Conversation. At the grocery store this morning, I…

Conversation. At the grocery store this morning, I listened in on roughly the following conversation, between the woman who was ringing my groceries up and the woman at the next register:

“So, anyway, my daughter’s boyfriend wants to quit his job. And guess where he wants to live once he does?”

“With you? Oh, no, honey! Don’t even think about it! This is the voice of experience telling you you’re going to regret it.”

Sighing. “Well, I’ve done lots of other things that I’ve lived to regret.”

Library. I needed quick access to the April 2001 i…

Library. I needed quick access to the April 2001 issue of a somewhat obscure magazine that I only subscribed to recently. My tax dollars came to the rescue, in the form of the East Tennessee State University library. I called them, and sure enough they had it, so I drove down to Johnson City over lunch to copy the article I needed.

The library is pretty impressive, in a state-subsidized sort of way. Large, spacious, with a dramatic central staircase. Study carrels everywhere, most of them with Ethernet jacks and electrical sockets for your laptop computer, many with public, government-provided computers that have high-speed internet access. Posted next to each public computer is a sheet of paper warning you of the trouble you can get into if you decide to use the computer to visit pornographic websites.

As I was leaving the library, I walked past one fellow in a carrel at a public computer, obviously a student; when I glanced at the screen, it was also obvious that he had disregared the warning sheet. Yikes! He looked at me looking at him, not particularly embarrassed, possibly wondering if I were some sort of library cop who would tell him to knock it off.

It made me think of my own obsession-prone college days thirty years past, and wonder how well I would have handled today’s easy and unlimited access to pornography. I don’t think it would have gone well. And it made me think of the fact that such easy and unlimited access is sitting there right now, lurking at the other end of this broadband connection.

Pickin' in the Park. Chris and I made our second a…

Pickin’ in the Park. Chris and I made our second appearance at Natural Tunnel State Park yesterday. The roster was pretty full, but everyone got a chance to play the songs they wanted, and most of the audience was interested enough and gracious enough to stick around for the extra half-hour of the program. Our friends Steve Hooks and Ed Renner were both there, and both played sets of their own (Steve with a friend on slide guitar, Ed on his own).

Our set went very well, even though the monitor mix was so bad this time around that it was very hard for us to hear what we were doing. The set list was: My Cabin in Caroline, Walls of Time, Wayfaring Stranger, The Mayor is a Good Old Boy, and Blue Ridge Mountain Blues. The best news was that my voice was in much better shape this time around, steady and on pitch; good thing, since Walls of Time and (especially) Wayfaring Stranger are pretty demanding, with lots of held upper-range notes, and an unsteady voice would have made them unpleasant experiences. Mark Hays joined us on banjo for the last two songs, and it all went pretty smoothly.

We’ll be back for the final two programs in August, and our goal is to play completely different sets at each of those, giving us at least an hour total of performable material.

Traditional. Sometimes when listening to a new blu…

Traditional. Sometimes when listening to a new bluegrass album, I play a game that I almost always win—guessing whether the song will have an author’s credit, or whether it will say “Traditional.” I don’t know how to describe the criteria I use for classifying a song, other than to call it a weirdness quotient. It’s not that modern bluegrass songs don’t strive for distinctiveness through being unusual. Lots of them have unusual chord changes, or the melody goes in unusual directions, or (less often) unusual subject matter or lyric styles, but they are unusual in depressingly familiar ways. But weirdness is something different, something so unexpected that it becomes prominent because of your surprise, but yet it also appears to be totally natural in context, leaving you to puzzle out a mystery—what is it you don’t know that led you not to expect this?

Sometimes a modern song will score unusually high on the weirdness meter, and the result is something to be admired, a real bluegrass song that was deliberately crafted by a writer, rather than something that wound its way through the “folk process.” Here’s one that I think pegs the meter, written by Peter Rowan, called Ruby Ridge:

I’ll tell you a story, not long ago
High on a mountain in Idaho
In Idaho, I was living free
Sold a sawed-off shotgun to a deputy

Don’t shoot me down (don’t shoot me down)
Don’t shoot me down (don’t shoot me down)
Got a wife and kids on Ruby Ridge
Please don’t shoot me down

They killed a good dog, they killed a boy
My only son, my pride and joy
They shot my wife dead on the floor
Holding our baby in the cabin door


If you take a notion and you want to go
Build you a cabin in Idaho
In Idaho, if you’re living free
Don’t sell no shotgun to no deputy


(Earlier today there were a couple of paragraphs here that pointed out what I thought were the weird features of this song. Well, somehow Blogger ate them, and they’re gone for good, but now I’m thinking it’s better just to let the song speak for itself. See for yourself if you find this song strange.)

