Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson: 1958-2009

Video killed the radio star, hip-hop killed rock, mp3 killed the album, runaway consolidation and niche marketing killed pop music, and now the self-appointed King Of Pop is dead. I guess it all adds up in the end somehow, doesn't it?

For me, this news isn't quite like Kurt Cobain shooting himself with Nirvana still reigning (albeit in wobbly fashion) as the biggest rock act on the planet: the shock and loss just isn't there. The Michael Jackson that I choose to remember fondly tonight vanished over twenty years ago: a troubled ex-child star who'd started to come apart at the seams in the turbulent wake of one of the biggest pop culture achievements of the century. If you want to read a more thorough and in-depth life story or perhaps a litany of his greatest weirdest moments, you're going to have to look elsewhere as I'm here to celebrate Jackson's halcyon days before the looming specter of middle age and the yawning chasm of 24/7 celebrity culture programming turned his life into the world's weirdest reality show.

There will be a lot of talk about financial foolishness, lost childhood and Peter Pan obsessions, but if you really want to get some clearer idea of the real tragedy of Michael Jackson, simply watch "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough," "Rock With You" and "Billie Jean" for a clear look at the vibrant, raw talent he once was. Primitive by today's standards (oooh, lasers!) these clips still offer an instant primer to understanding Jackson's popularity at the time as his voice, stage presence and stunning physical grace were simply unmatched in pop music.

Then along came The Big One: despite essentially being a PG-rated re-shoot of An American Werewolf In London (by way of a George Romero zombie film), the John Landis-directed "Thriller" video continues to hold up under scrutiny 26 years after its debut. Universally hailed at the time as the greatest video ever created, there are definitely arguments that can be made that "Thriller" still holds claim to the title. Even if you disagree on that point, there is no argument that "Thriller" remains a conceptual, cultural and budgetary milestone, and perhaps the most fully-formed realization of the possibilities of the music video format. That said, this short film (and, more to the point, its parent album) also created an impossible standard that Jackson sought continuously to beat for the rest of his life.

The follow-up to a blockbuster solo debut, Thriller was not only the kind of a mega hit you only saw once per decade, it pretty much dominated the entire year of 1983 (with only The Police's Synchronicity putting up any kind of spirited fight for the throne). As a fourteen year old with an insatiable fascination for the music business, Thriller made for a hell of a story to follow as single after single made the Top 10 and the album sold in the kinds of quantities that record companies never dared to dream of. Beyond that angle, I don't think Thriller had a major effect on my tastes as I was pretty well over the moon on New Wave and electropop, with my taste in R&B more along the lines of "Rockit" and "Little Red Corvette" than, say, "P.Y.T." Listening to the album now remains a largely entertaining 45 minutes, with the lyrical subtexts a lot more noticeable thanks to the passage of time: Thriller is the state of Jackson's psyche at the end of 1982: a bit naive ("Human Nature"), intermittently dark and intense ("Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "Beat It"), yet possessed of a certain charming innocence that, in its resolute failure to change, started to became increasingly creepy and disconcerting over the albums that followed.

A barely-memorable reunion album and tour with The Jacksons in 1984 was the only peep the world heard from Michael Jackson for nearly three years while the hub-bub from Thriller-mania gradually died down. It was during this crucial down time that throwaway sight gags in comedies like Beverly Hills Cop began to send-up Jackson's style and image, while the first real whispers of "that boy ain't right" began to circulate in the gossip columns. Over time, the aura of invincibility around The Gloved One began to ever-so-slowly dim.

Then came 1987's ravenously-awaited Bad, which managed to become a decent-sized follow up for Jackson as far as sales and popularity were concerned (and I don't think anyone aside from Jackson really expected anything approaching halfway to Thriller's ridiculous level of success), but was also a record that I personally found to be a troubling letdown. Despite some of returning producer Quincy Jones' best work and top-flight musicianship deployed throughout, Bad was the beginning of Jackson ratcheting up his own self-importance to nearly unbearable levels while perfecting the art of writing songs and creating videos that screamed "HEY EVERYBODY! LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME! DAMN IT, GO AWAY AND STOP LOOKING AT ME!"

