Cooking for my Girlfriend Part 1

Okay, I should go on the record and state “This did seem like a fun and interesting way to come up with something creative to write about…but there is the overlaying fear that my actual girlfriend might not think this is that funny”. The idea was kind of thrown together late one night on the phone as I was explaining how sometimes, I get bored at work and will sit and think about what we should have for dinner. So…with that, I decided to re-open The Blobber and start my “Cooking for my Girlfriend” series of blog entries. See, this blog, to work, will be two parts, the first part is by the person who thinks of dinner (Me) and the second part is by the person who watches the first person cook (Christina). It’s a real team effort and something that will require considerable focus and an ability to think quickly in and around the kitchen.

I like to live on the edge sometimes but not without some disclaimers:

  1. Christina does indeed enjoy cooking.
  2. Christina does contribute to the meal by helping me in the kitchen.
  3. She does not mind cleaning at the end of the meal.
  4. I also do not mind cleaning…but why argue about who is going to clean the plates.
  5. If this post disappears, it means I was wrong and this was a bad idea.

I got invited to attend a workshop yesterday that I was not 100% sure I would enjoy but I was 100% sure it would not be something applicable to where I work and live. Building Healthy Communities was hosted by Rutgers University in conjunction with the Robert Wood Foundation and The YMCA. I work for the Y in a pretty nice part of NJ…okay, a really nice part of NJ. We have a Whole Foods in the center of the town and a really nice farmers market in the summer. The Quick Check (where I frequent each Friday for lunch) has some a pretty impressive listing of fancy things. Organic Trail mix, fresh spinach salads, stone-ground mustard (who wants yellow mustard?) just off the top of my head to name a few things.

Building Healthy Communities is a State & Nation Wide program that is looking at ways to curb the inequality of food options for urban areas which in my opinion is a huge issue. I like to think about food…a lot. I mean, it literally occupies about half of my day…hence this blog posting. I grew up in a nice suburb of NYC in a family that never struggled to put a good meal on the table. School was the same, we actually had these two amazing ladies that cooked us breakfast each morning and amazing lunch each day.

So, Building Healthy Communities…how do we do that? I think this was the question that we all talk about (probably around a dinner table) and we all pretty feel like we need to work to achieve, but I think if it does not impact us directly, what is our motivation to achieve it? I once tried to Build a Healthy Community at my last job but it was lack of urgency, education and desire that made us not able to achieve a desired outcome. Actually it was more the fault of the culture that existed there that made us fail. See, we had a Chef as our Food Service Director…a real Chef, but his only experiences as a Chef were rooted in an industrial Summer Camp kitchen, where Tuesday meant Taco’s and soup was tomato. Chef, deep down took pride in what he cooked, but time constraints (his words) and budget restrictions (his words) usually meant we saw the same types of food on the table day in and day out. In my eyes, an easy menu usually meant that less time was spent researching new meals, looking for healthy options and at the end of the day an easy menu meant less work.

I decided that I would try and “challenge” or “re-energize” our Chef by fixing some of his time constraints and budget. I gave him more money to spend on staff and food and I went out and bought a new composter and a small greenhouse. I created curriculum that would allow us to teach kids how to use both the composter and the greenhouse. But, the culture at Camp just could not see the benefit of these two and eventually the composter sat empty and the greenhouse only grew weeds. See, at the end of the day, we all want to create a Healthy Community but we just struggle to find the time to do so. If it is not in our face, then it is not our problem. Yesterday as we sat in this seminar listening to Dr. Dietz from the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness talk about obesity, the kitchen staff handed out dessert and not any desert. This chocolate shell was filled with chocolate mouse and covered in whipped cream. So while Dr. Dietz talked about obesity the only thing the audience really heard was the “Hmmm, this is really delicious” from the people at their table. I would have wondered the reaction if for dessert they handed out an apple?

Building a Healthy Community has to start with a realization of who we are and how much we really want to make a change. I want to be healthy and I want people around me to be healthy, so I work hard to be able to afford healthy food that is local or organic or just not processed. I tell people that what they are eating is not the smartest and have no problem being negative when it comes to that fact. I am the guy who drank 16oz of Diet Coke every day and over the past couple of months, I will only have 1 16oz bottle of Dr. Pepper a week (with some fancy mustard from Quick Check). I genuinely believe that I understand what is good for me and what is bad for me and I feel it’s my duty to tell other why I feel that way…because otherwise I’m just that guy eating chocolate while listening to how obesity is a huge issue in America.

So…what is for dinner? As I drove home last night I started to really think about this. I went back and forth, fish or meat, veggies or pasta, light or heavy, take-out or go-out. Hoboken literally has 100 choices within a ten minute walk or a 30 minute wait for delivery. But, I am the type of person who really enjoys spending time in the kitchen. If I owned a house, I would want the kitchen to be larger than the living room because everybody loves to hang-out in the kitchen. When I shop, I typically go to Shoprite, the prices are good and the options of food has been growing larger and larger for some time. After about 30 minutes of sitting in traffic, I deiced that it would be best if I just picked someplace on the way, which happened to be Trader Joe’s. Now, I have a love hate relationship with this place and it’s more love then hate. I actually cannot justify doing my regular shopping there, but I can justify stopping in for a meal. For those of you who have spent time at Trader Joe’s, you know it’s probably one of the happiest grocery stores in America. By the time I walked in, I knew what I was going to cook for my girlfriend; Bacon Cheeseburgers with lettuce, tomato and onions on an Artisan Roll with sweet potato fries.

Here is what I purchased:

1 pound of organic ground beef (85/15 Fat) because without the fat, you are just cooking the meat (you need fat to cook the meat).

1 pound of uncured bacon ends and bits.

