Ups and Downs – Part 2 of 3

Cherry Dark

Continued from Ups and Downs – Part 1 of 3

The day after I returned from having the time of my life at the Midwest Motorcycle Rally, I was back at work, bright and early on a Monday morning. One day later, I and all of my colleagues received word that my employer of the past eight years was on the verge of permanently closing its doors. At the end of the week, that’s pretty much what happened. I will not pretend that we hadn’t seen it coming for the past five months or so, but neither will I speculate on how or why my “other family” met its demise—because speculation is all it would be and besides, I don’t enjoy conducting post mortem exercises. What I will do is share some of my own introspective thoughts on the matter, to give you a glimpse of what’s been going on between my own ears lately. Could be fun.

But yes, as I write this for you, I am now in transition. Between opportunities. Looking for my next big thing. Those are all clever euphemisms for being unemployed. How’s that for a down. And unlike getting fired, I can feel no bitterness toward any of my former coworkers or even the owners of the company because they are all in the same boat, unemployed. Oh, it sucks, believe me.

ResumeClip

But what’s done is done. I can’t even give you a hyperlink to the company’s website because it has been taken down. Back in 2013, I oversaw the total redevelopment of that website and had written a fair amount of content for its pages over the years. I also developed and delivered educational presentations on my company’s behalf at two national conferences of the Professional Retail Store Maintenance Association (PRSM). I helped bring a proprietary operating software system into being and wrote user documentation and training content for many of its components. My teams and I accomplished some tremendous things together over the years and I remain grateful for having been a part of that. What awesome opportunities I enjoyed during my tenure there! See? Ups and downs. Some of the ups were pretty awesome.

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I have only dealt with the Illinois Department of Employment Security (aka unemployment benefits and services) once before. That was in 2006 and things have changed a great deal since then. For one thing, most activity related to unemployment claims have been moved online. In theory, this makes everything run smoother and faster, unless your last name has an apostrophe in it and various government agencies have dealt with it in different ways. This confuses the online system, causing it to throw one red security flag after another. I tried to “find my way in” online, but that only convinced the system that I did not belong there. The system locked me out and provided a toll-free number to call for assistance, if you’ll pardon the exaggeration. After spending at least 45 minutes on the phone, including hold time, the frustrated gentleman on the other end of the line also became convinced that I was not going to get into their online system—this despite that I had been there without issue in 2006. I am only too grateful that a SWAT team didn’t descend upon my home to confiscate my offensive apostrophe. In the end, I went down to the IDES office in Joliet and got it taken care of. Sure, it took a little time and effort. In all candor, the folks at the office spent more time trying to figure out their own software system than resolving my issue, which they really did in short order. Sometimes human beings are superior to machines, especially when it comes to dealing with the dreaded apostrophe.

Laugh

I’m okay. In many ways, I’m stronger and better than I’ve ever been. Before we move on to Part Three of my Ups and Downs saga, let me share a bit of philosophy that a pretty cool Catholic priest once passed along to me: “When bad things happen, you can laugh or you can cry.” The implication of those words is that neither response is going to change what happened. What changes, fundamentally, is your response to what happened. This in turn shapes your perspective and your attitude.

Me, I prefer to laugh. Most if not all of my friends seem to appreciate that about me. I still fumble sometimes, but then I get back up, laugh about it, and move on.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
― Viktor E. Frankl

Thanks for hanging with me. As I indicated in Part One, there is more to this story, so please stick around.

The Italians in My Garden

My father had more square feet of garden space on his property than he had of lawn. This was not an unusual sight when I was growing up in Blue Island, Illinois. Many Italian immigrants had huge, beautiful gardens overflowing with all manner of fruits and vegetables. Gardening was to my father what motorcycling and writing have become for me. Working in that yard was his pastime, his passion, his outlet. He tried to pass that along to me—not only his knowledge but his passion. Alas, only some of it stuck, mainly because yard work interferes with my motorcycling and travel hobby.

But as I said, some of it stuck. And now that my father has been gone for six years, my feeble attempts at keeping a garden are one way I stay spiritually connected to the old man. Yeah, sometimes when I’m toiling away on my rocky, weed-choked soil, I can hear my father admonishing me, half in Italian and half in English.

“Michele, che fai??? That’s not the way I showed you!”

“I know, Pop, I know.”

If he were still here, I’d get frustrated but now I only smile, glad to recall the sound of his voice, and I keep working, the sweat raining off of me in buckets.

