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Friday, December 19, 2008

The Perfect Car

For a good many years (since 2000, to be precise) I've been driving the green, Subaru Legacy Outback wagon pictured below.

The Outback is, so far as I can tell, nature's most perfect vehicle. It is big enough to haul instruments and the sound system for Boys in Hats concerts or all the gear my family takes camping. It is strong enough to pull my little sailboat. It has a roof-rack that can carry our canoe and kayak. On top of all of this, it still gets pretty good gas mileage, though I'd love to see Subaru come out with a hybrid model. Kimberly and I have loved this car. I've rather enjoyed having a car and a son who are the same model year (1996) and have joked about teaching Ian to drive in this car.

Unfortunately, cars, unlike people, do not improve with age. This past month, "the Roo" started having problems and, on a trip to Boston, overheated. A local mechanic got me back on the road in no time, but I was worried. When I got home, I put the car in the shop and Jeremy, my mechanic at Oradell Citgo, looked me in the eye and, with somber visage, intoned the words I had been dreading. It was time to replace my car.

So, the search for a new vehicle began. I've always been a bit obsessive about making choices. Back when we used to go to the video store to rent videotapes (remember doing that??) I used to feel the need to look at just about every box before picking something. Of course, the search for a new vehicle would be equally arduous.

Over Thanksgiving, when we drove to Connecticut, I looked at every vehicle we passed, wondering if it might be the perfect replacement. The Toyota Prius was too small. The Chevy Suburban was too big. The Volvo XC70 wagon was about the right size, and had all wheel drive -- I figure that, as a pastor, I need to be able to go out in just about any weather -- but was out of our price range. I went to the library and checked out several issues of Consumer Report magazine (overdue fine: $2.70) to see what "the experts" had to say. Eventually, my mind settled on two possibilities: the Honda CR-V and (surprise) a Subaru Outback. During all of this, Kimberly was very patient with me.

I went to the local Honda dealership and test-drove a CR-V, which I liked fairly well, but I knew that Kimberly would have issues with its height, as she dislikes having to climb up into vehicles. That settled, it was time to start looking for the right Subaru. After checking out several dealerships, we found the right car at Bill Kolb Subaru in Orangeburg, NY, where Ross Kelter sold us a silver and gray 2005 Outback. (If you find yourself going there, tell Ross that I sent you. There's money it it for me...)

We love out new Subaru. It has all the features of our old one, plus all of the technological advances that came along in the nine years between 1996 and 2005. Ian is particularly excited that the car has what Garrison Keillor likes to call "butt warmers" and that the back seat has headrests. Kimberly is really pleased that the car is almost exactly like our old one and feels comfortable and familiar, though I'm sure she would have been happier if it had been green. I'm happy that we've got a car that is versatile, reliable and should last us for a good many years, though I'm already wondering what the 2016 model Subarus will look like.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Quiet Week in Lake Wobegone

After all the running around of recent weeks, this past week has been blessedly quiet. The big adventure was Saturday's trip into Manhattan to attend a live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion at the Town Hall Theater on West 43rd Street. Wherever we've lived, my family has been listening to the Public Radio International program on our National Public Radio affiliate (currently WNYC) and we've always wanted to go and see the production live. This year, we decided to surprise Ian with tickets.

On Saturday, we went into the city early and wandered around, stopping for hotdogs at Gray's Papaya at 37th St. and 8th Ave., then heading over to the New York Public Library on 5th Ave., where we had hoped to see the stuffed animals that belonged to Christopher Milne, which became the famous children's book characters: Winnie the Pooh, Eyore, Kanga, Tigger and Piglet.

This turned out to be something of a mistake as it seemed that everyone else in the world had the same plans, so we decided to come back another day. Ian posed atop one of the iconic marble lions, then we made our way to Bryant Park, where we watched the ice skaters for a bit and bought Ian a new winter hat at one of the holiday shops that specialized in hand-kint wool hats made in Tibet. Then, with the sun setting, it was time to make our way to the theater for the 5:45 show.

Garrison Keillor always brings together an eclectic mix of performers and Saturday's show featured fantastic performances by jazz vocalist Inga Swearingen, Metopolitan Opera tenor Raúl Melo, and crooner Michael Feinstein. (Just in case anyone out there cares, I wouldn't mind having one of Inga Swearingen's CDs show up in my Christmas stocking this year.)

Kimberly, Ian and I were particularly tickled to get to watch Fred Newman as he did the sound effects for the program. It isn't every day that one has the opportunity to listen and watch as a grown man creates the audio-illusion of a man juggling a hot toaster, a housecat and an alarm clock while jumping on a pogo stick and playing trumpet. Honestly, though, we all thought that it was pretty cool that Newman actually got paid to break real dishes, just for the sound effects.

I've often said that Garrison Keillor is one of the best preachers in America, even though most people think of him simply as an entertainer. He has a knack for telling stories that illustrate a point, without most people realizing that they've even been taught anything. Over the years, I have noticed that his "News from Lake Wobegone" segment more often than not relates to the lectionary readings for the week. This past week, he touched (ever so lightly) on Advent as a season of waiting and preparation, with a message of "keep up, keep awake, keep lively," which ended up with Raúl Melo singing Gesu Bambino, which has always been one of my favorite pieces of Christmas music. What a great evening it was!

And that's the news from where the woman is strong, the man is good looking and the kid is above average.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Restaurant review: Guadalupe la Poblanita

On a recent trip through Connecticut, I specially timed my journey so I could stop for lunch at my favorite Mexican restaurant: Guadalupe la Poblanita, 136 Chapel Street, New Haven, CT 06513. My family started eating at Guadalupe la Poblanita a dozen years ago, when we moved to Hamden, CT. At that time, the restaurant was located in a cramped little building with only about a half-dozen fast-food-restaurant tables, sandwiched between an auto junkyard and an ambulance barn on Middletown Avenue. All parking was on the street or, more often, on the sidewalk.

