A mystery: 27: and solved

I have become mildly obsessed with Mantovani’s anodyne arrangement of “Charmaine,” perhaps the epitome of easy listening/elevator music. When I worked on Clybourne Park, it was one of the songs on Jim’s mixtape. I’ve just finished reading Joseph Lanza’s Elevator Music, which has a few additional tidbits about the song (I wish that Lanza had included song titles in his index).

What has been nagging me is the dance performance that I alluded to back in my 2016 post: I could not summon any memories of it, except bland white background paper, dancers in black, and a burly, bearded male dancer crossing his arms in exasperation. What was the company? Not Mark Morris, although the dancer had a similar build. Where did I see it? Probably at the Kennedy Center.

And then comes Brian’s Siebert’s story on the long-running collaboration between Alex Katz and Paul Taylor.

With the rift behind them, Katz and Taylor continued their mischief. “I said to Paul, ‘You’re so good you could choreograph to elevator music,’” Katz recalled. “And Paul said, ‘I’m not dancing to that trash.’ And three months later, he said let’s do it.” This was “Lost, Found, and Lost” (1982), a brilliantly funny piece with chic black costumes, a flat white stage world and recycled bits of “7 New Dances.”

Yep, the $100 Jeopardy! answer, Paul Taylor Dance Company, whom I have probably seen four or five times.

A hat tip to Angela Kane and her catalogue of Taylor’s works, which confirmed that “Charmaine” was indeed part of the score for this dance.

-30-: 3

not a bad cropMy mother wasn’t an especially sophisticated woman. Esquire magazine and Champale she considered a little too racy. When I was in high school in the early 1970s, she squawked at me for carrying hot tea in a thermos to school because it “looked affected.” But she was a good person, a mensch.

Most of her family knew her as Eileen. Her nameplate where she worked usually said Doris Gorsline. Some of her newspaper work she signed Dodie. Early on, she sold some joke material under the carefully-chosen gender-free pseudonym of Pat Petirs.

My mother was born in a small city in the Miami Valley of Ohio to Bessie and Louis, both of them garment workers; Louis went on to become a union electrician. She came west to California after finishing high school, just after World War II. She met my father there, moved to New Mexico to start their family, split with my Dad and moved back to Ohio, and raised me in Dayton (and places you can see from there) as a single mother. After I left for university, she spent some time working in Cincinnati, then at the end of her working life returned to Sacramento. She would probably tell you it was for the climate, but I think the real reason was that her best friend Janice was there—they were genuine BFFs, all the way back to school in Ohio. And when she settled there she made more new good friends.

What a person saves, keeps by her, says quite a bit about her. When she moved to assisted living about fifteen years ago and my cousin Rita and I cleaned out her apartment—well, she’s a packrat like I am—her keepsakes spoke loud and clear: friends and family and relationships. Postcards and letters and so many, many photographs. Blank notecards for the sending. Bus schedules (I kept those) and rubber bands and pennies squirreled away everywhere. Her doll collection: what I admire about her collecting is that she didn’t keep her treasures sealed up lest they lose value; she had them out so that she could enjoy them. Of course, her own clippings from stories she’d published.

My mother accomplished a lot—in the middle of the Mad Men era—by writing full-time for a city evening newspaper, the Dayton Daily News. When I would visit her at work, I remember soft #1 pencils and cheap yellow typing paper and pneumatic tubes for moving copy around the building. Mom wrote her share of lighter features, but she wasn’t trapped in what they used to call the women’s section. Early on, her editor told her she’d need to drive to her assignments. One problem: Mom hadn’t learned to drive. So, in her thirties, she took lessons and her driver’s test—and turned it into a story for the paper. Then, later, it was too expensive to send both a reporter and a photographer out, so she learned to make her own photographs.

I wish I could have known her when she was a wisecracking twentysomething, selling gags to 1000 Jokes magazine; or when she flouted convention and summered at a writer’s colony in New England (and had her own lovesick suitor to follow her home to Ohio); or when she was a young girl in the Depression, wheedling a dime from her parents to see the new Shirley Temple movie. She drew comic strips for her own entertainment; and then, in a prescient bit of post modernism, came back to them years later and marked them up, annotating the poor draftsmanship and faulty story-telling. There was a bit of Lynda Barry’s Marlys in her: dance, draw, do whatever you are moved to do, and don’t worry about who’s watching.

We were never well-off, just somewhere-in-the-middle-class, in a succession of rented bungalows in the Dayton suburbs, but in the best public school district in the area. She had the wisdom to listen to what I needed, and did what she could to provide that. And otherwise, with an occasional nudge, she let me solve my own problems.

Truth to tell, she spent a lot of her life doing what other people expected of her, and perhaps that is her small tragedy. She started her writing career, in part, because a teacher in high school thought that she could and should be a writer. Her professional life and avocation evolved over time, as she moved from the humor columnist to the reporter to the P.R. manager. Fairly late in her career, she completed her undergrad degree in communications at what is now Mount St. Joseph University. And she continued submitting fiction and nonfiction to the magazines, with some success. She never stopped trying to figure out what being a writer meant to her.

