Closed Permanently

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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.

 

Ten Wines to Enjoy Without Going Broke

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Before we dive into this subject, I need to disclose that I am literally a lifelong wine drinker. My father, grandfather, uncles, and cousins — all Italian immigrants — all made their own wine. In our culture, vino (pronounced WEE-no) is more than a mere drink. To the Italians, wine is an integral part of the family table, a thing to be enjoyed daily with friends and family. In all likelihood, I probably tasted my first drop of wine (literally a drop of it) long before I spoke my first word. In America today, that may be considered a crime. In my time and place, it was not. Indeed, my ascent into manhood was measured by how much wine I was allowed to have with my supper. As soon as I was big enough, I was allowed to help my father make the wine and on one autumn day sometime during my teens, I was finally allowed to go into the city with “the men” to buy grapes. That was a big deal!

Once I reached legal age, it may seem only natural that I began to explore “other people’s wines” and expand my horizons. And that’s exactly what I did. Just understand that while I am no wine expert by any means, I do understand and appreciate wine. Over the years, I have tasted some exceptionally good wines and quite a few that were fair at best. Being a man of less than wealthy means, I have long focused my attention on good-but-affordable wines. Which brings us to my topic of the day. Alright? Let’s talk about ten of my favorite “everyday” wines worth drinking that will not break the bank.

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1. Sobon Estate — Old Vine Zinfandel
It seems only appropriate that I start with California Zinfandel, as my father made his wine primarily from Zinfandel grapes transported to Chicago from California. Why? Because when my dad first began making his own wine, after he had established himself in the US and bought a house of his own, the older paisani  (people from the same part of Italy as him) advised him that the Zinfandel grape was most similar to the grapes grown in their region of Italy. Sobon Estate is a fantastic find for under $15 a bottle. It has an exceptional fruit-forward palate and pretty smooth tannins for a dry red in this price range.

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2. Cline Family Cellars — Old Vine Zinfandel
Cline is a well-respected name in the California wine country. A cousin of mine used to live not far from their winery and has vouched for the quality of their wines. This is another good Zin for the money. More earthy than the Sobon Estate brand I just mentioned, this wine is also a bit heavier on the tannins. That’s not a bad thing by any means but we should talk about it. I do not hesitate to recommend this wine to those who typically enjoy dry reds.

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Tannins are naturally occurring compounds that exist inside grape skins, seeds, and stems. This is the stuff that causes the “dry” feeling in your mouth when you drink certain red wines. You don’t find the same qualities in white wines, even dry whites, because most white wines are fermented in the absence of skins, seeds, and stems. In some reds, the tannins can cause a harsh, astringent effect and this is not always a matter of how much the wine cost. One way to smooth out that effect is to let the wine “breathe.” Either open the bottle and set it aside or decant it into a secondary container and wait. Thirty minutes is long enough for some but two hours is not unheard of.

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3. Santa Christina — Toscana
As the name implies, this wine comes from the Tuscan region of Italy. I discovered this one quite by accident, while dining at a favorite Italian restaurant near my home. When I discovered just how affordable this stuff was, I began buying it regularly. The predominant grape in this wine is Sangiovese, the most widely planted grape variety in Italy and the base grape of many Italian varieties, including Chianti. Let this wine breathe a bit and you will appreciate its ripe nose, fruity/spicy notes, and smooth finish.

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4. Antale — Veneto Rosso
This wine, from the Veneto region of Italy, is just a bit different from anything else on this list. The color of this red wine borders on purple. The flavor is deep in fruit, yet quite dry. At 14% ABV, this is definitely a full-bodied wine. Let it breathe and you will be impressed with this unique yet affordable find. Not exactly a casual sipper, though I have used it as such.

5. Domaine Chantepierre — Tavel
Before we come stateside again, I need to point out this amazing rosé wine from Tavel, a region of France renowned for its relatively strong rosé wines. Clocking in at 14% alcohol by volume, Domaine Chantepierre Tavel is indeed a full-bodied rosé, which has no counterpart here in the states. The flavor profile is extraordinary, the texture silky smooth. If you can find this wine for $20 or less, buy it.

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6. The Guide — Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir, literally “black pine cone,” is a dark red grape variety that is grown (with difficulty) in various parts of the world, including the United States. Pinot Noir wines are typically light/medium-bodied, fruity, and delightful. This particular brand is very good and pairs well with a variety of foods, especially chicken and pork. My friend Ann and I enjoyed a bottle of The Guide, an Oregon Pinot Noir, with our first attempt at chicken marsala and were bowled over by both. Good stuff!

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7. Castle Rock — California Cuveé Pinot Noir
Here is a super-affordable Pinot Noir from California that offers a smooth, medium texture, pleasant fruit flavors, and light tannins… and can be found for less than $10! I found California Cuveé, one of several Castle Rock Pinot Noirs, on sale at my favorite local wine store and have been buying it ever since. Trust me, you could do a whole lot worse for under ten bucks.

