Monday, December 29, 2008

Finishing out the year

The first day of the rest of the year. (No more working for me.)

Seen on Route 17: Four teens in a parking lot, trying to fix the front fender they'd dislodged on Mom's minivan. Three stood around while one -- probably the kid who caused the disconnection, if not the one whose Mom lent out the keys for the day -- kept trying to get the two pieces to hold in place.

Later, I dawdled too much online and on iTunes and had to run to the train, literally, in jeans and a fleece jacket -- this after two miles of real running, exercise running, for the first time in about five weeks. Less than fun.

Here's hoping Pat McGee plays "Rebecca" tonight.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

"Snow angels," New York, December 2008

Snow angels, originally uploaded by DC Products.

May this Christmas season be filled with the joy and wonder you remember ...

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

All hail Joe the Plumber. Not what you think.

It's the kind of story you only hear around the holidays, a story of hardship and heartache, of unexpected expenses that threaten to sap much of the magic of Christmas...

I went upstairs yesterday around 3 p.m. to take a shower. It was only three hours after I'd woken up following my last work shift (in the office) for the year. I turned on the hot water faucet and ... nothing. No noise, no trickle, no nothing. The cold water worked fine, but the hot gave us nothing.

It was late enough in the day already (I'd already wasted enough time in front of the computer), so I put on some deodorant and clothes and a hat and went out to take care of the errands I'd already planned on doing yesterday. (Note to self: The Clifton Target shopping center is a madhouse as Christmas draws closer, even on weekdays. Home Depot? Less so.) When I got home, I triumphantly replaced the fill valve in the upstairs toilet and stopped the hissing it had been making for a couple of days.

But the hot water refused to flow. A few phone calls established what I'd feared: frozen pipes. How it was the hot side only was confusing the amateur plumbers (read: my father and, to a lesser extent, his friend Steve, who once worked as a plumber's apprentice), but there was little we could do. I tried Steve's suggestion of turning off the cold water into the hot water heater, draining a few gallons from the heater, then going upstairs and opening the taps before turning on the cold water again. The hope was it would create a vacuum that might loosen the ice blockage. No such luck; there was no change in the taps. We gave up and called it a night. I'd give it another shot in the morning -- by calling a plumber.

I watched Monday Night Football to ensure that Green Bay's Greg Jennings and Mason Crosby did not outscore Chicago's Matt Forte by 38 points (not that I expected it), thereby securing me my second fantasy football championship in three years. But even that victory could not prevent a fitfull night's sleep brought on by thoughts of a catastrophic problem, a discovery of frozen and burst pipes and of opening walls in order to repair and replace them. I figured my winnings would have to go directly to some plumber, and I hoped that they'd cover at least half the cost.

This morning, I dug up the number of a plumber we'd used to disconnect our gas range in the basement, and he said he'd call around 3:30, when he had a better idea of how his day was going. Clearly unable to wait that long, I turned to Google. "Clifton plumbers" produced enough results that I narrowed it down to those near the house. The closest one with two reviews sounded good enough -- and then he surpassed any expectations.

If you live in Bergen County, Passaic County or Essex County, New Jersey, I can't recommend Yosef Gove -- Joseph Gove -- and Gove Plumbing enough. Yes, Joe the Plumber was way better than his Ohio namesake (who doesn't have the license, of course).

Here's the deal: I called Joe and explained the lack of hot water. He suggested I open the hot water taps fully, then turn the cold water just a little, thereby allowing the cold water to trickle into where the freeze might be. I could hear the air hiccuping in the pipes and saw the stream from the tub waver in the drafts. I had hope.

I came back downstairs and busied myself for a couple of hours, including a call to the insulation company that, both Steve and Joe suspected, likely had caused the freeze by not plugging the holes carefully enough. Later that afternoon, I got back online while watching ER. ("The last ER Christmas!" Yes, I'm still watching. Figured I might as well finish out the run.) About halfway through, I began fast-forwarding during a commercial, and that's when I heard it. It was like stopping along a path in the woods and noticing sound of the waterfall cascading over the cliff up around the bend. It came from behind the closed bathroom door upstairs -- water thundering into the bath. Success!

The water was hot, and 48 hours after my last shower, I was ready to lose my clothes and jump in right then. But I turned it off first and then made several triumphant phone calls -- to my parents, to Steve, to Joe the Plumber, to the one who had three other stops to make before he could give me an idea of when he might make it over. And then came the shower I'd waited two days for -- truly one day of waiting that felt like two on account of the uncertainty of the situation. It was everything I'd hoped it might be, and I probably stood there a bit longer than I otherwise would have.

Afterward, I stepped outside to check that no water had emerged from beneath the siding (indicating burst pipes), but there was no such cascade. It may have still been cold, but the sun felt soft and warm. The air was crisp and clear. Christmas is just two days away. The weather's supposed to warm up for the next five days, with only two nights barely dipping below freezing. Any recurrence of the frozen pipes shouldn't happen before we leave for New Year's -- when we'll turn off the water supply anyway -- and by then, I expect to have spoken with the insulation company.

Joe the Plumber -- a nice, personable man in a profession not necessarily known for such people -- was this year's Christmas Miracle. Here's hoping that getting the insulation company to come back and double-check its work becomes next week's New Year's miracle.

Happy freakin' holidays!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

How to see the tree without the crowd

Tuesday -- a random Tuesday in the middle of December -- is the time to explore New York City at Christmas. Top of the Rock? Relatively deserted. The Christmas tree at the base of the tower? So much room you could make snow angels. People were smiling and happy and kind, willingly volunteering to snap pictures of couples together so they wouldn't have to stretch their arms out, cameras in hand, hoping they got the shot with two faces and the tree in the background.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Celestial trifecta

The moon, Venus and Jupiter came together for a celestial trifecta tonight, lining up in a near-perfect "V," slightly tilted to the right. At dusk over Clifton, they stood out like reflective stickers on a navy blue backdrop, no clouds or planes or other impediments to distract from the star(s) of the show.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

All by myself

Heading into New York at 5:30 p.m., I avoided what was no doubt a madhouse at Penn Station (and into and out of which there were 30-40 minute delays because of Amtrak signal problems) and went through Hoboken. The terminal there was a relative ghost town, considering the time and the day. The stream of commuters heading out of the PATH station was light and an inbound train to 33rd St. was waiting on the track. I got on my usual car and took a seat. Moments later, the doors closed and we were on our way.

And I was alone in the car. I think it's happened to me once before, but definitely not at this time of day. Even though it's against the rush, there are usually a few people in each car.

The walk across four avenues was pleasant as the signs of the holiday season become more prevalent. I saw a shooting star affixed to a lamp post somewhere down Sixth Ave.; the Empire State Building was bathed in yellow, orange and red for Thanksgiving; the trees outside the Maritime Hotel have their yellow lights lit; and when I come back to Chelsea Market next week, I suspect the wreath will be hung over the entrance and the decorations will be spread throughout the ground level.

Winter in New York never seems as cold during December.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Worst. Game. Ever.

It wasn't pretty. I haven't seen any highlights on TV, but considering how much the media has loved Notre Dame's football struggles this year, I suspect any "SportsCenter" or nightly newscast recaps played up the booing and snowballs more than necessary. But they did happen. The snowballs were early, because there were drunk seniors in the cold who were playing around. And then when the PA made an announcement to stop ... well, that only increased it, college kids being what they are. I suspect stupid college kids at ANY school would've done that. The fact that they kept trying to reach the field (and as a result hit the team on the sidelines) was another level of stupid.

As for the booing, it really only happened once, that I noticed. ND had just blocked a punt and had a first down inside the 10-yard line. Clearly, a sure TD about to happen. But three huge penalties gave them second down and 47 YARDS TO GO. After third and 40, we couldn't even get back into field goal range. That was the only significant booing I heard -- after one series, and, frankly, they kind of deserved it. If there was booing at the end of the game, I didn't notice. As soon as the Irish missed that field goal, I turned to leave. We had to wait a bit to get through the tunnel and back to the concourse, and I did my best not to turn and look at the field. I heard the band play the alma mater and lamented that I was so disgusted by the outcome that I couldn't even stay for that. It was the first time I've ever done that -- left the stands immediately as the clock struck zero, neglecting to stay for the band's postgame performance. I've since heard about some shenanigans involving the Syracuse team and its dead coach walking, but I have no interest in delving into that. It was also, I believe, the first game I've attended since college that we've lost that wasn't a bowl game or against USC. And I've probably been to about 20. Definitely a new low.

The fun part of the weekend? Seeing Jim and Debbie, though it was strange to have just dad and me staying at the house. And that they're selling the house and it may be the last time we stay there with them. They're still planning to get tickets and come back from Cincinnati for the games, but Debbie's hoping to convince various family members to take weekend vacations and leave them a place to stay.

Brad and Tenille were also there. They stopped by on their way to northwest Indiana to spend Thanksgiving with Tenille's family. They have a 3-year-old boy and a 16-month-old girl, so they didn't go to the game. They stopped by our modest tailgate (basically Dad, Debbie and me eating chicken and drinking a few beers and hot chocolate for about 90 minutes before walking campus a little) for a short time, then went to LaFortune, the bookstore and the Joyce Center during the game. Afterwards, I had dinner with them.

