My New Guitar Needs a Name!

A year or two ago, I made some rude comments about “people who buy $1,000 guitars” to a friend.

I now apologize.

Back in October, I found one day that I just couldn’t work. My brain wasn’t in it, and neither was my heart. I had spent too much time too isolated. So I shut down my office and beat a trail to Sam Ash Music to look at guitars.

I had no real intent of buying a guitar, but I love the acoustic room there. It’s not The Podium, a guitar-and-tobacco shop I used to visit when I lived in Minneapolis, but it’s got a lot of nice instruments.

There was another guy in there playing, so I looked for a quiet instrument (I have a weakness for long-necked nylon-string guitars) and picked this one up. A Takamine P3FCN. I played it very quietly, and found the tone pleasing.

The other guy liked it, too, and soon we were trading licks. He played a Taylor nylon-string for a while, and then we traded instruments and you could tell the difference. This one had tone.

Then I looked at the price tag, which put it just south of $1,500.

To be clear, most of the time I buy used guitars, and I’ve never paid more than $550 for a guitar.

So, full of regret, I put this one back on the wall and left.

Over the next few weeks, I tried a bunch of similar, if less expensive, guitars. None of them sounded as good, or felt as good, and one day T told me that I ought to go and buy the guitar.

So I drove down to Sam Ash again, fear of credit card debt burning a whole in my brain. I went to the acoustic room and looked where the Takamine had been, and it was gone. In a sense, that was a huge relief, so I went to find my child, who was looking at keyboards in another part of the store, and prepared to leave.

But at the last minute, I went to the guitar counter and asked about the Takamine. The counter guy looked to see if they had another in stock (I hated doing that, because I view guitars as individuals, not as fungible units). Lo and behold, yes, they had, but the one I had played was still around, just in an awkward location. We went back to the acoustic room and found it!

That was when the lights went out. Literally. There was a storm and it knocked out the lights and, not incidentally, the cash registers and credit card machines right in the middle of our transaction. I left my phone number so I could be notified when things came back up, and I went home.

A few hours later, the transaction was complete, and I owned the guitar. I took it home and played. I played and played. I plugged it into my amp and played, And played.

I like it a lot. The body is smaller than that of a classical guitar, and not quite as deep, but a little deeper than my Martin 00-18. The result is a little more bass, and it sounds lovely.

When T asked if we were going to do anything for the church’s Christmas program, “Silent Night” came to mind. So on December 26, this guitar (which still needs a name), assisted by my amp (set on acoustic with a little phaser action) made its public debut.

To be clear, I paid almost as much for this guitar as I would have for an Alembic electric guitar in the ’70s, so I have no call to criticize folks who pop for Taylors or gussied up guitars of any sort. Was it worth it?

Hell yeah!

But I still need a name for this thing. My 00-18 is named Sam, and my frankensteined electric (pictured on this page) is Rosie. So what do I call this guitar?

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The Conflict Between Doing Good and Doing Well…

This is very much a first world problem, but–how can we reconcile these two things? If you’re an attorney (or anyone else who is paid based on time) there’s a conflict. You want to do a good job and be efficient, but if you do a good job and are efficient, you get paid less.

Now, being paid per hour is one thing when someone else is assigning the hours (you work at McDonald’s, for example) but it’s something else when you are the person assigning the time.

I’m not talking about cheating–charging time for watching Netflix or anything like that–but I do wonder about the conflict here. Sometimes doing a job well requires spending a lot of time on it, doing research, figuring things out. Is it legitimate to charge for the acquisition of knowledge?

I don’t know the answer–I’m just asking the question.

Oh, and Happy New Year! Go watch Don’t Look Up.

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Your Top Ten List is Not Necessarily My Top Ten List

For some reason I woke up ridiculously early this morning, and wasted some time browsing the internet. The front page of Firefox showed me, among other things, this article:

The best science fiction and fantasy books of 2021

But I have problems with this lest of “bests.” For one thing, much of it is sword-and-sorcery shit, which doesn’t fit my definition of SF at all. OK, so it’s “science fiction and fantasy.”

IMHO those are two categories that don’t belong together, but let that pass.

One of the books on the list is Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary. About which the listicle reads:

With Project Hail Mary, Weir is back in full Martian mode, telling a story about a man trying to survive in space through scientific improvisation and experimentation. Project Hail Mary goes much further into speculative science fiction than The Martian — it has the same focus on real physics, chemistry, and the scientific process, but its premise includes a single-celled organism that’s eating the sun, pushing humanity toward extinction.

The protagonist, former junior-high science teacher Ryland Grace, wakes up alone in a spaceship, traveling toward a distant star, with no memory of how he got there. Bit by bit, he has to reassemble his own past and define his future, and Earth’s. The book goes to startling places that shouldn’t be spoiled, and it gets a lot wilder than The Martian, but it keeps the science accessible and thoughtful as a grounding tool. Not quite a Stephen Hawking universe-explainer, and not quite a zippy beach-blanket adventure book, it has some of the best aspects of both.

Yeah. The protagonist is a junior high science teacher in the mold of The Professor from Gilligan’s Island, and just about as believable. I read the book, but found it sorely lacking when compared to The Martian. There’s just too much golly-gee-whiz here. And just wait until you meet the alien sidekick!

Interestingly, a book that wasn’t even on the list was Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock, which begins with a plane crash and a good deal of blood–very little of which is human. Stephenson is a writer with whom I disagree about a good many things, but his stories are always multi-level. There’s humor, there’s a narrative, and there’s at least one Big Idea. It’s like Einstein as read through Mad Magazine. Only better.

OK, and now for a message from your writer:

Top ten lists, or “best” lists, are crap. Totally and utterly crap. Shitty crap.

Go forth and find what appeals to you.

ATMO.*

*A term stolen from a friend, and very roughly defined here..

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RIP Mr. Kornman

I recently found out that an old teacher of mine died on December 14. Lloyd Kornman was my Social Studies teacher when I was in 8th grade. He was also a friend a little later in life.

I think it was the fall of 1971 when I first walked into Mr. Kornman’s class. He would have been 40 or 41 at the time, a fireplug of a man who always wore a disheveled tie and a rumpled white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, who held court in front of what looked to be gigantic metal bookcases stacked with papers and books. He always looked hectic and a little disgruntled, but he was a gentle man–though not afraid to challenge us.

I think it was on Fridays that held his quiz. He’d divide us up into two teams and quiz us about recent events, historical events, and the news of the day. I don’t think that there was a prize other than bragging rights, but in that classroom, we all wanted to be on the winning team.

I do remember that his classroom was the first time I ever saw [square brackets.] He didn’t use books, not that I recall, so much as he handed out stacks of paper, which I suspect he had prepared himself, for us to read and review. Those brackets helped 13- and 14-year olds to understand what was happening in the world.

I loved that class. In many ways, Mr. Kornman was responsible for my interest in the social sciences, and I could probably trace my academic career in sociology to the man.

A little less than a decade later, I was caught up in the Christian Charismatic revival. Turned out Kornman went to the same church that I did, though by that time he would have been approaching 50.

I started a “Christian Rock” band. In our whole brief career, I think we learned maybe four songs together, but the pastor of the church liked us, and asked us to play a tune one Sunday morning.

I do not recall that it went particularly well. We did what I thought was a worshipful tune called “3 In One Praise” that had a quiet section and then a loud chorus, and we did that chorus loud. Pissed off a lot of people, including the youth pastor, R, who had taught it to us.

But I watched Mr. Kornman, who I think was an usher, standing in the back, by the doors to the hall, rocking to two guitars, bass, and drums.

The band didn’t last, of course. My Christianity didn’t last. But to this day I remember Mr. Kornman.

