The weight of history


You don’t realize how long ago your childhood was until you confront the obsolescence of some of its key artifacts head-on.

The Girl asked me about looking a word up in the dictionary. I looked at Lisa and she said, “Oh, daddy has a dictionary you can use.” So I took her down to the basement library, opened the door to the bookcase, and brought out My Dictionary: a 10 pound Webster’s Unabridged from the 1980s. The Girl’s eyes went wide.

“Is that the one you won?”

We’ve been talking about standardized tests in the house. Last week was The Girl’s first bout with MCAS, and so I talked to her about some of the “bubble tests” I remember taking as an elementary school student—apparently Virginia did some sort of standard testing, but whether for calibration purposes or what it was never quite clear; I certainly never remember receiving a grade.

And then Lisa put in, “And your daddy was the best, and they gave him a prize.”

Oh yes. The Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. I took the PSAT as a seventh grader and had the second highest score in the mid-Atlantic. And they gave me a dictionary. This dictionary.

Honestly, I didn’t use it that much when I was a kid. I had already gotten to the point where my spelling skills were pretty good, and if I wanted more information about a word I usually went to an encyclopedia. But I brought it with me to college after my first year, and then to Northern Virginia, Cambridge, Boston, Kirkland, and back to Arlington.

Now The Girl is simultaneously thrilled that it’s available and awed at how heavy it is. And she doesn’t know that she has a dictionary on her iPad that’s more comprehensive and up to date. I don’t have the nerve to tell her yet.

Singing with a new voice

As busy as the past few days have been with the Veracode Hackathon, it hasn’t been the only thing happening. Our town of Lexington puts on a choral festival every year, in which choirs from all the local churches get up and sing a few songs, finishing with a mass sing. This year there were over two hundred singers, making me wish we had some Beethoven instead of Rutter to finish with.

But it was interesting for another reason. Our church choir director has been slowly introducing other musical traditions to the fairly staid United Church of Christ (aka Congregational) choir in which I’ve sung for the last few years. The year before I joined they performed a bluegrass mass. He’s made a specialty of shape-note music with us—only appropriate since New England is the home of a lot of the early shape-note hymns.

And he’s introduced us to the gospel tradition. Not just “classic” gospel but full-on modern gospel, with rhythm section, riffing, repeating as long as the spirit moves you, and everything else. We sang a set at our church’s contemplative evening worship that brought the house down, and we brought one of those songs to the choral festival this past Sunday. I never thought I’d be doing gospel riffs in church, but it’s fun.

Then of course, on Monday during lunch at the office, the Appsec Mountain Ramblers, Veracode’s own bluegrass band, played. Fronted by our CFO on banjo, we had a talented line-up of instrumentalists, so I just had to bring harmony vocals. It’s harder than I thought to sing high harmony, but so rewarding when you get it right.

Never too late to have a happy childhood

Live action Pac-Man

Photo courtesy Chris Eng

It seems I’m falling into a pattern where at least one day a week, I will end up posting for two days worth of material. This is one of those days. At least I have a good excuse for not posting. It was Veracode’s Hackathon IX this week, and that means craziness.

Monday’s activity? Live-action Pac-Man. What you can’t see from the photos is that there is actually a player. Pac-Man was wearing an iPhone on his chest, connected to Webex, with the camera turned on and headphones in his ears. Someone connected to a WebEx gave instructions to Pac-Man on how to move through the maze.

The ghosts all had simple rules of how to move just like in a real video game. So the whole effect was very much like feeding quarters to Pac-Man machines as a 12-year-old. But it gave me a new appreciation for the life of the ghost—all left turns and no free will. It got, frankly, boring after a while… until random turns brought me in contact with Pac-Man.

It all reminded me of this:

naw…it's not that

Friday Random 5: Hackathon IX edition

I’m bending the rules of Random 5 to bring you this hackathon themed random 5. Pray I don’t bend them again.

