West Chester Halloween Parade

Last night, I got off the train, dashed home, Kate and I filled the baby with vegetable soup (“Noodle! Noodle!”), zip-tied twenty feet of blue EL wire (thanks, mom!) to the baby’s howdah, and we walked uptown to the West Chester Halloween Parade. Which was… soo super-great. Some things we saw:

  • The West Chester University Golden Rams and the West Chester East high school marching bands. Marching bands are a wonderful bit of alchemy — individually: so geeky! Collectively: so awesome! As I’ve written before, marching bands are a funny mixture of Raw Youth, martial pageantry, and focused group dedication. At five feet away with a toddler on your back, it’s like drinking from a firehose. A firehose of awesome, that is!
  • Incredibly lithe, springy tumblers spinning down the street: they’d do nine backflips in a row, then bounce to a landing, stick one finger in the air, and then put the finger down and assume a slouch, resolving to a perfectly ordinary and unassuming-looking eleven year old girl in a blue nylon “Downingtown Tumblers” pullover. I’m having a hard time articulating the Atticus Finch life lesson this illustrates without sounding either obvious or preachy: “suburban people are just as cabable of harboring astonishing abilities as anyone else?” “Don’t judge a book by its ‘wwjd’ keychain and its look of bland, studied unconcern?” “Your next-door neighbor might be able to fight ninjas; you never know?” Resolution: work on developing some astonishing, non-obvious abilities.
  • Fantastic neighborhood hip-hop dance troupes. When you see the crowd of kids coming down the street with hair extensions and a boom box, you know you’re in for a good time. In another year or two, I’m going to take a hip-hop class with Lydia; first so we can have fun, then later so I can embarass her terribly. I’m going to have to add some moves to my standard jokester’s repertoire of “running man, cabbage patch, hammer slide” if I’m going to do a really workmanlike job of embarassing her in junior high.
  • Come to think of it, that gives me some ideas about what my astonishing unknown ability could be.
  • The champion baton twirler of the world (according to the vinyl banner that preceded her, which located her victory in Marseilles, France.) She had a different outfit than all the twirlers behind her, which all videogame players know makes her the boss. They all had glowsticks integrated into their batons. The boss twirler had long, straight, balletic kicks, a really amazing repertoire of moves (“she’s… with her… elbow! Did you seee…?” and sort of a distracted demeanor. It’s tempting to speculate about the rags-to-riches-to-rags life of a champion baton twirler, but I think that’s probably being uncharitable. She was pretty awesome.
  • Teenagers who complimented me on my EL wire backpack. Yeah, that’s how we roll in West Chester. My baby has ground effects.

Lydia had a great time: picking out the Elmo costumes in the crowd, bopping along to the marching-band standards, clapping every time the crowd clapped. Kate remembers seeing the parade when she was a kid. What a great, great time!!!

West Chester Halloween Parade

Okay, I’ve been punished.

Okay, I’ve been punished for bragging so much in the last post. God put Leonard V. Kartoffelhammer (right number of syllables, not his real name. Though his real name is burned into my brain at this point) at the next table on the train ride in this morning, so for an hour and a half I heard him yelling — no, I was a party to his yelling — at Blue Cross about how they sent his bill late, but his collection notices on time. There were one or two moments of humor (“I’m going to have Carol’s ass ON A SPIT!”), but mostly it was him repeating over and over “I want a letter of apology.” “When does she come in?” “What’s your name, your WHOLE name?” “This is Leonard V. Kartoffelhammer!” “I want a letter of apology.” For ninety minutes.

I’m sorry the whole car had to suffer for my sin of pride, though it sounds like God uses Leonard to regularly punish other sinners: when we pulled in to Penn station, one guy who had been pretending to sleep cracked an eye and said “what is it now? Last time, you got a book sent to you, and you didn’t like it.”

L.V.K. muttered “I got that sorted out”, and stomped off the train, no doubt on his way to be God’s Divine Justice for the sin of gluttony in the Starbucks line.

Okay, I’ve been punished.

With all due humility, WE TOTALLY ROCK!

