Friday, June 18, 2010

My Dad, John Bartram Penson III (1919-1987)

I grew up on a farm because of my father who, at the age of 40, decided that he’d always wanted to be a farmer. My folks were both Chicago kids who’d ridden their bikes to outlying towns just to see farmland. Mom was born in Lombard, and Dad on Western Avenue in Morgan Park. He was passionate about art, and knew from a very early age that he was going to be an artist, and somehow, during the heat of the depression, managed to attend the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago.

When World War II broke out, he was so passionate about enlisting and becoming a pilot that he threatened to move us all to Canada because the RAF would accept him – a doddering old man at the age of 27 – and the fledgling Army Air Corps here in the States would not (the men in his flight class called him “Pops”). Eventually, The USAAC resolved the issue by admitting him. He trained in Texas, where I now live, flying B-25s until the war ended, never seeing action. His uniform, his wings, his service was a source of extreme pride to him to his final days.

He worked as a commercial artist for most of his career, designing well known packages for Kleenex, AC spark plugs, logos for UpJohn, Wammo, and retired from this to teach commercial art at Northern Illinois University. He appeared in an ad in Time magazine when I was a child, something that inspired complete awe and wonder in me.

He’d played baseball as a young man, eventually working his way up to a small farm unit for the St Louis Cardinals, but “gave it up for women” (my mom.)

From my father, I inherited my creativity, my sensitivity, but also my addictiveness and depression. As is the way of all people, we inherit both the good and the bad from our folks. Despite this, I wouldn’t trade who my father was with anyone. When my mom met him, she thought he looked like Tyrone Power and was immediately smitten.

There is not a single day of my life that passes that I don’t think about my father. He was enormously prideful in equal amounts to his sensitivity, and at time very irascible, belligerent, at others as caring and compassionate as any living man.

Once, when he and my mother were courting, walking along Lake Michigan, they’d seen a crowd gather at the breakfront watching a dog that was struggling in the breakwater, unable to climb the rocks. It infuriated my father, and after belittling the crowd verbally (which I can easily image him doing), he stripped off his shirt and dove into the churning, icy water. The dog, near drowning, clawed at him, scratching him, but he clung on, and was helped out of the water with the dog (by the same people he’d belittled). My mom was won over.

Here’s to you, Dad. I’ll love you always.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Bob Curell's 1929 Gibson Style 5 original 5 string banjo

Today, friend Bob Curell was in town from Arizona and, after two years of trying to hook up, we finally got together. An hour and a half later I am still goose bumps. He has a Pre War Gibson banjo. This prewar has an original 5 string neck. This banjo is a flathead. This banjo has been in his family since 1935. It is a Style 5. Perhaps the ONLY ONE IN EXISTENCE. It was in my lap…

(Note to non banjo-files out there: Before WW II, dating back to the 1920s, banjo production was very high. Banjo "orchestras" and clubs popped up everywhere. Lest you think this meant bluegrass, remember this was 25 years before the term was coined. Banjo meant jazz and blues, was played with a "plectrum" (pick), and was a 4 string affair. Most modern day banjos are of the 5 string variety, the fifth string providing that driving, chiming sound that makes for bluegrass and mountain banjo. Prior to WW II, only a very few country artists were in the market for a 5 string banjo (most made their own), and Gibson made very few. These are generally considered to be the finest examples of 5 string banjos ever made, and some fetch upwards of 100,000 dollars. Of these, most are owned by top bluegrass pros today. Earl Scruggs famously played a 1930s Granada by Gibson for most of his career. Of all the models made, there is perhaps only one Style 5, with it's garish art deco designs, in existence. This is it.)

I owned a 1927 TB-3 archtop conversion, so I was accustomed to the feel of a pre-wwII Gibson, but to say that I was in any way prepared for this would be a lie. Folks can go on all day about the differences between flatheads and archtops, 1 piece flanges and tube and plate, and these all absolutely contribute to different sounds, so I had a pretty open mind on what to expect. But to hold the real deal in my hand - the holy grail of banjos – well... I was a bit surprised to feel my hands shaking. I was nervous, if not from the anticipation, simply from the fact that I was holding a pretty good sized home mortgage in my lap. I hit a few notes. I have a habit when I play a new instrument of leaning my head over the pot to catch as much of the sound as I can. On most banjos made by mere human hands, the sound can be loud, but not overwhelming. I was OK until I happened to hit a good solid 1st and 5th pinch. My ear is still ringing. I’m not talking about volume, although there was tons of it, but clarity – precision, the sound of the most piercing bell ring you can imagine. No harsh overtones, no buzzy, ringy after tones or harmonics. Just unbridled, get the hell out of my way, pure, pulsing 5 string banjo.

