Monday, 28 June 2010

Last Weekend Before Summer Begins For Teachers

Got the week finished up, with the inevitable spending all the time dealing with kids (and parents of kids) who haven't done their work, leaving no time for the awesome ones.  Failing kids is hard work.  The awesome kids seem to have to teach themselves.  Given pen and paper and a challenging task, they seem to be able to amuse themselves for hours, right into good marks.
  My friend Peter is a mechanical engineer.  He agreed to help me make a box to enable me to hook the 9-pin organ connector cable of my rotating Leslie speaker cabinet to a guitar amplifier instead of a vintage organ.  On Saturday, preparing to hear if my Leslie sounded good or not, I bought a bunch of things from The Source (and also from an actually good, well-stocked electronics store called Advanced Electronics) had some pizza and then went and saw Get Him to the Greek.  I am a big fan of Russell Brand's truthful and amusing depictions of how stupid stardom can be.  I live for movies that I'm never sure quite where they're going.  This was one of those.

Sunday was grey and off, as the weather has tended to be of late, changing dramatically and randomly from sun beating down humidity, to rain beating down liquid atmosphere.  The common thread this year seems to be that it is unrelentingly humid.  I cannot deal with humidity and heat the way I can deal with southern Ontario winter chill.  I set off to go to Brockville where Peter lives in a house overlooking the St. Lawrence Seaway, stopping two towns over at my folks' house so I could use their working printer to print a schematic of my amp and a pin diagram for the Leslie.

First we tried using butt connectors to hook up the wires temporaily to see if the thing worked.  Peter is a mechanical, not an electrical engineer, and the first thing he noted when the thing hummed to life and we made the rotating speaker spin was that there was a mechanical problem with the bearing.  It was a bit seized.  Cool thing about a rotating speaker is that it spins.  Trouble with a rotating speaker is that it spins. How do you hook the wires to something that's going to spin constantly?  They use a bearing which enables the speaker to spin, and the wires to make contact, but lets the speaker spin around on the bearing merely making electrical contact without needing to be physically stuck to it.  This one wasn't letting the wires stay put.  It was twisting them. 

How lucky that Peter was a mechanical engineer.  He got the bearing out, applied penetrating oil and heat to it, and got it freed up somewhat, and got me a manufacturing code and company name from it to contact them about replacing it with an identical or similar one.  There's a whole company that just makes bearings which in turn make electrical contact on things that spin.  It's called Mercotac.   (Email sent.)  With the bearing freed up, I hooked up my new electric guitar, not taking the time to tune it, and we fired it up.  The slow spin effect was very nice, making a constantly shifting, very stereo shimmery trippy effect.  I thought "I never like overdone effects, so I don't expect I'll like the fast spin."  While I was thinking this, Peter took the wire off the "slow spin/tremolo" contact and stuck it on the "fast spin/chorale" contact.  My guitar suddenly started sounding exactly like the one in the Nirvana song "Come As You Are" or the one in "Black Hole Son" by Soundgarden.  Cool.

Then we decided it was time to start work on the box so that Peter wouldn't have to stand there holding wires and touching contacts with them in order for my box to work.  If it had been just me working alone, there would have been little or no measuring and a great deal of guessing.  With Peter, the callipers and ruler and so on came out and the whole thing ended up looking professionally built, because it was.  He even used grommets.  Grommets, I say.  ("But these are the wrong TROUSers!" I said in a bad British accent.)  I also said "If we combine my 'Hey!  Let's do this!' with your perfectionism, we'll really get somewhere!"

Peter did all the drilling and I did some of the soldering, and then when he was done, we started to solder together, with him holding the parts and me holding the soldering iron and trying not to burn his fingers or melt the plastic or anything.  Went really well.  Then I had a look at the on/off switch.  I noticed that I'd kind of soldered it to short the whole thing out, rather than power it up.  Oops.  More of a self-destruct switch, rather than an on-off one.  We'd never plugged the box in, but still. Good thing we didn't turn it on and plug it in (well, as it turned out, it wouldn't really have mattered, as you'll see, gentle reader).

