Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sam Thinks He Can . . .Modernize His Annual Holiday Letter (v.2)

Note: From 1992-1998 and 2004-2006, I wrote and distributed a holiday letter chronicling the exploits of the Stern Family and their animals. This year, I wrote a much shorter than usual version with the understanding that the juicy stuff would be on my blog. The hard copy distributed as the 2007 Stern Family Holiday Letter appears below this blog entry. Thanks for reading. PLEASE leave comments. It's the only way to get me to stop or to encourage me, depending on your point of view.
Have a great holiday and 2008!

As promised, and with all due respect to Paul Harvey, here’s the rest of the story, with graphics. As I write this, the sun is setting over the fresh snow. The horses are coming in for their evening meal. Five of them will spend the night in the barn. Six will stay outside. Deb is enjoying Phil’s company as she gets the animals settled for the evening. He’s home for a few days and I am thankful to have the family together.

2007 started with a snore. After a co-worker observed me unintentionally sleeping at my desk, and Deb observed me constantly awaking during a nap on a drive home from South Dakota, I was persuaded to undergo a sleep study. As instructed, I brought my own pillow. Some genius decided that by bringing a pillow from home, I'd be able to ignore the wires, patches, machinery, strange surroundings, anxiety and strict instructions to fall asleep that go along with the pillow. Then, when I thought it couldn't get worse, a nurse came into the room after I'd been tossing and turning for a few hours, strapped a mask over my nose and tells me, “Here, this should help.” Ground Control to Major Tom: Unh uh.

As a result of my study, the doctors confirmed I had sleep apnea, that I was waking up 70 times an hour, that my oxygen levels were dropping to dangerous levels and that I was losing brain cells. The last observation set off a light in my head (apparently dimmer than it had once been) and I acquiesced in the suggested remedy. I now play Jacque Cousteau at night when I go to sleep and wear a breathing contraption that, all kidding aside, seems to have solved the problem, eliminated my snoring and keeps the big dog off the bed.

Thankfully, once the apnea was dealt with, other than Deb being put out of commission for a couple of weeks this Fall when she was thrown from a horse and hurt her shoulder, we all enjoyed a healthy year.

I made my first pilgrimage to Las Vegas in years with a client in February. The photographs of the Strip were taken from my room at the Bellagio. We had a great time, made greater by the realization that the hotel was comping our rooms and meals, and I managed to survive the four days on a limited gambling budget, returning home with $40 more than I left with and bearing gifts. The highlight of the trip was winning a large payout on a “Green Acres” nickel slot machine, complete with caricatures of Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor. Given my move to Meadow Breeze Farm, I HAD to play the machine and was rewarded for my efforts. Temporarily, anyway. The other highlight was a day spent with cousin Susan Feigon and her significant other, Ric Kral, who live in Henderson. Susan has her own business placing domestic help with folks who can afford it and is never at a loss for a good “Upstairs, Downstairs” story. With names redacted, of course.

Deb joined me in Florida in early March to experience the Little Everglades Steeplechase, described in my December 13th “Sam Thinks He Can . . .Take Decent Snapshots” blog. Our friend Allison Butash graciously agreed to look after the horses, dogs and cats for the four days we were gone. Allison keeps her own horse at a nearby barn and was experienced in the needs of horses. However, she refers to her four days at Meadow Breeze as “equine boot camp”, having gotten a true sense of just how much work is actually involved in the care of livestock. Allison’s unwitting graciousness allowed Deb and me to be away together for more than one night for the first time in three years. We spent the first night near Sarasota. We had dinner on St. Armand’s Circle, fulfilling a goal I had set in 1979 and in 1986 when I had last visited Sarasota sans Deb. We also managed to engage in Deb’s favorite activity that doesn’t include horses, i.e., sitting on the beach reading. Not so much for me but I did manage to find a nearby bar that was a suitable alternative.

