Friday, March 31, 2006

Ancestral Voices Prophesying War

A nice doctor lady took pity on a wheezing, choking pre-pleuritic patient yesterday and granted him the succor of a bottle of laudanum to still his racking coughs. Well, perhaps not actual laudanum -- but something that set his sleeping dreams into an unaccustomed hyper-reality, all kaleidoscopic patterns, disjointed narratives and twisted landscapes. He awoke this morning to find not a Person from Porlock but a large brown dog licking his face.*

Springing from his bed he scrabbled frantically for a pen and paper to write down immediately the details of the dream -- knowing that with every passing moment more and more of it would be lost. When finally he was able to put his hands on a crayon and piece of construction paper from the wee ones' room, the only shred that remained from the vision was one line of dialogue. And thus I present (for, dear reader, as you may have divined, the dreamer was myself) as much of it as my opiated memory could retain:

You think it's hot up here, you should check out the Mailroom! They're using the Pitney-Bowes machine to roll their own cigarettes!

No, not exactly Alph the Sacred River, is it. So, disappointed, I decreed Wonder Woman bring her stately pleasure domes over for thorough medical examination, but even that avenue of pleasure was closed off: "I'm not coming anywhere near that cough!"

I wheezed my way downstairs to find the morning WashPost. One glance at the front page and I was off -- the whole thing came flooding back: They were in it! These guys were in my dream! There was a huge Busby Berkeley number, leggy girls in giant jalapeño and maize headdresses, Aztec priests slashing still-beating hearts in an eight-sided kaleidoscopic mandala (death's-head grinning victims leaping up off the slabs and doing a kick-line afterwards, gore splattering everywhere), Santa Anna and Winfield Scott banging wooden spoons on passing helmets in a naked Duck Soup rip ("In any time and any place and any kind of weather/You'll find your mil-i-tary ace in good ol' Fuss and Feathers!"), Minute Men (pronounced My-Newt Men for some oneiric reason I'll never fathom) performing a bizarrely knock-kneed line-dance, their knees and ankles collapsing as they slipped around frenetically in a puddle of crude oil. Climaxing the spectacle, in goose-stepped a line of pith-helmeted mailmen, shoulder-bags and Sam Brownes gleaming, swastikas in place of their USPS shoulder patches, singing this catchy refrain:

When goodness sags and morals lag because of queers and queens
We'll wave the flag and run them fags through the Piiiitneeeeey-Bowes maaa-chiiiiiine!

Maybe you had to be there.

*This is not to imply that Slingin' Sammy Coleridge awoke to find a Person from Porlock licking his face; were this the case, "Xanadu" might have been considerably more popular in high-school literature classes.

Thursday, March 30, 2006


Plainly I jinxed myself badly yesterday posting a paean to spring. Soon after I hit "Publish," my lungs began to burn and I felt unnaturally cold.

Went home from work early, deteriorated through the day. Chest feels like someone very heavy is sitting on it, and the thermometer oscillates between 100F and 102F. The shaking sweats last night were sure pleasant. What do you want to bet it's something baroque like the Consumption, or mebbe the New-Moe-Knee.

So no Content from Neddie today. I was going to take a nice hot soak with some Epsom salts and then prop myself up in bed with a heating pad to compose some Alexandrine couplets -- but I scotched the idea when I realized that would just be going from bath to verse.

Mmmmmm, Scotch....

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

If I Can't Repeat Myself...

...then who the hell can I repeat?

I posted the following some years ago on Chalkhills, the XTC Listserv.

About a day very much like this one.

I suggest this song might be a nice accompaniment (pops a new window).

Recipe for a Moment

1) Along about early March, break a major bone. For the Number-One authentic experience, try, say, your clavicle. Try it on, oh, I dunno, rollerblades. Just for the sake of argument.

(Stick with me, here. You gotta hit rock bottom before you can go up, dig?)

2) During your convalescence, become aware of layoff rumors at work. Believe them. It's happened before.

3) Panic. Go on many job interviews. Watch your coworkers, dear friends of yours, do the same. They're Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine.

4) Get some nibbles. Get some serious bites. Get two prospective employers bidding against each other. Play both ends against the middle. Spend a nail-biting week not knowing what you'll be doing for the rest of your life. Finally pick one or the other. Hand in your notice at the place you've worked for ten years. Try, just try, to do this without any twinge of nostalgic regret.

5) Notice your 6-year-old daughter has learned to read. When the hell did that happen?

6) Receive phone call from no-goodnik brother: his band's single is #40 in national radio charts. He's dancing around and gibbering like those people in the hardware store in "That Thing You Do."

7) Notice your bone has healed to the point you can think about exercising again. Gently.

8) Let the weather suddenly *snap* from crappy, rain-sodden late-March blah to summerlike 85 Fahrenheit, no humidity, aggressively beautiful cerulean blue skies with fluffy little meringue clouds. Get the Itch.

9) Scratch the Itch. Blow off an afternoon at work, drive out to the bike path, throw on the skates, and just go. The fruit trees are exploding in blossom. The very air is soaked with DNA: bees lovingly ferry huge pocketfuls of pollen from bloom to bloom, the trees are ejaculating pods, seeds, spores, cotton balls, helicopters, zygotes of every conceivable stripe, huge, sticky purple globs of Gingko Love. The squirrels are going apeshit, playing fuck-me-if-you-can in the branches. Gloriously plumed male birds strut and preen and spread displays of bright feathers for their coy mistresses: "Oh, baby, me so love you long time...." The earthworms underfoot, feeling the sun's warmth even two feet underground, are doing the Aerated Fertilizer Mambo--they don't have to impress anybody but themselves. The woods smell intoxicatingly rich and loamy, and the runs and creeks have already taken on a summertime lassitude that just begs for a naked dip.

10) And speaking of naked dips, we notice that all the office workers who have escaped from the fluorescent hell of cubicles and voice mail and PowerPoint presentations full of wretched clip art and Total Quality Market-Driven, Customer-Focused Soul-Death to revel in the newborn warmth, are looking...extremely good. Bodies that have been mummified for months in heavy wool and leather and denim, now suddenly sport cottons and silks that respond to the wispiest of spring breezes by clinging like love itself to curves and straight bits alike. A tall woman seated at a park bench, her pallid winter face uplifted worshipfully to the sun, exposes the graceful lines of her neck: Her facial expression is as ecstatic as Bernini's St. Theresa. She is the most beautiful thing we have ever seen.

11) On our personal stereo: Side One of Skylarking. Could it possibly be anything else?

12) The crickets and bees of "Summer's Cauldron" meld with the newly wakened real-life bees in the honeysuckle thicket along the bike path, and the sun beats down on our neck, laying the base for the year's first farmer tan. The segue into "Grass" happens just as we're picking up speed for the long downgrade to Sunset Hills Road, and the wonderful slinky strings and salacious lyrics begin to insinuate themselves into our mood, which is lifting with every turn of our wheels. The bell-toned cyclic guitar pattern of "The Meeting Place" brings the first reverie; our muscles relax and we skate in rhythm with the song's andante tempo, a small augury of imminent ecstasy. We slalom happily to the jaunty "Supergirl," as we reach the apogee of our outward journey: we've reached the Town Center, out of breath and sweating copiously, but we know the most difficult part is finished: It's all downhill on the way back. It is during the two Rain Songs, "Ballet for a Rainy Day" and "1000 Umbrellas," that we notice we're Seriously Happy. This is no mere good mood; this is something far higher up the emotional food chain. This might be a William Blake Moment.

