Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Year in Review -- 2014

It's been far too long since I've posted, and that will be fixed next year.  You can expect weekly posts on all things automotive, culinary, and hilarious.  Until then, though, let's recap 2014.  Lots of awesome (and less than awesome) things happened.  In no particular order, I . . .

. . . saw a ton of killer shows.  Bridges of Madison County and Honeymoon in Vegas on Broadway, the Birdland Big Band, the Dave Matthews Band (twice!), etc.

. . . was the vocal director and pianist for fabulous full-orchestra productions of Les Miserables and Into the Woods.

. . . played drums and percussion on an upcoming full-length album by Band of Lovers.  It'll be released on Valentine's Day 2015 and it sounds quite fantastic if I may say so myself!

. . . made my debut as an actor.  Well, sort of.  I appeared in several murder mystery theatre productions.  It was really fun!

. . . figured out how to make Buffalo chicken mac and cheese.

. . . actually gone to the gym on a day that wasn't Pizza Monday.

. . . bought a car!!!  For the first part of 2014, I had a 2002 VW Passat wagon (which I still have and love) and a 2010 Honda Accord sedan.  The Accord was in near-mint condition, had 90,000 highway miles, and was paid off.  I sold it to my parents in May and replaced it with a 2003 Acura 3.2CL Type-S six-speed coupe.  Why would I replace a car that would provide many more essentially "free" miles for one that is seven years older, has 40,000 more miles, and has a few quirks?  It's quite simple, really.  The Accord was (and still is) a great car that fits my parents' current needs very well, but for my needs and wants, the Acura is a better car.  It's exponentially quicker, is better-built, handles better, has a better stereo, has better seats, has more creature comforts.  That, and they only made about 3,500 of them in six-speed form, ever (not to mention only about 250 in the color combination I have).  It's really tough to drive that car and not step out with a shit-eating grin on my face.

This leads me to my next point, a point that I have been more aware of this year.  It hit me when I looked back and realized that holy shit, I'm actually 28!  Time is not an infinitely available commodity.  We only live once.  I know the "YOLO" saying is incredibly cliché, but it really, truly applies.  It relates to the car topic in that, if I wanted to, I could drive my Accord for the next ten years and spend next to nothing in upkeep.  I chose not to, because the Acura is a car that I genuinely WANTED and a car that I genuinely ENJOY and feel proud of.  Yes, I will probably spend a bit more to maintain it.  Rational?  Not so much.  Worth it?  Absolutely.

With that in mind, my largest resolution for 2015 is to LIVE and LIVE PROFOUNDLY.  More specifically . . .

1.  Go to the gym even more regularly than I did in 2014 and take care of myself.
2.  Reign in the fast food and bust out of my comfort zone when it comes to cooking and eating.
3.  Update this blog on a weekly basis and possibly touch on the topics I blog about on an upcoming YOUTUBE CHANNEL!
4.  Finally write and publish the music method book series I have been wanting to write for quite some time now.
5.  Publish, copyright, record, and sell some of my concert band music (and other music).
6.  Practice a musical instrument every day and actually PRACTICE it.
7.  Spend quality time with friends and family on a regular basis, and stay in touch with those that I don't see regularly.
8.  Travel somewhere cool (or warm)!
9.  Learn a new musical theatre score or rock album every week.
10.  Engage in rewarding and fulfilling musical, artistic, and personal engagements, and stop pursuing those which are neither rewarding nor fulfilling, or that consume inordinate amounts of time beyond what they are worth.

So there it is.  Have a safe, happy, and healthy 2015, everyone.  And for the love of everything sacred (and not-so-sacred), please don't drink and drive tonight (or ever for that matter).

Friday, April 18, 2014

Why, at times, I empathize with Jamie from The Last Five Years

Hi Everyone!

