Friday, December 30, 2016

HAND PAN MAN – How a Little Music and Kindness Made My Day

When’s the last time you had one of those sublime little moments—a helping hand, a natural wonder, a stranger’s smile—that made you feel Wow, that made my day!?

I’ve been making a concerted effort lately to keep the door of my self-absorbed busy-ness open just a crack so occurrences like that can get in and find room in my soul.

Just this morning I was blessed with such a moment.

I’d stopped—part of my usually mindless morning routine—at my favorite coffee shop for my extra-strong latte. As I chatted with the barista, I noticed they were playing some of the most exquisite music I’ve heard in a long while. And, I thought, what a fine, life-like audio system they must have.

I asked the barista if she knew what was playing or if it was just part of a stream from Pandora or Spotify. She pointed over my left shoulder to a young man sitting and holding what looked like a two-and-a-half-foot UFO in his lap.

As he tapped his hands deftly around the top of the lens-shaped instrument, the sounds he produced had an airy, crystalline brilliance somewhat like those of Caribbean steel drums. It might have been the improvised tone sequences he played, but I also sensed something of the otherworldly mystery of Indonesian gamelan music.

        Often Travis seemed to be more stroking 
        than striking the hand pan.

As I listened, I marveled at not just the elegance of the instrument’s shape, but the deep, metallic colors on both sides, a gradient from a voluptuous aubergine (eggplant) purple to the deepest midnight blue—all with subtle fuchsia highlights. Punctuating the rounded top surface were eight round flattened areas, with deep dents of various sizes in their centers.

The affable musician introduced himself and we talked as he continued playing effortlessly. Travis Wright was eager to talk about his instrument—he called it a hand pan—it’s origin and crafting, and the music. He said the incredible colors were a product of the annealing of the steel during the piece’s crafting.

Surprisingly, the hand pan—or hang—is one of the new kids on the idiophone block. (An idiophone is an instrument that produces sound by its own vibrations rather than those of strings, reeds or membranes.) It was developed in 2000 in, of all places, Switzerland.

Travis explained the unique, exotic tonal qualities of the hand pan, demonstrating how sound vibrations a tap of his fingertips creates on one part of the top move around within the instrument and draw out complementary tones from other parts. He can even create the same kind of etherial “harmonic” notes a guitarist achieves by lightly tapping a string with one finger just as she plucks it with another.

I was surprised at how light a touch it took to generate sound. Often Travis seemed to be more stroking than striking the hand pan.

I asked him if he has a CD or performs formally anywhere. Alas, he said he didn’t—yet—but steered me to some wonderful YouTube examples of other musicians’ fine hand pan playing. Here’s ONE.

There’s more information on the development and use of the hand pan HERE.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

I may be at least partially taking leave of cyberspace for a few days, so I want to wish all my visitors and loyal followers from all over the world—84 countries so far—the very best of this season. For us Christians, that means MERRY CHRISTMAS! (para mis hispanohablantes amigos, ¡FELIZ NAVIDAD!) For my Jewish friends, it's HAPPY HANUKKAH! (starting, for the first time in nearly 40 years, on Christmas Eve). For all of us here in the northern hemisphere, it's HAPPY WINTER SOLSTICE! 

Whatever your celebration, may these days be kind to you, your families and your loved ones! 

Sunday, December 18, 2016

DRIBS & DRABS – The Flavors of Falsehood

Every day I'm seeing more signs of a troubling trend: in more aspects of our lives than folks want to admit, it seems we either want, or are being conned into, a blurring of the lines between reality and …well…something else.

I see it in our culture’s pervasive reliance on little glowing screens—instead of our own senses and experience—to tell us what’s true, what’s real, what’s happening.

I see it in our growing inability to distinguish news from entertainment. And in our ready belief that Facebook friends make us popular or that insipid tweets or mercurial Snapchat posts constitute communication.

I suppose it’s far too easy to blame this epidemic self-deception on this generation’s inundation in technology, but I can think of no other cultural factor since I was a child that can begin to explain such a profound transfiguration of reality.

The signs that we’ve lost our way are everywhere. Our addiction to “reality” TV—which, in many cases, is about as far from my reality as it can be. The belief of many parents—based in part on the “if it bleeds, it leads” editorial MO and 24/7 repetitiveness of today’s mainstream media—that letting their kids play outdoors by themselves is any more dangerous than it was when we were kids.

And don’t get me going about the recent presidential campaign and the fewer-than-half of voters who sullied that solemn office with the election of a vapid TV “reality” star. This pretender and millions of his supporters, marching in lock-step, simply declare, and apparently are convinced, that their feelings and beliefs—not science, not what they can see with their own eyes—are the only reality they trust.

     If you don’t like brie—or wine…or the office 
     of the Presidency—why accept any one of 
     them masquerading as something else?

