Thursday, December 31, 2009

Take a hike, 2009

It has been my custom to write a "wrap up" post at the end of the year, usually while I'm bored at work on New Year's Eve. I was actually a little busy today, so this post is going up late.

2009 started out well enough and had its high points. The Steelers won the Super Bowl and the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, which would be enough to make any year stand out. I also went on a couple of great vacations, in New Orleans and on Block Island. I played some of my favorite works with NYRO and heard the New York Philharmonic play some as well, perhaps too often. I helped organize and run another successful NYRO benefit gala and I've learned some lessons that will make 2010's gala even better. But then there were the sour moments that are foremost in my mind as the year comes to a close. I'm not as happy as I was when the year started. That's something I need to work on in 2010.

Ten years ago I was married and stuck in a crappy job in a new city that I hated. Now I'm divorced and in a much better job in that same city that I have grown to love in ways I never expected. I have regrets about some things from the past decade but I wouldn't change many of them. I've loved and lost. I've had highs that were unforgettable and lows that I never want to know again. I traveled Europe and Asia in this past decade. I've become that cantankerous old guy at my job (not so old yet) who knows where all the bodies are buried. I've made some incredible friends. I picked up the viola again after too long a break, and I swear to God I'm not putting it down again until my fingers stop working.

That's it for me. I'm off to drink bourbon and forget about the past for a while. See you on the flip side.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I spent my Christmas weekend in Bowie, MD, this year, visiting my father and stepmother instead of my usual Johnstown holiday vacation. After four years of Johnstown at the holidays, I was ready for a change.

I got caught in the mess at Penn Station on my way out last Wednesday. My scheduled train had a mechanical problem which eventually forced Amtrak to cancel the train. They'd already told the big-city passengers to move to the Acela on the next track, so they sent the rest of us headed for small towns (like New Carrollton, MD, the closest stop to my dad's house) back to the concourse to catch the next train. We boarded another train scheduled to leave at 9:41 AM, but it was sitting on the tracks with no power. None of the tracks had power. We sat on this train for about 45 minutes before the conductor told us all to get off the train and take the PATH commuter trains to Newark, where we could get on southbound trains. So we all trudged over to 6th Avenue and crammed ourselves onto a PATH train. At Newark no one from Amtrak had any idea what was going on. Some of us discussed the idea of renting a car. Shortly after noon we heard that power had returned at Penn Station and that trains were moving again. Around 12:45 my train pulled into Newark and many of us crowded onto it. Somehow I got a seat. After five hours, I was on my way. I got to DC just in time to meet some friends for dinner at Clyde's near the Verizon Center.

The rest of the trip was far less exciting. I spent several hours going over music, recordings, and photos of my grandfather and family for a website project that is scheduled to launch early next year (or whenever I get around to launching it). My mother drove down the day after Christmas for a visit. I got to watch the Steelers edge the Ravens and keep their slim playoff hopes alive. And most importantly, I was able to spend some time with my father, who I never seem to see often enough.

I returned to New York on Monday afternoon, somewhat revitalized. Vacations help but returning home always seems to bring out the same old stressors. Still, it's good to be back and I'm looking forward to a better 2010. This year didn't turn out quite how I'd planned. Next year will definitely be an improvement.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Duke Nukem Never

Wired has the inside story on how 3DRealms' long-promised Duke Nukem Forever never came out. I knew some of the details on the game's many delays, like the various engine changes. But I didn't know about creator George Broussard's obsession with including the latest and greatest visual effects in his masterpiece. The story is a study in when the artist lets the public see his creations.

I played Duke Nukem 3D back in 1996 when I was still in college. While I loved the game, newer games with better graphics quickly took Duke's place on my computer. Like everyone else who loved the game and the character, I followed DNF's developments in the late 1990s and eagerly awaited a playable demo or even video footage. But by the early 2000s the game had become a punchline. Now I doubt we'll ever see anything playable from the 12 years 3DRealms and Broussard spent developing this game. It's a shame.

Monday, December 21, 2009

This is the birthday that was

How I planned to spend my 36th birthday:

After the NYRO concert on Saturday night, have a quick drink at the bar, then run home to get about five hours sleep. Wake up at 5 AM, go to the airport, fly to Pittsburgh, go to the Steelers-Packers game. Eat at Primanti Brothers, drive back to the airport, sleep at the hotel, and fly back to New York on Monday morning.

What really happened:

Saturday's blizzard didn't seem so bad in the afternoon. Holly and I continued to plan our trip all day, working out minor details over IM. I got ready for the concert and was on my way out the door when Jess told me that she'd heard that someone's flight out of JFK on Sunday had already been canceled. I checked JetBlue's website and our flight out had been canceled too. It wasn't even 6 PM on Saturday and the trip was off. I resolved to go and play a great concert and worry about the game later.

The concert was fantastic. Getting the chance to play Saint-Saens' "Organ" Symphony was a thrill I had waited twenty years to experience. When the organ thundered that massive C major chord to start the finale, I had a huge smile on my face. The floor of St. Mary's shook with the force of the organ and the power of the brass behind me. Between them, I could have played "Yankee Doodle" and no one would have heard me. After the concert, we had a few drinks with my friends from the orchestra and discussed our plan for Sunday. While I was disappointed that we weren't going to make it to Pittsburgh for the game, I was happy to be able to sleep in on Sunday and relax on my birthday. And that's basically what happened. It was a leisurely morning, with birthday cake and omelets for breakfast. I went for a walk in the afternoon and saw families frolicking and sledding in the snow in Prospect Park. Then I went to James and Jess's apartment to watch the Steelers-Packers game and have dinner.

The game was not on in New York, so I listened to the first half online and then found a few underground sites where I could watch the FOX feed from overseas. And I was able to see the last few minutes of the game on their TV, when Mike Wallace caught a touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger with no time left on the clock. The booth review kept me from my customary touchdown dance, but I whooped and waved my Terrible Towel when the extra point won the game. I was happy the Steelers won, but I felt bad for the Packers and for Holly. However, I have every confidence we'll be watching the Pack in the playoffs in January, while the Steelers are at home wondering how their season got away from them.

So I never made it to Pittsburgh, and I have an expensive but worthless piece of unused card stock as a permanent reminder of a game I never attended. But I had a fantastic day here in New York anyway. It was a great way to start my 37th year on this planet.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Muppets: Ringing of the Bells

I especially like the Chef's sweater. It looks like something a guy from Sweden would wear.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Some random musings about the Steelers

My reaction to the Steelers' fifth straight loss last night (to the Cleveland fucking Browns) was to finish off a bottle of rum and send texts and e-mails that I would later regret. Sleep did not make me feel much better.

I'm not here to swear off my team or call for anyone's head. The Steelers won the Super Bowl last year and have two championships in the past five years. I've been blessed as a fan. But five-game losing streaks are not something I'm used to seeing from my team. Especially when those losses are to the Chiefs, Raiders, and Browns, all among the worst teams in the league. Now we can include Pittsburgh in that group. Those six wins on the schedule look like flukes now.

I have a plane ticket and a game ticket for next week's game vs. the Packers. I'm going to get up before dawn next Sunday morning (also my birthday) and fly to Pittsburgh to see my team. Two weeks ago it looked like a playoff contender showdown. Now the Steelers are just playing for respect. I'm going to the game with Holly, a Packers fan (though I won't hold that against her). It's the first time I've dated a serious football fan and then had my team play her team. That scenario alone will make the afternoon more interesting. If we don't kill each other during the game we'll have a great time.

It's going to be hard to watch the playoffs without the Steelers. The good thing is that my blood pressure will go down and I won't order my best friend to leave my apartment because he's rooting for the other team. And then there's the long off-season of regret and ruminations. The Steelers won't be down for long. I have faith.

And I have the Penguins.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Why are you on the phone in the elevator?

There are some people who work in my building (not on my floor) who get on the elevator in the middle of a cell phone call. Inevitably, these people end up shouting "Hello? Hello? Can you hear me?" into the phone before looking at it curiously. I'm talking about full-grown adults who have lived in the cell phone age long enough to know when and where cellular network coverage is available. The elevator is not a place where one can expect to get full bars or even one bar. It's in the middle of the building, surrounded by steel and concrete. Elevators are where cell phone signals go to die. Yet these people check their phones like dropped calls are a mysterious phenomenon never before experienced by human beings.

These are also the same people who answer the phone on the subway while the train is above ground, then shout "hello? Hello?" again when the train goes underground. Your phone is not made of magic, sir. It does not work in the bowels of the city (and we like it that way, lest we all be subjected to your inane conversation for our entire journey). Why don't you put that thing away before you hurt yourself? I'll give you a dollar and you can get yourself a candy phone to play with. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

My big date for charity

Last night was the big “date” at the New York Philharmonic that came out of last month's NYRO benefit gala. The winner of the date was Jorge, a member of NYRO's trumpet section. Our evening began with dinner at The City Grill on the Upper West Side. Jorge and I shared some sparkling conversation and at times he took my advertised role as “bon vivant,” with better stories than mine.

