Pass the Doubanjiang: Excursions into Asian Cooking

IMG_0022During those times when the weather is not conducive to recreational motorcycling, my friend Ann and I will sometimes get together and cook things instead. Even in the dead of winter, our kitchen antics have never caused pneumonia or frostbite. Besides, we always have fun cooking together, even on those rare occasions when we set off the smoke alarm. The dishes we prepare are seldom complicated, but we do try to keep things interesting.

Sometimes we prepare dishes that one of us already knows well enough to teach to the other. Ann once taught me how to make spaetzle from scratch, for example. On another occasion I showed her my version of homemade tomato sauce from scratch, along with my homemade Italian meatballs. Sometimes we try new things together, like chicken gyros or tacos al pastor. All in all, the two of us have had more successes than failures and so our cooking endeavors continue. We now keep an ever-growing list of dishes we’d like to try preparing together. That’s probably why we have seldom collaborated on the same foods twice.

As of late, Ann and I have been on an Asian kick. While brainstorming our menu, we came up with too many dishes to prepare for a single meal, but rather than omit any dishes, we arranged two Asian menus, each to be prepared roughly two weeks apart.

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Round one consisted of a cucumber edamame salad with a ginger-soy vinaigrette dressing, chicken potstickers with two dipping sauces, and twice-cooked pork. Ann found the salad recipe on a blog site called Noble Pig. This was relatively easy to make and we both enjoyed the combination of flavors and textures very much. In fact, I took a container of leftover salad home with me that evening and made a light lunch of it the following day.

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Of the three dishes we made, our potstickers were the most labor-intensive and time-consuming. They were delicious, mind you, but took a bit of time and effort to prepare. We used two different types of store-bought wrappers and filled them all with the chicken mixture. The potstickers we made were a variation on this recipe, but if you search for potsticker recipes on Pinterest, you should find enough results to keep you busy for a lifetime. We steamed one batch and fried and steamed another. Personally, I like the fry/steam combination method better. The dumpling wrappers develop crispy edges but remain soft and chewy farther in. We made two dipping sauces. The one we liked was fairly traditional and pretty easy to make. The other was basically greasy heat—crushed chilis and garlic cooked in oil. As much as Ann and I both enjoy spicy food, we will not be repeating that sauce.

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Twice-cooked pork is my favorite Chinese dish but very few restaurants, to which I’ve been, seem to offer it. Marinated pork butt is cooked once, then thinly sliced and stir-fried with cabbage before adding a sweet and spicy sauce. I first experienced twice-cooked pork at a place, now long gone, in Racine, Wisconsin that featured the dish as part of their buffet (this was years before Chinese buffets had become a thing). The next time I had it was on an epic motorcycle trip that took me through Lincoln, Nebraska. I am always enchanted by the combination of sweetness, heat, and crunch. So when Ann and I first began tossing around menu ideas, I kept suggesting twice-cooked pork.

We prepared this dish using a recipe by Chinese chef and author Martin Yan, of whom I am a longtime fan. For a first try, we did alright and there was very little in the way of leftovers. I would like to try making twice-cooked pork again sometime, increasing the sweetness, spiciness, and thickness of the sauce until I get it just so.

IMG_0016We had begun this cooking endeavor with a simple tray of rice crackers, wasabi peas and such. We ended it with fortune cookies. Oddly enough, Ann and I drew the same fortune. I no longer recall what it said, but the sheer coincidence had rendered our entire bag of fortune cookies suspect. We pressed Ann’s son, Andy, into service. She offered him a cookie. He left it there, unopened. We stared at the unopened morsel as the tension increased. When we could stand it no longer, Ann snatched up the cookie and crushed it between her fingers. I think I stopped breathing while her eyes scanned the strip of paper within for a brief eternity. At last she spoke.

“It’s not the same.”

So, just a coincidence. It was as though a large, heavy stone had been lifted off my chest.

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Our second round of Asian cooking, two weeks later, was quite delicious, but much simpler. Sort of. The flagship dish this time was Japanese ramen — not the budget-priced instant stuff that can be found in almost any retail store, but the genuine article. We made a traditional miso broth, boiled a package of organic ramen noodles, and prepared a host of traditional and near-traditional toppings to go with it.

