Recipe: Scott’s not-so-famous guacamole

Here’s a recipe to celebrate the Fourth of July, or… anything. I love guacamole, and several years ago I figured out how to make it. OK, I used a recipe, but my own approach has evolved over time and I’m pretty sure it’s quite different from where it started. The important thing to know, though: there are no peas in this guacamole.

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Ingredients

4 ripe avocados
4 tomatillos
3-4 green onions
1/4 to 1/2 cup fresh cilantro
2 fresh green jalapeños (or other hot peppers of your choice)
2 tbsp lime juice (fresh squeezed if possible)
salt and pepper

How do you know if an avocado is ripe? If it’s hard, it’s underripe. If it’s really squishy, it’s overripe. A perfectly ripe avocado will be slightly soft when squeezed, but still a bit firm.

Method

1. Wash everything thoroughly. I’m a freak about this. Well, OK, don’t wash the salt and pepper.

2. Peel the papery leaves off the tomatillos, and rinse well to remove any sticky film. Place the tomatillos into a small saucepan and fill with water to cover. Place on high heat. Once the water boils, reduce heat a bit and simmer 8-10 minutes. (You really just want to blanch these, not cook them.)

3. While the tomatillos are blanching, finely chop the green onions, cilantro, and jalapeños. Optionally, remove the seeds from the jalapeños if you prefer less heat. Combine the chopped onions, cilantro and jalapeños in a medium-sized bowl. Add 1 tbsp of lime juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

4. When tomatillos finish blanching, remove from heat, drain well, and cover with ice cubes. Fill with cold water and allow to cool. After a few minutes, drain the tomatillos again. Cut out the tough stem portion, pour out any water they’ve absorbed (but don’t squeeze them), and place in a blender. Puree until smooth.

5. Cut around the skin of the avocado lengthwise to separate into two sections. Remove the pit by jabbing your knife blade into it and giving a twist. Scoop the flesh of the avocados out into a large bowl (not the bowl the other ingredients are in). Add 1 tbsp of lime juice and some salt and pepper, if desired, and mash with a fork or potato masher until all lumps are removed.

6. Pour the pureed tomatillos into the avocado, and stir gently until well blended. Add in the remaining ingredients and stir to combine.

7. Chill for an hour or so if desired, or eat immediately. Eat within 24 hours, as surface may turn brown from oxidation. (If this happens, just scrape off the top layer and it will be bright green underneath!)

The Apple Watch review no one was waiting for

Now that I’ve ripped on Apple Music, let’s focus on another Apple product that I’ve recently begun interacting with. Yes, the Apple Watch.

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That’s my orangutan arm, wearing my Apple Watch. It arrived last week. (The watch, that is. I’ve been stuck with the hairy arm all my life.) But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Well over a year ago, I joined much of the tech world in engaging in speculation over what we all were, at the time, calling the “iWatch”. (Yes, I correctly deduced that my conviction that Apple wasn’t working on a watch probably meant that they were.) And then, just 8 days shy of a year later, and half a year after Apple did announce their watch, I wrote up some thoughts on who I thought might be the target market for the ludicrously expensive Apple Watch Edition. Turns out I was wrong about where the Edition would be sold (it is, in fact, available at Apple Stores), but I still think I was pretty much on track with my theories about the Edition in general.

Of course, at that point I also mentioned that I wasn’t really in the market for the Apple Watch at all. Here’s what I said:

First off, I personally am not really in the market for an Apple Watch at all. I find it interesting, but a) I don’t really want to wear something on my wrist, and b) I’m not interested in this until the second or third iteration.

It’s true, I didn’t want to wear something on my wrist. I had worn a wristwatch on a daily basis for about 20 years, starting with a supremely geeky Casio calculator watch in the mid-1980s — which would seem to suggest I would be dying for an Apple Watch — but one day in the summer of 2002 I just decided, while heading to the beach on vacation, to take off my watch. I never put it back on.

I had grown accustomed to not wearing a watch, and I liked the feeling. Especially since I had already started carrying a cell phone around in my pocket everywhere I went, it seemed superfluous to strap something on my wrist just to tell the time.

As far as my second reason for not wanting an Apple Watch goes, I was convinced at the time that the first generation Apple Watch would be half-baked upon arrival. But as the reviews started coming in, I got the feeling that while I am sure it will get better over time, it’s actually pretty good already.

As the weeks went by post-release, the voice in the back of my mind started wearing me down, and eventually one day I just became convinced that I should go for it. (OK, honestly? It was a bit of an impulse purchase. Beer may have been involved.)

So it’s decided then… but which model to buy?