I went back to the house for about two hours after that, and then Kregg called when he was finished at the stadium. He and some TV guys were grabbing food and some beers at a new bar at the mall, so I joined them for a couple hours.

And that's what made the weekend -- including the 12-hour drive out through snowstorms on Friday and the 10 1/2-hour drive back on a weary, sunny Sunday -- worth it. An upsetting loss on the football field could cast a pall on the entire weekend, but I won't let it. I refuse to look at it as just a football game. When the Irish play in New Jersey and it's just me and whoever has tickets with me, then it's just a football game. But when it's a long-distance trip, a planned meeting before the game and an impromptu dinner afterward, it's more than the football. The outcome of the game only altered my postgame routine (I left as soon as that field goal fell short, rather than staying through the band's performance), my plans to walk around campus in the cold winter-like night with my camera (I was in no mood to soak it in at that moment, not wanting to be too close to fans I don't know) and my weekly tradition of reading national columns and mailbags. From what I've heard, missing Pat Forde was no loss, since he apparently got none of his facts right and appeared to make no effort to do any research of his own, including talking with even one student. I may still read Stewart Mandel's 'bag tomorrow, but I'm not going to make a point of it like I usually do.

In time, the game will fade as just another bad loss, one of only five since I graduated in 1998. The others were against USC in 2003 and 2005 (the Bush Push game) and the 2001 Fiesta Bowl vs. Oregon State and the 2007 Sugar Bowl against LSU (the last game for Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija). I no longer remember those games as much as I do the weekend or other festivities associated with them. Phoenix/Tempe at New Year's was a blast; New Orleans 15 months after Katrina, with a personal tour from a friend and local reporter, was sobering (and then intoxicating). Another few years down the road, last weekend will be the time Brad and I caught up in South Bend for the first time in years. I doubt it will be the last, either.

Friday, November 21, 2008

On the road to South Bend


Amazingly enough, the day started out as planned: Dad and I were in the car and on the road at 5:05 a.m., just five minutes past our target. We drove to the end of the street, turned right. Made another right at the yield sign onto Route 19, then curved left onto the on ramp and were westbound on Interstate 80 -- three turns and 700 miles would have us in Indiana. Another turn or two put us on Notre Dame's campus (a campus that, after several years of gradual small-step expansion and renovation is unrecognizable in certain corners).

By 6:05 p.m. -- exactly 12 hours after departing -- we were on Twyckenham Ave., the northeast border of campus. The roads have been redirected in some places (a traffic circle at Douglas and Twyckenham??) and the borders spruced up, creating quite a different melding of Notre Dame into South Bend than we ever knew.

I'd expected a hint of the daylight to come upon our departure, but the sun didn't start illuminating the eastern horizon until after 6 a.m., by which time we were already in Pennsylvania. The entire New Jersey stretch of I-80 and the Delaware Water Gap was covered in darkness, the looming peaks of the Kittattiny highlands only dark shadows against a black-blue sky. From the highway, a the illuminated skylights of a warehouse in East Stroudsburg looked like a sea of alien pods from a science-fiction movie. By the time the sun started to make an impact on the landscape, we'd reached just far enough into the Keystone State to see a dusting of snow on the hillsides and lights on in the farmhouses as people began their Fridays.

Dad drove for two-and-a-half hours and by the time I took over, at 7:30, the low morning light cast a calming orange-pink hue on the Pennsylvania countryside. The roadbed was clear, but the fields and trees held onto increasing amounts of snow. As each mile passed, the view out the windshield became whiter and whiter, until each individual bare branch of the trees appeared encased in white -- much like the North Pole scenery in any number of Christmas specials. And it wasn't even 10 minutes into my first driving shift that the first flakes started falling from the sky.

But the weather held for the first 80 miles or so, until we were west of Lewisburg and really beginning to enter the Alleghenies. By Bellefonte -- the exit for State College -- it was snowing, and as we ascended the modest peaks and maneuvered the serpentine curves on our way to the highest point on I-80 east of the Mississippi, the weather varied from flurries with a beam of sunlight to snow squalls and diminished visibility. I persevered, and as we descended from the route's modest highpoint, the warmer asphalt appeared more wet than slushed over and I felt we were through the worst of it.

Ohio, though, had more in store. We stopped for lunch at 11:30, the streets of Youngstown -- at the exit, at least -- in that in-between state just hours after a snowfall of slushed up yet plowed once or twice. Dad resumed driving after lunch and I retired to the back seat to stretch out, cover my face against the sunlight with a hat, and catch up on some sleep.

Before I could doze off, however, Dad asked if I was awake and if he had taken the wrong route. Seems that once before, on a stretch in eastern Ohio where I-80 and I-76 share the same macadam, he'd mistaken I-80's veering off the main thoroughfare for a local exit and, instead, stayed on 76. He'd done that again this morning. I consulted the map and told him it was a minor detour; we'd be able to take Exit 43 ahead and follow Route 14 north for 12 miles to rejoin 80. It would cost us little more than the 15 or 20 minutes it would take to traverse the 12 miles between the interstates.

Only before we could get to that exit, traffic on 76 came to a standstill. Thankfully, it was only rubberneckers looking at the five cars that had spun off the road a mile ahead and not the closing of 76 we'd heard about on the local radio station (that accident turned out to be west of Akron; we were still to the east). The sun was gone, hidden deep behind the clouds above and the lake effect snow pouring from them. The road was slushy and slippery, the travel cautious. By the time we did return to 80, it was 50 minutes after Dad had first alerted me.

The weather alternated between partly sunny and lake effect snow squalls with near-whiteout conditions. As we drove on Route 14, I navigated with my sunglasses on, yet over to the west, a dark cloud reached down to the horizon -- a clear sign of a storm in progress. At that moment, a haiku came to me:

Ohio sunshine
just a tease, for the west holds
dark, foreboding skies

The sunshine held until the interstate, at which point I did fall asleep for nearly an hour, waking up just east of Toledo. Shortly after 3 p.m., we crossed over into Indiana and I remarked to my father that this just might be the first time he's made the trip from New Jersey to South Bend through nothing but blue states since the 60s. After we gassed up for the second time today, I took the wheel and drove us the final 70 miles to campus, with nothing but trucks or slow drivers in the left lane hindering our progress. As if sensing its location, my iPod -- shuffling through my entire collection -- settled on Dave Matthews' "Crash" for the final stretch of highway, reaching directly into my college years in selecting the soundtrack for the final leg of the journey.

As the sun set on the campus' winter tableau -- someone had built a snowman outside the merchandise tent near the business school and on-campus restaurant, and many of the buildings have Christmas trees lit up already -- the horizon burned orange through the bare branches of the trees. We navigated slick sidewalks -- the base layer of ice buffed to a dull sheen by the sweepers used to clear the powder from the walkways -- to the bookstore, where I browsed just long enough to make sure I wasn't missing out on anything I really wanted. (The only purchase was a porcelain Play Like A Champion Today sign to mount on the wall above the stairs leading to the basement.)

Walking back to the car, I made sure to gaze up Notre Dame Avenue at the Main Building's dome, the shining gold beacon standing out, a clear, unobstructed view despite trees reaching in from either side. The sky was not yet black but a deep, deep blue like we'd seen this morning at the Water Gap. Other than a crisp, bright, sunny autumn afternoon at the fall colors' peak, this is my favorite time of day on campus. In any season -- but particularly in winter, when the air is clear and the Dome and the stars seem to pop in high definition -- this meeting of day and night, of the gold dome and the navy blue sky, is a perfect Notre Dame moment.

Cold and eager to get to our friends' house for dinner, we kept walking. I contemplated returning after dinner by myself to walk around campus under the more private cover of nightfall, but the beer tasted too good and the couch felt too soft. I would've liked to take a few pictures, maybe stop by the Grotto when it's not quite so crowded as it will probably be after tomorrow's game, but I didn't get the chance today. I'll have to push myself to do so tomorrow, even with the crowds, because these days the next trip back here is not always definitely the next season. Growing old, working hard and living far away don't allow me to designate a weekend or two every fall for a return to South Bend, so I have to be sure to appreciate these moments and take them in when I have them.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Taking pictures

I finally remembered to bring my camera with me and head across the street to the municipal complex to shoot some images of the Avenue of Flags. (The explanation is over on the photo blog.) Then I cruised down the Parkway for a haircut and lunch with Dave. The most notable thing about that journey was the four speed traps I saw -- two southbound, two northbound -- in the first 15 miles after getting onto the Parkway. And then I saw none the rest of the way (and only one coming back, plus one on Route 18 as Dave and I were heading back to his office). Not sure if the state police have a Veterans Day special going on or what.

