Monday, February 26, 2007

Driving an Idiotic Looking Car: Rites of Passage

Uncle Artemus (the good looking one in the middle) and my two younger brothers with my '63 Chevy Nova Deuce. circa 1980

Big Mama and I were talking the other night about teenage responsibility. You know the kind of conversation people like to indulge in who are old enough to have teenage kids but don't.

Stuff like...
"Well if it was my kid he wouldn't be doing that."
"He needs to get a job and learn some responsibility and stop playing that damned GameBoy all the time."
"When I was his age I couldn't wait to get a job so I could get a car and be independent."
"Yeah, me too. I had to buy my own car and my own gas and insurance, etc. etc."

Blah, blah, blah, old peoples' crap ad nauseam.

That led to a conversation about our first cars in which we reminisced and talked about what wonderful piles of junk they were and so forth. All very romantisized in hindsight.

We've been married for fifteen years this April so believe me, Big Mama has heard about my first cars before, but it's one of those conversations that's fun to drag out and dust off every couple of years, just to remind you of what a goofy but lovable and very good and responsible kid you once were. So unlike these no-good hoodlums that run the streets today.

All of that got me to thinkin' about this particular car, technically my second; one out of a long line of pieces of crap that was easily the goofiest looking piece of crap I ever owned. I am proud to say though, that all of my pieces of crap died of natural causes, none were wrecked. I told you I was a good kid.

This one was a 1963 Chevy Nova Deuce, four door, four cylinder, born the same year as I was which I thought was pretty cool. When you popped the hood the motor looked about as complex as a hamster in a cage wheel; just a big empty engine compartment with a grease encrusted blob with some wires coming out of it floating in the middle.

It was a good thing there was room to get around in there too because the only way to start the thing was to turn the key on, pop the hood and grab the rubber handled screwdriver kept for just this purpose and lay it across the posts on the solenoid (mounted on the firewall) creating a frightening Frankenstein-like electrical arc, melting chunks out of the screwdriver, slamming the starter motor into action and hopefully turning the engine over; all the while yanking at the throttle cable to feed it some gas. If it flooded (which it almost always did) you were screwed. You had to wait five minutes and try again.

This car also had a penchant for flat tires. Since I never had any money but did however have friends who lived in a junkyard (literally, no kidding) they kept me stocked with a couple of spares in the trunk all the time. I went through about one every two weeks and pretty much got to be like the dad in "A Christmas Story" and could change one in less than ten minutes.

There's nothing like being a scrawny dork of a sixteen year old out in the high school parking lot every day changing flat tires and trying to start your car with a screw driver. Yeah, chicks really dig that. Big Mama said she thought the paint job on this car was fun and back in the day she definitely would have dated someone who would drive something different like that. But then again she married me so her taste is questionable by default.

I hated this car, at first. But skinny sixteen year old beggars who bussed tables and mopped nursing home hallways for a living can't be choosers. It ran (sort of) and it was cheap, so I bought it. I aquired this rolling Lee Greenwood-mobile from my step uncle for I think about $200 bucks. It had been painted that way for a bi-centenial parade in 1976. It was 1980 when this picture was taken and nobody had ever thought it necessary to de-flag the thing. It actually would have been a pretty cool car if not for being a four door and having that, patriotic paint job.

It was a real attention getter and the last thing I wanted at that age was unwarranted attention. I lived in a VERY small town (1100 souls) in the Illinois flatlands and every time I drove through one of the neighboring small towns people on the street would nudge each other and point or stop, stand at attention and salute as I chugged past. I kid you not. It's funny to think of it now but at the time I was mortified and cursed my star spangled beater mobile every time it happened. They stopped doing it in my own town when the joke wore thin after a few months, but it never seemed to get old in other places.

Although I sure didn't like it at the time, I'm thankful now for the lessons that owning cars like that Chevy taught me. I think maybe kids have it a little too easy these days with cell phones and Mom and Dad running to the rescue every five seconds, it makes it harder to learn self reliance and problem solving skills. The only thing more humiliating to me than driving that car in the first place would have been calling my Dad unneccessarily to come rescue me before I had done everything I could think of to deal with a problem myself. And if I had whined to him about the paint job his anwer would have been brutally simple. "So paint it."

