Monthly Archives: April 2012

Concert for Life raises $30,000+

Seeing as how this blog has temporarily replaced my website journal, it only makes sense that I post my annual Concert for Life recap here. But you should still check out for other CFL updates (photos, audio, money raised, etc).

Sunday’s concert — the 12th Annual Concert for Life — was by all measures a tremendous success! The most important news to pass along is that FBLA announced a total of $30,000 raised for the American Cancer Society. Another big haul! That number puts FBLA’s 12-year CFL total at about $320,000 and the total for all CFL’s at about $350,000. And, as expected, we still have money trickling in and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this year’s total end up closer to $35,000. Every year I am blown away by the generosity of the audience. They spend freely on raffles, silent auctions and side donations to ensure that as much money as possible is raised for the ACS.

The band played about as well as I’ve ever heard us play – which was somewhat surprising given that we hadn’t played together since the previous CFL (and we hadn’t played at that point since the CFL before that). But everything seemed to click and the whole lot of us just enjoyed our time on stage.

A few highlights from this year’s show …

I played “Excelsior” for the first time ever. I wrote it for my grandpa back in 2005 and it appeared on “Carry On.” With him passing away this past Christmas Eve, I wanted to play the song as a tribute to him. It was definitely one of the hardest pieces of music I’ve ever had to perform live — not technically (it’s a rather simple song) but emotionally. I’m surprised I didn’t start crying in the middle of it. As I’ve written before, my grandpa was an amazing person. He was the smartest man I’ve ever met and, after my father passed away, became a father figure to me and my brothers and sisters, especially Ben and Mike who were only eight years old at the time.

What made the song even harder to get through was the fact that, on Sunday morning, my grandma (my mom’s mom) was taken to the hospital after suffering a grand mal seizure (which was followed by several more attacks). My mom went to the hospital to be with her and unfortunately had to miss the CFL — the first one she’s ever missed. So during the song I was thinking a lot about my grandma and my mom, in addition to my grandpa. As for the status of my grandma (the wife of the grandpa I mention above) she’s resting at the hospital and we’re still waiting to she how she responds to Sunday’s attacks. She’s 91 and in declining health. She’s lived a long, healthy, happy and prosperous life and it’s simply her time. We are simply praying for her to be comfortable and pain-free in her final days, however many she may have. I’m glad my mom was in town on Sunday and not in California. It was nice that she was able to be there with her.

Okay, back to the show …….

Beth, Amy and Emily sung what I think is a rather neat arrangement of “Your Hands.” I did this song this year because it was a big part of my praying about whether or not to go to Germany. The words of the chorus — “Lord, put your hands on my heart. Put your hands on my eyes. Help me to see.” — are a simple plea for God to tell us — both in what we feel and what we see — exactly what he wants of us. It was a big part of me putting my trust in Him and making the move to Munich. I’m working with Larry (my awesome sound guy) on mixing the live version as we speak. I’ll post that to my website once it’s done.

For perhaps the lightest part of the afternoon, I wrote a song that lists my favorite things about Germany and set it to the tune of “My Favorite Things” from the Sound of Music. While I sang the song, a slideshow with corresponding pictures played in the background:

Marquette’s coed a cappella group — the Gold ‘n Blues — sang two original arrangements (“Brown Eyed Girl” and, one of my favorites, “Africa”) near the end of the first half and then stayed on stage to sing “Be With Me” with the band and a few members of the St. Paul the Apostle choir. The Gold ‘n Blues were fantastic and a huge hit. It was nice of them to travel the hour drive for just two songs. They seemed to enjoy the opportunity and the entire event.

We also featured one of Chad Griesel’s (my guitarist) songs. It was called “Open Up My Heart” and is from his first album that was released last year. The three ladies added vocals to that song and it was definitely one of the highlights of the show. People really enjoyed it. The message is a powerful one, too — the idea of finding balance in life — a balance between reflection and action.