1 pound of sweet potatoes

1 onion (red)

1 head or romaine lettuce

6 artisan rolls

1 bag of Trader Joe’s popcorn with olive oil.

To drink, I found a 2012 Cupcake Vineyards Red Velvet (Zinfandel, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah). I’m not much of a wine guy, Christina is much more in-tune with wine. I actually picked this because it was cheap and it said on the back of the bottle that it goes well with meat.

Coffee, Running and Chocolate

Over the past 15 years, there have been three things in my life that have dramatically changed. Well, there has been a couple of things that have changed and maybe the use of dramatically is not the best choice of verbiage, but I can be a little dramatic at times. But, these three things make me happy and help me keep some sort of order in my life…again, being a little dramatic.

I was never a big fan of coffee when I was growing up, which I figure is pretty normal. I did not even drink coffee while I was in college, which to me seems a little weird. There has always been a substantial reaction for me when I have caffeine that makes me a little jumpy. For instance, a cup of coffee in the middle of the afternoon will most definitely cause me to struggle to fall asleep. At the same time, I cannot imagine not having a cup of coffee when I wake up, I cannot remember the last time I did not have a cup within minutes of waking up. I guess I am a creature of habit, I just wish my habit was something else.  What’s weird (from people I have talked to) is that my taste in coffee is pretty simple. I would much rather have a cup of Chock full o’nuts then Starbucks and if there is hazelnut creamer, I’m super excited.

I believe deep down that running is both good and bad for the body. When I am able to go for a run, I feel much better after, but during, that is a different story. My obsession with running is pretty traditional, I do it for two reasons, to try and keep in shape and to also release some energy (usually from to much coffee). I like to think of running as a good form of recreation (much like skiing and golf) and a great way to spend some QT outside. Running also creates Endorphin’s and Endorphin’s are hormones that are released by the pituitary gland that have motivational benefits. Scientifically speaking, running is proven to be good for a person. What is bad is the pains that my body will typically go through from running. I have Achilles tendentious from running which always bothers me. My knees usually hurt while running, I get cramps in my stomach and after a race, my shins always hurt. But for some reason, I really enjoy running and can always make the time to do so.

Then their is chocolate…which growing up like most kids, I feel like I could not get enough chocolate. Morning, afternoon and night, I’m pretty confident that I could have chocolate at all times and it did not bother me in the least. I have a couple of distinctive memories when it comes to chocolate:

Memory 1- My dad did a survey (this is an inspection of goods that have been damaged while in transport from the manufacturer to the buyer) in which he had to inspect a shipment of Perugina Chocolate. I’m not sure how much chocolate he had to inspect or what exactly was the issue, but I do remember he brought home a 25 pound box which contained 1 pound blocks of mixed chocolate. That box sat in the basement, next to the dryer and every night after dinner, my dad would go to the basement and break off some chocolate for everybody to eat. I would sneak down to the basement and also break off pieces are sneak the broken pieces from time to time.

Memory 2- My freshman year in high school we had an old vending machine in the cafeteria. At some point, the machine was not working correctly and we soon found out that if you pushed the M and N buttons at the same time over and over again, the items in those two columns would empty out. I thinks it’s ironic that one of those items were actual bags of chocolate M & M’s.

Memory 3- Every halloween, my dad would take me trick-or-treating in the neighborhood. When we would get back home, he would look through all the candy I had collected. My dad would typically take my KitKat’s and my mom would take Mounds and Peppermint Patties. I cannot remember ever actually eating any of these candies until I was much older and realized that they were not dangerous, but just the chocolates my parents wanted.

Memory 4- I spent a lot of summers working at a summer camp in the Catskills. I had a lot of friends from England and they always brought over English chocolate. I don’t think I have to elaborate on how delicious English chocolate is, but it’s an important memory in the evolution of my desire to eat chocolate. See, I stopped eating American made chocolate because of the delicious taste of English chocolate. Now, I only eat chocolate that has been made in England. I was in Canada a few months back and I purchased two gigantic Cadbury Chocolate bars, I just finished the last bar the other night. My dad just came back from Greece and brought me a bar of Greek Chocolate, I’m skeptical but I will try it, because it’s probably better then American chocolate.

Over the last 15 years I have grown (and shrunk) and have done things which are both healthy and unhealthy for my body. All in the search to be a little happier. Yes, I wish I would drink a little less coffee, maybe switch to tea instead, but I just have not gotten their yet. If I could get my body into better shape I would be able to run more and farther, but I’m getting older so my body does not heal as quickly so I have to resign to the fact that running will eventually cause more bad then good. It would be nice if I could eat more chocolate, but for some reason I think my love for chocolate died with memory 4. As we grow our bodies change and that is something we all probably struggle to deal with. My parents are in their 70’s and they constantly talk about issues with their health. My brother is about to turn 40 and I think he will come to terms with that around July of this year. I’m verging on 36 and while I hate getting older, I really hate that I have to possibly change the way I live my life. But until then…it’s coffee, running and chocolate.

The Job….search

So, it has been a little over 7 months since I left my job and to be honest, I struggle to identify how 7 months went by so quickly. Sure, my unemployment was during the winter, which considering how miserable the weather was, it should have taken at least 8 months to complete the past 7 months. But, in truth, it was a super quick 7 months. To understand how I came to be unemployed, I need to give you a little back history of my last 5 years.

I left a sweet job in Breckenridge at the end of 2008 with the idea that I would move back to the east coast to be closer to my folks. See, I’m Greek and my family loves to use guilt as a motivator for just about anything in life. When people find out I am Greek, they usually ask one of two questions: “Does your family own a dinner?” and “Have you ever seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding?”. No (kind of) and of course I have.

