Thursday, December 31, 2009

A parting thought for the year

LM: The other store is a computer store, so they wouldn't have beer.

Me: Nerds don't really drink beer, do they?

LM: I guess not. What do nerds drink?

Me: Kool-Aid?

LM: Whatever their moms buy them!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What has Beethoven got to do with Christmas?

Nearly everything from today's checklist is crossed off. Still have to pack before we depart tomorrow, but Casey hasn't packed yet, either, so I don't consider myself behind in that regard. Just even. And I also have to wrap the gifts for my family. It occurred to me in my brilliance that I should just leave them here under our tree, then when Mom and Dad come by to feed the cats, they can take them down to their house, where we'll go on Sunday before we return home. This way, we don't have to lug them out to Pennsylvania only to bring them back to New Jersey.

And there we go. The "Christmas season" is just about over. In some ways, I consider tonight the last night, since Christmas Eve is usually spent at one family's house or another, then sleep, wake, repeat on Christmas Day. I think maybe once in my life did I have to buy a last-minute gift on Christmas Eve. And then there was the one year when, after our traditional Christmas Eve morning exchange with my longtime friend Matt and his family, I convinced Dad to take me to the music store so I could spend the gift certificate Matt gave me right away. I'm pretty sure that's when I bought Van Morrison's Hymns to the Silence (double cassette).

Today's plan was to knock out everything I had to do around the house, then get on the train to spend a few hours taking some last photos of New York at Christmas before meeting Casey after she finished work. Only ... I stood at the train station for 20 minutes before they even made an initial announcement that the scheduled 6:33 Clifton departure was cancelled and that the next train, the 6:48 (which was only about four minutes away at this point) was experiencing delays of "up to 10 to 15 minutes" as a result. I know how that goes -- when one train gets cancelled the next one departs each station just a little bit later because there tends to be more people (sometimes double, as you might expect) waiting to board.

I stood there in the cold watching "A Charlie Brown Christmas" on my iPod and glancing up at the directional lights down the tracks every minute to see if they'd come on, signaling that the train was about a minute out. They never did, and once I'd reached the title screen of "It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown!" (it came, along with "It's Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown!," as one hour-long purchase in the iTunes Store) I'd had enough. I was cold and starting to get hungry, so I made my way to the car and sat there for about 10 minutes with the fan blowing on high to thaw out my extremities. Instead of heading straight home, I cruised through some of the neighborhoods on my regular running route to look at the lights on the houses, particularly this one, which I'd spotted from an adjacent street on my way to work a few weeks ago and bookmarked in my memory to come back to, since I didn't have time on that rainy night.

It's just as well that the trains were so messed up today (and I didn't even have to go into Penn Station). This way I'm able to enjoy our tree and our own decorations for one more night and I didn't have to risk frostbite in my toes to take a few more holiday photos around here. It may not be the red-and-green Empire State Building as a backdrop for the tree at the Washington Square Park arch, but it's all for the better.

Tomorrow, to Johnstown, from where I'll work on Friday to mind the site for the day. But it's my only on-call day through the break, and I won't have to think about work again until the night of Jan. 4, when I head back to the train station and hope that the 5:04 is on schedule.

Enough with the parodies

I like Christmas carols as much as the next holiday reveler. There are some 540 songs on my Christmas playlist on my iPod (though I am trimming the fat this year), and even though I tell myself every year I have all the songs I need, I still find myself adding a handful -- like when I stumbled across the Glee cast covering "Last Christmas" while searching iTunes for Death Cab For Cutie's cover of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." And then there was the trip to the supermarket when I had the good fortune to hear a radio station play a wonderfully bouncy version of "Here Comes Santa Claus" by Elvis Presley. How that one got by me until this year I'll never know. So that's three more added this year.

What I can't stand is parodies of carols being used to sell in holiday commercials. And I'm a guy who still can't get enough of "The 12 Pains of Christmas" or "Rusty Chevrolet" (though I do try to limit those listenings to when I'm alone, out of respect for others). Best Buy was bad enough this year (and I LOVE Best Buy), but now we have Marshall's and TJ Maxx doubling up on the parodies. I think this plague of carol parody commercials began a few years ago with the Garmin ads. Thanks, Garmin. (Though thank you, Mom and Dad, for the gift of GPS this year. At least it doesn't play the carol when you turn it on.)

If the retailers must use Christmas tunes as jingles, I prefer the originals (though I know that entails rights fees; whatever). I can live with that. Radio Shack's use of The Raveonettes was a big one for me, J.C. Penney's choice of The Weepies worked well, and even though the commercials are weird, the brief use of "The Christmas Song" at the end of this year's Target spots put me in the giving spirit. My all-time favorite, though -- or at least the best of this decade -- would be the J.C. Penney ads that used a mashup of Bing Crosby singing "Here Comes Santa Claus" and Fatboy Slim's "Wonderful Night." (Hurrah for Mashuptown for that link.) I don't believe the songs were ever mashed up in a full-length cut, so that snippet is all we've got.

But if some mash-savvy user could get those two tunes together, that might be the best gift of all.

So when in doubt, play it safe with the Beach Boys.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Rockwell-inspired trip down Memory Lane

Casey sent me a great post showing a selection of Norman Rockwell's photo studies that would become some of his most famous paintings. I had a deep appreciation/minor obsession with Rockwell in high school and into college. As the Apartment Therapy post so aptly puts it, his work sparked "endless nostalgia for an America most of us never even knew."

Yet I've always been drawn to those iconic small-town scenes he so often depicted. I still own a framed print of Marriage License, wrote a college paper on the Four Freedoms series, have a 1,000-piece (maybe bigger) puzzle of Stockbridge at Christmas and sort of believed a friend from high school who said I resembled like the smiling boy on the left of Freedom From Want (side-by-side image TK, maybe). And, of course, I have various items depicting his baseball paintings. Oh! I even still use an address book showing a wide range of his works, even though no one uses address books anymore.

I love looking at the photos to see part of the process and to see how amazingly accurate his depictions and details were. In some cases, his paintings are nearly photocopies. I still haven't been to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, but with this exhibition I may just have to make plans.

One last Rockwellian-related anecdote from my past. It will probably mean little to anyone else and I doubt I can describe it in as funny a manner as it happened, but I feel like recording it for posterity so that one day when I'm old and forgetful, I can read this blog like The Notebook and live in a fantasy world in my past.

For a few years in middle school and into high school, I found myself involved with the youth group at my church -- mainly because of some of the cute girls in my class who also participated. The pastor at the time was a woman with a family who was really intent on making the youth group work, and one way she did so was to get us involved with the Christmas Eve service. This one particular Christmas Eve service, we each took turns reading different parts of the Christmas story from the Bible. We readers sat in the choir loft at the back of the church -- a small, early-1900s building. The loft wasn't used regularly back then, so being allowed access to it was a thrill and probably convinced a few of us who weren't natural performers to agree to participate.

The readings were interspersed with hymns, and either to punctuate the announcement of what passage was about to be read or to signal the end of the reading and the start of the hymn, one girl was down in the front of the church, at a microphone and podium in one of the two choir boxes on either side of the altar, and tasked with ringing a triangle to go with each reading. That girl, Heather (not the famous friend), was a bit overzealous on one of her taps of the triangle, striking it so hard that it flew off its hook, clanging on the microphone on the podium, then hitting the podium with a thud and falling to the floor. In the choir loft, we snorted in an attempt to hold back our laughter. Heather's brother, sitting with their family in the pews, cracked up. Heather herself laughed as she recovered the triangle and sat down, but on the remaining chimes, continued to suppress laughter. If only we had YouTube back then.

One year at Christmas, I sent Heather a Christmas card depicting Rockwell's Christmas Trio. Inside, I wrote that the trio was supposed to be a quartet, but the fourth had bent down out of the frame to pick up the triangle she had dropped. That year at the Christmas Eve service, our families happened to fill one of the long pews in the center of the sanctuary, and during a particularly solemn part of the service -- I believe it was during the service-capping singing of "Silent Night" as everyone held candles and the lights were dimmed -- I made a motion of striking a triangle toward Heather. Both my sister and Heather's brother also saw and the four of us spent the remainder of the service snorting and stifling laughter. When the song finally ended, we all had tears in our eyes and aching cheeks from laughing so hard. The recessional couldn't happen fast enough, and once we were free to exit the pews, we bolted for the back of the church to let loose with the laughter that had built up during "Silent Night." I doubt that song has ever elicited such a joyful reaction at a Christmas Eve service.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Back to my Princeton days

For her birthday, my sister wanted us all to get together for dinner in Princeton, which is close to her new apartment in Lambertville. It was a pretty equal distance for my parents to drive from Little Silver and for Casey and me to arrive from Clifton. We left a little early to allow ourselves some time to walk around town before meeting at the restaurant at 6:30.

