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Playing hooky

I decided to take the day off of work because I have decided, conclusively and irredeemably, that I hate information technology (IT).

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.

Jesus Christ, Superstar

At work this afternoon I watched the entirety of Jesus Christ, Superstar on YouTube.  I honestly cannot tell you how or why I ended up on this little slice of Jesus freakery, but given that I have absolutely no work tasks to occupy myself with this week its supernatural appearance on my computer monitor turned out to be a bit of an, uh, godsend.

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:



Man of Constant Sorrow

Last night we saw Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley perform at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA.

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.

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Weird DC: the Mormon Temple

Washington, DC has a reputation for being a straightlaced town populated with career minded overachievers. There is certainly some truth to the rap. It is now intern time in DC and my train ride into the city been a mashup of perky, scheming interns and the normal crowd of sullen bureaucrats reading the Economist. All those bright-eyed interns yearning to one day switch places on the subway with the weary bureaucrats. I want to tell them to take the summer off to be beach bums instead.

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.


Day 4: West Virginia

I will bring this damn Appalachian series to a close because, frankly, it's going on and on and I doubt anyone really gives a damn. 

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.

Delfest (Day 3)

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.

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On the way out of Pittsburgh, we drove up Canton Street, which is said to be the steepest street in the United States. I am not sure if this is true. We got a bit lost trying to find the street, ranging up and down the hillsides of south Pittsburgh, and each time we'd plummet down a hill Yoko would say, "Are you sure this isn't it?"

This photo may not look especially steep, but as I drove up I notice I had to gun the engine and was worried at some point that I wasn't going to make it--and that the car was going to begin sliding back down. At that point, Yoko exclaimed, "Are you SURE this street is driveable?"


All I know is that Yoko would love bike riding in Pittsburgh!




We decided to drive to Pittsburgh basically for a sandwich, a Primanti Brothers sandwich to be exact.

I know it probably seems foolish to add an additional three hours of driving for a 
sandwich, but a Primanti Brothers sandwich is no ordinary sandwich. In fact, I consider it every bit as delicious as a Philly Primos hoagie--the shop that first made me consider acts of terrorism against the Subway chain--but is (like Pittsburgh itself) quirkier and more offbeat.

If you've never heard of Primanti Brothers, it probably sounds like the most gimmicky joint imaginable. Their claim to fame is that their sandwiches are stuffed with French fries and cole slaw. How could this possibly be one of the tastiest and most delicious sandwiches in the country you ask? To be honest, I'm not exactly sure. All I can say is the components--the cole slaw, the fries and the bread--somehow seem to be perfectly calibrated to work together as an ensemble. 

I cannot exactly explain the science of Primanti Brothers; all I know is that I scarfed that sammich right dah'n (*). 

Here was my knockworst and cheese sandwich, which is as Pittsburgh as it gets:



We also wandered around South Side Pittsburgh, which seems to have been overrun by hipsters and weirdos. Carson Street seemed like what I imagine South Street in Philadelphia looking 20 years ago: lots of punk rock shops and cool dive-y bars. 

I do swear that if you handle a bit of post-industrial decay and some unfortunate weather, Pittsburgh probably is the most unnderrated city in the country.

In case you're wondering what Pittsburgh has to do with Appalachia, there is a book about the history of Pittsburgh on my reading list called The Paris of Appalachia. It's not a connection I would have made living there--I considered the culture to be dominated by an eastern European sensibility--but driving up from Cumberland I could not tell you exactly where the Appalachian boundary ended...

(*) - Growing up in Pittsburgh, I actually uttered sentences like this.
On October 27, 1948 a noxious cloud of smog rolled into the industrial southwest Pennsylvania town of Donora causing widespread sickness and respiratory distress. During the next couple days conditions worsened as thousands became sick and fatalities began to rack up. The smog persisted until Halloween day, October 31st, when a rain storm finally cleared the air. By the time the smog was over 7000 people had become sick and 20 people (and 800 animals) had died. A study conducted shortly after the incident suggested that had the smog continued the number of deaths could have extended into the thousands.

To get a sense of how choking the smog really was, consider that this photo was taken at noon:



After Fallingwater, we took a detour the Donora Smog Museum on our way to visit Pittsburgh. Having grown up in western Pennsylvania, I wasn't especially shocked by the dismal condition of Donora. Most of the towns south of Pennsylvania had become decimated by the waves of plant closings between 1965 and 1982. Donora was exactly what I expected: a battered and decrepit town more or less falling apart in the shadows of the rusting industrial plants along the Monongahela River. 

The museum itself was an all volunteer operation staffed by a extremely friendly and knowledgeable history teacher. To say that this man loved history is an understatement: he actually bought a historic home in the stylishly named historic district known as Cement City and restored the house to the look and technology of 1917. This man walked us through the almost sweetly amateurish exhibition space--old newspapers in plastic and tacked up on walls, student poster displays, a painting by a local art professor that was basically tacked to the wall.




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