“At times like this, I wish I had listened to what my mother said.” “What did she say?” “I don’t know, I wasn’t listening.”

As a kid, there were plenty of things that I swore — SWORE! — that I wouldn’t do when I became an adult. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten what all of them were, so I’m probably doing them all the time. Oh, yeah, I remember now; I swore I’d never exclaim to my young nieces and nephews how BIG they’ve gotten! I was a pretty literal kid, I guess, and the exclamation that I was much bigger seemed excruciatingly obvious and tautological to me. “Yes, auntie, it has been a year since you’ve seen me, OBVIOUSLY I’m bigger. Sheesh!”

Well, too bad, young me, I’m gonna be an unrepentant cheek-pincher. I shall make the obvious, dorky observations, embarassing my young relations, and they will seethe. And then, someday, they will make those very same observations. It’s all part of the Great Wheel of Embarassment.

More insidious is the urge I’ve been feeling to bother expectant mothers. I used to be scared of babies. For one thing, how do you hold them? They’re wriggly! What if you drop them? What if they explode, or pee, or something? Of course, that all changed with daddy-hood; now, I view babies as a kind of highly entertaining bean bag, usually with good smells and laughing (usually.) If it’s your baby, you know what to do when the baby starts crying. If it’s not, you can jolly well just hand it right back again. So that’s good.

So I’m not scared of babies any more, but I also have stopped viewing expecant moms as an atomic unit and started seeing them as a molecular collection of units. When Kate was pregnant, I pretty much just saw her as Kate, but with a new, pregnant shape. But still all Kate. Seeing Lydia born changed all that: “holy cow, there’s ANOTHER PERSON in there!” So now when I see a hugely pregnant woman in the train station, it’s a lot easier to realize that there’s a little upside-down, curled-up person hanging out on the station platform, too.

Which, coupled with my newfound strongly baby-positive attitude, is giving me the urge to say “hi!” to the mom, and then plant both hands on her belly, lean in, and exclaim “hi there!” to her baby. I’m not saying I’d ever do it in a million years, but…

…well, actually, I guess I am saying that I’d do it in a million years. In fact, it’s pretty hard to resist not doing it, since babies are such a happy little bridge across social boundaries. Hey, babies are pretty much overjoyed to see any smiling face, right? How’s about I just go ahead and say “hi?” “Hi, baby! HELLO IN THERE!”

What the hell is wrong with me? Maybe nothing, since that seems to be a common horrifying behavior, the complete-stranger-handplant-and-shout. Dear God, I hope I can exercise some restraint in this regard. I’ll go pinch some cousin’s cheeks instead.

“At times like this, I wish I had listened to what my mother said.” “What did she say?” “I don’t know, I wasn’t listening.”

“You call that a death ray? It doesn’t even slow them down!”

I took Wednesday off of work to help my dad and stepmother move houses, from Mount Airy, Philadelphia, to the house that’s just across the street and a few doors down. My brothers Oliver and Sam (my stepmom’s sons) are in town from Milwaukee and Albuquerque, too, and they’re busy working on the Benson Family Basement Archive of Simultaneously Extremely Heavy And Very Delicate Items. It’s a burden they bear philosophically. And with many shipping blankets.

Sam gave me a gray military tripod we found in a corner of the basement; it turns out to be a 1945 US Navy signaling searchlight mount, and it’s perfect — freaking PERFECT — to support the heavy green Eiki classroom film projector I bought on eBay for the Guerilla Drive-In. Man, I’m excited about this. The tripod weighs about forty pounds on its own, is made of hardwood and turned brass, and has spikes to anchor it in turf. I’ll need to make a plywood mount that screws into the tripod’s brass head (and to which the projector can be clamped.) Once that’s ready, I’ll be the mil-spec-innest AV geek on the block!

Of course, it’s anybody’s guess whether the projector will actually, you know, work. It got pretty dinged up on its trip to me from Ohio. It seems to run okay, with a loud clattering noise and that hot, greasy, dusty smell that I was looking forward to. I took some pictures of the bent bits and sent them to KMR Electronics in California, where a guru named John has been working on Eikis for twenty-three years, and had plenty of good advice for me. Now I just have to wait for the print of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to arrive from Chicago to know whether this summer will be filled with outdoor movies, or, um… not.