And yes, here it comes, as we're steaming under the Toll Road bridge, the climax to the whole thing, isn't it, the crowning moment, the Big Glorious Orgasm of Skylarking: "Season Cycle." We're punching the air, conducting, singing along tunelessly at the tops of our voices, ignoring the looks we're getting from our fellow pagans: Oh, people, if you could only hear what _I'm_ hearing! "Season cycle go from death to life Bring a harvest or a man his wife," in counterpoint to "Winter chased by springtime/Springtime's turning" and all voices melding on "It's growing green"! It's growing greeeeeeeeen!

It occurs to us that now would be an excellent time to throw a triple toe loop, stick the landing.

As we weave ecstatically among cyclists and pedestrians, our arms outstretched to pull everything in and give the world a big, wet, sloppy, deep-tongue kiss, a minor note of anxiety enters at the theological speculation: "I really get confused on who would make all this/Everybody says join our religion, get to heaven." But then, to rescue us from this dreary fingerwagging image, comes the insouciant retort: "I say no thanks why bless my soul/I'm already there!" And aren't we just, though? A brief pause for reflection, the skates' rhythm slows, solemnity sets in: "Autumn is royal/As spring is clown/But to repaint summer/They're closing winter down..." Our mood deflates pensively during the fermata; we wonder if we'll ever get back as high as we were a moment ago. Then Prairie Prince's aggressively organic,
goading snare starts up again with those triplets, ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-POW! and we're off again, and the joy surges back so quickly, so breathtakingly quickly, that we can't contain ourselves. Tears well up, the lower lip trembles, and we find ourselves actually -- uncharacteristically, and certainly unexpectedly -- weeping, overcome by ineffable, unspoiled, unmediated, perfect joy. It's only a moment, we're big boys and big boys don't cry, but whoo! Guess I was a little more vulnerable than I thought!

Yeah, that's a good album to listen to on a spring day.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Begin Again

Some time back in early February I had a cord of firewood delivered to the house. As per usual practice I loaded the pile dumped by my dealer into the pickup and drove it around back behind the cabin and stacked it in its customary spot, a convenient few steps from the den fireplace. I didn't cover it with the tarp, though, because it didn't look like rain and it's a pain in the ass to anchor the big plastic sail over the wood. I left the tarp in a heap in a corner, weighted down with my maul.

This pile of tarp and maul stood for nearly two months. Never once did I feel any urgency to cover the firewood with it, because it never, in those two winter months -- during which we normally get enormous lashings of rain and mud and misery -- even looked like it was thinking about raining.

The ground has become dry as parchment, as dry as David Niven. Pulling the winter weeds out of the vegetable beds has been absolute cake: flick 'em with a forefinger and they come popping right out. You sneeze with the dust you raise, but it's a small price to pay.

Tonight we've had our first rain since early February. It's not much -- it's certainly not enough to break the drought -- but it's something. Just now I poked my head outside and I was absolutely assaulted by the smell of a grateful earth. I've been told all sorts of conflicting nonsense about the smell of rain on dry earth -- that it's everything from ozone released by lightning to stone dust, which smells this way only when wetted -- but the smell is utterly intoxicating. Humus, leaf-rot, worm-castings, fungal growth: Everything's been granted permission to carry on as before. Begin again.

And I won't have to water the peas tomorrow morning. So it's got that going for it.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Damnedest Things

You find the damnedest things lying around in the dirt.

My good friend and neighbor Jim came around this Saturday, a fine sunny day full of auguries of success in treasure-hunting. He brought along his metal detector, on the off chance that some metal was lying around the place feeling undetected.

As I may have mentioned a time or two, Jingo Acres has been around in one shape or another for quite a bit of time. I find mention of what I strongly suspect (but can't yet prove) is its original (European) owner in a reference to the recipients of a Lutheran rite performed by an itinerant bishop, down from Frederick, Maryland, in the 1760s. One day when I've better established the fellow's authorship of the room in which I'm typing this, I'll post up the inventory I found at the Leesburg Courthouse of his worldly goods and chattels on his death in 1816. Suffice for now to say, it is not a long or gaudy list. The man lived in a one-room cabin with a family of (at least) five, although I've found some evidence that leads me to think he added on to his place when his children were born.

The estimated value of the clothes he owned when he died amounted to 50 cents, in 1816 money.

He didn't lose the coin in the picture below, but I can easily imagine perhaps a grandson or -daughter being devastated at its loss. More about it below.

Of course, a few decades after the death of the fellow who built this place, we had ourselves a bit of a dustup of a different sort. The man who owned it then, one Joseph L. Virts, owned no slaves -- in this part of Virginia very few people did, for either religious or economic reasons -- and in 1861 he voted with 90% of his neighbors to stay in the Union.

Jim suspects, from the evidence we've found, that Union soldiers were camped here for at least some part of the Recent Unpleasantness. What's particularly thrilling about this is the knowledge that John Mobberly was particularly effective in attacking small outposts of Union stragglers -- his local reputation was made on it, in fact. Union soldiers camped in my yard cannot possibly have been unaware of the guerrilla eyes watching them from the densely wooded Short Hill Mountain behind their campground.

Perhaps our next find was dropped in response to the whispered alarm: Mobberly's comin'!:

Colonial-era buttons and a rivet:

An unimaginably cool find: The butt-plate from an Enfield rifle. Beaten out of shape on some Secesh head, no doubt. (Actually, it's impossible to tell which side lost this particular piece of materiel. It may have crossed the Mason-Dixon Line twenty times, for all we know):

Two pieces of that most vital piece of campground gear, the harmonica. Found 75 yards apart, and another piece (not pictured) was found in a third spot, Conclusion: The harmonica was one mighty, mighty popular piece of nineteenth-century campground instrumentation:

Bullets, cleaned up:

A piece of a padlock, found in the very spot where I suspected an outbuilding once stood. Well divined, sir!

Hand-wrought, utterly gorgeous, and completely incomprehensible. A tool for picking your nose? Pulling the brains from dead bodies prior to mummification? A local expert suggests a farrier's tool for taking stones out of horses' hooves. I'll buy it.

This one's pretty damned boss: An axe-head. The walls of my cabin have axe-marks on them, from the process of squaring them off. I tried desperately to fit the marks to this lump of rust. Middling success, I'm afraid. But God, wouldn't it be indescribably cool if I could make the two fit?

Here's that coin from the first photo in this post, cleaned up as much as I'm gonna. An 1831 copper penny. Ain't she a beaut?

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Violently Vicious and Voracious Violation of Volition

I'm not easily beguiled by films. Rare indeed is the cinema flick that impresses me thoroughly -- I sit in Neronian judgment of dialogue, editing rhythms, musical choices, and the nuts-and-bolts of storytelling, and the instant a film errs even slightly in my sight, I begin to shift uncomfortably in my seat and think longingly of dinner.

My skepticism and fault-finding do not diminish with age. I don't know whether it's me or the movies that's to blame here, but I find that increasingly, commercial directors just don't possess even the simple expository skills to convey a set of sequential events in such a way that they tell a coherent story. Whether it's an overstylized and unintelligible fight scene or a tin-eared line reading, films exasperate me far too easily.

All of which goes to explain why I was so thoroughly prepared to detest V for Vendetta, which I saw last night on the strength of Wolcott's rave. I loathed The Matrix with a loathing borne of sickness from cheap late-night dorm-room woo-heavy cosmology, and philosophy of the rigor of a bowl of three-day-old Grape-Nuts in milk, all in service of a bitchen ultraviolent shootout climax with slo-mo bullets. The name of the Wachowski brothers on Vendetta's screenplay set my Spidey-sense a-quivering -- based on a graphic novel (a genre Lit-Boy here seems tragically doomed to subject to knee-jerk disparagement), the film trumpeted its moron-stoner-cred from fifty paces.

Folks, this is a truly thrilling movie.

The core truth of the thing -- overcoming fear of political engagement -- is exactly the same insight that smacked me so hard across the face after I watched Al Gore speak truth to power about blatantly illegal domestic spying, and emerged onto Pennsylvania Avenue to find the White House converted into a missile-hardened pillbox.

