It’s My Birthday!

Guess how old I am?

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Sadly, It’s Not at All Inexplicable

Right now the world is reeling from the slaughter in Christchurch, New Zealand.  Some (many) people describe the shooting as “inexplicable.”  But it’s important to recognize that it is not inexplicable, nor is it the result of “mental illness,” though it does reveal that the shooter was not acting rationally. None of this is intended to excuse the shooter or what he did.  But to throw our hands in the air and treat this as if it was a random act of a hostile universe is simply wrong.

The shooter was, by his own account, influenced by others–including Anders Breivik, who perpetrated his own massacre.  He had the entirety of the internet available to him, but he read only a narrow slice.

The slaughter led a friend of mine to post on Facebook something to the effect of how “leftists” blame easy availability of weapons for shootings in the US, but when a country with “strong” gun regulation, like New Zealand (that point is open to debate) suffers an event like this, “[l]eftists are left merely saying how sad these senseless massacres are.”

Not this leftist.  I can make sense of these events.  Granted, I have the advantage of having studied sociology, but the answer seems like it should be obvious.

As might be expected, the Facebook discussion was really an argument against gun control, with my friend subsequently accusing me of being “anti-gun.”  My response was a statement to the effect that I’m anti-gun in the sense that I’ve never felt the need to own a firearm.  One of my friend’s friends responded to that with a question and they and I had the following conversation:


The key is their statement that it’s extremely  dangerous in Detroit.  Of course it’s dangerous in Detroit.  My response was that I didn’t see what difference carrying a gun would make. In other words, the problem isn’t the danger, the problem is the fear of danger.

I should be clear here.  When I lived in Chicago as a young man, I carried a Swiss Army knife at all times.  It was useful in many ways, but I always had in the back of my mind, while riding the El, the idea that it might be useful as a weapon against people who wanted to hurt me (it never was–nor did I ever encounter anyone who wanted to hurt me, though twice I did encounter people who wanted my money).  This was a view fostered by the University I was attending, which (perhaps in an overabundance of caution) sought to portray many of the people in the surrounding neighborhood as predators.

The key is fear.  It is possible to be worried or concerned without fear.  It is possible to think that going into some neighborhoods might be inadvisable, still without fear.  It is possible to contemplate the changing demographics of your region without fear.  As an attorney who works on civil rights cases for inmates, I often meet at arm’s length with people who have been convicted of murder–people who have literally nothing to lose.  I can do this without fear.

But once fear enters in, things change.  Merriam-Webster defines fear as “an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.”    Fear is an emotional response in anticipation.  Fear is the idea that someone wants to harm you, and the extension is that you’d better harm them, first.

Fear isn’t always irrational.  If I find myself in a cage with a hungry tiger, it’s entirely rational.  But fear is part of a cycle–if I believe that other humans are motivated by fear, then my own fear will lead me to expect them to try to harm me first, and the result will be to accelerate my own desire to hurt them first.  In this sense, fear reflects on itself.

Carrying a gun in Detroit does nothing to make you safe.  It may have the effect of making you feel safe, because you can project injury (in theory) before someone else can hurt you.

The Christchurch shooter was fearful.  He saw the rest of the world as driven by fear–not surprising if you spend a lot of time in certain slices of the web.  And so he acted in accord with that fear.  Anticipating that Muslims would strike first, injuring him, he chose to strike first, injuring them.

Frank Herbert, author of Dune, created for that work the Litany Against Fear:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Fear turns us from rational beings into reactive beings or–worse, as I’ve suggested above–anticipatorily reactive beings.

But fear is also tremendously useful.  It sells things–alarm systems, weapons, politicians, walls, borders.  That’s for starters.  Because fear shuts down the rational parts of our minds, it gives those who can instill fear–whether they are thugs or politicians–enormous control over us.

We live in an age of fear.  We fear those alien to our cultures, who have different religions or different languages.  Why?  We fear our neighbors.  Why?

Not everyone who fears will kill their enemies in advance.  But fear is the motivator behind most people who do.

