Thursday, December 25, 2008

A very merry (Muppet) Christmas to you

Merry Christmas! And what better gift could I give than the entire new Muppets special, courtesy of

May your days be merry and bright, and stay tuned for an important blog announcement by the first of the year!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Column: The dog who came in from the cold

It’s funny how dogs have their own personalities. Our 1-year-old yellow Lab Penny, for instance, is in possession of an unfettered wanderlust — she’ll take every possible opportunity to sneak out an open door. You tend to spot her for a second looking toward the heavens like Tim Robbins when he crawled out of the sewer pipe in “Shawshank Redemption,” and then, before you can get close enough to grab her, she hightails it off into the wild unknown.

Our 4-year-old black Lab Lilly, on the other hand, is our homebody dog. She seems to have picked up on the fact that if she sticks with us she gets two square meals a day, and there’s not a single couch in the house that’s off limits. Even when the others go galumphing off after squirrels or other people’s dogs, she’ll always give us that glance over her shoulder that says she’s still got our backs, or that she thinks we might be carrying bacon.

It’s Lilly’s penchant for staying close to home that has earned her the privilege of joining Annie, our 10-year-old golden, out the side of the house to do her nightly business, as poor Penny is relegated to the penned-in area in the front, yapping at the echo of her own bark, which sounds suspiciously like the dog she spots daily in the glass window of our entertainment center.

What we never counted on, though, was a sudden ice storm like we had Thursday night. One minute it seemed like regular rain; the next a branch that most people would consider an entire tree was crashing to the ground outside our door, right where the dogs tend to congregate. Within seconds the side of the house was a sea of limbs, branches and pine needles — and though Annie bolted right up on the porch, Lilly, our homebody dog who’d never left our sight for more than 10 minutes, was gone.

My wife, Theresa, went into the yard to call Lilly’s name — which she’d responded to every time before — but had to turn back when branches kept falling around her like bludgeons from the sky. This was around 11 p.m., and it didn’t take long for us to determine that our best avenue of behavior was to panic.

Still, I tried to remain calm. “Dogs have a survival instinct,” I told Theresa about two hours after Lilly disappeared, not having any idea what I was talking about. “She’s seeking shelter and she’ll be back when she feels safe.” Of course, I knew that Lilly knew the safest place was in our house with all the couches and the people who always forget to tie the trash up, not outside in the pouring, freezing rain. She wasn’t like Penny, who would clearly go with any family that had the same salty taste that we did.

Eventually we had to give up and go back to bed, if not to sleep, the whole time hearing the pounding rain and the crack-crack-crack of snapping tree limbs in the yard outside. Finally, the power went out, extinguishing any chance of spotting Lilly’s black fur against the rainy night. I was suddenly sorry for all those times I missed curfew back in high school, when my mother may have very likely been imagining me outside in the rain, trapped under a tree branch.

By the first light I think Theresa and I had resigned separately to ourselves that Lilly wasn’t coming back. I had visions of having to explain it to the kids — my son Tim, 7, had managed to sleep through the excitement, but my 9-year-old daughter, Jackie, had caught wind of Lilly’s departure and was panicking right along with us. And I felt guilty for every time I’d admonished Lilly for some slight or another she’d committed as a puppy, whether it was eating my shoes, or eating the new coffee table, or eating the wall. (Although really, what would make even a dog want to eat a wall?)

Then, at 5:30 in the morning, when my wife’s stepfather left his side of our two-family house to make his way to work, he heard a familiar jingle coming up the driveway. We were all lying awake in bed when we heard his voice coming up the stairwell: “Lilly’s home!”

Who knows where she’d been — she was moist, but not drenched, almost like she’d spent the night in a sauna. But she practically bowled us over as we ran down the stairs to see her. It’s a running family joke that of our three dogs, Lilly is “cheap with the love” — we think it has to do with her having to wear a retainer when she was a puppy (long story). But on Friday morning, her tongue was out and licking Jackie’s face like she hadn’t seen her in years. And that’s probably what it felt like, on both sides.

By the time the sun came out on Friday we had two smashed windshields, a crushed barbecue grill, a side door blocked by branches and enough wood to keep us in bark mulch through the next century. But somehow that’s all a little easier to take, because we also had our own early Christmas miracle, in the form of a pudgy black homebody dog who took a little longer than usual coming home.

A dog who, I might mention, will be doing her nightly business out front with her sister Penny from now on.

This column appeared originally in North Shore Sunday. Follow Peter Chianca on Twitter at To receive At Large by e-mail, write to, with the subject line “SUBSCRIBE.”

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Column: Dreaming of a light Christmas

The Christmas season is upon us. I know this because my house is in the middle of its annual transformation into a festive holiday state, a process that unfortunately does not involve elves working in secret in the middle of the night.

Given my druthers, I’d prefer my holiday d├ęcor to be more Spartan, sort of like the actual North Pole. This is mainly because I know the alternative is lugging boxes of holiday tchotchkes up from the basement for distribution throughout the household, which is my wife’s preference. And if you think that’s a battle worth fighting, you haven’t been married very long.

The process starts with the tree. When we were first married, my wife and I would throw our tree into the trunk of my Chevy Cavalier outside the garden department at Ann & Hope. But then kids entered the picture, and we graduated to chopping down our own tree at a tree farm so our family could experience the true meaning of Christmas: jockeying for a perfectly shaped spruce with dozens of cranky people armed with saws.

