Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Some happy, some sad

Yesterday was an interesting day... in addition to dealing with recent changes in my medications, I had plenty to think about: July 29th is both the birthday of my friend Julie, and the first anniversary of the death of Scott Vice.

Julie is in New York, raising a family. Her husband Avram is a musician and lyricist, and her two daughters are almost absurdly cute. I haven't met Avram or the girls, I just piece together a picture from the emails Julie sends. There seems to be alot of joy in their lives, which is good for the kids... but the pressures of raising two kids, in New York, must be enormous. I've heard all of those 'fruit of your loins' speeches that some parents give, about what a joy it is to raise your own kids, and while I feel that the relationship between parent and child can be incredible, it may be the years of joy that you look back on when they are grown, but it is the hours and minutes of life that you must deal with every day. I don't think I would have the strength to do it, and I admire people like Julie who do.

And somehow Julie manages to remain hip while dealing with all of the mama trip. Her kids appear to be growing up in an engaging environment, and they will probably never know how hard their parents worked to make that possible for them, at least not until they have kids of their own. I have always had alot of love for Julie, and the tiny bit that I get to share in the stories of her life is delightful to me. I wish her and her family the best, this year and all the others.

On a completely different note, one year ago yesterday our friend Scott Vice sat down on his bed and took a bottle of sleeping pills. He had come to the end of his fight with depression and self-doubt. He was one of the kindest and most interesting people I have ever met, and everyone but him knew that he was a very rare combination of large amounts of heart, mind, soul, and humor. Everyone he knew loved him.

Scott always gave 200%, and always felt that he wasn't giving enough. This then, ultimately, is the disease that killed him. I have this disease too. As do some friends of mine. My New Head™ is giving me relief from this disease, and now I look at the other people I know who have it, and wonder why they don't realize that their scripts are faulty, or that to some extent the reliance on scripts like that isn't the same thing as really living. Of course, people have wondered the same thing about me the last few years, and I know all to well how the disease changes everything, degrades and erodes and devalues every act, every thought, every word, and how the disease also tells you that the only way to make the pain go away is to try harder, give more, burn out. Eventually you reach a place where you lose track of the goals, and the process, the tedious soul-killing process of weighing your every act against some expectation of the ideal, becomes and end in itself. In the case of Scott, this end was literal.

I fear that some other people I know may find this end as well; others have feared the same about me. I have a bigger fear that people with this disease will live with it all of their lives, never taking the steps to face their own demons and determine their own self-worth. The disease makes you dislike yourself, and the creedence you give to some external force, allowing it to define your life, is disempowering, making you dislike yourself even more, and making you bitter towards the others who, through your own reliance on what you perceive to be their judgements, appear (wrongly) to be 'doing things to you'.

Life isn't something that happens to you. Death usually is. For Scott, the only way he could see to get away from the pressures he felt, from the feeling that life was indeed something that was happening to him, was to take death into his own hands. We lost a good one, there.

I'm learning alot from these two friends. I think Scott really woke me up to just how far down I had fallen, and though I am not out of the dark places yet, I am working very hard on realigning my head and trying to find some happiness in the world. Talking with Julie, just the day-to-day sharing of stories and hopes and fears and dreams, is joyful, and the fact that she is intelligent and funny makes every interaction a pleasure.

Birthdays and Deathdays are fine, but they are just days. They are useful markers to wake us up and make us remember that it is all those other days, the lives of the people we love, that mean so much.


Monday, July 28, 2003

Gilding the lily

Putting any sort of decoration on Sharon is almost absurd... she is beautiful and graceful without any external aid. (I was shocked the first time I saw her in makeup... 'why?', I thought.) But, with the big wedding coming up, plans are being made to enhance her presence during the event, hence the flurry of dress-fittings and such. It only happens once, and they are doing it in style. I am already getting excited about it, ironing up my dress kilt and shining my boots, happy to be involved however peripherally in this ritual that my dear friends are going through. Our small contribution to the grand production is a silver and garnet necklace and pendant and possibly earrings as well. I mentioned the necklace in a previous post, and a number of people have asked for pictures, so here are a couple of quick ones. I'll document the whole project later when I have the time.

You can click on the pictures to get a larger view.


Anne-Marie made the necklace, silver links strung with garnets, moonstone, and hematite. She's been doing beadwork for years; once upon a time she was a member of an artists collective in Eugene Oregon.