Oh, also of note: regular unleaded gas for $1.96 a gallon! That was cash only, but a Sunoco that takes credit cards was selling it for $1.99. Unfortunately, I couldn't take advantage; I had to fill up before leaving home, so I was barely below full at $2.17 a gallon. No matter, at least the $2 threshold has been broken again, in a good way. I suspected it would, and it doesn't surprise me that central Jersey is about 20 cents lower than the northern rates. It'd be nice to get below $2 up here and stay there for a few weeks, but I'll take whatever I can get right now.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Final scenes from a night of change

I stepped outside onto 9th Ave. to wait for my ride home, and the streets were busier than normal for early Wednesday morning.

"It's so surreal," one young woman said as she and her companion walked past me. "I truly feel like ... the world has changed."

As those two neared 15th St., a cab crossed the avenue with a passenger in the front seat holding a flag on a pole out the window, letting the stars and stripes flap in the breeze. Coming up the avenue walked a group of six, two-by-two, laughing and singing.

It's a happy city tonight.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Yes we DID

I consider Election Day to be an anniversary of sorts. I first started blogging -- it was a diary then, a journal -- on Election Day 2000, which was Nov. 7 that year. It was my first presidential election in which I walked into the booth, since my previous vote in 1996 had been via absentee ballot while at college. It, of course, was an historic election because of the tight race, the prolonged battle and the eventual Supreme Court intervention and the handing of Florida to George Bush, making him the president.

I get a bit sentimental over anniversaries, as many people do. At the least, I enjoy taking a moment to think back and reflect on that day, where I was then and where I am now. I look at the journey and what got me to where I am today. Yet looking back at my birth to blogging was always a little bittersweet, because that reflection had to include a questionable election and a country that had changed so much, with so little of it for the better.

But today I find myself in a much MUCH different place, and a much better place. I'm married. I own a house. I have a great job I enjoy, as much as I enjoyed the sportswriting (yet low-paying) job I had in November 2000. It also has me working nights, just as that one did (though I was off on Election Day).

Today, though, is also the day we elected Barack Obama as our president. I was following along with CNN on TV and online, using their fabulous Election Calculator to fill in what was decided and what was projected. Virginia was announced for Obama at 10:58 p.m. ET, and as they discussed that, I went to the calculator and looked at the totals. California, which was closing at 11 ET, would put Obama over the top. I barely had a chance to say that out loud to my co-workers when they broke in with another projection. "I guess this is California," I said.

Not quite.

At 11 p.m. EST on the nose, Wolf Blitzer stood in front of a huge graphic that announced Obama as the projected winner. At work, we cheered.

To their credit, the producers at CNN went to live shots of Grant Park in Chicago, Times Square in New York and other areas around the country that showed raucous celebrations and wonderful, beautiful, raw moments of emotion, of pure joy. As I watched it all and took it all in, I got a lump in my throat and something stuck in my eye. In fact, something kept getting stuck in my eye for the next several minutes as different scenes of celebration came across the screen.

I was inspired by this election, doing things to contribute and get the word out for the first time. I donated for the first time, I wore a button on my bag as I commuted to work and put a sign up in the front yard and a bumper sticker on my car. I considered the ways I could volunteer, but in the end my job made it a little too difficult. The long nights -- the overnights -- and weekend hours made many things unlikely for me, and I just didn't feel comfortable making phone calls. I'm not a good debater, and getting people to talk about something they may be hesitant to share is a reason I don't miss being a reporter.

And yet, this election and this result continue to inspire me. I feel a desire to become more involved in, if not politics, than at least community organizing. I was a part of it by casting my vote, but now I want to do more. I look forward to tomorrow, I look forward to January 20. I may take that day off and take the train to Washington to see history.

In the end, America voted and America got it right. Tomorrow is a new day, next year a new beginning. I've always been proud to be an American, but never more than tonight.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Using my voice

A few weeks ago, I was asked to explain -- if I wished -- who I was voting for and why. Someone I know was undecided and looking for some opinions. I happily offered mine. No one on this forum asked for my thoughts, so feel free to stop reading. No hard feelings.

My vote will go to Obama/Biden. I'd say I fall into the group of people who think the last eight years were among America's worst. Bush and Cheney broke the oaths they took upon their inauguration and failed to defend the Constitution. At times, they flatly ignored it and disregarded it. They stomped on it. Their policies have weakened our economy, destroyed our standing around the world and ruined other countries' opinion of us. The horrible events of Sept. 11 first led to an admirable military action in Afghanistan that should have produced the capture of Osama bin Laden, but Bush/Cheney instead chose to use that as an excuse to attack Iraq just to get the oil there, to make Cheney's former company rich with the rebuilding, and to satisfy Bush's grudge against Saddam Hussein. Iraq has cost billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and time, effort and resources that should be in Afghanistan. On top of that, taxes were cut (mostly for the richest Americans) that led to a deeper debt and budget deficit. When Clinton left office, there was a huge budget surplus -- the country was bringing in more than enough money to cover its expenses -- but Bush destroyed that within two years. I have more gripes -- from Supreme Court appointments to environmental policies and more -- but I won't go into all of them.

As for Obama vs. McCain, I see in Obama a genuine desire to help the country. So much of what has transpired in the past eight-to-12 years has led to the problems today, and Obama brings a fresher face. In 2004, when Obama first came on the scene with his speech at the Democratic convention, I thought he'd make a great president, but I didn't think it would be in 2008, because I thought he'd need more time and more experience. But after seeing what that Washington experience has led to, and what McCain would bring with his long experience, I feel that a fresher face is needed. It's similar to the way companies bring in someone from the outside when they need to get back on track, the way sports teams choose a new manager or coach from outside the program to turn around a sagging club, the way a movie studio changes directors when a film doesn't have the right vision or the way a family hires an interior designer to make over a room when you'd think they would know what they want. Sometimes you need a new perspective, a fresh approach to the task at hand. I think Obama's choice of Biden as his running mate also shows his insight to his own shortcomings. Knowing his own foreign policy experience was lacking, he turned to one of the most experienced and options for a running mate, based on Biden's work in Congress.

Though I don't doubt McCain's love for this country, he worries me. In 2000, I hoped he'd beat Bush in the primaries so that if Gore didn't win, at least the alternative would be a moderate conservative whose positions and values were closer to mine. Back then, McCain had no desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, he truly cared for the environment, he wasn't trying to become president just because it would put a cap on his political career. Even in just the past two or four years, McCain has reversed course -- flip-flopped, as John Kerry's detractors liked to say -- on his own positions. He now wants to appoint Supreme Court justices that would revoke a woman's right to choose; he stands closer to the big oil companies than he does to environmental reform; he's in favor of continuing the reckless Bush tax cuts that he once said he'd allow to expire; and he's admitted that if the immigration bill he once co-wrote came across his desk, he'd veto it. And in 2000, a big reason he lost was the South Carolina primary, during which Bush's team -- led by Karl Rove -- aired dirty and, in some cases, untrue ads that attacked McCain personally, not on the issues. McCain was angered and disgusted by that, yet he's hired some of the same people used by Bush and Rove to his own campaign all in an effort to win. He's compromised his principles just to win.

And finally, there's Sarah Palin. There were several viable running mates McCain could've chosen who would've complemented him well and strengthened his ticket, but he chose Palin based on her ultra-conservative views in an effort to appease the far-right Republicans and win back their support. He pandered to them, choosing her just to win their votes instead of for any insight or strengths she'd bring to his administration. McCain is 72 years old, which would make him the oldest person to win a presidential election for his first term. He's already a cancer survivor, which is wonderful. Yet despite those two big, legitimate concerns, his campaign has refused to allow a full look into his medical history. The voters have a right to know the status of his health, considering the job for which he is applying, yet he continues to hide that (as he does his wife's tax returns, and she's the big moneymaker in the relationship). These factors also play into the Palin choice. McCain's age and cancer history made the choice of a capable, able vice president paramount, yet he showed poor judgement in choosing someone with so little experience. Obama has essentially been running for president for as long as Palin has been Alaska's governor. Only a few months before McCain chose her, she admitted that she didn't even know what the vice president did. (The correct answer, based on the Constitution, is virtually nothing, other than break tie votes in the Senate. However, Dick Cheney has flaunted those rules -- or lack thereof -- and Palin has said she would continue to treat the vice presidency that way.) Should something happen to McCain and he dies or becomes incapacitated in office, our president would be someone who two years ago was a small-town mayor.

I could probably go on. I could address the candidates' campaign styles and tactics, I could point to their health care proposals, or I could go into more on their proposed tax plans or energy ideas. But the basics are this: Obama's stance on the economy, the environment, health care, taxes, education and America's security are so much closer to my own thoughts. I truly believe that a McCain administration would be so close to what we've had the past eight years, and we've seen where that leads. I would truly be scared if Obama doesn't win.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Costumed attire

I think I've outgrown Halloween.

On the way into work tonight, I saw several people dressed on then train to Hoboken, the PATH to the city, and lining up along 6th Ave. waiting for the parade to begin. And yet it wasn't the fact that I had to work and couldn't party that bummed me out. If I had my choice, I would've been in South Bend tonight, drinking with friends and awaiting tomorrow morning's tailgating before the Notre Dame-Pittsburgh game.