Perhaps most surprisingly to me, at no point did I find myself rolling my eyes and groaning at some directorial solecism. The dialog rang true, the plot was skillfully exposed, and (as Wolcott is at pains to point out) the cross-cutting in the climactic domino scene is rhythmically beautiful, and as deftly pulled off as Brian DePalma at the top of his game.

As Wolcott points out, we know how we got here. The point, Vendetta reminds us, is how we get out. And if we must wear a mask, then so be it, for "People shouldn’t be afraid of their governments… Governments should be afraid of their people."

You're going to have to argue hard to get me off this movie.

Friday, March 24, 2006

God's in His Heaven

Civil war may be inevitable in Iraq, they may be tapping my phone, we may be about to tear into each other like hyenas over Peak Oil, the Washington Post may be hiring feckless wingnut punks for "balance," people may be living in refrigerator boxes and delta-mud in NOLA for the rest of time, we may soon be frying eggs on the sidewalk and swimming in a bathwater Atlantic in January, the tuna's full of mercury and the President's full of shit...

But as long as people are working on the Final Solution to the Dogshit Question, things can't be all bad.

Friday Bitch-Blogging

Writing Design Requirements Documents is like explaining how to tie your shoes to a particularly stupid child.

Over the phone.

Tell Me It Was Worth It All

Julia has proposed that we post anti-war songs.

I think it's a damned fine idea.

I Ain't Marchin' Anymore
Phil Ochs

Oh I marched to the battle of New Orleans
At the end of the early British war
The young land started growing
The young blood started flowing
But I ain't marchin' anymore

For I've killed my share of Indians
In a thousand different fights
I was there at the Little Big Horn
I heard many men lying
I saw many more dying
But I ain't marchin' anymore

It's always the old to lead us to the war
It's always the young to fall
Now look at all we've won with the sabre and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all

For I stole California from the Mexican land
Fought in the bloody Civil War
Yes I even killed my brother
And so many others
And I ain't marchin' anymore

For I marched to the battles of the German trench
In a war that was bound to end all wars
Oh I must have killed a million men
And now they want me back again
But I ain't marchin' anymore

It's always the old to lead us to the war
It's always the young to fall
Now look at all we've won with the sabre and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all

For I flew the final mission in the Japanese sky
Set off the mighty mushroom roar
When I saw the cities burning
I knew that I was learning
That I ain't marchin' anymore

Now the labor leader's screamin' when they close the missile plants,
United Fruit screams at the Cuban shore,
Call it "Peace" or call it "Treason,"
Call it "Love" or call it "Reason,"
But I ain't marchin' any more.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

I Won't Forget a Single Day, Believe Me

Ray Davies, 9:30 Club, Washington, DC, March 20, 2006
All photos courtesy Ines Hilde. Many thanks to her and Tom.

Ray Davies has an amazing face.

At the age of 61, his features have lost none of their elasticity; his face betrays not a hint of a wattle or jowl or decayed jawline. It's always tempting to impute such a face to the plastic surgeon's art -- a glance at his near-contemporary McCartney certainly triggers this suspicion -- but this is emphatically not the case with Davies. Onstage he exudes casual vitality, a man very comfortable in his own skin, a graceful and accomplished pro. When he delivers a funny line, the corners of his mouth turn upward and crows' feet crinkle his temples; you can imagine him having just delivered a filthy witticism to an audience of three down at the pub rather than the 3000 happy punters at the 9:30.

The moment he hit the stage and sang a cappella (spontaneously, it appeared; he motioned the band to be quiet) the opening lines of "I'm Not Like Anybody Else," we knew we were in for an emotionally nuanced night:
I won't take all that they hand me down,
And make out a smile, though I wear a frown,
And I won't take it all lying down,
'Cause once I get started I go to town.
You can be forgiven for taking those lines as a harbinger of a bitter tirade, but it's Davies' towering strength that he never delivered anger into his readings. If rock-and-roll music is about dancing on your troubles, singing happy songs about miserable things, then Ray's contribution to the art is formidable indeed. He is wistful, whimsical, rueful, nostalgic -- and his gift is to draw an audience into those emotions rather than repelling them with raw anger. When he sang "I'm a twentieth-century man/But I don't want to be here," the audience roared along, each of us feeling our own alienation down to our roots, but at once connected tightly together by this man's wonderful songs.

He balanced the show between Kinks chestnuts -- and Lord what a deep well that is! -- and songs from his new album Other Peoples' Lives. This title is a clever misdirection if there ever was one; it's a tour of Ray Davies' mind through a succession of first-person character studies. The standouts he played at the 9:30 were "Things Are Gonna Change (The Morning After)" (melodically reminiscent in parts of the Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere" ) and the finest bleary hangover song I've ever heard, "Is There Life After Breakfast?"

His band is polished and tight. It's refreshing to hear Davies' magnificent hard-rock archetypes like "All Day and All of the Night" and "Till the End of the Day" sung by their author fronting a truly formidable performing unit: If we're being brutally honest, the Kinks, while sporting ample personality and verve, suffered from occasional sloppiness. It was particularly tasteful that Ray's lead guitarist, a very accomplished Aussie named Mark Johns, didn't replicate Dave Davies's solo from "You Really Got Me," which I think of as the great awful guitar solo of rock's early years -- all swagger and no musicality. (It's very hard to play an interesting solo over a repeated two-chord riff that never goes anywhere harmonically, but Dave's attempt just...sort of...peters out. A much better one is "All Day and All of the Night," where he finally gets to resolve the damned thing.)

Ray onstage was a bouncy, funny, herky-jerky collection of knees and elbows. I wonder now if Elvis Costello picked up any of his early onstage physicality -- knocked knees, wobbly ankles, the crabwise slide to the side -- from watching him. Considering that Davies was shot in the leg in New Orleans just over a year ago, he's in remarkably fine physical shape, and was as effervescent at the end of the energetic two-hour-plus show as at the beginning. And nobody juggles a flatpick or sprays a shaken beer with more gusto.

The audience, as might be expected, skewed middle-aged -- Ray, after all, sings songs for grownups -- but there was a wonderful energy in the hall. A very sweet kid stood near us, thirteen years old, he confided during the intermission as with quiet pride he enumerated the impressive number of concerts he'd been to in the past few years. As Ray bounded down the front row after the last encore ("Lola," unsurprisingly), shaking hands with us moshers, he let the kid take the guitar pick from his hand. The youngster, mad with elation, turned around and held the precious artifact overhead, showing it to someone behind us. "Dad!" he yelled ecstatically, his pubescent voice cracking, "I got a pick!" I'm sure it will be a treasured family heirloom.

This happened not long after Ray sang a truly transcendent version of "Days" -- that wonderful, humane, great-hearted song -- and I happily admit I teared up pretty good. I'm resolving that I won't go to any more of these shows without dragging my own Freddie along -- he who quietly assays "Smoke on the Water" on his classical guitar -- who's old enough to stay out late on the occasional school night getting a real education.

My companions for the evening were frequent Jingo commenter Xtcfan, who knew more lyrics than I did, and Helmut of Phronesisiacal and his stunning wife Ines, both of whom I was meeting for the first time and who turned out to be very charming and gentle people. Helmut's placidity was sorely tested when a hulking asshole -- not a person, just a 6'3" anal canal; I wondered how he'd gotten past the bouncers -- grabbed him and began thrashing him around, apparently enraged that he'd stepped in front of him. We managed to get between them and calm things down, but it's a measure of how far I've come from my punk-rock past that it wasn't until several minutes later that I remembered the proper form of etiquette in that situation was to grab a nearby beer-bottle and clock the big lummox with it. Ah, well. Live and unlearn.

