Thursday, August 31, 2006

Traveling Light --by the Baron

Since he has no alternate blog to neglect, as I do with The Neighborhood of God, the Baron asked if he might guest post here in the midst of chaos. I readily agreed...and then when I saw his essay, I realized it fits right in with chaos and the inexorability of entropy.

Enjoy his memoir...

With the day almost over, the rain has finally stopped and the sky is clearing. There’s a mist rising off the street, and I hear a steady drip-drip from the big maples next to the curb. It’s still August, but a few early yellow leaves have fallen and are lying in the gutter.

I’m walking up North Street, only it’s not North Street any more, it’s Brilyn Place. The house numbers are different, too, so the old address, the one our parents worked so hard to get us to memorize, is no longer of any use. But it’s still stuck in my head like a mantra: 711 North Street, Falls Church, Virginia. No zip; that was before zip codes.

Our house is on my right as I pass the intersection with Gordon Avenue, which still has its old familiar name. The trees are big now, but not as big as they should be — those maples, back when they were only a decade old, seemed so huge when we climbed them, when we sat in the lower branches and watched the helicopter seeds spiral down around us. Fifty years have added to the maples’ stature, but they and the houses still seem too small.

Up ahead Brilyn Place ends at the pebbly acoustic wall that shields the neighborhood from the interstate. When we lived here the big highway was just a gleam in the developer’s eye, but we all knew it was coming. It was going to knock down the houses at the end of the street, and lop the corner off Teddy’s parents’ lot. “It’ll take out Teddy’s trash burner,” said Steve.

There’s a dead end where the turn onto Hallwood Avenue used to be, and the sound of the heavy traffic on I-66 rumbles beyond the barrier. The old postwar brick houses along here are a little bit seedy now — the neighborhood never went upscale, as might have been expected had it been further from the interstate.

In the late summer of 1956 I was out on these streets and in the back yards all along here with the other boys of the neighborhood. There weren’t any boys my age, so I tagged along with my brother and his friends. Dave was three and a half years older than I, and he and the others tolerated me as long as I behaved myself.

There were five or six in the group — Dave, Teddy, Ricky, Robert, Steve, and maybe some others whose names are lost now. Steve was the oldest — a year older than Dave — and he was the leader, a ten-year-old with an assurance that seemed godlike to a child my age. When the boys formed a club, he outlined the rules. When teams had to be chosen, he performed the eeny-meeny-miny-moe. His hobbies became the gang’s hobbies. In later years, just before we moved, his parents sent him off to Fork Union to military school, and he came home for the holidays in a uniform. He was more than human.

Steve was the one who gave me my inexplicable nickname, “Dee”. When my brother used it, I didn’t like it, and I would call him “Day-Day” in return, for which he held equal hatred. But when Steve called me “Dee” I didn’t mind; it had a sort of affectionate tone to it. Or so it seemed.

I held Steve in awe, more so even than my own brother. Whatever interested him interested me. It was through Steve that I became fascinated with reptiles, and learned to catch snakes at a tender age. He taught me how to find box turtles by listening for their rustle as they crawled through the undergrowth, and how to track baby snapping turtles along the smelly edges of Four Mile Run.

Steve was an expert on military weaponry and the Civil War. He knew all about airplanes. He and Dave could identify all the makes and models of the cars that drove by, right down to the size of their engines and their horsepower.

And it was through Steve that Dave and I became interested in astronomy. We asked our parents for books on Mars and the Moon, and Dave got a three-inch reflecting telescope for Christmas so that we could watch the comet.

One night late in August 1956 the gang was lying in the front yard of our house, looking up at the sky. We were far enough from the streetlights so that some of the stars showed through, and Steve would point to the brighter ones and identify them.

It was just before Labor Day weekend, and the next week school would begin. I would be entering kindergarten, and my whole world was about to change. But for now it was just like it always had been, with the warm dark and the damp grass and the sound of the crickets in the bushes and the cicadas in the trees.

Steve had brought along a high-powered flashlight, and when he switched it on, gnats and moths were highlighted in the moving beam. He used it as a pointer, flicking it upwards as he identified Jupiter or Sirius. The boys took turns using the light, and eventually Steve passed it over to me.

I pointed it upwards, towards a faint star directly overhead.

“Dee, that star is probably fifty light-years away,” Steve told me. “You know what that means? It means that the beam of light will take fifty years to get there.”

I thought about it. “So, in fifty years, someone up there on a planet around that star will see my light shining on them?”

