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, 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.