Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Time in a Bottle

It's been over two years since I wrote a blog post.  Why?  No idea.  In the height of my blog, I wrote down interesting things as they happened in a little notebook, then wrote a post that night.  In Edinburgh, in 2012, I used to stay up till 4:00 AM Saturday nights just writing, while it was fresh.

On December 13, 2014 I wrote the account of a long marathon busking day in Northampton, in full elf regalia.  Then what happened?  I guess I hit a slump.  I still busked, but that's all I did.  I didn't blog.  I didn't record Youtube videos.  I didn't implement new puppet features or arrange new songs.  Was I not arranging songs because I was over it, or was I over it because I wasn't arranging songs?

I'm not sick of busking itself.  I'm just sick of my repertoire, and the interpersonal challenges.  I'm sick of interactions like this recent one:
          Man: "Can I take your picture?"
          Me: "Sure, I just appreciate a small donation for photos." (Only said because I was worried about not making money that night.)
          Man: "I might or I might not.  Give me a smile anyway."

I have drafts of blog posts saved.  One from an exciting day in Northampton in April of 2015.  One featuring comments from religious zealots in Canada, September 2015.  A long draft about busking in the subways in Boston from February of 2016.  I really think I just forgot to finish and post these.  And there were the big epic holidays that I never documented: Halloween in Toronto.  Elf Season #6.  New Year's Eve.  Fourth of July.  Not to mention the infinite one-liners.

But this isn't the post where I catch up.  This is the post where I pledge to catch my reader(s?) up on my tricky months living in Northampton, an autumn in Ontario, moving to Boston, that super-exciting first New Year's Eve here, playing in subway stations, etc.  My goal is to catch up by the time I start grad school at the end of June.  But I'm afraid that most of the content is lost, since I no longer take notes while I perform.  My inactivity compromised the output potential.

On December 31st, 2015, I sat in a living room, exhausted from busking for hours, and coaxed my friends into cheesily sharing goals for 2016.  Addressing my slump aloud for the first time, I told them how I hoped to be more of a busker that year.  To give it my all.  I awoke the next morning to find my image on the front of the Boston Globe.  Good sign!  But the rest didn't follow.

And so I'll end this prologue to the posts to come with the anecdote that provides context for the title of this post:

It was the 4th of July, 2016, and I was playing on the Boston Common.  At nine hours, it was my longest marathon ever.  Towards the end, an old man wearing pants with fireworks patterns on them approached me with what was unmistakably ballon twisting materials.  We had a nice chat, since I, too, was wearing Independence Day apparel and hoping to make money off of celebrators.

This man, for some reason, assumed I was wet behind the ears, and advised me to develop a large repertoire of popular music so I could play people's requests.  He told me about a time that he requested "Time in a Bottle" from a busker who could play anything.  After we said our goodbyes and the balloon guy started walking away, I launched into "Time in a Bottle," for the first time.  I was hoping for a smile that said "Aww, I was wrong, you CAN play songs on the spot and now you're playing the one I just mentioned that I like!"  He didn't turn around.

This post sounds sad, but really it's hopeful.  I am happy with the role busking has in my life right now, even if I wish I was more motivated, and I am above all grateful for what I have already accomplished.

If you're so inclined, stay tuned.

Friday, February 3, 2017

John Dumas: In Memorium

Earlier this week, I was saddened to hear about the death of John Dumas, manager of Ted's Boot Shop in Northampton, MA.

Throughout my busking career, certain people have stood out as incredibly kind, supportive, and welcoming.  John was one of them.  The grandson of the original owners of Ted's, he has been the manager there for decades.  I wouldn't have pegged the gruff marine veteran as someone who would get excited about elves and puppets, but he certainly proved me wrong.  John and I are as different as two people can be, but shared a mutual affection.

Photo from The Republican/Don Treeger

The busking pitches are few in Northampton, especially with the [aggressive] addition of Thornes' planters, so the sidewalk across from Ted's became my go-to pitch whenever I was in the area from about 2013 through 2015.  Sound wafting through doors and spectators blocking store entrances are inevitable issues that cause many businesses to complain about buskers, but John and his staff showed no signs of distress.

In fact, John routinely invited me inside to use the staff bathroom.  On cold December days, he demanded I come inside to warm up.  He coaxed his new employees into stepping outside to check out my act, and during his frequent cigarette breaks encouraged passersby to stop and watch.  If a crowd had gathered, he came outside just to make sure they had noticed my marionette's and my matching outfits.

In December of 2016, I returned to Northampton to busk after 18 months away.  John warmly greeted me and welcomed me back.  I occupied my mind that day thinking about my lovely relationship with Ted's, including the fact that I can see my reflection in their window, reminding me to smile.  I took this picture of exactly that.