One traditional topping for ramen is braised pork belly. We certainly could have gone that route, but I talked Ann into making an oven-broiled Chinese char siu style pork tenderloin instead. As we are sometimes inclined to do, we combined elements from two different recipes and produced an awesome Asian-influenced pork tenderloin that went well with our ramen soup and all the other toppings, namely fried tofu, baby spinach, seaweed salad, soft-boiled egg (for Ann only—I am not an egg eater), and this marvelous spicy bean sprout salad, which could be eaten on its own or as a topping. Now you might conclude that ramen prepared and served in this fashion is a meal in itself. And you would be correct, but neither Ann nor I could stop there. Oh, no, of course not.

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After all the time and effort we had put into making potstickers back in round one, Ann suggested that for round two, we bring in prepared dumplings and focus on our homemade dipping sauces. I liked that idea and so picked up two varieties of Jang Foods frozen dumplings at my local Tony’s Finer Foods location. From nearly half a dozen options, I chose chicken and cabbage dumplings and shrimp, pork and leek dumplings. Each package came with a small packet of prepared dipping sauce, which we promptly discarded. Instead of using that stuff, Ann and I repeated the traditional dipping sauce that we had enjoyed so much during round one, plus we prepared a soy-chili sauce that was just different enough to be worthwhile. The dumplings themselves were very good and the convenience factor cannot be denied.

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Rounding out our round two menu was a tray of sushi, California rolls I believe, that Ann had picked up at her local grocer. We utilized our dipping sauces for these, too and I found them quite tasty.

In the space of two weeks, Ann and I used more Asian spices than either of us had used before. Take sesame oil, for example. Sesame oil is not so much a cooking oil as it is a seasoning and a potent one at that. I have always been wary of using more than a few drops, but we went through tablespoons of the stuff during both cooking sessions. I still wouldn’t get reckless with the stuff, though. We went through many cloves of garlic and quite a bit of fresh ginger, too.

There were also things I’d never used before but will gladly use again. Doubanjiang is a fermented broad bean (aka fava bean) paste that is used in a variety of Asian cuisine. It’s salty, spicy, and flavorful. Sambal oelek (or ulek) is a fresh chili paste of Indonesian origin. Made with crushed hot chilis, vinegar and salt, it gave an interesting kick to one of our dipping sauces. Shichimi togarashi is also called Japanese seven-spice and should NOT be confused with Chinese five-spice seasoning. The seven spices are typically Sancho or Sichuan peppercorns, red chili flakes, dried orange or tangerine peel, black sesame seeds, white sesame seeds, ginger, and Nori (roasted seaweed) flakes, all of which are ground or pounded and then mixed together. Yes, it is spicy. We used it in our miso broth, but shichimi togarashi can also be used as a table spice as well as in marinades, coatings, and dressings. Miso, which was new to me but not to Ann, is a fermented paste made from soybeans and rice or barley. There are a number of varieties including white miso, which is not white at all, and red miso, which is darker because it has been fermented longer.

Ann and I could easily have developed a round three menu, but we ran out of time. What with the holidays and all, we don’t even try to get together during the month of December. When we do meet again, in January, we will be preparing a special Italian meal.

As always, thanks for hanging with me. Or perhaps I should say watashitoisshoni okoshi itadaki arigatōgozaimasu.

 

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God and the Salt

By Mark Schellhase (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Mark Schellhase (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0


I had an unusual dream prior to waking up this morning and want to record it here before the entire dream fades from my memory. I am making no claims about the substance of this dream.

As my dream began, for reasons unknown to me, I found myself alongside God—or rather, I should say I discovered God beside me. Don’t ask me how I knew who it was. In dreams sometimes certain things are simply understood to be so. I was not in a particular place. In fact, to the best of my recollection, there were no surroundings at all, other than some sort of heavy white woven fabric laid out before me that seemed to flow from Him. We were side-by-side, as opposed to facing each other. Although I never looked directly at his face or saw his body, in this dream God seemed like a man, albeit a very large one who positively dwarfed me, like a grown man beside a young child.

