Cherish the Gift

Thanksgiving 2019

MGD, Grandma Ruth, and John D’Aversa, Thanksgiving 2019

Before we get started, please know that there has not been a death in my family this weekend nor have we just received bad news about anyone in the family. Furthermore, I am not terminally ill — well, no more than the next guy, anyway. I am merely taking this opportunity to share some thoughts with you, thoughts that have been weighing on me lately.

The photo above was taken on Thanksgiving Day 2019, just a captured moment of my son John and I visiting with “Grandma Ruth” who is 92 years old. Ruth has long referred to me as her favorite son-in-law, which is sweet despite the fact that I am first in a field of one. But seriously, we have always gotten along famously since the day I first showed up at her home. I was then a college senior who seemed to be in an ever-deepening relationship with her daughter, who was engaged to be married to another young man at the time. That, however, is a story for another time. My point is that my mother-in-law and I have always been close and now, some thirty-four years after I became her son-in-law, she is the last living parent between Karen and me.

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Karen and Ruth, Mother’s Day 2017

I can remember with striking clarity what it felt like to lose first Karen’s dad in August of 1997, then my mother in April of 2006, and my father in February of 2011. To be clear, it hurt like hell each time. My father-in-law had been struggling with an inoperable brain tumor but his death came quite suddenly and unexpectedly. My mom suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on the Monday after Easter and about an hour after my family and I had left my folks’ house following a nice lunch together. My dad passed after years of steady decline from dealing with leukemia.

In each case, none of us had known when we last saw each other that it was to be the last time we would see each other. Sure, each parent had been dealing with their own health problems, and my parents were in their eighties when they passed, but we always assumed we had time yet. With my father-in-law, with my mom, with my dad, we parted ways for the last time assuming there would be a next time. It hurts to realize there won’t be a next time.

Thanksgiving 2015

Grandma Ruth with Teresa and Karen D’Aversa, Thanksgiving 2015

Ruth has relatively few health issues for a woman of her age, though her memory is failing and she has become more frail in recent years. Hey, we can’t turn back the clock; we can only keep moving forward. That’s why I must cherish every opportunity I get to spend a little time visiting with my dear mother-in-law, knowing that one of those visits will be our last.

If there is a lesson to be had here, it’s don’t take any day for granted. If you have loved ones in your life, no matter their age or physical state, for God’s sake love them now, while you still can. Make the phone call, have that lunch date, give that hug, tell someone they matter to you, whatever. Just don’t assume you can do it next time.

Thanks for hanging with me.

While I Was Away

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Good heavens, beloved readers, an entire riding season has passed since I last posted here! It was never my intention to be so quiet for so long. Time just got the better of me. I won’t let that happen a second time. Here is a recap of things that have transpired since I last wrote to you.

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The new job I started last fall with Diaz Group LLC has continued to expand and evolve. The people there, at all levels of the organization, are top shelf and having spent so many years in the facilities maintenance, snow and ice management, and green industries, I’m definitely in my element. Although my title has not yet changed, my role with the company has become increasingly strategic in scope. This has become a unique opportunity that almost makes me want to thank my last employer, whose name does not even deserve mention on my pages anymore, for having decided to part ways with me. Of course anything can happen, sometimes without warning, but for now I am exactly where I want to be.

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With my shoulder replacement completely healed, I was able to resume riding again. Getting the rust off my riding skills took me longer than I expected, in part because the layoff had been so long, but also because something that has changed between my ears. Even though my severe shoulder injury occurred while walking, not riding, just getting hurt so badly has made me aware of my vulnerability. That’s something on which I must continue to work because the wrong kind of fear can be dangerous when riding.

As I do every year, I kicked off the riding season at the beginning of May by attending Motorcycle Sunday in Aurora. This year’s event was made extra special when my son came in from the Quad Cities to attend with me, meeting up with another dear friend to hang out together, and then my daughter and her boyfriend, non-riders, came over to hang with the three of us for a while.

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From spring through fall, I did much grilling, both at home with family and with my dear friend Ann up in Wisconsin, who like my son shares my love for cooking and is a very skilled cook in her own right. I used my little smoker a few times as well. Some dishes were better than others but all were quite flavorful and there were no total failures.

The smoker is new for me and a welcome addition to my culinary arsenal. Smoking foods, however, is far from a foolproof endeavor. In short order, I have already learned a couple of fundamental lessons. First, that just like any other type of flavoring, woodsmoke can be overdone. The smoke flavor should complement all the other flavors in play. Overdo it and you may end up with an unwelcome bitterness that overpowers all the other flavors. The second lesson I learned in a hurry is that you can’t hurry. When you’re slow cooking with a smoker, time is your friend, your ally. For best results, don’t shortchange that friend.

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Last June, for the first time in years, my son joined me for the annual Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run, which benefits the Middle East Conflicts War Memorial. I was grateful to have my son along. I only wish the weather had been more favorable. Despite the Freedom Run being a rain-or-shine proposition, and with significant rain in the forecast, attendance for the 2019 event was a fraction of what I’ve witnessed in past years. Indeed, we were hampered by an extended torrential downpour at the starting point. Still, I would like to have seen a better turnout. This cause deserves a better turnout. That’s why I was there, as was my son. In fact, I have been trying to get Ann to come down for this event since we began riding together — about four years now — but she has always had a conflicting commitment during that weekend in June. As it turns out, this was one time I was glad she couldn’t come. Not because I didn’t want her along for the ride — I always want her along — but she would have been miserable in that rain and the turnout would not have impressed her at all. Maybe next year.

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July brought about two fantastic road trips. The first was a very long day trip with my wife Karen. The only thing that kept it from being an overnighter was that we couldn’t get anyone to take care of the pets. Ah, but it was a fantastic little road trip! We went to the Quad Cities to see Holiday Inn performed at a dinner theater called Circa 21, where our son John had been working as the theater’s Technical Director. As such, John was able to get us good seats, ate dinner with us and sat with us for the show, introduced us to the theater’s Operations Manager as well as some of the cast and crew, and then after the performance, gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the theater. Karen and I returned home sometime during the overnight hours, tired but happy and more than a little bit proud, too.

As a venue, Circa 21 is a great theater. Actors come in from across town as well as across the United States to perform there. Dinner, served buffet style, is exceptionally well-prepared. We enjoyed a bottle of wine with our dinner and the bar also sells a variety of cocktails, including ice cream drinks. The show itself was excellent and was preceded by performances by the waitstaff. For the money, one would be hard-pressed to find any better theatrical entertainment value.

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After missing the Midwest Motorcycle Rally last July due to my broken shoulder and subsequent replacement surgery (see My Summer Interrupted, Part II if you haven’t read the shoulder saga), I picked up Ann on a sunny Wednesday morning and we headed to Winona, Minnesota for a few days. What an awesome time we had exploring the area, on our own as well as with other rallygoers on the guided tours for which the MMR has become famous.