I made the pendant, a faceted garnet bound in silver with some simple filigree applied. I haven't done much silver work, but I was pretty happy with the way this turned out. Anne-Marie provided useful ideas, most of which made it into the final product.


Saturday, July 26, 2003

Michael's Wonderful Life Of Doom

Ok, so they put me on megadoses of nerve damage medication. The main results, so far, have been that I am always nauseous, and a bit dizzy, but without any cessation of pain. The pain is bad enough that it overrides the other medications I take to help me sleep, the better to enjoy the pain in the wee hours of the night. This, as you might imagine, is affecting my otherwise cheery personality.

I have been thinking about the amount of pain I see people in every day. I have obvious sources of pain, and methods (some more successful than others) for combatting them. It seems to me that we are somewhat beholden to ourselves, if not to each other, to learn and grow as we age, to put aside the petty games we played when we were young and clueless, and to deal with each other on a level that is more honest and real. I find that even if some pattern of behavior that served me well in the past still wants to rear its ugly head in contexts to which it no longer applies, I am just too fucking tired to deal with it, and it is much easier to just drop it and deal with things on a more honest level. Luckily, this sort of weariness forces me into a mode of behavior that is more honorable than I might be able to sustain had I more energy :)

I've been trying very fucking hard to deal with people better, even to the extent of attempting to develop or maintain relationships with people who have traditionally ticked me off. My instinct is to avoid people who seem to need other people around them for the purpose of playing out some sort of script that requires either an audience or a victim or whatever other roles that are in the game instead of in the realm of actual human interaction. When I find myself in an unpleasant mood, my instinct is to remove myself from the equation, to back off from the social scene until I can participate with a clear mind and heart. There are others, I have found, who have the opposite response to their internal turmoil: they actively seek out someone on whom to dump their frustrations, in effect using the people around them as an abstracted proxy for the real issues that are inside of them.

This saddens me immensely, and wears me out. By not dealing with their problems directly, these people only add turmoil to those around them (usually people who have some sort of emotional connection to them, who are therefore easily held hostage), and in doing so they convince themselves that the pain they feel is caused by someone outside of them. This doesn't help the person who is feeling the pain, and it sure as hell doesn't help the people they take it out on. I know large groups of people that feel like they must tiptoe around one of the group, lest they 'push a button' that triggers some sort of drama. I am still shocked every time I see an adult display this sort of behavior, which was only slightly more acceptable when we were young and clueless. Holding your 'loved ones' hostage emotionally isn't acceptable in any case; relying on them for support is great, but I think it behooves you to actually use that support in service of your own healing, not to squander it away playing out some script that only reinforces the problem.

Life isn't something that happens to you. If you feel good, look within yourself to see why: it may indeed be that your love for someone else is causing you joy, but that is your love, something inside, not something the other person is doing to you. No one can save you from yourself, you have to do the work on your own. Similarly if you feel bad, do not cast about to find the person who is causing your pain; look within and determine what the source of your unhappiness is. If you are upset because someone is not meeting your expectations, that is a problem within yourself, not some deficiency within the other person. To lay all of your unhappiness on the people around you is not just dishonorable, it is also not addressing the real issues at all. Fix yourself first; then you can look around yourself with clearer eyes.

It amazes me that people will go to such great lengths to avoid looking within themselves, even when they are clearly unhappy and the scripts of their lives are clearly not working. Of course, my disease has always been the opposite side of that coin: I always assume that I am the fuckup in any situation, so I retreat and try to work on the things within myself that I believe caused the problem in the first place. I've got pretty simple rules for how to deal with this: if I am in conflict with one person, or some small number of people, I am willing to accept that the problem might just be interpersonal friction, possibly even something that should cause me to re-evaluate my relationships with the people in question. If, however, I find myself in conflict with everyone, I must assume that the more pressing problem is one that lies within myself, and I don't make any rash judgements on people around me; I find it better to compose my mind and heart and wait until I am clear before doing anything that might harm my relationships with people I care about.