It's been a while!  I spent the better parts of late February and early March month behind the wheel of a 2014 Honda Accord sedan when my 2010 version of that car was at the body shop (long story, but I have my car back now and it looks like a new car!).  I have also been driving a 2013 Volkswagen Passat 2.5SE sedan for the last week and a half as my 2002 Passat Wagon gets a new CV joint to cure an annoying shake under hard acceleration.  My goal was to write reviews of these two loaner cars, and I still intend to.  However, I am currently on a train to NYC for a couple days to see the NY Auto Show (write-up to come within a couple weeks), the Birdland Big Band (they're fantastic and a must-see for anyone in NYC during dinner hour on a Friday), and an evening Broadway show.  With this in mind, I think it's time for a musical theatre post on a topic that's been on my mind for, well, the last EIGHT years (see what I did there with that almost-pun??!!).

I spent the first part of my 2006 spring break in NYC and it was at that time that my good friend Ryan (one of the finest pianists and composers I have heard, and someone whose opinion I respect greatly) introduced me to Jason Robert Brown's cult classic two-person musical The Last Five Years.  We listened to the soundtrack in his apartment and he sent me home with a copy the next day.  What initially captivated me was the fact that the show was orchestrated for a modified string ensemble (piano, acoustic guitar, fretless bass, violin, and two celli) without drums.  It was the first time I had heard such driving music with such killer bass lines genuinely WORK without a drummer holding things together.  I was hooked.  I listened to the show in the car, in my dorm, and elsewhere over the next few months, and got to know the story pretty well, despite the interesting reverse chronology employed by Brown (the male character tells his story from beginning to end, the female character tells hers from end to beginning, and in this setting, it's a brilliant writing technique).

The story is that of two twenty-somethings in New York City desperately trying to survive professionally and romantically.  He (Jamie Wellerstein) is an up-and-coming author experiencing success after success.  She (Catherine Hiatt) is an actress who has achieved what some would view as great success (decent summer stock gigs).  Despite this, it is strongly implied that she has not had great success in NYC and that she is constantly struggling to get noticed in that scene.  In a nutshell, her successes are no match for Jamie's.

SPOILER ALERT:  They fall in love, they get married, and it doesn't work out.  Why can't they persevere?  Well, for one thing, they are young twenty-somethings in NYC who are incredibly passionate about their individual career choices.  Reconciling this reality with what a successful romantic relationship (let alone a marriage) demands proves impossible.  Long term, committed romance is not for the faint of heart, but we all knew that now, didn't we?

Okay, so whose fault is it?  Nearly everyone I have discussed this with empathizes with Cathy.  After all, here are a few things about Jamie that we learn as the show unfolds:

1.  He is a serial monogamist and a cheater.  He ends his first number (Shiksa Goddess) with the line "I could be in love with someone like you."  (Fun fact:  this is the title of the song that originally held Shiksa Goddess's place in the show.)  He also ends his penultimate number (Nobody Needs to Know) with that same line.  In Shiksa Goddess, he sings this line about Cathy.  In Nobody Needs to Know, he sings this line about Elise (his publisher, who he has just woken up next to in bed).

2.  Immediately after he marries Cathy, Jamie sings about the women he meets (and is attracted to) at parties.  He's human, he's a physical creature, and I'm not sure he can really be faulted for noticing what's out there.  That said, it is implied that what happens in this scene goes beyond simply seeing other attractive women at a party ("and of course I'm trying to show that I wasn't encouraging her, which I sorta was, and I don't want to look whipped in front of this woman, which is dumb, I shouldn't care what she thinks, since I can't f*** her anyway!).

3.  He visits Cathy in Ohio for her birthday, but leaves early and does not stay to see her show that night.  This also happens directly after he cheats on her.

4.  He breaks up with Cathy after five years (half of which was spent in marriage) by leaving her a note.

Needless to say, Jamie won't be getting husband-of-the-year anytime soon.  He was not emotionally ready to marry Cathy.  There's no argument there.  I can see why so many people are so turned off by Jamie's character and why so many people empathize with Cathy.

That said.....

