December 2012 Archives

Holidailies Triolet X

You win some, you lose some, and some get rained out;
What's important is coming to play.
It's a truth many people have bandied about:
You win some, you lose some, and some get rained out.
It's easy to freeze up with fear and with doubt,
But there's no hope in running away.
You win some, you lose some, and some get rained out;
What's important is coming to play.

(Previous triolets.)

Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot

The temptation to write a thoroughly maudlin entry about being alone on New Year's Eve is strong. It would go something like this:

My ex has a poker party every New Year's Eve.

I don't play poker. I don't have a poker face. One of my defining character traits is that I don't bluff, so the fact that I can't bluff isn't a problem under most circumstances.

At any rate, we made a pact early on: she wouldn't try to get me to play poker, and I wouldn't try to get her to sing karaoke. That worked out pretty well. Still, she likes poker. She's good at poker. She and her friends take poker seriously. So while, yes, I suppose I could have spent New Year's Eve last year watching TV in another room while they played, I instead opted to be the dealer.

I even got a green eyeshade, because when else would I have a reason to wear one?

And that worked out reasonably well. I might not have been able to follow which hands were good or bad or whatever, but I could fling cards around as needed.

Given that it is now past 5 PM on New Year's Eve, and I haven't heard anything on the subject, I am inferring that either the party isn't happening this year, or I'm not invited. Probably the latter. I honestly hadn't been sure whether I would be; I've never had an ex before.

I was kinda hoping I would be. Granted, I had some misgivings about midnight, and traditions involving kissing. Possibly she shared the same misgivings. Or possibly she figured I wouldn't be interested anyway, considering that I don't like poker. I dunno.

But I can deal.

...but while there's truth to that, it's not the whole truth. It would largely be a self-indulgent exercise in getting to that last line.

I realize I still have yet to write about how we got together in the first place, and I still hope to... but we broke up because she didn't have time for a relationship anymore. Or we didn't have time—we kinda took turns as to who wasn't available at any given occasion—but the upshot was that in the three months between our trip to Boston in early June and our official breakup in early September, we saw each other maybe about five times. (And that includes the time she dropped off some chicken soup when I was sick for a week.) She spent the year starting a new retail business, which left her no free time to speak of; at the time of the breakup, the holiday retail season was nigh, and she was barely going to have a chance to breathe.

If I'm being entirely honest, part of me was hoping that maybe now that the holidays were over, perhaps we could manage a second act.

Most of me knew better. In the best-case scenario, we might be able to steal four months—five at the outside—before we'd have to break up again. And while I'd take that, I can see why she wouldn't. Especially as she could better use that time and energy toward something that does have a chance of going somewhere, which is to say her business. And if I'm being really honest with myself, while I still love her dearly, it's probably true that one reason—perhaps even the main reason—I'd be willing to take that deal is that I'm afraid nobody else will want me.

There should be a snappy sentence here in which I resolve to face 2013 with more confidence, but I don't think I'm there yet.


At least a year ago, I bought a copy of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. I don't remember exactly when, nor what brought it to my attention. Perhaps somebody else's Holidailies post. And for at least a year, it has sat on the shelf above my oven with the other cookbooks I never get around to using.

I admit that there are a few such cookbooks. I get them with the best of intentions, visions of domestic goddesshood swimming in my head—one of them was in fact How to Be a Domestic Goddess, but I gave that one away when I left East Boston; a friend who was helping me move admired it, and I figured better it be with somebody who might actually use it—but then I never get around to doing anything with them, because microwaving frozen dinners is much faster and easier.

And yet. I really like bread, and five minutes a day isn't that much time... I would look at it every few months and say "I really should try that someday."

This past week I did. And it is a revelation.

Understand, I'm comfortable with cooking. I don't do much of it, largely because I live alone and it's just too much trouble for one person, especially in a world that has microwavable frozen dinners, but I know how to. I also have a bread machine, and occasionally used it, but baking bread by hand, from scratch... it's daunting. I've always understood it to be a cross between a very precise science and a full-contact sport. The oven has to be just the right temperature, and you can't open it at the wrong time, and there's kneading, and punching, and it takes hours, and woe betide you if you get a single detail wrong.