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8. Wente — Morning Fog Chardonnay
The first of the whites on my list, this is also the only Chardonnay I’ll tell you about here. I include it for good reason. Morning Fog, one of several Chards offered by Wente, combines some interesting qualities that make it an absolute delight to drink. First, it’s an oaked Chardonnay, but not overly so. As I understand it, half of the wine is oaked and the other half is aged in stainless steel tanks. Then the two batches are combined. The result is complex, a lightly oaked wine with a delightful fruit-forward flavor profile.

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9. Ecco Domani — Pinot Grigio
Pinot Grigio translates to “gray pine cone,” a reference to the appearance of the grape clusters of this variety. Pinot Grigio wines (Pinot Gris in French, same grape) are typically bright, crisp, and fruity. These dry white wines are fantastic summer sippers, best served chilled. Ecco Domani is a mass-market brand that can be found in most supermarkets as well as broad-spectrum wine stores. Usually sold for $10 or less per bottle, you could do a lot worse for this Venetian delight.

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10. Grigio Luna — Pinot Grigio Delle Venezie
If you are fortunate enough to have a Trader Joe’s store within driving distance, go there and buy some of this wine. Grigio Luna has many characteristics of Italian Pinot Grigio wines costing at least twice as much. Priced at well below $10 per bottle, if you really like Pinot Grigio, you may want to buy this one by the case.

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And there you have it, my current top ten of everyday drinkers. I consider wine to be something special, something wonderful to be shared with family, friends, and loved ones. I like wine and hope you have enjoyed reading this post as much as I have enjoyed writing it. As always, thanks for hanging with me.

Emotional Stimulus and Response

 

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I was sitting in a managers’ meeting at work a few weeks ago when the facilitator posed this question to each of us: “Are you more about facts or emotions?” He then proceeded to go around the table, which was essentially populated by the leadership team of the company for which I work, extracting an answer from each of us without passing judgment one way or the other. The responses were mixed, which made it very easy to be open and honest when my turn came. Without hesitating, I said, “I’m a walking, talking bag of emotions.” I couldn’t have fibbed if I wanted to, since the facilitator also happened to be my mentor. After everyone had answered the question, I seized an opportunity to return the question. “What about you,” I asked our leader.

“I’m a very emotional person,” he admitted, “but I make my decisons based on facts and I don’t allow my emotions to control me.” My mentor’s response caused my perception of the man to shift somewhat. Oh, I knew he was all about facts and I knew him to be a genuinely happy person, but if this guy was “very emotional,” he was so in a way that was very different from me. When I think “very emotional,” I think in terms of swings and this man is not given to emotional swings. This was a learning moment for me, one of three that would unfold in the space of a week’s time.

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My second learning moment came during a much smaller meeting when my mentor revealed to me something that should have been obvious — it had been right in front of my face for decades — but hadn’t been obvious until then. For many years now, at various companies, co-workers have looked to me for help, guidance, or outright direction even if they did not answer to me. The late Dr. Stephen Covey referred to this quality of leadership as “moral authority,” which differs from formal authority in that the latter invokes authority by title. And here is the second learning moment that my mentor handed me: Because people look to me in this manner, when I display adverse emotions, I profoundly affect others. As God is my witness, this had never occurred to me.

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Now let me back up and explain why this matters so much. Because I have never seen the potential harm it can and does cause, I have never been one to contain my initial emotions. Keyword: initial. For example, let’s say I have been working for several hours on a time-sensitive project that is nearing deadline. There is a substantial queue of equally time-sensitive projects right behind that one. At that moment, someone approaches me with three more such projects, each of which appears to disrupt the current priority and order of events.

My initial emotional reaction is to flare, to outwardly exhibit my displeasure. Without using words, the look in my eyes says, “Are you serious?! What is this, some sort of test?!” Moments later, the emotional flare has passed. I’ve already processed all the facts and revised the order of my business in order to make sure all the deadlines will be met, an accomplishment for which I am revered in consistently achieving.

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No harm done. Right? Wrong! Sure, I’m moving along my merry way again, not even giving that emotional flareup a second thought. But those who look to me for guidance and direction saw their leader falter — and that is the problem. People may feed on that, especially those close to me or who look up to me. Whatever they see, be it fear, anger, resentment, whatever, I just set the tone for the rest of their day, if not longer. What if I caused them to begin withholding vital information about new projects? What if I caused someone to stop coming to me for much-needed help? The results could be devastating for that individual, the department, even the company. Such is the far-reaching impact of my response, however short-lived it may be. Wow. How many casualties had I left in my wake? I silently vowed to myself, “No more!”

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My third learning moment came during a one-on-one session with my mentor. We had been talking about events — those things over which we have no control — and our responses, which are the things we can and should control. I don’t recall the specifics, but at some point I opined, “You aren’t afraid of anything. I wish I could be more like that.”

