Wednesday, May 27, 2009


A strange thing: Two mornings in a row now, I've awakened from the same weirdly frustrating dream.

I'm back in college. Since I've been given a second chance, I've decided I'm going to make the best of my college career; really bust my hump to get great grades, participate in campus affairs, join debates, be a somebody in campus life.

I'm in a lecture hall. The professor is banging on about Middle Eastern affairs. One of the students breaks in to admonish the prof about something. His words are nonsense, and I can refute the nonsense. I have facts and figures at my disposal. Another student interrupts, with more nonsense. I raise my hand to be called on. Everybody ignores me. The prof doesn't see me. I start being vocal -- call on me! I know this is bullshit, and I can prove it! To no avail. The nonsense drones on.

I come to full consciousness, frustrated and angry. Goddamned public life. You just can't break in!

Only now do I realize what's been happening: My radio's been on. I've got my bedside alarm radio set to NPR, and the bullshit I've been trying to break into, with such frustrating results, is their 6 AM News Roundup. My Dream Self has been taking in the words, but not the meaning, of the news reports, reassembling them into gibberish, and that's what I've been trying to argue with in my sleep. Of course, the radio is rather unlikely to stop and call on a dreaming goober who wants to argue with a reassembled dream-version of something just asserted: "Yes, Neddie, you wanted to say something about the garbage your subconscious just created out of our broadcast?" I'd be a little afraid if it did, come to think of it.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Here in Status-Symbol Land

I recall with particular vividness an episode from my childhood -- my first critical pronunciation, I do believe. Seated on a stone wall in the courtyard of my school, I declared the following words to a coterie of my friends, who hadn't really asked my opinion: "Those Beatles think they're the Kings of Pop (yes, I really did use the term), but everybody knows it's the Monkees!"

I think I can be forgiven for this. The Monkees had a live-action television show -- and the Beatles had a rather terrible cartoon. This counts, to a seven-year-old. How was I to know that the Monkees' snappy dialog was a cynical, commercial attempt at an American version of the Beatles' snappy d. in "A Hard Day's Night"? It was funny, dammit!

OK, I can see getting all righteous about Mr. Green being so serene about the number of televisions in his house, but why's poor Mrs. Gray come under opprobrium for being pleased with her garden? Don't quite get that. But know this, and know it well: Never, ever piss off a Monkee by indulging in Conspicuous Consumption, particularly on a Pleasant Valley Sunday. They'll whip out a Goffin-King number with a killer off-kilter guitar riff and some great, great harmony vocals. And you'll slink off into Status-Symbol Land with your peacock tail between your legs.

Well. Happy P. V. Sunday to you all. No matter how many TVs you have.

PS: "Rows of houses that are all the same/And no one seems to care" still pisses me off.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What Do You Save?

Back eons ago, when the 280-year-old dirt road on which I live faced the danger of summary pavement, with concomitant straightening-out of its ancient rights of way and destruction of its Revolutionary-War-era stone walls, I posed a question to a television reporter who asked me why I was so angry about the impending obliteration of a silly old dirt road:

What do you save?

If we can have an entire "Antiques Roadshow" in which we slobber over household objects from the 1890s and declare them Invaluable Reminders of Our Venerated Past, why stop with Tiffany lamps? Why the hell not preserve a dirt road that we can say with complete confidence is in exactly the same configuration as when Elijah White led his 35th Virginia Comanches to attack a contingent of Federal cavalry on the night of January 17, 1865? What would such a road be, if not an antique?

What do you love? What do you venerate? What is worth preserving?

A similar occasion has now presented itself in Wheatland, a few miles south of here. Quite a few years ago, it became apparent that the Loudoun County school system badly needed several new schools in western Loudoun; the schools my children attend are small, antiquated and cramped. Several sites have been examined and rejected for reasons far too complicated to enumerate here.

It's a form of chicken-and-egg problem. If the population of this rural area is too large for the local school system (and it is), the construction of newer, larger schools will attract more people to the area, causing greater pressure on roads and infrastructure. Like the rest of the country, we're in a terrible real estate crisis at the moment, so there's not much chance of that happening this year or next; but it will reverse itself at some point, and we'll be right back into the rapidly-disappearing-rural-paradise mess we were in in 2005.

