would not have enough time to prepare and raise the dough. So I got this great idea to make up some dough, raise it once, then freeze it. On the day of our celebration, I would defrost the dough, let it rise one more time, and then bake it in time to serve fresh, warm bread for dinner.

To put it mildly, something went wrong. My guess would be that I hadn’t allowed nearly enough time for defrosting, so when I expected my loaf to be rising, some colder parts were still struggling just to reach room temperature. At some point, time had run out for rising because I needed to bake the loaf and let it cool a little prior to serving. My loaf looked okay on the outside, if a bit smaller than I’d hoped for. So into the oven it went.

I waited. I watched. The bread looked okay as far as the color and general appearance of the crust, but it was too small. That should have been my first clue. The second clue came when I picked up the loaf, wearing oven mitts, to place it on a cooling rack. Though slim, almost like a baguette, my bread loaf weighed as much as a loaf twice its size would weigh.

All the other foods we had prepared—grilled meats, pasta, veggies, salad, etc.—came off as planned. But when I set that loaf of bread down on the table, it looked and sounded like a wooden club landing. When my father first picked it up, he immediately looked over at me with his eyebrows raised, gently raising and lowering the loaf as if he were judging its weight. He cut off a hunk and set the loaf back down. Then it was my brother-in-law’s turn. He hoisted my loaf of bread, holding it at one end with both hands, and took a few practice swings, smiling at me as he did so, before slicing off another few pieces. I got the message.

Eventually, the bread came around to me. With only half a loaf remaining, the thing still felt heavy for its size. I turned the end cut toward me and examined the cross-section. Amidst the usual internals, I saw darker portions with none of the usual holes one expects to find in a slice of bread. Solids in my bread? Apparently so!

Some of the more dedicated eaters in my family took a few bites out of sheer courtesy. Others just passed. I was embarrassed, to say the least. But I learned a valuable lesson about cooking: No matter what your schedule says, every dish you prepare takes exactly as much time as it needs to be properly finished. If you need it sooner, begin sooner.

Nowadays I look back on these culinary setbacks and laugh, even though I assure you I wasn’t laughing at the time. You’ll learn more about these endeavors when this book becomes available. Until then, thanks for hanging with me.

Likes to Play with Food

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I like to cook, but sometimes I can’t leave well enough alone. I like foods a certain way and seldom follow a recipe to the letter. Most of what I learned about cooking, putting certain foods together, etc., I learned by watching my mother. She seldom followed a recipe, either. I don’t go crazy yet ordinary often isn’t quite good enough. My arena, therefore, falls somewhere between the two.

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About a year ago, I began toying with the idea for an unconventional cookbook that, despite having no conventional recipes per se, explores my approach to a variety of dishes, including creative uses for the leftovers. All of this would be interspersed with anecdotes relating to the food and the people who caused them to happen, whether directly or indirectly. The working title of this book continues to be What Recipe?

During most of 2016, What Recipe? remained essentially an idea and nothing more. I developed a preliminary outline and penned a chapter or two, but that was it… until last December. Since then, thanks to the constant encouragement (okay, pestering) of a close friend, this book is actually taking shape.

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I can’t say how soon What Recipe? will become available for order, but it’s a safe bet that my online followers will be among the first to hear about it. Wish me luck, and thanks for hanging with me.

Only Our Conflicts Are Real

Today I came to a realization regarding our moral, ethical and political ideologies.

Recall the poem “The Blind men and the Elephant” by John Godfrey Saxe. Six blind men are examining an elephant and each is adamant of his experiential findings. The last verse says it all.

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong.
Though each was partly in the right,
They all were in the wrong!

Now before you go any further, examine this bit of reflection from—of all places— a 1966 western movie, The Professionals.

“Maybe there’s only one revolution, since the beginning, the good guys against the bad guys. Question is, who are the good guys?”

And therein lies the rub. Aside from the fact that we each approach the current situation in Washington wearing the filters of our respective human experience, we also approach one another with conflicting understandings of good versus evil. From this perspective, we come to debate and argue, each with the intent of winning over the other guy. And for the most part, each will fail.

We can’t even agree on right from wrong! And in our efforts to win each other over through seemingly benevolent discussion, we vehemently entrench ourselves ever deeper into our private realities, ever bending our arguments to protect what is ours, rather than admit it might not be entirely accurate. Nice going.