And that’s exactly how I felt, like a small child. For the duration of this dream, I never said a word. Now that’s very unusual for me. Whether in a dream or awake, silence is not among my strong suits.  From my left side, God spoke to me in a soft, deep voice. There was no echo, no Cecil B. DeMille special effects. Here is how it went.

“People wonder why I don’t do more to help them.” He placed several large crystals on the cloth in front of me, although I never saw his hand.

“This is salt. Go ahead, pick one up.” I picked up a white crystal the size of a Brazil nut. “Look at it. Feel it. Hold it in your hand.” I did as I was told.

“Put it in your other hand.” I moved the crystal from my right hand to my left. “Now put it behind you and switch it back.” I obeyed, not really understanding the point of this exercise. It was sort of like playing Simon Says with the Almighty. He told me what to do and I did it. If only real life worked like this.

“See? It’s real. I put that there. The problem is, people don’t use what I give them” That’s when I understood. I turned to my left, grabbing fistfuls of the heavy woven fabric, and began to cry.

He said one last thing to me, with emphasis. “Pick up the salt.”

Then I woke up, wondering what I may have been ignoring or underutilizing and what salt had to do with it. I’m not often able to remember my dreams, so I guess the way this one stuck in my mind bothered me a little. I’m also not one for quoting Bible verses, but let me leave you with this one that popped into my head. As I said when I started, I make no claims.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.”  (Matthew 5:13)

As always, thanks for hanging with me.

For the Benefit of Others

 

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It sure didn’t feel like the second Sunday in October, but there we were. Conditions were sunny, dry, and relatively warm as Ann and I rolled into the spacious lot at Fox River Harley-Davidson to register for the 31st Annual DuKane A.B.A.T.E. Toy & Food Run. This was Ann’s third consecutive year attending and my fifth. I attended for the first time in 2013, at which time I reconnected with one Wally Elliott, then the event’s coordinator, with whom I had done business back in the 1980’s and 90’s. One year later, I was a member of the DuKane Chapter of A.B.A.T.E. of Illinois and was actively promoting the Toy & Food Run.

The folks at Fox River Harley-Davidson do it right. Besides serving as a registration and donations collection point, this motorcycle dealership puts out a free breakfast for Toy & Food Run participants. I should point out that riders of all makes and models are welcome. I have never ridden a Harley, but was made to feel no less welcome for it. When Ann and I rolled out toward Elburn with all the others, we had no idea how many bikes were in our party. Still, it felt awesome to be a part of that.

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This annual event, billed as “Chicagoland’s oldest and largest suburban toy run,” is not a small one. From remote registration points, eight this year, participants fed into a parade staging area, and also a registration point, outside of Knuckleheads Tavern in Elburn, Illinois. From there a fully escorted parade wound its way to the Batavia VFW grounds for an afternoon of fun and festivities, with merchandise vendors, live bands, and food and beverage vendors on hand for the duration of the event. Local and state political figures and candidates also attended, including Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, himself an A.B.A.T.E. member and avid motorcyclist. Admission was once again only $10 per person, along with a new, unwrapped toy and a non-perishable food item.

The atmosphere at Elburn could only be described as festive. Bikes were being parked in several staging lots. As usual, a live band was playing their hearts out in the lot behind Knuckleheads. Bikes and bikers were everywhere. A large, dedicated group of volunteers kept everything moving in an orderly fashion. Governor Rauner was there, as was Santa Claus. Some of us joked about who was the bigger celebrity.

At 12:30 PM, we rolled out of Elburn. As always, Ann was capturing everything she could with still shots and video. Countless Law Enforcement Officers and designated volunteers assisted with traffic control, ensuring a safe ride to our endpoint in Batavia.

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The festivities at the Batavia VFW are always extraordinary and this year was no exception. Multiple bands provided an afternoon of vibrant live music, courtesy of TOGA Talent Agency. The merchandise, food, and beverage vendors were all top-shelf. And still more volunteers kept everything moving in an orderly fashion—no small feat for an event of this magnitude. The toys and food items collected that day (enough to fill two flatbed trailers, were distributed to many local charities, representatives of which were on site to tell their stories. The event itself also raises funds for our A.B.A.T.E. chapter.

