Sunday, February 10, 2019

What's Up With Your Taxes?

Just finished filing our income tax today and no surprise, I've gone from getting a low 4 figure refund the past few years to owing a small amount to the IRS.  That seems to be the norm, so what's going on?

First of all, I'm not a tax accountant.  Second of all, those of you that are already scoffing at me for not planning my withholding to the penny so that the IRS didn't get to use my money interest free all year may as well stop reading - I'm not writing this for you.  Yes it's smarter to minimize your refund, but it ain't easy to do and most people would rather get something back than run the risk of paying (hence the uproar now).

So what happened?  Let me give you an example (these numbers ARE NOT my actual numbers - they are made up round numbers for illustration purposes).  We'll look at Jack (a high school teacher) and Jackie (a Windows server admin at a mid-sized company).  They file married/jointly and their income after the little bit they carve out pre-tax for her 401K is right at $100K.

Their first combined paycheck in the middle of January 2018 was $100 more than last year.  Hurray!  They get paid twice a month so that's $2400 a year!  Not enough to go buy a new car, but it's significant.  Might mean some new clothes, dining out more often, maybe even a weekend at the beach.  Awesome!  The $100 is nice, but by April they've kind of forgotten about it and then Jackie get a little merit raise at work in June and it all blends together.

So now it's February 2019 and tax time.  Jackie and Jack are used to getting a decent refund (around $1500) and using that to take a vacation after the school year.  But as they go through the tax program, they start noticing some things.  They're used to itemizing deductions, claiming mortgage interest, property taxes, donations, state income tax, etc.  But some of those are now being capped.  They're pushed into the standard deduction of $24K for a married couple - higher than it was previously, for sure.  But the personal exemption is gone which counters some of that gain.  After all is said and done, they end up owing the IRS $150!

So did their taxes go up or down?  Well, they did go down,  But not by $2400.  They went down by $750.  That's not a figure to be sneezed at, but it's not nearly as much as they thought a year ago and they miss having the big refund that they can use for a down payment for a car or for a getaway.

For those of you that have already filed, does that look like what you've seen?  Were you smart enough to change your W-4 at the beginning of the year?  And for those of you that pay a lot more attention to such things, do I have this right or am I missing something?


Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Take the win

While a lot of you knuckleheads spent Election Night with your favorite disinformation channel on the tube and FiveThirtyEight open on your iPad, Jeannette and I spent the night at the Cradle enjoying a fantastic Psychedelic Furs set (nice opener by Liz Brasher too).  We got home by 11 and I took a quick look to reassure myself that the House was going to be majority Dem and then went to sleep.

I see a lot of hand-wringing from folks that did watch the results all night - I like the perspective I got by NOT watching it like a tennis match and just looking at the end results (I know there are still some undecided races out there, but you get my drift).  By not sweating over every precinct return, I think I kept a little perspective.

Democrats won enough seats to take the House. That might not have been the ONLY thing that mattered, but it mattered more than everything else.  That means that Adam Schiff and Maxine Waters and Elijah Cummings are likely now to be committee chairs.  That is a Big. Fucking. Deal.

Democrats picked up a large number of governorships, which will make a huge difference.  Scott Walker and Kris Kobach went down in defeat. No, Dems didn't win Florida or Ohio, but they won a bunch.  That is vitally important as we head into the 2020 census.

Closer to home, the GOP lost supermajorities in both sides of the NCGA, meaning that they will no longer be able to automatically override Gov. Cooper's veto.  [Edit - I see I spoke too soon as there are races that are undecided.  No more supermajority in the House but Senate is still uncertain.]  And the two referenda that would have restricted the NC governor's powers were defeated. And the Dem won the State Supreme Court race.  We've got districts that have been found to be illegally gerrymandered and we're in better shape now to ensure that that is resolved.

It was a good night.  Maybe it wasn't a fantastic night, but it was a good night.

Now the cries will begin for the new House majority to "show restraint" and to "avoid legislative overreach".  Complete and utter bullshit.  The GOP House did not suffer from spending millions of dollars and 1000s of hours in incessant investigations of non-scandals like the IRS and Benghazi.  The Dem House will not suffer from actually investigating the vast amount of real wrong-doing that is out there to be brought to light.  If we have learned anything in the last two years (or last forty years) it's that there is no such thing as overreach anymore.  The House turned more blue-ish because of Trump, not because of Devin Nunes or Trey Gowdy.

What the Democratic House does have to do is prove that it can walk and chew gum at the same time.  There is no reason that they can't put forth a reasonable, progressive legislative agenda at the same time they investigate the massive fraud and misdeeds of the Trump administration. Yes, that agenda will be stymied in the Senate but that doesn't mean that they shouldn't try - that's what they were elected for.  And that doesn't mean that if there's some area of common ground with the GOP, they shouldn't pursue it.  But being seen as a roadblock to the Trump agenda will *not* be a negative, despite what corporate media will try to say.

And yes, they should pursue investigations professionally, reasonably and to the fullest extent that they can.  There is plenty to investigate that others have pointed out over and over.  And once they've started turning over those rocks and shining a light on what comes wriggling out, along with the next few weeks of Mueller investigation reveals, yes they damn well should start impeachment proceedings against Trump.  The Senate may not vote on it but the Senate election landscape for 2020 is much more favorable to Dems than 2018 was and putting GOP Senators on the line for their votes on what will be obvious illegal activities from the Preznit will not hurt.

Nancy Pelosi will pick the the majority leader gavel again and should keep it until someone comes along that has her fund-raising and cat-herding abilities and not one second before.  The fact that she's the boogie-woman that GOP uses to scare their sheeple at night should be seen as a badge of honor, not a detriment.  They will use WHOEVER is in the position in exactly the same way, so it really doesn't matter.

