Aug 21

Listen to some music, read some books

Just a week ago yesterday I mentioned Nanci Griffith here. She figured into one of my first blog posts. Back then I said “God Bless Nanci Griffith.” I’ve been listening to her for a long time, about a quarter of a century. This evening it was announced that she’d passed away.

God bless Nanci Griffith; he blessed us with her.

The Flyer, looking back, has a certain mid-century weariness that is overcome by the un-replaceable mid-century optimism she put into so much of her work. It was a wonderful entrance to her folkabilly style.

“These Days in an Open Book” sticks with you.

And there are parts of “Grafton Street” that can haunt you. Indeed, I can hear every important note perfectly well in my mind, even now.

She produced 19 records over the course of her career, which spanned most of my life until her health turned a few years ago. It’s an impressive body of work from a gifted storyteller. The nature of the entertainment industry, of course, is such that an artist’s work never leaves us, thankfully. What a gift it is to have all of this to return to.

I’m not ready to listen to them again just now — one day soon, I hope — but you should definitely try them out.

The planned event for the day was the return to the books section. We made it back there in just a shade under two years. That’s a perfectly average turnaround time, if you ask me. Perfectly average if you are Voyager 1 and you are in between Jupiter and Saturn.

This section of the site is a casual study of some of my grandfather’s books. I didn’t have the good fortune to meet him, but I know him from family stories and some of his things that I’ve inherited. Like a giant box of periodicals I rescued. So, today, we’re beginning a look at an issue of “Popular Science,” January 1954. Click the image to see the first five ads I’ve selected.

At this rate, it’ll take a while, and that’s the point. If Popular Science isn’t your speed, you can see the rest of the things I’ve digitized from my grandfather’s collection. There are textbooks, a school notebook and a few Reader’s Digests, so far. It’s a lot of fun.

And fun is what you’re supposed to have over a weekend. I hope that’s what you have in store for you. Come back and tell me about it on Monday, won’t you?

Jul 21

Rocks and washing machines

I was gripped, a few years ago, by an article that made the case for the washing machine as the most important invention of the 20th century. Sure, you say, there’s also the refrigerator and the computer and/or the microchip. Penicillin, a discovery rather than an invention, doesn’t count.

The argument has been spelled out in many other newspaper opinion columns, in historical research and even in one of the 20th century’s oddest inventions, TED Talks. Simply put, doing the laundry was once an all day exercise. It was hard, backbreaking labor. It was almost exclusively ‘a woman’s job.’ And when the first powered washing machines came along, they freed up people, almost all of them women, to do other things. Probably it helped with their hand care, too.

I asked my grandmother about this article at some point. She always called it The Wash. If you heard her say it, you heard the capital T and capital W. The Wash. Do you remember, I said, a time before you had a washer and dryer?

“Of course,” she said, in that not-dismissive-but-entirely-obvious way that your elders can use on you.

I asked her when she got her first washer. It was when they’d built and moved into that very house, the only one I’d ever known my grandparents in. It was the 1950s. She was a young woman still starting a new family. The washer and dryer lived on the covered back porch. (Where the laundry connections are is almost a tell. Back porch, that’s hedging your bets on this technology at best, an afterthought at worst. In the two houses I grew up in the connections were in the basement. Out of the way, but inherently inconvenient. In our house today the laundry is upstairs, very near the bedrooms.)

I asked how she did The Wash before she had a washer and dryer. She took it down to the creek. Soap, boards, stones, the old antiquated thing. That’s just what you did. This is the middle of the 20th century.

Which is where my story gets a little foggy. My grandparents’ house was surrounded by a creek. It’s just a small bit of water that breaks off a larger waterway which is itself a slough of a tributary of the Tennessee River — and we talked about that yesterday. If you saw it on a map, my grandparents’ road and the creek almost make a four-way intersection. I started wandering through their woods at a young and early age, when some of those creeks looked like wild, untamable testaments of God and nature. And to my young mind that water was everywhere.

The water was nice. It was always cool, and it always looked clean. But it was never the water that interested me the most, it was the rocks.

