Saturday, December 31, 2011

Two of Us at the Hayward Farmers Market

The Beatles' music lives forever, as shown by the appreciation of the farmer's market shoppers today, who put $93.70 in my music partner Frank's guitar case. As the Beatles duo, Two of Us, we ran through dozens of Fab Four favorites, including everything from Please Please Me to the concluding section of the second side of Abbey Road (by request).

The weather cooperated, with temperatures in the high 50s and no wind, so we weren't uncomfortable. Several of our local friends and fellow musicians dropped by. Gary Howe was good enough to join us on one song.

The beauty of playing in this kind of venue is that you can try out stuff and nobody minds if you screw up. We had plenty of false endings, wrong chords, shaky harmonies, and the like, but we are getting better ("all the time") and are looking forward to another outing in February and next summer.


This post completes a commitment to blog daily in 2011, and is on a theme, music, that was popular as a blog subject. Test Driving Life is about trying everything as a "test drive," but music and cars were the main stars. I'll publish a review of the year of blogging tomorrow, when all the numbers are in. I do know that December 2011 was the most popular month ever for Test Driving Life, with more than 6,000 view. It's amazing what you can do if you put your mind to it.

Thanks to everyone who reads this blog. It will continue, but may not have a daily entry, in 2012. See the Jewish Roots Project for the blog that will be my primary focus next year.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Robert Schoen Quartet: Memorable Memories

Last night I had the pleasure of hearing Catherine DeCuir sing 21 beautiful songs accompanied by Robert Schoen's Jazz trio. I have known Ms. DeCuir and heard her fine voice for many years, but finally she's in the perfect setting to highlight her considerable talents.

The highly skilled band, which played a few numbers on their own to give Ms. DeCuir a break about 2/3 of the way through the two-hour set, is led by Robert Schoen on keyboard with Jamie Dowd on bass and John Remenarich holding down the drum duties. These guys obviously have been around and know their stuff. Photo, left to right: Schoen, DeCuir, Remenarich, Dowd.

Ms. DeCuir adds a powerful vocal element that, if you squint and ignore your cell phone, would put you right into the past. She sang 21 songs ranging from I've Got Rhythm (Gershwin) to Under the Boardwalk (classic Motown). She sang just as well in Spanish and in French ("La Vie en Rose") as she did in English. She also sang in Portuguese for two Brazilian songs ("Mas Que Nada" and "Tristeza"). It was heaven.

This all took place in a warm and friendly Thai restaurant, Saysetha, on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland near the Berkeley border. My spicy chicken with cashews went well with a nice Singha Thai beer.

The music ended too soon, but you can hear the quartet at Saysetha almost every Thursday from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Music Machine is Broken

I just learned on a tweet that Sean Bonniwell, the leader of the Music Machine, had died. The band's song, Talk Talk, was a hit in 1966. Bonniwell was 71, so that's not that unusual, but his band is one of those one-hit-wonders you hear about sometimes.

The Music Machine was local, more or less, for me, being in San Jose, California, but I never went and saw them. I just heard the song as I was starting high school. It had just the right psychedelic rock sound at the time and I remember it viscerally.

There surely will be more of these memorials as time marches on, but I'm taking a few minutes today to remember that song--and my 13-year-old ears that heard it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Nissan Maxima - Maximum Nissan

A Nissan Maxima has served me well over the last week as a commuter, family hauler and bass schlepper. Nissan's flagship, dubbed the "four door sports car," has the style and the muscle to justify that slogan.

The Maxima has been around awhile, originating as the Datsun 810 before becoming the Maxima as Nissan shed the Datsun name in the early 1980s. It's been Nissan's flagship ever since and is now in its seventh generation. The one I drove is actually built in Smyrna, Tennessee.

This latest Maxima is a large vehicle, with a dramatically sweeping treatment of the sides and a surprising ridged edge to the rippled hood. You can see this from the driver's seat, and it makes you more aware of road presence of the car from the inside--a nice trick today.

The interior fittings are much like the upscale Infiniti division, with a "floating" dash and well-equipped console. The whole experience is luxury without excess and nothing amiss. After a week driving it I can hardly remember the car--I just know it's very pleasant to drive.

There's plenty of power from the 3.5-liter V6--290 horsepower and 261 lb.-ft. of torque do the job admirably. The automatic is a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), showing that Nissan is putting this kind of "gearbox" into practically everything it builds now. I couldn't hear the transmission much, but on acceleration sometimes the engine rpms would climb more than they would in a standard, geared automatic. It all added up to 20.4 mpg average. The EPA says 19 City, 26 Highway (22 average). That's pretty close, I guess.

My car came to $40,055, including shipping and the Sport and Sport Technology packages. These significantly upgraded the car's looks and feel, but that price is really encroaching on luxury car territory.

Funny, but the XM NavWeather feature in the Sport Technology package kept warning me that it was freezing someplace within five miles of the car. I finally figured out that it must be five miles directly above in the atmosphere.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Afikomen Judaica - Home of Rabbi Harvey

I took a trip over to Afikomen Judaica today. I hadn't been there for awhile. It's a fully equipped spot for all your Jewish needs, from mezuzot (for your doorpost) to books of all kinds to yalmukes for your head to toys for the kids! Of course, at this time of year, it's packed with stuff relevant to Chanukah, the eight-day winter holiday that is like the "Jewish Christmas," except that it's a completely different holiday.