Ray's coming to a town near you soon. My advice: Drop everything and see him. Best Show Ever.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Scrotum Successfully Tickled

The prevailing emotion around Jingo Acres today has been one of zombiefied elation, as I oscillate cometlike between the solar pole of ecstasy at the knowledge I'm a Koufax finalist for Best Writing and the black deep space of the sleep I lost last night at the Ray Davies concert I saw. I didn't get to bed till 1:30 am -- this on a school night -- but as my bleary eyes lit on the email from a friend this morning informing me I'd made the short list, I woke up in a jiffy.

The cold slap came, of course, when I read the rest of the names on that Koufax list. A creeping guilty sense of fraudulence -- probably the one meant for, but dodged by, Jack Abramoff -- insinuates itself when I read my name listed between those of Michael Bérubé and Courting Destiny, followed by a Murderer's Row of intimidatingly eloquent voices. Interestingly, I'm also now rather severely hobbled by self-consciousness: You gonna put that big fat black-assed banner in your right rail, honcho, you better write real good, punk-ass! I'm pretty sure I'll get over this.

My humblest thanks to everybody who voted for me in the first round. I ruefully acknowledge that the competitive field is so excellent that a blandly pinko short-form culture-vulture like myself has little chance against the likes of some of those marquee names, but if you would drop in at the Wampum site and pencil me in I would deeply appreciate the recognition. That link again is here. Once again, here is the link.

Please, also, while you're there, drop a farthing into the Wampum Tip Jar. The service they provide in fostering a sense of community in this fractious little world is immeasurable.

(Later: Wampum's commenting capability is pretty taxed by the heavy voting. If you're having trouble getting into the Comments, you can also vote by sending email to wampum @ nic-naa.netm, subject Koufax.)

PS: The Ray Davies review I've promised is coming. Tomorrow morning, OK? Right now I'm officially outta gas.

Monday, March 20, 2006

What Color Is Your Unopened Parachute?

An astonishing new development in the field of Work Avoidance has come across the Jingo Desk, and we'd be terribly remiss if we failed to pass it along to out Brethren and Sistren in Sloth.

First-person empirical research conducted in the Jingo Laboratory of Lassitude has confirmed a hypothesis that has long been employed in professional Work-Avoidance circles but never hitherto empirically proven: If everybody thinks you're way busier that they are, nobody will dare to give you work.

The hypothesis was proven using laboratory equipment that is available in any corporate office:
  1. Three folders stuffed with 8.5 x 11" paper. This paper need not be written or printed on, although credibility is greatly enhanced if it is, and accidental discovery of its blankness will greatly skew the results of the experiment.
  2. Several writing implements (at a minimum, one ball-point pen, one number-two pencil and one yellow highlighter pen) placed about one's person in visible locations. The research team found the placement of the pen behind one's ear to be particularly effective in establishing credibility.
  3. A Palm Pilot or similar device with its Alarm feature set to go off audibly every fifteen minutes.
  4. A cellphone set on Vibrate. This should be placed in one's shirt pocket or a similar hidden spot. It should not be left on a table or desktop, as this placement will make apparent to the Bestowers of Labor the fact that the phone has not, in fact, rung.
  5. A generally disheveled and distracted air.
The subject of the experiment should then spend the bulk of one (1) working day striding purposefully from place to place in the corporate office with items 1) through 4) in plain view of coworkers. Any coworker attempting conversation of any sort with the subject should be fobbed off with "Woah, love to stop and chat, but I've really got to be [somewhere at the opposite end of the office] in two minutes!" Any coworker who simply catches the subject's eye but does not attempt conversation should be greeted with the elaborately rolled eyes that bespeak a highly put-upon cube rat. It is vital to the success of the experiment that all perambulation should be done at the highest possible rate of speed. Heavy breathing, like that produced by the adrenaline of heavy stress, cannot but help.

If the subject cannot avoid conversation, a sudden patting of the pocket containing the silent cellphone, an apologetic "Sorry, I have to take this," and a quick departure from the room with the phone clapped to the ear will end any further interaction.

If the subject is called into a meeting, the PDA should be placed on the table while every attempt is made to appear attentive and solicitous. As the PDA is set to sound an alarm every fifteen minutes, the subject has only that amount of time to wait. When the alarm sounds, the subject should let out a quiet but intense "Shit!" consult the display, gather his belongings and quickly excuse himself from the room, waving angrily at the PDA and muttering dark imprecations about admins to arrogant SVPs who don't check for conflicts before scheduling meetings.

Any coworker who pokes his or her head into the subject's cubicle should be greeted with the apologetic but firm impression that the intrusion at this particular moment is an enormous imposition. Words like "crashing," "deliverable" and "slavedriving bastards" should be employed liberally. Making up meaningless acronyms ("I've got to get this report to the ACPA Committee by COB or my ass is grass!") is entirely permissible.

This strategem may appear to be overelaborate, but the technique has been proven 100% effective. My monograph on the subject has been accepted for publication in the June edition of National Review of Unbelievably Lazy Swine.

See you at the top of the pile, suckers!

Saturday, March 18, 2006

I'd Never Kick When Lulu Came to Polish Up My Horn

Last weekend la famille Jingo drove about the landscape, some routine errands to perform. As we casually set fire to a few gallons of $2.55 gas we happened to have lying around, National Treasure Dick Spottswood regaled the front-seat passengers (the back-seat ones being enthralled with the modern gunge their earphones poured directly into their brains) with his utterly wonderful "Obsolete Music" radio show. We no longer have the Lomaxes with us, John and Alan, and the practice of tooling around Appalachia or the Delta with a 120-pound Revox reel-to-reel recording the banjo kid from Deliverance playing his unique take on "Little Darlin', Pal o' Mine" has become ever-so-slightly vieux jeux. But National Treasure Dick Spottswood does nicely to chase away the Strip-Mall Blues.

I listened with half an ear as I piloted the family bus, pondering this and that, when the chorus of one particularly louche Thirties-sounding number reached out and grabbed me by the lapels, demanding my attention:
Bang away my Lulu
Bang away good and strong
What are we going to do for banging
When Lulu's gone?

My goodness, that certainly sounds filthy, doesn't it?

Intrigued, I researched the song, found the recording Dick played. Here it is, go ahead and listen (it will open in a new window).

It turns out Grand Ol' Opry fixture Roy Acuff, "King of the Hillbillies," the "Backwoods Sinatra," the "Caruso of Mountain Music," in the earliest moments (ca. 1937) of his extremely long and distinguished career, cut a few "risqué" sides with some pickup sidemen. "When Lulu's Gone" was released under the name "The Bang Boys" -- which ought to make youngsters casting about for a punk-band name stand up and whinny. You could do lots worse.

(By way of gauging Acuff's influence on the world of country music, the song you're listening to is absolutely one of the first applications of the Dobro resophonic guitar to a hillbilly song.)

"Bang Away Lulu,"which I naturally thought was the name of the song, produces some mightly rich Google results. Quite plainly, Roy and the Bang Boys spent quite a bit of effort toning down a song that already had been quite a bit filthier even than the pretty racy one they put out. One version, to be found here, has as its first verse,

I wish I was a diamond upon my Lulu's hand,
And every time she wiped her ass, I'd see the promised land,
Oh, Lordy.

Bang away, my Lulu; bang away good and strong.
Oh, what'll we do for a damn good screw when our Lulu's dead and gone?

Roy and the Boys watered that down to:

I wish I was a diamond upon my Lulu's hand
Every time she'd take her bath I'd be a lucky man
Oh lordy!

Bang away my Lulu; bang away good and strong
What are going to do for banging when Lulu's gone?
Another Googled version of the song reveals it as a "teasing song," the sort of parlor game where the rhyme is only clear if you know your Durty Wurdz:

Lulu's got a rooster.
Lulu's got a duck.
She put them in the bathtub
To see if they would --

Bang, bang Lulu.
Lulu's gone away.
Who we gonna bang, bang
Since Lulu's gone away?

