Monday, April 25, 2005

Confessions of an iPod Roadie


Our peculiar form of iPod madness began last June in conjunction with my partner Neil’s Big Five-Oh birthday. For months, I’d been fretting over what to get him. Something special, something interactive that would involve all his friends for such a momentous occasion, but what?

I needed a happening, but I kept drawing a blank. Zip, zilch, nada. Neil had just been laid off his teaching job and he was not going gentle toward the half-century milestone. More like kicking and screaming. Fifty body blows to the psyche. The bases were loaded. No way to ease his pain as the dreaded birthdate inexorably drew nearer.

Pondering that notion, I found the answer at the bottom of a bright yellow MacWorld Expo bag, a poster. I unrolled it. I was gazing at Apple’s 20th anniversary “Think Different” commemorative poster of that amazing 1984 TV commercial of the woman runner—who so famously interrupted half-time and changed computing history as we know it.

For the 20th anniversary poster, the jogger is updated with an iPod. Very cool. Synchronicity struck with the force of a sledge hammer. Give him an iPod to ease his pain!

We decided to update Neil O’Neill (who is a musician, actor and teacher) with an iPod for his 50th birthday. He was constantly losing CDs and his CD player was acting strange. Via clandestine emails, I tapped some 50 friends to fork over some music and dough for an iPod and accessories galore.

When I had collected enough moolah to buy a plane ticket to Tahiti, I ordered an iPod, an iTunes music store gift certificate and chotchkies from Apple’s red tag store and it arrived the next day!

Now, I had a an elderly cobbled together Mac PPC 9600—someone’s obsolescent technology was my ticket to paradise (alas, no firewire; OS 8.6), so I couldn’t upload music onto the iPod even if I knew how to do it, which I didn’t.

I smuggled the iPod off with a bunch of Neil’s favorite CDs (Beatles, Van Morrison, the Corries, Bob Dylan—Neil shook Bob’s hand, and wouldn’t wash it for a week! But that’s another story). I took the iPod to a friend with an iBook to DJ it up. (Friends also gave him a favorite CD to download special songs into the iPod.)

During the party, while Neil, now officially 50 and loaded, was jamming with Mike Husser on the base guitar, I ushered everyone into the back room where they signed the 20th anniversary “Think Different” poster. It was a cool sacrilege.

Neil was pretty blown away when the iPod was presented to him hidden inside the poster—after he blew out all 50 candles that melted the frosting, singed his hair and nearly set the deck afire. We all ate cake with wax, jammed on, and a good time was had by all. A real 49er send-off. Hello 50, the last good decade to be middle-aged. Time to hit the road, Jack. Have to pack our things and go.

We took off on vacation and shared earbuds as the new iPod sweetly serenaded us with a little Ray(ban) Charles at 40,000 feet, on a series of rather hellish plane rides with far too many layovers (and 12 hours of no food) from Oakland to Florida. Most fellow travelers will whip out pictures of their kids faster than pistols at the OK Corral, so we retaliated, we drew out our iPod and fired back a tune or two.

The iPod did famously at Miami’s “unconservatory“ school of music; most folks we met had never seen an iPod in the flesh—er—chrome and Lucite. The musicians loved it. Everyone oohed and ahhed—especially over the accessories. It had a stereo adapter? a FM and a car cassette converter? a microphone? Hook it up to MIDI and digitally record with it? Use it as a jump drive? You could see their (click) wheels spinning.

The iPod was such a cross-cultural smash success, even our friends’ Cubans relatives all wanted an iPod too. No translation needed. I think I must’ve “sold” a few dozen virtual iPods while in Miami.

I didn’t know a thing about downloading music into iPods or how to use iTunes, neither did anyone else. Hot Miami nights, no AC in the practice studio, plenty mosquitoes and geckoes galore. While the musicians jammed on Calle Ocho (a kilted Neil in a Cuban guayabera playing “Those Were the Days” to a frenzied Cuban audience is another wild cojone story), While a former Californian, composer and world class pianist, Kirk Whipple, and Neil were in the studio talking shop, I was figuring out how to use iTunes, and the iPod on a borrowed iBook with OS X. Baptism by fire.

I was a classic OS 8.6 California girl mesmerized by an OS X world. Luckily, MacWorld’s Mac 911 guru, Christopher Breen, graciously came to my virtual rescue; he was my sweet email roadie guide; he told me how to upload tunes (you need to be online to get the titles? I’d typed in about 50 titles), and how to make playlists. I uploaded a little Margaritaville (Jimmy Buffet), Gypsy Kings, Celia Cruz, and Kirk Whipple & Marilyn Morales’ nocturnes, “Elemental Portraits,” (for which I’d written a suite of poems in collaboration) and we were good to go on a little road trip of our own.

