Sunday, June 17, 2018

Father's Day

We went to the Father's Day breakfast at the lake, and I ate a couple of pancakes and some orange juice, thus proving that age does not magically bestow wisdom. It's been a sleepy afternoon.

It's been a fine decade of parenting J, though of course he'll take some more time to grasp and accept the extent of my father-figure presence in his life. His biological father is a walking storm of issues--in his Magnanimous Mode, he said he could pick J up at the lake, allowing that I "might have some fatherly feelings" for the boy--who, like a toddler enforcing his ownership of a toy he doesn't actually like, guards his "father" place in J's world by assertion rather than by, I dunno, being a good father.

For all the tremendous emotional and financial expense of that relationship, it has granted me some priceless, heart-warming moments.
Around age 6ish, I was driving J somewhere by myself and he was angry I hadn't brought an iPad for him (or whatever), and he yelled "AAAAGH! YOU'RE THE WORST DAD, I MEAN STEPDAD, EVER!!".
But the all-time winner, even though it's second-hand:

One of J's birthday parties was at the place in Half Moon Bay where he took pony-riding lessons for a few years. His oldest friend, the son of Anna's oldest friend, met Bio-Dad, who introduced himself as J's father.
"I thought Chris was J's father."
And that's what happens when you don't show up.

Monday, June 4, 2018


I'm getting a new violin teacher, since the current one is moving to Austin for a 2-year residency with her string quartet. I had my first lesson with the new guy this weekend, and it looks like a good change: he's less dedicated to Classical Violin™, and I suspect has more experience teaching adults.

(Teaching adults is definitely a newer thing for the previous teacher, who compulsively tuned my violin at the start of every lesson--at the recital I discovered that this is normal, since of course most kids can't do it, especially for violin--and slipped uncontrollably into the "we" voice at times. She's Canadian, and very nice, and it doesn't bug me that much overall, so it hasn't been worth trying to change.)

Teacher #2 seems totally cool with my "close enough for rock 'n roll" tuning that one would expect from a guitar player (unlike many other instruments, the standard guitar tuning mathematically cannot be perfect, and then also my actual violin playing is the real tuning challenge, not whether my strings are in 100% perfect fifths), and his coaching feels more useful generally.

Evidently he also likes Nordic fiddle music! These guys, for example, who have a new album out:

And was interested to hear about a new band (Dreamers' Circus), as well as not one but two weird Swedish instruments which are not the nyckelharpa: the 5-course modern cittern, and the träskofiol, which of course is a large wooden shoe with violin fittings tacked on. So I'm feeling like he's better suited to help me reach my goal of playing folk music in bars.

Saturday, May 26, 2018


Leela seems to have developed kennel cough, roughly defined as "horrifying hacking noises with occasional small puddles of sputum." It was a little unnerving, but seems to be clearing up. I'm not sure a dog's anatomy really accommodates "spitting" vs. "vomiting" in the way we're used to. She has no trouble eating, sleeping, or being a pain in the ass, though, so I expect it will pass.

I've missed having some properly dull bedtime reading, ever since I finished Moby-Dick. I keep trying, but I'm 99.9% pure curiosity by weight, so I keep finding stuff interesting. Non-fiction doesn't work so well, although A Natural History of the Piano delivered a decent dose of turgidity with a subject I am at best indifferent about. No, I needed to look elsewhere.

I eventually get around to reading Dan Brown's novels (he of The Da Vinci Code), which are unchallenging as literature, but interesting as art history. The latter book takes much of its plot from the pseudo-nonfiction book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, material much better explored by the graphic novel Preacher (now a decent TV adaptation!). Angels & Demons was the Illuminati book, and The Lost Symbol was Masons. Secret societies make for fine paperback fodder, and you can save some time by reading The Illuminatus Trilogy, which literally has all of them, or save even more time by reading Everything Is Under Control by the same author, essentially a catalog of conspiracy theories and secret societies (real or imagined).

Ever get the sense that a ton of people did drugs in the 60s and in the end it did not do some of those people any favors?

