Search This Blog

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Truth & Art: Storytelling & The Value of Repetition

I recently shared a story on my blog with someone who had been there when the actual event transpired. He expressed surprise that some of the details of the story appeared have been invented.

I expressed surprise that I had got as many details correct as I had. Between my faltering memory and a bit of poetic license some have found my stories entertaining. If you are in one of my stories and don’t recognize certain elements of the story, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised. As Mark Twain said, "When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but my faculties are decaying, now, & soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the latter. It is sad to go to pieces like this, but we all have to do it."

As I grow older, I live with rosy memories of things as I wish they had been. I used to could tell which memories were fact and which were, in fact, fiction, but if you tell a story incorrectly enough times, in an effort to be funny, witty or erudite, you soon forget what originally happened in the story. All really good literature and powerful biography is based on this principle. If you tell a story well and repeat it frequently, people who actually witnessed the event soon come to doubt but what the story was as you originally told it.

The story of "George Washington and the Cherry Tree" is an excellent example. It was repeated so many times over the years that soon practically everyone believed the story to be true though it might well have been made up - an early American myth. Then, historians, in a bid to excite public interest in their latest books, all began to tell everyone incessantly that the cherry tree story was, in fact, not true at all. With repeated repetition, soon everyone believed that the cherry tree story was made up and not true at all, even though it may very well have been a true story despite what the historians say. There were cherry trees at Mt. Vernon and George actually did chop some down as a kid.

So take your pick. Unless you can communicate with the late president, you'll never know.

Just enjoy the story. A good story is a powerful thing!

Just one man's opinion...

Friday, August 17, 2007

Top Ten Hardest Musical Instruments to Learn to Play

Instrument: Didgeridoo
Difficulty factors: Hard to build, impossible breathing technique, sound varies from instrument to instrument, Noise to music gap is wide, practice tolerance by others - low
- Aboriginal craftsmen spend considerable time searching for a suitable tree to make into a didgeridoo. The difficult part is in finding a tree that has been suitably hollowed out by termites. If the hollow is too big or too small, it will make a poor quality instrument. Then, you have to learn circular breathing where you have to breath in through the nose while breathing out through the mouth. You can make a noise, but is it music?

Instrument: Bagpipes & Uillean pipes
Difficulty factors - Noise to music gap very wide, practice tolerance by others extremely low
- Bagpipes can be painful to listen to when well played. Poorly played they can be excruciating. That's why pipers march when they play - Makes it harder for snipers to hit them. Uillean pipers have to sit, so they don't last long. I don't think there's a soft setting for practice. At least with my banjo I can stuff a towel in the back and take the edge off it a little. With pipes you can't plug them into headphones or anything, so in order to learn to play the pipes you have to be able to afford an isolated practice site where the neighbors or your wife won't kill you.

Instrument: The violin and its cousins
Difficulty factors: Fretlessness, bow technique difficult to master, awkward position, noise to music gap wide
- Bowed instruments like the violin have a long learning curve, practice time can be painful for loved ones and neighbors. Not as loud as the bagpipes, but the slightly off-key scales and practice tunes can grate on the nerves of everyone, including the player. You have to have a good ear for pitch to master it. If you don't, you'll never be any good.

Instrument: Pedal Steel Guitar
Difficulty factor - too many things to do at once
- This one is simply physically challenging, practice isn't too painful for the listener, but the distance between making the notes pretty well and good music can take a while.

Instrument: Banjo
Difficulty factor - Doing 3 things at once, getting up to speed
- Banjo is easy to make sound on, chording isn't too tough, but getting your fingers up to speed and coordinated takes a lot of hours. Doing repetitive runs and rolls, practicing hammer ons, pull offs and slides and bumbling around high up on the neck and can make you distinctly unpopular round the house. If you're naturally uncoordinated, you may never be able to master it. Fretless banjo adds the difficulty of finding the pitch if you don't have naturally good pitch. You don't get any help from the frets.

Instrument: Oboe and anything with a reed in it
Difficulty factor: Getting rid of the squeal
- My wife was good at the oboe. Nobody else in her band would even get near the thing. She has perfect pitch and is a genius on the musical aptitude scale - it makes me crazy. She can just listen to something and know if it sounds right. Me, I can only judge whether I'm in tune by the rate of incoming wilted vegetables and spoiled fruit.

Instrument: French Horn
Difficulty factor: Getting sound from the thing
- All the difficulty of getting the lip thing going plus you have to hold it funny and it's hard to get sound from.