I once saw a guy paint his truck in the high school parking lot during lunch hour with a brush and a can of white Sears house paint. Looked pretty good too until a few days later as the rain washed it all away in big runny streaks while we stood watching out the window of English class. Seemed like a good solution to me, I'm just glad he tried it first. Ahh the lessons of life.

It's these kind of experiences that give us good stories in our middle years to pass on to our overindulged, entitled teenage offspring. Who of course could care less and wish we would just shut up and go away.

"Oh yeah? Why in MY day..."

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Uncle Artemus' Oscar Pics 2007

Best motion picture of the year
  • Babel - Didn't see it
  • The Departed - Didn't see it
  • Letters from Iwo Jima - Didn't see it
  • The Queen - Didn't see it
  • Little Miss Sunshine - Saw it

And my pic is for best motion picture of the year is...
  • Little Miss Sunshine

My other pic for 2007 is...
  • Peter Litwinowicz and Pierre Jasmin for the design and development of the RE: Vision Effects family of software tools for optical flow-based image manipulation.
Those guys totally rock.

Sunny Days in Pretty Places

A couple of weeks ago Millie made a comment while we were in the car. I don't remember the context but from the back seat came a tiny voice...

"I like pretty places. Sunny days in pretty places."

I smiled and said, " You know what sweetie, so do I."

I've thought of that phrase almost every day since then. I don't know what to do with it, but I really, really like it.
Thank you Millie, we could all use more sunny days in pretty places.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

American Idol is Eating My Brain

Okay I'll admit it, I'm a shameless Idolater and can't wait for the show to come on during these dark, dreary February and March evenings. I'm excited by the prospect of it eating up airwaves and Tivo space for five solid hours this week. I hope it will eat five more hours next week as well. That's time I will never recover for family, my own creative purposes, dog baths, nothing. And I'm okay with that. I care about it as if in the grand scheme of things it actually mattered one hair on a rats ass. Why? It's a sickness, a disease. I need help. Help me.

Maybe I should get out the tinfoil helmet again because I swear there's mind control involved. I think they're sending subliminal messages through the theme music. Really, because when you hear that electronic, "nananana nananana" sound at the beginning you have to stop cooking dinner or having sex or whatever you may be doing, park your face in front of the TV and bear witness to the parade of nerve addled hopefuls to find out who will deliver a Simon approved performance and who will be horribly mangled and humiliated in a melodic train wreck. You HAVE to watch. I think they passed a law in congress about it this season.

And while you look for the ones you favor to do well and receive the coveted Ranpaulsime Blessing, you also hope certain ones do really badly. And often times they don't disappoint. What can be more fun than watching a pretty, size four, nineteen year old girl who you just know is too perfect and popular to have ever suffered any kind of real rejection, whither under the humiliating verbal assault hurled by the god like pile of condescending self importance that is Simon Cowell. And how much fun is it to hear Paula tell the same sweet thang that, "You have a great voice and you're a beautiful girl," which all of us addicted to the show recognize as saccharinized Paulaspeak for - "Good thing you're pretty 'cause you SUCK!" Watching this is what passes for entertainment in the sad abandoned Disney Land that is the average American life, helping we average Joes to feel a little less sad and abandoned through witnessing the public humiliation of those younger and hotter than we are.

I really enjoy the good performers as well and sometimes all the dressing room voodoo works and someone does something truly extraordinary. As the season matures I pick out my favorites and place bets with my bookie and argue with my wife, then suffer indignation for the ones I like that get booted off the show at the whim of an utterly stupid and tone deaf American public. When it's all over in May I feel tired and spent from all the pent up anxiousness that has built through the weeks, finally releasing in one great orgasmic performance of some tremendously bad manufactured pop radio melody like, "Do I Make You Proud." Then I smoke a cigarette and take a nap.

The next day I completely forget about the whole thing and never buy a single record by any Idol because I think all the music done on the show ultimately sucks. My theory is that after the big Finale of Mediocrity the aliens that actually run the show head back to the great Void, the mind control wears off as the weather gets nicer and everyone notices how freaking boring American Idol really is.

