Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Things that are well executed have their own reward. Today's photo is of a large skylight feature for the University of Minnesota Microbial Building. This unit is about twenty feet tall and fifteen feet in diameter at the widest part. Architects would come to Gruppo (that was my company's name and yes, there was a cycling tie-in) with their ideas and it was our job to make their dreams come true. This thing was a computer illustration and basically it is a transected cone made from a special acrylic that looks like glass (green edges you know...) affixed to a stainless steel frame with stand-offs. The geometry involved was pretty intense, especially when it came to cutting the holes in the acrylic panels. Well, it was our job and we did it right no matter how much money it took. The problem is, after the budget was gone it was the company's money that was taken. A company that does this kind of work tries to establish itself with these monumental projects in order to become the "go-to" guys for work such as this. In reality, the successful outfits have a bread and butter product that they churn out daily at an actual profit. We were the go-to guys for odd-ball custom stuff but it was the only work we did. This resulted in a large dollar turn-over at little or no profit as we were always trying to get through the problematic job in hand to get the future (theoretically profitable) job into the shop. Finally, there was a perfect storm of three big loser jobs in the shop at the same time and God in his wisdom showed me there was a better life for me as long as I left this one behind.

Change is good. Change hurts a lot but I have ultimate faith that things will continue to improve as they have in the two years since I put Gruppo down and started my quest for something that was rewarding and would allow me to sleep at night. I hear through the grapevine that former Gruppo employees have many negative things to say about me because I, well, failed. Failed big. I believe that their opinions help them to process what was undeniably a large part of their lives. Either the things they say are true or they aren't. I built Gruppo from nothing to thirty employees in a 20,000 square foot shop/office. After 9/11 things got tough. In particular, the metal fabrication industry had a very hard time of it and we were no exception. We could no longer operate and I took it down because it was my company to take down. There are a myriad of ancillary reasons why the company could not survive, and as I was the top dog, they all roost on my shoulders. I wouldn't have it any other way. The employees were, by and large, good people. Some of them worked hard and some didn't. I simply could not find the magic blend of personality traits in myself to make it all work. Instead, life gave me the opportunity to learn from failure on a pretty big scale. This has been the lesson of greatest value for me and I have taken it to heart. Oh, and I am prepared to fail again if that is what is meant to happen. After all, I am alive and my children are healthy. Only a fool wouldn't recognize the value of this.

I sell guitars now and that is a good thing because I enjoy being in full control of what happens in the company and therefore things are exactly as I want them. Every customer I have had to date is satisfied, and every transaction has been profitable for the company. It even looks like the guitar business is going to break even year one. Gruppo broke even year five, I believe. Yes, change is good. Living is good. Learning from what life teaches you is good too.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Here are a couple of photographs of one of five plaques that my old company (Gruppo) made for the Federal Reserve Bank Ninth District. The plaques depicted what the city of Minneapolis looked like at various times throughout history. They are five feet in diameter and they sit in front of the bank on stone plinths. They won a national award from the Society of Environmental Graphic Design the year they were made. They have a lot of detail as you can see from the close up of the city scape.

I have been fortunate to have been able to do cool stuff in my life. People have always been curious to know how I got into this type of work. They were not satisfied with "I am an entrepreneur". They want details. The fact is I have had good luck making the best of things as I bump through life. I ended up with this company because I started my own business and one of the techniques I used was to capitalize on the strengths of the people that were around me. This led the company into the architectural arena in general and manufacturing commercial metal projects specifically. We did lots of cool stuff because cool stuff is more fun to make than boring stuff. We worked hard at it and made quite a name for ourselves as being the go-to guys for oddball and challenging projects.