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It took three years of trying before I was able to keep a fig tree alive by my house. My father kept sending me home with shoots from one of his large trees, which are not easy to keep alive in the midwest, and I kept losing them over the winter. Either my burial technique (a subject for another time) wasn’t quite right or the sapling hadn’t taken sufficiently to overwinter beneath the ground. But on that third year, my little tree survived and I practically broke my back door down running for the phone to tell the old man.

“Pop! Pop! The little sonofabitch is still alive!”

“Eh?”

“The fig tree! My little fig tree is alive! I did it!”

“No shit! See? I told you…”

And so the conversation went. The following month, while at my father’s house, he handed me another shoot, to start a second tree. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But for a good ten years or so, I had two fig trees growing in my back yard and they produced enough figs to be able to give some away (see my 2015 article, “The Ups and Downs of Growing Fig Trees in Northern Illinois“). Then two years ago, one of the trees perished due to a cracked base below the soil line. And last year, something happened to my second tree over the winter and it, too, perished. I felt terrible, not only because I would no longer have figs, but because my trees had begun as shoots from my father’s trees, which like him, are no more. I vowed to start over.

Last winter I began looking into fig varieties, hoping to come as close as possible to replicating the Italian dark fig variety that I got from my father. Without going into any details or the legality thereof, it is highly unlikely that my father’s trees came from an American nursery. But I digress. My brother-in-law advised me to check out a variety called the Chicago Hardy Fig. As I understand it, this is a hybrid developed from a Sicilian variety and bred for hardiness against the harsh winters of the Midwest. As luck would have it, the Chicago Hardy is now sold at local nurseries. This last fact amazes me, as most of the non-Italians I know have never even seen a fresh fig.

Well, like I implied earlier, yard work at my house takes a back seat to my motorcycling and writing endeavors, and it shows. Most of my seedlings did not survive long enough to get transplanted. But for a couple of Italian squash varieties, which I will get to in a moment, and my cucumbers, which can be started outdoors almost any time, I have no garden this year. Yeah, but I still managed to keep one promise to myself.

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On the afternoon of July 4, 2017, while walking the garden center at a local Home Depot, I spotted a handful of Chicago Hardy Fig trees that, along with all other trees and shrubs, were being offered at 50% off. The trees were quite small, but also very much alive and for six bucks apiece, I figured I could afford to take a chance on two of the healthiest specimens. Trees are generally installed in springtime, not July (thus the low price), but I decided to take a chance. And so with temps near 90 and the humidity making it feel warmer than that, I installed those two fig trees. Again my father’s words came to me.

“Michele, if you do it right, they’ll live. Don’t leave any air down by the roots, but give the roots good soil to grow in. Put some fertilizer and give them a drink every few days. You’ll see.”

“I will. Thanks, Pop.”

One day later, my little trees showed no signs of stress. That’s good, but we still have a long way to go. So we wait, cultivate as needed, and pray a little.

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I promised to tell you about the other Italians that made it into my garden this season. Besides cucumbers, which anybody can grow if you can just keep the rabbits away for a while, I have the ever-prolific zucchini and a newcomer to my yard this year, cucuzza.

I know, I know, what’s a cucuzza. My parents, along with many of the other old Italians, used to regularly grow these things in their gardens. In simplest terms, cucuzza is a type of gourd that is grown and prepared like a squash. The plant is a climbing vine. The fruits can grow as long as softball bats. The outer skin is not edible. The flesh is light in color and quite mild. When cooked it tends to hold its shape and texture well. You can saute it, bake it, grill it, etc.

In all candor, I do not have any experience growing these things and since I wasn’t much for vegetables in my younger years, I haven’t had much experience eating them, either. A couple of years ago, I grilled a cucuzza that my brother-in-law had grown and it turned out okay. This year, if all goes well, I will have quite a few with which to experiment. This could be good or bad as just one cucuzza is enough to feed several people. I’ve got four to six vines growing out there. Pray for me.

Gardening has been and will always be a love/hate thing for me. I derive much satisfaction from eating foods that I grew myself. Furthermore, gardening is one of several ways in which I honor my father. At the same time, I detest every minute I give up working in that yard that could have been spent plying great roads on a pleasant, sunny day—the very same type of day that is ideal for yard work. But you see, some people say that having balance in life is not about either/or; it’s about and. I guess that’s why I devote at least some of my time and energy to my garden, even if I am not fanatical about it.