Things have started to change for the better.

Yesterday was a good day.


Friday, July 13, 2018

First World Problems - Business Travel Sucks

"You'll survive all of this if it kills you
Just to show them that you never lost your nerve."
- The Old Ceremony, "Ghosts of Ferriday"

I have not always been a frequent business traveler but I'm an experienced one, both domestically and internationally, both pre- and post-9/11.  But I'm ready to stop.  Just quit it completely, unless it's a drive rather than a flight away.

I don't blog about work often and I'm not really talking about work itself here, just some of the wonder that surrounds it.

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting a customer in Andover, MA, around 45 minutes north of Boston.  Being the good corporate citizen that I am, I scheduled my flight for relatively late in the day so I could get a good day's work in before signing off.  The flight into Logan was uneventful, I picked up my rental car, plugged in the destination in Google Maps and away I went, through the Big Dig and off into the rainy night.

I arrived at my hotel around 11pm, maybe 11:15 and there is where the trouble began.  I had no reservation.  No record of it.  None. And of course the hotel was completely booked.  The guy behind the desk suggested a couple of other places to call (he did NOT offer to do that himself) but they were booked as well.  As a matter of fact, one of the people I spoke to at another hotel said she had been trying to find rooms as far away as Maine with no success.  There was some sort of huge softball tournament or some such going on and rooms were just not to be had.

Thinking that the travel folks our company uses had screwed the pooch, I emailed them and (to their everlasting credit) they responded within 5 minutes (meanwhile I had powered up my laptop and was looking for other options myself).  I heard the phone behind the reception desk ring and realized that the guy behind the counter was being reamed out by our travel people but to no avail.

I tried a few more places on my own as did the guy from our travel team.  I had zero luck.  He kept finding places that had rooms available online but when he called them to confirm, they were not actually available (again, I've derided these guys before but they performed admirably).

By this time it was around 12:30 am and I was contemplating sleeping in the back seat of the little Mercedes crossover I had rented and then blowing off my customer meeting and flying the fuck home.  I had been pretty well convinced that this had been a screw-up on the part of our travel people but just for the hell of it, I called the toll-free number for the hotel chain (yes, it was Holiday Inn Express).  I gave the guy my reservation confirmation number, telling him that the guy at the deck hadn't been able to find it.  No, the voice on the phone said, we had it but we canceled it because you hadn't checked in.

What the ever-loving fuckety fuck?!?!?

After blowing off a little steam venting at the sap on the other end of the line, I asked him how the hell that could happen, given that the room was guaranteed.  Apparently that doesn't mean doodly in situations like this where they've overbooked and everyone else around is booked solid as well.  After questioning the parentage of the dumbfuck that thought up that policy, I demanded the smug little shit from customer disservice find me another damn room.  And he did.  In Seabrook, New Hampshire.  Another 35-45 minutes north.  Okay then.

I packed up my crap, which by this time was spread all over the lobby, and headed up through the rain to Seabrook.  And a bed.  And all of about 4 hours of sleep.

After a good meeting with my customer, it was time to head back to Logan.  I knew I was going to have a few hours to kill at the airport and figured I would use some Delta Skymiles to buy an afternoon in their Sky Club so I could have a comfortable place to sit and get some work done before flying home.  So I did.  It looked like a refugee camp.  The thunderstorms rolling through Boston were holding planes destined for Logan at their destination for hours, so everyone that had any way to access the Sky Lounge had done so.  I was lucky enough to find an actual chair (there were people sprawled all over the floor, leaning against table legs, etc and the line for the free (sucky) beer was 30 people deep).  All of that being said, I was more comfortable that I would have been in the terminal while I saw my departure time slip out by 1 hour. 2 hours.  3 hours.  For a second time in 24 hours I thought about calling my friend Lynn at BU to see if she'd come get me and let me crash on her sofa.

We finally took off around 11:30pm, landing at RDU well after 1am.  By the time I got out, got the car and drove home it was 2.  By the time I actually wound down enough to get to sleep it was 3, with a full day of work ahead of me starting a couple of hours later.  Another 4 hours of sleep.

Okay, so that sucked but how often is THAT going to happen.  Well, apparently, every.  fucking.  time.

I'll admit that Wednesday's flight through Charlotte to Birmingham went without a hitch.  Rental car achieved.  Hotel was fine.  Dinner with our team was fun and the food was good.  Good meetings with the customer.  Uneventful trip back to the airport and a quiet gate to catch up on some more work and make a few phone calls.  I was traveling with one of my guys and we had 50 minutes to get from our flight to the next in Charlotte, which I thought was cutting it close but figured we had a shot.  Then the delays started.  15 minutes.  45 minutes.  Then they stopped updating it but I was watching Flightaware and the equipment we were going to use was coming in from Charlotte, which was under a very angry-looking thunderstorm.  The good thing was that lots of planes were being held at their departure location before coming into Charlotte.  Except for one, apparently.  Our connecting flight was coming in from Providence RI and was perfectly on time, no delays, might have even been a couple of minutes early.  Naturally.  I heard others around me talking to the gate agents to rebook their connecting flights and they were all the next day at 10am, 11am, 1pm.  Fuck that.  We finally boarded about 50 minutes late and before they buttoned up, I pulled up the Budget website, logged into my Fastbreak account and reserved us a car for a one-way from CLT to RDU.  I figured I could cancel it if by some miracle we made our connection but as we landed at Charlotte-Douglas, Flightaware showed our connecting flight as taxiing on the runway.

