Apr 15, 2003

I’ve been meaning to eulogize the CRX, which we bid a fond farewell to last Thursday. We filled it with flowers, pushed it into the sea, and set it on fire. Well, okay, not really, we drove it up to Wakefield and sold it to some guys who run a junk car dealership that specializes in Hondas. The salesman who sold us our minivan put us in contact with these guys, and they were willing to take it for $500 sight unseen if it could get there under its own power. So Beth took one last drive in it, pushing it towards 75 on the highway, and Justin and I followed behind in the minivan. As it ended up, they gave us $700, which was better than I could’ve done either at the dealership or selling it myself, since its problems were many and varied. The only other option was to donate it for the tax deduction, but that wouldn’t have realized anything until tax time next year, and I didn’t want to wait that long.

We bought the CRX in the summer of 1990, after Beth’s seven-year old Chevette had fallen apart to the point that you had to push it to get it to start. This was her car, so after years of driving the ’80’s equivalent of a Geo Metro, she was ready for something sporty. The Miata was probably the more attractive option, but I couldn’t make myself fit behind the steering wheel, and the whole convertible thing was extremely impractical. We also looked at the Eclipse, the Isuzu whatever-it-was, and even a Mustang before settling on the CRX, which really was the best deal in that range, and our first Honda. She picked out the “Barbados Yellow”, known as “the bumblebee”, although the color probably only helped draw attention to her as she would blow past speed traps on the way to and from work.

Since it was only a two-seater, we never expected it to be the primary vehicle, but when my little Mazda 323 started showing its age, we ended up taking the CRX to Illinois three times in six months while dad was in the last stages of cancer. The seats were not designed for long trips. When Chloe was born, she could still schlep around in it after having a special seatbelt installed that didn’t attach to the door, since there was no passenger-side airbag. But once Justin was due, the CRX’s days were numbered, since you couldn’t fit a driver and two kids into the car. We toyed with the idea of getting rid of it then, but we were still paying for the Accord we’d acquired before Chloe was born and didn’t want to have two car payments, so we switched. I finally learned to drive a standard, and got used to a car where you sat four inches above the pavement with about a half-inch of headroom. I even subscribed to Super Street for a while, with the idea of fixing the car up a little, but nothing much ever came of that.

Just around the time I started driving it to Westwood every day and racking up the miles, the thing started to more problems. It was already 8 years old at that point, after all. Just before Justin was born, the timing belt broke and the car sat at Kraft’s for three weeks while they did major surgery on it. After I took it over the clutch went, the alternator needed to be replaced, I got new tires. I went with snowtires, since it had always sucked in the snow, and they made a huge difference. The muffler rusted away a couple of times, rust started peeking out around the wheelwells, it was leaking oil, to the tune of a quart every two weeks, stuff like that. The Accord was long since paid off and I was still driving the thing around, since fixing it up was still cheaper than paying for a new car. But the logistics of having two cars of which one can’t accomodate more than two people was getting more and more complicated with a family of four, and I despaired of it passing inspection next month. We had already started looking around, but when I hopped in the car two weeks ago and there was no heat because the blower had stopped working, it was time to let go.

Because Beth and I had both driven it quite a bit, and we’d had it for over 12 years, we were sorry to see it go, as were the kids since it was their only chance to get to ride in the front seat. But everybody likes the new Odyssey even better, so it’ll be just a fond memory soon enough. These guys that bought it seemed to think most of its problems were minor and easily fixed, and they’d be able to turn it around pretty quickly. So now I’ll have to look closely when I see a yellow CRX on the road to figure out whether its ours or not. Now I’m back to driving the Accord again, although now it’s almost eight years old and has 125,000 miles on it, so who knows how much longer it will last. 2008 and the last payment on the Odyssey seems a long time to keep the Accord patched together, but it has a lot of new parts thanks to Beth smashing it up a couple of times, so I remain hopeful.

