Archive for August 2007

August 31st, 2007

’Til Death Do Us Part


This past weekend I crossed two items off my list of things to do before I die. I was both (1) on the inside of a wedding-related surprise that took months of preparation, and (2) a part of a barbershop quartet performance. I’d also like to note that I did these at the same time.

It was all thanks to Jerry and Andrea (seen above, wearing groom and bride regalia, respectively) who got married last weekend and had the desire to spring a barbershop song on their unsuspecting friends and family at their reception….

My one regret here is that I did not think of this first.

Of course, even if I had thought of this before my wedding, I would have dismissed it as an impossible undertaking. I’ve been a fan of barbershop music for many years. And I’ve dabbled in trying to transcribe, learn, and record the parts to standards like “Sweet Adeline” and “Coney Island Baby” all by myself. (This is the way your average person these days, who doesn’t hang out with a bunch of musical theater weirdos, has to learn barbershop: all by his-self. No one, not even bandmates from various groups that he finally gets up the nerve to reveal this crazy obsession to, will indulge him and give it a try.) Something I’ve discovered during my investigation of this genre is that it is freaking hard. The only people who can learn and record a full barbershop song, all by themselves, and actually make it sound good are those rare, undeniable, dyed-in-the-wool musicians. Jerry Updyke made a one-man recording of “I Didn’t Want to Fall” for us, so we could each have a track of just our part to learn from, and it sounded good…. Jerry Updyke is a rare, undeniable, dyed-in-the-wool musician. I am not a rare, undeniable, dyed-in-the-wool musician. What I am is a dude who gets excited enough about a musical project and doing that project well that he will forego eating and sleeping and social interaction to practice and then think about it some and then practice it some more. And you can be a dude who gets excited enough about a musical project and doing that project well that he will forego eating and sleeping and social interaction to practice and then think about it some and then practice it some more, and be one-fourth of a barbershop ensemble. ’Cause all you have to do, in that case, is take your part — your series of notes — and completely internalize it. Memorize it backwards and forwards. Sear it into the core of your being. That’s all!

Anyway, there are good reasons I thought a wedding-quartet comprised of normal, non-chorus-geeks could never happen.

Of course, it turned out, three other folks who shared a very similar outlook on music, performance, and even barbershop, had been right under my nose for over a year now. In hindsight, there were some tells I could have kept an eye out for. If you’re a closet barbershop-devotee looking to assemble a group of your own, join a laid back rock group or two, and zero in on those members who show up to practice and effortlessly play their instruments…while cracking hokey, cheesy, poorly-timed jokes at every opportunity. These are your people.

In late April, Seth (the tall, dark, and handsome fellow on the far left in the photo) and I were asked by Jerry and Andrea to join their secret quartet, and a few days later we gathered at Andrea’s house to see if we could really do this, by learning the beginner — and I can now say with a certain air of smugness — rudimentary barbershop selection “Keep the Whole World Singing.” Every time we all managed to hit our notes and achieve the “lock and ring” sound/sensation it produces, it sent us all sprinting through the house in different directions, wailing with excitement.

That was a great day. What we didn’t know at the time, though, was we were just seeing the tip of the proverbial iceberg. During subsequent practices the curtain was drawn back, revealing the whole iceberg. The song we were going to do at the wedding was an advanced one. It would be unfair not to tell you that, early on, the wheels almost came off the iceberg. We put our noses to the iceberg, though, and, as we began settling into our roles, more and more, we began operating like a well-oiled iceberg.

Seth sang lead in our group. His other primary function was to be heard saying “That was our best take yet, in my opinion,” on every single effort we recorded, immediately after we finished.

Andrea, being a girl, sang the high tenor, and, being a girl, was the official long-suffering female during many a movie-quotation-session and fart-joke. Also, she was the one who was always mysteriously disappearing, having snuck off to check her email or update her MySpace.

Jerry, in addition to singing bass, was our fearless leader. He provided the final arrangement for the song and inadvertently gave us our band name by saying something about wanting to “be consistent” just after we’d discussed the Simpsons episode where Homer forms a barbershop quartet known as “The B-Sharps.” The name of our group is “The B-Consistents,” if anyone wants to know.

