Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Coat Tales

We recently cleaned out our garage in order to paint the walls and put up shelves, and we came across this coat:
It was Quinn's first real coat.  A hand-me-down from a friend that we put on him when he was barely walking.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Beehive Cake

I'm working on a post about my wonderful brother's wonderful wedding this weekend.  But there is a lot to say and I need more time to think about it.

In the meantime, let me tell you about the cake we made for the event.  My brother is an entomologist, and wasn't interested in a traditional wedding cake.  But my mom is an incredible cook and my kids and I like to decorate desserts, so we decided to team up on the cake for my brother's big day.  We weren't entirely sure how much cake we'd need, so I thought it made sense to create a cake and supplement with cupcakes.

For a guy who does research on bees it sounded fun to make a beehive as the main cake, and put bees and flowers on cupcakes surrounding it.  My mom even made alternating layers of chocolate and yellow cake so the inside of the cake would be striped like a bee.

My mom baked cakes in different sized round pans, and for the top we used half of a special baking tin I have for making a giant cupcake.  Unfortunately, the dog got to two of the layers while they were cooling on the kitchen table and mom had to bake two more.  (I'm not entirely sure Chipper has gotten back into mom's good graces yet.)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Taking A Plunge

I had a visit from a customer today who isn't really a customer in the sense that he has never purchased anything from my store.  He visits.  He likes it here.

The last time he was in made a profound impression on me.  Today he seemed happier.  He mentioned that the woman he was seeing has a music degree.  That made me smile.

Every time this customer who is not yet a customer stops in he talks about wanting to play the violin.  He wants to.  But he just can't seem to make himself take the next step of actually doing something about it.  He looks admiringly at all the instruments and asks questions and smiles and seems as if he wants to reach for things he's not sure he's ready to have.

Every time I tell him it's not expensive to rent a violin just to try it out and see if it's a fit.  Sometimes it's not what people think it will be.  There is work involved, not magic.  You have to discover if you enjoy the process not just the result to see if it's worth making a part of your life.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Almost There

Is it silly to be so excited to see my novel in real book form since I simply published it myself?  Because it still feels pretty cool.
I got the first proof in the mail a week ago and discovered the margins and spacing were not what I'd expected at all, so I made adjustments and ordered another.  This one I went through and located final typos, etc., uploaded the new file, and approved the final copy.

And essentially hit "Publish" and now it's out there in the world.

So without any fanfare, sitting at my laptop this morning, I launched my first novel.  Crazy.  I will do some kind of formal announcement in another couple of weeks when the ebook version comes out, but in the meantime you can buy a physical copy at the CreateSpace estore and it should be available on Amazon in a week.  It's the same price either place (which I didn't select, $11.05 was the minimum option for a paperback of that size for some reason) but I make about twice the royalties (meaning around $4 instead of $2) at CreateSpace.  I have no idea why.

This is exciting!  And, um...terrifying.  But most of all, it's done.  For better or for worse I can put this book behind me and move on to the next one.  And now that I am in charge of this process myself I believe I can roll that book out sometime next year.

In the meantime, if you like my writing, buy my book!  (And if you spot any typos I missed just don't tell me because it's DONE I tell you.  DONE!)

(And if you want to read it but don't want to be sad just email me and I'll tell you on which page to stop and we can live in happy denial that I write sad stories.)

UPDATE:  Now available on Amazon!  You can even read an excerpt there.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Fire and Flowers

There was a fire in our neighborhood the other night.  It destroyed a century old building that at one time was a corner grocery store but in recent years was simply a somewhat dilapidated residence and band practice space.  No one was seriously hurt and the fire did not spread.

It happened around 11 at night the evening before Mother's Day.  Aden happened to be up late reading when she noticed all the sirens and flashing lights on her side of the house and came and got us.  She was in tears.

Mona and Quinn slept through everything, but there were dozens of emergency vehicles gathered around the building only two blocks away.  From Aden's second floor window we could see the flames leaping through the roof, and the smoke billowing into the sky flickering red and blue from the frantic lights below.  It was scary.

