christmas 2008

EDIC, part two...

Overlooking Englishtown.Cape Smokey Provincial Park.
The eastern entrance to Cape Breton Highlands National Park.Overlooking Pleasant Bay from the Cabot Trail.

The seeds that led me to travel to Nova Scotia's capital were planted nearly a decade ago. The impetus to head northeast to Cape Breton Island, and specifically its Highlands, was placed upon me much more recently. Remember all the celebrities who made (mostly empty, I presume) threats of moving to Canada if Donald Trump were elected President? At least one Cape Bretoner elected to use the leverage and roll out the welcome mat to try to attract attention to a region whose population has declined in recent decades. Now, I have a well-compensated job here in the States, so I never entertained any thought of relocation. But it certainly helped to give another dimension to the trip.

Coming out of Sydney, I headed north toward the TCH. Instead of heading around St. Ann's Bay, I took Route 312 to the Englishtown Ferry (top left). That two-minute boat trip crossed me over to the sandbar, from which I headed to the Cabot Trail. The driving was easy for the first 45 minutes or so, until the road began to both climb and wind into hairpin turns. Shortly after, I elected to make my first stop at Cape Smokey Provincial Park (second from left) and eat the lunch I bought back in Sydney. Though I was hungry by that point in the day, I soon after found myself wondering whether I could have held out for a few more minutes. The winds were way up at Cape Smokey (top right)... and calm and peaceful not long afterward, following passage through Ingonish and Keltic Lodge. From that point on, I was stopping every half hour on average to grab pictures. I've been through Banff and Jasper on the other side of the country, through the San Rafael Swell in Utah, and through the Green Mountains of Vermont... and the natural beauty I witnessed on September 12 in the Cape Breton Highlands ranks equally with each of those three. It's something that I've only shared a small sample of in the pictures above, and I've made a point of reminding myself of it regularly by putting the pictures on the network at work. In retrospect, it was a mistake to travel all the way to Sydney the night before; my time on Cape Breton would have been better spent heading into the Highlands on Sunday night and taking some more time to explore them. I'm not really a food or shopping for trinkets person, but I still feel like I could have gotten more out of the Highlands - but that regret doesn't take away from the experiences I did take in.

By the time I reached the small fishing village of Chéticamp just past the park's western entrance, it was 4:30 in the afternoon. By then, it was far too late to reach Baddeck in time to visit the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site. I thus pointed the car back toward Port Hawkesbury, where the Canso Causeway connects Cape Breton Island to the mainland. I quickly grabbed dinner and searched for a hotel room, as this was one of the two nights for which I hadn't secured lodging before flying to Canada. I was able to book myself a room at the MacPuffin-fronted Canadas Best Value Inn, which I'm not sure remains open, and was fully deserving of the two-star rating it had on Google at the time. It was probably the worst accommodation in all of Port Hawkesbury, and quite possibly the worst accommodation in the whole of Cape Breton Island. Not enough electrical outlets, cobwebs on the lamp fixtures, a chair that partially collapsed if I shifted my weight in the wrong way. The room had a tube television that, when I first saw it, reminded me of the screens on which I watched many years ago. But I didn't have time to concern myself with such things...

... I had time only to check if NTV, a station out of St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, was available to me. Sure enough, it was. And as the clock approached 19:30 Atlantic (aka 20:00 Newfoundland and/or 18:30 Eastern), not much else mattered to me. I had no explicit intent of booking this vacation during the opening week of Jeopardy!'s 33rd season, but indeed I had so booked it. Fortunately for me, I'm in close contact and on excellent terms with the dean of the J! press corps, and so I was alerted to the possibility of watching the first game of the new season a half hour ahead of when I otherwise might have. There didn't seem to be any rust on my own trivia game after the six-week hiatus and a weekend filled with travel and revelry. There not being much to do afterward, I settled in for the two Monday Night Football games and to get rested up for another day with significant travel on the itinerary...
christmas 2008

EDIC, part one...

...EDIC = "Eight Days In Canada."

I first was pleased to encounter our great neighbours to the north in the summer of 1993. Twelve-year-old Matt and his family were totally unaware of Campbellmania and had no idea of what would happen in late October of that year - but we had trekked north to Grand Isle State Park in Vermont for a camping trip. While there, we took a day trip across the border to Montréal. Had fun, toured the city a bit, caught an Expos game. On the way back, the agents charged with protecting my country from threats asked what we were bringing back across. While Mom was declaring nothing of consequence, I was sheepishly holding up the game program - and the agent smiled, admitting us back into the United States without incident.

