Mo is go, or no?!

For the past few years, I’ve been at least superficially aware of Movember – the annual growing of moustaches for fun and charity that takes place in the month of November. I have, however, generally not paid too much attention to it since I already have a perfectly good moustache as part of my full set of whiskers and had no intention of losing the rest of the beard.

A few weeks ago, one of my friends who has done Movember at least a couple of times in the past (though I’m not sure if he’s ever gone in for the fund-raising aspect of it) asked me, as he has done for the past few years, if I was going to do Movember this year. As usual, I just laughed at him (in my typical kindly fashion).

I expect you can see where this is heading…

Last week, I saw a poster which prominently featured the word November in a font with a very curly serif that, in conjunction with a bit of wire hanging in front of the poster, made me misread the ‘N’ as an ‘M’. A few days later I came very close to blowing a surprise birthday party that I was due to go to the following night by almost saying “see you tomorrow night” to the person whose birthday it was when he phoned me about something completely different just when I’d been making travel arrangements for the party with some other friends; I later remarked to them that I’d had a close shave, but felt the need to add that it wasn’t a literal one.

The following morning, when I woke up, all these various strands converged in my head to form a plan that I’m still undecided as to whether it’s a stroke of genius or just plain crazy. I suspect probably the latter.

As you will probably know if you’ve ever met me in the last 20 years or so, or seen any pictures of me taken in my adult life, I have a beard. I’m also very attached to it. In fact, the last time I shaved was in the summer of 1995, a month or so before I went off to university. I did come quite close the following year when I accidentally put the wrong guard on my beard trimmer and gave myself unintentional designer stubble, but that’s another story!

Over the years, I’ve had quite a few requests from people to see me without my beard (although to my own recollection I look even worse without it than I do with it), and if I’d had £1 for each of those times I’d probably have made quite a bit of money by now.

So, I had a closer look at the Movember website to see what it was actually raising funds for. I’m fairly sure that a lot of people do the Movember thing purely for fun, and others use it as a vehicle to raise money for other charities, but the Movember Foundation itself (which, incidentally is a registered charity in the UK – and I gather also across many other countries) is all about support for men’s health issues. To quote their own FAQ, their purpose is to raise “funds and awareness for prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and mental health and suicide prevention.”

I have had at least two friends who had prostate cancer. One of them (Peter) survived but sadly the other (John) didn’t. It is, therefore in honour of them, as well as to support the general work of the Movember Foundation, that I have decided this year to do the Movember challenge.

To do it properly, one is supposed to start with a clean shaven face at the beginning of November. This would, obviously, require (at least temporarily) the sacrifice of my beloved beard. So I have decided to share the challenge.

Here’s the deal: I challenge you – the rest of the world (and especially anyone who’s ever pestered me to get rid of my beard – you know who you are!) – to collectively donate at least £500 to the Movember Foundation through my MoSpace (which is the rather charming name they have for an individual’s or group’s fundraising page on their website). If that target is reached, or preferably exceeded (the more the merrier) by the end of October, I will shave my beloved beard off on the morning of 1st November, grow a moustache for the rest of the month and hold off on growing the rest of my whiskers back until December rolls around. If the target isn’t reached, the money that has been raised will still be going to this excellent cause (men’s health – not the liberation of my face from its fuzzy cladding) and my chins will stay hidden. I can but hope, but I’m not telling you (largely because I’m not sure myself) in which direction!

Coming Soon

I was aware that it was a little while since I posted anything on my blog, but I was surprised to discover when I looked just now that my last post was way back in April.

Since then I’ve done some exciting things such as visiting Canada (my first transatlantic expedition, complete with a very short stop in Iceland), acquiring a lute, having a successful summer of competitions with the Menai Bridge Brass Band, brewing my first batch of homebrew beer from scratch (actually that was done before my last post, but I was waiting to see how the results were before I blogged about it, and somehow never got round to it, although they were more than satisfactory), coming up with one or two other minor culinary innovations, upgrading my phone and re-reading both the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. There have also been a few less joyous experiences, such as another spoke-related bike fail.

