Sunday, April 6, 2014

In The Trenches At Mariano's

First, I want to let you know that your staff is wonderful. Your Yelp reviews ring true on a continuum of "just-fine-average", mostly above average, and exemplary about your service, quality, and value. Cakes and pastry are the seduction of my trips, for which I thank you.

The giant wart on your store though, echoing subliminally behind the words of the Yelp reviewers, are your own customers. Whatever store design, parking lot design, inside workflow and layout you chose - absolutely ensures that not only have you attracted the city's most price-conscious, yet spoiled demographic; but they're absolutely pissed from the minute they pull off Western and go to park, proceed to barrel through your store with no excuses, only to forget why they tore into the battle in the first place, stopping halfway through in aimless wreckage near the back of the store, all the while eating free $18.99/lb cheese cube samples. Perhaps this is why they came to begin with.

It's a bad crowd.
A real bad crowd.

I've had better crowd experiences at State Fairs. Think outdoor festivals with drunk 38 Special fans, when the concessions ran low on beer. No roughneck would reach over me for the best melon, bump my shoulder for a colorful Easter pastry. Mariano's, you might have temporarily won the marketing contest out here in Chicago groceryland, but you now have a problem on your hands. Congratulations on tapping into the market with generally high expectations for service, problems with paying full price for those expectations, and the constant temptation to use their BMWs as weapons in parking lots. You differentiate and win with service.  But don't forget that part of the service experience is the presence of all guests at once in the store. Those are the people who really create the environment, your kind staff could only double-team them if you raised your prices,  those base meanies who make me turn around and go back to Whole Foods, or miss ol' Fox and Obel, oh missing it - and gladly choosing to pay double for the real experience of some old fashioned -Please and Thank You-.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Streamers and Hats

Have you ever given advice to someone then immediately known you were standing in some double-mirror, really speaking to yourself?

I was on a project close call with a client last week when it happened. The project was for the Arts & Business Council of Chicago, where I'm a volunteer business consultant for arts organizations. For the better part of 7 months we've worked on a marketing and communications plan for an international academic journal, focused on the print arts. The staff consists of sharp alums and faculty at a well-respected art school. It’s been one of the best Mar/Com projects I’ve ever worked on, and I’m grateful to have had the experience of helping a great publication on its path to growth.

But I didn’t celebrate – I never do.

They had to remind me we should pop some champagne. Yet to me it’s so endless - I’ve been involved in strategic communications so long, I feel as if I live 18 months into the future at all times. I’m so used to typing the year '2014'  that '2013' is a past number. It already seems so foreign and far away.

2015 feels comfortable already. 2016 feels like we could make a few mistakes (and we will) that could still be corrected by then. I'm still not sure how to fit in a baby on the Outlook calendar. Time is ticking on and life is so incredibly beautiful and short.

I have a secret. For 10 years I've carried a Moleskine notebook with me, with a month and year written in the top margin of each page. It spans out hundreds of months ahead. In some ways, I think far more than 18 months ahead.

I’m impatient. Unbelievably impatient; the kind of temperament that is both the gift and curse. The minute I arrive I’m considering the next mapped locale, the finer details of the journey there, the next mile marker and then the next subsequent arrival.

So driven, so focused on the next step. An ascension on our way to perfection.

Which means, as an aside, that my new hour-long commute is a colossal waste of my time. But it's currently the cost I’m paying to work with great people at a company I enjoy. The reverse commute at 5 PM from the Edens spur down I-94 and into the city is a soul-crushing experience of "waiting." There is no movement to the next destination; it’s simply waiting with an engine that’s used to kicking fast in a slow, idle crawl. For people who’ve never had supercommutes, it’s hard to explain it’s quite literally bumper-to-bumper for miles upon miles. At some point, NPR just begins to repeat stories and you’ll recite them later to your boyfriend word-for-word, and he never needs to read the news again. 

I'm edgy. It's dangerous. I'm into several 24-hour lecture series from The Great Courses and the narrative pace of professors keeps me from illegally riding the shoulder into sweet freedom.

Back to the project sign-off call. We (the business team and the arts team) – have this wonderful 40-page plan. We're already seeing results from the marketing plan! We’ll celebrate! But I kept thinking what’s next for them as they implement a story that will be years in the making, a nonprofit pillar in an academic world and industry, and the years – 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 – will tick on.

