Barry and “Banish Misfortune”

I’m in that demographic now. You know the one, the demographic where old friends are dying and funerals, now called “celebrations of life”, become a weekly event. And still we chug along, those of us who are left on the planet. I’ve known Barry Carlson since my university days. We played in a jug band, The Vacant Lot, in 1966, a long time before I picked up the fiddle, back when I was bending notes on the blues harp. My friend J. Douglas Dodd had a minor stroke some time back. It hasn’t left too much damage. He’s still the genius I’ve known and loved since he was the music director on my first feature film. But it has caused a problem with his vision, and that caused a problem with keeping his drivers license. I drive him wherever he needs to go now, and last week that was to Victoria for a follow up appointment on an eye operation.

Once we got that out of the way, we joined Moira and Barry Carlson for lunch in their beautiful home decorated with Moira’s amazing art. Barry and I had a rare chance to try out a fiddle jam. This piece is called “Banish Misfortune”, an appropriate title for two old geezers with cancer and a third with vision problems. It’s just the demographic were in now.

“Banish Misfortune” should rightfully played about 1.25 times this speed. The next time Barry and I get together to play it, I’ll have it up to that tempo. I’m not happy about the fumble in the A part. I am happy about the way I aced the double stops in the C part.

I see improvement already.

Getting Started and Granny’s Quilts

Unless you were born into Hollywood royalty, like one of the Carradines or Coppolas, getting a foot into the film industry is a seemingly unsolvable puzzle, especially from a socially remote location in Canada. Back in 1969, the only path I could see was to do anything that would put me in contact with movie people, like working as a sound man or an assistant editor, and then doing anything else that I could call making a movie. That last part is far easier today, when an ambitious kid can make a short movie on his phone and edit it on his computer. But when I got started, making anything cost a ship load of money.

How much money? Well, for starters you needed a camera that cost thousands of dollars, but you could rent, and sound equipment costing slightly less which you could also rent but I had saved up to own. Close to three thousand bucks for a Nagra IV with crystal synch and a Sennheiser 804 microphone with wind cage and carrying handle – the basis of a documentary sound kit. Then you needed film to run through the camera. You couldn’t edit that film without expensive equipment, unless you had the dedication of Jack Darcus and were willing to shoot black and white reversal and edit the original with a magnifying glass and a pair of scissors.

Even at that, the film and processing was going to set you back hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. To give you some idea of the expense: Film stock, processing, and a work print would cost approximately one dollar per foot. Sixteen millimeter film had forty frames in a foot, running through the camera at 24 frames/second. So every couple of seconds of shooting, another dollar was going into the movie. You could count on, conservatively, a ten to one shooting ration though on a complicated documentary that might go up to a hundred to one or more. A ten to one ration meant each ten feet you ran through the camera and work printed, would result in one foot of finished film. This caused a great temptation to try to edit in the camera, which was a false economy and severely restricted the choices in editing.

For example, if you have a performer entering the scene through a door from another room, it gives the editor choices if you film them going from that room, opening the door, entering the other room, and closing the door behind them. Similarly, you want to overlap the action in the other room, starting with the door closed and having the performer enter and close the door behind them. That way the editor can chose where to cut to make the action flow smoothly.

This principle of overlapping should extend to every action. If somebody stands up from the table in the master shot, it might make sense to start with them sitting down, thinking about rising, then standing up. Your cut to a close shot might call for the actor starting sitting and then rising into the frame. It’s vitally important to give the editor choices of cutting points, and that inflates the shooting ratio.

Then, of course, there are the flubbed takes and pick ups on takes. Both of which call for overlapping action and dialogue.

And that’s just the shooting. After that you have the cost of post production, the sound transfer from quarter inch magnetic to sprocketted sixteen millimeter magnetic film stock that can be synchronized with the work print. You’ve all seen the clapper boards with the film name and scene number and take number on them. Those served a purpose. They allowed the film to be synchronized by matching the frame where the clapper board closed with the click of the “sticks.”

