31 July 2007

Tales of Blagg the Axman

One of my favorite, and most-checked, websites is Gapers Block. It is a news blog about Chicago that I've been reading almost since it first started. It was founded in April 2003 and I started reading it a few months, while preparing for my move to the Windy City. One of my favorite sections of the website is the Fuel section where a topic is presented and all the readers can sound off on it. I've learned a lot from reading it and it has led me to checking out many other good websites, music, recipes, activities, etc. After reading for several weeks, you begin to notice the 'regulars' who always share their opinions and have their own particular personality in their posts. One such regular was Blagg the Axman. He is described thusly on GB, "A former mercenary for hire, Blagg is an axman by trade and still carries the banner of King Mandrake, the once and true ruler of the realm." His comments were very popular and he got a bit of a cult following on the Fuel board. So GB management posted a notice that they had extended a offer to Blagg to have him write a column for them. It comes out every other Saturday and I've been a faithful reader. Think Lord of the Rings-ish story lines. I highly recommend them to all. Check out the archives and start at the bottom and you follow Blagg on his struggle to resist the Black Guard!

30 July 2007

Blue October on the River

After driving back from the roofing job, I was happy to hear that caboose had something fun planned for Saturday night. I was still pretty worn out so I probably would've ended up just laying around at home, but at his suggestion we headed downtown. Blue October was playing at the Simon Estes amphitheater but tickets were $35, so we found some good spots on the bridge and enjoyed some great weather and some good free outdoor music. Equally as entertaining was some guy who, after being dared by his friends, jumped in and swam across the river before the concert. We had a perfect observation spot.

Balloons!

After realizing I had forgot my laptop at home (it went unused the entire week), I called and homebase graciously zoomed it up to me yesterday. While she was here we did some productive shopping and since her visit fell during the National Balloon Classic in Indianola, of course we had to try our luck and check it out. We even drug caboose along! We hit the A&W again, just like last year, this time getting our food before hand and then heading to the park and enjoying it while we waited for some balloons to appear. We didn't have to wait too long and one balloon arose from behind the trees, it was quickly followed by another and another. Before it was over we would witness between 50-60 balloons! So, yes, doubters...balloons do take off at the balloon fest. We also did some balloon chasing and got to see a few of them come down. It was a great time and it was good to see homebase nearly beside herself with giddiness at finally getting to see all the balloons. Pictures to come soon.

