Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Time On My Side

I love not working. It freaks some people out, but I thrive on the free time.

When I was laid off in November 2001, I spent 10 months looking for a job, and everybody said I was the busiest unemployed person they ever met.

The thing is, there's just so much in life I want to do. So much I didn't get to do while growing up. And although I get to do some pretty cool stuff via my job sometimes (see: QVC), I miss out on a lot because of work, too.

So the stars aligned this year and, between paid time off and the last of my vacation days, I've got two weeks off. And I'm not just lying around.

Highlights so far:

And that's just the beginning. I've got three more weekdays off from work and then the weekend. Next up? An afternoon marathon at OTTO, a visit to my sexy eye doctor, a Knicks game, a new kitchen table, and much much more!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Long Train Runnin'

freight train passing through the Syracuse train station, across snowy tracks

"Indy is waiting for you outside your door," read the text message from Maria, and I burst into tears on the Amtrak back to New York City. Indy was as much my dog as any dog had ever been, though I had only seen him four times since we first brought him home from the breeder's in May. But somehow when I came home to Mike and Maria's house for Thanksgiving and Christmas, Indy still remembered our initial bond, and has started waiting for me outside the attic door when I get up in the morning, and outside the bathroom door when I get out of the shower.

But this time, I wouldn't be coming out. Not for a few months. I don't even know when I'll be back.

I tried to say goodbye to Indy, suitcase in tow, on Saturday morning when I was leaving for the train station, but he was jumping around and playing like a puppy is apt to do. Maria said, "He doesn't know you're not coming back," and I grabbed his face and gave him a quick kiss on the forehead, a good squeeze, and didn't look back.

But sitting on that train, with a stranger next to me cackling on her cell phone, staring out of a dirty window, I allowed my eyes to well up, mourning the piece of myself I'd left behind.

I've taken lots of trains lately, to Philly, West Chester PA, San Diego, Long Island, the Hudson Valley...That trip up and down the Hudson River is so familiar to me now, but this time, the fog started to settle in sometime after Croton-on-Hudson, and as I kept peering out the window to look for Bannerman Castle, conditions outside the train became increasingly white-out. The chunky, icy surface of the Hudson River soon gave way to a more watery surface, through which flocks of geese cut their way and disappeared into the low-hanging haze. I even saw some kayakers struggling upstream, and I wondered if they could see where they were going, because I could barely see them, not to mention the invisible other side of the river.

It was getting warmer as I got closer to the city (and was downright balmy today), but the thick fog was nevertheless a continuation of a White Christmas, which started when I woke up as my USAirways flight started its descent into the Syracuse area, hovering above the city that looked like a snowy white checkerboard. I was prepared for the snow and cold this time, with all the winter weather accoutrements necessary for surviving sleet, snow, rain, and everything in between. And we pretty much got all of those while I was home.

That kind of weather has a funny effect on the human eye, making everything look greyscale, the color draining out of the wintry palette. And somehow my thoughts felt a little more black-and-white too, bringing some clarity to a life that has been way too muddled lately.

And sometimes you need a little white-washing, a little fresh dusting over that which has become murky and messed up.

Besides, the snow didn't stop us from doing any of the things we wanted to do, including a pilgrimage to Texas Roadhouse (delayed only by the fact that they don't open til 4 on weekdays, not by the snow). Sure, it's a chain restaurant and a lot like Rodeo Bar in my own neighborhood in NYC, but somehow me, Mike, Maria and her brother Pete are a magical combination that results in constant giggling and perma-grin, and not just because of the size of the enormous margaritas.

It's nice to have a family to come home to. Even if you're just being silly together.

Santa was good to me, but in many ways it doesn't even really matter what I got, because the best gift I have been given is love, not just expressed through gift exchange. And it's nice to know they're all waiting for me to come back home.

The next time I do go up to Syracuse, the snow will probably be gone, but I hope my clarity remains. And as for the dog? I can't wait to see how much bigger he gets. He's already tall enough to put his paws on my shoulders and give me a hug standing up.

