Wednesday, November 30, 2005


Day 3: I still haven't come up with a name for my cello

The leather thimble on my left forefinger helped my cello playing a bit but it was pretty clunky, and it seemed to smudge out the notes. I went to town today and bought some gel finger cots at the drugstore, but I also picked up some "Rubber Fingertips" for 20 cents each, at the office supply store. This afternoon, when I played it again, the gel cot, which is a lot thicker than the rubber ones, didn't work that well. Maybe because it's so soft that I had to put extra pressure to hold the string on the note - but I was able to make clearer notes.

The rubber tip is much thinner, but firmer. I didn't have to press as hard; and overall it seemed to cushion better. By then, though I was pretty worn out. I didn't expect to get so physically tired playing my cello. My right thumb is sore from gripping the bow too hard. I spend a lot of time checking to see that I'm holding the bow properly, but sometimes I'll notice that I've pinned my thumb into the frog to hold on. I've also noticed I get more harmonics when I'm tired. Also, when I'm tired I find it harder to hit the right locations for the scales up each string. My first-to-third finger stretch needs to increase, a lot. I've started doing some stretching exercises with that hand.

I'm assuming that I'll eventually train my fingers (even the one with the rubber tip) to hit the right spots on demand. I also assume that my hold on my bow will improve with time. I'm devoting a lot of time to rhythm and sight-reading. Although I never played in the bass clef so I really don't know the notes. The cello fits the bass clef perfectly.

I'm writing this blog to document learning to play my cello. I hope to look back one day and read these jottings and see how far I've progressed.

Losing Weight and Getting in Shape
When I started losing weight, it helped to look back to see what I was like when I started. What finally convinced me to get off my fat butt and start exercising and dieting was the realization on September 13, 2004, that in just 16 months I was going to be 55; (egad); and I was probably going to weigh at least 250 lbs; carry a ridiculously large belly; have high cholesterol, serious heartburn, and sleep apnea; have no stamina, etc.; or I could reach 55 (egad) weighing 185 (just under the overweight level for my height), with a smaller gut, be in better overall physical condition, sleep better, use fewer antacids, and have more physical stamina, etc.

All it was going to take was a commitment; similar to the one I made to stop smoking 23 years (5 months, 3 days, and 11 hours) ago. The big driver was the realization that if I wasn't going to do it now, then when the hell was I planning to start? It was time to act or quit pretending I ever would. My kid, Z, is 13. It occured to me that I'd have to make some changes if I wanted to be around when he's forty.

That previous summer, we'd gone into the national park at Zion, Utah; and I couldn't bring myself to get off the park bus and walk some of the trails in that fantastic setting. I was that badly out of shape. What a thing to do to Z, poor kid. The shame lingered all summer, and popped back up that September evening, while we were sunning on our porch swing.

The next morning, I got up half an hour earlier (5:30) and got on the treadmill. I walked at 3.5 mph (hanging onto the rails the whole time) and was nearly comatose by the end of 30 minutes. But I kept at it, and by my birthday I'd lost 28 lbs and had progressed to 4.0 mph without holding on. I got to 4.5 mph (and down 49 lbs) by the end of February, and by the first of May I'd lost 65 pounds and was walking at 4.9 mph for 30 minutes. For a while, I used an exercycle in the evenings, but I stopped for the summer and didn't restart. I tried to reach 5.0 mph but I just couldn't stay with it. Finally, after slowing down a bit this past summer, I again started increasing the rate month by month until I finally conquered 5.0 mph this week (fap)!

That sounds like I lost all the weight by exercising, but fact is, most of the weight loss came from simply eating less. First, I started by taking half the food off of my plate after serving it up. No more desserts, half as much bread and one third the cereal, almost no pasta, potatoes, or rice. When Y made pizza, I ate only one slice. I started eating more veggies, and started fixing up my own meals - sauteing lots of fresh onions, garlics, and hot peppers then adding mushrooms and baked tofu chunks. The pounds steadily melted away.

I kept telling myself that since I was enduring a 30 long minute slog on the treadmill every morning, I simply HAD to stay on the diet. And, since I was denying myself all that food every day, I simply HAD to stay with the treadmill. That circular logic has worked. Once I got past 50 pounds, I knew I wasn't going to stop.

