Saturday, January 31, 2015


Kathe and I have been taking music lessons for a month.  I have my banjo; she has a keyboard (although what she really wants is a piano.)

We are adult music students, a bit of a rarity.  And we both are convinced that we can do it, and we devote the time to practice, like we never could (or did) when we were kids. We set aside time, and are very protective of that time, because we have a goal in mind. We want to play.

What we are doing is very different from what kids do when they are given lessons. 

The typical child lesson (I have made some assumptions here) goes something like this: MomnDad decide child progeny (CP) is going to learn an instrument.  They give CP a choice: oboe or saxophone; CP chooses the one CP think is best/coolest/least dorky/easiest-to-hide-in-the-locker-at-school.  (Or, if you have a piano in the house, you get to learn piano).  M&D buy the instrument, and go about finding a suitable tutor.

And when I say ‘suitable’, what I really mean is ‘affordable’.

CP is encouraged to practice, and at the end of the semester/year, is rewarded with an opportunity to dress up and give a concert, that M&D attend.

From CP’s perspective, here is what happens:

M&D: “Do you want to give up the last remaining shred of video game time to practice the tuba, or to practice the piccolo?”

And just like that, CP is suddenly forced to give up a half-hour to an hour of every day to practice an instrument that he does not love, and then spends an additional hour with an adult who gets to be a

Friday, January 30, 2015

Flashback to Brasil

This week I served on a review panel in Mobile, Alabama, discussing the plan for a Corps investigation. It has been a fascinating look into the planning process, and I have learned a lot.

The project is to investigate the feasibility of deepening Mobile Harbor.  The intent is to import and export goods for the nation more efficiently and safely. How deep does the channel need to be to maximize passage for the new kinds of ships coming in? How wide does it need to be for safety? What environmental impacts will result? And for heaven's sake, where are we going to put the material we dig up?

There are engineering factors to be considered. There are environmental factors being considered. There are economic forecasts at play (complicated games with lots of 'if/then' statements).

And to understand what we were talking about, I pulled up Mobile Bay on Google Earth. A couple of minutes later, I had seen what I wanted, and digitally wandered down to Brazil.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

If you are sick, stay home.

The Girl in the Next Cube (GINC) just intentionally infected the office.

With an earworm. The GINC started singing All About that Bass.  Not humming it to herself.  Singing.  Loudly. 

This is the in-office equivalent of coughing in someone's face in an elevator.  Deserving of a smack with a rolled-up newspaper.

What is your earworm?  The song you just can't shake it, shake it.... like you're supposed to do.

Lessons from the Snow

Growing up on 31 Lockwood Avenue, I learned innumerable life lessons; some learned through inculcation, others through careful observation, and others still by having failed to do something right.*

The hill I grew up on was relatively steep, and we lived on the inside of the curve.  There was a very deep ditch next to the road, and across the street was a very large yucca plant.

Our hill always iced over.  Always.  If we got snow, the road iced, and the snow would cover it with a light dusting of white on top.  Made for rocky sledding, but.... was seriously treacherous for vehicles.  Every year, Dad would go out and help some hapless idiot who didn't realize that the road was icy, and who ended up lodged in our ditch for the duration.  The only thing worse than sliding out of control into the ditch on our side of the road was to slide out of control, hitting the perfectly innocent-looking yucca plant across the street.  And the three tons of

Monday, January 26, 2015

Eye-to-eye in the Optometrist's office

Seems like this is the script for every customer service phone call ever:

“Hi, this is Lisa.  Can you tell me your name, please?

"What is your address?"

"Mother’s maiden name?"

"And what is your problem?"

"Hold, please, I'll connect you to that department."

"Hi, this is Gene.  Can you tell me your name, please?"

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Caroline Lawton, Giant Slayer

My sister is a bit of a badass.

My sister is a hard-core badass.

This week Caroline posted an article that reported on a jacktard move by Hershey Corporation, intended to bully smaller businesses out of the market.  The article was good, and portrayed the David-and-Goliath scenario pretty well. 

But she followed up the posting with what might be the best letter I have ever read:
Dear Mr. Bilberry and Directors of the Board,  
I am writing you to ask you to stop your lawsuit against importers of British chocolates now and in the future. There is no confusion between your products and the British counterparts, in packaging or otherwise. I am an American who grew up on your brand, and I love all chocolates. Having gone to school in Pennsylvania, visited Hershey Park, and loved your chocolates for years, I consider myself part of your fan base. Having lived in London for several years, I occasionally have a craving for a specific chocolate, and go to specialty stores in order to obtain them (just as I went to American stores when I lived in London for the taste of 'home' with one of your chocolates.)     
If you continue to threaten and sue small businesses and keep them from importing a very different brand of goods, I will make it my mission to expose your bully tactics on every form of social media I can use.   
Please withdraw your lawsuits immediately. You are better than this.
Caroline Lawton 
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the way you tell a corporation off.  Note the perfect use of structure in her argument:

1. Bottom line up front (BLUF)
2. Logic of my request
3. What is at stake (my patronage)
4. Why I (personally) object
5. Demand
6. Threat
7. Restatement of BLUF

What a letter!  If I were a CEO of a company receiving a letter like that, I would drop the lawsuits immediately.  And send some chocolate to Caroline as a peace offering.

If you wish to attempt to improve on the perfection that is her letter, I would love to see YOUR text in the comments section.  The email addresses are replicated here:
Let's see what you can do.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Remote Goat

A friend of mine once explained the concept of the Remote Goat to me.  Pasteurization laws being what they are, you cannot - at least in the state of WV - buy or sell unpasteurized dairy products.  So if you want fresh goat cheese or milk, you have to raise the goat yourself.

I know what you're thinking.  What better place than West-by-God-Virginia for raising goats yourself?

Cute kids. Just don't try to find them in Dr. Anderson's yard.
Answer: in the urban areas, WBGV is much like any other urban area.  Charleston and Huntington both have zones where raising livestock is infeasible. (I visited my friend David Anderson in Charleston a few years ago, and cannot imagine a goat in his yard.)

The answer to the problem of getting fresh dairy is to join a "Remote Goat" collective.  You pay your money into a pool, and a local farmer gives you a partial stake in a goat.  Your stake in the goat(s) pays dividends, payable in fresh dairy products.  Legal.  Sensible.  Beneficial for the farmer.  Beneficial for the consumer. 


Monday, January 19, 2015

Brotherly Love

We don't talk much about brotherly love.  Not really. 

We use brotherly love as a metaphor for the love we share with close friends.  But it is rare to read anything that actually speaks of love between brothers. Our literary canon is filled with brotherly strife, because that is a more compelling read. Cain and Abel.  The Jacksons.  The Bowdens.  There is even an anime series called BroCon based on the tension that sibling rivalries bring to the fore.

Why, then, is the love of a brother considered to be the apogee of love among friends?

My brother Parker and I are separated by 12 years.  That means that we both started school at the same time: me - college; him - first grade. We have always been close, and have rooted for each other during the tough times.

Parker with Pokey Dot. Photo by Katherine Lawton.
One of the odd things, though, is to watch him as he has grown into a man.  Parker now has three little girls (can't manage that Y chromosome, but, then again, neither have I), which he adores and cares for in an amazing manner.  He has a lovely home in Easley.  He is a leader in the church, and organizes weekly meetings between a group of troubled teens in town and their mentors.  He is an innovator and a inventor, an entrepreneur.... an idea guy with an eye towards profit.  He has the best natural comedic timing of anyone I have ever met (a serious source of envy for me) and combines both his incredible intelligence and his hard work ethic, with a kindness that I find rare in my day-to-day life.

I love this man. 

Scope Creep

"And while you're over there...."

Scope creep is an unfortunate fact of life.  It is a common enough word in business and project management, but not something I had run into as a concept before I got into the business of protecting my projects against it.

Scope creep happens when you start to do one thing, and it just changes a little to include one more thing.  And then another.  And another.  And eventually you realize that the project has cost more time, money and effort than you had ever wanted. It happens everywhere; a friend of mine was bankrupted when a high school teacher of mine asked for change after change after change, and then refused to pay for the changes.  John was a victim of scope creep, but that AP English teacher who bankrupted him was just a creep.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Crawfish and the Public

The word "crawfish" is based on something called folk etymology.  Any time that people incorporate an unfamiliar word into their lexicon, the word will almost always change in ways that make more sense to the listener, but which make no sense relative to the original word.  So, for example, I grew up with catty-corner (others know is as kitty corner); the original was cater-corner (cater/quatre being the 'fourth' corner of the polygon). 

Image from link
Happens all the time. It is an attempt to make sense out of a word that is taken out of its original context, and pressed into the service of a foreign tongue.

Some other fun examples are cockroach (cucaracha), charterhouse (from chartreuse) and my favorite, caterpillar (started life as Old French chatepelose "hairy cat," which is a wooly bar caterpillar).

So the example my linguistics prof gave us was crayfish.  I had grown up with crawdads or crayfish or crawfish.  Turns out that the original Old French word was crevise, pronounced (cray-vis). (In Modern French it is ecrevisse.) The word essentially means 'critter in a hole'!  But because that doesn't really fit in English, the FISH got added on because it made more sense, and the cray turned to craw because of the 'crawl'.

Perfectly logical.  Makes sense to do it that way. 
Image stolen from link

Alice Parker, Again

I wrote an entry a few days ago about listening to Alice Parker -  an amazing composer and musician who has arranged the choral libretto for my entire musical career - and what an amazing message she had to share about how to sing as a congregation.

Turns out that nobody realized that an enthusiastic choir member pressed 'record' on the video before the preacher's sermon.  Choir member extraordinaire Peggy Crain decided she wanted to have Alice's 'sermon' recorded.

It was awesome.  As much so the second time as the first.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Music of the Spheres

My wife and I do not watch "American Idol".  The humiliation of untalented people, looking to parlay their willingness to subject themselves to embarassment into their fifteen minutes of fame, is just not pleasant.  We won't watch.

Interestingly, we live in a society where people are told from early on in life that, if they don't sing well, they shouldn't sing at all.  I have heard the joke a number of times (and repeated it an embarassing number of times, too):

"Who sings that song?"
"It's (insert favorite performer's name)'s song."
"Well, let's keep it that way."

It is a beautiful joke.  It combines insult with humor, and everybody walks away chuckling. But it also creates an environment that is toxic to making music.

The message is pretty clear.  Leave the music-making to the professionals.  Nobody likes hearing amateurish efforts.  We love hearing Beyonce, Bono, Sting, Tricia Earwig, Carrie Overwood, Tailer Swift, Dame Gaga, Ryehanna.... whomever, but we want our professionals to be professionals. Being professional means not singing if you don't have a beautiful voice.  Means not singing once you have become old.  Or, once you become old, make sure that your voice is digitized, so that you sound better than you can produce live.  Lip sync whenever you can get away with it (but it had better be YOUR voice - no Milla Vanila for us, thank you). Perfect the sound before it comes to our ears.

Entertain us.  Do it well.  We can sway, but unless you call for us to shout out the lyrics with you, the performance is a chance for YOU to entertain US.

Your music is art.  And we, the purchasers of that art, will pay and judge and own that art.  But we will not be creators of that art.  We will be connoisseurs. Consumers.  Music will be a commodity, and we will fetishize it and package it, buy and sell it, and own it.

It wasn't always that way. 

Monday, January 12, 2015


A year or so ago, my sister did something different.  I had seen a few other people on facebook do it, but I watched it carefully when she started.  It was the 100 happy days photojournal.

The rules are simple.  You have to find something to take a picture of, every day, that makes you happy.  It cannot be anything intended to belittle someone else - your happiness cannot come at the expense of someone else. It also is not a forum for bragging. It has to be something that makes you happy. And then it has to be posted in a public forum (I used Facebook).

The idea is cool. And I watched her with interest.  Caroline has had a few nasty curves thrown her way, and watching her find something - anything - to be happy about every single day, was fascinating to me. Through the first couple of months, I watched as something changed in the tone of her posts.  All of them - not just the ones with the hashtag.  There was a positive, upbeat energy that had been missing. 

Even her tough days had a positive vibe to them.

I asked her about it. Essentially, she told me that being forced to find something positive about the day (sometimes, just the fact that there is a bed to go to where you can forget about how bad the day was) means that she is on the lookout for the good things.  She also said that it was hard at first, but it eventually became a practice. 

And that recognizing the good things, as they happened, and calling them for what they were, made a difference.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Alice and the Congregational Sing

I found myself missing my dad today.

Dad and I did not have many topics that were safe for us to discuss.  We just saw the world differently, and had a hard time communicating across that divide.  The 'safe' topics themselves were a little unusual. Oddly enough, religion was one safe topic.  Game theory, of all subjects, was another.

But music.... music was always safe.  We could talk about musical sources and influences, about harmonizations, about composers and genres. We could listen without talking, or we could dissect the performance we were listening to while we listened.

After a choral performance, I would often call Dad and we'd talk about it.  When I'd hear something special, I'd want to share it with him first.  He introduced me to a few a capella groups that I did not know.  Our infrequent emails usually had a link to something musically interesting in them.

Today at St Charles Avenue Pres, we had an item in the service called "Hearing the Congregational Voice".  And it was led by Alice Parker, who was in town for a choral clinic she was giving at the New Orleans Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. I immediately recognized her name; anyone who has sung choral music in the past fifty years has done multiple arrangements by her and Robert Shaw.... her name is synonymous with choral music.

Image from
So this bird-like lady walked up to the podium after the introduction by our choir director Steven Blackmon, and immediately mesmerized the entire congregation. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

My Kathe

Fifteen years ago today, I married the love of my life. 

The day was a warm, New Orleans winter day, and family and friends from across the Southeastern US and beyond joined us in the celebration up at Tulane's Middle American Research Institute. 

Some memories of that day:

We held our wedding and reception at the museum with a 1920s theme, pulling out, dusting off and polishing all kinds of equipment and furniture from early expeditions by Franz Blom out of MARI's archives. 

Kathe and I asked the late Munro Edmonson to sing at our wedding; we requested that he perform one of the rancheros for which he was famous.  After considering for a week, Ed declined the request, because, as he stated, "I went through every ranchero I could think of and there was not a single one that did not deal with unrequited love."

Instead, he sang a song he had sung to his own bride in Paris years earlier.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Member of the Pack

I was bitten by a pit bull this morning. 

I am fine.  Not even broken skin.  And to be fair, he had no desire to hurt me.  I just got in the way, and he reacted to my arm being where it was definitely not supposed to be....

...which was between his mouth and the throat of my neighbor's dog.

Let me back up. Adam and I walk the same 2-1/2 mile route every morning at 6am.  It provides a little bit of exercise for us, gets the blood flowing, lets his dog - Oreo - get some fresh air, and we discuss stuff. Married guy stuff sometimes, working stiff stuff sometimes, philosophical discussions sometimes, and sometimes we talk about Taylor Swift or Katherine McFee.  Not infrequently, those discussions lead to ideas for blog entries (well, maybe less frequently for the McFee conversations...).

One of the things we talk about is the fact that Oreo reacts to us as members of his pack.  One week, Adam's aunt (insert 80's musical joke here) walked with us, and Oreo got confused and anxious if two of us walked ahead, because we had split the pack.  If only one goes ahead, or another stays behind, it is not a concern. That is just normal recon - any member of the pack will rejoin after their scouting mission is complete.

But splitting the pack is not allowed.  And is met with serious anxiety. For in Oreo's mind, we are a pack.  We even walk like one, with Oreo on Adam's left side (my position varies...). 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

agricola, agricolae agricolarum....

I went to my first banjo lesson.  It was terrible.  I was completely out of rhythm, my fingers were stiff and clumsy, I got frustrated and, for the first time since I bought it, I hated that damned banjo.

Afterwards, I got in the car and Kathe, all excited, asked me how it went.

"It was awful," was all I said.

What happened?  Since I have been writing here, it has been "banjo" this, and "music" that.... and suddenly, I just detest the bloody thing?  How is that even possible?

Le ROI Est Mort, Vive Le ROI!

"The problem with music," Adam told me, "is that it is hard to determine the ROI."

I nodded, looking pensive.  He has his acronyms, I have mine.  And if I nod long enough, he will usually catch me up.

I nodded again.  I am pretty sure that he reads me well enough to know that the second nod (especially when I don't jump in with an unnecessary re-statement of what he just said) means that I am hopelessly lost, and need a little hint.

"See, if you can't measure your success in traditional ways," he explained further, "you don't know if your return on investment is a good one."

Got it.  Return On Investment. ROI.

I nodded again.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Excited to learn

I'm not worth it.

It's too much.

I won't make the best use of it.

I'm not ready.

I have mentioned my banjo before (over and over again). My wife bought me a banjo last March. It was too much money, and something that we should not have spent the money on.

To be clear, I do not have a great track record with making good use of musical instruments. I got a guitar for a birthday in my teens, and never learned more than a couple of chords. The dulcimer Dad bought me in 2002 is a beautiful piece of wall art. I borrowed my sister's keyboard, and never really used it.

I have friends and relatives who play instruments. Some of them (Bruce, Caroline, Windi) learned to play as adults. I envy the focus that they bring to the task.

And as much as I liked listening to the banjo, I found it hard to justify buying one for myself. I am a singer.  A singer who suffered through piano lessons in the fourth and fifth grade. I can read music... But have never been able to summon the focus to really learn an instrument.

So the banjo was a bit scary.

It would have been easier if the banjo had cost fifty bucks, was impossible to tune, and had been a funky instrument that didn't follow the rules.  It is easier to justify failure if there are mitigating circumstances.

But Kathe did not allow me that luxury.  If I was going to ignore the banjo in the corner, if I was going to not practice, if I was going to avoid becoming the musician I wanted to be...iIt was not going to be the fault of the instrument.

We did not get a $2,400 instrument.  But we also did not get a garage-sale banjo, either. Even though that was what I was looking for.

I wanted an instrument that I could feel no guilt about not succeeding at playing. What I got was an instrument that I could succeed with.

It is now 9 months later. I have learned my basic four chords, and can play a number of simple tunes (I balked at the "Go tell Aunt Rhody" tunes, and just played the ones I wanted to. After learning the lesson on backward roll associated with that infernal tune, of course). I read the tablature, and play out-of-rhythm versions of a number of tunes that I like.

I even can sing along to my clawhammer efforts, as weak as they are.

It gives me a surprising amount of joy. 

Today I take my first banjo lesson, and I am suitably scared.  I don't know whether I will be able to play the way I want.  I know my hands will shake (one of the main reasons I hated performing on piano when I was a kid.)

But I am going to learn.  I am going to demand a lot from the instructor.  I am going to squeeze every bit of value out of the interaction, or I am going to find a different instructor.

I am excited.

Take that, ego.