My head is a swirl matrix on matrix, the mathematics of time and space - calendars layered on calendars - as I attempt to organize the chaos of their future (and mine) into transformation. And before I know it, I want to give my sage advice to the team - but that advice is really for me. That when you work in marketing and communications, it’s easy to follow the plan and become discouraged in the midst; it’s really never done, because it’s one long conversation with the outside world, year after year, technology will change – tactics will change – you’ll rebrand and change – but the conversation marches on (it’s never done, until far into the future when the calendars cease and we are silent).

Maybe the silence of my thoughts as I stare at the dashboard. Maybe we forget to celebrate? Maybe we’ve done so much already.

Maybe this was the huge success we wished for all along.

Perhaps we rest now, with festive hats and knowing we won this one. I’ll bring the streamers and I suggest a Brut. This one is ours, and maybe I should take your offer up - yes, then. I will join you.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Adventures in DIY Indoor Container Gardening, or Why Purdue Gives Degrees in Agriculture

Since Monsanto became the target of global disdain - I, like other brave Americans generations before me—these sharecroppers and rugged ranchers—have started growing my own food. In my dining room. I call it the farm.

The farm.
I was inspired by the Manhattanite, open-source design for Windowfarms, as well as these indoor kitchen appliances than grow under counters and next to refrigerators like The Urban Cultivator. Then there is the additional inspiration from a Chicago-area company called FarmedHere, the largest commercial indoor vertical farm in the U.S.  

I thought "I could do this." But the realization came quickly that agribusiness grew into its current form because growing things requires a lot of energy and inputs—water, sun, nutrients, space— bodily effort generally saved for the gym. The whole thing quickly becomes uneconomical at the micro level.

But regardless, this is v.2 2013 container gardening—and maybe one day I will go off to the suburbs with my own garden patch out back.  But for now, my city window is my frontier. Here are my key learnings as a completely unskilled yuppie urban farmer. 

Tip #1 – You will spend far more money than you expected.

The reason agribusiness and the futures markets exist is because corporate and market efficiencies have been applied to farm land in order to produce the most amount of food possible for the lowest prices. This means growing your own food will not be cheap. You are not an agricultural corporation. Nor an agriculture scientist. I seem to have purchased many organic seeds and fine soils, and the receipts add up. However, they haven’t been marinated in Round Up, and that’s the general benefit to me. Hopefully I will become smarter; currently I’m investing about $3 per cherry tomato, making this the worst financial investment I ever made.  

Tip #2 – You probably need a grow light to back up the sun, which is OK. And it’s okay to buy one.

My Container Garden 2012 failed because of this. I’m happy with the speed at which the containers are growing this year after buying a light. The drawback is the worry that someone is mining my Amazon purchase data, or peering in my window about ready to call the cops to bust what they think could be a pot farm. But they are clearly tomatoes and peppers. I personally bought this light that was rather inexpensive, with an adjustable height and good coverage.  I really like it.  

Why is the one plant so big?
Tip #3 – The photos they run in Apartment Therapy of indoor container farms are not real.

I genuinely want some of these faux-farmers to show me a time-lapse where the end result is a successful group of crops. Note the perfect, uniform height of the plants. Now compare them to mine, which have been growing a month or two. I have no clue why one of my tomato plants decided it wants to be 5 feet tall, while the others are being pokey about the whole thing.  The bottom line is to reject directions on container farming from an interior design perspective. You’re not going to control these things. Talk to your friend who grew up on a farm and went to Purdue.

Tip #4 – Your containers are never big enough. Buy the big ones.

Continuing to challenge the home design mags, my plants immediately outgrew their containers. Even the seeds that were designed specifically for container gardening.  In my research, I ran across this container gardening blog that I really enjoyed but when you size-up the photos of plants growing in small bottles, you can see that A) clearly the plants want the heck out of those containers and B) that’s not enough food for even one urban dinner party. 
Tip #5 – No plastic containers.

Everything I planted in terra cotta grew like they were getting special after-school-tutors. Everything in plastic looks nice, but is growing very, very slowly. Given that the pots are likely made overseas with whoever knows what, go clay or natural wood.

Tip #6 – You would think bugs wouldn’t be a problem indoors, but they are. 

I don’t know, they either came in with the organic soil, or snuck in with a tomato seedling. But there were bugs, and lots of them—in my dining room and then all over the house. I used cider vinegar in small containers to attract and render them gone. Also, the cats obviously have a primal impulse to earn their keep by protecting crops. It took 5-6 days, but then they were gone. 

