Not a Christmas Letter

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If we were the kind of people who do Christmas letters, this would be a doozy. Nothing against Christmas letters, it just requires a level of effort and an assumption that anyone we aren’t in regular touch with cares what we’re up to. Happy to get them, unlikely ever to reciprocate.

But this one would, as noted, be a doozy. Uprooting after 23 years in the same house (and the desperate dash to get it into saleable condition). Finding a house (starting with the challenge of finding a town in which to look for a house). One daughter graduating high school and going off to college, with proms and banquets and going to national competition. The other daughter entering her senior year of college and, oh yeah, getting hired for a post-graduation job before that senior year even started. And both of them doing amazingly well in school, while at the same time adopting bizarre new interests, which of course is what college is all about. Wife taking a huge leap of faith and letting me buy a house she had never even seen, giving up her job and joining me in the most adorable little town we could afford. Giving up the big blue truck that had carted us around for 13 years, sending it to live on the farm where it could play with all the other trucks. Somewhere in there, there was learning a great new job, and there was also meeting new people, biking new roads and paths, paddling new waterways. There was the suddenly easier access to a city of reasonable size, with all the art and culture and transit to figure out.

Logistically, being far from family is what we call sub-optimal. Eastern Massachusetts is several highly congested states away from here, and upstate New York isn’t ever a quick ride. It feels weird that visiting the place I lived for about forty years requires lodging arrangements. And those logistics led to rearranging Christmas for the first time in many years, so we’ll have Christmas with three of us in our new home and then go up north to celebrate with the rest of the families over the weekend. We managed to get through this year without a loss, but none of us is getting any younger and so the chances to get together cannot be lost.

On the other hand, it’s also an opportunity to do all kinds of new things. Because we live about five feet from most things that happen in our new town, we’ve been out to open mic nights, we’ve made clay birds, we’ve attended every festival and parade. On Christmas Day, it’s likely we’re going to drive about an hour away to watch a re-enactment of Washington crossing the Delaware. Because why would you not.

So all of that would be in our letter, if we did that sort of thing. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Been a while since we did a Top 10

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Yes, it’s been a while since we did a Top 10. It’s not an ordered list, it’s just 10 things that are going on, right here, right now, that take the place of actual writing. And so:

  1. Linda Ronstadt. Do the youngsters understand how huge she was? Do they understand this is what singing is? What a set of pipes. Not only was she probably the biggest female recording artist, she deserved to be. This was the sound of the ’70s. There were some weak song choices, and that muffled Southern California production sound on her albums, but just listen to this. Hey, kids, no autotune!
  2. Walkability. I’m becoming a wild bore about living in a walkable community, but seriously, what an improvement in lifestyle. (It’s a good thing, too, given the death of the Laden Jar.) Walking to dinner, and to a different place for dessert. Saturday there was walking to the Farmer’s Market (where I’m becoming known as the guy with the Adirondack pack basket on his back), the jewelry store, the running store, the cafe for coffee. We did actually have to get into a car and drive to a framing shop, so I can’t say life is perfect, but considering how often we get things framed, that’s a price we can pay.

  3. This shouldn’t get a full integer, since I didn’t get to finish it, but Michael Chabon’s latest, “Telegraph Avenue,” was just getting good when I risked running afoul of the Library Police. By the way, have I mentioned the library is a short walk away?
  4. So in its place, “Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla,” which is a pretty solid biography. The technical understanding is outstanding, but I’m sometimes finding some of the chronology less than clear. Very good biography that resists the current wave of Tesla worship while managing to convey the weirdness that he almost completely fell out of consciousness for a while. To that I’d assign way more blame to GE/RCA, who were absolute masters of rewriting history and marginalizing their competition (ask Philo Farnsworth).
  5. Holiday preparations. Christmas shopping has been relatively easy, what with all the walkable stores and farmer’s market and such. But the thought of being among those people who have to make that north-south drive through the metroplex on holiday weekends is just daunting, not to mention expensive. Well, guess I’ll be racking up some Hilton Honors points. Then there’s the issue of what to do in our little house, where it seems like a decorative tree will be placed on the porch with care; within, the meltable gifts will be placed a respectable distance from the gas stove.

