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.