Requiem For Saturn

My Saturn ION is gone.  Its time had finally arrived.  A solid vehicle that drove over 174,000 miles (that’s like 73% of the way to the moon!), I traded it in for next to nothing.  It had been such a solid partner, I felt almost bad giving it up.  Before I get into the specifics of that, I’d like to first tell the long, meandering story of its relationship with me.


In 2005, my mom bought a silver Saturn ION.  Our family had bought nothing but Saturns for years, so getting this latest model after the previous Saturn L had run its course made sense.  2005 was the year I learned to drive, and I hated the ION.  Hated it.  It was a 5-speed manual with the twitchiest clutch.  I still remember getting whiplash as I jerked it around through the parking lot of the high school down the street, miserable.  The center-mounted console only made it weirder.

Once I got my driver’s license in 2006, it was the car I drove around most between my parents’ cars.  I eventually got used to the feel of the pedals enough that I felt comfortable on even the trickiest hills around Western New York.  Whenever I could, I would take advantage of the ION; it provided the only real freedom I had in my life up that point.  Not to mention, it pretty much enabled my first real relationship, so that was pretty cool.  The car was still mom’s though, so it stayed when I went off to college in 2007.

During my freshman year, I spent most of my leisure time in the rooms and halls of my dorm, Bray Hall.  It was one of the happiest times of my life, and it’s strange to look back on it and realize just how geographically concentrated my life was that year.  There was little I did off-campus then, because why would I want to be anywhere else?  I traveled home either by train or by virtue of my brother’s car.  I walked everywhere else.  It was nice.

As the spring semester came to a depressing close, I found a need to be more mobile, especially as the prospect of relocating all of my belongings up the hill to my fraternity house loomed.  Thankfully, my parents had a car to loan me, sort of.

At home in New York, just before being traded in (the first time), March 14, 2008

See, mom sold the ION in winter 2008 to buy a Nissan.  So by this point it was gone.  But somehow, and I really don’t know how it happened, they ended up getting it back weeks later.  They loaned it to me rent-free as a cheap way to get around upstate New York as I moved out of being a coddled freshman into the daunting reality of upperclassmanhood.  The inexpensive yet durable sedan had just over 55,000 miles on it as well as an amazing sound system, which I’ll get into later.

I took an Amtrak home at the end of April during a weekend when I probably should have been tending to other things…  I drove it back to campus a few days later, completely ignoring the fact that I didn’t have a dorm lot parking permit.  On the last day of classes, personal events compelled me to drive out to nowhere in particular, Vermont.  My first excursion was only a few hours long, yet I found my newfound freedom of movement exhilarating.

Over the next few years, the car spent most of its time either in the parking lot at the Lambda Chi Alpha house, shuttling me and/or friends to Price Chopper & intramural hockey games, or being Uber for drunk people before Uber existed.  There’s a lot to be said about driving under city lights at night to the sounds of trip-hop.

In the summer of 2008, I made my way out to Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine.  In the fall I drove through New England to check out the foliage, ascending as far as the Searsburg Wind Farm.  I did the same in 2009, going as far as Lake Winnipesauke accidentally on purpose.

Whenever I was back in Western New York for the holidays or a few days in the summer, I would always take it out to either the beach in Evans, New York, or the wind farms of Wyoming County.  Without fail, I must have made both trips every time I was between 2008 and 2011.  I’d also inevitably stop in Angola to watch trains roll down the CSX main line.

In 2009, whilst spending the summer at college, my mom and I drove down to the cruise terminal in Brooklyn to see my brother off for his studies abroad, the first of several times I’d drive the ION through New York City.

Brooklyn, New York, May 31, 2009

This was also the first time where I had to deal with something wrong with the car.  On the way back up I-87, the steering wheel shook violently every time I hit the brakes at a relatively high speed.  This necessitated a full grinding of the brake discs, which I was thankful to have paid for me.  Just a week after that I safely made it all the way to eastern Massachusetts for a Nine Inch Nails concert.  The car was like new.

Trips out to the east were my favorite.  In 2010, I dated a girl who lived in New Hampshire (and later Connecticut), so that was an easy excuse to get out there.  Several times the ION made it to the Atlantic Ocean, most memorably at Kennebunkport, Maine in 2008, and at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire in 2010.  That trip to Kennebunkport, at 70.5 W, was, I believe, the farthest east the ION has ever been.