For the record, A.B.A.T.E. of Illinois is a motorcycle safety and rights organization (read: lobby) that not only protects and fights for the rights of motorcyclists, but brings motorcycle safety and awareness to the community through speaking engagements, education at driver’s ed courses and visiting clubs and organizations. The DuKane Chapter represents the state organization in Northern DuPage and Kane Counties.

It sure didn’t feel like the second Sunday in October, but there we were, and it was awesome! As always, thanks for hanging with me.

Have Cucuzza, Will Travel

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As the old adage goes, if you don’t like your situation, change it. If you can’t change it, change your mind. What might have been a dark, depressing weekend for me turned out to be a wonderful one, with a good bit of help from a dear friend and the timely ripening of a somewhat unusual Italian vegetable.

My friend Ann and I were supposed to have gone on a fall motorcycle tour around Lake Michigan last weekend but because I had not yet resuscitated my personal finances following the complete and utter demise of my most recent employer (see Ups and Downs – Part 2 of 3), I was forced to cancel our trip. While I’d like to think I can shake anything off like so much dust from my sandals, the fact of the matter is my mind was headed for a very dark place as the result. Mind you, this wasn’t the first time in my life I’ve had to cancel plans for practical reasons. And yes, as a rule, having to do so sucks like a top-of-the-line Dyson vacuum. But what burns me most is not that I was inconvenienced—I can deal with that all day long—but that it had affected a friend of mine. It doesn’t even matter to me that this friend didn’t really mind all that much. If you want to end up on my bad side fast, do something, anything, that adversely affects one of my friends. When that happens, you may want to step back a mile or two.

But you see, though my employer had failed, miserably so, that had occurred last July. This was September and I still hadn’t pulled out of my own tailspin. So while the time span was quite within reason given my career stage (over seven years at the director level), whom could I blame for inconveniencing one of my dearest friends more than me? Nobody. Thus my smoldering ire was turned back on myself. Fade to black… almost.

Enter the cucuzza, a type of gourd that is grown as a summer squash in southern Italy. The Americanized term for this vegetable sounds like “googootz” and thanks to the myriad of Italian dialects, you may also hear it called something that sounds like “cogozza” or “coguzzigia.” It’s all the same thing. They grow on vines and they grow rapidly to substantial lengths, often over three feet long. The skin is inedible. The flesh beneath is white and tasteless raw, but when cooked, it takes on a translucent, pale green hue and has a mild, somewhat sweet flavor.

So there I was, looking at the prospect of spending four days—the length of our planned trip around the lake—obsessing over something I could not change, and that just seemed so pointless to me. So I reached out to Ann and said as much. “Why should we write off the entire four days? Let’s take at least one of those days and do something worthwhile.” Then for good measure, I added, “I’ve got a cucuzza that will be ripe for picking by this weekend. I could bring it up if you promise not to laugh, and we could prepare something with it together.”

“Like what?” Ann seemed intrigued by that idea—such is the power of a nice cucuzza—and so we so we laid pans for one day of riding, walking, and cooking together. In addition to supplying the cucuzza, on the eve of our day together, I offered to harvest some large leaf basil and grill some Italian-marinated chicken breasts for our culinary endeavor. Ann, in turn, obtained the additional vegetables and grains, along with some bread, wine, and other assorted goodies to complete the meal. Game on!

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The following morning, I carefully wrapped my cucuzza in a favorite cotton hoodie, strapped it securely into the passenger area of Miss Scarlett, my Victory Vision touring motorcycle, and headed to Ann’s place up in Wisconsin. What I was not prepared for, one-hundred-plus miles later, was the immediate affection Atlas, one of Ann’s cats, displayed for my well-endowed squash. When it came time to peel and cook my unusual vegetable, the photogenic feline posed no issues. Still, it made us smile and laugh a bit.

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The temperature and humidity were unusually high for late September, so Ann and I opted to restrict our motorcycle outing to the morning and early afternoon hours. This meant staying relatively close to home, but I didn’t mind. We rode a relatively short distance to Oconomowoc and ever my reliable navigator, Ann directed me to Fowler Lake Park, a delightful spot on the eastern shore of Lake Fowler, right in the midst of Oconomowoc proper. Once off the bike, Ann proceeded to lead me on a walking tour of approximately three miles around the lake, pointing out all manner of man-made and natural points of interest. Sure, it was a little warm, but the day was beautiful and we had a really fun time together.

