The Things That Nearly Didn’t Happen

I almost didn’t go. I’m ashamed to admit this now but it’s true. I had never attended the Midwest Motorcycle Rally by myself and as I am not a great alone person, I hadn’t found the thought of going alone particularly appealing. My son, who hasn’t attended with me since 2015, had really wanted to go this year but he ran into an unfortunate combination of circumstances that made going impossible for him. The best pillion companion/friend I could possibly ever hope for hasn’t initiated an actual conversation with me in a couple of years now and my invitation to her was simply disregarded. We hadn’t attended since 2019. The pandemic had nixed the 2020 rally, although some people still went to hang out at the hotel. Then last year, I canceled early on after my own circumstances had given me a viable excuse to not go. But the reality was, I just wasn’t sure I could face seeing one reminder after another of all the good times I’d had with my previous traveling partners over the years. I wasn’t entirely certain anybody would really miss me, anyway. It turns out I had been dead wrong, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Parking lot at the Settle Inn of La Crosse, WI, July 18, 2014 — my first MMR experience

Let me tell you about a series of catalysts that caused me to go this year. First and foremost, last September, a dear lady who had befriended my son and me on our very first day at the 2014 MMR, and with whom I had been friends ever since, passed away suddenly. That rocked my world because I had always assumed I would see her again sometime. There had been talk of possibly doing a memorial ride for her at this year’s rally, so there was that.

Then in the dead of winter, one of my better MMR buddies had begun petitioning me to attend this year. I still remember telling him, “that might mean going alone,” but that hadn’t deterred him and I really don’t enjoy saying no to my friends. At that time, my son was not yet out of the running so I reasoned that it would be easier to reserve a couple of rooms early and cancel later than to try making reservations after everything was booked — which happens every year now at this event. So ever the optimist, I reserved two rooms.

July was almost upon us when my son had to face facts that there was no way he would be able to make the trip this year, but in arriving at that conclusion, he made me promise that I would still go and that I would participate in the memorial ride for our friend. I had seen on the official MMR website that “Diane Colletta’s Memorial Ride” had been listed on the schedule of guided tours, a prominent feature of this Rally. Somehow, my being on that ride had become super important to my son, perhaps because I would in effect be participating for both of us. So I agreed and began putting the word out to my MMR friends that I would be coming out, most likely alone. Once again, the “alone” part phased nobody. All I got were words of encouragement and a few invitations from friends asking me to hang out with them during the evening gatherings. There was no turning back now.

A new pair of red leather riding gloves quickly began releasing excess dye

On the morning of Wednesday, July 13, I left hours later than I had originally planned, but that’s the beautiful thing about going to this event on Wednesday: nothing is happening that day. So no matter how late you arrive, you’re still a day early. The ride from my home in Plainfield, IL up to Winona, MN is well over 300 miles, no matter which route you take, so the general plan was to spend five or more hours alone with my thoughts, enjoying the scenery, which is plentiful once you get clear of the metro areas. Have you ever ridden through a particularly beautiful stretch of country, taking slow, measured breaths and realizing that all the trees, shrubs, grass, and wildlife are also breathing? That’s like a Zen moment for me, to become present in the moment and breathe with all the other living things as I contemplate them.

My rolling meditation was temporarily disrupted when I pulled into Janesville for a meal and some gasoline for Miss Scarlett, my bike. Why do they make Cracker Barrel restaurants so difficult to get into, anyway? As I peeled off my new leather riding gloves for the first time in hours, it became immediately apparent that an abundance of excess red dye had been leaching out of the leather and onto my hands over the past few hours. Anybody who has had this happen knows that the dye, regardless of color, will take longer to get out of your skin than it took to get in there in the first place. Ah, well, my lunch was good and fuel prices in Wisconsin are substantially lower than they are in northern Illinois. Besides, I was on vacation!

Miss Scarlett basking in the Winona sun after a job well done

Some time later, I was in Minnesota and approaching my destination as the sun had begun its descent, just reaching that annoying, blinding point in the sky as I made my final approach to the Plaza Hotel & Suites. I raised a gloved hand to block the sun while I was still about a half mile out, scanning the road ahead for my turn, when I heard a loud TAP and felt something bounce soundly off my palm. Eh, just a bug, I thought to myself as I continued scanning. Moments later, a searing, pulsating wave of pain on the inside of my right thigh clued me in that it had not been just any bug but a startled and angry wasp that I had taken out of the sky. I brushed at my leg as I continued riding, but it was too late. Fortunately, I had brought some hydrocortisone and Benedryl along. Eh, no matter, I had arrived!

