Category Archives: Life

So much gratitude

My heart is filled with such gratitude this evening.

For starters, I just got off the phone with my oldest daughter, who’s a sophomore at Asbury University. She wanted to bounce an idea for a school project off me. It’s a documentary that involves some sensitive family history, and she wanted to know if I thought the family members involved would be down with participating in the project.

The conversation was priceless to me for many reasons. First, it was great just to talk to her and hear her voice and know by the sound of it that she was happy. Also, it made me feel so good that she called me to consult on a project in her life – a storytelling project, no less! As a parent, you go through those teen years where your kids like to pretend they’re orphans and avoid answering the least little question about how they’re feeling about anything. When they come out the other side and start to relate to you on an adult level and respect your insights into the minutiae of their daily lives…well, that’s special. Finally, I’ll say that the call was special because of the intimacy it afforded – to have this project to talk about while really practicing love with one another. As father and daughter. As human and human. As storyteller and storyteller.

She told me about the one project, then told me about three others. Her class watched the documentary Helvetica today in class. We’ve attempted to watch it together a few times, but have never made it all the way through together. I saw it years ago, and now that she’s seen it, we were able to talk about stuff like Vignelli and his signage for the New York subway system and geeky stuff like that that we both love and can use to bond over.

She also emailed me a couple of design projects she did for class. One was an exercise in using a grid system to layout a page (yet another reference to Vignelli!), where she was only allowed to use the Helvetica font and some preset text. She had three different pages with completely different looks with the same text. I thought it was great.

The last project was a poster describing herself that everyone had to do. Hadley’s was very simply laid out, with skyscrapers representing her love of New York, augmented with some simple text gathered from a personality profile she’d taken that interpreted her personality. I loved it, too.

I’m such a doting father, I know, but I can’t help it. Everyone should have a daughter like this kid.

Finally, it was time to let her go so she could get to her work and I could get to mine. I hate saying goodbye, but we both have miles to go before we sleep and all that crap.

If that weren’t enough, a good friend came over to drink a few beers and swap stories. Angell cooked a fine dinner of Mediterranean food, and we ate our fill and drank around the first fire of the season in our den.

We both have very busy lives, so getting together like this is no small task. The visits are infrequent, and we simply talk about where we are and go from there, free from the pressures of posing or fear of judgment. We can let it all hang out and let the words that have been swirling around inside our heads get out into the ether and breathe a little and maybe mix with the words of the other.

Good conversation is hard to come by and often longed for. Tonight, I’m grateful for having had my fill.

Yes, indeed. So much to be grateful for.

A new home

Last Sunday, January 31, marked Sojourn East’s first Sunday in our new, permanent home.

For years, we’ve met in an old Catholic parish just a 7 minute walk from my house, and though I’ll miss the convenience, it’s great to finally have a place to call home.

Equipped with my iPhone, I captured a few moments of our first service at the former Calvin Presbyterian Church on Rudy Lane. Forgive the quality….

Trump and The Challenger

Today, the big story is Donald Trump and his refusal to take part in another of a long series of pointless Republican debates. Say what you will, but the man knows how to control the story. Every time his numbers have dropped during this election cycle, Trump has rebounded through aggression and bluster.

Donald TrumpEarlier this week, Trump announced that he won’t participate in tonight’s scheduled Republican debate. It’s a story too tiresome to detail here, but the bottom line is that he’s doing what no politician in memory has been able to do – win by staying on a constant offensive by being bullying and…offensive.

How ironic that this latest episode of Trumpian bluster would take place on such an ominous anniversary. I’ll never forget where I was on Tuesday, January 28, 1986, around 11:39 am – in bed.

I was a sophomore at the University of Louisville and working third shift at United Parcel Service’s air hub at Standiford Field, loading aircraft in the Next Day Air operation. I’d get home around 6 or 7 in the morning, and often pass my Dad as he was on his way to work.

On that Tuesday morning, I was in my bed sleeping, when Mom burst into the room yelling for me to get out of bed and see what was happening on TV. We sat there together, numb and silent as we watched, over and over, the horrific site of the first the fuel tanks and then the rest of the space craft explode into those twin plumes of steam and debris that marked the point of disaster.