There aren't many places like Afikomen because it's a specialized business. It's where you stop if you need a gift for a bris (ritual circumcision) or a bar or bat mitzvah (adolescent coming of age ceremony for boys and girls respectively). Or--they had lots of different versions of the Torah (first five books of the Old Testament) in Hebrew and in English. The store's motto is, "Contemporary Judaica for Inspired Living." 'Nuff said!

I bought a bottle of Barkan Classic Chardonnay. I normally like red wine, but this bottle was made from grapes from Kibbutz Hulda, where I lived for 10 months in 1974. I actually walked in those vineyards! Back then, the kibbutz wasn't making wine, but things have changed in 28 years. We'll see how good it tastes soon.

Afikomen is actually a word associated with the Passover seder (ceremonial meal). The afikomen is a piece of the special matzos (unleavened bread--like giant saltines without the salt). It's wrapped up and hidden, and when the kids find it there's a special prize.

At Afikomen I found the graphic novel, Rabbi Harvey Rides Again. Steve Shenkin is making his second effort at an oddly compelling "comic novel." I may write more about it when I finish it.

Monday, December 26, 2011


Sometimes, time passes quickly. It's December 26th--where has the year gone? I'm on 2011 blog post number 362. That sure felt like it added up fast. And by the way, how can it be 2012 already? I remember when we finished up with the '90s and it seemed like a big deal.

Here's what's playing in my head right now--I love this song.

Why does it feel like forever when you're waiting in line at Chipotle to have your burrito made but when it's your turn, everybody's hands are moving like lightning and the coordination is perfect? Suddenly, you're halfway to your car in the parking lot.

Yesterday, I spent nine hours with my family celebrating the holidays. The 1-1/2-hour drive there and back felt longer than the span we spent eating, talking and laughing.

Does life feel different when you're 6 from when you're 60? I've been one and am almost the other, yet I can't really say. A Sunday working on the project for social studies in the 6th grade is interminable but a week at a college campus playing chamber music flies by.

It must have something to do with our perception. As an English major and not a scientist (or a philosopher) I can't say what that might be. Maybe your level of consciousness is somehow involved. Then it can become a matter of increasing your awareness of yourself and the world around you to get the maximum enjoyment and value out of life. Uh oh, we're slipping into scary territory, because it's very hard to say what our purpose of living at all is, and who wants to imagine it over? We're just here. But just maybe, we have something to do here.

I don't know, but I do know I've been very busy, and that doesn't seem to be in danger of letting up soon. That gives life a pleasurable density and a sense of momentum. And I've started to refer to my future as "the third third." That seems to limit me to 90 years, though--that may not be a good idea. 8-)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Little Christmas Tree Decorating Music, Please

As I prepare for my Jewish Roots Project, I spent part of last evening decorating the diminutive holiday tree we bought a couple of weeks ago. Yes, I have an interesting household--and life.

We pulled out the boxes of ornaments, and to set the mood, put on Now That's What I Call Christmas, from the Now That's What I Call Music folks. It's a two-disc CD containing 36 songs of the holiday, from Nat King Cole's The Christmas Song to Boyz II Men's Silent Night.

Yes, the CD is ten years old--NSYNC is there too, along with Britney Spears--but it covers the range of popular favorites with less emphasis on the religious songs, from White Christmas (Bing, of course), Burl Ives' A Holly Jolly Christmas, and John & Yoko's Happy Xmas (War is Over).

There were some classics, like O Come All Ye Faithful (done by Luther Vandross) and Away in a Manger (Mannheim Steamroller.)

I discovered that there have been FOUR of these Christmas compilations, with the latest, from 2010, available from iTunes or Amazon (see photo). It has Rihanna and Lady Gaga on it--a bit more up to date. Maybe I'll get it for next year's decorating party.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Exploring Jewish Roots

As my year of daily blogging enters its final week, and Chanukah passes it midpoint, I am beginning a new focus for 2012. With the Jewish Roots Project, I will explore my ancestry in Judaism with a wide range of activities. These include interviewing rabbis, reading a wide range of material, attending services, practicing some of the rituals, growing a nice big beard, and much more.

I'll look at Jewish art, learn about famous Jews through history, and attempt to get a comprehensive overview of 5,772 years of culture.

As an intermarried, assimilated Jew, it would be easy to simply ignore my background. Life is going just fine and I love my family. But periodically, I get a certain feeling that calls me back to my roots.

Those roots are buried but present. My family practiced Reform Judaism sporadically and without a great deal of enthusiasm. I have had a few years of Jewish education -- 7th through 10th grade -- celebrated a hastily prepared Bar Mitzvah at 13, and I spent 10 months living in Israel, feeding cows and studying Hebrew as a young adult. But it's all part of the bigger Jewish picture.

