Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Good Day To Be A Daddy

Well, maybe the whole day wasn't so good--we had a three-kid meltdown there for a while shortly after dinner, just as haircut time was happening. Yup, all three kids had their hair cut today, in our little kitchen. The Happy Boy most assuredly wasn't happy. But he looks a lot cuter now.

Anyway. Earlier today, the Pillowfight Fairy did something that made her daddy proud: she announced to me that she wanted to get out that pegboard that I'd showed her last week (and blogged about, at great length, a few days ago), and that she was going to make a blanket.

Well, I reasoned with her, blankets are awfully big things to make, and take a long time. You should probably start with something smaller, that can be finished in just a few sessions. Scarves are perfect.

Lo and behold, my reasoning actually worked! With a six-year-old! Will wonders never cease? So, the Fairy picked out an appropriate color ("as white as snow!"), and I helped her get started. I admit, when she started I was thinking to myself, I wonder how long this is going to last. I needn't have worried. She worked on it for a couple of hours straight in the morning. And then she worked on it a couple of hours in the afternoon, while the rest of us were taking naps. And then, after her bath tonight, I suggested that she work on it a while while I read to her.

So here's a picture of the Fairy knitting a white scarf on the pegboard, sporting that do you mind? facial expression:
She currently has her scarf about two feet long, give or take. Of course, she's not as fast at it as I am--yet. But still, I'm very proud of her.

And given that she had something to keep her occupied, I got a little more ambitious with my reading tonight; since we've just finished Little House in the Big Woods, I got to pick something I wanted to read. So I started to inflict The Hobbit on the Pillowfight Fairy. In the past she hasn't had much patience for sitting through that kind of stuff. But having the Fairy work on knitting while I read to her was pretty close to ideal; because she wasn't idle, she didn't get squirmy; she had something to do while I read to her, so she was able to sit through the entire chapter (and Tolkien's chapters are pretty long). The only drawback was that Tolkien's chapters are so long that we went way past her bedtime. But she was able to get some serious length on that scarf of hers, and she enjoyed Chapter 1: An Unexpected Party.

We'll have to get another project lined up for when she finishes the scarf. I want to finish the book with her. :-)

Oh, and by the way: I've been talking a lot about the Fairy lately. The other kids are doing well, too. I liked this picture of the Adrenaline Junkie, freshly scrubbed and looking at a book just before bedtime.

Some Thoughts From The Wife

My wife has just posted on her blog, a fairly long series of thoughts about how we've been coping with the news that we're expecting a Trisomy 13 baby who most likely won't live long past birth. Tonya's thoughts are here.

Friday, January 30, 2009

A Trio of Miscellaneous Tidbits

Well, it turns out that I have a couple of short things to share tonight, and instead of making three short posts (as much as I was tempted to), I figured they were short enough that there's only enough material for one decent-sized post. So, here we go.


Item: I finished reading the classic book Little House in the Big Woods to the Pillowfight Fairy today.

Now, one of my teachers read it to the class when I was a kid, and I only remembered bits and pieces of the book from that reading. That was a long time ago, and for the most part the book only remained in my memory as an impression; I remembered that "This book is good", but I didn't remember much beyond that.

Well, late last year the Fairy received a copy of the book from her beloved Auntie Wendy. Now, the Fairy is more into the kinds of books that are read in one sitting--children's picture books, that sort of thing. Although she can enjoy chapter books, most of the time she gets bored with them pretty quickly.

But this book was different. I'm not sure if it's because it covered a time in the author's life when she was but five and six years old (same age as the Fairy), or if it was that it was a true (autobiographical) story, or that the lives of the people were so different that it caught her attention, or if it was just written so well; but the Fairy really got into it. And the Fairy especially liked the stories-within-a-story that appeared in many of the chapters, as Pa took Laura and Mary on his knees and told them something that had happened to so-and-so once upon a time.

The Fairy was especially taken by the story in the chapter entitled "Sunday", which talked about how a much younger Grandpa and his two older brothers had been very naughty one Sunday when they should have been studying their catechisms. I won't spoil the story here of course, except to say that it involved a sled and a big black pig--and the story had the Fairy literally rolling on the floor with laughter. (I had a hard time reading it without laughing out loud, myself.)

So the book was a hit, and I'm very pleased about that. In fact, the other night the Fairy insisted on reading one of the chapters all by herself, which she did. The thing was twenty pages long, and the Fairy just read the whole thing! She did get pretty tired about two-thirds of the way through, and I had to give her lots of encouragement to get her to finish (and some correction now and again, as the Fairy has a tendency to misread, add, and delete words when she's reading too quickly), but she managed to read the entire thing by herself. I'm hoping in the next year or two, we can find some decent chapter books that she'll want to read without assistance.

I was particularly struck by the descriptions of how the people living on the frontier way back in the 1870s managed to get by. When we think of people living in the past--especially those living way out on the fringes of civilization--we tend to think of them as backward, and to think that we, today, know so much more than they do. And in some ways, that's right: I can tell you how a nuclear reactor works, and I can tell you how to back up your network, and I can tell you a bunch of other things that wouldn't have meant diddly back then.

But... They were not unlearned, in their own way. They knew how to make cheese--with nothing but fresh milk (straight from the cow), salt, and rennet. (Most people today don't even know what rennet is, and when you tell them, they swear off cheese forever.) They knew how to make hats. They knew how to butcher pigs, and at least four different ways of preserving the meat for the winter. They knew how to grow all their own crops, how to raise livestock for food, and how to hunt--even how to mold their own bullets for their guns. They knew how to make their own socks and underwear! They knew how to carve, and whittle; they knew how to spin, sew, and weave. They knew how to fiddle, and sing, and dance. And they knew how to work. Hard. And they knew how to enjoy their lives!

In short, if you gathered up a half-dozen or so of these people, plunked them down in the middle of the wilderness and left them for a year, by the time you got back you would find them living in cozy little log cabins, with smoked rabbit and venison hanging in the attic, with their little barns all filled with the grain they'd just harvested, and with enough firewood chopped to keep them through the winter. They would look stout and healthy. If you gathered up a half-dozen or so of us moderns and plunked us down in the middle of the wilderness, well... by the time you revisited us three months later, there would only be one left, but he would be very well fed....


Anyway, the Fairy enjoyed listening to the book, and she found it interesting to hear how they did all the things they need to do to survive back then. I'm looking forward to introducing her to the rest of the series.


Item: Who was it who said that life is a Tragedy for those who Feel, but a Comedy for those who Think? It was some Brit, I remember, back in the day when the Brits were still primarily a thinking race. (And that explains how their dry comedy came to be, I suspect.) Well, I've found myself enjoying the writing of Theodore Dalrymple lately. He's a British doctor who appears to be something of a throwback to the day when the British were the disciplined, stiff-upper-lip types. And he's a keen observer of British culture. He doesn't like what he sees; starting somewhere in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, the British have been progressively abandoning their orderly, cultured, mannered approach to life and replacing it by something decidedly boorish and vulgar. And Dalrymple is enough of a Thinker that he can find some of the comedy in what he obviously sees as a terrible tragedy.

So here's an article he wrote recently after visiting a town in South Yorkshire. Basically, the local businessmen in the town of Rotherham have been having a problem all-too-common lately: gangs of youths hanging out in front of the stores, intimidating (and robbing) their customers. Of course, this is bad for business; but when the police either can't or won't do anything about them, what's a store manager to do?