Four years after Thriller, high-budget music videos with dialogue and Hollywood actors were commonplace, and Jackson had his work cut out for him attempting to reset the playing field. In trying to continually up the ante on himself, Jackson's newer clips became self-parodic mini-epics where he tried to have it both ways: you know, the kiddie-friendly entertainer who happens to be a hard-assed, hair-trigger street-fighting man not to be trifled with by anyone (eventually up to and including Marlon Brando for crissakes). It is here that I signed off and moved on, letting what eventually became Wacko Jacko The Morphing Human Freakshow become the preferred pet of the tabloid crowd. Besides, by 1988, I was neck deep in the far more interesting weirdness being released by Prince, Jackson's only true competition that whole decade, if not exactly his successor.

In the end, I'll simply forget that the last 20 years ever happened as far as Jackson's career goes and remember him for that first electric decade of solo work and the timeless 70s soul he cut as a child with The Jackson 5. After that, let's just say that he wasn't my King Of Pop. Dangerous? Hardly. Invincible? No. HIStory? Sadly, yes.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009



What else is there to say, really.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Road Trippin'

During the typically endless Northeast Ohio winter, thinking of a clear, sunny, warm summer afternoon while the frigid wind batters at the screen door is a kind of masochistic exercise, largely because such weather feels so impossibly far away. Even when we are treated to that rare summer-like May, and our hopes rise that maybe we're getting an extra early start to the best part of the year, we usually have to endure a cool, clammy, damp early June in a kind of final cruel tease before we are (temporarily) back in paradise once again.

Yesterday, Summer 2009 finally arrived, a perfectly-timed warm and dry end to a week's worth of humid, inclement unpleasantness. For the first time in far too many years, I could think of no better way to celebrate than to head out on a little exploratory road trip in the new MeMobile. While my plan had initially been for a for a full-on all-afternoon excursion, a cluttered schedule coupled with many of the main roads of Lake County being presently ripped to shreds forced me to instead wait out the evening rush before heading east down Route 2, past Painesville and into the rolling countryside.

The idea of going on these aimless trips again has been in the back of my head ever since I started going to get my E-checks done in Painesville Township, rather than off Lost Nation road in Willoughby. After one visit a couple of years ago, the leisurely drive back home (detailed here) took me back to better times when driving wasn't so much a dry, functional part of the day as one of the highlights of the day itself. A time when you didn't have to be anywhere at any particular time, and you could just pick a direction and, well, go.

Even from when I was a kid, traveling by car to my relatives or on camping excursions to Upper Michigan was something that was almost as much of an adventure as the destination itself (save for that soul-sucking 300 mile stretch of Interstate 80 across northern Pennsylvania, anyway). One of my many obsessions as a youngster was maps and roads, and I was always flipping through Dad's old hardbound atlas he kept from his college years, occasionally furling my brow at places that had changed names (or phonetical spellings) over the previous fifteen years. Dad would also bring home newer maps from business trips domestic and foreign. and I would literally spend hours poring over them, memorizing names, locations, routes, mileages, trying to imagine what these places looked like and generally marveling at the sheer scale of the American transportation system and, ultimately, the world itself. I suppose all of this made my later love affair with astronomy that much more of an obvious next leap forward, but I digress ...

As a teenager, I was delighted to find that my love of driving simply for the sake of driving was shared by the friends I'd fallen in with in high school, and we spent many Friday nights piling into Brian's car and embarking on so-called "Psychedelic Mystery Drives," which was basically 4 of us tooling around the sticks in the dead of night listening to music that had absolutely nothing whatsoever in common with real, actual "psychedelia," but nevertheless sustained a kind of eerie, dreamlike atmosphere that made these trips something I looked forward to every weekend.

Though college inevitably scuttled the regularity of these group night drives, I never lost my zest for just taking off and tooling around whenever the mood struck. To be quite honest, that mood struck pretty frequently in the years just after graduation, as home was not a fun place to be on pretty much any given night. In time, these drives became a convenient way of escaping a bad situation for a few precious hours until things died down (i.e., everyone was asleep). It also helped that gas was cheap, time was a luxury and the conversation was good. Whether it was Brian or Rob or Mike being in town for a weekend or summer or Kris being as bored and restless (and perhaps as anxious to get away from home) as I was, I was rarely at a loss for company when the urge struck to hit the road.

On the rare nights when I was alone, I made the discovery that many who are passionate about music already knew: there is something special about listening to an album end-to-end in a car with nothing else around to divert your attention away from the experience. With the volume up, the landscape unfolding before you, and your own solitude to free your inhibitions, you can sing along, pound the steering wheel in time to the beat, and savor each moment in a fashion that can only be approximated at home with a good pair of studio headphones and the lights down low. I'd say that maybe half of my favorite albums of all time became my favorite albums in exactly this way.