Tears were shed, especially as newsmen focused on the death of Christa McAuliffe, “the first teacher in space,” as she was known in the weeks leading up to the mission. It was a terrible day made worse in the weeks, months and years to come as hard truths were revealed about known problems with launching the space shuttle in cold temperatures.

During the ensuing House Committee hearings and the Rogers Commission report, Americans became familiar with Morton Thiokol, the manufacturer of the O-rings that failed in the cold temps. Word got out that engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center tried to warn management that there were problems with the O-rings, but managers ignored the warnings and stayed on schedule.

Trump and The ChallengerThe launch of the Challenger was marked by delays. For about a week, the launch was moved back, day-by-day, as bad weather and a minor equipment failure postponed the mission. Finally, on the day of liftoff, it was engineers from Morton Thiokol who raised concerns about the integrity of the O-rings in the freezing temperatures and plainly visible ice, hanging from the launchpad scaffolding.

When the issue of yet another postponement was raised, NASA management brushed aside the warnings and went on with the launch, a decision that would be nuanced, explained, then re-explained during the much-publicized hearings.

There are so many lessons to be learned from the Shuttle disaster. Some good, some bad.

On the one hand, you have the triumphs of the space program and the promise of discovery and achievement. To think of the millions of parts and pieces that go into the construction of a shuttle orbiter and the rockets that launch it into space is to be overwhelmed with mind-blowing complexity.

The scores of men and women who have contributed their talents to solving the problems of leaving the chains of gravity and the earth’s atmosphere is as terrifying as it is impressive, but it’s been done. Many times.

And then there are the brave men and women who were to pilot the Challenger and conduct experiments and do their jobs during the mission. Bright, motivated people who, even in the face of possible annihilation, eagerly anticipated their turn to go into space. These people are role-models and patterns of success, drive and determination.

But then you have the failures that were driven by mindless bureaucracy and a disregard for the people who trusted their lives to the managers and scientists who constructed the spacecraft. People who gave in to political pressures and selfish agendas. People who certainly knew better, but made reckless decisions anyway, hoping for the best and fearing the worst.

And then there’s the lesson of humility. During our mountaintop experiences, like the moon landing, it’s easy to become full of one’s self, to believe that ANYTHING is possible. In Greek tragedy, it’s called hubris – an excess of pride that blinds the protagonist to reason and eventually leads to his downfall.

To me, the twofold lesson of a tragedy like the Challenger Disaster is first, that we should never stop dreaming big and swinging for the fences. To create is to imitate God, who works in immense beauty on an unfathomable scale. And that’s where the second lesson comes in – even as we are attempting what has never been accomplished, we should never lose touch with humility and truth and honor. To ignore these rules is to play God and end up like the protagonist in a Greek tragedy.

Thirty years down the road, we still haven’t learned this lesson. Just look at Donald Trump, and you see the same runaway arrogance that brought NASA to its knees thirty years ago.

Tonight, the Republicans – sans Trump – will claw each others’ eyes out on national TV while The Donald grandstands with a group of veterans elsewhere, apparently very much in control of this political moment.

But don’t be fooled – the meter is running and Trump’s time in the driver’s seat is only momentary. Like old King Oedipus, it’s a matter of time before the check comes due on his unbounded hubris.

Walking and talking and eating in Minneapolis

I’m still in Minneapolis, where it seems like all I’ve done for the past three days is walk, talk and eat. It’s been a great trip, but it wears you down.

I heard Minneapolis doesn’t have a lot of great food, and that may be true, but you wouldn’t know it from the places we’ve eaten. Sunday night, it was cheeseburgers and great stouts at The Red Cow. Monday, it was Little Szechuan, where we had beef and chicken and dumplings that were amazing (the Lucky Buddha beer, not so much). Today, for lunch, we had Chicago style pizza at Davanni’s pizza parlor in the Uptown section of Minneapolis. For dinner, we were in the warehouse district, where we met a group of guys at a place called 112 Eatery that served an eclectic menu (I had spinach and ricotta involtini).

Not too shabby.

In the midst of all this eating, there’s been a lot of talking. Traveling with my buddy Mike means eating and walking and talking, and it’s been great chewing on good food and a wide-ranging list of topics that I won’t go into here. It’s good to have a friend with whom you can be with at close range over the course of a few days and not want to strangle them by the time you fly home. That’s my relationship with my friend Mike.