After our unconservatory gigs were over, we took off for a little snorkel trip down to the Florida Keys and the Dry Tortugas—until three whopping hurricanes chased us home. We shared the iPod with musicians in Key Largo, we listened to the iPod as we drove across the Seven Mile Bridge to the old bridge at Pigeon Key—that’s Flagler’s Folly, Key West railroad bridge for the Havana-bound gamblers during the Depression. The bridge was featured in “Key Largo” with Bogie and Bacall, and again in “True Lies” with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis.

We put our lips together and blew a few sultry tunes to the iPod as we kayaked and snorkeled (it stayed on the boat, alas no wetsuit, but Chris Breen assured me even that was possible) we saw manatees in the mangroves, swam with sea turtles, and dolphins. We even took our iPod on those famous Key West sunset cruises (their music seriously sucked.)

It’s a long way to the Dry Tortugas, a civil war fortress a tiny coral atoll in the middle of the Caribbean, several hours from Cuba, Cancun or Key West by fast boat. You have to want to go there. Samuel Mudd (John Wilkes Booth’s doctor) was incarcerated there, and Ernest Hemingway was shipwrecked there after a hurricane engulfed the atoll.

When the coffee and booze ran out, Hemingway fashioned a raft and made for Key West, 70 miles back to civilization to write “For Whom the Bell Tolls” before Cuba beckoned for good.

Our boat ride back to Key West was hellish, with pitching indigo-black seas, frothed with 10-15 foot swells, lightning striking the water. The first of four storms, Hurricane Bonnie, was brewing. Oblivious to the storm, Neil was in the cabin happily iPodding it with a little Led Zepplin while I rode shotgun outside to avoid mal de mer. I was distracted by dolphins and flying fish off the bow, a wayward barracuda miscalculated a wave and nearly jumped into my arms. Finding or losing Nemo?

Everything was going swimmingly until we got home and decided to upload more songs. We were getting a little tired of what was on the iPod and wanted a sea change. Change is good. But we had very little spare change and an elder Mac, a PPC/9600/200MHz. No USB, no firewire.

So I snagged a beige G3 mini-tower off of Craigslist. Dangerous learning curves ahead. I learned to swap parts, I put in USB and firewire PCI cards, rearranged a few ATA and SCSI hard drives, haphazardly flipped SCSI ID switches until I got everything to load.

I replaced the wonky modem, loaded OS 9.2.2 so we could use iTunes and download music from the iTunes music store. (The USB card is not OS 9.2.2 friendly; it only works under OS 8.6; I’ve tried various combos of USB drivers. No luck, To use my jump drive or download pictures, I have to load OS 8.6).

I added more memory, a 500 MHz Sonnet chip to speed the Gossamer G3 up, but we still couldn’t use the danged iPod, other than as a hard drive. I was able to load an old version of iTunes under OS 9.2.2. But it didn’t recognize the iPod. We’ve got great playlists, with some PC speakers, our G3 is a really great juke box. Neil rarely uses the analog stereo or the PC anymore. Well, I gutted the PC, so he couldn't use it anyway—even if I wanted to get it up and running again.

Back to the drawing board. It turns out, this particular iPod needs OS X. Well, I found out that first generation G3s (ROM v.1) are not happy with OS X, especially with a 500 MHz Sonnet card.

(I won’t mention the Superdrive (v. 105) I installed, that needed serious convoluted software patches under OS 9.2.2 because Apple doesn’t have a DVD Player driver in classic mode (not an issue under OS X. No media/video card meant the Superdrive was merely a hood ornament/CD -R burner. DVD files show up but DVD Player won’t load. Alas, no Nemo screensaver for us. But at least we could burn CDs of our growing iTunes collection).

I loaded OS X (10.1.3) onto an auxiliary hard drive, and it worked for a while. I loaded iTunes 4.6 needed for this third generation iPod, only to find out that it in turn, needed OS 10.1.5. ARGHHHH! It actually worked for a while. The IPod showed up in iTunes! We were good to go. Not.

Meanwhile, all manner of strange things happened, mainly Siberian-sized freezes; I was eventually able to jumpstart the G3 off an OS 9 formatted hard drive after hitting every panic button I could think of, but the OS X christened hard drive became a shy truant, it quit showing up to work on the desktop altogether. So we’re back to using OS 9.2.2, and using friends’ Macs to load new music.