The steeplechase was once again an extraordinary event. Kevin and Andie Campbell, working this year with son Mike, have successfully promoted the event to the point that it earns enough to contribute to several local charities without additional generosity from Bob and Sharon Blanchard. 16,000 fans attended the event. I was working, shooting more than 1,000 images over the course of the day. Deb had a marvelous time, paying particular attention, from behind the jumps, to the construction of the hurdles and the way the jockeys and horses approached each one. From her eventing point of view, that was the interesting point of view. 15,999 other spectators watched as the horses approached rather than receded. I’m looking forward to my third year as event photographer and being back down in Dade City, Florida in early March.

Spring brought college graduation celebrations in Duluth and Madison. By a stroke of fortunate scheduling, the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin held their graduation ceremonies a week apart, enabling our attendance at both. By an even more fortunate happenstance, Minnesota was scheduled first, thereby allowing Phil to graduate before his sister. Phil’s Van Wilder approach to college served him well and allowed him to befriend the entire student body of several graduating classes over the years. However, Phil’s successful pursuit of a teaching degree led him to want admission to the real world in order to continue his work with school children. Coach Phil, whose 8th grade girl’s basketball team won the Duluth city championship, must now be content with “Legend” status as he roams the corridors of Fitger’s Inn.

Ellie’s graduation carried bittersweet connotations as it meant breaking up the “roomies”. Technology being what it is, Ellie is never really not in a position to share everything but wardrobe with Caroline, Kelly and Stephanie. Somehow, though, the four seniors epitomized the joys and relative carefree nature of college life. Deb and I had a great time watching our baby march with her class. I, of course, watched through a camera lens. By now, I’m used to watching my children’s accomplishments through a lens. My modified vision was rewarded by capturing the “face in the crowd” shot I had imagined beforehand when thinking about the signature moment of my own graduation from UCLA captured by my father.

Ellie moved back to the farm in the summer. She spent the Fall at the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Community Technical College taking science courses to round out her résumé. As I write this, Ellie is working on her essays to apply to nursing school. Hopefully, from our perspective, she will find a suitable school close to home in Minnesota. However, “more vibrant” surroundings seem to have her attention.

Deb enjoyed a full summer of equestrian activities. Except for a brief hiatus after getting tossed from Bacio and hurting her shoulder, there was, knock wood, no downtime recovering from a horse-related accident. Unfortunately, Super Trouper disappointed in competition and Deb began the process of replacing him after nearly 7 years of training.
I hope I’m missed half as much when I’m gone. I’m fairly certain it won’t take two guys to take up the slack, especially if new companions Beso and Oliver Twist hang around for the next 25 years.

My summer was not particularly eventful. I spent it dealing with issues at work brought on by idiot bureaucrats at the Minnesota Department of Human Services. The old adage about fighting city hall is particularly meaningful when the opponent is the State. I’m looking forward to having the treatment center exonerated in 2008 and expect to hold the idiots accountable. The other old adage, “La vendetta è un piatto da gustare freddo”, is also particularly meaningful.

Both Deb and I took time away from the farm over the summer. She joined Phil in South Dakota for ten days in June and July to help in the family fireworks business. Ellie also made the trek so I took care of things while the boss was away. I spent Labor Day weekend in the woods outside Bayfield, Wisconsin with friend Jim Tierney at the Baystock Music Festival. This was the festival's 27th year. Jim was one of the three founders of the event and we arrived like the Rolling Stones on tour in a 35' RV. Parking it on the wooded campsite was exciting, especially since I turned down an offer of a shot of whiskey to give me the courage to try. I ended up acting as event photographer and memorialized every band and performer and many of the 500+ happy campers over three days of music.

Life on the farm proves more enjoyable as time goes by. I’m probably just getting older and more appreciative of the slower pace. I’m also continuously amazed at the “stuff” we need now that we didn’t need in Minnetonka. This year’s wow purchase was a manure spreader (found on Craig’s List of all places). It’s basically a wooden wagon that, but for it’s intended use, would be fun for the kids to get pulled around in. There’s a belt drive that moves the loaded you-know-what out the back when engaged. I found the contraption fairly clever and symbolic of the 180 degree turnabout from living in the suburbs where you walked around the yard with a shovel picking up after the animals.