The Philharmonic's program consisted of Arthur Honegger's Symphony No. 2 for strings with solo trumpet ad libitum (performed by the Philharmonic's principal trumpet, Philip Smith) and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” with Riccardo Muti at the podium. The Honegger symphony was well-played but not really my kind of classical music, though we both enjoyed Mr. Smith's solo near the end of the work. After intermission Muti led the Philharmonic in a spirited reading of the “Eroica.” The audience had barely stopped applauding his return to the stage when the orchestra struck the two opening E-flat chords that begin the symphony. I've seen Muti conduct the Philharmonic before, but I hadn't noticed how he would stop conducting entirely for several measures and let the orchestra play on before his right hand lifted the baton again. At least that's how it appeared to me sitting several hundred feet away in the second tier. For all I know, Muti's face told the orchestra everything they needed to know during those measures. Muti also appeared slightly annoyed by all the coughing and rustling from the audience between movements, twice lifting his baton to start the movement and then lowering it, before raising it a second time and beginning. As much as I love the string section, there were a few spots where they covered up the winds. I wanted to shout at them to get out of the way. The highlight for me was the excellent work of the Philharmonic's French horn section. The horn calls in the third and fourth movements, especially the coda, were lively and rousing. During the curtain calls, Muti recognized the orchestra's solo performers as usual, but when he came back out and asked the orchestra to stand, they refused and applauded him for at least thirty seconds before finally standing. The Philharmonic's ovation reminded me of this concert review in the Washington Post by Anne Midgette, which pointed out that Muti was a candidate for the orchestra's music directorship several years ago (a job that went to Alan Gilbert). It's clear that the orchestra likes working with Muti, and as Midgette pointed out, this concert was an example of what might have been had Muti taken the Philharmonic's position.

After the concert Jorge and I went to the green room, hoping to meet Philip Smith. Mr. Smith is something of an old family friend, as his father and my grandfather were colleagues many years ago and Mr. Smith worked with my grandfather at a band camp a long time ago. After a few minutes' wait, Mr. Smith came out to say hello. I was excited to meet someone from the orchestra whose work I've enjoyed for so many years. But Jorge was thrilled. It was like he met one of his idols. I took a photo of Jorge and Mr. Smith, and Jorge said several times that his wife (also a trumpeter) would be jealous. We also got to meet the Philharmonic's associate principal trumpet, Matthew Muckey. Jorge and I ended the evening with a couple of beers at a local watering hole before going our separate ways. It was as good a date as I've ever put together.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

What I'm thankful for today

My family and my friends, who support me through good times and bad, and through good decisions and heartbreaking works of staggering boneheadedness.

My cats, who don't care when I come home as long as I do, and that I feed them as soon as I walk through the door.

My job, because I'd rather have a job I'm not 100% happy about than no job at all.

My iPhone: it's the first thing I check in the morning and the last thing I check at night.

New York: after ten years, it's still the toughest town I've ever known but I can't imagine living anywhere else.

Music, especially NYRO and the NY Philharmonic. The former provides me with a place to play with a great group of talented friends, and the latter gives me some of the best performances I've ever heard and motivates me to work harder for NYRO.

The food I'm about to make (and receive). It's not Thanksgiving without turkey, potatoes, and pie. (I'm making potatoes.)

A four-day weekend.


The virtual mayhem that is Modern Warfare 2. I may not leave my apartment all weekend.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Two posts in one: Bob Dylan and The Road

I don't get to many concerts beyond the New York Philharmonic. I don't keep up with the musicians and bands I like, so often I find out one of my favorite groups has already passed through New York and I missed them. A few weeks ago my friend Creighton asked a group of us if we were interested in seeing Bob Dylan. I'd seen Dylan twice in the 1990s but not since then. Everyone else wanted to go and I thought it would be fun to see him again with my friends. On Tuesday night we went to the United Palace Theatre at Broadway and 175th Street for Dylan and his band, with Dion (of “The Wanderer” fame) as the opening act. We all skipped Dion's set, except for the last song. Creighton and I chatted in the theater lobby while James and Jessica had dinner nearby. We found our seats just as Dion wrapped up with “The Wanderer.” About half an hour later Dylan and his band came out. He played a few old songs like “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall,” and “Highway 61 Revisited” but with new arrangements. He drew heavily from his albums from this decade, which I don't know at all, but I enjoyed the new songs nonetheless. His voice is gravelly but his stage presence and musicianship on the keyboard, guitar, and harmonica are still formidable. His rendition of “Ballad of a Thin Man” was riveting. Guitarist Charlie Sexton was another highlight of the show, moving effortlessly between rock, blues, and folk arrangements and wailing on all of them. Dylan didn't say a word to the audience until the encore when he introduced the band. He closed his set with “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Jolene,” and “All Along The Watchtower,” which was as energetic as any of the more recent rock versions I know. (The full setlist is here.)

On Wednesday evening my friend Sam invited me to a preview screening of The Road, the new movie based on the book by Cormac McCarthy. Sam is a friend from Deadspin and a location scout for movie productions and he writes A Scouting Life, one of the most fascinating blogs I've ever read. (Start from the beginning if you haven't read it before; the entry on the Native American bar is spellbinding.) The film itself is every bit as powerful and moving as the book on which it's based. The filmmakers captured the novel's bleak environment without CGI or special effects. And the actors' performances were pitch-perfect. Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee seemed like they'd leapt from the pages of the book. Their relationship was so intimate and heartfelt that the room got a little dusty at the end of the film.

After the movie, Mortensen and director John Hillcoat participated in a Q&A session moderated by a writer from Variety. They talked about the entire process, from reading the script and meeting McCarthy to scouting locations to shooting. Mortensen spoke of his relationship with his son and how his experience of being a father helped with his performance. Both he and Hillcoat joked about how the cinematographer would shout and rage when the sun came out, spoiling a cloudy scene. Near the end of the session, Mortensen had a trivia challenge for us, asking us progressively more difficult questions about the movie. The prizes included copies of McCarthy's books, CDs and DVDs, and cookies from a local bakery. One happy cookie winner asked Mortensen to take a bite of the cookie before giving it away, so he and Hillcoat obliged. I should have answered a question about a piece of music in the movie, especially since I'd seen the title in the credits, but I wasn't 100% certain of the answer. And everyone knows I hate to be wrong in a trivia contest. Besides, I didn't want a Noam Chomsky DVD as a prize.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

This time, I took notes for this review

I took myself out on another date this past Saturday evening to the New York Philharmonic. What can I say? I know what I like. I had a gift certificate that I had to use before the end of the year. And as I found myself with another under-programmed weekend, I decided at the last possible moment to try and use the gift certificate for Saturday's concert of works by Haydn, Martinu, and Sibelius. I arrived at the box office about a half-hour before they closed for the afternoon and got a box seat in the second tier. I don't love sitting in the boxes, since you can't see part of the stage. But last-minute ticket buyers can't be picky and I was just happy to have a seat in the hall and a plan for the evening. I killed the next three hours by checking out the new Apple store on 67th and Broadway (the upper floor is impressive, but there's too much wasted space and the lower floor is cramped), Barnes & Noble, and Best Buy, then had a delicious sushi dinner and caught a little college football before heading back to Avery Fisher Hall.

I got to my seat a few minutes before the concert started. I was close to the stage and had an excellent view of the guest conductor, Xian Zhang, who I'd seen a few years earlier in her role as associate conductor of the Philharmonic. The first work on the program was Haydn's Symphony No. 95, which I didn't know all that well. The Philharmonic's rendition was good but perhaps a bit too energetic. I may be woefully uninformed but this doesn't seem to be an orchestra designed to play Haydn and Mozart. Either that, or Zhang's conducting was a little too enthusiastic and vigorous for a lighter composer like Haydn. Her gestures were precise but overly expressive and the orchestra reacted by playing louder and with more power than the work required. There were a few sections where the strings overpowered the winds and brass when a more delicate touch would have balanced the volume. Zhang reminded me of Gustavo Dudamel. She didn't share his exultation in every phrase of the music, but she did demonstrate expressive gestures similar to Dudamel's. During the Haydn symphony, I thought about writing down my impressions for this review so I wouldn't have to strain to remember the details later. I found that the back of the “upcoming concerts” insert in the program makes for a suitable notepad for the amateur concert reviewer. However, next time I think I'll bring a real notebook.

Zhang's style was much better suited to Martinu's Piano Concerto No. 4, subtitled Incantation. I'm not that familiar with Martinu's overall catalog but I've enjoyed everything of his that I've heard so far. His music is a mix of Czech themes with atonality and tonality blended in an unusual but pleasing way. I don't remember many details of the piano concerto, though there were times where the brass overwhelmed the strings. Maybe it was where I was sitting, or the normal issues conductors have with Avery Fisher's acoustics. Watching soloist Garrick Ohlsson and Zhang at the podium, I thought that Ohlsson appeared reserved compared to Zhang's overt expression. At the end of the work I noticed that Ohlsson looked extremely tall. Maybe he is, or maybe Zhang is just that short. But he's a really big man. You know what they say about big pianists: they have big hands.

After the intermission came the work I was most interested in hearing: Sibelius's Symphony No. 1. I've become more familiar with Sibelius' symphonies over the past few years and his 1st has become one of my favorites. From the first measures, after Mark Nuccio's excellent clarinet solo, I had the idea that Sibelius is the type of composer whose works the Philharmonic has been built to perform. It was clear that this symphony was the piece on the program with which they were most familiar. (They last played in in 2008, while they hadn't played the other works in many years.) Zhang also seemed most at home with this piece. Here, her expressiveness and energy found a welcome home. It's possible that I was overcome by my own familiarity with the work, but I had chills throughout the final movement. It was just like when I heard the Philharmonic perform Sibelius's 2nd Symphony last June. I knew what was coming, and I reacted as I expected: I was nearly on the edge of my seat waiting to hear how the orchestra played the work. Sibelius's music has such expansive themes combined with brass explosions and delicate wind chorales that I found it difficult to listen with a detached, critical ear. I don't know how professional reviewers do it. I thoroughly enjoyed the Sibelius and I'd consider paying to hear it again. It was that good.

