Friday, March 20, 2009

A Crowd of People Stood and Stared

Sometimes life just gets weirder than you can handle.

One thing you discover when you start a blog is that what you type goes straight from your keyboard to Google's ears -- frequently overnight. I have to keep this post as circumspect as I possibly can, naming no names, because I don't want this to get anywhere near Google's omniscience.

This morning, my sister called to tell me that this Sunday past, a somewhat distant relative of mine murdered a rather closer relative. An elderly woman, she was killed in her home where she thought she was safe. Again staying as circumspect as I can, I haven't seen the victim in well over twenty years, and I wasn't even aware of the murderer's existence, despite his relation to me. He is now in police custody, and is unlikely to see the outside of a prison or insane asylum for the rest of his life.

It's one thing for your sister to call you and tell you of a family tragedy. That was hard enough. I'm still rather numb from the shock of the news. I've had an afternoon of tearful and emotional phone calls, trying to piece together the details of the events that led to this horrible thing. But goddamned Google is another -- all I had to do was enter the victim's name and the word "murder" and the thing was described to me in horrific detail. Much, much, much more, honestly, than I wanted to know. I was looking for names and circumstances and legal outcomes; Google gave me graphic descriptions of the murder scene. I was at work, and in my shocked state I had to ask permission to leave and go home. I was not going to be a useful human being after that.

We're such vulnerable things. This afternoon, running a necessary errand in my hyper-attenuated state, I came upon a horrible car crash on Route 7; one car had gone head-on into the side of another. The head-on car was utterly crushed; its front hood now measured no more than a couple of feet. The engine had been slammed into the passenger cavity. Nobody was hurt, as far as I could tell. Approaching sirens howled from the distance. Victims stood, babbling distractedly into cell phones -- reassuring loved ones, I suppose, or informing insurance adjusters of their new premium payments.

A crowd of people stood and stared.

I have no idea how to end this thing.

Go find somebody you love, hug them, and hold them tight. Tell 'em, for tonight, anyway, that Neddie sent you.

Everything ends.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Signs of the Times

Driving Betty to work this morning, we passed this sign on the Clara Barton Parkway:

"Leave Nothing of Value"....

Well! I know the economy's in the crapper, but this is laying on a bit thick. Easy enough to comply with, at any rate -- as attested by a glance at the whistling emptiness that is my 401(k) these days.

But it's a hair nihilistic, don't you think? Is the Parks Department, or the Highway Commission, or whoever erected this sad exhortation, prepared to deal with the sort of society they're advocating here? One in which we say to our children and grandchildren, "I'm sorry, my dears, there's nothing in my will for you; I've spent my entire fortune on fripperies and expensive travel with cocaine and hookers -- because the Department of the Interior said I should! They made a sign!"

And they're so inarticulate! What is their definition of "value"? There are so many intangible things that I would have to give up in order to obey the sign: the love of my family and friends, my fondness for music and laughter and love, for sun-dappled lawns, for frosty windows on a clear, cold morning, for Long Woks on the beach (she's such a dear), for composing loony, wall-eyed blog-posts....

My blog! I value my blog! Must that be discarded as well? Truly?

Well, then. So long. It's been good to know you.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Date Night

Last night, Wonder Woman and I had our first "date" in eons. Betty was invited to a party on a boat that left from the Old-Town Alexandria docks at 6 in the evening, to return at 9. Freddie was at a heavy-metal Battle of the Local Suck-Ass Bands at Jaxx in Springfield, under the tutelage of a Different Mom, leaving WW and I with three glorious hours of alone-time to kill on our own little lonesomes.

Over dinner at the Union Street Public House on, of all things, Union Street in Old Town, we got giggly. We decided to pretend that we were on a Washington Post Date Lab date, meeting each other for the very first time on a pre-arranged blind date, which we would rate later, independently, for the Post's readership:

"She said she was a painting conservator at the Smithsonian; her latest project was a sixteenth-century Dutch landscape in the school of Breughel the Elder. I thought that was interesting, but then she ordered the lobster-and-crab-cakes -- the most costly thing on the entire menu. This girl could get expensive! At this point in the budding relationship, I'd rate the date a two out of five. She's got a great ass."

"He said he was a pimp. This got my attention; those guys make a lot of money! Then, he ordered a single-malt whiskey while we were looking at the menu, a Laphroig, and my heart melted just a little bit more. But when his speech began to slur halfway through his second Half-Moon Belgian-Style wheat beer and he started in telling sob stories about his first marriage, I decided this wasn't the guy for me. After dinner, when we went for a stroll through Old Town's cobblestone streets, he pulled out a pack of cigarettes, and that was all it took. Negative one out of five. Never again. He pressed his business card on me, but I threw it into the Potomac as I headed for the Blue Line."

