Top Picks for Single Dads

Updated 9/9/2012…see below!

Over the past few years I’ve come across a few different books, movies and songs that have really resonated with me and my role as a single father. Here’s a list to get us started…send in your suggestions!

Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

 I read this book many, many times as a kid — and loved it. The father is nicely dimensioned; he is principled, stern, affectionate and creative, and even has a little vice that gets them all into trouble.

Appropriate for all ages.


This movie changed the way I viewed my relationship with Ruby. Although not necessarily central to the plot, the father and daughter have a tight bond that is almost exclusionary: it’s just of the two of them, working together as a team. Training Ruby to be a foul-mouthed ninja assassin isn’t really in the parenting plan, but creating an extraordinary partnership based on affection, respect for each others’ talents, and hard work sounds fantastic.

Not appropriate for kids (language and violence).

Dinosaurs by Tim Rogers

I first heard this song just last night. It’s an autobiographical sketch of a single rock ‘n roll Dad in his shitty apartment with his fridge full of beer, singing about his daughter’s love of dinosaurs. Perfect.

The first light that peeks out in the night sky
Is there for you to wish by
Or is that just our little thing?

I ain’t got a big house
It’s just us two and it’s a crowd
And your Mama’s cookin’ still top of the town
But I’ll try to get it right

I’ll just put it to ya
Is my voice still familiar
The fridge is stacked sky-high
But if not to be tonight
Then please say some time soon.

Your dinosaurs: I keep them in my top drawer
You and I know what they’re there for
They’re there for cold or rainy Sunday nights

When no-one understands all your ramblings
The triceratops she understands things us humans can’t abide.

Just a word in your ear
There’s more than just beer
The fridge is stacked sky-high
If not to be tonight
If not to be tonight
If not to be tonight
Then please say sometime soon

Appropriate for all ages.

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall

 I grabbed this novel from the kids’ section of a local bookstore. I was looking for some strong female characters for Ruby, and the short blurb next to this book seemed to offer what I was looking for. But, serendipitously, I hit the jackpot with this one. Not only are there four young girls (ages 4 to 12) who are each amazingly polite, strong-willed, capable, and talented — but they are being raised by a single Dad. And in this book, the Dad starts (reluctantly) dating… giving me a good introduction to this topic for Ruby. This book is written for an older audience in mind (more fifth-graders than kindergarteners) and some of the relationship nuances are over Ruby’s head, but this is a fun read.

As an added bonus, this is the second book in a continuing (currently three) series of books. This book stands perfectly well on its own, and I imagine we’ll be continuing on with this family when we’re done with it.

Appropriate for school-age kids.

Stingray Sam by Cory McAbee

Stingray Sam was commissioned for the Sundance Film Festival and designed for casual streaming to everything from phones to theaters.  It has definite b-movie production values but don’t let that fool you: the music is where it’s at.  When I first heard Lullaby Song I leaned over to my friend with tears in my eyes and whispered: “this song is perfect.”

This song made it onto Ruby’s night-time lullaby CD, but she always asks me to skip it — the guitar part is “too jazzy”.

And since our relationships with our children’s mothers isn’t always perfect, here’s a little catharsis in the form of the Peg-Legged Father (also from the Stingray Sam movie). Shum-mum-mum-mum-mum-mum-mum!

The movie is appropriate for older kids; these two songs are fine for everyone.

Update 9/9/2012

Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren

I didn’t think anything would ever unseat my devotion to Danny, but Ronia has stolen my heart. This is my new favorite children’s novel. The lead character, Ronia, is a little girl living in the middle ages. She is strong and capable and has a rich internal emotional life. Both parents are in the story, but it is her relationship with her father that is central to it. A perfect story for strong girls and the obstinate fathers who love them.

Appropriate for all ages.

The Curve Steepenates

Despite a few good days of working in the shop, progress has all but ground to a halt.  I had a minor triumph with the following video: actual noise from an actual bell when you press an actual key!

Sadly, the excitement was short-lived.  All that wobbly misguidedness just wouldn’t do, so it was back to the drawing board.  I spent this morning trying to figure out how to add more stability without throwing the basic alignment out of whack, but couldn’t come up with anything that works.  This afternoon I spent many minutes downstairs at the piano, flicking the hammers and wondering at the perfect alignment they achieve.  Effortless motion… no wobble at all.

I feel like I’m heading back to the drawing board.  Wiser, yes, but still: drawing board.  I’m very much looking forward to the day(s) when I can finally (confidently) lock in a design and start cranking out 40 identical pieces of piano over and over and over and over again.

A Ding And A Thud (and a Ding!)

I did some brief tinkering in the workshop today while Ruby played in the backyard with a friend.

