Tuesday, February 28, 2017

I'm With The Band

I managed to cross off a bucket list item: to play guitar in a live band. My office has an annual company-wide off-site meeting, and the organizers remembered that I had brought in my electric guitar for a Halloween party (I wore a large wig, which completed my costume). "Can you play that thing?" Let's find out!

Playing in the group felt like a high school after-school activity. We brought our instruments to the office, and rehearsed a few afternoons at someone's house. I was surprised at everyone's chops. I was also surprised at the mechanics of playing with a group. Tempo, a song's key, playing in tune and fast-transposing music were important. It was a fast education.

We played a diverse set of classic songs, among them "Can't Get No Satisfaction" (Rolling Stones), "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" (Creedence Clearwater Revival), and "Folsom Prison Blues" (Johnny Cash). Even though I was given sheet music I ended up using YouTube to learn the rhythm guitar parts for these songs. It's true that most rock songs are just three or four chords!

During our performance, I was only vaguely conscious of our audience, our co-workers. Instead, I was focused on playing, even if I flubbed a chord. One time at rehearsal our lead guitarist started to play a solo, and I didn't keep up my strumming. "You do your thing, while I do my thing," he told me. In other words: keep playing. At the end of each song, when we heard applause, it was a superb feeling.

Playing guitar has always been a perfect break from my life in front of the computer. It's possible to approach playing the guitar analytically, but performance is ultimately about rhythm and attitude and feelings. It's especially like that playing in a band, where it's ultimately about staying in time, and listening to each other. Can't wait for the next gig!

Monday, January 30, 2017

My 2016 Books and Movies

In 2016, I finished reading 26 books. The list is on Goodreads.

I didn't finish a book in December, which surprises me, and as I write this, I'm probably not going to finish reading a book by the end of January either (I'm currently reading Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco). I'll make it up in the Summer.

My favorite books from last year include The Big Short (Michael Lewis), The Orphan Master's Son (Adam Johnson) and The Call of the Wild (Jack London).

Of all the ones I read, I most recommend The Boys on the Boat (Daniel James Brown). The story behind the University of Washington's crew team in 1936 explored depression-era poverty, and the power of eight men pulling a boat in perfect harmony.

I watched 15 movies in 2016. The list is on IMDb. I recommend Spotlight and Arrival. I was enthralled with Rogue One. I shouldn't have been surprised by the emotion I felt in the closing minutes of that movie, but I was.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Take It Easy

In January of 2016, Glenn Frey passed away. He was the founder of The Eagles, the iconic band who brought us "Take it Easy", "Hotel California", and "Lyin' Eyes". My appreciation of this group grew slowly over the years. When I was a kid, I never knew these songs as Eagles songs. They were just good songs I instantly recognized and liked. When I started to put rock music in context, I learned about this band's towering presence.

So I reeled when I heard the news about Glenn. My main reaction was to learn one of his earliest songs: Take it Easy. It's a common joke that most rock songs are composed of three chords, and in Take it Easy, it's the three easiest: G, C and D. The difficulty of the song lies in the rhythm and strumming patterns, but it is a simple song with evocative lyrics.

Another aspect of the song's beauty is the harmonies. It's not just Glenn's voice on the record. His band harmonizes with him, blending their voices into a whole. I tried to harmonize with myself using GarageBand, and it made me appreciate how songs are built on many layers: music, lyrics and voices.

Probably the thing that surprised me most while I was in this zone was that Glenn didn't originate the song. Singer/songwriter Jackson Browne wrote most of Take it Easy in the early 1970s, but had trouble finishing a verse. Glenn helped him ("It's a girl, my lord, in a flat-bed Ford...") and this is why you'll see Browne/Frey in the credits.

Great music makes an artist last forever. Glenn's music, through The Eagles, will live on and on like all music that has been deemed timeless. In a year filled with bright musical stars passing on (Prince, David Bowie, George Michael) I was most affected by Glenn's. Take it Easy, 2016.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Spoon and Fork

I grew up eating food with a spoon and fork. I'd wield the spoon in the right hand, and the fork in the left hand. A spoon is the exact right utensil for shoveling mounds of food into my mouth. Plus I could use it to measure out soy sauce, which I applied liberally to all the white rice I ate. The edge of the spoon could cut into soft foods, and so the spoon was ready substitute for a knife.

I was probably in middle school when I realized that not everyone ate this way. I'd go over to someone's house, or visit a restaurant, and the place setting featured a knife and a fork. Huh? I remember asking for spoons back then, even at restaurants!

No one made me feel bad about my eating habits, but I knew I was different. I gradually learned that the knife and the fork were the American standard. I began to assimilate. I had to learn the interesting switch of moving the knife to the right hand (my dominant hand) in order to cut with it. I also learned that you shouldn't pile food on your knife, using it as a makeshift spoon.