I get depressed pretty easily, and seeing people who are clearly experiencing a depth of pain that is only exceed by the depth of their unwillingness to look within themselves really shatters my already faltering faith in humanity. I didn't always see this as clearly as I do right now; My New Head™ is providing me with alot of perspective lately, and more energy to delve into my relationships to reinforce my bonds with the people I care about. The hardest part for me was admitting to myself and to the people who care about me that I needed help. Once I got to that point, I found that there was more love around me than I had ever imagined. I hope the people I know who are journeying through similarly treacherous mindspaces find the courage to drop their faulty scripts and get on with their lives.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Showers and powers

I and damn near everyone else I know here in Portland spent a couple of days working on Scott and Sharon's surprise shower, transforming Zannah's back yard into a sort of Arabesque; there was a menu designed to at least dazzle and daze if not actually knock the poor guests into some sort of carbo/sugar coma. Anne-Marie and Hannes and I spent two nights working on gifts; AM and I made a garnet, moonstone, and silver necklace for Sharon, and the three of us built a new set of back stairs for S&S's house, the previous ones having succumbed to the Oregon weather, crumbling into that sort of humus that is the fate of all organic life out here. The shower was great, a pretty mellow day of hanging out with friends and gorging ourselves into a pleasant stupor.

The following day I had my first appointment at the Pain Management Clinic, wherein I have placed almost all of the hope I have left for defeating the physical problems I have been having. They think I have a damaged nerve that is lying to my brain, constantly sending pain impulses when there isn't anything happening that should cause pain. Long term, they might send me to acupuncture (including the sort where they hook electrodes to the needles), physical therapy, massage, many things... but in the short term they just upped my nerve pain meds to levels that rival the sugar buzz I got at the shower, and we'll wait to see what that does before moving on. Ho hum.

Anne-Marie and I have been mortgage shopping, or technically I suppose I have been accompanying Anne-Marie while she mortgage shops, since I don't have much to add to the equation other than the down payment, being unemployed for the foreseeable future. It's pretty scary, visiting cublicle-land again, while faceless number-pushers determine whether or not we are worthy of being put in debt for the rest of our lives. I feel like we are playing at being grown-ups... I know that's sad, but fuck it, it's my life.

Hannes left for Germany this morning, so our house guests now number zero. I feel about as much trepidation thinking of his future as I do thinking of mine... he's been in the field (electrical engineering) before, and it's tough to fight so hard for jobs you know won't be fulfilling, which they won't, since the business world has become such a dehumanizing place. I'm glad Hannes got some time off between school and work to get out and play... it was great having him here.

Hannes is one of the few people I have met that is as afraid of America right now as I am. We both think that America is in roughly the same position, politically and culturally, that Germany was in right before it became 'Nazi' Germany. All the signs are there: imperialist growth has become the end that justifies any means, there is a foreign race that we can deflect all blame onto, the economy is so fucked that the only way we can change it (given our history) is to have a war, get the people to fund the empire once more. It worked in the two World Wars... ever wonder where all that astonishing growth came from when the War (and the Depression) ended? It was the result of all of the new factories, which were built at taxpayer expense to support the war effort, suddenly being retooled to support private companies. Voila, thousands of companies stamping out all sorts of crap for your mindless consumption. In the present day we have a situation where people are begging for something like this to happen... this country has become a caricature of itself, and the sheep continue to wave their fucking flags, and everytime I see a television set I am greeted by the idiot grin of our President, cheerfully leading the country down the tubes while his daddy's friends rape the country.

People (far too few people) complain about the Republicans, but I think the Republicans are just being who they have always been. The fault for the condition of the country lies partly with them, surely; but a significant portion of the fault lies with the Democratic Party, and more of it lies with the American people. Where the fuck have the Democrats been? They've been trying so hard to look like Republicans, it's almost like we have a one party system. Remember when we were in the 'Cold War' with Russia, and they taught us little schoolkiddies that one of the worst thing about Russia was that the Communist Party was the Only Party, while here in the US we have a choice? Remember believing not that America was great in and of itself, but that it was great because you had a say in how it all worked? Remember when people's votes counted more than companies interests? In the last few years, this country has taken some really large steps away from 'freedom and democracy', and it looks like the direction we are headed towards is something like 'imperialism' or 'fascism'. The 'War on Terror' seems to be the last nail in the American coffin. The Great Experiment is over.