The sequence for starting a shot was for the Assistant Director the AD, to call “roll sound”. The soundman would then say “speed” when the tape had stopped bouncing the guide rollers. Then the cameraman would say “slate” or “mark it” and the camera assistant would waste no time announcing the scene and take number before loudly closing the clapper board. Of course that footage, that dollar or more of shooting, would be thrown away, which is why the slate was in position and ready to close by the time the cameraman said “mark it”. Nobody wasted any time when the camera was rolling, which could be quite disconcerting for the actors. It was why I always gave a second or two for things to settle before calling “action”. Some waste was necessary.

I don’t think I need to go any further into the process. You get the idea. Making any kind of a movie cost money. When I was working as an office junior at CBC in Toronto, Brian R.R. Hebb, another office junior, and I teamed up to make a “filler” in hopes of selling it to the CBC. Brian wanted to be a cameraman. I wanted to be a director, or at least make movies. So we kicked in our own money to buy a few 100 foot rolls of Kodak reversal stock, rented a camera, and set about making a little film to celebrate the vanishing streetcar. We shot some of the streetcars still operating in Toronto, shot a day at a streetcar museum close to town, added in some stolen stock footage of streetcars in the early days of Toronto, laid on some cleared music from the CBC’s music library, and I cut our little film after-hours in one of the CBC editing rooms on CBC editing equipment. I don’t remember how all the numbers worked out, but when we sold “The Short Train” to CBC we turned enough to pay our costs and pocket maybe a hundred dollars each. Since we were both earning $50/week at that time, that felt pretty good.

Cue Digression Cam: Years later I was hired to direct an MOW, a Movie of the Week, about Tai Babalonia and Randy Gardner, a figure skating pair who were headed to the Olympics when Randy pulled a groin muscle and they were out of contention. To my surprise and delight, the producers wanted to use Brian Hebb as the Director of Photography. He’d worked his way up to a cameraman position at CBC, an amazing achievement in it’s own right, after I’d left the mother corporation. Then he also left the CBC and was making a name for himself as a freelancer. So there we were, some twenty years after making our little filler. Me the director and Brian the Director of Photography. Both of us where we’d wanted to be way back when. There was a scene in “On Thin Ice” that called for a television to be playing in the background in a hotel room. I managed to get CBC archives to find our little film, and that’s what’s playing back on the TV in that scene. Full circle, eh.

That little filler was about as much as I could do without more money, and getting more money meant finding government support. The Canadian Film Development Corporation, later rebranded as Telefilm Canada, was catching flack for not spending any money out west, so they threw B.C. a bone with a short film program. It called for submitting a script and budget, so I wrote a half hour based on one of my father’s stories of working for the railroad in Northern Saskatchewan. I think that gave my first wife, who had become my producer, $7,500, with which, being extremely frugal, we figured we could make a television half hour, twenty-two minutes of finished film. We lucked out with the weather. It started snowing on our first shooting day, stopped and turned to rain on our seventh, and by the time we wrapped the snow was gone. The end result was a short film that looked gorgeous. I managed to sell “Gandy Dance” to the CBC.

I also found a distributor for “Gandy Dance”. He was based in Toronto and mostly handled educational films. I don’t think he managed to get any revenue out of our film, beyond what we got from the CBC sale. I was looking for an economic base, a foot in the door as a film maker. So I asked him to lend me three of his top earning educational films. From a film making point of view they were not very impressive, downright ugly even, but they did fit the parameters of educational rentals – they were designed for art classes with titles like “Working with Papier Mache” or “Working with Crayons”. They were no longer than twelve minutes running time, which meant that a teacher could show them to a class and still have time to have the students do some work inspired by the film. They were extremely simple – just one camera angle, hands entering frame to do the artwork, no editing, and one sound track of non-descript music. No sound mix. Obviously they were very cheaply made.

I thought maybe we could have a winner if I made an educational film that had instructional value, but also had some mood, some heart and soul. And that made me think of my grandmother and her quilt making. Granny was eighty-seven years old at the time. She had been making quilts since she was sixteen, and her first quilt, a log cabin pattern, was still in the family. I managed to borrow it from my cousin Alice, and it truly is an amazing quilt. Look at it and think red, and a pattern of red rectangles emerges. Think blue and a different pattern of blue rectangles comes out.

