The Colors of My Rainbow

When I was a little kid—I mean, probably seven or eight years old—we were visiting my grandparents in Paradise, PA. My Pop-Pop liked to play music for us, generally the radio but often a tape that he had gotten from his work at Spectrum Fidelity Magnetics. And this time he had a kid’s album, “The Colors of My Rainbow.”

That album, by a kid’s musician named Joe Wayman, squirmed its way into my psyche through repeated listenings in cassette players at home, Pop-Pop’s, and in our car on long trips between Newport News and Paradise. Having grown up on a diet of my mom’s kid’s music, much of which dated to her days as a music teacher in the 1950s and 1960s (think “Tubby the Tuba”), the smart-assery around the edges of “Recipe for Red” and “Mellow Yellow Coot” appealed to me. But maybe most of all, the melancholy in “Brown’s the Saddest Color” hit the bullseye of my soul. I still remember the lyrics to many of the songs.

Other than half remembered snatches of the songs floating through my head, I wasn’t able to find the music. But then this morning I decided to Google the lyrics I remembered. And there was a full playlist of the album on YouTube (misattributed to “Joe Hayman”). And a Creative Commons archive of the album on the Internet Archive. And now I’m happily listening to the dated production and less-good-than-remembered singing and refreshing my memory.

Heading to DC

We have a rare family vacation next week. We’ll be taking the kids to visit some family and then to spend a few days exploring our nation’s capitol. There’s a part of me that will always be excited to visit the seat of our government and of so much of America’s identity, and to expose my kids to our history as well as all the riches of the American Museum of Natural History.

That’s not to say that I don’t feel any uneasiness about the trip. My feelings toward our government are definitely tarnished by the current occupant of our nation’s highest office and the horrific car wreck of an administration he’s surrounded himself with. But this will be, I hope, a good opportunity to push reset on some of those feelings and just take in the reminder that we can be better than we are.

Hacking

Today was the first day (the “unclosing”) of Veracode’s semiannual Hackathon. In ordinal numbers, this is the eleventh one we’ve done, though the actual name is Hackathon 10 5/7. (It’s ok; we’re all mad here.)

I am looking back at all the hacks I’ve done over the last few years and it’s fascinating what they reveal. Programming hacks, though I haven’t been a professional developer in 17 years. Musical hacks, though I’m usually neither a bluegrass musician (though I am when our CFO is leading the band) nor a theremin player. Presentation hacks. Writing hacks. 

I think what’s fascinating about the way that Veracode does Hackathons is that it’s an opportunity for us all to reach deep and explore some under-exercised facet of our true selves. Or failing that, to sew one on and see if we can make it thrive. 

Seeking the inhabitants of the Cabell House

Yesterday’s post on the Cabell House is a fiber in an ongoing thread of an investigation to understand the earliest members who took part in the Virginia Glee Club. We know from the January 1871 issue of the Virginia University Magazine that “those gentlemen rooming at the Cabell House, and in that neighborhood, have made great efforts, and we understand tolerably successful ones, to form a Glee Club.” We seek now to understand who “those gentlemen” are.

But it’s hard going. The year 1871 predates Corks and Curls, and the 1870-1871 catalog doesn’t list student addresses. I’m still trying to figure out who was the proprietor of 852 West Main Street during that year; Ansel(e)m Brock died in the late 1850s and Pattie J. Daffan isn’t identified through the city directory there until 1902. But with luck we’ll turn up more evidence.

The (real) location of the Cabell House

The Virginia Glee Club was founded in 1871 by highly motivated singers who lived in the Cabell House, according to the Virginia University Magazine. For several years, we have assumed that the Cabell House, a boarding-house in which famed Confederate “Gray Ghost” John Singleton Mosby shot a fellow UVA student, was located between 9th and 10th Street, based on the finding note attached to the only known photograph of the house in the University of Virginia Library.

More fools, we. As one digs deeper into the history of the house, one turns up a handful (only) of references to it in official University and Charlottesville publications. One of those identified a Miss Pattie J. Daffan as the proprietor of the Cabell House. Another publication placed her as the proprietor of a boarding house at 852 West Main Street, only a block from where the Cabell House was supposed to be. It seems pretty clear that this was the actual address of the Cabell House.