This year’s trip was particularly enjoyable for several reasons, not the least of which was that this was my longest trip of any consequence since I’d had my surgery a year earlier. The recovery period for shoulder replacements is measured in months, not days or even weeks. Most people don’t know this but during the first two months of my recovery, during which my physical activity had been severely restricted, Ann would “take me with her” on her daily walks by sending me photographs from the nature trails, river walks, lake shore, marina, farmers market, and more. She did her darnedest to keep my spirits up during what were some pretty dark days for me.

Besides getting to visit the rally’s new venue in Winona, Ann and I had also gone Dutch on a pair of matching Bell helmets with Bluetooth® communication headsets. This allowed us to talk to each other in a near-normal tone of voice wherever we went on the bike. Fantastic! Our Bell helmets also cut down on the wind noise in our ears, reducing fatigue as well as possibly some hearing damage, which for a half-deaf gent like me is important.

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Labor Day weekend brought about one more road trip, which may seem like something but was still well below average for me. I picked up Ann on Friday morning and we headed for Cedar Rapids, Iowa with a stop in Rockford to see the Anderson Japanese Gardens. I had been there once before, years ago, and it made such a lasting impression on me that I felt compelled to share the experience with Ann. She loved it! From there we took Highway 2, a very pleasant motorcycle road, down to Dixon and then endured some endless road construction until we hit Interstate 80. Following a burger stop at Cerno’s Bar and Grill, a historic bar imported from Belgium and built by Pabst Blue Ribbon in 1898, we continued on to Cedar Rapids, arriving at our hotel that evening. My son John departed from work later in the day and joined us at our hotel that same night.

Our Saturday was a full one. A delightful friend of John’s named Marjorie, who hails from elsewhere in Iowa, met us in the hotel parking lot for a day of two-up motorcycle touring. We began with a hearty family-style breakfast at the Ox Yoke Inn in historic Amana. After everyone had eaten their fill, we strolled through the town, visiting the shops, tasting wines, etc. before gearing up and riding northwest to Anamosa, home of the National Motorcycle Museum and J&P Cycles retail store. We then went into nearby Stone City for supper at the General Store Pub. In hindsight, I guess we went pretty high on history that day.

On Sunday morning John, Ann, and I saddled up and rode into Illinois, stopping for a few hours in historic Galena, where we met up with another old friend of ours for a few hours before heading home. At that point, John and our friend Vern headed toward Chicago while Ann and I meandered back to her home in Wisconsin before I turned south and headed back home myself. We couldn’t have asked for a better weekend.

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A week later, Karen and I were making our annual excursion to the Sandwich Fair, which is hands down the best county fair for miles around. We tried to get the now-grown kids to join us, as they used to do when they had no choice in the matter, but getting four or more adults to rendezvous at the same place at the same time can be challenging. Still, Karen and I had our usual fun time. Can’t wait ’til next year.

In September, my son John and I met up after work and went to the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago for a night of fantastic reggae/ska/club music. The opening act was Steel Pulse, a UK-based band that was the first non-Jamaican group to win a Grammy for Best Reggae Album. They were astounding, to say the least. I walked in not knowing who they were and walked out a fan.

The next performer was Shaggy, a Jamaican-born musician of whom both my son and I are great fans. Exactly how this artist has bridged the generation gap between John and I is not exactly clear, but we were beeboppin’ into the night.

The headliner was UB40, a group whom I have adored since the 1980’s. As Ann has also appreciated a number of their songs, I had hoped to entice her down to Chicago for this event, but as the show occurred on a Wednesday night and a late one at that, it was not to be. Hey, I never expected to see UB40 in person myself and my son John never thought he’d ever see Shaggy live and in person. I submit that the possibilities are indeed possible, so who is to say that Ann and I won’t see UB40 in concert sometime in the future?

For the sake of time and space, I have omitted several other highlights, but suffice it to say it’s been an awesome year so far. Soon the snow will be falling, but I may still get another ride or two in. Time will tell.

I know, it’s been a long post. If you’ve continued reading this far, as always, thanks for hanging with me.

Closures: My Summer Interrupted, Part III

Continued from My Summer Interrupted, Part II

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I was only in the hospital for two days, but two days spent lying in a bed gives one plenty of time to think, to dwell, to obsess… and yes, to fear. My left arm had been bound into an immobilizer (picture a sling on steroids, with generous helpings of velcro and foam) before they wheeled me out of the OR. My entire left arm, held firmly in place by that synthetic getup, felt like a decorative sculpture of sorts that had been left beside me as a memento of my surgery. Dr. Saleem said that as soon as he got inside, he knew there was no hope of repairing the bone, but that the replacement had gone very well.

I wasn’t too choked up about having had my shoulder replaced but it was necessary, given the severity of my injury. I adapted. Learned to eat with one hand. Never once had to use a bedpan or one of those confounded plastic handheld urinals. All in all, I thought I’d been doing pretty well. Then about midway through the following day, the nerve block began to wear off in ever increasing waves. A cold, metallic achiness began to pulse from my left shoulder, right through the elbow, across my wrist, into the very substance of each knuckle, and ever down, down, down, until it seemed as though the pain had begun to drip from each of my fingernails. As soon as I’d realized what was going on, I rang for the nurse, who materialized almost instantly.

“Can I help you?”

“Hi, I seem to be having a lot more pain. Can you give me… oh, jeez!” Each successive wave of pain was worse than the last. Of course the nurse immediately understood what was happening and arranged to administer an IV pain med, in addition to adjusting the dosage and frequency of my oral medication. That worked fine, but could not be kept up indefinitely. We gradually weaned off the IV juice and tried reducing the oral as well, but found my pain threshold pretty quickly. Reducing the dosage and frequency of my oral pain med—an acetaminophen/narcotic combo—took quite a few days.

Two days after surgery, I was released from the hospital. I sure hadn’t felt ready for that. Right up until discharge procedures were initiated, my nurses wouldn’t even let me walk the few feet from my bed to the bathroom without an escort. How was I going to fare in my cluttered house, with its stairs and other hazards, to say nothing of the animals, one of whom had put me in the hospital in the first place? We would soon find out because I was going home.

The nurse removed my IV port with ease. My physical therapist made her daily visit, as did an occupational therapist, who tried to show me how to put my own shirt on, a pretty tall order for a guy who is afraid to move his left arm. Last of all came my dressing change and drain removal. Karen observed as the nurse carefully removed the original dressing. I looked away wincing as some of the more aggressive adhesive strips came off. The nurse chose not to warn me before yanking the sizable drain tube out of my arm, probably a wise move, but did apologize after I stopped yelping like a dog whose tail just had a car door slammed on it. Then with a new, much thinner dressing in place and a hefty band-aid placed over the former location of my drain tube, I was ready to go home.

Eh, I did alright. At first I was petrified anytime the dog or cat tried to come near me. In time, I adapted to life in my recliner. Leia, who had already earned the title of “The Most Expensive Dog I’ve Ever Owned” before this incident, gradually learned to approach me calmly and head-on rather than to my left side. I eventually allowed Jazzy to assume her duties as a medicinal cat and take naps on my blanket-covered lap. Me, I took my pain meds on time, did my therapy exercises three times a day, and slept a lot.IMG_2122

The pain meds and the immobilizer were my main concerns. I couldn’t do anything about the immobilizer, which I had to wear it at all times, except when getting dressed or doing my exercises. It was torture, but vitally necessary to protect my new shoulder as the bone and muscle tissues began to mend around the artificial parts. I wasn’t allowed to lift anything with that arm anyway, not even a Kleenex.