Where I grew up was far enough away from my grandparents that the soil was, in places, noticeably different. All of my family lived in this area, a place around a massive river, where the water was a dominant element of everyday life. Having different topographical features where I grew up meant I spent a lot of time playing in the little streams and on the rocky shores.

On a physiographic map this is on something called the Highland Rim, the southernmost section of the Interior Low Plateaus of the Appalachian Highlands Region. By name and almost everything else, it’s a series of contradictions. It’s messy and beautiful.

How the underlying rocks erode in different ways define the area. The rocks formed during the Mississippian period (353 to 323 million ago. Explain that to a kid taken in by the many colors and the smooth polished feel that ages in the water have created.

I lived in a different physiographic region, a bit to the south, in the Valley and Ridge province. Our soil was exclusively clay and, to me, the rocks didn’t have the same sort of interesting character. Has to be that river, I always thought when I was young. I told you yesterday, the river figures into everything, so why not the rocks?

It actually has to do with the mountains.

Kaiser Science tells us:

The mountains of the British Isles and Scandinavia turn out to be made of the same kind of rock, and formed in the same historical era.

Evidence shows that in the past all of these were one mountain system, torn by the moving of the tectonic plates – continental drift.

Put another way, if you like the hypothesis of continental drift, you look at this as a broken mountain range, making these mountains older than the Atlantic Ocean.

A few years ago, longer after the Atlantic Ocean was formed, we visited London and caught a changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

There’s a lot of standing around and waiting and jockeying for position and wondering who you’ll see and what the bands will play. It’s good fun if you are patient, and you don’t mind crowds.

We walked to the palace, from wherever we’d been before, through Green Park, and we returned that same way. At one point there in the park I looked down and picked up this rock. It looked familiar. Looked like home.

I brought it back with me, and later took it to my grandmother.

The queen has the same rocks you do!

As ever, my enthusiasm was what amused her most.

If you look at that map, you can see it. The rocks you saw when you were doing chores are the same sort of rocks the queen of the United Kingdom was used to. Their rocks, your rocks, same kinds of rocks.

I wonder when the queen got her first washing machine.

Jul 21

This post was a century in the making

Water is the predominant geographical feature of the area where all of my family live. I didn’t grow up there, but I understand the story of the Tennessee River. It dips down into the northern part of Alabama, creating a topography that has defined generations and generations of people that lived there. The Tennessee River forms near Knoxville, Tennessee and flows to the southwest, into Alabama, before looping back up, helping form the Alabama-Mississippi-Tennessee borders and then heading on up to Kentucky.

The Yuchi tribe, the Alibamu and the Coushatta, and maybe some other members of the Muscogee Creek Confederacy lived their lives on it. They called it the Singing River. White people moved in and, a little over two hundred years ago, Alabama became a territory, in 1817, and then a state in 1819. Some of my ancestors were among the first white people into the area, some even before the Native Americans were forcibly displaced. They became hardscrabble dirt farmers, for the most part. Agriculture and water transit came to define this era, but even then the shipping was difficult. The Muscle Shoals were the problem. It was shallow and swift and turbulent. It typified the area for generations. Predominant geographical features figure into everything.

Then the Great War came.

There was a worry that the Imperial German Navy would cut off shipments of nitrates from South America. Nitrates make explosives. Things that go boom are important for the military. So the National Defense Act of 1916 called for nitrate plants. Hydroelectric power would run them and the U.S. could produce its own nitrates. Muscle Shoals was understood to have the greatest hydroelectric potential east of the Rockies.

So in 1918 they started building a dam.

We’ve driven over it, jogged over it, fished underneath it, taken photographs of it, watched the ships pass through the locks and dined above it. During the build it became it’s own city, employing thousands, and had a school, barbershops, a hospital and more than a hundred miles of sewage lines. But the war ended before the construction did. And the soon-to-be named Wilson Dam didn’t contribute to the war effort.

It wasn’t finished until 1924 and began generating power in 1925. The promise of that hydroelectric power is what we’re looking at today, and, indeed, in 1921, it was full of potential. So we go to a now century old edition of The Florence Herald.

The Herald began publishing in the 1880s and ran at least until the mid-1960s. In fact that Spillway graphic above is from a 1950s edition of the paper. It was a regular feature of the weekly paper, because predominant geographical features figure into everything. And people from far away take notice, as we shall see.

