Monthly Archives: July 2011

The Best-Laid Plans

I’m sorry, readers, but I never cared much for Robert Burns.  I know that’s an invitation to have my head taken off with a claymore.  His poetry has some good lines, but he took (stole) most of it from traditional sources, slapped his name on the verses, and went about spouting it at parties where he was guaranteed plenty of food and whiskey. He was lazy, a womanizer, petty, vain and greedy.  Other than that he was all right. (If you are related to Robert Burns or a member of the Robert Burns Society, whose members meet occasionally to declaim his poetry, eat haggis and drink scotch, this is just my opinion. Please don’t make me wear a kilt.)

Anyhow, the line I used for the title is “The best-laid plans o’ mice and men gang aft a-gley.” Burns putatively wrote this line at part of a poem that came to him after turning up (he said) a mouse’s nest with a plow. I doubt this since plowing involves actual work.  But to the matter…

I have put a lot of time and energy into thinking about and actually packing this past month with the trip to Europe and now to Lynchburg. There’s always the question of what to take.  Sometimes I envy those nineteenth century travelers who went about with huge crates and steamer trunks. Of course, they had servants to do the heavy lifting, not a couple of one-inch diameter plastic wheels. Obviously, when we pack we have to limit ourselves to what we can lift or roll.

Some things are givens: underwear, clothes, toiletries, reading matter, cell phone, journal, laptop, etc. With some things it is a good idea to have a duplicate: on this trip I have a laptop and a netbook.  You can never be too careful. And I learn from each trip what I should have brought. In Europe I acquired a sunburn that made some people ask if I had been in Bermuda.  Also wish I had brought binoculars. Live and learn.

One recommendation I’ve seen is to take two pairs of glasses.  I know why now. On the way down a little screw popped loose from my prescription glasses and the right lens fell out.  I tried for several hours to put the screw back in (it’s literally a millimeter long) but couldn’t do it without the right tools. Shoulda brought another pair.  As it turned out, Becky had brought two pairs of reading glasses and I am able to use one. Sometimes it’s not what you know, it’s who you’re with.

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Summer Camp

As a working class lad, I never got near a summer camp.  I read accounts of kids who were “shipped off” to camp for the summer and that sounded good to me. I could have done with several weeks at a pony camp or an archery camp or plain old camp.  Beyond a few picnics and trips to see relatives, my summer activities were fairly thin, but I did enjoy them.  If I was in any kind of camp, it was the weeding dandelions by hand camp or picking vegetables from the garden in the broiling hot sun camp. I know, it is truly piteous.  I’ll pause while you get some tissues.

As with many other boomers, I have come to be able to do some things that I couldn’t as a kid. Boomers are buying vintage cars and other items they wanted when they were young.  In my case and my brother’s, it’s acoustic guitars. I got the Martin D-28 I had wanted for decades in 2005 as a retirement present and found a 1964 Gibson B45-12 12-string such as Gordon Lightfoot plays a few months ago.

I’ve also been able to go to camp for the past eight years or so.  Virginia Baptists run a music camp every summer at Eagle Eyrie, the Baptist state assembly located on a mountain outside Lynchburg.  About 350 campers and their sponsors and chaperone assemble for nearly five days of choir, classes, shows, recreation and shared time.  The people who run and staff the camp are amazingly musical people. Becky is accompanying the younger choir this year, although she has directed them in other years. I slide in as a faculty member for the week by teaching a class they call “Lots of Lyrics” (LOL) in which the kids and I write new words to familiar melodies.  The songs are then used in the group worship services.  It’s all great fun and some hard work, but we don’t have to fix meals all week.  We also get in a little sightseeing (Poplar Forest) and shopping.

So, whatever you’re doing this week, I hope you’re having as good a time as I am.  These posts will come from the mountains and I’ll try not to mention that too much in case you never got to go to camp either.