Dan Brown also wrote Inferno, another escapade with his usual protagonist (a "symbologist," which is not a real thing but does provide endless excuses to be chased after by secret societies using secret symbols), but Inferno lacks any conspiracy theories. Instead, it's about...Dante Alighieri. And Florence. And Dante in Florence. It has no pretense to being anything more or less than the novelization of an art history course about Florence in the 1200-1700 C.E. period. At the end of the book, the heroes have not 100% saved the day, which is an unexpected dose of ambiguity from one of English's greatest hack authors.

I read the book a while ago, and was reminded of it because I watched the movie, which was terrible, in ways that were only surprising because usually a Dan Brown novel is not something you could make an enjoyable, let alone intelligent, movie out of, but no. They took a Dan Brown book and dumbed it down. Out of habit, maybe.

Well, hell. I've never read Dante. I don't like poetry. What translation should I use? Already more work than I want to put in. I'm near the end of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast, and the last section is about the origins and development of Satan. Our conception of Hell is Dante's, but our conception of Satan is Milton's (brought to modernity by Neil Gaiman's graphic novel Sandman, and Mike Carey's brilliant spinoff Lucifer). I've never read Paradise Lost, but it bypasses the translation problem, and it's pretty dull to read! (At least as of line 450 or so, the language is somewhat unaccountably easier to read than the roughly-contemporary Shakespeare. Maybe I'll learn why, some afternoon when I should be working.)

I leave you with what is surely the most famous English-language description of Milton's work:

Sunday, April 29, 2018

a flash of lightning, passing.

We still refer to J as "the boy," and we will for a long time, even though he's now maybe an inch taller than Anna, which means 1.5 inches taller than me. It's weird for him to be taller than his parents, as though a body at 13 isn't already enough to contend with, so at his request we've stopped measuring for the time being.

He is a remarkable human by any measure, and further so as an autism-spectrum person, but he is more typically autistic in many respects, including a difficulty making friends. So we were blown away a few years ago when he made a friend on his own, a very sweet kid a couple years younger. We got to know his mother, and met his older sister occasionally. I don't think we met his father (though more on that in a moment). Years passed, and the friend decided to change his name from one masculine name to another, but also to start using they/them/their pronouns.

The dad has some typical abuse/control problems, and moved the family up to Oregon, away from the support network they'd built down here. It turns out I'd interviewed the friend's father for a job a long time ago, and further that the friend's parents had once brought a hailstorm of drama and heartbreak down on folks I met separately. I mean a crazy hailstorm, like "if they tried to get on Judge Judy, no one would believe it actually happened" kind of crazy. In the back of my mind, I knew the dad lived here in town, and it's not surprising that they should be at the same school (for quirky kids) together, but that they should independently befriend each other is pretty out there.

(The father's ex-wife is re-married but still uses his last name; the friend's mother uses her maiden name, so I didn't see the connection until everyone was tagged in a Facebook photo.)

Last month, J's friend N committed suicide, at age 11. Powerless, un-heard, un-seen, un-accepted. Just...gone.
"It is impossible, when we're children, to acknowledge how vulnerable we are."
It could have been me. It almost was. Nothing in particular made it be otherwise. It's not like I knew things would get better with time. Just...luck.

Friday, April 20, 2018

still listening to this one.

Following up on my previous post, I actually did take the Bar Violin and tuned it from GDAE down to DDAD. Nothing magical happened, viz.
  1. It sounds crappy. No surprise there: a string's size and composition vary depending on what pitch you want it to sound good at (and what your instrument will tolerate without breaking).
  2. "Midnight On the Water" doesn't sound that much better (the low D in particular is just a drone), and I still can't play "Bonaparte's Retreat."
They can, though:

I can play backup on the slow one. It's a process.

Monday, April 9, 2018

frets are for chumps.

I'm still learning the violin! It's great. It's an absurd instrument, but as long as I'm willing to spend 10 minutes trying to get the same 6 notes right, gratification is near-instant. My teacher says that's the great thing about teaching adults: we understand that repetition is not exciting, but that's how you learn stuff.

(Years ago a guy taught a first-aid class at the dojo, and he had this defensive/defusing banter down about how we were all going to hate him by the end because of the repetition. I went up to him at the break and said, "I see why you need that elsewhere, but you should understand that you're teaching a roomful of people who have quite literally spent decades doing the same movements over and over, and we get it. You can relax a bit." Which he didn't, very much, but I tried.)