I was lucky to find a job working at a YMCA in South NJ, I was really excited about landing this job, because I love working for the Y and I love working at a Camp. But, as quickly as I moved there, my first day was a little shocking. The CEO, the guy who brought me in was fired. See, I turned down a job in Hawaii to move back to the east coast and I think I should have seen my first day as a sign of the future. But, I’m stubborn (I’m Greek) and I decided that I would stick it out for at least two years.

Fast forward two years….I was promoted over everybody else in what I would describe as a Coup d’etat by the new CEO. The vast majority of people I worked with now worked for me and they did everything in their power to undermine me.

Fast forward to this past summer and they had succeeded and after 4 years of hassling my CEO, they were able to get him to eliminate my position. Here is how I know they got to him….When he brought me into his office, he told me that he needed to be more hands on, that he wanted to spend more time dealing with the staff that I once supervised. He also told me that he let me down as a supervisor, that he failed to teach me how to excel in my job and that he felt like he should have been more supportive. Now, I know when you let somebody go, you do not pour out your heart in the hopes of keeping any respect, but that is what he did. He also offered me a super generous severance package, paid me for time off that I had not earned, hired a consultant to work with me, allowed me to stay on the property for as long as I needed to and then asked me if I would stay and work out the rest of the week because he was going to be away. My only response to him was “Well, I’m not mad, I’m just disapointed, I’m not surprised by this at all and I think what we worked to build will not stand the test of time, but I wish you the best of luck and I am sorry that I let you down”. I’m Greek, we lay it on thick. What I was proud of not doing was freaking out, getting all worked up, yell, scream, cry or do anything to make it look like I was upset by his decision. Instead, I choose the moral high road and shook his hand and walked out. The entire conversation took about 10 minutes and I was the happiest that evening then I had been in the past 5 years.

This brings us here, I’m still unemployed and I’m still searching for a job. I, unlike what the US Government thinks, have been active in searching for a job while I have been on unemployment. Of course, this does go against the Republicans and their idea that I am not searching for a job while on unemployment, but I guess they know more about my plight for a job then I do. I was lucky to get health insurance through the ACA, but that was a pain in the back side to complete. I have a roof over my head and enough savings to keep me secure. But, I do lack a job and that does make me insecure to some extent.

I have been looking for a new job for over 12 months, if you count the jobs I applied for while I was still working. I have been successful in all of my jobs, but at the end of the day, the one thing I struggle with is interviews. See, I’m brutally honest to a fault, I tend to tell more truth then fiction when it comes to selling my strengths and weaknesses, but is that such a bad thing? Would you rather hire somebody who will lay it all out and have no secrets or would you want to have an applicant surprise you a couple of weeks after you hire them? I guess from the past couple of months, the later might be the road less traveled and one road I need to jump on.

Here is to bending the truth in hopes of landing a new job!

The Resume Man

So, here is something I really do not enjoy talking about publicly….looking for a new job. But before I share with you how and why I hate looking for a new job, I need to explain a little about myself.

As long as I can remember, I have always had a job, I worked for my church answering phones when I was 15, I sold Nordictracks at the mall when I was 17 and even at one point I sold cookies at Mrs. Fields (that was a delicious job). During the summer, I worked at a summer camp in the Catskills I went to as a little kid. Before I even made it to College, I had 4 jobs and I was on my way to making an impact in the world.

In college, I had three work-study jobs (Physical Plant, Mail Room and this job where I sat at the front door of my dorm signing people in) and I worked at Eastern Mountain Sports at the mall, which is one of two places I spent most of my money  (the beer store was the other). I also continued to work at camp each summer, the same camp I went to as a kid.

After college, I really wanted to write for a newspaper, so I applied to grad school at the Boulder University School of Journalism (which actually closed in 2011) but I did not get in. Looking back, I kind of wish I knew Journalism would be as pointless as studying Latin. Since I did not get into school, I ditched journalism and started to work for a cell phone company called; Voicestream (which was Omnipoint and now T-Mobil). Voicestream was a gold mine of money for me and at one point, I was making more money per week then my dad was. Cell phones in America were exploding and I handled about 200 accounts in NYC selling pre-paid minutes. I made money on commission as well as a base salary. I bought a new car, went out to fancy dinners, rented limo’s to go to the bar and once paid a $1000 bar tab at the bar with my college roommates, I was flushed.

I decided to take a two-week vacation to Europe prior to the summer of 2000 to visit some friends and after two weeks, I decided to quit my job and work full-time at my old summer camp. My parents thought I was crazy, but my friends understood. See, I somehow felt like working countless hours for little pay was okay, because it was a ‘fun’ job. So, I walked into my bosses office and quit.

That began my career working with youth full-time, I spent close to 16 years (most of them as a kid) at Frost Valley YMCA and still consider that to be my home away from home. I never loved one place as much as I did Frost Valley, but I knew at some point that if I wanted something more, I needed to get out and see the world. So, in 2005, fueled by a terrible break-up with my then girlfriend, I resigned and moved to Asheville, NC.

Asheville was a perfect location to transition to after living in near isolation. I had a solid group of friends in Asheville so there was support to help me adjust and deal with some serious heart-ache. Asheville was a lot of fun at first, but I needed to figure out a job. So, I hit the classified section and started to apply. My first interview was as a night-auditor at a hotel, which I turned down because I did not want to be working through the night when my friends were out having fun. I settled for a waiter job at a Greek owned steak house, which after two months, I quit because folks down south do not like to tip. I ended up with a job back at the Y in Asheville, working with children. I actually really enjoyed that job, but I had a pretty flighty boss, who spent more time showing off her impressive breasts to the men in charge, which allowed her plenty of chances to not show up for work. So, I started to look into a new job and settled in the idea of going to grad school for recreation. Okay, hold onto your hats for the ultimate random story about how I got into grad school.

