Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What a Difference a Lifetime Makes

Welcome to the IRS’s version of ‘Thanksgiving’
In case you didn’t know, today is April 15th — not that it makes that much difference to me. I filed my return in February and my refund is already in the bank. Not trying to gloat, just sayin.’ However to be fair, it really does matter to a lot of other folks, and not too long ago I was one myself, so I’m honestly not without my due empathy.

But anyway, this morning I was on my way out the front door, my backpack and gym bag draped over my right shoulder and my left hand on the doorknob. It was then that my left leg began to throb.

“Who the hell is calling me this early?” I thought. Y’see, my cell phone generally sleeps in most mornings and issues neither a peep nor a shudder until at least noon.

The notable exception to that rule is when Michelle calls. She leaves for work a half-hour before I do, so if there’s an accident or a cop staked out with a radar gun somewhere along the path she and I share in our morning commute, she’ll give me a hollar to let me know. She’s really good about that.

So I immediately thought that might be the case, but when I fished the cellphone out of my pocket and checked the display, I was surprised to see that the caller was someone else who hangs out on my branch of the family tree: our son Shawn.

He was calling to ask about which part of the form he received back from his tax preparer to send in along with his check, this of course being the most sacred of national holidays, Tax Deadline Day.

Last summer we told both of the kids after their respective college graduations that we would still be there to help them in certain areas, but only in a pinch. They gladly accepted being nudged out of the nest, but to be sure, this would be a new experience for them.

One of the things that they both have been taking care of on their own now for the past two years running is seeing to the filing of their own federal income tax returns. Amy has filed the 1040-EZ form online, and Shawn, due to the fact that he too has followed in his Pop’s footsteps as a self-employed individual, has been forced to go out and find someone else to do the work, what with the potential difficulties of doing a business tax return on one’s own.

So as I answered his questions I’ll have to admit to simultaneously feeling a sense of pride that my boy was getting his feet wet in the goings-on of the ‘real world,’ right alongside a slight pang of guilt for suddenly realizing that I had brought into the world yet another man who just like me is completely incapable of doing his own taxes.

But after we ended the call and I continued out the front door, the chilly April morning air collided with bright warm morning sunshine and I reflected on how much different my life is now, especially in relation to the way I myself used to face April 15th each and every year.

I smiled and thought to myself, “Wow. What a difference a few years makes.”

Still the same…but different
I suppose it wasn’t really that long ago, but it feels like a lifetime ago; and perhaps it was. Perhaps I really was a different person back in the days when I used to avoid April 15th like the plague.

I knew I couldn’t really give it the slip, but I sure gave it the ol’ college try.

Being a freelance graphic designer for fifteen years, I knew that nearly every year we would have to ante up to Uncle Sam, so every year I waited until the last minute to prepare my taxes and never sent in my return (and that all-important check) early.

In fact, I was usually one of the guys who had to scramble just to get to the post office before it closed — despite the fact that they always stay open late on Tax Deadline Day

Many times we either got our money in late or not at all, and were forced to throw ourselves at the mercy of The Service, to accept installments. What was even worse, on three occasions we had to work through the millstone-around-the-neck experience of an IRS tax lien — the last one of which we were forced to pay off to become eligible to buy our first home here in Tennessee.

And as one might guess, it was a fairly hot-button issue between Michelle and me. Enough instances had passed in which my slothfulness had indeed bitten me in ‘da tush, forcing us to pay even more in interest and penalties to the IRS.

The subject of tax season always brought with it a predictable tension. “Have you gotten started on the taxes yet?” she’d ask repeatedly. “Nope, not yet. Soon, though,” I'd respond matter-of-factly, knowing full well that I had no intention of doing anything until no sooner than April 5th — which may seem like a plenty sufficient timeframe in which to get our return in, but it’s really not.

Anyone who has ever caught the famous comedy act of the ‘long form’ (Form 1040 and its lovable sidekick, Schedule ‘C’) knows that when you own a business or even itemize personal deductions, backup is everything. The IRS has certain things that are automatic ‘red flags,’ and one of those is a deduction I took annually that opened me up for scrutiny each and every time: the ‘Home Office’ deduction.

Home office deductions have to be carefully documented. The reason they’ve fallen under so much scrutiny in recent years is because so many people have abused the privilege. Too many have counted too much of their home as ‘used’ in their home office allocation — and in turn, too high a percentage of rent/mortgage cost, utilities, etc. And going overboard with the dollar amount is a big no-no — intentional or otherwise.