Henry Ford, yep, that one, wanted to buy in. He was interested in hydroelectric power, too, and dreamed of buying up the area and building factories for his own empire. It was the big news in mid-July, 1921.

But Ford wasn’t the only suitor.

“The publication this morning of the effort of Mr. Ford to acquire Muscle Shoals, followed by the development that several other individuals or corporations would likewise acquire the property, is taken to mean by Alabamians in Congress that Muscle Shoals, instead of being a corpse, is indeed a very live proposition.”

Because the news was coming in so fast the local weekly was having difficulty agreeing with itself, but inside there’s a several-days-old story that gives us more context, and a none-too-subtle bit of cheerleading. Excuse the hasty redesign I’ve made here. Long newspaper columns aren’t always conducive to the web.

There are little unsigned blurbs and letters like this all over this edition of the paper.

And that was the prevailing opinion of the day. That’s the story I always heard. The area was going to be a little Detroit. Roads were laid out and named to mimic the Motor City. Even the advertisements were cheering for Henry Ford.

But a U.S. senator from Nebraska, George Norris, had other plans. He thought the half-finished dam should stay under public management. The debate ran as the river flowed, for about a decade. The dam was completed and Henry Ford bowed out in 1924. The debate continued until the Depression, FDR, and until the TVA was born and took over. Predominant political structures figure into a great deal, too.

Even today you can drive through areas where there are rough old roads named after streets in Detroit, laid out in anticipation of the failed Ford deal. Nothing has ever been built on them.

Speaking of advertisements, here are a few more from that issue of The Herald. “We can’t be particular and so the little girl was smart to shop here, where we can’t be particular about our candy.”

Benjamin Luna was a longtime merchant in the area. He died at his home in 1956.

His wife, Adele Luna, shows up in the paper well into the 1960s. Quite the social figure, her name often appears under that Spillway graphic. She passed away in 1982. They had two daughters and a son. One of the daughters died just last year having lived just shy of 101 years. It was a full life, some 80-years of it right there in the Shoals.

I wonder what she thought about the lamb.

Hard to imagine ads explaining how your phone works, isn’t it?

But easy to imagine the phone companies would like you to spend some long-distance money with them. At least we have this advertisement here to explain long distance rates to younger readers.

This is the last advertisement in the June 15, 1921 Florence Herald. W.I. Swain started his business over in Mississippi in 1910. He was still touring at least through 1931.

Stand where he set up his tents for this show, you could see the river. Predominant geographical features figure into everything.

May 21

What I’ve been doing with myself

Last week we were on the road. It was my first long trip in the car since the lockdown. I don’t think I’ve driven out of the county since then, but we left the state last week. A few weeks ago my happily vaccinated in-laws came to visit, and last week it was time to see my family — the vaccinated ones, anyway — so we drove down to Alabama.

We had some rained a few times on the drive, but mostly we saw dramatic clouds.

They add to the scenery in places where there isn’t much else to look at.

My mother gave me the biggest hug and said I owed her 17 days worth of hugs. I’m not sure how she arrived at that number, but I didn’t question the formula. I expected she would come up with a much higher number. Oddly, the number of days didn’t decrease over the duration of our visit. Canny as ever, my mother.

It was nice to see her, of course, and my grandfather. Both have gotten The Shot. They found a drive-up deal and are proud they didn’t even have to get out of their cars to get dosed. They’ve been quite careful and safe and kept themselves isolated. We’re the most people they’ve each seen outside of a few doctor visits.

So my grandfather came over and I got to give him a hug. What a lovely feeling. We also had hamburgers.

He brought his dominoes and proved how bad we are at math. We are bad at math. Of course he plays all the time — that’s their Sunday thing, they have church via Facebook or television and then he breaks out the bones. Of course he’s played his whole life. The stories he could tell you about his parents counting the domino dots … while I’m over here pointing and mumbling to myself.

They really wore us down in the third round.

When we weren’t losing at dominoes The Yankee got in a few swims. She had a race coming up and has been in the water only once since the weather turned last fall. So we went Rocky IV last week. She donned her wetsuit, tied a rope around her waist and swam while I held her in place.