As we wandered up King Street with still another hour and a half to kill, we noticed a small crowd of people surrounding a figure in Colonial garb. Ghost Tour, FTW! Quick as a wink, we joined the crowd, offering up our coppers for an hour's entertainment in the chilly rain. As it turns out, everyone who has ever died in Old Town Alexandria under even slightly tragic circumstances now wanders the streets, moaning and clanking chains. It occurred to us that, given the proper sad ending, we could haunt Old Town as a pair of mutually reinforcing poltergeists, knocking drinks off trendy tables and making flatware spin in the air three inches off a bar's surface. Considering this a marvelous prospect, we ran to throw ourselves into the river, the best to drown ourselves and cement the eternal love that would be lied about by future bonnet-bedecked out-of-work actors.

Just as we were preparing to leap off the levee into the cold unfeeling waters below, holding hands and declaring undying love, we noticed that Betty's boat was docking. Ah, well. I suppose the girl needs parents for a few more years.

No matter how silly.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Ides

It has come to our attention that a historic travesty of epic proportions is about to be corrected -- and not a minute too soon.

A Dark-Ages manuscript-copying error in an Irish monastery in approximately 800 AD led to the erroneous spelling of the dismal month in which we find ourselves. It is not March. We inhabit the month of Narch.

An understandable flub, I'll admit. Handwriting in that unenviable era was notoriously sloppy, and many of the world's current travails stem from simple mistranslations and poorly proofread Biblical verses. The injunction in Leviticus against the eating of shellfish was originally a prohibition against the carnal knowledge of barnyard animals. The monk responsible for this error had an irrational hatred of fried clams (and who doesn't, eh?), and read far too much into the original Hebraic. (This should not be taken as an exhortation to run out and boink the nearest goat. That is, and always will be, wrong. Verbal permission must always be obtained beforehand, and goats capable of issuing such consent are mighty thin on the ground. "Na-a-a-a" means "na-a-a-a.")

Now we find ourselves in the difficult position of attempting to convince the world to change a million million calendars -- rather like standing athwart history and yelling "It's Narch!" But I'm convinced we few, we happy few, can get the job done.

The first task is to socialize the idea. The upcoming NCAA basketball tournament must be referred to, wherever possible, as "Narch Nadness." The actor who, in a community production of "Julius Caesar," enjoins Caesar to "beware the Ides of Narch," wins plaudits from our righteous movement. One must be careful, though. Repetition of "Narching to Pretoria" and "steal a narch" only muddies the waters and sows confusion.

In other news, did that Jon Stewart cat administer a can of whoop-ass on Jim Cramer or what? Amiright? Woooo!

Sunday, March 08, 2009

If a Miller Were My Trade/At a Mill-wheel Grinding

There are days you don't want to trade for anything. Today was such a day.

Suppose, on a lovely, unseasonably warm early-spring day, you were wandering through woods such as these, on Short Hill Mountain in far Northern Virginia...

...and you came across this object poking out through the leaf-mulch:

What would you think? Perhaps that you'd stumbled across a Flintstones-era car-factory, interrupted in mid-manufacture of a prehistoric wheelbarrow? Or perhaps a demented Indian coin-minting facility?

In fact, what you've found is a nineteenth-century millstone, its creation begun but never ended, left for the ages in the middle of this primeval forest. Its creator, his name probably forever lost, abandoned his craftwork in this forest half-finished, halfway up a mountain in the middle of what is functionally nowhere. No doubt he had been commissioned by a local miller to carve a millstone, and for whatever reason, the work was left undone.

The object is exactly three feet across; I measured it with my forearm, an excellent gauge to measure 18 inches twice. I have no knowledge of Standards and Practices among the millers of the east coast of the United States in the nineteenth century, but that precise three-foot diameter is suggestive.

He began by picking a likely rock -- my mineralogical powers are greatly reduced since I took that stone to the head on the highway on my motorbike, but granite schist seems to be the right formula -- roughing out a three-foot circle, flattening the face of the stone, then carving the thing into a rough circle, slightly larger than the three-foot spec. Then, much more carefully, he began to cut his true line.

Here we see where the rough line ends and the true line begins:

But he stopped working on it, didn't he. Why? Did the carver, or somebody with interest in the matter such as the miller who commisioned the stone, die? Was skulduggery somehow in play?

We examined the stone carefully. It occurred to us that there must be chips from the stone nearby, if this was the true site where the stone was carved -- not necessarily a reliable assumption, as we were on the side of a mountain. Gravity and earth-heaving could have moved our millstone a good long way from its original site in a hundred-plus years. We found no obvious chips, however. It's possible that they were buried under many inches of accumulated leaf-mulch.

