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.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Block Island Day 1 - Monday, August 17

Kate and I left Brooklyn at about 7:30 AM Monday morning, headed for Point Judith, RI and the ferry to Block Island. We had loaded her car with a few days' worth of clothes, some food for the road, and our bikes. I had my Trek hybrid and Kate had an old 10-speed bike she recently bought from a former roommate. We had struggled with her bike on Sunday evening getting the front wheel off to fit the bikes in the trunk, but I had the procedure down to a lean 10 minutes. It took us about four hours to reach Point Judith, and we had about 15 minutes to walk a few blocks to the next ferry for Block Island. If we'd missed that boat we would have had to wait an hour for the next one. We walked our bikes and our luggage as fast as we could and got onto the boat with a few minutes to spare. It was a foggy but uneventful crossing, and by the time we approached the island the fog had disappeared and we could see our destination clearly.

Once we were off the ferry, we locked up our bikes across the street from our hotel and checked in. Our room wasn't ready so we decided to get some lunch. We walked about a block to Finn's, the closest thing to a "clam shack" on the island. Nearly all of the restaurants and bars on Block Island are within walking distance of the Old Harbor where the ferry docks so we didn't have far to go. Our room was ready right after lunch, so we changed into our swimsuits and rode to the beach. Kate took point and I followed, for two reasons. First, she had been to Block Island before and knew her way around. The other reason was that we had had some mechanical troubles with her bike beyond the aforementioned front wheel and I wanted to keep an eye on it. I didn't want to ride up front and leave her behind if her chain popped off, which it did several times that afternoon. We found our way to a rocky but secluded beach on the west side of the island and nearly jumped in the water. It was colder than I expected but refreshing after riding a few miles in the hot sun.

We sat on the beach for a few hours, watched a couple of dogs wander past us without paying us any attention, and only saw a few other people. We left a few hours later and nearly got lost on our way back but a few friendly joggers pointed us in the right direction. Along the way we saw a saddled but riderless horse trot past us and make a turn down a driveway that led to a stable. We didn't see a horseless rider following, and I wish I'd gotten a picture of the horse. We ate dinner that night at Beachhead Tavern, a few blocks north of our hotel, and had the first of several lobster dinners that week. The food wasn't bad, but the menus at most of the restaurants were typical beach fare: seafood, steaks, and pasta. The disappointing aspect of the dining on Block Island was that the restaurants didn't serve much in the way of fresh-from-the-ocean seafood. Most of the fish came from the mainland on the ferry.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

brief vacation report

I'm back in Brooklyn and wrapping up my last day off before returning to work. I've written up a full report on my trip to Block Island, but it's about 2500 words. I'm going to parcel it out over the next few days so as not to overwhelm the reader. Look for the first day's report sometime tomorrow, or whenever I remember to click that "publish" button.

Friday, August 14, 2009


I haven't had a proper vacation in about four years. By that I mean a trip outside of New York as well as a total separation from anything resembling work. For years, any time spent away from work has still involved checking work e-mail and thus worrying about (or at least thinking about) some issue at the office. Until recently, the only remote device I had that was capable of sending and receiving my personal e-mail was my company Blackberry. When I read my personal e-mail, I had no way of avoiding my work e-mail as well. And if I were checking one account I might as well check both. When I've been away for more than a few days, there has always been some issue that comes up that is my responsibility. Even if I knew someone else would be able to handle the problem in my absence, I would still worry that they would either call me for help or make some odd change to fix the issue that wouldn't be the way I would have fixed it. Regardless, I end up spending part of my vacation thinking about something at work and thus not enjoying my time away from my job, which is usually the point of taking the time off in the first place.

Step one in breaking out of this habit was buying the iPhone. Now I have a hand-held e-mail device of my own that is completely separate from work. I couldn't check my work e-mail on my iPhone even if I wanted to.

