toy trains, boys, and christmas

Toy trains have been part of Christmas for me as long as I can remember. When I was a child there were two: a Lionel “O” Gauge train set that my parents bought for me, and a Lionel “Standard” Gauge set that originally belonged to my mother’s late brother, who died before my mother was born. Both created a sort of magic for me, but that “Standard” Gauge set with its large metal pieces, bright colors, and toy-like appearance… well that was special. The engine especially had seen some hard times over the years, what with cracking and warping cast iron parts, but it still worked.

That “Standard” gauge set remains so special to me that when I discovered a company in Ohio that makes Lionel reproduction parts, I set about buy the bits and pieces necessary to make the engine whole again. It’s been a long process. I initially ordered parts a couple weeks before Christmas 2004. Because the Christmas season is the busiest time of the year for that company, some parts did arrive until late January 2005. I was able to install what parts I could while I was visiting my parents last Christmas, but some repairs had to wait until this visit. Finally assembling all the ordered bits and pieces showed that a few additional small parts are required. They must be ordered and will be added next year.

Along with the family folklore of the “Standard” gauge set from my uncle, there are also many stories regarding the set that my Grandfather’s older brother got for his first born son. It was a bigger, fancier Lionel set from the late 20’s, complete with train station, buildings, lamp posts, and all sorts of interesting period antique accessories. Foolishly, the train for this set was given away sometime in the 1940’s or 1950’s. The accessories remained though, and were combined with an “O” gauge Lionel set sometime in the intervening years. I’ve never actually seen the set except as glimpsed in a few family photos, but those made it look pretty impressive.

Last night, my Mom and I were talking about my restoration efforts for her brother’s train and we got to talking about that other set belonging to her cousin. My Mom sort of wondered aloud “I wonder if Cousin P. still wants any of those accessories from his train set… maybe I should ask him if he would be interested in keeping them in the family and combine them with my brother’s train.” That immediately made me drool a little, let me tell you. It multiplied that childhood train magic by a factor of ten right on the spot.

As luck would have it, we had dinner with Cousin P.’s daughter, her husband, and kids tonight. After finishing the meal, my Mom asked about Cousin P.’s train set. It was broken up and sold a few years ago… evidently with considerable interest from collectors around the country. *sigh* Oh well, another bit of childhood magic that could have been slipped away.

Time to start collecting on e-Bay I guess. Such is the nature of trains, boys, and Christmas.

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idyl or idle?

I write to you now from the Land of my Birth where Mrs. Geek and I are enjoying the holidays with my parents. It was a particularly lovely Christmas weekend, full of food. We helped my Mom make a couple hundred pieroghi with various fillings on Friday. Mrs. Geek and I then attended a party given by the best man at our wedding, where lots of food and drink was available. We had the traditional Slovak Christmas Eve dinner with my family on Saturday — with the aforementioned pieroghi, homemade bread and buckwheat honey, and several soups made from dried legumes and mushrooms. Gifts were well received on Sunday; Mrs. Geek loved the Swarovski Mickey Mouse charm bracelet I got for her (thank you Empress of Metal). My mother loved the CD of Bellini’s Norma featuring Joan Sutherland that she’s wanted for years. Dad also liked the whiskey book I got for him — though my sister got it for him as well. *sigh* A minor communication breakdown there. We ended the day with the traditional Christmas Day meal at my parent’s house: beef tenderloin with twice baked potatoes.

Today is idyllic. It’s a quiet day in a quiet week. I awoke this morning with nothing to do… and I’m glad it will be that way for a while. Everything has been “go! go! go!” for months now, and it is so very pleasant.

I can’t let this go on for too long though, I suppose. I think I’ve already gained a couple pounds from all this holiday eating. I should find something to do that will keep this break from being a fitness disaster.

at last, an entry…

Sorry that I dropped off the radar for more than a week. The holidays always seem to be such a busy time for me, both at work and at home. My diary writing seems to suffer accordingly.

