Weekend Work: The Agio Bistro

I’ve been settling into my new life here in the Chicago suburbs and really, have very little to complain about.  However, having tasked myself with making wise financial decisions, it was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the high quality of life I had come to expect in Japan.  While I can accept that some of those expectations are unreasonable, and honestly, unnecessary, some others such as travel and progress on my financial goals will not be compromised.  I’m not big on toys, and I don’t need the newest version of anything – I’m still rocking a flip phone for 15 dollars a month, with no plans to drop it – but when I can’t afford to get out of the country a couple times a year, or take steps towards home ownership, then something’s gotta give.  Fortunately for me, I don’t place a high premium on my free time, making a part time job the obvious solution.

I swung by various local establishments and applied fruitlessly for different positions, but then on Craigslist weeded though the hoards of garbage and spam to find something that actually looked great.  It was for a bar back position at a swanky Italian restaurant just a few blocks from my home.  I inquired and was told to swing by, where a well dressed me was given the job almost immediately.  The restaurant is called the Agio Bistro, and would qualify as the nicest place I’ve eaten, that is, if I could afford it.  Here is the Google Maps shot of the interior.

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What I do there is pretty much everything not relating to the making of alcoholic drinks.  I specialize in filling glasses with water (with or without a citrus compliment), and also filling all the restaurant’s orders for cappuccino or espresso; I like being a baristo again.  I also act as a busser for anyone eating at the bar by setting up and clearing their places, and fetching warm bread.  There are a massive array of tasks that I need to be conscious of as well: stocking beers and wine, cleaning, slicing fruit, washing and drying glassware, packing bleu cheese into olives, etc.  Honestly, what I like about this sort of work is that it uses a completely different part of my brain than my career job – it’s more of a Wack-A-Mole type position, constantly firefighting whatever need pops up.  Here is a shot of my ‘office’.

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One of the other things I like about this position is my exposure to the clientele, which is generally comprised of people at middle age and up.  Many of them are regulars, and several made sure to learn my name the first time they noticed that someone new was working there, and I’ve done pretty well to reciprocate.  It can be really interesting just standing behind the bar and listening to the conversations and problems of older adults (“Bob got really drunk last Saturday, I guess that his ex-wife remarried…”).

With those that come in once or twice a week, I’ve started to develop a little bit of a relationship.  We continue different discussions and further inquests into the going ons in each other’s lives.  I think that I carry myself well in conversation and this is a great venue for it.  Often prompted by the sports on TV though, when conversation shifts to the vapid subject of athletic endeavor, I nod, smile, and bail.  One of the things that I’ve noticed is that people think I look overwhelmingly younger than I am.  Not sure if it my genuinely youthful glow, or else just the expectation associated with working an unprofessional job.  I’m sure it would be the first option.

“With all this practice, do you help your mom do the dishes?”  ‘Well, I’m 27….and she lives in Michigan, so…’

Me: What’s the policy with having a beer after my shift?  Coworker: It should be fine….but are you 21?

As with all of the food service jobs I’ve worked (Big Apple Bagels, Jimmy Johns, Hungry Howies, Hope Dining Hall) each has helped me to further appreciate the industry, and this fine dining setting has taught me a great deal about all the work the happens in a real restaurant.  I have no idea how a mere three chefs can keep track of everything, and also keep consistently fantastic food coming out at the rate they do.  Most everyone in there is Spanish speaking, and it gives me plenty of opportunities to practice my fledgling language skills.  As a bonus, they run an artisan pizza shop called Slice of Chicago out of the other half of the kitchen, which sometimes produces ‘mistakes’ that everyone on staff devours.  As yet another  bonus, my discount applies to both menus, although only during/following a shift.

The only chance I’ve had to actually sit down and eat there was for my recent birthday, where I treated May to dessert.  They sell a 13 dollar piece of carrot cake that I had been raving about ever since starting, causing her to asserted that ‘it had better be damn good cake’, and it was.  Paired with a nice glass of wine for her, and I some Sambuca, we could make it through only half of that rich, fantastic piece.

