28 May 2008

Live Music Alert

Our friend Dave's band, The Rationales, is having a CD release show this Friday at TT the Bear's in Cambridge. Last time I managed only one day's notice before the show, so now I have doubled that.

Their sound is, by their description, "roots-influenced American rock mixed with a dose of power pop energy and a sense of indie experimentation." The songs on their MySpace page are a sampling, but in my opinion their sound really comes together live. It's sure to be a good rockin' show, and according to the TT's calendar, they are playing at 9, so you can make it part of a multi-stop evening if you wish. I hope you'll consider coming out to support the guys.

26 May 2008

Playing Dress-Up

Now that the phone is working properly again, I can turn my attention to other things. Over the long weekend, in between a vet visit for the dog (ear problem, since resolved), having drinks to celebrate the end of a friend's unpleasant tenure at a job, going to the movies, and driving to Rhode Island for clam cakes and Del's frozen lemonade, I've been catching up on some sections of the newspaper that I hadn't had time to read.

The New York Times's Thursday Style section usually has at least one article that interests me. Sometimes I read things just to make a pretense of keeping up with what some editor thinks is culturally significant--last week's article about steampunk, for example. I've been aware of this fashion/style movement for some time, and I really couldn't care less about people's neo-Edwardian hot-air balloon fantasies, but you never know when someone might mention it at a party and, having read the article, I might manage to say something halfway intelligent about it.

This past Thursday's lead Style article was about the contrasting visions of menswear designers Tom Ford (formerly of Gucci, now running his own label) and Thom Browne (formerly a design director at Club Monaco, now running his own label and also designing a line for Brooks Brothers), though really it was mostly about Browne. Browne's clothing follows what might charitably be described as the Pee-Wee Herman aesthetic: very tight-fitting suits with shrunken jackets that fail to cover one's bottom, and pants that stop a couple of inches above one's shoes.

The author of the article raises a question that has been on my mind since I first saw some of Browne's designs in GQ a few years back: who exactly wears these clothes? Very few men could pull off such a mannered look to begin with, and if you were to wear such a suit in a traditional business environment, say a law firm or a brokerage where men are still expected to dress in suits, I suspect your colleagues would laugh you out of the office.

I suppose it could work for men who work in the fashion industry, and that clever catch-all, "creative types" (art directors, movie producers). But it's far, far removed from the average man's reality. Say you need a new suit to attend a wedding. Even if you're willing and able to drop $4,000 for one of Browne's suits, do you think your significant other is going to let you show up at such an event looking like you raided your nephew's closet at the last minute? And if you have that kind of money to spend, wouldn't you be more likely to have something custom-made for you? I certainly would.

I don't mean to knock Browne personally; for all I know he's a super-nice guy, and obviously he's a pretty sharp businessman, and I give him credit for trying to get American men to start dressing up again. But if he presented his ideas in clothing that was just a bit less extreme (see Ralph Lauren's Black Label line), I bet he would attract a wider audience. I predict that we're going to be seeing a lot of clothing designs influenced by last summer's retro-tastic TV show Mad Men. Set in 1960, the men all wear snappy Rat Pack suits with narrow lapels and narrow trouser legs, but the suit jackets are still the proper butt-covering length (which helps shorter men look taller, by the way) and their pants still manage to properly reach their shoes.

Even so, Browne's influence is being felt in men's fashion. Take a look around next time you go shopping; mainstream men's clothing retailers have slimmed down their patterns, or at least started offering a choice of fits. Slimmer-fit clothing is swell for younger guys, but when you get into your 40s, even if you are fit and trim, comfort is synonymous with freedom of movement, and an extra inch or two of fabric in a shirt or a pair of khakis can make a big difference in terms of everyday comfort.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Ford's designs are meant to evoke an image of old Hollywood glamor blended with old English nattiness. I have less of an issue with this sort of style, although once again it is distant from the reality of how most men dress, though perhaps less so than Browne's. Men who like to dress up even when they are not working can probably find clothing they will appreciate in Ford's line. The rest of us will keep looking, and when it's time for that wedding suit, we'll probably just go to the nearest midrange department store and hope the clerk has a clue.

22 May 2008


Our home phone works again. (And there was much rejoicing...)