Well, for a while they tried "the mosquito", which is a loud, high-frequency noisemaker. Turns out the human ear loses a big chunk of its high-frequency sensitivity shortly after turning 20. It's been discovered that there are sounds that kids can hear that we adults can't. And briefly there was a line of products based on this fact: with "the mosquito", you can create a teen-repellent sound field that grown-ups simply can't hear. But there were problems here--not the least of which, is that those teens can then sue you for damage to their hearing.

So some local businessman in Rotherham tried something different: he started playing music by Bach on the sound system, just outside his storefront.

It had a sudden, immediate effect--like light on cockroaches. Somehow, the music of Bach is completely incompatible with thuggery. If you're in the mood to intimidate people, the music of Bach becomes absolutely repellent to you. It's too square! It's too orderly! It's too civilized! It makes you feel ashamed at the intimidating thoughts you were just thinking. So the thuggish youths wander off, presumably to intimidate someone else who's not so obviously reminding them of their degraded state.

Dalrymple ends his article with some questions about what this episode says about the state of our culture.


Item: Speaking of the state of our culture, for the first time tonight I managed to play from beginning to end through Debussy's Clair de Lune.

Note: this video clip is not me. This , for those of you who aren't familiar with the tune, is the piece of music I've been learning.

Also note: I think he misses a few notes. Nowhere near as many as me, but still, I can tell. And I think he takes the middle way too fast. And I think he needs to use more left pedal....

Of course, I don't have the thing anywhere near polished yet. I have the last five (out of six) pages memorized, but I still have to sight-read the first page. And the first half of the piece is rather rocky still, although it goes more smoothly as I approach the end. After all, as I mentioned in a previous post, I've been learning it from the back to the front.

Oh, and by the way: the Pillowfight Fairy has been working her way through John Thompson's Teaching Little Fingers to Play, and is currently learning the last song in the book! I'm very proud of her. Not too long from now, the Power Household will be so full o' culture we'll be fit to bust!

Now if we can only get everyone around here potty trained....

Thursday, January 29, 2009

An Sign of Impending Old Age?

Ok, so somebody explain this to me.

Once upon a time, when I was in college and then in my first job out of college, I and everybody I knew lived for Friday night.

While on most evenings our activities were tempered by the knowledge that the following morning we'd have to pull our half-dead carcasses out of bed and haul ourselves to the office, on Friday night we knew that we had all Saturday morning to sleep in if we so chose, so we could stay up as late as we wanted. If you wanted to hang out with your girlfriend until all hours, so be it! If you wanted to sit up and watch twelve episodes of Dr. Who nonstop, great! If you wanted to get in your car, pick a road at random, and drive for the fun of driving, you could do that.

Now, having a wife and kids does even this out some. No matter how "free" your weekend is, you still have to get up and feed them, or they come in and start jumping on your bed. (The kids, that is; not the wife.) Nevertheless, one would think that Friday night would still be a joyful time.

It's Friday, Let's go do something!

And I work for a company that's on a 9/80 work schedule, meaning we work 80 hours over two weeks, but squeezed into 9 working days instead of 10--so we get every other Friday off, for upwards of 26 three-day weekends per year. Today was what we refer to, tongue-in-cheek, as "virtual Friday", since we get tomorrow off. You'd think that given that I don't have to worry about work tomorrow, I'd be happy to stay up with my wife and do something--even if it was just watching some movie that doesn't involve talking vegetables.

You'd think that. But then, you'd still be young.

For some reason, starting just a couple of years ago, the moment that the kids went to bed on Friday Night (or Virtual Friday night) at 8:30 or so, when the house is finally quiet, when the cats are lying about, and when I finally have time to myself, what do I want to do?

I want to head straight to the bedroom to...

No, not that. Good guess, but remember, I'm getting old here.

I start imagining how good it would feel just to get some sleeeeeep..... Somehow, all the exhaustion of the previous week comes crashing down on me right at the beginning of the weekend. I think to myself, "Wow, if I get started right now, I can catch 10 hours by the time the kids start jumping on my bed! Doesn't that sound heavenly?"

The funny thing is, I don't generally feel this way on all the other nights of the week, when I have to worry about getting up early the next day. On a Tuesday or Wednesday night, I stay up until 11 or 12 with nary a complaint. For some reason, it's always the beginning of the weekend that does it to me.

Anyone else notice this, or am I the only one?

I await your comments. I'll probably get to them late, late tomorrow morning when I'm good and ready. In the meantime, I'm going to bed.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What Young Love Looks Like

You know, I'm really going to get myself in trouble if I keep this up. One of these days the Pillowfight Fairy is going to figure out how to read my blog, and when she does, she's going to be really, really appalled.

That's part of why I don't use her real name here.


Anyway, she had quite an experience the last few days. You see, Tonya had a doctor's appointment yesterday morning, and so our three kids were left with a family from church for the duration. This family also homeschools their kids, so they had their kids at home, and the event for all intents and purposes became a playdate.

Now, this other family has a son, about age seven, who for the sake of anonymity we will name "L." L is a good kid. He is, however, quite rambunctious, as most seven-year-old boys are. But even more so, he has that twinkle in the eye that, to wise observers, indicates trouble. You've got to keep your eye on that one, he's full of mischief.... Mind you, he comes by it honestly; his daddy has the same eye-twinkle. In fact, so does his grandpa, and his aunts and cousins. It seriously runs in that entire family....

Well, L was just as happy to have company over as my kids were to be with someone else for the morning. And so he decided to make the Pillowfight Fairy feel right at home, in the way that only a boy with that mischievous eye-twinkle could.

He pulled out his magnum opus, a volume that the Fairy later described as his "Idea Book". Now, I'm not sure of the exact nature of this Idea Book, but it seems to be some kind of journal or drawing pad that L has been using to draw things that catch his fancy. And L pulled it out and was showing all his monster drawings to the Fairy.

Now, to understand the significance of this, you have to understand that the Fairy lives on an imaginary plane. What she imagines becomes real--every bit as real as Spaceman Spiff was to Calvin. (And we suspect that the opposite happens too--everything that she stops imagining, ceases to exist in her own little world. When we're not there, we cease to be thought about, and we stop existing. Kind of a weird feeling, if you ask me....)

So now the Fairy has been exposed to L's Idea Book full of monsters, and the Fairy is becoming a little freaked out. So what does the mischievous little seven-year-old do?

"You know, this one likes to eat little girls."

Well, to hear the Fairy describe their conversation later, it's pretty apparent that L's comment had exactly the effect he wanted. The Fairy started to get seriously weirded out. So, L continued:

"In fact, this one over here really likes to eat the ones that wear blue shirts."

Later, the Fairy would tell us: "...and then I looked down at my shirt, and I noticed it was blue! And then I got really scared."

Apparently, yesterday morning turned into a fairly traumatic event in the Fairy's brief life. She's been creeped out pretty much ever since.

But! She decided she wanted to get back at L, by fighting fire with fire, so to speak; she decided that she would dream up some monsters that only ate boys, and she would put it into her own Idea Book. So yesterday afternoon, out came the crayons....

Here's the cover page, with her name artistically edited out by me for safe internet consumption. And you know, she's right; I wouldn't want to run into one of these late at night. Even if it is powder blue.
Of course, the Fairy has enjoyed using the Spore Creature Creator, and I can tell its influence. She knows all about how to shape a monster now for ultimate scary effect--what kind of mouths to use, and where the claws go, and what kind of shape to put at the end of the tail.
I've always hated bugs with stingers. And the creepy thing about this one? It has red eyes--and an odd number of legs.