Anybody got any good cucuzza recipes? Just asking. Thanks for hanging with me.

My Kids Aren’t Kids Anymore

Babies

How did this happen? Just a few short years ago, I was standing in an operating room at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park, scared shitless as I heard my newborn daughter utter her first cry. At that moment, my entry into parenthood had felt an awful lot like falling from the sky—a feeling of which I have never been fond. It was a girl! I looked down at my wife, who was still adjusting to the effects of the anesthesia—still not convinced that she wasn’t about to freeze to death or slide right off the table—and confirmed, “We have a Teresa!”

Not even two years later, I was there again, holding my wife’s hand as my son’s first cry filled the room. I’ll never forget the exchange that took place between the doctor and me as my son was born. I was standing behind the “blue field” which I had been warned not to cross, holding Karen’s hand, waiting. Maybe not quite as scared as I’d been the first time, but still pretty wired. Then just before that initial cry, the doc exclaimed, “It’s a boy!”

Dumbfounded, I jumped up to see over the little blue screen, looked at the doctor and inquired, “Really?”

The doctor looked at me with raised eyebrows and immediately pointed to the evidence, which irrefutably identified my offspring as having been born male. “Oh, yeah,” was all I could muster in reply. The doctor shook his head and, satisfied that he had convinced me, went back to work on putting my wife back together.

That was well over twenty years ago. My wife, my calendar, the old guy in my bathroom mirror, and my quite empty bank account all assure me that this is the case. And I vaguely recall all the years that have passed. Infancy. Toddlerhood. The terrible twos. The you-ain’t-seen-nothing-yet threes. Preschool. Kindergarten. Grade school. Middle school. High school. College (my bank account is still in denial). Yes, I was there for all of it, but looking back, somehow all those years seem more like months now.

Tre at Work

Offspring number one graduated from college some three years ago. She parlayed her undergrad psych degree into a position with an outfit called Clearbrook, a provider of home-based services for individuals with disabilities (and their families). Teresa’s subject is an autistic teen—and not the first whom with she has ever dealt because she served an internship that involved caring for an autistic young adult.

At the same time, she enrolled at The Nail Inn & School of Cosmetology, intending to eventually pay her way through grad school by making others beautiful. She has also toyed with the idea of combining her two professions—simultaneously working on the interior and exterior of her clients’ heads—a concept that may still be brought to fruition. Tre at Work 2

I was quite proud when she completed her cosmetology classes, obtained her license, and got her own chair at a local salon where she has worked since her high school days. I soon became a regular client. That’s right, I trust my daughter to work on and about my head while wielding precision sharpened hair cutting implements. We have evolved through long and short hairstyles, trying different methods, products, etc. And I must admit she does nice work.

But it doesn’t end there. Teresa was recently accepted into a grad program at Aurora University. And so possibilities she has imagined are gradually becoming possibilities realized. Who knows, maybe someday my daughter will be able to figure out what’s wrong with me. This has been a running joke for a few years between Teresa, myself, and a few of my biker friends. Hey, if she can figure out what’s wrong with any of us, she’ll be up for a Nobel prize in no time at all.

JEGD Head ShotOffspring number two went in a different direction and graduated from college with a double major—Asian Studies and Theater Arts—and was accepted by the Portland Actors Conservatory in Portland, Oregon. Now in addition to being able to converse in Mandarin Chinese, in just two short years, my son has learned firsthand the plight of the starving artist.

Yes, I’m kidding. Sort of. I have no doubt that John has learned the inherent value of sufficient funding and what it takes just to achieve that plateau. But more than that, he recently completed his course of study at the conservatory. He has already earned paid assignments doing tech work (i.e. lighting and sound design and operation) for Portland-area theater groups and has already signed on with the Mississippi Bend Players in Rock Island, Illinois to do tech work on three of their productions this summer and he will also perform in one of these productions.

When people would ask me about my kids—after having told me about their doctors, lawyers, engineers, and accountants—I would tell them that Teresa was doing hair, “in preparation for graduate studies in psychology” and that John was enrolled at the Portland Actors Conservatory. Then we would all smile and nod as if I had just shown them my zero-balance checkbook.

Well to hell with them, to say nothing of the horses upon which they rode in!