Driving down the highway today, I looked out the windshield of our car to see, at eye level, the bumper of an SUV I hadn't seen before, the 'H2' Hummer. There was a temporary license in the window, implying that the vehicle was a very recent purchase, but the bumper was already covered with flag stickers and the claim that 'These Colors Don't Run'. My first reaction was to be as repulsed by the stickers as I was by the SUV, but it occured to me that they are really two sides of the same coin: the driver of that vehicle, someone who is extremely unlikely to require that much horsepower for anything useful, would need to balance out their rabid and untenable need for (status?) (acceptance?) with an ideology that absolved them of any responsibility for the amount of damage required to maintain that status. It's not that they need an ideology that absolves them of the guilt; it's that they need an ideology that doesn't admit the possibility that they would have guilt at all.

Sounds like the perfect formula for Guilt-Free Fascism.

On a final note (and yes, I do realize that I ramble, and if you must know, the method I use to determine when a post is complete is this: I stop when my fingers get tired), I recently read an interview about fascism in which Richard Falk, a visiting professor of global studies at the UCSB and a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, had this to say:

"the discourse of terrorism is very much the kind of language that seeks to validate extreme forms of violence and a war mentality, and it is reinforced by this ultranational sentiment. The language has shifted in Orwellian directions, where the search for peace becomes perpetual war."

Sound like any country you know?

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Notes from the jungle

Hannes and I went on what was nominally a 25-mile bike ride up Forest Park and along the river, but was actually an exercise in meditation: work through the pain, breathe through the pain, do not get swept away by the pain... I was recently thinking about what the term 'chronic pain' means, and what it meant to a younger me: I guess I just didn't realize that 'chronic' means 'every minute you are awake, which you actually have more of since the pain keeps you from sleeping, and which you are actually more aware of since the pain keeps you from spacing out or really getting deeply into anything that might otherwise distract you'. Plenty of fire to work with, when I am in the mindset to use it for that, and have the energy.

On the way home we stopped by Jen's place: nobody home. Zannah's place: ditto. Off to Scott and Sharon's, where we crash the dinner party they are all having. Some minor uneasiness inside me as I try to determine whether I should just ride away, or stay. After a number of quiet consultations, the determination is made that Hannes and I will stay, and everyone quickly dives into shuffling everything around to accommodate two new guests. Zannah and old friend Karen Ballard had whipped up this amazing meal, and we had a great time sharing past stories and future wishes while we ate. [In the interests of not getting my ass kicked I should also mention here that Jen brought some incredible homemade vanilla icecream with strawberries in it, which truly rocked.]

The scene reminded me of last December, when they invited Anne-Marie's sister Samantha and myself over for a day of food and drink and gift-sharing that just happened to coincide with 'Christmas', but didn't really share any of the other memes that come with that holiday. When the time came to open gifts, I found that in addition to the opening of gifts from family and friends, the Martell sisters have a family tradition that they observe on this day, something that is inexplicably (to me) called 'hobbies', or something that sounds very close to that, so I'll proceed as though that is the actual name.

The tradition of 'hobbies' is this: each person receives a gift, origin unknown. Attached to the gift is a piece of paper upon which is written a poem. When your turn arrives, you must read the poem aloud, and from it's contents and cadence identify both the gift and the giver. It is assumed that the gift (and often the poem) will be something that is meaningful in a light and humorous way. When you think you've got it, you open the gift and see how close you got.

This is actually a very engaging process, since the writers of the poems are sitting right there trying not to give anything away; some of them are more successful at this than others. On one end of the spectrum is Zannah, who has a great poker face, something she is almost too good at: the only indication that she might be the source of a poem is the complete absence of her usual facial expressions. On the other end of the spectrum is Jen, who is almost bouncing out of her seat to make sure everyone realized how awesome and applicable her poems were (NB: they were indeed good.) Everyone else is somewhere in between. This being my first introduction to the ritual, I was not involved in the process of poem writing, and consequently someone had to double up.

The poem I read was clearly from Scott... the cadence and the way he deftly avoided ending a sentence with the word I most expected due to the rhyme and meter of the poem were a dead giveaway. His poem was titled 'Star Car', and from the content I decided the gift would be some sort of toy rocket, something not too unreasonable given the work I have done with the Portland State Aerospace Society. It turned out to be a solar car kit, the kind you see for sale at tech museums such as our local OMSI.

Spending this day with the Martell clan and friends, I had an incredible time. (I happened to be all hopped up on painkillers, which were actually working that day, turning me into something approximately human.) Watching the interplay of the three sisters, the way each gift would bring up stories of their childhood, their autopilot rivalries, their friendship and love for each other... I had never seen or been a part of anything like that before. It was pretty overwhelming. I felt like an anthropologist, visiting a tribe somewhere deep in the jungle: picking up contextual clues, learning some of the common language, observing interactions that were both alien and heartwarming.

