Playing the Mandolin

I previously wrote about the painstaking process I went through to choose my new mandolin. Since then the challenge, of course, has been learning how to play it. Somewhat surprisingly, it doesn’t do much just sitting in my room, so I’ve had to pick it up and play it every now and then.

The only formal music lessons I’ve ever taken were several years of piano in middle and high school. Those lessons were invaluable, since they taught me to read music and the basics of theory, but it was clear after several recitals that the piano didn’t come naturally to me. I could practice a piece dozens and dozens of times, making mistakes all the while, making my parents suffer and cats in the neighborhood angry, while never quite reaching perfection. I could eventually grind a piece out when I had to, but it wasn’t as if I was one with the keyboard.

Anyway, I still used that foundation and a lot of informal lessons from my friend Stuart to progress pretty well on the bass, and from that early success it seemed that the handheld, fretted stringed instruments were more of my bag. From there, teaching myself acoustic guitar wasn’t a huge leap, and that was the last instrument I learned.

The mandolin, I’ve since discovered, is a different animal and so it must be treated. It’s strung like a violin, so all of the chord structures are new to me. The doubled strings sometimes chew up my fingers more than the guitar ever did, but that’s ok, all musicians go through some type of torture in the name of their instrument. What I do like about it is the contrast it offers compared to a guitar. You can throw a mandolin into any song and some surprising tone combinations come through. It’s like adding just the right dash of spice to your chili. I love that it can stand in as a choppy, rhythmic, almost percussion instrument in bluegrass and folk tunes. But it also has almost as many moods as the guitar, softening up sad songs even more if you know how to pull off a great tremolo (which I don’t. Yet.) Like all acoustic instruments, a mandolin can come alive when in the right hands, and I love that.

I recognize that I’m not quite the right hands yet, but at least I’m not the wrong feet. Most of the time I find myself just noodling around with my mandolin, but when I focus and get through a couple of lessons in my book, I can start to play something that sounds recognizable, or at least not bad.

I think the biggest hurdle is going to be finding the time to just play the thing enough to get some repetitions under my belt. I need to memorize a few chord patterns and songs and slowly work my way up. I got through the basics of guitar by picking out tabs for pop songs that I wanted to learn how to play. It’s a little difficult to find direct inspiration like that for the mandolin, though, since there aren’t that many popular songs that are solo mandolin tunes (unless you’re a virtuoso like Chris Thile or Sarah Jarosz or something, and they’re two in a million). I guess I could dig deep into Led Zeppelin’s back catalog. And as fun as they all are, I think it will be a while before I can chicken-pick my way through a wild and wooly bluegrass tune. But hey, you never know when being able to play “Losing My Religion” or the intro to Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time” will come in handy!

If any of you are ever interested in picking up the “Mando,” I do highly recommend Don Julin’s Mandolin For Dummies or any of his other instructional books. I remember when the …For Dummies books were just trying to teach people how to use Windows 95, but they’ve since expanded their offerings to include every topic under the sun, and Don packs a lot of great tutorials into the book. Plus there are play-along music files you can download.

I hope you enjoyed this little detour into my trials of learning a new instrument. More than anything, these last few months have reminded me that it’s the trying of new things that keeps the brain sharp! So everybody go out there and buy mandolins. Or, you know, whatever else floats your boat.

The Parking Wars

Every now and then, I think about joining forces with my HOA to try to help make our community a little better. “I should do my part,” I think, “after all, you don’t have a right to complain if you never do anything to make it better.” Then I slap myself across the face, bringing me back to my senses, and go on about my business.

I applaud those members of our society who step up to the plate of civic leadership, I really do. But over the last few years, I’ve watched as every decision our HOA makes is second-guessed or questioned, every rule or request booed or generally ignored, every social event snubbed. As a completely volunteer job, being an HOA president or committee chairperson has got to be the most thankless position in all of the history of man, falling just short of the honor of being the person who invented HOAs in the first place. (Full disclaimer: we haven’t gone to any social events, either. But we at least do what our HOA overlords tell us to when they’re doing maintenance around the place so our cars don’t get towed or mistaken for trash. But maybe I should thank them more. Mental note: send the HOA a thank you card.)