The opioid pain meds were a pain in and of themselves. On the one hand, they were effective if taken regularly. On the other hand, keeping an adequate supply was difficult and I ran out more than once while waiting for the doctor’s office, the pharmacy, and the insurance company to sync up. That annoyed me, as did the prospect of getting hooked on the stuff, so I began replacing every other dose with plain Tylenol. Eventually I was taking only over-the-counter pain relievers and before long, I was taking nothing at all. This of course took time, but over the course of two to three weeks, I did it.

About a week after I went home, I had my first follow-up with the surgeon, who was very pleased with my results. I also had my stitches removed and the incision no longer required a dressing. I just had to leave the steri-strips in place until they fell off on their own. A few days after that, I was cleared for actual bathing and celebrated by shaving my entire face for the first time in over 20 years, traumatizing my kids and several of my friends in the process. The following day I began regrowing my facial landscaping.

A day or so after seeing the surgeon, I began going to physical therapy three times a week, while continuing to exercise at home three times daily. At first I was afraid to move, but the therapists at Advanced Physicians are a top-shelf group of professionals who are apparently very used to dealing with big babies and had me doing new and exciting things in no time.

I was still homebound for several more weeks and having earned no paid time off at my new job, I made an arrangement with my employer to work from home to the extent that I could for a fraction of my usual pay. I was glad to be earning at least some income and downright grateful to still have my new job, which I loved despite some inherent challenges and shortcomings.

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The weeks that followed were a continuum of baby steps forward. It seemed like every time I went to physical therapy, I was making some form of progress in my range of motion, strength, or my ability to add on another exercise. Everyday life activities, like showering and dressing, were also becoming easier.

Four weeks after my surgery, I was cleared to return to work, ramping up to full-time over the course of two weeks. But because I was still in the immobilizer, my wife Karen chauffered me to and from work, 35 miles each way, until I was able to do so myself. She must have really wanted me out of the house badly.

Five weeks after my surgery, I had another follow-up with the surgeon’s assistant, who cleared me to begin weaning myself off the immobilizer the following week and to begin driving, but only short distances. When I asked her about the  35-mile, 60-to-90-minute commute to work, she shook her head and said not to try that for several more weeks. The chauffering would have to continue for a while. Karen said she didn’t mind and we both agreed that we had been enjoying the hour-plus discussions we’d been having while stuck in traffic. Still, I was sad because of what was to happen in week six.

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Last winter, while I’d still been living a somewhat normal life, I put together a motorcycle rendezvous near Green Bay that would take place over Labor Day weekend, now known as week six. A small group of people would be riding in from at least three different states. The idea was for everyone to arrive Friday, spend all day Saturday touring Door County on the bikes, and then each do our own thing from Sunday morning on. I had found the perfect hotel from which to base, the AmericInn by Wyndham Green Bay East, whose sales manager set me up with a block of rooms and everything. My friend Ann was to be my pillion passenger.

As that weekend approached, realizing that I was still months away from being ready to ride again, I had arranged for Ann and me to drive up to the rendezvous, hang with the group at the hotel, and then do our own touring by car while a friend of ours from Minnesota would lead the bike tour. Now it seemed like I wasn’t even able to drive.

Ann and Karen to the rescue! Karen drove me to Kenosha, from where Ann picked me up and drove me around for the rest of the weekend before returning me to Kenosha on Sunday so that Karen could take me home. Together the two of them solved all of my logistical issues.

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And so there Ann and I were, up in Wisconsin on Friday morning, only to learn that the rest of our group had been canceling out since late Thursday night. In their defense, the weekend weather forecast for Green Bay and the Door County peninsula did include some chances of rain, although as far as I could tell, no day would be a complete washout. Nonetheless, the rest of our merry band had canceled. What to do?

What to do indeed! We had breakfast, went for a walk, and then headed for Green Bay. Breakfast was at a really happening place in Delafield called Lumber Inn. The food was great and the portions large. The walk was particularly enjoyable and also meaningful to me. See, during the first couple of weeks after my surgery, while I was basically stuck at home, Ann would take me along on her daily walks by sending me photos from her phone, promising that when I was able to do so, I could go along for real. And so I did. We saw deer, a turtle, fish, and people, some of whom had dogs. We spoke with some of the people and fed breadcrumbs to some of the fish. It was a pretty cool way to start out.

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Our next stop was the Rahr-West Art Museum, part of which is housed in a Queen Anne style Victorian mansion in Manitowoc. The mansion itself is cool to see and the museum has some interesting pieces, both inside and outside. The facility is owned by the City of Manitowoc and admission is free, although donations are gratefully accepted.

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Twenty or so years ago, whenever we were camping and boating over on Lake Winnebago, I would take my wife and kids over to Manitowoc and we always went to the big Wisconsin Maritime Museum down by the lakefront. Ann and I didn’t go into the museum, but we did enjoy a nice walk out back. I wanted her to see the USS Cobia, a World War II fleet submarine that had been built in Manitowoc. I had toured the Cobia a few times back in the day but would have had a difficult time passing through the hatches with one bad arm.

I also wanted to see if the Lake Michigan car ferry S.S. Badger was in port, but it wasn’t. We did walk past a pretty neat small ship called the Grande Mariner that was being fueled and “pumped out” by a couple of local tank trucks. I had never seen this vessel before, nor had I heard of its company, Blount Small Ship Adventures, so I made a point of Googling them after I got home. Apparently the Grande Mariner was doing its “Magical Lake Michigan” tour, a counterclockwise coastal journey that begins and ends in Chicago.

We walked along the Manitowoc River, where the Cobia is permanently docked, out to the Lake Michigan shore and onto a short concrete pier, part of the US Army Corps of Engineers Manitowoc Harbor Navigation Project. After all these years, I never seem to get tired of the sights, sounds, or smells of this or any of the great lakes. Ann took a few photos, while I took a photo or two of Ann taking photos. It’s almost an inside joke now.

Our last stop before reaching Green Bay was at the Trout Springs Winery in Greenleaf. What a delightful little place! The vineyard rows come right up to a small parking area in front of the main building. Free range chickens roam about the vineyard helping to keep the insect pest population in check. The tasting room is a friendly, inviting sort of place. Ann and I were greeted by a Welsh Corgi, who occasionally checked on us as we tasted several wines. We eventually selected an estate-grown wine called Rainbow Blush to enjoy in Green Bay that evening. Ann also picked up a Babordo Vino Nuovo port-style wine as a gift for one of her family members.

