Monday, January 24, 2022

With Paradise In Sight, She Cried Out "Stop Right There!"

I remember the first time I saw him; I’d just gotten home after a date and after flipping the TV on, I settled into my dad’s recliner. As fate would have it, the TV came on just as he put the microphone to his mouth and began singing. The music had a driving rockabilly rhythm to it, but his voice didn’t touch that era at all. Unlike a lot of the rock musicians of that era, who had long hair, his hair was wild and straight and he wasn’t exactly good-looking or skinny and he held a red scarf. Ignoring all of that, his voice was exceptional. Before he sang the first two lines of the song, I knew I was listening to something totally unexpected and spectacular. 

I’ve always been about songs that tell stories, but this ballad was on a whole new level. I had seen Phantom of the Paradise, Tommy, and Jesus Christ Superstar so I knew what a rock opera was. This was a rock opera, but somehow, it’d been condensed down small enough to be a feature on whatever program was on that night. As I sat listening to him belt out the lyrics of Paradise by the Dashboard Light, the entire evening I'd lived was being played out in the song's lyrics. It was as if the songwriter had been along on my date and wrote the events as they happened so that they could be played back for me afterward. Then, just as the events were sliding into home, the lyricist took a fresh track apart from my reality as the girl demanded straight answers as to what he was promising.

As I watched this play out on the screen, my mind split the song into three separate acts as the rhythm, seriousness, mood, and story within the music changed: Part One — A passion fueled search for Paradise, and the process of finding it, complete with an instrumental that included a play-by-play by a sportscaster. Part Two-- The girl stopping it all with three words – Stop Right There! Then she demanded answers to the questions she had before letting it go any further, as he stammers, trying to figure a way out. She also demands a promise which he eventually gives. Part Three—The aftermath and he regret he had for making that promise. All of that drama and passion covered in just eight and a half minutes. Damn!

I’m not sure what program I was watching. Originally I thought it was Saturday Night Live, but I could never find a reference where a performance of that song was performed on the show until years later. The only important part that, aside from the perfromance, was the singer’s name: Meat Loaf.

Unlike today, when you can immediately online and find recordings and videos of an artist instantly, there was no such animal in the late 70s. I called the radio stations I listen to the next day, but none of them had even heard of the song. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that the song, composed by Jim Steinman, had been released almost a year earlier under a different title. Then, Meat Loaf got an album deal, and it was added to the first album of his that I ever bought: Bat Out of Hell.

Another thing that differed between that time and now was there was no way to skip easily from one song to the next, unless you were skilled at lifting and sitting down the needle on an album as it spun or willing to sit through a tape being rewound or fast forwarded. That meant I listened to every song on side to repeatedly. Another song that eventually made it big, Two out of Three Ain’t Bad, was also on that side of the album along with For Crying Out Loud. Side one had two great songs on it: Bat Out of Hell and You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night) but Paradise by the Dashboard Light was always my favorite.

Paradise has remained on my list of all-time favorite songs. A few years later, Meat Loaf surprised me by appearing In the Rocky Horror Picture Show as Eddie, he was great in for a big guy he moved gracefully.

Eventually, Meat Loaf released his second album, which included what many say is the next act of Paradise: I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That). Another tremendous song that held a dramatic story within it of heartbreak, romance, and desire. A similar theme, but more mature in its view of passion and love.

Today, Marvin Lee Aday, who I and millions knew as Meat Loaf, passed away — but his music will live forever.

Originally published 21 January 2022


Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Tiny Library -- It's a Magical Place

I am not a crafty person...

That is the opening line from my review of an item I bought on Etsy from Katrin Schilke, a vendor in Hamburg, Germany. Maybe I should back up and start at the beginning.

I fell victim to a pop-up ad that appeared on a webpage I was viewing. It was hawking an item it referred to as a book nook. The book nook in its simplest terms is a diorama, about a foot tall by three inches wide. It was geared toward Diagon Alley from Harry Potter, so it replicated the feel of the alley to include the stores on either side. It appeared to be lighted, and because of an angled mirror at the back of the note, it had the illusion of going on into infinity.

Now, when I say I had fallen victim, I meant that I actually stopped and looked at the ad and then clicked on the link. The pricing of the item was far cheaper than it should’ve been for something so intricate, so right away my scam radar went off. However, my interest did not wane, and I knew that if this scam existed the genuine item had to be out there somewhere. So, I began my search.

There are hundreds of vendors out there selling various versions of these dioramas. The themes run the gamut from Star Trek, to Lord of the Rings, to a basic wizard’s layer. However, the pricing was outrageous. The price went from under fifty dollars for the item I saw in the pop-up ad, to over three hundred. One item I looked at had two prices, one for the item arriving preassembled and the other for a kit. The kit was roughly a third less. I changed the parameters of my search, ran it again, which brought me to Katrin’s shop on Etsy.

