Saturday, March 27, 2010

Rebecca's Reviews: How to Train Your Dragon

I was right. This is the movie I have been waiting to see all my life.

Hiccup ought to get an Oscar nomination for best actor. The emotional timing, the body language, the way he reacted to everything with such honesty---it was perfect. And hilarious. Toothless is the coolest dragon to ever grace the silver screen. No doubt. His design, the way he moves, his attitude---loved it all. The story is epic---the tale of how one open mind, one kind heart, can change the world. There are amazing flying sequences, big battles, and the most perfect moment of father-atonement I've ever seen in a film.


Unfortunately, I'm in the middle of reading Joseph Campbell's "Hero With a Thousand Faces." I guess it's a thousand-and-one faces now that Hiccup is here. Though I feel very knowledgeable about why "How To Train Your Dragon" worked on a psychological level, this did not add to my enjoyment of the film, I can tell you that. Thanks to Mr. Campbell, I had a hard time seeing Toothless as himself, as a big fantastic wonderful scaly creature with wings, instead of everything the dragon symbolizes---the dark and powerful creative/destructive force that lies within us. Near the climax, when I was thinking, "Oh look, what an amazing moment of father-atonement!" my inner child said, "Hey, sit down! I can't see!" and my muse said, "Look, we're trying to watch a movie here." And what with all of that, the moment was lost. It didn't move me as much as I knew it should have.

So I'll just have to go see the film again, and leave my analyst outside in the lobby to study the movie posters.

The writing in this film is incredible. The dialog is lovingly crafted. Watch for the repeated lines that grow in meaning throughout the story, and then turn themselves around at the end. There was a perfect blend of comedy and adventure. Clever word play, situational humor, great visual gags, all that fun stuff, and it all added to the story rather than ever taking away. I laughed hard at the same time I was aching for the characters. The tragedies were tragic, just heart-wrenching. Real cost. Real pain. Real fear.

This is storytelling at its best.

And they did it all with dragons.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mind in a Whirl

I just finished reading The Adoration of Jenna Fox.

Mary E. Pearson must feel an immense satisfaction at having created such perfection, such a beautiful piece of literature. As for me, my head is still spinning so fast from all the stunning ideas, I don't know if my thoughts will settle down and let me get any writing done this afternoon.

Wow. One incredible book. And it's science fiction. YA science fiction.

The renaissance is here.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Sound Box

Today we'll cut the sides of the sound box and make the joints. You'll want to use the 1/2 inch blade on your band saw for clean, straight cuts.

To make the sound box, you need two boards, 4 ft by 3 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch. I get mine at Lowes. From one board, mark and cut a piece 29 3/8 inches long and another piece 12 inches long. Then from the other board, cut one piece 29 3/8 inches long and one piece 3 1/2 inches long.

Lay the box out. It helps if you have one of these cutting mats with a grid on it. I like to make a note on the inside of each board which direction is the top, bottom, front, and back of the box. I also draw a line down the middle of the inside of the top piece and the bottom piece of the box.

Next, take a your pencil and sketch the cuts for the joints. The sides are at slightly less than a 90 degree angle from the bottom of the box, and slightly more than 90 degrees from the top, so you'll need to angle the joints accordingly. The joints should be 1/8 inch deep at the deepest part, and a little less than that at the shallow part.

Raise the guide on your band saw so that it's high enough to get the board in there sideways, and very carefully cut the joints. Then reassemble the box and check to see if the joints are good. On this one the angle got too deep, so I took it back to the band saw and cut a little bit more off the outside edge.

Once you have all the joints cut, measure the box from the top to the bottom and make sure it is nearly 29 3/4 inches. If it is longer, you may need to make your joints a little deeper or the arch and pillar piece won't fit. If it is much shorter you may need to go back to Lowe's and get some more boards and try again.

But if you did it just right, you can slide your assembled box into your arch and pillar piece and stand it up like this:

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Arch and Pillar

If you're not familiar with harp terminology, the arch of a harp is that curvy part on top where the strings attach to the pins. The pillar is the piece that holds up the arch. In traditional harp making, these are cut as two different pieces and joined. I keep things simple and cut them as one piece out of plywood. Here's the template:
The grid is marked in inches. The green lines are the outline for the arch and pillar piece, while the red lines show where the box will go.

Trace the pattern for the arch and pillar piece onto a 4 ft by 4 ft sheet of 3/4 inch plywood. Lay the pattern out so the pillar runs along the grain. You should have enough room to cut out two. One for now and one for later, or one for yourself and one for a friend:
Rough cut the pieces using a circular saw or a table saw, and then cut them out with a 1/4 inch bandsaw blade. Sand the edges to get off all the bandsaw marks, and then fill any gaps with wood putty.