The Roof

Here's my explanation for my long absence from blogging; I spent the better part of last week down home, putting a new roof on my mom's house, with the aid of my brothers. Our combined roofing experience was minimal, but luckily a high school friend of mine is a local carpenter and he not only loaned us all the necessary tools (nail guns, compressor, shingle shovels, forks, elevator, hammer staplers, etc), he also provided us with a much needed crash course on the basics of roofing. Another fortunate fact in our favor was the difficulty level of the roof we would tackling. homebase's roof is a standard 4/12 pitch (4" of rise for every 12" of run), no hips, single-gabled and only one story high. In other words, very simple and very basic...perfect for beginners like us. Stoppable and I arrived home Monday night and Scott had already dropped off everything we needed, so decided on our start time for the week, set our alarms and hit the hay. 5:30 am came pretty early and we were on the roof when the sun came up at 6:00. There were three layers of old shingles and the top layer was pretty bad, almost no material left of the worst ones and some bad curling up. We did a lot of learning as we went and one thing we learned quickly was that this was hard work. We called it a day around 6:00 pm, after getting the back half of the roof completely stripped and cleaned off of stray nails, staples, etc. After getting cleaned up and sitting down to supper, we looked out the window to see that Scott had pulled up. He came in and joined us for a quick quesadilla as we peppered him with new questions, then he led us back up on to the roof and said he'd help us get started with the tar paper. We couldn't pass that up so for the next couple hours we laid down the paper and also used the elevator to get the shingles for the back half up on the roof. (Scott roped one of his crew into helping us out as he walked by with his girlfriend. He told the girl he'd meet her back at his house, changed out of his flip-flops into some shoes Scott had in his truck, climbed the ladder and started hauling 75# packets of shingles.) So, finally around 9, after another round of showers, we were done for the day. whew! Wednesday we put down the new shingles. Again, we got better at it as we learned little ways to speed things up. And the arrival of caboose was a big help as well. We got the shingles down and were able to start on tearing off the old shingles on the front of the house, getting 1/3 of the way done before quitting for the day. Thursday, we finished the tear off, moved all the rest of the new shingles up to the roof, laid the paper and got about 1/2 done with the shingling before clocking out for the day. Friday we finished the roof, putting on the ridge cap, cleaning out the gutter, picking up and returning tools, etc. It was an huge feeling of relief and accomplishment to look at the beautiful finished product. It was A LOT of work and we were some sore workers by the end of it, but there is definitely some pride in the work that made it ok. We kept homebase busy with constant refilling of water and gatorade jugs, cooking farm-hand sized meals, morning and afternoon snack breaks, trips to Shen to pick up extra supplies, etc. I think I help the record for most nails stepped on with 5, none breaking the skin luckily, just embedding themselves in my shoes. caboose picked up the worst sun burns, although my plumber's crack burn might've been the worst placed burn, and stoppable gets the award for wearing through a pair a gloves in 3 days.
It is such a different schedule to not worry about anything, only about the sizable job at hand. No cell phone, no email, no running errands or meeting people. No thinking about what to wear or what to make for lunch or dinner. Get up, put on your work outfit, put on sunscreen, put on bug spray, go to work, break after a couple hours for oatmeal or biscuits & gravy, back to work, break ~10 for a 1/2 a PB&J sandwich, back to work, break for lunch, work all afternoon, clean up, eat dinner, go to bed, get up and do it again. I recorded the earliest bedtime I have in years...9:15 pm. I definitely look at other people's roofs with more interest now. And after hearing about the need for another roofing crew down home and the interest we created in town, I'll have to consider making this a summer job! homebase has some hilarious pictures of the week on her flickr.

23 July 2007

Happy Meat Night '07

The annual festival of meats has come and gone again and it was a wonderfully fun night. The weather, which looked a bit dodgy in the AM, was gorgeous...sun, blue skies, not too hot. I had received a request for a return appearance of the bacon-wrapped scallops that I'd debuted last year, so I made them again and partnered them with a meatball version of my Bombay Burgers (let's call them Mumbai Meatballs). After Christina's strenuous recommendation to bring back the kefta kabobs from '06, I think I will do scallops and kabobs from here on out. Over the course of the night there were gizzards, thanks to the first appearance of a fryer at HMN, a 'yard-o-beef', smoked ribs, grilled ribs, smoked pork loin, steaks, pork chops, pork featherbones, hot wings, brats of many varieties, mini bison burgers, monster crab legs, deer steaks, jerky, scallops, spam, meatballs (both swedish and mumbai), and probably many other treats that I've forgotten. My top 3 favorites this year would be the deer steaks, Tom's ribs, and Diane's featherbones. The t-shirts made for this year were great. I didn't get a photo of them, but they are quite stylish.
The new Baggo game may have been the biggest hit of the night, though. It was in near-constant use the entire night. And made all the more enjoyable since it was a DIY project. It was a lot of fun to get to catch up with all the Hower clan. They are all such great people, it's fun to hear what everyone is up to and just chat about whatever. I've found that those situations when you are with good people are truly special, relaxing and fun. So the night was a smash. Start the countdown til next summer! Check out the slideshow of the night here.
I agree with Reagan who said, "Surround yourself with the best people you can find..." (although he continued with "...delegate authority and don't interfere"). I know that quote will make stoppable and schulerin happy. Just trying to keep this blog equally representing all groups. :)