The other problem with my vacations the past few years is that they haven't involved leaving everything else behind. I've either gone to visit family or I've stayed in the city for a now-trite "staycation." My initial plan for next week was to visit family, or failing that, to stay in the city and avoid any part of my regular workday routine. But when an opportunity to actually get out of New York and go somewhere new came up, I jumped at it. Next week I will spend a few days on an island, away from my computer, my Blackberry, and hopefully anything resembling a reliable cell phone signal. I'm looking forward to having nothing to do but read, eat, sleep, and enjoy a new environment. It will be refreshing. I can't wait to come back even a little bit recharged.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I'll keep my bare feet to myself, thank you

I bought a pair of flip-flops on Tuesday evening. I hate sandals of any kind and I especially hate flip-flops. But I bought them because I'm going to the beach for a few days next week and I didn't want to get sand in my sneakers. Don't expect to see me wearing these shoes anywhere but the beach, or possibly when I take out the trash at home.

I don't understand people who wear flip-flops everywhere in the summer. I live in New York. The streets are filthy year-round but even more so in the summer. I know it's hot but I don't want to think about having that kind of grime anywhere near my bare feet. I've seen people wearing flip-flops at baseball games and on the subway and I shudder to think what kind of bacteria they've picked up during their day. (Gothamist enlightened us on that last point yesterday.) Suffice it to say that there are some nasty infections awaiting anyone wearing flip-flops with open cuts on their feet.

It's even worse when I see women wearing them in the office. I may be alone in thinking that flip-flops are not proper work footwear, but the double standard makes it worse. If I flipped and flopped my way around the office all day, my boss would send me down to Century 21 to buy a real pair of shoes. But it's fine for women to flap-flap-flap around the hallways in the same shoes I bought for $10. I don't want to hear about the difference between "beach" shoes and "fashion" sandals; if it makes that noise, it doesn't belong in the office.

I know I'm in the minority, and I have sometimes held extreme positions only to abandon them in the face of immense opposition. (See my past blog posts about not being an "Apple" guy and avoiding the iPod for examples.) But I don't want to ever be a sandals guy. I can say with complete and utter certainty that you will never see me in a pair of "mandals" or any other kind of exposed footwear. The world doesn't need to see my bare feet even if it's 100 degrees outside. I will wear real shoes on the hottest days and be proud of it.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The problem with perception

I spent part of my Monday afternoon wandering around one of the floors in our offices checking the signal strength of our wireless network. Someone from the IT department had conducted a demo for some lawyers last week and reported problems with the signal and connectivity during the meeting. I went over there to check things out for myself and found that the wireless network was perfectly functional, though the signal strength meter in my Windows system tray flickered between green and yellow. The software that controls the wireless card reported 40-60% signal strength in the problem areas indicated last week by our colleague. I didn't notice any trouble connecting, reading and sending e-mail, or browsing the Internet despite the periods of "yellow" coverage.

I considered what the people who use that conference room might be thinking. They might see the yellow indicator on their computers and think that they have a problem, when in fact they are connected and working. Computers don't need a full 100% signal in order to transmit and receive data. I think the wireless signal indicators on computers are about as accurate as the bars on a cellphone. Since Wi-Fi and cellular signals are radio waves, they fluctuate depending on interference from other devices, walls, buildings, and so on. Full bars on either one doesn't mean that a phone or computer will have a robust, strong connection. Wireless networks are designed to work with less than 100% signal. A computer can connect to a wireless network with a 20% signal and still be able to send e-mail and download movies. There might be a speed drop-off, or there might not be. And even if there is a difference, it might not be noticeable without a speed test application.

But the perception is that a weak signal means a weak connection, and that's bad for network adminstrators. Most people don't understand the way wireless networks function, and to be fair, it's not necessary for everyone to know the link (or lack thereof) between signals and connectivity. The challenge for network administrators like me is whether to explain 802.11a/b/g/n networking to the general user community, or if it's better to saturate the office with access points so that the laptops always show "green." Many of my daily struggles with technology in the workplace boil down to these two choices: explain a problem to the users and how to work around it, or just throw money at the problem and make it go away. I'm not sure how this particular situation will play out. I suspect we'll choose the latter option.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Possible NY Philharmonic ticket problems

I received my 2009-10 New York Philharmonic season tickets in the mail a few days ago. I opened the envelope expecting to find a few sheets of perforated card stock with my tickets ready to be torn off as needed. Instead, this year the Philharmonic packaged their tickets in little tear-out books, like the kind you get from a bank for loan payments.

