30 December 2015

End of Year Reflections

[Apologies for the silence around here lately. In addition to work and holiday stuff, I got an early Christmas present last week: a cold. It's mostly gone now, but it definitely kept me from tending to some of the things I wanted to be doing.]

Christmas is over and we're counting down the last few days of the year. At this time we naturally become reflective on the months that have passed. While this has not been what I would call a banner year (that fourth Super Bowl championship banner aside), there has definitely been progress.

I started 2015, as I did '14 and '13, without a job. I was well beyond disappointment and frustration with my situation, and was starting to think it would be necessary to return to dreaded retail in order to sustain myself. A former supervisor offered me a bit of freelance work, and then in April I was hired by a grocery-shopping service, but I got only three shifts during my first several weeks, so it became clear that option was not viable.

In May and early June, a couple of work-at-home temp assignments came my way. Both were relatively short in duration but put my skills to use. While I was working on the second of those, the agency offered me a three-month onsite assignment. I was hoping it might turn into a permanent job; it did not, but I was asked to stay for an additional month. Another assignment offer came soon after, which catches us up to today.

Working at home full-time is an odd experience. Depending on where one lives, it may or may not be possible to go out for lunch. In my case I've had to make the effort on weekends to plan ahead and have food on hand for daily lunches. The hours are a little awkward, and I'm busy pretty much all day, so I don't really have time to deal with little personal stuff like most office workers are able to.

Being home means I am also responsible for the dog's needs, which at this point are many and frequent. Before starting that temp gig in June, I was also home and taking care of her, but over the past six months or so, with age and increasing frailty, she's come to need us more than ever. When she appears, roughly every couple of hours, I have to stop whatever I'm doing and take her out, or feed her, or both. Handling it all has been challenging, but at the same time I'm glad that I am able to be here for her.

So my life is feeling somewhat circumscribed at the moment. I have episodes of several TV shows on the DVR that I have not found time to watch. And that isn't going to get any easier, as I have agreed to take another freelance assignment in order to make up for what my main job is (not) paying me. Everything is very stressful, and that's not something I'm used to dealing with.

But as I have said to a couple of people, I have to look at this year as a net positive. These are steps that I need to take as I work to restore my circumstances to what they were before I was laid off. I enjoyed my work and was able to live satisfactorily and comfortably from it. There seem to be more jobs now, and anecdotally I think that people my age and older are doing a little bit better than they were a couple of years ago. Obviously I will continue to blog, but let's check back in at the end of next December and see where things are...

23 December 2015

Six Flicks (Give or Take)

My friend Just Bud Fox is the only person I know well who's on Tumblr. Last week he posted a response to a challenge of sorts, one of these things that goes around and after you have given your answer you get to tag others to provide theirs.

The request was, "name six movies you can watch any time," and even though I'm not a Tumblr-er, I thought it would be a fun exercise to do this myself. It doesn't necessarily mean these are my favorite movies, though it's likely there would be some overlap. They are just ones that I find watchable enough to revisit frequently. As I tend to do when compiling such lists, I'm arranging them alphabetically. Also, like JBF, I couldn't keep it to just six.

The Blues Brothers (1980): "We're on a mission from God." I was a few weeks shy of 17 when this came out, and I had already been indoctrinated into the cult, so to speak, courtesy of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi's performances as Elwood and Jake on Saturday Night Live and the album they had released. It's a very funny movie and it has a bunch of great songs in it, but I think what really did it for me was the sheer scale of the mayhem being perpetrated. Movies have been trying to outdo the destruction ever since, but in my humble opinion few have gotten close while keeping that spirit of fun.

Heat (1995): I really wanted to have a Michael Mann movie on this list, and the obvious choice for me would be 1986's Manhunter, the first screen adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon, in which he introduced the world to Hannibal Lecter. (Side note: I will always prefer Brian Cox's interpretation of that character to Anthony Hopkins'.) But it has always bothered me that Mann chose to deviate from the book's ending to go for something much more typically Hollywood, and if I'm being honest, Heat is a far more engrossing movie. It's about a group of bank robbers planning a huge heist; it runs 2 hours and 45 minutes and doesn't feel more than maybe five minutes too long. It's one of the best crime movies in recent decades, and boasts the only onscreen appearance of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in the same scene.