I am, in short, exactly the kind of person targeted by the authors of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. They've been pretty open about this; they set out to develop a bread recipe that even a complete newbie would find easy and not screw up, in hopes of getting lots more people to take up baking. And they managed it.

The title is a bit misleading. The "five minutes a day" is on average, and doesn't count rising time or baking time. But you can do other things during that time, and the actual process is easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. The recipe is here, in fact; one of the nice things about this book is that there's a flourishing accompanying website on which they are not shy about answering questions and giving away all their secrets.

I have bread. It started with water, flour, yeast, and salt, and then... it's bread! It feels like magic.


Yet Another Ukulele Video

The frustrating thing is that there were better takes I deleted because I screwed up toward the end... this one would've been rejected had it been earlier on, but I hit the point where enough was enough already. [wry smile]

Ah well. Here goes...

Second Amendment

Every year I come closer to joining the NRA on general principle. And I don't even like guns.

This post brought to you by the torrent of overwhelmingly stupid ban-the-guns arguments currently clogging my Twitter and Facebook feeds.

The Most Unwanted Music

In a comment the other day, Elaine suggested I might like Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning, by Gary Marcus. It's about a neuropsychologist and professor—about my age, but with a year-long sabbatical, lots of connections, and money to burn—who takes up music and spends lots of time interviewing musicians. His conclusion, in a nutshell, is that even somebody with no sense of rhythm and almost no musical knowledge can, with lots of practice and perseverance, become more or less competent at the guitar.

I'm probably coming across a bit snide because I'm jealous. [wry smile] It's not a bad book, and if he's better at raising questions than providing answers, so that with many chapters I was avidly reading on to get to the good stuff that never quite came... well, I'm better at questions than answers myself. It was a good recommendation.

(As for what I'd actually asked for... it turns out Music Theory for Dummies and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory both exist.)

With that said, one omission in particular demands a closer look.

In the chapter "The Worst Song in the World," Marcus starts by writing about Microsoft Songsmith, a program designed to automatically generate backing tracks for any vocals. As he describes it, the program turns out to be a "total flop," because while the software is able to extrapolate backing tracks from a wide database of existing music, it's missing the innovative creativity that's the hallmark of human music.

Along the way, he refers to The Most Unwanted Music project of Vitaly Komar, Alexander Melamid, and Dave Soldier. They conducted a survey, asking people what they most liked and most disliked in music. The most disliked list included very long songs; songs about holidays; songs with bagpipes, accordions, harps, banjos; very high sopranos; children's choirs; opera; rap; advertising jingles; and so on. They then went ahead and recorded a song containing all of those elements. He then says:

The "most wanted" properties, meanwhile, consisted of "music of moderate duration (approximately 5 minutes), moderate pitch range, moderate tempo, and moderate to loud volume"—everything we have come to expect from pop music. Soldier's tongue may have been lodged firmly in cheek, but his results—and their curious resemblance to the hallmarks of pop music—do raise a question about whether our aesthetic experience can be captured with scientific laws.
I then waited for him to get to the punchline, but that turned out to be all he had to say on the subject. So allow me to provide it: while "The Most Unwanted Music" is bad in an entertaining, even fascinating way, "The Most Wanted Music" is completely unlistenable.

I have listened to the former... probably twentysomething times. At least half of them were times I was sharing it with other people, but I have also listened to it just because I enjoyed doing so. I will admit that there are two minutes starting around 18:30 where one enters The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, but from there it's straight on into the home stretch. It is... well, it's not good music, exactly, but it is so creative and idiosyncratic about how it's not good that I refuse to apologize for liking it. I mean, you have an operatic soprano yodelling about cowboys at one point.