His next words stopped me in my tracks. “What do you mean? I’m afraid. I’m petrified.” I looked at my mentor, dumfounded. How could this be? The man sitting in front of me was a virtual Rock of Gibraltar. Nothing ever phases him. Nothing. In the midst of a challenge, he smiles. Even laughs. Scared? Petrified? What’s the secret, I wondered.

“I simply don’t let my fears stop me from pursuing my results. I contain my emotions. I control them. They don’t control me.”

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And there it was, my path to a better outcome, presented in three realizations.

  1. I can be emotional without being a slave to my emotions. My choice.
  2. Understanding that emotions are contagious and that I am a carrier, I can spread joy and gratitude just as effectively as I can spread despair and frustration. My choice.
  3. I can be scared as all hell and still move forward if I understand what I am moving toward and why — and others will follow me. Again, my choice.

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You know, it’s pretty cool to be at this stage of my life and my career and to realize that I am still learning, still growing both personally and professionally. I am a work in progress, absolutely not perfect, and that’s okay. I am always learning, always growing.

Sometimes putting my thoughts into words helps me to understand them better so if you’re still reading, thanks for hanging with me.

My Love Affair with Olive Oil

IMG_7331I found myself alone with my thoughts on a quiet Sunday morning, contemplating the contents of my oil decanter, which I had just refilled, and thinking about how many wonderful dishes I have either started or finished with a simple pour of some good olive oil. Truth be told, I love that little decanter, which was given to me by a very dear friend who enjoys cooking every bit as much as I do. Maybe more. After a while, I ended up replacing the pour spout on that decanter with a nicer one that doesn’t leak and made a point of getting her one, too. But enough about that; let’s talk about some of the wonderful things we can do with a little bit of good olive oil.

Right now you may be wondering, “What does he mean by good olive oil?” The answer to that question is highly subjective. I tend to use a lot of “extra virgin” olive oil (EVO), which is made from pure, cold-pressed olives. Some will say EVO is better suited to dipping and dressing than for cooking because of its relatively low smoking point. Me, I use it all the time. “Regular” olive oil may have some cold-pressed oils but also includes processed oils. It’s lighter in color and has less flavor but also has a higher smoke point, meaning that it doesn’t burn as readily. There are also “light” olive oils, which appear to have been developed for people who don’t like olive oil. They have very little color and almost no flavor. Now mind you, there are many different types of extra virgin olive oil with a price range to match. Some are infused with herbs, spices, etc. Some stink to high heaven. Cheap EVO is often exactly that but by the same token, more expensive does not necessarily mean better. Experiment. If you’re looking for a good place to start, my favorite mass-market EVO brand is Filippo Berio.

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First off, you can make some wonderful Mediterranean style salad dressings and bread dips using extra virgin olive oil. People sometimes spend a small fortune on infused dipping oils. The next time you have some warm, crusty bread handy, try this: Pour some good EVO onto a small plate — at least enough to coat the plate and maybe a little more than that. Then add grated cheese, i.e. Parmesan, Romano, or both, followed by a little freshly ground black pepper. The flavor is basic, yet extraordinary. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself reloading the plate.

For a simple-yet-bold salad dressing, pour some EVO into a cruet along with a splash of red wine vinegar or balsamic (use slightly more balsamic as it is less acidic). Then add salt, a little black pepper, some finely shredded fresh basil, and a clove of garlic, either pressed or finely minced.

Caprese salad or appetizer skewers? Easy duty. Line up your tomato, fresh basil leaves, and fresh mozzarella. Then drizzle with EVO and a light sprinkle of salt. Purists stop there but you can also add some cracked pepper and/or a drizzle of balsamic reduction to change it up a little.

Finally, my fire-roasted pepper salad, which is nothing more than (go figure) fire-roasted bell peppers, shaved garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, and salt. Put some of that on a sandwich and you’ll see God.

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My best sauces, whether for pizza or pasta, begins with a simple pour of EVO onto a preheated skillet or pot. What follows next depends upon what you’re making. For pizza, fry up a generous amount of garlic and then add fresh, whole peeled, or crushed tomatoes seasoned with oregano, salt, pepper and just the slightest amount of basil. For pasta sauce, use a little less garlic and add onion (for sweetness) before pouring in either fresh tomatoes or tomato purée. Then season with basil, oregano, salt, and pepper, any secret/special ingredients you might have, plus your meats unless you are making a marinara.

By the way, if you’re making a bread dough pizza crust, apply a little olive oil to the top and bottom as you spread your dough. Then pre-cook the crust until it begins to rise and dry out a bit. Add your toppings and continue baking. The crust will be more chewy, with crisp edges, and less mushy in the center.