  1. Be Thankful for What You’ve GotMassive Attack (Blue Lines)
  2. Rabbit In Your Headlights – UNKLE (Psyence Fiction)
  3. Roads – Portishead (Dummy)
  4. Górecki – Lamb (I Still Know What You Did)
  5. Breathe – Telepopmusik (Genetic World)

Be Thankful for What You’ve Got: I love this version, but I feel like I’m harming my cred just a little bit to admit that I like the Yo La Tengo version even more.

Rabbit In Your Headlights: Featuring a Thom Yorke vocal and dialog samples from one of the most tortured early 90s movies ever, this shouldn’t work as well as it does. But it totally does. Something about the rhythm section, and the fact that this was before Yorke wrecked his cords.

Roads: I want to like this album more than I do. But I love the electric piano intro to this.

Górecki: There’s no better way to confuse me than to reference this song, because I’m never sure if we’re talking about the Polish composer, or the Lamb track that samples piano chords from the second movement of the Third Symphony. Still a great song, though I’ve always preferred the edit that appeared on the CD2 single back in the day.

Breathe – This is really the tail end of the time period, but I’ve always considered the 90s lasted until September 11, 2001 anyway. Great song, regardless of its use in a Mitsubishi commercial.

Veracode Hackathon IX

Wall of obsolete hardware

Wall of obsolete hardware

It’s the semiannual Veracode hackathon, so I’m behind on blogging. Again.

It’s that most wonderful time of the year—no, that other one. My company Veracode is hosting its ninth Hackathon this week, and it’s been interesting. The theme is 90s Internet Hackers, or as we say in my house, “Saturday.” Seriously: putting together the radio station was just a matter of looking in my iTunes library, and my programming skills aren’t too much more current than the 1990s. (Applescript, anyone?)

Between the bake sale, the people doing caffeine hacking at a table in the cafe, the puzzle hunt, and everything else, it’s … interesting around here.

Funkin’ for Bernie


David Byrne: Keep On Funkin’. Speaking of David Byrne and Bernie Worrell…

I was saddened to hear back in January that Worrell, who I’ve loved since falling upon his collaborations with George Clinton in Parliament, had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. Byrne participated in a fundraiser concert on Monday to raise money to help pay Bernie’s medical bills (aside: with Bootsy Collins, George Clinton, Living Colour, Jonathan Demme, Meryl Streep, Rick Springfield, Maceo Parker, Steve Scales, Bill Laswell, Mudbone, Fred Schneider, Bernard Fowler, Leo Nocentelli, Ronny Drayton, Melvin Gibbs, Jerry Harrison, Screaming Headless Torsos, The Woo Warriors, Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash, Nelson George, Marc Ribler, Paul Shaffer, and the Black Rock Coalition Orchestra in the house, I’d have loved to have been there).

Yesterday Byrne offered up a pair of remixed tracks of a song he wrote and performed with Bernie a while back. Is “How Does the Brain Wave?” the equal of Byrne’s early 1980s collaborations with Worrell, which include The Catherine Wheel and Remain in Light? Well, no, but they’re funky, so donate already.

The Catherine Wheel

I fell behind this week—thank our surprising April snow. So this is being posted on Wednesday and I’ll catch up.

David Byrne’s The Catherine Wheel is one of those works that pulled me all the way into pop music. If I had heard of Byrne or the Talking Heads before, it was picking up Remain in Light or hearing “Once in a Lifetime” on the radio. Then my friend Catherine gave me a mix tape that had “Combat” on it. I had to find more.

I turned up a copy of the CD after some searching (this was the early 1990s) and was hooked. I put “Ade” on a mix tape myself. And then I kind of forgot about it.

I went back last week and started listening to the album with new ears. It’s still amazing after all these years. A lot of insane Adrian Belew guitar, yes, but also some really crazy Bernie Worrell keyboard, and those drums…

And then there’s the performance context. The Catherine Wheel was composed as a ballet score for Twyla Tharp, and the video above has the whole blessed thing. I don’t know enough about modern dance to know if this is any good, but it pushes a lot of the same buttons for me that Home of the Brave does, and that’s a good thing. So enjoy.

Slouching toward spring

It’s April 4, the day on which we remember the passing of Martin Luther King, Jr. So of course it’s snowing. 