The photographs that accompany this post are of the Nixon Farm, an 1820s-era homestead that, as matters stand now, will be unceremoniously bulldozed and carted away to the landfill to make way for the construction of three new schools. Despite the fact that the Virginia Department of Historic Resources has declared it "a fine example of early-19th-century Federal brick architecture in the Loudoun Valley," with a fine bank barn, several outbuildings and a fully restored living facility on 60 acres of beautiful farmland, this stunningly gorgeous thing, this antique, is a hair's-breadth away from the ball and chain. (Here's a PDF doc that goes into further detail.)



The location of the schools violates several principles of the Loudoun County development policy. Wheatland is not an incorporated town. There are working farms directly across the road from the proposed site whose groundwater resources would be gravely endangered by the school's use of the same resource. There are alternative sites that don't violate these principles, that are located within incorporated boundaries, that would use town water systems that need upgrading anyway.

There are signs that folks are standing up and fighting back. The Wheatland Alliance is making noise. Letters of well-argued protest are getting published. This isn't over.

But the idea that this destruction is even being considered at all, that as long as you own it you can do whatever you want to it and your neighbors be damned, makes me want to throw rocks at policemen.

Idle Thought

It occurs to me that if one were looking for an effective Internet pseudonym, "Teen Laqueefah" might fill the bill.

Use as you like. I'm not possessive.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Past Is Not Dead

Some few weeks ago, I was invited to give a talk to Betty's high-school American History class on Loudoun County and the Civil War. This was a great opportunity for me, because it forced me to define and arrange a set of facts that I've accumulated over the last few years into a coherent narrative understandable by high-school juniors.

Now, a friend has sent me an article from a mid-Nineties issue of the (now sadly defunct) Blue Ridge Leader, and I have been smacked in the face with a lesson in how present is the past -- just what William Faulkner was talking about when he observed that "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."

Let's tease that apart, shall we?

Below I reproduce a map of Loudoun County borrowed from this excellent website. (Click to enlarge.) I've fiddled with it a bit to illustrate my point.

My talk to the kids started with a simple premise: Loudoun County was, during the Civil War, a deeply divided place. The northern reaches of the county (shown in blue on the map) were settled in the early and middle eighteenth century by two main groups: Quakers, and Pennsylvania Dutch farmers down from Lancaster County. Those farmers brought with them a style of farming that hearkened back to the Old Country: Small, independent farms that could be operated by a single family.

The southern part of the county (shown in gray and red) exhibited a style of agriculture that was quite radically different. The English Cavaliers who settled it established very large plantations (essentially, huge land grants given them for various services) that needed an extensive labor force to run them. And we know what that labor force consisted of: Slaves.

Some of these plantations still exist today as historic tourist sites: Sully Plantation on Route 28 (not technically in Loudoun), and Oatlands on Route 15 south of Leesburg.

As they were not slaveowners (whether for sociopolitical reasons or religious ones), during the Civil War the people in the northern half of the county were viewed with extreme suspicion by the southern half. I've already recounted the lopsided vote totals during the 1861 referendum on secession; the northern part of the county voted against it in very nearly the same proportion as the southerners voted for it. As they were perceived as traitors, the Confederacy felt no compunction about taking whatever they felt like from them, and John Singleton Mosby' dependence on them as his breadbasket ultimately led to the Burning Raid of 1864, which left farms from Snickersville to Point of Rocks in smoking ruin.

This is what I told the kids.

Now comes this article from the Leader.

Recall that, before the Great Real Estate Collapse of the last few years, Loudoun County was one of the fastest-growing counties in the entire country. When I was a lad in Fairfax County (one county east), one could cross Baron Cameron Avenue in Reston and be in a boyhood paradise of meadows and trees and streams; we plucked crawdads out of the stream that ran through our neighborhood. Leesburg, way off west in Loudoun County, may as well have been San Francisco. The very first stirring of the Rape of Loudoun was present in Sterling Park, but mostly what stood between us and Loudoun was... nature.

That is all gone now. While western and northern Loudoun (where we live) mostly looks like this:

Eastern Loudoun is more like this:

Now take a squint at that map again. I've placed a red overlay over the parts of Loudoun that look like that.

Starting to see a pattern?