Different cultures eat food differently: some use chopsticks, some use their hands, and some use a knife and fork to pizza. Some cultures are liberal with spices, some eat fast, some eat slow, and some drink soda before noon. I went with the mantra: "When in Rome, do as the Romans."

One night eating alone at home, I decided to try out the spoon and a fork. It had been many years since I ate this way. As I dug into the food, it felt weird eating "old school" style. I've changed, I thought. And that's not a bad thing.

In the United States, you can exercise your culture. Because of our differences, you also get to see and learn new ways of doing things. Individuality. Observation. Participation. It's how our melting pot is seasoned, simmered, and stirred.

Monday, October 31, 2016

My Crown Fell Out!

I have at least five dental crowns in my mouth. Each crown replaced a tooth that was filled with dental filling back when I was an adolescent. When my dentist said some of these older teeth had tiny cracks, I opted for the course of action she recommended: dental crowns. My first crown was put in 2011.

Crowns are created in a lab, and then cemented into place after the old tooth is removed. After a week of increased sensitivity where they are placed, they feel and act like regular teeth. I only think of them when I go to the dentist and catch a look at my x-ray. Crowns appear brighter than regular teeth.

One time while waiting at the dentist's office in 2011, a patient walked in all jittery. "My crown fell out!" she said. She seemed to be holding something. The staff at reception ushered her into the patient room. "I was chewing gum!" was the last thing I heard her say. I silently hoped that wouldn't happen to me.

However, in 2014 I experienced one of my crowns falling out. I was flossing, and when I pulled up on the floss, it pulled the crown off as well. It was like a pinball in my mouth, but I was able to retrieve it. The doctor was calm when I reached her via her after-hours service. She said I could use Fixodent to temporarily hold it in place. The next weekday she cemented it back.

My latest incident occurred last week. I was trying to eat some really sticky candy someone had brought to the office from overseas. While chewing the candy I felt a sudden coolness on my lower gums. I kept chewing, but this time I felt something very hard in the candy. It wasn't peanuts. I spit it out and saw a tooth. It was my crown!

Eating without pain is something I no longer take for granted. Eating with a temporary crown, or with the sensitivity of a new crown is draining and difficult, since I have to be careful how I chew. The dentist fixed me up yet again so I'm ready for Halloween candy, and I will restrict myself to just the easy to eat treats!

Friday, September 30, 2016


One time while dropping off my daughter at elementary school, I stood and watched an impromptu game of kick ball that some of the kids had started. I was standing in the outfield, along with a bunch of parents and teachers. The kids were taking their kicks quickly so they could beat the morning bell.

One of them kicked the ball flush and it shot into the air. The players instinctively looked up to watch the ball. Parents were chattering among themselves and smaller kids where yelling in the playground but for these older kids, the game was their sole focus.

The ball began its descent and I was directly under it. In a flash, I recalled my own outfield heroics and miscues. I remembered catching a monster fly ball off of one of the better athletes in grade school, but I also recalled botched and misjudged fly balls during my college years playing softball.

I measured the ball in the sky, and shifted a few steps. I raised both my hands and watched the ball come in. When it arrived, I drew it into my chest to secure the catch. The sound returned to the playground. "Here! Here!" I saw a kid waving his hands for ball, and I tossed it to him.

"Out!" he yelled.

I turned around and went to work with a smile on my face.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016


My Mom is a fan of FreeCell. Whenever she talks about playing games on the computer, it's invariably FreeCell.

I have fond memories of Mom playing Klondike, also known as old-style Solitaire. When I was growing up, she played with actual cards, shuffling and laying them down in columns on the table. It was a way to pass the time, and I sensed the game's calming influence on her. She was a nurse in a busy city hospital, so relaxing with Solitaire must have been a nice break for her.

FreeCell is different from Klondike, and I don't know how she would have gotten into it aside from the game being on Microsoft Windows. Like Klondike, FreeCell is a card game played by one person. These are known as patience games. Unlike Klondike, however, FreeCell is a game where nearly every hand is winnable. According to the fantastically detailed FreeCell Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page, every hand (except one) that Microsoft FreeCell generates is a hand you can win.

My current Solitaire game is by Solebon, and it contains fifty different patience games. One of these is FreeCell, and for the past few weeks I've been playing it. The FAQ is right: many of the games I start I can actually "win". Its statistics report that I've won 13 in a row so far. FreeCell requires you to think a few moves ahead, so there's a bit of strategy involved, which I like.

I think of Mom when I play, how patient she seems to be when she's playing her card games. She had to be patient working as a nurse and raising three boys, so how hard could a card game be? Whenever I get stuck in FreeCell, I wonder what she would do with this hand. My FreeCell has an Easy mode and an Undo button and I can't wait to show her.