I'm glad I decided to take myself out tonight. Aside from having the Saturday night free for the concert, it was a performance that I would have regretted missing had I passed on it for another concert later in the season. My only regret for the afternoon and evening was that I couldn't find a seat at a Starbucks. I had brought my laptop with the hope of getting some work done on some personal projects, but I couldn't find any open seats at any Starbucks in the Lincoln Square area. So I carried a heavy backpack all over the neighborhood for nothing. I may count that as exercise for the weekend.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Back at the (imaginary) podium

NYRO held its annual benefit gala a few weeks ago. This was the 2nd year for the event and I've been involved in the planning both times. In addition, this year I was also a featured attraction. I was going to donate a pair of New York Philharmonic tickets to the raffle when one of my friends suggested that I include myself in the deal. The idea turned into "win a date with Phil" and I became an auction item. After some heated bidding, one of the trumpeters won. His wife, also a trumpeter, was cool with the idea of her husband and I spending an evening on the town.

We also held a silent auction for other items, both goods and services. Near the end of the night as the silent auction wrapped up, I noticed that no one had bid on our music director's donation of a conducting lesson. Maybe it was the alcohol or the cash burning a hole in my pocket, but I couldn't let that item go without someone bidding on it. I was prepared to fight for it, but no one else made a bid so I won.

I have some experience as a conductor. My parents showed me the basic beat patterns when I was a kid. I spent many hours in my room in front of my stereo conducting an imaginary orchestra from the score and a recording. In college I led the orchestra in a humorous rendition of Rossini's Overture to "The Barber of Seville" with a plastic chicken as a baton, and later became something of a de facto assistant conductor. In my last concert before graduation, I conducted the orchestra in Sibelius' "Finlandia." And I was a music director for two rock musicals where a conductor wasn't really necessary. But that has been the extent of my conducting career. I haven't thought much about conducting since college. The realities of life crept into the space that dream used to occupy. I'm excited about this lesson because it will let me live in that dream's space for just a short time. And it's going to be a challenge: I've been asked to prepare a couple of pieces. This thing is for real. If I actually get to conduct the orchestra, I'm going to be more nervous than I've been in years.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The trouble with Twitter

If you read through the archives of this august publication, you will find an assortment of posts both short and long on a wide variety of topics. Most of them are of the navel-gazing sort, reflecting on events in my life or offering my observations on current events. I've written about politics, sports, the Philharmonic, the subway, and the Upper East Side, just to name a few. Sometimes they are quick thoughts or jokes I couldn't develop into longer pieces.

Over the past year I've allowed myself to be sucked into using Twitter (and by extension, Facebook) for many of my short, one-off jokes or thoughts. So the "more frequent Twitter ruminations" gadget updates all the time, while the "occasional musings" main heading lies fallow. While I have heard no complaints, I don't want this blog to dry up and blow away, superseded by more immediate social networking systems. I would like to continue to offer my readers a longer form of discourse that requires more time than a refresh of the news feed. Also, I want to post more than 100 entries for this year. So there will be more posts here in the closing months of 2009, just as soon as I think of them.

This post was in part an excuse for the headline.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

One man shops alone

I hate shopping for clothes for work. It's boring: there are only so many variations on what I can wear to work. I only shop for myself a few times a year and even then it's only in the most dire need. I'm tired of wearing the same shirts from week to week, and the less said about the state of my pants collection, the better. Apparently I've been wearing the same pairs of pants for work so long that they've shrunk and are rapidly turning into plus-fours. While that look may work for professional golfers, I don't want to dress that way for the office. So I've been shopping this week.

My first stop was Century 21, conveniently located next to my office. It carries name brands at discount prices, so the store attracts a massive crowd of bargain-seekers, especially tourists, every day. I avoided the store for years, only going there for socks and underwear and an emergency belt one morning in August 2001. But when it came to things I wear on the outside it wasn't until after my divorce that I started shopping there regularly. My ex-wife had been the shopping expert in my life and I relied on her to help me buy clothes for work. A few months after the divorce I needed new shirts in a hurry and didn't know where else to go, so I checked out what Century 21 had to offer. What I found was a large selection of dress shirts in a wide variety of styles and colors, all marked down from retail price. I haven't shopped anywhere else for shirts since then. I don't like fighting with the crowd but the prices are well worth a few bruises.

Shopping for pants has become slightly more difficult. When I lost about 25 lbs in 2003 and 2004, I dropped about two inches from my waist. Apparently men with my waistline don't exist for clothing manufacturers. At Macy's this evening (Century 21 doesn't sell the pants I wear), the gentleman with a 34, 36, or any waist well into the 40s would have had no problem finding pants in his size. Pants for the slightly slimmer man were rare. I have long ruled out pleated pants or "relaxed fit" so that further limited my available selections. When I did find a pair in my size, they were in a slightly different style than my old pants, so I was off to the fitting room.

If I don't like shopping for clothes, I have a real hatred of fitting rooms. They're small, sometimes dank rooms hidden in the back of the store. There's often a pile of discarded clothes on the floor. The door may or may not have a lock preventing someone from barging in on me while I'm half-dressed. And I have to take my shoes off, so that the only things protecting me from the horrors of the store floor are my socks. I can put up with all of that.

The thing that annoys me the most about the fitting room isn't the room itself. It's that moment when I walk out of the fitting room so the person I'm shopping with can see how I look. When I was growing up, my mother always had me try on clothes in the store. And whenever I opened that door and walked out in my socks and a pair of pants with the tags still on them, my mother would not be waiting outside the door. She would have wandered off looking for something else for me to try on, leaving me there, vulnerable, while other parents and children stared at me. "Look at that little boy without shoes! He's so sad!" they would say. (They might have said it after they walked away, but I knew they said it.) When I was older and married and my ex-wife and I went shopping, she did the same thing. Somehow it's worse when you're a grown man and your wife has left you standing there in your socks and a pair of pants you don't own. My father told me he and my stepmother solved this problem by buying different sizes and styles of clothes and trying them on at home. I would do that as well if going to Macy's twice in a week wasn't such a pain in the ass.

Since I was shopping alone this evening, I did not have that emasculating moment outside the fitting room. I had to judge the pants myself. I know I have no fashion sense, but I think I made the right choices. With a bit of luck and the right water temperature selection in the laundry room, I should be appropriately dressed for another year. Besides, I dress for an office where I'm practically invisible outside of my department. As long as I don't have blood stains on my clothes, no one notices what I wear.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Don't get sick in Wilmington, DE

I went to Maryland for the weekend for a long-delayed visit with my family down there. It was a relaxing couple of days, with nothing more stressful than waiting to eat a late dinner Saturday night because my brother was in the process of buying a car. My father grilled steaks by the beam of a police-nightstick-sized flashlight I was holding. I had my choice of the Redskins-Panthers or Bengals-Ravens on the TV but not my beloved Steelers, who were in Detroit playing the Lions. We followed the Steelers game online and kept an eye on the Redskins' blowing a 15-point lead and losing the game.

I got to New Carrollton for my return train just a few minutes before it arrived at 4:37 PM (it was early for once) and had my pick of seats. I thought the train's early arrival and relative emptiness augured well for a speedy trip back to New York. My train's scheduled arrival was 7:46 PM and I thought about getting back to my apartment by 8:30, ordering dinner, and watching TV for a solid five hours. Those of you who followed my Twitter feed last evening have some idea how events transpired.

We were about 10 minutes past Baltimore when the train slowed to a crawl and then a stop. The conductor announced that we had stopped because of police activity up ahead. I'm used to the generic "police activity" announcement on the NYC subway, but this was the first time I'd heard it on Amtrak. We sat for at least a half hour, maybe longer, with an occasional update from the conductor that he didn't know how much longer we'd be there. Having no idea where we were, I assumed the problem had something to do with another train in the station in Wilmington, DE, presumably a few minutes away. As the delay wore on, some passengers suggested that someone had been hit by a train. When the train did move again, we eventually eased past a few police cars and Amtrak trucks off to the right side of the train and past a stopped Acela train on our left headed in the opposite direction. Once we cleared the police cars, we picked up speed. I considered sending an apologetic tweet to the good people of Wilmington for thinking that their fair city was the problem.

Just outside of Wilmington, a man came into our car and asked "is there a doctor on board?" Before he could explain further or even finish his question, the train conductor and his assistants rushed down the aisle toward him. A minute later, the conductor announced that we had a medical emergency in the quiet car. I hoped whoever was ill or injured was OK, and I thought we'd be delayed just a few minutes in Wilmington while the emergency services got the passenger off the train. Wouldn't it be funny, I thought, if he or she refused to get off the train because they didn't want to be treated in Wilmington? That's funny! Ha ha!

We pulled into the station and the conductor announced that we were waiting for the EMTs to arrive. And we waited, and waited, and waited some more. After about 15 minutes, the conductor announced we were still waiting for the EMTs. I strongly recommend against having a medical emergency in Wilmington, because the city's only ambulance might not reach you for quite a while. The EMTs appeared about five minutes later, approximately 20 minutes after we arrived at the station, and walked (WALKED!) up the platform to the quiet car. If you're sick in Wilmington and need emergency help, you should probably start walking toward the nearest hospital and meet the EMTs halfway. No wonder Joe Biden couldn't wait to get out of that town.

