Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

My Experience with Blue Apron

While recognizing that my somewhat cushy existence as an at-home dad/musician/writer doesn’t give me much leeway for complaining, after being the primary meal planner and preparer of the house for the past twenty years, I decided that I needed a break.  It wasn’t so much the shopping and cooking that bothered me as it was the planning.  Deciding what to eat in order to satisfy everyone’s tastes and restrictions was getting to be a mental chore, so for my 50th birthday I requested a gift certificate to Blue Apron, a meal delivery service that supplies its customers with all the ingredients needed to cook recipes you choose on-line.  Easy peasy, and it seemed like a fine antidote to the meal planning virus I’d contracted. 

While I’ve enjoyed aspects of the service, after eight weeks of using Blue Apron, I’ve decided that the pros don’t outweigh the cons, and this morning I cancelled my service.  Let me preface this by saying that if both my wife and I were working full-time, I might not be so quick to abort the mission.  The fact that I have a lot of flexibility to shop and prepare meals changes the ledger considerably.

So why did I cancel?  There were three things that made me feel uneasy about the service, as good as it might be. 

First, it’s not cheap.  I of course knew that going in, but seeing the bill show up on the credit card each week started to wear on me, especially knowing full-well that I could easily drive to a grocery store to pick up whatever food I needed at a fraction of the cost.  I was paying $10 per person per meal, so $80 a week.  This is not unbelievably expensive, and I doubt a company could do it for much less, but nevertheless, price was one nagging concern.

Second, I found my shopping to be much less frequent, which on the surface is a good thing, but my trips became so infrequent and my habits so poor that our food inventory suffered as a result.  It was so easy to say “I’ve got dinner all set for tonight – we can hang in there one more day before I do another shopping run” that we’d be left to face a breakfast of toast and a lunch of peanut butter sandwiches (not that there's anything wrong with that).  We also kept running out of basic items like milk, yogurt and bananas.  In short, I grew terribly lazy and used Blue Apron as an excuse to avoid shopping at all costs.

But the biggest reason for cancelling the service is the staggering amount of waste created each week by the Blue Apron deliveries.  As a guy who started recycling two decades before curbside pickup was a thing, unnecessary waste is an important point for me.  Ellen Cushing wrote a nice summary of the waste incurred with a service like Blue Apron (competitors have similar issues) and the somewhat disingenuous claim that most of the materials can be recycled.  Blue Apron used to have a free recycling program that allowed customers to send all the contents back to the company, but this has been cancelled, no doubt due to the cost.

If Blue Apron or a service like it could be localized so that – like the Chicago-based Oberweis dairy deliver service – we could have a cooler with reusable ice packs, I would be on-board.  Eliminate the box and the ice packs, include a synthetic insulator to separate cold items from the rest, and this could be a service that yields nothing more than a few small plastic bags.  

There are also grocery delivery businesses like Instacart and Peapod that are good fits for some people, and I may one day yield to that temptation, but for now I’m going to go back to shopping more regularly and forcing my family to share the burden by choosing a few meals each week that they want me to shop and cook for.  At least that’s the plan.  How long before it goes awry?

Al Stewart in Chicago

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Over the years I’ve met a few people who so dislike Al Stewart, the mere mention of his name leads to something akin to a gag reflex.  During freshman year in college, my old friend Tom, upon hearing that I owned a greatest hits CD of said Stewart, grimaced as if he’d just sampled a plate of cow dung.  Nevertheless, I continued to be a casual fan of Stewart, having purchased four of his records on vinyl – all of them either used or cutouts (remember those?) – but not going beyond 24 Carrots.  When Russians & Americans came out in 1984, I was tempted to take the plunge with my hard-earned money from Kolb’s Garden Center, but instead opted for Elton John’s Breaking Hearts. 

Seven years later, when I learned that Stewart was playing not three blocks away from my apartment at a tiny stage on Cathedral Square in Milwaukee on a sunny afternoon – not exactly the venue or the time of a major rock star – I figured, what the hell.  I walked alone, took a seat, and Stewart took the stage with accompanying musician Peter White and played a great set in front of a sparse crowd, but what stuck with me most were the haunting images of a then-unreleased song called “Trains,” another of Stewart’s history lessons, culminating in the tragic turns that locomotives took in the carrying out of Nazi orders during the Holocaust.

Last night, I was once again graced with a fine concert by Stewart, this time at the City Winery in Chicago, the first of two nights with a particular album highlighted.  I opted to see The Year of the Cat from 1976 rather than Past, Present and Future from three years prior.  What can I say?  My fandom of Stewart’s catalog only goes so deep, but it was great to hear the man once again after twenty-seven years.

