Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

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There are far too many scary things in this world. These are two I uncovered recently that are near the top of my “Its Keeping Me Up At Nights” list.

First Russia. Yes the still have tons of nuclear bombs. True, they can turn off crucial natural gas supplies to former Soviet Union countries and western Europe. Old news.

We all know that hackers can cause hi-tech havoc. I did not realize that even small countries can be brought to their knees. This was the case in Estonia last month. They blamed Russia for bombarding state websites with enough bogus requests that they crashed. Their crime? They moved a Soviet war monument. If it can be done to Estonia, I bet it can be done here. The wonderful technology that makes us more efficient, effective and in may ways more connected is fragile. Shutting down of key websites could cause havoc. Why bother with dirty bombs?

If Russia doesn’t get us Mother Nature will. The Earth’s magnetic fields not only makes a compass point in the right direction but it reaches far out into the space surrounding our planet. It directs the flow of solar winds protecting us from much of the sun’s harmful radiation. The Economist reported that the magnetic field may be about to flip which it does every 500,000 years or so. When it does, our protective shield will be down and everyone will get permanent 10th degree sunburn. OK, we may have another few centuries but it will happen sooner than you probably thought. (Cool picture though of how this  phenomenon works.)

I may not get much sleep tonight.

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That’s Entertainment! Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater

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By entertainment, I am definitely not referring to the near awful new Fantastic Four movie. Great visuals but dialogue written by an illiterate 4th grader.

The Black Ensemble Theater was founded thirty years ago by a visionary named Jackie Taylor. It was discovered by our family more than 10 years ago. We have been to at least a half dozen productions, all highly entertaining. However last Saturday was the first time in a few years.

The theater is in a neighborhood that was once run down but is definitely up and coming. It is relatively small with 6 rows along 3 sides of a rectangle with the stage in front. The band sits behind or sometimes above the stage. If you are in the first row there is a reasonable chance that you will be interacting with one or more performers. Typically each production has a theme and tells a story connecting a string of songs and dancing. We have seen productions about Jackie Wilson, gospel great Mahalia Jackson, Do Wop and Chicago Golden Soul. Needless to say the themes are about African American musical artists. Needless to say there is a bevy of fine, and I do mean fine, music to explore.

The Stax record label based in Memphis was the focus of this production. I pay little attention to what label music comes from so I found it interesting to hear the story of one that produced some great artists. From 1960-1975 Stax was the alternative to and antithesis to Motown. The music was often more raw, heavy on the horns. The more famous artists to make records at Stax included the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding and Booker T and The MGs. Rufus Thomas was a name I had not heard. His songs were often about new dances including the Funky Chicken.

My absolute favorite Stax artists were Sam and Dave. Sam and Dave. Those of you who know Soul Man only because it was covered by the Blues Brothers are missing a life enhancing experience. Sam Moore and Dave Prater are considered by most to be the greatest of all soul duos.  This wasn’t even their best song. You MUST listen to Hold On, I’m Comin’,” “You Got Me Hummin’,” “Soothe Me” and “I Thank You.” Then and only then experience “When Something is Wrong with My Baby”. You will never be the same. According to the show, this duo was as acrimonious off stage as they were dynamic on stage. Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter wrote most of their Stax hits. Sadly for us, they had little success at other labels.

The audiences at the BES have been part of the treat.  A mix of African American and us white folk. With the encouragement of the performers the audience reacts with clapping, as well as hoots and hollerin’.  At least a part does. I will let you guess which part.

The quality of the singing and characterizations were high. The dancing is energetic. It was hard not to have a very good time.

If you are ever coming to Chicago you must check out this gem of Chicago Theater. Let me know when you are going. I will tag along.

50 (Plus One) Ways To Leave Your…

Youth. Technically its mine not yours but I am already playing loose with Paul Simon.

51 years young on Monday. I no longer wait for milestone birthdays to get reflective. Last year a friend who had just turned 60 told me that the 50s are great. People hit their stride and have an opportunity to take all of the wisdom and experience of the past decades and make their mark. I have never thought of myself as a mark maker. At least not in any big way. I have always tried to positively impact a small number of lives in a meaningful way.

