Merry Christmas 2009

We left the blizzard of 2009 behind us and headed out to Tennessee to visit with family and friends for the Christmas season.  It has been rejuvenating and restful to be with those folks you don’t choose, but with whom you share so much.

Some highlights:

Seeing my 84-year-old father with 11 of his 13 grandchildren and all five of his great-grandchildren. (He’ll get to see the other two grandchildren next weekend.)

Having Andrew and Claire reconnect with all their cousins and their cousins’ children. The latter group includes two babies born about four months ago (Leighton) and just 10 days ago (Oliver).  Little babies are such great additions to Christmas.

Visiting with my sister and her family who have returned to the states after 17+ years overseas. Their older son David is maturing into a wonderful young man while their younger son Nathan is full of life and mischief.  My brother-in-law is a real artist in the wood shop, having built most of the beautiful furniture in their house by himself.  And it was great to hear my sister Carol play and discuss the Oud – a Middle Eastern lute.  After a short attempt at picking my limited repertoire of Middle Eastern melodies, I decided that the bowl backed Oud and my slightly bowl-shaped waistline were mismatched!

Talking with my father about two books of evocative historical photographs from the Tennessee Valley Authority, where dad worked for more than 30 years. When you see the photos of the serious erosion of the farm land and the extreme poverty of the Tennessee Valley of the 1930s – and hear my father talk about seeing it first hand with his father and uncles – you are reminded how government programs cannot be explained in the simple black and white terms of the current crop of political pundits.

Having an old-fashioned guitar pull with my brother Joe and the next generation of family pickers – Joe’s son Joseph and Carol’s son David. I’ve been playing music at family gatherings since my brother Steve and I use to play with my cousin Johnny (aka Hershey) at Mamaw’s house in the 1960s.  It is great to see the tradition continue.

Having a cup of boiled custard, thanks to Joe. When I think of Christmas, I think of my mom’s boiled custard (with SEVEN cups of sugar in a one-gallon recipe) and chocolate covered peanut butter balls.  Candice knows how much I love these treats, but she also knows that my arteries need to remain open for the old ticker to work, so I don’t get them often.

Being with my sister Debbie, who is – as I told her tonight – the new Mom in our family. My mother died 12 years ago this New Year’s Day, and Debbie does so many things just like my mom that I can shut my eyes and go back in time.  Watching her three girls and their five children (all under the age of six) open Christmas presents while Debbie and her wonderful husband Mark kept their cool so reminded me of Christmas mornings years ago with Mom and Dad.

Eating, eating, and then eating some more. On Christmas Eve we had a fabulous noonday spread at Joe and Kerry’s artistic and comfortable hand-built farmhouse (pictured in the guitar pull picture) featuring roasted turkey (from an outdoor grill – thank you Jason), ham, corn pudding, Waldorf and green salads…and on and on.  By Christmas Eve night we were back at it, eating the traditional Brown family “breakfast” of pancakes, eggs, bacon, some more ham, great apple and pear turnovers and fruit before all the kids were snug in their beds.  Christmas Day we still had room for some wonderful soup from Carol, a great cheese tray that Candice put together, some veggies and other finger foods that we grazed on throughout the day.

Watching the 6th Harry Potter movie on Christmas Day with four Potter experts. Because Andrew and Claire had reached the age of not wanting to go to the movies with their parents when Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince arrived in theatres, this was the one movie in the series I hadn’t seen.  Watching it today (a gift from Andrew to Claire) with my two kids and David and Nathan, all I had to do was start a question (such as “Why does Snape have to be the one to kill Dumbledore?”) and I got four in-depth answers.

Laughing my head off with Carol and Debbie as we sang songs from a 50-year-old family songbook. I think the in-laws, spouses, children, nieces and nephews thought they were all part of the strangest family ever, but looking at that old book, seeing the tunes and photos that I use to study as a child and being reminded of singing around the piano with mother touched a deep and loving part of our hearts.

Having a quiet Christmas morning to open presents with Candice, Andrew, Claire and my dad. Gifts were chosen that were both thoughtful and loving.

Christmas in our family has had its share of sorrows.  Candice’s father died on December 26th just last year, and my mother barely made it through the holiday before dying of cancer on January 1, 1998.  But most of my memories are of great times.  This year reminded me of the family traditions we’ve blended together, of the new generations that enrich our time together and of the love that people thrown together as family can share for each other even when they are as different as we’ve always been.

Thanks Daddy, Candice, Claire, Andrew, Debbie, Mark, Ashli, Jason, Kyle, Kate, Brittany, Chris, Thomas, Leighton, Rachel, Brad, Oliver, Joe, Kerry, Erin, Joseph, Samuel, Isaac, Carol, Raouf, David and Nathan.  Merry Christmas to all!