We went to the movies together: we both loved golden age musicals and Robert Altman’s Nashville (and a certain epic centered on a plantation called Tara that we will pass over for the moment). We went to the library, first the Flesh Public Library in Piqua then the big downtown library in Dayton. We listened to music: we liked Van Cliburn’s piano and Bobby Darin’s pop and Henry Mancini’s movie scores. We had a few comedy albums that we wore the grooves out of: Bob Newhart as a monologist; Mike Nichols and Elaine May as a team. When the Beatles were beset by the “Paul is Dead” rumors, we scrunched next to the stereo, trying to hear the messages coded in “I Am the Walrus.”

We traveled the country by intercity bus and passenger train. We would go to Cincinnati just to visit the ice cream parlor set in the pedestrian bridge joining the two buildings of Pogue’s department store. New York for the World’s Fair in 1965: I was subway-smitten and wanted to ride the 7 train out to Flushing and the fair, but she more sensibly found the dedicated shuttle buses. California and Tennessee by train, to see family and friends. Washington, D.C. by bus in ’64. Parts of the original Greyhound terminal on New York Avenue, N.W. that we used is now under historic preservation, so it will always be there as a souvenir of that good time.

That’s something I learned from her: riding the bus may not be cool, but there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s cheap and efficient.

And I learned my liberalism and tolerance from her, as imperfect as it may be. She had Jewish colleagues and thought nothing of it. In most of the neighborhoods we lived, African Americans were scarce, but I was taught early on not to dwell on superficial differences. She would proudly tell the story of our Washington visit, when we toured the Senate chamber while the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was being debated. On the other hand, I’m not sure what she would make of some of my theater friends, but anyway…

Her heroes were two: fellow Miami Valley humorist Erma Bombeck; and Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc in the 1948 film: a woman alone, armed with her faith.

One day, I was telling Leta about my mom’s career, her successes and incompletions, and Leta said, “If success is measured as making a better life for your children, then she was very successful indeed.” Yes. She was a bang-up success.

Love and Information

70 possible short scenes, merely text, no characters, no given situations
memory palace
missing information
the impossibility of describing the sensation of fear, of plain, of longing
shotgun DNA sequencing
love and remembrance
cocktails and [illegible]
interrogation and torture
opening scene: Alice shares a secret with Bob, but we never get to hear it
house configured galley style, watching other audience members
half a line, fishermen in slickers, a phone call to a Las Vegas showgirl
information exchange
ensemble of fourteen
strong work

  • Love and Information, by Caryl Churchill, directed by Michael Dove, Forum Theatre, Silver Spring, Md.

For Leta: 5

I delivered a version of the following remarks at Grace Episcopal Church on Saturday, 4 February 2017.

Leta and I were sweethearts for sixteen years. She liked to say that, in our relationship, she was Ernie and I was Bert. I don’t see the resemblance.

Leta never stopped learning, whether the subject was medieval monarchs, Tudors vs. Plantagenets; or how to mix a cocktail that hadn’t been in the recipe books since the 1920s; or American Sign Language; or tagging along with me on a nature walk. She would badger the guide with informed, attentive questions.

And she was good luck when we were out looking for birds together. We took a trip to California, and I planned a visit for us to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, just a short walk down Cannery Row from our hotel. The only problem was that day it was pouring rain. But she was game and we set off—and we got soaked, but I saw a bird for my life list, my first Pelagic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pelagicus), on that walk in the rain, and she gets the credit.

She never stopped learning. Just a week or so before her diagnosis, she was taking an online class, learning how to code for the web; we did a screen-sharing call for me to help with her JavaScript homework.

Leta loved theater, and she was good at it.

Many of you know that she was nominated twice by the WATCH organization (honoring excellence in Washington area community theater), for her roles as Diane in The Little Dog Laughed and Alma in Taking Leave. Personally, I think that she did even better work in two plays by Donald Margulies: Karen in Dinner with Friends and Sarah in Time Stands Still. She was utterly committed to each role, each project, she took on.

She told me about a director who offered her a part; the director said, “there are many people who can do this role, but there are few that I would trust with this role.”

Leta loved theater, and she didn’t mind sharing that love.

She wouldn’t just tell an actor she happened to see in a lobby how much she liked the show—that’s easy. A few months ago, we saw a show downtown, a regional production on its way to Broadway. One thing and another, it was maybe half an hour after curtain that we started walking to the subway; we were blocks away from the theater… and at a crosswalk, she recognized an actor from that show, on his own way home, and she stopped him to say how much the play meant to her.

For all her expansiveness, her extroversion, Leta’s tastes were clean and simple.

