Category Archives: blather

Home Taping Was Not Killing Music

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Old tape deckA group of music friends got into a discussion: Does anybody still make mix tapes/mix CDs, or are there any from back in the day that they still play? That led to a flood of thoughts.

I really discovered music right around age 11, just around the start of middle school, with an AM clock radio set almost exclusively to the local Top 40 radio station, WTRY. AM only. Radio then was wildly diverse – just look at the top 100 for 1972: that was all playing in the Tri-Cities. When I fell into music, I fell into it hard – trips to Apex Music Korner, where sample 45s of the top hits of the week hung from wooden pegs, and you could take the listener over to a school-grade turntable and listen to it on a monophone pressed to your ear, just in case you hadn’t convinced yourself you needed it yet. Fork over 79 cents, and it was yours.

Apex Music Korner 1972The radio ruled our lives – what was playing was everything. And of course, we couldn’t afford to buy everything we wanted to hear, and you couldn’t necessarily count on hearing what you wanted to, so we did the only thing you could do in those days – tape off the radio. I had, everybody had, a small portable cassette recorder with a built-in microphone that dutifully picked up the sounds of its own motor turning the compact cassette. Place it next to the radio, and wait to pounce on those buttons when a song you wanted to capture might be coming on. You had to listen closely – maybe the DJ would front announce so you’d know “Rock the Boat” was coming up. But probably not. As the commercial came to an end, you’d do the three-finger move: press “play” and “record” simultaneously, then immediately step on the “pause” button. But the pause buttons on those machines would only hold for a few seconds, so if an unexpected weather report came up, you had to back off, hit “stop,” then be ready to start again. Get all set up, hear the DJ start his patter, try to pick out the first notes and decide if this was a song you wanted or not. We could all name that tune in no more than 3 notes, but the irony is those were the notes that usually got clipped off with this technique. Finally, catch a song you wanted to keep, listen through to the outro, and pop the stop button. At least at the back end, you could decide to back up a little and tape over the DJ’s talk. Do this to capture 30 minutes to a side of the cheapest department store tape your mom could find, and you sort of had something to listen to.

When we had records we wanted to tape, it was only marginally less primitive. Maybe somebody had an external microphone that we’d put near the speaker. We’d talk up the records like the DJs did, trying to time talking all over the intro just right (what I now know they called “hitting the post”). We’d be able to put songs in an order that seemed to make some sense to us. Sometimes, we’d do it up Dickie Goodman style, fake interviews that would be answered with song snippets. We thought we were hilarious – I only wish any of them survived. It might be a real insight into the mind of a 14 year old suburban ‘70s white boy. Or just scary, take your pick.

It wasn’t until college that I got a real tape deck. Bounced a check for it (by accident, honest – I paid up) the summer after my freshman year, figured out how to connect it to my hand-me-down stereo console with no auxiliary output (I recall the arrangement as questionable, but not a fire hazard), and started laying down mix tapes. This was around 1979, what may have been the dawn of the mix tape era. Good quality tape existed, and I could almost afford it. Taping off the radio was over (and for me, so was radio, pretty much). I was getting a decent record collection and learning more about music from hanging out at Desert Shore Records than I could ever learn from what passed for radio in Syracuse at the time. Those early tapes were mostly a mix of whatever I had bought most recently with a smattering of old favorites. I got a new amp/receiver/tape deck combination and suddenly, I could copy tapes. And give them to people. In terms of my concentrating on anything else, it was all over.

Best Flaming Rock 'n Roll Tape Ever Made!Making mix tapes became my obsession, and my stress relief. If I had a major project to get done, you could be sure I was working on a tape. Instead. Every one went through multiple versions, changes in songs and song order, decisions about whether there would be filler and bumpers, and selection of just the right Ventures song to fill the last spot (because you can always fade out on an instrumental). One of my tapes features an already sped-up version of The Ramones “Needles and Pins,” with a crazy little spin-up at the end, partly for effect and partly because it almost fit on the tape, and I wasn’t taking no for an answer. To this day, I expect to hear that at the end of the song.