It'd be another six years before I'd be in Canada again - twice. Since Mom wanted to reach Alaska - by land, no less - we were pleased to see another part of the true north strong and free. And did we ever. After entering Alberta east of Glacier National Park and coming around Calgary, we made our way towards Banff and Jasper. Everybody in the car was floored by what we saw - and that's saying something, given we had just come from the Badlands and Yellowstone. We pressed on through those two parks to Prince George and Dawson Creek, and then onto the Alaska Highway. I can still remember the warning sign coming out of Fort Nelson - "check your fuel: next services, 250 km." On we went, through northern British Columbia and into the Yukon, where there were snow flurries on my nation's big day, and where I wish I'd pressed Mom to stop at the Signpost Forest in Watson Lake. From there, it was down the Klondike Highway to Skagway, where we caught the Alaska Marine Highway to Prince Rupert, and then back across BC and down to the US border for the rest of the trip. Two months later, I was on the road to Montréal with the Big Red Marching Band, for a halftime performance for the Alouettes. While out for dinner with friends the night before the game, the server starts in French, and I raise my hand and say "nous ne parlons pas français." The server switches to English and takes our orders, after which every one of my friends' heads turned towards mine, and I simply responded, "I just told him we don't speak French." I marched on the field at Stade Percival-Molson in both 1999 and 2000 - the latter of which got interesting. (Frickin' horns!) I did make another brief trek across the border in June 2009, shortly after the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was fully implemented.

Sometime while I gave my service to the armed forces of my country, it was mentioned to me that the Maritime Provinces might be a worthwhile travel destination. I'd originally made crude plans to that end seven years ago, but scrapped them long before they truly reached the launching pad. Those memories served me well as I finally planned and executed a vacation to a place that now has my heart nearly as much as Ithaca does.

Customs at YHZ.JPG

I knew what I was doing when I booked the flights. I knew I'd be coming off three night shifts and essentially heading directly onto an international flight - more specifically, my first international flight ever*. I prepped accordingly - I had everything packed as I headed into work on the 8th, or so I thought I did. For one, of course I wouldn't think of anything more I'd want to bring with me... WRONG! And for two, of course I'd be able to sleep on the plane... WRONG! I was way too excited about my first true vacation since the Post-Navy Roadtrip to be able to accumulate sleep in any appreciable quantity. I had not caught nearly as many winks as I'd have liked when Flight 4089 touched down at YHZ. Even so, I felt energized as I stepped off the plane and into the customs line. When I reached the initial screening desk, I was asked several questions. Given my responses to those questions - I'm traveling alone, I don't have a hotel reservation for two of the eight nights, I don't know anyone in this part of Canada - it was entirely understandable that I was flagged for additional screening. I was sent to a back area where all my bags were opened and searched, and I was asked more questions. This enabled me to give longer and better answers - for example, I've left flexibility in my schedule to ensure I'm not driving under significant fatigue. Despite the additional scrutiny, I left the terminal with more respect for the Canada Border Services Agency than for the Transportation Security Administration on the front end of the flight.

Once I checked out my rental car (a sweet 2016 Volvo S60), I headed for downtown Halifax. Not only did I need to kill sometime before I could check into my hotel, I was hungry. This being my first time in Canada in seven years, I searched for the most quintessentially Canadian fast food I could think of - Tim Hortons. It was most delicious - but I committed two blunders at the counter. For one, I asked the cashier for a Coke, prompting laughter from her, as it's apparently common knowledge that Tim Hortons is a Pepsi chain. And for two, I handed her my credit card, being totally unaware that Canada has totally switched over to EMV, aka "chip card" technology. Fortunately for me, my bank sent me a chip card a few months prior, so I was good to go - but I walked away from the counter shaking my head at myself, wondering "could I have made it ANY more clear that I'm not Canadian?"

After I checked in to the Four Points by Sheraton Halifax, I tried to get a nap, but I was still too amped up about being on vacation. After a few hours, I got dinner at... Rock Bottom Brewery. Yep, a totally American establishment. After that dinner, I headed back to the room for a shower and prepared to take advantage of some advice from the desk clerk when I checked in... "Argyle Street." I started at The Loose Cannon, where I had a more substantive conversation about international relations than the President-elect had had in the entire campaign to that date. My second and final stop was The Toothy Moose. It was there that the combination of fatigue and alcohol caught up with me. By the end of the night, I was drinking Molson from cans - the equivalent of Coors Light on this side of the border, something I'd never countenance here.

I was fortunate that I managed to get the "do not disturb" sign on the door, because I slept late, and deep. When I finally came to, I headed out and was able to visit the Halifax Citadel just before it closed. I headed down to the waterfront, where I saw the QM2 pulling into the harbour, grabbed dinner, and took another run at Argyle. This time, it was Durty Nelly's, which bills itself as an "authentic Irish pub." I can buy that, but it certainly had plenty of Canadian flavo(u)r. The highlight of night two was a man in a lizard onesie dancing on the tables. Eventually, he was convinced to stop by the bar's staff. The fact that he was able to do so at all was surprising to me, given that stateside, bars often remove the tables to the back between 10 and 11 p.m. I enjoyed some good beer and good music - the name of the band escapes me - and I left in a great mood.

