004: This Year’s Greatest Experience

“What experience from this past year do you appreciate the most?”

For the past 11 months, I have served as an Area Director for the Toastmasters organization. It has been, by turns, fulfilling and frustrating, rewarding and … really, really difficult.

In terms of appreciation, however, it’s hard to beat this experience.

Taking on this position inspired me to take on greater challenges in the office, and in other spheres of my personal life. I have said “yes!” with enthusiasm to several opportunities which I would have hesitated to accept in the past, even when I was unsure of my capacity to execute them with perfection.

I have met such a large group of warm and wonderful people, all of whom are invested in improving their skills and being of service to a larger cause. They come from all over the Chicagoland area, and when the District is split between North and South I will miss seeing several of them, but will rest well knowing that they are continuing their good work in another sphere. I consider many of these people friends, and several of them as inspirations.

I’ve learned a great deal about myself and have improved my skillset as a leader. While I could have done more – and I will always feel I could have done more – I have certainly grown in terms of dealing with challenges and setbacks, in terms of long-range planning and in dealing with sometimes difficult personalities.

I no longer fire off immediate responses to questions which can be set aside until more important matters are attended to. I have learned to keep my hands off those projects and clubs which are running well, relinquishing control and delegating authority to the proper individuals. I have also learned how to most effectively step in to offer assistance when it is needed.

At some level, too, I have learned to lose more gracefully. In this year, not all my efforts have borne fruit. Some clubs into which I put my time and energy have decided to discontinue their charters, and ideas I advanced have been turned away by others. I have yet to be able to find a replacement for my position, which is a source of some vexation.

Still, I do not take these as slights on myself or on my capabilities. Instead, they are lessons in the famed serenity prayer, choices made by others which are beyond my actual control.

For that knowledge alone, along with many other insights and opportunities, I can truly say that I have appreciated this challenge.

I can also say, however, that I will not pick these reins up again lightly. I enjoy crafting words and phrases, speaking in public and sharing my knowledge with others. The administration and oversight of others is something I can now gracefully relinquish into hands which are unknown to me, but which I am certain will be up to the task.

003: Does “Perfect” Exist?

In which we wax philosophical, apparently. I believe that there is, indeed, such a thing as perfect. However, that thing lies not in a thing as it is, but in a thing as it is perceived.

Let’s consider a perfect afternoon. I’ve eaten a delicious lunch and had a small cocktail to round things out. The sky is bright azure and there are small, white, puffy clouds skittering about the ceiling of the world. The temperature is in the mid-seventies, the grass is green, the lawn work is already done, leaving me comfortably sore and tired. I have no commitments in the evening or for the rest of the afternoon. The hammock is set up, and I am in that hammock, watching the clouds in the sky and considering this perfect day.

The day, in and of itself, is not perfect. Somewhere, a child lays screaming; somewhere, missles are being fired, somewhere, an old woman is dying alone and unloved. The day itself is certainly not perfect. The experience which I am having – my perception of this day – is perfect, as long as I don’t consider these other elements of lives outside my own.

And yes, these are the thoughts which intrude upon my most perfect days. For how dare I enjoy perfection in an imperfect world?

Let’s consider a perfect meal. A beautifully balanced pre-dinner drink, made by expert hands with a strong sense of flavor. Appetizers which prepare the taste buds and sharpen hunger, perhaps a little crunchy, perhaps a little sweet. Soup to follow which cleanses the palate and is presented with precision. An entrée of tender lamb, with a crisp crust and an interior which falls off the bone, served over garlic whipped potatoes and sweet peas. Dessert of crème brulee and a glass of Armagnac to finish.

A perfect meal, but one which would turn a vegan’s stomach, which would send an alcoholic packing, would absolutely freak out anyone more frugal than your humble narrator. A perfect meal nonetheless, in my experience and perception.

And yes, I ask as I eat; how dare I enjoy such luxuries, when I am surrounded by want and need? Who am I to partake of perfection when others go hungry?

Or a perfect relationship, one in which each partner’s needs are perfectly and exquisitely balanced to bring maximum pleasure to each one, to serve one another’s hopes, dreams, and desires and which lasts until the day they pass peacefully together into that long night. Hardly perfect in the eyes of their divorcee friends.

Perfect exists as an experiential state of mind. Is there a platonic ideal of any material thing? Perhaps elsewhere. Perhaps in the mists of another world. Here, however, as Milton says – Our minds can make a Heaven of Hell, or a Hell of Heaven. With our thoughts and our eyes, our choice of how to see those things around us, we can make perfection here on Earth …

Or we can question our rights to Heaven.