Phil Bolen was the Loudoun County Administrator for twenty years from 1971 until 1991. In the mid-Nineties, he gave a talk at the East/West conference at the George Washington University Campus in Eastern Loudoun. It was reported in the Leader thus:
That Loudoun County today is divided into a western region of small towns and farms, while Eastern Loudoun is marked by huge developments is, according to Bolen, a direct result of the patterns of plantation farming that developed in the county over 200 years ago. Back then, the East was made up of large plantations of up to 1000 acres, owned by the Anglican elite. These country gentlemen were able to imitate the manorial style of English country life, only because they had slaves to work the land for them. The slave, in effect, made up the role of the peasant of old Europe who had made the manorial life there possible.

Western Loudoun, on the other hand, was settled by Quakers, Presbyterians, and Lutherans coming down from the north who rejected slavery and preferred to work small farms with the sweat of their own brows. Western Loudoun thus became a relatively populous region of small farms while the east remained sparsely populated, at least by white men who could vote....

When Phil Bolen came into office thirty years ago, Loudoun County had 24,000 residents. Today it has 115,000. By 2010, we are expected to number 218,000. [This was optimistic. Wikipedia gives the estimated population in 2007 as nearly 279,000.] The large tracts of land needed to create the massive developments to house these new residents are hard to accumulate. Developers have to buy them one by one to put together the necessary tracts. The legacy of large estates in the East, said Bolen, meant that "large tracts of land still remained relatively intact which made it much easier and cheaper to put together the large parcels of land that are required in
big time development interests."
Past as prologue....

Sunday, May 10, 2009

G'Phwarg-Glarb-Flang -- ROCK!

(No. 3 in a Definitely Ongoing Series)

It is always gratifying to participate in something that will be recounted around the Thanksgiving dinner table in family reunions to come.

I squired Freddie over to Baltimore for a heavy-metal gig at the Sonic Club Friday evening. He's been wanting to catch Protest the Hero for some time, and they were in town on a five-band billing that included The Number Twelve Looks Like You and Fall from Grace.

We entered the joint just as the first act was finishing -- a thoroughly forgettable local fivesome whose function seemed to be to remind us that the acts we were about to see were actual professionals. I took a comfortable spot well off to the side away from the punishing sonic onslaught, made friends with the bartender, and settled in for a long evening of what I anticipated to be benign incomprehension.

The second act, Fall from Grace, surprised me in the most gratifying way imaginable. From the get-go, I detected a fierce loyalty in them to that quality I so utterly miss from these HM acts I keep taking Freddie to see: melody. These guys have clearly been attentive to the music of the past, and it showed; I heard touches of Elvis Costello, Split Enz, the Beatles, Green Day. I might have been at the Mudd Club, circa 1980. To be sure, it was drowned in waves of guitar distortion, but goddammit, at least it was something.

I took a smoke break after their set, and came across the band loading out. The front man (one Tryg Littlefield, it seems) was helping shove guitar cases into their trailer, and I accosted him to tell him how much I'd dug it. He shook my hand enthusiastically, and when I mentioned the word melody, he lit up: "It's because I love everything, man! Ignore nothing, dude!" Wow. Man after my own heart. You keep it up, kid. You may not hit the Bigs, but you'll do it honorably.

As the third band, The Number 12 Looks Like You, was warming up, they broke into a very silly little rhythm-jam that was quite endearing. Clearly the love of music for its own sake was running high in these guys tonight, and I perked up with interest. They broke into their actual set, and I was quite thoroughly blown away. Their Wikipedia page calls what they play "mathcore," which seems to be a highly polyrhythmic, churning thing that suggests Captain Beefheart interrupted by jazzy (think Coltrane rather that Ornette Coleman) guitar figures. This -- this -- I could dig! The vocalist for the most part eschewed the "G'Phwarg-Glarb-Flang" style of HM singing that attempts to reproduce the voice of Cthluhu for teenaged pimple-wallopers, in favor of actual, like, notes-n-stuff. Very riveting stuff, in this environment.

So in the middle of their set, me there off to the side at the bar avoiding the worst of the eardrum-destroying transients, there's a hush between songs. Frontman Jase Korman solicits: "Hey, is there any dude in the audience who hasn't ever been kissed? Come on, let's see you! Any dude hasn't ever been kissed?"

