True Tales of Terror From a Bow Re-Hairing Workshop in Ohio.
In an effort to get off my knees (gardening) while still working with my hands, I find myself in Ashland, Ohio, for a week-long workshop, learning to replace the hair on the bows that are used to play string instruments (violin, viola, cello, bass). Seemingly no one wants to do this job, possibly for a reason. Maybe I can work by myself and not with other people! Unfortunately, this experiment requires 0ther people.
Cast of characters:
•The Bowmaker and his Wife
•The Bowmaker’s Narcoleptic Daughter
•Texas Brown-Noser, who already part-owns an instrument repair shop. This class is supposed to be for beginners and newbies to hand tools. TBN is seemingly here to ask esoteric questions about varnish and tuning pegs and violin makers and talk non-stop, rivaled only by Narcoleptic Daughter, whose leg he wants to hump.
•Two more professional instrument repairmen, with ascending ratios of less talky = cooler.
•Junior Philharmonic, a Violin Weenie brown-noser from Erie, PA with a ZZ Top beard.We are not going to run out of hair this week. Conductor of the Erie Junior Philharmonic, whatever that is.
•Silent San Diego, tattooed cyber hacker, as sleep-deprived and aloof as I am. We could be colleagues, but neither of us wants to talk to anyone.
•Cleveland Man of Mystery, bearded man in his ’60s, firmly adhering to a vow of silence, says only, “I work in a lab”.
•A nice, quiet bluegrass bassist from Colorado. Three other women, from NYC, West Virginia and Arkansas, and me. These are mostly non-speaking roles, as we can’t get a word in edgewise.
Silent San Diego, Junior Philharmonic, Nice bluegrass bassist, Texas Brown-Noser, Bowmaker, Instrument Repairman #3.
Arkansas, Me, NYC, Cleveland Man of Mystery.
West Virginia, Instrument Repairman #2. (Photo by Narcoleptic Daughter).
Sunday: Pizza day. According to the syllabus we are to ‘meet our bench mates”. Prior to pizza, within 3 minutes of saying hi to the Bowmaker’s Wife, she has told me about her early career as a violinist, then becoming office manager for some B-list Ohio symphony, but it was so stressful she had to get on Paxil, and then she had to go to the ER because she thought she was having a heart attack, and depression and anxiety are not the same thing.
I put my face on its default setting and park my brain in a faraway land. It will not be the last time this week.
Over pizza, we go around the table, giving our stories, much like an AA meeting, I would imagine, if I had ever been to one.
“I’m Silent San Diego, I have a tech job and I’m interested in Bow Rehairing.”
“I’m Junior Philharmonic, I’m a violinist and conductor.”
“I’m Texas Brown-Noser, I went to Oberlin blah blah, I live near Denton, Texas where (name-drops Todd’s Bass teacher), I bought into an instrument repair business.”
Lest anyone doubt his not-beginner chops, he leaps up and, on the white board, diagrams the thickness of neck to strings of Sartory, Tourte, and Peccate violins. We have not yet been introduced to our chisels, but I taste blood.
NYC Woman says.”I live in New York City, I play bluegrass fiddle, and I work as a Chinese translator.” She has tattoos of the Treble and Bass clefs on her wrist.
“Oh, like ‘Godzilla’?” the Bowmaker’s Wife asks, irony-free.
Wince. That would be Japan.
“I’m Erika, I live near Seattle and I have an art background. I’d like to work with my hands and work for myself. My *husband* (slight massaging of the data there) is a bassist and teacher and says no one does this, and there’s a market.”
Thud. Perhaps my once-removed proximity to string instruments is uncool. The Bowmaker remarks that there are great Bowmakers in Port Townsend, WA, Bowmaking being an elite fine-furniture type thing, for whom re-hairing is beneath them. Port Townsend! One Bowmaker moved there, and invited all his pals over, and they all moved there, and now they live in groovy Victorian houses and spend their days making bows and cruising around on their sailboats.
There are some changes to the syllabus. We’ll be starting at 8:30, not 8 (5 am Pacific). It said we can’t leave for lunch and must order in, but now we can leave for an hour. (These are excellent developments.) And that business about how dinner’s at 5 and then you come back for “practice and troubleshooting” afterwards and if you have a drink with dinner you’ll be sent home and/or expelled has been amended.