22 July 2007

Friends in the right places

On my way to enjoy Happy Meat Night I must've been a bit too eager to get there. Just before getting on the interstate I crossed paths with a Smokie that turned around and pulled me over for a rate of speed higher than the great state of Iowa recommends. I wasn't that bent out of shape because the officer wasn't hiding and I was, in fact, speeding. After asking for my license, followed by my registration and insurance, the trooper paused for a moment outside my door when they usually they walk back to their car to run your info (I've been through this a few times). I had not made eye contact with the man in the hat yet but I certainly did when, after asking where I was headed, he said said my name out loud in an entertained way. I then, finally, looked at him & realized that not only was he a fellow alum of my high school, but we had played football together. I started laughing, as did he and we proceeded to do some catching up. He handed my documents back to me and we bid each other farewell. I headed on down the road, relieved, happy and a few mph's slower.

18 July 2007

Thumbs Up

Things I'm excited about or have been enjoying lately:
  • peaches.....I'm peach crazy right now. I made a trip to the store explicitly to restock. 6 in the last 3 days. They are my favorite fruit. I think part of why I love them so much is that I forget how incredibly good they are for that 1 month or so that they are in season during the dark 11 months without them.
  • stoppable getting a well-deserved job offer.....you're the man, bro & you deserve it. congrats!
  • riding the firefly....it makes me happy every time i ride. Riding to the Y is my new thing.
  • getting to see Celtic FC on tv......"Come on Bhoys!"
  • planning for Happy Meat Night....a return of bacon-wrapped scallops, but what else???
  • learning how to roof.....can't wait to improve my 'handiness' and help out homebase
  • working out more & lowering my body fat....feels good!
  • discussing JFK's assassination and possible conspiracies with both my brothers.
  • "Rag and Bone" by the White Stripes.....it will seriously knock you over
  • building curriculum for my classes this fall.......is there a word for incredibly excited and solidly terrified at the same time?
  • the Tour de France
  • Beckham coming to the US
  • migas.....i just made it and it turned out awesome. so glad i was introduced to it while in texas.
  • rhubarb crisp....not usually a summer dish, but i made it for the first time and it ROCKS. thanks homebase.
  • hearing caboose's excitement about the good responses to auctioning of 'the relic'
  • my tomato plant really hitting its stride!
  • educating myself about the war in Bosnia
Life's good, I guess!

17 July 2007

Celtic on TV!


For those of us that don't usually get a chance to view Celtic games during the Scottish league season, tune in on Thursday to see them take on the MLS All-Stars in Denver. ESPN2 @ 8:00 PM. There's also this short story about them arriving in Denver and their shoes not making the trip from Scotland as speedily. I love the manager's quote at the end, "There's no sun in Europe whatsoever. I've been everywhere in Europe this summer and there is no sun at this time of year, I wake up this morning and it's 100 degrees." Welcome to America.

Welcome to America

So David & Victoria have made their arrival here in the States this week and he is hoping to make his debut for the LA Galaxy on Saturday in a friendly against Chelsea. (Although due to his ankle injury flaring up, it may be a short run-out). homebase told me about this "Hello Goodbye" commercial she'd seen that sounded great so I had to go out on YouTube and find it. Very fun. The part with the little boy and his flat ball cracked me up. I also saw this commercial that I thought was pretty cool. Beckham and Reggie Bush; Futbol vs Football. I love the part where Reggie runs a route and Beckham kicks a pass to him. I actually laughed out loud a couple times during this one. I think Beckham's comment at the very end was awesome, "That's a good day...things I've never done before." It's pretty cool to see two millionaires having a great time playing catch.