One of the things I remember about my ’27 TB-3 was the petite nature of the finish. Once, I’d taken my tenor neck down to dust it using a damp paper towel and was horrified to see deep red finish come off on the paper. Curtis McPeake assured me this was OK, and that these finishes were typical of instruments from that period. Today, in the days of absolutely perfect deep gloss finishes, the thought of making a new instrument where you can actually feel the boundary between the binding and the wood is unthinkable. I remember also looking at the Mastertone block, obviously hand cut, with small scratches where the grave had overshot the mark. Heavens, a CNC machine would be returned to manufacturer if it put out such shoddy work.

This banjo, from its wear worn neck, friction 5th string peg, crackled finish on the resonator (where the finish is so thin, you can actually see the grain lines when held against the light just right), hand chalked serial number in the resonator, gaudy rhinestoned peg head overlay just screamed art deco from the ‘30s. And it could not have been more beautiful. I could “see” the luthier. I could see the work on his hands.

Bob told me the history, as best he knew it. It was owned by an L. K. Miller for a fairly short period of time before his father bought it in 1935. One owner, for the most part, for the entire life of the instrument. This is like finding a ’63 split window Corvette in someone’s garage with the price sticker still on it. Bob is a gracious, magnanimous owner. His goal is to get as many pickers to see this piece and play it. It’s not meant to be in a vault somewhere, he says. And I agree. And now I’m lucky to have been chosen to be one of these pickers.

I played a few tunes and marveled at the balanced tone from top to bottom. The neck intonates perfectly as high on the fret board as you choose to play. My hands were unaccustomed to the feel (I play a Doug Dillard type super high head tension, thin bridge, light string archtop) and stumbled to “get” the instrument for a while. Bob has it setup with a thicker bridge, medium strings, fairly high action and medium head tension to get a more primitive tone from it. The banjo was patient with me, though, and simply lay there as if it was saying “I’m ready to do more anytime you are.” One of the things that really struck me was that usually banjos setup like this don’t respond to soft playing. Not here. This responded with the lightest touch, but never “overrode” the sound when played hard. By the end, I was pretty sure the banjo was capable of doing far more than I was able to plug into it, but it tolerated me.

I want to thank Bob for this opportunity, and have posted a set of pages on my site to document the occasion photographically. Bob, thanks a million. I will remember this day on my last day.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

How Many to Follow?

One of the trends I’ve noticed over the last year is people whose following numbers are about as impressive as their followed by numbers. I’ve never messed around with auto-following, and in principle, I don’t think it’s wrong, but at some point I believe there is a maximum number of people one can legitimately say that they are “following”. I think my current number is about 800, and I’m beginning to feel I’m not doing most of them any favor by missing most of their tweets as my timeline rips past me.

I supposed we’re all on here to “market” something. Even if it’s just to meet new people, we’re kind of marketing ourselves. Some, on the other hand, are all about marketing some product or service (most of my new followers, lately), and their following/follower numbers reflect an effort to broadcast as widely as they can. I’m going to suggest that if you follow 16,879 people, you’re probably going to miss that tweet from your sister inviting you to her kid’s birthday party.

One of the side effects of this proliferation of following numbers is as follows: You wake up in the morning, send out a tweet saying that you’re doing pretty well, then, trickling in over the next couple of hours, you’ll receive tweets from followers saying “How are you today?” Well, I’ve already said how I was today, right? The underlying problem is that some people use this mini-blog system as a sort of souped up messaging service/chat program. But I suspect the real problem is that they are just following too many people to see your morning tweet.

Twitter was originally designed to network small groups of people, like a project team at a company, so that everybody could see updates on everyone else’s activity. I don’t think one thought was given to celebrities who garner millions of followers, or marketers who follow hundreds of thousands of people. At this point, there’s not much difference between this and email spam (and tweets from them are probably treated about the same).
There are no rules in Twitter. You can use it however you want to. And I suppose that’s the beauty of the thing, as it allows for constant evolution. But the next time your Aunt Minnie wonders why you’re snubbing her on Twitter, you might look at your following number.



Saturday, May 15, 2010


I tried really hard. I did.

