Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Eye See You

So, the latest round of eye-boogery ...

To make a long story short, I noticed my glasses were getting fuzzier on the right side, so I went to the optometrist to get a new prescription. 

Wow, that's changed a lot, said the doc. It was pretty stable, for like, five years. You should go get it checked. 

So I did. 

Ophthalmologist said, I don't see anything, but let's take some pictures ...

Oops. Little hole in the retina there, wasn't there before ...

A quick lesson in eye physiology and anatomy: The eyeball is filled with something like warm Jello, called vitreous humor. As we age, it tends to shrink, and when that happens it pulls away from the lining, which includes the retina. No problem, except that sometimes it doesn't want to let go, and you get a torn retina. Not as bad as a detached retina, but maybe needs to be repaired.

Easiest repair is laser surgery. They deaden the eye, hit the tear with with a laser, and spot-weld it back into place. Outpatient, surgery, take it easy for a few days, all fixed, another little blind spot, but beats the option.

So I want to visit the next level of specialist, one who does such things. Another round of tests and pictures, eyes dilated for two days, yadda-yadda, and cut to the chase, no surgery for now.

We are going to–pardon the word-play–keep an eye on it for a couple-three months, then recheck it. It can get better, worse, or stay the same, and depending on how that goes, probably need a new lens in the specs on that side.

Never a dull moment. 

Meanwhile, I am cleared to go bungee-jumping, skydiving, or trampolining. I should not allow myself to be hit repeatedly in the head, but that's not a good idea anyhow ...

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Even a Blind Pig ...

... finds an acorn now and then ...

The jam group to which I have belonged for a time, the Closet Musicians, meets once a week. Most of us are past retirement age or about to get there. The composition varies, but usually there are a couple of guitars, a ukulele or two, a washtub bass, a kazoo, harmonica, sometimes a banjo or mandolin, and a couple of non-instrument-playing singers.

We get together, sing songs, talk about our ailments, tell bad jokes, and generally have a fine time.

Musically-speaking, and being realistic, we aren't very good. Now and again, we manage a song whose harmony blends pretty well, and there are a couple that seem to do that consistently, but some of the songs are pretty ragged.

The most recent session, we tried a couple new tunes that were so-so. Then we went into our list and did some with which we were familiar, along with a couple that we'd played, but not recently. Old chestnuts, most of 'em, the kind of stuff that people roll their eyes and groan over when they come up,  but due to some unknown surge in the Force, or the full moon, or syzygy, whatever, they sounded good.

I mean, really good. We started on the same note, ended on the same note, the harmonies were spot-on, and frankly, we amazed ourselves.  

It's a running joke in the group, that if somebody misses the session, we always tell them how great we sounded because they were gone: "Oh, you should have been here! We were great!"

 However, this time at least half a dozen songs just flowed out like warm honey. On-key, tight, even. The a cappella finish to "Wagon Wheel" was perfect. The harmonies on "Hallelujah?" Nailed down. "Can't Help Falling in Love?" Nicely-done, if we do say so ourselves. "Mustang Sally." "Way Down in the Hole." "St. James Infirmary." "Kansas City." 
"The Lion Sleeps Tonight." We sounded like we knew what we were doing ...

It might never happen again, but having happened once? That means it is possible ...

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Classical Ukulele

Cory Fujimoto, doing a little Pachelbel and Bach ...

Accidental Lead

So, recent round at the Lehrer acoustic jam, the group started out small: A bass player, harmonica, conga drum (with a small high-hat), cello, and me, the lone ukeranger ...

No guitars. Usually there are more guitars than everything else put together, but not so this time. One did show up after a bit, but it started out with me having to be the rhythm guy and singer. I was gonna write the chords on the white board, then realized nobody needed those except me. 

We cranked it up, played four or five songs, no hurry, and eventually the guitarist and a flutist showed up. A pretty nice blend of instruments, and the guitar player could sing, so he led a few songs.

At one point, the guitarist started off on some old rock number and I missed hearing what key it was in. My ears, such that they are, aren't adept enough to immediately figure that out, so I cheated: I looked for a note and tried to play a melody, which sometimes will point me to the right chord progression.

