December 2008 Archives

Best of 2008

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Every year I think I'm going to write some kind of end-of-the-year summary, and every year I don't, in part because they're trite and uninteresting, in part because there is just too much that happens in the course of a year to really make a meaningful summary. So why am I doing it this year? No idea. And now, in no particular order, the best of 2008. Let's go.

  • Best movie of 2008 – Iron Man was the best movie I saw in a theater this year. Iron Man was also the only movie I saw in a theater this year.
  • Best song of 2008 – I'm sure that many musicians put out some great work in 2008, including favorites like Aimee Mann. But the best song of the year, for me, was the rediscovered "Dead Flowers" from the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers. That it was released in 1971 does not diminish its place in this year's pantheon one bit.
  • Best concert of 2008 – This one was tougher, as we actually saw as many as three bands in concert this year, but Aimee Mann has to take this one (over the Cowboy Junkies and the Mothertruckers), because she's Aimee Mann.
  • Best TV Show of 2008 – much tougher. We don't get out much, but we do watch us some TV. TruTV was the gift that kept on giving with ever-more specialized variations on Cops, including Ocean Force, Ski Patrol and the absolutely wonderful Principal's Office. And Attack of the Show and DVR'd episodes of Jeopardy provided the need for daily continuity. The Bionic Woman and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles reminded us of what it was like when TV shows had scripts, plots and even a point. But the absolute best show, hands down: Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. Not for its exploitive value, but for its honest portrayals of people with serious problems, out of control, and for Dr. Drew, who seems to be an exceptionally sharp guy who has seen it all before but somehow hasn't gotten jaded by it.
  • Best new food of 2008 – Homemade pretzels. Just yum.
  • Best activity of 2008 – when circumstances conspire to give me my first chance ever to do 120-mile weeks on my bike, don't think I'm going to miss that chance. I got to know the backroads of Rensselaer County like never before, regularly climbing hills that had wiped me out in previous years, getting lean and happy. We got the boats out a number of times, we went camping and hiking and swimming and had a good time, but that every-other-day rhythm of saddling up and getting out there made for an extraordinary summer.

I can quit any time . . .

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I thought, I really did, that I was probably addicted to Altoids Ginger Mints. Classic signs of addiction – increasing tolerance, increasing use, and, after they stopped carrying them at Target, a serious concern about where the next one was coming from. When the last local supply outpost, Rite-Aid, has a 2-for-1 sale on my precious gingers, I go up to the counter with an inexplicable dozen boxes of them balanced in my arms, almost certainly setting off the kinds of alarm bells that made them put Sudafed out of reach and leading authorities to wonder if there is some new kind of ginger-based high out there. A dozen boxes seems to be the number at the balancing point between getting a supply that will last me a few weeks and becoming dangerously obsessed with maintaining my stash. This has been going on for a couple of years now, but I thought as long as I kept it down to just a few, or a couple dozen, gingers a day, I'd be all right.

Then I ran out just a few weeks ago, or at least became dangerously low. There were a handful left in the kitchen cupboard, none at all in my truck, and I didn't want to raid the box my daughter keeps in her dance bag in case of vertigo. But Rite-Aid stubbornly refused to run its usually monthly twofer sale, and I stubbornly refused to pony up $2 a box for something that would soon be half that. And so I ran out. And you know what? It was all right. I was fine. I got through the day, each day, without any ginger Altoids at all. Then I ordered a case of them from Amazon for Christmas, and I've got that ginger monkey on my back again. But now I know I can quit.

Coffee, however, may be another thing. I have from time to time stopped drinking coffee for a few days at a time, usually when I've been sick or camping, and, again, the world has not ended. But in the midst of the recent ice storm, when the power was out, the temperature was dropping, and the only thing we could reasonably do in our house was use the stove and make coffee, glorious coffee, I was reduced to grinding my coffee with a mortar and pestle, and believe me, I did it. Not well, but I did it. And then I started wondering if I should drive out to the grocery store and get some ground beans, a concept that would normally be anathema to me, interfering as it does with my complicated decades-old ritual for preparing my works. Turned out I wanted it bad enough to grind it by hand, but not bad enough to drive out in the ice for the pre-ground stuff. So I figure I'm okay there, too. Right?