So I was pretty impressed when I came home from the office and saw her work, and I asked her why she was doing it. She responded that she was going to use it to scare L.

Well, I told her that, impressive though her monsters are, it probably wouldn't work to scare L. I told her, see, that boys and girls think differently; that big monsters, and dinosaurs, and loud noises don't tend to frighten off boys. In fact, said I, when boys get together and play, they tend to get pretty noisy, and they pretend to be monsters, and they chase each other all over the place. I told her that by showing off his monsters to you like that, L was trying to play with you in pretty much the same way he plays with other boys, and she should take that as a compliment, even if she didn't particularly prefer the noisy, bouncy way that boys play.

And then I said it. I probably shouldn't have, but I did.

"But if you really want to know what scares off boys, the way to do that is with all that kissy stuff."

I was just joking. Really I was! But I should still have known better. The Fairy took what I said, and treated it like gospel: if you want to scare off a boy, get all kissy around him.

Well, tonight she put her little theory to the test. Our church sponsors mid-week meetings in various members' homes, with a small number of families in each; and it so happens that L's family was there tonight. And L was his normal, happy, bouncy, mischievous, seven-year-old self.

The kids (there were eight of them tonight) were playing mostly in the back room, with a couple of adults supervising, while the rest of us sat in the front room talking about dull, grown-up things. And out came the Fairy from the back room. She came up to us, and announced with great seriousness and gravity: "I just kissed L because I was trying to scare him away."

Anyway, one of the other mothers patiently explained it to me after the fact: it's not so much that the kissy stuff scares away the boys; it's more like it scares away the mothers of the boys.


Why does this whole thing remind me of Calvin and Susie? I mean, seriously. They couldn't stand each other, but they so enjoyed not being able to stand each other.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

How to Knit When You Can't

Well, a couple of days ago I wrote, almost in passing, that I know a method of knitting scarves (and sweaters, for that matter) that was easy to master and easy to teach to children. And I showed a picture of the scarf I was knitting for the Adrenaline Junkie.

By the way, I finished that scarf earlier today. It goes quickly when you're obsessed! And in my experience, most knitters are. ;-)

Well, my regular reader and commenter B. Durbin dropped in and left a note, saying:
I am now deeply curious and want to know how that works.

(I also have a need for a nine-foot scarf. Perhaps the two impulses are related.)

Ask and ye shall receive! I've decided that it would be a fun little exercise to try to document my process. So, here we go.


The first thing you need is the board. Here's what mine looks like:
To make mine, I used a simple 1X4. Cut it to however long you want it to be for the width of the biggest project you could ever imagine doing. As you can tell, I was pretty ambitious when I made mine.

On this board, draw two long lines, perfectly parallel, lengthwise down the board. These lines will indicate where the nails are to be driven. On my board, they are 1 and 9/16 inches apart, symmetrically balanced around the lengthwise axis of the board.

You next need to mark where exactly along these two lines your nails will go. I spaced mine 3/8 inches apart, and that works well for me. I've also seen 1/2 inch spacing, and that also works, but makes a very loose knit. For the remainder of this post, I'll assume you're using 3/8 inch as well. Get a ruler, and put marks every 3/8 inch down one of the two long lines. Then when you have made those marks, put marks exactly opposite your first set, on the second line--so that each nail will have a perfectly opposed twin on the other side.

Before you pound the nails in--which, depending on the size of your board, could take a while--you need to cut the slot down the middle. The slot on my board is exactly one inch wide, so the nails are spaced just over 1/4 inch away from the slot. When you have cut the slot--preferably with a jigsaw--sand it down so that it's smooth. We don't want yarn getting caught on any splinters! Then, pound the nails in on all the nail marks you've made previously, so that about 1/2 inch of each nail is showing.

This is a close-up of one end of my board, so you can see what it's supposed to look like.
Ok, your board is made. It's time to knit!

Pick a yarn color that doesn't make you puke. Unfortunately, I had to pick one that does, as it gives the best contrast in these pictures. Anyway, before you do anything else, cut off about a foot's length and save it. You'll need in a few minutes.

Now take the yarn from the skein, and start winding it on the nails as you see here. The end of the yarn should be toward you, to the bottom left. As you wind the yarn on, skip every other nail on each side.

For your scarf, I recommend that you pick a width that's a multiple of three stitches. The reason for this has to do with the way we'll make the tassels at the end. Bear in mind that the finished scarf will stretch in such a way that it will be narrower than the 3/8 inch gauge of the board--perhaps as much as 25% narrower--so plan accordingly.

In my project below, I'm making it 18 stitches wide, for six tassels. Note that if you go an odd number instead, like 15 or 21 stitches, that when you get to the end of the row, the yarn will be pointing down instead of up, like it is in the picture below; and that's perfectly OK.
Once you've wound to the end and you've verified that it's the right number of stitches, wind back to the beginning, winding on all the pegs you skipped earlier. It should then look like this:
Now tie a nice, tight knot (square knot works here) between the loose end, and the yarn that heads off to the skein. Then push all the yarn down to the bottom of the pegs, so it is flat against the wood.

The knot is shown below, at the very left end of the piece:
Once that knot is in place, wind on a second layer of yarn, just like the first--but at the tops of the pegs. It should look something like this:
Here's a little tip that I do, which is visible in the above picture: after winding on a layer, I need to keep tension in the yarn so that it doesn't pop off the nails by accident. So upon winding around the last nail, I wrap the yarn five or six times around the end of the board so it doesn't go slack while I'm doing the next couple of steps.

Anyway: remember that foot's length of yarn you cut off at the very beginning? You now use that piece to tie together the two layers of yarn at the very right-most point of the piece. A square knot works here as well. You can see this new knot in the picture below.
Now, each nail has two layers of yarn wound on to them--a bottom layer, and a top layer. At this point, take a crochet hook, and carefully remove the bottom stitch from each nail, by pulling it over the top stitch and to the center of the piece. I've started doing that in the picture below:
I usually work my way from left to right across the top, and then I work the opposite direction on the bottom:
By the time you're done, each nail should have only one strand of yarn looped on it, and it will be looped toward the top of the nail. The bottom layer should have been completely pulled off the nails. It should look something like this:
Congratulations! You've just completed the first row of stitching. All that remains to be done, before starting the next row, is a little tidying. First, push all the yarn down the pegs until it is flush with the wood surface. Then reach under your work, and grab all the loose loops of yarn down there, and pull them downward until the top part of the work looks flat and (mostly) even, like this:
At this point, you just keep doing what you've already done. Wind a new layer of yarn on all the pegs:
And then start pulling the bottom layer off over the top layer with your crochet hook:
Until you have completed the new layer too.
Then scrunch it down to the wood, and reach under and pull your work down through the slot to tighten and neaten everything up:
And repeat. Wind it on, pull off the bottom layer, scrunch it down, give it a tug. In not too much time, you start to see your scarf emerging through the bottom of the slot. This is what mine looked like after 10 rows or so:
And here's what it looked like when I flipped the board over:
Now, don't worry at this point at how ratty the bottom row of stitches looks. That will get cleaned up later. Just keep plugging away until you have your scarf the right length. In my case, since I was only doing a sampler, I stopped after 25 rows. (B. Durbin will want to go nine feet.)