Once upon a time I followed (on Twitter) a certain Hollywood actress who, for reasons I hope she doesn’t still regret, chose to follow me back. I blew this chance, demanding too much of what I perceived as a relationship. I thought I was special, I guess. No fool like an old fool.

Now, hat in hand, I’m asking back in from the cold. How to do this? How to not sound like the foolish sycophant I fear she sees me as? Or am I being grandiose to even think that she may still remember me? That was about 200,000 follows ago. If I’m really lucky I won’t get blocked. If I even get noticed.

I tried to stay away. I tried to put her out of my mind. This worked really well for about 2 and a half days. Then I just accidentally started peeking in on her tweets again now and then. Then I quit lying to myself and followed her again.

Was I the fool for following her in the first place? The fool for unfollowing her when I thought she wasn’t responding to me? Or the fool to think I may be (or should be) forgiven? Or (perhaps worst fear of all) the fool for not letting go.

Well, I can’t. I tried. I really did. I miss her.


Monday, May 3, 2010

Celibate! Celibate! Dance to the Music!

To say my life worked out a little differently than what I had planned would be an understatement of cosmic proportions. A decent student in school, I come from a family of highly educated folks, and figured at some point the need to get a few degrees would take hold and propel me towards some sort of academic pursuit. I actually took Latin in high school with the vague notion that one needed it in med school. Hah.

It’s now 40 years later. Medical school became law, then just a bachelors degree in something and even that didn’t happen. What did happen was music. And alcohol. I spent the better part of 20 years lost to both. Then, through a circuitous chain of events, computers entered my life, and I was suddenly calling myself things like “Technical writer” and “web developer”. I’d married once, divorced some 11 years later, then again (newly sober).

Then the year 2001 happened. Annis terribilis. Remember what the headlines were before 9-11? I do. Very clearly. “Tech Bubble Bursts. Job Losses in the Thousands”. My dad, a commercial artist and later teacher, had exactly three jobs in his adult life. My mom had one. One. I’ve had three jobs in 6 months. My last “permanent” job lasted 4 months. Gaps in my resume led me back to music, and I wound up single again, broke and, for the first time in my adult life, alone. To say that I never saw myself being alone, self employed as a music performer/teacher at the age of 55 falls short. This is all just to say that I became pretty accustomed to radical, unforeseen change in my life. So much so that change sneaked up on me frequently.

I guess somewhere in through all of this mess I just assumed that sex was necessary. I had, as mentioned before, been in a relationship with a woman for most of my adult life. Suddenly, (after a couple of nightmarish experiences), I found myself alone and, while I can’t say I liked it, I certainly didn’t seem to be doing anything to change it. Looking back, I see that I had put myself in a sort of “time-out” from women. At first, probably just to show myself that I didn’t need a woman, but then later, more like a sort of cleansing process. I’d been at this about 3 years before the “C” word popped into my head as anything other than a passing notion: Celibacy. People go through periods of their lives where sex is not available to them, and perhaps even not that desirable, but celibacy is something more than that. It’s saying that you are willfully avoiding sex.

A friend of mine decided that the answer to all my problems was simply for me to “get laid”. From the long perspective of a few years without, this statement sounds more agricultural than it does erotic. Like I had to have a gland expressed or something. A friend of his girl friend’s was lined up for me, a date was set, and I found myself completely relieved when she backed out. This gave me pause. Why was I relieved? I did a fearless and searching moral inventory and discovered a few things:
1) It gives me a feeling of control. Control over my body, my relationships, my life
2) It feels cleansing, purifying
3) I realized that I had unconsciously related many of the problems of my adult life to decisions or actions revolving sex.
4) It is not physically “necessary”. At least not in the ways I had been led to believe. My body has adapted quite well to it.

I’ve been celibate for nearly 5 years now. Is this how I want to spend the rest of my life? No. Right now I’m too busy trying to reinvent myself to throw a complex relationship into the mix. So, for now, anyway, I celebrate my celibacy. It’s not a life style (at least I don’t think so), but it does feel right, at least right now.



Friday, October 23, 2009

A Reasonable Response to Swine Flu

In this season of divisive, rancorous debate over politics, with media sources entrenched on the right and the left, there's one thing you will see them in agreement on: Hyped up fear mongering of the H1N1 swine flu outbreak. My two youngest kids came down with swine flu the first week of school this fall, initially scaring the heck out their mom and I. About ten days, a couple of doctor visits, a few boxes of Kleenex, a gallon or two of hand sanitizer and some Tamiflu later, we came away a little wiser about the nature of this new flu. Sure, they got high fevers - both around 102, 103 for a few hours - and yes, they developed bad coughs, had sore throats, but you know what? It looked and acted a whole lot like any flu I've ever seen.