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We arrived at the hotel in Green Bay late Friday afternoon and as anticipated, did not see one motorcycle in the parking lot. We kept to the planned itinerary that evening and went up the road to Wertel’s Tap for their Friday fish fry. A classic family-owned bar/restaurant, Wertel’s was positively hopping when we arrived. There are a number of larger, more prominent restaurants near the hotel, just off the interstate, but this little cash-only establishment further up the road draws a substantial local crowd. And why not? The service is prompt and friendly, the food is wholesome and well-prepared, and they have ice-cold bottles of Spotted Cow, which Ann and I both enjoyed very much.

I had worn my prized Ralph Marlin designer Three Stooges button front shirt that day and it did not go unnoticed. While Ann and I were at the lakefront in Manitowoc, someone with a group of motorcyclists lounging on the lawn called out a halfway decent “woop-woop-woop” to us and then during supper at Wertel’s, a delightful older gentleman addressed me as a “fellow Stooge” and proceeded to describe his own extensive collection of Three Stooges memorabilia in detail. I couldn’t help but smile, both times.

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Ann and I met for the hotel’s “free” breakfast before heading out to tour Door County for the day. The AmericInn’s location, just off Interstate 43 and only a few miles south of Wisconsin 57, made it a perfect jumping off point and if I try putting this run together again next year, I would try to base the group out of this same hotel. It was clean, relatively up-to-date, and had a decent-sized indoor pool. The staff there is friendly and courteous, too.

Our first scheduled stop on the beautiful Door County peninsula was at Sturgeon Bay, the county seat and, I believe, its most industrialized community. Although this small city has a great deal to offer in and of itself, we were there to visit one fairly small park and then a much larger one. Both were worthy of our time. Ann and I got a little turned around looking for the Wisconsin Motorcycle Memorial Park but once we were there, we couldn’t help but linger. Established as “a place to recognize and honor the memories of friends and loved ones who are/were motorcycle enthusiasts,” this well-maintained park is at once solemn and lighthearted, if such a thing is possible. It’s also peaceful and beautiful. The “Walkway of Remembrance”, a path paved with tribute stones, is emotionally moving, not only for what it is but for the mementos left behind by friends and loved ones of those whose names are inscribed on the pavers.

The sculptures and furnishings, all donated, are also noteworthy. Some pieces made us smile or giggle, perhaps as reminders that this park was not intended to be a sad place. All of them held our attention for one reason or another. Ann and I approached an impressive metal sculpture of an eagle—created and donated by Art Weborg of Sister Bay—and realized that it had been changing direction with the breeze. As Ann was shooting some video footage of this, I noted an example of the real thing soaring high in the distance. It was a very cool moment.

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Over 25 years ago, my then-young family and I (along with some very close friends) visited Potawatomi State Park, on the shore of Sturgeon Bay just northwest of the city. While we were there, we climbed a 74-foot observation tower and were impressed by the view (and a brisk wind that had been blowing that day) once we had reached the top. Although I was younger then, I fancied the idea of climbing that tower again and showing Ann the spectacular views from the top. Imagine my disappointment upon finding that tower only to learn that it had been permanently closed due to “structural deterioration and safety concerns.” I couldn’t help but notice that some of the old wooden staircases seemed to be listing to one side or another. So there I stood at the foot of the old wooden structure, looking up toward the top, remembering how nothing of this earth is forever and suddenly feeling a bit structurally deteriorated myself. Ann consoled me and suggested that we continue our tour of the park, which still offers some wonderful views.

We traveled up the peninsula in a clockwise fashion, touring the more populated west coast along Wisconsin 42 before heading back down on the eastern side on Wisconsin 57. I won’t mention every town or every shop, but I will hit a few highlights for you. Predictably, some towns were rather crowded on this Labor Day holiday weekend, but most parts were quite tolerable. A case in point, Egg Harbor seemed to have more vehicular and pedestrian traffic than did most, but not enough to prevent us from stopping, shopping, and eating there.

We enjoyed lunch at a bar and restaurant called Casey’s BBQ & Smokehouse, which is well-rated across various internet and social media channels—and for good reason. You might not expect to find a decent barbecue joint in this part of Wisconsin, but we found one. Fancy? No. Popular? Seemingly so. Crowded? Not so bad, though we weren’t there during a peak meal time. All I can tell you is the smoked meats were nicely done, the waitress was friendly, the portions were quite generous for the money, and the service was prompt. They only had one barbecue sauce on the table, but it’s their own signature sauce, which has a pleasant if mild flavor to it.

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After lunch it was on to Fish Creek for a stop at Peninsula State Park, where  75-foot observation tower once stood. We learned from speaking with a helpful gentleman in a guard shack that this particular tower had been taken down two years ago. The good news, however, is that thanks to a fundraising effort, groundbreaking for a new tower was to take place in November. It’s too early to tell whether the same thing will happen at Potawatomi.

Still, Ann and I had a great time exploring the many views that this park has to offer. At 3,776 acres, this is Wisconsin’s third largest state park. It seems like a popular one as well.

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We encountered only one bad traffic clog during our entire day of touring and we encountered it twice, once each way: a gapers block in front of Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay that stretched for blocks in either direction. The pedestrian traffic in Sister Bay was substantial, too. Understandably so, because it’s a nice touristy town. Just the same, we chose not to stop. And there is no simple way around that town, unless you know the side roads, because the main drag, which is Wisconsin 42,  leads on to the top of the peninsula and Wisconsin 57 also ties in there to take drivers south along the east coast. Something to be figured out before we go back, especially if we return with a group of motorcycles.

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We continued north on 42 as far as we could, stopping in Gills Rock to explore a couple of shops and admire the view. It was already late afternoon, so hopping the ferry to explore Washington Island was not an option this time. We knew in advance that this would probably be the case. Door County has a lot more than can be experienced in one day. Another consideration, should we decide to attempt another motorcycle rendezvous next year, is that it may be worthwhile staying until Monday. We’ll see.

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We made only one stop on our way down the peninsula’s eastern shore, mainly because we were running out of time, but that one stop was magical. Anclam Park is at the southern end of Baileys Harbor, a lovely, uncrowded community on the Lake Michigan shore. The last time my family and I visited Door County, we stayed at the Beachfront Inn in Baileys Harbor and absolutely loved it there. The inn is visible from Anclam Park and looking across at it brought back some fond memories of the days when my kids were still kids.

The lakefront was nearly perfect that afternoon and even though the park isn’t that large, Ann and I lingered there a while, enjoying the peaceful sights and sounds. Then we continued down Wisconsin 57 back to the hotel. Still pretty full from the big lunch we’d eaten at Casey’s, we opted to nibble on some snacks we’d picked up and drink one of the wines we bought at the Door Peninsula Winery earlier that day.

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On Sunday, September 2, Ann and I ate another free breakfast, checked out of our respective rooms, and headed for home. But we had time to kill before Karen was to pick me up in Kenosha, so we took our time and made a couple of cool stops, the first of which was Lambeau Field. This had been my suggestion, but I think Ann wanted to see a little of Green Bay before we left. Nothing was happening there that day, but there were people on the property walking around and taking photographs, just like us. It was kind of neat and much easier to get to than Soldier Field, down by me.