I gathered up maybe twenty other quilts from members of the family, hung them on the wall of our cabin, and shot clips of them. Crazy quilts. Dresden plate quilts. And the aforementioned Log Cabin Quilt, with Granny’s voice over comment “I guess I was ambitious in those days.” I had a wealth of visual material. Then I spent hours and hours interviewing Granny about how she made quilts.

A lot of what she told me hit the editing room floor. Granny had made thousands of quilts. A quilt a month in her final year. She had sent quilts to the starving Russians during the famine in the Stalin years. She made baby quilts for every child born in the family.

With the basis of a sound track in hand, I brought in Ron Orieux, the cameraman who had shot “Gandy Dance” for me and who would go on to shoot my first and second features, “Skip Tracer” and “The Hounds of Notre Dame”. That gave me almost everything I needed to make the movie, but I still brought in Gordon Fish, another freelance cameramen, for a few extra shots.

By this time I had purchased a 16mm/35mm sound transfer machine, so I could do my own transfers of the 1/4 inch magnetic to 16mm. sprocketted stock. I had also purchased a six gang synchronizer and a guillotine splicer, a viewer with a tiny screen, and a “squawk box” reader for the synchronizer. I put together an editing bench, with rewinds and split reels and bins to hold the film clips. It was all very expensive equipment, not the kinds of things you could buy at a garage sale. The guillotine splicer alone was hundreds of dollars. Big money in 1971.

I set about cutting the visuals and laying in Granny’s narration. I recorded my aunt Belle’s piano music to add to the sound track. Aunt Belle played ragtime, and old tunes like “Ke Ke Ke Katy”, Granny’s theme song. For transitions I recorded some “stingers” on our own piano, and transferred them at double speed because that seemed to make them sound better.

After a start at the painful process of editing picture and sound using the synchronizer and sqawk box, I found a well used Moviola editing machine I could afford. That completed my first editing room.

The Moviola editing machine. It had a tendency to eat the workprint, but at least it let me view the picture with one track of the sound. It was far superior to the squawk box and synchronizer. I ended up editing several tracks of sound, music and sound FX, and put out the money for a sound mix at the lab.

Editing took months. I was running out of money. But I snagged a Canada Council grant to get some finishing money, to pay for the sound mix, neg matching and answer print and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I think the Canada Council grant came in at $3,500. That was inspiring to me. To think that I could work for hundreds of hours at the wage available at that time, or sit down and write a grant proposal in a few hours and have that huge sum of money come into my mail box a few months later. Well… it made me think about money differently.

Artistically, my main problem was that I wanted the film to bounce along. But when I tried to use shorter cuts, it ended up looking like a badly made commercial. I finally realized that the film had to be paced to suit the subject matter. This was an old lady making a quilt. It was a mistake to try to make it exciting. it just had to flow, and finding that flow took me a lot of time. But finally it was finished. And here it is:

This was Granny Scott’s last quilt. Shortly after we finished shooting, she went in for cataract surgery and she never made another quilt.

Of course, making something to sell is only the first step. I took “Granny’s Quilts” to schools and was told that, much as they loved the film, they got all their movies for free from the National Film Board.

That was the beginning of my feud with the Board. If the government spent far more than any shoe maker would afford to spend to made shoes of exceptional quality and then gave them away for free, the shoe makers would be up in arms. But somehow, film makers were supposed to accept this situation and lavish praise on the National Film Board in hopes of getting a budget for the film subject du jour. It was discouraging. Obviously, my only hope lay south of the border.

I took a print of “Granny’s Quilts” down to a school in Seattle and immediately got a sale. I think in those days we were offering prints for a couple of hundred dollars, which gave us a slim profit margin. The really lucky break was that I learned about Landers Film Review, an American publication that went out to all the libraries and school districts in the country. After I submitted “Granny’s Quilts”, and got a glowing review, the requests for preview prints started coming in. We were soon getting two or three requests for preview prints a day, and for every three requests we made a sale. So my humble film about my granny kept us eating for a couple of years while I explored other possibilities. And that’s how a film career begins.

