Editor's Note: This is the first of a two part series.
And with a blink of an eye, Minyans in the Mountains has morphed into a memory. I often opine that trying to explain Minyanville to someone who hasn’t experienced it is like trying to explain a sunset to a blind man. It’s equally difficult to express the beauty of this gathering as Minyans from around the world migrated to Ojai to soak in some sunsets together.
The genesis of this event can be traced back to Scott Reamer who, while enduring some difficult family “stuff” in 2004, suggested that we hold a retreat near his second home in Crested Butte, Colorado. I wasn’t sure who—if anyone—would attend the inaugural event but, as is my nature, I immediately assessed the risk. “We’ll fly out the professors,” I said, “and hopefully a few folks will join us in the mountains. Worst case scenario, it’ll serve as a group getaway for those who have been so very kind to us.”
Eighty folks ended up in Colorado and the seed was planted for the following year. We began planning for MiM2 in March, scouring the map for a venue suitable for such an important occasion. President Fish had visited to Ojai six years ago and tossed out the recommendation to the room. Two site visits, countless man (woman) hours, five months and tremendous attention to detail later, MVHQ settled into our hillside hub.
Collins, Pepe, Billy and Farley arrived Saturday to scout the grounds and set up shop. By the time Vanessa (event coordinator) and I arrived on Sunday, a palpable energy was evident in the soft mountain breeze. President Fish touched down on Monday to assume his position at the head of the table and we mapped out our best laid plans. 170 guests were arriving in a few short days and we knew that the devil, as always, would reside in the detail.
As we readied to greet our “Circle of Trust” on Wednesday, I quickly dipped into my email to check my messages. And there it was. “Toddo, my brother. I’m so very sorry but I threw out my back and can barely walk. I’ve sent Terri and the kids ahead but I’m unable to come. I know it’ll be a huge success and I wish I could be there. You’re gonna do great! Succo.”
It wasn’t his content that I would miss, although I knew that alotta folks were coming out to hear his insightful take on the tape. There have been few people—if any—who have meant so much to the Minyan mission or helped me shoulder the tough times and rough spots that are part of any meaningful undertaking. I simply wanted to share this experience with my friend. MiM2 wouldn’t be the same without John but I knew that his health took precedence over my selfish motivations.
“No worries, bro,” I shot back in an email, “take care of you, rest up and we’ll circle back for some Succofests when I return to the big city.” I hit the send button and leaned back in my chair, taking in the breathtaking view from my perch high atop the Ojai spa. Five minutes passed. Maybe ten. I reached for my phone and called my fallen comrade in Ohio. “John, go to the doctor, find some pain killers and get yourself on the plane!” As always, John was one step ahead of me. “I’m at the doctor, he gave me some medicine and he’s confident that I will be able to fly tomorrow.” Bingo.
One by one, familiar faces—and, in some cases, familiar names—arrived at the Marabella outdoor patio to watch the sunset and feast on delicious fare. Jeff Saut. Bernie Schaeffer. Rich Gula. Jason Goepfert. Carole Harrison. Allan Millstein. Fil Zucchi. Neal Dingmann. Lynn Halstead. Phil Erlanger. Jeff Macke. Laurie McGuirk. Greg Weldon. Charlie Poe. The Kellners. Vitaliy. David Miller. Suzanne Ohayon. Charlie Poe. Multitudes of Minyans, gathered in the mountain air, mingling and smiling as hugs and handshakes built a benevolent bridge through our budding network.
Dinner finished up and most Minyans found their way around the fireplace to listen to Suzanne softly serenade the piano player. Others made their way to Jimmy’s Pub for an old fashioned Australian night cap with Laurie McGuirk and his main squeeze Lisa. Me? I spent some QT with Jeff Macke and snuck back to my bunker to dig in with the big Fish and the lovely and talented Vanessa. It was “game on” in the city of critters and we knew that getting there was only half the battle.
