September 21, 2014

Go Austin! Go!

I have always struggled to give my kids the best opportunities in life. Often, I am severely constrained by time, money and location. As a result, I will take big risks to put them in learning situations beyond all of our comfort zones...I can not afford high end private schools. I am sure they will need therapy in their adult life to compensate for some of my risk taking with their learning.

But...there has rarely been a dull moment. Especially, for Austin and baseball.

In 2007...due to career repositioning...I found myself in Seoul, Korea. I told myself I would only be staying 4 months...but deep inside I saw this as a huge opportunity.

Because I am deeply passionate about my family as well as my career, I dragged them all to also take part in the opportunity. To advance their education, I found art schools for my daughters and a high level baseball team for Adam and Austin...the Dongbu Eagles. It was actually a feeder team that puts boys on track to the Korean professional leagues and beyond.

This was not going to be easy...for any of us.

The Dongbu Eagles and their coach were a hard driving baseball club. They practiced 7 days a week from morning until sundown. This amount of practice and intensity gave the boys a solid foundation in the fundamentals of baseball...but at great sacrifice. 

BTW: at least one of Dongbu alumni made it to the American MLB...Jae Kuk Ryu...and actually played for a brief time with the Chicago Cubs...

In 2008, the Dongbu Eagles were ranked 4 in the nation (Korea). So, Austin had some serious competition to adjust to...if he was going to play. At first, the coach was quite skeptical and felt that both boys would sit the bench. However, Austin rose to the occasion and won a spot in the starting line up. Awesome! Unfortunately, at least one Korean player was not happy about this. There were grumblings on the team. It was quite difficult for Austin...on many levels.

Eventually, Austin won over the hearts and minds of his team he always does.

The pressure was immense for a kid that age. Austin soon found him self attracting attention. Being one of only 2 Americans (Adam was the other American) in all of Korea to ever play little league baseball, Austin was often in the spot light. This climaxed during an ESPN broadcast of the national championships in 2008.

To my relief, Austin composed himself gracefully...even though Dongbu got killed and he struck out.

The coach even let him pitch a few innings during the championship game. I would have peed my pants! Overall, I believe Dongbu ended up 4th in the nation that year.

Each year the team traveled to the south of Korea for a tournament in Pohang. Often, we found ourselves in some picturesque settings. In the background of the school yard (above) is the sacred Seoroksan National Park mountain range.

In 2009 Austin continued to be a crowd pleaser. That year, Austin is received the most improved player award.

We were all proud of him...especially his younger brother Adam who has always looked up to Austin. These were very formative years for both boys.

Coach Jung Kyung-ha is a very dedicated man of baseball. He has been coaching Dongbu since 1984 and has been totally focused on the team and the boys ever since. I do not believe he has a family other than the team. He is a baseball monk in my opinion. And I mean that in the best sense.

Though I did not know it at the time, he was the only coach in the Korean little league association to extend an offer for Adam and Austin to play. We will always be grateful for this.

However, Korea was not the end of Austin’s baseball story. Soon he was back in the US playing for his high school team, the Portage Central Mustangs...honing the skills that he acquired in Korea.

Austin did great!

In Portage, Austin was a great all around player...from the outfield, to the infield and to the mound...but as I am often fond of doing, I did not let him stay in the comfort zone of a suburban high school baseball team for long...

So, in Chicago, I dragged him to Morgan Park High School to try out for the Cubs RBI team program. Once again, Austin was out of his comfort zone..and up against some serious well as kids from a completely different culture.
Austin made it through the awkwardness of the tryouts on that hot summer day and made the Cubs RBI 16 year old travel team.

During the week, Austin played in Hyde Park with his RBI training team.

During the weekends, we traveled all over the state of Illinois as Austin played on the Cubs RBI travel team coached. The team was coached by a tough Chicago Police officer, Dave Diaz. He was also the coach for Roberto Clemente High School baseball team at the of the best baseball teams in Chicagoland.

Austin was a solid player and a starter for the Cubs RBI, but for some reason did not get to travel down to St. Louis for the championship game. Just as well, we were all traveled out by that weekend. One thing in the US...traveling for baseball is brutal. Expensive and your weekends are owned by the tournaments...same as Korea.

BTW...The Cubs RBI program is headed by Ernest Radcliffe, who happens to the (great?) grandson of one of the greatest baseball players of all time: Double Duty Radcliffe. Coach Radcliffe an ex-ball-player himself is a great motivator and positive force to a lot troubled kids in the south side of Chicago.

After this experience, Austin was soon he was back in Portage on his high school team, the Mustangs.

Austin is now developing physical strength that is enabling his hitting and running game to prosper.

His on base average usually lands him a top spot in the line up...on any team.