I guess that's the point of today's post: that was the real gift I received that day, a heart-warming. My friendships with all of the people involved are not as developed as I wish them to be, mostly due to my habit of falling off of the fucking planet for the last few (more like 10) years. Now that 'better living through chemistry' has given me My New Head™, I am trying to remedy this. It's terrifying, but I'm starting to think (for the first time in years) that it is worth it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Defeated by technology again

My offsite host has been having some problems lately, and since this page is almost unreadable when the style sheets don't load, I've incorporated the style sheet right into the HTML of this document. If you've come here and found the site all plastered up against the left side of the screen, that is why. I am hitting the books (well, virtually anyway) to figure out how to make it look ok without the CSS, and better with the CSS.

Monday, July 14, 2003


I watched 'The English Patient' again tonight... I watch it a few times a year. When the film came out I didn't want to see it... the movies I tend to watch don't get alot of hype, and people wouldn't shut the hell up about this film, so I figured it must suck. ('American Beauty' is another film that I didn't see at first due to the hype... an excellent film). Luckily I was wrong.

The movie turned me on to the book, and more importantly turned me on to the writings of Herodotus, who I had never even heard of. I've read 'The Histories' about a dozen times now, and it continues to amaze me. 2500 years ago this fellow wrote down a description of the world as he saw it... politics and geography and war stories and rumors (lies, some historians say... a bit too vehemently in my opinion).

I think it is notable that this is pretty much the last comprehensive history of 'the world' (as known to the Greeks) before the Roman Empire and later the 'Holy' Roman Empire got into the business of marketing selectively modified histories that justified their imperial expansions. It looks to me like Herodotus' biggest fault (in the eyes of historians) is that he was not plugged in to the consensus narrative of the times that followed, the narrative that later became the 'true' history of that time.

There is a pleasant naivete in Herodotus' writings, and a unique perspective. While we tend to think of the world in terms of countries, land masses that are bounded by waters, Herodotus saw the world as the Mediterranean Sea, surrounded by a fringe of land. When he speaks of regions further away from that sea, his writings take on a real 'Here be dragons' sort of tone. His travels led him into the farthest regions of the known world, which is to say very shallowly into what we now know as northern Africa and southern Europe.

He writes quite a bit about the myriad groups of Greeks, the almost mathematical permutations of a people that spread throughout the Mediterranean in a manner very different from the empires that followed them. I was taught nothing of these people in school. I was taught that the Romans were the model empire, the precursor to our own (not that many people admit that our culture is in fact an empire). They built roads that spanned their empire (most people of my generation don't seem to know that the American interstate highways were only built in the 1950s, and that the post-war boom is what made it all possible), aqueducts that delivered water to remote places (one system had a 50 mile run that was nearly perfectly straight and only sloped 6 inches downwards over the entire distance), and among many other signs of their excesses, they killed slaves for entertainment. What a great role model. Think it doesn't apply to us? Go turn on the news.

But maybe they are a great role model, or at least a great example of the rise and fall of an empire. Reading Herodotus got me thinking about empires, and why they do the things they do. Clearly land and resources are desirable, and we are territorial creatures, so inevitably there will be conflicts. But just as clearly the recent expansionist activities of the American empire have little to do with a need for resources. I look around at my country and I see people buying SUVs that get single-digit miles per gallon in the city, just for status. We throw away more resources than most countries have to start with. Our landfills have gotten so large that we just cover them with topsoil from the clearcut hills, and build little tract houses on the rolling hills of garbage. Poor people buy $4 packs of cigarettes each day, and don't even realize that they were essentially programmed to do so by the tobacco and film industries. Endless miles of condos dump millions of gallons of water and chemicals on their green grass lawns, onto which hardly anyone ever sets foot. I remember when we had a drought, and the local government would fine you if you watered your lawn... some people chose to pay the fines, while others quietly deployed their gardenhoses in the middle of the night. There was a limited supply of the water they drink, and they chose to pour it out on their lawns rather than suffer the shame of violating some white-picket-fence Ozzie-and-Harriet meme that was implanted in their parents heads in the 50s. The 'green lawn' meme was so strong that for awhile there you could make alot of money painting peoples lawns green. Holy fucking hell are we ever doomed.