In the meantime, I'm sure there are more trains in my future, though the next one won't necessarily take me home.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Worth Losing Sleep Over?

I find the weirdest ways to weasel my way onto television.

In fact, I've been on TV a bunch of times before, but nothing is like QVC. I can't say I ever aspired to appear live on a home shopping channel - especially because I don't think it'll help me get cast in something legit - but once I did it, I was pretty pleased with myself.

Live TV ain't easy. Heck, taped TV ain't easy. But I focused on being comfortable instead of nervous. I channeled my energy into being relaxed.

Relaxing was perhaps my greatest challenge. I'd had a harrowing trip down to West Chester, PA from the Hudson Valley, which had been hit by a bad ice storm Thursday night that cancelled or severely delayed all the Amtrak trains coming from the north. On Saturday morning at the Rhinecliff station, still full from Mike's wedding brunch and still a little tired from the reception the night before, I had to jump into a local cab headed for Poughkeepsie so I could instead take the Metro-North to NYC and continue my trip to the Philly area from there.

Fortunately, I've taken that Amtrak to Philly a lot lately (including our Eastern State Penitentiary trip), so the trip didn't seem so long or arduous. In my past excursions to QVC, I've either driven from New York or taken a limo from Philly (with the divos The Irish Tenors), but this time I decided to take the regional rail service all the way out to Exton and let the Sheraton Great Valley shuttle come pick me up and drive me around for the duration of my trip. I needed to focus on QVC and not exhaust myself by dealing with traffic.

I've always liked that Sheraton, but mostly because of the Outback Steakhouse in the parking lot. A business dinner there one night in the late 90s marked my first QVC visit as well as my first Outback experience. I think of it fondly.

With the discovery of the shuttle - which brought me to/from the Exton Amtrak station as well as to/from QVC - and of the Bliss body products in the bathroom, my opinion of this Sheraton improved exponentially, especially after our mediocre experience at the Four Points for James and Nany's wedding last month.

I managed to get to the hotel early enough for a Queensland salad at Outback, an attempt at blowing out my own hair, and getting to bed by 10 p.m. for seven hours' of sleep before getting up at 5 a.m. for my early morning cable TV appearance. Unfortunately, the heater in my room kept turning on and off all night, waking me up every 15 minutes from an already-fitful sleep replete with work-related nightmares.

And I kept worrying about my hair.

In fact, the whole time I wasn't worried at all about my demeanor, composure, or intelligence on live television. I was worried how I was going to look.

But I guess nobody every really likes the way they look on camera so I don't know what I thought could possibly make me happy with my physical appearance.

In the end, all that really matters is that the product I was hawking is a good product, and it sold well, meeting our expectations and probably getting us an invitation back. I can watch the clip over and over again and think what I would have done differently, but the truth is, I did a good job, even if I could have done better.

And it was fun! I'd never been on live TV before; I'd never had makeup airbrushed onto my face; I'd never been wired for an in-ear monitor. All that, and to be able to talk about Little River Band and Air Supply for work.

I wonder if my QVC-addicted mother, who has disappeared for two years, saw me?



The Easy Rock Collection on QVC.com

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The New Yorker Part II

I've been on a kick of helping people lately. Recently I was walking down Third Avenue by Rodeo Bar and I saw some women with big shopping bags lamely try to hail a cab, but not really TRY, so I hailed it and pointed to them and said, "That's for you."

New Yorkers get a bad rap. The other morning I saw some tourists with a big unfolded map on the corner of Lafayette and Bleecker, and I asked, "Do you need help?" Turns out they were looking for a breakfast place, and were flabbergasted when I suggested the one they were standing outside of, Noho Star. A week or two before, on that same street but after work, I heard a couple of teens say, "I know there's a train down here somewhere..." When I directed them to the 6 down the street, one of them said, "Thaaank you, you're the nicest New Yorker we've ever met..."

Of course that may be true, but I'm not the nicest New Yorker there is. I can't be!

Don't mistake my kindness for goodness. I'm selfish and greedy. I like feeling good and showing off how much I know and how much better I can navigate the city than you. If, in the process, you learn something and are helped or convenienced, all the better.