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Tribute to a Lady

My cousin called from Tennessee last Wednesday with the news that her mother, my aunt Katie, had passed away.  Katie had been in a nursing home for a number of years with Alzheimer’s, and now she is free from the terrible constrictions of that disease. She was not always my aunt: she was first my fifth grade school teacher.

I remember Miss Reaves as a gentle person with a soft-spoken Tennessee accent.  I don’t ever recall her being cross with us. If we were, let’s say, more active than usual, she would take her glasses off, rub her eyes and look at us sadly. That quieted even the hardest delinquent.  She taught by encouraging us. She loved books and soon found out about my love of reading and suggested numerous titles for me to read. She read to us after lunch. I am probably one of the few males my age who has heard all of Caddie Woodlawn. With her, it wasn’t a silly girls’ book but an interesting story of frontier life.

Some time in December that year she mentioned that she hoped to go to her home in Maryville, Tennessee, for the holidays. I volunteered that I had a bachelor uncle who lived with us at the time, my Uncle Newt, who was going that way.  They shared a ride; he left her off in Maryville and shortly afterward ran into a milk truck, but that’s another story. I think he was distracted. Shortly after that they were married. I chalk it up as my only matchmaking success.

They lived in a house in Yorkshire for years until they decided to move back to Tennessee. The day they left was the last time I saw either of them.  Newt succumbed to complications from diabetes several years ago and now Katie has joined him.

She served in the WAC’s during the Korean War, was a teacher, a wife, a mother, a gentle aunt who was always interested in my opinions and in what I was doing, encouraging me through college and beyond. Not everybody gets to have a teacher who became his aunt, and I count myself fortunate to have had Katie King in my life.

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McDonald’s Is My Kind of Place…Sometimes

Yeah, I know McDonald’s is bad mojo, unhealthy food, shameless appeals to kids, big bad corporate giant and all that.  Still, I have to confess that I enjoy a two cheeseburger value meal every once in a while. It was my meal of choice after making multiple errors in a Little League game (most of them).  McDonald’s and I go a long way back.

The first one I ever went to was in Fairfax, hard by the old Fairfax High School (now Paul VI parochial school).  It was down the hill from Fairfax Baptist Church, and after youth group on Sunday nights, we piled into my family’s 1956 Chevrolet and visited the Golden Arches. It was teenage heaven. The place had a walk-up window to order and a few metal seats, but mostly you ate in your car. I also remember pre-McDonald’s that it was difficult to find places to eat on a trip that were consistently good or that would not at the very least give the family food poisoning. McDonald’s restaurants were identifiable, convenient and fast.  And they had bathrooms, which came in handy when Virginia closed most of its rest areas a couple of years back.

“My” McDonald’s is the one on Centreville Road in Manassas.  The crew is fast and friendly and always gets the order right. Earlier this week I drove by and was surprised to see that they were tearing out part of the place.  The sign said they were remodeling.  Later this week I went by and the restaurant was completely leveled. Some remodeling.  I’m sure they will put another one up quickly–the one at Maplewood Shopping Center further up Centreville Road went up over a winter vacation from school one year.

So I’ll be able to drive through again soon and get my salad, I mean my two cheeseburger value meal. Something that has been part of my life for so long won’t be going away for long.

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Computer-o-Vision

For a  retired guy, I spend a lot of time at the computer.  During the school year I score SAT essays for the College Board, which is done online and lasts ten days each of the eight administrations.  That’s a lot of looking at a screen. Of course, I do a lot of writing and editing on the computer, though I never play games.  Well, every once in a while, but it’s an old school-style game like Ricochet. I don’t have the coordination or the patience or the time to play anything more demanding.  But it’s relaxing to blow up bricks sometimes.

My vision is typical for someone my age, i.e., I need reading glasses.  I have been using the ones from CVS, but my eye doctor, the amazing Elena Byrnes, recommended bi-focals for vision and eye protection.  Now you know if you wear reading glasses that they’re intended for fairly close reading, say about 12 to 14 inches away. The computer screen is a little father away than that, as is handbell music, which I play.  So I either have to lean in or back up and let the distance portion of the glasses take care of it.