“You can have one beer,” the Bowmaker says. “Not six.”
Monday. We are going to learn to cut the piece that fits in the pointy “head” of the bow.There’s another piece that goes in the ‘frog”, where your hand would go, if one played a string instrument. The “frog” can get pretty gnarly, Narcoleptic Daughter says.
“Hand cheese on bows is disgusting,” she says. “Bass players are the worst.”
Narcoleptic Daughter likes to make grand pronouncements. “I hate all modern art and all performance art.” No broad brush, there. She lives with her parents and knows her way around Bowmaking, Repair and Re-Hair, but prefers to talk than teach.
Narcolepsy, she says, is such a big bummer! You can never sleep well, so you’re tired all the time! (This sounds to me like menopause, but I would not dream of boring a roomful of strangers thereof.) Fortunately, she tells us, she has a new prescription! She asks the West Virginia Woman, who works in a clinic, “Do you know anything about Schedule B Medicaid pharmaceutical benefits?”
“I work with patients with Lyme disease and shingles,” West-By-God says.
(Editor’s note: if one grew up in northern Virginia in the ’80s, and listened to DC-101 on the radio, there was a redneck shock jock who referred to our neighboring state to the west as “WEST BY GOD VIRGINIA!”, which became as imbedded as classic rock itself, not to be confused with “NORTH KAAAAKALAAAKEE” for North Carolina, to the south).
Now we are going to remove some parts and cut a “mortice” for the “head” (the pointy part of the bow) with our chisels. The Bowmaker cuts a complex 4mm angled piece that looks like an upside-down flat-topped pyramid with asymmetrical sides in approximately 20 seconds. Is he teaching, or showing off? He remarks that he has done this “at least 40,000 times.”
I can’t wrap my head around it, nor have I ever used a chisel before. He gives me a tiny display model to copy. I tape it on my cutting board with blue tape, like a tooth of God.
This is tedious, tiny, frustrating, tricky work. It would be so, so nice to have some quiet. The Texas Brown-Noser is like some barky-dog-baby, and you sit there thinking, surely they will run out of breath? But he, like the dogs and babies, never does. He, the Bowmaker, and the Narcoleptic Daughter have this gross, esoteric cooler-than-you, name-dropping banter. He follows Narcoleptic Daughter to lunch like a puppy dog.
“How long does a re-hair take?” someone asks.
“As long as it takes,” the Bowmaker says. “Some are hand-to hand combat.”
At no point does the Bowmaker go around the room, as a good waitress might, asking, “You doing ok? Do you have any questions?”
“I had a professional fiddle player bring in her bow. She said she was careful, but I hear she smacks guitars with it.”
“Daniel Majesky, principal of Cleveland, played 24 caprices with one intermission!”
“Cleveland, Chicago, Boston. I think a lotta symphonies hurt themselves with endowments. Pittsburgh had a $100,000 endowment.”
“There was a tone winner, but his craftsmanship was lacking.”
After (not-beer) dinner, we return to the classroom for “practice and troubleshooting”, and the Bowmaker HAS THE TV ON. And leaves it on, ignoring us. A large-screen TV, with a program about a guy who makes rockets. Not having, or watching, TV, I feel immediate shock and profound irritation. So we just paid $1100 to watch the Bowmaker watch TV!
Like the rockets themselves, we’re just gonna sit here and wait for the trickle-down glitter.
Tuesday. Narcoleptic Daughter’s recurring, daily dramatic monologue is about two things: Narcolepsy and Greyhounds.
I picture Narcolepsy as a funny Monty Python thing where you fall down randomly at parties and the grocery store for 40 winks, but her stories are always about sleeplessness and prescription drugs. I could weigh in on this, being on Pacific time, and I can’t sleep either. I asked my nice naturopathic doc for a week’s worth of some Judy Garland-grade sonic-boom pharmaceuticals, and she relented, but they don’t, in fact, work.
As for Greyhounds, well, people are trying to shut down Greyhounds because they’re worried about gambling, not animals. Besides, Greyhounds are meant to race! It’s about gambling, not animals! I am getting so, so, sleepily very tired of her talking. Maybe Narcolepsy is catching?