'What's that?' 'That's a bulb.' 'What's that?' 'That's a bulb.' 'What's that?' 'That's a bulb.'
In a triumph of new-ish parents over the constraints of dull reality (time, energy, nap schedules, etc.), Kate and I made a “fairy ring” around the magnolia tree in our back yard this weekend: we dug an eight-by-eight inch trench around the tree, mixed the soil with peat moss, then planted several hundred(!) spring bulbs at staggered depths in the trench. We then added a mix of soil and peat moss, packed it down, and watered. If all goes well, we’ll now forget all about it until March, when a ring of nasturtiums, jessamum, and horned calamine (I’m a little foggy on the actual plant names) will pop up, and spread a little further out every year. Kate and I are both amazed and grateful that we managed to actually finish one of those “hey, why don’t we…” garden projects. And all without coming to blows on which roots we could sever, and which we should leave alone. On top of that, Kate weeded, raked, and generally cleaned up the front garden. Fortune is smiling on us, assuming our new fairy ring isn’t attacked by squirrels too badly. Oh, and Kate turned the compost too. And made a big pot of vegetable stew. O femina fortissime!

Kate’s brother Matt and his friend Kristen came down from New York on Saturday for a visit to Highland Orchards. The program for Highland Orchards is, you feed the goats, ride the tractor out to the pumpkin fields, choose your pumpkin, then fill up on apple cider doughnuts and roll home groaning. Me, I become Photographer Dad Spaz because there are so many cute moments.

Kate's, Matt's, and Kristen's jack-o-lanterns
Kate, Matt, and Kristen were all finished their pumpkins by the time I was well underway; I wanted to experiment with the… well, I shouldn’t pussy-foot around this admission: the Martha Stewart pumpkin portrait technique. We’re showing Beetlejuice at the Guerilla Drive-In next week, and I wanted to put the jack-o-lanterns around the screen, so I made a “Che in 3D glasses” pumpkin.


Steps to making the Che pumpkin

  1. I converted the GDI logo to grayscale, put it in a Word file, printed it out, and taped it to the pumpkin.
  2. I punched a hole through the lines on the template and into the pumpkin’s skin with a nail at about eighth-inch intervals, then pulled off the template and carved away the skin with an X-acto knife.
  3. To make Che’s 3D glasses lighter than the rest of him, I scraped down deeper through the pumpkin’s wall with the handle of a teaspoon.
  4. Ta-da! The whole thing took about three hours, which is a l-o-o-ong time for a jack-o-lantern, I guess.

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Reading this blog, I am aware of just how lucky we were this weekend. Kate and I did some fall cleanup, started and finished a garden project, had a fun pastoral junket, and did craft projects that came out well. (Kate also knit socks, but she’ll talk about that on her blog when she’s done enough to post pictures.) I do not want to be all “aw, shucks, this old thing?” about this — we worked really hard, and we were very lucky that it all came together, and I had a wonderful time. Sometimes it all just works out well, and I’m really grateful that it did!

With all due humility, WE TOTALLY ROCK!

The 20th Annual Turkey Pro National

http://www.turkeypronational.com
The first Sunday after Thanksgiving, Kate’s dad Bob “Snuffy” Smith holds the Turkey Pro National, a mellow motorcycle rally featuring “hot dogs on the buns and on the bikes.” His hand-drawn flyer is a hotly-requested item each year: it contains an average of two traditional motorcycle jokes (“Pray for rain, the sissies will stay home!”) and details the itinerary of the day: a cold breakfast ride, a gathering at a local venue, then the “slow race”, in which the rider who can travel the slowest around a twisty course has to take home a huge fifty-pound trophy with tiger tails. This sounds like a joke, but being able to inch along at one mile an hour without putting your foot down is one of those hard, unglamorous skills that really separates the sheep from the goats. I’ve only finished once, but I’ve got my eye on that trophy someday. Someday!

Anyhow, you can click on the image above to get the flyer for this year’s 20th annual Turkey Pro — available for the very first time in digital form — or you can see my writeups of the 2003 and 2001 runnings of the Turkey Pro!

The 20th Annual Turkey Pro National

I Meet the King of the Galley Attendants

I catch four Amtrak trains a day: 640 from Exton to Philadelphia, then 180 from Philly to New York, and I make a similar switch on the way back. As a train pulls in, I look down the train to find the smooth steel plate behind the number sign that says “food service car.” Cafe cars have tables, blessed tables. I don’t care how loudly the drunk guys on the way back from the dentist’s convention are yelling, I don’t care if the ventilation isn’t working and the bathroom is emitting a pungent reek of disinfectant, I don’t care if the car is leaking drips of water on the foremost and rearmost seats in the car, the tables in the cafe car allow use of the mouse, which is the difference between cramped finger-twisting on the trackpad with elbows inboard, and glorious, elbow-swinging, pixel-pushing luxury. For luxurious room, the cafe car is where it’s at.