This has been a weird winter—very little precipitation, freezing days and 70° days. And now that spring is (calendrically) here, the weather is determined to make up for it. It snowed four inches before noon yesterday, then the sun came out and melted most of it. Now it’s snowing again, hard, and will for most of the day. 

I’m having a hard time getting in the mood for spring. Even the thought of going to Charlottesville in a little over three weeks to celebrate the Glee Club’s 145th doesn’t cheer me up. Well, much. I need this snow to be done. 

Friday Random 5: Catching Up Edition

Looks like, in my illness last week, I missed the Friday Random 5 and didn’t even remember it. Today I’m stuck at the car dealers again while they fix my air conditioning, so it’s time to write that catch-up post.

  1. Handel Concerto No. 4 in F: I. AllegroVirgil Fox (Virgil Fox Encores)
  2. Born Again – Mark Sandman (Sandbox)
  3. Listening Guide: Have You Seen the Bright Lily Grow – Sting (Songs from the Labyrinth)
  4. Ghost Train – Straight No Chaser (Best of BOCA: The First 20 Years)
  5. Lithium (Acoustic Version) – Nirvana (Lithium (Acoustic Version) – Single)

Handel Concerto No. 4 in F: Is there anything better than starting the morning off with organ music? No, I don’t think so either.

Born Again – Really just a one-liner, but what a one liner. “I hope I don’t get born again, ’cause one time was enough.”

Listening Guide – Have You Seen the Bright Lily Grow – while I appreciate the thought of providing audible liner notes, I really don’t like them cluttering up my iTunes library. I’m glad more albums don’t do this.

Ghost Train – I like this album for some of the tracks that provide an innovative approach to a cappella. This one is much more straightforward but very effective.

Lithium (Acoustic Version) – The lead single off the With the Lights Out box set, this is solo Kurt Cobain. Great track.

Concerts I have seen

Inspired by the Reverend Fiesta, here’s the list of all the (non-classical) concerts I’ve gone to, as far as I can remember. I thought I had written down this list once before, but am not finding it, so here we go. Links go to set lists if the Internet has them, or to blog posts by me if not. In many cases I was at these shows with people who I can’t remember; mea culpa. In fact, I’m also sure that I’m forgetting some shows I went to, so this will be a live page.

Sting, Nothing Like the Sun tour, William and Mary Hall, January 29, 1988. My very first show. I remember very little from the performances, just how amazing it was to be there.

10,000 Maniacs (Lone Justice opening), William and Mary Hall, 1989. The “Blind Man’s Buff” tour, I went to this with my sister and with Unchu Ko.

Branford Marsalis, Waterside, Norfolk, August 18, 1989. Honestly, all I remember about this performance is how hot it was, how interesting the jazz was, and how quiet the crowd was.

Paul McCartney, Flowers in the Dirt tour, RFK Stadium, 1990. With my sister and Christina, a long long drive in a non-air-conditioned 1970s Cutlass Supreme. But “Live and Let Die” in that stadium was incredible.

Don Henley, End of the Innocence tour, Virginia Beach, 1990. With my sister and Pam, I think. And I remember Don Henley sitting down at the drums for “Hotel California.”

Wynton Marsalis, Albemarle High School, 1990. Mostly what I remember about this show is mutes: how many Wynton brought, how much he used them. There was very little about his sound with this band that didn’t rely on mutes in some fashion or other.

Sting, The Soul Cages tour, Hampton Coliseum, 1991. On a bus from the University of Virginia. I remember he played a cover of “Purple Haze,” but not much of the rest of the show.

Paul Simon, Rhythm of the Saints tour, Hersheypark, 1991. A fun show, with my sister, and, I think, my aunt.

UVA Jazzfest, 1992: Max Roach, Jackie McLean Quartet, Jack DeJohnette’s New Directions with Lester Bowie, Mingus Dynasty. Yeah, it was an amazing, amazing weekend.

Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes tour, Old Cabell Hall, University of Virginia, September 7, 1992. I wandered into the hall for Glee Club rehearsal one night and there was a ticket sales desk. I had heard the show was happening but assumed it would be sold out. I got a ticket and went to the show after rehearsal. It was amazing. So intense. There’s more to the story of the show; another time…

Sting, Summoner’s Tales tour, May 30, 1993, Richmond. With my sister, Christina and Jeremy. In which we sat close enough to the front that we were able to make the band do double takes with our ability to head-bob in 7/4 time.

UVA Jazzfest, 1993:Elvin Jones Jazz Machine with Ravi Coltrane, Roy Haynes. There were other bands but I split the tickets with Bernie Fallon and so never got to see Archie Shepp. But Roy Haynes was a great show, and Elvin was amazing.

UVA Jazzfest, 1994: Milt Hinton, Dave Holland, Charlie Haden’s Jazz Liberation Orchestra.

Tori Amos, Under the Pink tour, Richmond, July 24, 1994. A less intimate and more upbeat show than the OCH one, but that’s to be expected given that the first show was in an 800 person venue. Much of the show was still in the acoustic vibe, though, which made the sudden transitions to full band on songs like “God” and “Cornflake Girl” kind of jarring.

Love Spit Love, free show, Washington DC, 1994. Just Richard Butler and a guitarist, and the crowd was completely quiet except for one hippie dancer, who only danced during the radio single “Am I Wrong.”

Shannon Worrell, summer 1994, Charlottesville. I’m not sure exactly when I saw this show, at an outdoor front porch venue with Matt Vanderzalm, but I’m pretty sure it was after the release of her first album, and I had already seen her play a couple of sets at various Corner venues with Kristin Asbury.

Sonic Youth, A Thousand Leaves tour, 9:30 Club, May 6, 1998. With Craig Pfeifer. I was so not ready for how brilliant this show was.

Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, Nissan Pavilion, July 16, 1999. How weird that I remember so little of this show, except for the superb version of “Tangled Up in Blue” that I could have sworn was the opening number but the set list says was 4th. They dueted on “The Sound of Silence.”

Parliament/Funkadelic All Stars, 9:30 Club, November 13, 1999. With Craig Pfeifer. I’m pretty sure it was this show I saw and not one of their two shows at the 9:30 Club in 1998. What an amazing performance, and I couldn’t even stay for the whole thing.

Beck with Beth Orton, Patriot Hall, George Mason University, February 19, 2000. Can I get with you and your sister? I think her name’s Debra. And Beth Orton’s brutally cute penguin joke (“Why do penguins walk softly?”). With Craig Pfeifer.

Twinemen, Mr. Airplane Man, Mark Sandman Tribute, Cambridge, August 2000. An interesting afternoon of local musicians paying tribute to the recently deceased frontman of Morphine, at an outdoor venue near the Middle East club in Central Square.

Spain with Miranda Lee Richards, the Crocodile Club, June 15, 2001. With Arvind and Kim.

Radiohead, Amnesiac tour, The Gorge, Washington, June 23 2001. With Lisa.

Isaac Hayes, Blind Boys of Alabama, Youssou N’Dour, Kathryn Tickell, DJ Peretz, the Neville Brothers, Peter Gabriel, Afro Celt Sound System; WOMAD, August 2001. I wrote extensively about this show back in the day.

Ani DiFranco, Bumbershoot, August 31, 2002. Does being in the same outdoor performance venue as the performance count? I only caught a few songs of this one.

Sonic Youth with Modest Mouse, Bumbershoot, September 1, 2002.

New Pornographers, Bumbershoot, September 1, 2003.

Wilco, Bumbershoot, September 1, 2003.

R.E.M., Bumbershoot, September 1, 2003.

Lou Reed, Moore Theater, June 29, 2003. This is essentially the show that was presented on the Lou Reed: Animal Serenade live album.

Elvis Costello, Benaroya Hall, March 8, 2004. I had completely forgotten about this show.

Sonic Youth, Showbox, July 19, 2004.

PJ Harvey, Avalon, October 9, 2004.

Pixies and Mission of Burma, Tsongas Center, December 2, 2004.

Justin Rosolino, Club Passim, December 13, 2004.

Neko Case, Willard Theatre, April 5, 2006.

