A Glimpse of Happiness

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Sometimes what you really need is to simply be among friends; to talk, laugh, and enjoy each other’s company. For in these small moments — where your troubles and worries and woes fade away, even for the briefest of breaths, the most minuscule of milliseconds — life feels worth living again.

N.

Yes, I just quoted myself. I made it up right here on the spot. You’re welcome. =P

I treat most of my journal as an open-ended letter to my dearly beloved K. I think of it as though I will someday reminisce with her in paradise over all the things that we’ve experienced while apart.

In other news, my new friends and I finally (it’d been months) had another game night! Well, we played Shanghai instead of DnD, but it was really what we all needed; and C. wasn’t finished with the DM setup anyway. The only one who’d played (Shanghai, that is) before was K., but everybody else knew general rummy rules and compared it, much like you did, to Phase 10. I brought Rubio’s fish tacos for everybody, which, since it was a Tuesday, was one helluva deal. Except W. who had to have a veggie burrito because he’s watching his weight and going to wrestler-training. Yeah, don’t ask. (Love ya buddy!) Also the huskies got along as usual, playing and exploring the new house. 

It was a wonderful night. We drank beer and played cards and laughed hysterically at all kinds of nonsense and randomness – from metal band antics to spur-of-the-moment-made-up-songs. It was just as fun as the game-nights we had with cousin J. and her gang, for those few years while she was close by. For the first time in a long time, I felt genuinely happy again.

Am I allowed to?

You’re not with us. You would have brought perfect balance to the group, with your eclectic sense of humor, your way of saying or quoting off-the-wall things, and your proclivity for fumbling words in a way that was utterly and uniquely you. God how I miss that.

I say you would balance the group out perfectly, because: A. is the accountant, math and numbers expert; C. is the creative type, musician and storyteller; K. is the former-bad-girl-turned-super-sweet-pastor’s-wife and infant nurse; W. is the semi-boisterous intellectual and history buff; I of course, the tech geek and peacemaker; and finally, there would be, should be, you: the psychologist and the empath, the one who knows best how our minds work and how our emotions ebb and flow.

The fact that we all had to get up for work the next day didn’t matter, because we realized that this kind of quality time with friends is too valuable and too infrequent to waste. I mean yes, we still dispersed by 11, but that’s not the point! =) . Also, you would have insisted we get a freakin picture, because we don’t have a single solitary one to post anywhere. But you know, sometimes, that’s the way it should be.

And now, of course, I’m alone again. Sitting to write this journal entry and wondering when or what I might have to regale you with next. Are you even listening anymore? I wish I could tell. I wish I could see you, hold you, kiss you, cry to you, wash this all away in torrents of tears and a tidal wave of lost time. Perhaps you would forgive me. Perhaps I would forgive myself. Perhaps I should try.

I love you. I loved you.

hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness -Desmond Tutu
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A Letter to My Favorite Band

And now for something completely different.

This is something of a love-letter, to the band that defined my teenage years and still, even into adulthood, continues to be on regular rotation in my playlist. A band that almost none of you have likely heard of, let alone have heard their music. They never received much radio play. Nor did they garner much media attention. Until they reunited and launched a Kickstarter campaign to tour and ultimately self-produce a brand new album, which at the time and in their particular market was nearly unheard-of.

Growing up, my exposure to music was, let’s say, sheltered.  Quite.  My parents pretty much listened to Country and Churchy music with little exception.  You’d think, having grown up in the 60s – 70s, they’d have at least a bit of disco or classic rock in their repertoire, but nope.  Randy Travis, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Reba McIntire, Shania Twain, etc.  Now, as most children of the 90s did, us kids had a boom box — a combination CD player, tape player, and AM/FM radio.  And what did we do with this?  Mix tapes, obviously!  But it was never much of a “mix”.  I’d try to ask for the “jazziest” songs from the various western albums.  My dad even branched out to Steven Curtis Chapman and some no-name Christian soft-rap-rock-worship hybrid mess.

Then some of the other kids in the youth group introduced us to DC Talk, the Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline, Skillet, and other acts of the late 90s contemporary Christian alt-rock spinoff movement.  This was where Switchfoot and P.O.D. got their start, you know; before they sold out to corporate or got caught with their pants around their ankles.  These were okay, but ultimately forgettable, like so many waves on the sand.

My friend Michael, from across the street, had an older brother, Brian.  One day when I was over, waiting for Michael to do something, Brian let me come check out his CD collection and his computer games.  I asked if he had any music recommendations, and he pulled out a few albums by this band I’d obviously never heard of called Five Iron Frenzy.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

I was in eighth grade; appropriate, since the first line of a verse in one of these songs was exactly that.  Brian loaned me their first three CDs.  I knew the parents would approve because they were a Christian band, but I’d never heard of this “ska” genre before.  Five Iron Frenzy’s album art was wonderfully done: deceptively simple hand drawings that held such deeper weight behind them.  I got them home to the boombox, and popped in the first disc.  From the blast of that distorted guitar chord, the blare of those horns, and that absolutely biting sarcasm of the intro track, ‘Old West’, I was hooked.  Between the boombox and a couple disc-mans (disc-men?), those CDs played dozens of times throughout my teens and early 20s.

In sophomore year, their next album came out, and boy was I excited.  All the Hype That Money Can Buy was the first CD I bought with my very own dough, hard-earned at the Burger King down the street.  Being a Colorado based band, they were heavily influenced by the Columbine school shooting, which shined through in the track ‘A New Hope’.  Once, in college, thinking I was being profound, I would sneak into one of those larger lecture halls and write the lyrics to its refrain on the big chalk board for the next attendees to find and ponder.  “Peace floods us, by hope we steer; our dark hearts salvaged, we live without fear.”  That line can still give me goosebumps.  Although, it’s not quite as impactful as the conclusion to The End is Near‘s ‘On Distant Shores’, which cleverly calls back to their second album’s final track, and builds to such breathtaking catharsis that I can still feel the lump in my throat every time I sing along with it. But more on that in a minute.