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Next up, how about some roasted veggies? Roasting brings out an entirely different flavor and texture profile than you would otherwise get. I hated the notion of eating Brussels sprouts until my friend Ann convinced me to try them roasted. But don’t stop there. Many vegetables can be brought to life via pan roasting. Just toss them in some extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, turn them out on to a sheet pan, and roast them on high heat, turning at least once until the edges begin to char.

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Of course, you can also sautée your veggies but as sautéeing involves relatively high heat, you must constantly keep your veggies moving so that the olive oil does not burn. You can also use EVO, salt, pepper, and Italian herbs to marinate and grill many vegetables, including zucchini, asparagus, bell peppers, and corn. For me, the perfectly grilled veggie has some char on it but is neither burned nor dried out. The key here, as with sautéeing, is vigilance. You can’t turn your back on this stuff.

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EVO can also be a component in meat marinades, especially pork tenderloin. My go-to Mediterranean pork tenderloin marinade involves a generous pour of EVO, two to three cloves of garlic, pressed or finely minced, a good portion of salt, about half as much cracked pepper, a dash of dried oregano, and some fresh lemon juice. Marinate for at least two hours before grilling. I prefer to sear the meat by grilling on direct heat and then finish indirect, usually adding some wood smoke while the meat finishes.

As an aside… about a year ago, I was on the Baja peninsula of Mexico, an area well-suited to vineyards and olive groves. It was during this business trip that I saw olive trees for the first time. I still smile every time I think about it. For what it’s worth, the wines of Baja California are also quite good but haven’t really caught on in the US yet. I believe that’s coming, though.

olive-oil-601487_640As you can see, olive oil is a versatile component of many Mediterranean style dishes. To be sure, I use other oils for other purposes (do not try stir-frying with EVO) but for the various dishes I have described here, only a good olive oil will do.

As always, 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.

While I Was Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Shrinking Demographic: A Tale of Two Trade Shows

A message to the automobile manufacturers and motorcycle manufacturers of the world: I am not the man you are looking for. You know it—well, most of you do, anyway—and I know it. I came into this world toward the tail-end of a generation known as Baby Boomers. For decades, we were the only generation that mattered. We were huge! But like the Traditionalist generation before us, we’ve been dying off. Without going too deep into Generation X, the Millennials, or Generation Z—all of whom came after me—the thing of it is, my generation is no longer capable of sustaining, let alone expanding, the automobile and motorcycle industries. Mobility scooters are another story, but let’s not go there today.

I attended two consumer trade shows this month, the Chicago Auto Show and the Chicago Motorcycle Show, each considered major consumer shows in their own right. I have a longer, if less consistent, history with the auto show, but a much more recent history with the cycle show. Both have changed a great deal over the years. Let’s talk about the car show first.

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I began attending the auto show years before I obtained my first driver’s license. I was a bona fide car nut and an aunt of mine would humor my addiction by taking me to the auto show. This was way back when McCormick Place only had one building. Never mind that I was still in grade school at the time. I could identify nearly every automobile made at the time just by looking at its front grille or rear bumper. No exaggeration! I would go from manufacturer to manufacturer, sitting in cars, collecting literature, and dreaming my dreams. Sticker prices meant nothing because money was no object to me at the ripe old age of twelve. See, I already knew what I was going to be when I grew up—I was going to be rich—so in my young mind’s eye, I could eventually have any car I wanted. And believe me, I coveted some good ones.

Today the American car buyer/leaser is interested in big honkin’ trucks and SUV’s. Smaller segments are into sporty little cars, earth-friendly vehicles, and believe it or not, economical transportation choices. Me, I grew up to become a sedan man. Most of the cars I have owned in my adult life have been sedans. My current ride is large, exceptionally comfortable ’08 Chevrolet Impala with a nicely appointed interior, for its age, and a buttery-smooth ride. Nobody buys sedans anymore, so the genre doesn’t get a lot of attention from the manufacturers, neither in R&D nor marketing. At the auto show this year, the “bigger” sedans were not too plentiful. What is available was displayed, but not exactly showcased. Hey, I understood. And on the bright side, I never had to stand in a long line to sit inside one of them.

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So what did I look at? I glanced at the current iteration of my Chevy and walked past the Ford and Buick equivalents. Though I have never owned a foreign car—the closest thing being a 1985 Renault Alliance built in Kenosha, Wisconsin—most of my attention was captured by the Volkswagon Passat, the Subaru Legacy, and the Nissan Maxima, that last one being my current “if money were no object” choice. It just speaks to me.

So much has changed since the last time I attended the Chicago Auto Show a decade or two ago. There’s no denying it’s a smaller show. Numerous marques have gone out of existence since the last time I was there. When I was a kid, the aftermarket/accessory/travel/merchandise vendor booths took up nearly a floor of their own at what is now called the Lakeside Building at McCormick Place. That was a lot of square feet. This year they took up a small fraction of that. To be sure, the new show had some astounding features not found in 1974, such as in-show demo rides and outdoor test drives. But for me, the sheer grandeur of this show has shrunk back a bit.

