Sunday, December 31, 2006

Fu-Ki Sake

Time to turn the page on another year. We began ushering out 2006 on a sad note, attending the memorial service for a family friend who passed away a few days after Christmas after a year-long battle with cancer. To her own dismay, she hung on for four weeks after doctors first gave her the "any day now" diagnosis. In the end, it was a moment of relief that the suffering was finally over. After James Brown and Gerald Ford died, I wondered aloud, "Who will the third one be?" because celebrities tend to pass on in threes.

As such ceremonies tend to be, the service was a surreal mix of smiles and laughter and, "It's so good to see you" mixed with frowns and tears and, "So sorry it's under these circumstances." But Casey and I got to catch up with Matt and Denise, who flew in from Seattle with their daughter, before gathering my sister and making good time from Red Bank to Braintree in just about five hours flat, including the initial fill-up at the gas station and a 15- or 20-minute break for dinner on the way.

We knocked on Bryan's back door on the deck just after 10 p.m., thoroughly startling Michael, Cathy and him as they sat in the dark watching a movie. First order of business was to test combinations for the sake for tonight's New Year's party, but after one bottle had been kicked, three or four variations yielded one unanimous composition that will be reconstructed tonight, no doubt to the guests' high praise.

The sake must have energized us, the sugar and the sweetness outweighing the alcohol, because after finishing Little Miss Sunshine and watching various Saturday Night Live sketches online and conducting other YouTube searches, the background music became dance music, the six of us jumping around the living room and singing along -- shouting along, perhaps -- with songs from, as they might say on the radio, the 70s, 80s, 90s and today. A few rounds of Name That Tune later, and it was 2 a.m., and though not tired, I made the first move in calling it a night and trudged upstairs.

Awake and alert at 10 a.m. today, we've now kicked the party prep into full gear with a good two hours down and about three more to go before we break out the drinks and start toasting new years around the world. We've already missed Kamchatka, Australia, Japan, Singapore, China and half of Russia (not to mention everything in between the aforementioned locales), but we've got India, the Middle East, Moscow, Europe and Africa ahead of us.

And so, in whatever language best suits you, Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas in the city

Rockefeller Center starbursts

I had to put up something new for the holiday, and this is one of my favorites of a recent holiday photo excursion around Manhattan. Dozens of images are in my Christmas set on Flickr.

Merry happy.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Happy peanut song ...

I know you know it. You have to. How could you not?

Yesterday, I walked into work at noon and heard the song on TV. "It's been a while since I've heard that," I thought to myself.

That would not remain the case, however. Leaving ESPNews on all day, we must've heard the song 20 times, often within minutes of the last time. It started to drive us crazy. We wondered if Snickers had suddenly come into extra advertising dollars and bought up a slew of spots on the ESPN family of networks. At the end of the day, we wondered how many times we'd heard it and wished we'd kept track.

Today, at 11:55 a.m., it came on again. And I didn't drop the ball. One co-worker who had been in for a few hours said he'd heard it at least twice, so I counted those instances as well. And then I started keeping track.

Here are the results:

3 - 11:55 a.m.
4 - Noon
5 - 12:26 p.m.
6 - 12:30 p.m.
7 - 12:52 p.m.
8 - 12:58 p.m.
9 - 1:35 p.m.
10 - 1:42 p.m.
11 - 1:50 p.m.
12 - 1:57 p.m.

13 - 3:19 p.m.
14 - 4:20 p.m.
15 - 4:40 p.m.
16 - 5 p.m.
17 - 5:19 p.m.
18 - 5:44 p.m.
19 - 5:59 p.m.
20 - 6:10 p.m.
21 - 6:24 p.m.
22 - 6:41 p.m.

It's ridiculous! It was aired twice within as little as four minutes! And I'm sure I missed some in that 2-4:20 p.m. range, because I was busy at the time and didn't always have the volume turned up enough to hear, and it's possible I missed one or two airings because I wasn't looking at the TV.

What's the reason? What's the point!? Are they trying to make us all mad? I used to love the bit, particularly the song, but it's just gotten old. In two days. Two days of nearly nonstop airings.

I'm finished now and ready to post, but Pardon the Interruption is currently in commercial, and I don't want to miss one last airing.


Waiting ...


Waiting ...


OK, it's back. No airing between 6:41 and 6:49 p.m. ET.

Resume your lives.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

All burned out

It's all Bryan's fault.

He came down this weekend with his friend Michael and among all the other good times we had, we also put Burnout back in the ol' Xbox and spent a few hours on Friday night and Saturday morning crashing cars and racing on the streets of Palm Bay and Crystal Lake. And now, I find myself wrapped up in the game again, obsessed with completing the next task to be unlocked -- which happens to be a six-race series in which I have to finish first in each. The worst part is that I had won the first five two days ago before a knock at the door. I pressed the start button to pause it and let the maintenance man in. But in pressing start, I had merely skipped the intro to the race and jumped to the start -- and when I looked at the TV, my car sat idle at the starting line while the other three were nowhere in sight.

Anyway, enough of that. On Saturday -- after our Burnout sessions -- the four of us drove across the George Washington Bridge to the New York Botanical Gardens for the Holiday Train Show.

Comin' 'round the bend

An artist uses natural materials to recreate dozens of New York landmarks -- both famous and historic -- which are then placed amid the mostly green displays in the Haupt Conservatory, with the track laid around them.

First, the layout takes you through some standard, educational displays in the vast conservatory -- including a 110-degree (well it sure seemed like it) reproduction of a rain forest that I couldn't linger in too long on account of my winter coat and my tendency to overheat when the temperature in any room gets higher than about 72 degrees.

The show is expansive and fun, but I think I prefer instead the holiday train display at Citigroup Center in Manhattan. For one thing, it's free (not that the $18 at the botanical gardens wasn't worth it -- OK, maybe it was worth about 10 bucks), but my personal preference is for the recreation of tiny little towns, communities and landscapes, so for that reason I'm partial to Citigroup's display, which has buildings, trains, cars and figurines in a relative scale. At least the display at the gardens was less crowded and we were free to move about more easily, rather than being herded through a line under the pressure to keep moving so that the people behind us could get a look at the next scene along the way.

Intending to find out what Gingerbread Adventures was all about, we headed deeper into the complex after exiting the train show -- but then got sidetracked. Michael walked into the gift shop, and it was all over. I'm not sure what this impulse cost him and Bryan, but Casey and I left with $80 worth of Christmas ornaments, including copper-coated ornaments of an acorn and a grape leaf and a silver-dipped mistletoe to replace the flattened, mangled, mangy, moldy one we threw out last year. But from the looks of the Gingerbread Adventures, which is to say it appears geared towards children, it was worth 80 dollars to skip the walk across the grounds to find out the truth.

Just beyond the gift shop stood a cluster of trees -- OK, it's a botanical garden, there are trees everywhere. But just beyond the gift shop, the "reflecting pool" had sprouted a stand of evergreens, which had then been bedazzled with lights and ornaments for the holidays.

Reflecting trees

It is just me, or does that look like a rather tiny reflecting pool? I mean, to me, this is a reflecting pool. Here, it looks like they built a foot-high wall around a depression in the middle of this plaza where water tends to collect and called it a reflecting pool.

Anyway, after that, we were off, back across the river to New Jersey and lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Englewood before taking the bus into Manhattan so we could indulge in wine at dinner and not have to worry about driving home.

On Sunday, after seeing a hilarious play which I may elaborate upon later, we parted ways, and once I had a moment to myself, I fired up the Xbox and began my recent quest to conquer six races in Burnout.

Reflecting in the reflecting pool

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election Day dreams

I dreamt last night that I was at some sort of party -- a fund-raiser, perhaps -- but it was sort of the high school bake sale kind of function. And it was at someone's house. Standing at one folding table was John Kerry and his wife (though not so much Teresa Heinz Kerry as Maya Rudolph playing Teresa Heinz Kerry), and I asked someone if it would be inappropriate for me to go up to the senator, tell him I admired him, and then suggested that he leave the jokes to Al Gore.