We loved the place immediately! My family were just about the only Anglos we ever saw there. The food was authentic Pueblan cuisine and everything was homemade, fresh and delicious. The homemade tortillas and guacamole were particularly good. Our favorite entrees quickly became, for Kimberly, the vegetable chile relleno and, for me the carne enchilada. Often, we would order extra tostadas or tamales or even just extra tortillas, which left us a little more than pleasantly full, but which were well worth the extra effort of having to get wheeled out to the curb. Kimberly and I could both eat for less than $20 and our infant son got all-he-could-eat rice and beans for free. Teresa, Guadalupe's daughter, waited tables and became like family to us and, though service was anything but "brisk," was always a delight.

Since my family moved away from Connecticut several years ago, Guadalupe has moved her restaurant twice, each time to a nicer location. The current (and, I would suspect, final) location is in a restaurant with plenty of space, a bar, and even a dance floor, where people could (and I expect do) have all sorts of receptions. There's ample parking (complete with security cameras). Everything is new and improved, except for the food, which could never be improved, and the decor, which still has plenty of Corona and Negro Modelo advertisements, and handwritten signs saying things like "No Shirt, Shoes or Pets Allowed." Guadalupe still uses the same menus that she used in the old place, complete with my favorite quote from Miss Piggy: "Never eat more than you can lift."

When I stopped in for lunch last week, I had the same problem I always do at Guadalupe's: I wanted to ignore Miss Piggy's advice. Reason reasserted itself, however, and I selected the tostadas, one beef and one spicy pork, along with rice and beans. Teresa was buzzing around in the background and stopped by my table to visit for a while. Guadalupe popped out of the kitchen a couple times, but the waitress was a woman I had not previously met. She was very attentive, though she seemed somwhat surprised when I asked for jalapeño peppers with my meal, but quickly brought me some.

When the tostadas arrived, they were everything I had hoped for. The tortillas were crisp, with a delightful, nutty flavor, that I have found nowhere else (and which I expect may be due to the use of real manteca for frying). The toppings were perfect, as always. The beef, which I expect is flank steak, had its usual robust flavor and the spices on the pork (which is the same pork Guadalupe serves as carne enchilada) was delightfully spicy. My server brought me plenty of guacamole, pico de gallo and homemade salsa, which made things even better. Since it was lunch time and I still had some driving to do, a tamarind flavored Jarritos soda was the perfect accompaniment to the meal.
I'm not sure when I'm going to be in New Haven next, but you can be sure that I'll definitely make a point of stopping back and enjoying some of the best Mexican food I've ever eaten.

On the Road Again... or should that be "still?"

I've been traveling a lot, lately. Actually, that's my reason for not having written anything here for the last couple weeks. It all started with a trip to Catonsville, MD, for a Central Atlantic Conference Board of Directors meeting. Almost immediately upon my return, I was off to Boston, where I visited my friend Eliza Garfield, and celebrated her birthday with her.

As a dedicated boat-geek, I had always wanted to visit "Old Ironsides," the U.S.S. Constitution, so I made a side trip to the Charlestown Navy Yard to visit the oldest commissioned warship afloat. (H.M.S. Victory, Lord Nelson's flagship at the battle of Trafalgar, is older, but is in permanent drydock.)

When I went to visit the historic 44-gun frigate, I learned that "Connie" is in the middle of a major restoration project. She has been almost completely downrigged, with nothing left in her but the lower masts. All of her guns had been removed from the spar deck and the vessel had been roofed over to protect her during the replacement of her deck timbers. "Come back in two years," said the petty officer who welcomed me aboard.

Once aboard, having passed through airport-type security, I was free to wander around the spar deck for a few minutes before another petty officer called everyone together for the below-decks tour. After a quick introduction, we went below to the gun deck, where our guide -- a navy cook -- told us about the history of the vessel and discussed the food that would have been served aboard Constitution in 1787, when she was first launched: Weevily biscuits, salt "horse", dried peas, "lively" water (with all kinds of stuff growing in it), and, of course, the daily ration of grog which, in the U.S. Navy, was generally made with whiskey rather than rum. Looking aft, we could peek into the captain's cabin.

Moving down to the berth deck, I was one of the few who could stand up straight, with the overhead at almost exactly 5'6". Here, we were able to see hammocks slung as the enlisted men's would have been and we were also able to move aft and take a peek into the officers' wardroom. The tour wasn't able to go into the orlop, though I would have loved to. Afterwards, I spent a few minutes talking with the guide and hearing about how Constellation's crew actually has to train aboard the U.S.C.G. barque Eagle and aboard other A.S.T.A. training vessels, since the navy doesn't have any fully operational sailing vessels. Similarly, he told me, Constellation sometimes hosts sail training events, which leads me to wonder if there might be some way I could work my way aboard for a future event, possibly even showing some navy tar the right way to do things.

After a drive home, complete with car problems, it was time to turn right around and go back to Connecticut with my family to celebrate Thanksgiving. As we have for the last many years, we spent the holiday celebrating with Eric Anderson's family in Millbury, Massachussets, where his stepmother is pastor of the UCC church. I'm pleased that neither Kimberly nor I brought home the loser's trophy (yes, there's an actual loser's trophy) from the Anderson Family Thanksgiving Day Croquet Tournament.

We've been home since Sunday night, but things haven't slowed down at all. I've been meeting up with friends and am even getting together with my pastor to try and help him put together a confirmation program for the coming year. Tomorrow, I'm teaching my fencing class and the next day, I think, will be Christmas. At least it seems that way.