Some things last.



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Friends

How do you make friends? Over time? Or from spare parts, like Dr. Frankenstein?

For some reason, this Elton John song was bouncing around in my head this morning. It’s a lovely tune, title song from an unremarkable 1971 film. But it reminded me of something that I had, and I would guess that you likely had something rather like it.

It’s 1974, and I’m arriving at the high school. Before the first class, there’s some time, so I go to the place I always go when I arrive–one of the tables in the library. Because that’s where my friends are.

The friends at that table are a mixed group. A lot of theater kids (I’m one of them). Mostly Christians (I’m one of them, too). Some debate folks, some nerds and SF people (yep, yep, yep). Its a bunch that touches on a lot of things, but mostly we feel like outsiders who have found one another. Occasionally a new person, typically from one of the overlapping affiliations, will be drawn in. Sometimes, they stay, and get deeply embedded in another of the affiliations. Sometimes, their orbit takes them to another table, or another group. Jocks, burnouts, musicians, there’s a table (or locker room, or whatever) for everyone.

That was how you made friends in high school when I was young.

How do we do it now?

Thinking back over the 45 years or so since I graduated, I think we make friends the same way. We get drawn into one anothers’ orbits, one anothers’ overlapping affiliations, and sometimes, they stick.

For a long time, church was that for me, as it has always been for T. And then children, neighbors. Workplaces give us work friends, but that’s a little different.

A few years ago, I started visiting a used book store. Then I discovered it had a coffee shop in back. And for the last three or four years–with a break when things shut down due to the pandemic–that’s been where my best friends have been. Some of the people who work the counter, the owner, the owner’s dog. Later the owner’s father. People I had heard of, artists, photographers, professors, people who enjoy books, people who enjoy coffee.

People who know one anothers’ names (cue the Cheers title song).

I recently saw an old sentiment–“friends are the family you choose for yourself.”

Damn straight.

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Fixing the Dryer

Sense of power today. I fixed an appliance!

Last night, T told me that our 9-year-old dryer was making the kind of thumping sound that the washing machine makes when it’s out of balance. Since it’s a ‘whole different kind of machine, this was not a good thing.

Anyway, today when I got home from work I spent some time figuring out how to open the sheet-metal box. Got that, shut off the gas and the electricity. Removed the drum and the belt (these things are run by a tiny belt) and found a pulley mispositioned.

Fixed the pulley and, with a little help, reinstalled the drum and belt and got the sheet metal back together. Tested it without heat, and there was no sound. Reconnected the gas, and we got heat.

So.

We live in a time when new products are hard to get. It’s not a bad idea to learn to fix things.

My parents had a dryer that lasted 30 years. I’m thinking of considering that a challenge.

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Can you imagine us years from today?

For some reason today, I was thinking about old friends who are no longer with me. Two in particular.

When I was in junior high school and high school I did not think of myself as anything special, except in the way that we always think of ourselves as something special.

I sometimes think that I had no friends, but in fact I had a fair number, especially once I got involved in theater when I was a junior.

But before all that, I was friends with two of the best of the class of 1976.

I met both of them in 7th grade. John Schwartz was a geek. He wore thick horn-rimmed glasses and studied hard. I think we were together in a math class. Because John was a geek, he was open to talking about model rockets, even if he couldn’t come to the launches that were held on Sundays, because of his deep adherence to Catholicism.

John was also a jock–he had muscles up to here because he was a gymnast and he did things like the iron cross. Tough as all get-out. When woefully-unmuscular me got teased, John was there to support me. When we were juniors, we double-dated Liz (current whereabouts unknown) and Ginger (who died of cancer just a few years ago) for the Prom, and took them for dinner to that peak of sophistication, the House of Wong.

We sat in John’s room, listening to the Woodstock album and speculating on the brown acid.