She loved the intricate simplicity of a wall drawing by Sol LeWitt, a poem by Langston Hughes, a black and white abstract ballet by George Balanchine, a play of unspoken dread by Harold Pinter. Or just a nice hot cup of tea. When I would come back from a business trip, she didn’t want a fancy gift from the airport shop, but she did expect the free toiletries from the hotel. For fun, we would browse real estate listings, modest little post-war bungalows along Viers Mill Road, houses she called “dumpy.” For her, this was a high compliment.

Leta’s tastes were simple, especially when it came to what she found funny.

The New York Times arts section has a style guide, and it calls for a “Mister” on second reference, even if the subject was someone with a name like Iggy Pop. And so Leta would read about “Mr. Pop,” and dissolve into bubbles of giggles. She is the only person I know who laughed “tee hee.”

I can’t say that Garrison Keillor’s penguin joke was her favorite joke, but it was on her top ten list. So maybe you can help me understand this…

Two penguins are standing on an ice shelf—I don’t know whether they were Adélies or Gentoos or …—getting ready to jump in the ocean and do some fishing.

And the first penguin says, “Say… you look like you’re wearing a tuxedo.”

And the second penguin says, “What makes you think I’m not?”

I think she told it better.

Leta Madeline Hall made the gift of sixteen years of her life to me. Thank you.

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2013

It’s usually the case that two or three of the plays at CATF share a thematic affinity. This year, three shows are connected by the theme of religious zealotry—not precisely extremism, but perhaps overcommitment, to the point of a fault.

The first of these is the drama A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World, by Liz Duffy Adams, which takes place in coastal Massachusetts in 1702, ten years after the Salem witch trials. And indeed, the first act comprises the retrial of Abigail Williams (Susannah Hoffman), one of the accusers and key player in Arthur Miller’s version of events, The Crucible. Abigail finds herself accused of witchcraft herself, via a chain of suspicion and hysteria not unlike Miller’s story. Although, in a sly aside, we are reminded that you can’t trust any of those stories that “the Miller” made up.

One of the most interesting passages is a fanciful recounting of Shakespeare’s Macbeth by the young indentured servant Rebekkah (small but powerful Becky Byers). Rebekkah once visited the big city of New York and observed a touring company production. In her garbled retelling, the Scottish thane is named “MacDeath” and royalty are referred to as governors. (There’s a nice resonance with Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play.) There are also hints of another work of Shakespeare’s: a discussion of utopian societies by Abigail and a mysterious stranger (Gerardo Rodriguez) reminds us of The Tempest.

Technical elements are very effective here: the subtle flickering of lamp light from floor-mounted instruments (designed by D. M. Wood); the muffled roar of distant surf at the back of house left (sound design by Eric Shimelonis).

Next is the comedy Modern Terrorism, Or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them, by Jon Kern–a very funny farce with death at its center, and the all-around most successful work in the festival. Here the fanatics are a trio of feckless Muslim suicide bombers working out of an apartment in Brooklyn: Qalalaase (Royce Johnson), a Somali who seems to be condemned to the “those who can’t do, teach” track of terrorism; Yalda Abbasi (Mahira Kakkar), a Pakistani woman whose emotions are even more tightly wound than her headscarf; and the moonstruck Rahim Janjua (Omar Maskati), whose fanaticism for the films of George Lucas and the computers of Steve Jobs exceeds his devotion to jihad. Despite all efforts, they find themselves joined by Jerome, their upstairs neighbor (the superb Kohler McKenzie), a stoner who’d never found a purpose in life until he discovered holy war.

Lots of good physical comedy in this one: Johnson ‘s hand shoved into the back of Maskati’s briefs, checking for moisture that might disrupt the bomb he’s attached to Rahim’s scrotum; Kakkar unspooling and strewing an entire roll of paper towels lest her unwanted guest spill tea (or his own blood) on the upholstery; a crazy blind backwards cross by McKenzie that calls for him to step over a coffee table and love seat, with akimbo grace.

Although it’s been almost twelve years since the attacks in Washington and New York, and our healing has come to the point that we can laugh at some of the blundering war criminals who have followed, and although the time will come (as one character says) when Osama bin Laden is a face to be silk-screened onto an ironic tee shirt, it’s worth remembering the gore and destruction that bombers of any stripe are accountable for. And remembering the compassion that goes into a good laugh.

It’s probably stretching a point to include Jane Martin’s H2O with the others, but there is no question that Deborah (the laser-focused Diane Mair) is dedicated to her Christianity. Once again, Martin succeeds in taking a character from a tradition easily parodied or ridiculed (or worse, just dismissed) and writing a genuine person, one with a burning inner life (think of Martin’s early Twirler). If the setup of this play too much resembles Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet and Martin’s own Anton in Show Business (commercially successful movie actor [Alex Podulke as Jake] seeks stage cred, talented actor as mentor), be assured that the resolution of this play is bitterly sharp (perhaps excessively so) and calls for Deborah to give up more of herself than she ever has before. Deborah’s eyes, impossibly wide-open and ready for the world at the start of the play, end up hooded and ringed in darkness.