Capture IMS 2019

To be sure, the Chicago stop of the International Motorcycle Shows (IMS) used to be physically larger, not because so many brands have gone out of existence since I began coming (a few have), but because fewer exhibitors are showing up.  More on that in a bit. But this has always been a very different show than it’s automobile counterpart. Motorcyclists are a smaller segment of the U.S. population at large and perhaps a bit more fragmented as well. I’ve been coming out every year since I became an active motorcyclist in 2003 (I was a late bloomer, but a fanatical one). I have seen a number of changes in the hobby, the industry behind it, and this show, which to a degree represents it.

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To its credit, the IMS really does try to have something for everyone, but it’s really up to the exhibitors to deliver. Let me explain. I can recall a period of years during which there seemed to be a bit of one-upmanship going on between the motorcycle manufacturers on at least three different fronts. The heavyweight cruiser class was wide open and several players were vying for the largest displacement engine—separate and apart from Boss Hoss, a specialty manufacturer of motorcycles powered by Chevy V8 engines. Despite a gentlemen’s agreement among the major manufacturers to limit the top speed of their really fast bikes to 300 kilometers per hours (about 186 MPH because more than that would be unsafe), the players in the sportbike class were still vying for fastest production motorcycle, which I assume would be the one to reach 300 KPH the soonest. And on yet another front, several of the major manufacturers were trying to unseat the Honda Gold Wing as the premier touring motorcycle by which all others would be judged.

It was the best of times to attend the IMS. The accessory / aftermarket / merchandise aisles were packed, too. Then the Great Recession hit. Motorcycle dealerships were closing left and right, as were some less-than-major manufacturers and a number of aftermarket companies, too. The terrain of the motorcycle dealership and merchandising networks was forever changed, the IMS scaled back accordingly, and if you ask my opinion, the industry has never been the same since then.

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But the show has gone on and people still attend. If anything, the crowd seems more heterogeneous than before. It may be me, but I seem to recall the “black leather and gray hair” bunch being more dominant ten to fifteen years ago. They’re still present, to be sure—I’m sort of on the fringe of that demographic myself—but they no longer dominate. I’m not sure anybody does. Which brings me to an issue similar to, but not quite the same, as I described while describing the auto show.

I’m a touring rider. I ride big-displacement bikes configured for comfort and overnight travel. These are not entry level bikes, nor are they cheap by any definition. Many people can’t afford them. In point of fact, I can’t afford them—never mind that I have owned three so far. The touring bike class has never been the dominant segment of the motorcycle industry, but it has been significant. I commented earlier that I am sort of on the fringe of the black leather biker demographic. That’s only because I currently ride an American-made, big-inch V-twin and as the result, I tend to dress more like a pirate and less like a spaceman. But only six years ago, I was riding a much faster Japanese sport-touring rig and back then, I dressed more like a spaceman. So you see, it’s all relative.

But no matter how you slice it, my demographic is in decline, along with several others. The generations that follow are for the most part decidedly not marching in line with us older types. Big-inch V-twins don’t excite the later generations. Neither do the full dresser touring rigs or their sport touring subset. Or racer replicas. Surely there will always be technical riders, sport riders, and hooligans, but these will not dominate the hobby.

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What will? In all candor, I don’t know. But neither do most of the major manufacturers, from all outward appearances. Enter the newcomers! The ultra-affordable low displacement, high-mileage bikes. The unconventional three-wheelers. The electrics. And whatever comes next. But here is where it gets tricky. Despite the fact that motorcyclists in total are a minority of vehicle owners and operators in the US, the various segments (fragments?) of the hobby haven’t historically been too tolerant of one another. For the sake of our hobby and the industry that both supports and depends upon it, this must change. Now.

During my visit to the 2019 IMS, I had the pleasure of listening to and speaking with my friend Gina Woods of Open Roan Radio, and a newer acquaintance of mine, Robert Pandya who helped bring the Discover the Ride experience to life at IMS events across the country. I can’t say enough about either of these individuals and the contributions each has made to our hobby and to the motorcycle industry at large. And while each will eagerly acknowledge the heritage of our hobby, they are equally eager to acknowledge and welcome that which is new and exciting. We need more people like this influencing the industry.

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And so here I sit, figuratively speaking, upon Miss Scarlett, my 2012 Victory Vision Tour (did I mention that Robert Pandya worked for Polaris when they brought the Vision to market?), looking forward to the upcoming riding season. I may no longer be the primary demographic target for either the automobile or motorcycle industry, but I still have my eye on certain products of theirs and amusingly enough, they still have their eyes on my spending dollars. Maybe it’s a love/hate thing.

As always, thanks for hanging with me.

