Saturday, May 28, 2016

A Rant About Clothes for Women and Girls

Why can I buy a Rey costume at the Disney store, but no Rey t-shirts at Target?
My husband and I recently went to target to buy clothes for my sweet little girl, who is just about to turn three. As a nearly three-year-old, she's endlessly curious about everything, and has already learned to love many of the things I did at that age, including dinosaurs (doesn't everyone love dinosaurs?). We have dinosaur books, small plastic dinosaurs and large stuffed ones, and have watched plenty of dinosaurs in the movies and on TV. And yet, despite my daughter's love of dinosaurs, the one place we can never find them is the clothing aisle. There are girl's t-shirts with every princess in the Disney canon, as well as unicorns, frogs, brightly colored birds, and flowers galore, but not one dinosaur. For that, we have to cross over to the boy's section, where dinosaurs are de rigor.

My question is--when did dinosaurs become a "boy" thing, one that girls are subtly excluded from so far as clothing manufacturers and stores are concerned? Of course, it's not just dinosaurs. It's also Star Wars, dragons, and other fun, geeky things that many people, male and female, love. I have plenty of Star Wars and Game of Thrones t-shirts, all of which I bought for myself in the men's clothing section. I know other geeky/nerdy women who do the same thing (I've even seen other ladies wearing my same shirt at events). If on the off chance there is a Star Wars shirt in the women's section, it's of course in the same wretched thin, flimsy material they make all women's clothes out of these days. You know, the stuff ends up practically see-through after a couple of washes. What I wouldn't give for a geeky women's shirt made from real t-shirt material! And some dinosaur-themed girls t-shirts!
She loves Star Wars, too!
It's not that I don't like Rainbow Dash, or other "girl" characters. I do--I think Rainbow Dash is spunky and adventurous, a fun and interesting character for my daughter to enjoy. I'm even okay with Disney princesses, though I think they're over-saturated and dull. It's that it frustrates and annoys me that marketers seem to draw such harsh lines around what girls and women can/should like/buy. Especially when those lines make science topics like dinosaurs seem like "boy" things, even when tons of girls love them.

Until children's clothing designers and stores get a clue and make dinosaur shirts for girls and Game of Thrones shirts for women, it looks like my daughter and I will be crossing the aisle (or buying t-shirt from Amazon, who seems happy to carry dinosaur shirts for girls). I want my daughter to grow up knowing that dinosaurs and Star Wars are hers, and she can wear them on her shirts if she wants, no matter what some idiot executive thinks little girls like.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Cold Eye of Truth: Practicing Music Objectively

One thing I've noticed about writers, musicians, and creatives of all kinds, is the way we love playing to our strengths. After all, who doesn't like to practice the things they're best at? It feels awesome, and we can ride that feeling all day. But that's not always what helps us improve the most. Yes, it's great once in a while to play the pieces we're best at, but if we want to improve, we must have the strength to zero in on our weaknesses and take a look at our practice with the cold eye of truth. But how can we do that objectively, without either beating ourselves up or inflating our egos?

1. Recordings

This is where technology comes in handy. Videos and other recordings don't lie--they give us a chance to hear or see ourselves the way an outsider does. Make frequent recordings of your playing, including your performances, whenever possible. While I usually listen to practice recordings right away, if you have a particularly emotional intense performance (an important recital, etc.), it might be better to wait a few days, then listen. That way you have enough emotional distance to listen more objectively. Likewise, I think it's a good idea to think about listening for specific details as opposed to judging your overall performance with broad generalizations, like "good" or "bad." Instead, ask yourself questions like, are there sections where my rhythm is uneven, and if so, where are they? Don't just think, "that's out of tune!" Ask yourself specifically what notes are out of tune, and are they sharp or flat, and think about what you could do to improve them. Which brings me to...

2. Use Your Tuner and Metronome!

I like to tell my students that we can debate many things in music, from Historically Informed Performance Practices to subtle interpretations of phrasing and articulation. But some things are fairly objective, and those things include rhythm and intonation (for the most part--I know there's fierce debates about equal vs. meantone temperament, but let's set that aside for the moment). The metronome and the tuner will not lie to you, but give you a fairly accurate assessment of your playing. That's valuable information that we all need!

3. Audience Feedback

Even a non-musician knows when something sounds wrong or boring. Yes, some pieces aren't for everyone and some modern music has lots of dissonance that's meant to sound "wrong." But if an audience doesn't seem interested or actively dislikes what you're doing, then you have a problem, even if the problem is choosing the wrong repertoire for that particular crowd. If the audience feedback is vague or you're not sure what they don't like, hopefully you have a video or a recording you can use to try to identify the problem yourself.     