  6. The Fleshtones. Doing this.
  7. Unpacking. Yes, there are still things in boxes, particularly in the basement, which is in no wise ready to serve as my project space. Although a vastly nicer basement than my previous accommodations provided, it’s still from 1900, and still very full of packed items that need to be unpacked and then, please, thrown away.
  8. This actually deserves an entire post on its own. Why did no one explain the perfection that is “The Gilmore Girls” to me? I mean, I know everyone said it was unbelievable, but there was something (and it could just have been working and raising kids at the time) that kept me off it. I guess it doesn’t matter, because it’s on Netflix now, and as soon as I’ve burned through all the seasons, I intend to burn through them again. It makes my wordy parts happy.
  9. How do appliances know you’re going to replace them? And then how do they get all sulky/breaky? My Denon receiver, which has served me loyally since, I believe, 1987, has suddenly blown a channel. Listen, I was very quiet about my lust for a receiver I saw down at the local record store (it’s within walking distance, BTdubs) that has a remote control. At the time I bought this thing, the remote option was about $50 more and seemed like a crazy extravagance and something of a moral failing. Now it seems like an absolute necessity because every digital file plays at a completely different level — not that records didn’t, but you had four or five songs at a time where that wasn’t a problem. Apparently the Denon got wind of the plans to move into the slightly later 20th century with my tech and up and popped a resistor somewhere. Gonna see if it’s reparable, but still, I dislike disloyalty. 27 years of my life I’ve given that thing!
  10. Flu shot. Gotta go get mine. First, I don’t like the flu. Second, I don’t want to hear a single person whine about Ebola who hasn’t had a flu shot and contributed to herd immunity. It’s raining out, but I still might walk up to the pharmacy to get it tonight.

Goodbye to the Laden Jar

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Heading to Old Forge

I don’t get too sentimental about objects or possessions. While my innate hatred of waste will keep me using the same dingy colander for 25 years or so (well, it still drains liquid, doesn’t it?), I’m not one to hold onto something useless or that has seen its day. Even so, some things retain associations that are hard to forget, and makes letting them go just a little bit odd.

So, cars. Because of a confluence of events, we ended up buying two new cars within months of each other way back in 2001 and 2002. We don’t do heavy driving, and haven’t had great luck, so it’s fair to say that we didn’t necessarily expect that these two cars would carry our children from early grade school into adulthood. One of them, a peppy little red Mazda Protégé 5, went about 120,000 miles until last fall, when a combination of high mileage, extensive rust, and my new need to commute long, long distances meant I needed something with a little more of a competent body. But even so I was a little sad to see it go. My wife loved it, and I would always associate it with those wonderful summer evenings we used to spend at Red Oaks Swim Club.

Our big blue Nissan Xterra, though, had to make the move to Pennsylvania. I was a little concerned about the distance and the fact that it wanted to make a perpetual right turn, but we got it down here just fine. There was an extended process involved in getting it registered and plated in PA, but after three false starts we finally got the paperwork done and were ready to take it for its inspection. We expected a 13-year-old vehicle with 135,000 miles on it to possibly face some issues passing inspection, but we were hoping to get through another few months using it as the emergency backup. (Have I mentioned that we can walk pretty much everywhere in our town?)

I loved that Xterra. For a long time, not only was it the best driving vehicle I’ve ever owned, and the blue-est vehicle I’ve ever owned, but it was the most suited to our lifestyle. Super-heavy-duty roof racks, extra cargo space up top, a big hitch, running boards, four-wheel drive, lugs for hanging things from the ceiling in the back – it was the best biking/canoeing/camping vehicle ever. Despite not being the largest SUV by far, we could pack enough gear, clothes and kids to camp for a week (during which times we referred to it as “The Laden Jar”). I drove it to every bike path and canoe launch in the region. I spent countless hours waiting outside dance classes in it. As a car, my new Subaru has a lot of superior qualities (heated seats not being the least of those), but it will never be lived in like the Xterra was.

When the service guy called, I was prepared for moderately bad news, and had a number in my head that I was willing to spend to keep that unwieldy beast in my very, very narrow driveway for a few more months. He pretty much doubled that number, and all my sentimental attachment went right out the window. Only a fool would pay that much for an unladen laden jar.

We told the kids that the big blue truck is going to live at the service station, just as you would say a puppy has gone to live on the farm. Except in this case, it’s true. While it wasn’t worth six to eight months of new car payments for us to keep it going, the service station made us an offer. Turns out, it’s about the same color as their building and business color, so they’re going to fix it up, clean it up, toss their logo on the side and use it as a local shuttle car.

So goodbye, old Xterra.

Blow up that nest!

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I suppose there are gentler ways to introduce your children to adulthood. It wasn’t that I wanted to leave their childhood home, the only home they’d ever known, taking away their rooms and the deeply comforting knowledge that they’d always have a place to come back to. (I mean that in theory, only; in reality, I want them to fend for themselves.) But an opportunity to remain employed came along, and off we went.

And I knew that at some point our enjoyment of the new empty nest would have to irritate them at least at some level. No longer tied to the school schedule, the ballet schedule, the Nutcracker rehearsal schedule, we could go out and do things. Sometimes on weeknights. And in our new town, there would actually be things to do. On weeknights! Imagine that.