There was never any question for me that I would be getting the Apple Watch Sport. Aside from the fact that it is the least expensive model, and the only differences with the more expensive options are aesthetic, I actually like the brushed aluminum look best. As I said in my earlier post, I’m not into shiny metal. And I especially hate gold. (Honestly? I associate it with Donald Trump. In a bad way, if that needs to be said.) Not only that, but I actually like the look of the fluoroelastomer bands the best.

That left me with a couple of choices to consider: whether to buy the 38mm or 42mm size, and then which color band to get. I had the impression, not having worn one, that the larger size might be too big; after all, I don’t have exceptionally large arms or hands. But I checked Apple’s sizing guide and was quickly convinced that, yes, I did need the 42mm version, even though it’s $50 more.

OK. Simple. Color? Not so much. I didn’t really consider the pink or white bands, but the blue, green and black were all in the mix. I decided that I would probably want the black one, just because I don’t exactly want to scream to the world, LOOK AT THIS APPLE WATCH ON MY WRIST! And I felt like the blue or green one would do that.

Except… the model that ships with a black band has “space gray” anodized aluminum, and I just really didn’t like how it looked. My iPhone is “space gray” but I had seen the watches in the display case at an Apple Store, and the “space gray” on the watches is much darker. The one person I know who already owned an Apple Watch also confirmed that for me. I don’t like shiny, but I do like a brushed silver look, so I ended up going with the blue band, and then buying an extra black band. (Apple conveniently offers an option for a black band with the pin in silver instead of “space gray”, perfect for my watch.)

Tick tock, tick tock…

With my selection made and my order placed, it was time for the waiting game. The two items shipped separately, and the black band was actually in stock already, so it arrived almost two weeks before the watch itself. I took the band out of the box and held it up to my wrist, envisioning the watch that it would eventually be connected to.

Apple talks about how “soft” the fluoroelastomer is, and it’s true. I had encountered this kind of rubber before so I knew what to expect, but it really is nice. Considering that you’re paying almost 50 bucks for a couple of strips of rubber with a little bit of aluminum, it should be. And it is.

I checked Apple’s website several times a day for the next week or so, eagerly awaiting the progress of my order. And once it finally did ship, I switched over to the UPS website and watched its progress from Suzhou to Shanghai to Anchorage to Lexington and finally to Minneapolis. Yes! It’s coming!

Unboxing

I was on the phone with a client when the UPS delivery guy walked into the studio carrying a curiously shaped and startlingly heavy box. “You got an Apple Watch, huh?” he said. I suspect this was not the first one he had delivered, although I have yet to see anyone in person besides myself wearing one.

I don’t get into the whole “unboxing experience” the way some people do. The main thing for me is that it’s easy to open. Blister packs are the bane of my existence. Of course this is Apple so opening the Apple Watch box was an event. But it was easy and painless. No blister packs. I felt like the shiny white plastic case it came in was a bit unnecessary, but I can see why they did it. I wonder what the boxes for the stainless steel and Edition models are like. Maybe the box is gold too?

All right, already… do you love it?

You know… yeah, I do. The Apple Watch is a marvelous object. It’s meticulously crafted. It feels like something of quality. The user interface is extremely well designed, and it is serving my main objectives for owning it (which I will outline below) quite nicely. I am very happy to own it.

This device serves a much different purpose than Apple’s other products. It’s not intended to be the next in a line of high-tech toys that we stare at incessantly for hours. Try holding your wrist up and looking at it for more than a few moments and you’ll understand why Dick Tracy isn’t real.

The Apple Watch is… a watch. It’s the watch reimagined, extended. But it still, in spirit, is a watch.

I see the watch as serving three primary roles for me. First, the traditional role of a watch: telling the time, and the day/date while we’re at it, and, being the natural successor to the digital watches of my youth, also offering an alarm, a stopwatch, and a timer. It does all of these watch-like things stunningly well, with the kind of user interface that makes you cringe to think of strapping on a Casio and trying to make sense of those four side buttons. This is Apple doing what it does best: reimagining something we all use and making it better than anyone thought possible.

Second, and really this was the motivating factor for me to get the Apple Watch: fitness tracking. I’ve been running for four years now, and it’s become a big part of my life. I’ve gotten to the point where I generally prefer not to have music while I’m running — mostly because of the annoying tug of earbud cables. I also would really like to not have to carry my iPhone in my pocket, because its weight is another annoyance. (That said, I’ve been inclined to carry my phone with me whenever I run since one time last year — one of the few times I did not have my phone along — when I witnessed a biker crash on the trail in front of me, hard enough to be bloodied and knocked unconscious. Another passerby and I managed to flag down a car whose driver had a phone with him, and we got help for the biker, but if I’d had my phone along the ambulance could have arrived much sooner.)