All of this is by way of showing, I suppose, that despite their best efforts to hide it, our ancestors had themselves some libidos. My parents came from somewhere, and for all I know "Bang Away Lulu" might have helped that happen.

More proof of libidinous grandparents comes in the form of the Depression-era Tijuana Bible, little 8-page pornographic booklets that parodied popular comic strips and movies of the day. Examine those Bibles closely, with the particular thought in mind of the influence they can't possibly have failed to exert on Sixties underground cartoonist R. Crumb.

Now, to tie a nice little bow around our whole little excursion into Depression-era lubricity, listen to R. Crumb's Cheap Suit Serenaders with their own filthy little tune, "My Girl's Pussy."

There. My work here is done. Go ye and produce a generation of your own. I hope a few of 'em look like Steve Canyon and think like Roy Acuff.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Zodiacal Alignment

Some sort of perverse zodiacal alignment has prevented me from posting for a few days: Yesterday's lightning trip to New York -- which occasioned six hours of crack-of-dawn and long-post-gloaming travel to get two hours' useful work done that could have easily been done by phone -- has combined with today's marathon session (with concomitant loss of productivity that will have to be made up) manually configuring and moving files to a new Mac Powerbook, to make me, in President Clinton's immortal words, "goofy tired."

So tired that I'm not even going to apologize for that last sentence. The fucker parses. The proof is left as an exercise for the student.

This new Mac is seriously wonderful. The old laptop was balky and prone to kernel panic -- the result, I theorize, of faulty RAM. I bore with its idiosyncrasies for three months knowing my employers had ordered the new one. The Cmd-S buttons were worn to a nub. You know how a new computer smells, the same way a new car smells? Stick the nose right down into the keyboard, take a big whiff, go ahead, nobody will think you're strange... Mmmmmmm....

I would like to commend to one of the fruitier rings of Hell the drunken dullards who made last night's dinner easily the worst in my memory. Fresh off the plane, I was beginning to succumb to this goofy-tired state and dying for some pub-grub and a beer. I bellied up at some farm-implement bar in Whistling Nowheresville, Suburbia, and asked for some chicken wings and a tall, life-giving Sammy Seasonal. No sooner had my order been placed when these three cigarette-punishing drunks sat down next to me -- the last places at the bar -- and began exchanging the sort of guffawing idiotry that only a fourth or fifth Long Island Iced Tea can produce. The dullard closest to me, plowed nearly Witty and Charming Part II, had completely thrown any concept of Personal Space to the very same wind to which he was three sheets; at every sally and jape of his idiot brethren, he reeled backward in laughter, leaning his nauseating torso against my eating arm. Absolutely the last straw came when his crapulent eye spotted a clean ashtray just north of my Ranch dressing, and he extended his lava-spewing cancer-stick directly across my plate, unsteadily hovered over his target, and mashed the filthy thing into a foul-smelling but completely undead roach that continued to spew its vileness directly across my dinner, the precise opposite of mist on a morning meadow.

Check, please.



Plowed nearly Witty and Charming, Part II... You do know Dan Jenkins' Ten Stages of Drunkenness, don't you? From Baja Oklahoma...

1. Witty and Charming
2. Rich and Powerful
3. Benevolent
4. Clairvoyant
5. Fuck Dinner
6. Patriotic
7. Crank up the Enola Gay
8. Witty and Charming, Part II
9. Invisible
10. Bulletproof

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Minor Facelift

I've been playing around with a few banner graphics for the Friendly Confines. The one you see here, which I'm calling "What the hell are you looking at?" uses a Jackson Pollock (Number 1, 1950 [Lavender Mist], as it happens) for the background texture and a little dingbat designed by Eric Gill, a eye in a hand, which, I'm reliably informed, "manifests the integral and interactive bond between two essential human functions: sensing/observation (the Eye) and doing/acting (the Hand)."

So it's got that going for it. Which is good.*

I've already got another two or three ginned up to rotate in and out as the mood strikes.

*Movie ref., anyone?

Monday, March 13, 2006

Worse Places to Be

You could have picked worse places to be on or about February 10, 1982.

You might have been one of the thousands of people stranded at airports worldwide due to the collapse of Laker Airways, or you could have been one of the 84 rig workers drowned in the icy waters off Newfoundland when their oil platform sank. You could have been your correspondent, a trepidacious, future-fearing undergrad deep in the parlous throes of writing his senior thesis on Taoism.

But if you had managed to infest the Märkthalle concert hall in Hamburg that evening, you would have been treated to what for my money is the absolute high-water mark of New Wave live musicianship. After XTC, the graph, as they say down at the Econ Department, tends to slope off rather sharply.

Click to play video, XTC live, "Burning with Optimism's Flames," in a new window.

The Talking Heads were a groove band by 1982 -- nothing wrong with that, they were wonderful fun -- but they tended to kitchen-sinkiness in their later years. Costello's Attractions were a truly fearsome little platoon, as were the Joe Jackson Band, but as backing bands for flamboyant frontmen they necessarily receded into the background. The Police were all about the silences between the notes, which is great, but the notes are important too, and you know, come on. Sting.

In 1982, it was gonna be either these guys or the Police. They were right about on a par with each other, saw each other as cross-town rivals. When this video was made, XTC had just a week before released "Senses Working Overtime," their biggest hit, and an album, English Settlement, that was a critical darling. Things were just about to get Seriously Good for this band.

They were one tour away, they told themselves.

It was of course the Beatles who first explosively announced the musical possibilities of two-guitars-bass-and-drums playing sophisticated harmonic progressions and shifting textures all to a compulsively danceable tempo -- music you can both dance and think to. So many bands have explored and continue to explore the terrain the Fabs first mapped out that it becomes impossible to trace influences through the historical murk of generations. In their later, studio-only years XTC acquired a deserved reputation as a "Beatlesque" band, but in their live, touring years they were more reminiscent of a much tighter and more energetic Kinks, both in sound and in subject matter. The finest album of that period, Black Sea, is packed with songs that you can easily imagine coming from Ray Davies' pen, fine English satire like "Respectable Street" or "Generals and Majors" or "Sgt. Rock."

Andy Partridge has said that he wanted to form a band that married Captain Beefheart and the Monkees, and a better description of "Burning with Optimism's Flames" is hard to imagine. Against a straight-ahead bass figure and driving, uncomplicated drums, the two guitars play an oscillating pattern that is rhythmically in some other universe, a demented waltz against the four of the pedestrian beat, much like something you'd expect to hear on Ice Cream for Crow. But unlike Beefheart's weirdness, the jerkiness of the arrangement here is never repellent. You can still sort-of dance to it, if you just listen to the drums. You're going to wind up on the wrong foot quite a lot of the time, but it is possible.

It's not completely nuts to imagine Ray Davies attempting a Gilbert & Sullivan patter-song, and that's what's on display here -- Andy the Modern Major-General. If you can in this muddy live mix, try to hear the melody Andy sings in the verse against the bass figure Colin Moulding is playing -- it's more Beefheartian cycles rubbing against each other. One of my favorite Naughty-Andy lyrics is featured here:
What on earth is bringing up this stream?
The cat who got her cream
Is licking her lips and smiling like her Chesire cousin!
From the verse, where these eccentric time-signature cogwheels cycle like a clock built by a madman, the chorus explodes from the exquisitely ska-tinged "All you do is smile" bridge like a cannon going off.

If the Secret Sauce of the live XTC sound is guitar interplay, what better partner in crime could you hope for than the masterful and peripatetic Dave Gregory? Jesus, look, just look, at some of the things he's doing in those guitar breaks! I'm particularly impressed by his ability to switch from single-note leads to second rhythm, dominating the arrangement one second and instantly switching to coloration the next. Dave is that rare species, the egoless lead guitarist.