Friday, May 10, 2013

When History is Sweet

Every year my kids' school puts on a Multi-Cultural Fair.  It's an eclectic event, often crowded, usually interesting.  Mona's old kindergarten teacher always does a display about Alaska that includes moose jerky and the chance to pan for "gold."  Many rooms put out excellent food (samples from Brazil, this particular year, come to mind as particularly yummy), and the kids contribute to all the presentations.  Quinn's room did Spain (and on the wall where the kids were quoted about what they liked learning about Spain, Quinn's line said, "Everything!").  Mona's room primarily did Mexico, but there were some splinter factions that did additional displays about China and Ireland.  This made for a strange snack table of soda bread, pot stickers, and cookies, but we got to take some chopsticks home so it all worked out.

However, the big event for us this year was in Aden's room.  Instead of working in a group each student there did his or her own display about some connection to Milwaukee and its history.  My mom's side of the family IS Milwaukee and its history.  My great-great-grandparents moved here from Germany, and my great-grandmother, Alma Borchert, was the youngest of their six children born in the city.  Aden decided to do her research and presentation about her.
Alma Borchert is the person who always comes to my mind first when people ask that question about "If you could meet anyone from history...." 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


After much thought, effort, and research, I have decided to self-publish my first novel.

I dedicated the past couple of years to attempting to publish the traditional route, and no one can say after my 100 + rejections, using all available contacts, and being willing to enact any useful suggestions, that I didn't try.  The time was not wasted in that I learned a lot, and I would have regretting not trying, but all of that work took the place of actual writing.  I miss writing.

So no more.

It's difficult for me to criticize traditional publishing and not have it look like sour grapes, I know, but my honest assessment is that that system is broken.  There is no excuse for the number of agencies that still expect writers to mail unwieldy packets of printed out manuscripts; the waste involved when there is a simple electronic option is ridiculous.  The number of agents who don't even respond is disheartening, and I understand the efficiency of a self-addressed stamped envelope, but after a while it's just adding insult to injury to receive a form letter rejection that's addressed to you in your own hand.  So much of it crawls at a snail's pace, and the kinds of things agents and publishers are looking for don't have enough to do with good writing it seems.

The major value I could see in landing an agent and having a publisher pick up your work was that sense of having been screened and deemed worthy.  But have you seen what kinds of awful things get published anymore?  And not that one shouldn't be wary of the enormous amount of dreck available in self-publishing, but the difference between the two worlds is getting smaller as the quality at one end diminishes and at the other is rapidly improving.

For regular authors not of blockbuster status, I'm not even sure what traditional publishing provides anymore.  I have friends who are wonderful writers who have agents and publish excellent writing, but they have to work just as hard at self-promotion within that system as people I know who self-publish.  I talked with one writer in particular who has an agent and has published using the traditional route, but when she couldn't find a buyer for her recent novel went ahead and just put it out there herself.  She told me it wasn't all that different in terms of the work involved, but she had more control and receives all the profits.

I do not for a moment expect my novel will sell to more than those dozen or so people I mentioned in my acknowledgements section.  But it doesn't need to.  I would love it if many people read my book and it moved them, but for me the real goal is for that piece of work to simply be done.  It's possible to pick at a piece of work forever.  And the final part of the process for any piece of writing is for it to be read, so I have to let it go and let it be what it will be out in the world in order for it to finally be finished.

So wish me luck on this strange new venture!  I await my proof in the mail from Amazon's CreateSpace so I can check for any last typos or formatting problems before offering my novel to the public, and the wheels are in motion for getting the ebook version underway through BookBaby.

In the meantime, check out the beautiful cover my mom drew for me, and that my brother formatted:

Already looking forward to working on the next book.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Bad Guinea Pig

I had an epically bad psych teacher in high school who once randomly told our class that we had to decide how much we were worth.  That if we found a wallet on the street with $100 inside and chose to keep it, then we were selling our souls for a mere $100.

