Saturday, November 18, 2017

Rare and Beautiful Things (VSA 2017)

Amati violin at the Smithsonian
I made a hastily arranged trip to DC recently in order to attend part of a VSA (Violin Society of America) convention.  It's an off year (meaning there was no makers' competition which is a much bigger event and lasts a whole week) and I wasn't planning on going, but I won a lottery for a special pre-convention tour that was too good to miss.

Thankfully I have friends in the area who were willing to put me up and drive me around which made the trip even feasible.  (They also own one of my violins so I was able to at least offer some instrument maintenance in exchange--Although I have to say I found doing bench work at a kitchen table to be surprisingly disorienting when I'm used to being surrounded by all the tools and light I need.)

The pre-convention tour, that was only available to a smaller group than would attend the full convention, included a trip to the Library of Congress in the morning, and the Smithsonian in the afternoon.  Both places have an impressive collection of rare instruments, including some of the most famous that Stradivari ever built.  I had the opportunity to study and play the collection in the Library of Congress many years ago, but have never seen the ones in the Smithsonian other than in photos.

The Library of Congress itself is amazing.   I've been feeling depressed about the state of our country lately, and walking around that building restored some of my pride.  I love that a place so grand and exquisite is a public space, not a palace or a church but a monument to all human knowledge and creativity.  It was packed with people there to appreciate it.  We saw a Gutenberg Bible and maps drawn when everything past the Mississippi was still mysterious and everywhere literally from (and including) floor to ceiling was hand done craftsmanship to admire.

When I saw the instrument collection there back in the 1990s it was housed in the basement where I had to look at it under some pretty harsh lighting.  I'm sure the other instruments not currently on display are still there, but this time we found the instruments we were visiting mounted in cabinets in their own room with whimsical bars on the windows.

I'm glad we were given the chance to see the instruments outside of their display cases because otherwise they would have been nearly impossible to study.  I'm sure the average tourist is content to see a Stradivari in a case and call it a day, but luthiers want to peer closely at the corners, shine flashlights into f-holes, hunt for tool marks on the scroll, and turn the instruments to examine how the arching flows as light slips across those curves when they are in motion.

We got to see the Betts, the Ward, the Castelbarco, the Kreisler del Gesu... They're like old friends that you only know from pictures and connections on Facebook, so they are familiar but remote.  To really see them and learn something you can only discover in person is a delight and a privilege.

After lunch we headed over to the Smithsonian where we were treated to a rehearsal on instruments in the collection there.  They performed a Mozart quintet (extra viola!) on Amatis which was lovely.  Afterward they laid their instruments out on a table for us to study, and they also brought out other instruments, including the decorated Strads, the most famous of which is probably the Ole Bull.

Rubies and emeralds in this Amati!

I never cease to be surprised at how much it matters to see things with your own eyes.  For instance, I've never seen a reproduction of Gustav Klimt's painting The Kiss that does it any justice at all.  I saw it the first time as a child in New York, and again in Austria after college, and in between I looked at posters and cards and books that tried to capture any of its beauty and never came close.  When I saw it in person again I was reminded of why I was so captivated by it the first time.  It had come to seem overrated, but it isn't.  It has a life to it that can't be held in a photograph.

The decorated Strads are the same way.  They are popular objects admired by many, but from a luthier's perspective they can seem a bit much.  In life, however, they are charming.  The scale matters, the way they look in three dimensions matters, and the feel of them matters.

I don't remember how long we got to spend in that room going back and forth between the Amatis and the Strads, but most of us would have stayed there all night had they let us.  What a wonderful opportunity.

The rest of the convention for me was highlighted by spending time with friends and making new ones.  I am always deeply nervous heading into such events because my full introverted nature rears up and I'm sure I will feel isolated and scared within the crowd, but then I remember the crowd is made up of individuals who make me laugh or offer hugs and are probably just as uncomfortable with the thought of a large gathering as I am.  Most luthiers I know are happiest when taking that satisfying first swipe with a freshly sharpened plane blade, clamping a perfect glue joint, pulling a varnish brush across a maple back, or just being alone and organizing their tools.  Those aren't moments that translate well to a group setting.  But being with like-minded people who understand those moments?  Who smile when you talk about honing stones or Japanese saws?  To be surrounded by people and instruments and not have anyone ask you what wood violins are made of?  That is like a miracle, and well worth the trip.

I really had to stop and marvel at what inspiring, kind, and talented people I know.  I need to step away from the news more often, because when I focus more on who and what is in front of me the world certainly looks far better.  Even during a luncheon for women in the VSA that had a #metoo theme I was moved by how far we've come in a relatively short period of time and by the positive direction we're going.  (More on that in the future--it deserves its own post.)

I also had the chance to see one of my friends from college perform at the Kennedy Center, I got to sightread some Corelli and Beethoven quartets one evening for fun, and just enjoy the pleasure of seeing another family I like up close doing their regular thing (which I always find interesting and reassuring).