I'm not quite sure what that means.

And then I had a mild moment of trepidation when I went to vote this morning, because our polling place was using the electonic machines for the first time. When I talked to my sister later, I told her my thoughts, and she told me that when she voted earlier in the morning, only one of the two machines was working.

"Which one was out?" I asked her.

"The left one wasn't working when I went in," she said.

"Hmm ... I voted in the left one. Seemed to work fine for me."

Let's hope so. As I was leaving, I almost said out loud to the nice attendant, "This has a paper trail, right?" They'd best have my vote in there. I wish I could see it, not that I have seen any others in the past, but still. These electronic voting machines seem to be like umpires or other sports arbiters: you only hear about them when they do something wrong. So I hope we don't hear too much about these machines in the coming days.

It sounds like voter turnout is at highs not seen in the past few elections at many places around the country. Hopefully, that means good things.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Barenaked at Radio City

Thank God. After tomorrow, the political ads will be gone.

But the Christmas ads are already here. And I haven't even loaded the holiday songs onto my iPod yet!

I can't wait to hear the Barenaked Ladies' holiday songs again after seeing them last night at Radio City Music Hall. A fabulously charged show that Casey and I thoroughly enjoyed -- to the point of being Those Fans (not in a bad way).

We couldn't help ourselves -- after two glasses of wine at lunch and four (or five) beers afterwards, we were the fans who stand throughout the show, dancing and signing along. Sitting in the upper mezzanine (or whatever they call the smaller level between the mezzanine and the top level), we were at the end of an aisle with three empty seats behind us in front of the wall. No one to bother, no reason to sit down. There was an empty seat to Casey's left, so we each moved over once and left the empty seat between me and the two women to my right.

From start to finish, we stood and boogied, sang and clapped and wore ourselves out. We were parched afterwards, hustling to Duane Reade -- "Have you noticed there's one on every corner?" Ed Robertson asked at one point -- for a bottle each to drink on the drive home.

There were some great classic and standards played, not to mention the expected between-songs banter and improvised raps and ditties. I especially was glad to hear "Brian Wilson," "Grade 9" and "Falling For the First Time." And while Casey is not a fan of "Fun & Games" off the new Barenaked Ladies Are Me -- it's the frenzied circus-like bridge in the middle that irks her -- I love the direct and daring lyrics.

The setlist:

Wind It Up
The Old Apartment
Sound Of Your Voice
Grade 9
Stomach Vs. Heart
In The Car
Falling For The First Time
Maybe Katie
Straw Hat & Old Dirty Hank (acoustic)
Fun & Games (acoustic)
Too Little Too Late
Bank Job
Angry People
Pinch Me
It's All Been Done
One Week
Brian Wilson

If I Had $1 Million

Call & Answer

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Ethan Hawke is taller than I thought

Having gotten into the city with extra time before work yesterday, I took my time on the long walk along the block to work to notice the parking situations. Cleaning from 8:30 to 10 a.m. on one side of the block on Mondays and Thursdays and on the other side on Tuesdays and Fridays. Next to our building, there's no parking until 6 p.m. on weekdays. It's going to be tougher for me to drive in these days and find convenient, nearby parking, now that I know the police are tight with enforcing the No Standing zone along the south side of the building now that the scaffolding has been removed and the signs are more apparent.

So by taking that extra time to stake out some possible parking locations, I only got a glimpse of Ethan Hawke from behind, at a distance of half a block, when I turned the corner and ran into a coworker also on his way in. With sunglasses on, we didn't recognize one another right away and he was staring off at Hawke walking away down the street, pointing the actor out to me.

"The tall one?" I asked, indicating the one man whose head rose above those around him.

"Yep," my coworker replied. "I always freeze when I run into celebrities. I don't know if I should be calling my friends or not."

I'd always thought Hawke was about 5-foot-8 or 5-9, but he's easily the 5-10 that his IMDB bio says he is (who uses half-inch measurements once you get out of fifth grade anyway?).

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Previous pumkin efforts

For the public record, our previous works of pumkin arts. The stencils, as with those in the previous entry, were designed by Casey; I just did the cutting on (in this case) Johnny Damon, Trogdor and Master Shake.

Johnny Damon, 2004

Trogdor, 2004

Master Shake and Meatwad, 2005

The Cheat, 2004

Strong Sad, 2004

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Halloween cheer

At some point a few years ago, simply carving traditional jack o' lanterns with triangle eyes and jagged mouths became too simple for our Halloween observances every year. So to follow up on previous designs of Johnny Damon, Trogdor and the gang from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, we went with Mr. Met (mine) and Vincent and Jeffrey from the recently completed Project Runway season.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Cider river on 15th Street

I'm not a coffee drinker. I think I tried an iced coffee or something chilled back in high school, when, as juniors, we'd pile into the car or cars of the one or two of us old enough to drive and hang out at the coffee house. This was back when Red Bank had only three coffee houses. Now, you've got three on one corner, with a Starbucks across from No Ordinary Joe and half a dozen others within about a mile.

Anyway, can't stand the stuff, so I usually find myself holding my breath when I pass the giant exhaust fan on 15th Street that tends to blow hot air out of the Starbucks on the corner. (In summer, it's a strategic move as well as an olfactory one -- hot air blowing on you on a 95-degree day? Not nice.) But this evening, as I walked up 9th Avenue from 14th Street, taking a different approach after stopping for a sandwich before work, I paused in front of the Starbucks to wait for the light to change. And the smell was pleasant. Lovely, even. The sweet, sweet smell of apples -- of cider -- overwhelmed me and it felt nothing like New York. For a split second, I was on the corner of a quiet Main Street in some New England town. It might as well have been Grover's Corners.

I turned to my right to look inside, to see if there was some kind of cider special. Nothing. I looked over my left shoulder and found it: a man emptying a couple of large, brown catering drink jugs, the kind with spiggots and the kind that, I believe, can keep cold drinks cold and hot drinks hot. He was emptying them before putting them into a minivan, leaving a cider stream flowing six feet into a gutter, no doubt giving the rats a welcome change from the usual sludge that they get.

Friends and football

I had Monday off, so I planned to sleep in after working Sunday night -- the cap to a long day -- and then hunker down to recall the weekend before it was lost to me. While I failed at my intentions, Heather wasted no time pounding out a fabulously detailed recollection of 48 hours in South Bend. She must've typed on the flight back to L.A. or something. That, or she's just much more motivated and disciplined than I.

Five years ago, I sat in the bedroom of my first Edgewater apartment, SportsCenter on TV, Casey beside me for what must've been one of our first sleepovers at my new place, and I saw the crawl on the bottom of the screen that announced a home-and-home series between Notre Dame and Penn State for the 2006 and 2007 seasons, with the first game to take place in South Bend. We must've known already about the UCLA series that would take place during those same two seasons, with the locations the same as with the Irish-Nittany Lions coupling: 2006 in South Bend, 2007 at the other school. Five years out, and I was already giddy over the thought of two trips to Indiana, one with my oldest, best friend from back home who had gone to Penn State, the other with one of my closest college pals and her West Coast Bitch Posse crew of Bruin alumnae.

But then a lot happened in the interim four years. Matt, my longtime buddy, got married -- to a Domer who graduated the year before me -- and they just couldn't wait to start their family, naming their daughter Gwen back in May 2005. This past March, I got myself a new job, one that took me back into the sports news world and meant a non-traditional schedule working often on nights and weekends. I wasn't sure how it would play if I followed up two weeklong vacations within the first two months with various requests for weekends off so I could go see a couple of football games. I sensed, however, waning interest from Matt and Denise, and when I told him that I didn't think I'd be able to make it, he revealed the same thoughts from their perspective.