Our parents are holding their own for the most part. Deb’s presence is needed more often in South Dakota as Ken and Georgia rely on her for support as they deal with the challenges of aging. My dad and his significant other, Sandy, purchased a lot in Yuma, Arizona and put up a manufactured home on the site. Dad, now officially retired, spent much of October, November and December in Yuma, overseeing the finishing work on the construction. He and Sandy plan on spending future winters in Yuma and summers in Minnesota. Dad’s in good health and works out daily when in town in the fitness center of his Eden Prairie apartment. Unfortunately, so do several Vikings football players. I’ve decided that the reason the Vikings have had such a tough time since Dad moved to Eden Prairie is because the players sharing a gym with Dad, who used to work out for hours, now take the position, “Irv’s done; I’ve had enough”.

In October, I drove to Chicago to visit my Aunt Marion and Uncle Norman Glicksberg on the occasion of Uncle Norman’s 80th birthday. Besides enjoying the time with cousins on my mother’s side of the family, I had the opportunity to spend time with former D.C. roommate Norm Shapiro and his wife, Lilli, and with former law school classmate Mike Tepper and his wife Laura. Mike had me show him how to load photographs onto his computer and then burn a CD. This would not be remarkable except that Mike has represented, and now works with, CDW founder Michael Krazny. It’s a classic example of the cobbler’s kids going barefoot.

The Stern family also had a great family reunion in November when nephew Elliott had his Bar Mitzvah. Jordan and his family flew in from Connecticut. Susan and Ric left the heat of Las Vegas for the cold of Minnesota. Aunt Bunny Levitus came in from Florida. Elliott was magnificent, making us all incredibly proud. It is apparent that Harlan and Amy have instilled a deep sense of Judaism in Elliott and not just for the Bar Mitzvah. I was given the honor of chanting from the Torah and got through it with the help of Hazzan Mitchell Kowitz. Dad kvelled as all but one of his grandchildren were assembled in St. Paul for the event and it was great to see how well they all got along. This was, in part, aided by Ellie’s observation that 6 of the 8 cousins were of age and they all went out together after services Friday night.

No Stern Holiday Letter would be complete without an update on the menagerie. Isn't it cute that I used to think it important to report on the menagerie when it consisted of a dog, a couple of cats, a horse and a snake? While saying goodbye to Super Trouper was traumatic, we are happy to report that the rest of the critters are doing fine. Besides acquiring horses Beso and Oliver Twist, Ellie's friend Liz Lund delivered Johnny Cash, an adorable female kitten, to join Jasmine, Peanut Butter and Monkey in the thus far successful quest to keep the mice from overrunning Meadow Breeze Farm. The cats share the barn with horses Rick, Gigi, Bacio fka Bucky, Beso and Oliver. Canines Shorty and C.J. still feel like they've won the lottery, enjoying their rural surroundings while chasing deer, horses and the occasional skunk through the pastures. Equine boot camp duty also requires caring for loved ones entrusted to us: Winsome, Namir, Josh, Frankie, Red, Kostar and Viska. The latter two are Icelandic horses whom I call to in what Danish friend Peter Porta would refer to as my "Scandahoovian" accent. It's quite the crowd, but it helps define the experience of farm living.

Finally, I started blogging in November. If you read my other blogs, including the archived one (dated November 11) on my dear departed friend and mentor, Louis Meyers, you’ll get a sense of what starts going through your mind when you're drinking well water. I don't know if it's any good. I don't have a large readership. But it's been a nice release and about the time my "blog guilt" gets bad, I seem to find something else to say.

I’d better quit before I throw in another adage. We wish you a happy and healthy 2008 and encourage you to drop by Meadow Breeze Farm when you’re in the area. If the weather’s right, I’ll show you how to operate the manure spreader.

P.S. Finally made it to A Prairie Home Companion, courtesy of friend Becky Schlegel, who performed that night. Of course I had a camera:

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Sam Thinks He Can . . .Modernize His Annual Holiday Letter

Is it December already?