Later, in 2001 or early 2002, I was lucky enough to attend their concert at the Glass House in Riverside, CA.  I even made an iron-on tee with their name on it to wear to the show.  They were horribly late to start; I think we stood there almost an hour and half past the scheduled time.  But it was worth it.  Super high energy, loud, slightly mosh-y, and all my new favorite songs.  I would later come to realize that they weren’t all that spectacular as a live act — they tended to rush tempo during shows to get more songs out in a limited time, and the quality suffered a bit — but still, that was a memorable evening.

Let me take you on a little journey through the ‘FIF’ (as their fans affectionately abbreviated) albums themselves, in a small tribute to the journey of musical discovery that they sparked for me.

five iron frenzy upbeats and beatdowns album cover
The O.G.

The first album, Upbeats and Beatdowns, seethed with sardonic wit like nothing I’d ever heard before, in tracks such as ‘Old West’ and ‘Beautiful America’.  It juxtaposed nicely with the humble sincerity of ‘Where Zero Meets Fifteen’ and ‘Milestone’.  And heck if I don’t belt out those la-la-la’s from ‘Cool Enough for You’ every single time.  Sure, there were some throwaways, like ‘Combat Chuck’, and they suffered a bit from the lack of lyrical enunciation, like most third wave ska did at some point in their career, but it was pretty solid.

five iron frenzy
This one really sticks out to me.

That first album was good, but the second, Our Newest Album Ever, blew me away.  More cutting sarcasm in ‘Handbook for the Sellout’ and ‘Fist Full of Sand’, more silly antics like ‘Where is Micah?’ and ‘Oh Canada’, and more heartfelt sincerity in ‘Suckerpunch’ and ‘Second Season’.  This is where their own little inside-meme began with ‘Blue Comb 78’.  You could also see a developing theme in ‘Banner Year’, where for the second time in as many albums, they denounced the historically covered-up atrocities committed against Native Americans.  But the crown jewel has to be ‘Every New Day’, the final track, which takes upon itself the pressure of striving to be a good example of God’s love yet trying to just fit in with your peers, and builds it up only to release it again with the realization that it’s perfectly okay to not be perfect.

Most listeners, outside the die-hard fans, could be forgiven for forgetting about Quantity is Job 1.  It wasn’t really an album, technically; it was an ‘EP’, old-timey record-store lingo for ‘Extended Play’, meaning somewhere between an ‘Single’ and an full ‘LP’ album.  It mostly consisted of seven-ish tracks parodying all different musical styles with a ridiculous ‘Whose pants are these?’ mini-song.  The two shining stars here have to be ‘One Girl Army’, a sharp anti-chauvinism tune that gave their lone female member a well-deserved spotlight, and ‘All That is Good’, an encouragement to be more open-minded and think critically in the face of blind dogma.  Also, I used the innocently hopeful theme of ‘Dandelions’ as an inspiration for an English paper.

five iron frenzy all the hype album cover
So much ridiculosity ❤

Now, as I said, when their next album released, my anticipation was high.  When I brought home that maddeningly shrink-wrapped disc and its bright orange themed cover with a funny little picture of a white guy in a fro trying to dunk a basketball, I knew this was going to be good.  But I had no idea what I was in for.  It starts with some truly upbeat positivity in ‘The Greatest Story’ and ‘Solidarity’, and you can sense the Latin influence in some salsa-esque beats as their producer yips and yelps ‘Oi!’, culminating in the decidedly Hispanic-flavored ‘Hurricanes’.  We get some expected silliness, and a bit of hair-metal, in ‘Phantom Mullet’, and a self-deprecating banjo-twanged song about their home state.  Plus a batch of freshly crisp criticism of the church’s bigotry and inbuilt phobias in ‘Fahrenheit’ and ‘Four-Fifty-One’.

It wasn’t until ‘Giants’, the bleak outcry against mega-corporations’ takeover of society, that the subtly subversive hook truly sunk in for good.  I knew that I needed more.  And the title track ‘All The Hype’ surely delivered.  Followed by a seemingly random cover of ‘It’s Not Unusual’, which ends hilariously with Reese saying ‘more reverb!’ as his ears get pummeled by bad guitar outros.  Finally, we have the concluding tracks, ‘A New Hope’ and ‘World Without End’.  There is a palpable pain there from the school shooting that, in manifesting our worst fears, seems to have become an American trend.  Yet, it ultimately gives way to a heartfelt peace and love, expressed as a choral refrain with bells, for a reassuring sense that everything will eventually be alright.

The mature thing to do, I suppose… group portrait.

By this time, the band was maturing, knowing that the ska wave of the 90s was ending, so they made a small shift towards pop-punk (with horns).  If the previous album was a whimsical mish-mash of musical experimentation, this was a truly polished experience with a consistent theme and sound.  Vol. 2: Electric Boogaloo, as the name would suggest, signaled a reinvention, a sequel that would be different enough yet still true to its roots; and unlike the movie, not widely regarded as terrible.  This is the album that embossed their talents well, and established that they were not just some passing fad.  The self-deprecating humor returned in ‘Pre-Ex Girlfriend’ and ‘You Can’t Handle This’, the struggle of attempting to live a Godly life in ‘Spartan’ and ‘Eulogy’, and the inveigh upon immoral practices in the name of religion through ‘Blue Mix’ and ‘The Day We Killed’.  Much like ‘Giants’ in the previous album, ‘Vultures’, another blighting critique of excessive capitalism, tipped my fandom from a ten to an eleven.