To their credit, EMS got the passenger off the train a few minutes later and we were cleared to leave. It was about 7:45 PM when we pulled out of Wilmington. The conductor said we were now about two hours delayed and apologized profusely for any inconvenience. I snacked on an apple and reconsidered my evening plans. Ordering food was out, but I might still make it to the pizza joint near my apartment before they closed. I hoped the DVR remembered to record "Mad Men."

To Amtrak's credit, we picked up some time on the way and arrived at Penn Station at 9:15 PM, only 90 minutes late. I passed up all the restaurants at the train station, gambling that I'd make it back to Brooklyn in time to grab dinner before rushing home to two lonely cats. With this past weekend's wacky subway outages, I got off the subway a few minutes after 10 and the pizza place was closing up. I had to make do with a tuna sandwich while watching Don Draper deeply disappoint Connie Hilton.

Strangely for me, I wasn't all that angry about the length of trip home. Both events were out of Amtrak's control. It wasn't as if our train's engine broke down and Amtrak had to send another engine to pick us up. We never lost power or A/C, so we were all comfortable. The bathrooms worked the whole time, and based on the availability of alcohol to the ladies across the aisle from my seat, we had plenty of provisions in the cafe car. I have few options when it comes to traveling to visit friends in DC, and I like the train far more than the bus or renting a car. I will use Amtrak for that trip again soon and often. But I think I can cross "see Wilmington, DE" off my life's to-do list. A 45-minute unplanned stop in the train station counts as a tourist visit.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

NY Magazine weighs in on Alan Gilbert

There's not much new to note in Justin Davidson's piece on Alan Gilbert's first month with the New York Philharmonic that hasn't been acknowledged elsewhere in the local press. Davidson admires the changes Gilbert has made thus far and his ambitious opening series of concerts, noting that programming Mahler's Third Symphony and Charles Ives' Second Symphony was "an Alpine lineup" and that either work could have been the highlight of a season. Of Gilbert's proclivity toward speaking from the podium, Davidson notes:
When the potentially frightening name of Arnold Schoenberg appeared on a program, Gilbert grabbed a microphone and spoke for about ten minutes, using the orchestra as a deluxe audio-visual aid. Talking conductors often wind up delivering shticks or sermons; he led a light, quick tour through the dense melodic foliage and nitrogen-rich harmonies in Schoenberg’s early tone poem Pelleas und Melisande. I have no idea whether it helped listeners grasp the score [ed.: it helped me], but I suspect it won many over to Gilbert. It helped that he programmed the piece for the best of reasons—because he loves it, and it is rarely performed—and conducted it with panoramic ardor.
I realize it's only been a month, but I'm more convinced that Gilbert is a conductor in the Bernstein mold, with Bernstein's gifts for connecting with audiences, though perhaps without as much of the great maestro's tendency to be overly emotional. As for me, I'm about ready to park myself outside Gilbert's home and hold a boom box over my head, blasting Mahler's Symphony No. 1.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Puzzled, perturbed, and becoming peevish over Mac troubles

My MacBook Pro has been acting funny for the past few days. When I close the lid, the computer is supposed to go to sleep. It does sleep, but if I disconnect the AC adapter and leave it in sleep mode, eventually it turns back on or runs the battery down in some other way. Twice last week the battery ran out while the computer was in sleep mode and resting under my desk at home in a laptop bag. The first time that happened I assumed I'd left the computer turned on somehow. But the second time I was certain it was in sleep mode, yet when I got home the computer was off and the battery dead. I brought the Mac to work this morning. It was asleep when I put it in my backpack but hot to the touch when I took it out 30 minutes later. The system wouldn't wake up and I had to power-cycle it. It seems the computer had turned itself back on during my commute.

Along the same lines, the laptop's battery life has declined steadily over the past few weeks. The battery is less than a year old. I replaced it last December when the previous battery began to lose its capacity over the course of a few weeks. I'm sure I can get another battery through Apple support, but I wonder if the battery life and the sleep issues are related. I've also had weird issues with the OS. Last night I had to reboot before Photo Booth recognized the built-in iSight camera. System Preferences has given me the "beach ball" a few times. I couldn't even run System Profiler yesterday without rebooting. It's possible that some of these problems are happening because of the improper shutdowns, though that seems unlikely. I did upgrade to Snow Leopard about six weeks ago, though these problems only appeared last week. I've checked the system logs but they're not much help, though you'd have to be a developer to understand most of the entries in the log.

I am growing concerned. Let's call it "threat level: troubled." The computer is under warranty for another 16 months, so if I need help from Apple I can get it. But it's my baby, and I wouldn't be a good parent if I weren't just a little worried about what's going on under the keyboard. I'll try a few more self-help ideas like clearing the PRAM and looking at any other recent upgrades before I give up and visit my local Genius Bar. If I go that route, I just hope I get a real Genius and not some doofus who just got out of the training program. I've not been impressed with what I've heard about the newbies at the Bar.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

How I spent my fall break

The combination of a weekday holiday, a visit from my mother and her friend Dave, and the need to use up leftover vacation days meant that this past week was an early fall break from work. I spent the time pretending to be a tourist and observing how others see this city that I've called home for ten years as of September 25. I thought of the week as a ten-year anniversary present to myself.

Monday was Yom Kippur, so it really didn't count as part of the vacation. I didn't do any work, but if I said I stayed off my computer and didn't watch TV, then I would be lying (which would be a sin that I'd have to atone for next year). I avoided anything that even resembled work, such as doing laundry, but I spent the afternoon catching up on TV, reading my usual blogs, and napping. By the evening I was ready to break the fast and rejoin society.

I met Mom and Dave at their hotel on Tuesday afternoon. The first place they wanted to go was Katz's Deli on Houston St. Despite living here for a decade I've only been to Katz's a few times. The three of us put away a pastrami sandwich, a corned beef sandwich, a cheesesteak, a bowl of matzoh ball soup, a potato & broccoli knish, and a plate of pickles. We took some time to walk around and work off our feast, then we went uptown to the Empire State Building. I had not been to the observation deck of the ESB since 1997. They've recently restored the lobby's ceiling to its original Art Deco luster. While it was clear from the velvet ropes and railings that the ticket line was designed for hundreds of waiting visitors, there were only a few other people in line with us so it took about 15 minutes from arrival to the 86th floor. It had been a cloudy day and evening, but when we reached the top, the clouds had disappeared and we had clear skies and over 10 miles of visibility. It had been a mild day, but at 86 stories, the wind was brutal. I was glad I'd remembered a windbreaker, and I was even more grateful for the warm subway platform as I waited for the train home.

I met my guests at Rockefeller Center on Wednesday morning. We wanted to check out the view from the Top Of The Rock to compare with the Empire State Building. Again, even though it was nearly midday, there was only a brief wait to get to the observation deck. Rockefeller Center has three floors for viewing the city, two of which have thick Plexiglass plates to keep wayward tourists from falling. The uppermost level has no Plexiglass, so if you want the best photos, walk up to the top. As for the differences between the tow vantage points, Rockefeller Center offers better views of midtown, but the Empire State Building is as iconic a New York view as you can find. If you're playing tourist, why not see both? Each building's observation deck is only $20. They both do the cheesy tourist thing where they take your photo as you come in, then try to sell it to you on the way out. I took better photos of our group with my cheap point-and-shoot camera.

We had lunch with my cousin who grew up in Park Slope (just blocks from where I live now), lives in New Jersey, and works in midtown. After lunch, we headed uptown to the Guggenheim Museum, which Dave had never seen before. The museum's current exhibition is an overview of Vassily Kandinsky's works. I like Kandinsky, but a museum full of one artist's work is taxing even under the best circumstances. I hadn't slept much on Tuesday night, and when we reached the museum I was not firing on all thrusters. By the time I reached the top of the spiral I was only glancing at each painting. I did like his “Several Circles” and even thought about buying a poster of it, but the gift shop was sold out. They had plenty of posters of Marc Chagall's “The Green Violinist,” which might look lovely over the dresser in my bedroom.

The highlight of Wednesday (and possibly the vacation as a whole) was that evening's New York Philharmonic concert. My mother had received a NY Philharmonic gift certificate for a holiday present and Dave is a big Emanuel Ax fan, so when they saw Ax would be performing with the Philharmonic this week, they scheduled their vacation around the concert. The orchestra opened the concert with Magnus Lindberg's EXPO (the work Lindberg composed for Alan Gilbert's opening night as music director) and before they played the work, Gilbert brought Lindberg onto the stage for a brief chat about the music. Gilbert is becoming adept at discussing music with the audience; for example, he gave a 10-minute talk about Schoenberg's Pelleas und Mellisande before the Philharmonic played the work last weekend. Lindberg's first language is not English, so his side of the conversation was a bit more stilted. But it was a great idea to bring the composer onto the stage to discuss the music since, as Gilbert pointed out, it's rare that modern audiences have the opportunity to meet the composer of one of the works on the program.

The second piece on the program was Charles Ives' Symphony No. 2. I'm not that familiar with Ives' music, and my mother pointed out all of the popular musical references Ives threw into this work. Ives quoted “Columbia, The Gem Of the Ocean,” “Camptown Races,” “America the Beautiful,” and other themes throughout the symphony. It's not a piece I plan to run out and buy, but I enjoyed it. After intermission, the Philharmonic played Ives' The Unanswered Question, with the solo trumpet offstage in the 3rd tier, a flute quartet in the 2nd tier opposite our seats, and the strings onstage along with Ax, who waited at the piano. As the last notes of Ives' work faded, Ax began Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto, which opens with quiet chords from the soloist instead of an orchestral introduction. I don't think the juxtaposition worked as well as the London Philharmonic's performance last spring of Ligeti's Atmospheres followed immediately by Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra, but I applaud the experimentation on the part of the Philharmonic. The concerto was the high point of the program and Gilbert and Ax did an excellent job with such an introspective work. Ax's performance was subdued but elegant, and Gilbert kept the musicians out of his way, balancing the sound and highlighting Beethoven's harmonies and orchestrations.