We are wrapping up an amazing year, filled with much joy and accomplishment. Life on the farm is still Deb’s dream come true and I have a hard time believing that I’m a lucky enough S.O.B. to be able to go home to 20 acres in God’s country where a dozen horses roam the pastures with the itinerant wild fauna. Years ago, just after moving out to the country, during a cocktail party at which I expressed some reservation about kept down on the farm after I’d seen
Paree, former neighbor Shannon Marlin advised me, “Remember, Sam, ‘happy wife, happy life’”. I’m living the proof that truer words were never spoken.

Both Phil and Ellie graduated from college in the spring. Phil lives in Duluth, Minnesota, where he works for an Americorps division, Men As Peacemakers, teaching men how to mentor troubled youth. When he completes his commitment to MAP, he plans to use his teaching degree from the University of Minnesota to hold forth in a classroom of elementary school students. Phil remains active politically and it would not shock me to see him run for office some day. His magnetic personality, acquired from his Papa Irv Stern, makes him a natural vote getter.

Phil and I took our annual father/son trip to Kansas City this summer. We ate at legendary barbeque joints, including the original Arthur Bryant’s, whose sauce I’d enjoyed for more than 25 years whenever I could get someone traveling to K.C. to bring me back some. We also enjoyed hours in the Truman Presidential Museum and Library, dinner in a lower level jazz club, and, after 35 years of trying, the payoff on my first Royal Flush on a slot machine.

Ellie obtained her Bachelor of Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison a week after Phil graduated. She moved home, obtained her certification to be a nursing assistant and took a job in a nursing home near the farm. Currently, she is in the process of applying to nursing schools and hopes to return to life as a student in the fall. After a hiatus of several years while in college, Ellie has resumed eventing on her horse, Bucky, who she recently renamed “Bacio” ("kiss" in Italian).

Both young adults (children no longer) make us proud. Their mother’s influence is apparent in their maturity and focus on helping others.

Deb continues to amaze. She spent early 2007 developing her carpenter skills and cut, stained and installed the inside trim for all 13 windows replaced last fall. Not satisfied, she built Shorty and C.J. a doghouse big enough for them to live as roommates. With a shingled roof. Then, once that was done, she built a complete cross country course for the south pasture, designing and building jumps to practice on horseback. The front pasture is filled with stadium jumps Deb maintains and, between April and October, is also filled with the thundering of horses as Deb and her friends practice for competition. For the first time in the 18 years that she’s owned horses during our marriage, Deb sold one. Super Trouper, whom Deb had trained as soon as he was able, developed a fear of flying and preferred ground work. As that eliminated two thirds of eventing competition, Deb was in a quandary. She found a great home for him as a high end trail and second level dressage horse and used the money from his sale to acquire Oliver Twist, a new eventing horse out of the Chicago area, and Beso ("kiss" in Spanish) , a very young “project” to train. Deb’s parents needed an increasing amount of TLC during the year and Deb was always available to them in South Dakota to make sure it was delivered. In her spare time, Deb continues to work half time at the ENT Clinic at Hennepin County Medical Center.

Outside of work, I’ve had a mostly great year. I increased my photography work, ranging from serving as Event Photographer for the Little Everglades Steeplechase in Dade City, Florida, to Bet Shalom Synagogue’s school photographer to on-location portraiture for high school seniors and their families to the images I capture on the “hobby” end of the equation. I’ve also started blogging. In fact, the rest of the holiday letter is on my blog . If you’ve received these letters in the past, you’ve noticed there are no photos here. They’re on my blog. Lots of them. And discussions on friendship and the loss of my mentor, Louis Meyers. And an update on the Stern menagerie. It’s 2007. This is a green holiday letter. Take a moment and check out the rest of the story on my blog. It will be worth it. Promise.

All the best for a happy and healthy holiday season and year to come.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sam Thinks He Can . . . Take Decent Snapshots

I photographed this $500,000+ Mercedes at the 2006 Little Everglades Ranch Steeplechase. It was my first year as the event photographer and I was shooting like crazy to capture the ambience of the event.

