Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Il Est Plus Tard Que Tu Ne Penses

When young and ignorant and somewhat trusting, I still always had the feeling that the simple truth, the real story rather than the commentary with an agenda, the uncolored and unfiltered fact, was hidden behind one of those narrow always-locked doors in the school hallways -- inaccessible, to render us powerless. We were filled with canned, frozen and processed foods at home, asbestos tile below us and artificial fabrics around us, plastics and media noise... John Wayne was always on television to teach us our history, the churches spelled out morality down to the most nonsensical detail, the President and the generals were there to wisely lead us.
Except, cognitive dissonance (not that I knew that phrase, or any other defining word; just commonplace truisms) rang around in my head. If we should trust the President, why did Nixon look like an evil troll, a slimy amoral salesman? Why did Jesus, a Semite, look like a cocker spaniel, an Aryan superman? Why was the conquest of Jericho told as a triumphant story from a glorious past -- was it right to slaughter a people to steal their land? I did have a feeling those questions should be kept unspoken in my spinning mind; I resolved to dig like an archaeologist or snoop like a spy to find out why these things did not seem to make sense, no matter how often or insistently they were repeated.
In public school, we were fed (you can't say "studied") American and Virginia history. No broader exposure until college, and even then those not in the humanities were not in the least interested; they'd had enough. I looked at some textbooks recently, and the current ones are sometimes even worse than those bound sleeping pills we had. Only the outside reading, paperbacks mostly, opened up the history of humanity to us. We don't have much to learn from history as "taught." It's up to you, if your curiosity hasn't been stamped out forever already.
Way back in an earlier post, I recommended Freya Stark's Rome Beyond the Euphrates. Thanks to the internet, you may find an old used copy. Why this volume is not in libraries or in print is beyond me. I found another recently, just a pamphlet, also by a wise, forgotten British writer. Take a look at the silly, shallow, partisan trash on the front tables today, in the USA, at chain big-box bookstores and you'll see why we need to dig really deep and far to find some wisdom about history and what we can distill from thousands of years of it (that should be enough data for some solid conclusions, right?).
Sir John Glubb was a soldier and a servant of the British Empire. His (long out of print, of course) The Fate of Empires analyzes the remarkably similar stages, from inception to collapse, followed over the millennia by great states, regardless of which political system they embodied. An empire, it seems, lasts about 10 generations (250 years on the average). The stages seem strangely inevitable, and as it says in the Rubaiyat, "The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ/Moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit/shall lure it back to cancel half a line/nor all thy tears wash out a word of it." They are (summarizing Glubb):
1. Outburst: a little-regarded people appears on the scene, a new and formidable nation which is practical, experimental and unified in purpose. Rapid conquest of adjacent lands proceeds faster and less successfully opposed than anyone can imagine.
2. Commercial Expansion: Within the new large territorial unit with a single administration, commerce is aided and expands in the peace that follows conquest. Making money, not the seeking of glory, becomes dominant.
3. High Noon: Ours was probably the early Seventies (peak U.S. oil production = 1970; highest GNP per capita was 1968). For the Romans, the second decade of the second century. (Glubb divides the Republic and its rise and extinction separately from the Empire).
4. The Age of Affluence: The wealth of the great cities draws many migrants. A multitude of universities arises and intellectualism, with surprising advances in science, develops. With too much wealth and power, in time selfishness and discord, proliferating but lowbrow arts, cleverness, entangling legalism, debate, and inaction make founding values like sacrifice and duty noncompetitive. Education no longer equates to learning and virtue, but is just a route to honors and riches (today 40% of U.S. Ivy League graduates go into finance).
5. Decline and Collapse: Pessimism and frivolity replace confidence and optimism. The heroes of declining nations are always athletes, singers and actors. Economically, the empire costs more than it can collect in revenue, and the mercenaries and heterogenous populations within, reverting to old loyalties and grudges, see no reason to support it any longer.

We were limited, in the junior and senior years of high school, to about one "elective." I had to pass on World History in order to take "Creative" Writing. I didn't miss much, since these worldwide patterns which would have gotten some of us thinking and made some things clear would never have been mentioned anyway. The "regularity of the rise and fall of nations passes unperceived" by writer, teacher, student and citizen. If you don't see the patterns in science, history or most anything else, you are just left with some myths, names, dates and selected information.

Add 250 to 1776.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Nice Try

I'd rather be in Margaritaville, but the reality is that it's snowing and each night the temperature settles into the teens. The old heat pump grinds away (for how much longer?), keeping it 65 degrees inside; quite comfortable with thick socks and my trusty Old Navy fleece vest on. We are totally dependent on electricity and have no backup if it went out -- and it can: last winter's ice storm in western Kentucky and Tennessee left people without for up to three weeks. You'd better know how to turn off your water and drain the system when that happens. If your home is old and uninsulated, like Zach's or many of those in rural areas, lack of heat is going to freeze those pipes much sooner than later. Years ago, we had a kerosene heater like everyone else around here, but quickly found out that it was even more dangerous than smelly. As a backup, it would only be marginally good for a very short while.
We don't have a good record of choosing alternatives to stave off emergency or save on energy consumption. The kerosene heater was abandoned years ago (I just used it to heat garages when working in them; ours now is too small to be useful as a shop), and recently we gave up on the electric on-demand hot water heater. Zach's two Chinese-made electric space heaters both died just when he needed them this month. Our Bosch on-demand water heater's performance was bizarrely erratic and it produced only a tiny stream of hot water. So much for going for a quality brand instead of a cheaper Chinese piece of junk.
In the county seat of Carlisle, they're making much more progress. The school district has started up their solar farm, and Dickinson College has had an environmental studies program since the 1970s. In 1990, an experimental dorm, the Center for Sustainable Living (known as "The Treehouse"), was established and it was extensively renovated four years ago. The residents practice a self-directed, low consumption lifestyle, composting merrily, drying clothes on lines, and have hit a mark (in mild October) of using 12 kilowatts of energy all day. That's less than one KW hour per person, while an average residential customer uses 30 KW hours.
The ES Department has renovated its building to include a green roof, solar, geothermal, natural lighting, and major water conservation. It was LEED Gold certified. Those ES students walk the walk in class, in the community and at home. They were also involved in the school district's success in building the solar farm -- speaking of which, they have a 6-acre vegetable farm, too. They have installed wind turbines and solar arrays on their campus; the solar hot water heater for their dorm was designed by Dickinson physics professor Hans Pfister and built by them using recycled parts.
They're doing a lot better than we are!
I'm thinking, after much of my usual low-quality research, of a liquid-alcohol fuel fireplace as backup heat if the power goes out. Gel alcohol fuel in cans is more expensive and has to be delivered; liquid denatured alcohol is available locally. It's half as much per gallon if you can get it in a 55-gallon drum, but you're not supposed to store that inside and it may not be legal anyway. More data needed. Alcohol burning produces nothing but CO2 (as much as a person breathing) and a little water vapor; such a fireplace does not require coal, wood full of insects, piles of wood pellets in 50 lb. bags, or a big ugly LP gas container outside. It would heat about 500 square feet, or our main living/dining room and stairs.
Anyway, the wheels go round and round, thinking about what should or can be done to be ready for energy-supply loss, sudden or gradual.
If the example at Dickinson had been embraced all over the world decades ago, we could face diminishing energy supplies with some confidence.
If houses had been built smaller, well-insulated, passive solar, with rain-collecting/graywater recycling systems, we would not be so pathetically vulnerable.
Nice try, Dickinson.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Untold Tales

"F. Scott Fitzgerald...liked Champagne or gin, but when he was trying to cut back would limit himself to thirty bottles of beer. A day."
Makes you stop a second, but a story not out of line with what we know about Fitzgerald's long slow suicidal dance with alcohol. And when we read stories about the irascible Mark Twain, with knowledge of his dark final days, they ring true even though some of them are probably partly fictional. A good story that fits the context is a good story, not a lab report.
And we're all curious about what others are up to, from the lows of celebrity gossip to research into lives bigger and more interesting by far than our own. I'm long past shallow hero worship; what makes exceptional people tick is fascinating, then instructive. And the more you explore, the more funny, bizarre and astounding things people are capable of you come across.
Bill Peschel, copy editor and page designer at the local Patriot News, has written Writers Gone Wild, full of generally unknown aspects of writers' lives. Creative types' lives are the most interesting to me (vapid celebrities and amoral politicians, not so much), and probably you. They seem to be, when long-suppressed details become known, bigger even than their estimable creations. Badder, too.
Peschel said writing this book cured him of the "pretty notion that art can improve your life...great works are created by unhappy bastards -- Hemingway, O'Hara, Rhys -- and it didn't improve their lives one bit."
One story, though, is just good fun and, a hundred years later, still makes you grin.
Like Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf's life arced from a promising beginning to a desperate end. But before she was Woolf, she was Virginia Stephen, one of the brilliant Bloomsbury Group. In 1910, she and five others pulled a prank on the Royal Navy: they wangled an invitation to board the fleet flagship, HMS Dreadnought, posing as a royal delegation from Abyssinia (picture above -- note the darkened skin). They spoke gibberish, exclaiming "Bunga bunga!" to show their appreciation of modern things. An officer familiar with Virginia didn't recognize her! The Navy was mighty embarrassed, but the imposters hadn't broken any law, and they got away with it.
Later, during World War I, after the Dreadnought had rammed a German submarine, some wag sent a congratulatory telegram which read "Bunga bunga!"