I got checked in and cleaned up, addressed the sting site as best I could, and meandered out to see who I might see. I was moved by what proceeded to happen that evening. Old friends and acquaintances would see me, get this look of recognition in their eyes, and embrace me. Words of welcome, gratefulness, and affection were exchanged each time, removing any doubt as to whether I had made the right decision. It eventually reached a point where if one more person hugged me, I was gonna get choked up. But oh, what a feeling. And make no mistake, I was grinning ear to ear, every bit as happy to see each of them as they were to see me.

Each day was as good or better than the one before. Historically, the MMR begins on Thursday evening but every year, a group of people, mostly regulars, would show up a day or more early and take unofficial rides. The organizers eventually began listing the early excursions on the website. I went on the “Early Arrivals” tour, led by a couple of whom I have come to grow very fond. They used to live one town over from my own, but I first met them in La Crosse at the 2015 MMR. Anyway, the “Early Arrivals” promised a relaxed pace (trikes welcome), which suited me fine because my annual bike miles had been in a steady decline since 2019 and I wasn’t looking to be challenged. Our group had an awesome day on the bikes, I got to catch up with my friends over lunch, and as if that weren’t enough, we enjoyed fresh pie at the Aroma Pie Shoppe in Whalan. I returned to the hotel pleased with how well the day had gone. Moments later, I was making plans to join some friends for supper, which turned out to be a hoot in itself, and then our Thursday evening, like every evening at the MMR, concluded with much camaraderie and laughter down in the parking lot.

On Friday, I opted to go on “The Grand Tour,” led at both ends (ride captain and tail gunner) by another couple of whom I have become extremely fond. This may very well have been the first ride of theirs that I have done and in very short order, I felt terrible for having waited so long. Their level of expertise, attention to detail, and genuine care for their group made their tour that much more enjoyable. After having been delayed for a couple of hours due to inclement weather (erring on the side of safety), we went riding in Iowa as well as Minnesota and never saw another raindrop for the rest of the day. I even got to rescue a damsel in distress whose posterior had grown sorely fatigued by our ride captain’s scant pillion. She proved to be a most pleasant passenger to carry and even tolerated the “uncommon variance” of my music collection.

Friday evening unfolded with more and more riders returning from their tours and laughter once again filled the air, as friends old and new milled about the MMR parking area sharing hugs, toasting the day, and just basking in the whole experience. Friday night is outdoor movie night at the rally and this year, after the sun went down, we were treated to a screening of The Road to Paloma, a low-budget ($250,000) film that debuted in 2014, the same year my son and I debuted at the MMR. It was co-written and directed by Jason Momoa, who also stars in the film. It’s definitely not a “feel good” movie but was well-made, I think.

Then Saturday came, the last full day of the Midwest Motorcycle Rally, and of course I went out on “Diane Colletta’s Memorial Ride,” which was being guided front and rear by Diane’s son Ken and her grandson Ritchie. Having spent years living in the area, Ken is intimately familiar with all the good roads and backroads, some of which look like narrow ribbons of asphalt winding through the hills. The riding was good, the stops significant in that each of them had been a favorite of Diane’s. I had only been to one of them prior to that day, Soldiers Walk Memorial Park in Arcadia, but each place we stopped at was wonderful and it was easy to understand what Diane had loved about them. At Elmaro Vineyard, a lovely winery outside of Trempealeau, Ken and I drank a toast to his mom as we looked out over the acres of grape vines. The first time my son and I met Diane, she asked us if we wanted to follow her group to a pizza farm. I had never even heard that term used before. We opted to stay closer to the hotel, but I never forgot that invitation from that most friendly stranger, who quickly became my friend. Our last stop of the day was to Suncrest Gardens, that pizza farm, where we dined on wood-fired pizza in an alfresco setting, telling stories and laughing ourselves silly. Life is good, especially when moments like this are shared.

Biker Games!

Saturday night at the Midwest Motorcycle Rally is all about the Biker Games, sponsored and hosted by Mean Machine Cycle Parts of Elkhart, IA. With events such as loudest bike, slow race, weenie bite, and balloon toss, this is a perennial favorite. The games conclude with a limbo contest, open to anyone willing to don a plastic grass skirt. It’s all good clean fun, of course. As I watched the games with friends, talking and laughing the whole time, I thought about the true nature of the MMR. This isn’t about badass bikers or extraordinary attendance numbers. This is more like a family reunion with motorcycles of all sizes, makes, and models. And you either love it and become a part of it or you don’t. I do love it so.

Sunday morning at the MMR is a bittersweet one for me every year. There are hugs and much talk of next year but it’s also goodbye for now. Many people had already left by the time I got my tired old self packed up and ready to roll. Still, I had no regrets and much to look forward to next year.

As luck would have it an extraordinary thing happened as soon as I got within a quarter to a half mile down the road from the hotel. I was riding along when all of a sudden I heard a PING as an inch-long black and yellow wasp bounced off my bike’s windshield and landed square in the center of my faceshield, right in front of my nose! Before I could ascertain which side of my faceshiled that bastard was on, it hopped off and I never saw it again. Still, for that brief instant, my heart froze. I mean, what are the odds? Surely there must be a nest of them somewhere near that point on US 14/61.