It's a piano!!!

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It's a Piano!Even dogs couldn't hear the noise she made when she found out that what we had been disguising as a FUFU (for us, from us) gift of some non-specific piece of furniture was, in fact, a piano. And I learned that there is no feeling that compares to giving someone a piano.

Done!

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With my hatred of malls verging on the pathological (though, with news of Christmas shopping gridlock locally, entirely justified), a strong desire to support local businesses where I can, and a subscription for free shipping from Amazon, our Christmas shopping tends to get done early. Some years we're done by Thanksgiving, though that wasn't quite the case this year. It's a scaled-back year anyway, so all the little junk we waste money on in a normal year for this, that and the other one is out. Real presents for real family and friends, chocolate for anyone else we need to remember, one major, major item that cannot yet be revealed, and all is done.

The food shopping, of course, is another thing. In the past we've ordered a section of cow from a butcher shop across the river at extravagant expense. This year we're having fewer people and the weather has been insane for travel, so I took my chances with the grocery store this morning. Last week, after the ice storm but before the foot of snow, the store looked like Visigoths had been through it -- it was just looted. There was nothing. Today, it was back on its feet and there were actually things to buy, which was a relief, because it's hard to put on Christmas with just the last bag of bagels in the store and an off-brand of cream cheese. So, that's done, the presents are all wrapped, the house is mostly arranged and cleaned, and tonight there will be the traditional Christmas Eve lasagna at my mother's.

Of course, there's done, and there's done. I'd still like to make one more run up to Troy for something I didn't think of until yesterday. Hmm . . . .

Nutcracker, Nutcracker, Nutcracker

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Off to the Nutcracker, our raison d'etre from October to Christmas. The girls are soldiers and mice this year, playing both sides of the epic battle. (The mice lose.) As usual, it is snowing, but at least it isn't ice, we don't have far to go, and you'll pull my four-wheel drive from my cold, dead fingers.

If, unlike me, you haven't seen the Nutcracker about 400 times (or even if you have), Ovation TV is broadcasting a wide selection of Nutcracker versions, from the classical to the ridiculous and all the way to WTF. Loved discovering the bizarre Candyland interpretation by Matthew Bourne last year, but this year I was quite taken with the "Nutcracker: The Motion Picture" version, with its magnificent mouse puppet and highly creepy Drosslmaier (spell it how you will).

WTF: Dondi edition

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DondiI was recently thinking back to Sunday dinners when I was a kid, when we would go over to my grandparents' home in Schenectady for a meal of boiled ham, boiled vegetables, boiled dinner rolls and a salty assortment of trimmings. The best part about it was that I got to see the Sunday comics. The Schenectady Gazette didn't have a Sunday edition then, and very few people took the Albany paper (the departure of the Union Star for Albany, where it disappeared into the folds of the Knickerbocker News, didn't change that). So on Sundays my grandfather would wander up Van Vranken Avenue and pick up the Sunday Daily News, New York's Picture Newspaper, featuring the "Coloroto" magazine and an extravagant selection of color Sunday comics. Most of the comics didn't appear in our daily paper, so it was like a view into another world: Flubs & Fluffs, Jimmy Hatlo's "They'll Do It Every Time," Terry & the Pirates (later to become an all-time fave), Little Orphan Annie and my then-favorite, Dick Tracy, which was then a long way from its dark, hard-boiled beginnings and deep into Moon Maid and spaceships and the other bizarre stuff from the '60s that screwed up perfectly good comic strips. But it still had the Crimestopper's Textbook, which I dutifully cut out and saved in the same box as my Bazooka Joe comics.