The Apple Watch works great as a fitness tracker. Granted, I have not used a Fitbit or any other single-function fitness tracking device, but I hate single-function devices, so I love that this capability is built into such a multipurpose object as the Apple Watch. The Apple Watch automatically calibrates using the GPS in your iPhone, so you just need to run for at least 20 minutes with the iPhone initially to let it adjust to your running style. Yesterday I ran without my phone on a route I knew from past experience is exactly 5K (3.1 miles), and the Apple Watch was nearly perfect in measuring the distance.

In addition to workouts, the Apple Watch has configurable tracking that measures your daily activity by three factors: movement (calories burned), exercise (in minutes), and standing — making sure you stand up and move around for at least one minute every hour. It was this feature, and the impact it had on Apple blogger Jim Dalrymple, that really convinced me to check out the Apple Watch in the first place.

I’m already pretty fit from the running, but Activity is still a nice way to make sure I keep moving even on my “rest” days, and especially encouraging me to stand and move around more, because when I’m working I often fall into the habit of sitting at my desk for hours at a time without getting up. (I’ve switched to a standing desk, but I still have a stool that I often rely on when I’m feeling lazy.)

The third thing I was hoping to get from the Apple Watch, and it’s even something Apple promotes about it, is that I would spend less time with my face buried in my iPhone. How does the watch help with this? By providing quick, at-a-glance notifications. The kinds of things that, with a ding and a vibration, have over the past several years been my signal to pull my iPhone from my pocket to review an incoming email… and then check Twitter… and Instagram… and Facebook… and maybe — oh, hang on. My Apple Watch just tapped me on the wrist to remind me to stand up. Have I really been sitting here writing this for so long? BRB.

Ahh… feels good to stretch the legs. Now where was I?

Oh yeah… my iPhone, that constant digital companion, is probably my favorite thing I own, and it shows. Because I spend so much time looking at it. A week into owning my Apple Watch, although I haven’t quantified it, I’m pretty sure I take my iPhone out of my pocket a lot less often now. And I feel liberated from having to answer every incoming message the instant I see it.

So, five out of five stars, then?

I do think I love the Apple Watch. It has taken its place alongside the other Apple devices I use so often. And I pretty much own them all. Mac, iPhone, iPad, I even have an iPod nano that I still use from time to time. My iPhone is definitely my favorite. I’d put the Watch between the Mac and the iPad at this point.

IMG_5164That said, I don’t think it’s absolutely perfect I do wish there were a few more options for the watch face. I’ve tried several of them, and found, in most cases, that they don’t offer as many complications as I’d like, or that the complications are too limited in what they can display. I ended up settling on the “Modular” face, mostly because it is the one that offers the highest information density, and because YES I CAN READ AN ANALOG CLOCK FACE, THANK YOU (and I can still write in cursive too, if I have to) but at a quick glance I prefer a digital display of the time.

The options for complications are a little lacking. What is it with Apple and stocks, for example? iOS and now watchOS just can’t get enough of stocks. I actually am using the Stocks glance now though, since I recently started a Roth IRA. But so far it’s just been a depressing reminder that some money that I’m not going to be able to touch for 30 years is worth a little less now than it was last week. So, who really cares?

I’m also not an astronomer, so while I think the moon phase feature is mildly interesting, it’s not something I need to be able to see at a glance. I really wish you could have the option to make some of the type smaller, since the calendar complication can barely show three words in identifying your next upcoming event.

IMG_5154So my “Modular” face is loaded up with the day/date, weather (in the largest complication to show more info), the sunrise/sunset, activity status, and alarm. I really wish I could fit in one more complication, so I could see the battery level, but in practice that has ended up not being an issue for me at all. I think on my day of heaviest use, the watch still had 15% of its charge at bedtime, and most days it’s still over 30%.

I’m encouraged by the imminent release of watchOS 2.0, and the features it promises, most notably the ability for third-party apps to run directly on the watch. I’ve already decided I do not want to play games on it (I’ve tried a few), and I also am glad there’s no web browser (let’s hope it stays that way), but I do like the potential I see in some of the third-party apps like MLB At Bat, and I’d like to see what else they might be able to do once they’re not using the watch screen as essentially a “dumb terminal” getting data fed to it from the iPhone.

Is that all?

