Homemade Instruments: Teaching the Teachers

Bean-sorting is part of a larger project which includes cookie tins, nails, metal bottle caps, cardboard tubes, cut steel tubing, large tin cans, paper plates, terracotta pots, keys, sticks of wood, cigar boxes, hammers, wax paper, empty water bottles, string, garden hoses, and crowbars.  And rubber bands.  And drinking straws.  This is all in preparation for a class on homemade instruments.
There won’t be the time to allow hands-on construction of anything, really.  In a 50-minute class, we will barely begin to explore homemade instruments.  Beyond asking what can be made, the question has to be broken down into smaller topics:  How long does it take?  How many steps are required, and what materials and tools are needed?


If the people who come to attend this class are like the ones I see every year, they will be tired and hoping my class is no challenge whatsoever.  They will slump into desks built for teenagers, sigh deeply, and wonder if they will even attempt to teach small restless boys how to build a noisemaker.
And, that’s what I will ask them:  Are you ready for this sort of project?  If you want to make homemade instruments, you’d better be willing to hear kids playing those “instruments” for an hour and a half.  You have to go into that den meeting or that metalworking merit badge class ready, willing, and able to endure plenty of noise.
After that, it’s all about minimizing dangers.  When making a paper plate tambourine, be ready for fingers caught on staples.   When creating a cookie tin tambourine, be ready for someone to need stitches.  When crafting PVC pan pipes or a galvanized steel xylophone, be ready for cylinders rolling off tables and clanking against each other for the duration of the workshop.
I’ll have a supply of show-and-tell items, a stack of how-to-books, handouts with websites, and some serious advice on worst case scenarios.  The way I see it, there’s a little bit of adventurous boy inside every bored adult man: he needs to hear there’s some risk, some challenge, and some way to do the job better than that old lady who taught the class.
Especially after she embarrassed everyone by making them sing Shake My Sillies Out.  Why did I do that?  Because if you’re having a class on making a musical instrument of some sort, you really need to have a song ready for the completed project.

Home-Made Guitars: Lessons Learned

The original directions I found for building a milk carton guitar come from Karen Latchana Kenney’s book Cool Rock Music, but she deserves none of the blame for my results.

Kenney’s directions were to use wooden yardsticks for the neck/fretboard of the homemade guitar, but these photos show where we used a plank of wood from the hardware store.  We made this design switch because the only wooden yardsticks found were at the local WalMart, and they were all spliced lengths of soft wood.  Every time we used one, the tension on the strings caused the yardstick to snap dangerously and suddenly.  Sturdier wood was necessary.

Our first attempt to build one of these guitars came out like this:


We used a lemonade carton, a plank of pine instead of a yardstick, and added multiple strings, as opposed to the single strand of fishing line —


30lb and 50lb fishing line and one genuine guitar string.  We found that the wood bent pretty easily under the tension of the strings,


the screw eyes also did not hold well to the wood with that much tension,


and the carton itself ripped if not handled gently.

We also tried a few variations on the design, using different items for sound boxes, including  a cigar box:


and a coffee can:



The advantage of the milk or juice carton was that the top was slanted away from the strings by design, and the ridge at the top was an excellent bridge.  For the cigar box variation we crafted a bridge from a bamboo chopstick:


But the coffee container needed an even higher bridge, which we created from some scrap wood:


In both cases, the bridges had to be glued in place or else they slipped free.  Anyone attempting these variations will have to factor in the drying time for the glue.

We tried using a cheap yardstick, as directed in Kenney’s book, but the wood split easily, and in one case broke completely in half where the stick had a seam.  Additionally, wooden yardsticks are harder to find than they used to be (no local hardware stores offered them!) and the cheap ones were worth what we paid — not much.

At the time this article was originally written, the only wooden yardsticks found were dangerously unsafe.   More recently, we found these at Lowe’s:


The wood is sturdy in thickness, and the rulers are made from a single piece of wood.  The price is low enough that enough to supply a class or a Scout den will not be prohibitively expensive.