During “Eileen’s Song,” we played a video that some local high school students made for an area Battle of the Bands competition. The video featured a bunch of people holding up cards that described what cancer means to them. I decided to use this video after my good friend, Twitter buddy and CFL co-founder Betsy Barnich tweeted the link to me. They used “Kate’s Song” in the original video (below) and she thought I’d want to see it. We set it to “Eileen’s Song” for timing purposes, but the effect was the same — powerful.

Speaking of Betsy, it was great to see her and some other former Warren FBLA members who were instrumental in the early years of the CFL — including Brian Schmidt and Sarah Milewski. I love that the former members still make it back to see the show every now and then.

More and more people seem to be standing every year during God’s Chosen One and they once again received yellow flowers in recognition of their fight against cancer. As I said at the show, I don’t look into the crowd during that song but for a second because if I looked too long I wouldn’t be able to finish the song without crying.

The American Cancer Society presented FBLA and myself with beautiful plaques to commemorate our service to their cause. It was a nice surprise. I said this at the concert and I’ll say it again now — I share that award with all of my musicians and all of those who help us prepare for and execute the concert. We have all made the ACS a part of our life’s work and it’s truly an honor to be able to share our talents for such a worthy cause.

I’m still on an adrenaline rush from the concert. It was such a fantastic afternoon. We had a very large and attentive crowd, things seemed to run rather smoothly and we raised a ton of money. Let me say that one more time — we raised a TON of money! I was reading through post-show journals from previous years and had to smile at how elated I would be over each show’s total … $6,000 … $8,000 … $12,000 … then we broke $20,000 and have since had years where we topped $40,000! So I want everyone to take a moment and let the $30,000 number sink in. Even though we have hit or exceeded that number for several years in a row now, that is still a number worth applauding.

Performing also made me really excited for the latter part of this year when I’ll be recording my next album (and possibly albums given how much material I have to work with).

Thank you to everyone who came out to support FBLA and the Concert for Life. And I need to personally thank all of the performers (Molly, Kelly, Amy, Beth, Emily, Chad, Chris, Mike, Rob, Aleksa, the Gold ‘n Blues and the St. Paul Choir), Larry, Al and Brian who spent a frantic two hours setting up the stage (and then tearing it down afterwards), Carolyn for organizing an army of FBLA students to set up the stage, Fr. Ray and Fr. Farrell for use of their church (and to Fr. Ray for some great photos), Jeff for taking even more photos, my sister, Kim, for running the CD table, my mom for spending hours of her own time promoting the concert, and Kathy for an awesome after-show pizza party.

But, of course, the biggest thank you goes to Chris Mason and the entire FBLA program at Warren Township High School. They put on another spectacular event. Because of their hard work, the ACS will be able to make $30,000 worth of progress in the fight against cancer. Over 100 students pitched in to put on this year’s concert and when they flooded the aisles toward the end of the show for a little bit of much-deserved recognition, the applause from all of us was loud and long. Great job, FBLA!

It was a fun afternoon. And it reminded us all that hope is never lost.

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Home is where the stomach is

It’s travel week! Katie and I head home tomorrow for our first of three trips back to the States this year (the second will come in August for her work and the third in November for my sister’s wedding). I can’t begin to tell you how excited we are for an extended stay back home. We have a long list of people to see and things to do (including a concert this Sunday, ahem), but admittedly the thing we might be most excited about is our long list of things to eat — well, places to eat to be exact.

The list below is all of the restaurants that have come up in conversation over the last few weeks at one point or another. Obviously, time (and our financial health) won’t allow us to visit all of these places. But you can bet a good chunk of these locales will be crossed of our list by the time we return to Munich on May 2. Our reasons for missing these places vary as widely as the cuisines they offer — some have sentimental memories tied to them, some are brand new and we want to try them, some simply have awesome food and for a few, even though Munich has substitutes or even better options, it’s just a comfort thing.

