Saturday, December 5, 2009

Advent Thoughts

This season of life, while not the busiest I have ever known, has pulled me in the greatest number of directions: everywhere a task to complete, a deadline to bear. Endeavoring to succeed in all, I fear to please in none. I have, for example, been an indifferent blogger, neglecting even to mention that in a month or so, I will marry.

Not that I regret what has felt like a  necessary silence on my part. This blog is not intended as any kind of a faithful record of life events, nor even a confessional. And I have studiously avoided a discussion of issues and events that intimately concern others besides myself. There is a time and a place for such things, and the Internet, with all its advantages, is neither. That, and my time has been otherwise and joyfully apportioned in all that led to the engagement, and all that has followed it.

All that aside, yes, I am about to most happily join the ranks of those that have and hold til death do them part. And that is the background of today's writing.

One of the fascinating things about marriage in America is that people give you stuff - lots and lots of stuff. It arrives on my doorstep nearly every day in a cardboard box from a major department store, swaddled in packing peanuts and plastic wrap: a rice cooker, silverware, a crockpot, candlesticks, bamboo sheets, wine glasses, a toaster. An avalanche of possessions without which, apparently, my intended and I will not have a hope of felicitious union. I am grateful for these things, truly I am. The Kitchenaid mixer has fulfilled a lifelong yearning, and virtually everything on our registry will have legitimate practical use in our daily lives. It's not that it's too much, but rather that, as I seem to know instinctively, it is too little . . .

A cake platter, to hold together two disparate souls? A blender, to help us put off selfishness every morning for the next fifty years? It is a ludicrous proposition.

The averge fourth-grader knows that marriage is an institution in peril, and that the reasons for its disintegration go much deeper, most often, than what "stuff" has or has not been accumulated. Why, then, do we offer material answers for what is basically a spiritual challenge?

I am having my second (of three) bridal showers today. The year's first snow falls earnestly outside the window. And the question I am asking myself is this: What present does God give for weddings?

In just that question, I find much to help me.

For the first and most obvious answer, during Advent, is that God joyfully gives Himself wherever He is welcomed by glad and eager hearts. And this instantly reverses the marriage odds in our favor. If a husband and wife have, living in them and through them, Christ the Lord, their chances pf prevailing over all smallness of heart are immeasurably improved.

Secondly, God gives marriage to married people. It is His creation, one of the things He allowed us to bring from Eden. And though I stand still outside the covenant of marriage, I cannot help but think it must improve matters to always view the marriage as a gift - not as an obligation, or as a competitor against one's own self-realization, but as gift that, like a young tree, holds the potential always to grow larger, more fruitful and more beautiful so long as we give ourselves to tending it.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Maine Diaries: Scraps from a Writer's Notebook

Main Street, Bar Harbor, Maine - July 2009

Ray's Barber Shop

Across from the Grand Hotel, Ray's Barber Shop looks even less grand than it otherwise might, but through no fault of its own - it never tried to be much, with its siding weathered to the color of bad milk and shingles put on to keep the rain out and who cares what they look like. It's hard to know whether Ray is a woman, or if the woman I see now, sixtiesh and heavyset, with pouches under her eyes and a comb in her quick-moving hands, is Ray's heir, or Ray's employee, or if she bought the modest shop from the original Ray in some past year and kept the name to please the regulars. In any case, she moves expertly in the execution of a $12 haircut for a customer. The customer, a young man, reclines in an old-fashioned barber chair before the glass front, in full view of passersby on the street, though there aren't many in the middle of a Tuesday morning. The barber's long gray ponytail swishes against her back as she runs the tines of the comb along her patron's scalp. They share a joke and she chuckles. The pouches under her eyes get to looking like drawstrings purses cinched up too tight. She brushes the cut hair from his shoulders with a soft-bristled brush and sweeps the great green bib from around his shoulders in a practiced movement. When he's gone, she plunks herself into the chair to watch a program on the small, boxy grey television in the corner by the window, picking at her gums with short fingernails and swiveling the chair a little left, a little right, when the program makes her laugh. It's a short, amused, pale little sound, obstructed by her fingers in between her teeth.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Country of Marriage

My little sister is getting married this weekend. (Because I remember the day she was born, my brain keeps telling me that this should be impossible, though clearly it's not. I have the plane ticket to prove it.) She will be a beautiful bride, and - what is somewhat rarer, because have you ever seen a bride who was not beautiful? - a devoted and happy wife. She simply has that kind of character.

In her honor, and also Aaron's (her husband-to-be), here is the link to one of my favorite Wendell Berry poems, "The Country of Marriage". http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-country-of-marriage/

Sunday, June 28, 2009

I Have Played the Role of Hiram

“Florence, there is nothing wrong with your clock!” bellows Alexander Phillips, the village clockmaker of Bar Harbor, Maine, leaning over the counter on his elbow to achieve maximum volume. Florence looks like a Florence, willowy, white-haired, and elegant, and she laughs at him as the door swings shut behind her. Alex fetches her time piece, a square mantle clock with a rendering of Mount Desert Island on its face, from the warren-like recesses of his shop, low-ceilinged, and smelling of old oiled brass.

He has looked at it. Nothing is wrong mechanically. Heads bent together, they go through a checklist of potential maladies. Has she been winding it the right way? Has she jiggled it, just so, to get the balance wheel going? Beside them on the counter, a tall hour glass in a wooden frame has spent itself out.