The Mustangs also like him to pitch from time to time, though he feels he will be an outfielder in college.

One of Austin’s Portage Central High School coaches got him hooked up with an awesome team in Chicago, the Norwood Blues. They are a high level club that is a stepping stone to the collegiate leagues and above.

The Blues are a step up in competition where Austin would find himself playing with kids as old as college freshman...once again...out of his comfort zone.

Coached by Richard Pildes of Taft High School in Chicago...who I can confidently say that he is one of the best high school coaches in the US...the Norwood Blues are a class act. And Pildes has one thing in mind...winning. However, he is more of a transformational coach than a transactional coach. He helps boys find their strengths and ways they can contribute to the team. By understanding your core competencies, you are better able to make a difference to your team when it is needed.

Coach Pildes has recruited a group of talented kids that are serious about the game of baseball. They will undoubtedly benefit from his teachings where ever they end up in life...the MLB or not.

It is not surprising that Coach Pildes has a disproportionate amount of Blues and Taft alumni at the college level and in the MLB. But I bet this is the first time he has coached someone like Austin... ;)

While not the most outstanding my humble opinion, Austin is the most outstanding person on the team.

All in has offered great experiences for Austin on his journey of self discovery...and we are are all proud of his accomplishments.

However...Austin’s interests go beyond his baseball endeavors. He spent the latter part of the 2014 summer at the Second City Improve Camp for Teens. Here he seemed to enjoy the stage...his comedy, not surprisingly, is more physical at this phase. And...this fall...Austin won a lead in the Portage Central comedy play, Midusmmer Jersey where he’ll be playing Lyle.

He is still playing baseball on a fall team in Portage...I am sure the Blues miss him...we all do.

Go Austin! Go!

February 25, 2014

Here’s Looking at You...From the Middle East

Photo: Douglas Wills

I was perusing through the hundreds of photos from our journey through the Middle East that took us from Egypt through Jordan to Syria and finally Turkey when I realized I needed to express and share how we felt during that epic journey.

I figured looking into the eyes of the beholder might best convey the feelings the Middle East evoked in us during the journey. 

So, I am hoping you will see the journey reflected in Lyra...

Photo: Douglas Wills

From day one, we were out of our element...and constantly being eyed.

Above, Lyra is in an restricted tomb under the Great Pyramids that is “off limits” to tourists...However, the guard eyed us and with a little backsheesh we were in. Not sure this wasn’t a scam, but what the hell...we were traveling off the beaten path.

Photo: Douglas Wills

Lyra, resting at the base of one of the Great Pyramids.

Photo: Douglas Wills

Lyra is a great subject, but she is an even better photographer...this must have been a great shot!

Photo: Douglas Wills

Often, people just watched us from afar. Were we friend or foe? Were we weak or strong? Did we have something to hide or take? Were we willing to risk opening up or were we afraid? Were we Americans or Europeans; Jews or Christians?

Back in Cairo, we never got used to being on display. In Seoul, we seldom felt like outsiders as we did in Egypt, even though the roots of our own culture come from the Middle East. You would think we would feel a little more at home.

I figure that the Middle East has had so many invaders throughout the ages, that everyone here must be descended from outsiders...

Photo: Douglas Wills

Later, we took some time to relax at the El Fishawy Café (shisha bar).

At the time, Cairo was a city that was on edge...Especially in the hot mid day sun during Ramadan...And I can not fathom being without food or water since previous night, covered from head to toe in a black berka, baking in the desert sun while haggling for life’s necessities in the local bazaar...

...Like clock work, squabbles broke out each day around 3:00 pm between cranky merchants and hungry housewives. I was cranky too in that heat! And I was well fed and watered.

Photo: Douglas Wills

Soon, we escaped the city heat and found ourselves in Wadi Rum, which was simply “spectacumous”! Wadi Rum gave rise to epic landscapes with warm blue skis that I struggle to find words to express.

Photo: Douglas Wills

Maybe Lyra can...

Photo: Douglas Wills

On our way through Jordan, we stayed in Petra. Carved out of sandstone, the ruins of Petra are astonishingly beautiful and more ancient than I imagined with the earliest inhabitants dating back to 7,000 BC.

Photo: Douglas Wills

After gliding through Jordan, crossing the Syrian border was a much bigger challenge than we expected. Even though we had all of our paper work and visas in order, it took over 4 hours of standing in lines to pass the first checkpoint. That’s because nefarious individuals kept cutting in line and paying off the clerk. I started to get a little irritated since there where only a few people front of us! We just waited and waited as the line never moved, but somehow others got instant service.  >:(

Then, once we got through the first check point, we had to drive to a second check point a few miles down the road. There, we were promptly stopped and sent back to the first check point because one of our party members had gotten the wrong date stamp from the first corrupt clerk! Argh!