I'll record my findings and periodically post something to the new Jewish Roots Project blog. Then, on January 1, 2013, I'll assess what I've found and decide how to proceed with my relationship to Judaism for the rest of my life. Will it require more study? (I'm guessing yes). I won't join any synagogues until then, if at all. But if I've learned anything in the last several years, it's that having a focus and doing something daily that relates to it is what makes things happen. And it helps to work with other people to get support and perspective (and it just feels good, too).

So, after January 1, 2012, Test Driving Life will not necessarily be fresh daily, but be sure to visit the Jewish Roots Project as well to see what's going on.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Christmas Carol - 3 Performances in One Day

In my quest for the full bass playing experience, I achieved another milestone yesterday. I played for three performances of the 90-minute musical A Christmas Carol --in one day.

The first two shows were at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., for schoolkids. You could hear the high pitched din as they came in and sat and waited for us to start. Of course, in the pit you can't see anything in the building, but we knew we had a full house. We got some visitors peering over the wall, and we did our best to make it an interesting introduction to musical instruments, showing off what they looked and sounded like. From the sound of the applause and cheering at the end, the kids had a great time.

Andrea Gorham, who owns Curtain Call Performing Arts, the company that put the program together, talked with the kids, telling them it was her dream to expose kids to theater. Her outreach program to schoolkids has shown live theater to about 5,000 kids so far. The local girl, who attended the school in which the performances were taking place, thanked two of her former teachers, who were in the audience with their students.

The evening show was for grown-ups. You could tell by how quiet it was. But--there was plenty of applause when we were done--and we had some visitors peeking in too.

The three performances all went well from a musical standpoint. Each time, I played a little better and more completely. Passages that I had just glossed over came into focus and I beat out the rhythm with confidence. It helped to have a fine bunch of fellow player in the pit with me, and a leader like Jon Siapno, who has years of experience in choral conducting, but was working with his first instrumental group.

Two more shows--one tonight and a matinee tomorrow, and then we wrap. Eight performances in two weeks. But so far, no blisters, and my sore feet recover quickly as soon as I sit down for a few minutes.

I'll have to see about doing this again next year. I'm thinking perhaps the Nutcracker!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Prius C - Baby of the Family

Toyota released photos of the Prius C yesterday. The car will be formally introduced at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next month and will be available at dealerships in 2012. The question is, why didn't they think of this sooner?

The Prius, Toyota's hybrid vehicle, is the poster child for high efficiency driving. It's by far the largest selling hybrid and is almost the generic name for gas/electric vehicles--like "Kleenex" for tissues or "iPod" for MP3 player. Expanding the family makes good marketing sense, since the name is already familiar and associated with high efficiency motoring.

One way to give a car higher fuel efficiency is to make it smaller and lighter. That's why a car like the excellent Mazda2 can get superior mileage without the extra cost, complexity and weight of a hybrid. Remember -- a hybrid has to use a gas engine and an electric motor -- and all the technology that links them together, including extra-large batteries and the regenerative braking system.

All that being said, the Prius C (compact?) will be smaller and lighter than the standard Prius, which actually is much larger than you might think (check out the back seat and cargo capacity). Based on the subcompact Yaris platform, the Prius C should already be pretty efficient just by its size and weight. If the standard Prius can average 50 miles per gallon, could the new baby Prius get 60? If so, it would immediately carve itself a nice fat slice out of the high efficiency car market. Being smaller and lighter, it should be more affordable too, putting a Prius in even more garages across the U.S. and the world.

The Prius V, a bigger wagon model, just debuted. It's a lovely thing, but with its larger size and greater weight, its fuel economy numbers are lower than a standard Prius (44/40).

I eagerly await a test of the new Prius C and will report on it right here.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Red Hot Volvo S60 T6

I just stepped out of a very potent Volvo sedan. Yes, you read that right. Volvo, long known as the purveyor of boxy, solid transportation--especially wagons--has gone much more performance-oriented over the last decade or so, and the S60 is the one to have.

The car came in Passion Red paint! I swam through the sea of silver Camrys and Accords on my commute and knew I had they something they couldn't even imagine. Under the tapered hood lived a turbocharged 3.0-liter six that put out an amazing 325 horsepower and 354 lb.-ft of torque. No wonder the car jumped ahead like a hungry racehorse when I touched the accelerator.

Inside, the look and feel is upscale, but cool and collected--that famous and desirable Danish modern. The matte black, padded surfaces, pressed and shaped into forms that pumped up the energy, only encouraged the feeling of speed and aggression. The silvery "hook" of trim that eventually culminates in the door handles is remarkably elaborate for a Volvo--but this isn't the same old company.

Last year, I spent time with this car's ancestor. a beautiful 1966 red Volvo 122S appropriately named Old Red. That car was dated-looking in its time but was a beautiful rendition of the solid, sturdy, reliable Volvo of yore--before the era of the box. What a treat driving it was. But motoring about in this new car was actually exciting.

Despite the power, fuel economy is rated at 18 City, 26 Highway (average 21). I got 18.6 mpg--not much above the City rating, despite driving mostly on the highway. Still--a lot for a vigorous car.

My car came to $46,875 with numerous options, but S60s start at $32,175, including shipping.