The following morning, as I prepared to leave, my laptop insisted on downloading and installing some updates. Finally, I got sick of it and stuffed the computer in its bag and checked out. When I stopped for lunch, I noted a beautiful touch - the house across the street from the Subway shop was flying the Maple Leaf at half mast, the date being September 11. I was immediately reminded of how Canadians opened their airspace, their hearts, and their homes to U.S.-bound passengers after the FAA imposed a national ground stop. It was Route 102 north to the Trans-Canada Highway east, with the Volvo bound for Sydney on the eastern coast of Cape Breton Island. As you approach the Strait of Canso, the highway swerves to the right and you get a first view of Cape Breton... and it was totally stunning. Perhaps the visage distracted me - because when I reached the traffic circle, I took a wrong turn and ended up on some quite rural streets, and came within less than ten meters of hitting a dog with the Volvo. That near-miss corrected, I drove along the south shore of Bras d'Or Lake to Sydney. The views were stunning, but the combination of the revelry of the night before and the driving of the afternoon had tired me out.

The frustration was not aided by ascending the elevator to my room after check-in... and finding the door propped and hearing activity in the room, sending me back into a cold, windy, drizzly afternoon. Despite Governors Pub and Eatery, which had been suggested to me back in Halifax, being right across the street, I ended up having dinner at Burger King. This was not much of an inconvenience, as I arrived to realize something most unfortunate - I had packed my razor handle, but had neglected to pack a blade, necessitating a trip to Wal-Mart. The hotel, like all those I stayed in during this trip, carried the Boston affiliates of the American networks, so I spent the rest of the evening watching the Giants defeat the Cowboys and New England beat Arizona.

The following morning, I gathered my things and checked out, setting my course north...

* It wasn't my first time in another nation's airport - I distinctly recall catching part of a Japanese baseball game during the PVD → DTW → NRT → GUM trek that first brought me to USS Memphis. But since both initial planing and final deplaning were on United States territory, it wasn't a truly international flight.
christmas 2008

Briefly, on yesterday's political news...

I hope to have a longer post up soon on the ramifications of the events of November 8. For now, I'd like to share the comments I made to my Senators - one of whom I voted against ten days ago - on the two nominations the President-elect made public on Friday:
Senators Casey and Toomey,

I'm writing to you today to express my hope that you will oppose the nominations of Rep. Mike Pompeo to head the Central Intelligence Agency and of Sen. Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General.

Rep. Pompeo has made comments calling for the execution of Edward Snowden, prejudicing any future judicial proceeding that may eventuate against Snowden by declaring his desired outcome. Rep. Pompeo's stated opinions on the collection and retention of metadata are totally inconsistent with the American tradition of a people free to live their lives without the Government prying into their every activity, absent individualized suspicion of wrongdoing. All the reasons for which Senator Paul filibustered John Brennan's confirmation to this position apply with equal force to Sen. Pompeo.

Notwithstanding any comity you may personally feel with Sen. Sessions, the prospect of him as Attorney General carries perhaps greater implications for freedom in the Republic. Sen. Sessions fervently supports the President-elect's inhumane and unconstitutional proposals on immigration, and I have no doubts that he would unleash the full power of the Justice Department to achieve those ends. Doing so would pose grave threats to our freedoms under the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments, and the effects would undoubtedly spill over to American citizens. I fear a renewed push for nationwide mandatory implementation of REAL ID and E-Verify, which run the risk of creating a "papers, please" state that would be the envy of the kingdom from which we broke in 1776 (to say nothing of the KGB or the Stasi). To add to this, Sen. Sessions' full-throated support of civil asset forfeiture is equally disqualifying. Seizing "guilty property" whose owners may have had no awareness of its criminal implications turns the concept of "innocent until proven guilty" on its head - in short, it's un-American, and needs to be eliminated, not expanded, as I fear Sen. Sessions will do.

I thank you for your service to the people of the Commonwealth, and look forward to your contribution to a healthy Senate debate on not only these appointments, but all those the new Administration makes.

Sincerely yours,
Matt Carberry
NB: I had already seen Sen. Toomey's statement of support of Sen. Sessions' nomination when I wrote this - I elected to send it to him anyway.
christmas 2008

THIS! IS!... my first post here in a while

Those who follow me on Twitter know that for about the last two years, no less than eighty percent of the content I post on that feed is related to America's Favorite Quiz Show, Jeopardy! My history with the program might best be described as off-again, on-again — with it becoming permanently on-again in the summer of 2014. One consequence of becoming a deeper member of the J! fan community was discovering #JeopardyLivePanel, a weekly video stream/podcast featuring lots of recent and not-so-recent players. Last season, one such contestant asked the panel "how did you fall in love with Jeopardy!?" It is that question that I intend to answer at length here.

The program, in its current (Alex Trebek-hosted) incarnation, premiered when I was three. By the earliest time that I could remember, it was firmly established on the station and in the time slot where I feel it was meant to be — 7:00 p.m. on WABC — and where it still makes its home today (and similarly on WPVI, the Philadelphia ABC affiliate). I didn't watch it every night, but I certainly saw it enough to remember the old sets and the first couple versions of the Think! theme.