The most recent example of thanklessness was this weekend, as our neighborhood received some much-needed repainting of parking spaces. I’ve never received more paper notices, Facebook posts, and all around advertising than I did this week to warn us all to move our cars before the painting started on our particular street, lest we face certain doom. And yet, there were still a handful of cars up and down our street who didn’t budge when it came our turn. When I saw them, I felt like pulling my pants up waist-high, putting on some big glasses, and yelling at those darn kids to get off my lawn. Then I slapped myself again and just chuckled sardonically at how clueless and selfish some people can be. Today’s rain prevented the workers from finishing, so we’ll get to revisit this behavior in another few days. My pants will be ready.

I was actually glad to hear about the painting at first. We definitely needed it, because recently some curbside parking was taken away due to a disagreement with the Fire Marshall (mental note: never tick off the Fire Marshall). This forced many people, who had been rather fast-and-loose with the old curbside parking game, back into proper spots. Since there aren’t really enough proper spots to go around, for weeks now this has set off a daily game of musical chairs on our street, where the last person home in the evening has to park a mile or two away – battling wild dogs and boars the entire way back to their front door.

To make things even more interesting, up until this weekend our spots (which are narrow enough as it is) were only marked by a foot-long white line near the curb. So when the family in the townhouse up the street from us that owns four hulking SUVs park crooked, as they always do, it’s been harder for the rest of us to scoot into the remaining spaces. We now have glorious, car-length stripes with our brand new parking spaces, but I don’t think that will change the SUV Family’s behavior or magically improve their parking skills. At the very least it will be blatantly obvious that they’re over the lines, so the rest of us can scoff indignantly and turn up our noses. That’ll show ‘em.

You can probably detect some sarcastic undertones in this post. It’s mainly because leftover road rage from commuting home has usually boiled over a bit each evening with each new chapter of the Parking Wars, but I try not to let it affect my long-term mood. I guess being in the neighborhood this long has made me somewhat defensive of it. I want it to thrive and do well. I like having interesting neighbors, even if I don’t hang out or talk to them as much as I should. I don’t like people being jerks to each other, but alas that’s human nature in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. If the Parking Wars continue to the breaking point and our society finally crumbles, I guess I’ll have to be ready. In the meantime, at least the Internet can make me laugh about it.

Seems about right.

Choosing A Mandolin Is Not As Easy As It Seems

Earlier this year, after my birthday, I decided to treat myself to a new instrument using some saved-up Guitar Center gift cards. Any musician can immediately identify with the internal struggle this type of decision ignites. There’s a kind of universal law, I think originally posited in Germany in 1879, that says (loosely translated from the original German) “a man cannot own just one instrument of choice, for upon purchasing an instrument he must soon own one of a different color, style, shape, or rare vintage to hang on a wall and admire knowingly.”

Well, thankfully for my budget, I don’t subscribe to that law. I don’t hang my instruments on walls. Who has time for that?

So anyway, after some soul searching and several wasted afternoons prowling the Guitar Center – which isn’t easy because it’s all the way out in Seven Corners and who has time to drive all the way out there and if I’m going to do it, I might as well spend the whole afternoon there and pick up some strings and picks while I’m at it to not make the trip a total waste, and you know the first one’s always free but I can stop any time I want – I narrowed my choices to a five-string bass, a banjo, or a mandolin.

I consider my primary instrument to be the bass, and yet I still only own the one I’ve had since high school. It’s a four-string Yamaha that has never led me astray. So branching out to a nice five-string held a certain allure, though it felt a little like betrayal. A big fat six-string bass was also an option, but let’s face it, those are overkill, and I can only imagine they give you carpal tunnel. I decided I wanted something brand new.

That left the two folkier instruments. Given my West Virginian upbringing bluegrass, gospel, and folk have never been far from my heart, even when I wouldn’t want to admit it. But now all of those genres are cool, and even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t care. But it does help that many of my latest favorite bands use a healthy dose of both in their songs.

But which to choose?