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Big Red Pencil

If you look back on your life, or just one theme in it like work, human relationships or what you've produced, unless you're a great egotist or quite unreflective, there must be things that

you'd like to edit out. I guess that is done in obituaries, come to think of it. And Dubya's recent "book."
If you really believe in reincarnation, what is the mechanism whereby you remember what you need to improve on or fix in your behavior or character this time around? If you just return as a spider next time as a result of some really smelly karma, I don't see how that works. And returning without any instructions means we just bumble around again.
So we're propelled forward by the tsunami of time and events, hoping the weight of sin and stupidity won't drag us down as much as we suspect it will.
What would you leave out? A good composer, artist or writer has to master this to produce a good work, a classic. (Short story in six words by Ernest Hemingway: "Baby shoes for sale. Never used.")
If you were Woody Allen, you could eliminate all the noise in a long, checkered career and keep just Sleeper, Annie Hall, Interiors and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The author of Raintree County killed himself because he had nothing left to write after that. Wrong solution. If you just left behind your best, what's wrong with that?
What if you actually could, at important junctures in your personal time-line, bring out the editing pencil and remove the destructive, bad stuff? That seems to be a better sort of reincarnation: learn, fix it, and grow when it would do some good. That's the enduring appeal of "A Christmas Carol" -- fly and loop freely through time, with or without ghostly guides, and clean up your permanent record. Deep meditation, traditional religions and jails offer the only, modestly successful, attempts at it we actually have. But nothing's really deleted in these processes, it is just archived.
Physicists say time may not exist at the most fundamental level of reality; all the laws of physics would work equally well if time ran backwards. There's your entry point, I think! What we perceive as the relentless forward march of time is the expansion and growing disorder of the universe. Is all of that time still here and can we get into it and change things? It must be inherent in all the universe's matter and energy that cannot be added to or destroyed. Uh-oh. That means we can't edit anything out. Rats. Trapped in my own theoretical web.
Karmic spiders.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Worm Abides


Considering the amount of time I spend in doctors' waiting rooms, I would be about the best-informed person around if only the selection of magazines provided were better. The dentist and regular doctor's offices are so deficient in free reading material that I bring my own and then leave it to improve the tone. They do have Car and Driver most of the time, so I'll have to give them some credit. The podiatrist has a fine selection of news magazines, but not, alas, The Economist. Quality rag, but way too expensive to subscribe to. The blood lab always has several National Geographics, and that lessens the sting (as it were). The Harvard Library of these brightly lit, but ultimately grim, places is the cardiologist's: not only travel magazines full of impossible dreams, but, lo and behold, Discover too. I get there early in order to read the whole delicious thing. And the view of the river is excellent, too.
There was a mention, in the issue I found today, of research which claims our brains can be traced back to an ancient (600 million years ago ancient) worm, Urbilateria. Well, that had to be checked out (on Neurophilosophy.wordpress.com) when I got home. It seems all vertebrates -- that's us! -- worms and insects are thought to have a common ancestor based on a body plan of bilateral symmetry and organization of nervous systems in centralized cords. And old Urbi was there at the beginning, full of possibilities.
Quite an inheritance from an old, forgotten worm.

Friday, November 12, 2010

WHAT Are My Girls Up To??







I like two for being so classy (Portia and Gwyneth) and two for being so sassy (Katy and Kat von D). But, ladies, you are distressing me lately. Except for Gwyneth, your choice in mates, given that you are out of almost everyone's league, is puzzling at best and very disturbing at worst. Katy and that thing Russell Brand? The "ick" factor is off the charts. And tattooed lady Kat von D dropped the likeable Nicky Sixx (formerly icky, but like Keith Richards he's aged well) for the current king of scuzz, Jesse James. I recommend disease testing, yesterday.
And Portia took herself off the market by marrying Ellen deGeneres (not that there's anything wrong with that). Her mother probably was the first to say she could have done better. (Put your hand down. Not any of us.) Good for her but bad for us when she changed teams.
And they were all in tune with music, until recently. Portia plays bass, Kat has been a big supporter of the art and music scene, and Katy has done as much for the pop single as the Beach Boys. But Gwyneth, for reasons unfathomable, took the stage at the CMA Awards to sing some plastic Nashville. You're not married to some dumb hat act -- why?
C'mon, you're goddesses and higher standards come with the job.




Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Cat Whisperer




The year is rushing toward its end, with its promise of holidays, the weather fooling us with deceptive mildness. New year brings the real freeze, taxes, darkness at 4 P.M., and a long stretch without holidays (Valentine's day is good, but you don't get off work for it).
We just use the short form for taxes now, so instead of most of a day it takes most of 15 minutes. You might take a little satisfaction in your progress this past year or plan improvements for the next, but for every simplification or cost saving, I swear, another complication and cost shows up to replace it.
That little black devil in the pictures is the complication that appeared this year. Just like Gilligan 6 years ago, Blackberry showed up as a starving kitten at the back door, and as in the Grateful Dead song where the narrator says to the Dire Wolf, "Come on in," that's what we said. With B.B. Bunny, that makes three orphans taken in from the unforgiving suburban landscape to fill the house with hair, cat toys, and litter pans.
We're doing our part for the jobs crisis, at the vet and Petco. And for whoever makes the litter.
B.B. doesn't have the run of the house due to his love of chewing anything electrical-cord-like, so he can't cause trouble outside his room, and I make his litter in the shredder from scrap and newspaper, and he's never, in 9 years, been to the vet. He never bites or scratches, gives kisses freely, and keeps real quiet.
Cats are smarter, and therein lies one problem. They learn (exactly what they want to, not what you want) and dream up creative but work-producing mischief daily. The other is that kittens get overstimulated easily and could give the Energizer Bunny a run for his money any day. We have learned to put the houseplants way up because Gilligan would pull my minefields of toothpicks out with his teeth and claw the dirt up, like he wanted to, anyway. Any candles or vases have been banished to storage. No flowers in water, of course.
The one thing that will improve things and return the success score for this year back to a draw is that at year's end Blackberry will be old enough for the vet to remove his, uh, manhood and even more important, those front claws. Those two racks of fish hooks have shredded our hands, legs, arms and toes. I used a half-cup of stain remover to clean up the blood all over my pants leg. While front-clawless Gilligan jumps up into your lap for some quality time, Blackberry climbs up you like a human ladder. Once settled in, he goes into a deep sleep, and like a baby, is at his most attractive then. His good qualities will be much more evident once those ninja daggers of death are removed.
Who knows what next year will bring.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Mystery Ranch


