Saturday, December 22, 2007

Yule Blog: Day 1 of the Odyssey

Ninety, if not 99, percent of my phone calls these days are made from my cell phone. This action usually requires nothing more than pressing the Send button, scrolling through the list of recent callers, and selecting one of them. Occasionally, I will have to actually scroll through the phone book on my phone to find the friend I want to call.

The other 1 percent -- or 10 percent -- of my calls are made at work, where I use the same kind of office phone used in every other office in America. But today, at my parents' house, I picked up the cordless phone from its base, pressed the "talk" button to wake it up, and dialed the number for Dave's house. Then, either out of habit from all the cell phone use, or because it seemed like it had to be done, I pressed the "talk" button again. You know, to "send" it. When I put the phone up to my ear, I heard nothing.

So I tried again. Same thing. I decided maybe I should check with Mom.

"You just press 'talk' and dial the number," she said.

"Oh. So I don't have to press 'talk' again after that?"

Um, no.

As I press "redial" and then raise the phone to my ear, I realize that Dave must've heard his phone ring twice now, but when he picked it up -- nothing. No one there. Dial tone.

He answers on the first ring. I explain what had been happening. He cracked up for at least half a minute.

I feel a bit old now. There was once a time when calling Dave meant pressing just seven digits -- no area code required. I even remember being at my aunt and uncle's in Maine and needing to press only five to call the neighbor down the road. It was like the KL5 exchange from old movies or TV shows -- or maybe just from The Simpsons.

It's not as old as I felt several years ago at my barber shop. As I sat in the chair, a boy who was waiting came up to the barber and asked if he could use the phone. When told it was no problem, he reached for the receiver and was about to dial, but then couldn't figure out where the buttons were. The barber had a rotary phone. The kid had never seen such a thing. This had to be early -- no later than the middle -- in the 90s.

* *
/\ /\

(Those are Christmas trees. Maybe sorta. I wish I had time -- or the inclination -- to create a holiday section break.)

Today, Casey and I began our 11-day, seven-houses-in-seven-cities holiday road trip. Seriously, we should have MapQuest (or Google Maps) or Hess or someone sponsor us. I'll slap a magnetic Hess or BP logo (not Exxon -- no way) on my car now through New Year's Day.

We left the house this morning, packing up the car and the cats and driving an hour to my parents'. An afternoon of holiday cheer with family friends while I "work" from the house, monitoring the site and watching for any news. I've got another shift on Thursday, but other than that, I'm free and clear this week.

Tomorrow, we head three hours west to Harrisburg for about 24 hours with Casey's grandmother, aunt, uncle and cousins. Or whoever we see. From there, it's on to her mom's on Christmas eve, then her dad's on Christmas. On the 27th, it's back to mom's for a night before spending Friday in Pittsburgh and staying over at her sister's house. On the 29th, we'll make the long drive back home.

But not back to my parents, where the cats are spending this break. It'll be just a one-night stopover at home to make sure it's still standing, and then it's up to Boston on the 30th. New Year's, for I think the fourth straight year, will be at Bryan's. But because we both have to be at work at 10 a.m. on January 2, this will be the first time we leave on New Year's Day. If past trends hold up this year, that could be a difficult task. We'll see.

And we'll see how much I get to log this trip with updates. There won't be one tomorrow, that's for sure. No internet -- wireless or otherwise -- at Grandma's.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Cold as ice

Talk about a half-assed job. What good does it do to plow out the handicapped parking space at the train station -- actually, plow out room for one car over two parking spaces -- when it does not leave enough room for the occupants of the car to get out after parking?

The snow has turned to ice, thanks to a coating of rain yesterday afternoon and evening. Anyone needing to park in those spaces at the Clifton train station presumably has a reason to, but it can't help them much if, once they park, they exit the car onto a sheet of ice. The camera-phone photo gives you the gist of the situation.

Seriously -- how hard would it have been to back up the pickup truck and move forward once more to clear our a space twice as big? A third pass would've cleared the entire two spaces. In about 42 seconds. Nice work, guys.