We built approximately 40 milk carton guitars at Art Camp.  The older students (ages 9-12) enjoyed discussing the parts of the guitar and ideas for improving on them, and were quite pleased with their results!



The Heart of Vestal


Nearly every community has a “heart” — a central focal point around and upon which residents build their sense of belonging, weave their memories, and build their lives.  This is not an aspect clearly identified for Vestal, New York.

As someone who grew up in a small college town with a wealth of lovely old buildings clearly establishing the center of town, to me, Vestal seemed amorphous by comparison.  Never actually a village in the traditional sense, Vestal is a broad expanse of former farmland with an unmistakeably linear, east-to-west swatch of “development” along the southern bank of the Susquehanna River.   A stretched-out, commercialized suburb with Binghamton University blurring the lines between itself and the city next-door, Vestal challenges new residents who wish to put down roots.  I spent years in search of the real center of my new home… but I found it.


This is a photo of what I believe to be the “heart” of the Town and community of Vestal, New York:  the Vestal Museum (housed in the relocated old green train station,) the Vestal Public Library, and the Vestal High School (just visible on the hill above and behind the library.)  Together, these are the past, present, and future of this community and everyone who has or will ever call it home.

The Vestal Museum presents, through events, artifacts, and stories, the relationship of our little Town to the State, the nation, and the world, and reminds us of the importance of roots, our past.   Vestal High School is the building where our young people gather the skills they need and find the harbors from which to set sail for the shores of the future.  Between these two stands the Vestal Public Library — our present — where parents bring toddlers to play groups, preschoolers enjoy Story Hours, teens enjoy gaming events, local musicians share songs and tunes, political and educational groups gather for meetings, and Seniors get help each year with taxes… and that barely scratches the surface of what a library offers to a community.

In times of need, the Vestal Library’s career center is a gold mine of information on grants, skill development, educational opportunities, and vocational guidance.  The community has free Internet access, and students have rich resources for research and reports at every grade level.

Our Library has been there for us, and we need it now more than ever, as strong as it can be.  Our Museum holds the key to a firm foundation for the community’s identity.  Our schools, K-12 and beyond, need to be strong with community support to give our young people the best chance at a better future, for Vestal and beyond.  As a community, when we work together to support such institutions, we are all at our best.

Review of “The Dog Stars” by Peter Heller

Reviving a blog is always a bit of a challenge: does consistency in theme or style really matter if the blog hasn’t been used in years?  I’ve decided that the most important factor is having something worth sharing, whether or not it fits with the blog’s history, and the first work of fiction I’ve read in years is something I’ve been thinking about ever since I read the last page.

Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars was a “hot” title, coming in to our library system with patron requests already piling up.  I can honestly say I do not know this author, and so do not know if it was the author or the topic of the book that created the demand.  The title was intriguing to me because I wondered if there might be some aspect of astronomy to the story.  Short answer: not enough.

This is a story about living in a post-Apocalyptic Earth, not so much with the fashionable zombie motif, but certainly with the “every man for himself” mentality we all expect civilization to devolve into once some cataclysm strikes.  In this book, it is brought on by a pandemic — a flu — and our narrator is a mostly-intact survivor of this scourge.

The brain damage resulting from an extended fever of 105 is the explanation for the narrator’s disjointedly fragmented sentences and, presumably, for the author’s complete failure to obey traditional rules of punctuation.  Stylish as that might be, I found it to be my second-greatest disappointment with the book.  The author knows who has spoken which line, but the reader does not, so the “he said” or “she said” notes can really help a great deal in watching a story develop.  I hated that I had to stop and re-read dialogue passages to get a clear sense of who (might have) said what.  It interrupts the story, and I feel that is never a good thing.

In a book such as The Dog Stars, the author has to create a new reality in which the story will take place.  The reader needs to be put there and kept there, in that new reality, in order to have the experience.  If the writing makes the reader stumble and re-read for clarity, that means the reader has been tossed out of the story, back into his or her own reality.  I would prefer that my fiction be presented well enough to engross me, to put me into the new world and let me stay there with the characters and see what transpires.  Punctuation, properly employed, can allow that to happen.  And while breaking the rules can help to create an effect — in this case, perhaps, to show us the narrator’s disjointed thinking — the fragmented sentences and tangential directions achieved that well enough.  Proper punctuation would have been a kindness to the readers that allowed us to stay in the story, stay with the character.