That left the UCLA weekend, which had the apparent misfortune of falling during the first weekend of the World Series. Luckily, that did not pose a problem and I was cleared for the trip in August. (Our related plans to make the return visit to State College and Los Angeles in 2007 will probably suffer the reverse fate -- I still hope to clear a September weekend next year to see the Irish in Happy Valley, but I will not be able to fly out to California during the first weekend of October during the first weekend of October to see my first game in the Rose Bowl.)

As the baseball season moved from August into the climax of September, I started to wonder whether the sports gods were going to be overly generous toward my teams. Having not grown up as much of a fan of the NFL, I have no solid allegiances to any professional football team. But with the best former Domer playing in Pittsburgh until this season and since marrying into a Steeler family, I have grown more and more fond of that team, which made our Super Bowl party this year more than just a night of eating, drinking and shushing during commercials. Then the Mets burst out of the gate in April and ran roughshod over the National League, all but making reservations for the World Series by Sept. 1 -- when No. 2 Notre Dame flew to Atlanta to prepare for its Sept. 2/my birthday opener at Georgia Tech.

First the Steelers, then the Mets and potentially the Irish, all winning or playing for their respective championships in the same season? Certainly it couldn't last.

And, alas, it did not, of course. First, the Notre Dame echoes remained somnolent in a tough home loss to Michigan in the third game of the season. The, a week later, the Mets labored to clinch the National League East while their pitching ace, Pedro Martinez, struggled to come back from an injury. They were at least able to complete the inevitable, securing the division and the best record in the National League, but on the eve of the playoffs, they learned that Martinez would be lost through the postseason with a torn left calf muscle and, a day later, that he'd miss the first half of next year with a torn muscle in his shoulder that would require surgery. No problem, they said, they still had the veteran and playoff-tested Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez ready to start Game 1 and be their new ace.

But on the afternoon before he was to start the first game, Hernandez -- whose age falls somewhere between 37 and 41, the discrepancy related to his Cuban roots and the nature of his arrival in the U.S. via raft in the early 90s -- tore a muscle in his right calf while jogging. What the heck is a 40-year-old pitcher doing jogging the day before his start anyway?! I asked. Who cares about conditioning at this point? All he has to do is pitch.

El Duque was not missed during the first round, when the Mets swept the Dodgers onto the golf course, but they could have used him in the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals. He was left off the roster and therefore unavailable, but he recovered enough that the Mets began discussing his possible return for Game 1 of the World Series, should the Mets advance. But last Thursday, in a cruel twist of Dan fate, former Notre Dame pitcher Aaron Heilman served up a two-run home run in the eighth inning of Game 7 that propelled the Cardinals into the World Series and produced the silver lining that at least now I could relax.

Back "home" again in Indiana

I've digressed. This is about football.

On Friday, I awoke after merely four hours' sleep to head to Newark Airport with Casey, who would be spending the weekend in Chicago with her dad, stepmom and sister. We met my father, who had flown in a couple of hours before us, and she headed off to the El while he and I picked up our rental car and chose I-294 as our best guess for a route from O'Hare to Indiana.

Having checked with a coworker from the area who had recently made the trip, I knew that no route south from the Windy City was clear of construction. And on a Friday, I knew I-90 -- the most direct route, but one that takes you downtown and past the lakeshore -- would be backed up by 1 p.m., which was when we were departing the airport. Heather and the gang was about an hour ahead of us, stuck in that I-90 traffic, but she'd mentioned that they'd probably need to stop for lunch at some point en route. We checked in with one another frequently, and when I announced our position as we approached the entrance tolls for the Indiana Toll Road, Heather exclaimed that they were roughly a mile from those very booths.

From that point, I set the cruise control about 5 mph slower than I'd been going and waited for them to catch up to us. When the blue Toyota Highlander appeared in my rear-view mirror, I waited for them to pass, waved, and remarked to my dad that Kevin -- riding shotgun -- had no idea who I was at first. Before Heather had completed the pass, however, I spotted the girls in the back seat through the tinted windows, waving, and Heather settled into the lane in front of me until we reached the last rest area before South Bend, 20 miles out.

We stopped there, said our hellos and caught up while Dad and I got our lunch at McDonald's. For the first time in my life, I did not order a burger and fries, not wanting to spoil our dinner at CJ's that night. A crispy chicken caesar and a Strawberry Passion Awareness Fruitopia it was for me.

I made the decision to approach South Bend from the west, getting off the Toll Road near the airport to avoid the exiting traffic five miles down the road and to bring the California crew up to campus in a more dramatic way. First we passed through the run-down western part of town, acknowledged the South Bend Tribune on our way through downtown and cruised the neighborhood streets south of campus, crossing St. Peter, St. Louis and other avenues familiar to us from friends who lived there during school and the parties they threw. At Notre Dame Avenue, we turned left, heading north, and saw the Golden Dome emerge through the autumn-hued oak trees. Standing sentinel on either side of the road, their branches met in an arch over our heads and parted like two cells in a Disney film as we passed beneath them, revealing the gilded centerpiece of campus. More than once, I've heard a story about how Father Hesburgh, the iconic president emeritus of the university, once met an unsuspecting freshman (or prospective student) on a flight into South Bend and offered her a ride to campus. "Close your eyes," he instructed as they approached from the south, as we did on Friday. Only when they'd made the turn and the Dome came into view did he tell her to open them, an audible gasp escaping her mouth as she took in the sight.

South Bend has two distinct smells in October. One is the ethanol wafting from the processing plant on the north end of campus, the other the scent of burning leaves on block after block in the surrounding neighborhoods. It's this second scent that brings me back to my college days, that last fall spent just a few blocks east of campus in an apartment complex that has since been renamed Clover Ridge or something, from Campus View -- a misnomer from the start, since trees and houses blocked any view of campus. (I don't know where Heather's complex, a block from mine, got the Turtle Creek moniker, there being neither a creek nor, to my knowledge, a turtle, other than the one chiseled from stone outside the complex's leasing office.) But driving to campus, walking from the parking lot to the bookstore, and transversing the grounds on Saturday morning, I smiled at the smell of the leaves -- burning and otherwise -- that took me back to (gasp) nine autumns ago.

After "checking in" to Chez VM, the house of friends of mine who were out of town for the weekend, we headed downtown for burgers at CJ's, one of the iconic South Bend pubs that tends to fill up on football weekends with alumni who enjoy looking at the old photos on the wall and ordering pitchers for the same price as you'd pay for a pint in New York, and most other cities, I'd imagine. Heather batted her eyes at a table of three gents who'd received their check, stressing that we weren't rushing them, but requesting that whenever they were ready to depart they notify us -- standing a few feet away -- so that we might inherit their table. As the six of us settled onto three stools and pondered how we'd create table space for the other three to put the burgers we were soon to order, two even older gentlemen at an adjacent table offered us their spot, enabling us to bring together the two and pull up three more stools.

Things just seemed to work out for us that way throughout the weekend. Well, at least for the Notre Dame fans among us.

Six burgers and two pitchers later, we settled our tab and shuffled out of the bar, turning sideways to squeeze past a couple of men on their way in. As one passed, a sense of familiarity came over me and my first thought was that this was someone I'd shared a dorm with or perhaps saw often in class. Then I realized I'd actually seen him on Notre Dame and NFL broadcasts, for it was former quarterback Rick Mirer. "Heather!" I called out over the mix of crowd and jukebox noise, "There's Rick Mirer!" As I turned to point him out, I caught his eye and his reaction to my shouting his name at the bar. Embarrassed, I nodded hello and turned to exit. When I relayed the story at work on Sunday night, one coworker's reaction was, "If I were Rick Mirer, I'd spend a lot of time hanging out in South Bend, too."