I get more annoyed at seeing cops driving while talking on their cell phones or the dozens of cars that pass me as I stand in the crosswalk on my way to the train each evening. Yielding to pedestrians is a law in New Jersey. If a cop stood with my on the corner, he could stop each car and cite the drivers for failing to yield. He'd also get half of them on the cell phone charge, too.

I've always been sensitive to the pedestrian law. I'm not sure why, but I'm drawn to it. I find it courteous and helpful. I enjoy walking to the train everyday, a six-minute walk (briskly; eight to 10 minutes at a more leisurely pace) and I enjoyed walking from the house I grew up in to the pharmacy or the ballfield or the church down the street. Princeton had the law on its books before the state adopted it -- or at least before the state forced the rest of the towns to enforce it. And it worked well in Maine, where on the busiest tourist days in Wiscasset or Camden, you could be sure that anyone with a Vacationland license plate would quickly apply the brakes once you set one foot off the curb in between the white lines. I considered those towns to be more sophisticated than most others for that reason. (I suppose one of the nation's pre-eminent universities helped Princeton's case, as well.)

The summer after I graduated from college, I was in the car with my mom when she stopped to let a woman pushing a baby carriage cross the street in my hometown. We were downtown in our small town, not 100 yards from the police station at a rather busy intersection with no traffic light (one has since been installed). An impatient prick in a pickup truck decided we were waiting to turn without using our turn signal and began to pass us (I don't recall whether it was on the right or left). The pickup driver slammed on his brakes just as he was about to pull past us when he saw the woman, who he very nearly hit.

Inspired, I wrote a letter to our mayor and police chief. Sometime before this, I had also received a ticket because I'd parked at our hometown train station at 9:20 a.m., 10 minutes before I was allowed to without a pass. I paid the $20 fine, but also pointed out that if the town put a police officer at either of the two intersections downtown, he could cite four or five cars per pedestrian in a very small time frame. And the failing to yield penalty was something like $75. But maybe our town was just filled with antisocial cops who didn't like confrontation and preferred to ticket empty cars than rack up revenues from oblivious drivers.

The mayor called the house to ask me to come in to meet with her, I believe, but I sent the letter just before departing on my cross-country trip and her call came while I was somewhere south and west of the Smoky Mountains.

Eight years later, I did sit down in her office, but that was with Casey when we met with her to discuss our wedding. I should've took that time to discuss the pedestrian issue.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Gauging the snow by the sounds on the street

There's no such thing as a snow day when you're an adult. At least not when you work for a national media company, in a department that requires staffing 24/7, and the terms "weekends" and "holidays" aren't so much as guaranteed days off as much as guaranteed days of a quieter office and -- hopefully -- less news.

Yet despite this, and despite my duties as a homeowner, particularly shoveling, I still find myself rooting for snow. And not just a light dusting or a brief afternoon snowshower that covers the neighborhood with a couple of inches but then melts away when the sun comes out later in the day. I watch the weather and hear the forecast for New England and hope that a little of it comes our way. I'm jealous of Boston, where the Weather Channel's Jim Cantore has decamped -- a sure sign of impending doom, weather style.

On the one hand, I hope it passes us by, or at least makes the afternoon amenable to heading out early for the city so Casey and I can meet my sister for lunch at Ditch Plains. I could go for a burger and a beer before work. But on the other, an inclement afternoon would keep us housebound, and give me a chance to watch the Jets and Patriots, where a nor'easter could even the playing field a little and at least give my fantasy football team a chance against a team that owns both Tom Brady and Randy Moss.

For the past two years, as we've lived in a second-floor apartment, winter storms meant little more than a treacherous walk to the bus stop and perhaps a little extra time to get to the city to account for slow going on River Road. Plus, my car was parked in the garage beneath the building, meaning the snow brush and scraper were kept in the trunk in the event that snow came while I was at a movie or somewhere else where the car might be parked outside. And I certainly got the car washed much more often, knowing that even if the five-day called for rain or snow that the Grand Am had a chance to remain dry and covered if I had no apparent plans to head out. I enjoyed the snowstorms guilt-free then, with no sidewalks to shovel, no driveways to clear, no car to clean.