Speaking of 2010, that was the year of my first (and only) summer internship, wherein I spent late May through early August in Poughkeepsie, New York at the local utility.  I lived with seven other people in a crowded dorm and we drove to work every day; about fifteen minutes.  Naturally, we carpooled so occasionally I would have to shuttle these folks to the office with me.  They were fine for the most part, but there were a few I really didn’t care for.  So that was fun.

During the last weeks of that internship, I went on a pair of extremely memorable quests.  For the first, I found myself zipping all the way south to Elizabeth, New Jersey to buy a bookshelf at the nearest IKEA.  This was a two-hour drive, one-way, and I did it after work, mind you.  I can still, clear as day, remember sitting on my trunk, eating a slice of IKEA pizza, staring west toward the seaport as dusk settled on the New York area.  It was magical.

The second was similar, in that on a sunny Saturday I ended up at another IKEA in the New York City area, this time in Brooklyn, to buy a desk.  Coincidentally, the very same desk I’m typing this out at.  From there, I headed through tunnels and across bridges to a college friend’s 21st birthday party in central New Jersey.  That was an… interesting experience.

Issues with the Saturn had become more frequent during the middle of my college career.  At one point, the engine would not start due to a randomly missing engine component.  Another time saw the driver’s side of the interior flooded in heavy rain due to a clog in the sunroof’s drainage duct.  The ceiling fabric was never quite the same after that.  Indeed, neither was the electrical system.  Since the water got into the chassis, at random times my interior lights would pop on, the doors would twitch between locked and unlocked at full highway speed, and the alarm would go off without provocation, sensing an open door when there was none.  This issue persisted for nearly a year, on and off depending on the weather.  Only months of dry California air seemed to fix the problem once and for all.

In the fall of 2010, the Saturn ION made its final trip to New Hampshire, where I took it to one last time to Lake Winnipesauke.

Lake Winnipesauke, New Hampshire, October 10, 2010

2011 saw the end of my time in college.  As it came to a close, I had my first real in-person job interview in Holyoke, Massachusetts on a rainy morning in March.  Getting there was the most stressful drive I’d ever done to that point.

After graduation, I reluctantly packed my most valuable items into the ION and went home to Buffalo.  I actually don’t remember if I made the trip in that car, since the majority of my stuff was in a U-Haul and the ION most certainly was not capable of pulling one… yet.  (Or was it?  I don’t remember)

I didn’t do much that summer at home, except those inevitable things I mentioned before.


Except, oh yeah, I got a job in California and moved out west in August.  We had a trailer hitch put on the ION and rented a U-Haul trailer.  I don’t need to tell this story again; it’s been documented at lengthCheck it out if you want.

Moving to California from New York, August 3, 2011

I’m still amazed the little silver wonder was able to brave the hills of South Dakota, the mountains of Wyoming and California, and the over 3100 miles of road across the country.  In the following years, I would push the ION farther than I ever imagined it would be able to go, but we’re not quite there yet.

Registered in California, August 17, 2011

For the first two years of my life in California, I’d have only a fifteen minute, ten mile commute to work.  My office was a dusty shithole, and the silver on the ION gradually became coated in a brown dust.  I never thought to wash the poor thing; I really didn’t care all that much about it as long as it got me from A to B.

I went to a smattering of nearby locations over that time from late 2011 to the middle of 2013.  A few hockey games in San Jose and Stockton.  A concert in Sacramento, as well as an eclipse out there.  One trip down the coast to Big Sur and Monterey.  Weekend soccer games in Livermore.  San Francisco was the only real “distant” place I’d gone to with some regularity.  Driving a stick shift in San Francisco is an experience, let me tell you.  I have a distinct memory of sitting at a stop light on 17th Street above the Castro on my way to Twin Peaks, struggling to find the balance needed to push forward while not crashing into the car behind me.  It worked out, eventually.  The city and surrounding areas were no sweat. I’d find myself driving to Hawk Hill nearly once a month for no reason in particular.  The crests and valleys of San Francisco on the way were only part of the fun.

