Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: The Year in Blogging

It seems a little odd to do the traditional end-of-year blog review when I've admittedly been such a slacker at blogging lately; it really has come in fits and starts throughout the year, and it was almost certainly made worse over Easter weekend when I finally caved and joined Facebook. But this blog is still a great outlet, and it's very different from the day-to-day Facebook stuff (not to mention that it's mostly a different audience), so even though I'm not a big resolution-making type, it's a goal of mine to be more consistent with blogging in 2011.

Once again, this is a month-by-month list of posts that either got the most comments of any post at the time or just stand out in some other way on second glance. So here we go:

JANUARY: Metheny Deserves a Pat on the Back For His Latest Effort
FEBRUARY: Another Great Way to Fix Congress
MARCH: Performing for a Less-Than-Perfect Audience?
Perhaps Keith Should Just Grin and Jarrett

APRIL: For Many of Us, This Program Was a Real Clunker
MAY: Today's Situation in a Nutshell
JUNE: Music Meets Art--In the MIddle of the Sidewalk?
JULY: Straight from the Funny Pages
AUGUST: Advertising As Art (or, The Greatest Song You Can't Download...Yet?)
SEPTEMBER: Extreme Makeover: Concert Hall Edition
OCTOBER: Words to Live By
NOVEMBER: Farewell to Fouts
DECEMBER: Kids Say the Darnedest Things About Geography

As always, thanks for stopping by; I'll try to have a lot more for you to read in the year ahead.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Let There Be Even More Lights

I'm back from my trip to Houston (in record time, mind you; I can't believe I made it back from the old neighborhood in three and a half hours while maintaining the speed limit, but I guess that's what stopping only one time will do) and will save a bigger post for later, but I had to make a quick addendum to my annual holiday lights review. Tonight, I checked out the nearby neighborhood Woodbridge, which encompasses parts of Sachse and Wylie. In the Sachse portion, just off Country Club Drive, check out Hillview Lane, where the first- and second-place winners in the lighting contest are right across the street from each other. The first-place house has its lights synced to music, and its neighbor's lights appear to at least partially go in time to the music as well. If you're in that part of town, it's well worth a look.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Greetings

SUGAR LAND--Merry Christmas to all! I'm chilling with the whole family this year, though that means I'm typing this from the quiet comfort of my hotel room. (As I noted on Facebook and Twitter, when my sister and her family are down, I get to spend Christmas as a sort of reverse Nativity scene; there's no room at the house, but there is room at the inn. And the inn is very quiet.)

I hope you get to spend today with family and/or friends in as relaxing a way as possible. And as always, I salute those who aren't able to have the day off today--public safety and emergency personnel, a few in retail and broadcasting, and of course those on active duty in the armed forces. Have a blessed day!

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Sweet Explosion of Sorts

SUGAR LAND--I'm writing from my traditional perch at Mom and Dad's, where I get to stay for one night before my sister and her family arrive tomorrow. Being in Sugar Land, the former home of a large Imperial Sugar refinery (more on the city's history here, from my first Christmas visit as a blogger), the big news item from the past few weeks was that a couple of the buildings at that former refinery were imploded last weekend to make way for a mixed-use project. (The most iconic of the buildings, the old char house, was left standing and will be incorporated into the project.)

Check out the video at the link (where, as you can see, it took one of the buildings quite a bit of time to fall down on its own, well after the charges were detonated), and there's a good amateur video here as well, made from still photographs in succession and a lot of before-and-after shots at the end. And here's some background info on the redevelopment project itself.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tour de Lights

Now that I've finally had some time off, I've been able to enjoy one of my favorite holiday traditions: Going out to see some of the amazing light displays that are found all over the DFW area. That means it's also time for Kev's Annual Lights Post*, where I run down a list of my favorites:
  • Deerfield in Plano: For my money (which pretty much involves only the gas to get there), this is the best all-around neighborhood in the area for lights. It has a wide variety of streets that are easy to traverse once you've done it a few times, most of the neighborhood participates (there were fewer "Scrooge" houses this year than before), and now it features the Zephries house on Old Pond Drive, which now has 104,000 lights synchronized to music. There's also the Gordon Lights on Quincy at the north end of the subdivision that has a very nicely-synchronized display as well. (Both the aforementioned houses also serve as drop-off points for various charities, so, if the spirit moves you, bring a new unwrapped toy for Toys for Tots or a non-perishable food item for the North Texas Food Bank to the Zephries display, or cash/gift cards for Operation Homefront to the Gordon display.) The carriage and limo rides make this area an even bigger attraction, and I've always thought it would be cool to park nearby and do a walking tour like many of the neighbors do. (When I went Monday night, the weather would have been great for that, but I thought I was short on time. Hats off to the homeowners for keeping everything on well past ten.