So what have I been up to? Well, a few different things. My blood pressure has been higher than I like it to be because of happenings at Company O. There’s an old principle in software engineering known as “bit rot”. Simply put, it is the idea that software is more likely to fail after it is used, not used, and then used again. The bits are thought to rot on the hard disk or in memory and the software fails “even though nothing has changed”, as they say. I’m attempting to collect experimental data using equipment and software that I could not touch for about three weeks, and I’m seeing an inexplicable three percent failure rate where any failure rate above zero is suspect, if not intolerable. That failure rate has turned a straightforward one week data collection activity into a frustrating debugging session with no end in sight.

This does not mean that the last two weeks have been all work and no play, however. If anything, I played a little too hard at a couple points during the last two weeks. Friends had another wine/food pairing party (similar to the one back in April) with the same sad results: I drank too much red wine early in the evening and got sick. Likewise, I went to a party to do a Secret Santa gift exchange with my in-laws on Sunday and was feeling a littl hungover yesterday. There have also been lots of gifts, both for my birthday and Christmas. Alcoholic misadventure excluded, it is a blessed December this year.

Speaking of gifts, I must comment that my parents seem to be a little overboard with the gift budget this year. As a case in point: I got a Sony SACD/DVD player as a Christmas gift. I put it on my Amazon wish a couple weeks ago when I saw that SACD players had dropped below the $200 price point. (For those who don’t know, SACD is a successor to the CD standard that allows digital music to sound about as good as audiophile vinyl.) It was certainly something I did not expect to get for Christmas; it was more a placeholder for when I would have the money to get one some time in 2006. But no, my parents decided to get it for me for Christmas… plus a $60 DVD set for my birthday, plus a scanner for Mrs. Geek. My family has never been into “big money gifts” before… and I’m wondering why they suddenly changed their minds.

Holiday plans are otherwise in hand. Gift shopping is now more or less done, with many already in transit to the Land Of My Birth in preparation for our arrival there. We’re finishing up our annual Christmas card mailing tonight. As we will be spending the holidays with my parents this year, there aren’t too many other holiday preparations. Mrs. Geek and I are both saddened by this, because it means no Christmas tree. We collected some interesting Christmas tree ornaments in the last year, and I suppose we’ll have to wait until next year to display them.

As we depart for the Land Of My Birth on Thursday for a ten day stay, I don’t know how much I will be updating over the next week or two. If I don’t get a chance to update here again before Sunday, I want to wish all my best wishes and blessings of the season to all my readers. Let us all hope that 2006 will be more peaceful and sane than 2005 was.

another year to the vintage

Well, I am a year older today… having just finished my 37th spin around the sun. What did I learn this year? Let’s see… I learned that change at work is not necessarily bad. I learned that buying property is one of those things like investing money — if you show any interest in the subject, everyone will chime in on the subject and their opinion will be different than yours. I grew a bit less fearful of the idea that I am going to be the father to a child at some point in the near future. I figured out that I like fresh peas.

Well, I’m sure that there’s more to it than that. Sometimes you can’t really see where you are or where you’ve recently been untill you get a little further along the trail. Here’s to hoping that my next year will be a good and productive one. If it turns out anything like I hope, some big changes are in the works.

getting into the Christmas spirit

I’ve been finding it difficult to get into any kind of holiday spirit lately. Yes, it’s almost two weeks from Turkey Day — the big kick off to the season that’s supposed to get all those holiday juices flowing. Not me, not this year… at least not right away. I seem to be taken with other concerns — work, paying bills, figuring out which worthy charity needs money from us the most (Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans? or our parish church that desperately needs half a million for building repair?) There seems to be little room for holiday thoughts in the midst of all that.

I’m getting more with the season, slowly , though. I’m listening to a little holiday music. I’m watching some of the old holiday standby films. I’m chuckling at the idea of Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light going all psycho and painting “Fieldstone Crack House” and “Bordello by a Covered Bridge”. Well, ok, maybe not that last bit… really… honestly… though it would be cool if he did.

No, I’m sure I’ll be ready to deck the halls with the best of ’em… in about two weeks.

no church on Christmas?