On my first day in DC a friend took me for a walk in the Congressional Cemetery near the Navy Yard where he works.  He described it as a "B-list Arlington" because it's filled with people like J Edgar Hoover and Tip O'Neill and Marion Barry.  There are two headstones for Mathew Brady, the newer of which was adorned with Lincoln-head pennies and some camera items.  Probably the most visited grave site is the one for John Philip Sousa, on whose headstone had been left a baton and a mouthpiece.
This cemetery is also a dog park, so among the bits of history both recent and old were cute pets happy to be running free and greeting new people.  It's an odd juxtaposition that I feared at first would seem disrespectful, but it was fine.  Happy dogs are life-affirming and cemeteries are peaceful places that lend themselves to contemplation.  Those two things go well together.

An excellent weekend and certainly worth all the trouble.   Not just because I got to hold treasures in my hands, but because I got experience moments of belonging and kindness and wonder.  And I got to come home to my own warm house and family that I love.  There are rare and beautiful things all around us, not just in glass cabinets.  We need to remember to appreciate them while we can.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween: Bay View Style

Happy Halloween!  It's been over for us for days, but I hope everyone else out there who has fun with it on the actual day has a good time.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Aden the Armadillo

Aden really likes being a kangaroo.  Up until a couple of weeks before Halloween she thought she would just be a kangaroo again this year.  But her sister in particular couldn't believe she'd pass up the chance to be something else, especially since she could always still just be a kangaroo if she changed her mind.

So at the last minute she decided to be an armadillo.

By last minute I mean about a week ago I had a couple of hours to sew together a basic jumpsuit and tack on a couple of ears, and then Aden was supposed to do the rest.  She really wanted to make all of it soft so she could lounge around in it, and she had ideas, but wasn't sure how to execute them and kept putting it off.  We wound up the day before the Halloween Dance staying up late and getting the last of it done.
After some trial and error we ended up with a fleece armor-shell filled with batting and the outside layer folded with nine pleats (for a 9-banded armadillo).  I stitched it to the body and attached the tail to the underside of it.  And I added a small snout like a bill to her hood.

All the lighter color details Aden did herself with paint, plus she added claws to a pair of gloves.

It's not as flashy as her siblings' costumes this year, but she's very happy being an armadillo.

And she seems to be past her worries about being too old to Trick-or-Treat, which I'm glad about.  There are so many adults who dress up in our neighborhood she doesn't look out of place, and it's just a big welcoming event here, regardless of how old or young the kids are.

At school next week she's just going to be a cowgirl because her school is already warm, and changing in and out of a heavy costume for gym sounds annoying, but at home she plans to hang out in armadillo mode often.  She loves being an armadillo.  (And I love her.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Quinn the Lion Fish

This is officially the most labor intensive costume I've been asked to do yet.  But I think it came out looking good!

When I asked Quinn a few months ago what he wanted to be for Halloween there was a deceptive pause in his answer that gave me hope for a simple costume this year.  He said, "I want to be a lion... fish."  A lion would have been easy.  My mind went to a couple of elements I could use to make it cool and knew I could knock it out in about a day.  But then the word "fish" came into the picture and I realized, no, this was going to be a challenge.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

I guess the best of Dorothy Parker isn't good enough.

Our car gets broken into about every six weeks.

For the most part our neighborhood is fairly safe.  I'm not nervous walking our dog at night.  Our street dead ends into the railroad tracks a block away from our house so there isn't a lot of through traffic that direction.  We have nice neighbors.  I don't feel scared in or around our house.  (Although there was a carjacking on our corner a few months ago, but I'm still more nervous about running into a skunk than a criminal.)

Our garage only holds one car, so we tend to park the minivan inside, and the sedan in the driveway by the alley.  We can't keep a garage door opener in the sedan because then someone could use that to break into the whole garage and they might take, I don't know, our kites or a rake or something.  We tend to keep the doors to the car unlocked simply because I'd rather deal with people rifling through everything than a smashed window, but it's still annoying.

I don't know if it's the same person or group who does a regular round of rummaging through cars on our block, or if it varies, but they always go through it the same way.  We come out in the morning to find all the compartments wide open and everything a more jumbled mess than usual.  I mostly get pissed off if they leave a door open enough to keep the dome light on which runs down the battery.  Our last car they used to steal the radio out of over and over, but that hasn't happened in years (probably because there's not much of a market for them anymore).  Lately nothing gets taken that we've noticed.  They leave the change on the floor, they don't want pens or the car owner's manual, and last week they even rejected our GPS which we'd accidentally left in the bin between the front seats and they dumped it on the floor mat.

There is not much of value in our car, but when it's rifled through, there is one thing we always check for.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Did Something Eat Something Else?*

(*George Carlin)

Some pictures only a blogger would take.  And some situations become less annoying if they could make a good post.

So with that as explanation, here are some pictures of empty food containers as I found them in their natural habitat:

I know this is not unique to our home, but come on!  Why, children, why?

Friday, October 6, 2017

Mona the Ostrich

Mona is amazing.  And she makes amazing costumes.

I have really enjoyed making costumes for Mona, but a few years ago she decided to have a hand in her costume creation and did the head to her tapajera outfit without my help.  Then the following year she did most of her griffin outfit herself.  Last year she didn't need me at all and did her scorpion costume completely on her own.  (She still wears it and was a hit at Bug Day at the nature center recently.)

This year she outdid herself with an ostrich costume.

She was so excited about her ideas for it that it's already finished well in advance of Halloween.  It was fascinating to watch her work out how it would all go together.