“You call that a death ray? It doesn’t even slow them down!”

What other members of my family are making

So while I’ve been busy calumniating slender British motorcycle maintenance books, here’s what other members of my family have been doing with their creativity:
(You can click any photo to go to Flickr)

oliver_003  2005-03-21 001

(from left):
My brother Oliver is in town from Milwaukee; he and my other brother Sam are going to help my dad and stepmom move into the house a few doors down the street. When I got home tonight, Oliver had mostly finished a pastoral mural in the downstairs bathroom, of rolling hills with a Jefferson-y style building in the distance. The tree trunks in the treeline are done with a palette knife, which is pure Bob Ross. Oliver likes to riff on Bob Ross; I have a canvas of his with a craggy mountain overlooking a pine-rimmed lake (the pine trees have pallete-knifed trunk), and in the water is floating a giant eyeball. I briefly considered hanging it in the nursery.

Kate is completing a double Irish chain quilt, which is spread out to its full size on the floor. The top is now fully pieced and borders are assembled. Kate pieced it using a strip quilting method, which means that she totally, like, matrix algebra-d together the thing by creating repeating sets of strips that stack on each other to make the diagonal chains.

Lydia likes to jump up and down in her jumpy chair. She goes jumpa-jumpa-jumpa, then stops and dangles and chuckles for a while, then goes jumpa-jumpa-jumpa again.

What other members of my family are making

Apparently, “Three Wrenches” Means “Abandon All Hope.”

I’m taking my 1977 BMW R100/7 out of mothballs this year. And, by “mothballs”, I mean “sitting outdoors under a tarp for a year”, which is the motorcyclists’ equivalent of starving your dog. However, having a baby seems to be the one circumstance when this kind of behavior is forgiven — once. As long as I do some good, solid wrenching on my bike in the next couple of months, the Airheads might let me off Double Secret Bike-Poser Probation.

After a year outdoors, the brake lever pulled all the way back to the handlebar, which is a bad thing. Topping the reservoir up with fluid didn’t help. When I got the tank off to have a look at the master cylinder, I saw that the piston end was weeping brake fluid. Brake fluid is nasty, corrosive stuff, and you want all of it INSIDE the cylinder where it doesn’t eat your paint. And, you know, where it can help stop the bike and stuff.

So I ordered a rebuild kit from Bob’s BMW, and while I was waiting for it to arrive, checked out the instructions for rebuilding the cylinder in my Haynes workshop manual. I found this:
What the hell is this? What kind of workshop manual gives you detailed instructions for removing the part, then rapidly runs the white flag up the pole? Note that this activity is flagged with three out of five wrenches. Apparently, four of five wrenches means “summon NASA”, and five wrenches means “bury the bike and hope that future civilizations with superior technology possess the means to fix it.”

Also note the helpful advice at the end: “Make sure that you buy the right size of cylinder!” Yeah, THANKS for that parting shot. “Make there are no thunderstorms in the area when you dial the phone!” I wonder how many wrenches Haynes would assign to the act of opening the box the new cylinder comes in. “Have an adult help you open the box; paper can give nasty cuts!”

Not that I think I can do everything on my bike. Lubing the drivetrain splines seems to be the wrenchers’ equivalent of crossing the equator for the first time, and my cheeks are still innocent of tar. I’m still in the “change the oil and poke fearfully at the fork seals” stage. But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let some half-assed limey teabag how-to book command me to meekly submit my cylinder to Yuppie Central for an overhaul (the waiting room of the Devon BMW dealership is filled with lean, rapacious-looking lawyers checking out the new BMW models. Lean, rapacious-looking lawyers that, like me, do not know how to lube their drivetrain splines.) Hey, books can tell us how to knot a bow tie, right? How hard can this be?

Kate’s dad Bob pointed out that Haynes is notorious for simply reprinting the text of the original owner’s manuals delivered with the bike. Fortunately, my Clymer manual, which is easily five times the thickness, displayed no such dithering in the face of the enemy. In fact, I’m pretty sure you could assemble a space shuttle from a Clymer book.