With new Chinese ownership, it looks OK for Volvo in the short term. There is a lot of upheaval in the car business now, and Volvo's Swedish competitor--Saab--has now gone bankrupt. Watch for updates and drive safely. (Hey, wasn't Volvo all about safety too? They pioneered the seatbelt, for example.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Jew at Christmastime

Chanukah starts tonight. As usual, I'll get out a menorah--or two--and light one candle, plus the shamus, in each to start the first of eight nights of this holiday. Each night I'll add a candle. In these days of electric lights, candles still evoke a mood--in this case, one to remember our ancestors who didn't have electricity. Or, on later nights, when there are several candles going, you can wager on which one will be the last to go out.

I'm a Jew at Christmastime, living in a world of lights, trees, Santa, and even, sometimes, Jesus. Last night, I was out shopping for gifts for my granddaughter, who, not being Jewish, celebrates Christmas--with gusto.

I think my street has more Christmas lights than usual this year. I like them. I remember driving around our neighborhood when I was six, sitting in the back seat of the Rambler with my brother, looking at all the displays. There may have been some snow--it was Buffalo, New York--and the lights were pretty much all the big pepper-shaped colored ones. Today there are icicles and bright blue ones and all kinds of inflatable and even moving holiday displays (reindeer are popular). I've seen Santa on a Harley. I have a string of illuminated plastic Nash Metropolitans and Airstream trailers. It's all good.

What I don't have much of is a sense of Chanukah community. Perhaps only in Israel is there a public celebration of Chanukah--and even there, the substantial Christian community celebrates Christ's traditional birthday--in the very spot where it happened. That has to have a lot of meaning for some people.

As kids, we got our holiday gifts with candles, not under a tree, and the paper wasn't red and green. While we certainly weren't denied any of the joy of getting presents, the festivity of the holiday wasn't that big a deal--except for Christmas carols. I love them and can sing most of them now--well, the first verse anyway. Hark the Herald Angels Sing... Oh Come All Ye Faithful... Silent Night... Deck the Halls... Joy to the World... Even Jingle Bells. And don't forget the popular songs: Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, White Christmas, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire....." (Had a chestnut lately? Me neither.)

I remember going over to my friends' houses and seeing their trees--with tinsel and those glimmering glass globes and twinkling electric lights. I remember making school projects with stars and bells and Santas using colored paper and glitter.

I was the kid with the candles--and no tree. Today, I have a tree (a realistic fake one and sometimes a real one) and we have a nice variety of ornaments that we've collected over the last couple of decades--one for each person each year. It adds up.

Other great stuff about this time of year--hot cider and hot chocolate, Christmas cookies, Peppermint Bark, Honeybaked Ham (available all year). And the movies--It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (animated).

I'm a Jew at Christmastime. Happy Chanukah.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Saab - RIP

Saab has filed for bankruptcy, so it looks like it won't survive much longer.

A lot has been going on with the company since GM sold it off in its own bankruptcy proceedings in 2009. There had been been hope of a Chinese white knight to somehow take on the daunting challenge of restoring profitability to the Swedish automaker, but it looks like time and interest has run out. That solution has worked, for the time being, for the other Swedish brand, Volvo.

It's sad, and it's not the first brand I've known all my life that has gone. I've seen all of America's "Big 3" shed brands -- Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Mercury are now defunct, and Saturn, the newest GM brand, lasted only 20 years.

This kind of change happened in the 1950's, which saw many independents, such as Nash, Hudson, Packard and Kaiser, fade into history. Studebaker, which predated all the car companies in being a wagon manufacturer in the 19th century, held on until 1966.

What's happening today shows broad changes in the highly competitive auto industry and although it's too bad, it's also a necessity for the overall car business to thrive. Growth is definitely happening in the Korean companies, Hyundai and Kia, so although there are now fewer brands from the major US companies, there are still lots of choices.

Saab made a lot of interesting cars -- many are still out there in traffic -- and, when, as it looks nearly inevitable, it passes into history, it will not be soon forgotten. That's the latest 9-5 in the photo.

I've never owned a Saab, but I've driven some, including a bright green convertible. I do have a Plymouth and a Nash. Maybe it's time to add a Saab to my collection.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Christmas Carol - Defining the Holiday for Us

Playing in the pit orchestra for A Christmas Carol has inspired me to go and read the original book by Charles Dickens. It's a short one -- a 95-page small paperback -- but well worth the read. I knocked it out in an hour and a half yesterday.

Originally published in 1843 by the author to make some quick money, the story has gone on to be hugely inflluential in how modern people celebrate the holiday. See this story for a few details and some insight into what Dickens was reading when he wrote this tale.

Twenty-first-century readers might be challenged by the mid-nineteenth-century language and pacing in the original tale, and Dickens was a master of detail from early days of court reporting. But it conjures up the flavor of that time, when books were read by lamplight, before any of the instant communication we enjoy today existed.

But the essence of the story--the miserly Scrooge, loving but shivering Bob Cratchit, poor Tiny Tim, Scrooge's cheerful nephew Fred, and the three Christmas spirits who turn Scrooge around -- is all there in today's 90-minute theater production (takes about the same time as reading the book!).

Beyond religion and commercialism, the holiday spirit, from Dickens to us, is "goodwill toward men." And throw in some togetherness and hilarity too.