Currently Eating: Duck Duck Goat

Duck Duck Goat is star chef Stephanie Izard’s “reasonably authentic” take on Chinese food, located in Chicago’s West Loop – the Fulton Market District. My friends Carl and Nancy snagged reservations in late May and invited us along for the ride.

First off, let’s discuss the decor. Each room in this multi-room, high-ceilinged restaurant is decorated in a different but striking style. The lounge area is a lovely jade green, with a small but well-tended bar behind which rises an old fashioned mirror and about two dozen statues of goats. Many with lucky coins, others without. The room in which we ate was also jade green, but festooned with around sixteen different Bob Ross style paintings of calm forest waterfalls. You think they’re all the same at a casual glance, but if you look more closely you’ll pick up on the differences. The ceilings were dark cork for style and sound-dampening properties, inset with colorful crests and ornamentation.

The main room feels taller as well as larger thanks to the exposed pipes and the mahogany shelves up where our ceilings were, filled with goods that give the feel of an Indiana Jones market set-place, well-lit against the scarlet walls. I could spend a happy hour just walking through the place and taking in the feel.

We started in the lounge with Blind Goat Old Fashioneds: J. Henry Blind Goat Bourbon, Birch-Sarsaparilla, Angostura Bitters and an orange peel the likes of which I’ve never seen. Their mixologist really knows what he’s doing – not a hint of pith, and about as wide as a woman’s palm.

Our lovely server Sara recommended two dishes apiece for a group of four, as the food is served family-style typically in sets of 3-5 items. We wound up with eleven dishes total, plus dessert and perhaps another cocktail apiece.

Starters were possibly my favorite item of the evening: goat and duck skin spring rolls, lightly fried and served with two sauces. These little morsels could be a lunch for me and I’d be well pleased. The snap of the roll against the slightly musty flavor of good goat’s meat combined with the richness of rendered duck skin and the wonderfully hot mustard.

After that, wood-grilled duck hearts in horseradish aioli sauce. The lovely copper tang of organ meats blended with a perfect amount of smoke, with sliced scallions offering some vegetal relief from the supreme richness of the meat and sauce combination. At the same time we were served scallion pancakes with hoisin sauce and cabbage coleslaw. I’ve never had scallion pancakes this light and airy – thin, crisp, and warmed just so to balance the coolness of the slaw. These two together were a lovely combination.

After that we got pickled cucumbers as a palate cleanser followed by pork fried rice. I’m not normally a fan of fried rice, but the manner in which we were eating was protein-heavy, and carbs sounded like a good idea. (I would have preferred to try the Forbidden Goat, black rice with goat and pickled quail eggs, but I wasn’t about to push anyone at this stage.) The dish wasn’t as heavy or greasy as most fried rice, as I expected, and the pork belly and sausage were a real treat.

Frankly, I could have stopped here and been immensely satisfied. But no, oh no! There was more on the way.

Horn Shu Rao – braised pork belly – which was properly prepared, but a bit gelatinous for some members of our party. I enjoyed the entire thing immensely and wound up enjoying their servings as well. A plate of pickled mixed vegetables and a dish of the most amazing green beans in black bean sauce with fried onions and cashews I have ever had. These two vegetable dishes together gave me a world of enjoyment.

Barbecue pork Bao buns, half apiece, really put me over the edge. These were good, and it may be my increasing discomfort, but I don’t think I’d get them again personally. On top of that pork we got jiazao – fried potstickers of short rib and bone marrow – which would rank as my second favorite items of the night after the spring rolls we started with. Completely different profiles, with these being rich and dark and smoky and divine; much better suited for the end of an evening.

Of course, then we saw a plate of regular wood grilled short ribs being served at the next table and, being who we are, added an order of those. Again, I’m afraid I wound up eating more than my share as some in the party had believed they would be boneless rather than bone-in. Saucy, sesame-laden, and pillow-soft to the tooth once you got through the tantalizingly crisp wood crust.

For dessert, blueberry and bullet chili sorbet topped with shaved rhubarb ice, “crunchy corn cereal” which I believe – but cannot prove – came from a certain Captain of the cereal industry – caramelized condensed milk, blueberries, and an incredibly delicious take on rhubarb slices that melted in the mouth.

The bill was also … remarkably low. I have honestly had much less food at a similar price here in the suburbs, routinely. I had fully planned to spend twice what I did for this experience, which makes it all the sweeter.