Saturday dawned dark and cold. The four of us staying in the basement -- Heather, Kevin, Lauren and myself -- awoke in a cocoon of darkness, the lone slit of a window revealing nothing in the way of daybreak. With northern Indiana now observing Daylight Savings Time, the region remains aligned with the East Coast throughout the year, making South Bend one of the westernmost cities in the time zone and making for particularly long light in the summer evenings -- 9:30, I imagine, still provides some light on the horizon in the weeks approaching and following the summer solstice. But it also makes for dark mornings, and with the cloud cover on Saturday, 7:30 a.m. felt a bit like 4:30. So while it took the six of us a full two hours to make our way through the metaphorically revolving shower door, we piled into the car by 10 a.m. and managed to rather successfully navigate the mounting traffic as fans arrived hours before the game to allow for adequate tailgating time.

For our parking donation, we chose the Saint Mary's College athletic teams. OK, we didn't so much choose them as Heather has parked there before and it worked out for her, and it worked out for us on Saturday. The plan was to park at SMC, walk the tree-lined road past the religious retreats and housing, the cemetery wherein several founding fathers of the university are buried (that is, the guys whose names adorn half the dorms on campus) and start the transverse of campus that would double as the girls' tour at the Grotto.

I was torn. I wanted to see campus, all of it, on a football Saturday, to share it with friends -- three of them seeing it for the first time -- recall moments with Heather, laugh at the memories and smile at the scenes before us. But I also wanted to drink. I wanted to meet up with the crew -- my father, several of my classmates and the South Bend-entrenched parents of one who host a tailgater every week -- have some chicken and brats, drink some beer and talk football. I kept going back and forth in my head, one minute not walking fast enough, the next not wanting to move on until I'd taken it all in. I could've sat on a bench on God Quad all morning and watched the fans criss-cross the paths and lawns, shuffling through the leaves, stopping for pictures every time a new view of the Dome appeared through the trees. Clearly, the next time I go to a game, it needs to be either in early September or in November, times when I can take at least four days and not feel that I have to squeeze everything into such a small window. Even on Sunday, when I had to wake up earlier than anyone else and leave them a few hours early, I wished I had more time, had those extra hours to talk with them more over breakfast or to take a quick peek at Chicago with them.

At the tailgater, I drank beer and took compliments on my beard and then we were asked our thoughts on Notre Dame's 14-point spread over UCLA. We all gave Jim our thoughts -- unanimously in favor of his $50 saying the Irish would cover. Later, Jim wanted another one. He asked me to look over the list and pick another game on which he could wager another Grant. "We can split it, if you want," he added. Saturday was a tough one for the spreads. I managed 12 out of 20 on the just-for-fun, no-money-down Yahoo group I do with friends (including the three UCLA gals; Heather bowed out this year because, as she said, she could no longer enjoy rooting for the upsets if she hadn't picked them in the pool -- I can totally see her point), but I wasn't so confident when there was money riding on it. I considered several games -- Rutgers getting 6 1/2 at Pittsburgh (would've been right on that one); Louisville giving 17 to Syracuse, but it was in the dome (my home-field hunch was correct); Texas a mere 4 1/2 favorite over Nebraska (I would've been wrong); and Cal giving 23 to Washington (wrong again).

Then I found one I felt better about. Michigan, at home, was giving 13 to Iowa. Surely the Wolverines, with their stout defense, could hold the Hawkeyes and their second-string quarterback at a two-touchdown arms' length. On our drive from Chicago, my dad and I had seen a few eastbound cars on I-80 decorated with their Hawkeyes flags and magnets. We played a short, impromptu game of "recite the Big Ten schedule" trying to figure out where the Hawkeyes could be headed. Minnesota, Wisconsin and Northwestern were out. Indiana was a possibility, but then I remembered that the Hoosiers were headed to Ohio State. Penn State was a possibility, but that seemed far for the cars we saw that were only in northwestern Indiana at 3 p.m. on Friday. Michigan, Michigan St. and Purdue became our possibilities, and we settled on the Boilermakers, only to discover that night that the Iowans would have continued on I-94 once that interstate split from I-80 on the eastern edge of Lake Michigan.

"Jim, I think Michigan is it," I told him. We split the 50 bucks, Kevin and Jessica, I believe, congratulated me on my first foray into sports gambling (not counting a day at the horse track) -- I believe Jessica playfully used the word "degenerate" -- and throughout the afternoon at the game, I whiled away the TV timeouts watching the rotating scores on the stadium scoreboard, happy I passed on all the games I clearly would've had wrong. The next morning, when I picked up my father at Jim's house, he handed me my $25 share.

The six of us were lucky enough to have three pairs of tickets within three sections of the north end zone at Notre Dame Stadium. Heather and Kevin sat together, being married and all, and so Jen, Jessica, Lauren and I drew tickets to pair up. Holding them face-down, I let the three ladies choose while I held onto the last one. Jen and Lauren nabbed two seats on the aisle about 10 rows up from where Jessica and I sat; Heather and Kevin were just two sections over. As a result, Jessica and I were the only pair with split rooting interests. I realized after the game that I held back a bit in my enthusiasm. Naturally, I still jumped up and cheered for big plays and I screamed prior to big plays on defense in the second half. But I also have come to realize that I don't always have the energy anymore to shout and scream and cheer myself hoarse before halftime. Perhaps a close, back-and-forth see-saw game could've brought that out of me, but this game, from a Domer's perspective, went forth early, then back for the bulk of the contest, and then finally forth again only within the final minute, with 27 seconds remaining.

So Jessica and I remained rather reserved. Early in the game, she found herself cheering for Brady Quinn and the Irish on nice plays, momentarily forgetting that the opponent this time -- for the first time in 42 years -- was her school. Late in the fourth quarter, after Notre Dame went for it on fourth-and-1 and didn't get it, I conceded the game was over. "It's not," she said. "I can see us blowing this one." Even after UCLA ran the ball three times, failing to get a first down, and Notre Dame's expenditure of its three timeouts meant the Irish would get the ball back with about a minute remaining, I sat there and said, "I don't think we're winning this game." Jessica responded quickly with, "We're not winning this game."

Three Quinn passes and a Victor Abiamiri sack later, she was right, and Notre Dame came away with a surprising win when Quinn hit Jeff Samardzija on a 45-yard catch-and-run for the winning TD. But although I'd just witnessed what would soon become a piece of Notre Dame lore (if the game were broadcast on ESPN, it would be known as "instant lore"), it didn't feel like it. I don't know if I was in shock or just in awe. After coming around to Notre Dame in the late 80s and early 90s, when one potential national title was taken away by a phantom clipping penalty and another by inexplicable voting, I've not yet come to terms with the Irish being one of those teams that gets things right at the end of games. It was only the third game-winning TD the Irish have scored in the final minute of a game, or something similar, according to ESPN, but I didn't think of it that way at the time.

Love thee, Notre Dame

I stopped off at the tailgate one more time, then caught up with Heather and the gang at Legends -- nee, Senior Bar -- the sports pub on campus, just across the parking lot south of the stadium. On my way, I passed a tailgating group that was standing solemnly around their car as a priest released incense -- they were observing Mass. The thought of a priest wandering aimlessly -- believing for a moment that a priest might be without aim in his life -- around the parking lots after a football game offering to perform Mass had us laughing when I relayed the scene, but the more likely scenario is that the Father is a family friend or former dorm rector of one of the attendees of the tailgater/Mass and the arrangements had been made beforehand.

We walked back across campus in the dark. I love Notre Dame at night. I always got a homey, warm feeling walking beneath the trees under cover of night, the Dome an illuminated compass point. Mary faces due south, so as long as you can see in which direction she's facing, you can find your way around campus. South Quad is more impressive in daylight, when it's teeming with students walking along the sidewalks or throwing footballs and Frisbees on the lawn, but the floodlights on the Dome, the lights on the buildings, the spotlights on the statues give the scene another unique look.