Three years went by.  College, other musical discoveries, my palette shifting to classic rock.  Yet their special place in my heart never grew cold.  Unfortunately, through some bad combination of ignorance, busyness with college, and obsession with Warcraft 3, I completely missed the fact that they quit touring in 2003.  They released the double-disc set The End Is Here in 2004, a culmination of their last studio album and their final concert from their hometown of Denver.  I learned about it a few years later from a coworker, and while I was a little heartbroken that they were gone, I was absolutely enamored with the work itself.

Right from the start, the blast of ‘Cannonball’ kicks up your eardrums with aplomb.  ‘New Years Eve’ feels so incredibly true-to-life that I literally thought it was about me.  Of course there’s the usual fun antics with ‘At Least I’m Not Like All Those Other Old Guys’ and ‘Wizard Needs Food Badly’.  The searing criticisms, first of religious dogmatism/legalism with ‘Farewell to Arms’, then of fear-based news media in ‘Anchors Away’, still hit home more than a decade later.  And ‘Something Like Laughter’ serves up another faithful reminder that Feminism is not anti-Christian, and visa-versa.

Finally, we come to ‘On Distant Shores’.  At first, it sounds a little too upbeat to be goodbye.  But as it builds, the permeating theme of divine forgiveness in the face of failure, which ultimately defines much of their catalog, rings truer than ever before.  With such beautiful poetry, the pulsing acknowledgement that what we do with our lives is so often marred with selfish intent and shortcomings, cathartically transforms into that quintessential refrain from ‘Every New Day’, as both the listener and the band itself are invited to rest their weary heads in the solace of God’s infinite love and mercy.  In this understanding that every day we live is another gift — another opportunity to build up our fellow man and woman instead of tear them down, and to be that light, however dim or scratched or scarred, to a world that so desperately needs it.

Beautifully simple

Since then, I will admit that I originally missed out on their Kickstarter-fueled 2013 reunion and album Engine of a Million Plots.  Yet, thanks to that same coworker and fellow fan, I knew of it, and I gave it a solid listen.  So far, ‘Battle Dancing Unicorns with Glitter’ is my favorite song title of recent history, and it’s the one that’s stuck in my head at the moment.  ‘Zen and the Art of Xenophobia’ is perhaps their most biting critique of American cultural pitfalls to date, which feels hauntingly prophetic when you realize that it was written before the Trump White House.  And ‘Into Your Veins’ turns the self-parody up to eleven, as they proclaim to feed your addiction to their very words, knowing full-well that it’s a completely ludicrous notion.

Truly, Five Iron has always been ahead of their time.  And as they go about their mid-lives, hold down actual careers while balancing the occasional weekend concert or two, and reflect back on their glory days, I hope they will remember them as fondly as I do.  Because their music had soul, in a market where, ironically, that was lacking; and silliness, in a market that often took itself way too seriously.  It had an encouraging undercurrent of questioning the status-quo, which, however aged and comfortable we become with our tired traditions, is essential to an active mind and a productive person.  Above all, may they never lose sight of what made them great in the first place: love.  For each other, for God, for the youth, for people in general.  And for the sometimes thankless, seemingly futile task of trying to bring some spark of peace and hope to those around them.  Indeed, ‘It Was Beautiful.’

sunset at beach with palm trees

Memoirs: A Band Story

silver trumpet

The wifey has been obsessively binge-ing Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” recently.  It’s a fantastic show that addresses real teen issues in a respectful yet thought-provoking way.  It made me want to reminisce a bit about my own high school years, and really try to think about why and how it wasn’t all that bad.  And don’t get me wrong; I understand that my experience is probably not noteworthy, and I actually count myself fairly lucky to have had, essentially, an unremarkable four years.  It’s not that being unremarkable should be a goal, nor that I even encourage it; it’s just that, for me, it served a purpose of avoiding big drama and simply getting me where I wanted to go — even if I had no idea where that was going to be.

So I’ve put together a sample story – a “chapter”, if you will – from what I hope will eventually become a memoir of sorts, a “story of my life” to one day pass down to our kids.  If you remember high school, and especially if you were a band kid, I hope you’ll get a kick out of it.


Chapter 3 – Band

High school band, specifically marching band, was a great experience, and a suitable alternative to sports.  I was terrible at sports.  My younger brother had proven decent at baseball in little league, but none of that talent made its way to me.  (He didn’t take it any further, either, so I don’t feel bad about it.)  It worked out that, after freshman year, marching band counted as phys-ed. credit, so I never had to take another P.E. class after the first one. I did anyway, but that’s another story.

Trumpet was my instrument. Had been since 5th grade, after my father’s encouragement from having played the French horn back in his day. I’d tried French horn before, but I never quite got the hang of it. It’s a strange instrument, for a brass, in that you actually need to use your 2nd hand to hold and muffle the flared bell to produce subtle tone effects. Trumpet’s a little simpler — you just purse your lips and blow, and press a row of 3 buttons to control note progression.

I wasn’t that great at it — never made “first chair” (which means you’re the best at your particular instrument) or had any solos, but I toed the middle line satisfactorily. Having braces didn’t help; in fact, the position of the mouthpiece on the lips coincided exactly with the brace brackets. But with a combination of inner-lip calluses and sheer will, I made it work.

I always admired and envied the “rock stars” of the band, especially the trumpet players who could hit those super-high notes with such ease.  There were two guys in particular — Jared and Mark. Mark was a junior, a lanky rude-boy (fan of ska & jazz) with spiky hair and a contagiously good attitude.  Jared was a no-nonsense senior who’d seen and done it all, making a great section leader.