Harrumph! I wanted to rant tonite about the well-planned (and well-concealed) Democratic party strategy to retake control of Congress next year and capture the White House in '08. Every two weeks or so, since last summer, there's been a staged event that puts one more dent in Bush's armor. Each one, on the surface, seems to be isolated and comes from a seemingly different direction. The media plays each one up separately for a day or so. But each event is intended to plant a carefully targeted doubt into the general (mostly non-voting) public's vague understanding of what is really going on in Washington. Then the pollsters, with their carefully worded questions, discover a sharp decline in public trust of Bush, the war in Iraq, and the war against terrorism.

The War on Terror
I couldn't believe one of the talking-head guests on Fox news this morning (a radio talk show host from Chicago, I think) who said that we shouldn't expect we could ever win a war on terror (was she following her daily talking points script coming from party central?). All we had to do was leave Iraq and revise our mideast (Isreal/Palestine) strategy and the terrorists would stop! I wonder if she really believes that - at night when she's lying in bed waiting to fall asleep (or does she worry about what nail color to use the next morning)?

I can't figure out how anyone thinks it would be a good idea to pull out of Iraq and just cross our fingers that it won't deteriorate into another Afghanistan under the Taliban? Then what? Who'd be next? Jordan? The gulf countries? Saudi Arabia? Pakistan? Afghanistan again? Indonesia? Israel? Do these people really believe that pulling out of Iraq would not lead to this? Do they really believe we should just sit back and do nothing but watch it happen?

I'm half-way convinced that the Democratic party is cynically exploiting the public's confusion as we try to figure out how we're going to be able to defeat this unique threat to our own existence. It took us more than 10 years and a direct attack on one of our bases to believe we had to do something about Germany and Japan in 1941. It took us more than 45 years after WWII to figure out how to beat the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc.

I believe that Bush and his team have a pretty good idea of how it's going to go over the next several years in this war against terrorism. I also believe that it's going to take a long, long, long time to win this one. I'm not 100% sure that their current approach is even going to work, but I'm damn glad they're the ones who are trying.

I sure don't believe we're going to win by denying there's a problem, or by turning our backs on it. It's pretty easy to exploit the daily bombings and play on people's fear of another VietNam. The Dems are spending a lot of time criticizing past mistakes and miscalculations about Iraq, but none of them seem to be coming up with any better substantial ideas to deal with what we have in front of us.

Frankly, I don't see why the masses don't realize that we're much better off fighting the terrorists on the ground in Baghdad, rather than on the ground in New York City. Apparently 9-11 wasn't enough of a wakeup call. Bush has pushed the battle front off the shores of the US into an arena where we can put soldiers, material, and claim a legitimacy to fight them with all our guns blazing. Imagine trying to clear out a dedicated terror cell in one of those suburbs of Paris, or Toronto, or Detroit.

Like everyone else, I'm disappointed that we don't appear to be making more visible strides in Iraq. A lot of our current success is subtle and is building up at a rather slow pace. If we stick with it, we should see it blossom. If we back out prematurely in order to win the '08 election, we'll eventually see Baghdad turn into another fiasco like Saigon in '75, or Tehran in '79, or Lebanon in '83, or Kuwait in '90, or Mogadishu in '93. We just can't seem to stick with it long enough to finish the task. None of us seemed to have enough backbone to take the policital heat and get the job done in spite of setbacks and miscalculations. Instead we cut and run - even in Kuwait where we pulled out too soon and left a madman free to continue his reign of terror. What if we had stood down from fighting Japan in WWII after our disastrous first six months in the Pacific? What would the world political map look like if we hadn't stepped back in Korea in the early 1950s and instead had committed ourselves to winning rather than stopping the fighting?

I've blogged away another evening. This is getting addictive.

Here's something about my icon:
Major Amos B. Hoople is perhaps the greatest windbag, stuffed shirt and blowhard ever to "hrumph" his way across the funnies page. The Major first appeared on the scene at "Our Boarding House" four months after that strip began (returning from a ten-year absence from Martha's life), but he quickly took over to the point where many people today think his name was the feature's title.

Major Hoople had a huge, bulbous nose and an even huger gut. He sported a scraggly moustache and smoked rank cigars. He was seldom seen without a battered fez. In addition to near-archaic expressions like "egad" and "drat", he was often heard mouthing such non-words as "fap", "awp" and "kaff". His favorite mode of expression was long-winded discourses about his prestigious and astonishing experiences, which nobody took seriously and frequently mocked openly.