My old workmate Brian, whom I have mentioned before, feels that the reason other countries don't like America is because they are jealous of us... in his mind, we never do anything wrong, so it must be the only reason. I suspect that the reality of the situation is that they are not jealous of us, they are simply embarassed and irritated when they look out their windows and see America reveling in our ignorance and our Caligulesque dreams of empire, with the twisted remains of democracy and freedom up on cinder-blocks on our front lawn.

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Of Dulcimers and Do-Re-Mi

Another art project, this one not quite finished: my friend Ron and I holed up in his shop for a few days, and made a hammered dulcimer, using padauk (or vermillion) for the soundboard, rock maple for the frame, and black walnut for the bridges.

The hammered dulcimer we made is closely related to the Azerbaijani 'santoor', which I have heard in Iranian music, and I intend to tune it appropriately, which means that the scale I encode in the strings will possibly not follow our traditional western scale. When I mentioned this to friends, they got all upset that I was violating what they saw as the 'natural' order of the traditional western scale, i.e. Do Re Mi etc.

I couldn't even make up shit like this: 'Do Re Mi' is Christian propaganda that has its roots in the medieval choral music that was used to inspire and terrify the common folk back then.

In the year 1025, in the Italian town of Arezzo, there lived a Benedictine monk known as Guido d'Arezzo. This guy taught the little choir boys to sing hymns (quite a bit different from what the Catholics are teaching choir boys nowadays), which included such hits as the following, which they sang ad nauseum to train for the real juicy songs:

Ut queant laxis
resonare fibris
mira gestorum
famuli tuorum,
solve polluti
labii reatum,
Sancte Iohannes.

This song asks the sainted John the Baptist to intercede on the behalf of said choir boys: "So that Your servants may sing at the top of one's voices the wonders of Your Acts, absolve the fault from their stained lips." Note that a lot of devotion was directed to 'Saint John', rather than to 'God'. As you might imagine, this upset the guys in the funny hats, so something would have to change.

The first syllables of the first 6 lines of this song are Ut-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La, which became, as the result of years of promotion by Guido d'Arezzo, the hexachordal musical notation that was all the rage throughout Christendom until the year 1625, when 'Ut' was changed to 'Do' because the song was changed (people were paying more attention to the myriad saints than they were to being fearful of hellfire, so the church modified this and many other hymns to contain more references to 'God', aka 'Dominus'), and the seventh note of our modern scale was added (also taken from the song... it started out as 'Si' for 'Sancte Iohannes', but was changed to the non-contextual 'Ti' to once again tone down the mojo of Saint John). Add the octave note 'Do' at the end, and you have our 8-note octave.

The decision to rototill the musical notes was made easier by the existence of popular medieval music that combined the Latin syllables with the notation from the Greeks, in which notes were assigned the letters A to G, a convention still used in the West. The hybrid version of these two scales ran from a low 'Gamma' ('G' in the Greek system) to a high 'Ut' (later 'Do' in the Latin, or 'C' in the Greek), so something that covered a complete scale or spectrum came to be given the name gam-ut, or gamut (as in 'run the gamut') as it has been passed down into English. See here for anecdotal confirmation of this. Bet you didn't see that coming. (The Greeks were rather practical in their naming of things: see 'alphabet', for instance).

The treble clef, that squiggly sign that they put on the left edge of the musical staff, is actually a fancy letter 'g', since the higher musical register was referenced from its 'highest' note ('G' sits right on top of the top line of the treble clef). Similarly the bass clef, that thing that looks like a backwards 'c' with two dots near it, is actually a fanciful monkified 'F'.