Facing our mistakes and weaknesses is one of the hardest things that we have to do as musicians, but if we want to improve, it's one of the most necessary. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Texas Scottish Festival and Highland Games 2016

While my family and I love going to Renaissance Faires, we'd never managed to make it to the Texas Scottish Festival until this year. Honestly, we weren't planning on going this year either, but the weather was nice and cool that day, so we thought it'd be fun to see. We had a great time watching events like the Women's Scottish Hammer Throw. 
Those hammer throws are very intense! 
We also watched the Women's Heavy Weight for Distance.
In addition to watching the athletic events, we heard some lovely harp music, and my daughter had a great time in the bouncy castle in the children's area. We enjoyed eating some of the festival food, including delicious meat pies and a yummy scotch egg. I got a beautiful amber ring at one of the shops. 
Overall, we had a good time. While the Scottish Festival didn't have as many costumes or booths as a Renaissance Fair, it was a fun family friendly event.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Review: The Invisible Ring and Tangled Webs

I've read quite a few books by Anne Bishop, especially her "Black Jewels" series, so when I found 
The Invisible Ring (Black Jewels, Book 4), I decided to pick it up, along with Tangled Webs: A Black Jewels Novel. The Invisible Ring is less of a follow up to the Black Jewels series than a prequel, with Daemon Sadi as the only overlapping character. I enjoyed The Invisible Ring, which shows some of the resistance to Dorothea Sadi's reign of terror, long before Jaenelle is even born.

The book follows a new character, Jared, a Red-Jeweled warlord who's been enslaved to a series of terrible queens. He murdered the last one, so he's auctioned off to a mysterious "Grey Lady," who's known for buying slaves who are never seen again. Yet Jared finds himself admiring the Lady, even falling in love with her, despite his hatred and fear of the evil abusive queens from his past. Of course, the Lady is nothing like she first appears, and as her and Jared undertake a perilous journey to the one province safe from Dorothea, they grow closer to one another. I won't reveal her secrets here, but I will say that Bishop caught me off guard a couple of times, and I'm notorious at guessing surprise endings and reveals in books of all kinds.

Overall, I thought The Invisible Ring was a good prequel to the "Black Jewels" series, with interesting new characters, and just enough of Daemon Sadi to keep me wanting more.

Unfortunately, I did not care for Tangled Webs: A Black Jewels Novel as much as The Invisible Ring. I enjoyed the depictions of the characters I've come to know and love over the course of the series, and Bishop had plenty of funny, joyful moments in the book to keep it interesting. But the overall plot felt a bit weak. There was never any question of the characters being in serious danger--their opponent was too weak, and Bishop's characters are too powerful. I find this is a problem I sometimes run into in video games or D&D--once player characters are high-powered, the villains/opponents must be equally powerful. If they're not, the game loses its thrill. Thrills, after all, require risk, and if your opponent is too weak, then there's never any risk.

Still, for fans of the series, Tangled Webs is a good depiction of ordinary life after the momentous events of Queen of the Darkness: The Black Jewels Trilogy 3. Of course, if you haven't read the series, I'd recommend it before you read any of the other books. It's excellent dark fantasy, although it has a significant amount of violence.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Neglected Repertoire

As a music student, I often fond myself learning pieces in the "standard repertoire." This meant a list of concertos or sonatas that were acceptable to audition and contest committees, that my teachers knew by heart, and that everyone else was working on as well. While I loved many of the pieces on the standard repertoire, others I learned because I had to, and I often longed to worked on something new and different.

Of course, the standard repertoire isn't just about audition music. It's also what orchestras typically play for concerts, and it definitely determines what soloists they hire. Since many orchestras are highly risk averse, that means few of them are willing to take a chance on hiring a soloist to play, say, Ernest Bloch's lovely Suite for Viola and Orchestra. In fact, it's rare to see any soloists at all who aren't playing violin, piano, or cello. Where are the lovely concertos for flute, or oboe, or clarinet? I've heard Vivaldi trumpet concertos performed, but only rarely, and surely there are guitar concertos out there that aren't Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez (though if there are, I've never heard them or seen them performed).

It's not that the standard repertoire isn't beautiful. I love a thrilling performance of the Beethoven "Emperor" Concerto or the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto as much as anyone. But I wish that I could see more performances of rare, less well known works, including pieces by modern or obscure composers. While I've played in the orchestra for Beethoven's Violin Concerto many times now, I've never heard a live performance of the violin concertos by Janacek or even Bartok (not with an orchestra, anyway). I've seen a few pieces at their world premieres, including an exquisite new viola concerto by Margaret Brouwer and Tea: A Mirror of the Soul, an opera by Tan Dun. Yet, it bothers me to think that many amazing pieces like these have a grand premier, then end up forgotten and rarely performed again. 