The ride home was uneventful, save for finding myself accompanied for a few miles in Wisconsin by an MMR buddy who happened to be going the same way as me. I stopped for lunch at an old A&W restaurant in Boscobel that still had an old table telephone ordering system in use. By early evening, I was home again.

You know, I talked about my MMR friends welcoming me back and hugging me and all when they first saw me, which was both wonderful and humbling, and it didn’t stop there, either. People also went out of their way to make sure I understood that my past riding companions would also be welcome with the same open arms if I were to them back again. Even my son, who hasn’t been seen there for seven years, they still remember him and how he took to the MMR just as as I did. I was grateful to know that my companions are loved there, just as I am. Of course, whether either of them returns or not is their choice. Me, I will keep on inviting them every year and I will continue to attend this wonderful little rally for as long as I am able. That’s my choice.

Thanks for hanging with me.

The Harsh Teacher

“Experience is the hardest kind of teacher. It gives you the test first and the lesson afterward.”
— Oscar Wilde

In all candor, I have been unable to verify the authenticity of this quote. With that said, however, I do feel more than qualified to vouch for the truthfulness of the statement.

My son got into a rather nasty altercation with a laminate router he had been using last Sunday and as is usually the case, the router won. The blade ate into three of his fingers, causing a slight fracture in one and necessitating 18 stitches overall, along with a tetanus booster shot and a course of antibiotics. As I sit writing this, the full extent of his injuries remains unknown. There will be significant scarring. There may be some sensory nerve damage but he should retain mobility. He will be seeing a hand specialist, to get more answers and decide on a course of treatment. When he started calling people from an urgent care facility, he opened with, “First off, I haven’t lost any body parts.”

When a parent’s child is harmed, no matter how grown up they may be, the parent feels that. This parent does, anyway. The swell of emotions that I felt when I heard the news was extraordinary. In a single instant, I wanted to comfort my son, encourage the healthcare professionals who were treating him, and drag that sonofabitch router into a back alley to beat it into scrap metal with a sledgehammer.

He didn’t need to be told how much worse this might have turned out. He knew. A larger router would have taken the fingers outright, period. Fortunately, he makes his living as a craftsman and an actor. When we spoke on the phone, I half-jokingly told him, “Well, I guess you know you can kiss your career as a hand model goodbye.” But every half-joke contains a measure of truth in the other half. I quickly added, “but only three or four years ago, I kissed my own career as an Olympic weightlifter goodbye.” We both went with the wisecracks but we both understood. What’s done is done.

That incident as well as the conversation that followed brought back some memories, none of them happy ones. And each of them brought the same message: Life’s consequences are for life. Coming up on four years ago, as a result of my own foolish, careless actions, I traded my left shoulder for a prosthetic assembly of titanium and plastic that will never do the work of its predecessor. I can never again lift as much or as high and I may very well outlive the artificial joint that is now inside my body. Still, my recovery was better than 90% of those who have had this type of surgery. I chalk that up to sheer will. I was hellbent on riding my motorcycle and traveling with my pillion companion again, and for years to come.

During my college years and for one year after that, I worked for a packaging company that was headquartered in my boyhood hometown of Blue Island, Illinois. The closely held corporation ran four factories across the US, including the one I worked at just about every summer, and some holiday breaks, from 1979 until 1983. The place I worked at was a paper converting factory, filled with corrugating machines, slitters, die cutters, stampers, printing and embossing cylinders, macerators, and balers. Just imagine lots and lots of large, motorized cylinders and blades, all in motion 24 hours per day, six and a half days per week. Me, I was lucky. I was just passing through, a college kid working there only as long as I needed to. But over the course of four years, I met many wonderful people. And many incomplete human beings.

There were several middle-aged women, housewife types I guess, with one or more short fingers. I never noticed it right away because they were such positive souls, always hard-working and never showing any evidence of loss. There was an older guy with a southern accent. He knew every machine in the plant, so people would often take his advice on productivity matters. And he was so jovial, everyone was always glad to see him. I can’t recall his name but he was short a few fingers and, as he claimed, a couple of toes.

I had an aunt who was both a physical and occupational therapist by profession. She was the only college-educated member of her generation in our family and we were very close. I talked with her about the things I saw at that factory and nothing seemed to surprise her. The industrial injuries, she pointed out, were largely a matter of human nature, reflex reactions. “Your job is to run this machine. You’re working one day and suddenly something falls into the machine. Without even thinking about it, your gut reaction is to reach in and grab that object. The machine takes you in, too, but it’s too late.”