A funny thing: the last time I drove a car with a working cassette tape drive was 1993 (and I don't think that particular unit had worked properly since 1991). When I took over the payments on the Fiero from my brother in 1994, I also stepped into the world of CD car audio, and right around that same time, the night drives stopped.

As fashionable as it might be these days, I'm not going to blame the end of this era on the compact disc (though having a CD player in my car instantly wiped out the need to constantly make new driving mix-tapes to listen to): there were a lot of external factors at work by now that gradually wound this part of my life to a close. First and foremost, my close circle of friends had begun to gradually widen as Rob, Kris and Mike either got married or simply drifted away from the area. Also, I was in a pretty delicate state, still getting over the total meltdown of my first serious relationship the previous fall, and was thus far more motivated to get drunk and numb than zip around the outskirts of Chardon at 2 AM.

My home life had also settled down considerably over the previous two years, thus the constant impetus to get the hell away before another fight broke out had been pretty much erased. I had also met a girl and while this would ultimately prove a rather stupid mistake (and what is referred to as a "bounce-back" fling), things were going pretty well and being with her took up most of the free-time I once had set aside for myself. By the summer of 1994, the only long drive I made with any regularity was down to Brian's apartment in Cuyahoga Falls: an hour-long jaunt that I'd made so many times that it felt more like driving to downtown Cleveland instead of nearly all the way to Akron.

A few years later, the Fiero and I parted ways, and for over a decade afterward, I got by with nothing but a radio in whatever car I was driving. Actually, I didn't really listen to anything at all: I'd basically abandoned FM radio in disgust at the end of 1998, and save for a few weeks after September 11 when I had news radio going 24/7 or listening to late innings of Indians games during my drive home the last couple of years, driving back and forth to work became my "quiet time": the one point in the day where I don't have music going around me. For many years, I didn't mind the near-silence at all, but after I got the Saturn, I started to realize I was missing it.

One of the last things I worried about when deciding whether or not to buy The Saturn was the sound system. All that mattered to me at the time was that it had a working AM radio for baseball games: no consideration was given to music at all. The fact that the Saturn came with a cassette deck as well as a radio was more amusing to me than anything else, since I'd been selling used cassettes for years to customers who had purchased used cars only to discover that they had cassette decks in the dash rather than CD players. After years of smiling in commiseration at their tales, I was now one of them.

With the Saturn now legal and with a shiny new muffler installed to quiet it down, I got the itch to try out the sound system, and thus had a fun few days reacquainting myself with the second shittiest audio platform of the modern era: the prerecorded cassette. God, I didn't really miss these things: portability and convenience aside, they were on the whole a terrible waste of money to anyone who actually enjoyed listening to records multiple times in decent fidelity. I grabbed a half dozen oldie moldie faves from the used bins at work, and discovered over the following week that only two of them actually sound well-balanced, spacious and clear, while the others range between noticeably tinny or have those spots where you hear that awful, warbly, half-eaten submerged gurgle that indicates damage (or repetitive wear) to the tape surface.

While the cassette drive still worked beautifully and the heads sounded like they were in good shape, most of the Saturn's speakers sounded like someone partially fried them playing something loud and bassy. That problem was dealt with by simply flattening the low end of the EQ, but that action resulted in the prerecorded tapes, mixed and mastered in the treble-and-reverb crazed late 1980s, sounding even more unpleasantly shrill than before.
After weeding out the sonic weaklings (sorry, The Church, A-Ha and Julee Cruise, but back to the Record Den shelves you go), I spent some time rummaging around the office closet this afternoon and found a box full of old TDK SA-90s, mostly new wave-themed compilation tapes I'd made over a dozen years ago. I selected a few, filled up a box of old time traveling music, and took my drive, stopping on the way to take some pictures of an old railroad bridge near State Route 84, just east of Painesville.

Today, in effect, was all about getting in touch with an old habit that didn't so much "die hard" as "go dormant for fifteen or so years." It's great to be able to do this again: even after so much time passed and so much has changed, it's still a lot of fun and a great way to unwind and relax in a world that sometimes seems increasingly hostile to both.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Over The Hump

You know those times when you’ve been behind the 8-ball for what feels like forever, perhaps beginning to despair that you might not ever catch up with your suddenly-ballooning finances? Somehow, after a major expenditure, it seems like everything comes due at the same time and what seemed like a pretty great idea a month ago has had you privately second guessing yourself ever since.