Incidentally, I've been doing this long enough that I am able to do an 18-stitch row in just over a minute. By the time you include futzing about with the skein, and shooing off kids and cats, I probably average about a minute and a half per row. And at my gauge, seven rows gives about three inches, so I can knit a foot of scarf in about 42 minutes. I can go faster if I really get in a groove....

So lets say you've gotten to the end of your work, and it's time to finish it up. What now? Well, you should have something that looks like this, only longer:
First thing to do is tie off the thread. Cut the yarn no less than six inches from the piece, and preferably farther.
Now look at the yarn that goes to the top left peg. Since this is the first peg in the layer, you can follow the yarn on that peg down to where it comes up from the lower layer. You want to tie your loose end to that yarn coming up from below. It will then look something like this:
There are two ways that you can finish the work. One way I'll just describe here briefly: it's possible to make a nice-looking finished edge, using nothing but a crochet hook. This is not the method I'm using in this example; for scarves, you usually do the tassel thing. But if you want a finished edge, you start by lifting the yarn off the lower right peg with a crochet hook; then you lift the yarn off the upper right peg with the hook, and slip the loop from the first peg off the hook over the new loop. Then you lift the yarn off the next peg on the bottom layer, and then slip the previous loop off over it; then you do the next peg on the top layer, and so forth until you've taken everything off the pegs; then you tie off the last loop.

But we're going to do the tassel thing instead. In my example, because my work is wound on 36 pegs (18 top, 18 bottom) I cut 36 lengths of yarn, of no less than 1 foot each. For this job, long is good; think 1 foot minimum.

I loop each of these 36 lengths of yarn through the loop of yarn on each peg, being careful not to pop the stitches off the pegs (or you risk unraveling your project). It looks like this:
When you have all the lengths of yarn looped through all the top-layer stitches, it looks like some horrible creature from the briny deep:
Especially if it's that color.

But at this point it's safe to remove from the pegs. So carefully remove each top-row stitch from the board, and set the board aside. Lay out your work so it looks like this:
Now count three stitches from the right, and carefully separate the strands attached to those stitches from all the others:
Grab that entire cluster of strands, and tie a big overhand knot in it.
Congratulations, again! Your first tassel is done. Then, you count out the next three stitches, carefully separate their strands from the others, and tie them off too.
Keep doing this until all the strands (including the tied-off yarn end!) have been tied into tassels.
Finally, trim all the tassels to a consistent length.
Beautiful! Now, about that ratty looking bottom end. Flip your work top-to-bottom, so that it looks like the picture below.
Pretty much we're going to do the same thing on this end as we did on the other. We cut 36 foot-long lengths of yarn, and we're going to thread them through the bottom-row stitches.

Now, the bottom-row stitches work a little differently than the top-row stitches. For these, here's what you do. Pick the right-most column of stitches, and carefully follow it to the end of the work. You should see two stitches at the very end of the column, that are intertwined so that you can't really tell which one is supposed to be on top. Loop a strand through each one of these two stitches. Then, go to the second-from-the-right column, and do the same thing, and on, and on.
Keep doing this until you have done it for every column of stitches.
Now, just separate them and knot them into tassels, just like you did for the other end. Here's what it looks like after the first tassel is done:
And here's what they look like when they're all done:
Remember that the tassels on the ends incorporate all the loose threads.

Finally, trim these tassels to a consistent length:
And your scarf is done!

A few variations I'll mention here, for variety's sake. It is possible to make horizontal stripes, very easily: just change the yarn color at the end of a row. That is, when you get to the end of a row, cut off the yarn with about a six-inch lead. Then when you wrap on the next layer, do that with a different color, again leaving a six-inch lead. Then tie the two leads together, tuck the long lead ends inside the work, and continue with the knitting like nothing else happened.

And it's even possible to make vertical stripes, though it's a little more complicated. Basically, you pretend you're making two side-by-side works on your board, with two skeins. Whenever you wind on a new layer, you start with the color on the left, and wind it until you get to the right-most stitches; then you physically pick up the skein, and wrap it around the other one, giving a twist in the yarn between the two colors; then you finish winding on the first color, and start winding on the second. It's a little complicated, but it works--I know, because I've done it.

Well. That's it! This is a long post, but it's not that hard a craft to do, and it goes quickly once you've had a little practice. As I said in my previous post, I knocked out a 6+ foot scarf in one late-night dorm room BS session with some friends. I just got into a groove, and forgot where I was, and before I knew it, the stupid thing was longer than I am. Rather surprised me....

And my little swatch that I made earlier tonight?

Well, it's obviously too short for a scarf, so I'm thinking of giving it to my girls and telling them it's a doll-size magic carpet. I'll tell them that yes, indeed--Aladdin might well have been into pink, mightn't he? Who's going to tell them otherwise? :-)

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Anatomy Lesson, Part II

As you can probably tell from my last post, the Pillowfight Fairy is learning about the human body now in her science curriculum.

When you listen to teachers--especially those of young kids--describe what it is they like about their jobs, one of the frequent answers is that occasionally a kid will turn in an assignment that is absolutely hilarious. Usually, it's unintentional--and that's precisely what makes it so funny. Often the teachers will make collections of these assignments over the years, that they can read through every time they need a quick pick-me-up.

And occasionally someone will edit his or her favorites into a single narrative. I saw one of these floating around as an email fruitcake some years back, giving a narrative of the history of the world, told through their kids' howlers. I especially liked the description of how Queen Elizabeth exposed herself before her troops, who then shouted, Huzzah! And I completely lost it when I read how Ferdinand Magellan had circumcised the earth in a 100-foot clipper.

Well, one of the perks of homeschooling is that you don't miss these assignments. You're not sending your little one away to make all her bloopers for some teacher to collect; you get to do it yourself.

And the Pillowfight Fairy seems to be pretty interested in the science of the human body--a subject which is absolutely ripe with humor, as anyone can attest who's tried to explain to a 6-year-old how the digestive system works.

From yesterday's diagram, you can tell that the Pillowfight Fairy has been learning the circulatory system. And today, Mommy had her do a quick observational activity: try to find your own pulse. They hunted for the pulse of the carotid artery, in the neck. Afterward, Mommy had the Fairy write down her observations.

I felt thumps. That's clear and unambiguous, no? She doesn't beat around the bush, she doesn't bury her conclusion under complicated, scientific-sounding Latinate language. I Felt Thumps. Concise. I like it.

But every lesson must end with a what have we learned segment, so here it is:
Important qualification, there at the end. It's good to know she's learning the Facts of Life (and the lack thereof).

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Anatomy Lesson

I present this just because I liked it. The Fairy has been learning about the human body lately, and has taken to drawing pictures of internal organs.

Believe it or not, that's not actually as gross as it sounds.

Of course, it's not Gray's anatomy or anything. She's not necessarily trying to get everything perfect. If she looks at the picture in the book and sees things that remind her of gooshy bits, then when it comes time to draw her picture, it will contain generic gooshy bits where the Fairy thinks they look right. And if this organ has a half-dozen tubes and pipes going into it in various angles, the Fairy will draw an organ with some-odd number of tubes and pipes going off roughly at random. Close enough for Government work, I say.

(Rick, if you're reading this, I didn't mean you.)

Anyway, just for fun, here's the Fairy's take on the Cardiovascular system.
I tease, but I'm rather quite proud. This is a six-year-old first grader, after all.