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Apr 13, 2003

True to my prediction, the second ethernet connection went much faster than the first. The only wildcard in the whole process was having to drill a hole up from the basement into the exterior wall in the kitchen without either coming up through the kitchen floor or breaking through to the outside of the house, and even that went smoothly. Once I dug up the diskette that had the drivers for the ethernet card I put in that computer ages ago, the kids were online and fighting over toondisney.com. Meanwhile, Beth painted over the area above the kitchen cabinets to hide the “art school kitchen” design she and Dorene did 10+ years ago whilst I was safely away for the weekend at a MWC board retreat. And she hung up curtains in there that she got a while ago, so already the place looks better. It helps to have company coming once in a while to inspire one to actually improve one’s surroundings. Now I’m inspired to actually do some other stuff around the house that has been on the list for a while. I wonder how long that will last…

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Apr 12, 2003

Hey, is this cool or what? I’m sitting on my couch in the living room, updating my weblog. Thanks to the miracle of structured wiring, I was able to run some Cat5e cable from the guest room where the computer (and more importantly the router) is, through the closets into the basement and up through the wall into the living room. It only took most of the day to figure out how to make it work. When I took the day off Thursday I spent some time drilling holes in the floors and ceilings, and that all went pretty well. So today was the moment of truth where I’d actually try to run the wire through all the holes, and that actually went pretty smoothly too. The hard part was getting the hang of what to do at both ends of the wire to get it to work. Turns out the little wires that stick into the RJ45 connector have to go in a certain order. And the little quickport gizmo at the other end that fits into the wall plate has to have its wires pushed in far enough to make contact with the little connectors inside. It only took about six hours (including a few breaks to do other stuff, like eat and get the dry cleaning) to figure out the right way to do it. So the second one, for the kids’ computer in the kitchen, should go much faster. I’ve had a fair amount of experience with electrical wiring, and this kind of wiring should be much easier, since you don’t have to worry about getting electrocuted, for one thing, so I’m hopeful that now I’ve got the hang of it anyway. One more trip to Home Depot for some incidentals and it’ll be all set. If I can clear a path in the attic, the bedrooms will get done eventually, also.

The main impetus for doing this is that for the last two years, since I’ve been at State Street, every time Mom comes to visit I run the risk of having to barge into the guest room in the middle of the night to do a support call. It hasn’t happened yet, but that doesn’t mean it won’t. Plus it would be nice to be able to watch tv while I’m on the computer doing some mindless task like monitoring the app servers or whatever. Trading Spaces is on right now!

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Apr 11, 2003

An incomplete history of Borders Classics Reading Group:

Back in the early 90’s, Borders opened on Route 9 in Framingham, which might have been the first store in the Boston area, moving into an old building next to the old Shoppers World. Prior to Borders coming to town, the bookstores in the area consisted of chain bookstores at the malls; a Lauriats at the old Shoppers World, a Waldenbooks at the Cloverleaf Plaza, a B. Dalton’s at the old Framingham Mall, a Paperback Booksmith at the old Natick Mall. These were all little boutique-y bookstores, but that was all there was. If you wanted a real bookstore, you had to go to Harvard Square, or the Barnes and Noble in downtown Boston. Borders came along and offered the first bookselling superstore in the area, with not only tons of books on two(!) floors, but enough space for events and meetings. They had a newsletter, a cafe, big comfy chairs to sit in while you browsed. And they had reading groups. There were already a few groups going before the classics one started, and they were doing very well, people were flocking to Borders from everywhere, and it and stores like it were taking the place of libraries as a center of book-related, even literary activity.

So in early 1993 two Borders employees known only to me as Annette and Shannon decided to start up a classics reading group. This was back in the days when Borders employees actually read books, and these two were both English majors who were young and idealistic. I think I came across the announcement of the first meeting in the papers, and it was heavily promoted in the store, with the first book being Wharton’s “Age of Innocence”, which was about to be made into a movie. Beth was interested, too, so we both signed up (you had to sign up, I think just so they knew how many to expect). So many people signed up (over 100, if you can imagine), that they ended up holding the first couple of meetings twice, and tried to get people to come to a specific night for crowd control. There weren’t 50 people there at the first meeting, but there were probably 30 or so, and for several meetings thereafter it was a pretty good crowd.