After listening to the Hallmark version of A Christmas Carol on my iPod, I was moved to send a donation to my local Second Harvest Food Bank. While I am no miser, I still feel especially fortunate and wanted to do something. No one should go hungry at this time of year (or ever).

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Winter Chocolate with The Ticket Kitchen

Browsing in a bookstore (yes, they still have a few around), I saw Hot Chocolate on a Stick. I immediately bought one, knowing it had to be a great treat for a cold day.

I decided to give it as my $5 contribution to the company gift exchange. At the holiday party, I ended up with a different item, but, oddly enough, the recipient of my chocolate treasure was walking around, not appreciating its wonderfulness, and I traded back--I ended up giving the gift of chocolate to myself.

Now it sits, waiting for the perfect time.

Hot Chocolate on a Stick is made by The Ticket Kitchen in San Francisco. The company was founded by two women (mothers of 3 and 4 respectively), who loved chocolate growing up and wanted to offer something special.

Visit the website to see the various flavors, including French Dark Truffle, Vanilla Mint and Salted Caramel. There are attractive gift packages available too, although Christmas is getting pretty close!

If I were truly test driving life, I'd tell you here how wonderful it tasted, but I'm saving it until just the right moment. But, like Scrooge, I'll have to change my ways and stop hoarding my little treasure.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Report from the Orchestra Pit

Last night was the final tech rehearsal for A Christmas Carol, and we took it very slowly. With all the stops, starts, changes and tweaks, we ran past midnight. Tonight, we will have an audience and I hope we're all ready for them.

It was my first experience in an orchestra pit. And that's truly what it is--a stage-wide slice of area invisible to most of the audience where the musicians crowd together and play. I was tucked next to the entry stairs with just enough width to move a bow. Even then, I frequently knocked its tip into the stair's railing. That's not as bad as my poor compadre who put the first dent in his gorgeous bass saxophone when the stand it was in decided to collapse. But he went on, like a pro. The photo here is not our orchestra or theater, but it shows the same view from the corner that I have.

The odd thing is, we're right in front of, and under, the actors, but we can't see what they're doing. We watch our conductor and guide attentively--he can see the stage--but it's an act of faith. In the theatre, you're constantly stopping and starting and changing the tempo to match the action above--that you can't see. But when it's going well, it sounds great, and that's what kept me moving along last night.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Audi A7 Carries it Off

The new Audi A7, slotted between the midsize A6 and fullsize A8, creates its own identity there. Besides its unique fastback styling, it offers a convenient and spacious liftback--something that some American buyers may find perplexing. Aren't hatchbacks just for cheap econoboxes? Well, no.

The A7 offers all the upscale design and equipment you expect in this segment--you do get your $68,000 worth! The design flows smoothly from front to rear outside and from door to door across the dash inside. The usual high-quality materials and fit-and-finish make the driving environment a joy to occupy.

Audi has smoothed out some of the fussiness on the dash now--the gauges no longer look like teardrops. The lines flow into delicate points on the doors. The doors have their own subtle illumination. The display screen for audio, navigation and car information slips delicately out of the upper dash when you start the car. You can send it back in if you don't want to look at it but it's unobtrusive.

My Moonlight Blue Metallic test car had the Prestige package, which added upsized wheels, navigation, front and rear parking sensors, climate control, BOSE surround sound and lots more. Then, my car had the wheels upsized to 20 inchers! Whew.

The 3.0-liter 310-horsepower supercharged engine sends the car rocketing towards your destination with an EPA average of 22 mpg. I averaged 19.3.

Always a treat, great for carrying big loads, and now, already on its way to the next journalist.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Starting 2012 out with a Bang!

Here in mid December, I am already planning for events for my two areas of personal interest, music and cars. Each receives an important event in January following a great and busy 2011.

Musically, Red Paint presents its long awaited CD Release Party, where the band will play the new American Tender CD (pictured) live from end to end, and then present a second set of new songs and covers. It happens on Saturday, January 21 from 7 p.m. at the High Street Station in Alameda, California. See Red Paint's Facebook Page for more details.

Just a few days later, the Western Automotive Journalists presents Future Cars -- Future Technology. It's a noon to nine event for automotive journalists and other people in the field to meet to discuss what the cars we'll be driving soon will be like--and what they'll be using for fuel. The ride and drive features cars like Mitsubishi's new all-electric i (pictured). That's on Tuesday, January 24. See the WAJ website for details.

It's fun to have twin passions, and it looks like they'll be moving along nicely by late January of 2012.

After that, February 8, 2012 will mark 20 years since my first published automotive article. Watch this space for more as the day gets closer!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Christmas Carol - My First Musical

Last night marked another rehearsal on the way to performing in my first musical theater production. It went well --three hours of work with the ensemble. I'll do a dress rehearsal on Thursday night and then, Friday is opening night!

It's a little different doing musicals, because you're not the main attraction, like you are in an orchestral concert. Actually, we'll be in the "pit," hidden from view, playing when it suits the actors/singers above us. I'm guessing that my 8th performance will be better than the first one.

