In the Bittersweet Passage of Time

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

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

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

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

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

“I feel like I might throw up.”

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for hanging with me.

More Culture Than Shock

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I’m not a good alone person. As a result, I am passionate about sharing my experiences, whether that be watching a good movie, eating a delicious meal, or traveling. These are things I enjoy doing with friends and loved ones. When I do such things alone, the experiences hold less meaning for me unless and until I can find a way to share them. This is in part why I have befriended social media and why I have embraced blogging for years.

I have had the good fortune to visit Baja California in Mexico a couple of times in the last two years. I was there on business both times but what I want to share with you here are some of the experiences I had while I wasn’t conducting business. I want to tell you about some of the cool places I visited and the wonderful people I encountered. Making these visits has changed the way I look at Mexico and sharing this with you makes it all more meaningful to me.

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My travel companions and I crossed the border from San Diego into Tijuana and vice versa. Before taking the first of these trips, my only experience with Mexico had been a brief excursion into Tijuana in 1975. I was 14 years old at the time and a San Diego bus tour that I was on took us across the border for a couple of hours. The bus tour had been pretty awesome but I didn’t think much of Mexico based on what I had seen. At the time, unemployment in Mexico was around 30%. To put that into perspective, 10% has long been considered the threshold for an economic depression. So there I was, a sheltered, white bread, chicken shit, suburban boy witnessing real poverty for the first time. I saw small children as well as extremely old people begging in the streets — and largely being ignored by passers-by as if they didn’t even exist. That bothered me greatly in 1975. It still bothers me today.

We weren’t ever in Tijuana long but I did see more of the city than I had in 1974. Yes, I did encounter a few beggars but very few. In fact, I regularly see more widespread begging in Chicago than I saw there. Once out of the city, I was at once impressed by the vast surrounding terrain, which can best be described as rugged. Very hilly, almost mountainous, with lots of immense boulders everywhere. And since we were still near the border, there was the ever-present steel barrier, none of which looked new. In fact, everybody seemed oblivious to it. In the city, we drove right alongside it at times. Out in the country, I could see the barrier off in the distance from the highway we were on. Many people from both sides cross the border between Mexico and California daily, many of them commuting to and from work, from both sides. I saw nothing sensational about it.

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What I did find sensational, in Tijuana and elsewhere, was the fantastic food being served up by local street vendors. A few of my associates, those who visit Mexico with some regularity, seem to know which vendors offer the best fare. I was never disappointed. In fact, I was usually blown away by the fresh ingredients and awesome flavors these vendors serve up. One cannot overlook the value, either. We often ate like kings for the equivalent of relatively few American dollars.

One day I was riding along with the eldest of my company’s founders, the only one who was born in Mexico, and I learned a lot about him, the area we were traveling through, and the people who live there. “Today you are seeing real Mexico,” Ruben told me, “not what the tourists see.” He pointed to some people selling goods at one intersection and to others who were performing at another. At one point the company elder asked, “Do you see anybody begging?”

“No,” I replied. “I see people selling things. I see people performing on some corners.”

“People do what they can to make a little money. They don’t need much. They aren’t rich, but everybody seems happy.” I nodded in acknowledgment.

We talked about our respective heritages for a while. After a momentary hesitation, Ruben asked me a question that made me pause: “Do you… I don’t know… Do you mind working for Mexicans?”

I smiled at the question and gave the most honest answer I could. “No. Do you mind having an Italian working for your company?” We looked at each other and laughed out loud. It was genuine laughter and that made me feel good.

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Here is something else I hadn’t known before I started making these trips: Baja California is home to Mexico’s wine country. In all candor, I hadn’t even known Mexico has a wine country. Well, they do and some of their wines are quite excellent. If you’re interested in such things, google “Ruta del Vino, Baja California.” We drove part of Ruta del Vino, flanked on both sides by vineyards and olive groves, to visit a wonderful little winery called Cava Mora. I was positively enchanted from the moment I set foot on the property.