Those first few meetings saw in attendance some of the long-term members of the group, including Sylvia, Roger, Chuck, Hale, and several others who stuck with it for a number of years but have sinced disappeared. I think the key to the group’s success is that such a consistent group of people turned out month after month, and got to know each other well enough that the meeting could become more free-wheeling and informal, and that most of these people were extremely opinionated. By the time Beth and I invited several of the core members to our last Christmas party in 1994, the group was having trouble keeping new people, I still think because we had become almost too insular, or at least seemed that way to first-timers. I remember Hale asking me why I thought we weren’t keeping more new people and I said, “I think it’s because we intimidate them”, and she spent the rest of the evening fretting over it, asking everyone else, “Do you think we intimidate people?”

The Annette and Shannon days saw the leaders picking the books, and only from one month to the next, not for months ahead. The only original critierion was that it be a lesser-known work by a well known author. That eventually got replaced by the current rule for selecting books, “the author has to be dead”. After probably less than a year, both Shannon and Annette announced they were leaving not only the group, but the northeast, moving down to Charlotte as assistant managers for a brand new Borders down there. In early ’95 Beth and I were in Charlotte for a wedding and we found the Borders and looked them up. Annette wasn’t working that day, and Shannon had already gone on to another store. Evan says that Annette ended up going to Edinburgh to open a Borders there.

Our next leaders were two guys, one named George and I don’t remember the other one’s name, and can’t even picture him now. They were also english-major types, and also left after about a year, one going to open a Borders in Oregon. Some time in the first couple of years the Boston Globe did a story on reading groups and came and took pictures. We went through a succession of leaders after that, slowly dropping down the food chain of employees until we landed somebody who didn’t really care that much about the group, and was kind of manic depressive to being with. His first selection was Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, to give you some idea, following only a few weeks after Ellison’s death. At one point the group didn’t fit in with his schedule, so he postponed it a week at the last minute. In this pre-internet era, nobody knew it was postponed, so they all showed up and decided to have the group without him. This was probably in ’96 or so, Beth was at that one, but I wasn’t. Once Chloe was born we traded off for a while, and after a few months Beth stopped going. This same guy also tried to put the group on a summer hiatus, but that didn’t go over too well, the membership deciding we didn’t really need him to have a meeting, just to order the books. This is probably where we got our reputation within Borders management as being an unruly bunch. But they capitulated and got us a new leader.

The winter of ’96, when we had a blizzard every week from December to March, saw one meeting, I think for “Middlemarch”, get postponed twice by bad weather. But a meeting was had. By around ’97 or so we acquired Dottie, who was the events coordinator and didn’t even read the classics much, but read a ton of other stuff and agreed to lead the group because no one else would do it. Evan came on board at this point to assist. The book selection process became more democratic, and we dabbled in plays, stretched the Iliad over two months, paid more attention to scheduling long books for five-week months, etc. Dottie seemed to actually enjoy the discussion and took a newfound appreciation of the classics. We were featured in an article about reading groups in the Middlesex News, with a color picture and everything. Borders at this point was no longer the only game in town, a brand new shiny Barnes & Noble had opened up in the new Shoppers World right next door, which, except for the sf section, is a better store in nearly every respect. Borders management kept monkeying with the book discount, going from 15% off to anyone who wanted the book, to just for book group members, then back again, but you had to have some kind of coupon, then they stopped putting on stickers even though they were discounted, so they wouldn’t ring up right, now they’re up to 20% off, but its not advertised. Evan eventually left Borders to get married and work in Cambridge, but he still comes to the meetings. Dottie stuck around for a few years, tried to give up the group at least once, but ended up sticking with it, finally getting burned out on Borders entirely (but not the reading group’s fault, just overwork). She still shows up occasionally. At the point of her final departure, there was absolutely no one in the store willing to take on leading the group, which let’s be honest is not exactly a herculean task. Since they were getting paid for being there, other than setting up chairs and ordering books, which they do anyway, their only requirement was they actually read the book, which is why I say that no one that works at Borders reads books. Laura had joined early in the Dottie administration and was one of the few members not in since the beginning to stick with it for several years, so she volunteered and was endorsed by popular acclaim to take over as the first non-employee leader. She formalized the book-selection process and sends out e-mail reminders and recaps, but, as she points out, is basically doing charity work for a corporation, since they don’t even let her have the book for free any more.

