Saturday, August 18, 2007

That Darn Chop

I think it was in the second quarter - that's when I heard it. The sound I know so well.

"Dahhh (two, three), da da da da da ---- dahhh, dahhh, dahhh." (Indian drum beating in the background).

And then come the arms - bent at the elbow - doing that up-and-down thing.

OK, Kansas City - I'm going to say something. And please understand this. It is most definitely not about you.

That chop thing. Oh my lord.

As a huge fan of the New York Mets, I've been exposed to that darn chop under very different circumstances. It's what the Braves' fans do in Atlanta. And I hate it. I know, hate's a strong word. But when my Mets are getting their brains beat out by those Braves, (usually by Chipper Jones himself), and those Atlanta fans start with that annoying little arm dance and phony Indian chant - chills shoot up my spine. (Historical Note: The chant originated at Florida State University).

So you can imagine how I felt when the chopping started the other night. Of course, I laughed. And since I wasn't emotionally involved in the game, the Kansas City version was pretty much benign to me.

The fact is - I LOVED my first Kansas City Chiefs game! Tomahawk chop and all.

* * * * * * * * * *

“You like football?”

That’s what Vito asked me the other day as he was chatting with someone around the corner from my cubicle at work. I don’t think I’ve ever met a nicer more down-to-earth group of people in a workplace and Vito is one of the special ones, I can tell.

"You bet," I smiled.

And the next thing I knew, I was holding two tickets for the Chiefs' pre-season game against the Dolphins for last Thursday night, compliments of a gentleman named Vito.

Talk about a crash course in Kansas City sports. Right on the heels of last week's Kauffman Stadium debut with the CT-Crew, it was time to travel to the other side of the parking lot and take in a taste of Arrowhead Stadium.

"Are You Ready For Some Football?" - I’ve seen Foxboro. I’ve seen Veteran’s Stadium (back in the day). And, of course, I’ve seen The Meadowlands more than a few times thanks to my good friend, Stuart. But, let me tell you something. They really know how to do football in Kansas City. And this was just a pre-season game!

The place was packed. Well, just about packed. I’d say about 98% packed from the look of it, with just the slightest smattering of open seats here and there on the most upper levels of the place. The man in sitting behind me told me Arrowhead holds something like 79,000 people. And it looked that big.

After parking the car, my friend Lynn and I walked through the lot toward the stadium. This, of course, gave me the chance to take in a bit of Kansas City tailgating. Okay, so I’m not the biggest football fan. Still, I love the sport because I love just about any sport and the fact is I do follow the NFL for the entire season. (i.e., I’m not just a playoff kind of guy). But, baseball will always be number one in my book and, given the choice, I’d rather sit in a half-full Kauffman Stadium watching a young Royals’ team grow over the next few years, than watch an NFL game. Nothing against football. It’s just that we all have our favorites and baseball’s the one for me. I can’t see that changing in this lifetime.

Having said that, I had an absolute blast the other night. The colors. The pageantry. I own only one red/orange piece of clothing but I'm glad I remembered to put it on as I walked out the door. And then there were those cheerleaders. What are they called, “Chief-tettes?” The food? Let’s just say these folks do it right. I'm guessing there was a Gate’s Barbecue every time I turned an Arrowhead corner and good barbecue is always a warm sight for these eyes. And that was just the start of it. So many different menu choices and every one of them looked good to me. The caterers at Shea should take a trip out here to see how the Kansas City folks do it. And they should take notes. I’m just hoping the new Citi Field will make NYC proud and offer more than pretzels, cotton candy, hot dogs and knishes. It’s time to kick it up a notch. They’ve certainly done that here. Come to think of it, they've pretty much done it everywhere else but Shea Stadium.

The game? What can I say? The seats were fantastic, just like Vito said they'd be. A couple of folks from work sat right next to Lynn and me and that was fun, too. They were a big help in teaching me the script as the night unfolded. Certain cheers chanted at certain times – it was a blast watching people getting into it.