16 July 2007

Bastille Day

After listening to Jacques Pepin's book, I thought it would be fun to do some French cooking to celebrate Bastille Day. After finding a few recipes that sounded good, I made my list and headed down to the farmer's market to do some shopping. I bought local, saved some money and got some nice looking produce. Zucchinis, peppers, tiny new potatoes, green beans, yellow beans, and a fennel bulb. In the middle of one of my purchases, I got a call from homebase that turned my day on its ear. She proposed a Bastille day get-together in Omaha for some cooking and bike riding. Since I didn't have anything else planned and am never one to turn down a spontaneous trip, I said I was in and picked up my pace. A quick stop at the Gateway Market for yellow tomatoes and a baguette, a short stop at home to pack a cooler and load my bike and I was headed west.
We made a Salade Nicoise and it really turned into more of an undertaking that I had planned. It was a good thing we had several cooks working on it. It turned out nice though and it made a large amount. I was able to take some home with me and enjoy the next day. I think it improved after a night in the frig to chill and let the vinaigrette sink in. We also made a Yogurt Cake with Marmalade Glaze that turned out nicely. All washed down with a bottle of Jadot Beauojolais-Villages 2005, as recommended by epicurious. I've got some pictures but haven't got them uploaded yet. Check for them soon. Since we didn't have time (or room in our stomachs) we left the ingredients for the ratatouille with stoppable to put together the next day.
Some relaxing was called for after cooking and enjoying our creation, which was followed with a bicycle outing to Wehrspan Lake. With our group of six bikers and one on foot, we had our own little peloton. The kids all did great and we had no trouble making it all the way around the loop. It was perfect weather and not too buggy. Good times and a fun day.

13 July 2007

Bike Messengers

The bike messengers in downtown Chicago are really an incredible sight. I've always been amazed and drawn to their fearless, aggressive biking, their edgy, outsider, hip style and their physically-active, outdoor workday. Check out this short video to get a view from the bike seat to see what I'm taking about. These guys whip in and out of traffic, slicing across lines into incoming traffic and rarely have a helmet. Crazy!

Advanced Placement Seminar

Just finished up with my week-long AP Economics seminar. What a great experience! We had a superb instructor who clearly laid out and went through the material that the College Board (who runs the AP program) expects to be included in courses calling themselves "AP". The materials given to us were copious and top-quality. The two top AP textbooks (Krugman's and Mankiw's) were handed out, along with stacks of material, problem sets, past tests (multiple-choice questions and free-response questions), outlines and guides from the College Board. We were shown and told how to pull material from multiple sources for each subject pieces, how to organize and order our courses, how to set up and administer review sessions before they take the exam, how to build tight, efficient and fair rubrics, and on and on. I had high hopes for this seminar. It exceeded all of them. I'm excited to start to form all this info and material into lessons plans, units, tests and a whole course plan! I really feel like I will be able to provide a competent and quality experience for my AP students this fall now. And the trickle-down of this will definitely improve my other econ classes as well.

11 July 2007

Merit Pay & Democrats

This column in the Washington Post caught my eye this morning. Although seeing Barack's name in the headline is what drew me in, it looks at all the main Democratic candidates and their comments, or lack of, regarding education in general and merit pay in particular. "Accountability" is a term that causes major skepticism and ire among the teacher ranks. I'm as green as they come but I have to say that I think some accountability is a good thing. We've got to be able to get rid of the poor teachers and, at the other end of the spectrum, provide more attractive compensation packages to keep top-notch teachers in the profession. The concern, I think, is mainly focused on the question of 'who administers the accountability and how?'

10 July 2007

'Le maillout jaune' is up for grabs

The Tour de France has begun so check it out. There are 198 riders competing (at the start at least) and Lance is not one of them, so there will definitely be a new champion this year. There are 20 stages and they have finished three of them. FYI...the yellow jersey is for the overall leader, the green jersey goes to the best sprinter, the polka-dot jersey (my favorite) goes to the climbing winner (King of the Mountains), and the white jersey goes to the highest placing rider under 25 years old. A Combativity Award is voted on each day by journalists and that rider gets to wear red numbers on his back. Oh, and they call the person in last place at the end "the red lantern" and it is actually a prized position that is battled for. Check other funny trivia here.
I was thinking of those athletes in France when I took out 'the firefly' for a return to the Great Western trail on Sunday. It felt great to get out and burn on some of the many calories I consumed in Chicago. It was 93 degrees out but it didn't really feel that bad. The trail has a lot of shade and there was a pleasant breeze. After hearing about the rides at Shamrock Cyclery, I was intent on raising the average speed of my rides. I pushed myself a little harder and with the new bike, I was able to shave my time down. I also was working on maintaining speed (and control) while adjust sunglasses, wiping my eyes, and drinking from my water bottles. What took 1:15 each way last time took 1:05 out & 1:01 back. My average speed over the 34-mile, mostly flat course was 16.5 mph. Better than what I had been, but I'm still hoping to improve. Just an FYI, Lance has the record for the fastest average speed over an entire Tour de France, clocking at 40.9 mph!