Some of his progeny in literature include Ignatius J. Reilly (from "Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole), very recently Tom Ripple (from "It's All Right Now" by Chester Chadwick), and even Wally (from Dilbert). It's hard not to see bits of myself and of my father and brothers in these characters.

buenos noches!

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Second day with my cello and my finger hurts even worse

This morning I started playing my cello early, but had to stop after an hour and a half because the tip of my left forefinger was pretty sore. I tried one of my wife's leather thimbles over my fingertip, but I couldn't produce a good clear note with it. This afternoon, I bought a different type of leather thimble that I'll try tomorrow. I'm thinking I might need one of those rubber finger cots they used to use at the post office for hand sorting mail - I'll probably have to go to an office supply store for that. I spent the time working on bowing and timing, staying with the basic open strings and first finger notes. Tomorrow, if my new thimble helps, I'll work on the other fingers with the bowing.

Every once in a while, I'll get a clear, sustained, resonant sound that tells me that I really will be able to pull this off...

More thoughts on buying a cello:
Prices for laminated celli seem to be in the mid- to high hundred dollar range. There doesn't seem to be any dominant brand - in fact, there are dozens and dozens of brands out there. Engelhardt supplies a lot of celli to students, and seems reliable. Upgrading to a higher quality carved cello will cost $1500 or more. Again, brands are varied and numerous. How to choose? In the past, the Chinese-manufactured celli had a deservedly bad reputation. Reportedly, there are now many higher quality instruments coming from China for a reasonable price. There are comments on the internet that Korean celli also can be quite good. It seems though, that in general European celli are still the best (according to a majority of the postings and blogs about this issue). But beware the ebay descriptions... For those who are fortunate enough to play well enough, upgrades are available for tens of thousands. Quality, of course, costs.

While stringed instruments tend to improve with age, it's important to remember the importance of proper care - low humidity, physical mistreatment, and freezing all take their toll. I think it would probably be a mistake to consider paying more for an older instrument just because it's old; unless you are an accomplished cellist and you have some assurance the older instrument was appropriately cared for.

Every time I open the case and see my cello laying there, waiting to be stroked, I can't believe that I finally have one. There are no excuses, now.

Last night, I thought up a long list of things to rant about on this blog - I guess I should have gotten up and written them all down...

On Retirement
Today, I spent almost 3 hours at the bank cashing in my old savings bonds. Harrumph! What a pain that was! You'd think they'd come up with a simpler system for cashing them in. I felt sorry for the teller. I finally faced up to the fact that they were no longer worth holding onto. I'm depositing the cash into my brokerage account and will put it into some conservative investments. Since I'm retired, I'm going to start needing the cash pretty soon, and this way, I'll pay taxes on the savings bonds' interest this year (which won't have much other income, and which has plenty of medical deductions). I started buying Savings Bonds in 1985 while Dilberting at Brand-X, using a payroll deduction. With each promotion, I increased the deduction. After 18 years, it had grown to a sizeable nest egg. It turns out that for a brief 2-1/2 year period after 1990, the Series EE bonds were paying almost 6% and will be tax-free if used for college - that means they are earning as much as 8-1/2%; better than most reasonably conservative securities. I'm going to hold onto this batch to help pay some of Z's college costs five years from now.

After several months of working the numbers (I tried out lots of online retirement calculators) and talking to various investment counselors, I've finally gotten comfortable with my retirement plan. Next month I'll get my lump sum pension from Brand-X (thankfully they didn't squander their pension fund like the airlines did, and even though the company has recently been fully swallowed up by one of the "giants", their pension fund remains solvent, and I'm going to net a sizeable amount). This, along with my fully-funded 401k account over all those years, will set us up quite comfortably, provide all the basic living expenses, and leave enough free to travel and buy more than a few non-essentials along the way.

It kind of makes all those years of drudgery at Brand-X worthwhile, after all. (I have to confess, that for about 14 of those 26 years, my job was the most exciting, challenging and rewarding job I could have asked for - I traveled regularly all over the country and occasionally overseas (China, Taiwan, Korea, Brazil, Argentina), all First Class; I worked with peers in the industry to lobby Congress and negotiate rules with various regulatory agencies; I made presentations at large meetings; I had the reputation of being one of the best supervisors at my office -ever. I had more work to do than I could imagine, and I seldom had to do the same thing twice. I loved it!! I thrived on it!! I'd do it all over again, if I could. That all came to a screeching halt when we got reorganized by one of those evil corporate destroyers [managment consultants] that have systematically ruined many of the major corporations in America.) I'll save this for a future rant.