Looking from the aspect of idols, musicians I admire, didn’t really help. Banjo has Bela Fleck; mandolin has Chris Thile. Both are awesome, and I inherently knew I’d never get anywhere close to their levels of talent. Any other deciding factor, like number of strings or size, seemed immaterial.

I wish I could say I had a moment of clarity where the one came floating down to me in a ray of light, but there was nothing so clear-cut as that. In the end, I chose the mandolin, for no good reason, really. I settled for an entry-level Washburn “Mando-pak” (I’ve since learned that the mandolin players’ community likes to preface lots of words with “Mando” and that the cool kids refer to the instrument that way). You can see my mando below. That sounds dirty.

Just waiting to be played.

Just waiting to be played.

Anyway, my mother-in-law got me a Mandolin for Dummies book to go with it, and I’ve been off to the races ever since, slowly but surely. For some reason, most recently it’s been much, much more slowly – more like a dead stop – but at least it’s something that can challenge me for years to come. In the coming weeks, I’ll reflect on my experiences in learning to play. For now, I can definitively say that the “mando” is a lot of fun. I think this is the beginning of something beautiful and folky.

End of Summer Recap: I’ve Always Been All About That Bass

Welcome to my end of summer recap! As the first wave of fall air has blown into the DC region this weekend and football season is well underway, it seems appropriate to look back on the last month of lazy summer days.

I call them lazy since, as Gina’s due date is now only double digits away, we’ve been in full-on Baby Panic Mode here at Casa de Salmons for the last couple of weeks. How long ago the summer was! How innocent we were! How much stuff does a newborn really need? I’ve already progressed through a few stages of abject terror in realizing that our little one is going to be here before we know it, and until recently it felt like we hadn’t done anything to get ready. Rest assured my nerves are in good shape now, though.

But I digress! Let’s talk August, people.

After our Bermuda trip, a bunch of the guys and I went on our annual camping adventure Somewhere In Central Virginia. This has taken a couple of forms, but this year we hung out in a private lodge with dead animals hanging on the walls.

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Meet the gang.

The weekend, in a nutshell, involved much farting, laughing, drinking, card playing, grilling, water basketball, hiking amongst trolls, and catching the same fish three times. The main star of the weekend, however, was the beautiful Blue Ridge.

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I guess I could settle for retiring here. Sheesh.

Gina and I completed the trifecta of vacationing with the time honored tradition of Labor Day at the Lake, hosted by Jen’s family. The cast – and the lake – has changed over the years, as you can see below. It’s also expanded to include a bunch of kids, but the fun keeps on coming.

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The cast of the mid-2000’s, but really not that much has changed.

This year, I even got to be flipped out of a tube to hit the water at high speed, just like old times! And what trip would be complete without sharing some popcorn with some old friends?

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Chomping good fun.

We had to leave the lake early this year for another commitment (more on that later), but I’m very glad we got the chance to take a breather with our old college crew.

So in all seriousness, this summer was a good one, even though we were blissfully in denial about the monumental preparations ahead of us. Oh well, now it’s go time! Let’s do this!

Back From Bermuda

Hello! How are you? I’ve been off the grid lately. Shortly after Gina and I discovered we were expecting, we booked a last-chance vacation to relax before getting into the baby preparations for real. As Merlin said inĀ The Sword in the Stone, “blow me to Bermuda!”

Merlin knows.

Merlin knows what’s up.

The logistics of the trip package we bought included a bus transfer to and from the cruise terminal in New Jersey, and the cruise itinerary included an almost three-day stop in Bermuda. Great! Relaxing! Beautiful! The forced relaxation of a couple of days at sea! Sign me up.

The bus portion of the trip also allowed me to do something I usually don’t do: take down notes, travel journal style, in real time, using Google Docs.

This lasted all of three days into the trip.

After that I forgot what the Internet was thanks to insanely high Wi-fi and cellular data prices on the ship and in port. I enjoyed the time being disconnected, but as a travel journal project goes, it was basically a failure.

However, as a special bonus to readers like you, I’m going to post my notes in raw, mostly unedited form and then wrap this whole thing up with some quick impressions of Bermuda.

Quick impression: it's pretty cool.

Quick impression: it’s pretty cool.