She had a great race Saturday, finishing just off the podium.

We also made sure to get a few Publix subs during our visit. Around here you have to drive several hundred miles to get a good sandwich.

And then we returned on Thursday evening, with much better weather around us.

That’s such a long drive. But it was a lovely and long overdue visit.

Everyone is doing pretty well, considering. It’s a “not ideal, but we’re still fortunate in a great many ways” sort of circumstance. Normal enough, I guess, or maybe that’s the catching up. It was nice to stare at other walls, to sit at the pool and see and be seen. Fortunate in a great many ways, indeed.

Dec 20

Today, some history and a big bike ride

Slept in this morning to the agreeable time of 9 a.m. That had not been my intention. The original plan was to begin the day in the dark, just to get a moving start on the day. Manufacturing enterprise!

But it was after 3 a.m. this morning and I was still manufacturing insomnia, so that played a big part of the sleeping in. The cat, the cat, woke me up. I took him downstairs, so he would not be a distraction. Put him on the cat tree. He promptly went to sleep. Jerk.

I went back upstairs and was wide awake.

So it was a late breakfast/almost-lunch. After which I helped planned dinners since The Yankee was going to the grocery store. Planning out the shopping list is the second worst thing we do every two weeks. Going to the store is, I think, the most annoying thing.

I listed off four or five things and felt like I’d at least contributed to the effort. Manufactured enterprise, finally! Probably she was hoping for 10 or 12 items to add to the list.

While she went to the store, I vacuumed. I tried to vacuum. It was quickly apparent that our over-engineered Dyson was stymied once again by the necessity of sucking things up through the system’s intake port. There’s a little button on the side of the over-engineered Dyson which usually fixes the problem caused by running over something more than 3/16 of a micron. But the button on the side did nothing. Well then. Turn the whole thing off, having its many over-engineered elements break down into their constituent parts in my hand in the process. Turned the vacuum over and realize that my wife, who I’m fairly sure used the vacuum last, actually killed someone with this appliance and tried to dispose of the evidence by the ol’ vacuum-it-up method.

So I performed surgery on the vacuum, cutting out just gobs of hair from the roller where everything is meant to begin, but really ends with this machine. Gobs of hair. I was fully prepared to be grossed out by finding a scalp, while wondering who had been to the house, and what happened to their service vehicle, and how I’d managed to also miss any authoritative followup visits.

Finally the vacuum was cleaned up and freed to suck up debris to an impressively average degree. Kitchen, library, dining room, foyer and living room would now pass inspection, if necessary.

Who inspects things these days?

Just as I finished with the floors The Yankee returned from the grocery store. I confronted her about what I’d seen, and admitted I might now be a willing — or at the very least, an unwitting participant — in something nefarious. (But also clean!)

It was a delightful interplay of conversation, the sort of thing you live for, while you’re putting groceries away. We have a system for that. We bring them both in from the car. She stands at the fridge and I present her all the cold stuff while making silly statements about the haul. When the fridge and the freezer are stocked she stands by the large cabinet where all the dry goods go. The cats, meanwhile, try to climb in the bags, chew on the plastic or sneak into the cabinets.

After everything is stocked, of course, comes a round of furious hand washing.

Then we take Clorox wipes and clean the handles to the fridge and the freezer, the little silver knobs on the cabinets, the door knobs to the garage, the sink fixtures and the button that closes the garage door.

This is my favorite part of the grocery system. Maybe the scientific understanding continues to conclude that contact issues aren’t the biggest concerns with Covid — which, hey, one less thing! — but I’m keeping this part of the system in place. I didn’t come into this thing a germophobe, and hopefully, I won’t emerge a germophobe. But I find that simple act of wiping things down to be a romantic gesture: we are taking an extra step to keep each other safe.

That’s always worth doing.

Here’s something I wonder about. Consider how the family name is an identifier. You might be a Jones, but you are also a Morrison, each of your biological parents family names. You inherited the genes and the good habits and you inherited the names. Now, consider your two grandmothers. Depending on the size of your family, how often you see people, whether you attend family reunions and the like, you might also consider yourself an Adams and a Williams, as well. What about your great-grandmothers maiden names and their own biological families? Are you also an O’Toole and a Glenn? And how far back with this should you go? Biologically it’s all there. But eventually, after just a few short generations for most of us, you probably don’t even know the names.

