The Making Of A Drum
I face the results of the American Decline for a living. I talk to the people who are slowly being pushed ever deeper into the mud: the "totally irresponsible" poor, sick, old, and crazy; the "labor slack" in our "free market"; the surplus population who are mere labeled bodies, and not real people, to anyone who can take out a second mortgage on a house, or buy a new car without serious strain. I talk to the people such fine folks in their SUV's can keep at arms length or more, the people for whom each new Federal budget--scattering billions abroad simply to shoot at people--means less hope.
I am one of them. And I know it inescapably.
That is the horror of my particular brand of the bi-polar mental health condition, the fact that I am quite the reverse of delusional, the fact that none of my intellectual faculties have deserted me in the least, but that the amount of time I can continually exercise them without making myself bewildered and incoherent is gradually diminishing. I know what is happening to me psychologically, and what is being done to me politically, and I have no permanent refuge from that knowledge.
These days, I have all too few temporary refuges from it either. I have given no details here about the people I work with professionally. I would be violating Federal Law if I did. I only have spoken of those whom I encounter when I am not on the job, and their stories are bad enough. But my fellowship with all of them means that our collective problem, and their individual details of tragedy, are constantly in the background of a mind that, for half a century, has been constantly ticking, ticking, ticking, and seldom fully at rest.
It makes me very weary. For, even though I frequently and regularly cease to be on the job, when I can no longer continue to work well and work intelligently, I never really stop working at all. Or at least my mind doesn't. The shrinks and the counselors and the Initial Patient Surveys all ask me routinely if I ever have bouts of "racing thoughts". I can never fully explain that they have always, and continuously, moved with the speed of a striking snake, ever since I can remenber. For many years this was a great and exquisite pleasure. Now it is not.
It was very bad last Tuesday evening. I had worked four eight hour days in six, and was well out of my comfort zone, with the frantic phone conversations of the past six days replaying over and over again in the back of my mind. I was lucky, though, for I had the self generated task of making a small drum. Doing it finally gave me 90 minutes with my job offline.
Why a drum? For the very same reason, and with the very same clear intellectual understanding, that I know how desperate my life really is.
One of the Buddhist practices I do is generally done to the beat of a drum. At our Dharma Center, we have hanging drums, a foot or two in diameter, and four inches thick, that the umdze, or chantmaster, can play with one hand while sitting cross-legged on the floor. At my main monastery they have a couple of them about five feet in diameter. Once upon a time, I could have afforded to have a smaller hanging drum at home, just as I still have a relatively large, five-level, Buddhist shrine there, with color pictures and expensive statues. I cannot afford to acquire such things now.
My permanent, and probably increasing, penury means the day will come when I will lose that shrine and my old and creaky blogging computer running Windows 98 with it--when I am forced into a room at the YMCA, or a nursing home, or onto the street. I probably will not have completely lost my mind, and I will still have conscious obligations to continue to do Buddhist practices.
So I prepare to do them, in the future, out of as small a bag as possible--a gatemouth satchel 15 inches long on the inside for the liturgy text holder and able, as well, to hold the three-inch or smaller statues; the now wallet-size pictures based on the Tibetan form known as tsakli; the handbell and dorje; the damaru, or double-sided pellet handdrum; the phurba, or ritual tent peg; the mala of counting beads; small water bowls; my oldest and smallest silk shrine cloth; and, now, the single sided stick drum, made by me out of Folger's brand plastic coffee can.
With such a thing, you can set up a decent small shrine on the flimsiest hardboard dresser or bookcase of the shabbiest room in minutes.
The notion to make the drum came from looking at the six inch wide, three pound, style of such a coffee can. Since this is a relatively new packaging concept, made of moulded plastic, the designer had the bright idea of molding a handhold directly into the can. It came to me one day as I was making my morning coffee [strong Colombian, 7 scoops to 10 cups, to get all the neurons firing in the same direction, and then to chill later as Cafe Au Lait] that the can would make an excellent hand drum for my satchel.
You can buy hand drums, and I could even have scrimped and saved, or possibly sold one of my larger Buddhist pieces to a fellow practicioner for enough money to do so. But such drums are large flat cylinders, about 12"x 3", with an 8" single handle perpendicular to the curving side of the drum. If you think a minute, you can plainly see that I could only get such a thing into my Dharma satchel diagonally, taking up far too much room, if at all.
So, when I had my bright idea while making coffee, I was as pleased as punch.