The spine design became a whole other thing. I had access to presstype and, later, to actual typesetting equipment, so my covers could look slick as hell for the time. With the ubiquity of desktop design programs today, you’d give it no thought, but if I handed someone a tape with what looked like a seriously designed cover in 1988, it was something unusual.

Bulletproof HeartThere were many of these tapes. Most of them survived until just a few years ago, when I digitized them as best I could, copied the covers, and let them go because I was just not listening to cassettes anymore. But I carefully (and where did I get the time for this?) recreated every tape in a playlist on iTunes. In a lot of cases, those are the only versions of those songs in my library. I burned some of them to CD for listening to in the car (though the tapes were 90 minutes, and CDs were 72, which ruined some of the flow as some things had to go). And when the mood hits, I do still listen to them. Some are as ill-thought-through as I thought they were at the time; others feel like absolute perfection to me, and any time I hear a particular song, I expect the next song on the tape to follow. That’s how it should be.

Freaks
The tradition didn’t stop entirely with cassettes. For a quick five minutes, I was doing the same on MiniDisc, the little portable format that was hot at a time when burning CDs was still out of reach for most of us. But it didn’t stay out of reach long, and all the work I put into digitizing albums and making new playlists on MiniDisc was for naught. The cassettes stayed around longer. Once CDs became easy, I made a bunch of those, too, but by then I was deep into parenthood and work and all the things that keep me from giving what is now called a playlist the serious thought that it requires. So, sorry to say, these days when I want to mix it up, I tend to hit “Genius” on iTunes, see what it comes up with, make some edits to the playlist (or not), and leave it at that. For some things, like roots music, folk, and blues, it does a beautiful job, staying largely within style. For others, say, anything that was a ‘60s hit, it just returns a bunch of other ‘60s hits that have nothing to do with each other, so that’s hopeless.

I want to do it again, to really have time to think about how one song flows into another, and to have the time to listen and appreciate the effort. Whatever it is, there’s never enough time.
Party Tips

Occasional entry

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I’ve been working on a couple of pieces that I’d love to share here for quite some time, but then I’ve been working on pieces for Hoxsie that take up time, I’ve been watching the Giro d’Italia, I’ve been getting out on my bike, I’ve been not getting out on my bike. It’s that time of year where we have a couple of great days in a row and get a million things done, and then it rains for a solid week and I get laid out with a serious cold. So here is what’s up:

  1. I spent maybe 20 hours getting my old table saw dialed in so I can reliably cut accurate miters for picture frames with it. Had to take the whole thing apart, replace a broken shim, clean out the case for the first time, then slowly slowly get it back into perfect alignment — which of course has to be checked every single time I set up a cut. I’ve resorted to a fancy device that tells me the blade’s angle to the table, because eyeballing it with framing squares was not working at all. Finally got a good miter gauge, too, and a miter slot (this saw had a sliding table, which I’d categorize as “seemed like a good idea at the time”). All this means I can finally, with some reliability, produce some passable mitered corners that match up and glue up nicely.
  2. Well, there’s the Giro, which normally inspires me to get out and pedal except I’ve had my second major cold since Christmas and my sinuses are impacted with something as dense as silicone caulk, but also runny. And it has hardly mattered because it did nothing but rain for two weeks.
  3. I have gone insane with the vinyl LPs lately. Lots of new, lots of old. Of an evening, I may move from the reissue of Elton John’s “17-11-70” to some ancient Moody Blues to a pair of Tower of Power records that I never owned before. Apparently I own two Sade albums, and I like them! And my new copy of my favorite Ventures album, “The Ventures Knock Me Out,” is in really sweet shape. Stylistically, consistency is not my strong point.
  4. Speaking of music, April was insane for concerts. Dave Alvin, Aimee Mann, John K. Samson, and discovered some great new artists who opened, The Worriers and Sarah Borges. Plus, our local favorites were out and about. There was so much music.
  5. Finally broke into Nathan Filbrick’s “Valiant Ambition,” a great look at what went on between George Washington and Benedict Arnold. I’m not a big military guy at all, but I am always down for a great account of the Battle of Valcour Island. It’s always incredible to imagine how naval battles played out in a time when you couldn’t necessarily put your ship where you wanted it to be, and had to rely on the wind. It mattered that the gigantic new warship the British built specifically to take over Lake Champlain was square-rigged – it meant it couldn’t sail into the wind. Turns out: disadvantage!
  6. Daughter shared with me her proposed playlist for songs she has to perform for her humanities practicum, and I’ve gotta say, I was a little choked up. My plot to deeply imprint my musical tastes on another human being has been a complete success! Also, it involves The Ventures. So just imagine. Somebody may be getting a Mos-rite bass for graduation.
  7. Yes, the heat came on yesterday morning. Yes, it is going to be 87 degrees today.
  8. I had the month of April in the impeachment pool. Sad that I lost.
  9. No, I cannot get my theme to keep an ordered list in the same typeface that I prescribed for the rest of my posts. Thanks for asking.