So, quite by accident, during a long spell of scoring essays, I found that I could sit at a comfortable distance from the screen and read it easily if I put on my reading glasses and the bifocals over them.  I look silly with two pairs of glasses on (call me six-eyes?) but it works well, as long as I remember to take one pair of glasses off when I go out. That has happened.

I thought Dr. Byrnes would get a kick out of my solution to reading the computer screen, and she said actually she could fit me with a lens that would allow me to read the screen with the same ease that I do with two pairs of glasses on. I call it Computer-o-Vision and I plan to get a pair of specs before the next scoring season starts.  I thought I had discovered something, but as with many other “discoveries” it had been out there all along.

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Good-Bye to All That

The recent final flight of the shuttle program with launch of the shuttle Atlantis brings to a close not only a 30-year-old NASA endeavor, but also an end to an era in spaceflight.  The last launch was the object of much attention and nostalgia, with some sadness at the loss of 10,000 jobs associated with the program.  And for the next few years at least we will have to rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for transportation to and from the International Space Station. I was thinking with all this how I more or less grew up with the space program.

I was born in 1947, a couple of years after World War II, when former German V-2 missile scientists worked with their American counterparts to develop the launch vehicles for the manned space program.  I remember the furor surrounding the launch of Sputnik in 1957, and the excitement with the launch of our first satellite, Explorer 1, in January of 1958. The manned space program started when I was in intermediate school with Yuri Gagarin’s single orbit in April of 1961 and Alan Shepherd’s suborbital flight in May of that year.  The schools broadcast the launches over the PA (sorry kids, no TV’s in the rooms then).  During high school we listened to the Mercury flights of John Glenn and Scott Carpenter launched aboard a modified ICBM that was prone to exploding; college was while the Gemini missions and Apollo program were going on with the moon landing July 20, 1969.  When I started teaching, the program consisted of Skylab using left-over Apollo equipment.  I had been in the classroom ten years when the first shuttle launched, with many more to follow. I also remember listening to the account of the Challenger disaster as I drove home in the middle of a school workday because I was not feeling well.  The loss of the Columbia happened on a Saturday morning as I was getting a tire fixed.

And now the end of the shuttle flights. Replacement rockets based on the cancelled Orion system are years away, but I hope they lead to a crewed return to the moon and even to Mars.  In the ‘sixties, there were some critics of the space program, saying the money could be better spent on social programs.  I believe we can do both and that it is as important to continue to explore, to discover and to venture out as it is to take care of each other.

So, Godspeed, Atlantis and your crew.  Do well and have a safe landing.  It’s the end of an era for all of us.

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A Nice Concert and a Nice Start

The inaugural concert of the Summer Sounds series Saturday night,  sponsored by the Center for the Arts in Manassas and Micron, featured eclectic musicians Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, who acquitted themselves well during an hour and a half set accompanied not only by the fiddle, guitar, mandolin and piano they played but also by Amtrak train, passing fire truck, and slow rollers on Center Street with their radios turned up.

Ungar and Mason are well-known to roots musicians, fans of the blues, fiddle tune devotees, eclectic music lovers and hack guitarists like myself.  Their songs spanned the gamut from aforesaid fiddle tunes to Civil War songs to Stephen Foster songs to offerings as diverse as a Bob Wills medley, Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehaving,” Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You,”  “Relax Your Mind” by Leadbelly, a neat number called “Home-Grown Tomatoes” and Jay’s signature fiddle  piece, “Askokan Farewell,” which he wrote in 1982 and took on a life of its own. They sang in clear, warm voices which put the crowd of about 200 at ease and soon had them singing, clapping and even dancing along.