Then, along comes that unmistakable day where things finally start to feel right again: the highest hurdle has been cleared, and looking down the path ahead, you begin to realize that everything is actually going to get better from here on out. For me, that day was today.

I'm not going to be out of the woods for a while yet, maybe the end of July, but the Saturn passing E-check today (despite the presence of a hole in the exhaust system that only made itself known over the last five or so days) was a tremendous relief nonetheless. Now that the car is finally legal, I can start lining up and systematically dispatching waiting bills and ratcheting down the stress to a far more manageable level. Life can be pretty dramatic, and I should be familiar with this feeling, but it feels wonderfully new everytime it happens.

Of course, not everything came up completely rosy today: I have now lost my second Western Digital "My Book" external hard drive in the last six months and I am absolutely furious with that once-trusted company. As with everything else in this increasingly disposable world of electronics, the new model crap withers and dies while the older models soldier ever onwards: my oldest WD drive (a pre-My Book era dinosaur) is not only is it still working wonderfully in its current capacity as electronic jukebox for the Record Den, but also taking a fair amount of abuse doing so. How surprising.

Luckily, my friend Dave has most of the data on this drive already saved from the last time I had a drive fail, and that dead HD had ironically been migrated to this one. Assuming Dave can save what needs to be saved from what was so recently known as Drive K, I face a bit of a data-archiving quandary in that I have 3 other "My Book" drives still active and all of them nearly full-to-bursting with data. Obviously, I can no longer trust any of these drives not to fail in the near future and I will need to figure out a non-WD solution as to how I'm going to backup these drives before taking great pleasure in destroying them. For now, they are going to be used as little as possible until I can back everything up safely to DVD-R for a least a short-term solution (a project that has started in earnest as I write this post).

Lessons learned today:

1. Life does not always suck nose. There are indeed times when all is well ... or at least trending that way.

2. Never slack off on backing up your data, people: especially the important stuff you can't live without.

3. Fuck you, Western Digital. Seriously. Go take a long walk off a short pier.

(Flickr): Tribe On The Warpath

20090614 25
What a fantastic match-up last night! Indians maestro Cliff Lee pitched a 3-hit complete game shutout (after carrying a no-hitter clear into the 8th inning) as the Tribe defeated the Cards 3-0 behind home runs from Mark DeRosa and Kelly Shoppach. With this victory, Cleveland took the series and hopefully boosted themselves another step closer to possible contention in the American League Central.

My adjusted attendance record: 15-10 (.600). Maybe I should apply for mascot.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Taking Me Out To The Ballgame

An early birthday gift for me as we're headed downtown to see my first Cleveland Indians game of the 2009 season later tonight. Even though it's technically a stupid dumb interleague game, this contest should provide a very interesting pitching match-up as Indians staff ace Cliff Lee takes on St. Louis Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter before a national audience via ESPN.

I'll have more to say on this frustrating, but not entirely hopeless season in a couple of weeks. Until then, in a fit of boredom and sleeplessness (not taking any pills on the weekends is the plan for now in an attempt to draw out their effectiveness a bit), I computed my attendance win/loss record (minus one late summer game I attended in 1990 and have absolutely zero memory of) and the final results are presented below:

1995: 1 - 0
1997: 0 - 1
2006: 1 - 0
2007: 5 - 2
2008: 7 - 7

This gives me an overall record of 14-10 and a winning percentage of .583. Granted, that's not exactly a dominating number right there, but it ain't too shabby in baseball terms (especially in this year's AL Central).

I therefore conclude that tonight's game is in good hands. :)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Dreamstate Achieved

A heartening sign amidst all of the gloom: I dreamt for a short time this morning. I won't even attempt to get into the substance or symbolism of that dream state, but it was certainly a state of deep, restful sleep that lasted for at least a few precious minutes. Unfortunately, I spend the rest of the morning in my now-usual state of hypersensitive Stage 1. There was no sleep possible when Sarah was awake and getting ready for work while passing cars and the clanging of the garbage trucks doing their automated thing in the parking lot jarred me awake continuously. Still, I was asleep for a bit, and that was a start.