Set up for the Annular Solar Eclipse, Marysville, California May 20, 2012

At the end of 2012, I had to get from Tracy to San Mateo for the FE Exam.  Since I was over an hour away, I had to leave the night before and stay at a hotel.  For whatever reason, that trip, even though it was a full night before the exam, was absolutely the most stressed out I’ve ever been in that car.  I was freaking out during the relatively harmless ride through Dublin and Hayward.  I get it, because that exam sucked, but I’ve never felt like that since.

Once I lost my job at the end of June 2013, things went a little nuts.  I took a long trip up to Vancouver and back in this bucket of bolts.  Not having employment, I decided to sleep in my car most of the time to save cash.  I’ve already written a one, two, three, four, five part series about the adventure so I’ll spare you the details once again.  Still, I’m amazed the ION made it there and back without any issues whatsoever.  Given the remoteness of some of the route, it’s almost a miracle nothing happened.  This was also the only time I recall driving across the border.  It had probably made the journey to Southern Ontario at least a few times between 2005 and 2008, but I don’t remember.

Overlooking Mt. Adams at Smith Creek Viewpoint, Washington, July 25, 2013

That Cascadia trip was hindsight perfection.  Northern Vancouver, at 49.36 N, was the northernmost point the ION had ever been.

During the summer and fall of 2013, being unemployed, I spent three days a week at the local hockey rink, with my gear stinking up the trunk and my stick tape irreversibly scuffing the upholstery.  Sometimes I miss those days…

Just a few months after the quest to Cascadia, I took to the road again, this time to the south, to Los Angeles and beyond.  Like the other trip, this is well documented in a one, two, three, four part series.  Fun fact, I-5 at the Camp Pendleton Gate in Oceanside, California, at 33.21 N, is the farthest south the ION had ever gone.  However, unlike the Cascadia trip, this one almost killed the ION.  Read about it in part three.  Poor thing.

At the Hollywood Sign, Los Angeles, California, November 11, 2013

I got it fixed immediately; it wasn’t as serious as it sounded.  Still, after this moment, I’d felt like the car was a little bit of a time bomb.  Thankfully, it was more than willing to get me over to Belmont, California a week later for the job interview that landed me my next employment.

Since that situation wasn’t wrapped up until February 2014, I took a meditating drive through the night along the northern coast.  That ride was a treasure.  Incidentally, Gualala, California, at 123.53 W, is the most westerly the ION had been.  This concludes the geographic extremes of the Saturn ION.

The ION drove exclusively within this box

The next year was spent going back and forth from Pleasanton to Belmont.  That commute was long and got rough real quick.  I was spending more time in my car than ever before, and it was draining my life force.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t yet afford to replace it.

Side note: the CD player of the ION had multi-disc & mp3 CD capability, so long, assorted mix CDs were how I entertained myself while driving for years and years.  The sound quality was great.  However, the 2005 model fell into an awkward era where manufacturers had moved beyond cassette players, but hadn’t integrated AUX (and later, Bluetooth) connectivity.  At the beginning of 2014, as I rapidly became obsessed with the world of podcasting, I bought a cheap FM transmitter to connect my phone to.  It did its job nicely for a few years, and I ended up getting a better model with Bluetooth compatibility in early 2017.  It made things a little easier, but it was still FM radio, in the end.  Eventually I really started to feel the need for a direct connection between phone and car.

Getting back to 2014, with my new commute putting at least 300 miles on the car per week, issues really started piling up.  The brakes were completely gone by the first few months of that year.  The cooling system later stopped working suddenly.  Random creaks started to get worse.  Pushing down on the driver’s side of the trunk caused an awful racket.

Regulus Solar Project, Bakersfield, California, September 5, 2014

In 2015, I finally moved to San Francisco.  Being in the city, I used my car almost solely for commuting.  Public transit and a lack of parking completely dissuaded me from even attempting to drive myself anywhere.  I traveled quite a bit that year, but mostly by plane to places like Utah, Yellowstone, DC, South Africa, and Peru.  So, I guess, the ION spent a lot of time in airport parking lots…

At the beginning of 2016, shortly after I returned from Peru, the ION’s fuel line spontaneously sprung a leak.  I noticed that I needed two attempts to start the car, followed by the smell of gas in the cabin.  One afternoon in the parking lot, I started the car only to watch gasoline cascade down onto the pavement, while a coworker observed.  This was a problem with an unavoidable and costly fix.  I had started truly thinking about getting a new car at this time, but I still couldn’t justify the cost on a monthly basis.