I have another live version of this song from a year before, on a BBC recording. On the liner notes for that CD, Andy wrote, "By the time we get to the 'every bird and bee' middle bit I'm smiling so hard I can hardly sing." It's not hard to see why -- the band is finally given its head completely, finally allowed to roar at full voice. I see now it's Dave switching to power chords on his Strat that fills out the sound; nothing like a nice fist C played on the fat strings to make a joyful noise.

But of course the irony here is that the man you see singing these wonderfully clever and literate words about being ecstatic -- in a band literally named after that emotion -- is himself only slightly less than a month away from an emotional breakdown that will prevent him from ever playing in public in any serious way again. The breakdown will manifest itself as crippling stage-fright, but Andy understands now that his going cold-turkey from a decade-long Valium dependency had a great deal, if not everything, to do with it.

Yes. That guy, Mister Logorrhea McPattersong, was addicted to Valium.

What you are watching is about as extreme a case of laughing-on-the-outside, crying-on-the-inside as you're likely to see. He tells of years' worth of a dreadful diet -- dinner a handful of peanuts grabbed off a bar somewhere -- a poorly planned, killer touring schedule that treated the band like robots; and a slowly dawning suspicion that their manager was siphoning a great deal of money into his own pockets while paying the band barely more than their per-diem.

"Let it die/So let it all break down to rotten/That's the way we'll grow new flowers," writes an older and wiser Andy Partridge in 1992's "This Is the End." From the composted corpse of this fine, fine performing unit's demise would come the Studio Years of Skylarking and Oranges and Lemons and Apple Venus, in which many more beautiful, great-hearted lace doilies would be tatted by these hands.

But Lord, what a great rock band they were.

(Edit: Many thanks to Xtcfan for burning the Rockpalast DVD for me...)

Friday, March 10, 2006

Openly Whoring Now

Koufax Awards voting is over Sunday, so here's your last chance to tickle my scrotum.

I mean, criminy, look at that "This Weather" post down there. Ain't she a beaut? Surely that's worth a vote at that ol' Koufax ego-strokin' Best Writing contest? Does Magik-fuckin'-thise inform you she got laid this morning with quite so much pa-na-chee? Huh? Does Drift-pissin'-Glass employ three fine synonyms for "horny" in one paragraph, without recourse to Roget? I put it to you, sir, that he does not!

You can also vote for the Jingo of your choice in these categories:

Best New Blog

Most Deserving of Wider Recognition

Best Post

Best Series

Most Humorous Blog

Most Humorous Post

And the time at which you can vote in these categories is NOW. Ending Sunday.

This Weather

Back about a million years ago as the crow flies, two lived as cheaply as one in an L-shaped one-bedroom Brooklyn hovel in what the real-estate weasels were already beginning to call "South Park Slope" but that devotées of Hubert Selby will correctly identify as Red Hook.

Too poor to be fashionable, too unfashionable to be much of a catch for parties, but childless and free, we took our leisure on long walks through New York's neighborhoods. Some of my most treasured memories are of holding hands as we traipsed together through Riverside Park, The Cloisters, Chinatown, SoHo, the East Village -- aimlessly wandering just to see what was around the next corner. Any weather, any season, any emotional state. Name me a neighborhood, and I'll give you a rundown.

Washington Heights?

July, way too hot, hung over, Wonder Woman was homesick, magnificent Puerto Rican pickup band drummed endlessly in Morningside Park, restored my faith in the goodness of humankind.

Greenwood Cemetary?

Crisp late fall, leaves crackled underfoot as we marveled at the fact that we couldn't remember the last time we'd touched a tree.

We had friends, of course, and often they would come with us on our walks. One beautiful, velvety spring day very much like the one we had today, we were walking down Eighth Avenue with our particular pal Paul Quinn. As we ambled loose-limbed, we felt mildly euphoric as benevolent winds kissed us through cotton clothing in the spring sunshine. At that point at which Bleecker Street angles off Eighth Avenue toward the heart of the Village, a fellow roughly our own age came into view, walking toward us.

He was striding with some purpose, but not without his own kind of mindfulness. As we came within speaking distance, I could see that he was quite aware of our presence on this quiet city Sunday. I will never know which one of us set him thinking -- or perhaps it was a combination of two of us, or all three; as I say, I'll never know -- but as he passed us he exclaimed, in full voice, to the whole world in general:

"God, this weather makes me so horny!"

I don't know whether he was aware of the three guffawing, teary-eyed dollops of Jell-o he left rolling around behind him on the West Village sidewalk as he made his libidinous way up Eighth, strewing his carnality to the four winds, an erotic Johnny Appleseed spreading his message of libertinage to all he surveyed -- but rolling, side-holding dollops did he leave.

He can't possibly have known at the time, but he created a deathless inside joke that gets a rise even now, more than twenty years on. Even this morning, an unspeakably beautiful blue-skied cupcake of a morning, a warm-breezed, sap-rising, songbird-returning, bud-opening femme fatale of a morning, after the kids have gotten on the schoolbus and there's no particularly pressing thing that requires our attention...

"God, doesn't this weather just make you --"


Thursday, March 09, 2006

I Come from a Long Line of Electricians

(Dedicated to the memory of John Junkin, who played the character of Shake, loosely based on Beatles' roadie Mal Evans, in A Hard Day's Night. Junkin died Tuesday.)

Interior. A bathtub, brimming with suds. A periscope peeks up through the bubbles, looks around. John Lennon emerges wearing his trademark billed cap, covered in soap-suds.

John: Guten morgen mein herr! Allen-sie noch ein zie haben?

He drives a toy submarine into the bubbles, making engine noises. George Harrison walks past to the sink, in t-shirt, a towel draped around his neck. The camera captures his and John's image in the mirror.

John: Ah, zee filthy Englander! Gutty morgy!

Keep Britain tidy!

Shake comes into view.

Shake: Go on, George.

George: Don't be ridiculous.

Shake: But you said I could.

George: Honestly, me mind boggles at the very idea. A grown man and you haven't shaved with a safety razor.

Shake: It's not my fault. I come from a long line of electricians.

George: Well, you're not practicing on me.

Shake: All right, then. But show us.

George: Come on, then.

George outlines Shake's beard with a can of shaving cream on the mirror, and begins to shave the cream off the mirror.

John [splashing, suddenly squeezing the toy submarine with mock rage, dashing it violently into the bathwater]: Rule Britannia! Britannia, rule the--

He sinks back into the suds.

George: Put your tongue away. It looks disgusting hanging there all pink and naked. One slip of the razor and unh!

He flicks the safety razor to illustrate. Shake flinches in fear.

John [emerging from the bathwater]: Heinrich! Headphones! Help!

He subsides again.

George: Torpedoed again, eh.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

"Conservative Women Fight Back"

(Cross-posted at The American Street)

I have a meager appetite indeed for the opinions of the people I've come to think of as The Loveless Ones. The farther I can stay from the issue of their cramped and crabbed and tightly clenched minds, the saner my brain and calmer my liver. I'm not saying I hide from discourse inimical to my prejudices; it's just that sometimes people say and do things that are so ugly and uncharitable and ice-hearted and spiteful that unless I look away sharply and hold my breath and count to ten I will melt to an enraged little grease spot. I'm reminded of Homer Simpson's retort at the gun shop: "Seven-day waiting period? But I'm angry now!"

Today's Washington Post Style Section features a piece on one Monique Stuart, a 24-year-old who appears to have carved a niche for herself in conservative circles and scored a gig at the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute as the Official In-House Scourge of The Vagina Monologues.