That said, the dystopia Heller created was not the best I’ve encountered.  In some ways, it was a pale shadow of Pat Frank’s 1959 novel Alas, Babylon: we encountered pockets of near-normalcy, adjusted to the dangerous new times in both books.  However, Frank gave us many examples of how the survivors reacted to the new reality, how they learned to cope, and how they dealt with those who could not.  Heller had a lot of the solutions already figured out, told us how it was, and expected us to be fine with that.  Perhaps this suited some readers, but I’ve been a science fiction fan for decades, and my favorite authors have respected my curiosity about the survival aspects — the science and engineering tidbits — that help to bring me into the new world.  Anyone who has read Robert Silverberg’s expansion on Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall, David Brin’s The Postman, the aforementioned Alas, Babylon, or even Rober C. O”Brien’s Z is for Zachariah — a YA book! — will be disappointed with Heller’s weak effort here.

There were stars, yes, and there was a dog.   For all the role this dog, Jasper, had, I’d say this could have been the last-ever episode of Lassie.  “Gee, I really liked Jasper and how he’d growl and warn me about threats even though he was stone-deaf and really no help at all but I made doggy treats out of the people we killed and that made him happy so I was sad when he died.”  There you have it, as if it were quoted from the book — which it wasn’t, but the punctuation was about right.

Would I recommend The Dog Stars?  No.  Perhaps Peter Heller has better books out there, so I will try to read something else he’s written before I decide he’s just not an author I can enjoy, but this book would not make me a fan of his.  However, it is worth noting that, although I did not like the story, it still left me thinking about it, if only in terms of how I might have written it myself.  And, any book that gets the reader thinking can’t be all bad.

Sailboat Racing on Oneida Lake

Over the August 29-30 weekend the Oneida Lake Sailing Club held its Commodore’s Cup series of races, open to all members who had participated in a minimum of three other races this summer, spinnakers allowed.  The plan was for three races on Saturday and two on Sunday.  The day began with a Captains’ meeting at 9am Saturday, after which the folks who would supervise the races on the Committee Boat headed out to set out marker buoys (also called pins.)  At the start of each race a printed description of the course was displayed on a white board on their transom while this same information was announced over the radio.  Due to confusion over the instructions, the race was discarded, which meant we actually had four races that day.

This was our first time as participants in a sailing race on our own boat.  Kevin, an accomplished sailor, had been crewing on other boats for weeknight races all summer.  I, on the other hand, don’t know how to swim and am accustomed to leisurely weekend cruises on our Cal 25.  Guess whose big idea it was to enter the Commodore’s Cup?  Yeah!  We knew at the outset we didn’t have a butterfly’s chance in a tornado at winning, but there was so much we could learn from the experience!  Racing would force us to develop an efficient sailing team, choreograph an effective pas de deux — and bless us with an impressive collection of bruises.

Saturday was overcast with winds coming out of the east, which minimized the waves.  Winds that speed from the west would have given us 4-foot waves to contend with – conditions we had on Sunday, in fact, but that’s getting ahead of things.

To prepare for the race, we lightened the boat, removing tools and anchors, stowed everything else securely, and then went out to observe weather conditions on the lake.  Friends coming in from an early sail warned us of changeable winds with powerful gusts, which meant we’d have to choose wisely on how to set the sails.

We’d only flown our spinnaker once; it’s a complicated maneuver that truly requires an experienced team, so we vetoed that option immediately.  This left us with the three jibs to choose from: storm (smallest), genoa (largest) or #2 yankee.  Racing against the spinnakers other boats would be using made use of a larger jib tempting, but presented the risk of over-powering the boat in high winds.  Over-powering means the boat could misbehave in a variety of ways that I won’t go into, but most of them are embarrassing and soggy.  My vote was for the smallest (storm) jib, but Kevin opted for the yankee and that’s what we hoisted — for about two minutes.  Not to say “I told you so” but one of the least pleasant tasks is changing a head sail in high wind, and that was what Kevin wound up doing; the storm jib was right for the wind conditions, for beginners like us.  For extra caution, we decided to put a reef in the main sail: this is a way of shortening the main sail, making it smaller in a way that it could be opened up if needed.