And, very occasionally, the cafe car holds an attendant selling food.

I’m not sure what position Amtrak cafe car attendants occupy on the rung of Amtrak jobs: the conductors (kings of the train) and flags (staff sergeants of the train) seem cordial to them, but a little stiff and formal, as if consciously observing a difference in rank. On the other hand, the attendants themselves are always polite, but also VERY dignified and they brook no nonsense. It’s like being served coffee by an airline pilot. Which is excellent, I want to point out: having an attendant say in a crisp voice “and how many half-and-halfs would you like, sir? Two? Three?” then fix you with a steely stare demanding that you make your mind up RIGHT NOW or risk wasting his time… well, it adds some excitement and importance to the trip. It’s like one of the last bastions of old-school etiquette.

Yesterday, I met the king of all the Amtrak attendants, who magically appeared in one of the rare operational cafe cars. I ordered the standard Amtrak breakfast-sandwich-in-a-plastic-bag, and first realized that something was up when he did not just throw it in the microwave and punch button number 4. Oh, no. He opened the bag and disassembled the sandwich into its component parts. He put the bagel in the convection oven, which, he told me, he had had specially repaired on that car so he could do so (most Amtrak cars have let their convection ovens fall into disrepair long ago.) He separated the cheese from the sausage using a sharp knife, then microwaved just the sausage and cheese. While doing so, he told me about how his father taught him that food is worth taking time over, and he personally hates it (now he was walking the bagel from the convection oven across to the microwave, since he could only get them to repair the oven across from the microwave, not the one next to it) when people don’t treat food as food, they treat it as just a time-saver. Now he was re-assembling the sandwich, letting the heat of the sausage and egg melt the cheese, and I looked over at the condiment bins and realized that he had individually organized the packets of condiments, so that they all stacked up at neat right angles, each relish pack resting neatly and precisely on top of the one under it.

I am not making this up. Keith finished assembling my sandwich, wrapped it in a napkin, and accepted both my thanks and my tip with a crisp nod. Then, as I left, he went back to doing pushups in the aisle. Again, not kidding. I walked back to my seat in the other end of the train, and asked the conductors Ron and Nick about Keith.

“Oh yeah, Keith!” said Nick (who is a semi-professional hapkido fighter, and rides a Victory motorcycle on the weekends.) “Man, he takes you forever to get a cup of coffee! ‘Would you like cream with that, sir? Let me milk the cow!'” Nick started pantomiming plunging a butter churn up and down. “‘Would you like butter, sir? Here, let me churn the cream for you!'” I got off the train with Nick still jumping up and down and laughing.

I Meet the King of the Galley Attendants

Ad aspera, per astra


We spent the weekend in Avalon, New Jersey, in the rental house you can see in the background of this picture. There was some speculation as to which Smith Family Infant approach to the beach Lydia would inherit: her mom’s approach (stay on the towel, daintily brush sand off the corners) or her uncle Matt’s approach (charge directly into the surf at every opportunity.)

The latter, it turns out: Lydia has to be restrained or she’ll run all the way to France, never mind how cold the water is. Actually, the water is pretty warm, and the sun was warm, and the beach is wide, flat, and uncrowded, and altogether everything was Really Damn Great. We went to the boardwalk in Ocean City (saltwater taffy! curly fries! whac-a-mole! carousel rides!) and out to dinner in Cape May (ghost tours! expensive toy stores!) and a friend of Kate’s parents worked her considerable photographer’s mojo on Lydia:
   Holy cow!
   Oh my god!
   Knees… weakening!


I got up this morning at 5:15AM, folded up the playard, stuffed my dirty clothes into my backpack, and drove back up the Atlantic City Expressway to Philadelphia, where I hopped Amtrak to get back to work (Kate, Lydia, Bob, and Barb will leave the beach midafternoon.) 30th Street Stations is one of the last bastions of the leather-lunged conductor; my favorite one was standing at the top of stairway five, announcing the Keystone train home, the opposite direction to which I’m going.

“Now boarding, stairway five, track five, Keystone train 641 to Ardmore, Paoli, Exton, Downingtown, and points west. Fresh air, good food, clean living! Stairway five, track five!”

Ad aspera, per astra