I'd like to see more musicians exploring and performing music outside the great standards. It's up to us to search out hidden gems and obscure treasures, and share them with the world. Even well loved composers often have pieces that for whatever reason, never make it into our recitals (when was the last time you heard a performance of J.S. Bach's Viola de Gamba Sonatas, instead of one of his Cello Suites?). There's a wealth of music out there, and we often only barely scratch the surface of this vast repository of history, culture, and art. It's time we looked farther and went deeper.  

What are some neglected pieces of music you've discovered? What composers do you think deserve more attention than they're usually given?

Friday, May 6, 2016

Review: Ancillary Sword

I read Leckie's Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch), and I loved it so much I couldn't wait to get my hands on the next book in the series, Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch). While I can't see that Ancillary Sword had the same driving energy and intense plot as Ancillary Justice, I loved Breq's interactions with her ship and crew, as well as the deeper look the author gives us at the rich world she's built. The brief glimpses Leckie shows us of the world outside the Radch, especially the alien Presger, give the reader enticing hints about the deep conflict that looms over all of human civilization.

However, I can see why this book was less satisfying to some fans than the original. Unlike the previous book, Breq's goals and actions in this book feel smaller, more provincial, and perhaps more indirect and frustrating. Yet, given Radchaai philosophy about how small, even seemingly insignificant actions can have a profound effect on the universe, it felt appropriate to Breq's character that she would seek out one of the few people in the universe who has personal meaning to her. What's more, Breq's encounter with the Presger ambassador felt like an important moment, even if its meaning won't be understand until later.

I did miss some of the characters from the first book--Seivarden could have had a larger role certainly, and even the loathsome Anaander Mianaai. Yet I did enjoy the new characters she introduces, including Lieutenant Tisarwat, one of the only humans who can understand what Breq's isolation.

Overall, I enjoyed this book enough to recommend it, especially to fans of the series. It is not a stand alone though, so make sure you read Ancillary Justice first. I've already ordered the last book in the series, Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch), off of Amazon, and I can't wait to read it.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Scarborough Renaissance Fair 2016

My family and I love going to Scarborough Renaissance Festival, and this year we had a great time! In fact, we're planning on going back this next weekend. 
Hammered Dulcimer at Scarborough Renaissance Festival
My first time playing a hammered dulcimer--a beautiful sounding instrument! One day I'd love to have a Medieval instrument of my own--a vielle or a dulcimer.
My sweet little girl feeds the hairy coo in the petting zoo!
My daughter feeds a cow at the petting zoo.
Now it's time to feed the emu!
A littler of piggies!
Pony rides! My daughter's favorite part of the fair.
I enjoyed watching Tartanic! 
Great group Dragon Age Cosplay--Hawke, Varric, and Fenris

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Listening to Podcasts

Until recently, I never really listened to podcasts. After all, I had NPR and Audible, so I figured my listening needs were covered. Yet after I started writing and submitting short stories to magazines, I found that several scifi/fantasy magazines have podcasts. Since I'm trying to read at least some of the magazines I'm submitting to, I figured I should give the podcasts a try as well. Since I've started listening, I've heard some incredible stories, including some amazing science fiction and fantasy. 

1. Podcastle

I got a subscription to Podcastle after I started submitting my stories to them (so far, I've made it into their second round, but no sale yet). They've easily been my favorite podcast, and the one I listen to the most. Not every story is a hit for me, but the ones that are, including "Opals and Clay" by Nino Cipri, "Hands of Burnished Bronze" by Rebecca Schwartz, and "Beat Softly My Wings of Steel" by Beth Cato, have knocked it out of the park. These are great stories--the worlds and characters the writers create are unique and original, yet so real it feels you could visit them in real life. The narrators are expressive without overwhelming the text. I'd recommend Podcastle to anyone who enjoys fantasy or listening to stories--it's perfect for a daily commute. 

2. Escape Pod

I got a subscription to Escape Pod for the same reasons I started listening to Podcastle, at the same time. Of course, Escape Pod and Podcastle are own by the same company, but while Podcastle is dedicated to fantasy, Escape Pod is for science fiction (Pseudopod is their horror podcast, which I've submitted to, but not subscribed to yet--I'm afraid it might be too scary for me:). Escape Pod was the first podcast I ever listened to--I decided to give it a try since I hadn't picked a new book on Audible yet. I haven't heard as many Escape Pod stories as I have Podcastle stories, but the ones I have listened to are very good. I especially loved "Among the Living," by John Markley, a haunting tale about a futuristic firefighter in the aftermath of a terrible disaster, beautiful and heart-rending. It's well worth checking out for fans of scifi.

3. Renaissance Festival Podcast

As anyone who follows my blog knows, I love Renaissance Festivals. So when I found the Renaissance Festival Podcast, I couldn't resist checking it out. It was fun and vibrant, more like a festival news show than an audio story. Though it's different in tone than Podcastle or Escape Pod, I loved hearing the wide variety of music and discussions--even the "commercials" were funny and enjoyable.