Yeesh, what an annoying slog it's been, mostly in order to save money. But of course, time is money too. During the course of this problem, I considered various options, like ditching Vonage and going back to having phone service through Comcast, or even going back to Verizon, but for me, the bottom line is the bottom line: I am not at the point where I am willing to go without a home phone line, and the Vonage service provides us with that line at the lowest monthly cost (short of Skype, which is a little too geektastic for me) with the fewest restrictions.

I want to give due credit to Vonage's customer service. The rep I dealt with, a guy named Kim, handled my case from my initial call through to its resolution. He made it his business to ensure that my problem was resolved to my satisfaction. He called me back several times at various stages of the process to update me, and even contacted the previous owner of the adapter I had bought on eBay in order to confirm that he had sold the device to me (a step required by Vonage before the device could be reassigned to me). I am grateful for his dedication, but I hope I don't have to go through anything like this again.

20 May 2008

Not Quite Yet...

Well, the Vonage guy offered to call me back, instead of having me sit there on hold, listening to their horrible music loop (same song, over and over). So that was nice. Of course, it will take about 24 hours for their engineers to effect this massively complicated transfer. Who knows, maybe it really is complicated. And maybe by tomorrow night, our home phone will work again.

Phone Progress

So, I contacted the person who sold me that Vonage adapter, and it turns out he was the person who had originally activated it. I didn't really think I would get that lucky, but he was able to contact Vonage and deactivate the device from his account. Now I am on hold with Vonage as they root around and try to make it work on my account. Fingers crossed...

17 May 2008

Some Band from England

My sister is in town for the weekend to do the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, so last night after work, I met her and her best friend and walking partner at Joe's American Bar and Grill on Newbury Street to have a couple of drinks. The Mrs. joined us after getting the dog squared away. Eventually my sister and her friend headed back to their hotel, because they had to get up really freakin' early to get the shuttle to where the walk starts. The Mrs. and I decided to stay and eat dinner at the downstairs bar.

A while later a few guys came in who appeared to be regulars. The bartender, who looked to be around twenty-five or so, knew their names, and chatted with them for a few moments. When we were almost done, he came back down to our end of the bar and said to one of them, "Who does that 'USSR' song?" The regular said, "You mean the Beatles?" "Yeah, that's the one." A few seconds later, "Back in the USSR" started playing, and I figured out that they were talking about the jukebox.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you... the generation gap, '00s style.

Phone Hell

My saga of phone insanity just keeps getting better worse stupider. The Vonage adapter I bought on eBay arrived within two days, which was great. But I could not get it to properly configure itself so the phone line worked. Yesterday I was poking around the support area of the Vonage web site (on my lunch break, okay?) and I realized that I had missed a step. All the adapters have an alphanumeric code on the bottom which must be entered so the adapter is "assigned" to your phone line, and I had completely forgotten about that.

When I got home last night, I immediately went to Vonage's site to enter the code. I received a message saying it was not a valid code, so I called customer service. Yes, Vonage has actual, living, sentient humans who offer tech support, and as near as I can tell, they are not in India. (Instead of numeric menu options, you have to wade through a few minutes of an insipid "helper" voice that can only be parsed by speaking your requests. I hate these things, but that's a topic for another time.)

The guy I talked to sounded like he was from South Carolina. It turned out that the adapter I'd just bought on eBay is still assigned to another person's account. Whoever that person is doesn't owe Vonage any money, but their account is still considered active, so there is no way I can use this adapter on it unless the person cancels their service or deactivates this device. Yay. Of course, Vonage will not contact that customer on my behalf, and they certainly will not give me the person's contact info.

How does this happen? I'm guessing, but I think I know. The adapter appeared to be unused, with everything wrapped in plastic and packed... in a plain white box. Electronics and computer products in plain boxes usually indicate one of two things: either it's an OEM product (sort of like wholesale, like if you get a cable modem or DVR from your cable company, they get it from whoever makes it in a plain box, versus retail packaging) or, more likely in my situation, a refurb product. Refurbs get repackaged and resold in plain boxes. I don't know how the seller acquired this one, but he also claimed it was unused, so either he didn't know, or he lied.