The walking was brief, however, when we decided a drink at the Triumph Brewery sounded like a good idea. But after that, we continued along Nassau St. to Palmer Square, which was bedecked in holiday splendor. I took a loop around the big tree while my parents -- whom we had come across on Nassau -- and Casey chatted. And as we made our way to Teresa Caffe, we passed Winberie's, one of the places I recall from the high school and home-from-college days when my friends and I would make an afternoon or evening of it and drive across the state (the thin "waist" of New Jersey) to enjoy the campus, the town and dinner.

Princeton provided plenty of firsts for me in terms of an exposure to a college town and college life. This was ironic because of its location an hour to the west of where I grew up, yet Monmouth University (then Monmouth College) was just 15 minutes away and could have provided the same exposure, only without the Ivy League reputation. However it was Princeton that for so long I associated with "college" and what went with it.

I saw my first college football game at Princeton Stadium, a clash between the Tigers and Dartmouth in 1992. One of my best friends, Will, invited me to the schools' annual season-finale clash because his father was a grad. I remember the ride out -- through Freehold and onto Route 33, across Route 1 and over Carnegie Lake (where scull boats often provide the quintessential Ivy League image), then a left to the stadium -- because Will, with his leaner's permit, was behind the wheel of the family minivan. Princeton lost the game, 34-20 (I didn't remember that; I looked it up), but we did get to see Keith Elias, a running back from our high school conference who went on to play a few years with the Giants and Colts.

The lasting image from that day was the postgame performance by Dartmouth's band, playing the alma mater, and Will's father standing there singing. I had never seen such a thing, but I understood the first time I watched the Irish play as a freshman in 1994. Another thing that stuck with me -- though it may not have been that same day, but another football Saturday when I happened to be in Princeton and at a restaurant that evening -- was the postgame crowds at the local establishments. I knew little of college football, and certainly nothing of the gameday experience, but just being in a restaurant (with a bar) as the crowds came in after a crisp autumn afternoon at the stadium struck something in me. That sense of camaraderie and community was appealing to me and when it came time to make my college decision, I feel I chose Notre Dame in part because I could see such a scene playing out each week in the fall. I didn't get the same feeling at Syracuse (my No. 2 school) and though I would've had it at Virginia (No. 3), I knew I wanted to study journalism in college, and UVA cut the program the year before I enrolled, essentially taking the school out of contention.

I don't remember the last time I was in Princeton before tonight, but my guess is that it was more than 10 years ago. I traveled back several times from 1998-2001, when I covered high school track and New Jersey would hold its big winter track meets at the university's Jadwin Gymnasium, but on those trips, I never got to Nassau St. and downtown. Once I crossed Carnegie Lake, it was a right turn to the gym instead of straight into town. Yet in all these years, I didn't notice much that had changed -- though tonight was admittedly a brief visit limited to the few blocks of Nassau St. and Palmer Square that we saw. It was nice to get back and even more pleasing to find that it still gave me the same sense of happiness and enjoyment, a welcoming aura that reminded me of how much I enjoyed it as a teenager. We'll probably have to make a point to get back there sooner.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The first and last days of Billy the Kid

I didn't realize until now that today, Nov. 23, may have been the birthday of Billy The Kid -- who may have been born in New York City. If true, puts the last verse of Billy Joel's "Ballad of Billy the Kid" into a different light with the potential for an Empire State connection.

But what's certain is that he was killed on July 14, 1881, which sent me back to The Archives for the account of my 1998 cross-country trip to see when I visited family in Silver City, New Mexico -- where Billy spent some time up to and during the the Lincoln County War until he was killed. I wrote little of Billy the Kid during that trip -- though I did mention him a couple of times -- and apparently didn't realize I was in Silver City on July 14, 1998, the 117th anniversary of his death. Even though one of my American history courses in college touched on Billy and the war, and I was intrigued enough to explore a little of downtown Silver City and the nearby nearby one-horse outpost of Pinos Altos, I didn't delve into the local history of the Bonney boys as I might were I to go back there today.

A wild West showdown —
It happened here for Billy,
Lincoln County War.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

And the harried holidays start ... now

In some ways, it feels like we're about a week from Christmas, because the stores began putting out the displays before Halloween, the commercials started airing shortly thereafter and Santa was already taking requests at the Short Hills mall during the first week of November.

In reality, we're still four days from Thanksgiving, the weather has remained mild and I have yet to shift my polos and other short-sleeved shirts from the front of my closet to the back, replaced with the flannels and their long-sleeved cousins. And Thursday will be here before I know it. Casey already began preparations for the biggest gathering we've hosted -- 14 people this year -- and I've got three errand-filled days and two work-required nights before my mother-in-law and her friend arrive on Wednesday afternoon.

Should it all go to plan, I expect to have accomplished the following by the time we sit down to dinner on Wednesday night:

  • Taken the car to have the tires rotated and oil changed. Clearly not holiday-related, but it's overdue. Plus, I always time the trip to the Hackensack Sears for late morning, so I can hit White Manna, take a seat and get my order in before the lunch rush arrives.
  • Cleaned the house, top to bottom. This is Tuesday's task, which Casey and I will team up to handle. We've put off some sweeping and vacuuming for about two weeks knowing we'd just be doing it again before the holiday.
  • Put up the Christmas lights. Yep, breaking a small tradition of mine, which was to pencil in this task for one of the days of the long Thanksgiving weekend. However, with Thankgiving falling later in November this year (which I suspect is the reason for some of the early signs of the season noted in the intro to this post), I feel justified in putting up the lights on Wednesday, which is Nov. 25 -- one month before Christmas. Plus, I'm eager to have them up for all to see in person on Thursday night.
  • Squeeze in one more minor, but not necessary task. I'd hoped to have accomplished more by now, but barring the acquisition of a DeLorean equiped with a Flux Capacitor, I'll have to settle for hoping I get the previous tasks done with time to spare on either Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday to give me a chance to create a mix for Thursday, organize the basement room into something less obviously a haphazard rec room or fully get the office in order.
And with Friday most likely our usual day in NYC with the visiting family, it looks like any resumption to running and, oh, more than six hours of sleep won't come until Saturday, at the earliest.

Friday, November 13, 2009

So long, Cheyenne

So I had no idea that the Cheyenne Diner was shipped off to Alabama. To be more accurate -- I had no idea that it had been bought with plans to move it down south. Somehow that all managed to happen without me catching word of it or someone mentioning it in conversation. I'd never been there, and I'm not a diner aficionado by any means, but I always appreciated the classic look of it. I just wish I'd gotten a shot of that neon at night.

And now the Empire Diner on 10th Ave. in Chelsea is changing hands and, inevitably, names. I see that one every time I head home that way, which is three or four nights out of five a week. (Incidentally, I am now addicted to Google Reader. Casey was right about how invaluable it is. I never would've seen these things if I didn't have these New York blogs among my growing list of things to read -- or at least scan -- each day.)

So in a weird coincidence, part of the reason I'd taken this picture of the Cheyenne Diner a couple of years ago was because I had seen a photo challenge that sought contemporary images of the places in the opening scene of Woody Allen's Manhattan. There's a diner in that montage, and my first thought was that it was the Cheyenne, because I didn't recall seeing the name on it. As you watch the intro to the movie, you'll see why that little recall would've helped me -- it's the Empire Diner that's among the images of Woody's Manhattan. Those scenes are a scrapbook of late-70s New York, from the old yellow cabs to the seedy Times Square to another now-lost sliver, Washington Square Park with the old fountain at its off-center alignment with the arch.

Upon rewatching that clip, it also occurred to me that he goes off the island to show Yankee Stadium for nearly 10 seconds, beginning at the 2:51 mark. The ballpark, of course, is not in Manhattan. They're the Bronx Bombers, not the Manhattan Maulers. And that now, too, is disappearing.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

New tags in New York

New York is getting new license plates.

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with cars and, by extension, license plates. I'm nothing close to the collector and historian my mom's cousin (I think that makes him my first cousin once removed) in California is, but I'm still drawn to them, both for the design of the clever or unique and for the amusement of reading an owner's choice for personalization.

But after a visit to Geddy's in Bar Harbor, Maine, last year, the bug bit me again. The store beneath the restaurant sold used plates and with a whole basement (well, a half-finished basement) to myself in our house, I flipped through the offerings and bought a few that I had always enjoyed, like Utah's Delicate Arch and Arizona's desert colors. We dug up Casey's various Pennsylvania plates, a few random ones I'd had in my bedroom as a kid (the old orange-and-blue New York, Vermont, various Maine tags) and I started planning how they'd hang in the basement.