During the summer of 2005, I spoke to a former board member at my old camp who was now the CEO of a summer camp in PA. After some conversations, he offered me a job, which would start at the end of the summer. So, I went into work, gave my notice and started to celebrate the fact that I got a good job back in the Northeast. Two weeks later, I arrived at my folks house to find out that the CEO had been fired and my job was no longer available, which was a little of a shock to me and has caused me to swear off that Y for the rest of my life. I was stuck, no job, just moved and had little to no idea of what to do next. I called my best friend, who was the Camp Director at my old camp and he told me to come up and volunteer for a little while and try to figure it out. So, I packed up my car and drove back to camp.

I was at camp for about two days when I started to hook-up with a girl that I had hired prior to leaving for Asheville. I guess during the course of hooking up, I mentioned what had happened to me and she said “You should call the dean at George Williams, maybe you can go to grad school”. It was actually a great idea, so the next day I called the dean and after about 30 minutes, she told me that class was starting on Monday and I should get out to Wisconsin ASAP. I was still not sold on the idea, so I did what any smart and rational person would be….I flipped a coin and ended up going to grad school. Future education was settled on one flip of a coin…crazy. I called my parents, who loved the idea and told my friends who just laughed. I packed up my car and headed out to Williams Bay, WI, I showed up the night before class started and remember sitting in my hotel room late at night watching footage of Hurricane Katrina on CNN. The next day, I was in class getting my masters.

Going to grad school was a pretty amazing part of my life, I was able to learn, work and travel a lot more than at any point of my life. I was not the best student in college, but in grad school, I did pretty well. I had three jobs while I was in grad school and I volunteered with two organizations. I worked as a challenge course technician, I sold gourmet wine and foods to tourists and I interned at a summer camp in Colorado. I had been to Colorado one time before years ago and fell in love, I remember saying to my friend that I was going to come back one day and work, which I did in 2006, but only for a couple of months. I almost ended up working in the Florida Keys, but the idea of working in the Rockies was to exciting.

After that summer, I was again faced with the idea of looking for a new job. I sat at my folks house, sending out applications, not hearing anything but occasionally I had an interview. In October 2006, I got a job in Kingsport, TN, just outside of Johnson City which I took and moved down into my ex-girlfriends apartment. I was instantly doubting that decision to take that job, because it was a lot of nothing. My boss (who sprayed his hair on every morning) never really asked me to do anything, I just sat around. It was the first time in my life when I was truly sad. BUT……I saw a posting for a job in Breckenridge CO and I applied. After a phone interview, I got a phone call from my future boss and she told me to buy a ticket and come on out. I was super excited and before I even told my current boss, I was booking a flight out to Denver. I went in the next day and told my boss that I had a family emergency and needed to go home for a couple of days, which since I was in the south, he just said okay.

I flew out to Denver and drove out to Breckenridge where I was greeted by a friend from Grad School. After two beers I was wasted and went to bed, I woke up, interviewed and left. On my drive to Granby to visit my old camp, I got a message on my phone, Breckenridge had called and offered me a job, within 2 hours of leaving I had my dream job in a dream location, I called back and accepted, without even talking salary. A few days later I quit my job in TN and packed up my life and drove to Breckenridge. I was there for two years and believe I did a good job and making a difference, but I grew tired of it and eventually left my job to move back to NJ.

My parents and friends were thrilled to have me back in NJ, but I was again faced with the idea of having to apply for jobs. So, I got back on the computer and applied for any job I could find. Now, I think everything happens for a reason and here is my supporting evidence to prove this point.

I applied for a job at a YMCA in south Jersey and a YMCA in Hawaii. On the same day, I was offered jobs at both places, which proved to be an extremely hard decision in my head. I eventually went to the Y in NJ, but after a few months, I found out that my boss in NJ had actually convinced me to take the job with him, because he was moving to Hawaii to take the job that was originally offered to me. After he left we got a new CEO and I was promoted to the Senior Program Director, which I held for close to 4 years. I do not want to talk about the hell I went through there, but eventually, for some reason, my boss decided he needed to be more hands on and he eliminated my position. I was again without a job.

So, it has been 5 months since I have last worked and I have actually been more happy than at any point in the last 5 years. I live with my folks (who love having me home), spend each week hanging out with my best-friend and his two twin girls (who I love to death), I’m writing a book, and I have been on countless road trips all over the country. I’m thinking about moving to Tampa and just starting over and I am thinking about my next job.

Well, that is me and now for the point of this blog. I actually hate applying for jobs, it’s frustrating, exhausting, depressing….it’s a bad roller coaster of emotion. I have applied to about 30 jobs which I would have seriously considered taking. I have had 8 interviews and 8 rejections, which actually means that 30 people have told me no, we are going with somebody else. Which I understand, but it still frustrates me and makes me a little sad, but I can deal with that. What drives me nuts is the 22 people who have decided to not even give me a call, write, email to say no thanks. I mean, I turned around a struggling organization in less than 4 years, made tremendous revenue gains, grew attendance and won awards for my hard work. All I ask for is a letter or a chance. When I was hiring staff, I always made it a point to confirm applications, call to say no thanks, talk with people who took the time to apply, is that asking too much?

I know there is a job out there for me, but each week that passes, I get more frustrated. My unemployment is about to end and I am faced with the idea of having to pack up and move someplace else and ditch everything I have ever worked to achieve. I enjoy working with kids and families, but for some reason I’m not given the opportunity to do so. If anything, I just wish to know what I am doing wrong so that I can improve…..or just a letter saying ‘no thanks’.

My Resume

Pizza and Me

I really love pizza, I mean, most people say they love pizza, but I like to think I really love pizza. See, I am one of the lucky millions of people who happen to live in the New Jersey Metro area, which in my opinion has some of the best pizza shops in the world. I can recount pizza eating experiences better than I can recount milestones in my life, but maybe the two go hand in hand and my milestones in life happen to revolve around eating pizza.