As I understand it, Señor Mora was born in Mexico but spent a great deal of his life living in California and for a while was a competitive surfer. The man speaks fluent Spanish but when he spoke to me, in perfect English, I could hear Southern California in his voice. His wines are exquisite red blends, quite full-bodied with a delightful nose and deep flavor. During our last visit, after tasting wine in the cave, we went to the sipping room up above and enjoyed a bottle of wine along with a plate of cheeses, bread, olives, and spreads. There was music playing in the background and the sun was shining outside. I’m telling you, a man could get used to a place like that.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk a little bit about the people I’ve met and hung out with during our visits, some of whom originate from the same part of Mexico as the elder of whom I spoke earlier. They are a genuinely welcoming sort. Some speak perfect English, others speak it more like my Italian parents did. A few spoke little English at all, yet we communicated effortlessly. And at some point during each visit, there was a feast featuring way too much food, ample drink, music, laughter, and a certain closeness that mere words cannot quite capture.

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During such a feast, I was also introduced to a locally distilled spirit called mezcal. Like its distant cousin tequila, mezcal is made from agave but with far fewer geographic and botanical restrictions. My first taste of mezcal was poured from a recycled 2-liter soda bottle. That’s right, moonshine. The flavor was intense, to say nothing of the burn that followed. As I finished my double shot, one of the women uttered a remark from the kitchen that caused everybody to erupt in laughter. Turning to my mentor, I asked, “What did the woman say?”

“She said, ‘If you drink enough of this, you won’t need any blankets tonight.'” I looked at him and smiled as I finished my drink. He added, “By the way, you’re impressing the hell out of these people right now.”

In the end, there is always much hugging and well-wishing when the time comes to say goodbye and none of this is shallow courtesy. After only two visits, I get it. We are genuinely glad to see one another. We are genuinely sorry to say goodbye so soon. And we genuinely look forward to seeing each other again. To understand that dynamic is to get a glimpse of the organizational culture in which I work every day.

I am not a good alone person. That’s why if you have read all of this and looked at the photos and video clips along the way, I’m grateful. It all means more to me because you came along, at least for this little bit. Thanks for hanging with me.

Chili Tonight: My Influences and Options

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From the moment I began teasing my Facebook friends with photos about the pot of chili I was making, inquiries and recipe requests began flowing in. And while I do boast about having certain secret ingredients in my various dishes, truth be told, I’m not all that secretive. There was only one problem: I seldom do recipes and my signature chili is definitely no exception. But I did promise a few people that I would write this article — to give them my non-recipe if you will — and I am a man of my word. So here goes.

For openers, let’s talk about the main ingredient in most chili recipes: the meat. Most chilis I have eaten, some of them extremely good, were made with finely ground meat. There’s nothing wrong with that. Heck, my own mother used hamburger meat (usually ground round) to make her chili. I used to do likewise until I discovered alternative methods. Some years ago, I was in downtown Indianapolis for a conference. A handful of associates and I decided to visit a chili bar for supper one night. We were doing sampler trays and at some point, I realized that the chili I was eating had not been made from hamburger but from finely chopped solid meat. This epiphany forever changed the way I make my chili.

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My go-to meats are steak and lean pork, which I usually dice by hand. This takes time but the results are great. Now stop a moment and think about the sheer number of alternatives that can be found in that one sentence alone. Do I have to use beef and pork? Heck no. You can use any number of meats, alone or in combination. I have done many chilis using only beef. I have eaten very good chilis made using only chicken, only pork, and in one case, no meat at all. My friend Ann and I once made a phenomenal chili using lean pork and chicken thighs. I have friends who make venison chili and one who has even used squirrel meat. I’ve not tasted either, nor do I judge, but these variations further serve to illustrate the sheer depth and breadth of possibilities.

