What I Learned About Charlotte’s Web and The Elements of Style

When I brought my signed copy of Vacationland home from a live show and book signing by one of my favorite podcast personalities, Judge John Hodgman, I was determined that it wouldn’t just collect dust on the shelf. The signed copy was hard won by my valiant friend, who secured tickets to the signing against all odds, drove me through the dark, rainy streets of San Francisco to the event, and suffered vandalism to her vehicle on said San Francisco streets, all with good cheer and no complaint.

But reading Vacationland took some effort. I have a lifelong habit of neglecting to read signed books. Perhaps it’s some lingering shame at my shyness when meeting the author, or it could be I’m an eBookworm at heart, and paper books are for looking pretty on the shelf, not for reading.

When I found myself under the weather and sofa bound for several days, I seized the opportunity to devour Vacationland. I read it from cover to cover in less than 48 hours. Take that, procrastination.

Vacationland concerns Hodgman’s two vacation homes, one in Massachusetts, one in Maine. The home in Maine is near the residence of a famous American author. Hodgman drops hint after hint about the famous author’s identity, but never gives his name. As I feverishly flipped the pages of Vacationland, I became more and more intrigued by the mystery of the unidentified writer. Who was he?

In a fit of sofa sick day madness, I scoured the internet to investigate Hodgman’s clues. My sleuthing didn’t get me any closer to an answer. I was reduced to asking the internet if anyone knew who the mystery writer was in Vacationland.

Several someones did. Most agreed Hodgman’s mystery writer was E.B. White.

I pulled up E. B. White on Wikipedia and learned that I’d read not one, but two books by the author. I’d have never guessed these two disparate, but fundamental reads from my youth, were by the same writer.

E.B. White is famous for having written, among other children’s books, Charlotte’s Web. I will never forget this story, which I heard sitting in a circle of classmates at the feet of our elementary school librarian. Just the title can still evoke my first taste of dreading loss, then somehow finding sweetness and beauty in its inevitability.

But E.B. White did more than just write children’s stories. Turns out he is the White half of the celebrated Strunk & White Elements of Style. This is another volume that made a big impression on me early in life. Although the Chicago Manual of Style is now the more go-to authority on the nitty gritty particulars of written expression, Strunk & White will always be my first grammar and style love. Elements of Style is slim, succinct, and unapologetically opinionated. When I read it, the reasoning behind the rules, as much as the rules, themselves, shaped the way I communicate.

Thanks to Vacationland I learned that E.B. White hated the spotlight, hid out from publicity by sneaking onto the fire escape, and hid out from New York City in rural Maine. Hodgman expressed profound admiration for the man, particularly his desire to be known for his work, not as a personality. So I hope E.B. White would be pleased that, up until this year, I had no idea who he was, but his books have always loomed large in my life.

What I Learned About the Coolest Mashup Ever: The Stroh Violin

During my many years as a musician, I spent all my time at the back of the orchestra. I wasn’t hidden behind the other players for lack of talent, but because I’m a trombonist. Trombone players, and all brass instrumentalists, play tucked away behind the strings. Not only that, for every one trombonist in the orchestra, there are about five times that many violins. The reason? Brass instruments are much louder than strings. Despite my very visceral knowledge of the sonic strength difference between brass and stringed instruments, I was still floored when I heard 99% Invisible tell the story of the Stroh violin.

99% Invisible is one of the best podcasts I’ve found for evoking a sense of wonder while exploring everyday technology, old and new. The most recent episode I enjoyed, Mini-Stories, was especially fun since it covered so many cool topics: sack cloth sewing culture, the diaspora of fauna via the Colosseum, and then the tidbit that totally tickled me, the Stroh violin.

Imagine a violin in which the traditional wooden body is replaced by a brass horn. Like a griffin or a hippogriff, the Stroh violin seems almost mythic as an unlikely mashup. A violin and a trumpet.

Why does such a weird and wonderful invention exist? We already have a tried and true way to make violins heard over trombones: hire a slew of violinists!

99% Invisible did a beautiful job recounting the origin of the Stroh violin. In short, during the very early days of the recording industry, primitive recording equipment detected sound via a big brass bell (think of an old-fashioned Victrola, only recording sound instead of playing it). Turns out these brass bell recorders did a spectacular job detecting brass instruments. Trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba were recorded with ease. Unfortunately brass bell recording technology wasn’t so great at picking up stringed instruments. Early innovators attempted all kinds of creative ways to solve this problem, one of which was the griffinesque Stroh violin.

The Stroh violin recorded so well that the technology spread to a variety of stringed instruments. There were Stroh cellos and violas, Stroh guitars, Stroh ukuleles and mandolins. I’m dying to explore an instrument museum and see them all!

Of course advances in recording technology rendered the Stroh violin mostly a museum curiosity. But as I surf YouTube to satisfy my new Stroh obsession, it’s clear that the unique sound of the Stroh hasn’t been entirely forgotten, and a few eclectic musicians still put the unique timber and tone of  these vintage wonders to interesting use today.

A Whole New Experience: Sgt. Pepper’s Remixed

This Memorial Day we were home cooking ramen while listening to NPR podcast, All Songs Considered. The host interviewed Giles Martin, who just remixed a super deluxe edition of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, slated for release June 1st. Giles is the son of George Martin, the famous “Fifth Beatle,” who was part of the magic during much of the Beatles’ recording career.

My husband revealed a happy surprise, he’d pre-ordered the remix. What better way to spend the credits marinating in our Amazon account? Not long after this revelation, there was a knock on the door, and the album arrived on our doorstep— not only on a national holiday, but earlier than expected!

Deluxe doesn’t begin to describe the box set extraordinaire that arrived at our doorstep, but let’s get to the good part: the music.


The first thing I noticed was how prominent and professional sound effects were in the remix. The spliced calliope in Mr. Kite, and the animal sounds at the end of Good Morning, are striking examples.

I could hear each pizzicato in the background orchestra. My husband was blown away by the brass.

In his interview, Giles Martin discussed how he was able to uncover Ringo’s drums in the course of the remix, revealing textures and sounds lost in both the stereo and mono versions of the original album. True, but he also unearthed so much personality from George’s guitar. George’s solos sing in any mix, but there were so many little comments from that guitar I’d missed before. Some of the character I associate with George’s solo work were right there in Sgt. Pepper, all along: those humorously snide asides, tiny twangs like a lifted eyebrow, that express so much intelligence and attitude with the slightest gesture.

The depth of character of all the voices, singing or instrumental, was at a whole different level than the original recordings. A sound, or a note, isn’t made of a single pitch, but is actually the sandwiching of many different complementary pitches. These pitches are called overtones, and it’s the unique combination of these hidden sounds within a sound that gives a voice or an instrument its character and tone quality. Giles Martin did some real magic to coax those hidden overtones into peeking out, so the listening experience of the remixed album is a new and exciting experience.

You can check out the remixed Sgt. Pepper’s and a video interview with George Martin on Amazon.