I get where he was going, but he used a terrible example.  My friends and I agreed that it was worth questioning where we draw the line for money, but it seemed to us the more you found on the street the more likely you were to return it.  If I find a nickel on the ground I'll likely keep it, and don't feel I'm selling my soul for a pittance just because I don't search for the person who dropped the nickel.  A bill I'd probably look around for evidence of where it came from and give it back if possible, but not feel bad if it seemed unclaimed and I decided it was now mine.  A wallet with any amount inside I would definitely return.  A bag with a million dollars?  Straight to the police.

But there are interesting questions to explore concerning money and integrity and feeling like you've sold your soul that are worth exploring.  I run into them every day when I make decisions for my business.  For instance, I use really nice strings on my rental violins.  It makes them sound better, which is important to me.  But none of the major stores in town do that because it's expensive.  They expect renters to buy their own strings if they want to sound better.  I think that's short sighted, because sounding good is the whole point, and what if they hate the sound and don't know it's the fault of the strings?  Anyway, I seldom decide what to do at the violin store based on money first.  I start with what's best and appropriate and what seems fair, and then factor in money enough to stay in business, and so far so good.  I will not be making the Fortune 500 anytime soon, but I'm happy and my kids are fed so we're a successful small business in my book.

When it comes to blogging I find the range of what people earn from it fascinating. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Time to Talk Varnish

I can't believe it's been almost two weeks since I got back from my violin varnish workshop in Concord.  Lots of people have asked about it, so figured I'd better buckle down and write this post while enough of it is still fresh in my mind.

It was great.  Disturbing week to be in Boston aside, it was inspiring, helpful, challenging, reassuring, and altogether worthwhile.  Very glad I went, and I know my work will improve as a direct result.

Joe Robson
There were a dozen people in attendance at the workshop ranging from professionals with experience to someone varnishing for the first time.  The primary instructors were Joe Robson (who is a varnish maker and provided us a range of his products to try) and Marilyn Wallin (an award winning luthier and former president of the Violin Society of America), and then later we were also joined by Roman Barnas (teacher at the North Bennett Street School) and Todd Goldenberg (a New England luthier).

gathered for a demonstration
We were situated in two rooms in an art center in Concord, but spent as much time as possible working outside.  Color is easier to judge in natural light, and everything dried best in the sun when we could get it.

Everyone was asked to bring two instruments, one in the white, and one with a ground coat already established.  I managed to do my ground work at home backwards (not an auspicious beginning), but this worked out in the end because I was able to strip the instrument and that's a skill I needed.  I also got to learn a technique for completing a ground coat in a day in order to catch up, and that was valuable experience as well.  (Ideally, it's best to take your time and be thorough and enjoy the process longer, but the speed ground turned out to work perfectly fine.  Someone in our group dubbed the technique the "Fed Ex Ground.")

My corner of the bench--cozy work space for 8 people
There were several revelations for me during this workshop, one of which was to finally begin to understand the true importance and function of the ground on a violin.  The ground coat is everything you do to the wood before you start layering on varnish.  The ground is in the wood, the varnish is on the wood.  With the ground you establish a base color to work over, and prepare the surfaces for taking on varnish.  In this workshop I was shown how to look for the ground through the varnish on a finished instrument, which was pretty amazing.

One of the things that's complicated about violin making is that among builders I know, it tends to be a pretty solitary business.  When you work in isolation you lack feedback.  In the workshop you could try new things, observe how different things were working out for others, and never feel like anything was beyond hope because there were so many knowledgeable people there to help salvage the work.

And there were techniques and materials that if I had used them by myself I would have felt panicked.   For instance, there are interesting dyes available to put into the ground coat, but if I had applied them at home I would have been convinced I'd just ruined my instrument.  I tried a gold dye that goes on looking like you took a highlighter to the wood, but after only an hour in the sun it fades down to a lovely color.  Check out the violin right after the dye went on: