I got an email from my friend Rusty yesterday. Rusty was in the CS program with me at Rice. Unlike me, he was a guru-- one of those unnervingly competent CS kids, like Dan, who emerge from the womb already knowing how to implement multi-threaded operating systems. Rusty's knowledge of Unix was encyclopedic, and given a large pizza and a night in the lab, there was nothing he couldn't do.
Of all my close friends from college, he and Jenny Aynilian (now playing french horn in an orchestra in Tenerife) are the only two I haven't seen since we graduated in 99. Rusty always straddled worlds-- he was into CS, but he also had a serious thing for folk music, folk dancing and mountain culture. Last time I'd talked to him he was in Boston teaching at ArsDigita, but that was a while back. When I wrote asking what the hell he was up to these days, I got back the following response. (modified to cut out some personal stuff)
how about reverse chronological order. my brother thinks all history should be taught backwards. tonight i played banjo at the local [charlotte] contradance. someone decided that the band should be called 'banjo for the people'. i wanted to be the sam hill band, but i was too late. my real band was supposed to be playing, except that the mandolin player was in play rehearsal, the fiddler wants more practice, and the guitar player is at the beach. bunch of bums...
this morning, i bought wood. hard maple, enough for 6 banjo necks. that's at least part of what i'm doing these days. i moved up to asheville after a summer of building a deck and generally being worthless. for the first time in my life, i live out in the country. not the serious boon-docks, but i am on a gravel road and the only source of heat in our house is a small wood-burning stove. i'm about to get a whole lot better at chopping wood, as we have not even begun stocking up and it will be getting cold soon. in the basement i have a shop where i pretend to know how to make instruments. right now i've got, in various degrees of not even close to completion, a violin, a solid-body mandolin, and some open-back banjos.
the violin - i have a newfound appreciation for the violin. i've been working on this one for most of the summer. they take forever. i don't know how anyone can make a living making fiddles, except by charging $25,000 for one. the more i get into it, the more i realize what a blend of craft, art and science it is. physically it is too complex to analyze, yet for 400 years people have made amazing instruments just by trial and error, intuition, and personal aesthetic. i've made buckets of shavings, trimming a tenth of a millimeter off this part, making some curve a little sharper, but i don't have any great hopes that mine will sound or look as good as the cheapest piece of crap you might pick up at the pawn shop. maybe the second one will be better.
have you ever been to asheville? i've only been up there a few weeks now. the culture is probably not so different from berkeley, except that as soon as you leave the town you're back in rural NC, surrounded by folks who put Jesse Helms in office. i live on the border between pasture-land and forest on a small mountain, sadly topped by cell towers. ironically, the cell reception is terrible (needless to say, it doesn't bother me as i have no cell phone).
i'm a bit worried that the instrument thing is not ultimately going to support me, but i'm told that it is not possible to get a "real" job in Asheville. in fact, i've not met a single person with a real job. of my housemates, one is a vista, one is an actor, and the third does some kind of episcopal domestic aid stuff. in idle conversation, people shy away from asking "so, what do you do?", instead asking "so, are you working?". some days i wish i could find some contract work to make me a bit more secure. other days i'm happy to have bucked this 9-5 world, and i enjoy the 15 foot commute to my workshop. i will feel much better once i've actually sold an instrument. know anybody who wants a banjo?