I can’t end this without acknowledging that, while I did the creative work and manual labor to make our films, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything without my wife and partner, Laara Dalen. On days when I wasn’t bringing in any money, she always was working some job or other. She kept the groceries coming and the lights on. Those were lean times. I would take my grandfather’s Silver Pidgeon Baretta shotgun down to the nearby dairy farm and blow off both barrels at the pigeons that were eating all the grain. Laara cooked up a mean pigeon-a-dobo. We supplemented that meat source with the rabbits we raised, or with oolichans we scooped from the nearby Fraser River.

And when money came in to make something, Laara was the best producer and production manager I ever worked with. So my best advice to anybody who wants to become a film maker, starting from zero, is find yourself a supportive partner. Best case scenario, marry them.

Nostalgia Ain’t What it Used to Be

Thank goodness. I’ve always disliked nostalgia. Reminders of my past, or unbidden memories, made me feel so very sad. That life, those experiences, are gone and not coming back. Often the memory would make me cringe for one reason or another, usually at behavior I’m not proud of. Or else it would just make me sad. The entire previous generation in my family is gone now, with the exception of Aunt Mary in England who keeps on trucking into her late nineties. Friends keep falling off the planet. Many of the big names, the stars, the celebrities I worked with or knew, have also shuffled off this mortal coil. My world is being hollowed out.

For me, the worst thing about the nostalgia presented on social media can be summed up in the phrase: “Those were the good old days”. No they weren’t, damn it. I was born into a sexist, racists, gender essentialist, intolerant society. Don’t tell me about how great it was to ride in the back of a pickup truck, or drink from the garden hose or run loose and unsupervised until the street lights came on. Yeah, those things were fun. My childhood was wonderful. But it was also a time when a woman couldn’t get a credit card or open a bank account without her husband’s signature. It was a time when farm boys went into the big city to beat up queers – good farm boy fun. A time when a black man couldn’t drink at the courthouse fountain, let along become president of the United States. It was a time of intolerance. During my long hair hippy phase, I was refused service in a restaurant for having hair about as long as it is right now.

When I was a kid, women’s rights, gay rights, black rights, and colour television were still years in the future. The silent light switch still hadn’t been marketed and turning off a light made a loud clack. A long distance phone call meant that somebody had died. In every way I can think of, society and technology is better by far than it was in my childhood. Now I play Chinese chess every weekend (great game, much better than international chess. You can check it out for free here.) with my friend Danny, an American still stuck in China. Or talk to him, or former students in Shanghai, on voice calls or video links. For free.

Chinese chess is more fun than international chess. It’s a great way to overcome the language barrier when you meet Chinese people. I may not be fluent in Chinese, but I play Xiangqi like a boss.

Subtle improvements in technology keep sneaking up on me. I mentioned the silent light switch. The enameled pots and pans of my childhood are gone now, as are the aluminum ones. Gotta love stainless steel cookware and utensils. Air hand dryers in washrooms actually work and I don’t mind using them. Battery powered drills and screw drivers are amazing, as are all of the battery powered tech from laqwn mowers to our car. I just noticed that our new toilet seat closes gently, without the loud clack of the old one. It’s hardly worth mentioning that my smart phone does everything my computer can do. In fact, I left my laptop at home on my last trip to Italy. Didn’t need it.

The only thing that was better in the fifties, if you were straight, white, and of the male gender, was our youth, health, and energy level. That was the only thing that was good about the good old days.

Most annoying about social media rants about the good old days is the dissing of kids today. The kids today are great, okay. They are smarter than we were, better educated, more engaged, and the world will be in good hands when we finally turn it over to them. The young people I meet, beside being awesomely beautiful, are just wonderful people. We boomers are just jealous.