So off we went to the Budget counter and our grey Nissan Sentra and a long drive to RDU.  We left around 11:15 and I figured we'd get to RDU around 1:45, which was after the Budget counter closed, so I had a 1pm turn-in time.  The drive was uneventful despite the construction on vast stretches of I-85 between Charlotte and Greensboro (lots of night work).  I dropped my friend off at the terminal so he could catch a shuttle out to park-and-ride to get his car and then headed for home, music blaring to keep me alert and awake.  Home at 2:15, asleep a little after 3, an all-to-familiar story.

My calendar for Friday was a disaster.  I was determined to blow off my 8am meeting and the hour-long 8:30 meeting but I was doubled-booked for the rest of the morning.  I finally had a break around 12:30 with my next (must-do) meeting at 2pm, giving me exactly an hour and a half to drive the rental to RTP, gas up, turn it in, take the shuttle to the terminal, walk over to the garage, pick up the XTerra and get home.  I pulled off on Miami Blvd to gas up and as I got back onto I-40 I realized that I had neglected to grab either my parking ticket or my freakin' keys to my XTerra.  So exit onto Page Rd, hop back onto I-40 (westbound this time) and back home.  I called Budget and spoke to a robot for 15 minutes in order to extend my rental for another 3 hours, then did my can't-miss meeting and tried it all again.

Luckily this time I was successful and things went off without a hitch, which is good as I was pretty much incapable of handling complexity after only around 4 hours of sleep.

I'm not sure if there are any lessons from any of this.  I'm pretty good at packing for air travel, I know how to manage the security lines even without TSA Pre, I always get to the airport with a few minutes to spare so that I'm not crushing people trying to reach my gate.  But some things are clearly beyond my control.  Which is actually the worst damn thing about air travel.  Other than unexpected traffic, I feel much more control if I'm driving, and if I can get to my destination in 6 hours or less, I'm driving not flying.  But that doesn't help me with Boston or Birmingham or Atlanta or London or Chennai or really anywhere beyond the DC Metro and Charlotte.

So I'm going to have to find a way to cope with this but any more of these 2am homecomings and I may have to find a way to retire early.

Labels: ,

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Cave

Everyone that has ever considered themselves a Chapel Hill townie is going to be posting their remembrances of The Cave over the next few days, as it closes after some 50 years as a Chapel Hill landmark.  Everybody's got their own Cave and mine was a little different than yours.

My Cave was created when I was a freshman at UNC, Fall Semester 1978.  I was taking Honors English with Dr. Julius Raper and spending way too many afternoons and evenings at Troll's (despite being under the drinking age during the first 2 months of school).  During an after-class discussion with a couple of guys that turned to darts, they had to take me down to this place way on the west end of Franklin Street (or so it seemed to this dorm-bound freshman) that they had discovered.  I was admonished to behave myself, as this was a townie bar that did not tolerate asshole students being assholes. I was led down the dark steps by Clive Stafford Smith (then Minister without Portfolio of Double-Barreled Hyphenless Last Names and later an OBE and internationally-known civil rights lawyer) and Adrian "Che" Halpern, currently (still, I think) a local immigration lawyer.  Being so pre-lawyered up, we walked into the low-ceilinged underground haven around 4 in the afternoon to be met by a couple of geezers (they had to be at least 40) playing backgammon and the clack of billiard balls coming from the back room.  But most importantly, the two lovely dart boards up front, undoubtedly positioned at precisely the regulation height.  We managed to behave, I managed to not get completely crushed by the Cambridge-raised Mr. Stafford Smith, and we managed not to get stared at for being, well, freshmen.

I was in and out of the Cave a bit over the next few years, back when amplification was outlawed (I used to know who was the first performer to break the "no amps" policy but I no longer remember).  But when we bought Rhythm Alley in the mid-80s, the Cave became both a refuge and a bank.  I would escape to Tijuana Fats or the Cave when necessary during sound checks and Meg was always willing to sell us quarters when we inevitably ran out during busy weekends as the pool tables in the back were serious metal collectors.  It was at the bar at the Cave that I loudly pronounced to Greg Stafford and anyone sitting within 50 feet of me that the Pressure Boys were the best damn band in the world.  (I was right.)

After we sold the club and moved away and then moved right back, I didn't spend a lot of time down there, partly because I'd stopped smoking and could no longer deal with being in smoky rooms.  But I did catch a show there every now and then after they installed a big-ass smoke extractor and of course like all clubs they stopped allowing smoking as well.

While it was certainly not the last time I was there, the last memorable night at the Cave was during the 2005 NCAA championship game.  I had ridiculously believed that I could squeeze into a bar as a single somewhere and watch the game.  I'd ridden my bicycle into town thinking that would be safest and would get me closer than trying to park.  But of course I quickly realized what an idiot I was and decided to stop in at the Cave for a beer before deciding what to do next.  I ended up down at the end of the bar, talking to Laird Dixon and Jack Whitebread (at the time I had no idea who the hell either of them were) and peering past the fridge to see the game on the 15" black and white TV on the back bar while being served beers by the incredible Mr. John Howie Jr.  I didn't see much of the game but that was a night I will never forget.

Chapel Hill is an evolving organism.  We'll survive the demise of the Cave and Spanky's just as we've survived the demise of Town Hall (before my time) and Pyewacket and Papagayo's and Tijuana Fats and Lizard and Snake and Pepper's Pizza and the Intimate Bookshop and we'll survive the eventual demise of Cat's Cradle and Local 506 and the Carolina Coffee Shop.  Things won't be the same, but they'll be ok and we'll have memories of all the crazy shit we've done at places that were much cooler than where people hang out today and those people will tell tales of their favorite places to their kids who will create favorite places of their own.

So raise a cold one to the Cave and all the people that made it a place to remember, then go make some new awesome memories at your new favorite place.


Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Happy Blogiversary to Me

I started Half-Life and Times 14 years ago this week, as UConn was beating Dook then Georgia Tech for the nattie championship behind Emeka Okafor and as we were mired in the early stages of two Middle Eastern wars with a preznit that we were sure was the worst we'd ever see in our lifetimes.  Ugh.

This actually wasn't my first blog, though.  In '99 and '00, I maintained a static webpage that I updated every couple of weeks with bloggie thoughts.  I also maintained a very subjective restaurant guide of Chapel Hill/Carrboro and a bit of Durham, primarily for the folks that I worked with that traveled here for meetings (my boss at the time was an Ann Arbor-turned-Chapel Hill guy and used to insist that we meet in CH rather than out in RTP).  I've looked but I'm not finding any of those old pages, despite the idea that nothing on the web ever disappears.

After starting this blog on Blogger, I actually hand-built pages for it for a couple of years until Blogger got better and stopped eating my posts.  Those are archived as well (there's a link).

If there is a highlight of this thing for me, it was the series of posts I published in August 2014 about our time with Rhythm Alley (actually a thinly-disguised love letter to Jeannette) - they're still out there if anyone's interested.

Given the way FB is going, it's quite possible that Half-Life and Times will outlive my FB presence, so here's to another few years at least.

Labels: , ,

Friday, March 09, 2018

You Kids Get Off My Lawn! - ACC Tournament Edition

I try not to be one of those people that think (loudly) that everything was better when they were younger.  You'll never catch me in an "I May Be Old But I Saw All The Cool Bands" t-shirt.  I don't believe that music stopped being good after I graduated college or that there's nothing good on television anymore or that all new fashions suck.

And yet...

While I understand full well all the economic reasons that the ACC has grown from 7 teams in the 1970s to 15 teams now, it has ruined what was a high holy day for basketball fans in this area. I get that those days are never coming back but that doesn't mean that I have to like it.  The ACC tournament first round should not be played on a Tuesday afternoon and it should not be played in (I can't believe I'm typing this) Brooklyn.  It should be played in Greensboro (occasionally in Charlotte) and it should start on a Friday afternoon, as God intended.

With the exception of the teams that are on the bubble for selection to play in the NCAA tournament a week later, the tourney now seems like more of a nuisance than a happening.  But for many years, winning it was the only way to make the NCAA tournament.  You played the regular season for ACC tournament seeding and the coveted Friday bye and then you played the ACC tourney for the right to play on.  Even when the NCAA field started expanding in the mid-70s, the importance of the ACC tourney was huge.  For example, in 1976 the UVa Cavs made a run from the 6th seed to the tourney championship (first time a 6th seed had won) to make the NCAAs and almost did the same the next year, starting with a 7 seed and making it to the final game before losing to UNC.  That meant something.

The ACC was much smaller then, not just in the number of teams but in geography.  Four of the seven teams remaining after South Carolina dropped out were in North Carolina and the tournament was almost always played in G'Boro or Charlotte.  The 70s were also the era of the Big Four tournament, an early season 2 day affair with the four North Carolina schools playing each other.  So it was not unusual for Dook and State or Wake and UNC to play each other 4 times in a year - Big Four, 2 regular season games and then the ACC Tournament.  There was an intimacy to the whole thing that will never be recaptured.

The addition of Georgia Tech in 1980 just added a fourth game on Friday, making for a full half-day statewide holiday.  You skipped college classes to go watch in a downtown bar or you took a half-day off of work and went to a viewing party with your work buds or if you were younger, the cool teachers rolled the big gray cart with the TV on it into the classroom and you watched the first game before scooting home to catch the second one.  The fortunate few were actually there in the Greensboro Coliseum or hanging around outside to buy Sat/Sun tickets from the fans of the Friday losing teams.

The ACC was always known as a basketball conference but it was football that killed it.  The addition of Florida State in the early 90s (an openly acknowledged attempt at raising the football profile of the conference) introduced what became known as the Les Robinson Invitational - the abomination of a Thursday night play-in game was the beginning of the end. Additions of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College at least evened the number of teams to a more tournament-friendly 12 but by then the magic was gone.  Due to television contracts, the final is on Saturday night instead of Sunday afternoon the way it is supposed to be (dammit!).  The tournament is played on foreign soil most years and starts on a bloody Tuesday, which just ain't right.

I have to admit that I didn't grow up with this.  We didn't move to North Carolina until just after the tournament in 1975.  But I quickly adopted the Tar Heels as my team (thanks primarily to watching Phil Ford) and started marking that weekend on my calendar months in advance.  Even after college, I pored over Barry Jacobs' annual ACC preview and knew every player on every team, even the scrubs (I still have some of the guides in my home office).  Now I'd have trouble naming all the schools in the ACC without looking them up.  Part of that is just growing up, dealing with multiplying responsibilities and just not having the time or brain-space to absorb that kind of information.  But part of it is just not giving a crap about who Pitt's 6th man is or who on Boston College's team is coming back next year (sorry, Lynn!).

We all lose bits of our youth as we get older. I'm not particularly nostalgic and despite the current political shitstorm we're living through, I do believe that we're living in the best of times with tremendous possibilities ahead of us.  I don't wish for the pre-cellphone days or think that there's anything fundamentally wrong with "those kids today". But I do miss my intimate little ACC Tournament, when the world (at least MY world) stopped for three days to focus on nothing but the best college basketball in the universe.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Star Wars thoughts and many, many spoilers

A few thoughts on Star Wars and on the latest chapter – beware, here there be spoilers galore…

I was exactly the right age when the first Star Wars movie was released. Just like Luke, I was a whiny teenager complaining about having to do homework or chores rather than run into Tosche Station for some power converters (and to hang out with my friends). I was going to LOTS of movies then – midnight showings of Kentucky Fried Movie and Rocky Horror, first runs of almost anything that looked decent (and many that didn’t) – from Rocky to Rollercoaster. There was a LOT of build up for Star Wars and my girlfriend and I made it to the very first showing in Charlotte - at the old Charlottetown Mall theater. It might be a little overkill to say that it was life-changing, but it certainly blew me away. A few days later I was in Winston-Salem for the summer attending Governor’s School, surrounded by fellow geeks who had already seen the movie 3-4 times before they arrived on campus and it was a major topic of conversation.