Admittedly, sleeping was an issue after that much rich and incredible food, but I’ll gladly trade a good night’s sleep for a meal I’ll still be thinking about for years to come. I am an unabashed fan of Duck Duck Goat and look forward to trying Chef Izard’s other locations in the near future.

002: A single backpack

If you were forced to eliminate every physical possession from your life with the exception of what could fit into a single backpack, what would you put in it?

Credit cards to everyplace that sells physical possessions? I kid, I kid.

First things first, a photo from my wedding, a photo of my wife, a photo of my parents, and a photo of my sister, all laminated against spills and tears.

Next, my laptop computer and wireless mouse. This covers all my entertainment needs, most of my social needs, and the vast majority of my working needs; though a printer hookup would definitely be choice. If by “from your life” you mean “forever,” well, I’m more than a little hosed; so let’s aim for a small portable printer as well.

Secondly, a selection of pens and my Leuchtturm 1917 paper journal. This keeps me sane, together, and focused. It’s my to-do list and my aspirations.

Thirdly, my cellphone and Kindle. Yeah, the tablet’s kind of redundant to the laptop, but it’s less than book-sized. Oh, and chargers for all electronics, obviously.
Two changes of underwear, one change of pants, one change of socks, and three shirts all in a gilly roll at the bottom of the backpack. Razor, soap, deodorant stone, shampoo, conditioner, hair product (my little secret) and electric trimmer. As my buddy Ben once pointed out, I believe neatly groomed facial hair is key to the Kingdom of Heaven.

I mean, there’s not much else I need. This is basically what I carry to and from the office every day.

That said, I’m assuming climate won’t be an issue. If so, a good coat is probably going to take up the rest of this backpack.

By the same token, if we’re talking serious post-apocalypse, throw out ALL the electronics, ain’t gonna need them. Replace them with the complete works of William Shakespeare and Dashiell Hammet. The rest of the backpack’s a good sized multi-knife, a mess of canned food, a can opener, mess kit and water purifier, and a tarpaulin for sleeping. Plus a guide to edible flora in the area, as I’m likely going vegetarian. I’d be a lousy hunter.

001: What did I do last week that was memorable?

(Note: This was written several weeks ago, but is being published today.)

Oh, plenty of things. How much fun to answer this after such an eventful week. If I were speaking on my feet, I could not refer to my bullet journal; so I’ll work to simply recall in writing as well.

I completed the edits for two short stories, putting my work on the Gentleman Ghouls Omnibus to bed. Well, the writing work. I also designed a book cover and was paid a pretty penny, which is going to purchase a PlayStation 4 – mostly in anticipation of Red Dead Redemption 2, but partly because I’d like a modern console.

I wrote quite a bit in these blog entries. Five full entries out of an attempted 3. I didn’t get any fiction writing done, but am aiming to fold that in this week. I delivered a speech off the top of my head to an appreciative room and got at least one amazing compliment out of that.

I read a lot. Two chapters in an assertiveness workbook, which is doing me a world of good. Five chapters in a book on compulsive behaviors. Three in a book on soul-friendship, given to me by someone very dear, a true Anam Cara. And five chapters of Jack London’s The Iron Heel, a socialist work against the oligarchy, and very timely in these miserable days beneath the heels.

Probably the two most memorable moments, though, were gathering with another dear friend for coffee on Sunday afternoon – a day when I am often found curled up at home, avoiding the world and myself. She surprised me with gifts from a recent trip, both for myself and my lovely wife, along with a few new card games for us all to try.

And I took said lovely wife to the theater for the closing night of Any Other Name, an excellent new black comedy starring three dear friends – James, Michelle, and Frank. The set design was splendid and the actors were each phenomenal. The tickets were a surprise gift from my good friend Phil.

By Julius Schorzman - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0, I felt very taken care of last week, honestly. It seemed like the world was bending over backward to make good things happen for me. I got the news of both a merit increase at work and the annual bonus payout, both of which made me very pleased. We did our taxes, too; but between state and federal it came out to a wash. Still, I’ll take a wash over a nasty surprise any day of the week.

Aha! Referring back, I see I also got out of the house on Monday and Friday to play games! First time to the Burdsell Manor to play Mansions of Madness over cheese curds and Miskatonic beers, second time to Chateau Glovier for our first try at Archipelago. Dan and I enjoyed tonkatsu udon for dinner that night, which was just delightful; and I was able to treat myself to a rare luxury Sunday evening with the missus.

It was, to be honest, a lovely and golden week. I look forward to this new one with a smile.


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