Wasn't happening quickly enough, so I just found a pentatonic that worked okay and riffed, but quietly.

Those of you who don't know, five-note scales, i.e., pentatonics, which usually leave out the 4th and the 7th, sound pretty good behind pretty much any blues or rock song. Won't make you sound like B.B. King or Clapton if you just stick to that, but it won't sound terrible.

So I noodled along. The cello took a solo, then the flute, then I realized they were looking at me and I was already playing it, so I just upped the volume a bit and did a verse's worth of bars, then the harp-player did a solo before we went back to the guitarist.

Bam! Just like that, unintentional, my first ever solo in public.

Here's the funny part: I can't remember what the song was ...

Monday, September 22, 2014

Be Specific

Reverend White was preaching the Sunday sermon down at the 1st Baptist Church Once Removed, and he wound for the big finish: "All right, then! Who wants to go to Heaven!"

All the parishioners raised a hand—save one: Brother Brown.

Reverend White frowned. Maybe Brother Brown hadn't heard him.

"I said, 'Who wants to go to Heaven?!"

Same thing.

"Uh, Brother Brown?"


"Don't, uh, you want to go to Heaven when you die?"

"Oh, when I die, yessir."

"Then how come you didn't raise your hand?"

"Well, Preacher, I thought you was gettin' up a group to go now ..."

Here the example of somebody who wasn't being clear enough for his whole audience ...

There are time when you are writing when you might want to have your readers fill in a lot of stuff on their own. You give them hints, clues, and you ease off so they can do part of the work. Perfectly valid, as long as you do it on purpose.

There are times when you want to convey as sharp and specific an image as you can; you want them to see the picture you have in your mind.

General is easy. Specific requires more doing, because no matter how clear you think you are, if there is any wiggle room, a worm will find it and do just that. 

Getting precise in your language helps. Not just a "jacket," but a "distressed brown leather 1950's Langlitz motorcycle jacket with scuff marks on the right elbow, and three missing teeth at the top left side of the offset-right zipper." 

Not just a "gun," but a "stainless steel S&W K-frame .357 Magnum with a four-inch barrel and oversize fake-ivory grips, with the Sanskrit symbol for "Om" scrimshawed in black on the cylinder-latch side ...

I name you the Specific Ocean, hey ... ?

Helps if you avoid overusing words that don't really mean anything. Somebody says a building was large and modern. Really? What does that mean? As compared to what? Small and old? 

Uh huh. Clue for the crossword puzzle #27 down: See #39 down. And you go look, and it says See #27 down. 

Right. Up yours. 

How big is big? Convey some sense of it that a reader can relate to. If you say it was a huge warehouse, that doesn't do it. If you say it took three minutes to walk from the front to the back at a comfortable walking pace for a man in good shape, that's better, although you might then have to explain what "good shape" means.  

The size of a Costco store? Not bad. They aren't all the same size, but many of them are.

If you say you could park nineteen city buses end to end without touching the front and back walls with the bumpers? Better still ...

You are painting pictures with naught but words, and you have to engage not only the intellect, but the senses. Who, where, what, when, why, how; and the sight, sound, smell, feel, and taste. 

Get all that right, people won't be able to put your book down. Of course, that's the trick, isn't it ... ?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Good Neighbors - Another First World Problem

We belong to a homeowners association. When we bought this house, umpty-dump years ago, somewhere in the pile of papers we had to sign was an agreement to abide by the rules of the neighborhood. We signed it, not having a clue what that meant. Not that there was an option, it was mandatory.

The association, which hereafter I will refer to uncharitably, was responsible for maintaining the common grounds, the clubhouse and pool, and the standards of the neighborhood. A board of directors was elected by the residents, and said directors issue a newsletter, and tell us the business to which they attend. Included in the make-up of the board is an Architectural Committee and Director.