The next-door neighbours had invited Peter and his lady over for supper, and they invited me too, so we had a great BBQ on the deck thing, with a deaf cat and another three-legged cat cozying up to our ankles, and I was loving the company, the food and the beer and the purring cats, but was also kind of itching to get back to the soldering before the dark and the mosquitoes made it impossible to continue.  Good thing Steve, it turned out, is a guy who solders things all day long.  He was easily enticed to come over and have a look, and the three of us got it all soldered up just as the full-on darkness descended and the mosquitoes did as well, in four or five droves.  We hooked it all up didn't work.  And the mosquitoes were insufferable.  And it started to rain.  And Peter needed to get to bed.  And I needed to drive home.

So, broken-hearted, we packed up all the stuff as the rain descended in earnest and I drove home, with rain coming down in sheets which at times entirely obscured the road.

Monday I then spent a day of making what I always feel are, of necessity, all-too-arbitrary, quick judgements of students' frequently half-hearted literary efforts.  Lot of brilliant kids wrote stuff for me this year, and I mostly just nitpicked punctuation, grammar and spelling and gave some vague pointers, but it all ended up OK.  I was a fair man.  Cruel, but fair.  Good spelling mistakes included "an autistic guitar come in and creates a gentle lullaby," "The worst even that occurred would have to be the Halifax Explosion because the number of people that died and were injured was very unremarkable." and "She could go to Alcoholics Ann ominous for her drinking problem."

After school (the weather was doing "sweltering" at that point) I picked up a multimeter to test what was wrong with my Big Black Box That Does Nothing.  At the post office, my (seen to the left) had come in.  I put them on my new black guitar, and then fired up the multimeter and got down to the taxing business of exhaustively testing all the contacts on the Box of Doom.  

It turned out that the switch I'd bought to switch it from off to on (and back again) simply wasn't switching. Oh, it went click click alright, but it didn't work.  So, with it mis-soldered (and not plugged in) even if we had plugged it in and flipped the switch, it would not after all, have functioned as a self-destruct switch as I'd thought.  It would have done nothing and we'd have suspected my poor soldering choices of having burned out the switch or something.

Will have to go to the The Source by Circuit City store in our town and see what they have to say about using that switch for that purpose.  I am resolved to beat this thing yet.  My black box will certainly rise to prominence.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

The Guitar wasn't it. I went a bit buying nuts on the 'nets

On eBay and Kijiji, with used music stuff:
Two of these on eBay for the price of one.
And one of these (a lower end 70s Leslie rotating speaker cabinet, but a 70s LESLIE rotating speaker cabinet nonetheless) for $100.  Now I can mess around with electronic stuff, making it work for guitar and voice instead of just organ.  I basically just does this (spins a speaker at slow or fast speed to make a cool shimmery effect you could mic in some interesting ways and run guitar or voice through).  The more sought-after Leslies have another spinning set of speaker horns on top too.  Thing is, Leslies cost in the several thousands and have to be kept in good condition.  So, getting an old one for $100 and making it work sounds like fun.  A project.  And summer yawns open before my feet.  A thousands of dollar Leslie cabinet hooked to the thousands of dollars Hammond B3 organ it was meant to be used with to give it a variable speed wobbly/shimmery effect would sound like this (if played by the Max Rebo Band)

Friday, 11 June 2010

A Thoroughly Satisfying Friday Afternoon

I got out of work, and despite a huge apparent risk of teachers with approximately my seniority losing their jobs, I have not yet lost my job.  I tried for the first time, eager to save the shipping costs that ebay and amazon tend to rack up.  I haven't bought a guitar since the early 90s.  Here is what I got (used, cheap):

It's a B.C. Rich Warlock (just Bronze, but still..)  I know some might think it looks silly, but I've always wanted one.  It sounds like my other electric (a B.C. Rich Platinum shaped like a Strat, with my bad paint job over top of the original horrendous paint job), but I like how this one looks better, and it's newer.  I thought "the guy will live in a hovel, sell drugs and worship Satan."  Turned out he was a family man with a golf shirt which said Ottawa Worship Team on it.
"Ever use it for worship?" I asked him as I plugged in the guitar to try it out.
"What?" he asked, confused.  Perhaps he thought I meant to worship the devil?  Probably not, but still, a funny thought.
"Ever use the guitar with the worship team."
"Um, no." he replied.
"Wrong shape entirely," I answered.  "Maybe something shaped like a giant cross?"
He wasn't sure if I was making fun of him, or what to answer, but his little boxer dog Max kept jumping on me, which allowed us to talk about that.  I paid him and left with the guitar in a gig bag which was made for a much larger guitar.