Except for its excessive 4000 square-foot size, this house is an environmentalist's dream. Completely off the grid since 2002, it features the latest energy saving and renewable power systems. A passive solar design is backed up by a geothermal heating/cooling system using 300-foot-deep groundwater. Graywater reclamation treats and reuses wastewater, notably in irrigating a fruit orchard. Rain efficiently collected by the roof goes into a large cistern.
It was not built by someone like the Rocky Mountain Institute, but by a nearby religious cult which also operates a tourist trap, Homestead Heritage, for income. And it was not built for a wealthy individual into sustainability and renewable energy. Oh, it was for a wealthy individual -- who knows some things you don't.
This is George W. Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch. It just doesn't add up. He has no need to save money on heating and cooling. The energy policy of this petro millionaire, while in office, clearly rejected conservation and attacked renewable energy programs. Why would he invest big in something that is in complete contradiction to everything he has said, believed and done? No explanation has been offered; the lack of curiosity about it seems baffling.
Remember when Cheney, as Vice President, ran and hid in an "undisclosed location" immediately after the 9/11 attacks? G. Bush prepared this location for his family's survival when the effects of oil depletion coupled with greatly increased demand and overpopulation hit us. The entire industrialized world should have been doing the same in the almost 40 years since the oil embargo of the early '70s showed us the societal and financial devastation that even a temporary constriction of energy will cause.
In the 1960s, we consumed 6 billion barrels of oil per year, while finding 30 - 60 billion barrels yearly. Free trade, globalization and population explosion since then has sent demand up sharply as the easy to tap reserves were used up. Now we consume 30 billion barrels per year and are finding less then 4 billion barrels annually. Reserves are overstated by the oil industry and sovereign states because an honest accounting would send stock prices into the basement and destabilize nations. No new refineries have been built in the United States since 1976, and mergers are accelerating. If they are not investing, it's clear that the industry, and Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, are preparing for the end of the game. They played it well (knowledge is power, after all), and they'll win.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Three Easy Pieces

Ross Perot reminds me of Henry Wallace, FDR's Agriculture Secretary and Vice-President; both were high achievers from the heartland, brilliant and erratic. Both faded from prominence due to being perceived as off-kilter. They were willing to suffer career eclipse and leave the halls of power rather than abandon their ideas and principles.
When Perot was warning about the proposed NAFTA free-trade agreement in the '90s (with that perfect sound bite, "a giant sucking sound"), I remember the columnists dismissing his prediction of jobs flowing to other shores in the millions; they uniformly said that one of free trade's benefits would be better, higher-tech jobs here and polluting old style industries and occupations being made to move or modernize.
And so, our cranky prophet has lived to see each new WalMart destroy family businesses and local jobs while filling ten acres of paved fluorescent hell with a hundred thousand tons of Chinese junk that lasts a week. Every single thing we see at Kohl's, Staples, the hardware store, any shoe store, anywhere you can think of, is from China. The mainstay of every small Pennsylvania town was a dress factory, followed by shoes and furniture. All gone. Nothing left but pizza and hair shops.
Perot has all the charisma of one of the Perdues, but he has been right about so many things he must have that fine combination of intelligence and insight that is totally lacking in all the standard conservative figures from Coolidge to Gingrich. And despite what I thought, his support was broad-based, his populist supporters coming evenly from across the spectrum. Erratically pulling out of the second election try and the organizational squabbles that ensued have obscured that, if he had held onto his sense and miraculously won, opposed to the first Gulf War he wouldn't have started another, would not have approved the disastrous repeal of the Glass-Steagal act which had separated investment and regular banks, would have tried to increase the gas tax (political suicide but necessary), and tried some serious work on Social Security. How a president could end the massive outsourcing of jobs other than killing NAFTA and China's Favored Nation trade-partner status, I do not know. But how I wish both those things had been done.

***

Right after I read Oscar Lewis' 1959 classic, Five Families, I read a suggestion that we could learn sustainability (after pigs fly) from the slums of the "developing" or Third World. All but one (Americanized, wealthy) family in this study set in and around Mexico City during the '50s was practicing it from necessity. The housing is high density and just affordable, what was not walkable was reachable by numerous private bus lines, each comunidad was mixed residential and commercial, and communal endeavors in food and livestock production were a real source of income and well-being.
Can it be done 60 years later, here, in a very different world ? I had just also read Farm City, by a young couple in the rough urban environment of Oakland doing the same thing, recycling restaurant waste to their pigs and chickens, bartering their products locally, developing a tiny economy that worked in one dead-end block. They got away with it because they were just as marginal as the Mexicans were to their local governments or big businesses.

***

I like second-hand things much more than new ones. If something was designed and built to last, it already has good inherent qualities; older designs often reflect more thought than some quick mass-market item rushed out before it is copied or surpassed. Safety is the one thing that is sometimes better; steam irons, cars and tires certainly. But can a current box- or jellybean-styled car touch an old Buick or a '66 GTO? The Mustang got its mojo back when it returned to old school.
I don't use it due to the certainty that the airlines would destroy it, but I have my father's leather suitcase from WWII. It has brass lockable snaps and two leather belts around it; I had it restored quite a while ago not to re-use it but to acknowledge its value. I like the era of wood, brass, leather and canvas -- people can make useful and durable items with these materials; you can't make an ABS plastic computer case. But the known and unknown human connections as well as some thing's survival through time adds depth and richness.
Oh, yeah, and vinyl records! I really enjoy being in the circulation; mine go to someone who will really value them and I pick up someone else's at the thrift shop, thanking that unknown person for keeping them in great condition.
As the Germans say, das ding an zeit -- the thing in itself.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

From the Obscure History Department




St. Fillan
Tartan of Clan MacNab
Brother Steve (the family historian) and I made our annual trip up to Perry County a few days ago to see the progress on the cemetery marker cleaning and repair he has initiated at the mostly abandoned Bull Cemetery near Donnallys Mills. Finally, we made it to the Perry County Historians library, which hasn't been open on most of the days we were up that way. We were also aided by the years of research done by cousin-many-times-removed Perry Brandt of York County; thanks to him and Steve, I finally had enough names and facts to do some digging with. Sylvia, who is of course a relative a couple of times over, helped us navigate; but despite their extensive, accessible records, I can tell you genealogical research is like chasing your own tail. In addition to sketchy records, wildly various spelling and impossible-to-read Victorian handwriting, everyone seems to share just a few first names. I had one question above all that I wanted to resolve, however, and finally did.
It's a shame I was too young, far away and self-involved to question our grandfather on all this when he was "present" enough not to wander off into the same story countless times. I loved the stories, though: Robber Lewis, the Robin Hood of Steretts Gap, the great-uncle who held the same bank job for 42 years and was quite the dandy, his grandfather Ard Brandt who gave him nothing but a nickel once, the relative who enlisted during the Civil War to escape his awful wife, the appearance of the first car in the county, a Maxwell owned by a doctor, and the Revolutionary War stories set in Chester County, the best of which included George Washington (accepted as true by the DAR and in many sources; I was on the dirt road he had taken on the retreat from Brandywine and it passed right by the first Rice homestead).
One story I couldn't reconcile was his statement that his mother's family, the Brandts, were Scots-Irish. Even years ago I could only find this name in German families, so I thought there was a mistake there. Grandad had reddish hair and smooth, fair skin, and I could see that being true but the names, I knew, were all German.
So this History Detective went to work and, having the name Jane Gilfillen from the old Millerstown Memorial Cemetery as married into the same Brandt line, found out that she was Elizabeth (Eliza) Jane Gilfillen (1819 - 1892) who married Charles C. Brandt in 1840. Charles C. was an estimable gentleman, serving as County Commissioner and State Representative in the 1850s. Among their many children were Ard (possibly Arden; saw Howard on one document) and Perry K. Ard is our progenitor and Perry K. is Perry Brandt's. I figure their brother Milton, a prominent businessman in Lewistown, was the source of my grandfather's name.
So, Ard was half Scots-Irish. He married Sarah Jane Cauffman in 1865; Cauffman was a Swiss family while her mother was a Long (English? Didn't get that far). His daughter Anna (Annie) Thompson Brandt married our great-grandfather, Charles Grant Rice (named after the Union general and President) in 1893. Our grandfather Milton was born in 1895, and saw the world going from no indoor water to the computer age.
Being curious, like a cat, about the tiniest thing, I had to know why Annie's middle name was Thompson. John Thompson (d. 1829) married another Jane Gilfillen but died young. The widow was "more than ordinary in ability and enterprise," was owner of the canal boat Dove and put her 11-year-old son Jon to work driving it. This John might be the source of the name, for he became quite a local magnate, building a stone house for $4000 (can you imagine what that is today?). He also ran the Thompson House Hotel in Mechanicsburg, still there, which became famous for being the headquarters of Confederate General Jenkins when he occupied the town during the Gettysburg campaign.
So, having generations of pious and serious German, Austrian, Swiss and Alsatian ancestors, I was intrigued to find some more colorful Scots Irish in there. Most family histories around here begin no earlier than the migration from the German Rhineland in the 18th century. Ships' manifests show the place of origin of the passengers and age; beyond that the curtain descends.
The feisty Scots, however, have a long preserved history. The Highland Gilfillens are first recorded in a charter in 1124, and resided in the area between Stirling and Edinburgh. Their origin was much earlier, on the western Isle of Mull, where they were exterminated by a rival clan. Two widows escaped and bore twin sons each, who were the source of all the descendants.
The origin of the name is Gillie Fillan, or servant of St. Fillan (pronounced FEElan). To complicate matters too ancient to unravel anyway, there were two St. Fillans in the same area doing the same things (a couple of centuries after the Romans left).
Their more peaceful stay in Stirlingshire was disturbed when Robert the Bruce murdered the brother-in-law of Angus MacNab (the Gilfillans were a sept, or division, of Clan MacNab) in 1306. Once he was in full power after 1314, the MacNab lands and charters were forfeit. It seems they thought it would be prudent to lie low and slowly relocate; some decamped to Northern Ireland in the 1600s during the religious and civil wars, and again after 1745 after having chosen to rally behind Bonnie Prince Charlie, the losing side once again.
Clan MacNab (meaning "child of the abbot" -- Abraruadh the Red, a "secular" Pict abbot) has its home near Loch Earn, in Glendochart and Strathearn. Ol' Red (note the hair color) was a son of King Kenneth Macalpine and a descendant of a nephew of St. Fillan. This might explain the inclusion of the Gilfillans.
Sir Walter Scott, in Waverly, mentions the "gifted Gilfillan," described as tall with ruddy cheeks. Who might that have been? I wish I had known to look for Gilfillan Court in Old Town Edinburgh when we were there (we were also all over Stirlingshire finding the locations related to the great Wallace without knowing this connection). A letter written in 1907 about this family states they were talented, but unbalanced. It describes one fellow in northern Ireland as "irascible" in his dotage, then goes on to say this was more normal than not in that family. They did, however, stay clear of the law (keeping a safe distance from English and Scottish kings) while maintaining their fondness for whiskey.
Back to considerably less royal and less bloody Perry County and a rare personal portrait... In the 1860s, Lewis Gilfillan (1813 - 1893) was among the 50 or 60 prosperous farmers in the Pfoutz Valley, and was known as the "best all around fun maker" at the winter turkey roasts held at a score of families' homsteads. "He possessed much native Scots Irish wit and could do a homely anecdote with great aplomb."
A James Gilfillan was Treasurer of the United States in 1884, but the "strong and rugged family lives only in memory and in other names through the female descendants." That is, in Perry County. There are, despite the seeming rareness of the name, many in New England, Ohio, Kansas, California, Australia and Charleston, South Carolina.
Charles Robert Gilfillan was the last survivng male in the line founded by the original Perry county immigrants James G. and Nancy Watts of the mid-18th century. He was a World War I draftee, but was not in the book of casualties at the library. As I said at the outset, tracking people down who all share the same few first names is daunting: James and Charles were used multiple times in each generation. I was looking for a Rice Civil War veteran and found five with the name Samuel, all enlisting at the same place.
The Gifillan motto is Armis et Animis -- Arms and Courage. The same as the Carnegie family's and Virginia's 80th Division's 317 Airborne Infantry. And I was in the 80th Division when in the Army Reserve. History and its actors are twisted up like a Celtic knot, intriguing but devilish hard to unwind.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Magic Beans