Pretty much anything past mowing your lawn, you need to get approval from the AC. Mostly this is pro forma, but if you want to take down a dead tree, put up a new fence, re-roof, or paint your house, do any additions, etc., you submit your request in writing and get approval before you start. (And if you don't mow your lawn often enough? You get nasty notices from the AC. Cut it, or we will, and we'll send you the bill. And if you refuse to pay this bill? They will slap a lien on your house.)

No boats, no campers, no political lawn signs.

All of which is to keep the value of our homes up, and I can understand that; however ...

I lost faith with the association when, a few years back, a developer wanted to do a commercial property on what was zoned residential land just around the corner from my house. The neighbors across the street would have the empty field backing up to their yards turned into whatever the developer could get going, and the idea of a McDonald's or a BK being built filled all of us with a certain wide-eyed horror. The traffic. The noise. The smells.

Well, on this end of the street it did. Such things would not impact the folks down at the other end of the street, which included the then-president of the association. So the board, in its wisdom, elected to support the developer.

We went to meetings of the land-use board in the city and testified, and to make a long ugly story short and ugly, we eventually lost to the developer. Won at the zoning board, lost to the Mayor's deciding vote. 

Fortunately, what got built was a drugstore and not a Mickey D's, but still, our association had sided with the developer and it rankled.

Couple of my neighbors across the street sold their houses and moved. On a good day, warmed up, I can probably reach the roof of the drugstore with a baseball thrown from the street in front of my house.

Once, when we put up a wooden fence to make a small courtyard out front, with the association's approval, the AD came round. We had elected to leave the fence natural wood. 

I think, he said, I'm going to make you paint this fence.

Oh, really? And are you going to make the other five folks on this street alone paint their natural wood fences, some of which have been up for ten years, as well? Because I'm sure as  up-yours-Jack not painting mine otherwise.

Nor did I, nor did my neighbors. There was no rule that said it had to be so, the AD was simply being high-handed.

Some folks should not be allowed even the smallest bit of power.

This was about the time I started calling the association board the Neighborhood Nazis ...

This is all background to tell you the most recent association blunder. 

To paint one's house, one must submit a swatch of the paint one wishes to use. The theme in this neighborhood is "Pacific Northwest Natural," whatever the hell that means. (Basically, this boils down to muted colors. Grays, greens, blues, even dark reds, but nothing primary, and nothing heavy to the pastel end.)

So down the street and a block over, a family picked out a color, sent the swatch in, and was approved. Painted their house.

But, oh, my, it was much more pastel a blue than it looked on the swatch! It stood out brightly. A nearby neighbor complained. It wouldn't do!

So the debate arose: This color isn't right. The homeowners in the sky-blue house are being cooperative, but really, they don't feel as if they should have to pay to repaint their house, and while I'm not a lawyer, I would think that if push came to trial, they would have a very good case. They followed the rules. It wasn't their screw-up. 

So what to do? Leave it? Pay to repaint it from the homeowners' dues? There are enough houses here that tacking ten bucks on our yearly dues would cover it. Let it stand until it needs to be repainted, fifteen or twenty years down the line? 

I will be fascinated to see how it all shakes out ...

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Uh, Well ...

I have only just begun going out in musical public with my ukulele. (I don't count classes wherein everybody there brought ukes, but to places where musicians bring mostly other instruments.) And several times, players have wandered over as I was getting set up, looked at my case, which has stickers on the front, including a big one that says "UKE" and said, "That a mandolin?"

I talked to a mandolin player at one such outing, and he allowed he had the reverse happen to him. He also mentioned seeing a T-shirt that rather rudely said it was not an ukulele, but a mandolin, and I thought, well, I can go to the T-shirt company and get myself one.

Whether I would actually wear it in public, I dunno ...

Turn it Down

So, at the most recent electric blues jam, we did an amp check. Dial 'em down, the guy running it said. We got complaints.

Great, I thought. 

I led the first song. I could hear my uke and my voice just fine, and so could most of the other players

But then, as if by magic, it started getting louder. 

Electric guitar guys seem to have two settings on their amps, which need eighteen wheelers to haul into wherever they're playing, and the settings are: "Off," and "Eleven ..."

I wouldn't be surprised of the ghosts of Jimi and Stevie, wherever they are, had to cover their ears. 