Opening with three tracks (“Sirens of Titan,” “Antarctica,” and “Time Passages”) prior to delving into the evening’s featured album, 72-year-old Stewart’s voice sounded rather thin, but since he never had a powerhouse voice to begin with, all that was truly missed was some of the high range, and he had to weave in alternative melodies on “Time Passages” and many of the songs from Year of the Cat.  Dressed in dress slacks and long-sleeve button-down shirt, he looked more like a banker on lunch-break than an artist, but Stewart wasn’t even hip in the 1970s, so what would one expect when he finally reached his 70s?

What Stewart lacked in singing voice he made up for in telling stories, offering several insights between songs that kept the audience (my son may have won the prize for youngest attendee) engaged and – often – laughing.  Stewart mentioned that for a folk-rock historian, having a hit was not enviable, and so he began Year of the Cat with a song about a naval battle in 1591 (“Lord Grenville”) followed by another history lesson with “On the Border.”  Alas, the second song was a hit, as was the album’s title track, perhaps making Stewart very uncool among his folk-rock brethren.  He also told a story of how he began to play the guitar in the middle of nowhere, England, only to eventually find another guitarist nearby named Robert Fripp, the eventual virtuoso of King Crimson fame.  Not a bad find, even if Stewart ultimately rebuffed Fripp’s insistence on learning jazz chords. Introducing the song “Broadway Hotel,” Stewart explained that the song was about a seduction at a hotel in Portland, Oregon.  He waited a beat, then added: “I highly recommend it.”

Joined on-stage was Stewart’s opening and accompanying band, Chicago’s very own Empty Pockets, a stellar act whose six-song opening set of tight harmonies and soulful melodies fit well into the evening’s performances.  The standout for me was guitarist Josh Solomon, who nailed every part required of Stewart’s catalogue and then some, including a fine electric piano solo that surpassed anything I could have performed.  (I hate it when guitarists can also play keys better than me!)  Also on-stage was multi-instrumentalist Marc Macisso, who hammed it up for the appreciative audience, particularly during the signature sax solos of “Time Passages” and “Year of the Cat.”

Gone are the days when a melodic history lesson could become a radio hit, but for one night in Chicago, history was cool again.  I had asked several people to joined me for the evening, but none took the bait, and my son, who knew little of Stewart prior to the concert, said afterwards, “I’m glad your friends said no to the show.”  So there you are, Al.  You’ve earned the appreciation of a 16-year-old.  Not a bad feat for an aging rocker.

Brewers in First Place (for now)

It’s the end of May, and the Milwaukee Brewers are in first place. This ain’t my first rodeo when it comes to rooting for a first-place team in May. Even those with short memories will recall that the Crew led the NL Central at the All-Star break last year by 5 ½ games, only to falter in July and fall behind the Cubs, ultimately finishing one game short of the second wild card. The standings were even crueler to Milwaukee in 2014, when the team had the best record in baseball at the end of June but finished 31-47, good for third-place, two games over .500. 

At the beginning of this year I predicted a disappointing 84 victories mostly due to the starting pitching. I wrote then, “My guess is that before it’s all said and done, a deal will be made for pitching, but this can only happen if the Brewers play well enough during the first half to make a mid-season trade viable. Can they hang in there long enough?” It looks like they might, which makes a mid-season trade for a starting pitcher a very likely outcome that could push the Crew into a legitimate playoff threat. If starter Jimmy Nelson can return from a long stint on the DL and contribute, that would be an added bonus, but one I hope the team isn’t banking on.

While Brewer victories in April came at the expense of terrible teams – notably the Padres, Royals, Marlins and Reds – there's no denying that their performance in May over the likes of Arizona (albeit, a struggling Arizona), New York, St. Louis and Colorado has been impressive. They finished the month eleven games over .500 without losing back-to-back games, and while the starting pitching and hitting have had moments of effectiveness, there’s no question that the Brewers’ success to date is the result of its relief core, a complete one-eighty from last year when the starting pitching was quite good, but the bullpen consistently lost leads in late innings. This year, the relief staff has been incredible - the Brewers are 30-0 in games they've lead after seven innings. Credit Jeremy Jeffress and Josh Hader for sure, but also credit Counsell, who’s shed the firm roles that baseball has been married to for so many years. Gone are the days of former Brewer manager Ron Roenicke reserving specific players for specific innings. Instead, Counsell has used relief pitchers for two or even two-plus innings, and general manager David Stearns has utilized player options effectively, sending arms down and bringing up rested arms at key moments.

Another factor has been the consistent offensive performances of off-season pickups Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich, along with Jesus Aguilar, who began the year as the third-string first baseman but who's been on fire since filling in for injured Eric Thames and Ryan Braun. What happens when Thames returns is open to debate, but I wouldn’t rule out a trade that includes either Thames or Aguilar, along with either outfielders Keon Broxton – currently in triple A – or Domingo Santana. Obtaining a starting pitcher for some combination of those four players would be a justifiable move come July.