In college we drifted apart–I went to the University of Minnesota and John went to St. Cloud State University. We talked a bit, but not very often. The last time we met was not long before graduation (for John; I took an extra year) when he came to the Twin Cities to visit family. He was talking about his girlfriend and about the coaching job he’d lined up. Then, on June 26, 1980, he died.

He was (as I recall) given some money as a gift for his forthcoming graduation, and he used it to buy a brand-new motorcycle, and the next day he was riding it home from St. Cloud when a drunk driver hit him head-on.

I went to his funeral, where they played Dylan’s song Forever Young.

John’s death shook me in a way that I hadn’t been shaken before. He was literally one of the best people I ever had the chance to know.

Tom Pedro was a jock–a football player, among other things. He came from a family with a little money that ran a luggage store in St. Paul, but was never one to rub money in your face. He could have surfed as a jock and on his muscles and good looks, but his parents insisted that he also study cello, which is where I met him–in the Capitol View orchestra room.

In addition to being a jock, Tom was a way better cellist than I was (I never really learned to read music) but he wasn’t vain, as I had imagined jocks to be before I met him (and John). Like John, Tom stuck up for me when I lost it, temper-wise. He was just a nice guy. I remember him counseling one time after I blew up and tried to punch a kid in the hall (if I recall correctly, I missed and punched the glazed-brick tile wall instead).

Through high school, it was clear to all of us that Tom was going places. His nice-guy charisma was just that powerful.

I didn’t stay in touch with Tom once we graduated from high school, but he was one of those people who stay in your mind. Your old friends.

About a year after John’s death, I was sitting in the apartment I sublet for the summer before heading to Chicago, flipping through the newspaper one morning, when his name popped out. Tom Pedro, dead on June 30, 1981.

He had been driving his sports car when the vehicle in front of him stopped suddenly. Tom braked to avoid hitting that driver and was smashed by a semi that had been tailgating him.

I did not go to Tom’s funeral. I should have, and I have kicked myself over the decades for having not gone, but it was essentially the anniversary of John’s death. I remember getting a call from a friend asking if I needed a ride, but I said no. I don’t think that I could have faced it.

Maybe that’s why I never did manage to get to a high school reunion. Too much hurt there. Or maybe not.

But I have been thinking about old friends today.

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How do I work this?

How do I work this?

She’s in her tower
And she’s beautiful, sure
The quicker you learn she has no soul to discern
At least no business of yours
You bear the vacuum of scars
She was put there to tempt you
Like the perfume of flowers

–Belle and Sebastian, The Ghost of Rockschool

Not long ago, T and I celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary. In those 35 years (plus a couple of years before that) we have lived in Chicago, Illinois; Schenectady, New York; La Crosse, Wisconsin; and New Haven, Connecticut. We’ve lived in multiple places in each of those locales. And soon, from the looks of things, we’ll be living somewhere new.

This morning, T mentioned that some of her students had asked her how we managed to stay together so long. Her answer was that we have fun together (these days, before either of us gets out of bed, we do three New York Times puzzles on a tablet–but I digress). Having fun together is terrifically important. My quick take is that we don’t sweat small things, we don’t try to control each other.

But I think a better answer still is that neither of us has ever thought about not staying together. We went into this with the idea that it was permanent (even if we are both lefty-liberals). Because we loved, and continue to love, one another. There just wasn’t/isn’t another possibility.

My quote from Belle and Sebastian, above, is not about marriage–it’s about dating, and why people break up. Before I met T, I dated a lot of women. I fell in serious love five or six times, but it only stuck once. It’s true–

She’s in her tower and she’s beautiful, sure, but the quicker you learn she has no soul to discern–

–the better off you’ll be. Not everyone has a soul that you can discern, or one that matches yours (I am put in mind of the line from Rent–“I’m looking for baggage that goes with mine”). Doesn’t mean that other person lacks a soul, just that it isn’t a good fit for yours. T and I were lucky enough to find matching baggage, and, well, here we are.