We visited the Grotto once more, coming at it from the right side, watching the candles shimmer in the hollowed-out alcove in the side of the hill. Not an overtly religious person myself -- and not a Catholic, either; I'm a Methodist -- I would often walk down to the Grotto at night as a freshman, spending some time on a bench just sitting and watching. Thinking. Meditating, I suppose. Here and there, I would kneel and pray, usually in dire times for a friend or family member in need of a little extra thought and support. I lit candles even less frequently, only two times that I can remember, perhaps no more than three or four, total, if I'm forgetting any.

The walk along the road back to Saint Mary's was long and painful. I was tired of being on my feet, and we all were longing for a bathroom, hoping we might find a building at Saint Mary's that would let us in. After we crossed Route 933 -- the four-lane highway that, along with the long road, the fields, woods and religiously affiliated buildings that serves as a barrier between the two affiliated schools -- I spotted our answer shining across the vast, dark lawn across which we walked: The Inn at Saint Mary's. A quick pit stop, and we piled into the car to head to dinner.

Over wings, beer and fries, we watched the end of Rutgers-Pittsburgh, the start of the World Series and any football games that were on at Buffalo Wild Wings. We played along leisurely with the NTN trivia game, not bothering to get a console to play competitively, knowing that we were fading fast. By 11 p.m., we'd all changed into more comfortable attire and were lounging in the basement. Minutes later, we were under the covers, lights out.

For me, Notre Dame is not about football. I don't go just because I love to watch the game live or because I want to cheer on the Irish. I don't believe I've ever once gone to a Notre Dame game without drinking a beer -- outside -- beforehand, or without shaking hands or hugging someone I used to have class with, party with or get drunk with, and probably haven't seen in a year or more. Even during my senior year, when I went to Ann Arbor for the Michigan game as a stringer asked to help out a website that covers Notre Dame sports, I met up with the contingent from our campus newspaper about four hours before the game and had a couple of beers.

I love Notre Dame because I love the friends I made there, the friends I still e-mail, visit, plan trips with and chat with on the phone. I may not be able to keep up with all of them regularly, and I certainly don't see everyone as much as I would like, but to do that, I would not be able to hold down a job. And they'd probably get sick of me. But there's usually one weekend a year when I find myself back in Indiana, or a few of us plan to be in Pittsburgh or Atlanta or Baltimore the same weekend the Irish are there, and football brings us back together. We catch up, we look ahead, we talk football, baseball, life and love. It may sound cliche, it may sound trite, but it is what it is. It's more than just football. It's Notre Dame.

We are Notre Dame.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Hey, bus driver, keep the change

Because I go to work in the late afternoon, there's a belief that I have an easy commute because it's a "reverse" trip, going against the swarms of people leaving Manhattan at the end of their more standard 8-4 or 9-5 workdays.

Rarely is that the case. The issue with my trip into the city between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m., depending on my duties that night and my start time, is the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It begins at the Lincoln Tunnel, six lanes in three tubes that begin as gaping maws into the bedrock in Weehawken, N.J., descend rapidly while bending to the right, to the east, and traverse beneath the silt of the Hudson River until they spew us out into a concrete basin in between 9th and 10th avenues in Midtown Manhattan. But during the afternoon rush, four of the six lanes carry cars out of the city, leaving just two lanes for about eight lanes' worth of cars to merge into after passing through the tolls. The whole process of passing through the tolls and merging into two lanes to get into the tunnel can take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the day, the weather and the traffic.

Once inside the tunnel, however, it's still not smooth sailing. Coming from the local roads -- rather than the highway that winds down from atop the bluff on a spiral helix built on towering concrete pillars above Weehawken -- the buses are forced into the right lane of the two-lane inbound tube. Changing lanes inside the tunnel, of course, is forbidden, so generally the buses are stuck in the right lane, which under normal circumstances wouldn't be a problem. But during the afternoon rush, in an effort to "ease" traffic flow, the Port Authority Police block off the access lane that allows vehicles in the right lane of the tunnel to make the left necessary to enter the Port Authority Bus Terminal immediately upon exiting on the New York side.

The daring bus drivers, those who tempt fate -- or simply know they have a legitimate excuse to go against the law -- will cross the double white line inside the tube, putting themselves into the left lane that will allow them to take the immediate route to the terminal. Those are the best drivers. I love those guys. They can keep the trip to 30-40 minutes, even with the slow process of merging into the tunnel.

It's when we're stuck in the right lane, when we're forced to the right -- away from the Port Authority -- that the trip takes up to an hour or more. By ostensibly alleviating the congestion on the route to the bus terminal, the P.A. Police create gridlock and a worse jam, it seems, on the streets to the south of the terminal on the small back alley of Dyer St. and on 10th Avenue, where I've sat on buses in a right lane that essentially becomes a parking lot where my driver has actually stepped off the bus and chatted on the sidewalk with the driver of the bus in front of us for 15 minutes.

Those are the days when I get out and walk. In the sweltering summer heat, I'd take a bus half an hour earlier than the one I'd normally take, just so I could remain on the bus, reading, napping or gazing out the window while staying cool in the air conditioning. In the fall, it's been nice to stroll the streets, walking from 9th or 10th avenue over to 8th to get the subway downtown to Chelsea. We'll see how things go in the winter.

Yesterday, however, I finally had an epiphany of sorts. It was a mild realization, and one I clearly should've made earlier, but yesterday was the day when it all came together. As I crossed 35th St. on 9th Ave., intending to turn east and catch an A, C or E train downtown, I spotted a downtown bus as I turned my head to check for traffic. The 9th Ave. buses head straight downtown, stopping right in front of my building. Why walk the extra long block over to 8th Ave. to get the subway, when I'll have to walk back from 8th to 9th to get to work once I get downtown? It was so simple.

So simple I should've realized it before, but yesterday was the day it was meant to happen. Yesterday was the day the island was talking to me. Or at least mass transit was.

Maybe I shouldn't write so soon after watching Lost.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Like the nameplate isn't enough

I have several pet peeves when it comes to cars, and I won't elaborate on them all now, but my rock-solid top five breaks down to: use of hand-held cell phones, not using turn signals, not knowing how to drive/park your gas-guzzling SUV, litering (particularly cigarette butts) and not letting me merge.

On the B list are things like buying ugly cars (I'm looking at you, Aztek), tricking out Honda Civics and stupid vanity license plates. I saw one of the latter the other day while waiting for the bus. I tend to see at least two of my top five everyday while waiting for the bus. Anyway, a balding man pulls up to the traffic light in his Midlife Mobile, a Porsche convertible, with the following license plate: PORSSHA. New York, of course.

Dude, really? Like we can't tell what you're driving without looking at it? Of course, he goes the pompus extra mile by giving us all a lesson in phonics. Whatever, dude.

Friday, October 13, 2006

I'll drink to that

It's been a good week for socializing. On Wednesday, despite having to come to work in the rain -- standing at the bus stop was not a particularly dry experience -- and having the Mets game postponed until tonight, I still got home around the same time I would have otherwise. Sure, I left work earlier, just after midnight, but instead of heading straight home, I took two co-workers up on an offer to join them for a few drinks.

It wasn't just the pints of Yuengling or the talk of music, baseball and Cory Lidle that made it worthwhile, but it was the whole experience. I turned to one of the guys sometime after 3 a.m. and said, "This is the first time I've been out with coworkers to shoot the shit since I worked at the newspaper four years ago." Unbelievable, but true. The few times I'd gone out for a drink when I worked at the magazine it was for someone's send-off drinks -- and in one instance, my own. With the offices in New Jersey -- as well as my home -- and most of the other employees living in Manhattan, I didn't often partake in those after-work invitations to meet up at a pub.

So finding open bars between midnight and 4 a.m. in midtown New York on the East Side -- 30 blocks below where Lidle's plane crashed -- was at times a difficult process, but we found two and knocked a few back until the wee hours, then went our separate ways to sleep away the morning.