Today I had some business-related travel trauma which forced me to return to NYC via Grand Central and take a cab to Penn Station to continue my trip down to Philly. As I waited in the taxi stand line, and nearly attacked a bunch of kids trying to steal a cab without waiting in line, I grabbed a woman also going to Penn, threw her bag in the back with mine, and shoved her into the backseat. After finding out she was a visitor and had experienced the same Amtrak-induced trauma I had, I paid for her cab ride and dumped her off at the LIRR, as she rushed to the ticket machines shocked and impressed.I ran off to find a bathroom and a slice of pizza before my next train.

Maybe a New Yorker is someone who helps you and doesn't wait for a "thank you." Who helps you because that's the way it's supposed to be done and we can't bear to see it done wrong.

In any case, all in a day's work.

Further reading:
The New Yorker (Part I)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Country Carolling

Theatre at Westbury, December 2008

Last year around this time, I asked Anthony at work if he wanted to go see Kenny Rogers with me at Westbury Music Fair. He declined, which surprised me because he had previously established himself as a big fan. I took it personally, and worst of all, I never ended up going.

I regretted it for nearly a year until I remembered that it was an annual concert, and promised myself I'd go alone if I couldn't find a companion again this year. Fortunately I was able to wrangle up Edith, Eric and Dan without much convincing.

Eric and I had similar childhoods growing up Upstate, three hours apart but often experiencing the same things at the same time. Kenny Rogers' voice was as familiar to us as our own mothers'. And as much as I've tried to shed/forget/run away from my childhood, certain visceral experiences draw me back to it - Christmas trees, Heluva Good French Onion dip, and cosmopolitan country music, just to name a few.

Apparently every year, this concert is normally all Christmas repertoire, but we got lucky this year, hearing hit after hit in the first half and then nothing but Christmas songs in the second.

Kenny looked OK. He famously got some bad plastic surgery a few years ago that reduced his eyes to tiny slits, and earlier this year had knee replacement surgery that left him hobbling up and down the steep aisles to and from the in-the-round stage (which rotates!). But a real highlight was getting to see what he looked like back in the late 60s, performing with his first band The First Edition, in a performance video projected on a huge screen that showed a hot and hunky young Kenny Rogers singing very seriously "I Just Dropped In to See What Condition My Condition Was In" with present-day Kenny providing live vocals. Though released before my birth, I know that song well - the only Kenny Rogers one my father ever played. Most other people know it from the dream sequence in The Big Lebowski. (I wonder if Anthony, also a big fan of that movie, ever made that connection?) Sharon Jones does a great cover version of it.

Kenny played plenty of other big hits - "The Gambler," "Coward of the County," "Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town," "Lady," even a solo version of "Islands in the Stream," but I was left wanting more. The Christmas-themed second act was a bit too schlocky and gimmicky for me, featuring red-clad children chiming in on the choruses of songs, and an audience participation version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" which just dragged. Fortunately the rest of Kenny's repartee with the audience was was so entertaining that I'd probably be willing to go back and see him at another show (maybe without the Christmas part) to hear more hits.

If you could get through weird religious talk about how Christmas is a celebration of "Christ the Child," Kenny's renditions of Christmas carols were quite nice, especially when he was joined onstage by a gospel choir draped in red gowns. There's something in me that really loves religious songs, be they carols or just gospel hits. Somehow I can separate the message (which I could really care less about) from the sound. Oh, the sound! And in that little round room, that in-the-round theater, everything sounds great.

Kenny's beard is a lot whiter than it used to be, and it's more of a goatee now, but that voice still brushes against me like a corduroy coat or a wooly blanket - a little rough, but soft and warm, comforting and familiar.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Green for the Holidays

I like to think of myself as pretty eco-conscious. I unplug my chargers. I obsessively turn off lights at home and in the office. In fact, I sit in the dark a lot. I use Seventh Generation paper towels and I don't take shopping bags from retailers unless I need them. I sort and recycle my glass, plastics, papers and cardboards. I rarely prefer a printout to a digital copy of a document.