In order to amplify and reinforce the sound coming from each bell (the metal plates that make the noise are called bells, even though they aren’t bell shapes), one puts it over top of a precisely dimensioned box (or tube).  A phenomenon known as Helmholtz Resonance takes over and amplifies the specific frequencies you want to hear.  You can see these resonators hanging down below large concert xylophones and marimbas.

Anyway, I’d done some quick calculations today to figure out if I was in the ballpark for the dimensions I’d need for my own resonators, and things were close, I figured I’d turn my attention to the part of the celesta that would hold the bells.

Each bell would be attached to a thin plywood “card”.  Instead of putting the bells above the resonators, I’d put the bells inside the resonators.  The cards would then form the side walls of the resonators and everything would be fantastic, right?  Well, I never got to the resonating part.

Turns out that mounting the bells is a very finicky business.  You need just the right amount of pressure at just the right contact points or you get dramatically reduced sustain — or no sound at all.  Thud.

Complicating matters, my design gives me just 3/8″ in width for the space each bell needs to live in — mounting hardware and all.

So this evening I’ve been playing screws and rubber washers and that kind of stuff.  I’m getting closer , but I haven’t found anything yet which sounds as nice as the original rubber supports the xylophone came with.  You can see the black rectangle of rubber with the points in the photo on the right; it’s perfect except that it’s already a 1/4″ thick, which doesn’t leave enough room for the bell itself in that little 3/8″ cavity.

So I’ve been hunting around the internet for the part I need.  Turns out a “bumper grommet” would be perfect but I don’t think they make them with a small enough point.  Self-stick dome-shaped bumpers might work — like the kind you stick onto the bottom of furniture — but I haven’t found any lying around the house (yet).

Like everything else, this is a matter of finding a simple, cheap, repeatable, safe solution.  I could hand-carve a slot into the plywood for the stock bell support, but I’m not about to do that 64 times.  Something else will work!  But what…?

UPDATE (ten minutes later)

I think I’ve got it!  Or something.  I tried sticking toothpicks into some holes left behind by tiny screws, and … amazingly, I think the sustain is even better than the rubber that the xylophone came with.  I suspect that the toothpicks will deteriorate over time, though, but they’re giving me a very good workable solution for the first time so that’s good news.  Now I’m thinking maybe some old-fashioned thumbtacks will do the trick…


Well the whole notion of a “balance” pin (or two) just wasn’t working out so I went with a flange-and-pin joint like everywhere else.  Unfortunately, because of all the drilling and holes I’d put into things, and due to a bit of short-sightedness, this flange joint is currently only one-sided.  And so the key lever (that long part sticking out at the bottom of the picture below) has a lot of side-to-side play.  Not good — don’t want the lever to drift off-line and get two notes for the price of one!

Wobbly Assembly

There are quite a few flaws in this design that I’m still ironing out, but I think one good principle I’ve centered on is this: any time there’s a hinge, construct it solely out of 1/8″ plywood.  This stuff is pre-milled and consistent and I can plan for that consistency.  I’ve been cutting tenons into thicker (3/8″) pieces to create 1/8-inch “tongues”, but they’ve ended up too inconsistent in size and I’ve had to spend time grinding them down to get them to fit.  The result is that they’re then a little too small, or wedge-shaped, and just have too much play.

I’m already looking forward to a complete do-over starting with fresh wood, but I do need to see this prototype through so I can iron out any subsequent problems in the parts I’ve haven’t even installed yet…

Balance Pins

I thought I had this figured out, but… nope.  Still don’t know how to do the balance pins.

What’s a balance pin?  Well, it’s the main pivot point for the part of the piano that the key is directly attached to.  In modern pianos, it’s a pin that goes vertically through the key, and the hole it sits in is elongated, front-to-back, wider at the top and narrower at the bottom, to accomodate the motion of the key.

A hole which is elongated and wedge shaped just isn’t going to fly in my shop, so I’ve been trying to figure out an alternative.  Here’s where we’re at right now:

As you can see: I’ve got all the pieces for a full octave with a few extra on each side, and they sit nicely in the little text frame I’ve made.  But those long levers just won’t sit still on the nails I’ve driving through the bottom frames.  I think the answer might be to create a flanged hinge (like all the other moving parts have) but now that I’ve drilled holes into the bottoms of all those frames (and glued all those pieces together!) I don’t know if a flange is possible. Back to the drawing board…

Celesta Progress

Things are progressing in celestaville. Not as quickly as I want, of course, but time in the workshop can be scarce. This weekend I made some good progress, though!

A few weeks ago I drew up all the plans I needed to build the action for each piece. I sketched each piece of wood individually, noting its dimensions and where I’d need to cut grooves and dadoes and rabbets and all those fun things.

I also noted some jigs I’d need to make… including a kind of a sled that would slide on my table saw and hold pieces upright. I decided to make this as a kind of a box. And I figured, while I was making a box, I’d use finger joints to hold the joints together!