More to come…


Saying Goodbye to Lilly

Lilly is our 13-year-old Sussex Spaniel.  We’re spending this weekend saying goodbye to her.

On Friday we took her to the vet for a “Quality of Life” visit, and the news was what we’d feared for some time.  The slow-growing tumor is getting bigger, she has fluid that has swollen her belly, her breathing is labored, and she’s lost most of her appetite.  We had seen that Lilly could no longer navigate our stairs without help and that her hearing and eyesight had both deteriorated over the past few months.  She has some medicine to help her with the fluid and keep her out of pain, but…

It is time.  It isn’t easy.

Candice and I had promised Andrew and Claire a dog when they were old enough to help care for one and when we had a proper house (having lived in an apartment for our first two years in Washington).  When that time arrived more than nine years ago, Claire (who drove this process) did a lot of internet research and use to come to the dinner table with printouts about different breeds that “were good with children.”  But we’d never considered a Sussex Spaniel until we attended a dog show in Maryland right before Thanksgiving and fell in love with Lilly.

As a four-year-old show dog she was at the end of her “career”, and since she didn’t show an inclination to breed, her owner was willing to find Lilly a family.  We brought her home and have loved every day Lilly’s been a part of us.  This weekend, we’re all saying goodbye to her in our own ways.

As you can imagine, we’ve told Lilly stories, many of which revolve around Lilly and Candice.  Sussex Spaniels attach themselves to one member of the family, and since Candice was home most of the time when Lilly first arrived, she was the lucky one.  Lilly will play with the rest of us, but she absolutely adores my wife.  That’s why the opening shot shows Lilly with her favorite person on earth doing what they both love – snuggling.

It is also appropriate that the shot is on a boat dock.  One of the funniest Lilly stories involves the time Candice was in a canoe off of that dock.  We didn’t think Lilly would try to join her, but before we knew it she had jumped off the dock – and missed the canoe!  Candice, who was wearing her all-time favorite pair of sunglasses, jumped in the river  after her.  She rescued Lilly, but her glasses went to swim with the fishes.  For years, whenever the topic of Candice buying another pair of sunglasses came up, the story of jumping in the river with Lilly was inevitably mentioned.

Lilly loves getting her belly rubbed, and so I’ve included a shot of her below in her favorite pose – waiting for someone to come along and indulge her.  In fact, that’s generally how she begins each day as she wanders over to where Candice is doing her morning yoga stretches and positions herself to get a rub down.  We’ve all spent time on the floor next to Lilly this weekend, trying to help her feel both comfortable and loved.

We’re remembering Lilly’s “Sussex smile” and the little jumps she takes when she’s out for a walk.  Lilly has a great spirit – she’s faithful, loving, forgiving, gracious, trusting – and I think that’s something we’ll all miss.  She was a regular at the Cathedral’s blessing of the animals, so you’ll see Dean Lloyd and Lilly in one of the photos.  In the blog post above about the blessing of the animals, I also quoted from a great article on old dogs which describes Lilly these days.

Old dogs are vulnerable.  They show exorbitant gratitude and limitless trust.  They are without artifice.  They are funny in new and unexpected ways.  But, above all, they seem at peace.

But Lilly wasn’t always old, and she wasn’t always peaceful with everyone who came to the house…especially our cleaning ladies.  I don’t know if it was the vacuum cleaner (which she always hated) or the fact that she felt that Candice was threatened when they were here, but she would bark incessantly when the house was being cleaned.  One time she went beyond barking and nipped the ankle of our wonderful cleaning lady.  Candice ran upstairs to wake up Andrew (it was summer) to have him translate in Spanish with our cleaning lady who was too distraught to speak in English.  He was successful in convincing her not to quit on the spot.  When Andrew and Candice tell the story now, they break up laughing at the absurdity of the scene.  Afterwards,  Lilly was banished to the garage or a locked up room every other Wednesday.

Claire loved to teach Lilly tricks, one of her favorite being to lie down in a doorway with Lilly’s biscuit on the other side so she would have to hurdle Claire to reach her prize.  As our family photographer, Claire has taken countless pictures of Lilly through the years.  Today she took an entire roll on her black and white camera.  She said, “my teacher doesn’t like it when people just take pictures of their dog, but he’ll just have to get over it.”  I wouldn’t want to be in the dark room when Claire goes to develop that roll.  We’ve all had our share of tears this weekend.