As for today, I caught up with a college friend who e-mailed last night only hours before she and her fiance got on a plane for New York. Met them at Rockefeller Center, then we walked down to the library to gawk at the design of the building and escape the biting wind whipping through the New York canyons. A drink before work and talk of what they should do while here took us up to my departure time, but we'll probably catch up again before they head north on Wednesday.

Boy, not nearly as involved and interesting as I'd planned to make such otherwise mundane events sound, but I'm still a little weary from the extremely late nights and an afternoon strolling around Manhattan. I'll be OK; I have a couple days off in a week.

Friday, October 06, 2006

At dusk in New York

I wasn't sure if it was because of the five hours' sleep I got last night or the surreal feeling I had riding the subway to work at 6:30 p.m. -- me heading into the office while just about everyone else in the car was heading home -- but I sat down at my desk and looked at the "America: The Book" daily calendar on my desk.

OCTOBER 06 it read in the upper right-hand corner. TUESDAY it said in the lower right.

I stared at it for a good 20, 30 seconds. I tried to remember what day it was on my own, thinking back to the schedule of the Mets-Dodgers National League Division Series. Didn't they play on Wednesday and Thursday? I thought. Today's Friday, isn't it? Finally, I picked up the calendar to flip the page, thinking I'd somehow neglected to turn it in three days, even though I was sure I had last night -- actually, 4:30 a.m. today -- before heading home. "Saturday," it said. Phew.

But here I am, hoping for a smooth, even quick night at the office. The walk down 15th Street was strange in the twilight, the flag atop the building spotlighted as I'd remembered it back in February when I first came here. Earlier, on the bus, we'd waited on the ramp into Port Authority because of the usual evening congestion and I gazed out the window at 9th Avenue below us, the river of red tail lights seeming brighter, clearer crisper on this cold autumn evening.

Walking to work in the winter won't be as fun as it has been this summer -- even on those stupidly hot days -- because of the decrease in gawkers. It's guaranteed in New York that if you're walking behind a good-looking woman, at least two-thirds of the men who pass you heading the other way will check her out. you can spot them as they approach, casting sideways glances without her noticing. If you're far enough behind her, you can catch them getting a look at her from behind, too.

And I won't see the pair of commuters -- car-poolers, or, more accurately, bike-poolers -- that I saw yesterday on 9th Avenue. As I stood on the corner waiting to cross, a gray-haired man in a suit rode his bike down the middle of the avenue, his backpack wrapped around the front, between his arms and the handlebars.

Only, it wasn't a backpack. It was a harness, a harness holding a dachsund, a dachsund staring intently ahead, enjoying the wind in his face, his front paws dangling from the openings in the harness.

That's a sight that will bring a smile every time.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Thanks, Mom. You shouldn't have. Really. Don't.

What's No. 1 on the list of Subject Lines You Never Want To See On an E-mail from Your Mom?

My guess is "Best positions in bed."

I knew it couldn't be what it sounded like, but I was hoping it wasn't some sort of dirty joke, because that would still be bad.

Instead, it was these photos:

Still, I shudder at the thought of those words being sent in an e-mail from my mom.

Monday, September 11, 2006

On this day

I'm amazed at how this day is always bright and sunny, warm sunshine and cool air. It was a gorgeous day on Sept. 11, 2001, the rays from the sun soft and soothing, the air crisp with the hint of fall.

The next year, I remember, was the same. Eerily the same, the weather almost a carbon copy of what it was one year earlier. And so it was today. I don't remember the three years in between, but I think at least one other 9/11 anniversary had this same kind of weather.

I'm not sure what it says about this day, this memory. I just know that, when I stop to think about it, I can remember just about every thought, feeling and emotion that came flooding in so quickly and unexpectedly five years ago. The air even smells the same when the breeze blows right. Not like smoke or any acrid, horrible scent, but the sweet smell of a mid-September day.

I was ambitious today, working out early and making a list of what I had to get done before work, heading out of the house before lunch to tackle some errands. On the drive home, I was heading down the switchback hill of Route 5 and looked over to my left and saw the flag billowing in the breeze. In nearly five years of living in Bergen County and admiring this huge Stars and Stripes that flies 24/7 (with lights), I'd never visited it up close.

Before heading home, I turned to go to the park. I nearly had it to myself, except for one woman walking a circuit on the paths and two people sitting on a bench by the Hudson River. I took some pictures as I approached the flag, I stood in its shadow to let the sun backlight it. I listened to its deep, low flapping as the wind snapped it like a whip.

After pausing on a bench and admiring the George Washington Bridge and its little red lighthouse, I walked back to the car, stopping by the 9/11 memorial and anniversary wreath and then taking a few minutes to look up into the trees to try to find the camoflauged parrots who were squawking back and forth between branches.

Other than the birds, it was quiet. Thankfully, this quiet wasn't too eerie.

Friday, September 01, 2006

City scenes

I should do this more often, considering all there is to see on these New York City streets. Even in my own iPod world or simply following the same old routine -- Port Authority Bus Terminal, A (or C or E) train downtown, walking the north side of 15th Street from 8th Avenue to 9th -- there are things that stand out, things that make you say, "Only in New York." Unless you see them elsewhere.

The other day, as I passed St. Vincent Hospital's Comprehensive Cancer Center on 15th, I spotted someone who had clearly just emerged from the hospital pause to light up a cigarette.

Yesterday, from the misspelled signage file, was a store awning promoting their inventory of "LINGERIES."

I would be even better if I'd had a camera.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Damn you, Bruce Willis. DAMN YOOOOOU!!!

Casey and I got home around 9:20 last night, having had dinner after work in the City and getting a rare night where we get to ride home together. We were both kind of tired, so by 11 p.m., we were both in bed.

She was ready to go to sleep right away, but I felt like I could watch a little TV first. So I flip through the guide on the digital cable, and when I see Die Hard With A Vengeance has just started, I flipped over. It's an OK action movie, with a so-so plot, but I love watching the New York scenes and getting a glimpse once again at how tall the World Trade Center towers stood.

But as the movie went on, the feeling that this was a bad idea kept building, because I kept wanting to watch more and wasn't feeling my eyelids getting heavy or finding myself yawning.

So at 12:30 a.m., I finally turned off the TV and called it a night.

Damn that Bruce Willis! He sucked me in with his action-movie machismo.

It was either that, or waiting for Samuel L. Jackson to go off like he does.

Still, there's no way I'm going to see Snakes on a Plane.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


I grounded myself today.

For more than a week, I've intended to clean up the mess that was my "filing system" on the guest bed. Only I'd procrastinated, occupied myself with other things that seemed more inviting at the time. I wasn't necessarily putting it off, because the feeling of accomplishment that comes from cleaning up such clutter -- of organizing and filing and putting away -- can be rather satisfying.

But I hadn't done it. "I can do it Friday," I promised myself. Friday came and I did other stuff, hours passed and 4 o'clock rolled around and I had to gather up my things and head down to the bus stop. My list -- which started with "Wednesday" at the top, then had a line put through that day and "Monday" added after it -- had just three things remaining, the biggest of which was the credit card statements, pay stubs, bank statements and vacation souvenirs that collectively fell under the term "Files" and obscured the bedspread in the guest room.

So Saturday it was. I'd get up, work out (not a normal part of the Saturday routine, but on this day, Casey was not home for tempting procrastination in the morning, and I had a night shift at work), stop by Whole Foods for milk and other things and, after lunch, take to the filing while watching Fox's Saturday afternoon ballgame.

Today was gorgeous. My bad. For days now, I've stepped out onto our balcony or taken the shortcut across the parking lot to the fitness room or gone out on an errand and felt the low humidity, the cool warmth of summer air and summer sun. And for fleeting moments, on the August zephers, I smelled a hint of autumn.