But there was no sense in easing them into this, right? So why not pile it all on, and go to see one of their absolute favorite musical icons, without them (because there was no way to get them here), in a great intimate setting, on a school night? Okay, it was a little cruel that we never told them it was happening. At first, to be sure, it was about the whining. We knew there would be a deep desire to somehow get down to the City of Brotherly Love and take in the show, and we knew it was impossible, logistically and financially, to make that happen for both of them. There was a point at which we meant to say something about it, and then honestly we kept forgetting it was even coming up. So we announced it the way one announces all bad news these days: through a Facebook check-in. The reaction was about what we expected.

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 8.08.19 AM.pngAnyway, had a lovely evening at an interesting venue, Union Transfer. Former furniture forwarding warehouse in a section of the city I’d not visited before. I’ll admit that their warning only to park in their lot, and not in any of the others that might be pretending to be their lot, gave me a bit of concern, but in the end the neighborhood was just fine and the venue was great. (Nicest bathrooms of any rock club, ever.) Room for 300-400 people, maybe there were 250 there to see Imelda May tear it up in Philadelphia on a Tuesday night. The crowd pretty much looked like us, which could either mean that kids these days don’t know anything about good music, or that they’ve all got other things they have to do on a Tuesday night. We don’t. It was kinda cool.

Remembrance of things past

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The morning light when it's in your face really shows your age.We’ve moved. Downsized. Empty-nested. All at once. Of necessity and by design, since we moved into a narrow rowhouse from the turn of that other century, many things that had followed us relentlessly, like puppies or perhaps more like bedbugs, had to be left behind. This included furniture we never loved nor wanted, supposed “heirlooms” that had simply once belonged to some aunt that were cheap furniture even when purchased and were mostly useless even in our old house, which had some room for nonsense. The new house can brook no nonsense.

But not all sentimentality can be surrendered, and so there’s this thing. This window. It came from the house I grew up in, in Scotia. Actually a perfectly ordinary window for its time, in a pretty ordinary house that was built somewhere around 1910, if I recall correctly. It was at the landing where the stairs curved. When I was growing up, ours was a two-family house; our apartment was downstairs, and “the lady upstairs,” as we always referred to her, lived, well, upstairs. And this window let colored light into the stairwell, and made the old gray house look a little bit more colorful from outside.

Later on, when I was around 10 or 11, my parents bought the house and set out on a very long project of converting it back to a one-family. Once that happened, and we finally moved our bedrooms upstairs, I would pass this window every time I went up or down the stairs. When the house was empty, that little curve in the (extremely steep) stairs was one of my favorite places to just sit, with this window open, looking out at the day and letting the breeze in, or letting its colored light fall on the pages of whatever I was reading. (It’s my belief that the center pane was originally a color, too, possibly blue. But at this remove, I’ve seen so many other of these windows, with colored, clear and frosted center panes, that I honestly can’t tell you what it really was.)

At some point, in one of her endless renovations to the house, my mother decided this window had to be replaced, but she had the foresight to ask me if I was interested in it. My wife had a mirror put in the middle and gave it to me as a gift, and it hung in our house in East Greenbush for most of the 23 years that we lived there. And when I saw the perfect little half-bath in our new house, with a brick wall and a heavy dose of morning light, I knew the old window from Scotia simply had to find a new home here in Phoenixville.

So even in this current mood of blowing up everything and letting go of the past, some of the more important parts still have to stay with us.

My super-urban life

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Yes, I’m gonna have to update the banner to reflect the reality of life in our little city (excuse me, Pennsylvanians, my little boro), but there’s no point in changing my URL after all these years, so this one will stand for now.

But the reality is a complete change from our previous car-centric life, where absolutely NO tasks could be comfortably accomplished without getting in the car (even the Stewart’s wasn’t a comfortable walk). This morning, we walked a bag of donation clothes down the street to the church donation box, then went around the block to the coffee shop (whose proceeds support a community for the developmentally disabled), where we sat on a bench and enjoyed watching all the runners and cyclists and walkers and dogs going by. Then we went down to the Phoenixville Farmer’s Market (unfortunately seasonal, not year-round like Troy’s), picked up everything under the sun, enjoyed some great music, and wandered back with our goods.

Kinda great.

A Fine How Do You Do

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Main Street PhoenixvilleOn our first night back together in our new town, exhausted from moving, we strolled down to the ice cream shop. An incredibly perfect summer evening, and it’s a stroll of almost two blocks. We sat out on the bench on Main Street, with a steady stream of happy people going in and out of the shop, families gathered around enjoying ice cream, little kids experiencing their first cones.

A beautiful little girl walks by with her father. She can walk and talk, but only has a few words. She stops in front of us to show Lee her pretty dress. Then she points to her sparkly pink shoes. Then she shows us her several pigtails, done in pretty pink rubber bands. Her father is patiently asking her to come along, but she’s enjoying showing off. Finally she is ready to go, but before she can go, she insists on giving each of us a goodbye hug.