Indeed, once the job in Belmont died out, I barely even touched the ION for days on end.

On San Francisco streets, February 23, 2016

At the end of that year, I bought a bike.  The ION would carry me down the hill to the Great Highway, where I learned to ride it.  I couldn’t have gotten there any other way.  On the other hand, now that I could ride around on two wheels, I didn’t drive the ION to Hawk Hill anymore.  I didn’t take it to Fort Point or Twin Peaks.  Its use for San Francisco-related scenic tasks fell completely out of favor.

It wasn’t until I got another job in 2017 that it really became useful again.  Driving to and from Walnut Creek every day, between sixty and seventy miles depending on route, made its use absolutely necessary.  It also accelerated its rapid decline.

That spring, I had the tires replaced.  Winter rains made driving terrifying.  As summer came, I started planning a trip to Oregon for the eclipse in August.  There were a few things I needed to fix in the ION to make it suitable, including fixing the window controls, clearing the check engine light, and getting a smog test for registration.  The door panel was an easy fix, even though I had diagnosed its issue incorrectly.  The check engine light required an emission system fix, similar to the gas line.  That was long and expensive.  Also, I replaced my bumper grille which had fallen out on the freeway after being struck by an object in the road.  I ordered and installed that part myself, which was rather fun.

Around the same time, I researched methods to clean my headlights to restore their luster.  A drill and a 3M kit later, plus patience, and they were like new.

I had finally, after nine years, found an interest in maintaining and taking care of my ION.  I even bought car wash stuff.  It was a whole thing.

Naturally, I nearly wrecked the car days later.  An unavoidable stray cone sitting in the middle of CA-24 tore a hole in the underside of my car, destroying the radiator and disabling the cooling system.  Panicked, I rolled it into the shop that had just fixed my emissions leak, thankfully just next to my office, and began research on a new car.

For better or worse, the repair cost didn’t quite hit my new car threshold, and the ION came out good as new, yet again.  Honestly, the fact that I had shined the headlights played a role — I didn’t want my hours of labor to go to waste so soon.

Besides, that week was finally the Great American Eclipse.  As I’d been planning, I drove all the way to Oregon and back over a long weekend.  That was the last big adventure for the ION.  And what an experience it was.  It was also the last time, of nearly two dozen times, that I would sleep in my car.

Camped out for the Eclipse, Madras, Oregon, August 21, 2017

At the end of 2017, I took one final ride down the coast to the Bixby Creek Bridge, as I had done way back in 2012.  It was the day after Christmas, and beautifully sunny.

Why the finality?  I had been preparing myself for its imminent end for months — because I was afraid of the ION.

On the morning of October 20th, 2017, I almost crashed my car.  It was like any other morning commute, through the dark down Sunset Avenue toward I-280.  At Lake Merced, there’s a long curve to the east; I nearly completely lost control on this curve.  It all of a sudden felt like the car was sliding on ice.  While I swerved unexpectedly back and forth, the completely wayward feeling of the car was jarring and frightening.  It was like a bad dream.

Thankfully, I was able to recover in a short time without deviating from my lane.  I can’t imagine what the cars next to and behind me saw…  At the next light, I pulled onto a side street to inspect the car.  To my surprise, there was nothing apparently wrong with it.  No loose parts.  No flat tires.  No damage.  Nothing.

But there was something wrong — I no longer felt safe in this car.  Not having modern safety features and electronic control, among many other now-standard equipment, the Saturn was suddenly archaic.

Garrapata State Beach, Carmel, California, December 26, 2017

After a few months of internal debate and research, I decided to pull the trigger on a new car.  It had to be done, for my own sanity.  I was no longer willing to see it through to its end — lest it be the end of me as well.  It was time.

And thus, just a few weeks ago, I finally said goodbye to the ION.  It all happened very quickly, with a simple online listing and an appointment.  Before I knew it, my poor Saturn had been emptied and stripped of its plates, and I was headed home in a new, unfamiliar car.

Thirteen years of history — nearly half of my life between coming of age as a teenager, through college, and into my professional career — as well as thousands upon thousands of miles seen and traveled, were gone.  Just like that.