One issue that I have with Counsell and that will likely need to be addressed is his aversion to allow starting pitchers to go much beyond the fifth inning even when they’ve had success and have modest pitch counts. His philosophy seems to be: “We’ve got a good relief staff, let’s use them.” This has worked so far, and Counsell has been quick to give starters Chacin and Guerra the heave-ho after five innings and only 75 pitches (yesterday, he let Guerra go six with 90 pitches thrown – an improvement). Will this lead to tired arms in the bullpen?  Or could it actually help the starters down the stretch? Hard to say, but I’m more worried about the former. If Hader or Jeffress become ineffective come August, watch out.

But what makes me more optimistic this year than anything is the fact that last weekend the Brewers demoted shortstop Orlando Arcia to Triple AAA and placed backup catcher Jett Bandy on assignment. To me, these moves spoke volumes, indicating that the Brewers are no longer going to put up with batting averages of .190. Players need to be held accountable. Arcia is back due to an ankle injury to Tyler Saladino, but the message was sent: perform or get sent down.

There’s little point in discussing how the Crew would fair were they to make the playoffs and face the likes of Lester, Scherzer, and Arietta on a regular basis. The team has proven that they can’t hit high-quality pitching, having been shut out as many times in two months as in all of 2017, including five against the Cubs, who are now 7-1 against the Brewers. But the goal for now is to make the playoffs and then see what kind of strategy can be formulated to beat high-caliber teams. Counsell has proven to do what it takes to win games, and if a few hitters get hot at the right time, you never know what might transpire in October. I only hope they get the chance.

Will I eat my words if they win the division? Gladly, dipped in chocolate with a bourbon chaser.  I don't want to share with you what lengths of unethical behavior I would happily conduct to see the Milwaukee Brewers win a World Series. Saying, “I was wrong,” is the least of my concerns.

Rob Lowe in Chicago

I purchased tickets to Lowe’s “Stories I Only Tell My Friends: Live” on a lark.  I emailed my wife last December and wrote: “This could either be really fun or embarrassingly bad.  What do you think?”  We decided that either way, it would be worth the price of admission.  It was, and not because the show was a trainwreck the way, say, Lowe’s singing performance at the 1989 Academy Awards show was.  Instead, the evening was a perfect mix of anecdotes, history and funny one-liners, with a few moments of enlightenment thrown in.  Unlike Carol Burnett, whose talking tour I attended two years ago, Lowe didn’t shamelessly self-promote his book and he presented a tighter, better-rehearsed performance. 

I’m not a Rob Lowe fan, per se – not the way many in the audience at Saturday night’s event at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago were.  The woman next to me, who’s vision was blocked during a pre-show slideshow that briefly projected Lowe’s shirtless cover from Vanity Fair, went to her phone, brought up the photo, and kept it as her screen saver.  There were fans holding signs, fans who applauded to even the most obscure movie reference, and fans who jumped up and down when the spotlight illuminated Mr. Lowe after the slideshow concluded with a scene from West Wing. 

It felt slightly canned at times, especially when the audience didn’t react quite the way he expected (his story about meeting Lucille Ball at the same ’89 Oscars was really cool, but when he revealed her photo, it didn’t quite get the reception that it probably should have, which left him forced to instill meaning more forcefully), but the show was highly entertaining, partly because Lowe is – simply put – so damn likable. 

These types of talking tours – which I wish more actors would conduct – are successful only if the audience can truly relate to the actor, and there’s no better way than for the performer to master the art of self-deprecation.  Lowe made fun of his looks, which so often capitalized on his more feminine side – especially early in his career – and his “Midwestern people-pleaser” personality that has sometimes led him to say yes to gigs that were downright embarrassing.  His description of Barry Levinson’s facial response to Lowe’s aforementioned 1989 Oscar performance was priceless.

Lowe can do more than facial expressions: his impersonations Saturday night included Bill Clinton, Cary Grant, Robert Wagner, Francis Ford Coppola and Tom Cruise, who sounds like as big of a douchebag in real life as many of us suspect he is.  But Lowe’s show wasn’t a celebrity-bashing performance.  He made it clear that assholes generally don’t last long in the industry, and that the bigger the star, the nicer they are.  This is good to hear, and it sounds like Lowe, with his modest roots in Dayton, Ohio, hasn’t let success go to his head.  He deftly answered fan’s questions during the Q&A portion of the evening, and he lovingly talked about his wife of twenty-seven years, his two adult sons, his father who was in attendance, and the people who helped him during his recovery from alcohol and drug dependence.