Editor’s note: said Wifey should skip the next paragraph.  =P

And then there was our junior leader, Nicole.  Ooh boy let me tell you.  Picture a hot summer morning out on the football field for marching practice; icy water bottles being used to cool off sun-soaked sweat-beaded skin; and a tall tan teenage Cali-girl in short shorts and a rolled up tank top, telling us young’uns what to do and where to go.  Can I get a 2-syllable ‘day-umn’?  Yes, that first year of marching band was quite the eye-popper.

In order to truly appreciate this story, you need a basic understanding of the way high school marching band works.  It’s in the fall, or first semester of school, to coincide with football.  While we support and play at some home-games, our biggest commitments were “tournaments”.  These are competitions hosted by various large high schools where they invite a number of other schools in to display their marching band’s “field show”, which is basically a series of songs played while marching into various formations that look like shapes and figures from above.  Each band is judged on both their musical and visual performance.

The color guard, a small team of girls (usually, at least in those days), performs along with the band, by waving colorful flags and banners and doing some choreographed dancing on & around the field.  Think of them like cheerleaders, but more elegant, and replace the pom-poms with twirlers and the mini-skirts with more flowy dress-like outfits (sometimes.. though here were definitely other schools who pushed the sex appeal angle much more with their own color guard).

You also have to understand that, unlike a sports team, the band didn’t have locker rooms.  So essentially, the buses were our locker rooms.  We did probably 5 to 10 events in a given season, only one of which was our own self-hosted tournament, so we were on the road a lot — at least, it seemed like a lot to me.  The bus was our changing room for putting on our uniforms, our break area for chatting and hanging out between the performances and the awards, and our celebration circle (or, in worse times, our den of commiseration).  Different types of people put up varying degrees of protest or privacy — some had to be in the very back with complete coverage and make-shift curtains made from spare shirts or towels, while others were happy to flaunt their undergarments to most of their peers, probably in an effort to tease and woo the opposite sex.  I was somewhere in the middle (as usual); I hid behind the seat-back and kept it quick & subtle, but I also tended to wear a regular tee-shirt underneath the uniform.  The aforementioned Katrina (of my previous chapter) was always around to cast a flirty glance or suggest a extra spray of her favorite cologne to make the stank more bearable.

A small side-note. Our school colors were brown and gold — the Golden Bears — but this made an absolutely horrible color scheme for uniforms. The regular ones were a brown base with gold and white trim, but they never quite got the hue far enough away from ‘shit brown’. The alternate uniforms were a little better, having a white base with gold and brown trim, but of course, they got dirty much faster, so we didn’t wear them as often as I would have liked. I do hope they’ve come to their senses and changed up the color scheme, or at least tweaked the uniforms so that they don’t remind spectators so much of human waste. Thankfully the color guard’s uniform colors were more friendly, being of a teal & fuchsia variety.

Finally, the third key concept here, is that each band is in a “class”, which is like a ranking system based somewhat on your high school’s historical performance, but mostly (read: almost entirely) on your size — the number of band members. Generally, the larger, and richer, high schools — in our area, Rancho Bernardo, Poway, Mount Carmel, and a couple others from the wealthy areas of greater San Diego — had the biggest bands and were thus in the highest class, AAA. We had historically been in AA (just below the top), and had, from what I heard in passing from the seniors, a decent ‘win’ history. Depending on the size and attendees of a given tournament, we could default down to the same class as the others involved; i.e. if nobody else was above ‘A’, we’d compete as ‘A’ too, which would be to our benefit.

Think of it like your weight classes in boxing or wrestling. Just because you’re a heavyweight doesn’t mean you’re more skilled than a featherweight, it just means you weigh more. Sure, the weight (or size) does make some difference in the competition, especially if we use the wrestling metaphor. It’s just not everything. And there can be a hidden motivation to try to “make weight”, i.e. to get into a smaller class so that you have an edge over your opponents.

This being the late 90s at a growing suburban school, our band was growing in number, but not necessarily in skill or in booster dollars. In the wrestling metaphor above, we were basically gaining flab. The class system also hadn’t been updated in a while — basically anything over 150 was AAA , but those big rich bands I mentioned before tended to be in the 300s. So unfortunately, we were basically “forced up” into the AAA class with our larger number, but we were still way outgunned and out-funded by those that had long held the candles in that high hall.

Now, having said all that, my first year in marching band was one of the most exhilarating, and it’s largely due to our first and only “sweeps” win in one of the first tournaments of the year.  A sweeps win is when your band wins the highest trophies in its class and in the tournament.  Looking back, there must have been a perfect storm of coincidences that led to it.  This was a relatively small tournament; none of those big rich bands attended, and we ended up being the largest one there.  I think it was hosted by Orange something-or-other high school.  The bus ride was a bit longer than most, maybe an hour or so.  Our uniforms were freshly pressed, having not been worn yet this season; and we’d barely finished mastering our show (the music and marching steps/positions, i.e. the choreography).

There was something in the air that night.

We arrived in the late afternoon, not too long before our turn was scheduled. We changed on the buses and lined up to take the field.  It was cool and temperate that evening, not too cold, but not warm enough to cause a sweat.  Perfect marching weather.  The emcee called out, “Tuh-MEC-you-la Valley High!”, and we took the grass.  It was well maintained for a small school; no big potholes or divots, clean and even yard-lines.  Our fearless leader, ‘H’ we called him — short for Mr. Hrbacek (her-ba-check) — took the conductor’s stand, counted it down, and the crisp snap of the snare drums meant it was on.