So without further ado, I present to you the places our stomachs have missed the most (in no particular order):

  • Points East (wings)
  • Jimmy John’s
  • Noodles
  • Elsa’s on the Lake (grilled cheese, mmmmm)
  • Louise’s
  • Famous Dave’s
  • Comet Cafe
  • Water Buffalo
  • Steny’s (wings & shufflepuck!)
  • Olive Garden
  • EE Sane Thai
  • Cempazuchi
  • Chile’s (random, yes)
  • Culver’s
  • Chipotle / Qdoba
  • Smoke Shack
  • La Fuente
  • Panera
  • Pizza Shuttle
  • Classic Slice
  • Dairy Queen (for a twist ice cream cone with rainbow sprinkles … Katie’s choice)

By now your stomach – regardless of when you last ate – is inevitably growling. Indulge it with a trip to one of these places. Or if we missed one that you would have put on here, throw it in the Comments section below.

Our next blog will be from the other side of the pond!

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The Wessel Inn is vacant

The steady stream of visitors since early March has come to an end, leaving our guest bedroom strangely vacant. It’s weird to walk in there and see the futon positioned like a couch instead of a bed.

We most recently bid farewell to Chris and Kelly, our good friends from back home (Chris and I have been best buds since high school and Kelly plays violin at my concerts). They were in Munich only for a day and a half. But we also caught up with them for a few hours in Salzburg, Austria, during a quick day trip. They were in Europe for a week and also swung through Vienna and Budapest, Hungary.

Our day-trip to Austria was rainy and cold, but we managed to get a few decent pictures, walked around quite a bit through the old city and went into Mozart’s birth place (where I got yelled at for trying to take pictures, so I have none to share).

Salzburg, Austria. I had some fun with my editing software, but I like how it looks.

As Chris and Kelly were rolling into town (literally – they were on a train), we were saying tearful goodbye’s to my younger sister, Amy, who came out for a nice eight-day visit. As you’ll see from the photos on our Flickr site, Amy and I took a day trip to Fussen to see Castle Neuschwanstein and the three of us went out to the Dachau Concentration Memorial Site.

Thanks to the Easter Sunday snow we had the day before, this trip to Fussen felt more like a January visit – much different than when Katie and I saw Neuschwanstein during our 2010 European vacation. We paid the $15 to take the tour (it’s the only way to get inside the castle) and were left a little underwhelmed (it was much better in 2010). But you can’t go all that way and not go IN the castle. We also used a little smart thinking to get into the castle earlier than we were supposed to. When buying tickets (at 12:30 p.m.), the next English tour was at 4:00 p.m. We asked the ticket guy if we could get into an earlier tour, but he said all he had was a German tour at 2:00 p.m. We asked if there were any English tours around that tour and he said there were two — one at 1:55 p.m. and one at 2:05 p.m. So we bought tickets for the German tour, went in with that group, and then hung back behind a pillar in the first room until the English group showed up. Crafty.

I want to live in a castle.

Dachau was an entirely different experience. It’s one of those things you don’t really want to do because of how gut-wrenching you know it’s going to be, but it’s also one of those things you really want to see for its historical purposes and to pay tribute to the men and women who lost their lives there. Katie and I had been waiting for a visitor who wanted to go and Amy had expressed an interest. So we took the 30-minute train ride, 10-minute bus ride and 10-minute walk to the camp and spent a good three hours inside.

The memorial site is completely free. The operators cover their expenses by way of the cafeteria (which is very reasonably priced) and things like book sales. Other than that, how could they justify profiting from a place like that? They’ve really done an amazing job at preserving most of the grounds and filling the spaces with raw — sometimes very raw — knowledge. It would take someone an entire day to fully consume all there is to see and read in the camp’s museum. After three hours, we were taxed emotionally and decided to call it a day. I would recommend a visit to anyone who has a few days to spend in Munich. But whether it’s Dachau or one of the dozens of other camps, I would say that a personal visit is something any person should try to do in their lifetime. There was something about being there in person that made that entire tragic period of time that much more real.