To get back on track here, I’ve hated nostalgia for some years now. But recently I woke up in the wee hours of the morning, unable to get back to sleep as free association memories flipped through my brain. The six years old, fishing in our gulley, redolent with the smell of skunk cabbage, alive with mosquitoes, racoon tracks like tiny hand prints, for the the little trout I would stick in my pocket and take home to clean so my mother could fry them up for my breakfast. That lonely drive down I5 to Los Angeles, feeling sorry for myself because I had to leave home to scare up some work. High points like the standing ovation in Alice Tulley Hall at the New York Film Festival, or on the bridge of the Yukon while we steamed into a tropical sunset with porpoises leaping in our bow wave and flying fish with iridescent cellophane wings, a hundred in a school, launching from the waves to glitter in the sun. Low points like getting fired from a job I never should have accepted. Random memories, good and bad, in no particular order. Riding high. Crashing hard. Nostalgia writ large. But this time, for whatever reason, they didn’t evoke the usual sadness and longing for the past. This time it was like watching one of those corny Hollywood biopics about my life and times. It was just a great movie.

I think the difference is that I can see the end coming now, and, looking back, I’ve realized that there’s no point in taking anything too seriously. Nobody gets out alive, as my father used to tell me. Sure, there were tough times, terrible moments, but also moments of triumph and exhilaration. It’s been one hell of a life. A hell of a ride, as Bill Hicks put it. I’m so glad I got to live it, to marvel at all the changes, and to still be here for another trip around the sun.

Dad Gives Me the Talk

When I was eight years old, my father sat me down and said, “We should talk about what you want to be when you grow up.”

I remember that shirt. I don’t remember owning that face.

It turned out there were only three things a man wants from a career. He wants to make a decent living, a reasonable amount of money, so that he can support a family and live well. He wants respect of his peers and the community. And he wants to feel that what he is doing is of value, that it’s worthwhile.

So Dad started with the manual laborer, the guy digging ditches or shoveling coal. He doesn’t make much money, barely enough to live on. And sure, he deserves respect for working hard and being a good person, but really, how much respect is he going to get? Not much. And finally, is he doing something worthwhile? We need ditches dug and we need coal shoveled. But anybody could be doing that. It’s not like it’s special work.

So next we considered, or Dad considered, the trades. You could be a carpenter, or a plumber, or an electrician. Men working in the trades make a bit more money, but not all that much more, not enough to live in a big house and drive a new car every year. It’s still generally hard, dirty work. As for respect, a good tradesman is valued. People appreciate his work, and he gets a little more respect. But still, he’s “just” a plumber or an electrician. Nobody special.

That brought Dad to talk about the professions. In 1958 when this conversation was happening, there were only three professions. Can you name them? Nobody can name all three.

Everybody gets that one of the professions was law, and one was medicine. Nobody can name the third. And no, it wasn’t teacher or chiropractor or salesman or writer or artist…. it was….the clergy.

Those were the big three: doctor, lawyer, and priest. And being in one of the professions made you a somebody.

My father hated lawyers. They were just scum of the earth, dishonest, no integrity, and it didn’t matter how much money they made he wasn’t going to give them any respect. So forget being a lawyer.

Being a priest was a good thing, an honourable thing, but it’s not much of a life. Too much time attending tea parties and officiating at marriages. A secure living, but not a lot of money. No, you wouldn’t want to be a priest.

But a doctor? Now there was something to aspire to. Talk about the respect of your peers! A doctor is treated almost like a god. (Yeah, I know, but this was in 1958). You check into a hotel and it’s, “Will you be getting any calls, Doctor.” Make a reservation at a restaurant and it’s, “Oh doctor Scott, so good to see you here. We’ve got a good table for you.” And money. My god, a doctor can earn as much as fifty thousand dollars a week. (Again, this was 1958 when a new car cost three thousand dollars; when my father might have been making eleven thousand a year as middle management of an insurance company.)

As for doing something of value, what could be more valuable than saving lives, life and death.

So it was decided. From that day on, I was going to be a doctor. My father warned me that I had to start getting ready for this career now, because if I didn’t I’d never make it. There was too much competition. My future, my destiny, was set.