Healing Up and Rolling On

About four months ago, I had a freak accident that required total shoulder replacement surgery (technically a reverse shoulder arthroplasty). Severe shoulder fractures are quite painful and in all candor, the surgical procedure and lengthy recovery process that follows are no picnic, either. My total recovery time has been guesstimated at six months to a year but unless I reinjure that joint, the hardest part is now behind me.

I have endured many weeks of physical therapy, investing countless hours and no small amount of dollars in regaining as much range of motion and strength in my left arm and shoulder as is realistically possible. After six weeks, I was able to begin driving again, albeit with some difficulty and a good bit of physical discomfort. That same week, I parted ways with a new employer that I should never have joined in the first place. That certainly didn’t help financially, but because I had wholeheartedly agreed with the decision to separate, I couldn’t exactly mourn the loss. Enough said.

At that point, I also set a personal goal for being able to ride my motorcycle again: Thanksgiving weekend of 2018. This was a fairly aggressive goal and let me tell you why. At the six-week mark, I mounted my motorcycle, but could only lift the 885-pound beast off its side stand with assistance from my son and without using my left arm, which was still under substantial restrictions at the time. Merely setting my left hand on the grip took some effort and I knew I could reach no further forward that day.

By late September, I could stand the bike up by myself, though I was still compensating substantially for my weak left arm. I could also turn the handlebars lock to lock and work the clutch lever without difficulty. Still, it would have been foolish to try riding so soon. Given my stage of healing, there was simply too much at stake. Besides, based on my informal survey of the available internet chatter, I hadn’t heard about anybody riding a heavyweight motorcycle any earlier than four months after a total shoulder replacement. So I bided my time and continued to push myself at physical therapy.

My patience and effort paid off. On the morning of November 22, with an ambient temperature in the mid-thirties, I rolled Miss Scarlett out of my garage and accompanied by my son and his motorcycle, took a brief jaunt through the neighborhood before pulling back in and moving on to our Thanksgiving Day festivities.

The ride lasted only a few minutes and told me everything I needed to know about preparing for my 2019 riding season. For openers, after a four-month layoff, my skills were as rusty as they are after a full winter season of not riding, and then some. Every spring I work on removing that rust by running specific exercises—mainly emergency maneuvers and slow-speed handling—over and over until they become fluid again. Unfortunately, my son and I were a day away from putting our bikes up for a long winter nap. So my riding skills, which had already deteriorated from four months of non-use, were about to be set aside for another four months or so, save for the occasional warm, saltless day.

But what could I do with only one day, a cool and windy one at that? The answer was clear: go ride a little more.

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The following day, we saddled up and rode out to Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area on the outskirts of Yorkville, IL. It was cloudy and cool, but dry and not cold, with winds gusting up to 30-ish mph. The route we chose allowed us to periodically run the bikes at highway speeds or better, with a few opportunities to take sweeping curves, sharp turns, and stretches of moist debris left on the road by farm implements. Let your imagination be your guide. By and large, I did okay and my shoulder caused no issues at all, but I did commit some awkward errors that are typical of novice riders. I noted every one of them for future reference and will work on those, even before I get the chance to ride again, through visualization exercises, followed by actual practice once the warm weather returns.

My son and I discussed these things as we took a walk around Loon Lake at the state park. It was quality father-and-son time for us, though we couldn’t help but notice certain telltale signs, such as residual snow on a shaded path and some floating ice on a slough, all this despite an ambient temperature in the mid-to-upper forties. We knew this would likely be our last run for a while. Ah, but it was golden to me!

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We stopped at the Crusade Burger Bar in Yorkville, where my wife Karen met us for a delicious lunch (try the fried cheese curds appetizer, you will thank me). Then we headed back to Plainfield, stopping to top off our tanks after adding the usual measures of gasoline stabilizer. Afterward, we took a brisk ride through the neighborhood, allowing the stabilizer to mix in and get into our respective fuel lines. Finally, we pulled into the garage, rolling the bikes onto layers of cardboard, to protect the tires, and hooked up our smart chargers. The bikes are, for our purposes, winterized, though they still remain available and ready should an off-season riding opportunity present itself.

If I were to end my story here, very few people would question my gratitude on this Thanksgiving holiday weekend. But there is more. When I lost my job in September, a handful of friends I had made as business acquaintances took it upon themselves to go beyond the usual lip service—”good luck” and “I’ll keep my eyes open”—and actively sought out potential opportunities for me. These were extraordinary gestures on their part and I am still humbled by their endeavors, one of which resulted in a new job that I started last Monday, at the start of Thanksgiving week.

Diaz Group LLC is a growing force in landscape design, enhancements, and maintenance, as well as snow and ice management services. Located in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago, this family owned and operated organization has experienced tremendous growth over the past decade. We did business with each other for eight years during my tenure at Cherry Logistics, a national facilities maintenance company, so in effect, we have already known each other for years. When a mutual friend of ours saw the potential and encouraged us to meet, both parties moved on the opportunity. Now I am a member of their management team and I can proudly say without reservation, “I am Diaz Group.” What a rush!