The main courtyard at Dachau.

The rest of Amy’s visit was fairly casual. We biked through the English Gardens one day, visited the Marienplatz a few times and popped into several beer halls. We also went to St. Michael’s for Stations of the Cross on Good Friday and returned for Mass on Easter Sunday. The former was a mad house of people. The entire church was packed for the pre-stations ceremony, which was followed by outdoor stations along the Marienplatz. Given how crowded it was on Friday, we decided to show up 40 minutes early to Mass on Sunday. As it turned out, most everyone went to the 9:00 a.m. Mass (which had four priests, 12 altar servers, a massive choir and so much incense you couldn’t see some areas of the church), which left the 11:00 a.m. Mass (our Mass) pretty bare. There were maybe 100 people there and probably more like 50. We also got just one priest and one organist. Still, it was nice to be with family on Easter morning and, after the service, we walked to Cafe Puck for an outstanding American-style breakfast.

All of Munich turned out for Stations of the Cross at St. Michael's.

A couple of days before Amy’s arrival, we enjoyed the company of my good college friend, Jeff. (It was his sister, Kate, who stayed with us in early March.) Jeff had been to Munich twice before, so he was content with simply hanging out and partaking in good German food and beer. We convinced him to have the pork knuckle, which he loved, and he introduced us to some of Ayinger’s best beers. We also biked around the English Gardens and played many a game of Sheepshead (which he taught us).

All of those visits, piled onto Kim and Bill’s trip, Leah’s trip and Kate’s trip, made for a nice run of familiar faces. Our apartment began to be dubbed “The Wessel Inn” (we even put a piece of chocolate on everyone’s pillow when they arrived and Katie left them gift bags to say “thanks for staying with us”). After two months of no friends and family, it was a welcomed stretch.

We’re now spending these next few days gearing up for our trip back to the States (we leave on Thursday). We’ll sneak one more blog in before our flight.

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Copenhagen, Denmark

I’m a little delayed with this blog update and I figured I’d better write something before the details start to get fuzzy (I am in my 30’s now).

A couple of weeks ago we put another notch in our travel belt with a two-night trip to Copenhagen, Denmark. Katie had to attend a conference that ran from Monday evening to Wednesday afternoon. Since Kim and Bill were visiting during this time, we all decided to accompany Katie to Denmark rather than hang back in Munich.

We flew out on Monday afternoon. A direct flight to Copenhagen takes less than an hour and a half, so there’s no wasted day due to travel. Katie flew out earlier in the day since she had to be there by the early afternoon. We were in town by 4 p.m.

Copenhagen is a fairly contained city. The train ride from the airport to the city’s central train station takes only 15 minutes and costs about $6. From there we were able to walk to our hotel – the Wake Up Copenhagen – in about 10 minutes time.

The hotel turned out to be a fantastic find. It’s on a very deserted street across from a train yard, but it’s only minutes from the “old city,” mere seconds from the city’s main canal and, as I mentioned, close to the train station. The rooms are very simple and quite small, but have everything you need – bed, bathroom, shower, TV, desk. It’s perfect for travelers who don’t plan on spending much time in their hotel rooms.

You know it's small when you can fit the shower and bed into the same photo.

After resting up for a bit, the three of us set out on a walking tour of the city. We had plans to meet up with Katie at 7:30 that night, so we had a few hours to kill. We walked north along the canal up to the Nyhavn boardwalk and then back through the city’s pedestrian-only area, taking in the sights along the way.

The Nyhavn boardwalk is a must-see. It’s an iconic part of Copenhagen and what you would most certainly see if you did a Google image search of the city’s name. It’s a street that lines one of the canal’s many ports and is littered with cafes and multi-colored row houses. And it makes for an awesome photo:

If you ever get a postcard from Copenhagen, this will likely be on the front.