Our set was a big-band/swing theme, including “Moonlight Serenade” and “Sentimental Journey”.  We’d memorized pages upon pages of marching positions and music for this. Practiced dozens of hours — “sectionals” for an hour after school, those sweaty Saturday mornings, and every chance we could get at a field during class — it felt like hundreds.  Our feet were sure, our instruments were on-key and in-tempo, and we pulled it off, all the way to that final high note and conclusive closing drum beat.

The percussionists were always my favorite, even if I’d never admit it.  They were the driving beat that kept us all going, and the catching energy that fueled our desire to win.  Yeah, the brassy solos and deep booms of the tubas were great — hell, you’ve got to be a ridiculously strong dude (or dudette) to lug one of those bad boys around and march in tempo — but those drums made it all mesh together into something more than the sum of its parts.

So we left the field knowing that we’d gave it our all.  Yeah, we weren’t perfect, there were a few missteps and a few misplaced notes here and there, but we covered them up and soldiered on.  Thus, we took to the bus-changing-rooms once more, traded our uniforms for our street clothes, and gathered in the bleachers for the award announcements.

This was before the post-millennial days of “everybody’s a winner, everybody deserves a trophy”, but perhaps band culture was a bit ahead of its time, because almost everybody did get some kind of trophy.  Although that may have been due to the smaller size of this tournament, as I mentioned before.  Anyway, as with most competition awards, they worked their way up from the bottom to the top.  I wasn’t aware of this at the time, which made me quite confused as to why my elder band-mates were cheering progressively louder and louder as the announcers didn’t call our name. Obviously (now), it meant that we were toward the top.

The announcer has made his way to the final 3 awards – best musical performance, best visual performance, and the granddaddy of them all, “the tournament award”.  He calls the first.  “Best Musical Performance… Temecula Valley High!”  Loud but muffled cheers from our band as the director and seniors try to shush everybody.  “Best Visual Performance… Temecula Valley High!” Louder cheers from our mates as they struggle to contain themselves.  “And the Tournament Award goes to… Temecul–”

We erupt with elation before he can even finish the word.  Hoots and hollers, whoops and whistles.  Our director walks up to humbly accept the giant trophy, which I’m sure looked a lot bigger to us back then than it really was.  The stands empty of the competing bands as we make our way back to the buses.  The air is absolutely electric; high-fives and kudos abound, even between the flautists and the woodwinds, who are, for those of you unfamiliar with band sub-cliques, the quietest and most reserved of the bunch.  As we settle into our seats and prepare for the drive home, from a boom-box in the back of the bus come those timeless strains of Bryan May’s guitar and Freddie Mercury’s piercing vocals.  “Weeeee.. are the chaaaampions, my friennnd. Nooo time for looosers, cuz weee are the chaaampions… of the Woooooorld.”

The adults try to quiet us down, but this kind of celebration isn’t so easily subdued.  A few of the seniors try to explain that we got lucky, that we did ok but we mostly won because we outclassed the other bands.  And we knew, in the back of our minds, that it wasn’t always going to be this way; that jocks would still laugh at us and popularity queens would still snub us; that we’d be coming back on Monday to loads of schoolwork, and to the pressures and insecurities that go with high school life — particularly if you’re a band geek.

But damn if we weren’t gods in that moment.

And then, as the saying goes, it was all downhill from there.  That’s not quite fair, I suppose.  Heck, maybe I don’t give the old coot enough credit; perhaps he carefully planned this strategy of giving us an easy win to hit us with a taste of that sweet drug of victory, so that we’d stick around and keep trying harder, week after week, year after year, to replicate it.  Friggin’ brilliant, perhaps.  It never quite happened, as I said; we were hopelessly outclassed by those infamous high-society bands with their own logo-painted trailers and catered meals and mysteriously shiny pristine instruments that never seemed to fade.  Those top 3 award spots that I mentioned, well – let’s just say we got real tired of hearing the name “Rancho Bernardo”.  Over, and over, and over again.

The tournament that we hosted ourselves came towards the end of the season.  It was a nice break from the competition because, even though we had to perform – twice – we weren’t being judged.  So it gave those rock-star trumpet players time to show off their solo bits in a less subtle way.  In the first performance of the day, Jared actually popped out of line formation and did a half-kneel toward the crowd as he belted out those crisp 4 high notes – but in doing so, he flubbed just a bit, and he got crap for it later from H. and Mark.  Thus, at the night performance, he stayed in position, but absolutely nailed those notes, complete with a little trill-up and doo-wah.  There were a lot of bands here, more than almost any tournament we’d been to, it seemed.  I wondered why, but I’d come to realize later, after learning a bit of regional geography, that were we a convenient mid-way location between Orange and San Diego counties, so it made sense that those bigger schools wanted to come battle each other on the marching field without driving over 2 hours to either one’s hometown.

As the rest of the schoolyears dragged on, I would always look back fondly at that first exhilarating victory.  There was nothing quite like it.  Along with the occasional cleavage-peek on the bus, the weeks of pizza and coke on the road, and that Saturday morning navel-gazing at practice, it was enough to get me hooked for 4 solid seasons.  I even convinced my parents to buy me a Letterman’s jacket with the band letter in junior year. But the biggest adventures were yet to come.

Totaling Cars for Fun & Profit Part 2

This post originally appeared on NateTheDBA; I have moved it here because it’s off-topic for that blog, and much better suited for this one. Enjoy!

In a previous (and very long-winded) post, I talked about my experience with wrecking a couple cars.

I don’t recommend it.

But, I did promise a follow-up, in which I provide excruciating detail on how we “retain a salvage vehicle” for further use.  Or, in layman’s terms, “Dude, I wanna keep my car!“.

