When I say I am trying to catch up on the great books, of course, what I mean to say is I am catching up on respectable books that won’t bore me to tears. I doubt that my last dying regret will be that I never finished a Thomas Hardy novel or never got around to reading Look Homeward Angel. At this point in my life, I am seeking a sweet spot between duty and pleasure—which is also, incidentally, how most married people approach their sex lives. The most egregious oversight I think has been To Kill A Mockingbird, which I never read because it was never assigned--and then I plugged the gap with Gregory Peck.
That will come soon enough. But in the meantime, prepare yourself for the awesome might of some perfunctory reviews of some books you probably read when you were 14.
As I creep along the Mall I never fail to be surprised by the succession of world-famous landmarks. There’s the Capitol Building, there’s that National Gallery of Art, and there’s the Smithsonian Castle. And as I get closer, I can see the Washington Monument and the White House and the Lincoln Memorial. Other times my path takes me along the Tidal Basin, where I can see both the Jefferson and Washington memorials reflected in the water. Even after all this time, I still frequently stop and stare at the reflection of the marble on the water for a few seconds before moving along. Sometimes I amuse myself with thought that I am biking through the back of various coins and bills.
Having grown up in suburban Pittsburgh--seemingly 10,000 miles away from anywhere important--Washington, DC seemed less an actual city than a media construct. It was where this mythical being known as “the president,” a man I knew to be imbued with superhuman powers, resided. The place seemed about as real to me as Oz. In my adult life, I've tended to live in the second banana: not Massachusetts but Connecticut, not Seattle but Portland, not Arizona but New Mexico, and not New York but Philadelphia. To live in a place of undeniable importance is fascinating and novel.
I suppose those inclined to DC are a different breed from those inclined to NYC. People drawn to New York are those drawn to extremes of experience. But for my taste, the archetype of the perfect city is not New York but London. I prefer grace and cultivated urban beauty to the endless hyperactive rush of Gotham. I have always held with Evelyn Waugh: “For in that city [New York] there is neurosis in the air which the inhabitants mistake for energy.” New York always seemed like a place to visit to me. At the same time, I always assumed I would despise Washington. I assumed that the egotism and hassle and bureaucracy would irk me. I am surprised at how much I enjoy being able to dip into a museum on a whim (today I saw Michelangelo's Apollo-David sculpture at the National Gallery). I love that the boundary between Rock Creek park and the National Zoo is murky; you can just sort of stroll in and visit and elephant an stroll out. I like the Boston-like historic neighborhoods and the tracts of green that permeate the city. And, having moved back into the city, I like that the things I like are a just a few Metro stops away.
Yoko is still frustrated at her job and keeps threatening to find a gig elsewhere. But one of my goals for 2013 is to get whatever else I need to get out of DC so that if opportunities arise elsewhere I can say that I had the experience I was meant to have in DC.
We finally made it into town only to discover that Asheville was a thriving--and marketedly bohemian--small city. Nearly every street corner in the central business district was occupied by musicians, mostly with a folk/Americana bent. Given the city's Appalachian heritage, I suppose this emphasis on the folk music isn't so surprising. Walking through downtime, we heard a rich variety of folk styles: rootsy old-timey stuff, country-influenced Austin City limits stuff, early 60s collegiate folk stuff, bluesy stuff, singer songwriter-ish stuff. Our little stroll felt like a recapitulation of the entire history of 20th century American folk music.
As we turned onto College Street, the city's main drag, we encountered a sextet that looked like it had stepped out of a 1963 hootenanny:
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In an abstract way I can see why IT could be interesting: it can involve a kind of Sudoku-like sense of playing puzzles. For me, however, I despise the way it feels entirely divorced from any sort of human meaning. By the time the work comes to me, it's an abstraction grafted onto a process grafted on to bits of data. It can feel like living inside an entirely artificial world, a world whose outlines seem wholly man-made and arbitrary.
It doesn't help that I've gone months at times without any work to do. During these periods of downtime, I've spent an inordinate amount of time browsing the web and, at this point, it's really all I want to do. Tearing myself away from Failblog and Slate to do work that seems utterly artificial is becoming increasingly difficult.
Last night I found myself thinking about the tasks I had waiting for me at work. I feeling of dread came over me. And so I decided to do something rare for me: play hooky for no reason. So I made up an egregious lie about why I was going to be out and sent it to my boss.