Being in the construction business was pretty tough. I am grateful to be in the guitar business because getting guitars to people is more satisfying than battling architects and general contractors all day long. Folks are generally happy with their guitar because it is an emotional experience for them and it gives them pleasure to own and play a fine instrument. Actually, the construction industry is an emotional experience too, but not in the fun sense.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

What makes a quality ride? I am a roadie, for the most part. I really enjoy the early morning, no wind, pleasant temperature deserted road type rides. But I have another side too. I love the concept of mountain biking, but in order to ride my mtb I have to drive somewhere for good singletrack. There are some deserted railroad beds that have been converted to trails near me that I can easily get to. The problem with them is they are FLAT, and that means boring. The only grade they have is no more than 1 or 2% because trains used them. I just ride these on my road bike on my way to and from other ride sections of the road routes. Because I need to start and stop at my door (see Fatty's blog about this), I almost never ride the mtb. I am getting the itch to travel to some quality spots for the wonderous experience of riding in the wilderness areas. Thanks for that, Fatty; your blog has ignited my desire and determination to really get out there and see the USA from the seat of my bike... In the meantime, I have developed some pretty cool wrinkles on some of my rides over the years that are unusual for a roadie to do but they really enhance the cycling experience for me.

There is a county parkland that has some excellent roads to it. They do not, however, have good roads coming away from it. If this is confusing (why doesn't he just turn around and ride back the way he came?), please know that cycling must involve a circuit, or loop, in order to be in harmony with the cycling gods. That's just the way it is. I discovered by exploration and map reading that there was a horse trail that led to a class five gravel road that in turn led to a short section of the highway (that I did not want to ride on) that in turn took me to the appropriate tertiary road that was good for biking. This route created the needed loop and kept me off the highway. So, I occasionally treat some park visitors to the weird sight of a lycra clad cyclist on a road bike cruising past their picnic and into the woods on the horse trail, never to return. There is a quarter mile of horse trail followed by a game trail on which I get to bust a pretty cool move. There is a wood barrier that the trail passes under. Hikers need to stoop under the 2 X 12; I ride under it by moving forward of the seat (which clears the barrier by five or six inches) and positioning my chest forward of the handlebars and snaking under the beam. Then its off through the farmers field and around the cows to the gravel road. I love that ride.

Further out of town there is Lake Waconia that has a hilly gravel road around the north shore of it. There is about two miles of this road and it is another of my favorites, as it comes after about fifty miles of road riding and is a welcome relief from pavement for a short while. I know that someday soon this area will be developed and this road will disappear under the tarmac. I will still ride it but I will ride with that melancholy feeling that I get on many roads that I have ridden for years but now have been upgraded and "improved".

These rides will now have to wait until next Spring to be cycled on again. Winter has arrived and it is fixie city until the thaw. I am putting 700c X 25cm tires on the fixie (1970 Gitane Tour de France) to get a bigger footprint and avoid flats. Changing flats below freezing isn't much fun. Its better than changing flats in rain with an air temperature of forty, but only just a little better.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Fat Cyclist linked to my blog from his blog and I have noticed many more visitors. Welcome to you all. I have been "banjo heavy" on my entries so I thought I should toss out another bike blog entry for all you visitors from Fatty's site. Ergo, here is another Serotta picture to ponder. Fatty even made covetous noises about it when he emailed me about linking to my blog. I admit it is a seriously cool bike and a total pleasure to ride. I would also hasten to add that the reason I have such an over the top velo is that I had accumulated three other high end bikes over the years and when Jim and Scott Flanders teamed up on me to get an Ottrott, I was able to sell the other bikes which made the cash difference to the price of this bike acheivable.

I have always purchased the gear that Jim and Scott tell me to purchase. They both rode on the national road team in the early days (before Greg LeMond even) and they own and operate a pro quality shop. I have been buddies with them since 1981 and I have enjoyed many hours of their company and thousands of miles of pain on rides with them. Oh, Scott won the Minnesota State Road Championship (again) this past summer. That would be the open Cat 2 race. At age 44. Scott is fit and always has been.

I was completely intimidated by the "Bros" when I first saw them because I always saw them as they crossed the finish line one-two at every road race and criterium I watched. I eventually started visiting their shop (I wondered if I needed a special pass to shop there or something but they didn't seem to mind) and one of their mechanics recognized me as a local musician. Once I learned they knew of my musical background I was much more at ease with them, because I had some coolness equity myself. One day Scott asked me if I would like to join the Sunday ride with the team. I had heard stories about the feared Flanders Brothers and how they would take guys out into the deep country side and drop them and leave them for dead. I asked Scott if they were going to go fast and Jim wandered by and said "The pace won't kill you but the distance might"-they were going to ride eighty miles. I had not ever ridden that distance before but I felt I had been riding enough to know the roads and figured I would be able to find my way back to town after I was left behind on the ride, so I said I was in.