I first had vague thoughts of trying out for the show after graduation from high school. I still have a red Cornell sweatshirt that I originally bought back when I was an undergrad there, and now, when I pull it out, I imagine the missed chance to wear it during either of the College Championships in 2000. But the opportunity passed — not least because during my first two years at Cornell, I didn't have my own TV on which to watch, and other, non-Sony Pictures Entertainment-approved methods of watching the show were few and far between. That problem was only exacerbated after I joined the Navy; I didn't spring for my own cable service in the barracks at NNPTC, so while I heard plenty of the buzz surrounding Ken Jennings's historic run, I caught very few of the games as they originally aired. Completing naval nuclear propulsion training and reporting to a submarine didn't enhance my viewing opportunities. After getting out of the Navy and moving back to my parents' place on Long Island, I caught the show more often, but it still wasn't a nightly habit. One game I certainly remember seeing was during the 2012 College Championship, when a semifinalist from Columbia extolled the virtues of that school's "marching band." That comment was a rare instance of me actively wanting an opponent to lose.

After moving here to the Philadelphia suburbs, I continued to catch the show on occasion, including some of Arthur Chu's run. But it was an unexpected turn of events that made me all-in on Jeopardy! as I am today. Through a co-worker, I re-connected with someone who I attended Cornell with, who had been a contestant in 2011, and we had dinner in Center City. Among the many things we discussed was her appearance on the show, including what Alex Trebek is really like, to the limited extent the contestants interact with him. Simultaneously with this, the hiatus between Seasons 30 and 31 was showing reruns of the Battle of the Decades, which brought back 45 of the best J! players of all-time playing for a grand prize of a million bucks. Once the new season began, I had the series set for recording on my DVR, with my rear end plopped on the couch at 7 p.m. whenever possible. It's been that way ever since, although being on rotating shift work now, I often watch the show at 6:30 a.m. the following morning after coming home from work. Whatever the hour, I watch every game, I track my Coryat scores and Final Jeopardy! record, and even have compiled some figures and statistics about the show. Last week, I took the online contestant test for the second time — and (presumably) passed for the first, so now I'm hoping for the email invitation to an in-person audition.

As much as Jeopardy! itself has had a positive impact on my life, acting as a respite from my nuclear license training and being on shift, its role as a gateway to its fan community has been even more so. A few weeks into Season 31, I started live-Tweeting episodes under the #Jeopardy hashtag. And through doing so, I discovered... JBoard. The incredibly exhaustive J! Archive. Keith Williams, the 2003 College Champion, who runs The Final Wager, which changed the way I watch the game, by making me intimately aware of when a contestant has blown a shot to win — and more than once inducing me to fist-pump at the screen when a number is revealed showing a player's depth of preparation. Andy Saunders, who now runs The Jeopardy! Fan, home of the aforementioned #JeopardyLivePanel. All of my fellow #Jeopardy live-Tweeters, howsoever they opine on the game and the players...

...and especially all of the players on Twitter who I've had the pleasure of interacting with. Players who left Culver City with only a consolation prize, and players who now have the honor of being known for all time as Jeopardy! champions, and players who were invited back to play in the Tournament of Champions. Players who've endured the wrath of Alex (like current champion Susan Cole, who got slagged for her love of "nerdcore hip-hop"), and players who've endured the wrath of knowledge-less armchair commentators who see fit to spout off on attributes far removed from how they played the game. Players like Jocelyn Dorfman, whose taste in baseball I may disagree with but respect nonetheless; players like Terri Pous, who gave us a glimpse behind the scenes of the show; and players like Talia Lavin, who courageously chronicled the harassment she endured following her appearance last season.

One and all, these players make Jeopardy! the great program — nay, the great institution — that it is today, as Trebek himself is fond of saying. I may quibble with how they play the game, if it disagrees with the strategy I think gives them the best shot to win. But win or loss, agree or disagree, I'll defend each and every last one of them against criticism of their interview topics, mannerisms, or looks. They've defied the odds, been in the arena, and done the damn thing. For that alone, they're deserving of the utmost respect — and I hope I get the chance to join them, especially before Alex Trebek makes his final farewell.
christmas 2008

A Christmas both familiar and unfamiliar...

Last time around, I mentioned my brother had moved to the West Coast. Strictly speaking, that isn't technically true. He's an hour inland, having landed himself in Corvallis, Oregon. When I unexpectedly saw him at Thanksgiving in Greenlawn, he mentioned that I would need to rent neither a room nor a car should I decide to trek west for a visit. I tossed that idea around in my head, until realizing... I've got a ton of reward points available to me! After looking at various itineraries, I booked one that I thought would work well within my schedule, while still ensuring that I'd pay zero dollars out of pocket (for the airfare, that is - still paid to check a bag).

