Five & a Half Reasons to Play the Ukulele

First things first, here’s a video John and I made this weekend (strong emphasis on John–he did all the camera work and editing):

And now that you’ve watched it, perhaps some explanation is in order.

Last week, I won a contest at work. My prize was a ukulele. It’s a peculiar sort of thing to win in a contest, but then, it was a peculiar sort of contest. We were all asked to submit prize ideas for a freshman open house in the fall–if your idea was chosen, the LRC would buy two and give you one. I suggested a baritone ukulele.

As to why I would suggest such a thing, well…the video sums it up pretty well. Above and beyond that, I had recently read this article about how ukuleles are becoming more popular in Boston. Also, I’ve been following Amanda Palmer on Twitter and was generally excited about her new album. In short, I’ve just had ukuleles on the brain.

Making the video was…an experience. I now know that there’s a very good reason I’m not a rock star. Playing an instrument in a public place is very awkward, and if my expression looks strained in any of the shots, it’s because I was highly aware of how many people’s walking paths we were obstructing.

It was quite the social experiment, in that regard. Some people will wait patiently for you to finish, some impatiently. Some will duck down in front of the camera, some will walk across anyway. Some will start down a path, see you, and then backtrack to change their path. The further I stood from the camera, the more obvious the effects were.

Adding an instrument into the mix changes the dynamic–as much as a camera makes people feel visibly self-conscious about intruding on someone else’s  social territory, an instrument seems to break those invisible barriers that we hold around ourselves as a defense against talking to other people. The first place we shot was in the subway, and I hadn’t even had my ukulele out of the case for two minutes before that guy in the first shot came over and started talking to us.  Doing the arch shot, another guy stopped to ask if we were doing an album cover and compliment our work. Walking towards the park, a couple of teenage boys with instruments on their backs hollered “Ukulele!!” and waved at us.

It was at once both one of the more awkward and one of the more uplifting experiences of my life.

Putting the video together from the clips was a different story entirely, and one that makes me impressed with people who do real and longer video production. To make that 1m:50s clip, we spent almost four hours walking around to shoot maybe twelve minutes worth of clips. Laying down the sound tracks and doing the sidewalk art took me maybe another two hours, and putting everything together took John something like eight hours to finesse (including researching and learning new software that could handle multiple audio tracks). Making a video, even a little silly one like this, is a lot of work. (Something I should have been more prepared for, given that it took us seven or eight hours to make Robot Riot.)

Anyway…I hope the video is enough to earn your forgiveness for this rambling post, and if anyone feels like swapping ukulele tales, I’d be delighted to hear them.


I could just tell you about the trip John and I took to IKEA on Saturday, but words wouldn’t really do the experience justice. The Swedish furniture showroom/ warehouse/ restaurant isn’t so much a store as it is a phenomenon. Friends who have gone have tried to explain it to me before, but the lovable oddness of shopping at IKEA really needs a little something more. Today, I give you a picture blog.

The first thing that struck me about IKEA was the words “Returns & Exchanges,” painted above a door maybe twenty feet off the ground and surrounded by a guard rail. We were in a moving car, so I didn’t get a picture, but the sight left me with the impression that IKEA doesn’t make it easy to return things. The second thing that struck me, however, was a sign in the parking garage with this huggable heart saying, “It’s okay. You can bring it back!” I can’t imagine a friendlier way of having my worries about buying unsatisfactory merchandise smoothed away.

The merchandise is rather remarkable as well. Especially the chairs.

I don’t know what John’s looking at, but I think this chair was trying to seduce him. I had to pull him out of it. It also could have been trying to make him feel old. The chairs may have some sentience. I had offended a vaguely egg-shaped chair for being ugly and extremely overpriced, and it decided to add injury to the insult by holding me captive. That’s actually not a bad piece of advice for IKEA: Don’t sit in any egg-shaped chairs, and don’t insult things within their hearing and then sit on them anyway. They won’t say anything, but they will get even.