The reality of it all is that my daughter Teresa really is about to embark on a learning journey that will in large part be funded by her own blood, sweat, tears and sheer talent as a licensed cosmetologist whose services have been in ever-increasing demand ever since she obtained her chair at Sharp Designs in Plainfield, Illinois. And who knows, maybe someday she really will figure out what’s up with my riding buddies and me.

The reality of it all is that my son John works in theater. That’s right, he gets paid to design and operate lighting and sound systems for theatrical productions and he also gets paid to perform, professionally. This means that if you want to see my son perform in the theatrical production of Wait Until Dark, you will have to buy a ticket. Wow!

Riding BuddiesMy son is also my closest riding buddy. When he took his motorcycle out to Portland, I accompanied him, along with another riding buddy of ours, and followed by our chase vehicle, headed up by my wife, Karen. When he rides from Portland to the Quad Cities this summer, I shall ride out and meet him halfway, along with two of our closest riding buddies and no chase vehicle. It will be epic—and it will be documented here on mgdaversa.com.

Am I proud of my kids? Yes, very much so. Do I agree with everything they’ve done or might do? Hell no!

Am I okay with this? Well… Sometimes. I cannot lie.

On the one hand, I want so badly to be able to protect my children as I did… well, when they were children. On the other hand, they aren’t children anymore. Now it seems to me that’s a harsh reality for any parent to accept.

A good friend of mine, who is also older and wiser than me, once advised me as follows.
“Michael, we spend all of their lives preparing them for adulthood. At some point, it has to be up to them.” Then he just looked at me and smiled. Oh, how I wanted so badly to punch him right in the mouth… but he was right.

Along those same lines, my father used to say, “I’ll give you my opinion if you want to hear it, but then it’s up to you.” It took me quite a few years to understand what he meant, and possibly how he felt. God, how I miss my father.

My kids aren’t kids anymore. Even though they are still my babies and always will be, I can no longer treat them as if they are still little kids. I’ve done my part. Besides, I’m old(er) and tired.

I am so proud of my children.

A Nice Little Burger Run

Miss Scarlett and Me

This burger run was nearly called on account of rain. It had been an on again, off again thing all week long, as the weather forecast flipped from partly sunny to a 30% chance of rain to a 70% chance of rain and then back to a 30% chance before settling on “mostly cloudy with rain toward evening” by the time today actually arrived. That was good enough for my friend Ann and me, who had been itching to go riding together since last November. As circumstances had it, Saturday had been the far better day, weather-wise, but Sunday was our only mutually available day for riding. It isn’t always easy when riding companions live over 100 miles apart, but then I’ve never been intimidated by distances. And so we watched the weather forecast evolve daily until today, when our story begins.

Kenosha, Wisconsin has proven to be roughly equidistant between Ann’s home and my own. When the days are shorter, as is the case in early spring and late fall, we sometimes arrange to meet and begin our riding from there. Today we met up at 11:00 AM in a large parking lot just off Interstate 94, beneath an endless canopy of steel gray clouds. The ambient temperature was 52 degrees and climbing. We would have felt much warmer at that temperature had the sun been shining, but as is the case with most things in life, one must play the hand that has been dealt. We had been dealt a cold start to our morning and the promise of rain before suppertime, so we planned a short run centered around lunch and a walk. Not being strangers to riding, Ann and I both arrived dressed in layers for warmth and adjustability. Within minutes, we were on the bike—my full dresser Victory Vision Tour, affectionately named Miss Scarlett—and headed for the unlikely destination of Burlington, Wisconsin, home of one Fred’s World’s Best Burgers, also known as Fred’s Parkview.

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I have to admit, having married a girl from Kenosha, I’ve been visiting and traveling this region for decades. Over the course of all those years, I’d always known where Burlington was, but never knew much about this community, nor had I ever felt compelled to go there. Until now. Boasting the “World’s Best Burgers,” this establishment known as Fred’s sits on the northeast corner of Milwaukee Avenue and North Pine Street in downtown Burlington. The founder and owner of Fred’s is a woodworker by the name of Fred Mabson, who used his craft to create a unique atmosphere in which to enjoy this family-friendly eating and drinking establishment. As soon as we stepped through the doors, Ann and I were surrounded by tastefully finished knotty pine and a lot of smiling faces. Their corner location is rather large on the inside, with a fair number of dining tables filling two rooms. We had arrived shortly after noon and, in addition to some seats at the bar, there was exactly one table open, which we immediately grabbed for our own.