But am I the only one who looks at those platelets, and think of that worm they put in Chekhov's ear in the Wrath of Khan? Man, those things look creepy. See what I mean about the gooshy bits?

Low Tech Wins Another One

This is the time of year when the thoughts of middle-aged men turn to knitting.

(Sound of record scratching...)


Here lies a tale. As regular readers of this blog know, the daughter whom we have dubbed The Pillowfight Fairy likes doing crafts.

Well, sort of. She likes doing crafts that are easy, that she already knows how to do, and that don't take too long. She has this way (which she's slowly growing out of) of seeing something really cool, and saying, "I want to do that!" Until she realizes just how hard it really is, and just how long it will take to finish the project. She likes projects she can finish in an afternoon. She doesn't like things that will take until Next May. And that especially goes for those crafts that require any amount of practice to get down. The moment she realizes just how much work it takes to do something, her tendency is to want Mommy or Daddy to do it for her instead. As I said though, I think she's slowly growing out of this; when we try to instill some discipline in her and say, "No, I want you to finish," she grumbles less than she used to--and she keeps at it. And if she keeps it up until she masters the skill, she will eventually start to see it as fun and do it on her own--like she did today at piano practice, when she willingly kept on playing "Home on the Range" just for fun after her regular practice time was finished.

But it's tempting for us and for other relatives to buy her presents for her birthday and for Christmas that promise to make things easy! They promise that you too can have lots of fun by doing these crafts, and it's quick and simple!

The Fairy got a very interesting-looking Christmas present from some relatives last month, which she was (originally) quite excited about. It was this thing.

Actually, it wasn't that thing; it was that thing's predecessor. That thing is a knitting machine, intended for ages six and up.

I now know more about the inner workings of a knitting machine than I ever wanted to know.

With the original one, I carefully set it up according to its directions and started knitting on it, just to make sure everything worked. It didn't. Close inspection revealed that one of the hooks had a manufacturing defect, and didn't release the yarn from previous stitches properly, inevitably resulting in a tangled mass every time the machine was used.

So I packed that machine up and got it replaced with the one you see in the picture. And I did manage to make a decent tube on it. I didn't do it with the eyelash-style yarn which they provided, which kept getting snagged and broken; but I could get it to work on a very soft wool-blend we had lying around.

Well, tonight the Fairy got it in her head that she wanted to make a scarf for her sister. (Awww!) So we pulled out the machine, picked out some yarn, and started it up.

The knitting machine has two settings--one for making tubes, and one for making flat pieces. We set it for the latter. And then we quickly discovered that the little switch doesn't hold its position very well, slipping down into the "tube" position if you bump the machine a little too hard. So I had to tape it up into the "flat" position for the duration of tonight's fiasco.

And then the yarn started snagging all over the machine.

I hate to say it; the knitting machine isn't really all that well designed. I can tell how it's supposed to work: as you turn the crank, each hook in turn rises out of its sheath and snags the yarn; then the hook descends into its sheath and traps the yarn, while the previous stitch (which was wrapped around the sheath) is pushed up over the whole assembly to complete the knit. Then as the hook is raised for the next stitch, the previous one is pushed down around the sheath, and May The Circle Be Unbroken By And By.

Trouble is, the whole thing is made out of cheap, not-too-stiff plastic that doesn't handle the tension in the yarn well. And the yarn has too much friction to slide properly on the hooks and sheaths. And there are little sharp corners on the mechanism that snag the yarn when it's not supposed to.

By the time you put it all together, it takes so much concentration to inspect each stitch to make sure the machine didn't blow it, that you might as well learn how to do it the old-fashioned way.


So I broke the news to my daughter that I didn't think the knitting machine is going to be very useful to us. But! I Am Daddy, and as such, I am full of good ideas.

Turns out, way back in my college days, I caught a glimpse of a craft project that my mom was preparing for her fourth-grade class. You start with a board, and cut a long slit in it, maybe 1 inch wide; you line the slit with carefully-spaced nails; and with this as a template, you can wind yarn on it, and pull it off, in such a way that it produces a knit pattern.

At the time I saw it, I thought, "Now that is Cool! I can use this idea to make things--like sweaters for my girlfriends...." So I went out, got a board, and made a template.

The thing worked. And the girlfriends loved the sweaters.

(Note: by "girlfriends", do not imagine that I had plural girlfriends all at once. Good heavens, I had a hard enough time juggling one at a time.)

Long after college was over, I hung onto the board, just in case I ever felt the Spirit move me to make another knitted item. And today, the moment came. I explained to the Fairy that while the knitting machine may not be working right, there is another option that is actually easier. And then I went and found The Board.
Here it is, with some dark green yarn wound on it for the Fairy's project. And next to it is the scarf I made on it in college, when I was testing it out to see how well the thing worked. I seem to remember that I knocked that thing out over a couple of hours during a late-night BS session in my dorm room with my roommate and a few other assorted friends. Its length is about the same as my height--a little over six feet long. And it's warm.

So I showed The Board off to my daughter, and showed her how to handle the yarn and the crochet hook. She's a bit slow and unsteady with it now, but she was rather fascinated to see how well Daddy could do it. I think she'll get into it more when she's done it enough to gain some confidence.

And unlike the knitting machine with all those little, tiny, fragile moving parts, The Board isn't going to break anytime soon. And it isn't going to malfunction. There's nothing to malfunction. All problems are strictly User Error.

Of course, as cool as this thing is, it doesn't beat the old-fashioned way of doing things. Back in My Day, I made multi-colored sweaters on this thing; but it only allows for one kind of stitch, so I couldn't do knit-purl patterns or cabling or anything like that. And it only does flat pieces; real knitters can do socks.

One of these days I'm going to send my daughter over to my Sister-In-Law to have her taught how to do real knitting, the skill that a person can use the rest of her life to make beautiful things from nothing more than pointy sticks and pretty string. Now that's cool.

Even though I'm a guy, I can still say that, right?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Few Thoughts on College Debt

A few weeks back I was having a conversation with my little brother about our mortgages. I mentioned that Tonya and I were noticing that, with so little buying and selling in the market these days, combined with the tightened lending standards that are thankfully back in fashion, combined with the Fed trying to shovel dollars out of of helicopters to keep the economy propped up, it was actually possible to get some really good long-term fixed rates, if your credit is good. We mentioned that we were considering refinancing our current loan at a lower rate--seeing whether we could shave a few hundred dollars off per month, or reduce the time left on the loan.

My younger brother--who'd worked for a time in the registrar's office at Pepperdine University and who understands the way college financial aid works (and who, for that matter, had plenty of first-person experience with it himself), strongly counseled against reducing the term of our mortgage.

The trouble, he said, was that it would affect our chances of getting financial aid for our kids when it came time for them to go to college. The universities look at the parents' taxable income when they make their aid calculations, he explained; so if you pay down your mortgage early, you aren't taking as big a mortgage interest deduction by the time your kids are applying; thus, your income looks higher, and you don't qualify for as much aid, and so you have to pay a lot more out of pocket.

I've been chewing on what he said over the last few weeks, and the more I think about it, the more it rubs me the wrong way. It's not that he's wrong, mind you--I have full confidence that he knows exactly what he's talking about here. But it still rubs me the wrong way.



I don't trust debt.