You don’t necessarily have to cut the meat by hand, either, although that method will give you the greatest amount of control over the size and shape of your cut pieces. Do you have a food processor? I have had good results using my ancient La Machine food processor to do my coarse chopping. You just have to be careful not to end up with puréed meat. A meat grinder with a coarse grind option will also work nicely. That’s what Ann and I used when we made our pork and chicken chili.

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At this point, I am ready to season and brown my meat. While preheating my pan, I will season my meat while it is still in a bowl or spread out on my cutting board. Here is where I apply kosher salt, coarse-ground black pepper, cayenne pepper (coarse or fine, your choice), and a favorite meat seasoning or rub — which in my case is Mike’s All Purpose Seasoning. No, I am not the Mike who developed this line of seasoning products, but I did meet him once.

If I have concerns about grease, I may opt to brown my meat in a skillet and then transfer it, sans all the extra grease, to my chili pot. I typically use lean cuts of meat, though, in which case I’ll prepare the whole gig in one pot. I start with a hot pan, add a little peanut oil (prized for its high smoking point), and brown the meat over high heat so as to burn off all the water that will come from the meat as it cooks.

As the last of that water cooks off, I’ll add some finely chopped peppers and a generous portion of minced garlic. My wife cannot tolerate heat, so I use red bell pepper plus a few serrano peppers — in proportions that add more flavor than heat. When the weather allows, I may opt to roast the peppers outside, even adding a little wood smoke for added flavor.

Just as the meat begins to fry, i.e. as the edges begin to turn dark brown, I’ll lower the heat and add liquid. Here also is where you’ll add the rest of your chili seasonings, namely chili powder, cumin, and oregano — Mexican oregano if you have it. The proper ratio of chili powder to cumin is three-to-one. The oregano is added to taste. If I add three tablespoons of chili powder and one of cumin, I might toss in a teaspoon, less than two, of the oregano. You can always adjust later on. Stir it up to coat all the meat evenly as you begin to lower the heat.

Here come some more variables, each of them worthy. Sometimes I’ll simmer the meat in beer. During a recent trip to Mexico, I discovered a wonderful brew. Bohemia Oscura is a Vienna style beer with excellent flavor that would work very well for this purpose. Not a fan of beer? During a trip to Colorado, I met a lady at a winery who talked about simmering her chili meat in that winery’s medium-dry sherry. And so now, as often as not, I’ll simmer my beef and pork in a generous pour of amontillado.

The rest of my liquid generally comes in the form of stock — beef stock if I’m using beef, chicken stock if I’m using poultry, and vegetable stock if I were to ever make a vegetarian chili. Not all chilis incorporate tomato; that’s a very regional thing. Being from southern Italy, my mother put tomatoes in everything. Even the broth in her chicken soup was red. Being my mother’s son, I follow suit and use diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, or both in my chili. It’s not the dominant ingredient but its presence cannot be ignored. All the while, my chili continues to simmer.

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Next, I add my beans and any other extras that are involved. Beans themselves are controversial, as some purists insist that they have no place in chili. Here again I defer to my chili influences, one being my mother and the other being a small chain of chili parlors in Milwaukee, where I went to college. My mom cooked the beans in her chili. The chili parlor, called Real Chili, served their chili over beans as an option. They also offered their chili over spaghetti and beans as another option, which I loved, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

What kind of beans? What do you got? Pinto beans are common, as are kidney beans, both light and dark. I’ve used them all. How about a combination? Each contributes its own color, texture, and flavor to the dish. That chicken and pork chili that Ann and I made included a medley of organic beans and it proved to be wonderful. I often add corn to my steak and pork chili. For the pork and chicken chili I’ve mentioned, we added hominy. You don’t need to add anything unless you want to.

Whatever bean(s) and extras you use, let the chili simmer for a while. How long depends on who you ask, but this simmering time allows the flavors to meld and the broth to reduce and thicken. As this happens, you taste and adjust the seasonings as you see fit. Bear in mind, as the liquid reduces, the seasoning flavors will become more concentrated. Don’t rush to add more salt early on. Need more heat? Add cayenne pepper or hot sauce (I may toss in a pour of Valentina or Tabasco at this point, depending on my needs). At this point, it becomes largely a matter of personal preference.