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Our next stop was at the Experimental Aircraft Association Museum in Oshkosh. This one was Ann’s idea and having never stopped there before, I was anxious to see this place about which I’d heard so much. It was cool! Lots of informative exhibits and their historic airplane collection is impressive, to say the least. As is the case with many places Ann and I had visited this weekend, we could have spent more time here than we did. I’m glad we stopped.

While we were walking the EAA grounds, Ann told me about a program called “Young Eagles” that was started in 1992 as a means of introducing young people to aviation. That sounded like a terrific idea to me and I wondered if a similar approach could be taken by the motorcycling community to get more young people interested in our hobby. For me, motorcycling has always been a sensory, experiential thing. I became a motorcycle fanatic as a small child, when I got my first motorcycle ride. There was something about the engine sounds and vibrations, as well as the way the motorcycle behaved as my older cousin worked through the gears and steered his bike through the neighborhood. All the multimedia endeavors in the world cannot take the place of taking a real motorcycle ride. There will be more to come on this subject, I’m sure.

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We left the EAA grounds just in time for lunch and as luck would have it, there is a Friar Tuck’s located very close by. I had been to their Fond du Lac location with my son a few years ago, based on a recommendation from Ann that I would like their burgers (she was correct). Her parents were fans of Friar Tuck’s and now, so am I. Their decor can best be described as dark and dated. Their food offerings are fresh, hearty, generously sized, and quite delicious. If you are ever in Oshkosh, Fond du Lac, or Manitowoc at lunch or supper time, give them a try.

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The only torrential rain we got all weekend long occurred less than five minutes after we stopped at Ann’s place to check on the cats, separate our respective purchases, and rest a while. Before long it was time for Ann to drive me to Kenosha, where Karen would meet us and take me home. Not counting business travel, my least favorite part of nearly every trip I’ve ever taken has been the end. Despite the rash of cancelations we had, this one was no exception. Sure, I had my limitations—I couldn’t even drive—but this had been my first road trip of any consequence since the accident. And with no small amount of help from Ann, it had gone very well.

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Week seven brought the same thing that the week following Labor Day always brings: the Sandwich Fair. Established in 1888, the Sandwich Fair is the oldest continuing county fair in Illinois and has been a D’Aversa family favorite for about 15 years now. It’s not even our county—this is DeKalb County’s fair and we live in Will County—but we love this fair and haven’t missed it in years. Karen and I have already established certain traditions. I must have a foot-long Pronto Pup as soon as possible after we arrive at the fair. Karen requires an ear of roasted corn. We usually get cream puffs and/or eclairs. We visit all of the commercial buildings. If it’s convenient, we take in a tractor pull or better yet, a demolition derby. And Karen must visit with the sheep.

You read right. Like any worthwhile county fair, the Sandwich Fair has a comprehensive collection of animal exhibits. A number of years ago, we were perusing the sheep barn when a large, healthy-looking sheep all but jumped out of its pen to greet Karen as she wheeled by. The two conversed for a while, I took photos, and then we moved on. Every year since then, Karen looks forward to hanging with the sheep at the Sandwich Fair. Some visits are more fruitful than others. This year four sheep wanted to visit with her, three of them from a single pen. Of those three, one attempted to eat Karen’s hat. Both Karen and the sheep seemed to enjoy the encounter immensely.

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At the beginning of week eight, I began driving myself to work. This was just one more baby step in a continual succession of small personal victories but to me, it was a milestone. If I could handle the 60-to-90-minute commute to and from work, I could handle longer drives, too—no more chauffering required.

At the end of week eight, with an estimated sixteen more weeks of recovery still ahead of me, my employer decided to sever our at-will employment agreement and abruptly did so. I will not say any more about this other than to confirm that what they did to me was legal and that I am no longer an employee of that company. How unfortunate for both of us.

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I am publishing this post on the eve of the 2018 autumnal equinox, the first day of fall. My summer that was so unexpectedly interrupted will also be over with. That suits me just fine. I’d rather look ahead than behind, anyway.

In the photo above, I am sitting on my motorcycle with my hands on the grips as they would normally be. When this photo was taken, my son had to help me lift the bike off its side stand and my left hand was extended as far forward as it could go, just to rest on that hand grip. Today I can stand the bike up myself, though not with equal effort by both hands, and I can turn those handlebars lock-to-lock. By all accounts, I am still two months away from actually riding the beast, but suffice it to say I have already been in training for that eventuality for eight weeks now.

What lies ahead? Hopefully a new and prosperous employment situation—one with at least as many challenges but none of the shortcomings—but that’s just one component of what lies ahead, one of many objectives. From the moment of my painful freak accident on the evening of July 4, 2018, I have had one end in mind: recovery. To me, that means gaining back as much of what I have lost as possible: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, financially, socially, etc. Beyond a doubt, I have come a long way already. Yet there is still more to be done.

This has been a long post indeed. From the bottom of my heart, thanks for hanging with me.

My Summer Interrupted, Part II

Continued from My Summer Interrupted, Part I

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It had been a pleasant, relatively quiet Independence Day holiday for me. I had settled into my recliner for the evening, laptop in front of me, cool drink at my side. My intent had been to write a blog post about the two weekends I had spent riding to and from Rock Island, to see a couple of my son’s stage performances, and I was doing exactly that when someone in the neighborhood began setting off heavy mortar-type fireworks.

My wife ran to the sliding door to call our dog in. Leia, a high-spirited black Shepherd/Labrador mix, was afraid of fireworks and would not have been outside had we realized the neighborhood idiots were going to pull out the heavy artillery that early. Karen called several times and then stepped out onto the deck. She returned quickly, yelling out, “She’s not in the yard; she’s gone!”

Leia runs fast and jumps effortlessly. Once underway, she doesn’t really spring when she jumps; she merely raises her landing gear and soars over obstacles. At three years of age, she is still quite the puppy and she absolutely does not like fireworks. She had jumped our picket fence several times in the past, so as a precaution, we had installed some plastic “deer mesh” fencing several feet above our wooden fence. We would later find out that on this particular night, Leia had been so spooked, she flew right through the deer fence, leaving a large, gaping hole in one panel. But we hadn’t seen that yet and since my girl had never gone very far in the past, I went out after her without stopping to grab a leash.

Several minutes later, two of our neighbors were out combing the neighborhood in an effort to help me find my dog. Four or five blocks out, my neighbor Jim caught up with Leia along Joliet Road, a fairly busy street, and walked her toward me. Not having a leash, I took Leia by the collar and the three of us began walking toward home. We were with a block or two of arriving when my wife pulled up to the curb in her minivan. Recognizing the van at once, Leia veered toward Karen’s van and lunged with all her might, pulling me right off my feet.

What occurred next took all of a second or two. I pinwheeled toward the van for a couple or three yards before gravity took over. As Leia broke free of my grip and zipped around to the driver’s side of the van, where Karen had opened the door to let her in, both of my feet left the ground and went out behind me. An instant later I landed in bellyflop fashion, making full body contact with a concrete sidewalk. There is some speculation that I may have hit the side of Karen’s van with my left hand as I went down—she said it had sounded like something had hit the van hard and from her vantage point, she thought it might have been my head. I have no recollection of that. What I can recall are shock and pain. My torso had taken most of the impact on landing, or so I thought. The wind had been knocked out of me and I felt a wall of pain across my chest and stomach areas. My right elbow had taken a bit of a scrape and was bleeding. I felt no worse pain in my left arm than anywhere else. Yet.