On Thursday, my guests came out to Brooklyn for lunch and a quiet visit with my cats. We ate at a greasy but tasty Mexican restaurant on 5th Avenue. I say “greasy” because we only spent an hour in the place but I could smell cooking oil on myself for the next few hours. I had to throw my clothes in the dryer for 10 minutes to knock out the odor. After they left, I had time to do some laundry, mark up my music for rehearsal, and eat a light dinner before going into the city for NYRO rehearsal. After rehearsal, several of us repaired to St. Andrews, the Scottish bar across the street, as has become our habit in our new neighborhood. I'm not a big Scotch drinker, but I'm getting into the spirit. I had a glass of Dalwhinnie, then tried Laphroaig for my second round. Laphroaig was like spending an evening in front of a hearth in Glasgow, surrounded by the smell of burning peat. I believe I have found my Scotch of choice, though further research is required. Luckily for my purposes, St. Andrews has a wide variety available.

I had planned to check out the Intrepid on Friday, but I got a late start to the day and thought I wouldn't be able to see the entire floating museum in three hours. On my way to the city, I decided to go to MoMA instead and see the exhibition of Monet's water lilies paintings. I took in not only the water lilies, but the permanent collection, the photography exhibit, and the drawings exhibit on the 2nd floor. MoMA has recently added free WiFi to their offerings, so I used my iPhone as an auditory museum guide. I had planned to spend Friday evening at home catching up on TV and writing this blog entry, but a friend from work tweeted about $4 pints at a bar in Murray Hill. I took that as an invitation and ended up drinking with him and his friends for the night. While I probably should have gone home instead of following the group to a noisy, crowded club on the LES, I still had more fun staying out than going home early.

I devoted Saturday and Sunday to recovery and relaxation after a busy week playing tourist. I worked off Friday's alcohol at the gym on Saturday and on the bike on Sunday. My ride out to Floyd Bennett Field on Sunday morning was marred by a flat tire and several mosquito bites, including one on my face. At the moment I look like someone punched me in the mouth. But the 39 miles on a bright, warm October day were completely worth the trouble.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

I could have coached a better game than the guy from "Coach"

I checked my Facebook page when I got home from work last night and saw that one of my friends was watching All The Right Moves, a movie about small-town high school football filmed in my hometown of Johnstown, PA. I replied that I am in the bleachers for the big football game and that I should get out my copy of the movie, find myself, and post the screencap. That's how I wound up watching the football game scene a couple of times.

In the movie, Ampipe High School is the blue-collar, smaller team facing off against Walnut Heights High School, the bigger and stronger white-collar team. Ampipe plays tough but trails most of the game. They take a 14-10 lead late in the fourth quarter and only need to keep Walnut Heights out of the end zone with less than four minutes to play. It starts to rain and, in true movie fashion, the field turns into a muddy pit in about 30 seconds. Walnut Heights throws the ball (in the rain!), moves the chains and they get to the Ampipe 10-yard line. Walnut Heights throws for the end zone and Stefan, Tom Cruise's character, gets called for pass interference on the play. Stefan protests, but it's the most blatant pass interference call in movie history. Walnut Heights gets the ball on the 1-yard line, but somehow Ampipe's defense holds. Ampipe gets the ball back on their own 1-yard line with a few seconds left. The coach (played by Craig T. Nelson) calls for a running play but the quarterback and halfback fumble the exchange. Walnut Heights recovers the ball in the end zone for the touchdown and the 17-14 win. Later, in the locker room, Coach berates Stefan for the pass interference call, without which he claims Walnut Heights wouldn't have been in position to score. Stefan gets kicked off the team and later in the movie Lea Thompson takes her shirt off.

I'm no football expert, but I could have won that game for Ampipe. All the coach had to do was order the quarterback to run out of his own end zone for a safety. That makes the score 14-12, but Ampipe gets to free-kick the ball back to Walnut Heights. Ampipe's defense had just kept a superior team from scoring from the 1-yard line. With only a few seconds left in the game, even if Walnut Heights got the ball back at midfield they have a small chance of scoring or even getting to field goal range. Unless they throw it at Stefan, who's just going to wrap up his man for another interference call. But why try a risky running play from your own end zone with the field a wet, muddy mess? In that situation, even a swing pass from the 1 is a better call than a run. A catch or an incomplete pass run time off the clock, which is your main opponent at that point. If the QB or receiver gets tackled in the end zone, it's still a safety and it's still 14-12, Ampipe wins.

I did find a shot from the movie which may or may not have me in it. About 36 minutes in, there's a shot of the crowd in the stands with a small boy in the lower-left corner of the screen cheering his head off. He's wearing a green and brown jacket with a red and white snow cap. It might be me, but I'll have to ask my mother. I remember going to the stadium for one of the nights of filming the big game scenes. I was about nine years old and it was a cold night in October. They started with a few hundred people in the stands but as the shooting went on the crowd shrank to about a hundred or so huddled in one section. At some point my mother noticed the cameras filming people standing at the railing at field level, so she sent me down there to push my way into the shot. I stood there for a while and watched the cameras moving back and forth. They told us to look at the field, not the cameras. I don't remember being told when to cheer, so I'm not sure the kid in the shot is me. If it is, do I get my own page on IMDB?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Gilbert and the NY Philharmonic play Mahler, make blogger euphoric

It's difficult for me to be write objectively about music I love, such as Mahler's symphonies. So if the following review is more than a little gushing, please keep that in mind.

I expected to be impressed with Alan Gilbert's interpretation of Mahler's Symphony No. 3 and I was not disappointed. From the beginning of the symphony to the closing chords, Gilbert was in complete control. He held together the immense forces before him yet stayed out of the way and didn't let his direction overshadow the music. I noticed elements of the score that I hadn't heard before, and I like to think I know this music well after years of listening to it and even playing it once. The quietest drumbeats were as clear as the loudest declarations from the brass section. Gilbert did an excellent job keeping the musicians together despite the distance between them, especially when a solo violin played a duet with the principal horn. During the third movement's offstage post-horn solo, the audience was quieter than I've ever heard in that hall. It was as if time had stopped while the unseen soloist played. When the rest of the orchestra joined him a few measures later, you could feel the audience relax. And when the last movement started, I felt the same chills I had three years ago when I played this symphony with NYRO. At the climax of the movement, when the entire orchestra plays the theme, the strings did something I rarely see from a world-class orchestra: they bowed freely. I remember running out of bow on each note of that section. The Philharmonic's strings avoided that problem by bowing each note freely. It looked odd but sounded brilliant. I don't think I've ever heard a D major chord as gorgeous as the one at the end of last night's performance. The hall got a little dusty as the music came to a close.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Alan Gilbert is already making changes

I missed this article in yesterday's New York Times about New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert's changes to the orchestra so far. On opening night, I noted the new seating arrangement for the orchestra, which puts the violin sections on either side of the conductor and the lower strings in the middle. Several musicians spoke to the Times about the changes and most of them seem happy with the new arrangement. One of the violists, Irene Breslaw, liked the change, saying that she can now hear what's happening in the wind section. However, the Philharmonic's tubist, Alan Baer, may have gotten the short end of the stick. He hasn't moved, but the basses have, to the opposite side of the stage. Since the low instruments usually play together, Baer has to listen for the basses from the other side and match them.

Speaking of the Philharmonic, this evening is my first subscription concert of the new season. The orchestra is wrapping up three performances of Mahler's 3rd Symphony and as my regular readers know, if they're playing Mahler, I'm there. I thoroughly enjoyed Gilbert's interpretation of Mahler's 1st Symphony last spring, and I can't wait to hear what he does with this immense work tonight. I'm also going to a performance this weekend, after I received an e-mail offering bargain prices for Brahms and Schoenberg. And I'm going to another concert next Wednesday when my mother and her boyfriend will be here. I may have an addiction.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Did the Steelers lose, or did I affect the outcome?

I have an unhealthy number of superstitions when it comes to watching the Steelers play. I wore the same clothes for every game in the Steelers playoff run last season, and they won the Super Bowl. I hadn't bought a Steelers jersey since 1996 until I bought the Harrison jersey last week. I wore my new #92 for the game yesterday and even put a photo of myself in full regalia on my Twitter feed. Was that hubris? When the Bears started moving the ball on the Steelers, I moved myself to the kitchen. I watched a few of the Penguins' playoff games from my kitchen and they seemed to play well when I did that. The kitchen didn't work for me yesterday. Or maybe it was working, but then I moved back to the couch because the food I made was ready to eat? And that's where I was when Jeff Reed miss his second field goal of the night. What if I'd stayed in the kitchen for the second kick? Would he have made it?

And what about the new jersey? Does this loss taint it? Does it have bad "mojo" now? Or was it the kitchen? Maybe I should have worn my old black jeans to watch the game instead of blue jeans. Sure, they're out of style, a size too big, and worn out, but I wore them throughout the 2008 playoffs.