Stuart appears to be even more monumentally stupid than even this job title suggests. "The play," she asserts, "defines women as their sexual organs," leaving little doubt about the acuity of her literary judgment and the accuracy of her interpretive skills. (She attended Roger Williams U.: Perhaps someone from the English Dept. might like to step forward and Take Responsibility...) She does claim to have seen the play, apparently several months after having formed an implacable onus against it on the word of conservative author Christina Hoff Sommers, although I'm utterly flummoxed how anyone who has seen or read it can possibly come to her conclusion.

Perhaps the funniest mental image engendered by the article is this one:
During winter break of her senior year, she retyped "The Vagina Monologues," replacing every use of the word "vagina" with "penis," and called the result "The Penis Monologues."
As she is a stripling of tender years, her senior year in college can only be a couple bends back in the rearview mirror, which leads me to wonder even more about her mother wit: it took approximately three minutes this morning to find an online copy of the play (probably a copyright violation), and search-and-replace "vagina" with "penis." Given the technology available even in the dark days of 2003, retyping the entire play seems quixotic to the point of numbskullery.

But this is the kind of dedication and intellectual application that earns one a place of honor at the ineffable (and unpronounceable) Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute.

Here's a typical result of the crude search-and-replace method for devaginating The Vagina Monologues:
Women love to talk about their penises, they do. They really do. Mainly because no one's ever asked them before.
Golly yes, that is an eye-opener, isn't it? My word.

The point being, replacing "vagina" with "penis" yields a result that is sophomoric Dadaism -- unless you reedit the entire play and replace every female character with a man.

Michelle Malkin linked approvingly to the Post article this morning with the one-liner: "Conservative women fight back." (No link, sorry. You can find it yourself.)

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Walter Alston Says Vote!

Despite what they say in their left rail, the Koufax Awards are open for voting. Since my bloggery exists entirely to succour the enormous gaping black hole that is my stupendous ego, I will not rest until I have won every category, even the ones I'm not nominated in. Best Group Blog? I'm a group. Arguably. I am large, I contain multitudes! Expert Blog? Shit yeah, I'm an expert! Ask me anything! Go on! Best Blog Community? I love all you guys! Hugs!!!!!

You are hereby encouraged to go vote for the Neddie of your choice in the following categories. You vote simply by leaving a Comment in the relevant post.

Best Writing (It would really tickle my scrotum to be a finalist here, hint hint...)

Best New Blog

Most Deserving of Wider Recognition

Best Post (Several candidates. If I were to go under a bus tomorrow, I wouldn't mind being remembered for "Our Harvest Being Gotten In" or "Departed This Life"...)

Best Series -- Mobberly

Most Humorous Blog

Most Humorous Post (This is an odd one: I've written scores of posts funnier than "It Is Mr. Wu's Considered Opinion," but that's the one that rattles around in the bottom of the nomination sieve. Go figure.)

O' course, Helmut is absolutely right, the winners are gonna be the Blogs Everybody Reads, but for now a guy can dream, can't he?)

Sunday, March 05, 2006

In Memoriam Calvin Welty Downey

According to Eugene Scheel, in his Loudoun Discovered: Vol. 5, Waterford, The German Settlement and Between the Hills, in 1807 the first post office north of Waterford was established at Hamilton's Mill. James Hamilton, the first postmaster, was the proprietor of this mill until he died in 1813. The mill came into the possession of James Madison Downey in 1858. Downey tried to sell the mill shortly thereafter, but the gathering clouds of war probably made this impossible.

The year after Downey took over the mill, at a distance of a day's walk to the northwest, John Brown struck Harpers Ferry with the full impotent fury of his insurrection. In the months that followed, John Stevens, a somewhat distant neighbor of Downey's, helped build the gallows on which Brown was hung, and guarded him on the night before his execution in Charles Town, two valleys west. Stevens lived in the cabin I helped tear down this weekend.

During the Civil War James Downey was elected to the loyalist state legislature at Alexandria. For this he was harassed, arrested and detained three time by Confederate bands -- I have no evidence that John Mobberly had any direct hand in this harrassment, but that would be just about his meat and potatoes.

The Civil War was not kind to the Downeys:
Between 1861-65, deaths in the Downey family totaled five. James Downey's daughter Amanda Katherine died of 1861. Son John F. Downey, a civilian guide for the Union army, was killed in an ambush near Salem, Fauquier, in 1862. She was 23, he was 24. Next year, Alphonso Charles Webster, husband of James Downey's daughter Susan Alice, was hanged by Confederates. He had been accused of two murders. He was not allowed to defend himself. Four months later, 21-year-old Susan Alice died of consumption, and in January 1865 the same disease claimed the life of Susan Alice's sister, 17-year-old Leila "Lilly" Downey.
After the war, one of James Downey's few remaining sons, Winfield Scott Downey, took over the mill until he was kicked in the head by a horse and killed in 1878. His younger brother, Calvin Welty Downey, then took over the miller's duties until he died in 1885. Says Scheel, "James Downey had died the previous year, his wife Anne in 1881. They had seen 10 of their 11 children die."

A legitimate question at this point might be, Why the hell am I telling you all of this? OK, life was hard in the 1800s, Jingo. We know all that.

I'm telling you, O Impatient One, because yesterday, after scrabbling away at lath and plaster at John Stevens's cabin, I found, exposed to light for the first time since it was hidden by a 140-year-old home-improvement project, Calvin Welty Downey's autograph.

Actually, I don't know that that's his autograph. It's just a name. But it's quite different from the other examples of writing on the wall from Stevens's cabin, all of which were inscribed in the late 1800s when the cabin was being used as a shop, and which all refer in some way or another to transactions that had taken place in the shop. This one has no transaction or debt or account associated with it -- it's only the name. Most significantly, this name was written on the old wall, on the whitewashed plaster that holds in place the chinking between logs, under the plaster that disguised the cabin's log-structure origins. The name was covered up when the cabin was radically expanded and improved after the Civil War, when Stevens was raising his family.

Why would the name of a neighbor from ten miles away be penciled on the whitewashed wall near the mantel of your living room? Wouldn't that be awfully, you know, rude?

Here's what I think happened.

I believe Downey worked as a building contractor before family tragedy forced him to become a miller. I believe that Downey was the man hired to improve the Stevens house. I believe that, much as an artist signs his painting, Downey signed his work.

His signature, he knew, would be hidden behind plaster.

I believe he signed that wall as a way of saying howdy to whoever took it apart. However many years off that would be. A little time capsule, a little "Kilroy was here" to some unknowable future.

In other words, he signed the wall in the hopes that I would find it.

Cal, I'm sorry I had to take down your handiwork. It was falling down anyway. But let me tell you, that lath you put up was a rat-bastard bitch to rip down. I'm still sore from weasand to nock. Your nails held strong & true until the very last. And to your penciled tip of the hat, I correspondingly hoist my trilby and make the humblest of legs. Thank you, Calvin.

Thank you!

Friday, March 03, 2006

One Side of Meat 12 Lbs.

I'm willing to bet I had more fun today than you did.

Just a guess, there, a surmise.

First, I have to make a confession, and correct a mistake that I made many months ago. I read a local Lovettsville, Va., history book and jumped to a conclusion that has turned out to be quite wrong. From the description given in the book, I concluded that one John J. Stevens, who as a young man helped to build the gallows on which John Brown of the Harpers Ferry Raid was hung, and who guarded Brown's cell on the last night before his execution, had lived at a house down the road from me.

I now know this to be untrue, and can now confidently say that this house, set back from the road and not visible from it, is actually John Stevens' house.

The reason I'm crowing about my day is that today I helped disassemble it for historic preservation.

My friend and neighbor, Tom Bullock, a building contractor and restorer of historic houses, invited me to help take the cabin apart in order to preserve its timbers for later reassembly elsewhere. The owner of the land on which the cabin stood had no plans for it, and as you can see from the above photo it was badly in need of intervention -- indeed, it was nearly completely dilapidated and in danger of collapse.