Checking out my elven reflection
That day, I decided to ask John to take a picture with me, because I wanted to write him a shout-out on social media to commend him for his warmth and generosity over the years.  I chickened out, figuring I'd be back someday and would have other opportunities.  But no.

John was only 59, and seemed perfectly healthy (except for smoking) when I last saw him.  I don't know why he died, but I do know he was too young.  My heart truly goes out to his family, some of whom I knew from the shop, and friends.  I didn't know John well, but his extraordinary support went a long way.  He was truly a patron of the arts, and Northampton won't be the same without him.


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Slacker's Guide to Pumpkin Portraits

Happy Almost Halloween!  In a complete deviation of the purpose of this blog, I wanted to document the steps I took to create my Bernie Sanders jack-o-lantern, minimal as the likeness might be.  I call this the "slacker's guide" because this is pretty much the bare minimum you can do if you're ambitious with your pumpkin plans but not a gifted artist.  Here's the final product, along with our beloved presidential hopeful it's supposed to resemble:

Twins, right?  I originally had the idea to do Donald Trump, but that was way too scary.  If I had to spend several hours looking at a mug, I much prefer Bernie's.  I did some research into how to carve detailed faces on pumpkins, and it required skills at Photoshop or the equivalent, so I fiddled around with doing it without these.

STEP 1: Choose a photo.  One where the subject is front on, not looking to the side at all (unless just his/her eyeballs are, like Bernie here).

STEP 2: Prep it.  Your goal is to make a stencil where the dark areas are black, the light areas are white, and everything else is gray, with high contrast.  Upping the contrast to make the darks black enough adds shadows to other features, like the eyes, at which point you use Photoshop to fix that.  But I don't have the software or skills, so I decided to render it semi-stenciled and do the rest manually.  I did use iPhoto and Sumo Paint online for basic edits.

I got a photo off the internet...

Cropped it...

Made it black and white...

and upped the contrast to the maximum...

But this wasn't contrast-y enough.  So I saved this image to my desktop, imported it to iPhoto again to get a fresh start, then increased the contrast a second time.

I still wasn't satisfied with the contrast, so I re-imported it again.  Upped the contrast more, and this time I upped the exposure too to make the whites whiter.  

STEP 3: Remove excess black background.  This is only if you care about saving printer ink.  If you have MS Paint, you're good to go.  I do not, sadly, so I used an online photo editor called Sumo that did the trick.  Go to Sumo Paint, and click "Try Online."  Go to File, Open from My Computer, and get your image up.

Oops!  Bernie grew a mole on his noggin.
Go to the Eraser tool, then choose your ideal shape.  I went with Diamond.  On the right, make sure to change the color to white (unless you really need to use up cyan printer ink or something).  I also recommend increasing the diameter of your erasing tool.

Erase away the background so you can print just your subject's face!  Make sure to leave a border so you can tell where noggin ends and abyss begins.

When you're done click File, Save to Cloud, and after a bazillion seconds it'll show it huge on the next page.  I simply right clicked on the image and chose "Save Image."

Step 3: Print it!  I opened the picture with a Google Doc, shrunk it a little bit to fit my pumpkin, and printed from there.

Step 4: Blacken the blacks.  The idea is that you have extreme areas of black (uncarved pumpkin) and white (carved away pumpkin), and anything in the middle you will partially carve away but leave some pumpkin flesh intact.  It is important that you cannot have "islands" of black, since the face needs to support itself, so find a way to have all black parts connected.  I used a Sharpie to enhance my black areas.

Looking more and more like FDR!
Optional: cover the print-out with a blank sheet of paper against a window and trace the black.  If it's recognizable, you're good to go.

Then you're ready to carve!  Cut out your face and tape it to your hollowed out pumpkin.

Use a pin to make a dotted outline of expanses of white, through the paper, into the pumpkin.

Peel the stencil back, and cut out those areas.  I used an X-acto knife for the detail work.

Keep doing this down the face.  I cut each area smaller than it needed to be, since more can always be carved.

After I got most of the white cut, I just eyeballed the rest, comparing it to the print-out I had.  I found it helped to remove just the outer skin on areas I wanted to be non-black, then you can alter the depth of the cuts based on how light that part should be.

I decided it was "finished," but it didn't look right.  So I reduced some of the black spots and added more hair.  It was supposed to have a curved line on the left side of his forehead to separate hair from head, but it fell off.  Oops!

I recommend going into a dark bathroom and checking how it looks often.  Here's the finished product by day...

And by night...

Happy carving!

