Romance Of The Rails

I like trains.

Like most little boys, I grew up loving trains. Unlike many adults, and unlike most of the childhood things which amused me, I never lost the love of them. I like taking train trips, even if only half hour commuter trips, like watching those pull up to the platform, only feet away, don’t mind the delay caused by having to stop at a road crossing and wait for them to pass through carrying their cargoes of oil. Potash. Coal. Grain. Imported dollar store crap from China. Autos. You name it.

I grew up in Canada, only a couple of blocks from the CP Rail mainline between Toronto and Montreal. We could hear every train pass by; from the yard of my public school, we could see them chugging by behind the houses across the street.The line hauled new cars and pickups from the GM factories nearby to dealers here, there and everywhere, and in turn pulled in boxcars full of parts by the hundred, day in, day out.  By junior high, I was at a school right along the same rail line; for gym we’d often run cross-country right alongside the tracks. When a Detroit via Toronto freight rumbled by, I was a bit slower than usual… not that that mattered, I usually was bringing up the rear anyhow!

My dad and I had model trains, and had a big table in the spare room in the ’70s, put some track on it. We never did quite get the layout complete, and we had differing ideas of the types of trains we wanted on it. My dad loved vintage steam engines and toyish cars. I wanted diesels like I saw on the rails by our house, and authentic freight cars. It mattered little. It brought him and I together when I was a youth and tween, something not a whole lot of things did.

The appeal, I can’t completely explain. The power of them is overwhelming. The mystery too. What’s in that boxcar? How about that tanker? And where’s it going? The multitude of railroads and colors , at least when I was young was fascinating as well. While I stood and watched CP trains and their bright red engines (with red and white striped noses and an odd, oh-so-’70s black and white logo on the end of the long hoods) they’d pull along freight cars from everywhere. The rusty red boxcars of Santa Fe, Southern, Missouri Pacific. Yellow Union Pacific ones. The orange Illinois Central and bold yellow and blue Chessie System ones were particular favorites of mine. And the appeal of being able to buy realistic little 1/87th size miniatures of all them to have go round in the bedroom made it so much cooler still.

I was reminded of that a few weeks back when President George H.W. Bush died. His body was taken to its final resting place, at his library in College Station, Texas, by a train led by a locomotive painted in his honor. Union Pacific #4141 (number picked because he was the 41st president) wound its way along the rails from Houston for several hours, while people lined the streets and tracks, paying their respects for one last time. It was said to be very appropriate, even though no president since Eisenhower nearly five decades earlier had been carried to his funeral on the rails, because George Sr. was said to love trains, and particularly the big, western carrier, Union Pacific. They said they were honored to have that privilege and painted up the huge, 210 ton EMD locomotive in blue and silver tones to mimic Air Force One. This was in contrast to their normal locomotives which are bright yellow with red lettering.

It looked surprising, even for non-railfans who live in the southwest and see the yellow UP trains rumble by daily, but it wasn’t the first time railroads did something unusual with their paint schemes to honor the country.

Back in 1976, the U,S. was abuzz with patriotic fever inspired by the Bicentennial. And railroads, so much a part of the country’s 200 year history, decided to share that enthusiasm. A couple of years before, the Seaboard Coast Line, a railroad that primarily served East Coast cities from Chesapeake Bay south to Florida, noticed it had a General Electric engine (as a sidebar, it might surprise many that GE is one of the world’s biggest producers of diesel fuel burning locomotives) numbered 1776 and decided to gussy up its paint. In place of the normal mainly black and white paint the company used, it painted #1776 in a bright red, white and blue scheme with stars on the red and blue stripes and a large presidential seal fastened to the side. Soon others followed suit- Illinois Central (which kept the corporate orange and black on the nose but also had blue and red stripes on an otherwise white engine numbered 1776), Grand Trunk, Santa Fe… soon over 20 different rail lines had engines honoring the country and flag. Boston and Maine, a relatively small rail line, painted 9 diesels patriotic colors! Erie-Lackawanna painted an engine #3638 in their normal design but with red white and blue replacing their normal mainly gray, with a dull maroon stripe. They did that in 1976… even though later that year they went out of business and were “enveloped” by Conrail.

I’ve never met George W. Bush, needless to say, but I always figured I could always have a good talk with him because we both love baseball. Likewise, I never met his father, George H.W. I didn’t agree with all his policies while he was president, but I bet I would’ve liked chatting with him. He did, after all, love trains.