Now, I know intellectually that debt can be a very useful tool, if it's handled properly. There are times that taking out some debt is a wise thing to do. There are times, for instance, when an expenditure of cash now can eliminate an ongoing expense in the future. Tonya and I did this when we bought our house and stopped renting. Given enough time, our mortgage payments will be lower than what our rent payments would have been. Another example that Tonya and I did was that we financed the replacement of our low-efficiency windows and our HVAC unit, in the expectation that it would improve our energy bills enough to offset our debt service. There are times when the use of debt is useful, even wise.

And yet...

My wife and I have a typical 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, and we owe in the six figures. On paper this is a much better arrangement than when we were renting--after all, the amount we're paying in interest now is about the same we were paying in rent then. We've just replaced one expenditure with another, right? And at the same time, we're building up our ownership interest. But at the same time, there's still this feeling of something not quite right here. Being debt-free, the way we were before we bought the house, gives a feeling of freedom. Yes, we had bills, and we had jobs to help us pay those bills, and we had leases. But there was still this sense that if we wanted to, if we felt we had to make a life change, we could walk away from it all and start over.

Not so anymore. Now that we owe our house, that job I have becomes a whole lot more crucial. I've got a whole lot less margin for error than I previously did, because the stakes are higher. I don't have the freedom anymore of just picking up and moving to a new state if I want to; there are a whole lot of other parties out there who have a claim on my income, and my home, and my very existence.

So even though it made sense from an intellectual standpoint for Tonya and me to take out that big mortgage and buy the house, it still feels, well... insecure. And she and I will celebrate when the day finally comes, some day in the far, far future, when burn that mortgage.


The trouble is, society is conspiring against us as we attempt to get out of debt. It's not just that (until recently) credit has been ridiculously easy to come by; Tonya and I have simple tastes and aren't tempted to spend until we're in over our heads. Rather, it's because of little quirks like what my little brother pointed out to me: our society assumes that everyone is going to leverage themselves to the gills--and considers people odd, even selfish, if they don't.

Selfish? Of course! What happens if the parents of a college-age son have a $300,000 house which they own free and clear? Why, to pay for that education, they are expected to leverage it--put it back under mortgage so they can put their kid through college. After all, it's for the future! It's for their son! Who could be so heartless to deny their kid an education, just to uphold some abstract principle of being debt-free?

Of course, if the same parents had, instead, put off paying off the mortgage as long as possible, and squandered the money on adult beverages--well, then, the parents don't have quite as nice-looking a balance sheet, and the kid now qualifies for a whole bunch more financial aid.

Do you start to see my problem here?


Of course, that's not where my problem ends--especially when I think about the future that my kids are going to face, starting (gasp!) eleven years from now.

Tonya and I were lucky. I--perhaps due to lack of ambition (I fully admit it)--chose to attend a state college close to home. California has an excellent public system of higher education, and I took full advantage of it; by the time I graduated from San Jose State University with my four-year degree (which took me six years to earn--there's that ambition thing again), I owed nothing.

Not one dime.

Tonya's education was a little different. She wanted to go to Pepperdine University, but was concerned about the cost. So, she strategized: first, she went to a local junior college, and got her general ed. courses out of the way. Then she transferred to Pepperdine, and got the best financial aid package she could from Pepperdine. Tonya's mom was able to help out, by going back to work for a while; and Tonya took whatever jobs she could while on campus. She managed to complete her degree after two and a half years there, and graduated with not much more than $7000 in debt, tops--which got paid off (with a little parental help) before it started accruing interest.

In comparison to our stories, we found ourselves surrounded by peers (and relatives!) who had amassed debts of a hundred thousand dollars or more by the time they got out of college. In fact, one of Tonya's friends went to Pepperdine, then to a medical school, both 100% on loans--and graduated with over a million dollars in student debt!

Now that last one is an extreme example, of course; but still, we find ourselves horrified at the financial condition that so many students leave school in, and what this financial condition does to their well-being--not to mention how it affects the rest of their lives. It's not uncommon to read about young couples who start their marriages off with one or two hundred thousand in debt between the two of them. And if one of them loses their job, that interest starts accruing and compounding...

Sez I, that's no way to start a marriage. Sure, some people can make it work, but no one could call it ideal. When Tonya and I got married, we were debt-free. With no debt, with no kids, with Tonya's savings that she'd been building up during the previous few years (while she'd been living with her parents to save money), and with two employed people in the marriage, Tonya and I were able to save enough for a sizeable down payment on our current house, and so we were able to pay cash for the minivan when the Pillowfight Fairy came along. We can't tell you how thankful we were, and are, for the blessing of having started out debt-free.


I was thinking of all this today because I saw an article in Forbes (with a hat tip to Dr. Helen) about just this problem--changes in the education industry in the last two decades or so have been putting increasing financial pressure on the students and their parents. The price of higher education has been rising much faster than the general rate of inflation (and people's wages), and increasingly this gap has been filled by the educational equivalent of sub-prime loans.

All those people that Tonya and I knew who got out of college with six-figures of debt? Well, the problem has only gotten worse since then--and the interest rates are higher, too.

How is all this happening? Well, it appears to be a couple of things. For one thing, "College" has now become the new "High School". That is, where the high school diploma was once (a few generations back) seen as the necessary qualification to prepare people for the world of professional employment, now people with just a diploma are seen as having an incomplete education and insufficient qualification for most non-manual-labor jobs. As there is now a stigma attached to merely having a high-school education, the demand for college has soared. Demand goes up, so do prices--that's Econ 101.

Furthermore, the colleges have discovered that the more generous the government is with its grants and loans, the higher they can jack their prices and still have people shell out for it.

Add to this the fact that it's normal these days for people to use debt to buy everything, and to leverage themselves to the gills--between our mortgages, credit cards, car payments, etc..., and people don't think anything's unusual about applying for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to finance their education. After all, we all reason, they are investing in their future.

The article makes the point that this investment often doesn't pay off as well as they expect. By the time you factor in the time value of the money they spend on college, and the interest on their debts, and the increasing competition for professional jobs by the burgeoning ranks of college grads, and the fact that high-school-only grads start earning four or more years earlier (and thus have four more years of experience by the time the college grads hit the workforce), a big chunk of the lifetime earnings premium for having a college degree just isn't there anymore.


I wrote back in December about the state of higher education in this country, at least as observed by Victor Davis Hanson, and touched on his foreboding that we're approaching a cultural tipping point in our views of what Universities are and what they're good for. I finished out that article thus:
And I think that at some point there's likely to be a backlash in the general population against the university system. Hanson claims that
While the public may not fully appreciate the role that classical education once played, it nonetheless understands that university graduates know ever less, even as the cost of their education rises ever more.
With a college degree currently being absolutely necessary to get into many professional jobs, and the current costs of higher education spiraling out of control, and a growing sense in the population that just because someone graduated from a University, it doesn't mean they're well educated, eventually something is going to break.

I, for one, am curious to see what that "break" looks like. I actually suspect it will be good for society, but I'm a hopeless optimist that way.
My guess is that the Forbes article I linked to above is a sign of the gathering backlash; the more people read and hear about the state of higher education and its costs, the more likely they are to want to do something about it; and this doing something may well involve substantial changes to the way we educate and train our kids, in a way that marginalizes or dis-establishes the University.


And about our mortgage?