I know we’ll all miss the rhythm of having Lilly in our lives.  Andrew feeds her every single day.  Claire is in charge of combing her hair.  Candice takes her to the groomer and the vet, but most important she is responsible for just being there for Lilly.  I know a dog is not a human, and I know there are people who scoff at families who become too attached to their canine companions.  They say, “It’s just a dog.”  But I don’t feel that way.  Sure, I won’t have to get up at 5:30 every morning to take her out for a walk, and I won’t have to make sure she gets out around 10 p.m. each evening to do her business.  But dammit, I’ll really miss her.

As I titled that earlier post, Lilly has been blessed…and so have we.

Goodbye old girl.

More to come…


When Passions Collide

I love it when my passions collide.

Like when the November/December issue of Preservation magazine has a story on the saving of one of the few remaining Negro League baseball stadiums.  Any preservation story that begins with the name Monte Irvin is guaranteed to warm the heart of this old NY baseball Giants fan.  My mother-in-law thought that because of my position with the National Trust for Historic Preservation I must have chosen the cover picture for the magazine.  I didn’t (although I gave writer Eric Wills lots of encouragement as he put the story together), but I do have a beautiful print of that great shot ready for framing for my office.  And from Preservation Online comes the encouraging news that Patterson, New Jersey’s  Hinchliffe Stadium…

…may be restored. The city of Paterson and the school board entered into a shared services agreement in late October 2009, and in early November, voters passed a referendum asking for $15 million to fund the stadium’s renovation. If all goes according to plan, the city will receive permission to issue a bond ordinance and then solicit proposals to renovate the site.

Preservation is a terrific magazine, and you should become a subscriber if you want lively writing about places that matter.  But this isn’t a post about those passions of preservation and baseball, as much as I love both.  No, this is a post about the collision of my passions of preservation and music.

But before all you rockers get excited,  I’m not writing about my colleague Sarah Heffern’s great blog post on how fans turned preservationists are working to save the home where Bruce Springsteen wrote Born to Run, as terrific as that news is.

Nope, this is my quarterly love poem to The Fretboard Journal, where the story of tracing John Lee Hooker’s haunts in Detroit has a decidedly preservationist bent.  In Chasing the Echoes, writer Jeff Samoray goes looking for the places cited in Hooker’s Boogie Chillen, a paean to Detroit’s old Black Bottom neighborhood that hit the top of the R&B charts in 1949 when it was released.  It is a well crafted but ultimately sad story of how a thriving African American neighborhood that held such meaning to millions of Americans and music lovers was destroyed in the 1960s to make way for the Chrysler Freeway.  A few places remain.  The Apex Bar – where Hooker and other bluesmen use to attract crowds that lined up around the block to pay $1.50 for a show – is still open and run by the original owner’s granddaughter.  It looks and sounds like a great place to stop in to capture some of the city’s musical history.  Another place that’s just barely hanging on is the United Sound Systems Recording Studio, which is boarded up and unused.  In the day this unassuming house turned recording studio hosted everyone who was anyone.  As Samoray writes,

United Sound probably deserves to have a commemorative plaque on its front door.  The list of famous artists who’ve recorded there since it opened in 1933 is staggering:  Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Albert King, Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes, the Rolling Stones, the MC5, Funkadelic and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to name a few.  Berry Gordy bought studio time there in 1959 to record his first Motown record.

Any place with that pedigree deserves more than a plaque.  It deserves to be saved and reused, so the music in the brick and mortar can inspire another generation of musicians.

The Hooker story is just one of about six interesting pieces in the Winter issue.  The cover story is on bluegrass flatpicker extraordinaire David Grier (read my review of his show at IMT last year), and it immediately drew my eye.  I enjoyed reading about his early interactions with flatpicking pioneer (and former Byrd) Clarence White, as well seeing the great pictures of Grier’s 1955 Martin D-18 that was a gift from his father, who played banjo as a Bluegrass Boy for Bill Monroe.

I had picked up an Eastman mandolin a few weeks ago when I was in Fretwell Bass Shop in Staunton and was surprised by how well it played for such an affordably priced instrument.  So serendipity being part of life,  I loved seeing the photo essay in this issue on this China instrument company that takes a different approach from the usual Asian mass-produced builders of cheap knock-off models of famous instruments.

The Fretboard Journal has more: a terrific story on guitar builder and surfer James Goodall, a fascinating tale of the rescue of a priceless collection of banjos, and a profile on the understated J.J. Cale.