Racing started at 10am, with a 5-minute warning horn, then a signal for everyone to begin a countdown. We had a little countdown kitchen timer attached to the bulkhead and as soon as it went off we were underway. For sailboat races, the idea is to cross the starting line of the race under full sail, so we tack back and forth to catch the wind until we know the race has begun, at which point we blast across the starting line.  How do we draw a line on the lake?  It’s the perceived “line” between the Committee Boat and one of the marker buoys they set out.

Knowing how competitive the event could be, Kevin kept us on the race course but carefully away from the thick of things; it’s all too easy, and occasionally disastrous, for boats to collide.  Nevertheless, as the races progressed the fleet compacted into a tight crowd, especially as we rounded the pins.. making for some unforgettable moments.

When a boat flies the spinnaker, it can be the same as flooring the accelerator on a Ferrari and this weekend’s wind was the equivalent of jet fuel.  Once the spinnakers were out, the fleet took off like cheetahs and we wallowed in their wakes — with our minimal sails, we had none of their speed — which is why an observer described me as having “eyes the size of dinner plates” when I looked behind us and saw nothing but a big yellow spinnaker.

We’d come around a pin just in front of a larger boat with a 5-man crew, and they had their spinnaker flying within seconds of the turn, so only the man on the bow could see us.  Kevin had been getting set for a tack when he heard my shriek and yelled to the other boat, but they didn’t respond.  We wound up doing an unintentional jibe, with the boom swinging wildly from starboard to port – I instinctively grabbed at the main sheet to slow it down and got thrown across the deck, but that move bought Kevin time to regain control.  For a few minutes afterward, all was quiet on our boat: I was expecting Kevin to yell at me for doing something stupid, but he was fearful that I’d gotten hurt.  I was fine, he was relieved, and we sailed on.

During the third race, we were the closest boat preparing to round a pin – which gave us the right-of-way – but that boat with the yellow spinnaker was rounding the same pin outside of us and giving us little room for the turn.  The captain of that boat yelled over to Kevin that we could round the pin together but that Kevin would have to haul in the boom immediately after that so they could get on the upwind course and fly their spinnaker.

The problem was, this maneuver had Kevin facing aft, working the main sheet and traveler, holding the tiller with his legs.  From where I sat, I could see the impending collision: our boat was sailing straight while theirs turned to port: toward us! I didn’t dare stand up, Kevin was busy, so the only choice was a Jackie Chan side kick to the tiller and a little prayer that Kevin didn’t lose his balance.  It worked and we lived to sail another race — the last one of the day.

Out of four races on Saturday, we didn’t come in last on one of them, which we considered an awesome achievement.  The race series continued on Sunday, but weather conditions were even more severe, with winds out of the west and gusts up to 27mph from a storm front that was producing waterspouts out on Lake Ontario.  Kevin and I went out to the point to watch the whitecaps raging across the lake, and although we were game to give it a shot with the same minimal sail arrangement, that never happened.  Kevin was asked to fill in for a missing crewman on one of the larger boats, I was allowed to come along for the ride, and we thus had the good luck to be aboard the boat that took the Commodore’s Cup this year.

Classical Banjo?

Several weeks ago, a good friend asked if I could help with a special music project in her part of NYS.  Chemung County was preparing a month-long Festival of Women in the Arts, which included a great deal of music.  DC was hostessing an all-women jam at the end of the month and our trio was already slated to host, so the request was ‘above and beyond’ what westward traveling I’d anticipated.