My problem with this format is that the ticket books are by seat, not by concert. I have two tickets for each concert on my subscription. One booklet is for seat BB105 and the other is for seat BB106. So I have to remember to take one ticket from each book for each concert. I'm paranoid about forgetting my tickets so I don't foresee any trouble for myself. But has anyone at the Philharmonic's ticket printing (or ordering) office noticed that many of their patrons are older and less, shall we say, aware of whether they have the correct tickets in their pockets? I think there will be more than a few instances of people bringing the wrong tickets to concerts this season. I'd better move up my Avery Fisher arrival time by a few minutes to account for any trouble.

Remembering John Hughes

As Gawker said, this item is probably the best John Hughes memorial post you'll read. I won't be offended if you skip the rest of mine.

I haven't seen all of Hughes' movies. It wasn't until a few years ago that I saw The Breakfast Club, and I still haven't seen Sixteen Candles. But Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Weird Science, and Planes, Trains, & Automobiles are some of my favorite movies from the '80s. I didn't know until yesterday that Hughes wrote more than four times as many movies as he directed. The scene in The Great Outdoors where John Candy eats the "Ol' '96er" steak is still hilarious to me and my father twenty years later. And I had no idea he wrote the Vacation movies. My life has been affected by his work more than I imagined.

Many of my younger online friends wrote that they had no idea who Hughes was or why his death affects some of us so deeply. I think you need to have grown up in the '80s to appreciate his talents properly. In his works, Hughes brilliantly captured the feelings of young people in the '80s. His characters were sometimes stereotypical teens, but they seemed more real than anyone else on the screen. I wanted to be like Ferris Bueller, but I was much more like Cameron. I was Brian Johnson and Gary Wallace. I can still relate to these characters twenty years later. I think that's the best testament to Hughes' works: that they can still resonate so strongly years after their creation.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Twitter is down!? How am I supposed to share my thoughts and feelings with the world?

I've gotten so used to following my Twitter feed that I forgot what it was like before I had a running live blog all day long. I'll have to go back to boring old blogging for now.

I make coffee at home in the morning most of the time. If I don't have time to drink it while I'm getting dressed, I'll put it in a large travel mug and bring it to work. I was running late this morning but I made a pot of coffee anyway and poured it into the travel mug. I added a ton of Splenda and a little cinnamon and had a few sips while I ate breakfast and got ready. But the mug was nearly full when I was ready to leave. It wasn't until I was on the subway (which I had to force my way onto) that I realized I'd left the mug on my coffee table. It's the first time that's happened. I know there are worse things I could have done, such as leaving my refrigerator open, my door unlocked, or my windows open. But I was annoyed at the thought that I left a delicious mug of hot coffee sitting on the table. It has a lid on it and it's not near anything too valuable, so if the cats knock it over I won't lose much. (OK, my New York Philharmonic tickets are on the table. That would be a significant loss.) It's just the principle of forgetting something I enjoy so much.

I could always take more time in the morning so I'm not rushed, but we all know that's not about to happen anytime soon. I don't know how to operate when I have extra time.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Thoughts from a wedding on Saturday

If you're getting married in August in a church that lacks air conditioning, please spare your guests the full Mass. I appreciate your devotion to your faith, but it wasn't necessary to keep us there sweating through Communion.

The pink tutu dress paired with the stripper-esque heels was an unforgettable combination for one guest. Sadly, I don't mean unforgettable in a good way.

I should have eaten more of the hors d'oeuvres, because the main meal was damn near inedible. When someone at the table orders prime rib and gets the butt of the rib, you know you're not eating at a high-quality catering hall. And the less said about the underdone potatoes and the stuffed shrimp, the better.

I like weddings that have the bride-and-her-father and groom-and-his-mother dances right away, along with the speeches and toasts. This was not one of those weddings. One man at our table said what we were all thinking when the band asked the father of the bride to come up for the dance: "Oh for God's sake, cut the cake already! We want to go home!"