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I began this blog in order to share my experiences learning instrument building from my dad, but along with those stories I look forward to sharing my memories of growing up with two busy, musically inclined parents as well as my current experiences stepping out on my own as a female luthier promoting environmental sustainability in her instruments while working to alter gender stereotypes in a male dominated field. If you'd like to use quotes from this blog for interviews or in your own work, please contact me first! (email is henderson.elizabethj@gmail.com)

Monday, July 30, 2012

Gone Fishing

I remember when I was little, I told my dad and my Granny that I hated trout. My dad loved eating it, but I refused to have anything to do with it. I don't really know why, as I had never tried it, it just seemed like a strange thing to eat. Since my mom raised me and we ate primarily vegetables, I tended to shy away from most foods that had eyeballs in its heyday. I was scared of chicken because I had watched a news article once that warned against e-coli, and beef was definitely something to stay away from after I learned about mad cow disease. Ironically, I did eat a hamburger when I was visiting England.....perhaps I am not the most careful listener...

Today I am so proud to announce that I have gotten over my apprehension and LOVE trout! The other day Leah came over and we decided to try our hand at fishing. Well, she is quite adept at fishing, I was trying my hand if we are going to be specific. Anyway, Harper and I clambered into the car, Harper only a little more eager than I, and we headed off to the creek. I later learned that inviting a dog on our fishing trip might not have been the best idea in the world, but she sure had fun and I can't help but want to make her happy so Harper Lee joined us on our fishing expedition.

As we approached the fishing hole, tiptoeing over braches and small bunches of leaves that vaguely resembled poison ivy, Harper tore through the woods and splashed head first into the water. She then proceeded to run laps as fast as her legs could carry her, around and around, up the bank and back into the water, jumping over rocks and limbs and splashing into the creek and back out of it.

Crouched on the bank, Leah plucked a fat worm from the plastic cup she brought and wound him around the hook hanging from my fishing line. She then did the same to hers. I like to keep it humane so that is as graphic as I plan to get. Leah dug up the worms herself from a patch of moist dirt in her yard. I was impressed. I tossed my hook into the gurgling water flowing swiftly over a few boulders in its way. Suddenly (really, much sooner than I ever expected) there was a little yank on my line. !! I cranked and cranked and reeled in a trout that measured maybe 2 inches in length, having a diameter of maybe a quarter of an inch. Leah showed me how to remove the hook and very ambitious snack from its mouth and gently place him back in the river, making sure to let him re-acclimate himself to the temperature of the chilly water.

The fish Leah caught!
Thunder rumbled above us as we kept casting our lines into the river. I became a little anxious that wielding bits of metal over a body of water in the middle of a thunderstorm might not be the best idea and was hoping to pack it up pretty soon. As I was thinking that, Leah caught a fish almost large enough to keep. Amazingly enough Harper had not managed to scare off all of the fish from the hole with her lap running or snag herself on an errant hook lying on the bank. She stopped just long enough though to dump over the tub of worms and investigate the contents. Just as a huge crack of thunder sounded overhead Leah caught a fish that looked underwater to be maybe significant enough to take home. As it emerged from the creek we saw that it was perhaps a foot long, its brown spots gleaming in the light.

So proud :-)
I am skipping over the part where we killed the fish, though I will say that the ordeal left Leah and I both spotted with blood, scrubbing our hands in the creek to avoid looking like guilty murderers. The fish did not suffer though, which I think is important. We proudly took it home (slipped in an empty Salt and Cracked Pepper Kettle Chips bag) and filleted it as we had seen our dads and tv characters do. We might not have done it quite right, but it seems all of the parts that are not suitable for consuming were sufficiently removed.