Bob and Sharon Blanchard make their gorgeous property outside Dade City, Florida available for a charity event that is reminiscent of the Kentucky Derby. Horses, hats and high society abound. The infield is filled with spectators and events like Jack Russell Terrier races, dog agility demonstrations and creative hat competitions.

Earlier this week I received a call from Kevin Campbell, friend and client who has been promoting the event for the Blanchards for the past several years. Kevin told me that a national magazine is doing a story on the LER Steeplechase and he wanted to use the photo above in the story. Mercedes is a very generous sponsor of the event and Kevin, ALWAYS the promoter, wanted to make sure that they received appropriate publicity.

The funny thing is, while I like the shot, capturing both the enormous metal sculpture of a horse that is the centerpiece of the entrance to the grounds and the Mercedes dream car, it was pretty much a snapshot. I was walking back to the administration trailer to back up a compact flash card and looked up to see the juxtaposition of the two objects. Of course, I took several versions of the "snapshot" from different angles and with slightly different backgrounds. But the bottom line is that it was just a fortuitous moment of recognition that something might be there.

Now, hopefully, this is the snap that gets me published nationally. I'll identify the magazine once it's published. I've posted a couple more shots from the same event below. If you're going to be near Tampa on March 9, 2008, come to the event. It's for a good cause and it is a lot of fun. Visit their website at

Here's a few more photographs from the 2006 event. Click on them to see a larger version.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Sam Thinks He Can . . . Remember Everything (But He Can't)

Yesterday I posted my blog about friendship. Having survived repeated readings, it still appears below and I'm still willing to stand by my thoughts on friendship. But something bugged me about the post, something I couldn't quite put my finger on. Then, this evening, I was chatting online with my friend Tony Diamantidis and it hit me.

Tony's is the friendship that Q.E.D.'s the blog but I had forgotten to mention him or to post his photo. Tony runs a successful, multi-national software company that sells products to monitor hazardous waste handling. He is also the founder of an environmental organization that works with the Olympics to promote environmental awareness as part of the Olympic spirit and planning. A native of Athens, Tony and his family live in Northern California and Athens and outside Junction City, Wisconsin.

Over the years, we have enjoyed life together in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Junction City. We have outrun the California Highway Patrol in a red Jag convertible. We have fallen asleep exhausted while on the phone to Athens after a night of club hopping. We have fed seagulls in flight on the Bay in Sausalito. We celebrated the end of the millenium at a karaoke New Year's party on his farm. We celebrated the Fourth of July on my farm. We are as close as brothers.

And it all started in Athens in August, 1972 when Tony waited on me, then a backpacking American student, at an outdoor cafe near the Parthenon. I can't remember the exact transition from "I'll have a Coke" to "I'll meet you in Beijing in '08", except that it involved discussing his love of "Micky Moosh" comic books. By evening, my traveling companion (Leonard Banks, another lifelong friend) and I were joining Tony and his brother as we experienced Athens. We hung out at a chess club where everyone was analyzing the day's Bobby Fischer/Boris Spassky match. Tony protected me when I started joking with the armed soldiers on the streets. I acquired a taste for Ouzo.

We had only one night to get to know each other. But by the time I returned to the U.S. in December, Tony had immigrated to New York and we were reunited. 35 years later, I'm "Uncle Sam" to his children and no waiter gets taken for granted.

P.S. Tony leaves for China this week on business. I've already introduced him to Nathaniel. No sense hogging my relationships.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Sam Thinks He Can . . . Befriend (Graphics)

These are samples from my "Friends (snapshots)" album on my computer described in the "Sam Thinks He Can . . . Befriend" blog appearing below.

Read the blog and see if you can tell which friend(s) match (a.) in-house counsel for the Minnesota Secretary of State, (b.) carnival owner, (c.) enthusiastic health club attendee, (d.) gourmet sausage maker,
(e.) Lallapalooza merchandise purveyor, (f.) eminent domain commissioner, (g.) waitresses at "The Best Bar in America", (h.) "little brother" born 3 hours after me and stuck with me for 52 of 55 years, (i.) Japanese steakhouse developer, (j.) Minneapolis mob boss family member. Leave me comments on the blog with your guesses and I'll let you know how you did.