My hunch is I won't be getting anywhere near Arrowhead Stadium once the regular season starts. Judging from the look and feel of the crowd the other night – I don’t think there's going to be one seat open from now through December. But that’s okay with me. From what I've been hearing, the entire city comes alive when the season starts and one doesn't have to be physically present at the stadium to get caught up in the excitement.

And then, it'll be time for the next round.
A good solid case of Royals' fever.

It may take a bit of time, but ... it's coming.
I'm telling you. It is most definitely coming.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"Mmmm, Mmmm, Good!"

I’m not a virgin any more. KC-wise, that is.

In a matter of a few hours this past weekend, I finally entered the Kansas City barbecue world and … went to my first Royals’ baseball game. And for anyone who knows me, the idea that it took me over two months get to a major league ballgame is pretty out there. Honestly, I don’t know what got into me.

My friend Howard called me a couple of weeks ago to let me know that his cousin and some college buddies were heading into town for a few days, as part of their annual baseball pilgrimage. Each year they pick a city and head that way – taking in games, seeing that city's park, and enjoying the area's particular epicurean delights. 2007 meant Kansas City, Kauffman Stadium and smoked meats. So, when Howard informed the boys I was a new Kansas City citizen – I was called into action from the pen.

After picking up the guys at their hotel, it was just a three minute drive up Main street to one of Kansas City's best - Gates’ Barbecue. (On my second hand recommendation, the guys had already experienced Arthur Bryant's the day before. After what they told me, I know it won't be long before I'll be heading there as well). Once in the door, we grabbed our trays, stood on line and stared at the menu board, posted with photos of various grilled meats, fries and sides. I'm sure we looked pretty confused as the Gate's regulars shouted their orders over our heads. We did our best to make our decisions and, I don’t know about them, but my mouth was watering up a storm as I took in the ambiance. As much as I’ve worked to stay healthy and away from such treats, there is nothing, I mean nothing like the smell of barbecued meat. The counter folks and some fellow diners helped the foreigners and, as it turned out, once we got our orders straight, the four of us ended up ordering the same thing: the mixed meat platter. I don’t know, it was something like sliced pork and beef plus a bunch of ribs with fries and pickles - lots of each, trust me. Of course, each plate came with a short stack of wonder bread, which one uses to wrap around a generous helping of the meat of the moment.

"Mmmm, Mmmm, Good!" - I mean finger lickin' good. Those were possibly the best barbecued ribs I've ever tasted. Then again, how many times did I say that in Texas? Of course, the meal's highlight was Za’s dumping of his Pepsi into his mixed meat plate. (I’m sure he’ll just love that I’ve printed that here). He claims to have discovered a new type of barbecue sauce, with a new type of zest to it. Still, a little extra cola flavor didn't stop him from enjoying his meal. If fact, none of us complained as we chowed down our pre-game meal.

Well fed and ready to take naps, it was time to head out to Kauffman Stadium.

Franchise On The Rise – I’ve been in Kansas City almost three months now and can honestly say I have a taste for what’s brewing with the Royals. They’re young, talented and definitely on the upswing. As a true baseball fan, I know this; one can almost smell it. And it's kind of exciting to be here now, with the franchise armed with a young and talented general manager, Dayton Moore. Groomed by the Atlanta Braves' guru, John Schuerholz, Moore appears to be making all the right moves with this bunch. Moreover, this fans here seem content and patient in knowing that it’s going to take some sacrifice to get the Royals to where they want to be. But I have news for you, it’s not that far away, you can feel it. One or two more free agents and ... we'll see. This once great franchise (Mayberry, Otis, Patek, Rojas, White, Jackson (Bo), Brett & Saberhagen - on the left) is making its comeback and it’ll be fun to witness it firsthand. By the way, that's the "CT-Crew" up and on the right, standing in front of George Brett. From left to right - Za, Gary and Oakie. Can you see the extra 50 lbs. of Gates' on them?

Cookie Rojas Bobble-Head Day - Were we lucky or what?! Each of us is now the proud owner of a Cookie Rojas doll. I actually loved that guy when he played. (Note: Cookie was short enough. When they designed the doll, you'd think they'd at least have him standing on two legs.)