Let’s go to the DMV!

Said no one, ever.

A review of the steps and the corresponding DMV forms.

  1. Make sure you have your title, aka “pink slip”.
  2. Get your brake & light inspections done at a certified auto shop — use a site like brakeandlightinspectionlocation or dmv.com to find one.
  3. Wait for the insurance co. to send your copy of REG 481, “Salvage Vehicle Notice of Retention by Owner”.  They submit this to the DMV for you as well — but it helps to have a copy on-hand when you go in.
  4. Get form REG 343, “Application for Title or Registration”.  Fill out sections 1, 2, 4, and 9 (at least; others if applicable).
  5. Get form REG 488c, “Application for Salvage Certificate or Nonrepairable Vehicle Certificate”.  Fill out section 1 with your info (applicant) & your insurance co’s info.’
  6. Make the DMV appointment.  Bring all of the above.  The receptionist will be impressed that you’ve made it this far.  =)
    • Technically, the only things you actually need are the title & inspection certs.  The DMV receptionist can give you all the rest, assuming they’ve gotten the insurance notice (481) on file.  As I said, it doesn’t hurt to bring a copy.  The receptionist can also help you if you’re unsure of what sections to fill on the forms.

  7. The receptionist will give you REG 156 for your license plate exchange.  You can just fill this out while you wait for the vehicle inspection, or to be seen by the next agent.
  8. They’ll do the vehicle inspection, and the inspector will fill out REG 31.
  9. With all these papers in hand, you’re finally ready to perform the transaction!  You’ll pay the salvage title fee and the inspection fee, exchange your plates for new ones, and get a new registration card & stickers.
  10. Congratulations, you now own your P.O.S. / clunker / beater / whatever term of endearment you choose to call your beat-up-yet-still-running car!

Here are some fun sample pictures of the paperwork.

As it turned out, some of the forms that I’d filled out ahead of time were completely unnecessary, while others were redundant or replaced.  The thing that took the longest was waiting for the DMV to be notified that the vehicle was a salvage; apparently they’re a bit backlogged.

you don't say?
Shocking!

Here’s another little bit-o’-fun.  The front license plate on the Honda (remember, I said part of the process is giving the plates over to the DMV in exchange for new ones?) was a biatch to remove without proper tools.  I borrowed a standard pair of pliers from the nice young man behind the desk and struggled out there with the hex-nuts for nearly 15 minutes before he came out and said “Dude, don’t worry about it, we’ll call it destroyed”.  FYI, the proper tool is a socket set with both SAE & metric, somewhere between 3/8 inch and 11mm.  Apparently whoever installed this plate couldn’t decide between the two measurements systems so he/she used some of each.

ANYWAY.

end rant

Keeping your salvage vehicle does cost a bit, and is a small hassle.  But in the end, it can be worth the trouble, IF:

  • You are able to get it repaired for a small portion of the total-loss offer (what your insurance pays you)
  • You don’t care about how it looks (because that’s usually what makes the repair job much cheaper — not caring about the body work!)
  • You don’t ever plan on selling it again (because that’s what the DMV make sure of when they register it as a salvage)

Thanks for reading, and drive safe!

safety-first

How to Total Cars for Fun and Profit

This post originally appeared on NateTheDBA; I have moved it here because it’s off-topic for that blog, and much better suited for this one. Enjoy!

yo-dawg-i-heard-you-like-crashing

Back in December 2016, I was in an accident in my 2011 Mazda 3. Ironically, I was driving home from filling up with gas, plus I’d just had some maintenance done the month before. These things are ironic because the car was a total loss. “Totaled”, in layman’s terms. It means the damage was such that the insurance company would rather pay off the market value of the car, than pay for the repairs. Or, put another way, it means that the cost of repairs would be within nominal range of the vehicle’s value. Short version, I’m not getting the car back. Oh, and that gas fill-up and mechanic bill? Money down the drain.

dumping-money-down-the-toilet
I haz a bucket…

FYI, I was just fine – so the car and its safety-system did its job, protecting me from harm. Safety is an important part of choosing a car, kids… remember that.

safety-first

Anyway, the car gets towed off to a local yard, I have a day or so to collect my possessions from it, and then they tow it somewhere else to the “salvage yard”, where it becomes somebody else’s property and problem. Insurance sends me the check for the value of the car. I was actually worried that it wouldn’t be enough to cover the loan balance, because I was still making payments AND I’d refinanced midway thru the original loan term, lowering the interest rate and payment but also extending the term. But, thankfully, the car’s value was above the loan’s balance, so I was able to fully pay it off and still pocket some cash.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have “loss of use coverage” on the policy – meaning, no free rental car. So I pay for it, for a little while. Fortunately, around the same time, my parents were getting ready to dump their old 2000 Honda Accord for a newer one, so we started talking and they offered to us as a gift. (Did I ever mention how awesome my parents are? They are!) Excellent.

Actually, this is the same car that I used to drive around in high school, so it’s got some memories.

Including, of all things, my very first accident! You’ll see why this is ironic in a few paragraphs.

irony-alert
Someone call Ms. Morissette…

Now, this car is what we call a “beater”. It’s 17 years old, it’s been through the wringer, it’s got 190k miles on it; but hey, it’s a freakin’ Honda. It’ll last another 50k at least, if maintained properly. And it has been – faithful oil changes, scheduled maintenance and beyond. But it’s not the safest vehicle on the road; the e-brake light comes on sporadically, and the airbag warning light is always on, so we don’t actually know if the airbags (particularly the passenger side) will work. So we need to start shopping for a new vehicle, at least for the wife.