The ticking of a hundred clocks, meting out the moments, nearly drowns out their conference: Dark and dour English tavern clocks. Camel-humped Tambour mantle clocks. Cuckoo clocks with Bavarian milkmaids dancing from a spring to the rhythm of the second hand. If one of the clocks weren’t keeping a good second time, Alex would hear it, like a mother knows which child is sick. But they all keep good time, and underneath them plays, subdued, the “Moonlight Sonata.”
Between the clocks, Alex has pasted various signs, now faded. They all say, “Do not touch,” in various languages: Serbian, Spanish, German, Italian, Latin. When cruise ship passengers stop in town, Alex persuades them to translate the signs for him. Which one spoke Latin, he does not divulge.

At the counter, maintenance issues resolved, Florence and Alex discuss a price. It sounds like a conversation they have had before.

He argues it down.


She argues it up, but he wipes his fleshy palms on his soiled denim apron and lifts his craggy brows at her, as if insulted, and the price stays where he wants it, with no further haggling.

Interactions like this one may sum up why, for the last twenty years, Alex has worked in the underground floor of 110 Main Street, his shop accessible only by a steep wooden staircase hidden from plain view. If his shop, where he specializes in the repair and sale of antique and custom clocks and watches, made a bit more, he might move into a street-level space with higher rent, where the tourists and the daylight could find him easier. Instead, on days like today, in the dim, yellow fluorescent wattage leaking from overhead, he labors at his work bench with his constant companions: the clocks, ever noisy; a chocolate labrador named Finn, ever silent; and a yellowed old phone, which clangs intermittently from the wall.

“Alexander Phillips,” he says when he answers it, pressing the receiver to his ear. Under the denim apron, he wears Oxford pants, an umbrella tie, and a blue pinstripe shirt, buttoned to his rosy neck but rolled once at the sleeves. Around his neck he wears spectacles, purely industrial in function and design, with a magnifying glass mounted over one lens with a bendable wire. He pulls them on whenever something excites him. Sixty-four, he’s a stocky man, with tousled gray hair gone white at the temples. His light hazel eyes go almost blue around the rims of the iris. He has a bulldoggish face, loose, folded, happy, and as though there had been just one brush available when it came time to render him, all his features are thickly drawn, from his broad-lipped mouth to his blunt and link-like fingers, equally unexpected for a classically trained pianist, or for a master clockmaker. Alex is both.

When he answers, his voice is gravelly gruff. Though it lacks the Maine vowels, it’s still a Yankee voice: crisp, blunt, and matter-of-fact when profane.

Alex came by his accent honestly. Raised in Connecticut, which Alex likes to think of as the heartland of American clockmaking, he showed early musical promise. His parents sent him to study the piano at a conservatory in New York City. Though not unsuccessful as a musician, Alex found himself gravitating towards a family tradition and a childhood fascination: tinkering with the spinning gears of clocks. He spent his spare hours after class in the workshops of New York’s master clockmakers. Before long, he became an apprentice. He learned the trade naturally, instinctively, by feel and by heart.

That was forty years ago, but Alex still works out those lessons with the undoused passion of a boy.

“At the bench is how you learn,” he insists, opening the face of a pocket watch to reveal its innards. In his mind, it’s the only way. Of course, he explains, showing off the coiled mainspring, (“That’s the engine of the watch.”) and the balance wheel, as intricate and crushable as a dragonfly (“the watch’s heart”), there are vocational courses that people can take to learn watch repair, but only “at the bench” would a person learn all the little tricks. A graduate of the vocational training wouldn’t know, for instance, that village tinkers used to “fix” clocks with bailing wire or a cotton ball doused in kerosene and jammed into the works, or that certain clockworks, though now valued as antiques, were mechanical failures to begin with (“The Seth Thomas 124!” he cries, like a fond father’s empty scolding, “What a dog!”).

Alex sometimes makes his own custom repair parts, because no one sells the parts that he needs. To do this, he pours over old reference books in his horological library at home to figure out what the part should look like. Then, he tools the piece out of bronze stock salvaged from a junkyard. He can tell just by its heft whether the bronze has the right amount of zinc in it. The tools he uses to make parts he purchased years ago from clockmakers’ widows when their husbands had died. His newest machine is from 1935.

In homage to his virtuosity, Alex receives repair jobs from as far away as Alaska and Chile, and from names as illustrious as Leonard Bernstein and Josephine Ford, on whose name he lingers with particular warmth. “Dodie,” he calls her.

Sometimes, Alex receives an order for a custom clock. For these, he charges between $50,000 and $60,000. The last one, a mantle clock in the shape of an arrowhead, he recalls with flashing eyes, his hands fondling the air in remembrance of its dimensions. Such jobs come only rarely, though – perhaps one every five or six years.

Most work is more pedestrian. He services the clock at the First National Bank and the clock on the village green, both less than a block from his shop. Or he helps neighborhood ladies remember the right way to wind their watches. Or, as he does now, he removes the extra links from a cheap drugstore watch, belonging to nurse named Melanie, while she’s on break from her shift at the medical center.

They decide on four links; it’s the work of a moment.

“Do you want these back?” he asks.

“Not unless I grow back a couple sizes.”

“Well, you could get pregnant. Things happen.” He lifts his shoulders roguishly.

“Don’t jinx me,” she says just to shush him, pays her $5 repair bill and leaves.