Moving on from there, I went to Long and Mcquade's, the high-brow music store in town, to get a strap for it.  
While trying out a Takamine Dreadnought acoustic, a chatty singer-songwriter girl mistook me for staff and seemed very friendly.  She seemed eager to start a conversation.  I took one listen to two sentences and said "You're a singer-songwriter working on a low, husky voice?" and she paused for a moment and then said "Yeah!"  I didn't ask her out.  (Because she was young and attractive, and was being friendly to me, so clearly there was something very wrong with her.)  Instead, I picked the brains of the various staff in the various departments about anything music or instrument or gear-related that I ever wondered about.  They weren't doing much, were music nerds, and so were more than eager to share their knowledge, experiences and views.

  One guy told me all about what acoustic guitar to upgrade to, what kind of tones Takamines give, price range and what bands use them and the pickups and built in tuners and things.  He confirmed that, if a dark, brassy, low-end tone is what I want, Takamines are good for that.
  A different guy answered many questions and gave a lot of advice about computer setup for media recording and editing, the use of effects, mixing, mic types and placement and a host of other techie things.  While paying for my strap (which, characteristically, has a bit of a skull on it) I asked the counter guy about why I hated my Dunlop Crybaby Wah pedal, but love Troy's Vox Wah. 

The original plan called for going to see Get Him to the Greek, as I'm a huge Russell Brand fan, and for many North Americans, this is their first experience of him, and people seem to love him.  Oddly though, I felt like "I've spent this money on a guitar, and want to go home and play it, and I'm incredibly content and don't actually need more entertainment.  Why don't I save the movie for a day or two when I need a laugh more."  So I stopped at Future Shop to get gift certificates for two of the five kids in my Writer's Craft class who will be class-nominated for awards for their final writing portfolios.  I got these, and a second copy of Coraline, which DVD was stolen from my classroom, along with Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail (which I also need to replace) season two of The West Wing (because it was cheap), and an external hard drive for my music.  I have two external hard drives, which I love (both for their huge storage capacity, but also because they are so portable and aren't inside one computer and "married" to it so to speak) and have been pondering putting my serious music and video editing on a third.  When the Long and McQuade's guy suggested using an external drive to record with (he thinks using the drive in the computer to do the thinking, and a USB drive for the writing of data to), it cemented it in my plans.  To make matters better, I ended up paying $109 instead of $140 for it, because it was mislabelled.

I went home, listening the whole way to my newly topped-up-full-with-unexpected-and-cool-songs 30Gig iPod on shuffle (Wolfmother, Frank Zappa, The Rheostatics' soundtrack to Whale Music, The Cramps, Elliot Smith, Nick Cave, Nick Drake, Jeff Daniels and Colin Farrell singing on the soundtrack to Crazy Heart etc.) and looked on eBay at the wares of a guy who makes these out of pewter:

Pretty, pretty...  Maybe just a couple.

the hidden face

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

the "eye" photo

although I tell people that I took a photo of myself, and photoshopped a reflection of my own face into the photo of my own eye, I have real trouble getting people to see it.  Looking at the "Wikkid Thoughts" eye graphic, can you see my face "reflecting" just right of the pupil?  If so, comment that you can.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Breaking Kids

Some parents want their kids to be happy and reasonably law-abiding.  Others have loftier goals.  The latter parents want kids who will unfailing continue to forswear things they were forbidden as children and teens.  Things like cigarettes, alcohol, pot, and certain kinds of books, TV shows, movies and people.  Certain ideas.