Consequently now, according to my former tax professional, bad home office deductions are one of the chief reasons someone may be audited. It’s vital that if entitled, a person does it right, with proper documentation and a realistic percentage of how much of their home and its expended resources actually went into the day-to-day cost of running the business.

Do it wrong, or worse, do so with the intention of pulling a little som’som’ over on the IRS, and you can be reasonably sure you’ll become a much more popular person. However when an auditor shows up at your door, they usually aren’t wearing party hats.

And I don’t know about you, but I’ve been audited once before (not by the IRS, but by the State of California for state sales tax discrepancies) and I can assure you it is NOT something I want to experience ever again. So I made the decision a long time ago to do whatever it takes to keep my nose as clean as possible. I’ve since always erred on the side of caution, and if I didn't have a receipt for something, well too bad, Chuck, that's a deduction that simply got away.

I’ve always used CPAs to do my taxes — probably to my own detriment, financially — but it’s money well-spent, in my opinion. I’ve never been a numbers guy, and given my history, I’m scared to death of screwing it up. Therefore I’ve never done my own federal return — ever. Even now, as it’s been two years since my last freelance side job, we still use a tax preparer. Until recently I always had at least a grand or two of annual income from freelance graphics or web work. I kept doing it for as long as those usually longstanding clients continued to feed it to me.

However as the work dwindled, so did my desire to pay our CPA nearly $200 per year for working my ‘other business’ income into his tax prep for what seemed to be so little ultimate benefit derived from it.

Then Michelle discovered through the grapevine at work that there was a retired IRS agent who did taxes as a side job. The guy is GREAT! Does the whole deal for $75.00, which is about half what we used to pay the CPA. And even though I no longer deal with saving receipts and breaking down utility costs into a room-by-room usage cost, Michelle still does for her Longberger basket business. And as I’m concerned, that’s what makes his service such a bargain.

My wife’s own freelance business income doesn’t do much more than support her ‘basket habit,’ so the deduction figuring doesn't amount to much work on her part, but now it’s she who must spend time recording and figuring out all the various nuances of business expense deduction.

It’s just nice for me to be able to ask her for a change, “Hey…have you gotten started on the taxes yet?”

Gone Corporate
I really never thought I’d say it — or further, honestly even think it — but I really don’t miss freelancing. Sure, I miss having the option of occasionally playing hooky and going to the beach on a nice summer’s morning instead of working; or working all day in the same get-up I rolled out of bed in. But I don’t miss the all-nighters, and the artificial deadlines imposed by clients who thought that all you had to do was ‘press a button’ to realize fully concepted and laid-out artwork. That was especially true in the early days of web design. People had no idea what went into creating a web site and sometimes had some pretty unrealistic expectations.

However I do miss having the radio on all day long, especially back in the mid-90s, when we’d just gotten into our first house and I was really beginning to discover the richness of my favorite radio station, Lightning 100.

I also miss the feeling of satisfaction and the heady sense of power that comes with being your own boss, and relishing the fact each and every day. Those are feelings that were made even more poignant in the mid-1990s, when our finances were in shambles and my world seemed to be collapsing about my shoulders, yet somehow, with a lot of hard work we came through it all.

Yep, I miss all those things, but there are a few others I don’t miss.

I don’t really miss the isolation. Yeah I know I’ve said on more than one occasion, that I’ve honestly never ‘felt’ lonely. And while it’s true that despite being very much by nature a social person, and have always been content to be by myself if necessary, I now believe that my dearth of daily human interaction that was at least partially responsible for my perceived need to seek out someone who would fill a space that my friends couldn’t fill (because, hello, I didn’t have any), or that my wife seemingly didn’t want to fill.

I like the people I work with here at The Company. I like being with and feeling like a part of a team.

Yeah, as much as I always said I’d never ‘go corporate,’ right now, I really can’t imagine doing anything else.

Slow pay? No way!
But the one thing I by far miss the least is slaving away on a project for three weeks and then waiting another 30, 60, 90, or 120 days to get paid for it. Slow-to-deadbeat remittance is the bane of all freelancers; it’s what puts the ‘starve’ in the ‘starving artist.’

It’s the one thing that, try as you can to accept it, never ceases to get under your skin. It’s emotionally draining, and unless you are extremely disciplined as a budgeter, it can be financially devastating.

And that, finally, brings me back on point: why today is different from so many Tax Deadline Days past; why I feel so different now versus ten years ago.

I can now finally afford to pay my taxes. That was always my problem. My cash flow was just never such that I could afford to make the quarterly payments to the IRS like you’re supposed to. And if you don’t, not only are you looking at a penalty for said lack of prepayment, but much worse, you’re usually looking at a mountainous single-check payment — one I was never prepared for.

Just like any other endeavor in life, there is both cost as well as reward to the reality of being self-employed; tradeoffs. Things can truly be great, but there is no free lunch. And while I do miss the freedom I once had, I much more appreciate the security in knowing that I’m actually gonna get paid every two weeks.

Funny how a crazy little fact such as that can affect one’s outlook. It’s totally changed mine with respect to financial responsibility.

And by osmosis, hopefully, with regard to my son, Shawn, it’s now affecting his.

I’m especially proud of the way he hasn’t followed in his old man’s footsteps, although getting him to see the wisdom of doing right by Uncle Sam was something we had to work hard to illustrate.

From the time that we moved to Tennessee to start a new life, Michelle and I have been firm in our attempts to educate Shawn and Amy to not make the same mistakes that we had previously made with money. I was determined not to allow the sins of the father to be re-visited on the son and daughter.

As I’ve mentioned before, in recent years, Shawn has plied his trade as an arborist. Someday he wants to have his own company. He makes great money in his position, not only because it’s a dangerous job, being the designated treetop man in the outfit he works for, but also because he’s good at it, and is rapidly becoming an artist in his own right.

However one reason the money he makes is so outstanding is because he gets paid straight off the top (cue rimshot). Despite the fact that he’s been with the same company for over three years, he as well as everyone outside the owner is an independent contractor — or in my terms, a freelancer. The good news is, he’s not a middleman like I was in my line of work. He gets his money or the work doesn’t get done. So in that regard, he’s already on the plus side. Nevertheless there is one malady that befalls all freelancers, and it can really become a problem when tax season rolls around.

Freelancers get their full wage with no taxes withheld, because they’re contractors, not full-employees, and their employers aren’t held responsible to supply that service. From day one I explained to Shawn what that meant to him as a wage-earner. He was going to have to assume the responsibility for his own tax withholdings — and that’s a pretty tall order when you’re an early twentysomething college kid. I made him go right down to the bank and open a passbook savings account with no ATM access, just so he could bank the 20% of every paycheck he’d need to pay the government when April 15th rolled around and not be tempted to spend it by having easy access to the money.

And at first he did really well. Then a couple years ago he wrecked his car and had to buy a new one. Guess where the money had to use came from?

Oh…I dunno…maybe…the tax account?

And because he didn’t have the dough to pay his taxes when the time came, he had to file for an extension and had a ringside seat to watch just how much interest and penalty can accrue on a couple grand in six months’ time.

So he saved up and paid his taxes in August. That cured him.

Since then he still may not have quite the sense of urgency in getting his taxes ready that I’d like to see (but then, who am I to cast stones?), but he has always had the money when he needed it, and that makes me very proud indeed.

We’re trying our best to acknowledge the mistakes we made to our kids, so that they can spare themselves of the heartache and out-and-out dire consequences that poor planning and/or judgement can cause.

It’s taken a lifetime, but I think, maybe, I’m beginning to believe it myself.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Oh, I’m Feeling Much Richer, Thank You…

As real as a daydream gets…
What a perfect evening. What a perfect show. On so many levels, this was a Nashville Sunday Night at its very best — with the main emphasis on ‘Nash.’

There’s a lot of great music in this town, and as I’ve mentioned many times before, my favorite outlet for tapping into that marvelous natural resource is a wonderful music venue called 3rd and Lindsey Bar & Grill and their weekly concert series, Nashville Sunday Night.

The series itself is made possible by Nashville’s equally incredible jewel of the airwaves, shining in the midst of an otherwise mediocre radio market: a truly GREAT radio station, WRLT, Lightning 100. The venerable progressive rock station has sponsored the Sunday evening concert series since 1996, broadcasting each week live on the air as well as via the web from Lightning100.com.

I've attended more NSN shows than I could possibly count over the years and have seen some incredible national, regional and local talent.

And last Sunday night was one of the absolute best.

