Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bonus Travel Post

I heard from several people with excellent ideas to "must see" places in the D.C. area. Here they are--thanks, Alyssa, Nick, Mary Mac and J.C.!

Alyssa's additions: 

1) Bluemont Vineyard--on a clear day you can see the Washington Monument, on an cloudy day you can just drink.
2) The Lincoln Memorial and Korean War Memorial late at night. Really cool looking, and a much different vibe than during the day.
3) Middleburg. Good food and you can pretend to be fancy. If it was good enough for Jackie O, it is good enough for me.
4) Great Falls and/or Prince William Forest Park. Good hiking!

Nick Pegram: 

Since you mentioned Williamsburg, I would suggest the Virginia State Capitol building in Richmond. I have not been since they opened the new visitors center, but it is a beautiful Jefferson inspired building.

Mary and J. C. McElveen:

The Jefferson Hotel and Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, Monticello (of course!--DV), Congressional Cemetery in D.C.

Excellent additions, blog people.  Keep them coming!

Friday, July 29, 2011

My Top Ten List of Places to Visit in the D.C. Area

Maybe it's the influence of having gone more places this summer than we usually do, but I have been thinking about the top ten places I would take a visitor to the area. (My definition of the D.C. area is rather far-ranging, as you will see.) We used top ten lists for Paris and Heidelberg when we were there since we had limited time. We don't have the opportunity to show people around generally since anyone who visits from out of town has lived around here before. Anyhow, to the list:

1. The U.S Capitol.  I haven't been to the new visitors' center yet, but I think seeing this iconic structure should be high on anyone's list. We'll disregard the present sorry state of government and recognize the world's greatest legislative body.

2. The White House.  So much history here in the People's House. Sure, you have to go through your congressperson to arrange a tour, but it's worth the trouble.

3. The various Smithsonian Museums and Galleries. I know, I'm fudging by including a bunch of museums under one category. My favorite is the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum.  An amazing collection, even for people who don't care for things aerospatial. And they're all free...or at least paid for by tax dollars.  Now, you do have to pay to park at Udvar-Hazy.  Load your car up with a bunch of friends and split the cost.

4. Arlington Cemetery.  A beautiful and solemn place.  The Tomb of the Unknowns and the changing of the guard are essentials.  Also, JFK's grave and the eternal flame.

5. Colonial Williamsburg. A bit far afield, I know, but absolutely unique as a restoration of a seventeenth-century city. Warning: swarmed by hordes of middle schoolers during the school year.

6. Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Almost heaven. (I know, most people, including the state of West Virginia, think the song is about West Virginia. The lyrics read, "Almost heaven, west Virginia..." but  Bill Danoff, one of the lyricists, said the song is about the western part of Virginia. We can also sing "Shenandoah," which should be the state song although it was originally a sea chantey.) Ineffably beautiful, especially with the colors in the fall.

7. Library of Congress. Nothing like it in the world.  Go see it.

 8. Mount Vernon.  Terrific new visitors' center with museums, displays and videos, including snow falling from the ceiling during a segment on Valley Forge. Thank you, Mt. Vernon Ladies' Association, for preserving this important estate.  While you're there, have a meal at the Mount Vernon Inn located on the property. They don't take reservations for lunch, so be prepared to wait, but they do for dinner.

9. A Potomac Cruise.  There are a number available and it's a great way to have a different perspective on the city. Some include meals.

10. Gravelly Point in Virginia.  Here you can park and watch the airplanes take off and land from National Airport.  An odd choice, but a unique one, I think.

There you have it!  I left out a number of great sites, and I'd be interested in what you would add to this list.  Come on down!

Thursday, July 28, 2011


(You may gently hum the only melody that Cats has while you read this.)  If you are of a certain age as I am, you know that your memory is slipping away on little cat feet.  Many of us have had the experience of going into a room or going to another floor and not remembering why we went there.  I can't remember where I put my glasses down or my cell phone or a book I was reading or almost any other object I can think of. In fact, most of my waking hours are spent using techniques to help me remember something.  I write things down (if a shopping list exceeds three items I have to write them down or I will forget at least one thing). If something needs to go somewhere, I put it by the front door so I stumble over it on the way out--but I'll remember it.

A few weeks ago, Becky had part of a Potbelly sandwich left over from lunch, so I put it in the refrigerator when I got home.  I think.  When we went to take it out to eat it, it wasn't there.  We couldn't find it in the car, on top of the refrigerator, at Becky's office, anywhere.  Now I think I might have eaten it and forgotten I did so.  It's just pitiful.