So, how have I spent the first 10% of my 50s? I helped my son get his drivers license. This may sound small but for those that spent the 50 hours with a teenage boy behind the wheel holding both of your lives in his inexperienced hands, you know this was big. Really big. I started this blog. A new experience and an enjoyable part of the journey. No life changing events though I am more open to having fun, I think. In a life filled with responsibilities fun can get lost. Another year older looking forward to more sums up how I feel.

So how did I spend the weekend leading up to my birthday? Friday night I got home at 10 pm after a 14 hour day and collapsed. Saturday was to be spent riding. I had done 48 miles last weekend and felt strong the whole ride. I was set for a strong 51. The good news. I rode 51 miles. Just not in the way I imagined. You know, riding as fast at the end as I had in the beginning with the Rocky score blaring in the background.

June 16 was the first really hot, humid weekend day of the year. I never got into the rhythm I had had on the last ride. OK. No problem. I am an experienced rider. I know that I just need to grind it out. The first 3o were good. I stopped for some Gatorade (product placement here because I am working on an endorsement deal). Then heat and Karma stepped in. The heat is self explanatory.

I am not a big believer in Karma but sometimes things are more than coincidences. While sipping my Gatorade, a rider asked if I had a bike tool. I did. He borrowed it and went off on his way. 5 minutes later I passed the same guy pulled off the path working on his bike. I knew I should stop and offer the tools I had but chose to ride on. As I rode, it bugged me that I didn’t stop. Not in a My Name is Earl kind of way but because the man I think I am would stop to help a stranger. Karma stepped in. I lost leg power with 10 miles to go. Then a flat tire. The rear frickin’ wheel. It is always the rear wheel. Small lapse, small Karma slap.

The rest of the weekend was good. My family took me out Saturday night and hung with me on Sunday. As of now, I haven’t even opened birthday or Father’s day presents. More joy to come.

What A Week It Was

This is about work so anyone not interested please move on to to the next post.

I try not to write about work. It consumes too much of my life as it is and blogging is intended to be outside that realm. However, every once in a while I need a release valve. This is one of those times.

Let’s start with the good since it is far too easy to start complaining. I am a consultant which means that while I have an employer, most of my focus is on the companies I serve. There is a wide range of  people types across these clients. Some are great to work with and others make you wonder if the revenue is worth the pain.

I began working with a company in January that had used another consultant from my firm. Upon the change I listened endlessly to how much they loved the other guy. So be it. Since then, I brought to them a differt way of looking at things. Decisions had been made by focusing on what other companies are doing.  I walked them through  a process that focuses on what their company was about, what its needs were and how it is similar or different than others in their industry. Pretty standard good consulting.

Throughout our time together, the people I have been working with have been great partners. I have also made personal connections with some as we compare stories of raising kids, living in the corporate world, etc.

On Thursday we held a key meeting to present our recommendations to one of the senior executives. Because this client is a two plane ride trip, I participated by phone. Friday morning at the tail end of a hellish week, one of my contacts called to tell me that his boss was extremely pleased with my contributions to the meetings. He went on to say that his boss rarely gives such compliments. While for much of the time my work  satisfaction needs to come from within knowing I did well, the external validation is a major high.

OK. Interesting sidebar. I intended to do alot of venting , and I mean on a grand scale,  in this post. However, just writing about this positive experience has released the negative energy. For the curious, this week I had to deal with a major deliverable for another client using less than competent help in the form of someone I did not hire but was forced to use. I worked 12- 14 hour days to get the work done right. A new hire, on board for two weeks is complaining about her commute, threatening to quit and basically not doing her assigned work. While workiing my tail off on projects I had to juggle these people issues and find resources to cover other opportunies that came in. Oh, and I was sick with some stomach thing in the middle of the week.

One more work related smile. My boss’s boss found out that I am interviewing with another firm. While they have not come by with a bag of money, they are making other promises that would enhance my work experience. The best part is that I am  not interviewing.  Shhh. don’t tell.

Vintage Folk

Sunday was my turn to spend the day with my sister Sandy. She has autism and can’t get out on her own. My mom, sister, brother and I take turns entertaining her each Sunday.

I had been told of a concert happening at one of the nearby suburban libraries. I did not have high expectations for a concert in a library but Sandy loves music so away we went. The experience was billed as Vintage Folk/Classic Country. As we took our seats I could attest to the vintage folk. We were amoung the very few of the 40 or so people that were under the age of 65.