Proving that that rash of entries earlier in the year was an anomaly.

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Well, we knew that was going to be the case, didn’t we? A private person with a public blog and an open identity is something of an oddity anyway. When I started this way back when, it was something of a replacement for journaling, something of a way to reach out and have a persona on the web. The reality is that it has never been deeply personal, and these days, a lot of the things on my mind fall into the “deeply personal” category. So instead of sharing those, I write about printers who made tomato wine.

Cycling is off to a decent spring start, although I failed in my efforts to keep up training over the winter. I was trying to deal with some pain – when rest didn’t help, I saw a doctor who, when I told him I couldn’t sit cross-legged anymore, asked “Why would you want to do that?” Of course it was more than that, and for a while I couldn’t really get on the bicycle without pain. I’ve done some PT and am probably as good as I’m going to be. The good news is that cycling doesn’t aggravate it; the bad news is it doesn’t make it better, either. Been out doing some hillwork because it’s way too easy around here to just take the flat trails and then, when the 50-mile rides through the hills come up later in the year, I beg off them because I know I won’t survive. 1700 feet of climb yesterday, 1200 on the two outings last week, so starting to get it up there. I definitely felt it yesterday, even though none of it was extreme. Last week I tried to get up a 16% grade and just couldn’t (and that, my friends, is what my triple was for). Yesterday, nothing steeper than a momentary 10%, but those still hurt. Today, work and rain so I’m off the hook.

Other things? On my 10th or 20th reorganization of the basement since we moved here. Long and narrow makes for an interesting attempt at a woodshop, but this is what it is. Kayaking will be underway next month – need to wait for water levels to lower and temperatures to rise. Pretty much everyone in my family except me is preparing for a move, major or minor, so we’re trying to help everybody with those but, being in the remote wilds of Philadelphia, we’re not much help.

Small city living continues to amaze and please.

Music is awesome. We were lucky enough to finally see John K. Samson (formerly The Weakerthans) the other night, and before and since I’ve been thinking a lot about the closing lyrics from “Postdoc Blues“:

So take that laminate out of your wallet and read it,

and recommit yourself to the healing of the world,

and to the welfare of all creatures upon it.

Pursue a practice that will strengthen your heart.

Those seem like words to live by. Is that so hard?

(One could not be blamed for wondering how those lyrics could possibly work in song. Do click the link and watch the video.)

I Remember When I Could Remember Things

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Truly. I once had a great memory. What happened to that? Is it just age, or stress, or just too damn many years and things to remember (which, of course, would be age)? Not clear. But it is true, I once remembered things that had happened not only to me but to those around me. I had a great knack for knowing the events of certain years. Increasingly, I’m finding myself unclear when things happened or if they happened at all.

A case in point came in in a recent somewhat minor family argument over an event from some years ago. Honestly, I’d have struggled to put a year to the event, but I thought I remembered a chunk of the particulars pretty well. Someone else remembered it quite, quite differently, and of course that’s how memory is – faulty, subjective, unreliable. I was pretty clear on my perspective of events, but just the doubt was enough to make me doubt myself. And I carried that doubt around for a week until just now when, through the miracle of my having once been a blogger, I found an account of the event, right here on my very own internet, that told it pretty much the way I remember it. In that case, it turns out, my memory was good (though, again, I could never have said what year it happened).