  • Frisco Square: Although it's a newcomer in comparison to the other sites mentioned here, Frisco has become one of the top attractions in the area, with even more lights to its amazing display from last year (among the highlights for me are the lights that go across the two main buildings, which totally surrounds the viewer with light). As before, everything is synchronized to music, which can be heard either from a low-powered FM radio broadcast or from speakers near the buildings. (For some pictures of last year's display, go here.)

    And if you make it to Frisco, be sure and drive a few miles east to see the Trykoski house, where the designer of the Frisco Square lights calls home. This year, they have 85,000 lights in their display, which is also synchronized to music. (And I probably don't need to point out that nearly all of the displays with synced music include the song that's become the unofficial theme of such displays: "Wizards in Winter" from this CD by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I think the entire genre started with Carson Williams in Ohio, whose display became the subject of a beer commercial a few years ago.) Incidentally, the Trykoskis are collecting canned goods for Frisco Family Services.

  • SpringPark in Garland/Richardson: The classic neighborhood of mostly cul-de-sacs, each with a different theme. Among my favorites are the displays on Silver Maple and Buckethorn, as well as the continuous train motif along Lake Shore Drive, and Debra Court was full of win this year with its "12 Days of Redneck Christmas" theme (though they should have gone in reverse order like the song does; you'd have to drive on the wrong side of the road to sync with the song. Quite a few of the streets were more sparsely lit this year, which has been a trend for a while now; I wonder if I was just there on a night when a lot of people were on vacation.

  • Interlochen in Arlington: I haven't been here in a few years (though I'll try this year, as it's been extended through Dec. 31), but this neighborhood is unique in that several streets back up to a large canal, so the backyards as well as the fronts are decorated. This area is not too far from Six Flags, and, like the amusement park, there are signs along Randol Mill Road listing estimated times until you get to the lights. I need to make this one again soon. (And check out this heartwarming story about the generosity of UTA professor Allan Saxe, whose generous donation allowed the lights to go on when the city could no longer afford to pay police officers for traffic control.)

  • There are also two houses in Rowlett worth seeing: One on Dogwood Trail that's all done up in neon (evidently, the homeowner also owns a neon sign company) and the Belcher house on Faulkner Drive; there's also a perennial favorite in Carrollton on Timberline at High Sierra that always goes all out, even decorating the garage as a Santa's Workshop.
As always, if I've missed anything, please let me know in the comment section. I'm a big fan of Christmas lights, so I'd always be interested in seeing something new.

*I discovered when searching for some of the old text to copy and paste that I actually forgot to do the 2009 post. D'oh!

UPDATE: A few days after Christmas, I discovered some more cool houses in the Sachse/Wylie area.

Well, It Looks LIke Katz's Does Klose After All

I received some unfortunate news on Facebook from a friend who's a UT-Austin alumnus: Katz's Deli, the iconic Sixth Street restaurant known for being open all night (its slogan, "Katz's Never Kloses," is even reflected in its website), will be shuttered just after New Year's:
Katz's Deli, the longstanding popular restaurant on West Sixth Street, will shut its doors for good after more than three decades of being a 24-hour Austin icon.

The restaurant filed for bankruptcy in July after some difficulties with the property owners. Owner Marc Katz, considered relocating but has since changed his mind.

"I saw Brett Favre on your station this morning getting beat up," said Katz. "I think I'm going to quit while I'm ahead."

The 63-year-old was upbeat about his 31 years on Sixth Street. "It's a great time to leave," he said. "Reminds me of a gambler who leaves while he's winning."
I haven't been to Katz's in quite a few years, but I was turned onto it a long time ago by some UT friends, and it became a regular stop for a while when I was taking sax quartets to State Solo & Ensemble on an annual basis. Not only was it always open, but the food was really good and quite plentiful; I usually enjoyed a Reuben sandwich that was bursting at the seams with meat. It was probably as close to a New York deli as you could find in Texas.

They'll stay open until January 2. I don't know if I'll be out that way before then, but I'll definitely remember some good times.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I'd Better Post This Before My Thoughts Get Eclipsed By Other Things..

A few thoughts on last night's eclipse:
  • My cheap old binoculars work a lot better than I expected them to.

  • I said "boo!" to the wispy clouds that came in and messed everything up right when it was about to hit "maximum eclipse point."

  • I was amazed at how many people (of all ages) stayed up to watch it. Yay for being on vacation!