I imagine the leaves, the grass or the shrubs are beginning their first steps in their fall transformations. Perhaps it was the Canadian air that came down to cool us off after the heat wave. But something on the breeze carried scents I know from September afternoons in the park or October Saturdays at a football game. Summer is nice, but some days, the heat and humidity drive me inside, make me prefer the cool comfort of air conditioning to an afternoon by the pool or a day at a ballgame. In the fall, though, why would you want to be inside?

But I was good. I adhered to my punishment and cleared the clutter. I admit, some of the things -- those souvenirs from various trips taken this year -- were simply separated into another pile that was then placed on top of a box in front of my photo box bookshelf, but the bed is now suitable for sitting and will require only the removal of the clothes designated for donation to be ready for visitors.

Now, though, if August has one more heat wave in store, or if the days remain sunny and pleasant, I won't be restrained to the house. I'll have the freedom to step outside for a hike or a drive and can enjoy it.

At least until I remember that my side of the closet is in need of neatening.

Friday, August 04, 2006

On a Friday afternoon in the universe

It's Friday afternoon. Hear what Kerouac had to say about it.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The heat has affected my dreams

It seems the heat has broken today. It's only supposed to be in the mid- to upper-80s. How's that for a cooldown? Should be nice baseball-watching weather, then my plan is to head to the pool when I come home. I've been criminally negligent of the pool in our complex this summer, especially considering that I work at night. I've been to more baseball games -- and more games out of state -- than I've spent days at the pool. (I've also fallen off my workout schedule, but that's another issue I don't want to deal with right now.)

But I'm off tonight, so after an afternoon in Trenton, I'll add the sunscreen to my torso and grab a New Yorker or two and settle into a chair. The New Yorker is going to be the end of me. I haven't picked one up since we came back from California in April -- 12 issues await me, not counting the one that came yesterday, and two of them are thick, glue-bound issues rather than the standard staple-bound ones. Though one is the summer fiction issue, which I usually enjoy, the theme is "Life During Wartime," so I'll probably be able to skip most of those. In fact, my plan to breeze through these is to gloss over most of the "Talk of the Town," which is usually more timely stuff, flip through page-by-page only in order to read every cartoon, and require that feature stories hook me within the first five or 10 paragraphs before I move on.

I also woke up from four interesting dreams last night/this morning. Two were rather frightening, one was moderately disturbing and another was typical. Taking the last one first, I was walking along 9th Avenue or some short block off of it and ran into Hilary Swank, who had a younger brother or someone (too old to be a kid of hers) who wasn't feeling well and I got wrapped up in helping her. Not much else to it, except that she actually had some meat on her bones and looked good. The moderately disturbing one sort of flowed into the Swank one. I was watching cars trying to cross an intersection, perhaps one on Dyer or one of the weird hidden streets up around the Lincoln Tunnel, but they were fording a river of water halfway up their car doors. That one probably stemmed from the torrential rains we had last night, though I don't know of any streets flooding near the the tunnel.

The two frightening ones involved baseball and my job. In one, I dreamt I was leaving my currently enjoyable gig in baseball to go back to the soul-sucking -- to borrow a phrase from Jessica -- world of celebrity "journalism." How I ever got stuck in that cesspool for four years I'll never know.

And the worst dream of all, the worst I've had in some time, had me watching a Yankees game. In it, playing in what I think was his first game in the Bronx, was "former" Mets shortstop Jose Reyes. I found myself deeply disturbed, upset and feeling betrayed that Reyes had chosen to switch sides, leaving Sunnyside (literally; he lives in that part of Queens) for the Dark Side. (In a departure from reality -- as if Reyes in a Yankee uniform wasn't enough -- he had also made the move mid-season, as if players signed monthly contracts and became free agents in July.)

At least I can take solace in the fact that Reyes should still be a Met long after Derek Jeter has finished his run with the Yanks and, if Reyes were to make such a jump and perhaps replace Jeet, it would be after the Mets had gotten the best of what he could offer -- and hopefully a few World Series rings to boot.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Hot town, summer in the city

We went off to D.C. this weekend, and while we were away, apparently, New Jersey moved to the Sonoran Desert. I can't recall ever seeing the weather forecast a high of 101 degrees, which is what they called for today. It was already in the mid-80s at 8 a.m., another first as I can recall.

I've been trying to not let the heat bother me, not let it keep me from going out when I want to or affecting me too much when I have to go to work in the late afternoon. But today, after an hour and a half at a minor-league ballgame, I couldn't do it anymore. It was a gorgeous drive up the Hudson Valley, but even more lovely on the way home as the air conditioner cooled me down.

The perfect end to today would be to fall over horizontally on this couch and catch up on what's saved on the DVR, but I've got to work. At least it's cold there.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Hoedown at the Garden

My lifetime total of Bruce Springsteen concerts has now reached that embarrassing level: I can't remember how many I've seen. Despite being born in 1976, a year after his seminal Born To Run album came out, I've seen him more than a dozen times, all within the past seven years.

Out of all of those shows, many were repeat performances on the same tour. I can break them down into five categories:
  • With the E Street Band in an arena
  • With the E Street Band in a stadium
  • Solo
  • Solo at a benefit concert
  • With the Seeger Sessions Band

I could do without the solo show we saw last October. It was nice to see, and we got some unique performances, but overall, it's not the same, at least not at an arena. Had he done those kinds of shows in small theaters, it would've been more intimate and enjoyable.

With the Seeger Sessions Band, however, I knew that would be a show I had to see. From the moment I first heard "Pay Me My Money Down" and felt the communal, sing-along feel of an old folk song, I tried to imagine what such a concert would be like.

What it did was turn Madison Square Garden into the biggest barn in the Northeast with his Thursday night spiritual hoedown folkfest. I can't help but sound like the rabid fan, but the way he treated the songs -- both his own and the rejuvenated standards he covered on the album and in shows since -- gave them a fresh feel and a new sound. He's providing a history lesson in the guise of a concert, digging up old folk songs about faith, trial and hardship and bringing them to a new audience, which, admittedly, is something he said he intended to do in releasing We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.

He played the shit out of each and every song, running through the album, adding a handful of his own compositions (though reworked for his 20-piece jam band), and sprinkled in a few numbers that fit the scene, though he hasn't recorded them ... yet. "O Mary Don't You Weep," "Old Dan Tucker," "Jacob's Ladder," "My Oklahoma Home" and "Pay Me My Money Down" were the big sing-alongs, those that got the crowd to its feet and made the Garden seem much smaller, draftier and smelling of wood and hay, even if it was all in my mind.

But the way he reinvented his own songs, like "Johnny 99," or "Atlantic City," which was seasoned with a country-folk lilt and accented with a chorus of "li li li" at the end, made the show fresh and provided some unexpected treats. At first, I thought "Atlantic City" was forced into the new arrangement, the lyrics about the gambling commission and a rumble on the Boardwalk not fitting in with the nostalgiac folk air of the music, but it picked up as the song went along and wound up with an uplifting finale -- not unlike Jon Pareles' review of the show in The New York Times. Let's face it, when you go to a concert meant to promote an album, you know you're going to hear 75 percent of the songs on that album. It's what the artist chooses to pull out from his or her catalogue that separates that show from others on the tour, or others you've seen before. His treatment of "Open All Night," which became what was best described as a "swinging big-band boogie," and "Ramrod," which was presented as more of a down-home country rocker, showed me just how creative Bruce can be and how much enthusiasm he has for his work.

The show was not without its political undertones, as might be expected. Pete Seeger's music was born of that protest era, and many of the songs served some sort of political purpose in their original incarnations. That Bruce chose to record this album now and that he decided to debut the live band at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival not only made a statement about American government and society today, but also gave a nod to the origins of this music. His words Thursday night about the current administration and its policies were brief, confined to the introductions to a handful of songs, but the lyrics that followed hammered the message home.