See, the other week I was in Des Moines, Iowa visiting a friend of mine. She really wanted to take me out to eat pizza at a restaurant called; Fong’s Pizza (www.fongspizza.com). Fong’s Pizza is Asian-inspired pizzas, serving Crab Rangoon, Thai Chicken, Fongolian Beef & Kung Pao Chicken pizza, which to an east-coaster who lives in Manhattan might find normal, but to a kid who grew up in New Jersey, just a little crazy. After a lot of arguing about Asian pizza, we decided to go, mostly so I could say how terrible the pizza was, but also to check out my curiosity, I would never turn down a pizza. Our first attempt proved fruitless, because we would have to wait 45 minutes to sit down, I felt like the pizza gods saved me. After a night hitting up some local bars, we went back for what I believe is a typical part of drinking beers, to get a slice. But, I was way to full, so I only had a bite of my friends slice, which happened to be regular cheese (my favorite). The bite was anything but normal, the crust was doughy and the sauce was a little to overwhelming, I’m glad we had hamburgers for dinner that night.

See, I believe in the idea of less is more, give me a slice of cheese pizza any day and I am pretty happy. The boundaries of my experimentation with pizza usually ends with pepperoni and I can be persuaded to have a few fresh veggies if the mood is right. But, I really love nothing more than a regular slice of pizza loaded with red pepper flakes.

When I was just a little kid, I lived in Elmwood Park, NJ, which is home to Pizza Town USA (so amazing they do not need a web site). Opened in 1958 on East bound Rt. 46 (right off the Parkway), Pizza Town USA, only the Star Tavern (http://www.startavern.net) comes in at a 2nd best, is pretty much the pinnacle and the bar I use to gauge my pizza eating experiences. I spent the first 4 years of my life eating this pizza on Friday nights, to young to understand how amazing the pizza was, but just being a kid enjoying something special.

When our family moved to South Orange, NJ, we were introduced to The Reservoir (www.soreservoir.com) which is also delicious and then the Roman Gourmet (www.romangourmetmenu.com) in Maplewood. The Roman Gourmet would be host to countless Friday night dinners from the age of 5-18. There are two phone numbers I still remember, my parents and the Roman Gourmet, which says a lot by today’s standards.

Back to pizza, the pizza eating experience for me is not as much in the taste of the crust, but in the taste of the sauce. I do love a good, slightly burnt crust, but I love the fiery taste of a sauce to get my taste buds moving, which is why I like crushed red peppers and the cheese needs to be used sparingly.

After college, I moved away from the NJ Metro area and started to have some less than stellar experiences with pizza. There was Brio’s in Phonecia (www.brios.net) which is a classic wood burned pizza, Winchell’s in Shokan which is large with a dry crust and little cheese and a place called Nina’s in Lock Sheldrake (which is no longer there). All the pizza I ate in the Catskills was good, but it was more of a New York style of pizza, big crust, which is a little thicker then the pizza you should be eating in NJ.

My worst pizza experiences came at the hand of my expansion of life, which took me to Asheville, Williams Bay, Madison, Granby, Johnson City, Breckenridge and Medford. I can remember pizza places in each town, but do my best to not. Only Breckenridge had pizza that could hold up to the level I had come to expect, The Northside (northsidepizzabreckenridge.com) in Breckenridge because the owners actually seemed to care about what they made and served and La Bella’s (www.labellapizzamedford.com) because Dominic grew up in Brooklyn and his pizza was made with a sweet basil sauce to die for.

There should be something to be said about my life with pizza, when I left the east coast I was close to 300 pounds and 10 years later, when I moved back to NJ, I was 220 pounds. Pizza had been replaced in my diet because it just did not seem like something I could fall back on when I was too lazy to cook or to drunk to care. Each time I came back to NJ over the past 10 years, I would always head to Pizza Town USA and the Star Tavern. My parents would overnight pizza to me when I was living in Wisconsin and Colorado and I would hoard it from my roommate, who grew up outside of Boston and said he felt my pain (although I had never eaten Boston pizza).

I’m the guy who will argue about the idea of being a pizza purist every time I’m someplace new and hear the phrase “I know this amazing pizza place” because I know it will not hold up to my favorites. We should get the bacon wrapped pasta pizza or the garbage pizza…what a waste. I wish for a moment that we could transport ourselves to NJ just so I could show them how off they are.

This summer I took a group of Spanish summer campers to enjoy a day sight-seeing in NYC. They all wanted to try some real pizza, instead of finding some pizza in NYC, I drove them to Pizza Town USA because I could not let them leave the country without trying the best…they all loved it and even took pictures with the owners.

So, pizza, its amazing, it’s simple, it’s delicious and it’s pretty much a time-tested food that most people think is a staple of the American diet. I see it served well anytime of the day, sometimes better cold and sometimes folded (a whole different story). But, I will still argue till the day that I die that the best pizza is in NJ…on Route 46 in Elmwood Park NJ.

Clamenza's Pizza and a Fat Tire Beer
Clamenza’s Pizza and a Fat Tire Beer

Travel America!

Well, I have spent the past 4 weeks driving around the Norther States of America, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa and even a stop in Ontario…which is in Canada. The most impressive parts of spending this time out on the road is the fact that I have no real sense of where would be a great new place to visit. I have been to almost every state in the Lower 48, which has been a goal of mine since I was younger….which was to visit all the lower 48 states.