Just yesterday, we went looking for a big frame made out of plastic pipe that the Chorale hung signs on in front of the church when we did our concerts there.  The preschool at our church wanted to use it for their registration sign, so I looked in the closet where we had stored it and it wasn't there.  The preschool director and I looked through every closet we could think of but no frame.  We called people who might have seen it, but no one had.  Finally, I said that if we couldn't find it I would make another one. I was on the original committee that formed the preschool in 1973 and I like to do what I can to support it.

As I was driving away from the church, I looked over at the sign for a school that will start in the other building in the fall.  It hung between two vertical timbers in the ground, but there was something familiar about it--a white pipe frame.  It was the one we had been looking for.  We had let the new school use it and totally forgotten about it.

Since the frame was in use, I had to make another one, which was all right. I enjoy doing things like that, as long as I can remember how to.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What Works Well (Or At Least Better Than It Used To)

On the radio the other day I heard a fire chief talking about the difference smoke detectors have made in deaths by fire in this country.  Before their widespread use the death toll stood at about 30,000 (about 1% of the current population).  With the number in place now,that number has dropped to 3,000 annually (or .1% of the population). I think this is an incredible change, even though one death by fire is too many.  With more detectors in place, the death toll would drop to 1500 deaths a year. (Note to self: continue to replace batteries in detectors every six months.)

These statistics got me to thinking about what works well in our society or has improved over the years. At the top of the list would have to be seat belts and air bags.  Yet I can remember people in particular resisting the use of belts, saying they would prefer to be thrown from the car in the event of an accident. Uh, don't think so. A federal study noted that "Studies of accident outcomes suggest that fatality rates among car occupants are reduced by between 30 and 50 per cent if seat belts are worn. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that death risks for a driver wearing a lap-shoulder seat belt are reducing by 48 per cent. The same study indicated that in 2007, an estimated 15 147 lives were saved by seat belts in the United States and that, if seat belt use were increased to 100 per cent an additional 5024 lives would have been saved.[]"  Presently about 85% of drivers use seat belts. With their use, fatalities from car accidents were 37,000 in 2008.  I can remember when there were 50,000 deaths per year with fewer miles being driven.  Seat belts (and air bags) work.

Zippers are something else that has improved over the years and work well now.  If you are of a certain age, you probably remember the difficulty of starting a zipper or worse yet, one getting stuck before it reached the end of its track. Sometimes I think I spent half my life in elementary school fooling with stuck zippers.  I usually would end up pulling my coat over my head and getting stuck because the opening wasn't quite big enough. I never learned from this and so I am grateful that zippers almost never stick any more.  Thank you, Talon Company, for this improvement.

As irritating as cell phones can be, they certainly are useful.  If we had teenagers now, I know I would feel a lot better about their safety and whereabouts knowing they had a way to call. It seems everyone has one, and if we'd just learn where and when to use them, what a wonderful world it would be.  Actually, telephones in general have improved vastly. Many of you can probably remember when a long distance call had to be set up with an operator, at a prohibitively high cost. Now we can call around the world for not very much. When we went to Europe, I notified our carrier and that was it.  The phone worked in Germany and France. While I didn't use it for calls (fairly expensive) I did use it to text Amy who was holding down the fort at home. (That's an odd expression, isn't it?  How do you hold down a fort? It holds itself down, thanks to gravity.)

I also think pharmacies are amazing.  Whatever the doctor prescribes, the pharmacy has it or if they don't, they can get it the next day. I asked Larry Morrison of Manassas Pharmacy how he kept what was called for is stock.  He said he is familiar with what the doctors in the area prescribe and can order accordingly. Still pretty cool.

Then there's next-day shipping.  Through a system of airline connections, merchants can have goods delivered to your house the next day or the day after.  Books have been written about Fed Ex and UPS, but suffice it to say the system works and works well. Then there's my favorite e-tailer,  What an amazing "store" that is. And for a relatively small yearly fee, I can have "free" second day delivery.  Wow!

My last item that works well is pizza places. Order up a pizza, go get it or have it delivered and you're experiencing gastronomic delight in a matter of minutes.  I  know, they're not like Momma made, but my momma wasn't Italian anyhow.

These are my nominees for things that work well.  It makes me happy just thinking about them.  I would bet you can come up with a list of your own.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Sad, Sad Situation

Well, it has happened again.