The final product.
 I played Chopped and found a couple of ingredients in the fridge and cupboard that would accompany a fillet of trout. We baked the fish, stuffing it with cilantro and lime (because that is what we had) and packing it in a blanket of damp salt. It emerged from the oven beautifully, the salt brick flaking off effortlessly and the pink flesh was bright and moist. I piled the the fish on top of a heap of risotto with a hint of truffle oil and citrusy steamed spinach. It may not have been a perfect pairing, but we thought it was the best dinner ever. To be able to catch and totally make our own dinner felt empowering and exciting. I know it shouldn't be such a novelty to do such a thing as our ancestors always did that, and my grandparents even traded store bought items for eggs from their farm but I have always been afforded the novelty of a supermarket. During this process I thought of my Granny, growing her own vegetables, butchering chickens who lived on her farm, and frying the fish my dad and grandfather caught from the very same creek.

Stay tuned for part two, the story of my second fishing adventure, this time with my dad, and cooking a more traditional trout dinner.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Ukulele Summer

Ah, summertime....I just want to sit outside, reclined in an Adirondack chair with nothing but the view to concern myself with. In order to keep this dream alive, I have been making summer appropriate instruments as well. This has been a ukulele summer, having completed 5, and currently working on #6 right now.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Lee Smith 
The last uke I sent off to a new home was a little soprano (the only style I have made so far) made from the left over boards of white oak that I used for Doc's guitar. As with each of my instruments, I reluctantly released the tension on the strings, carefully packed the case into a cardboard box, and trustingly handed it over to the postal professionals to deliver it still in one piece to a satisfied customer.

It is extremely important to me that this creation that I have put my heart and soul into ends up in happy home full of strumming and jam parties and vain show-off sessions. I am so glad to report that my number 5 uke, aptly named Lil' Doc, has gone to a truly awesome home. Lil Doc's new owner, Kevin, is exactly the type of person I want my instruments to go to. He proudly displays pictures on his Facebook page and tells me how much he enjoys playing it and sharing its music with others. I really love that, and it makes my heart swell to see that the ukulele, especially this one, went to such a great person who truly loves it.
Photo courtesy Kevin Lee Smith

I too would like to have one of my instruments to play and show off and be proud of. Yes, I have Doc's guitar, but it is not really mine, I made it for someone else. And, right now at least, it breaks my heart to look at it, much less play it. I am really proud of the workmanship and wish so much Doc had been able to play it just for a few minutes, but all is not lost, as 'Big Doc' got a lot of great playtime at the festival and now hangs proudly on my dad's wall next to his #400.

A few weeks ago, I began working on a ukulele for myself, made from koa wood with curly maple binding. So far, I have encountered only a couple of messes that I have managed to work my way out of. For some reason I have trouble remembering that I have to cut the slot for the neck to fit into the body before I glue the back onto the bent sides. Several times now my dad stops by my work table and asks, "Are you sure you are ready to glue that back on?" And after I say yes, he reminds me that if I were to do that, it would ensure a gaping hole in the back of my uke, left in the band saw's wake. Of course, since no one happened to be around when I was gluing my latest ukulele, I glued the entire body together without cutting the slot. After a few expletives were uttered, I figured out a new procedure for cutting the slot that does not require using the band saw. Securing the body between my knees, and constructing an unfortunate looking jig, I used the large router bit to cut a space into the neck block that ended before I cut through the back. Crisis averted! I look forward to seeing what other puzzles are to come my way as I work on this ukulele! I'll do my best to take some pictures along the way! Every time I make a mistake and manage to fix it it feels as though I am actually learning and perhaps I will make it as a luthier yet!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Pool Bus

Do you ever wish you can rewind to a specific place and time in your life? For me, a lot of times I wish I were back in Juneau on this certain day several years ago, but even more often, it is just a random day in my childhood. Like a summer day in Rugby riding the pool bus.

Every summer Lauren and Leah's mom Martha drove the pool bus. The bus, parked in a bus-sized gravel spot just below Lauren and Leah's house, right up the road from my Granny's, was covered in chipping white paint and had the words ACTIVITY BUS blocked across the sides and back. It always felt like a special or exciting day when I rode the pool bus with my cousins. They went just about every day in the summer, but I was a less frequent passenger so it was always full of anticipation of something fun and different. I would either walk up the hill from my Granny's house, or my dad would drop me off at about 8 AM and would hand me a crisp ten dollar bill. Man I felt like I was so rich. Think of the Slushies I could buy with that!