Two days ago, we had an afternoon of freezing rain, snow and sleet, creating a firm, heavy much that felt like shoveling a sidewalk's worth of snowcone filling. If I added some flavoring, I'm sure I had about a dozen square feet of marketable slush. And that day's snowfall also revealed to us how low on the city's list our street is for plowing, since it seemed like we got no attention on our block. But that may have been the result of the guidelines -- many municipalities won't plow until there are at least three or four inches on the ground, because anything less will damage the roads and the plow blades more than they'll effectively clear the snow. Thursday brought no more than two inches, I think.

So we head to bed tonight not sure of what the low-hanging clouds outside will bring, other than a brighter night as they reflect the lights and cast an artificial glow over Clifton. The sky has a pink hue above the rooftops and the treelines, a low ceiling as an indication that precipitation is afoot. I'll wake up tomorrow, no duties or commitments until the afternoon, and be able to lie in bed listening for a passing car on the street. If the sound of an engine comes with the rain-soaked swish of a wet road, I'll know the night stayed above 30 degrees and the storm system brought only rain or slush. But if those motors are muffled, if an engine seems otherwise alone, a silent gliding or faint hint of crunching evident beneath the tires, then I'll know an hour bundled up out in the cold awaits. It's how I used to gauge a snowfall in high school, wondering if I had to bolt out of bed to get in the shower before school, or if I could hold off a bit and sleep in a little while, knowing that Mom would come alert me if school was indeed on and I was falling behind. In the end, I got pretty good at making the right call.

It's starting now as rain, though perhaps freezing rain, the sound of tiny water pellets drumming on the air conditioner in the dining room window. Hazardous conditions surely await with the daylight.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Another day, another surprise

The weekend provided another not-so-joyous discovery to add to the pros and cons of home ownership.

It goes back to Memorial Day, when we discovered after an hour of particularly high water use that we had a backup in our main sewer line. Roto Rooter cleared it out, but diagnosed the problem as roots in the pipe. Our 1920s-built house comes with older sewer lines made, most likely, of clay tile piping, as was common back in The Day. Sections of pipe were laid end-to-end and sealed, but over the decades, the mortar of that seal -- and the pipes themselves -- can crumble or crack as the land settles and other changes occur in the surrounding areas. Any roots in the vicinity, in their search for moisture and nutrients, tend to find the sewer lines -- and the cracks, no matter how small, in them.

Can you tell I've been reading up on this today?

So they Rootered the roots out of the pipe and told me to buy their Root Destroyer -- copper sulfate -- which you flush down the nearest toilet to the main line and it kills the roots from the inside. (I'm particularly intrigued by the more direct method, but the extra details involved -- namely, the checks and permits needed before digging where there could be electrical and gas lines -- make me wary.) Stupidly, I didn't act right away on the Root Destroyer, and the little buggers found their way back in.

I finally flushed the sulfate down the toilet at the beginning of November, but a few weeks ago, when we discovered our utility sink in the bathroom filling up after we'd run the washing machine and I followed that with a shower. (Our initial discovery, on Memorial Day, came after we showered back-to-back -- instead of Casey showering and off to work long before I'm even out of bed -- and the sink overflowed and the water made its way across the bare basement floor.) I sent some chemicals meant to unclog the drain down the utility sink, hoping that we had a more simple backup and not more roots. But I knew. So when the sink started filling up as I was rinsing off some things over the weekend, I knew I had to call the plumber again.

He cleared it out this afternoon, but not before cracking, "That's why I own a condo!" And he laid out our future. Tonight, when I get home, I'll send another dose of the copper sulfate down the toilet, giving it several hours to work while we sleep and aren't sending water through the system. At the end of March, when the growing season begins, I'll do it again. And then again in mid-April. If we run into more problems after that -- or after more home remedies -- our options become pretty clear: sign up for regular maintenance with a plumber (Roto Rooter knocks 10 percent off the service call when it comes every six months), purchase my own snake (no, more powerful), or look into having the line replaced. That's the expensive, Mr. Moneybags option -- but it's also the one that will most effectively ensure a final solution to the problem. If we ever feel we have the money for that level of improvement, it'll go into the records as a home improvement and get marked down in the ledger for when, years down the road, we have to determine what to set for our asking price.