These are the questions I ask myself the day after a Steelers loss.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

New York Philharmonic Opening Night Live Blog

It's opening night for the 2009-10 season of the New York Philharmonic. It's also Alan Gilbert's debut as music director of the orchestra, taking over for Lorin Maazel. Tonight's program begins with Magnus Lindberg's EXPO, a world premiere of a composition for the Philharmonic. Renee Fleming will appear as soloist for Olivier Messiaen's Poemes pour Mi, and the concert concludes with Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

I'm watching this concert on PBS, from the comfort of my couch. I could have gone to Lincoln Center to watch the concert on a big screen with my fellow music lovers, but I decided to stay home for a few reasons. So, here I am. Updates will appear at the bottom, since I don't have sophisticated live-blogging software at my disposal.

7:59: The TV is on PBS and channel Thirteen wants me to know how valuable I am as an audience member. Thankfully, it's not pledge week.

8:02: Jack Donaghy is the new host of the Philharmonic's broadcasts. I saw Alec Baldwin at a concert last June but I wasn't allowed to talk to him. Next time, I'm asking him about Button Classic.

8:04: Alan Gilbert is wearing a white tie & tails. When I've seen him conduct before, he's gone with a black smock-like thing. And they're opening with the national anthem. All the musicians stand up, except for the cellists.

8:06: I don't know anything about Magnus Lindberg, so I'll have to refer to his Wikipedia page. He's the Philharmonic's composer-in-residence for the next few years so I expect I'll get to know his music soon enough.

8:10: Looks like Gilbert went with the 19th century seating arrangement for the orchestra. The 1st and 2nd violins are on either side of the conductor, at the edge of the stage, the violas and cellos are in the middle, and the basses are on the conductor's left, behind the cellos and 1sts.

8:14: I like this new work. It's modern, but melodic and tonal. Interesting harmonies, too.

8:19: Renee Fleming appears in a picture-in-picture window to talk about the Messiaen piece. The composer wrote this work, a song cycle, as a tribute to his wife and their young marriage. We played one of Messiaen's compositions last season in NYRO. I didn't really care for it, but it wasn't the worst thing I've ever played. Faint praise, I know.

8:22: Uh oh. Of course, the text is in French and it's subtitled. I have to pay attention to what's going on now.

8:24: The "Thirteen" logo in the bottom right of my screen obscures some of the words in the subtitles. That's OK, I don't care that much what Fleming is singing.

8:29: My mother told me about a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert she and my father attended many years ago where the orchestra was playing one of Messiaen's works. Apparently the audience reception was so bad that the conductor had to ask patrons not to leave and to give the piece a chance.

Wait, what is this song about? That last line was something like "chunks of flesh will pursue you and haunt your dreams." I thought this was a song cycle about a happy marriage?

8:32: I found the program notes on the Philharmonic's web site. Here's the text I just saw flashed on my screen (and in my nightmares later):

"Bloody scraps would follow you into the
shadows Like vomitous retching, And the noisy rapping of rings on the
unmendable door Would sound the rhythm of your despair."

OK, then. Messiaen wrote the words as well as the music, by the way.

8:39: That was cool. The piccolo had an out-of-time solo, during which Gilbert stopped conducting with his right hand (the one with the baton) and cued the soloist with his left hand, almost like he was teasing the melody from the instrument. It's hard to describe, obviously.

This next song is not what I would have expected. Messiaen writes about two people in battle. But I think it's really about sex. It's the line about "sacramental warriors" and the other one about how two people become one. Messiaen was deeply religious, and many of his works were influenced by Catholicism. But he also viewed sexual love as a divine gift (according to Wikipedia, my sole source of Messiaen facts tonight).

8:48: "Oh, some flowers for Renee Fleming!" The TV voice-over announcer sounded surprised. The soloist always gets flowers.

8:51: That's intermission. Fleming and Baldwin are talking about the Messiaen work. Fleming says the work needs some preparation for the listener so you can know the story behind Messiaen and his wife. That would have helped with the warrior song, I'm sure.

8:56: Gilbert and Baldwin are discussing Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. Gilbert says the piece is as fresh today as it was in 1830 when it was premiered. The interview ends with that little awkward thing where the two men stand there waiting for the director to tell them they're clear.

9:00: For anyone reading this who doesn't know the story told by Berlioz's work, here's a quick summary I wrote for a friend a few years ago:

Hector Berlioz was a French composer in the mid-19th century. This work is an excellent example of "programmatic music," music that tells a story without words. At 23, Berlioz was hopelessly in love with an actress, Harriet Smithson. She became the inspiration for this symphony. The story behind the music is that an artist, also desperately in love, and with an active imagination, has taken an overdose of opium. He falls into a fevered series of dreams, the contents of which are described by the different movements of the symphony. Each movement contains a theme, called the idee fixe, which represents the girl he (the artist) loves. (It's the same theme in each movement, so once you hear it, you will recognize it each time it returns.) The second movement is a ball, during which the artist sees the girl at the dance. The third movement has them in the countryside, calling out to each other. In the last two movements, the artist first dreams that he is being hanged for murdering his beloved, and then that he is the guest of honor at a witches' sabbath, where the idee fixe appears in a grotesque transformation into a dance tune.

As far as Berlioz was concerned, he wrote letters to Smithson but she ignored him for years and eventually left Paris. Several years later, she heard this symphony and realized she was the reason behind it. She met Berlioz and they were married in 1833. Unfortunately, they divorced nine years later -- they weren't such a good match.

9:04: Cartoonist Richard Thompson wrote a blog post earlier this week about Berlioz as a subject for drawing and caricature. I like what he came up with (scroll down the page).

9:09: This is what I love about Alan Gilbert at the podium. I know the members of the Philharmonic have played this piece dozens, if not hundreds, of times. It's difficult to get excited about a work that's so familiar. But he brings a fresh spirit to the music. Maybe it's because he's new and new to them so they have to pay closer attention to his gestures and interpretation. But I'd prefer to think that he's imparting a younger, more vibrant energy to the orchestra.

9:15: I'm "air-conducting." I'm surprised it took me this long. I'd go get my score of the symphony from the bedroom, but then I'd have to stop the live-blog.

9:26: I almost bought tickets for tonight's concert. As a subscriber, the Philharmonic sent me numerous e-mails about opening night. The ticket prices weren't as outrageous as I expected. But I'm going next Tuesday for Mahler's 3rd Symphony, and I've spent plenty of money on the Philharmonic already this year. Plus, I think I would have had to go in my tuxedo and get my picture taken for all the high society magazines.

9:32: I could not disagree more, Mort. The only thing I'll grant you is that the audio for this concert has little depth, so it's hard to get a sense of what this concert sounds like in the hall. But I don't hear Rachmaninoff at all. As for the clarinet solo, I was about to point out that this is the first opening night in decades where Stanley Drucker hasn't been playing clarinet.

9:40: Sorry, I got caught up in the March to the Scaffold.

9:45: More air-conducting here. I used to "conduct" this piece in my room in front of my stereo, imagining I was in front of a real orchestra.

9:52: Bravo! I love a slam-bang ending.

Well, that was fun. Maybe next time I'll live-blog a Met Opera broadcast. Thanks for watching and listening along with me tonight.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Appearing tomorrow night in this space...

I have fantasies of writing about classical music, and I can't think of a better time to start down that path than Wednesday evening. The New York Philharmonic will broadcast its opening night concert on PBS starting at 8 PM. It's Alan Gilbert's debut as the orchestra's new music director, and they will performing the world premiere of a new composition, a seldom-heard piece by Olivier Messiaen with soloist Renee Fleming, and Hector Berlioz's wonderful Symphonie Fantastique. And I'm going to live-blog the performance from my living room. I have no idea if an orchestral concert (or the TV broadcast of the same) can be live-blogged, but I'm going to find out tomorrow.

Monday, September 14, 2009

I'm ready for some football

I know you're all dying to see how I look in my new #92 James Harrison jersey, so here you go.

From the front:

And from the back:

Contrary to my appearance in these photos, I do not have anything wrong with my shoulders.

Not my best day on the bike, but a good day anyway

I woke up at 4:30 AM on Sunday for the annual TA New York City Century bike ride. Let me rephrase that. The words "woke up" imply that one was asleep at some point prior to the alarm. I didn't sleep at all on Saturday night. I'm not sure what caused the insomnia but the possibilities include:
  1. an overactive mind thinking about the next day's ride and waking up at an ungodly hour
  2. being overstimulated from watching football and talking to my brother before bed
  3. spending Saturday afternoon drinking beer (slowly! and with plenty of water!) and eating barbecue.
Whatever the reason, I spent nearly all of Saturday night tossing and turning, waiting for sleep that would not happen. Whenever I began to doze off, some remote corner of my mind would point out "Hey, I'm falling asleep! Excellent!" and then I would snap out of it. When the alarm went off at 4:30 AM, I was already wide awake and wondering just how much time I had until I needed to be up.

I took the subway to the start in Central Park and picked up my marshal kit and vest. The vest was a heavy-duty one made of some raincoat-like fabric that didn't breathe well. During the cool morning hours I didn't mind the retained body heat, but as the day wore on and the sun came out, the vest became a mobile sauna. I took it off late in the ride and felt immeasurably better. Next year, I'll bring my own orange vest, thank you.

With the lack of sleep and my general feeling of crappiness from the previous day, I ruled out a trip to the Bronx early on in my day. I kept telling myself that if I could make it to Astoria Park I would be only a few miles from the end of the ride and an hour from home. My mood and physical condition improved the more I rode, and I considered riding the Bronx part of the route after all. I didn't want to skip the Bronx, since that would mean I'd miss out on the official 100-mile route. It would be a personal disappointment, as well as a volunteer one. I was a 100-mile marshal, and I wanted to fulfill my obligation.