See, I have worked in a couple of states over the course of my life; NJ, NY, PA, TN, NC, WI and CO and that has been a pretty interesting experience. When I was 25 years old, I figured I had everything that I wanted and needed, I had my dream job, two dogs, my dream car and my dream girlfriend. I lived and worked in one of the most amazing places in the world and I was pretty happy with my life. But, like all good things seem to do, they start to fall apart. It would be pretty easy to say I had no idea that my girlfriend, who I was planning on proposing to and even more was planning on quitting my job to move someplace new with was sleeping with a good friend and a co-worker. You know, sometimes you are so blind to what is actually going on that when it does fall apart you just feel lost. Well…long story short, she did dump me, I moved, I returned an engagement ring (which was really awkward) and I have been bouncing around both professionally and personally for over 10 years.

See, one thing that this girl…let’s call her Amy, this one thing that she would harp on me for was not being adventurous enough. Amy always seemed to want to do more and see more, which for me, was okay, but I was happy with my job and wanted to see things in small doses. Amy was the one who made me move, buy a dog, and eventually quit my job and move and for the longest time, I hated her for it all. Now don’t get me wrong, I still hate her, more than is probably healthy and if I saw a shrink, he/she would tell me to let go, but something about Amy will always make me frustrated and angry. So, she ended our relationship, continued to sleep with my friend and spread some pretty nasty rumors, which was her idea of getting back at me for telling people that she was cheating on me…pretty low you think?

So, I hit the road and tried to live out my life to the best that I could. I did things that I felt would prove to Amy that she should have stayed with me. I traveled, I ate carrots, I went to grad school, I moved to Colorado, most of the things I did was to prove her wrong. I am not sure if I ever found anything from this display of emotions, but I do know that I did have a good time. There were high’s and low’s, drunk nights and sleepless nights. There were nights when I would question everything only to wake up disappointed that I was allowing her to get into my head. Months turned to years and my frustration slowly went away, but my ability to maintain a lasting relationship never got any traction.

The past couple of weeks were more than an opportunity to just get out and visit friends, it was a chance to just get some clarity. Sure, I have had a great time playing with friends, but I have had a better time at trying to figure out what’s next…which is really the point of this whole trip.

I cannot say I am any closer to figuring it out, but I can say that I have had a good start at getting there. The one thing that I do wish, I wish my friends all lived someplace warmer, but at least the things I have seen have been pretty funny.

While in Des Moines, Iowa, we came across this lifesize box cut-out.
While in Des Moines, Iowa, we came across this lifesize box cut-out.

Hockeytown, USA

I like to consider myself a pretty big hockey fan, but nothing like my friend Toby. Yesterday, I stayed home to watch the women’s gold medal hockey game, which was truly an amazing game. By the third period, I was already pacing back and forth in the living room. All though the US team lost, my hat went off to the Team Canada. What makes this story better was the fact that I had to wait for Toby to get home from work so he could watch the game. I was required to show little to no emotion because I did not want to give off any hints towards the outcome.

When I was around 12 years old, my path crossed the path of the NJ Devils for the first…but not last time. Years ago, when the Devils played at the Brendan Byrne Arena (Now the Izod Center or something like that) they practiced in West Orange at the Turtle Back Arena, which happened to be about 2 minutes away from my folks house. Now, I was not a skater, I just could not get it done, but for one reason or another my parents decided to take me to an open practice. Looking back on the situation, it was a pretty good idea considering that I had a giant cast on my leg from a skiing accident the week prior. There was only a couple of memories that I had from that day and I really wish I still had that cast, even a picture of it would have been amazing…here is why. As the practice ended, a handful or Devils came over and sat down at this long table. We had been given posters to sign so we all lined up waiting to get our autographs. I was on crutches, so I had my dad standing next to me, helping me along. When I got to the first player, I remember him asking me what had happened, I was somewhat star struck, so I believe my dad told him. I do not know who made the suggestion, but the next thing I knew, I was sitting on this long table and players were taking their time signing my cast! I mean, there is cool and then there is really cool, most kids get their friends to sign their cast, I had some of the Devils sign my cast. It would have been amazing to know who signed my cast, with such players like; Brendan Shanahan, Kirk MullerKen Daneyko and Claude Lemieux possibly there on that day!

My dad is not a hockey fan, sure he will watch it because its super fun to watch, but I doubt he gets how it actually works. Years ago, my dad was working for a company called Norton Lilly International, which was a shipping company that was located in North Jersey. The owner of was also the owner of the NJ Devils, John McMullen and he invited my dad to watch the Devils play one night. Of course like any good employee, he went, again not really knowing much about the sport. From the stories that I have been told over the years, my dad said it was a pretty amazing night. After arriving at the players entrance, my dad was escorted to Mr. McMullen’s private office, where the walls were adorned with pictures of players from years past. After his tour of the office, they went to a private dinning room, which was nicer then a 4-star restaurant. As they ate dinner, the group of 6 guys all talked about hockey and occasionally boats, which my dad said was interesting, but only when they talked about boats. When I asked my dad recently about this story, I asked him if he actually watched any hockey, which he still is unsure of, but he does remember walking up a stair case in the back of the dinning room that lead up to another room, which did look out on the ice. It’s funny to think about, but after such a great evening, he probably did not even see the game……oh wait! The funniest part of the story. So, my dad decided to leave early, since again, hockey was not his thing. Dad was getting ready to put on his jacket when he said at that very moment he heard “Captain Elliott” in the distance. As he put his arm into the first sleeve, he immediately noticed that the jacket was way to small. Again, he heard “Captain Elliott” and as he turned to see who it was calling his name, he reached into the jacket pocket to feel for his wallet, which was not actually his wallet because it was not his jacket. Soon, he was standing toe to toe with a man half his size in height. Imagine the scene, my dad standing toe to toe with Yankee great and Hall of Fame member Yogi Berra. “Captain Elliott, you seem to have taken my jacket by accident, I think this is a better fit” Berra said to my dad as he held up my dad’s jacket! My dad could only laugh and I am sure he said something funny and whimsical to Yogi, but dad tells me that Yogi was not laughing.