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Once we got back to Ann’s place, we set about to chopping, sautéeing, and simmering our food. You’ll have to wait for my book to come out to get the full non-recipe, but the essential elements are the cucuzza, some aromatics and root vegetables, tomatoes, stock, meat, grains, and seasonings. Many options and variations are possible. The end result is a hearty, flavorful stew that makes a meal in itself. A few hours later, Ann, her son, and I had eaten our fill and true to the Italian tradition into which I had been born, there were ample leftovers.

It had been such an awesome day. In the course of that day, everything wrong had quickly become overshadowed by all that was right. Still, as is often the case, the ending was bittersweet. Why? Because it was an ending. After all the pots, pans, and dishes had been washed and put away, I packed up a few leftovers on Miss Scarlett and after we had exchanged our goodbyes, I headed for home, literally riding off into the sunset before turning south.

Sometimes all you need to do, in order to understand that all is not bad, is to be willing to see the good. Thanks for hanging with me.

Our Last Ride of Summer

36867579861_9a7ae99a3e_oWhen a motorcyclist and his pillion passenger of choice live over 100 miles apart in two different states, they tend not to take their outings for granted. Such is the case for my friend Ann and me. While we absolutely have gotten together on the spur of the moment, we usually put some thought into scheduling our rides based on mutual availability, weather outlook, etc. We had both been hoping to go riding together sometime over the 2017 Labor Day holiday weekend; we just weren’t sure which day it would be. After all, we went riding for three days during the 2016 Labor Day weekend. Surely we’d be able to get a simple day ride in this year, right? Well, it almost didn’t happen.

36737811802_a94173bea1_oMy current employment situation might have put any multi-day excursions on ice, had we planned any, but would not have stopped Ann and me from taking a day trip together. When my wife took an unplanned trip to the hospital the weekend prior, however, a visit that turned into an extended stay, everything else in my life became tentative—including my career search activities, scheduled meetings, and leisurely motorcycle excursions. Such has been my practice for decades, so no big surprise there. When I say family first, I mean family first.

Four days later, Karen was back at home with no physical restrictions, life was quickly returning to normal, and everything that had been put on hold was suddenly back in 21389322_10213547112773090_2064896616_oplay. The very next day, I resumed job search activities, had an awesome meeting with a former colleague of mine, and with a favorable weather forecast in place, I reached out to Ann and made firm plans to take her out riding.

The morning of Sunday, September 3 was a cool one in central Wisconsin. Foggy, too. Ann set out some breakfast goodies and two mugs of fresh, hot coffee. We took our sweet time sipping coffee, looking at potential routes on Ann’s map app, and watching out the window as the fog gave way to a beautiful sunny morning. Once that happened, Ann added her gear to mine on the bike and we set out together for what would surely become our last ride of the summer.

It may have been just a simple day trip, but wow, what a ride! We opted to run north and do a simple loop through the Northern Unit of Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest. 21363237_10213547112653087_1549845227_oWe ran north on Wisconsin 67 and then took a few county roads—A to T to G, which rejoins 67 and then departs again—to make a loop within the Northern Unit.

We made three relatively quick stops while touring the Northern Unit that day. Our first stop was at the Ice Age Visitor Center, which we had visited last fall (Rides with Ann: the Autumn Runs, October 26).  As we pulled into 36819817166_b9c3a7fa8a_othe parking area, Ann spotted a small bicycle rack positioned on the sidewalk leading to the Visitor Center. Leaning forward, she murmured into my left ear, “I dare you to pull Miss Scarlett up to that bike rack so I can get a picture of you there.” Naturally, I did what any other red-blooded Italian American man would have done after having received such a dare from a beautiful woman sitting on the back of his motorcycle. I sighed audibly, gunned the bike’s big V-twin engine for emphasis, and then rode in a sweeping circle around the parking lot and up to the bike rack, much to the delight of my conspiring passenger, who hopped off and took the photo as promised.

