Wednesday, January 30, 2008


I'm back working.

Won't say exactly where in public, but it's a good gig, I like the people, and they're not evil.

I did enjoy unemployment to its fullest, but it was time. You can get yourself into mighty bad habits, and I found it quite disconcerting not to be able, occasionally, to say with confidence what day of the week it was. Knowing where the next paycheck is coming from, and that the kiddiewinks are covered by health insurance, are both Very Good Things.

Today I found myself actually enjoying drawing flow-charts for an online registration system in OmniGraffle. Enjoying stretching the mental muscles, feeling blood returning to parts of the brain that had atrophied a bit.

Leaving the house at 8 AM? Not so much.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Reason to Go On Living: The Poor Boy's On the Line

(Cross-posted at NewCritics.)

A friend, knowing the kind of research I'm doing for my book on the roots of bluegrass, hipped me to a collection called "The Music Never Stopped: The Roots of the Grateful Dead." The collection, an amalgam of the original versions of songs covered by the Dead, perhaps unintentionally demonstrates how good the Dead were at taking lively and engaging roots music and turning it into turgid, sludgy, boring slop.

(The last time I ripped into that band in these pages, I got into an unpleasant comment-fight with a fervent Deadhead, so I'll stop there...)

I was listening to the collection in my truck, driving home from the grocery store, loving Reverend Gary Davis, Howlin' Wolf, Marty Robbins ("El Paso," a song I had on an LP as a kid -- nostalgia rush there!), Merle Haggard, Cannon's Jug Stompers. Then Chuck Berry's "Promised Land" came on, and I found myself whooping and pounding the dashboard.

Is this a great song, or what? (pops)

I left my home in Norfolk, Virginia,
California on my mind.

A more pretentious person than myself might try to read High Mythic Meaning into this little tune. I have to admit, Chuck suggests it himself in this brilliantly economical little couplet. Never is his protagonist's actual purpose in this journey mentioned -- it seems like a trip out West just for its own sake. It also suggests Huck Finn's "lighting out for the Territory," escaping the "sivilizing" he's in danger of. Wagons, Westward, ho!

I straddled that Greyhound, rode him into Raleigh,
And on across Caroline.

Greyhound bus as trusty big-assed steed! Anthropomorphizing a goddamned bus! (Or whatever the right word is for turning an inanimate object into an animal...) Genius!

We stopped in Charlotte but bypassed Rock Hill,
We never was a minute late.
We was ninety miles out of Atlanta by sundown,
Rollin' outta Georgia state.

Blair Jackson, who wrote the liner notes for The Music Never Stopped," suggests that Berry managed to avoid having his music associated with any particular region of the country by universalizing his place-names: "He literally brought cities from all over America into his lyrics, effectively unifying different regions under a new rock-n-roll banner." That's as may be -- it certainly doesn't hurt the chances you'll buy a record if your own home town is named in it -- but this litany of American place-names, all whizzing past in this gorgeously economical narrative, reminds us not of our unity under a rock-and-roll banner but of the astounding distances between places in Flyover Country.

We had motor trouble it turned into a struggle,
Halfway cross Alabam',
And that hound broke down and left us all stranded
In downtown Birmingham.

"Left us all stranded..." In downtown Birmingham, Alabama -- in, presumably, 1964, when this lyric was written, perhaps even in jail. (Berry did a four-year stretch for violation of the Mann act, 1959-63.) How'd you like to be a black man, just out of prison, stranded in that place and that time? But notice the collectivity of that "left us all stranded": It's not just the Poor Boy's journey -- we're all bozos on this bus...

Right away I bought me a through train ticket,

Get outta town, Poor Boy!

Ridin' cross Mississippi clean
And I was on that Midnight Flyer out of Birmingham
Smokin' into New Orleans.

Somebody help me get out of Louisiana
Just help me get to Houston town.
There are people there who care a little 'bout me
And they won't let the Poor Boy down.

Sure as you're born, they bought me a silk suit,
Put luggage in my hands,
And I woke up high over Albuquerque
On a jet to the Promised Land.