  • I'm really glad it was in the 50s instead of the 20s or 30s outside last night.

  • I think that was the first time I'd used my patio furniture in the entire time I've lived in this house.
Did you stay up for the eclipse? Post your thoughts (and links to any cool pictures you may have taken) in the comments below.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Fall Has Fell

The academic calendar says there's one more day left, but for me, the fall semester came to a close at around 10:30 this morning. Since the college is out this week, I was able to squeeze the bulk of five days' worth of students (save for a few taking exams) into just over three days. I have some teaching-related errands yet to run (most notably, finding an ensemble for a larger-than-usual group) and one more school concert tonight, but otherwise, Fall 2010 is in the books.

It was a busy, busy semester, without a doubt. Even a lot of the weekends weren't particularly "weekend-y" at times. But everything that's been occupying my time falls under the category of Good Stuff, so it's all been time well spent.

The public schools don't resume until January 4, and the college is off until the 18th. Commence relaxation. Oh, and happy Beethoven's Birthday! He would have been 240 today.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Years Later, the Dream Is Still Alive

For the past several months, I've been without the use of my iPod car converter, so I've had to kick it old-school and rely on CDs for my listening while driving around. And although I have a certain "regular rotation" of favorite driving music, I've also taken advantage of the opportunity to bust out some music that I haven't listened to in a long, long time, which includes this great old song from my college days:

The group M√ľnchener Freiheit, known simply as Freiheit over here, came to the attention of U.S. audiences when the above song was featured in the soundtrack to the movie Say Anything. That movie starred John Cusack, who was a favorite actor of my sister's when she was in high school and college. She decided she wanted Freiheit's entire album, Fantasy, which I bought for her for Christmas. And after a single listen, I was also hooked and promptly bought another copy for myself.

This song, "Keeping the Dream Alive," was by far my favorite; with its Beatlesque harmonies and sweeping orchestral accompaniment, it has been described by a YouTube commenter as the "best Paul McCartney song Paul McCartney never wrote," and I've always found it to be very uplifting. A lot of the other songs on the album (which is still available in its German-language version but sadly out-of-print in English) are also quite reminiscent of the Beatles, but even the other songs are perfectly serviceable Europop that has stood the test of time reasonably well.

By the way, M√ľnchener Freiheit is still very much a band, having released 17 albums since they started in 1981, though the (shameful, in my opinion) lack of enthusiasm over here for their English-language version of Fantasy meant that all their subsequent recordings have only been recorded in German. (Listen to their vocals, and you'll marvel at how well they sing in a foreign language; only a few words of one song, "Diana," gives any indication of an accent.)

One other note of interest: Evidently the wintertime release of this song in the U.K. has turned it into a minor Christmas classic over there, where it still gets a lot of airplay at this time of year. (And it reached a few more American ears a few years ago when it was featured on American Idol, a show I've never watched.)

Enjoy this blast from the past, which is a great song deserving of more recognition over here.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Phantom Tollbooth (Modern Version)

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was The Phantom Tollbooth, the story of a kid named Milo who had all kinds of unusual adventures when he drove his toy car through a magical tollbooth that he receives mysteriously one afternoon as a gift. But now, the title takes on a new meaning; as of today, there will no longer be such a thing as a "tollbooth" in the North Texas area, as the North Texas Tollway Authority completes its transition to cashless tolling.

It's not exactly a new thing; tolls on the Bush Turnpike has been all-electronic for over a year now, but it took a while for some of the older facilities, like the Dallas North Tollway and the Addison Airport Toll Tunnel, to get retrofitted. The big, clunky buildings that stretched across the highway have either had their cash lanes eliminated or been replaced by the new, smaller "gantries" that adorn the newer roads in the system. And while the NTTA went to great lengths to retrain its toll collectors for other positions in the agency, it still marks the end of an era in local transportation.

There's been pseudo-automation in the toll road industry for decades, of course, ever since the first coin-operated toll baskets were installed in, what--the '50s? As a little kid, I always liked the "throw in the basket" tolls more than the "pay the man" tolls, mostly because Dad would let me toss the coins in the former. But I wonder if anyone imagined even two decades ago that everything would be automated at this point in time. (Yeah, they probably did, and they also likely thought the toll plazas would be elevated to accommodate our flying cars, LOL.)

I guess my only question for the NTTA is if/when the big hulky plazas on the Bush will be replaced by gantries; as it stands now, there's a lot of excess concrete out there where the cash lanes used to be, and it's a little annoying that the onramps start out wide and narrow to a single lane to enter the highway. But I guess that will all happen soon enough.