The main body of the house dates, like mine, to somewhere near the end of the eighteenth century. I've found the lease deed of my property, dated 1776, and a stipulation of the lease from Lord Fairfax to the lessee is that he build a house measuring 20 feet by 16, and a barn. If you pace both my cabin and this one, about 500 yards away, they both have pretty much exactly those measurements.

This house was expanded about the time of the Civil War, about when John Stevens would have been beginning his family. The one-room cabin was given another story, and a one-story extension was built on the fireplace side of the house. That extension had already been taken apart when I took these photos earlier this week.

Stevens, who died in 1905, built an utterly beautiful Victorian foursquare a short way away from this house in the later part of the 19th century, and this cabin, now beneath dignity as a dwelling, became a shop. I'm given to understand that Catherine, the last of the local Stevenses, used it as a potting shed before she died in 1991. A smithy still stands out back, and various coops, sheds and stalls surround it in disrepair.

Below is the interior of the main cabin. Jim, a good friend of Tom's and mine and another passionate advocate of historical preservation (you may have seen him and his historical-artefact collection in a recent Discovery Channel documentary), waxed enthusiastic about that fireplace, imagining Stevens regaling a visitor with anecdotes about John Brown's last night on this earth while warming his toes by it.

Below, the western wall of the house. The siding was added at the time of the expansion, 1860s. There was a vogue, an architectural movement, to add siding on the outside and lath-and-plaster finishing on the interior, to gussy up your house and disguise the fact that you lived in a "mere" log cabin. If you drive around this part of the country, you will pass many a Revolutionary-War-era log cabin without even giving it a second glance because it's disguised this way. The March of History, keeping up with the John Paul Joneses.

Here's what I found when I arrived early this morning. And what a beautiful morning! Tom, Jim and Rob, another local who told me during a work-break of his boyhood on a farm in Vienna, Va. (nowadays the closest thing you'll find to a farm in Vienna is the overalls section of L. L. Bean at Tysons Corner Mall), had already removed the siding and the tin roof. Now you can see that this isn't a frame house, but clearly a log home. This is what it looked like in 1850. Well. With a roof.

The orange device in the front yard is a lift, a cherry-picker sort of affair for working at a height.

Below is the western wall again, now without siding. You can clearly see there's a difference between the first (ca. 1800) and second (1860s) stories.

Below: This, if I may be permitted the indulgence to say so myself, this is pretty goddamned breathtaking. As I said, after this house ceased being a residence, it became a shop, a place of business for local farmers to trade goods. The proprietor, at times stuck for a piece of paper, would scribble notes of accounts and amounts owed directly on the plaster wall. Here's one now: "John Kalb, 22lbs. hide for leather."

According to Eugene Scheel's Loudoun Discovered, Vol. 5, Waterford, the German Settlement and Between the Hills,
Kalb family lore has it that John [an ancestor of the John in the wall notation] was the son of a Baron deKalb, who came from Germany and served as a general in the Continental Army during the Revolution.... With his sword flashing, General deKalb took nearly a dozen wounds at the August 16, 1780, Battle of Camden, South Carolina. He died three days later.... General deKalb's son, John, came to Loudoun to settle on his father's bounty land.
You Brooklyn kids who ride the B/D/Q trains and sleep through the DeKalb Street station: His grandkid prolly still owes John Stevens for 22 pounds of cowhide for leather.

Below, this one makes me larff, slightly. Did they really need to write this one down? They couldn't do this one in their head?

One more wall notation. This one was very high up the wall, much higher than even a very tall man would feel comfortable writing, so I'm puzzled. But what's exciting is that W. W. Virts owed for one side of meat - 12 pounds' worth, in fact.

My house was owned by a Virts family in the 1870s. Not W. W., but maybe a relative. There were scores of Virtses hopping around here back then.

Below: two closeups of Chinking. I've been after these guys all day to stop with the horrible racist slang and call it the less offensive "Chinese-ing" but they won't hear it.

Basically, you build this box of Lincoln Logs, and then you hammer whatever crap you've got lying around -- rocks, smaller logs, sticks, we even found corn cobs -- in between the logs to insulate your drafty box. Then you cement the stuff in with mud made from clay, plaster of Paris, and gypsum.

When your chinking wears out, you'll stuff anything in to stop a draft. Below, a piece of redware crammed into a fault in the chimney.


Who's going to shoe your pretty little foot/Who's going to glove your hand?

Tiny little foot. A size 2, maybe? But not a girl. A woman's foot.

Below: The highest log comes off the eastern wall. It will be tagged, its position in the structure mapped. It will be the highest log again.

After a marathon session of hard-slogging lath-and-plaster removal, using heavy four-foot prybars which left my carpal-tunnel elbow and my rotator-cuff-arthritic shoulder in agony, we're really down to bare bones. I stood on those joists pictured below, whacking away at chinking, and feeling the structure becoming less and less solid with each whack. I was reminded in no uncertain way of the stereotypical cartoon of the man sawing away at the branch he's sitting on. Is this really wise? I was constrained to ask myself.

Here's where we left off today. Tomorrow we'll get the rest of it down with the forklift.

I told myself I'd include the the next photo, which shows the evening view from the cabin, because it "establishes context." Truth be told, I'm just feeling a little home-proud this evening.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

An Idle Thought

When teenaged kids in Kathmandu get baked on a big brick of hash, do they sit around and talk about Western philosophy?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


Walking down the hall at work. Think of something I need to say to Wonder Woman.

Crack the cellie. Speed-dial home is two buttons: "2" and "Send."

They beep as you press them. Number pad is an E, Send button is an A.* Completely ordinary perfect fifth, perfectly simple quarter-notes: Bink-bonk.

Nobody in his right mind would think anything more of it.

But somebody cheerfully not in his right mind, somebody whose probing thumb has played the buttons with just the right rhythmic inflection, might hear the first two notes of The Greatest Melody Ever Written, and go off down the hall singing gently to himself:

Meet the Flintstones
They're a modern stone-age fa-mi-lee...

And then completely forget what it was he wanted to tell Wonder Woman.

My cell phone is not the only thing I have this trouble with. TiVo, that masterfully designed and life-changing contraption, plays little beepy tones as you operate it. All very well -- it's often good that buttons give audible feedback as you press them, and the little melodies are quite ingeniously illustrative of the functions they invoke without being obtrusive -- imagine your computer being that feedback-intensive every time you clicked on a link in a web browser or opened a document. You'd Cheney it** in no time. But with TiVo, you don't mind.

Except when you fast forward. Let's face it -- zapping commercials is what we all crave to do, right -- the whole reason we bought the damned thing in the first place, no? Well, TiVo has invented a little punishment for the musically inclined -- perhaps the first phase of an Evil Design to prevent us from ever zipping past a commercial message again.

You can fast-forward at three speeds. The first speed, invoked with one click on the Fast-Forward button, appears to be about double real-time. This is not fast enough to satisfy the truly impatient commercial-zapper. It's the second click on the FF button that delivers the goods. Yes, you think. That's worth the extra $20 a month!

As you click the first time on the FF button, you get C-D. An interval of a major second. Two half-steps. Tinky. The second click, to the Perfect Commerce-Killing Speed, the Speed TV Executives Love to Hate, is another major second, this time D-E. Tinky. So in the hands of the experienced TiVo jockey, it becomes eighth notes, C-D, D-E, Tinky-tinky, which absolutely inevitably sets this off in the Jingo cranium:

Tinky-tinky, hello Fadder
Here I am at Camp Granada...

It's hell being me.

*I checked it in Garageband.

**Hey? You with me on this one? Huh? To Cheney something -- shoot it right in the fuckin' face! I'm a neologistic genius!