The Baldwin Family Thanksgiving I

The Baldwin Family Thanksgiving

I have a five-string banjo mothballed in my closet, a gift from my three folkie uncles when I was a teenager. It’s a beautiful old banjo, made by Star in the 1890s, and perfect for playing mountain-style clawhammer, which is the style I learned from them. Like all banjos, it worked great as an attention-getting device*, and I regret that, like the bagpipes, it’s not a Manhattan-friendly instrument. I especially miss playing with my uncle Bob Baldwin, who knows a tremendous number of great old songs. They’re simple and catchy, but elusive somehow — every time I come home from seeing him in Maine, I try to remember the songs he played me, but they slip through my fingers.


Anyhow, here’s an article written by my cousin Max Alexander on the Baldwin family thanksgiving this year, including lots of banjo-picking.
In the tradition of authors from E.B. White to gossip columnist Jim Mullen, Max retired from editing People to a farm in coastal Maine. Which is where everyone on my mother’s side of the family has been gravitating to, for some reason. And is where the banjo-picking takes place these days. Though, sadly, minus the accompaniment of my uncle Stuart.


* To my mixed delight and chagrin, the 1993 Earlham College Admissions Catalog devoted half of its “Campus Activities and Social Life” page to a picture of me banging out “Pretty Polly” on the front lawn. The picture probably was a pretty good choice, though, since it contained almost every possible Quaker school symbol. I had my hair in a ponytail, had my legs crossed showing my tattoo, and was singing to Amy Workman, who was wearing Birkenstocks and straddling a mountain bike. I bet I even had a bag of granola in my pocket.

The Baldwin Family Thanksgiving I

Fencing class was fun last

Fencing class was fun last night: once again, I had Szilvia Gyore all to myself again. Spent the night practicing half-retreats, then sudden lunges; parries, then sudden lunges. All around me, teenagers were practicing the same moves, but with what seemed like steel springs in their legs. Me, I should have a dump truck buzzer announcing that I’m going to lunge.


Disadvantage of a loaner fencing mask: sweat was running down my face, bitter from the absorbed perspiration of many other users that had soaked into the headband. Yee-UCK!


I then went home and watched the 1973 Three Musketeers for the first time. The screenplay was written by George Macdonald Fraser, the author of the Flashman books.


Fraser excels at packing in odd historical details — there are Mohawk indians lounging around the Duke of Buckingham’s mirrored study, Louis XIII plays chess at Versailles using dressed-up dogs for pieces, and on and on. Knowing Fraser, this stuff all actually happened. Plus, there’s lots of Rollicking Bawdiness and plenty of goofy humor. Spike Milligan, from the Goon Show, plays a cuckolded inkeeper. Charlton Heston chews the scenery. It’s awesome: the font and wellspring of bawdy seventies historical romps!


Plus, Oliver Reed as Athos is a sweaty, lumbering pillock of a fighter who still manages to kick a lot of ass, so I felt better about my own emerging sweaty, lumbering, pillock-y fighting style. Though I’ll skip the floppy velvet hat.

Fencing class was fun last

I just applied to a

I just applied to a certificate program at Columbia University’s Center For Computer Technology and Applications. Specifically, I applied to the “Java Development for E-Commerce” program, which consists of eight courses in Java programming and application development management. I’ve been looking for ways to establish my bona fides in the Internet industry, and I think that this should do it. Plus, the tuition will about equal the maximum amount that [My employer] will cover in their tuition reimbursement program, so it’s a no-brainer!


The only thing that worries me: my Alexa toolbar tells me that most people who visit the Columbia CTA page also visit the Valley Forge Military Academy‘s website. Will the program be filled with humorless 19-year-olds?

I just applied to a

I had my second class

I had my second class at the Fencers’ Club of New York last night. I was the only adult beginner there, so I had a private lesson with Szilvia Gyore, a young Hungarian woman with large diamond earrings. I started learning more about how to hold the foil (with your elbow in and your hand curved out like your arm is broken), and how to thrust, parry in fourth and sixth, and riposte. I felt like a poorly-handled marionette; Szilvia would drop her foil, I’d jerk around for a second, then make up my mind and lumber in for the point. All in all, though, I didn’t do too badly for a beginner, and I had an Olympic coach all to myself. The personal attention is fantastic. I feel like it’s the early days of UrbanFetch again, when they’d send a courier to your house to deliver a candy bar for free, if you wanted.


Or like it’s the Scientologists, and I’ll have to sign over the mortgage to my house once I’m hooked on the sport.

I had my second class

A draught of diminutives? On

A draught of diminutives?