The breadth of Lowe’s career is astonishing for an actor who’s only 54 years old.  It’s already spanned forty years and has included numerous movies and TV shows you might have forgotten about.  Remember Brothers and Sisters?  How about Dr. Vegas, a show that lasted all of six episodes and denied Lowe a chance at staring in another little program called Grey’s Anatomy?  He admitted that his two most important works were West Wing, which led the cast to a meet and greet with President Clinton in the oval office, and The Outsiders, a telling of the classic S. E. Hinton novel that springboarded the careers of not only Lowe, but Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Diane Lane and Matt Dillon.  When asked about his favorite movie and favorite movie location, Lowe quickly responded About Last Night, filmed in Chicago.

I could kick myself for not having seen shows by Carrie Fisher, Nora Ephron and Peter Gallagher, and I’m glad my wife and I decided to take a risk with Lowe.  I wasn’t exactly a fan when I entered the building, but left the theater with a bigger appreciation for the man.

Tea, Family and Performing (A Concert Recap)

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I don't drink hot liquids, save for that time at a UW football game when my family and I nearly froze to death until a round of hot chocolate saved our lives and saved our chance to watch a conference-winning 70-23 trouncing of Northwestern (woo hoo!), but last Saturday I learned the value and pleasure of tea, as I struggled mightily to keep from losing my voice on the day of the first concert of original material I've ever performed.  I started to lose my voice on Friday, and this mild sucker-punch of fate kept me from sleeping well, which probably compounded whatever nagging virus my immune system was struggling to fend off.   Fortunately, I had not one, but two college vocalists staying at my house that morning, and both recommended I drink Throat Coat tea with lemon and honey (plus drink lots of water, avoid caffeine and alcohol, rest my voice, etc.).  I made a Target run, gathered the necessary ingredients` and proceeded to consume more tea in one day than in my previous fifty years combined.

I don't know if it was the tea or an assortment of other factors, but I managed to hang in there long enough to make it through an hour-long performance before finally crying uncle on the high notes of the last song we performed and preemptively striking the potential encore we had in our back pockets.  But all in all, it was a successful and enjoyable show with a great turnout (somewhere around 140 people) of lots of friends and family, including a score of attendees who schlepped down from Wisconsin.  Very cool.  Even more important, I was joined on-stage by my son Sam, his buddy Julian, family-friend Bennett, and my daughter Jessica, making the event less of "me, me, me" and more of "we, we, we."  At least I hope it felt that way.  

I'd been thinking about playing a show of original music for years - for well over a decade - but there's an element of risk associated with such an undertaking, most notably, "What if no one shows up?"  But of almost equal concern is finding musicians to play the material.  Most of the musicians I invited to attend last Saturday were unable to make it, not because they didn't want to, but because they were performing elsewhere, so gathering a group of musicians to rehearse and play a free show is a huge undertaking.  But around two or three years ago or so, something interesting happened - the musicians in my home started to sing and play with such expertise that I had a built-in band!  (My sister calls us the Von Heinzes).  How cool is that?  Suddenly, playing a show of original material became a real possibility.

A possibility, but also one that needed to be pounced on.  I've only got two years before the drummer of the family flies the coop, by which point both of my daughters will be working full-time somewhere probably far away; 2018 may turn out to be the sweet spot, that small window during which an event like last Saturday could be pulled off.  I joke that maybe we can do something like this again in ten years when I turn sixty, but the truth is that might not even be possible.  But for a brief moment in time the stars aligned.  We formed a band six months ago, recorded an album, invited a few guests to join us, and for one hour in May of 2018, we played our hearts out.  It was a helluva lot of fun.

During our performance, we crammed in fourteen songs spanning over twenty years of material, focusing most on tracks from the latest effort, Heinz & Wrobel's The Great Divide.  These are some of the most driven, exciting and intentional songs I've ever recorded, and it felt good to give them their due on stage in front of an audience.  For those who'd like a reminder of what we played, or for those who were unable to make the show, below is the set list of our performance and links to the albums the songs derive from.  There are other songs I wish we could have performed, but instrumentation and musical flow dictated a certain kind of set.  Maybe next time (might there be a next time?) we can do a different type of show and highlight a whole different set of songs.  That would really be cool.

I must be going now, as my voice still isn't in good shape and I've got a box of Throat Coat calling me.  Perhaps before the next show I could also learn how to sing properly!

Here's the list:

May 5, 2018
1)  The Unexamined Road - from The Great Divide
2)  Are You Gonna Fight For Her? - from The Great Divide
3)  Diverge - from The Great Divide
4)  Brown Eyes - from The Palisades
5)  Why Can't You Be More Like They Are? - from The Palisades
6)  Summer 1990 - from Piano Solos and Rocks off on Humboldt
7)  Your Mother's House - from The Great Divide
8)  We Are Two - from Better Than This
9)  Hobo Woman - from Trainsongs
10)  Cold - from The Great Divide
11)  Daisy Chain - from Warts and All
12)  Daddy's At Home - from Better Than This
13)  My Mark - from Pause
14)  End Game - from The Great Divide

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved