Archive for July, 2012

First, can we all agree that the dude who plays the piano sometimes at Nordstrom is not human? Actually, I haven’t seen him for a while; either he returned to his own planet, or the recession has mandated a cut in Nordstrom’s Alien Pianist budget.  Or maybe I just don’t shop as much as I used to.

But you could tell he was not human because he used to look like playing the piano was no more taxing to his mental abilities than brushing his hair. Looking almost bored, he seemed to long for a little chat – with anyone at all, on any subject, and without any break in the music.  “Hey. How you doin’ today? Thank you, thank you very much…”

I am not that kind of harpist. Ok, maybe calling the Nordstrom guy an alien was a bit harsh, but you cannot exactly blame me for being sensitive about this.  I have tried and tried to connect the brain wires that control talking while I’m playing the harp. My results are always the same: both harp playing and coherent speech dissolve in a puddle of mush.

I used to attempt an exercise where you just say your name while playing music, and then build up from there.  I never progressed beyond good intentions. The music always fell apart immediately, and what came out of my mouth was something like, “sssnnoonthp kmrrfauiill…”

I don’t mean to dwell on it and bring everybody down. Actually, I’ve accepted this as my own charming mental defect and can even laugh about it when it is not actually happening.   But what am I supposed to do when the friendly, well-meaning listener approaches me mid-tune and, mistaking me for a Nordstrom Alien Pianist, exclaims, “That is so lovely! So, how long have you been playing?”

There isn’t much I can do, beyond smiling and trying to nod a bit. Whether it is the kind and friendly listener, or the host’s inebriate uncle who wants to sing along with “Embraceable You,” I mostly have to just ignore people.  It seems rude, but I figure it is preferable to hanging a sign on the harp that says, “Verbal Interaction With Harpist May Give Her Seizures.”

By contrast, if I take out my knitting in public, people seem to think I cannot possibly talk to them at the same time. They start to speak, I look up, and they say, “Oh, sorry. You’re busy…”  No! Try me! I can cross a cable, do a centered-double-decrease, and keep cranking out this sock, all while telling you about the guy who insisted on singing along with “Embraceable You” last night. I can talk to you.  It’s not like I’m trying to play a harp.

In a doctor’s waiting room one day, some ladies apparently didn’t even believe I could knit and hear at the same time.  Less than ten feet away I heard them speaking at normal volume: “Is she knitting? I think she’s knitting. What is it? …I don’t know.”  So I looked up and smiled, expecting to hear, “Oh, we were just wondering what you were knitting there…”  But they just looked away.  As if to say, “We’d better stop before she hears us.”


1. I am so very sorry, but I cannot talk to you while I’m playing this harp.   (Let’s not start anything that could lead to a 9-1-1 call.)

2. I would love to tell you what I’m knitting, and I can definitely hear you and hold these needles at the same time.  I’m gifted that way.

3. Nordstrom should stop hiring extraterrestrials and give us earthlings, flawed as we are, a chance.

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The laaaaast measure is memorized!  

I don’t usually do things this way. I don’t usually memorize a piece of music a few measures at a time and then woodshed it.  (To woodshed is to seclude oneself and play parts of a piece repeatedly to get them perfect. I was told that the term originally referred to being sent out to the woodshed, perhaps with a scratchy old fiddle, because the constant repetition was driving everyone in the house nuts.)

My normal order of business with new music is to analyze, sight read it, divide it into sections, sight read some more, and eventually woodshed the sections.  Many pieces never get memorized at all. If a piece is sounding great to me right off the page I will often leave that umbilical cord in place.

The piece”Dawn” by Dario Marianelli, from the movie Pride and Prejudice, was altogether different for me right from the start.  Sight reading is not my forte to begin with, but with “Dawn” it was downright painful.  I wanted all that flow and emotion; I could hear it in my head. But the plodding pace of cold sight reading seemed like doing the Mona Lisa in paint-by-numbers. With primary colors only.

Being a piano piece, “Dawn” presented me with the usual challenge of assigning eight fingers to a ten-finger arrangement. (Harpists cannot use the pinky fingers.) Some of the cross under/over choices took me a while to work out. I’ve got a lot of sticky spots to smooth over, but I’m so pleased with myself it’s disgusting. After all, it still sounds awful, with all my stops and starts.  But I can tell it will come together very quickly now.

Let me just take a moment now to hang my head in shame over the fact that I still have not made any YouTube videos. I am told it’s quite easy and there is just no excuse.  I’m not really into self-loathing, but this is starting to really weigh on me. Sigh.  Well, whenever I do get my act together, I expect to burst forth in a veritable marathon of recordings. And “Dawn” will definitely be among them.

Weather update… Fantastic thunderhead over the Cascades last evening!

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Once again, my hopes of living in a perfect, risk-free world are dashed.  Recent events have confirmed that I am not, precisely speaking, safe when I go out running.

We were watching a documentary about lions, one scene of which showed this poor African guy’s scars from a lion attack.  I thought, “Wow, good thing we don’t live there!”  That’s when the Great Cosmic Whap of Truth hit me in the head.  “Cougars” =  “Mountain Lions.”  Mountain Lions.   

Now, you can tell me over and over how few people in the US have been attacked (“and even fewer killed!” – big smile) by cougars in the past 50 years, or 100 years, or whatever little statistic you want to trot out.  But I’m not buying it.

Do not feed on runners, lion!

Here is my logic. Cougars like to chase down stuff that runs.  I run.  I run where cougars have been sighted.

At a wildlife lecture a few years back, a cougar specialist explained that if you have spent a fair amount of time hiking, biking or running in the woods around here, even if you’ve never seen a cougar, you “can be sure a cougar has seen you.”  I still get chills up my spine at the memory of his slide show, where we were repeatedly challenged to “find the cougar” in the photo of seemingly deserted woods. No one could, until he pointed it out, hiding, watching, staring into the camera.

At Northwest Trek, a marker high up on a tree shows the point from which a cougar can jump down on prey. It was damn high, certainly out of my peripheral vision range.

And then there is The Snoqualmie Bear Problem.  At a community meeting I attended last week, the main message was about garbage being left out, and about the new law where you can get a ticket for “unintentional feeding” of bears.  If I am found lying half-eaten on the trail, I hope they will let me off with just a warning.

Actually I’m not as frightened of the bears as I am of the lions, but I have had some close encounters.  Early one morning while running, I was about to enter a narrow, public pathway that cuts between two houses and leads into a little greenbelt. A very nice lady with a towel on her head came out of her house and yelled, “Don’t go in there! There is a bear!”  Ah. That would explain the garbage strewn all over the street.

The poo of Pooh.

Since bears cannot hide as well as cougars, and cannot jump down on me from the highest branch of a Douglas Fir, I tend to be a little less nervous about them. But I do think about them a lot, especially in winter when I’m running in the dark, early mornings.  I always look for trash cans overturned and listen for rustling in the bushes.  If I’m on a trail, I notice droppings and I keep my ears open.

Speaking of early mornings, I have a request.  Please don’t get behind the wheel of a car while you are still asleep.  I’m “only human” too, and I am sure I’ve been a crappy driver on more than one occasion, so I’ll try to make this civil…  Just because it’s dark-o-clock-early and you feel like you are alone on the road, there are actually other people using this asphalt.  See those miniature people lined up on the corner? Those are called “school children waiting for the bus” and here come some more, trying to cross in front of your speeding car in a 20 mph zone.

Now, listen carefully, because this part seems to be really hard for most drivers to understand…  When you turn right, it’s not enough to stop at that stop sign and look to your left.  I know, I know – what could possibly be coming from the right?  Well, me, actually.  Over the years, I could have been hit by cars at least a dozen times because of the nothing-could-possibly-come-from-the-right syndrome.  But fortunately, when I go out, I am awake.

It turns out that after all my fears and precautions, one of the most immediate dangers I face is: my own feet. This past weekend, after getting through fifteen miles without being attacked, eaten, or hit by a car,  I caught my toe on a bump in the sidewalk, just two blocks from home, and went down.  So, no risk-free world after all.

Snoqualmie Valley Trail

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I love knitting. It was bound to come out sooner or later.  In certain circles (for example, any places/activities where I take my daughter and have to wait around for her), I am “that lady who is always knitting.”  Right now I have five projects in progress. I’ve been “on Ravelry” since 2008.  What I’m trying to say is, I’m dedicated.

However… (is there any way to say this nicely?) …some knitters get so wrapped up in our cult hobby that they lose perspective and start knitting insane garments.  Let me be clear about this, I do not mind that they knit insane garments, I mind that they believe these are normal things to wear.

I used to only notice this Loss Of Perspective with regard to sock knitting. Sock yarn and sock knitting is very popular right now (non-knitters, trust me — this is an industry to be reckoned with; this is huge).  As far as I can tell, there is no recession in the sock yarn business.

What happens is this: the abundant availability of sock yarn creates a competitive atmosphere among vendors, in which more and more vivid colors serve to increase market share in a sort of fiber orgy of wool fumes.

Did I mention that all these hand dyed yarns make some kind of stripe pattern when they are knit up into socks? It is the easiest thing in the world to get sucked into the color hypnosis and start knitting crazy striped socks, and then proceed to put those high decibel monstrosities on one’s feet, go out in public, and not know one is wearing something bizarre.  It has happened to the best of us, including me.

Loss of Perspective – it can happen to anyone.

If any knitters of wildly colored striped socks are reading, please do not think I am morally or aesthetically opposed to wildly colored striped socks.  But one day (while wearing the very socks pictured here), I suddenly realized that what I saw as  casual day wear, others saw as: Clown Outfit.

Feel free to declare, “I don’t care what others think!” Feel free to see yourself as the artist that you are. Just don’t feel free to cross your legs in public and expect not to be stared at.

Well, just as we were told in 7th grade that marijuana use would lead to heroine, it turns out that the Loss of Perspective is a slippery slope.  One day it is loud socks, the next it is…  

All names and yarn company identities were omitted to protect artistic freedom.

Knitters, keep on being creative and breaking new ground. Non-knitters, be patient. We love our yarn.

(They’re holding sock yarn, by the way.)

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The pedals at the base of a harp are for:

a) increasing volume

b) going faster

c) what pedals?

d) none of the above

Correct answer: d)

Harpists do not use their pinky fingers when plucking strings, but we make up for those two little body parts with two bigger ones: feet.  I think only an organist has more moving extremities than a harpist.  To play a pedal harp is full body experience.

There are seven pedals on the modern harp: three for the left foot and four for the right foot.  And they have names: D, C, B, E, F, G, and A (from left to right). Have you guessed what they are for yet?   (Hint: There are no “black and white keys” on harps, though we do use colored strings for a visual reference — reds are C, blacks are F.)

Each pedal controls a complex mechanism of 1,000 moving parts that goes into the bottom of the harp, up through the column…

… and inside the “neck,” where there is a system of “discs” on the outer surface.

As the pedals work the discs back and forth, each string can be shortened or lengthened.  And that is how we get sharps and flats on a harp!

So in addition to reading the notes on the page, the harpist will read pedaling instructions as well. These come in the form of diagrams for the pedal settings and instructions for pedal changes, usually written below the bass clef staff lines.

When tuning a harp, one disengages all the discs by putting the pedals into the highest of three positions, and tunes each note to its half-step-flat neighbor (E string to Eb, F string to E, etc.).  The pedals move each string’s pitch from flat to natural to sharp and back as needed. Each pedal is a master control for its strings: moving the B pedal will affect all the B strings, the C pedal all the Cs, etc.

One of the most marvelous results of the pedal system is the ability to play “enharmonic glissandos.” Only harps can do this!  The pedals are set in such a way as to remove the dissonant tones from a scale, and the harpist runs her fingers over strings (that’s the gliss in glissando – “to slide”).

Other instruments can gliss away to their hearts’ content, but not without the inclusion of unwanted notes.  Harpists can even make glissandos in different key signatures.  I love this video of my favorite pedal trick explained:  (viewed at 2:50 to 3:40)

The wonders of Double Action pedal mechanism evolved from a Single Action invention in 1810.  The Single Action pedal harp was invented about 100 years before that.  And that is why composers before the 18th century (such as J.S. Bach) did not compose for harp or include it in their orchestral ensembles. Harps were folk instruments, with poor chromatic range and crappy strings to boot.  (String making has come a long way too.) It would be like Debussy writing in a part for hurdy gurdy in Afternoon of a Faun.

(Note to hurdy gurdy lovers: although I cannot promise I wouldn’t run over a hurdy gurdy with my car if I saw one in the road, I have the highest respect for your freedom to enjoy whatever dreadful interesting sounds that make you happy.)


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To the Radio Shack Powers That Be:

A trip to Radio Shack has never been what it ought to be for us.  We are a fairly geeky family, and logically should be in RS stores fairly often.  We should pop in to pick up specific items, and we should saunter in to browse all things wiry.  But we rarely do either.

First, let me assure you that this is not the opinion of a lone, disgruntled shopper.  I have consulted family and friends on various occasions, and they agree.  Nor is it the result of single experience.  I have felt this way for years, and have only had my point of view strengthened with each sad visit to a RS store.

At Nordstrom the magic word/phrase is “customer satisfaction.” You can return almost anything.  At REI, it’s “quality.”  (And you can return almost anything there too.)  At RS, it’s PUSHY.  And I never want to return anything because I  barely escaped with my wallet the first time.

Geeky and creative people sometimes just want to look around a store like RS.  But no one is safe in an RS store to “just look around.”  I wonder, when the young salesmen (and why is it nearly always men? do you have a problem hiring women?) attack a shopper with irrelevant offers, do they hope that one big sale will make up for the dozens of people who never want to darken your door again?

After getting therapy for post-personal-boundary-breech-syndrome, one vows to never “browse” at RS again, and to only go there to get a specific thing like, say, a Precision Lubricant Pen (which one cannot easily get elsewhere).  And there one is — ok, there I am — at the counter with a $3.99 Precision Lubricator Pen in hand, ready to pay.  I am smugly – and prematurely – congratulating myself for getting inside the shop, to the product, and over the the checkout without being offered anything extra by any agressive salesperson.  I have my car keys and my iPhone in my hand, and I set them down on the counter to get my wallet open…

NOOO!  It’s like a horror movie, when they lady decides to check out the noise she heard upstairs in the spooky dark mansion.  Don’t go there! Don’t open that door! Get out while you can!  

“Is that the iPhone 4 or the 4S?”


“Do you have the iPhone 4 or 4S? Do you have Siri? Because, you know, I could upgrade you….”

“No, thank you.”

“Right now we are running a special and for $…..”  And he was off.

Oh please, let me pay my $3.99 plus tax and go free, I beg you.  I said no thank you. My body language is not even being that polite. But on and on he goes.

It was always some little purchase (lube pens, headphones, batteries) that brought on the massive sales campaign for larger items.  If I actually was shopping for an expensive item, what would RS salespeople want from me then, a kidney?

In such situations as this, there is always one person playing by the rules of polite society (me), and one person playing by no rules whatsoever. If we both had no rules, I would grab him by his nascent chin hairs and tell him to take my $3.99 and shut up or I will put this Precision Lubricant Pen in his eye.

But we civilized shoppers never, ever do that. We value our dignity and our morals above, well – justice? Instead, we let an even longer period of recovery time go by before we can work up the will to enter a RS store again.

RS Powers That Be, the writing is on the wall for you. And it says, “There is a point at which people who don’t like being pressured would just as soon buy stuff online and pay for shipping.”  I am not even going to complain  about your product line (Google “radio shack sucks” if you want that kind of feedback), or the fact that Siri is a joke.  Let’s just start with a simple, easy improvement: respect.

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His name is Pilot. He attacks the vacuum cleaner. He greets guests at the front door. He comes running if there are loud noises. He loves dogs. He loves a party.

He is…A Bengal Cat.

Bengals are a relatively new breed (1986). Although they look exotic, most of them are quite domestic in personality, to the point of being dog-like.  Pilot will actually fetch and return a nerf ball, but only his favorite pink one these days.

When friends, clients, or workmen come to the house, Pilot is the cat that they see (the others will be hiding under the bed), and inevitably they want to know all about him.  For one thing, he is gorgeous. (Don’t you think so?)  But his friendliness also amazes people. There is no better way to put it: he is an extrovert.  The more the merrier.  What you smell like, what you are doing, where you are going, what are you holding there in your hand — Pilot thinks all these are his business. And just to test you every now and then to see if you might feel like playing, he will jump out of the shadows, briefly wrap his front paws around your leg (claws retracted of course) and then run off in that sort of sideways run that kittens do, with his tail in a question mark. In fact, Bengals tend to remain as playful as kittens for most of their lives.

Before you fall in love with Bengals, consider carefully whether you have a lifestyle that will accommodate these little extroverts.  I work from home, so adding Pilot to our family made us all happy. He is a perfect pet for a harpist. True, I have to be very careful about not leaving my instrument standing with its canvas harp cover on.  He will climb it. “Yay! You brought me a tree!”

As much as we play with him, Pilot will get into a lot of trouble if he is bored or wants to remind us that it’s his dinner time. We used to leave water glasses out on the counter top, until Pilot figured out how to push them over with his paw and watch the water run onto the floor. (Did I mention how much Bengals like water?) He never broke a glass though; I call that talent.

You can baby-proof a home, but you cannot Bengal-proof one.  You have no idea what they will get into or onto.  Like, licking the furniture. Seriously, Pilot? I have no idea why he does that, but the grandfather clock is his favorite.  Or pushing nicknacks off shelves. Or repeatedly leaping up to dislodge a map off the wall. (Only that map, not the other pictures on the wall.)  Interestingly, he has never messed with my knitting.  Probably too pedestrian (“that is SO normal cat”).

But beware of bringing a Bengal home if no one is going to be around most of the day.  A bored Bengal is not a nice Bengal. I have heard enough dark tales about Bengals that were left home alone every day to know that the consequences go far beyond physical messes. Bengals need to run, chase and be chased, explore, climb, and most of all, be near you and be a part of your life.  To be left alone is like torture for most Bengals. The people who get Bengals only for their exotic good looks and then leave them all day lose the best Bengal trait: their sweet and friendly nature.  From what I hear, it is like the wild ancestor takes over and you are suddenly living with a bobcat. Distant, mistrustful, and destructive.


The way I look at it, good Bengals are like friends: you have to earn them.  But the rewards are priceless.

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