Katrin offered basic library kit with bookcases on either side and a ladder to help a reader get the top shelves. I was instantly enthralled, and the price was reasonable for what the kit included. I ordered it. I will say that the shipping cost almost made me cancel the order. It was not excessive for items being shipped from Europe, just more than I was used to paying.

While waiting for my tiny library to arrive, I planned out where I was going to put it and how to add the functionality I wanted to the LEDs mounted inside. After selecting an appropriate eye level spot on a bookcase, I looked at the ad for the nook more closely. I realized the light switch was on the top back corner of the book nook. Because the shelf I planned to put it on had a low clearance, I would have to slide it out to turn it on and off. That was a nonstarter. 

Rather than trying to replace the battery compartment with some sort of remote control, I replaced the batteries with an electric converter and a Smart Plug. This accomplished two things: I no longer had to worry about batteries going dead or leaking inside the item and I could turn the diorama on and off using my smart home system manually or by programming.

When the box arrived, I opened it, and was amazed at how efficiently the thing was packed. Obviously, Katrin plays a lot of Tetris. I pulled all the items out and set them on the table. The first step, per the instruction sheet  (English) was to assemble the 450 individual books that came with the kit. There were three small bags of wood and squares meant to represent small medium and large sized books, and several sheets of book covers. Basically, I had to cut out each book cover and glue them to the small squares that would represent books inside the nook. This was the most time-consuming part.

I broke the task down by assembling a few at a time until they were all complete. While doing this, it occurred to me that I could include my own titles in the library. So, I made some adjustments to the cover graphics for each of my six books and substituted a few of the provided covers with them.

Once all the books were done, I stained the two bookcases and glued all the books into them. Actually, I didn’t use all the books provided, preferring a variety of shelving methods—– as in real life. 

When the bookcases were complete, I glued them into the case of the book nook and then placed the ladder. Rather than hiding the miniature versions of my books on the shelf, I stacked them up on the floor to make them more visible. I added the battery kit to the case before placing the diorama in the empty spot I made on the shelf. Now, whenever anyone enters the room, the lights of the tiny library come on for about four minutes, then turn off. I didn’t realize it until afterward that my bookcases are so full when the lights go off the tiny library almost vanishes into the books beside it.

Of course, my Etsy review was five stars. The kit was wonderful, and on the one instance I needed help from Katrin responded quickly and answered my questions thoroughly. Even if you’re not crafty, I heartily recommend building one of these. It is satisfying and you wind up with an interesting piece of art afterward.

My granddaughter is mesmerized by the little library, and immediately does to it whenever she enters the room. She has asked me what is beyond the turn at the back, since the mirror gives the illusion that the row of bookshelves goes on forever. 

What’s back there?  More books, of course, and they're all full of magic.

I wonder where I can get a kit for this?


Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Raised Mobile/Living Permanent

One of the few downsides to being a Military Brat is that you lack physical permanence. You know, everything that you own, including the house it is sitting in, is temporary or at the very least must be mobile. As I grew up, I kept the original boxes to pack them up when time came to move on to the next place. In some ways, it's a good lesson in minimalism because you evaluate everything you get through a lens of the item’s permanence in your life. Besides that, my dad never allowed us to hang more than one thing on a wall, using a single nail, which kept you from having too many things that needed to be hung. The real reason was that it prevented him from having to patch the wall or paying to have the base civil engineers repair it.

For much of my adult life, since I served in the military, I maintained this kind of mobile attitude. Even now, if you go into the storeroom, you’ll find the original boxes for many things I own, in case I have to box them up to transport them to a new place. I’m not really sure why, because even though I did extended tours in the Middle East, my home has remained the same for almost sixteen years. I think about this from time to time and have a reckoning that causes me to throw away a few boxes, but the rest remain.

This mindset of mobility probably caused me to avoid permanence in the mounting of my Lynyrd Skynyrd autographed guitar.  After bringing it home, I bought a display case, used a temporary adhesive to mount some interior lights, and taped a few additional items like the M&G passes, concert tickets, and commemorative brass plaque next to the guitar. Even my Skynyrd guitar pick collection was just woven into the strings on the guitar to keep it temporary. The guitar is mounted perfectly level inside the case to avoid drilling additional holes. The kick block for the bottom of the guitar is not secured at all, held in place by gravity. It is passable, but I was never really satisfied with this setup. 

In the intervening years, the taped items fell off. The lighting was battery-powered, which required deconstruction to put in new batteries. A special lithium battery powered the remote for the lights — so I rarely turned them on. Some picks warped from the pressure of the guitar strings. I sat the display case on a table rather than wall-mounting it, even though it is unstable because of the flip-up locks on the bottom side. 