It was when walking along the boardwalk that we came to realize how expensive of a city Copenhagen is. Every café was selling “take away” beers (we never get tired of the fact that Europeans are totally cool with people walking around drinking beer in public streets), but each one cost about 50 Danish crones (the local currency) – or about $9.

We thought the expensive brews might have been the result of the tourist-laden boardwalk. But when we stopped at a restaurant in the old city, we were surprised to see that the beer was even more expensive – about $10 (55 crones) for a bottle. And it wasn’t just the beer. We ordered an appetizer that cost around $20. And the rest of the menu was incredibly pricey ($30 for a hamburger with fries, $25 for various sandwiches).

When we got back to the hotel to look up a place for the four of us to have dinner at, we were finding much of the same thing – food and drinks in Copenhagen are generally very expensive. It was later that night – when we were paying for our meal – that we learned why. We went to the Hard Rock Café since it was right around the corner from our hotel and since we were all in the mood for some American comfort food. When we were given the receipt, we saw that the prices included a 25% sales tax. 25%!! Yikes. It turns out that Denmark’s goods are VAT eligible, which means you can ask for the tax back if you’re a non-European Union citizen that’s leaving the EU – but that’s only good for items you’re taking home with you, not food and drink that you consume while in Denmark. So make a note if you ever plan to visit the country – food and drink can be expensive! (Side note: Speaking of taxes, someone at Katie’s conference told her that there’s a 60-70% tax on new cars, which explains why Copenhagen has so many bikers. Think about that. A car that should cost $20,000 costs around $35,000. Gross.)

The following morning, after I walked Katie to a bus stop that would take her to her conference, Kim, Bill and I set out for another walking tour. This time we headed north and through the city’s Orstedsparken. There were signs of spring throughout and it made for a very picturesque stroll.

It took all my restraint to keep Kim from picking the flowers.

We did some research and learned that a cheap lunch option – but also authentically Copenhagen – is the local hot dog. There are stands everywhere and you can get a few different kinds (including a few that are wrapped in strips of bacon!). They were tasty and filling, but really not much different than a regular hot dog from back home. Well, in my opinion at least. Kim thought they were completely different and not very good.

We followed up lunch with a canal tour. The company we used was fairly affordable – about $13 – and the tour lasted a full hour. We were able to see parts of the city that we would otherwise never be able to walk to in our two days in town. It made for some great picture taking, too, although the highlight of my snapshots has to be this fishing boat:

Apparently my wife has ties to the fishing industry in Denmark.

After the tour we walked to the Amalienborg Palace and then back through the pedestrian area and to the hotel. Katie met up with us in the evening and the four of us repeated the walk that Bill, Kim and I did on our first night in town. We wanted Katie to see the Nyhavn boardwalk. And I must say — Nyhavn is a must-see at twilight. The combination of fading natural light and illuminated street lights makes for a stunning picture. After a few tries, a local man succeeded in taking a picture of the four of us:

We couldn't get enough photos at the Nyhavn boardwalk.

We wrapped up our night with dinner at a place called Dalle Valle. It was recommended to us by a barista who served Bill and Kim their morning coffee. She said it had good food and that they offer 50% off all food on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights, a promotion that certainly takes the edge off the whole “25% tax” thing. The food was quite good and the atmosphere even better. On the walk home we noticed that several restaurants in the area were offering similar promotions. Turns out affordable food in Copenhagen can be found!

Earlier in the day we were talking with a bar owner who told us that the best way to buy beer was to get it at a 7-11 and just drink it while walking. It’s much cheaper in the convenience store (about $3 a can) and they have both imports and exports. So we stopped in a 7-11 on the way home from dinner for a post-meal libation. We opted for the local beer in order to complete the Copenhagen experience. We grabbed individual cans of a few kinds, including Carlsburg Pilsner and Carlsburg Elephant.  The Carlsburg Pilsner was by far the best. Nice, crisp taste. The other beers – while not lacking in efficiency (they had between 7 and 12% alcohol) – were not that great. It probably had something to do with the high alcohol content. They actually started to taste more like alcohol than beer and had a metallic flavor to them. But we weren’t about to complain. It was a perfect evening for a walk and we enjoyed our beers while enjoying our final night in town.