The ouroboros, the snake or serpent simultaneously feeding and destroying itself, is an ancient worldwide symbol, the meaning(s) of which is pretty much lost on us modern folk.

Similar to these universal symbols, there are root words deep in our language that have important and relevant meanings, but have fallen into the storage bins of the old curiosity shop. Too bad -- they were clearly descriptive and useful once, and could be again.
An original "Indo-European" source for these words common to a number of modern languages, from somewhere on the steppes of Eurasia, is postulated by linguists. Its remains today may well be Sanskrit, but we have more hypotheses than facts.

Dmitri Orlov is a Russian native, an engineer and writer, who lived in New Hampshire and now resides on a sailboat. About a year and a half ago, in his blog Cluborlov.com, he finds that a Russian word, fuflo (plural)/ fufel (singular), neatly describes our current economic and social wedgie. A fufel is a situation where an irrational or foolish character willingly participates in being conned (think about Jack and his magic beans --it worked out for him, but that was a fairy tale). As time goes on, the poor sap even comes to demand it as it's his new reality. The lamb lies down in front of the coyote; the frog trusts the crocodile to carry him across the stream. Surely we are not simple lambs or trusting frogs...

The fuflo also is something that gets bigger over time, while providing the same or lessening value. Like a successful colony of bacteria or mosquitoes, it produces offspring which also grow. Bringing it to specifics, think of megachurches, mortgage scams and multisyllabic financial "instruments."

The same word and concept shows up in English ("fuffle," 16th century), Italian ("fuffa"), Gaelic ("kafuffle"), and Swedish ("fuffel"), all meaning either deceit and dishonesty which may land you, unwittingly, in a messy situation, or an artful fake made solely to fool people into paying for it. And the best part is getting people to pay for it again and again (installment credit with interest comes to mind). The best fuflo grow to insane proportions over time. Current examples are student loans, suburban McMansions and giant trucks and SUVs driven by lone commuters. You've been fuffled when the size and cost of what you're buying exceeds what anyone needs or can afford.

Too bad we humans have too-short memories and attention spans to see things for what they are. Matt Taibbi in the notorious Rolling Stone article on Goldman Sachs (those grand masters of international three-card monte), spelled out what just happened under our noses: the Federal Reserve accepted the huge fuffle of "troubled assets" as collateral for loans to insolvent financial institutions, who used them to buy up U.S. Treasury securities -- thus making their toxic financial waste our public debt. The ancient snake symbol depicts that quite well, don't you think?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Happy Trails















There's a web site where you can find a neighborhood's "walkability" score. Ours is not very high, what with the hill's limited egress, and no sidewalks between the four developments on it and the town of New Cumberland two miles away. Richmond's Fan was and is great, except for the parked cars obscuring your view across intersections (you'd better be even faster than you are observant), and the roaming muggers. Back when we were students and had nothing but bicycles and stereos, we thought we were safer, but despite the police and media hiding it there was violent crime. The professionals and yuppies now there are a much more tempting target for the enterprising criminal.

We've given up on going to Baltimore's Inner Harbor (except for a rare jaunt to the Whole Foods store), because the joy of walking waterside for hours is soured by the constant importuning of the panhandlers. And don't even think of trying to enjoy the newly resurgent downtown across the river here -- the street crime has exploded, along with the annoyance of hundreds of Harleys drowning out any conversation. Gettysburg is another old favorite that may join the reject list since it has been afflicted with motorcycle mobs for years now.

But, like Petula Clark, I know a place...