But while looking for that, I found another entry, one that relayed how I went to, and enjoyed, a movie that, had you asked me twenty minutes ago, I would have sworn I had never seen. With memory now jogged, I can even remember where we went to see it, but without that jog, I’d have denied I ever saw it.

I really think a lot of it has to do with the years, and what was going on during them. There are some pretty big stress-created craters in my timeline, when all I think I was doing was holding it together. The months following 9/11 were a big crater – I remember a huge amount of my work-related activities in those months, but what went on in family life I’m afraid I’ve barely a clue. The years I spent trying to consult independently are also a bit of a blur, in terms of remembering what happened when. I remember the summer of 1989 at a level of detail that I’d probably be able to reconstruct in a calendar – but to remember the years my daughters graduated, I sometimes need to do a little bit of math. Vexing.

Right now, the stress is locked in high, which probably means that in a few years, when I want to remember how it was that these holidays came to be so strange logistically, I’m going to wish I had written it down here. Family obligations have caused some lengthy separation, multiple and concurrent AirBnBs in different cities, car rentals and other goings on that I know I’m going to be confused about in a couple of years. Heck, I’m confused about them now. How did we get to this place? It’s never a straight line.

The Sleep of Reason

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Listen, if you want to have blood drawn by someone who’s never drawn blood before, by all means, have at it. That’s your problem. If you want surgery done by someone who has never done surgery before, that’s also your problem. Go ahead. But if you suggest trucks, buses and planes should be commanded by absolute amateurs, someone else is going to get hurt. And if you want to put the workings of a complex, powerful government in the hands of amateurs, ideologues and worse, a lot of people are going to get hurt.

As someone who tried to faithfully serve the public to the best of my ability for a number of years, who tried to bring reason and logic to my small corner of governing, it has always been painful to watch those who enter government with more personal motives, whether they are ideological or driven toward personal gain. And it has been hard to watch as qualified, dedicated individuals decide to leave public service, or never to enter it, because it has come to be universally disparaged. This will only get worse.

But now, we have decided to put the federal executive branch and the armed services in the charge of an individual who, by any measure, appears to be unstable at best, and who has nothing but contempt for the institutions he is supposed to be in charge of.  We haven’t just put a pilot with zero experience behind the yoke – we’ve put in a pilot who hates planes. And everyone associated with planes.

And he’s staffing up with an array of horribles that, prior to his election, no one would have accused him of considering. None would have accused him of thinking of someone who actually leaked secrets to be Secretary of State, when his whole campaign was that Clinton could have exposed secrets. None would have accused him of considering an education secretary with not only no educational experience of any kind, but an absolute hatred for the very system she’s supposed to be put in charge of. None would have accused him of putting an avowed anti-feminist, racist, white supremacist who believes that only property owners should be able to vote in place as his “chief strategist,” because even he could not possibly be that bold. And yet . . .

I’m hearing a lot of “wait and see.” There was an amount of that in 1930s Germany, too, and a lot of accommodation because of the thought that Hitler couldn’t possibly be as bad as his words would indicate. History showed that he meant everything he said, and then some.  The thing is, we don’t need to wait to see. It’s happening right now. Racist, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT acts are being committed day after day by an emboldened minority unleashing hate. These are not just far-off events or abstractions; these are things that have happened to people I know. We don’t need to stand by while we Make America Germany Again. Let’s not.

Why Am I Not Posting?

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Take your pick:

  1. Tigers ate my homework.
  2. I’ve become fabulously well-to-do.
  3. The molasses flood.
  4. I’m really dedicated to plowing through the entire works of Shakespeare.
  5. Finally learning piano.
  6. Life, man. Life.