If you want your kid to always think something is bad, and never, ever think about trying it, you just have to be abusive enough whenever the kid shows any "warning signs" and the kid will eventually come to connect the trauma with the activity: "I said I didn't see why I couldn't watch The Simpsons, and I got physically/verbally abused again.  The Simpsons must be bad.  Just my wanting to watch it always results in a sore ego/ass!"

This is pretty much guaranteed to work.  (For 12-15 year anyway, and who cares about what happens after that, right?)

If, on the other hand, you raise your kids to think that they are wonderful, special little snowflakes, whose every thought and deed is ground-breaking, when tempted toward pot, stealing, backstabbing, lying and the like, they will be much more likely to think "How can stealing this particular thing, in this particular circumstance be bad?  It's me who wants to do it, so it must be right!  The usual rules do not, of course, apply to me."

Some parents are still doing the old-school breaking/eroding their kids until they don't know how to think at all.  Some are raising kids who are right about absolutely everything, absolutely everything is about their needs and emotional state, and who don't need to follow any structure that doesn't seem explicable, pleasing and sensible to them, simply because they are themselves.  

I consistently get to supervise and teach mixed groups of the two.  You should see how they interact with one another.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

I Badly Needed to Get Back in Touch With My Inner Zappa

When I was a church-going kid with a family which forbid or discouraged so many things (including pop music, TV and movies) the fortuitous fact that my dad had a couple of tape decks and some recording equipment (for recording the sermons of visiting preachers, of course) was a constant consolation.  My dad would buy things like a good SLR camera or recording equipment, and he'd partly figure out how to use them, and then eventually lose interest and they'd gather dust until I got grudging, guarded permission to use them.  I would take them, dust them off and promptly try to see what I could make them do.  Mostly weird stuff.  So, "trick photography" and recording odd stuff.
The effects that I agonizingly worked to get from the camera are now so easy and quick to do with Photoshop, that it's funny and sad at the same time.

The tape decks weren't really designed to do multi-tracking, and I would really have needed a third one and a mixer board to do that properly, but I made do and did things.  I hooked together anything that could be hooked together and did things. When I worked at Radio Shack, of course this brought even more opportunities to find ways to hook things to other things.  I had a tape player (ghetto blaster) of my own which was cheap, and if you held the play button down halfway, the tape would slide through it too quickly, so you could play stuff you'd recorded, but all sped up.  The effect was kind of random, so the amount it was speeding up was pretty erratic and random-sounding.  Some kids were taking endless piano lessons and learning to play "Left Hand Exercise #3" perfectly into a tape recorder.  I delighted in the idea that I could record ANYTHING into that machine, and in that one area of my life, it didn't have to be correct.  Of course, I didn't swear into it or anything.  Not even once.  Because I didn't swear.  I think, looking back, the idea was to simultaneously do two things: feel good about knowing how to use electronic equipment in both conventional and unconventional ways, and also to make things that were completely ridiculous.  Ridiculous was important.  It was what some of us did instead of rebellion, because it was kind of better.

In a setting where so much was forbidden, and so many more things would make people wonder if you were normal and worthy of respect (which was a deeper and more important thing than what was forbidden), when propriety and conventionality and orthodoxy were SO important; making a recording which was just plain brain-stoppingly ridiculous was terribly satisfying.  To listen to most of that stuff now is pretty excruciating, of course, as it sounds like childish, giggling nonsense, but at the time, it felt very good on a very deep level.  I think it was about being so bone-achingly tired of giving the expected, proper, conventional, safe, approved response; and of doing only expected, proper, conventional, safe, approved things to pass the overabundance of un-televisioned, computer-free time, that it was like tossing a pie in your boss' face or something.  Gratifying.

The more conventional, understood route was, of course, to simply rebel.  Smoking cigarettes and drinking beer (along with going to the movies and watching TV and fooling around with girls) were not allowed, so when you'd get so to-the-very-core-of-your-young-life sick of living in moment-by-moment fear of being frowned upon, a lot of us would end up smoking cigarettes and shotgunning beer in front of the TV or at a drive-in with a partly-clothed, equally drunk  girl.  Not me.  For some reason, the idea of saying "You think I'm a scoundrel, a faithless hedon?  Fine!  I'll be that so you can understand me.  Judge me, but at least I'll have my freedom!" seemed far too...cooperative and explicable.  There was a place prepared within the system for people like that.  It was the Naughty Chair.  I suppose it wasn't the best seat to have, but at least it gave you somewhere to sit.