I saw that firsthand, working on a Sunday, when this kid — a young teen, probably working a summer job — was placing old newspapers onto a conveyor belt that fed into a macerator, which instantly pulverized the paper, to be used in the manufacture of insulated envelopes. The drive chain on the conveyor was a bit loose and always slipping off the gears, so at some point, the chain guard had been left off. You know, to save time. So the kid is sitting there, tossing old newspapers on the conveyor, when the drive chain slips off once again. He’d seen the maintenance workers put the chain back on, so he tries to feed it onto the moving gears himself, but his hand is on the wrong side and the chain draws his hand right in against the rotating gear wheel. He yanked his hand free at the last second and didn’t lose any fingers but his right hand was cut and bleeding badly. There was nobody on the limited Sunday shift to authorize anybody to do anything but work. Everybody is standing around trying to decide what to do. Blood is pouring from the kid’s hand. Me, I had nothing to lose, so I yelled, “Come with me!” I took the kid and one other guy to hold his hand up while I broke every law in the book to drive him to the local ER. No regrets. Nobody even questioned me about my actions the following week.

There was one guy, the sole member of the shipping department on the third shift (I heard they paid a buck-fifty an hour extra for people to work on that shift). He would have been in his twenties when I was there — older than me at the time but would seem like a kid to me now. Tall and thin, with thinning blond hair, he had a solitary digit remaining on one hand, which was always wrapped in a dirty whitish bandage. That lonesome appendage was long and judging by the way he used it, I thought that was his index finger. It was his thumb. A machine had taken the rest of his hand.

Some of my coworkers assured me that the guy I’m describing here had been guaranteed a job for life. I’m not sure how that played out, since the company was bought out the year I left and the Blue Island factory was shut down the year after. The kid drove a very nice Pontiac TransAm, metallic silver with the big firebird emblem on the hood. It was an awesome-looking car. I never once saw that young man smile, though. Not even once in four years.

These are the memories that flashed through my mind when I heard that my son’s fingers had gotten torn up on a Sunday afternoon. What’s done cannot be undone. Hopefully, though, we all learn from this harsh teacher called life, as we continue along. Thanks for hanging with me.

Her Name Is Hazel — Here’s Why

I have not named every vehicle I ever owned. Not even most of them. This one, however, needed a name. That became clear to me before I had even brought her home. Until a few days prior, I hadn’t been planning to buy a car, but that all changed when the Chevy I’d been driving for the past eight years lost its power steering and in the process, unveiled a long list of items I’d been neglecting, many safety related. So I went hunting for a good used car that had at least some of the features I wanted for as close to what I could afford (namely $0) as possible.

I’d had a great experience using CarMax in the past, so I went back, first online and then in person. Last time, I’d had it down to two cars before I made my final choice. This time, there was only one. An unusual find in my price range, the car to which I kept returning as I sorted and filtered my online search was a 2014 Volkswagen Passat SEL. The model year was at the older end of my range, but the SEL’s premium trim level would otherwise have been out of my price range. Although six years old, the car had just over 51K on the odometer — chicken feed for someone who drives as much as I do. Having ridden in and driven Passat models owned by a couple of my coworkers, I had a pretty good idea what to expect. If this car seemed nearly as nice in person as it did online, she would become my next ride in short order.

Oh, she was sweet. Getting into a Passat is not unlike going down the rabbit hole. It’s not exactly a small car on the outside but it’s positively cavernous on the inside. The backseat area has more headroom and legroom than does my old Impala, and that’s not all. The seemingly puny little 1.8L four-cylinder engine doesn’t sound like much — a Facebook friend of mine in Germany quipped, “my Windscreen Wiper has got a bigger Engine” — but it’s turbocharged and would have given my old Chevy a run for her money. The view from the driver’s seat is generous, which may help explain why the car seems almost deceptive in how smoothly she comes up to speed and continues right on to speeding territory. I’ve already caught myself up over the 100 mark while grooving to my tunes on the car’s Fender premium audio system. In other words, I gotta’ be more careful.

Obviously, I did not “do the ton” (British slang for going 100 mph) while taking my test drive so yes, I came home with the car. But the question soon became: What to name her? Now you may be asking, why name her at all? And you would be right to do so. As I’ve already said, I haven’t named all of my vehicles, just the special ones. And while, ever since I crashed my beautiful red 2005 Honda ST1300 sport-touring motorcycle, I have vowed to never again become emotionally attached to a mere machine, I understood that this car was going to be special. Special enough to warrant having a proper name.

When naming a vehicle, I have always striven to capture some essence of the machine itself. The last one I named, for example, was my 2012 Victory Vision Tour, a “full dresser” motorcycle that I ride to this day, when conditions permit. The bike is metallic red with black and gray as secondary colors. I named her Miss Scarlett not because of her predominant color, which in all candor may or may not be precisely scarlet, but because of the flowing lines of her rear end, which make her side bag luggage appear roomier than they really are. That red color, combined with the sweeping shape of her outer bodywork, called to mind the hoop skirts worn by the leading female character in Gone with the Wind. I never once thought to name her anything different.