That led me on quite a lengthy detour. Finger joints are one of the simplest joints to make, but getting everything consistent was a big challenge and led me to refine several of my techniques. In fact, I built a different sled first — one that would make consistent finger joints — so that I could then make the box that would let me do nice tenons without losing any fingers.

I’m currently working on a whole octave’s worth of notes. We’re still in the prototyping stage, but when this is all done and assembled there should be an ugly thing that can make some music.


Celesta Workshop Day #2

I spent a few hours in the shop today with the intention of busting out prototype #2, but things didn’t go quite as planned. I made some modifications to the design with the intent of simplifying things, but unfortunately progress went into the other direction. I’m dealing with small pieces of wood (typically 1″ x 6″ x 3/8″ or so) and handling these on a table saw is a tricky, and occasionally dangerous, business. I need to come up with a different design and/or different tools that let me carve the necessary grooves and slots and tabs onto the pieces without putting my fingers into the danger zone.

To that end, my Dad will be coming down next week to give me an introductory lesson to the router he gave me for Christmas. Also, on my drive home tonight I came up with an alternate design for some of the pieces that just might make the grooves and lots and tabs unnecessary…

It’s an interesting challenge to keep in mind that whatever I do, I have to do 32 times (actually more like 40, so I have spare parts) in a consistent, repeatable, safe fashion. It’s a challenge I’m enjoying, because I’m hoping to go make more than one of these.

Celesta Action Prototype #1

I finally got the opportunity to get out into the garage today and bring some of my sketches into reality.  Here’s what about 3 hours of work got me:

Piano action prototype #1

It’s a prototype of a piano action — the part that hits the strings (or, in my case, bell) when you press a key.  It’s currently missing the mechanism for a damper (the part that silences the note when you release the key), the actual bell, and there are a few other things I’m still futzing with.

I need to figure out a better bearing for the movable joints (wooden dowels are too stiff).  Keeping things aligned on the balance pin is tricky, but once everything is lined up with the rest of the keys that might work itself out.  Figuring out where to put the balance pin is also tricky.  Right now, things are a little too heavy feeling.  And after whacking this one rapidly a few times I can see why so much effort went into developing repetition mechanisms a few hundred years ago.

Everything is build from 1/8″ and 3/8″ baltic birch plywood, because in order to fit all the mechanisms for all the keys the action can only be 3/8″ wide.

One of my goals for this project is to make it with simple, consistent, repeatable pieces, so I’ll continue to work with this design to get rid of some of the weird pieces that are harder to make.


I spent a lovely evening at one of my favorite bars doing more design work on the piano action last night:

Designing at the bar

Well, actually what’s pictured there is a completely different mechanism I came up with while running yesterday afternoon. It’s a reverse-left-off jack for a new type of instrument I’d like to build that I’m tentatively naming the mateallica. But that’s another story. First, I need to build that toy piano…

Speaking of names, yesterday I learned that what I’m building is actually called a celesta. They’re rare, but Yamaha still offers them for sale. The instrument I’m designing is essentially the same thing, although after reading through their specs I’m starting to think I need to add sustain and soften pedals…

Mood Inertia

For the past month or so I’ve been using an application on my phone to track my mood.  It’s called My Mood Tracker, and using it is straightforward: every few hours it pops up and asks how I’m feeling.  I slide a bar around to register a number from 1 to 10.

I started using this app because I wanted to gain some insight into how my mood changes: over short periods of time, over long periods of time, and in response to the events in my life.  Do I wake up happy? Am I cranky in the afternoons?  Does time with Ruby make me feel better?  What about time away from Ruby?  What about exercise, or alcohol, or the vitamin D supplements I’m taking? Are there regular cycles to my mood?

In addition to recording my “mood”, I’m also recording things like alcohol and coffee consumption, exercise, and time I spend at Ruby’s school.  Here’s what the last month looks like:

Last month's mood

So after a month, what have I learned?  Well, my mood is all over the place, but there’s been a nice upward trend.  I haven’t done the crunching yet to figure out any of the overall correlations.

But here’s an interesting thing I noticed: thinking about my mood on a regular basis made me realize how much my past mood affects my current mood.  When I was feeling cranky early in the month, that made me much more resistant to enter an 8, even if I was actually in a good mood.  In other words: a recent history of being in a bad mood made me not want to be in a good mood. And as my overall mood has improved this month, the opposite is also true: a record of higher numbers made me not want to recognize when I was feeling bad.   Even yesterday, after a full day with Ruby and feeling tired and hungry and pestered, I only clocked in with a low of 5 — and that quickly jumped back up to 7.

The inertia of moods is interesting. I think we want to hold on to how we’re feeling because it reinforces the correctness of our previous state of mind.  It’s a kind of personal confirmation bias that operates on a level we probably don’t notice.

I’m hoping to get in at least a full year of recording this info in case there are any annual rhythms I can tease out. And I’ll report back with more analysis in a few months.

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