It happened this past weekend just like it did in Oklahoma City, in the hands of innocent people opening packages, like it happened at Virginia Tech, at Fort Hood, in a shopping center near Tucson.  It happened and it keeps on happening.

A deranged young man, often with an extreme political agenda, decides that to achieve his twisted ends he needs to kill some innocent people. In Norway this past weekend, there was a bomb and people died.  There was shooting at a retreat center for young people on an island for an hour and a half and dozens upon dozens of youths died. It's sad when anyone dies a sudden, violent and meaningless death, but even sadder, I think, when they are young people with so much ahead of them. And that future is taken from them in an instant.

The pictures of Norwegians in deep mourning are heart-rending. We have seen images like these before, but that doesn't make this grief observed any easier. Our thoughts, hearts and prayers go out to those who are suffering so.

Norway has strict gun control measures but somehow this sick individual got around them. While I am not a fan of guns--I am very uncomfortable with the idea that in Virginia people can carry guns into public places--I don't think we are going to solve the conflict between those claiming their right to own and carry weapons and those wishing to limit the ownership and use of guns.  It's just one of those insoluble issues.

I would have to say that strict controls didn't help in this case. And I'm not sure what would stop future tragedies of this sort. Quick-response teams that can control violence and limit casualties? Enhanced mental health services to detect and treat the angry and frustrated among us? Our individual awareness of people who are unstable or troubled and our reaching out to them?  Perhaps a combination of these measures is needed.  I am sick at heart with these events and I don't want them to happen again.  I hope and pray that they don't, that we never have to see again the stricken faces and piles of flowers at makeshift memorials.  Enough is enough.

Monday, July 25, 2011

How Hot Is It?

We have had quite a spell of hot weather recently, although today was better ("only" in the 90's) with more relief to come.  The really hot weather was incredibly oppressive, with air temperatures over 100 and heat indexes of 110 or more.  Now that's hot.

I thought of a song the kids used to sing called "How Hot Is It?" I don't have a sound file for it, but here are the words.  You can make up your own fast country-style melody.

      (More or less shouted) How hot is it?
      Well, it's so hot the snakes have all got blisters,
       It's so hot ny clothes are wringing wet,
       It's so hot the polar bears are reeling,
       All we do is sit and watch rocks sweat.

(This immortal bit of verse also has stanzas on "How dry is it?" "How cold is it?" and "How wet is it?" However, I'm here to talk about the heat.)

I also have a few heat jokes:

You know it’s hot when
Birds need potholders to pull worms out of the ground
Farmers feed their hens crushed ice so they won’t lay hard-boiled eggs
You need a spatula to change your clothing.
You need a spatula to change your clothing.
A scalding shower cools you down
Cows give evaporated milk
A dog is chasing a cat, and they’re both walking.
The directions on a can of soup say, “Just pour and eat.”
You notice your car overheating before you drive it.
The best parking place is determined by shade instead of distance
Pigs complain about sweating like humans.

I know, it's more humor than anyone can stand.  I'll be here all week: remember to tip your server!

Seriously, as much as we complained about the heat, one of the leaders in church reminded us how fortunate we are to have air conditioning and have cars.  People in some parts of the world have no cars and must walk long distances, often to procure food or water. We are indeed blessed and fortunate and when we think about how blessed and fortunate most of us are, it doesn't seem as hot any more.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Bright Hope for Tomorrow

I have been referring all week to Music Camp at Eagle Eyrie, the Baptist Assembly outside Lynchburg.  Actually, the real name of the event is Music and Worship Arts Camp, sponsored by the Virginia Baptist Mission Board in Richmond.  Baptist churches are independent but cooperate through agencies like the VBMB for missions and support. The camp this week was a kind of arts camp  with a decided musical emphasis for fourth through eighth graders.

The assembly at Eagle Eyrie is 55 years old and perches on the side of a steep mountain. It had fallen into a state of disrepair several years ago, with peeling paint, broken fences and walls, and old fixtures.  A largely volunteer committee, headed by our pastor at Manassas Baptist Church, Bill Higgins, restored the property.  Today it looks fresh and new, with beautiful plantings and landscaping.

The Music and Worship Arts Camp is coordinated through the Worship and Church Music Ministries division of the VBMB, headed by Tom Ingram, Field Strategist/Worship and Church Music Specialist, and Debbie Cobb,  Administrative Assistant to Empowering Leaders Team.  They are dedicated, humble, Spirit-filled servants who essentially put together a school for 250 children each summer, along with their other duties during the year. They work with a committee to establish a theme (this year's was "Paper, Rock, Scissors." I have a tee shirt with that on it) beginning in February.  Becky is on the committee as are several other Virginia church musicians such as Fred Horn and Bernadine Donovan.  (I don't know the names of the others on the committee.)