Why, one may ask, is this exciting? Well, partly because it’s important to know where to pay homage to our as-yet-unknown founding fathers. But also because the property between 9th and 10th on West Main Street is a Hampton Inn, but the property at 852 West Main Street is World of Beer (as well as apartments). Surely a World of Beer is a better location for our Glee Club than a motel.

The Aleph at the Library

Notes from Under Grounds: On View Now: “Jorge Luis Borges: Author, Editor, Promulgator.” Exhibit at the Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia of the works of Borges, including books that he published, translated, or wrote prefaces to. Unsurprisingly the collection includes “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Orlando.” Looking forward to Nora Benedict’s forthcoming in-depth post about the exhibit.

Cocktail Friday: The Astor

It’s that time again! This week we’re looking at a pre-Prohibition cocktail, the Astor, which uses one of my favorite cocktail bar ingredients, Swedish Punch (or Punsch).

Difford’s Guide points us to The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book for the origin of the recipe, which credits the old Astor House or the Astor Hotel for the original cocktail. If the first is true, the Astor is truly a pre-Prohibition cocktail, since the Astor House was in decline by the 1870s; the Hotel Astor came later, opening in 1904.

So much for the name. The only irregular ingredient in the drink is the Swedish Punsch, which is a compound of arrack, sugar and water. I’ve always thought of arrack as being roughly synonymous with rum, but that’s not quite right: Wikipedia says it may be “made from either the fermented sap of coconut flowers, sugarcane, grain (e.g. red rice) or fruit, depending upon the country of origin.” Whatever the origin of the stuff that goes into Swedish Punsch, the resulting flavor is oddly fruity in a can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it sort of way, and the Astor is a nice start-of-the-evening sort of drink as a result.

As always, if you want to try the recipe, here’s the Highball recipe card. Enjoy!

The long wait

Boom boom boom boom. Ten seconds’ wait, then: boom boom boom boom.

That is the opening of “Sarah was ninety years old,” one of Arvo Pärt’s most austere musical works. A drum beat, then silence, repeated over twenty-five minutes. Subtle variations in the times repay mathematical scrutiny, but only yield the pattern, not the meaning. But the drums are interrupted: once with a song of prophecy, once with an ecstatic cry of revelation, when Sarah learns that with God, all things are possible.

I think of “Sarah” often, but was most recently prompted to think of the work when I was in church on Sunday, listening to the faith story of a member of our congregation. (This is about as close to speaking in tongues as Congregationalists get, which is to say, not close at all.) And I reflected that, since returning to church a few years after college, my faith story has been like the drums and the waiting.

My practice of faith is ritualized. I sing in the choir, I observe the practices of communion and prayer. But often I feel as though I too am performing an activity with pattern, but not with meaning. I am waiting. Waiting for the prophecy, the revelation.

But there are occasionally moments of prophecy for me too. One came almost ten year ago, as I undertook a project of research to try to better understand my grandfather’s life in the wake of his passing (at ninety years old). (The Brackbill Wiki I was creating has moved since I started, by the way.) Searching for traces of my grandfather’s life, I was amazed to find this one, in an anthology of writing about experiences of boyhood:

The only man in my life who came close to resembling [Richard Chamberlain] was a gentle farmer who taught me Sunday school. Herman Brackbill was a large, soft-spoken, clean-shaven man who talked of love, even though it was God’s. His face was kind, his eyes warm and inviting. His hands were nicked, rough, large and comforting. On Sunday mornings he smelled of soap, Aqua Velva aftershave and a mothballed suit. I felt safe and relaxed just sitting next to him on the hard wooden pew. After church, I often went to the farm where Herman and his family lived. He never raised his voice to his wife or kids. He was fair. The farmhouse was peaceful inside and out. Once or twice I spent the night and imagined being part of his family.

The story: a young boy grows up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and learns that he is gay. And somehow he learned life lessons from my grandfather, and had moments of peace and safety in the middle of a childhood that otherwise taught him fear and shame.

As I think about how my grandfather changed this man’s life for the better, just through those routine Sunday mornings of Sunday school classes and church attendance, I feel that flicker of revelation. Sometimes the bolt from above is not necessary to feel the presence of God—or share it. Sometimes it’s enough to honor the ancient drumbeat of daily Sundays, and wait.