Then he says, "OK, you! Come on up here! Yeah! All right! Never been kissed, huh?"


"All right.. What's your name?"



I leap up on my barstool, craning over the crowd....

Yep. It's my boy. Up there on stage in front of five hundred punters, all fifteen-years-and-eleven-months of him. Black concert tee. Messy, sweaty hair. Sheepish look on his mug.

"OK, who wants to give Freddie his first kiss?"

Quite a few female hands shoot up.

Thank Christ.

A toothsome profile is handed up to the stage. I never get a look at her, but from later accounts (from Korman himself, also out back as the band was loading out) she was, apparently, fairly smokin'.

"OK, go!"

The Victorian gentleman in me would love to be able to say I averted my eyes. But of course I didn't. I did have the good taste and discretion not to remember to go for my phone-cam.

He leaned in, grabbed the cutie, and laid a session of osculation on her like Gable on Leigh.

I'm afraid Misery Signals and Protest the Hero were fairly unmemorable after that.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

"Can You Vouch for Your Fries?"

I thought Obama and Biden's visit to a Rosslyn burger joint yesterday was hilarious. Not for any ironic or underhanded reasons, but simply because the event on videotape is just...funny. Obama's slightly stilted and very polite demeanor while ordering, asking about the (nonexistent) fries, the skeptical look on his face when the alternative, "Cheesy Tater Puffs," is suggested, his desire for a spicy or Dijon mustard, his insistence on paying for the food instead of taking a freebie -- "these people [the 6,432 reporters in attendance] are gonna write about how we're freeloading." All good, silly fun.

I note with approval Obama's preference for Dijon. Stick in the French-haters' (and French's-Mustard philistines') eye. Good man. When I prepare my own burgers, the combination of toppings I strongly prefer (and they must be together, or my delight is diminished) numbers three: Dijon mustard, guacamole, and bacon. This is, in my opinion, the most delightful food on the planet.

Sorry about the obligation to have the burgers done medium-well. I imagine that, were he manning the barbeque, Obama might have a preference for a burger that does not quite so much resemble a hockey-puck; but it wouldn't do to allow Ray's Hell Burger to earn a reputation as The Restaurant that Gave the President an E. Coli Infection.

Speaking of which, it may be leaving the radar-screen in ignominy as the most overhyped disease scare ever, but a teacher at the school next door to Betty's was diagnosed with Swine Flu yesterday. That is all.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Mountains Come Out of the Sky

I love the "Shuffle" feature on the iPod. Mostly I love it on my own Pod because it reminds me that I possess such amazingly excellent and eclectic taste in music. But also, it forces me to explore bits and pieces of my collection that I rarely visit. This morning, on my way to deposit the family's recycling at the town collection center, "Shuffle" upturned what I think might have been the very first music I ever downloaded from the Net: one single huge MP3 file that contained the entire Yes album "Fragile."

I decided to let it play, see what developed. This would be my first listen since approximately 2000, and my second since I was about 20.

I developed an onus against Yes (and pretty much all prog-rock) in my late teens. At the time, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Graham Parker, and post-punk songwriters had inculcated into my head that a "proper" song goes verse/chorus, verse/chorus, middle eight, verse/chorus and get the fuck out. Three minutes, tops. If a guitar solo followed the middle eight, it must be precisely eight bars long, and restate the melody in some coherent way, or you're wanking.

(I still have very little problem with this formula. Worked for Buddy Holly, works for me.)

So this Yes thing was an interesting challenge. Was I going to be able to forgive my slobbering teenaged fan-boy self, who thought that the longer a guitar solo was, the more "meaning" it had? Especially if the guitarist had what Zappa called the "blow-job" look on his face (i.e., the more I look really concerned that this 72-bar solo I'm engaged in will change lives and embetter the world, the more likely I am to receive a grateful blow-job from a willing female audience member after the gig).

I found myself in a state of doubt and fear during the first track, "Roundabout." I was once again, after a spell of many years, quite floored by it. There's so much movement in the accompaniment, so much tension and release, so much drama in the architecture. How had I been so misled? How had my Punk Purity buttons been so badly pushed in my late teens? This stuff rocks hard!