Instrument: The Human Voice
Difficulty factor: You need perfect pitch to be any good, you either inherit a good voice or you don't
- Though Bob Dylan seems to be the exception to the rule, the rule is pretty tough to overcome. You can whisper sing like Richard Harris and get away with it, but he did some training you can bet. If you're Earl, you let Lester do the singin'.

Instrument: Accordion
Difficulty factor: The constant ridicule and lack of respect
- You've got to admire Flaco Jimenez and the guy from Lawrence Welk and all the Irish squeezebox guys and the polka guys and the guys from Brave Combo. The accordion player gets so much abuse, never gets girls and has to deal with the back strain of carrying around what is essentially a small pump organ. It's a wonder anyone ever learns to play Twinkle, Twinkle little star, much less masters the thing.

Instrument: Electric sewer pipes
Difficulty factor: Telling your Dad he's paying for you to go to Julliard so you can study the electric sewer pipes
- I don't know of anyone but Blue Man group that plays the sewer pipes. I had hoped that, upon hearing them play the sewer pipes that PVC pipes would become the next musical fad, but was disappointed. I guess the instrument is so original that everyone else would have been derivative who tried to pick it up (kind of like Riverdance without Michael Flately or like the fat sweaty step dancers in that commercial).

Instrument: Tabla
Difficulty factor: No one will tell you how to play unless you marry one of their women
- The playing technique for these drums from India involves extensive use of the fingers and palms in various configurations to create a wide variety of different types of sounds; these are reflected in the mnemonic syllables. The heel of the hand is also used to apply pressure, or in a sliding motion, so that the pitch is changed during the sound's decay. This "modulating" effect on the bass drum and the wide range of sounds possible on the instrument as a whole are the main characteristics that make tabla unique among percussion instruments. The preservation of these techniques is important amd for centuries the secrets of playing were closely guarded and only passed along family lines. Being born into or marrying into a lineage holding family was often the only way to gain access to this knowledge. Now that makes an instrument really tough to play. Kind of like if you had to marry Earl's daughter (assuming he had one to spare) in order to learn Foggy Mountain Breakdown. I'd hope she was really cute, you know.



Just one man's opinion....

Tom King

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Advocacy 101 for Conservatives.

It's funny that I've always been drawn to folks who were advocates for the poor, downtrodden and oppressed. I became an advocate myself over the years despite the fact that I'm a died-in-the-wool conservative on issues like taxation, the war in Iraq and the size of government. I like folk singers, activists and do-gooders, even though we argue violently over politics. Someone once said I should explode from the sheer contradiction between my work for seniors, children, people with disabilities and low income families and my right wing views.

Me, I never have understood the lure of left wing socialism and communism for advocates of human rights and freedom and practitioners of the Golden Rule - other than that the left has always portrayed itself as the opposite of the bigots of the times.

But pretending to be a friend of the workers is something much different than being a friend of the workers. I never got Communism as it has been practiced since the days of Lenin and Stalin or socialism as practice by Hitler, Castro, Pol Pot, Kim Jung Il and half-heartedly by much of Europe today. To me a system that tries to legislate equality by taking away freedom is a serious mistake. For that matter so is a system that denies equality in the name of majority opinion disguised as freedom. Both extreme left and right have real problems doing both freedom AND equality at the same time. It's either "freedom for me, but not you" or "equality for me, but not you". They can't seem to find a system that works well for guaranteeing both freedom AND equality. I suppose that's because freedom is easier to legislate than equality. It's easier to enforce a person's right to do what he wants than it is to force everyone to treat others as equals I guess. You can't write a law upon the heart. Only God can do that.

If you remember 7th grade, you know what I'm talking about - especially if you were a geeky 90 pounder with glasses and good grades. Junior High was a socialist system if there ever was one.

I love the guys that marched for civil rights - don't get me wrong. I marched with them. But as soon as they start advocating the passage of laws that arbitrarily take from some and pass it to others while creating a permanent elite to tell everyone what to do, they lost me. Such a system, however idealistic, only kills individual exceptionalism and discourages people from exceling at their chosen pursuits, just as it did in junior high. Did we learn nothing in school people!