By the end of the session, I was resolved that I wasn't gonna go back, because, deaf as I am, they are apparently more deafer, and it was TOO DAMNED LOUD!

When you start finding your dental fillings on the floor? When turning off your hearing aids and using them as earplugs doesn't help?

As we wound down, a bass player approached me. Said, he had a group of mostly-retired guys who got together once a week to jam for a couple hours, and was I interested in sitting in? They were amplified, he said, but not that loud. 

Sure, I said, sounds great.

He sent the location info and their set list, which had a lot of music I liked. Better and better.

So I went.

I figured it would be a good chance to learn stuff with a group, intros and outros, timing, like that.

Good guys, good players, had a drummer with a full kit, a harmonica guy, bass, three guitars. The horn guy didn't make it, nor the keyboardist, nor the banjo player.

I managed to keep up most of the time, flubbed a couple of songs, mostly because they were songs I play, but not quite how they play 'em. So far, so good, except ...


My little thirty watt amp couldn't keep up. Couldn't hear myself. I could get a bigger amp, of course, but that would only add to the volume, which I don't want to do, because, did I mention? it was TOO DAMNED LOUD!?

My realization solidified: I am at heart a guy who is going to be happier in small, quieter venues. Either playing among acoustic instruments, or those with a little amplification. No arena rock for me. What hearing I have left, I want to keep.

So, the acoustic jam? Yep.

The electric blues jam? Nope ...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ridin' in Mah Car ...

Portland, Oregon, is a lovely town in so many ways. Great place to live, good people, great food, weather not too awful.

Lovely town–except, of course, if you have to drive anywhere during rush hour, and especially from one side of the city to the other, in which case, not so lovely.

I have occasion to do that now and again, to make the transit from Beaverton to Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia River, and it is not a trip I'd wish on anybody I like.

Maybe not even on my enemies.

It is eighteen miles from Steve's house to the Columbia River bridge, and on most days, the trip averages twelve miles an hour.

An hour and a half to drive eighteen miles.  So I have to allow at least two hours, because some days, the traffic is, you know, bad. And leave us not even speak of really bad ...

Were I a bike rider with a clear lane, I could easily pedal faster than that. Even a good marathon runner could get there quicker ...

To be helpful, the government put up some electronic billboards on the highway to aid motorists. Sometimes they flash warnings of accidents that are ahead; sometimes, they look like regular green road signs, only they tell you how long it will take you to get from there to certain points ahead. Just so you know.

Like, on Hwy. 26, one will say, "I-5, fourteen minutes."

I always wonder from which body orifice those numbers are pulled. Really? More often than not, you can double the number quoted and add thirty percent for the shit, and be much closer to the actual time, albeit sometimes still short. I have never once during rush hour achieved the promised goal in the time shown. Maybe if I could turn my car into a helicopter and take to the air ...

Rush hour, by the way, runs from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. If you are lucky.

I picture some laughing engineer throwing darts at a board with minutes on it, then plugging that into the reader.

Then there is the diamond lane on I-5 between downtown Portland the the bridge. Stupidest idea anybody had in years, only stretch of that in the whole city. Mostly it is empty, relative to the stop-and-1st gear lanes next to it. Supposed to be for cars carrying at least two passengers, buses, and motorcycles. As you sit parked in the middle lane, if you bother to look at those passing on the left, you will see that one car in three actually has more than one person in it. I have done this a few times. One in fucking three. If the police stopped them, they could fund the city from the fines, which are pretty stiff. The temptation is mighty to pull over and use that lane, but the citation is large, and if they did that, nobody would ever get anywhere because that would mean interfering with the rest of the commuters to pull folks over and ticket 'em. I favor a cam mounted over the lane in secret spots. Get you picture taken alone? Pay up. And don't tell me about your old granny sleeping the backseat, pal, I don't believe you.

The state of Washington declined to become involved in paying for a bigger bridge and more lanes, so that idea went down the toilet. For which I would require each and every one of them who voted against it to make the trip from Portland to Washington every day, for all eternity ...