Next we get to see how capable I am when it comes to more manual labor -- as in replacing our faux-bricked-and-shingled basement walls with more traditional (and smoother) paneling -- and whether I can get it done before the end of next week, so that we can open the new year by finally setting up the basement, my Man Cave.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

If only I had a blog back in the day

Had an urge to go back and look at my previous only diary/journal/blog and was reminded that not only did I discover Martin Sexton at Red Bank's Count Basie Theater, where he opened for Cowboy Junkies in June 2001, but Sarah Harmer was also on the bill. That was a pretty good, laid-back show I saw back then.

We went to see Martin on Friday night at Roseland. Not the best venue, but a swell show nonetheless. He opened with five or six songs done solo -- how I saw him in Red Bank six (SIX!) years ago, and how I believe he did much (if not all) of his touring and performing back in the day. He opened with "Freedom of the Road" and while I don't remember all that was done and whether it was solo or with the band that came out after five or six songs, but we got our favorites: "Diner," "Circles," "Happy," "Hallelujah," etc. For the "quiet portion" of the set, the four of them went unplugged, huddling around a single microphone that picked up the upright bass, Martin's acoustic guitar, a melodica (I believe) and, in lieu of drums, a barstool that the drummer played with brushes. They finished that set with a resounding cover of "Folsom Prison Blues."

Martin was just as good as that first time I saw him, when I wrote:

Sexton followed and it was just him and his guitar. And he was amazing. His voice range was indescribable, particularly for one as tone-deaf as myself. And he managed to make one electic guitar sound like a lead, rhythm and bass guitar, with some percussion thrown in. His songs were quite bluesy and epic, with astounding lyrics. He was also the first opening act I've seen come out for an encore. I shall purchase his work soon.
But on top of that, he looked like he was seriously enjoying himself. He smiled, he bounced, he chatted -- briefly, but pleasantly -- with the audience at times. Syracuse is his home, so maybe New York City felt like it.

I went back to the blog because I started wondering tonight what college would've been like if I had a blog. I've always liked to write, but now that I've gotten away from it and have taken on so many more tasks and responsibilities -- from work to home ownership -- I don't do it nearly as much for fun and (mental) exercise. I looked over a post describing a walk around campus after my sister graduated, a last look at Notre Dame as a student/brother of a student -- as someone with a direct connection to the place. Reading it now, six and a half years after writing it, I am stunned at the imagery, the emotion, the pictures I conveyed. I'm even more shocked at how some memories still seem so recent, so clear in my mind, while others I'd completely forgotten until reading them now. And I can't believe it was 13 years ago that I started college, or that May will be 10 since I graduated.

I want to write like that again.

Earlier this year, a story in The New Yorker profiled a man who is trying to catalog every piece of physical evidence of his life -- e-mails, letters, bills, photographs. Everything. (I couldn't dig up the story online, because I don't remember anything specific enough to successfully search for it.) I've often thought about things like that from my own life, wondering what such an archive would look like. How many words have I written in my life, taking into account every letter, term paper, e-mail, exam, blog entry, article and free-time creative writing like poems, parodies and attempts at short stories? How many millions? Have I reached a billion? Probably.

I have a lot of things from my past, from the fantasy baseball newsletters I created in high school to stories and essays I wrote for class or for nothing in particular. But I wish I had some of the e-mails I wrote in college, some of the journals I kept in previous versions of Microsoft Word and saved on my desktop's hard drive in 1994, '95, '96, '97.

There are a lot of things I'd like to preserve and catalog. I have dozens of articles written for the campus paper boxed away, hard copies that provide a record of what I wrote, what interested me, what the editors assigned when I was a freshman and sophomore and had less say in what I covered. I wouldn't mind going digital with those, having them on a disk to pull up one day in some random search to find out what I may have been doing in February 1996. I don't know why I would ever need -- or want -- to know that, but I've always thought it would be cool to have that kind of information available at my fingertips.