That's what the cheerleaders and jocks did in junior high and high school. It was not an equitable system. It was socialism at its ugliest. Some were always more equal than others, however much they talked about what was "fair" for everybody else. There was an elaborate unspoken legal system in junior high in which everyone was allowed to participate equally as long as no one stuck his or her head up out of the crowd and did anything spectacular. Exceptional effort was always seen as "unfair" in the tribal world of pubescence. The consequences of doing better than your peers at anything (unless you were one of the privileged class) were often painful for the poor geeks that tried it. I remember. I have the scars.

My favorite activist story was told me by my Uncle Art. There was a boy in his 8th grade class named Chester. He stood nearly 6 feet tall and weighed close to 190 pounds. He was a gentle soul in a large body. He never fully fit in with the elite social crowd although they respected him. Instead, Chester made friends with the smaller, geekier kids in the class, treating them with the respect that he, himself received from everyone due to his size and athletic prowess.

One of the chosen few decided one day after lunch to torment one of the boys. My uncle was the 8th grade teacher (it was a small parochial school). He had a firm rule against fighting and in those primitive days, he gave swats to both combatants when a fight broke out. That day, when he came out to supervise the playground, he found Chester standing in front of a small boy shielding him from the larger, more popular boy. Words were exchanged. The jock told Chester he couldn't always protect the 'little punk'! To demonstrate that he could, indeed, defend his friend, even if he were not around, Chester instantly flattened his opponent (an early form of the proactive defense policy later practiced by the Bush administration in Iraq). In so doing, he delivered a very effective message to the bully in question that there would be consequences for tormenting Chester's friends, even if Chester weren't around. The lesson was not lost on the bully as he lay stretched out in the dirt contemplating the clouds spinning overhead.

Uncle Art broke up the one-sided fight and took Chester inside as the instigator. The other boy was released on the grounds he had never hit anyone. My uncle didn't want to punish Chester. He liked the boy. Also, Art Bell was one of those teachers that paid attention and knew what was going on in his school. He knew Chester was defending his smaller friend from a boy known to bully the smaller kids. To avoid spanking him, my uncle offered Chester 3 days of after school detention as an alternative to taking 3 swats.

Chester pulled himself up straight, "I'll take the swats, Mr. Bell," he said firmly. "I knew I was going to get 'em when I hit him." You hear parents say, "This is going to hurt me worse than it does you." You never really believe that, but Uncle Art says he really suffered as he delivered the swats. He didn't take any of the heat off them either. The rest of the school would have known if he went easy on Chester and he would have become less effective as an impartial arbiter of justice. Chester took it without flinching. When it was over, he wiped away a tear, said, "Thank you, Mr. Bell." and left the room with his head high.

Word quickly got round the class that Chester would not only pound you, but would also didn't mind taking a whipping for it if you messed with his friends. My uncle said it was one of the most peaceful school years he'd ever experienced as a teacher.

Now that's my kind of advocate!

Just one man's opinon.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Preparing for the end of the world....

Somebody started a discussion on global warming on one of my favorite forums ( What banjos have to do with global warming I'll never know 0ther than misguided attempts by the political correctness crowd to have banjo playing classified as a source of rural noise pollution and to include in the Kyoto Protocols, a ban on the use of banjos, accordions and bagpipes in all public places.

Actually, we've had a cool summer in Texas this year - lots of rain and flooding. It hit the 100's today for about the first time all summer. Is global cooling back? I remember 25 years ago we were gonna have an ice age for the same reasons we're now being told it'll be a melt down.

I decided after living an exciting year in Houston, Texas that it just don't make good sense to live along the coast. Hurricanes WILL hit everywhere along the coast at sometime or other. And if the sea rises or a tidal wave rolls in, it's going to be a mess. I deliberately don't live on earthquake fault lines or downrange of volcanoes. I live far enough south where blizzards are not a problem.

Our only headache here in East Texas is the odd tornado and they prefer trailer parks and small Oklahoma towns and besides they're only a couple of hundred yards wide, so if you go sideways really fast, you can avoid them most of the time.Every century you get an evil despotic dictator who starts a nasty war or conducts a genocide. Asteroids and big meteors - you're never gonna see 'em coming. Space aliens would pretty much whup us with their technology.

If the Apocalypse and the Second Coming happen, there's gonna be no place you can hide.

So, I figure I'll just sit on the porch with my banjo and work on Foggy Mountain Breakdown till I get it right. My plan is to master the high up on the neck part before we all freeze, roast, explode, get rolled over by a tank or caught up in a cloud....

It's not a big dream but it's mine.
Just one man's opinion....

Tom King