But the most moving article was the last one I read on bluesman Otis Taylor and his work to reclaim the African heritage of the banjo.  It is unusual enough for an African American youngster to get hooked on banjo by being a regular in the early 1960s at the Denver Folklore Center.  But when that musician tries for years to get a record deal, then drops out of the business altogether for a number of years after a friend dies of a drug overdose, in the intervening period becomes an antiques expert on mid-century modern pieces no less, and finally comes back to music to find his heart – well that’s a great story.  Taylor tells about reclaiming the blues heritage of the banjo, working with OME Banjos on a new model, and his interests in mandolins.  The coolest picture in the entire book is Taylor holding his Santa Cruz Guitar Company signature model with a beautiful dark caramel brown stained top, no frets above the 14th position (because Otis doesn’t play up there), and stylized “OT” initials at the end of the fretboard as an honor to Otis’ father, who used to paint and would sign his art that way.  You can see the company’s picture of the guitar here, but you’ll have to buy the magazine to see their wonderful photo.

And if you love players, builders, and stories, you should buy it at Barnes & Noble, Borders or your local high-end guitar shop.  The Fretboard Journal is part of a new breed of magazine:  a reader-supported publication.  That means you pay a subscription price that’s not artificially lowered because of extensive ads.  The only ads in this magazine are from instrument builders.  The entire package is high quality, and I have issues 1-16 all in a special place on my bookshelf.  The magazine is produced by great people who love beautiful instruments and the people who make and play them.

Finally, as is my custom, I rooted around on YouTube and found this video of Otis Taylor showing the range of his Santa Cruz guitar.  Enjoy!

More to come…


A Jerry Christmas: Some Coal Mixed in With the Goodies

Last evening several friends (old and new)  joined me as we caught the last show on the short “Jerry Christmas” tour featuring Dobro master Jerry Douglas along with John Oates and Irish singer Maura O’Connell.  This was my first trip to the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis, and while the room has much to recommend it (especially an intimacy that connects performer and audience), the sound mix wasn’t great and O’Connell’s mic was especially bad, with a buzzing and poor sound quality that should have been fixed after the first song.

That sound mix was a bother, but it didn’t stop the musicianship of Douglas and his band from coming through.  The music alternated between seasonal music and “palate cleansers” as Douglas described his regular tunes.  The best of the former was a beautiful In the Bleak Midwinter.  There was a tie for weirdest of the former – between a “spooky” Santa Claus is Coming to Town and a well-named Do You Hear What I Hear where Douglas, after announcing that Christmas melodies were sacrosanct, then proceeded to show “what he hears in his head” with an off-the-wall underlying arrangement.  In the palate cleanser categories, O’Connell sang a moving version of Nanci Griffith’s Trouble in the Fields, and Douglas and his band mates ripped through Whose Your Uncle? – the Douglas tribute to Dobro pioneer Uncle Josh Graves.  And in a merger of the two categories, the encore included a Douglas staple, Choctaw Hayride, renamed as Choctaw Sleighride.

As befits a band on the last night of a tour, Douglas, Oates and O’Connell were ready to cut up and joke – and they did.  On the music front, my favorite revelation was the introduction of young fiddler (and 2009 Grand Master Fiddling Contest winner) Alex Hargreaves.  He had a sweet tone, an inventive ear and he fit right in with Douglas’ hot band.

So as he did last evening, I’ll leave you with Douglas (this time with Alison Krauss + Union Station) playing that old Christmas standard Choctaw Sleighride. Enjoy!

More to come…


Calatrava’s Samuel Beckett Bridge Opens for Traffic

Santiago Calatrava’s beautiful Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin opened for traffic this morning following an official ceremony marking the event yesterday.

This is a work of art that I was privileged to see in September while it was still under construction.

To view Calatrava’s work in the context of the other historic and contemporary Dublin bridges along the River Liffey, check out my September post entitled Santiago Calatrava’s Dublin Bridges (And More) By Dawn’s Early Light.

More to come…


St. Nicholas Day 2009: We Are Always Every Age We’ve Ever Been

Last year’s post about St. Nicholas Day generated a number of favorable comments from friends and family.  Several friends especially remembered the Madeleine L’Engle comment that we are always every age we’ve ever been.

So on St. Nicholas Day 2009, when Andrew got a new Calatrava-inspired tie from the Milwaukee Museum of Art and Claire received a beautiful scarf in her favorite color of purple, I will link back to that original post for those who missed the first time or for those who’d like to see it again.

Keep up those childhood memories.

More to come…


Phone Booth Library

My late mother – the librarian – would have loved this post I found on the RADDblog.

What an innovative use of a structure that has lost its original purpose.  (These days you have to explain to kids what a pay phone was.)

Check out the post – there’s another great photograph along with a listing of ways others are using these historic British phone booths.

More to come…