Steve Howe's guitar is so delicious. It actually sounds like a guitar plugged into an amp in a room somewhere. It evinces a quality so badly missing in modern recordings: the actual dynamics of a plectrum hitting a string fingered by a very good musician. There are tiny errors in the playing, eensy-weensie little fluctuations in tone, like he just barely mis-hit a certain note -- but these only serve to emphasize that an actual human being is playing the instrument -- and doing it very, very well. His tone -- a tiny bit of overdrive, allowing for lots and lots of pure chewy guitaristic deliciousness -- is clearly the product of a man gloriously, regally, on top of his instrument. The dude in his heyday could shred, and his playing is so arrestingly precise, every note painstakingly sounded, fretted perfectly, like a fine needlepoint embroidery. Bill Bruford's drumming is nonpareil in its precision, clarity, simplicity. Chris Squire's (admittedly busy) bass, likewise, sounds so completely un-processed, so natural, so organic, that you just want to take it home and frame it and put it up on your wall: This is what reality sounds like.

"Roundabout" ended -- on a Picardy third, no less! I'd forgotten that detail! How yummy is that?

So why the hell did I take such a punky antipathy to these guys? Why? Why?

The second cut cued up.


Now I remember. "Cans and Brahms (Extracts from Brahms' 4th Symphony in E Minor, Third Movement)" (Brahms, arranged Wakeman).

Because Rick Wakeman, that's why.

Afterthought: Jesus, look at me. Hobbits and Yes. I'm thirteen again.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

In Defense of Orcs

In my convalescence (today much more solidly underway than yesterday, thanks for asking), I decided I'd had enough of Patrick O'Brian in my bed (oo-er!) and decided the sofa in the den with the teevee was the capital spot for healing. After watching the Washington Capitals' demolition of the Miserable Pittsburgh Penguins (and wasn't Simeon Varlamov's save in the second period an absolute stunner?), I decided the best thing for my health was a Lord of the Rings moviefilm marathon.

I hadn't seen much of any of it since the flicks were current, although we'd bought Freddie the whole shooting match on DVD for various birthdays and Christmases. So I plunked in The Fellowship of the Ring, sat back, and let time pass.

The first thing that struck me was the complete lack of any economic reality in Middle Earth. Bilbo Baggins is working on a book early on. My thought was, How are you going to get that published, Bilbo? Your agrarian paradise in the Shire sure looks pretty free of any grubby realities like literary agents, copy editors or grasping publishing companies. Later, in Rivendell, we see the final result of Bilbo's labors, and it's a single, handwritten, unique copy of (what we know as) The Hobbit; how this one frail tome is supposed to enlighten anyone save its own author is left to the imagination. But it's fantasy, don't you know. You mustn't dig too deeply into how this world actually works or ask uncomfortable questions, because that sort of skepticism ruins a lovely and symbol-laden plotline.

The other thing that rather deeply disturbs me is how feudal Middle Earth is, and how the story doesn't even question this. Aragorn, by his very existence, it is made clear to us early on, as of the bloodline of kings, is the only person capable of uniting disparate interests in fighting Unknowable Evil. Why that's actually true is left up to the imagination. But the feudal economic system of Middle Earth apparently contains not a single serf. A tiny glimpse of the actual working class, at the Prancing Pony in Bree, shows a filthy, hard-drinking bunch in a tavern; past that, we have no idea whatsoever how food appears on tables, how wagons get made, how horses are tended, and who digs the latrines. The Elves in Rivendell, in particular, are all nobility and no serfdom; apparently that Magic Elf Bread just hops out of the ovens ready to eat at the snap of a finger, and the beautiful flowers and gardens they are surrounded with exist entirely independent of gardeners and groundskeepers.

In the exposition at the beginning of the film, there's an interesting use of the passive voice: Nine rings were given to Men, seven rings given to Dwarves, etc. But secretly, One Ring to Rule Them All was made... So who did all this ring-making and Secret-Evil-Super-Ring Dispensing, hmmm? Shouldn't this agent be given some of the blame for the succeeding death and destruction? (I suppose this question is answered somewhere deep in the capacious bowels of The Silmarillion, but fuck me if I'm going to go looking for it. Life's way too short for that shit.) Weren't the families of the apparently millions of soldiers destroyed in Middle Earth's wars a trifle bereft, perhaps given some inkling of the revolutionary notion that their lives were worth more than serving as cannon-fodder? I mean, we've gone over this stuff, folks!

