Shotgun update: Weekend of Serious Awesomeness

I’m in the (happy) predicament of having waaay too much going on to be able to come up with anything but a train-wreck of a blog post. Also, I’m going to brag a lot, I should warn you in advance. Okay, here goes:

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My brother Sam and his friend Luke arrived at my dad’s house across the street last week. They drove a white Ford F350 diesel truck with a black “RIP Democracy” ribbon on the back, and unloaded a couple of sport bikes with all the engine badging masked (this kind of “stealth bike” treatment is a dangerous sign that the rider does not ride to be seen, but Means Business. If the monks of the Shaolin temple rode motorcycles, they would likely ride stealthed Ducatis, or Yamahas with panniers made from ammo cans.)

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I mentioned that I was having some trouble mounting my sidecar, and how I was contemplating the construction of a rig to align the toe-in, lean-out, and axle lead. I said this as bait, I admit it. Sam works as a fabricator and a welder; Luke operates a CNC plasma cutter operator, which basically means he uses computers to cut metal with lasers. For fun, they fabricate mountain bikes from scratch. They got in my garage, and my sidecar raised the white flag immediately. Faced with this intimidating array of expertise, recalcitrant clevis bolts meekly submitted to their fate, and castle nuts that I’d forced on in a failed first attempt with blood-slicked fingers and copious profanity spun on as if they’d been freshly cast in a clean room. I wish they’d made it look a little harder, but I’m not going to complain, as I’m suddenly the proud owner of a 1977 BMW R100/7 with a 2000 Velorex 562E sidecar outfit.

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There’s plenty to say about driving a sidecar, which turns out to be a deeply… different experience, but I will skip to the important thing: I am married to a woman who can — gracefully — enter and exit a sidecar while wearing a dress and high heels. I have total confidence that if I were ever fighting with some kind of mustachioed barbarian warlord, and the warlord started to get the better of me, Kate would pop up behind him and bong him on his fur-trimmed cap with a heavy Ming vase. So all in all, I’m continually amazed at how lucky I am(!)

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We drove the outfit to a high-school friend’s wedding, which was beautiful — solemn and joyful in all the right proportions. The bride arrived sitting side-saddle on a chestnut horse with roses braided into its mane, and you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that she totally got away with it. And the finger-food was really good, and we met local friends at the reception, and then we got back to pick up our girly, who had been having a great time at her grandparents’ playing in the sprinkler — Kate beat me to posting the best pictures, so here they are.

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On Sunday, Bob rode his Triumph and I drove my sidecar outfit to the Father’s Day Fest at the American Helicopter Museum just a few miles away from us. The father fest is a ridiculously awesome conglomeration of all kinds of macho hardware: check out, for instance this 1927 Bugatti (driven daily!) parked next to a Boeing Bell Osprey. The last time I went in 2003, I was surprised to be waved onto the runway past the big Navy workhorse helicopters to exhibit my bike, but this time I felt like I belonged in the exhibitor line: I crossed out the “don’t” in the “don’t touch” sign they gave me, and a stream of kids climbed in and out of the hack all afternoon. “Look, a sidecar! (Climb.)” Kate and Lydia met us there, and we had a great time wandering around looking at all the helicopters. (“Look, a helicopter! Climb.)

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Lydia took to the sidecar like a fish to water, though it’ll be years before I feel ready to actually drive safely with her in it (and before there’s a helmet made to fit her,) so for right now it’s just an interestingly-shaped playpen.

Whoo, damn! Blog backlog pressure back down below 100psi again, now.

Update: I did not brag about the cat, who pooped on the carpet this morning. The cat does not get filed under “seriously awesome” this week. I suspect that this is because my litter-cleaning skills are not “seriously awesome” either, so I am on my way home right now to get some fresh litter and awesome up the cat.

Update 2: Also, the compost workshop we went to on Saturday morning was not “seriously awesome” either. Though we do have a black compost container out back, now, subsidized by the State of Pennsylvania, and I’m looking forward to going out there and putting the first bucket of Seriously Awesome lettuce or whatever in it.

Shotgun update: Weekend of Serious Awesomeness

What I did this rainy weekend

Installed a dishwasher.
The dishwasher that came with the house had a habit of peeing rusty water on the floor; our new Kenmore has been sitting in the garage for weeks waiting for inspiration. Which struck on a rainy Saturday morning; Kate watched the baby and I lay on the floor and cursed and groaned trying to get thick-walled half-inch copper supply piping to meet up with the brass inlet tube. Any analogy I’ve made previously about computer programming being like plumbing (skilled job, paid by the hour, experience counts in the details)? Yeah, I take that back. Plumbing is WAY harder. Code stays where you put it, unlike @#$@@$ thick-walled half-inch copper supply piping, which laughs at the sweat-slippery thumb pressure of mere mortals. Works now, though.