Before I traded away the only vehicular partner I’ve ever known, I took it to the edge of the world to memorialize it.

Fort Funston, San Francisco, California, January 13, 2018

Drive off into the sunset, old buddy.  You’ve been a great companion and you deserve a rest.

RIP Saturn ION: 2005-2018

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The Piano Bug

I recently had a revelation, wherein I didn’t completely suck at the piano.

I’ve been playing keys in some form or another for over twenty years.  I had taken formal lessons for a few years toward the end of elementary school, but fell out of interest in the music I was given.  I played on and off in high school, lending my abilities to a smattering of events and jams.  After I graduated in 2007, I bought an electric piano for college, where the on and off playing continued, mostly due to the fact that I had to store my keyboard underneath my bed due to space constraints in the freshman dorm.

When I moved up the hill to my fraternity house in 2008, I set up my keyboard next to my desk so I’d had easy access to music at any time, and as a result my creative juices flowed like never before.  As school progressed, music took a backseat to my studies and other various activities, and once my senior year rolled around, I had once again stashed my keyboard under my bed.  My senior year apartment was (relatively) nice, but my cozy room had, again, no space for a piano setup.

Since I’ve lived in California, I’ve always had my piano out in full view.  In my first few apartments, I’d even set it up desk-adjacent, like the good old days.  My playing was relatively regular.  A few years ago, I started MIDI tracking some of my favorite songs as a gift to my mother.  It became an annual Christmas present… for two years; in 2015, after recording a shorter batch of pieces later in the year, I stalled indefinitely.  I’d moved to San Francisco and, thanks to the topology of my studio apartment, my piano was no longer within arms reach of my computer desk.  It’s ten feet away, directly behind it, which is a nearly intolerable distance when in the process of laying down MIDI tracks.  I’m only half kidding — the lack of immediacy did definitely kill some of my interest in the piano for a time.

That brings me to now, and the reason I’m writing this.  Suddenly, this summer, I’ve been bitten by some kind of piano bug and its effect has yet to wear off after several weeks.  It might have been seeing Hamilton that made me dive into the Hamilton sheet music book I’ve got here.  When you really get it going, the piano arrangements are extremely fun to play:

On the other hand, another catalyst for my new found addiction might be the time that I stumbled upon a new piano artist whose songs I found not only immediately gripping in their musicality, but seemingly simple enough that I could play them with little effort.

For example:

This is suddenly one of my favorite pieces of music ever.  It’s beautiful, the chords taken some unexpected and frisson-filled turns, and it’s not too complicated for my hands.  I bought the sheet music for this album from Germany on a whim not long ago, and I find it’s not that hard to play.  Granted, I’ve been playing it (and many others) over and over and over these past few weeks, and wouldn’t you know it, I’ve gotten better.  Funny that.  I am still working on that quick-chord part in the second half, though.

Between 2011 and now, most of my piano playing has been improvised, relying only on chord charts and my ears.  While fun, this doesn’t do much to help technique and skill.  It wasn’t really until this summer that I really cracked open my sheet music books and sat down to learn songs, slowly and painstakingly without shortcut.  I’ll tell you what, my hands got sore just from stretching and bending to previously unimaginable positions.  The fun part is, eventually some of these more difficult songs actually become possible for someone of my limited talent to play.  It’s a great feeling to finally nail a tricky bar or two, and an even better one to get through an entire song without a mistake or hesitation.  I don’t have a lot of those songs in my repertoire, but that number is slowly going up.

Additionally, I’d had another sudden revelation just this past week.  For years, I’d struggled with digitizing my playing due to the latency between the physical touch of the keys and the output of the MIDI-fied sound.  When you press a key and it’s a full half-second before the note is returned to the ears, it tends to make keeping tempo difficult.  However, for whatever reason, I stumbled across an, in retrospect obvious, fix that I would then quickly implement this past weekend.  I installed a new secondary sound driver designed specifically for low-latency musical input.  It worked (nearly) flawlessly right away, allowing me to play digitized tracks full of effects, backing tracks, without delay nor distraction.  I’m somewhat ashamed this idea never occurred to me in the last ten years, but it’s better discovered late than never at all.