The remaining two plays perhaps could be connected with the idea of contemplating the abyss; this idea connects them back to the seaside cliffs of Discourse as well. In the first instance, Sam Shepard’s enigmatic ghost story Heartless, the psychological hole is physicalized as the canyons of Los Angeles and environs. One character drops into a chasm and returns unharmed; another looks into the void and (perhaps reliably) explains the backstory of her daughter’s brutal chest scar. There is a recollection of climbing a tree, Nicodemus-like, to gaze on the beautiful burnout that was James Dean.

What’s special about this play, for Shepard, is that his strong writing here is for his four women characters. Michael Cullen’s Roscoe (a ruined academic on the run from his marriage and his life) is important to the play for introducing us to the more seriously damaged Mable (Kathleen Butler) and her family. In another Shepard play, Roscoe would take center stage.

And there are jelly donuts.

On the lighter side is the bio-comedy Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah, by Mark St. Germain. The abyss is no deeper than the swimming pool next door to the apartment where F. Scott Fitzgerald (Joey Collins) is holed up doing Hollywood script rewrites, but there is a real threat that Fitzgerald will drop back into alcoholism and the self-pity of a creator who never lived up to his early promise. A visit by the false friend Ernest Hemingway (the boisterous Rod Brogan) knocks him off the edge.

Entertaining as the play is, it carries the burden of too much research, too much name-checking. Benchley, Parker, the Murphys—didn’t these guys have any friends that we’ve never heard of?

If you don’t agree with these reviews, remember Qalalaase’s advice: “The internet is full of falsehoods.”

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World, by Liz Duffy Adams, directed by Kent Nicholson
  • Modern Terrorism, Or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them, by Jon Kern, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • H2O, by Jane Martin, directed by John Jory
  • Heartless, by Sam Shepard, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah, written and directed by Mark St. Germain

Sax-Zim Bog

The weather cooperated with me for my visit to the Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival in northeastern Minnesota. Though the temperature never rose above freezing, the snow and wind held off until I had departed for home. Saturday’s field trip covered the bog in St. Louis County, while Sunday we ranged up and down the shore of Lake Superior.

Good weather means good birds, and I got good looks at many of them. A total species count of about 35, with 10 lifers, good enough for me to break the 400 mark. Some highlights:

industrial landscapeLifer Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) as well as Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis) at Agate Bay, where immense ore loading facilities loomed. In this part of the country, the unit trains loaded with dark gray rock are carrying iron ore, not coal.

ducks, bridge, and lightfar endBetter looks at the goldeneyes in Duluth Harbor, and enough of them to sort through in hopes of finding a Barrow’s. A squatty lighthouse marks the channel into the harbor.

Multiple views of Pine Grosbeaks (Pinicola enucleator) and two species of redpolls at a couple of stops, including one at a feeder station run by the friends group. The porta-john at this stop was the cleanest, most well-appointed one I’ve ever seen. And purple!

yes, it's a borealI wasn’t even expecting a lot of success with owls, but I picked up four new birds in this family. The Boreal Owl (Aegolius funereus), sitting calmly in a bare tree about 15 feet above Admiral Road, was a new bird for a lot of us, hence the pileup of birders and vehicles.

A scamper over to Superior, Wisconsin to see two Snowy Owls (Nyctea scandiaca) (yet another life tick) at Richard I. Bong Airport.

We did most of our birding from our transport, school buses driven masterfully by Dan and Amy, with quick sallies outside with the scopes. While this approach to birding involves a lot of window maintenance (wiping and scraping condensation), it’s nice not to have to carry the scope very far.

no woodpeckers todayWe did get a little walking in, in an unsuccessful attempt at some woodpecker specialties. The woody vegetation in the bog is made up of spruce, larch, aspen, and birch, with whips of willows in clumps. The peaty soils also support sundews and lady’s slippers (sleeping under this February snow).

first dayit's warm insideHome base for the festival is the community center at Meadowlands, the sort of place that would be a VFW hall if Meadowlands were a big enough town to support a VFW. The amenties were spartan, but clean and effective.

still in businessbio breakOn Saturday’s trip, a bio break at the fire station in the hamlet of McDavitt was much appreciated by the group.

KUMD 103.3 kept me company on each of the 1-hour drives from Duluth to the bog and back again.

Hmm, the literature says that Connecticut Warbler is a specialty nester at the bog. Maybe a trip during the breeding season is in order.

Warner decoded

Or, rather, not.