I suppose if I had more friends nearby who had parties to go to (or to throw) and a more creative mind to come up with a unique and clever costume, I might be more into it. But I was more excited to carve pumpkins than I was to dress up in disguise, even for work.

Maybe I'll treat Halloween like the presidential election and recognize it once every four years, though not the same four years, since I've clearly missed that boat this year. I think I can find the inspiration on a four-year cycle.

It's interesting how our views and the meanings of holidays change as we grow. As a kid, Halloween is probably No. 2 on the holiday list -- No. 3 if you count your birthday as a holiday -- and marked by costumes and candy. You get to wear your costume to school, you get to spend time with your friends after dark on a school night (though pushing back daylight savings time to early November may have eliminated that one), you get to eat a LOT of candy in one day. And there are no religious lessons or good lists or bad lists to worry about; it's all about the candy.

Then when you're older, the costumes move to the forefront, along with the parties. This seems to be doubly true if you're a supple 20-something woman in New York City. Perhaps the fact that I am off the market has also sapped the interest in Halloween.

I managed to note some of the costumes I saw on my commute into work tonight (and a couple earlier today). I thought about bringing my camera to work with me, but then I realized that would only slow me down and make me late. So here they are in order of how well each wearer pulled it off, with originality of the outfit and effort incorporated into the ranking.

1.) Organ grinder's monkey. Saw this guy on 15th St. at 7th Ave. He had a monkey mask, a body suit and an accordion. Plus I could see his curved tail sticking out from behind him from 100 feet away.

2.) A nun. The best part about this was that I was in Stop & Shop picking up a couple of bags of candy and this nun was in front of me in the cramped candy display area. As I grabbed my bags, I relalized that she was restocking the shelves from a cart -- she worked there. And at first, from behind, I thought that it was a Muslim mother doing some shopping in the morning. It was only when I saw the rest of the Stop & Shop employees dressed up that I remembered what day it was.

3.) Jack-in-the-box. Nothing to do with fast food. This guy was a bagger at Stop & Shop, standing at the end of the conveyor belt in colored tights, with a box around his torso.

4.) Wonder Woman. Saw her from afar at the Hoboken station. She certainly had the legs for it.

5.) Bubble Bee Woman. Nothing like Bumble Bee Man from The Simpsons. She was tall, pretty and wearing fishnets.

6.) Sally from A Nightmare Before Christmas. She could probably be higher, but I only saw small glimpses of her through the crowd as she lined up on 6th Ave. and I'm not sure the costume was necessarily true to the movie or just an attempt. The hair was also long red strands of yarn, more like Raggedy Ann (which is who I thought she was at first) than Sally.

7.) Guy with jester hat and ukelele. The hat wasn't anything special, and other than those two props, I couldn't tell if he had a full costume on because he wore a long winter overcoat. But when I saw him standing on 8th Ave. presumably waiting for a cab, he was playing the ukelele. Rather than chalk that up to laziness ("What do I have lying around the house to wear tonight?"), I chose to appreciate the effort (or ability?) to carry a prop that he can actually play.

From this point on, the costumes are decidedly less varied and more cliche. So no more rankings, though the first one is there because it deserves to be.

A pirate. This guy put some effort into a fallback outfit. (The last time I dressed up, Casey was a pirate wench and I was a Pittsburgh Pirate.) He looked like a classic Pirate picture, with a striped bandana, an eye patch, pirate-looking facial hair, a vest and leggings. This was no jeans-and-T-shirt pirate.

From the woman-as-animal camp: a hound dog (loved the floppy ears) and a mouse. From the woman-as-slut camp: a cheerleader and Catholic schoolgirl (have you ever noticed how you never see 20-something women dressed as the homely cheerleader or the mousy schoolgirl?). From the what-I-had-in-the-back-of-my-closet-from-a-former-job camp: a guy in the army and an orange biohazard jumpsuit (no hood or anything, though). And from the has-to-be-one-at-every-Halloween-party camp: a witch (saw two). There were also several people in half-costume en route to parties or seen from such a distance that I couldn't tell what their full costume was.

So that's the extent of my Halloween 2008. Roughly one hour broken into two segments at the beginning and middle of my day. Perhaps next year will be different.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Punkin' '08

This year's carvings included two replicas of the neon players that (used to) adorn Shea Stadium's exterior. I carved those. Ideally, I would've loved to have done all six, but with a particularly taxing World Series keeping me at work until 5 a.m. pretty much every night, I just didn't have enough conscious non-work hours. Two was my limit.

Casey did the Mets logo, as well as an attempt at the Home run Apple, but it didn't translate to the gourd as well as these three did.

Another note: This photo has been retouched. I fixed the head of the batter on the pumpkin on the left, because I came home this afternoon to find a squirrel had started gnawing at it. Here is how he really looks now.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Not your usual sight

I sit in the home office, in a cozy hooded sweatshirt and comfy slippers. Late fall is trying to hang onto a few more crisp days before yielding to the biting cold of winter. But the old man is eager to arrive, hoping to make an appearance before November, pushing a cold front across New Jersey. Some of the Garden State's upper reaches, its northernmost counties and hilly hamlets, have already seen snow in the past day or two. But now it's here, in flurry form, in the denser suburbs. The light, drifting flakes blow diagonally outside the window and aren't here for long -- just long enough for me to notice them, and to wonder if I've ever seen this kind of weather in October in New Jersey.

Several years ago, I spent about 24 hours with a friend's (now long-ex-) boyfriend up in the Berkshires, visiting a high school buddy of mine. It was Columbus Day weekend, mid-October, the peak of the fall season in Greenfield and Shelburne Falls and the surrounding towns. We took pictures, ate apples, shot arrows (some of them at apples, none of which were perched on our heads) and made the most of a day in the country. That night, Dave and I climbed, fully clothed, into our sleeping bags in a not-so-well-heated room of the house Walker was renting or caretaking and shivered ourselves to sleep. Winter seemed to move in overnight, a frost encrusting the lawn of the meadow I hiked across at dawn in a fruitless attempt to photograph the sunrise.

When we left later that morning, we headed west along the Mohawk Trail -- otherwise known as Massachusetts Route 2 -- because of its dotted scenic route designation on the map. We had no reason to rush home, so we took the long way. Crossing the crown of the Berkshires, we looked down snow-dusted slopes to the valleys below. I had never seen trees holding a coating of snow while still maintaining a grasp onto their red and golden leaves. Autumn and winter came together in a mash-up of the seasons. The air grew warmer as the morning went on and we descended the western side of the mountains and crossed the river into Albany. Like a shooting star, the melding of the seasons didn't last long, but it left an impression.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Nancy Kerrigan stopped by

It's 1:40 a.m. on a Saturday and I just walked past Nancy Kerrigan in the office. She was with a group of people discussing something work-related (all I bothered to hear was "should we set up a conference call?") before they all stepped onto the elevator and scattered.

We presume she was here using our studios for some Ice Network purpose, though it's the first time I've heard of such an arrangement. Not that I would be privy to such agreements, but I already did know about our relationship with CBS Sports (particularly during the NCAA basketball tournament).

Anyway, it was a fun celebrity sighting, and a close one. On my way to the kitchen (via a different route than usual, no purpose, of course), I had to walk right next to her. At 39, she's very pretty (for any age, really) and is about my height -- without skates.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Me time

I finally got back to the photo blog tonight. And, as I mentioned, I'm using my Wednesday to take a day for myself and hit the road (gotta love gas prices now down to $2.70 a gallon or less) for a New Jersey foliage day trip sojourn. It'll be good to get away to the hills for some Dan time, away from the hectic city and a nice break after the League Championship Series and before the final stretch of the World Series. It was nice to get Game 1 off following a Sunday at home, just to have a couple of nights where I don't have to deal with the craziness.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Signs I need a new point-and-shoot digital

When I bought my laptop years ago, I added a Kodak digital point-and-shoot for about a hundred bucks. It was worth it at the time, when I didn't have my digital SLR, and it worked out just fine. Picture quality was good and it takes video, too.

But now it's an albatross. It is, like most technology more than a year old (if that), a bit outdated. It's heavy for a point-and-shoot. The tab that kept the battery door closed broke off years ago, so I've been holding that together with a rubber band. If it's not tight enough, the door doesn't fully close on the battery, which then doesn't reach both contact points and, therefore, doesn't provide its power to the camera. And now it seems that the two batteries no longer hold a sufficient charge.

I haven't used the camera in a few weeks, but I've been carrying it around in my bag each night on my way to work. Today, as I headed up 6th Ave. to then head west on 15th St., I looked up at the Empire State Building in the dusk. Its floodlights were orange, a perfect contrast against the darkening blue sky. They were Mets colors creating a visual complement to the autumn chill in the air. I watched the tourists' cameras flash from the observation deck as I pulled out my camera; their strobe effect was a nice touch and I planned to take a short video of it to see if it would translate. But two dead batteries scuttled that plan.