I have contacted him, not to ask for a refund, but to see if he happens to know the person he got this adapter from. I don't really care about the money, because it was only a few bucks, but if he does know who was using it before, there might be a chance of getting that person to deactivate their account, or at least this device. Long shot, I know, and I doubt I'll get any results that way. But I have to try, that's just how I am. And maybe I'll help prevent someone else from making the mistake I've made.

14 May 2008

(Still) Hanging on the Line

So, the phone saga continues. On Monday, four days after I bought the replacement Vonage phone on eBay, I got an email from PayPal saying that my payment had been refunded, with a note from the seller reading "sorry I ran out." (His auction was for multiple units of the same product.)

Having had a few days to think about it, I decided I did not want another one of the same phone, since it had died after slightly less than two years. I decided to buy one of the Vonage adapter boxes that I could plug any telephone into. I think this makes more sense for a long-term solution because someday, hopefully, the FIOS service (TV, internet, and phone through fiber optic cable) is going to be available where we live, and I would be inclined to get it, which would mean going back to using the phone jacks, and I would have to replace the special Vonage phones at that point anyway.

Anyone want to buy a couple of Vonage extension handsets, cheap?

11 May 2008

Hanging on the Line

When we were getting ready to move two years ago, we had to decide whether or not we wanted to continue to have a home phone line, and if so, what kind. For years we'd had regular phone service with Verizon, but a couple of years prior to the move I had switched the line to Comcast, because we already had cable TV and internet and getting phone service in a bundled package from them was cheaper than what we were paying Verizon.

I had heard about Vonage and the other internet phone services being offered and decided to look into it. Vonage pushes its $25-a-month unlimited service, but if you look around a little on their site, you'll find that they also offer a less expensive plan. It's kind of like cell phone service: it offers 500 minutes per month with calling to anywhere in the US, and no charge for incoming calls, for $15 per month plus tax.

With Vonage, you need at least one piece of special equipment to put between your telephone and your internet connection. At the time they were giving away the basic box, but there was also a two-handset cordless phone system that uses the 5.8 GHz frequency, which plays much more nicely with home wireless networks than older 2.4 GHz phones like the one we had, which can cause interference. It was only $30 after a rebate, so I bought it.

Since we were probably going to end up buying a new 5.8 GHz phone anyway, it seemed to make more sense to solve both problems at the same time, and we could put one handset at either end of the apartment. The service was fine. There were times when there was a little static on the "line" when I made a call, but everything worked as it was supposed to. In the event of a power failure, you can set it up so calls automatically get forwarded to another number.

When we got back from our vacation a couple of weeks ago, the indicator light on the base station was out. The light is usually green, blinks if there's a voicemail, and turns red if the internet connection is lost. But I had never seen the light not on. The handsets were fine, but there was no dial tone. That meant that either the base unit or its power supply had bitten it. Vonage wasn't going to be any help, because it's not their device, it's only a device that works on their service. I rooted around on the web site of the phone manufacturer in a vain hope that they might sell spare power supplies.

Meanwhile calls were being forwarded from the home number to my cell phone. They were usually calls for the Mrs., and callers would invariably say, "Oh, what are you doing home?" I would have to explain that although I was not actually at home, I was answering the home line. Or it would be a message about a doctor's appointment, and I would have to call the Mrs. on her cell phone and relay the info, or attempt to. I could have changed the forwarding to her line, but she has a tendency to turn off her cell phone's ringer, so she might have missed the forwarded calls anyway; she misses most of my calls. I suppose at least then she would have the voicemail messages on her cell line.

After considering a couple of options, I broke down and went on eBay to buy another base station set. It comes with one handset, which I don't need, but with this sort of track record for the base unit, who knows? This way I can figure out which piece is dead and swap it out. The $20 is probably close to what I would have paid for just a power supply, not knowing if that was in fact the dead part. But this is all naggingly complicated compared to the old days when you just plugged your phone into a jack in the wall.

08 May 2008


I got to hear a sampling of the new Madonna album this morning, courtesy of the young woman sitting across the aisle from me on the bus. Yes, she had her music turned up so loud that, for the second time recently, I could identify the artist from the tinny, muffled overflow coming from someone else's headphones several feet away.

Once again, I'm astonished at how loudly people listen to their music. I'm not such an old geezer that I can't stand listening to music above library volume, but this sort of thing is just plain unsafe. I want to assume that people know better, but I'm not so sure.