As usual, I'm the only bass player, but we have a nice selection of other instruments, including a piano, a horn section, violins, flute and even a bass saxophone. The drummer arrived tonight, and he, a hirsute and mature 17-year-old, played directly behind me--and he was right on the beat. We talked music a little bit, too; it's fun to share something with someone who's less than a third of your age. The years melted away when we discussed our musical passion.

A Christmas Carol plays December 16, 17, 22 and 23 at 8 p.m. and December 18 and 24 at a 2 p.m. matinee. It's the same great story you know about Mr. Scrooge learning the spirit of Christmas by seeing the past, present and future. If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area, feel free to order tickets here.

Our leader is Jon Siapno, an energetic young man who has a light touch while keeping us moving. He's also a high school teacher, and I'll bet his class is the fun one of the day. It's been great working with him so far, and when we're all playing in the pit these next couple weeks I'm sure we'll get to know him even better. I'll bet there will be more opportunities like this one.

A year ago I got my upright and electric basses tattooed on my arm. Along with making that kind of commitment, I now end the year with a CD and some gigs with my band, another successful year of orchestra concerts, several chamber music workshop weekends, a freelance gig at a church, and now this opportunity. It's wonderful.

The new year will start out with the CD Release Party for Red Paint on Saturday, January 21 at the High Street Station in Alameda, California. You should come.

Monday, December 12, 2011

James Taylor Eternal

I happened to hear "Blossom," a very early James Taylor song, on my "Song for a Winter's Night" channel on Pandora the other day. Ah, the Sweet Baby James album--what a breakthrough for young singer/songwriter James Taylor. It was 1970.

James Taylor, like so many creative types, has had his ups and downs with drugs and lifestyle issues, but somehow he comes out sounding wonderful. Another highlight in his long career is his comeback album, Hourglass, in 1997, on which his beautiful, straightforward singing sounds undiminished--even enhanced--after 27 years.

Taylor has recently released two albums of covers and he still sounds great. I regret that his record company (or perhaps he) feels required to Photoshop the heck out of his images, though. It's fine to wear a hat when you're bald (and Taylor lost his hair pretty early), but a guy his age (63) has a wrinkle or two.

Interesting to contrast James Taylor's voice, which has retained its quality through his tortured artist life, to Gordon Lightfoot's. Lightfoot sounded great in 1970, too, with "If You Could Read My Mind," but in 1998, about the same time as Taylor's Hourglass, his delivery had changed tremendously--as on A Painter Passing Through. Still a great performer, though, and he is 10 years older than JT.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Doug's Place for Sunday Breakfast

Nothing says Sunday morning than a nice hearty breakfast that you don't make yourself. Yeah, we have eggs in the refrigerator, coffee beans in a bag and can buy and cook bacon, but sometimes, we'd rather let Doug's Place do it for us.

Doug's is a friendly local non-chain that has lots of movie posters, team sponsor group photos and other memorabilia along its walls (I especially like one early photos of Marilyn Monroe). The staff is very efficient and professional and the service is quick, friendly and accurate. The stacks of bacon are profoundly more than any one person needs and you know there are at least three eggs in that pile of scrambled.

I like the Number 6--two plate-sized pancakes, plus an entire plateful of bacon and eggs. When I commented on the scale of the servings our waiter said it could be "breakfast and lunch." I think he's right. I never finish everything.

I remember going out to a place similar to this (minus the old movie photos) as a child of 5 or 6 and it was always fun. I'm probably reliving this now at Doug's but what's not to like? Back to a bowl of quinoa with almonds and dried blueberries tomorrow.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

I Heard the News Today, Oh Boy

With apologies to John Lennon and the Beatles for the title, I heard two disturbing stories on the local TV news today that reminded me why I like to avoid watching the news. First, a middle school teacher was arrested (and he confessed) for his affair with a teenage student. Second, a toddler who was caught in gang crossfire last week and was in a coma had his plug pulled and died.

For the first story, they showed the school administration performing their due diligence and notifying all the parents by robocall to show that they were on the job protecting their children. Then, the newsman interviewed the teacher's next door neighbors, who were appropriately shocked. I find the latter kind of news reporting unhelpful. Of course the neighbors were surprised. Wouldn't you be?

For the second story, they showed a photo of the cute little boy in happier times (pictured) and the mother displayed the blue baby footprint tattoo she had on her arm to remember her boy.

Now I'm depressed.

It may be selfish, but I'd rather think about the musical I'm going to be playing in next week or my wife's beautiful face or my younger son's gainful employment or the growing company I work for or the nice view from my rear deck. Is it wrong to avoid bad news? Am I putting my head in the sand? What about climate change and the endless wars we seem to be fighting all over the world? What about the various Occupy [your city here] events? What about the scary crop of Republican presidential hopefuls? There are current and historic horrors available to consider every single day.

Meanwhile, according to the weather woman, it's clear and chilly now and will get to about 60 degrees here today. Now that's news I can use.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Dodge Dart is Back!

The New Chrysler has been short of a compact sedan. But soon, that problem will be elegantly solved with the all-new 2013 Dodge Dart. The car will debut at the Detroit Auto Show one month from today.