During the course of this, I did a lot of research on H1N1 and was surprised to see how trumped up much of the coverage about this "pandemic" was. Here are some widely reported assumptions:

1) It is disproportionately striking down the young and healthy. "Regular" flu is supposed to attack only the old, very young, and those with underlying health problems. The statement is essentially true, but it's what is not being said that tells the real story. The CDC itself is assuming that the reason older people may not be getting H1N1 is that that have been exposed to a similar strain at some time in the past. So, the real statement should not be "it's striking down young people", but "it's not striking older people". Same result, very different fear factor.

2) Swine flu is deadlier than the regular flu: The current death rate of H1N1 cases is about 1%, lower than that of the regular seasonal flu. This is a rate currently lower than the regular seasonal flu. But the significant fact here is not that it's any more virulent. It's just new. Few people have any immune defense against it.

3) Face masks work: Viruses are so small it has only been with relatively recent microscope technology that they have even been able to image them.They are thousands of times smaller than bacteria. Trying to stop a virus with a store bought "dust" mask (the disposable paper sort) is like trying to catch water with a tennis racket.

An old Poli Sci prof of mine said something once that I have never forgotten: "Media does not exist to inform you. It exists to sell advertising". And this is just as true of Fox as it is MSNBC. Whatever your politics may be, if you're concerned about swine flu, take some time to go through the CDC site's pages: Centers for Disease Control.

Why I Don't Do Follow Friday

To you on Twitter, you recognize this term as heralding the weekly day of friends referral in which you post account names to your timeline for others to consider following. Who knows how this started, but it certainly caught on. In the early days of Twitter (or at least in my early days) I was an enthusiastic participant. I've changed my views about it, however, as my number of followers increased.

Twitter, as a social network app, was originally intended to form small groups of "followers" to post updates to one another answering the basic question "What are you doing right now?" As a few trillion people joined the service, this basic concept had the doors blown off it as people (either through direct actions or by force of their celebrity) garnered thousands, even millions of followers. I have always sought to use Twitter as a means of communicating directly with people. This obviously becomes impractical, even impossible, if you have a few hundred thousand followers. Communicating with everybody is impossible, so of course some sort of selection or culling has to take place. This is where Follow Friday gets a little problematic. Let's say you have a thousand avid followers. Of these thousand, let's assume that 100 of them actively seek interchange with you. While you may be able to keep up with this many tweets as long as they don't all come in at the same time. It's kind of hard to say that you're really in communication with them, at least not on any kind of personal level. So, along comes Follow Friday, and you find yourself in the business of recommending people to others for following. Do you:

a) Recommend all 100 of them, being egalitarian? If so, all 1,000 of your followers will see that you have selected 100 of them, possible offending the other 900. At 140 characters per tweet, you will also flood your timeline, and that of your followers, with tweet after tweet of recommended account names.

b) Cherry pick the 15 or so that you really communicate with (either through @replies or DMs). This can really look snobby if not handled really well.

c) Select just one or two a week for really special reasons (offending the other 9,999 who are wondering why they aren't special).

d) or simply not engage in FF. Which is what I do. And which can also look snobby if others are recommending you and you're not returning the favor. In this regard, it can be a lot like Christmas cards (and about as sincere).

I have chosen option D, at least for now. I think in the long run, I'd rather not get into the cherry picking business at all. My favorite tweeters are those that engage me, and there are simply too many of them to refer each Friday. I guess I'd rather run the risk of offending all a little bit than offending some a lot.

I appreciate everyone who follows me. Moreover, I appreciate everyone who engages me by reading and responding to what I write. But Follow Friday has taken on the aspect of Mother's day where you are expected to show your love and gratefulness or risk offending mom. I always like my mom's view of Mother's day. 'I'd rather you showed that you loved me the other 364 days a year and not make Hallmark rich on this one day". I hope that in some way, through my tweets, I'm showing everybody who engages me that I appreciate them, and I hope they know that I implicitly recommend them all without having to prove it once a week. To me, your follower count is not a popularity contest. It's also not a marketing tactic. They are people that have chosen to "listen" to me, and the number of them is the least significant thing in the world to me. Each one is of value. Follow them all!