I won’t go into car-shopping here, it’s a pain the arse unless you use courtesy buying services like those offered thru your credit-union or your some kind of “club membership” or whatever. Long story short, we got a 2017 Hyundai Elantra, in black, not brand-new but used with only 3k miles on it (apparently they had buyer’s remorse).

black-hyundai-elantra
This is “Tigress”, or “Tigz” for short.

I will digress just for a second about black cars. They look pretty slick, even though they do show dirt a bit more than gray/silver (which is what the Mazda was). But you know what makes them look super-duper slick? Those “legacy” CA gold-on-black license plates. I convinced myself that I had to get those. Until I went to the DMV and found out that they’re $40 initially plus an extra $50/year on your registration fees. Jesus H… I get that they need to make money, but that’s ridiculous. Srsly. Ding the people that want those silly vanity plates, because I understand it adds a lot of processing/tracking overhead and makes the data (see? I told you I’d tie it back!) more complex. But this is the same old metal made by the same old prison inmates with a different coat of paint. Don’t pretend it actually costs anything extra for you to make them and pass them out. Anyway. Back to the story.

ca-plates-regular-vs-legacy
because it’s SOOO much harder to make black metal than white metal…

So we get the car, the wife’s driving it home. She’s heat-sensitive, and it’s been a pretty long, warm day. She ends up passing out for a second and veering off the road to the right shoulder, which is a small dirt embankment into some bushes and trees. Fortunately enough, she realizes what is happening and she’s able to bring the car to a gentle stop without actually hitting anything. So the car’s only real damage is some scrapes & bruises on the front end, a bit of scratching on the sides, and some dings to the under-carriage-panel. Now, me being the savvy consumer that I am, I’ve already added it to our insurance policy and added rental coverage. The new car goes into the shop before we’ve even had it a day, but we get a free rental while it’s there. (Ford Fusion – I like it alright, but the wife hates it; she has a bit of an anti-Ford bias.) Insurance covers about 1.5k damage for the bodywork, it gets done, we get it back in less than 2 weeks. Yay.

Alright, here’s where it gets fun interesting.

oh-it-gets-better
I don’t know why, but this is one of my favorite lines of his from this movie.

That was all back in December 2016/January 2017.

March rolls around, and I’m driving the Honda home from work. There’s a sudden pile-up of stopping cars in my lane and I can’t stop in time, so I run into the SUV in front of me. Fairly low speed, nobody panics, we pull over and start exchanging info and pictures. Now, my bumper is nearly detached, and my hood is quite scrunched in at the point of impact. This is because I hit his tow hitch, which stuck out from the rest of his rear body quite a bit. So even though he literally has a 1-inch scratch on his bumper, I’m looking at significant damage. But it seems mostly superficial, so I figure, well, I might not even need insurance, and he certainly doesn’t care enough to report it unless I do, so he leaves it up to me.

He helps me rope-up the bumper so it doesn’t fall off (he was such a nice guy, no joke!), and I start driving the rest of the way home. Quite a distance, mind you (I have a 60 mile total commute). After a little while, I start seeing smoke coming from under the hood. Fortunately it’s white, not black, so I know I’m not in terribly immediate danger. But I pull off to a gas station and take a look. Well, I can’t actually open the hood due to the scrunchy-ness, but I peer inside and see that there’s a significant bit of frame damage, and the radiator looks hurt. Sure enough, it would turn out that that was the biggest problem – the radiator (and compressor) would need to be replaced, and the frame around it needed repairing/re-welding.

old-car-on-fire
Not quite…

This is not a small job. I take it to a body shop first, but as they look inside and see what I saw, they know that it’s beyond their scope, so they send me next-door to a full-service mechanic & repair shop. Next day, he gives me the estimate: $2.7k. Now, about this time, I’m talking with the insurance reps. I know they’re going to want to total this car – it’s KBB value is literally just over $2k, and these repairs are significantly more than that. What I was trying to ask them, and never got a straight answer, was whether we could file the claim for a lower amount, by asking for the mechanical repairs only. Remember, this car is a “beater”. We don’t really care how it looks, we just need it to run. And the shop was kind enough to provide that “bare-bones” estimate as well – only about $750.

honda-wreck-damage-picture
You can see where the tow-hitch rammed thru the bumper/grill in towards the frame; the blue arrow points to the frame inside that got the brunt of it.

But then my insurance adjuster did two things that were very insightful & much appreciated.

I have to give a shout-out to Safeco here, because throughout all of this, they’ve been immensely helpful and easy to deal with. (Even though I mentioned not answering my question in the paragraph above, as you’ll see, that was really my own fault for not understanding the process, and it was a moot point anyway!) So if you’re in the market for a new insurance policy, definitely check ‘em out.

First, because this shop was not an official “authorized partner”, she couldn’t accept their estimates as gospel; but, she could offer this newer “pilot” program whereby any shop (or even the customer) could submit pictures of the vehicle and the damage, and, provided enough detail and the right angles, a 3rd party estimator could assess the damage and estimate the cost. Great!

Second, she heard me out as I explained the concern with totaling the car, and understood that I really wanted to keep the car after simply getting it mechanically sound. But, she clarified, because I had collision coverage on this car, they (the insurance company) literally “owed me” the full cost of those repairs or the vehicle value, whichever is lower. So in fact, I would be doing myself a disservice and actually losing money if I tried to simply file the claim for the lower “bare-bones” amount, just to avoid the total-loss.

Instead, she explained, what you can do is keep the vehicle, even after it’s been declared “totaled“.

There’s a process and paperwork to this, and it involves the DMV, obviously. But because the insurance policy will still pay me the value of the vehicle, I should have more than enough to get the minimum repairs done and pocket the rest. Yay!

smiley-with-money
cha-ching!