If the name sounds familiar, that's because it is. Dart was introduced as a version of the full-size Dodge back in 1960, but it was the ground-breaking 1963 compact model that made it was it was. That car, after changes in 1968, ran into the mid 1970's and featured an economical and bulletproof "slant 6" as well as some mighty V8s, making it popular for the modest and the manic.

A 1966 model is pictured. I learned to drive on the Plymouth Valiant of the same year--it's corporate cousin--and later drove my mother's 1966 Dart convertible--a baby blue beauty with "three on the tree" manual transmission and black vinyl interior.

The 2013 is shown in teasers like the red one posted here. It's based on an Alfa Romeo and promises to be handsome and a fine driver. Three efficient four-cylinder engines, including one with a turbo, should, like the early Dart, provide a choice of driving experiences.

The new Dart will be built in the updated Belvidere, Illinois plant that has produced compact Dodge and Plymouth Neons and other models for Chrysler since it opened in 1965.

I hope they offer one with a manual transmission!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

John Lennon - Never Forgotten

John Lennon was murdered in his adopted home of New York City on this day in 1980. I will never forget it. John was my hero and he was cut down senselessly just as he resurfaced from five years of musical exile.

What is it exactly that keeps me memorializing John on this day every year? Is it the shock of his sudden death? After 31 years it still burns, as I imagine, December 7th must to a generation that remembers Pearl Harbor. I don't want to imply that these events are similar or of equal importance (John is famous for saying the Beatles were more popular than Jesus and getting in big trouble for it). But, in my life, safe and protected by those who did fight in WWII, having my hero killed was and is a big deal.

Although I loved (and still love) the Beatles as a group, and believe that their unique chemistry is what made them so great, John still stands out. There was something about his personality that made him the leader of the band--at first. As time went on, various factors caused him to step back while Paul took the controls, but by then the Beatles were becoming four more developed individuals, and John's songs stood out even more.

In the Lennon/McCartney songwriting team, while Paul supplied the sweet, John provided the savory, for a perfect blend--kind of like a chocolate-covered pretzel or a good sweet and sour chicken.

Although I mostly play the bass today--Paul's instrument--I still celebrate John more. His songwriting, singing and guitar playing were special--and his heart was in the right place.

I'll think about John today and, tonight, with my band, Red Paint, will play something in his memory--probably You've Got to Hide Your Love Away--but there are many more. Being in a four-man band helps me preserve the memory of the Beatles, even though they are not heavily represented in our repertoire.

And in 2012, Two of Us, a duo, will continue to celebrate the music of John and the boys. More on this soon.

Rest in Peace, John. We will never forget you or your music.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Rocks

I'm just completing a week in the surprisingly compelling Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. You know the look--it's the classic Jeep from WWII and Beetle Bailey--but so much nicer than it ever was for our fighting men and women.

For one thing, my car came in a beautiful Flame Red Clearcoat paint instead of Army Green. The seats were leather-covered, and the interior, once again, has been upgraded to premium status. Other than the very upright, flat windshield and shallow dash, it could have been an upscale modern crossover vehicle.

I discovered that the windshield reflected my voice when I sang along with my iPod selections--and that was a hidden benefit (when I was on key).

The hardtop on my tester was air-tight and made riding down the freeway about as quiet as it gets for this Trail Rated four-wheel-drive offroader. Previous test Jeeps with the cloth soft-top provided much less protection from cold and sound. I would definitely want my Wrangler equipped like this--if it was my daily driver. The roof panels over the front seat are removable--but it takes unlatching from the windshield, turning three levers, and unscrewing the side facing the back before they come free. It's no power sliding sunroof.

My tester had a 3.6-liter V6, mated to a 5-speed automatic, that put out 285 horsepower and 260 lb.-ft. of torque. I averaged just over 17 miles per gallon--the EPA tests say 18, so that's about right.

At $34,625, this is no toy, but you can pick one up starting at about $23,000. I was surprised at the comfort and utility I got, and also the quick reflexes of the short wheelbase and the feeling of sitting up high wearing big boots. It was more fun than I expected.

I gave a friendly wave to the woman in the yellow Wrangler Unlimited I saw--it was a Jeep thing. It looked like she was really enjoying her car--with its roof rack and coating of dirt--not just passing through, like me.

Jeep is one of the hot brands in the car market now--sales are way up. And, the 2012 Wrangler just won the Four Wheeler of the Year award from Four Wheeler magazine.

Photo by Chris Kidwell.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

2013 Ford Escape Interior Uses More Recycled Materials

The all-new 2013 Ford Escape compact crossover SUV will use more recycled material in its interior than any Ford model to date. According to Ford materials engineer Laura Sinclair, in an Automotive News article (Dec. 5, 2011), it's all part of Ford's sustainability drive.

For example, the carpets will contain about 25 20-ounce PET plastic beverage bottles. The goal is to keep 4 million bottles out of landfills every year.

The story by Bradford Wernle mentions other sustainable materials, including soy in the seat cushions and fiber from the kenaf plant in the door inserts. The dash insulation includes more than 10 pounds of scrap cotton from jeans, sweaters, T-shirts and other materials. The climate control gasket is made from recycled tires.