So this leg out of New Orleans seems to have been accomplished by panhandling just enough scratch to get to Houston, or maybe by hitching a ride. Times are dire. Our Hero is at his all-time lowest point. Just get to Houston, Poor Boy! But who are these Unseen Benefactors, who "care a little about me"? How did the Poor Boy ingratiate himself so thoroughly so as to earn a new suit, and "luggage in his hands"? There's volumes in what Chuck doesn't tell us, here... I love the ambiguity in the third line: Listen to the way Chuck phrases, "Woke up [pause] high..." How high did you wake up, Poor Boy? How'd you come to fall asleep?

Workin' on a t-bone steak a la carte
Flying over to the Golden State;
When the pilot told us in thirteen minutes
He would set us at the terminal gate.

Swing low sweet chariot, come down easy
Taxi to the terminal zone;
Cut your engines and cool your wings,
And let me make it to the telephone.

A la cartey! Har!

Look how the language changes when the plane reaches the Promised Land, how many ultramodern (for 1964) terms he gets in: "terminal gate," "taxi," "terminal zone," "cut your engines," "make it to the telephone." Up till now the trip's had several modes of transport, most of them originating in the Victorian era -- buses, trains, cars. And note how few nouns that aren't place-names there are in the first verses. To a Poor Boy, raised in that world, the East he's lighting out from, the things he observes in his surroundings just don't seem to be worth mentioning. But now that the Promised Land is near, and he's using the most up-to-date -- and pricey -- mode of transport possible, he busts out with all this observation, this noticing of things.

And, in the midst of all this enthusiasm for modernity, he throws in a Negro Spiritual.

God, what a great lyricist!

Los Angeles give me Norfolk, Virginia,
Tidewater four ten oh nine
Tell the folks back home this is the Promised Land callin'
And the Poor Boy's on the line.

"Norfolk, Virginia, Tidewater four ten oh nine" works out to (757) 844-1009 ("Tidewater" referring to the old-style local exchange, TI, which is 84.) I so wanted to call that number, even if just to ask if the Poor Boy ever calls any more.

Alas, it's not in circulation.

Monday, January 21, 2008

It's Due When?

It was one of those classic moments of parenthood: late last week, Betty, a tenth-grader, allowed it to be known, far too late, that her biology assignment is due this Tuesday (tomorrow).

The assignment: To make a realistic model of the human skeleton and label all the major bones.

Build a fucking skeleton. In three days. Go.

Wonder Woman bought some modeling clay and a spool of wire. Betty panicked and took to her room. The dogs barked helpfully. Freddie shrugged and took to his room too, to play Rock Band on his XBox 360 and irritate the hell out of the rest of the house. (More on this revolting phenomenon later; suffice to say if I never again hear "Black Hole Sun" while listening to out-of-rhythm clacking on a toy drumset, it will be far too soon.)

After talking Betty off the ledge, and forcing her participation with threats both mundane and dire, we started bending wire and kneading clay, muttering imprecations at the ridiculousness of the assignment ("I've got to make ten metatarsals out of this crap? What does a fucking metatarsal even look like?).

We just now finished. While the skull looks more like something from Olduvai Gorge than a recently deceased homo sapiens, it at least has a clearly labeled cranium, mandible and maxillus. The vertebrae are little cubical clay beads strung on a wire, rather than the incredibly complex cervical, thoracic and lumbar processes shown in the diagram we got from Wikipedia, but at least they get bigger farther down the spine.

I have instructed Betty, on pain of punishment, to turn in the assignment tomorrow
while reciting to her teacher the following verse, which occurred to me while I was trying to ramrod a clay model of an impossibly complex bone into something at least vaguely resembling its real-life counterpart:

Songs are made by fools like Elvis
But only God can make a pelvis.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

One Man's Superstition...

These days, I await the arrival of our local freebie advertiser, The Purcellville Gazette, with bated breath. Its Letters to the Editor section is a delightful collection of crackpottery; they'll publish just about anything, as long as it fills out the page. The result is a cross-section of the loony, the obsessive, and the addlepated, with a generous dollop of the Nativist, the Racist, and the Just Plain Wacky thrown in. Better bathroom reading you couldn't wish for.

Like, no doubt, much of the country, the bursting of the mortgage bubble has hit us hard. On a drive down Mountain Road, you might be forgiven for wondering if there are any houses that aren't for sale. Folks are getting desperate.