Whether we’re in New York, Minneapolis or just back home in a favorite restaurant, the sharing of food and words is always a treat that I look forward to. I’d go into greater detail on this, but it’s time to get up and get ready to meet a couple of guys at a nearby gastro pub.

Hadley’s home!

I was all set to write about Bridge of Spies tonight, but I got a great surprise instead. A few hours ago, I got a call from Hadley, asking if she could come home for the night. She missed us, and wanted to hang out with the family.

I hung up the phone, texted Angell to hurry and get home from work, then jumped in the shower. Before long, we were on the road and on our way to see our baby.

Your relationship to your kids is always evolving, and in Hadley’s case, with her coming up on her twentieth birthday, she’s less a child and more a great friend. It’s hard not having her here at the house with us all the time, so when the opportunity for an impromptu visit presents itself, I’m going to jump all over it.

So, now we’re all here together, all five of us. Angell is making biscuits and sausage and French toast for us. Comfort food. And after that, we’re going to watch Tomorrowland, a movie that we missed during its short run.

I’ll write about Bridge of Spies some other time. Tonight, I’m hanging with the family. I couldn’t be happier.

snow-MEH-geddon

So, the weather guessers were at it again, spreading fear throughout the the land with their hopeful predictions of gloom and doom in the form of blizzard-like conditions throughout the Bluegrass region of the commonwealth today.

Instead of an arctic blast, we got a lot of hot air.

But no worry. What snow we had was good enough to get out for a while this afternoon and hit the local hills. Here’s what it looked like.

We started in one neighborhood, but quickly returned to our own, where we ran into some neighborhood kids, one of whom ended up in the creek at the bottom.

This reminded me of when I was a kid, during the winters of ’77 and ’78, when the Ohio River last froze over. Me and my sister got sleds for Christmas one of those years, and one day, my Dad took me and Shana over to Bobby Nichols golf course, where there were some great sledding hills.

There was a lot of snow on the ground that had also been covered over with a thin layer of ice, making the hills more like a luge track that a ski slope.

The three of us trudged to the top of the main hill and looked down its steep bank to where it flattened out at the bottom just before the creek.

Dad decided it would be best if he went first, to see what the conditions were like. There were a few folks there going on about how fast the hill was. The snow was so deep, the sled traffic still hadn’t worn down to expose the bare ground.

Dad took one of our sleds and picked a line. He was dressed in jeans and his new North Face parka and a toboggan. The coat was a novelty in the south end, and we thought he looked like the Michelin Man, all puffy with roll after roll of feathered compartments.

Dad put the sled on the ground, gave it a nudge with his foot then took and step and lunged onto it. Normally, a person his sized would sink in the snow and start off slow before gravity and viscosity took over, but on this day, Dad shot down that hill as if from a cannon. My sister and I laughed and cheered at him as he flew down the hill.

When he got to the bottom, instead of slowing up, the sled kept going, as if still on the slope, and Dad didn’t stop until we saw him disappear over the creek bank. In my memory, he hung in the air a moment, just like Wile-E Coyote, in the Road Runner cartoons, before falling into the creek and making a huge splash.

Our laughter caught in our throats at the violence and surprise of what had just happened. We’d been to Bobby Nichols many times before, and had never seen anyone get so close to the water. And so we stood there for what seemed like and eternity, but was really a nanosecond because Dad shot up out of that water like a cat that had just fallen into the bathtub. He climbed the bank and waved us down and took off running for the car. He was soaked from head to toe.

Me and Shana got down the hill as best as we could. She was now scared and whining, and I was trying to manage her and me and our other sled. When we got to the bottom, I sent Shana to the little foot bridge that crossed the creek with the sled, and I went to where Dad had fallen in to fish out the other.

By this time, Dad had the car running, and was honking for me to hurry. I ran as fast as I could across the crackling, ice-covered snow to the car, where the trunk was open and waiting for me.

When we walked through the front door of the house, we hadn’t been gone for more than 20 minutes, and Mom was surprised to see us. Dad was peeling off his clothe, shivering and heading for the bathroom, where he took a hot bath.