Around mile 60 the route took us to the Kissena Park Velodrome, a bike race track that has become a landmark on the ride. I always get a little excited to ride a lap around the velodrome, and I kicked my bike into high gear when I got onto the loop. I must have kicked it a bit too hard, because I felt a slight twinge in my right knee. I rode the quarter-mile to the next rest stop, aware that something was wrong with that knee. It ached every time I pedaled. I managed to get through the next 20 miles to the Astoria Park rest stop, but my knee was giving me some serious trouble. I had reached my early-morning goal, and now I knew that riding through the Bronx was a foolish idea. I sat for about a half hour in Astoria Park, enjoying the weather and trying not to fall asleep. When I started out again, the knee was slightly better, but not enough that I could finish the whole route. The pain was especially intense climbing the stairs on the Triborough Bridge. I coasted as much as I could the rest of the way and returned to Central Park with 89 miles on my bike odometer.

After another break and some stretching, I decided to try to ride home. It was a beautiful day, the pain wasn't that bad once I got started riding, and I really wanted those last 10 or so miles on my odometer. So I rode home. I rode slower than usual, and every time I pushed off with my right leg I winced. But the knee pain didn't get any worse or any sharper so I assumed I wasn't doing any permanent damage. I got home about 6 PM, with 101.3 miles on the odometer. While I was disappointed I didn't ride the full Century, I was happy to be home and able to walk without too much pain.

I spent the rest of my evening on the couch watching TV, icing my knee and taking ibuprofen. My knee feels better today. But I feel old. I may be 35, but I've always thought of myself as much younger. I guess I've reached the physical age where things are going to start breaking down. I see more ibuprofen in my future.

As for the ride itself, I think I need to try a different volunteer job next year. 2009 was my tenth time on the ride either as a participant or a volunteer marshal. I used to think of the Century as my favorite day of the year on my bike. But the past few years my attitude has changed. I still enjoy the ride, but the thrill has faded. The route doesn't change much from year to year and while I love seeing the outer boroughs on my bike and helping people, I don't like the early wake-up call or the shlep to Central Park on the subway. However, the Brooklyn Bridge is about 20 minutes from my apartment by bike. Riding across the bridge at dawn is one of my favorite things about the Century. Why not make that the focus of my volunteer experience? If I volunteered for the bridge crew I could sleep a few precious minutes longer and I'd spend my morning working at my favorite location on the route. And I could still ride part of the route after all the riders cross the bridge, or I could go home and go back to bed. Either way, it's a change of pace and I'll still get to be a part of a great ride.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Really early thoughts on iTunes 9

I seem to have become an early adopter. I had to grab iTunes 9 as soon as it "dropped" this afternoon. It took me about 25 minutes to download the 82 Mb installation file and roughly two minutes to install it. I launched iTunes and after the usual licensing page it went into "updating iTunes Library" mode. I had left my Time Machine backup disk connected to the laptop, and while iTunes claimed to be updating my library, my Time Machine disk was running. I didn't pay much attention at first, as Time Machine regularly backs up the disks during the day. But after 10 or 15 minutes and no change in the status, I took a chance and forced iTunes to quit. Then I disconnected the backup drive and re-launched iTunes. This time iTunes came right up. It must have detected a copy of my iTunes library on my backup disk and started to organize it. That's bad, iTunes. Leave my backups alone!

There's a slightly different look and feel to the interface. The icons along the left side have subtle changes. The smart playlists now have a gear icon instead of a note, so it's clear from the icon and the color that those playlists are different. The list view shows artists on the left and songs on the right, and the grid view has a white background instead of the older dark gray background. You can change the columns in the list view, and you can switch back to the older view with the columns on top. I'll have to play with it for a while to see which way I like it. The Podcasts page mimics the iPhone podcasts view by using a half-filled circle to indicate which podcasts you've listened to only in part.

More importantly for me, there's also an iPhone update to version 3.1. There are some video tricks and MMS enhancements in there, but the feature I like most is the ability to drag and drop your iPhone apps from iTunes. When the iPhone is connected to the computer, the Apps page shows you all of your iPhone apps by the "page" on the iPhone. You can move apps from one page to another and remove apps from the phone with the mouse. Now I can roughly organize my apps by type: one page for music-related apps, one for productivity, one for restaurants and movies, and so on.

Apple also introduced iPod Nanos with video cameras, updated the iPod Touch line with new hardware with more memory and faster video chips, and bumped the iPod Classic to 160 GB. I should say that they bumped it back to 160 GB, because I own a 160 GB Classic I bought two years ago. But this new Classic uses a one-platter hard drive, so it's thinner. But it's good to know that Apple still has an iPod for geeks like me who want to carry around all their music. And if my old Classic dies, I can replace it without spending too much or sacrificing space.

Friday, September 04, 2009

It's football season... where's my jersey?

The NFL season starts next week, and I realized a few days ago that I haven't fulfilled one of my offseason goals: buying a new Steelers jersey. My last jersey purchase was in 1996, when I bought a reversible home/away Greg Lloyd jersey. Lloyd retired a few years later. The Steelers had a couple down years in the early part of this decade, and I didn't want to risk buying a jersey with a name of a guy on the team who wouldn't be with the team the following season. But it's 2009 and the Steelers have won two championships in the past four years. I've worn a "Here We Go Steelers" long sleeved t-shirt for the past few playoff runs and while I'm usually a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" guy, in this case I think it's OK for me to trade up. I can always go back to the t-shirt for the playoffs.

The question is which player's jersey do I want? I grew up a Terry Bradshaw fan. While I can get a custom-made Bradshaw jersey, that would strain credulity. I'd like to be able to walk into a Steelers bar in the city and NOT have fans laugh at me. I'd like to stay away from the other offensive star players. I love Ben Roethlisberger, but #7 jerseys are plentiful and I don't want to be perceived as a bandwagon guy. The same goes for Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, and Willie Parker. On the defensive side, I'm tempted by Troy Polamalu's #43, but when I think of defense I think linebackers. So that leads me to James "Silverback" Harrison's #92. Harrison had the second most memorable play of last year's Super Bowl when he ran back a goal-line fumble 100 yards for a touchdown. Sure, he lost his mind in the second half and earned a costly penalty, but the Steelers won the game and the championship so all is forgiven. Plus, Harrison just signed a contract extension, so he's going to be with the team for a few more years. There's low risk and high reward in celebrating my team's recent championships with a #92 jersey.

Here's the real question: can I get away with paying $80 for a replica jersey? Or am I not considered a true fan unless I pay $275 for the authentic game-day jersey? I'm leaning toward the former. I bleed black and gold, but I'm not made of money.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Quest for Pizza III: The Pizzaning

If it's the Sunday two weeks prior to the TA Century, then you'll find me riding the bike route with my fellow marshals as a training mission. I met the group in Prospect Park at 8:30 AM to get the cue sheets and instructions from the ride coordinator. She asked us to ride the entire Brooklyn, Queens, and Bronx sections of the route and said she thought we should get to the end of the ride in Central Park by 2 PM. I didn't want to be the negative voice in the group, but I warned her that on pre-rides past, things have not gone as planned and that I would be shocked if we got to Central Park before 5 PM. We set off around 8:45 AM and followed the usual route to Coney Island and a slight variation out to the Rockaways. Our group was about 15 people, a mix of experienced marshals and people who were new to the ride and to marshaling.

The ride leaders kept changing. We stayed together as a group for most of the day, but there were many times when a large portion of the group would sprint ahead, leaving me and my cue sheet behind. Other times they would stop at every deli we passed, or stop for several minutes to argue about where to mark a particular turn on the road. More than once I sprinted ahead of them to make up for lost time, only to have them catch and pass me. The trouble with this group was that they relied too much on the road markings, which were faded or not always clear. I lost count of the times I saw them fly past a turn because they weren't looking. To be fair, some of the turns they missed were marked on the sidewalks instead of the street, and a few of the turns weren't marked at all. After I got past my initial frustration, I tried a different tactic. There was no way they were going to let me lead the group without passing me, so I tried to keep up with them and called out the turns from the cue sheet. The riders in front of me called out the turn to the riders ahead of them, and so on. This process worked most of the way through Queens to Astoria Park. We had a can of spray paint with us and we re-marked some faded markings as we made the turns. It helped that the route was mostly the same as in previous years, so when there was any question if the turn was correct, I could rely on my memory and confirm we were going the right way.

My cell phone rang just as we got to Astoria Park at 3 PM. I pulled over to answer it and watched the rest of the group fade in the distance. The ride organizer called to let us know we could skip the Bronx part of the route and just ride straight back to Central Park from the Triboro Bridge. That was welcome news. While the day had started out cloudy, gray, and cool, the sun had burst through the clouds when we reached the Rockaways. The temperature seemed to rise from 68 to 80 degrees in a matter of minutes. By the time I reached Astoria Park I was feeling the effects of the heat and looking forward to a few minutes' rest before taking on the Bronx.

Energized by the knowledge that my assigned ride was nearly over, I looked for my fellow cyclists but didn't see them. Two other riders from the 75-mile group had caught up to me, so we rode to the Triboro Bridge together. I dropped them on the bridge path when I caught sight of my group below me on the Randall's Island path. I flew down the bridge ramp in an effort to catch up with them and warn them not to turn for the Bronx. At the bottom of the ramp I saw that they must have received the message, as they'd taken the turn for Manhattan. I kept my speed up all the way back but didn't catch up to the group until I arrived at Central Park. They were all sitting on the grass enjoying hot, delicious pizza and comparing notes on the route. A few slices of pizza and some water did wonders for my tired muscles and I set out for Brooklyn at 4:30 PM. I got home about an hour later, exhausted but excited that the ride had gone as well as it had. We didn't get lost, we stayed together as a group, and I was able to maintain a positive outlook on the day whenever something unexpected happened. I just hope that the "bad rehearsal, good concert" saying doesn't apply to bike rides. We had a good pre-ride compared to the past couple of years, so I hope today's experience bodes well for the full century in two weeks.