L.A. Confidential (1997): Yes, I like crime movies. This one came pre-sold to me because I was already a big fan of the book and its author, James Ellroy. I thought the movie did an excellent job of bringing the sprawling noir story and the early 1950's time period to life on screen, and it's full of actors doing great work: Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger (who won a best supporting actress Oscar), David Strathairn; even Danny DeVito has a nice turn in this one.

The Matrix (1999): This is likely as close as we're ever going to get to a film version of William Gibson's Neuromancer, which is fine with me. The best way to watch this is to ignore all the pop-philosophy stuff and just enjoy the ride. The visual effects were a genuine revelation and still look amazing today.

Ocean's Eleven (2001): This one just checks so many boxes for me, though I kind of wish someone other than Julia Roberts had been cast as Tess, but that's really just a minor complaint. Movies are meant to be a source of enjoyment, and for that it's hard to top this one. The cast, the characters, the dialogue, the way it's filmed and lit, Brad Pitt constantly eating...

Ronin (1998): A different sort of heist movie, one with a twist: a group of mercenaries is assembled in Europe to acquire a particular case, but the members don't know what's in it, or who wants it. De Niro again, in one of his more low-key roles (not a bad thing at all), with Jean Reno, Sean Bean, Natascha McElhone, Jonathan Pryce, and others, plus some of the absolute best car chase work ever put on film.

This Is Spinal Tap (1984): I'm not sure if this was the first "mockumentary" or not, but I think it's still the standard by which all other aspirants should be judged. Another brilliant blend of music and comedy, everything about this movie is just spot-on and perfect, and the utter deadpan seriousness of everyone involved is what sells it.

Wanted (2008): This action vehicle about a secret league of assassins charged with keeping the world in balance is utterly ridiculous, and an absolute blast. It's terribly violent and should NEVER be seen by children, but it has buckets of style and boasts a cast that works to invest you in the far-fetched story, led by James McAvoy alongside Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Common, and a younger Chris Pratt in a supporting role.

18 December 2015


I guess it's starting to feel like Christmas, even though outside it feels more like early November. Not that I'm complaining; I keep hearing people say, "We're saving money on heat," and I can certainly get behind that.

There are always a decent number of houses in my neighborhood that decorate, and if I get ambitious I might go out and take some photos. But I was out with the dog the other night and happened to be across the street from our house, where we don't typically walk at night. After I brought her back inside, I went back out to get a quick pic.
That's SAR HQ on the right; the upstairs neighbors started decorating last year, after that apartment transitioned from having three unrelated single residents to a couple, with one member who's quite enthusiastic about the season. (There are also lights in that small square window above the mailboxes, but they weren't turned on.) Our next-door neighbor decorates every year, and I welcome the display, as much for the added brightness it brings to our block as for any other reason.

15 December 2015

Car Stuff: Where Are They Now?

The days keep getting away from me, making it difficult to get as much accomplished as I'd like. That includes blogging. But we persevere, as we must.

I spotted today's entry on my way home from work one day at the end of August, sitting on the bus just outside Sullivan Square station, waiting for traffic to move and thinking about how the bus part of the T could work so much better if buses were able to enter and exit stations with some sort of priority... but that's a digression. I looked out the window and saw a spot of bright red.
Hey, it's a fourth-generation (1988-91) Honda Civic! And it might even be an Si model (the sunroof suggests this), but it's difficult to tell from just this glimpse. Also, sorry it's blurry but my on-the-fly photography is often not great.

When these cars were new they were ubiquitous, at least around here. People wanted (and still want) a car that was practical, economical, reliable, and manageable in city streets and traffic. In fact, the Mrs. had one, a four-door with a five-speed manual transmission. But a while back I realized that they've vanished; unlike some older economy cars, you just never see these anymore. (The same is true for the generation that followed, which many people, including myself, think was the best Civic ever made.)

That's really why I wanted to get a pic of this car, even a fuzzy one: it's just such an uncommon sight these days.

13 December 2015

Retro Video Unit (12/11/15-ish)

There are some good '80s music playlists on Spotify, and I've found that I can listen to music while working without it being too much of a distraction (more challenging with some types of work than others) if I keep the volume low and my brain is familiar with the songs. One list in particular I've been listening to has something like 700 songs on it, so I don't like every single one on it but in general it's music I know and enjoy.

As such it's been giving me suggestions to feature here, but once again I've run into that situation where there's no official video for some songs. But because I like this particular song so much, I found a decent live version that's going to have to stand in for a video: "Reap the Wild Wind" by Ultravox, from the 1982 album Quartet.