Heritage

For whatever reason, I was thinking earlier today about a night quite a while back...around 8 months ago. I was home and went to the hospital with homebase to visit my great-aunt. While my mom was in talking with her, I sat with my great-uncle Doc in the waiting room. We were making small talk and one of his comments got me to laughing. His next sentence surprised me and caught me a bit off-guard. "Your laugh sounds just like your granddad's." Since I don't have any memories of my grandfather or grandmother it was a comment that made me pause and think about the connection. I like knowing that there are things passed down through the generations that we may or may not be aware of. And even though I wasn't fortunate enough to get to know them, there is a little of them in me. It made me happy to hear that and I don't think I'll ever forget it.

Chicago Vacation

homebase and I headed out towards Chicago last week for a short summer getaway. Now, Chicago is my destination of choice whenever I get out of town, but this trip was quite unlike most of my usual weekend excursions. We scheduled several things that I had never done and we also stayed in a hotel in the 'burbs. The combination of those things gave it the feel of a totally new destination.
After a fun picnic in Beaverdale Park with Senator Obama and his family, we left town and overnighted in Iowa City. We got on the road early the next morning (is there any other option when you travel with homebase?) and were parking on Michigan Ave by 9:30 am! The first activity that we did was to take a Wendella architectural boat tour along the Chicago River. It was one of the things that was on my Chicago "to-do" list even before I moved there and yet it never got crossed out. We had a great tour guide and a gorgeous, clear day (albeit a little warm) for admiring some of downtown Chicago's most impressive architectural structures. I really learned quite a bit and thoroughly enjoyed the 60 minutes on the water. After some shopping, we stopped at Quartino's, taking a tip from Connie, for lunch. It was a super dining experience. The lunch menu allows you to check off a list of 'small-plates' to sample from, similar to a tapas style. Check out the pix in flickr. We had two cheeses (Taleggio and Fontina Val D'Aosta), a smoked prosciutto (Speck), Tuscan green beans with borlotti beans, raisin walnut bread, and giardiniera, these were accompanied by an apricot-rosemary puree, grape salad, candied mustard fruit, cucumbers, and a fennel salad, and were washed down with two wine selections (a white - Gavi, and a red - Barbera D'Asti). As if that wasn't enough, we ordered zeppole (Italian doughnuts) and molten chocolate for dipping as our dessert. The lunch took us two hours but it was such a great time. We spent the rest of the afternoon shopping and walking off our lunch. Our hotel wasn't far from IKEA, and since it is one of my favorite places, we were sure to make our way over there in the evening. Despite them being sold out of the bookcase homebase wanted, we were both able to find several smaller items that we were happy to take home with us.
The next day we headed to Long Grove. I think I had been there maybe 10 years or so ago, but I didn't remember much of it. We had a great time checking out the shops in this Amanas-like town. We started off at Shamrock Cyclery, which we arrived at before its opening time (see a pattern developing here?). But the proprietor was in the front drive, talking to a customer and had already donned his smock, so he waved us on in to check out his shop. It was a high-end local bike shop with some great items, namely a Team Ireland jersey that was oh-so cool. It was too big and too much for me, but it definitely put the idea in my head. The owner was super nice, chatting us up and telling us about his shop and rides he organizes, etc. He has had Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton, and George Hincapie in his shop. Pretty impressive company. Although we didn't buy anything, he did give me a water bottle I had wanted with his shop logo on it. Next up was the Apple Haus, for some morning munchies. I had a glass of apple cider and two cake donuts, one strawberry (OK) and one apple (very nice!). homebase had an 'elephant ear' that was massive. It was seriously bigger than her head! Ok, maybe I helped her with it a little. :) Other fun shops included the Olive Tap, where we sampled olive oils and balsamic vinaigrette's, Inca Inc., with products from Peru and the two Irish shops, between which we probably spent close to three hours. We also checked out the gift shop for the Long Grove Confectionery factory. It's products were only fair. Finished with our shopping for the day, we headed east toward Ravinia. Since we still had a couple hours to spare, we toured the Botanical Gardens which were very nice. And we were able to score a great free parking spot only a few blocks from Ravinia. We took our blanket and some sandwiches & snacks and staked out a nice spot among the crowd. Ravinia was another uncrossed-off activity from my Chicago list. I was very eager to see what it was all about. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra treated us to pieces from Mozart and Mahler. Both were spectacular and the contrast between the pieces was very striking. We both had a great time people-watching and music-enjoying.
We head back home the next day, with a nice afternoon layover in Iowa City. One of the highlights of the trip was having Jacques Pepin's The Apprentice on audiobook. It was the perfect length and so entertaining. It motivated both of us to want to push ourselves to new culinary challenges. We definitely packed a lot into our short vacation, and it was a memorable trip.