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Once the chili reaches its desired state of doneness, as indicated by the thickness of the broth and satisfaction of the cook with its flavors, it’s time to put out the foundations, condiments, and sides. My mother never made chili mac, but influenced by the Real Chili parlors in Milwaukee, I have always served my chili on a bed of broken spaghetti. My condiments include shredded cheddar cheese, chopped fresh onion, oyster crackers, sour cream, and hot sauce. My favorite side is cornbread.

If you were expecting a more concise recipe, I hope you aren’t too disappointed. I have been making chili for a few decades now. Some have been better than others and in all candor, my results have become more consistent over time. I have reached a point now where even if I vary the base ingredients, i.e. the meat and bean choices, the end quality remains fairly consistent.

If you use any of the guidelines I’ve presented here, please let me know how your results turn out. And as always, thank you for hanging with me.

Fruition

 

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Over the course of the last three-plus decades, I have amassed a great deal of knowledge and experience working with rapidly growing, closely-held companies. I have spent the last two of those decades learning my way around a small cluster of related industries that fall into a category described as professional grounds management.  That’s not exactly how I saw my career playing out when I graduated from college in 1983 but that’s indeed how it has played out. Helping smaller companies become (and behave like) bigger ones, that’s what I do.

During all that time, I have worked for a couple, literally two, excellent leaders and a greater number of less-than-ideal bosses who were definitely not leaders. In two organizations for which I have worked, I was repeatedly given the privilege of teaching new hires, people who had been acquired at several times my salary, how to be my boss. In at least two instances in my career, I was “let go” by otherwise competent individuals holding formal authority but having no clue what they were letting slip through their fingers.

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Believe it or not, this sort of repeated pattern can get to a person after a while. And believe it or not, that’s the fault of the person, not their environment. You heard me. If over a period of time I had become convinced by those around me that I wasn’t executive material, that I wasn’t destined for success, or for wealth, that somehow I just wasn’t good enough, it was my fault for believing such a crock of shit. Other people, however greedy, cruel, or incompetent they may be, cannot get to you without your permission.

The good news? A mind can be changed and with it, one’s world also changes.

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The founders of Diaz Group LLC and I have been business acquaintances for the last ten years. During my tenure at Cherry Logistics, a third-party facilities repair and maintenance company, we transacted a great deal of business together that grew substantially year after year. Unfortunately, Cherry closed its doors in 2017 (see Ups and Downs – Part 2 of 3). In a fit of bad judgment, following nearly two decades in the facilities maintenance, snow and ice management, and green industries, I pursued and accepted a position with — promise not to laugh — a minor player in the Chicagoland retail grocery arena. To say that marriage was destined to be short-lived would be an understatement. After a four-month honeymoon period, punctuated by a severe shoulder injury, we parted ways (see Closures: My Summer Interrupted, Part III).

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A month or so later, aside from some ongoing freelance writing work, I was still contemplating my next big opportunity when I got an interesting text message from a fellow Cherry alumnus asking whether I would be interested in meeting with Rafael and Ruben Diaz, two of the three original founders of Diaz Group. “I love those guys,” I replied. “When I handled Special Services, these were the people who could get stuff done before the others would even get out and quote it.” But I also expressed concern about the commute, 35 miles from my home to their office, which was then in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago’s south side.

In the end, both parties agreed to meet and our go-between Tony made the arrangements and then removed himself from whatever would transpire next. My first meeting with Rafael, Ruben, and a third character named Gil, who would eventually become the best mentor I’ve ever had, lasted every bit of two hours. Our second meeting lasted just as long and concluded with me accepting the only position they could offer at the time, Contract Manager. I jokingly told my family and friends that henceforth, my middle initial stood for “Gringo” but in reality I was joining a very diverse group of people. Less than a week later, on November 19, 2018, I was part of Diaz Group.