As always, the game was great - the Royals beat the Blue Jays, 4-1 and we were able to watch a future hall-of-famer at work - "The Big Hurt, Frank Thomas." The only downer was that Gary and I, being hard-core Mets’ fans, kept checking his phone to see how our boys were doing. And the news wasn’t good. In fact, it hasn’t been good for a healthy stretch now. I don’t know about him, but I’m a bit worried about my Mets. All I know is they’d better stop talking about playoff plans and take care of business. Now.

The Levee Wasn’t Dry – Leave it to a bunch of guys from Connecticut to introduce me to one of Kansas City's best night spots - The Levee. And it’s pretty much right up the block from where I live. Live music, good food, drink and pretty women, what more could a person want?

“One beer. That's it!”

I must’ve said that 40 times during my Levee experience. Well, one beer and several shots later, I was still there – much longer than expected. As it turns out, we met a nice bunch of folks (there must have been five bachelorette or birthday parties happening at once in that place) and ended up hanging out with birthday girl, Julie, and friends. Still, being that much older and wiser these days, I knew when it was time to check out since I had to get up for some early morning interviews. One last toast, some hugs and I wished the boys well on their trek back to Connecticut. I was out the door.

Epilogue - Sore throat. No voice. Four Cookie Rojas bobble-head dolls. That's what I was faced with when my eyes opened early Sunday morning.

I'm heading up to NYC in October so I'll reacquaint the boys with their Cookie dolls if we have a chance to get together. As far as the throat and lack of voice? You know … It’s why I don’t go to bars with loud music anymore. What’s the point? I ended up talking ... no ... screaming for two straight hours and couldn’t hear myself think the entire night. And that was on top of some solid play-by-play analysis at the game, topped off with shouting and high fives whenever the Royals did something exciting. Still, it really was a great day and the company was terrific, so I am most definitely not complaining here.

And, who knows? What's on the short list of cities for next year, Oakie? The pulled pork should be out of my system by then.

Monday, August 6, 2007

The Visitor

For the past week or so, I've noticed something during my morning drives to work via Ward Parkway. Just about when I get to work - in fact, right around the corner from my office building - I’ve been noticing a very large bird of some type, perched up on top of a particular street light. The first time I saw it, I thought it was some kind of statue – it didn’t look real to me. This bird, whatever it is, seems to always be in same location each morning. The most striking thing to me is its size. It's much larger than a robin, pigeon or something along those lines. At first, I thought was some kind of owl – a very large owl, at that. But, the head didn’t look like an owl’s. From a distance, the bird looked to be a light brown, with brown and white speckles. And it looked like there was some kind of prominent beak, too. Of course, I haven't had a chance to get all that close to the bird, with my observation time limited to the length of a red light. Still, each time I approached that spot in the morning, I thought about pulling over to take a closer look; I’d never seen anything like it.

Well … once again, sometimes we’re just plain old lucky. Sometimes the things we want simply fall directly into our lap, without any effort at all.

No. The bird didn't literally fall in to my lap. But, a few days ago, about an hour after I arrived at work, a co-worker - my cubicle neighbor, actually - a very nice woman named Donna peeked over the edge of the metal divider.

“Did you see our visitor?” she smiled, pointing to the right, down the hall.

I smiled back and asked what she was talking about?

“Our visitor," she smiled." "He comes a few times a week" she added and smiled, pointing down the hall again, motioning for me to take a look.

When I turned the corner and glanced toward the window at the end of the beige file cabinet-lined hall, I saw a small group of workers gathered near the window. Their backs were to me and, clearly, they were looking at something. I leaned a bit to the right so I could see.

A familiar site. Something brown, speckled, and … large. A bird. The street light bird. Well … most probably it wasn't the same bird but …. I'm guessing it was the same species.

“Can we go look at it?” I asked.

Donna laughed. “Sure, he lets you get right up to the window. Go ahead.”