Early on after my injury, I devoted a measure of time to feeling sorry for myself. At some point, I realized I could go further by embracing my healing journey than by mourning my losses. Please think about that for a moment. Right now I could still be wondering why I lost my left shoulder by trying to get my poor, frightened dog home. Right now I could still be mourning the loss of a job that I should have never pursued. Instead, I am back on two wheels and planning my 2019 riding season and I have a new and wonderful workplace that I can call home. What changed? Me.

Embrace the journey! And as always, thanks for hanging with me.

Romancing the Blade

Mug Brush

My fascination with shaving has a lengthy history that began when I was a small boy and became aware of this ritual performed by grown-up men. For as long as I knew him, my grandfather shaved with a safety razor, a mug of shaving soap, and a brush. He also had an old straight razor in his basement bathroom and although I never saw him use it, I’m sure he had done so once upon a time. I rarely got to watch Grandpa shave, but the few memories I have of those times involved him coming out of his bathroom with one or two fragments of tissue stuck to his face. I would later learn firsthand that this was a tried-and-true method for catching and holding blood droplets from the seemingly inevitable razor nicks and cuts.

Norelco

My dad’s arsenal was a bit more modern. He was a Norelco man, having owned numerous corded and uncorded models over the decades. But he also had several safety razors, at least one in each bathroom, and he used them on occasions when he wanted a particularly close shave. Pop professed that he could go for two days between proper wet blade shaves, whereas his electric razor required daily use.

My dad was no stranger to the toilet paper trick, either, but he also kept a solid alum block, which he had purchased from a barber, I couldn’t tell you in what year.  After shaving, you simply run the alum block under cool water and then gently glide it over your freshly-shaven skin. Any nicks, cuts or abrasions will immediately be made known. The alum stings like mad when it finds any such wound, but it does help check the flow of blood. Styptic pencils, used for the same purpose, also contain powdered alum crystals. After my dad passed away, I kept that old alum block, mainly for sentimental reasons, though I have used it from time to time. I wish I’d kept all of the razors as well. Hindsight is always 20/20.

Alum Block

When the time came for me to begin shaving, sometime during my high school years, my dad introduced me to shaving by presenting me with one of his safety razors. This particular one had a “butterfly” mechanism for replacing the double-edged blade and was also adjustable. Twisting a dial built into in the handle would change the height/exposure of the blade, allowing for a milder or more aggressive shave, depending on the setting. This was a good choice for a newbie like me.

We went over the basic techniques—using hot water and the shaving brush to work up a good lather and apply it to my face, holding the razor properly, rinsing thoroughly, using the alum block if necessary, and applying aftershave. My young peachfuzz whiskers never stood a chance. Neither did my face when I began experimenting with more aggressive razor settings over time. But I learned and I did okay.

Before long I became curious about electric shavers and got one of my own. Using an electric razor was cool because I could mow down my whiskers relatively quickly without fear of cutting myself. But they were also bothersome because (a) applying pressure to get a closer shave often resulted in razor burn and (b) the darned things needed to be cleaned regularly. Over the decades that followed, I tried various electric models from Norelco, Remington, Braun, and Panasonic. Some I liked better than others—especially the self-cleaning models, although those tended to break down after the warranty period was up.

Fusion

I also went through all the iterations of disposable and multi-blade cartridge razors, beginning with the Gillette Trac II and culminating with the Gillette Fusion5™ ProGlide Power razor. In the end, I preferred wet shaving, though not necessarily the rising costs associated with using the latest innovations in cartridge shaving technology. Every time the folks at Gillette (now part of Proctor & Gamble) rolled out another iteration of the latest must-have razor, I knew I could count on the cost of replacement blade cartridges going up.

I’d been seeing and hearing a lot about the resurgence of safety razors over the past few years and I guess it was just a matter of time before I got swept up in the movement myself. The cost of blade replacement for my five-bladed (six if you count the trimmer blade on the backside), self-lubricated, vibrating, flexing, pivoting shaving system was between two and three dollars per replacement cartridge and as much as I liked the product, I was ready for a change, if only to save a few bucks. As a rule, I am seldom afraid to try something new. But was I ready to try something old?

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After a bit of research, I decided to buy The Chieftain safety razor by Vikings Blade. an outfit in Australia that seems to have fun with what they do while taking the art of shaving quite seriously. The product is well-rated and comes with a storage/carrying case as well as five starter blades, all for a price that wouldn’t break me (I was still employed full-time and hadn’t yet broken my shoulder when I bought this). When my new razor arrived, I was not disappointed. The weight and balance are excellent, to say nothing of the fit and finish. The Chieftain is a quality product. I couldn’t wait to try it out.