This chair was a different story. It may not be the prettiest thing I’ve ever sat in, but I believe I did experience a hint of transcendence while sitting there. Something about the shapes just cradles the human body in the exact way a human body is meant to be cradled. The very soft leather didn’t hurt the experience either.

All I have to say about this is, “Captain, they stole your chair off the Enterprise and skinned it.”

“It’s…dead, Jim.”

This was my big, unnecessary splurge of the day. A beautiful hardcover book of wok recipes for$0.99. Now I just need to buy a wok…

The children’s section is a lovely playland of brightly colored furniture that I would have loved when I was about three feet tall. The effect is slightly ruined, however, by the large bin of stuffed rats at the entrance of the area: large ones on the top at grown-up eye level, small ones on the bottom for the kids. Really, guys? Stuffed rats? There is a very small percentage of the population, I think, who would not find that at least a tiny bit creepy.

Here we have the self-serve furniture warehouse, which is a neat concept. The showroom is very classy and shows things all set up, then you write down a bunch of numbers and go on a scavenger hunt through this maze of identical brown boxes, crossing your fingers that you actually wrote the numbers down correctly. It’s a blast, like rolling LARPing and shopping into one happy Swedish package. The real star of this shot, however, is the fan. In case you need more clarification on why this is so impressive (click to make the next picture bigger if you can’t read it)…

You have to appreciate a company that doesn’t mince words or images.

Picking up the desk (which is what we went for in the first place) was better than bumper cars. IKEA does not mess around with it’s shopping carts. They have four-wheel drive, and even the flatbeds take corners like they’re on rails.  IKEA-cart racing would actually be a pretty versatile sport. They’d have to have different weight events and awkward parcel events, and events for navigating around families with children and through narrow spaces. It would be hilarious. What am I saying? It was hilarious, but no one else realized we were winning, so they weren’t trying very hard.

The very best thing about driving the cart was the Travellator. I did not make that name up.

Everyone knows that if you put a sketchily balanced and heavy box on a cart and send it down a very steep ramp, you must wage a tremendous war against the forces of nature to prevent said box from slipping off the cart or even taking over the cart and running after the innocent children and old ladies below. Gravity works. But apparently, if you’re IKEA, you can crossbreed a ramp with an escalator, and the offspring has the magical ability to carry you in a downward direction while thumbing its nose at gravity.

Look, Mom, no hands!

Because I have seen pictures from IKEA before and heard the amazing tales, I know that it’s not something you can ever understand without seeing it for yourself, but it was worth a try. Maybe Jonathan Coulton can help fill in the gaps…

No, It Really Doesn’t Matter (Matter, Matter, Matter)

I love my job. For those of you who don’t know, I lucked out and got one of those university summer jobs that is the next best thing to unemployment. My most taxing responsibility is checking the temperature in the server room to make sure that the massive computers aren’t about to burst into flame. This could, hypothetically, turn into a very exciting and adrenaline-inducing job if the display ever read high than the proscribed danger zone of seventy degrees, but since it hasn’t ever even hit sixty-five, my action hero plan of running like lightning to phone the boss with the ever-so-dire news may have to wait.

I love my job, but the problem with being responsible for absolutely nothing of importance is that the small things you are in charge of start to seem important. For instance, we open at nine in the morning, unless I in my infinite generosity choose to unlock early. Not 8:45, not 8:57, and heaven have mercy on the insolent fool who dares to be so rude as to KNOCK on the door before I’m ready to open it. Especially given the fact that it’s generally too hot for my morning cup of tea right now. No tea + not enough to do = exploding head when an over-privileged undergraduate decides to make a habit of pounding on the door early to beat the masses to the big, comfy study rooms.

I am also in charge of periodically counting the number of students who use the center. During the summer, I wouldn’t need to take off my mittens to keep track. My thumbs usually suffice. I suppose it is possible that all four or our regular summer patrons could come by at the same time, first thing in the morning, demanding a comfy study room. Who am I to judge another person’s paranoia?