For my twelfth birthday I asked for, and was duly given, a copy of “Blacks Medical Dictionary”. I cultivated an attitude and solemn authority that I assumed a doctor should have. By fourteen, I had a good bedside manner.

And then I hit the teenage identity crisis. I found myself at university in pre-med, arguing with people who were far smarter than me, with far more life experience, and I found my fathers words and attitudes coming out of my mouth. Suddenly, everything I thought about myself and the world was open to question. I had no ideas of my own, no viewpoint of my own. I didn’t know what I was talking about.

In my father’s eyes, I was right off the rails. What do you do with a kid like that? You send him to Europe to let him sort himself out and get his head on straight. To be clear here, this was incredibly generous of my father. He was not a wealthy man. He worked hard, and paid for what needed paying for, but he was always under serious financial pressure. I will always be forever grateful for that trip to England to meet my Aunt Mary and Uncle David, my mother’s brother and his wife, and then on to France, Holland, and Germany. I spent endless hours in the Louvre, and in the Rembrandt Museum in Amsterdam, and someplace else where I could admire the Rodin sculptures in the flesh. I will never forget the unrestored Opern Platz in Frankfurt, bombed to a shell by the Brits during the war because the Nazis had holed up in the basement, or the castle at Konigstein, with granite steps worn to a slippery ramp by centuries of leather shoe soles. It was a great trip, complete with shipboard romances and my first experience of having sex in an actual bed. With an actual woman.

After a couple of months of desperate loneliness and soul searching, my head was a straight as it was ever going to get. And the conclusion I reached was that I didn’t want to be a doctor. That was my father’s ambition, not mine. So, what did I want to be?

I have always loved literature and admired writing. Ah hah! That’s it. I’ll be a writer.

I told my father that I didn’t want to be a doctor. I wanted to be a writer. He said,”Well, congratulations. You have chosen the only career I can think of that’s harder than selling life insurance.” And I knew he was right.

From where I sit today, an old man, I can’t think of anything dumber for me to want to be. The thing is, I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t necessarily want to write. Writing is hard work. I didn’t even like writing. Still don’t. I didn’t want to be a journalist, or the writer of advertising copy or equipment manuals. I wanted to be a novelist. But… let’s get real. Nobody was buying short stories. Writing a novel took years of lonely, dedicated effort with a tiny possibility of success after all that work. Besides, I had no idea what to write about. I recognized that I got a good idea once in a while, maybe every five years, but I didn’t have what it takes to be a novelist. I might be able to bullshit the world that I was a writer, but I knew the truth.

Looking at the world in a slightly more realistic frame of mind I decided that the big market for non-fiction writing was not short stories or novels. The market now was film and television. So I joined the Simon Fraser University Film Workshop to learn more about film and television and my fate was sealed.

I still wanted to be a writer, to tell powerful, inspiring stories. But I could make a living doing technical work like sound recording and editing while I wrote scripts and worked toward becoming a director, the author of the movie.

For years, as I struggled with financial insecurity and self doubt while trying to write, produce, or direct something meaningful, I would lie awake at night in horror at having wasted my life. I was supposed to be a doctor. Too late now to chose a different path. A profound despair would close in on me, a feeling of loss, regret, unleavened by any redeeming consideration. Fool. Loser.

So Where is it Now – My Italian Violin

In previous posts I told the story of how and why I got my rather expensive Italian violin made by Maurizio Tadioli, an award winning luthier who lives in Cremona, Italy. I told the story of how it was lost and all but destroyed in China, and how, after seven years as a decoration on my wall in China it made it’s way back to Maurizio for repairs, the two years it took him to repair the instrument, and my travels to Italy to get it back in my hands. I recently did a post about my tour of Scotland with the Szasz family and my young fiddle buddy, Kipling, playing Scots melodies in locations where they originated – “Over the Sea to Sky” on the Isle of Sky, “Callums’s Road” on Callum’s Road, “Hut on Staffin Island” in Staffin, and “Flowers of Edinburgh” in Edinburgh, plus a couple of others in random castles and ruins.

