Sunday, April 24, 2011

C&O Remembered

For the past few decades, my friend Paul and I have hiked along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal almost every week, except when it rains, snows, or is uncomfortably wet. Or when the lure of coffee and bagels is simply too overwhelming. We are fair-weather walkers and occasional rock climbers, Paul and I, who revel in the local flora and fauna. It’s rare if during our walks we do not encounter a snake or two, turtles by the dozens, aloof great blue herons, the occasional bald eagle, hawks, owls, deer that disappear into the hues and shades of the landscape. We’ve met snapping turtles as large as my chest ambling on the path with us, and young beavers swimming at our pace.  There are strange bugs too, multicolored caterpillars and confused moths. One time we fished such a creature from the waters where it had fallen. It was a wondrously large insect with velvet wings big as the palms of my hands. I don’t know if it survived our ministrations but I remember that the rescue made me feel good for the rest of the afternoon.  On weekdays, there are very few people, and they, like us, walk along the canal with a degree of reverence and wonder. It’s hard to imagine we are mere miles from the center of the Western world, from the White House and Pentagon and the roaring Beltway traffic.

According to the National Park Service, the C&O is almost 185 uninterrupted miles long. The C&O Company was chartered in 1825 to construct a shipping canal connecting tidewater on the Potomac River in Washington, DC with the headwaters of the Ohio River in western Pennsylvania, thereby providing an economical trade route between the eastern seaboard and the trans-Allegheny West. During the canal’s peak years following the Civil War, some 850,000 tons of coal were towed in 500 barges that plied the waters daily. Following major flood in 1889, the C&O Company went into receivership and was bought out by the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. In 1938, the railroad in turn sold it to government, which placed it under the National Park Service.  

Very little has changed along the canal in more than a century. The path used by mules to tow the barges is exactly as it was in the 1800s. There are locks, now unused, and a series of mostly vacant lockhouses. The vegetation and wildlife remain the same, as do the granite tailings from rock quarries that lined the Potomac River. The walls of the locks are made of large stone blocks painfully hoisted into place, and these have been inscribed with the marks of the stonemasons who worked them, American hieroglyphics, mystifying and untranslated.

I like going there because, within my own reference of years gone by, time has indeed stood still and I am taken back to the days of my twenties and thirties with bicycles and canoes, fishing rods and picnic baskets. I spent long summer afternoons there with friends now gone for good, Michael and Christine and Bart and Maddie and others who still have large real estate holdings in my mind. I went there with my father a time or three and he too was enchanted. The place reminded him of the English countryside where he summered as a child. My mother once organized a nature walk for the ancient ladies of the Franco American Friendship Society.  They all wore hats and dark dresses and trod along the path like elderly members of an arcane but gentle cult who had somehow gone astray.

The National Park Service’s budget has suffered in recent years and there are places where the canal no longer flows. Cave-ins, storms, erosion of the banks and floods have all taken their tolls and there are not enough funds to fix everything. Still, the canal and path endure. That’s reassuring in times of constant and confusing change. I might go there this afternoon.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Zound of Music

Deep down, I’m a Luddite. For those of you who may not know the term, it means I am generally opposed to rampaging new technology. In the past few decades, it seems as if incoming expertise does not have the time to make itself (or me) comfortable before something grander, faster and more
complex (to me) comes along to replace it.

The original Luddites were textile workers in 19th century England who resisted the mechanization of their trade. They occasionally destroyed the automated looms that could be operated by unskilled labor and cost the artisans their jobs.  The movement crested in 1812 when Luddites burned factories and machinery, clashed with the British army, and eventually were dragged through mass trials that resulted in the executions of many and penal transportation to Australia of even more.

Luddites seldom win. We are the buggy whip-makers of society, the guys who stick to cars with carburetors when fuel-injection is the thing, the ones with lace up sneakers in a Velcro world. I, personally, am a recording Luddite. I believe in tape, in real sounds generated by real instruments played by the real hands of real people. I will tell you that the Beatles recorded their first songs on a four-track cassette deck with one microphone hanging from the ceiling and that all the new technology of compact discs, virtual recording studios and sampling (taking the music of one composer and inserting bits and pieces into the music of another) is complicated nonsense.