Which brings us to the issue at hand: Why on earth would I come to name a gray car Hazel? That’s a fair question. Do you have a few minutes?

For a kid who was born into a blue-collar, Italian immigrant family, I was blessed with a most enchanted childhood. One of the people who made it so was my maternal aunt Erminia, who is solely responsible for my deep-seated wanderlust as well as my sincere appreciation for ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity. Born in 1923, my Aunt Erminia was the only family member of her generation to attend college — in fact she held multiple degrees. She never married and during my formative years, she worked as a physical and occupational therapist for the East Chicago, Indiana public schools. This is why she was able to toss my sisters and me into the back of her station wagon and take us on multi-week summer road trips. As such I have seen most of the 48 contiguous states and quite a few Canadian provinces as well. But I digress.

Auntie had a number of interesting friends — good friends — one of whom was named Mrs. Gray. Like many of my aunt’s friends, Mrs. Gray had been a school teacher, but she had also done many other remarkable things in life. A woman of color, Mrs. Gray had also been a civil rights activist and, according to stories told to me by my aunt, had gone to jail standing up for what she believed in. I only knew her as a very kind lady with a very nice family, a family with whom my family had gone on camping trips and other outings. And back then, in my single-digit years, I only knew her as Mrs. Gray.

Well, nobody would see anything clever about naming a gray automobile Mrs. Gray, so I set about asking my eldest sister abut her first name — because quite frankly, after more than 50 years, I wasn’t so sure about that detail. It was my eldest sister, the retired librarian with an awesome memory, who immediately filled me in. “Yes, I do remember Auntie’s friend, Hazel Gray… I have fond memories of her and her family, going on camping trips with Auntie and the Grays.”

Hazel! Yes, I remembered her being called Hazel by the grownups. I also remembered she had a daughter named Elmyra and two sons, Oscar and Arthur, the latter of which had died quite young, the victim of a rip current while swimming in Lake Michigan (it’s sometimes amazing what my mind retains). The only thing my sometimes OCD mind had to be sure about was the spelling of her name, just for my personal satisfaction. Was her name Hazel Gray or Hazel Grey? I had never seen the name in print, so I never knew. A little online research, using what I did know, produced an obituary for one Hazel Lucille Whitlock Gray, unquestionably the dear lady whom I had been seeking. I only wish I had a picture of her to share with you.

Well, this is where my explanation ends and my car’s new story begins. Her name is Hazel. It’s short for Hazel Gray and in my estimation, that’s a fine name for my automobile. I only hope this car can live up to the name I’ve chosen for her.

As always, thanks for hanging with me.

In the Bittersweet Passage of Time

Baby Tre

On a cold winter night in the early ’90s, my daughter Teresa came into this world. My wife Karen and I had been waiting for her, enduring nearly 24 hours of induced labor for naught. You see, our daughter has had a stubborn streak since before birth and to this day, we argue over which one of us she gets it from. And so we were taken to an operating room, where two surgeons were preparing to take our first child by force. We did not yet know whether we were having a boy or a girl, so we had names picked out for each possible outcome. Back then there were only two possibilities, male or female, and we were ready for either. Some of the dialogue going on in the O.R. was priceless.

“I feel like I’m gonna fall off this table.”

“That’s normal. We won’t let you fall off.”

“I think I’m starting to shiver. I feel so cold.”

“That’s just the anesthesia. It’s perfectly normal.”

“I feel like I might throw up.”

“That’s perfectly normal. You’re fine!”

Meanwhile, I’m clutching my wife’s hand, cowering behind an imaginary “blue field” boundary under warning that if I crossed the field, all progress would halt while they resterilized the entire room before starting over again.

“Hey, Karen, have you had your appendix removed?”

“No.”

“That’s funny, it’s not where it’s supposed to be… Oh, wait a minute, here it is!”

After what seemed like forever, the team extracted an offspring and exclaimed, “It’s a girl!”

“We have a Teresa,” I announced to my wife with a quivering voice as our new daughter uttered her first cry. One doesn’t forget moments like that.

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I have fond memories of including my growing family in one of my favorite activities, road trips. When Teresa was just six months old, we spent a week up in Door County with some dear college friends and their own toddler daughter. We rented a small house right on the shore of Sturgeon Bay for just a few hundred dollars (try doing that today). It was an awesome time for all involved and as I recall, that was the week Teresa learned to pull herself up and take steps while holding furniture. We also found her climbing up a flight of stairs. 29Wash_10We returned to Door County once, many years later, but instead of camping, we stayed at a wonderful motel in Baileys Harbor on the Lake Michigan side. A year or two later, joined by our new son, we went visiting relatives in Philadelphia and New Jersey. It was fun showing off our new offspring. I also got to see my grandmother alive one last time. More than anything else, I recall saying goodbye and telling Grandma I loved her, knowing that in all likelihood we would not see each other again. The sun was shining as I walked out of the nursing home, fighting back tears and holding on to my kids with an odd-yet-comforting sense of gratitude.

