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.

Friday, January 09, 2009

I'm definitely nauseated

A woman talks loudly on her cell phone as she rides the train toward Hoboken. It's loud enough for me to hear as I drift in and out of sleep -- and listen to my iPod.


Or maybe she's nauseated because her friend is screaming personal details across a rush-hour-crowded New Jersey Transit passenger car.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Beer me: Warka

One of the liquor stores in town includes a varied selection of Polish beers and spirits among its selection, and when I stopped in to restock the fridge the other day, I decided to start a tasting project. From now on, whenever I go there to fill up, I'm going to choose a bottle of one of the Polish brews to try. I'll keep notes on each so that I know which ones are worth another purchase, including a sixer, where applicable.

First up: Warka. I'm not going to give a beer snob review -- not that I don't appreciate those, but if I'm not taking notes after the first couple of sips, I'm not going to be in any condition to organize my thoughts like that. And I'm not. While I agree in general with the reviews posted there -- quite carbonated, more malty than hoppy, minimal aftertaste -- my general impression was that I don't hate it, but it doesn't stand out to me. Which is fine. It's a decent, refreshing lager that I would buy again. There was nothing to it that would scare me away from a future purchase.

Na zdrowie.

When winter kicks your ass

Not anyone's idea of a good time: The gyro man across the street from my office was working under the hood of his cart last night in a cold, occasionally driving rain. At 2 in the morning. I noticed it only as I got into the car to head home and empathized with him. My thoughts shifted when I noticed the "miles remaining" reading on his dashboard read just 45 -- bet he was glad to be heading to New Jersey.

Winter rain sucks. I got home and stepped out of the car in front of the house, putting my foot down on the curb. And I almost bit it. My right foot slid a few inches on the slick coating of ice on the cement before I caught myself. I turned carefully and closed the door, then heard the crunch of the frozen grass as I gingerly walked over the sidewalk, up the steps and through the gate to our patio.

I've noticed that the gate tends to swing open in heavy winds. The shaking from the gusts must shake the two sides of the gate enough that the loose wooden latch no longer rests on the ledge that keeps it in place, then rotates down into an unsecure position, which allows the gate to swing open. But when it's really cold, the latch seems to tighten and not move so easily. And last night, it was frozen in place. When I touched the top of it to pull it open and enter, I felt the soft, smooth, cold cover of a thin sheet of ice.

I hoped the freezing rain would produce a crystalized wonderland in the morning, but temperatures rose just enough to make Wednesday nothing but cold and wet. The photographic opportunities of a frozen landscape would've been stellar, but there was nothing. So when I left for work, it was a miserable walk to the train. Snow can be a pain in the ass (or back, with the shoveling), but I'd still prefer it to a steady, all-day, sometimes driving rain that soaks you through and stays with you long after you've found cover (and even heat), because the cold wind ensures that the sodden feeling reaches down to the bone.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


Not anyone's idea of a good time: The gyro man across the street from my office was working under the hood of his cart in a cold, occasionally driving rain. At 2 in the morning.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009


The plan next year: Leave the Christmas lights on until the 6th -- Ephiphany, Orthodox Christmas. Let's go all the way through Twelfth Night. I like the symmetry of that -- even if we're starting weeks before Dec. 24.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Another White New Year's

Window on winter, originally uploaded by DC Products.

For the third time in four or five years, our New Year's Eve in Boston came with several inches of snow. Only this time, the attendance at Bryan's party didn't suffer because of it. The place was packed and the final pre-midnight shot -- of Brinley Gold Rum (look for it; it's the best) -- involved about three dozen people. I barely noticed the TV going on in the final minute before midnight, but was aware of the countdown. I'm not sure I caught whether or not they counted the leap second, though.

To enter into the public record, here's how we bid adieu to 2008 and rang in 2009:

  • 3 p.m. ET: A shot of Stoli Vanilla as parts of Russia hit midnight.
  • 4 p.m. ET: The Freedom Shot, or the Thrown Shoe -- a shot of guavaberry liqueur, which is made in Iraq. (As long as you say something is in Iraq, it's OK.)
  • 5 p.m. ET: As midnight comes to Malawi and Jerusalem, we drank the Go Diva -- a shot of Godiva liqueur in honor of adopted Malawian children and red wrist bracelets.
  • 6 p.m. ET: Midnight in the Vatican means a sip of red wine.
  • 7 p.m. ET: If it's not Scottish, it's crap, so J&B scotch whiskey it is. Midnight in Edinburgh.
  • 8 p.m. ET: A shot of recovery: Water to recognize the melting glaciers in Greenland, where it is midnight at this time.
  • 9 p.m. ET: With so few areas in this time zone, we go with the Atlantic archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, a volcanic formation belonging to Brazil. We drink Italian Tuaca, connecting the volcanic atoll with perhaps the world's most famous volcano, Vesuvius.
  • 10 p.m. ET: Midnight comes to French Guiana, and cointreau comes to our lips.
  • 11 p.m. ET: It's midnight in the islands, and so LeeMichael buys two bottles of Brinley Gold Rum without knowing that Casey and I are friends with the people who make it.
  • Midnight ET: Champagne, of course. It caps off the countdown and the year, though the night continues for three more hours -- amazingly.

Somehow, we don't fall into bed until nearly 3 a.m., and I woke up just before 11 with a terrible hangover. After some pancakes, water and Advil, I plant myself on the couch for the viewing of "Talladega Nights" and am sufficiently recovered by the time my pizza arrives for lunch. By now, on our third movie ("Roger Rabbit") of this day of marathon television (a little hockey from Wrigley Field, a touch of Capital One Bowling and the Rose Bowl, too much of America's "Funniest" Home Videos and the launch of MLB Network), I'm all but recovered. Just not enough to have another drink. Not until tomorrow, at the earliest.

As for resolutions, I decided to try two in particular this year, both intended to expand my creative and artistic mind: a different photo each day and a few more books read this year.

And a happy 2009 for all.