Now, the process. The CA DMV has done a fairly decent job of documenting this, but it’s still unclear (at least to me) what the order of operations is. There are 5 things you need:

  1. Salvage title (which is different than the regular title, aka pinkslip)
    • DMV form REG 343, which you fill out yourself
  2. Salvage certificate
    • REG 488c, which you also fill out yourself
  3. Owner retention of salvage vehicle
    • REG 481, which your insurance company completes & sends to the DMV
  4. Brake & light inspection (to make sure it meets road safety standards)
    • Certificates are printed & given to you by the inspecting shop
  5. Full vehicle inspection (again, safety & compliance)
    • REG 31, which is completed by DMV personnel only

Number 4 can be done by many authorized 3rd-party shops, most of which also do smog tests and such things, so they’re not hard to find. The rest are DMV forms, as noted above. (#5 can be done either by the DMV or by CHP; but, CHP has quite a narrow list of “accepted” vehicles which they’ll inspect for this purpose, and honestly their appointment “system” for trying to get them done is horrendous, so it’s easiest to let the DMV do it.) But again, what’s the order in which I should do these things? Well, let me tell you!

joker-just-let-me-finish
I’m trying!

First, you get that payout check from your insurance, and you get the repairs done. Then you take the car to a brake/light inspection place (#4 above), and get that “certificate” (much like a smog certificate, it’s an “official” record that says your vehicle passed this test). Actually, if the vehicle hasn’t been smog-checked recently, you probably need that too. Mine was just done in 2016 so it wasn’t necessary.

Ooh! Another database tie-in. Okay, we all know a car’s VIN is like the primary key of the DMV’s vehicle database, right? Plate#s you can change, but the VIN is etched in stone steel. But they’re largely sequential – so two 2000 Honda Accords are going to have mostly the same characters in their VINs, up to the last, say, 2-6 numbers (ish.. I’m nowhere near knowledgeable enough about the system, I’m just guessing based on my observation of what happened to me). So when the paperwork comes back from the insurance, it ends up with the wrong VIN, off by 3 #s at the end. But I don’t realize this until I check with the DMV as I’m filing the accident report. Also, you can use online services to look up a VIN and find the basic info about it, but again, because I had such similar VINs (my correct one, and the insurance’s one from the papers), both turned up the same descriptions, down to the body style and trim level (4 door sedan, LX, if you’re curious). The only way we actually found the mistake was that the DMV was looking up “ownership” info based on the VIN, and when the agent read me the name on file, I was like “whodat?”, since it wasn’t me or my father, and then I went back to my pinkslip and checked it there, as well as on the car’s door-panel.

The lesson here is, always double-check your VIN when filing paperwork, especially with the DMV. Moving on.

vin-number-atm-machine
STOP adding redundant words to acronym phrases!

Before you go further, you need to actually make sure that the insurance and/or the salvage yard has officially notified the DMV of the vehicle being a “total loss”. (See #3 in the list.) In my case, they hadn’t – it had only been a month (between the actual payout and the first time I went to the DMV). So I have to check again before I go back.

But, since I was there, I made the DMV agent answer all my questions and specify exactly what I needed to do to complete this process, and the order in which to do it. Which is why I’m now writing this and sharing with you!

Once that notification is done, the DMV will have record of the vehicle being a “total loss”, or “salvage”. Then you can make a new DMV appointment, go in, and get #5 and #1-2 done all at the same time, in that order. I.e., go to the “inspection” or “inspector” side first, have them do the inspection and fill out the form (REG 31). Then go to the appointment line and take all your paperwork to the agent that calls you. So that’s your “inspection-passed” form (REG 31), your salvage title form (REG 343), your salvage certificate form (REG 488c), and your brake & light certificates. If you have a copy of the insurance co’s REG 481, might as well bring that too! You also need your license plates – you have to “surrender” them, which means turn them in and get new ones (not that same day, obviously – I think they still mail them to the DMV and you have to go pick them up… but I’ll find out soon).

austin-powers-dmv-live-dangerously
Life on the edge, man!

Finally, to add a little icing on this crap-cake. I was driving the Hyundai to work, literally the next day, and I got rear-ended by another driver who wasn’t paying attention at a red-light. Again, super low speed, minor damage, but, another visit to the body shop for that poor black Elantra, and another week with a rental car. (Hyundai Santa Fe this time, which is actually quite nice, and if we need a small/mid SUV in the future, I’d definitely consider it; but due to my commute, we swapped for another Ford Fusion, this time the hybrid model, which again, I enjoyed, but the wife did not. Hey, you win some, you lose some.)

crap-cake-smiley
Frankly, 95% of Google image search results for “crap cake” were gross and offensive, but this one was almost cute.

So that’s the story of how we totaled two cars (and damaged one car twice) in less than 4 months.

And that’s the reason I’m now taking a van-pool at least 2 days a week.

I’d always been a fairly safe & cautious driver, but I’ll admit, this long commute had turned me into a bit of a road-rager. Impatient would be the polite term. After all this, I’m back to my old cautious slow & steady ways… for the most part. I still get little flashes of panic when I go by the intersection where the Mazda wreck happened, and I’m always reminding the wife to stay cool and drink her water. She’s never had that happen before, and never felt like it since, so I’m sure it was a one-time fluke, but still.. the DMV wants her to re-test to get her license back, even after her doctors cleared her to drive. That’s a whole other topic, for another time. I will note that none of these incidents were due to cell-phone use, so at least we’re not guilty of that particular vice.

keep-calm-and-drive-safely

Thanks for reading!

Now, go out there and DRIVE SAFE.