I thought of a catchphrase this morning that would warm any gossip columnist’s heart for all of 2006 or 2007 (and it isn’t even smutty):

Spears Lachey Wedding

In the spirit of Tomkat, Brangelina, and Bennifers I & II, we could call them “Britnick”. I think we could also be guaranteed that when Ms. Spear’s second husband made and album, he would not be laughed out of the house.

I also read a news article today that said that certain of those non-denominational “megachurches” will be closed on Sunday, December 25, 2005. Why? Christmas is a day for family they say. Evidently, the act of putting on a Sunday service for 8000 people takes a couple hundred people away from their homes on Christmas Day. Such services were poorly attended during the last few years. The megachurches will be having services on the days leading up to Christmas, but not Christmas itself.

I’m not sure how I feel about that. There’s a certain “shock and awe” to realize that these churches pack in more people on any given Sunday than most rock concerts I’ve attended. There’s also some outrage at the hypocrisy of it all; Christian neo-cons are raging about the liberal war on Christmas (and in particlular, saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas). How is it that that these churches in the heart of the Bible belt can’t feel that neo-con Jesus love and get their butts to church on Christmas Sunday?

Yet, I can’t really be critical. I’ve been more of a Christmas/Easter Catholic the last few years than an avid church-goer. Many churches offer vigil services and midnight services, and I’ve certainly enjoyed the Catholic versions in the past. Mostly, our family was an “open the gifts and get to 11am Mass” on Christmas morning though. Christmas doesn’t feel right without Church for me… and to think that the Church won’t even be open?

It feels weird.

starting the new year early

I need to start the new year early by a whole month. It’s been a good year in a lot of ways, but I feel weighed down by some dissolution and a lack of discipline. This most primarily shows that I gained back 10 of the 15 pounds I lost last year, mostly due to eating too much junk and exercising too little. I’ve also been spiritually lax, both feeling less in touch with a personal sense of the divine and regularly practicing my Catholic faith. I need to turn these things around and turn a new page. I intended to write this in an entry on the first of December to give it month-early punch… but you get the idea.

I also got to attend a funeral last week. The funeral was for a Brother T., a member of the Society of Mary — the religous order that meets the Catholic spiritual needs of students at the university where I did my grad work. He was not a complicated man, but his life was an example of something sorely missing in today’s world. His daily mission as a religious was simply to work hard to serve others. How many people can say that these days? This he did, in several ways — as a gardener and landscaper, a cook, a maintenance man, and simply as a human being. He landscaped gardens for churches and schools. He cooked for fundraiser dinners for a variety of worthy organizations. He visited widows and shut-ins who would otherwise be denied human contact. His life was about service. As I stood over his casket, looking down at his lifeless form so clearly missing his animate spirit, I kept thinking of how Pope Benedict was merely “Christ’s humble worker”. That description fit Brother T. more truly than most anyone I know. He will be missed.

Mrs. Geek and I also went out to a rock concert on Saturday night. It was my first in a while… and one that renewed my faith in live concerts. It was a charity show for Toys for Tots put on by my favorite local radio station. There were three acts, and all were good… though not always to my taste. There was no cheesy local band opener called “The Scuzzcocks” or “Big Alice and the Sleestaks” that just stood up there mouthing double entendres while whacking away at their instruments — a welcome relief after seeing such ho-hum acts as “It Bites” and “Kelvinator” open over the years. The first artist was a female petite firecracker of a singer/songwriter from the British Isles. She is a bit of a discovery on the part of said local radio station. Her first CD is only presently available as an import, but they heard it somewhere and started playing it on the air… before her record company even knew that anyone in America was listening. She was one of the two artists on the bill that I wanted to see, and she did not disappoint. The second act was a band… one of those groups that is really just a front to realize the artistic vision of a single member. They’re also from the British Isles, and while they were also very strong in Coldplay/early Radiohead sort of way, they were not quite my cup of tea. The last act was a singer very much in the Norah Jones mold. I’ve been a fan of hers since the late 90’s and she also did not disappoint. A great night in all… and well worth the $35 we were forced to pay the parking nazis.