The end result is that, beyond my rediscovery of the instrument, I’ve only managed to further strengthen my desire to play.  I’m even taking my newfound confidence to social media.  There’s nothing more motivating than putting my performances out into the public, where I’m not allowed to screw up lest I face the wrath of my fans.  Or, less dramatically and more realistically, I’m putting all of the pressure on myself to be perfect.  It works. (Especially when all you need is a flawless minute before you’re allowed to make a mistake again…)

All of this is to say, I’ve fallen in love once again with the piano.  I can’t believe I let it sit idly for so long; I’m glad its back in my life.

Perhaps you could expect some new music out of me?  It’s been… a while.

Spring

Early spring in Vermont
Early spring in Vermont

It’s that time of year again!  The leaves are budding from the trees, filling up the formerly barren branches, and soaring skyward toward the sun’s rays.  The mornings are cool and the afternoons are pleasant.  There’s an aura of warmth in the air, but its nicely balanced by the remnants of winter’s chill.  Soon the air will be full of the smell of flowers, of germination and pollination as the winds of spring begin to blow.  At least, that’s what it will be like across the country where I’m from.  Here, that actually started months ago and continues on today.

When I was a kid, I loved spring, and not much has really changed since then.  I was born in the spring, right smack in the middle.  The cycle of my life started there and every year I’m reborn along with nature as it sheds what little is left of its winter stasis.  The intensity of spring has waned for me in the last few years as I now live in a place where the freeze of winter is non-existent and the relief from its chill barely registers.  I remarked a few weeks ago about how the seasons around the turn of the year work in Northern California: it’s fall in December, then two weeks after the new year– suddenly, spring.  It’s still weird to me that that spring feeling happens in February; when I started my latest job six weeks ago, it felt so much like spring that I felt obligated to tap into my music and embiggen that experience.  Like I have for fall, there are certain songs inextricably tied to the season (updated and expanded periodically):

Most of these pieces are linked to my waning years of high school and the lake in the mid-naughts, having a blast with my girlfriend at the time; the rest belong to my spring semesters in college.  A lot of them wash over me with a warm aura, especially when that first tangible wave of heat hits after winter.  Unfortunately, I can’t say I’ve really imparted spring to anything I’ve listened to in California in my three springs here.  If I have, it’s not nearly as strong as it was back in New York.  This made a lot more sense before the spring of 2014 happened.  I’ve strongly imprinted California spring on several batches of music in the meantime.

Lake Erie in early May

A lot of wonderful things have happened during the spring.  My resurgence into hockey fandom was largely driven by the Buffalo Sabres playoff runs in the springs of 2006 and 2007.  I can’t believe how much I miss that 2005-06 team.  As I’ve mentioned before, the first time I fell in love was in the fall, but that led to my first real relationship the following spring.  I graduated high school that year, which previously held the title of best year of my life.  The next year was the end of my freshman year of college, the lovely period leading into one of my favorite summers ever.  Springs in college actually varied quite a bit, between good and bad relationships (seems like a trend…), the stress of the end of the semester, and time spent soaking in the sun, binging on anime (see above).

Tulips in Albany
Tulips in Albany

Spring is when everything comes alive.  The dormant creatures come out from their hibernation under the snow.  In college, the quads, plazas, and athletic fields became populated by students having fun, the soccer seasons turned bearable as the turf thawed, and the heat of the sun felt so damn good.  Moods elevated.

It’s weird that this period isn’t really a thing for me anymore.  Don’t get me wrong, it does get cold here too, just not that cold.  Spring hits early and quickly.  Right now it’s still around, mostly because it’s actually raining for once, but it’s soon to change to summer.  A few days ago I took a walk outside around my office.  It was cool, with somewhat threatening puffy clouds dotting the sky.  The wind was strong, yet slightly warm.  There wasn’t much sun and I thought I could have gotten drenched by a torrent any second.  Still, it was wonderful.

IMG_8859
The verdant hills of Northern California in March

Where spring back home is relief from the frozen tendrils of winter, here it’s the last comfort before the coming assault of the long summer.  Maybe that’s why I like autumn here so much too.  In any case, spring, while it’s probably only my second favorite season, certainly seems to usurp the top spot when it’s happening.  It’s a beautiful sight in the valley when the hills turn green.  I hope they stay that way for another six months this year.  That would be terrific.  Drought be damned, spring is here.