I will probably get round to blogging about some (though certainly not all) of that stuff sooner or later. First, though, is an exciting (and, for me, slightly scary) announcement that, all being well, will appear round about this time tomorrow on the blog…

On being mistaken for a lumberjack

While I was walking home from a dentist’s appointment this afternoon, a kid (who judging by his size and uniform was in the early years of the local secondary school) asked me if I was a lumberjack. Being the truthful chap that I am, and not disposed to enter into a lengthy dialogue with half my mouth still numbed by anaesthetic, I answered with a curt (but hopefully fairly friendly sounding) “no” and a probably somewhat lopsided attempt at a smile. It left me slightly perplexed, though, as I don’t think I was looking or acting particularly like a lumberjack at the time.

Admittedly, my beard is currently in fairly bushy mode (not that I’d think of that as a particularly stereotypical lumberjack trait) and I was wearing cargo trousers, a denim jacket and a woolly hat. However, I wasn’t wearing one of my checked shirts or carrying an axe or other tools of the woodchopping trade, and I wouldn’t have thought that my slightly tatty deck shoes would particularly suggest this as my vocation.

It did cross my mind (once it was too late to ask) to wonder whether the kid has recently discovered Monty Python’s “Lumberjack Song” and is asking the same question of every random stranger that he meets on the street. Otherwise it seemed a very odd question.

This incident reminded me of a couple of previous occasions when people have made suppositions about my identity based on my appearance. Both, as it happens, were to do with my leather hat. It’s one that I picked up quite a few years ago on eBay and tends to be my go-to hat for most of the year as it combines the practical virtues of being reasonably waterproof for when it rains, having a chin-strap to keep it attached in windy weather and having a nice broad brim to keep the rain and (less often) the sun out of my eyes, as well as providing protection against seagulls and preventing too much heat loss through the top of my head. It’s actually from South Africa, though I suppose it does look a bit like an Australian bush hat or an American cowboy hat. Hence the confusions…

The first was not all that long after I got the hat, when I was asked by a couple of slightly drunk blokes at Crewe station if I was Crocodile Dundee. I’ll spare you the gory details of that story!

The second was on the ferry across to Ireland last summer. On this occasion I wasn’t addressed directly but, while I was queuing to get off the boat, I heard a small child a little way behind me loudly asking his Dad if that was a cowboy ahead of them in the queue. It’s possible my leather jacket may have contributed to the impression, but I think it was mostly based on the hat and it was fairly obvious that he was referring to me. It wouldn’t have been so bad if he’d just asked once and forgotten about it, but there followed a near constant stream of cowboy references and questions for the next several minutes. I suppose I should probably have put him out of his misery by turning round and either gently correcting his mistake or blatantly lying and telling him that yes, I was a real live, genuine cowboy — my inclination was strongly towards the former option as I don’t generally like to play too fast and loose with the truth and wouldn’t want to set a bad example for impressionable young minds. Sadly, though, my natural shyness kicked in and I just spent a few uncomfortable minutes hoping that either the kid would shut up or everyone else would somehow assume he was talking about somebody else.

In fact, now I cast my mind back, I can think of several other examples of times when I’ve been mistaken for other types (such as a pirate or a biker) based on what I was wearing. Still, I’d better stop working now so that I can sleep all night and then, as tomorrow is Wednesday, go shopping and have buttered scones for tea.

How far will they go?

If I had to list my favourite films, it’s almost certain that there would be several Coen Brothers offerings on the list.  For sure, both O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Fargo would appear very near the top of the list.

I discovered today that a spinoff TV series to Fargo has been made, sharing its name, Minnesota setting and more-or-less  black comedy crime drama style.

The first season was made, or at least broadcast last year, and was set about 8 years earlier (which puts it about 20 years after the film, which was released in 1996 but apparently set in 1987).  I gather there’s a small amount of overlap, including a scene where some of the characters from the series find the money that was hidden at the end of the film,  and probably quite a few references (also to the rest of the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre), but no direct cross-over between cast or characters.

The second season is due to be released next month (in the States) and will be set back in 1979.  Again, there’s due to be little direct cross-over with either the film or the first season but there will be some links.

Apparently several more seasons are planned and each one is due to be essentially self-contained, with its own time period, storyline and cast but some links to the other seasons and the film.  The Coen Brothers are, with several other people, executive producers for the show (at least for season 1) but don’t appear to have been directly involved in writing or directing it.