At this 10-year anniversary the book group could be said to be at a crossroads, where the fact that it meets at Borders is almost incidental to the members and to Borders itself. We certainly are no longer much of a draw for the store, don’t make it any richer, Borders of course has been in financial straits for the last few years, so that doesn’t help. Half the time I don’t even buy the book at Borders any more. At some point my guess is Borders will start asking for compensation for the space, or else do away with the discount altogether, at which point you may see the group move to a different location. The store still serves to draw people into the group, so if we did go elsewhere the publicity strategy would have to change. I’m not saying we’re on the way out, or that people are suggesting we move out, but it wouldn’t surprise me. But who would’ve thought the group would last this long to begin with? We haven’t repeated a book in 10 years, so I suggested a new rule whereby 10 years after the group does a book it can go back into the pool of available books for consideration. Even if we don’t do that, there’s still enough classics out there for another 10 years and then some.

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Apr 10, 2003

Here’s Laura’s summary of last night’s reading group:

We then moved on to this month’s book, “The Street of Crocodiles” by Bruno Schulz. Opinions on this book ran the gamut of “loved it” to “hated it” with almost every shade in between also represented. Those who loved or liked it found it richly imaginative, original, and beautifully written – almost more of a painting than a piece of writing – almost “prose poetry.” Those who disliked or hated it found it too disjointed – not just from vignette to vignette but even at times from paragraph to paragraph. The frequent lack of a typical going-from-point-A-to-point-B structure really bothered some folks, while others saw the digression from A to C without ever getting to B as a pleasant diversion off the path with no need to get to really ever get to B. (Okay – does that make sense to anyone who wasn’t at the meeting???) Some members felt that if they had taken one vignette and read it by itself they would have thought it wonderful, but that the collection was too much of the same over and over again and accentuated the book’s disjointed nature. We also spent a lot of the discussion talking about the author’s background (a few members had read extra-curricular biographical material about him).

That pretty well sums it up, I’m always amazed at how much some of the reading group members can talk about a book that has so little in the way of plot, characterization, theme, structure, you name it. It really was a short story collections, with the stories mostly about the same characters, but they weren’t different enough to succeed as a collection and too different to really come together as a coherent novel. It was fine to read, and mercifully short, but I got the feeling by this weekend I won’t remember anything about it. While Laura thought that it was okay because it was only 160 pages and not any longer, I thought maybe it would have been better served by having gone one for at least a little more, in the hope of bringing some common theme or whatever together. Part of the appeal seems to be that he wrote these stories in a vacuum, not really for publication, without any formal literary background, making them sort of a primitivist attempt at Eastern European literature. Even Roger liked them, and of course Evan was championing them, although he was getting rather desperate as the evening wore on. The bigger story is that the reading group celebrated its 10-year anniversary last night. I’ll try to give a little history lesson tomorrow.