My computer showed 90 miles for the day and 953 miles for this year. That's more mileage than usual for this time of year. I might crack 1200 miles before the weather gets cold.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Block Island Day 4 - Thursday, August 20

I skipped Thursday's sunrise and woke about an hour later to go on a solo bike ride around the island. It was much foggier that morning and visibility decreased as I rode higher, up to the southern lighthouse and the bluffs. I found my way back to the northern tip of the island, which seemed almost otherworldly in the fog and early morning calm. I thought about the beach scenes in The Road and wondered if this gray quiet was what Cormac McCarthy had imagined for his post-apocalyptic world. Any further thoughts of a life after a cataclysm were shattered when a young family rode up on their bikes and set off on foot for the lighthouse.

I rode back to the hotel and we packed our things. We had just enough time to get breakfast at a local coffee shop and pick up some salt water taffy before getting on the ferry for the return trip to the mainland. The fog hadn't lifted yet, and every few minutes during the crossing our ferry let out a loud blast from its foghorn. Occasionally another passing ferry or boat would sound its own horn, and it was a little creepy to hear the horns but see no ships. It reminded me of the opening scene from "Master and Commander," and I half-expected to see cannon flashes in the mist. Even when we arrived at Point Judith just after noon, the docks and beaches were shrouded in dense fog.

Of course, this boat was just a ferry, and the experienced crew guided us around other boats and into the dock without so much as a wayward bump. Loading the car took much less time than it had on Monday morning, and a few hours later we were back in Brooklyn.

Our all-too-brief vacation had come to an end. But we could look forward to returning to Block Island next summer. I really enjoyed the entire trip. Block Island is quiet like the beach I used to visit in North Carolina, but it's a family destination like the New Jersey shore of my childhood. Since it's so small, we saw the same families and couples throughout our stay, and I got the impression that frequent visitors will be remembered for repeated stays. I'd love to make a long weekend or few days off at Block Island a permanent part of my summer plans. I liked the place that much.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Block Island Day 3 - Wednesday, August 19

As we expected, we woke on Wednesday to find that our backs were sunburned and painful. To avoid our desperate hunger issues from the previous day, we had a big breakfast before setting out. While we'd sorted out most of the mechanical problems with Kate's bike, we couldn't do anything about her old bike seat. She was in some discomfort from Tuesday's ride, so we opted to walk the mile and a half to the southern lighthouse and Mohegan Bluffs. By forgoing the bikes, we also forgot to bring along our water bottles.

The bluffs and the beach were a short walk south from the lighthouse, and the beach itself was at the bottom of a long, steep wooden staircase that ended in a rocky climb down to the sand.

The walk down didn't bother me at all, but I was worried about the walk back up and then to the harbor since we had no water. I felt much better about the heat once we reached the beach and tried the waves. For whatever reason the water on the southern side of Block Island was warmer than on the other sides. The beach had some large rocks which helped create larger waves than on the other shores.

While I could have stayed in the ocean all day, by early afternoon we decided we'd had enough of the beach and started back to the hotel. The walk up the staircase wasn't much worse than the "Exorcist" steps in Georgetown, but the walk back down the road to town was brutal.

Every cyclist and moped that passed us seemed to have water bottles glistening in the afternoon sun, tempting us with their cool delicious nectar. Kate was in the mood for a pina colada and we considered stopping at a hotel bar part of the way back instead of waiting until we got to town. But I couldn't bear the thought of having to walk again after taking a break to cool off, and since it was less than two miles on a well-traveled road, we pushed on. When we got to the hotel we ordered a couple of frozen drinks and some water and spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in the shade, drinking, and people-watching. Between the heat, the sunburn, and the long walk, pina coladas have never tasted so good before.

We thought we should aim a little higher for dinner on our last night on the island. We walked past Eli's, a small restaurant with a more distinguished menu than what we'd tried thus far. Another couple passed us and stopped to recommend the place, saying it was the best meal they'd had so far. And after we ate there we decided they were right. We had an appetizer of fried calamari with a sambal dipping sauce, and for dinner Kate tried the pesto-crusted mahi mahi while I had the scallops and lobster lasagna. Kate's fish was grilled on a bed of rice and vegetables, and my entree was the seafood in a tomato cream sauce with mushrooms and asparagus, all layered between sheets of fresh pasta. It was a meal worthy of a Manhattan restaurant and far surpassed the more touristy fare we'd had. We went for a long walk after dinner, then we went back to town for ice cream from the other parlor. The mint chip was decent but not much better than the ice cream we get in Brooklyn. (Stick with Aldo's if you go to Block Island.)

While we waited in line, we got to see some poor parenting in action. There was a woman with four kids behind us in line. Two of the boys were dark-skinned and -haired and were clearly brothers. The other brother and sister were light-skinned and blond. The mother had dark hair but it was difficult to tell which of the pair were hers as none of the kids really looked like her. But the whole group was in her charge that night. The younger dark-haired brother kept shoving the younger blond boy, despite the blonde girl's and the mother's efforts to get him to stop. First Mom told the dark-haired boy to stop, then she told him he was in trouble, then she warned him that he wouldn't get any ice cream if he didn't stop shoving the little boy. The dark-haired boy complained that the blond boy was trying to cut in line for ice cream. Mom reminded him that she was paying and that none of them were cutting in line. The shovings stopped, but the dark-haired kid kept making fun of the little blond kid. At this point, Mom said something about all of them being equal and that they'd all get ice cream eventually. Then she said something like "it doesn't matter if they're liberals." Kate and I exchanged a look. We had no idea what this woman was talking about. We lost track of them after we left the shop so we didn't know if the "bad" kid got his ice cream before the other boy.

After our dessert we walked back down to the beach to check out the stars. The sheer magnitude of the night sky was one of the highlights of the trip. Sitting on a wooden piling on a darkened beach, we were able to pick out stars and constellations I hadn't seen in years. I could have sat out there for hours, like I did back home growing up.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Block Island Day 2 - Tuesday, August 18

I woke up at dawn on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings to take photos of the sunrise over the harbor. I have fond memories of waking up early as a kid on beach vacations to see the sun rise over the ocean, and I didn't want to miss the show at Block Island. I think the rewards were worth the effort.

Both mornings I was able to go back to sleep for a while after waking up early. After all, I was on vacation.

On Tuesday morning we rode up to the northernmost point of the island to check out the lighthouse there. We'd hoped to swim at the beach as well, but signs and the rocks indicated that swimming was against the rules. Instead, we walked along the beach up to the lighthouse and beyond. The northern beach was bleak and foreboding. It bordered on a wildlife preserve and, except for the tourists wandering along the seaweed-strewn sands, the area was deserted.

A couple of hardy people defied the rules and went for a swim, but we decided to ride south and choose another beach. On the way back Kate led us off the main road to a beach she had visited last summer. This beach was much more crowded than the one we'd visited on Monday but after a hot ride and a long walk we didn't care about all the people and we just went into the water. The water was just as cold as it had been on Monday. Kate didn't seem to mind the temperature and made fun of me shrieking like a little girl every time a wave hit me. I kept shouting "I'm having a great time!" despite shivering and tucking my hands into my armpits.

We rode back toward the harbor for lunch, looking for a sandwich shop or a deli for a quick bite. We couldn't find anything like that and with hunger quickly taking control of our senses, we stopped at the first restaurant we found. It was the Albion Pub, a sports-bar-type place with HDTVs in the corners. We talked with the bartender (and owner?) who said that business on the island had been slow all summer long. Many residents had put off scheduled renovations or improvements to their homes, and the usual tourist crowd was down from previous years. The bar was nearly empty when we were there, but it was nearly mid-afternoon so we'd missed the lunchtime rush.

After lunch, we rode back to a nearby beach and spent the rest of the afternoon soaking up the sun, literally. We had been applying sunscreen religiously, but the SPF 30 Banana Boat lotion didn't prevent us both from getting our backs sunburned. I read and Kate dozed, and when I looked over at her she had turned a bright shade of crimson where the sun had hit her back. We went shopping before dinner for better sunblock and aloe lotion, fully aware of the pain that awaited us on Wednesday. Despite our pain we were able to enjoy dinner that night at Ballard's. Kate ordered the New England clambake (a combination platter of steamed clams, lobster, corn, and potatoes) and I had the surf & turf. I'm not sure what cut of meat my steak was, as it was perfectly square.

But it was a steak, and it was seasoned and cooked to my satisfaction. The lobster wasn't bad either. We had dessert at Aldo's, one of the two main ice cream parlors on the island. It was definitely some of the best chocolate/peanut butter cup ice cream I've ever had.

One thing I didn't realize about going on a beach vacation in New England is that the weather cooled off considerably at night. The humidity fell and the temperature dropped into the 70s, and with the constant ocean breeze it became downright chilly. We hadn't thought to bring jackets or sweaters with us, so we had to buy some Block Island sweatshirts from a local tourist shop. On the positive side, I'd wanted a hooded sweatshirt for a long time and I wanted something with "Block Island" on it as a souvenir. Thanks to the weather, I came home with both.