S__2801961The work does conflict slightly with my social life, but what I’ve been finding so far is that it had caused me to prioritize that time.  They are great about giving me the time I need off, but it gives me incentive to make sure that I do in fact need the time off, undoubtedly saving me money on top of what I’m earning.  Overall though, I am happy and excited to stick around here for a while, and will keep an open mind to other Agio opportunities that come my way.

‘Fail’ Leaves

One of those good ol’ fashioned fall fun-time activities is raking leaves into a pile, with no purpose other than jumping into them.  This was indeed a chore as there were a great many fallen leaves, but rather than sighing an elegiac lament for my departed youth, I grabbed a rake in high spirits and made something of the opportunity.  As has been a theme for some of these more rudimentary examples of Americana that I’ve documented, May was involved, and this was her first time doing anything with 落ち葉.

It took us about 20 minutes to amass all of the yard’s leaves into one centralized location, and by the end I was beginning to break a little sweat.  I was really going for, with hands on the brink of blistering, and my brow nearing beaded perspiration.  May was beginning to lose sight of our purpose, but I assured her that it all be worth it in the end.  Here was the trophy of all our hard work, and I dare say that it was the largest pile of leaves I’ve ever raked.  Adults are better at everything.

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May was struggling to appreciate the gravity of our accomplishment.  I guess that I already had a firm appreciation of what could be done with the pile, whereas she had no such childhood memories to reminisce back upon.  I explained what gaiety would come from running and jumping into the pile, and although she thought it a bit odd, dida greed to give it a whirl so long as I went first.  I backed away several paces, and made sure that she had the camera trained.  It was important to capture this moment, and May did a fantastic job with the timing.  On ‘Three!’ I tore off across the short yard and sprung from the base of the massif, soaring spread eagle high above the summit.  What bliss!

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FWUMP!  Either I jump a lot higher in my adulthood, or I weigh a great deal more than the last time I did this, or quite possibly this particular species of leaf is far less cushioning than those I had jumped into before, but whatever the case, I felt as if I had just body slammed the earth (which indeed I had).  For the next moment I just lay there in the dark leafy mass a moment to evaluate my well-being.  FWUMP…”OW!”  May followed my lead, but quickly realized that it was not quite as fantastic as I had made it out to be.

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In the end, I was very pleased with the use of time, and though May came nowhere close to admitting such herself, I can only imagine that she agreed with me.  Later that day, one of the guys who takes care of the property said that some neighbor kids came over and spent at least an hour playing in the pile, and told of what a local hero I had become.  I explained that it was done entirely for mine and May’s devices, but if someone else could actually get something positive from our efforts, then all the better.  There wont be many fall days this nice left in the year, but we’ve been doing well to make the most of the season.

Birthday Bulls

On account of my impending birthday, significant other May likely felt some obligation to present me with a gift.  I hadn’t really given her any ideas, but she managed to come up with the fantastic plan of taking me to a Bulls game.  She came over Sunday and surprised me with cinnamon rolls from scratch (made with actual yeast!) and tickets for that evening’s event, drastically altering whatever plans I had in mind.  Her thought behind the gift was that it would be a great opportunity to up my Chicago cred by getting me initiated to the happenings of the city.  After a 45 minute drive we parked up along the street a few blocks away.  I can’t believe people actually pay $25 when gratis options are so close.  These cinnamon rolls do look a little odd, but they were gooey throughout, and made for a glorious breakfast.

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We entered the doors on the complete opposite side of where our seats were, but after circumnavigating the court settled into our lofty, section 305 perch.  I was excited about this whole experience, partially because I was now doing something great that until recently represented no part of my agenda, because I was there with someone special at her first NBA game, and then finally, in the spirit of the gift, I was indeed getting to do something 超シカゴ.

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As a pregame event I was impressed with the draw and excitement levels.  After a little bit of APP’s ‘Eye In The Sky’, things got going. The Bulls were up against the Charlotte Hornets – yes, they are the Hornets again – and the crowd was into it.  It rekindled memories of the Charlotte bed comforter I had in my youth.  The Luvabulls were impressive as well…  The teams traded leads early, but by the end of the 1st the Bulls were up, and stayed that way for the rest of the game.  The Hornets did bring it within two right at the end to keep it exciting, but it was nice to walk away winners.  Also, because they hit 100 points and won, we got coupons for a free Big Mac, making us feel like winners too.  Getting out of there was no problem since we weren’t parked in the traffic fray, so we scooted home and got ready for another week of reality.  ありがとう芽依!!