The following day was a travel day. We flew out in the early afternoon and were back in Munich by 4:30 p.m. Katie flew out much later because the conference didn’t end until later that day. She got home around 11:30 p.m. I went to meet her at the airport so she wouldn’t have to ride the train home alone, but my train to the airport got delayed halfway and we ended up missing each other (she didn’t know I was going to meet her there). By the time I caught another train home (where I met a 52-year-old man named Jerome from Philadelphia who gave me a beer), I wasn’t back to our apartment until 12:45 a.m. Whoops.

We all loved Copenhagen. Once you get past the sticker shock due to the food and beverage tax, it’s easy to fall in love with the city’s maritime feel and relaxed culture. At times and for different reasons the city reminded us a little of our trips to Seattle and San Francisco. It was also the northern most point any of us have ever been to – so that’s kind of neat.

Check out our Flickr page if you’d like to see more photos.

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April (snow) showers

Happy Easter!

One of my favorite holidays, Easter has always conjured up feelings of hope and new life and spring and warm weather and the end of winter. So I was a little taken aback this morning when Katie yelled from the kitchen, “It snowed!”

Indeed it had. Not much, but a decent dusting.

Nothing like a little snow to start your Easter morning.

So much for that afternoon bike ride ...

Looks like spring in Munich is on hold at least for today.

My sister Amy came out to visit us over her spring break (she works as a school counselor) and we’re about to head out to St. Michael’s for Easter Mass. We went there for Stations of the Cross on Friday and got there right as it started. We practically had to push our way through the door just to get inside. So today the plan is to get to church 30 minutes before Mass starts. (We also blasted a bunch of church music at the apartment this morning to get our fill before heading into a German-filled liturgy.)

Afterwards we’ll make the short walk (assuming there isn’t a blizzard) to a place called “Cafe Puck” for a nice American-style Easter brunch.

We hope you all have a wonderful Easter — hopefully with a little sun!

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An invitation …

Full disclosure: This is a non-European update.

In about two weeks Katie and I will be back in the States for a 10-day visit. The true purpose of the trip home is for her to attend to some work needs in West Bend, Wisconsin. We have to make a similar trip home in late August. But our return to the Midwest also coincides with the 12th Annual Concert for Life which takes place on Sunday, April 22, at 4:00 p.m. at St. Paul the Apostle Church. It’s scheduled for later in the year than normal in order to take place during this previously-arranged business trip.

So I thought I would take this opportunity to invite all of you to the concert. I won’t go into length about the show’s history or why it’s worth attending. If you’re interested in that, I’ll point you to my website’s page on the Concert for Life tradition. Instead, I’ll simply say that it promises to be an unforgettable afternoon. The CFL is the highlight of my year every year and it’s something I look forward to with the utmost anticipation. But for whatever reason — I don’t know if it has to do with being away from home for so long, losing my grandpa to cancer this year or something else — but I’m craving the CFL even more this year. I’ve been working hard on the music side of things and from what I hear Warren Township High School’s army of FBLA kids have been working even harder on the logistics (including another fine set of raffles and silent auctions).

If we’re blessed with a nice crop of donations, this year’s show could push the all-time total for Gurnee CFLs to over $300,000. Not bad for an event that raised $6,000 in its first year.

This is my 12th CFL. I played at the first show as a teenager and I’ll play at this show as a 30-year-old (yikes!). A lot has changed in my life since that fateful show back in 2001. But one constant has been the Concert for Life. And though it’s grown in size and financial impact, its powerful message and ability to inspire was as strong on that Friday night 12 years ago as it will be in a few weeks.

More information about this year’s Concert for Life is available on my website. I hope to see you there. If nothing else, come for the German update. : )

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