It was a blustery March day and the pace was reasonable I thought. It was interesting to meet some of the characters on the ride and one in particular (Juan Creo, a Spaniard with a colorful past) kept goading me out in front of the group to race up hills and such. Eventually Jim came along side and told me Juan was simply trying to burn me out so I would be dropped. I guess the scales were starting to fall from my eyes. I became more conservative about my pace and stayed in the bunch. We were probably forty miles out when I started peeling off the back of the bunch on a long climb. I figured that the ride was over and I knew where I was so I could make my way home. But just then I noticed another rider coming off the back; it was Scott. He came back to me, asked if I had food, and gave me some grapes when I told him no (I really didn't know much about how to do long rides), made me drink some water and then told me to get on his wheel. He then pulled me back to the group. I was stunned when I realized what was happening because this was contrary to everything I had heard about riding with these guys. I peeled off the next long climb and the same scenario repeated itself. We then stopped in a small town for a break and food at a convenience store. Five or six guys actually laid down during the stop, which I knew would be a big mistake for me. I kept upright and walked in circles until it was time to go. Soon after we got back on the road the route changed and it became much easier to hang with the group. Jim made the comment that I had gotten my second wind-it was a tail wind. I finished the ride with the team and spent the rest of the day in a bath tub adding hot water and making small whimpering noises. I was hooked though. I rode quite a few times with the boys and made friends with them and others through the years.

I never raced because I always felt I was too large (6'4" and over 200 pounds at my lightest) to be effective and I also wanted to preserve the enjoyment of the sport and avoid becoming compulsive about training to the point where it became work or lost its fun quotient. As it happened, this was probably a good strategy as I have enjoyed cycling at exactly the level I ride at ever since learning the ropes of elite cycling. I go really fast for a tourist, enjoy the high end equipment, but don't have to suffer unless I want to. One of the biggest benefits has been the comradeship with the other cyclists. I have always been drawn to eccentric types and the bike world is full of them. Its a great sport, fun to watch, fun to do, and healthy as long as you stay on top of the bike and avoid getting too close to objects such as cars, deer, pedestrians, curbs, etc.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Banjo players want old and cool banjos. There are a finite number of them and there are important differences between the types that are considered cool and the types that are not considered cool. Basically, Gibson Mastertone banjos made before World War II are cool. But within that group of instruments, there are preferred types. The absolute Holy Grail Mastertones are original (untouched or modified) five string , one piece flange, flat head banjos from the thirties. Worth more than your house, maybe. I recently heard of one going for $110,000.00. I guess you would have to be a serious player to lay down that kind of dough.
My personal favorite type is an archtop, two piece flange Mastertone from the twenties. They are heavier and more solidly built and the archtop tone ring yeilds a brighter sound than the flat heads. The banjo that is pictured in several of my blog entries, including this one, is a Granada model from 1927, and it is an unbelievably beautiful sounding banjo. Most folks who like banjos and hear it comment on it's mellow and full tone. Recently, my son Zimmer had some of his buddies over to the shop to listen to the old foggies play music and one of them commented that he had never heard a banjo that sounded as good as the Granada. Praise from a seventeen year old has a different weight to it than praise from an adult. At any rate, it's a hoss, as the hillbillies say.
I have another archtop two piece flange Mastertone from the twenties. It was made in 1929 and is an MB-3, which means it originally had a mandolin neck on it. It was converted to a five string before I bought it as a kid in 1967. If my math skills are correct, I have now owned that banjo for half of it's life. A sobering thought on many levels. I put a much nicer neck on it, made by banjo neck maker Randy Wood, in 1969. Randy also made the Granada neck in 1973, which is when I bought the Granada from my friend and banjo collector Bill Camp. Randy Wood is considered to be a premier neck maker and his necks are as close to original in terms of value that one can get. So, I am the humble and proud owner of two very desirable Gibsons from the twenties. They are cool. I enjoy them and use them.