And so, last Monday, I flew PHL -> MSP -> PDX. It wasn't without difficulty. Once I'd packed my seabag, I tried to lock it... but it failed to lock. I had to detour on my trip down to the airport to buy a luggage lock, leading Delta to declare that I was checking my bag "late"; running that through the Airline to English translator yields "45 minutes early." They told me it might not arrive when I did; I walked away from the counter chalking that up as merely some kind of scare tactic to get me to show up earlier next time. The layover in Minneapolis-St. Paul just added to the fun. I thought 43 minutes would be sufficient to grab a bite and connect. In related news, I fly quite rarely, and not in over two years prior to last week. Hearing my last name and the words "final boarding call" while I'm walking down a conveyor belt for humans definitely finds a way of putting a spring in your step. One of the unexpected highlights of the trip came right off the bat; just after touchdown, my brother let me know that my half-brother wanted to have lunch with us. His choice of venue - Claim Jumper in Tualatin - was spot on, although it felt like dinner to me, as the food was set down about 3:30 Pacific time. I was wiped and so I slept most of the drive down to Corvallis.

While down there, I got the chance to explore a little bit, insofar as the immediate Corvallis area offers. But I did end up spending a lot of time camped out and relaxing at the house my brother and a friend of his have rented, where two more of his friends will join him early in the new year. I learned that John is a massive History Channel junkie. I was cool to The Curse of Oak Island, but the show that really got him going was Hunting Hitler. He got me caught up before last week's new episode. I thought the series was well edited for dramatic effect, but my evaluation of the fruits of the search turns heavily on what burden of proof you apply to Bob Baer and his team. If it's the criminal standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt," then one must find for the settled history (Hitler died in the bunker in Berlin). But on the civil standard of "preponderance of the evidence," they might carry the day, although given that P(Der Führer lives) < .001, I'm not sure how much it matters. Try him in absentia? Given we have much bigger fish to fry, why? Speaking of those fish - my brother's on the left, I'm on the right:

(That was a few hours before last night's finale.)

John could not have been a more gracious host. Two weeks before I touched down in Oregon, he exhibited class by not trash talking until Josh Brown's kick sailed wide in overtime. (He's a Jets fan.) He indulged my craving for Jeopardy! each weeknight (delaying as necessary for football or the aforementioned Hunting Hitler) so that I wouldn't be behind when I came back east. He set us up to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I enjoyed it more than he did; he pegged it as too derivative of A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. As everything closed up on Christmas Eve, he delivered delicious chicken parm, in honor of our late parents' traditional Sunday dinner. The next morning, as we lazily watched Die Hard, he served up a tasty surprise: chicken and waffles for brunch. That being so, we resorted to cultural appropriation a few hours later, ordering in some Chinese for dinner.

The twenty-sixth dragged, especially for me, toward an absolutely ugly NFL matchup - Washington at the Eagles. I was in the hellish position of having to drop my resistance to the Eagles fandom, as they needed to win to give Big Blue even the slightest chance to win the NFC East. As the game clock at Lincoln Financial Field closed out the division title for the Snyderholes, the clock had already run out on my time in the Beaver State. As we left Corvallis to ferry me to PDX, my flight out had already been delayed nine minutes. When we took the exit off Interstate 205, it'd been delayed another twenty. That put me in a perfect position - plenty of time to clear security theater and find some beer and food, and plenty of time to make the connection. On the drive up, I'd researched food and drink options in Concourse D; I was intrigued by the Rogue Ales & Sprirts. After the government was through with me, I found my way there... right next to the gate! SCORE! Two tall drinks and a chicken finger platter eased the way... until the time on the board changed from 11:25 to 11:55. Even then, I knew I'd be in trouble on the back end. Not the kind of thing you want to be worrying about on a red-eye, when you want to be sleeping. And I was most certainly awake for the full duration of the return trip. An unexpected upgrade to "economy comfort" sustained me, as did the chance to correct a mistake from the summer - I caught Trainwreck, led by the amazing Amy Schumer. But I spent the second half of that flight checking, rechecking, and checking again the gate assignment of my connecting flight...

... for very good reason. The delay out of PDX had cut my layover to twenty minutes. I retained vague familiarity with DTW, having driven to it from Findlay many times as I interviewed for my current job. When I saw the gate for my connection, I knew it would be hella close. The flight crew was on point with the announcements - paraphrasing: "if you're getting off here, or if you can take your time, sit the heck down." I could do neither of those things. Emerging from gate A72 at 7:00 Eastern time gave me a brief flashback, quickly replaced by the need to reach A25 - and with a quickness. I sprinted. I used the conveyors. I walked quickly. I used more conveyors. I glimpsed A25... plane still there! A shot! I reached the counter, thrust my boarding pass at the attendant. She goes down the jetway... nothing. She calls somewhere... asks whether I have roll-on bags... I don't. Like Link with the magical key, the door opens for me! I collapse in my seat...