It’s like that all morning. Alex stands content behind the counter as long as he can tell stories, share inane horological trivia, or make a pretty nurse blush. He rarely needs prompting, unloading his encyclopedic brain with liberality. Each clock reminds him of a story, a customer, a pet piece of history, often vague or romanticized. He could go on for hours, and does. The clocks’ incessant ticking is the music of a small solar system, and Alex is its sun.

But though content with his shop’s more trivial traffic, Alex considers himself first and foremost a craftsman. “I have played the part of Hiram,” reads a laser-printed card taped to the wall, by which Alex links himself to Hiram Abi, the master artisan who, in Freemason lore, superintended the construction of Solomon’s temple.

It’s a craftsmanship that’s dying out, though. Alex estimates that only a few thousand of his kind still exist, most of them, like himself, in the waning days of their careers. When asked about the barriers to entry for new clockmakers, he sniffs out a one-word response: “Torts.”
A climate of litigation, says Alex, has made it harder for clockmakers to take on an apprentice for work with dangerous machines.

“More trouble than it’s worth,” he adds, and rolls his heavy shoulders up and down.
Added to these difficulties is the increasing anachronism of Alex’s profession. Few people even wear watches, he points out, leaving clockmakers with the increasingly slender market of belfry clocks, museum pieces, and heirloom grandfather clocks. The new quartz watches don’t even allow for traditional repair, instead requiring the rote replacement of its entire inner workings. So easy. So cheap.

Alex himself wears a quartz watch. He used to wear a Bulova Accutron tuning fork wrist watch, a beautiful machine, the object of his obsession, with its petite tuning fork vibrating at a fantastic rate of 30 Megahertz. In its day, it was a dramatic improvement over the balance wheel, like the one in the old pocket watch, which managed only 18,000 oscillations per hour. But as the Bulova aged, Alex could no longer find the parts to repair it, and he abandoned it, adopting instead the inexpensive quartz timepiece that a customer had left behind. The quartz watch, worth perhaps $10, keeps better time than either the $2,000 chronometer taken from a British destroyer, better time than even the $20,000 English tavern clock which dongs dolefully on the hour.

Alex tells the story of a deadly train wreck (which one is difficult to tell, nor is it important; it’s part of a general principle he wants to convey) in the 19th century, caused, in part, by the failure of local railroads to adopt standardized timetables. The clockmaker’s trade, lagging behind the technological vanguard of timekeeping, seems likewise bound for a fatal collision with the future.

Alex acknowledges the downward spiral of his livelihood, and, as if in sympathy, he plans to keep returning to his workbench until equally moribund. When a local EMT visited the shop recently, Alex advised him that if he died in the shop, they should carry his body out through the back door, beneath the glinting watch chains and the serpentine mainsprings dangling from hooks in the ceiling. Above all things, they must take care not to knock over any of the clocks. His wife, dear, responsible Ellen who winds all the clocks on Monday mornings, will know which clock belongs to whom, and how much they owe for the repair, from a hand-written card affixed to its face with a bit of adhesive tape.

Beyond that, Alex has not troubled himself. He has no children to whom he could pass down the business, nor has he bothered at any time with an apprentice, the inconvenience being too great.
“My nieces and nephews might like to have the heirloom pieces,” he reflects. “I’ve got that grandfather clock from Uncle Fleischmann. He was a clockmaker. It’s got that nice, deep, German, chime. Ja! Das ist deustch!” (He does not speak German, but he likes to play at accents.)

When Alex dies, the shop, with its clocks all teeming to that moment like a hundred beating hearts, will also die (though not a moment sooner). Alex takes this philosophically, even cheerfully.

“When it comes down to it, the clocks are machines, and I’m a mechanic, not an antiquarian horologist,” he asserts. He adopts a mockingly pedantic accent for just the last two words, and he holds the magnifying piece over his eyes in the manner of a monocle.

Adoring all machines (though harboring, one must suspect, a deep fondness for the quaint quirkiness of older clocks), he finds ample consolation in the march of progress. Anything with wheels, with gears, with movement, becomes at once his darling. At home these days, he’s working on an 11,000-pound international harvester with 500-pound parts, of which he says, “It’s the cutest thing!”

He might hate cell phones, which all the young people seem to carry instead of watches, for ruining his profession, but he doesn’t. He thinks that they are marvelous devices. In fact, he suspects that we will all soon have chips inserted under our skin, much like those embedded under the skin of his two labradors. “I would get one,” he insists, just to see how it works!”
Some years ago, he even sold his Steinway. He replaced it with a Yamaha Clavinova, a digital piano that he loves to distraction. One gets the impression that as long as the future promises new devices, it may come as soon as it pleases.

And if clockmaking is a natural casualty of progress, Alex will see it off with a cheerful wave of his thick and nimble fingers, having played Hiram to the last living tick of his own beating heart.

“’Apres moi, le deluge.’ Salvador Dali,” says the clockmaker, the French words coming out chewed and spit from his Yankee mouth. After me, the flood can come.

In point of fact, those words belong to King Louis XV of France, but in Alex’s romantic and richly associative mind, it is perhaps more fitting to attribute them to Dali, who painted the clocks that he saw in his dreams, melting away.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Maine Thing

Hi, friends -

Not that I write all that much on here these days, but a little bit of blog silence is coming your way. On Saturday morning I'm taking a 17-hour (because I'm crazy) bus ride (because "high net worth" will never be attached to my name) to Maine (because I've always wanted to see it) for two weeks (because it's not benefit dinner season any more, and I can escape without anyone minding too much).