That leaves me. I sang baritone — a part which fit my vocal range, but continuously eluded my vocal ability. My niche was to struggle with my part and to mess with my laptop and try to listen to or record bits of my part…as if that was going to help me.

There are rumors that a quality video of our big moment was made, and that said video is eventually going up on YouTube. You can bet that I will be posting that here, when it is released. I mean: Surprise. Barbershop. Quartet. At a Wedding Reception. I think I can say, without bias, that this is a magical musical event.

I know I felt that something mystical was going on. It was almost like our four souls became one on that day. Though actually, Jerry and Andrea were married a few hours before we took the stage, so their souls had already become one, earlier on that day…meaning it was actually three souls becoming one at that point on that particular day…. Regardless of how the math works out, I think saying we made a “profound spiritual connection” to one another on stage would trivialize our performance. I can tell you now that mere words cannot express the bond you have to your fellow barbershop singers. All I really know is, when I am on my death bed, hopefully many, many years from now, and I’m feeble with age, I will still be able to sing the baritone line to “I Didn’t Want to Fall.” It is embedded deep in my brain. Forever.

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August 24th, 2007

The Little Differences

How silly of me! I almost let the opportunity pass me by. Having just visited a country other than the US, I owe you an entry about all the things that are different there than they are here.

So…(ahem) the biggest incongruities I noticed between the US and Britain were with our shared English language. Of course I was aware before I went over that they use alternate words for certain places/objects/actions, but what I didn’t realize was how startling actually hearing people use them in conversation, without snickering, would be. Let’s look at some examples:

While we would say we are on “vacation,” they informed us we were on “holiday.”

What we call an “elevator” they call a “lift.”

And “soccer” to us, is “thing we should spend every bit of our time watching/thinking about/reading about/writing about/talking about/dreaming about” to them.

The unit of currency is, of course, the pound, so when a price tag reads “5.00” it means “five pounds.” Cashiers, however, do not say “That will be five pounds.” They say “Five quid, please,” which is like us saying “Five bucks, please,” if “bucks” wasn’t quite so slang and even your grandma said things like “This cost me five bucks!” Though, that “5.00” tag actually means “almost ten bucks” as the American dollar is wimpy Monopoly play money in the eyes on the pound. Also, if something is “5.50” it’s not “Five fifty,” it’s “Five pounds fifty.”

And here’s another phrasing difference: “5:30.” In American, if your watch reads this, you would say “It’s five-thirty.” Or maybe “It’s half-past five,” whereas a Brit says “It’s half-five.” Not terribly different, in theory, but when you hear it come out of their mouth, it takes you a minute to realize they are referring to a time of day.

Don’t walk up to an English person and say “Do you like my pants?” To them, the word “pants” means “underwear.” (This is not the only reason you should not be grilling the English about your pants, but it’s a good start.) What we call “pants,” they call “trousers.”

They pronounce the letter “H” like this: “Huh-aech.” And for the letter “Z” they say “Zed.” These things sound kind of pretentious, and are a bit irritating.

“Mate” is, of course, their “man/bud/bro/hoss.” Also “‘mate’” (the quotes signifying the use of this term of endearment, in reference to you, by someone who does not actually know you, resulting in you feeling some uncertainty about the person speaking to you) is their “‘man’/‘bud’/‘bro’/‘hoss’.” ““Mate”” (these quotes signifying the use of this term of endearment, in reference to you, by someone who does not actually know you, and is currently in the process of doing something incredibly un-“mate”-like to you, like cutting in front of you at the bar, resulting in you feeling some loathing for the person speaking to you) is their ““man”/“bud”/“bro”/“hoss”.”

“Cheers” is to London what “Aloha” is to Hawaii. It can mean “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Sorry,” “Thanks,” etc. When in doubt, just say “Cheers.” Or, if you mean it sarcastically, “‘Cheers’.”

“Cool” there means only “slightly lower than normal temperature.” Their multipurpose word for “neat/interesting” is “brilliant” or “brill.”

There, “pissed” means “drunk” and “mad” means “crazy.” Here, of course, being “mad” means you’re pissed (the “mad,” er “angry” kind of “pissed”).