It's not like anyplace else, and it's my favorite walk: Vieja Drive in Santa Barbara County, right next to Ron and Claire's home (and I would never have found it other than for their hospitality). I discovered it in pieces. Checking the map to find different routes for my long morning walk to Java Station, I thought returning up Nogal Drive, turning right on Vieja, and then connecting with Puente, a few blocks from Ron and Claire's, looked good. I saved the section of Vieja to the left for a future side trip, thinking it was private due to the house numbers posted on a sign at the intersection. You could tell from the shoulder, pounded to dust and imprinted with hundreds of horseshoe "U"s that this was used as a bridle trail. Every other trip, I encounter a local or two on a beautiful horse and say my second "hello" of the day (the first goes to the fine staff at the Station). The equestrian tone of this secluded enclave has continued since the building of a racecourse for trotters by the original rancher, Thomas Hope (not Bob). He bought the hundreds of acres (originally a grant from Mexico to a former Spanish soldier) in 1861, and wisely raised sheep, making a fortune off the wool during the Civil War. His Italianate mansion is still at the corner of Nogal and Vieja, restored a while ago.
For a short distance the street is normal (for a millionaire suburb, at least): paved, with mailboxes and house numbers. Some are up the hill to the left, behind wide, heavy gates, and out of view. A couple on the right sit on the narrow ledge before the hill takes another steep run down to a few really hidden ranches. At one, with a beautifully landscaped front yard, I keep checking the ancient VW bus, covered with Mexican "turista" stickers, to see if the license is current. Long may you groove!
Then the paved part ends abruptly at a low iron-pipe gate, one of many that close off these private streets of the Hope Ranch area, once a producer of livestock, walnuts, lemons and lima beans, now home to 2,200 lucky people. There are low horse step-overs at either end. Now it's become a trail rather than a street, wide and flat, covered with shredded eucalyptus bark. One section of the huge trees is so dense it smells likes Vicks VapORub. Many have been cut down over the years I've been down this way; I don't know if they are short-lived or if they just bothered somebody. The raw stumps almost glow red; about half have vigorous shoots coming back up (I cheer them on).
Wondering why it's so broad, I found out that the Southern Pacific Railroad ran its Ventura Division extension this way beginning in 1887. In 1901 they moved the route, and other than this broad section, there is no evidence of its existence. So that was the genesis of Vieja, and now contented horses and people have replaced the snorting steam engines. I think as I pass by, any one of the four visible homes on the right ledge would make a fine residence for us, should Fate lose her mind and place us there. A Honda among the Mercedes set, and cats instead of horses. Oh my.
I stop and look at two things each time, paying my respects. The first is the giant agave which sits beside one of those climbing driveways, looking both vigorous and imperturbable. Further, on the right, are ridiculously large bougainvillea shrubs in red, pink and white. They usually grow next to house foundations in irrigated bliss; how do they survive the rainless summer up here? Their papery flowers look, each, like Japanese lanterns.
After going down another section with nothing man-made in view, the next-to-last house appears. It has been steadily remodeled in the years I've passed by, and now sports a wood fence across the front, sternly enforcing the privacy. A nice path bordered with rocks winds around the left side, but the orange tree is gone. This and the missing eucalyptus trees are the only changes. And since the Ranch will remain unincorporated and the streets and water system private, I have a good feeling that most everything will remain as it is, and it doesn't need any improvement.
After crossing (closed, private) Via Cayente, the mysterious part of Vieja appears. For a while I turned here and regained civilization at Puente Drive, but I poked my head in once and figured out that Vieja does continue, but as a path, up to Via Huerto, where its long journey finally ends. This dusty path must be trod with care; many piles of horse manure demand your attention. This past summer the fences on both sides, gloriously decrepit, were replaced. The horses on the left and the goats, horses, ducks and chickens on the right-side farmette are harder to see, but when you peek between the boards, they are all watching you. The ducks run away.
Vieja narrows to a few feet as it emerges between two driveways, disappearing. The "Private" sign at its end may keep other wanderers out; I've only seen horseshoe and a few foot prints, and once a mountain bike tread.
On maps this happy trail looks like a regular road, but you won't even find it from one end, and at the other can only drive a way before you must back up and go back the way you came.
That's the best walk I've ever found.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Land of Make-Believe




When I first started driving my own $150 car, gas was 26c a gallon. For all of us in postwar America, paved roads, cars and cheap fuel meant freedom of movement and choice -- things most of humanity never had. Good times. Except, the affordable and plentiful energy that thrilled us will kill us.
We assumed that growth (the baby boom, suburban sprawl, new technologies and jobs, and an expanded educated middle class) was the new permanent paradigm, our just reward for surviving fifteen years of depression and war. A population bouyed by optimism, freed by the interstates from the isolation of packed cities and forlorn countryside went on to improve civil rights, land humans on the moon, and exuberantly waste excess wealth on foreign wars, not realizing that all this was totally dependent on that huge amount of affordable fossil fuel, which allowed us to exploit finite resources as if they were infinite.
When in school, did you ever learn about Dr. Hubbert's 1956 prediction that U.S. domestic oil production would peak in 1970? Or have a discussion about how dependence on oil imports would affect our economy and leave us vulnerable to dangerous global entanglements?
After the OPEC oil embargo of the early '70s, exploration and production went off the charts, resulting in an oil glut and radically falling prices (remember the devastation of a formerly booming Houston?). Fuel efficiency (especially under the Reagan regime, which was fully paid for by the oil industry) was thrown out the window -- exemplified by Ronnie gleefully tearing Carter's solar panels off the White House roof. Giant SUVs and pickup trucks followed -- good times again. But look at the chart, above right, showing how worldwide availability of affordable fossil energy stimulated astonishingly rapid overpopulation. 1 billion to 7 billion in a century -- all consuming more and more of a diminishing resource, and in the industrialized part of the world, totally dependent on it.
With every product on our farms, industries and homes made from or powered by fossil fuel, what will happen when this huge, unnatural, unsustainable population has to compete for ever less, but ever more expensive energy? The endless growth paradigm the we, our economists and government believe in won't work any more. As with the boom-and-bust "bubble" cycles that are always in process (they are not just "market adjustments"), the descent will not be prepared for, and it will be steep and calamitous. We won't have the oil and gas to build the infrastructure of smart grids, wind farms, nuclear plants or remote solar farms. All this concrete, steel, cable, and a hundred thousand other things must be made and transported using gas and diesel. We won't have the resources to hold back worldwide rising water levels -- or even the finances, for that matter.
Growth becomes impossible to maintain when more "bads" are produced than goods.
The global economy has grown five times its size 50 years ago. That's amazingly good performance, isn't it? Since that is unprecedented in the history of life on Earth, does common sense tell you that it's an aberration, and like any "bubble," it's one that will be corrected just as quickly? Action/equal and opposite reaction, and all that. I wish people would take the Second Law of Thermodynamics more seriously than the ravings of John the Divine in Revelations. Just guess what a survey of our fellow citizens would reveal on that.
We used 1/2 our current level of energy in 1960 and did all right. France uses 1/2 what we do right now (and I can't agree with the conservative ignorati that life is obviously bad there). We believed that Thatcher's ideology saved the United Kingdom when it was really a large and temporary influx of money from North Sea oil production; similarly, it wasn't Reagan's brilliance but disastrously falling oil prices that destabilized and put paid to the Soviet Union (other than arms sales, their one cash cow). We believed in all that, and we believed in glorious unlimited growth, borrowing trillions to keep it going -- it was nothing more real than a Ponzi scheme.
The cost of one B-2 bomber could, instead, have provided 150,510 clean water wells, or 35.5 million chickens. What do 7 billion people need to survive the rapid depletion of the one thing the modern world runs on? Which would make us more friends in the scary decade to come? I would think food and water.
A civilization hell-bent on growth, when growth ends and reverses, will be like an individual going on an involuntary starvation crash diet. We refuse to believe that vast quantities of everything will not be available forever...until they aren't. Too late. We could have seen that the predictions about oil production peaking and declining (chart above left) conform almost exactly to the classic bell curve, a very reliable modeling device.
If we had started on a correction course after the 1973 oil embargo, and prepared for the inevitable decline of cheap energy, we could still have some reasonable level of prosperity to look forward to -- if we define that as quality of life instead of a wretched excess of material wealth.
Cassandra, none pay heed today either.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Dumpster Diving on Blogger.com

Giggling and looking over our shoulders, we went Dumpster diving twice, once near here in Lemoyne and once in California, both times coming up with excellent items, which we gave away or, believe it or not, sold. We joined the crowd to visit a thrift store on the main street of Ventura just on its opening day, and Nancy found a unique (but good) looking pair of shoes that she wears every week now. There's treasure and trash everywhere.
Click on the "next blog" spot at the top of this or your blog page, and you will find, as you explore, strangers' viewpoints and experiences, both delightful and dismaying. I wonder what is the mechanism for choosing which sites show up, since they do seem to follow a theme each time: travel and thought, gardening and nature, or, heaven help us, Mommy Blogs. What is dreadful about pictures of munchkins with food smeared on their faces, looking up brightly at the camera? Or a hundred entries about someone's wedding followed by their rapid reproduction, all on sunny days of boundless possibility, tightly wrapped in a greeting card aesthetic? Come on, most of us are poor writers or philosophers on our best days, but you've got to have something to say!
And then, you find the treasure. One lady in Vancouver, WA, is so sharp and funny she ought to be improving TV fare (she indicates that before family, her ambition was in that direction). Her latest piece on her husband's overenthusiastic response to her desire to pursue ballroom dancing had my sides hurting. And she's right on with the photos and illustrations, which add to the mayhem.
Another young lady in South Africa, in her autobiographical blog, is wise beyond her twentysomething years. Some young writers whine about being lost and directionless, but this tart-tounged lass has no doubt about her worth and the lengths she goes to to prove it.
And today, I ran across one with no profile, so I can't tell you more than that he seems to be a British or Irish expat, is studying Dutch, and has been to and taken alarmingly beautiful photos of mountainous south-cental France. He's also pursuing Buddhism. He makes you want his life; his writing is of that ice-clear type that pulls you in. You don't skim it, you re-read the sentences. Only your very favorite authors do that. That's his photo above, of a cliff on the Mediterranean coast which has been carved by nature to resemble a ruined castle strewn with gargoyle carvings.
It's worth digging through the trash to find something like that.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Give 'Em What They Want