And yet, I do, because what on earth else am I going to do with my time? Writing a novel and many cover letters does not actually crowd out the mental space that irritation with stupid things occupies. In fact, I think it almost justifies dwelling on such nonsense, because I sit around wondering how I can lampoon these people in writing and then it feels like I’m almost working. The cleaning and packing frenzy I have been indulging in at home is actually a pathetic attempt to redeem my sanity, which scares me a little.

Of course, there is a grain of legitimacy to my annoyance, and therein lies the rub. Paranoid-Knocking-Guy is arrogant and rude, even if this particular rude request is not so outrageous. Likewise, people who change the desktop images to pictures of boobs or anatomically impossible anime characters are crass and inconsiderate of other users, even if it doesn’t take me much effort to restart the computer when I find the backgrounds in the morning. And my co-worker who sent out pseudo-personal emails canvassing for support on what was intended to be an anonymous vote is sleazy and unethical, even though the contest is only for a few thirty-dollar prizes that I don’t care about.

It’s not what they’re doing or how it affects me that drives me nuts. It’s the principle of the thing, which I have way too much time to spend caring about right now. Unemployment is not good for my self-righteousness gland or my indignity nerve.

In this frame of mind, I get to take the train out to Norwood to deal with our electric-company-to-be in person this afternoon. My hopes are not high that all will go smoothly, because my experience with utilities companies has shown me that those who answer the phones and keep the records suffer from the same lack of important things to occupy them, only they have the power to turn off the lights. Not a promising combination.

Cross your fingers that the woman on the phone gave me an accurate list of all the documents I need to bring in. My poor skull is pushing the limit of its ability to contain tiny “it’s the principle of the thing” brain explosions.

P.S. If you didn’t get the title reference, watch this. Then go out and rent Pirates of Penzance.

Mahna Mahna (Doo Doo Do Do Do)

I have no memory of the first time I saw a Muppet, with pretty good reason. Whether it was Sesame Street or Fraggle Rock or even the more adult-targeted Muppet Show, Muppets have always been a part of my life. And not just a passive presence in the background: I love Muppets. I wanted to name my first kitten after Red Fraggle. Mom complained that Red was a girl and the little ginger kitten was not, so I named him after Gobo Fraggle instead. The pun-heavy hamming around of Kermit and Fozzie set the stage for my sense of humor (much to my father’s amusement and my mother’s chagrin, I think).

Naturally, when I stumbled across a listing for a display on Jim Henson’s work at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, I had to go. A friend of mine was kind enough to go with me to make the hefty trek on the MBTA into an area where return buses are long in coming, which made the trip better—I have always found that Muppets are even more when delightful appreciated with a friend.

I think I can die happy now, because I’ve met Kermit (did you know the original Kermit was made out of an old spring coat that belonged the Henson’s mother?), Rowlf, Mahna Mahna (apparently that was his name, not just random scatting), Gobo, and Cantus the Minstrel in person. More or less. They were a little on the quiet side, but I imagine I would be too if I had to spend my day in a glass box… (Wocka, wocka, wocka!)

Most of the display consisted of storyboards and sketches of Henson’s early commercial work that doesn’t receive a lot of attention these days, such as his hilariously “offer you can’t refuse” advertisements for Wilkins Coffee. As you walk in, the first section of the exhibit showcases sketches and posters from Henson’s days in high school drama. Among these was a little pencil sketch of a mobile with a bunch of eyes and mouths, with notes beside it suggesting a bit of kinetic art that creating various expressions as the eyes and mouths rotated.

This little sketch presented a piece of inspiration to fantastic to ignore, so yesterday John and I spent several hours crafting our own little art piece inspired by (but fairly different from) that sketch. It’s hard to explain in words, so…here’s a multimedia treat for you to puzzle at.

It’s just a bit of silliness, but somehow, I like to think Jim Henson would have appreciated that his legacy still inspires people to indulge themselves in a little nonsense now and then.