The purpose of this stop was not so much to reminisce as to finalize our route, set up Ann’s video equipment, and take advantage of the restrooms that we knew were available at the center. We did also venture onto the viewing deck out back and managed to take the selfie that appears at the very beginning of this article. While that photo does display the beautiful blue sky above, it really doesn’t do justice to the beautiful scenery that lay behind us, from the deck rail all the way out to the horizon. Such is the natural beauty of the Kettle Moraine.

16593983853_1dd7937408_oOur next stop was a quick memory maker on our way back down a portion of WI 67 near the shores of Long Lake. On our way up, I had pointed out a place to Ann where a few years earlier—June 1, 2014, to be exact—my son and I had stopped on our way home from a weekend of watching AMA Superbike races at Road America to grab a selfie with the lake behind us. On our way back, as Long Lake came into view, Ann suggested stopping in the same spot FFEE5F27-896C-4B0B-B9D2-3F0382AF329Dto grab a quick photo that I could send to my son, who is currently living in Portland, Oregon, having recently completed his studies at the Portland Actors Conservatory. Having enjoyed Ann’s last suggestion so much, I pulled into the exact same spot and paused while she hopped off the bike, snapped her photos, and hopped back on. This is one of many things I love about my friend Ann. While I am astounded that more than three years later, I was able to stop in nearly the exact same spot that selfie was taken in 2014, I am equally astounded that Ann saw the value in doing so. Plus she set up that shot in seconds and quite frankly, but for the ugly gent in the saddle, I think she took an excellent photo.

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Our last stop was of sentimental value to me alone. There is this little State Forest Headquarters facility that I have stopped at from time to time on my way home from the bike races over the years. The first time was in 2005, traveling alone with my new 2005 Honda ST1300. I’m sure I stopped there with my silver 2007 ST1300 as well, but I have no photographic evidence. On more than one occasion, I have dragged my son to this nondescript place and he still wonders why I like to stop there. It’s hard to explain. There is nothing special about it, but this place is special to me. I wanted Ann to see it and while she understood John’s puzzlement about the place, she also understood how this rather nondescript parking lot in the middle of a state forest could hold meaning for me.

From there we stopped only once more. on our way back from the Northern Unit, we pulled up in front of the Don Ramon Mexican Restaurant in downtown Mayville. Ann had a build-your-own combination and I had tacos al pastor. Both were good and the service was not only warm and friendly, but also lightning fast.

From there we headed back to Ann’s place where, after an unscheduled (but apparently necessary) nap on her living room couch, I bid my dear friend and her son goodbye and headed home to Illinois. The holiday weekend traffic was understandably heavier than usual, especially south of the border, but it never really slowed down. Although I no longer had Ann sitting behind me, I had some terrific memories of our day together to keep me company during my journey home.

Our next trip will be the first of the autumn season. It may be another day trip or perhaps something more epic, depending on my employment situation, but wherever we end up going, I am pretty sure of two things: it will be awesome for us and you will likely be able to read about it here. Thanks for hanging with me.

Ups and Downs – Part 3 of 3

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Continued from Ups and Downs – Part 2 of 3

You may recall from reading my Rendezvous Run posts last June (Days One, Two, Three, and Four) that while the decline and fall of my day job as I knew it was unfolding—indeeed, weeks before I’d gone frolicking with my friends at the Midwest Motorcycle Rally in La Crosse—my son John had journeyed from his current home in Portland to the Quad Cities of Illinois in order to take his first professional theater gig with the newly formed Mississippi Bend Players in Rock Island. On Friday, July 21, which turned out to be our collective day of termination for my now-former colleagues and me, I was scheduled to lead a small group of friends on an overnight motorcycle ride to see my son’s professional debut at the premiere of Wait Until Dark. And that’s exactly what I did.

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By the close of business Thursday, July 20, I had dotted my i’s, crossed my t’s, bid my farewells, shed my tears, exchanged hugs, turned in my key, and walked away. Within hours, my friend Ann had come down from her Wisconsin home to prepare for the following day. On Friday morning, Ann and I packed up my bike and headed out to Yorkville, where we would rendezvous with two more friends, Eddie and Vern, who would be riding out with us on their respective Gold Wing touring bikes. My wife Karen, who does not ride, had gone to work that morning and would be meeting us in Moline later that day.