Now it’s time to tell why I don’t have my beloved violin any more and where it has gone. I guess this is the final chapter, at least as far as my involvement goes.

When I learned that my prostate cancer had jumped ship and gone ashore into my bones and lymph glands, I jumped to the conclusion that this meant curtains for Zale Dalen. That’s what Dr. Google told me, and I believed it when I read that the chances of me being alive a year after that diagnosis were 45% and my chance of being alive five years after that diagnosis was 1%. I’ve since been told by my oncologists that treatment has come a long way. Prostate cancer, even prostate cancer that has metastasized into the bones, is now considered a chronic disease rather than a fatal disease. I’m on a new drug, a testosterone blocker, and my numbers are looking good. Going on three years since that scary diagnosis, I feel generally okay.

But one thing that wasn’t feeling good was the arthritis in my hand. The thumb on my bow hand, my right hand, grew increasingly painful after the Scotland trip, to the point where playing the violin for a few minutes took all the fun out of playing and practicing. The specialist gave me cortisone shots into my thumb joint, and that helped a little, for a month or so. But it seemed obvious that my days of playing the fiddle were numbered. I had already decided that I wanted Kipling to have my violin. In fact, that was the only way I could feel comfortable letting her father pick up the tab for my trip to Scotland.

Then I learned that Kipling, who prefers reading music and playing classical violin, rather than fiddling, was going to take her grade nine Royal Conservatory test. She was at a critical stage for a violin student, a point where one either falls in love with the instrument and strives for perfection or puts it aside for other interests. I decided that perhaps having a piece of wood she could fall in love with might motivate her to practice, and really go for concert performance level in her playing. So my Mauritzio Tadioli Il Cannone became hers. She renamed it Cosimo, after Cosimo de Medici, the renaissance patron of the arts, which I took as a sign that she was forming a personal bond with the instrument. I took back the Chinese violin I had given her to use when she reached the size to need a 4/4 sized instrument. That certainly is good enough for me. I will never be more than a fiddler, and a mediocre one at that.

Here’s Kipling performing with Cosimo as part of her grade nine violin examination.

Since passing my Italian fiddle along to Kipling, I’ve had an interesting surgical treatment on my arthritic bow hand. The specialist told me that she could cut off the arthritic end of the bone and glue on some tendon from my forearm and that would possibly be a more permanent solution to the pain than the cortisone shots. My first reaction to this idea was astonishment. What? Take a tendon from my forearm? You’re kidding. Don’t I need those tendons? Well, it turns out we, at least some of us, have a vestigial tendon in our forearm that no longer has a function. It does virtually nothing. So I had the operation and… it’s been a miracle. It was a slow and painful recovery, but I can once again practice for an hour or two without undue pain in my bow hand thumb. Now the limiting factor is the rotator cuff in my bow arm shoulder, which has also had a surgical repair. But that is also improving with stretching and exercise. This doesn’t change the fact that I will never become a really good performer. Kipling has a shot at doing that, and I’m hoping she takes it. But that’s up to her.

I will admit to missing my Italian violin, and occasional twinges of regret at giving it away. But I’m finding that a new set of strings and daily practice has awakened the Chinese fiddle. It is also a hand made violin, made by Jin Lin Rui Lin in Shanghai, and is indeed a lovely instrument. When sunlight hits the Burmese maple of its back, it bursts out in ribbons of gold. But sadly, no matter how good a Chinese violin is, it will never have the status or value of one made in Cremona. I refuse to succumb to that cultural foolishness. Pure snobbery. It looks amazing and sounds wonderful. That’s what matters.

This is the Burmese maple back of my Chinese violin. I’ve always been a sucker for a one piece back, and this maple burl is amazing. It’s such a hard wood, with such interlocking grain, that I can’t imagine carving it.

Whether my social experiment with Kipling works out as I hope it will is up to Kipling. I feel good about the deal, and the chain of events that lead to making it happen. I feel good about myself, and I’m enjoying playing again. That’s enough.