Christmas With Pizza-zz

I heard this one come up on a radio morning show again last week. It’s no surprise since it is almost as routine a December topic as the “cost” of giving the gifts listed in the Twelve Days of Christmas. When the morning show hosts were debating turkey vs. ham, inevitably someone phoned in and said essentially, “turkey’s not that great, give me a pizza instead.” So the question becomes not so much “turkey vs. ham” as “big kitchen-made dinner vs. pizza delivered.”

Now, I quite like turkey and like ham a lot more. My sweetie makes a great green bean casserole (a side dish I only encountered when first having Christmas dinner in the southern states) which is great. She has some Mexican in her background, so it’s a family tradition for her to have tamales at Christmas-time, another food new to me that I find quite palatable although, lacking the history, not such a cherished part of the season. My Mom used to make some very good stuffing to go with the turkey when I was younger,so big, nap-inducing dinners at Christmas are a part of my background. Cranberry sauce is one of the few examples of a sweet that seems to “go” with meat or the main course particularly well.

But for all that, I say “make it pizza.” Maybe with a nice store-bought salad on the side. I mean, who doesn’t like pizza? If you have a large family or gathering of friends, you can always order up a veggie one or two, perhaps a Hawaiian, for those who don’t like pepperoni or “supreme” that much.

It’s not that pizza is inherently better than a turkey or a ham feast. Rather, it’s a lot easier. And when you add it up, even with a good tip thrown in – and I do advocate tipping the driver heavily and handsomely, for having to work on that special day – it’s likely going to come out cheaper than turkeysor spiral hams, all those side dishes, rolls and so on. Not to mention, does anybody really like eating dry turkey sandwiches on the 28th, microwaved turkey chunks and four-day old stuffing on the 29th or flakes of turkey for breakfast on the 30th? There’s the real point to me – those big meals leave far too many leftovers (of course, if you have a big family pooch, they may help out on that!) . More importantly, they take a lot of time and effort.

If you have a maid or personal chef, if you’re retired and independently wealthy, maybe the hours upon hours spent prepping, cooking, checking the temperatures, then washing up later are no big deal. But for the rest of us, where people are busy and perhaps have two or three days off to enjoy all the Christmas they can cram in, it’s a different story.

How many Christmases have you seen where half the family doesn’t see the others until the all-too-short meal because they’re cleaning turkeys, snoozing because they were up at 5 AM starting the dinner for that evening or running to the supermarket to get that can of cranberries they forgot? If you’re like me, the answer is “quite a few”.

This year I’m happy and fortunate to be spending the season again with my sweetie and much of her family. we had the big family “get-together” last night. The food was good, and plenty too. But the good stuff – the things we’ll remember – were watching one of her nephew’s girlfriend’s little ones playing with toys and a “walk on” piano and laughing it up, full of the wonder of Santa; us adults having a few drinks and laughing over bingo games, sharing stories of the year gone down and so on. Finally tonight we’re watching a handful of Christmas movies together, which is always one of the highlights of Christmas to me.

So again, I say “big kitchen-made dinner vs. pizza delivered?” Whichever your choice, I send you wishes for the best of dinners and moreover, the best of company for you through the day and the entire season. And as a PS, cheers to all of you who remember those who wouldn’t have much food or company at this time of year and take it upon themselves to help them out a little one way or another.

Merry Christmas All!

Christmas Movies Are Like… Beer?

It’s as predictable as the car blocking traffic in the mall parking lot waiting for the perfect spot to open up or the fruitcake under the tree from Aunt Madge – it’s the most wonderful time of the year for people to get hot under the collar debating movies. Or in particular, the best Christmas movies. Every year we seem to be inundated with a new horde of lists telling us what the “best” holiday movies are; every year people argue over said lists endlessly at the work water cooler and family dinners. 

A perfunctory google search quickly offered up Esquire magazine’s top 40 and Rotten Tomatoes list of the best 50. Each had its own quirks and things to get tongues wagging. Both for instance, included the 1974 slasher-horror flick Black Christmas (#38 on Rotten Tomatoes, #19 over at Esquire). Both had more than one version of “A Christmas Carol” – four on Rotten Tomatoes, which picked the 1951 Alistair Sim one as “the definitive”, and three on Esquire which agreed the ’51 B&W take on it is “still the finest adaptation of Charles Dickens’ legendary tale… yet rated The Muppet Christmas Carol higher. If only director Brian Hurst had thought to have Ebenezer Scrooge visited by Fozzie Bear in the night.