Yeah, it’s that last one. No worries (well, a few here and there). Mostly took the summer off from doing things to my house (which is usually how I spend my summers) to have a dedicated summer of fun, and for the most part, that’s what happened. We went places we’d been meaning to go since moving to this idyllic little corner of the Keystone state. We bought more kayaks than are strictly called for. We ran the living hell out of our air conditioning. We built a garden in the back that is freaking adorable, and kept most of the flowers alive through a dry summer. We visited people, people visited us. We ran screaming from a theater for Blobfest. Art was made, and the frames to put it in. I found some great new cycling routes and got better at riding in heat than I’ve ever been, but still had to beg off most of August for other things and now most of September for work.

And so this, which goes back a long way in terms of sort of chronicling my musings and family life, has taken a serious back burner position, and even my daily dalliance with history has suffered from less frequent attention. It’s just how it is. If I’ve got something pithy to say, I generally say it on the Twitter. That’s all about the pith.

A Moment of Perfect Wind

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The wind has been howling around here lately, just howling, which has made for some trying bike rides. Last week happened to be a week when I had to bike commute all week, and so while the breeze was pleasant for its sweat-wicking qualities, it was a beast to fight on some of the rides home. And then I had a charity ride through the hills of beautiful northern Chester County, mostly in the same hills I normally ride anyway, but I went out on Friday just to get a few more hilly miles in the legs before Sunday’s event, and the wind was just a whirling beast that never seemed to give me a push. Thought for sure it would have settled down some by yesterday morning, but when we lined up for the 32-mile route, there was blazing sun, increasing heat, and a strong wind that seemed to be a headwind in every direction. At one point late in the ride, I was making a long, clear descent to a bridge, and as I sailed down the hill the landscape opened up and I could see that there was an amazing wind tunnel going across my path. I had to brake back my descent and barely kept upright as the wind swept across the road and showed me who was boss; if I hadn’t pulled back I’d have gone down. The rest of the ride, it was just a constant presence, particularly in the ears, as it was hard to hear anything and after a while I wondered if the noise would ever stop.

And then . . . coming down West Seven Stars Road, in a little stretch where the farm fields are banked up just a couple of feet above the road, I achieved something I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced before: a moment of perfect wind. That is to say, no wind, because I was entirely within the wind. As I flew down that little tunneled section of road, tucked in just low enough that there were no cross-currents, I must have been going along at exactly the same speed, in exactly the same direction, as the wind. All the grasses to my sides were flailing wildly. Birds were being pushed back as they tried to come up the road. And yet, I could feel nothing. And I could hear nothing. It was absolutely silent, still, perfect, all visual evidence to the contrary. It went on for what felt like an oddly long time though it could only have been 20 seconds, 25 seconds at most, long enough for me to realize I was experiencing a singularity. I could see the effect of the wind, yet I couldn’t feel it, couldn’t hear it. I sailed through the covered bridge and on the other side the world was back to normal and the wind was back to howling.  But for just a few moments, I was part of the wind.

What a Weekend Looks Like These Days

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  • Drive 250 miles back to the old hometown, hopefully in record time.
  • Get there in time for lunch with old friends.
  • Spend time at father-in-law’s, take him out to dinner.
  • Race to the Egg for a concert.
  • Get out too late for ice cream.
  • Drive to daughter’s apartment and crash there.
  • Get up for the Troy Farmer’s Market.
  • Cry because the pasta-maker is out sick this week.
  • Run back up to daughter’s, assemble a kayak rack.
  • Meet up with mother, take her down to the market and coax her to pick out her own birthday gifts, because I’m classy like that.
  • Her Mother’s Day gift was a new wheel for her wheelbarrow.
  • Late lunch with mother and daughter.
  • Nap of the damned.
  • Go to roller derby double-header, strategically parking near the new Ben & Jerry’s location.
  • At the bout, daughter informs us they haven’t opened yet, and there will be no ice cream.
  • Crash at daughter’s.
  • Sunday bagels and not nearly enough coffee at Psychedelicatessen.
  • Farewell to daughter, take father-in-law to lunch.
  • Drive home in Sunday downstream traffic (not awful, yet), anxious to get home before the ice cream store closes.
  • Work for three hours to get ready for the week because I had the audacity to take a weekend “off.”
  • But at least there was ice cream. In a waffle cone, which I fully deserved.