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Fall Apple Outing

I recently had the great pleasure of giving May her first ever experience with apple harvesting.  It was a lazy Sunday, but the finest of fall days, so we made sure get ourselves outside and do something.  We were coming up on the end of the picking season, and this was pretty much going to be our last chance at getting out for this classic, Midwest fall activity.  We jumped on US-14 and rode over to Crystal Lake where the signs advertising various orchards began popping up.  Here is an unexplained picture of gourds, which I really think sets the mood for this seasonal post.

10732983_10152689756481878_894447691_nOur quick internet search had turned up information on the All Season Orchard, but just as soon as we pulled in the parking lot we were ready to leave.  The place was a circus, and seemed more like tourist trap.  I wouldn’t have cared if it didn’t come with an exorbitant entrance costs, but the whole of it just didn’t fit the image I had for the outing.  Instead I drove us down the road a few minutes until we hit some little local place with almost no one else there.  The Prairie Sky Orchard was jaaaaaaaaaast right.

10726781_10152689757006878_59024028_nWe checked out the shop to get our bags and receive a rundown on what we were supposed to be doing.  The lady at the register said that they were pretty much picked out for the season, but that we should be able to find enough.  We weren’t really looking to walk away with bushels full, and the 1 dollar a pound price was so much better than what the other place was asking.  The first thing I noticed was that the trees were significantly smaller than what I’m used to, an expectation that is based on the only other place I had ever gone picking back in my youth, Crane’s.  I also noticed that there were no apples….until we got to the back of the small grove.  We found a nice Polish couple willing to snap a picture for us.

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Many of the fruit still on the trees was well past its prime, and lots of it had been attacked by birds and bugs, but there were still enough suitable for eating.  We ate as we picked, and I was reminded how much the taste of apples can vary.  It is easy to assume that they are simply red or green varieties, but when you can sample them back to back to back the taste profile becomes more pronounced.  Honeycrisp are the best, though these were not those.

10733426_10152689757536878_1395102231_nAfter ringing up our 3ish pounds of apples each, we were back on the road.  May wanted to hit up a Michi no Eki equivalent, and Tom’s Farm Market was perfect.  There was a roadside market loaded up with local produce, handicrafts, and fall treats.  We got some hot apple cider, pumpkin cheesecake, and also walked around admiring the gourds and pumpkins.  We were also salivating at the thought of the Chinese food we were going to get on the way home. This mini adventure was indeed a success, and we were both happy to have fit it in before the end of the season.  The ride home was a treat for the senses, with the vibrant colors of fall on display, and the wonderful aroma of Sweet Pineapple Chicken.    I assume that this was Tom himself, and I felt pretty cool.

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Chubby Wiener Work: Riot Fest

For the last couple of years the Riot Fest has been another music festival present the Chicago summer rotation.  It consists of three days packed with below average rock music that I don’t generally care much for.  There were a couple of headliners whose name I at least recognized, but that was about all.  This isn’t so much the sort of place I would have gone to myself, but thanks to an opportunity to join the Chubby Wiener food tent team, it happened.  May knew someone, who knew someone, that ran the tent, and they were looking for some help.  I was more than happy to join her, and even drag two friends into it as well.

We showed up, got 3 shirts for just the four of us, and then got to work.  May and Dirksen basically did nothing for the first while, but Spencer and I were hard at work.  In the photo below you can see us starting to get the hang of it, while those other two just loafed about behind the tent.

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Business started out a little bit slow, but things were booming during for the dinner hours.  People were lining up to pay big money for these delectable meat tubes, and we were scrambling to get them served.  Spencer would take their order and cash, and I would relay their desires – ‘ONE CHUBBY EVERYTHING…ONE CHEESE FRY!!!!!!’.  The food team would throw them together, and then I’d pass ‘em along to the happy customers.  We also sold corn dogs, veggie dogs, and Diet Pepsi.  Water? Regualar?  Nope, just Diet Pepsi.  It was genuinely impressive how quickly we were churning these things out.