* * * * * * * * * *

What a beautiful site. I mean, it was great. I know. I know. I sound like some kind of Audubon Society fanatic. But, I mean it. I’d never seen a hawk, (that’s what Donna told me it was), this up close and personal before. He (or she?) didn’t seem to mind the five or six people staring thorough the tall glass pane. The hawk moved its head from side to side every once in awhile - sometimes staring directly at us - looking directly at him - looking directly at us.

One lesson I've learned on this Midwest journey is: “Always have my camera handy.” I walked back to my desk, unzipped my backpack and grabbed my camera. Here are two shots of the visitor.

To me, it was like being face-to-face with a bald eagle, which, clearly, I know this wasn't. Still, the talons, the beak, the self-confident perch on the railing ... It was a wonderful site. Very different from the 5,000 grackles in Texas and Oklahoma.

Friday, August 3, 2007

"Sign, Sign - Everywhere A Sign"

I see the signs. Des Moines – 200 miles. St. Louis - 260 miles. Omaha - 190 miles. Every time I cross paths with an interstate here (and it happens a lot), I see the signs for these cities and feel just a hint of a tug.

I miss the road, I can't lie. I miss waking up in the morning and not knowing exactly where I’ll be headed. I miss pulling out my road atlas the night before a road trip and looking at all those choices, the different ways to travel to a new destination. How far West do I want to go? Do I want to keep on main roads? Or am I more in the mood for corn, pasture, cows and silos? Of course, I also miss stopping into a Braum’s any time I have a craving for one of those scrumptious hamburgers. Or popping into a Sonic for a hot fudge shake. Yes, yes, I did that every now and then and thank God for Bikram yoga, that's all I can say. Add all this up and I suppose I know what I’ve always known. I love driving. And I love driving on the open road, experiencing new places and faces.

Still, not being independently wealthy and understanding that it’s time to take Eldercation to another level, sanity has certainly prevailed. Well, I suppose this is what you’d call sanity. I know it’s important to plant two feet some place for more than a moment and to work on the book, so that’s precisely what I’m doing. I started a part-time job a couple of weeks ago and it’s pretty challenging, I have to say. I’m learning a lot, stretching my boundaries and that’s always a great and productive thing to do in my book. Add to that, the company I work for is built on a terrific business model, involved in very interesting work. Add to that, I can't remember the last time, if ever, that I've worked with and around a nicer group of people and that says a lot about the company when you think about it. And add to that, I work for a wonderful, smart and special boss and with an equally thoughtful, smart and fun co-worker and ... well ... there you have it. I really couldn't have planned this any better than it's unfolded for me. So as much as I miss being on the road, I also know I’ve created a system now where I can get some smaller doses of road-tonic whenever I choose go that route. My new work schedule allows me to take off on a Friday night and not return to KC until Tuesday evening. That kind of break cries out for the short trip out to the Kansas countryside or back east toward St. Louis. Or perhaps a turn north to Iowa or Nebraska. Every time I head up to Garden Village in North Kansas City, I can’t help but notice those signs, providing a fresh menu of cities and potential adventures. I’m comforted knowing those places are just a short drive away. The fact is, my plans for Omaha were already in place when I walked into KC Bikram yoga and then had my brunch with Aliya on The Plaza. I'd already done a lot of my Nebraska advance work and the only reason my feet stopped moving North was because my cornhusker ExtendedStay man, Ernst, didn’t have any hotel rooms - a huge convention was being held in Omaha the weeks I wanted to be there. So, there was literally was no room at the inn.

And so, there is was. The next thing I knew, I was living in Kansas City. And I couldn’t feel more content.

Do I get lonely here? I can’t lie. The answer is a resounding, yes. But, the isolation and quiet serves a purpose for me, too. I’m working hard to turn that sometimes lonely feeling into production. All that time in New York when I could have been creating the website, doing five times ... twenty-five times the amount of interviewing and what happened? Not a hell of a lot. Who knows what was happening back then? I felt stale, uninspired. Tired. Worn down. You can put any label you want on it but the fact is, I wasn’t getting things off the ground. For some reason that didn’t happen until I stepped onto that plane and watched Shea Stadium fade into the background. The website wasn’t born until I sat in my Dallas ExtendedStay with my Wendy’s takeout salads and started to write about my lost luggage, Kansas cowboys tearing apart apples with their bare hands and ... then ... the people appeared. First one, then four, then forty. The next thing I knew I was 150 interviews into the trip and was turning people away, doing my best to keep up with the requests. And to think, back in November I was worried I’d be twiddling my fingers and waiting for the phone to ring.

