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 ...

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Amp it Up ...

Roland amps: Cube Street, left; AC 33, right.

Having joined the dark side as a gearhead, I have recently upgraded my uke amp. What I had before was Roland's Street Cube, a small modeling amp designed for electric instruments. Has EFX for things like echo, flange, and other distortions. The new amp, the AC 33, is designed for acoustic instruments, and doesn't have that stuff.  

Since the uke is acoustic with a pick-up, the dedicated-acoustic amp is a better choice. I don't need the other stuff.

If you look at them side by side, you might think the Street Cube is louder and more robust, and it is built sturdier, with a grill and heavy plastic bumpers, since it was designed for street busking and being knocked around. The speakers look to be the same size, and both units can run from 110 v via DC converters, or from AA batteries. Both will run a vocal and an instrument mike at same time.

The Cube runs 2.5 watts per speaker, for a total of 5 watts. The AC 33 has 15 watts per, for a total of 30 watts. (This is plugged into external power; the batteries deliver a bit less on the 33, around 20 watts.)

Still not gonna peel the paint off the walls, but the new one has four-to-six times more wattage than the old one, depending,  and is smaller and lighter weight.

What's not to like?

September Set List

So, the ukulele songs upon which I am working this month:

Here Comes the Sun
Dock of the Bay
Stand By Me
In My Life
Hey, Jude
Brown-eyed Girl
Let It Be
Louisiana, 1927
Hotel California
Down by the Water

Sultans of Swing

The goal here is to be able to play these from memory, chords and vocals, and to try and learn some kind of lead picking for instrumental breaks. (Except for "Here Comes the Sun," which is an instrumental sans vocals. And the solo on "Sultans" is going reeeally s-l-o-w.)

Ukulele Band Camp

So, the uke band camp I attended this past spring is gearing up for next spring. Early registration for past attendees starts in a few days, and regular sign-ups on 1 October.

If it is like the previous two camps, it will fill up fairly fast, so if you are thinking about it, put a reminder on your calendar for early October.

I won't be going this round, but I did enjoy it last time, the experience about which I wrote at some length in my short book on the ukulele.

For those interested:

We’ve been working hard to create the 5th Annual Menucha Ukulele Band Camp and we’re very proud to share these details about it.

Dates: Monday, March 23 – Friday, March 27, 2015

Instructors: Jere Canote, Guido Heistek, Nicole Keim, Aaron Keim, Glen Rose and Gerald Ross.

Bands Offered: Range from jazz to jug to jukebox and beginner to bossa nova! See the complete list here:
Heads Up: If you particularly desire a private room or if you wish to spread your registration payments over several months, this early registration opportunity may be very helpful.

Questions? If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to call me (503-695-2243). On behalf of the whole Menucha staff, we look forward to hosting you again soon!

Scott Crane, Program Director

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Missed a Darling ...

Kay - concept art by Ubin Li

There is a bit of writing advice, credited to different writers, usually Faulkner and Samuel Johnson:

Johnson's version: "Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

Faulkner supposedly said, "You must kill all your darlings."

What this means is, don't fall in love with your prose to the detriment of your story. While you toss out what you think are clever lines hither and yon, you are apt to be so pleased with yourself that you lose the more important thing: The tale itself. 

Not to say you can't make it sparkle as best you can, only that reaching for a particularly smart simile might do your piece more harm than good because it will stick out, go clunk, or howl at the moon in such a way as to take your reader out of the story.

That is one of the cardinal no-no's, taking your reader out of the story. Never give them a chance to stop and look at how you have constructed your vehicle when they are supposed to be enjoying the ride ...

So I'm going through the galleys for Tejano, and I came across one of these darlings I missed. It's a good line,  if I do say so myself, and at this stage, I won't take it out. One is allowed to correct typos or obvious errors, but not to edit in galleys. This isn't really necessary in the same way it used to be. Goes back to the days when type was set and it was a bitch to change unless absolutely necessary. 

I'll set it up: Two of my characters, Jo and Kay, are meeting with an officer on the opposite side of an upcoming conflict. Jo's viewpoint. The officer isn't happy with the way the conversation is going and he gets pushy, to the point of an aggressive step in her direction. Jo isn't worried, she can deck him and will if need be. And the line:

"Kay came up like hot smoke on a cold winter’s day."

At which point the guy, realizing he's way overmatched, backs off. 

How do I know I should have taken it out? It made me smile and nod when I came across it. Nice line, Steve ...

Might make somebody else stop and think that, and much as I like being admired as a prose smith, being admired as a storyteller is better. 

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Monday, September 01, 2014

Pig Out

Bebop with lunch, (above), that's Turtle on the arch-top guitar.

Miss Delta, on Mississippi Street, in Portland.

My lovely spouse and I celebrated our birthdays this weekend — we are two days apart — and while we were looking around for something fun to go do, as confirmed foodies, we decided that eating out wasn’t a bad notion.

So, Friday, lunch, we started at a nice American-style restaurant, Oswego. I had fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and cole slaw, while my better half had blackened-salmon salad. I had a dark beer, she had white wine. They brought us a complimentary banana split when they found out it was our birthdays.

Friday evening, we did happy hour at a local Italian place, DiCarlo’s: Polenta fries, with Gorgaozola Butter and a chicken pannini, and beer for me; red wine, a salad, and a cheese pizza for her.

Saturday lunch was a build-a-burrito at the local New Seasons, and a beer at their new beer-and-wine bar, while listening to a trio (Sax, guitar, upright bass) do light jazz and bebop.

Saturday night, the best Indian restaurant locally, Chennai Masala, and dinner, which included chicken tiki masala, garlic naan bread, onion and cabbage pakoras, and, of course beer.

Sunday brunch was southern: Shrimp po’boy, sweet potato fries, red beans and rice, and veggie omelette at a place we’d never tried before, Miss Delta, and washed down with, well, yes … beer.

Sunday supper, and it was back to New Seasons, for a beer-tasting/food pairing. Started with a Caldera Lawnmower Lager, then a Kermit the Hop IPA, then a dark stout, Three Creeks Five Pine Chocolate Porter. Paired with, respectively, White Cheddar Fondue, Apples, and Artisan bread; Curry Chicken Sausage and Coconut peanut sauce; chocolate brownie with peanut butter icing and peanut butter ice cream.

Six meals out — normally, we might dine out once a week — and not a bad one among ‘em. 

When we weren't eating, we were sleeping.

We’d get up, putter around, go eat brunch, come home, take a nap, get up and dress, go out and have supper, come home, fall into a stupor, sleep, then start over again. Tough weekend.

Three of the eateries were in Beaverton, one in Hillsboro, and one in Portland, on the east side. If you are in the area, any of these are excellent places to assuage your hunger:

1. Oswego Grill - American
2. DeCarli’s  -  Italian
3. New Seasons - Mexican
4. Chennai Masala - Indian
5. Miss Delta - Southern 
6. New Seasons - Bistro

We, on the other hand, will be eating healthy stuff at home for a while …