By contrast, while "The Most Wanted Music" is much shorter, and is supposed to contain all the good stuff, I have listened to it only twice. The second time was because a friend wanted to hear it, and I thought that perhaps it wasn't actually as bad as I'd remembered it being. (If any friends want to hear it down the line, I will send them a link and spare myself.) While all the elements of a standard romantic pop song are there, there is nothing new, creative, or interesting about it. It's entirely insipid from beginning to end.

Which I was sure he was going to mention because, y'know, that's the thesis of the whole chapter, but oh well.

I tell you all this in hopes of enticing you to give "The Most Unwanted Music" a try. That link will take you to a Wired article, from which you can either stream the song or download it.

You can also check out "The Most Wanted Music" if you don't believe me and need to hear it for yourself. (Don't open the box, Pandora...)


When I was researching the advisability of getting my beard removed via laser, I found a comment on a message board that said that the pain was like being burned with a cigarette really quickly. Which... okay, but the thing is, that comment was meant to be reassuring.

It's also turned out to be pretty much accurate, I think. Being phasered at point-blank range might also be an apt metaphor... and while I haven't actually been phasered, I've also never had a cigarette burn to the face, so this is all speculative. Each blast is only an instant long, but they keep coming, and it's hard to be entirely stoic when somebody is firing a powerful laser into your face to burn your hair out by the roots.

I really do hate shaving, though, and I hate my perpetual five o'clock shadow, and if this actually works it'll be totally worth it. (Especially as I am using a Groupon and paying a fraction of the usual price.) The jury's still out on whether it will work.

The opinions I found on the Internet before going for it fell into three categories:

  1. Meh, it doesn't really do anything, especially in the long run.
  2. It's terrible! It leads to a mix of bald patches and bits that grow back full force! I look ridiculous!
  3. It works brilliantly! So happy!
My guess is that the disparity can partly be chalked up to differences in equipment and operators, and partly to skin and beard types. I'm obviously hoping to end up in the third category.

I had my first treatment four weeks ago, and my second today; there are four more to go. (This time around, I took two Advil beforehand, which did help take a bit of the edge off the phasering.) So far... I dunno. I've got one patch under my chin that's been debearded; the rest hasn't seemed to be affected much. But I'm willing to wait and see.

Music theory

One problem with being an autodidact is that I don't know a whole lot about musical theory. What exactly is a C6 chord, a C9 chord, or a Csus4 chord? How does a C7 differ from a Cmaj7? I mean, I have chord charts telling me how to play all of the above, and I can hear the differences, but I don't grok the underlying structure.

I have wanted to learn this stuff. My undergraduate school, Queens College, was home to a serious and more or less autonomous school of music. Most of its courses were restricted to those actually admitted to the music school, but there were a couple of exceptions. The first was Introduction to Music, offered every semester and largely taken by people who wanted to fill the arts requirement. I signed up for that, but discovered in the first lesson that the course amounted to Music Appreciation for students who had never heard classical music before.

I spoke to the instructor after class, and she agreed that it would be a waste of my time, but suggested Rudiments of Music I, which was meant to provide a more serious grounding in the subject for non–music majors. So I signed up for that in a later semester, only to be informed—when we few, we happy few, arrived for our first lesson—that the class had been underenrolled, so they were cancelling it.

So there went that. And this is one case where even the Wikipedia articles are over my head, forming a web of cross-references in which each article requires you to already understand the larger picture.

Which leads me to a question, dearest readers. Is there, like, a Rudiments of Music for Dummies out there?

The Maccabees are spinning in their graves

That Chanukah has become the Jewish answer to Christmas is staggeringly ironic.

The theme of Chanukah—and it's specific to Chanukah, not quite shared by any other holiday—is resistance to assimilation. Secular, Hellenist Jews, aided by Syrian-Greeks, tried to stomp out religious Judaism, which they felt was holding them back. This led to a civil war, in which the religious Jews wiped out both assimilated Jews and Greek oppressors until they regained control. (The whole bit about the oil—after the religious folk regained the Temple, there was only one flask of oil that hadn't been contaminated by bad-guy cooties, which needed to last eight days till more would come in—is just the cherry on top.)