We recognize that there may be ways of structuring our mortgage to game the financial aid system to our benefit. But Tonya and I have decided not to do this. Should we decide to refinance, it will be with an eye toward reducing our monthly payments or paying the loan off early, or both, as we see fit. We realize this may make it harder to make ends meet when the kids are college age. So be it! Our goal is to find those educational options like what Tonya and I had, so that neither we nor our kids are saddled with unreasonable amounts of debt by the time they have the education they need to survive in life.

Monday, January 19, 2009

What If Washington Had Become King?

Of course, with all the inauguration folderol going on this week, we're seeing lots and lots of punditry on the event, and lots of reflections in the news about the character of our presidents. And if you do find the current events inspiring, I wish you well, and hope you have a very good week. But forgive me; for myself, I find I'm turning into one of those old geezers where you practically can't get them excited without setting their pants on fire.

Meh. Bunch of wet-behind-the-ears whippersnappers. Now in my day, we knew what to do with our presidents: we mostly ignored 'em, and we liked it that way. Well, it made us feel better, at any rate.

I find in my advancing age I'm starting to think and act a lot more like, um... Carl Fredrickson.

I haven't even seen the movie yet (since it comes out in May) and already that guy is my hero. So after my kids are all up and grown, and off doing those darn fool things that college kids do, don't be surprised to hear on the news about some obscure, semi-coherent west-coast blogger just up and airlifts his house to Alaska or Tahiti or somewhere because he got sick of dealing with the Gub'mint.

But! That's not the point of this post. I saw something today that put a smile on my face and made me think a little. What if Washington had decided he wanted to be a king? There were plenty of people in this country who wanted him in power. What would have happened?

Well, this article tracks out who would be in line for the throne today. Washington himself didn't have kids, but his two brothers did, and there are about 200 people in the country today with the last name of Washington who are descended from them. And if you follow a similar set of rules for succession as they had in Britain, we can identify our would-have-been monarch: His name is Paul Washington, and he's a retired business manager of a building supply company in (of all places) Valley Forge.

And I loved this comment from his son Bill W: “Somewhere along the line we lost the height... George Washington was 6 feet 3 inches, and I guess from the love of little women over 200 years, we gradually got smaller.”

Yup, that would do it.

Anyway, it's probably good for these people that their ancestor decided to reject the crown. Royal lines have a way of ending badly--a point that they fully acknowledge. But when Paul Washington says, "I doubt if I'd be a very good king", that at least is in itself evidence that he'd be better at it than he thinks. I subscribe to the theory, advanced in literary works as different as The Hitchhiker's Guide trilogy and the Chronicles of Narnia, that those people who want to be ruler, who think they're ready and would make a swell ruler, and who are most capable of getting themselves into power, are precisely the people you don't want running things.

Washington was a magnificent president, and was the main reason we have as many liberties today as we do--he accepted the presidency because we needed him, not because he had any particular burning ambition of his own for the post. And when he felt he'd done his duty, he happily relinquished power and went back to his farm. Now that is an admirable example.

And it's good to see that the same kind of modesty persists in his progeny, these many generations later. That shows you what Good Breeding can do.

(Even if the women were all a little short...)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

And Then I Socialized Them.

So my daughter said something today that was (unintentionally) side-splittingly funny--but only among those of us who are steeped in the lore of the homeschooling movement. For the rest of you reading this, trust me--it was funny.

Now, our six-year-old daughter is a strange beast, in many ways. She's very often off in her own little world; imagining things the way she wants them to be, in a manner that would make Spaceman Spiff's mild-mannered(?!) alter-ego proud. If you come upon her at random and ask her what's been going on in her life, you might get a description of her day, or her latest craft project; or you might get a ten-minute lecture on the workings of the human spleen, or Chapter Seven of the tale that she's been making up and trying to tell everyone in her family (since about 10:00 this morning). The thing is, you never know in advance what you'll get with her.

But oddly enough, unlike most people who are lost in their own little internal world much of the time, the Fairy isn't shy. She's actually quite extroverted. Or rather, she may meet the technical definitions of an introvert, in that she spends most of her time in the internal world of her own imagination; but she's generally quite outgoing. She thinks nothing of going up to complete strangers--adults included, and in fact preferred--and introducing herself (and her whole family).

Now maybe my vantage point is a little odd, since the Fairy is my firstborn daughter, and I don't have a whole lot of experience dealing with other people's six-year-olds. But it seems to me that this kind of behavior is a little unusual. Most school-age kids (and this becomes more and more true the older the kids get) shy away from adults they don't know. In fact, they're trained to. Most of us have had the "Don't talk to strangers" mantra drilled into our heads from very young ages. And I suspect that when kids go to school and spend most of their time around other kids, they eventually become more comfortable around kids their own ages, and less comfortable around adults. But the Fairy has no fear of adults at this point. She thinks nothing of going up to them and introducing herself, her parents, and her siblings; and telling them about her latest video, and her latest toy, and her latest adventures she's been on (and the fact that she just scraped her knee and had to have a band-aid put on it), and whatever else comes to mind.

And it's rather amusing from Daddy's point of view, to watch the often bewildered reactions of the adults thus targetted by my little girl. It's clear that most of them are completely surprised that some cute young girl just came traipsing up to them to tell them all about her world. But most of them take it in stride, and start engaging her in conversation right back--asking her questions, commenting on her latest adventures. Most of them seem to enjoy meeting my girl. But, of course, I generally hover nearby, ready to rescue them if it appears my girl is starting to monopolize their attention.

Well, all that is to set the stage for today's little outing to the park. I figured it had been a few weeks since the Fairy and I had a chance to ride our bikes together, so my wife and I loaded up the family and the bikes and headed over to the park. And while Tonya and the younger two headed over to the playground equipment to play, the Fairy and I rode on all the walkways through the park. There were a lot of people out today, many of whom were walking their dogs; and the Fairy wanted to say Hi to most of the people she met.

I've been trying to get her comfortable with being on her own and doing things on her own, so I would make suggestions like, "Let's ride over to that Oak tree way over there. You take the path on the right, and I'll take the other path to the left, and we'll see who gets there first." So she would be riding all by herself, with me on a completely different path, several hundred yards away. And this worked well, most of the time.

But of course, the Fairy is still a beginning bike rider (though she's getting much better!), and on one occasion in particular she fell over--while I was a few hundred yards away. She scraped up her hands, and was having difficulty extracting herself from the bike, and had started crying. Well, at this point a young couple to whom the Fairy had already introduced herself (along with their big black Lab) got up from their bench, and came over to help her out. They got her untangled, and helped her get up, and were inspecting her scraped hands when I finally caught up. After we got her bike upright again, she told them "Thank You", and I had the Fairy ride over to the playground equipment where the rest of the family was, because she wanted to take a break from riding and do something else that was fun.

She started telling me enthusiastically all about that young couple who had helped her out. So I started asking details, like, "Did you get their names?" (No. Still has some work to do here...) But she described how she earlier had gone up to them, and said Hi, and had met their dog...

Whereupon she happily announced: "And then I socialized them."

I admit it, I couldn't help myself. I immediately erupted into laughter. And then when the Fairy got on the playground equipment to do her thing, I had to go over to Tonya and repeat her words, whereupon my wife also immediately erupted into laughter.

That's my daughter, proudly performing her civic duty and making certain the adults of the nation have been properly socialized. Judging from their slightly bewildered reactions, many of them need it.

I'm so proud of her.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I'm Going To Have To Take The Family To See This

By "The Family", I mean, um... including me.

By "This", I'm referring to this.