We need to put fear away.  It’s not easy.  Fear is in the same class with emotions that makes us try to keep our tender bits out of cold water.  But we do know that, once we’re in the water, it’s not so bad.  Similarly, fear is rooted in ignorance.  Don’t know someone who is Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, or Protestant?  That very fact is likely to keep you from knowing someone who is Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, or Protestant.  Once you know someone whose skin looks different from yours, it’s easier to accept as non-threatening others whose skin is different.

It’s not easy to put fear away.  But it’s time to start.  Because so long as we do not, violence of the type that took place in New Zealand last week is all too explicable.




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A small spew…

So many things floating around my mind right now.  I guess in some ways I’m in the process of finishing business.  I spoke with L online for a couple of hours recently.  I hadn’t seen her in almost 40 years, but I felt compelled to apologize for being what I consider to be a jerk to her, back when we were young.  I told her the story—more meaningful to me than to her—of the time she yelled at me when something went wrong on her bike and I went to fix it.  She said she needed to fix it.  I’ve used that story for years to talk about the importance of independence.  She said it sounded like the sort of thing she’d have yelled.

Money is short at the moment, so we’ve been on a straitened budget the past few months.  That led me to do some looking into my business finances, only for me to realize that I really, really, really need to do a better job of record-keeping.  Resolved and begun.

A friend of mine on a social media board (a small group thing, not Facebook) asked a question about building a brand for themselves.  It got me to thinking about my own brand.  What am I?  What do I stand for?  Why do I do the things I do?

T and I are empty-nesters now, with our youngest at college.  The college in question is only about five miles from our house, but when I moved out of my parents’ home, I lived only ten miles away.  Being empty-nesters is interesting.  The house is quiet.  We spend time together in the kitchen.  We can have comparatively loud sex, and whenever we want to, rather than late at night.  We have little trash and almost no recycling to take out on Sunday nights.

We watch what we want to on television (OK, on the internet).  Except for a couple of trips each week involving getting I to therapy, our time is our own.

I watched Michael Cohen’s testimony last week; it felt, weirdly, like I was back in the St. Paul suburbs watching the Watergate hearings with my dad.  He’s been gone just two years and two days now, but it seems like forever.  During the hearings, we would watch testimony until things shut down, and then we’d watch Sesame Street.  Though Dad and I grew apart for a time not long after that, I feel like we bonded over those hearings.

Other stuff going on…dunno.  Not much.  And yet the world feels like it’s swirling around.  I guess that kind of thing happens when you get old.

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Less than a Month! Looking back…and going Home.

Less than a month between posts, that is.

The looking back part is because I just saw a photo blog focused on the seventies.  I had two reactions as I looked at.  The first was that people who are young now will have far more images with which to look back.

The second was a kind of deep nostalgic regret.  As Dylan puts it, “All the people I used to know, they’re an illusion to me now.”

When I think of my friends–people like M, J, R, L…I think of them as they were.  But a quick peek into Facebook will dispel that illusion quickly.  There was a girl I was infatuated with when we were both working on a JCSS production in the summer of 1975.  She had stunning red hair and a great smile.  Today she’s a little white-haired grandma.

Of course, I’m an increasingly gray-haired grandfather.  And, hey! I live with a (getting) old (getting) white-haired grandmother, myself.

The difference is that I see myself, and her, every day.  We have aged together.  The song has it “I’ve grown accustomed to her face,” but that’s not it.  I’ve grown accustomed to her, and she to me, and we don’t notice the change from day to day, month to month, year to year,

But when you encounter someone you’ve not seen in 30 or 40 years, the shock is deep and hard.

I was born in 1958 and graduated from high school in 1976.  That’s 43 fucking years ago! My high school no longer exists, and many of my classmates don’t exist either.  There’s an all-class reunion this coming summer, but I won’t be going.

It’s fun to look back and laugh at how silly we were.  To look at the cars (Pinto!  $1,999!  Burn to death!), the old phones (property of the Bell System, dials instead of buttons, not even modular), computers (yellow tape or punch cards) and clothes.  We thought we were so modern, but we were just the latest thing.  Now we’re increasingly the late things.