Thursday arrived in the blink of an eye and we shuttled 25 lucky folks into the open air jeeps for their Sideway’s wine tasting excursion. Having been on this particular trip before, I knew that they were in for a treat as they buckled in and headed to the hills. That left us seven hours to properly primp the pool and prepare for the evening kick-off parade. After an early C.O.T brunch overlooking the mountains, I spent several hours finishing up some last minute details with Vanessa while the boys streamed seamless Buzz from the hospitality suite and Kevin, with his new sidekick Chachi, prepared the main room for the main event.
On my way to check in on MVHQ, I ran into Jeff Saut, Bernie Schaeffer and Minyan Mark Bloudek and decided to grab a lazy lunch on the outdoor dining patio. To paint the picture, our table was nestled under a wildly colorful array of flowers and perched near the 13th tee, just far enough from the guitar player to subconsciously soak in his vibe. As we talked about the tape, our families, our dreams and our common fabric, I leaned back and smiled slightly. This, I thought, is exactly what Minyans should be doing while in the mountains.
The program guide in our gift bags informed Minyans that the opening soirée would begin at 5:00 pm and I arrived right on time to find a jam packed pool. And this was no pigs-in-a-blanket keg party, I assure you, there were open bars, passed shell fish, fresh turkey and brisket carving stations, wine and cheese pairings and a slew of new fare for those a bit daring. More importantly, the Minyans were out in force and itching to begin their mountain mingle adventure.
To be A.D.D is one thing. To be A.D.D in a sensory overload environment, with 175 fellow Minyans, new professors and families to meet and various “to do’s” still littering my radar, is another task entirely. Tom DeMark? Damn glad to meet you. Steve Shobin and Tony Dwyer? So happy that you could make it. Doctor J and Herb Greenberg? How was your trip? Mom? Just please promise that you’ll stay off the mechanical bull. New faces, old faces, repeats, newbies, adults, kids, babies…Minyans…everywhere.
As the sun found its way over the western horizon, it was time for me to introduce our first key note speaker. I hadn’t really prepared any text as I knew the basic gist of what I was about to say. I finished nursing my drink, found my way to the outdoor podium and gave the microphone a little verbal “one two.” Kevin killed the tunes, I cleared my throat and began to speak.
“Ladies and gentleman,” I began as I scoured the multitude of faces, “We have Minyans.” I turned to take in the scenery behind me, “We have mountains.” I returned my gaze to the smiling faces in front of me. “We have Minyans in the Mountains, Part Deux!” A cheer erupted from around the pool as I began to settle into a groove. “But before we begin, I must take a moment to thank Team Minyan for their Herculean effort.” I acknowledged Fish, thanked the editorial team and mentioned the group that was helping to produce the event. Heck, I even thanked Farley who, as I would soon find out, was already quite thankful in an entirely different way.
I continued with my shpiel until I noticed that a small group was laughing in the far corner of the pool. And then, in what seemed like slow motion, Kevin began walking towards me, head down, big smile on his face and his head shaking back and forth. Reflexively, I looked down to make sure my pants were zipped and, of course, they were. He continued towards me, now locking eyes, when I realized that there were no words coming from my mouth and nary a sound at the pool.
Have you ever had ‘that’ dream when you’re giving a speech to a large audience and suddenly realize that you’re naked and everyone knows but you? That’s pretty much how I felt when Kevin finally arrived at the podium, leaned over into my ear and said “dude—you forgot to thank Vanessa.”
Now, for those who aren’t intimately involved with Minyanville, lemme set the stage a bit. Vanessa has been incessantly busting her hump on MiM2 for many months. Further, as a close friend for a number of years, she’s grown very near and dear to my heart. For me to "space" thanking her was, as Jeff Macke so eloquently phrased it, "a moment that would make Hillary Swank blush.” I kick saved a beaut of a recovery but the damage was done. In a city full of critters, I was in the dog house.
Thankfully, I had the savvy soothsayer sommelier on deck and summoned the energy to channel the collective focus on Jeff “As Good as it Gets” Saut of Raymond James. Jeff took the podium and proceeded to deliver a riveting keynote that stole the show from the word go. As he eloquently opined on the state of the grind, we were, to a person, on the edge of our seats. In a forum focused on “controlling risk and staying in the game,” Jeff humbled us with his wise words and thoughtful prose.
Editor's Note: Click here for part two of The Ojai Chronicles.