So I got the piston out and had a look. There was some weird clear plastic wrapped around the piston body, which is a bit of a mystery. Fortunately, any problems with the old piston were moot, as the rebuild kit contained a new piston in a cheerful shade of anodyzed green, and a couple of rubber seals that require some kind of three-armed proprietary BMW assembly awl to stretch over the rings in the piston and put in place. I used fingernails and loud profanity, and shot the rubber rings across the garage several times (lose a single ring, and your spiffy fifty-dollar rebuild kit is now a collection of funny-looking table shims), but finally managed to get everything together. Whew!

Odd plastic in the brake pistonHere’s a picture of the piston that I took and posted to Flickr, in hopes that some wise member of the Airheads community would know what the mystery-plastic was in there. So far, about a hundred views, but nobody wants to offer an opinion. Hmm, maybe Haynes was trying to shield me from a terrible secret.

Apparently, “Three Wrenches” Means “Abandon All Hope.”

Rem Koolhaas: Still a tool.

On a flight to Boston this morning, I read the new article about Rem Koolhaas in the New Yorker. In previous posts about this “great, horrible, pillock”, I’ve calumniated his good-for-nothing Prada store in Soho, and his headache-inducing EU flag concept. My dislike for his work is wide, as the sky is wide. My contempt for his pre-masticated, facile, fatuous, and lame press announcements is deep, as the ocean is deep. My negative feeling for this enemy of everything Evelyn Waugh ever stood for approaches a pure, holy flame.

I’m not sure why this is. I don’t go around vituperating other self-important, goofy, and wrongheaded media fixtures. Why Rem Koolhaas? Maybe it’s part of the ancestral hatred between grad-school philosophy students and grad-school architects: the philosophy students are almost as uncharismatic and poorly-dressed as the school-of-music students, while the architecture students are whisking around in expensive coats made from natural fibers, with clean jawlines and expensive glasses in dark plastic frames and spouting absolute rubbish about the metaphysical implications of having a lobby shaped slightly more trapezoidal than usual, or whatever. Look, you clowns: the words “teleological” and “concrete” are both fine, good words, representing noble and useful things. But they don’t need to be in the same sentence all the time.

(Waiting in line to get a book at the architectural library at Columbia, you’ll smell cologne and new wool scarves; waiting in line to get a rare book from the philosophy archive, you’ll smell nachos and musty t-shirts.)

Where was I? Oh yes. Rem Koolhaas. Tool. So the article describes his building approach, which actually makes some sense (don’t obsess over the models), and his difficulties in shepherding a project through to completion (which I sympathize with, now), but then quickly reverts to the good, old, let’s-make-fun-of-the-Dutch-guy stuff I love, describing his infantilic hissy fits (hopping into the driver’s seat and zooming off leaving his driver on the curb, since the driver was too slow putting his jacket in the trunk) and his recent hipster book Content with its estupido cover: “Look! Kim Jong Il as the terminator! Hahaha LOLzers!” I actually don’t mind so much that he’s knuckling under to the communists, in agreeing to design a headquarters for China’s heavily-censored TV station — hey, a client is a client — but I find his excuses unpalatable: “oh, but you see, it’s TRANSFORMATIVE!” Because repressive content can’t be created in an editing room with a glass wall, you see. Uh-huh. Tool.

Rem Koolhaas: Still a tool.

The Skule Comes Through

The Ultimate Water Gun came back from its trip to freshman orientation at the University of Toronto Engineering school a few months ago. In accordance with a (slightly batty) British tradition, students paint themselves purple. That’s the best kind of tradition, frankly: both Batty and British. Anyhow, frosh wear yellow hard hats and are subject to the normal indignities, like getting pummeled with a head-mounted water cannon.

It’s the time of year when the Ultimate Water Gun loan requests are starting to come in at the rate of one or two a day, so I thought I’d nag Michael, the orientation leader, to send along the pictures they took last august.

Michael, in his purple at the podium at right, came through in spades. I’ve got to give the photos a place of honor on the Ultimate Water Gun Accomplishments page, as soon as I’m done making up outrageous lies about the pictures and everyone in them. (I already retouched the hell out of the bottom photo to make the stream look stronger, since I have absolutely zero journalistic integrity.) Click the images to enlarge.

Thanks, Michael! May your tub ring always have an indigo hue!