While I'm nearly certain that stress is playing a large part in this, it also feels like my body clock is completely out of whack: once the sun comes up, say 5 AM or so, sleep becomes at least possible, if very fragmented and frustratingly inconsistent. Until that point, I will occasionally feel very drowsy and lethargic, but unable to make the transition to a true state of slumber.

The worst part of the day is driving to (and arriving at) work and trying to get going without my usual shot of carbonated caffeine. I'll have a few "muuuhhh" spots along the way, but once I get home, my head somehow magically clears itself of cobwebs, which has rendered efforts to "nap" for a few hours from when I get home (trying to "cheat" myself a few hours of rest, in effect) completely unsuccessful.

I haven't completely run dry of ideas for how to combat this problem sans pills, but I am definitely within sight of the end of inspiration. I still have to try that Trazodone out, though I have very little real hope of those pills making any difference when nothing else works. I also want to try a return to our old comforter: shortly before all of this started, Sarah switched out our old heavy comforter for a newer, lighter blanket, and while I doubt that returning to the older model will provide a miracle cure, I feel it's at least worth a shot.

OK, back to work ...


Sorry, reader: this post is going to come off as unnecessarily defeatist and angry. I hope you'll understand and bear with me (or better yet, skip on down to the next entry). Normally, I try to ride these lows out without a word in here, but it's now a little past four in the morning and I don't do "peppy and upbeat" when I haven't had any goddamned sleep in 4 days.

That's right: my insomnia has not only persisted over the last month, but has also worsened to the point that right now, nothing can make me fall asleep. Zilch. Nada. Niechievo. Benadryl? Stopped working last weekend. Unisom? Hasn't worked in weeks. Even fucking Ambien, my only guarantee of a good night's rest, has no effect on me (and discovering that last night was a pretty nasty and spirit-breaking surprise). My caffeine intake is now near-zero (I'm not sure how much caffeine is in a Snickers bar, but that's all I've ingested since Tuesday afternoon), I've walked a mile or so every night in a vain attempt to make myself sleepy, listened to ambient music for an hour before bedtime the last three nights, and all of this has had absolutely zero effect on my condition. Tonight, in a final insult to normalcy, I took a Clairitin-D an hour before retiring, and the near-knockout effect it usually has on me every single time I take one utterly failed to materialize. Of course. Sarah has a bottle of Trazodone on her desk that I can try tomorrow night for the sake of trying it, but I have about as much hope in that working as I do in popping some Dexedrine and washing 'em down with a can of Jolt.

So, now what? Obviously, I'm going to have to see a doctor about this, and here is where we come to the oh-so-diabolical timing of this condition worsening: even if I wanted to see a professional and throw a lot of money I do not have at this problem, I simply can't do it right now. As I mentioned previously, buying a new car two months earlier than I'd planned to has utterly nuked my finances to the point where I have already-delayed bills and obligations lined up for the next 3-4 weeks, and they must be taken care of before I can go getting myself into another medical adventure.

Speaking of the Saturn, by the way: to the kid(s) who ripped the temporary tags off the back of my car for a lark (or whatever the hell reason it is you assholes decide to fuck around with anonymous cars): thanks a ton, jackass. That was really hilarious. Seriously. I just love spending even more money and time running around to the police department and the DMV on unnecessary, redundant bureaucratic bullshit. By all means, keep up the good fight and display your little prize proudly. You really stuck it to the man this time! Rock on!

In happier Saturn news, my long-awaited title to the car arrived today, which means I will soon be able to put plates on the thing (the sole task that is holding everything else up that I have to take care of behind it). However, I was also informed while getting my new temp tags that I will need to E-check the Saturn before I can put plates on it, which means that the balding driver's side front tire will have to be replaced this weekend in order for the car to get tested ASAP. The front tire was a known repair issue when I bought the car, so that is no big deal in and of itself. As for the E-check ... while it appears that I have nothing to worry about in that department, I hope y'all can understand that it's very difficult for me not to imagine another shoe waiting to drop here.

Oh yeah, at some point yesterday, the shelving units mounted on our kitchen wall came crashing down to the floor, splattering their contents all over the place. I strongly suspect the hand (or paw) of Moe in this, but who the hell knows for sure. I'm also very glad Sarah discovered this mess first, as I might have simply exploded on the spot. If there was a "good news" angle to this story: it's that a.) the cats weren't hurt by the collapse b.) the unit came off the wall cleanly and didn't pull out any chunks of plaster with it. Huzzah.