I have a 5-day work conference in San Diego in May, and I don't really want to go a week without playing, so I'll bring the violin along and hope the practice mute and the normal hotel soundproofing work well enough that I can practice without complaints.

I'm at the point in Volume 1 of the Suzuki Method where the music gets more interesting, because "It's by Bach, instead of Suzuki." In this case it's Minuet #1, and YouTube is full of people playing it who clearly had it under their belts quite some time ago, if you're interested. I just play it over and over, mostly in bits and pieces, doggedly trying again and again until I get it better.

My fingers have a memory of their own. I'll play a passage, make an identifiable new mistake, decide to fix it on the next run-through, only to have my fingers make the same mistake. This is where I hit a wall performing as a classical guitarist, not just that I didn't practice enough (which was certainly true) but that my fingers just...didn't do what I told them to do, and it was worse with performance nerves.

Some years back, Anna read or saw a story from someone with autism, who said that they would tell their body to do something, like "raise my right hand," and instead their body just came out with some randomized action. Anna asked J if he ever felt that way, and without looking up, said "Yeah. All the time."

So it happens that trying to play an actual instrument with fine motor control might be my only analogue to his physical experience. (I can definitely be sensorily overwhelmed, but not in quite the same way, and I can power through it if that's what's needed.)

Did I mention I actually went to physical therapy for my left thumb? My thumbs took some heavy hurting from aikido, and then I fell on my left hand a while back walking the dog, which didn't matter much until I tried keeping my left thumb from clamping onto the violin neck. One of many differences about the violin is that you are not using the left thumb to press on the neck to counteract the force of pushing your fingers down on the string. This is the opposite of the guitar, so I was trying to keep my thumb away from the neck, at the same time as these accumulated injuries pulled in the opposite direction, and then that really hurt. PT's been so helpful, I forgot to make more appointments.

I was doing some reading this weekend and learned that:
  • Aaron Copland's Rodeo was actually a ballet score;
  • he was kind of in a hurry, so "Hoe-Down" (known to earlier generations as "the music from 'Beef. It's What's For Dinner.'") is a pretty direct orchestration of a fiddle tune called "Bonaparte's Retreat";
  • actually, it's an orchestration of the 1941ish transcription of a single 1937 recording of one guy's way of playing a song he called "Bonaparte's Retreat."
  • (It kind of keeps going, but I'll spare you.)
I did eventually track down some sheet music for it, and it's...well beyond my level right now, even if I were willing to alter my violin tuning. For an exploration of the subject, I refer the reader to the Bluegrass Intelligencer article "Old-Time Music Permanently Revokes All Song Titles."

Sunday, April 8, 2018

at least we have high-quality weed.

[Seriously. I thought I smelled skunks a couple nights out walking the dog, then realized it was surely just the mighty marijuana available here, now even closer to legality than before.]

The Bay Area is headed for a painful inflection point, which I call the Low-Wage Apocalypse.

Go through a normal week's errands and far too many businesses have HELP WANTED signs on them. Restaurants, coffee shops, stores are all trying to hire people for $12-$16 an hour to be dishwashers, line cooks, register clerks, baristas. Rents have skyrocketed, and people who don't work in tech often just can't afford to live here any more, no matter how clever they get. According to Zillow, our house--which no one else wanted (and now we know why)--is worth 225% what we paid 5 years ago. Zillow's numbers trend high around here, and the house is nicer now, but not quite that much nicer. We did get it re-assessed for real a couple years back, and that assessment was a mere 158% of the purchase price.

Now see that rents have increased by at least that much, and it's a wonder more people haven't left yet.

We're getting wound up for a market correction, but I've never heard of this happening and it's not obvious to me what it looks like. I've only got two scenarios:

  1. Hourly wages rise to match housing prices.
  2. Non-housing prices (goods and services) rise to pay for the higher wages.
  3. Consumers (a) suck it up and pay $6 for a small coffee that the hourly-wage set still can't afford, or (b) consume less, which damages small businesses in the ways small businesses can be damaged.
  1. Something stops the fountain of money: either a hollowing-out of the tech industry, or a major earthquake.
  2. Prices tank precipitously.
Anna's in the middle of a few grand plans for the house and yards, partly for now, partly because J will probably be at home for some number of years regardless of how the Low-Wage Apocalypse plays out. Looks a little grim.