f


During the four terms of Reagan and Dubya we ironically had people in the highest offices of national government who believed that government doesn't work and should be starved, hogtied and pecked to death.
Because the best way to change the system is to ride in the limos, then enjoy a rich retirement paid by it, right? Were they bright enough to see that in not responding to a nonpolitical emergency like Katrina, it would send a deep emotional message that, uh, government doesn't work? I doubt if the neocons will be eager for us to conclude that the Gulf oil disaster proves that big business doesn't work -- because their whole brief is that a federal government that looks out for everyone equally (admittedly an ideal, but one that can be striven for) should be replaced by big business.
What if we just closed up the shop and let them have what they say they want? Events may make that come about, as one Igor Panarin, former KGB analyst, predicted long before the economic crisis (which he and others also saw coming in the 1990s). His map (lower left) delineates how, probably after much turmoil, six regions will replace the current federal union, and they may come under the influence of other powers who generally were wise enough not to believe in "something for nothing/borrowing your way to prosperity," like we did.
He sees wealthier states hoarding their funds, withholding them from the Fed, then seceding. Not inconceivable. Will these regions each form a retro Articles of Confederation-type union that would warm the hearts of the teabaggers? I wonder if thousands of changes to our complex system, like tolls on the inherited sections of the interstate highways, no FAA, import tariffs at the borders or the loss of the CODIS criminal DNA database would disrupt commerce and greatly expand our population of serial killers. Or will these secessionist states, in the context of pervasive insecurity and fear, spin out of orbit and become thugdoms, kleptocracies, or medieval throw-backs like some of the so-called republics created out of the former Soviet Union? They may find out how getting government off the backs of plutocrats has worked out for Haiti.
Would Wall Street run the Atlantic America segment? Big Oil be the boss of the Texas Republic? Monsanto Corporation rule the Central Republic? Will conservative real-estate developers and agribusiness billionaries in extended California be at the throats of coastal liberals with good libraries but no armed retainers? Think what the unrestrained timber and coal industries did to Pennsylvania and the Virginias, and are capable of doing with 21st century technology in a weak-government situation.
The "Jesusland" map on the right has been around a while, illustrating the possible outcome of an apocalyptic cultural split resulting in an expanded Canada absorbing the blue states and the red ones forming a lovely new Confederacy with no public schools, no FDA or SEC, no estate taxes on the insanely wealthy, dirt roads and employment consisting only of police, prison guards and sharecroppers. At least they won't have Wall Street; but the Carolina coast will be all privately owned.
Government is like a big, dumb dog on your porch. You think it eats too much for what it does, but it keeps the salesmen and missionaries away. It needs discipline, for sure, but think twice about exchanging it for one that will turn around and eat you.
"If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves."
-- Abraham Lincoln
(Credits: New Zealand blog, "Thinking Shift")

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Craziness We Can Believe In


And it's whispered that soon
If we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason
And a new day will dawn
For those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter.
(The upcoming, much needed, Rally to Restore Sanity prompted this.)

Friday, September 17, 2010

New Noise, Old Noise

"...And the Tea Party aims to fix all this, to make things right again. I listen to their blather about "freedom" and all I can imagine is the sound of boots outside the door, and men in badly-fitting camo uniforms and buzzcut hair commanding me to accept John Boehner as my personal savior. Pardon me, but I don't see how this will really improve anybody's lot in life."
--James Howard Kunstler's blog for 9/12/2010.

As Alexander Solzenitsyn said after long experience with an incompetent, fearful, repressive "punisher" regime: don't listen to them, don't acknowledge them, don't cooperate with them.

"Benedict warned against 'agressive forms' of secularism. The German pope recalled how Britain had stood against 'Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society.' "

--Wire report from Scotland in today's newspaper.

I can understand that Teabag blowhards who disdain education, science and logic would be all confused, but Benedict is an educated man who has spent his life in central Europe and knows the score. Hitler stated he was, and always would be, a Catholic. The uniforms, the required unquestioning obedience and murkily powerful symbology of fascism is a mirror of that other 2000-year Reich. The Odessa network funneled Nazis out of postwar Europe into safe havens through church facilities in Austria and Italy; neither Hitler, Franco nor Mussolini put the death squeeze on the Vatican like their counterpart Stalin would have -- they all worked out amicable arrangements. How can secularism even be "agressive?" It is not an institution or an organized movement. It is just the desire of evolved people to live, and let live, rationally.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Swept Away (2012)

The stars align,
call us -- a
tight lipped
subsonic
whisper.

Time brakes, shuddering.


A Libris

In Rus' latest blog on litrashur reminded me that while many people know their minds, some are liberal, or to use an older term, catholic in their approach and some are narrowly focused and project bad qualities on that which does not appeal to them.










Is the difference education, which, like travel, generally broadens minds and moderates black-and-white (non)thinking? Sometimes, but there are far too many reasonably intelligent and educated dogmatists. I think it's just personality type; whichever path you travel in life, upwards, backwards or sideways, you end up pretty much the same, inside, as when you started. It's your choices along the way that result in your becoming older and a little wiser or older, meaner and dumber.
Does everything have some value to someone out there? I'm thinking of the overwhelming preponderance of romance and thriller novels in the mass marketplace -- that's all you see at the discount store, grocery, drugstore, and it makes up the bulk of circulation at libraries. In the yin and yang balance between what is good/worthwhile and what people "like," I think this dominating component of current literature resides on the negative side of the value meter. Not that anything should, or could, be done about it; it suits the majority of the personality types and you might as well rail against the excessive amount of rock in the earth's surface.
You might be concerned when the meter moves from harmless time-wasting reading to lies and propaganda. Think of the media campaigns of the communists, fascists, and the McCarthyites. Imbibing 150 volumes of Danielle Steel will just soften your brain, but taking Mein Kampf or John Birch Society publications or Ayn Rand seriously can and will result in misery and destruction for millions of others.
We have, as I've mentioned, a big beautiful new library in Camp Hill. There is a section up front of several long shelf units of new books, which is usually as disappointing as receiving underwear for your birthday. I move through different genres as the years go by (not romance or thriller, at least not yet), and right now I'm into memoir/autobiography. Imagine my delight at finding both Patti Smith's and Rosanne Cash's new volumes yesterday -- the subgenre of artists' life stories has been a favorite for a while now. Despite the reduction of the county library system's budget by hundreds of thousands of dollars this year and the last, the director of this branch continues to purchase every right-wing screed that becomes available. Think of all the worthwhile volumes that don't show up on the shelves while she pursues this personal agenda -- justified, I'll bet, by the old excuse "that's what the public wants." And some of the public does: Camp Hill is no San Francisco, believe me. But the outrageousness of some of the new titles makes that argument look convenient and weak: "How The Environmentalists are Destroying America," "How the Left Swiftboated America," (what???) "The Liberal War on Talk Radio." This is toxic mold, not just a little unsightly dust.
Just because a sizable majority likes something doesn't mean it is good or bad. 1 million murdering Mongols on the horizon can be wrong. The crowd has wisdom, and it has destructive craziness too. We can live with lots of bad taste --sometimes it is amusing or a guilty pleasure -- but we need the freedom to live better, according to our own lights, with some quality choices. The danger is not the preponderance of dreck, it's the possibility that choice can be taken away in the name of some fevered dogma.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Vegetables With Attitude