"In my old age," Kerouac once wrote, "I intend to collect all my work and reinsert my pantheon of uniform names, leave the long shelf full of books there, and die happy." Sometimes I think about what that would entail from my life -- what it would be like to read my second-grade autobiography (which still exists somewhere on a bookshelf at my parents') and then be able to turn to a seventh-grade English paper, a high school project, a college application essay.

My professional clips survive mostly in the same format -- smudgy newspaper segments slotted away in a divided folder, stored in a cabinet in our office. The Asbury Park Press' website doesn't exactly maintain an archive going back five years. If only they did, and if we'd had the internet when I was in high school. I'm curious about my athletic career, my cross country times from those junior and senior falls. Only one stands out: My personal best. I once ran 3.1 miles -- 5 kilometers -- in 18 minutes, 28 seconds, on the course around the school's campus. My fast time was due in part to my girlfriend's birthday that night and a desire to finish up quickly so I could get home, shower, and meet up with my friends. I believe I won that race for the school, too, sprinting to the finish ahead of a runner on the other team, reaching for that place-holding popsicle stick a step ahead of him. The final score, if I remember cross-country scoring correctly (which is a 50-50 shot, at best) was 27-28, with the lower score the goal.

Having a blog in college would have been interesting, I'm sure. In some ways, I know I would've treated it like I did when I first started online journaling as a professional reporter working off hours and spending quiet alone time in my bedroom until 3 or 4 in the morning. I would've written a bit those first three years, but really picked it up senior year, after taking the Kerouac seminar. I still have the notebooks we were asked to keep for that class, and I took the time to transcribe their entries into that previous blog -- there it is, my weird desire to catalog it all. I wonder how things would've played out, how my writing would have developed and whether I would've shared it -- and with whom -- had I been doing it in the mid-90s instead of the early 2000s.

The fact that I didn't isn't really a loss. It's not something I really could have foreseen back then, this wish for a more tangible record of my inner musings. I'm just letting my mind wander, my fingers tap out streaming thoughts as I sit here alone in an empty office, minding the site for work until I head home in two hours.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Lenny Potatoes: Tannenbaum Assassin

Keifer Sutherland once famously sacrificed his body to protect the world from the terrorist Tannenbaum.

One of our cats has chosen to do the same.

We set up the Christmas tree yesterday and just left it bare for a day to give the cats time to assimilate to it. Did they ever, as in they:

  • Used it as an obstacle to obscure themselves from one another and chased each other around it. ("Tearing around the Christmas tree/Have a happy holiday ...")
  • Batted the branches.
  • Ate the needles.
  • Played with any boughs that fell off.
  • Lounged on the skirt as if it were a cat bed.
  • Stuck their heads in the water cup for a drink as I tried to water the thing.
  • Sprinted the length of the couch and leapt into the tree before falling to the floor.

That last one was Lenny, doing his best Keifer Sutherland. He did it yesterday, then repeated the stunt today after we'd hung the first round of ornaments, three kinds of plastic orbs we bought at IKEA a few years ago. They're simple, cheap and won't cause us any sadness should we lose any to a feline-related attack.

Sadly, not only do we have no visual or video evidence, but I have not seen either attack directly. Each time, I've been across the room with my head down, only catching a glimpse out of the corner of my eye. I have a feeling, though, that if I sit there and stare at the tree for a few hours, Lenny will deliver. All this from a kitten who's been afraid to go outside when we've strapped the harness on him and held the door wide open. (And then today, while Casey was talking to me as I stood on the porch having shoveled the walkway, he made a break for it, getting his front paws onto the concrete before she corralled him.)

All of this is causing problems, of course. Do we forgo our favorite ornaments this year and simply go with basic decorations that we're willing to sacrifice to the felines? Do we try to put some of our nicer ones on the top half, hoping that the tree remains standing at the least? Do we drastically rearrange the living room, moving the corner section of the couch from next to the tree to the other end, completely ruining the layout for a month but at least removing the closest and most obvious launch pad from within range of the tree? I haven't talked with Casey in a while to see how they've behaved since I left, but this may be a very IKEA -- and Target -- Christmas this year.