So at the Charles M. Schultz Museum in Santa Rosa, CA, they have a new exhibit up on the Music of Schroeder. Schroeder was, of course, the character in Peanuts that was always playing the piano. And one of the things Schultz often did when showing Schroeder playing the piano, was to include a couple bars of music in the frame--whatever Schroeder was supposed to be playing at that moment.

Well, apparently Schultz was a big fan of Beethoven. (He was a bigger fan of Brahms, but he didn't think Brahms was quite as comical a character as Beethoven, so it was the latter who became Schroeder's muse). And so whenever he drew Schroeder playing something, and he wanted to include a few bars of music in the frame, he would meticulously transcribe a little something from a genuine Beethoven piece. It is actually possible to read the music in these comic strips and figure out what piece of music the passage was drawn from--if you know enough about Beethoven.

Well, it just so happens that my Alma Mater has a little institute dedicated to the genius that was Beethoven--the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, at San Jose State University (sometimes just referred to as the "Brilliant Beethoven Center"). They apparently have a whole bunch of nifty stuff there, like original manuscripts. And they know their Beethoven inside out.

So the director of this center, William Meredith, decided to go through all those Peanuts strips and figure out, for each one of them, exactly what it was that Schroeder was playing. By the way, that was hundreds of strips over the fifty-year span that Schultz was doing Peanuts. And Dr. Meredith discovered something fascinating.

Turns out, the selections of music in those strips was carefully selected to enhance the main joke of each strip. The article gives an example of this kind of humor. One strip showed Schroeder "warming up" to play the piano, by doing a whole bunch of highly energetic exercises: running, jumping, boxing, sit-ups... And then Schroeder sits down, and plays a passage from the "Hammerklavier" Sonata, Op. 106, which is renowned for being extremely difficult. But the thing is, that little bit of humor would only be caught by the very few people in the world who'd actually tried to learn that piece, or who could sight-read well enough to tell what it was he was doing.

So basically, a huge number of these Schroeder strips had musical inside humor, fully accessible to only a select, elite few.

Well, Dr. Meredith put together an audio museum exhibit. The various stations in the exhibit show the comic strips, and allow the patrons to push a button and listen to the musical works depicted therein.

Is that totally awesome, or what?

Well, the exhibit runs through the 26th of January at the Charles M. Schultz museum in Santa Rosa, CA, whereupon the exhibit will be taken down and moved to the Brilliant Beethoven Center for a May 1 opening date.

Seeing as my eldest daughter has become rather taken with the Peanuts comic strips, we'll have to put this on our to-do list....

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Victory of the Long Tail

Last September, I wrote about my attempts to find an obscure CD title online. In my article I mentioned how there were only a few copies being advertised on, for exorbitant prices; and I mentioned how the label under which the title was produced and distributed (Koch-Schwann) had ultimately been bought out by Universal and retired, and that the title was completely out of print and unavailable anywhere else.

Well, I want to report that this tale has a happy ending. Here's what happened.

First, Arby had left a comment with a link to another retail site that was advertising it. I forwarded that info on to my Dad, who tried it out. No luck; they were advertising it, but when they received Dad's order, they suddenly discovered that it was out of stock, out of print and otherwise unavailable. No duh, as we used to say when we were younger and smarter. I figured that most other sites would be like that. It is a pretty obscure title, after all; there aren't too many people out there--even Strauss afficionados--who've even heard of the thing.

Rock bottom supply, rock bottom demand.

But I kept it in mind, and periodically I would tune back in to Amazon to see if anything had changed.

Lo and behold, a couple of days ago something had changed. There were now two used copies for sale from third-party sellers, with the prices listed at $31.00 and $99.00. I figured the lower price was reasonable. So I whipped out the plastic...

(...which thankfully still works; apparently my issuer hasn't gone under yet...)

...and placed the order.

The third-party seller got it out by first-class mail the next day, and it showed up today.

Now, I actually happened to be on the phone with my Dad this evening on a completely unrelated topic when my wife walked up to me and quietly dropped the package into my hands. So I got to tell him that we had a little post-Christmas present for him that he would find interesting.

And then, after the call, I popped in the CD and played it--just to make sure the disc was in good condition, mind you. Besides, I figured the disk was already used--playing it a few times before giving it to Dad wouldn't reduce the value of his gift any further, after all. (Not to mention the fact that Dad told us to.)


So how's the music?

Well, it's not just music--it's an entire Singspiel. Now, Strauss didn't finish the thing before his death, so other composers had to flesh it out before it could be performed--but apparently, they fleshed it out entirely with leitmotifs that Strauss had already finished composing for the piece; they didn't make up the rest of it out of whole cloth. Wherever Strauss had left notes on what was supposed to go where, that was incorporated.

The work, Des Esels Schatten (The Donkey's Shadow), was written as a musical play, a Singspiel. It's ultimately based on Aesop's Fable by the same name, in which a client who hired a donkey got in an argument with the donkey's owner over whether the fee also includes use of the donkey's shadow (so he can take a brief rest in the shade, while trying to cross a hot desert). In the original version, the men start arguing so violently that the donkey gets spooked and runs off.

But in Strauss's version, the plot gets a whole lot longer and more convoluted, and becomes a wickedly funny satire on lawyers, on religions, and on the masses' hunger for entertainment (and propensity to get into trouble when they're bored). In this version of the story the arguing men turn around and head back to their hometown where they go to court. And then the lawyers start egging them on. And the court impounds the donkey. And then the lawyers and the litigants start looking for powerful allies in the town, including the local demagogue and priests from two rival temples. (The scene where they have to use a nubile young girl to entice the extremely old, decrepit priest to lending his support, by playing on his senile lechery, is a bit on the edgy side, but--as I said before--wickedly funny. She winds up singing a sensuous, seductive song to him... and the music promptly puts him to sleep.) It all culminates with the town divided into two bloodthirsty rival factions, the "donkeys" and the "shadows", who are convinced that this is no longer about a one-drachma dispute, but that their entire society is threatened. But when they finally bring out the "evidence", it is discovered that in the several weeks that the dispute has been festering, no one remembered to feed the donkey, who has now died of starvation.

That's the play. It is presented on the CD with the musical numbers of the Singspiel (sung in German) interspersed with a very droll narration (in English) of the story by Peter Ustinov, delivered in a very dry, understated, almost deadpan, British style. It's pretty close to a perfect delivery.


Through the whole thing, I kept thinking about what a good social commentary the story is--it somehow seems entirely timely today. He skewers the lawyers who keep egging on disputes for their own benefit; he skewers the "people", who've gotten bored with their peaceful existence, and so spend their time and effort figuring out ways to get in fights with each other; he skewers politicians, he skewers religious infighting...

And through it all, I was thinking, this guy's got it straight. We do have a tendency to take small inconveniences, and minor disputes, and convince ourselves that the republic will end if we don't triumph over our opponents. Sometimes it seems to us Americans (and all Westerners, to put it more generally) that winning a political fight is so important that we're willing to inflict all kinds of collateral damage to our civil society in the aim of political victory; and we're willing to see our opponents as monsters, instead of as fellow citizens.

Des Esels Schatten is a good musical work, and a good social satire. I have no idea if this particular title will ever go into print again, or if and when other revivals will be done of the work, but if it ever happens, I'd highly recommend that any of my readers who are into late Romantic German opera take a look at it. (If there are any. Bueller...? Bueller...?)