And so that’s how we were welcomed to our new town.


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rebekah_blobfest_BsWu3HbIEAASHLs.jpgSo, here’s the thing about our pending new hometown of Phoenixville, PA: the movie “The Blob” was largely filmed there and in the surrounding areas. Doc Hallen’s house is still there. So is the Colonial Theater, from which the teens run screaming from a monster feature when the blob consumes the projectionist and oozes through the louvers and into the theater. Let’s face it, “The Blob” would probably be forgotten had it not starred a youngish (27, playing 17) Steve McQueen. It is not one of the finest movies of all time. And the fact that it featured Phoenixville could have remained nothing more than an interesting bit of local trivia, just as with the filming of scenes around Albany and Schenectady in recent years.

But instead, there is Blobfest, an enthusiastic celebration of this and other B movies. It commences with “The Run Out” — costumed participants pay for the privilege of running screaming from the theater in advance of the blob. There is a Tin Foil Hat parade, a costume contest (which Mothra and his companions, shown above, won this year), and a Fire Extinguisher Drill Team Parade. There are vendors, antique cars, and double features of “The Blob” and other movies like “Mothra” or “King Kong Vs. Godzilla.” There is a lot of fun.

So we spent the weekend at Blobfest, and visiting the farmer’s market, checking out where to put in our canoes, finding the best coffee places, and chatting with local residents. There were dozens of cyclists out on the roads and paths, there were flotillas of kayaks, there were all kinds of people just out enjoying almost perfect days.

Titular Quandary

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newhouse.pngSo here’s the thing. When I started this occasional series of rants back in 2002 (!), the title was a play on “My So-Called Life” and a statement of life in a near-the-city suburb, not quite urban, not quite suburban. Other than a pleasant neighborhood close to a little lake, it was life in an unwalkable world, a land without sidewalks. We were just blocks from the school, but our kids had to get on buses. Milk, groceries, the post office, they all required getting into a car. Most of our social life took place across the river, or up it, in Albany or Troy.

But that’s changing, and soon. We’re moving to a town that is essentially Bedford Falls, moving from a corner lot colonial with a two-car garage to a downtown rowhouse a block from the main street. We’ll be a short walk from the library, the park, the post office. We’ll be three minutes’ walk from the little historic movie house and a slew of sidewalk cafés. Minutes from the bike path. And not so far from a major city that can’t seem to get enough of its pretzels.

Decidedly, utterly urban. Perhaps even super-urban. My Super-Urban Life?

O the things you will do!

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212 Hall StreetIn terms of things that need doing, life has reached a maximum. With all the events that come with the end of a school year anyway, add all the things that come with senior year. With all the family events that normally come around this time of year, add in a couple more special events. Work has been insanely busy, and then there’s the small matter of buying a house, picking up stakes and moving.

If you’ve never experienced a “hot” real estate market (and if you’ve only lived in the Capital District, you have not), let me explain what it’s like. A house that you might like comes on the market. Five minutes later, you get a note from your realtor asking if you want to see it that day; if you see it and like it and decide to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars based on a 10-minute review and some shaky iPhone pictures, then you’d better be prepared to make an offer that night, because the sellers are reviewing the offers first thing in the morning. If you need some extra time, well, you can just look elsewhere. If you want to make the sale contingent on selling your own house, well, perhaps something along the lines of a garden shed would suit you better. And those 27 perfectly acceptable houses taunting you on Zillow? They’re all under contract. You need to wait for something else to be listed, and don’t get far from your phone.

So that’s what it is, just a whirlwind. Found a place that I desperately loved (and could afford) on Monday, scrambled to put in an offer (while also paying attention to an important meeting, mind you) on Tuesday, got beat out by a cash offer on Wednesday. (By the way, anyone with cash is suspect, in my mind, and should be thoroughly investigated.) Had all day Wednesday to experience the mixture of let-down and relief, got the same call on Thursday, checked out a place that didn’t quite work but that we loved anyway, and had to put in a bid Friday night for a Saturday decision.

And while we’re doing all that, we have to fit in the final (final!) dance recital, prom, a string of honors events, the graduation itself, and I’m sure I’m forgetting something. Oh, yeah: work. Lots and lots of work.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that we’ll be giving up a lot, in terms of both space and personal history (not to mention the fact we largely rebuilt this house ourselves), we’re both very excited about the chance to move on. If we’re going to be empty nesters, why not be empty nesters in a gorgeous little community that people seem to love living in, within steps of a nicely vibrant downtown?

And as a special snub to the Capital District, I’ll note that no matter what house we end up with in our new town, the Wegman’s will be about four miles away.