In the meantime, I'll root for my favorites and gloat over the misfortunes of the less likable, hopefully the two not intersecting. From what I've seen so far this year they can just send all the white people home now and save us the trouble of not voting for their no talent asses. Okay, where did I put that tin foil helmet anyway?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Uncle Artemus' Top Five Mix Cuts of the Week: Introductory Installment

This is a new blog segment I've decided to put up after a painful viewing of the Celebration of Mediocrity that is the Grammys.

I have a penchant for making mix playlists from my fairly extensive iTunes library. I mix 'em up and burn cd's to play in the car, at work, in the kitchen, wherever. I've been making music mixes one way or another since I was ten or eleven years old. The first two albums I ever owned were received as Christmas gifts, and I continued to ask for and receive record albums and Sci-Fi books as my standards for Christmas and birthdays until well into my twenties. Those first two were Bachman-Turner Overdrive II and Paul McCartney and Wings - Band on the Run. I remember wanting the McCartney album because I loved the title track; the BTO because that album happened to be playing the first time I ever saw a real naked girl, so of course I absolutely had to own it. Don't ask.

The next one was Queen - A Night at the Opera. Death on Two Legs totally rocked and that's about the time I decided I needed a better way to listen to music. I had three great albums and a bunch of 45's but I didn't like all of the songs on any of LPs. So I asked myself, how could I just listen to the ones I liked without having to plod through the slow, long, boring or otherwise crappy cuts scattered among the gems? A mix tape was the answer.

But that meant using a cassette tape recorder, which to me was a new and outrageously wondrous piece of technology that was light years beyond my meager eleven year old means. The only way to procure such a big ticket item was as a Christmas gift and that was a long shot. In my mind I might as well have been asking for a new car. Portable tape recorders were so unbelievably high tech t
hat I didn't really believe that my parents would ever agree to forgo rent, groceries, gas and electricity to buy me one for Christmas. Eventually, though, the holidays rolled around and after much begging and pleading my parents parted with the twenty bucks or so that the thing actually cost and paid Santa to bring me my very own sound mixing device; in my eyes the absolute, ultimate far out-est thing ever invented for use by those of my meager ilk. In actuality it was a plastic box with a detachable wired mike that my brother and I promptly employed to record our farts and resulting hysterical laughter. Coooool.

But I digress.

I quickly got around to the serious business of recording my favorite songs. I used an old record player with a broken drive belt that my mom had given me. I took it apart, figured out how it worked (not much to it really, a motor and a turntable and a rubber belt between the two) rigged a new belt out of a big rubber band and played my records. Granted the speed was a little off, but it played. And I loved listening to music so much it didn't matter to me if it made Freddie Mercury sound more like Tiny Tim.

I quickly figured out the recording process; queue up the tape, hit record and pause at the same time, park the microphone in front of the non blown speaker, drop the phono needle at the end of the previous cut, wait for for the click and pop filled space between songs, release the pause button and sit very quietly.
Then repeat the process for every song wanted to to go on tape, carefully choosing the order and starting again every time my brothers ran screaming through the room or mom yelled something or a truck ran by on the road outside. "Be quiet I'm recording!" I would whine. The mike didn't just pick up the music, it picked up every sound within two hundred yards. It took days sometimes to record one tape. The coolest technology in the world.

Thus began my history of mixing playlists, many years before iTunes was a little thought bubble in Steve Job's head. As I got older I eventually got a better stereo, and
for a time actually was able to record mixes on Eight Track tape. By the time CD technology came along I had at least fifty or more different mix tapes recorded, and dozens more that were lost or eaten by cheap car stereos or borrowed or given away. I mixed tapes for friends, parties, road trips, road trip parties, anything. My mixes were generally very popular and appreciated as well considered and executed. I always loved hearing someone say at a party, "Cool! where did you get this music?"

For me as a mix tape junkie, iTunes and mp3's are the most awesome thing to happen to mix technology since the internal tape deck and microphone. I have dozens of playlists, quickly assembled and recorded for the car or whatever. What used to take me hours of playing real-time album cuts to record a mix now takes minutes. I absolutely love it.

Why, you may ask, do you record them at all? Why not just leave them as playlists on your iPod? My answer is, because I don't have and iPod! I have iTunes and an amp on my Mac and a good car stereo CD player so I never really saw the need to spend the two-hundred bucks or whatever they cost. I have recently discovered though that there is an adapter to play the iPod through your car stereo. Now I want one but still can't afford it.