Losing Weight
OK, I'll admit it, I've been a fan of the Biggest Loser since it first came on last year (tonite, I'm rooting for Matt). At first, I mocked the concept, but after seeing the dramatic physical and mental changes in almost every one of them, I began to think about the process. Losing weight and keeping it off is probably the hardest lifestyle challenge most of us will ever face. Quitting cigarettes or drugs is nothing compared to this. With tobacco and drugs, the solution is simple: Stop using and never use again! In 1982, after 15 years of smoking a pack a day, I quit smoking cold-turkey and vowed never to smoke again. 23 years later and I've kept that commitment. With eating, however, it is a different challenge. You can't, obviously, just stop eating and never eat again. So you have to learn to eat less, forever. Note that simply smoking less is not a realistic option for a tobacco addiction.

This show has been an inspiration for me. Since it first came on in September 2004, I've lost 65 pounds Egad - more than 25% of my starting weight. Watching the contestants work hard helped me to stick with my diet and exercise plan. I feel so much more alive at 185 that I KNOW I'll never let that weight come back. Besides, after all these months of slogging along on that !@#$%^&*() treadmill, it would be criminal to go back again. Some claim that weight gain is a symptom of self-loathing.

As I approach 55 fap and look back on my life, I see that I've had it quite good, with lots of opportunities, many successes, and a good marriage with three successful, happy sons. Any insecurities that might have dominated my earlier days is long gone and was apparently misplaced (at least from this perspective). Now I've got no excuse to get fat again...

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Monday, November 28, 2005


I started playing today and my fingertips hurt

Saturday, we drove the 160 miles to Anchorage where I rented a full-size cello from Petr's Violin Shop: fifty bucks a month, with the first 6 months' rent offsetting the price of a future purchase. I'd been thinking of buying a cello for some time, but with costs for a decent cello being so high and available funds being so low, I realized I ought to just rent one for a while and see what develops - if I'm not as fully engrossed with my cello as I hope I'll be, I'll return it and write it off as another fantasy attempted and set aside. It wouldn't be the first such failed musical fantasy by any means...

I first played a clarinet when I was in 8th grade, where I fortunately learned to read music. A severe case of mid-teen laziness took over and I dropped out of music after only a few years - I faked a lot of practice slips before I finally begged to stop it altogether. I wish my parents had pushed me just a little bit, but they seemed so disconnected from us; I don't believe it really mattered to them whether or I continued it or not. Anyway, after college and getting married I bought a used clarinet and tried again. I made some progress until we moved to Alaska and we quickly found ourselves living in a tiny travel trailer out in the forest with two babies and a house under construction. I didn't find much time to practice the clarinet, so I sold it for some well-needed cash.

A few years later (with the house well under way - even though it took me almost 20 years to fully finish that project) I bought a violin from a friend and spent a year or so learning the strings. Without taking lessons, I slowly picked up the basic fingering and was eventually able to produce a half-way reasonable sound from that old dawg. It didn't help that everyone kept telling me I was too old (at 33) to learn such a difficult instrument. After a year or so, I signed up for a woodshop course at the local school where I quickly managed to run my left forefinger across a table saw, slicing the fingertip to the bone - right across the nail. There's no excuse for it - making a dubious cut on an unguarded table saw, etc. It took three months for the finger to heal, but with a lot less meat on the pad and a slight chip in the end of the bone. After six months I tried the violin again, but I just couldn't use that finger - it hurt way too much. So, I sold it and put my musical ambitions on hold for the next 22 years.

I never stopped wanting to learn to play music. I fooled around a bit over the years with my kids' old electric keyboard, but it just wasn't the same. Once I thought about buying a bagpipe.

After a long Dilbert career, I retired early and found myself with time on my hands. I started tackling several different hobbies - woodworking, computer aided design (AutoCAD), and web-site design. I realized I still yearned to make music. I was interested in either the alto saxophone or the cello. Both are challenging, but with my background with the clarinet and violin, I've known that with persistence, I'd eventually squeak out a reasonable imitiation of music on either one. While I like the freewheeling, rambling sound of the sax, the violin hooked me on strings, and I've always loved the mellow voice of the cello.