Steve chuckled. “Well, maybe. There won’t be much left of it by the time it gets there. But you never know — some alien up there might look up and see a little flicker of light.”

Not long after that we had to go in to bed. But I kept thinking about that beam of light, now moving up and away from the earth, traveling through space at an incredible speed. Fifty years! It might as well have been forever…

Time went by. I went off to kindergarten. Winter and summer came a couple of more times before we moved to Maryland. The federal government eventually built Interstate 66 through our old neighborhood, and then a lot of other things happened.

But I didn’t forget.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

I’ve turned around now, and the wall and the noisy interstate are behind me. I’m walking back down North Street — I mean Brilyn Place — and the lights are coming on in the houses on either side.

There’s our old house on the left, with a light in the front window. I resist the urge to walk up the sidewalk and knock on the door to ask if I can just take a quick peek inside.

And there’s the front yard, with the trees so big and overhanging now that no boys could see the sky through them. And with all the light pollution from Tysons Corner there may not be all that many stars visible, even if anyone could see through the trees.

The cold front is moving in, and a fresh breeze has lifted the mist off the street. Standing in the middle of North Street, I look straight up at the newly-cleared and darkened sky. Yes, there it is: a very faint star.

When I squint my eyes I can just picture a little cluster of young bug-eyed aliens gathered in front of their strange dwelling, looking upwards as a faint flicker of light shows in their own night sky. They’re turning a bright flashlight upwards in the same direction…

No need to stick around. I know when to come back.

August 30th, 2006

Monday, August 28, 2006

Roanoke College Students Build a House

Roanoke is a small and beloved city in southwestern Virginia. Natives pronounce that “Roe-noke” with the accent on “Roe”. There is no ‘a’ in Roanoke, despite its spelling.

Roanoke College in Salem, VaRoanoke College (in nearby Salem) is nicely named, having the modesty to refuse to join the fad of grabbing the “University” appellation back when everyone else was doing it. Most universities in this country are really colleges and should have remained so. But then higher education is a big business now, so of course inflated terms are to be expected. If parents have to shell out twenty thousand dollars for junior’s education, it had better be at a “university”, no?

One of the nice things about Roanoke College is its tradition of “Service Day” Projects. All students participate in community service — an idea that ought to be adopted by other schools…for example, the University of Virginia sure could use some mandatory service time for its incoming freshmen. Perhaps that would cut down on the alcohol syndrome in Charlottesville. Or maybe not. Another fraternity chapter was closed there recently.

This year, the returning students are putting together a house for Habitat for Humanity. In five days the house will be built on campus and then moved eventually to the nearby town of Salem.

What a way to start the academic year! Imagine a school which practices the old idea of education: mens sana in corpore sano.

Hat tip: PJ Media

Mastering Disaster

No matter what the calendar says, summer ends on different days for different families.

For me, it is when the Boy returns to school, taking with him his quotes from Pogo, or Monty Python, or the Marx Brothers, or moving lines from songs I’ve never heard of.

The house grows still, even though he’s not that noisy. The tickety of laptop keys is not all that raucous. The turning of pages in a James Lileks book isn’t boisterous.

But the sounds of Another in one’s space are more than sound and more than simply taking space. It involves making room for Another for a while, and then letting him go…so the space fills with silence even as I picture his trajectory and he rides away in a car jammed to the roof with his possessions.

Or, rather, most of his possessions. This seems to be a season of loss for him: his wallet (or rather, the wallet of his grandfather, which he has used since carrying a wallet became necessary), the portfolio of all his beloved CDs collected over the years of his adolescence, his computer – whose hard drive could not be retrieved and with it went his photos, back-ups of his music…and that part of our identity which comes to rest within the matrices of a machine that we use every blesséd day for years. That particular laptop followed him from dorm room to dorm room for three years and now it is gone, its contents irretrievable.

I reminded him of the following poem and he remembered it from a class he’d taken last year:

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

---Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Women Are Bag Ladies at Heart

A report in The Washington Times reveals that most women are emotionally insecure when it comes to finances:

They may have money in their purses and a decent salary, but many women fear they’ll lose their income and end up a bag lady, forgotten and destitute.

A “startling” 90 percent of women say they feel financially insecure, according to a survey of almost 1,925 women released yesterday by Allianz, a Minnesota-based life insurance company.

Almost half are troubled by a “tremendous fear of becoming a bag lady” — 46 percent of women overall, and 48 percent of those with an annual income of more than $100,000. An additional 57 percent are sorry they had not learned more about money matters in school.