Signage stuff:

You will never see an “Exit” sign showing you the way out of a building in London. The signs showing the way out say, even more simply, “Way Out.”

You will never see a “Bathroom” or “Restroom” sign in London. After all, this is not the room where you go to bathe, or to rest…unless you are beyond filthy…or you have narcolepsy…. The signs showing you the place where the toilets are located say “Toilets,” plain as that. Score another one for our more practical, less-stuck-up counterparts. Then again, sometimes the signs say “Water Closet” (or “WC”) instead, which makes less sense than all of the other terms put together…. So, on second thought, we’ll call this a draw.

While the appropriate wording for something you would exchange money for the temporary use of is “For Rent” here, there it would get a “To Let” sign if it were an apartment or office and a “For Hire” sign if it were a car.

Things don’t go “On Sale” there. They go “On Offer.”

Before every crosswalk, on the ground in front of you, they have printed “Look left” or “Look right” on the ground, depending on which side the left-driving traffic could be coming from. It was a nice touch, and without those little reminders I probably would have looked the wrong way every single time I crossed and eventually gotten creamed by a bus. (Buses there have two stories, by the way.)

On to food terminology:

You don’t get “take out” from a restaurant, you get “take away.”

“Fries” to us are “chips” to them. “Chips” to us are “crisps” to them.

As you probably know, London has plenty of “pubs.” We have places that call themselves “pubs” here too, and they are pretty close to what they have there — quiet, shabby places to talk and drink, that usually serve food. We also have “bars” here that are like this. Then we have “bars” that are more like clubs, loud and crowded and full of scary people looking to hook up with other scary people. This is what all the places that call themselves “bars” over there are like. Interesting side note: for as famous as the UK is for drinks and drinking, most of these sort of establishments shut down at 11:00 — much earlier than they do here. And that’s not just last call. That’s finish your beer and get out. Now. To keep the magic going you have to know the location of select places that have “late licenses” and will still be open, serving drinks. Most of these are “bars.”

Probably the biggest point of adjustment for the whole trip, was the overall beverage situation….

Being Europe, the water does not flow like, um, water. Forget that free, bottomless glass of “huh-aech”2O with your meal. You can buy a bottle for £1.50 if you want. When that’s gone, it’s gone. I tried to combat this by filling up the Nalgene I was carrying from the tap in our room every morning, but I was thwarted by the fact that London water tastes like it has bits of pulverized fish floating in it. I know, I know, it’s an old, dirty city. I don’t know what I expected. I do know that I am not picky about water — to the point where it annoys me when people express grief over minute changes in “flavor” from one place to another — but this stuff, I could not choke down without feeling like I was going to throw up.

If you’d like a Coke with your dinner, £1.50 will get you a can and a glass to pour it in. All beverages are served at room temperature. Ice is extremely hard to come by. To my knowledge, ice is a distinctly American institution. All of Europe has something against it. Maybe because it melts and waters down your drink or something. The one liquid that is absolutely, positively always frosty-cold is the beer, which leads one to conclude that at least the English have their priorities straight. The one way to obtain cubes of ice over there, it turns out, is to order a hard cider in a bottle. They will go into their special reserve for this, and you will be presented with a pint glass filled to the top with glistening, crystalline cubes.

Finally, coffee is an interesting predicament, as you might expect in Tea Land. Your options, pretty much everywhere, are a cappuccino, a latte, an espresso, or an “americano” (a shot of espresso diluted with water). In the grocery stores, the only kind of coffee they have is instant. They aren’t big on cream either. Even at bonafide coffee shops, they provide lowfat milk rather than half-and-half. For some reason, you can almost always order an americano with the milk added to it for you. It’s called a “white coffee.” There is really no such thing as a standard cup of coffee, unless you wish to lose a piece of your soul and duck into a Starbucks. Which are everywhere over there. Proving that, fundamentally, our two great nations are not that different from one another.

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August 18th, 2007

Hanging Dancers


  • 1920×1200 (works at 1920×1200, 1680×1050, 1440×900, and 1280×800)
  • 1600×1200 (works at 1600×1200 and 1024×768)
  • 320×480 (works on the iPhone and iPod Touch)

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