“Ashokan Farewell” was used as the title theme of the  1990 PBS television mini-series, The Civil War, directed by Ken Burns. The song is a haunting, haunted waltz in the style of a Scottish lament. The most famous arrangement of the piece begins with a solo violin, later accompanied by guitar.
“Ashokan Farewell” was recorded on Waltz of the Wind, the second album by the band Fiddle Fever, which included Ungar and his wife, Molly Mason. It has served as a goodnight or farewell waltz at the annual Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps that Ungar and Mason run at the lakefront Ashokan Field Campus of the State University of New York at New Paltz.

The Civil War drew the most national attention to the piece. It is played 25 times throughout the eleven-hour series, including during the emotional reading of Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife. If you are not familiar with this letter or moment from the mini-series, it may be heard at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxDP6q6C5mE&NR=1. Warning: have a box of tissues on hand. Sullivan Ballou was killed at the First Battle of Manassas and buried for a time in the Sudley Methodist Church graveyard.

Viewers of The Civil War frequently and erroneously believe the melody is a traditional tune that was played at the time of the Civil War. In fact, it is the only modern composition on the Burns documentary’s soundtrack; all other music is authentic 19th-century music.

Jay Ungar and Molly Mason’s concert started the Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the beginning of the Civil War, with events the rest of the year.  If they’re all as good as this concert we’ll be very fortunate indeed.

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Take Me Out to Diversity

I watched the last few innings of the Nationals-Cubs game last night after we got home from a concert.  Our boys lost, 10-9, after leading Chicago 8-0 for much of the game.  They have been playing so well lately.  It’s heartening to see.

Besides the frustrating turn of events near the end of the game, I noticed the large number of people wearing Cubs colors in the stands.  When Philadelphia comes to town, it’s a sea of Phillies supporters. Now, you can suppose that Philadelphia fans can drive down to watch their team play on the road, but Chicago is a little far to come for a game. I suppose there are baseball fanatics who follow their team literally, but I think it’s more likely that this area has a lot of fans of other teams because there are a lot people from other places. (I know, I am a  sociological genius.) The players are not easily distracted, but they say having a number of people cheering for the other team while they’re in their home park does make a difference.

It used to be said that in this area everybody was from some place else, largely because of the military and government presence. I don’t think that is as true as it used to be because we have a large number of natives, but it’s true enough to make a difference in the makeup of the crowd at home sports events. Some say it also accounts for our massive traffic jams when it snows. I think the number of hills and the frequent wetness of the snow also contribute to traffic snarls, but a lot of people don’t know how to drive in the snow because they’re from places that don’t have snow.

Nonetheless, diversity is a reflection of the world we live in, whether it’s someone from another culture or another American city. We can learn so much from each other. I just wish “outlanders” didn’t make as much of a difference for the home team.

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Dan’s Travel Tips

Yeah, I know, like three trips to Europe in 45 years makes me a travel expert. As with most other subjects, though,  I do have some observations.

My brother Ron, who was a pilot for Delta for 27 tears, says “travel is a curse.” It can be sometimes, but it’s also the only way to get anywhere. (Profound observation, I know.) I am still in the throes of jet lag.  I figure I’m four and a half hours off sun time.  This morning I woke up at 4:30 AM, but I’m working my way back.  Ron says you can count on one day for recovery for each time zone you’ve crossed.  He also says pilots advocate alcohol and sleep to recover from jet lag. (That’s a joke!  Please do not call the FAA.  Besides, he’s retired.)

Going to Europe, we were told by several people who have made the crossing a number of times to try to sleep as much as possible on the flight. When you reach Europe, ignore the facts that your body is screaming that it is 2 AM. Take a nap for an hour or so and try to get on local time.  Food helps (it always does, doesn’t it?).

I think everyone knows that aircraft interiors are dry and that you should try to hydrate yourself as much as possible.  I drank eight ounces of water an hour (which meant I had to squirm my way out of my steerage-class seat about four times to go to the bathroom) but even with that by the end of the flight I could feel myself drying out like Sponge Bob Squarepants left out on a rock in the sun.