Next time: The Sound Box

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

How to Make Your Own Irish Harp for around $250

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, I'm going to start blogging about my harp-making process. This time, I'll include diagrams, plans, and instructions. In other words, YOU, dear reader, should be able to do it for yourself.

Here is what you'll need:
  1.  Complete hardware kit for the 29 String Studio Harp available at This includes strings, pins, wood screws, finishing nails, and even a tuning wrench. $74
  2.  A sheet of 1/8 inch, 5 ply aircraft birch laminate, at least 12 inches by 29 inches, cut with the grain running parallel to the short side. This can also be ordered from, but you may be able to find it cheaper somewhere else. Be sure and let them know which way you want the grain. $60
  3. Another sheet of 1/8 inch plywood, same size, but it doesn't need to be aircraft quality. 3 ply is fine. This will be for the soundbox back. $10
  4. One 4ft by 4ft piece of 3/4 inch oak plywood. This is for the arch and pillar. Available at Lowes. $35
  5. Four solid wood boards, 1/2 inch by 3 1/2 inches by 4 feet, also available at Lowes. They call them craft boards, and they come in oak, poplar, and pine. I recommend the oak or poplar. These will become the soundbox and part of the pillar as well. $20 - $40.
  6. A piece of 1/4 inch by 3/4 inch oak batten, 5 feet long, for the string rib. $5
  7. Your favorite woodworking tools. I use a circular saw, a band saw, and my Dremel (which has a router attachment). A table saw and a jig saw would probably work instead, if the jigsaw is big enough handle the 3/4 inch thick oak plywood. You will also need sand paper of various grits, 50 - 200, and paint brushes or soft rags for staining and varnishing. If you don't already have woodworking tools, I'm sorry but your harp is going to be more expensive than I said. But if you don't already have woodworking tools, you probably want to start with a simpler project. Just a suggestion.
  8. The strongest 30-minute epoxy you can find. $10
  9. A small can of wood stain and a small can of polyurethane. Even if you have these in the garage already, you may want to get fresh, new stuff. Especially when it comes to the polyurethane. $12
For a more complete supply list and full instructions, visit my How to Build a Harp page!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wishing for Dragons

When Pixar came out with the film "Toy Story," at first I was disappointed. Sure, talking toys were cute, but if someone had handed me a computer animation studio, I would have made something with dragons.

As time went on I came to love "Toy Story," along with the rest of Pixar's unusual fantasy films. Cars that talk? A rat that wants to be a chef? A fish whose son gets kidnapped by a dentist? The ideas sound like they will never work, but time and time again, they pulled it off---with great storytelling.

But now Pixar's rival animation studio Dreamworks has finally made the film I've been waiting fifteen years to see:

Looking forward to reviewing it on March 26th.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Dear Dad

My seven-year-old son pushed a much-folded sheet of paper into my hand. "I wrote a letter to dad at school today. Will you give it to him when he gets home?"

"Sure." I tucked the letter into my jacket pocket.

My son ran off to play with his brothers. At first I just sat on the front porch step and watched them bike round and round the driveway, but after a few minutes, curiosity tickled. I unfolded the letter and began to read:

Dear Dad,
Why do you do your job every day? Is it because we need mony to buy food? Is it because we need mony to survive? Is it because we need mony for clothes? Anywaies I like school this year.

"Mom," my son interrupted. I glanced up to see him standing in front of me. He looked very serious and a little hurt. "It isn't polite to read other people's mail."

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Late-winter sunshine poured over me as I snuggled back in my coat against the park bench, watching my son dash around the playground with the other children whose parents and caretakers had been tempted out by the pleasant weather.

A tiny, gleaming speck fell through the bright air. Puzzled, I pursed my lips and watched as I became aware of a strange rain coming down all around me. I could see nothing collecting on the pavement, but every few seconds a bright dust mote fell like a tiny meteor.

Curious, I tipped my chin up to see what was above me. A pine tree. Fat ropes of green bulbs dangled down from the ends of the branches. Bulbs that were sprinkling...


I bought a new bottle of allergy pills at Costco today.

Research and Development

What part of the writing process do I like the most? It's hard to say. I know I love research and development. Yesterday I had my college physics text open as I scribbled equations in my notebook and made sketches for interplanetary spacecraft. I also read for hours about the history of slavery, from the Israelites in bondage in Egypt to modern-day child camel jockeys in Saudi-Arabia.

I just have to make sure that all of this exciting research doesn't overshadow the plot.

Last night, in looking over my work for the day, I clapped my hands to my head and exclaimed, "I started out with this fun little swash-buckling space-pirate adventure story, and now I'm having to draw on my knowledge of the entirety of human civilization!"

My daughter shouted from the other room, "That's because you're the only one who is going to do it right!"