All of this is to say not only that the Star Wars cosmology is very important to me but also that I come at it differently than someone now in their 20s whose parents made them watch the original trilogy over a weekend before taking them to see Phantom Menace in the theater.

Let me first get out of the way that Eps I, II and III are mostly unwatchable – the result of Lucas being so completely in charge. The man may be the worst writer of dialog in the history of screencraft and it didn’t help that the actors chosen to portray proto-Darth Vader were completely inept. The guy that created the Machete Order for watching the first 6 films makes a very valid point that The Phantom Menace can be completely ignored without any effect on the rest of the series. Darth Maul and Qui-Gon are both introduced and both killed before the end of the movie. Jar Jar almost completely disappears after TPM, other than a couple of short scenes where he is used by Palpatine. On the other hand, II and III do offer some insight into the backstory – I don’t watch them often (and I take extended bathroom breaks during the Anakin/Padme courtship) but they do provide some insight into both Vader as well as the path that Luke is trying to navigate. But they are not good movies.

The Force Awakens had to try to do a lot. It had to bring back people like me that were turned off by the prequel trilogy while not losing the younger generation that grew up wearing Darth Maul backpacks to school and it had to attract an even younger audience as well. So I get the fan service aspect (the retelling to some extent of A New Hope, the reuniting of the original trio as a new one is being formed, etc) and I certainly have no problem with the broadening of casting by adding more women and people of color (I found that refreshing). I found the movie enjoyable but thin (a common criticism of JJ Abrams, I suppose) and ultimately somewhat forgettable. In other words, it was par for most movies that I’ve seen (ever, frankly) – a good couple of hours entertainment. Which I guess is fine but I wanted more.

Then there’s Rogue One. One can argue whether it needed to be made or not but I’m damn glad it was. It wasn’t just a good Star Wars movie – it was a damn good movie, period. The final 45 minutes make it one of the best war movies I’ve ever seen (admittedly not a genre I go very deep in). I kept expecting to see a pack of Luckies tucked into the helmet band of one of the rebels. There was a time when movies ending in major character deaths were fairly common – in this case it was inevitable and known before you saw the movie but the way they handled that ending was excellent. If they want to tell more stories about the stuff that happened off camera and they’re as good as Rogue One, I’ll be all over them.

My expectations for TFA were not that high. My expectations for The Last Jedi were actually QUITE high and they were met. Yes it could have been a little shorter and yes it did drag for a few minutes in the middle and yes they wasted a perfectly good Del Toro (unless he’s back in IX) so I’ll give 4.5 out of 5. Still a fantastic movie and a worthy entry into SW canon. I honestly don’t understand most of the critiques I’ve read (by non-critics) – they don’t like the humor (there has always been humor in SW), they don’t like the way certain prominent characters were killed off (still trying to be a little careful about spoilers despite my warnings), the alt-right puppies don’t like the fact that the cast isn’t lily-white and possessing a Y chromosome, blah blah blah. The folks that say this doesn’t feel like Star Wars to them don’t have the same understanding of Star Wars as I do. I’m not saying they’re wrong. But they’re wrong. :)

Let me talk about Princess Ambassador General Leia Skywalker Organa for a minute. I wrote elsewhere today about her story arc in the original trilogy and her often-overlooked kickassedness. In the prison deck of the star destroyer, she was the one that took action that allowed them to make a (smelly) escape. She had complete control of the male attention coming her way. Even in the first act of RotJ, despite her ridiculous outfit, she single-handedly kills her oppressor. She was not only a leader of the Rebellion, she was the one they trusted to receive the Death Star plans and to get them back to the rebel base. In the last couple of years, I started following Carrie Fisher on Twitter and came to love her as much as her character. So I was prepared for emotions. I was not prepared to lose it three times – in her last conversation with Holdo, with her exchange with Luke’s projection and in her last scene with Rey. Niagara Falls, Frankie. In this movie, I see Leia as George Washington, who was known more for his strategic retreats than his military victories. Live to fight another day – that’s the premise for the whole movie. She was brilliant. And I miss her.

One of the best things about The Last Jedi is one that I’ve seen fans complain about – Poe’s arc throughout the movie. Apparently some want their dashing heroes to be faultless. Instead you start to understand Poe as the Star Wars version of the World War I flying ace, doing one-on-one combat above the trenches with little regard for the boys below or the ground crew (or overall strategy). His jubilation after expending the whole damn bomber force to take out one Dreadnought is followed by Leia watching the lights representing bombers (and crews) blinking out. You know she was both lamenting the loss of life as well as thinking about what the hell they were going to do when the NEXT Dreadnought showed up. Follow that with Poe’s mutiny against Holdo (which he probably only survived because they were so short-handed – otherwise I’d have spaced him) and one hopes that he may finally be learning about command and strategy beyond his tactical combat skills in ways that will show up in the next movie.

I’m still pissed off that years ago Lucas replaced the planet of Wookies in the initial RofT scripts with “the forest moon of Endor” populated by annoying furry mini-Chewies called Jawas. And I was prepared to hate the Porgs. But they were such a small (get it?) part of the movie that they were just fine.