I looked at it recently and couldn’t figure out why I didn’t fix things, even if it meant giving up the item’s mobility. So rather than just letting it go, I decided on a plan to improve the display while making it permanent.

The first step was to take out everything from inside the case. This included removing the guitar mounts—– I wanted to start with a blank field and plan out a new way of displaying the guitar.

I changed the guitar’s angle from level to a diagonal and centered the instrument horizontally. Then, I added some mounting foam to the guitar’s back, which brought the guitar’s body further out and added depth.

Initially, I had ordered two sets of lights to use in the case but only mounted one. So I placed one set of lights at the top to the far left, focusing on the autographs. Then, I put the second set on the bottom right, focusing on the items mounted in the open space under the guitar neck. The first time, both sets of lights were permanently screwed to the case.

The light sets came from sfDisplay, a great company from which I’ve purchased several mounting cases and accessories. I really like the way the lights look, and they are also thin enough to not be overly distracting. In addition, each of the four lights can be aimed individually. The only drawback is the requirement of remote control and batteries.

Each light set requires six AA batteries, in banks of three each. Quick math will tell you that means each light pair requires 4.5 volts. I was battery replacement kits, having replaced batteries in several accessories in my home. I just needed to find the right one. The Gerson 93974 - AAA Battery Replacement Power Supply is a perfect match, giving me five separate leads, with each supplying the required voltage.

NOTE: I am supplying this link to Amazon for reference. I can’t recommend buying it from any of the sources available. This was by far the most cumbersome item to get for my project. I ordered five of them through Amazon only to have each change delivery date from the one day promised to four weeks or more. Eventually, I found the item on eBay, but that source no longer has the part in stock.

With power needs handled, I needed to remove the need for the remote, as I planned to use a Smart Plug to control the lights. This required me to rewire each light set to always be on. I won’t go into detail, but it took me under ten minutes to rewire each of them, including the time necessary to remove/replace the twelve screws holding the unit together. A straightforward job.

Luckily, I had a Leviton Smart Plug on hand to provide lighting automation. I am surprised to see how its price has gone up.  

The brass plaque inside the case was deeply scratched, so a replacement was needed. The new one came from sfDisplay, who created and delivered it in under a week.

I stripped the old adhesive off the tickets and M&G badges — the warped guitar picks went into a vice to help flatten them to allow for proper mounting. One problem I ran into in doing this was the amount of dust and extraneous schmutz that seemed to multiply all over the black velour background of the case. So I tried a lint roller and, failing that, I went to my trustee Pet class Dyson stick vacuum to get rid of it. I also took the opportunity to clean both sides of the Plexiglas.

Since I was not using the flip-up locks, I removed them to no longer cause an issue with the case’s balance. Unfortunately, this left a problem with the key-lock hardware. To add sufficient height, so the key-lock was not touching the tabletop, I attached chair leg footpads on the four corners plus two in the middle. This added stability to the case and prevented the table from being scratched by the case’s hardware.

When the Gerson unit arrived, I installed and tested both light bars to ensure everything was good. Because of each connection’s six-foot cable length, I removed the unused lead to eliminate clutter. After drilling holes through the back, I passed the power lines through and then secured them with Gorilla tape.

After adjusting the lights, I brought the bottom of the guitar out to add a slight inward tilt at the top to show off the autographs better. Next, I placed the plaque, tickets, and VIP passes under the guitar’s neck and positioned the picks along the left end before vacuuming out the case and cleaning the Plexiglas once more.

After closing it up and putting it back on the table, I made several adjustments to the angle of the lights to make them more targeted and eliminate flare. Then, after plugging it into the Smart Plug, I programmed it to turn on the guitar’s lights when someone entered the room, turning off automatically nine minutes later.

Voila! My Lynyrd Skynyrd guitar is now permanently mounted, and I think it’s much more attractive than when I started.

As I stand and look at my completed project, I have to admit that after patting myself on the back; I mentally plotted out how to prepare the guitar for eventual transport. Since everything is firmly mounted, I can stuff it with bubble wrap and place a piece of cardboard over the Plexiglas to keep it from getting scratched before wrapping it in a moving blanket. Apparently, my Military Brat culture will be with me for the rest of my life.

I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.


Saturday, January 8, 2022

Being Of An Age

My brother and I were going through some stuff in a closet at my Dad's house, when he mentioned he wanted to keep one of the good wooden hangers. His wife, who entered as he said this, said flatly, "All wooden hangers are the same." Immediately, the two of us launched into a fifteen minute explanation about why all wooden hangers were not created equal.

We finished the job but as I walked away; I felt a strange urge to do anything that would make me feel young enough to not know what a good wooden hanger is.