I’ve focused here on the things about the Apple Watch that matter to me. There are several things it can do that I haven’t used (World Clock) or can’t use, at least not yet (anything that involves Apple Watch-to-Apple Watch communication). I’ve sent text messages to my family using the watch, and I’m impressed. The dictation feature shows a marked improvement over the last time I tried to use Siri for that purpose with my iPhone. Even in a noisy environment it seems to work really well.

And I finally got to use Apple Pay with the watch, since my iPhone 5s doesn’t support it directly. I paid for some groceries at Cub Foods the other day, and it was flawless… just double-tapped the bottom button, held my watch up to the reader, and felt the “tap” on my wrist. Done! Well… not quite. Unfortunately, store policy, the cashier then asked to see my ID and credit card, which I had to dig out of my pocket. That pretty much defeats the purpose, but at least I know the technology works.

I also haven’t used any of the music-related functions on the watch. I don’t listen to music from my iPhone very often these days, so having the watch as a remote control for it is unnecessary, and I don’t own Bluetooth headphones, so I can’t test its onboard music player. I swear by my cheap earbuds, so I cringe at the thought of dropping $100 on a pair of Bluetooth earbuds that probably won’t stay in my ears anyway, or might get lost. Honestly, I do not understand why Apple doesn’t allow you to play music through the watch’s built-in speaker. From what I’ve heard so far, it doesn’t sound that much worse than the iPhone’s speaker, and it would be nice to have a little bit of music along with me when I run without needing headphones. (Actually… it just occurred to me that I could try that with my iPhone, but it’s too hard to hear in my shorts pocket while running outdoors. Plus I want to stop carrying my phone when I run anyway.)

So, I’m not using the Apple Watch for everything I could use it for. But for the things I am using it for: checking the time, weather, baseball scores, and shrinkage of my pathetic retirement account; along with tracking my running and other physical activity and just generally avoiding staring at my iPhone so damn much… it’s perfect. And I even like the color.

Why I’ve made the snap judgment that Apple Music is crap

First, let’s begin with several paragraphs of me explaining, in general, why I make snap judgments

As I’ve gotten older, my life seems to be more and more about resisting complexity. I want things to be simple. Part of that comes out of the aesthetics and principles of my job. The web has a tendency towards over-complication, and it’s my job to fight that.

Also, more generally, as you get older there are more and more decisions to be made in a day. Every hour, every minute, every second, you have to make a decision about something. It’s overwhelming and drains your soul. I have to prioritize the things that matter to me, and, more and more, cast the rest aside.

When something new comes along, I have to make a snap judgment. Not necessarily a permanent judgment. That would be foolish and self-defeating. But I do need to make that initial choice: whether or not to let this new thing occupy more of my time right now. Essentially, whether or not to give it a chance.

Sometimes I revisit things I never gave a chance the first time around. On rare occasions I discover that I missed out on something good, and I welcome it in. Most of the time, though, I just confirm that I was right to dismiss it in the first place.

Enter, Apple Music

This week’s biggest choice has been whether or not to embrace Apple Music. On the surface, it sounds like a no-brainer. Apple and Music are two of the biggest parts of my life. I have gulped down my glass of Apple Kool-Aid and asked for a refill, please and thank you. I was a music major in college. I make music, I listen to music. Over a span of 30+ years I have collected and pored over and obsessively thought about music.

Come to think of it, that’s probably the problem.

Apple Music seems like it’s for people who don’t already own a lot of music. I suppose all of the streaming music services are. After all, if you owned it, why would you stream it, other than convenience? But even then, you’d probably just stream it from your iTunes or Amazon library (both of which I have done, often).

From my perspective, owning a music library of over 23,000 songs (enough to play for 75 days, 9 hours and 39 minutes straight, 24 hours a day, without repeating a track), the subscription streaming services have never had much appeal, so I’ve never even tried Spotify, Rdio, etc. But, being an Apple fan, I somehow thought their service might be different. Might be for me. But I guess not.

What would a post like this be without a bullet list?