The most inspiring and heart-wrenching songs were those with the deepest messages: "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" "Bring Them Home" and "My City of Ruins." But the way those songs resonated with the audience, the way we sat and listened closely to the painful lyrics, the way we joined in as one on the refrain, "Bring 'em home, bring 'em home," brought those words home in a way I hadn't realized before. Just as the 9/11 attacks faded from memory for those who weren't so closely affected by them, New Orleans no longer creeps into our minds unless we're near there or experienced some part of the Katrina aftermath firsthand. But "How Can a Poor Man" and "My City of Ruins" brought it back to the forefront, and had me grinding my teeth and wondering anew how a person in a position of such power as the president can be so oblivious, incompetent or just plain selfish and arrogant -- whatever the case may be.

On the album, the title track was uninspiring to me. I found "We Shall Overcome" to be droning and flat -- nearly a lament -- compared to the rolicking tunes that precede it. In concert, though, it pulses with more verve and meaning. It's an uplifting tune of hope and perseverance, rather than a monotonous dirge. As we sang along with the chorus, I felt what Bruce must've felt to inspire him to record these songs and then take them on the road. The swelling in my chest was, I could only assume, the feeling of hope and optimism that we can get through these troubled times and emerge the better for it.

Perhaps that is just what Pete Seeger felt to inspire him on the path he took with his career. His music made a difference, and I think that's what Bruce Springsteen is trying to do at this point in his life. He's reached -- and, truly, he reached it long ago -- a place where he can do as he pleases, experiment with themes or styles and not jeopardize his standing among his fans. I suppose some of this comes from being a father and watching his children grow up. He sees the world they're going to have bigger roles in and he doesn't like what they will inherit. It's a grave concern, a legitimate one, and a worry we should all be contemplating.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Put me in, coach

I finished a bag of seven-state Doritos the other night.

What are seven-state Doritos, you ask? They're regular Doritos, bought in Boulder, Colorado, taken via convertible from Colorado through Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and Nebraska, then on a flight back to New Jersey and then across the river into New York, where they are finished.

I still have a little more than a bag's worth of seven-state sunflower seeds. I ate quite a few yesterday, when I went down to Jersey City to play baseball with some guys from work. It's really just batting practice -- one guy pitches, another hits, and the remaining guys spread out in the outfield and catch the hit balls. One will often stand on the edge of the infield, serving as a relay for the balls caught by the outfielders and tossing them back to the mound.

It's great to get out there again in the sunshine, throwing, running, catching, hitting. I've still got a decent swing and made some good contact. The pitches, depending on who's throwing, are slower than slow, often coming in with a decided arc to them, rather than straight, flat fastballs. But I still hit some well, some line drives to left, some high fly balls deep to the outfield. I even turned on some inside pitches in a way I do not remember ever doing successfully, keeping the ball fair.

But then Ray stopped by. A Honda pulled up and out stepped a big kid. Like six feet tall, maybe 200 pounds. And in shape. Good muscles, long orange hair hanging out from under a bandana like a bushel. He looked good in the field, picking up grounders like a player does during practice. I figured he played, and one of the guys who talked to him before I did confirmed that he'd just finished his high school season.

And then he hit. This dude hit hard. With a swing from the right side like that of Manny Ramirez, he made solid contact on balls that sailed over our heads in left field. We moved back, and then back some more, far beyond the yellow pole in the left-field corner that marked the fari/foul line. If a fence has extended from that pole in an arc around the field, we would've been 50 feet beyond it, catching nothing but home runs. Left field on our field backed up to right field on an adjacent one, and at one point, those of us playing deep left field could have turned around to play a deep second base on the diamond behind us.

The best part about this good-natured kid with the sweet swing and the power in his arms? His e-mail handle: unstoppablebeast13.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Uploading madness

Yesterday -- or maybe Monday -- in either case, in the past couple of days, I finally managed to complete the uploading of most of the vacation photos to Flickr. You wouldn't want them all; there are 532 as it is. But it's a hobby, and it's my online album, so there.

I've had a couple of skewy shifts at work the past couple of days, and by the end of yesterday's, I was exhausted. I slept until 11:30 this morning, a good 10 1/2 hours, and have yet to shower. My plan is to take the 7 p.m. bus into the city for work, and to use every possible moment before then to chill and relax.

And herein lies the beauty of not feeling beholden to a long, elaborate entry: I'm done.

Friday, June 02, 2006

A fresh start

In his second-most-famous road book, John Steinbeck wrote:

When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going. This to the practical bum is not difficult. He has a built-in garden of reasons to choose from. Next he must plan his trip in time and space, choose a direction and a destination. And last he must implement the journey. How to go, what to take, how long to stay. This part of the process is invariable and immortal. I set it down only so that newcomers to bumdom, like teen-agers in new-hatched sin, will not think they invented it.

Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has a personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it. I feel better now, having said this, although only those who have experienced it will understand it.

Somehow, as my former college roommate, Bryan, and I planned a weeklong road trip through the Rockies and the high plains and Big Sky Country of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, we did so at just the right time. The wanderlust hit me about a week before the trip, and at least once each day on the journey, I thought to myself, "This is just what I needed."

Though my travels were with a peer, in both age and species, our trip contained a little bit of the flavor of two of my favorite road books, Steinbeck's Travels with Charley and William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways. We set out with a firm starting and ending point in Denver and had a rough outline of where we wanted to go and what we wanted to see, but we didn't hold ourselves to any particular timeframe or destination, other than a mid-trip, two-night stay in Jackson, Wyoming, to allow us to see Yellowstone National Park.

Steinbeck also wrote, "Again, it might have been the American tendency to travel. One goes, not so much to see, but to tell afterward." As much as I relished exploring new states and cruising down two-lane state highways through hills, mountains and rangelands, I thought of how I'd remember it and how I'd describe it to my wife and family when I got home. Bryan and I are perfect travel companions, having taken at least a half-dozen trips together during college and in the eight years since, but I often found myself thinking of towns or parks that Casey or Dave or my parents might like. For now, pictures and words will have to suffice, but if they ever want to see for themselves and would like me to join them, I won't hesitate to accept.

At the moment, the travelogue is still a work in progress. Sections were completed en route, but the final few days remain solely in my memory. Hundreds of photographs exist, too, with about half of them already installed in an online album. Once those two projects are completed, they'll be submitted here.

This seems as good a time as any to start fresh with a new blog, the way one might crack open a new leather-bound journal in those not-so-long-gone days before we called our diaries weblogs. I turn 30 three months from today, and I see my life in a different light than I did five-and-a-half years ago, when I first searched Yahoo! for a website that might let me write and post my thoughts for free. As you might when you feel you've outgrown your blue-paged, spiral-bound journal, I sensed a change was needed, a more streamlined, minimalist look was I wanted. So here I am.

Exit 109 is where I'm from. It's the Garden State Parkway interchange for Red Bank, which takes you to my hometown, a place I lived for 25 years, minus the eight semesters spent in South Bend, Indiana, for secondary educational purposes. In New Jersey parlance, I'd now have to call myself an 18E-er, a B.E.N.N.Y., a denizen of Bergen County (rather than Essex County, the city of Newark or New York) who enjoys summer day-trips to the Shore. It's not a term of endearment, but a derrogatory term used from a Shore-dweller's perspective, and I use it in tongue-in-cheek fashion. I'll never be a true B.E.N.N.Y. as long as I have family near the beach, and even after that is no longer the connection, my roots remain there, and I can't see the day I'll truly consider myself as being from North Jersey. I'll live here, but I'm not from here. That's not out of shame or embarrassment or a desire to disassociate myself with New Jersey's north; it's more a reflection of who I am and where my comfort level lies. It's no different from a New Yorker who moves to Miami and still calls himself a New Yorker or a Bostonian who relocates to Los Angeles yet still sees herself as a New Englander, first and foremost.

It's cooler today and more overcast than it was yesterday, when I experienced my first terribly hot and humid day of the year. It's a good day for a new beginning.