It happened that local composer/conductor WW had secured the rights to perform a “bluegrass mass” — The World Beloved — which has only been performed by the original musicians until now.  As part of the Women in the Arts festival, women musicians were preferred, and the score included parts for banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and bass.  I own all of those instruments, and I happen to be the right gender — the question was whether I could dredge up any dim memories of how to read a musical score.  And, I had to do it in four weeks…

I thought I was going to play guitar for the show, but a far better guitarist (male!) was secured; no other banjo players were available or willing (either or both?) to tackle such a complicated piece on short notice, and I only agreed when a pianist was added to the mix.  Her electronic keyboard was configured so her right hand would make banjo noises and play all those notey leads I couldn’t decipher.  All I had to do was plink out the chords.

How did it go?  Rather well.  After listening to the cantata for weeks, over and over, I learned a lot of it by ear, which spared me counting along with a score that went 2/2 to 3/4 to 5/4 and back to 2/2 with wild abandon.  I photocopied and sliced-up the score to make the page-turns possible, and decided that, for better or for worse, it would be over in a mere 45 minutes once we got going.  I heard a few fumbles in the performance, but the audience would never have known the difference, and they were too amused by the odd assortment of instruments accompanying the choir to really care too much.

When it was all over, I took a moment to shake the conductor’s hand, saying, “Congratulations!  You managed to paper-train a bluegrass band!”  No small accomplishment.

Spelunking Online

About ten years ago, I brought my sons to Howe Caverns so that they could experience the caves.  Ever since I was a child, myself, I’d wanted to go there, to see the minerals and formations and just feel that prehistoric sense caves create the moment we enter them.

Big mistake, then, to visit Howe Caverns for the experience: they have lined the entire site with electric *colored* lights that obliterate the beautiful, subtle colors of the various minerals and rocks and create a wholly modern environment, miles below the surface of the planet.  Only in the photographs we took were the real colors visible, when the flash washed-out the artificial lights.  We used a cheap mayfly camera, but even then, the quality of the photos far surpassed what we saw with our own eyes.

So, I worried about the Lascoux Cave “virtual visit” when I first clicked on this site.  I’ve known of these caves all my life, and my father — a devoted rock hound and amateur geologist — shared with me his love for ancient mysteries that might one day reveal themselves in caves.

In some ways, the “virtual visit” is as disappointing as I’d feared.  First and foremost, the photos are much too small for marveling.  There is no sense of perspective in these narrowed views, and with no frame of reference, it is impossible to imagine the position(s) the artists had to assume in order to create these paintings and engravings.  I’ve read where there was necessarily scaffolding created to reach some places, but how big were the final works in relation to the average size of a person back then?  I wanted some way to understand the scale of it all.

Most of all, there is a loss of experience in being removed by both the camera and the internet.  Though I understand our breath alone endangers these works of art, and thus we cannot visit them in person, I feel this means we will never fully appreciate them, either.

Here is what I envision:
The artists of that time lived in a dark world when the sun set.  They were afraid of predators, including other humanoids, and they lived hard lives with work that had to be accomplished during daylight hours if they were to survive the night, the next few days, or even the season — and for that, they needed some easy way to train up their young and get them past the fears, past the errors, and quickly into the flow of
survival.  One of the best ways to do this is to fill the idle hours with stories, songs, and art.

Those caves were lit by firelight, by torches carried and thus in motion with every turn and gesture.  The animals would not only feel huge, they would feel alive and in motion — a clever guide could make the animals move to fit the story, could guide the rapt listeners through the tales.  They would mix truth and fiction, history and fantasy, to weave a cautionary tale, but also one of hope.

Some of the side areas, especially the one with the squares of color, tell me they taught others to create these paintings.  There was a class on how to mix or match colors — they had to work with materials at hand, had to spend a portion of daylight finding the red clay or burning the charcoal or otherwise developing what they needed for the artwork.

Some of the engravings may have been learning tools for shape, size, or design. Some of the handprints may have been signatures, tests for color, or even graffiti from later visitors — kids who dared sneak in, unguided. Some of the engravings might also reflect new techniques being explored, or reflect a time when painting materials became unavailable, or the artists were away or lost forever.

The virtual tour was a good start on imagining life in the distant past, getting a glimpse of the souls of these people not so very different from those of us today who love an illustrated book or even a movie.