This is why I don't light a menorah these days. The whole point of Chanukah is that people like me shouldn't exist. I'm neither that hypocritical nor that filled with self-hatred.

The irony is that this minor and deeply insular holiday has been blown up, popularized, and candy-coated as a way for secular Jews to feel like they have a Christmas too. It's the holiday season! We're all fundamentally the same! You've got your pretty lights, and we've got ours!

Bah, humbug.

Three postscripts:

1) Latkes are yummy, though.

2) My Second Life avatar does have a menorah, but she's a deeply secular Jew who only cares about the pretty lights. What's the point of being in SL if you're just going to be yourself?

3) Claiming there's a War on Christmas makes about as much sense as claiming there's a War on Oxygen. At this time of year, we're swimming in both.

Third verse, same as the first...

The other day I said, with reference to the ukulele video I posted, "This particular one is a holiday number... one I'm pretty sure I've previously noodled with somewhere in this journal, even if I can't find it offhand."

I have since found it. From March 18, 2000, to be exact. In RealAudio format, no less! The entry also contains a very, very grainy webcam photo, plus information on honor societies I didn't join because I couldn't afford the initiation fees. Good times.

What I'd expected to find, but apparently never posted, was another sound file, from 2004. At the time, I was playing around with multi-track recording software, and ended up using the same song—that is, "Jingle Bells" made into a traditional Jewish song by taking out all the words and transposing it into a minor key—as a test piece, making up harmonies on the fly. I rushed some of the pauses on the first go-round and then was stuck with that, but on the whole it didn't turn out badly.

Judge for yourself!

Otherwise, the ukulele videos continue, but this is probably the weakest of the bunch so far. My hope is that in time, I will be able to look back on the days when I had trouble transitioning smoothly between Dm and E7, and wonder why the heck I put this stuff on the Internet appreciate how far I'll have come.

I suspect I'll regret saying this, but I'm open for requests.

Holidailies prompt: Write a letter to Santa.

Dear Santa,

Can you write my journal entry for me? I've got a good streak going this year, but I don't really have anything to say tonight. Well, aside from all the big stuff that I've been avoiding—boy meets girl, boy and girl make out, girl leaves boy, boy mopes around apartment—because that way lies hours and hours of writing and agonizing over getting it right, which would probably break that streak anyway.

And yes, I'm Jewish, so I'm outside your jurisdiction, but my ex was Catholic. Doesn't that count for anything?

I can supply milk and cookies.



One Phone Call

I got a call today from a guy at a staffing agency who'd found my resume on Monster.Com. He thought I might be a good match for a position they were trying to fill, which would run from around now through March. The whole thing fell apart when it turned out that the position was further west in New Jersey, a mere 30-40 minutes away by car... but I don't actually have a car. Or a driver's license. And they aren't accessible via mass transit.

My takeaway here is not "dang, I should learn to drive." One of the reasons I live in the New York City Metropolitan Area is that you can get by just fine without a car here, and I prefer it that way. My takeaway is a twofold reminder: (1) All I need is one phone call to change my financial situation from "totally screwed" to "totally fine," and (2) I can and should be doing more to make such a phone call happen.

The immediate challenge is coming up with a generic cover letter, followed by scattering it hither and yon as I apply to many jobs in quick succession... and every bit of that is anathema to me, which is part of my problem. My entire career is about obsessing over the small stuff. I'm naturally inclined that way, which is why I'm good at it. And so, I tend to go for specific dream jobs. I tailor my resume for each position. I agonize over crafting the perfect cover letter, one oozing with personality, explaining why I'd be the best thing that could happen to them... and vice-versa, so I'd also be a happy and productive employee.

The good thing about that approach is that when I score a direct hit, it is the Best Thing Ever. (The interview for every job I've actually gotten has amounted to "So this is what the job consists of. Are you in?") The bad thing is that when I don't... well, I don't have much work. The "just slap something generic together and get it out there" approach doesn't come easily, but there is something to be said for it.