But… Recently, I’ve become acquainted and fascinated with a computer program called Sonar.

Let me back up. I’ve been writing songs for decades, and for several years played with a band that recorded a CD and sold it (a remarkably low number, I should add) on iTunes. The band broke up some time ago and since then I’ve wanted to record the stuff of mine that didn’t make it on the
original. Trouble is, it’s hard to find musicians who’ll play what I like and have the time to devote to a project that make take months, if not years, to put together, and holds no promise of fame and fortune.

Enter Sonar. Sonar will allow me to become a one-man band.  If, that is, I can master it. For a low price, my home computer has acquired a sound studio that is so complex I’ve signed up for two on-line courses so I can start understanding what I am dealing with. Dithering. MIDI (musical
instrument digital interface). Sequencers. Matrix views.  Loops, events, vertical and horizontal zooms.
The how-to book put out by Cakewalk, the creators of Sonar, runs to more than 1800 pages. So far, I have recorded one highly repetitive guitar track, tried to ‘import’ a set of MIDI drums (and failed), and been faced with a myriad of pop-up screens asking me if I want to clip-lock, clip-mute, insert effects,
show trimming, or bounce this to that in order to create the other.

To be honest, it’s fascinating. The trouble is I do not have an engineer’s mind, and what may be entirely logical to another’s brain defies my thinking. I make very small breakthroughs and am amazed to know that kids a third my age can do this stuff in their sleep.

Here’s the thing, though: I have, potentially, the means of recording symphonies in which, thanks to modern technology, my electric guitar can be made to emulate every instrument from harp to French horn.  Yesterday, late into the night, I discovered I could make tuba sounds. I did so for 45 minutes. I sang some lyrics and made a choir of myself, sopranos, altos and baritones joyfully chanting with me. I compressed, equalized, reverbed, phased, synthesized and boosted until I had a sound that had never been heard before in the history of the world. Then, realizing the difference between music and cacophony, I erased everything.

I suspect that at this stage, I am doing the musical version of finger-painting. I expect to get better, and I’m in no hurry. This is fun, a great outlet since I am presently stymied finding a plot for my next book. 

I’m sure I will write more about this as I develop my skills. In the meantime, ta ta. I am off to play my bassoon.

Monday, April 18, 2011

War Through the (American) Ages

The first war in which the not-quite-yet United States were involved lasted 13 months. From July 1675 to August 1676, colonists were busily fighting an assortment of Native Americans, including the
Wampanoag, Narragansett and Nipmuck Indians. Once that war was over, there was a brief hiatus until the French threatened the new colonies and King Philip’s War began in 1689. It would last eight years and fairly easily segue into Queen Anne’s war, still against those pesky French. That one went on from 1702 to 1713, to be followed by the King George’s war, pitting the French colonies against Great Britain.  Eight years later, the conflict started up again and was named the French and Indian War (or Seven Year War) and at about the same time, the colonists took on the Cherokee Nation so that from 1675 to 1761, the country was involved in some sort of conflict for a total of 34 years.

It didn’t get much better as time went on.  The American Revolution lasted from 1775 to 1783, to be followed 15 years later by the Franco-American Naval War, which ended in 1800. But as soon as that war was done, America launched its navies against Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli (piracy was an important issue) which enabled the Marine Corps to write a moving anthem. Then came the war of 1812 against the Brits, with Americans simultaneously carrying on a two-year conflict against the Creek Indians. Twenty-two years later, Texas went to war against Mexico, and a decade after that, the US as a whole fought against its southern neighbor. The Mexican-American War ended in 1848. There were 13 years of peace before the country went to war against itself from 1861 to 1865, licked its wounds for three decades, then got involved in the Spanish-American War. Total, 26 years of conflict from 1775 to 1898.

The First World War was fought from 1914 to 1918, and the second from 1939 to 1945. Then came Korea in 1950, ending in 1953. Vietnam started seven years later, and lasted a decade-and-a-half, during which time we also saw the attempted invasion of Cuba and the Bay of Pigs fiasco. In 1983, we invaded Grenada to rescue medical American students who, it turned out, were not in need of
rescuing. In 1989 the US invaded Panama for reasons which to this day are unclear, and a year later we started the first Persian war against Iraq. In 1995 and 1996 US troops were in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in 2001 we invaded Afghanistan, then Iraq in 2003. We’re still there, and have also taken on Libya. All in all, in less than 100 years since 1914, this country has been involved in some sort of armed conflict for a total of 53 years. This does not include covert activities that took place in Central America and elsewhere.