My last funny story, which will help put into perspective my reaction to meeting somebody famous into perspective is better told from my friend Matt & Sue, but I will do my best to re-tell it here. I think the year was 2003 and a group of us went to a bar in West Orange NJ. See, there was a lot of current Devils that lived in the West Orange area and I had always heard stories about when they would show up at a bar to have a couple of drinks. My friend Carolyn was at a bar in West Orange when a couple of players walked in holding the Stanley Cup. So, we were all sitting at one of the tables in the bar, drinking beers and having fun, when I looked over my shoulder and noticed a group of pretty big guys sitting behind us laughing and being pretty loud. I made a full swing in my seat and saw sitting in front of me Martin Broduer, Jiri Bicek, Patrick Elias and Brian Gionta! I mean…the Devils won the Stanley Cup that season…so I was sitting in front of some greats. So, this was a time before cell phones were popular, so I had no camera to take any pictures. I did the next best thing, I got into my car and drove to my parents house to get a camera. About 30 minutes later, I came back, to the laughter of my friends. I was super nervous, I just made the 30 minute drive to get a camera, but I was worried about bothering these players. Matt, who is not shy at all, walked up to the players and said hello and I followed. I remember there was a lot of hand shakes and me probably saying “It’so amazing to meet you all” I know I told the cast story, but I am pretty sure they did not really care too much. Matt hit it off really quickly and I think he was actually joking with Elias and Bicek, who being from Europe, all shared a love for soccer. At one point, we all looked up to see the highlights from the Devils/Rangers game that was played earlier that evening. I think the Devils won that night but Broduer game up some easy goal, because they were all laughing at him. Towards the end of our hanging out with the players, I asked them if we could get a picture with them, which they said yes to. Matt took the picture and we said thanks and good-by. A couple of days later, I developed the pictures….which turned out to dark and the flash hit the mirror in the background enough to wash us all out. Proof of that night would be only in our minds, but it was a pretty amazing story that we tell often.

So, I spent last night trying not to give away any emotions towards the US/Canada hockey game. Being forced to re-live such a disappointment was pretty hard, especially because Toby was so excited when the US scored twice. But as it went, the US lost in overtime, it was a tough game to watch again. I just hope the men’s team does better and wins…oh yeah, I have to wait till tonight to watch the game, it’s going to be a long day of no internet.

The Russian Bear

The Ice Road

This past weekend, I had a somewhat unique experience with a few of my friends on Lake Superior in Norther Wisconsin. It was actually a three-part unique experience, but it was one that I really found myself questioning the practicality of life.

The first experience was at the Apostle Islands National Park, where for the first time since 2009, folks had the opportunity to walk out on Lake Superior to visit the well-known Ice Caves. Now, I have seen pictures of ice caves before, but pictures only tell a small part of the story. Actually being able to get out and walk through some of these caves was one of the more unique experiences I have had the opportunity to partake in. Lake Superior, as we all know, is the largest fresh water lake in the world and the third largest fresh water lake by volume in the world….it’s pretty big. It is 350 miles long and 160 miles wide with a surface area of 31,700 square miles. If you are not able to picture this or do not wish to look at google maps for perspective, New Jersey (my home state) is 70 miles wide and 170 miles long with a surface area 8,721 square miles. You could literally fit three New Jersey’s in Lake Superior and have room for Delaware (but I’m not sure why you would want to).

As a group, we arrived early enough to avoid the possible three-mile walk (due to popularity and lack of parking) and only had to make the usual 1 mile walk out to see the ice caves. What impressed me the most on this walk was the friendliness of the folks I crossed path’s with. Considering it was around 9:30 am, some folks probably had arrived at the crack of dawn to see the caves. The walk out was nice, it was cold but there was little wind blowing in our faces. The sun had not come out from behind the clouds, but you could get the sense that it would be around later in the afternoon, which we all appreciated because it was pretty cold out.

The first set of caves were small but you instantly got an appreciation for what made them special. The frozen shore line was littered with over sized chunks of ice that had accumulated from the wind and will remain there until the weather warms up. The 20 foot pieces of ice hanging from the high walls looked both dangerous and majestic. As we continued to make our way along the shore line, we were greeted with ‘wow’s’ and ‘ooh’s’. Each turn along the shore had us more impressed my mother nature then the previous turn. My friend Toby was probably the most excited about seeing these ice caves, considering he woke up early and had the energy of a 10 week old puppy. As we found small holes leading into some of the caves, Toby quickly threw off his backpack and without thinking, threw himself on the ice and into the tight hole leading in. From the outside, I could only hear his true excitement and bewilderment to what he was seeing. These ice caves were amazing and I was really excited to have the chance to travel from NJ to see them, because I doubt I will ever see them again.

The Ice Road between Bayfield and Madeline Islands was what really got me excited. As a huge fan of Ice Road Truckers, the moment our 2014 Subaru made contact with the road, everybody in the car got excited. Madeline Island, which is only accessible by ferry in warmer weather, relies on the ice road and a cool wind sled in the winter to get locals and tourists back and forth. The road, which is an extension of Highway H is marked with old Christmas trees and about 4 lanes wide. In the warmer weather, it takes about 30 minutes to cross on the Madeline Ferry and in the winter, I think it took us a little longer, mostly because we kept yelling out “Ice Road…Ice Road”.