I also started a new quest to collect as many license plates from states that feature lighthouses as an option. Most of those direct a portion of the cost to beach or seashore preservation, like New Jersey's -- which I've had on my car, in three letter/number combinations, since I got my first set of wheels in college.

So the news of New York's new tags piqued my curiosity. But the funny thing about the change New York is making next year is that my first thought -- after noticing their resemblance to the old plates -- was how would people react to the shift away from the red, white and blue of the Statue of Liberty plates. And then I remembered that those were nearly a decade ago, and they've had the blue and white -- from Niagra Falls to the City -- since 2001.

Guess those didn't make much of an impression on me.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Something in the night

One night only. Giants Stadium. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Darkness on the Edge of Town, start to finish.

I didn't get chills at the announcement that the band would be playing the album in its entirety, but I did get the feeling that it would be something special. It was never one of my favorite albums – not that there’s anything I hate about it (though I’m not a fan of “Adam Raised a Cain”) – but it does have some of our favorite songs, particularly “Badlands” and “Promised Land,” which we tend to get at most shows anyway. But to hear it from start to finish, with the slower songs – and Darkness has several – mixed in put them in a new light. “Racing in the Street” and “Factory” are particularly moving in the way they seem to be lifted out of the pages of a diary – “Racing” as a recollection of one summer as a teen and “Factory” of the sepia-toned memories of a boy looking up to his hard-working father.

But back to the beginning. We got the penned-for-the-Meadowlands song “Wrecking Ball” to open, and though we’ll probably only ever get it on our iPods as a bootleg or potential live album out of this run, I’m a sucker for Jersey-specific songs. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” grew slightly stale on me for no good reason after seeing it at so many shows, but it made a comeback after the Super Bowl halftime show. From that, he went into one of my all-time favs in “No Surrender,” which contains one of the lyrics that will make it to my list of Top 10 Springsteen Lyrics That Send Chills Through me whenever I get around to creating it:

I want to sleep beneath peaceful skies in my lover's bed
with a wide open country in my eyes
and these romantic dreams in my head

This is ostensibly the last leg of the Working on a Dream tour, but he’s down to just two songs from the album in regular rotation: “Outlaw Pete” and the title track, which is fine with me. (They bookended “Hungry Heart,” with the crowd-supplied first verse.) There are a couple other individual songs I like on the album, but I’m not dying to see any done live. I was happy, though, that my hunch that “Outlaw Pete,” which I pegged as OK on the album, would be a great live tune was confirmed. The huge screens displaying grainy black-and-white desert imagery and the breeze coming through the stadium heightened the experience.

I was curious to see what we’d get during the request segment, because when he first started doing this during the summer ’08 tour, I didn’t favor it. I think I preferred to be surprised by seeing what Bruce chose to play for us and getting the on-stage audibles that were made when he felt a different tune would fit in place of a pre-planned one. I wanted him to decide whether we were worthy of being treated to “Rosalita” or “Trapped” or “Jersey Girl.” (Yeah, it’s not one of his, but it would sort of complete the experience to see it once.) I’ve seen him add “Ramrod” because Max wanted it and watched from above and behind the stage in Austin nine years ago when Bruce and Stevie kept looking back and forth at one another nodding in a Mafioso kind of way as if deciding between themselves whether or not we deserved just one more. Then they gave us “Cadillac Ranch.” And I’ve looked over setlists and gone to shows hoping to finally hear “Rosalita” only to be disappointed in my luck – I didn’t get to see it, but it was played the night before, or the night after. On this night, however, the requests worked for me. We got “I’m Goin’ Down,” “Be True” (big fan fav and one of the great Tracks gems) and “Jailhouse Rock” – which he claimed the band had never played before. They should consider adding it because, to borrow another phrase from that era, they had the joint jumpin’.

“Jailhouse Rock” launched the band into a charged four-song finale of the main set. On the screens, we saw Bruce calling the audible to Nils and Stevie, but someone near us thought he read “Born in the USA” on Bruce’s lips. Even better, we got “Thunder Road.” Giants Stadium had an arena feel to it when the crowd could be heard singing, “You ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright” above the band. In a fortunate quirk, during one of the later choruses, a smoky scent not unlike a campfire reached us. We were two rows from the concourse, and I’m sure the hot dogs and cheesesteaks weren’t cooked over an open flame, but for a few bars, it sure seemed like it. On an October night in northern New Jersey, we could almost smell those skeleton frames of burned-out Cheverolets.

“Thunder Road” led to “Long Walk Home,” my favorite track on Magic and another of my Top 10 “chilling” lines:

You know that flag flying over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't

From there, “The Rising” then took us to “Born To Run.” But rather than leave the stage, the band came to the front for bows, then went back to their stations to play. The sad thing is, I suspect this absence of a traditional departure and return for an encore is the result of Clarence’s repaired/replaced knees and hips and I couldn’t shake the thought that these shows may be his last, that when the band wraps the tour and takes the announced 18 months to two years off, Clarence might not be up for three hours on stage anymore. I’ve seen no reporting to lead me to this fear, and I hope I’m wrong about this hunch.

So then “Cadillac Ranch” opened the encore, followed by “Bobby Jean” and the great jig “American Land.” I love that song, the joyous fiddle of Soozie Tyrell, the jaunty celebration of America as melting pot and the imagery of, “Dear I hear that beer flows through the faucets all night long.” (Not to mention that when he sings, “The McNicholas, the Posalski's, the Smiths, Zerillis, too,” so quickly, it kind of sounds like my last name instead of “Posalski’s.”) And then “Dancing in the Dark” and “Rosalita” – which I’ve now seen at least four times, at each of the three Giants Stadium shows and one Shea Stadium night I’ve attended – closed the night.

Friday night ranks up there with the best of the 13 or 14 shows I’ve seen, and after a bad experience at our first Giants Stadium show back in 2004 (way far away in the upper level, with annoying college kids around us), I vowed I’d only go again if I got lower-level seats. We’ve done that for the last two shows there (July ’08 and this recent one) and both have been high-energy, arena-worthy performances. And while I love the fact that I was part of the only crowd that got Darkness on the Edge of Town from start to finish, after looking at last night’s Born in the USA setlist, I would love to see “I’m On Fire” and “My Hometown” done on an autumn night in the swamp.

But I’ll leave those selections to chance and hope that when I finally do hear them, they’re as much of a treat as I’d expect.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

These autumn days

High school band practice
reaches my house from the field
It's football season

- - -

Al fresco dining
no longer an option on
this cold autumn day

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Fall's first day

First day of autumn
Acorns crushed on the road like
Peanuts on the bar floor

It felt more like summer today than fall -- 80 degrees, bright sun, humid. My arms and face got a little rosy as I ran three miles up on Garret Mountain. Could have more of the same tomorrow, but then it looks like autumn will arrive over the weekend with rain and temperatures in the 60s.

After the weekend, we're into the last stretch of baseball's regular season, which can be a relief (the day-to-day grind at work), a pain (the postseason is four stressful weeks) or heartbreaking (when the Mets still have a chance, only to fall short). With injuries wiping out the Mets' season before the 4th of July, at least there won't be heartbreak. Now I'm just waiting for the end so we don't have to watch the losses mount and can forget about them for a few months, until it's time to get our hopes up again for 2010.

It was a great summer. We had barbecues, late nights on the porch and visits from friends. We played Rock Band with the windows open and breezes coming in and only needed the air conditioning for one brutal week in August. I painted the exterior of the house with help from a family friend and have only a few more details to finish before the job is complete -- details so minor that I haven't rushed and it's been about a month since I picked up a paint brush. I may go out there one of these next two days to take care of a couple of them.

And it was a great summer for traveling. To Boston, the Cape and Maine in May; Cleveland in mid-July; back to Maine for rafting at the end of July; then Boston again for my college roommate's wedding at the end of August (a weekend I really should write about before I forget the details; perhaps I'll tackle that one of these next couple of days).

There are times -- sometimes daily, at the least a couple times a week -- when I'll find myself unhappy that I work nights and weekends and don't have the luxury of regular dinners with my wife or dates with friends. I miss out on a lot of things, have to skip get-togethers and weekends away. But then I feel fortunate to have a job, let alone one that can be fun and pays well enough to let us have this house and take these trips. And I still got to do much of what I wanted this summer, even if I didn't do it as often as I wanted. So maybe I didn't dig a single toe into the sand this year or even slip on a bathing suit one time (despite buying two new ones during our rainy visit to Freeport in May), but I'm not as drawn to the crowded, hot beaches as I used to be. I'm sure I would still enjoy a body surfing session, but Casey's not a beach person and living an hour away makes it more of an excursion than the 15-minute drive from my parents'. An afternoon at my uncle's pool would've been nice, but it just didn't work out this year.