As Ann and I approached from the outside, and having never been there before, I had assumed Fred’s was a corner bar that served a pretty good burger. But once inside, I saw a higher percentage of tables filled than of bar stools. I also saw families—you know, the kind with kids—as well as friends, all eating, drinking, talking, laughing and otherwise having themselves quite a time on an early Sunday afternoon. In short, Fred’s is the kind of place where one can feel good just by stepping inside. And then there’s the food.

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As you might expect, Fred’s menu focuses on their burgers, but looking beyond that for a moment, this little place has got a pretty extensive menu! We opted to keep it simple, with a couple of cheeseburgers. Ann got the quarter-pound version, while I opted for the half-pound burger. Our toppings differed, but our experiences were quite similar. What comes to the table is a fresh, hand-made burger, cooked to your liking, served on a fresh, buttered and grilled bun and topped with equally fresh ingredients. The homemade fries are curly cut; the homemade chips are ribbon cut. It’s all very tasty and it would take a number of visits in order for me to try everything that I’d like to try off of that menu. So you see, there’s an awful lot going on inside that corner establishment in downtown Burlington.

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As is usually the case, Ann and I wanted to take a walk after we had finished our lunch. In many instances, this has involved riding to another location, usually a park or state forest destination, where we could walk off our meal and enjoy the scenery. On this particular trip, all we had to do was cross the street a few times in order to visit three riverfront parks. First, we walked through Echo Veterans Memorial Park on Echo Lake. Then we crossed over to Riverside Park, which runs along the Fox River for quite a while. Before we had gone too far, we crossed a footbridge into Wehmhoff Jucker Park, on the opposite bank of the Fox, before heading back to the parking lot where we had left Miss Scarlett.

At that point, I began to notice that the cloud cover had gradually grown darker toward the west. That suppertime rain threat should still have been hours away, but something told me it was time to carry Ann back to her car, and quickly. After all, I had promised her a day free from rain or snow. Although it never rained on us as we sped back toward Kenosha, the sky did spit on us a few times. So once I had gotten Ann back to her car, we quickly said our goodbyes before she headed north and I high-tailed it back to Illinois.

It had been a glass-half-full kind of day. Sure, I could have moaned about how short our burger run had been, or about how Mother Nature had robbed Ann and me of another hour or two of walking/riding time. Nah. Given that it was only April 2, we were lucky to have gotten the bike out at al. Besides that, we had discovered a really neat lunch stop that I’m sure we will revisit someday. And so rather than moan or complain, Ann and I will enjoy the memories of another great little run, all while planning our next one.

Life is good. Thanks for hanging with me.

She Likes Watching Birds

Leia Walking

Our family pooch is a German Shepherador Retriever mix named Leia, although I also refer to her as the black princess. She’s sort of a self-contradicting mixed breed, as Labrador Retrievers love the water and German Shepherds do not. Leia takes an interest in bodies of water, while firmly planted on dry ground, yet she despises going out in the rain and literally screams when being bathed.

Leia loves going for daily walks with me. When I come home from work, she bounces around the house, hooting, crying and vocalizing in general until I am ready to go and produce a leash. Once the leash is secured, we head off on a walk that usually takes us around four, six, or nine blocks. On long walks, we take the nine block route and add on a side trip to a local dog park, for a grand total of 2.75 miles, but during the cold months, when days are shorter, we have generally kept it down to circumnavigating six blocks.

While we are out walking, like any healthy dog, Leia loves to sniff where other dogs have recently been. As such, we religiously stop at area trees, mailbox posts, street lamps, and fire hydrants, for these are the social media of the dog world. Indeed, the way she keeps her nose to the ground as we peruse the parkways of southern Plainfield, one would think there is surely a bit of bloodhound in the mix. but it’s all good and truth be told, we both enjoy our walks, most days.

Doves

With the approach of spring, we began to see more and more animal life while we were out and about. Squirrels, rabbits, birds, and other people with dogs all became more prevalent and the days have grown longer. We have also encountered dogs without their people, but save the inconsiderate, careless, and sometimes just plain stupid members of our community as a topic for some other time. Now Leia has always shown an interest in the animals around us. I have occasionally had to correct her for trying to yank me right off my feet in her effort to give chase to a rabbit with me in tow. One time I watched her try to leap into a maple tree after a robin that had just flown up there. I must admit, I admired her enthusiasm, but she was tethered to me at the time and I really had no desire to follow my dog up into a maple tree that day.