So, these are the core basics I’ve learned so far, as a city dweller in a flat. This is before soil quality and plant types - and all the things that truly make plants grow. There is so much to learn, hence farming is a science. As the summer continues forth, I’ll update with the progress of my investment. So far, here are minor fruits of my labor—and that’s enough to keep me moving forward with hope. 

Baby tomatoes.

JalapeƱo peppers.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Answering to Your Inner 7 Year-Old

I’ve been lucky to know amazing people.

People who can see a dilapidated Victorian crumbling on the South Side of Chicago, and restore every square inch with vision and mastery. Talents that follow them like gold dust through the world. Friends whose stories make you feel as if you’ve been given the lock combination to an armored safe of emotion, not quite discovered in human consciousness yet. And you are the first to find it.

I’ve known people who produce elaborate spectacles like movies, film festivals and art galleries. People who have built intelligence and logic that makes millions of data points move perfectly in unison across the world. Have you ever seen someone take $25,000 and turn it into $1 million, in a way no one else has thought to do it before? That person is singular and precious; their eyes sparkle over a cup of coffee while they tell you their story.

I know so many people percolating with talent, their experiences spanning across a generation or two. Now older, wiser—we’re peering over the edge to see what’s next, though we operate in what we know is an extremely fragile economic and social system.

Yet still optimism reigns over uncertainty. You’re running restaurants and companies, scheming away on creative projects. I know an inordinate number of people who are suddenly mid-career and chasing down paths to do work they love, with open hearts and clever minds.

When I was 7, I made myself a promise. Already knowing that adults often have regret and unrequited love instead of expression of action and ideas. Dreams unattained. Talents squandered.

You will never lose this. You will never lose the 7 year-old that dreams.

You throw rocks and they skip and ripple, for each a little wish.  Will I find someone to love? How interesting will my job be? Will I be a good friend? I will try to be brilliant, you say. And all the secret pacts and pinkie-swears that nestle just shy of becoming a small Peter Pan. This is how you will live your life.

Perhaps we all made promises to our inner 7 year-old. Did I grow up to be the adult I always thought I would be?  I spend my days with my imaginary friend sort of hovering near me, in the passenger seat of the car. I'm accountable and caring. I promised you.  I’ve seen the promise fulfilled in others in broad, vivid—and then sometimes subtle and integrated ways. By how they treat their own 7 year-old. Taking tap dancing in their 50s. Starting a business. Showing their paintings on the weekends. Taking pay cuts for new jobs with more joy.

My most powerful element of pride in life is stopping on the street or gazing out in a moment of caught silence, experiencing a glimpse of some infinite sky and sun thinking: “I am exactly the adult I wanted to be.”

With that I say, let's keep our 7 year-olds happy.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Escaping the Modern Sewing Machine Factory

Here, I’ll share my most recent secret hideaway story. Part review, part catalogued memory.

Riverbath experience
Riverbath - Photo Courtesy of Kohler

Back when I was a laser-focused corporate employee, I became an acolyte of the religion of “Hydration Relaxation.” I became a seeker of elaborate spas—hidden far away from mobile phone service, often in the canyons and deserts of the Southwest. As you know, an office job means constant compression of the neck and shoulders—and an Aeron chair is no savior. Your muscle structure becomes compacted into an immovable mass, with no unwinding in sight.

This is the pain of a lifetime, friends. Whether we admit it or not, a 12-hour day in front of a computer is simply the equivalent of running an 1890s sweatshop sewing machine.

As a result, knowledge workers have spas. And massage therapists. And yoga. And water therapies.

The Kohler Waters Spa in Wisconsin had always "been on the list" but I'd always be landing at Phoenix Sky Harbor before I'd remember. It’s really a shame because Kohler turns out to be amazing. This Spring Break we finally made the two-hour drive from Chicago through Milwaukee, and into the rolling dairy farmlands of Wisconsin. Past red weathered barns—daring to avoid the tasty roadside shops filled with nibbles of cheese curds.

If I could take us there now, I would. Not just for a girls’ weekend, but maybe for the wedding; I began dreaming I’d begin startups that no doubt, eventually would yield double-digit growth, then would immediately need a management retreat with a large budget.