So what is it about Apple Music that has turned me off? It’s many things, actually:

  • The initial experience of picking, by tapping on hovering bubbles, your favorite genres (from a very narrow and mainstream set), and then favorite artists (from suggestions it pulled in from the selected genres), is basically the same as it was in the old Beats Music service, which I had also already tried and abandoned within 24 hours when it first appeared. This process did quickly home in on many artists that I like, but I reloaded at least a dozen times trying to get it to refine the selections further. Even then, the best it came up with were only what I’d really call “second-tier favorites.” (Also, the UX with the bubbles sucks and needs to be fixed.)
  • Once everything was set up, the “For You” screen did offer me a lot of music I like. But, guess what. Almost all of it was music I already own. And of the 2 or 3 selections it offered that I don’t already own, I was either mildly disinterested or they were musicians I actively loathe.
  • Beats 1. What the hell is this? I mean, OK. The chance that I would actually like what they play on a single, worldwide “radio” station that Jimmy Iovine has anything to do with was already less than zero. But I have actually given it a chance 3 or 4 times, and every time I turn it on, it’s the same “underground” alternative hip hop vibe. This is music I do not dislike. I mean, I wasn’t repulsed by it. It wasn’t Celine Dion or Kenny G. But it’s just not what I’m into, and maybe I just didn’t listen long enough but there was no variety in styles. (Granted, other than the one time I listened to it in the car, I haven’t bothered to leave it on for more than one song. But the first song that’s playing when I turn it on is always in this style.)
  • The return of DRM. I can’t say it any better than this, so I won’t even try.

All of that led me to one simple conclusion, and my snap judgment. I do not want to give Apple Music any more time or attention, at least right now. I just want the same convenient access to my own extensive music library that I’ve come to appreciate with iTunes Match. So I’ve turned off auto-renew on my Apple Music subscription. I’m going to make sure I don’t cancel iTunes Match. And, just to be safe, I’m going to re-download and back up my entire library from iTunes Match just in case… you know… someday.

I love Apple’s hardware and, usually, their OS software. But cripes, they just cannot get online services right, can they?

But see, here’s the thing. Remember how I said I sometimes revisit things I hadn’t given a chance the first time around? I feel like here I am revisiting something. I’ll admit I don’t have extremely vivid or extensive memories of it, since I had only initially looked at it so briefly, but to me Apple Music feels very, very much like Beats Music was. To the point where I find it hard to believe they spent much time at all changing anything about it other than simply fusing it into the iTunes ecosystem. Oh, and adding that pointless radio station.

I may still give it another try at some point before the free trial period ends. Maybe I’ll change my mind. But I doubt it.

Follow the money

One last thought, as I try to make sense of what this is really all about. Apple is a big company, and so are the record labels they had to negotiate with to get permission to offer all of this “content.” My very brief experience listening to music through Apple Music consisted mostly (and, rather strangely, if you think about it) of listening to music that I already had in my library. But because I was listening to these songs through an Apple Music subscription instead of playing them directly from my library, Apple was making micropayments to the record labels for the streams.

So, yes, indirectly, I was paying again for music I already purchased. Just a few fractions of a cent really, but still. That’s the business model here. Especially with the concern I mentioned above (this, if you weren’t paying attention) over Apple Music replacing iTunes Match’s “matched” files with DRM-restricted ones (only if you’ve canceled iTunes Match, apparently), I am left feeling pretty cynical over this whole enterprise, and disappointed that Apple would take things in this direction.

But, then again, they bought Beats, so I shouldn’t be too surprised.

Update: HEY, WAIT! Don’t go. This is important.

I’ve discovered a small change in the new version of iTunes for the Mac (version 12.2) that has a huge impact on all of this. This is the version that introduces Apple Music and changes the icon from red to white.

The ability to tell iTunes to download multiple songs at once is gone. It used to be, if you selected multiple songs in your library — like, all of them — and right-clicked (Ctrl-click), the contextual menu had a Download option, right at the top. Click that, and it starts downloading all of the selected songs.

Um, yeah. That’s gone.

The little icon of the cloud with an arrow is still there. You can click it. You can still download songs. ONE. AT. A. TIME. Good luck with that. So, here’s the important thing: If you haven’t upgraded to iTunes 12.2 yet, DON’T. At least, download all of your music first.

Lucky for me, I have access to multiple Macs, and one of them hadn’t been updated yet. Even as I type this I have my external hard drive hooked up to it, and I’ve begun the process of downloading all 23,000+ songs. Should only take a week or so. (Thanks, CenturyLink!)

In light of the above considerations about money and playing ball with the record labels, I can only interpret the removal of this feature in one way.

Chris Squire, 1948-2015

Chris+Squire+YesChrisSquireIn the summer of 1984, I was 10 years old. I spent most of that summer the way I had spent the two previous summers: playing a lot of Atari, and watching a lot of MTV. My ultimate favorite band at the time was, without a doubt, Duran Duran, and “The Reflex” was my favorite song. (My family had just gotten a VCR, and I had a tape that was the video for “The Reflex” over and over, filling up the entire tape. I had sat for days watching MTV with the VCR paused, ready to record as soon as it came on.)