I am at present cobbling together yet another beige G3 (ROM v.2) with OS X (10.2.8) to tide me over the next few weeks (or months) until I cobble together a blue and white G3, or maybe even a G4 (but I can’t use my Sonnet card in a G4-and all the G4s at 300 MHz are slower than molasses: 500 MHz is bare minimum requirement). I need a Mac with SCSI PCI card slots & serial adapters so I can still use my legacy SCSI & serial stuff.

If money were no issue, horses were wishes and pigs could fly, I would’ve bought an iMac last summer, and a Mac Mini, last Fall. But hey, I wouldn’t have learned all this obsolete Mac technology. I can now rebuild damn near any PPC you put my way.

The lucky recipients of my rebuilt PPCs are the public schools where I work as an artist in residence through non-profits, Young Audiences and California Poets in the Schools. A Title 1 (poor) school, Golden Gate Academy, in the Western Edition got a carload of  my 75xx series PPCs.

I believe in the Apple credo to think differently empowers us, it changes people’s lives. It changed my life. As a practicing dyslexic, I could not use computers, it was their way or the highway. With Mac, I can problem solve in any manner of ways. If one way doesn’t work, at least I can fix it. I discovered too, along the way, that I could strip & rebuild a PC too if needs be...I ripped wires and hard drive out of our dead PC to fix up the G3—Neil was once a confirmed PC junkie but he's since seen the light.

As soon as I get a new Mac, I’m fixing up all the old G3s I have lying around (3) for Cabrillo School in Fremont. Meanwhile I’m waiting for my ship to come in, onboard is a Mac Mini and a Powerbook. And maybe an iMac with Airport Extreme while we’re at it. It looks nice coordinated with the iPod. maybe a buddy, an iPod Photo would be nice too so a California girl can dream big. Maybe take a few pictures, play a few tunes of her own.

Friday, April 1, 2005

Enough Rain

California has enough water – after years of rain, after years of drought, there's plenty more rain where that came from. Call it El Niño. Laden skies—even the Central Coast is still green, no tawny cat hills slumbering before the fire, yet. Lupines painting the hills with deft strokes. Monet, Pissarro in the rain, in muted greens, shapeshifting into dark trees, keeping the best secrets, counting their ages within each ring, diligently measuring times of rain and drought. General Sherman, a redwood dating back to the migrations that spurred the rise of the Roman Empire against the Barbarians, faithfully recorded each season—wet or dry—until some numbskull who couldn't stand the idea of something so old, cut it down with one of those big push/pull saws. They began counting the rings, never expecting to work past the birth of Christ, but count back they did. They were preoccupied with European data, the Magna Carta, the birth of Christ, Hannibal crossing the Alps, the burning of Carthage. But the trees recorded another kind of history, of weather, and drought, and rain. We are so newly come to this place, we speak of variables as if they were constants. California has enough, or not enough rain, depending on the need—but the redwood that framed this coast have measured time in eons—this last fragile ring of green we follow from the Ice Age to time-present. This time, this rain, this abundance, where everything is rainbow rainbow rainbow —to borrow a line from Elizabeth Bishop's silvered fish carrying God's flooded promise forth unto greener pastures.

Tsunami Dreams

After the first blush, dreams invade the psyche, but I can't remember them any more, or I don't want to remember them, but sometimes one slips through to haunt my waking hours and I am trapped between worlds, neither fully in either realm. It's times like this I worry about my driving, afraid of continental drift, merging into someone else as we barrel down asphalt ribbons hell-bent on destination with little thought to those dotted white lines—place holders, your space, my space. We fleetingly occupy a revolving ribbon of turf, calling it our own for a breathless second or two, before we move onto the next bit of road. Hopefully the guy next to me in the oversized truck isn't too preoccupied with his cellular dream, that he won't merge to my little red crackerjack of a car built during a time when we lived in a kinder, gentler nation, and we actually had the time to dream. In those days, I awoke each morning in a small cabin under a vast live oak tree and dutifully recorded my dreams. Some were prophetic, some were erotic, most were laden with metaphor—the stuff of poetry, and I filled journal after journal. My dream life was as active and rich as my waking hours, but I left that cabin in the meadow for Oakland's identity crisis; there is no there here, as Gertrude Stein penned, and I and discovered there was also little here for my dreams too. Just a longing for a home, for a nonexistent place, my dream cabin having grown many rooms, stairwells, balconies, porches, until it resembled the Winchester Mystery House—the old lady kept building building building to keep death at bay. I know that one all to well.