On Saturday night, Kate and I helped out Kate’s mom at the Chester County Historical Society‘s gala fund raiser. There are fund-raisers and fund-raisers, depending on the organization’s priorities; some raise money, some break even, some lose money in a magnificent welter of rented bathroom trailers and high-pole tents that contain entire trees. This fund-raiser, held in a palatial compound of heated and interconnected white tents, seemed to be of the latter variety.*


In the morning, Kate and I helped arrange antiques and jewelry at one of the silent auction tables, together with Kate’s mom Barb and any number of other volunteers, all of whom turned out to have diminutives on their names — Sandy, Terry, Jackie, Valerie, Peggy, Nancy… even Wiggie. Chester county is pretty down-to-earth, though, so as much as I’d like to stretch this into a story about “My experience among the dowager empresses of Philadelphia Society”, it’s really more like “My experience among the affluent volunteers of Chester County, some of whom had really funny stories about my grandfather**“, which is infinitely better.


So I got to wear a tux that night, and Kate and I got to dance on the slanted dance floor — at the beginning of every dance, the crowd would clamber to the top of the hill, then end up at the bottom at the conclusion of every song. It was a good time.


* This was not, however, as extravagant as the benefits for the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia, for which I helped arrange thousands of yards of taffeta to hide a whole bank of elevators in a rented warehouse. That organization was serious about losing money at their fund-raisers.


** Margie Grafton (there’s that diminutive again!) lived in a big stone house named “Grimett”, the next driveway down from my grandfather’s house, Arrandale. This was out in the country, and dark as pitch at night. Margie was having a fancy-dress party for her sorority sisters, all of whom were to come dressed as the year of their initiation. The party got lost on the way to Grimett, and all the cars showed up at my grandfather’s door. Always one to rise to the occasion, he came down the stairs in a smoking jacket, received all the women, served them cocktails, and wouldn’t reveal that they weren’t in the right place. Until they started asking if Margie was upstairs, and he asked politely, “Margie who?”

A draught of diminutives? On

How much is ten bucks

How much is ten bucks worth in 1750?

While doing some research for my book project, I came across a really interesting sitelet put together by Robert Sahr, a political science professor at Oregon State University. He’s gathered enough data to create a historical currency calculator, which compares year-2000 dollars with any other year as far back as 1700. He even has a chart on the net worth of selected wealthy Americans at their death, and what that would mean in today’s dollars. Andrew Carnegie, for example, died in 1919 with $745 million dollars; that’s like having a net worth of almost 5 billion today.


I created a currency converter based on Sahr’s posted data; you can see it here!

How much is ten bucks

So I went to the

So I went to the New York Fencers’ Club last night to sign up for five introductory lessons, and it kicked ass. Let me explain:


The New York Fencers’ Club was started in 1883, as an “elite association of prominent New York Socialites” (according to their website). According to the framed pen and ink sketches of former members on their walls, their website isn’t lying. My favorite sketch is in the “small room”, a wooden-floored training hall where I had my lesson. The sketch is from, maybe, 1955, and shows a man and woman in fencing gear, resting their foils on their feet. They are both tall, upright, and impossibly patrician-looking — the woman is beautifully coiffed, and I’m sure she’s wearing a strand of pearls under her jacket. It’s very clear that there was once enough old money around the club to build a stack of large museums. Which, I’m sure, it did.


The lingering F. Scott Fitzgerald aura is a lot of fun, but the classes were what made it really cool. Two other students and I worked with Buckie Leach, a small, friendly guy who was an Olympic coach in 1996 and 2000. He was a fantastic teacher; no pausing for long lectures to explain technique, just lots of fun drills with clear applications. For five minutes, my partner held two foils in the air by the tip: if he dropped the left one, I was to lunge and grab it. If he dropped the right, I was to ignore it. Then we put on fencing jackets and masks and lunged at the wall for a while. Then, we fenced!


I hadn’t realized that I really, really missed sparring in Tae Kwon Do — and I loved this for the same reasons that I liked sparring. Like tennis, sparring is mostly mental: you can either fight a lot faster than your opponent, or just a little smarter. Of course, it helps if you do both. Anyhow, I had a great time: trying to draw my opponent into overcomitting, then lunging — or feinting, slipping around the block, and then lunging. I was fencing with a really enthusiastic guy who had taken some fencing in college: mostly, he got me, but I managed to fake him out a couple of times. It was awesome. And the kung fu I’ve been studying turns out to be really applicable.


So I had a great time and I’ll be back on Monday and Thursday nights. Though I do have to say that there are few garments that are less flattering over a spare tire than a fencing jacket. I’m gonna have to work on refining my patrician figure.

So I went to the