So thanks, T, for 35+ wonderful years. There’s no other road, no other way. That’s how we work this.

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Bad Coffee and Good Folk Music

First, a word about coffee. I like coffee. I started drinking it when I was four or so, and my dad would give me a spoonful of his, laden with cream and sugar. It was so good. When I was diagnosed with diabetes at 13, I tried to sweeten my coffee with saccharin, but quickly gave it up. Didn’t give up coffee, though.

By the time I was in college, I was drinking 15-16 cups a day. In graduate school, a large mug of espresso was my bedtime drink. Then, I gave it up.

The woman with whom I fell head over heels in love–and with whom I remain in love today–is a Mormon. So am I, though much more nominally. And so when I met her and was baptized into the LDS church, I gave up coffee. And for 25 years, I stayed away from it.

But for the last 10 years or so, I have become reacquainted with coffee, and although I limit myself to a cup or so a day, I still like it. Except…

This morning, I had a few minutes to kill after voting and before a store I needed to stop at to pick up a photo print opened. What to do? Well, it turned out that I had a gift card in my pocket for the place that has a logo that looks sort of but not exactly like this:

So I went there and bought a cup of coffee with the card. Let me tell you, that stuff sucks. I won’t say whether or not it’s the worst coffee in the world, but it’s right down there with the stuff that I get when I work at the soup kitchen, and that is saying something.

SB is a brand, and you know how I feel about brands. Some brands actually seem to be emblematic of quality. This one isn’t.

Not only is the coffee bad, but every one of the SB outlets I’ve ever been in is kind of greasy-grimy. Maybe because they’re so busy, I don’t know. And they always seem to have a lot of employees, but the stores are, at the same time, slow. Maybe this is a trademark?

Look, if you like good coffee, find a local coffee shop that makes good stuff. You might have to pay more (or perhaps less). Or find a good grind and make it at home. You will never find better coffee than what you can make.

And this brings me back around to folk music. Because you will never find better music than you can make.

Everyone here (both of us) know that I play guitar. I recently added a replacement for my old Country Artist to my guitarsenal (c) ™ (isn’t that clever). And that got me to thinking. How do people learn music?

You see, in spite of years playing the cello, I never really learned to read. I know what a note’s duration means, and I get that notes that are higher on the staff are higher in pitch, but I rely on my ears for the most part. This morning, before leaving to vote, I grabbed my steel string guitar and played a few bits of Sandy Denny’s lovely Fotheringay:

Even if I read music, I couldn’t read that.

Now, if you can’t read music, what can you do? You can learn from tablature, or you can learn to play by ear.

Tablature isn’t bad, but it shares something with sheet music and C++: it’s a programming language. It allows you, like a player piano, to reproduce the notes that someone else created.

And here’s where I make my argument for learning and playing by ear, a conclusion I came to, years ago, when a then-girlfriend of mine sat down at the piano and played a note-perfect piece. The notes were perfect, her timing was perfect, and her playing was indistinguishable from that which could have been produced by a player piano. It had no soul.

Granted, we were all pretty young then, and I’m certain things have changed.

But the very best music is that which people make themselves. Listen to something you like and–if you want–try to copy it. It won’t be perfect, because it will have some of you in it. You’ll maybe change the key or the chords to fit (like Jimi Hendrix did with Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”) or the rythym, or you’ll change a word or two. That’s fine. That’s great. And it’s more likely to happen when you’re just starting out, just learning to play music, that this will happen.

Even if it’s just simple chord-strumming, if it has heart, it can be great. Think of the crudity and simplicity of some pieces like this one, by the Moldy Peaches, and how great it is:

It’s real. There’s heart and soul here that you won’t find in a perfect performance. NB: Because it’s simple, you could learn to copy Adam and Kimya perfectly, but then you wouldn’t be you–you’d be a tape recorded.