That’s what I was thinking about, when I heard that Seth from across the street had fallen into the creek with his sled.

The About Me page

As I was rebuilding this blog, I skipped over the “About” page. As if this blog isn’t narcissistic enough, the “About” page seemed like the cherry on the navel-gazing sundae.

Well, I finally got around to writing that page and putting it together. It’ll probably look this way for a long time, so don’t feel the need to rush over and take a peak.

It’s been great working on it, though, because I’ve listened to some great music.

Recently, Spotify added the Beatles, which is about the best thing since sliced bread. I haven’t really listened to the Beatles for decades, even though they and Bob Dylan were what I listened to most growing up.

Putting the Beatles on shuffle is like jumping into a time capsule and going back to the late 70’s and early 80’s. Each song conjures up some deeply buried memory and brings it into sharp focus, even if it’s just a picture or mood or fragment of a conversation. Like storytelling, music is magic in its transformative nature.

Now, I’m listening to Chet Baker play “Moonlight Becomes You.” When I was in elementary and middle-school, I played trumpet. If had discovered Chet when I was in the 8th grade, instead of in college, I think my life may have turned out much differently. He was so great a player and singer…and so cool and good looking.

I remember going to the old Vogue with some friends from the theatre department to see Let’s Get Lost, the Bruce Weber movie about Chet. I didn’t really know anything about it. I’d just read something about the movie somewhere and knew I had to see it.

Weber made these really sexy commercials for Calvin Klein fragrances, and the movie was shot in the same kind of dreamy, stylized way that took the edge off of how sad and lost Chet seemed.

Even though his life seemed like one continuous train wreck, I fell in love with the guy, which is the effect he seemed to have on all the victims in his life.

A few years later, I found myself in a piano bar in Greenwich Village with some friends. Twelve Oaks. Fair Oaks. Something with Oaks in the name.* It was in a basement, and anyone who had the nerve could sign up for a slot to sing a song for the crowd. There was this really old lady there who played the piano and seemed to know every standard in the book.

When it was my turn, she barked out my name and I came forward to sing “Time After Time.” When she asked what key, I must have had that deer-in-the-headlights look. She softened a bit and asked me to sing the first bar of the song to her quietly. When I did, we had the key and away we went. The crowd was treated to a very shaky rendition of the song that night, but I thin, nobody but my wife and friends were paying attention.

Anyway. It’s an easy Thursday night…waiting for SNOWMAGEDDON!

Stay tuned…

 

*I looked it up. It was called Five Oaks

 

Meet Shinola

This week, I attended the National Retail Federation (NRF) trade show in New York. It’s a big event that swallows up the cavernous Jacob Javits Convention Center with hundreds of booths, meeting rooms and dining areas. The show features somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 speakers in a variety of session topics that are a mixed bag.

Some of the sessions are snoozers, but a few blow you away with some new information or a great speaker or phenomenal brand. This morning, I experienced the latter.

Shinola logoBefore today, my only connection with the word “Shinola” was the phrase, “You don’t know shit from shinola,” meant to illustrated the stupidity of the targeted individual. Shinola was a brand of shoe polish that was made in American in the 20th century, but has long been out of business.

This morning, I was introduced to a new company called Shinloa, and it was quite by accident.

The sessions at the NRF show are in a variety of venues that run from smallish to gargantuan, and the ones that were in the smallish rooms filled up quickly, leaving frustrated attendees walking away if they didn’t get there at least 15 minutes early. That happened to me at a session, today, and having time to kill, I wandered into one of the large venues to sit down and figure out how to improvise something productive with the hour I had to wait before my next appointment.

The venue I walked into had some guy up on the stage talking about make-tailing, which seemed to be the kind of retail that comes from small, mom-and-pop operations who hand make a product and sell it through either a local brick-and-mortar store or perhaps over the internet through an owned website or something like etsy.

The speaker went on to showcase some American cities with vibrant make-tail economies: New Orleans, Portland, Pittsburgh and Detroit were featured prominently. At the conclusion of his bit, he brought up a guy named Heath Carr, the Chief Operating Officer of a company called Shinola, based in Detroit.