Monday, February 2, 2015

How to Fur-Line Boots

I know I know, I have been writing far too many posts that deviate from this blog's purpose, and it's time for me to start a proper crafting blog.  But until then, here's to versatility!

I just finished this weekend's snowed-in crafting/sewing project, and, feeling quite pleased with myself, I wanted to share my process.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you....home-fur-lined boots!

Wow!  Ooooh!  Aaaahhh!

1. Pair of boots with extra room in the leg
2. Fake fur.  I bought one foot of 60-inch fur. 12" was good to cover the height, but I had extra lengthwise, inevitably
3. Velcro
4. Glue, maybe
5. Pencil, ruler, sewing machine

A little super-fascinating background...
I bought these Merrell boots several years ago, and they served me well.  However, they were on the way out the door to retirement because one of the zippers was totally broken and the heels were worn down.  I decided to treat myself to new boots this year, and I wanted fur-lined ones because they're super cozy.

The "fur" I bought, made from real polyester sheep.
But, to my dismay, perfect boots were nowhere to be found.  After exhausting local shoe stores and the internet, it looked hopeless that I would find boots in my size that served my needs before winter was over.  So I pulled these boots out of retirement and brought them to Paul's Shoe Repair in Amherst for a new zipper.  "Paul" told me he could redo the heels as well, and it was in the shop that very day that I had the idea to take on the project of making a fur lining myself.  

Brand new zipper
New heel
One complaint I had with these boots is that the calf openings are very wide.  I have big feet (these are 11s, I think!) but that doesn't mean I have enormous calves, Merrell!  A bonus of this project was that the fur filled that extra space, giving them a slimmer fit.  For this reason, if the boots you're lining already fit your leg well, they might be too tight if you add fur.
Well-worn boot
Although furry boots are perfect for winter, they can be too much for fall and spring.  For this reason, I wanted my fur lining to be removable, and I opted to have it Velcro into place.  This means when the fur's not in I'll have permanent Velcro inside my boots, but oh well. 

I didn't have too much confidence that this project would be successful, since I was completely winging it, but I am pleased with the results!

Step 1: Attach Boot Velcro 
 I used self-adhesive velcro for the inside of the boot because I obviously couldn't sew it in.  My experience with self-adhesive velcro has been bad, since it falls off, but I was feeling lazy.  I did already lose one of the bottom pieces because I wore the boots mid-project and the action of putting my foot in the boot dislodged it, so I re-attached that one with Aleene's Fabric Glue.  If the others fall off, I'll just glue them in as well.  I did velcro along the very top of the boot, up to the zippers, and at the bottom of the leg part above where the material changes.

Use the soft side, please, or you will regret it when the fur's not in!  Ow!

On the bottom...

...and on top
Step 2: Geometry
I had planned to just cut a rectangle of fur and trim it to match the layout of the boot, but as I began measuring the inside I realized the boot is made of three triangles, as you can see above, so therefore the lining should be too.  I dusted off my old 10th grade geometry skillz and measured these triangles.
Outstanding precision and handwriting on my part
Step 3: Cut out pieces
I used geometry tools of yore (ruler, square....pencil) to measure out my three triangles, leaving seam allowances of 1/2" on the sides and 3/4" on top.  I decided not to hem the bottom, because it would be bulky inside the boot and unnecessary. 

Look at that spread!

Step 4: Sew!
Connect the side pieces to the center piece...

I used a regular stitch...

Followed by a zig-zag stitch...


Then trimmed those seams to 1/4" and flattened them using more zig-zag.

Then hemmed the sides...


And top...    

Step 5: Add Fur-side Velcro
I sewed one long piece of rough-side Velcro across the top, the bottom of it lining up with the bottom of the hem.  I didn't go all the way up because I wanted some fur to stick up and be visible above the boot.

I used three separate pieces for the bottom because of the angles.  #geometry

 Regular stitch plus zig-zag, for strength...

Ta-da!  All done!  I forgot to take a picture of the other side, and now they're all snug in the boots.

Step 6: Fluff

Because fur gets stuck under the stitches, it looks a little nicer if you just pull some of it out with your fingers.

Step 7: Insert into boots

You know what to do; Velcro to Velcro (dust to dust).

I am generally pleased with how they came out.  Even with the large initial calf openings, the addition of fur has made the boots snug, so I can't wear them with multiple layers of leggings.

You might notice that since the fur is attached at the top and bottom but not sides it just sort of hangs there, and I'm going to try leaving it like that.  Once they're zipped up the fur's not going anywhere.  In fact, the Velcro isn't necessary at all, but it's nice to keep boots together as a unit when I take them off at the movies, for example.

The linings also don't look fabulous, but they're invisible inside!  I'm excited to start wearing these boots again!