Built an AM transmitter for the Guerilla Drive-In.
I’d love to claim 100 Geek Points for doing this, but it’s really more of a seven-and-a-half-geek-point job; I built it from a very complete kit that I ordered from Antique Electronics Supply after my store-bought FM transmitter turned out to be a flop.

According to Baldwin family legend, my great-grandfather sold pressure cookers during Prohibition, along with lengths of copper pipe and explicit instructions about what NOT to do lest you find yourself in possession of a small and eficient gin still (unsurprisingly, his pressure cookers sold so well that the Chicago mob muscled in and forced him out of business.) Along the same lines, the instructions of the K-488 AM Transmitter kit explicitly advise me not to use a transmitting antenna longer than six inches, or I’ll be in violation of FCC guidelines. See, that’s the beauty of a kit, now. Honey, where do we keep the juniper berries?

Discovered a whole new level of goofy German irony.
AM transmitter kits are used by antique radio enthusiasts to send audio from their computer to their old Art Deco recievers (in fact, my transmitter tube appears to have been made in Argentina in the 1930s, so obviously it was intended for use by spies in evening wear.) So it’s kind of fitting that I discovered Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester yesterday. The Palast Orchester is a German twenties-revival band that has been covering old pop songs in the wavering falsetto delivery you associate with stratchy montages of cocktail shakers and tommy guns. My favorite right now is the cover of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, with a clarinet section standing in for the boom-boom clap baseline that used to shake the back of the schoolbus on the way to track meets. (Reedy voice, German accent: “…gonna make a big n-o-o-o-o-ise someday!”) I’m just disappointed I didn’t find out about this sooner.

In other weekend news, Lydia, that encyclo-pidia, now will repeat words back: “Uh-oh! Night night! Bellybutton! Damn!” (whoops, gotta keep her out of the room when I’m installing dishwashers), and continues to double in intelligence, in personality, and in cuteness in an alarming, geometrical, and overwhelmingly wonderful fashion. If you take a shower, Lydia will stick her head under the curtain, just to be sociable, and will look around in an interested manner at the soaps.

If you take her to Ikea (as we did on Sunday, which Kate may write about), she will wave her hand and deliver a bright, chirpy “hi!” to all the passers-by. Then she will fall asleep in the sling, resting her little baby head on your shoulder in a way that will make passers-by weak in the knees from the Power of Cute. Seriously, in humility: blogging is great for bragging about your nerd kit made from nazi spy parts or whatever, and the latest flavor of nerd rock you just found, and that’s fun, but how do you compare it with the act of MAKING A PERSON, a person who to all appearances bids fair to be smarter, sunnier, and better-looking than you, and how do you explain how happy, proud, delighted, lucky, and excited that makes you feel?

Well, I suppose you gush, which is what I’m doing here. And then you go buy the mama, who actually, you know, assembled the baby, some kind of diamond bracelet so big that she’ll have to walk with a crutch. You hear me, honey? A crutch!

What I did this rainy weekend

Kate’s cooler than me, anyhow

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Originally uploaded by tikaro.

Since this is bragging week on, 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.

Loud + Rhythmic = good enough for babies!

I can play the banjo, some. Playing the banjo “some” is like playing the bagpipes a little: you need a wide-open space and patient, forgiving neigbhors if you’re gonna practice, since a banjo does not emit quiet noises. And it’s spectacularly unforgiving of mistakes, that is, if you care about mistakes. Part of the freewheeling attitude that the banjo is meant to inculcate, I think, is an open-minded attitude towards near misses, in life and on the fretboard.

In high school, when I showed some interest, banjo-playing uncles had bought me a starter banjo and showed me the rudiments of Appalachian clawhammer. At college in Indiana, I found a woman who had grown up that chiming, rhythmic folk style. She gave me lessons (for free — teaching clawhammer is like passing on a dying language) I learned to say “app-a-LATCH-an”, and made some progress, learning to hammer out “Old Joe Clark” and “Shady Grove” and even some Irish reels that would tie my right hand up in knots. Once I played “Cripple Creek” through for them at high volume, my uncles chipped in and bought me a venerable banjo, an honorable instrument made for clawhammer (it has no resonator, the back-plate that turns a banjo into a lethal weapon; that kind of banjo is for three-finger picking.)