“Do you need help getting up?” That was Jim, one of the nicest neighbors I’ve ever known. He had moved in to assist as needed and by that time, Karen was standing over me, too.

“I dunno, but let’s wait a minute before we find out.” I was still lying face-down on the sidewalk, trying to get my wind back and hoping the pain across my body would subside. My mind was not particularly clear. They stood by and let me wait a bit longer. Then I tried to get up.

The pain that fired through my left arm from shoulder to fingertips assured me that all was not right. I went loose again, lying prone on the concrete. “I can’t use my arm!”

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Jim helped me to my feet and got me over to the van. I vaguely recall he and Karen saying something about the emergency room. After thanking Jim profusely, and our other neighbor, Tony, who’d been covering the area by bicycle, Karen drove to our house only long enough to put Leia in the house, and then drove me to the Edward Emergency Department of Plainfield, a component of Edward-Elmhurst Health and the only ER in town.

The 4th of July must be one of the worst days to need emergency care. It must rank right up there with New Year’s Eve and Christmas. I’m sure the people working those days see some very interesting cases. I’m also sure they’d rather be elsewhere. I know I did.

Before I go any further, let me state for the record that every staff member I saw at the Edward facility that night seemed friendly, courteous, and professional. Let me also add that most of our past experiences there have been positive ones. It was only in hindsight that I saw a dreadful comedy of errors unfold—and I was playing the unfortunate straight man in that comedy. Without going deep into every detail, here are the low points of what happened.

  • When we arrived, I nearly passed out walking from the van to the doors. Karen went in to get help. They came out to talk to me but all I could tell them was that I couldn’t see, that everything was going black. They brought out a wheelchair and took me inside.
  • After some preliminaries, they took me for x-rays. There were two techs in the room, both very nice. In order to take the x-rays, I had to stand in front of some sort of panel. I did the best I could but the room started going dark again. As soon as they were done, they let me sit down and once the images were verified, they wheeled me back to where I had been before.
  • A doctor on staff came in and informed me that I had fractured my shoulder. They gave me some pain medicine, a sling and the phone number of an orthopaedic surgeon to call the next day, explaining that the specialist would determine whether or not surgery would be necessary. I asked about the pain med they’d given me, which hadn’t seemed to lessen the pain at all. The nurse suggested that I give it more time.
  • They wheeled me outside and Karen brought the van around. I almost blacked out a third time but got myself into the van. The pain meds still hadn’t done much for me. We went home and as I walked in, rather than blacking out, I was hit by a wave of nausea. Fortunately, it passed after I settled into my recliner, where I spent the night.

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As you read this, I want you to bear in mind that I had sustained a very painful injury, the extent of which had not yet been discovered or disclosed, and for which I had received no treatment other than x-rays, a sling, and a bottle of pills that weren’t anywhere near strong enough to take the edge off my pain. Anything that caused me to clench the muscles in that sector of my body set off a wave of pain strong enough to make me scream. I make no exaggeration here, I assure you.

  • The following day, Karen phoned the orthopaedic surgeon’s office and was told he wouldn’t see me because this guy is a foot and ankle specialist. I think it was at this point that we began to seriously question the “care” I’d received the previous evening. Karen called the ER back and left a message.
  • While this was transpiring, I contacted my new employer and explained the situation. I was supposed to be at work, but that was not possible due to the extent of my injuries, my inability to drive, and the narcotic-though-insufficient pain meds I was taking. I hadn’t been there long enough to earn paid time off or any benefits, for that matter. My only hope was to still have a job by the time this nightmare was over. My CEO was quick to allay my fears in that regard, which only increased my admiration for the man and for the organization he leads.
  • Karen then proceded to spend a few hours calling my primary care physician (closed) and a host of other offices, none of whom could schedule me to be seen timely. This includes the DuPage Medical Group, to which the foot and ankle specialist belonged. After spending substantial time on the phone with DuPage and getting nowhere, Karen declared them “useless” and vowed never to use them again if she has a choice.
  • I had taken to sharing my experience thus far on Facebook. I got lots of sympathy and a few well-meaning suggestions, but no outright help. That is until a friend of mine who works at Rush CopleyMedical Center in Aurora gave me the name of an orthopaedic group to call and the specific doctor for whom to ask. An insider recommendation!
  • Upon receiving the recommendation, Karen called Rush Castle Orthopaedics and requested an appointment with one Arif Saleem, MD, a shoulder specialist. Although the doctor himself was out of town—hey, 4th of July holiday—his assistant was willing and able to see me that very afternoon. Karen scheduled an appointment, hung up the phone, and just breathed for a while.
  • At some point, an Edward ER nurse called back insisting that the orthopaedic surgeon whose name they’d given me should still be willing to see me. Karen again relayed what she had been told. This was turning out to be anything but a fruitful conversation and I could feel my wife’s frustration building to a dangerous level, so I suggested she tell them we’d already found somebody else to see. She did so and that ended the conversation, but not my troubles.
  • Later that afternoon, the Physician Assistant saw me. She was friendly, professional, and by all indications, highly competent. Just one problem, she couldn’t tell much from the x-rays that had been taken at the ER the night before—yet another red flag concerning the treatment I’d received there, if you’ll pardon the exaggeration. So she ordered another set, which showed not just a fracture, but a severe one, involving a shoulder that was likely broken into “a number of pieces.” She wrote an order for a CT scan, which would be necessary to determine the best course of action, but added that surgery seemed quite likely.
  • At this point we obtained an appointment to see Dr. Saleem on Thursday, July 12, which would be eight days after my accident.
  • We couldn’t get the CT scan done that day, July 5, because it was late and because some front desk worker claimed they would need approval from my insurance provider—and that she had three days to accomplish that feat.
  • On Friday, July 6, the front desk called to inform us that no approval was necessary and we could schedule the CT scan. When Karen called back, the earliest appointment she could get at any location was on Sunday, July 8, four days after my injury had been sustained.

Four days had passed, so far. Again, any time I moved wrong or sneezed or the planets aligned a certain way, I involuntarily cried out in pain and then waited, sometimes for quite a while, for the pain to subside. This had become very disconcerting for my wife, my sisters, my friend Ann (herself a healthcare professional), and anybody else close enough to me to know what was really going down.