So, that's it. Venting operation completed. I cannot afford to take care of this insomnia until sometime in early-to-mid July, so I'm just going to deal with it by waiting it out, at last until I am out from behind the 8-ball. At some point, eventually, my body's demand for sleep will win out this battle and that will be that (or I will simply get used to the series of five-minute catnaps or whatever the hell goes on with me once the sun comes up). Until that time comes, I guess I get to sit around and read a bunch, maybe watch some movies, organize my sock drawer, meditate or however else I choose to kill off the hours between 12-6 AM. Whatever I choose to do, it will certainly beat lying in bed, wanting to scream and/or cry, and listening to the fans running for hours. Whatever the hell is wrong with me, one way or the other, it is not going to last forever ... it just feels like it right now.

Monday, June 08, 2009

The New Vicmobile

Following the failure of the Beretta to pass E-check, my initial plan was to coast into July and allow myself plenty of time to save up the necessary funds and search out a replacement vehicle at my leisure.

Life, as always, had other plans.

On May 21, I was returning home from visiting Dad at LakeWest (sadly, his home away from home anymore) and idling in line at the Chick Fil-A drive-thru when something gave under the hood of the Beretta. There wasn't a bang! or crack! or anything dramatic like that, just a sudden, tangible change in the character of the engine noise, coupled with a sinister new vibrating thrum that immediately began clattering the exhaust pipes noisily against the frame of the car. The Beretta immediately sounded rougher, louder, and wheezier than it ever had before, lending me to suspect that I had somehow just managed to wreck my brand new (and apparently useless) exhaust system. But no, this noise was different ... it was coming from the engine itself, not from the rear or bottom of the car. There was also a whiff of something burning: not gasoline, not rubber, not coolant ... engine oil?

I got the car back home and worriedly popped the hood, sniffing around and smelling that weird, wispy tang of something wrong while not knowing what it was. On Sarah's advice, I checked the oil and was relieved to see that I was still filled up and looking good. That led me to wonder about the fuel lines being clogged, or maybe the transmission being compromised. Sarah wondered if the gas tank had taken on water.

The next morning, to my consternation, the car's new running characteristics remained unchanged. I tried gunning the engine a few times on the way to work (in an attempt to "blow out" whatever seemed to be making my engine sound asthmatic) to no effect, and adding some fresh gas to the tank didn't seem to help either. In fact, it wasn't until I was cruising down Mentor Avenue in the homestretch towards work that I realized that the Beretta was actually running semi-normally once I had it cruising along in third or fourth gear: it was getting to that point where I was having problems. That led me again to wonder if the transmission was at fault here, and I found that to be the case later that evening as I noticed a large puddle forming behind the left front tire. I backed the car away from the pool and dabbed at it with a paper towel, immediately spying a thick blot of pink fluid spreading across the surface of the paper. En route home, I smelled that burning scent again, and noticed wisps of steam/smoke crawling up the side of the Beretta from the vicinity of the left front wheel well. Ah, hell, that would explain a lot of things, wouldn't it.

I had already resolved that there would be no additional repairs to the Beretta, no matter what. So, it was going to be showtime ... two months early. Beautiful. With nothing else to be done for it, I parked the Beretta in the rear parking lot at the condos, where it sits as of this writing: cleaned-out and awaiting to be towed and ultimately junked.

I did some car shopping online looking for something cheap and (hopefully) semi-dependable, while consulting a bit with my brother (who is far better versed in cars and car repair than I am). After some poking around, I'd found a possible candidate to look at, but ran into a timing snafu: Sunday and Monday are my weekends, and the used car dealership where I found my pick was closed for business on Sundays and would be closed the following Monday since it was Memorial Day. Of course.

At least with Brett being currently out of work, we had some scheduling flexibility that normally wouldn't exist between us, so we arranged to meet early Tuesday morning to do some looking around. Brett was pretty skeptical of my initial pick, a 2001 Sebring sedan, and it turned out he had good reason to be: after some close inspection of the dessicated inside of the drivers compartment, the damaged front clip, and a small coolant leak under the hood, the Sebring looked like a bad investment waiting to happen. Next!