I’m no historian, but that’s a whole lot of wars.

Granted, many were responding to aggression. In others, we aided allies, but the wars we’ve started or participated in since and including Korea make for an astounding 40 years of conflict since 1950. In other words, the US has been fighting something or someone two out of every three years in the last six decades.  War, it turns out, is as American as apple pie, though probably not quite as healthy.

That’s a whole lot of conflict. It’s also, of course, a whole lot of money for the people who make arms and ammo, and a whole lot of advancement opportunities for the military officers who, in peacetime, might retire with too few stars on their shoulders. And let’s not forget--there’s nothing like a good little war to show the world who’s the boss.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why Are These People Smiling?

The world's most celebrated smile can be found in Paris' Louvre museum, protected by one or two
armed guards and half-inch bullet proof glass. Variously known as La Joconde, the Gioconda, or the Mona Lisa, Da Vinci's model with the winsome smile, elusive, mysterious, and perhaps amused,
has been tantalizing fans for more than four centuries. There may be something to the fact that the world's most famous painting reflects a very human expression. Only homo sapiens can smile. Animals, despite our best efforts at anthropomorphizing them, cannot. As a matter of fact, there is probably nothing quite so human as a smile, which serves to explain why ever since the first ad was devised, a smile has been used as a lure.

I subscribe to a half-dozen magazines--Time, New Yorker, Wired, Newsweek (which I will not renew since I don't like Tina Brown as an editor. Sorry, small, necessary aside), a couple of specialty
automobile publications and the Washington Post, and every ad featuring a human also features a smile. An ad for an HBO special on Jerry Weintraub? He's smiling. Siemens? Smiling woman. Young,
attractive. Geico has a smiling gecko. There are smiles for the relief of intestinal gas pain, depression, bunions, razor blades (both men and women); smiles for hand cream and condoms and expensive automobiles. Smiles from younger people for cheap automobiles, too. We are awash in smiles, not one of which has the charm of the original Da Vinci creation.

I’m not sure what this means other than a deep lack of originality in the advertising arts. Certainly the other photos, particularly those in my morning paper, are seldom smiling. By and large, the faces depicted there are anything but happy. There are tears, winces, exhaustion, disgust, severity and the
occasional empty affect, but there are damned few smiles. People whose homes are being taken away don’t smile. Neither do men totting guns for some African or Middle Eastern cause. Most American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq aren’t smiling, or at least they’re not doing so for the home-town crowd. There are a lot of smiles in the obituary pages, though, where the portraits of the
recently departed reign. Maybe they know something we don’t, or maybe they don’t know their photos would illustrate their all too-short lives.

The point, I suppose, is that at some point we learned that facial muscles can be used to show intent, and we somehow moved from displaying teeth as aggression to showing them as apparent subservience. A smile really is nothing but a snarl that’s undergone minor surgery, and it serves pretty much the same purpose—it’s an attempt to disarm the other guy, to make him leave us alone and
not challenge our turf ownership. We don’t try to scare the foe (although some folks have truly frightening smiles) so much as engage him in an attempt to bargain.  A smile says we’re in this
together, you and me. A smile leads to a handshake—another negotiating tool since the open hand denotes an absence of weapons.

That still doesn’t answer the original question. I don’t know why all these models in ads are smiling. Frankly, I don’t find it disarming. I find it creepy.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011


That got your attention, didn't it? Much more so than if I'd typed "Paul Gauguin" or "Post-Impressionism."

Breasts, three of them, to be exact, are shown in Two Tahitian Women, one of the French painter's most famous works. The island poitrines were recently the subject of an attack by Susan Burns, an apparently demented woman who went to Washington's National Gallery and tried to destroy the painting. Ms. Burns felt the breasts portrayed were the evil work of an evil man. No harm was done, luckily, and Two Tahitian Women, which is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is back on exhibit. We don't know the status of Ms. Burns' own breasts, but hope she treats them with more tolerance. 