... only to endure an hour ground stop. The weather in Philadelphia prevented anybody from taking off or landing, so we'd have to wait. Fortunately, it was only an hour. As I walked off that flight and through PHL's Concourse D, I knew I'd need a boost. In 1987, it was called "liquid Schwartz"; nowadays, we call it 5-Hour Energy. It was indeed enough to get me to my "new" car (hold on, I haven't mentioned that here yet) and back to Phoenixville. I was a shell the rest of the day, which is just as well, as it gave me an excuse to turn off that horrific Giants-Vikings game halfway through the third quarter.

I awoke Monday morning somewhat refreshed. Hadn't completely acclimated to the time change back, but had done enough to get through a test and a scenario. But as our planet approaches the arbitrarily determined start/finish line of its orbit, I feel ready to take on what 2016 is going to bring on. And it starts early - our NRC exam will conclude before January does.

In 2015, I broke a good habit by barely posting here at all. I hope to re-break that habit in this year that will see me to three and one half decades. As for whatever else I can do to improve my life? Perhaps a piece of property, or someone to share this... or both? That's up to the Fates and me to determine.
christmas 2008

All that's old is new again - but not the same, nor can it ever be

Thanksgiving is, of course, about homecoming, and about family. But for the reason detailed in my last post here so very long ago, Thanksgiving no. 35 was unlike any of the first thirty-four.

What to do over this long weekend had weighed heavily on my mind for a while, but was uncertain, given the radically changed circumstances in my family over the last twelve months. My brother moved to the West Coast in August. At the end of September, we closed on the sale of the land on which the Ancestral Palace formerly sat. Though my roots will always be spiritually on Long Island, the temporal roots had pretty much been severed...

... or so I thought, until two Fridays before last. On the day Paris was targeted by the scum of our species, I got an email from my cousin who works for the State Department. She'd attached pictures of standstill rush-hour traffic in Jakarta, where the government had sent her. She also mentioned her return date and plans for the holiday - dinner with her sister - and that I was welcome to get in on those plans if I wished to. Problem solved! Having set my agenda, I didn't think much of what John would be doing; having made a trip back east last month and making another one in December, I figured he'd be content to stay put in Oregon.

Just as the football commenced on Thursday, I walked into an unfamiliar house in Oyster Bay, weary from three hours seated in my car. Though I really would have benefited from having a family tree in my pocket to keep the relationships straight, I immediately felt at home. I especially enjoyed the more civilized timing of the meal. I was told that we were starting at 1:00, but we didn't sit until a little before three, giving us plenty of time to socialize and catch up. I made it a point to show up only a few minutes before one, having heard Adam Carolla complain year after year about his parents arriving 45 minutes early, with the meal nowhere close to being ready. At the same time, I couldn't shake the urge not to be late, because for so long as I can remember, Mom saying "we're eating at 2:00" meant "I'm shooting for 2, but it certainly won't be later - and it might be 1:45."

Between my arrival and our eating, I got a text from John; I let him know what I was up to. He responded with the news that, four days earlier, he'd bought a ticket and flown in. Of course, now I had to go see him. I meandered my way to where he was - so that I might pass through Northport for the first time in three hundred forty-nine days. I made stops down at Village Park and at the plot of land on which I was raised - on which is being built a worthy replacement to the Ancestral Palace. Befitting the styles and preferences of the times, it encompasses both more square footage and more height than its venerable predecessor. When I did finally meet John, he informed me that one of our neighbors is quite displeased with the structure going up, and wrote strongly worded letters to that effect. But we (read: my brother) sold to a relative of his former construction boss, who knows both the zoning requirements and how to stay within them. That neighbor can go... well, let's keep this clean.

John and I caught up with each other while we watched Bears-Packers, followed by a few episodes of Pawn Stars. I ended up crashing there with him, before leaving early the next morning, and finally making my way back down here to Phoenixville mid-afternoon. I'm already looking at PHL-PDX round trips over Christmas; and perhaps more importantly, the trip has left me feeling rejuvenated - a most important feeling, as I and my class head into the home stretch of our license training.

christmas 2008

"What we leave behind is not as important as how we've lived."

Those words, uttered by Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the final scene of Star Trek Generations, have rung through my mind more times than I can count over the last two weeks. They were the words I uttered shortly after 9 p.m. on the Tuesday before last, to only three other people in the room, just before I did the hardest thing I've ever had to do -- which is saying something, given that I said something very similar less than eighteen months ago. This is a story that has, to some extent, already been told in the media. Let me tell it from my end.

Friday morning, December 5. Refueling today. Fun topic... we'll learn how we get old fuel out and new fuel in, something you don't really do in the Navy. The lecture starts like any other, seemingly, until about 8:15. The site training director enters, and pulls me out. Highly irregular. My first thought is, come on! Last exam was only an 84! An off day, but I still passed! He asks me to dial one of the senior managers. That senior manager gives me a number with a 631 area code. Without dialing, I knew then that serious shit was going going down back home. I call the number, I speak to my brother, I hang up the phone. I open the door to the office, and the training director asks me, "Everything all right?" And I can only respond truthfully... "no, it is not."

I relay what I've been told over the phone. There's been a fire back home in New York. The house is destroyed. And Mom's gone.