With an hour and change to burn before I had to be at work, we headed up to Vine Street and started driving eastward, eventually coming across Transportation Outlet Inc. An initial pass through their lot didn't look very promising: I was not in the market for an SUV or pickup truck, and I also wasn't looking right now to take on a few years of car payments just yet. On the second pass, however, we finally came across what turned out 45 minutes later to be the new Vicmobile:

And there she is, folks: a 1998 Saturn SL2. Considering what I am moving up from, this rather tame acquisition feels like a freaking luxury sedan, despite the lack of CD player (the only demand I had for car audio was a working AM radio so that I could listen to Indians games on the road, so this was a forgivable omission). It's also about as far from the old hot rods of my early twenties as I could have imagined myself buying. Priorities definitely change as you age, and while my priority in 1994 was "how cool does it look and how good is the stereo?," the biggest priority I have in 2009 is "will this car be dependable enough to get me through, say, the end of 2012?" Brett thought so, and his approval of the car itself and the asking price was instrumental in me sealing the deal.

I feel a strange mix of emotions writing this: that exotic blend of giddiness and terrified accomplishment that only comes from spending most of your hard-earned money on something you really hope was worth the splurge. I think most of my friends felt this way when they walked out of the realtors office with the keys to their first house. For me, it was driving off the lot in this car. While the price was good, it was also at the very top end of my reach financially, which will almost certainly make June and July a bit of a monetary high-wire act (at least until this thing has plates on it), but so far it appears to have been worth the risk.

Happy updates are hopefully forthcoming.

Monday, June 01, 2009


The opening 5 minutes of Up is a brilliant, heartbreaking montage detailing the life story of Carl Fredricksen from an awestruck child watching newsreels on the exploits of his hero, explorer Charles Muntz, to a lonely, elderly man coping with the sudden passing of the love of his life. To watch this perfectly-accomplished sequence without a lump in the throat is impossible: this is easily the most moving and poetic piece of animation I have ever seen and alone would guarantee this film a 4 star rating, but it is only the beginning of this wonderful, thoughtful, and very funny movie.

Carl's modern life is an unhappy, stoic grind: a retired balloon salesman, he seems to take pleasure only in playing the pebble in the shoe of urban developers busily converting his old neighborhood into a faceless, concrete-and-glass downtown plaza. To the people working around his house, Carl is a broken-down crank, antisocial and unlikeable and clinging to a quaint old world that no longer exists. Then, an unfortunate incident with a well-meaning construction worker finally puts the ball in the developer's court and Carl is given barely 12 hours to prepare for life in a retirement home.

Rather than give in to inevitability, however, Carl leafs through his wife's old adventure journal and, in a wonderful sequence, uses thousands of unsold helium balloons to lift his house from its foundation and send himself on his way to South America, where an adventure that once defined his half-forgotten childhood awaits. Of course, it is just when Carl is settling into his favorite chair, feeling self-satisfied and at peace at last that a wrinkle in his plans arrives in the form of an inadvertent stowaway on his house-turned-aircraft. Russell, a bubbly, overweight cub scout in search of his last merit badge (for helping the elderly, natch) is trapped on his front porch and childless Carl is forced to cope with his unexpected guest explorer.

I won't divulge what happens with the plot once the explorers quickly reach Paradise Falls, South America, though I'm sure many of you will be able to figure out what is ultimately behind a squad of malevolent talking dogs (whose audible thought processes draw some of the biggest laughs of the movie) and what all of this ultimately has to do with a gawky, seemingly affect-less flightless bird that Russell befriends and names "Kevin." There is also a surprisingly action-packed (and occasionally intense) final third that often feels more like The Incredibles than what you might have been expecting, yet still feels completely right nonetheless.

It's striking to consider that other animation studios have yet to figure out that you can create modern animated movies of peerless quality without having to rely on identifiable celebrity voices and constant, smart-assed pop culture references. As always with Pixar, clever character development and an accessible, enthralling story makes these movies as special and as universally appealing as they are. I can't sing the praises of these guys enough: this is a seemingly fearless studio whose standard of excellence continues to know no bounds, and with Up they have once again delivered what is very likely to be the best film I will see this year.

Up rating: 5/5

In Defence Of Compact Discs

The bed-headed 15-year-old slaps down a battle-scarred copy of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon rescued from the 99-cent bin. I prepare to engage in the oft-repeated litany about the “warmth” of vinyl and how it's closer to how the ear hears than anything digital, etc. etc. etc.

But then he follows up with, “I really like all the ticks and pops.”

A blog post (linked in the post title) I can certainly identify with from a fellow record store lifer in the midst of the early twenty-first century vinyl resurgence who is perfectly happy with his CD collection, thankyouverymuch.