Each day the bus would travel throughout a different part of the county picking up kids wanting to go to the pool. The ride typically lasted several hours, arriving at the pool immediately after lunch. Lauren and I were reminiscing about those rides last night, and other than ourselves, we couldn't remember very many other kids who rode the bus with us. We typically read books while we rode, each of us taking up an entire brown vinyl seat.  We didn't interact much with the older 'cool' kids who filled the seats in the back. I remember a lot of times looking out of the window and worrying that the small curvy roads were not equipped to handle such a large vehicle swaying over them. There is still a curve near Rugby that I drive on today and can't help but think about that pool bus and wondering if we were about to tumble off the asphalt and down into the briars that covered the steep grade down into the holler.

As the bus finally rumbled through Independence, we would stop at the high school for lunch. I remember running through the gym and down the darkened halls wondering what it would be like to go to school there. What it looked like with people in it. There was a mural painted in the cafeteria, I can't recall the content, but I remember it had a lot of green and blue in it and that I thought it looked neat. We would file through the quiet lunch line, grabbing our sandwiches and choosing an apple or orange and a milk carton. The other riders and I would sit at long cafeteria tables that had flat plastic circles, much like frisbees, protruding from their undersides acting as seats. We would eat quickly, anticipating a fun day at the pool.

It cost $3 to get into the pool at the Grayson County Recreation Park. The pool was surrounded by a vast rectangular square of concrete and a tall chain link fence. There were three sections to the pool, a shallow section, complete with a separated 'kiddie' pool, a large middle section 25 meters long and marked for lanes, and a 'deep end' twelve feet deep complete with two springy, turquoise diving boards.

Choosing a spot to sit was always a very important task. Martha typically sat right in the middle, between the pool and the snack bar/juice box area. The juke box incessantly played Mmm
Bop and Cotton Eye Joe. There was light pole right in front of the juke box that Leah liked to use to help fashion a tent with her towel. Lauren, Leah, and I sat with Martha most of the time, but as we got older we tended to want to spread our towels further away to display our independence. Then came the sunscreen. Even if you had put it on during the bus ride, since you had ample time, Martha would insist on slathering your back and face with SPF 50. We weren't allowed to take another step near the pool until she was satisfied that we were sufficiently covered in sun protection. Under bathing suit straps and on our ears and our feet. She would never miss a spot and I thank her for that now.

For the next few hours we would splash and dive and reluctantly sit along the side during the fifteen minute 'adult swim' break or thunder threats. Leah tended to spend most of her time standing in the line for the diving board in order to get that 30 seconds of exhilaration from jumping off of the low springboard into the deep water. She would jump, swim to the side, and go again. And again. Another staple of a day at the pool was drinking Slushies. I preferred a plain one, just tiny round pebbles of ice covered in sugary syrup. Lauren would experiment with mixing different flavors together to achieve that perfect blend of artificial flavoring. A lot of times they came out brown, but she insisted those tasted the best. When it was time to go, we would file back on the bus for the trip back home.

Some days Martha would drop us off at the library while she finished her run to drop kids back off at their stops. Living in a small town in which the library is thirty minutes away, this was huge excitement. The library ladies didn't have the best senses of humor, and silence was required, but that smell of library books always tended to bring about an excitement for me. The anticipation of finding a perfect story within the crackling plastic lined covers to be transported into was what I always looked forward to when we stepped through those old glass doors.

I'm not sure if the ride back to Rugby was actually shorter, or if we just were so tired or engrossed in our books that we didn't notice the route as much, but when Martha finally backed the bus into it's gravel spot we were all ready for some dinner and a nap. Not necessarily in that order. Sometimes we would have enough energy to bounce on the trampoline or watch a movie at my house, but we always had a great time and were excited to do it again the next day. So, it isn't really a significant moment, or a certain day in particular, but it is just a feeling I miss. I wish all I had to do today was ride that bus, drink a Slushie, and be with my family.