There’s also the process of stringing lights, one of the two times a year when I’m asked to risk my life at a great height, the other of course being when I clean my gutters. (OK, so that’s once every other year.) It’s a well-known fact in my neighborhood that it’s not Christmas until you see me hanging off the ladder, straddling between the roof and an extension cord that’s come up about six inches short. (Note to self: This year, start on the outlet end.)

Incidentally, there are many more holiday light options these days. Tasteful white shag lights seem to be the trend, but sometimes when I’m around my neighbors I like to suggest that we’re thinking of giant blinking colored bulbs this year, just to watch the blood drain from their faces.

Inside, of course, there’s a fair and equal distribution of tchotchkes, including reindeer, snowmen, Santas, a menorah — we’re a complex family — and the Nativity scene, which I’d advise you to always put well above dog height. (Luckily for Mary and Joseph, the dogs always seem to go for the sheep first.)

As severe as that carnage can be, it’s still never been as bad as the scene in front of my childhood neighbor’s house — it featured life-sized light-up plastic Nativity characters that would get blown over by the wind every night, so that each morning they were strewn about the lawn like frat boys after a bender.

It’s all a fair amount of work, but I have to admit that at the end of the day — after each ceramic reindeer is placed and every strand of tinsel is laid carefully on the tree — there’s something to be said about sitting back on the couch in a darkened living room and looking at the tree and the blinking lights.

After all, it’s probably the one time during the otherwise frantic season when the whole family can sit together, even for a few minutes, wishing each other a Merry Christmas and meaning it. And that’s not to mention the genuine smiles on my kids’ faces when they look up and see me placing that light-up star on top of the tree.

Or at least straddling between the star and the extension cord.

Note: This column originally appeared in GoodLife magazine. Peter Chianca is a managing editor for Gatehouse Media New England. Follow him on Twitter at To receive At Large by e-mail, write to, with the subject line “SUBSCRIBE.”

Saturday, December 06, 2008

This week's column: Get a peek at your inner geek

Did you know that “geek” wasn’t always meant as an insult? In the old days, the word simply referred to a carnival performer who would bite the heads off live chickens. Just think, if there were no Internet, that’s probably what Perez Hilton would be doing.

Of course, it’s since somehow come to denote a person with odd tastes, poor fashion sense and a certain dearth of social skills. (Not me. Other people.) But as the CW matchmaker show “Beauty and the Geek” has shown us, that doesn’t mean people from all walks of life can’t be brought together by their common interests: namely, to humiliate themselves on national television.

So with “Beauty and the Geek” currently putting out a call for new nerds, you might be wondering if you’d be eligible. That’s where this simple quiz comes in — to find out, get your Ticonderoga No.2 pencil ready, and … begin!

1) Do you know where “Alderaan” is? (2 points.) “Mordor”? (3 points.) “Xanth,” “Gor” and/or “Discworld”? (4 points each.) Bonus: Add 1 point for every Starbucks you can name with WiFi access.

2) Do you have a friend who leaks you details about upcoming Java updates? (Yes: 3 points.)

3) Which of the following is the best song: A) “Cygnus X-1 Duology,” by Rush; B) “Gates of Delirium,” by Yes; C) “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (Part I),” by King Crimson; D) “Cygnus X-1 Duology” is actually two songs — duh! (“D,” 5 points.)

4) The term “wafer thin mint” brings to mind: A) A tasty snack; B) An obese man who explodes in a restaurant, leaving his entrails exposed. (“B,” 3 points; 5 points if you found “B” absolutely hilarious.)

5) Have the three “Star Wars” prequels or the “Clone Wars” cartoon movie ever made you want to kill George Lucas, not in an allegorical sense, but literally, to the point where you’ve actually planned the means and an escape route? (Yes: 5 points.)

6) An “Easter egg” is: A) A festive holiday treat; B) A hidden object in a DVD or video game; C) Stop bothering me, I’m trying to unlock the nookie scene in “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” (“C,” 3 points.)

7) Not that I have any insider information, but if someone were to say that Trevor Horn was planning a Buggles reunion, would your heart start beating a little faster? (Yes: 5 points.)

8) “The City on the Edge of Forever” is: A) A Lynyrd Skynyrd song; B) A U2 song; C) The “Star Trek” episode where Kirk has to let his one true love, Joan Collins, get run over by a bus. Sniff … What? I have something in my eye. (“C,” 5 points.)

9) At any time during your academic career, were you held upside down by a varsity football player? Had your books knocked out of your hands and scattered down a stairwell? Had your underwear pulled up past the small of your back? (Yes to any: 10 points, and have yourself a beer on me, brother.)

10) Have you ever worn a Starfleet uniform, a cape or a Conan the Barbarian loincloth to a movie screening, convention or other gathering in a public building? (Yes: 10 points. True story: I was once covering a “Star Trek” convention when I saw a guy buying himself a “Next Generation” uniform. When asked what rank he wanted, he replied, “Um … Lieutenant Commander?” For crying out loud, man, it’s your money — go for Captain!)

OK, this is usually where I’d tell you to add up your points, but the fact of the matter is, if you got past the fourth question without giving up, you’re a geek. You should audition right away.

But even if you don’t make the cut, you shouldn’t give up — there’s still always the chance that you might be able to impress and even date a buxom blonde woman who makes Sarah Palin look like a Fulbright Scholar, just like the women in the show.

Just make sure your online avatar is really hot.

Peter Chianca is a managing editor for Gatehouse Media New England. Follow him on Twitter at To receive At Large by e-mail, write to, with the subject line “SUBSCRIBE.”