It’s a joy to listen to music from that period because it often moves us there entirely.  We go back in our minds to the time when Bruce Springsteen was young, before the Eagles were a thing.  If you were an innocent, the days of Bread.

But it’s another thing to see one’s former peers, aged, broken, suddenly changed.  It’s far better to grow old together than it is to grow old apart.

In a couple of months, I’ll be 61 years old.  My reunion is right there at home at 5:30 every night.




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Dr. Fronkenstein, I Presume? Mad Guitar Science!

I have been having some fun by sticking guitars together.  Specifically, a cheap Stratocaster copy (made by Canvas) with no vibrato and two humbuckers, an ugly body and a wonderful neck (Guitar One), and a cheap semi-strat copy (Behringer) with a nicer-than-strat body, an ugly neck and three single-coil pickups.

From the first, I took the neck, the humbuckers, and the volume/tone pots.

From the second, I took the body and one single-coil pickup.

To these I added a blank Stratocaster pickguard, pickup covers, a couple of knobs, two 3-way switches from AllParts, and an oak dowel from the hardware store.  And copious elbow grease and time with Dremel tool, drill, chisel, and soldering iron.

It all started when I saw the cheap red strat copy for sale on a local site.  For $30, what could I lose?  Well, $30.  But from the moment I touched it, I knew that I wanted that neck.  But the body was a disaster–plywood dipped in plastic, for all intents and puposes, with lots of chips.  And ugly.  But the sound–from two slightly rusty humbuckers…not bad…


I decided to fix it up a bit.  I could do that.  But I also started looking for a better body.  The one challenge was scale length.  Gibson-style guitars typically have a shorter distance between the bridge (where the strings stop near the bottom of the guitar) and the nut (the divider between the “peg head” where you adjust tuning and the fret board, where you actually play.

Fortunately, research on the web showed me that the Canvas had a Fender-style neck.  Now for a body.

A student at the University where I sometimes teach was selling his Behringer, a sort of semi-strat guitar with a more (to my eye) graceful body, without the flat bottom of a strat:


Here’s a real Stratocaster for comparison:


See what I mean?  If not, never mind.

Anyway.  My first challenge, having checked and confirmed that the necks had the same scale length, was to unbolt the necks and swap one for the other.  That’s when I realized I had a problem!  The Canvas guitar neck had a slightly different drilling pattern from Behringer body:


As you can see, the Canvas neck (on the left) had its holes more widely spaced.  The neck fit the Behringer body alright, but could not be secured.  So:  I drilled out the holes to 1/4″, sanded an oak dowel smooth, and used super glue and pounded the dowel home.  Probably won’t hold up forever, but long enough.

Then I carefully mounted the neck to the body, installed a couple of strings, and flipped the whole meshugas over so I could use the body as a template to drill the new holes.  It worked.  I bolted the neck to the body, and suddenly, things started to look possible!

Then I started thinking about electrics (some people call the wiring of a guitar electronic, but unless there are active components in there doing things, it’s really electric).  I decided that I wanted to keep the two humbucking (“HB”) pickups from the Canvas, and since I had three single-coil (“SC”) pickups lying around…well…one of those, two.  Controls would be three switches (one for each pickup) and the tone and volume controls from the Canvas.

I considered adding a dummy coil to cut down on noise, so a fourth switch.

All of this meant that I needed a new pickguard, which in the case of this guitar, would also support the magnetic pickups.  So I bought one.  Because of the similarity of this instrument to a strat, I thought a strat pickguard might do.  Close, but no cigar.  I had to do some cutting to make it fit:


Ugly, but this is a cheap guitar, so.  Next step was to cut holes for the pickups.  The Behringer body had what’s known as a “bathtub route,” which means that the space under the pickguard, with some limitations, was fairly open, rather than narrowly cut for the three original SC pickups.  Great, I thought.

Well, as it turned out, not great.  I had to use a Dremel tool and chisel to open up that space in places, carefully, so as not to crack the body.  I more or less succeeded, and the result, after I cut some holes in the pickguard for the HB and SC pickups to pass through, was this:



I fixed it a bit by covering the pickups with blind plastic covers.  Less hardware showing.  The holes aren’t perfectly cut, but they’re OK.  Hand tools, people.