The “Fab Five” aside, I had two other favorite songs that I had seen on MTV but that were a lot harder to find, by two “new” bands I’d never heard of before. The first was “That’s All” by Genesis. The other, and my new elusive favorite that threatened to nudge out “The Reflex” — if only I’d gotten to hear it more often — was “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes. The video was surreal and the song was the most amazing thing I had ever heard.

It’s funny that, at the time, I thought Yes and Genesis were “new” bands, and “progressive rock” was a term I’d never even heard. At some point over the next couple of years I saw the Rush Grace Under Pressure concert video (on MTV or HBO; I can’t remember which), and then my mind was really blown when (again, on MTV or HBO) I saw a Genesis documentary that revealed to me how, in the 1970s, Genesis (which had existed in the ’70s!) had been fronted by Peter Gabriel (seriously?!) and they had performed insanely complex 20-minute songs with Gabriel acting out characters while wearing bizarre costumes. It was all too much for my young mind to take. But I had no idea what was just around the corner.

In 1988, when I was a freshman in high school, U2 and R.E.M. were my favorite bands. That is until one night at a sleepover when my friend Mark played me a tape of A Show of Hands, the new live album by Rush. This. Changed. Everything.

The next summer, now firmly ensconced as a hardcore Rush fan, Mark played me another tape. This time it was Classic Yes. I will admit I couldn’t get past the second track, “Wonderous Stories,” to hear the rest of the album, but it didn’t matter. “Heart of the Sunrise” was the most beautiful, bewildering, mesmerizing piece of music I had ever heard, and it immediately became my favorite song of all time.

It still is.

As amazing as I found that song to be in almost every way, the part that was most compelling to me was Chris Squire’s bass. I had already started developing a fascination with the electric bass from listening to Geddy Lee with Rush, but Chris Squire took it to a whole new level for me.

I had been playing clarinet since 5th grade, but I almost quit band before I started high school. My mom convinced me to give it one more year. That was the year that changed everything. My high school band teacher inspired me, and I became obsessed with music. That year he let me borrow a saxophone from the school (a soprano, of all things, but that’s all that was available), and I taught myself to play it so I could join the jazz band. The following year (now doubling on clarinet in concert band and tenor sax in jazz), I branched out yet again and borrowed another unused school instrument, a sickly green colored Fender Precision Bass. I didn’t have an amp, but that was no problem, because I learned to pluck the strings hard enough that I could hear it as I played along and learned the bass parts to songs like “Cygnus X-1″ by Rush and “Perpetual Change” by Yes. That hard plucking style worked perfectly for someone trying to imitate Geddy or Chris.

As high school wore on, Mark and I explored the Yes catalog about as thoroughly as our limited budgets (and the limited availability of “obscure” CDs in a town with one small Musicland outpost as its only record store) would allow. I special ordered the mysterious Tales from Topographic Oceans album and called Mark to come over for a special listening when it arrived.

He later did the same for me, when he acquired Relayer.

This was seriously weird music. And finding it on our own felt like exploring an alien world. Roger Dean’s phantasmagorical cover art only increased the sense that we were tampering with forces of nature that the straitlaced world we were growing up in didn’t want us to know about.

Then came Yesyears. A huge boxed set and documentary video that peeled back the layers of mystery and wonder shrouding the 5, 6, 7, 12 37? people who had been in this band. They became real, and messy, and mockable. The real life Spinal Tap. Mark and I still loved them; if anything we loved them even more. And we watched the video again and again, cracking jokes like our own rockumentary version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, much to the dismay and confusion of Mark’s girlfriend who was unfortunate enough to sit through one of the viewings with us.

Mark and I went to separate colleges, but we kept in touch over the nascent Internet, discovering new prog bands — and new prog fans — via the alt.music.progressive Usenet newsgroup. We even made our own music, bizarre and inept but occasionally inspired free-form improvisations, with Mark on organ and me on electric bass. We called ourselves Bassius-O-Phelius, after the instrument Rockette Morton was credited as playing on a couple of Beefheart albums.

But always I kept coming back to Yes, and to Chris Squire and his punchy, in-your-face “lead bass” playing style. Although I was a music major in college, the web hit in a big way during my years there (I graduated in 1996), so I ended up pursuing a career as a web developer. But music never left my life, and though my interest in prog rock waned, I never lost my love for Yes, even as their off-stage drama continued to become more absurd and mockable.

In 1997, while living in Southern California, I got to hear Yes live for the first time, on the Open Your Eyes tour. I saw them in Los Angeles, and was so blown away that I immediately got a ticket for their next show in San Diego and drove down there two nights later to hear them again. (Interesting side note: the audience at a rock show in San Diego is way different than in Los Angeles, something that Jon Anderson made note of from the stage. Specifically, he mentioned how… “aromatic”… shows in San Diego always were.)