With everything else we've spent money on this year, I'm not in any position to be spending money on such luxury items. I'll have to use this financial quiet time to shop around and find the point-and-shoot that has the features I want in a conveniently portable camera: Lightweight, good-quality photos, compact, video capabilities and the ability to take good photos without a flash in low light for concert settings.

Then I'll have to get back to 6th and 15th at about 6:30 p.m. in late October when the Empire State Building is orange.

Should be no problem.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Next time, I should keep my finger to myself

Friday night brings them all out in New York City: The nutjobs, the wackos, the assholes. The ditzes, the flakes, the clueless. The pretty people, the arrogant, the self-righteous. I should know this by now. Or rather, I do know this, but I should bear it in mind more often when I find myself on the Manhattan streets after work at 2 a.m.

Here's the deal: The car is there when I walk downstairs after work, a nice easy night with a clear 2 a.m. finish because there was no baseball game tonight. I get in the car at the curb as a stream of taxis passes us even as the driver lets up on the brake and begins to move. The cabs are continuing south on 9th Ave., into the Meatpacking District. The avenue is packed in these wee hours of the morning as people hop from one trendy club to another or search for that dive bar on 14th St. for a nightcap or head home, drunk and boisterous in the back seat of a cab. After the light turns green, we're slow to turn right onto 15th St. because the cabs continuing on 9th cannot move through the intersection. The right lane we are in, which is marked as a combination straight and right-turn lane, contains cars side-by-side. My driver has his right-turn signal on -- as does the SUV to our left.

Horns begin blaring and a police cruiser toots his bullhorn. He leaves his dome lights off, however. With the inside track, my driver is able to make the right turn onto 15th St. just ahead of the pushy SUV, which did its best to position itself in front of us before the turn. I look out the window throughout the turn, trying to both get a glimpse and imagine who would have the gall to pull such a stunt, no matter how big or tough or overcompensating he is behind the wheel of his gas-guzzler. Not to mention the fact that he had to have heard the cop's horn moments before making the turn.

As we begin to make our way down 15th, I can sense the SUV's headlights close behind me. Turning around, I find I'm correct -- he's inches from our bumper, blatantly tailgating and swerving first to the left, then to the right, to get around us. It's not a two-lane road, and if parking were allowed on the right side, there's no way he would've had room. But the right-hand gutter is clear, so he floors it and passes us.

Now here's where I get stupid. Yet it must be stressed that I was in the right, clearly, while the SUV driver had three strikes against him: 1.) the illegal turn off of 9th Ave; 2.) tailgating; and 3.) passing on the right on a sidestreet.

Still, I probably shouldn't have given him the finger.

Or I shouldn't have done it so blatantly, my thumb securely holding down the other three fingers, my long middle digit pressed up against the top of the window -- where it was closer to his eye level and right up there in the lights shining down from the streetlamps. As soon as he surged in front of us -- swerving into our path before he smashed into a delivery truck parked at the curb -- and perhaps even before that moment, I knew I should've thought before extending my finger. At the very least, I should've disguised it by drumming my other fingers on the window as if listening to music or flat-out holding it up against the door beneath the window. It wouldn't have been seen there, but I still would've known and felt a moment of righteousness.

But he saw it. And he slammed on his brakes, coming to a stop in the middle of 15th St., halfway between 9th and 10th avenues. I looked behind us: No one. The driver got out and started yelling, approaching the driver's door of the car I was in. I held my hands up as if to say, "What, dude?" And yet I do not know why he approached the driver, when he clearly saw me in the back seat flipping him off. My driver, unaware of my instigation, started yelling and flipped open his cell phone to call the police. The aggressor yanked at the driver's door twice and (thankfully) found it locked.

In the back of my mind, I cursed the cops in the car on 9th Ave. who chose not to follow the SUV that had made an illegal turn two cars in front of him. Luckily, the SUV aggressor's passenger had a cooler head. "Come on, man. Let's get out of here." That's literally what he said, like we were in the opening scene of a Law & Order, when you see the aftermath of the crime that the detectives will spend the next hour (minus commercials) investigating.

My heart raced, my mind flashed through all the possible scenarios of what could have happened -- at least when it wasn't berating my hand for getting us into this predicament. The SUV sped ahead to the light at 10th Avenue. I was hoping it would be green so that he could continue on ahead of us, but it was red. We pulled up behind him. My driver continued to wonder what the hell was wrong with the SUV driver, and I explained that he probably thought I was giving him the finger, but of course I wasn't, because that would've been stupid. (He didn't need to know.)

On the ride home after a long night, when I just want to get home, the red lights always seem endless. Tonight, on my earliest exit from the office in 10 days, the wait at 15th St. and 10th Ave. was unbearable. And yet, it lasted mere seconds, because the SUV then made a left onto 10th, going against the traffic (not that there were any cars at the moment he made his turn, but he still was going the wrong way on a one-way street) for 20 feet so that he could turn into the gas station on the corner. Yet once there, he executed a K-turn, once again bringing my heart rate up as I wondered if he was trying to maneuver around the cars at the pumps so that he could exit back onto 15th St. -- where he would then be behind us again.

Thankfully, the driver got out. I don't know if he continued to shout at us or even look at us because there was a car parked in between us and all I could see was that his door had opened. Our light turned green and we headed up 10th toward the Lincoln Tunnel. Yet as we were slowed by traffic outside the 10th Avenue clubs and the lights as they turned from red to green, I continued to look back over my shoulder every block, just to make sure the silver SUV wasn't back on the road, weaving its way through traffic looking for us.

I pulled out my notebook and wrote down the license plate number and added, "Approached car on 15th St." so that the police would have a clear lead should they find us run off the road, unconscious. As we sat at a light before entering the Lincoln Tunnel access road, my driver told me he has a hammer on the front seat. "I'm glad we didn't need to use it," I reply.

Once safely inside the tunnel, where I could confirm that the car immediately in front of us and immediately behind us wasn't the SUV -- even though it hadn't left the gas station before we were several blocks away -- and the right lane was closed at that hour, my heart rate finally started to level off. Once we passed the tiled New Jersey-New York border at the (presumed) midpoint, I at last felt a sense of relief.

The rest of the way home, I was glad that it didn't get past a tug on the door handle and a few curses shouted at us from the street. But I also wished I wasn't stupid, while at the same time wished I was bigger and/or tougher or, for that one moment, the slightest bit an asshole, so that I could've defended myself should it have come to that. Because in the end, my one small act of antagonism was nothing compared to the trifecta of aggression that had prompted my response. I mean seriously -- where does the guy who passes on the right on a side street in New York City get off getting pissed off because I flip him off in response to his stunt?

Ironically, all this happened while I was in Car 495, which seems to be a number associated with drama whenever he takes me home. True to form, not only was the right lane of the Lincoln Tunnel closed, but so was the helix on the other side, sending all the traffic on to the Weehawken streets to make its way around and back up onto Route 495 and toward the Turnpike and Route 3. At least the traffic was light in the 2-2:30 half-hour. An hour later -- as I finish this post, in fact -- the volume is probably doubled, the backup through the tunnel and out onto the various approaches in the city. By 3 a.m. on a Friday or Saturday night, the Bridge-and-Tunnel crowd seems to have had enough and has begun to make its way back across or beneath the Hudson. If the helix is closed, forget about it. You could be stuck in a 45-minute backup just to travel the three miles beneath the river. Your 20-minute ride home stretches to more than an hour.

Thankfully, that wasn't the case, and I walked into the kitchen well before 3 o'clock. With Casey spending the night at a friend's in the city, I didn't feel the need to head right to bed. And having worked until 4:30 or 5 a.m. every night since Tuesday, I'm not quite as tired at 3 a.m. as I otherwise would be. Therefore, it was the perfect time to enjoy a beer and rehash the ride home, if only as a reminder to think before I flip next time.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Seasonal signs

On my run today and later on my walk to the train, I noticed more houses with Halloween decorations than political signs. A lot more. Like a dozen Halloween-themed lawns and three political placards.

I don't think everyone should announce their allegiances, nor should they have to, but I seem to remember every fourth fall would have the red, white and blue lawn accents of campaign signs to go along with the oranges, yellows and browns of the changing leaves.

I'm all for Halloween and spooking out the yard, and if I was sure I'd be home for the trick-or-treaters, we'd probably have some orange lights on the porch and tombstones in the yard. (I hesitate because I don't think it's right for me to decorate for the season and then leave the place dark on the big night. Not that the half-dozen kids we'd probably get would really notice.) But I do hope that the choice of exterior decorations in my neighborhood does not indicate that household's choice in putting one day ahead of the other.

Hopefully, those with the haunted homes will get out of the house on Nov. 4 -- and those with the political point of view pick up some candy before the 31st.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

2 a.m. traffic

Getting Car 495 seems to mean one thing: A delay. It's a new one tonight -- Route 3 closed at the bridge near the Meadowlands. There's allegedly one lane open, but traffic was stopped for 10 minutes while construction workers moved some equipment or set a steel beam in place for the frame of the bridge over the roadway. It's part of the expansion of the complex, the building of Xanadu and new Giants/Jets football stadium, that includes a NJ Transit rail station. This bridge will, I presume, carry the trains over the highway.