Play Your Ukulele

So one of my personal myths goes like this:

My brother decided he wanted to learn to play the guitar. In those pre-Google times, do-it-yourself instruction was harder to come by, especially if you were interested in playing Jewish music. But he had a couple of helpful books and cassettes, and got started.

He also had an older brother who loved music. That would be me. I had a fair amount of raw talent, and had dabbled with keyboards over the years... but I'd never had the discipline to practice, and never got beyond the beginner level, pecking out melodies by ear. Nevertheless, I had the better ear for music. (Or so I claim, but this is my personal myth here.)

For a time, he would tell me a song he wanted to learn, and I'd figure out its chords. He'd play it, and I'd tell him if he made any mistakes. And then I'd wander off, and he'd keep practicing... The inevitable result being that, at the end of six months, I still had the better ear for music, but he was the one who was able to play the guitar.

I got the ukulele in June of 2011. I blame YouTube for this, especially Molly Lewis. It seemed like everybody on YouTube had a ukulele and was having lots of fun with it. I told my sister that I was not going to be the last person on my block with a ukulele, and she rolled her eyes affectionately. (At least, I think it was affectionately.)

This is not a whim I would have indulged if, say, everybody on YouTube was playing the violin. I like Lindsey Stirling as much as the next person, but I'm content to just listen to her music. Not only do violins take way more discipline, they're also pretty pricy.

Fortunately, ukuleles are not very expensive. I found one that was well-reviewed online as offering excellent value for $35; not concert-quality, but perfectly good for casual playing. And if—as I more than half suspected would happen—it would end up gathering dust in the corner... well, at least I wasn't losing that much on the deal.

And, sure enough, I spent a few hours strumming it immediately after I got it, and picked it up for another twenty minutes every month or two thereafter... but otherwise it pretty much stayed unused.

I was primed to pick it up again shortly before Hurricane Sandy hit. For one thing, in September, Molly Lewis finally came to New York, along with the Doubleclicks and Marian Call. The concert was a blast. About the same time, Amanda Palmer released her new album, including some bonus material for the Kickstarter backers... and "Ukulele Anthem" entered regular rotation in my workday playlist. I loved it. I considered buying an Etch-A-Sketch just so I could bring it to work. I also thought to myself that I really ought to pick up the ukulele again.

And so it came to pass that when the storm hit and my power went out, I quickly looked up the chords to "Ukulele Anthem" on my phone, scribbled them down, and proceeded to try to play the thing by candlelight.

And then proceeded to try to play something a bit less ambitious. As Palmer has noted herself, she originally set out with the intention of writing a three-chord ukulele anthem that anybody could play... and failed dismally at that. Instead, she wrote a song that serves perfectly as a rallying cry for ukulele players, but which also requires beginners to work for awhile to master it. This is not actually a bad thing. It's good to have a goal to work toward, one that isn't too easy but is nevertheless attainable. (Even in my wildest dreams, I will never play the ukulele half as well as Jake Shimabukuro. But I may someday play it as well as Amanda Palmer.)

Anyway, having not much else I could do without power, I kept at it for the following week, and have continued since. Some days it's just ten minutes, but they add up. I have a ways to go, but I'm steadily improving, and I'd like to continue the trend.

The upshot of which is that I may well keep posting videos throughout Holidailies, to spur me on. This particular one is a holiday number... one I'm pretty sure I've previously noodled with somewhere in this journal, even if I can't find it offhand.

Power structure

So apparently I hadn't paid the electric bill since March.

Not coincidentally, it also turns out that it was in March that I finally gave into the power company's requests that I switch to paperless billing. It further turns out that the phone number they had on file for me is one I haven't used in at least a year.

The upshot of all this is that they sent me a gentle reminder this morning by way of turning my power off, and then I paid the really staggeringly impressive bill over the phone, and then they turned it back on again.

I never did quite get to doing anything productive after that. [sigh]

Otherwise, this entry from another Holidailies participant largely sums up where I'm at as well. In theory, the flexibility of freelancing and freedom from the corporate grind seem like wonderful things, but in practice I do better with externally imposed structure. (Ideally structure with a bit of give in it, but that's very different from no structure at all.)