Back in the ’50s/’60s folk scene (for which I highly recommend this book), people learned music from one another, because there was no internet, because there were few photocopiers and no printers as we know them today. Music was passed along from person to person and altered along the way, like a game of musical telephone, and so people made music their own. Listen to Bob Dylan introduce this song:

I’ve seen a quotation attributed to Taj Mahal–when asked what defined “folk music,” he is said to have replied “folk sing it.” I may have the quotation or the source wrong, but it still rings true:

The best music, like the best coffee, is the stuff you make yourself.

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Autumn

Rabbit Rabbit (last night was Halloween).

On my way to my office this morning, I was listening to NPR discussing what needs to be done (and what clearly isn’t being done) to avoid climate change. Also on my mind was an article in the New York Times written by a woman who recently turned 60.

In her article, she writes:

A lifelong friend, one who will also turn 60 this year, sent me an email on my birthday. Her message contained a passage from “The Flower,” a poem by George Herbert: “Grief melts away / Like snow in May, / As if there were no such cold thing. / Who would have thought my shriveled heart / Could have recovered greenness?”

Who would have thought, indeed? But given enough time, we do go on, somehow. Like the stems and branches of springtime, our shriveled hearts can recover greenness, too. “And now in age I bud again,” Herbert wrote, and so it is with us.

With so many disasters upon us, calamity after calamity after calamity, a sentiment like that might sound like wishful thinking. And yet the accumulating decades almost always offer proof that fear and darkness do pass in time. Proof that hard work can open doors so wide it later seems as though they had never been closed.

It is a great blessing and also a great curse that the hard work of a single generation can wipe out the widespread memory of lack, of pain, but mainly it is a blessing. It means that even now, all is not yet lost. The decades can teach us that, too.

I guess I’ve been feeling kind of the same way. Only my metaphor is a little different. It’s autumn in New England, where I live, and the leaves of deciduous trees, their lives used up, are a riot of color. I took this photo yesterday morning:

I am old. I may feel 22 (give or take), and I may have, thanks to the pandemic, have missed my last two birthdays, but I am old. I have done both more and less than I wanted to with my life.

I never made it into space (and it is extremely unlikely that I ever will). I never convinced the President that we should disarm. I’ve never lived in California on my own, and I lack the free spirit to be a hippie. I never earned a PhD (still could, but won’t). Never drove a Formula 1 car or met an alien. Never build a go-kart with my brother that we planned, complete with fiberglass skin.

But what have I done?

I have written and published prose and poetry that was meaningful to people; I have taken photographs that were meaningful to people. I have learned to play guitar and love playing guitar, in spite of half a decade of being forced to play the cello (and written and performed music). In spite of my physical limitations, I have on two occasions ridden a bicycle more than 500 miles in a single week, and have ridden many thousands of miles in a single year. I have fallen in love numerous times, the last with a remarkable woman who, for some reason, saw fit to marry me and have four wonderful (if challenging) children with me. I have lived in many cities, taught college, programmed computers, earned an MA and a JD and practiced law (and won a few cases!). I have stood in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, walked the sands of Israel with my parents and the shores of Portugal with my spouse. I have read the whole not only of War and Peace but also of Infinite Jest, Ulysses, and Dahlgren. I have dueled with cockroaches. I have survived 50 years of diabetes. I have buried (cremated, actually) my parents. I have become closer to my brother than I ever was. I have seen all nine episodes of Star Wars. I have seen Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead in concert, to name but two. I have been present at births and deaths. Hell, I’ve kept this blog going for a very long time.

Clearly, I am being a little disingenuous here. There are far more things that I haven’t done than that I have done. But that’s not the point.

Springtime is a metaphor; it tells us of new life bursting forth–that “our shriveled hearts can recover greenness.” But so is autumn. It tells us that the leaves that are now in flame are that way because they once were green. We burn brightly now because we burned greenly then, and we burn brightly now because no wind or weather or war or disease cut us off in our youth.

We have survived, and now we can brag about our accomplishments, if only for a season.


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