Within two and a half hours, I've told my classmates, been walked up the hill back to my car, thrown some clothes into a sea bag, held my mail (instinctive from going underway on the submarine), and pointed the Focus toward what was left of the Ancestral Palace. I reached Northport shortly after two, picked up my brother, and drove out to Crab Meadow. I turned the corner, and there was a giant truck. At first, I thought it was a news crew, but when I recognized the crest as that of the Suffolk County Police, I was relieved that it was their mobile command unit. I briefly talked with them, left, and an hour and a half later, came back and stepped foot into what was, for all I knew in that moment, the eighth circle of Hell. The house I'd stood in less than a week before, fully intact, was a mess of blackened debris. And yet somehow, my brother's wallet had been sufficiently shielded from the flames. One small sign of hope.

As all this is going down, I fielded the first of what have been innumerable messages of condolence. One of them was from a couple of friends from the Big Red Marching Band back in the day, who live in nearby Huntington. I didn't want to smother my brother, and wanted to ensure he has space to grieve as he wished to, so I asked them if I could crash at their place. They graciously offered their guest room, and for the next seven days, that was home base for me. It was also a welcome distraction; they've got a three-year-old daughter, so I got to play blocks and Legos and watch Cinderella in between everything else I had to deal with. That said, I briefly questioned the little one's movie choice at the time; I had to summon a bit of self-control to keep from losing it at the mention of Cinderella losing both her parents, so that I would not have to disclose to her the true reason for my visit.

There are many events that bring long-lost friends and family out of the woodwork. Winning the lottery, or getting drafted into the pros and signing your first contract, can bring them out and showing you their worst. On the other hand, when something like this happens, they come out and show you their absolute best. One of my friends from high school appeared with basic clothing for John. His friends rallied behind him, not only on Long Island, but coming in from around the country to help us grieve. It's unfortunate that it takes an event where we lose so much to remind us of just how much we still have.

Saturday was spent in a holding pattern. I'll say here what I've said to many others - I hope and pray that nobody has to hear the words "forensic dentist" outside of dramatic fiction. Finally, on Sunday, the body was released, and we were able to make arrangements. Monday was another day without forward progress, strictly speaking, but it was still filled with warm experiences, despite the cold weather. I spent an hour and a half walking in the woods near the house with my friend who brought the clothes for John, and we caught up on a whole lot of things; among the topics covered were international bureaucracy and long-lost high school classmates. Later that evening, I processed with Ryan over dinner and drinks downtown.

Tuesday was the wake. It ran the gamut, to say the least. There were the highs of remembering all the great things Mom did with so many of the people she touched so deeply. There were the deeper lows of just how senseless and raw this is. As the crowd dwindled and it was getting to be that time of the hour, I felt the urge to share the thought I shared here at the top, which had lodged in my head so soon, particularly because it was a fire that claimed the lives of Captain Picard's brother and nephew earlier in the movie. I recall saying "let's not sugarcoat this - there isn't much left behind. But how Mom lived is beyond question."

We tied up some loose ends over the next couple of days. I spent much of both those days researching things like estate taxes and the finer points of the Estates, Powers, and Trusts Law of New York State. We met with the lawyer who had drafted a will for Mom. We also met with a representative from Fidelity, who manages Dad's retirement account. But by Friday, I knew there wasn't much more I could do there. I had one last dinner with John, and pointed my car southwesterly, at least for the time being.

I reported back into work on Monday morning, and set about the task of catching up on what the class had done in my absence. In particular, they'd taken two exams, and a third this past Wednesday while I was studying for the other ones. I took the first one on Thursday, and came out relatively unscathed. The remaining two will be taken next week, the aim being to get me all caught up by the time the class reconvenes for the second year of initial license training on January 5.

Those two exams won't be easy. Nor will be the process of picking up the pieces from what happened. But my brother and I have incredible strength behind us to get through the challenge - not only from the people around us, but from the values instilled in us by our parents. And we take further strength from the knowledge that though neither of them remains with us here on Earth, they watch over us from somewhere - and wherever that may be, their souls are healed simply by being reunited with one another.
christmas 2008

The Battery Bungle, episode 2

(Episode 1 occurred back in July 2008.)

We had some record or near-record low temperatures here in the northwest suburbs of Philadelphia last night. For the first time this autumn, the mercury dipped near 20 °F as I left for work at six this morning. When I went to start my car, it wanted to, and it struggled... but that struggle was followed by a series of clicks. No dice, but the actuation of lights signified only a low voltage condition, one that hopefully a jump start would temporarily correct.

Being as it was so early, there didn't appear to be anyone else up, and I wasn't about to wake them. Around 6:15, someone came out of the building across from mine. I asked her if she'd be willing to help me. She asked me where my car was and if I lived in the complex. I pointed to my car and apartment; she said she had to bring her dog inside; and so I walked back over to my car. After a few minutes, I wondered what was taking so long, but I wasn't about to tell someone who'd agreed to help me to hurry up. Someone else came outside, and I considered asking them for a jump, but the first lady had gone to the trouble of putting her dog back in her apartment, so I didn't think it proper to turn around and tell her I didn't need her help.