Two thoughts having to do with preconceived notions and prejudices. First, for a guy that mostly does gigs at libraries and the occasional local coffee house, Steve Justman was highly entertaining. Skilled at guitar and banjo and with a better than adequate voice he had the place hopping for over an hour– as much as septuagenarians hop. If you pass him on the street he is a short, overweight, balding guy in his fifties. In front of a crowd he becomes an entertainer. Multiple facets.

Second thought. Over the course of the hour I came to regret my initial impressions of the audience. At first I saw lower middle class, old people with nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon but go to the library. But during the concert I saw toes tapping, hands clapping,  people singing and having fun. I began to imagine what lives they had led and what was yet to come. They became human beings to me as opposed to people to feel sorry for or even worse ignore.

The hostess gave me the biggest kick. She was well into her 70s but quite the firecracker. As she introduced the act and the rest of the season’s performances you could see the joy in her face at making this happen. Bringing music to her neighbors.

This group was not just vintage but classic too.

Adults Do The Darndest Things

While biking this weekend I passed runners wearing numbers, signifying a race. The odd thing was that I would see only a few runners at a time. Something else was odd. I would pass some relatively slow runners only to see faster ones behind them. And as I rode further and further I kept seeing them. Was there a marathon going on?

At one point I saw a sign for the Great Midwest Relay.  So I checked out the website.  I may bike a lot but these people are nutty. This relay race started in Madison, Wisconsin continued east to Milwaukee, took a right turn (south) and ended in downtown Chicago. A distance of 190 miles covered in 2 days by teams of 6 or twelve. I did the math. Each member of a 6 person team runs 31.7 miles.

The allure is that most of the running is done along bike paths through scenic towns.  By the time I saw these runners Saturday morning they were in their second day and in the last 25-30 miles. More power to them.

It actually would be fun to do this with a group of friends. Too bad my running days are long behind me.

What kooky things will someone think of next? Biking across Iowa or something? 

ps. Just above Chicago on the map is Evanston, my hometown. 

Bluesfest 2007

One of the great summer festivals in Chicago is Bluesfest. Chicago started out a few decades ago with JazzFest and over time added fests for blues, country, gospel and salsa music.

My wife and I took in a few hours of Bluesfest on Saturday– after spending time at the Printers Row Book Fair a few blocks away. (I told you that June in Chicago was outstanding). The setting is spread over much of Grant Park, a beautiful area just off the lakefront– that would be Lake Michigan for the geographicaly impaired. There is a mainstage at the bandshell and numerous side stages.

We started at one of the side stages that was featuring blues singers that doubled on the harmonica. Picture a sunny day, people of all ages, races, sexes, creeds, etc. numbering in the hundreds enjoying great music. The area around the stage was an open grassy field. People were on blankets, in chairs, just sprawled out on the grass, standing or dancing. I love people watching in this type of setting. Here are a few of my favorites.

Oriental guy. In his mid fifties, with a a mustache and goatee. Semi serious look on his face.  Dressed in bermuda shorts, a buttoned down short sleeve shirt, black socks with dress shoes and a straw hat. Camera strap around his neck with the camera at one hip and a fanny pack on the opposite one. Everything perfectly in place while he looked perfectly out of place.

Dancing 20 year olds. A pretty girl and a good looking guy in their very early twenties. He was taking her through some swing dance moves in rythm with the music with cigarette in mouth. Occasionally they would stop and kiss. She was clearly into him. He was clearly into dancing. My bet is one night together and she never hears from him again.

Tall Dancing Guy. Must have been at least 6’6” with short cropped brown hair and brown goatee and long arms. Tee shirt and shorts. He had the dancing feet. He was light on these feet and they were moving with the music. Watching just his feet was entertaining enough. Add in this long torso and arms and this would have been a YouTube chart topper if I only had a camera.

ZZ Top Guy. Enough said.

Last there was the man sitting on the grass in front of where we were standing. He had one leg straight out and one bent. My wife whispers in my ear that it takes all kinds. Look at this guy’s shorts I am told. I see nothing out of place and just as she is about to point “it” out she laughs and says, “oh, that’s his foot”.

All sorts of people, a delightful presummer day and wailing harmonicas backed by rythm guitar, bass and drums. Bluesfest in Chicago.