I longed to do things that were not just naughty and predictable (the things kids have always done) but interesting; things which no one had thought they'd ever have to forbid, because no one had thought of doing them.  (Of course, eventually I was kicked out of my church for a parody I wrote in mockery of a religious pamphlet I felt they'd displayed a monumental lack of audience-savvy in titling "Wild Whipped Cream."  The fact that they were publishing and mass-producing and distributing this thing, with not the Slightest Clue that it sounded like porn boggled me.  I couldn't respect that.  I mocked it.  I was kicked out and shunned for life by the culture in which I was raised, and for which I Sat Out The Eighties when I was supposed to have been a teenager.)

A young man who was attending church and reading the bible and not rebelling was something people understood, though it was rare.  I kinda was that, most of the time.  A young man sneaking out to fool around with girls and drink and smoke and watch V:The Series was something even more common at church and equally easy to understand.  I mean, who DIDN'T want to do those bad things?  We all did.  Many of us just didn't allow ourselves to, but we all understood the urge.

But satire, parody, a delight in nonsense and non sequitur?  What on earth was wrong with people who were into that?  Why would someone want to do that when there was Sorry and checkers and volleyball to be played?  How could they mock stuff which involved the fate of the Eternal Souls of the lost multitudes of the world? 

I can't claim I was very eccentric really, but I had an absolute delight in mocking things that I felt needed to be mocked.  If my parents had an old record with a ponderous pipe-organist playing melancholy and funereal hymns while Ralph Platt, bird-call imitator extraordinaire, shared his repertoire of swallow and thrush songs on an LP called The Birds Sing His Praise..., I sure didn't think "What a talented guy.  How lovely to combine the majesty of those elegant hymns with the sounds of the wonder of God's Creation!  Praise Him!" but thought rather "That is the most messed up thing I've listened to this month!"  Ojibwa choirs singing "Amazing Grace" in their native tongue?  Failed trombonist Marcy Tiegler holding her
 "Little Marcy" doll and singing hymns like "I Tuned In On Heaven (On The Radio of Prayer)"?  Roy Roger and Dale Evans, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jim Nabors, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Bill Gaither on an endless variety of family-approved ______  ______  sings Hymns albums?  We had all of that.  And I would take bits of it and make silly(er) things out of it.  I would play an abrasive speed metal electric guitar solo in the middle of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing "A Mighty Fortress is Our God."  I would try to devise Beach Boys or doo-wop styled additional vocals to sing into saccharine versions of "Amazing Grace."  It didn't sound good.  It wasn't really clever.  It was, however, deeply satisfying, and in many ways it Got Me Through.

When a kid at school decided to wear a chain around his neck with a padlock on it, or some other "not seen in the latest John Hughes movie" fashion choice, something which made him clearly not a jock, nerd OR prep, I always kinda admired them.  When the three girls with the uber-heavy dark eye makeup, black trenchcoats and dyed-black hair all shaved whitewalls into the sides of their heads and left their lank dark hair long on top, I simultaneously thought "They sure look a lot less hot now!" and "I am deeply intrigued by the freedom seen in just going out and doing stuff like that and making it work and not whining about not liking it afterward."

Freedom.  Spontaneity.  Unconventionality.  Those were like drugs to me.  I got high on them and felt euphoria at the very thought of that kind of thing.  My fashion choices and hair styles didn't go too far down that road, of course.  Because I wasn't like that.  I was more internal.

What I did was read things that were unusual and nonsensical or deeply into the absurd (The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Stainless Steel Rat, stuff like that).  What I did was I found people who liked to be downright inexplicable to talk to.  And what I also did was I started to experiment with actually listening to genuine pop music.  The eighties was an interesting time to try to decide whether you thought the artists and songs were good, or silly.  Some, clearly, were both.