05 May 2008

A Celebrity Sighting

The Mrs. and I had a night out on Saturday. Her birthday is coming up, so for a slightly early present, I had gotten us tickets to see Kathy Griffin at Symphony Hall. I know she's one of those performers that people either really enjoy or can't stand, and I totally get why that is. We count ourselves in the first category. The show was hilarious, and there's no way I could do justice to it by trying to summarize or paraphrase any of her stories, but I will say that her observations tend to be on target.

We arrived fairly early, due to the need to build in enough time to find a parking spot. A Saturday night Red Sox home game made things a little more tricky, but we prevailed (tip: try Columbus Ave. west of Mass. Ave.). The show started fairly early, even though there was no later show scheduled, so we decided to go inside and have a drink, and wait until afterward to eat.

We got our drinks but all the tables were occupied, so we stood to the side of the bar, where we were out of the flow of patrons and would not have to move unless the bartender needed to come out from behind the bar, which was unlikely due to the brisk business he was doing. (I did not know that Symphony Hall had full bar service, it's a nice amenity.) We were positioned in such a way that we were looking across the corner of the bar to where other patrons were ordering their drinks. I was kind of looking around, people-watching, when the Mrs. grabbed my arm, pulled my ear down closer to her mouth, and said, "Ricky Gervais is standing right in front of us."

I looked across the bar, and he was maybe six feet away, waiting for his drink. My wife said, "I couldn't think of anything clever or interesting to say, and I don't think he would have wanted to be approached anyway." He was definitely giving off a vibe of wanting to blend in and not be noticed. As soon as he got his drink, he and the two people he was with slunk away to a far corner. Of course, they managed to find an empty table.

I seem to remember hearing that Gervais is working on a movie up in Lowell, and Kathy Griffin performed in Lowell on Thursday night, so you'd think he would have caught one of those shows. Maybe he was too busy, or maybe he's staying in Boston and traveling back and forth to the set every day. Probably not on the commuter rail, though.

04 May 2008

The Cost of Change

I didn't do any shopping while we were in California. I mean, I shopped, but I didn't buy anything, other than a pound of coffee beans. Downtown Santa Cruz is one of those places that is valiantly resisting being homogenized into resembling every other urban shopping strip in our country, and while I applaud that spirit, the stores tend to be aimed at a customer base somewhat younger than me.

The downtown area of Pacific Avenue has an excellent independent bookstore, one of the best I have found anywhere. Interestingly, Borders has taken aim at them and installed a branch a few blocks down the street. I did not go into the Borders, but I was in Bookshop Santa Cruz for about 45 minutes, and it seemed as busy as it always has, which is good. I suspect the Borders will pick up some business from tourists, but BSC will keep on serving the locals, the students, and those like us who prefer to support independent businesses.

Not surprisingly, the clothing stores along the street tend to reflect the lifestyles and pursuits of the people who live in the area, so there's plenty of outdoorsy stuff for hiking and backpacking, and several stores that sell a version of the surfer style that's persisting out there on the other coast. Neither of these has any interest for me. There is a good Patagonia outlet store in Santa Cruz; it's not on the downtown strip, but it's not far away either, and worth a visit if you find yourself there.

As you would expect in a city like Santa Cruz, there are lots of little galleries, craft boutiques, and one or two examples of what used to be called head shops when I was a kid. But over the course of several visits, I have noticed that the downtown is starting to change. There's a lot of construction going on. Buildings are being converted to condos, and there is also new housing construction happening.

Folks who choose to live in urban areas and who can afford this type of real estate tend to expect certain amenities nearby, and the retail mix has started to shift. In anticipation of the influx of affluent residents, landlords start raising rents for their retail tenants, forcing some independent stores to close or relocate, and gradually they are replaced by national retailers who can afford to be there.

The coffee chains were, naturally, among the first to infiltrate, but as with the bookstores, the indies are holding their own against Starbucks and Peet's. There's now a Gap, which was not there six months ago, and American Apparel, which has been there a bit longer. I actually overheard a teenaged girl say to her friend, "Isn't there a Banana Republic around here?" I wanted to say, "Check back in another six months."