playing instruments

I listen to music more at work than anywhere else. It’s the one time that I am in one place for an extended period of time when I am alone (more or less), and music helps the day go by a little easier. This morning I was listening through Amazon Music (no plug intended, just what I happen to use) to music by Henry Mancini. Yeah, I’m an old fart, I thought that went without further explanation. Anyways, on came one of my most favorite pieces of music – Moon River – and I thought I would just make a note of it here. It was a favorite of mine when it first came out and it has not lost it’s appeal. Just my kind of wistful, longing imagery.

There are other songs that I like and that have influenced me, most often by making me want to learn a musical instrument. I love Stranger on the Shore, by Acker Bilk. I mistakenly thought that he was playing a saxophone, when he was actually playing a clarinet in a lower-register style. It was enough to make me think that I should play a saxophone, so I briefly did so in junior high school. Like all of my musical instrument attempts though, this shortly fell by the wayside.

Another song, Sleepwalk, by Santo & Johnny, got me on the guitar path, though that was years in the coming. The first time I ever heard the song was at my uncle’s wedding, played by the wedding band. (A long time ago, my friends – and heck I was only, what, ten?) Anyways, once again, I mistook the instrument. I thought the slidey part of the music was a regular guitar. I didn’t realize that it was an actual slide guitar. Hell, I didn’t even know such a thing existed. Anyways, along with every other kid’s ambition to play the guitar in the ’60s, I was inspired by that song. While I never made it to anything near real proficiency on the guitar, I have one and I intend to play it at least moderately well . . . eventually.

My interests haven’t been limited to pop music. Being Norwegian, when Song of Norway came out (a movie about the life of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg), I just had to learn the piano to play Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. I was nineteen or twenty at the time and still living at home with my parents. Since I was working at the time, I had the means to buy a piano. Actually, I had the means to put money down on a piano and make payments on it. Like so many things in my life, the payments lasted longer than my interest and eventually the piano went back. Imagine the dismay of the delivery men when they showed up with the piano and found that I had to have it put in my bedroom – on the second floor! Then imagine them being pissed off that a short time later they had to come back and move it down from the second floor. Not one of my better decisions in life.

What other instruments have I played? Well, again for a short time, I played the violin in grade school. In retrospect, I feel bad for my parents during that period. Practice time must have been a real joy for them. I have also played the banjo and still intend to relearn it. I took lessons for the better part of a year and enjoy it, but it sits in the closet at the moment.

My latest kick, however long it is going to last, is the ukulele. It’s really popular right now, but I didn’t even realize this when I decided to try it. I just wanted (what I thought would be) an easy instrument to play well and that would get me back to playing the guitar and banjo. I smashed my middle finger on my left hand with a hammer some time ago and broke the bone in the tip of my finger. It has been extremely painful trying to play the steel-stringed guitar and banjo ever since. Part of my theory of getting back to them is that if I play enough on the nylon-stringed uke, my finger will build up enough callus and resistance to pain to allow playing steel strings again. If not, my uke wasn’t a big investment. To tell the truth, though, playing the uke well is as much a challenge as a guitar or banjo and I’m enjoying it in its own right. We’ll see how long it takes for me to give that up, too.

I do think that the ukulele is probably the last instrument that I am going to attempt to play. Um, well, other than that hammered dulcimer that I’ve been thinking about building for many years. If I ever retire, maybe there will be time for that, too. Somehow, I kinda doubt it.

bookmark: jonathan strange & mr. norrell

Jonathon Strange & Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke

Capitalizing on our penchant for stories about magic, this is a moderately entertaining book that should have been split into either two or three books or edited down to one more manageable volume. Set in the 1800s and revolving around the idea of English (as in England) magic, the story offered something different and is a good story. The length of it, however, gets a little tedious after a while.