Top 10 of 2016 (so far)

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Remember that thing a little while back where I was posting regularly again? Yeah, that stopped. If you like it short-form and forgettable, I tweet much more often. If you like it historic, Hoxsie is still getting updated most days. Other than that, I haven’t even had the commitment to paste a banner over the name of this blog to represent the fact that my life is now quite urban indeed.

So in place of cohesive, coherent writing, let’s do a Top 10 again:

  1. Mariachi Flor de Toloache. I’m not even kidding. Just accept it.
  2. Bloody Mohawk. Following up on Hinderaker’s “The Two Hendricks,” because it’s hard to get enough of the extremely complicated relationships between the Dutch, English, French, Iroquois, Mohawks specifically, and other native Americans generally. First time in I just couldn’t get into it; second time in it turns out to be crisply written and informative, and has a better explanation of Conrad Weiser than I have seen anywhere else. Everybody loves William Johnson, and nobody gives Weiser his due. And they were both right to distrust the New England evangelicals.
  3. Actually training for cycling. After years of doing what I do on the bike, poorly and without much focus, I decided that in order to get through the winter (when we thought there was going to be one), I signed up at my favorite new local cycling shop for a series of training classes taught by an Olympic athlete. A bunch of serious, experienced racers and me, but the beauty of the computerized trainers is they conform to your output and abilities, and over the past few weeks I have been able to actually work on technique and endurance in ways I never did before. My previous technique has always been to go as far as I can go and still get back, which is fun but doesn’t actually train your body. And the upside is that I have been diligent about getting on the bike during the week (usually outside, it’s been so warm), because if I don’t I will actually die on Monday night.
  4. The holidays. Those were a thing. The second year of not having a home base for Christmas, though this year elder daughter was able to host part of the family festivities. But it feels very weird to not have Christmas in your own house, and even weirder to be one of those people who has to clutter up the highways on the appointed travel days.
  5. In my ongoing tradition of watching TV shows 10 years or more after they’re a thing, we just binge-watched “Alias,” which mostly led to me screaming at the television each night, “Why are you trusting Arvin Sloane??!” We then upset tradition by watching “Jessica Jones,” which was excellent, but now I think it’s time for a little less obvious blood-letting and something more along the lines of psychological damage, like “Gilmore Girls.”
  6. Similarly, I have to work up to Tarantino movies. I always love them, but I always need to know what level of gore or worse I’m in for. (Though if we could have seen “The Hateful 8” in 70mm, I’d have jumped right in.) So we finally got around to watching “Django Unchained,” and immediately regretted having waited so long. Christoph Waltz is a delightful revelation in it.
  7. While we’re on movies, “Carol” was surprisingly lovely and real (and so gorgeous to look at; it captured the period perfectly). It was weird to see it at the Formerly The Spectrum, as, having moved away, I sorta assumed I’d never go there again. But there we were. “Brooklyn” was also a much better, more interesting, less sentimental film than I’d expected it to be. (Sometimes these things just go a certain way. This one didn’t, quite.)
  8. The photographs of Dave Heath, still on exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Incredible street/life photography from the ’50s and ’60s, the kind of work that I used to want to do.
  9. There is a serious ice cream shortage going on around here. Our neighborhood shop is seasonal, and this is not the season. There are some others around, but not quite of that quality, and the good one over in Royersford requires getting in the car, which is something we tend not to do. The jones hit me so hard that I was thrilled to find some form of a premium chain store near where I had to take a computer for repair, but in the end I put on my McKayla Maroney unimpressed face. So either spring’s gotta come or I’ve gotta drive somewhere for good ice cream.
  10. My first experiment with little adhesive LED lighting strips turned out a 94% success. Which is pretty good. (I’d be happier had I gotten them to line up very straight, but that proved tricky). We needed a light source in the living room that wouldn’t bounce off the TV screen at night, and nothing commercial seemed to be working out, so I pretty much built my own sconce and integrated it into the window trim . . . up high, dimmable, provides more than adequate evening light and doesn’t reflect at all. But those little strips are just a touch more finicky when it comes to connections than they lead you to believe.