In exchange for my slave labor, I got to have an atypical Saturday with friends, eat some incredible Chicago food, and also gain free entry to see a couple shows.  The extent of the benefits will be realized next year though, since having served on this shift means that going forward I can work the mornings and see those bands I actually care about. This basically gets me a free pass into next summer’s Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, and Chive Fest.  Cubbby Wieners are fantastic.

Work Outing: Chicago Architectural Tour

Every summer my company gathers together for some sort of group outing to take part in a Chicago based offering.  They’ve done rooftop Cubs games before, afternoons at the Arlington Racetrack, and now also the Wendella Boat Architectural Tour.  It was hard to really think of the Friday as a work day, because by 10am we were all piling onto a bus to get out of there.  They had filled a couple grocery bags with chips, sweedish fish, and other goodies that we got nowhere near finishing.

Traffic was bit slow, but we arrived just in time for our reservation at a fairly nice restaurant.  It wasn’t wielding the weight of a Michelin Star or anything, but it offered a nicer atmosphere and was very appropriate for a business lunch.  We had a shortened menu to chose from, but I was still very happy to come away with some Lake Superior Whitefish.  The meat was sitting on a bed of potatoes and spicy peppers, and it was altogether delicious.
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Once we finished up, it was back onto the bus and over to the Wendella Boats dock, located on the Chicago River just off of Michigan Avenue.  The rain was coming down while we ate, but did let up to provide a gray sky and brisk temperature.  We could at least enjoy the upper deck and get the most out of our surroundings.
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It was clear that there were plenty of tourists on the boat, but for good reason.  The guide sitting at the front had an incredible number of things to say about most every building – when it was built, the architectural significance, its name and purpose, and generally some other unique tidbit.  He also delved into all sorts of trivia relating to the city’s origins and monuments.  We went up then down the Chicago River and through the gates to get out to Lake Michigan for the skyline view.  There was a whole lot to take in on this tour, but all was certainly worthwhile.  Paying nothing out of pocket for the outing certainly helped.  I’m glad to work for a company that does this sort of thing from time to time.
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The ‘Hope Experience’ & ESL

I was recently asked a few questions by Hope College student Katy Carlson ’13 who is traveling a bit and blogging about it.  Hope is partially sponsoring her journey in exchange for detailing those experiences where she concatenates with other alumni abroad.  I’m now back stateside of course, but she as someone who one day seeks to become an English teacher reached out to some other grads who had shared such experiences in different parts of the world.  Here were my responses to a couple of her questions, as well as a link to those by the rest of her interviewees:

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Justin Bussies – 2010, Management/International Studies Majors, Japanese Minor

Where did you teach English abroad? What were your daily experiences like?
Given my language background, I was able to land a position on the JET Programme, where they placed me in the rural Japanese village of Shionoe on the island of Shikoku. I was the only foreigner around, so I was really able to get involved in the town. Classes at some of the schools were really small, and my smallest school had a grand total of 7 students. Because I had a car I could get around and explore at my leisure. I also truly loved the experience of being called Justin Sensei.

What kind of training did you receive for this job?
As for training and qualifications… I had none. The JET program doesn’t require any specific background, but through the application process they seek to find genuine and capable people. Having studied some Japanese certainly didn’t hurt my chances.

What would you like to tell others about your experience?
Really, the three years (2010-2013) that I spent there has done everything to shape me as the person I am today. My travel resume grew from just the US, Canada, Japan, and Ecuador to 57 countries by the time I got home. It ignited a curiosity in not just foreign culture, religion, and politics, but learning in general. I spent a lifetime growing up in West Michigan, and now I have an appreciation for how much larger the world really is. I have wonderful friends stationed all around the world.
Andy Nakajima was the prof who opened the door to that, by being a captivating professor of Japanese. Additionally, the continued support I received through Amy Otis and the rest of the International team made it all work out. I was also a Centurian, so tracking down some fellow friends in various parts of the world was wonderful.