Today we are learning the ‘frog” mortice, another wood 4mm flat-topped inverted pyramid, but narrower and different. I ask for another display model, and the Bowmaker gives me one, with a “T” for top and an “H” for where the hair will go. But alas, a capital H, upside-down, still looks like a capital H, so I spend the morning making it upside-down. I have been imagining it backwards. I try to explain the honest mistake of the H. Now I see that this flat-topped pyramid, inverted, has a ski slope in front and not much going on in back. The Bowmaker, clearly, thinks I’m an idiot.
Junior Philharmonic, one of my bench-mates, must leave early today to go conduct the Erie Junior Philharmonic. Foolishly, like a journalist asking a boring person questions hoping for a good quote, I ask about it. My sweetie Todd coaches the Junior Symphony, which is part of the Seattle Youth Symphony, so, I ask if Junior Philharmonic’s orchestra is high schoolers?
“IT’S THE ERIE JUNIOR PHILHARMONIC!” Junior Philharmonic says.
I still don’t know what the hell that is.
“If Stradivarius was a blend of coffee,” Narcoleptic Daughter asks, “what would it taste like?”
“Notes of tobacco and perfectionism.”
“No subtle notes of anything.”
“Would you drink it?”
Later in the day the Narcoleptic Daughter brings in her Greyhound.I love dogs, but I’m so annoyed, I won’t look at, or acknowledge, either one of them.
Wednesday. Junior Philharmonic is furiously recapping the events of last night.
“And I’m like, you’re playing accidentals! This is MINOR! You’re in MAJOR!”
It is 5:20 a.m. Pacific.
Green Tea time. Silent San Diego also drinks green tea. We are waiting for the mysterious hot water heater’s red light to come on, which, on this particular day, it never does. So I have trapped potentially the only cool person.
“Does it feel like 5 am?” I ask. “Because it is.”
“Yeah,” he says. “It’s a lifestyle thing. I like to get up at 9.”
9 would be early for what I like.
Silent San Diego says he works as a computer hacker, helping companies find holes in their systems. I ask if he gets to travel anywhere exotic. “Korea,” he says. So I ask about Korean food, which I know nothing about, and what exactly is Bimbimbap?
He says he has Celiac disease, the unfortunate gateway to a boring gluten-free diet, so this mysterious meat-egg-rice concoction served in a sizzling stone bowl remains a mystery for now. Sigh.
The young woman from Arkansas bursts into tears with no notice.
OH NO, are you hurt?
“I BROKE MY PLUG!” she says, sobbing.
Narcoleptic Daughter thinks it would be fun to hip NYC’s ‘Godzilla’ woman, who grew up in China, to the worst American ear-worms. She puts on the Muppets’ “Mahna Mahna”, on the big, loud TV, while we are chiseling tiny blocks, and then endless variations thereof including the Apricot Hellbeast.
I remember my OUTSTANDING BoseTM Noise Canceling Headphones, possibly one of the best gifts I have ever received, from Todd, and I put them on, with a little Charles Mingus ‘Blues and Roots”.
Todd and I had traveled to Guyayabitos “Little Papaya” Mexico, and on the flight back from Puerta Vallarta, in the seat behind us, was this drunk, loud-ass, talky-ass guy with two cute-as-hell little exotic puppies under the seat in front of him, thus enabling endless chatter. And then, on the next flight to Seattle, he was behind us ONCE AGAIN, after now-unrelenting Jack Daniels, And I went, embarrassingly, I suppose, off, on his ass, East C0ast style, and asked him if he could keep his voice down, which did not work, and the third person in our row, a smart woman, immediately snapped on her BoseTM Noise Canceling Headphones in a stroke of sheer inspirational brilliance. Allow me to suggest we all do the same.
In the way that you mention something in the presence of your phone and then start getting ads for the thing, Narcoleptic Daughter says, “I have sound-isolating headphones because my ADD’s really bad.” And I think, I have them for you.
“It’s a Bowmaker thing,” she says, randomly. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Having figured out the Frog Mortice, it is time to put hair in our bows. The tail-hair of the massive tail-hank is clamped with a pipe clamp and glued, looking exactly like a horse’s tail. Most would-be client people want white hair, but real white hair is yellow at the ends, old hair. So, you know if it’s perfectly white that it has been bleached. Beware.