While I don't condone any of Jamie's actions as described above, I absolutely can understand, and dare I say, relate to some of the frustration and emotional emptiness that he undoubtedly wrestled with.  For example:

1.  If you listen to Jamie's songs in the first half of the show, he actually IS emotionally supportive of Cathy (as he should be, but I feel that this gets overlooked).  Proof can be found in the Shmuel Song (a metaphor Jamie uses to prove to Cathy that he believes in her and feels she should go after her dreams).  I understand fully that seeing your significant other experience greater success than your own can tax and destroy even the strongest of relationships, but believing in someone else who honestly doesn't believe in himself or herself isn't easy either.  And while Cathy shows some moments of fierce determination (Climbing Uphill is an excellent example of this), it is also obvious that her self-confidence just isn't there (the insecurities she shows during the audition sequence come to mind).  Can she be faulted for this?  Not really.  Is believing in your significant other a necessity?  Absolutely.  Is it unbelievably draining to constantly be a rock of support for someone who can't believe in himself or herself?  You're damn right it is, and it makes you feel useless really, really quickly.

2.  While it is clear that Cathy is excited and happy (albeit briefly) to be married to a "rising star", I don't see much genuine happiness coming from her to him for his success.  The example that comes to mind is when she refuses to attend the party celebrating the publication of Jamie's book.  I implied earlier that a non-negotiable requirement of a committed relationship is to be your significant other's biggest cheerleader, and I can't help but get the vibe that Cathy is too caught-up in her own perceived lack of success to celebrate Jamie's successes with him.  Imagine constantly being asked at events held in your honor, or at events that you're actively participating in (a book-signing, a concert, etc.) "where's your girlfriend?"  or "where's your wife?"  It sucks.  A lot.  Writing is something sacred, and personal, for Jamie.  I can't imagine how debilitating, draining, and at times meaningless Jamie's success must have been if the person who was supposed to be his biggest cheerleader wasn't there with him.

To wrap up, do I condone Jamie's serial monogamy, his unfaithfulness, or his break-up technique?  Absolutely not.  They are signs of immaturity and proof that he "moved too fast" (see what I did there?).  However, I also feel very strongly that Cathy moved too fast as well, and that by being unable to fully love herself and believe in herself, a requirement of emotional support was placed on Jamie that, try as he did, he couldn't satisfy.  You HAVE to love yourself before you can be fully and perfectly loved by someone else.  This also prevented Cathy from feeling genuinely happy for Jamie through his successes.  Was she trying to hurt him?  No.  Was damage done by her not celebrating with him?  You bet is was.

Point being, neither of them was ready for their relationship to progress as it did.  And as much of a dick as Jamie is, there are two sides to every story.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Car Review -- 2013 Kia Soul

Yesterday, I took a day trip to NYC to see the New York Philharmonic play Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestras".  It was fantastic!

I have always wrestled with how best to get to and from the city without breaking the bank, and I've explored just about every possible option.  I think I found the winner yesterday, though.  After doing the Metro-North thing (too uncomfortable and that crash a couple months ago still gives me pause), the Amtrak thing (too expensive), and the drive-to-Manhattan thing (parking is grossly overpriced, though the driving itself isn't too bad), I decided to drive down to Fordham University, park the car there, and hop a Subway to Lincoln Center.  Economically, it made sense.  Parking was free, even if I did have to walk half a mile to the Subway stop (yay for good exercise!).

The next question was . . . do I drive my 2010 Accord EX sedan or my 2002 Passat GLX wagon?  Or do I take advantage of my AAA and Marriott Rewards memberships and snag one of their incredible Hertz one-day car rental deals?  Given that I drove over 300 miles yesterday, I went the rental car route.  Unlimited mileage, discounted fuel cost (if I prepaid, which I did, given that I burned the entire tank), dirt cheap rate.  That, and I love driving a variety of cars to see what they're like.