But eventually, we straightened it out and we were on our way to Palmyra...

Photo: Douglas Wills

Palmyra is ancient Roman ruin trapped by the blowing sands of time. You can almost hear the voices of Roman Antiquity on the breezy desert winds as they whisper through the classical archways and timeless Corinthian columns of the ruined city.

Photo: Douglas Wills

Even though Palmyra is deserted, the related tourism supports a nearby community of local Syrian Arabs who sell tons of tasty dates to unsuspecting tourists who just can’t resist the sugary delights!

Photo: Douglas Wills

Yes! Dates are definitely the happy fruit and in a land so harsh and violent, anything so sweet is a welcomed comfort food.

Photo: Douglas Wills

After Palmyra, we were on to Damascus...quite a contrast to the ruins we had been touring along the journey. Damascus was ancient, but very much alive! Just like most of Syria...what a delight.

Built upon layers and layers of history...Greek, Roman, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Modern, Medieval, Ancient, Etc. all crammed together, Damascus was a melting pot of humanity...maybe more like a boiling cauldron...depending on your perspective.

Photo: Douglas Wills

A beautifully dangerous patchwork of people, culture and religion all competing for the city’s love and resources: Damascus.

Photo: Douglas Wills

Aleppo did not disappoint either. Like Damascus, Aleppo hid a beauty behind the walls of the city. Something we never expected could exist while looking at the crumbling walls of Aleppo’s exterior.

Photo: Douglas Wills

BTW...The above hammer scene with Lyra and the blacksmith created a huge traffic jam as men coming from all directions slammed on their brakes and pulled out their cell phones to record the risque, hot iron demo.

Photo: Douglas Wills

The people of Aleppo, just like the rest of Syria are truly an enigma of genius mixed with brute force that underscore the ability of humanity to thrive in the face of calamity. I wonder what would happen to its people if they ever got out of this environment...

Oh...BTW...Steve Jobs’ biological father is from Homs, Syria.

Photo: Douglas Wills

Like I said, we were constantly being eyed. Here, by Bashar Al Assad’s decal proxy on the back window of a pick-up truck.

If you like digging into enigmas, have a look at the Charlie Rose interview with Bashar Al Assad.  You definitely have to be cunning to survive in a land such as Syria.

Photo: Douglas Wills

If the tension in Syria is too much for you, the alternative is knocking back a few shots of Arak. Then everything will be just fine...

As we said our good-byes to Syria, we left the Arab culture behind and found ourselves being watched by a different set of eyes...the Turks.

Photo: Douglas Wills

Above: Jesus looked on from a previous era as he stands in the walls of the Hagia Sophia. Originally, a cathedral, Ottoman Muslims retrofitted this magnificent church into a mosque upon their invasion in 1453. It’s now a museum...

Photo: Douglas Wills

Being at the cross roads of civilization, Istanbul was even more layered with successive civilizations than Damascus, Aleppo or the other cities we journeyed through.

Above, the head of Medusa stairs coldly into the distance while holding up a marble column in the great Basilica Cistern below the streets of Istanbul. There are two Medusa heads in the Basilica Cistern that were once part of an ancient Roman temple...once a god to the Greeks and a slave to the Islamic streets above her.

Photo: Douglas Wills

But, it is those very layers of history, culture, religion and humanity packed together in a tangled mess that make Istanbul so wonderful. Just like the layers of history throughout the Middle East, the mess can never be untangled.

And why would you try? It is well proven that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

And if you have intentions of gaining the upper hand by feeding the hatred found between layers of cultures and civilizations...Well...that too my friend, will lead to darkness and despair while creating more enemies for you.

I would humbly suggest, that contrary to the popular opinion of killing our way to peace, embracing the tangled mess and reveling in its glory will give us the next fertile layers of civilization we can build on...

...And apparently, the clashing of cultures makes for really great food...Enjoy!...

February 5, 2014

Creativity Never Fades...

Photo: Lyra Jakabházy |

Lyra and I recently had a chance to visit our good friends Jane Gittings Robert and François Robert in Tucson, AZ. They are true rock stars of design who never lose their passion for finding, creating and sharing that which is beautiful and moving. It is quite a contrast to go from people who communicate through words to people who communicate through their visual creations.

Jane and François communicate through their work:

Image: François Robert from his series Stop the Violence
This image speaks for François...

Images: Jane Gittings Robert Book 7, Man of the Century from her koobcube project

Jane’s koobcube project is a backwards book and design adventure. Jane reads a cube of books from her library, one at a time. After she finishes each book, Jane redesigns the book jacket and posts the original and redesigned cover. Jane redesigns the cover to challenge herself, but I would say it’s a graphic designer's version of a book review...only better. Inspiring!