But when I come back, I promise you lots and lots of musings on life that only oodles of free time on a rocky summertime coastline could inspire. You'll wish I had never come back.

A Rose

Monday, June 1, 2009

Poems for Jesus: Trust

You have never done a thing
To merit my distrust
My hedging, my second-guessing, my covering the bases
You have never done a thing
It is in me - the brokenness
That can't quite span
The goodness
The wholeness
The embarrassing extravagance of your self-giving
It's not your fault
If I come to the wrong solution
If I still calculate
With the wrong constant
You have never done a thing
But pour the fulness of mercy
Onto me
You have never done a thing
But sit beside me in the darkness
Of need and not knowing
You have never done a thing
But spin me dizzy in the dance
Until I forgot to cry and laughed instead
You have never done a thing
But everything
And I don't understand it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

DC Spring

I know that it must be the spring. Every morning, the sun creeps in a little earlier than the day before, like a small child entering its parents' bedroom because it can't quite wait for the day to start.

And so, every day, I wake a little earlier. I relish the morning hours. Since I was the small child, waiting for the day to start, I have felt like they were somehow consecrated. The long busy day is for the work at hand, and the evenings is for friendship and washing the dishes, but the morning is for me and for God.

It's raining today, and so the dawn light comes a little later and a little weaker than it otherwise might. So many days it rains. I have never quite gotten used to the wetness of DC springs: the full green leaves plastered to the sidewalk, heavy with a rainstorm; running from the the thunder while walking between metro stations; the buzz of cars along the highway through the puddles. In California, I always boast, I could rest assured of planning an outdoor party any time between Memorial Day and Columbus Day, without thought for rain ruining my gathering.

But this is a different place altogether, I remind myself, as I enter my seventh year. And the rain falls, a full-bodied and anointing kind of rain, though the winter is long past us now.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Poems for Jesus

When did the stone become a gem?
When the tear a smile?
When without knowing came I to the end
Of many a weary mile?

When did the sighs become a song?
When did the clouds disband?
When poured the bright and golden sun
Over the dreary land?

When love enfleshed came down to stay
When from the grave it leapt
When dawned one glad eternal day
Where no more tears are wept.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Sourdough is Famous

Dear Friends,

I feel like I'm making a birth announcement. I'm happy to tell you that the Washington Post is running a version of the sourdough memoir, complete with pictures and recipes, on Wednesday, May 6 (Food section). If you are interested in getting a copy, and you live outside the D.C. metro area, bookstore chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble tend to carry major papers like the Post.

Thanks for reading.

Yours humbly,

Me

Thursday, April 30, 2009

You Know You Live in DC When . . .

1. You never use the full term when an acronym will do. You practically swim in the national alphabet soup, and without any mental fumbling you know the meaning of: DOS, DOJ, DOI, DOD, LOC, NGA, HHAS, DHS, INS, FBI, CIA, DEA, SOL, DCA, IAD, BWI, SAIS, GU, GW, DCU, NOVA, CHBC, CLC, CDC, IMF, MCC, GAO, OMD, NSA, NASA, FDIC, WHO, USAID, GWOT, and dozens of others.

2. You don't look up, much less flinch, when a formation of military helicopters flys over your head.

3. You know better than to trust a roadsign within a 10-mile raidus of the Capitol building, you never go anywhere without knowing if your destination lies within SE, SE, NE, or NW, and you have sat aghast at the intersection of Glebe Road and Glebe Road.

4. Seven o'clock is going home early.

5. Your friends regularly ask you if they can list you as a reference for the background check on their security clearance.

6. Your next-door neighbor has a special government passport and travel overseas for long periods, coming home at strange hours, but he or she is always very vague about the details of their job.

7. You manage to get "Where are you from?" into every conversation with a stranger, since you can be sure that, 9 times out of 10, they come from somewhere else.

8. Your favorite obelisk is actually two-toned, and you know why.

9. You have a pretty well-defined idea of what's wrong with the world, and how to fix it.

10. If you don't have your Master's or your PhD, you've at least given it serious thought, and you've probably taken your GRE, just in case.

11. You know which side of the street to catch a cab on in order to avoid extra zone fees.

12. No matter how much you complain that your job doesn't tap into your true passions and talents, the cherry blossoms still make everything worth it for you.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Live blogging from the GPG this weekend

Hey, friends, starting tomorrow, I'll be part of the team of live bloggers at IJM's Global Prayer Gathering this weekend (hard to believe it will be my third go-around!).

To follow the events of the weekend, go here: http://www.ijminstitute.org/index.php/gpglive