As long as it didn’t rain, our plan had been to meander, rather than travel via Interstate 80, the fastest, most direct route to our destination. It got plenty warm and humid, but it never rained during our ride, so we meandered. From Yorkville, we took Illinois 71 southwest through Ottawa, over the Illinois River and west along a brief but fun set of twisties past Starved Rock State Park. Just for fun, I took the group up Illinois 178 to North Utica, past the west entrance to Starved Rock, back over the river and east along Dee Bennett Road, along the north bank of the river, to the Army Corps of Engineers’ Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, overlooking the lock and dam directly across the river from Starved Rock. Everybody and their brother regularly goes to Satrved Rock, myself included. Far fewer check out the observation deck across the river. The Visitor Center provides some interesting information about the Illinois Waterway, past and present, and if you hang around long enough, you can observe commercial and recreational watercraft locking through.

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Our next stop was in Princeton for lunch and a visit to an historic covered bridge just outside of town. We decided to take a chance on Rodeo Tacos and did okay there. It wasn’t anything fancy or over-the-top, but the place was clean, the food was freshly prepared, and the lady who took care of us was pleasant, if a bit laid back. While walking there from where we had parked the bikes, we came upon Myrtle’s Pie, formerly Myrtle’s Cafe & Pie. We would have had lunch there, but there was a notice on the door proclaiming that Myrtle’s no longer serves lunch, “unless you are having pie for lunch.” While eating our Mexican food up the street, we all agreed to save room for pie. What an awesome decision that turned out to be! Eddie and Vern split a slice of banana cream while Ann and I split a slice of strawberry rhubarb, warmed and served with a scoop of ice cream. It was all I could do to not lick the plate clean. I raved about Myrtle’s for the rest of the weekend, even though Ann thought our pie had been a litttle too sweet for strawberry rhubarb.

The red covered bridge is just off Illinois 26 north of town. Originally built in 1863 and rehabbed in 1973, this bridge is still in use today. We pulled off the road to walk around and take a few pictures. Only two or three vehicles passed through while we were there, which made it easier for us to take our time and look at everything. Before we left, Eddie decided to take his Gold Wing across the bridge and back, just for grins. Being the shutterbug that she is, Ann immediately positioned herself to capture the crossing on video, so I captured her doing so. This was just one of several fun moments our little group had enjoyed throughout the day.

Stage Set - Teresa photo

The reminder of our journey was less than eventful. In fact, it was slightly miserable. By mid-afternoon, the temperature and humidity had both risen considerably. Because we were already north of Princeton, we opted to take Illinois 92 west to the Quad Cities. This turned out to be not the greatest idea I’d hatched that day. Highway 92 is extraordinarily straight, a characteristic that grows boring rather quickly when traveling by motorcycle. In effect I had condemned us to traveling on a road no more interesting than Interstate 80 would have been, only at a lower rate of speed with the hot sun beating down on us and our sweat glands working overtime. Under these conditions, it becomes all too easy to succumb to road hypnosis. We made it to the hotel alright, arriving almost immediatley after my wife had pulled in with her minivan, but we were all pretty beat and in dire need of freshening up.

Because foul weather had made its way into the forecast, we all opted to go over to the Brunner Theater Center together in the air conditioned comfort of Karen’s minivan. Once inside the center, we ran into Phil McKinley, the Broadway director and Augustana College graduate who played no small part in the founding of the Mississippi Bend Players (he was also a long-standing director the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus). Karen and I knew Mr. McKinley because he has directed our son John in a magnificent-yet-disturbing produciton of a play called A Green River, first in 2012 at Augustana College in Rock Island and again in 2013 at the historic Pabst Theater for the for the 47th annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Region III in Milwaukee (see story here). We also got to reconnect with Jeff Coussens, who directed Wait Until Dark. A professor at Augustana, Mr Coussens also directed John in a number of collegiate theater performances.

What can I tell you about the experience of being able to witness my son’s first-ever professional theatrical performance? Everything else I’ve covered in this Ups and Downs sequence pales by comparison. That performance was the culmination of a process that had begun when the kid was in middle school. Then came the high school performances, followed by the college performances, each milestone dwarfing the last. A theater minor became a theater major—I could write a small book about that turning point alone. Then came his studies at the Portland Actors Conservatory, over two thousand miles from home, a two-year program during which I was not able to see even one of his performances, each of which was surely heads above his already impresssive college performances. So there I sat, watching this thriller unfold with my son playing the nastiest villain in the story—and quite well, I might add. It was a proud moment.