I rather like it that William W. Warner doesn’t slow down to define every bit of terminology that he uses in Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay. Words like cultch and shunpike (a great word, that) are fairly accessible through desk dictionaries. But the following passage defies lookup:

Presently the Dorolena threads the long, dredged channel into Tangier [Island]’s crowded harbor. Crab ponds and shanties are everywhere, and on shore one can detect busy people shuttling around on bicycles and golf carts. The feeling of having arrived somewhere out-of-the-way is very strong; passengers line the rail in anticipation of setting foot on this dot of land in the emptiest reaches of the Chesapeake. Indeed, for all true nesophiles, the journey on the Dorolena is reason enough to go to Tangier. (ch. 10, p. 244)

The mystery word doesn’t ruin the sense of the paragraph, but what exactly does Warner mean by nesophile? My fat dictionaries downstairs offer no help; online sources likewise. Bing, somewhat inexplicably, offers Anne-Sophie Mutter’s official site.

Is a nesophile a lover of islands? A devotee of hard-working ships like the Dorolena, a freight-passenger-mail vessel in service more than 30 years? Or is it someone who likes being in the middle of nowhere? Was Warner going for mesophile and mistyped?

For Lydia Davis

13 June 2002

This evening on the subway I saw a man reading a comb-bound book with a green cover. From the side I could see diagrams, small circles arranged in orderly polygons. I reasoned that I was seeing diagrams of aromatic molecules. Perhaps this man was a medical student on his way to a class at GWU.

The I read the phrases “four couples…,” “partner…,” “in a circle or a square…” The book was a manual of square dance patterns, hundreds of them.

In the man’s hand I could see a walkman and a bandanna, folded, printed with stars and stripes.

Bird Phenology Program

Consistent with another of my volunteer gigs (with Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic), I seem to have positioned myself as a wetware information transcriber. A couple of months ago I started working about an hour a week as a data entry volunteer for the North American Bird Phenology Program, based out of Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

Phenology is the study of comings and goings in the natural world—what day of the year the swallows return to Capistrano, the lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, that sort of thing. Decade-to-decade trends in a particular location can provide additional evidence to researchers studying climate patterns, among other things.

There are a number of phenology programs active under the umbrella of the USA National Phenology Network. One of the broadest-scoped citizen science initiatives was organized in 1881 by Wells W. Cooke, and was later expanded by C. Hart Merriam of the newly-formed American Ornithologists’ Union. For 90 years, up to 3,000 field researchers submitted data on the arrivals and departures of migratory birds in North America, in sort of an ornithological Mass Observation Project. Data was collected on 2×5-inch slips; when the project was wound down in 1970 (as other means of collecting similar data evolved), the records base comprised 6 million of them. In 2003, Sam Droege began efforts to safeguard and digitize the slips.

Many of the records are on a GPO-issued form, designated 3-801 or Bi-801; this form was redesigned a couple of times to collect different data. But many more are simply hand-written slips in a particularly compact shorthand that identifies the species (often simply by a three-digit AOU number), the location and observer, and the dates that the bird was first seen in the course of the year; seen again; seen commonly; and last seen during the breeding or migration season.

As you would expect, the transcription of this data from scanned document images into a web form is not an automatable process. Enter the volunteer scribes. It takes me 30 seconds or more to copy out a card—up to several minutes if I have to puzzle out a location name (Google Maps is my BFF) written in faded fountain pen ink in a cursive handwriting style more suited to wedding invitations. The data collection protocol also provides for observer’s notes on whether the bird breeds in the area, is a winter resident, and assessment of abundance (one point on the scale is the quaintly labelled “tolerably common”)—all that, along with any other notes made by the observer, is to be transcribed into fixed fields or free text. Each observer seems to have a different approach to spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. The opportunity for transcription errors is therefore high, so each card is copied into the database twice, then compared.

There’s lots more to be done: the number of digitized cards only numbers in the few hundred thousands, so if you’re into birds or just have some spare cycles, I would encourage you to sign up for the program. You can request to transcribe cards only for a particular location or a particular species, or you can do what I do and just pull cards at random. I’ve copied slips filed from tiny, obscure places like Hadlyme, Connecticut and Rhoma, Texas; I’ve worked with a card prepared by A. W. Schorger, author of the definitive book on the Passenger Pigeon. No particular knowledge of birds is required; in fact, the procedures we follow call for a literal transcription of the record, no interpretation or corrections allowed. So even if I “know” that the common name of a bird has been changed in the past hundred years, my instructions are to copy what the observer wrote, and to let the researchers clean up the data later.

And that turns out to be a learning experience for me, too. Before I started transcribing, I wasn’t aware that Purple Martin (Progne subis) and Eastern Phoebe (Sayronis phoebe) once had simpler names in common use (Martin, Phoebe). And I had never heard of Holboell’s Grebe, which we know now as Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena).

Droege and his team have already begun to draft papers from the data, especially looking at patterns of Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) migrations. The San Francisco-area ABC affiliate put together a rather fine story on the program.

Some arithmetic

I read about a program to convert marine waste—fishing nets and other gear—into energy. The claim is made that 1 ton of waste can power a household for 5 months. That number sounds high, but not completely unrealistic. Does it add up?