 Tom and Debbie are assisted at the camp by several energetic interns either in college or just out of it, Laura, Hilliary, Ariana and Megan. There were thirty-eight faculty members this year, along with numerous chaperones of church groups.  These faculty members are incredibly talented and experienced musicians who are  a joy to watch work with the 250 children.

I slid in as a teacher by teaching a class in song-writing, using my experience teaching writing which is more developed than my musical skills. The class was called "Lots of Lyrics," and the students showed great insight and creativity writing words to familiar tunes, writing poems based on the Psalms and writing a song base don a Biblical event. One of their songs was used in a worship service. 

Class selections include handbells, a vocal ensemble, banners, guitar 1 &2, instrumental ensemble, interpretive movement, make it/give it (students make an item which is give to an orphanage or shelter), orchestra, piano, 'scapes (visual art project), puppets, stomp (students play trash cans, pots and pans, and some other more or less indescribable instruments), voice, drumming, and worship leadership. Each student is also part of a choir, Alpha for younger children, and Omega for the older ones.  The choirs are usually directed by musicians from out of state, although Becky directed the Alpha choir last year.  Imagine directing a choir of 135 children!

The Worship and Church Music Ministries division also sponsors an All-State Choir and Orchestra in February, with students chosen by audition from all over the state.  They work with a director and produce some beautiful music.

I think you can tell this week, while exhausting, was a mountaintop experience for me, both literally and figuratively. Seeing the leaders work with the children, who were exceptionally well-behaved and enthusiastic (with some exceptions--they are children, after all) was uplifting. I helped David Cameron, from Martinsville church, who taught Guitar 1, with one class, since it's a bit daunting to try to get 12 beginning guitarists' instruments in tune.  He talked with them about eventually taking the places of the church musicians now working.  Their experiences at camp are a start, he said, and they could work until they are ready to step in at some point in the future when we can't minister any longer.  Judging from what I saw this week on the mountaintop, thanks to the efforts of a lot of people and the grace of God, that future is very bright indeed.

Here's a video of the Resurrection Dance.  It's not the official one which was shot from a balcony, but one from ground level by one of the faculty members. I hope it gives you an idea of what happened.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Too Hot to Write

Sorry, blogging friends, but it's too hot to write.  My brain has been scrambled by a combination of being around 250 (mostly well-behaved but energetic) children between the ages of 8 and 13 and countless social interactions that wear me out.  I'll do a bonus post tomorrow (Saturday edition!) with some reflections on Music Camp this year.

In the three cities we were in today--Lynchburg, Charlottesville and Manassas--the air temperature was 103 degrees and the heat index anywhere from 105 to 113. No wonder I feel drained in spite of about four hours in an air-conditioned car. The maximum temperature feature today on my thermometer recorded 103.6 degrees--and the sensor is in the shade.

One note about the flash dance, which went well: we spent an hour on asphalt that had been baked in the sun for ten hours. This morning, I noticed the soles of my feet hurt and found they were a bright pink. I had been burned through the half-inch soles of my walking sandals. A little Solarcaine and I was good to go.  I guess people do burn the soles of their feet, but I did it with sandals on.

More tomorrow. I'm going to fill the tub with ice cubes and crawl in.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

More Travel Tips

Stevie Wonder had a song featuring a lot of harmonica called "Fingertips, Parts 1 and 2." I could have called this "Travel Tips, Part 2," but I don't know if the connection would have been evident without some explanation.  Anyhow, call it what you want.

You might recall that I wrote about the wisdom of having duplicates of certain items while traveling. My glasses came apart and I did not have a spare. Luckily, Becky did and I was able to use those until I had mine repaired. I should add that we are about 10 minutes away from a basic convenience store, 15 away from a Walgreen's and 30 minutes away from a mall. The time and distance are not the problem: the problem is finding time in a fairly busy schedule to go shopping.

So--I think I wrote that we brought a laptop and a netbook, which seems like wretched excess, but we have ended up using them at the same time.  Becky has done the bulletin for Sunday and emailed it in and conducted other business; I have written here and kept up with email. We had duplicate computers: what we didn't have was extra batteries for the cordless mice (mouses? meece?). And you guessed it: the batteries went out on both within fifteen minutes of each other. I could have pirated (arr!) the AA's from the camera, which does have a spare set, but we made the trip down the mountain for more.