While all of this was going on, I was only half-listening as I studied the event schedule and floor plan, figuring what to do. Having decided to stay put, I got my ear buds out and decided to watch a Casey Neistat vlog or two while I waited for the top of the hour (my feet were killing me).

But as I held my earbuds up to my ear, this Heath Carr guy started talking about Shinola’s passion for American manufacturing. This caught my attention because I can’t remember the last time I heard an American businessman say anything remotely like that. Carr went on to say that Shinola also has a passion for the American worker and that the company was created to create jobs.

After that last bit, the earbuds went back into my backpack and I moved up closer to the front of the auditorium to better see the slides that accompanied Carr’s talk.

I learned that Shinola was dreamed up in Dallas, Texas, by Bedrock Manufacturing, but moved to Detroit in 2012, setting up shop on the fifth floor of a building that was once a GM research facility. Because no watch movements are manufactured in the United States, Shinola hired its first team of assemblers, almost entirely made up of locals who’d once worked in the auto industry, and had then trained by Swiss artisans.

Each line of watches has a unique name, and a Steve Jobs-like attention to detail is imbued in every detail. Carr pointed out that they are just as proud of the backs of their watches as they are of the faces. I jumped online and saw that Shinola’s watches sell in the $500 range look great.

Carr posed the question they are frequently asked – “Why go to Detroit to make watches?” His answer was basically, “Why not?” He went on to point out Detroit’s rich tradition of manufacturing, a nostalgia which feeds into the company’s avowed love of manufacturing.

In Shinola’s advertising, they feature their assemblers and profess a desire to one day hear it said that Geneva is the Detroit of Switzerland, meaning Detroit would become so well known for producing great watches that it would eclipse the current champ. We’ll see.

From there, Carr described their bicycle manufacturing operation, a subject near and dear to my heart. For this, they’ve partnered with Richard Schwinn, of THAT Schwinn family, who manufactures frames and forks for Shinola at his Waterford, Wisconsin facility.

The frames, like the watches, are designed with a nostalgic bent, which also happens to be in line with what hipsters are riding these days – those old 1950’s style cruisers that just about every middle-class American kid had his photo taken with at one point.

The bicycles are beautifully made, with a meticulous eye for detail in the styling and construction of the frames, and, especially, in the outfitting of the bikes with seats, fenders and other accessories that are as beautiful as they are functional.

There was a Shinola bicycle at the trade show, and I made a beeline to it after the session to ogle it and admire the craftsmanship.

Shinola does other things as well: leather goods, journals, pens & pencils. They are growing their line of products, positioning themselves as a luxury lifestyle brand.

Their stores are as obsessively curated and designed as the products, with Carr saying that no two will be the same, proving it with a slide show of the coolest looking stores you’re likely to see this year.

Serendipity is a wonderful thing, and I’m so glad I stumbled into that session to rest my tired feet. Heath Carr made my day by introducing me to his wonderful brand. In fact, I ended up cutting out of the show early enough for me to take a cab down to TriBeCa and pay a visit to their New York location.

The Manhattan Shinola is located at 177 Franklin Street, just a few blocks north of the World Trade Center, and is actually fronted by a small coffee shop. You walk in the front door, which looks like a shop front out of the early 1900’s, and you’re greeted by the smell of coffee and the sight of a barista and a few chairs to sit and relax.

Walk to the “back” of the coffee shop, and you’re soon standing in the middle of the small showroom of Shinola, a place that is beautifully decorated with a patina that is straight out of The Godfather.

ShinolaWatches and bicycles and journals and leather goods and a few articles of clothing are beautifully displayed among other items not for sale (I’m assuming), like a book on Eames design or a coffee table book about Muhammad Ali (to commemorate a special run of products commemorating American heroes).

The associates were gracious and invited me to take photos as I browsed, which I did as each in turn told me about the store and the company.

In the end, I purchased two Moleskine-type journals and a pencil like the kind construction workers use that had the Shinola logo embossed on it in black. As I paid for my purchase, the associate assisting me offered me free embossing of my journals (they doe this for all paper and leather products). I chose the size and color of the type and watched as he set up and antique looking machine and personalized my journals as I watched.

It’s rare when a retail brand captivates my imagination and interest (there are so few who even try), but Shinola has made a fan of me, and I can’t wait to visit their Minneapolis location when I’m up there next week.