Duck Duck Goose

Now lately, my young gal has taken an interest in larger birds, if only because they are substantial enough to distract her while she is tracking the urinary trail of a previous canine contributor to the social media content that lines the broad parkways of Feeney Drive. We pass several retention ponds and a culvert or two during our normal walks and lately, these small-scale wetlands have been frequented by ducks and geese. So far, the geese have been  Leia’s favorite, perhaps because they seem large enough to be potential playmates. They also don’t act terribly afraid. They sometimes hang out by the sidewalk above one of the retention ponds and simply walk down to the water, slowly, once we are within a quarter block of them.

Hawk

We have also seen numerous hawks and even a few crows—or perhaps ravens; I’m never sure. Now these are of little interest to Leia. They are never very close and if they are ever on the ground they are not there for long. In all candor, the only time I have ever seen a hawk on the ground, it was in the process of killing and eating a small mammal or another bird. Those few times I have witnessed that, Leia was not with me. maybe that’s for the best. I can only assume the crows hang around to clean up after the hawks.

DucksMore Ducks

Lately, the ducks—Mallards actually—have given us the most viewing pleasure. They are more active than the geese, at least when Leia is around. We have witnessed water landings as well as sudden take-offs, the latter of which really got Leia’s attention one evening.

 


I would be lying if I said I didn’t get something out of these excursions as well. The truth is I do so on several levels. Besides the obvious benefits of daily exercise, I also use these opportunities to bond with my dog. In addition, there is something to be said for communing with nature, wherever you happen to find it. I usually take these walks during my first hour after returning from work. You might say that this is just one more way for me to destress toward the end of the day. However one chooses to look at it, I do believe I benefit from my daily walks with Leia.

Thanks for hanging with me!

Fun with Leftovers: Philly Meatloaf Skillet

Writer

Whether via broadcast media, print media, or social media, everybody likes to showcase their best dishes. And in that regard, I suppose I’m not much different from anybody else. I’ve made no secret about a book I’ve been working on, which includes a fair amount of cooking, but few if any actual recipes. One evening I was discussing some aspect of my book with my friend (and fellow foodie) Ann when she pointed out that I seem to have a lot of fun with leftovers—not just reheating my dishes but in many cases, repurposing the stuff. “You may have an interesting theme there,” she suggested. Well, I thought about it a little bit and realized that, as usual, she was probably right. I really do try to have fun with my leftovers and odds are you won’t find another cookbook showcasing some of the things I’ve done on day two—or day three, for that matter—after the original dish has been prepared, served, and eaten.

Onions

For me, reheating leftovers is fine, but why not have a little fun with it and enjoy something just a little bit different than what you ate the night before? This is my premise for the whole “fun with leftovers” premise. All this requires is a sense of what ingredients go together, a little creativity, and a willingness to accept that not every experiment will end well—but that sometimes you will win. May I demonstrate?

Assume a meatloaf. It was a good meatloaf, prepared recently (no horror stories, please), and everybody has already had a meatloaf sandwich for lunch the following day. Now all you have left is this butt of a meatloaf, maybe enough for two modest slices, but you don’t want another meatloaf sandwich and if you make another one for somebody else, there’s gonna’ be trouble. So you scour the fridge and pantry, and you gather the following items, in addition to the foil-wrapped butt of meatloaf.

  •  at least half an onion
  • a good bell pepper of any (edible) color
  • one or more cloves of fresh garlic
  • two slices of sandwich cheese (American, Provolone, Swiss, etc.)
  • a little oil or butter (I prefer olive oil for this particular example)
  • salt and spices

Armed with nothing more than a cutting board, a sharp knife, a skillet, and a flipper of some sort, we are ready to begin. Heat up your skillet while you slice at least half an onion to the thickness of your choosing. When the skillet is warmed, add some oil and swirl it around. The oil will become thinner as it heats up. If it begins to smoke, quickly reduce the heat, unless you are into pyrotechnics and have a self-contained breathing apparatus handy. Otherwise, once ready, toss in those onions, season them to your liking, and toss/stir/flip them about  Then lower the heat so that the onions can clarify and caramelize a bit while you cut up your pepper and garlic.

PeppersMeatloaf

Toss in your sliced pepper and garlic, season a little more if necessary, and give it all a toss or stir. If the skillet loks a little dry, you can do one of two things—either add a little more oil/butter, or toss in a bit of water, wine or brandy, to loosen things up. Once loosened, toss and/or stir the contents of the skillet, then cover and set it aside. As the peppers cook a bit, you will need to toss and/or stir one more time. You will also need to cut up your meatloaf.