The opening act was the wonderfully talented Trent Dabbs, doing forty-five minutes of his exquisite amalgam of power pop and folk rock. In 2005, Dabbs spearheaded the formation of the popular and critically-acclaimed Ten out of Tenn consortium of Nashville-based singer/songwriters. A pair of compilation albums and national tours later, Dabbs’ brainchild has gone a long way toward finally dispelling the hackneyed notion that Country is the only kind of music happening in Music City. As usual, Dabbs onstage Sunday night sported his trademark black blazer, decorated on the back with the hand-painted names of each TOT artist.

However, the evening’s true highlight (and rightfully so) was the return of Leigh Nash and Sixpence None the Richer.

Sixpence None The Richer Reunited - April 2008
Sixpence Reunited
This photo, fresh from the band's new MySpace page may not have been taken last Sunday (although I’d bet it was), but Leigh wore ‘The Dress’ onstage that night. She was quite proud of it don’tcha know...

Image courtesy Matt Slocum/Sixpence None The Richer
If the name sounds familiar, it should. Sixpence’s first hit it big in 1999, with the signature hit, Kiss Me — a belatedly-released single from their 1997 self-titled album. The song made it to #1 on U.S. charts and the album went platinum, thanks also in large part to their cover of The La’s 1990 alternative pop hit, There She Goes. Not only did the latter tune receive plenty of radio airtime back in ‘99, but it also that year found its way onto in the soundtrack of the film, She's All That and later in two episodes of the TeeVee series, Dawson’s Creek. Their back-to-back hits vaulted Sixpence to the Pop stratosphere as the new millennium dawned.

And even if those two songs don’t jog your memory, chances are you’ve heard Sixpence other times on the radio, in movies or on TeeVee and perhaps didn’t even know it. Throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, SNTR became the quintessential commercial cover band, spinning soundtrack and compilation send-ups and putting their own touches on popular hits; everything from You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch (from the movie, How the Grinch Stole Christmas) to Crowded House’s Don’t Dream it’s Over, to ABBA’s Dancing Queen.

Little did I know...
Aside from being aware of them as a local band that made it big, my experiential history with Sixpence was rather shallow until just a few years ago — well after the band had faded from the top-of-mind position they occupied so consistently on the pop music scene for five or six years around the late 90s. Prior to now, unfortunately, my most direct involvement with their music had been relegated to a singular circumstance that occurred sometime between late 1993 and early ’94.

On the occasion of my picking my daughter Amy up from an after-church party one Sunday afternoon, I was waiting for her to tear herself away from the giggling little girl mayhem that still ensued throughout the house when I arrived. So I happily struck up a conversation with the Father of her friend hosting the event.

The guy turned out to be a record company executive (and may have actually been the label’s owner for all I can remember) for an indie Christian label called REX Records. We talked a little record biz shop, as I was still at the time involved — though sparingly — with record packaging design. I remember the man being personable and particularly excited about one of his new artists’ upcoming first release. He handed me a pre-release cassette with the image on the cover of these two very young, fresh-faced teenagers. They were the band’s principals: songwriter and lead guitarist, Matt Slocum and lead singer, Leigh Nash.

They didn’t exactly strike me as rock stars — and more accurately, with their somber, serious-looking pose for that first album cover, they looked more like they’d just been called into the Pastor’s office for passing notes in church.

To be honest, I remember being fairly unimpressed. And what was up with that name, anyway — Sixpence None the Richer?

Well, after nearly 15 years of wondering, I finally took the time to find out just what the significance of that unusual moniker actually was.

From the official Sixpence None the Richer website:
Time and again, from Regis to Leno, the members of Sixpence have found opportunity to speak their faith by simply answering questions about the literary reference that birthed their name. With each encounter, they patiently tell once more the story that Nash recounted in her appearance on Late Night with David Letterman in August 1999.

Although Nash has never completely overcome her youthful nervousness on stage, she bravely walked over to a chair on the “Late Show” stage following her band's performance.

After asking where the band's name came from, Letterman teasingly interrupted Nash to ask if he could stop by her hotel room after the show. Nash's blank silence stopped him cold, chastening him into an apology. With that, she proceeded to finish her story.

“It comes from a book by C. S. Lewis...called Mere Christianity,” she resumed. “A little boy asks his father if he can get a sixpence — a very small amount of English currency — to go and get a gift for his father. The father gladly accepts the gift and he's really happy with it, but he also realizes that he's not any richer for the transaction...”

