Saturday, April 30, 2011

Extreme Cutlery

One of the joys of living with a craftsman is having tools pay a visit to the breakfast table.

This sturdy family of four English made chisels and their strapping cousin, the long-handled gouge, came calling yesterday, wearing stylish caps of beeswax. The tools looked rather like a place setting for a hearty meal of beef-smoked brisket of prime mesquite, served with a side salad of mixed evergreens and cream of cottonwood soup.

The Fiddler's Father at the Concert

Several weeks ago I attended a performance by my younger son and his guitarist friend at a local folk music center. The two had been toiling in my basement writing and rehearsing songs for weeks; now it was time to dazzle the world with their blues, ballads, and rock and roll.

Having heard fragments of their raw material in preliminary arrangements, I had grown curious to hear the finished product. And so, on concert night I bestirred myself and went early to the folk music center to get a good seat, preferably an aisle seat a few rows back from the stage, a location offering the optimal combination of leg stretch comfort and a clear view of the performers.

I arrived at the little concert hall just as the man acting as stage manager, a gray-haired free spirit about my age (too old to be groovy, too young to give it all up), threw the doors open. A whisper to the ticket girl that my son was playing and she waved me in. I sped up the aisle to the fourth row's outside chair, a chair offering prime leg room and an unobstructed view of the stage and its two padded bar stools, soon to be the perches of the two performers. I sat myself down and looked back at the concert hall filling with students, the guitarist's extended family, and the usual menagerie of old folkies that delight in hearing live music played in an intimate hall.

I felt a tap on my shoulder. The stage manager leaned down and inquired if I was the fiddler's father.

Fiddler's father? The words sounded odd to my ear. Yea, I have lain with a woman and she hath conceived a fiddler. "Yes, I am," I confessed. "I am the fiddler's father."

The stage manager smiled a gracious, free spirited smile. "Come with me, sir. We've got a special seat reserved for you."

There was no way to refuse the unsought and unwanted honor. I followed him to the exposed terrain in front of the stage. Each chair in the front row had a paper sign taped to its seat: "Reserved Seating." I was offered a chair in the center of the row and I took it, expressing as much gratitude as I could muster. Then the stage manager escorted the guitarist's family forward to fill in the chairs around me.

Now it was show time. The stage manager greeted the crowd, said a few words about upcoming events at the folk music center, and then introduced the performers. My son and his friend stepped onto the stage to generous applause. They picked up their instruments and climbed atop the bar stools.

The stage was a foot tall; therefore, my eyes were at the level of my son's shins. He should have worn his dress shoes, I thought, instead of those ratty sneakers.

The situation somehow reminded me of my son's peewee soccer league, years ago, where parents, many of them obnoxious, would scream encouragement or advice from the sidelines. I wondered, will my son feel self-conscious at having me so close? He might fear that I would yell out, "Good harmony, son. You're doing great." Or perhaps warn him, "Don't slouch. Keep your scroll up."

I needn't have worried. My son was oblivious to my presence. Actually, during his most soulful playing, he shut his eyes and appeared to be oblivious to the audience, the concert hall, and possibly even the material world as we know it.

It was a fine concert. You should have been there.

Monday, April 25, 2011

For Use Rather Than Ostentation

I ran across a fine quotation from Edward Gibbon in Bennett Cerf's book of anecdotes, Try and Stop Me, from 1944. (I had to handle the book carefully, because publishers used lighter-weight stock during World War II to conserve paper for the war effort.) The quotation, in Gibbon's elegant eighteenth century prose, reads:

"With the venerable proconsul [Gordian], his son was likewise declared emperor. His manners were less pure, but his character was equally amiable with that of his father. Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations, and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than ostentation."

Something about the last sentence struck me as familiar. Where had I seen a sequence of words like "designed for use rather than ostentation" before? After searching through six books of George Ade's comic fables, I discovered a very similar sequence of words in Ade's Forty Modern Fables [1901], in the fable entitled The Fable of Springfield's Fairest Flower and Lonesome Agnes Who Was Crafty.

Here is the first part of this comic fable:

"SPRINGFIELD had a Girl who was being Courted by a Syndicate. She was the Girl who took First Prize at the Business Men's Carnival. When the Sunday Paper ran a whole Page of Typical Belles she had the Place of Honor.

If a Stranger from some larger Town was there on a Visit and it became necessary to Knock his Eye out and prove to him that Springfield was strictly In It, they took him up to call on Mazie. Mazie never failed to Bowl him over, for she was a Dream of Loveliness when she got into her Glad Raiment. Mazie had large mesmeric Eyes and a Complexion that was like Chaste Marble kissed by the Rosy Flush of Dawn. She carried plenty of Brown Hair that she Built Up by putting Rats under it. When she sat very straight on the edge of the Chair, with the queenly Tilt of the Chin and the Shoulders set back Proudly and the Skirt sort of Whipped Under so as to help the General Outline, she was certainly a Pleasing Object to size up. She did not Fall Down at any Point.

Mazie had such a Rush of Men Callers that the S. R. O. Sign was out almost every Night, and when the Weather permitted she had Overflow Meetings on the Veranda. Right across the Street from Beautiful Mazie there lived a Girl named Agnes, who was Fair to Middling, although she could not Step it Off within twenty Seconds of Mazie's regular Gait. Sometimes when she happened to get the right Combination of Colors and wore a Veil and you did not get too Close, she was not Half Bad, but as soon as she got into the same Picture with Mazie, the Man Charmer, she was faded to a Gray Bleach.

All the plain, everyday XX Springfield Girls, designed for Family Use and not for Exhibition Purposes, used to wish that Mazie would go away somewhere and forget to come back."

Clearly, "designed for Family Use and not for Exhibition Purposes" is equivalent to "designed for use rather than ostentation."

This is the sort of literary connection that amuses me. It is a relatively harmless affliction.

I recommend Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I read it as a young man and look forward to rereading it. I also recommend George Ade's delightful fable collections, especially the earlier ones.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Manly endeavors in woodworking

Several months ago, my younger son and I created a very spacious and sturdy workbench in the garage. He designed it -- the kitchen counter on the top was his idea -- and he performed most of the construction that required actual skill. My major contribution was procurement of tools and materials, although I also performed some significant work with the power saw. All in all, it was the most enjoyable household project that I had done in years. Few things feel as manly as ripping through a 4x8 sheet of plywood with a screaming power saw.

The workbench will be getting lots of use in the coming months. My younger son is preparing himself for a part-time job repairing violins for a master violin maker. The preparation consists of first accumulating woodworking tools (block planes, chisels, wood scrapers, etc.) and then developing his technique with these tools. The bottom photo shows the inaugural pine shavings from my son's practice with a six-inch block plane.

Obligatory Springtime Blossoms Photo

The crab apple trees are in bloom. As I sit on my front porch, it is easy to imagine that I am sitting in a fancy tree house. Thus do boyhood wishes find fulfillment when one is entering one's dotage.