You're met with champagne at the front desk of the American Club, a labyrinthine historic hotel with room names after famous Americans ("Charles Lindbergh"). Rooms are lush with dark woods and fabrics, "well-appointed" as they say. However, it wasn’t the high-touch 5-star hotel service that was surprising. What was impressive was the seamless ability to highlight Kohler products outside of a product catalog—without the overbearing omnipresence of the brand. The suite at the American Club had its own inner-room bathing and shower experience with whirlpool jets, vibration therapy, and chromotherapy. The towels were warmed. Slippers and robes with care.

As someone interested in using nostalgia as a consumer experience, I was most impressed by the spa’s design around the “bathing experience”—much like the 1890’s Victorian Escape, inviting you back to the Turkish Baths—and away from that wretched sewing machine. The actual Kohler Waters Spa (you can read about it here) creates services around their signature baths and showers that are really just elaborate bathing rituals.

Vichy Shower - Kohler 

My 80-minute core service (a hydrotherapy session called "H2O Inspiration") included a few phases. I started with a full-body exfoliating aromatherapy scrub. Then I moved on to a tall “Watertile” shower with multiple streams of water that shot in various directions; with a reprise of the products' chromotherapy functions. Then it was time to move to the aromatherapy “Riverbath” whirlpool bathing experience, which created the sensation of the body flowing down a lazy, but rushing river. After the bath, a body moisturizing session with stone therapy. Then a massage. Then I was blissfully turned out into the world, rid of the muck and toxins clinging to my now cleansed and healthy human body. I’ve been carrying the imprint of the Riverbath experience for the last week, periodically drawing upon the memory for self-soothing during Chicago traffic.

I’ve included a few photos (courtesy of Kohler).

Escape is an art. Art is escape.


Friday, February 22, 2013

A Love Letter to Lincoln Square

Lincoln facing northI moved to Lincoln Square twelve or thirteen years ago, knowing the area even earlier, much in the deepest recesses of my own personal history. When I returned to the neighborhood many years later, the real estate was pricier and the shopkeepers spoke less native German.  Despite the mark of commercialization made through the Greenspan days, to me it's still the most wonderful place to live in Chicago.

To myself, as an individual.      

In Chicago, things are ever-shifting subjectivity; your neighborhood will always be the best neighborhood. Bridgeport through the eyes of my friend Julie is the center of the world, her Sox cap and eyes sparkling as she talks about the hijinks of her vintage nineteenth-century building off 31st street. You may not know portions of true Chicago reality unless you’ve visited Jefferson Park. Walking up Broadway in Uptown, you become a cinematic figure in history. The fixtures in your apartment are still scrolled in intricate, lux ways—and the rents are not much different today than in the grandiose year of 1929.

Pilsen. Beverly. The Gap. Tri-Taylor. Old Irving. Old Town. Bucktown. South Loop. West Loop. River North. Hyde Park. Roger’s Park. Woodlawn.

Your neighborhood is the best neighborhood.

In the last fifteen years, Lincoln Square storefronts were opened up with larger, more dazzling plate glass displays. Meats were hung. Boutique dresses were hung. The orange and brown fonts of the old neighborhood markers and signage were replaced and the roads were smoothed and re-surfaced from their old worn and cracked days. Buildings changed hands, concrete and bricks came on trucks, and condos rose up—increasing the population of the micro-village. Now, in the outdoors at summertime the fountain splashes cool water mist against the giggling children in Giddings plaza. We sip coffee Euro-alfresco. We enjoy folk music from the school, a quaint independent bookstore, and pastries. It stretches down Lawrence and then Lincoln to the North: restaurant representation like a U.N. roll call and diverse cultural centers. Backgammon night at the Olympic club, with the two or three pristine Mercedes parked outside. Delis, groceries, and dance clubs. In the farther reaches where Greenspan made little mark, the storefronts are still obscured and private, windows tinted—these places still preserving gemeinschaft cultures and delicacies. I know you, and you knew my father.

What drew me originally to Lincoln Square was the display of cultures, the pleasant co-mingling in one village. The crowds of American families were not always here, but they must have each subconsciously chosen to extend the sentiment; knowing this neighborhood had heart, and heart is to be shared with children. When you’ve displayed your communities, your culture—created a village—it hums with the romance of connection.

Pairs to the theater, couples al fresco.

This is why Lincoln Square is the best neighborhood in Chicago. I wasn’t the kind of American who went to Lincoln Park or Wicker Park looking for bars, music, and friends; for me the desire of “neighborhood” is so much more closely rooted to my introverted self. I knew love and romance when I saw it.

It’s no wonder I came seeking something, company within company—watchful and waiting. It enveloped and defined, opened my heart; until eventually, love came.