Women and Social Movements: Research Question

I’m gearing up for a class on Women and Social Movements of the 20th Century U.S., and stressing over how little I have paid attention to women as a mass entity and Social Movements in general.

Friends have pointed out to me that I happen to be a woman, myself, (I knew that, btw,) and therefore ought to be well aware of this topic, but that’s completely my point.  I take people one at a time and don’t actually believe there is an entity of Women as a solid front, a single organized force or character.  There are too many variations on the theme, and simple genetics isn’t enough to create unity.  I fight enough with my brothers to know that.

I’m not even certain what the difference is between a Social Movement and a fad or fashion trend, in some ways.  Is a Social Movement necessarily a cause toward some ideal?  I’d welcome thoughts on what the definition might be.

I’ve always been geared toward taking people one at a time and rolling my eyes in impatience when I see generalizations — that “we” in statements like “We love our hamburgers in the US!” is particularly annoying, since I live in the US, but I don’t even like hamburgers, much less love them.  And statements like “We are fascinated with [celebrity]” actually anger me, since I’m again clumped in by default even though I have no idea who they’re talking (or writing) about most of the time.

This all must change for the next four months or so: I must embrace the collective and pretend that Women behave en masse like some sort of Hive mind (Ender reference) and then study this chimera.

So, here’s a research stab:  How many of you have a take on women and the Internet as a social medium rather than an information resource?  Do you find you encounter more (apparent) women in discussion boards, or social sites, or blog sites?  Any thoughts on that?

I am slowly awakening to the fact that I have made a lot more women friends through the internet than I ever did in the Real World.

And, is blogging a Social Movement?

Goodnight Bush! A Brilliant Parody

One of the best-known and best-loved children’s books ever published is Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, which has been translated and parodied countless times but remains forever beloved by children, parents, and grandparents.  Non-parents and ultra-cool teenagers might be the few holdouts, but their time has come with the newest, unauthorized parody:

Written by Erich Origen and Gan Golan, and clearly not for (or about) innocents, Goodnight Bush vivisects the current Administration with merciless accuracy, using every possible razor edge that has caused this country to bleed since the stolen election of 2000.

Fans of the original will be particularly enchanted by the complete loyalty shown to the Brown’s text and Hurd’s illustrations — the gentle rhyme scheme, the simple lines — all reimagined with a Gestalt effect.  Where sweet love and innocence were the essence of Brown’s book, Origen and Golan replace every sweet detail with malice and guilt.  Cheney whispers “Hush” to a worshipful FOX, the fire in the hearth is fueled by election ballots, and bin Ladin is easily found on every page.  The details are exquisite, such as the titles on books that line the shelves, like Rapture the Flag.

You can order your copy wherever cool books are sold, like Amazon.  Or Powell’s.  Or Barnes & Noble.
ISBN: 978-0316040419
Published by Little, Brown & Company.

I’ve got two on order already.

The website is also offering a Couplet Contest, asking for headline-related entries in poetic form, as a sort of farewell celebration, between Independence (from Bush) Day, 2008, to January 19, 2009.  Enter as often as you like, and perhaps you’ll win a free, autographed book!

Lowen & Navarro: What Kind of World Do You Want?

There are times when someone says something so powerful, something so important, and says it in such a way that hearing it becomes equally as important; this is one of those times.

Lowen & Navarro are musicians I met years ago at the NERFA folk music conference. I remember Eric Lowen as a very tall, powerful man who walked with a cane. We went down a hallway together on one of those hectic evenings and I remember him asking me about what I do. I told him I wasn’t a “real musician” as he was, because I don’t write songs, don’t record them, don’t do all those things we associate with professional musicians. I remember he looked down at me with those kindly eyes and laughed. “None of those things make me real and you not,” he said, “It’s only that we do things differently.” For the rest of the walk, I felt as tall as Eric.

I hadn’t seen him since then, and now I know why: ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

And, what does Eric do with his music now? He sings it better than ever, and raises his voice with those of others afflicted with ALS, to raise money for the research into finding a cure.

Please watch Lowen & Navarro’s video – each viewing generates a donation. This is folk music at its most powerful.  Sing along.

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