08 July 2007

Set Lists

By the way...
I just saw that 311 has set lists for most of their shows back to 2000. So you can see exactly what was sung at the shows you've been to. Oh, I miss the days of Nick stagediving off speakers.
7 - 1 - 07 Westfair, Council Bluffs
7 - 16 - 04 Memorial Park, Omaha
8 - 4 - 03 Westfair, Coucil Bluffs
4 - 5 - 02 Creighton University, Omaha
7 - 14 - 01 Warped Tour, Somerset, WI
3 - 19 - 00 SuperToads, Des Moines
9 - 21 - 97 Westfair, Council Bluffs (No list available)

ArtFest, Live Music, Ratatouille

Feels like I haven't written forever!
Last weekend, I headed downtown to check out one of Des Moines' best attraction, the annual Art Festival. I wasn't as impressed this year by the art on display as I have been in years past, but it was still a lot of fun to browse and check out the displays. The most fun, for me at least, was seeing the Isiserettes perform. I LOVE that group. They are a drum & drill team for kids of all ages and the combination of visual and aural entertainment is top-notch. I was sitting right up front and loved it. After their performance I had a little time to walk around and check out the different artists' booths and then made my way back in time to listen to Little Mojo play. I've written about these guys before and they always put on a great and enjoyable set. They did battle with the sound system/guy a lot, never seeming to be able to get things sounding right on stage, but on our side of the speakers it sounded fine. A good session and I'm looking forward to their new CD.
The next day I headed down home for some fun times (a surprise arrival at St. Pat's for mass) and a group outing with all of us and the Omaha clan to view the new Pixar film, Ratatouille. It was well-liked by all. I think Colette and Anton Ego were my favorite characters. After that it was time to head up to Westfair Ampitheater to see the 311 and Matisyahu concert. What a fun show. It has been a decade since the first time I saw 311 (also at Westfair) and their shows still thrill me completely. They are such a positive band and their music is just fun. So they completely satisfied and lived up to expectations. Matisyahu opened for them and I know his music well and was very excited to see what his Hasidic reggae show was like. It was great! I don't know if I've ever seen a performer as happy and joyous to be on-stage and performing. Totally fun, carefree and loving every minute. He ran out into the crowd a couple times and even scooped up a boy, maybe 8 or so years old, and took him back on stage with him. Great fun, positive vibes, and upbeatable music all night.

04 July 2007

Logic Puzzles/Time Wasters

Saw this link on a Gaper's Block forum on internet time wasters for slow days at work. I got hooked on it and thought that its similarity to River Crossing might interest players of all ages. Its called Bloxorz, so check it out. I've made it through the first 10 levels.