We are the champions

It continues to be challenging for me to write much right now, partly because there is so much going on. One thing that happened today: I gave a webinar on how to handle the shortage of information security people when you’re trying to build more secure software. (The answer: you grow your own.)

The recording isn’t live yet, but I posted the slides and opened a discussion thread on Peerlyst for those interested. 

Silly love songs

Yesterday I listened to a few demo tracks from Paul McCartney’s Flowers in the Dirt, included in the just-released Archive Collection reissue. And I was moved in a way I hadn’t expected to be. Stripped of their late-80s production (not that that’s a terrible thing), even the lesser McCartney/Costello songs (“This One“, I’m looking at you) are surprisingly powerful and lovely things.

It made me realize: I don’t listen to nearly enough silly love songs. And there aren’t nearly enough of them being written.

Maybe this year we all need more silly love songs.

Tricking yourself into doing work

I’m a big fan, historically, of productivity hacks, or whatever we called them before we called them hacks. I was a Franklin Planner guy, then a Seven Habits guy, then a Getting Things Done guy, then an Inbox Zero guy. Nothing has stuck better than agile scrum.

Wait, what? Isn’t that a project management methodology for software developers? Aren’t you in marketing?

Well, yes. But agile marketing is a real thing, and it’s proven remarkably helpful in dealing with both routine and unusual work. Here’s why:

  1. Visibility. You go from systems that encourage personal to-do lists to systems that encourage shared backlogs, and the consistent maintenance of the same.
  2. Prioritization. The backlog becomes a tool for discussing and communicating priorities.
  3. Discussion. The best practices around “story grooming” encourage you to discuss what has to be done for a piece of work with the team. I find that in talking out loud what has to be done, I often discover new tasks or dependencies, and new ways forward.
  4. Limited work in progress. Boy, this is important. We all have to spin plates sometimes, but the emphasis on finishing what you start, as much as possible, before starting something new really makes it possible to focus on a task and see it through to completion—and not to sit on something indefinitely because there are improvements you might want to make before you are “done.”
  5. Retrospective. This is the hardest thing, but building in time for review of the work already done means you force yourself to look back and figure out how you might do better the next time.

We’re about five months into our agile marketing experiment and so far we’ve learned a lot. Can’t wait to see what happens next.

100 years’ anniversary: James Rogers McConnell

Some members of the fighter squadron N.124, “l’Escadrille Américaine,” in May 1916. Corporal James Rogers McConnell is at the right. (Courtesy Air Force Times)

Yesterday was a solemn anniversary of sorts, covered in the Cavalier Daily (Ceremony honors 100th anniversary of alumnus’s death in WW I) and UVA Today (UVA Honors Inspiration for “Winged Aviator” Statue, 100 Years After His Death). I’ve written about McConnell before, both as student and martyr. On this hundredth anniversary of his slaughter, it seems fitting to reflect on his legacy and what he represents.

First, McConnell was at once the last and first of his kind. First because he was the first UVA student to be killed in that awful war; last because he was the last American airman killed before the United States officially entered the war April 6, 1917, just 18 days after his death. He was also effectively the last American warrior-as-adventurer, in the model of Teddy Roosevelt or the other early 20th century military leaders who held greater fame in civilian life.

Indeed, his decision to head to France, and later join the Escadrille after serving as an ambulance driver, is best read through the lens of Roosevelt as a role model. As he is quoted in the introduction to his memoir Flying for France, “These Sand Hills will be here forever, but the war won’t; and so I’m going.” But later he was converted to the belief of the absolute rightness of the French cause, and so he entered his combat role.

He was last in another way too—probably the last prominent UVA student to partake so fully of UVA’s extracurricular offerings. As King of the Hot Feet he was part of the University’s tradition of revelry; as one of the earliest known members of the Seven Society he was a founder of the tradition of more sober and secretive organizations that focused on good works.

The UVa Library has a comprehensive exhibit on McConnell’s life online, showing not only his letters home and artifacts from his plane and personal effects, but a memoir from his frequent correspondent Mademoiselle Marcelle Gúerin. Reading the material is a sobering reminder of a time when causes were just and consequences were mortal.