Angelo Pellegrini wrote of Italian immigrants in America, "the pleasure of eating what he raises is inseparably fused with the pleasure of raising what he eats." The Japanese did the same, and the Hmong and Vietnamese now have brought this closer-to-the-earth mentality to urban and suburban locales which until the recent economic tribulation shunned productive earth for inedible grass and "green meatball" shrubs.
We're familiar with the extensive, but temporary, gardening mania associated with the food shortages of the two world wars. It's said a million young people returned to the land in the '70s, and forgotten lore on homesteading and husbandry was republished for this considerable audience (the Nearings' books come to mind, of course, but my favorite is the now again rare The Five Acre Plan); without The Whole Earth Catalogue what would they have done? For suburban kids with no practical knowledge at all, and rural ones used to mechanized farming, that volume was invaluable, and introduced people to such a variety of obscure books and theories not ever found in school or library as well as gadgets not seen in the mass-market chain stores. Again, my favorite was the hand-operated "Amish" washing machine, which is still available. I ordered a big chrome hand-cranked grain mill which was immortalized in an article I wrote about it complete with gleaming photo; I got rid of all the grinding, cutting and canning stuff at one of our yard sales due to lack of a garage kitchen like my grandfather and grandmother had for performing such satisfying work. Again, suburbia just strangles the life out of things.
When we decamped for several weeks to California, the weather here changed from pleasant and rainy to hot and dry. The garden box in Zach's yard burnt up, but it was not doing that well since this year I just used up all the seeds we had, planting them directly and probably not at the exact right time. At home here, the plants in various pots were made of tougher stuff, and are to this day producing beyond all expectations. Two bean plants have been harvested four times; a grape tomato "volunteer" plant that grew from some stray seed in the compost is now huge and yields up a handful of perfect little tomatolets every few days. On the kitchen counter we have lined up a dozen perfect round fruits from the full-size "Early Girl" plant out back, and it currently has three more ready to pick. The lettuce out front bolted while we were away, but until then provided salads twice a day with those red rascals proudly nestled in the center of each one. I didn't anticipate much from these plants tucked into spots here and there, but they have been a delight. We missed a beat and didn't plant basil -- won't forget next year!
They say men plan and the gods just laugh; Nature is amused by our efforts too, but she takes a little pity on us and provides some sweet surprises.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

It's a Dela-Bration




Since our anniversary coincides with the almost-end of summer, we normally plan a little adventure so the silly season ends with a bang, not a whimper. And a plus is a few days away from the ever-worsening traffic (I know, it doesn't even compare with major cities, but that's one main reason we have no desire for the big time). In the depths of winter it's free fun to plan ambitious warm weather vacations; this one is like a little dessert.
For some reason we have only been to the Delaware beaches once; since they are excellent and not far away I don't know why it didn't become a regular destination. Most people head for the Jersey Shore or Ocean City, MD, but that lovely stretch of Diamond State coast has neither the frantic or the trashy aspects of those more popular spots. We picked Rehoboth based on what looked like a good hotel (on an internet search) and took off with Zach in tow (he really needed a vacation for the same work-related reasons Nancy did). And I had a mission.
Years ago we got a nasty sunburn constructing a sand castle complex at Topsail Island, North Carolina, but the burn healed and although the sand toys had been on a basement shelf for many years, I thought it was time to dust them off and play architect again. (Pictures of this year's production above). Being older and a little wiser, we rented an umbrella and saved some skin from poaching.
In the evenings, the brand new boardwalk was fine entertainment, and there was music on the bandstand as well as in many bistros and watering holes. I practiced my chords on the hotel room's balcony, but the noise on the street fortunately drowned out the sound, thus sparing strangers any unnecessary misery. There is fine dining to complement the usual beach fare; we enjoyed a chat with chef and owner Gretchen at her delightfully arty Hobo's, and on our last night went to Zoggo's Raw Bar to hear old Jim the tin pan drum player. Of course, "Margaritaville" was in his repretory. And a huge red snapper sandwich for $10, well, that just made the evening perfect.
We took a break from the sand, but not the water, at Jungle Jim's Water Park, where a waterfall on the Lazy River knocked my sunglasses off and then all of me off the float. Believe it or not, I found them on the bottom at the opposite side, so all that was lost was a little dignity.
So that closes the book on this year's travels, unless certain reprobates gather in Richmond again before winter. Might get the urge for goin' again.

Monday, August 16, 2010

No Address, No Phone

Aki fukaki tonari wa nani wo suru hito zo

Nearing autumn's close,
my neighbor -- how
does he live?

-- Matsuo Basho


I chronicled, in "The Noise Boys," some of my and Bill's travels during the Health South project for ASCC Communications. It gave us good memories to share because it was that rare thing, what a job should be: adventure, challenge, a little danger, new people and places, and a chance to shine away from backward supervision and even more backward co-workers. That was one of the two ways to live free, on the road; the other is to hie yourself off to the deep woods, like Davy Crockett on the wild frontier.
We did the second, sort of, last week. Bill acquired a cabin he'd had his eye on for years, about six years ago, but I'd never seen it. He retired, like your humble author, but more recently. Having completed the big projects at home he'd set aside while still in the work harness, he called me up and we set a date to head west into the middle of Pennsylvania where the small villages are greatly outnumbered by bears. In mid-Cumberland county we were in (to me) unfamiliar territory, with town names I'd never heard. It's a good thing they have names, because they all look the same and if you might as well be in Mongolia if there were no state route signs and the occasional tiny post office to orient by. Every one has a pizza joint, a "beauty" parlor (probably more an aspiration than an actual product) and a metal building purporting to repair cars and tractors. Judging from the detritus surrounding them, not much gets repaired to the point of leaving under its own power.
But the charm lies in the twisty roads between settlements which slowly climb two mountain ridges, closely girded by green on either side. Like a great photo or painting or story, it's what's left out that makes the experience what it is. Once the hand of man is stayed, things settle out to that living equilibrium that old Ma Nature does so well.
Just before the borough of Three Springs, we hung a sharp left and in a few miles turned left again, leaving the named and paved road for a dirt and gravel cut that immediately begins its ascent up a hill. Despite a very hard rain last night, it was not washed out at all, due to skillful grading with cuts to direct the rushing water off to the side. I've seen private roads up similar hills destroyed by every serious rain, so the community of cabins and its loose association governance obviously knows what it's doing. An ex-SeaBee among the residents?
I see why Bill waited until this cabin became available. Next to the last one, it has its own long driveway and, at least while the leaves fill the trees, is out of sight until you're right up on it. Like most of the others, it has an outdoor pavilion with a stone barbeque, but unlike some has full indoor plumbing. The deck is up high and puts you in a perfect place among the hickory, oak and white pine trees; you can imagine yourself looking out for turkey or deer in an early morning, a fat mug of coffee grasped in your hands.
You've got recorded entertainment and books for the late night or the long winter, but you also have long walks, wood to get in and stack, no-rush chores and maintenance, and casual or serious hunting if that's your thing. It might be even if you don't find it entertaining, because there's no grocery or any other kind of store nearby. Mt. Union up to the north isn't much of a city, but that's your long-haul option to do any shopping; the Boy Scout motto about being prepared is something you had better already have made your own.
Several people live here, quite economically I'm sure, year-round. Next time you spend two hours getting home through traffic gridlock like Nancy did that same day, this arrangement (with all its potential hardships) might look pretty attractive. I felt a little guilty having such a good time while she had such a miserable one.
On our way back, we stopped at the one place in Three Springs there was to get gas, one of those home made convenience stores... a sort of reality check after enjoying the sylvan bliss. Now there's no grocery or drug store, so you would think there was a business opportunity to be exploited. I looked around, and there was nothing but candy, tobacco products, and six racks of chips. Hundreds of bottles of soda. The Altoona newspaper and tabloids, nothing else (remember half the year is dark and cold and only one TV station from Maryland if you're not blocked by the mountain). But the lack of entertainment could be easily replaced by nature and socializing; the lack of food not so much even if you were pretty good with the squirrel gun.
If you were healthy, not prone to bloody accidents, and had a sturdy 4-wheel drive vehicle with many years left on it, and were comfortable with your own and the limited local company, you could make a nice life in that cabin. The long drive to anything might just be preferable to four lanes of stopped traffic with billboards screaming at you on either side. Something to think about.