So if you drive through a toll plaza today--not having to slow down at all to do so--think back for a moment and remember the folks whose jobs have now been assigned to the pages of history.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

KIds Say the Darnedest Things When They Make Mistakes

Another Wednesday, another round of funny-kid stuff in lessons...

ME: Oops--you played that quarter note like a half note again.
KID: Poop!
ME: Not in here, please; I have to teach in this room for several more hours.

(And it's even funnier when you realize that the kid who said it is a sixth-grade girl, and that she did so as daintily as possible.)

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

A Dandy Time Was Had By All Who Knew Him

I hadn't really thought about Don Meredith for a while until news of his passing came in yesterday. But after reading this column by the Dallas Morning News' Brad Townsend, I felt more than a little sad. Despite all the fame (both from being the Cowboys' quarterback and his later stint in the Monday Night Football booth), he remained grounded until the end. From a 2009 DMN interview:
"I'm very thankful," he said in a reflective moment that day, retrieving a photo of his parents from a bookcase. "I'm very thankful about where I'm from and who I am."
When his broadcasting career was over, he mostly stayed out of the limelight, and, as noted in the linked article, most of today's young people don't even remember him in the broadcast booth, much less wearing the starred helmet. But some say that "Dandy Don" has a latter-day counterpart in Tony Romo, and there's no doubt his influence on the franchise is still felt today. Rest in peace, #17; you will be missed.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Notes From the Road (East Texas Edition)

I spent over 375 miles on the road this weekend, all of it "local" (as in within an hour or so of home). My trip to Commerce yesterday included a lot of unusual observations along the way:
  • I've seen a drive-thru beer barn many times in the past, but today was the first time I saw a drive-thru feed store. I wonder if you can keep animals in the back of your truck and just toss the feed right in there with them...

  • Favorite store name: A custom bike shop called "Knucklehead and Sons."

  • Favorite store name #2, in the "say this ten times fast" department: Pippin's Propane.

  • I still can't believe they have the Watergate Apartments in Greenville. That name just seems...scandalous.

  • I-30 was simply swarming with state troopers today, for no apparent reason. The most unusual sighting was the car that appeared to be giving someone a reverse escort--as in, the patrol car drove behind this pickup truck with its lights flashing, all the way until the truck exited the freeway. After that, the trooper turned his lights off and continued on. I have no idea what that was about...

  • The construction area in Greenville featured nearly every warning sign possible, all lined up in a row like a little sign army: UNEVEN LANES, TEXTURED PAVEMENT AHEAD, ROUGH ROAD, NO CENTER STRIPE, SHOULDER DROP OFF. (I think we got the idea.)

  • On Hwy. 24 up to commerce, there was an extraordinary amount of roadkill on Hwy. 24, with birds feasting at every turn. But as I drove near them, they naturally dispersed, forcing them to "carrion" about their business a little later. (And most of the roadkill appeared to be skunks...eww.)
I'm still a bit weary from the long weekend of trips, but I won't have to drive that much again until Christmas.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

BBF Is My New BFF Band These Days

Here's one more video from Brandt Brauer Frick, this time with orchestral instruments added to their trio setup:

I've just found out that these guys are playing SXSW in March; a trip to Austin may now be on the schedule for spring break.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Fascinating Rhythms

I just got turned onto this group in the past hour, and they're quite intriguing to me:

(If you want to avoid the cheesy--and fake?--German talk show intro, skip to 1:00 for the beginning of the tune.)

Brandt Brauer Frick plays dance music almost completely on acoustical instruments, though sometimes in unusual ways (screws in the strings, etc.). They also come from an interesting background: Daniel Brandt and Jan Brauer met in their high school jazz band, and Paul Frick is a classically-trained composer. The result of their collaboration is like nothing you've heard before.

(Thanks to eMusic for featuring this group on their frontpage today. I guess I'll still be discovering great indie artists on that site even as I gobble up all the ECM they just acquired in the past week.)

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

KIds Say the Darnedest Things About Geography

World geography, from the mind of a sixth-grader:

(During a lesson, I have just taken a few seconds to adjust the day/date function on my watch, since there's no November 31. The student notices what I'm doing.)

KID: Your watch shows the date? That's cool. (Looks at watch.)
ME: What's really cool is the place where I bought it.
KID: Where's that?
ME: Switzerland.
KID: Switzerland...that's in Germany, right?

And of course, this reminded me of the summer when I went to Switzerland and procured said watch; many of the students I taught at the time, after being advised of my absence for the trip, asked me if I was going to have to learn to "speak Swedish" to go over there.

(Pardon the rerun if you're my friend on Facebook, but I've been blogging funny kid stuff for years.)