There were camping trips, too. I used to have a boat, a 17-foot bowrider that we would trailer up to Calumet County Park on the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. I really liked that secluded park, but it didn’t seem to like us very much. Some of the worst weather I’ve ever experienced happened during various stays there. The very last time we visited, Teresa slipped off a slippery rock in the lake and broke one of her adult teeth on the same large stone. Years later we spent a weekend camping at Devil’s Lake State Park, possibly my favorite park in the entire state. We even brought the dog. The weather was perfect and we all seemed to have a great time. Why we never returned is a mystery.

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I would be remiss not to mention my daughter’s fascination with, make-up, costumes, the performing arts, and art in general throughout her life. My son pursued acting in high school, college, post-graduate studies, and then professionally only because his big sister had been so active in theater during their middle school years and drew him in. Teresa took numerous art classes in college and went to cosmetology school after graduating, in order to help pay for her grad school tuition. Today she is my hairdresser — and a very capable one — but she is about to obtain her Masters in Social Work so I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to boast about that.

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I’ve been a motorcycle fanatic since my preschool years but didn’t truly become a motorcyclist until I was 43 years old. When I got into motorcycling, Teresa naturally followed, as did her brother before long. We attended the Chicago International Motorcycle Show year after year, religiously rode together in the Chicagoland Ride for Kids charity event, and took a few overnight motorcycle road trips. When they were old enough, Teresa and her brother John went halfsies on an old Kawasaki Vulcan 500. In the years that have followed, he has ridden more and more, she less and less, for personal reasons. Still, Teresa and I have made enough two-wheeled memories to last a lifetime.

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So many memories of all kinds, really. I recall the birthdays,  Teresa’s first day of kindergarten, grade school, middle school, high school. and college. And of course, I remember the graduations. Each was a milestone. Each served to remind me that my little one was growing up. Some were harder than others — the day she went off to college, for example. I have never had a good poker face, so when a dear friend of mine asked what was up, I was honest with him about what had been bothering me.

I’ll never forget the advice he gave me that day. His eyes fixed on mine with a warm look of understanding as he said, “We spend all of their lives preparing them for this, for adulthood. Then one day, it happens.”

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Life happens. Some of it hits me harder than others, I guess. My daughter recently became engaged. This event was not entirely unexpected but you see, it was just a few short years ago, on a cold winter night in the early ’90s, that I heard my little one utter her first cry. Such is the bittersweet passage of time.

Thanks for hanging with me.

Closed Permanently

IMG_7134

I’ve been thinking about writing this one since November 16, the day I took the three photos you’re seeing here. I took those photos with the full intent of getting home and writing about the experience. Why didn’t I? Many reasons, none good enough. I just needed a little time.

On that day, I had taken a little drive, 274 miles round trip, to drop off a few items at the home of a very dear friend with whom I’d had a sudden and severe falling out three weeks earlier—not my choice, I assure you. I had dropped off a few belongings and Christmas gifts in a last-ditch effort to save a relationship with someone who still matters to me very much and I chose to do it at a time when nobody would be home, in order to avoid a confrontation as well as to ensure that my offering wouldn’t be rejected outright.

And so I was driving home in a somewhat emotional state—don’t ask me why but Wisconsin has always proven to be an emotional state for me. I went to college there. I fell in love there, several times. Got married there, once so far. Had my heart torn to shreds there more than once. Sometime before I drop dead, I am going to live there. Anyway, so there I was, driving home, alone, blasting out my iTunes playlist on my Chevy’s stereo and hoping beyond hope that somehow the day would end differently than it had begun.

As I approached Kenosha, the last set of exits on Interstate 94 before crossing back into Illinois, I decided to stop at Mars Cheese Castle to see if their string cheese offering had improved any since my last time stopping there. Mars, which is actually short for Mario’s and has nothing to do with the planet, is an excellent touristy place to stop for cheese and souvenirs, but their string cheese hasn’t been all that great for the last twenty years or so. Think glorified mozzarella rope. I picked up a couple of bags, only to be disappointed later, along with some heavenly fresh, squeaky cheddar cheese curds for my wife, before continuing my drive home.

Before I returned to the interstate, however, I pulled onto a stretch of a former frontage road (now a dead-end, how appropriate) in order to visit the shuttered location of a different Wisconsin institution known as the Bobby Nelson Cheese Shop, which closed for the last time on July 31 of this year. Earlier that month, my wife had brought home a copy of the Kenosha News article about the store’s closing, so I knew the place wasn’t open anymore. I just wanted to see it one more time. Given my emotional state that day, perhaps I hadn’t picked the best time to do so, but there I was.