There are countless other, smaller indications of this “illusion is the new truth” juggernaut, which, if they weren’t seen in that broader context, might seem trivial. Here’s one:

Just this afternoon, at my local Cub Foods store, I found that the bulk foods area—you know, the aisle where you buy grains, nuts, dried fruits, etc. by the pound—is gone. In its place, a few islands featuring pre-packaged quantities of a fraction of the items they offered last week.

Fortunately, I found one of my staples, dried cranberries. But the first plastic container I pulled out was labeled, “naturally-flavored CHERRY dried cranberries." The next said STRAWBERRY. Then there was MANGO and a couple of others.

Alas, there were no CRANBERRY-flavored cranberries to be found!

So what’s next in this Trump, post-truth era? Jerky-flavored brie? Beer-flavored wine? Bling-flavored sleaze? Honesty-flavored corruption?

In my righteous indignation I ask, if you don’t like brie—or wine…or the office of the Presidency—why accept any one of them masquerading as something else?

Saturday, December 3, 2016

DONE TO A TURN – The World’s Smallest Barbecue

When I was a boy, my family had a summer home on the lovely St. Croix River, about an hour north of St. Paul. My brother and I spent many abundant summers there with Mom, while Dad came and went, commuting most days to work in the city.

Franconia, in its heyday an active logging town complete with school, post office, livery, saloon and jail, had found rebirth in the 40s and 50s as a mostly-summer retreat for well-to-do St. Paul families. With its deep-wooded hills, seething meadows, foot-numbing trout stream and, of course, the river, it was an idyllic place. I spent nearly every waking hour outdoors.

Besides the many other city kids our age who shared the adventure with us, Franconia had its share of home-grown characters. There was old Gus Munch, who lived in the old, never painted home right on Lawrence Creek—and whom, strangely, no one ever seemed to see. There were Spuddy and Ike Vitalis. She had dark, leathery skin and a gravelly, baritone, chain-smoker’s voice. And the twinkle in her eye and warm embrace of all us kids all but compensated for Ike's crusty detachment.

One of Spuddy and Ike’s sons was Jackie, a strapping young man in his mid-twenties—a bricklayer. Personality-wise, he took after his mother; he loved kids…and life. With his well-tanned weightlifter’s physique, spirited blue eyes and naturally curly hair, he was the embodiment of Swedish perfection. And he was the idol of all us little river rats.

     By the time he poked his head out into the 
     gap between boughs, Jackie already had him 
     in his sights.

Every July, my family would host all our Franconia neighbors for a pig roast. Dad would buy a whole pig and rent a commercial motorized rotisserie. Early the morning of the event, while he set up the roaster in the back yard, my brother and I would dig a large pit, fill it with bags and bags of charcoal briquettes, and then, with Dad’s close supervision, light it.

One year, after everyone had gotten their fill of that succulent pork and its many accompaniments, Jackie, like an inspired camp counselor, gathered a few of us boys, and enlisted us as co-conspirators in his vision: our own, kid-sized barbecue. Then, with us in tow, he headed home to pick up his .22. 

We set out up the steep, wooded flank of Monument Hill, eyes peeled for our quarry: red squirrel. At the top, we heard it before we saw it. Fifty yards away, hidden somewhere in the impenetrable needleage of a big old pine tree, the little critter had already spotted us and let loose with his scolding chatter.

I'm afraid that squirrel didn’t know who he was up against. Jackie, giving us all a lesson in woodsman’s wiles, motioned us stealthily forward, and there we just waited the little bugger out. As we all held our breaths, the squirrel must have thought we’d left. And by the time he poked his head out into the gap between boughs, Jackie already had him in his sights.

With the rifle’s sharp clap still echoing through the forest, our kill tumbled to the ground, bouncing twice off the thick, tawny bed of needles. Feeling like heroes, we toted our prize back to the barbecue. The only difference between us and those storied safari hunters like Hemingway or Teddy Roosevelt was that no one even noticed our trophy; Jackie's big hand pretty much enveloped it.

Now came the fun part. We watched, spellbound, as Jackie skinned and gutted the pitiful six-inch carcass. Someone got a coat hanger from the house while I spaded out a little three-by-six-inch pit in the lawn right next to the big pig-roasting pit.

We filled our version of the pit with three briquettes, sprinkled on some lighter fluid and lit it. As the charcoal caught, Jackie helped us fashion our wire spit, complete with a handle for turning. Then, with the squirrel skewered, we mounted the spit between two forked-stick supports and started turning.

In about ten minutes, our little roast was nicely browned and sizzling. There was barely enough meat for all the kids to have a taste, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that we’d had an amazing, creative, once-in-a-lifetime adventure, one that taught us well—albeit on a Lilliputian scale—the timeless ways of hunting and woodsmanship. I wish all kids could have a Jackie Vitalis to inspire and guide them.

And roast red squirrel? Well, I must say it tasted a lot like…squirrel.