Desperate people resort to desperate methods. Last week's Gazette included a letter, meant in the satirical vein, but falling just short of its intended target. One Joseph LaFiandra noted a custom among hopeful sellers: burying a statue of St. Joseph, head-down, on the grounds of the home to be sold. (Why head-down? Got me, Snickelfritz.) LaFiandra, whose house had languished on the market for eons, said that he'd noticed that a statue of St. Joseph had disappeared from its customary spot in the house. He extracted a confession from his wife, who said she'd spirited the statue away some weeks before and buried it, the sooner to sell the house. LaFiandra's punch-line? He dug the statue up, cleaned it and restored it to its customary spot.

The house sold a week later. (Rim-shot!)

In the latest ish, Jami and Dave Dittmeier weighed in -- and watched the joke sail four hundred feet over their heads. Proprietors of something they are pleased to call The Christian Shoppe, they were, it is immediately evident, appalled at such an ignorant superstitious practice -- damned near Popery, it is clear from their subtext. Appealing, quite properly, to the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, they assert, "We do not dispute the fact that people have sold property, but we question whether the burying of the object had anything to do with it. Why not bury a frying pan or some other inanimate object?" Such deplorable superstition! Such monstrous delusion!

"St. Joseph," they go on, "holds a special place in the history of Christianity, being the earthly father of Jesus and husband to Mary. We believe that every time a statue of St. Joseph is buried, satan [sic] has a good laugh."

Old Scratch's guffaw was as dust in the wind compared to mine when the Dittmeiers reached their own punch line:

"We believe that what sells property is prayer."

Comedy gold, Jerry! Comedy gold! You can't make stuff up like that!

I love that paper. Keep it coming, folks!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Shake Your Puddingbowl, Bhattacharya!

Sometimes Life Its Ownself should just be allowed to testify about its own delightful weirdness...

A Sixties Bollywood Beatles sendup:

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Lebanese Blond

For some reason, Venice keeps popping up. Don't know why, don't know how, but in the last few days I've been bombarded with images of Venice. As these things do, the aerial assault has triggered a long-forgotten second-hand anecdote that needs to be preserved.

I've recounted before that my first job out of college was as a recording engineer at The American Foundation for the Blind, recording Talking Books for the blind. The folks who actually read the texts I followed along with, monitoring to ensure the text was followed exactly, stopping the tape when an errant belt buckle or nose-whistle produced an extraneous noise, were from a broad range of the dramatic world. Some were Broadway chorus boys who couldn't kick it up anymore; others were voiceover talents whose golden pipes I still to this day hear on commercials.

One of the most delightful to work with was Jim Sheridan. Then the director of the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan, where he directed Irish plays for the Hibernophile set, he went on to become the director of "In the Name of the Father," "My Left Foot," and "In America."

To say that Jim was a drinker would put it mildly. In my penurious state at the time, I could afford the occasional six-pack but not much more. I would watch with utter amazement -- and no small amount of envy -- as Sheridan poured into an 8:30 AM session, his eyes painfully, seethingly red, his head obviously still reeling from the previous night's excesses, which appeared to have ended perhaps fifteen minutes before.

The book he was reading was Myles na gCopaleen's Best of Myles -- to this day one of my all-time favorite books. na gCopaleen is quite possibly the funniest newspaper columnist who ever lived -- his novels, published under the name Flann O'Brien, are no funereal events either -- and these sessions with Sheridan frequently came to a grinding halt with both painfully hung-over reader and bright-eyed young recording tech rolling on the floor.

In the course of these sessions, Sheridan took a liking to me, opening up conversations that sometimes took up the lion's share of our two-hour session. "Fuck da clock, Neddie. We'll get t'rough Myles anodder day," he would observe seraphically. One day, Jim told me about a moment in Venice that left me hiccupping hours later.

Then a young actor in the Seventies, he attended a drama festival in Vienna. It was an enormously convivial affair, and great friendships were formed among the Up and Coming of Europe's dramatic set. One such newly formed friend, at the closing of the festivity, had pressed into Jim's hand a quite large -- and, as we shall see, intimidatingly potent -- chunk of Lebanese Blond hashish. Jim accepted it without much thought. It was, after all, the Seventies.