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The Skule Comes Through

Gloria Steinem, Virginia Woolf, and German Motorcycles

Kate, Lydia and I went to a quilt show on Saturday. Boat shows, car shows, and motorcycle shows are held in carpeted convention centers; quilt shows are held in bombed-out ex-factory spaces with concrete floors and high-pressure sodium lights overhead. Which is not surprising, or anything: the day that skinny, mustached teenagers from New Jersey get suckered into taking out bank loans to put down a deposit on a shiny new $15,000.00 quilt is, I suppose, the day that you’ll see quilt expositions moving into the Javits.*

Quilting is an interesting hobby; it takes a lot of planning and a lot of patience; a quilt project can easily span a year or more. And there’s several different skills to master: color theory and an eye for selecting fabrics, the piecework necessary to put the quilt top together, and the skill to quilt the top, the batting, and the back together. My mom used to say that my grandfather’s hobby of fly fishing was “a hobby for men with exacting professions,” since fishing required mastery of a lot of little, individually difficult acts. Quilting seems to be the same way, at least in that there’s a number of different hard things to learn.

Watching Kate’s hobbies of knitting and quilting has been a really intriguing window into the world of traditional women’s craft-y arts. Some stuff that I’ve learned:

  1. None of this stuff is particularly easy. It’s takes just as much learned skill to cable a sweater as (for example) it would be to shoe a horse, or carve a dovetail joint. I naively thought that there were some basic skills that underlied everything, but that’s not the case — there’s a large number of quite difficult skills to learn. And you often see people doing things that are hard, just because they can, as you would in any other human activity.
  2. None of this stuff is particularly cheap. That seems to be a no-brainer in modern times (you expect that hand-carded wool, for example, would cost an arm and a leg, because it’s a vertical market item), but the nineteenth century Amish quilts that you see in Lancaster weren’t made with hand-me-downs, either. While it’s true that some of those quilts were made with dress material, they weren’t scraps or leftovers — women would buy large amounts of the high-quality dress wool to use to make quilts at the same time as they bought material for the family’s clothes.

So, I’m not sure what the surprise is, here: people think that traditional women’s crafts are easy and cheap, and it turns out that they are actually quite difficult, and can require expensive tools and materials. Gloria Steinem was absolutely right; in men’s hobbies, we BRAG about the special knowledge and ruinous expense required, as we roam the carpeted hallways of the Javits center, looking for fifty-dollars-a-gram molybdenum grease.

Well, that’s not quite right. I belong to a bike clique where you’re expected to do your own maintenance, and you should really demonstrate need before shelling out for the top-of-the-line boots. So I’ve got the tank off of my thirty-year old Teutonic workhorse of a bike, which has given it a dejected, swaybacked air. I’ve pulled the brake master cylinder in hopes of getting it cleaned, fixed, and rebuilt before the first really nice day of spring. It shouldn’t be too hard, despite Haynes’ manual’s insistence that what I’m about to do isn’t possible. Psssh.

I’m writing this blog post, however, in Kate’s sewing room as I’m watching her piece together strips of material in a “10001” | “01010” | “10101” | “01010” | “10001” pattern that will eventually result in a double Irish Chain, and I have to admit, at least for tonight, that her hobby has pwned mine.

* It occurs to me that the big quilt show in Houston is held in a big, carpeted convention center, and that permed ladies from Jersey do drop sixteen large on big-iron quilting hardware, so there goes my Virginia Woolf connection.

Gloria Steinem, Virginia Woolf, and German Motorcycles

Kate’s cooler than me, anyhow

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Originally uploaded by tikaro.

Since this is bragging week on tikaro.com, I will now brag about my wife, who is INCREDIBLY COOL. She’s a knitter, a quilter, a blogger, she can speak Russian to sled dogs, and she’s been prepping British race bikes since her head only came up to the top of the tank.

Check out the comment she and her dad left on the Flickr picture page!

Update: I would be remiss if I did not also brag about how cool Kate’s mom is. She’s the chair of public works on the West Chester Borough Council, and there’s been a lot of feisty dialogue on whether or not garbage collectors should accept trash cans without lids (first, folks complained about rats. Then, they complained about the measures getting taken to crack down on ze rats.) So yesterday morning, Barb donned a reflective vest and rode around on the back of West Chester’s truck, collecting trash. Not for a twenty-minute photo op, but ALL FREAKING DAY. Here’s her blog post about it, where she gets almost as excited about the Lanchester landfill’s mighty trash-heap lookout tower as I do!