It was an ad last week for a used viola that triggered it. At first, I thought I'd buy that one, but after sleeping on it I realized that I'd quickly end up wishing I'd bought a cello instead. After an intensive search on the internet I learned several things about buying celli:

1. If you are a novice, rent one first. If you still want to buy one after six months, you can usually apply the rent to the purchase price. Of course you won't get the quality of sound you might expect from a higher quality cello, but for the first six months you'll be lucky if you can produce any decent sound at all. Then, when you do upgrade, you'll really appreciate any quality improvements. Just make sure they'll apply the back rental to any cello, not just the specific one you're renting.

2. Don't buy a cello from Ebay. You can't be sure of the quality, no matter how many good comments their "customers" post about them - ebay is no different than anywhere else: you usually get what you pay for. If you "win the auction" on a cello for $229, you'll own a cello worth $229; you can't try it out beforehand; you can't - in most cases - return it if you aren't happy with it; you can't be sure of the origin or its craftsmanship; you probably won't receive the cello in playable condition, and you'll end up having to pay your local luthier to make it workable - all the while feeling like he's laughing at you for buying a cello on ebay.

3. There are some apparently reputable online stringed instrument stores, such as < > and < >, that appear to sell reasonably good quality celli. You will still probably end up going to your local luthier for final setup and adjustments, supplies, and repairs, so it's important to develop a good relationship with one no matter where you end up buying your cello...

There are more than a few posters on the various cello forums who started playing their celli later in life and, in spite of stiffer bones, less gray matter, not as much usuable space on the old hard drive to fully imprint all the fingerings and playing techniques - not to mention the music itself, they seem to persevere. It gives me hope. I enjoy reading the postings from schoolkids as well as other old fogies like me. Egad! Clearly I have no illusions that I'll ever be good enough to play with others. I'll be happy just to make some halfway decent music for my own enjoyment. Many posters seem to be able to completely lose themselves into their celli. That's what I'm after.

So, Sunday, we went to see the new Harry Potter movie - both Z and I liked it, but Y didn't (she never likes these kinds of movies, but she still comes with us.) Since it was a spectacularly beautiful day - the first one in many weeks without any clouds and not too cold (only -5), we drove out to see if the 9 acre lot we've been thinking about buying had a decent view of the mountains. It turns out that from the hilltop in the center, we can see two of the three big volcanoes to the west across Cook Inlet, and much of the Kenai Mountains to the east, and the Caribou Hills to the south. After 30 years here, we'll actually be able to have a view!!! That was enough for us to decide to contact the seller and tell him we're interested. Much more on this, later...

By the time we got home it was too late to practice, so I spent the evening going through the various lesson books, and figured out some of the basic fingering techniques - honestly, I didn't have a clue where to start. I wish I could start with a teacher, but the nearest one is 60 miles away in Homer. Maybe I'll contact her in a few weeks, if I can get a reasonably good feel for it. First I want to see if I can/will put in the necessary time and effort (and overcome any problems with my finger) to make it work.

Finally, this morning I pulled it out of the case, rosined up the bow, and found a neat set of midi files on the internet < > that contained the basic tuning notes for each string. After a few tries, I was able to tune it to a reasonable facsimile of the CGDA notes.

One big challenge now is trying to hold the bow like they show in the pictures in my intro book. I just can't get the thumb bent right. I was able to produce some vaguely melodic notes, though, and after a few hours playing today I've already gotten the basic first position fingering sorted out, and I marked these "fret" positions with white tape.

This cello seems pretty good, for a laminated unit. I'm working on a name for it. I wonder what a more expensive cello might sound like. I'm also reasonably satisfied with my progress, so far, although my fingertip hurts. I hope a callous develops, quickly.

It's kind of interesting, writing a blog - especially since I know I'll be posting it out on the web for anyone else to see, and realize that I'm posting quite a few previously private thoughts. I've thought about doing this for years, but starting the cello seemed like as good a time as any to finally start blogging too. I'll probably write a lot about my cello. I was originally going to just write a private cello journal.

Time to bail, got a lot to get done yet this pm.


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