Now, I had second thoughts about wiring.  The four switches would look complex, plus, did I really need those switches?  Some of the positions would duplicate the sounds of others.  I made myself a test unit by fitting the pickguard and two strings, and bringing out the wires from each pickup.

I tried various combinations with clip-whips, and decided that what I wanted was to have a standard Les Paul-type switch for the HBs, and be able to combine them with the SC in reverse phase (Stratocasters typically wire the middle pickup reverse-phase, which gives them their distinctive “quack”).  That would give me the greatest variety. I also decided not to bother with the dummy coil, as testing showed little effect without more complex circuitry, and I was in a hurry.

I could have done this with with one AllParts switch and an SPST toggle…  But I also wanted to have the SC available on its own (on its lonesome it wouldn’t care about phase).  A few quick sketches showed that I needed two AllParts toggles to make it work.  Quick trip to the parts store…and disaster.

The Strat pickguard blank normally covers more space than was available in the Behringer body.  So I had to break out the Dremel again to make room for the switches.  Finally, I got everything to fit, then flipped the pickguard over to wire things up.  I made a nice common ground bus to avoid noise, and used my soldering-fu.  I put on some strings, and the result was this:


The two toggle switches work together to give me quite a range of sounds.  Here’s a demo recorded on my phone, using the the guitar through a Fender Mustang I amp.  You need to go to this link–a hidden page on my professional web site–to hear it:

Mad Guitar Science Demo

I apologize for how totally incoherent I am on that demo recording, and how badly I play on it.  I’m still fighting a head cold (which you can hear) and I’m also not used to the long scale length on the guitar yet.

Anyway, that will give you a sense of the kinds of sounds I can get.  My favorites, as I say on the recording, are the neck HB pickup (a nice round town), the SC pickup alone (a little brighter and more mid-rangy without being harsh) and both HB and the reverse-phase SC together (a bit of rubber-band on the bass strings, rather thin and harsh on the treble, but it cuts through distortion.

Perhaps the best combination would have been just the HB neck and SC mid-position.  Dunno.  But I’m reasonably happy with what I’ve got.

Next steps:  You may have noticed that the Behringer body has a “floating tremelo” bridge arrangement.  I am not a fan of tremelo (I can do real vibrato) so I expect I will be blocking that tremelo, or perhaps even removing it and setting the guitar up with a hardtail bridge at some point.  But for now, this is what I’ve got.




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It’s been a while.

So.  It’s been a while since I last wrote.  Maybe I’m getting old.

Or maybe not.

There’s a piece in today’s New York Times that examines the question of getting old.

Honestly, I do not feel old.  Oh, I ache a little in the mornings, but that’s OK.  My mind feels 20-something.

OK, that’s all throat clearing.

The other day, I was listening to Bob Dylan in my car.  The song that came on was Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.  And it got me to thinking.

I got married when I was 28 years old, which means that I had about 12 years of experience with women before T and I settled down.  And I was thinking about why none of those earlier relationships had worked out.

Some didn’t want me after a while.  Some, I didn’t want, after a while.  Some wanted me to change, and those were the hardest ones.  Because sometimes I wanted to change.  Some others just wanted me strange.

The ones who wanted me to change–there were Jews who thought I ought to embrace my Jewishness.  There were Christians who thought I ought to revise my franchise.  There were Marxists who thought I wasn’t revolutionary enough.

And then there was T.

I won’t say that T didn’t want me to change, and I won’t say that I didn’t change.  But when I sometimes changed back–and over the past ten years, that’s been the largest part of my life–she didn’t kick me out.

Not a whole lot to say here.  I guess the main thing is, when you find someone who won’t kick you out?  You’ve got a love worth keeping.


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A Meditation on Autumn


Some people like Spring. I think Spring is OK—bare trees burst into green, lining fields and streets (if you’re fortunate enough to live in a city with trees, that is).  And of course, Spring is the traditional dating/mating and/or birth season, when life bursts forth.  Spring is the season of weddings and proms and babies…and mosquitoes and horse flies and other good things.