And it probably doesn’t matter. Names are just identifiers, after all, and only one of them at that. Besides, by the time you get interested in this stuff you probably have a somewhat decent handle on who and what you are. Sure, it’d be nice to have seven generations of medical history to fall back on, but those 19th century diagnosticians were only so helpful.

Anyway, I’d like you to meet Michael. He’s from the commonwealth of Virginia. Lived briefly, perhaps, in Kentucky. He was also a resident of northeastern Alabama for a time. Not sure when he arrived, but he was there in 1822, making his branch of my family tree one of the last to arrive in the state. He moved again and shows up in Illinois in the 1830 census. He died there some years later and is buried in a small, discrete, country cemetery. I discovered him on the web this weekend. And if the Internet is to be trusted (Bonjour!) he would be one of my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfathers.

The other night I followed one of the matriarchal lines and got back to that picture. He was born in 1751 in colonial Virginia. He was drafted into the militia twice. He was at Yorktown, where Cornwallis surrendered. Turns out my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather helped guard an estimated 500 British prisoners after they quit the field.

He died at 93 in a part of Illinois that, even now, is quite rural. The history of the community doesn’t even go back that far, so it was surely isolated when he was living. That photo, if it is indeed the man, would have been taken sometime in the first five years of the Daguerreotype style of photographs, and he would have been between 89 and 93 there.

You can find digitized versions of these guys wills. To my daughter I leave some land and my pony. To my son I leave some land, and a new sword. To my other son, I leave the land he now lives on and a skillet. That sort of thing. It seems Michael’s father, another man named Michael, sold some land to George Washington’s father. But I bet everyone said that after a time.

I looked up the place where he’s from in Virginia. It’s a nice bit of countryside not far out of modern Washington D.C. I traced his family lines back a few more generations to Ireland. The man that departed the old world for the new apparently left a wide spot in a narrow road outside of Dublin for the wilderness of Virginia. If you keep going farther and farther back on the genealogy pages you learn they were Anglo-Irish. There are a few Sirs. One was a Chief Justice of the Common Pleas for Ireland.

And you can keep clicking, farther back, and farther back, and farther back still and, eventually, time has no meaning and they all came from the Normandy region of France and, before that, some dude who lived in 8th century Norway.

At what point do you start questioning the validity of a well-intentioned, random genealogy site, anyway?

Michael, who’s family name I’d never heard mentioned in relation to my own, until Sunday night, is buried just three hours away from where I’m writing this. Perhaps one day next year I’ll go see the little cemetery where he was laid to rest. I’ll never know what prompted him to move from the places he was in to the places he wound up — people directly engaged in the research have done the heavy lifting and have only found so much information. I’m just skimming websites. Probably the usual reasons: they thought there was something better there at the time.

I got off my bike on the trainer this evening and stood in a puddle of sweat. It was my sweat and no less gross because of it. I was happy to get 30 miles out of my legs tonight.

After 132 miles this last week and 300 miles this month, I am feeling a bit fatigued. These numbers aren’t impressive. I’m a wimp.

I’ve been running a spreadsheet since early November, charting my progress for the year, relative to previous years. At the bottom of the spreadsheet I started doing math. You should only do math of this sort while in the most awkward conditions, but I was in a chair, and so goals were set. And then another, and another. Ultimately, five 2020 goals in all.

The first was always the next century mark, a goal that kept changing every few rides, giving the gratification of achievement and progress. Second, I wanted to set a new personal mileage best for the year. I blew right by the old mark, as I knew I could once I looked at the math.

Up next, I wanted to move mmy annual average from 10 years of bike riding over the median. Crushed it.

So I am now aiming at the fourth goal, getting beyond a big (for me) round number. Then, I’ll aim for a mileage mark that raises my annual average of the last decade to a nice even number. After tonight I have 10 miles and 48 miles to go, respectively, to hit those two marks.

Which is a good reminder to set goals. Acknowledging them makes them achievable, even late in the game.