Middle movies of a trilogy are always tough. If the Interwebs had been around when Empire Strikes Back came out, I can only imagine the screams from ANH fanboys - “Vader is Luke’s father? Where did THAT come from!” “You froze your best character!?” Yet it is considered by most now to be the best movie of the lot (I still place A New Hope ahead of it because it is a complete movie – it all could have stopped there and the ending would have been satisfactory). In middle movies, you have to break up the “fellowship” so you can reunite them and they have to end dark so that the third movie can restore the light. The Last Jedi does that in ways that are enough different than the original trilogy that it doesn’t suffer the same “we’ve seen this before” issues that plagued The Force Awakens.

I was not a believer in Kylo Ren in TFA. He just didn’t seem that formidable of an opponent. That changed during the scenes with Rey in TLJ – while his grandfather was content to essentially be muscle for his mentor/master the Emperor, Ren wants to be THE GUY. And he also wants to burn it ALL down and start over – no more First Order, no more Resistance, just a galaxy united as… Renland? Kyloville? At least the kid’s got ambition now. I'm a little readier to see him as the Big Bad.

I would have liked a little more Rey and a little less Finn, but that’s a minor quibble. And unlike some fan critics, I hope like hell that Kylo Ren was telling the truth about Rey’s parents. We don’t need her to be a forgotten Han Solo by-blow or a hidden Kenobi or Yoda’s love child. I’m perfectly happy with her being an extremely powerful force-sensitve nobody and I’ll be disappointed if JJ Abrams walks that back in XI. The fight in Snoke's throne room was awesome - the best choreographed light saber battle they've yet done. If you've ever seen any videos of Daisy Ridley's insane workout routines, you can see there where it pays off.

So The Last Jedi moves into the number 3 spot in my Star Wars order of goodness – behind A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back and just ahead of Rogue One. I’m hoping JJ does XI right and I’m much more interested now in the three-movie deal that Rian Johnson has for new SW movies to come. Interested in what you guys think!


Wednesday, September 27, 2017


"There's too many kings/wanna hold you down/and a world at the window/gone underground
There's a hole in the sky/where the sun don't shine/and a clock on the wall/and it counts my time
And Heaven, is the whole of our hearts/and Heaven don't tear you apart
Yeah, Heaven is the whole of our hearts/and Heaven don't tear you apart"
- Psychedelic Furs, "Heaven"

I'm inordinately excited about the Psych Furs show tonight - more than I guess I thought I would be. But there are reasons.

I didn't pay much attention to their first album and still rarely listen to more than a couple of songs ("India" being an exception). But when my neighbor Sally Dunning (she was the local Columbia Records rep at the time) dropped a stack of promos on my lap one afternoon that included their second album "Talk Talk Talk", I was blown away. The original version of "Pretty in Pink" would have been enough to make it a stellar album but songs like "She is Mine", "Into You Like a Train" and "All of This and Nothing" made it a classic, one of the few albums I can think of that doesn't have a single dud.

As you would imagine, I was seriously stoked for their show at Page Auditorium with the X-Teens and... it was awful. Just wretched. The band might have been fine, but I was sitting on the last row of the balcony and not only could I not really see them, the sound was just a muddy catastrophe. So I felt like I'd still never seen the Psych Furs.

A couple of years later I met this Jeannette girl (some of you may have heard of her) as I was getting ready to move to the Washington Metro area (Gaithersburg, MD to be exact). She joined me up there and we were engaged to be married by the middle of August and a week later "Mirror Moves" dropped and "Heaven" became our song. There was a lot of good music around that summer and fall of 1984 but while we were getting to know each other (and eating Chocolate Coconut Sour Cream Blackout Cake at Kramerbooks and drinking and dancing at Cagney's on Dupont Circle and shopping for funky clothes at Commander Salamander in Georgetown), "Heaven" was our soundtrack (and I don't think I ever walked into Commander Salamander without hearing it).

So we moved back to NC and got married and bought a rock and roll club and then sadly we sold it. I missed the last weekend as I had to be in Columbia, MD for a tech class (for my day job) so as soon as Jeannette handed over the keys, she got on a plane to BWI and joined me. The consolation was that the Furs were playing at Merriweather Post Pavilion right there in Columbia while we were there. That was one of the first of the big amphitheaters that most cities seem to now have and the Furs were there with The Blow Monkeys (who's entire catalog I think was the single "Digging Your Scene" back by a remix of "Digging Your Scene").

The show was awful. Just wretched. Again, nothing to do with the band. I was in a foul mood, after first having to sell the club and then missing the final weekend. I'm sure Jeannette was not in much better shape. Then we were faced with stringent (and what felt at the time like unnecessarily invasive) security measures to get in, which with the mood we were in did not go over well. Then the Blow Monkeys came on and... uh... oh, damn they were boring. But there was a sizable contingent of people there who were there for them that just annoyed the hell out of me. So by the time the Furs came out, there was no hope that I was going to enjoy the show. I remember very little about the performance.

So I was 0-for-2 in good experiences in seeing the Psychedelic Furs with few-to-zero chances to see them in the intervening years.

Finally, 25 years later, they booked a "very limited" tour to commemorate the 30th anniversary of "Talk Talk Talk". That "limited" tag was soon replaced as they added a bunch of tour dates that included the Cat's Cradle. And this time, it was magnificent. They played the album in its entirety followed by a bunch of other material and it was everything it should have been. And everything those previous shows should have been. Finally.

So now they're off the schneid and the pressure's off and now I can't wait until showtime.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

C'Ville questions

I started writing this in my head Friday night before the events Saturday and certainly before the death and injuries from the terrorist attack on the counterprotesters, but the questions are still valid, even if they've been over-shadowed by the need for us to figure out how the hell we're going to move forward as a country.

Most Southern municipalities had (and I am guessing still have) statutes on the books restricting what can be brought to a protest or march.  These go back to the Civil Rights and then the anti-Vietnam War protests of the '60s and were certainly still around when I was active in the Animal Rights movement in the late 80s/early 90s.