So here's to a dip in the pool in Scottsdale in March and perhaps riding a few waves in Long Branch in August, next year. But first, the fall. A great season, after all.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Rainy day remembering

For the first time that I can remember -- and I admit that I don't remember each and every one in the past eight years -- Sept. 11 is cold, gray and rainy. That morning eight years ago, as I've written before, was clear and crisp, a brilliant blue-sky day marking the handoff of summer to fall, the sun still warm enough to be felt on bare arms but the air a touch cooler, so that wearing jeans feels just right. Many of the anniversaries since have amazingly featured the same weather, including the day in 2006 where the sky seemed to be the same deep blue and the air the same degree of Fahrenheit.

Not today, though. In fact, until I came downstairs this morning and logged onto Facebook and saw a few status updates, I'd forgotten what today's date was. Even though I saw the Tribute in Light from Hoboken last night, a long, deep sleep (and some pretty out-there dreams) had temporarily wiped my mind clear of the passage of time. And what a long time eight years is. It's the difference between middle school and senior year of college (or being a high-school freshman and a first-year employee). It's also the time passed from birth to third grade, the age of the students that Amanda, the sister of my friend Nate, is teaching in Hoboken. At dinner last night, before we turned our attention to Titans-Steelers, she was telling us of today's birthday party in the classroom. I asked how old the kids were, and when she said 8, I replied, "So the one with the birthday tomorrow was born on Sept. 11, 2001." She replied, "Yep. They were all born in 2001, so they don't know what it was like back then."

Eight years down the road, and Ground Zero continues to be a construction site like so many others in New York -- an open pit. I haven't been there since last summer, but there's a little bit of progress to be seen, in the form of the first steel beams for the new tower. But as we get further away from that date, the lack of a rebirth and a memorial becomes more noticeable. The Pentagon and Western Pennsylvania have their memorials, and though they were constructed on the lawn of a federal compound and in a rolling field and therefore didn't have the multiple layers of permits, approvals and government oversight to maneuver through, you'd think that by now we'd at least have a target date for the World Trade Center's rebirth.

Someday I hope to look out over Lower Manhattan from the office or the High Line or Hoboken and not have to imagine the magnificent view of the Twin Towers rising above the cluster of buildings at the tip of Manhattan. The Freedom Tower or whatever ends up being there will stand tall, providing a suitable substitute to allow my mind's eye to picture the two square towers standing side-by-side as I remember them.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Wake-up burger

I had the best alarm today. I'd set a reminder on my phone about lunch (because I can sometimes forget when there are leftovers in the fridge or something ready for me to heat up), and so at 12:30 (I didn't expect to sleep that long, but there you go), I woke up to the alarm on my phone and the word "BURGER."

Mmmm... Wake-up burger...

Friday, July 24, 2009

Suddenly, a road-trip summer

[So I've since realized that I had the formula on my spreadsheet wrong and I've only been about 5,200 miles so far this summer. Don't know why I though it could've been 4,000 more than that. Still, it's been a great traveling summer nonetheless.]

It hit me about the time we reached the curvy section of I-80 in western New Jersey and the distinctive hills flanking the Delaware Water Gap came into view: This is a road-trip summer.

I hadn't really lamented the lack of cruising vacations in recent years, but I had noticed it. I wasn't taking long trips in the car from May to September, at least not to new, undiscovered places. There was a wedding in the Outer Banks in 2007, but we had planned to fly down to Virginia Beach and drive from there -- until our flight out of Newark on Friday night was canceled and, afraid that I wouldn't get there by early afternoon to join up with the rest of the wedding party, we took a cab home and got in the car at 1 a.m. and drove through the night. But that was done on the fly and our time in North Carolina so short, it didn't have the feeling of a road trip. More like a travel recovery.

Otherwise, most of our trips in recent summers have been to Casey's family in western Pennsylvania or up to familiar haunts in Maine. But something about this summer feels different, and I love it. It started with a quick overnight to Washington for a baseball game in mid-May with some college buddies. A week later, we commenced a partial repeat of last year's Memorial Day week visit to the Pine Tree State, but we started with the holiday weekend in Boston and Cape Cod and added a night in Bar Harbor, leaving us time for a day trip up Route 1 to Lubec and the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse on the U.S.'s easternmost point.

Then we had last weekend's jaunt out to Cleveland specifically to see the Bruce Springsteen exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and cap the day with an Indians game. On the way, we stopped off at Bucknell for lunch, then did the same on the way back. And in the morning, a few hours from now (how many is yet to be determined; it depends on when I get to sleep after work), I'm off on a solo drive up to Maine to meet up with my college roommate for his bachelor party: two nights of camping and a day of rafting on the Penobscot.

Even before the Maine trip, which will add just over 1,000 miles, round-trip, the car's been roughly 9,434 miles this summer -- and I've been in it, if not driving, for just about all of them. I looked over my mileage records and this is only the second 8,000-mile summer I've had since buying the car in June 2000. Just based on the odometer readings from the first fill-up after May 14 and the first one in September, only the summer of '02 had more miles than what we've compiled this summer -- and a lot of those 9,891 ticks were accumulated on the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike as I commuted 60 miles one-way to work.

So now it's time to get on that road once more, to enjoy the mystery of a solo adventure, even if it's just crowded interstates until Augusta and then a group camping weekend once I roll into Millinocket.

Summer miles

Friday, July 17, 2009

If it's summer, there's construction on I-80

Western Pennsylvania, Friday afternoon, Interstate 80, somewhere east of DuBois

Right lane closed and most traffic has moved over two miles before the closure. This single lane should be able to move through the long stretch of construction cones pretty easily now. Bust as some aggressive holdouts continue to zip ahead on the right, a noble pickup truck gets into the right lane to block them off, even swerving at one point when a white Altima comes up behind. The Altima slows behind the truck, tries to move right onto the shoulder, then left onto the dotted line when the pickup swerves right for the block. After the truck counters to the left, the Altima gets by on the right when the pickup decides it's not worth it with the New Yorker in the white Nissan. Before passing, the Altima slows and the drivers exchange words. The tractor-trailer in the left lane plays along, keeping the pickup's spot in line open so he can move back in at the merge point. Only one or two more cars make it by before a line forms behind the pickup, and the last few cards merge when we reach the cones in the road.

Coming back to a favorite place

I went back through my old blog to look at some of my previous July 16 entries (last night I did this) and found myself jumping around to some other posts, in part because I've apparently been pretty boring/bored on July 16. I find myself wanting to write, but then I find myself not wanting to take some time to sit down, organize my thoughts, and type them up.

Looking at my old diary -- because that's what we called it back there on, though I more often referred to it as a journal -- some of my best and favorite works were either college or shortly post-college entries transcribed from notebooks (in my obsessed-with-Kerouac stage, I carried a spiral pocket notebook and pencil to write my thoughts just as he had), or those I wrote in the early hours after I'd come home from the paper and got on my computer in my bedroom at my parents' house. That's when my days were spent driving around the Shore, going on photo day trips, or covering high school sports and minor league baseball. I was out and about, didn't have Flickr or a digital camera or an iPod or Facebook. Or a house. I had time.

But as the entries faded in frequency (I'm not going to count the number, but I split the 2001 archive into three pages, the 2002 into two, and kept '03 and '04 as one) and then in quality, my tasks and responsibilities each day rose. I moved into an apartment. I started dating. I switched jobs. I repeated two out of three of those, the first one three times.

I used to write extensively about my trips and vacations, often at the end of the day on the road. At the very least, I'd put down my thoughts in a file every few days, then polish them at the end of the trip. It was only today that I finally finished off a post about a baseball game back in May, and I still have dreams of something of a travelogue about the rest of the trip. We'll see.

I'm headed home now, and in the morning, we head west to Cleveland for a short weekend trip. But I'm not going to write about it now -- let's see if I make the time to write about it after it happens. And within a few days.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Beer me: Zywiec

A light, crisp beer made of "pure mountain water" (so says the label), Zywiec is "famous worldwide" (also on the label). There's nothing special in the flavor -- it doesn't floor me the way Victory Prima Pils does, or Gritty McDuff's Vacationland Summer Ale can -- but it's definitely got a refreshing quality to it. And it packs a bit of a kick as far as the buzz goes. The bottles contain a pine (actually a 1 pt., 0.9 fl. oz) and by the end, you know you've finished a beer.