Finding no takers


Doing my look back post, I found one link I never followed up, in which I talked about a plan to restore the Pavilion gardens (wonder what happened to that?), and noted a rare Walt Kelly cover for the Virginia Spectator that I had seen reproduced in black and white but not (yet) in color. In the intervening years, fantastic Pogo blog Whirled of Kelly posted a high resolution scan of the cover, which I include here to close the loop on my reference all those years ago.

This is one of two issues of the University of Virginia’s magazine (variously titled the Spectator, the Virginia University Magazine, etc.) for which I would pay a high high price. The other, of course, would be a copy of the January 1871 edition that gives us the founding date for the Virginia Glee Club.

Today in my blogging history

I sometimes forget to take a look back at things I’ve written—forgivable if you ignore the almost fifteen years of blog history here. For all that, my beats have remained relatively steady, as a look back at March 30 in my blog’s history reveals. Going backward, we have:

That strange fragile feeling

This has been a winter of illness, unusually so for me. Between Thanksgiving and New Years I was down for almost six weeks with a hacking cough that started with a week of fever and was so hard-pressed to clear stuff from my lungs that I ended up fracturing (or at least pulling) a rib. And now at the end of the winter or beginning of spring I was laid low for several days with another fever + upper respiratory condition, just in time for Easter.

And man, I had forgotten how logy I get when I have a fever. I’m three days on from the last fever and still tired around the edges.

It reminds me of the summer after my third year at the University of Virginia. I had just finished my first summer away from home, doing a lab internship, and I headed back to my family home and slept. For like a day. That in itself was not so unusual, but the fever was. The doctor confirmed that I had finally contracted mono. My third year roommate had had a bad case of it before we went home for break, so apparently it incubated over the summer and then started out slowly.

The end result was brutal. I had enough energy to do a few things, if I forced myself, but then had to sleep for hours. I pulled myself together well enough to get back to the University of Virginia, where the truly painful part of the sickness revealed itself: I was going to have to tough it out without air conditioning, since I was living that fall in a Lawn room in Mr. Jefferson’s original part of the University Grounds. So there were a great many afternoons spent exhausted, sweating, sleepless. And, reinforcing the ambience, I was reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The General In His Labyrinth, about Simón Bolívar’s dying journey down the Magdalena River. Languishing in the August (and September) Charlottesville heat, I felt as the Liberator must have felt.

I still feel little echoes of that day any time I spend more than a few days sick, as though I’m preparing to return to that sweat-dampened bed with barely enough energy to stand. At this point in my life I know that one day, I hope many years from now, it’ll be a return for good. These illnesses, inconsequential as they are, are just brief glimpses of that ultimate end.

—And that’s why men have a reputation for being bad patients.


Geese at Peepers Pond.

Geese at Peepers Pond. Full size at Flickr.

Another Easter has come and gone. This year I was sick, with a bad cold that came on suddenly after our first performance of the Kancheli “Dixi” and didn’t abate until partway through the day… after I had sung two services at church. There is something restorative about singing the Hallelujah Chorus, if it doesn’t kill you first.

I’ve been thinking a little about something one of our student ministers said yesterday to the children. He talked about Easter and the opening of the cave as a promise from God to us that we can all have that resurrection experience—not just in the context of literal resurrection, but as a second chance, as the removal of the metaphorical stone keeping us in whatever cave we currently occupy. I think about that as I look out on a cold, drizzly spring morning. I’d like to find some sunshine.

Cocktail recipe: Woodsy Owl

The Woodsy Owl

It’s a concert week, so I thought in lieu of a proper blog post I’d share this cocktail recipe I invented a year or so ago. Enjoy!

This is the Woodsy Owl. It’s a little like an Allen Cocktail, but the combination of sweet vermouth and Cardamaro gives a slightly sweet herbal flavor to what would otherwise be a less bitter variation on the Negroni.

Woodsy Owl

  • 1 oz gin (recommend Plymouth)
  • 1 oz sweet vermouth
  • 1 oz Cardamaro

Combine and stir over ice. Strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with lemon peel (optional).