There were tight restrictions on the size and length and material used to create protest signs (basically nothing much wider or thicker than a tongue depressor was allowed) to prevent signs from being used as weapons.  There were all kinds of restrictions on where one could stand, no masks or hoods allowed, and more that I can't immediately recall.  New restrictions in Durham have been put into place restricting protests to daylight hours.

Hell, even the Chapel Hill Hallowe'en celebration restricts anything that looks like or could be used as a weapon.

At the Presidential Conventions every year, protesters are separated into "Free Speech" areas usually blocks away from the convention centers and usually blocks away from each other.  I'm not saying I think that's the right thing to do, but it is apparently possible to do so without running afoul of the First Amendment.

It is certainly possible that Charlottesville doesn't have similar rules in place (although I know that everywhere I've lived in the Southeast, from Nashville to suburban Atlanta to Charlotte to RTP does, or at least did).  

So how do you get a situation where you have a mob of people with lit torches, baseball bats, and long guns marching at night and large numbers of cops, state troopers and National Guardsmen standing around with their thumbs up their butts?  What the hell were they there for?  And why did it take hours of clashes on Saturday morning before the decision was made to put a stop to it?

I'm asking honestly as there may be some good explanations but I'd like to hear them.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Last Real Chapel Hill Summer

A warning last week from a Facebook friend that the students would be coming back in a couple of weeks to interrupt our summer-sleepy town once again reminded me of how much summers have changed around here since I got to town.

Okay, before I go any further, I do realize how cliche that sort of backward-looking is.  When I arrived as an incoming freshman in 1978 (interrupting someone else's sleepy summer), the following joke was already well-worn:
Q: How many Chapel Hillians does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Five.  One to screw in the light bulb and four to reminisce about when Chapel Hill was still a village (alternately, four to talk about how great the old light bulb was).
So I know that any backwards look like this is inherently fraught with danger, but what the hell.  While it's true that summers do still slow down a bit around here, Chapel Hill has over the past 40+ years become more and more a bedroom and retirement community with the influence of the university waning as a result.  That doesn't mean that it is not still a college town by any means, but the percentage of residents that are directly associated with the U has dropped significantly.  As a result, the tides of the town don't ebb and flow as strongly as they once did.  The academic year of the U also seems to have fewer gaps than it once did, so there're no longer those nice long slow weeks between graduation and 1st summer school session, for example, where the town approached empty.

For me, the last real Chapel Hill summer was 1981.  The previous two summers I had spent back home in Charlotte, working for a custom cabinet maker in Mint Hill and sometimes working at the movie theater at Eastland Mall.  As I finished my junior year, I found a couple of campus jobs that would allow me to stay in town (we were paying for our apartment out at what was then Tar Heel Manor anyway).  My friend Lex, who was in the same year at Davidson, was going to come up as well and we planned to spend the summer getting up to no good.

I had managed to find a couple of jobs that basically allowed me to sit on my ass in air-conditioned comfort.  One was working the desk at Summer Conference Housing, which was at Morrison Dorm that year.  Every summer, groups would schedule various conferences in town to take advantage of the campus downtime and one of the dorms would be made available for cheap stays (there were VERY few hotel/motel rooms in Chapel Hill those days and the Carolina Inn was pretty much a dump).  I worked 3 nights a week from midnight to 7am, "working" primarily consisting of unlocking the door for late night revelers that had been wandering around looking for "the party" on Franklin Street (dude, it's summer - there is no "party".  Just you and your drunk JayCee buddies looking for the co-eds that are all back home in Wilson or Bryson City for the summer).  That was over by 2am and I spent the rest of the night reading the Playboys that the dorm subscribers had forgotten to stop or the romance novels that the day shift had left at the desk (that was my one and only experience reading Jackie Collins.  I still have the scars.).

The other job was sitting (again) at the remote computer room at Cobb Dorm.  There was a card reader for one of the campus mainframes (pretty sure it was an IBM 360/75 but could have been an IBM 370 by then) and three or four green-screen terminals that accessed the campus computers as well as TUCC (Triangle University Computing Center) that was shared by UNC, NCSU and Duke.  I was there to help folks with JCL (Job Control Language), make sure the card reader didn't get stuck, and not much else.

I was a bit transportation-challenged at the time.  I had an old Suzuki 185 that was stolen just before the start of summer, so a typical day was me busing in for a noon to 5pm shift at the computer room, busing back out to the apartment for a couple of hours of sleep, riding my bicycle back into town for my night shift at the dorm then riding back out at 7am past the cheerleading campers starting their early morning barking exercises in the Granville Towers parking lot.  Some days I'd be back on campus by noon the next day.

That kind of schedule also made for some long stretches of downtime, much of which was spent at what was then the brand-new Henderson Street Bar.  Tim Kirkpatrick (owner of the eponymous Kirkpatrick's) had just opened the place in the old Record Bar location and it still smelled of new wood rather than stale beer and old pee like other bars I frequented.  Those entering were greeted with the 8-Ball Deluxe pinball table admonishing them to "stop talking and start chalking" usually followed by someone hitting the jukebox for the 37th playing that day of the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" (I was probably responsible for a dozen of them most days).  Side note: I didn't know Tim Kirkpatrick at the time but he sold us our Honda Fit at Crown Honda a couple of years ago.  Very nice guy.

There was also plenty of time to sleep during those 2-3 day periods where I didn't have a shift at either job or to go down to Sugar Lake and float around with a cooler full of cheap beer, catch movies, grab a dinner at Tijuana Fats and generally not worry about much of anything.  There wasn't a jug of cheap-ass red wine that was safe from us (or a restaurant menu that didn't have Lex' teeth marks on it).  I'm pretty sure that was the summer when I set my personal record of eating pizza for 7 straight meals.  Greg Humphreys/Hobex captured that type of summer perfectly with their song "Windows" - all you really needed was a friend with a car that had a working radio and windows that rolled down all the way.