But there was one strip that, week after week, baffled me: "Dondi." Dondi was a war orphan, which was a little baffling right from the start, because by the time I was reading it the war had been over for more than 20 years. I didn't get its purpose, I didn't get its premise, I didn't get its point. My parents had been kids during the war, and they were all grown up, but Dondi was still a child. And he wasn't really an orphan anymore, he had adoptive parents (and his adoptive mother's name, Katje, was inexplicable and unpronounceable, at least for an 8-year-old), and he had a rich benefactor, Mrs. McGowan, whose Park Avenue mansion Dondi would periodically mess up with cookie crumbs. Week after week, I would read this thing, trying to figure out what it was supposed to be about, and week after week, I couldn't find a clue. Now I find out, to my astonishment, that Dondi ran until 1986 (apparently the war he was orphaned by changed over the years). And now that I have had a chance to peruse what there is on the web about Dondi, I still have to ask: WTF?

Ridiculous, sublime

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Ridiculous: Spam that has for its subject, "Invest in a hedge fund today!" I mean, seriously. Who would even open that? It may as well say "Special non-cleansing berries give you leprosy!"

Sublime: When Liz Lemon says "I want to go to there," I get a little frisson down my spine. I don't know why that's so funny, but it is. (You can scroll to 4:08, but why would you?)

Who says I'm not hip and with it?

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The American Film Institute just came out with its Top 10 Films of 2008 and I'll have you know that, contrary to reports that I am no longer on top of what's happening in our culture, I have not only seen one of the top 10 ("Iron Man," and my kids told me about "The Dark Knight," so that's like one and a half), but I have heard of five of the other movies on the list. My finger's all over the pulse, baby.

The ice this time

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ice storm DSC_1054ice storm DSC_1078

Day 5 and counting since all this started. Schools are closed once again, partly because they're being used as shelters, partly because rural areas are still not cleared. Our power went up and down yesterday, but they fixed the broken line on Saturday night so the dangerous part is over, and thanks to the thousands we spent on having trees removed a couple of years ago, our house escaped unscathed. The big maple in the back hardly lost a twig, which is surprising, as it has shed a lot of wood the last couple of years. I can't remember an ice storm where the ice lingered so long, but today it's getting into the 40s and if there's any sun at all the last of the ice should come off and start to melt, and we can get back to normal.

Fire and ice

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I'd have to say the most exciting part of the day was definitely when the yard was on fire. Though the burning branches hanging from the electric line across the street would be a close second. We've been through a lot of ice storms in the past few years, more than I can ever remember having had before, and this one didn't seem any worse than usual, but the destruction in our part of town is incredible. (Drove down into Albany before and from about river level to 50 feet above, there is no sign of any storm at all. Up here, death and destruction.) And we never caught a break – the ice was followed by wet, heavy snow, which was followed by blustery wind, and tree limbs have just been falling all day. The sun peeked out long enough to make you think it might melt something, then hid itself away again.

We were all huddled up on the couch watching the best show on television, Celebrity Rehab, when there was an ominous, bass-y "wubba wubba" sound, which we knew from experience is some kind of problem on the power lines, as interpreted by the computer's subwoofer. As I went one way to turn the computer off, Hannah went the other to find that there was billowing smoke out in the yard, which soon turned into billowing fire; a powerline in front of the house had snapped and was lying on the ground, sparking and flaming in various places. The fire department said they'd be here someday but it wasn't as if we had the only fire in town, but once they were able to get some people here they dutifully deployed orange traffic cones and watched the fire burn out. As the air was filled with smoke and we expected to lose power at any time, we drove out of the neighborhood the long way, the main route being closed, and headed to the Panera along with a number of other refugees squatting in booths and nursing a non-bottomless cup of coffee. When we got back, things were no better or worse; though the main fire was now out, there was now a dangling wire that put out a hell of a flame every so often when it arced to the ground, and the branches in the wires across the street were smoking nicely and occasionally lighting up.

As we sit here, there's still power, and a very nice woman from National Grid is sitting in a truck outside until someone else comes along who can actually fix the problems. And it's like this across several counties, with a couple of hundred thousand people out of power entirely.

The weird thing about ice storms is that they're incredibly beautiful – it's like the world was suddenly coated in glass, and when the sun comes out everything shines like an imaginary crystal world. And then a giant ice-coated limb smashes through your roof or your car and all that pretty doesn't count for much.