Sam Thinks He Can . . . Befriend

I spent a couple of hours with Nathaniel Davis this morning. Nathaniel had a three hour layover at the airport on his way back to Beijing. We arranged for me to pick him up and grab lunch at the Mall of America before returning him to board his next flight. He doesn't usually get to travel through MSP during his yearly visits to his family in Pennsylvania. I'm not sure when we'll see one another in person again. Our regular instant messaging is not entirely satisfying. Being able to spend the time with Nathaniel was worth braving the season's first snow storm. After all, we've been friends since 2000 and have spent at least several hours together.

As I was storing today's photo of Nathaniel in the "Friends (snapshots)" folder on my computer, I had the chance to browse through the other snapshots in the folder and it struck me how lucky I am to have shared pieces and parts of my life with so many extraordinary individuals.

I also started thinking that I seem to have more people I consider friends (as opposed to acquaintances) than most of the people I know. In figuring out why that is the case, I decided to blog a lesson worth sharing. Nobody I meet gets taken for granted. Everyone has a life full of stories, experiences, advice, comedy, tragedy and spirit. I have never been self-centered enough to feel that my personal impact on the universe is any more important than anyone else's. Similarly, I don't sell myself short. I have much to offer.

The logical conclusion to be drawn from this "live and let live" attitude is that one can enhance one's own life experiences by paying attention to the experiences of others we meet. In so doing, we become invested in one another. If there is a "click", a perception of similar interests and values that leads one to want to enhance the investment, then why not expend the effort to retain the relationship, continue to share experiences, continue to learn from one another and continue to provide (and receive) the basic human comfort derived from friendship?

Nathaniel is a case in point. We met in October, 2000, in Hong Kong. He was a 25 year old kid (about half my age) working for one of my father's business colleagues, Annie Wu. I was spending a week with my law school roommate, Robert Cohen, who had acquired enough travel points to earn a free stay at the J.W. Marriott. Nathaniel was asked to take Robert and me to dinner at one of my father's favorite restaurants. In some scenarios, we would have had one dinner and forever parted company. In our scenario, Robert and I invited Nathaniel to accompany us as we explored Hong Kong. He became an invaluable English-speaking tour guide. We provided American companionship. We didn't spend a lot of time together during that visit, but the time spent was memorable.

After I left Hong Kong, Nathaniel and I kept in touch. During a subsequent business trip to Minnesota, Nathaniel stayed with our family. We picked up immediately where we had left off in Hong Kong, bonded by the shared experience (me, briefly) of being strangers in strange land. In the years since, Nathaniel has moved to Beijing and become involved in business development and promotion in China from a knowledgeable Westerner's point of view. I have been able to offer counsel from time to time. He has proved to be an invaluable resource for friends traveling to China. I am lucky to have him as a friend and am a better person for the window on the Far East he affords me. I have been rewarded for not taking my dinner host for granted and for taking the time to get to know him.

As I browsed the "Friends (Snapshots)" album, I saw a lot of "Nathaniels". I've posted some photos above. They were selected randomly and quickly out of the hundreds of images in the folder so if you are a non-posted friend reading this blog, please do not take it personally. Each individual pictured has made my presence on Earth a more interesting and happier experience. Some are wealthy; some aren't. Some are healthy, some aren't. One challenged Idi Amin at Entebbe. One helped start one of the country's largest computer sales company. One grew up on Gull Lake next to Grandview Lodge. One has an amazing 8-track collection. One used to tend bar for me in St. Cloud. One ignored my advice and didn't close down the St. Paul Winter Carnival. One named his son after me, much to the chagrin of his father-in-law.

The point is, they ALL have amazing stories to tell. I need only take the time to listen. I am honored by and cherish their willingness to share their lives with me. As noted above, I do not take that willingness for granted and try to live my life in a way that justifies the trust they place in me by including me in their lives. That makes them friends, not just acquaintances.