Sometimes people want “salt-and-pepper” hair. They are dumb, as textures vary.
I forgot to tell you about the flies. This is some Plague Of Locusts shit. It is October, but it is weirdly in the 70s in Ohio (I had to go to Goodwill and buy T-shirts, having packed sweaters) and there are these flies. They land, itchily, on your arms in droves, as if trying to cut tiny 4mm blocks with a chisel while listening to endless yammering is not irritating enough. They especially favor Junior Philharmonic. I switched back to long sleeves yesterday.
“These flies!” Narcoleptic Daughter says from time to time.
Now dig this: as opposed to Fine Woodworking, I actually have done lots of hand sewing and embroidery, and now it is knot-tying time and I slay like a Girl Scout while these fat-fingered guys flail.I comb the hair, dampened, out like Barbie. In fact, I RE-HAIR A BOW.
I show the Bowmaker. “You have hair in your bow,” he says.
“So,” the Bowmaker asks Junior Philharmonic, who is some sort of music teacher, “do you have to use, like, 70 special pronouns now?”
A few white men cackle about how we’re just so oversensitive and PC nowadays.
“Can’t we just break people up into Musicians and Singers?” Texas Brown Noser cracks, to snickers.
The flies are too fast to slap, but don’t bet on the rest of this group.
My mantra is There is no wine in prison.
Narcoleptic Daughter shows up around lunchtime and starts talking about Greyhounds in .05 seconds. Silent San Diego has some pretty major allergies, perhaps she might have thought about that before bringing her dog to the classroom.
“It’s not the hair,” she says. “It’s the dander.”
But here it is, after lunch, and there still has been no talk of Narcolepsy. My little Bic lighter from my toolbox, for burning off the ends of my impeccable knots, is seemingly dead, however.
Narcoleptic Daughter shows me a trick where you rip off the silver head of the lighter and a tiny adjustable wheel resides within. A life hack, but with a price, as ever.
While she works her magic, she says, “I’m going to be in a sleep study. I have Narcolepsy. Possibly Sleep Apnea.”
Narcolepsy is now 3 and 0.
Thursday: This is the BEST day, for the Bowmaker has taken the majority of the class to see some Amish woodworking, and Silent San Diego, the Cleveland Man of Mystery, and I, have demurred, preferring to practice than be in a car for an hour plus with the rest of the class, and Narcoleptic Daughter says “I will honor that.”
She has brought two boxes of Danishes, a box of donuts and a bag of Halloween candy, although it is just the four of us until noon. That stuff gives me heartburn, and Silent San Diego is, of course, gluten-free.
“If I eat that stuff,” Cleveland Man of Mystery says, “I’ll go to sleep.”
“I can sleep anytime,” the Narcoleptic Daughter sighs.
And now I must tip my hater hat, because without the pesky distractions of her father and the Texas Brown-Noser, Narcoleptic Daughter is actually VERY helpful. And she asks if anyone has any questions, and here is my chance.
“I have concerns,” I say. “This is supposed to be a beginner class, but there are working professionals in this class. They should have their own class. Texas Brown-Noser and his endless brown-nosing, grandstanding and name-dropping is very distracting, yet you pander to him, constantly, to the detriment of all the other students who paid a lot of money to be here, plus travel and lodging.”
“He paid a lot of money too, and we can’t control the personalities,” she says, which is some classic HR bullshit, right there.
“No,” I say, “but you can manage your classroom dynamics. A good waitress would go around the room, checking on people.”
I’ve decided to re-hair a dreaded Bass bow. The Bowmaker hates them. But at least it’s big and beefy and not some wimpy little Violin thing. And this venture is made grander by the rare gift of conversation with the silent ones.
Cleveland Man of Mystery, the quietest guy, is my bench mate that sits to my right. He said that he “works in a lab,” but he casually drops, in an offhand way, that he also MAKES Violins, Mandolins and Guitars. The Guitars are his favorite. He worked in a Guitar factory for awhile and there was a guy who was making counterfeit Les Pauls as part of a big crime ring and that guy got spectacularly busted and went to jail. I ask if he has a shop in his house, and he says, “my house is a shop.”
If anyone should be some preening, cock-of-the-walk String Weenie, IT IS THIS GUY. But that is not how the Cleveland Man of Mystery rolls.