More of Katy’s writing can be found here: https://blogs.hope.edu/roundtheworld/alumni/back-to-school-part-ii/

Justin Cooks Chicken

Since the start of bachelor living (I don’t really count those three years in Japan) I’ve been making an effort to improve my quality of life.  I’ve made an investment in my surroundings, also taking an actual interest in what I wear, etc., but another of these great awakenings is taking place in the kitchen.  I did a lot of cooking in Japan, but the only goal for those meals was to sate hunger – I blame the lack of familiar ingredients for the apathy.  Now that I have the full arsenal of three American supermarkets within just a bit of me, and a respectable kitchen to work with, I can finally figure some of this stuff out.  I’ve also thus far managed to bamboozle May into believing the charade of my cooking prowess, and it is my intention to let that deception ride on as long as possible.  Neither canned soup, Healthy Choice microwave dinners, PB&Js nor pasta with just a jar of sauce dumped in is going to accomplish that though, so actual effort is necessitated.

Despite putting consideration into healthy ingredients and sometimes laborious preparation, I am always looking for ways to save money in the kitchen.  To the average American, simply buying more of something is the answer, but I actually wanted to try a slightly different approach, especially one that would offer up a learning experience as well.  So rather than just going to Sam’s Club for a big bag of frozen chicken breasts, I employed my Dutch eye to seek out two whole, BOGO birds for about 16 dollars – not bad for 17 pounds worth of once-living-creature.  Seriously though, how can something that has to be fed, housed, raised, slaughtered, cleaned, packaged, and shipped to the point of sale be of such minuscule value?IMG_3688I didn’t really know how to go about turning the floppy, gutted carcasses into succulent food, but the instructions on the back made it seem simple enough.  I put some wire racks across backing sheets to serve as makeshift roasting pans, and then once seasoned tossed them into the oven.  I’m sure that there are all sorts of things I could do to better crisp up the skin and add flavor, but they all just add unnecessary sodium and fat.  The instructions said to put some water in the pans below them, so with that they spent the next 2+ hours just baking away.

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The next part of the job was something that legitimately interested me, carving the thing.  Come Thanksgiving every father is assigned the task of skillfully dismembering a massive bird, but where does he learn this art I wonder, years of trial and error before the kids are around/old enough to remember a sloppy job?  Having no innate knowledge of the craft myself, I turned to the educator of the modern world: YouTube.  One can learn absolutely anything there, and I received a personal lesson from Gordon Ramsey.  Not helping my cause was the inferior cutlery that I had to work with.  My roommate bought a knife block shortly after I moved in, and it was clear that he opted for the cheapest set on the market.  Not only is there no boning knife, but they are all dull, some rusting, and others with misshapen edges.

The first bird involved a lot of trial and error, and trying to locate the joints for dismemberment was a chore.  The limbs and breasts went easily enough, but separating the scraps and succulent meat morsels from the back were just not going well for me.  I eventually tossed the knife and carving fork aside and resorted to rummaging the bird corpse around and picking at it manually until it was deemed sufficiently denuded of nutrition.  Fortunately though there was a second bird to practice on, and this one ran a whole lot less afoul.  I did still work the remains off with my fingers, but any onlooker might have actually taken my intentional cuts before that to mean I knew what I was doing.  My roommate descended as a vulture to pick at the carrion and unwanted skin.

IMG_3692In the end, I ate a drumstick to reward myself for triumphing over the 3.5 hour task, and shredded the rest of the meat for use in further culinary escapades.  Once in that form, there are a great many ways that it can be used.  Also, I know that a gravy could be made with the congealed juices, or a broth with the bones, but I was in imminent need of neither and instead reunited them with the giblets in the trash.

Overall I had a good time doing all of this, though it did command the majority of my evening.  I’ve got some new cooking/man skill development started, though they would benefit from the practice that will come the next time I see these birds are on sale.  The other byproduct of all this hard work was of course a a great deal of chicken, which sorted into bags and frozen shall provide me with cheap satisfaction for quite some time.

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Concert Time: Devo & Arcade Fire

There I was, just sitting at my desk on what was shaping up to be an average Wednesday, until I get a phone call that changed everything.  Friend Mike, who I oft hosted for lawn beers, asked me if I wanted to see Arcade Fire and Devo perform at the United Center, that day…in his boss’ fully catered luxury box.  The answer was an obvious and enthusiastic ‘yes’, so he picked me right up from work, with the T-Tops down, and we were tearing down the highway.