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After the show, we ran up the street to Legends Corner, a nice little bar and restaurant, for a late-night meal and drinks. John rode his motorcycle over to join us and was the center of attention, fielding everyones questions and savoring the glow. The boy made my night, though, when he announced that he would be free for a period of hours the following day, if we wanted to get together for a ride. I was all smiles at the very suggestion.

The next morning, Eddie and Vern took off early for home. Karen, Ann and I had breakfast, checked out, and waited for John to ride over to our hotel. Once he did, we headed for the river, to a small park I used to enjoy visiting while John was a student at Augie. Whenever I had time to kill by myself, I would end up there. It was cool to see it again because I hadn’t expected to. From there we headed west on U.S. Highway 6 for Geneseo and had lunch at Raelyn’s Pub & Eatery. It seemed like a popular place, the staff was very friendly and helpful, and the food was good as well as abundant. I had their Voodoo Burger and was very satisfied. My best advice is to go there hungry.

After lunch we said our goodbyes and headed our separate ways. John hopped on his Honda and headed back to Rock Island; Karen pointed her van east and took I-80 home the fast way; Ann and I meandered back aboard Miss Scarlett and were the last to arrive at our destination. In hindsight, that wasn’t the brightest idea, as Ann still had a long drive ahead of her to get back to her own home. Still, it had been an awesome weekend, a true high point among all the ups and downs.

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So, I did it again the following weekend, only with a different group of motorcyclists. I didn’t even have to lead this time. My friend John took us south of the Illinois River and out to LaSalle for lunch at the Uptown Grill. It was a good pick for “polished casual American cuisine” with a somewhat upscale atmosphere, digital tablet menus, friendly (if a bit sparse) waitstaff, and nicely prepared food. On my recommendation, we saved room for dessert and took an indirect route to Princeton for—you guessed it—pie at Myrtle’s. This time I had the Dutch apple, served warm with a scoop of ice cream. I do not recall what everyone else had, but there was a lot of eating going on. I am reasonably sure that was not my last trip to Myrtle’s.

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So as not to repeat my mistake of the prior weekend, we took U.S. 6 from Princeton all the way to our hotel this time. Highway 6 is simply a more pleasant road than IL 92, but it also didn’t hurt that the temps were cooler and the air less humid, too. We arrived at the hotel with plenty of time to freshen up before heading over to the Augustana campus. This time we went to Legends before going to the theater. It was nice to kick back with friends and enjoy a couple of drinks together. Meanwhile, my wife Karen drove in from Kenosha, where she had gone that morning to take her mom to a funeral. My eldest sister also came in with our nephew and his ladyfriend. Another friend of the family, who had attended Augie with John, had also driven in for the show. We all met in the lobby before going in. Yes, John had a pretty decent group of fans in the audience that night.

The play was even better the second time around. I enjoyed it thouroughly. Some of us stuck around for the “show after the show,” an extra bit of fun held in the black box theater upstairs that night. John did a little song and dance there, quite a departure from the dark character he had played in Wait Until Dark.

The only downside of that second weekend was that I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time with my son as I had the first time around. But life is that way. Ups and downs.

The story doesn’t end here—John still has more tech work to complete before his gig is over, my search for the next big thing is still gaining momentum, and this magical summer is far from over—but this is where I choose to to conclude my three-part perspective on the recent ups and downs of my life. As I look back on these recent events, I realize two things about these figurative hills and valleys. First, despite outward appearances, these circumstances that have come to pass are not really ups and downs in and of themselves. Life, death, taxes, heat, cold, and so on are in essence neutral. We attach certain values that make otherwise flat terrain seem to ride and fall beneath our feet. That’s how ups and downs come into being.

The other, perhaps more important thing is that these ups and downs are neither detours nor detractions from the journey that is life. Rather, these ups and downs are the journey that is life. What a shame it would be to realize this only after we have drawn near the end of that wonderous journey.

Here’s to the ups and downs. To life! Thanks for hanging with me.