All Hooked Up for No Place to Go

(Photo: During the frigid, fallow months of a Chicago winter, being prepared is more than just a Boy Scout motto…)

With fall almost upon us and (my favorite living local columnist) Mary Schmich no doubt on the verge of her annual verbal dirge about the Windy City’s wrathful winter weather, I can finally officially say: I’m prepared. Three months almost to the day since the first wave of my technological migration, I’m proud to complete my transition to the modern age. Give or take a couple years.

In June, I pared down to a single phone number and email address, dumping years of Vonage echoes and inflexible Apple desktop software for an iPhone- and Google-based lifestyle. I rightly figured doing so would save both aggravation and money, those benefits helping me better concentrate on building my consulting business in the throes of the New Depression.

Happily, the lately brightening economy has brought my client base back out of hiding. Given the late calendar date, it hasn’t happened a moment too soon. I don’t think I could suffer through another long Chicago winter with standard-definition TV.

Not that I’m a weather whiner–frequently during months ending in -ember and -ary I call out particularly plaintive locals for having the audacity to bitch about the cold while donning wispy windbreakers and eschewing woolen wear. Me, I dress for the success of living to see another day when Jack Frost comes calling in these parts.

It’s just that I have a habit of holding onto outdated audio-video technology until my sense of shame at having friends over becomes too much to bear. Feel free to hand me a shiny, new Macbook and iPhone every year. But don’t touch my nine-year-old hi-fi stereo VCR–how else am I supposed to watch my 15-year-old reruns of Maude?

Yes, I know, on YouTube, but that’s not the point. It’s bad enough I’m feeling old at 39. That’s near-deceased in technological terms. Folks just a few years older than me still use phrases like, “information superhighway,” “mix tape,” and “television dial.” I at least know the terminology. Allowing myself to take a really hard look at my entertainment center a couple of weeks ago, though, had me feeling already dead and buried.

Included there in addition to the 2000 VCR: a 1995 receiver and double tape deck, and leftover plastic bits from the malfunctioning remote I tossed at the wall in ’07, forcing me to get up every time I wanted to change the channel on my standard-definition DirectTV box. Oh, and burying the lead, the 32-inch LCD HDTV I bought last October in a failed effort to force myself to upgrade the aforementioned items.

In my defense, the HDTV replaced the $99 picture-tube 20-inch that I picked up at Circuit City when I moved to Chitown and promptly nursed for the subsequent six, fuzzily pixelated years. Which was fine until Overly Frank bought a top-of-the-line Sony Bravia shortly before Labor Day…

In defense of my dating life–I certainly didn’t expect him to come to my house to watch DVDs on my crummy set-up, would you?–I knew something had to give.

Five-hundred dollars later, what eventually gave, as it turned out, was my wallet. In return, at least for starters, that got me an HDMI cable to convert my backup Macbook into an HDTV-focused media center. Given my recent distaste for Apple-provided software solutions, a few quick Google searches had me downloading the popular Boxee and (Mac-only) Plex media-center applications, to supplement Apple’s annoyingly controlled-access Front Row.

Before long, I was watching my iTunes catalog of Kathy Griffin concerts and streaming old episodes of Mary Tyler More via Hulu. Which was fine until Frank told me about Netflix online movie streaming…

I crossed my fingers that the ancient DVD drive in my old Macbook would still work, signed up (at incredibly long last) for Netflix, and clicked on that little red app box in Boxee. Okay, the streaming movie selection is sucky. But I’ve already spent so many hours streaming entire Britcom series from beginning to end that I upped my DSL pipeline to super-mega-seatbelt speed to ensure AT&T doesn’t cut me off out of spite for not using U-Verse. Which was fine until my first Netflix DVD came…

You should see my Netflix queue. I never go to the movies as it is. I prefer bygone-era comedies and previous-decade blockbusters. Recognizing the chance to bone up on my pop-culture credibility, however, I’ve got one recent blockbuster, Pixar movie, or critically acclaimed hit after another lined up in my queue. Generously padded with 1930s screwball comedies and Hitckcock thrillers, of course. (A tiger doesn’t change its stripes overnight, you know.)

I managed to get Peter Bogdonavich’s Barbra Streisand/Ryan O’Neal farce, What’s Up Doc?, fired up on the old Mac when Frank came calling over the weekend–after about a dozen tries. Monsters, Inc. the next day, not so much. I’m glad Frank wasn’t there to witness the hundred tries that didn’t work. He’d just gone out and bought a Costco-discounted Sony Blu-ray player to go with his HDTV, so my sense of chagrin would have been palpable. Which wouldn’t have been fine and so…

I figured it was about time to visit my local Best Buy anyway. It’s the swanky new one in the Hancock, sagely bereft of major appliances since Michigan Avenue tourists don’t tend to lug washers and dryers home on Southwest. What I ended up lugging home, myself, was a very familiar and fully Cook County-taxed Sony Blu-ray player. But it worked, and that’s all that mattered. Which would have been the end of the story, except…

Dammit, it’s an HDTV I bought last fall, I’m not getting any younger, and for once in my life I’d like to have the same high-definition television experience I originally hawked to high-income The Great Indoors shoppers when I arrived in Chicago six years ago and couldn’t find a job any nearer to civilization than said Sears home-furnishing store. In Schaumburg.

So the rest of said money–and 45 minutes of my life waiting on hold–went to downtown Chicago’s paragon of unreliability, DirecTV reseller MDU Communications, who currently own Marina City’s wiring and “benefit” we Marina Citizens by exclusively offering DirecTV. The bastards fine upstanding resellers made me buy my HD DVR receiver at retail cost. But it’s not like putting Dish Network on my balcony or moving to a building wired for (God forbid) Comcast would have been any cheaper, so I sucked it up.

The late-arriving installer left a few hours ago. I’ve spent the rest of today watching informationally feeble, hi-def documentaries and remembering how liberating it feels to hit the DVR record button on a white plastic remote. Last time I had a DVR–albeit briefly–I was 33-years-old, and used it to learn how to cook by recording all hell out of the Food Network. This time, I’m thinking, numerous episodes of something in a nice Niecy Nash

And there you have it, my journey firmly into TV tech circa 2007. Sure, I’m a bit late to the party, but I’m already having a blast. In fact, I’d catch you up more on recent events, but I’m busy at the moment programming favorite channels and building an industrial strength electric fence with nuclear armament to keep Camões from taking a hike across my media center shelves. (His verboten paws across my old Macbook’s keyboard have changed my hard drive name to “/697*” once already.)

Feel free to check in on me once the thermometer hits 80 again. Yes, I know, it was 80 today, but I can’t be bothered to notice, what with Oprah’s Whitney interview waiting on my DVR, 25 more episodes of As Time Goes By to stream on Netflix, and the entire William Powell/Myrna Loy 1930s screwball Thin Man series lined up in my delivery queue.

It’s a good thing I like to choose my own produce, or I might sign up for Peapod and never again make it down from the 38th floor. Or off my futon, for that matter. Or even out from under my blanket.

Do me a favor and turn up the A/C on your way out…

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