Jane and François are really a dynamic duo who collaborate together on many creative endeavors from commercial photography to children's books...such as “Find a Face” that you can find on Amazon.

So...Our travels with Jane and François took us from Sabino Canyon to “The Boneyard” to the Mt. Lemmon Observatory. It was a non-stop roller coaster of compelling image hunting and gathering.

Photo: Sabino Canyon, Jane Gittings Robert
Hiking through Sabino Canyon was breathtaking, but stay away from the cholla plants!

 Photo: Lyra Jakabházy

The 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group of the US military, otherwise known as “The Boneyard”, was colossal!

Image: Google Earth 
These are just the a few of the aircraft...

Photo: Douglas Wills
...And François never misses a pretty face!

In addition to the thousands of dormant military aircraft, inside “The Boneyard” there was an extra visual treat...

Photo: Jane Gittings Robert

...The Boneyard Projects, conceived in 2010 by Eric Firestone, and organized by curator Carlo McCormick, resurrects the disused airplanes from “The Boneyard” by turning them into three dimensional airplane canvasses...a compelling use of military assets.

But the fun didn't stop there...

Photo: Douglas Wills
As I was saying...our travels with Jane and François were an image hunting and gathering extravaganza...

Photo: Mt. Lemmon Observatory, Douglas Wills
One night, we ended up at the Mt. Lemmon Observatory. I got to see Jupiter with my own eyes and could actually see its gaseous surface and orbiting moons. Another first for me...Quite cool!

Photo: Biosphere2, Lyra Jakabházy
Biosphere 2 was something else... However, the story behind it is too lengthy for this post. You can get that from Jane Poynter from her TED talk, who is also friends with Jane and François.

However, I think the real treat came at the end of our trip when we got to meet and chat with Irving Olson. He is a self-made man who created his fortune back in the day as a pioneer in electronics, despite describing himself as a simple “peddler”.

Photo: Lyra Jakabházy
You can look up Olson Electronics on your own, but suffice it to say Radio Shack and Best Buy copied Irving’s business model.

Image: 1968 Olson Electronics Catalog eBay

Irving will be the last person that I ever meet who was older than I am today when I was born. Get it? Irving just turned 100 years old! He actually retired before I was born. You do the math! You might guess he is in his 70’s if you met him, but that is not the point. Irving is not a man defined by his age, he is defined by his humanity, creativity and love for life.

Photo: Lyra Jakabházy

Since his retirement in the 1960’s, Irving has been traveling the world...150+ countries...and nurturing his creativity through his passion for photography. Of course, he and François hit it off immediately.

Photo: Lyra Jakabházy

François came bearing a few gifts including his book Faces, which Irving loved and prompted him to show off his own latest guilty pleasure...Recently, Irving has been taking photos of people eating or rather “stuffing their faces.” Maybe a creative reaction to the increase in American obesity as seen through the lens of his camera.

I believe creativity and humor are linked. Irving’s innate sense of humor was boundless as he told all sorts of jokes and bantered with François. In my opinion, his playful nature fueled his creativity. When you play, you are not afraid to make mistakes. Irving did not seem to be afraid of making mistakes. 

Photo: Lyra Jakabházy

His “face stuffing” photos are both humorous and tell it like it is...but I’ll leave it to Irving to publish those later.

However, even more stunning are his water droplet images...

Photo: Irving Olson

In his kitchen, Irving has engineered a unique technique of photographing colored water droplets. Through hours and hours of trial and error, Irving comes up with stunning results.

Photo: Irving Olson

Irving never finished college, but he never finished learning either.

Photo: Irving Olson

He does lament that the people in his retirement community do not share any of his interests or passions. According to Irving, most do nothing at all and just fade away into a “cocktail of medications” that are too liberally prescribed to them.While not practical for everyone, Irving is medication free.

Photo: Lyra Jakabházy

Irving is definitely a man of action with many admirable qualities. His photography is just the tip of the iceberg.

Photo: Irving Olson

Photo: Irving Olson

Like many self-made people, Irving feels education numbs perfectly good people. He had enough of formal education after a couple semesters at the University of Akron, but he never had enough of learning. 

Another self-made creative comes to mind, Frank Lloyd Wright, who also ended up in Arizona, felt the same and was quoted: “Harvard takes perfectly good plums as students, and turns them into prunes.”

Irving is definitely not a prune.

FYI...The University of Akron awarded Irving an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters upon his 100th birthday...
I believe a formal apology would have been better.

Photo: Lyra Jakabházy
So, hats off to Jane and François, who are always finding compelling aesthetics and creative people. Because of their mission in life, we were able to meet such an extraordinary person and share in his love of life and revel with him in the beauty that surrounds us all.

Thank you, Jane and François. We were truly inspired...