Bluegrass Revisited

I feel guilty for living in the suburbs. There is so much wrong with them. Alienation from what we consume (where does it all come from?). Alienation from what we discard (where does it all go?) The suburbs don’t mesh with the life of connectedness and consciousness that I say I want to live. But I still live here. Enlightened hypocrite that I am, I am always coming up with ways to atone for the rootlessness of my suburban life. In an upstairs bedroom, I am growing cucumbers, squash and carrots in a tiny planter. I will till the soil and eat of the fruits of my labor, I tell myself. I have even started buying black market Amish groceries from a Pennsylvania Dutch farmer named Yoder who trucks it down to a discreet drop-off site every two weeks. It’s not quite “local”, but it’s better than apples grown in Argentina. This sense of unique character, of more than passing connection to the soil underneath my feet, assuages my conscience. But nothing does more than the bluegrass did.
On the first fine Sunday of the year, I stroll down to Lyon Park. Sunshine and warm temperatures have filled the grassy block with sound. Dogs bark at the pale-legged joggers. A Spanish-speaking nanny scolds a blonde child. Orioles – are they?- yes, orioles, early migrants, sing in the leafless tree, boding more pleasant days to come, though it snowed so heavily last week. A Frisbee whizzes by; the chains on the swing set squeak and whine.
I am not listening for these everyday suburban sounds, though. I am listening for the bluegrass players. Catherine, the friend through whom I order my Amish produce, told me that they come every two weeks, rain or shine, from all corners of the Washington beltway. Where are they?
Now.
Now I hear it floating above the other sounds – plucking, twanging, crooning – faint upon the air, unamplified. The sound I hear is the music of place itself. It’s bluegrass, come to settle in this suburb, like a strange bird blown far off course, but here all the same.
Though I never knew they were here until this week, just three blocks from my house meets a floating bluegrass jam session of the Capital Area Bluegrass and Old-time Music Association (CABOMA). The Association, a non-profit corporation dedicated to the loving preservation of bluegrass, boasts about 150 dues-paying members. On the second and fourth Sundays of every month, at least a handful of members haul out their strings for four hours of melodic fellowship here in Arlington. On sunny days like today, dozens gather around the picnic tables with no song sheets among them, playing, talking, singing, laughing. Occasionally, they do all four at once.
Today, the neighbors amuse themselves with their springtime pursuits, not paying much attention, and the bluegrass players occupy the eastern half of the park, a tribe unto themselves. I sit beneath a tree, as if on the invisible border dividing the groups. The bluegrass crowd stands around in ragged half-moons, tapping their toes, gesturing to each other with their fiddle bows. Most seem on the far slope of fifty, and one sports a beard with three years’ growth. The cut of their hair, the style of their clothing, looks a little hill-country. Their music seeps across the lawn unamplified, unsynthesized. It falls on my ears strangely soft and raw, reaching hardly farther than a human voice speaking. To hear it, you have to get quiet. You have to get close.
Just so, a young man with a mental disability stands on the outside of the circle, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, trying to listen.
A middle-aged woman, clearly a beginner, saws away at her fiddle strings.
Later I learn that this first part of the day is set aside for a “slow jam”, where novices learn from longtime bluegrass musicians.
Kim, a middle-aged mother who plays a Gibson guitar and calls herself new to bluegrass, tells me how much she likes the slow jams. She’s seen all kinds of instruments here – even a recorder and a cello – she reports with wide eyes.
The tune picks up. It’s a spiritual with a melody I recognize from the soundtrack of O, Brother, Where Art Thou?, and my feet begin to tap as if of their own accord. What would happen if I joined them? I played the flute once, in my California childhood, and I wasn’t that bad. I can still count beats and read music. I halfway suspect they might even find room for a flute out here, as blades of grass will bend beneath a passing foot. But out of some reverence, I wouldn’t try. Anyway, I sold my flute on Craigslist for $75 in 2005.
But neither can I go pull myself away. This group lays itself open with a trust I both envy and pity, leaving their expensive instruments unguarded among the roots of sheltering trees. While the novice fiddler grinds her way through a chorus, a guitarist, two banjo players, and a scruffy man with a mandolin go gently along with her. The song? “Let the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Like me, many of the bluegrass players transplanted near Washington, D.C. from another part of the country. John Seebach, a thirty-something staffer for an environmental non-profit, grew up in Kentucky, the Bluegrass State. He’s been coming to CABOMA’s jam session for the last five to six years. While we talk, he cradles a gleaming black mandolin against his chest and picks out sweet-sounding scales.
“It’s a funny thing,” he says, “I grew up in the city, Lexington, and I hear more bluegrass here than I did when I was growing up.”
That’s not so surprising. The Washington, D.C., area has actually had a strong bluegrass tradition since the 1950’s, when bluegrass first emerged as a recognized musical genre. Back then, the hill music inspired by poor Scottish and Irish immigrants to Appalachia morphed into its more popular form, led by D.C. area recording artists like Buzz Busby and the Bayou Boys, plus Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys.
John Seebach is one of those, like Kim, who discovered bluegrass later in life. Others, like Tom Smith, can trace their bluegrass roots right back to the hill country where it came from. A white-haired, gap-toothed Missouri native and a National Incident Systems “guru” for FEMA, Smith doesn’t just have a guitar. He tells whoever will listen me that he has a Dobro resophonic guitar with a built-in resonator. It shines live polished silver in the late winter sun. He wears it around his neck with the side flat again his rib cage.
“Some people think it’s whiny, but me, I like it. It puts that high, lonesome sound in high, lonesome music. Before amplifiers, they needed something to cut through all that orchestra music so a guitar could still be heard. Some Czech brothers came up with a resonator. Now they got amplifiers. They don’t use resonators anymore, except some blues-players down in Memphis, and up in the hills of course. If you don’t have any electricity, what good’s an amplifier?”
Tom grew up in a place where amplifiers didn’t do much good.
“Hoo, boy!” he laughs, “Let’s put it like this: I saw very few strangers before I was 18.”
I ask how he came to live in Washington.
“Now that’s a sad story,” he says, deflating. Picking at the Dobro, he starts to sigh along to a mournful little tune from the next group over, something about train whistles and suitcases.
It turns out the Smith moved because of his ex-wife, a professor at the University of Maryland. They divorced after 27 years of marriage. He brightens visibly, though, at the sight of Alexia Roberts, a frizzy-haired woman in high-waisted pants. He met her playing bluegrass at a jam session.
“My current life’s companion,” he calls her, and strides along the grass to meet her with the gait of a man going in his own front door.
On the other side of the lawn, John Seebach has finished tuning his mandolin. He walks straight into the cadre of players, flicks his wrist until he catches the rhythm, and begins to pick away with a smile on his lips.
“That’s the thing about bluegrass,” he told me a little while ago, “I play in a couple of bands, but out here, you can just walk into the middle of a field of strangers. You all know the same music, and you can play together. Sometimes it’s just good to do that.”
The young man with a mental disability still watches them. Noticing him, a female banjo player (she likes to sing shrill harmonies), steps out to meet him. She takes him by the crook of the arm and guides him to the middle of their ragged half-moon, where he can watch her nimble fingers dance all over the truss board.
-
Bluegrass is indeed a funny bird to find in Lyon Park. In the one of the wealthier and well-educated areas of Virginia, and one of the most proudly secular, it’s a music about faith and poverty. Amongst the locked and shuttered homes of those who often fear their neighbors (I admit that I have gone online to memorize the faces of all registered sex offenders in a mile radius), it’s a music of trust and community.
The musicians, though, seem unfazed by any sense of discord with their surroundings. Perhaps it’s not so hard to reconcile. For the bluegrass players, the music is not ultimately about any particular place, but about the people the music came from, and the people it leads them to.
And by and by, several of the neighbors have stopped whatever they were doing to sit in the grass, tap their toes, and let a music of place – and people - wash over them while the sunshine ebbs.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Life in the District: I got this warning at work today