Then one of us noticed this, an imperfection in the roundness of the stone:

Could it be that, after what must have been days and days of work, his chisel slipped? Or an inherent imperfection in the stone, a crack, dropped a few fractions of an inch off the carefully carved stone? What kind of despairing profanities painted these trees blue at that point?

I've said we were in a primeval forest. That's not quite true. At some point in the nineteenth century, this was inhabited land. An abandoned road above us on the mountain is strewn with trash from the 1950s. Decaying stone walls, delineating long-dead property lines, limn the landscape:

The stone foundation of what might have been a carriage-house lies a few dozen yards downhill from the millstone:

Daffodils do not grow naturally in North America; whenever you find daffodils on the woods on Short Hill, you know you are near what someone once regarded with pride as a precious garden. They're also astonishingly long-lived. Here, some few short yards from the millstone, we find this:

We are on property that also encompasses a working dairy-farm. Cows die from natural causes as well as slaughter. The ones that die on their own are inedible (who knows what kind of nasty virus carried them off?), and have to be disposed of somehow. Here we see how that happens; they are dragged into the woods uphill to feed the carrion birds and coyotes:

We were invited to inspect the grounds of the decaying, abandoned farm that once flourished on this land. Its 200-plus acres were bought by a foreign investor in the mid-1990s, and since then has been simply a place where cows live. The investor had intended to put up some 40-plus homes on the acreage, but... Well. We've seen how well that housing market has been going.

But what's bad for housing vultures is good for historians concerned with preserving the local folkways before they're paved over. The farm began with the early-nineteenth-century stone structure to the left of this photo. The bovine individual to the extreme right of the picture, I only discovered after taking it, is an ungelded bull. I spoke softly and invoked Brotherhood to get past him.

The interior of the slate-roofed bank-barn is stunning; imagine this as a living-space:

Placing outbuildings above ground prohibits rot. This looks mighty precarious, but this building has stood in this spot for over a hundred years:

Here is the death-knell for this beautiful building. When that crooked supporting beam goes, this stunning space will be no more. It will collapse. And we'll have lost one more reminder of where we come from.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Don't You Know that You Can Count Me Out

This is fairly exciting...

In late May and early June of 1968, the Beatles recorded the White Album version (that is, the slow, more acoustic version, not the crackling, electric single) of "Revolution 1." On May 30, they did eighteen basic takes, with the last being considered best. Unlike the other surviving takes, Take 18 was just over ten minutes long -- the others being about five minutes -- and went on rather obsessively repeating the "Bowm, shoo-be-doo-wah"s. On May 31, they took Take 18, overdubbed vocals and bass, and made a reduction mix, now called Take 19.

On Tuesday, June 4, Take 19 received a lot of overdubs, some rather mundane sweetening, and some extremely strange. The latter part of the song, which would be faded out of the final track, featured obstreperous tone-pedal guitar squeals, spooky Yoko Ono utterances ("you become naked") dropped-in piano tinkles, screaming, and an obsessively repeated "mama, dada" chorus. Clearly, Lennon had already begun to conceive of the piece as a portrait of revolution in sound -- no doubt highly influenced by the extreme world events that were happening at exactly the same time: That March had seen the My Lai Massacre, April the assassination of Martin Luther King, subsequent riots and the student takeover of Columbia University, and May the événements in Paris that nearly toppled the French government. The day after the making of Take 20, as the newly dubbed version was known, Robert Kennedy was murdered.

(Quite a year, that 1968.)

Knowing full well that a ten-minute tune that dissolves into musique concrète couldn't possibly serve as the Beatles' next single (although Lennon argued mightily in favor of it), the compromise was that the song faded at about five minutes, and Lennon lopped off the "weird" second half of the take, flounced into another studio, wiped anything musical that remained, and used it as the starting point for "Revolution 9."

Until now, Take 20 has been a chimera to the Beatle-obsessed world. According to Mark Lewisohn, the band's most authoritative chronicler, a single taped copy was made of it and taken away by Lennon.

But now it has resurfaced, and you can hear it here.

(N.B.: Another site that hosted it was hit by a cease-and-desist and had to take it down. So I don't know how long it will survive at the linked site. I was able to snag a copy using Audio Hijack, so if it does disappear again, hit me at my email address and we'll see what we can make happen.)

I've A/B'd the album version and this new Take 20, and I do believe it to be genuine. A few edits were made on the final version, that nasty tone-pedal guitar wiped and replaced with languid horns, but the bones of the piece are there. Likewise, quite a bit of the second half made it into Revolution 9.

One of the more fascinating documents I've come across in a while.

(Many thanks to John and Simon for hipping me to this.)