When I reserved my compact car, I was expecting to get the keys to a Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, or Chevy Cruze.  I saw the kind man behind the counter grab a set of Kia switchblade keys, so I figured I'd be driving the new Forte.  Instead, I was given a 2013 Soul for the day.  I was disappointed at first, as I've been curious about how the new Forte drives, but overall, the Soul pleasantly surprised me.  Here are my observations in no particular order:

1.  For a small, four-cylinder compact, it has a surprisingly good amount of get-up-and-go.  It was especially refreshing to experience a six-speed automatic that kept the engine relaxed and under 3000 RPM at 80 mph, but even more refreshing when it instantly downshifted to give me power when I needed it.  One of the best automatics I've ever driven.  Not once did I have to use the tap-shift sequential manual feature.  The 2013 Elantra I rented for my cross-country road trip this summer had a similarly good 6AT, but its engine wasn't quite as potent.

2.  On the flip-side, fuel economy was disappointing.  With a 6AT handling shifting duties for a trip that took place almost entirely on the freeway, 27.1 MPG on average was a letdown.  I was expecting mid 30s given the nature of the trip, the size of the car, and its EPA sticker.  I blame the 6AT's responsive downshifts that would often have the four-banger winding out to its redline every time I wanted power.  This is where the standard six-speed manual transmission would've helped, as I would have wielded complete control over the engine's power.  Alas, in my personal experience with a few of their products, Hyundai/Kia's manual transmissions are not nearly as good as their automatics.  Le sigh.

3.  The ride and handling were about as I expected them to be.  Inoffensive, though hardly invigorating.  The steering had pleasing heft, but the car understeered quite a bit when cornering and the tires were about as sticky as a bag of wet mice.

4.  On the flip-side, the car was much quieter at highway speeds than expected, and especially given its boxy shape.  It was quieter than my 2010 Accord, in fact.

5.  The driver's seating and position left a bit to be desired.  Perhaps I'm spoiled by both of my cars' power driver's seats and lumbar adjustments, but this car had neither.  The seatback was about as flat as iHOP's signature breakfast item, and my lower back would have craved the football-like support present in my 2010 Accord's driver's seat.  Also, the armrests (door and console) were not nearly as padded as I would've liked.

6.  Fit and finish were mixed.  There was a ton and a half of chintzy hard plastic seemingly everywhere, yet the steering wheel and shifter had soft leather wrappings.  Speaking of the shifter, it was one of the smoothest, most damped and refined automatic gear selectors I've ever tried.  It wouldn't feel out of place in a BMW.  Ditto for the wiper and turn-signal stalks on the steering column.

7.  The cargo area was disappointingly small and the tailgate felt cheap when I closed it.

8.  The sun visors were huge, slid to cover all of the upper door glass (something every sun visor should do), and had lights for their vanity mirrors.  I was expecting none of this in this price class.

9.  That said, why did the driver's window not have an auto-up function?  My 2002 Passat has auto-down AND up on BOTH front windows.  It's an indispensable feature not only when ordering fast food, but when trying to clear a raunchy egg fart out of the car as quickly as possible.

10.  The audio quality was quite good for a base system.

11.  The iPod interface was terrible.  To use it, you need a special cable from Hyundai/Kia that this car of course did not have.  The car had Bluetooth audio, which I used, but unlike any other BT audio system I've used, music could not be played/paused, or tracks changed, from the head unit or the steering wheel controls.  Really disappointing.  I don't want to fumble around with my phone while driving to change songs or play/pause the music.  Also, using the USB port to charge my iPhone did not work.  For a car marketed to people my age, this is inexcusable.

12.  Oddly, though, the phone integration was the best I've ever experienced in a car.  Pairing was easy and quick, and I was able to dial numbers in my contacts entirely with voice commands and the steering wheel controls.  Every other car Bluetooth system I've used has not been able to access my contacts without first downloading them to the car's memory.  Very impressive.  If only they could get the audio integration up to this level.

Overall, the car surprised me, and mostly for the better.  Not bad at all, and the new version probably improves on the few complaints I did have.  Would I take it over either of my current cars?  Nope.  Could it be a great car for people shopping in its segment or for people who want something small, maneuverable, and quirky?  Absolutely.