Please be advised, there is a simulated explosion scheduled for this Wednesday, March 25 between 9:30 am and 12:00 pm near the Key Bridge in the District. Here is some additional information:For the filming of a TV pilot, there will be a simulated explosion on Wednesday, March 25, 2009, between 9:30 a.m. and noon near Key Bridge in the District. The explosion will produce a 20 to 30' fireball that will last for approximately two minutes.The explosion will take place on the Potomac River just north of the Key Bridge and Jack's Boathouse (K/Water Street, NW under the Whitehurst Freeway). In the scene to be filmed, there will be six (6) sculling boats on the Potomac River and one of them blows up. CBS Paramount television is filming a pilot titled "Washington Field."This is a new television series about the elite Washington field office of the FBI and a team of agents with exceptional and diverse skills who are called together for only the most critical cases.The Department of Homeland Security and D.C. Police and Fire departments have been notified, along with the Washington Airports Authority. The Virginia State Patrol and Arlington Police Department will also be contacted.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Song of the Day - An oldie but a goodie (The Kry)

I know there are times
your dreams turn to dust
you wonder as you cry
why it has to hurt so much
give Me all your sadness
someday you will know the reason why
with a child-like heart
simply put your hope in Me

Chorus:
take My hand and walk where I lead
keep your eyes on Me alone
don't you say why were the old days' better
just because you're scared of the unknown
take My hand and walk
don't live in the past
cause yesterday's gone
wishing memories would last
you're afraid to carry on
you don't know what's comin'
but you know the one who holds tomorrow
I will be your guide
take you through the night
if you keep your eyes on Me
take My hand and walk where I lead
keep your eyes on me alone
don't you say why were the old days better
just because you're scared of the unknown
take My hand and walk where I lead
you will never be alone
faith is to be sure of what you hope for
and the evidence of things unseen
so take My hand and walk
just like a childholding daddy's hand
don't let go of mine
you know you can't stand on your own

Monday, March 9, 2009

Bluegrass in the Beltway

The sound takes me by surprise.

On the first fine Sunday of spring, sunshine and warm temperatures have filled Lyon Park, in Arlington, Va., with people ecstatic to shed their winter coats. Dogs bark at the pale-legged joggers. A Spanish-speaking nanny scolds her blonde charge. Orioles – are they?- yes, orioles, early migrants, sing in the leafless tree, boding more pleasant days to come, though it snowed so heavily last week. A Frisbee whizzes by; the chains on the swing set squeak and whine; a Tibetan flag slaps in the breeze from a deep front porch.

I’m not in the mood. Sometimes, though I grew up in one, I notice a numbing monochrome in the manicured American suburbs, so blissfully immune to local rootedness (Why should the neighbor fly a flag for Tibet? Does he even know who lives next door?). Today, I could be in a park anywhere between Tampa and Buffalo. You could blindfold me, spin me around ten times, and shove me in any direction, and I could not fail to eventually arrive at a Starbucks identical to every other in this country. The thought depresses me almost more than I can say.
I sigh, but not for long. Among all the normal noises floats another sound, or rather, a family of sounds – plucking, twanging, crooning – faint upon the air, unamplified. I walk further into the park, and then I realize. The sound I hear is the music of place itself. It’s bluegrass, come to settle in this suburb, like a strange bird blown far off course by a hurricane, but here all the same.