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Apr 9, 2003

I miss reading the newsgroups, I’m less in touch with what’s going on in the world of comics, drwho, etc. I go yesterday to assemble my list of comics to buy this week and noticed that four comics that shouldn’t be $2.99, namely Black Panther, Exiles, Thor and Iron Man, are $2.99. Come to find out, months ago Marvel announced that they were hiking the price on some “underperforming” books rather than cancelling them. Black Panther has been $2.50 from the get-go, but the others were at at $2.25, making the jump to $2.99 a 33% increase. There were nine other titles on the list, although they’ve since backpedalled on Thunderbolts. Meanwhile some Vertigo books have been gradually making the jump from $2.50 to $2.75. Just about every mini-series are special project to come along these days is at least $2.99, and double issues are routinely $3.50. You expect prices to creep up every few years as paper costs increase, etc., etc., but a 33% jump on a core title without any change in format or creators or whatever is just bad news. I would suspect on all but a couple of these that people would vote with their feet and just not buy them. If you’re making $.74 more per book, but you sell 25% fewer copies, the end result is the same, and you’ve alienated 25% of an already dwindling readership. As has been pointed out in the newsgroups, where I went for more info after stumbling upon this bombshell, it can be argued that the reason some of these books are underperforming is that they aren’t very good to begin with, and in the case of established characters such as Thor and Iron Man, they’ve simply become a commodity that a certain core group of people will buy regardless of the price just to be completists. I have a couple of hundred issues of Iron Man from the 60’s through the 80’s, plus every issue of the current series, but for three bucks a whack I’m more inclined to go to the next comic show and fill in some gaps in the old series rather than continue to shell out for the new stuff. Even moreso with Thor because I have very few pre-1976 issues and there are a lot bigger gaps to fill in. Daredevil relaunched at $2.99 a few years ago, which was a stiff pill to swallow, but it was Kevin Smith writing it, and then Bendis took over after that, so the stories have actually been worth the extra money. Captain America, on the other hand, has relaunched also at $2.99 (with the first issue at $3.50 if I remember right), but nobody that interesting is writing or drawing it, so I’m not buying it. A lot of the Vertigo miniseries I’ve been skipping over since they’ve been mostly self-indulgent crap and for $2.99 each I can live without it.

Part of my problem is that I’m an old fart and I started buying comics 27 years ago when they were 25 cents. You could buy everything Marvel produced, and they produced maybe 20 books a week in 1976 with all the reprint titles, and spend about $20 a month. To do that now would cost $120 a month (for maybe 50 books total) if all the comics were the same price, but since they’re so many specials and miniseries and prestige format, its probably more like $160 or so, not including trade paperbacks, statues, etc. The completist in me would like to do that, but the economist in me says that’s too much money for too little value. As I said, I’m better served spending most of that cash on old comics, which at least have a certain nostalgia factor and at best have one of the things missing from today’s comics: the sense of a shared universe. I supposed a younger generation of readers don’t see the problem with $3 comics, endless mini-series, reboots, retcons, etc. But its hard to imagine that generation is big enough to sustain comics as they exist today.

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Apr 8, 2003

If there’s anything around here that can push the war out of the headlines, it’s the weather. Here it is April 8 and we have a couple of inches of new snow on the ground, with the threat of more tomorrow. This winter has been way too long and too cold from the get-go, and it doesn’t seem to want to end. This is the sort of thing that makes one question why you live in Massachusetts, especially if you moved here from somewhere else like I did. Now of course I moved here from Chicago, where it can be bitter cold and snow heavily also, although I still say we never got as much snow in Chicago as we do here. But Chicago outdoes Boston on cold weather. This year still wasn’t as bad as that one year in the mid-90’s where it would snow, then drop below zero for 10 days straight, such that only the snow on the bottom would melt on the roof and seep into the windows and doors, then freeze again. That was lovely. Amazingly, for the amount of snow we had this winter, they never cancelled school, and I was never really stuck out in it. In previous years I would always fret over buying tickets to something during the winter, then being stuck trying to get there or get home through a blizzard, but this year I probably went to more winter-time concerts than ever, including three days in New York, and the weather was never really a factor. Just lucky, I guess.