He says that he is from Ohio, and went to college in Cleveland. He tells us that during the steel-car-factory boom, which has now died and left Ohio as a desiccated old husk of a dead locust, once upon a time, there was a rubber factory in Akron, for tires. Lots and lots of people moved up from the South. Lots of Baptists. And this would explain Ohio’s religious, women-hating, Mississippi of the Midwest political values, which I’ve never understood, geographically or otherwise.
Cleveland Man of Mystery says that when he was in college he took a class on Comparative Religions. He had to visit, and report on, a variety of Ohio houses of worship. There was one church where the ministers were handling snakes and people were speaking in tongues and writhing in the aisles. He quickly determined that he could write a good summary without needing to stay. The faithful gave him the stink-eye as he walked out.
Over lunch, which I don’t eat, because I’m so excited to be finally turning a corner on this Bow Re-Hairing process, and digging, for once, the conversation, Silent San Diego talks about crows. I love crows too. He says they love peanuts in the shell above anything else, and that they and Blue Jays are both Corvids, and are known to be backup for each other in times of trouble. He has a Crow call whistle. See, I knew he was cool.
And then everyone comes back from the field trip at noon. Sigh. The silence was golden.
Now we will talk about Homeschooling. Narcoleptic Daughter, it turns out, was Homeschooled.( And your parents are…mmm-kay, copy that.) Come to find out, Texas Brown Noser and his quiet Instrument Repairman bench mate were also Homeschooled.
“I’m hearing a lot of people in this industry were Homeschooled,” Narcoleptic Daughter says. This would explain a lot.
I hate the way I have to approach the Bowmaker’s bench, meekly, him not looking at me, and be like, “Excuse me?” to ask a craftsmanship question. To which he likes to respond, “Look at your booklet.” Our “booklet”, a “Step-by-step guide” features too-dark photos and the vaguest language. So, it’s like I have to learn this by just sitting there doing it over and over and over.
Like music itself.
Friday. Now, all of a sudden, on the last day, I’m a rock star, because I’m the only one to Re-Hair a Bass bow. I’m not having it, that I’ve all of a sudden dazzled the Bowmaker with my magnificent craftsmanship. Obviously the Narcoleptic Daughter told him I complained.
Waiting for the Green Tea red light to come on (today it works), I hate to make conversation before caffeine, but our time is short.
“So,” I say to Silent San Diego, “you’re a computer hacker. Are we hosed for the next election?”
“Yeah,” he says. “It started with the printing press, spreading information, then disinformation, then propaganda. That’s how we got World War II. Now we have the internet.”
“Is it Russia?”
“It was, but China and Korea saw how easy it was and how well it worked,” Silent San Diego says. “We’re in for a good half-millennia of strife and warfare.”
Don’t you wish you were as cool as my cool-ass Bass Bow? “You’ve done a yeoman’s job,” the Bowmaker says.
That’s like something my Dad used to say. “You’ve done yeoman service.” Like the Junior Philharmonic, I still don’t know what this means.
Texas Brown-Noser has begun to kill flies. He’s gotten six so far in about as many minutes. The random WHAM! of the kill is a little disconcerting while handling a chisel, but as always, he is a super-achiever. There is something wrong with the Texas Brown-Noser.
“Why,” asks Junior Philharmonic, the first and foremost favorite victim of the flies, “didn’t you do this, like, eight days ago?”
“Anyone want to go in on goat skin?”
“The stuff I’ve been getting is not as nice.”
“Wurther’s shop sells kangaroo grips.”
“He thought it was Oak, but the box was beautiful.”
“What’s your ratio of shellac flakes to alcohol?” the Texas Brown-Noser asks.
I waste a lot of time trying to psychoanalyze my bullies, like the Bowmaker. What was it about me that made you hate me on sight? What was it that you perceived as weakness? Why rudely condescend to me all week, so that I had to learn Re-Hairing to spite you?
And then it comes to me! Ohio.
Descendants of the rubber factory snake handlers. The twin poisons of bad religion and bad food, constipating. The aforementioned Mississippi of the Midwest “values”.
And I’m a woman, artist, gardener, from the West Coast.
He thinks I’m a witch!
He is not wrong.
One thing I will say for myself is that I am seasonally appropriate.