But the Seventies were also dangerous for traveling Irishmen, mere actors an they be. The IRA was at the height of its depredations, and an Irish passport at a border crossing was a near guarantee of a nasty interrogation, possibly culminating in a cavity search. Jim's next stop was Venice, another theater event. He cadged a ride with another actor -- and the hash didn't even enter his consciousness until he saw the road-sign indicating that the Italian customs shed was a kilometer away.

Well, what would you do at the prospect of a vengeful Italian fist up your rectum? He pondered his two options -- throw it away or eat it. This was a fine chuck o' honey, damned pity to waste it, so down the hatch it went.

Might as well do this famous-movie-director-like. After all, it's how he told it.

Cut to Venice, hours later. A Citroen Deux-Chevaux, an absolute tin-can of a car, recently arrived in town, screeches up at the entrance of a cheap hotel. Its driver emerges, visibly irritated and voluble, walks around to the passenger side door, opens it. From the foot-well of the passenger seat -- not the seat, mind you, but where you put your feet -- a timid hand emerges. Slowly, agonizingly, the hand feels around outside, its trajectory downward, to the ground. Finally it touches the cobblestoned street. Amazed to be touching something solid, it continues to feel around. Finally assured of the solidity of the ground, the hand's owner manages to roll out of the car's foot-well onto the street, weeping with gratitude that the ground, so unexpectedly corporeal, was not a Venetian canal.

Dey don't have fuckin' sthreets in Venice, Neddie! It's all fuckin' water! It's canals, man! I'd spent six hours in absolute fuckin' panic on the floor of that car, completely convinced I was a dead man, trying to reach Venice by land!

I miss that job. I really do.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Come-a, Come-a Down Doobie Doo

Yes, you can crack a Cichlid. You can snap a Siamese Fighter. Annihilate an Angelfish? Without even breaking a sweat. Go ahead, bust a Bichir. Piece of cake.

Lambaste a Loach. Make mincemeat of a Minnow. Truncate a Tetra. Slice a Swordtail. Ruin a Rainbowfish.

Falling off a log, I tell ya.

But breaking Guppies? Hard to do.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


One imagines it's the Football Playoff Mania that's sweeping the nation (just like the Mudshark) that's filling the pages of the Washington Post with stories of rude behavior in the stands and parking lots of our nation's football emporia. Post readers, Redskins fans, reported being treated dreadfully by their neighbors at the Seattle game last week, prompting a Seattle resident to apologize in a letter to the editor.

At the amateur level, Jeanne Marie Laskas writes a column in the Magazine section on the discomfiture of a mother who is required to watch a film on courtside etiquette for parents; she's obliged to sign an affidavit that she's watched the film before her daughter is allowed to play in her league.

It would appear that all over the nation, and all throughout the history of amateur and youth sports in the United States, parents habitually break out in fisticuffs, abuse referees, harass the
players (their own children and others'), and loudly and obscenely question coaches' decisions. This is an epidemic. It's Clearly a Symptom of Something Very Wrong With the Body Politic.

Only, I've never once seen it happen. I played three seasons of Little League baseball, three of Pop Warner football, high-school baseball and competitive skiing. Freddie has been a league soccer player since he was four -- he's fourteen now -- and has played in more than a hundred soccer matches in two different leagues, nearly every one of which I've watched from beginning to end.

And I've never seen a parent who wasn't fully supportive, encouraging, polite and positive. We cheer when the boys do well, and we comfort when they don't. A referee's bad call engenders no abuse -- some quiet muttering among the dads, certainly, but never anything hurtful. I've never seen a parent confront a coach over a strategic or personnel decision. I think I saw three yellow cards and no red cards this last season, even as the teen lads start playing the full-speed, serious and physical men's game.

So where is this dreadful behavior happening? Have you seen examples of it? Drop a comment, won't you?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

See That My Grave is Kept Clean

Well, my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold
And my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold
Well, my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold
Now I believe what the bible told

There's just one last favor I'll ask of you
And there's one last favor I'll ask of you
There's just one last favor I'll ask of you
See that my grave is kept clean

—Blind Lemon Jefferson

Yesterday, a briskly windy day, the power went out. Again. A tree collapsed on the line downhill, blacking out our road for several hours.

Rather than sit around in a dark, cold house waiting for the Dominion Power guys to do their slow and steady thing, I decided I'd go look for old John F. Hartman, the fellow who carved his name into Buzzard Rock in 1851. Or at least what's left of him.

I knew which cemetery he'd been buried in, but I'd never visited it. I knew of its existence, but only in theory.

From the 1830s to the 1880s, there was no Methodist church on this side of Short Hill. The nearest churches in this valley were in Lovettsville, some four miles away from the ridge, and they were Lutheran and Calvinist. The pious area Methodies along the eastern foot of the mountain would walk over it to attend Ebenezer Church in Waters -- so what if there was a hulking great 800-foot-tall obstacle between them and the Lord?

The road over the mountain, imaginatively called the Ebenezer Church Road (or, alternatively, the William Graham Road, for reasons I've not yet figured out), began to fall into disrepair in the 1880s, when a Methodist church was built on this side of the mountain. The Ebenezer Church itself was moved to a more central location in Waters, and the old graveyard abandoned.

When we hear "abandoned graveyard," I think most of us might be tempted to think that they simply stopped burying people there, and leave it at that. But for reasons I can't yet fathom, this particular graveyard was not only discontinued, but left to return to a state of nature.

Even though I knew its approximate location, it took me quite a while to find it. I even had to call a friend who had visited it before for help. Although it's just off the road, you wouldn't know it was there unless you actually dove into the woods looking for it. It must be completely impossible to view in the summer, when the undergrowth is impassable -- not to mention the snakes and ticks that would no doubt feast on you.

On a forbidding January day, to say this place is creepy is a world-class understatement. I'm not a believer in ghosts in any nonmetaphorical way, but I wouldn't blame you for getting a little spooked here. Quite a few horror-film conventions crept into my mind as I gingerly tiptoed around. Holes opening up and swallowing me, a bony hand reaching out of the rotting leaves and grabbing my ankle, a disembodied voice calling me...

When a nearly impassable high ridge stands between two towns, there is a very real "this-side" and "that-side" feeling to the human relations between them. When you have to work quite hard to walk to a place, you might be tempted not to do it. Nowadays, when I want to visit my friend Marty, whose luthier shop stands quite high on the other side of the mountain, perhaps two miles from me as the crow flies, I have to drive around the mountain, crossing the Potomac at Brunswick, MD, and back into Virginia at Harpers Ferry. The whole thing takes a good half-hour, door-to-door.

Not so in 1840. The walk is certainly hard, but the spots where the road is still usable go quickly. "This side" and "that side" wasn't nearly such a barrier then. You could visit a sweetheart or a business partner or a relative in a reasonably short time. This graveyard is evidence of the existence of the road: There are both "this-side" and "that-side" names here. Everhart: This side....

...Demory: That side.

Demory's gravestone is merging with that tree; the tree is literally consuming the stone as it grows.

What's most affecting about this place is the forgottenness of it. We carve our names and the dates of our lifetimes in stone to preserve them, and we trust our descendants to honor and remember them. There's something quite wrong about finding these unhonored and unremembered names here, like a trust has been violated. As I've said, I don't know why this graveyard was allowed to fall into this silent decay (I suspect money was somehow involved), but it's ineffably sad to witness it.

I may have made the walk sound too easy. I've never gone up and over Short Hill twice in one day; my treks have almost always been to the summit of the ridge and back down again on my side. A few times I've climbed over the mountain and then returned by the riverbank at the north end, but never up and over twice. I was utterly destroyed during the second descent, my thighs and knees burning and my new hip bitching awfully.

So I bear the folks buried here, the "that-siders," enormous respect, and unmitigated admiration. To make that walk to attend church every Sunday must have given them a quiet pride and self-satisfaction. We, I can hear them saying, we walk over this mountain for the Lord. We don't make a big deal out of it, we just do it. It's what we do.

I never found Hartman's gravestone. The name preserved in stone at the top of the mountain, which I imagine he carved as a casual lark on a bored afternoon, is the inscription that testifies that he lived. The stone meant to commemorate his life, at the mountain's foot, is gone.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Big View

The view west from Short Hill, at Buzzard Rock. Harpers Ferry left, South Mountain right. Click to embiggen.