Summer is pleasant, because you don’t have to wear much in the way of clothing (and neither does anyone else).  But it can get oppressive if you live in a place with humidity and if, like me, you loved school (something I never would have admitted at the time), Summer is boring.  There are days, weeks, months, when there’s either nothing to do, or you’re roped into someone else’s plan (work, if you’re an adult; a cross-country parental death march, if you’re a child).  Relationships that were heady and exciting in Spring can feel stale and constraining by the end of the Summer.

Winter is nice, because you can sit indoors and drink coffee of mulled cider in front of a fireplace; unlike Summer, where there’s a limit to how much you can remove in public or in private (skin is usually not removable), in Winter you just add another layer, whether it’s a sweater or a blanket.  It’s a time for duvets, and in no other season does bedtime feel quite as good.  On the other hand, precipitation in Winter isn’t self-clearing; it requires shovels and lifting and aspirin; sidewalks and roads are often slippery and dangerous; and the world can seem wrapped in monochrome.  The whiteness wears off.

Perhaps Autumn is the way it is because it’s a sort of compensation for Winter.  Where the latter brings monochrome, Fall brings color; trees on fire in the day, fading into morning mists, and leaves crunching underfoot in the night.  What falls from the sky is still self-clearing, and school has begun again.  If you’re a student, that means old friends and new and exciting people. New beginnings.  If you’re a parent, you get a break for the first time since June.  Stores are full of school supplies, many of which are merely things to buy and within the first few days, will be lost, broken, or stuffed into the back of home or school drawers (I have  a particular fondness in memory of “reinforcing rings”—tiny  gummed circles that you could [nobody that I knew of ever did] use to fix the holes in 3-ring binder pages that had torn—that and the smell of Sheaffer liquid pen ink).

I have one memory, from when I lived on Dorchester Avenue in Chicago, of walking out of the house I was living in and seeing beautiful golden and reddish leaves plastered by rain onto gray sidewalks and gray steps up and down the street, and feeling the cold air hitting my lungs and just feeling alive.

Fall is the season of New Beginnings.  And, in my opinion, October is the best part of Fall.  October brings with it things like Halloween and—if you were like me and attended a school that started in late September (as most “quarter” schools did, rather in than August, like most semester schools)—a little comfort with your neighborhood.  You know where to go to get an omelet and decent coffee when the cafeteria puts Okra Fugat on the menu.  You know where the laundromats are.  The bookstores and stationers and record shops (pardon the nostalgia).  Whether you shoot in black and white or color, you walk around with your phone or camera at the ready.

It’s not Winter, but there’s already woodsmoke on the air, if you’re lucky; it’s warm enough to require just a shell to deal with any rain or drizzles, but you wear your sweater underneath the shell.  It’s a time for bonfires and guitars (whose wood and tone appreciate the drier air); for long walks, kicking through the leaves under streetlights.  For warm bread with real butter.  When I was a kid, it was the time that you’d build a fire to burn the mounds of leaves you’d collected from your yard. While I recognize the problems associated with burning leaves, I hate the brown paper bags that now line our streets.

It’s a time to peruse the shelves of used bookstores, where cats stretch across the mystery table; for chili and quiches with friends.  Scarves begin to appear.

It’s a time to sit by a fire (or radiator) sipping tea (hot) or cider (hot or cold).  It’s the season of apples and squash.  It’s the fat time of the harvest, and of harvest festivals.  It’s a time for journals and fountain pens and espresso in small cafés.  A time of healing and reflection, of resolutions and hopes for the new year.  The time to spend hours with good books while thunderstorms paint the streets in watercolors and light.  For red wine and cigarettes or pipes, if you’re so inclined.  For Ray Bradbury.  For momentary melancholy surprised by joy.

So light a candle as the days grow shorter and cooler.  Fall tells you you’ve made it through another year and fills you with promise.  Celebrate October, curiously the tenth (rather than eighth) month of the year, and arm yourself against the coming Winter.  This is the best time to be alive.


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