Again, I had never been on Madeline Island, but my friends Jen & Toby had been there, but only with their bikes. So once we got off the ice road, it was funny to hear Jen say “so, I have never driven on this island, so I have no idea where town is”. We quickly identified the snowmobile signs as out best bet and made out way to “downtown”. Downtown was as small as it gets, there was a Chamber of Commerce building (which was run by a super nice lady whose husband was from Essex Fells, NJ…represent!), a candy store which was selling free candy, a store, a gas pump, and a small restaurant. Our group went to The Beach Club, which was hopping with tourists all watching Olympic Hockey and looking out onto the frozen lake. As we made out way to the bar, I quickly noticed 4 brown paper bags all marked; “Mystery Shot, $1″, so Toby and I decided that when on Madeline Island, do what they do. My shot was a mix of sweet and hot, but it did the trick and was followed with an amazing bourbon old-fashion. I seem to drink a lot of these when I am in Wisconsin, but I have to be sure to say bourbon, because I hate brandy.

The last part of our weekend was heading to Ashland, Wisconsin to participate in the Book across the Bay snowshoe/X-country 10K race. Now, I have done races before of all distances and design, but this would take the cake. The BATB was started in 1996 by a group of folks looking to add a little excitement to living in northern WI. It was part get out and have fun and part fundraiser. This year, BATB had over 4,000 participants which amounts to a little over $120,000 in race revenue, not bad for a race which involves crossing a frozen lake in sub-zero temperatures.

I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous about this idea and made it known “this is one of the stupidest things I have ever done” was said every couple of minutes. But, I was with good company and had good beverages. We arrived via shuttle from Washburn to the starting line and were immediately surrounded by thousands of people all yelling and screaming. In the distance, there was a huge bonfire, a big-top tent and lots of port-o-johns. Our group got split up pretty quickly, skiers and walkers, I again, was with the walkers. I do not remember the race officially starting, but I did remember the wave of people moving towards the middle of the lake. The 10K walk was lined with lights, which were made from 5-gallon pickle buckets, which was a pretty cool effect to see. The hike, was a mix of being cold and laughing. After about 2K’s, I decided that the walk was too hard to do with snowshoes and I decided to take them off and walk with just my sneakers, which was 10 times easier on my feet, with the exception of the occasional falling through the snow pack.

I believe around 3K, we came up to our first bonfire, yes, there were bonfires on the lake to rest and warm up. The first bonfire was kind of sad, but since I will still really warm, I did not want to spend too much time standing around. So after a few pulls of whiskey, we continued our walk. I was amazed by the volume of people and the environment I had put myself in. The walk along the lights with the backdrop of an electric factory and dying sun was truly amazing. The laughter and jokes made the cold seem a little less and the excitement of doing something so stupid kept us moving.

But, like all good races, you have those who are serious and those who just want to have a good time. As we made our way to the 4K mark, we were greeted by another fire, which was much bigger. Since I had not eaten, I headed to the refreshment stand which was filled with frozen dixie cups and animal crackers. I proceeded to down a couple of cups of water and fill my pockets with animal crackers, which started to make the pain in my stomach die down. The fire was actually really needed, as the ice on my beard was starting to become annoying, I knelt closely and instantly felt the ice melt. I think it was around this point that our group split again, those who just wanted to finish and those who wanted to just have a good time. Our group was left with 4 people, Brandon, Amy, Toby and myself, who quickly found out that in addition to animal crackers, this rest-stop had whiskey and they were very happy to share. So after a few shots of courage, we made our way back out on the trail.

5K was even better for two reasons, there was a warming tent and they were handing out Oreos, which I quickly loaded up on. Once inside the tent, I felt it was time to enjoy a nice beer, which had yet frozen and tasted like the best beer in the world, all be it a Hamm’s.

By the time we hit 6K I felt my cell phone ring, which was weird to think about, mostly because we were in the middle of this frozen bay on a frozen lake. Jen, who had skied wanted to know where we were on the course. At this point, my group was drunk and just enjoying being together and having fun, I seemed to be the only person still hanging onto reality and the time, which was about 9pm, three hours after we started. I did my best to text back, but my fingers were instantly cold from being exposed to the elements. I told Jen were we were and that I would do my best to hurry the group to the finish line. But, what I quickly found out was the 6K was a beach rest-stop, all decorated with palm trees. This was my new favorite stop, because there was loud music (the Blues Brothers soundtrack) and free Fat Tire. So, I decided to ignore the text and enjoyed an extremely cold beer and danced with the others. After about 10 minutes, we noticed lights on the course, which we quickly found out was the course marshall hurrying people along. So, without haste, we grabbed our stuff and started back on the course.

7K was pretty much all shut down (it was late) and 8K had a fire-breathing dragon. 9K welcomed us to Minnesota and handed out tons of granola bars, lip-balm and water, which even though I refused, I did fill up on. Considering the only thing I had eaten was animal crackers and Oreos, I was feeling fine but was super hungry.

We were about 1K away when we could really start to see the empty finish line and the double big-top tent. The level of excitement from our group of merry misfits was pretty high and we started to talk about how we would finish the race. I really only cared about getting warm at this point, but the other wanted something funny, so about 100 yards away, we started to fun and scream. I have crossed finish line dozens of times before, but never one with nobody around. There was two volunteers who looked to be somewhat amused by us, but probably just happy they would be heading inside soon. I tried to video the event, but my phone was upside down, it’s still really funny but I missed the pile up that happened a few feet past the finish line. Ending time….3 hours and 54 minutes, 5th from the end or 3,995 place.

The night ended when we heading into this massive tent, which was heated and covered with straw. There was still at least 500 people around and warm chili and beer. The band was in the distance playing and after a bowl of chili, a shot of ice hole (bad peppermint schnapps) and a beer, I was feeling back to my normal self. Most of the group went off to dance, but I stuck around with Jen and Toby. We decided to watch our gear, but we still had a good time dancing in the back, occasionally dancing with random folks who were standing near us.

Again, I still think this was one of the dumbest things I have ever done but it was a chance to do and see some things that might not be seen for years to come. Ice Caves, Ice Roads and tropical oasis on a frozen Lake Superior.