I suppose it's difficult to think of every thing one needs on a trip, but I've learned of a couple: glasses and batteries.  I'm sure there are more, but I don't want to find out this week what they are.

Flash Dance Update: It happens on the lower main parking lot this evening at 6 PM.  We can't use the upper part of the lot because it slopes so steeply. One young woman tried busting some moves on the upper lot and found she fell over.  And she is coordinated.  A crew has been out marking the lines for us to stand on, although they're not sure the tape they used will stick in the 100 degree temperatures (heat index of 103 degrees) predicted for today. I'll have a full report tomorrow.

Here's the reaction to this event on Facebook from our daughter Alyssa: My parents are going to be part of a flash mob. My mother is not sure if they did "the pony" or not. Please excuse me while I go prepare for the impending apocalypse. (When they enter a beer pong tournament, that's when I will go hide in a bunker.) ...I am for real. And they are doing this as part of a Baptist church camp... I'm actually kind of terrified.

Who said the old folks can't boogie?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Boogie Nights

Well.  I am here to report that there was dancing at the Baptist Assembly at Eagle Eyrie outside Lynchburg last evening.  Lots of dancing.  By lots of people.

Actually, it was more like liturgical dancing (or as some Baptists call it, "enhanced liturgical movement") than doing the Hustle. About 300 of us at Music Camp gathered in the auditorium to learn the moves for the "Resurrection Sunday Dance," first done in Budapest, Hungary in 2010. (Here's a link to a video of that dance-- It's a flash mob style event, and we will tape it when we do it on the parking lot Thursday evening.  Our version will be cut into a video of groups from all around Virginia and shown at the October meeting of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board in Richmond. I'm at the end of row 10 but don't expect any expert moves from this dancing Baptist. Although I did have dance lessons once.

They were offered by my elementary school as part of their general effort to civilize us.  We met after school in the cafeteria, I think in sixth grade, contributed our quarters for the lesson and watched the steps demonstrated by a nice young woman who would have been fascinating to watch if any of the boys had any interest in women at all, which we didn't. Then we practiced the fox trot or cha cha or mambo or meringue with girls in the class (reluctantly).  I did become a pretty good dancer after a while although those skills have faded.

Once memorable lesson our teacher brought with her a slim young man with a dark mustache.  I think they did a demonstration of the tango which I thought was one of the coolest things I had ever seen.  I still would like to learn to tango, but I don't think we'll be doing that at the Baptist Assembly any time soon.

Followups: Yesterday was shopping day so we went over to River Ridge Mall outside Lynchburg.  I took my broken glasses to the Sears optical department there and an incredibly nice woman fixed them in two minutes and didn't charge me a thing!  A happy ending.  In other news relating to what to pack, the AAA battery in the cordless mouse for the notebook went out, leaving us at the mercy of the diabolical touch pad. Something else to remember to pack: spare batteries.

Tuesday, July 19, 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.

Monday, July 18, 2011

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.

Friday, July 15, 2011

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.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

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.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


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.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

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.

Monday, July 11, 2011

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 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.

Friday, July 8, 2011

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.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

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.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

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.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Gee, It's Good to Be Back Home Again

And it was.  As we walked off the plane about 2:30 this afternoon, Becky remarked that the Virginia heat and humidity felt right.  We proceeded through passport control and customs and into the airport where Amy met us.

I don't have the sense right now to put together some observations about the trip (my body clock says it's 2:30 AM), so I'll do that later. One thing that we all noticed was the sequence of checks at the airport.  Here, we checked in and checked our passports, went through security en masse, and proceeded to the gate.  At DeGaulle airport outside Paris, we checked in, checked our bags, went through passport control, and then through security at the gate.  Some of our company had water bottles they had to discard.  I somehow set off the alarm and was patted down by a nice young French man.  It felt more like a gentle massage so I didn't mind.

All right, then, have to catch up on a number of things, one of which is sleep.  Thanks for your comments and for following us on our trip.  Film at 11.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Longest Day

Happy Fourth of July! Usually we have a low-key day: we put a few decorations out and have a cookout. Today's activities were on a much grander scale. We got up early to take the buses to the American Cemetery at Normandy, about a three-hour drive.

It was a faultless day and the cemetery is impressive and beautiful with its white marble markers and well-maintained plantings.

We sang our songs after a snafu involving another choir which was supposed to combine with us but didn't, sucking up our preparation time. I thought we did a nice job with the songs, notwithstanding.