I saw Yes again the next summer in Las Vegas. At least, part of the show. I was seated in the balcony for their show at the Hard Rock Hotel, with a great view for the opening act — Alan Parsons Project. But when Yes took the stage, their lighting guy came into the booth that I hadn’t noticed was right in front of me, and completely blocked my view. I stood up, which led to an argument with an usher over the fact that I was supposed to be in the SRO area (even though I had a ticket for the seat), and after bickering futilely with him for a few minutes, I ended up leaving early. Walking back in the dark from the Hard Rock Hotel (which is, emphatically, not on the Strip) to where I had parked by Caesar’s Palace was harrowing, to say the least. This was in the days before smartphones with GPS. I had relied on a tiny Las Vegas city map in my road atlas that made it look like the Hard Rock was on an adjacent road to the Strip, whereas in reality there are about two miles of desolate wasteland between them.

Around this time, in the spirit of “lovingly mocking” this lovable, mockable band, I started a website wherein I attempted to review their entire catalog, album by album, song by song, in a somewhat sardonic tone. I was surprised by how many people the humor was lost on, but it didn’t stop the band’s fan club from approaching me at the time, asking me if I would be interested in becoming the “webmaster” (as we were called back then) of the band’s official site, yesworld.com. I politely declined, in part because I felt it would only be fair to take down my own website, but more because it sounded like it was going to be a lot of work for the foreseeable future, and I would only be compensated in VIP passes and band merch. Do I regret the decision? Somewhat. But although it meant I never got to meet the band or become involved with them in an official way, it probably would have been a lot of work that I would have come to resent. C’est la vie. I eat at Chez Nous.

I saw Yes live three more times in subsequent years, after moving back to Minneapolis. A highlight was definitely getting to see them with the classic lineup including Rick Wakeman reunited, and hearing that lineup perform a song I never thought I’d hear live: “South Side of the Sky.”

But although I had endured many tribulations of the band over the years, I vowed never to see them live again after they unceremoniously kicked Jon Anderson out in the late 2000s over his respiratory health problems. Yes with a cover band impersonator of Jon Anderson singing lead vocals is not really Yes, even if the other four guys on stage are long-time (or not-so-long-time but long-ago) members of the band.

Refusing to see them live didn’t stop me from buying their new music though, and I have to say, I was actually somewhat impressed with Fly from Here, the album the band released in 2011 sans Jon Anderson. They even released a music video that seemed to be in much the same spirit as that of “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which was what drew me to the band in the first place, so many years earlier.

Unfortunately I can’t offer similar praise for last year’s Heaven and Earth, which sadly now will be the final new Yes studio album to feature Chris Squire. What can I say? It’s really, really awful. Oh wait, I already said that. But, when you’ve followed Yes for as long as I have, you realize that there’s at least as much bad as good, and being along for the ride is part of what it’s all about.

Lately my Yes fandom has taken another unexpected turn, as I’ve become most intrigued with a couple of albums that, while I have certainly listened to them plenty of times (after all, I’ve listened to everything they released up through 1999’s The Ladder plenty of times), have never been favorites that commanded a lot of my attention: 1980’s Drama and 1983’s 90125.

Yes, 90125. The album that introduced me to the band. Although I loved that one song, for whatever reason I never owned the album as a kid. And by the time I was in high school and approached the Yes catalog from the other direction, the Trevor Rabin years were to be ignored at best, ridiculed mercilessly at worst.

But life throws unexpected surprises at you. And in this case it comes in a very convoluted fashion. I have a Raspberry Pi-powered arcade cabinet at the Room 34 studio. A couple months ago, I reprogrammed it to also be a jukebox. It was originally just playing ’80s music, to go with the era of the games it runs, but eventually I loaded it up with all of the MP3s in my music library. The thing is, I don’t have many MP3s in my music library. Most of my music lives today in my iTunes Match account, so even if it originally came from a ripped CD (which I always do in MP3 format), I now only have ready access to most of those songs in Apple’s AAC format. But any albums I’ve purchased on Amazon (CD or MP3) are available to download through Amazon Music Player as MP3s. So naturally, I downloaded everything I could from my Amazon account and loaded it up on the arcade cabinet. As it happens, for Yes that means Drama and 90125, which are apparently the only studio albums by Yes that I bought on CD through Amazon.

Anyway, I’ve been hearing those two albums a lot lately.