At the end of August I become fully vested in my retirement. This will mean a difference of between $5,000 and $10,000 in my retirement account. Definitely worth holding out for. But I've decided that when August comes I will start looking for another job. With the job market the way it is, I may have to settle for another IT job for now. If I can just cut down my commute, which is 60 to 70 minutes a day, that will be an improvement.
I am also considering going to graduate school. Though I haven't decided definitely what I want to study, but I know that I want it to be a little more practical than a humanities degree. I've spent a lot of time this year dwelling fields of study that would represent the best compromise between fun (American Studies, Folklore, Historical Preservation) and useful (Finance, Business, IT.) Not an easy line to straddle.
Admittedly it's been 30 years since I've attended Sunday school, but I can't believe how much about the New Testament I've forgotten. Did you know that Judas was followed by tanks and fighter jets and that the Apostles traveled by bus? And that most of the gospels were accompanied by dancing and singing--and that the first Christian music sounded a bit like Blood, Sweat and Tears? (The perfect crucifixion band name, if you ask me.)
After the Quakers, I think the Jesus Movement Christians are my favorite brand of Christian. Strumming their guitars and growing their hair long and rappin' truthfully with the youth about peace and love and helping the poor. Though most of the songs are terrible, in this weird way I think Jesus Christ, Superstar captures the spirit of Christ better than any other movie ever made--let alone the Jew-blaming filth that Mel Gibson manages to put out. (Though Jesus Christ, Superstar indulges in its own little bit of nasty race baiting too.)
Anyway, behold, the apotheosis of Christ:
Stanley is 85 years old and no longer as spry as he used to be. Once particularly known for his banjo picking--a three finger style sometimes known as "Stanley style"--he as now largely given those duties over to another banjo player.
Dr. Ralph Stanley (he holds an honorary doctorate in music from Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee almost 40 years ago) is probably best known for contributing to the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers O, Brother, Where Art Thou? It was Ralph Stanley who sang "Man of Constant Sorrow" for the fictitious Soggy Mountain Boys. Man of Constant Sorrow is also the name of his autobiography.
Though his fingers looked obviously wracked from age, he did play one song on banjo. He played it clawhammer style, an older less demanding style than Bluegrass.
No longer able to really able to keep up with a bluegrass band--a difficult enough task for the young and energetic--Stanley seemed to manage by turning his band into a family affair. He seemed to share bandleading duties with his grandson, a portly young man, only 20 years old, who seemed to compensate for his obvious callowness by wearing a spectacular rhinestone-studded suit.
Stanley's son, Ralph Stanley Jr., also joined to promote a new single, a rather unprepossessing tune called "Bluefields."
The song I remember most clearly from O Brother, Where Art Thou? is "O Death." This song is an ancient dirge originating from the southern mountains of Appalachia. It is the weariest and most direct song about death I've ever heard. The song begins:
'O, Death. O, Death.
Won't you spare me over 'til another year?
Well, what is this that I can't see
With ice cold hands takin' hold of me
Well I am death, none can excel
I'll open the door to heaven or hell
'O, death' someone would pray
'Could you wait to call me another day?'
The children prayed, the preacher preached
Time and mercy is out of your reach
I'll fix your feet 'til you can't walk
I'll lock your jaw 'til you can't talk
I'll close your eyes so you can't see
This very hour, come and go with me
I'm death I come to take the soul
Leave the body and leave it cold
To draw the flesh off of the frame
Dirt and worm both have a claim...
In the movie, Stanley fought to have this performed a cappella. That is how he performed it last night. His entire band left the stage, leaving Stanley to sing this alone. Nothing could have been more evocative than to watch this 85 year old man, obviously determined to continue his art until his very last day, sing this plea to death for just a little more time. It was one of the most spine-tingling artistic moments I've ever witnessed.
The 38 seconds of video I took really doesn't do it justice:
There was a time in my life when I would have been loathe to admit I was reading The Seven Habits of Highly Influential People. Those were the days when acting smart and hip was at least theoretically a possibility for me, long before I first time looked at a photograph of myself and noticed how much I looked like my fat, bald Republican engineer brother. The surprising upside of getting older is the freedom to be a total square.