“He bought his own gift,” Letterman responded. “That's right,” Nash continued. “C. S. Lewis was comparing that to his belief that God has given him, and us, the gifts that we possess, and to serve Him the way we should; we should do it humbly...realizing how we got the gifts in the first place.”

“Well, that’s beautiful,” Letterman stammered, with uncharacteristic earnestness. “If we could just keep that little sliver of enlightenment with us, things would be so much better...”

World-renowned theologian C. S. Lewis provided a fitting foundation for the impressive platform Sixpence None the Richer built to change the world. Following in Lewis' footsteps, Sixpence understood that to reach people, one must communicate in their language, and do so with honest imagination. And each, in word or song, gained the ear of their generation, conveying orthodox truths to a waiting, watching audience without ever compromising art or thought.

And here, thanks to the magic of YouTube, is the actual Late Show conversation from that ’99 appearance (sans the bio writer homogenization, yo):

At any rate, you’d have to agree, that’s a pretty heady mission — even for a Christian band — but ultimately I’d say they’ve been extremely successful in crossing over into the secular music world, yet never compromising their values.

Trouble in Paradise
But even with their considerable success, fairly soon after the turn of the millennium, the band hit a wall. On February 26, 2004, Matt Slocum announced that the group had officially disbanded.

In the wake of SNTR’s initial breakup, lead singer, Leigh Nash, left Nashville with her husband for the promise of a new solo career in Los Angeles. Apparently the changes in her life were just beginning.

Nash, whose signature ethereal voice made SNTR’s unique sound what it was, became pregnant with her first child, a son, shortly following the breakup of the band. Little Henry would serve as the inspiration for many of the songs she would subsequently pen for her first solo effort, Blue on Blue, as well as that of Nash’s own record label, dubbed, One Son Records, through which the CD was released in August of 2006.

And as much as I enjoyed Sixpence’s music, it had always been in passing. It was only at the point that Nash began releasing music on her own that my causal curiosity became somewhat of a wistful obsession.

I LOVE this woman's voice! Hers is the type of sound that literally places me in another dimension. But as is my inexplicable custom, even in her earlier days with Sixpence, I loved what I heard on the radio, but never got my ass out of the chair to go down to the record store to buy any of their CDs.

That won’t be any problem for me now. This guy’s on a mission.

It all began late in the summer of 2006, after hearing on Lightning 100 the first single from Blue on Blue, Ocean Size Love, I discovered Leigh’s MySpace page. I read a bit, listened to a few more of the samplings featured from the new album and instantly fell in love with it. And of course I subscribed to her blog!

I have since followed her career for the past two years almost exclusively in that vein.

But as with so many other friends that I’ve met and followed here in Blogland, connecting with Leigh through her blog has given me a tremendous and much rarer appreciation for the person as well as the artist.

Apparently life hasn’t exactly been all fun and games for her these past five years or so.

From within her MySpace sanctuary, Leigh has revealed the circumstances for some of the changes in her tour schedule and/or lack of activity: family difficulties, the untimely death of her Father last November, and the grand adjustment that being a Mother continues to make on her life.

Her blog posts come across as genuine and eloquent as her music, and I feel extremely privileged to catch the glimpses that she grants to us of her innermost thoughts. It truly adds a dimension of truth and clarity to the emotion she expresses in song.

In addition to her solo pop effort, Leigh had also begun to spread her wings in other musical directions. At around the same time she was working on her solo album, she was also involving herself in another more eclectic project, providing the lyrics and vocal tracks for another album of recent vintage released last year. It was a long-distance collaboration with fellow production company colleagues: Nettwerk Productions musicians, Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber of the Ambient group, Dellirium.

The album is called Fauxliage, and it’s outstanding; a project to which Leigh’s hauntingly lilting vocals are a perfect compliment to the electronic beat-melodies of Delirium’s dreamscape sound.

Having my musical tastes influenced significantly by the late 80s/early 90s New Age Music movement and my time at Mesa/Bluemoon, this was a real treat. As if Leigh’s regular solo work wasn’t awesome enough already, this one just put me over the edge.

Having somehow missed all of Nash’s local appearances (I believe there were at least two or three of them) from her solo tour during the latter part of 2006, I was now extremely anxious to hear her live, hoping desperately that another opportunity to see her locally would avail itself soon. The next time, I vowed, I would NOT miss.