Could I be anymore suburban? The beer capped off a long afternoon in the yard -- mowing the lawn, edging along the sidewalks, weed-whacking where the mower wouldn't reach, and finally trimming the bushes. My arms were about to give out with the shears when a neighbor pulled up on his way out and handed me his electric hedge trimmer through the car window. "Just put it back in my garage when you're done," he said. Emboldened, I decided to trim the hedges near the front porch, too, even though I hadn't planned to do that much. But it all needed to be done, if for no other reason than rain is forecast for tomorrow and who knows when we'll see the sun again.

At least the reservoirs won't be lacking this summer -- if it ever gets here.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Two haiku in June

Summer rain cools off
a sweltering afternoon
Mist drifts at my feet

Thunderstorm has passed
this sunny June afternoon
Wish I had sunglasses

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Opening day on the High Line

Ever since I first read about the decommissioned railroad tracks built over 10th Avenue and the West Side, I've been intrigued. And once they announced that the old trestle would become the High Line Park, I've eagerly anticipated my first trip up there.

I've missed the Open House New York tours that brought you up to the old, abandoned tracks, but I'm happy to settle for the refurbished park that mixes the gnarled history of rusted rails with the community gathering place of open space and abundant benches. No longer a member of the media that would be invited to press conferences and VIP previews, I'd noticed in the past few days people walking above 10th Avenue and 14th Street and knew that it must mean the park would soon be open. That day was yesterday, and so I made sure I caught an earlier train into the City so that I could alter my usual route from Christopher St. to Chelsea Market just a little and climb the steps to the park.

Not only was it a thrill to look down over the Meatpacking District and to walk over 14th St. instead of having to wait for the light to change, but it was convenient too. The park is on the way to the office, so it's not really a detour to enjoy it regularly. The only concession I'll have to make if I want to take that route is to get my ass in gear early enough to take an earlier train than the 5:04, which maximizes my time at home but leaves me no extra time to wander once I get to Manhattan. Today, that's the train I'm taking after getting home at 6 a.m. and sleeping until 1. The next sunny, cloud-dotted blue-sky day, however, and I'll have to leave myself extra time -- and pack the SLR and the wider lenses instead of just the point-and-shoot -- and enjoy more than just the Gansevoort-to-18th-St. stretch I strolled through yesterday. I've read, though, that there is an exit at 16th St., which is perfect. This could become my regular walk to work -- so long as I can refrain from stopping, or regularly make the 4:38 train out of Clifton.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Out of the icebox and into the fire

Sunny, upper 80s today, like we skipped spring and jumped right into summer -- diving into the deep end without so much as dipping a toe into the water to test its temperature.

But it won't last. Yeah, we've got three more 80-degree days through Tuesday, but on Wednesday we're down into the 60s again and then the rest of the week will bounce between mid-60s to mid-70s. I'll take that.

I broke out a new pair of sneakers today, and whenever I put on a set for the first time, I feel like I'm sporting clown shoes. They just look big -- oversized -- on my feet until I've worn them enough to break them in, maybe soften the edges a bit and get them to relax their rigid out-of-the-box shape a little.

I also need to ignore the fact that in daylight, the shade of navy blue and yellow that New Balance "N" and accents are closely resemble the maize and blue of Michigan. I swear the colors looked more blue and gold when I bought these in the L.L. Bean factory store last year. But I guess I can't complain too much for a $50 pair of sneaks.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The kind of weekend I live for

The neon lights of the vertical cinema sign along Route 495 in North Bergen read "ema 12," with the letters stacked upon one another and the numbers paired up below them. The windows of the car were beginning to fog up, as if the defrost wasn't working, but it was only the driver who chose not to turn it on yet. The cloudy windows coupled with a light mist falling in the early-morning hours teamed up to create a time warp, a sense that what I was looking at wasn't present-day, but a long-ago image seen in a book or a movie or described in a piece of spontaneous bop prose tucked away in a Kerouac novel.

For no particular reason, I conjured the thought of a family driving past the theater with a young daughter named Ema -- the singular M one of those naming anomalies parents seem fond of these days, like Mychael or Jayde or Kacee -- and pointing out the failure of fate that personalized the sign for her. And then I slipped into a nostalgic recap of a lovely weekend, the kind I don't get to have regularly because I tend to work on Saturday nights and the kind that you make plans for in advance and hope when the time comes that the events live up to your expectations, and they did just that.

I slept until nearly noon on Saturday after working Friday night, but when I did wake up, the day was bright and beautiful -- high 60s, sunny, truly springtime. I went for my first run in weeks, and the first in just shorts and a T-shirt -- no need for long sleeves or long spandex under my shorts. Casey and I ran a few errands (apparently joining everyone else in Clifton in taking our cardboard to the recycling center, judging by the three overflowing dumpsters and stacks of boxes around each one) and then prepared for a night in the city.

Casey chose Shoolbred's and we settled into the soft chairs around the fireplace. Friends trickled in and we ordered some food and more and more beer. The first couple of hours went by at a pleasantly slow pace, but then the last two merged into a blur of fluttering from conversation to refill to conversation. Before I knew it, we were outside on a busy Second Avenue hailing a cab to take us home. I remember few goodbyes, and Casey says she asked me for money when she settled the tab and that I pulled out my wallet, handed her $40, and replaced my wallet. Of this, I have no recollection. I'm still amazed that I made it out of there with my jacket and the items divided among its pockets (none of which have any kind of closure): my camera, wallet, Moleskin and a pen.

Casey and I were headed back to Hoboken to get the train home to Clifton, and Nate and Marie were on their way to Nate's apartment there, so he took charge and negotiated a deal with the driver of a Town Car. We got in -- Nate in the front, me between the women in the back seat -- and headed for the Holland Tunnel. No longer with any sense of time, I'm not sure how long we sat in traffic before realizing the Holland Tunnel was closed. Nor do I know how long it took to get up to the Lincoln Tunnel, but somewhere in there -- when we had finally started moving with any progress -- I realized that the flashing city outside the windows was nauseating me, so I stared down and focused on my rolled-up jacket in my arms and maintained a grin on my face for the sole reason that Jorja Fox's character on CSI once said that smiling -- presumably the muscles involved -- suppresses the gag reflex.

I succeeded; had this been an eating -- or drinking -- contest, I wouldn't have been disqualified for regurgitating any of what I'd put down. Where we failed, though, was getting to Hoboken in time. When we arrived at the 36th St. entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, I was able -- thankfully -- to look up and see the cars backed up on the access road. I know from experience that a backup at this point means a long drive beneath the Hudson -- 30 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour maybe. Casey and I objected -- loudly -- and redirected the car to the PATH. After a much more reasonable period of travel, we were exiting a cab at Nate's apartment. Following a quick look inside, he drove us back to Clifton, our last chance at boarding a New Jersey Transit train having come and gone more than an hour ago, probably as I was grinning.

Once home, Casey and I loudly and drunkenly discussed our love for our house, our cats and each other, then took our inebriated asses to bed around 4 a.m. I slept until noon, but somehow, the debilitating hangover I expected would be my payment for the night's activities didn't quite materialize. Sure, my mind was foggy, my head a little achy, my movements gentle and measured, but I didn't feel the need to spend the afternoon on the couch. I got onto the computer, I watched baseball on TV. I also went with the greasy lunch: a large plate of nachos, a little extra cheese for comfort.

I also didn't have the whole afternoon to recover. I was due into work at 6 p.m., plus we had plans to cross the two rivers to Brooklyn for an orthodox Easter dinner at Jen's. Unfortunately, my deadline meant a short visit of a little more than an hour -- just enough time to enjoy the varied selection of meats, to have some pleasant conversations with even more pleasant people and to feel that, in the entire time we were there, Jen barely sat down. But we left after all the food had been presented, and she had already dug into a plate of her own, so I'm sure she spent the rest of the evening enjoying the company and the feast she had prepared.

I tend to be anxious when going to small gatherings at which I only know the couple who invited us -- wondering if I'll be able to carry the conversation or seem interesting enough around people who don't share my overblown interest in Notre Dame or the Mets -- but I didn't have any apprehension before Sunday's party, nor during it. I found myself not wanting to leave, though after Saturday night's events, my energy level was already lowered, so more food and a longer stay on a comfy couch would only have exposed everyone to the yawns and blank stares I had to shake off later at the office.