The author uses one of my very least favorite writing affectations; the footnote. I’m sorry, but I feel that footnotes do not belong in fiction. There are those who think that, handled well, they expand the story, but to an anal retentive like me who has to look at the footnote, they destroy the flow of the story. Sure, I could just ignore them and read the story, but it always feels like maybe I’ll be missing something important to the story. In this book, I don’t think that the footnotes are a necessary part of the story and could be ignored. Towards the end of the book, I did start to skip them. It seems to me that authors who use footnotes in fiction, as in this book, have spent so much time creating their own little universe in which their book lives that they just have to share the background material they have imagined to support that universe. Just tell the story and be done with it. Let the story pull you into the universe you have created; don’t beat me over the head with a stick (or footnotes) to try to convince me. But, different strokes for different folks, and you may enjoy them.

Even after making to the end of the book, it had one of those endings that screams, “Sequel.” I won’t give it away, but it is obvious that there is more to come. If not, then you will just have to be satisfied with a story that does not wrap up all the loose ends. It wouldn’t be the first book to do that.

This story has been produced as a mini-series in Britain, and is available (or at least was, at the time of this writing) on Netflix (or is it Amazon Video?). I haven’t watched it, but apparently it has the slight variations that all films have from the original source material. At least it won’t have footnotes.

Finished 1/27/17

blizzard of ’67

Fifty years ago today was the great Chicago snowfall of 1967 – twenty-three inches of snow before it was over. I was sixteen. The only thing that I directly remember is walking to my job at Jewel as a stock boy. The snow was already about ten or so inches deep and there were no cars moving on the side streets of our small town to the west of Chicago. It was a major effort to walk through that snow. I finally made it to the store and found people stocking up on whatever they would need (or could get) for the next several days.

Part of my job was to round up the shopping carts, but that was impossible to do. Instead, as a customer would leave, they would pull their car around to the door and we would load the groceries from there. I know that the store was not open long after I got there, maybe only three or four hours or so. It was to the point that every store around was shutting down just so employees might have a chance to get home. To tell the truth, I don’t remember how I got home. I’m not sure if I had to walk home again or if one of my parents came and got me, or if I got a ride from someone else. My memory fails and my parents aren’t around to ask, even if they could remember.

I just checked the calendar for that date and found that January 1967 has the same dates as January 2017. That means this happened on a Thursday. I assume I was home because the schools closed for the day, otherwise I would have walked to the store from the high school, but I do distinctly remember walking from home. I sure wish my rememberer would work better than it does.

Once again, we are remembering the fiftieth anniversary of something that I actually lived through. How depressing. Heck, looking at the record of the ten greatest snowfalls in the Chicago area, I have been alive for a full half of them! Well, at least I’m alive to complain about being old, so I’ve got that going for me.

bookmark: walking the nile

Walking the Nile – Levison Wood

Some people are driven to monumental accomplishments, or perhaps failures. But the small and mundane are not their bailiwick, such as it is mine. Walking the length of the Nile River certainly falls into the category of a monumental effort, and clearly the author of this book is driven to such extremes. Yet even he failed to accomplish all that he wished, due to civil war in South Sudan and restrictions regarding travel around a certain dam on the Nile. Still, he covered the greatest part of the length of the river, which is something that I would never even contemplate doing, let alone be able to do. Kudos to him.

This book is the story of his journey, the dangers of which, if anything, are understated. He was fortunate to have some good traveling companions along the way and also benefited greatly from sponsors. Indeed, he probably would not have been able to walk the section of the Nile through Egypt without some large last minute contributions. Africa may be a place of beauty, but it is also a place of tribal, political, and religious conflict, and that takes extra effort (and money) to work through.

Scattered through the pages are bits and pieces of history, which make the book more than just a slog along the Nile. Mr. Wood also touches upon current ecological and cultural conditions, raising important questions about both. Everyone outside of Africa thinks that it should be kept as some pristine, fence free, protected nature preserve, while the native population needs to clear land and protect it in order to progress into the modern (relatively speaking) world. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too, and some of the situations in this book point this out rather well.

Gratefully, I can leave major expeditions such as this to people like the author, and read about it from the comfort of my living room. Long distance learning works for me, and this book taught me several new things.

Finished 12/30/16

bookmark: lab girl

Lab Girl – Hope Jahren

This is an interesting, well-written book about a somewhat, um, quirky, scientist. A woman scientist, as I am sure she would want me to mention. On one hand this book is an autobiography of an everyday person, on the other hand it is an exploration of the life of a person who has had to face her own personality disorders. In other words, it is a book that most of us could write about ourselves, if we were as capable of doing so as this author.