Tonight, though, it's adding about 15 minutes to my middle-of-the-night drive home.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Unprofessional and irresponsible

When you work for an internet news site, deadline is more "now" than by a certain time. And when the last relevant event happens at 10 p.m., there's no reason your assignment should arrive 4 1/2 hours later.

I'm just saying. And venting.

Tomorrow, I attend my last game at Shea Stadium, though I hope it's not the last game at Shea Stadium. Today, that is. In 10 hours, I'll be there, standing and cheering. Hopefully, much rejoicing will follow.

And then I'll return to this office, this desk, and work another shift.

October lies just around the corner...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Fight! Fight!

After getting home at 5 a.m. Monday, I wasn't about to set an alarm for any particular time. The plan was to catch up on my sleep and wake up when my body said it was time. Or at least my stomach.

But with the windows open, I was exposed to the audible elements of the neighborhood. When I heard the daily cacophony of high school students walking down the street, I first thought I'd slept until 2:30, which is when they usually pass by on their way home and to the city buses. But the clock showed 12:15, so I deduced that it must have been a half-day.

As I lay there trying to drift back to sleep, it occurred to me that the shouting outside wasn't the usual back-and-forth across the street. And the honking seemed to be a little more frequent then normal. When the yells reached a certain level, I flashed back to the seventh-grade playground and realized what I was hearing.

There was a fight going on. Right outside my house.

On the street.

I ran into the guest room and looked out over the patio and through the trees. In the street by our driveway a circle had formed. In the middle were two boys circling one another, fists up, taking the occasional jab at one another. The leaves on the trees obscured the full scene, so I don't know exactly which two were fighting or if it had gotten very far, but with a soundtrack and a little lyrical dialogue and it could've been Clifton's west side story -- and yes, we live on the western end of town.

Shortly after I got to the window, though, the cars lined up in the street -- there was no room to get around the crowd that had gathered -- won after repeated honking, and the circle broke up, the would-be combatants decamping to opposite sides of the street. I didn't even have enough time to really comprehend that I still don't know, or have programmed into my phone, the number for the Clifton police. Yeah, I'd decided I was going to age 40 years and be the 70-year-old man who essentially tells the kids to get out of his yard. Had a scuffle broken out -- or even a melee -- it could've spilled over into the driveway and onto the car, and that would've been a bigger problem.

There was no way I was opening the window and yelling at the young whippersnappers, though. I'm not drawing any more attention to the house than I have to with the kids passing by daily.

Friday, September 05, 2008

And now we're in September

Man, it's been ages. I suck.

Let's see ... of late:

1.) We spent a weekend in Pittsburgh in mid-August that included a Mets-Pirates game, Primanti Bros. sandwiches, the Johnstown Flood National Memorial and a stretch of abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike.

2.) We cleared out more of the front "yard" and it looks much better now.

3.) We had Harry's -- the big cat's -- teeth cleaned, and he got back at us by eating coffee cake and bagels.

4.) The weather the last two weeks of August felt more like September, and now these first few days of September have felt like August should have. I nearly needed to turn on the air conditioning today.

5.) I turned 32. It was a low-key birthday, on account of the insulation estimating guy asking to set up the consultation for Tuesday morning. So he came by and checked out the house, then my parents arrived and I introduced Mom to White Manna (Hackensack, of course) before we took a look at Paterson's Great Falls. Then she got all excited when we drove down Spruce St. and realized that the Burger King used to be a hot dog shack she and her family used to visit. She shrieked.

6.) Now we've got Matt and Ellie coming in for the weekend to celebrate Notre Dame's opener tomorrow and then drink for my birthday with other people as they show up. Should be good, drunken times.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Twenty years down the road

My mom came across a newspaper article from 20 years ago that featured some of my classmates and me and an architecture project we did. So freakin' amusing to look back on it now. (That's me, with the bad hair day, behind the model of our school.)

Wed., June 22, 1988


Kids build on new ideas

When is a school not a school?

When it’s a scaled down likeness of same made out of foamboard, cut with a Dremel saw, put together with Elmer’s Glue and painted.

Just such a version of Markham Place School, Little Silver,was created by three sixth graders there – Aimee B., Danny C. and Becky R. – and received an Excellence Award in the Children’s Architecture Exhibit staged in Round Valley Elementary School, Lebanon Township.

Excellence Awards are the highest awards for the total exhibition.

The annual event is sponsored by the Children’s Architecture Association established in 1982 by Constance Fraze Ph.D., Oldwick, Tewskbury Township,a cognitive theorist who ran a graduate center of research on how children learn at Rutgers University.

Ms. Fraze believes children aged 6 to 12 need to be doing alot of three-dimensional work to further their learning and understanding. Currently, she conducts spring and fall teachers’ workshops on that subject in Oldwick.

“My notion in a nutshell,” she explained, “is that we literally construct our intelligence during the concrete period of operations in childhood; I’m using architecture to help children understand the use of space.”

The annual exhibition – “not a contest really,” Ms. Fraze pointed out – started with castles and went on from there. This year, 78 students from eight school districts participated. Twenty-three projects were displayed.

Categories included castles, bridges, historic buildings,modern and future structures. Students from the Little Silver Schools’ gifted and talented program had entries in all.

A scaled-down version of the Twin Lights Museum, Highlands, also received an Excellence Award. It was created by sixth graders William B., Matt R. and David N.

Rachel W., a fourth grader, received second place in the total exhibit for her fancy robot Mitchell George, who was a star of the show and entertained students by marching around the gym.

This is the fourth year students from Little Silver have shown in the exhibit, according to Joanne B., teacher in the school system’s gifted and talented program. Twenty-six students participated and learned to use such tools as T-squares, metal rulers, tape measures, levelers and Dremel sand and scroll saws to build their projects.

An Underwater Sea Castle,that included a McFish Restaurant, took first place in the fifth grade category designated the Castle Competition. Creators of the Sea Castle were fifth graders Mike V. and Mark S. and fourth graders Noelle H., Richard D., Richard B., Sam S., Taylor W. and Jennifer R.

Stephen K. won the first place award in the sixth grade category, modern division, for his version of New York’s World Trade Center, while fifth graders Bjorn S. and Matt R. took second place for their version of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco.

Fifth graders Jennifer B., Emily K., Sam S., Jennifer J. and Gretchen S. shared a first place historic award. They built a model of the White House, Washington, D.C., and discovered just how many additions were added to the original building.

Sixth graders John H. and Amiee M. shared a second place award for the Empire State Building, New York, and fifth grader Audrey W. took first place in the castle contest for her purple pagoda.

According to Mrs. B., the architecture project provides students a chance to research and execute. She said many after-school hours were sacrificed to put on the finishing touches.

“The students,” she said, “have a great deal of pride intheir finished products and the exhibit furnished them an audience whoappreciate their endeavors.”

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Giant show

Three hours, 20 minutes, 30 songs, 55,000 people. I don't think I've seen a better show in my nine-year, 16-concert Springsteen-chasing lifetime.

From the moment he came onstage, his arm draped around Clarence (who appeared to be wearing an adorned admiral's coat), there seemed to be something different about this show. That hunch proved to be true, in all the best ways. Bruce came out in a black shirt and dark blue jeans, at once a change from his usual black-on-black or gray-on-black attire and a throwback to the Born In the USA days of blue jeans and white T-shirts. And then when the band burst into "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" for the opening, it sure seemed like this wasn't going to be like any other shows I've seen.

The band tore through four songs -- "Tenth Avenue," "Radio Nowhere," "Lonesome Day" and "No Surrender" -- before any hint of a pause. Bruce was animated and engaging, often taking his microphone or guitar down to the low stage that jutted out into the audience. Those lucky -- and hardy -- enough to get there early enough and fast enough shook his hand, felt his sweat and strummed his guitar. Opportunistic as he is, he made sure he was down there -- literally, lying on the stage -- for the line "and she kissed me just right like only a lonely angel can," getting a timely peck on the cheek from a fan who probably fainted before he hit the refrain again a moment later.

The huge stage setup covering the band dwarfed everyone and the high-definition screens on either side of the improvised bandshell essentially gave us all front-row seats. Stationary cameras set onstage often gave us Max's view -- a shot of Springsteen from behind, the sea of arms fading off into the darkness in front of him. If they release a DVD of this show or this three-night stand, I won't hesitate to buy it, because I essentially saw a preview already. Whoever produced the concert, choosing the camera angles and the jumps for the live shots on the video screen, has some experience. It felt at times like watching an edited production.

Following "Spirit in the Night," Bruce walked the lower stage collecting signs from the crowd. "Send up your requests!" he said. "That's a good one. ... Ooh, that's a good one. ... We'll get to this one. ..." he remarked as he stuffed the signs under one arm or gathered them in his free hand. He piled them on the stage near his hydration station at Max's platform and went back to the microphone.

"How's everybody's summer going?!" he asked the crowd. Our response was a bit muted, even on the second and third prompts. It worked out for him. "I dunno ... sounds like you've got a little of the ..." his voice trailed off and the band went into "Summertime Blues."