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Apr 7, 2003

Had a busy weekend, went to the movies twice in two days, something we haven’t done at least since 1995, and saw “Spirited Away” and “Chicago”. Wanted to see “The Pianist” but it was sold out by the time we got there. “Spirited Away” was my first anime on the big screen (not counting the semi-big screen at Boskone), and even though it was dubbed it was quite spectacular, and I think not that bad for younger kids, either. There’s no violence, and the scary stuff is relatively brief, it’s a pretty engaging story, maybe a little long for the younger set, but definitely worth seeking out. “Chicago” was better than I thought it would be, and could draw some parallels with “Thoroughly Modern Millie” that we saw on stage in New York in terms of setting and plot. I also watched “The Power of Kroll” on DVD with Tom Baker and John Leeson’s commentary, which made a not very good episode much more entertaining. And yesterday afternoon I drove into the city to hear Dubrovka Tomsic’s recital at Symphony Hall. She played five encores, none of which I could name, although they seemed to alternate between Liszt and Bach. Saturday afternoon we went out car-shopping, as the fan in the CRX stopped working Friday and the car won’t heat up any more, so it was time to pick up the pace in looking for a minivan. Ended up getting the Honda Odyssey in the color that Beth preferred, and we should be able to pick it up tomorrow night. All this with an hour less to work with, since daylight savings time started yesterday, too. Next weekend I just want to sit around and stare out the window.

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Apr 4, 2003

Now that the war has been going on for a couple of weeks I should probably give an update. I was surfing over to Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s archliberal weblog yesterday, which I don’t read very often, but it was full of reportage of righteous left-wing indignation about the war in general and every little thing that’s been going on that illustrates the depravity to which we’ve sunk as a nation. Personally I think things have been going reasonably well. The American/British casualties are numbered in the 10’s, Saddam hasn’t been seen for weeks, the Iraqi army is folding up faster than the tanks can run over them, what more could you ask for? The immediacy of reportage certainly keeps the war in the forefront of people’s minds, making it seem endless even after only a few days, and tends to blow out of proportion every little thing that happens, whether its American POW’s being captured or the occasional civilian that foolishly ends up in harms way. Liberals, Democrats, whatever, are as a general rule very focused on the individual, and that individual’s right to exist and right to a million other things. War is full of individuals and individual stories, but it traffics in the movement of ideologies and nations, which are gestalts of the individuals that participate in them. “The greater good” is a difficult concept for liberals and/or Democrats (basically the same thing in my book) when its measured in human life, because liberals are so intent on improving >everyone’s< long-term position, and the more downtrodden or representation-less someone is the more the liberals want to help them. Now, I consider myself to be a liberal, I'm all for government regulation of big business and strict environmental controls and a woman's right to choose, yadda yadda. So I seem to be at odds, at least here in cradle of liberty, bastion of liberalism Massachusetts, with most of the liberals around me as far as this war goes. If it looked like we didn't know what we were doing, or if there was no clear objective, or if this started to drag on for months and months with no progress being made, then sure I'd start to question the rationale of continuing to be there. But it seems to be a little early to making calls for "bring the boys back home" just when things are getting going, and particularly when they're going so well.

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Apr 3, 2003

I’ve been reading the anthology “Mars Probes” over the past couple of weeks and found a decent number of entertaining stories in it. Mars, due to its proximity to Earth and the whole canals thing, has always had a certain mystique, and it was interesting how many authors chose to bypass the cold, hard realities of Mars as we know it today (which have gotten even colder and harder since the book was written, with the discovery of megadoses of radiation on the surface), in favor of the Mars of Burroughs, Brackett and Bradbury, as Moorcock puts it in the author bios. Moorcock, in fact, goes so far as to say that the Mars depicted in the those classic stories turns out to be the real one, and his own story is subtitled an homage to Leigh Brackett, although its just as much as pastiche. Or maybe it was Gene Wolfe who said that, I don’t have the book in front of me, his story is also a Burroughs flashback. My favorites stories in the book are probably the ones that diverged from that theme the most, in different directions. Ian Macdonald’s “The Old Cosmonaut and the Construction Worker Dream of Mars” is a typically lyrical, evocative, poignant story from that author, delving a little into the “might-have-beens” of Mars missions as attempted by the former Soviet Union. Alastair Reynolds’ story, “The Real Story”, shows a journalist assigned to write the memoirs of a former Mars astronaut who is near death, and weighs in on the perception of space exploration vs. the reality, and what people really want to hear. My other favorite was “The War of the Worldviews” by James Morrow, written before 9/11 but depicting a New York City devestated by an ongoing war between the six-inch high inhabitants of the Martian moons over the existence of God. I still think he’s underappreciated (Morrow, that is).

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