I was taught in school as a child (Do, a deer, a female deer, Re, a drop of golden sun...) that there was something Right and Proper about our Western musical scale, at least in a mathematical sense if not actually Written by the Moving Finger of God. This is pretty clearly a cultural bias, something I know from personal experience: when I was in India studying the sitar, I was taught that it was Natural and Proper and God-given for there to be 22 notes known as 'shrutis' in a scale. 12 of these match up with the 12 notes of our sharped/flatted DoReMiEtc scale, and therefore 8 of those match up directly with the 'natural' notes of our scale, which are not known as Do-Re-Mi-Etc since in Sanskrit the DoReMi notes are as follows:


When learning sitar, or any other Indian musical instrument, you learn little songs made up of these syllables, or others like them; this is the oral tradition through which this music was passed down for centuries. There is a tune I can play on the tabla, for instance, called 'teen tal', which goes like so:

dha ti-re ki ta taka
dha ti-re ki ta taka
dha ti-re ki ta taka
dhu na ki ta taka

The singing of this musical notation has become an art form in and of itself, which has in recent years broken into the American musical horizon mostly by the tireless pursuits of aging musical hipsters like Sting, U2, and Peter Gabriel, who seek out guest talent such as the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose Pakistani qawwali music is based in this tradition (though the term qawwali itself translates as "utterance" in Urdu, and stems from the Arabic qua'ol, meaning an expression recited to purify mind and action, the musical term has since come to mean the 'utterance' of the aforementioned musical notation).

The 22 shrutis in Indian music are something of a superset of our DoReMi, so I looked further to find out whether other musical traditions are completely different. It turns out that there are literally hundreds of scales, with varying numbers of notes (26 in Arabic maqams, 31 in Hemiolic Chromatic Hypophrygian, 53 in Persian and Turkish makams), yet they all have notes that coincide with 'western' notes. They also have many other notes that we are not encultured to hear as 'musical'.

What does all this have to do with dulcimers? Though I based my design on the santoor, the main reason I built a 'hammered dulcimer' instead of for instance a 'boat' is that I saw a video of a band called Dead Can Dance in which there was a woman playing what I thought was a hammered dulcimer. As I try to tune my santoorish dulcimer to be able to play similar music to what she played, I find that some of the strings need to be tuned to slightly different notes from what I expected... in fact, octave notes (g to G for instance) are not 8 or even 12 strings apart, but something more like 15 or 17 strings apart (I still haven't got it all worked out). When tuned to these non-standard notes, the device lends itself quite nicely to the type of music I wish to create. Of course, it is possible (even probable based on my recent experience trying to tune this thing) that some of her strings were simply slightly out of tune; there are a hell of a lot of strings on the damn thing, and keeping them all dialed in is quite a chore. A nice pentatonic scale, with grace notes provided by the strings that are slightly out of tune, sounds great, floating ethereal dream music.

A little research showed that the instrument played in the Dead Can Dance video was not a dulcimer per se, or even a santoor, but a Chinese instrument known as a "yang ch'in" or possibly "yangqin". Very similar in design, but tuned and played in a slightly different manner.

Anyway, to tie this all up: though I had originally intended to tune the dulcimer to a non-standard tuning to pay appropriate homage to the influences that... ummm... influenced me, I now intend to tune the 'dulcimer' to a non-standard tuning to further reinforce my rebellion against the fucking Christians. It doesn't really change anything, but it makes me feel better. So, here it is, the Amazing Incredible Flying Hammered Dulcimer of Doom.

You can click on the pictures to get a larger view.


After looking at many hardwoods, I chose the padauk for its beauty and its tone. Bill at Scotty's Hardwoods in Springfield split the wood into thin planks and thickness sanded them for me.


Measure like twenty times, cut once. *whew*


We clamped the soundboards together. I found out later that there are oils in padauk that need to be cleaned off with alcohol before gluing... and a glue line split. Live and learn.


Next we got started on the frame, which mostly due to my inexperience making anything remotely like this, turned out to be quite formidable... I didn't feel comfortable with a light and airy instrument, when the total string tension is over a ton.


After coming up with some ingenious and over-engineered joints, we had a completed frame.


We then glued up the back and frame and clamped the hell out of them.


One of the back joints split, so after a quick repair (unnoticeable from the outside of the instrument) we added bracers under the bridge locations.


We then clamped the front soundboard on.


After a little cleaning, it was starting to look like a dulcimer.


I laid out templates for the locations of the tuning pins and end pegs, and marked the wood with a center punch.


Using a guide to make sure the tuning pegs would be perpendicular, I drilled a rather large number of holes.


The dulcimer is ready for tuning pins.


Artistically I am very pleased with the results; now it is a matter of getting music out of the thing. Another post, another time...