The cemetery overlooks Omaha beach. It is incredible to consider that those soldiers came ashore under heavy German fire from the cliffs above. Evidence of the price they paid was all around us.

We went down to the beach itself to eat our lunch. Itis a regular bathing beach which either seems ironic considering all the suffering that took place there or appropriate that families are able to enjoy the place quietly and in peace. I couldn't decide which.

We then returned to a farewell dinner but it was all over but the shouting. Tomorrow it's back on the airplane and then home.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Different KInds of Light

Today was another Typical Tourist Day starting with an optional trip to Versailles. We had our usual guide on our bus, which was great.  She filled us in on the stories of Kings Louis XIV (the Sun King), Louis XV (the Fun King, for his love of hunting both animals and women) and Louis XVI (the Dead King--you know). I vaguely remember visiting the place when I was a student.  At the time my revolutionary self thought the excesses of the place were disgusting so it didn't make much of an impression, just a bunch of decorated rooms and ornate exteriors. This time I felt sad that so many people had suffered so much to indulge a group of privileged people who were in their own way sad in their narcissism and self-absorption. Our guide led us and did her usual excellent job but there were so many people pressing in I felt like I was in a semi-permenent rugby scrum. I was glad to escape to the cool and quiet of the gardens. This all reflected one kind of light, the light of the Sun King and the light of the, well, Enlightenment.

Since we had two buses our leaders polled us and determined that one bus would return to the hotel and one would get as close as possible to Notre Dame. We took the Notre Dame bus and, with two young friends, set off for some shopping in the Marais, a section where most stores are open on Sunday.  We then came back to Notre Dame, met up with some friends, and joined the thousand-yard line (no kidding) to get into the cathedral. The line moved surprisingly quickly, though,and we sat through most of the concert. Then we made our way to the Metro where we encountered our guide.  It was good to see her! We went back to the hotel where we rested for a while.  Then we found a cafe and enjoyed a very good French meal. We took the Metro to Sacre Coeur, gazing on the vistas lit pink by the last of the sun (this was about 10:15 PM). We made our way back and tumbled into our room about 11.

It occurred to me that we experienced at least four kinds of light this day.  One was the light of the deluded Sun King.  Another was the light of the Enlightenment, a third was the light of religion at Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur while the fourth was the light of the setting sun.  That last light seemed appropriate as our time here nears an end.

Tomorrow we travel to Normandy where we remember those for whom the light was extinguished all too soon.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The City of Light

Today was our sight-seeing day in Paris, in which we tried to cram as many Paris sights into one day as we could.  I was there for five months in 1966-67 and didn't see it all so I was interested in how they would work this.

Our first breakfast at the Ibis Hotel was good, and even included make-your-own crepes!  We ate a lot, knowing that subsequent  meals might be delayed.  Then it was onto the bus and off to the Eiffel Tower.

There are some things in life that are underwhelming, like Stonehenge.  I know it's a great feat of engineering and all that, but it looks so small against the landscape.  The Eiffel Tower on the other hand is overwhelming.  I remember when I walked around a corner in August, 1966, and there it was, huge and beautiful.  I'm here to report it hasn't changed. It is still just overwhelming. Our group had a good time riding the elevators to the second level, taking pictures of the vistas and each other and enjoying the peerless views on a sunny, clear day.

We went to a place for lunch near the Arch de Triomph which is still as grand as ever and still as terrifying with its about 16 lanes of traffic coming together. The lunch was good (with vegetables!) and we had a leisurely drive down the Champs Elysees to the Louvre for our tour with a guide.  The process took over 45 minutes to set up, and while the guide was knowledgeable, the place was hot, crowded and noisy. Supposedly it would take three months to look at everything on display and I believe it.  I am happy to report the Mona Lisa looks better and is displayed better than in 1966.  And the controversial entryway with its glass pyramids is quite striking.

A group of us went up to the Galeries Lafayette store where a crazy sale was going on.  I bought a map of Paris.  We walked over to the nearest subway station, figured out the fare card and jumped on the first train that came by.  Becky and I were knocked back by the doors closing and had to take the next train.  Our group was sitting on a bench in the station,waiting for us. We ran into some other friends and had dinner at a cafe across the street from the hotel.

Today's experiences were a reminder that this trip is not just about singing and sightseeing: it has been an opportunity to strengthen old relationships, create new ones and to know that when life knocks you back, there will be friends waiting at the next station to make sure you're all right and to pick you up again.