Also, paper bills. Paper bills turn out to be nice.

Speaking of structure, this entry seems to be lacking any, but I suppose it's better than nothing?

So this is reasonably atrocious...

...but have a cover of Amanda Palmer's "Ukulele Anthem." There are all sorts of errors, it's probably obvious that I have the lyrics posted below the camera, and the overbearing hissing of the radiator almost drowns out the uke, but what the heck. It's at least thematically appropriate.

(On an earlier take, I managed to do the ending without resorting to falsetto. And then I found that the SD card had run out of memory five seconds before the end. Srsly.)

Also, as is probably obvious, I'm overhauling the blog templates here. The layout is subject to change without anyone noticing... also, there may also be some weirdness with the RSS feed. If such persists after the dust clears, please let me know.

Quick Roundup

I should probably do a more proper Holidailies introduction and roundup of where I'm at. So... hi again! I'm Shmuel! This is my 12th consecutive Holidailies attempt; I've been onboard every year since Jette opened it up to the public at large. The last few attempts have been complete failures. (I am surprised and chagrined to note that I didn't even get to the annual triolet last year.) But hope springs eternal and all that...

I am a freelance copyeditor living in Jersey City. I am really good at copyediting. The few who have employed me profess to be extremely happy with my work. The problem is that I am terrible at getting new clients... the upshot of which is that I'm in desperate need of more employment. I dream of a full-time job with structure and steady pay and medical benefits and everything... a dream I share with thousands of other underemployed copyeditors in the New York City metropolitan area.

On the personal front... the problem with not writing about meeting your girlfriend until you can do it properly is that you may not get to that before she dumps you. (We're still on good terms, though! And yet it still sucks.) Maybe this month I'll finally tell you about all that.

The superintendent of my building quit several months ago, and the place has gone to pot since. My apartment's been broken into, various repairs need to be made, and the owners are totally unresponsive. But at least I'm not in Newark!

I had a complete personal meltdown just before Thanksgiving. All of the above stressors were no doubt involved, among others. Funny thing is, I've been expecting to freak out this coming May, in time for what my IDs claim will be my 40th birthday. (There are strong precedents with other birthdays evenly divisible by 5.) I'm not yet sure whether I've gotten most of it out of the way now, or if this was just a precursor to the Big One.

Oh, and I finally found out what it would take to get me to pick up the ukulele I bought last year and learn to play it: it would take a hurricane that left me without power for a week. I actually thought tonight's entry might be about that, and even thought I might illustrate it with a short video... anyway, I now have 15-20 minutes' worth of outtakes, but nothing I'm going to post to the Web. Maybe later in the month, though!

Anything else you want me to cover in entries to come? Leave a comment and... well, probably I won't get to it, but you never know.


About two weeks before Halloween, I was at CVS, picking up some epsom salts and browsing through the discount items, when I came upon a pack of 40 glowsticks for $3.99.

40 glowsticks for $3.99! The packaging excitedly explained that each of these 8-inch glowsticks would last for hours, and that they could be connected to form bracelets, necklaces, or even an eight-stick "glow ball"! How could I resist such a bargain?

Well, somebody else might have pointed out that I could not remember ever having had occasion to use a glowstick before, nor could I foresee having any occasion to use one down the line. But I would not let myself be deterred by such observations. I picked up the package of 40 glowsticks, took it to the register, and paid my $3.99 plus tax.

And thus it was that, in the week following Hurricane Sandy, when I had occasion to be walking around after dark without the benefit of streetlamps or traffic lights, I was able to wave around a hoop made of three glowsticks, and lo, I was not struck by a car.

Every now and then it's nice to have my packrat tendencies justified. Maybe someday I'll even find a use for the 30 glowsticks I have left.

(Hi, I'm Shmuel. Welcome to Holidailies 2012.)

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from December 2012 listed from newest to oldest.

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