It's afternoons like that, nights like Saturday, friends like those we got to see this weekend that I should recall more often when I have a night off or an afternoon invite, yet I don't know if I can muster the stamina to leave the house after a few trying days at work. It sure makes it easier to go back to the office with warm smiles and friendly faces etched in my memory to help me look forward to the next open date on my calendar.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Poetry in newsprint, virtually

The sun went down half an hour ago, and there is a nearly perfect stillness in the evening. I stand outside and wonder how such a night is possible, how — in the great cycle of air masses thrusting and obtruding their way across the planet, boiling up from the oceans and scattering over the plains — this small-valley quiet comes to be.

You don't often read such poetry in a newspaper, but Verlyn Klinkenborg's short Op-Ed pieces in The Times are just that, and I try not to miss one.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Thrill in the city

Two people walking on 16th St. near Ninth Ave. ...

WOMAN: I hailed a cab today.

MAN: Good for you.

WOMAN: It was cool.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Ethan, Michael, Martha and the songs of R.E.M.

I had been in a decided drought when it comes to celebrity spotting. People around me were seeing them like spots of gum on the city sidewalks: Will Ferrell in front of the bank across the street from work. Jonathan Cake (the British spy recently on Chuck) at the gym. Derek Jeter ... 's mom at our office. I recall having heard about more, but the details slip my mind now. I'm sure there were some, though.

It had been so long that I hadn't bothered to look. I wasn't conditioned to it, even though the list of famous faces that have been seen in Chelsea Market alone and spotted by my co-workers include Steve Buscemi, Samantha Bee and Jason Jones, and Molly Shannon (whom I later saw myself on the corner across the street).

But on Wednesday, as Casey and I walked to Company for dinner before the R.E.M. tribute at Carnegie Hall, we zigged and zagged our way from Sixth Ave. and 17th St. to Ninth Ave. and 24th St. As we walked up the west side of Eighth Ave., crossing over 21st St., we passed a man tossing a nerf football as he chatted with a woman on the corner. As we turned to walk down 21st to Ninth, in the back of my mind I had a thought that the voice I'd heard from him was somewhat familiar. That instinct didn't emerge from my subconscience until we were halfway down the block. The man with the nerf football had passed us on the sidewalk. Ahead of us, he paused to talk with a woman and two kids sitting on a stoop. He tossed the football up to one of the boys, who threw it back.

That's when I got a closer look.

"That's Ethan Hawke, isn't it?" I asked Casey.

"Yes, it is," she confirmed.

He continued his stroll toward Ninth Ave. before we overtook him, and we turned to head up to Company as he waited to cross the avenue.

We enjoyed our meal of two gourmet pizzas (we ordered the Popeye and Flambe off the menu, with a crisp, refreshing growler of Kelso from Brooklyn) and were finishing our pints before settling the bill and heading up to Carnegie Hall when Casey went to the restroom. As I idlly looked at the patrons -- we had arrived right around 6 p.m. to avoid the crowd, which had now arrived -- I noticed that a group at the round table in the front had begun to arrive. And I recognized the man in front of me: Michael Kors.

I laughed silently to myself and looked for Casey to return. Before she got back to the table, her eyes met mine and I pointed to Kors. She looked and began to laugh.

"He's stalking us!" she said.

We talked about that sighting in Palm Beach as we settled the tab and the rest of Kors' party walked in the door. Turns out he wasn't the most-recognizable face at the table, because after giving him a hug hello Martha Stewart took the seat to his right, her digital camera on the table. Alas, no blog post came of it, but it's not like we needed Martha's confirmation that we'd just eaten some damn good pizza.

The night only got better, once we got to Carnegie Hall. I'll leave the song-by-song recap to New York Magazine and Casey, who's the R.E.M. completist in the family. (I fill that role for Bruce Springsteen, and yet I had to miss a similar show at Lincoln Center in April 2007 because it fell just after our house closing and we had shit to do so that I didn't want to sacrifice a night. So my personal discovery of Josh Ritter came months later.)

Anyway, I got lucky with the three songs I recorded -- "Hairshirt" by Glen Hansard, "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville" by Jolie Holland and the show closer, "E-bow the Letter." They were among the highlights for me. All the performances were good -- especially Calexico on "Wendell Gee," Apples in Stereo on "South Central Rain" and Guster on "Shaking Through" -- but the one I really wish I'd caught was Ingrid Michaelson covering "Nightswimming" with only an upright bassist and digital-delay pedal for accompaniment. (She did it again the next night at City Winery -- and there's a great venue/concert experience that deserves its own entry.)

I just love it when a night lives up to its expectations from start to finish, especially when I'm exhausted enough to know a night in would've done me good. Yet I never wished that was the case, even as I napped on the train on the ride into the city.

Tasty pizza, cold beer, good music and a pretty girl will do that to you.

[Alas, the videos were removed from YouTube. Carnegie Hall getting all bitchy about its copyright. I don't know if this is the place to mention that the show was a benefit for music education, and 100 percent of the "net proceeds" -- after Carnegie's take, I'm sure -- went to three organizations that benefit underprivileged youth. I guess we can't benefit youth music education through the internet, though.]

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Spring is springing

Signs of spring: Scull boats on the Passaic for crew practice; chair-sitting at the AmVets lodge in Lyndhurst; and baseball practice on the new turf fields along the tracks by the old landfills.

I thought I'd dread returning to the city tonight on my one night off in a long stretch of long nights, but I'm excited. Dinner out with the wife, a show at Carnegie Hall. I'll be in bed before 5 a.m. -- probably by 1:30 -- for a change and can have a full day around the house and for errands tomorrow before going back to a vampire's life.

For one night, that's enough. I'll take it.

Monday, March 02, 2009

A white half-birthday

I got to leave work early last night to get home ahead of the worst of the storm, but I still drove out of a city where the streets were starting to hold the snow. Route 3 had patches where the asphalt wasn't visible and the only lanes I adhered to were the tracks left by the car several dozen yards ahead of me. I drove slowly -- other than in the Lincoln Tunnel below the Hudson, 30 mph was my max -- and laughed at the maniacs who passed me on Route 3 going the speed limit.

The commute took about 50 minutes, which included brushing off the car on Ninth Ave., and the only instance I had where I lost traction was a few inches as I pulled into the driveway. I logged on to check in at work and stayed online for about an hour and a half. Before I went up to bed, I looked out at the car to find it covered again in about two inches of snow, and my tracks across the porch were mere indentations in the white blanket.

The Weather Channel is trying to fancy it up by calling it the Monday Mega-Storm, but I'd prefer a simple, classic designation more along the lines of "The Blizzard of '09" or "The Nor'easter of 2009," those that take me back to the December 1993 nor'easter that closed school from Friday through Monday or the 1995 northeastern blizzard that shut down everything from New York to Boston and kept me at my roommate's house an extra two days and prompted my mom to send a fruit basket the size of Plymouth Rock just because they had to shelter me for two extra days.

So I'm catching up on DVRed TV and photos and fueling my addiction to Mafia Wars on Facebook while I wait out the last of the falling flakes. That, and if I hunker down long enough, one of the two nice neighbors with a snowblower will make his way along our sidewalks, leaving only the deck, the driveway and the front steps for me to shovel.

You gotta know how to play it in suburbia.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Well worth it

It certainly falls into the category of why didn't I think of that before? I got off the PATH at Christopher Street tonight and walked the seven-tenths of a mile up Hudson, rather than staying on for two more stops to 14th and walking the six-tenths along 14th or 15th. Not only was the neighborhood more pleasant, but the pedestrians were fewer and seemed more, well, welcoming. Even the bars I passed but cannot enter were more enticing, though that's no surprise considering two of them are among my favorites: The White Horse and Bayard's. Even the Duane Reade and Rite Aid (though that one's on the other side of Hudson) looked more appealing than the Duane Reade at 14th and 7th that I've entered in the past.

Plus, it occurred to me that it's more economical, time-wise, to get off at Christopher because the walk, while only a tenth of a mile longer, crosses fewer main streets (only the two-way 14th, rather than 14th plus four avenues) and cuts out two stops on the PATH, meaning I'm starting the walk a minute or two sooner.

I swear, this discovery is an epiphany. It's like finding the shorter trade route to India, only there wasn't a "new world" halfway there to trick me into thinking I'd made it.

Reversing the commute, last night I had Car 10 heading home, and I remembered having the number before but couldn't place it. So I checked the notebook to find that he'd driven me home on consecutive nights, the second of which he remembered me and already had the address programmed into the GPS, so I was able to kick back and chill after what I recall being a busy night. He also has an affinity for hip-hop music (and Hip-Hop Weekly, in the seat pocket in front of me) and strong cologne, which is better than some of the smells the drivers, um, give off. And though he hadn't driven me home since April (that I can recall), he remembered the street name -- or looked it up in the computer system, if the drivers have access to that info -- as he was programming the GPS.

Time to head out tonight. It's car 271 though.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I see you walking up 14th Street

I used to commute into New York on NJ Transit by transferring at Hoboken and taking a second train into Penn Station, then the A/C/E subway two stops to 14th Street (though I'd actually get out at 15th Street and walk from 8th to 9th Avenue to get to work). Then I started taking the train one stop past Secaucus, to the terminal in Hoboken and getting on the PATH subway under the Hudson. I'd ride that three stops to 14th Street at 6th Avenue, then walk the three long blocks -- on either 14th or 15th Street, depending on my mood or whether I was stopping for food on the way into the office. The route via Hoboken saves me $1.25 on the NJ Transit ticket and, at first, 25 cents on the subway on account of the difference in MTA and PATH fares. Now that I use a Smartlink card for the discount, the PATH is something like $1.30 per ride, rather than $1.75.

Anyway, a co-worker mentioned last night that when he takes that same PATH line, he likes to get out two stops earlier, at Christopher Street, because the walk up Hudson Street to Chelsea Market at 15th and 9th is a nicer stroll (and it clearly is). But he also felt that the Hudson route was actually shorter than the one from 14th Street.

And that's what made me look up. "I never thought of that," I said, "but you may be right." A quick check with Google Maps' nifty "walking" option showed that the 14th Street stop is the closest of the three (adding 9th Street as well) -- but by only a tenth of a mile. My daily stroll from 14th and 6th to 15th and 9th is six-tenths of a mile, while both the Christopher and 9th Street stops are just seven-tenths away.

That's outstanding. Not only does it give me a more pleasant option for my regular walk, but it opens up new avenues to explore, plus the potential for new dinner options. And, of course, it will provide new photo opportunities for my resolution when I've exhausted everything on my current route, which I may stick with until I've taken all the shots I want to take (like today's). The walk through the Village up Hudson Street or Greenwich Avenue is like a drive in the country compared to the 14th Street strip mall. Even 15th Street, with its rows of stoops and apartment buildings, has a more urban feel than you find in the Village.

The reason it never occured to me that the 14th Street stop might not actually be the hands-down closest is because everything below that long east-west boundary is a jumble to me. It's old Manhattan, where the grid is blown up. (Actually, more accurately, it's where the grid never had a chance to be laid out as Manhattan was settled northward over the decades, converting the farms into city, with the open space allowed for a more ordered system of roads.) Whenever I come out of the subway below 14th, I have to take a moment to orient myself -- if I can. In some spots, it's hopeless, and I take a guess. More often than not, I guess wrong and backtrack. Always an adventure.

Now the adventure will be exploring more closely a new regular route I already know.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Beer me: Zamkowe!

From the back label: The Namyslow Brewery is over 600 years old, dating back to 1321. The word Zamkowe means "castle" named after the brewery's 14th century gothic castle. To this day, Zamkowe is known as the "Beer of Knights."

There wasn't anything special in the flavor of this beer, but it was rather light and very refreshing. It'll be a great beer for a summer evening on the back patio.

It was well-earned today, though. This was the fourth day of significant progress on the basement as I push to have it finished by 6 p.m. Sunday, when our guests arrive for the Super Bowl. We expect to be able to fit everyone in the living room, where the HD TV is, but I'd planned to have the basement ready in case we needed it, and now that we're so close, there's no reason to slow down.

I bit the bullet and hired an electrician to finish the lighting. My uncle had been helping, but after a slip on the ice on Christmas Eve, he's been laid up with back trouble, so we decided to pay the money and get the wiring finished. The guy I hired even cleaned it up a little, installing a switch near the entrance of the laundry area to control the main light there. Until now, that switch had been ... one floor above, in the kitchen. We'll never know exactly why. He also changed the bulb in the utility closet into a pull-chain socket powered independently from the switch that now controls the lights mounted on the walls. Previously, that light was controlled by the switch -- the switch which turned on an outlet in the middle wall between the finished area and the laundry room, the outlet that had an extension cord plugged into it that then ran through the ceiling and somehow controlled the utility closet light and two lamps mounted on the opposite wall that were plugged into another outlet in the utility closet. It's a wonder the previous owners didn't burn this place down with that setup. (Not to mention their decorating motif of fake brick and shingles -- brick on the top half of half the wall space, shingles on the lower half, with a two-inch shelf in between. Two small sections of shingles remain, on a section of ceiling that drops down to allow pipes to run through. They're going to be covered with license plates anyway, so there was no need to go through with the headache of prying them off and putting paneling up.)

With that done, my dad's been up every day this week to finish with the walls. Monday, we put up the last of the sheetrock and cut some paneling. Tuesday and Wednesday, we measured and cut the last pieces of paneling, needing both days because of a particularly tricky section involving an inlaid bookshelf. I had to work both Monday and Tuesday nights, so our work time was limited those days. Today, we glued and nailed in the last sections we'd cut on the previous days and cut one final outlet hole, even devising a way to get the outlet to sit more flush and even with the paneling, instead of being recessed as it originally would have been.

I'd hoped to prime everything by tonight, but the preparations took longer than expected, so I managed to lay the edging tape and spackle the areas that needed it. Tomorrow morning, we'll prime it -- we have to do the whole thing because the sections that were already paneled are in need of new paint, and not just because they're a sea green color. They're grungy. Hopefully by the afternoon, we can get a coat of paint on before the Devils game, and I'll have Saturday for the second coat of paint. That evening, the couches can go into position and the TV can be set up and I'll have my man cave.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Outside the sunshine is skating around on the asphalt

I can't say I ever read much of John Updike's work, but I would often pause if I came across his name somewhere. For some reason, I sort of grouped him with William Faulkner and Jack London in a line of noted American authors whose work I was not that familiar with. (As opposed to someone like John Steinbeck or Ernest Hemingway, with whom Updike might be more similar, but I'm more familiar with their work.)

So maybe all I really know about Updike is that he continued to write for The New Yorker all these years, and I'd see his byline and read the articles -- and the occasional work of fiction -- and appreciate that I had access to fresh material from one of America's literary icons. But then last week, as I read various reviews of Bruce Springsteen's new album, a few noted the ties between Updike's 1961 short story "A&P" and Springsteen's third track, "Queen of the Supermarket."

To me, the comparison ends with the narrators watching -- crushing on, as the kids might say -- a girl in the supermarket, though Updike's is from the point of view of the cashier, while Springsteen's is a customer's. Updike's story is quite good. Springsteen's song is crap. I just can't get behind it. Maybe he felt the need to write a song -- an officially recognized and released song, at least -- that begins with the letter Q.

While it's sad that Updike's time on earth has come to an end, it's interesting that it came on the day Springsteen's album was released, even if it had been available on NPR for a week. As he left this world, Updike was in the news again for something he wrote nearly 50 years ago.

And 50 years ago, he wrote one particularly gorgeous line, a series of actions as the story reaches its climax and a line that ends with nine wonderfully descriptive words:

One advantage to this scene taking place in summer, I can follow this up with a clean exit, there's no fumbling around getting your coat and galoshes, I just saunter into the electric eye in my white shirt that my mother ironed the night before, and the door heaves itself open, and outside the sunshine is skating around on the asphalt.

Rest in peace, John Updike.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The one nice driver in northern New Jersey (besides me)

From the You Don't See That Everyday Department:

A woman tried to pull around me at a stop sign, though we were both going straight. I did not have my turn signal on and was not pointed in any way that would indicate I was turning right rather than going straight. I moved first, so she remained behind me. Once in the parking lot at the train station, I moved slowly, trying to determine whether I would go right or left in search of a parking space in the small lot closest to the station. She tried to pass on the left just as I chose to go that direction. I was lucky in that I thought to look for her first. I waved her past, rolling my eyes.

I managed to park first and was walking past her car as she was maneuvering into her spot. After she purchased her fare and I was getting my iPod out, she came up to me ... to apologize.

"I'm not usually that crazy," she said. "I didn't know how much time I had before the train came and I had to buy my ticket."

She was nice about it, and I forgave her.

Good thing I didn't go off on her, which was my first thought.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

First listen of 'Working on a Dream'

Listened to Springsteen's new album streamed at NPR, and here are my initial thoughts...

1.) "Outlaw Pete." Love the strings in the beginning as the song builds, but it gets weak when Bruce's voice is isolated -- and cracks. When it picks up, it's a salvageable opening track.

2. "My Lucky Day." I love the tempo. Was just OK with this on first listen, when the video was posted online. I think it will grow on me.

3. "Working on a Dream." NBC did a terrible job of "premiering" this song during halftime of a Sunday Night Football game. The network spliced together bits and pieces to play over football highlights, and it was horrible. That said, even upon hearing the full version, it may be one of the worst title tracks in the Springsteen catalog (up against "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town"). I'm fine with the verses, but the choruses grate on me a bit.

4. "Queen of the Supermarket." The fourth track? Really? Something like this is probably best left for a hidden "bonus" track. "I'm in love with the queen of the supermarket"? Kind of ridiculous. If he plays this on tour, it'll be the biggest rush to the bathroom of any song.

5. "What Love Can Do." A pretty good recovery after "Supermarket." Upbeat, layered vocals, some guitar licks that stand out, a short solo ... and some train imagery. Bruce goes back to his reliable building blocks.

6. "This Life." Definitely feels like a cousin of Magic, which is what this album essentially is. Several tracks stand apart from that sound, but this one is very similar to "Girls in Their Summer Clothes."

7. "Good Eye." The bullet microphone is back. It must be on a lighter setting than when he used it on his solo tour following Devils & Dust or "A Night with the Jersey Devil" last Halloween, because it's not as annoying. This is a bit of a honky-tonk rocker.

8. "Tomorrow Never Knows." Easily my favorite track. I slid the bar back to hear it again. A folksy, toe-tapping tune that brings to mind several other artists: Arlo or Woody Guthrie, Jakob Dylan, even the railroad-like guitar work of Johnny Cash. Could have come off of The Seeger Sessions.

9. "Life Itself." Again, echoes of Magic. Another one about which I had doubts when hearing online a few weeks ago. But I think it, too, will grow on me.

10. "Kingdom of Days." Meh. After the first listen, can't tell if I hate it or could come to like it. One thought: On the "Walk away, walk away, walk away" refrain, I actually could see young white teens singing along, heads bobbing back and forth, eyes closed, hands held high, in one of those "Songs 4 Worship" commercials. That's probably not good.

11. "Surprise, Surprise." I can live with this one. It's peppy and upbeat, with a guitar solo in the middle. No real -- ahem -- surprises.

12. "The Last Carnival." Ending -- at least before the bonus track that we've all heard already -- with a quiet, slow number. A bit ethereal, with shades of Toad the Wet Sprocket (to me). This one, of course, is Bruce's elegy to departed bandmate Dan Federici.

13. "The Wrestler." Right behind "Tomorrow Never Knows" for favorite status, and I haven't even seen the movie yet. The emotion of the words and music fit the images in the trailer so well, just as they did in the video for "Streets of Philadelphia," so it's no wonder this song won the Golden Globe. I expect an Oscar nomination on Thursday and a likely win in February.

My issues with this album may stem from its release so soon after Magic, which I felt was his best work since Born in the U.S.A. That album sat so well with me that this one had a lot to live up to before I ever pressed -- er, clicked -- play. We'll see how it sounds when I can take it with me -- listening in the car, on a run or on the way to work. It will almost assuredly sit differently with me when I'm not tied to my computer to hear it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The events of Monday evening, January 12

5:21 p.m.
We've stopped. This isn't particularly unusual for my commute to work. As our train heads east across the Meadowlands, we sometimes have to wait just before crossing a bridge over the Hackensack River because the span only contains one set of tracks. Yet this time, there's an announcement: We're being held at a stop signal. I'm literally stuck somewhere in the swamps of Jersey, on a New Jersey Transit train held near the western spur of the Turnpike because of frozen switches up ahead near Secaucus. Turns out it was the failure of backup batteries.

5:23 p.m.
The first text message: "Due to Switch Problems, trains on the Main/Bergen, Pascack Valley, and Port Jervis Lines are operating 10 to 15 minutes late." We haven't even been delayed five minutes, so there's really nothing to be alarmed about.

5:25 p.m.
The same text message hits my cell phone. OK, so whoever is in charge of the mobile alerts tonight didn't send it out to all subscribers at first.

5:36 p.m.
Another text alert, only this time the delays are 20 to 30 minutes. I log onto e-mail from my phone to let my co-workers know I'm running late.

5:37 p.m.
The 20-to-30-minute delay text alert, repeated.

6 p.m.
I should be at work right now. It's been 40 minutes, with no indication of when we'll move. Outside the windows is nothing but darkness pierced only by the headlights of the cars on the elevated spur just ahead of us. In a way, it's as if they're hover cars from the future, scooting overhead like in The Jetsons.

6:02 p.m.
An update, via short messaging service: trains "are operating 30 to 45 minutes late." The engineer has come out of the cab and is chatting with passengers and conductors in the car. She mentions the train ahead of us, the problem with the switches and that the trains on lines heading to and from Penn Station New York are running smoothly, with no delays.

6:05 p.m.
I decide that once we reach Secaucus, I'll transfer there. I figure this delay has backed up trains into and out of Hoboken, and once we get over the bridge and into Secaucus, there's no guarantee we'll arrive in Hoboken 10 minutes later, as we normally would. From Secaucus, I'll get to Penn Station and take the subway to work and walk a block between avenues, rather than taking PATH from Hoboken and walking four blocks between avenues. I've also been hungry since about 5:22, with nothing to munch on in my bag, so I'd like to grab something to take up to the office right away.

6:07 p.m.
Well, so much for Plan B. A new alert from NJ Transit: "Northeast Corridor and North Jersey Coast Line service temporarily suspended at Linden due to trespasser fatality." Fabulous.

6:14 p.m.
The one hits close to home. "Main-Bergen County Line train #1116 the 3:58pm from Suffern up to 80 min. delay near Secaucus Junction due to Signal problem." At first, I think that's my train, but I later realize it's the one that stopped in Clifton at 4:34 p.m and should have arrived in Hoboken at 5:07. I'm on the 5:04 out of Clifton, which should've reached the terminal at 5:37.

6:15 p.m.
Westbound service at Linden has been restored, but that doesn't help me, since I will be going eastbound from Secaucus -- if I ever get there.

6:17 p.m.
Just to rub it in, NJ Transit issues another alert saying that service remains suspended at Linden.

6:35 p.m.
Eastbound service has been restored at Linden, with 20-to-30-minute delays. I decide to switch at Secaucus.

6:40 p.m.
The latest alert says that service on the Main, Bergen, Pascack Valley and Port Jervis lines is subject to 30-minute delays in both directions because of earlier switch problems. That's cool, but our delay is now up to 80 minutes.

Amazingly, the time flies as I read The New Yorker and listen to my iPod. I called the office to check in at 6:15, and immediately after hanging up, a train passed us going the other way. Clearly, the problem had been fixed. Yet four more have come by in the opposite direction, and we've yet to move. We were one of the first eastbound trains stuck by this delay. I'm in the first car, and ahead of us, across the bridge (which has just one set of tracks, hence the bottleneck -- trains have to wait for any moving in the opposite direction to pass before they can cross the river), we could see a westbound train also waiting out the repairs.

6:44 p.m.
Finally, we move. Once we cross the bridge, we pause again for several minutes as they sort out the shuffling of the trains into Secaucus.

6:56 p.m.
Secaucus, finally. I step off the train onto the platform and feel liberated. There was nothing that could be done during our hiatus in the swamp. Had we been just inside our outside of Secaucus, there's always the thought that they may find a way to let us off and walk to the station, where we can take alternate routes. But out among the reeds, with the single-track bridge still in front of us, not a chance. I had a bottle of water with me (which I never felt compelled to use) and was in the passenger car with the restroom, but that proved an unnecessary luxury for me as well, so I was never in any dire straits.

7:01 p.m.
I walk along the platform of Track 2, heading down to the spot I like to stand while waiting for the train. Once there, I watch two other NJ Transit trains speed through the station without stopping. I realize that these are trains that aren't scheduled to stop and they can't make any concessions, lest the schedules get disrupted even more, but I still flip off the first silver blur that whooshes by.

7:22 p.m.
At last, a train stops in Secaucus.

7:32 p.m.
Arrival at Penn Station. I choose to take the A one stop to 14th Street rather than the C or E two stops. While waiting, I miss an E. Wrong choice. Oh well. At this point, what does it matter?

7:45 p.m.
Finally, my long commuting nightmare is over. I emerge from the subway on 15th Street, grab some food, and head up to the office. Thankfully, I was No. 2 in the hierarchy tonight, not No. 1, and it turned out to be a relatively quiet night. I missed most of the first half of the Notre Dame-Louisville game, though.

Stupid train tracks.