Westbound seems to be worse.  It might be that I’m exhausted by all the fun we had on top of wrenching my nervous system out of joint (if nervous systems have joints).

I would also say to try to learn a little of the language.  We felt quite helpless in German where my command of the language was what I could glean from World War II movies.  “Schnell!” and “Hände nach oben!” are not useful for ordering in a resturant.  Even my passable but not fluent French I had to struggle.  Mercifully a lot of people seem to speak English in tourist areas, but I don’t like to count on it.

Then there’s packing. This time I had the Great Washable Packing Fiasco of 2011.  We were told to pack lightly and take smaller suitcases than the airlines allowed since luggage space in European buses is less that in airplanes or American buses. (So are the seats.) My solution was to take quick-drying clothes and count on them drying overnight.  I even tested everything at home and it seemed to dry quickly.  Then our first hotel room was like a humidity chamber.  A row of trees impeded air circulation through the windows and nothing would dry even after three days. Becky squeezed as much as she could out of my clothes and blotted them with towels, and I ironed them and used the hair dryer on them. A less humid room at the second hotel set everything right but it was a close call. After this experience, my advice is to forget packing light and take as much as you can. take things you think you’ll never need. That’s why suitcases have wheels.

The last bit of advice is to train for the trip. Seriously.  I had upped my walking for a month before we left but still had aching calves and sore feet. Touring is strenuous to say the least, so it’s best to be prepared for it.

Also, take a week off when you get back and do as little as possible.  Oh, wait, I’m retired and can do that.  I’m sorry if you can’t.

Expect the unexpected.  After all, travel is an adventure…and a curse.

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The City Upon a Hill

Even though I feel like my brain is somewhere 39,000 feet off the coast of Scotland, I’ll try to put together a few thoughts about our just ended tour.

As I wrote earlier, it had been some 45 years since I used French extensively. It was extremely rusty, but it worked in most situations.  It’s somewhat deflating to ask a native something in French only to have them answer in English. Most people we encountered were helpful, with a few exceptions. One was the young man who loaded the funicular for the trip down from Heidelberg Castle.  His idea of guiding people was to scream at them in German. That didn’t work well.  Then there was the officious functionary at Sainte Chappelle who wouldn’t let us in at 5:30 although it closed at six.  My best efforts to argue in French didn’t work.  The last example was a touchy gate agent at the airport who was upset that (1) we had come too early (three hours before our flight as instructed) (2) there were so many of us (?) and (3) we hadn’t given our passports to him to check us in.  When we did, he complained we gave him too many.  I hope his medication arrives in the mail soon. Still, three people out of hundreds we came across is not a high percentage.

Europe in general has become more diverse, as we have. There are the little differences–the plugs that require adapters (but no more converters), ice (three cubes) only on demand for drinks, and not many trash cans.  Someone said the idea was to pack it out.

I am not trying to be provincial or seem like an ugly American, but I felt a certain sense of claustrophobia when I was there this time. Some of that came from the size of the hotel rooms or the buses or being pressed by throngs of people. There is a kind of restraint in Europe: they make better use of resources than we do and are more willing in general to accept limitations on their freedoms.  I thought about this a lot over July 4.

The roots of our freedoms lie, of course, in Europe, in the Reformation and in English common law. They were most fully realized in the American Revolution, in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution. We worked hard to exploit (some would say abuse) resources and land, and that resulted in a country whose influence extended the ideals of that Revolution all over the world, as lately as the one in Egypt. For all our shortcomings, and we do have them, we have the finest expression of freedom and individuality anywhere in the world and any time in history. It’s no accident that people risk their fortunes, their welfare and their lvies to come to this country and experience the opportunities we have to offer.

The English Puritans wrote and spoke of creating in America “a city upon a hill,” an ideal society that would draw the notice of the world and attract people to it.  We have not reached that goal of being an “alabaster city undimmed by human tears,” but we are moving in that direction.  This journey back to the land of some of our origins made me realize just how free we are.  And that’s a matter for celebration every day of the year.

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