Enthusiasms. R.C. paid me a compliment yesterday—o…

Enthusiasms. R.C. paid me a compliment yesterday—or at least I took it as one—by observing that I appear to have a history of plunging fully into whatever new thing has captured my interest. The observation came after I mentioned in passing how much I had enjoyed living in New England for the first couple of years of married life to Debbie, particularly because of the opportunities to ride bicycles; early on I stumbled onto a great book that was roughly the equivalent of Roadfood for short bike tours, and that we had probably ridden about thirty of those tours while there.

Thinking back, I can come up with a fairly long list of interests that I approached with just the same sort of enthusiasm, starting at a pretty young age. Some of them, like computers or listening to music or contemplating contemporary culture or reading theology or reading history or writing clearly, are interests that continue. Others, like bike riding or watching movies or electronics or listening to jazz or reading science fiction, have long since been neglected. Quite a few are flashes in the pan, usually the result of trying to jumpstart an interest in something because I think it would be somehow beneficial to have such an interest—classical music, say, plus a long list of others that I would be embarrassed to admit.

Some have lain dormant for a long time only to come back in surprising ways; I was an avid photographer in my teens, then didn’t touch a camera for thirty years, but now I find that the skills I developed back then are very useful in the graphics design work I need to do for Draught Horse Press. Some have cooled off significantly after the initial ardor, but remain a background interest that I keep up at some level, partly because I find it helpful in doing my work or living my life—business management is one of those, and computer technology is becoming another.

I don’t mind the waste of effort or resources that are often involved in these enthusiasms, because I don’t consider them a waste. I find it useful and worth money to learn that I don’t want to pursue a particular interest, or some aspect of it. And I also know that I will occasionally hit upon something important in the process, something whose value far outweighs the cost of the entire pursuit. This is why I never hesitated to stock my books with computer reference manuals that I didn’t need at the moment—I knew that there often comes a time when being able to quickly find one answer on one page of one of those books would be worth more than ten of the books themselves. And I can name single insights I’ve found in other books that are worth more than the combined cost of every book I’ve ever bought.

There’s a danger in taking this approach, of course. Repeatedly plunging into passing interests can keep you from developing depth in a particular area; worse, it can feed one of the diseases of the age, an unquenchable craving for novelty. I probably couldn’t have rebutted such a criticism twenty years ago, except to say that I was aware of the danger, and now all I can offer is the historical evidence—many of those enthusiastically pursued interests have provided continuing benefits, and some of them have become new and important parts of our lives.

Regular readers of this weblog have been following one particular example for awhile now, our adventure with playing music. I’ve offered these stories in more or less real time, knowing that there was a very real risk of embarassing ourselves by having the entire thing turn out to be a flash in the pan. And if you look back and piece together the story so far, you’ll see that there have been some dead ends, some mistaken assumptions, and some unfriutful efforts. But I’m hoping that further along I’ll be able to make a case that not only has this been a justifiable path to follow, but that it has yielded surprise after pleasant surprise. We probably made sacrifices we’ll never understand by choosing to proceed quickly and enthusiastically rather than slowly and cautiously. But I’d argue that speed doesn’t preclude deliberateness. And I’d point out that a fifty year old man has things to consider (like the years remaining to him) that tend to tip the balance towards not running any risk of dawdling.

Ukulele. Something inspired me to get one recently…

Ukulele. Something inspired me to get one recently—even a decent one is very inexpensive—and I’m glad I did. I’ve wanted to develop some rudimentary skills on a chorded/strummed instrument, but my twisted hands were having too tough a time forming chords on guitar, banjo, and mandolin. But somehow the ukulele seems to fit those hands better; so far I’ve been able to form the chords I need (although some of the fingerings are pretty weird). To me, this means I’ll be able to get some experience strumming rhythmically, and maybe even with playing some simple breaks.

It’s not my plan to become a ukulele star, or even to play it much in group settings. I mostly want a deeper understanding of what is going on when people play guitar, banjo, and mandolin, and I think this will help. Chris has picked it up a couple of times and done amazing (to me) things with it, adapted from his guitar playing. I want him to teach me some of that, so I can know a bit more about how he does what he does on his guitar.

Banjo player. Our friends the Hays came to watch u…

Banjo player. Our friends the Hays came to watch us perform at Pickin’ in the Park last week, and when Mark Hays found out we planned on playing during the rest of the programs he asked if he could join us for a couple of songs on clawhammer banjo. So he’ll be joining us for the last two songs of our set this coming Sunday. He’s been picking up the technique quickly, and even though he’s probably not ready to take a break yet we will try to pick some songs where the banjo sound will be a welcome addition.