I haven’t yet seen the series, though I’m sure that’s only a matter of time.  I have mixed feelings about the idea but I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve actually seen it.


Carving a butterfly

Sometimes it’s quite fun to do something totally random on the spur of the moment.

For instance, this afternoon I made myself a new paper knife.

This came about because I’d been pruning the buddleja bushes in my garden, a task I’ve been meaning to do for several weeks.  Today has been a lovely sunny day and I didn’t have to go out or do anything much else, so it seemed like a very good opportunity.  Following advice I found on several websites after a quick Google search, I went for fairly heavy pruning.  This resulted in quite a lot of material cut off, including several fairly chunky bits.

It occurred to me that the bigger offcut pieces might work quite well for whittling, a hobby that I’ve been meaning to try for quite a while (I did a little bit when I was growing up, but nothing serious).

One piece in particular, with a beautifully curved and slightly gnarled end, struck me as having potential to make quite a nice paper knife, and it just so happened that I was in need of a new one of those for my office since someone seems to have walked off with my old one several months ago.

Since the weather was so fine and it seemed a shame to waste it by going back inside the house straight away, I decided to strike while the iron was hot and so I grabbed my penknife and set to work out in the garden.

Actually, the first step (which I did in the garage) was to cut the piece of wood down to roughly the desired length using a saw.  I then decided that for the blade section it would be much quicker to saw away quite a lot of the excess material rather than trying to carve it all the way.  I suspect this may contravene some people’s strict definition of whittling but I don’t really care.

I didn’t make a note of the time I started or finished but I think it probably took a bit less than an hour of whittling to get the knife more-or-less how I wanted it.  I then finished it off with a little bit of gentle sanding (which again may be against some people’s whittling rules but, since I wasn’t taking part in a competition or intending to sell my work as a hand-whittled product, seemed to be a good way of getting a nice smooth finish that will make the paper knife much more practical and pleasant to use).

Here’s what the finished result looks like:

Butterfly Knife #1

(You can click on the photo to see it bigger in my Flickr photostream, where you will also find several more pictures of the knife.)

I must confess that I’ve not actually tried opening any letters with this, since I’d already opened today’s post by the time I made it.  However, it fits quite comfortably in my hand and I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t work perfectly well.  All told, I’m very pleased with how it’s turned out, especially for a first attempt.

The next challenge is to figure out what to make from the other buddleja offcuts that I saved.

By the way, in case you’re wondering about the title of this post (which, as seems to be fairly common for my titles, is perhaps slightly off-the-wall) I decided that since my new paper knife is made out of buddleja wood and buddleja is commonly referred to as the butterfly bush (on account of it being very popular with lepidoptera) I would call this my butterfly knife (although it’s nothing like the type of knife usually referred to by that name – for which see the article on Wikipedia if you’re interested).

Here, by way of conclusion, is a picture of a peacock butterfly on one of my buddleja bushes last summer:


A g-g-great way to remember

Earlier today, I was trying to remember the correct terminology for kinship terms, as I wanted to respond to a Facebook post that my cousin made about her new niece.   My cousin’s sister is obviously also my cousin but I wasn’t sure exactly what that would make the relationship between me and her daughter.

My guess/recollection was that we are (first) cousins once removed, and this turned out to be correct.  While checking it (on Wikipedia, of course) I discovered a good mnemonic for remembering or calculating the degree of cousinship between two individuals.  It only works in English, although it’s possible that similar tricks could be devised for some other languages.

All cousins, of any degree, have common ancestors once you go back enough generations.  First cousins are the children of siblings (the cousins I was referring to earlier are the daughters of my mum’s brother).  This means that they have at least one grandparent in common (the terminology gets even more confusing when you start to consider step-siblings etc., so I’ll ignore them for the rest of this post).  Second cousins are the children of first cousins (e.g. if I ever have children they will be second cousins of my cousin’s daughter, i.e. of my cousin once removed) and hence have a great-grandparent in common, and so on.

First, second, third, …., nth cousins are at an equal distance from the closest common ancestor.  For example, my grandmother is also the grandmother of my (first) cousin.   If the distances are unequal, you get a “removed” relationship, with the number of the removal  being the number of steps away from equality.  My aforementioned cousin once removed is the daughter of my first cousin.  Her great-grandmother is my grandmother.   Going in the other direction, my parents’ first cousins are also my cousins once removed (their grandparents are my great-grandparents).