Had I seen someone reading this book when I was 23 there is no doubt I would have judged them. Why? For one thing, it is classified in the management section of the bookstore and if there is anything I knew it was that business was for drunken nitwits wearing baseball caps and lightweights with Gordon Gecko hair. Seven Habits also seemed to have one toe in the self-help genre, a cottage industry that solely exists to shovel pat generalizations down the gullets of the gullible and weak. Finally, the author, Stephen Covey, is devoutly Mormon, which everyone knows is the least questioning and most square of all our American tribes.( Read more...Collapse )
But having lived in DC for two years, I am starting to see glimpses of the weirdness of this town. Though it's not exactly the kind of town you would describe as having "character," it is certainly distinct. Washington has all the strangeness you'd expect from a place that gathers really smart people from all over the country--and the world--and then dumps them into an array of institutes, government bureaucracies, think tanks, advocacy groups, media and contractors. There is no better place in the country to pursue eccentric career paths. That mindboggling diversity is wonderful... and weird.
The more time I've spent in DC, however, the more I have discovered that beneath its shiny and marmoreal surface, there is some general quirkiness to be found in DC. The first example I can think of is not so much weird as amusing. At least to me. It involves one of the most conspicuous landmarks along the Washington Beltway: the Mormon Temple.
I never fail to be taken back by this deeply weird structure built right next to the highway about five miles from our house. It is conspicuous enough that traffic reporters constantly use it as a landmark. From the highway, the building appears windowless and a bleached as bone--or maybe as white as and LDS missionary's shirt. The building was designed to resembled the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, though there's something aggressive and thrusting about it. Its gilt spires seem reach into the sky with razor sharp golden talons Though on some days it genuinely appears heavenly to me, other days it looks like something Albert Speer wanted to build in Berlin in 1947.
Shortly after the building was opening in 1971, however, some local Catholic school girls thought the structure resembled something else entirely: the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz. Being good girls and not graffiti artists, they jammed some wadded newspaper into the grating above the overpass to make out the words: "SURRENDER DOROTHY" so that commuters would think they were driving through Oz.
Within 24 hours, the newspaper had been removed, but not before the idea was planted. Shortly after, the words "Surrender Dorothy" was more permanently painted on the overpass. The sign became a local landmark for the next couple decades; it was an important enough landmark that the Washington Post bothered to investigate its origins.
Sadly, as you pass under this bridge these days the message is mostly gone. The only remaining evidence is a the word "surrender" written in black ink, evidence of the telephone game gone bad. Nowadays it is written so inconspicuously you have to strain to find it.
On our last day of the weekend, we ended up driving to Seneca Rocks in West Virginia, which is one of the few spots east of the Mississippi that approximates the grandeur of the scenery out west:
We started to climb up to the base of this sucker before we decided that it was too hot and headed back. It was only once we got to our car that we learned that it was 100 degrees. We did get close enough that we could see the insane people rock climbing the side of the rocks. I admit that I admire their craziness. We then drove took the very pretty state highway 55 back to Virginia--and on to Vietnamese food in suburban DC.
Ever wonder where all the Deadheads went after Phish dropped the stoner baton? Surprisingly, the answer is... Bluegrass.
I had expected the crowd at Delfest, the three day Bluegrass festival organized by guitarist Del McCroury outside of Cumberland, MD, to be about 40% hippie, 40% shitkicker and 20% folklore graduate students. It was actually turned out to be about 70% hippie and 20% possibly hippie.
Dirty filthy hippie in training
And you know what? Except for the blistering heat—the kind of heat that made me think of Cool Hand Luke—it was fun. The crowd was filled with half-naked hippie girls doing that stoned slithering dance that hippie girls do. That had a certain appeal. I also liked that the festival didn’t soak you: you could buy a can of Flying Dog beer for $4 and the lines were short.
Like all right thinking Americans, I used to denigrate hippies. But the older I get the shorter life seems--and the less it matters how you get your little thrills. Sitting in front of me were two aging deadheads sitting in lawn chairs and drinking wine from plastic cups. When one of the bands (The Incredible Stringdusters) did a Grateful Dead cover, the looked into each other's eyes with expressions of deep nostalgia, smiled and clinked their plastic cups together.
Perhaps my hippie revulsion came from a sense of self-recognition: truth be told, half of my fantasies these days are about buying an old place somewhere cheap and pretty, growing veggies and composting, learning to play banjo and preserve homegrown fruit and shaving maybe twice a week. A pathetic amount of my fantasies revolve around opening my own bookstore / antique barn.