There's nothing really new about crazy people attacking works of art. In 1972 Michelangelo's La Pieta was injured by Laszlo Toth, an irate geologist wielding a mallet. In a 2008 article, the UK's Observer listed 13 works of art that had been damaged by viewers. These included a Picasso (elbowed), a cast of Rodin's Thinker (dynamited) , a Mondrian (vomited upon) and a Monet (punched). There is even another breast case:  ex-soldier Robert Cambridge drew a 12-bore shotgun from under his coat and fired at the Virgin's breast in Da Vinci's Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist at London's National Gallery.  Breasts are obviously popular with the mad.
But breasts are not what I'm really interested in writing about today. Rather, I am fascinated by the electronic media's reaction to the assault.

The same people who give us Jersey Shore, Real Housewives of  Wherever and a host of other truly repugnant programs decided that their viewers should not be subjected to the sight of the Gauguin maidens' torsos and used all sorts of ingenious methods to pretend nipples don't exist.

Fox blurred the nipples, making the two Tahitian beauties look as if they'd been maimed by Torquemada. ABC affiliates used the news banner to cover the breasts while NBC merely cropped the image of the painting so it resembled a driver license photo.

According to today's Washington Post,  Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction during the 2004 Superbowl might be to blame. Or (and I shudder to think this might be the case) complaints were voiced by a few viewers forced to see naked statues during the last Olympic's opening ceremonies. Or maybe the same people who a while back shrouded the statue of a clothes-less Justice in a government building have finally come to power.

It would be funny if it weren't sort of sad, this love-hate thing with breasts. Half the population has them, and (let's face it) the other half worships them. Personally, I think we should focus our attention on knees, or spleens, or maybe even tracheas. No one would attack them, and no one would be bothered if they were displayed.

Monday, April 4, 2011

This Way To the Camps

Neil Gaiman, the British author perhaps most famous in this country for his amazing graphic novels, has a recurring character who likes to question the existence of words. Is there, for example, a word for the sound pollen makes as it is being harvested? Or for the feel of moving planets? What
about the unwanted concurrence of events? Why are there missing words in a language as rich and English? Lately, I have wondered whether there is a word for unfortunate things happening to situations that should not exist. 

Let me explain. For the past many years as the economy has taken its toll on those most at risk, many of the homeless and jobless, those struck by misfortune or lacking even a modicum of useful education, have returned to the soil. They establish makeshift camps in outlying areas, in woods, culverts, and under bridges. They erect tarpaulin tents, cook on discarded barbecues, create small and tight-knit societies. Some are alcoholics and addicts, others have serious mental issues, and others still just got a bad roll of the dice. There are few dentists or doctors out there. Many of the campers are construction workers, whose companies shut down, seasonal employees of places like nurseries and landscaping concerns that are no longer hiring, veterans of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

They are not particularly attractive—living outdoors through a winter is not beneficial to the skin or other organs—and wary of outsiders, for good reason. In many ways, these folks are the reincarnation of the Dust Bowl survivors, and their attempts try to carry on often create great discomfiture among more able citizens.

Point in case, last week saw the eviction of 80 people who have been living for almost a decade near Dale  City, Virginia. The Virginia Department of Transportation, responding to a complaint call from
State Delegate Scott Lingamfelter (R) that the homeless were “walking back to their tents in the dark and crossing the ramp where cars speed around the blind curve,” gave the wood dwellers 48 hours to pack up and leave, destination unknown. When county workers came in to do a clean up, they found about 55 tents as well as sofas, beds, heaters, and a pool table.  In other areas where small populations live outdoors, there are lean-tos, televisions and radios and generators.

That such camps exist is an insult to all that is America. That they exist in one of the most affluent section of the country is a sin. That these communities are destroyed, rendering homeless people even more so, is beyond comprehension.

These are not people accused of any crime other than trespassing on public land. They are not thieves or rapists; they have not stolen your IRA or pillaged your life savings. Their transgression is being
destitute. Ours, on a community, state, and national level, is allowing such poverty to exist and, worse, to believe that putting it out of sight will put it out of mind as well.

I wonder if  Representative Lingamfelter has a handy word to describe all this. And I hope he sleeps well tonight.