Well, a Department of Energy survey measures the typical American household’s consumption of electricity in 1993 at 9,965 kilowatt-hours per year, of which about half goes into heating and cooling, water heaters, and refrigerators, and the other half into other appliances. So 9,965/12 = 830 kWh per month.

Myself, I am somewhat more profligate, and I bought 16,290 kWh from Dominion Virginia Power for my all-electric home in 2008. Ah, but we read that mixed-fuel homes use less electricity than all-electric homes (as you would certainly expect); the average all-electric home burned 15,639 kWh/year in 1993.

At any rate, let’s use the 830 kWh/month figure, just to pick a number.

Now, how much energy can be extracted from something by burning it? Household waste has an energy density of 8 to 11 megajoules per kilogram. Bituminous coal, for comparison, comes in at 24 MJ/kg, wood at 6 to 17 MJ/kg, and gasoline at 46.4 MJ/kg. Plastics score in the coal-gasoline range. Let’s use 15 MJ/kg. Now for some conversions (with lots of roundoff):

1 ton of waste = 907 kilograms of waste
907 kg · 15 MJ/kg = 13,605 megajoules of energy
1 kWh = 3.6 · 106 joules, so
13,605 MJ · 1 kWh / 3.6 MJ = 3,780 kilowatt-hours per ton of waste

And our typical household will go through 830 kWh/month · 5 months = 4,150 kWh. So we’re in the ballpark, assuming the combustion of the waste is fairly efficient.

Makes me remember the can in the back yard of my grandparents’ house where we would burn the trash. How many watt-hours did we let escape?


The street name signs in Fairfax City constitute the most egregious mess of colors and styles in the metropolitan area.

generic black and whiteThe smaller intersections are marked with generic black on white signs, with or without block numbers. These simple, functional signs are similar to those used in Arlington County.

plain blueconventional overheadUp on the busier thoroughfares, the signs switch to white on blue. Most use a readable but pedestrian all-caps sans serif. Overhead signs use “Freeway Gothic” in mixed case.

blue and green There is a pinched condensed font that suggests credits on a movie poster. (Unfortunately, an example or two of this developer-friendly sign can be found in Reston, too.) The contrast with the white on green is particularly ugly.

olde timeyold and newIntersections in the old town center use signs with a scrolled border and a decorated serif, but recent traffic re-engineering is replacing these with the ordinary overheads.

one-off This example, missing the street type and the block numbers, appears to be a one-off. Notice the brackets for the crossing sign for University Drive, which is missing.

blue and white You can even find a few examples of this jaunty mixed-case sans serif, shown here with an afterthought black and white locator.

nouveau riche This blue-bronze sign for a new subdivision of starter McMansions is especially galling.

too muchpileupBut the worst specimens accrue to the recent dual-designation within the city of U.S. Route 50, which follows Arlington Boulevard, Lee Highway, and Main Street, as “Fairfax Boulevard.” This led to the creation of these red-white-and-blue decorative contraptions. Notice the oops-addition of a sign for Blake Lane, which was extended to this intersection about 20 years ago.

retrofitMinor intersections were fitted with smaller versions of the ungainly, squareish Fairfax Boulevard signs.

Related: My pedantic nuthatch posts from ’05 and ’06 on street name signs in Reston, Fairfax County, Lake Barcroft, Alexandria, Arlington, Bethesda, and the District.

Time to go

I like to say that the D.C. metro area, up out of the floodplain at least, is optimal for avoiding natural disasters: hurricanes and tornadoes are infrequent, earthquakes almost nonexistent, heat, cold, and water are in moderation. Of course there’s that whole being a national capital and being a political target. Ah, well.

So I’ve been thinking again about disaster planning, sparked by Leta’s post and the unpleasantnesses in arid California this fall. We have a plan to drive west, over the mountains, to her father’s place. If the threat is coming from the west, or we don’t have time to meet up… well, we haven’t worked that one out. I guess we would take Alberta the Explorer, ’cause there’s room to sleep in the back if need be—unless access to fuel would be a problem.

I have a pretty good checklist for pulling things out of the house that we would need. It’s organized by room, so I’m not running up and downstairs a lot, and it’s got a rough priority ordering (the food and supplies bins and my passport go first, my briefcase and the carrier of hand tools are optional). And I’ve got some notes about things that would be good to pick up one of these days: two-way radios, a hand-cranked battery charger, fluorescent spray paint (this one suggested by the experience of Katrina). Fortunately I’m not dependent on medications that have to be kept cool. So I think I’m equipped to load up the car and be on the road with fifteen minutes’ notice.