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The first time I visited Bobby Nelson’s was in July of 1978, as a teenager on my way home after having experienced Milwaukee’s Summerfest music festival for the first time, of many, in my life. I have no idea why my soon-to-be brother-in-law chose to stop at Bobby Nelson’s, a small, nondescript, rectangular building that sat just down the road from the even then more touristy Mars Cheese Castle. As a 17-year-old kid, not yet in love with the charms of The Dairy State, I was less than impressed.

During the years that followed, I attended Marquette University, fell in love with all that Wisconsin had to offer, eventually married a girl from Kenosha, and learned to appreciate Wisconsin-made cheeses. Only during my post-collegiate married years did I come to appreciate that little rectangular store off I-94. During those decades, Bobby Nelson’s remained pretty much the same while the Cheese Castle up the road evolved into the massive tourist attraction that it is today.

Although the owners Phyllis and Richard Giovanelli never came to know me by name, nor I them, we surely became familiar with each other’s faces over the decades. More than once Mr. Giovanelli acknowledged me as a biker. He himself had ridden motorcycles when he was younger, as he relayed to me during one or two of my visits.

He also appreciated my manners. To this day, I recall walking into his store one day and removing my driving cap as I greeted him. “I can tell what kind of man you are,” said Mr. Giovanelli with a sincere smile, “just by the way you removed your hat when you walked in.” Before getting down to business, we talked for a few minutes about good manners and the current state of society at large. He never asked me my name, nor I his, but we came to identify each other through our interactions.

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And so on a cold and particularly lonely November day, with my heart already at half-mast for personal reasons, I got out of my Chevy and walked around the front of the old store, stepping through the snow that had no reason to be shoveled and snapping a few pictures to share with you here.

The original Bobby Nelson, I learned earlier this year, had been a professional wrestler. Besides being the founder and original owner of this cheese shop, he was supposedly the athlete after whom the “full nelson” and “half-nelson” wrestling maneuvers had been named. Following one last visit to the shop before it closed for good, my wife relayed to me how Phyllis Giovanelli had told her that back when she and her husband bought the shop, they had to promise Nelson that they would not resell the business when their time had come to retire.

The Giovanellis have kept their word. And so a good Wisconsin cheese shop, more than just a tourist attraction, is no more.

The world has since moved on. As for my 274-mile road trip, well, this blog post may prove to be the most substantial byproduct of my efforts. Life is sometimes complicated.

Thanks for hanging with me.

 

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.

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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.

When the Pavement Ends: An Anecdote

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Don’t ask me why, but I never posted anything about this back when it happened, during my last Labor Day weekend road trip. Never told the story or posted the video, not even on Facebook. In hindsight, the whole thing was rather comical. Nobody got hurt or even came close to getting hurt. It was just one of those things of which fond memories are made.

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It was the evening of Saturday, August 31. My son John and his friend Marjorie, along with my friend Ann and me, had just finished dining at the General Store Pub in Stone City, following a full day of touring east-central Iowa by motorcycle (see While I Was Away) and the time had come to head back to our hotel. I was feeling a bit tired and asked my son if he would like to lead the ride back to Cedar Rapids.

“Sure!” John replied. “Would you mind if we take a scenic route?”

“Do you have one in mind?” John studied his phone for a minute or so before pointing up the side road on which the pub was located.

“Yes! That way!” The grin on his face gave me cause for concern, as did the quiet, lonely look of that road he had pointed toward.

“Are we taking paved roads?”

“They all look like major roads.”

I looked at Ann. I looked at Marjorie. I looked at John, who was still grinning. Then I shrugged and said, “Lead the way!”

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Perhaps you can guess what happened. As soon as we got out of town, the road began to rise into the hills and the pavement grew ominously thin before disappearing altogether. “Did I not ask him,” I growled into my Bluetooth headset, “are they paved roads?” Ann did her best to console me as we continued our ascent over the dirt and stone roadway but I knew from previous experiences that she was not entirely comfortable traversing gravel roads on two wheels and that in and of itself concerned me.

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Then it began to rain. More of a light drizzle, actually. Miss Scarlett, my trusty full dresser touring bike, was solid as a rock the whole time but I was not pleased. If it began to rain any harder, the dirt beneath our tires would turn to mud. I spoke calmly to Ann via my headset mic, “We’re good.” She never once complained. The road went on. In all, it was probably just a few miles but we were traveling in lower gears and in my mind, the journey seemed to take forever.

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“John!” I called out after my son as I shook my fist in the air, knowing full well he couldn’t hear me. The big question remained, however: How much longer would it be until we reached solid pavement again? We rolled on.

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The intermittent rain that had so concerned me earlier disappeared altogether as we ascended one last hill and came upon a most welcome sight — a beautifully paved road at the termination of our dirt and gravel ribbon. John came to a full stop at the crossroads. I drew up alongside of him, laughing too hard to sound very angry.