Ready for Cheese

At this point, everything in the skillet has already been cooked, so it largely becomes a matter of heating or browning the meatloaf pieces. This is also the time to introduce your cheese.

Cheese

What you add depends on what you like and/or what you have handy. As a rule, I use only cheese and not “processed cheese food,” but I should point out that the original Philly cheese steak was made with cheese whiz and not some genuine cheese. To melt the cheese, simply cover the skillet. if you are concerned that the contents are too dry, dribble a bit of water (or wine or brandy) into the skillet before covering. Then wait a bit.

Finis

The steam melts the cheese and gets everything warm and cozy. As the melted cheese hits the skillet, it begins to bubble and brown a bit, which changes the flavor and texture of the cheese. Once that happens, this baby is done—and it looks nothing like the original dish you served a day or two ago.

At this point, you can serve this skillet dish on a roll or bun, or you can serve it up on a plate and enjoy it as is. The flavor is such that it stands on its own.

Needless to say, you could pull this off with chicken, with sandwich steaks, leftover beef, or (big surprise here) leftover meatloaf. Just imagine the possibilities and let your imagination be your guide.

Thank you for hanging with me.

The Road Ahead

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Usually, in the dead of winter, I pass the time by looking ahead to the upcoming riding season.  We certainly haven’t had much of a winter here in Chicagoland, but my mind wanders forward just the same. Excellent memories of riding seasons past only serve to increase my yearning for the rides yet to come. And so some trips have already been booked, while others are still being planned. There are some of the usual trips, events, and fundraisers that I attend every year, but I always try to add at least one new thing each season.

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To be sure, last year will be hard to top. I put some good miles on Miss Scarlett, my full dresser touring bike, in 2016. One trip alone was 4,800 miles long—running from Chicagoland to Portland, Oregon and back—the stuff of dreams! My son was with me for half of that one. Nothing bad happened; he’s been going to school in Portland and wanted his bike out there with him. A mutual friend of ours, an experienced touring rider named Eddie, made the entire trip with me. My wife and sister also made the entire loop in a chase vehicle of sorts, also known as the family minivan.

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There were other great rides as well, some with my son, some with riding groups, some with my dear friend and riding companion, Ann, and a few alone. I don’t recall my total mileage for the season—I may not have even recorded it—but I’m pretty sure it was in excess of 10,000 miles. Nice.

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What will this season hold? What lays on the road ahead? I don’t know that I’ll be able to replicate that Portland run, though I am toying with the idea of doing a portion of that when my son rides his bike back to Illinois to work a theatrical production in the Quad Cities this summer. We’ll see. I do have one new thing planned, a trip that many of my biker friends have done several times over. Ann and I are going to join a small group of riding acquaintances on a four-day bike trip around Lake Michigan. I’ve been meaning to make that run for a few years now. Almost did it once, but my financial situation abruptly changed and the trip never happened.

Until now. This year, it’s gonna’ happen. Averaging only 330 miles per day, Ann and I will follow our highly seasoned riding buddy “Johnny B” up through Wisconsin, across some of the more picturesque parts of Michigan’s Upper Penninsula, then across the Mighty Mac bridge into the Lower Penninsula, through the Tunnel of Trees, stopping at the most unusual Legs Inn for a bite and some atmosphere, before heading down into northern Indiana and back into Illinois. That’s not nearly as many miles as my epic journey to Oregon and back, but I believe this trip will be epic nonetheless. And you will be able to read all about it, right here.

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Just one final thought, about which I shall write more someday. There is this bittersweet moment that occurs, not at the end of each road trip, but on the last night before that trip concludes. It’s that one last night on the road that does it to me, every time. We’re still not back home, doing laundry and paying the bills. We’re still not back at work, earning the money to pay for these trips. Not at all. We’re still out having fun… but we can see the end from where we’re standing. The music is playing and there’s a cold drink in my hand as I look at Miss Scarlett shimmering in the moonlight—or perhaps that’s the glow of the sodium arc lamps in the hotel parking lot. And it feels so good to be free, but I can already hear Monday sharpening its claws in the distance. Therein lies the bittersweet part.

I can’t wait to show you some new places and things this year! Thanks for hanging with me.

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.

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.