Monday, July 07, 2003

Democracy and Prosperity were getting old anyway

So, the 4th of July just passed, supposedly a celebration in honor of that other 4th of July, 1776, when the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. Go read it... it's pretty interesting. I suspect that the average American only knows that it was signed by John Hancock (who wrote large, so that the myopic King George would be better able to see his name, an act that has come to represent the will and defiance our country embodies) and they might possibly know a couple of catchphrases, such as "When in the course of human events" or "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". What people might not remember are the actual details, which Thomas Jefferson was kind enough to point out in the document. He did not take this lightly:
"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes... But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government... The History of the present King [George]... is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States"

Prudence, indeed, would seem to dictate that the whims of one idiot should not bring a country crashing to the ground, but apparently someone forgot to tell that to King George. The complaints the colonists had included:

  • HE has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good.
  • HE has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing Importance, unless suspended in their Operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
  • HE has refused for a long Time, after such Dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of the Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the Dangers of Invasion from without, and the Convulsions within.
  • HE has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither, and raising the Conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
  • HE has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the Tenure of their Offices, and the Amount and Payment of their Salaries.
  • HE has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harrass our People, and eat out their Substance.
  • HE has kept among us, in Times of Peace, Standing Armies, without the consent of our Legislatures.
  • HE has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.
  • HE has combined with others to subject us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our Laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
  • FOR depriving us, in many Cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury
  • FOR taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments
  • HE is, at this Time, transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation

Quite a list, that. See any resemblance to our Mad King George?
Jefferson also noted that:
A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People

Well said. The Declaration of Independence is starting to look like a lost Nostradamus scroll, a prophecy of things to come. Face it: on September 10th, 2001, even the hardline Republicans knew Bush was a fucktard. He looked so fucking relieved when 9-11 went down (well, after he finished reading to the school kiddies for 45 minutes after he was notified of the event), grateful that finally something had popped up to take the scrutiny off of his increasingly pathetic presidency. Now he has used that one event to completely rototill the fucking government, and all the Republicans are happy as they could be, even though Bush's actions have in some fundamental ways been the exact opposite of their supposed ideals... remember their droning chant of 'smaller federal government'? Well now, the dipshit that flings your Samsonite into the belly of an airplane is a federal employee, for your safety. Ditto for the guy that makes you take off your shoes and confiscates your toenail clippers when you enter the airport. The 'Department of Homeland Security' (are you fucking kidding me? How Big Brother is that?) needs to expand so the 'Total Information Awareness' program can compile enough data to build up a 'Minority Report'-like profile of terrorists so they can catch them before they have commited any crimes. Buy the wrong combination of books on, and you could end up with the Feds at your door, and hopefully it didn't escape your notice that they can now hold you indefinitely without pressing charges just for the suspicion that you might be a terrorist.

And take a look at the Information Awareness Office logo:

Hrrmmm.... maybe Big Brother is watching us.

Ok, so I got a little off-track there, back to my intended thread: for another prescient view of our current Idiot In Chief, see this article from The Onion. Published on 18 January, 2001, the article documents how with Bush in office "our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over". Hopefully the following quote falls within the Fair-Use laws:
"My fellow Americans," Bush said, "at long last, we have reached the end of the dark period in American history that will come to be known as the Clinton Era, eight long years characterized by unprecedented economic expansion, a sharp decrease in crime, and sustained peace overseas. The time has come to put all of that behind us."

With unemployment at it's highest since 1958, federal debt piled up so high that your great-grandkids are going to be paying it off, and an economy so fucked that even Greenspan's wild interest-rate careenings can't save it, you'd think the American people would open their eyes to what is going on, and show some of the spunk our Founding Fathers showed when they threw off the chains of their own Idiot George. Instead, they place flag decals next to those fucking Jesus fish on their bumpers, and return to their complacent lives, thoughts unimpeded by any awareness of just how fucked this country has become.

I hope to hell that people wake the fuck up before the next election.

Thursday, July 03, 2003

Sleeping with the humans

His tail encased in styrofoam, Carl is sent to "sleep with the humans."
©Gary Larson

The last few days, I feel like I have been sent up to sleep with the humans... lifted out of this nefarious funk that has been clouding my mind for the last couple of years. It helps that I am surrounded by beautiful people who care about me (it is a sign of how well I am doing that I am even willing to accept that they care about me... usually I am not very accepting of that idea). I am grateful to them that when I am able to surface from the depths of my depression, I find them there, caring for me.

It's not often that I consider myself a lucky man, but lately I am finding that I am more lucky than I could imagine.