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The office on 51st Place was humble but also very homey on the inside. My not-quite-a-cubicle was equally humble. But no matter, I was made to feel not only welcome but very much a part of the family. When the executives arrived, they made a point to greet me and shake my hand, as did every manager, as did many field workers, some of whom spoke only rudimentary English. Such is the culture of Diaz Group and it suits me well.

The company’s leaders went out of their way to expand and enrich my role in the organization. They included me in meetings that were well-suited to my abilities even if the subject matter was utterly unrelated to my formal title. My mentor and I have had regular one-on-one conversations during which we discuss my future as well as that of the company, all while helping each other grow. Over time, Gil taught me how to recognize and replace my negative self-talk, to see more of my potential, and to eliminate my self-imposed limits.

My mentor also talked about an end-of-day process he calls “decompressing,” during which he reviews the events of the day and asks himself what went well, what did not, what could he have done better, etc. By doing this, he goes to bed already having thought everything through and this allows him not only to sleep better but to also be well-prepared for the following day. For years, I had done a shallower version of this without having realized it. I have a friend who used to chat with me most evenings and would ask me questions about my day. By answering her questions, I was in effect reviewing what went well, what hadn’t, and so on. We never thought of it as an element of personal and professional development but in hindsight, it was all that and more. Just like my mentor, at times she believed in me more than I believed in myself. I asked similar questions in return, though my friend never considered her workday to be as interesting as mine. That’s an illusion, of course. Another person’s work often seems more interesting than your own, especially if you care about that person, but the other person holds the same illusion in reverse. In any case, having already been conditioned to the process, I soon adopted my own method of “decompressing” at night. It works.

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Before long I had a little office of my own, with a much bigger desk, a nice chair, and a dry erase wall on which I chose to display concepts to be shared with others. Though my title had not changed, my role had been evolving since day one, exactly as we had intended. My beginning title and salary were a factor of what was possible for our company at the moment, not of what was (and is) possible. Bear in mind, however successful this company has been over the course of their first dozen years, this was no big corporation. And that suited me fine, given that my entire career had been devoted to making smaller, privately held companies become larger, privately held companies at an accelerated pace. I was in my industry, I was in my organizational category, I was in my element — and baby, it showed.

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In October of 2019, Diaz Group opened a new office in Elmhurst, Illinois and my job was moved to this location. Almost exactly the same number of miles from my home, the new office proved to be nearly half as far in terms of travel time. Then in November, as a precursor to what was to come, I was moved into the corner office, which I now share with my friend Rafael Diaz, the company’s president. All the while, I continued to develop personally and professionally. My contributions grew, as did my workload.

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On December 23, 2019, I was promoted to the newly created role of Executive Strategist. I was very excited because although I’d held what were essentially leadership roles for decades, this was the first that came with an executive title. Still, this promotion was not a surprise. Quite the contrary, it had been almost a year in the making. I helped write the position description, along with my boss/mentor and the head of Human Resources, with input from Rafael.

In essence, I assist the rest of my executive team with developing, communicating, executing, and sustaining corporate strategic initiatives. I communicate and implement the company’s strategy so that all stakeholders understand the company-wide strategic plan and how it carries out the company’s overall goals. In plain English, I spend my days working on moving the organization from what it is today to what it will be in the future. For me, this is the most fulfilling role I have ever undertaken. And so for the moment, I am exactly where I want to be.

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Jesus Nevarez, Gil Resendiz, Rafael Diaz, and Michael D’Aversa

Maya Angelou is credited with having said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” As a professional communicator and leader, I strive to make people feel good about themselves and about this company. Indeed, it’s not much different from what I have long striven to do in my personal life. Such is the legacy I’m aiming for. The next few years should be interesting for all involved.

Thanks for hanging with me.

 

 

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.

 

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.

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.