Then on January 17, 2008 came Leigh’s best blog yet. She announced that she had pink eye.

Oh, oh yeah, and one other thing: they were getting the band back together!

Leigh revealed that she and SNTR collaborator, Matt Slocum, had met for coffee last November and acknowledged that they had both experienced somewhat of a void in their lives since the breakup of the band. She said they realized that “the two of us were more powerful than one of us alone...” So they decided to revisit their musical relationship and begin writing and touring on a limited basis...indefinitely!

That decision spawned their recent engagement to critical acclaim at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas in March, which gave them the juice they needed to pursue a full-fledged reunion tour.

And much to the delight of the hometown Nashville fans, they decided to kick it off with an appearance here, and at my fave venue, 3rd and Lindsley to boot!

I’ve gotta tellya, I haven't had a musical experience so totally satisfying in a very long time.

Leigh's voice has a quality that defies description. It cuts through your soul like a hot knife though butter. The travail of her recent life's travels are now apparent in her once flawless complexion, but as she sang, you could just see the healing release the music injected into her countenance.

Ohhh, and the crowd was feelin’ it too, folks. It was a packed house and the crowd was hanging on every word out of Leigh’s mouth, and taking in every tasty lick wafting from Matt’s guitar.

She seemed so content; so alive. It was awesome to experience it en masse with her and the 400 or so other SNTR fans in the room.

They played most every famous Sixpence tune (well, DUH), along with a few from Leigh’s solo album, including the incredible Ocean Size Love, which made me a very happy camper.

I was at my traditional corner-of-the-bar seat, about 12-15 feet from the stage, taking it all in. Wow. What a great show. Wait...did I say that already? Well, sorry.

Partyin’ like it was 1999
Another kind of interesting sidebar on the evening’s experience was the age demographic of the crowd. As I looked around, I didn’t see a whole lot of gray hair. The bulk of the patrons appeared to be in their mid-to-late twenties. As the bright, twentysomething gal sitting to my left confided, “This is a trip back to my high school days for me,” and I’m sure she wasn’t the only one there looking forward to the same thing, as the heyday of the band was indeed around 8-9 years ago.

Now of course I wasn't in high school in the late 90s, but I remember the music as fondly as if I was. And it's interesting to think back on it now, but the music of the 90s was so good, I really thought it would continue on that way forever. I thought the incredibly variant and eclectic variety of alternative jam and power pop would continue to evolve and dominate the music scene. And I suppose that even more I believed that access to that wonderful cornucopia of music here in Nashville would continue on as well. Unfortunately it didn't last; but that’s a story for another time.

Sunday night, however, everybody at 3rd was partyin’ like it was 1999.


Upgrade Hell

Just a quick note to cry ‘wolf’ for a second. Well, hopefully not that, but just in case something else comes up I guess my bases will be covered.

I’m pretty frustrated right now over something that, given past history, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised about in the least.

Every time I go to make any kind of significant system upgrade to my computer there are always hiccups. It’s been this way for the past several years, and is one reason I hesitate to make such changes very often. It’s not that I’m not competent to do the work, I suppose it’s more that I’m just too damn cheap.

I’ve never purchased a ready-made computer; I’ve built every one of them I’ve owned since 1989. Only my first machine, which in turn was built by my friend and former business partner, Randy, came to me ready to use. I have since, with much guidance from Randy those first few attempts, been switching out motherboards, processors and components as PC technology has increased from the days of the 486 to now.

And why do I put myself through all this instead of just going out and buying a computer from BestBuy?

As of this moment, who-the-hell-knows?

Back in the 90s, it was a no-brainer as to the logic in being a computer Build-It-Yourself’er: cash-o-lah. Computers were comparatively much more expensive back then, with the average Macintosh setting you back well over $2,000.

Quality PC Clones, powerfully equipped enough for my purposes as a graphic designer ran at least $1,200-$1,500 out of the box as well. So why wouldn’t you want to put one together yourself for half-to-three-quarters of that cost? Personally I really had no choice; that’s the primary reason I never bought a Mac; couldn't afford one and I bristled at the idea that they had to be so expensive in the first place; after all, I know what goes into the darned things.

So I built, and I continue to build almost twenty years later — but unfortunately, almost never without some sort of hang-up. Usually it’s user error, but I always seem to figure things out (usually after a call or two to my comp-guru, Randy).