And I wondered what I would take if I had one more trip that I could make back into the house. Nonessentials, but things I would want with me if the place was pancaked. And I settled on this short list:

  • the 20-odd books that are on my essential reading list; these are the ones that I would re-read multiple times if nothing else were available;
  • something to hang on the wall: a small box construction by Graceann Warn with a stylized painting of a blackbird;
  • a pot with one of the cuttings from a dracena that I’ve been growing for 20 years; Jenny hacked off a piece from a plant in the office back when I got my first apartment alone in Reston and gave it to me with a “here, you need a plant for your new place;” I stuck it in water and it rooted.

Everything else can be replaced. Like Roma says in Glengarry Glen Ross, “All it is is things that happen to you.”

Wildlife & Wind Energy Conference

Wind power isn’t quite the unambiguously benign source of electricity that some have made it out to be—for example, the author of the article for Worldchanging. That’s our big takeaway from the Wildlife & Wind Energy Conference, hosted by the Geography Department of Kutztown University and organized by Donald S. Heintzelman. It was perhaps fitting that attendees encountered blustery weather conditions enroute to the venue, located in Berks County, Pennsylvania, in the Appalachian Mountains, not far from the renowned Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

The first surprising thing that I learned is how large a state-of-the-art wind turbine is. A typical wind turbine is rated at 1.5 MW, stands 70 meters tall, and its three blades span a diameter of approximately 50 meters. Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that many consider a row of these turbines arranged along a ridgeline to be a blot on the landscape, although I find the monopole towers supporting three thin blades to be one of the more graceful engineered objects that you might encounter: certainly more attractive than a bristling microwave tower or spiderly powerline structure. The language we use to describe a wind generation facility has become politicized: while supporters popularize the term “wind farm,” cons favor “wind plant.” Finally, most troubling is that wind turbines pose a real threat to flying wildlife, primarily birds and bats. And hence the conference.

Unfortunately, the sessions appeared to be designed more to muster opposition to new wind projects in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the Appalachians than to entertain a wide spectrum of viewpoints. Two speakers from government were briefly heard, plus a last-minute replacement, out of more than two dozen speakers on the printed agenda, and no industry or trade association officials spoke. Q&A time was given short shrift. We heard from citizen scientists but no engineers.

And it’s too bad, because almost everyone agrees that not only is mortality from collisions with the turbines a serious problem, but also that there’s very little good science that’s been done to understand exactly how serious it is, and why. What’s worse, operators of controversial facilities like Mountaineer Wind Energy Center in West Virginia, after suffering bad publicity from reports of bat kills, have restricted access by researchers to their sites. We didn’t learn at this conference how wind turbine mortality differs from kills at stationary communications towers. We know something, but not a lot, about the different effects on migrating and foraging wildlife, on raptors, songbirds, and bats. We have some anecdotal evidence about the effects of weather: fog and low ceilings can exacerbate. Likewise, it was suggested that quiet-running, preferred by human neighbors, may pose more of a wildlife hazard. What research has been done into mortality is disputed: how do we know that field searchers have found all the carcasses before scavengers have?

More than one speaker struck a defiant NIMBY attitude, among them Laura Jackson of a Bedford County grassroots organization. Speakers cast longing looks at the development potential for Chesapeake Bay and offshore wind farms, but no one spoke about the possible effects on marine mammals, birds, and amphibians.

The most pragmatic notes were sounded by David Riposo, master’s candidate at the University of Maryland’s Marine, Estuarine, and Environmental Science Department, who cited Pacala and Socolow’s “stabilization wedges” concept, which concludes that wind power is but one of many measures that need to be taken to address looming climate change problems; and by Michael Fry of the American Bird Conservancy. The ABC hosted a two-day workshop in 2004, and has taken a qualified positive policy stance on wind power, and Fry’s remarks focused on mitigation and incremental improvements.

Also noteworthy was a last-minute speaker from the Government Accountability Office, who provided hard copies of a September, 2005 report that I haven’t finished digesting. She noted that a National Academy of Sciences report was due for publication in January, 2007. One of the points made by the GAO report, and amplified by other speakers, is that the federal government has a limited role in regulating wind power development. In many states, the burden of oversight falls to counties and municipalities.