There have been times in my life that I wished I had a driving interest in something, anything, that would blossom into a career. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), my life has been a revolving series of hobby interests which, while fulfilling, have not yielded even a hint of a career. Instead, my “career” has been jobs for which I have an innate ability, but little interest. In contrast, Ms. Jarhren seems to be one driven by the need to do what she does. It seems to have been a path she could not have avoided walking even if she had tried. Indeed, for her there is no division between a work life and a personal life; they are one and the same.

An integral part of her life, her lab mate, Bill, plays a major role in the book. If she were on drugs, I think that he would be called an “enabler.” He seems to have no more of a life outside the laboratory than the author does, or at least until she got married. I guess it’s great to find someone else you can share your passion with, and yet odd that she didn’t fall in love with anyone until she found someone who was not intimately involved with her everyday lab work. Other reviews I have read of this book consider Bill as interesting as the author, and I guess that is not far from the mark.

Included in the stories of the author’s life are bits and pieces about soils, plants and trees, the author’s life work. As a person who appreciates science, I found these bits as interesting as the rest. I could easily have been a scientist (indeed, I did work as a lab assistant in college and worked for a short time in a pulp and paper lab) and can relate to this information and to Ms. Jahren’s fascination with it.

Perhaps the subject matter would not alone have been enough to drive the popularity of this book, but the author’s writing is really very good. It is obvious that she is just as capable writing as she is in the lab. As the author relates, her mother involved the author in her English studies and thus seems to have inspired a love of language in her daughter. It shows, and makes the book eminently readable.

Finished 12/22/16

free to choose

You know what? I’m tired of being a fat man. I don’t want to be a fat man. I’m not going to be a fat man any more.

No one is making me be a fat man. Sure, I have no choice about the getting old part, but I do have some say in the being fat part, and I say it’s time for a change. All I have to do, really, is eat less calories – and the right calories – than I burn every day. I’ve done it before, so it’s not like I don’t know that it can be done.

I’m just tired of my body hurting, my knees and hips in particular. Yeah, I’m going to need some replacements, but my body would move so much easier and with less pain if I weighed less and I wasn’t eating crap that caused inflammation.

So I’m going to stop eating crap and get my body into the best shape that it can be, even if it is nowhere near where I wish it could be. That’s it. No further discussion. Just do it.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper – Phaedra Patrick

As I get older I tend to appreciate books which portray life in our later years in an optimistic light, and this is one of those books. Through the the mystery of a found charm bracelet, the main character eventually works through his grief over the loss of his wife and sees that there is still more enjoyment in life to be found.

I wonder how the author could write about bereavement so accurately. I suppose there is plenty of literature about it and it wouldn’t be hard to research, but it sounds like she has seen it first hand. Certainly I was able to relate to her writing all too well. That kind of grief is something that rips you into little pieces, leaving you to try to reassemble yourself bit by tiny bit. In the end, you do it, but somehow there is always a piece missing, a piece that cannot be replaced.

This was an enjoyable book, well written and with lessons for both us old farts who face these kinds of situations and for our families who cannot yet really understand what we are going through. By the way, if you’re not familiar with British words or phrases, the typical American might be thrown off occasionally, but to me it just added to the charm of the book (pun intended).

Finished 12/5/16

bookmark: beyond belief

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape – Jenna Miscavige Hill

One of the strongest desires of humans is the desire to “belong.” This is evidenced in many ways; identifying by race, joining clubs to share common interests, supporting political movements, belonging to fraternities and sororities, cheering on the local sports team, to mention just a few. One of the most common of these is religion.

It can be difficult to define religion. Generally speaking, I define it as a system of belief in something that cannot be confirmed by science and that must be taken as truth by faith. Usually this relies on belief in some supernatural entity, but it is not required. What is required is an unquestioning acceptance of the tenets of the religion.

I have been aware of Scientology through the popular media, but have never looked at it more closely. I thought that this book, written by someone who had been literally raised in Scientology, would give me an insight into that “religion.” It did, and left me with déjà vu wonder at what people will believe and accept in the name of religion.