Women… are twice as likely as men — 18 percent to 9 percent — to set aside a secret stash of money, the study found. Roughly the same number counseled their daughters to do the same.

Why is this surprising? Despite the p.c. dogma about independent women, there is evidence for a hard-wired dependency program in women…something about child-bearing and its concomitant vulnerability, perhaps?

Which is not to say such feelings cannot be overcome and mastered, just as men have to stretch themselves to attain a steady-state monogamy.

Yes, the things we do for love.

The strongest, most practical women I knew always did this, some openly, some secretly, depending on the nature of their environment and their own character. One woman told me that her Jewish mother trained her to believe that each woman must have her own “knippel” (if that is the correct spelling). She said it was a Yiddish expression for a woman’s secret stash. Another woman, of French Canadian extraction told me the story of her grandmother’s deathbed scene, in which she called her children together, opened up some battered shoeboxes, and proceeded to give them each thousands of dollars. Her stash, hoarded secretly over the years and then distributed personally as she prepared to leave the things of this world. Much more instructive and memorable than a will.

In this generation of serial monogamy, observant women notice the propensity of successful men to acquire younger and younger trophy wives. They know from experience that beauty fades and that beyond "a certain age," women become invisible. The clerk at the counter calls them "dear" or "honey." It's simply one more rite of passage.

So if one is going to be deserted in a grasping attempt at some last-ditch avoidance of mortality on the part of her life-long mate, she'd better make plans for a single bed and a safe-deposit box. This is especially true now that women are "independent." Thank you, Gloria Steinem, for no-fault poverty.

What's so startling about women's fear of living at the Salvation Army? The grown children move across the continent, the husband moves to the bed of a woman their daughter's age. And if an ageing wife hasn't made provisions for this almost commonplace fate, then what? Bitter penury, that's what.

Indomitable women don’t shop till they drop. They stash.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Tent Caterpillars from Hell

Dear Cosmos,

I promise I will never, ever, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die, complain about tent caterpillars again. Never.

Nightmares 1

These creepy horrors are eating exactly what on a bicycle??

Dream Screamers 2

I had a small wild cherry tree cut down last year because it had been de-leafed by our much milder version of this icky thing. But still, the cocoons get onto everything outside. I cannot imagine what this “March of the Larvae” causes.

Early next Spring I plan to put duct tape around the trunks of the apple trees to see if that will stop the little buggers, but God knows what these people can do. Obviously the municipality in Sweden, where these photos were taken, isn’t too concerned about the situation. Maybe it’s politically incorrect to harm them.

Go here to see more — notice how white the trunks of the trees are, and how they somehow missed a few leaves on one tree.

As Shelagh used to say while making a face, "ickky pooo..."

Hat tip: Wally Ballou

Sunday, August 06, 2006


The Baron’s Boy is home from his summer session of Chemistry at college. Only two weeks and then he returns for his last year of undergraduate work.

In some ways, this period evokes the time leading up to his first venture off to college. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because he’s in love and I can see a change in him that I can’t quite articulate. So it brings back memories of the younger boy, the one who is gone…or at least irrevocably changed.

He still talks a lot. We were fortunate parents – never had one of those sulky kids who hung out in their bedroom, coming out only for meals. But being an only child (his half-siblings being a generation older) left him with only us to talk to, so we were a captive audience. Thus it was that we enlisted him in the nefarious role of inveterate reader. It helped that there was no TV and we lived (live) in the middle of nowhere.

But now he has wider fields to roam, fields full of people. He loves his job as a sales clerk in a tourist town; lots of chances to schmooze. And his music fraternity offers some scope for this ability, as do his dorm mates and classes.

Not much instant messaging, though. Seems like when love takes over, there’s not much room for chatting with your old friends. Sitting across the table from one another eating sushi is time-consuming. It’s a full time job for awhile, discovering that you both like cats and don’t like television and that you were born under the same sign.

This week, a grandchild celebrates his first year among us. A lovely, calm baby, just walking and saying everyone’s names. It’s also the month for Big D’s birthday and it will be K’s 21st.

My how time flies! (what? You expected me to say something original?) It seems to violate some natural law when children continue to grow when you’re not even looking. They ought to stay the same age so that when you’re able to pay attention to them again, there will be no shocking changes. On the other hand, that would mean most of my friends would be much younger than I, and my children would all be about ten years of age. Actually, the latter is true: to me, a person is most truly himself at age ten. He continues on, gaining height and a whole lotta angst in the ensuing years, but you know what? His last years are focused on returning to the child he was when he was ten years old.

Some people make it, and charming souls they are.