In fact, last month I ran in a 10-mile race, and I decided to set up a playlist that just “felt right” to me that day. It was three full albums. The first was my own 5mi. (Yes, I listen to my own music a lot when I run. Don’t ask.) The second was Drama. The third was Van Halen’s 1984. The playlist was awesome, and now I have vivid memories of running along the banks of Lake Waconia in the western exurbs while listening to “Tempus Fugit.”

I was deeply saddened to learn last month that Chris Squire had leukemia, and I knew from that point that his prognosis was not good. Michael Brecker (the jazz saxophonist who inspired me to play, in much the same way as Chris Squire had with the bass) succumbed at a relatively early age from the disease, as had a coworker and friend from my time in Atlanta.

So it was with sadness, but not surprise, that I learned this morning of Chris Squire’s passing. I may have poked fun at him and the band over the years, but I loved his bass playing, and I loved their music. This digressive personal recollection of my life through his music is, in my own weird way, a tribute to Chris Squire and the music that he made, in his own weird way. It has meant more to my life than I can say. So, after all of the above, I’ll just say: thank you, Chris.

Rolling Stone obituary
Tweet by bandmate, keyboardist Geoff Downes

I found the photo of Chris in the late ’70s with his (in)famous triple-neck bass here. If anyone has a proper photo credit, please let me know.

A few thoughts on David Letterman’s final show

Last night was the end of an era, David Letterman’s final Late Show.

Late Night with David Letterman premiered on NBC when I was 9 years old. I remember quietly staying up well past my bedtime on many school nights in the 1980s to catch Letterman’s crazy antics. It turns out I had a penchant for absurdist humor of a kind that I may never have known existed until I saw David Letterman. Growing up in a rather socially conservative small town in the midwest, Letterman was one of a few key figures in opening my growing mind to the possibilities in a larger world. That sounds a bit overblown, but really, it isn’t. Letterman’s show on CBS has become such an institution over two decades — something that I’ve taken for granted, really, and not watched much in years — that it’s easy for me to forget just how huge David Letterman was to me in my formative years.

All of that came into sharp relief for me last night as I just barely managed to catch Dave’s final show. I knew he was retiring, and I had been reading enough about him lately to know that his final show was coming up sometime soon, but I didn’t know it was going to be last night until about 20 minutes before the show came on the air.

I found out about it because my college jazz band director mentioned it on Facebook.

I was lying in bed a little after 10 PM, idly checking Facebook on my iPhone, intending to set the phone down and settle into a crossword puzzle before going to sleep. Seeing that Letterman’s finale was imminent, however, I quickly changed my plans and turned on the TV. This was probably only the third time our bedroom TV has been turned on since we moved into the house last November.

There’s a lot packed into that last paragraph. The futurism of constant communication and instant access to the world of information via the ubiquitous pocket computers we call smartphones. How old I sound when I think of myself sitting in bed doing a friggin’ crossword puzzle. The shifting (and diminishing) cultural significance of broadcast television.

When Carson retired, it was a momentous event. It seems like from the ’60s to the ’80s, everyone watched — or at least had on the TV — The Tonight Show, on a nightly basis. As much as David Letterman revolutionized late night television and shepherded in a new era, he also came at a time of change he couldn’t control, and was both a victim and agent of a cultural shift that ensured his legacy would never be as great as that of his hero and mentor.

And yet, Letterman is the Carson of his generation, at least as much as anyone could have been. (Leno? Give me a break!)

Without a doubt my most vivid memory of Letterman, and honestly one of the most vivid memories of my youth, altogether, was Crispin Glover’s notorious, possibly drug-fueled, appearance in 1987 when he tried to kick Dave in the face.

I was delighted to see that moment in the rapid-fire montage of stills from 33 years of Dave’s show at the end of last night’s finale. It just wouldn’t have been complete without it.

That montage was a nearly perfect conclusion to a lifetime of late night TV. According to some reviews I’ve read this morning, it was the main portion of the show that Letterman had direct involvement in producing. And it was apparently Dave’s personal wish to have the Foo Fighters perform “Everlong” behind the slideshow, because that song touched him personally in his recovery from open heart surgery 15 years ago. (Fifteen years ago!) It occurred to me that this conclusion was almost like Dave’s life — his television life — flashing before his eyes. But not just Dave’s life, our lives, as his audience. Even though I haven’t watched his show regularly since I was in college in the mid-’90s, there were so many familiar sights in these final few moments that I realized that in a way, this was all of our lives. For 33 years millions of Americans have invited this weird guy into their homes on a nightly basis, and he has shared moments of absurd delight with all of us.

Thanks, Dave.