I even researched the carbon impact of burial vs. cremation so I could decide how I wanted to spend eternity. (Answer: a biodegradable casket is better than having my ashes spread across the desert.)

But once a year, I do something that's questionable for the environment: I buy a real Christmas tree.

Of course, I know that deforestation is rampant. And God knows what tinsel does to the environment. But every year, no matter how much I consider not getting a tree, I end up buying one off the street somewhere in Murray Hill, and dragging it up my narrow staircase, leaving a trail of pine needles behind me and of oozy sap on my winter gloves. I just can't imagine that that's worse than the plastics used in artificial trees, not to mention their transport from China.

This year, I really considered skipping the real tree ritual, especially after I found a light-up ceramic tree like the one I grew up with from The Mud Pit at the Union Square holiday market. After years of refereeing fights between me and my sister over who would get the decoration, our father decided to keep it, and probably will til he dies. I got tired of waiting for it, and after seeing one in an antique store a couple years ago for over $100, I jumped at the chance to get this one for $45.

As I slept with the ceramic tree on every night for the last couple of weeks, my desire for a real pine tree hasn't been satiated, but rather ignited.

The ridiculous part is, I'm actually allergic to Christmas trees. I get itchy, stuffy, and if I touch my eyes with unwashed hands, they swell shut. But with some Claritin, a lot of hand-washing, and an open window to air out the fumes, I can manage.

This year I bought a Fraser fir from North Carolina from the guy across the street in front of the Duane Reade. It's probably the tallest tree I've managed in this studio apartment, and although I was looking for something skinny given my space limitations, it turned out to be pretty healthy once the branches warmed up and settled overnight.

I'm sure this one will dry out and become a horrible fire hazard after three weeks like they all do, but for now, it's fresh, moist, and pliable. It takes up most of my apartment but it's just me here anyway...At least now I've got something to keep me company.

I guess as my bulbs slowly blow out I should consider replacing my old strings of lights with more eco-friendly LED ones. Maybe next year....

Further reading:
Green Christmas - National Geographic
An Eco-Friendlier Christmas - IdealBite.com
Your Top 20 Econundrums - Solved! - Mother Jones

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Lovin' It

There are a few things about my job I really enjoy. As of this week, I've been able to visit the trifecta of big fast food chains, which are part of the fabric of American culture and which served as a major dietary source for much of my childhood.

This week I had a meeting with the final of the Big Three, McDonald's. I was somehow most excited about this one, partially because it seemed like our pitch was actually going to be successful. I'd already met with Burger King in Miami, who served us ICEES and cookies and gave us kids' meal toys, as well as Wendy's in Dublin, OH, where the office restrooms looked exactly like the restaurant restrooms, right down to the soap dispensers.

As we approached McDonald's corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, IL, about 15 minutes from the Chicago O'Hare airport, I felt right at home. The concrete tower - probably constructed in the late 60s or early 70s - is situated in the middle of an industrial park, right next to a mall that houses a gigantic McDonald's restaurant in their parking lot. There's nothing outside of the McDonald's tower that indicates what's inside: it's dark and gray, cold, with an iced-over patio that's chained-off for the winter. But when we entered the lobby, we were greeted with the mysterious smells from the McCafe and a sign for the McStylist salon, where I was half-tempted to get a shave-and-a-haircut.

Upstairs, the elevator bank was glowing with a lit-up menu board like the ones you find behind the counter in the restaurants, as well as gigantic reproductions of Happy Meal boxes and other signage and memorabilia.

We were invited to get a McDonald's coffee from the beverage bar, which helped calm my nerves during our actual presentation.

Ronald McDonald didn't stop by our meeting, nor did the Hamburglar, but despite their absence, it went well. I was also hoping for a big basket of fries in the middle of the conference table, but I guess their employees can't just pig out all day while running that huge corporation. And with that in mind, thank God they didn't give us any Apple Dippers.

To be honest, I'd love to work for a company like that, but maybe the novelty would wear off pretty quickly. And since I was the person that craved fries after watching Super Size Me, I don't know if I could handle the constant temptation...