The author is the niece of David Miscavige, who is the current head of the Church of Scientology. This book does not act as a history or analysis of the Church of Scientology, but rather as the personal story of a child reared in the church, up through the time she left the church. As I was reading it, I found myself thinking that this sounded like a child being raised in a third-world country where child labor is a normal part of everyday life.

As the author obviously has a vested interest in the story, I tried to maintain some skepticism while reading it. I found myself wondering about parts of her story, but I had to remind myself that I have never been in the kind of situation she was in. She goes back and forth, at points being supportive of the things she was going through and then rebelling in the next breath. In the end, this story could be that of many children raised within a restrictive religion, with religious teachings enforced through many different psychological and physical means. I’m grateful that I was never put into this kind of situation and would never, have never, considered putting a child of mine in such circumstances.

While this book is not necessarily riveting reading, the insight into the treatment of people within the Church of Scientology is revealing. Is it worse than other religions? Well, at least they are not out blowing people up. Still, that doesn’t mean I’ll be signing up any time soon, and I’m sorry to see that a child could be put into such circumstances as the author was.

Finished 11/21/16

bookmark: driving mr. einstein

Driving Mr. Einstein: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain – Michael Paterniti

This book fed my penchant for road trip stories. The essence of this true story is that the author drives the pathologist who did the autopsy on Albert Einstein across the country to visit old friends and former haunts. The hook in the story is that the pathologist has Einstein’s brain with him, which he had acquired when he did the autopsy many years ago.

With a setup like that – a somewhat odd, old man with Einstein’s brain, traveling across country with a driver who has his own personal relationship problems – it seemed like there could be some interesting metaphysical insights. While I enjoyed the book well enough, it just didn’t seem to go much of anywhere.

I had expected more about the old pathologist, and while we got some information about him, he remains a stranger. Considering his attitude towards the author as merely his chauffeur, I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising. He seemed loath to give up much personal information.

The book was largely about the author assessing his relationship with his girlfriend, who he had left at home, writing a book herself. At first he questioned whether the relationship was dying or dead, but as the trip went on, he realized that he missed her and started to understand the nature of their relationship. This is more the theme of the book than anything else.

It was a bit disappointing when they finally hit the end of their trip from the east coast to the west. I had assumed that the purpose of the trip was going to be to make a final disposition of Einstein’s brain, but such was not the case. In what is essentially an epilogue, we do find the resolution to both the author’s relationship situation and the disposition of the brain, but by that time it’s more about wrapping things up than gaining any great insights.

So, while I don’t consider reading the book a waste of my time, it wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped it would be.

Finished 11/11/16

disowning the party

Thank goodness this election will be over after tomorrow. Well, I’m not sure how “over” it will be, but at least we will be past all the political ads. I’ve noticed a very interesting tactic this election. Almost every political ad I see on television, or hear on the radio, and all the candidate yard signs I see, fail to mention the party the candidate belongs to. Somehow I don’t think this is just an oversight.

It seems that identifying as either a Democrat or Republican is considered risky, as though you are making yourself the personal representative of either Hillary or Trump. In fact, the only political ads which identify a party are those which attempt to paint a local candidate as a supporter of Trump or Hillary, something which supposedly should disqualify you from winning. Even if you have announced that you do not support either of the main candidates, the other party still puts out ads smearing you with the party standard bearers.

I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad strategy. If people don’t know what party you belong to, how are they going to be able to find the candidate on the ballot? If a voter prefers to vote by party, this can be an issue. On the other hand, by not identifying themselves as either Democrat or Republican, it could force the voter to actually do some research to find out what that candidate actually believes and to vote intelligently. Yeah, I know – like that is going to happen. People are still going to go to the poll and go through the ballot only voting for those in their preferred party.

Still, not identifying with a party is a novel change in electioneering. It will be interesting to see if it happens again in the next election cycle, or if this is only symptomatic of this particular election with these two particularly reprehensible candidates. All I can say is that I am grateful that they are not the only choices in this election.

As for me, I happily declare that I am a Libertarian, though I’m not running for office. If I were, I would be proud to advertise that fact.