If the power stays on, it's Buffy marathon night. No reason, it just is.

Update: Saturday morning. Buffy marathon, successful. National Grid's person watching the wire, still out there.

Smells like what, now?

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If you didn't doubt me when I declared that Small Faces have not one, but two of the top 10 rock 'n' roll songs of all time ("Tin Soldier" and "Afterglow," an assertion I've stood by for more than 25 years), then you should not doubt me when I tell you that you NEED to listen to Los Straitjackets' new single release, "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Years ago, these mostly instrumental heirs to The Ventures' throne – just as skilled musically and even a bit wittier than their forebears – performed the miracle of transforming the Celine Dion dreck "Titanic" theme into an unforgettable instrumental romp. Here, years later and just in time, they have transformed Cobain's anthem of angst into . . . well, I'm really not sure what they've transformed it into. But it's a great listen.

If you're unfamiliar with Los Straitjackets, I highly recommend a visit to the Yep Roc Records site, where you can find them along with The Fleshtones, Nick Lowe, and other brilliant visionary musicians. And if you're unfamiliar with The Ventures, I can't be seen talking to you.

The cruellest month

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It ain't April. It's December. Here's what we have to do in December, besides the usual work and school and ballet and piano lessons:

  • Seventh-grade band/chorus concert
  • High school orchestra concert
  • Dance performance in Hudson
  • Many Nutcracker rehearsals, two Nutcracker shows
  • Various Girl Scout events
  • Two birthday parties, including a sleepover
  • First Night performance
  • A holiday pops concert
  • Christmas, twice, because it falls on Thursday this year and the extended family wants to push it off to the weekend.
  • Shopping, which is nearly entirely on-line.
  • Killing mice that have come in to get warm (but that's just a bonus).

Can you hear me now?

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Now and then I think about how much the way we communicate has changed in just a relatively short time, and it really came home to me last night as I sat here trying to organize no fewer than three cellphones, syncing their address books and calendars with two computers, and also had two "dumb" phones (or "landlines," as the retronym has it) out on the table. Something started ringing, and I had no idea which one it was. Well, as Ellis Weiner once wrote, "To create a world in which one's forebears would be lost, confused and terrified – that is the meaning of progress." (Almost misattributed that to P.J. O'Rourke, but I should have known he didn't carry quite that level of insight.) So now we have created that world for ourselves. I can just about manage the information age (I was a computer programmer back in the days of paper tape, for crying out loud), and I've mastered the Bluetooth synchronization thing, but I'll admit I don't know what 3G is or why my phone should have it. It just gets to be too much.

Things were certainly different when we were kids. Of course, no one had cellphones, and I knew no one who had their own phone line. The whole house had one phone. Our parents only had the vaguest idea of where we were at any given moment, and if they didn't express enough interest to find out, we weren't going out of our way to tell them. If something came up and you couldn't borrow the use of a phone at a friend's house, there were payphones everywhere. Now on the occasion when we're short a cellphone for our disjointed family activities, you can't count on somebody getting to a payphone; they've disappeared.

It's not even that long ago that computers didn't have wireless, and the only way to get in touch with the world when you were traveling was to carry phone cords and plug your laptop into a telephone somewhere. Since webmail hadn't been mastered yet, I remember anxious minutes sitting at a particular kiosk of payphones at National Airport, the ones that had data ports, waiting for my laptop to dial the home office and download, at excruciatingly slow speed, my email. Then I would have to sift through it, write quick responses, and then reconnect to send it all. The whole system worked about, I'd say, 13% of the time (which created great frustration at carrying around a 7-pound electronic brick) so I'm not complaining about progress, mind you. I'm just saying I can see the day when I turn into the elder generation and stop trying to figure it all out, and just start slamming buttons and yelling at devices before going on a rant about how in the old days a call cost a dime and you could actually hear the person on the other end. And that day is coming soon.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from December 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

November 2008 is the previous archive.

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