I knew we were in trouble when I saw the exact same news story concerning President Trump being shared on Facebook by both a pro-Trump advocate and an anti-Trump detractor. The same story! And when I realized they couldn’t both be right, it occurred to me that the only sure thing in this equation was the conflict itself. That was real.

Wake up. You cannot win with the arguments you are making. In this regard, you are no better than one of the blind men in that poem. In fact, you are worse because at least the blind men were all of a like mindset. 

Victory No More: My Thoughts Concerning the Polaris Decision

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The photo you see above was taken on May 4, 2013, the day I left home with my 2007 Honda ST1300 sport touring rig and returned with my slightly used 2012 Victory Vision Tour. This was indeed a pivotal moment in my life. This was my first motorcycle that wasn’t a Honda, my first American motorcycle, and my first Victory. Since that fateful day, Miss Scarlett and I have logged roughly forty thousand relatively trouble-free miles

But this post isn’t about my love affair of the past four riding seasons with this motorcycle. Rather, this is about the recent announcement by Polaris Industries to wind down production of the Victory over the next eighteen months. I promise to be brief.

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Was I happy to hear the news? No. While no motorcycle is perfect for every rider’s needs, I have been so pleased with the performance and comfort of my Vision Tour, I was already fairly certain that when the time came for Miss Scarlett and me to part ways, my next motorcycle would be another Victory. Over the past four riding seasons, we have run nearly 40,000 miles, 4,800 of which involved an epic journey from Chicago, Illinois to Portland, Oregon and back—a journey so great, it left me wanting to take another.

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But with Victory Motorcycles now being phased out, my next bike will likely not be a Victory. So now what? Well, I am pleased to report that despite the Polaris announcement, Miss Scarlett did not burst into flames or disappear from sight. In addition, Randy Weaver, owner of Randy’s Cycle, the best Victory dealership in all of northern Illinois and beyond, almost immediately went online and assured his customers (me among them) that his shop would continue to service the Victory marque for years to come. Comforting words indeed! (See Randy’s video here.)

Bottom line, I still have a damned good motorcycle sitting in my garage, just waiting for the next decent riding day. Polaris’ decision to cease production of Victory Motorcycles will not immediately affect my decision to continue riding Miss Scarlett for some time to come.

Surely the day will come for me to pick another motorcycle to ride.  But you’ll have to take my word for it, this isn’t that day. In the meantime, I’m chomping at the bit to take Miss Scarlett out again, just as soon as the weather turns in our favor. And when that happens, I’ll be here to share more ride stories with you, hopefully with my beloved pillion Ann to continue sharing her awesome photos and videos.

Until then, peace and ride on. Thank you for hanging with me.

Contemplating the Passage of Time

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I’m sitting in my home office (read: an old desk in my basement), tracking the progress of my son’s flight back to Oregon via flightaware.com as I write this. He is 23 years old and in the process of finishing off his final year at the Portland Actors Conservatory. He was home for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, which have now passed. Today is also my daughter’s 25th birthday. I have no idea how I could possibly have two kids in their twenties when I am still just a kid myself. Alright, that’s a bald-faced lie… sort of. It’s true that on the outside, I am older, baggier, surely no longer young enough to be called middle-aged. But on the inside, my twenties weren’t all that long ago and I’ve still got this young, foolish streak that rises to the surface more often than I would care to admit. In many ways, I never grew up. And it’s unlikely that I will do so anytime soon because I’m having too damned much fun.

I hope that my daughter enjoyed her somewhat laid back birthday and I pray that my son lands safely in Portland, nearly three hours later than my intended bedtime. I look at their lives the way I look at this new year that has just gotten underway. Imagine the possibilities! My kids may be feeling the pressures of adulthood—and I know from experience, the pressure can be very real—but they still have so many possibilities ahead of them. Indeed I can still see many possibilities for myself. It’s true, I am a lot further along in life than are my two kids, but I assure you I am far from ready for the grave just yet. I have many roads left to travel, many stories left to write, and a great deal of love and laughter left to share.

So here’s to 2017! May we all realize at least some of those great possibilities we’ve imagined, and may we each find ourselves at least a little bit closer to whatever it is we are seeking in life. Thanks for hanging with me.