We are, of course, never told about the families and how they felt about Papa's peremptory beheading by some royal bastard or Elven Eloi at Helm's Deep. Instead, we are encouraged to sympathize with one king over some other equally undeserving turd because the Undeserving T's ancestors, three thousand years ago, made a poor tactical decision. Over ownership of a fucking ring. ("Oh! Come and see the violence inherent in the system! Help! Help! I'm being repressed!")

(Now that I think of it, the Orcs are born out of the ground, and thus don't even have families. All the easier to slaughter by the thousands -- no tearful wives and children to bereave.)

Oooh, look at Jingo, getting all righteous over a work of fantasy fiction!

It's why I haven't set foot in the genre since I was about thirteen, and suspect that those who do haven't themselves advanced beyond that age. It disguises itself. It lies.

And let's not even get started on the sexism...


Update: I'd forgotten why I got off on this rant in the first place. It was accents.

Of the four actors playing Hobbitses in the main part of the trilogy, three (Merry, Pippin, and the nauseatingly servile Sam Gamgee), chose rural English accents. (Rural English, in the modern actor's hands, is a sort of amalgamation of Yorkshire and Bristol and Liverpool.) The actor playing Frodo, however, speaks Received Standard English -- "posh" -- as do all other actors playing nobility. I believe this is no directorial oversight.

This sails over our feudally-inexperienced American heads, but a British person would catch it right away.


Further Update: I guess it really comes down to whether or not you consider "Lightning bolt! Lightning bolt!" a good use of your time...

Friday, May 01, 2009

Chill (With Update!)

Yesterday, I noticed a chill.

This was not at all surprising, as the day was rainy and, well, chilly, and I was barefoot and wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Putting on a pair of jeans, socks, and an overshirt solved that toot-sweet.

Except that when I was driving to pick up Betty, I noticed that I was quite stiff between the shoulders and about the neck. I attributed this to my having spent the whole day hunched in front of a computer, and shrugged it off (so to speak).

But then this morning, having seen Freddie off to the schoolbus, and drinking my morning coffee and taking a quick jaunt around the blogs, that damned chill came back.

And this time, there was a component in the chill that felt quite unusual indeed, quite unhealthy. And the stiffness was back in the shoulders.

I went upstairs, dug out the thermometer.


OK. Calm. Take a long, hot shower. Neck down a couple Tylenols. Think hard. You haven't been in Mexico, dumbshit.

Yes, but I was at the Smithsonian Museum of Art two days ago, killing time before picking up Betty. Plenty of opportunities to get into somebody's sneeze-space there. And the night before that, I'd been at a Leesburg emergency room for my slashed thumb, where a hysteric presented claiming swine-flu symptoms. Last week, I was at a doctor's office getting an infected cyst lanced... Plenty of sick folk in that waiting room...

Think harder...



Tetanus shot.

They gave me a tetanus vaccination when I came in with the slashed digit. Absolutely standard operating procedure.

The stiffness in the shoulders? Perfectly accounted for. Chills and low-grade fever? I'm fighting (an extremely mild form of) tetanus, fer crissakes.

Still doesn't prevent me from taking to my bed and milking this for a little sympathy. Chicken soup on a tray, what have you. I deserve it.

Update (For Mom, if for nobody else): The symptoms worsened through the day. Fever rose, sinuses became impacted, chills and sweats. Finally, after having vomited in the parking lot at Freddie's soccer practice, I presented at the same ER I went to the other day. They took me in, slapped me on an IV for dehydration symptoms, and let me stew for a couple of hours. The temp (by now 102) gradually came down, and they released me at about 11PM. They tested me for both influenza and strep, both negative, and concluded that I had a bog-standard viral infection that would play itself out naturally.

Woke up this morning, temp absolutely spot-on at 98.8, stomach settled, chills gone.

And This Has Been My Swine-Flu-Scare, 2009 Edition!

(By the way, the doc liked my tetanus-shot diagnosis, but wouldn't commit to it; too many variables.)


Don't want to jinx it, but there was some communication yesterday and the day before that made the employment picture a whole lot better. Like I say, I don't want to jinx it, but the dawn might just be breaking.