The banjo is a Star, about a hundred years old, and made before the advent of geared pegs, so tuning it is a black art requiring a firm, deft hand, and the open-minded attitude mentioned above. It’s been living under various beds of mine for about ten years, and has been a source of guilt. Various banjo-playing luminaries in my life have gruffly asked me if I’m keeping my hand in, and I’ve had to reluctantly admit that I havent’ been doing my part to carry the torch. When does it ever seem like a good time to haul the hundred-year-old banjo out from under your bed, spend an hours straning over the pegs, all to spend five minutes making an unholy clatter and yowling at the top of your lungs: “Bile them cabbage down, boys, bile them cabbage down! Turn them hoecakes round, boys, bile them cabbage down!”?

I’ll tell you when that seems like a good time: when you’ve got a one-year old baby, that’s when. One of the things I’ve been looking forward to about being a dad is the magical time when all self-consciousness about loud, imprecise singing evaporates. Lo and behold, that shining time has arrived, and Lydia thinks that the banjo is a Pretty Damn Good Instrument.

So the basement has disgorged all the various folk-song books, chord charts, mostly-working capos, and other odds and sods that I’ve collected from the Baldwin side of my family. I’m trying to cram all the words to “Clementine” into my memory (“Herring boxes \Were her soxxes?” That’s not right.) and enjoying a blessed vacation from self-consciousness about all the whanging wrong notes I’m playing.

Though I think I will pick up a digital tuner; I’m not able to make my embrace of the freewheeling banjo ethos extend that far.

Here’s a brief movie of LBY bouncing along to Cripple Creek (at least, until she sees something more interesting in the case.)

Loud + Rhythmic = good enough for babies!

Freud, Lacan, Leviticus, and Vincent Price

I am blessed with a hip and talented family. In addition to my UFO-hunter father written about below, I will now brag about the following other men in my family*:

  • My father-in-law. ‘Nough said.
  • My brother-in-law Matt can make a flawless Billy Idol sneer (additional points for difficulty when doing so while wearing a sombrero.) He’s also bringing punk to mod, at long last.
  • My step-brother Sam owns three Unimogs, and can select which of several different welding rigs from his arsenal to use for any particular job. When I first met him (we were both teenagers), he did this thing where he put the family cat on his head like a Napoleon hat and strutted around muttering about Jena and Waterloo.
  • My step-brother Oliver is an artist who moved out of Hollywood when his growing reputation and the whirlwhind of parties and starlets, interfered with his art. Now he lives in Milwaukee on the floor of his studio and paints legit. He also doesn’t have a driver’s license.

Today, however, the crowning male achievement in my family is my brother-in-law Tony’s Master’s thesis, “Abject Thriller”, a scholarly work examining the role of the abject in Michael Jackson’s famous werewolf video:

“Within the chorus of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” a certain ambiguity quickly asserts itself. Who is fighting for their life inside a killer tonight? Who is the beast about to strike? It is precisely because of this ambiguity that it would be difficult to find a more apt subject than Michael Jackson’s video “Thriller”, in order to explore notions of abjection. Little did one realize in 1982, that Jackson’s own career and iconic status would acquire much of the dark transformational tone that his ground-breaking video established.”

Now, while offbeat theses written by your relatives is one of the things a blogger prays for, Tony’s thesis has way more than entertainment value. He makes the following excellent points:

  1. These days, parts of Thriller can be seen as a metaphor for Michael Jackson’s subsequent life and career. Certainly, the themes in the video seem to be the central themes in Jackson’s life.
  2. Abjection is a desparate, transformative state, breaking the bounds of culture, social norms, even mental organization. It’s like being…. a werewolf!
  3. There are zombies in the video, but where are the vampires? Nowhere, probably because vampires tend to be self-controlled. Zombies and werewolves have no control over themselves or their urges

Tony does a great job of examining the role of gore in the video (and in pop culture), even quoting Leviticus to examine the dichotomy between “clean” and “unclean” and how Jackson’s gross, nail-growing transformations represent a cathartic (and repeated) breach of this divide. And then Jackson looks over his shoulder at us, the viewer, with glowing zombie eyes, asking for our tacit — or active — participation.


* Limiting to the men will keep it shorter.

Freud, Lacan, Leviticus, and Vincent Price