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.