All of that brings me finally to the point. My intention is to share each week my favorite five mix cuts of that week. My criteria is my own but I can assure you, if you like music for music's sake, you'll probably like a lot of what I put out here.

My tastes run the gamut of genre's but I tend to steer away from the more predictable main stream styles. I may dip into Country or Hip Hop a little, but the rhythms and chord progressions tend to be too constant and easily anticipated for my taste and the vocals of both have too much to do with cultural accents. I'm not a big fan of urban contemporary' modern R&B either, it all has the same overaffected overstylized vocal sound to me. For mostly nostalgic reasons I love a lot of 70's music. Jazz is good but not three different guys playing random notes simultaneously, I like it better when there's a melody of some sort but most smooth jazz has to struggle not to be sleep inducing. Alternative Folk is usually pretty listenable.

I enjoy anything that sounds a little unexpected and tend to favor strong moderately complex bass and drum/rhythm lines, lots of layers and texture to the sound and styles that cross over and become difficult to define. I especially like anything that has an unusual time signature. If that's combined with a strong bass hook or rhythm groove I'll listen over and over again.

Also, my picks are almost always album cuts but just because I like a song doesn't mean I like the album. That's the nature and purpose of music mixes; you can pick the best of the best and skip the rest. I never ever listen to top forty radio so sometimes I make what I think is a big discovery only to learn it's been playing on the radio for weeks. I don't mind, if it's got a cool hook I'll usually go for it.

Anyway, here's my picks for this week. I'll link each one to a source, either Amazon or the artist's website and make a few notes about each song. I highly recommend listening to samples of anything here that's unfamiliar. Check 'em out, you'll be glad you did.

1. Artist: Jim White

Song: A Perfect Day to Chase Tornados
Album: Wrong Eyed Jesus

Jim White is a little known folk artist from the Florida panhandle with a penchant for dark or just plain weird lyrics and amazing music. His folky arrangements are routinely underscored with layers of Pink Floydian style
effects creating a sound that is hard to categorize. It's a little like country music on acid. Jim White is one of my favorites and one of the few artists that I have dedicated whole mixes to. (meaning all the songs on the mix are by the same artist) This song is one of the best, the first of many I will recommend in weeks to come.

2. Artist: Carbon Leaf

Song: Paloma
Album: Indian Summer

Virginia based Carbon Leaf is best known as a support band (see opening act) for such headliners as Dave Matthews, Counting Crows and John Mayer. Indian Summer is their 2004 major label debut album. The song Paloma is my personal favorite on the album with a great groovy bass hook and super tight signature vocal harmonies. This one will get you doing the head bob in the car pretty quick.

3. Artist: Frank Zappa

Song: Tink Walks Amok
The Man From Utopia

What can you say about F
rank? A master of music and ridiculously funny and poignant lyrics. 1983's The Man From Utopia isn't one of his better known albums but a couple of true gems can be mined from it. Tink Walks Amok is a superb instrumental groove with an unusual time signature featuring Arthur 'Tink' Barrow ripping on multiple bass parts. Very, very cool.

4. Artist: Cake

Song: Arco Arena
Album: Comfort Eagle

Cake is a hard to classify California band that a photo client turned me onto a fews years back. I wasn't sure about them at first but they really grew on me. Sort of lounge rock with a single trumpet and spinning clicker thing thrown in. They can be kind of hit and miss but when they hit they do it really well. Arco Arena is a short instrumental piece that really shows off the bands musical talents. Comfort Eagle isn't my favorite Cake album but I'll be recommending many more Cake songs from other albums in the future. They also have the absolute coolest album art of any band I know. I want t-shirts of them all.

5. Artist: Ben Harper
Song: Touch From Your Lust
Album: Diamonds on the Inside

Ben Harper is an extraordinary guitar player with a completely unique sound. The thick, ropey flangey bluesy guitar leads in Touch from Your Lust just make me sit back and say, "whoa". This one's a little heavier than most that I would recommend; featuring not really screaming guitars but rather hoarsely shouting ones. Turn it up really loud.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Dumbest Website Ever

This is my vote for the dumbest website I've ever encountered. Click here if you're curious.