Perhaps to cleanse the bad taste in our mouths from yesterday's defeat of the Red of Skin, Freddie and I hiked up Short Hill this morning to get a look around. It's not a huge mountain -- the vertical drop is about 800 feet, some one and a half Washington Monuments. But we were both woofing when we got to the top. The climbing is tiring enough, but the writhing through, under and over brambles and downed trees is pretty exhausting.

The view from the top rewards the effort, though. Short Hill is a ten-mile-long ridge that begins in Hillsboro to the south and plunges dramatically into the Potomac at the north end. From the summit, at "our" end of the ridge, the view west encompasses three states -- Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland. The railroad bridge from Sandy Hook to Harpers Ferry is just visible, and on the northern vista you can see South Mountain. It's a Civil War lesson writ large: You can point to Harpers Ferry, Sharpsburg is just around one corner, and Gettysburg is just out of sight over yonder.

As you stand on Buzzard Rock, below your feet is a steep, broken cliff that, if you clamber down it, reveals caves and myriad hidey-holes. I have absolutely no doubt that mad young John Mobberly knew well of these caves, explored them as a young lad, and used them as his stronghold in his guerrilla raids on the farmers and encamped armies in both valleys below. (Not talking Carlsbad Caverns, here -- these are literally little cracks between boulders where a man, or perhaps two, can easily disappear from a tracker unfamiliar with the territory. Mobberly was famous for his ability to do just that.)

Besides the Football Disappointment, I had another motive to explore Buzzard Rock. On a previous hike, I had noticed something that made me regret not having brought my camera:

Graffiti, carved into the living stone of Buzzard Rock. Quite old graffiti, too. This one's dated "'88," and dollars to doughnuts that's not nineteen eighty-eight:

Here's the oldest one that I could find:

J. F. Hartman, 1851.

John F. Hartman, of Waters, as it turns out. (The place-name has died out, but it's at the lower left quadrant of that panorama at the top of this post -- basically at our feet.). I just found him in the voter rolls of the May 1861 Virginia Vote on Secession; he voted with the Union. There's no Hartman residence marked on the 1854 Yardley Taylor map of Loudoun County, but that doesn't mean much. (My house isn't on it either.)

(If any of you with paid access to the materials at want to research any more about him, please don't let me stop you!)

Hartman probably -- no, almost certainly -- knew Mobberly, who also lived in Waters, a very small settlement. Quite possibly ran into him up here while he carved his name: Mobberly would have been about nine years old when that graffito was carved, living just a mile or two away, and exploring the mountain like a young goat.

Our photography of the graffiti accomplished, we walked along the ridgetop southward to White Rock, which commands a view of the German Settlement and the Catoctin Valley to the east of the ridge.

On a clear day, you can see as far as Sugarloaf Mountain, also in Maryland, as well as Furnace Mountain and Catoctin Mountain. Lovettsville is laid out at your feet. Today was a bit hazy, so distant details weren't clear, but we did get a lovely view.

The view east, at White Rock. Brunswick, MD, left, Lovettsville below. As before, click to embiggen, won't you?.

It was a bright, unseasonably warm day, and we both shed our coats as we admired the view and pointed out the houses and geographical features that we recognized.

On the walk down (nearly as physically arduous as the trip up!), we found the remains of yet another road, this one marked on no map that I've ever studied. Almost certainly a logging road, used to bring down felled trees from the wood-lots far uphill, it may also have been used as an access to higher-up cabins that have long since been lost. I found cornerstones to lots I'm familiar with, and several mysterious fenceposts that hint that the mountain was once cleared for farming far higher than I'd previously thought.

So, scratched-up and filthy, the two wanderers returned home with tales to tell.

Tales of Life in a Quiet Place

From this morning's Loudoun section of the Washington Post:

Officer Comes to Aid of Skunk

Redwing Song Lane, Monday. An officer responded to a report of a skunk with a cup stuck on its head. The officer located the skunk, which was running in circles with a yogurt cup on its head. The officer confined the skunk and removed the cup. The skunk appeared healthy and uninjured, so the officer released it into the wild.