I have stumbled, just three blocks from my house, on a floating bluegrass jam session of the Capital Area Bluegrass and Old-time Music Association (CABOMA). The Association, a non-profit corporation dedicated to the loving preservation of bluegrass, plus some of its musical cousins, boasts about 150 dues-paying members. On the second and fourth Sundays of every month, at least a handful of members haul out their strings for four hours of melodic fellowship here in Lyon Park. On sunny days like today, they gather around the picnic tables with no songsheets among them, playing, talking, singing, laughing. Occasionally, they do all four at once. On days of foul weather, they still come, but they all have to crowd into the Lyon Park Community Center. They don’t much like that.

“The acoustics inside are just overwhelming,” confides Kim, a middle-aged mother with a Gibson guitar who will not give her last name. “It’s better when it’s outside.”

The CABOMA musicians are just an out-of-doors crowd. They like to stand up, tap their toes in the grass, leave their mandolin cases in the sheltering roots of tall trees. Their music seeps across the lawn unamplified, unsynthesized. It falls on my ears strangely soft and raw, reaching hardly farther than a human voice speaking. To hear it, you have to get quiet. You have to get close.

For John Seebach, that’s the point. From Kentucky, Seebach now lives in Maryland and works for an environmental non-profit. He has come to the jam sessions for the last five or six years, mostly for the sense of community it provides.

“That’s the thing about bluegrass,” he muses. While we talk, he cradles a gleaming black mandolin against his chest and picks out sweet-sounding scales, tuning the instrument, “At its core, it’s a real social kind of music. It’s a shared experience. I play in a couple of bands, but you can walk into a field full of strangers, and if you all love the same music, you can play together.”
That’s another strange thing about bluegrass that strikes me: it’s a portable community. Plunked down here in the Washington suburbs, where “Fear thy neighbor” is a maxim much lived by (I sure don’t know mine), such an embrace of strangers (expensive instruments lie unguarded in the grass) feels out of place. But it also feels good.

All the musicians seem to make a point of inclusivity. Kim, new to bluegrass, tells me that CABOMA sets aside the first hour of every jam session as a “slow jam”, so that beginners can learn to play together with those more experienced. Even now, a middle-aged woman saws away at a fiddle, while two banjo players and a guitarist go gently along with her. The song? “Let the Circle Be Unbroken”.

On the other side of the lawn, a young man with a mental disability has stood for almost an hour on the outside of things, smiling and swaying with the music. A banjo player takes him by the crook of the arm and guides him to the middle of their ragged half-moon, where he can watch her nimble fingers dance all over the truss board.

Though he hails from the Bluegrass State, Seebach grew up in “the city” (Lexington, population 275,726). He says that he runs across more bluegrass inside the Capital Beltway than he ever did in Kentucky. Thus the music appeals to him more for its present charms than for any nostalgia. For others, though, Sundays afternoons are a ticket to home and memory.
Tom Smith, a Missouri native and a National Incident Systems “guru” for FEMA, doesn’t just have a guitar. He has a Dobro resophonic guitar with a built-in resonator. He wears it around his neck with the side flat again his rib cage.

“Some people think it’s whiny, but me, I like it. It puts that high, lonesome sound in high, lonesome music. Before amplifiers, they needed something to cut through all that orchestra music so a guitar could still be heard. Some Czech brothers came up with a resonator. Now they got amplifiers. They don’t use resonators anymore, except some blues-players down in Memphis, and up in the hills of course. If you don’t have any electricity, what good’s an amplifier?”

Tom grew up in a place where amplifiers didn’t do much good.
“Hoo, boy!” he laughs, “Let’s put it like this: I saw very few strangers before I was 18.”
I ask how he came to live in Washington.

“Now that’s a sad story,” he says, deflating. Picking at the Dobro, he starts to murmur along to a mournful little tune from the next group over, something about train whistles and suitcases.
It turns out the Smith moved because of his ex-wife, a professor at the University of Maryland. They divorced after 27 years of marriage. He brightens visibly, though, at the sight of Alexia Roberts, a frizzy-haired woman in high-waisted pants. He met her playing bluegrass at a jam session.

“My current life’s companion,” he calls her, and strides along the grass to meet her with the gait of a man going in his own front door.

I come to bluegrass an outsider. In some murky past, I used to play the flute not too badly, so I can still count beats and read music. They might even find room for a flute out here, as blades of grass will bend beneath a passing foot. (Kim tells me with some astonishment that she has seen a recorder, and even a cello, joining in the jam.) But, out of some reverence, I wouldn’t try. A California transient from the San Francisco suburbs, with no real cultural roots that go deeper than Brian Wilson, I am too much a product of the cul-de-sacs I feel proud of disliking. I would not know how to join in. Instead, I will sit back and let some “hillbilly soul” wash over me, wondering that it’s here at all, hoping it will do me some good just to hear it.

Bluegrass is indeed a funny bird to find in Lyon Park. In the one of the wealthier and well-educated areas of Virginia, and one of the most proudly secular, it’s a music of faith and poverty. In the rootless cul-de-sacs, it’s a music of place. Amongst the locked and shuttered homes of those who can afford to flee urban crime, it’s a music of trust and community.

The musicians, though, seem unfazed by any sense of discord with their surroundings.
“Let the Circle Be Unbroken” has ended, and the banjo player, a man with a salt-and-pepper beard, pounds his fist against his chest.

“The past couple weeks, I’ve been singing so well,” he says, “But then I woke up on Friday with this gook in the back of my throat. I went to church this morning and there was no way I could sing the b-flat. You just sing the baseline, and you pray for it to go away.”