Both lists did agree on the top pick. Rotten Tomatoes call it “the holiday classic to define all holiday classics.” Esquire suggest “few films define Christmas like” it. Yet, surprisingly, when It’s A Wonderful Life came out in 1946, fans were indifferent to the now-classic Frank Capra ode to friendship and loyalty.

It’s hard to argue with the choice…particularly if like me, your sweetie’s hung a framed movie poster of it in the bedroom. But to me, asking my favorite Christmas movie is like asking me to pick a favorite color. Well, I like teal blue tones, but not if we’re talking about cuts of meat. Actually, it might be more akin to asking me what my favorite beer is. Sure I might prefer Blue Moon or Sam Adams to Bud Lite, but the answer is still “whichever is cold and in the fridge”! The favorite Christmas movie is often the one that we’re watching in the moment. The one that brings the whole family together sharing old memories and creating new ones.

That said, to me a season wouldn’t feel like Christmas without seeing most, if not all of the following ones from the Silver Screen and small screen: A Christmas Carol, It’s A Wonderful Life, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Love Actually and A Christmas Story.

The Grinch – the ’60s animated TV version, true to Dr. Seuss’ words and other-wordly visuals- was a family tradition for me growing up and even as I got to be reading adult novels and reference books, was a reminder of how much those Seuss books entertained me and made me want to read on my own. I still feel curiously happy when walking past a rack with hardcovers of it, Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop and the like. Subconsciously I guess it harkens me back to one of the happy times in my young childhood; consciously it pleases me to know that kids today are still learning to love reading and words through his rhymes just like I did.

I’ve seen many good adaptations of A Christmas Carol, but I go with the lists I mentioned in adhering to the ’51 version as the definitive one. Sure it’s B&W, the sound a little tinny and the special effects, Scrooge flying through the ghost-ridden air and so on, are cheesy but its tough to beat the charm of Sim as the changed man on Christmas morning or not to break out laughing at the frightened maid who encounters a freak of nature – a singing, cheerful Ebenezer Scrooge! Of course, the real reason it perhaps is my pick of the many is that it was for years a Christmas Eve tradition for my Mom and I to watch it. It would be quite a letdown if no station was running it!

It’s A Wonderful Life is wonderful, plain and simple. It never hurts to be reminded of how we impact those around us more than we know, or how doing the right thing will get noticed and eventually be returned to you. I don’t think I saw it until I was in my 20s, but now not a year goes by without watching it with loved ones.

Love Actually is a bit of a variation. I first saw it at a local library mid-summer, during a thunderstorm. And of course that’s not all together unreasonable. It’s more of a romcom than straight ahead Christmas flick; it just happens to revolve around all those intertwined stories happening at Yule time. Since it came out 15 years back, there’ve been a slew of movies which have imitated its entanglement of storylines, but none I’ve seen do it as well. As a music fan, I’ll forgive it for making Mariah Carey richer still by re-popularizing “All I Want For Christmas Is You” because, hey has there ever been a cuter kid than little Sam playing drums watching the love of his life, 12 year-old Joanna, belt it out on stage at the school pagent? Besides, it makes up for that “digression” with the knowing cynicism of Billie Mack and his laughably honest assessment of his “crass” Christmas single as being crap! There are a hundred things that make me laugh every time I see it, from the kids’ dismayed “We hate uncle Jamie!” when he takes off from the house without dropping off presents to the intentional juxtapositioning of the shy, bland conversation of John and Judy with the X-rated sex scene they’re supposed to be filming. Speaking of, it’s a classic you really want to have the DVD of… TV is prone to cut out their whole storyline and edit some other parts so much as to make it almost unrecognizable.

A Christmas Story likewise makes me laugh… the father’s joy at the Leg Lamp, his simmering hatred for the Bumpkuses’ hounds , the pink bunny pyjamas and of course the greatest Bad Santa ever… they never get old. Naysayers who’ve popped up this season complaining that it’s not politically correct (being nostalgic for a time when women stayed at home and cooked, making fun of people with accents, a kid who’s only interested in the gifts part of Christmas all rub them the wrong way ) miss the point, and maybe a funny bone. It’s funny because it’s nostalgic and relatable for so many of us. Like Rotten Tomatoes (ranking it #13) it’s “warmly nostalgic and darkly humorous.”