Kate’s cooler than me, anyhow

Blogging, Banjos, and False Modesty. And Amish pants.

Okay, okay, I’m going to have to come clean: I’m actually very proud of my banjo playing. Blogging is a lightweight medium, and heaping false modesty on its slender shoulders makes a train wreck: “Ooh, did I mention? I play the banjo a little; I’m very self-conscious about it HERE’S A VIDEO OF ME PLAYING THE BANJO, INTERNET.”

Now, it’s true that I’m not very good, and that I do feel guilty when I go to Maine and my family of Accredited Folkies (Uncle 1 Uncle 3; Uncle 2, sadly, passed away, but he mastered both the flatpick guitar and the acoustic-coupler modem, and I miss him very, very much) break out the instruments and start playing, and I can only whack out the same song that was the only song that I could play the last time I saw them two years ago. But I’m damn proud of that song, and I like to think that I’ve extracted a lot of value from it. In fact, in 1994, the Earlham College catalog had one picture listed in its single “Social Activities” two-page spread: me, sitting on a bench with no shoes and cutoff camoflauge shorts, playing that song for my friend Amy Workman, who was a summertime backwoods ranger in Olympia State Park. I had my hair back in a ponytail made from a hose clamp, and Amy was standing on the pedals of her artfully-duct-taped montain bike, so all in all it was a pretty faithful representation of the Earlham college social life. In its brevity not least.

So, I should come clean: I love playing that song, and I am not in the least self-conscious playing it. I love the fact that my banjo is a SPECIAL banjo, a NOT-THE-REGULAR-KIND banjo, a kind of banjo that requires SPECIAL KNOWLEDGE to play. This affords the opportunity for stories like the one in yesterday’s post, which I am now cringing in remorse as I read: “oh, you see, I happened to find a dying strain of appalachian music, and…” Bullshit. I learned some clawhammer with malice aforethought, because it’s cooler. This is the same reason that I wear Amish broadfall pants from Goods in Lancaster County on a daily basis: they are hard to find, require special knowledge, and therefore are hip. Paul Fussell has my number here; he says that the impulse toward archaism as a differentiator is an indicator of social consciousness in the upper-middle class. Ahem.

Okay, I feel better admitting what was probably obvious in the first place: that blog post yesterday was the equivalent of the guys who hang out in the Eastern philosophy section of the 64th-street Barnes and Noble, collaring the college students who wander through the stacks, then finding ways to mention that they just got back from Tibet. I’ve already admitted that a big attraction of reading Seneca on lunch hour is getting seen with it in the elevator, so I guess I’m done with the penitence now. Attention, please! I plan on driving Lydia to the park in the sidecar of my archaic motorcycle, with my archaic banjo on my back, wearing my archaic pants, and I will think that I am the COOLEST DAD EVER. Hopefully, I will be able to fess up to this when I blog about it.

I still really need to learn more songs, though — Cripple Creek is only about twenty seconds long, like most folk ditties, and I’m going to have to learn more stuff in order to preserve everyone’s sanity. LBY’s enthusiasm really does assuage my self-consciousness when I’m on uncertain territory, and her bouncing-up-and-down enthusiasm in indescribably wonderful. So: onward into the songs I only half-remember, and can hit only a quarter of the notes. I want to finally feel like I deserve the banjo I was given!

Followup: pros and cons of Amish Broadfall pants:

  • Pro: Amish broadfall pants have a skinny pocket sewn on to the side of the right thigh that’s meant to carry a folding ruler at the wearers’ fingertips, which makes it an excellent cellphone pocket. You can reach your phone even if you’ve got many layers of jackets on, and it doesn’t bang around in your pocket.
  • Pro: The suspenders make them great for motorcycle riding, since they don’t crawl down your butt when you’re leaned over for a long time.
  • Con: Funny looks going through metal detectors, since Broadfall pants are studded with metal buttons. Of course, on Amtrak, there’s a service bulletin to ticket agents that you don’t have to show ID to purchase tickets if you’re “wearing the distinctive garb of the Amish and Mennonite religious communities”, so I suppose that could be seen as a pro in certain circumstances, if you were also willing to grow a beard and wear a straw hat.
  • Con: If you forget to button your fly after going to the men’s room, you won’t just get funny looks: you’ll get arrested.
Blogging, Banjos, and False Modesty. And Amish pants.