“Paved roads?! Paved roads?! I’m gonna kill ya!” We were all laughing. I nodded to John and Marjorie. They pulled away, turning onto the precious two-lane blacktop. Ann and I pulled forward and leaned Miss Scarlett over to follow them. The remainder of our ride back was uneventful.

Here is the footage Ann shot as all of this was unfolding. As I said, this was just one of those things of which fond memories are made. Indeed, I chuckled as I wrote this little anecdote and I hope that Ann, Marjorie, and especially John will also smile and laugh when they read it.

I have often looked upon motorcycling as a metaphor for life. So what are we to do when the pavement ends? Keep on rolling. Trust in your own abilities to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. Do your best. And remember to laugh about it afterward.

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…

Cajun-Midwestern Fusion

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When it comes to our cooking endeavors, Ann and I frequently look for new things to try, within the context of our culinary preferences. We both enjoy bold, flavorful dishes. We both enjoy healthy food options—eh, more or less. And we both enjoy preparing new things together, with an eye for how we might improve upon the same endeavor in the future. This time around we chose to combine Cajun and Midwestern influences. The resulting fusion of flavors, colors, and textures was quite satisfying.

For daytime grazing, in addition to some Cajun seasoned mixed nuts and seasoned pretzels that Ann had made in advance, we prepared a platter of assorted sausage skewers. Ann had picked up some cheddar jack and bacon bratwurst and a chicken apple sausage. I brought along a smoked andouille sausage rope. After roasting the sausages a bit, we sliced them and browned the slices in a cast iron skillet. Emulating an appetizer that her mom used to make, Ann skewered individual pieces of her two non-spicy sausage varieties with a pineapple chunk and a maraschino cherry. The sweet and savory combination makes for an excellent hors d’oeuvre. I went in a different direction, skewering any of the three sausages with a chunk of peppery cheese, a grape tomato half, and a green olive half. I had purchased a goat cheese pepper jack and a Wisconsin-made chipotle cheddar expressly for this purpose. Both cheeses were flavorful but also quite different from each other in terms of taste and texture. The skewered sausage, cheese, and veggies produced an explosion of flavors.

Ann and I had selected three dishes to prepare for our supper: blackened shrimp, zucchini fritter waffles, and oven roasted okra. I believe we used black, white, and cayenne pepper along with paprika, crushed garlic, onion powder, basil, thyme and salt to create our own blackening spice blend. These spices along with melted butter are what give the characteristic blackening effect popularized by the late Chef Paul Prudhomme. When it comes to cooking shrimp, timing is everything. Undercooked shrimp is just gross, but if you let them go too long, you get something along the lines of cooked rubber. Whether by skill or luck, ours came off perfectly.

We had made zucchini fritters once before, discovering at that time that we got better results using Ann’s waffle iron than by frying them in a skillet. The waffle iron technique creates a greater surface area and thinner insides, which we both feel gives a better flavor and texture. Less greasy, too.

I had suggested a spicy remoulade as the ideal condiment for both the shrimp and the waffled fritters. That turned out to be a good choice and the remoulade we made was da’ bomb. There are too many ingredients to list here, but I’ll share this recipe that we used, more or less, from the Serious Eats website. Creamy, tangy, spicy… there are so many words I could use to describe the stuff. Quite good!

I can hear you now. Okra? Why okra? Well, mainly because when we were planning this meal, Ann mentioned that she had a taste for okra. Hey, don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. This preparation was super simple, just a bag of frozen, cut okra tossed with some salt, pepper, parmesan cheese, and enough olive oil to make it all stick. Then roast at 450° F until done. We liked this simple side, but would probably add more spices the next time around.

Good rosé wines are said to pair well with spicy dishes as well as seafood. I tried several in the weeks leading up to our cooking date—call it a hobby of mine—and selected a 2016 Domaine Chantepierre Tavel from France. The term Tavel, I discovered, refers to a region in the southern Rhone Valley that specializes in dry rosé wines with a minimum alcohol content of 11%. This particular Tavel is 14% abv, enough to make one a bit more talkative after a couple of glasses. My late father, who made his own Zinfandel for many years, used to profess that drinking a good wine “loosens the tongue.” For the money, this one would be hard to beat. Very fruit-forward but still dry, especially on the finish.

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Compared to some of the meals Ann and I have prepared together, this one was pretty simple, but no less delicious. When you have a desire for good food and enjoy cooking, things have a way of falling into place.

“What are we going to make next time?”

“I dunno. Got any ideas?”

Truth be told, we had already begun pitching ideas back and forth for next time days earlier and have continued to do so since then. The possibilities seem to be leaning decidedly toward Mediterranean fare. Time will tell.

Thanks for hanging with me.