But back to the beer analogy. The one on hand is often the best one. As time goes by and my life changes, my personal list shifts too. I first saw the Family Stone (picked by Esquire as their 30th best) about three Christmas’ back. It was already a favorite of my sweetie. So seeing it with her has made it special to me now, and a newcomer to our joint “must see” list. That one by the way, was surprisingly under the radar for one with as Esquire term it, an “all star cast” headed by the likes of Rachel MacAdams, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson and Diane Keaton. It blends humor and sorrow rather superbly studying one dysfunctional family”s – is there any other kind?- holiday. Likewise, last weekend we all watched Elf, a bigtime fave and annual tradition for her and her kiddo, which has elevated its status on my personal list considerably.

Some movies for you to consider over the next couple of weeks… but more importantly, a call for you to look back on your own happy holidays of years gone by and make your own, personal and meaningful list. Time flies by, so remember to take a moment or two to live in the present,not just the presents this December. And maybe grab me a beer if you’re going to the fridge!

Star Power Didn’t Have That Much Luster To It

I don’t have much musical talent. Rather a shame since I love music and it’s been a major force in keeping me relatively sane and grounded through a lot of difficult days in my early life. I did manage to learn to play keyboards when I was a high-schooler, just rather poorly. I bought a Casio electronic keyboard then a cheap, cheap used electric piano and some sort of basic synthesizer-type keyboard and lots of late-’70s, early-’80s sheet music and learned a few songs. Slowly. In fact I could play almost any hit single of that era, if I had the music and you wanted to listen to it in slow motion. My fingers don’t react all that quickly to the notes my mind is telling them to play! I did write though, lyrics. Lots of them in high school. As I look back it set the pattern for my life in later years.

As much as I loved pop and rock music, I never wanted to be a rock star. Weird, right? isn’t that every young guy’s dream?

Well, as much as when I was 17 or 18, the idea of having a crowd of young, hot gals lusting after me couldn’t help but excite, the answer is still “no.” I think that if I ever wanted to be in the music biz, I’d have wanted to be Robert Lamm not Robert Plant. Wait, you say, I know who Robert Plant is but Robert Lamm? Precisely my point.

Lamm was a keyboardist who wrote a number of early Chicago hits including “Saturday in the Park” and “25 or 6 to 4” and sang a few of them. Everyone knew his music, but hardly anyone heard his name. Fewer still, I would guess would have known him on the street. And that’s always been an ideal for me. I’d love to have people really connect and love what I create. I wouldn’t love them to all think they love me without knowing me, or that my life was theirs to be a part of without an invitation. As much as I’d like to have gold records on the wall or see my name on the Billboard charts, I wouldn’t want that “celebrity” that goes with. I would flat out hate to not be able to go into a restaurant and have a meal with friends without having people rush the table and ask for signatures or selfies with me; hate more not being able to go shopping or to a bar without having a gaggle of guys with 400mm lenses following me to capture anything embarassing I might happen to do. (Of course in this day and age, thanks to phone technology, everyone is a papparazi with a 400mm lens!) Ergo, the life of Robert Lamm, whose work is loved, probably earned a good living from it but walked down the road blending in with the crowd. I guess I just like my privacy, or lack some basic gene most seem to have that makes them crave attention and the spotlight. this may be a plus or a flaw, but it’s me.

It’s probably why I gravitate to writing. I love having people share in what I’m thinking or creating without being noticed personally. I mean, when you think about it, how many writers would you really recognize if you bumped into them in the mall or bleachers at a ball game? I’m guessing the list might begin and end with Stephen King, save for writers who are famous only for being movie stars, politicians or rock stars first.

That’s just me. It took a while for me to figure it out. And I hope it doesn’t sound cold or unwelcoming. I actually love connecting with people in forums like this and hope things I write can touch a chord with you.

It all came to mind today, as we mark the anniversary of John Lennon’s death – or murder actually. As almost all of you know, the famous musician and peace-advocate was murdered in front of his wife on the doorstep to his New York home… by a “fan” who was stalking him. Making the life of Robert Lamm seem suddenly more idyllic. The grass is always greener on the other side, as they say.

How about you, good reader? Is the spotlight right for you?