Here we go:

We left the house on schedule. Coffee cup mishaps: I nearly spilled McDonald’s coffee on myself before getting in my car, then left it on top of our cab that was taking us to the bus pickup. It toppled over when he pulled out but it stayed on the roof. Still drank it. Then Gina stepped on it when shaking bus driver’s hand. Still intact, still drinkable. Thanks McDonald’s!

Made great time to Baltimore. Stopped at Best Western to pick up a family where one of them was in a raccoon suit. Walked to McDonald’s. The whole morning was sponsored by McDonald’s (I’ve never been to McDonald’s more in a 12-hour period in my life). We waited for the raccoon suit family to show up, go to McDonald’s themselves, and eat breakfast in the parking lot while talking to each other like they wouldn’t be spending a few hours together on a bus. One of the Dads looks like Tommy Lee Jones, but he’s not going on the trip.

I’m sure they’re very nice people.

Turns out we’re waiting on one more person, so they’re allowed to stand around and eat.

The final person was related to the first group. They were late but she had her husband go to McDonald’s to get breakfast anyway, so we left later than we could have but still 10 minutes ahead of the bus’s schedule.

Next stop: Philly for 5 more people! I hope they’re prompt. Look at me, getting somewhere 30 minutes early for once and all of a sudden looking down on people.

Stopped at a park and ride lot outside Philly. No McDonald’s in sight. One couple already here, had to wait on three more. They got lost and ended up in the wrong parking lot. Found out later that the directions they got were for the wrong parking lot. Bus company fail.

I wish I’d packed a sandwich.

After Philly, despite numerous highway signs saying the Bayonne Bridge was closed, bus driver bravely tried to cross it anyway. Bus driver got lost in the residential side streets of Staten Island. I finally used Google Maps to help him get to the cruise terminal, to the relief of every anxious person on the bus. Made it there with an hour and twenty minutes to spare before ship pulled out.

First night was a blur, very tired. Stumbled our way through to dinner and the first show. Met a nice family from outside Philly who would be our dinner companions for the week.

Next two days at sea relaxing. Sort of a sleep hangover the first full day, took us a while to get situated and figure out where everything was. Got a little bit of sun deck time. Figured out that the stern sun deck was the quietest place away from the Jersey Shore-like atmosphere of the main pool deck. This was the first formal night, took some pictures that Gina actually liked.

By day three, our second full day at sea, firing on all cylinders again.

As I said, from that point I gave up keeping notes, but the rest of the trip would have read like this: three days in Bermuda allowed us to tour historic St. George’s, the first capital of Bermuda and the first permanent settlement there. There’s a really old and fascinating church, lots of narrow twisty streets, and a cool old fort. I love the Bermudian architecture – the homes there are all basically made of limestone, so they can stand up to darn near anything. We went to a street festival in Hamilton, the modern capital with high-end shops, frozen yogurt places, and other things a big city has to offer. We spent half a day at Horseshoe Bay, one of the famous pink sand beaches, and it was wonderful. We took a glass-bottom boat at night out to a coral reef and a shipwreck in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle and came out without disappearing. We ate ourselves silly on the cruise ship and made friends with the family from New Jersey at our dinner table. We competed in a trivia contest and almost won, saw a Vegas rock-n-roll juggler, and worked on our tans. I read three books.

Really the only downside to the trip was the bookends with the bus company. My notes already hinted at the company’s planning failures, but the return trip was even worse. After we dropped off the Philly people (which was after the driver missed the exit again and took a 30 minute detour), the bus broke down on the side of I-95, and it was almost two hours before a new bus got there and we were off again. Starving and exhausted, we arranged for Gina’s mom to pick us up in Baltimore versus braving another thrill ride with our sleepy driver. All this made us pretty delirious after going with no lunch for hours on end, and we were a little angry that our trip ended that way. But we just tried to imagine the cars that were rushing past us at 80+ mph with inches to spare between them and our bus were mere waves crashing into a pink beach. That worked until all of our snacks were depleted.

But hey, in summary, Bermuda was great! Just don’t take a bus there. More photos to come when I get them sorted out.