It Happened in 1956

  • Frederick Reines and Clyde L. Cowan, Jr., of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory discover the first evidence of the neutrino in a chamber 12 m under the Savannah River nuclear reactor (called, in the August 1956 Scientific American article that reported the story, an “atomic pile”). The ghostly particle, electrically neutral, was thought at the time of its discovery to have no mass as well, which explained why it hardly interacted with its surroundings and was so difficult to detect. Reines shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in Physics for this work.
  • 11 February: Ed Norton teaches Ralph Kramden how to dance the Hucklebuck in the “Young at Heart” episode of The Honeymooners.
  • 2 August: Albert Woolson, of Companies C&D, 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery, born 11 February 1847 in Watertown, N.Y. and the last surviving Union veteran of the Civil War, passes away.
  • Chess prodigy Bobby Fischer meets Donald Byrne in the Rosenwald Memorial Tournament in New York. Their game, won by Fischer playing black, is called by many annotators the “Game of the Century.”
  • 19 April: A nuptial mass celebrates the marriage of Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier III. Kelly exchanges her film career for life as Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco.
  • 15 December: The phrase “Elvis has left the building” is first uttered. Elvis Presley’s hits that year include “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Love Me Tender.”
  • IBM Almaden4 September: The IBM RAMAC 305 is introduced, the first commercial computer to use magnetic disk storage, and one of IBM’s last systems to use vacuum tubes. The RAMAC systems (Random Access Method of Accounting and Control) used the IBM 350 disk subsystem, which stored 5 million 7-bit characters on 50 disks 24 inches in diameter and mounted vertically in a refrigerator-sized cabinet. (IBM Almaden, originally uploaded by jurvetson)
  • More passings: crusty journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken; A.A. Milne, author of the Winnie-the-Pooh books; baseball Hall of Famer Cornelius Alexander McGillicuddy (a/k/a Connie Mack); Adolf Hitler’s half-brother Alois; Alben Barkley, vice president for Harry Truman; virtuosic bebop trumpeter Clifford Brown; and, in one deadly week in August, painter Jackson Pollack, actor Bela Lugosi, and playwright Bertolt Brecht.
  • 15 October: the first blasts begin construction of the dam across Glen Canyon on the Colorado River, the controversial Bureau of Reclamation project that ultimately formed Lake Powell.
  • Grace Metalious publishes the potboiler Peyton Place; Allen Ginsberg releases a “Howl.”
  • 23 October: Tens of thousands of people take to the streets in Hungary, seeking an end to Soviet domination. Russian tanks roll into the country in November, crushing the uprising.
  • 30 September: The Dodgers win their last pennant in Brooklyn, one game ahead of the Milwaukee Braves. World Series champions the year before, this year the Dodgers lose to the Yankees (again) and Don Larsen’s perfect game.
  • 2 August: The first construction contracts are let under the new legislation enabling the 42,000-mile interstate highway system. Meanwhile, in Edina, in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Victor Gruen opens Southdale, the archetype of the indoor shopping mall.
  • 13 November: the Supreme Court upholds a ruling declaring segregation on buses unconstitutional, effectively ending the boycott that was begun in Montgomery, Ala. the year before when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.
  • 3 January: Alan Schneider directs Bert Lahr and Tom Ewell at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida in the first United States production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
  • 6 August: Chris Schenkel wraps “Boxing from St. Nicholas Arena,” the last program broadcast on the DuMont Television Network, America’s first fourth TV network. So long, Captain Video.
  • 26 July: After a collision in the fog off Nantucket the previous evening, the ocean liner Andrea Doria slips beneath the waves. Fortunately, improved communications and rapid response avert major loss of life.
  • John Ford releases the noir Western The Searchers, inspiring living room movie theorists for years to come.
  • The first group of “Hiroshima Maidens,” survivors of the 1945 bombing, return to Japan from New York. The Maidens, disfigured with keloid scars from burns sustained in the attack, underwent plastic surgery treatments at Mt. Sinai Hospital. A contemporary CBC broadcast fills in some of the details of the story. In 1999, survivor Miyoko Matsubara reflected on her experiences.
  • 13 August: Doris and Don Gorsline welcome their brand-new son David into the world.


We drove out to the Eastern Shore yesterday to say goodbye to Marlie, who died last week in a traffic accident induced by the heavy rains we’ve been experiencing.

“Boisterous” is perhaps the first word that comes to mind when I think of Marlie. She was always having a hell of a good time, and wanted to make sure everyone else was, too. Her idea of a backyard cookout was to arm all the guests with Super Soakers; we would then all take a turn racing around the lot with her Jack Russell Terrier, Indiana. It was her idea to heave a plucked chicken carcass onstage for our production of a prison drama-fantasy called Crocodile.

I can think of only one time that I got the better of her.

Some years back, Marlie and her husband John came to my house for a birthday party for me. She invited herself upstairs to the TV room/bedroom, and started rummaging around in the (closed but not locked) cabinet under the TV. “What’s this?” she said, as she pulled out a copy of Student Sorority Nurses Do Detroit, Part 2, or some such title. “Hunh” was my clever rejoinder. I bustled her downstairs, probably opened the CD changer and slapped on a copy of the classic “go home now” music Carmina Burana. Anyway.

Then some time after that, Leta and I met during a show that John was directing. Now, I can be a little fastidious and anal retentive at times, I own Dawn Upshaw recordings, my decorating senses are not completely stubbed out, and I hadn’t dated anyone for several years, so it was generally suspected among the theater community that I was gay. When Marlie learned that Leta was interested in me, she said, “It’s okay, I checked, all the porn in his house is straight.”

So Leta told me this, probably in a crowd at Barnaby’s. And losing only half a beat, I said, “All of it that she found.”