That cover was followed by "Brilliant Disguise" and "Atlantic City," and then it was time for a couple of requests.

The first one he chose to honor said something to the effect of, "I'm a 10-year-old fan 'Growin' Up' at my first show -- and my name's Rosie!" Bruce called for her in the crowd, and her father put her on his shoulders and moved to the front of the section at stage left. The fans cheered when she came onto the screen, probably because her name is Rosie and they wanted that song. "Let's see," Bruce said, back at his stationary microphone stand, his guitar back around his shoulders. "You're 10, so this song was written ... 25 years before you were born! Your father was a glint in your mother's eye!" And with that, he played Track 1, Side 1 of his first album: "Growin' Up."

"Janey Don't You Lose Heart" came next, making someone else happy to see his or her sign displayed onstage, and then he hit the midpoint of his 23-song main set. He went to "I'll Work For Your Love" off of Magic before darting back and forth through his catalog. "Youngstown" featured an insane Nils Lofgren guitar solo, "Murder Incorporated" followed with Bruce working his Fender and trading licks with Stevie, and "The Promised Land" featured blue sky and white clouds projected onto the backdrop behind the band, which made it appear like they were performing in a diorama. One young fan near the lower center stage got some extended camera time during the song. He looked to be about 13, 14 years old, and someone made a point to show him singing along during the chorus: "Mister I ain't a boy, no I'm a man, and I believe in a promised land." That kid got Bruce's harmonica after the song.

Before singing "Living In The Future," Bruce took a few minutes for his brief political message, explaining the song's influence from the last eight years. "This song is about things happening here that your parents told you growing up only happened in other places," he said. When he finished and the band picked up, the father next to me found enough energy to shout, "Take a trip to Iran!" That and some clapping during "Badlands" and "Born to Run" were pretty much all we got out of that guy the entire night. Not sure what prompted him, his wife and his two kids to come to the show, since I didn't detect any deep interest in any of them, but hey, if he wants to spent $100 per ticket to shout, "Take a trip to Iran!" that's his choice. Plus, there's the fact that the song -- and the point of the song -- has nothing to do with Iran. It's about screwing up Iraq, which pretty much happened simply by starting the whole fiasco with Iraq.

In lieu of an intermission -- which, after the effort and energy put into the first 16 songs, the band certainly deserved -- Bruce took his time getting to "Mary's Place." He walked the stage as the band played a soft backbeat of the song and he spoke of traveling "to that river" and "building a house" and building hope and love and happiness in that house. Clarence provided some soulful response to Bruce's calls. "Go to that river!" "A HOUSE!" Bruce talked a lot about that house. He seemed to like the idea of that house. And Clarence really wanted Bruce to build that house. The only drawback to "Mary's Place" was that it was not raining during the repeated audience-aided call-and-response of "Let it rain! Let it rain! Let it rain! Let it rain!"

Bruce switched it up for the next song, taking an acoustic guitar and a microphone stand down to the lower stage for "Working on the Highway." Back on the main stage, a young woman appeared without introduction next to Soozie and danced and sang backup with her. She never got any screen time, so it was hard to discern her age, but my guess is that it was a daughter of a band member. May have even been Bruce and Patti's daughter, who'll head off to college in the fall. She enjoyed herself up there, then gave Soozie a hug and left the stage after the song, with no mention of her.

"Tunnel of Love," with a catchy twist of an open, maybe a little Pet Shop Boys-y, came next, followed by the signature main-set end run from this tour of "The Rising," "Last to Die," "Long Walk Home" and "Badlands." Then the rain did come: big, heavy drops falling intermittently at first during the end of "Long Walk Home," then more steadily over, ironically, "Badlands." The drops flashed in the spotlights and cooled the place down, but we never really felt the brunt of the short shower. We got spritzes here and there, but either it was a very localized shower or the wind currents kept it from us, just a few rows from an overhang, and centered it more over the field.

By the end of "Badlands" and, therefore, the end of the set, the rain had ceased. The band took a very short break before Bruce was back at the microphone to deliver his monologue about the community food banks he supports at every tour stop. The encore opened with "Girls In Their Summer Clothes," featuring another visit to the front of the stage and lots of hand-holding with a girl of about 8 and a woman of about 58. "Jungleland" slowed things down a bit before a raucus, intense five-song run to close the show.

"Born To Run" brought the lights up, naturally, and they stayed up for "Bobby Jean" and, ironically, "Dancing in the Dark." They then finished with the fun Irish jig "American Land," the lyrics scrolling across the back of the stage, though too deep for just about anyone off to either side or too high -- so, most of the audience. Everyone knew when to sing, "Dear I hear the beer flows through the faucets all night long," though.

When the band gathered at the front of the stage after "American Land" to take a bow, Bruce had That Look on his face. It's that look of, Maybe we're not done. We caught on quickly. The crowd cheered. Bruce smiled. We cheered louder. Bruce looked at Stevie. We cheered more. Bruce and Stevie smiled. We went nuts.

I first saw That Look in Austin, Texas, in 2000. It was my third show, all on the 1999-2000 return tour, and I'd only seen him play New Jersey before this. He and Stevie played the crowd following what had been the standard show closer of the tour, "Land of Hope and Dreams," and then everyone ran back to their stations and lit into "Ramrod." I'm not a fan of the album version, but it has more appeal live, and Max loves it.

But this time, I new That Look meant something bigger than "Ramrod." The E Streeters returned to their stands and Bruce stepped up to the microphone. "A true fairy tale to open the show," he said, "and a true fairy tale to close the show." He counted off -- "ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR!" -- and within the first few notes, everyone recognized "Rosalita."

Casey leaned over and said to me, "I can't believe, for such a rare song, he's played it almost every time I've seen him." And he has. Casey's been to three Springsteen stadium shows -- Giants and Shea in the summer and fall of 2003, respectively, and this one, and he's played it each time. She's seen him three other times, twice on the Vote For Change tour and once in a solo acoustic setting following the Devils & Dust release. "Rosalita" wouldn't be a possibility during any of those other three, so she's essentially 3-for-3 in seeing Bruce and Rosie together.

When Bruce and the band reunited for the 1999-2000 shows, "Rosalita" was something of a holy grail for fans. He rarely played it, but we loved it. I'd read setlists on and think of the lucky fans around the country -- or at a notable New Jersey or New York closer -- who got to see this rarity. But when I first saw it, at Giants Stadium in the summer of '03, I was a bit underwhelmed. I think the combination of the buildup, plus the location of my seats so far from the stage -- at the other end of the field, upper tier, halfway up the section -- took some of the oomph out of it. Plus, he followed it with "Dancing in the Dark," when Rosie seems like she should be the show closer, no matter what. As much as I shudder to make this reference, I'll defer to Bruce's unfortunate allegiances and use this analogy: You wouldn't bring Mariano Rivera in to pitch the eighth inning, then follow him with another pitcher for the ninth. "Rosalita" is the Mariano Rivera of Bruce Springsteen's catalog.

Yet he did the same thing that October, when we saw him at Shea Stadium. Rosie came out for the eighth, but Courtney Cox's big break got the ninth.

But this time, everything was perfect. Rosie closed the show, and she rocked. Bruce even put a subtle -- and maybe unintentional -- homage to Van Morrison in there, giving it a little bit of his inflection on "Ro-ro-ro-rosie" in one of the choruses. After he finished the song in the swamps of Jersey, the band came back to the front of the stage for its final bow and we were ready to go. I didn't care if he wanted to do another; I wanted that to be the end. However, I couldn't bring myself to turn for the aisle until the lights came up.

And when they did, the best of my 16 Springsteen shows -- in various configurations, from E Street to Seeger Sessions to 9/11 benefits at the Count Basie Theater to appearances on the Today show -- was over. I found myself torn between not wanting to see another and wishing I had taken the week off to attend tonight's and Thursday's concerts. This show was that good. The band played with an energy and a fervor that, if I did not know that there are several more stadiums booked between now and the end of the summer, I might've thought this was a final farewell. But in retrospect, I think the emotion and effort we saw was the band members' expression of happiness and comfort about returning home and kicking off the final leg of what will have become a 12-month tour when it's over. They got their second wind for this last push to the finish line, and we're the ones who benefit.

Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Radio Nowhere
Lonesome Day
No Surrender
Adam Raised a Cain
Spirit in the Night
Summertime Blues
Brilliant Disguise
Atlantic City
Growin' Up
Janey Don't You Lose Heart
I'll Work for Your Love
Murder Incorporated
The Promised Land
Living in the Future
Mary's Place
Working on the Highway
Tunnel of Love
The Rising
Last to Die
Long Walk Home

Girls In Their Summer Clothes
Born to Run
Bobby Jean
Dancing in the Dark
American Land
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Trapped in the tunnel with an angry driver

Car 495 -- that driver is not a relaxed man. From the taxi scramble outside Marquee to the 45-minute exodus through the traffic-clogged Lincoln Tunnel, he cursed and muttered under his breath in both broken English and his native language -- whatever it was, because I had no clue. His incessant outbursts of "Stupid!" or "Mother fuck!" or a foreign phrase had me yearning for a driver with GPS, so I could give him my address, turn on my iPod, and go to sleep.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Scenes from the ride home, June 21

  • On the corner of 10th and 25th, Joe's Tavern is no more.
  • "Hotel California" comes from a car as we're stuck near Marquee. It's bad tonight; we're stopped for three red/green lights amid the cry of car horns.
  • Then, at the light at Dyer Ave., a cop pulls up behind us, though in the left lane, lights flashing. He gets on his loudspeaker and says, "White Cadillac, when the light turns green, make a left turn." I look at the woman at the wheel. She glances in her rearview mirror and says to her friend, "That's me" -- then tries to make a right turn, sending her the wrong way on a one-way street. Upon realizing her error, she plans to pull over just past the intersection, essentially in the direction we've just gone, heading through the short tunnels under the streets to the Lincoln Tunnel entrance. The cop speaks up again, telling her to back up and make a left (his emphasis). Then we're gone, out of range, and I can only imagine the shit she was in.
  • It's the longest day of the year, the summer solstice, and the first light of dawn colors the sky behind me as we head west, home, sunrise barely an hour away.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

I wish that I believed in fate

Contemplating my favorite R.E.M. songs on the train as I headed into the city for the show:

  • Belong
  • Cuyahoga
  • Voice of Harold
  • Electrolyte
  • Imitation of Life
  • Man on the Moon
  • The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite

They were as good as ever, and "Electrolyte" and "Man on the Moon" made it onto the setlist. I found a new appreciation for "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville," too, with Mike Mills on lead vocals in a straw cowboy hat.

The National opened and gave us a great, high-energy set. I'm actually drawn more to their live performances than the scattered studio tracks I have or have heard so far. But I was struck by a line from "Mr. November," which was played "For Barack":

I wish that I believed in fate
I wish I didn't sleep so late.

That line was the best of the night, until maybe the one on the T-shirt I saw on the 11:42 train to Trenton heading home:

Haikus are easy
But sometimes they don't make sense

Sunday, June 15, 2008

"Is this the bar from Coyote Ugly?"

Two women walked into Red Rocks a bit overdressed for the 10th Avenue dive. One wore a billowy summer dress, the other white pants and an off-the-shoulder blouse. She's the one who tapped me on the arm and asked, "What bar are we in?" Moments later came the follow-up: "Is this the bar from Coyote Ugly, or was that Hogs & Heffers?"

Sunday, June 01, 2008

B.O.B. wedding

We tend to stay until the end at weddings, walking out slowly, saying our goodbyes as the band or DJ packs up, the lights on full. Perhaps our speech is slurred after hours of open-bar access, maybe we're still yelling to be heard even though the music has stopped. If we were dancing, my tie is loosened and the top button undone, my jacked most likely draped over my arm.

Natalie and Robby's wedding wasn't anything like that, yet it still lingers as one of the most memorable and enjoyable nuptials we've attended. From the ceremony inside the Red Barn at Hampshire College to the reception at the Eric Carle Museum nearby, it was a unique and warm-and-fuzzy time cast in the soft glow of a Barbara Walters special, or so it seemed.

They were supposed to get married beneath the big tree (just like Jeff and Sara), but the threat of rain forced a decision a few hours beforehand to have it inside the barn. The rain held off throughout the ceremony, but then started to fall as the families stood in the receiving line outside. So we all piled into the shuttle vans to head over to the museum for the reception. But the skies opened into the first full storm of summer, the type of deluge that turns everything gray. The water hit the sidewalks with such force that a mist settled at knee level and below. We waited, a line of rented vans hoping for a break in the weather. I sat looking to the west, where a small break in the clouds let through a bright glow where the sun was setting.

Occasionally, someone or a couple would make a run for it, either from a van or their own cars, sprinting through the waterfall to the doors. We sat and watched, calling out in mock horror, like viewers at a slasher movie. "What are you doing!?" "Don't run for it! That'll only make it worse!"

Our patience paid off; we walked leisurely beneath umbrellas once the downpour had lessened into a soft shower, and we drank our cocktails and munched on appetizers while looking through the windows of the museum gift shop. The galleries were open during the cocktail hour, but we missed the opportunity to meander through them. The long, narrow layout of the Great Hall put the DJ and dance floor near the entrance, with the tables stretching back along the windows and murals. We ate well, drank better and chatted throughout the night. Maybe it was the good company, maybe distance to the parquet or maybe just the mood, but Casey and I stayed at our table, as did most of our friends. The urge to dance didn't strike us.

Despite our sedentary tendencies, the end of the night mirrored so many other weddings we've attended. As we walked out, I found myself repeating the last song I heard over and over,
the image of a happily spastic groom and a wide-eyed, brilliantly grinning bride dancing together. All our eyes were on them as they shook, shimmied, gyrated and maybe even crunked to Outkast, but they were lost in their own world. They were thrilled and ecstatic to have us all there, but they didn't need us at that moment.

It was a bit sad to leave before it was all over. A small part of me wanted to start dancing and keep drinking, but a greater part of me was tired after a week on the road and a plan to leave shortly after waking up in the morning to get home in three hours and have a quiet afternoon before work. Planning vacations around weddings are a lot of fun, but I think it's better to put the wedding at the beginning -- or the middle -- of the trip, rather than at the end. We've done it that way twice, spending a week driving from New Jersey to South Bend, with stops in Pittsburgh and Chicago for fun, and cruising New England on this trip. But by the end, we're a little worn down and the next morning means the final drive back home. When we did it from South Bend, we had about 12 hours ahead of us, so we had to be on the road by about 9 a.m. Traveling after the wedding also means less care has to be taken to keep the wedding outfits neat and clean.

Looking back, I also realize how lax I've become in recent years about taking pictures with friends at these gatherings. Of our last few weddings and several barbecues or dinners we've had at hour house in the last year or two, I have virtually no photos. When we go on vacation, I'm diligent about catching every stop, every scenic location, but I rarely make a point to get the two of us into the pictures. People are going to want to be sure that we're really taking these trips together (unless we're not), and I'm sure we'll look back on some of these events and wonder why we don't have the digital images to back up our mental ones.

So there's my summer resolution: More photos, of us and our friends. Starting ... now. Well, not
this moment as I sit unshowered in shorts and an old Notre Dame T-shirt, but our next outing or gathering.

Friday, May 30, 2008

License plate games

A sampling of vanity plates seen during our five days in Maine. All are Maine tags, unless otherwise noted.

  • ME-1
  • DEN KAT (on an RV)
  • TOLEDO (on a Connecticut plate)
  • SCCRMOM (on an SUV)
  • PR8 SHIP
  • IOWAN (on a Maine plate)
  • NASS CAR (he was pulled over by the po-lice. Seriously)
  • MRGUMPY (at first, I thought it said Mr. Grumpy)
  • TRVLBUG (on a VW bug)
  • RCE & BNS (yes, it actually had the &)

Lunch at Two Lights

Our last stop before leaving Maine was all Casey's doing. I'm not sure if she researched Edward Hopper's "Lighthouse at Two Lights" first or the lobster rolls first, but it was a stop that had something for both of us.

Sticking to our schedule to allow enough time both at Cape Elizabeth and to make the drive to Northampton, Massachusetts, by 5 p.m., we checked out of the Eastland by 10:30 a.m. and found our way to the point. There's little out that way other than the residences and the Lobster Shack, and at 11 a.m., there were just one or two other cars in the two parking areas. With no access to the lighthouse and at least half an hour until we could think about eating, we busied ourselves on the rocks. I did so by looking for fresh angles -- and tidal pool reflections -- of the East Light; Casey did so more by finding a spot to sit and watch me and the ocean.

I was a little disappointed that there was no closer access to the light, but at the same time, I'd give anything to have the means to own a house -- particularly the one with the West tower -- out at the end of Two Lights Road.

When it got closer to noon and we saw more and more cars pulling up to the lot, their passengers climbing the steps to the deck of the Lobster Shack, we decided to head there ourselves to order lunch and beat the rush we saw coming. By the time we sat down after placing our order at the counter, the line was out the door. (That only made it about five people deep, since there's not much room inside to stand if you're not at the counter ordering, but it was still better to get in before that line started forming.)

Casey's lobster roll was worth the trip, and my cheeseburger was passable, but I was happy enough with bagging another lighthouse, and one I've admired for a long time when it was a poster on my bedroom wall.

Our Maine odyssey ended shortly after we abandoned the remainder of our whoopie pies (otherwise known as gobs in western Pennsylvania, but seeing as how these had cream in the middle instead of icing -- and therefore weren't as tasty -- I'm referring to them as whoopie pies) and got back in the car. With enough time to spare, we detoured in Wells, Maine, to visit The Lighthouse Depot, if only to further my beacon nerd-dom, and then enjoyed a sun-splashed cruise through northern Massachusetts to the quaint town of Northampton for the wedding weekend.