One week later: Karma smacked me on the back of the head. I was to pick Nancy up at work on this Thursday and we were going to the Hershey Grill. Due to two major accidents on I-81, it took two hours to make the 20-minute trip from home to Blue Cross, including a 32-mile detour. I thought the back route on route 39 to Hershey was the way to go, with all the usual routes just gridlocked, but found that we could not proceed past Linglestown (never saw road work just shut a town down before). So back we went all round the mulberry bush, spending an hour and half making what should have been a less than 20-minute trip to Hershey. That woodsy retreat was looking a lot better than this weekly Highway to Hell commuting.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Slash and Burn Real Estate




Richmond, Virginia is staying the same (it has always done that well) and changing incredibly fast. A visitor familiar with the past sees the distinctive neighborhoods with the same feel as ever, but often gentrified, with new street signs, even a changed demographic. The last is best explained by the exponential increase in housing prices (a $34,000 house back in the day going for 1/4 to 1/2 million now). If there is a student couple living on Park or Hanover, one is probably a medical intern, not a commercial art junior. I guess all the non-prime-time students (and there are a lot more at VCU now) are all living in dorms or at home. And racking up loan debt no honest person can pay.
Last year Cliff and I stumbled upon the new (yuck) governor's inauguration parade downtown while surveying the desolation there. I've seen more people in an all-night drugstore at 3 a.m. Next to the still-successful National Theater were restaurant and store fronts that had obviously been renovated, opened and closed within a few months. No place open except for, thank heaven, the Beatles-themed pub. But that's it. For the few residents in upper floor condos downtown, not even a grocery store. Who's going to pay rent and a big monthly fee to safely park their car to live in a downtown with absolutely nothing?
And safety is the primary of two essential issues. People shift outward to the stable older neighborhoods (and some of those, as in all cities, slip slowly and inexorably downward with more rentals and more shady characters appearing each year). A dead downtown means higher taxes for those areas, adding to the already inflated costs, and as families grow they move outward again. A family means a car (or two) and the need for more usable space, and the frustration with parking problems from downtown to Colonial Park make the tradeoff of charm vs. convenience no contest.
But I was not prepared for the nuclear explosion that is Short Pump, at the far, far west end of Broad Street. This wasn't even farmland sacrified for quickly built development, like around us here; it was just scrub, back in the day, with maybe three old wood buildings with peeling paint.
The picture at above right is West Broad Village, the boldest concept since the giant Innsbrook business park was built nearby, out beyond civilization, years ago (I didn't think it would work, so far from everything -- shows what I know). Behind a shopping center arises a new downtown that looks more like a Las Vegas mega-development than anything in traditional Richmond, with apartments, first floor parking garages, a pool, an Aloft Hotel and four-story homes with roof decks (again, like Vegas or New York, not our old town). Brick internal streets put the Southern stamp on it, though. Spaces (most empty at this point) on the first level for shops, restaurants, and even 668,000 square feet of offices make it a new downtown springing up like a June weed, all at once. To entice residents, there is a Whole Foods store at one end and a Trader Joe's at the other. So you can live 20 miles out of town and still get a whole lot done on foot (not that many of the BMW drivers will change their ways). Proposed, next to Whole Foods, is a garden and orchard with market, with gardening space for rent! Again, I don't see our lobbyists and executives sweating under the sun, but someone's trying to bring that idea of a new integrated community into reality, like the Columbia, Maryland experiment by Rouse.
This village seems targeted at the childless urban professionals or spunky rich retirees who might have lived downtown or between Cary and the river. The families will still have to move to suburban developments and drive everywhere; but growth and change follows the money not the needs.
It is odd, though, that this Short Pump phenomenon in the 21st century is so similar to the actions of stone-age tribes of the Amazon or Indonesia who cut and burn the forest to make a new village, soon enough deplete the resources and foul the environment, then move further on to do it all again. The difference is that something will grow back in the abandoned village and life will return, but not so with our old downtowns.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Skinny Ties



Being a little slow as usual, I didn't start following AMC's Mad Men
until recently, catching some of the Season 3 episodes before the Season 4 premiere. I knew it would be fascinating, but we now have 2,000 channels and I hadn't looked up where AMC resides (pathetic, but true), so it took a while. Well, I'm hooked now.
The decades pile on top of one another, you're distracted as the times change, and what was the latest style soon looks quaint and dated, like the early Sixties did after the rapid changes of the mid-decade. When Mad Men nails that 1960 - 64 look and feel dead on, however, the contradictions of that brief but clearly definable era just blow up in front of you if you were old enough to be paying some attention at the time. Like the British Empire in the early 20th century, it seemed so sure of itself, knew exactly what its values were, and did not allow questions or alternatives. These are the qualities a system or era always displays just before implosion.
I remember when my father wore hats to work and a briefcase was always part of the uniform. The suburban curbsides and driveways were home to American-made cars; the occasional scamp had a German one (people who had been to Europe, or anywhere other than relatives' homes). My Three Sons and Ozzie and Harriet and Ed Sullivan were on television's three channels (and Ch. 8 was far away and fuzzy). There was high-quality drama and comedy (Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs) that was above most of our heads -- actually, though, a buffet of good choices.
But there were off-notes beneath the era's theme music, I felt, but could of course not articulate why. Some of the vaudeville-type acts on Sullivan, like Topo Gigio, made no sense. Despite the catchy hooks and beat, the manufactured popular music seemed after a little reflection to be cheap and terminally silly. But there was a jazz scene that today's mess can only echo. Oscar Peterson, Coltrane, the bossa nova, and Brubeck. The contradictions made me wonder.
Maple Street where the Beav lived was the ideal; as I looked around, there were hardly any places like that (we didn't even know it was just a faked-up set back then; we were taught that everything was real, smoking was what everybody did, all criminals were caught by the Jack Webbs and Elliott Nesses, things were exactly what they said they were, and that if you were under your desk at school when the nuclear missiles hit you'd be O.K.).
We felt pretty good in our Middle Earth, between the danger and overstimulation of the big city jungle and the backwardness and deadly dullness of the rural vacuum. Willow Lawn "shopping center" was a new thing, even though the movie theater was useless since The Sound of Music had it locked up for over two years. There were no branch banks (you had to go downtown and do business between 9 and 2, weekdays) and no branch libraries outside the city limits. Parham Road between Three Chopt and Patterson was called Ridge Road and was a two-lane with no center dividing line, gravel and tar over packed earth. The sound of the white pebbles being crunched and kicked up by my friend's older brother's 55 Chevy sounded as fine as rain on an old metal roof. You could ride a bike along it, there was so little traffic. It was good to be a kid and easy to be an adult if you toed the line and conformed.
My father was a big-city guy, so he sort of fit the Mad Men type, especially when he and co-workers spent time at the tiny Executive Lounge near the (gone) office building facing Willow Lawn. It was a small-city Rat Pack wannabe type of place, with good wage earners rubbing elbows with night-life types who didn't fit into the daytime world so they hid out there. The company had a jet (we went on it to New York once and stayed in the company apartment on the Upper East Side), a threatening-looking fleet of black company cars (free to execs), and some high rollers at the top who made it an exciting ride if you were in their circle. Then as now, it's good to be king. Otherwise you'd better keep quiet and be content with that tiny house and used car. And that arrangement worked, but pressure built and it could not last.
Then -- as now -- we had no idea that it could all be turned upside down so quickly. It was like we had been sitting on the still carousel horses, secure, each in his own defined place, when the whole thing came to noisy life and started whirling around raising up those who had been down, and blurring our vision so we couldn't tell what was what.
The Danish Modern furniture went to the Goodwill, the skinny ties to the back of the closet, the beehive hairdos went natural, and I abandoned the crewcut look. The Mad Men put their hats on the shelf.
They might remember the days when you could buy an Oldsmobile downtown.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Diddley Bow, Don't Ya Know?




You know that thing where you see a, to you, unknown actor/actress on TV or in a movie then you start seeing him/her everywhere? Like Jane Lynch on Glee and 2 1/2 Men -- she's been around quite a while, but before her perfect turn as a wisecracking therapist on Men I'd never noticed. There are webs running through time which escape our notice; James Burke in his wonderful book Connections made many of us aware of this phenomenon.
In the documentary It Might Get Loud, about Jack White, Jimmy Page and The Edge, the irrepressible Mr. White runs a steel string over two Coke bottles at either end of a board, tightens the string and mounts a pickup which he plugs in.
He then plays a fast, screaming swamp blues on the thing.
Recently I heard about the diddley bow, a similar nonelectrified folk instrument. I assume Bo Diddley took his stage name from this part of his heritage, being old enough to have seen them used in the backcountry South. One last piece of this web: was the cigar-box shape of ol' Bo's guitar also from this tradition and not just a gimmick?
Once you're on a web, you can just keep going: I met one Wes Carl who gave me a card announcing the Pennsylvania Cigar Box Guitar Festival, to be held in York at the end of the month, featuring local proponents and guest musicians from several other states. Wouldn't you know there are many practicioners of this home-made art, and you can either make or get such a guitar (three strings or more) or even a diddley bow. Who knew, that in 2010, that such things from long ago and far away would surface in your own neighborhood?
Folk artist Willard J. of Coca, FL (www.willardj.com) sings and plays a mean bow that he made, on his website. It's well worth a listen.
Willard J. has been around the block a few times, even to the extent of being on a chain gang, so his song rings authentic. He also advises, "Don't fall down; the hogs will eat you."
In this long, hot summer, some watermelon and swamp blues, and keeping a wary eye on the hogs, seem like just the thing.