According to Sinclair, Ford tests all of these new materials to be sure they will wear at least as long as the stuff they replace. It's a good effort, and I expect we'll see a lot more in the future. Every bit of plastic we can recycle means less new plastic--and you know where that comes from, right? Oil.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Stairway to Heaven - Best Rock Song Ever?

I just got another chance to enjoy the magnificence of Stairway to Heaven, Led Zeppelin's finest song and one of the greatest rock recordings of all time. I've always admired the way it starts pretty and folksy and gradually builds, adding a piece at a time, until it expands to an outright wail, only to fade softly away at the end.

First, the acoustic guitar becomes an electric guitar. Then the bass becomes more prominent. Then the drums enter. After that, a ringing guitar anthem, followed by Jimmy Page's iconic solo. On top of that, suddenly the tempo gets more syncopated as Robert Plant screams out his part as only he can.

The latest numbers for Stairway to Heaven on YouTube are 44,712,551 plays for the recorded version with a changing still photo gallery of the band. Whew, look at all that hair! And Jimmy Page's double-necked guitar! It's 8 minutes and two seconds of magic. It's also 40 years old this November, and sounding as fresh as ever.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Up On the Roof

When this old world starts getting me down...

No, unlike in the classic Drifters song, I didn't go up there to get away from my troubles. My real purpose was to remove a deposit of leaves from my old shake roof. Leaving them there would be asking for trouble--if I don't have enough of it already. The shakes are getting soft and I found a couple of pieces of them on the ground after the latest wind.

So... Up I clambered and not only blew them off with an electric leaf blower (kind of fun) but cleaned the gutters (stuffed) and trimmed some overhanging branches with an electric saw.

All this was instigated and greatly assisted by Ted, my kind and energetic neighbor, who always warns me about the things I need to do for my house. He not only supplied the ladders and the electric devices, but also pitched in and we got a lot done.

So, despite my usual protestations against any work not performed on a musical instrument or a laptop, it was kind of energizing. And the view from up there was pretty darned nice, too (see photo).

Sadly, I think I need a new roof! But I'm not doing that labor myself.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Yamaha WX5 Sounds like Anything You Want!

I was at a rehearsal for a musical today when a fellow musician arrived with two fascinating instruments. Besides the gorgeous golden bass saxophone he lugged in was a trim little tube that looked like a digital clarinet designed in 2011. It turned out to be the Yamaha WX5. This amazing device sounds like whatever you want it to because it's a midi sound generator. The guy with it today had it sounding like a saxophone, but it could be a piano or a guitar or a bass or whatever.

It works just like any other midi tone generator, so it's completely compatible. You can set different fingerings to approximate various instruments. And it only weighs a little over a pound!

Apparently it's not too expensive--about $500, my musical colleague told me.

And check out the gorgeous bass saxophone (which sounded fantastic when he played it):

Friday, December 2, 2011

Happy 30th Birthday to My Son!

Hard to believe, but my older son turns 30 today. It's been a great three decades, and he stands today a professional, a husband, a father, and a fine human being.

I still remember bringing that little 8-pound, 10-ounce bundle home in the newly purchased car seat in the back of our little white Toyota. I was lucky enough to have some time off, so I got to stay home and help take care of him, grabbing naps where possible, helping his mom when I could (she did all the feeding), and getting used to him being with us.

I remember walks in strollers, lots of pants changes (other than the obvious odor issues, a sweet time with a little one), the beginning of speech, the cute things, the toys spread out all over the floor (I remember his "slime ball"--what we called his Chime Ball.)

We took him to Montessori preschool, then moved to a nice suburban community for his entire kindergarten through high school education. I promised I wouldn't move him during high school and I didn't.

What could have been a problem--my divorce from his mother--was minimized because his mother, who is a fine person, and I agreed on many things and shared our boy without crisis or stress. With the addition of high-quality step parents, my son grew up with four parents instead of two, and I think that had a positive effect on how well he turned out.

My son stayed out of trouble in high school, then distinguished himself at a rustic University of California campus, earning not only two bachelor's degrees but finding his beautiful wife-to-be in his first year in the dorms.

After graduation, he developed his accounting chops working for a small firm, culminating in passing the CPA exams. He moved to an exciting new company this year and is on track for big success there.

Providing me with a darling granddaughter while I'm still a young guy is a great gift, too. It's part of the payoff of being a parent to have such a fine, successful, well actualized child. You hope he got at least some of the good stuff from you.

My son shares his exact birthday with a celebrity. Click HERE to see who!

Today, I'm so proud of my big guy!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Frank Sinatra - Cycles

Maybe it's the end of the year and coming of winter, but this morning, Frank Sinatra's Cycles came into my mind. The song, released at the end of 1968, has a melancholy beauty that is very different from his more uptempo hits like Witchcraft or Got the World on a String.

This is a Sinatra song from my era--not a big band number or one of the great 1950's performances. Frank and his daughter Nancy had scored a huge hit with Something Stupid the year before, showing that the great crooner had what it took to be relevant in the era of the Beatles.

Nancy will forever be remembered for These Boots are Made for Walking--the 1966 classic--but my favorites of hers are Some Velvet Morning and Summer Wine, with Lee Hazelwood.

It's December--time for melancholic, beautiful songs. And Frank's birthday (Dec. 12).