A few more minutes pass, and I see someone who I think is her looking down at me. The situation completely flips at about 6:30, when around the corner rolls... a cruiser belonging to the Phoenixville Police. He told me that it wasn't standard procedure to give jump starts. I replied that nor was it standard procedure to call the authorities when a neighbor asks you for help. I'm conflicted about the encounter. On the one hand, I wonder if something I said or did alarmed the neighbor, and having the cop jump me saved me a few minutes over having to wait for another neighbor. On the other -- and pardon my language, but it is my blog -- what the fuck is our society coming to when a simple request for help is rejected without telling me so, and the police are called? I did not say a single word which would have in any way threatened my neighbor. Two years ago, I was driving back to Long Island from a job interview in Maryland. While getting dinner at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, an older gentleman asked me for a jump start. You know what I did? I pulled my car around and provided my twelve volts! Not that difficult! Are we so wrapped up in media hype about "stranger danger" that we've lost all perspective and can't help each other out when we're in need?

Fortunately, the officer was friendly and jumped my car, and I was on my way, arriving to work only a few minutes late. Once I arrived, all heads turned to me. One co-worker asked me how old my battery was. "As old as the car -- four years, eight months," I replied. He suggested replacement, which is exactly what I did on my way home this afternoon. Given that the battery failed on the first truly cold day of the season, I'm confident it's the right call, and it'll save me from not only unintended lateness, but unpleasant interactions with either unfriendly neighbors or the local P.D.
christmas 2008

Presents on my doorstep!

And by that, I mean I got the stuff I ordered from Amazon last Friday. I'm no longer amazed that when I buy from them, my goods arrive to me well before the promised date. In fact, I wonder whether they blatantly rip off Scotty's tactics.

Here's what was in the goody box:
  • 2 12-packs of orange 5-Hour Energy. Our training normally rolls from 6 am to 2:30 pm or 6:30 to 3, to which my nocturnally inclined body does not acclimate well. In days past, I would remedy this by downing Coca-Cola. But with me sitting in a classroom all day, and needing to log north of eighty miles a week on the bike just to hold my weight steady, an additional forty or more grams of sugar per day is out of the question. Thus I turned to the energy shots several weeks back, and they've worked reasonably well. After having sampled several of the flavors on offer, I've come to roll with the orange as the most palatable. I was only going buy one 12-pack to take my order above the $35 threshold for free shipping*, but I elected to throw another one on there, since I'll consume them eventually.

  • A pair of EARBUDi. My new iPhone came with the standard Apple earpods, which I considered buying by themselves years ago (and didn't). While I like having the remote control on the right earpod cord, they tend not to stay in my ears. I wondered whether I was wearing them correctly, and so I googled "how to wear apple earpods" or something like that. That search yielded this blog post; I checked out their website and added them to my order. They snapped right on to the earpods, and they've performed quite well at their task, including my bike ride this afternoon.

  • Overruled: The Long War for Control of the US Supreme Court, by Damon Root. I enjoy Root's writing at Reason, and I expect this book to be just as fine a work. As the summary at the link states, the debate over judicial activism vs. deference is one that cuts across the traditional American political divide, uniting Oliver Wendell Holmes and Robert Bork against modern jurists like Randy Barnett and Alan Gura. It's also a debate that could come to another head in the year to come, with the Court having agreed to hear King v. Burwell (Root's summary). I'm definitely looking forward to getting into Overruled when I can find some spare moments to do so.

* Before you remind me of the existence and/or greatness of Amazon Prime, let me counter by saying that I purchase from Amazon so infrequently as to not make it worth my while. When I placed this order, the default address listed was in Findlay.
christmas 2008

gluttony for punishment

As I type this, I'm on an NJ Transit train bound for New York City to watch the Big Red football team battle it out with the Columbia Lions in football. Actually "battle it out" may not be quite the proper term. Fortunately, Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight has given this game some prominent Internet exposure; many of the relevant statistics are stated there. I'd add one more: since the last time Cornell traveled to the northern tip of Manhattan, Columbia is winless. The Lions carry a 19 game losing streak into today's clash of titans of futility.

The prospect of some abjectly bad football adds an extra layer of anticipation to a game that I'd be attending anyway. The abundance of Cornell alumni in the area bumps up the red-clad turnout. And afterward, we get a parade! Down Fifth Avenue! That's right, after Cornell at Columbia in each even numbered year, Cornellians parade six blocks from Rockefeller Center to the Cornell Club. It's a tradition dating back over four decades. I marched in one as an undergrad in 2000, and this will be my third straight one without the band uniform on. So even if the product on the gridiron is putrid - heck, even if the Big Red fall this afternoon - it'll still be great to catch up with many folks from the good old days on the hill who I don't get the chance to see too often.

Let's Go Red!