I made the first model out of that very same can, stretching rawhide over the open end, binding it with the cheap leather thongs you can buy in craft stores, and lacing that same sort of leather thong through the binding, over the side and bottom of the can, and back through the binding on the opposite side. Then, on the can bottom where all the running laces crossed over each other, I wove a clockwise spiral spiderweb of leather, wrapping a long thong around and over or under each lace, pulling the lace tighter with every turn.
When you use this spiderweb, it allows you to tighten every lace first in one direction, and, when you return to it with the next round of the spiral, you can tighten it in the opposite direction. It puts as much tension on the laces as is possible with leather on leather, and when the spiral is finished, each lace will pluck with a musical tone.
There is a trick to this, however. If you try something like this yourself, make sure you have an uneven number [5, 7, or 9] of laces to thread through. An even number of them will not allow you to make a spiral at all.
I then proceeded to saturate the entire drum with water and allow the leather to dry slowly to tighten it even further. When you do this the plucked laces are higher in pitch.
But the first model still was not quite satisfactory. For one thing, the Folger's logo was painted on the can and impossible to remove. A truly patient Buddhist yogi would endure this tackiness, indeed, wouldn't even care, but, even though my Buddhist name means "patience", I do not quite live up to it yet and this bothered me. Further, the three-pound can still took up almost 300 cubic inches, or over one-third of the space in the satchel. Everything else fit, but only if you put it together one way, like a jigsaw puzzle, and the satchel itself could barely close. Finally, even with all the right things done to stretch the drum skin, it still dimpled when you struck it vigorously.
The tone was quite nice, a muffled "thuuuump", but the pitch changed gradually the longer you played it as the skin slackened, and you had to retighten it far too regularly by yanking on every side lace in succession around the drum, or by rotating the entire spiderweb on the bottom first one way, then the other.
What I learned from this was why most such drums are double sided, and narrow in thickness in proportion to the striking surface. Leather thongs are simply too pliable and prone to stretching to reliably hold tightened strength over a 6+ inch length. Also, the spider web, though quite strong, simply cannot supply the amount of tension that can be achieved by lacing two opposing drum surfaces in parallel to each other. I thus needed some other, better source of tensile strength, either in compression or in tension, than my design and materials could give me.
I found the answer in the steel hose clamps which are routinely used to hook up clothes dryers, which are tightened with a small screw. Steel has the requiste tensile strength and lack of pliancy and pressures generated even by the smallest screw fitting are far beyond what any pulled leather can accomplish. Combine this with a four-inch plastic can instead of a six inch one and you have rawhide pulled tight enough not to dimple, and an easy adjustment screw to handle the variations in humidity which inevitably affect leather surfaces.
The small plastic Folger's Columbian can comes with a sheath label than can be clipped off with a scissors and is, very politely, nearly the exact shade of maroon, which, with saffron yellow, is the classic color of Tibetan Buddhist clothing. It does not have the handhold of the larger can, but my extra large hands [someday I'll write about the trouble I have finding rubber gloves to do my dishes] with the ribbed can surface allow me to hold it firmly, and it takes up a far more reasonable amount of space in my Dharma bag.
All of this almost makes up for the fact that the four inch coffee can, any four inch coffee can, is a monument in and of itself to the American Decline. It's size has not changed since before I was born. But, once upon a time, it used to contain a full 16 ounces of coffee, then it suddenly and without notice contained 13 ounces, and now it usually contains 11.5 ounces. All of which, I'm sure, has made much profit for the traders in coffee shares at the expense of all the rest of us.
This is, of course, how America now works, and how it has worked for the past quarter century.
But, be that as it may, I had my drum, now decorated with a little leather thong wrapping--since I had the excess thongs--to cover the bright and ugly steel band near the can top and leaveing the screw fitting to peek through. Undoing the spider web, and making the drum, took the 90 minutes of full concentration which relieved my mind.
Like all instruments, my homemade drum lends itself to certain playing techniques over others. By luck, if luck you call it, I stumbled quickly upon the fact that it plays quite well with the big, lumpy thumb of my open right hand while holding the can from the bottom with my left. It plays even better with the 3/4" wide spring steel sewing clip, bent back on itself like a hairpin, that I had hanging around my junk basket since all the way back to my high school days. The slight bounce in the clip itself noticably improves the resonance of the drum and, as a bonus, the open end of the clip is perfect for loosening or tightening the screw. Aren't I lucky?
I wish America could be as lucky.