08 December 2015

Car Stuff: Unabashedly Basic

On my last day working in Harvard Square, a week before Halloween, I was out at lunchtime and spotted this dark green Chevrolet Nova on Church Street, next to the First Parish Unitarian Church. (It's kind of blurry because I had to crop out quite a lot.)
From the other side of the street, at first I wasn't quite sure of what I was seeing. Chevrolet made millions of Novas, but they are a rare sight today. This design was made for model years 1968 to 1972, and hardly anything changed during that time, but the orange turn signal lenses in the front bumper identify this car as a '72. And those wheel covers appear in the brochure for that year, but there's no way to know if these are original to the car.

What I love about cars like this, from this time period, is that they were practical, simple, basic transportation, relatively economical to own and operate. But Detroit was already in the throes of Broughamification, an obsession with dressing up every vehicle that would end up working against it.

04 December 2015

Retro Video Unit (Pseudo-Retro Edition)

I know I haven't posted any music videos in a while. I'm going to get back to that, but for now how about a bit of silliness in the form of a faux video?

Kroll Show ended its three-season run on Comedy Central back in March after skewering just about every TV and pop-culture trope imaginable. One of my favorite bits was this spoof of a certain kind of video for a certain kind of song by a certain kind of band in the late 1980s.

So, here's "LA Deli" by Sloppy Secondz featuring Nash Rickey. Man, do I miss this show...

03 December 2015

Checks and Layers

Some of you who've been hanging around for a while may remember a few years back my interest in a buffalo-plaid wool shirt that J. Crew was selling under its Wallace & Barnes sub-brand. I thought it was rather overpriced, and even after it went on sale, I could not find my size available. I consoled myself with a vintage Woolrich shirt that I found on eBay, but it never quite satisfied me, because unfortunately I have a problem with being satisfied. (That's something we probably don't need to get into here...)

Eventually the item sold out. Jump to this fall, and it's back (if it's not the exact same item, it's very, very close), and at a slightly lower but still somewhat overly ambitious $148. (I'm not a retailing expert, but J. Crew's aspirational pricing is probably a significant factor in their recent struggles.) For the sake of comparison, the traditional Woolrich buffalo plaid shirt is currently selling for $119, though they have gone and ruined it with that light blue inner collar lining, perhaps to drive customers to the more recent made-in-USA version, which is going for $195.

Or, if all of those are too rich for your blood, you could head over to your local Old Navy (or visit online) for a much more reasonably priced facsimile. At its $50 "regular" price, this is kind of a no-brainer, though it's very easy to get it for less during one of their many sales; I picked up one for half price during their pre-Thanksgiving sale. To be fair and accurate, their version is only 50% wool (the rest is polyester and "other fibers"), so it's going to pill a little more than a shirt with a higher wool content, but you wouldn't wear this next to your skin anyway (layering, right?) so you won't really feel the difference, and the fabric is substantial and heavy so it will provide some decent warmth.

I will say that in person, the red is slightly darker than it looks in the photos, and I find that a bit disappointing, but it's a trifle. I'm not sure how long this will last, but for $25 I'm going to wear the hell out of it.

01 December 2015

Car Stuff: Random Sighting #41

(Looking back at the last several months of car posts, I now realize that the Fiero should have been RS #40, so even though I gave that post a different title, I'm proceeding as though I did include it in the numbers...)
What we have here is a rather uncommon 1980s artifact, a second-generation Volkswagen Scirocco. This car has been hanging out along the stretch of College Avenue between Powder House Square (which is, in fact, a circle) and the Tufts campus. I spotted it during the summer when I was taking the bus into Harvard Square.
Actually, I spotted it from the car one Saturday evening when we were on our way to get burritos in Davis Square, and then I saw it soon after from the bus. I kept seeing it, and tried on several occasions to snap a decent photo as I rode past it, but none of those worked out.
Finally, during the week after I finished the Harvard Square temp job, I was out doing a few things and was on my way back home via the same bus route. I saw the car again from the bus, and decided to get off at the next stop so I could take as many pictures as I wanted.
The Scirocco first appeared in the mid-1970s, based on the Rabbit platform but with a decidedly more sporting character. The second generation appeared in 1982 and was sold in the US through 1989. (After a long hiatus, VW revived the model and introduced a third generation in 2008, but it has never been offered for sale in North America.)

Curbside Classic has excellent writeups on both generations; you can find the first one here, and the second one here.