We were some of the first ones there, and once gates 2 1/2 opened up, we strutted over to our suite.  No one else showed up for another half hour, but that just gave us the chance to lay into the mini fridge and cheese platter.  The box was on the lower level at half court and offered a view from the stage flank that was neither too perpendicular to nor far from the action on stage.  The plebs were milling about as I enjoyed my blue and brie on high.

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Finally, the rest of the group showed up, as did our own personal meat carver.  I really don’t know how to assess someone’s carving prowess, but after tasting what he placed on my plate I was very much satisfied with his work; that was some of the finest meat I’ve eaten in a very long time.  There was also a dessert cart that came by and provided me with a perfect piece of carrot cake, and some sipping liquor in a small chocolate cup.

20140827_185235The music kicked off with Devo, which you may [or may not] recognize as the creative force behind “Whip It”.  They apparently live in Rockford, IL and were willing to join the tour for just this stop.  I must admit that although I knew very little of their catalog, it is always great to witness any icon that has made a lasting contribution to pop culture.  They are quite a bit older now so something about the performance seemed odd – it was just so far from their normal audience.  We amused ourselves by considering that both my dad and I could have seen them open for someone.  They of course wore their signature hazmat suits, and unmistakable red energy domes, along with several other matching get ups throughout the show.  I can imagine that these were some quirky guys back in the day, and worthy of their cult favor.

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There was some DJ entertaining the pit between sets, which I actually thought made a lot more sense than people just standing in silence.  Once the stage was set, the army of Arcade Fire members came on out, 10 in all.  I must admit that I only knew one or two songs by them, but as Grammy winning artists the overall quality of the music was high enough to be entertained throughout.  There wasn’t a whole lot of transition talk between songs, just boom boom boom – music.  At several points during the show, there were people walking through the audience and on stage with enormous heads.  It was bizarre.  I have an awful camera on my phone, but this at least shows our proximity to the stage.

20140827_212853Once everything was wrapped up, I laughed at everyone working, almost competing, to vehemently agree with what our host thought of the show.  Of course it was a great performance, but I can’t imagine that the older members of our party truly felt as they were all suggesting.  I was very grateful to have had such a first experience at America’s largest indoor arena (by size, not capacity), and also to see some live music.  Mike and I wouldn’t get home until after midnight, and I just dumped myself into my bed once I got there.  What a Wednesday.

 

 

Business Tripping – The Morton Arboretum

The other day I was extended the opportunity to take a field trip along with my coworker Ed to the Morton Arboretum for a green industry event.  It is located about 45 minutes south of my work, in Lisle.  I haven’t really seen many of these sorts of green spaces so far, so it was a great opportunity to not only get out of the office, but scope out a potential picnic spot.

The two of us piled into my car and took off, arriving just in time to practice for the Bags tournament.  Ed had never before played this Midwest lawn game staple, so the practice was much needed.  The boards were pretty far apart, slick, and at a low slope, so it was basically impossible.  We got a bye through the first round, and then got blanked 21-0 in the second.  We were not at all worthy of the 100 dollar prize, but we nursed our wounds with the catered food and drink.

20140807_100935Following food we justified our presence by walking around the different booths, trying to take in as much as possible.  None of the companies here were directly relevant to the products that we deal with, but our attendance was pitched simply as an opportunity to learn more about what else was out there.  I talked with a nursery, soil amendment blender, landscaping equipment manufacturer, one of our distributors, and to some guy about green roof technology.  The takeaways each did more to round out my rather limited knowledge of the industry.  I also learned a thing or two about Live Walls, which are clearly exciting.

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Since we were already there, the two of us decided to walk through some of the rest of the arboretum.  The grounds were sprawling, and far larger than we had either the energy or interest in exploring.  We strolled through the conifer section, and also a hedge maze.  This was all that we really needed to confirm that it would be worth revisiting at some point, and perhaps in the fall to capture the changing leaves.  There was an unexplained series of pillars among the pines that caught our attention.

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The last thing we did was walk through the lobby to grab a drink and absorb the history of the massive 1,700 acre expanse.  I was surprised to learn that the ‘Morton’ part of the name comes from Joy Morton, of salt company fame, and this used to be his farm.  After that we took off, to drive back to Buffalo Grove.  It was a nice excursion, on a perfect day, that really helped to break up the workweek.  Hopefully I’ll have the chance to steal away on a few more of these outings in the future.

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