Lex only lasted about a month, as I recall.  Day laborer was not in his make-up (mine either).  But one loss was made up for by a gain, when one of the daytime folks working the desk at Morrison said some guys coming in that afternoon mentioned seeing a motorcycle off in the woods beside the path behind the dorm.  Sure enough, someone had ripped the ignition wires out of my bike and had tried to start it pushing it down the hill.  A couple of days over at Motorcycle Supply and I had motorized independent transportation again.

Hell, looking back on it I might have thought I was bored at the time.  But in retrospect I was relaxed, for probably the last prolonged period of my life.  By the next summer I was working full-time at IBM while finishing up a last class during summer session and that was all she wrote.  For the next 35 years.

So I think we all ought to take a month each year and do Chapel Hill summer old school.  Take a sabbatical from our real job, hang out in the shade during the day, get lively when the sun goes down and it starts to cool off a bit, go hang out at He's Not Here all night and take a drive out into the county some afternoon with the windows down and the radio on.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Storage Unit Life

For reasons that are not particularly interesting, we've spent the past couple of weeks moving a whole bunch of stuff out of a self-storage unit over near New Hope Commons and into one out on of Old Greensboro Highway.  As we've done this, we've spent a bit of time at the old storage unit clearing things out and have noticed some interesting stuff going on, particularly on Sundays when there's no management on-site (but when one would assume the security cameras are still active).

On the row that our unit was on, there's a dude that hangs out in his 5'x10' storage unit with a large tower PC and a Mohu Leaf over-the-air TV antenna.  He's got a desk set up and enough open floor space for a desk chair in front of it (and not much else).  He was hanging out there while the office was open so obviously the mgmt knows he's there but on Sundays he puts up a picnic canopy over the front (it gets hot as hell there in the afternoons).  We had a sturdier 8'x8' canopy that we got for free a few years ago and used all of once, so I gave it to him as we were taking the last load out Saturday.  Gotta wonder if he's sleeping in the woods nearby or on friends' sofas and using the storage unit to hang out during the day.  I can kinda understand that one.

The weirder one was the guy with the 10'x10' unit on the outside row near ours.  As I was carting crap to the dumpster, I walked up that way to take advantage of the shade and walked past this guy.  He had an *expensive* canopy up with lawn furniture out under it and was standing in the doorway drinking a beer, with some nice Tejano coming from inside the unit.  The next Sunday, he had the hose from the office stretched back to his unit where he was washing his late-model pickup truck.  Definitely not sleeping in the woods.  Is that just his man-cave?  His place to chill away from family?  I know he's not the manager but they've got to know he's there unless no one ever reviews the security recordings.

So my question is - is this common?  I've typically just run over, thrown a bunch of bins full of Christmas decorations in the XTerra and gotten out, so I've not spent much time over there.  Curious as to whether this is a thing that others have seen at other self-storage places.


Friday, June 02, 2017

Public Will

Note - I wrote this about a year ago, saved it as a draft and never posted it.  Seems appropriate to dig it out after the announcement from the President* re: Paris climate agreement.

I've read a lot about the "Greatest Generation" and the mobilization of the whole country during WWII.  I think you can also point to the post-WWII build-up of the infrastructure of the country - the Interstate system (probably the biggest boon to US business until the Internet), other massive school and municipal building projects that lasted until the 60's, the Space Race of the 60s and into the 70s - as further examples of "think big, do big" capabilities of humans in general and Americans more specifically.  It is a legitimate question to ask whether we as a people are even capable of thinking big anymore (the Internet being something of an anomaly).

There was another mass effort that doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves, I think in part because so many people my age  and younger have forgotten what the US (and much of the world) was like in the 60s.  I certainly sometimes forget the masses of trash along the roadways, rivers so full of filth and toxins that you could walk across them (just don't drop your  cigarette or it would catch on fire), cities (not just LA) where you couldn't see the skyline for the ever-present smoke and smog.  Industries poured untreated toxic waste into rivers and lakes and unfiltered smoke into the skies, creating smog, tree-killing acid rains and 1000s of early deaths from lung-related illnesses.  Cars were over-powered (sorry, but it's true) and horribly inefficient.

At some point in the late 60's and early 70's, there was (suddenly in the grand scheme of things) a popular movement to change things.  In 1970 alone, you got the first Earth Day, the creation (by a Republican administration) of the Environmental Protection Agency, national ad campaigns about littering - attitudes changed quickly and dramatically, forcing corporations and governments to follow suit.  And that happened in the space of a very few years, even while we were still in a war in Southeast Asia and struggling with racial equality and all the other issues of the day.

What I want to figure out is what it would take for another Green revolution aimed at climate change.  Greenhouse gases aren't as easy to see as take-out bags strewn along the highway or oil slicks on the Ohio River, so I get that it isn't as easy.  And maybe it isn't as clear what needs to be done, although I think there are some pretty obvious ways to approach this.  The question is how to get enough people motivated that they take over the conversation (which has heretofore been dominated by the unbelievers) and push industry, government and our fellow humans to take real action.

Added 6/2/2017 - with the abdication of responsibility by the GOP, it is becoming clear that it will be corporations, states and municipalities that will have to lead this fight until we manage a change in the fed government. But I still come back to the public participation in efforts during WWII, the space race (I remember saving quarters to buy savings bonds for NASA funding while in elementary school) and a shift towards protecting the environment and wonder how we get that kind of willpower and personal investment involved again in trying to reduce climate change?