Hamburger

Unfortunately, despite having read and reread the directions and even watched a video or two about shaving with a safety razor, I had built up some bad habits from many years of having shaved with pivoting disposable cartridge razors. Despite the “mild” blade I had used,  my poor neck paid dearly for those bad habits. It was days before I attempted shaving with that razor again, but to be very clear, it wasn’t the razor’s fault. This was pure user error.

I recall one of my college marketing professors, years ago, explaining that The Gillette Company had developed the pivoting razor head after research revealed that a substantial portion of shavers did not hold their razor at the proper angle. The advertisements never said, “…with a new pivoting head, because some of you are too stupid to hold your razors properly,” but that was the gist of it. And remembering that helped me get the best shave of my life with a safety razor. That and an email.

I emailed “Grumpy old Robert” Vue, owner of Vikings Blade, who merely confirmed what I already knew. “Michael, neck shaving with a safety razor is very very different and I can totally guess why you had to use the alum bloc.” He proceeded to give me some sound advice about shaving with a safety razor, which I took to heart. And so, with a healed up neck and a head full of knowledge, I picked up my safety razor and began anew. I even learned a few new things along the way.

If you are looking to make the switch to a safety razor, here are some important tips to keep in mind.

  • Hydration matters. Your skin needs to be very wet, your whiskers softened by it. The result will be an easier shave and more optimal results.
  • Use a proper shaving cream/gel that works for you. I’ll get into my favorite in a bit.
  • A safety razor will not pivot to correct your shave angle, nor will it forgive your mistakes. You must control the blade angle throughout the shave. A 30° angle is considered optimal and you won’t need a protractor to find it. When the portion of the razor head above the blade and the safety bar/comb beneath the blade are both touching your skin, you’re pretty much there.
  • Do not apply pressure on your safety razor for a closer shave! Use the natural weight of the razor and let it glide, at the proper angle, to do its job. Major thanks to Grumpy old Robert for driving this point home for me.
  • Lift the razor off your skin before changing the direction of a stroke or moving the blade sideways.
  • Shaving “with the grain” (in the same direction as your whiskers grow) will yield the mildest shave. Sideways to the grain is more aggressive. Against the grain is most aggressive and will yield the closest shave, if you have the skill and your skin can handle it.
  • Understand your face. There are about three points on the contours of my neck that require additional attention in order to get a close shave without injury. The same goes for the area above my mustache and beneath my nose. Your mileage may vary.
  • Take your time and do it right. If you rush, you may regret it.
  • Sometimes it makes more sense to shave less aggressively, i.e. on a very hot and humid day.
  • No matter what, your last razor strokes should be downward. I was taught that this would train the whiskers to grow downward. True or not, I can’t shake that teaching.

Shaven

My results have been phenomenal. Never again have I suffered the same “hamburger neck” that I experienced with that first, careless shave. I have graduated to using a more aggressive blade—more on that in a moment—and my usual result is an unbelievably close, smooth shave. Any actual nicks have been few and far between, and are usually the result of my zeal to repeatedly achieve the closest possible shave.

Astra Blades.jpg

I place a lot of emphasis on technique when it comes to shaving with a safety razor, but I would be remiss not to mention two other factors, that being your choice of double-edge (DE) razor blade and shave cream—each of which can be a very personal thing. On that fateful first day, when I turned my neck into so much hamburger, I couldn’t see using anything sharper than the “starter” blades that had come with my razor. Several weeks later, I had changed my mind. The Astra Superior Platinum Double Edge Safety Razor Blade is reputed to be among the sharpest-yet-smoothest blades available. These stainless steel, platinum-coated blades are super thin and even after “dulled” by a week or more of shaving, they should be handled with respect. I can get a full two weeks out of one blade, but one week is optimal and at just under ten cents a blade, when bought in 100-count packages, I have little reason to push it. That’s right, I buy 100 premium quality DE razor blades for a fraction of what I used to pay for four disposable Fusion 5 Power replacement cartridges. Some people periodically flip the blade over in the razor head, claiming that doing so extends blade life. Me, I flip the blade after every shave. Even if doing so doesn’t help, it can’t hurt.

Cremo

Cremo Original Concentrated Shave Cream is my go-to shaving product. I’ve tried others and kept returning to this one. Again, this is a very personal choice, so I encourage shavers to draw their own conclusions. For me, a dime-size dollop plus hot water gets my face as slick as heck and pretty much keeps it that way throughout the shaving process, as long as I can keep it moving with one wet hand. A sufficient coating of Cremo is nearly transparent on my face, which allows me to see what I’m doing and shave with precision.

My son looked at the results I have achieved with a double-edged safety razor and decided to draw his own conclusions. Less than a week later, he opted to get his own Vikings Blade razor, opting for The Chieftain, Odin Edition. I have yet to hear a complaint.

In the end, one’s shaving equipment and accessories are a personal choice. For now, I am very pleased with the choices I’ve made.