New mix: don’t put no headstone on my grave

I struggled with this mix for quite a while, and probably have two other mixes of rejected tracks even though the final version clocks in at 2 CDs’ length. The hard bit is always mood. Summer is easy mixin’ weather; winter, especially this winter, was hard.

And a lot of this mix struggled with the challenge of a world turned upside down. So there are a few more instrumental tracks, a few more down tracks. But it starts in a place of fragile hope, with Lou Reed’s incredibly timely song of transsexual identity which is equal measures crisis and birth of the new, and ends in a place of defiance. And maybe that’s what we have left to ourselves right now.

  1. Candy Says (Closet Mix)The Velvet Underground (Peel Slowly and See)
  2. SilverEcho & The Bunnymen (Songs To Learn & Sing)
  3. Boys Keep SwingingDavid Bowie (Lodger)
  4. Damaged GoodsGang Of Four (Entertainment!)
  5. DevotionMission of Burma (Signals, Calls and Marches (Remastered))
  6. World Cup DrummingMclusky (My Pain and Sadness Is More Sad and Painful Than Yours)
  7. ElectioneeringRadiohead (OK Computer)
  8. The Great Curve (live)Talking Heads (Jaap Eden Hall, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, December 11, 1980)
  9. Wish FulfillmentSonic Youth (Dirty)
  10. As I Went Out One MorningBob Dylan (John Wesley Harding)
  11. Time, As a SymptomJoanna Newsom (Divers)
  12. Morning LakeWeather Report (Weather Report)
  13. Sense Of DoubtDavid Bowie (Heroes)
  14. What Will You Say (feat. Alim Qasimov)Jeff Buckley featuring Alim Qasimov (Live at L’Olympia)
  15. This RoomThe Notwist (Neon Golden)
  16. Politician ManBetty Davis (The Columbia Years 1968-1969)
  17. For What It’s WorthTalk Talk (The Very Best Of)
  18. Above ChiangmaiBrian Eno (Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror)
  19. Magpie to the MorningNeko Case (Middle Cyclone (Bonus Track Version))
  20. State TrooperBruce Springsteen (Nebraska)
  21. DaphniaYo La Tengo (I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass)
  22. The Sky Is BrokenMoby (Play)
  23. Here Come the Warm Jets (2004 – Remaster)Brian Eno (Here Come The Warm Jets)
  24. Give Me Cornbread When I’m HungryJohn Fahey (The Dance Of Death & Other Plantation Favorites)
  25. After AwhileSwan Silvertones (Love Lifted Me / My Rock)
  26. The Last Broken Heart (Prop 8)Christian Scott (Yesterday You Said Tomorrow)
  27. Mystic BrewVijay Iyer Trio (Historicity)
  28. Why Was I Born?Kenny Burrell And John Coltrane (Kenny Burrell With John Coltrane)
  29. Meeting in the AisleRadiohead (Airbag/How Am I Driving?)
  30. The Last RayThis Mortal Coil (It’ll End in Tears)
  31. Cedars of LebanonU2 (No Line On the Horizon (Deluxe Edition))
  32. We FloatPJ Harvey (Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea)
  33. No Headstone On My GraveEsther Phillips (Oxford American 2003 Southern Music CD No. 6)

Twenty-five years

Twenty-five years ago this month, the Virginia Glee Club toured the South. Among other stops on that august journey, we found schlonic columns in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; sang a church service in Atlanta, Georgia; improbably survived a day off in New Orleans; and sang in the state senate chambers in Jackson, Mississippi, where a UVA Law alum named (equally improbably) Hob Bryan had served since 1984. He remembered the Glee Club and its performances of “the Ave Maria” from his graduate school days, and invited us to sing when he learned we were on the road.

Twenty-five years later, and the current group was on the road in the South once again last week. No North Carolina stops this time, but visits to Chattanooga and Johnson City, to Birmingham and Mobile, and to New Orleans, and to Atlanta to rehearse with the Morehouse Glee Club. And a return to Jackson, where Hob Bryan still serves and where the Club once again performed the Ave Maria. That’s them below.

Many things have changed in the intervening twenty-five years (though the use of the Confederate battle flag in the Mississippi State Flag is not one of them). But I find it reassuring that this group of men, this “fraternity of talent,” not only has survived but also thrives, now backed by a strong endowment and an active alumni board. I find it even more reassuring that they continue to tour and to chart their own history.