Pop and rock music were big church no-no's too.  It was in the late 80s and in my late teens that I really started to secretly experiment with listening to mainstream pop and rock.  I didn't have the Internet, but I had a radio and a used cassette tape store, friends with tapes and LPs, and bargain bins at stores all over teh place.  I found it easy to like things like the singles The Police would put out, and The Joshua Tree by U2, and Creedence Clearwater Revival's greatest hits album, and Neil Young's catalogue of frequently ill-advised experiments in genre-jumping.  The Northern Pikes, too.  I was looking for pretty songs and catchy songs and cathartic songs, but every time there were sound effects and vocal samples and spoken bits, and oddities of various kinds, I always had this feeling of "Look at you, you crazy, courageous bastard!  This is supposed to be a commercial album with hits, and you've got an air raid siren in there, or a voice going 'aawwwhhoooooghhhhhhiiiiiiii!'  Outstanding!"  It was a while before I found I loved Pink Floyd 

I wanted things that were clever, and passionate, and unconventional.  I found Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics, which were dark and creepy, horrifying and mournful and beautiful and terribly funny and witty.  I found Pink Floyd.  And I found Frank Zappa.

At first it was about my friends and I making odd mix tapes for each other.  I call them "mix tapes," but really what they were was hooking up a few tape decks and making soundscapes of weird stuff, with absurd bits of monumentally unusual recordings by established recording artists showing up here and there.  So, a typical effort by me would have some unusual trippy Pink Floyd "before or during the song" bits that weren't really a song, with the voice of someone from our church preaching earnestly in there too, and the sounds of cattle lowing and water dripping, and a bit of a Captain Beefheart record album I'd found in a bargain bin.  I had a four-track tape recorder and a microphone, and I could mash tomatoes into the sink while recording the squishy sounds with the microphone held in the other hand and put that throughout a song I had recorded and then played on a portable tape deck stuck inside an aquarium full of crickets my father was keeping for his grade 5 science class, and slowly have the song slow down and be replaced at the end by sounds from a bus terminal I'd picked up from somewhere, while a joke-store Bag of Laughs electronic gizmo that laughed maniacally was going off in the background, with occasional poinking sounds throughout, achieved by smacking my palm against the end of the largest cardboard mailing tube I could find and occasionally crinkling tin foil.

The results weren't calculated to be listened to over and over.  It was a bit about combining the absurd, and mostly about imagining surprised, confused annoyance or delight in the listener, and messing with them a bit.  The fact that there were only four tracks, and no computers were available for editing or mixing the sounds, that there was only one microphone, that normally I was by myself making this alchemy of the adolescently absurd, all this meant that it was more time-consuming, harder to achieve, and more rewarding than the paint-by-number, drag and drop computer approach that I was able to do once home computers reached that point.

Frank Zappa did music that was often unsettling, sometimes funny, frequently tediously self-indulgent, but reliably free and delighting in the unexpected.  When Zappa died in 1993, I watched the A&E Biography episode about him.  I hadn't watched it since.  I just downloaded and watched a version someone obviously captured and uploaded to the Internet from a scummy videotape.  It really did something good for me. It reconnected me to the joy of doing the unexpected.

I am a classroom teacher.  Not only am I supposed to meticulously plan my lessons out, I am to plan them out in service of the curriculum the provincial government's Ministry of Education has decreed be taught to teens of the age and ability level I have been sent.  And every day the kids ask to not do what we're supposed to, not do what we've planned.  And I try to find things that fulfil expectations as to what kind of thinking, what kind of discussion should be happening, but which look like something else, or which I can feel in a delighted, self-satisfied way, "I'll bet no one else in the province is doing THIS today!"

Mostly I find ways to share good things with teens, things that I love.  Things that hadn't been made yet when I was their age, or things that I wish someone had exposed me to.  Things that surprise and delight, annoy and perturb, challenge and confuse the kids, but which things won't have parents or kids approaching the principal to complain that I'm "not doing what he's supposed to."  Right now I feel like sharing Frank Zappa.  Because that guy said "Look at me!  I'm doing exactly what I want, and no one's done it before. Whether you've come to be delighted or outraged, you are equally welcome."