Well, the good news is in five months I haven’t twiddled my fingers once. This latest leg of the journey has served to remind me how many people there are to meet out here. It’s endless. And that endlessness is exciting to me. I can’t wait to dip in again but I’ll be doing it in shorter spurts over the next year or so. Of course, a day will come when I’ll tackle another strip like I did a few months ago. Perhaps just West of here. My God, I hardly even scratched the surface of Texas - seeing just one tiny piece of that great state. And as far as the other visited Midwestern states go, I only saw small sections of those as well.

Shhh... Can you hear it? Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, Idaho ... I think I hear them calling. No, I'm not losing my mind. But I’m pretty certain ... now, wait a minute. What am I saying? Strike the "pretty." I'm absolutely 100% certain I’ll be heading West at some point. Just not now.

For now, I have work to do and I'm happy to be doing it.

Will I be glancing at road signs as I go about my business here?

Now, what do you think?

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Settling In

Today’s slice of heaven. Editing photos from the latest KC batch of interviews – in Photoshop. You know, contrast, brighness, color, cropping, sizing, head shots etc… while listening to Burton Cummings and "The Guess Who" blasting out “American Woman” on an iTune's radio station. I love plugging into one of those 60’s and 70’s hits stations every now and then. Just now, they followed with another "Guess Who" hit - "No Time" - which quite possibly may be one of my all-time favorite songs. (I say that a lot).

Okay, so I know this is going to sound like I'm ready for an Eldercation interview but here goes: "They don't write 'em like they used to." They really don't. At some point soon, whenever I get around to making final modifications, I'm going to share a very special list with the blogosphere. It's something I compiled over the past few months as I moved across the highways and side roads of the Midwest. What started out as an "HJ's Top 20 Songs" listing ended up being more like a top-100 list. The funny thing is, every time I hear a song on the radio that I like, I end up adding it to my list, so who knows when I'll be ready to unveil it, if ever?

I’ve been spending a lot of time in The Plaza library and find that editing photos and writing is a relaxing and productive way to start most days. Slowly, I'm beginning to move into more of a routine here. I started working a job last week which is good, not only because of the improved cash flow, which relaxes me and lets me know I’m not going to end up on KC’s skid row anytime soon. But it also creates a schedule for me. When it’s time to work, it’s time to work. And when I’m done, I know it’s time for Eldercation and I can devote my time solely to that.

The City Of Fountains - As things have settled down, I’ve also started to take in the Plaza and all it has to offer. Man, there are some good places to eat here. Or lively spots to have coffee or just hang out and people watch. I didn’t realize it, but Kansas City is known as “The City Of Fountains” which, come to think of it, explains why I've been noticing all kinds of fountains around here. Most of the fountains are actually quite pretty and I find myself sitting by them every once in awhile to relax. I guess it's something about the sound of the running water, the spray ... (click on the photo on the left, close your eyes, and enjoy). Can you tell I miss H2O? At some point soon, I'm going to have to take a trip to see the ocean, just to remind me that it exists.

I don’t have as much daily updating right now since it’s not like when I was on the road, discovering new places and people every time I took a step. Now, there’s a job in place and transcriptions ... lots of transcriptions. I love the process but it's what we’d call busy work and I'm pretty sure you wouldn't enjoy hearing about my transcription experiences each and every day. Still, as I move through the interviews and listen to the people as though I’m sitting with them for the first time, I will be posting things about them as I write. The U.S. map on the first page will most likely be where you'll see most of this material, so you can see who the person is and where they’re from. Sometimes, if the spirit moves me, I’ll post some things in the blog section as well. We'll see how it unfolds.

Back to work.

I'm listening to Ricky Nelson singing "Garden Party."

Yes. Of course.

It's headed for the list.

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