  • On Sunday, July 8, I went to Rush Copley Medical Center and had my CT scan. Then I went home. Everyone was very helpful, friendly and professional, but not one person gave me any indication that going four days without actual treatment of my injuries was the least bit out of the ordinary.
  • I repeatedly ran out of pain meds because prescriptions for opioids cannot be written for large quantities or to include refills. No skin off my banana except I was still experiencing substantial pain from my as-yet untreated injuries. I totally understood the need for strict controls but at that time I was not yet an addict in the making; I was just a guy who didn’t want to keep screaming in pain every time I upset the bag of jacks that was my left shoulder joint.
  • On Thursday, July 12, I met Dr. Saleem and instantly liked the man. He didn’t sugarcoat anything. I had sustained a severe compound fracture and surgery was indicated without question. Once in, his first option would be to try and repair the fractured head of my humerus, the “ball” of my shoulder joint. This seemed unlikely but was still his first option. Barring that, he would replace the joint. By approving both options, I allowed him to address my injury one way or the other. I would enter the OR as an outpatient. If he could save the shoulder, I would go home that day. If a replacement had to be performed, I would become a guest of Rush Copley Medical Center for a couple of days. Surgery was scheduled for Tuesday, July 17.

This, in a nutshell, is how Edward-Elmhurst Health allowed a patient to “get away” and end up being treated by Rush Copley, a hospital that doesn’t even serve Plainfield. On one hand, I’m gravely disappointed in the way my case was handled by the ER, from the insufficient x-ray images to the inappropriate surgeon referral, all of which prolonged the amount of time that passed between the day I sustained my injury and the day it was fixed. On the other hand, their actions allowed me to connect with a well-regarded shoulder specialist, thanks to a personal recommendation from a friend. So maybe I was better off.

By the time Tuesday, July 17 came around, I was ready to have that painful broken shoulder fixed one way or the other. My hope, of course, was that Dr. Saleem would go in and find a shoulder that could be repaired instead of replaced. When they wheeled me out of recovery and into an elevator instead of back to the prep room where I had started, I knew that wasn’t the case. As the nurse wheeled my bed out of the elevator and onto an upper floor, I said my first full sentence following surgery: “I take it I’m an inpatient now.”

To which the nurse calmly replied, “Yes, you’re an inpatient.”

My heart sank at the realization.

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To be continued…

My Summer Interrupted, Part I

On the evening of July 4. 2018, I sat down to write about what would have been one of my usual blog topics, but just a few paragraphs into it, a life-changing event occurred and I never went back to finish writing that post. Until now. At the risk of running really long, I’d like to start out with my original story and then roll right into what happened next.

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There just wasn’t enough time. That’s been the running theme for me since last May, when I accepted an offer for what may become the most meaningful job I’ve ever had. That’s not the subject of this post, but it shapes many aspects of the story. Without going into gross detail, I am the marketing director for a strong local/regional player in an industry that is all but entirely new to me. The hours are long and they’re bookended by a commute that I can only describe as horrendous. Because I’m essentially starting over, I have to earn my keep, prove my worth, earn my perks, etc. But I do love my job so and have deemed my latest employment situation to be worthy of my efforts and dedication.

My son John is back in Illinois! At the beginning of June, he rode his motorcycle from his three-year temporary home in Portland, Oregon to Rock Island, Illinois, where he was once again working for the Mississippi Bend Players, a professional regional theatre group at Augustana College. He came out last year to act in one of their productions and also served as a construction intern. This year he once again performed in one of their productions, a seven-time Tony Award winner called Big River. For those not familiar, it’s a musical based on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It was wonderful and I was there. Twice.

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Photo by Ann M. Fischler

I was able to attend two performances of Big River, each on a Saturday night, one week apart. Again because of my new work schedule, everything had been somewhat tentative, so the basic plan both times involved me getting home from work Saturday afternoon, hopping on my motorcycle, and high-tailing it to Rock Island in order to arrive in time for the show. My other family members had similar plans but went on different days according to their respective availabilities. Under the circumstances, this was the best we could do.

On the first weekend, I was joined by my dear friend and pillion photographer Ann, who had timed her arrival in Plainfield to coincide with my own arrival home from work. After a few pleasantries and preparations, we were zooming west on Interstate 80. My wife Karen had attended the opening night performance the prior evening and was heading east at the same time. We kept an eye out for each other and somewhere between Princeton and the Quad Cities, we exchanged waves, each of us doing 70 MPH for a combined effect of 140 MPH. It was a quick wave.

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We had a little more time on our way back the following day, so rather than stay on the Interstate again, we exited at Illinois 178 and enjoyed a little two-lane touring through Utica, Ottawa, and points beyond. This is a very picturesque pocket of north-central Illinois featuring curvy roads, wooded areas, a rolling river, and even a few interesting elevation changes. Many bikers and cagers alike favor this area, so we had plenty of company on this beautiful day. Still, we enjoyed this portion of the ride home very much.

The following weekend was similar but different. Once again, I hightailed it after work on Saturday, only with a different set of friends. We were attending the Saturday performance. My wife was bringing her 90-year-old mother in that afternoon to see the Sunday matinee the next day. This presented an excellent opportunity for all of us to gather for supper early Saturday evening at the Bierstube in Moline. My mother-in-law was the star of our party, but nobody thought to take pictures (just one more reason why I appreciate having Ann on board). Still, a good time was had by all. My friends and I thoroughly enjoyed the Saturday night performance of Big River. My wife, daughter, and mother-in-law did likewise on Sunday afternoon, much to the delight of my son, the thespian artist.

There is more, but we are quickly reaching the point at which my story got interrupted in a big way.

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To be continued…

Mediterranean Flavors

I had hinted about doing this back when I wrote about our last cooking endeavor (see Cajun-Midwestern Fusion). With spring being a little late to arrive, Ann and I figured we had one more cooking opportunity before riding season really gets underway. So we sorted through countless recipes, favoring Mediterranean influences this time, and selected three dishes to make for our supper (click on each to see the original recipes and ingredients):
Bacon, Avocado, & Brussels Sprout Salad With Lemon Vinaigrette
Chicken Spinach Feta Pie
Roman-Style Stuffed Artichokes

But before we got into that, Ann served up a light lunch that reminded me of the Cajun cooking day we had enjoyed last month. Apparently one of Ann’s local supermarkets had brought in a sizable shipment of frozen, pre-seasoned crawfish. I’d eaten breaded and fried crawfish tails a few times, but neither Ann nor I had never done the break-em-open-and-eat-the innards thing before. She steamed them up and served them with melted butter in addition to a batch of the same spicy remoulade recipe we had made last time. I’m glad Ann and I shared this new and interesting experience together but in all candor, I prefer nibbling the deep-fried tails.

Raw, shredded Brussels sprouts and baby spinach formed the foundation for this particular salad, which we selected because it didn’t share too many ingredients with our other dishes, but also because Ann and I seem to have developed a thing for Brussels sprouts over the past year. We were not disappointed. The combined ingredients deliver big on flavor and textures. In the future, we might depart from the recipe slightly. The avocado seemed to get run over by everything else and so could be considered expendable. And although the lemon vinaigrette was quite good, a poppyseed dressing may complement the flavors even better. To be determined.

What do you get when you combine ricotta, feta, and Parmesan cheeses with spinach, chicken and more, all baked in a phyllo crust? I regret that I didn’t start shooting photos until our chicken spinach feta pie had already been assembled and baked. The preparation is somewhat involved, yet kind of fun. On this one, however, we deviated from the recipe before I had even arrived. Rather than season and pan fry the chicken breasts, I marinated them a day in advance and then grilled them to perfection the night before I drove up to Ann’s place. By doing this, we turned up the volume on that chicken considerably, I think for the better.