But in the end, I guess it’s the satisfaction of putting it all together — something I’m not all that accustomed to doing in other areas — that has driven my ‘puter BIY’er tendencies.

Some guys are really well-disposed to do-it-yourself stuff; be it cars or home improvement. I just kinda get by on that sort of thing. Again, it’s not that I can’t do it; it’s more that the perfectionist in me won’t leave ‘good enough’ alone. It has to be done right. I don’t do half-assed, and I’m just anal enough to refuse to even try if I have any doubt that I can finish the job to my own high standards.

But building computers has always sort of been ‘my thing.’ It’s one of the few things I do well that the majority of guys I know wouldn’t even attempt. I suppose it’s my compensation for not being an (auff-auff-auff) ‘Tool-Time’ kind-o guy.

But geeze-louise, I’m a little out of practice with today’s computers! The speed of these new dual-core processors requires heat dispensation like nothing I’ve ever dealt with before. The cooler fan and heatsinks attached to them are ginormous, and more than just a little daunting when you’re installing one for the first time — knowing full well that you could easily cook your entire system in a flash if you don’t do it right.

So now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, suffice it to say that things haven’t been going smoothly in my latest venture, which began a little less than two weeks ago.

I decided to make the quantum leap from a 1.7 MHz processor to a new-ish 2.6 MHz AMD X2 Dual-Core processor. The differences between the two are like night and day, system requirement-wise. Of course I didn’t know just to what extent those differences would figure into the hassle factor related to all of this.

My goal in building systems — and another reason I’ve never been keen on buying ready-made machines — is upgradability. I always like to leave my options open to adding functionality and speed to my system incrementally if possible. That's the best way to keep costs down as well as providing the most bang for the bucks you do spend. This is why I hadn’t upgraded my motherboard since 2002 — I didn't really have to. I was able to, however, upgrade my processor three times along the way, and my RAM memory twice.

But I had pushed that mobo as far as I could. It was time to move up to the new generation of dual-core-ready interfaces for the trusty AJ-built machine. So I sunk the ungodly sum of $300 into a new, state-of-the-art Gigabyte mobo, a not-the-latest-but-still-recent AMD 64 X2 processor, and 2 Gigs of very fast DDR2 RAM. Not a bad haul for so little dough when it comes right down to it.

However, the cost I didn’t anticipate was that of my time — and sanity, not to mention the realization that this wouldn’t be just a hardware-only upgrade.

What it all boiled down to was this: I successfully negotiated that stinking massive heatsink and fan, got the mobo installed without a hitch, and then hit a brick wall when I tried to boot up WinXP on my old (but still very compatible) hard drive.

I thought it was something to do with the configuration, maybe a wrong BIOS setting, maybe the faster-than-necessary RAM I obtained strictly for its built-in upgradability when I eventually upgrade my processor to an X2+...

I went through every possible permutation, but still no love.

Then Trey, my Web-mate at work, and also the person who guided me through the minefield of choosing the components for this system upgrade (he had recently done the same upgrade on his own system at home, and ironically had been using the same processor that I had previously), told me pretty much the last thing I wanted to hear.

“Man,” he sighed, “I think it’s your Windows installation.”


He said he believed the configuration of the hardware, the drivers, settings, etc., from within Windows XP was just too different for the new hardware to accept. I know, I don’t really understand it either, but given that Trey did an almost identical upgrade on his own system, I’m inclined to go with his suggestions. Unlike me, he did a clean install of Windows when he did his upgrade, whereas I just plugged the old hard drive containing the operating system back in, expecting it to work like it always had.

So all that to say, guess what I’ve been doing every night at home this week?

Yeah. Joy. Five years-worth of programs and personal files that have to be moved from the hard drive I can’t use to a temporary place so that I can re-format the drive, then reinstall Windows, then spend the hours and hours it will take to reinstall the programs.

And to make matters worse, I’ve been covered up like mad with work here at The Company, having to bring some of it home with me as well (to be done on Michelle’s computer).

So all that to say, the reason you haven’t seen me in this space lately is because I’ve been in hell — Upgrade Hell.

I actually have a post that I’ve GOT to post tonight before the subject matter gets any colder than it already is (I wanted to post it on Monday).

Look for it this evening. And pray for my deliverance.

From Hell.