The degree of the relationship from which the removal is calculated is based on the nearer of the two distances to nearest common ancestor.   My cousin’s father is also one step away from me in proximity to my grandmother (his mother) but he is my uncle (and I’m his nephew – these terms don’t have the same symmetry as the cousin relationships, at least in English) rather than my cousin once removed.

To make things even more confusing, the term ‘cousin’ on its own can refer specifically to first cousins or more generally to cousins of any degree, including removed ones, or even people who are not actually strictly related at all.  Incidentally, I also figured it was easiest to refer to all relatives (including long-dead ones) in the present tense, since from a family tree point of view the relationships still stand (my great-grandfather is still my great-grandfather even though he died long before I was born).

The deliciously simple trick, as explained in the Wikipedia article on cousins (at least at the time of writing), is for working out the degree of “equal level” cousins.  All you do is work out the closest common ancestor (e.g. great-grandmother) and then count the number of ‘g’s (in this example, it’s two – giving second cousins).  For “unequal level” cousins, you start with the closer of the two distances to common ancestor (equivalent to the lower number of ‘g’s in the name) to get the degree, and then count the extra steps required on the other side to get the removal.

To return to the original example of me and my (first cousin’s daughter), our common ancestor is my grandmother and her great-grandmother (we also have a (great)-grandfather in common, but one is enough for the calculation); there is one ‘g’ in “grandmother”, so we’re looking at a first-cousin relationship; there’s one extra step of removal on her side, so she is my first cousin once removed (and as the terminology of cousin relationships is symmetrical, I’m her first cousin once removed too).

This post started out with the intention of being a short note, mostly for my own future reference, but seems to be turning into a full-scale treatise on the subject of kinship terms.  Rather than go on any longer I’ll leave you to read the above-linked Wikipedia article on cousins if you want to know more about the subject (in particular, check out the groovy diamond-shaped Cannon Law Relationship Chart near the bottom of the page).

Happy Birthday to us

Of all the bands I play with, or have played with, the oldest one by quite some margin is the Menai Bridge Brass Band.

This year we are celebrating our 120th Anniversary (though I’ve only been playing with the band for about 2 years).

We have had an excellent, if somewhat busy, year to mark this auspicious anniversary, with good results in several competitions and our first trip to the finals of the National Brass Band Championships for several years (we came 12th out of 19 bands in Section 4 but, bearing in mind that each of those bands came 1st or 2nd in their own regional contests a few months earlier, that’s not a bad result at all), as well as recording a CD (the production of which should be finished within the next few days).

The other big highlight of the year is coming up in about a fortnight’s time – a concert to celebrate our anniversary.  This will take place on Saturday 1st November at the secondary school in Menai Bridge (Ysgol David Hughes), a venue which should allow an audience of around 400 people.  All three bands that fall under the umbrella of the Menai Bridge Band (the senior, intermediate and beginner bands) will be performing along with guest soloists, including Gwyn Owen, a former member of our band who was a finalist for this year’s Bryn Terfel Scholarship (and who I look forward to meeting, as he had left the band before I joined).

Concert Poster

As well as the music itself, there will be a short presentation about the history of the band.  Apart from a break during the Second World War, the band has been running continuously since its inception, although it did dwindle to a very small size for a while in the 1960s.

Amongst other items, the concert programme will include a waltz (“Belinda”) composed by the band’s first conductor, George Senogles, and a piece (“Pont Menai”) written for us this year by local composer Owain Llwyd to mark our anniversary, as well as selections from the Vivat Regina suite by William Mathias, who was a long-term resident of Menai Bridge and one of the foremost composers in Wales; all these are also on our CD (if you’ll forgive a swift plug; NB copies should be on sale at the concert).

The intermediate band will be playing a piece that has been written (or possibly is even still being written) by its conductor, Hannah, to mark the centenary of the First World War, in which several members of our band went to fight; some of them did not return.

In case you were wondering, I play with all three bands: Bb bass (or tuba to the non-brass-band world) in the senior band and trombone with the others.

If you happen to be in North West Wales on 1st November you may like to consider coming along to the concert.