Have you ever worked with phyllo dough? We hadn’t, not before this, and we learned something about it in the process. Once you take the sheets out of their packaging, you’ve got minutes to bathe them in butter or otherwise do something before they become as frail and brittle as dry leaves. But when handled properly, there is no substitute for the light, layered, buttery, flaky magic that results.

Given all the stuff that went inside that pie, we really weren’t sure what was going to happen when Ann released the spring-form pan after baking. Would it self-destruct, sticking to the pan and oozing cheese-infused spinach all over the place? Nope. After allowing the contents to cool and set, the entire pie came out intact and retained its shape, even when sliced. The flavor profile was awesome! Just one amendment going forward, the recipe calls for concentric circles of chopped tomatoes, onions, and olives just beneath the top crust. After eating our respective slices, Ann and I agreed that we would combine those three ingredients into a medley, such that the resulting layer delivered a consistent flavor explosion across the entire pie.

I am a fan of stuffed artichoke hearts. My middle sister Anna has made them for years and I have always enjoyed them. Interestingly enough, Ann and I replicated her recipe almost exactly one year prior to our most recent endeavor, with good results. This time around, we wanted to try using fresh, whole artichokes, a daring endeavor to be sure. The results? Whole artichokes make for a more formidable presentation over canned hearts—think large, stand-alone pieces versus a casserole—but what you gain in appearance, you more than lose in labor and waste. Truth be told, my sister’s casserole has better flavor and texture. But again, we wouldn’t know this had we not tried and as always, we had fun throughout the process. There is no substitute for a kitchen filled with love and laughter.

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A few final thoughts. First, given the characteristics of this meal, I wanted to select a light-bodied, dry wine to balance it off. We went with an inexpensive Pinot Grigio (Fossetta) from Venice, Italy. Crisp and fruity, yet dry, this wine seemed to serve our needs.

Second, I have presented these three dishes in the order in which Ann and I both enjoyed them most. That salad was our hands-down favorite. It was light and brimming with flavor and texture. Sure, we would change things up a little if and when we make it again, but as built, this first-course dish was just fine. The pie was our second favorite. Plenty of flavors there, even if we hadn’t used grilled chicken (but I’m glad we did). It’s a rich dish, though, and that one pie could have fed up to eight people. Luckily, the leftovers are at least as good as the first time around. The artichokes tasted fine, but in the end, we deemed them to be too labor-intensive for what we got out of them, especially when compared to the tried-and-true casserole version that we’d made before.

Finally, speaking of labor-intensive dishes, all three of these involved a fair amount of cutting, chopping, mincing, grating, etc. That’s not necessarily bad, especially if you enjoy being in the kitchen. But if you are looking for quick and easy meals, these are not the dishes you seek.

It may be a while before you see another “Ann and Michael cooking” post, as once the weather warms up, we tend to go riding when we get together—and I do so enjoy sharing those excursions here. On the other hand, Mother Nature has been a little unpredictable lately, so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

Until then, as always, thanks for hanging with me.

Little Cravings—Sopes!

It’s pretty simple, really. You make a stiff corn dough using masa harina, water, and salt. Then you divide that dough into equal portions, each about the size of a golf ball. Now keeping the dough moist by covering it with a wet paper towel, you take each of the golf balls and form it into a flat circle with raised and pinched edges, sort of like a cornmeal petri dish. Then you fry those babies in hot oil until the edges become crispy, but the insides are still soft. The resulting flat corn cakes are called sopes, a type of Mexican street food known as antojitos, which translates literally into “little cravings.” Well let me tell you about the little cravings Ann and I made last weekend, because they were really, really good.

You can put all manner of meats and/or vegetables, plus condiments, on sopes. The raised edges act like a little, non-offensive Mexican border wall that helps keep all the ingredients on top of the little cornmeal disc. Ann and I chose to make green chile pulled pork carnitas, using a pressure cooker. We used a beautiful three-pound pork butt, which we cut into eight pieces and browned, and then cooked under pressure, along with a bunch of tomatillos, green chiles, onions, garlic, herbs and spices.

Mind you, I had never used a pressure cooker before and everything I knew about them I learned from watching television sitcoms, so my biggest fear was not that the meal would turn out poorly, but that we would cause a messy explosion. Ann assured me that my fears were unfounded and all would turn out just fine, as long as we observed a few simple precautions. Of course she was right and everything went as planned, rather than as feared.

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What went into the pressure cooker filled the pressure cooker. What was left after the lid came off took up a lot less space. The eight portions of pork butt had become so tender, they were already falling apart before I attacked them with two forks. Having given up a lot of liquid under all the heat and pressure, our vegetables were but a collection of mushy solids. And there was indeed a lot of residual liquid in the cooking chamber. This transformation took place in just under an hour, not including cool-down and release. We probably spent more time prepping the ingredients than cooking them. And it was worth every minute. Once that lid came off, the aroma was delightful.

What Ann did next is really cool and ultimately produced the best part of our meal. After removing the chunks of pork for me to pull apart, she strained all the remaining solids from the greasy liquid, stirring and pressing as she filled the strainer. Next, she separated and removed the fat, pouring flavorful greenish liquid into a clean pot. Are you ready for the magic? Ann poured the strained solids into a blender, liquified them, and added the resulting slurry into our broth. Then she cooked the entire lot down into a mild-yet-flavorful salsa verde. This took some time, but again proved to be well worth the wait. A small bit of key lime juice added to the serving bowl was the final touch that made this salsa the best condiment we had.  And we had plenty: homemade guacamole and pico de gallo (“rooster’s beak,” a fresh tomato salsa), several store variety salsas, shredded lettuce, shredded chihuahua cheese, crumbled queso fresco, and crema, a mild-flavored Mexican style sour cream.

Once the salsa had been reduced, Ann fried the sopes on top of the stove while our shredded carnitas, freshly bathed in our salsa verde, were being broiled to browned perfection in the oven below.

It’s not always easy to have the various components of a meal come off in a timely fashion, but this time it did. The table had already been set and every condiment served before Ann began frying the sopes. We didn’t make too many because sopes are best served hot and fresh. The steaming broiled green chile pork carnitas came out of the oven when the sopes were ready to be filled.

And man, did we fill them. Little cravings? Ha! We ate our fill, delighted to agree that we liked our homemade salsa fresca, salsa verde, and guacamole far more than any of the store-bought condiments we had procured. Ann’s son Andy agreed that our endeavor had been successful and once I got home with my share of the leftovers, even my wife Karen, who does not tolerate much spiciness, agreed that our pork carnitas and salsa verde were mild enough, yet so flavorful.

You know what? As culinary efforts go, this was not a labor-intensive meal. As always, there was much animated conversation and laughter in the kitchen, which somehow made our efforts seem more effortless.

I can’t wait to see what we cook up next time. Until then, thanks for hanging with me.