But he launches into another song anyway, an old-timey gospel peace about death and heaven.
“I do got the gravel,” he observes philosophically, and the others chuckle. He croons on:

I’ll fly away, oh, glory! I’ll fly away in the morning. When I die, hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away.

May the bluegrass musicians of CABOMA not fly far – or soon.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Inauguration - Part 3

What pomp and circumstance surrounds today. The powerful, the educated, the rulers, all stand arrayed on the platform like the planets of some strange system waiting to welcome a new sun. -- Except for Dick Cheney. He looking decrepit in his wheelchair (He injured his back trying to move boxes for the big move-out from the admiralty residence), mopes in a corner. Al Gore is also there, reliving his disappointment -- The marine corps bands lets loose a burst of fanfare.

Obama descends the Capitol's marble steps with measured steps, right behind the Speaker of the House. His face is pleased, grave, inscrutable. The world is his today. The crowd waves half a million American flags, dancing pink pixels from this distance, while sharpshooters survey them with binoculars. Every few hundred yards sits a box capable of detecting biological and chemical weapons.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California delivers opening comments; Rick Warren delivers the invocation in the name of Jesus, enough to make a great may in that crowd greatly uncomfortable.

I cannot help but think today of another king who came - into another capital - riding not in a limousine with three-inch steel, but on an ass, cheered for an afternoon and put to death the next.

To be a believer in Christ puts one in a strange position. We honor authorities. We cheer the triumph of justice and the exercise of wise leadership. But we withold from it our hopes. Instead we pin them to the cross, that symbol, lest we forget, of rejection and humiliation, believing that He who game Himself for all is made greater than all, and those who take their oath today are nothing more than stewards until He comes again.

Inauguration Post - Part 2

You may remember when 200,000 Germans cheered Obama while he gave a speech at the Brandenburg Gate. While many questioned Obama's bravado in playing the international statesmen even before the election, there is no doubt that many in the world have embraced the president-elect as though he would be their own leader. They warmly predict a sea-change in American foreign policy.

You can see the international interest in the composition of the crowd. French television is interviewing Miss France 2009. Bermudans are shivering beneath a leafless tree, almost delirious in their happiness. I spent most of this past weekend in the emergency room/hospital. The little boy in the next room, whose parents spoke with thick African accents, had flown from London for the inauguration. He was sick with scarlet fever.

Everywhere, the crowds stretch infrastructure to its limits, but no-one feels it more than the doctors and nurses manning the hospitals this weekend. Lines are long. People are far from home, confused, hoping their insurance will cover out-of-state services.

Bush's face flashes briefly on the screen, then pans quicky to Barbara Bush, a less contraversial face for the cameras to focus on. Today, the media are happy to forget their cynicism. They are eager to be pleased.

Live from Arlington

Inauguration coverage from your faithful Washington correspondent . . .

Okay, so I'm sitting on my couch in north Arlington, approximately four miles from the National Mall, but I'm still a darn site closer than most of you.

For most of the country, the inauguration of President-Elect Barack Obama is an event of much-anticipated historical significance. The people who live in and around Washington, however, waited for it like the approach of a Category 4 hurricane. Imagine if you heard that millions of out-of-towners were going to descend on your city, take up all the hotel rooms (even churches are renting out cots in their Sunday school classrooms), and crush into your public transportation. For weeks, we have talked of little else. Many local residents have either headed out of town or holed up at home.

I just heard that a 68-year-old woman was pushed off a platform on the red line and struck by a train, and a child was crushed against a barrier on the Mall. Four people have collapsed from hypothermia. It's 23 degrees and feels like ten. Many have stood behind the barriers since four in the morning.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Thoughts for the Day

"To what an extent doctrines intrinsically fitted to make the deepest impression upon the mind may remain in it as dead beliefs, without being ever realized in the imagination, the feelings, or the understanding, is exemplified by the manner in which the majority of believers hold the doctrines of Christianity. By Christianity I here mean what is accounted such by all churches and sects - the maxims and precepts contained in the New Testament. These are considered sacred, and accepted as law, by all professing Christians. Yet is is scarecely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual contduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession. He has thus, on the one hand, a collection of ethical maxims, which he believes to have been vouchasafed to him by infallible wisdom as rules for his government; and on the other hand, a set of everyday judgments and practices, which go a certain length with some of those maxims, not so great a length with others, stand in direct opposition to some, and are, on the whole, a compromise between the Christian creed and the interests and suggestions of wordly life. To the first of these standards he gives his homage; to the other his real allegiance. All Christians believe that blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill-used by this world, that is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbor as themselves; that if one take their cloak, they should give him their coat also, that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed . . .

The doctrimes have no hold on ordinary believers - are not a power in their minds. They have a habitual respect for the sounds of them, but no feeling which spreads from the words to the things signified, and forces the mind to take them in, and make them conform to the formula. Whenever conduct is concerned, they look round for Mr. A and B. to direct them how far to go in obeying Christ.

Now we may be well assured that the case was not thus, but far otherwise, with the early Christians. Had it been thus, Christianity never would have expanded for an obscure set of the despised Hebrews into the religion of the Roman empire. When their enemies said, 'See how these Christians love one another' (a remark not likely to be made by anybody now), they assuredly had a much livelier feeling of the meaning of their creed than they have ever had since." - On Liberty of Thought and Discussion by John Stuart Mill, 19th century sociologist